The Ordos Majoris - Roleplay > In Character

The Keeping of Secrets

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Mentirius:
Flash!  Confusion.  Dislocation.  White light pulses, stark and searing; flashes, flenses; fades away.  Voices clamour distantly, a susurration of wordless whispers hissing to be heard.  Sound still rising, tide relentless, scream unceasing!  Somewhere far away an unstrung puppet flails and falls. 

“Nothing ends, nothing changes...nothing stays the same.  Remember your duty, Teleos.  Remember who you are.”

An echo, not a sound at all – perspective shifting, turning inwards – a cave within a cave within a cave.  Monstrous shadows dance by firelight on every painted stone.  Outside the wind is howling hate; it cannot reach him here.  An elder, wiser, calmer voice is speaking slowly now.  The shaman sits beside him, though he cannot turn to see.

“This has been and will be, and is...do not expect to see behind the sky.  You are Teleos Rahn, who spoke the Word.  The Word begets the Deed.  Stand up, Inquisitor.  Go out and face the storm.”


=][=

The first thing he felt was pain.  Not the ineffable creeping pain of a starving spirit – that faded in gradually – but a more immediate, mundane agony that clamoured like cathedral bells from far inside his skull.  His skull...in a sudden, overwhelming epiphany, his body came to be.  A burden but a reassuring one.  A symphony of griping aches joined in harmony with the primal pulse, hands remembered, a flex and a clench before bringing them up to his face.  He pressed his palms against his eyes, still closed.  Breathed in like a surfacing diver; sighed out like a father bereaved. 

“The flesh is certified devoid of physical trauma.  The functional performance of the stasis device within stated parameters is beyond question in this case.  Hypothesis: adverse reaction to sudden exposure to the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon resulting in psychosomatic symptoms.  Irreparable psychosis has been observed in psychic subjects rated in excess of Delta-minus in fourteen-point-six-eight per cent of observed instances of–”

“Keep it down, for the Emperor's sake.”

The Inquisitor's voice was a rasp, barely audible through his dessicated throat, but the hollow metallic diatribe halted immediately when he spoke.  The whirring, clicking, buzzing sounds of various anonymous machines could now be discerned around him.  A mind was hovering nearby – two minds? – one mind, like a puzzle box of bright sharp angles, shot through with twisting copper creepers and sealed with a combination lock, all ones and zeros, wheels spinning, spinning, spinning...Mechanicus, not that hearing them speak hadn't already told him this.  And something else like an echo, a box outside the box, and yet contained within.  The barest hint of a different shape, the shadow of a cloud.  He could hear a purr of static now, from somewhere close at hand.  After a brief pause the synthesised voice went on, at a somewhat reduced volume but now with a slower, reproachful cadence.  Still a human in there somewhere then.

“The Emperor cannot hear me, ergo: it is for your sake that I have applied a thirty per cent reduction to–”

“Try sixty per cent.  Then give me some water, and something for this pain in my head.  I need–”

“Query: sixty per cent of starting volume-slash-sixty per cent reduction to starting volume-slash-sixty per cent reduction to current volume?”

“Are you trying to irritate me?”

“I don't work for you, Inquisitor.  This was meant as a courtesy.”

He took another breath, slow and steady.  Let his hands fall to his sides.  The Tech-priest waited, apparently at rest, the wheels of the mind-lock turning lazily before his inner eye.

“Sixty per cent reduction to starting volume then, please.”

“As requested.  If you intend to drink this water it would be optimal for you to assume a sitting or standing position.  Clarity of judgement is paramount at this time therefore pain suppressants cannot be administered.  I reiterate that your condition is psychosomatic and not indicative of damage sustained.”

Resigned at last to consciousness, Teleos opened his eyes.  He found himself lying in the midst of a square chamber somewhere between a familiar infirmary, of the kind found on Imperial void ships the galaxy over, and a laboratory of the kind usually found only in hazy vid-log records of righteous Inquisitorial purges.  Every available space he could see was crowded with intricate machinery, bulbous and mysterious, save only for a corridor of exposed floor alongside his bed and a looming bank of medical cogitators beyond.  Standing within arm's reach was the Tech-priest, although now he felt less certain about their clerical status. 

Their heavy robes were not the traditional red or black but an inky blue, trimmed with winding spirals of steel filigree that seemed to suggest interlocking cogs without ever containing them.  From beneath the robes dark cables snaked out across the floor, burrowing into nearby devices like worms into fruit.  Wherever the Cog Mechanicum sigil appeared, it did so unobtrusively and formed part of a larger device, resembling an intricate stylised key.  The face within the priest's deep hood was a silver death mask, as gently beatific as a saint.  Its aspect was decidedly feminine.  She was a woman, he decided on this basis.  A dull mutter of binharic machine cant burbled gently from somewhere behind the mask, barely audible until he noticed it, now suddenly hard to ignore. 

A row of supple mechadendrites fanned out above and behind the Tech-priest like the tail of a monstrous peacock, all of them anchored on her back somewhere and poised like striking snakes.  He counted a dozen without thinking, brain running reflexively, trying to order the chaos.  The head of each snake was a shining violet eye.  The crooked form beneath was stooped as if struggling under their combined weight, or perhaps simply encroaching age.  She rested one delicately constructed metallic hand, incongruously adorned with wrinkled fleshy fingertips, on a segmented black cane resembling an upright telescope, its surface encrusted with incomprehensible embossed script.  The other emerged from a voluminous sleeve to extend a canteen towards him. 

Teleos sat up, swinging his legs around and setting his feet on the floor.  It was steel with rows of metal rivets.  He realised he was still wearing his boots.  A familiar sight at least, worn to fit over long years.  With a wordless nod of thanks to the Tech-priest, he accepted the canteen.  The water was ice-cold, a cleansing frost.  Reason began to reassert itself.  The sense of an unpleasant sound beyond hearing remained, but he set it aside for the moment.  Focused.  Insisted.  Uncoiled.  Little by little, the pain in his head subsided.  He was on a void ship.  In transit, but not in the warp, although...

“What is the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon?”

His voice sounded stronger in his own ears now, a little more himself.  The Tech-priest remained inscrutable, in body, mind and soul.  Her answer was light on inflection and sounded pre-recorded.  He couldn't locate the second vox-port.  Only an uninterrupted stream of binary data emanated from her perfect face.

“By way of a concise summary: At the exact zenith of the year designated 999.M41 classical Imperial, an event occurred in which the Immaterium was extruded into the Materium to form widespread phenomena similar to those previously observed in the regions designated the Eye of Terror and the Maelstrom.  Where the Immaterium and the Materium coexist across regions of space, the resulting excrescence of warp energy invariably exhibits drastic chronospacial effects on the matter contained in the region.  These effects are further compounded by the potential for predatory immaterial entities to use the affected regions as gateways into the wider Materium.  The largest of these phenomena is designated the Cicatrix Maledictum and has been deemed responsible by dint of scale for the majority of aberrant consequences for the galaxy as a whole, although numerous independent phenomena in unconnected regions have been verified.”

Spared the need to pause for breath, her lecture was a dirge.  Teleos felt ill, fought back a wave of nausea.

“With the Cicatrix Maledictum being a phenomenon of unprecedented size and scope, effectively bisecting the galaxy from galactic north of Segmentum Pacificus to the edge of the Eastern Fringe along an approximate north-west to south-east axis, the background warp energy released, combined with the hypothesised psychic backlash resulting from widespread loss of life on worlds in and around the region, has been shown to have an adverse effect on psychically gifted individuals roughly proportional, in most cases, to the strength of their connection to the Immaterium.  The most extreme cases have been observed in individuals emerging from long-term stasis predating the emergence of the phenomenon, in whom recognised symptoms include–”

“Yes, thank you...that will be sufficient.  Tell me what year it is now.”

The death mask eyed him blankly.  The violet-eyed mechadendrites twitched once in unison overhead. 

“By way of concise summary: Widespread chronospacial anomalies have resulted in an escalating conflict over the validity of the Imperial calendar, to the extent that–”

“How many years, in your estimation, have passed since the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon first occurred?”

“Approximately one hundred and twenty Terran standard years.  Margin of chronospacial differentiation, approximately twenty standard Terran years.”

“That seems like a pretty wide margin.”

“Time has been theorised to move differently in disparate regions of the galaxy relative to one another, to the extent that local dating systems based upon subjective time measured since the event occurred prevail in a majority of Imperial systems.  A more extreme instance of the same principal can be observed during transit through the Immaterium.  This vessel has not interacted directly with the planet we will shortly be approaching during the intervening period but based on observed data, I estimate their reckoning of years since the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon occurred may range from between approximately one hundred Terran standard years to approximately one hundred and forty Terran standard years in subjective local time.”

“So where exactly are we?”

“We are currently on the far side of the Cicatrix Maledictum from the Segmentum Solar, more specifically the far side of the formerly distinct region still designated the Eye of Terror, in the extreme galactic north of Segmentum Obscurus.  Our destination is the planet Tuvak, formerly an Imperial colony, currently beyond the reach of Terra and beneath the concern of Baal, suspected to have seceded from the Imperium.  There is a standing order for investigation by the Inquisition but it remains a low priority, given the remoteness of the region and a relative lack of strategic or material value.”

“Then why–”

“Why is none of my concern.  Consult with the operative designated Lancet for instructions and or explanations pertaining to your immediate mission.  I'm told he at least has been extensively briefed.”

A human voice this time, albeit wheezing and clipped with impatience...an elderly instructor, perhaps, driven to the edge of patience by an unruly pupil.  Definitely not artificial. 

“You are conscious, active and in no immediate physical danger.  I have fulfilled my function here and have other duties to perform.  You may go.”

He almost argued with her, tried to extract more information, but the tech-priest pivoted smoothly and slithered away to the cogitators, cane tapping, cables rippling in her wake, exposing her bristling back. Another cowled head protruded there, bulging obscenely between her shoulder blades, the face within swallowed in shadow.  Violet snake-eyes never left him as she moved.  The surrounding mane of mechadendrites twisting obscenely to keep him in their collective sight, swaying gently in the air like strands of underwater weeds.  Machine cant burbled on.  Further tendrils were emerging from her sleeves alongside the unsettling hands; thin silver tentacles roving restlessly.  Busy now at some arcane machine, roughly spherical, probably not a cogitator.  The Emperor cannot hear me... 

“What should I call you, Tech-priest?”

“You may call me Magos.”

Something moved in the hooded darkness, as he had suspected it might.  It was the head on her back that addressed him.  There was clearly something amiss here, and ordinarily he might not have let her off so easily.  But newly emerged from apparently more than a century of unknowing, unchanging non-existence in the limbo of a stasis pod, still beset on some level by the turmoil of distant psychic storms, he doubted he had it in him.  Not yet at any rate.  Canteen emptied, he put it aside and got to his feet, bracing his hands on the mattress.  His legs at least were steady, not a hint of treachery there.  His head narrowly avoided a menacing dangling structure, bristling with surgical tools on arms folded in like those of a mantis.  Bracing himself for the ordeal ahead, Teleos left the room. 


=][=

“In the course of my career I trained three men from boys to the rank of Inquisitor.  The first of them is dead now – call him a martyr, or a traitor; but he served his purpose well.  The second will never forgive me.  No doubt he's out there somewhere now, howling at some distant moon.  And the third...Bauchan, the serial High Magus.  Serial failure and survivor.  A cruel and petty creature, unsullied by introspection.  Addicted to empty promises, both given and received.  In truth, he was poor clay from the beginning.  The question of his damnation was merely one of details.  I helped him grow powerful, helped him get worse, but he never deserved any sympathy, nor wanted any either.  No doubt he will think I've forgotten him by the time you come to call.  I suggest that you start with him.”

“What would you have me do?”

“What else?”


=][=

Inquisitor Teleos Rahn was on a mission given to him by former Inquisitor Balkoth.  He remembered this as he traversed the dimly lit corridors of the seemingly endless vessel, seeking further crew members and with them revelations, finding only a procession of empty-minded servitors hunched grotesquely over menial tasks.  He'd given his word to see this through, whatever and whenever the mission might turn out to be.  He had entered the stasis pod, though not aboard a void ship then; somewhere...entirely else.  He had believed.  Now he'd awoken to find Balkoth absent, reality warped, the sky torn asunder by thirsty gods while he himself lay dormant, frozen, waiting for the call.  Waiting while a century came and went, and the Imperium surely suffered.  The call had come, that much was clear, but had it come too late?  Somewhere on this forsaken vessel was a man who knew the answers, at least if the self-proclaimed Magos was to be believed.  Teleos concentrated, tried to listen for thinking minds.  The whispers began to rise.  Flash!

“Inquisitor Rahn, I see you are approaching the bridge.  Please continue to do so.  I will see you there.” 

Not a whisper, a nearby vox-port, a broadcast human voice.  A man's voice, calmly cultured, polite without disdain.  Not an entirely hostile crew then.  This was a Black Ship, he mused distantly, a chariot for Inquisitors like him.  A prison for psykers like him.  This must be one of the upper decks.  He wasn't sure how long he had known this.  No wonder his head wasn't right yet, and daemons take the so-called Cicatrix Maledictum!  He had always despised these places.  For a moment he wondered why Balkoth, a psyker himself, didn't shared in his revulsion.  Perhaps he did.  On reflection, it seemed in character for the man to have kept one anyway.  A statement of defiance, an exercise of will...a monumental theft from the institution he turned his back on.  Maybe he laughed, in private.  Maybe not.  Teleos kept walking.

When at last he emerged from the labyrinthine murk of the void ship's interior and stepped out onto the bridge, the sudden brightness should have been overwhelming, but all he felt was relief.  His emergence was less a birth into a harsh reality than the coming of morning to a woodland, attended by the singing of spectral birds and the thawing of frosted leaves.  The oppression of psychic dampeners was entirely absent here.  A vast high-ceilinged chamber like a temple opened before him, its far side clear as still water, revealing a sea of stars.  No ragged tear across the sky to scream into his soul.  Ahead in what seemed liked the middle distance, a planet patiently loomed, its surface wrapped in swirling atmosphere like some deity's crystal ball.   A fist of undoubtedly furious cyclones, rendered smooth as glass by perspective from on high.  A God-Emperor's eye view.  He stopped to stare in wonder, a smile rising unbidden, borne on a wave of relief – an unexpected feeling to be sure.

“I hate to say this, but it's behind you.  Behind us, I mean.  We're approaching Tuvak from galactic south, which puts the Cicatrix Maledictum well outside your current field of vision.  I can bring it up on a screen if you want, but I'm guessing you'd like a drink.”

That voice again, and a man unfolding gracefully from a nearby cogitator terminal, descending from the metal lectern where it looms.  He had the build of a tree frog, moved like a spider and wore a plain black bodyglove.  One hand clutched the neck of a tapered blue glass bottle while the other balanced a pair of crystal tumblers.  He poured as he climbed, reached the deck with perfect timing to present the first drink to Rahn.  A moment later the second was full; he set down the bottle at the base of the lectern and raised his tumbler as if for a toast, though he stopped short of proposing one.  Crystal clinked and he took a sip, beaming all the while.  He had the face of a diplomat, clean shaven with close-trimmed white hair.  A hint of the scholar with a dash of the trader, perfect teeth and intelligent eyes; these features offset by the complexion of a lab rat and a nose like a butcher's knife.  His smile was open, eyebrows dancing, but his mind – Teleos nearly dropped the unsolicited drink. 

His mind was a bait ball; a shark-shadowed shoal of a thousand thousand fish all moving, shifting, interweaving – ordered chaos, frantic harmony, the infinite changing faces of some primal collective self – a snarl of parasitic trees, built root by clutching root into an edifice of interlocking, codependent thoughts – a flock of flocks of birds, wheeling and diving against a darkening sky, the streak of a hawk in their midst – all this reflected in the glimmer of a blade.

“Pleased to meet you at last, Inquisitor!  And welcome aboard Redacted, the Blackest Ship of them all.  I trust you're feeling recovered.  I'm Lancet.”

Teleos stared Lancet down, his own expression carefully neutral, any hint of a smile long passed.  He was suddenly glad of his own rough beard, no doubt still dishevelled but shaming this shiny knife-man with its earnest, earthy humanity.  He harboured an instinctive distrust of willingly beardless men, never mind one with such a mind.

“And what do you do here, Lancet?”

“What do I do?  Oh, I do all sorts.  First and foremost, I know things, and what I don't know I figure out.  I learn things, find things, keep things running when others are indisposed...in point of fact, I found our good friend Bauchan hiding out on yonder planet among all the million worlds of the Imperium, deep in the Noctis Aeterna.  Then I brought us here, no thanks to the Navis Nobilite, which I assure you is no small feat – although I won't claim I did that single-handed, no I in crew and so forth.  Think of me as a facilitator.  I worked with Inquisitor Balkoth way back when.  Before that I was with the Vanus Temple, training as an Info-cyte – full disclosure here, you understand.  All above board.  Long time ago now of course.  Are you going to touch that drink?  I assure you it's worth the effort.  I won't insult your intelligence by denying the presence of poison.  Alliteration is no substitute for a motive.”

Vanus Temple...well, damn.  No wonder he was here then.  Even for Balkoth this was a coup, assuming Lancet wasn't lying.  What he would have had to go through to recruit such a man...full disclosure seemed eminently unlikely.  The Inquisitor looked at the drink, swirling the golden liquid cautiously.  It smelled faintly sweet.

“The Magos refused me pain suppressants.  'Clarity of judgement is paramount,' she said.  What have you put in this drink?”

“The pertinent poison is alcohol, and as for clarity, by the look of you I'd say a single drink can only improve matters.  We have less than an hour for you to be suited up and on a shuttle.  I suggest we proceed to the seating area for the duration of our briefing.  I for one would benefit from a few minutes in a comfortable chair.”

Lancet gestured expansively to an area roughly in the centre of the vast chamber, where several high-backed armchairs and a sickle-shaped sofa were arranged in a rough semi-circle, bolted to the deck.  The upholstery, as expected, was an unexciting black.  Another cogitator lectern stood facing the seating area, controls invisible from here, with a large auxiliary vid-screen on the front.  It was currently displaying a feed of the planet Tuvak, roughly identical to the sight he could still see through the colossal windowed wall.  A figure in armour was sprawled awkwardly on the sofa, which was clearly built to take a beating.  The metal carapace was a dull gold alloy buffed to a moderate shine, baroque helmet completely enclosed. 

As they approached the warrior, Teleos realised its proportions were all wrong – too wide in the shoulders, too narrow at the waist.  Arms approximating human shape while bending incorrectly.  Not a patch of organic material to be seen.   A servitor, albeit it a highly sophisticated one with clean, ergonomic lines.  Likely worth a High Lord's ransom to the right connoisseur.  No obvious weapons or tools to speak of, and apparently shorter than he was, though it was hard to tell for certain.  Of course the weight of all that metal made it a weapon in itself, and he remained unarmed.  But were those thoughts? 

Distant, yes, like the sound of the wind heard from deep underground.  The faintest echo.  But human thoughts.  Decidedly more advanced then than the stooped, fleshy mono-taskers he'd seen so far.  Another Tech-priest?  If so then a rudely disrobed one.  Perhaps a skitarius, brought along to protect the Magos?  Not that this would explain its presence on the bridge, or for that matter the sofa.  A proxy for her, perhaps.  In any case, its apparent capacity for consciousness was a relief.  If it attacked he'd have something to work with.  And why should it attack?  He mentally rinsed his face.  He had agreed to this.  These were assets, his assets to be used.  He sank gratefully into an armchair and managed not to sigh.  Lancet indicated the servitor.

“Inquisitor Rahn, may I introduce Interrogator–”

“I'll interrogate you if you call me that again.  You won't enjoy the experience.”

A synthesised voice, or a human one?  This time it was hard to tell.  It sounded like a young woman trapped at the bottom of a well, and had the weary tone of one who accepted she would have to stay there.  The unsightly lump of a vox-port had been bolted to the servitor's carapace, where a human collar bone might be. 

“Then may I introduce Ms Anastasia Wysp, former rising star of the Inquisition, current battle servitor and malcontent.  She'll be serving as your field assistant and to an extent, your bodyguard.  Ms Wysp, Inquisitor Teleos Rahn.”

“Another Inquisitor?  We'll see how long that lasts now you've gotten mixed up with this lot.  Pleased to meet you, I guess.  Don't say I didn't warn you.”

The servitor leaned forward, offered to break his hand; he nodded politely to it but declined to accept the offer.  Spreading its mechanised claws as if appealing to the Emperor, it flopped back in its seat with an ominous metallic creak.  Lancet waved away the moment, sliding into a chair of his own. 

“To business!  To cut a very long story brilliantly short, former Inquisitor Bauchan – that's him on the screen now, doing what he does – is a liability for our mutual friend and needs to be dealt with expediently.  Frankly he's by far the least important matter on our list, but also the easiest to address and so, here we are.  Here is what I know: Bauchan has co-opted the Tuvakian government as a power behind the throne.  It's a one-hive world, nothing fancy; perhaps he's looking to settle down.  His cult, a shamefully tawdry philosophical salad dedicated to the daemon Rekkinzon, has infiltrated the nobility at every level, to the extent that I think we can write the entire social class off as a lost cause.”

Another hand wave, this time condemning thousands as deserving fools.  He nipped at his tumbler with a satisfied smack of his lips, before setting it down on an armrest. 

“Fortunately, there's an equally bombastic popular uprising fomenting in the underhive – Bauchan plans to gas the rebellious element, but the relevant point for us is that this has him looking downwards, scheming to stamp out all resistance from below.  What he isn't expecting, primarily because I've hijacked Tuvak's defence network and slaved their satellites to us – also he's never heard of one – is a Fabraxian warp tunnel punching into the spire from orbit and dropping you on his absurdly be-horned head.  Not that there's anything wrong with a horned head in certain extreme circumstances, but there are horns with class and then there are...those.”

He shook his head ruefully, then sharply clapped his hands.

“So!  We have a psychic tracer locked onto his soul, for want of a better word, courtesy of our delightful Magos.  The tunnel should come out somewhere within...oh, a hundred yards of him, give or take, though she'd kill me for being so vague.  Of course I can't guarantee that space won't be full of soldiers.  Follow the signal, deal with the man, retrieve both his daemon swords – don't ask me why he has two – and leave the nobles to their fate.  You might want to execute the governor while you're at it, traitor to the Imperium and all that, but I wouldn't go out of your way.”

A momentary frown intruded, as if silently interrupted.  Teleos had indeed been about to interject, but Lancet pressed on quickly.

“I recognise that look.  You all get it sometimes, nothing to be ashamed of.  But priorities are priorities.  Bauchan himself is a low one in the grand scheme of things, let alone all his fair-weather cronies.  He's lucky we managed to fit him in at all.  Remember, this is not the Inquisition coming for a heretic – well I suppose it is, but first and foremost this is Balkoth coming for Bauchan, and as for Rekkinzon?  Banish it, if you see it.  That's all.  It's about as harmless as daemons get, and he wants us to send a message.  Let it tell its kind what is coming if they think about crossing our path.  By the by, Roboute Guilliman came back from the dead.  No one out here really gives a damn but I figured you'd want to know.  I'll update you properly on the state of Imperial politics once Bauchan has been safely dealt with.”

“Roboute– Never mind, but what exactly is the hurry?  Hasn't this waited a hundred years already?  Surely I should be briefed–”

“He's giving a speech in the governor's palace, a masturbatory sermon for the cream of the cream of the spire.  I figured that would be the ideal moment–”

“You figured – so this isn't Balkoth's plan?”

Lancet's next smile was icy, his affability dispersing like morning mist. 

“This is my plan.  I, in turn, am a part of Balkoth's plan; as are you, Inquisitor.  Knowing when to strike is one of my duties, just as the striking itself is one of yours.  I'm told you excel at this sort of thing, at least when you're fully composed.  You don't have to do this my way, but I assure you I've thought it through far more thoroughly than you have time to in the next fifty minutes.”

He met Rahn's gaze as he said this, before springing suddenly back to his feet, comfort abandoned, bursting with vitality.  On the nearby vid-screen, a horned man was killing children with a jagged blood-slick sword.  They were each queuing up for their turn.

“Don't worry, that isn't live.  Ms Wysp, if he proves amenable, kindly show Inquisitor Rahn to the armoury at his convenience.  He will require full access, with particular attention paid to the Force Armour.  Please instruct him in its operation.  You might also want to tool up a little yourself, make it a proper show of force.  As for me, I'll be needed on that cogitator momentarily.  Good luck, Inquisitor!  This should be well within your remit, but take comfort in the knowledge that if you do fail then he probably intended you to.  Wheels within wheels, you know how it is.  Comes with the territory.”

Resigned to the wheels of destiny, Teleos tossed back his drink.  It tasted like battery acid.


=][=

Mentirius:

“– And now, my friends, we approach the heart of the matter.  Did the self-annointed emperor care for Tuvak?  Did ensuring the prosperity of this unique world, the very jewel in the Imperial crown, even figure in his decisions?  I put to you that it did not.  That their so-vaunted saviour is a fraud.   For what true god, deserving worship, would scorn the sons of Tuvak to pander to lesser men?”

“No god at all,” they chorused; this spoiled, pampered herd.  The audience hall was packed almost literally to the rafters, with coiffured, costumed courtiers filling every seat while more stood crowded shoulder-tight around them, some raised on others' backs, their dignity abandoned, all the way to the high sealed doors.  A few perched precariously in further elevated spots, sharing plinths with gilded statues or risking the ledges of feet-thick, coloured windows, beyond which swirled a never-ending storm.  Illumination was provided by elaborate chandeliers.  The echoes of his voice reverberated through them, so amplified by the artfully hidden vox-address system, concealed by tasteless tapestries, that the inside of the chamber rang like a beaten bell.  Grinning with the fangs of a jungle cat, the High Magus prowled the stage, a raised dais once occupied by the governor's towering throne – its owner sat on the botttom step now, proud as a favoured grandchild. 

“I say to you that Rekkinzon has always recognised your worth.  He has always known your measure, for it was He who Chose this world.  Your primacy, so long denied, is obvious to Him.  He who sees between particles, swims between stars; He who sees to the truth of the soul.  For did not mankind's primacy begin upon this ground?  Did not our ancestors build temples on the earth of honest Tuvak, and did Our Lord not smile to see?  Before their false Imperium, wherever sons of Tuvak strove and dreamed...there was He.  And He is with us still!  For even the least deserving Tuvak flesh is worthy to contain the divine.  Bear witness, you deserving few.  Cast all your eyes on high.   Behold the apotheosis of our faith!”

An appreciative gasp passed through the crowd as they complied.  One might have thought some patriotic angel truly had appeared.  The apotheosis in question was a wrecked, emaciated thing, suspended high above and behind him, stretched to breaking by rune-etched chains.  It resembled a man dead of a wasting disease, though its quivering convulsions seemed to prove some kind of life.  A pattern of eldritch symbols had been carved into its flesh.  Dirty brown light was leaking from its gaping mouth, though no audible sound issued forth.  Perhaps its groans were merely drowned out by the speaker's booming tones.  The ornamented multitude hung on his every word. 

The High Magus stood tall as a Space Marine, and power armoured to boot, though a learned eye would have noted the distended plates, the cancerous organic carvings and the ossified exhaust ports.  Whatever powers drove it now were surely unnatural ones.  From shoulder to floor the suit was bedecked with poorly cured human skin streamers, tattooed in rainbow hues, impaled on fish-hook spines.  His head might have seemed absurdly small on top, but for a pair of ostentatious horns shaped like a letter S, rising from behind either temple and reaching nearly an arm's length into the air.  The skin of his face was pitted as tree bark, eyes tiny and crocodile sly.  Bauchan enunciated his words carefully, compensating for the fangs.  In each gauntleted fist he brandished a naked sword, exuberant as a conductor before an orchestra, spraying flecks of dark corruption like the spittle of a frenzied hound.  One sword had a blade full of teeth and eyes, more animal than steel.  The other cast a solid blade-shaped void, a perfect silhouette that swallowed light with hateful thirst. 

“You all have seen the truth, my friends.  Proud Tuvak, noble Tuvak, stands alone.  Alone save for the Lord of All Creation!  Though Rekkinzon sees all the worlds, he gazes first and last on You.   What say you – should Our Lord be limited to looking down with His all-seeing eye?  Or is it worth a sacrifice to bring Him closer still?  Should he taste the Tuvak spirit for Himself?”

“Tuvak!  Tuvak!  Let him taste!”

A shuffling in the eager mass, as a knot of burly worshippers bullied their way to the front.  Young men of the sort who put on combat suits to hunt desperate underhive scum.  Sculpted muscle flexing in a vainglorious display.  All the piety of a press-gang to these.  The congregation shortly disgorged the group, revealing a bounty of dull-eyed, unwanted daughters, each one led meekly by the arm.  The intended victims mumbled incoherently; one giggled to herself.  Their peers looked on hungrily, whispering, gossiping even now. 

Flash!  The towering gilt doors blew inwards with a juddering, ear-bursting crack.  Shrapnel lanced out through the crowd, a burst of bloody streamers.  The congregation fell apart, terrified and turning feral, howling and keening as they fought to escape.  A tide of flailing flesh rolled forward, swelling, shrieking, snaring people as it came.  Behind the stampede, shell-shocked wounded sprawled in heaps, their limbs a grasping tangle – still screaming when the doors themselves came down.  The crunch of bones was swallowed in the thunder of their fall.   Survivors scattered, fought and scrambled; died upon the dais steps for daring to ascend – for Bauchan laid about him now, a bear beset by rats, his swords a wetly wicked blur that parted throats, spilled guts, ate souls.  The air was thick with dust and choking, stinking smoke.  The wretch on high hung limp.  Staccato bursts of bolter fire rang out across the hall.

“Bauchan!  Inquisition!”

The bellow of authority, said a treacherous primal urge.  The voice of judgement feared, unlooked for, railed against in vain.  A spectral hand pushed down on them, forcing the weeping cultists to their knees.  They cowered in each other's blood, made obeisance to they-knew-not-who and pleaded to be spared.  A hold-out who clung to a high ledge fell thirty feet to the floor.  A figure was approaching their sometime High Magus; a towering, menacing, black-armoured titan, grown vast in the minds of his prey.  A flickering halo of light coursed around him, while searing white currents flowed hot down his arms and pooled in the palms of his hands.  His helmet was framed by great coiling ram-horns, face concealed by a visor, opaque and impassively blank.  The remains of the cult parted meekly before him, all crawling and shuffling, too terrified to rise. 

“Your time is over, Bauchan.  Your failures at an end.  The hand that raised you up has cast you down.”

His voice was a coldly resonant bass; it echoed in the pit of their guts.  Some of them whispered of hands and failures, lips moving unconsciously.  The wrathful god advanced.  With the speed of an animal bolting – some skittering, scurrying thing – the High Magus ran.  He leapt from the dais, breaking tiles as he landed, tried to veer left and get past his aggressor.  The sword on the attacker's back remained undrawn.  His beetle-black armour was slighter than Bauchan's, no ostentatious pauldrons, though the surface of every plate was marbled with a mesh of bone-white lines.  An eerie glow flared up as one fist met a power-armoured chest.  The blow lifted Bauchan, armour and all, and pitched him back into the air.  He met the wall behind the dais, obliterating a portrait of some long-dead governor, or perhaps of himself; left a spider-web of cracks behind him as he slid back down to earth.  He kept his feet and both his swords, a challenge in his eyes.  A malicious grin split his face. 

“Rekkinzon!  The time is nigh, you worm.  Come forth and consume this pretender.”

With a triumphant cackle, his awful swords lunged and the rune-covered chains were cut free.  In a clatter of falling, pooling links, the wretch on high descended.  Every head craned to look, surreptitiously hoping – bolter fire blared again, too close, obscenely loud in that moment.  A bristling gore-drenched servitor; a wet-brass nightmare of crackling power blades, with a shoulder-mounted firearm trained on the falling man.  The scraggly form was blown apart before their eyes.  Wet lumps of him spattered down.  Something hung for a moment in the fading red mist, like a tight knot of chitinous claws.  It swallowed itself and was gone.

“Coward!  Weakling!  You spineless daemon f–”

Bauchan's incredulous shriek was cut short as the black-suited man bore down.  With his options exhausted, he went on the offensive with a flurry of overhand swings.  The savage sword snarled as it glanced off a gauntlet; a forearm caught the dark blade with a sharp discordant chime.  Firework flashes of witch-light seemed to punctuate every strike.  Booted foot met armoured knee, light flared and something crunched.  Bauchan lurched, staggered, recovered, breathing hard as he righted himself.  His enemy circled, streamlined, predatory, still bare-handed save for the light. 

“You aren't Balkoth.  Not even close!  Amaurn, is that you in there?”

“What a shameful display.  You're every bit the clown he said you were.  Those blades have enslaved you, apostate.  Not that it's any excuse.”

“Apostate?  You fight for him and speak of apostasy?  Why not heresy while you're at it?  I suppose that's sanctioned tech you're using?  You sanctimonious fool.”

“I think we're well past heresy.  You are guilty of having existed.  The Inquisition does not miss you.  You wasted what power you had.  Your death will be less than a footnote.”

Sudden as a scorpion, the Inquisitor attacked.  Bauchan met him, ambidextrous; lost the savage sword, then the dark; each weapon rudely wrenched away from him with gauntlet-shattering force.  Hands ruined, disbelieving, he tried to use his horns.  The dark sword took him in the abdomen, driving cleanly through his torso and coming out high on his back.  Then the savage punched down through his collar bone and on into his guts, gleefully shredding organs as it went.  The Inquisitor left them there.  A boot in the chest sent the twice-impaled giant toppling woodenly over.  He shuddered where he lay.  Somewhere within his hulking armour, daemons fought for primacy, extending warring tendrils through his veins.  Flesh warped and bubbled, collapsed and gave way, a battlefield churned into mud.  The enormous horns drooped like burning wax.  He attempted a gurgling scream.  In this too Bauchan failed. 

“Which one of you is the governor?”

A forest of pointing fingers.

“Wysp.”

A single resounding shot.  The unlucky man's head ceased to be.  The servitor loped forward, its power blades still raised.  Its shoulder gun roved as if eager, certainly spoilt for choice.  From outside, panicked shouts were drawing near. 

“Your houses are dissolved by order of the Inquisition.  I hereby excommunicate you all.”

The wreckage that had been the High Magus stopped twitching and lay still.  Apparently satisfied, the Inquisitor placed a foot on his chest-plate and withdrew the cursed swords.  They seemed to shrink a little in his hands. 


=][=

“You didn't use the sword.  You could have had guns!  Talk about showing off.”

“I wasn't showing off.  I didn't need the sword, I've only halfway figured out this armour and it still felt like fighting a child.  No wonder Lancet didn't take him seriously.”

“Lancet takes nobody seriously....almost nobody.  Certainly not Bauchan.  I saw what you did with his daemon blades.  Was that meant as poetic justice?”

“Have you met many poetic Inquisitors?”

“Depends how you define poetry.  'The hand that raised you up has cast–'”

“It felt like something Balkoth would say.  Happy?”

“I'm a servitor.  Would you be?”

“I'm not sure you are a servitor.”

“Depends how you define a servitor.”

“Well in my experience, they're usually not so...verbose.  Besides, you seemed happy enough back there.”

“I suppose I must have been then, with you being psychic and all.”

“Whoever assembled you clearly thought of that.  I'd have to really want to see your mind.  I don't.”

“I don't blame you.  For what it's worth, I think it was justice.  Bauchan I mean.  Or near enough anyway.”

“Were you really an Interrogator?”

“So now you're interested?  Would Lancet lie to you?”

“I imagine he already has.”

“I don't know you, Inquisitor.  Just making conversation.  I know curiosity is in the title, but I have a mind-linked boltgun and I'd rather not discuss it.”

“Suit yourself.  I doubt you'd scratch this thing anyway.  That looks more like a pistol to me.”

A stony silence tried to descend, spoiled by the ringing echo of armoured steps down mausoleum halls.  The Inquisitor and the debatable servitor moved quickly through the Black Ship's guts, heading back towards the armoury; left a trail of gory footprints in their wake.  The warp tunnel had worked as advertised: a moment of thundering madness; every sense overloaded; a hurtling, burning, drowning, screeching fall.  An impossible distance crossed at the cost of a single breath.  He nearly vomited the first time, briefly worried he might soil his suit.  The return trip had seemed easier, though Bauchan's daemons had grown bold, tried to pour their poison in his ears.  Even their words were lost on him, swallowed by the howling void.  The Magos had taken the swords from him as soon as they burst from the gate; a great circular lens in the midst of a complex array.  Wysp had given her a wide berth and headed straight for the exit.  Within the not-glass behind them, a maelstrom of swirling pigments had quickly ebbed away.

The armour they had foisted on Teleos had indeed been more than enough.  To the best of his knowledge, Imperial force technology did not extend to armoured suits, and Bauchan was likely right about its dubious sanctity.  Apparently powered by warp energy, it responded to his every thought and amplified the consequence, channelling his will into his limbs.  No daemon engine this; the energy corona was his own.  The raw, primal strength of his soul made tangible and set loose in his flesh.  He wondered what the upper limit was.  The battle had been an epiphany.  He had felt invigorated, clear and sharp, all trace of his earlier discomfort dispelled as he beat down Bauchan's blades.  The impacts had barely registered in his shell.  Perhaps the armour had fed upon them, and he through it, though he couldn't sense any taint.  Maybe corruption could not be sensed within oneself.  I think we're well past heresy.  Primarily schooled as a telepath, he had long relied on his weapons in combat and was unused to hurling power-armoured men around like dolls.  He supposed he would adapt.  Become a living blade of psychic force, he had felt no need to draw his sword.  As he walked he pondered what might have required it.  There is always a bigger fish.

Lancet was waiting when they arrived, stood at ease in the armoury doorway.  He launched into another briefing immediately.  Inquisitor Rahn made a half-hearted to listen, still wearing the vaunted Force Armour, though he removed the close-fitting helmet and held it by one coiled horn.  Meanwhile the now sullen Wysp went through the laborious process of literally disarming herself.  A swarm of hovering servo skulls had gathered and were currently acting as fingers.  The buzzing cloud half obscured her from view while their miniature mechadendrites unscrewed, twisted, lifted.  Her bloody combat attachments – one arm a power sword from elbow downwards, the other a great clawed first with a further blade fixed to the wrist – were set down on a bench to be cleaned.  An unsettling rack of spare limbs awaited her, including the heavy-fingered, almost orkish ones she'd worn back on the bridge. 

She deliberated, briefly dismembered, before choosing a more delicate pair.  The teeming skulls obeyed.  The shoulder-mounted bolt pistol went last – it was indeed a pistol, though admittedly an ornate one big enough for an Astartes – and Rahn felt a tiny sting of muffled psychic feedback as the surprisingly potent Machine Spirit disengaged from her Mind Impulse Unit.  The hint of dislocation swiftly passed.  Wysp stowed the weapon with its attachments in a grim little safe, apparently set aside for the purpose, and sealed a bulky arcane padlock with a beep.  Sober religious iconography adorned the box.  Behind her Lancet winked at him, conspiratorial, without missing a verbal beat.  She resolutely ignored them.  Rahn tried to focus on the pertinent points and tune out the inconsequential. 

It seemed the Imperium had come close to breaking in the century he'd spent in stasis.  Had broken, in fact, into Sanctus and Nihilus, though not the final, fatal shattering some had feared.  But somehow, he was beginning to realise, humanity endured.  The galactic situation when he entered the pod had been dire in its own way...five minutes to midnight, some said.  Now it sounded like midnight had come and gone.  Even the return of one of the Primarchs could not, should not have been enough to save humanity from the myriad dooms it had faced in the final years of M41.  Yet over a century later, in the face of a galaxy sundered by the Cicatrix Maledictum – he could still feel the Rift, though he hadn't yet seen it – a tiny seed of optimism was striving to take root.  He dismissed it as folly, of course. 

This had long been an obscure region of space.  It was now in the Dark Imperium, and the furthest edge at that.  I wonder what Marazel made of it when they stole his grand idea.  Will Ancient Koldo come to Baal one night?  The Emperor's psychic light was all but invisible out here.  Deprived of the Astronomican, who even knew what horrors stalked the darkness now?  Never mind which direction to pray.  Nothing ends.  Nothing changes.  War is war is war.  This is what we are.  If the monsters all died we'd make new ones.  Even the Emperor must fight to stay alive.  We didn't spawn the Chaos Gods but we keep them fed to bursting.  It's a wonder there aren't more of them by now.

“–But you can read up on the details en route to our next destination.  How much do you know about the Conclave?”

“Which conclave?”

“The intangible one.  Astropaths, coded messages, Inquisitors sharing their secrets...”

“Aye, I've heard of it.  I don't hold with that sort of arrangement.  An Inquisitor's secrets should be kept close, not passed around through other people's leaking heads.”

“So you don't use Astropaths?  A rather impractical stance.”

“I wouldn't go that far, but there are degrees of trust.  Didn't you just say they're all going mad from the effects of the Rift?”

“Not all of them.  It's true the network isn't what it was, but I sense you formed this opinion some time ago.”

“I can see into people's minds, Lancet.  I've learned a great many secrets in my time, and I suspect you've done the same by different means.  I'm sure you, who are not an Inquisitor, know more about this Conlave than I do – which is an excellent example of why Astropaths and ciphers can't be trusted where it counts.”

“Well then, good luck standing and shouting.  May your secrecy serve you well, Inquisitor.  However, I'm afraid our mission will require you to familiarise yourself with the contents of the Conclave Archive.  To that end, I had our Astropaths make a full transcript over the course of the last week, which I have since edited and annotated extensively for your perusal.  The data-slate awaits you in your quarters.  There's food and a bathroom there too if you need any added incentives.”

“Where are my quarters?”

“Adjacent to the bridge, I'm afraid.  Got to be ready for action if we run across any surprises!  We're a week out from the Mandeville point, but it's a relatively short hop through the warp after that if all goes well.”

“To where, exactly?”

“Ah, you need to do your homework.  We're bound for a place called Secret's Hold.  It's an old haunt of Balkoth's, though it really was a secret in those days.  He gave it to his first apprentice, who couldn't keep a secret to save his life.  See what the data slate has to say about it, eh?  Try to enjoy the irony.  I'll fill in the gaps when you're done.  Incidentally, I've seen the vid-logs of your coup de grace and I'm afraid dear Ms Wysp there must have given you the short version when she explained the Force Armour – I'm told it has several auxiliary functions you failed to test, and as for the actual weaponry – well, I suggest you ask the Magos to explain the arcana of your armaments in more detail.  Later, of course, not now.  I expect she'll be busy securing those daemons below.”

Halfway down the hall outside by now, Wysp turned and yelled at the mention of her name.

“I'm not a psyker, alright!  I don't understand the damn thing.  How about you explain it to him, since you're in the business of knowing everything?”

Lancet called back at once with venom on his tongue.

“Because I am neither a psyker, nor a brawler, nor a machine.  The use of weapons bores me, transparently simple as it is.  These things are for you and your minder to worry about.  I have more important work to do.”

He made a show of dismissing her and turned back to Rahn.

“Sorry about that Inquisitor, you know how servitors are.  No real versatility to the best of them.  But I really must be getting on.  Well done out there, on balance.  A satisfactory outcome.  We can work on your finesse as we go.  You really must talk to the Magos at some point, I'm sad to say.  Your immediate arsenal aside, we have various...things...in the hold you should probably be made aware of.  Not Secret's Hold that is, the actual hold of this vessel.”

“Various things?”

“It's a very spacious hold.  Isn't that the point of a Black Ship?  Of course that's all the engineering department's domain, so definitely one for our two-faced mechanic to field.”

“You don't know what's down there?”

“Oh, I know all about it.  But you should hear it from her.  I'm not about to speak for Fabraxis.”

“Fabraxis?”

“The Magos, Inquisitor.  Later.  But don't ask about Fabraxis, if you know what's good for you.  You aren't the only one around here who believes in secrecy.”

“So I've noticed.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”


=][=

“Secrecy is the essence of the Inquisition.  An Inquisitor who could remain so, were all their secrets known from Hive to High Lord's chamber, is one in name only and can be no effective agent against immortal, intractable foes.  For an Inquisitor must learn in order to succeed, and the pursuit of knowledge regarding mankind's enemies can always be defined as heresy.  It is also our duty, of course.  To take up our mantle is to swear contradictory oaths.  Our first task is to reconcile them.  Our second to find some secret place where we can begin to learn.”

“And yet you were excommunicated, were you not?”

“So I was...I won't try to convince you that was entirely by design.  But excommunication was a hindrance, not an end.  I kept my secrets closer than my seal.  By then I had learned a little.  Enough, I thought, to shed the skin of the great Inquisitor, to grow beyond its confines and expand.  They will tell you I walk the Path of Damnation.  No doubt some inner simulacrum says it to you even now.  They are correct in their assessment, in the main.  There is truth in the cliché; to deal with daemons always has its price.  I let every bridge I crossed burn down behind me.  But avoiding damnation was never my first priority.  How could it be?  We can never be purely warriors, yet warriors we are.  Inquisitors do not learn for the love of knowledge, but so our enemies might be known, and we might shape ourselves into their bane.”

“By making deals with them?  Is this not what your failed pupil would say?  Is it not the song of every fallen Inquisitor, as he pleads with his peers to spare him?”

“I plead with no one, boy.  Neither my creditors nor my peers.  Damnation too is a hindrance, but daemons are not the true enemy.  They are the enemy's pets.  It is our ignorance that makes us toys for such creatures to chew on.  Sometimes they can even be goaded to bite the hand that feeds.  But to survive we must win the Great Game, and to win we must learn how to play.  It is the master we must conquer, not the beast.”

“You see yourself as equal to their gods then?  Again, this sounds like arrogance, not wisdom.”

“They are not gods, merely monsters.  Distortions of certain truths.  And I will find the measure of them yet.  Who else will fight on the highest, most crucial front of all?  If not the Inquisition it had better be the Emperor Himself.”

“Surely it must.  You are a mortal man, Balkoth, when all is said and done.  Merely human for all your secrets, as are we all.  The Inquisition consists of people, flesh and soul.  The Emperor is divine – it is His great battle you describe.  He who fights on the highest front.  That is why we worship Him.”

“Then tell me, Teleos – do you think he's winning?”


=][=

Secrets are seeds.  When buried, they germinate – leave too many buried together, and a jungle begins to grow.  They multiply in self-defence, and thereby increase the danger to themselves.  Discovery is their death of course, but death can only ever be delayed.  Mortality comes calling in the end.  Propagation is the only recourse.  So it was in Secret's Hold, as in the land surrounding. 

This private core of Balkoth's world, and later that of his student Mentirius, had held onto its secrets from before a human ever learned to speak.  These secrets predated even their Keeper, who for all its power and cunning had never escaped their hold.  They had been old when Escellon, one of She Who Thirsts' first born, had first been lured and trapped there by mortals unknown in the mists of the Age of Strife – had perhaps been studied for a time, left fossilised by some forgotten sorcerer-scientist and forgotten in its turn.  The Keeper of Secrets was gone now, freed by implosive dissolution, daemonic essence drained away while all the jungle burned.  But the black stone and the echoing warp remembered, as they remembered every former master of the Hold.  Balkoth had not been the first usurper, nor the last, but he had made a useful vector for those secrets deemed fit to thrive.  What remained were the degenerate offspring of the scraps he had left behind. 

And so the Hold endured, hollowed out though it had been by the Keeper's rise and fall.  Around the sprawling clearing it had claimed, degenerate secrets had propagated and the forest grown anew.  The jungle steamed and sweltered, crowded closer day by day.  Plants adapted even to the warp, grew lurid and bizarre.  Nature abandoned symmetry and thrived.  Given another century, fleshy roots might well have drowned the ragged open space with vibrant, twisted growth, but so far the Keeper's psychic epitaph held sway.  The ruin of the Hold itself, an open crater now, yawned up at the Rift-torn sky with a maze of broken teeth.  Emptied of all but the oldest secrets, it silently called out to be filled.  In the tangled arboreal depths of the jungle, an answer was trying to form. 

The battle began at dawn.  A scurrying squad of six-eyed spine-backs loosed a barrage of envenomed yellow quills as they crested a fallen tree trunk, decimating the massed ranks of fat-bellied tuskers who crowded and jostled beyond.  Their already bulbous purple bodies rippled, swelled and burst, unified in a single crescendo of perfect agony.  Their sacrifice served as a signal.  Beyond the spreading pools of viscous pink ichor, a war grove of whispering willows swayed and chittered forth.  Their wriggling roots sucked thirstily at the mess.  The spine-back squad were seized and strangled, caught in dangling frond-whips and dragged up into the darkness, trailing exquisite ribbons of bestial fear.  An airborne battalion of bat-hawks descended, screeching, but were likewise snared and choked.  They fought to the last of course. 

Their distraction bought time for the tyrant plant, a ponderous, creeping mass, to drag itself into range.  Its six-fold maw unravelled and a hydra of harpoon tongues shot forth, punching through the lashing foliage and impaling slender trunks.  The whispering willows shivered, their nerve endings singing, as the monster reeled them in.  They tried to choke it with their roots but acidic juices rose up in its throat and burned their tendrils away.  They stewed in its gut, dying slowly.  Their only thought was bliss.  Elsewhere in the blossoming conflict, tripedal tentacled foot-soldiers fought beak and claw amongst themselves, driven to frenzy by thick clouds of spores while fungal golems rose.  Their mania was the madness of beasts, for now, but improvements could be made.  A torture squad of vespid snakes roamed freely through melee, their many-pointed mandibles aglow.  Descended as one on a single bioluminescent climbing hog.  It pulsed and shrilled as they peeled it apart, nerve by searing nerve.  They played for their master's delectation, while the jungle came alive and died on every side.

There was a mind behind them all, if mind it could be called.  A hive of tiny proto-minds infested by an all-pervasive, parasitic soul.  It remembered the touch of tender fingers on the handle of a gently curving sword.  It remembered the world aflame on every side.  The beloved prey gone putrid, stolen by putrefaction at the last.  It remembered the extinction of its secret, envied Lord.  A century and more it had waited, nurtured, puppeteered, enacting frantic games of war that quickly descended into slaughter.  Breeding, mutating, shaping species in the aftermath.  It had amused itself this way and fed on what intensity it found, together with the ever-present echoes of the breaking of the Hold.  This was a meagre, mean existence for a scion of excess, and yet superior by far to a prison of rigid steel abandoned in the ash.  It flexed and roiled and gouged itself, lost in the dance for a time.  And then they came.  It knew the tiny ape-lights at once, for it remembered humans well and missed them desperately.  They walked on the sacred earth and the daemon felt their tread as a teasing caress.  Desire took flight and soared.

It was Secret's Hold they came to find, of course.  No playful courtship here.  Their minds all barred as temple gates, they lingered by the broken prison for a time.  They meddled, prattled, pondered, conversation unintelligible; left before the day was over, inscrutable to the insects and the hungry, thinking vines.  And yet the daemon knew.  They would only be the first to come, for the scent would surely spread now, and mortals swarmed like flies to meat where secrets were concerned.  Their departure was surely the beginning of the breaking of its fast.  It schemed and dreamed and preened itself, began to build anew. 


=][=

Dosdamt:
Ghosts of the Past Vol III

A Mutant Girl, Perhaps

M42.002, High above Last Reach

“This is your plan? This is as good as it gets?”

Bess shook her head. In the few years she’d been in the employ of this Inquisitor, she hadn’t ever heard such a load of speculative nonsense. She rubbed a hand down her scabby creased face and sighed. Part of her wished Mantis was still here. She had built a rapport of sorts with the old man, and grown very fond of him. Though he was wracked by despair and despondency, she had beamed through the gloom as a welcome lighthouse pierces the fog and, in the end….

In the end. Mantis’ end. She fought for composure for a flash second.

In the end he’d given everything, so she should be here. So he could be here. So they would be here. Crucially, it was her choice to be here. Perhaps that was reason enough to believe in the plan. She had pored over the details, again and again, until she was exhausted and then again when she awoke from slumber. She worked through the small details with a practiced mind and an infinite patience. Even with all that effort, little of it made sense to her - then, she hadn’t been a throne agent for as long as those around her.

It had taken a monumental surge of will for her to follow him. She’d left Mantis, Scarab, Python, the Magus and more behind. Her friends - no, she corrected herself, family - in the group. She hadn’t seen any news on what had happened to the Profitable Venture. They’d found some of the group who had split with the Venture after some differences of opinion on direction. They weren’t sure what had happened to the ship after they left it. He had welcomed them in. Bess found herself having to organise logistics for the new arrivals which she took to like a wolf to the chase. She found herself coordinating more and more until he was leaning on her for almost everything. Now everything ran through her or only with her blessing and she was thriving.

Just a mutant girl.

She smiled inwardly at the thought. Just a mutant girl - as true as it was, or had been, it wasn’t the reality of who she had been. She had been the godhead of a cult, the vessel for emancipation and dominion of a world. Rescued from there, she’d wandered with Karius Prelune - the Truthsayer - for a time until she came face to face with the feared and terrible Most Holy Ordos of His Inquisition. She had been the confidante to one Inquisitor. She had received the revelation of a lifetime from the next. She was now the seneschal to another. She suspected that now she was mired in this world, she would only leave once she was dead. She was barely twenty years old.

Some mutant girl.

She went through the data pad again as he watched on. He had given her access to the broadest, biggest librarium of texts she’d ever seen. She was a voracious reader - little time for it now - but she had consumed works by Guilliman, Macharius and others on tactics and warfare. It would be fair to say they’d varied in opinions - how the Imperium could do with Roboute back now! - but none of them would have recommended the plan put before her. Still, perhaps in the chaos that had broken out across the Imperium, the lack of coordination and communication would create a window of opportunity. Perhaps. She ran through the numbers again, ran through the steps, ran through the plans and the strategy, the contingency and the finest details. She looked at the fall back positions and the scant intelligence they’d been able to gather.

Perhaps.

“Guilliman would call it too theoretical, too many unknowns. Coteaz would’ve balked at the lack of contingencies. Macharius would tell us we don’t have the numbers. And Yarrick would laugh at how foolhardy it is.”

She understood the strategy. The talent they had available, in particular the talents he had would hopefully tip the balance. What were the words in Othello Dosdamt’s Magnificum Strategis? She mentally grasped for a moment.

“Hope is not a strategy”.

Perhaps.

She flicked the contents of the datapad, such as they were and they were light on detail, onto the holo terminal.

“Look here,” he said, “And here, and here. We’ve got enough ingress points that are weak, we don’t need numbers. We need speed, direction, precision. Confusion and misdirection do the heavy lifting, we clear up whatever resistance forms a cohesive response.”

“You are a small force dropping from orbit, you can’t breach them all at the same time. We know their numbers, they outnumber you significantly. It won’t take much of a cohesive response to stop you dead, literally,” she countered.

“Disagree, that’s why we have to hit all three of the ingress points. We’ll land a team on each of them, we pin them down, we force them to split their forces. We’ve got surprise on our side and confusion is our key ally. We’ll have the Commandos on the ground alrea-“

“They are only going in non-lethal. As ever.”

“That doesn’t render them ineffective.”

“Will you be fighting non-lethal? Will any of your teams be fighting non-lethal?”

He drops his face, tilts his head to the side, and scowls for just a moment.

“That splits your execution. That leaves you vulnerable. You can’t have your distraction shooting sleeping gas taze-darts, leaving one egress point filled with disoriented enemies.”

“The Commandos are great at what they do. They’ll make sure whatever they put down, stays down for long enough. And they’re due to send more intelligence any time soon.”

“We are t-minus 92 minutes, First-Inquisitor. We’re leaving it a little late to get some final troop patterns and patrol numbers.”

He sighs and rubs his eyes. He’s been going for some time now. We, she thought. We. Ever since Aithol, they’d been on the run. It was taking a toll on all of them. Even now Bess was trying to balance a skeleton crew shift rotation, a dearth of spare parts, some very strange very angry Adeptus Mechanicum in the engine room, shortages in ammunition, food, water, and very tense negotiations down in the under decks to avoid a full scale mutiny. His plan was consuming too much of her time, but Throne dammit, it was him and, more than that, it was Scarab. They needed to get this right.

Scarab had been in their cells for three years. Bess didn’t have the full picture on what that might have entailed, but she’d been down into the brig aboard Futility, and that had been enough of an education. There was horror down there. She imagined the same horrors had been visited and re-visited on Scarab. She wasn’t sure what they’d find, or if he was still alive, but if there was a chance…

Perhaps.

Hope is not a strategy. She kept coming back to that same thought. It contradicted so strongly with everything she thought she had known in the galaxy. Karius wouldn’t approve. Hope was important, she thought he would say, hope is necessary at a time like this. Hope would get you through. She brought herself back to the plans in front of her. She spun the blueprints for the blacksite, taking in as much detail as she could. They didn’t have enough data on the numbers of shock troopers there. They thought they knew which wing Scarab was being held in, but that was weeks old data. He didn’t have his seal anymore, so they couldn’t just dig into the network. Futility had some access subroutines that routed through one of the many intricate entry points Balkoth had left for himself and his network into the archives and data streams of the Inquisition. The ornery Magos in the enginarium remained uncooperative and their access was limited.

“Can you try speaking with him again? We need Futilitys cooperation. It means we need his cooperation.”

“You’re right. You’re right,” he nods and holds a hand up in acknowledgement, “I’ll go and sort this out.”

“Good. I’ve gone over the intelligence again, and I think I have something. Look here - there’s likely to be structural weaknesses in this entrance based on these work orders submitted to the administratum. Maintenance routines have been halved according to the reports we got. They don’t have the manpower or the resources. That door will be the weakest. The wind will be blowing in from the north by north east - you can use the cloud cover that will come with it to disguise your descent. You’ll need to blow your grav-chutes late, but you should come in quiet and unseen. It’s a big change but burst in just one door. Blow them away from one side, after the Commandos go to work. That gives you a small window to get into the facility. Move quickly and move hard, don’t stop. Get to Scarab, pull him out, get all of you out.”

Bess continued to concentrate, focusing on the floor plans. Three checkpoints - each most likely to be more heavily defended than the last, gets him into the wing where Scarab was likely held. From there, they’d need to get him back on his feet - easier said than done. From there, they’d need to get the Valkyrie down to the ground - without being shot down - and then get out again - without being shot down. Too many variables. Too much hope. Hope is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy.

Perhaps.

“Yes, I see it. Alright. We deploy there,” he pointed to the holo, “And deploy in full. We wait, breach and enter as the Commandos run their routine and give us our egress. We stack fire here and here, and have the Valkyrie circle round overhead. We try to cut their targeting to give the Valkyrie free reign to smash in a good chunk of the facility.”

“We just need to figure out how to blind them.”

“Eighty odd minutes Bess, get on that. We have to blind their guns.”

He beamed. That smile, there was hope in that smile. Bess let herself bask in it for a moment. He had a way, that was for sure. No surprises then that he was venerated like a living saint by some of the crew and a good chunk of his retinue. It puzzled her out of all the opinions he could get from the crew, it was hers he sought out almost exclusively.

Just a mutant girl? Perhaps.

Futility had come fully stocked. It hadn’t taken long for them to take to him. Bess reckoned that might have been due to the silent hand of Balkoth, but she didn’t like to think for what cause. He had brushed off her concerns, but she’d seen behind those blazing white eyes - he was more concerned than he was letting on. Balkoth folded conspiracies into plots that were woven in decades long stratagems. It was unlikely he’d given Futility to him out of kindness.

Bess fought with her thoughts of Balkoth as she stood opposite him, waiting for his decision. This was the crucial moment. They had to give the nod now, or miss their window forever. It was unlikely they could pull off the approach in Futility, disgorge the Valkyrie, pull off the low orbit jump on a perfect trajectory while maintaining they were just a ‘trading vessel’ just long enough to stop planetary authorities from authorising the local Imperial Navy to come around and ‘take a look’ at them again.

“Do we go, First Inquisitor?” she prompted.

“Go, go, go.” he said, reaching a judgement. His voice had changed - it had tempered into steel.

“Get me a route straight to the Magos in the Enginarium. Tell him it is time to settle our grudges, we’ve played enough games. Bess, prep the team and the valkyrie for launch. I want them ready to go on time. Call Kely and get her to lead the briefing.”

“Yes First-Inquisitor.”

“Thank you, Seneschal Dowell. I need you. I need you.” He reached out and gently touched her arm, giving her an affirmative nod and a steely smile.

He turned, and began to march for the lift.

“Instruct the Captain to bring Futility about. Let’s do this. Get me Kely on the vox.”

His words made her stand just that little bit straighter, a little bit prouder. Perhaps she had become more than just the mutant girl.

=][=

Dosdamt:
Not Balkoth

M42.002, Enginarium, Futility; t -75 minutes to drop

The halls housing the titanic engines of Futility soared above him. They were bizarre and arcane to his eyes - hissing gouts of steam, glowing pipes rushing plasma from device to device, lights blinking between red, green, and amber, pressure gauges with ticking hands flitting between numbers. He didn’t understand any of it. Incense hung heavy in the air, a strange mix of machine unguents and burnished spices from a dozen sanctified worlds. Around him, as he moved between cranking gear shafts and groaning cogs, monoslaved servitors stalked with purpose checking their auspexes and validating hypotheses sent from their betters. 

And their betters did mingle around them. He walked paths not unfamiliar to him now, past the generators, through various command posts dealing with routine maintenance, deeper into the maze. His chronometer beeped - t-minus 74 minutes till he needed to be in the bay. Enough time. Enough time.

Webs of cabling slithered erratically down the walls, in and out of more machinery he had no understanding of, as he approached his destination.The enginarium opened around him, the chamber growing exponentially until it felt like it ran the full height and width of the ship. The chamber itself was loosely circular - each of the plasteel ribs that formed the circular shape ran up the walls coming to an arch at the top centre of the chamber. Each of the ribs was stepped with grooves running across them as ladder rungs. They ran like scales all the way up the ribs. The ribs were entwined with bundles of cables, not especially carefully packed, but each cable was distinct by thickness, colour, or patterning on it. They formed a cacophony of colour on the eyes. Embedded between the ribs were subtle symbols of devotion to the Omnissiah.

Above it all, in a central web of cables, hung a huge, pale distended body and from that monumental mechadendrites joined at painful looking red-scabbed wounds. The mechadendrites clung onto the steps in ribs, letting the body be moved around the full height and width of the room. Even as the body roused, a dozen smaller biomechanical limbs grabbed at the cables that rose up the ribs, plugging and unplugging them with remarkable speed and precision in a rack of interfaces that ran down the full spine of the body. A halo-harness of flat-screen vids ran the full circumference of the girthy body, bathing it in a flickering wildfire of coloured light. Each of the screens ran at a manic pace, flickering through the statuses of the ship, the crew, weapons, shields - the whole ecosystem of the ship captured in a blaring light show of information. The light in turn made the thick veins that showed through the thin skin seem an even stranger shade of blue, purple or red depending on the contrasting color that pierced the skin.

He looked up at the body. The Magos - perhaps, Magi - were locked into the body. There were several what he assumed passed as heads, central processing units perhaps, that came to a point at one end of the huge body. Two somewhat stumpy human arms hung loosely out of the front of the body, just underneath the cluster-head. The Magos began to stir. The biomech limbs didn’t stop moving, furiously exchanging cables with the input interfaces. The click-tic-shak of the cables added a staccato soundtrack to the Magos’ arousal. He gave the Magos some room as it came around. The Magos’ bloated stomach was straining, virtually transparent skin as its flesh came under tension due to the movement of the Magos. The skin revealed a blurry mess of artificial and natural organs.

The notional head of the Magos came down with the bulging, cybernetic bulk leaning heavily down behind it. The size of the Magos became apparent - broad, thickset shoulders flexed as thick-set cables lowered the great mass to the eyeline of the Inquisitor.

+++ First-Inquisitor. You have returned. +++

“I have. We need to end this petty feuding.”

+++ Petty? Petty? +++ roared the Magos, who moved terrifyingly quickly for the size and scale of the creature. All of the LED eyes shining underneath an oversized hood flashed a vicious red before calming back to a neutral green.

+++ This is my vessel. The Agreement +++ the Magos heavily emphasized agreement, implying a capital +++ With Balkoth was quit- +++

“Balkoth isn’t here. Balkoth is gone. Futility is my ship now.”

+++ Falsehood! +++

The furious voice of Magos echoed around its chamber for a few moments.

+++ Futility and Magos Kaniksis are indistinguishable. Kaniksis is not a slave. Futility is not a slave. +++

Dammit, thought the Inquisitor to himself, Walked into that one again.

+++ Kaniksis is not owned. Therefore Futility cannot be owned. Conclusion - Futility is not your ship. +++

The Inquisitor held his hands up in apology.

“I’m sorry, Kaniksis. I am sorry. Look… Balkoth is gone. I don’t know where he’s gone. We’ve had this circular argument, he’s gone, I’m in charge, you and Futility are one, we’ve been over this. I need your help. I need your support. I need Futility and Kaniksis, I need you both on my side.”

The huge bulk of the Magos narrowed its focus onto the Inquisitor. An array of mechadendrites unfurled from down the back of the Magos, each of them coming down to the front of the Magos. At the end of each was a short, thick barrel of plasteel. Covering a third of the diameter, and the full height of the barrels, were overlapping scales of plasteel inscribed with the cant of the Adeptus Mechanicum. In total, eight different barrels floated next to the main Magos head.

+++ We are listening +++

The Magos finished, prompting a reveal from each of the barrels. The overlapping scales slipped beneath one another, revealing thick plexiglass behind which floated a dismembered head. Each of the heads had bundles of  multicoloured wires going up through the neck, into the ears, up the nostrils and at various points across the scalp. A small spark of lurid green light flashed in each of the heads, prompting the eyes and mouths to open.

+++ We are listening +++ the chorus of heads echoed.

The Inquisitor took a step back, slightly aghast at the eight pale, disembodied heads in bubbling jars. He took a moment to compose himself.

“I’m not Balkoth. I’m not Mentirius, I’m not Taren, I’m not Maltheus or Stryde. I’m… I’m holding it together. We’re in a fight here. A battle for the Em- a battle for the Omnissiah and the God-Emperor. I’m still…. I’m still working through what happened on Aithol, and how we managed to escape from that nightmare. I think we won… But who knows. We escaped with your help, with Futility’s help. Everyone on the ship, including you and I, would be dead for the actions you took that day.”

The Inquisitor sighed and rubbed his eyes. The glow abated for a moment, until he re-opened his eyes.

“And I’m grateful, I am. I really am. I… My power armour is battered and bruised. It desperately needs some repairs. My plasma pistol glows ominously and crackles when I power it up. I’ve got a chainsword with multiple teeth missing and the engine over-revs at combat speeds. I’m pretty sure both are going to explode. And I’m just about to hurl myself out of a Valkyrie in low orbit, hurtle towards the surface breaking my fall with a grav-chute barely fourth meters from the ground. I’m pretty sure the chute hasn’t been tested in a few years. And then, I’m going to bust into an Inquisitorial blacksite to rescue a man, an Inquisitor… He’s got an active seal, they’ve not tracked it down which means somehow he hasn’t broken. He’s been in there for three damned years. Then we’re going to haul him out of that damned hellhole.”

The Inquisitor ran his hand over his shaven bald head.

“What can I tell you? We’ve got a target, we’ve got a resource to retrieve, and we’ll have everything we both need to repair the ship, to maintain all our weapons, and to improve life for all the crew including you. We can take on fuel, we can let the navigator have some damned time off. Throne, you and I can take some shore leave.”

All nine heads of the Magos continued staring intently.

“I’m not Balkoth, I’m not Mentirius. I’m not even Mantis or Taren. But… I am First Inquisitor Junious, Herald of Morai-Heg. I can do this. I can. I will rescue Scarab of the Mentirians, my brother in arms from the Order Vampiris. But, throne dammit, Kaniksis, I need my damned armour fixing up. I need my plasma pistol tested and sorted out. I need my chainsword ready to go. And I need you, Kaniksis. I need an ally. I need you and Futility to help me out, because in about sixty eight minutes I’m going to throw myself out of a Valkyrie and I would sure as faith like to not burn up, not asphyxiate in my power armour, not burn myself up in a ball of fiery plasma trying to defend myself or blow my hand off with an over-revving chainsword motor.”

Each of the heads came closer to Junious.

+++ Not-Balkoth. +++ the whole bulk of the Magos shook with laughter. Each of the heads mouthed laughter without saying anything.

+++ We will grant your request, this time, Not-Balkoth. I will send three adepts and their servitors to your quarters to maintain your artifacts. +++

The Magos’ eyes turned red.

+++ Failing to maintain the holy relics you have been granted, Not-Balkoth, will not continue. We accept this route forward as logical. Rescue of the denominate Scarab must succeed. We will assess how we may aid you. Failure to rescue the denominate Scarab will result in the termination of Not-Balkoth. +++

The Magos’ eyes turned back to green. Kaniksis chuckled again.

+++ Go now, Not-Balkoth. We will speak again. +++


=][=

Dosdamt:
Battles

True to his word, Kaniksis had sent several of his Adepts and Magi to look at Junious’ equipment. They melted out of the shadows in his armoury. Junious wondered for a moment how they’d gotten there before he did, but thought better of speculating too much about that. The implications were mildly disturbing. The Chainsword was a write-off - the motor was destined to explode and would’ve taken his whole hand with it. There was nothing that could be easily done and it was best to take the thing away for it to be fully disassembled and repurposed. 

The plasma pistol was salvageable but would take time to repair - longer than he had before they needed to make the jump. Junious had pleaded with them to do something immediate, but the Mechanicum had politely, but firmly, declined to do so. Instead they left him a relic from Futility’s deepest stores. The stores remained off-limits to Junious, but it appeared the Mechanicum could waltz in and out as they pleased. They had clearly sworn to keep Balkoth’s secrets. Perhaps in time they would choose to share. Tomorrow’s problem.

They called it a grav gun. Junious wasn’t familiar with the technology or the weapon, but he’d gratefully received the weapon. The Magi prioritized his power armour. Several of them worked quickly and efficiently, running ceramite replacement on the innumerable cracks and dents, while another looked at the power plant and the grav-chute. Mechadendrites dissected the two key elements quickly and and speed, re-arranging wires, replacing parts and applying generous layers of holy unguents.

Junious watched on, patiently at first. His chronometer kept chiming, every five minutes, as time ticked closer to the time they were expected to be in the Valkyrie. Barely twenty minutes remained until he was due to jump. His fingers twitched and rapped on the table top in his armory. His leg tapped and bobbed when he sat, and took him pacing back and forward when he stood. The glow around his eyes intensified as a mechanical tang echoed from his wrist.

Nineteen minutes.

+++ Repairs are complete, Not-Balkoth. +++

That was going to get tedious, Junious kept to himself.

+++ Your power armour is impressive, though somewhat dull. The craftsmanship of the Martian forges is limited by their miniscule ambition and imagination. +++

Binaric cant echoed around the chamber. Junious suspected that was something approximating laughter. The adept who had been primarily accountable for his armour held Junious’ helmet in a bionic hand.

+++ We have enhanced the helmet. We have integrated the sacred sensors within with the eyes of Futility. Psycho-reactive potential has been enhanced sevenfold. +++

The Magos admired her handiwork, before tossing the helmet to Junious who caught it in one hand.

+++ Be well, Not-Balkoth. +++

Binaric tittering continued. Junious would have to talk to Kaniksis about that. The Magi turned to leave, becoming a cohesive group. Behind the lead, a head floated at the end of a mechadendrite in a clear jar. The eyes came open with a start, revealing a green light that fixed Junious with a piercing glare.

+++ Do not fail. +++

Kaniksis, he supposed, sending a message as clear as it was direct.

The group of Magi left as Junious began stripping. His coterie of assistants rushed to the armour, grabbing their assigned pieces.

“Quickly,” said Junious, as he finished stripping off. Junious slipped into the command sheath interface, then the torso armour was attached. His mind began running through the steps in the plan. Orbital drop, through the thick atmosphere. Focus on the run lines in the HUD, down through to the ground. Force the chute late, check the timing chimes.

Focus. Focus.

The thick thigh plates, greaves, and pauldrons followed. Junious held out his arms, feeling the full arms lock into the torso. The gauntlets came last, clicking into place. Junious flexed his fingers, followed by testing his pectoral strength.

Break into the complex. Expect heavy resistance. The blueprints showed multiple checkpoints to the wing where Scarab is being held. Focus on moving quickly and lethally. Resistance is to be annihilated with maximum prejudice. He didn’t like having to do this. Since Aithol, he had hardened somewhat in his view of the galaxy. Hard decisions have to be made, life needs taking, if the outcome justifies it. He had hope, a deep and rich vein of hope that ran through to the core of his being. He could feel it, that which fuelled his burgeoning psychic power and his zealot-like belief that things should be better.

The armour felt strong. The actuators were crisp and worked smoothly. A horrible tripping, ticking sound was gone from the power plant secreted neatly at the base of his spine. He jumped on his toes, hopping and feeling the armour respond like his own limbs. He hefted his armour rack without effort. Good. If he could lift the armour rack, he could lift a man without effort. If he could lift a man without effort, he could throw, crush, or grapple them. He nodded to his attendants, who all scattered to leave him with his thoughts.

He wondered what had happened to Grisbane. He’d been one of the true believers in the Order, and Junious respected his reckless bravery. There could be no doubting his faith, making his disappearance after Aithol all the more troubling. He’d left in the confusion, after being denied his chance to help face down… everything by Balkoth. Balkoth had taken many lives in that conflict, Junious figured he should be grateful Grisbane had survived the assault. No doubt his fellow Inquisitor would be fighting the good fight wherever he was. Junious would have to track him down, once he’d rescued Scarab.

He picked up the grav gun, weighing it in his hands. This was to be the tool, then, of the next phase of their liberation. He cocked his head, checking the sights. The Mutant Commandos wouldn’t be pleased with his intent to kill anyone who got in his way once they made it into the facility but Junious was sure they would understand. In the end, Scarab - and just as importantly, his seal - were the only priorities. He wasn’t sure how Scarab’s identity had remained secret. Junious suspected a hidden hand somewhere helping them, perhaps on Terra. Junious hadn’t heard from Onoto, but he knew that Onoto retrieved Redemption when Taren was slain. No, he corrected himself - murdered. Onoto may have hidden himself away in the bureaucracy of the Inquisition on Terra, continuing to misdirect and hide his allies. Junious was thankful for any help.

His chronometer chimed again. Time to go. He took off through the now familiar maze of corridors, moving rapidly through the ship. He knew Futility like the back of his hand now. He wouldn’t admit it openly, and though Futility was an incredible work and mighty ship, he missed the Lancing Light. The last moments of the Light, desperately fighting to the bitter end, over the Point, would haunt him to his last days. He knew Bu’Ran had turned his choruses attentions to the Light. He’d seen the Light rocked by several volleys from Bu’Ran’s ship. It was inevitable it had been lost. He hated himself for leaving it behind. Still, now wasn’t the time to dwell on past failures. The barbed stinger would have to be carefully pulled from his memories another time. The Valkyrie awaited.

=][=
Wretched Chronometry I

Bess stood on the bridge of Futility. She wondered how many times Balkoth had stood here, resplendent and immovable, scheme upon ruse wrapped in an enigma hidden behind misdirection moving behind his eyes as he watched another of his plots unfold. The number would be the same as stars in the galaxy, she decided, as she warmed her hands on a steaming cup of Hythian tea. This was it, then. The tactical relay screen. She had got used to it telling her the story of an operation unfolding in real time. Vital signs. Relative positions of her operatives. Vid-links weren’t active yet, but they’d appear like a mosaic across the tact screen.

The operation clock was ticking down. She glanced to her wrist, noting the beautiful mechanical chronometer on her wrist. Time, Mantis had said to her, was very rarely on our side, and deep in the Profitable Venture it was apparent the inevitable passage of time was very much the enemy. Like any enemy, it was best to keep it close. Mantis had shown her the watch, a memento of a world he had saved in his younger days alongside his master, an Inquisitor called Mentirius. It was made from a simple alloy, a rugged mix of titanium, palladium and aluminium, and the movement inside was mechanical. It was clearly too big for her wrist, even after resizing the alloy bracelet. The chronometer was entirely handmade - down to the smallest pieces of the timekeeping movement. She had been shocked to find it in the briefcase Mantis handed her before she left the Point. She’d never really spent any time thinking about what it had meant, beyond a well intentioned gift.

Perhaps more.

She glanced at it again, taking in the full dial, oblivious to the time displayed on it. The seconds hand swept at a steady pace, racing through the dimension that could only be measured through the experience of it. In that moment, the vision of Mantis’ cobalt eyes staring into hers as he handed her the briefcase stole through her mind’s eye. She didn’t look away then, she kept staring now. Time was a yawning chasm between moments; time was the cruel hand holding your eyelids open to the full power of a moment.

She knew, at this moment, Junious would be locking his helmet in the jump hold of the Valkyrie. Kely would be fully suited, pacing the full length of the jump ship, no doubt sparking with nervous warp energy. The rest of the Delan veterans that Junious had scavenged together in the aftermath would be taking the white knuckle ride into low orbit in their stride. All of them, waiting on the moment they would jump.

She watched as the speck representing the valkyrie left the speck representing Futility. The seconds hand kept moving, dancing after the trail of the valkyrie. It would take three minutes to reach low orbit, running quiet, running low.

“Planet auth are hailing us again, Seneschal Dowell. They asked more forcefully,” relayed the bridge staff. Bess nodded.

“Keep them occupied, relay the mess codes, fry them with it, buy the First-Inquisitor some time. I don’t want them to have any time to get birds up,” she said, her eyes not leaving the display. The valkyrie was flying well and making headway.

An unfamiliar face joined her on the bridge, at her side.

+++ Magos Kaniksis sent me. I am Magos Vexxis. I am here to assist +++

Bess nodded. Another day on Futility, another unexpected guest, another secret revealed, another emergency. It was always another. She had stopped being surprised by the First-Inquisitor, by Balkoth’s secrets on the ship, perhaps by the galaxy.

+++ If I might, Seneschal, Futility can assist here +++

“By all means, Magos,” she said invitingly. It seemed that Junious had obtained an outcome, one way or the other, with the Mechanicum aboard the ship.

Her eyes tracked the screen with an intense obsession. The operation clock was relentless - barely a minute until they were due to jump.

+++ Though your mess codes are an inelegant solution, your ideation is valid. Watch the execution of the disciples of Fabraxis. +++

Bess still didn’t look - mechadendrites flitted in and out of her peripheral vision without interrupting her concentration.

+++ Scrap code is one of my specialties. I will execute my code and blind the enemies of Not-Balkoth. Behold the might of the Adeptus Mechanicum. +++

Her tact monitor, much to her irritation, blinked for a moment. Then she could see it, at first a minor hint across the background of the theatre, then broader and thicker until a trickle became a river metamorphosed into a seismic swell of data.

+++ They are blind. All hail the Omnissiah. +++

=][=
The Descent

The Valkyrie lurched as it breached the outer atmosphere. It rattled, all of the badly maintained insides feeling like they would come apart. They had heavily modified the Valkyrie to allow it to survive high atmosphere entry, but each time they came back from a sortie the vehicle looked sorrier and sorrier. They’d christened the ship Seiersvapen, hoping a name might encourage her to hold together. So far, so good. He eased out his mind, trying to shield the ship with his telekinetic talents. He felt the enormous strain as the ship bucked and rocked through the mesosphere of the planet. The outside of Seiersvapen was starting to heat prodigously.

“A little… help… Kely,” Junious said, as he desperately tried to keep the ship together. The load lightened, a literal load off his mind, Kely doing the heavy lifting. She didn’t even look like she was trying.

“Just ask,” she said, concentrating but not straining. The ride eased off.

Junious watched his sensor array, indicating they were barely thirty seconds away from their intended target.

“Vets, line up. Kely, get your hook on. Jump in fifteen seconds. Get ready!”

His hoary cast of veterans each ran to the assembly point at the back of Seiersvapen. They clipped onto a rack that ran the length of the Valkyrie, which would stop them from being pulled out of the ship when the back doors opened.

“Captain, slow to jump speed.”

“Mark, slowing to jump speed. On target for coordinates.”

Seiersvapen lurched again with hard deceleration. Junious felt his insides wrench again, settling quickly as the ship reached equilibrium ready for the jump.

“Five by five on speed and approach. Jump jump jump. Safe travels First Inquisitor.”

The doors of the Valkyrie rattled open, the air leaving in an extraordinary rush that pulled all of the occupants. Each of them held, then as one began to rush and hurl themselves out of Seiersvapen. The veterans executed as one, leaping from the Valkyrie without doubt. For a moment, Kely and Junious stood together at the edge of the ship, looking down at the planet.

“Ready to go?” she asked. She couldn’t see his face beneath his power armoured helmet, but she knew he’d be nervous. He always was, at this moment in nearly every operation she’d been with him on.

“I’d feel better with Reprieve and maybe another ten good fighting troops.”

“We’ve got something better.” she said. She smiled through her clear visor, then winked.

“We’ve got hope!”

She leapt out into space, her words floating as she arced into the air, turning her leap into a beautiful swan dive into the unknown. She let out a joyful whoop as she accelerated rapidly towards the surface.

Junious followed with an uncertain half run, half fall into nothingness.

Gravity took hold, at first dragging then spinning. Junious fought to correct himself, feeling the g-force accelerating and encouraging the darkness of a blackout wriggling at the edge of his vision.

=][=
Wretched Chronometry II

“Time?”

“They should be jumping… They’re away. Four. Six. Eight in the air Seneschal.”

“Eight?” Bess challenged.

“Yes Seneschal…. Wait! One away. One more away! Confirming all ten away Seneschal.”

Bess let a long sigh of relief out. She tried to hold her reaction, but her hands had advanced ahead of her control and entwined behind her head. She hated this, hovering like a helpless hummingbird watching her chicks fall from the nest. She stared for a moment at the tactvid, zeroing in on the free falling team in her care, such as it was, from orbit.

“Who is in a spin! Who is in a damn spin? Get me vision on it!” Bess shouted. She rushed forward, holding railing between her and the tactvid so tightly her knuckles turned white.

“Working… It’s the First Inquisitor ma’am!”

The tactvid opened, showing the power armoured figure spinning like a furious, wildly out of control golden wheel. The vid followed him for a moment falling faster towards the planet. Time froze for a moment. Inaction would kill.

Perhaps...

“Open the Vox! Now!”

“Open!”

“Junious, listen to me, you need to control the spin. If you don’t your grav chute won’t open and you’ll smash yourself on the ground. Junious? Junious?”

“I think he’s out cold!”

The seconds hand on her chronometer sprinted round the dial. He fell ever faster until the readout showed he’d reached terminal velocity.

“Get me Kely!” Bess shouted.

++ I’m here Bess ++

“Junious has blacked out. You need to wake him up!”

++ On it ++

Bess watched on, not able to directly intervene. The inevitable second hand marched on.

++ He’s on, he’ll right himself ++

Bess’s eyes flicked back to the vid screen. A flare of psychic power telekinetically corrected his spin leaving him falling upright.

++ I’m here, I’m ok ++

The First Inquisitor’s voice was hazy and hesitant, but at least he was awake. Bess caught her breath again, sucking in her relief and exhaling her nervous energy.

Two minutes, eighteen seconds until they were due to fire their gravchutes. Her foot started tapping as they crossed into the area they’d christened the zone of death - in the lower stratosphere, where the Thunderbolts stationed below could claw at her fledglings, who had found their wings.

She watched the auspexes pounding the surface for any sign of movement.

One minute, fifty three seconds. They were scrambling the Thunderbolts in response to the scrap code, and she could see the orbital platforms were coming online. It was unlikely they would be able to eyeball the falling assailants. Bess didn’t want to play the odds.

“Vexxis, the orbitals… “ Bess nodded at the auspexes.

+++ The orbital defence platforms over this world are ancient, and sub-standard. Futility will annihilate them +++

“If she were at her fighting weight, of course. Might I suggest we avoid any conflict if possible?”

Vexxis eyed her for a moment.

+++ Logic accepted. So be it. Activating scrap code. +++

Vexxis’ eyes glowed red to green, then faded back to red. Futility responded, blasting another volley of blinding machine cant at the orbital arrays.

+++ They will be blinded for thirty five, to forty minutes. Is Not-Balkoth competent? +++

Bess nodded. She wasn’t sure she meant it.

=][=

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