The kroot was a monster, its strength phenomenal. Uriel's helmet had saved him from the worst of its blow, and he fought to hold its heavy blade at bay as another beast stabbed at him with a long knife. His armour was holding, but it wouldn't take much for the alien to get lucky and find a weaker spot. Though the blows weren't penetrating his armour, he could feel the pain of each impact.
The creature's muscles bunched and swelled in unnatural ways, somehow able to meet the genhanced strength crafted into Uriel's body and that of his power armour. It squawked and spat in his face, its breath reeking of meat and blood. Uriel heard the snapping discharge of a laspistol, and a flaring bolt of light slashed across the kroot's shoulder. It screeched in pain, and Uriel rammed his helmet into its face. In the moment of respite, he hurled himself backwards, pulling the creature up and over him.
Its blade stabbed into the ground and snapped as it sailed over his head with a surprised squawk. Uriel rolled onto his side and swept up his sword. The knife-armed kroot came at him, its blade slashing for his face. Uriel swayed aside and hammered his blade into its belly, almost cutting it in two.
Lord Winterbourne staggered over to him, cradling his bloody arm tucked into his uniform jacket and holding onto his laspistol with the other. The three-legged vorehound padded alongside him, its flanks heaving and furrowed with bloody gouges.
Winterbourne nodded, but Uriel had no time to thank him for his aid as yet more kroot came at them, a pack of screeching fighters with rifles held like quarterstaffs, their blades glittering in the weak light. He risked a glance behind him to check what had become of the red-quilled monster, but it was nowhere to be seen.
'Come on then, you whoresons!' shouted Winterbourne, emptying the last of his laspistol's powercell into the charging aliens. One kroot fell with a chunk blasted from its stomach, and another came on, despite a dreadful wound to its shoulder.
Then the heavens blazed with light, and a host of screaming angels of death dropped into the fight on wings of fire. They bore roaring swords of silver, and were led by a black-armoured avenger in a bone-white death mask. This mighty apparition carried a winged golden staff, and slew his enemies with brutal sweeps of its crackling fiery edge.
Chaplain Clausel and his Assault Marines slammed into the battle with a searing flare of howling jump packs and the hammering of boots on rock. The kroot scattered like pins as the furious slaughter began, and their screeching filled the air.
Uriel pulled Winterbourne clear of the swirling melee as pistols boomed and chainswords bellowed. In moments, the kroot were butchered, the ferocity and suddenness of the assault leaving only torn carcasses in its wake.
Clausel hacked down the last of the kroot, standing tall amid the carnage, and never had the Chaplain looked so mighty and terrible, his weapon coated in blood and his skull-faced helmet red with the stuff.
The noise of battle changed in an instant. No longer did the sound of kroot weapons punctuate the roar of bolter-fire. Even the actinic crack of hellgun-fire had ceased. The dust thrown up by the collapse of the towers and the fighting settled, and a curious calm descended upon Deep Canyon Six.
'All forces, rally on me,' ordered Uriel, retrieving his bolter and replacing the spent magazine with a fresh one. He sheathed his sword as Clausel strode towards him.
'We should pursue,' said the Chaplain. 'Kill them all.'
'No,' said Uriel. 'These were nothing. A token force to kill any who survived the blasts.'
'Nevertheless, we should finish them,' urged Clausel.
Uriel shook his head. 'I won't go charging blindly into the unknown against an enemy skilled in evasion, who has a greater knowledge of the local terrain.'
Clausel bowed. 'That is, of course, the correct course of action, captain.'
'We will secure the battlefield and return to the gunship,' said Uriel warily. 'Governor Shonai needs to know what happened here.'
'As you wish,' said Clausel, turning away as Uriel let out a deep breath. His racing metabolism had begun to slow as Lord Winterbourne and his vorehound approached. Uriel removed his helmet, and ran a hand over his scalp and chin.
'Thank you for saving my life,' said Winterbourne, holding out his hand.
'I should say the same, colonel,' said Uriel, taking the proffered hand and nodding towards the vorehound, which snarled and bared its teeth at the kroot corpses.
'That is a fierce beast, colonel,' he said. 'Proud and loyal.'
'Indeed he is,' agreed Winterbourne through a mask of blood. 'Once a vorehound has adapted to its new master, it will protect him unto death. That alien monstrosity almost had me back there, I don't mind telling you. Bugger would have done for me if it weren't for old Fynlae here. Earned himself a commendation for valour, and no mistake. Didn't you, lad?'
'I think they both did,' said Uriel, spying the body of the other vorehound.
'Yes,' sighed Winterbourne, patting the head of his hound. 'Poor Germaine. It's a shame, but then I suppose they're fighting beasts. It's what they do. One mustn't get too attached to them, you know, but it's hard. Still, I suppose we've got more important things to worry about now.'
'It certainly looks that way,' agreed Uriel.
The Space Marines and surviving storm-troopers began securing the battlefield with practiced efficiency, treating wounds and gathering the bodies of the honoured dead. The wounded were carried from the gully to the Aquila lander and med-evaced back to Brandon Gate, while the dead aliens were unceremoniously dumped on a pyre and set alight by a sustained burst of promethium from an Astartes flamer.
None of Uriel's warriors had fallen in the fight with the kroot, and Learchus and his combat squad found Harkus alive, buried amongst a huge pile of wreckage at the base of a fallen vox-mast. His servo-harness had taken the full force of the blast, but both his legs were crushed beyond repair, and much of his torso had been burned away. Only the superlative endurance of a Space Marine had kept him alive, and Uriel immediately despatched four warriors to carry Harkus back to the Thunderhawk for emergency medicae treatment.
His armour's systems would keep Harkus alive for now, but his body would require the ministrations of Apothecary Selenus back at Fortress Idaeus if he were to survive. He and Harkus were not close, but Uriel felt a profound sadness as he watched his battle-brothers carefully lift the wounded Techmarine and bear him away. Harkus would probably live, but his time as a warrior was over. His body had suffered too much damage, and, even with replacement limbs, he would never be fit for frontline duty again. Uriel wondered if Harkus would mind that much of his body would now be artificial, or would he view that as becoming closer to the Machine-God?
With the battlefield secured, Uriel was the last to leave the canyon, climbing back the way they had come, and leaving the devastation of the array behind. He reached the top of the cut stairs and emerged onto the plateau above.
The engines of the Thunderhawk rumbled and strained, as though eager to be away from this place, and Uriel didn't blame it. The mountains were dismal and forsaken, and he wondered if some part of that was due to the monstrous creature that had been buried beneath them for uncounted eons. Even with it gone, perhaps the echoes of its imprisonment were strong enough to taint the world with the memory of its bleak and horrifying presence.
Uriel put such morose thoughts from his mind as Learchus emerged from the Thunderhawk, his manner brisk and his face grim.
'What's wrong?' asked Uriel, already sensing something awry.
'A communication from Admiral Tiberius,' said Learchus. 'He tried to reach your armour's vox, but the distortion of the array prevented direct communication.'
'What's the message?'
'He reports numerous contacts matching previously encountered energy signatures appearing across the surface of the prime continental mass,' said Learchus.
Learchus nodded. 'It would appear so.'
'Then the destruction of the array has acted as an attack signal,' said Uriel, running for the Thunderhawk. 'Where is Governor Shonai? Has he been secured?'
'Lord Winterbourne has contacted Major Ornella at Brandon Gate,' said Learchus. 'She says that Koudelkar Shonai is still at his family estates on the shores of Lake Masura.'
Uriel climbed the ramp to the Thunderhawk's interior as the last of his warriors embarked and took position in the bucket seats along the fuselage of the aircraft.
'What protection does he have?'
'A squad of Lavrentian storm-troopers and a pair of skitarii,' said Learchus, consulting a wall-mounted data-slate. 'Plus, whatever personal bodyguards and security measures are in place at his aunt's estates.'
'That won't be much,' said Uriel.
'No. A basic surveyor/alert system and few armed retainers at most.'
'How far is Lake Masura?' asked Uriel urgently. 'Can we reach it?'
Learchus bent to consult a glowing map on a nearby screen. 'It is a hundred and fifty kilometres west, in the foothills of these mountains. We are carrying enough fuel to get there, and back to Brandon Gate, but that's about it.'
'I'll bet that was one of the first places to register a signal.'
'It was,' said Learchus. 'How did you know?'
'Because that's what I'd do,' said Uriel. 'First you cut off communications, and then you cut off the head of the command structure.'
An alien was standing before him. Of course, Koudelkar had heard of the tau, who on the Eastern Fringe did not know of this expansionist xenos species? But being introduced to one while standing at his family's estates on a chilly evening was unexpected to say the least. He had always hoped he might one day see a xenos creature, but had imagined it would be down the barrel of a gun or as he gazed at its preserved corpse in a museum.
The robed figure descended the ramp from his ship, and Koudelkar was struck by his grace and poise. Aun'rai moved as though he floated just above the ground. Keeping the batons crossed over his chest, Aun'rai bowed to him and then to his aunt.
'Greetings, Guilder Koudelkar,' said Aun'rai, his voice soothing and flowing like honey.
'Don't speak with it,' hissed Lortuen Perjed. 'Xenos filth!'
Koudelkar said nothing, more because he did not know what to say than through any desire to follow Perjed's advice. The alien took no notice of Perjed's hostility.
He glanced over his shoulder at the Lavrentian soldiers and his skitarii. His confusion mounted. The tau were their enemies. Shouldn't these men be shooting at them? Even as the thought formed, he arrived at the conclusion his soldiers and the skitarii defence protocols had reached long before him.
If shots were fired, they would all die. The giant fighting machines standing to either side of the humming aircraft would kill them in a matter of moments, and, looking beyond Aun'rai, Koudelkar could see at least a score of armed xenos soldiers inside the aircraft.
As much as he knew he should order his men to open fire, Koudelkar was not so far removed from his mandatory service in the PDF that he didn't appreciate the difference between courage and suicide.
'Welcome to our home, Aun'rai,' said his aunt, when Koudelkar did not speak. 'You are most welcome, and may I say what a pleasure it is to finally meet you in person.'
'The honour is mine, I assure you,' replied Aun'rai smoothly, uncrossing his arms and sliding his batons into ceramic sheaths at his side. 'To meet one of such wisdom and foresight is a rarity in these troubled times. It is my fervent hope that we can begin a new phase in our relations that will allow peaceful trade and co-operation to flourish. Such relations will prove to be for the greater good of both our peoples, I am quite certain.'
'You are too kind,' said Mykola. 'Please, will you join us for some refreshments?'
'Thank you, no,' said Aun'rai. 'We have taken sustenance already.'
'Of course,' said Mykola. 'Koudelkar? Would you escort Aun'rai within?'
'I will not,' he said at last. 'It's a xenos. Here. At our house.'
'Koudelkar,' said his aunt, and he recognised the icy threat thinly concealed by her tone. 'Aun'rai is our guest.'
Anger rose within him at her presumption of superiority, and he turned to his aunt. 'I think you're forgetting who's governor, Mykola. Contact with aliens is a crime, have you forgotten that? Sharben will toss you in the Glasshouse for this, and that will be the end of you. Even I can't overlook this, for heaven's sake!'
'I thought you of all people would be more open-minded, Koudelkar,' said his aunt with what he knew to be contrived disappointment. 'After all, aren't you always the one complaining about how the Administratum is keeping your hands tied?'
This last comment was directed at Lortuen Perjed, who looked fit to burst a blood vessel, such was the hue of his skin.
'Have you lost your mind, Mykola?' spat Perjed. 'You'll be shot for this, you know that, don't you?'
'This is a chance to rebuild Pavonis,' she continued, ignoring Perjed's threat. 'You just have to be willing to take a small step beyond your comfort zone.'
'Comfort zone? This goes way beyond a ''small step''. This is treason,' said Koudelkar.
'Don't be dramatic,' scolded his aunt. 'This is just a business negotiation. The tau can offer us technology that makes the Mechanicus gear look like tinker toys. They're willing to locate a great many of their most dynamic industries on Pavonis, Koudelkar. Think of what that could mean for us and our people: employment, currency, trade, and a position of leadership in the sector markets. Isn't that what you've been striving for these last few years?'
Before Koudelkar could reply, the tau envoy reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. His first instinct was to shrug it off as repugnant, but he did not, and he felt a curious feeling stirring within him, not acceptance, per se, but interest. If there was even a grain of truth to what his aunt was saying, perhaps it was worth hearing what this alien had to say.
After all, Koudelkar had broken no laws. If there were any price to be paid, it would be borne by his aunt. She had set up this meeting. She had brought the aliens here. Koudelkar was blameless, and if he listened to what the creature had to say, well, what was the harm?
'I will hear him out, but I make no promises,' said Koudelkar, amazed that he was actually saying the words, but feeling wholly natural in doing so.
'Koudelkar!' cried Lortuen. 'Don't be a fool. This is wrong and you know it.'
His aunt glared at the adept of the Administratum, and Koudelkar felt his irritation grow at the wizened old man who had held him back from fully realising his potential as governor of Pavonis. Perjed had worked with him to pull his world back from the abyss of rebellion into which it had almost plummeted, but now all Koudelkar felt towards him was antipathy. The feeling was strange, and he wondered how he had not realised the true scale of his dislike for the man until now.
'Be silent, adept,' said Koudelkar. 'Know your place. I am governor, and I will decide who I talk to and who I do business with. I will listen to Aun'rai, and if, at the end of our discussions, I do not wish to deal with him, he will be free to leave and things will continue as they have always done.'
'If you believe that, you are a fool,' said Perjed. 'This can only end in blood.'
Major Alithea Ornella rode across the brightly lit parade ground of Camp Torum on a chestnut gelding named Moran, accompanied by her command squad. Riding was Ornella's passion, and, though her rank normally precluded her from charging into battle on the back of such a fine beast, she took the opportunity to saddle Moran whenever the chance arose.
She slowed the horse with a gentle pull on the reins and a light pressure of her thighs, watching the purposeful activity around her with a satisfied eye. Blazing arc lights on the edges of the camp dispelled the gloom of gathering night and illuminated the preparations of a regiment of the Emperor's Imperial Guard as it made itself ready for battle.
Armoured vehicles lined three sides of the parade ground: Leman Russ Conquerors, Hellhounds, Basilisk artillery pieces and row upon row of Chimeras. Each mighty vehicle swarmed with mechanics and enginseers as their crews went through pre-deployment checks and blessings. Ornella felt a curious mix of excitement and tension at the thought of going into battle once more; excitement because she would have the chance to serve the Emperor, and tension because who relished the thought of going into harm's way?
It had been good to rest the regiment on Pavonis after sustained front-line operations, for the strain had begun to tell in the number of disciplinary infractions and combat fatigue citations sent up the chain from platoon commanders.
Pavonis had been a relatively easy deployment, a chance to ease down from the stress and exhaustion of combat operations, and an opportunity to refresh the soldiers in urban pacification duties. Such work was inglorious, but necessary, and Ornella ensured that any duty given to the 44th Lavrentian Hussars was completed to the highest standards.
Camp Torum was home to Sword Command of the 44th Lavrentian Hussars, the largest and most heavily armed of the four commands deployed to Pavonis. Of the other commands, Lance were based on the coast at Praxedes, Shield at the bridge city of Olzetyn, and Banner on the outskirts of the Jotusburg slum, each comprising three thousand mechanised infantry, light armour units and mobile artillery.
Named for the first colonel to take command of the regiment at its founding on the great steppe plateau of Lavrentia, Camp Torum spread out on the northern fringe of Brandon Gate, close to the arterial route of Highway 236. It was a sprawling complex of utilitarian structures, uniformly constructed with only functionality in mind, which was just how Ornella liked it.
Portal-framed hangars clad in ochre sheets of corrugated iron were scattered throughout the camp, medicae stations and barracks separated by sand-filled barriers that could take a hit from a missile launcher and remain unbreached. Some eight thousand soldiers were based at Torum, nearly half of the regiment's strength on Pavonis.
Their few super-heavies sat in hardened shelters originally designed for aircraft, but with the heavy fighting further out on the fringe, most of the planet's air power had been stripped by Battlefleet Ultima. Sentinels patrolled the edge of the camp, a high berm of bulldozed earth, reinforced with segmented plates on both sides. Hardened watchtowers were set at regular intervals around the circumference of the wall, and six Hydra flak tanks scanned the heavens for aerial threats.
Over the clatter of tanks, shouted orders and marching Guardsmen, Ornella heard a sound like a sheet of cloth flapping in the wind, but dismissed it as she and her horsemen rode across the parade ground. Ornella was pleased at the sense of urgency that invested the Guardsmen. As demanding as urban operations were, an inevitable sense of complacency soon set in. Patrols became routine, boredom crept up and patterns became predictable. Though no professional soldier relished the thought of being shot at, they soon began to chafe at the forced idleness of garrison duty and actually longed to get back to an active warzone.
The communication from Lord Winterbourne had come as a welcome shock, and Ornella was pleased to have the opportunity to test her new rapid reaction procedures. So far, they appeared to be working like clockwork, Guardsmen forming up outside their barracks before moving out to their transports, and tank crews prepping their machines for a pre-battle blessing from the regiment's preachers.
Prelate Culla's Rhino rumbled up and down the parade ground, his strident tones blaring from the augmitters on the upper deck of his vehicle. Culla stood atop his pulpit, his fiery sword cleaving the air to punctuate his words. Ornella smiled as she saw him, pleased that the 44th had such an inspirational figure to put fire in the bellies of the regiment's soldiers.
She rode down the line of tanks, her mounted command squad following behind her as she turned towards the centre of the parade ground. One of her squad eased his horse alongside hers.
'All looking good, major,' said Captain Mederic.
'Yes,' she agreed, trying not to sound too pleased. Mederic was a good officer. He was intelligent, seasoned and a hell of a fighter, although he clearly disliked being on horseback. Mederic commanded the Hounds, the 44th's Scout Platoon, and was a man used to operating on his own initiative. Despite that, he was also a man who could be trusted to follow orders.
'So what's the word, ma'am? This a real deployment or an exercise?'
'It's real, captain,' she said. 'Lord Winterbourne and the Ultramarines have engaged the enemy in the mountains to the north.'
'Is it tau? That's what the scuttlebutt's saying.'
She nodded. 'Yes. It looks like they've taken out a significant amount of the vox-network, and we're going on alert to secure the major cities once confirmation comes in from the Administratum.'
'We still have to wait for that? Even now?'
'I'm afraid so,' said Ornella. 'It's frustrating, but given what happened here, I understand the need for such controls.'
'Not me,' said Mederic. 'This planet's about to be hit by xenos raiders and we need to wait for some form-stampers to give us the go ahead to defend it? Begging your pardon, ma'am, but that's just grade A bull.'
'Maybe so, captain, but those are our rules of engagement, and we must abide by them.'
'Any idea when we're gonna get that confirmation?'
'Not yet, no.'
Mederic grunted in disgust, but Ornella left him to his misgivings. Privately, she shared them, but if Alithea Ornella had learned anything in her ten years of active service it was that only by following explicitly worded orders could a regiment function. She and Lord Winterbourne had inculcated the 44th to function as a well-oiled machine whereby orders were issued with alacrity and obeyed without delay.
With clear orders, the regiment functioned. Without them, it did not.
She glanced upwards as she heard the sound of flapping cloth again, but the lights blazing on the edge of the camp compromised her night vision and she could see nothing in the darkness. She turned in the saddle. The rest of her command squad sat in a loose semicircle around her: two Guardsmen with lasguns slung over their shoulders, a vox-operator and the regimental banner-bearer.
She was about to write the noise off as the banner flapping in the wind, before realising that there was no wind. Puzzled, she looked up once again.
'Everything all right ma'am?' asked Mederic.
'Hmmm? Oh, yes, captain,' she said. 'Just thought I heard something.'
The Templum Fabricae was busy, even though there was no public service until the morning. Hard times had a way of bringing out the devotion in people, and Gaetan Baltazar struggled not to feel contempt as he made his way through the devotees kneeling in the pews and praying to the anthracite statue of the Emperor at the end of the nave.
To see so many people crowding his temple should have brought him joy, but such conditional devotion was abhorrent to Gaetan. In times of plenty, people would attend the bare minimum of mandatory prayers, but in times of woe and destitution, everyone came to prayers morning, noon and night to ask the Emperor for a boon.
Gaetan knew he should be thankful for so many eager worshippers, but it was difficult when he knew they came for personal salvation, not the glorification of the Emperor.
Clad in his ochre vestments and carrying his broad-bladed eviscerator before him, he made his way to the altar to recite the Prayer of Day's Ending before retiring for the night. Though skilled in the use of the monstrous, chainblade sword and the heavy inferno pistol buckled at his waist, he did not like to carry them at worship. Their presence made a mockery of his belief in the Emperor's power of forgiveness and mercy, but they were as much part of his robes of office as the aquila, and could not be discarded.
The acolytes in steel-dust robes that followed him bore similarly enormous blades, and even the chittering prayer cherubs that floated above him carried small daggers and implanted laser weaponry. The scent of their anointed skins was a sickly sweet fragrance that caught in the back of Gaetan's throat, and, not for the first time, he wished that the vaunted tech-priests of Pavonis would fix the ventilation systems of the templum.
A tall building of exposed structure and machined parts, the Templum Fabricae was a monument to the Emperor in his dual aspect of Master of Mankind and Omnissiah, though the priests of Mars would have a hard time rationalising the constant machine failures that were its bane. Given the planet's troubled history, perhaps they wouldn't, he reflected sourly.
The walls were adorned with sheet iron sculptures and welded plates with etched scripture. Private side chapels had once been dedicated to the Emperor by the cartels, each paying a substantial tribute to the templum's coffers to secure a burial place for their departed leaders. Gaetan had thought the practice repugnant, but Bishop Irlam, the templum's former master, had been little more than a mouthpiece for the cartels, and his pockets had been lined with their silver.
In the wake of the rebellion, Irlam had been disgraced, and the Administratum had decreed that the chapels be re-consecrated to the glory of the Emperor without favour to any one organisation. Gaetan had taken great pleasure in instructing the templum servitors to remove any indication that the chapels had once been devoted to private citizens.
That had been the only time the directives of the Administratum had proven to be helpful, and Gaetan railed against such interference whenever he could. It was difficult when bureaucrats controlled every aspect of the planet's workings, men with no understanding of faith and the importance of devotion. For the sake of unity, Gaetan reluctantly obeyed their directives, and continued to preach his doctrine of quiet industry and devotion to the Emperor.
He knew it was not a doctrine that found much favour on the Eastern Fringe, but it was one that had served him well over the years, and he was too set in his ways to change. Out here, preachers who bellowed for war and filled the hearts of men with hatred were the norm.
The confrontation with Lord Winterbourne over the zealot Culla had only served to reinforce that view, and, while he could appreciate the value of such doctrine on this frontier of mankind's dominion of the galaxy, it was not a creed he would willingly preach. Hatred and violence only bred more of the same, and to oppose such things with the light of the Emperor's wisdom was the lonely path trodden by Gaetan Baltazar alone.
He remembered the day he had taken his final vows at the Temple of the Blessed Martyr on Golanthis nearly two decades ago. Abbot Malene, his spiritual mentor and friend, had spoken to him the night before he took ship to the Eastern Fringe.
'I fear you will have a hard time convincing people of your beliefs where you are going,' the venerable abbot had said, sipping a honeyed tisane. 'The Eastern Fringe is a place of war.'
'Then it is exactly the right place for me,' he had countered.
'How better to end war than by preaching peace?'
'The Emperor's creed is war,' Malene reminded him. 'His doctrine was spread from Terra through the barrels of guns and on the blades of swords. It has survived because we defend that faith. That's not just a flowery term, Gaetan. It has meaning. You think the Ecclesiarchy schools you in the arts of war for no reason?'
'No. I know why we are trained to fight, but I do not believe that violence is the key to the Emperor's wisdom. There is much to His teachings that are beautiful, and have nothing to do with war and death. Those are the parts of His word I wish to take to the people of the Imperium.'
'Aye, there is beauty,' agreed Malene, 'but even a rose needs thorns to defend it. How will your doctrine of hard work turn aside an enemy intent on slaying you? How will it give those to whom you minister the faith to stand against the many threats that lurk in the darkness? There are vile foes in the galaxy that care nothing for our teachings, races that will meet your pretty words with murder. I fear you have set yourself an insurmountable task, my friend.'
'I know, but even an avalanche begins with a single pebble,' said Gaetan.
Those words seemed now foolish to him, yet he held to them as a dying man would cling to his last breath of life. Gaetan reached the altar and set his enormous sword upon it before lifting his robes to kneel before the polished anthracite. He worked his prayer beads between his fingers, and lifted his head towards the reflectively black statue of the Emperor.
Beyond the statue, the chancel was a long, tapered vault with exposed ironwork, and supports from which hung gilded lanterns, incense burners and silken devotional banners. Shadows flickered and danced in the swaying lantern light, and Gaetan blinked as he saw a ripple of movement in the upper reaches of the chancel.
The opening words of his prayer faltered as he saw the blurred distortion of incense on a wide, horizontal girder. For a moment, it had looked as though a human shape had been standing there looking down at him. He peered into the upper reaches of the chancel, shielding his eyes to better penetrate the shifting and uncertain light.
There was something there, but he couldn't make out the details. It was as if the light was somehow distorting around something unseen, which did not wish to come into view.
Gaetan had heard tales of priests who claimed that angels of the Emperor watched over them from on high, but he hadn't taken such stories literally.
He turned to his acolytes and pointed to the chancel roof.
'Do you see that?' he asked.