"Tanis, cover her," Andreas advised, rising to fire a three-round burst into the nearest enemy soldier. The heretic was too slow to get into cover, or too headstrong, and dropped down dead with a glowing hole in his chest.
"Blood for the Blood God!" shouted another heretic -- ostensibly making himself out to be the group's leader, his patchy overcoat a shabby mockery of an officer or Commissar's greatcoat and his face daubed with what Andreas hoped was blood -- and Andreas ducked back behind the wall as the enemy surged forwards.
They were on the outskirts of town, in a poor residential district that must have been hit earlier than the others. Most of the fires had died down by now, although Andreas could still see flames devouring shops and houses in the distance. Entire streets had been levelled by the bombers, although Andreas couldn't tell whether it was entirely the result of the bombers' weapons, or whether it was collateral damage to one building affecting the structural integrity of the rest. As far as he could tell, he was fortunate that there were still bits of wall standing to hide behind.
They'd taken cover in the remains of a house at the base of a low hill. Fortunately for Andreas, the road running up the hill was no longer navigable by ground vehicles, owing to a giant rubble-filled crater some forty metres from their position, although he didn't want to assume that he was safe from a flanking attack. As far as he could tell, however, there were currently five heretics charging over a pile of rubble towards him, with the possibility of more en route.
"Miss Dovin, how is Iona?" Andreas asked, daring to glance behind him as Sergeant Tanis took out a heretic's knee and sent him sprawling.
"Skulls for the Skull Throne!" roared a heretic as he aimed a pistol at Dovin, but missed as he lost his footing.
"Not at her best," Dovin answered, apparently oblivious to the fighting.
"Tell us something we don't know, cog-bitch," Tanis sniped as she finished off the downed heretic with a perfect headshot. She brought her lasgun around to fire at the remaining heretics, but her shots went wide.
"Very well. The compound with which I have injected Miss Tethras is intended to stimulate the production of norepinephrine, so as to --"
"Kill them in mighty Khar'neth's name!" a heretic bellowed, and Andreas turned around in time to shoot an enemy soldier in the stomach at point-blank range.
"Whatever it is you're doing, get on with it!" Tanis shouted back at Dovin.
"I am trying, but the process is not instantaneous. It will take some time before --"
"Mighty Khar'neth will have your blood, Imperial dog!" the heretic agitator roared, bringing a fire axe down where Andreas had been standing mere seconds ago. Andreas swiped at the heretic with the butt of his lasgun, but his enemy dodged Andreas' clumsy attack and lashed out with his axe again. He missed and the axe head buried itself in a pile of rubble.
Behind the heretics' trucks, Andreas fancied that he could glimpse a Chimera parking itself at the base of the hill, but his immediate enemy demanded his attention and Andreas' first instinct was to leap backwards as the heretic freed his axe. Oddly, though he carried a stub gun, he hadn't displayed the sense to use it.
"Khar'neth demands blood! Blood for the Blood God!" the heretic continued.
"I can't imagine beggars can be choosers," Andreas retorted, blowing the heretic's arm off at the elbow, before following up with a trio of shots to the face that cremated his head and set the stump of his neck on fire. Incredibly, the heretic managed another faltering step before tripping over a loose slab of masonry and falling forwards.
The rattle of what sounded like an oversized autogun sent Andreas diving for cover on instinct, and he dared to peer around the side of the wall as another heretic trooper panned a heavy stubber back and forth, peppering the ruin with bullets. Behind the man was another individual, smaller in stature, skulking behind the larger heavy as another two heretics dismounted from their truck. At the back was the vehicle Andreas had mistaken for a Chimera.
"How the hell did they get a Salamander?" Tanis asked, joining Andreas behind the wall as the vehicle's gunner angled the autocannon up towards them.
"I'm not sure I want to know," Andreas answered.
"Now tell me who he is," Kuefer snarled, pointing at Barkley.
"Ser Barkley is--" Haines began, but Barkley cut him off.
"Madoc, with respect, I can speak for myself," Barkley told Haines pointedly, and ignoring Haines' raised eyebrow, he turned back to Kuefer. "My name is Ambrose Barkley. An Inquisitor of the Ordo Hereticus."
"And there I was thinking ser Haines tagging along was bad enough," Kuefer muttered. "No offence."
"Be grateful that I'm not easily offended, Kuefer," Haines retorted. "Although ser Barkley informs me that his motives for being here are separate from our own."
"My lady, I trust ser Haines is telling the truth?" Kuefer asked, turning to Hallona.
"As far as we can tell, Inquisitor Barkley hasn't shown much personal interest in that big red bastard up in orbit," Hallona answered. "He tells us he's come here to chase a rogue xenographer."
"We're dealing with xenos as well?"
"Not as such, though given recent events I wouldn't even put it past the Despoiler to put in a personal appearance."
Kuefer managed a half-hearted smile at Hallona's comment. "So what's this xenographer's name?"
"We think it's Mouritz Khan, although he's probably using an alias," Haines explained. "Although we've got very little to go on, and in fact with the present Chaos incursion, Khan's either gone to ground, or holed up somewhere the bombers haven't hit yet. Or have already hit."
A short, almost mirthful cough from Barkley caught Haines' attention.
"I'm guessing there's something you neglected to tell us earlier?" Hallona inquired, her command of tact still impaired by her concussion.
"You could say that," Barkley replied. "I didn't bring this up in Vice-Admiral Burnett's company, for fear that he'd assume the situation to be worse than it is. And in fairness, I was hesitant to tell you earlier, for similar reasons."
"Just tell us," Kuefer interrupted, his voice dangerously close to a growl.
Barkley looked first at Kuefer, then at Hallona. "There never was a Mouritz Khan."