“Blessing upon the Reverend Daughter, Gideon Navenarius, and blessings upon the Ninth House, it's restful dead and manifold mysteries. The King Undying reaffirms his reckless and unconditional love for the far-off and shadowed jewel of his empire. The purpose of this most holy communique is one of grave and terrible concern, however. Its contents must be kept entirely secret from any individuals not directly implicated in the execution of its commands.
The Nine Houses now face a challenge that engulfs and devours all those of the past myriad. The final living lyctor, the seventh saint to serve the King Undying, his fist and gestures, his holy will made flesh, is missing. The most kindly prince believes that his loyal servant is even now held prisoner by the enemies of the empire, kept by bonds unknown but dreadfully powerful. He writes now directly to you, and to the other heirs apparent, out of a fear that conspiracy has taken root even within his cohort.
Though the resolve of our omnipotent emperor is stronger than it has ever been, he requires now a new pantheon of saints to execute his will. He calls upon you, his loyal servant, to kneel in glory and ascend to lyctorhood. Perform this task, execute his will, locate the seventh saint, and rise as Gideon the First.
This letter must be destroyed immediately upon reading. A shuttle will arrive within 48 hours to transport you and your cavalier primary to his holy seat, where further instructions will be forthcoming.”
“Well, holy shit.” Remarked Harrow Nova, insightfully.
“Holy shit indeed.” Replied Gideon Navenarius, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. She folded her arms. “A whole steaming pile of holy fuck up, if you ask me.”
“You’re laughing at me.” Snapped Harrow, upon seeing the crooked and vicious smile that crept onto the necromancer’s lips. This preemptive strike had the exact opposite of the intended effect, as Gideon gave a bark of savage laughter.
“Normally I would be, but not this time Nova. I’m merely contemplating our good fortune.”
Harrow raised her eyebrows. “Good fortune? Thats a little tactless, even for you.”
“Oh don’t get me wrong, what happened to the seventh saint? Awful, completely terrible. My loyalty to our great emperor? As big as a mountain. My interest in the prospect of eternal life and a ticket off the ninth house? Even bigger.”
Harrow snorted. Gideon had spoken as a child of wanted to see the rest of the empire. Harrow had been unaware that this desire extended beyond simple tourism.
“The Reverend Daughter, abandon her sacred duty to the tomb? Quite blasphemous.”
Gideon smirked and turned away, beginning to pull books off the nearby shelf. “My duty is to the emperor. Under normal circumstances, he commands me to guard the tomb. In this new and enticing reality, he has commanded me to have the time of my life visiting far-off worlds and besting the enemies of the empire in glorious combat.”
Harrow looked down her nose at Gideon, and turned her back on her.
“As much as I enjoy your boasts Navenarius, I have training to do. I wish you and Ortus the best of luck on your most holy and sacred mission.” The “I hope you freeze and burn and suffocate in the pit of space” was implied by her intonation.
Harrow strode toward the door. Her knuckles were white on the hilt of her rapier, and she took defiant pleasure in the iron clonk of her heels with every step.
“Nova.” Came the exasperated plea from behind her. Harrow had no intention of granting Gideon even one second more of her time. Gideon had never given her any of hers. Never considered even the most basic and desperate of Harrow’s aspirations. The Reverend Daughter could sally forth against the empire's foes and be riddled with bullets and blown up and devoured, and Harrow would be all the happier for it.
“Nova. Don’t make me ask thrice.” Harrow began to grin. The simple thrill of pissing off that venomous creep overjoyed her.
The skeleton stepped clumsily into the doorway, blocking the exit. Without thinking, before even drawing breath, Harrow drew her rapier. It moved like water, like shadow, guided by supernatural reflex and decades of drill. The skeleton’s joints melted like butter before three swift cuts, collapsing into an impotent pile of calcium. The space it had occupied was swiftly filled with two more skeletons, and she felt sudden and bony hands grasping at her back.
Harrow unfastened her chain and spun. The cold, hard metal licked out, shattering the ribcage of one skeleton, to be followed by a swift decapitation. She lifted her iron-tipped boot and pulverised the knee of the second, dropping it to the floor. With another disdainful kick, Harrow shattered its spine in two.
“Harrowhark Nova, for God’s sake listen to me!” Came the infuriated yell. More skeletons were rising around her, and Harrow was deeply excited to return them to powder.
She charged, detaching the right arm of one skeleton and knocking it to the ground. A second met her chain, which sent fragments of skull pinging off the walls. A third she simply barged into, hefting it off its feat and sending it sprawling. Harrow was far from weak, and hastily raised skeletons rarely had the bone density of the real deal.
Suddenly the calcium waves parted, and a sharpened disk of bone spun straight towards her like a murderous frisbee. This was followed the a volley of darts that embedded themselves in the ashen stone of the wall. Gideon was on her feet, and as Harrow watched she shrugged off her robe, revealing an exoskeleton of bone and muscle, and a crude haft of sharpened bone, at least three feet long, in her hands.
Harrow sighed explosively. This party trick was classic Gideon—brash, loud, and rarely effective. Gideon was attempting to compensate for necromantic weakness with artificial muscle and bone. This rendered her several times stronger than Harrow, but could not compensate for her lack of agility or real combat skill.
Gideon charged Harrow like a bull. She lifted her weapon, the coat of muscle that enclosed her arm flexing and twisting, propelling her bone-reinforced strike down toward Harrow’s skull. The movement was incredibly fast but terribly obvious. Harrow stepped casually to the side, and drove her blade through the reinforcing bone between Gideon’s left arm and her hip. It shattered, and globs of muscle fell with it.
Gideon merely growled and swung again, and again Harrow dodged, severing another hunk of exoskeletal construct. Blood was pouring down Gideon’s face now, dripping from her eyes, nose and ears, smearing her paint. Harrow felt slightly bad, Gideon nearly almost did more damage to herself than Harrow ever could. She dodged a third over-choreographed swing, and punted Gideon hard in the chest with the butt of her rapier. The necromancer folded like paper, collapsing to the ground, her remaining exoskeleton clattering down around Harrow.
Harrow stepped forward, and laid the tip of her rapier at Gideon’s throat. Gideon looked up violently, the grey, white and red quagmire of her face twisted in fury.
‘Don’t you get it? This- All this-’ Gideon gestured wildly in Harrow’s direction.
‘This is why I can’t bring Ortus on the mission. I need a warrior—A proper warrior. I need Harrow Nova, not some limp-dick who can barely climb the stairs to morning congregation.’
Gideon only gave genuine compliments whilst spitting with rage, so Harrow wasn’t surprised by this. She felt the corners of her mouth curl into a self-satisfied smirk.
‘As much as you’re entirely correct, what exactly do I get out of this? I don’t like the sound of being blown up on a far off battlefield in the name of—yikes—the Reverend Daughter.’
Her rapier began to fall, and Gideon straightened up.
‘I’ll make you cavalier primary, for one.’
This got Harrow’s attention. She let her guard drop. That was just the opportunity Gideon needed to raise a throbbing mass of bone and muscle from the discarded pieces of exoskeleton. The creature, more murderous intent than coherent construct, moved very fast in Harrow’s direction. Harrow spun, but before she could react it struck her in the chest and sent her sprawling painfully across the stones. She was winded, and momentarily paralysed with shock. As she reeled, Gideon rose over her.
‘And that’s what that feels like, you sword obsessed freak.’
Harrow would have murdered her right there if her sword hadn’t been on the other side of the room.
‘Meet Aiglamene and me in the armoury tomorrow morning. And don’t make me kick the shit out of you again Nova’.
Harrow snorted at that, but the Reverend Daughter had already turned her back on her, snatched up her books, and stalked out of the room, leaving her construct to melt dejectedly, and Harrow to gingerly pick herself up.
‘Fuck you’. Harrow muttered.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Harrow and Gideon board the shuttle to the first house. Surely this short and pedestrian interplanetary trip couldn't go wrong?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Harrow sulked against her straps as the shuttle lifted from the Drearburh landing platform. From inside, the roar of the engines was reduced to an incessant whine at the back of her skull. That morning Aiglamene had dragged her from her cell to the armoury, taken her old and battered rapier, and forced a newly reforged one upon her. Harrow admitted begrudgingly that Aiglamene had done a remarkable job restoring the weapon—a long blade of black steal, with an intricate skeletal lattice covering the grip. The pommel did irk her slightly though. In typical ninth fashion the original designer had not known when to stop with the skulls, nor apparently, how to sculpt one. The carving looked to her like a skull puking another, smaller skull, but that was open to interpretation.
Gideon’s eyes were wide, her knuckles white on the straps. Sitting across from Harrow, she was determinedly avoiding her gaze. Instead she stared intently into the cockpit, or rather the front window, given that the shuttle was piloted remotely. Harrow noted with some glee that she had forgone the usual sachet of grave dirt, and would therefore be suffering exquisitely all the way to the first house.
Harrow did not feel a sensation of movement, but did see the landing ground begin to fall away outside the windows. Gideon swallowed portentously. Harrow realised she was clenching her jaw. After a few seconds the windows were whited out—the dirty, feeble white of the artificial atmosphere. Then there was the dark of space, and the stars. Harrow had rarely seen stars. From the bottom of the Drearburh pit, behind the thick blanket of atmosphere, nearly nothing could be seen of the sky. Harrow had not expected them to be colourful, once again the monochrome of Drearburh had never given her cause to expect colour. Now, after a few seconds of staring into starry and perfect white, the colour became subtly visible. Sparkling blues, reds, oranges, smothered by the savage ferocity that had propelled the light of these suns across thousands of lightyears and into this shuttle. Peering through that narrow porthole, Harrow couldn’t quite appreciate the millions upon millions of stars that surrounded them. Even then, their sheer density was astounding.
“Close your mouth, idiot”. Gideon had apparently recalled herself. Harrow closed her mouth.
“I see you finally have control over your stomach again”. Harrow snapped back.
“For your information I always had control over my stomach. Space just happens to be a creepy and awful thanergetic void, that’s all”. Gideon had her confidence back, to be able to deliver that line with a straight face.
“I’m sure you’re used to creepy and awful”. Harrow never lost her confidence, and she delivered that with a smirk.
“Very funny Nova. Nothing as creepy and awful as your sorry attempt at face paint, or the pommel of that sword. Is that skull biting the other one?” Harrow laid her hand over the pommel.
“You forced this sword on me Navenarius. My last was perfectly adequate”.
“Sure, and that’s why the leather had rotted off and the pommel was glued back together”.
Harrow turned her face from Gideon, and to the front window, and the stars.
“How long until we reach the First?” She asked without looking at Gideon.
“About three hours apparently. These shuttles use obelisks around Dominicus to cut down the distance. Should be hitting the first in about five minutes”.
Harrow grunted acknowledgement, and both girls fell into silence. Then Gideon spoke.
“You know Nova, we should really get to know each other a little, if we’re gonna’ be fighting side by side and all”.
Harrow ignored her. Gideon sighed. Then the lights turned off.
The shuttle was lit only by starlight, until the emergency power activated, bathing them both in catastrophic red. Harrow began to slowly lift off her seat. Her hair flowed around her temples as if she were underwater. She no longer felt the wait of the rapier against her hip.
“The shuttle’s stopped accelerating. Thats why the gravity just stopped”. Harrow had no way to verify this, but took Gideon’s word for it.
“What the hell is happening?” Gideon said irascibly. Her eyes were beginning to widen, and her hands fidgeted with her straps. Harrow reached down, unbuckled the belt holding her in place, and released herself. This was a mistake. She began to fall forward, her head descending towards the floor as her legs rose. She thrust her arms out in an attempt to swim, but succeeded only in smacking her chair, and careening into the shuttle at an angle. At least Gideon hadn’t burst out laughing at her. She sailed helplessly across the interior of the small ship before bumping into the opposite wall. Fumbling around, she dug her fingers into the crevice of a wall panel, scrambling for purchase. From this tenuous position, she spotted a handle, and grabbed on tightly. Rotating her body parallel with Gideon’s. She was now clinging to a wall, next to the entrance of the cockpit. Following the handholds that led around the interior, she pulled herself over to the small user interface screen below the big window. She didn’t really know what to do with screens, but she had seen them used in comics, so gingerly tapped it. It lit up. Written in unremarkable text was a message.
“Dear Revered Daughter Gideon Navenarius,
It is with great sympathy that we announce your slow and dreadful death in the vacuum of space. We regret that this was necessary, however, you could not be allowed to continue your mission. Be consoled that humanity will find itself in a brighter galaxy as a result of your murder.
Yours with condolences,
Not to be outdone, Gideon had manoeuvred herself alongside Harrow. Looking upon that message, beneath her paint, Harrow saw her jaw slacken, and her mouth fall open slightly. The emergency lighting rendered her orange hair a scarlet wound in the shuttle’s darkness. Gideon looked at her. She looked at Gideon.
“This can’t be it”. Gideon spluttered.
Harrow simply let herself fall back, slowly turning upside down, unable to properly grasp the reality of what she’d just read.
“We have to send out a distress beacon, a cohort ship is bound to pick us up. What about the ship that brings supplies?”
The message on the screen suddenly changed.
“Dear Revered Daughter Gideon Navenarius,
Rest assured that no cohort ship will pass this portion of space before you freeze to death. We have disabled the signalling function on this shuttle. Please take comfort in the fact that your brain function will likely cease before oxygen in this shuttle runs out, rendering your death comparatively comfortable”.
Yours with condolences,
The air in the shuttle began to seem noticeably chillier. Harrow continued to rotate.
“For God’s sake Harrow we have to do something! We can’t just become popsicles out here!”
Harrow remained silent. Her current dominant emotion was overwhelming disappointment. If she had to die, she would have preferred the romantic death of the swordswoman, unyielding and untouchable. Instead her neurones would slowly freeze, in this oversized coffin, her rock-solid corpse bouncing impotently around for eternity. Worst of all she’d be frozen with Gideon, probably the least sexy death-partner possible. Gideon kicked her.
“Nova wake up!” She was yelling. “We have to figure out the communicator on here, there must be some way we can access it directly, bypass the block they’ve put on the controls…”
Harrow knew for a fact that she was spouting bullshit directly from a comic book, because they had read the same comic books. She continued to rotate. Try as she might, she would die as she lived, not strong enough to change a single thing. Not strong enough to become cavalier primary, not strong enough to earn the slightest word of praise from Reverend Mother and Father. Her short, sad life really was tragic. She was dully aware of Gideon yelling at the screen, jabbing at it harder and harder.
Suddenly the shuttle was bathed in coloured light. The screen had changed. Harrow could make out the head and shoulders of a person. She grabbed for a handle and righted herself.
The screen showed a boy. His face was gaunt, the bags under his eyes obvious behind his round glasses. The eyes themselves were a unique and arresting grey. His expression was concerned, suppressing triumphant.
“Hello? Hello? Reverend Daughter can you hear me?” His voice was tinny and strange through the ship’s speakers and network lag.
Gideon grabbed the screen with both hands as if it were the only solid object in the shuttle. Her face was openly desperate.
“Yes I can hear you. Listen, you have to help us, our shuttle-“
“Calm Reverend Daughter, calm. I know your shuttle has been sabotaged, ours was too. My name is Palamades Sextus, Master Warden of the Sixth House. It is my intention to help you”.
Yes, monologuing pretentiously to your victims is a JoJos reference.