Celeste grinned while they walked out of the hall and waited until Vox had finished properly greeting the six members of her honour guard.
“How much you must have longed to get rid of them”, Celeste mused. Vox shot her a glance and lifted one eyebrow. Words were unnecessary between them. This simple gesture was question enough and the Chapter Mistress answered it immediately: “I didn’t have an exit as dramatic as this…”, she thought for a moment. “Yes, since you left”, she estimated then.
“Celeste”, Vox said and the smile died on the sister’s face for the severity of her tone. “I might still die today.”
Vox looked her in the eyes.
“I thank the Emperor that he brought us together again but I cannot return fully yet. There are things left to do and they might prove fatal. Can you forgive me? That I put my duty above my pleasure?”
The Chapter Mistress looked around in both annoyance and dismay. “What, again?”, she asked, her words dripping with irony.
Vox laughed desperately.
“I missed you so much!”, she burst out. “I pray that I live through this.”
“You’re not telling me what you are planning”, Celeste noted leadenly.
“I need you unbiased”, Vox informed her with an apologetic smirk.
“Alright”, Celeste said and took a deep breath to steady herself. She had been Vox’s guardian for centuries and knew the burden to judge the beloved friend. It was bitterly unwelcome after they had only just been reunited but Celeste was practical.
“What should happen to your guests?”, she inquired in even tones.
“Please, be kind to them”, Vox begged quietly. “They are good men.”
“They look almost like Astartes. Tall as we are and all wear power armour.”
“That’s because they are.”
“What?”, Celeste burst out.
“Believe me, sister”, Vox said severely. “We are as alien to them as they are to us. But they are lawful and loyal to the Emperor.”
“Guess what they said when they met us just now.”
“I’ll see what I can do for them”, Celeste promised. “In case.”
“Yes, in case”, Vox agreed with a nod.
They reached the library. The first thing Vox did was to forbid anyone to leave the room. While the honour guard took up station at the entrance to ensure this, she worked hastily. Collecting the documents she needed to complete the files she had brought took a while and was done in busy silence. When she had finished she turned back to Celeste.
“We need to hurry”, she said.
“Where are we going?”
“To the priests. Let’s hope we get there before anyone announces us.”
Celeste half nodded, half shrugged and Vox was grateful that the friend spared her further questions. It was like taking up the fight at her side again. She felt safe here.
Vox’s hearts bled that talking to the beloved sister was out of the question as of yet. When had she ever been as reluctant as now to hand herself over to the possibility of demise? Returned after so long and still unable to arrive. Yet. Vox gritted her teeth and hastened her steps. Duty first. They all but ran through the corridors.
The residence of the priesthood was a separate part of Jericho Keep and rather more ornate than the rest of it. In the area populated by the Astartes, the ornamentation could mostly be found on the power armours. Maybe the occasional banner or window showed scenes of religious significance. Here they were everywhere. Even some of the ornaments had ornamentation.
The Astartes entered the human cathedral of their fortress and Vox knew by the way the priests started to run in and out that the first, crucial step of her plan had been successful: None of them had gotten notion of her arrival beforehand and thus, they had not been able to prepare for it. Vox felt the heat of the hunt rising. She was taking a risk but the weapons she intended to use were sharp and, unlike her opponent’s, at hand.
The priests were treated with respect but the power they wielded over the Astartes was of a delicate and indirect nature, ultimately relying on the hypno-conditioning and their work as confessors.
Today the Mistress of Secrets had returned with the knowledge of how much they had abused this power.
Vox and Celeste had taken up station in front of the altar. Celeste in glorious red and gold to the left, Vox in her sombre black and silver to the right. Their six sisters had positioned themselves so that they technically framed the Chapter Mistress but it was obvious that they tried to include Vox in their circle already. They all waited mutely while the triumvirate gathered.
Tradition demanded that the three old men, who led their fellow priests, sat on raised chairs of office behind the altar, surrounded by lesser members of their flock. The chairs lifted them slightly higher than the Astartes, enabling them to look down benevolently on their visitors. Vox had never liked the setup in any case. Now her brilliant blue eyes narrowed dangerously.
“I greet you, venerable ones”, Celeste began.
“We greet you, oh, Mistress of the Wings of War”, the oldest priest said. His name was Helgard of Nor and his voice was crackly and weak. The greenish-brown eyes had long since lost their ability to see and Vox quickly identified him as the most confused of the three. He was bald and clean shaven, giving the impression of a wrinkly tortoise on its steady way to mummification.
“And you, Mistress of Secrets, we welcome back in Jericho Keep”, the priest to his right added. He was Lorrin of Blacksea, younger than the first one but with thin white hair and a slightly yellowing full beard.
Vox had occasionally wondered if the three of them rehearsed speaking in turns and was unsurprised when the third by the name of Bertram of High Guard added: “We had thought you dead and mourned your passing, Mistress. How joyful we are that you return alive and apparently unharmed.” The third man was far younger than the other two with grey hair and piercing, blue eyes. Like the high priest, he was cleanly shaven.
“What kind words you find for me my lords”, Vox said and smiled in an unfriendly way. “I almost wish I could do the same.”
Vox opened her senses to the warp. She had to be careful to keep her concentration up while listening to the superficial thoughts of a whole group but she had never missed an opportunity to get the upper hand in court before. This was the reason she had picked up on Zork’s guilty conscience and had been able to provide Ferone with an edge against him. Then, it had been a matter of not telling anyone, however. Now, it was a matter of standing orders. As Keeper of the Law she was required to employ every skill she had to ensure that justice would be done. She had told Ferone that there was no justice on the field of law and this was what she firmly believed. Justice was brought about by the judge after the battle had taken place. Standing in court today was one of the greatest leaps of faith Vox had ever taken. Today it was no matter of bending the law as far as it could go. It was a question of truth in its purest form. The highest advocate of the Wings of War had to lay out the facts carefully and hope like hell that Celeste, a wise leader and seasoned warrior, would bring judgement to the right people.
Vox straightened up when she spoke now. Carefully pressing her stack of papers to her chest plate, she gave her voice the spin and timbre that carried so well in the stone cathedrals of mankind.
“I, Vox Draconis, Keeper of the Law and Mistress of Secrets of the Wings of War, call down the Doubt on the triumvirate of the priesthood of the Wings of War and all who can be held complicit in their crimes. I accuse you of treachery against the chapter, concealment of information vital for the operation of the chapter and heresy against the Emperor. The post of the judge falls to Mistress Celeste of Jericho Keep.”
Stunned silence greeted this and when Vox turned to her most beloved sister, her features were hard and cold like steel.
Celeste struggled with her shock. To call the Doubt was equivalent to a duel to the death. Vox had told her that she still might die today but Celeste wavered under the prospect of losing her beloved sister like this. She stared into the brilliant blue eyes of her best friend and there she found what she had seen so many times before: Vox could be like this. When the tough choices had to be made, she shed her soft, loving shell and her core shone through. Hard and cold like a blade.
‘You’re a sword sheathed in velvet’, Celeste had said to her innumerable times and Vox had replied ‘A sword is only as strong as the arm wielding it’.
Celeste steadied herself on this. Vox had always been happy as the weapon to be unleashed. It was her chosen role in life and Celeste had learned how to wield her. Tied to this ability was the promise that she would crush her psyker down if she ever struck out in the wrong direction. It was time to ascertain whether the day had come.
She spoke the traditional words: “I, Celeste of Jericho Keep, Chapter Mistress of the Wings of War, am here to hear and see and judge.”
The members of her honour guard had functioned as witnesses in matters of the law before and knew their lines. The senior led: “I, Verissa, am here to witness.”
“I, Challey, am here to witness.”
“I, Varayne, am here to witness.”
“I, Sonja, am here to witness.”
“I, Letrelle, am here to witness.”
“I, Andjal, am here to witness.”
The priests exchanged worried glances, leaving the blind man all alone. He, however, was just as adept in the laws and customs of the Wings of War and countered in the only way possible in the circumstances: “I, Helgard of Nor, High Priest in the name of the Emperor for the Astartes known as the Wings of War, call down the Doubt on Vox Draconis who has been away from the chapter for twelve years! Her judgement and words must not be trusted for she carries the forces of chaos to destroy the unity of the priesthood and the Astartes of the Wings of War.”
“I, Lorrin of Blacksea, right hand of the High Priest, support the Doubt called down on Vox Draconis.”
“I, Bertram of High Guard, bishop in the name of the Emperor, support the Doubt called down on Vox Draconis.”
“The Doubt is called”, Celeste declared loudly. “No one leaves the room until matters have been resolved. The plaintiff will now have the chance to substantiate her accusations. Since she is the offender, her words must be found true or she will suffer the consequences.”