Vox had felt Scout Squad Remora coming and their entrance right after her words was adequately dramatic. With their helmets respectfully under their arms, the five warriors marched towards them.
“Sergeant Cephaya!”, Celeste exclaimed. “You went missing on Zenith more than two years ago!” Her bafflement was easily audible while her warriors knelt down before her.
“I didn’t know that, Mistress”, Sergeant Cephaya answered and respectfully bowed her head before her leader. “I continued to receive orders.”
“Rise! Vox, what’s going on here?”, Celeste demanded as Remora came to their feet around them.
“My Mistress”, Vox said calmly. “Less than half a year ago, I encountered Scout Squad Remora on Zenith.” It was the first time Vox smiled since the trial had begun and it was a rather unfriendly smile. “They almost shot me down.”
“What?”, Celeste burst out in angry surprise.
“When the initial confusion was settled, they told me that they had apprehended a squad of eight Space Marines in black and silver armour and had been put under orders to keep them hostage until further notice. Any other strange Space Marines they encountered were to be eliminated”, Vox explained mercilessly. “While the Tyranid situation worsened, the decision what to do about their prisoners was apparently never reached. Sergeant Cephaya, I call you as witness. Tell us, what has happened since you caught these Space Marines!”
“Mistress”, Cephaya said, saluting. “We were charged with the well being of our prisoners, who turned out to be male Astartes.”
A murmur sprang up and Bertram of High Guard let himself be carried away to exclaim: “Impossible! There is no such thing!”
“We have eight of them in the fortress”, Celeste stated stiffly. “I admit that I haven’t seen them without their armour yet but I have never seen a woman grow such a luxuriant beard.”
“Why weren’t we told?”, Helgard of Nor snapped and clamped a hand to his chest as if to prevent his heart from leaping out.
“You were told just now.” The voice of the Chapter Mistress was sharp and hard like the edge of a knife. “Sergeant, continue!”
But before Cephaya could do so, one of the lesser priests lost his nerve. He sprang up and ran towards the door. Celeste’s movements were calm and controlled when she drew her plasma pistol. She turned, aimed and shot the man down. He was knocked off his feet by the superheated bubble of plasma that vaporised his body fluids and jerked him into the row of benches he had been running along. The stink of burned flesh filled the air and the brutally violated remains of the corpse slid to the floor. A dry, crackling sound could be heard as a few bones, cooked to ashes, broke and crumbled. Vox had to draw back from the scream of terror and fear lashing through the warp at this point.
“No one leaves”, Celeste stated coldly, when the physical uproar subsided again. She was still controlled under the horrified stares of the humans but the calmness had fled her.
“Sergeant!”, she commanded sharply.
“I… would like to trace back a little for clarity”, Cephaya declared. Unused to a courtroom, she still displayed the unblinking composure of the veteran.
“As you know, we are attached to third company by default and were ordered to support the research team to study Tyranids. We were stationed in outpost Zenith-sixteen when the men got caught in one of our Tyranid traps. We reported back to sixteen and received orders to stand by but under no circumstances talk to them or show them our faces or insignia. After thirty-six hours we finally received new orders to transport them to outpost Z-twenty-two and secure them there. We had come expecting Tyranids so we just collected their weapons, put them into our transport and brought them there. For the next two years, we guarded them and from time to time moved locations because the Tyranid situation got critical. Once, we were visited by one of our priests who interrogated them. Then we encountered Mistress Vox Draconis on a forage mission and, as you heard, almost shot her down. I only pulled the shot because I recognized her sword at the last moment. She identified herself to us and ordered us to abandon outpost twenty-five, where we were stationed at the time. Were to withdraw together with third and make our way to Thetis without anyone knowing, especially any mortals. So, we snuck on board the ‘Rightful Star’ and made planetfall in a stolen drop pot when we arrived over Thetis. My mistress had ordered us to hide in reach of Jericho Keep and wait until she herself called us back. We arrived back at the Keep just now.”
“Can you name the priest who visited your prisoners?”, Celeste asked.
“He came shrouded and in great secrecy”, she said a little cautiously but her eyes already wandered over to the triumvirate. “But I think I recognised the voice of the Lord of Blacksea”, she added.
The humans were jittery like pies on a drum by now. Their poker faces cracked up, the lesser priests all around them prayed terrified prayers.
“I’ve never been to Zenith”, Lorrin of Blacksea tried to the accompaniment of this and stumbled over his own words. “Well… I was… I was born there but, since the Tyranid infestation, I haven’t been back there…”, his voice trailed off.
Celeste’s gaze was icy cold.
Vox knew she had won. Her judge was convinced that the priests were guilty of something. All that was left to do now, was to deliver the killing blow. Vox was unable to rejoice at the thought of this because she understood firmly what the priests had done all these years: After it had been cut off, the Jericho Reach had needed a new Astartes chapter for humanity to prevail beyond the reach of their kin. The Wings of War had held the sector with vigour and resilience, ultimately carrying out the purpose the Emperor had designed the Astartes for.
However, their founding had been unauthorised. Not to speak of the difficulty of explaining female Space Marines to the male dominated world. Had they been discovered earlier, they might have faced annihilation and a most pointless war to weaken the Imperium of Man. The priests had tried to guard them from this.
Vox understood this. She understood the good intent. What she was unprepared to suffer, were the means the priests had used. Especially, since she had found others by now.
“My mistress”, she addressed Celeste again. “The Emperor led me away to find this horrible secret. To get to see the treachery in our own lines. It has taken me twelve years to gain all the knowledge I needed and today I bring it to you.” She handed her friend the last pile of papers she had brought. “Only far from you could I find what has happened here. Only after twelve years have I collected all the pieces that shed light on what our priests have done to us. What you hold in your hands are notes on the nature of hypno-conditioning. My abstract is on top.”
She felt the shock run through the priests as she exposed their most powerful, most devious weapon. She was not sure if any Space Marine knew about this. She was certain, however, that no Wing of War had ever known it. Celeste was accustomed to Vox’s handwriting and read the first sheet through very fast. Then, she thumbed through the attached papers.
“And we didn’t know about this?”, she snapped.
“Mistress!”, Lorrin of Blacksea exclaimed and buried his fingers in his long beard. “Tell us about the lies this traitor has brought, so that we may defend ourselves. Don’t turn from us! Don’t turn from the rightful path the Emperor has set…”
“Silence!”, Celeste roared. “You will not call my sister traitor! Do you think me stupid? Do you think I might overlook the man I just killed? Do you really think he just ran because he feared I might judge wrong? And do you think your confessions are not written on your foreheads?”
“The Mistress of Secrets still has to prove herself untainted!”, Bertram of High Guard tried, his voice cracking, his piercing, blue eyes widened in terror.
“She does not have to be untainted to prove you traitors!”, Celeste roared and threw down the papers on the altar. “These records state that hypno-conditioning is capable of wiping the memory and planting deep-seated ideas, the individual in question will follow to the limit”, she declared furiously. “Just what someone would need to send our young warriors into the Black Rage as soon as they encountered something they shouldn’t have seen! Just what someone would need to send twenty-six or more of our sisters to the Deathwatch without them ever telling anyone where they came from!”
“Falsehood! An utter…”, Helgard of Nor croaked.
“How many have you killed over the years to keep us hidden?”, Celeste demanded and laid her hands to the stone of the altar as she leaned forward. When the priests just stared at her, her furious gaze snapped around to Vox.
“It will be in their archive”, Vox said and laid a calming hand on the sister’s forearm for a moment.
“There are no such…”, Bertram of High Guard squeaked but Celeste interrupted him.
“Vox Draconis! My Keeper of the Law!”, she called her sister forth and straightened up to her full, impressive height. Her cheeks had coloured in anger and, like always, left the scars on her face pale like thunderbolts splitting the bleeding sky. “Have you ascertained by now, where such an archive might be hidden?”
Vox nodded. As soon as she had said ‘archive’, several of them had been unable to hide their knowledge from her.
“It is right under the altar. Grant me permission to find out how to get at it”, she asked.
“Granted!” Celeste said the word slowly and with grim satisfaction. She knew without asking where Vox had gotten this information and could imagine how she would proceed now.
Indeed, Vox stepped forward and leaned on the altar just as Celeste had done it. She looked the high priest in his dead eyes and posed the relevant question: “How do you open the archive?”
When Vox smiled and the priests understood what was going on, they rallied for a last defiant screech: “Chapter Mistress, I protest!”, Lorrin of Blacksea exclaimed. “The employment of psychic powers during a hearing is illegal unless specifically allowed by the highest… authority…”
“Well spotted, Lord”, Celeste said, full of disgust for the traitor before her. She had trusted these men. They and their predecessors had been her confessors ever since she had come to Jericho Keep and now, she had learned that they might have tampered with her memories, even her conscience.
“When I made Vox Draconis Keeper of the Law, I specifically impressed upon her that I expect her to employ whatever skill she has to fulfil this position”, she declared in righteous anger.
Meanwhile, Vox had moved around the altar and, to the subsequent horror of the priests, pulled their chairs aside while they still sat on them. They looked like terrified children next to her.
She bent down, reached under the altar and they all heard stone scrape on stone. The high priest made a strange sound, like a mixture between a sigh and a creek and fell off his chair.
“What is wrong with him?”, Celeste asked.
Vox looked around distractedly.
“Extreme pain in the chest and left arm”, she stated then. “Maybe a heart attack or something. Mistress, to my dismay I have to inform you that no Astartes will fit down this hole”, she said, dismissing the dying man. The humans meanwhile stared at the tableau in horror. None of them had ever seen the violence of war. A man in pain was something awful to them while he was almost nothing to an Astartes. Especially when said Astartes was sure that she would get to kill the man in question very soon in any case.
Celeste came around the altar to sneak a look. Indeed, a hole in the floor had opened. It was just big enough to admit a human who could climb down a ladder to reach a lower level.
“We will investigate this later, then”, the Chapter Mistress decided. “I have heard enough. Vox Draconis, I share your Doubt and judge the priesthood of the Wings of War guilty. I charge you to determine which of the individuals are to be held complicit in their crimes and bring them to justice immediately.”