The planet below didn’t look like much. It was a big, blue ball, with splotches of green and brown, and a few splashes of white. It made Gav think of a marble he’d had a long time ago, and that he’d traded for a sweet stick when he and his tribe were done with their exercises for the day. He hunkered down in the gun cutter, watching through his porthole as the world got bigger, and bigger. He knew what was coming next, and he didn’t like it. Up in the pilot’s seat, Sheexa started flicking switches, and talking into her headset.
“Sanctorum Verdis, this is Black Talon, coming in for a landing,” Sheexa said as she pushed down on the stick. “Would appreciate a lock-on to our signal, and if you’d keep your cannons sleeping.”
There was some kind of acknowledgment over the vox, but Gav couldn’t hear it. He was too focused on the way the engines were thrumming, and how the deck was starting to vibrate. He gritted his teeth, and gripped the cold steel of his safety harness. He stared down at the grating between his boots, and tried to ignore the building pressure in his ears as the gun cutter started shaking harder.
“Breathe, Gav,” Grint said. He used his inside voice, the one where his lips didn’t move, and that Gav heard inside his head. It felt funny when he did that, and Gav didn’t like it, but Grint would have had to shout to be heard over the racket of them entering the planet’s atmosphere. “In through your nose, and out through your mouth. Come on.”
Gav did what Grint said, swallowing with every other breath. After a few minutes, he felt his ears pop, and then the shaking leveled off. It didn’t go away, but it became more familiar. Gav let out a long breath, and released his hold on his harness. He hadn’t bent it, like he had the last time, but there were a couple of places where he could see the outlines of his fingers. It was worse where his metal hand had been. Grint patted Gav on the leg, and gave him a smile. Gav tried to smile back, but it didn’t feel quite right.
“Final approach to Sanctorum Verdis,” Sheexa said, easing back on the throttle and taking them down in a slow, banking dive. “You’ve got time for one last look before we’re boots down.”
Gav hunkered down again, pressing against his harness to look out the window. They were flying over a white city that looked like something out of a story. The walls shone, the big guns on top of the walls were shiny and clean, and there were statues everywhere. Gav recognized the Emperor, but most of them were women in power armor. He smiled, but then they passed by a statue of a sister on her knees, still gripping her sword. That one brought up some memories Gav had tried not to think about, and just like that he didn’t feel like smiling anymore.
Beyond the city was a huge church. It wasn’t built like the churches that Gav had seen before, though. It looked more like a fortress, with heavy las cannons at the top of the spires, and big, gated choke points all along the road to be sure nobody could come up if they didn’t have permission. As they drew closer, Gav could see there were dozens of people moving about the training yards. A lot of them were sword fighting, but if he strained his ears he could hear the heavy thump and explosion of bolters being fired. It made the skin on the back of his neck tighten up, and his heart thump a little harder in his chest. The gun cutter banked again, and Sheexa brought them in smoothly, choosing a landing pad that overlooked the cliff at the rear of the huge church. The engine whined as they settled down, and Gav’s stomach flopped slightly as gravity settled back on his shoulders where it belonged.
“Looks like you’re finally getting used to this, big guy,” Trobb said, plugging a cigar in his mouth and grinning around it at Gav. “You only turned two shades of green this time, and you didn’t give us a mess to clean up!”
“Grint helped,” Gav said, frowning as he felt for the clasp to unbuckle his harness. He was starting to get that too-tight feeling, and he needed to get outside before it got worse.
“Hands down, Gav,” Traela said. Breath was burning in Gav’s chest, and sweat was starting to trickle down the side of his neck. Everything was too close. The inquisitor reached out, and pinched the end of Gav’s nose. The strange sensation shocked him back to himself, and he put both hands on his knees. Traela gripped the buckle on his harness, pressed into either side, and unclasped it. Gav slumped forward, and put his head in his good hand. The world was tilting a bit, and he didn’t want it to start spinning.
“Might have spoken too soon,” Trobb said.
“We might be better off if you didn’t speak at all while we’re here,” Traela said, snatching the cigar out of the ratling’s mouth. “The Canoness Commander doesn’t tolerate foolishness at the best of times.”
“Foolishness? Inquisitor, you wound me,” Trobb said, widening his eyes and taking off his hat, crushing it in his hands.
“I’ll keep an eye on the wee one,” Sheexa said, hanging up her ear cans and hauling herself out of the pilot’s chair. She shrugged into her fatigue jacket, buttoning it closed over her tattoos and scars, which was about as formal as the Catachan ever got.
“Just an eye?” Trobb asked, waggling his eyebrows. Sheexa looked down at the little man for a long moment, her face unreadable. Then she turned to Traela, and took Trobb’s cigar out of the inquisitor’s hand. Fishing her battered lighter out of her pocket, Sheexa lit the smoke, and took a deep puff on it. Trobb narrowed his eyes, and crammed his hat back on his head. “So it’s like that, is it?”
“It’s like that,” Sheexa said, blowing smoke out through her nostrils.
“Are you ready to go outside, Gav?” Grint asked. This time he was using his outside voice. Gav nodded. “All right then, on your feet.”
Gav stood slowly, making sure he didn’t hit his head on anything. Gav walked carefully toward the rear doors, and clumped down the ramp, straightening up as his boots hit the stone landing pad. He took a deep breath of salty air, and turned his face up to the sun. For just a moment, he forgot about being scared and feeling sick. He forgot about the mission that had brought Traela to this world. He even forgot about those bad memories. Then he heard the inquisitor’s steps on the ramp, and Gav turned back to her.
“Are you ready Gav?” Traela asked.
Gav swallowed. He didn’t feel ready. Instead, he took a deep breath, and pushed out his chest. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good,” Traela said. She gave Gav a smile, and then headed toward the big church. “You’re with me. The rest of you, stay out of trouble, and keep your eyes open.”
Gav glanced back at the others. Trobb had produced another cigar from somewhere, and Sheexa was holding her lighter open for him. Grint was shaking his head, and clenching his teeth the way he did when he knew he was the only one being serious. Trobb blew a smoke ring Gav’s way, and Sheexa made a shooing gesture with one hand. Gav squared his shoulders, and followed Traela. If the others weren’t worried, then he shouldn’t be worried. That was what he told himself, at least.
The two of them made it off the landing pad, and halfway up the road that ran along the training yard before a young woman came out of the church and approached them. She was dressed kind of like the sisters Gav had known before, but not quite the same. Her dark hair was cut short, and though she had a few scars on her face, she didn’t have any tattoos Gav could see. She didn’t have any weapons, either, which made her look strange to him.
“Inquisitor Traela,” the young woman said. “I am Novitiate Ranna. The Canoness Commander asked me to escort you to her.”
“A pleasure, Ranna” Traela said, pursing her lips slightly. “Tell me, is her office still on the top floor?”
“Yes, inquisitor,” Ranna said. “But she is currently awaiting you in the Hall of Martyrs.”
Traela stopped walking when she heard that. Gav looked down at her, and saw that line between her eyes that said she was frowning on the inside. She clasped her hands behind her back, and when she spoke, she wasn’t quite as friendly as she had been.
“I know the way, novitiate,” Traela said. “But lead on, as your duty requires.”
Gav followed the two women, making sure he walked slowly so he didn’t step on anyone. Ranna led them in through the rear doors of the church, pushing open both of them to be sure there was enough room for Gav to step inside without turning sideways. He appreciated that. The inside of the place felt even bigger than the outside, with stone stairs winding all over the place, and wide walking platforms crisscrossing the empty space. A lot of light came in through the thin windows, and colors danced on the air. A choir was singing somewhere, and it echoed through the building. Gav didn’t know the words, but he knew the song.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“I know, Gav,” Traela said, touching his hip to get his attention. He hadn’t realized he’d stopped, staring around as he took it all in. “Focus, we have a job to do here.”
“Right,” Gav said. He furrowed his forehead, showing Traela he was concentrating. She nodded, and they began walking again.
Ranna led them across the polished floor, and to a door ringed with skulls. They weren’t carved into the stone or made of metal, like most skulls Gav saw in places like this. They were real skulls set in little spaces around the door. On the shelf below each skull was a name, a number, and a few words. Gav couldn’t read all of them, but he figured that the words talked about how the person had died. Or maybe what they’d done to wind up on display here. He had a feeling the people who had once owned those skulls were important, but he wasn’t sure why. Ranna opened the door, and stood aside to let them in.
Past the door was a long hallway. It was wide enough that Gav could have stretched both his arms out without touching the walls, and so tall that the hanging lamps were still several feet above his head. The floor and walls were polished, and there were more skulls sitting in their small resting places. Gav also saw the floor was worn away near the walls, the way it was when a lot of people walked in the same place over and over again for a long time. Several other hallways crossed this one, too, and Gav glanced down them. Most of them had skulls in them, with sisters dressed like Ranna lighting candles, praying, and cleaning them. But a lot of the spaces were still empty. At the end of the hall there was another set of huge, double doors. These ones were metal, and they had some words on them that Gav couldn’t read. His frown deepened, and he blinked a few times.
“What does that say?” Gav asked quietly, pointing at the words with his good arm.
“Mors nos non disiungit,” Traela said. “It means, ‘death does not part us.’”
“What does that mean?” Gav asked.
“Another time, Gav,” Traela said. “I promise. Now, if you would, please open the door for us.”
Gav nodded, and put his metal hand against the door. The bundles of steel cables whirred and whined as he pushed, forcing the door open one inch at a time. It was just as heavy as it looked. Gav stepped through the door, making sure he kept himself between Traela, and whatever might be waiting on the other side. What he saw, though, made him stop in his tracks.
It wasn’t the wide-open room, so big that even Gav didn’t have to worry about stooping. It wasn’t the displays of bloodstained armor, all of them bearing the symbols and prayer seals of the battle sisters that had last worn the suits. It wasn’t the skulls resting on crimson pillows that looked down from ledges above the armor, watching everything that went on in the room. It wasn’t the gold inlaid table, the two chairs on this side of it (one small, and one big enough for Gav to sit in), or even the white-haired woman sitting on the other side of that table that made Gav’s eyes go wide. No, it was the person who stood next to the white-haired woman.
She was tall, and broad in the shoulders, chest, and hips. Her arms were thick, and she had almost as many scars as she did muscles. She wore heavy armor on her chest and shoulders, and there was a sword on one hip. Her hair was dark, and she wore it in a single braid down one side of her head. The other side of her head was covered by a hard, steel case. Her face was smooth, with heavy cheekbones, and brown eyes that looked even darker. The only mark on her face was a small tattoo of the sister’s flower, as Tala had called it, just under one eye.
Gav had never seen that mark on an ogryn before.
Traela stepped around Gav, and walked toward the table. She was letting her boot heels hit the ground hard, making her steps echo in the room. The white-haired woman put her hands on the table, and stood slowly. She smiled at Traela. Gav had expected a mean smile, but he thought it made her look kind.
“Canoness Commander,” Traela said, giving her a nod of her head. The woman’s smile faded, and she folded her hands in front of her.
“Inquisitor,” she other woman said, looking Traela up and down. “It has been some time. Are we to stand on titles and ceremony like this?”
“If we are to have an interrogation, then yes,” Traela said. The white-haired woman raised her hands, holding them palms outward.
“I mean for no such thing. It has been a long time since you’ve been inside these walls, and much has changed. This chamber is no longer a place where crimes are read, and sentence is passed. This is where we come to remember those who have passed, and to reflect on ourselves, and our duties.” The Canoness Commander gestured at Gav and the other ogryn who stood near her, and some of her smile came back. “It is also a room big enough to hold all of us comfortably.”
Traela’s shoulders relaxed slightly, and she shifted the way she was standing. When she spoke again, her voice was softer. “My apologies, Trianna. Things have been… stressful, of late.”
“I can only imagine,” the white-haired woman said as she sat back down. “Please, seat yourself, and we can talk about it.”
Traela sat in the smaller chair, crossing one leg over the other. It took Gav a moment to realize she was looking at him. He’d been staring at Trianna’s bodyguard. When Traela gestured at the other chair, he sat hurriedly. The chair creaked under Gav’s bulk, but it held. The white-haired woman smiled, and folded her hands on the table. Her bodyguard didn’t smile with her mouth, but Gav thought he saw one in her eyes.
“Gav, this is Trianna Dan Costis,” Traela said. “I want you to tell her everything you told me when I first talked to you, before you came to work for me. Then, when you’ve finished that story, I want you to tell her about what happened on Verran Seven.”
Gav frowned again, pursing his lips. “I thought you said I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about that?”
“You aren’t, Gav,” Traela said. “But I’m right here, and I’m telling you that it’s okay to tell Trianna the truth.”
“Her, too?” Gav asked, cutting his eyes to Trianna’s bodyguard.
“I can assure you that Faith is vigilant in her duties,” Trianna said. “She is always at my side, and I trust her.”
Traela pursed her lips, and nodded. Trianna had that kindly smile back on her face. It made her eyes twinkle a bit, like she was excited to be in on a secret. He looked over at Faith. She was already looking at him, as if she was waiting for him to get started. Gav took a deep breath, and blew it out through his nose as he leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees.
“Okay… if you say so,” Gav said.
Gav sniffed, and tried to find where to get started. Traela waited. Trianna waited. Finally, Gav told Trianna about Ari, and Bob. He talked about the orks that had killed his old commissar, and then about the space marine in the blue armor who’d killed Bob. Gav pointed at some of the scars on his head, and on his remaining hand that he still had from that fight, before he’d smashed that space marine to dust. He mentioned the Space Wolves, and how they’d been impressed. Gav remembered how they’d told him he did right by Bob, and how he’d been avenged. Gav had felt a little better after that, even if he’d rather have had his friend back.
Gav had to stop to wipe his eyes and blow his nose then, but when he got himself back under control, he told Trianna about Tala. Gav knew she’d told him what kind of battle sister she was, but those weren’t the things that stayed with him. He remembered her smile, the way her hair was never quite even, and how she never seemed to lose her patience with him, even when he messed something up. He talked about the big daemon they’d fought together, and how Gav thought it had killed her. How he’d lost his arm, and almost his life, finishing that thing off. He didn’t talk about what had happened to Tala after that. Gav still couldn’t think about it without his blood getting up.
“And then you met Traela,” Trianna said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gav said, nodding, pleased for the change of subject. “She came, and told me that I’d done such a good job that I was getting a kind of promotion, of sorts. ‘Cept instead of being in the guard, I’d work for her.”
Trianna nodded. She hadn’t said much while Gav had told his story, but she’d been watching him carefully. She poured water from a pitcher from herself, and then offered the rest of the pitcher to Gav. He took it, and drank thirstily. For a moment he was certain he was going to belch, but he managed to cover it with his hand at the last moment.
“And then something happened on Verran Seven?” Trianna prompted.
Gav nodded, holding the empty pitcher in his lap for a moment, before he carefully put it back on the table. “Traela went to talk with the Templars, and she had to leave me, Grint, and Trobb behind. She took Sheexa with, but said the Templars might not like if the three of us showed up, too. We were all waiting at the ship when we heard something off in the woods. When Trobb and I went to look, it was one of the space marines in black armor. Somebody threw him off a cliff, and he’d hit so hard it broke the chain holding his sword in place.”
“And this sword,” Trianna said, leaning forward. “Was it special?”
Gav nodded again. “When I picked it up, I got this funny feeling. It made my hair stand up all over. And that was when I saw him.”
“Who did you see, Gav?” Trianna asked.
“Ari,” Gav said. “I know he was dead, though, because he didn’t have a shadow. It was like… like there was light inside him. When I asked him how he was back, he told me that the Emperor had sent him. That he needed me to do something really important.”
“And did you?” Trianna asked. Gav nodded. The white-haired woman rested her chin on her hands. “Tell me about it.”
Gav looked at Traela, and when she nodded, he took a deep breath, and told the story one more time. He talked about the traitor space marines he’d killed with Trobb’s help, and about all the soldiers they’d fought. He told her how Ari had guided him through, even though no one else could see him. He told her how the sword had felt almost alive in Gav’s hand, like it knew where he was supposed to go. He talked about his fight with the big Word Bearer, and how the traitor had wanted to take the sword and break it. Gav talked about the voices he’d heard… especially the big one. It hadn’t spoken in words like the others had, and when he’d heard it, Gav knew he had to keep fighting. Then Grint had come, and Gav had been able to kill the traitor, and stop them trying to summon another of the really big daemons.
“That voice, Gav,” Trianna said. “Do you know what it was?”
Gav swallowed hard. Traela and Trianna were both looking at him. So was Trianna’s bodyguard. Gav’s throat was trying to close, to stop him from speaking, but he looked down at the ground beneath his feet, and made his mouth open.
“I think it was the Emperor,” Gav said. He was speaking softly, but the room was so quiet that his voice sounded like a cannon in his own ears. “I never heard him before, but Grint has, and he said that was the same feeling he got when he gave up his eyes. And when the big marine with the skull on his face came out, and said that only the Emperor’s Champion could touch that sword, I reckon that was really him, or I wouldn’t have been able to pick it up.”
Trianna glanced at Traela, a question on her face. Traela nodded. The Canoness Commander blinked, and leaned back in her chair. No one said anything for what felt like a long time. Then Trianna stood, and gave Gav another smile.
“Thank you for sharing your story with me, Gav,” Trianna said. “Traela and I have some things to discuss. Faith, would you take Gav to the kitchens? They should be starting dinner preparations soon, and I’m sure they could use another set of hands. Or two.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the ogryn said. Her voice was surprisingly soft, and Gav felt his ears burning a bit when he heard her. Faith looked at Gav for a long moment, then nodded her head toward the doors. “Come on.”
Gav followed Faith out the door, carefully staying a step or two behind her. She led him back out into the main hall of the church, and then through a big room where long tables were being set up by several of the sisters. A few of them turned to look at Faith and Gav, but no one said anything as they passed on through. The kitchens were near the rear of the building, through an archway both Gav and Faith had to duck down to get through. It was a long room full of smoke and steam, with brick ovens all along one wall, and several big pots hanging from metal chains. There were maybe a dozen sisters dressed like Ranna had been, and one older sister who was ordering them all about. When the one in charge saw two ogryns in her kitchen, she turned and fixed them with a look.
“What are you two doing here?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Trianna said to come help,” Faith replied, shrugging one of her big shoulders.
“Did she now?” the older sister said. “Faith, you’re on the stir. You, do you know how to peel veggies?”
Gav perked up at the question. “Peel and slice, miss.”
The older sister laughed at that. “Miss, is it? Go on, then, supper is always closer than we think.”
Faith led the way to the rear of the kitchen, where there was a huge pot of bubbling stew being watched over by a few of the smaller sisters. Faith took the big stirring stick from one of them, moving it in slow circles without breaking the pace. The others scuttled back out of the way, drying their hands on their aprons, moving off to other stations. Gav stepped up to the pot, looking over at the bins of vegetables all around.
“Which ones do we put in?” Gav asked.
“Carrot, onion, then potato,” Faith said, resting one hand on her hip.
“All right, then,” Gav said, taking his knife off of his belt. He held the knife in his metal hand, arranging his grip just so before dragging the long, orange root along the blade. A small rain of neat slices fell in, each plopping into the thick stew. He did the same with an onion, sniffing slightly as he cut it. He paused when he picked up the potato. “Do you like the skin on, or off?”
“Skin comes off before you slice, but as long as no one’s looking, we can eat them,” Faith said. She glanced over, seeing the older sister wasn’t paying them any mind, then lowered her voice. “They’re even better if you dip them in the soup first.”
Gav grinned. Shifting his grip on his knife, he peeled the skin off in a single ribbon. When he was done, he dipped it carefully, before tossing it into his mouth. Faith was right, it was delicious! Gav chewed, enjoying the treat as he sliced the potato, and started in on the next carrot.
“I’m sorry,” Faith said, just as Gav was starting to cut. He was so surprised that he almost dropped the whole root into the pot.
“What for?” Gav asked.
“For Bob,” she said. “And Ari. And Tala. It’s hard to lose people like that.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Gav said, swallowing hard. His mouth had gone dry, and the one real hand he had left was a little damp. He got his grip back on the carrot, and kept slicing. He kept sneaking glances at Faith from the corner of his eye, though. “Who did you lose?”
“Everybody,” Faith said, giving the pot another stir.
Gav frowned, glanced around the room, and looked back at her. There were a lot of sisters here, but he was smart enough to know that’s not what she meant. He cut another onion, then went back in on another potato. He dipped the skin as carefully as he could, and held it out to her. “Do you… want to talk about it?”
Faith looked at Gav, and he couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She touched her tongue to her bottom lip, then she took the skin from Gav’s hand, and popped it into her mouth. Gav swallowed. His hand burned a little where her fingertips had touched him, but in a good way. He felt his face getting hot, and he tried to focus on cutting up the spud as Faith chewed. He didn’t think she was going to say anything, but when he reached for another onion, she started talking.
“It was a long time ago,” Faith said. “I don’t remember most of it. But I was in the guard, and it was my first battle. We were all in front, shields up, keeping everyone else safe just like we were supposed to. It was like a dance. Three steps forward, stop. Wait for the others to catch up. Three steps forward. If something tried to stop us, we hit it. Some things tried, but we didn’t stop.”
Faith’s eyes lit up as she remembered that day, and when she smiled Gav thought she looked very pretty. As Gav watched, though, the light in her eyes dimmed, and she frowned. She gave the pot another stir, harder than she needed to, leaving a wake behind the stick.
“The daemons came because of all the blood,” Faith continued. “They were big, and red. Our shields didn’t stop them. We tried to grab them, and bash them down, but there were too many. They ran past us, and we forgot what we were supposed to be doing. Everywhere you looked there was more of them, with claws and teeth that burned when they went in.”
Faith was looking down into the soup like there was something to see in there. Her knuckles were white on the stick. Her face was going pale, and she was clenching her teeth. Gav reached out slowly, and touched her arm, just below the elbow. Faith tensed up, and there was a loud crack as the stick splintered in her hand. The pulse in the side of her neck sped up, and her eyes went wide as she sucked in a hard breath. For a second, Gav was sure she was going to hit him. Then she blew out the breath she’d sucked in, and looked at the stick she’d broken. She carefully took it out of the soup, wiped it off, and laid it in the fire before she grabbed another, and got back to stirring. This time her face was red, but Gav couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed, or if it was something else.
“It looks like you got all of ‘em,” Gav said, trying on a smile he didn’t quite feel as he started slicing the next vegetable.
“I got some,” Faith said, shaking her head. “But not enough. They had me surrounded, when the sisters came. Their bolters didn’t miss, and pretty soon all the daemons were dead and gone. When I looked around, I saw I was the last one left.”
“I’m sorry,” Gav said, taking the kind words she’d offered him, and trying to hand them right back. Faith gave the soup another stir, and sniffed.
“I was too tired, and too hurt to be mad. But I got down on one knee, then and there, and I thanked the Emperor,” Faith said. “When Trianna came up to me, I was still praying. She asked me if I could still fight, and I told her I could. Then, when it was all over, she asked me if I wanted to keep fighting for the Emperor. I told her I did, and she said that from then on I was going to fight with her, and the other sisters. Wherever the Emperor needed us, that was where we’d go. All I had to do was make a promise, and take a new name.”
Gav nodded. Faith nodded. As the soup started to bubble, and Gav finished doing his part, the older sister shouted for Faith to bring the cauldron out for servings. She wrapped thick pads around one ring, but before she could prepare the other, Gav wrapped his metal hand around it. Faith looked at him for a long moment, and then the two of them lifted the cauldron. Carefully matching their steps, and trying not to bump into anything, they managed to get the soup out to the short, stone pillar without spilling any of it.
Dinner with the sisters was an organized affair, and Gav didn’t know what to do with himself. So he stood near the wall, sticking close to Faith, and waiting as the other sisters gathered in the hall and took their positions. None of them were wearing their armor now, and most of them looked liked they’d bathed and changed into their uniforms before coming. Trianna arrived last, with Traela at her side. The inquisitor caught Gav’s eye, and gave him the sign that it was still time to be serious. He nodded, set his feet, and did his best to look like he meant business. Trianna stood at the front of the hall, and raised her voice in prayer. It wasn’t one that Gav knew, but he lowered his head, looked at the floor, and let the words wash over him. When the prayer was over, Trianna clapped her hands, and everyone moved to get their serving.
“What do we do?” Gav asked Faith, trying to keep his voice as low as he could.
“We wait till everyone’s done,” Faith said, dropping Gav a wink. “And then we take what’s left back into the kitchen.”
Gav frowned as he watched the line of sisters each take a small loaf of bread and a bowl of soup, and he wondered if there would be much left. When everyone had gotten their share, though, he walked over with Faith. She folded up the cloth over a dozen or so small loaves that were left, and nodded at the cauldron. Gav peered in, and saw there was more left than he’d thought. And when he gave it a slosh, he could tell a lot of the chunky pieces had settled to the bottom. Gav hefted the cauldron, the muscles in his shoulders tight with the weight, and he followed Faith as she left the dining hall.
Gav set the cauldron right back where it had been, and watched as Faith picked up a pair of bowls that were sized for an ogryn. There was only one spoon, but she had a ladle in her other hand, and that would do well enough. Gav held the cauldron as Faith ladled out their portions, setting the two bowls aside, and divvying up the bread. Once they each had a portion, she sat down on the wide, stone lip of the banked fireplace, and Gav joined her. It was big, but there wasn’t that much space for two ogryns. Faith’s hip pressed against his. Gav felt heat creep up his neck again, but told himself it was just the low fire at his back. The two of them ate, just enjoying the quiet.
“How long are you going to be on-world?” Faith asked as she tore open one of the small loaves, and dipped it in her bowl.
“I don’t know,” Gav said. He chewed a particularly big carrot, and swallowed. “Traela just told me we were coming to talk to Trianna. Now that we did that, I’m just waiting to hear what’s what.”
Faith nodded at that, swallowing. She was quiet for a long moment, before she turned to look at him. “Gav… do you think that-”
The sound of footsteps pulled Faith’s attention, and she stopped talking. Traela was crossing the kitchen toward them. She didn’t seem mad, like she had earlier, and she didn’t have her serious face on. Gav made to stand up, but Traela waved him back down into his seat. Faith set her mostly-empty bowl on the floor, and laid her hands in her lap.
“Faith, Trianna wants to speak with you,” Traela said. “She asked me to come fetch you.”
Faith stood without saying a word, and strode to the door to the main room. Gav watched her go, not tearing his eyes away from her until she was out of sight. When he looked back at Traela, she had her head tilted to the side a little. Gav knew when she did that, it meant she was thinking hard about something.
“Is everything all right?” Gav asked.
“Everything is fine, Gav,” Traela said. “I have been speaking with Trianna most of the evening. She is impressed that you managed to stand against daemons the way you did, and survive. More importantly, she agrees that what you felt was, ever so briefly, a touch of the God Emperor’s mind upon you.”
“He really was watching…” Gav said, more to himself than to Traela. Then he shook himself, and swallowed. “How does she know what that’s like?”
“She’s had her own experiences, Gav,” Traela said. “Have you finished eating?”
“Just about, I think,” Gav said.
“Come, then,” Traela said. “Back to the ship.”
“Do… do we have to?” Gav asked. “It’s just that, it’s dark out, and it’s late, and…”
Gav tried to think of something else he could say, but he withered under the force of Traela’s look. He swallowed hard, let out a breath, and put his hands on his knees to push himself up to his feet. Then Traela put her hand on Gav’s shoulder.
“Now that you mention it, Gav, it would be nice to sleep in normal gravity for a night or so. And I am feeling tired.” Traela gave him a smile, and Gav tried to smile back. “Let me go speak to the Canoness Commander, and see if they can accommodate us for the night.”
Gav watched Traela go back out through the kitchen arch, and he frowned to himself. He felt stupid, and embarrassed, but mostly that warm feeling was pooling in his stomach again. He ate the rest of his soup slowly, savoring it as best he could while waiting for Faith to come back. He was eyeing the last small loaf, and wondering whether he should eat it or not, when one of the younger sisters entered the kitchen.
“Gav Smythe?” she asked. Gav frowned, wondering if there was another ogryn named Gav Smythe here that he hadn’t met, before deciding that she was just being polite. He nodded. “Sister Faith asks that you meet her out in the training yard.”
“Thank you,” Gav said, pushing himself to his feet. He stepped carefully around the stands and shelves, making his way out the rear door and into the night beyond.
It was dark outside, but red footlights ran along the paths, marking out where it was safe to walk. The stars were bright overhead, looking down at Gav in patterns he’d never seen before. Two moons hung in the sky, as well. They were full and fat, lighting up the lawns and fields, but sucking all of the color out of everything. Gav looked around, and he saw Faith standing in the middle of one of the fields, her arms folded as she waited. Gav took a deep breath, steadied himself, and walked toward her.
“Did you really do all those things you said you did?” Faith asked as soon as Gav had stepped onto the bare patch of dirt. Gav nodded. Faith licked her lips, and blew out a hard breath, before she said, “Show me.”
Before Gav could ask what she meant, Faith had her sword in her hand, and she came for him swinging. Gav jumped back, managing to dodge the first swing, but Faith twisted her shoulders and brought the blade back around. Gav lashed out with his metal arm, striking sparks from his forearm as he tried to hammer the weapon away. Faith’s grip was strong though, and she didn’t let up on the attack. Gav never even had time to draw the combat knife at his belt, for all the good it would have done him. Faith’s blade dug a furrow across his shoulder, and that was when he lunged forward. She brought up her other arm, driving it forward, but she was off-balance, and she couldn’t move in two directions at once.
Faith was fast, and her sword was sharp, but once Gav was inside her guard it didn’t do her any good. She kicked at him, and drove her fist into the meat of his shoulder where she’d cut him, but all the pain did was drive Gav harder. Faith tried to headbutt him, but Gav tucked his chin, feeling her teeth connect with the top of his head. That was when he wrapped one of his arms under hers, grabbed her sword belt with his metal hand, and twisted with all his strength. Faith’s boots came off the ground as Gav hauled her into the air, and turned his body with hers. She went over his hip, but he followed her to the ground, driving his weight into her as they struck the dirt hard enough to make pebbles jump into the air.
The wind went out of Faith, but she still tried to keep fighting. Gav snatched her sword arm with his metal hand, and forced it down to the dirt above her head. She got in one more good punch, her knuckles smashing into the side of his head. It rang Gav’s bell, no doubt, but he wrapped his arm around hers, flexing his forearm and bicep, and squeezing hard enough that it choked off the flow of blood into her hand. She tried to kick him, but Gav shifted his hips, and Faith’s knee hit the meat of his thigh, rather than where she’d been aiming it. He bore down on her, grunting, every sinew bulging.
“What’s that all about, then?” Gav demanded, pushing his face into Faith’s.
By the moonlight, Gav could see Faith was smiling through her split lip. The moon danced in her eyes, and she slowly let go of the hilt of her sword, letting it fall from her hand. Gav frowned, expecting a trick, but he slowly let go of Faith’s sword hand. She made no move to pick up her weapon. Instead, she grabbed the back of Gav’s neck, and pulled him down to her. Instead of trying to bite him, though, she kissed him hard enough to send a shudder through him. Gav’s pulse, which had been calming from the fight, spiked again. Faith pushed herself up against him, and a very different sort of growl reverberated in Gav’s chest. By the time the kiss ended, both of them were breathing hard for different reasons than they had been a few seconds ago.
“Oh,” Gav said after a long, quiet moment. His smile turned to a frown as a thought tried to tug on his shoulder. “But what about your promise?”
“I promised to do a lot of things when I took my new name,” Faith said, giving Gav a smile. Her grip on the back of his neck tightened. “But I didn’t promise not to do this.”
“Oh,” Gav said again. His heart was thudding in his chest, and his blood was loud in his ears. He licked his lips. He could still taste Faith on them. “I didn’t know that.”
Gav woke to the sound of a fist hammering on a door. He was confused and disoriented, not sure how he got where he was, or what was happening. He was in a big, stone room, whose only piece of furniture was a scuffed and battered supply crate with the imperial eagle on it. He was lying on a thick floor mat, the pile of his clothes pillowed under his head. Then he turned and saw Faith, and it all came back to him. She was already on her feet, her sword in her hand, blinking sleep from her eyes.
“Faith, get up,” Trianna yelled through the door. “You missed morning prayers, and breakfast. Your duties resume now.”
Faith looked from the door, to Gav, and back to the door. “Now?”
“I expect you in my chambers in half an hour,” Trianna said.
“Half an hour,” Faith repeated, looking down at Gav. She had that mischievous smile on her face again. “Yes, ma’am.”
Forty-five minutes later, Gav was walking out the double doors of the side entrance he’d come in the previous day. Traela was sitting on a bench, eating an apple and flicking her fingertip over a data slate. As Gav approached she slid the slate into the pocket of her coat, and stood.
“Have you said your goodbyes?” Traela asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gav said. He tried to keep the grin off his face, but he could feel the corners of his mouth trying to curve up.
“Good,” Traela said, walking toward where the gun cutter was beginning to warm up its engines. “Because half a dozen of the sisters were tasked with rousting the two of you, and every one of them conveniently passed the duty on until Trianna lost patience.”
Gav didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. He’d rarely regretted not saying anything, and he reminded himself to do it more often. Gav ducked his head, and worked his way into his usual seat, pulling his harness down so he could get ready for takeoff. Sheexa was going through the final checklist before takeoff, but she took a moment to throw Gav a grin over her shoulder.
“Was wondering if you were going to be able to walk out of there,” she said.
“I can walk just fine,” Gav said.
“But can she?” Trobb asked, giving Gav an exaggerated wink.
“She seemed to,” Gav said. Trobb sighed, the way he usually did when he thought he was being clever, but Gav wasn’t appreciating it. The rear hatch closed, and sealed itself with a heavy thump. Gav turned to Grint, his forehead furrowed in thought. “Grint… would you help me write a letter?”
“Of course, Gav,” the psyker said, patting him on the arm.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Trobb said, digging into one of his larger pockets before he took out a creased, bent-cornered envelope. It was bigger than most envelopes Gav had seen, and the letters on it were chunky, and blocky. “Meant to give this to you, Gav. It looks like it’s been chasing you for a while.”
Gav took the envelope, frowning at it. He didn’t know all the words on the front, but he recognized his name, as well as Bob’s. He barely even noticed when the engines whined, and the gun cutter rose up into the air. Instead, he tore open the edge, and took out the letter inside. He frowned at it, puzzling over what words he recognized. When he saw the name at the end, Gav’s whole face lit up.
“What is it, Gav?” Trobb asked.
“It’s a Sanguinala letter from an old friend of mine,” Gav said, raising his voice to be heard over the turbulence outside. His smile dimmed a bit, but didn’t fade. “I should write him back. Let him know I got it. I’ll have to tell him about Bob, though… and about Faith, too. I hope it gets to him quick like. Don’t want him thinking I forgot about him.”
“You serve the inquisition now, Gav,” Grint said, nodding. “I’m sure your letter will reach him, and far faster than his reached you.”
More Gav and Bob?
To catch up on the rest of the Gav and Bob series up to this point, check out the following links! If you enjoyed this tale, then please consider leaving a comment or a like, and sharing it with other readers! This is the latest installment of my Table Talk series, and if you wish to help me keep putting out new stories then consider becoming a Patreon patron, or just buying me a Ko-Fi as a way to put a tip in my jar for a job well done!
But if you're in the mood for more tales of the grim darkness of the far future, check out some of the following examples! These stories can be found in my Vocal archive, but many of them have also been dramatized by A Vox in The Void, so make sure you check those out as well!
- Gav and Bob Part 4: The Emperor's Hand- When Inquisitor Traela finds herself on a world at war, she seeks the aid of the Black Templars. Through happenstance, or fate, Gav finds the sword of the Emperor's Champion, and completes the duty the fallen astartes cannot.