Penance (Escalation League prelude)

(Artist unknown)

“O God Emperor, master and ruler of all humankind, I pray Thee for Thy great mercy, that Thou guide me better than I have done, towards Thee, and guide me to Thy will, to the need of my soul, better than I have myself.”

The flicker of the electro-flambeaux caused the shadows to dance at the corners of her vision. Even here, in a chapel sanctified thrice in the God-Emperor’s sight, Avriel tensed, hard-worn instincts preparing for a sudden assault, imagining each shadow to be some twisted horror lurking at the corner of her vision.

She had never been able to feel safe, not since the fall of Nantus. Not since she had seen the aether-spawn weave themselves into abominable existence, unholy hordes of them sweeping over the landscape in an unholy tide. She remembered the way bolter rounds seemed to explode harmlessly against their hides, the way they tore into her sisters with talons,, pincers, and blades of black fire. Her right hand quivered involuntarily at the memory, and it took some force of will to get it to stop. It had been years since the fall of her shrine world, and she, Canoness Avriel Solemnas of the Order of the Blessed Damsel, bore the scars still, inside and out.

Solemnas. When she had been but a humble Battle Sister, her squad mates had given her this honorific surname in jest, an ironic comment on her mirthful, ever-smiling nature. She hadn’t smiled since Nantus, not since her entire squad had been lost to the daemon-spawn. Now she was Solemnas in truth as well as in name.

“Make steadfast my mind towards Thy will and to my soul’s need,” she went on, hands clutched tightly around her chaplet until her knuckles went white. “Strengthen me against the temptations of the witch, the heretic and the daemon, arm me against every unrighteousness, and shield me against all foes, seen and unseen.”

“Saint Rikardus’ Twelfth Epistle at the Cadian Gate,” a voice said, a rich voice that brought to mind the warmth of a hearthfire…though Avriel knew that in battle, when roused, this voice became the roar of an inferno. “Would that Saint Rikardus had been alive for a Thirteenth Epistle.”

Avriel looked up towards the newcomer, a woman heavy-set from years of battle, her chestnut-coloured skin creased by ugly scars running across her cheek and her right eye replaced by an augmetic lens– injuries that did nothing to mar the warmth of the woman’s smile. Like her, the newcomer was clad in a simple prayer shift, in the blue and white of their order.

Avriel immediately lowered her head in supplication. “Canoness Superior,” she said respectfully.

Ursula Sevrei, Canoness Superior of the order, laughed. “There is no need for such formality, Sister Avriel,” she said, kneeling beside her and quickly doing the sign of the Aquila as she turned to face the altar. “I am but a humble Sororita attending prayer, as are you.” Before them, altar displayed the the iconography of the Emperor and His Primarchs in radiant magnificence, while below these icons were the symbols of the six founding saints of the Adepta Sororitas. Situatated at the very bottom of the altar was the symbol of their order’s founding saint, Germaine the Deliverer– a fleur-de-lys imposed over a pair of clasped hands. It was only good and just that they were at the bottom, for, as Saint Germaine had once famously said, only in humility could faith truly shine.

Avriel inclined her head in a nod. “Then I am grateful for your company, as always, Canoness Superior.” She was sincere in her words, though her voice conveyed none of the feeling. It rarely did, she noticed.

Ursula, however, did notice, for she turned to Avriel at this point, a concerned frown on her face. “What is it that you are truly praying for, Sister Avriel?” she asked. “Because it seems to me that you having been coming here more and more lately. Often, we enter the God-Emperor’s sight to beseech His blessing…but often too, I have seen Sisters pray to find some cure for a troubled spirit, or to at least silence some inner ache.”

Avriel said nothing. Ursula Sevrei had only been Canoness Superior for a short period of time, having been elected to replace the last Canoness Superior Magdale after the evacuation from Nantus. In that short time, however, she had adapted to the rank very well, filling the tripartite role of strategic commander, spiritual leader and confessor that was expected of such a position. And, for better or worse, she was quite adept at providing counsel to her subordinate Canonesses.

Slowly, Ursula reached a hand over and gripped Avriel’s wrist tightly. “We are all walking wounded, Sister,” she said solemnly. “We all have been ever since we were forced off of the shrine-world, so nothing of what you are feeling is something you need to be ashamed of. You can talk to me about these things, you know.” She smiled, and gestured to the rosarius she wore around her neck. “After all, what good is this blasted thing if I don’t make sure my Sisters are at their best, hmm?”

For a moment, Avriel closed her eyes. She thought she was going to cry at first, but she knew no tears would come.

“I thought it would get better,” she finally said. “I thought that…time would would make this go away. It hasn’t. I still remember them, and how they died. I still keep wishing I’d died with them. That I’d martyred myself properly at Nantus.”

Ursula nodded at this. Avriel had been but a Sister Superior when the Cicatrix Maledictum has opened, and a horde of Daemons had descended upon their shrine world of Nantus. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the Order of the Blessed Damsel was forced to abandon their homeworld, saving what pilgrims and holy relics they could in the face of a losing battle. In one of the many rearguard actions fought on that doomed shrine world– a place of rolling, feudal hillsides, lush forests and blue, snow-capped mountains– Avriel’s squad had been overwhelmed by the daemonic onslaught. Only Avriel herself had survived: when her Sisters found her, she had been wounded almost unto death, crazed with grief and surrounded by a carpet of slain abominations.

In the aftermath of the fall of Nantus, Avriel had wanted to take the Repentia oath, to atone for the loss of her whole squad. But the newly appointed Canoness Superior had turned down her request: in Ursula’s eyes, Avriel had nothing to atone for, her only sin having been to survive. In the years since, Avriel had risen in the ranks, eventually rising to the rank of Canoness of the Third Preceptory. She had become a tireless champion of the Order, reknowned for her fury on the battlefield. But like the rest of the Order, she had never truly healed from the scars of Nantus.

“The Emperor has martyrs aplenty, Sister Avriel,” Ursula said. “He doesn’t need more souls to be given up in His name. What He needs is warriors, leaders, faithful souls to take up the torch and burn away the unclean in His name. That is what you are, Sister. You are the torch that burns brightly, and it would be a mistake to extinguish that light.”

Slowly, Avriel shook her head. “I don’t know if I can, Canoness Superior,”she said. “You placed a great amount of faith in me when you appointed me as a Canoness. I don’t know if I can reward that faith.”

“It is not my faith you need to reward, Sister Avriel,” Ursula replied. “Your own faith has been plagued by doubt as of late, I can see that. You doubt your own self worth. You doubt whether you have honoured the sacrifice of your Sisters. You even doubt your ability to lead, even though you have shown again and again that this ability was never in question.” Ursula squeezed Avriel’s hand again. “You have been lost in a sea of self-doubt. What you need is a focus, a new mission to drive you. And I have one for you.”

The words caused Avriel to blink in surprise, despite herself. “Canoness Superior?”

Ursula gave a slow, grim smile. “We recently received an Astropathic signal from elements of the Indomitus Crusade twenty-five light years away. A miracle has occurred, Sister: Hieros has been found again.”

The news caused Avriel’s downcast eyes to widen. “Hieros.” The shrine world was a long-standing myth withing the ranks of the Ecclesiarchy, said to have been a shining beacon of faith in the far reaches of Imperial space before it had been swallowed whole by the Warp millennia ago. If this was true, and if Hieros were finally returned to real space…

She gave voice to the creeping doubt at the back of her mind. “But if Hieros was indeed swallowed into the Warp originally…”

Ursula nodded. “Then it needs to be cleansed, purified, and reconsecrated,” she finished, “and this must be done with bolt, blade and flame. You are to join Sister Merced and her Preceptory and embark with all haste to Hieros, where you will meet up with an Ecclesiastical delegation in orbit– they will supply the priestly congregation needed for the reconsecreation, as well as a penitent host of Arco-Flagellants besides.”

Ursula stood up, her posture changing dramatically. She was no longer the warm, caring confidante looking to heal her Sister’s spiritual wound. We was now Avriel’s Superior, giving her her marching orders.

“Purge everything that is unholy on the planet’s surface,” Ursula ordered. “Do not rest until every inch of the planet has been cleansed in the Emperor’s sight. And let not a single heretic, xeno or mutant stand in your way, Canoness Solemnas. I charge you with the reconquest of Hieros.”

Avriel clasped her hands together and nodded. “Ave Imperator,” she said. A newfound fire burned in her eyes. “I will not fail you, Canoness Superior, nor will I fail Him On Earth.”

At this, Ursula smiled. “I know you won’t, Sister,” she replied. “And the God-Emperor knows it too.”

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