And in this moment of terrible distress the skies opened with a loud shriek and angels, bright as the sun was black, descended down to earth and their beauty soothed all the people and the animals alike. - Chapter I of the Epitoth
The camera drone refocused as the image of Shalee Lianne Cerra, Praetorian Ensign, suddenly started pacing the length of the room. The holographic wall behind her shifted with the movement, giving the illusion that she was walking through a moonlit garden. She paused as suddenly as she started and sighed, tugging her hand through her long glossy red curls, completely frustrated.
"Last night I happened to met up with Lieutenant Garst Tyrell at the Paradise Found. He was the only other in the bar so of course we ended up talking and drinking most of the night. He could tell something was upsetting me but I couldn't really tell him what. I did mention that I was having nightmares but I wouldn't tell him what they were about. He tried his best to get it out of me but it was pointless. I can't confide in Garst, he is the last man I could really tell everything to. He is so passionate about his beliefs, so ardently devoted to God and Empire that if I should tell him that I truely don't believe in God he would no doubt turn me over to the Inquisition and have me burned as a heretic."
Shalee fell silent for a moment.
"I did dance around the subject though I probably shouldn't have. He chalked my questions of faith up to intoxication and youth. He wanted to believe that, I think. He doesn't want to believe that I could be anything other than a God-fearing, Empress-worsphing, devoted Praetorian as himself. He tried to warn me saying that 'the road to damnation is paved with shades of grey and what ifs'. Garst is a good man, a good soldier, and a good friend. I shouldn't have said anything at all, I shouldn't have given him an inkling of how I feel or who I really am."
The recording drone scanned in on her face. Her tawny brows drew together as she considered the unasked question. Who are you?
"One of my tutors used to say we are the sum of our choices, the product of our experiences. We are who we choose to be."
A wisful smile tuged at the corners of her mouth.
"I haven't thought of him in forever. He was my tutor on Giaiaelenostros Prime, or Gia Prime for short. Gia Prime was a space station in the middle of no where, a stopping point for haulers and locals from the nearby astroid colonies. We lived in a pent house there sometimes. Usually we travelled between places, sometimes palaces, sometimes remote villages in nameless locations."
Her expression morphed into something darker, her eyes clouded with shadows as she started to remember the past.
"My Father owned it all. Ou'ranos Cerra, husband to Jea Cerra, father to my three older brothers and myself."
She glanced down at the ground, her fingers wound through her hair again.
"He was a holder, a favorite at the royal courts, a prestigious Amarrian who executed charm as as a lethal weapon. Everyone loved him. My brothers and I thought of him as a God. We adored both of our parents really. We had everything... perfect, charmed lives."
"That is, until I was seven." Her body visibly tensed. "I went into my mother's room....."
A tear dripped from the corner of her eye."I had just finished with evening prayers."
A soft humid breeze ruffled the sheer white drapes that hung over the opened windows. The translucent fabric rippled out into the room, bringing the scent of the night air. Moonlight slanted across the enormous ornate bed. A young mother lay clutching the silky sheets, her knuckles white. Her scream reverberated throughout the room and echoed into the hall.The seven year old dashed down the corridor and threw back the door, pausing at the entrace. Her vivid blue gaze quickly panned across the room, seeing four tall beings drapped in stark white and amber robes around the bed. Each wore an elogated porcelin white mask.
"Shalee! No!" Her mother screamed. Her fingers twisted in the sheets as her head arched back into the pillow. She sobbed "You must not take my children, I will not allow you to harm them!"
One turned to look at the child, his head tilted a questioning angle. Another nodded, and the first moved towards the girl, dragging her by the arm into the corridor, closing the door behind him.
She could hear her mother's muffled cries on the other side. She started to tremble, then tried to pull away "Please, let me go."
"Child. Be still." His voice was silky smooth as he tightened his grasp "I am not going to hurt you."
"Wh-what are you doing to my mommy?"
"You're mother is going away to be with God." He whispered.
Shalee jerked, trying to pull away from him "No!" He yanked her arm and tugged her to him, kneeling as he placed his gloved hand against her mouth.
"Listen to me." He whispered behind the mask. "You must be brave for her, do you understand? Your mother is very special to God and needs to be with him. She has done her duty and now is time she reaps her rewards."
Her eyes widen as she struggled against his grasp, shaking her head no.
"Shalee, stop. You must understand that this is her fate, to be with God."
Her mother's screams stopped suddenly and Shalee relaxed. He dropped his hand from her mouth.
An eerie silence hung over the hall for what seemed like an eternity to her, and then was broken by the sharp cry of an infant. A few seconds later another, higher pitched cry joined the first.
"The babies came?"
He nodded to her "Shhh it will soon be over now." He whispered in a soothing tone. A few moments later the cries faded and all was silent once more. "There now, see? Everything is as God wills it."
"May I see them? May I see Mother? Please?"
"No child, they will follow your Mother to heaven."
Her chin trembled as the tears threatened to fall "No! I don't want her to go! Don't take them anywhere!" She tried to yank out of his arms again.
She turned her head as the bedroom door opened. A sliver of light slanted across her face, the cloying scent of blood and incense wafted from the room, nausating her. In a glance, Shalee saw her mother in the distance, still stretched across the bed. Her dark hair was plastered against her forehead, her nightgown drenched in blood. It was everywhere, smeared across the sheets, splattered against the wall, dripping down the robes of those who still stood by the bed.
A scream caught in the back of her throat as terror seized her. The next moment was a blurr. She felt something sting her arm, looking down she saw the needle being withdrawn. The drug burned through her blood, causing her eyelids to droop. She tried to fight, tried to scream but couldn't move. Paralyzed, she felt herself being lifted. He was talking to her but she couldn't quite make out the words, they seemed far away as if someone were talking to her behind a closed door. She strained to hear, tried to look at him but couldn't. Lights blurred and then suddenly everything was still and dark.
"They killed her and the twin babies she was carrying. I was just seven... I didn't know what it meant, what they were doing, who they were. I heard them...but I didn't know. The next morning I woke up, wondering if it was a nightmare. It couldn't be real, my mother couldn't be dead. I rushed to her room but she wasn't there. Everything was new. The bed had been changed, there were new rugs, new paint on the walls. Everything was different and she was gone. I went downstairs and my Father and brothers were there, having breakfast. As if it were just any other ordinary day."
Shalee rubbed her face with her hands as if trying to brush away the memories. "I demanded to know where my mother was and all they could do was look at me. My brothers said nothing, out of fear? I never knew. My Father took me into his office, into his arms and held me as I cried. I told him everything, what I saw, what I heard. He told me that the men I saw were seafrim, God's angels to take mother and the babies to heaven. He said I was a very special little girl to have witnessed one of God's miracles. He said that it was so special I should never ever speak of it again, that it was a secret between God and me, and that I should feel very blessed to have seen God's chosen seafrim."
"I believed him. I believed him because I wanted to believe him, I wanted to think it was all part of God's plan, that they were angels and I was special."
She choked out a laugh.
"Special. Chosen, even. To watch blood raiders in their sadistic ritual as they murdered my mother and drank the blood of those two innocent babies."
She rubbed her hands together furiously as if she were freezing, still pacing the length of the room.
"He was a charlatan, a deceiver. He made me believe it all. For the next six years I put it from my mind. It was easier to believe him and not think about it."
"I was thirteen." She paused in front of the holographic wall as the scence changed into a rainstorm hovering over an ocean. The faint sound of waves lapping against a shore and gentle thunder filled the background. "Only thirteen when I found out just how special I really was. I was forbidden to enter the North Chapel on our property. Father had said it was too dangerous, that the place was very old and dilapidated and that I should avoid it at all costs."
"And I did until I saw strange lights out that way one night. I went to tell Father about the lights but he was no where to be found, nor were any of my brothers so I decided to investigate it for myself."
She gets a faraway look in her eyes as her features become strained.
"I shouldn't have went down there. I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had not opened those doors."
We are the sum of our choices...
"If I would not have chosen to go there perhaps even now I could still believe in God."
"I could exist in a naive world with the rest of the Amarrians, believing that God is merciful, that we are chosen, supreme. I could live the rest of my days in a blurr of innocence, believing what is force fed to us from birth."
"Opening those doors was like opening my eyes to reality. A dark, horrific reality, where my Father used God's name to commit the most atrocious crimes."
"You see, my Father had made his fortune in slaves, that I had always known, but I had assumed they were sold for profit. I never noticed when they went missing from the house even, another would be there to take their place and lift drifted comfortably by. I was a child, it never occured to me that something nefarious was going on right beneath my nose."
"But that night I could deny it no longer. In that chapel the truth was spread out before me. The walls were lined with shackles, half decomposed corpses hung, completely drained. The floor was sticky beneath my feet. And oh god, the smell. The smell of so much blood, it took me back to that night when I was seven...and I knew the truth."
"I tried to run but they caught me and this time I couldn't be lied to. I was chained and gagged to stop my screaming. I don't know how many days I was left there, starved for food and water, light and mercy. Every night they came and forced me to watch their sadistic and vulgar blood games."
Shalee glanced to the camera drone with tears streaking down her cheeks.
"They kept telling me I was one of them, their blood was my blood, that I belonged to them, that this was my true nature, that I should embrace it. I was so starved...so thirsty."
She darted her tongue out, licking away the tears.
"I don't know how many days had passed before I succumbed. My brother pricked his hand and held the sliver of blood against my lips. His hand was in my hair, coaxing me, whispering to me to be brave."
We are the sum of our choices...
"I tasted it...and then I drank it greedily. I was one of them. I was their loving sister, dutiful daughter, and willing pupil. Night after night they inducted me into their blood games. We became the inquisitors of the heathens, and everything we did, every horrible crime was okay because it was in the name of God."
"Eventually I was trusted enough to move into the house again. Even though I was physically free, I was so mind-fracked that I couldn't even think of running away."
"By day I lived in a daze, I continued my lessons, helped my Father entertain his guests, played the part of dutiful, God-fearing Amarrian daughter and presented to the world a picture of normalcy and privilege."
"By night I delivered the word of God to those my family had chosen, and then helped deliver their souls to or God. What did he care about the method or what became of the vessels left behind? What did he care as long as the end goal was achieved?"
"I lost count of the years after that. None of it mattered anyhow, it wasn't me, not really. It was as if I were on the sidelines, watching someone else invade my body, making it commit murder. I became deaf to my own voice, how could I say those things? How could I preach those words? How could I take an innocent life simply because they refused to believe in my God? How could I torture them so, watch them beg for mercy that I knew would only come through repentance and then death. How could I then...."
Silence. A long moment of silence as she stands there, gazing off into the unseen.
"There was one woman." She shakes her head as if denying it "She looked into my eyes and she saw me. She really, really saw me. I told her to repent and she told me that my mother would be ashamed, that she saw my mother and that I should open my eyes and I would see her too. That I would know the truth." She brushed a hand across her face, swiping away the tears. "I would have none of it. I gutted her, felt her warm blood on my hands and then I drained her, giving her to my Father as a gift."
She slumped down and drew her knees up to her chest. "But she was right. After that I saw her face everywhere, haunting me, pleading with me to open my eyes to the truth. And one day I did, just like that. One random day the reality of what I had become hit me so hard...I just broke down."
We are the sum of our choices...
"I tried to kill myself. I just wanted to die, to end it all. I prayed to God for forgiveness and begged him to take me to my mother. It was all I wanted, just to be done with this life."
"They say with enough money you can buy anything and they are right. My Father bought my immortality. I woke up in some hospital some weeks later in a cloned body."
"And that is when I stopped believing in God."
Somewhere along the way she realized she'd stopped narrating a simple journal entry. She stood and made her way to the camera drone, programming it to duplicate to Garst Tyrell's inbox.
"It took me seven more years to escape him and I only became free because he defied the Empress and refused to release his slaves. That is the only way I have escaped. You think you can threaten me into believing in God? You think there is anything you can do to me that I have not done to another? Do you really think I even care what happens now? I cannot die. I cannot be forgiven because those who could forgive me are dead. There is no punishment that I can face that I've not faced before. I do not believe in your God, Garst, because if he does exist, I will have no part of him. He is cruel and unmerciful."
She cups her hand against her mouth then slowly trails it upwards, threading her fingers through her long auburn hair. "Can you understand any of this? Can you understand what I am trying to tell you? You preach to me of bringing the 'light of God to the unfortunate of New Eden' and tell me there is no room for grey, only 'black and white'." She stared into the camera "And with that, I do agree. Every day we fight a war for the Empire, we kill, slaughter, and pod those whom our Empress has deemed an enemy. Theres no grey in that, it is all murder. For whatever reasons, the end result is the same."
"We are the sum of our choices. We choose every day to put on that uniform and fly under the Amarrian flag, to kill in the name of God and Empire....and yet, we are all the same underneath it all. We are all like my Father and nothing ever really changes. I put on a smile to the world and pretend I am a normal, God-fearing, Amarrian pilot with a pious nature and nobody even cares to question it."
"So there it is Garst, the truth in all of it's horrific glory. Do what you must with it."
She killed the transmission after sending another copy to Zenton. If she were to suddenly disappear, at least he would know why.