Lady Mary Indomitus studied the augur displays intently. Somewhere out there, in the ruins ahead, lurked her prey- a traitor Knight Titan that her allies, the Order of Our Martyred Lady, had named The Folly of Sins. Like her own Knight, Ifurita, the heretic was armed with a massive thermal cannon that had wreaked a terrible toll on the Adepta Sororitas force that had been sent to quell what had appeared at first to be merely another brushfire rebellion. Striking from a perfectly prepared position amongst the ruins of a manufactorum, the traitor had destroyed two precious Exorcist tanks and disabled or wrecked several Repressors, condemning the Sisters of Battle to advance on foot into the teeth of the rebels' guns. Despite their peril, Canoness Theresa had dispatched Ifurita to hunt down the withdrawing Knight, deeming it critical that the thing be destroyed once and for all.
The silver devotional bell that her ancient predecessor had hung from the ceiling of the Knight's command chamber pealed softly with every step Ifurita took. The first Lady Mary Indomitus had been the Lady of a minor House, who on gaining her inheritance learned that despite her high birth, the House would not accept a female as their Lord. Furious, she had taken Ifurita and declared herself Freeblade, later allying herself with the Order. From that time on, Novices of the Order had been apprenticed to the Knight's pilot, taking on the role and the name with her death. One of the first trials of any Novice under consideration for the position was to endure the irregular tolling of a devotional bell throughout an entire month of other instruction without complaint. Eventually, you got used to it.
There- a sign. During the engagement, pict-feeds from one of the Repressors had revealed that The Folly of Sins was limping very slightly and favouring its left leg. From the right leg there appeared to be a slow leak of hydraulic fluid- not enough to cripple the machine or even slow it significantly, but enough to affect its gait. And enough to leave a trail, which Ifurita's augurs had now detected. She pushed her Knight to full pursuit speed- there was no need for subtlety here. The heretic knew she was coming. Nonetheless, she kept a keen eye on the displays, knowing that the enemy Knight held a massive, glowing warpblade in its gauntlet- a non-standard configuration, but one which had to confer a significant reach advantage over her own Thunderstrike. She had to be sure to make her first strike count, and fortunately her alliance with the Sisterhood gave her an edge the traitor would not be expecting. Chasing at her heels came the Seraphim of Squad Galadriel, armed with a brace of fusion pistols and melta charges. Should the heretic direct its shields to repel her fire, it would find the mobility and fire-power of the Sororitas jump infantry to be a lethal combination.
“Ifurita from Galadriel.” came a call over the vox-net. “We sighted the heretic on our last jump. Target bearing 027 mark 15 at one-hundred meters. We move to bracketing positions. Emperor be with you, Sister.”
“And with you, Sister.” replied Mary, charging the thermal cannon and bringing Ifurita around the last obstruction to face the traitor. She was already firing when she realised the enemy machine wasn't facing her, but had instead turned hard to its left.
Directly towards Squad Galadriel.
Even as her fire struck Folly of Sins' ion shield harmlessly, even as she tried despairingly to warn the Seraphim on the vox, the traitor's terrible weapon spoke. Rising from behind a ruined wall on wings of fire, weapons already blazing futile hatred, Squad Galadriel were immolated in an instant. The thing let out an unintelligible scream, “Elcric eht esolc!”
“Abomination!” she screamed, Ifurita switching her transmission to external speakers unbidden as she kicked the Knight into a full charge, cannon blazing. Her second blast beat the shield, even as the enemy turned to receive her. The hit melted part of the things head and knocked out secondary systems across the entire right side, but the left arm, clutching that massive, glowing blade, remained intact and began to swing towards her. Even as she brought the thunderstrike up to attack, she knew it was too late. There was no way she would beat the foe to the strike, and scant chance of surviving it. She cursed as a shot from the traitor partially penetrated her shields, causing minor damage to the right leg, but in her heart she knew such concerns were irrelevant. There was only the sword, and the doom it represented.
Scant seconds from contact, everything changed. From the melted shambles flanking Folly of Sins, Seraphim Superior Galadriel rose like the personification of the Emperor's vengeance. Her hair was gone, along with half of her face, but somehow some shred of life and hatred still blazed within her as her ruined jump-pack fired one last time to propel her at far beyond its usual rated maximum velocity straight at the traitor. Within the bony talons of her hands she somehow clutched a melta-charge.
“The Emperor pro-” she screamed, slamming into the heretic's arm and disappearing in a detonation as intense as a miniature sun. Ifurita's charge crashed home before the smoke had even cleared, a massive blow from the thunderstrike tearing the melta-cannon clean away from the enemy Knight and sending the ruined machine careening through a hab-block to collapse, weaponless, in a sparking heap.
“Ifurita from Order Command.” chimed the vox. “We have lost contact with Sister Galadriel- what is your status?”
“Squad Galadriel gave their lives honourably for the Emperor.” replied Mary. “Their sacrifice allowed the traitor to be brought low- my augurs detect some systems remain operational, but I shall remedy that immediately.” She took a step towards the wrecked Knight and grimaced in sympathetic pain- Ifurita was limping slightly and leaking fluid, but the damage was not serious.
Suddenly, the vox-signal cut out, to be replaced by a new transmission, hissing with re-entry static.
“Knight-Titan Ifurita, this is Inquisitor Lundus Ix. Stand down your attack immediately- I repeat, stand down!”
“Clarify your order, Inquisitor.” growled Mary into the vox-receiver. “The traitor Knight Folly of Sins has this day slain over twenty Sororitas, and you would command me to spare it? Heresy!”
“Belay that command, Ifurita.” came a new signal, and Mary recognised Canoness Theresa's voice. “Destroy the traitor, and avenge our Order. Be advised we are tracking an orbital contact heading to your position- you may be forced to defend yourself.”
Even as the thermal cannon spoke once more, reducing Folly of Sins to a puddle of molten metal, the truth of the Canoness' words became clear. A drop-shuttle, heavily armed and bearing the symbol of the Inquisition, roared out of the sky, heat-shields still glowing, and landed next to the blazing rubble that formed the funeral pyre of Squad Galadriel. As Mary turned Ifurita to face it, a small squad of power-armoured figures swiftly deployed from the transport, taking up positions around the still-glowing warpblade, which had been blasted clear in Galadriel's final act of glory.
“Order Command from Ifurita.” she voxxed. “Inquisitorial forces have secured the last remains of Folly of Sins. I cannot destroy it without targeting them. No tactical threat is presented. Your command?”
“Stand down, Ifurita.” came the immediate reply. “I am in contact with Inquisitor Ix and en route to your position. The Inquisitor has a matter of critical import to discuss with us.”
“With all respect, Revered Canoness, what is there to discuss? The tools of the traitor are to be destroyed wherever they are found, not studied or 'discussed'. To do otherwise is the path of heresy!”
“Aye.” replied Theresa. “But Inquisitor Ix has a Desolator-class battleship in orbit and a standing Exterminatus mandate should he be slain, so discuss we shall.”
They convened some minutes later, after Theresa's personal Repressor and the Rhinos and Immolators carrying as much of the Sororitas force as possible had arrived. The Battle Sisters set up a cordon, and had begun scouring the area for relics of Squad Galadriel to be enshrined.
“So, Inquisitor Ix.” said Theresa, her voice dripping scorn. “What is it about our foe that you consider so valuable that you would condemn a planet of billions to get your way? Even to be in the presence of that... thing,” she spat on the ground “is an insult to our order and to the souls of every martyr made this day! Explain yourself!”
Clad in a suit of ancient golden Terminator armour, Inquisitor Ix wore a sorrowful expression, and seemed to ignore the question. “This is her, isn't it? Lady Mary Indomitus?”
“I am, Inquisitor.” replied Mary. “The twenty-sixth to bear that name.”
“And the last.” said the Inquisitor. Theresa, her old Seraphim training always quick to come to the fore, swept out two plasma pistols with a curse.
“You dare threaten! After all you have already dared?”
“I do not.” said Ix. “Also, the plasma core of Repentance is dangerously unstable and will overload if you fire it.”
Theresa blinked, looking at her right gun in surprise. “I- what?”
“Allow me to explain. I am Inquisitor Lundus Ix, of the Ordo Chronus.”
“Preposterous! You lie!” sputtered Theresa, firing her pistols. The right gun exploded, throwing off her aim with the left, and the fizzing bolt hissed harmlessly wide. The Canoness recoiled in shock, clutching her scorched hand. Ix largely ignored the interruption.
“Those few who know our Ordo even existed believe we have vanished. This is true. A temporal inversion of colossal magnitude trapped our Ordo outside of time for all eternity. The only way we can ever escape it is if.. ah, but I believe one of your Sisters has discovered something.”
One of the search parties had returned. The Sister Superior, who already looked worried, went white when she saw Theresa's injury, but hurried forward when the Canoness shooed away the Hospitalier treating her and motioned her forward.
“Revered Canoness, Honoured Inquisitor, we have found.. something.”
“I have no time for riddles, Sister!” snapped Theresa. “Out with it! Show me, Emperor damn you!”
Slowly, with a nervous glance at Mary, the woman retrieved an item from the pack she was carrying. It was charred and blackened, but as it moved it issued a distinctive sound.
“But.. that's...” gasped Mary, mind reeling.
“The devotional bell of the traitor Knight-Titan Ifurita,” completed Ix. “which was destroyed in 757.999.M41 in combat by the forces of the Order of Our Martyred Lady, in conjunction with the Freeblade Knight-Titan Ifurita.”
There was a terrible, ominous silence. The Inquistorial troops stood motionless around their charge, whilst the Sororitas, faith and reason warring on their faces, fingered their weapons nervously.
“Lady Mary.” spoke Ix into the silence. “Relay the battle condition of Folly of Sins when first encountered today.”
“It was... lightly damaged. The right leg was.. was... leaking hydraulic fluid.”
“And the present condition of Knight-Titan Ifurita?”
Mary's voice spoke seemingly without her control. “Light damage. The right leg is leaking hydraulic fluid.”
“The weapon configuration of Folly of Sins?”
“Errant configuration. Thermal cannon, heavy stubber, Thunderstrike gauntlet holding.. that.”
“And of Ifurita?”
She felt almost like a spectator, helpless behind her eyes as the horror unfolded. “Errant configuration. Thermal cannon, heavy stubber, Thunderstrike gauntlet.”
“This proves nothing!” shouted Theresa, but with a desperation in her voice, normally so calm and full of faith, that cut her Sisters to the heart.
“Its battle tactics.” muttered one of Theresa's bodyguards. “Perfect positioning, perfect timing. Almost as if...”
“As if it had fought in this battle before.” said Ix, once again completing a sentence no-one else would dare. “As I was saying, our Ordo is only able to enter the normal flow of time if another temporal paradox disrupts it. Today is the day on which Ifurita takes up the warp-blade
Tigufsupmet and turns forever from the Emperor's light.”
“Never!” screamed Mary.
“If this does not occur” continued Ix, ignoring her. “the temporal repercussions will be immense. The Sons of Tallamor Chapter of Astartes will never be founded. The Recundite Insurrection will succeed instead of being crushed. The Orks of Waaaagh-Krumpkan will destroy the Eldar of Craftworld Yme-Loc, allowing Hive-Fleet Leviathan access to the Drakan Expanse. And all this is aside from the new area of warp-reality interface that the temporal rift will create in this very sector, dooming billions and creating a staging post for the Thirteenth Black Crusade that puts Abaddon within striking distance of Terra.” He looked at Mary, sadly. “You must close the circle, Lady Mary Indomitus. It is the only way.”
It was the look in his eyes that did it. The incredible depth of sorrow and certainty in his gaze convinced her of the truth that his words could not. She glanced over to Theresa, who had been compulsively cleaning the soot and dirt from the bell as she listened to the Inquisitor's words, and nodded mute assent.
“One thing I must ask, Inquisitor.” said Mary, softly. “Why were you trying to stop me destroying... the enemy? Is that not part of this 'circle' of yours?”
“Indeed it is, Lady Mary. However, had the... other.. been recovered intact, there are certain measures we could have undertaken to alter events in such a way that your sacrifice would not be necessary. In this we have succeeded many times, but our successes, and our failures, are never known to any but ourselves. We will try again, of course- we have travelled this path many times before. But time, if you will forgive me, grows short. We must load Ifurita and be on our way to deliver you to the site of the first recorded contact with Imperial forces, and the path we must travel is only open briefly. Say your goodbyes, but be aware that once the circle closes, none of this will be remembered, and we will once again be gone from the world.” He turned to walk back to his shuttle. “A bulk lander will pick you up in ten minutes. Retrieve the blade, and do not be late, and fear not, the weapon is outside of its own time for now. It will not begin to spread its corruption until you are at the appointed temporal coordinates.”
Theresa walked over to her as the transport dusted off. In her hands she still held the bell. “Sister, I cannot begin to understand the burden the Emperor has placed upon you, but know this- your name, and that of Ifurita, will not end here. Your Novice has retrieved this bell's twin- put this one in its place, for it is already a tainted thing. I had the thought to scratch a mark into it, to see how many times Ix has been around his circle, but Sister, they are beyond counting.”
Mary took the bell, and turned to gaze at the still-smouldering remains of the thing she still thought of as Folly of Sins. “I wonder- was that still me in there? How many years had I been... that? It seemed to remember everything that had happened, but ultimately, it still lost. Galadriel's faith was stronger even than its foreknowledge.”
“Perhaps you... it... simply forgot. Perhaps it wanted to die, knew that it had to in order to have ever existed. These things are not for us, Sister. If not for that battleship and his infernal Mandate, I've still half a mind to send Inquisitor Ix and his Ordo packing, but the die is cast. Emperor be with you, Sister.”
“And with you.” replied Mary reflexively. Theresa gave a quick nod, and strode away, the Hospitalier fussing after her.
She hung the bell, feeling the inside as she did so. It was a mass of criss-crossing scratches in the silver, hundreds, maybe thousands, too disorganised to count even if she had wanted to.
She took up the blade, and felt its voice in the link. “I dna ouy, etirw ot seirots hcus evah ew.” it said. “Niaga nigeb ew os dna.”
She strode into the lander, and servitors hurried forwards with rune-encrusted chains. “I am sorry, Lady Mary” came Ix's voice over the vox. “A necessary precaution, you understand.”
“I understand.” she said. And with each soft peal of the bell, a sound changed on a level too subtle for a sane mind to comprehend, she found that she understood a little more.