The chamber was two levels higher up and almost a kilometre away from where I had rested, beyond scattered rubble from a cave-in never repaired, shrouded in darkness the like of which is rarely seen on a civilised world - the dark you find when there are no city towers, no villages, no farms or outposts, when the moon's face is hidden in shadow and the starlight is too faint to see your own hand in front of you. In the time it had taken me to get there I hadn't heard even a hint of the beast's mind, but I was sure it was alive, awake, and probably waiting for me. Pushing debris out of my way, I reluctantly activated the spotlights on my armour - they would give away my position, but if the beast lived in such a place it could surely see by some means other than light anyway, and I had to be able to see where I was going if I was to have any chance. Some of the girders blocking my path, that I had to clamber over or heave to one side, bore claw-marks that cut deep into the metal.
At last I was through the debris, and in the chamber itself. I had no idea what it had once been, but whatever function it had been built for had abandoned it, for there was no sound of machinery, not even air circulators. I held my breath as my spotlights panned around the chamber, flickering over dust-coated columns and mounds of rusted metal. Then I saw the body.
It was twenty metres from me, lying on its side, but unmistakeably alive and breathing. I rushed to it, careless of the sounds my footsteps made, but as I rolled the body over onto its back I knew it was beyond help - its arms and legs moved horribly limply, and the eyes were open, vacant, the eyeballs dry and crusted with dust. It had been a woman, probably no more than forty years old, but with the lines of a much older woman on her face. She was thin, and the skin of her face was pulled tight across the bone, giving her a ghoulish appearance. I gasped for breath as I saw her properly, and before I even had time to close her eyes I had to force myself not to cry out as I heard a distinctly animal hiss behind me.
I stood, very slowly, and turned around, all the while listening for any sign of movement. There was none, but as I was about to bring my spotlights to bear on the source of the hissing my leg caught on something. I looked down to see the woman's hand around my ankle, her vacant eyes still staring into nothingness, but as I pulled away from her she let out a sound, a dry, croaking imitation of the beast's hiss. The sound was picked up by other death-dry throats around me - there must have been twenty, thirty such bodies in the chamber. I leapt away from the old woman as her legs scrabbled against the floor, trying to propel herself towards me, and panned my lights around.
Some of them were on the ground, like the woman, others were kneeling or standing, shuffling towards me like animate corpses, their eyes lolling around with the slack motions of their heads, but their bodies never wavering in their movement towards me. A hand touched my shoulder from behind me, and I lashed out in fear and disgust at the vile creatures - the body cracked and fell, its spine shattered. Alongside the urge to flee from this unholy place, the rational part of my mind took note of how weak they seemed, and told me I was not doomed yet. Then came the hiss, the beast itself again, off to my left side. I panned my lights to it, and this time caught it in the beams, and the sight of it rooted me to the spot for several seconds.
I had been imagining the beast as some alien animal, a jungle predator out of its natural environment, but this was no animal - it was a killing machine. It stood taller than a man, despite being hunched over, and its legs were thick, triple-jointed and powerful. It had four armed, each ending in a skeletal, thin hand tipped with razor-sharp claws. Its body was segmented, armoured on top, with a belly covered in thick, ribbed skin that looked tough as leather. Instead of a head it had simply a serpentine neck, half a metre extending from its shoulders, ending in a mouth like a leech, with a long tongue waving ahead of it, tasting the air.
It hissed at me again, and that brief delay was a mercy, for it gave my mind time to begin thinking again after the shock of seeing it. I knew what it was, all right - though I had never seen one, I and all my fellow Sisters had been lectured on the physiology, the behaviour and the danger of Genestealers. And suddenly the horrible walking-dead made sense as well - it had tried to implant them, mesh its genetic code with theirs, to dominate their minds so that months later, when the poor women gave birth to alien monstrosities, they would care for them like their own sons and daughters, and hide them from the untainted humans around them. But something must have gone wrong - these people should have been indistinguishable from their prior selves, not reduced to drooling corpses unable to move a muscle of their own volition.
That was all the time it gave me, before it leapt. But its aim was just short of perfect, and while two of its arms took me around the waist, the others couldn't find my arms, and flailed at me blindly. I heaved at the creature with all the strength my armour could give me, and had the slight satisfaction of seeing it slam into the ground beside me. Its claws held firm around my waist, though, and it scrambled back on top of me before I could strike at them. This time it made no mistake - one claw pinned my right arm, the other slammed down palm-first on my left. I heard and felt the patched plasteel buckle beneath the blow, then I cried out as the bones in my arm were shattered.
My vision filled with its hideous mouth-face, the skin a sickly half-transparent mottled green in the glare of my spotlights - I noted, with a detached sense of observation, a long, deep scar on its head, and wondered if this old injury accounted for the damage it was doing its victims. In the instant my arm broke, and I screamed in pain, its tongue was in my mouth, boring into my throat. I gagged against it, in vain, and felt it scrape cruelly into my throat. I had a momentary vision of the old woman, her mind so dead that her living body hadn't even the will to blink its eyelids, and at the same moment I heard the Genestealer's mind again, booming in my thoughts, beating at my consciousness like ocean waves smashing into the shore, cutting me away from my body, threatening to obliterate my memories, my soul, everything that was me.
I reacted purely by instinct. All my fear and disgust and rage welled up inside me, and without thinking I shaped it into an arrowhead aimed at the creature's thunderous, heartbeat mind. Though I was unable to scream, or even make a sound, I howled a silent, psychic 'No!' back along the channel it had created between us. It lurched on top of me, and I felt my own body come rushing back to me. I bit down instinctively on the thing in my mouth, ignoring the foul taste that gushed out of it as it was severed, and with a single thrust I pushed it off me. I rolled as soon as I was free, not away but on top of it in turn, smashing my arm down on its head again and again, until nothing was left but a crushed pulp, oozing black blood.
My lungs were burning for air by the time I had choked and pulled the horrible tentacle out of my throat, and even then I could only gasp briefly between bouts of vomiting and retching. I stood shakily, tried to take a step away from the Genestealer's body, and instead fell back to my knees, leaning on my good arm for support. The other bodies in the chamber were silent, immobile now that their master was dead. I was exhausted, shaking with fear and anger, covered in alien blood, and my left arm was a mass of pain hanging limply at my side - but I was alive.
And then - only then, when I felt a sudden rush of exaltation at surviving - I became aware that I wasn't alone. There were footsteps ahead of me, in the gloom on the edge of my spotlight beams, calmly approaching, making no effort to hide from me. And a clear, civilised voice speaking immaculate High Gothic:
"Very good, Sister Antonia. I see our faith in you was not misplaced."
"Where in hell did you come from?" I demanded, even before I could see the man properly. He laughed, as if I had made a joke.
"Not quite," he answered cryptically, "but if, as I think, you mean why did you not sense I was here?" He stepped into the light, and I got my first good look at the man who would be my only true friend in the times ahead, though he was a complete stranger to me then. He was tall, his skin pale like a hiveworlder, his hair white, not the bleached grey of old age, but pure white. He wore a suit of armour, sleeker than mine and coloured in understated tones of dark green and bronze, almost like a carapace suit, but I could see by the way he moved without effort that it was powered. His eyes were what caught my attention though - they were clear blue, almost like ice, so that in passing they almost looked wholly white but for the tiny black specks at their centres. His gaze was calm, casual, but intense, as if he were seeing and memorising every detail of the scene before him.
He bowed to me, a brief bending from his waist, as if to an equal, and then he did the most extraordinary thing - the outline of his body blended into the shadows behind him, even the glaring patches of steel in the beams of my spotlights. I was looking directly at him as he did it, and I could just make out the hint of his armoured shoulders, and the dark colours of his chestplate, and his white hair - but if I had not known full well he was standing there, I swear I could have walked right past him and never suspected a thing. Even the sense that I had of a presence in the space around me was gone. He reappeared barely a second later, the corners of his mouth curled up in a wry smile.
"You see?" he said. "That abomination," he gestured at the corpse of the Genestealer, "never knew I was here, and it senses are far keener than yours. For the moment, at any rate. I suspect before long you will far exceed the abilities of such primitive creatures."
"You were here?" I asked, trying to get a foothold in the suddenly-changed situation. "All the time?"
"Long enough to watch you fight it," he confirmed.
"And you never- what if it had killed me?"
"I think, one way or another, you would have overcome it," he said carefully, as if manoeuvring around a difficult topic. "But, in the unlikely event of that thing defeating you, I would have made sure yours was the last life it took. My purpose here was to observe you, but letting abominations roam free is hardly something I would do for the sake of expedience."
"Me? Why were you watching me?"
"Do you recognise this?"
He reached into one of the pouches on his belt and drew out the ends of a delicate silver chain. Holding it up in the beam of my lights, he let me see what was hanging on the end of it - an Imperial eagle, tiny and perfectly-sculpted, its wings spread, its two heads - the one normal, the other sightless - held high and proud. It was not dissimilar to any number of the devotional icons used by the Ministorum, but this one I knew, somehow, was different. I had seen only one of its kind before, held up by the man who had called my name from the crowd on Oriax Prime, as I had sped through a village on the side runners of a Rhino transport. It was not the same thing - this one was smaller, and looked more brightly-polished - and yet that part of me that I barely understood, which gave me powers I didn't know how to call on or control, insisted that it was the same thing, the very same. The realisation must have shown on my face, for the man nodded and put the eagle away.
"Oriax Prime," he said, as if reading my mind. "Our man there arranged for you to see one of these, in passing. It is a Corvus Sacer, the sacred eagle. Only a hundred were made, and each contains a single drop of the blood of the Emperor Himself. His children recognise them instinctively."
"His children?" I echoed. The man nodded.
"You are one such. Though your bloodline is mortal and human, your soul is of the Emperor's lineage. You are a Sensei. It is time you met your allies."
His name was Nomad - the only name he gave me, and the only one by which I ever knew him. He told me that he was a Sensei, like me - whatever that meant - and that he was part of an Order devoted to the highest service of the Emperor. More he would not say until we had left Nova Venezia, and any possibility, however remote, of being spied upon. Apart from the brief moment when he had shrouded himself, I could sense his presence easily, and I felt no attempt on his part to deceive me, or conceal his motives from me. He was telling the truth as he knew it, and his devotion to the Emperor was real. So I followed him. For a moment I thought of Corin and Melendy - but I wasn't sure if they expected me back anyway. Besides, I was sure Melendy would sleep easier, with the 'beast' dead, and so she would know I had completed the task that had brought me to the factory in the first place.
Nomad's ship was berthed at a small dock, a few kilometres from the pit where the Catherine had been. From the glimpses I had of her through the portholes as we approached, she was a fast, well-maintained ship - her engines were quite large for her overall size, and her hull was in good repair, patched expertly in places, and uniformly smooth and unblemished. Nomad told me her name was Pegasus.
We got underway with surprising speed, considering the rounds of checks and stand-by orders the Catherine had endured to make planetfall, and Pegasus boosted quickly away from Nova Venezia, through the crowded orbital lanes, and out into open space. Nomad was on the ship's bridge during her lift-off, while I had a silent woman who I took for a Sister of the Orders Hospitalier treat my arm. Everything about her made me think of her as a Sister - her demeanour, the way she moved her hands treating me, the sacred oils and fragrances she used - but her medical knowledge and the equipment she used were far beyond anything I had seen before. First she placed around my arm a pair of devices that took away the pain, and made the limb feel light, then she carefully cut away the smashed pieces of my armour, using a plasma torch with all the skill of a tech-priest. She worked on my arm for nearly an hour with a succession of devices I could not identify, then finally prepared a bandage laced with metal fibres, which she wrapped around my arm and charged from a power transceiver - it became solid, supporting my broken limb like an exoskeleton. Then she left, and Nomad returned to the observation deck where he had left me - apologising for the need to keep me from the bridge, and telling me that my arm would heal fully, in time - and began to explain.
"What do you know of how the Emperor came into being?" he asked me at first. I searched my memories of the hundreds of chants, litanies and prayers for the fragments of history contained in them. The most complete, so far as I had ever been able to reason, was the account in the Gaudete, the song of praise.
"He was born of humanity itself, to do battle with the evil within and without," I recited, abbreviating the song's prosaic narrative. "Because human diversity prevents us from fighting truly as one, He was created as the one who would fight for us all, and thus He was born a man and a god."
"Very good," Nomad said, "you have sought the meaning within the words of the old songs and legends. I have known many mortal Sisters who never thought to do as much."
"Mortal?" I asked. I couldn't believe he might be describing me as something else.
"You are Sensei," he answered patiently, "a bridge between humanity and the Emperor. You are not entirely one or the other, and so you are not truly a mortal being. Be patient, all will be revealed to you in due course." I nodded, putting aside the questions that had sprung into my mind.
"What you know is true," Nomad continued, "to a point. At the very dawn of the age of humanity, before we knew of the warp, of other worlds, when our people still lived in scattered tribes on the plains of Terra, even then there were those among the tribes who had the gift of the sight beyond. What little knowledge we have of them calls them by the name of Shamen. These Shamen perceived a great danger, one that was growing as humanity grew, but which would soon overcome their limited powers. They called this danger Chaos, for that was the essence they saw within it - the destruction of order, the annihilation of that instinct within humans that allows us to combine our efforts to achieve goals beyond our individual capabilities. This instinct, this gift we have, came at the price of Chaos, for all things have their counter-agent. Humanity is noble, angelic and wise, yet it can just as easily be foolish, violent and selfish. Thus is Chaos born, and thus did it grow in the souls of men.
"The Shamen foresaw a time when they would powerless to fight Chaos, and would either be swept away or corrupted by it. So, harnessing the very essence of their devotion to their fellow men, they gave their lives and powers. Hundreds of them, who spoke no common tongue, nor ever saw their fellow Shamen face to face, yet they knew what needed to be done. In death they became as one, and so the soul that is the Emperor was created. He is humanity united, born to fight Chaos, so that we could enjoy the fruits of our gift of creation without being destroyed by it.
"Now, what do you know of the Emperor's final battle?"
Again I searched through the words I had memorised, remembering the conclusions I had drawn from cross-referencing them all those months and years ago. And then I considered what I had been told, which, fantastic though it was, I sensed to be absolute truth, so far as Nomad knew it.
"The evil, Chaos," I began, "it grew inside humanity until it became a great power, and it turned many men from the Emperor's light. The armies of evil - Chaos - launched a great war to make the Imperium theirs. Their war devastated a thousand worlds as they battled the faithful, and came at last to Terra itself. There the Emperor stood alone against their lord, who had become Chaos itself, for He knew that if the lord lived he would consume humanity. The Emperor fought the lord of Chaos, and sacrificed His mortal life to defeat the lord, to save us. And so as a living god in the body of a dying man, He was enshrined on Terra in the Golden Throne so that His sacrifice would not be in vain, and by what strength is left in Him, He holds back the forces of Chaos from again luring the leaders of men from His light."
"You think quickly," Nomad said as I fell silent, "and you see the truth by your nature. That is good. What you have been told, in sermon and prayer, is true, and what you have deduced on your own is true also. Yet there is much you do not yet know, for none you have ever met or spoken to have had the knowledge. I will tell you. I know you have the gift of seeing truth or falsehood when it is given to you, so use it now. It is as well for you to be sure I am telling you the truth, for there may come a time when your faith is tested, and you must have no doubts.
"The Imperium as we know it today came from the ruins of the Age of Strife. At first humanity spread through the galaxy by its own spirit of exploration, colonising far-distant worlds and learning the secrets of alien technologies and peoples. The growth of the old human empire let to what we call the Dark Age of Technology, which was the price of human arrogance. Too quickly and easily had we adopted the machines of the impure aliens, and we had no knowledge of the Emperor's existence then, or His manifestation as the Machine God by which our technology is made sacred and pure now. Inevitably, the machines of the human empire became corrupted and turned on their masters. During the wars that followed, the machines were destroyed, though humanity itself barely survived. The warp was beset by storms of legendary magnitude, rendering all space travel impossible.
"At this time the Emperor, who had served humanity for millennia without revealing His true nature, remained on Terra. He became a chief among His followers in the barbaric civilisation that humanity descended to, and as their leader He began to rebuild what had been lost. By virtue of his knowledge, his wisdom, and his invincibility in combat, He made Himself master of Terra and all its peoples. For He had seen the folly of his course, and knew now that humanity would only be safe if He was at its head, guiding our steps, and wielding our might like a sword against Chaos. Thus He took the title Emperor, by which He has been known ever since.
"Under His rule Terra prospered, and regained much of its lost civilisation. In time the storms in the warp subsided, and the Emperor travelled first to Mars, where he was proclaimed Machine God by the Cult Mechanicus that had emerged there, then to other star systems. His servants strived ceaselessly to reunite the old empire as the Imperium of Man, and bring the worship of the God-Emperor to all humanity. To lead His armies, the Emperor assembled his finest scientists to create children in His image, which He called Primarchs. With the Primarchs as His princes, ruling a united Imperium, the Emperor could have finally pushed the forces of Chaos into the outer darkness, never again to trouble mankind.
"But even then Chaos had its servants among the faithful, for the creation of the Primarchs became known to it. Chaos used what power it had to bend space and the warp together for an instant, in which the infant Primarchs were stolen from Terra and scattered across the galaxy. As penance for His carelessness, the Emperor undertook the Great Crusade personally, to reclaim His sons as He reclaimed the Imperium. And in defiance of Chaos, one by one He found them and brought them home."
"You know some of their names, I suspect: Corax, Leman Russ, Sanguinius, Lion el'Jonson, Rouboute Guillaume, Rogal Dorn, Jaghatai Khan, Ferrus Manus, Vulkan."
"Space Marines," I gasped, my mind flying with visions of this golden age of the Imperium, "the first lords of the Space Marines."
"Yes, each Primarch became the master of a legion of the Adeptus Astartes, their sons as they were sons to the Emperor. The blood of the Primarchs is what gives a Space Marine his superhuman strength and endurance. But what you know of the Primarchs is only half the truth. There were others created: Angron, Night Haunter, Perturabo, Mortarion, Fulgrim, Magnus, Alpharius, Lorgar," he paused for a moment, "and Horus. They also were scattered by Chaos, reclaimed by the Emperor, and led their legions in the Great Crusade. Their names and histories are unknown to you because they are those who turned to serve Chaos. It was Horus who became the lord of Chaos, the Warmaster, and who claimed the life of the Emperor, his father."
The revelation staggered me, yet even as I struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the betrayal, I could see how it was a part of the history of the Imperium, and how the monumental events that were only now being revealed to me had shaped the galaxy I knew. I imagined that all the history of humanity, from cave-dwellers to star-farers, was a giant, shattered image that I had been given pieces of. Even given how little I had told before, I had always known there were pieces missing, and from the shapes of the pieces I had, I divined their outlines, and saw how what Nomad told me fit into the whole.
"And now we come to you," he went on. "The battle between the Emperor and Horus was as you learned. On the Warmaster's own battlebarge, above Terra, he and the Emperor met in single combat. Horus was slain, and the powers of Chaos that had possessed him were driven away from him and Terra. But the Emperor's mortal body was grievously wounded, and only the power of the Golden Throne could keep what remained of Him alive. Thus it was, and has remained ever since, the Emperor's shattered body, the vessel of His tremendous spirit, preserved on the edge of death so that He might continue to channel the energies of the Astronomican, the beacon in the warp by which all the Imperium navigates. And so long as He is alive, His soul is free to battle Chaos, and protect the souls of His chosen.
"You are one such, Antonia." I couldn't believe what he was saying, but I sat mute and he talked. "The Emperor, in His wisdom, chooses a very few of His people to become Sensei - those whose hearts are pure, whose souls are beyond Chaos, and who can never be corrupted. He touches their souls, makes them as one with His own, by which they gain a measure of the power He once wielded. You have used this power already, unconsciously and in a limited fashion, but you will learn to control it and make use of its full potential. Believe me when I say, though none can equal the divine power of the Emperor, you will one day come close."
With the majority of what he was saying beyond my ability to comprehend then and there, only one question remained that I could bring myself to ask.
"How do you know I am what... what you think I am?" He nodded, understanding.
"It will take time for you to absorb what I have told you. Acceptance will come to you, in due course. As for your question, you have attracted the attention of those whose talents we employ to locate potential Sensei, and you have met the challenges fate has sent your way in the manner a Sensei would. There is one final test, which we will come to presently. That will tell us, with absolute certainty, what you are.
"In case you think we are being too careless with the knowledge we have, know that this ship is hard-wired to destroy herself and all aboard if anyone - you, me, or any of the crew - attempt to leave her before we reach our destination. I believe you are Sensei, but if I am wrong - which I seldom am," he added with a chuckle, "the Sensei will not be harmed unduly by my mistake."
Nomad left me alone after that, again apologising for the necessity to confine me to the ship's observation deck. But I was too tired and overwhelmed to really care. After all I had come through, my expulsion from the Sisterhood, the loneliness of being a fugitive, the harsh factory and the sudden violence of the Genestealer, I was willing to simply wait and see what fate would bring me next. But if I was willing to trust to fate, I was not pessimistic - from what Nomad had told me, and what I had sensed of him, I had real hope that he and his fellow Sensei might give me back the opportunity I had lost in the Sisterhood, to serve the Emperor to the best of my ability. So I looked forward to reaching my destination, but with no great urgency.
The observation deck of Pegasus was small, and from my estimation of the ship's size the area I was limited to was only a part of the total deck space - whether the rest was another deck, sealed off from me, or composed of machinery or uninhabitable vacuum sections, I couldn't tell. For that matter, I could barely tell the ship was moving at all. Pegasus had the softest, quietest engines I had ever experienced, perfectly tuned to her mass, such that I had to stand still and concentrate just to feel the drumming of the ion drives. I learned later that Pegasus, in common with all ships used by the Sensei, have far more sophisticated technology than anything the Imperial Navy has known for ten thousand years.
My confinement was not difficult for me to endure. The observation deck contained exercise facilities not unlike the training equipment I had become used to on the Sisterhood transports, and there was a food unit that delivered a passable selection of dishes, obviously not freshly-prepared but better than ration packs. I had quarters off the deck's main chamber - the bed was comfortable but not luxurious, almost perfect for one such as me, who appreciated the comfort but would have felt spoiled by silk sheets and non-synthetic pillows. I wondered if this was no accident, when I looked in the wardrobe and found a pair of clean Sisterhood uniforms, which fit me perfectly, better even than those I had worn before my condemnation. They were perfect in every detail, except that their Order badges were for an Order I had never seen before, an eagle and a sword: the Order of the Blade Corvus. My memory had lost none of its perfection, and I was sure no such Order had ever been spoken of or referenced by any Sister or document I knew.
Nevertheless I stowed my armour and cloak in the storage locker provided for them - both again exactly the size required - and took to wearing the uniform during the five days the Pegasus' journey took her. I kept my locket, though, with its tiny pictures of my family. I was not willing to part with it, not even for a moment, no matter how safe I believed I was in Nomad's care.
On the fifth day, during the morning when I was exercising as best I could with a broken arm, the shutters on the ship's portholes snapped shut, and Nomad appeared from the deck elevator. He motioned me to a table and sat opposite me, studying me for a moment before he spoke.
"The Sensei have many ways of moving openly through the Imperium without question; the Order of the Blade Corvus is one, and the one best suited to your training and background," he began, as if he knew that I was wondering about the uniform I wore. "Now, I must tell you something of what you are about to see. You will no doubt have questions, but save them for another time - my mission is to bring you to the place where we will shortly land, and to give you a specific set of facts, which I will now complete. Later, if you pass the final test, any questions you could possibly ask will be answered. For now, just listen.
"The Sensei are supported in their work by a secret order among the Adeptus Terra, called the Illuminati, which as you know means 'people of the light' in High Gothic. These are the most devout, most capable and most trusted of the Emperor's servants. Agents are recruited to the Illuminati when, and only when, their loyalty to the Emperor above all else is beyond question. The Illuminati have agents within every faction of the Adeptus Terra - not an order is given, a declaration made, or a word spoken on Terra, even within the Council of the High Lords themselves, but the Illuminati know of it. They use this intelligence to give us, the Sensei, the knowledge we need to serve the Emperor as best we can. All that the Illuminati do is for a reason, though it may not always be apparent to us.
"We are shortly to land at a place called Haven. The presence of humans here is marked on no Imperial charts, nor on any charts in the hands of aliens. Haven is the seat of power of the Illuminati, and the bastion from which they operate. You will never learn where it is. I do not know, nor do any Sensei. Only the Navigators of the Illuminati know how to reach Haven, and if any one of them is placed in a position where their knowledge may be compromised, his brain will destroy itself and every piece of knowledge and memory contained therein. I tell you this so you know that the secrecy of Haven is absolute.
"Haven is where Sensei are trained to realise their full powers, and it is from Haven that they are despatched to every part of the Imperium, to do their work. You will be trained here, in combat, in strategy and tactical manoeuvre, in negotiation and in the crafts of the mind and soul. First you must undergo the final test I have spoken of. When we land, I will take you to the Triumvirate, who will observe you. You will see and speak to no-one as we make our way to them. Your armour and possessions will be offloaded from Pegasus and returned to you after you see the Triumvirate. When you are with the Triumvirate, do not speak. Stand before them, and make no action. I will remain in the Triumvirate chamber until they have observed you and made their judgement, then I will leave. If their judgement is that you are a Sensei, another man will enter the chamber and take you from it. He will be your Custos, one of the most sacred order whose task it is to train newly-discovered Sensei in our ways. Once you leave the Triumvirate chamber you will be in his care, and free to ask him whatever questions you will.
"I do not think you will fail the test," he added after a moment's thought, "but if that should happen, you will not leave the Triumvirate chamber. Your death will be instant and painless. I will stand witness, and pray for your soul. That is all I am permitted to tell you. Prepare yourself now."
The first glimpses I had of Haven were mundane - an airlock without portholes, a succession of corridors, spotless and in perfect repair, an elevator with no internal controls, and finally a pair of steel doors at the end of a short passageway. I sensed that this was my destination, and after only an instant's hesitation I walked towards the doors, which swung silently open to admit Nomad and myself, and closed behind us. The chamber inside was dark, such that I could see only vague shadows. I heard Nomad's footsteps as he moved away to one side of me, then stood still. Then the chamber's lights came gradually to full strength, slow enough that I didn't have to squint as my eyes adjusted.
Three women stood in front of me, each behind a lectern fashioned from old, black wood, carved with symbols of the Emperor's blessing. The first was barely a teenager, with a slightly rounded young face and straight black hair. The second was an adult, with a long, kind face and blonde curls. The third was old, her face wrinkled and weather-beaten, her hair grey and limp. This, then, was the Triumvirate. I stood patiently before them, my eyes moving from one to the other. After a long time, during which they simply stared back at me, they spoke - and their speech was such that one would start a sentence, only to fall silent as another continued it, and the third ended it. If not for the empathic impression I had of three individual souls, I would have wondered if they were somehow a single mind inhabiting three bodies.
I remained silent after they had spoken, having heard no question and remembering Nomad's directions. The three women held out their hands to each other and linked them, and then-
Then I lived my entire life in the blink of an eye. My first conscious memory, on my fourth birthday, surrounded by happy family and friends. School, the other children making me welcome. Listening to old Father Deacis lecture us in his rambling way. Leaving with the Sister Superior, watching my father standing in the doorway of my home. The convent, the Schola, my fellow students, hopeful of serving the Emperor in some way. Memorising the texts and prayers. Training for battle, using simulated weapons, running through tactical drills over and over until they became instinct. Learning to use power armour, and boltguns. Serving aboard the Holy Sentinel, watching the Sisters around me, learning from them. The ceremony where I became a Sister of Battle. Travelling on the Saint Valkyrie, performing the purity tests on outpost after outpost. Standing helpless, shocked into immobility, at the cult compound on Daylight. Riding the side of the Rhino as it drove through the villages on Oriax Prime. Fighting the tech-rebels before the looming Golem Hive. My grief at Serena's death, and the awakening of my powers, seeing for the first time the true beauty of the galaxy. Machine warriors stalking through the dust. A force flowing from my outstretched hands, blasting them back from our wounded as they levelled their flayer weapons. Standing between Fionne and Ilen, a prisoner, to hear the sentence of execution. Being led from the chapel by Toldra, who had first spoken the word to me: 'Sensei.' Escaping on the Catherine, fighting the pirates. Alone on Nova Venezia, then finding Melendy and Corin. Searching for the beast, finding its mind at the bottom of the factory, tracking it down and finally killing it. Nomad, the journey on board the Pegasus, all I had heard, walking into the Triumvirate chamber, listening to them speak, watching them link their hands together-
There the flashes of memory caught up to reality. I felt light-headed for a moment, but it passed quickly. In front of me, the older of the three women staggered, so that the kind-faced one beside her had to support her by the arm, to steady her. Then they spoke to me again, in their stop-start voices.
To my left, Nomad turned and walked back behind me, leaving the chamber by the doors through which we had entered. The Triumvirate, as one, lowered their gazes and took a single step back from their lecterns. A door slid open in the wall to my right, and a thin, middle-aged man beckoned to me to follow him out of the chamber. So it was that I became a Sensei.
As I stepped through that door, I saw a sight I was utterly unprepared for. My impressions of this place had been along the lines of a military base, or an industrial complex - economical of space, functional by design - but I had been wrong. Before me was a great gallery, ten miles long if not more, its walls lined with statues of saints and warriors, delicate silks and banners commemorating thousands of Imperial campaigns. The roof was so far above me as to be almost lost in a mist - I could make out heavy steel buttresses supporting it, and between them giant carvings, in stone and silver, of battles and victories. I stood on a walkway at one end of the gallery, the floor a hundred feet below me, and as I looked down I saw such a sea of people as I had never before seen in my life - not even in Nova Venezia, for despite its endless crowds, that world had not the monumental architecture and scale of this, to contain so many souls at once. There were men wearing robes of all descriptions, every faction of the Adeptus Terra represented; hooded tech-priests with breathing tubes snaking out of their throats and into mechanical air filters on their backs; scribes and ciphers hurrying to and fro, marked by their simple uniforms and large, plainly-styled devotional badges; officers of seemingly every regiment of the Imperial Guard, from grim-faced Iron Legionnaires to scarred Catachans to fur-cloaked Attilans to pale-skinned Mordians to furtive Cadians to proud, tall Xenonians; flag officers of the Imperial Navy, in their resplendent, ornate uniforms; tall, thin Navigators and white-eyed Astropaths; Inquisitors striding at the head of their eclectic retinues, their gazes unflinching as they scanned the faces around them; and Space Marines of a hundred chapters, noble Ultramarines, savage Space Wolves, robed Dark Angels, Iron Hands with their ritually-installed mechanical left arms, black-skinned Salamanders, fierce White Scars and battle-hardened War Hawks. It was as if every part of the whole, diverse spread of humanity were here, in a microcosm of the Imperium of Man. And the amazing thing was that, in that immense crowd of people hurrying one way and another, entering and leaving the gallery through the hundreds of connecting corridors, not once did my gaze settle on a single person but he or she would glance up at me and nod, in acknowledgement.
The man who had stood in the doorway, and now waited as I took all this in, spoke at last: "The Illuminati. Welcome to Haven, Sensei."
The man was Vestitus, and he was the Custos that Nomad had told me of. His task, as he explained it after we left the Triumvirate chamber, was to see that I attained my maximum physical, psychic and spiritual potential. "The Emperor has many servants with special talents - those to which we give the unflattering designation 'stable mutants'. There are Navigators who can see the light of the Astronomican from any point in the galaxy, and steer by it. Astropaths who can encode and transmit messages from one world to another in the time it takes for them to read the words off a page. Spatial psionicists who can feel the shape of mass around them for miles, who can see vehicles, fortifications, underground bunkers and tunnels, as easily as if they were on a map in front of them. Battle psykers who can reach out and destroy the minds of their enemies with less effort than it takes to fire a rifle. The Librarians of the Adeptus Astartes, who can create storms of hellfire and black energies that can cripple an enemy in seconds. That these powers are stable, safe and worthy of being used in His service is no random chance. Every man of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica undergoes the Blessing, which they call the soul binding. They are taken to Terra and brought to the palace of the Emperor Himself, where His soul touches theirs, bestowing a little of His strength upon them, that they might draw on the energies of the warp without falling victim to the malevolence of Chaos. The touch of the Emperor's soul is the source of all their power. Now, knowing that, can you conceive of the power that you, a Sensei whose soul is one with His, can wield?"
I honestly could not, and said so. I could still scarcely believe what I had already done, in those few moments when I had brought forth my powers on instinct alone. But compared to that, this man was talking about forces the like of which I had never seen, which were the stuff of myth to most Imperial citizens.
"Good," Vestitus answered, surprising me, "humility is an important trait in a Sensei. But soon you will learn to control those powers you have already used traces of, and draw on others beyond anything you have imagined. The training will not be easy for you, particularly because you have come to us as an adult. Most Sensei experience the awakening of their powers during childhood, and are then brought to us as quickly as we can devise. But you will adapt and learn. If you ever feel that too much is asked of you, remember what I have said, and imagine the service you can render to the Emperor if you achieve the heights of power I have described."
That was it, of course: the service of the Emperor, that which had been denied me since my flight from the Sisterhood. Throughout my training - which was every bit as difficult as Vestitus had suggested - I clung to that thought, and by it found a reserve of strength that pushed me through the difficult tasks that my tutors demanded I complete.
At first my training was physical, endurance and combat just as it had been with the Sisterhood. After a night spent in overwhelmed sleep in the Spartan quarters Vestitus led me to, during which I dreamed of home and the Sisterhood - comforting dreams - I was taken to another monumental building, containing huge statues and devotional columns to the Emperor in His aspect of the Machine God, and beneath them every kind of mechanical device imaginable. The scale of Haven never ceased to amaze me, and I quickly learned that the huge gallery I had seen the day before was by no means unusual - indeed, compared to some sections of Haven, it was positively plain. Aside from the sheer magnitude of Haven, one other thing struck me as unusual - there were no windows or doors leading out of it, no portals to the outside world. Even the gigantic stained-glass windows were simply artificial light panels, covered with glass. I might have guessed that Haven was a space station, though that didn't explain why it was impossible to see outside - most space stations have expansive viewports in their public places - but I could feel the natural aura of a planet's gravity beneath me, telling me that Haven had no gravitic plates, nor did it simulate gravity by spin, as some less sophisticated stations do. So Haven was on a real, solid world - I wondered if we were underground, if there were perhaps people on the surface, and if so, whether they had any notion of what was beneath them.
Vestitus led me through the crowded chamber, which I took for an engineer's workshop, until he found an old man, his shoulders hunched by age, and with only a few traces of white hair remaining, frowning at an assortment of strangely-bent metal obelisks arranged before him on a table. Hearing our approach he straightened up and glanced at Vestitus before directing his rather formidable gaze on me.
"Ah, this is the new girl, is it?" he said. Vestitus nodded.
"This is the Rose," he answered.
"Good, good," said the old engineer. I noticed the faded remnant of a Mars Seal on his robes, decorated with the cog-patterns of the highest order of the Adeptus Mechanicus. He beckoned us to follow him as he left the obelisks alone and led the way to a series of sealed equipment caskets.
"He is Omega," explained Vestitus, "our most respected agent of the Mechanicus. Omega personally sees to the equipment of all Sensei, in addition to his duties to the Illuminati. Listen carefully to him. The centuries have made him somewhat eccentric, but his mind is untouched by age, and he speaks no words that are not worth hearing."
"That's quite enough about my age, thank you," retorted Omega as he turned back to us. "Now, Rose, do pay attention. I'm sure I don't need to remind you of the litanies of wargear and the bond of trust between a warrior such as yourself and her armour and weapon? The Imperial Guard may consider half a week's target training to be sufficient introduction to the rifles they trust their lives to, but I understand you were trained by the Sisterhood, who at least have some notion of proper respect for their machinery, even if not for the followers of the Machine God themselves. Now, tell me what you see here," he finished, keying the release codes on the caskets, causing them to open with a hiss of equalising pressure. I studied the contents, which I recognised immediately.
"They are-" I hesitated, for Omega was looking expectantly at me, and I sensed his question had more purpose that simple identification of common equipment. "They have the appearance," I started again, "of my suit of mark seven beta tactical power armour, and a Mars-gamma pattern boltgun."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Omega proudly. "Never take anything for granted. And yes, this is the Angel armour you used to wear, but it has undergone some improvements since you saw it last. If you'd take a step back?" Vestitus and I did so, and Omega touched a control on the transceiver assembly mounted on his right wrist. To my amazement, my empty armour straightened up, stepped out of the storage casket, and stood before me, perfectly motionless.
"Remote actuation," Omega said, "any suit of power armour has all the necessary components to be made autonomous in terms of physical capability. Now, even I can't manufacture a synthetic cogitation unit small enough to fit into a human-sized suit and still leave room for the wearer, but the suit will respond to commands you give it, even if you are elsewhere. Or in the event that you are seriously injured and unable to move, the suit will be able to carry you to safety. If you become good enough at controlling it, it may even be able to fight for you. Though I'd appreciate it if you'd take it to a shielded weapons chamber before you make the attempt. Now, auxiliary systems."
He touched another control on his wrist, and a dozen seamless panels on the armour flowered open, revealing a staggering array of weapons and equipment. All of a sudden it had the appearance of a dreadnought, and I turned questioningly to Vestitus.
"What sort of battles is it you will have me fight, with all this?" I asked.
"Your missions will be mainly diplomatic in nature," he assured me, "but we cannot afford to lose a Sensei. So we make sure you are prepared for every eventuality."
"If you're finished?" interjected Omega. "Now, starting with weapons. Gauntlets: digital lasers on each hand, range fifty metres, with a blast burn of standard by three, these can be augmented out to two hundred metres and standard by ten, but that draws on the suit's power directly, and you may suffer some loss of accuracy. Hook launchers in both forearms, capable of boring a stable hold into any material up to and including ceramite. Eighty metres of cord in each, which will support approximately twice your weight, including the weight of your armour. Mounted by the palm of each gauntlet, C'Tan monomolecular phase blades, which will render any physical armour useless against you in hand to hand fighting. Shoulder plates: target-linked twin barrelled Exitus cannon in the left, tracks targets by your command through the sensors in the helmet, and fires on a telepathic impulse; micro-missile system in the right, loaded with five short-ranged krak missiles, and two each of fragmentation and plasma blast warheads. The targeting system is mounted on the back of your right gauntlet, and can be activated by voice or thought command. On either side of the body, below your chestplate, a miniaturised suppression bolter system, six cannons with twenty rounds each, pre-programmed with the fire routines from a Hurricane bolter assembly from a Crusade assault tank. On your shins, a pair of automated grenade systems loaded with anti-infantry frag rounds - their fire patterns are pre-set, so don't fire them near friendly troops - and a set of smoke bombs with infra-red scramblers." I shivered despite myself - the suit had enough weaponry in it to kill a brigade.
"Defensives," Omega continued, "obviously the skin of the armour is thinner than you're used to, to accommodate the extra equipment. It's made from neutron-bonded magna-steel. The joints are flexible crystal interlocks, coated with long-chain molecular ablative armour. Somewhere in the region of three times the protective capacity of your old suit, though I wouldn't go standing in front of a lascannon to test that if I were you. All the armour's surfaces are coated with a layer of chameleonic electrographs, so you can alter its colour and markings in whatever manner you require - camouflage, or taking on the colours of another Order should you need to for some reason. In each upper arm, a power field projector capable of redirecting three hundred kilojoules of kinetic energy per field cycle, which will supplement the power output of the suit's reactor. That's in the backpack, by the way, I've replaced the standard model with a warp-core neo-plasma reactor that won't show up on energy scanners. Your power fields will protect you from upwards of five hundred joules per cycle, but anything above three hundred risks blowing out the reactor linkages, so it'll be redirected out as light and x-rays, which may give away your position, so I don't recommend making much use of that feature unless you can avoid it. There's an overlap between the two field projectors in the centre of the suit, so you may be able to absorb more incoming fire there, and be more wary of flanking enemies taking a shot at you. Now, here, beneath the reactor in your backpack, a high-yield jump jet system, functional in one point eight Terran gravities, any more than that and you'll have to adjust your thrust levels manually. The stabiliser jets are in the thigh plates, so be careful of damage there, they may render the jump jets unstable. Passive and active countermeasures are- oh never mind, I'll see that you're properly briefed on the secondary systems as you train with them.
"Lastly, your boltgun. Have you trained with this pattern? No? Oh, the Mars-alpha. No matter, they're very similar insofar as basic operation goes. Now, this is a fully functional bolt rifle, and will appear so to any inspection that doesn't open the casing. Inside, augmented bolts, range three thousand metres with onboard telemetry linked to your suit's target sensors - aim, select your target, and the bolt will home in on it. There's auxiliary programming for automatic detection of fail points in armoured targets, but if you take my advice you'll aim for the weak spots anyway. As the Machine God teaches us, technology is a tool, not a master - it doesn't do to become too reliant on it to do our work for us. Now, other firing modes. The sight is actually a thin-beam lasgun, drawing power from microwave induction so it should be able to recharge indefinitely, so long as you don't commit to fully-automatic fire. Grenade launchers on either side, loaded with krak, frag, plasma and blind. Other grenade patterns will be available to you should a mission profile require them. The magazine housing here will auto-adjust to any standard pattern ammunition manufactured by the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the bolt barrel can iris down to match the calibre. And finally, should you need it, and I do not recommend this, the weapon can self-destruct with roughly the force of a five kilogram magna-melta warhead, which I'm sure I don't need to remind you is significant. The timer is variable, and I do suggest you leave yourself plenty of time to get on the other side of a solid object, preferably a small mountain. Yes, I think that's everything. The armour will be delivered to the matched storage unit being installed in your quarters, so you can have some privacy to get into it. Training begins immediately?" he finished, to Vestitus.
"Of course," the Custos answered.
I don't suppose I need to describe the physical and combat training in any great detail. It was insanely difficult, compared to my training as a Sister, but I began to believe what Nomad had told me about being a Sensei when I found I had the stamina and precision to complete the simulations I was sent into. With frequent visits to a sophisticated medical ward my arm healed quickly, the bones completely regenerated, and I was able to move as freely as I had been able to before.
Most of the simulations were in a device called the Mondas Generator, which resembled a suit of armour turned inside-out, with servos and powered muscle-fibre bundles attached to its exterior, supporting the suit inside. Once enclosed in the Generator the auto-senses in my helmet fed me the illusion of a real environment, of whatever kind the Generator was programmed with, while the suit's systems captured my motions and simulated their effect in the fabricated world. It was a fine approximation of battle, but I could never have mistaken it for reality.
Far better, in terms of preparing me for real warfare as a Sensei, were my sessions within the Simulacrum Lumos, called simply 'the dome' on most occasions. This was a huge, low domed chamber whose inner walls were lined with thousands upon thousand of hologrammatic generators and force field projectors. With them all working together, controlled by one of the most sophisticated inorganic cogitation mechanisms I have ever seen, the chamber could become any world, and contain any enemy. Inside the dome simulations were conducted with live ammunition, and though the effect of enemy weapons was restricted by a cut-off at the point of lethality, it was entirely possible to be badly injured. I came close to losing a limb once, had I not rolled out of the way of a simulated Ork warlord, and never underestimated the simulation again. Under these conditions I became expert in all of the vast array of weapons Omega had shown me, and resumed my training in the use of lasguns, plasma rifles, meltaguns, anti-tank lascannon and a hundred other pieces of military hardware. By virtue of its realism the dome was also the location chosen for my training in stealth techniques, where I learned to use my suit's sensor countermeasures to become invisible to mechanical devices, and honed my own ability to move silently to the point where, if I wished, I could cross broken terrain at a run without a sound.
My training in psionics - the art of channelling warp energies to create physical effects by willpower alone - took far longer. My first tutor, a short, slim woman named Bessan, told me this was natural, since, although I had used several kinds of psionic power by instinct, I had never had any formal training in using my mind as a weapon, whereas my combat training was merely an acceleration of the skills I had begun to learn at the Schola years ago.
"Few people have the talent," she said during our first session, "fewer than one in a million. But over the entire Imperium, the numbers do add up. The Adeptus Astra Telepathica has somewhere in the region of four billion registered operatives - Librarians, Primaris battle psykers and high-level astropaths, you understand, not minor functionaries whose talents extend no further that pushing a telepathic transmission a dozen light years or so. But it is my view - and I should say, this is not a view shared by the Astra Telepathica, those outside the sphere of the Illuminati, at least - that even among those numbers, fewer still truly make best use of their talents. The psychic disciplines are an art, not a science. The Astra's Primaris psykers may be able to cause great explosions under enemy tanks, or destroy the minds of enemy leaders, but few of them could, for example, cause a flower to bloom, or a single drop of moisture to condense out of the air. And yet these feats are tiny, compared to the destruction a single Primaris can wreak on the Emperor's foes. Yes, they are tiny, but they require absolute mastery of the mind and the soul. Metaphors are often inexact, but in this case it might suffice to say that any fool can break a rock with a hammer and chisel - only a craftsman can create a statue from that same rock, and those same tools. You see? The secret is not to channel as much energy as possible, but rather to channel exactly the right amount of energy, to exactly the right place."
Since I had already acquired some ability to sense the minds of other beings, at least in a vague way, Bessan moved straight on to teaching me to 'see' psychic energies, in essence training my mind to overlay new sensations onto my sight at will. Under her patient guidance I began to be able to see flows of energy, first electrical, then plasmic, and finally psychic. If I wished it, an operational power conduit would become a river of crackling bright blue power, washing at phenomenal speeds that I could nonetheless see and measure. Once I managed this, Bessan slowly brought me to the point where I could see other forms of energy, which to me had different colours and sounds. At last, when I looked at her, I could see the ghostly image of herself that anticipated by half a second every conscious movement she made - her soul, imagining her movements faster than it sent the commands to move her muscles - and the tendrils of energy that extended from this aura when she used her powers.
For she was an unusually powerful psyker, a member of one of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica's most select councils, as well as being Illuminati. It was when I first began to be able to see her psychic presence that she demonstrated, emphatically, what she had told me about the true art of psionics. She bade me watch her closely, with all my psionic senses open, which I did. She took a few steps away from me and turned around, standing in the middle of the room we trained in, facing me. Her psychic aura began to ripple with power, enough had it been unleashed to tear apart the room in an instant, but she controlled the energy, directed it downwards, bending her aura against the gravity which I saw as a faded, natural green. Slowly, powering herself by thought alone, she rose into the air and floated still. I could see clearly the energies flowing from her inner being into the boundary of her aura, keeping her aloft, which faded slowly as she let herself lower back to the floor.
"You see?" she asked. I nodded. "Now watch again," she said.
I did, and again she rose into the air, just as she had done before. But this time the energies flowing through her were different - instead of the enormous flow bending gravity, she spread a web of tiny filaments, which stretched beyond the boundaries of the room, too thin to see properly but present by the pure, high note that sang along the strings. The web spread around her, and at its centre she rose as if they were lifting her by their power, not hers. Again she remained in the air for a moment, then the web lowered her until her feet touched the floor.
"Now you see," she said. "The same task, yet two different approached yielding the same solution. In the first instance I took the linear approach - gravity is what holds me to the surface, so I channelled my energies against gravity and fought it to a standstill, such that only a tiny extra force was needed to rise. The total expenditure of energy was considerable."
"And the second?" I asked. "I saw a web, and it had a note in it, a pure tone." One of the first things Bessan had told me was never to adopt standard descriptions of psychic phenomena, and simply to describe them as I experienced them - psionics, she told me, is as individual as each psyker.
"You heard the note?" she asked. I nodded. "Well, that is encouraging. Many would not have done so, I was using a very intricate and refined power. Your senses serve you well. Most tutors of the Astra Telepathica would have their students practice on far more fundamental observations before asking them to try to perceive such a power in anything other than a rudimentary fashion. Myself, I think that they are teaching their students to believe it is difficult, and so they expect to fail. Interesting.
"In the second instance, I took a more lateral approach to the task. The gravity of this world is the primary force acting on me, but it is not the only one. Every mass in the galaxy exerts a force on every other mass. The web you saw was a means of linking my mass to that of roughly a thousand stars - I did not need to know their positions, I merely spread the web and let their masses draw it in. And once I was linked to them, and moved the strands of my web - well, what would anyone expect to happen? When the strands of the web turn, with me on one end and a stellar body on the other, certainly the mass of a small woman is not going to prevail over that of a thousand stars? So the stars remained in place, and I moved. Now, a Magos Physic of the Adeptus Mechanicus would insist that what I have done is impossible, that it is in violation of the laws of the natural world. He would be right - psionics is defying nature, pure and simple. We create physical effects using energy drawn from elsewhere than the physical world. In a word, when faced with the laws of nature, we cheat.
"The trick is to cheat with the least possible energy. In the first instance I expended slightly more energy than that holding me to the ground. In the second, I created a web with no mass, barely more than an idea given form, and manipulated it. The total use of energy was less than that required to boil a cup of water. You see? An Astra Telepathica psyker, if he ever masters the channelling of such amounts of power as I used at first, might be able to cause his body to levitate. But channelling that same amount of power," Bessan got an amused twinkle in her eye, "I could fly rings around him."
"You will not often be required to use such powers," said Vestitus later, "and in any case in battles that merit the personal attention of a Sensei you will as often as not be confronted with enemy psykers, who will do their best to undermine your power, and will require you to expend most of your energy interfering with theirs, and keeping them out of your mind. But, as with your armour and weapons, it is best to be prepared for all eventualities."
Over the course of seven months, uncounted hours in the Mondas Generator and Simulacrum Lumos, eighteen different specialised tutors in psionic arts, and Vestitus's patient explanations, I became able to wield the powers of a Sensei. At the end of that seven months, Vestitus told me that I was ready to begin my service to the Emperor.
"Two things remain, though," he added, "that you must see in order to truly understand the nature of the conflict we are engaged in against Chaos. Follow me. Say nothing, touch nothing, walk only where I walk, and do not attempt to perceive any stimulus beyond normal human sight and hearing. If you experience any extra sensation I do not warn you of, inform me at once and resist the sensation with all the power you can draw on."
Having warned me so, he led the way down a series of corridors that took us further and further from the open spaces of Haven. Slowly the architecture changed from monumental to functional, until we were walking through bare steel tunnels, with not a fragment of detail or adornment to be seen on anything. At last we came to a door set into the end of a long, winding passageway. Vestitus keyed in a long code to the door's lock, then stood with his eyes closed for a moment - I guessed he was transmitting a telepathic code, but I did as he told me and made no attempt to see it. The door slid open and we entered. The door closed behind us, and we were enveloped in absolute darkness.
"You will become weightless. Do not move," warned Vestitus. On the heels of his warning I felt the press of my feet against the ground vanish. Vestitus took my hand, there was a brief hiss of escaping air from a jet, and we moved forwards slowly, gently. After a moment there was another hiss and we stopped, floating motionless. The darkness became shadows, which slowly receded to reveal the two of us floating in the middle of a huge spherical chamber. At the door we had entered from was a tiny ledge, which we had stood on, nothing more. But my attention was drawn to four objects which floated some distance in front of us - rippling, swirling columns of black power, each like a living oil slick.
"Warp stasis fields," said Vestitus, "they keep their contents completely isolated on every physical and spiritual plane known to Imperial science. I imagine, had I not told you to remain silent, you would be asking me what those columns contain." He was right, of course. "They contain physical and psychic representations of the Gods of Chaos. Until now you have heard of Chaos as a force, or an essence of malevolence. This is true. But the vast evil of Chaos, swelling over millions of years, has given rise to sentience, life of an unholy sort. Just as the Emperor is humanity's god, so these creatures are the gods of Chaos. They exist in the warp, where the tremendous force of their existence creates pockets of reality within which they have physical form. These representations are here because you must know them, if you are to fight them. Were you to be unprepared, the reality of Chaos could be sufficient to tear your mind to pieces.
"Now, I am about to lower the first field. You will see a representation, in stone, of an unholy god. This representation is imbued with a tiny fraction - tiny - of the spiritual essence of this god. Your mind and soul will perceive this essence, as if you had sought it out. Do not react in any way. Your psychic senses are as dormant as you have been told to make them, it is simply the sheer power of these creatures causing you to experience them."
Vestitus held a hand in front of himself and made a quick, subtle gesture. The left-most of the columns flickered and vanished, to reveal a stone monster within. Its form was vaguely humanoid, but its features were wild and bestial. It wore ornate armour, such as might have been worn by a warrior on a medieval world, plates of metal secured by leather buckles, but everywhere on it were representations of fire and skulls. Its hands and feet were bare, and resembled the claws of a great predatory beast. Its eyes were small and close-set above a flared nose and a mouth full of a carnivore's fangs.
In the instant it appeared I felt such a rush of hatred and violence as I cannot describe. The creature was the purest essence of human darkness, the instinct to kill simply for the power of ending a life, of cutting loose all the possible futures of a soul with the edge of an axe.
"Khorne," said Vestitus. "The embodiment of hatred and the will to dominate. Called by those who are psychologically damaged enough to follow it the God of War, or the Blood God. Those misguided faithful of Khorne consider the only purpose of life to be the slaying of other living things and the offering of their skulls to their god."
The column returned, and the hatred vanished along with the statue. Vestitus gestured at the second, which revealed its contents.
"Nurgle," he said, "called the Lord of Decay by some. The followers of Nurgle worship the corruption of life by disease and plague. They inflict such things on themselves willingly, and practice their worship by spreading their filth to the innocent. Nurgle considers life untouched by disease and death to be an aberration, and his faithful rejoice in their sicknesses in the belief that the closer they come to death, the more they are a part of the living world."
The thing before me was disgusting - there was no other word for it. Its features were indistinct beneath a layer of carved slime, mucous and its own filth, all save for a great gaping mouth full of jagged, rotten teeth. Above that I could just make out a pair of beady eyes squinting from below brows heavy with sores and blisters. Below its head was a great swollen stomach, covered in bleeding tears, where even its innards spilled out of it. A pair of misshapen horns crowned it, twisted like the branches of an old, sick tree. I had to fight back the urge to vomit at the wave of decay that swept over me. Thankfully, it too was revealed only for a moment, then concealed again.
The third was hunched over as if in deep thought. Its face, on a head so sunken between its shoulders that it looked to be part of its chest, was like that of a vulture, calm, passionless and utterly pitiless. All over its skin were tiny faces formed from folds in its sagging flesh, each one similar to the creature's true face, yet given a myriad of expressions from joy to sorrow, hunger to contentment, surprise to anger and fear. Above it rose two tentacles, tipped with two quite distinct faces, each one patient and mournful. At first it felt benign, but the longer I looked at it the more layers seemed to reveal themselves, until I had to fight the sensation that I was nothing but a speck of dirt or an insect to this vast being.
"Tzeentch, the Lord of Change," Vestitus informed me. "Also called the Deceiver, the Changer of Fates, and many other names. Followed by those whose desire is to elude their place in life, and instead change the world around them for their gain. Its followers are conspirators and impure sorcerers."
The last representation was quite unlike the others, being neither misshapen nor bestial. It was tall and graceful, the lines of its body elegant and feminine. It wore layers of silks, thin and clinging to its skin to reveal its form. The right side of its chest was uncovered, displaying a firm, heavy breast. Its face was at first glance pure and chaste, but then as I looked harder it seemed the lips were too full, and the eyes too wide. It should have been beautiful nonetheless, but there was something not quite right with it, not quite balanced. Then I saw it - the right side was entirely feminine, but its left arm and leg were slightly heavier, more muscled, and the left side of its body was more solid, dominated more by a strong shoulder. Even its luxurious mane of hair was thinner on the right than the left, where it had the coarse appearance of a barbarian's flowing hair, rather than that of a maiden.
The impression I felt from it was complex, and like its physical form quite unlike the others. There was lust, a yearning for base physical pleasure, but also delicate passion, playful love and deep friendship. It seemed to call on everything that could possibly be joyful in life, yet here too there was something wrong, a feeling of unbalance.
"Slaanesh," said Vestitus, "the youngest of the Chaos gods, sometimes called the Prince of Chaos. Its sole tenet is that its followers exercise their own will to experience pleasure, no matter the cost to themselves or others. It is a worship which is sadly quite insidious, even among faithful Imperial worlds. It can manifest as the basest physical sensations, to creatures for whom rape and murder is joy, yet it can also be present in the minds of the most rarefied, ascetic beings imaginable, in the selfish pursuit of their own goals. This one is the cause of almost as much trouble for us and the Imperium as the other three combined. It was originally a manifestation of the Eldar race, not humanity, but it has become adept at harnessing our weakness since its rise to sentience."
The statue disappeared, and the lights dimmed and went out. Vestitus again took my hand and jetted us back to the doorway, and we left the chamber at last.
"Now that you have seen the face of Chaos," said Vestitus as we walked back towards the core of Haven, "what are your feelings?"
"Fear," I answered.
"Good," he said, "it would be foolish not to fear such abominations. A warrior without fear is crippled by his lack of perception of the dangers facing him. Courage lies in experiencing what fear comes naturally to you, learning what it can teach you, and then fighting in spite of it. You have seen Chaos, and become fearful of its nature and power. By this experience you have learned what it is you face, that you may recognise it no matter what pleasant visage it may try to hide behind. Now I shall show you the power by which you can fight Chaos."
We came at last to a cathedral built inside another of Haven's massive galleries. The building was majestic but sparsely decorated, its lines fashioned in plain stone and unbroken by ornamentation. The central pair of doors swung open as we approached and we went inside. The simple, elegant architecture of the exterior was repeated - huge columns supporting a buttressed roof, layers of black and grey stone forming a pattern of lines that drew the eye to the cathedral's centre. There I saw a golden canopy, and beneath it the sole decoration of the place, a single statue. Vestitus bowed low, and I did likewise though I could not yet make out the details of the object of worship.
As we then approached it became clear to me. The figure was clad in tactical dreadnought armour, massive and ungainly, but the panels of the armour were carved in fine detail, and the unblemished perfection of the suit's mechanisms gave it a sort of beauty. The man was standing in a relaxed pose, wasting no energy, yet alert, and with a sense of coiled power, as if he could release a whirlwind of destruction should any threat arise. In his right hand was a sword - a real sword, not part of the statue - and such a sword as I had never seen before, for though it was of simple design, a mere metal blade and handle with no power field generator or disruptor edging, I could actually sense an aura of power radiating from it. The man's face was broad and noble, with high, proud cheekbones and an unflinching stare rendered in stone. On its own merits it was an unremarkable face - trustworthy, certainly, and one that might be considered handsome by some - but it was a face I knew from my childhood, from practically every day I had lived, though I had never seen it rendered in such detail before. I fell at once to my knees and recited a prayer of thanks, before the image of the Emperor.
"Most Sensei," observed Vestitus at my side, "upon seeing Him here, recite passages of devotion."
"I have done so many times," I answered, keeping my eyes averted, "but never before have I had the chance to bestow my gratitude on an icon of such significance. Above all those save my parents, I owe Him my thanks."
"You would honour your family higher than Him?" I thought for a moment before I answered.
"Yes," I said at last, "when giving thanks for my life, I would. They are mere humans like I, yet they gave life to me and raised me that I might have the opportunity to serve Him."
"From what I know of Him," Vestitus said, and for once he seemed less than formal, "He would have approved of your point of view. He is said to have appreciated those who retain a sense of perspective, even in His presence. Rise now."
I did so, and he led me to the very edge of the canopy platform, so that we were directly in front of the sword. I could see now that it was indeed no part of the statue, but a real weapon resting in the stone hand which fit around it perfectly. Vestitus explained
"The Emperor used many weapons during the millennia in which He fought for us. This is the sword He held when He met the Warmaster Horus in combat and defeated all the powers of Chaos combined, at the cost of His own mortal life. You will note it is not a technological weapon? Merely a blade, such as are used on primitive worlds. Merely by being the blade of the Emperor, it had the power to cut through any armour and cast the life out of His enemies by touch alone. The exact details of the Emperor's battle with his son Horus are unknown to us, but it is clear that at some point during that battle - most likely when the Emperor lay all but defeated before Chaos, and had but one chance to strike, to save the world of men - He cast all His power at the Warmaster, through this sword. It was likely not in His hand when He did this, but even without being wielded a sword has power, and has done since the dawn of human time. This sword more so. Though it never pierced the Warmaster's flesh, the Emperor used the power of this blade as a conduit through which He reached into the heart of his son and cast out the powers of Chaos, and in so doing killed him. In the span of galactic time, no man before or since has ever witnessed such a single concentration of spiritual force.
"In that moment, this creation of folded metal became a nexus of incredible power. For any human to touch this blade, even now - even a Sensei - would result in his immediate death, the utter annihilation of his soul. Only the Emperor could wield this blade. Rogal Dorn, the loyal Primarch who recovered the Emperor's body from the Warmaster's battlebarge and returned it to Terra, carried this blade as he did so, at the cost of tremendous pain. Dorn was the biological child of the Emperor, bestowed with power close to His own, yet it was all he could do to lift the weight of this weapon without succumbing to its power. There are those who say that Dorn never recovered fully from touching this blade.
"This is the power of the Emperor. It is real, not a conceptualisation of the armies of the Imperium, not a device of a folk-tale or ancient legend. It is here, at this very moment, before you. The power by which the Emperor defeated those monstrosities which you saw a moment ago. This is why all Sensei are shown the representations of Chaos, and then the sword of the Emperor. The power in this blade, the power to defeat Chaos, is a part of you."
Vestitus told me later than I had learned all that Haven could teach me. "Nevertheless, a Sensei must never stop learning, for knowledge is the source of your power. The Illuminati does what it can to guide the Sensei, through the information provided by our agents, but the Sensei themselves must always travel throughout the Imperium, always observing and learning. It is traditional at this time that a newly-trained Sensei such as yourself be placed in the care of an experienced Sensei, a mentor whose long service has yielded to him much of the wisdom needed to survive and accomplish the Emperor's work, wisdom which he shall pass on to you. The Triumvirate has selected Paladin to teach you the ways of the Sensei. He has served the Emperor for twelve centuries now, service of the highest order, and his courage and faith will be an inspiration to you, and shall guide you to your own service. I will remain with you, but I will no longer be your teacher and guide. My function will be solely to provide you with the knowledge of the Illuminati, so that you may best serve the Emperor.
I asked if Paladin was here, and Vestitus shook his head. "It is rare that Sensei return to Haven, for the need of them in the Imperium is too great. A ship has been prepared for you, and awaits us in an open bay."
He told me is was tradition that, when a ship is built for a Sensei, it is launched from one of Haven's 'open bays', great docking bays like the pits of Nova Venezia, completely sealed from the outside world by huge force-field enhanced shutters that would open to allow the ship to pass. And so I first saw the ship that would carry me from Haven, on my duties as Sensei, and through the terrible times ahead: the Stella Maris, High Gothic for 'Star of the Sea', a name chosen by the Triumvirate. She was a beautiful ship, sleek and civilised, almost an embodiment of the philosophy of artistry merged with functionality. At her centre, the body of the ship, were five decks contained within a shining magna-steel hull, which appeared unbroken with the porthole shutters closed. From the centre stretched three pillars, one above, one on each side angled slightly downward, each one ending in a slim engine pod, likewise finished in silver magna-steel, and each one tipped with slim weapons ports. Running along the outside edges of these pods I could just make out the hint of the multi-ridged shield generators within.
"Each Sensei's ship is crafted specifically for him," said Vestitus as we boarded by way of a tapering gantry, "from blueprints devised by our leading tech-priests in concert with the Triumvirate themselves. The ship's crew is already on board completing pre-flight checks. They have been training for months to operate this craft, and have never even touched the controls of another. In time you will learn to fly the Stella Maris alone, should you ever need to, and perhaps you will even learn some of the skills of a Navigator, but her crew will remain at your service for as long as they live."
Even so, it surprised me when I met some of my crew, and found that the only names they had, and indeed had ever been given, were those of their stations. Navigator, tactical, helm, operations, astropaths - this was how they were made known to me, and how they referred to each other. I felt almost guilty having men of such a high degree of devotion to their tasks put at my service, but in light of everything I had learned about myself at Haven, I accepted the necessity. Only the Navigator, a shy woman who spent most of her time secluded in her module within the ship's upper engine module, was not referred to by her station - like the ship, she was called Stella Maris. I never did learn if she was named for the ship, or if the Triumvirate named the ship for her Navigator - to her mind there was no difference between herself and the ship. Of course, with any ship carrying a Navigator this is largely the case, but it is rarely acknowledged so readily.
We left Haven at a steady pace, blind save for the Navigator's sensors, and the porthole shutters and bridge systems opened automatically once we had jumped to the warp. The crew knew their tasks better than perfectly, and seeing as I - with my limited knowledge of handling a ship - would only have been in their way, I returned to my quarters to rest.
It was only two days until we reached the rendezvous position where Paladin's ship, the Imperial Glory, was waiting for us - Stella Maris was unnaturally fast through the warp, cutting through tide-heads and cross-currents like the darting silver fish she resembled. In comparison, Imperial Glory was a classic Terran cruiser, almost five times the size of my sleek transport, headed by a golden keel bearing the Imperial eagle crest, the bridge standing out two-thirds along her length, a great tower commanding the space around it, topped by a steel statue of the Emperor in His form of the Angel of Terra, robed, winged and haloed, fearsome in His defiance of evil.
Paladin himself had some of the same features - he was an impressive figure, clad in the simple work uniform of an unarmoured Space Marine, yet there was about him such an aura of presence and strength that I doubt he could have been more striking had he worn full tactical dreadnought armour. I learned later that he had been found by the Illuminati before his acceptance into the Imperial Paladins chapter - which, given his abilities would have been a foregone conclusion - but his physical size and strength let him pass for a Marine nonetheless, and he had been grateful to the Triumvirate for giving him the name of his chapter, which he considered an honour. For all his dominating presence, he was not an uncomfortable man to be around, for he had a certain gift of putting people at their ease at once, so that those around him quickly forgot his Herculean proportions, and came to see him as their fellow man, no matter what their own station in life might be. He was a fine leader, capable of commanding respect almost instantly from troops he had never before laid eyes on.
He made me welcome at once, and spent some time questioning me about my experiences with the Illuminati, and before that, though I suspect he already knew much of what I told him. As our two ships were to remain in company anyway, he invited me to stay on the Imperial Glory until we reached our mutual destination, which I agreed to, and we spent much of the time comparing techniques in psychic and physical combat - he was far stronger than I was, but I had the advantage of speed, though he was devilishly fast for his size, so we matched fairly evenly during our bouts. I could tell he was holding back, though, not only because it seemed arrogant for me to assume I could match a Sensei of a thousand years' experience, but because I could sense in him vast reserve of power that went untapped. Later, when I had the chance to see him in battle, I found that I had been quite right - against true foes, he fought with a strength and fury bordering on the apocalyptic.
Our destination was a world called Scion, where Paladin had arranged for us to meet representatives of an Eldar craftworld, one of the great city-ships on which the ancient alien race still survives. Vestitus had tole me much about the Eldar, who are one of the few alien races with whom the Imperium deals openly. "Even so," he warned me, "hostility is never far from the surface. They are a capricious race, and their resemblance to us is only skin deep. Their minds are utterly alien, and we deal with them not because of any belief in fellowship, but because we both recognise Chaos as a common foe. While they are disposed to be friendly towards humans, the Eldar make agents of the Illuminati welcome. Their leaders, whom they call Farseers, are great wielders of psychic energy, and can foresee much of what the future may bring them. In some of the greatest of these Farseers, the Illuminati have confided some of our secrets and goals, such that they trust our resolve against Chaos, and use their influence to have our people made welcome among their kind. For so long as we treat them with the courtesy they expect, and regard them with the suspicion proper for an alien race, they can be valuable allies.
"They pretend unity," Paladin added when I told him what Vestitus had said to me, "but they fight amongst themselves almost as much as humanity does. Their Farseers wield incredible power, and their people trust that power without understanding it. Personally, I think many of their seers are unstable - what other result could there be of spending so much time devoted to the channelling of psychic power, without the gift of the Emperor's blessing to protect them from the depredations of the warp? But those who follow the seers and Farseers will never admit to any flaw in their prophecies, and will carry out their wishes to their graves. At times, some craftworld have wrought unimaginable devastation upon Imperial worlds, thanks to some bizarre chain of events their seer councils have predicted to result from the battles they fight.
"They have no love for Chaos, though - even humanity cannot claim to be less inclined to follow corruption than the Eldar. Their race was nearly destroyed by Chaos, long ago, and those that survived on the craftworlds have not forgotten, and never forgiven those who betrayed them. They will fight Chaos until there are no Eldar left in the galaxy - and there are few species in the galaxy, humanity included, who can fight like an Eldar given a righteous purpose. I chose Scion as our meeting place for a reason - you will see."
The reason, it turned out, was a band of Orks on the march. Paladin had the Imperial Glory and Stella Maris stand off in orbit, and used his teleportarium to place us - he in Space Marine power armour, I in my Angel armour - on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a great plain where a battle already raged. Seeing this I looked to Paladin for orders, but he bade me wait, and watch the battle. "The Eldar have this conflict in hand, and will not thank us if we intervene. They are too proud for their own good, but their pride will not harm them today."
This was true, as I saw even then. There were a great number of Orks, fierce, brutal and too full of blood-lust to be afraid of their enemies, but they were doomed. Against them were ranged lines of orderly, disciplined Eldar troops, scuttling from cover to cover, avoiding the worst of the random blazes of firepower the Orks directed towards them. Periodically one or another of the Eldar would crawl to the edge of a ridge, or through the perimeter of a patch of tangled scrub, and sight the Orks, whereupon a weapon platform - hovering perhaps twenty metres away, and unmanned, would swivel to bear on them and open fire, carving great swathes through the mobs of Orks, who had neither the opportunity nor the wit to seek cover as they advanced. Each time one of the platforms fired the Orks would howl with anger and turn all the weapons they had to bear on it, but the shells of their assault guns merely ricocheted off the platforms' armoured skins, and the accuracy of the Orkish heavy weaponry, which might have damaged the Eldar machines, was truly appalling.
Paladin pointed to the centre of the Eldar lines, where I saw a tall, thin figure striding gracefully over the heads of the Eldar troops - its skin gleamed like polished bone, and from its shoulder grew a cannon that periodically disgorged streams of pure laser energy towards the Orks. For a moment I thought I was seeing a trick of perspective, but I quickly realised that I had made no mistake - the thing, which moved with all the elegance of a dancer, was seven metres tall at least, perhaps more.
"A dreadnought?" I asked Paladin.
"After a fashion," he answered. "Lacking the protection of the Emperor, the Eldar defend the souls of their dead by encasing them in blasphemous devices they call 'spirit stones'. It is by all accounts a hideous fate, but preferable to being consumed by Chaos. In times of need they place the spirit stones of their great warriors within mechanical bodies, so that they may fight for their craftworld even beyond death. The more common kind are the size of a man, and are called Wraithguard. That is a Wraithlord. Many legends, particularly among the more isolated species of the galaxy, hold that Wraithlord are invincible. I have seen them destroyed, on occasion - but never easily, or without great cost to their enemies. Wait, it's about to happen - watch this!"
He was watching the Orks, and as I turned to follow his line of sight I saw the entire Orkish army heave as if it had been stung, and a mighty bellow echoed up to where we stood. Every greenskin then, no matter if it was a foot soldier, a driver, a gunner or a mechanic, leapt forward into an all-out charge, roaring hatred. The sudden aggression was an almost physical force, and I realised that it was indeed a force, not just my imagination but a real force emanating from the Orkish horde, their individual lusts for carnage merging into a cloud of anger that was carrying them forward as if they were possessed. The Eldar opened fire with all their weapon platforms, but still the Orks charged, ignoring their wounds and fallen comrades.
"They call it 'the waaagh'. The word itself is thought to be a corruption of Low Gothic, from the word 'war'. Do you see the psychic energy among them? All Orks emit trace amounts of psychic power, though very few have any ability to control it, and those that do kill themselves as often as not. They are an undisciplined life form. But in battle, sometimes, their psychic traces unite into the single aggressive power you see in them now. If it happens to a large enough group of Orks, there are few armed forces that can stand up to them. Aside from the Eldar's congenital hatred of Chaos, the fact that they are one such force is the main reason the Imperium tolerates them."
I could readily believe that most forces - even the Imperial Guard - would have had to fight the urge to turn and run from the snarling beast of an army, but the Eldar held firm. The very moment that the Orkish charge brought them close enough - well within the defensive range of a bolter, almost close enough for a melee to break out - the entire Eldar line exploded with fire, and a wave of glittering projectiles crashed into the greenskins. It was nearly not enough to stop them, for though the firepower was cutting them to shreds, literally slicing off limbs and heads, tearing bodies open, still they came on, and I thought the Eldar would be engaged in close combat - not a survivable prospect for a race as physically slight as they, against the brutish Orks. But at the point where an Imperial rifleman would have had to reload his bolter, or let his lasgun cool for another round of firing, the Eldar simply continued to pour firepower into their enemies. By the time the rearguard of the Ork army came into range they were clambering over the corpses of their vanguard, and they fell just as quickly.
"A fine example there," said Paladin, "never underestimate Eldar firepower. They are faithless, godless aliens, but they understand the principles of ballistics well enough. Those were shuriken catapults. They have a fire rate twice that of a multi-laser, can cut through a man as if he weren't even there, and typically can fire continuously for somewhere in the order of ten minutes before they need reloading. Some Imperial Inquisitors expend considerable time and effort acquiring the blessing of the Machine God to purify shuriken catapults, so that they can themselves use them. They'll have the greenskins slaughtered in a moment. Come, it's time to meet our hosts."