Author Topic: A Road Less Travelled  (Read 2126 times)

Offline Van Helser

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A Road Less Travelled
« on: August 16, 2009, 10:45:11 AM »
With a wail of sirens and clank of gears, the trio of praetorians stalked forward on iron feet, half-concealed in the steam and smoke billowing from their exhausts.  Their boltguns roared in unison as their autosenses found targets in the gloom, and the chainblades that jutted from their chasses revved in anticipation of work to come.  Around them cherubim constructs hovered on brass pinions, each clutching a magazine of bolt shells in their delicate manipulators, slaved to reload the weaponry of their larger cousins.  Further behind still, a servitor walked on four bionic limbs, bent forward onto its hands by the weight of the ammunition crate on its back.  The troop was the Omnissiah’s will given form, and by logical deduction was therefore invulnerable.

Adept Golendam Quell watched passively as his command ruthlessly erased all traces of resistance in the college’s librarium.  The enemy had barricaded themselves in, but desks and bookcases were no match for the power of the Omnissiah.  Construct Sigma IV had decisively annihilated the defence and breached the door in seven-point-four seconds, and constructs V and VI had entered one-point-eight and two-point-nine seconds after, respectively.  The total pacification period that had followed had been completed in fifteen-point-eight seconds with a total of forty-seven bolt rounds expended.  Quell’s own auspex told him that there were zero life signs left in the librarium, and that numerous fires were burning as a result of bolt shrapnel.  It would not be long before the room was consumed by flame, and Quell ordered the praetorians to move onto the next corridor with a thought.  As the servitors lumbered past him and their smokescreen cleared he visualised the destruction at the far end of the room.  All the bodies were grouped together at the far end of the room, the remains of two overturned tables just about discernible in front of their position.  What a poor defensive stratagem he thought, and followed the praetorians out of the library, leaving the fires to consume the bodies of the students.

As the constructs cleared the next room of its occupants, Quell became aware of growing confusion amongst the vox chatter.  It was clear that unexpected resistance had appeared against them, but its exact location was an unknown.  Four cogs of the assault engine were reporting damage, but each cog was separated by a median of forty-seven metres.  The logical deduction was that separate elements were deployed against the varying parts of the engine, but that none could identify the hostiles was perplexing.  He accessed his auspex once again, but the immediate area was clear of biological processes.  Leaving his scanners active, he ordered the praetorians on once again.  The vox chatter increased in frequency and pitch as they advanced, and his visual receptors took on a crimson shade, denoting a sub-maximal level of duress in the assault engine.  Irreparable damage had been inflicted on one cog, and all others were to expect resistance in the immediacy.  Quell ordered the praetorians to halt and form a circle, and he slid in between their scalding boilers to take shelter alongside the ammunition servitor in their midst.  The vox still wailed with damage alerts, and the red sheen to his vision increased in chroma as the seconds passed.  Maximal duress was being experienced.  Quell tried to formulate a codex of likely opposition, but he failed to access any categories that satisfied his query.  The enemy had been assessed before the attack, and only light resistance had been calculated, certainly nothing compatible with inflicting maximal duress on the engine.  Had the hereteks gained suitable insight into the practices of the Adeptus Mechanicus to formulate successful countermeasures?  A positive answer was highly unlikely, he theorised.  Clearly, they had outside aid, but who would come to the rescue of such ignorant and dangerous unbelievers in the machine spirits?
 
The blast of a boltgun stole him away from his theorising.  Construct Sigma VI had opened fire in a southerly direction, but the servitor’s bulk prevented Quell from visualising its target.  Its gun roared again, and soon Sigma IV and V had begun to unleash devastation too.  Quell’s auspex told him nothing, and he could do nothing except attempt to focus through the smoke at the interlopers.  Sigma VI’s boltgun clicked on empty and the magazine ejected itself automatically.  One of the cherubim dropped down to reload the weapon, but fell shrieking from the air as lasfire cut it down.  One of its fellows swooped down in its place, but a searing blue bolt of plasma slammed into Sigma VI before it could get there.  The praetorian reeled at the impact, and the excess heat from the blast exploded its boiler in a shower of red-hot metal and coal that scythed through Quell and left him a bloodied mess on the floor.  Quell’s system threatened to shut down on him, but he deactivated his neural clusters, leaving him anaesthetised and paralysed on the floor.  He looked up to see Sigma IV turn through one-hundred-and-twenty degrees to replace the fire arc vacated by Sigma VI and let fly a volley of bolt shells in the direction the plasma bolt had come from.  He could see down the corridor now, and with some confusion he registered the impact of six bolt rounds with the rockcrete wall at the far end.  The targets were gone, and Quell had no satisfactory explanation for it.  Behind his head, he heard Sigma V cease fire, and just as before, a plasma bolt lanced out and struck the praetorian head on before the cherubim could reload its boltgun.  Its boiler exploded too, and a shard of casing thudded into the back of Sigma IV, severing a hydraulic pipe in a burst of black fluid.  Black smoke billowed as the machine’s lifeblood splashed onto the boiler, and the praetorian’s bolter slumped downwards as its weapon arm died.  It turned to face the direction of Sigma V’s assassins and strode forward, battering aside the ruined remains of its brother engine.  Its chainblades roared as it entered its close assault programme and it picked up speed, closing on the source of the plasma blast, its strides lengthening to three metres.  Out of Quell’s sight, the praetorian’s titanic footfalls boomed loud, and its siren sounded a mighty roar, but no cries from its opponents were forthcoming.  Instead, the rising whine of a plasmagun reaching full capacity answered the praetorian’s warcry, and with a roar of its own the gun lanced out with a spear of plasma and annihilated the last of the constructs.

Quell would die never knowing what had systematically taken apart the assault engine he had been a single cog of, but as he lay on the floor, his blood pooling around him, he thought he heard human voices whispering.  He made out little, but one word struck him as oddly non-standard.

Voor’acht.
=][=

Chicades, the Glass Planet, was a luminescent pearl in the void.  Four vessels hung in orbit above the world, all bathed in the glare of light reflected from the planet’s surface.  Two of the ships were vessels belonging to Free Traders, each offered large purses to bring a party to the dead world; one was a naval frigate; and the last was an ancient cruiser-sized hunk of dull red adamantium and steel bearing a cog-toothed skull emblem along its flank: an explorator vessel of the Adeptus Mechanicus.  None of the ships had been in contact with each other, the first two on the strict instruction of their well-paying passengers, and their various captains watched the energy signatures of the other vessels carefully – none of the four wished to be the slowest to bring their weapons batteries online.  The captains of the Free Traders were the most nervous of the four – they had gladly accepted the credit wafers that had brought them here, but now, with an Adeptus Mechanicus ship of unknown but probably devastating power a mere 8000 kilometres away, and a naval vessel even closer they couldn’t help but feel they had wandered into a trap.  One had known he was ferrying an inquisitor across the sector, but the other had assumed his passengers were rich tourists wanting to see the legendary Glass Planet.  He was now beginning to realise the truth, and he had taken out his book of prayer for the first time in a decade.  The other sat reluctantly polishing his laspistol and thinking of all the regretful moments his life had encompassed.  Both were ready for the end.

Below them Chicades sat resplendent, a true jewel in the night sky.  Three millennia ago it had been a thriving Imperial world, famous for the skill of its craftsmen and fervour of its missionaries.  Then the war had come and the nuclear fire had consumed everything, killing the world with a collective psychic scream that had speared through the warp to kill three-hundred astropaths across the sector.  The intensity of the nuclear bombardment had been such that the very bedrock of the world had been turned to glass as the planet died in the flames.  Chicades had passed into legend then – a world of glass, unique in a galaxy of beauty and madness.  As the millennia passed, Chicades faded into hearsay, and only a few truly remembered that once it had been a living, breathing world.  Lack of contact with the system saw Chicades fall off the starcharts, forgotten about by the tithe masters in the Administratum and it slipped from the Emperor’s right hand.  His left hand however had kept a much firmer grasp on the Glass Planet.

For eight-hundred years the Inquisition had been the sole inhabitants of Chicades, and their monolithic grey rockcrete fortress was a bastion amongst a sea of semi-translucent glass.  Below its macro-cannon topped balustrades laboratories cluttered with arcane equipment ripped the souls from rogue psykers and auto-vivisectionists dissected xenos beasts.  Countless scribes and scriveners stained their fingers with ink recording their masters’ teachings and astropaths sent and received messages from as far away as Nemesis Tessera and Terra.  Two regiments of Stormtroopers trained in vast arenas while three hundred sanctioned psykers meditated in a warded chapel.  And in one armoured chamber five men and one woman were congregated under the sign of the hammer, a daemon’s name on their lips.

‘Voor’acht,’ Mikael Van Helser pondered, ‘if this daemon is such a threat, how come I have never heard of it before?’

Across the table Inquisitor Vasili Kutsev snorted.  ‘Just how many daemons can you name young Mikael?  Not many I’d wager.’

‘Eleven,’ Van Helser retorted firmly.  ‘Plus two daemonhosts whose aliases I didn’t have time to take down as I destroyed them.’

‘Still, there are thousands of daemons known to the Ordo Mikael, and for good reason little information is available on them.  You never know what an ill-prepared fool could do with such knowledge.’

Van Helser let the insult slide.  He was the junior member of the Conclave, aside from Innocent of course, and digs like this were par for the course – one was always reminded of how insignificant one was in the Ordo: Malleus inquisitors with egos did not last long.  He had been belittled every day as an acolyte, and every Conclave brought him into contact with other inquisitors more senior than he that took delight in showing up the novices.  One day Mikael would be the one to shoot down the newly ordained, but until that day he would have to keep showing humility in the face of the old-boys’ cheap shots.

‘I think our young friend has a point Kutsev.’  Van Helser looked across the table to Inquisitrix Lexine Sentance wondering if he should show her thanks for unexpectedly leaping to his defence.  She seemed oblivious to his gaze as she carefully adjusted her reading lenses and scanned over the data slate held by nimble golden manipulators that jutted from her chest carapace.  ‘The followers of this daemon are not unique in this sector – I know of at least seven daemon-worshipping groups active on Yika alone – what makes you think this one is worthy of more attention than the others?’

‘Magos Troy?’ Kutsev beckoned the Explorator to the table from the recess beside the door, and with a hum, the magos glided to the table on magnetic repulsors, mechadentrites waving like the fronds of a sea creature behind him.  The magos waved a hand through the air in front of him, and an electronic clicking emanated from somewhere in his robes.  Van Helser took it to be a prayer to the machine god, and watched patiently as the magos completed his ritual with a sprinkling of oil on the tabletop.  A holographic image crackled into focus in front of the magos’s face, illuminating the dark recesses of his hood.  The rictus mask revealed looked bereft of life, and the words that struggled free from his vocal cords were barely whispers.

‘This blessed holo-recording comes from Logoria in the Gammus Cluster,’ he began, the image in front of him showing some sort of servitor being destroyed by a flare of plasma over and over again.  ‘My vessel made contact with the world on two-zero-four-eight-eight-five-seven-M-four-zero after eighty and seven hundred years of warp based interference made the system inaccessible’.

Everyone bar Kutsev shuffled uneasily in their chairs at the mention of Logoria.  The world was at the centre of a growing rift between the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Sector’s hierarchy over sovereign rights to the Gammus Cluster.  After 780 years in the thrall of warpstorm Cabalus, the eight systems that comprised the Cluster had been lost from living memory, almost being consigned to oblivion just like Chicades. The warp though, paradoxical and fickle beast as it is, had ended its reasonless hold on the worlds two years ago.  Completely without warning, Cabalus had blown itself out, opening up the systems to outsiders for the first time in eight centuries.   The Adeptus Mechanicus had been quick to act and had laid claim to the ore rich systems they had plundered prior to the Cluster’s isolation.  There had been no naval assets available to contest the Mechanicum’s claim to the Cluster, and all eight systems had been annexed there and then in the name of the Omnissiah.  Unsurprisingly, this sudden and quite unjustified action had soured relations between the Adepts of Mars and the Adminstratum who saw the move as a direct attack on their temporal power.  Mediators from both sides had thus far been unable to come to agreement over the future of the cluster, and auditors had been unable to assess the worlds for their tithe grading, meaning much needed materiel and manpower were stuck in limbo.  No one knew either what the Adeptus Mechanicus had encountered on these worlds, and the Missionaria Galactica were desperate to know whether the Creed still held sway, and oh-so-conscious of the prolonged exposure to the warp, whether the people of the Cluster still had the right to be called human.  It wasn’t lost on Mikael that he was about to be one of the very first men to hear a report from Logoria, and from the looks of intrigue on the faces around him, he clearly wasn’t the only one who had realised that.

‘The emissaries I sent to the world encountered an affront to the Omnissiah and we unleashed multiple assault engines in response,’ Troy continued, the holo-recording still repeating the green-tinged explosion in what seemed like an ever more lurid shade.  ‘The assault proceeded with the will of the Omnissiah and was successful for the initial seventy-eight percentiles of the mission.  However, the engine assigned to the College Quintus encountered maximal duress.  This was unexpected, owing to the thorough assessment of the defences that should have been present.’

‘Thank you Magos Troy,’ Kutsev cut in.  ‘The crux of the matter that our eminent friend was getting to is that the attack on the servitors you are witnessing was carried out by unknown interlopers who used the name Voor’acht.’

Sentance levelled him a sceptical glare across the table.  ‘And?  Some cultists destroy a servitor or two and you think what?  The daemon has returned?’

‘Not yet, no, but having inspected the college-‘

‘You set foot on Logoria?’ Sentance interrupted.

‘Yes.  Troy was good enough to smuggle me to the surface.  May I continue?’  Sentance waved him on.  ‘The affront to the Omnissiah Troy alluded to was a cult associated with these colleges that were attempting to bind the essences of daemons to their constructs, giving them artificial life quite against the teachings of Mars.  Enginseers do not simply stumble upon the know-how that lets them do this.  Someone with an intricate knowledge of summoning was clearly at work.  Couple this with mention of Voor’acht, and you either have the daemon itself present, or a powerful disciple.’

‘Nonsense!’ Sentance thumped the table.  ‘Gabaerev’s cell destroyed all links to the daemon three thousand years ago.  We all know that.’

For the first time since the discussion had begun, Inquisitor Carlos D’Agostini spoke up, his synthesised voice a screeching electronic chant.  ‘We only know what we read from Gabaerev and Nefton-Gray’s works.  There is no way of verifying how much truth was contained in those books.  Daemons do not die, and neither do their legends.’  With something approaching pride, Van Helser looked to his former mentor.  Even without the synthesiser in his throat, D’Agostini had always been able to take a debate by the scruff of the neck and make it his floor.  The man’s air of authority was absolute, and Van Helser knew the arguing was at an end.

‘What did you learn Kutsev?’ D’Agostini urged.

‘The cult numbered approximately in the region of three-hundred when Troy’s assault engines attacked.  Their mission was thorough and amassed four and a half thousand dead, with survivors only being left at College Quintus.  I tracked down two of them over the course of a month, and after tertiary-level interrogation gained the name of a shipmaster that had come to the world ten years previously and founded the cult.’

‘Ten years previously?’ Sentance scoffed.  ‘In the midst of Cabalus?’

‘I know.  I can only assume some sorcery allowed the ship to traverse the warpstorm.  Veritas was the name I gained, and my agents have located his ship in the vicinity of Yika.  He is resupplying ahead of a run to Tomarisch.’  Kutsev and D’Agostini exchanged glances and Van Helser looked on perplexed.  D’Agostini caught his questioning stare.

‘You must read Gabaerev’s works,’ he said.  ‘All will become clear.  For now though, know that Tomarisch was a world subsumed by the daemon.’

‘There will be plenty of time for study,’ Kutsev said.  ‘I make for Tomarisch tomorrow.  Carlos, I can trust that you will accompany me?’  D’Agostini nodded.  ‘Lexine?’

‘No.  I will save my attention for real threats.’

‘What say you Innocent?’ Kutsev asked, turning to the silent man on Van Helser’s left.  He simply inclined his head.  ‘And young Mikael?’

Van Helser pondered a second.  His work on Narsine was unfinished, and had only attended the Conclave because of the missive to attend from D’Agostini.  Although D’Agostini had trained him, he owed the man nothing – he was an inquisitor and answerable to no one bar the Emperor himself – but in the Ordo Malleus, shunning the attention of a fellow inquisitor, especially one so highly regarded as his mentor brought nothing bar suspicion and the knowledge that one had a black mark against one’s name.  The threats Van Helser knew he would face over his lifetime would perennially be more than he could counter alone – he had to be able to count on the support of his peers.  Narsine would have to wait.

‘I will join the hunt.’

=][=

The Free Trader Monsovian had changed by the time Mikael and Innocent had returned to her, the atmosphere aboard caustic and flammable, whereas six days earlier things had been well-ordered and humble.  The death of Captain Bartok at his own hand was the catalyst for the disorder, and rival officers had been vying for the right to call the vessel their own.  The bridge had seen debate and one flurry of pistols as the rivals had presented their claims to the captain’s pulpit, and the inevitable deadlock of bull-headed egos had occurred.  The impasse could not end without the shedding of blood, whether it be with the tip of a duellist’s sabre or an assassin’s dagger and the mission could not wait for the new captain to establish himself.  Mikael had summoned the rival officers to the bridge and asked of them which man was least suited to command.  Unanimously they fingered the Master of the Hold, despite his protestations.  Mikael shot him through the forehead with his laspistol, and told the remainder that this process could continue until one was left, or they could vote into place a new captain immediately.  Ten minutes later the former First Officer stood in the pulpit, dictating orders to his bridge under Mikael’s ireful gaze.  Only when the ship had blasted to the system’s edge and made ready to jump to the warp had he retired to his quarters, quite convinced that the command of the vessel was in fact his and not the new captain’s at all.

Bereft of a Navigator as it was, the Monsovian’s progress through the warp was steady, and the journey required dropping into real space twice on its circumtuitous route.  Star to star, Tomarisch was a shade over 800 light years away from Chicades, but the stable currents the Monsovian was forced to take took her 650 light years east to the Imperator System, 280 light years south to the Terrillium System, and then 1300 light years north east to Tomarisch.  Total travel time had been estimated at thirty-six days, and with the journey from Yika to Tomarisch taking twenty-five days without a Navigator, the chances that they would catch Veritas were slim, especially as his voyage to Logoria suggested  sorcery was guiding him through the warp.  Kutsev had theorised that Veritas could traverse the gulf in as little as a week, and if that was true then the Free Traders would be arriving a month too late.  The explorator vessel could have made the journey in much less time, but it had been unable to travel on with them, and Kutsev could ask no more favours of Troy.  He had joined D’Agostini on the Thor and they were all left praying that Veritas was not simply making a passing visit and that Kutsev’s agents were able to keep up with him in their stead.  Kutsev said he had great faith in them, but he would not order them to reveal themselves and attempt Veritas’s capture until he had assessed Veritas personally.  If the shipmaster was indeed in league with Voor’acht, there was no telling what fell powers he could call upon, and Kutsev was not callous enough to sacrifice his agents to simply test Veritas.  Without a dedicated tail, Veritas could easily escape their reach and as such the continuing survival of Kutsev’s agents was paramount.  Van Helser had no doubts that Kustev’s agents were anything less than consummate professionals, but he could not help but feel uncomfortable relying on someone else for such an important task.  If what he had read of Voor’acht was even half true, millions would die before the millennium’s end because of the daemon, and Mikael could not now detach himself from the feeling of abject horror that such notions of genocide brought screaming into his mind’s eye.  He had been told his compassion for human life was a weakness and unbecoming of an Ordo Malleus inquisitor by many, but if he did not want to save millions from the predations of a daemon, how would he fulfil his calling?  Inquisitors were meant to be above petty emotion, but if they felt no attachment to the human race how could they serve its best interests?  When one begins to serve oneself, D’Agostini had once told him, one takes one’s first step as a heretic.  An inquisitor should always act for the Imperium, just as He on Terra did.  The Emperor was said to weep one tear for every man that fell in battle defending His realm, and if the God-Emperor Himself still cared for His subjects after ten thousand years on the Golden Throne, then Mikael was well within his rights to want to save millions of lives from a hell-spawned monster like Voor’acht.

The daemon prince had preyed on the worlds of the Imperium since the end of the Heresy, first content to raid, but after a few millennia of senseless bloodshed it discovered the delights of being worshipped as a deity by its followers.  It had sent forth its disciples, building a network of cults across many sectors.  Some were wiped out by the agents of the Inquisition, but for every one that died, another would be founded elsewhere.  Through subversion and violence the cults grew in power, until such a time came that they could challenge Imperial rule.  Hasan-Lavell  in the Hestrian Sector fell first and the daemon knew its star was in the ascendancy.  It joined its legions and claimed the sector as its own, murdering billions.  The daemon had looked unstoppable, but one man had stood between it and the rest of the Imperium – Inquisitor Avgua Siev Leo Gabaerev.

An Ordo Malleus veteran of two-hundred years of service, Gabaerev had been obsessed with Voor’acht.  He had filled dozens of tomes with details of the monster’s rise to power in the Hestrian Sector, covering everything from the daemon’s appearance to the disposition of its forces.  His dedication to ridding the galaxy of the daemon was of such vehemence it spoke of a mania affecting the man.  What could have driven Gabaerev to such single-minded obsession was lost on Mikael, but he guessed the daemon had dealt him some personal blow, or had become the only enemy to outdo him.  Whatever it was, it had driven Gabaerev to sacrifice himself in destroying the daemon.

Gabaerev had visited Titan to request the aid of the Grey Knights in routing the beast, and had been granted the command of five of the Astartes.  As grateful as he had been for the masters of Titan to grant him any aid, five Grey Knights was not enough to fight through the horde to Voor’acht and Gabaerev had realised a distraction was required to allow the Grey Knights to teleport into the daemon’s vicinity.  On Veldar III Gabaerev had made his move, leading three thousand horsemen from Krieg into the flank of the daemon’s army as it assaulted the planet’s last Imperial defences.  Gabaerev had died, but his plan had worked; the daemon had been banished to the aethyr for the oft-prescribed millennia and a day.  The battle to reclaim the Hestrian Sector had lasted centuries, but the Imperium had reasserted control over its ninety systems with blood and fire.  Gabaerev’s fellows had rooted out the surviving fragments of Voor’acht’s cults, and scoured them from the face of the galaxy.

The bloody matter should have ended at that, but Kutsev had come across the daemon’s trail anew while investigating cult activity on Yika.  The Cult of Forked Tongues was a group of spies who traded in raw information, and had an extensive knowledge of the underworld in the planet’s thriving cities.  Due to their links with every illegal group on the planet, they uncovered more threats than even the Ordo Hereticus could ever hope to unearth.  The cult were a vital link to all the heresies afflicting the world, and each of the Ordos had moles within the organisation, ever on the look-out for snippets of information that pointed to the subversion of Imperial rule.  One of the Ordo Malleus’s hooks in the cult answered directly to Kutsev, and through him Kutsev had learned of a trade in proscribed artefacts between two commercial conglomerates.  The sale of warp-tainted machinery and trinkets was a problem Kutsev usually relied on his underlings to solve, but as their investigation went deeper it became clear that the conglomerates had gone beyond dealing in mere objects.  One had a pet sorcerer, and the other wished to buy it.

Needless to say, the danger that such an individual posed to the sanctity of Yika as a whole was extreme, and Kutsev had taken sole control the case, leading the attack on the trade and dispatching the warp-dabbler with a psycannon bolt himself.  Deeper investigation had found that the sorcerer was part of a larger cabal whose power base was centred around the rich and well-connected Ferenvari Household.  Kutsev had purged twenty-seven sorcerers from the face of Yika, but dozens more had fled the planet.  He sent his agents to track them down as he ground the memory of the Ferenvari into dust, systematically destroying their holdings and ending their bloodline.  In doing so he came across a veritable horde of daemon-tainted objects, one of which his savants identified as a copy of the Book of Voor.  Allegedly penned by the daemon itself, the book was a blasphemous collection of summoning rites and warp-saturated sorcery that had allegedly been destroyed three thousand years before.  Kutsev had asked his savants to double- and triple-check its authenticity, but there was no doubting that the Ferenvari had kept alive the memory of the daemon and even implemented its desires in secret for three millennia.  All the escaped sorcerers had to be accounted for, and Kutsev’s chase had eventually taken him to Logoria, where it had become shockingly clear that there was more than just rogue sorcerers to be concerned about; Voor’acht’s disciples were summoning and binding daemons to machinery for some apocalyptic purpose.  The scope of the daemon’s followers’ scheme was now beyond him, and that was why he had called the Conclave, hoping that his allies would flock to his banner.  One had, and through necessity for his career, Mikael was here too, seemingly ready to lay his life on the line for someone else’s obsession.  How like a trooper in Gabaerev’s army he was, Mikael found himself thinking as he lay down to fitful sleep, a month aboard a tormented ship ahead of him.
 
=][=

Nicodemus was all chin and piercing grey eyes, and had a personality to match his granite-hewn features.  Once an inspector of the Interior Police on Cyntya, he had been with Mikael for a decade under D’Agostini, and had stayed with him after his ascension to inquisitor.  Nicodemus entirely lacked a sense of humour and approached every task with the same strenuous stoicism, whether it be sifting through a roomful of decaying Administratum records or laying down covering fire with his aged but spotless Firenze pattern lasgun.  Even now as he sat for dinner he ate with neither disdain nor relish, mechanically shovelling the reclaimed gruel into his mouth as if that was all he was built for.  Mikael had once enquired of D’Agostini if Nicodemus had suffered some sort of head injury in the past, but as closeted as D’Agostini’s answer had been, Mikael had heard enough to know that the inspector’s distant personality didn’t come from simple trauma.  People didn’t come to work for the Ordo Malleus through mere chance, and between Nicodemus’s obvious mental scarring and his position at the side of a massively well-respected daemonhunter it was clear he had encountered something back on Cnytya no man should ever have to bear witness to.  He was lucky Mikael supposed, in so much as D’Agostini had seen some potential in him and not simply sent him to the Emperor’s Table, but damaged he was.  While his deficiencies seemed so far to be limited to a superficial personality disorder, Mikael was fully aware that every waking day the rent in Nicodemus’s psyche would keep on growing until it left him fully broken.  That day Mikael would have to end him, but until then, his investigative abilities would be of great use to Mikael, and the very lack of emotion that at once defined and ruined him made him an excellent foot soldier for the Ordo.  Mikael doubted very much that anything could scare Nicodemus, and if they ever caught up with Voor’Acht, he wanted him standing at his side.

‘Are you well?’ Mikael asked him as he pulled a chair up to join Nicodemus at the table.

‘Well enough,’ Nicodemus answered quickly.  ‘Better for being underway again.  Things were... uneasy while you were planetside.’

Mikael nodded.  ‘The new shipmaster won’t give us any problems,’ he said dismissively.

‘How long ‘til we reach our destination?’

‘Five weeks.  I have prepared briefing scrolls for you and the others.  Find me tomorrow and we will go over them.  I’ll leave you in charge of passing on the information.’

‘No problem,’ Nicodemus said, and returned to his meal, the point of the conversation having been reached and dealt with.

Mikael sighed inwardly and left the table.  He had learned long ago that forcing Nicodemus into small-talk was a pointless exercise.  He was far too direct to waste time simply chatting.  He was a distant member of Mikael's retinue as a result, but the others respected his abilities enough to get around his bluntness.  If there was one advantage to his direct personality though, it was that Nicodemus would always get the message across during mission briefings with the minimal amount of fuss.  It was why Mikael entrusted the duty to Nicodemus.  Effectively, he was his second in command, though the title meant nothing.  Most of the men and women in Mikael's squad could take on the role at the drop of the hat.  What would be the point in having assembled a group of acolytes in the service of the Emperor if none of them had the ability to lead?  Mikael had a solid group of men and women in his charge, faithful and hardened against the horrors of the warp.  He had the bodies to sacrifice in the fight against the daemon, and now he just had to pray that Tomarisch would at the very least hand them a clue in the search for Veritas and the remaining sorcerers.

Sorcerers were an unknown quantity at the best of times, but any who had had access to a power-soaked relic like the Book of Voor would be dangerous in the extreme.  They could expect warpfire, flesh hexes and daemonkin.  Psychic shielding would be important, and Mikael knew that he would have to spend the next 5 weeks working on his own abilities.  Mikael was a epsilon-level telepath, with an additional zeta-level telekinetic prowess.  He was no alpha, but his powers were focussed, concise and useful.  He could mind-speak and confound simple minds, and summon small objects to his hands. These were exceptionally useful abilities in combat, and he had been told in the Scholastica Psykana that with focus, his telepathic potential could be further unlocked.  The Inquisition had come for him before that had become possible, and with what his career had shown him so far, he was glad of their interruption.  All the powerful psykers he had crossed paths with were miserable specimens in one way or another.  The emaciated forms of astropaths made him feel uneasy, and the arrogance too oft displayed by other telekines went against all the teachings he had received in the Scholastika.  But of all the side-effects of fully realised psychic potential, there was no worse example than the fractured mind of the one they called Innocent.

A ferociously powerful telepath, possibly even beta-level, Innocent was (or should that be had been?) an Ordo Malleus veteran of 120 years service to the Hammer.  He had destroyed hundreds of cults, sent dozens of manifested daemons shrieking back to the warp and torn asunder the minds of countless enemies of the Throne, but the constant attachment to the minds around him had come to affect Innocent. That eternal chatter of the thoughts of others was an ever present tinnitus in his head, and inevitably his own persona had begun to erode.  The memories of those close to him mixed with his own, their hopes and desires became his needs too, and their opinions began to overpower his own.  His mind deteriorated to the point that he no longer knew his own name.  Innocent was a moniker drummed up by someone on D'Agostini's staff and it had stuck, a perfect descriptor for the easily impressionable man that the Inquisitor had become.  D'Agostini had been one of Innocent's closest colleagues before his mind had truly began to break down, and out of loyalty to the man had not seen fit to end him.  Innocent would always be a powerful tool, both in terms of his psychic abilities and the sheer volume of experience he held in his memory.  His time spent in the company of other Ordo Malleus Inquisitors had unwittingly resulted in a pooling of know-how.  There were very few legends of daemonic lore he could not recall, he knew whom to seek out for aid in dozens of sectors and he knew hundreds of battle stratagems.  Of course though, this was all tempered by his few moments of total lucidity and his deeply unnerving ability to become an amalgamation of those around him, or the total mirror of anyone he was left alone with.  D'Agostini had paired Mikael with Innocent to learn from him, but any lessons he received were like being tutored by some omnipotent being.  His questions were answered before he could ask them, and Innocent would pass judgement on all Mikael's most private thoughts without warning.  Psi-shielding himself was useless against such a powerful telepath, and Innocent always took offence to such acts, no doubt associating them with untold numbers of heretics.  He had undoubtedly learnt more from Innocent than he had from D'Agostini even, but Mikael wished for all the world that he did not have to continue his association with Innocent.  The knowledge that such a fate could befall a telepath worried him greatly, and what was to stop Innocent becoming confused by his memories and one day deciding Mikael was one of the heretics he had never found?  D'Agostini would not stand for any dissent towards his old friend, so until such time as Innocent did something inexcusable Mikael would have to stand by and watch the old man skirting the edge of total insanity.  He just prayed that he would not be there the day that Innocent slipped.