The Flickering Flame

Dearest Lorelei,

Though it has been years since we parted your memory still warms me on the coldest nights. I have travelled far from the holy places of our home, borne on the light of a thousand stars. I wonder now if they were guiding me towards some greater truth or simply chasing me into the hungering dark. That is why I address this letter to you, the one star whose light never led nor hounded me, but simply bathed me in its glow.

The Emperor protects. When we were children, that was the bedrock of our belief. When our parents died in His service and we were sent to the Schola, the Emperor intervened to protect us from want and woe. When we broke our bones and split our flesh in training, the Emperor sent His medicae to tend our wounds. When the Drill Abbots flogged the weak among us, they were extensions of His will steeling us against complacency, cowardice. The Emperor provided for us, protected us, and yes, punished us, but it was all part of His plan, His duty to the most vulnerable among us no matter what form it took. As we boarded the ships that would take us into the void, you told me that you would miss it.

I find myself missing it now, after so long away. The foundations I formed there have cracked beneath the weight of the world outside its walls. I have wandered from system to system, preaching the Creed with every fiber of my being. The poor, the sick, the hungry and the infirm, the downtrodden and put-upon, the exploited, the unlovely and the unloved, they all flock to hear me speak of His benevolence. The Emperor protects, I tell them, and with a thirst they drink in my words without heeding the parched lips from which they spring.

The truth, of course, is that He does not protect them. How could He when the scale of the misery is so immense? For every soul that I tend, there are billions just like them suffering in obscurity across an empire so vast that even a god would go mad responding to every prayer. Those who do not suffer the predations of the alien or the scourge of mutation are instead crushed beneath the weight of those born higher – those lords and ladies, who when entrusted with the care of their fellows choose instead to exploit them. And we, the ministers and preachers, we devour their offerings and regurgitate nothing but platitudes: things will be better, the labor is righteous, keep the faith, the Emperor protects.

Their blood is on our hands. Their sweat and tears fill the temple cups and their cries form our choirs. I can stand the lies no longer and by the Emperor I will make things right. If He cannot protect, then does it not fall to us to take up the aegis in His stead? If the shepherds wear the faces of wolves, is it not our duty to drive them away from the flock? What little one man can do, I will do, and damn the consequences. If that makes a heretic of me, I will bear the label proudly if I can excise just a sliver of the rot that threatens everything we hold dear. 

In my dreams I see you in the Schola courtyard, leading the children in the Emperor’s Benediction. The warheads cut black streaks across the midday sun, disappearing behind the mountains. Erupting fire races through the sky. It sears the clouds into ashy rain as birds fall blackened from the heavens. You and the children burn, but even as your skin sloughs off and your teeth blacken you never stop reciting that ridiculous prayer, and as everything goes dark you embrace me. Each time I scream myself awake, the stench of cooked meat in my nose and your whisper in my ear… the Emperor protects.

Someday soon I will no doubt find my own pyre. Standing alone, or with a throng of fellows, I have no illusions as to what lies in store for me. When the flames sear the flesh from my bones and send my soul to the Emperor’s throne for judgement, know that I will stand before Him unashamed.

I can only hope that He will grant me the mercy of looking upon you one last time.

Forever Yours,

Roderik

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