Short Story: Into the Shadows

Short Story: Into the Shadows

Into The Shadows

The monolithic bulk of the voidship was now directly ahead. It was lying at high anchor, with its stern towards the local star, a castellated giant slumbering in its own hard shadow. Running lights blinking, the transport shuttle made minute adjustments to its trajectory and lined up for docking. From this close in, the dark mass of the voidship, so menacingly huge, entirely blocked the pale light of the world below. The tiny transport vessel passed into its shadow, and was swallowed by it. Everything was plunged into darkness and cold silence. There was no going back now. 

Anyway, she had no wish to go back.

Hestia Prine. That was the name they would come to know her by. It was a good name, a strong name, the name the God-Emperor had blessed her with. Hestia’s faith was strong, in Him, and in herself. 

She shifted in her seat, but now she could see absolutely nothing outside the shuttle’s small window port. They were engulfed in the voidship’s shade. A few moments earlier, she had just been able to make out the world far below. Atoma Prime, the site of the conflict, the battlefield, the place where her future would be decided. It had seemed so quiet and serene from her high vantage, but she knew it wasn’t. It was a place of strife, and it was the God-Emperor’s will that she should face that strife, unflinching and unafraid. Atoma Prime, a good name, a strong name, a name that had dominated the glorious history of the Moebian Domain.  This capital world was where she would serve, perhaps to the end of her days. Hestia Prine believed that this holy calling was the thing she had been born to do. Coming here was coming full circle, face to face with destiny.

She had seen the ship too, during approach, its dark bulk at least. It was called The Mourningstar, she had been informed, a stately merchant vessel commandeered by the noble Inquisitor as an orbital base of operations for his mission on Atoma. Why not a warship, she wondered? Did a war not require a warship? But then she was no warrior, and here she was too.

She had come from Holy Crucis, the shrine world, far away across the Domain. A sixteen week voyage with nothing to fill her time except contemplation and prayer. On Crucis, as a novitiate, she had worshipped and studied in the cloisters of the Temple of Messelina Triumphant, beneath the multi-coloured glassiac windows that showed saints and angels. She had trained as an orator, a reader of texts, a leader of devotion, all disciplines in which she had excelled. These were her gifts, holy gifts, the High Ecclesiarchs had told her, so they should be used, for the glory of the Throne, not in some stuffy cloister, but out in the Imperium where faith was sometimes frayed and worn.  So it had been arranged. A sponsor had been found to support her mission. She would be sent to Atoma Prime, to serve as a vessel for the transmission of faith to the poor souls locked in a brutal campaign.

This suited Hestia Prine. She went willingly. Atoma Prime had always mattered to her.  

The Archenemy had shown its foul face on Atoma Prime, menacing the very heart of the ancient Moebian Domain, turning son against father and brother against brother. The Emperor’s own soldiers had risen up against the Throne. Such treason was beyond belief.

Except, she considered, perhaps it wasn’t. Atoma Prime was old. Its great hive, Tertium, where blood now ran in the streets, was old. Old things decayed, corrupted by their bloated histories and failing memories.  Hestia knew a lot about Tertium. She had studied the chronicles closely. She had learned about the endless wars on the Fringe, the magnificent industrial heritage, the political rivalries and the scheming that went back generations, the clash of rival dynasties for power and control. Tertium had always been at war with itself, one way or another. It had lost its way. Good souls had fought to steer Atoma’s destiny down the centuries, but for every Militant General Riga Consora, there was a perfidious heir of House Barquette with a dagger clutched beneath his cloak. For every Saint Messalina, there was callous, power-hungry warlord. Lord Margrave was no better than any of the highborn he had ground under his heels on his path to the spire tops. To live, to prosper again, to have any kind of future, Tertium had to be cleansed. 

Of course, the corruption now was literal. It was manifestly real, born in the flesh, in plague and contamination, in gunfire and blades. What had lurked in the shadows for centuries had now stepped out into the open, burning and fierce, shameless and unrepentant.

It was the Inquisitor’s work to scour out that corruption, drain the poison, and excise the wound. He had drafted an army of warriors to wage war at his command, and regain planetary control. It was a gruelling task, by all accounts, costly, perilous. It teetered on the brink, with failure a distinct possibility every day.

The transport jolted. Hestia heard a grinding of metal as docking clamps engaged. A siren sounded, and amber runes lit up on the overhead panels. She rose to her feet, and picked up her small bag of belongings. There wasn’t much in there: a hymnal given to her by the venerable Ecclesiarchs on Crucis, some dataslates of holy texts, a letter of authority and introduction. She had what she needed, though. She had brought the most important thing. Her enduring faith.

Faith could change everything. In the grip of war, in the heart of battle, souls sometimes forgot and lost their way. Fear and pain and desperation often blocked out the light that guided them, just as the voidship’s shadow had thrown her into eclipse. They needed someone who could show them that light had not gone forever, a voice to remind them that the God-Emperor was always with them, no matter the hour of the night. Such words could turn a battle on its head. They could save a soul, or a whole world.

Hestia Prine was no warrior. She did not bear arms, or even know how to use a weapon. Not a lasrifle, anyway. Her mission was to observe penances, and supply oratory. Through prayer, through sermon, through devotion, she was to inspire and build resolve. An army, the Ecclesiarchs had taught her, was nothing without faith.

The hatch opened. 

“I’m Zola,” said the young woman standing outside in a haze of  venting steam. She had short hair and a surly demeanour. She looked as though she had better things to do, and more important places to be.

“I am Hestia,” Hestia replied.

“The… preacher, correct?”

“Novitiate,” said Hestia. “From the Templum on Crucis.”

  “You’re expected,” said the young woman. “You’d better come with me. Interrogator Rannick will want to…”

  “Interrogate me?”

  “Welcome you,” replied the woman with a grin. “In his fashion. You’ll have to get used to him.”

“I was expecting to meet with Inquisitor Grendyl,” said Hestia, stepping through the hatch to join this Zola woman.

“Weren’t we all?” replied Zola with a chuckle, as though that remark was amusing in some way. “You’ll be dealing me, and with Rannick.  I’m explicator, Rannick is Interrogator. We are the senior agents of the Holy Ordo present here. Well, the most senior ones that you’re likely to meet, anyway.”

There was a twang of the lowhive Tertium accent to the woman’s voice. 

“You are from here?” asked Hestia. “From Tertium?”

Zola looked surprised, and a little wary.

“Yeah,” she replied. Her eyes narrowed slightly. “So this whole business is personal to me.”

“It should be personal to all of us, sister,” said Hestia.

“Well, not so much the likes of you, from so far away,” said Zola.

“My heart has always been here.”

“Is that so?” Zola sneered.

“This is the destiny the God-Emperor has set out for me,” said Hestia. “I am supposed to be here. I have always been here, in my heart.”

“You’ll be having words with the God-Emperor then,” said Zola, “once you’ve seen the place. A complaint or two about the quality of your holy destiny. Brace yourself, ‘sister’.  This is a miserable damned pit.”

“The ship?”

“The ship’s bad enough, believe me. But down there, it’s grim. Worse than you can imagine. Don’t go down there, to the surface. Just don’t. But I suppose you won’t have to. You’ll be ship-based. Preaching to the Rejects, and all that. We’ve prepared a space for you, and living quarters. Not much.”

“I don’t need much,” said Hestia.

Zola shrugged.

“You called them ‘Rejects’,” said Hestia. “The troops, the agents?”

“Because they are,” replied Zola. “The Warband is made up of no-hopers on their last chance. And some last chance it is.”

“It’s not a kind term,” Hestia observed.

“There’s nothing kind about anything here.”

They started to walk across the hanger deck. Through the drifting steam, Hestia saw the predatory shapes of gunships preparing to launch. She saw squads of soldiers, lugging weapons, preparing to board. Zola glanced back at the open hatch of the shuttle behind them.

“I don’t suppose,” she said, “you brought munitions with you? Crates of grenades? A container of helguns? Maybe a company of Astartes?”

“No,” replied Hestia. “Just myself.”

Waste of a damn transport, she heard the woman murmured under her breath.

“Well, I’m sure that’s great,” Zola said aloud. “I’m sure you’ll be very useful to the Rejects. Just what they needed. A real boon, and all that.”

“I understand your cynicism,” said Hestia gently. “You’re tired. You’re under great pressure. I imagine you’ve risked your life at least once in the past day or so. You are a soldier, Explicator Zola, and frankly you can’t see the point of wasting living space or provisions on a non combatant.”

“I didn’t say that…” Zola began.

“You don’t have to, Zola,” said Hestia. “And I’m not trying to force some apology out of you. I know full well that I am going to have to prove myself. I am going to have to demonstrate my value to you, and to this Rannick person, and to all the soldiers, who have much better things to do, like remaining alive, than listen to a novitiate trying to provide some ministry. I do not expect to be liked, or even listened to. I barely expect to be tolerated.”

She looked at Zola, and smiled. The woman stared back, uncertain.

“But I will prove myself, Zola,” Hestia said. “And I will make them listen. All of them. Even you. You will come to me, and ask to hear me. You won’t have to be forced.”

“Is that so?” asked Zola.

Hestia nodded.

“It is,” she said. “I promise. Don’t believe me now, Zola. Believe me when it happens.  So, no. I didn’t bring guns with me, or a host of gleaming Astartes. I brought something better.”

“Let me guess,” said Zola, with a sly grin. “Is it the word of the God-Emperor?”

“Yes,” said Hestia, and laughed. “I like you. Very much. You are so wonderfully scornful. The Emperor, they say, reveals Himself in honesty and true character. Now show me to this man Rannick and let me get the measure of him.”

“You’re an odd one,” said Zola. “You talk like, I don’t know… with command. Authority. Like a noble, an aristo, or something.”

“And you talk like an underhive ganger,” said Hestia. “But you’re not. And I am just a novitiate from Crucis. Neither of us are what we sound like. But we serve the same purpose. Let’s begin our work, shall we?”

“Our work?” asked Zola, unable to conceal her contempt. 

“You deal in blood and metal, Explicator,” said Hestia gently. “You keep the fight going. I deal in souls. I am here to offer what respite and resolve I can.”

“If it’s souls you’re after, you’ll find a lot of broken ones here.”

Zola started walking again, then stopped and looked back at Hestia. She looked almost sorry, as though she recognised that she had perhaps spoken too harshly.

“I’ll be honest, Novitiate,” she said. “You won’t find much to work with here. These people, the Rejects, they are losers and lost souls, and they’re going up against death every day. There’s not much faith here, that’s what I’m saying. You’ve come to a place that the Emperor has forgotten.”

“He hasn’t,” said Hestia.

“How do you know that?” Zola began, then held up her hand sharply. “And don’t say because He sent you.”

“I won’t,” said Hestia. “But He did.”

More news