Part 8. Enjoy.
The Commissar was right, thought Koju, as he vaulted over the sand-bag wall and headed warily for the inky blackness of the precipice. The attacks were much reduced; the xenos’ initial tidal wave of close-combat attackers had failed to make any really serious breaches, although many men had fallen in denying them access to the plateau. The reserve had been fully committed, however, which worried Koju. There was nothing left to call on, and they could expect the heavier, slower beasts to begin an assault possibly within the hour.
He could see the Boy, standing in mid-air about twenty metres from the edge of the cliff. His face was downcast, and Koju could see bursts of silver, psyker energy reflecting off him, off his bald head in particular, from below. He was tempted to try and lean over the edge and see what was going on, but resisted the fatalistic urge.
The Boy had lost his comms-link somewhere on Ventia. Obviously he hadn’t been around since then to receive a new one.
“Boy!” yelled Koju. Not the first time he wondered why this aspect of the Matroyshka had never even chosen a name for itself. The others had come with names, ones they seemed to think they had been born with.
“Boy!” he yelled again, keeping one eye on the cliff-edge in case anything should crawl over it.
The child looked up, his face blank and weary. His eyes shone in the night.
“Time to go home?”
“Come on in,” Koju shouted, beckoning to him.
The Boy stared, and then nodded and started to drift towards Koju. The sight chilled him. He had never seen the Boy move like that before. He stopped once he was over the plateau and dropped a few inches to the gore-soaked ground.
“Don’t touch me,” the Boy said quietly, his face hidden and his voice muffled.
Koju craned his neck back and looked up the massive pillar of natural stone to the east. At the very top he could see the lights of the Convent, and around those the brighter, pinpoint flashes of weapons’ fire. Hellguns by the look of it. Some of the xeno hordes had made it all the way up despite their best efforts, and the elite units stationed up there were conducting what looked to be a very efficient mopping-up operation. Distant flowers of flame blossomed in the blackness.
“Follow me, we’re going for a ride.”
“I was good. Can I get a treat?”
“Once we get to the top.”
“You’re lying again.”
Koju hissed with exasperation, and tried to usher the Boy in the direction of the lift. He was careful not to come too close.
“Stormtrooper. There’s a boy in there. I want you to wait with him. Don’t touch him, but don’t let him leave either. Something very weird will happen – don’t panic – it’s fine. When Vhuna turns up, a few minutes from now, probably, call me on the vox.”
“Psyker Vhuna, sir? In there? I’m not sure –“
“I will wait with the child, Cadet Commissar.” Grand Schema Lucretius had seemingly come up out of nowhere in the draughty hall, a surprising feat for someone so large. Koju hadn’t even heard her matt black robes brushing against the flagstone floor.
“Okay. I mean – thank you, Most Holy Sister. That’s very – thank you, I have to go. Here. Take my spare vox-bead. You work it by –”
“The Adorers are a martial order, Cadet Commissar.”
“Ah! Of course. I didn’t know that, Grand Schema. Please accept my –”
“There are six Pillars of the Faith on the plateau, Cadet Commissar, but did you know there used to be seven?” The Grand Schema asked, folding her plump hands over her ample belly.
Koju shook his head, wondering if the Holy Sister was aware there was a battle raging outside.
“It is a fact not well known outside the Order, it is fair to say. Did you notice the low hillock at the very eastern end of the plateau, next to the Sixth Pillar?”
Koju shook his head again, trying to remain diplomatic. “No, Grand Schema. I had not –”
Lucretius smiled beatifically. “All that’s left of the Seventh. After centuries and centuries of target practice, Cadet Commissar.”
Koju nodded respectfully and then paused. He had a feeling he was being mocked, but there was almost certainly nothing he could do about it.
He looked in the open door of the convent cell, the Boy sitting placidly on the solitary cot. The child looked up at Koju.
“Tell Vhuna I said ‘hello.’”
“Right. Be seeing you, Boy.”
Koju left quickly before the Holy Sister could trap him in further conversation, and the relieved-looking stormtrooper hurried after him. Behind them the Grand Schema eased her bulk into the tiny cell.
She stood for a while, staring at the child’s smooth scalp, his course-knit clothes and his hands, shivering ever so slightly in his lap. His heavy dampener bracelets clinked together, and his gaze never left the floor. Eventually she reached inside her voluminous robes and drew out a small, brass aquila. It was nothing more than a common trinket, worn smooth and almost featureless by decades of devoted prayer. Lucretius held it out to the child. When he looked at it, but didn’t move, she placed it carefully on the cot beside him.
He picked it up and held it in his lap, turning it over. He smiled up at her, and then the smile seemed to slide off his face.
“Is there more?”
She knew he was not talking about the aquila.
“The Emperor sets challenges for us all, my child. Some must accomplish a great deal with very little, it is true. I cannot tell what your future holds, but yes, there is more.” She gestured. “You hold the universe in your hands.”
He said nothing, just nodded slowly and turned his attention back to the aquila. After a moment he put it down on the cot again.
“Then give this to Vhuna. She needs it more than I do.”
There was a whine and a snap, like a great book slamming shut, and the air in the room jolted as if inside a drum.
Vhuna grabbed her chest, and cried out with remembered pain, her breath coming in ragged, desperate gasps. She slid off the side of the low cot, sinking heavily to the cold stone floor, still wracked with agony that her nerves remembered but her flesh did not. Eventually her body convinced her mind that it was no longer mortally wounded, and she slumped forward, her head and shoulders on the cot, her breathing still raw and hoarse.
Grand Schema Lucretius watched silently, until Vhuna lifted her head and looked around at the cell walls. Something glistened wetly on her cheek. When Vhuna saw the black expanse of Lucretia, she turned her head quickly away, her hands flying to her face, and looked up again a moment later. Her silver eyes were tinged with red, and pain and anger shone in them.
“The boy left that for you.”
Vhuna looked baffled for a moment, and then saw the brass aquila lying on the rough blanket. She grabbed it, turned it over once or twice, and then stuffed it in one of her uniform pockets as quickly as if it were a year’s wages.
“Not many people get to see that.” Her voice was hoarse.
“I imagine even fewer have to go through it, child of the warp. Can you stand?”
Vhuna felt her leg, where the hormagaunt had cut her to the bone. Both leg and uniform were intact. Both were only minutes old, after all. She stood up. As she did so the Grand Schema spoke into the vox bead and summoned Koju.
“He made it then? Any legs missing? Arms? Other extremities? Too much to hope for, I suppose.”
Vhuna ran one hand over her slick scalp. “You don’t have a drink on you, Holy Sister? No, suppose not. What I wouldn’t do right now for a bottle. Especially one with something wet in it, heh?”
Lucretius remained impassive.
Vhuna sighed heavily, and her fingers sought out the aquila in her pocket.
“How was the Boy? Was he looking thin? Koju said he was thin last time he saw him.”
“He looked younger than you do, but wiser. I must return to the sacred Rites of Excarnation now. I believe you have some entomosaurs to attend to. Farewell, child.” The Grand Schema turned and left, momentarily blocking out all light as she squeezed through the door.
Vhuna stared at the empty door for a few seconds, and then turned and kicked the heavy cot a couple of times, eventually knocking it across the cell.
“– younger than you do, but wiser,” she hissed. “For the love of all feck, what in the seven hells is that supposed to –?“
“Still swearing in Convents, Shiny? I don’t think they’ll let you join their club if you keep that up. Temper, temper.”
Vhuna turned round, anger still shining in her eyes. “The cot was small, neat and very thick. For some reason it reminded me of you, Blunt.”
Koju stood in the doorway, smiling in warm appreciation of his own wit, and they stared at each other for a moment.
“You look better than the last time I saw you, Shiny, though that’s not saying much. He still won’t give you any hair, though, eh? Tell me, does that apply –“
“– where angels fear to tread? Or whatever other witticism you were about to slay me with? Spare me, Blunt. I’m not in the mood for your crap.”
Vhuna picked up her lasrifle and helmet from the floor where they had fallen.
“They’re massing for another attack, Cadet Commissar. Big ones, this time. I can see them. I think I know why the Navy can’t find those flesh-ships, too.”Koju nodded. “Let’s find a map and make our report then. They’ll probably have to peel the Colonel off the ceiling by this point. He got a bit upset when his auspex went AWOL.”
They began walking across the dark, cold hall. Covered candles guttering in the breeze lit the bare stone walls but left lakes of velvet darkness everywhere else. The sounds of battle drifting up from the plateau seemed as if they were a world away.
“Did you get it? The one that got me?”
“Yeah, Shiny. I got it. Got it good.”
“Does this mean I have to let you beat me at cards again?”
“Dream on, Shiny, dream on.”
Part 9 will be up shortly
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