Author Topic: A Love Letter to Terran Politics  (Read 1097 times)

Offline Mentirius

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Re: A Love Letter to Terran Politics
« Reply #15 on: August 29, 2020, 03:17:16 PM »

Invincible


M42.120, The Underhive, Terra


A mere fifty minutes had gone by before the sharp descent that heralded their departure from Regulated Airspace, where aircraft belonging to Inquisitors, the Adeptus Arbites and other high-priority officials could rise above the hyper-urban mire in pursuit of their duties, and the ensuing plunge down through that unseen squalor.  From there they sank ever deeper beneath the planet-spanning city’s scabrous skin, burrowing like blind maggots into flesh – or like two blind maggots still carried by the fly who had yet to birth them, for while Amaurn and Ratsnaig had been entombed in their troop compartment throughout the journey, the constant pitch and yaw of the gunship had told of delicate manoeuvres on the pilot’s part that must have required uncommon spatial awareness.  The constant rising in Amaurn’s stomach that betrayed their downward motion had been invigorating at first, though it became tiresome long before it ceased.  At last they came to a gentle halt, after nearly half an hour going down.  The gunship seemed to be hovering in place now, maintaining a steady position in the air, according to his settling guts.

“This it?”

“Hold on...yes sir, seems like it.  Pilot says the target set down here and proceeded on foot.”

“Are we going to land then?”

“Not safe to land down here without spotters on the ground.  Standing protocol.  The pilot is conditioned to obey.  It’ll have to be the ladder.”

“Well, it worked on the way up…alright.  What can you tell me about the area?  Broad strokes.”

“It’s a manufactorum complex specialising in vat-grown organics, decommissioned in nine-sixty-two.”

“Why was it decommissioned?”

“Redacted, I’m afraid.”

“Figures.  Inhabited?”

“It’s the underhive, Inquisitor.  Everywhere’s inhabited.  The last purge of this district was three years ago.  May as well have been thirty.”

“…open the damn hatch then.  Let’s get this over with.”

Ratsnaig was clearly reluctant to comply now he didn’t have a rebreather to hand, but if anything the air down here ought to be less toxic than outside Goldo’s Gate; not that Amaurn would be taking any chances.  He wanted minimal distractions while he got his bearings, and Zjivek’s agent would be staying on board in any case.  What he saw through the hatch resembled the interior of an iron cathedral crowded with enormous pillars, with a broken grid of corroded platforms in place of a solid floor, all dredged up from some swallowing lake after centuries submerged and then viewed through the eyes of a flea.  A faint red glow from further below served only to suggest an insurmountable distance, revealing nothing more specific to the eye.  Lines of illegible script had been scrawled across the nearest column in what might have been red paint but was probably blood, alongside a clumsy child’s drawing of a skull.  He didn’t ask how deep in the underhive they were, but most of the current illumination was coming from their hovering aircraft, casting long inscrutable shadows, and even well-lit the platforms down there would be dangerous to traverse.  Tactically speaking, he had fought across worse than this rust-encrusted vista, though not for a while now.  At least it was easy to infer where Ymaar might have gone, for few of the visible walkways could have supported their armoured weight.  The sturdiest and therefore most likely path led off between two pillars, into the mouth of a truncated metal pipe that gaped wide enough to admit a land speeder, providing its pilot had no plans to turn around.

Suddenly impatient to pursue, he let go of the ladder ahead of time and dropped the last ten feet to the deck, landing with a metallic clang and what a brave or suicidal audience might have dared to call a bony creak.  His knees were yet to openly defy him when it came to such stunts, but on occasion they did seem to whisper that there would come a day.  They had both been wrecked and forcibly regrown more than once in the past, as indeed had most of his body at one time or another.  If Amaurn had not been a biomancer, then by now he would instead have been either a much-repaired cyborg with minimal human flesh remaining, or long buried in an unmarked grave.  In addition to frequent injuries, healing the more subtle physical ailments that could arise at any time was akin to driving daemons from a leaking ship, on top of which he prioritised the battle-worthiness of the vessel over its interior living conditions, spending more time on combat training than he did on routine medical maintenance.  He still lacked any bionic implants, which was unusual for a man his age and remained a point of pride, yet psychic regeneration did not excuse him from an ever-growing heap of rejuvenant drugs to stave off age itself, whose returns would eventually diminish into insignificance.  Nothing was explicitly wrong with him yet, but he was already stretching the human lifespan and sooner or later something would give.  He might have another fifty years in him, said a cold quiet voice he tried to ignore, but they wouldn’t be easy years.  However many enemies he overcame, brute entropy would come knocking in the end.  Rationally he knew this was true, though he could not entirely believe it even so.

Perhaps it was the slow death of neglected metal on every side, and most crucially underfoot, that gave rise to such thoughts now.  Amaurn had seen temples to the Plague God more uplifting than this place, and felt glad of the rebreather that covered his nose and mouth, excusing him from whatever dire odours it might otherwise have to offer.  From the faintness of the echo the gunship’s roaring engines made, its pool of illumination only comprised a small fraction of the total surrounding space.  The aircraft still hovered in place and he could feel hungry eyes watching from the shadows overhead.  Fearful, desperate minds were gathered thick as dust motes out of sight, all peering down, weighing the newcomers in their midst.  It was not Amaurn they feared but the gunship with its engines and blazing lights.  He would have to amend that assessment. 

He made a show of brandishing his blade, and the killing glow he willed into it gnawed at the edges of the darkness, driving the shadows back still further, if not as far as he might have liked.  He doubted the average underhiver would ever have seen a force sword, but its fearful potency – and by extension his own – were surely obvious to even the untrained eye.  In a chorus of urgent whispers heard through his mind’s ear, most of the watchers began to emanate some measure of answering awe.  He had shown them his fangs, and that would have to do, at least until he came back dragging Ymaar’s carcass behind him.  There was no sense in delaying it: Amaurn had work to do.  Without sparing a glance for the waiting gunship, he rolled his shoulders and stalked into the dark.


=][=


As Inquisitorial strongholds went, Ymaar’s lair was near the lower end of the scale for grandiosity, if not quite the humblest Amaurn had ever seen – he had after all known outcasts who resided in literal caves, and this decaying manufactorum did at least have a few level floors to its irrelevant name.  The corridors beyond the entry pipe, which had probably never been intended for the purpose, were stifling in places but clear of major obstructions, and not quite so decayed as the surfaces outside.  It also appeared that someone, presumably the Inquisitor, had managed to hook up some temporary power and get the air vents working, along with a sequence of lever-operated doors, none of which turned out to be jammed, locked or trapped.  Illumination had not been provided, but given full access to the warp he no longer needed any, for his will incarnate within the blade was enough to light his way.  On top of this he knew where he was going, for he could dimly sense a living presence lurking somewhere farther in – that would either be Ymaar or whatever retainers, servitors or bio-engineered beasts they maintained by way of security.  The general population seemed to have kept away, which was a strong indication that some awful countermeasures must exist.  With every step he expected explosions, trapdoors or at least alarms, yet the only signs of occupation were the weighty cables he saw hanging here and there, appearing newer than the panels they connected.  By way of gathering intel, he pulled down his rebreather and sniffed the air.  It smelled of mould and dust, of which there were plenty in visual evidence, with maybe a hint of industrial chemicals but nothing overtly sinister.  He left the rebreather disengaged from there.

The manufactorum might no longer have been in operation, but anyone set on repurposing the place would have heavy equipment with them, and would thus have need of a capacious chamber with some pre-existing structure that favoured whatever they were trying to achieve.  He pondered what Ymaar could be doing down here – it was rare to come across a research Inquisitor given to wearing power armour on a daily basis, but unless they had a project in progress that was sufficiently hazardous to merit squatting in the underhive, it seemed a poor choice of residence for someone who could otherwise have lived in the Fortress alongside their peers.  Gleeson’s apartment had been fit for a High Lord next to this, and it could hardly be about secrecy, since it had been simple to follow Ymaar back here.  If this was nothing but a convenient spot to stage an ambush, then why the freshly laid cables and smoothly sliding doors?  It seemed unlikely they could have done it all in the last ten minutes.  If they had been preparing since before the Sanctum Circumspeculum and wanted him all the way in before they struck, then whenever the trap did close it would surely be apocalyptic.  He looked forward to trampling over whatever scheme they had concocted and tearing their conceited head off.  If Amaurn loved anything in life it was a professional challenge, providing of course that he ultimately succeeded in stamping it flat.

As it turned out, the presence he sensed was not the Inquisitor, though it did seem he had located their research project.  At the culmination of a branching corridor, a set of wide, shallow steps appropriate for armoured feet led down to a pair of doors.  Beyond these lay a long rectangular room with the usual riveted walls, offset here by a floor of dirty off-white tiles, criss-crossed by a tangle of well-trodden paths and lit by cold fluorescent lamps that dangled from the high vaulted ceiling in neat rows.  The walls on either side were lined at regular intervals with clear-fronted upright life support pods to which many thick cables led, in each of which a naked human pierced by numerous wires stood inert.  The occupants were neither dead nor in full stasis, nor yet were they dreaming, as a cursory psychic inspection confirmed – a chemically induced coma perhaps.  He had seen similar equipment in the past, though usually in cleaner surroundings.  Were these clones?  It seemed unlikely, for no two of them looked the same.  There were no children, nor any past late middle age, but men and women in a wide range of body types featured, with no clear order to their arrangement within the room.  He doused them for cases of psychic talent or its dread antithesis, finding none.  Neither did the subjects display any obvious signs of mutation, disease or disfiguring wounds, nor even malnutrition, so they could not be from the underhive.  Maybe these were fresh lab rats for experiments yet to come.  Walking up to one of them, a young woman, he pressed a palm against the glass and peered deeper, seeking an explanation.  She was...empty.  Nothing there, totally mind-scrubbed – a human irretrievably reduced to little more than a doll.  Her soul was a tiny stick figure etched in miniature on the canvas of the warp.

At the far end of the chamber sat a massive cogitator bank and what must have been a portable generator ringed by a halo of cables, each one as thick as his arm.  Some of these connected to the pods, while others buried their noses in the adjacent wall.  The cogitators blinked and chimed, giving melody to the machinery’s general bassline hum.  The generator was a blocky cube over ten feet square, while the cogitators filled up most of the rest of the wall, though neither structure looked like it belonged where it currently stood.  Amaurn was striding towards these devices when Ymaar stepped into view, emerging boldly from behind the generator with a bulky pistol levelled at his head.  Their other arm was sheathed to the elbow in a monstrous chain fist, which might have had more impact if it had not been long expected.  They flexed the fingers slowly as they strode forward, activating the fist’s bright blue power field along with its whirring motorised blade.  This was the trap then.  It was about damn time.  Amaurn felt an incongruous rush of saliva fill his mouth, and spat a great glob of it onto the floor.  Tasting the Immaterium on his tongue, he called up a shimmering telekinetic shield in time to stop a bullet that would otherwise have hit him between the eyes. 

“Inquisitor Manuel Elebua…or not, since there’s no such man.  Consider that a warning shot.”

“That bullet was aimed to kill.”

“We both know that was never going to happen, or Odion would have dealt with you weeks ago.  But perhaps you will have more trouble stopping this?”

They shook their oversized fist at him, blurring the air between them for a moment with the power field surrounding the weapon.  Chain fists were designed for cutting through bulkheads.  Amaurn could regrow organs or even limbs if he really had to, but any contact between that thing and his head, or for that matter his centre mass, would probably kill him outright before he felt the blow.  He sent a questing psychic tendril in search of Ymaar’s bio-electrical matrix, but was repulsed by a sensation of thickening thoughts and a needle-sharp pain in both temples.  Their thoughts were a wall of static, while their rumbling voice, excited now, became suddenly shrill in his ears.

“And lo, and our brain fails to bleed!  That’ll be the hexagrammic wards in our armour.  We’re sorry to tell you this, but we don’t own a bust of Roboute Guilliman either.”

“I know what a damn ward is, Ymaar.  Did you think you invented them?  If you had a null rod and a brace of psyk-out grenades in there, maybe then you’d have a shot.  But I think you’d already be trying harder to kill me if you didn’t have something to say.  Spit it out and let’s get on with this.  You know why I’m here.”

“And who you work for – but not who you are, or how Zjivek got his greedy hands on you in the first place.  You’re certainly full of yourself, but then two dead Inquisitors is no small feat for an old man without a name.  We don’t care about them, you realise – we want to know it all.”

“I don’t care what you want or what you care about.  You’re in my way.  For another minute, maybe two if you’re lucky.”

“On the contrary, we are in no danger from you.  Let’s make a deal instead.”

“Not interested.”

“Not even a little?  It would be a shame to kill you after going to all this trouble to bring you here.”

“Ask me three months ago.  It’s done.”

“You haven’t even heard what we have to offer.”

“But I’ve heard that line before.  Let’s say I did know someone named Zjivek.  How long have you even been on Terra?  Are you a Lord Inquisitor?  Do you have other Lord Inquisitors at your beck and call?  Does anyone with half a brain give a damn what you have to say?  I was there tonight, remember.  I’ve seen the kind of influence you have, and I know which side I’m betting on.”

Ymaar all but exploded then.

“Immortality!  We have immortality, and we have His favour, and we have Lyssa Qi.  We are invincible.  Zjivek is nothing and so are you, whoever you think you are.”

Amaurn was taken aback at the sudden shift – for a moment there, it had sounded like Zjivek’s own voice snarling at him from behind the mask.  He realised that while improbable it was not impossible, anonymising as the armour was, and suppressed a mental shudder at the thought.  On the upside, if the Lord Inquisitor had cracked to this extent then he’d get to kill the man, but on the downside he’d still be stuck on Terra, looking down the barrel of a trial whose outcome he could no longer fix from behind the scenes, that would therefore see him burn.  In fact if it did turn out to be Zjivek in there, Amaurn might have to summon one more daemon and damn himself all over again, just to bind it inside the treacherous bastard and see it core out the light in his eyes.  Then Ymaar spoke again, and this time their voice was calm and placid as still water, beneath which there flowed a dangerous undercurrent colder than a winter sea.

“We can tell you aren’t one of them, not really.  How many psykers do you think they have?  Those fanatics are all the same, obsessed with their straight little lines.  Blind to the subtleties of every situation.  Zjivek might have some low cunning, but even he has no idea who he’s really dealing with.  We may not know you personally yet, but we know your employer and we have seen your work.  Our mystery killer demonstrated some training in biomancy and telepathy in the course of their crimes, and now it appears you’re a telekine too, so thanks for the confirmation on that front…but a witch is a witch when all is said and done, and we are the Inquisition.  We knew what to expect.  Ask yourself, how much do you know about us?”

“I know there’s only one of you standing in front of me, though you seem incapable of admitting it.  Who are this we you keep referring to?  Do you imagine the Ordos stand united behind you, or do I smell possession?”

“We are Inquisitor Ymaar, and we are indivisible.  If you force us to end you then we will.  Do not mistake patience for weakness.  Who in the Emperor’s name are you, witch?”

Damn it all.  There was only so much of someone else’s braggadocio he could listen to in one go.

“You said it yourself: we are the Inquisition.  Inquisitor Amaurn, Ordo Malleus, and the fact I’ve just told you that says all you need to know about how much longer you’ll be alive.  I’ve killed–”

“Ah-ha-ha!  We knew you were one of our siblings.  Emphasis on the past tense of course.  Would it surprise you to learn we’ve heard of you?  It all makes a kind of sense at last, assuming you really are the heretic in question and not taking us for a fool.  Well done on making it this far, in that case – popular opinion has you circling Sol system like a canine chasing its tail, unable to flee for fear of further disgrace and yet unable to approach Holy Terra either for fear of being atomised on sight.  Some of us even placed bets on how you would meet your end.  Not that it’s big news of course, more of a human interest piece.  The lengths some people will go to in pursuit of their own delusions; the compound folly of abandoning one’s duty and then returning from the grave to demand some kind of forgiveness, only to burn as all traitors must in the end…a familiar parable, with one more twist of the knife for extra emphasis.  You’re a fool three times over if you believe Zjivek is going to protect you.”

Hissing back at them through clenched teeth, Amaurn made a belated attempt to change the subject, hoping to satisfy his curiosity before the option was lost forever.

“And which duties were you fulfilling down here, that could not be performed in the Fortress?  While we’re bending each other’s ears and waiting for your mistress to come rescue you, how about you tell me what all these lab rats are for?”

Ymaar waved their pistol airily at this, as if dismissing the whole operation.  They took another clomping step forward, close enough now for Amaurn to make out his own reflection in the surface of their mask, albeit with an absurdly swollen nose and tiny eyes so far apart they had displaced his ears.

“You’ve answered your own question there – test subjects, but sadly any information concerning our experiments is restricted to members of the holy Ordos.  We couldn’t tell you about it even if we wanted to.  If you wanted information from us then you should have kept a tighter grip on who you were until we had a bargain.  We have plenty of Xanthites already, and frankly you’re a poor excuse with one foot on the pyre.  Zjivek has overplayed his hand again.”

They came at him then with a soaring over-handed punch, bounding forward with a speed that belied their ungainly appearance to throw all their vast weight and momentum behind the blow.  The chain fist rocketed down at Amaurn, an entirely unstoppable force.  He leapt back a pace to avoid it, already forming the lunge that would dart in over the fist as it reached the nadir of its downward arc.  Yet the suspensors built into the thing surpassed any he’d ever seen, for Ymaar arrested its motion mid-swing and made a savage horizontal cut instead, narrowly missing his windpipe with the tip of the powered chainblade as he aborted his own attack and threw himself clear again.  They kept on coming, throwing their knees into every stomping stride, threatening to trample him to death if he failed to keep his feet.  Fighting a power armoured opponent was akin to crossing blades with an ork, all strength and momentum and nearly impossible to put down.  It was often the head or nothing for a killing blow – unless one counted trying to disable the armour itself, for shorn of its power any such suit became a coffin from which even a strong man would usually fail to rise.  The latter option might have seemed attractive if Amaurn had the faintest idea how power armour actually worked, but he was no engineer at the best of times and this model had no conveniently exposed cables that he could see.  A force sword would cut through even the chest plate under normal circumstances, but the presence of hexagrammic wards was a further complication.  Wards – not dampeners – there were no dampeners – ah yes. 

Like a dessicated desert plant awakened by the rain, Amaurn opened his mind to the boundless warp and issued his demands.  He imagined pit fighters with implanted combat drug injectors might feel some tiny fraction of the rush that now coursed through every fibre of his being.  His pupils dilated, his motions accelerated and every muscle swelled like ripening fruit.  His force sword flared as it met the chain fist, parrying it with comparable might, and a visible shockwave swept the room as Ymaar’s charge stopped dead.  Amaurn strained hard to hold them there, but their other hand was already bringing up the pistol towards his belly.  He twisted aside from the shot, losing only his balance and a scrap of his coat, though that nearly sufficed to end him as the fist came plunging down.  He pivoted out of its path by a hair, looping his blade around to descend on Ymaar’s other wrist.  Rather than sever their hand as he might have hoped, runes flared in concealed crevices and the blade skittered off in a shower of sparks, scoring a line in the back of their gauntlet and bisecting the pistol instead.  That would have to do.  He kicked them in the chest for good measure, hard enough to crack an Ogryn’s skull.  It threw them back a pace but they did not fall, and the armour remained undamaged.  The chain fist brushed against the floor, reducing several tiles to dust, then came up in a fresh attack that turned out to be a feint – Amaurn saw this coming and ducked into a squat, avoiding a gauntleted jab from their now empty left hand, though he had to give ground again when they followed up with their foot. 

Either Ymaar was unreasonably fast in their armour, or Amaurn was slower than he used to be.  He chose to believe the former, not that it made any material difference which it was.  A good sword against a weapon as unwieldy as a chain fist should have been no contest at all, yet his opponent had nearly caught him twice with it already and was not slowing down.  In a moment of inspiration he remembered the life support pods.  Three quick steps took him up to the nearest and he carved into it from the side, shattering the glass and opening its occupant’s belly in one sweep of his shining sword.  Blood sheeted down the subject’s legs, intestines unravelling as he rolled away, just in time for Ymaar’s chain fist to all but disintegrate what remained.  He made for the next one with his enemy hot on his heels, lifting a pointing finger to focus his thoughts.  His target’s every orifice streamed red, a row of formerly green lights turned a matching shade, and he ran past the twitching corpse without stopping, already reaching out towards the next.  The pursuing Inquisitor was fast, but not fast enough to stop him ruining whatever work had brought them down here in the first place.  They would soon regret the scorn they had shown him, if they did not already.  Amaurn was nothing if not vindictive, and he preferred an angry opponent over-eager for the kill, if only to put himself on a level footing.  So thinking, he boiled another subject’s blood, then hit the following pod with his shoulder and tipped it over with a tinkling crash, leaving the fizzing electronics to do the rest while he moved on.  Whether or not this was working was difficult to gauge, but Ymaar was an oncoming avalanche behind him. 

He had emptied nearly half the pods of life by the time he got close to the generator, but his enemy had seen him heading that way and was already bounding to cut him off.  Amaurn turned his sprint into a flying leap and hurtled into Ymaar from the side, tackling them hard enough to finally bring the giant crashing down with him on their back.  He hacked and stabbed relentlessly, holding on with one arm and both legs while he hunted for a weakness in their shell.  Sparks flew, the force sword blazed, and Ymaar’s wards throbbed in protest as he rammed it up beneath their left shoulder plate, questing for a seam.  The point caught and held so he drove it deeper, striking the hilt like a nail’s head with the hammer of his will.  In the first overture to what might yet be a glorious symphony, Ymaar screamed.  Then they bucked and pushed off from the floor, rolling over as if to crush Amaurn beneath them.  He wrenched his blade free and disengaged, taking a glancing backhand blow in the process, though luckily from the empty gauntlet instead of the chain fist.  There was still more than enough solidity in it to send him reeling.  He collided with the generator hard enough to add more bruises to his tally, though nothing important was lost.  Indeed the impact provided further inspiration, so that by the time Ymaar had gained their feet, Amaurn had clambered up and was crouched atop the machine like a spider, already poised to spring.  His enemy spun towards him but could not attack, and perhaps they now regretted their choice of armament, for any part of the room they did not want destroyed was off effectively off limits to them with the chain fist’s power field engaged.

“Well, this is about the worst trap I’ve ever sprung.  Where are your minions, Ymaar?  What’s your exit strategy?  For that matter, why let me get all the way in here?  You had a whole manufactorum of wasted space you could have died in but no, you wanted to show off your toys, and now they’re all getting broken before you do.  You might talk a good game but going by this reception, I’d wager whatever’s really going on in your head makes as little damn sense as anything else on this planet.”

“We had thought…it did seem that you…we expected…”

The Inquisitor’s voice was a small one this time, sounding unaccountably lost.  That about confirmed it then.  They were rotten between the ears.

“This…is…nothing.  Whatever is made can be reproduced.  When all else renders down to dust, there shall be only us and Him!”

Just like that the snarling zealot had returned, sudden as a slap in the face.  With an incoherent roar, Ymaar drew back their right arm, chain fist and all, and smashed it right into the generator with all their might.  Flash!  Amaurn went rigid, every muscle locked as a crackling burst of energy welled up and coiled around him, then was blown clear off the dramatically slain equipment with a deafening static pop that he felt in his bones.  He hit the floor and skidded, clothes ablaze. 

For a few hazardous moments, Amaurn was aware of nothing but the force sword around whose hilt his left fist was still clenched.  He felt its presence in his very soul, for the weapon’s psychic attunement had not been damaged, though the hand that held it was a scorched claw without much left in the way of tactile sensation.  Ghostly images of Balkoth in the Library played across his mind.  The fluorescent lights had all gone out, which was no great surprise, yet the room remained dimly lit by flickering yellow flames, only some of which were coming from Amaurn himself.  As the pain of it all caught up to him he gave a ragged roar of his own, rolling over and over to put himself out.  Ymaar must already have thrown off any ill effects, for he could hear them pounding towards him, every footfall a furious judge’s gavel sentencing him to death.  Never mind the chain fist, a kick in the face might do it.  He might even have chosen to go unarmed from the start in their position, not that he ever would have stooped to hiding his flesh under more plate than he could carry without the use of powered servos. 

It was at this point that Amaurn lost all grip on his ever elusive temper, and not a moment too soon.  He was back on his feet and flying at his enemy before he fully knew which way was up, heedless of his blackened state, his lips drawn back in a berserker’s rictus, carried forward as much by telekinesis as the pumping of his limbs.  He nearly ran right into the chain fist, but his fighting instincts caught up in time to execute a drunken pirouette, twisting past the cumbersome implement to get inside Ymaar’s guard.  Their left hand caught his blade in mid-slash and held it there for a moment, but the wound in their shoulder must have told, for Amaurn’s psychically enhanced strength proved the greater this time and the forestalling arm was forced back.  The edge of his blade made contact with their mirrored visor, bouncing its brightness back into his face, but this was a brightness born of his own burning soul and rather than blinding him, it seared the fading scales of semi-consciousness from his eyes, restoring the clarity he needed for the final push. 

The mask sparked and split before his wrath, but even this was not the end, for Ymaar leaned away and broke free in the nick of time, and his sword slipped clear of the partially cloven helmet before it could bite into bone.  Amaurn tried for a follow-up thrust but the chain fist batted his blade aside, taking the rest of him with it.  He crashed into one of the life support pods in a shower of broken glass, beheaded its occupant on reflex and was drenched by a jet of gore, dispersing the last of the smoke from his smouldering rags.  The body itself was strapped upright and did not fall.  Its blood felt strangely cool against his fire-ravaged skin.  He should probably deal with that.  He reached for the warp and it answered his call in a raging flood.  His skin visibly rippled as a wave of regeneration crashed over and through him, shedding flakes of burnt rind displaced by new growth as a hound shakes water from its fur.  Facing Ymaar in a fighting stance, he extended his sword in a soft pink hand and stared daggers at the broken mask.

“I got your nose there, didn’t I?  It’ll be your eyes next time.”

Despite the obvious damage that must have been a visual hindrance, the armoured colossus made no move to remove their helmet and confirm this or any other theory regarding the face beneath.  When they answered it was in a medley of rapidly changing voices, whose pitch and timbre darted wildly up and down their respective scales.

“Cur-sed is he who strikes against the righteous, for the Emperor Protects.”

“Don’t get me started on the righteous.”

“We have transcended righteousness!”

“You have transcended your damn wits.”

“And what of you, old man?”

Ymaar lifted the chain fist to point an accusing index finger in Amaurn’s direction, their bout of mania over as quickly as it had begun, once more projecting absolute control.

“What are you – three, four hundred?  You can’t fool us with biomancy, it’s all in the details.  Flesh never lies to Ymaar.  We see how thinly stretched you are, even if you refuse to see it yourself.  Moreover, you’re a traitor!  It’s the only reason anyone knows your name, and the first thing they’ll think of when they hear it, if they think anything at all.  Where were your wits when you dared to set foot on Holy Terra, let alone descend to the underhive?  Death is His gift to the unworthy, a sweet release from sin.  We think you came here to get it over with in the light of the Throne, and we are pleased to assist you.  The first time is always the hardest after all.”

“Oh, the first time was nothing.  You’re about to set a whole new record for dying hard.”

They both attacked at once this time, and the clash of opposing forces reverberated through the manufactorum’s otherwise empty halls.  Conflicting energies pulsed and forked as the chain fist’s relentless power field wrestled with the immeasurable psychic energy flowing down the sweeping sword.  Over and over their weapons met, an irregular percussive beat, while the air in the room grew thick with smoke as the generator burned.  Amaurn pushed his rebreather back in with his free hand, inhaling a welcome blast of oxygen between parries, done with talking now at any rate.  He saw nothing to be gained from taunting a lunatic, and whatever had spared Ymaar from Odion’s mercy shot back in the chapel must have failed to preserve their mind.  It appeared there really was no arguing with a bullet in the brain. 

Still buoyed by his unnatural second wind, temporarily freed of all pain and fatigue, he stuck to a two-handed style, the better to maximise the physical and psychological force he could put behind his blade, despite that it was too short for some of the more ambitious cuts he would normally have attempted.  Ymaar blocked or avoided nearly everything he threw their way, astonishingly versatile with the chain fist.  He could not help but be impressed by the sheer economy of their actions, though his own strength had now been augmented so far that there was little risk of being thrown again, so long as he planted his feet before each impact.  Their mass remained much greater than his, and no amount of strength would prevent the fist from mincing Amaurn if they did land a decent hit, yet the grace of their movements could not exceed the limits of the suit itself, and the first priority of powered armour had never been to maximise raw agility.  Its makers presumably sought to increase the wearer’s strength and durability as much as possible while sacrificing minimal speed, and Ymaar had after all been quick enough to hold their own so far, but his own weight could not have amounted to more than a quarter of theirs, and in this way the universe was surely on his side. 

The price Amaurn paid for the power to match his enemy had not been measured out by the brute mechanical laws of the Omnissiah, but was instead defined by the infinitely more flexible, slippery guidelines of the untamed warp, and he was an old master when it came to bending them in his favour, mostly through sheer bloody-minded insistence it would be so.  From a purely physical perspective, psychic energy was effectively free, empowering its user to violate what would otherwise have been fundamental laws.  Compounding these factors, a chain fist was perhaps the heaviest close-range weapon the Imperium employed, outside some Astartes-only gear that even Ymaar might have failed to lift.  It was for fighting heavily armoured enemies or small vehicles, if one accepted that it belonged in human hands on the battlefield at all, and however sophisticated the built-in suspensors or supreme the wielder’s skill, its range of potential motion was far more restricted than that of a sword. 

On the other side of the scales, weighed against Amaurn’s advantages, there was still the problem of the hexagrammic wards.  Even when he did find an opening, scoring a hit that would have cleaved through a ferrocrete wall, all he got for his trouble were psychic sparks and a thin line across one of their pauldrons, marring the black and silver heraldry of the Inquisition but otherwise achieving nothing.  It could not be a flawless defence, no matter how masterful the wards, or he would have left no marks on the armour at all, yet he lacked the patience to wear down his foe with a thousand separate cuts.  From what he knew of such wards – which for once was enough to fill several tomes, for matters of psychic combat held a special interest for him – their effectiveness would be greater than the sum of its parts, and marring any element of the whole could serve to weaken the overall effect.  He had already compromised the armour twice, so helmet integrity must be irrelevant to these particular wards, along with the hole he’d made in the seam behind Ymaar’s shoulder.  Something more drastic was called for. 

Swiping low in a horizontal feint, he succeeded in provoking a block from the chain fist before pulling his blade teasingly out of reach.  Then he drew the point back, up and around, turning his wrists and shoulders as the motion became a tight loop in the air behind his head, from which was born a full-bodied downward strike at the fist itself, hammering down on the weapon with all his strength as it rose to meet the challenge.  With momentum, the warp and the chain fist’s own weight behind him, Amaurn forced it back down towards the floor, snaking out a foot as he did so to hook the back of Ymaar’s ankle, then wrenching their right leg forward into the weapon’s path.  With a satisfying screeching crunch, the chain fist ploughed into their armoured knee-cap, caving it in so badly that the leg bent sharply around it, metal and bone together giving way beneath the blow.  Amaurn released the pressure and stepped clear, leaving Ymaar free to tear the still-grinding fist away from their mangled limb, then to bellow like the burning damned and finally, to fall. 

Abandoning his crippled opponent where they fell, he turned his back on them and took his time wading round through the smoke, ensuring none of the remaining pods supported any oblivious life.  By the time he returned to circle the Inquisitor, he had killed a total of twenty-eight mind-scrubbed subjects whose purpose here remained a mystery.  Meanwhile the conflagration that had begun with the generator had grown to swallow the cogitator, and now seemed set to burn its way right through the floor.  The smoke was getting thick enough to sting his eyes and obscure most of the room from sight, but the rebreather hadn’t given out yet and even if it did, he could hold his breath for longer than it would take to finish this. 

Spurred on by impending doom, Ymaar managed to get their good foot under them, moaning in agony as they forced themselves up onto one pulverised knee.  The chain fist was still dangerous but if they even tried to swing it from their current stance, they would surely lose their balance and topple right back over.  Amaurn shook his head ruefully as he advanced, and did not remove the rebreather, nor did his lips so much as move behind it when he spoke.

“You got anything clever you want to say?”

In a gesture of defiance, Ymaar pulled off their helmet and cast it away.  They were revealed as a bald, copper-skinned androgyne with a boxer’s jaw and two bionic eyes.  A forest of wires grew up from the collar of the suit to pierce their sutured skull, clustering thick as a full head of hair and bound tight at the nape of their neck.  A diagonal cut had drawn a straight line across both cheeks and passed right through their nose, painting most of their face with blood.  They spat out their own rebreather to bare their teeth at him, though the expression said more of pain and hunger than it did of mirth, especially beneath those unblinking lenses.  Their voice came out as a sibilant whisper more suited to a daemon than a human tongue, and did not sound the least afraid. 

“We will see you soon.”

With that, the armour’s good leg flexed, straightened and Ymaar uncoiled like a striking serpent, rising up on that one leg to launch themselves headlong in his direction with the chain fist out in front.  Amaurn was ready for this last-ditch assault, pivoting out of the weapon’s path while bringing his force sword down.  He split the armour open from gorget to groin, cutting the chest plate clean in half, then seized hold of Ymaar’s head and broke their neck with a brutal snap. 

Letting the Inquisitor flop to the ground, he rolled the suit onto its back and stood over it, considering what he saw.  Still alive.  He would see about that.  Squatting down to sit astride Ymaar’s waist, he carved into the vertical slit he had made in the armour, rending organs and bones until their limbs stopped moving and their bionic eyes turned black.  Then he reached in and dragged the wound further open, making space to extract the body, which was hideously riddled with wires and thicker tubes.  No wonder they never took the suit off.  On close inspection, it seemed the armour contained more pipes and circuitry than it did actual flesh, but he was eventually able to extract a ribcage, spine and pelvis, to which the bulk of the recognisable meat still clung.  The limbs he left behind to save on time, cutting around the torso to free it from the cuirass, for the built-up heat in the room was getting uncomfortable now. 

Yanking the corpse out of its shell at last, Amaurn threw it down at his feet and laid into it with businesslike chops, reducing it into smaller chunks until every familiar structure had been destroyed.  He impaled the severed head on the end of his sword and blew it into splattered fragments with a sudden psychic pulse.  Finally he cleaned and sheathed the sword, gathered up what he could from the puddle and dumped it all into the flames. 

There.  His enemy no longer existed.  Nothing short of a daemon, which Ymaar clearly had not been for all their delusions of immortality, could expect to recover from that.  Zjivek could have the armour as proof of death, along with those lesser extremities it still contained.  It might even be salvageable, badly damaged though it was.  As trophies went it certainly put a severed head to shame.  It all seemed to be one integrated piece, rather than breaking down into sections as power armour commonly did, except for the helmet which he retrieved and clamped back on.  Let the Terrans think it still had a whole corpse inside, and let them tremble.  Amaurn was triumphant and intended to milk his victory for all it was worth.  Making the most of his warp strength, he hefted the suit up onto his shoulders and dragged it towards the doors.  Damn but he was glad he’d brought this rebreather in here with him.


=][=


Later, Inquisitorial Fortress, Terra


“And how do we know they aren’t still out there somewhere, having cut some kind of deal with our Lord’s pet snake?  It’s obvious he’s out for himself.”

“Holy Throne man, do you really think they’d give him their precious armour and let him cut off their arms and legs as part of some deal?  Would you do that for any reason?”

“Might not even be their arms and legs for all we know.”

“Really?  Come on, be reasonable.  I’ve already called it in as a success.  I’m not saying the asset isn’t a snake, but Ymaar is as dead as dead gets.  If you’d seen him coming out of the smoke with their guts all over him…  You should have seen Rosgil’s face!  White as a Saint’s bones.  He didn’t want his rebreather back, I can tell you that.  We made him ride back with the asset while we took the armour with us – finish what you started, I said.  Serves him right for muscling in, trying to show off.  He won’t make that mistake again.”

“I don’t know, I’d lay off Rosgil if I were you.  It’ll only come back and bite you later, mark my words.  I reckon he’s going places.”

“I reckon we’re going places when this assignment is over.  Scratch three traitors, no major complications and…well, just look at it.  Upright it must be seven feet tall.  The chest plate and helmet are scragged but once the artificers have taken care of it, I’m sure this armour will do great service to He On Terra.  The Lord Inquisitor will find someone more deserving to wear it, now the heretic has been extracted like a rotten tooth.”

“I thought the Lord Grejchev’s armour was much finer.  This thing is in an awful state.  Makes you wonder if the serpent might not be more dangerous than the rats we’ve been sending it after.”

“It makes you wonder that, Tirrey.  Me, I trust Lord Zjivek’s judgement on these things.”

“Hey, there’s no need to be like that.  I would never…it’s just…a man hears things, you know?  They say he’s a heretic, worse than Ymaar even.  Why would our Lord want to employ a man like him?”

“That’s not up to us to know, or to ask, or to wonder.  Duty.  Is.  All.  The Lord Inquisitor knows what he’s doing.  Maybe whoever you’ve been listening to has it wrong, did you ever consider that? Oh, what is it now?”

“Usmat…Holy God-Emperor…”

“Are you alright man?  You look–”

“Throne save us…it’s moving.”

“Don’t be-oh Holy Thro–”

As the empty suit lurched upright before the agents’ astonished eyes, the two halves of its bisected chest plate sprung wide like the jaws of a trap, exposing a bloodstained interior that bristled with a thousand writhing mechadendrite tongues.  Barbed hooks sank into unprotected flesh, rubberised tentacles coiled and probed, and the suit stepped forward with its arms spread wide, gathering Usmat into its embrace. 

Tiny scalpels divested the host of extraneous tissue, shaving away surplus extremities until only what would fit inside remained.  The necessary incisions were made and the primary nervous connections formed, internal repairs being near enough completion now for organic components to be reintroduced.  The cranial containment unit’s mirrored visor melted into a viscous silver slime that parted to admit the host’s shaven head, then closed seamlessly over its screaming face.  Prehensile tubes bit into its neck and wriggled down its throat, its skull was duly perforated and the imprinting phase began. 

Tirrey tried to break past the armour and reach the door, but a gauntleted hand shot out and closed around his wrist.  It held him still no matter how hard he fought to escape, and when he finally took a blade to his own wrist in a bid for freedom, it simply held him by the other arm instead.  He was already halfway to bleeding out by the time Usmat had been fully overwritten.  Then Ymaar took the blade and cut his throat.


=][=


+++ Message Begins +++
+++ Encrypted: YY/D:X0type +++
+++ Subject: Justice +++

Inquisitor Qi

Our enemy stands revealed – the heretic Amaurn is Zjivek’s assassin.  This witch has trespassed against us and will not be suffered to live.  Amaurn will burn.  Zjivek will burn.  The Puritan Council will burn.  The time for careful politics is at an end.

We are invincible.

Ave Imperator

Ymaar

+++ Message Ends +++


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