Part 3 of the Matroyshka saga continues. If you are just jumping in, I would suggest starting with part 1, which can be found here. Enjoy
The pass descended quickly to a broad plateau, nestled amongst the peaks that towered around it. The bulk of General Kurt’s army was spread across it, sending blue engine smoke curling into the chill air.
Where the road from the pass reached the plateau another road, this time coming up from the lower land to the north, reached the plateau also. It was up this long second road that any survivors of the northern redoubts would retreat to the final defence of the Convent.
The Convent was actually several complexes, built over the centuries through the blood and sweat of the devotional Sisters of the Holy Order themselves.
At the far northern end of the plateau where it jutted out over the valley the flat, rocky surface was split and pierced by six tall pinnacles of granite and sandstone that leapt upwards from the fractured ground towards the heavens. None of the outcrops less than three hundred metres high, the Convent buildings were perched impossibly on top of them, bell-towers and conical domes straining to catch the sun and scratch the sky.
Between the pinnacles the surface of the plateau fell away over a thousand feet to the rock-strewn valley floor beneath, where a thin ribbon of silver glinted and flashed in the noon sun.
The Salamander had stopped at the convergence of the two roads, nearly a mile to the south of the towers, and the occupants had dismounted to allow Colonel Lekh to survey his field of battle. To Vhuna it looked like they were standing on the palm of a gargantuan hand whose giant rock fingers stretched ever upwards in mute praise of the Emperor.
Koju strolled over to where Vhuna stood alone, his hands clasped casually behind his back. He stopped beside her and followed her gaze up at the colossal pillars of rock nearly a mile away.
“Now why do you suppose the Sisters would choose such mighty erections for their Convent?”
When Vhuna said nothing he just snorted, grinned and walked off, whistling to himself.
Looking beyond the massive natural formations of the Convent pillars, Vhuna could see the far valley wall, and above that the lesser peaks of the Arpentium range. Further north the peaks dipped towards the invisible lowlands where the Tyranid spores had landed, and beyond that the poisonous sea. Already faint columns of smoke could be seen wending upwards from unseen conflagrations, ominous reflections of the holy structures ahead of her. The skies to the north were beginning to darken, as both the smoke and the foul machinations of the Tyranid weather-spores combined in the lower atmosphere. Soon the whole sky would be blackened as the spores began to alter the ecosystem to suit their needs.
Night was coming to Coulter’s Haven.
“Now listen carefully. The only reason you are here at all is because we need an early warning system, and since auspex performance sucks in these mountains and since the Navy are too busy to watch our backs and,” the Major sighed with exasperation, “air cover is non-existent, you are it. Understood?”
Vhuna nodded quickly.
“Good. I don’t want to hear from you otherwise. Cadet Commissar, if you please.” Major Limburgh, his rough-hewn face partially hidden by bronze augmetics, showed Koju where he could plant his charge, in the far corner. He then turned back to the gathering of senior officers and Ordo superiors sat around the stone table that dominated the domed room. Far below on the plateau, the dust and noise and chaos of the assembling forces seemed a world away to Vhuna.
The high mountain air was charged, faces were reddened and hackles were raised. As Vhuna settled quietly into her flimsy metal seat, trying to stop her bracelets from clinking together, she could tell that discussions were not going well. Colonel Lekh was talking animatedly, and it was obvious he was not used to having to withhold his true opinions, nor was he particularly good at it.
“While I respect the need to observe the holy rites –“
“Your respect is clear in all you say and do, Colonel of the Imperial Guard, and we are all grateful for the honour you do us.” The old woman’s voice coming from within the simple scarlet and grey cowl of the senior Abbess of the Order was slow and measured, light but firm, and carried none of the weakness her considerable years had imposed on her flesh.
Lekh bit his tongue, fury flashing in his eyes. He looked at General Kurt, sitting silently to one side, cursed silently as the General avoided his gaze, and tried again.
“The last reports from what is left of the frontline suggest the first fast-attack waves will be on us tonight. The drop-ships are waiting out there on the plateau, Holy Abbatissa. We can have the reliquaries off-planet before night-fall. General, am I mistaken?”
“General Kurt,” the very large and formidable-looking Grand Schema Lucretius now spoke, her black exorassa ornately decorated with the sigils of centuries of holy service, “this Abbey of Meteora has held the most holy relics of our ancient Order for nigh on three millennia. No servant of the Emperor would ever see these sacred items treated with anything other than the utmost reverence. It is simply impossible. You, alone of all outsiders in more than eight hundred years, have seen what these reliquaries contain. You, alone of all outsiders, know the true nature of what we guard here with our lives and our devotion.”
General Kurt grunted. “Of course, of course. A great honour. One that I treasure. As a military man I must listen to my advisers –“ Colonel Lekh sat back with an audible and almost contemptuous sigh of relief, “– but as a servant of the Emperor I must acknowledge what I have seen, what wonders have been given me to behold in this most sacred of places.”
The look from Colonel Lekh would have fused ceramite had he possessed an iota of psyker power. The General seemed immune to his subordinate’s incredulity, however.
“No, Colonel, I must agree with the Holy Abbatissa and the Grand Schema. These relics must be accorded the piety that is their due. We would commit the greatest of offences in the eyes of the Emperor were we to fail to act in accordance with the dictates of the Order in this matter. Our lives must be spent and our blood must be spilled, but in this matter the Holy Abbatissa and I are as one. In the regrettable absence of the holy Sisters’ more martial cousins we are left to carry this burden alone. We must hold this plateau, and the landing site, we must hold. We must hold until the relics are safe to transport.”
The general looked at the faces around the room. “We are finished here, then – with the grace of the Abbatissa –“ the cowled figure nodded once, “– Colonel, deploy your men to defend the Convent and the landing site until morning. Once the relics are off-planet we will fall back by companies to the transports.”
Lekh had only just managed to master his roiling emotions, and sat forward once again. “Acknowledged, sir. At least we can take the Sisters out now, those that are not needed for the – the blessing of the relics, or whatever.”
The Grand Schema turned her beady eyes on the Colonel. “I fear you have misunderstood, most honoured Colonel. None of the Sisters will cross the seals until the relics are fully prepared for their journey.” She folded her puffy hands over her huge stomach.
”We will all leave in the morning,” she said, with a mirthless smile.
The vein on Lekh’s forehead throbbed. He sat back, a rictus grin of purest, distilled exasperation pasted on his face. He drummed his fingers on the wooden arms of his chair while he stared up at the delicately frescoed ceiling.
“Of course you will,” he said loudly to the oft-restored renditions of the Order’s saints.
He stood up suddenly, his chair scraping over the unglazed tile floor.
“With your leave, Abbatissa, General. I must prepare my men for a siege.”
Colonel Lekh stormed out of the domed room, his aides hurrying to keep up with him.
The meeting broke up as the General sent his other officers about their duties.
Vhuna realised Koju was no longer beside her. He had gone to stand beside the tall, arched windows along the north side of the room, and was looking out over the deep valley. She got up quietly, and joined him.
The valley floor was almost fifteen hundred feet below, the steep sides lined with countless run-off gullies and rivulets. A ragged line of shadow from the mountain ridges to the west was starting to creep up its boulder-strewn length. Vhuna suddenly remembered that the room she was standing in was buttressed out over the precipice, and that only a foot or two of stone and wood stood between her and a nightmare fall. She had to stop herself from stepping back, and instead focused her gaze upwards and outwards. The skies far to the north were bruised and ugly, and the stain in the atmosphere was spreading; east, west and south, towards the Convent. It would make an impressively forbidding sight when the setting sun lit it blood red in a few hours time.
“I need to speak to the General,” Vhuna said softly.
Vhuna turned round, startled to see the General standing behind her, and immediately snapped a salute.
“General Kurt. Forgive me. I – that is –“
“You’re not a precog, are you? Are any of you?”
“No, sir. I’m a scryer.”
“Good, good. Seems my psykers got the landing points wrong. I’d rather have a good scryer than a precog any day. Good information now is always better than bad information yesterday.”
“Wanted to get a look at you.” The General put a hand on her face, turned it to one side, looked in her eyes. Vhuna felt like a prize grox, but managed to avoid flinching at the contact. “The Matroyshka. Smaller than I expected, from what Lekh said, but then I got the impression you intimidated him a little. I ought to thank you for that one day. What did you want to tell me, psyker?”
“The Navy, sir. They think they have all the xeno flesh-ships accounted for, but they’re wrong. I don’t know why they can’t see them, but there are three, maybe four, still in high orbit.”
“You can see them from here?” The General sounded incredulous.
“Yes, sir. The larger the lifeweight the more they deform the skein –“
“In Gothic, psyker.”
“Sorry, sir. There’s a lot of them, so I can see them from further away.”
Koju looked slightly surprised. “Sir?”
“You’re the psyker’s watchman. Can I rely on this?”
“Psyker Vhuna’s scrying abilities are not in any doubt, sir. If she says they are there, then that is the truth.”
The half-smile on Koju’s face told Vhuna that the emphasis on “scrying abilities” had not been an accident. Not for the first time that day she bit back her anger.
The General, paused, thinking. “You can’t give me anything more precise? Admiral Mamontov won’t appreciate being told he’s missed a few unless I tell him where they are.”
“No more than that, sir,” replied Vhuna. “The Navy need to keep looking, sir. Something must be confusing the auspex. High polar orbit. They may have seeding spores left, or they may intend to land.”
“Yes, yes. Cadet Commissar, let me know if you can wring anything else from her. And let me know when the advance xeno forces will arrive. I need as much warning as I can get – it seems comms have just been cut-off with the frontlines in the lowlands.” The General face looked grim as he turned and left the room.
Vhuna took a deep breath, and was about to unload on Koju when she caught the eyes of the Abbatissa looking at her. She paused, the venomous barbs dying on her lips as the old woman walked slowly around the large stone table towards her.
The Abbatissa lifted back her cowl with clawed, arthritic fingers. For the first time Vhuna noticed the missing fourth finger on both hands that was the holy mark of this Order. The woman’s face was gnarled and deeply-lined. The fragile skin looked like a relief map of a river delta, or the walls of the valley far below, weathered and carved by time.
One quavering hand reached out and gently brushed the side of Vhuna’s cheek. She froze, her breath suspended, as the Abbatissa’s pale, watery eyes searched Vhuna’s own. She could see the silver psyker light that glimmered within her reflected deep beneath the cataracts that clouded the holy woman’s sight.
“Child. Are you here?”
Vhuna’s skin electrified, and she had to will herself to answer.
“Not – not really. How – how do you know?”
“I do not. I can see, but I do not know what it is I see. You are – you are thin, child, it is the only word I can think of. I can see behind you.”
“Yes, most holy sister.”
“You fear this. You fear you are – not real.”
“Of – of course. You don’t –“
“Peace, child. Our Order does not despise the psyker as so many others do. The Emperor would not have given you this gift if he did not think you could bear it. A long life and an endless devotion have taught me many things, most of all how much I still have to learn, but I will tell you this. I wake up every morning, in my cell in this beautiful convent, and remember that these old bones are made of dust and dirt, nothing more, and that it’s just a desperate illusion that I have any more choices that day than the fire burning in the hearth, or the clouds scudding in the sky, or a rock falling down a cliff. Dust and dirt. Nothing more. And you? Thin as you are, strangely thin as you are, you’re no different. What you need to ask yourself child is, knowing all this, why do I get out of my cot at all? Hmm?”
Vhuna paused, uncertain. “I – I really – ah. I don’t know, most holy sister.”
The Abbatissa smiled, and took her hand away from Vhuna’s face. “It’s not a very comfortable cot, but that’s not really the answer,” she said, and then she too turned and left.
“The Abbatissa is right, you know. You are a bit thin, although you’ve been putting on weight around the hips a bit. Getting a bit low-slung, there, Shiny. Got a couple of saddle-bags on the way.”
“Have you no fecking piety, Blunt, no soul? She’s a holy woman of orders. You shouldn’t talk like that.”
“I’m not the one swearing in a Convent. And at least I know I have a soul, not that it’s ever done me any good. Here’s an interesting question, Shiny. Does a mask have a soul if you wear it often enough? What do you think?”
“I think if you don’t shut the feck up we’re going to find out just how much body weight it takes to break right through this window here. Remember, it’s not the fall that kills you. It’s me shooting you on the way down that does that.”
“Shiny. You wound me.”
“Give me time.”
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