It wasn’t a bad offer, all things considered.
Spend a few years getting experience with the Order of the Argent Shroud, then I’d get a position in the Inquisitor’s retinue. I’d be working regularly alongside one of the most powerful people in the Imperium, with the possibility of one day becoming an Inquisitor myself.
I wasn’t entirely sure I’d accept when the time came.
Something about Lady Callista Vance rubbed me the wrong way, and it wasn’t just the veiled references to how easily she could have me killed, either.
“You’re quite lucky that one of mine was conducting the check for mutations. The Ordo Hereticus would have executed you on sight, and the Ordo Xenos would be cutting your head open to find out how that Xenos tumor of yours worked.”
It wasn’t until I was in orbit above Terra aboard the Argent Victory that I realized she reminded me of Alexandria. The way she needed absolute control of the conversation at all times. She expected people to obey, and defiance would be met with retribution. Still, she hadn’t yet given me a good reason to stuff a million bugs down her throat, and even if I had I probably would’ve been pulped by one of the Space Marines wandering the Schola before I even left its grounds.
The conversation itself had yielded some interesting insights about how the Imperium worked, though I had left with more questions than answers.
“What do you know about witches?”
“That they’re people with special abilities, that I’m one, and that we’re not supposed to suffer them to live.”
“Correct on two points. You, my dear, are not a witch, and that is exactly why you’ve drawn my interest.”
That there existed a malevolent realm of -- and I hated to even think the words -- souls and magic from which the majority of witches drew their power pushed the boundaries of my disbelief, even if I’d come from a world with parahumans. At least one could scientifically study parahumans, follow the logic of a specific formula to create powers or determine trigger events. If Vance was right, then the Warp was the opposite.
“It’s a realm formed by the collective emotional echoes of human suffering, devoid of any form of internal logic with absolutely no way to comprehend it without trading your sanity in the process. Magic is as good a word as any.”
Something about my scepticism must have shown in my expression.
“I see that look of yours. Well, blessed is the mind too small for doubt.”
Pushing the inquisitor out of my mind, I focused on the present. The arming servitors had affixed the last parts of my new armor, and one of them was presenting me with a helmet. I accepted it from the blank-eyed, lobotomized creature.
As I placed the silver ceramite over my head, a bundle of wires extended outwards and inserted itself into the fresh socket that had been installed just today at the back of my neck. The neural interfacing used by the Adepta Sororitas was nowhere near as advanced as that of the heavily-augmented Adeptus Astartes, but they at least improved the power armor’s responsiveness to movement.
The power pack on my back hummed to life, the frame holding my armor upright retracted with a hiss, and I took my first steps in my new suit of armor. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit giddy as the screens on the inside of my helmet sparked online, targeting arrays and connections appearing whenever my eyes passed over a feature of the room. It was like the first time I had ever put on my Skitter costume, the feeling that I had become something more, someone with power and the ability to use it to do something good in the world.
I was now a defender of humanity.
A rune at the edge of my vision began to glow at the same time that an unfamiliar voice began to speak in my ear. “All suited up, greenie?”
“Who is this?”
“Sister Marcella. You’re already connected to the rest of the squad, see those other runes?”
I noticed the other three runes, one larger than the others, all darkened near the glowing one.
“No problem, greenie. None of the others are in armor right now, so it falls to me to be your guide for now. The Sister Superior will be introducing you to the rest of us in an hour or two, but until then, care for a spar? It’s a good way to get some experience.”
I nodded, then realized that she probably couldn’t see me. “Sure. Where do I go?”
The training hall was as large as a football field and vaulted like a cathedral. Stained-glass images of saints decorated the vaults, most in the silver power armor of the Argent Shroud, locked in combat with heretics, mutants, and aliens. Creepy servitor-babies flitted around on angel wings, probably as symbols of purity, but they reminded me more of fat, overgrown flies. I stepped into the room, relishing the clink of ceramite on the ground, looking for Sister Marcella. Some sisters were sparring in full armor, others in almost nothing at all. Others were swinging chainswords at combat servitors, who were covered in whirring blades and moved like something out of a horror movie. Not far from the entrance, a bareheaded sister in armor waved at me.
She was about as tall as I was, olive-skinned, with a prominent aquiline nose and a silver fleur-de-lis tattooed on her right cheek, and her dark hair was cut in a short bob. I noticed that most of the Sisters I could see seemed to be on the taller side -- better reach for combat, maybe? My height wasn’t going to be as much of an advantage here as it had been at the Schola, or at least not during spars.
“You’re Marcella, then?” I asked.
“Marcie when things are casual, but don’t let the Sister Superior hear it. She gets touchy over the oddest things, Emperor bless her heart. Ready to test out that new armor of yours?”
I nodded. “Weapons or fists?”
“Just fists for now. Don’t want to leave you too scratched up before you meet the rest of the girls.”
Both of us took ready positions on opposite sides of the mat, Marcella taking a moment to put her helmet on. I realized with a moment of sadness that my new freedom of expression wouldn’t extend to my hair. It had only just reached past my chin from the last time they’d shaved it back at the Schola, but I’d be wearing my helmet into combat for the foreseeable future. Getting a power-armored fist (or a bullet) in the face was low on my list of priorities.
I pulled my arms up into a cautious guard, uncertain what kind of opponent I’d be facing. I could only guess at her fighting style by judging her personality, which from what I’d seen so far was a kind of vivacious energy. I prepared myself to counterattack, nearly certain that she’d make the first move.
My guess was correct, as Marcella closed the distance quicker than I’d have expected an unaugmented human to move, aiming a sweep at my legs. It was telegraphed enough that I should’ve been able to dodge it, but I stumbled as my boot caught on the edge of my habit, the stupid skirt tangling between my legs. Who designed this thing?
My opponent, on the other hand, moved with a grace that could only have come from endless practice. Even as my armor whirred into action, compensating for my loss of balance, her fists were already snapping into motion without any warning wind-up.
Unused to my new proportions, I wasn’t quite able to get my helmet out of the way when I ducked, and her fist slammed into my forehead. I flinched instinctively, but the power armor handled the blow much better than I expected, just a dull pressure that wouldn’t actually have moved me.
The targeting runes in my helmet highlighted her lower right quadrant as an opening in her guard, but I ignored it. Everything she had done so far was designed to take advantage of the newness of my armor -- this was probably another trap.
Emboldened by my new capabilities and my understanding of her plan, I sprang into a counterattack, feinting high then aiming a similar leg sweep at Marcella. If nearly every punch was just going to be absorbed by the armor, then my best bet at winning would be to make her lose her footing like she’d almost done to me.
Unfortunately, she was better than I was at fighting in power armor, and with a neat backstep she avoided it.
We exchanged a round of punches, each of us either blocking or tanking the other’s attacks without faltering. I was getting better at figuring out which blows to avoid and which I could just shrug off -- a missed punch of hers that landed in the crook of my elbow had hurt a lot more than I expected, but it felt like I could block for days without my forearms getting sore.
The responsiveness of my armor surprised me, too. Instead of moving my arm which moved the armor, it moved with me, my thoughts directing it almost like a second skin. Each punch flowed in a way that it had never had when I sparred with Brian all those years ago.
Marcella finally broke the stalemate that we’d been locked in. She ran at me, and I prepared to block a haymaker or a leg sweep, but she caught me off guard. Instead of either of those moves, she body-slammed me, using her side in a way that allowed her to keep her footing as I went down to the ground. I tried to struggle upwards, hindered by the bulk of the enormous battery on my back, as Marcella slowed down from her run to a normal pace, then pulled the helmet off of her head, revealing a thin sheen of sweat on her face.
“Call it there?” she asked.
I tried to get up one more time, then sighed, realizing I’d need someone else’s help to get back to my feet. That seemed like a pretty serious tactical oversight from whoever designed this armor -- there had to be some way up that didn’t involve another person, right?
“Alright,” I answered, accepting my defeat. The strength and durability of my armor were nice, but there were tricks and tactics to fighting in it that would only come with practice. I could see now why Marcella had suggested this, and I was determined to get a rematch or two later. Better to work out my issues now than on a battlefield.
She knelt down by my side, the joints in her armor creaking. “Don’t take it too badly, Rosemary did the same thing to me back when I first started out. Here, you need to rotate this way…”