“Enna Media Res” by H.L. Fullerton

Wisdom—that old cunt—claims you can take the Sister out of the Heart, but you can’t separate the Heart from the nun—unless you carve it from her cold, dead chest. Which partly explained Enna rummaging elbows-deep in the cracked-open rib cage of an immolator. Nevermind she used to be one of those religious fucknuts herself (not no fucking burner, though). It would’ve been cleaner (somewhat) to use her blessing to stop the Sister, but she’d made vows after fleeing the Heart and wasn’t about to break them—definitely not for some suckass burner.

She was late for whispers; no way could she show up looking like a nightmare. Mother Claudia’d lose her shit. The faithless—ugh, the thoughtful (lousy immolator must’ve scrambled Enna’s brain, got her thinking like a Sister again)—were a bit delicate about effluvia and spilth, seeing as how they knocked the rituals of purification.

A cleanish Enna walked into worship and Mother Claudia was on her like a tick. “We’re sorry. So sorry.”

“’bout what?” Enna said, knowing not even word of a dead Sister’s heart for sale traveled that fast. Was they kicking her out?

“Keese’s gone.”

Keese was Mother Claudia’s son and a born trib. (Enna’d seen enough of ’em in her Sister days to scent one straight off.) Him leaving had nothing to do with Enna. Unless… “Gone where?”

“Note said, ‘Gone to pray.’ He’s going to the Heart, I know it. To purge.” Mother Claudia looked at her with help-us eyes.

Enna had no clue how to stop a trib from tribbing. Or how to tell that to the folk who homed her without seeming ungrateful.

“It pains me to ask, especially after he took your seal, but will you go after him?”

“My seal’s gone?” Enna’s fingers swelled. She’d make Keese’s toenails weep. Her seal was the last remembered scrap of life before becoming the Sisters’ creation; even her name was Heart-given.

“I’m soulsick, just stricken, about his thieving.”

“Don’t you worry, Mother Claudia. I’ll go.”

It meant breaking a promise, but she’d go back to SunCit, take on every Sister in the Heart if she had to. She just wouldn’t use her blessing, that was the more important thing.

Twelve years back—one for each Gate guarding this godblessed city, and yeah, she got the symbolism just fine, thank you—Enna had scrammed from SunCit as if the Sisters’ own assassins were on her heels. Which they kind of were. The robes she now wore belonged to one of those unfortunate Sisters who’d trailed her. So, yeah, marching back into holiest of holies wasn’t her best idea ever.

She disembarked from the tram at Retribution Gate—shorter line, plus how apropos—and strode past the queue of penitents, ignoring the beseeching prayers dogging her heels. She’d donned emetic robes for this, and again, if not for fucking Keese…

She hoped no one noticed the burned spots. Once she reached Prayer Circle and its host of spilled bodily fluids, they’d be mistaken for stains. Except if she crossed paths with an immolator—no way they’d mistake the singed cloth for anything but what it was: a sign of the holy flame. And her a heretic marked for burning.

She paused at the guards’ station, just under the gate’s arch and waited for acknowledgement. Two armed men flanked a scrawny, white-robed tribute strung up like a human cross and hanging above a blanket-sized stretch of parchment. Enna flared the golden robes, her ticket inside.

Instead of waving her through like he should’ve, the guard tilted his head toward the stained parchment beneath the tribute.

Enna’s stomach knotted. She’d been on simmer the whole trip out here, was this close to unearthing Keese and the stolen seal, and this asshole wanted her to prove herself?

Another broke vow to lay at Keese’s feet.

She pulled. Harder than she’d intended. It’d been a while since she’d purged a trib. About a dozen years, exactly.

Trib spewed like a fountain onto the parchment, a bilious yellow followed by a bloodish brown. First dozen believers waiting for admittance held their guts and heaved along. Promises—it seemed—like penitents, were easy to break.

Enna took a deep breath, held it in her lungs and strode through the gate. She’d missed the acidic scent of chyme—not that she’d ever confess.

She forced herself down the monument-lined boulevard that funneled pilgrims to the Heart. Veered off Retribution into a warren of alleys, let the stream of faithful pass her by. Wind was Keese bunked in the Mitzvah slice, the neighborhood carved out between Immolation and Pilgrims Boulevards so she headed east to ferret her quarry.

Get Keese, get the seal, get out. (And try not to gut any more hard-built ground rules.)

“Enna,” Keese said when she cornered him in a slapshack. He wore penitent white and she smelled bile lurking on his lips. “Listen, I needed to purge my sins. And it’s working.” He smiled at her. Like she was some townie he was trying to impress. Too bad he stank of fear.

“Mother Claudia’s soulsick over you.” She studied his color; skin wasn’t really her forte, but sallow and corpse grey were easy enough to I.D. He hadn’t been stupid enough to let a leech at him, too, had he?

“They don’t understand. I need this.”

Enna’d tried; she could swear to that without lying. “Where’s the seal?”

“I had tithes.”

You sold it?

Sweat beaded his skin as if he were being warmed over by a perspiratic. “Only pawned,” he said. “Here, take the receipt. Take it and leave me. I need the gods’ forgiveness. Need it!”

“Yeah, I think you’ve had about all the forgiveness“—she sneered, couldn’t help it—”you can handle.” She strong-armed him toward the parlor’s exit.

“You’re not allowed to touch me!” He tried to fight her off, but the recent purging combined with his already deteriorated health gave him the strength of a newborn pup and, while Enna’d never handled dogs, she was confident they could be carted about without too much trouble.

“Wrong. I’m not allowed to touch the thoughtful during whispers. But you’re in SunCit now, where I’m a Sister and you’re a wormy trib. I can do whatever the fuck I want to you in the name of the gods. So, let’s go find that pawnshop, then catch ourselves a tram home.”

Of course, it didn’t go quite that easy. Someone had recognized her at the Gate and notified the Sisters who’d also got wind about her seal gathering dust in a Kowtow pawn—and they wanted to talk about old times. Fun, fun.

The good thing about being an emetic was that it’s hard for assassin nuns to chase you when they’re shitting their robes and puking up their guts. The bad thing was that it’s harder to escape when your health-fragile hostage also responded to your magic, withering touch. But it was the best (only) strategy Enna had.

If Keese died on her (literally, she was basically carrying him), he’d be the third penitent she purified to death. That she knew of. The first had been a Sister, her talent lashing out when the nuns claimed her as a child. The second was a trib, which made her realize some penitents craved purification more than their bodies could handle, that their religion did them harm. That she was harming them. She’d fled SunCit and vowed never to purge anyone again. So much for that promise.

To top shit off, she was trapped like a hunted mouse in the Sisters’ larder. Last escape, she’d marched confidently through Pilgrims Gate and boarded the tram before anyone realized her departure wasn’t authorized. By now, the guards had surely been alerted and her little purge trick wouldn’t work on men—with guns—wearing shield. Or on sealed-off gates.

The pair ducked into an empty cautery, the holy heat smothering like an unwelcome blanket. Enna shrugged off an uncooperative Keese and her dirtied robes.

“This,” he said, his voice a gravelled hiss, “is the best I’ve ever felt. A Sister like you’s gotta clock how unclean I was.”

Enna screamed so hard she busted capillaries in her throat. Fuck, he was never going to stop. All her years of penance: worthless.

Later, she’d tell people it was the Sisters’ attentions that broke Keese. It wasn’t. She purged him dry. Pulled until she sprained something inside her. Prayed her blessing tapped out, too.

When every last wet drop was gone, she eyed the desiccated corpse, thumbed the seal in her pocket, and whispered Mother Claudia’s favorite benediction. Then she set her stolen robes—and the cautery—aflame; followed the fleeing mob through Immolation Gate (because congruence) and got the fuck out of SunCit. This time, she swore, for good.

H.L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about feeling cursed—which can be found in more than 50 anthologies and magazines including Daily Science Fiction, Tales to Terrify, and Lackington’s. On Twitter as @ByHLFullerton. “Enna Media Res” occurs in the same world as “Twist Ex Machina.”