Esteemed Veteran Space Marine
Tainted, they call us. Cursed, they whisper.
Let them scorn, let them sneer and mouth their petty barbs.
They think us shamed. They think us brought to heel.
For all they think us impure and marked, the more our honour and righteous purpose are affirmed.
Those who accept the existence of shackles are doomed to wear them.
We are the Relictors, the dark hand of the Adeptus Astartes, and we acknowledge none living as our master.
The quartermaster leaned against the doorframe, looking out from his domain across the bustling compound of the Pioneer Corps’ expeditionary base. Guardsmen and indentured labourers alike moved around the place with a reignited vigour, their auras pulsing and surging with excitement and optimism.
It was funny, he mused, how a single piece of good news could effect such a fundamental change in the whole camp’s attitude. Despite being far longer in the tooth than most of the others in camp, even he found himself caught up in the excitement. He glanced skywards for the dozenth time that hour then caught himself, wryly amused by his own enthusiasm.
His reverie was broken by the squeal of brakes and a rattle of shingle as a six-wheeled flatbed slewed to a halt in front of him. Its driver leaned out of the open cab and bawled across at him, ‘Hey Quartie! They here yet?’
He grinned easily, shaking his head. ‘For the tenth time, corporal, no. Rest assured, you’ll know as soon as I do’. He glanced beyond her before continuing. ‘Now feth off and look busy – here comes the old man’.
Corporal Lisbeth Arramaine made to salute then faked him out, flipping him the bird before slamming her truck into gear and roaring off towards the motor pool on the far side of the compound. The quartermaster watched her go with a fond smile. She was a pretty enough lass by Pioneer Corps standards, with shoulder-length dark hair, brown eyes and a huge and relentless enthusiasm for absolutely everything. Plus, she could open bottles with her teeth. All of that was well and good (and certainly enough for the younger Corpsmen to hurl themselves heroically – and vainly – at her) but it was her aura that captivated the quartermaster; her spirit positively glowed with an iridescent green sparkle that never failed to put him in mind of sunlight and summer.
Once Lisbeth was out of sight, the quartermaster swept his gaze around the compound, noting signs of imminent activity from officer country. Sure enough, Captain Dverski emerged from his quarters, a gaggle of flunkies and orderlies in tow. With dry amusement, the quartermaster noticed that Dverski had attempted to dress to impress; the officer looked stiff and uncomfortable in his gaudy dress uniform and formal befeathered hat and he kept getting his dress sabre snagged in the folds of his hastily de-mothballed cloak. He’d even gone to the trouble of rooting out his ceremonial theodolite, which was being carried somewhat awkwardly by the adjutant scuttling along in his wake.
The quartermaster didn’t need to read Dverski’s aura to know that he was feeling stressed, inadequate and faintly ridiculous. He put on a respectful, sympathetic air as the Captain stalked past.
‘Five minutes, quartie,’ Captain Dverski muttered in response to the unspoken question as he and his entourage made their way to the rockcrete blast shelter at the side of the landing pad.
Excited again, the quartermaster returned his eager gaze to the endless blue skies above, shielding his eyes against the light of the afternoon sun.
Salvation was coming.
Captain Jarel Dverski stood in the lee of the blast shelter, sweating and awkward in his nonsensical finery. His thoughts turned briefly, longingly, to his habitual fatigues, slouch hat and combat boots, currently lying where they’d been frantically discarded in his haste to look ‘presentable’. The relief force had been incommunicado in geostationary orbit for a full day since arriving in-system as a response to his astropathed plea for urgent assistance. Were they so busy in that time that they couldn’t send down more than ten minutes’ warning of their on-planet time? His peevishness with their lack of respect for proper protocol warred with his relief at their arriving at all. Relief won, and he set his face into a welcoming smile as he waited for the Angels to descend to Koulinis IV.
The first star of the evening appeared, high in the sky. It began a fall to the surface, trailing corkscrews of vapour behind it. All work ceased in the compound as people looked up, grabbing at their neighbours to point excitedly. A few cheers rang out, to be drowned out by shrieking turbojets as the shuttlecraft continued its rapid descent, flaring at the last minute to bleed off some of its excess velocity.
It still hit hard, the four landing skids smashing into the pad’s rockcrete surface with a grinding crunch. As the engines powered down, the ensuing silence was filled with the popping and hissing of the shuttle’s fuselage as it cooled down from re-entry temperatures. The heat haze it threw up made it look like a mirage of itself, shimmering and insubstantial in the centre of the scorched pad. The truth be told, it wasn’t much to look at objectively; just a standard surface to orbit shuttlecraft, of a type in use the Imperium over. Subjectively, however, it was a thing of singular beauty, the promise of deliverance from the ill fate that had befallen the Pioneers.
Five interminable minutes crawled by. Once the hull had cooled sufficiently, the boarding ramp in the shuttle’s belly began to ratchet downwards. Once it had deployed, the airlock door at the top of the ramp whined laboriously as it irised open. The crowd gathered around the edges of the landing pad held its breath, leaning forward in anticipation and unconscious urging. The collective expectation was sky-high.
The crowd was not disappointed. The boarding ramp rang with the heavy tread of armoured feet as two of the God-Emperor’s Astartes descended to the planet’s surface. They were impossibly huge and solid, yet moved with a lightness and surety that belied the weight of the massive layered power armour they both wore.
The first warrior was clad in dark grey, edged with black trim. The only flashes of colour came from the haughty golden Aquila emblazoned proudly on his chest and the markings on his huge pauldrons; tactical squad designators on his right and a grinning skull, displayed side-on, on his left. His face was hidden beneath a beaked grey helm and his head turned slowly as he came down the ramp, surveying the compound dispassionately through dull red eye lenses. His bolter was mag-locked to his right thigh.
His companion was dressed in blue power armour and went bare-headed, save for a delicate crystalline lattice that seemed to knit with the back half of his skull. He had the same stylised motif as his battle-brother, although in lieu of tactical designators on his armour he sported an intricate device of an open book. Purity seals hung from him in a dozen places, the delicate scrollwork rippling in the heat-generated cross breeze. Instead of a bolter, a sword was slung over his back, a foot-long section of hilt topped with a clear crystalline pommel visible above his shoulder. At his waist, bound by heavy-duty chains and silver filigree, hung an immensely thick leather-bound tome. His right hand rested protectively on its spine as he walked.
The quartermaster watched with interest as Captain Dverski squared his shoulders before stepping forward to greet the new arrivals. His aura was a flickering, nervy mess, betraying the trepidation and awe rampaging through him as he gazed up at the gene-engineered hulks looming over him.
As they began to converse, the quartermaster, compelled by curiosity, focussed his aura sight on the two Astartes. What he saw caused him to blink in surprise, leaving him flummoxed. People had always been an open book to him, their emotional states bleeding out through their auras. His gift allowed him to read these hidden markers, and had come in very useful in enabling him to sail a calm and trouble-free course through his career in the Imperial Guard.
The two Astartes’ auras were cold and dark, as grey as the beak-helmed one’s armour. They simply did not register any emotional state whatsoever. For the first time he could remember, the quartermaster found himself at a loss, his natural advantage taken from him. Under his non-plussed stare, the bare-headed warrior broke off from his discussions with Captain Dverski and locked gazes with the quartermaster. He gave the guardsman the tiniest shake of his head before breaking the stare and returning his attention to the conversation before him.
Fear washed through the quartermaster like an ice flood. He knew! Oh Holy Throne, he knew! Being a canny sort, the quartermaster had never let on to anybody about his gift; he had a suspicion that those in authority would take an extremely dim view of it, harmless though it was. Nightmare images of being hauled before a Commissar flashed before his eyes, and he swiftly ducked back into the shadows, desperate to stay away from the gaze of that knowing, inhuman blue-armoured warrior.
After a few minutes his pulse rate returned to something approaching normal, so he risked another peek towards the landing pad. He watched the conversation come to a decisive end as Captain Dverski stepped backwards, saluted briskly and hurried away from the Astartes, advisors bobbing in his wake.
The quartermaster’s pulse rate twitched skywards again as he realised that the captain was headed directly for him. He took a few quick, shallow breaths, wiped his sweaty palms on his trouser legs and screwed on his default friendly smile as he stood ready to receive his fate.
‘Quartie!’ Dverski’s voice was clipped and urgent and he beckoned the storesman forward.
He obeyed, heart hammering in his ears. ‘Yes, Captain?’ His voice was only partially audible as he acknowledged his superior officer.
‘Quartie, our guests require transportation and a guide out to the ... site. Sort something out, please. I want them on their way in five minutes. Something about these Relictors ...’ He mouthed the last word as if it was something new, strange and not particularly welcome, then tailed off.
Relief coursed through the quartermaster’s body and he felt giddy from the sudden release of tension. He smiled for real this time and snapped a salute. ‘Aye aye, sir!’ Turning his gaze to the motor pool, he caught Lisbeth’s eye as she shuffled from foot to foot, impatience making a jerking marionette of her. ‘I have the perfect candidate’, he added.
Dverski nodded absently and headed back towards his quarters, already fumbling with the chinstrap of his ridiculous hat. He waved his various flunkies and attendants away as he walked, toying with the idea of getting blind, stinking drunk on the emergency half bottle of Wodka he had stashed in his trunk.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t even register Lisbeth as she hurtled past him in answer to the quartermaster’s summons. She slid to a halt outside the stores and waited as he padded over to her, bipping the throttle impatiently.
‘Captain wants you to take those two fellas out to the site’, he said without any preamble. She grinned incredulously, and her aura blossomed in echo. Despite his recent scare, the quartermaster drank in her emotional light show greedily, taking vicarious pleasure in her happiness. He raised a cautionary hand. ‘A word of advice’, he added. ‘Be nice to the instruments of death made flesh, eh?’
Lisbeth flipped him the bird once again as she drove towards the two Astartes, who had remained utterly motionless since their discussion with Captain Dverski. It was only as she pulled up alongside them that the young Corporal truly appreciated just how big they were. From her elevated position in the truck’s cab, she was at eye-level with the Astartes. Were she to dismount, she doubted she’d be above the Aquilas on their breastplates. Yeek.
‘Corporal Arramaine reporting for duty as ordered, lords’, she called respectfully across, unsure as to whom to address.
Her dilemma was solved when the grey-clad Marine turned to acknowledge her. When he spoke, the vox in his helm rendered his words clipped and atonal, devoid of all human inflection. ‘Thank you, Corporal’.
He made his way round to the passenger side of the cab, hauling himself up and easily filling the double-sized bench seat. His knees were jammed against the dash and he was forced to lean forwards to accommodate his large, bulky backpack. Lisbeth noted with interest that he moved with unexpected delicacy, as if he was worried about breaking the sturdy Guard truck by climbing aboard.
His companion had no such concerns. The truck rocked and sagged as the other Astartes did a standing jump to land squarely in the centre of the flatbed. Once on board, he turned and sat, his back against the rear of the open-topped cab and the sword, wrapped in neatly-embroidered canvas, across his knees.
Once she was sure that both of the Astartes were safely aboard, Lisbeth started moving, heading for the gates of the compound. Ridiculously, she felt as if she were a raw recruit again, taking her field-driving examination under the cantankerous gaze of the unit’s supply sergeant. She stifled the urge to laugh at the memory and relaxed, beeping her horn imperiously at the gate guards. They struggled to raise the heavy barrier in time as she thundered through, showing their appreciation for her driving via an economical series of hand gestures.
Once clear of the Pioneer Corps’ camp, Lisbeth headed north-west, aiming for the row of low hills breaking the horizon that marked their destination. She suppressed a giddy thrill as she sped through the late afternoon. Astartes! In my truck! Throne on a stick, I won’t have to buy a single drink for the rest of this whole damn tour! She surreptitiously tried to steal glances at her two silent, implacable passengers, soaking up details to flesh out the inevitable mess-room retellings of her epic adventure that would follow.
She found herself most taken with the smaller things; the oversized actuation studs and runes on her passenger’s bolter, designed to work with outsized, powered gauntlets; the way additional magazines were casually, seemingly randomly, distributed across various armour plates, secured in place magnetically; the beautifully-crafted lettering on the wind-whipped purity seals. She leaned forward and squinted in her rear-view mirror to get a better look ... Was that written in High Gothic? How in Throne’s name did those damn things even stay on during comba-
A powered gauntlet the size of her head suddenly closed over her hand, yanking the steering wheel violently to the left. The truck lurched sideways, away from a small stand of trees into which she had almost drifted. The beak-helmed warrior turned his head towards her, slowly releasing his grip on the wheel. ‘If I were to choose my end’, he voxed, ‘It would be gloriously, against His foes. Not wrapped around a tree’. In the absolute silence that followed, he calmly returned his gaze to the front, surveying the route ahead.
Lisbeth felt absolutely mortified, her cheeks burning with embarrassment and fury at her own stupidity. She did not want to think of what her two passengers thought of her. And by extension, of the whole unit. Ugh ... I’ll be on latrine duty until I retire when the old man hears about this. She drove in silent shame for the next few klicks, unwilling to look up from the scrubby grassland rolling beneath her wheels.
‘Corporal’. The vox made her jump, twitching the truck. She jerked her head round to the right to see her passenger looking down at her through his cold, red-tinted lenses. ‘Tell me, if you will, what transpired here, that you require our assistance’.
The question threw her. She would have been less surprised to hear small talk from her truck. She pulled herself together and launched into the tale of the disaster that had befallen the exploratory party.
‘We were tasked to land here and establish a forward base for the Mechanicum. This world was, um, apparently colonised back before the Long Night but everyone died. Or was it the Greenskins? Anyway, the place was abandoned for, like forever. Old geo-surveys reckoned it might still have substantial mineral deposits or something, so we came down to do test drills. The first team out, well, we think they did something wrong when they blew a hill to prep for excavation. We lost contact, anyway.
‘Cap sent out another crew to make sure they hadn’t blown their damn selves up. Wouldn’t have been the first time ... Anyway, when they got there they found some old ruins or something that had been under the hill. Lots of columns and stuff, all smashed. They also found some of the surveyors – they’d been torn to pieces, redstuff splattered all over.
‘That’s when this ... thing ... attacked them. Came right out of the dark, it did, and tore through ‘em like wotsit through a grox. A dozen dead in as many seconds, they said. So the sarge managed a ... well, he called it a fighting withdrawl but I reckon they just legged it. Five of ‘em made it back to one of the Sallies and took off.
‘They were chased out by this xenos thing. Looked like it was going to catch ‘em too, according to Lars. But then it just stopped – bang! – like it ran into a wall, just as it got right close. Howled fit to burst ... poor ol’ Yennos is still claiming deaf.’ She broke off for a second, considering. ‘But then he always was a malingering git, so ... ‘
Lisbeth stopped, suddenly aware she’d lost her audience. The two Astartes were trading glances, and the one on the flatbed nodded in response to something the other had voxed to him. A thing that looked disturbingly like a smile flickered across his stern, stony face.
‘I agree’, he rumbled. ‘This sounds likely’. His voice, undistorted by a vox-unit, was a bass growl, although the intonation was surprisingly precise. He looked across at Lisbeth. ‘Guardsman ... how long until we reach the source of this contamination?’
This was the first time he had even acknowledged her existence, so the question caught her by surprise. ‘Um, about three hours’, she hazarded, glancing at the chronometer taped to the dash.
‘And sunset will take place in sixty-seven minutes. Stop the vehicle, guardsman’.
She obeyed without question, easing the truck down through the gears until she brought it to a halt. With the petrochemical engine stilled, she could hear for the first time the constant hums and whirs as the Astartes’ power armour adjusted to every infinitesimal movement they made. That could get irritating right quick, she mused. Wonder if their helmets filter it out.
She slid out of the cab and dropped to the ground, taking the opportunity to stretch and work the kinks out of her tired body. The presence of the Astartes up front had squeezed her more than a little and her muscles were grumbling their protests.
Halfway through a particularly athletic contortion, she noticed that the beak-helmeted Astartes was watching her. Suddenly self-conscious, she stopped what she was doing and broke eye-contact.
‘My apologies, Corporal’, he voxed to her, inclining his head slightly. ‘I did not mean to interrupt your callisthenics. Please continue.’
Lisbeth blushed and grinned. ‘Not a problem, lord. I had just finished’. On an impulse, she pushed her luck and ventured, ‘Lord, I don’t want to appear too, uh, familiar, or anything, but can I ask your names and which Chapter you belong to?’
For a moment, she thought she’d gone too far. The warrior did not respond for a timeless few seconds. And then he did.
‘I am Brother Steltz. My charge over there is Brother-Librarian Montanti. We are of the Relictors chapter of the God-Emperor’s immortal Astartes.’ This was all said matter-of-factly, with no trace of braggadocio, but it sent a cold thrill down her spine. This was quite possibly the greatest moment of her life so far.
Montanti stepped down from the flatbed, the impact of his boots cratering the hard-packed ground. He walked a dozen paces from the truck, then knelt down, his back to them. Lisbeth watched curiously as the Librarian reverently unwrapped the sword from its bindings and laid it down. From pouches on his belt, he withdrew small bottles of oils and unguents, placing them carefully to hand around him. Once all was set up to his satisfaction, he unchained the book he wore at his waist and opened it at a marked page. Hunched forwards in the dim light, Montanti began reading quietly from the tome, stopping every now and again to drip selected oils onto the blade. He worked with a deathly slow precision, his will focussed utterly on the task before him.
‘I would advise you to rest’, rumbled Steltz to Lisbeth. ‘Tomorrow may prove to be somewhat demanding’.
‘With respect, Lord Steltz’, she replied. ‘Might I ask exactly what Lord Montanti is doing?’
Steltz had turned to face the Librarian as he had begun his ritual, and he spoke now over his shoulder to her. ‘If the creature we will encounter tomorrow is what we suspect it is, we will need more than bolters and faith to neutralise it. The weapon my brother is preparing has ... history and will serve us well, should it be called upon. He will wield it and I shall watch over him.’
‘Oh, like in case he gets jumped if there’s more than one, you mean?’ Lisbeth answered.
Steltz, still gazing towards Montanti and his ritual, cocked his head, as if considering some new concept. ‘Yes. That too’, he said thoughtfully.
Lisbeth hauled herself aboard the flatbed, laying out an oil-stained bedroll that she had retrieved from a storage box. She flopped about for a while, trying to find the least uncomfortable position in which to rest. As she began to drift off towards sleep, fuzzy half-thoughts washed through her brain. Sloppy weapons discipline. He’s holding the bolter facing towards his mate. We’d get a bollocking if we did that in Basic ...
She finally fell asleep to the rasping, growling incantations of the Librarian, with Steltz looming behind him. Like an angel of death.
She awoke in the pre-dawn glow, momentarily fogged and flustered. Her mouth tasted like a Squiggoth had taken a dump in it. No doubt her breath smelt the same. As her vision focussed she raised her head and looked about her, trying to isolate exactly what had disturbed her rest.
What the feth? Singing. Both Relictors were kneeling, facing the glow on the horizon. The words were in a language with which she wasn’t familiar but it sounded hymnal in quality. Steltz’s vox harmonised with Montanti’s rasping snarl to create a whole that was far, far greater than the sum of its parts. Devotion and resolution shone undiluted through the unfamiliar words and she lay there, feeling privileged to be able to bear witness to such an intimate expression of pure, exquisite rhapsody.
As the first rays of the new day poured over the horizon, the Relictors ceased their devotional, the last notes seeming to hang in the stillness of the morning air. As one, they rose smoothly to their feet and stood a second, as if in reflection.
The mood broken, Lisbeth sighed and began to rouse herself. Steltz turned to regard her just as she was furtively casting about for somewhere to relieve herself.
‘Good morning, Corporal’, he offered. ‘We must be under way in ten minutes, so I would suggest you complete your ablutions with an eye to haste’. Was it her imagination, or was there the barest whisper of amusement behind the vox?
In the end, she ‘abluted’ on the far side of the truck, hunkered down by the running board. A swig from her canteen later and she was ready to go, the truck idling roughly as her passengers mounted up.
She drove one-handedly, using the other to help her wolf down a bar of stalecake the size of a brick. If Steltz was bothered by either her poor table manners or haphazard driving, he declined to comment. Montanti was in his own private world, reading passages from his chained book to himself over and over, mouthing the more difficult phrasings to ensure he had them correct.
Once the stalecake was finished, Lisbeth was able to put her foot down and make good time. The ground was a relatively flat and even heath, and they followed a lance-straight course towards the low hills ahead of them.
‘Another hour, I reckon’, she called across cheerfully. Steltz acknowledged with a nod, absently patting each of the additional bolter magazines sequestered about his armour, one after another. The bolter itself lay across his knees, snub-nosed, heavy and indisputably deadly.
As the hour rolled around, Montanti suddenly loomed forward, his fists clenching the roll bar above Lisbeth’s head and his face practically touching the windscreen. ‘Here!’ he breathed. ‘Stop here. I sense it, brother. So close ... ‘ His voice was shaking slightly as he spoke and there was a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead.
Steltz laid one hand casually on the grip of his bolter before replying. ‘Indeed, brother’, he acknowledged. And then to Lisbeth: ‘Please halt the vehicle, Corporal’.
Lisbeth complied, her heart racing. She was caught up in the excitement of the moment, Montanti’s almost feverish anticipation proving infectious. The truck rattled to a halt and she killed the engine before looking enquiringly at Steltz.
‘So what’s the plan, lord? You want me to stay put and ferry you back once you’re done slaughtering whatever it is?’
Steltz shook his head. ‘The vehicle will be safe enough here. We need you along with us. I will be focussing primarily on watching him’, he nodded to Montanti, who had bailed out of the back of the truck and was pacing back and forth with the tome open in his massive left hand. ‘So I would be appreciative of your keeping watch where I cannot. I see a lot but only the God-Emperor can lay claim to omniscience’.
Your time to shine, soldier. The Astartes need your help! ‘Alright then’, she said casually, and drew her las-pistol, making sure the power cell was charged and that she had a couple of spares to hand. As she slid it back into her holster, she squinted towards Montanti as he stood, murmuring and gesticulating, and asked ‘So what’s going on with the book reading? He going to preach?’
Steltz dropped the magazine from his bolter and gave it a quick visual check before slapping it back into place and racking the slide. He appeared to be buying time as he considered how to respond to her question.
‘Yesterday, you called this thing a xenos creature. We do not believe this to be the case. This creature is a spawn of the Warp, a daemon, and one we’re sure was imprisoned in this place cold millennia ago, through profane acts of foul sorcery.
‘We think that your survey party somehow accidentally weakened the bindings trapping this beast, enabling it some limited degree of freedom. It does not yet appear to be strong enough to cast off its shackles altogether, so we hope to trap it once more by reaffirming the binding ritual. Brother-Librarian Montanti should be able to raise the wards and contain it for long enough for a more permanent solution to be found’.
‘Witchcraft!’ The word came from nowhere, spat from her lips. Horrified at herself, her hands flew to her mouth and she looked up at Steltz, round-eyed.
The grey-armoured behemoth stared down at her impassively, the light from the morning sun catching his eye lenses and making them flare an unholy crimson. The silence between them was inexorable, grinding.
It was a blessed relief when it was finally broken, Steltz taking a half-step backwards and opening his palms to her in a placatory fashion. The speech he launched into sounded well-practised.
‘Knowledge and power. These are tools, to be picked up and used by men. The source of that knowledge, that power, matters not; if one’s will is strong and pure, one can use any tool to further the cause of righteousness, to enact His will.
‘Without the knowledge of this binding ritual – rooted, as you say, in witchcraft – we would be hard-pressed to combat this daemon, leaving it free to slaughter any innocents in its path. Yet using this knowledge, this power, for righteous ends, with faith and devotion to shield and guide us, will allow us the means to overcome this great evil. Do you see, Corporal?’
Lisbeth nodded slowly, releasing the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. ‘Sure, I get it. The ends justify the means’. She jammed her hands deep into her jacket pockets and took a couple of steps back. ‘Let’s move, eh? Daylight’s wasting’.
‘As you wish’, he acknowledged. ‘When it begins, ensure you remain behind the brother-Librarian as he advances, so you will be on the correct side of the wards as they are renewed. I will take the left flank if you would watch the right’.
This close to their destination, the craters and blast marks left by the ill-fated survey team could easily be made out a few hundred metres ahead. The intervening terrain was rocky and uneven, with places of overhang and deep shadow. Lisbeth drew her pistol and held it tightly in a double-handed grip as she prepared to advance.
Brother-Librarian Montanti began the ritual of binding, holding up his chained tome and reciting from it in a clear, carrying tone. He advanced slowly, his footsteps in time with the cadence of his words. His right hand sketched signs in the air before him as he moved. A sudden pressure drop washed over Lisbeth, and she cast her gaze skywards in vain expectation of a gathering storm.
Shivering, she began to move forward, mindful to remain a few paces behind Montanti. On the other flank, Steltz did likewise.
The air ahead of the Librarian shimmered ever so slightly, ever so wrongly. The purity seals adorning his armour were whipping about in a breeze that wasn’t there and faint sparks of ghost lightning spat groundwards from his hulking frame. Somewhere far ahead, hidden amidst the jagged tumble of rocks, something howled in astonished rage. It was not a sound that Lisbeth had ever imagined could possibly exist, and was one she could never possibly forget. She was suddenly glad she had abluted earlier.
The trio moved forward slowly and methodically. Montanti’s evocations began, to her ear, to sound ever so slightly laboured, as if he was being physically tested by his efforts. Steltz was hard to see whenever she glanced in his direction, his armour blending with the clinging shadows of the blast-wracked ground. For a guilty moment, Lisbeth found herself half-wishing the creature would leap out at them; the tension was becoming a physical pressure, tightening her chest and shortening her breath. Please, just something happen before I implode she groaned silently.
Things happened extremely quickly as her wish was granted. The howl that had terrified her earlier came again but this time it was closer, aggressive and commanding. She jerked her head around, trying to see in six different directions simultaneously, her las-pistol a good second behind her darting gaze.
She sensed motion from atop a rock pile off to one side, a flailing, grasping figure half-sliding, half-falling from it towards her. It hit the ground hard and rolled forwards, surging up at her with broken, bloody hands. There was no reason or method in her assailant’s expression, just a blind, boiling rage. Lisbeth knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if it laid its hands on her it would not be able to stop itself until she had been torn limb from limb.
‘Feth off!’ she roared at it in furious indignation. The las-pistol hissed evilly as she pulled the trigger, two searing bolts of incandescent light punching into its rotten, cadaverous torso. Broken and bloodied by her furious, reflexive response, the thing before her flopped and writhed, agony tinting its enraged bellows.
Lisbeth took a step backwards, giddy with immediate post-combat shock. Centre mass, baby! The instructors would be proud. She turned, looking to see if her companions were similarly engaged. What she saw was Steltz, no more than ten metres away with his bolter raised and pointed directly at her. Even at this distance, the gaping muzzle looked like a Baneblade’s cannon.
‘What the f ... ‘ Her startled sentence went unfinished and unheeded as the Relictor opened fire. He snapped off two quick shots just as another pair of crazed, no longer human attackers surged from cover to tackle her.
Both bolts found their marks, the mass-reactive rounds hitting her assailants with wet, meaty slaps before detonating a fraction of a second later. The explosions reduced them to bloody chunks of cartwheeling gristle and the concussive effects of the blast at such close quarters hammered Lisbeth to the floor, smashing the breath from her lungs and sending comets pinwheeling across her vision. The world dissolved into shades of grey and all sound was swamped beneath a roaring tide of static. Hunched over on her knees, she threw up the morning’s stalecake all over the slaughterhouse scene before her.
From her position of shell-shocked misery, she watched Steltz as he advanced smoothly towards her, his bolter tracking left and right as he moved. Three times more he fired, picking off more hidden enemies in rolling explosions of righteous fury.
He was immense.
Lisbeth hauled herself shakily to her feet, still doggedly clutching her pistol. Steltz laid a huge gauntleted hand on her shoulder to steady her as she swayed from side to side. He was voxing something at her but she couldn’t make it out over the white noise still crashing round inside her head. It seemed like it might be urgent though, so she allowed the Relictor to half lead, half carry her back to where Montanti continued his dogged perambulations.
Both colour vision and hearing returned over the course of the next few minutes and Lisbeth disengaged herself from the Marine’s supportive grip. She took a few experimental steps then gave him the thumbs-up, indicating that she felt okay to continue under her own steam.
‘What the feth were those things?’ she croaked, the words coming with difficulty from a raw throat. ‘Were they what tore up the relief force?’
Steltz shook his head curtly, still watchful for more ambushes. ‘They were the relief force’, he said flatly. ‘The daemon would have possessed them, used them to find more souls on which it could feast. My prayer is that granting them release will have weakened it again, limiting its options. The God-Emperor willing, we should have the beast caged within the hour ... the noose is tightening’.
Any trace of the short-lived exultation she’d felt about taking down her attacker faded like dawn mist. It hadn’t been a monster; it had once been a grunt like her. Odds were she’d drunk with him, joked with him – maybe even punched him out on occasion. He’d died in combat but it wasn’t a fit end for a Guardsman.
She sniffed hard, suddenly conscious her nose appeared to be running. Running the back of her hand across it, she was surprised to see it slicked with red. She was even more surprised when Steltz offered her a tightly-folded piece of vellum. Nodding her thanks, she took it, shook it out and used it to staunch the flow of blood from her nose, leaning forward and pinching it hard.
‘My apologies’, growled the Astartes. ‘You were closer to the detonation of my bolt shells than I would have preferred. It is probably only a minor concussion’, he added consolingly.
Lisbeth glared at him over the blood-drenched material. ‘You knew those things would go for me’, she said accusingly.
‘It made sense for any attack to focus on the weakest point of the advance.’
‘You used me as bait’, she hissed. ‘For feth’s sake, why don’t you just hang a target on my back. What’s next, minefield clearance?’
In a fit of temper, no doubt exacerbated by the concussion, she balled up the vellum and threw it at the imperturbable Relictor.
He caught it without even looking as he checked on Montanti’s position, his gauntlet plucking it from the air. He turned to regard her, gazing with cool, detached amusement. ‘This was simply the most expedient course of action. Please do not reckon your worth around one tactical decision. You have been, and will continue to be, invaluable in the pursuance and completion of this mission’.
She was caught wrong-footed by both what he said and the matter of fact way in which he’d said it. If the same line had been spun to her by anybody back at the compound, she’d have laughed in their face and questioned the species preferences of their mother’s mating habits. Coming from the Adeptus Astartes, however, it had gravitas. Honesty. Truth.
Mollified yet uncertain as to what was expected of her, Lisbeth resumed her place on the flank of the advance. Montanti was making better time now, gaining strength with every stride, and his words rang like chimes from a plague-master’s cart as he stalked forwards. It was as Steltz had surmised; the daemon had been weakened by the destruction of its puppets and no longer had the reserves to resist the Brother-Librarian’s renewing of the wards that bound it to this benighted place.
They were almost at the epicentre of the devastation now, the remains of a hill artlessly decapitated by an excess of enthusiasm and high explosives. Montanti gestured suddenly towards Steltz, a downward stabbing motion with his free hand. Steltz called across to Lisbeth: ‘’Ware, we are close’.
As they crested the lip of the crater and gazed down into the pit before them, Lisbeth cast her gaze feverishly about, trying to spot the creature they’d been forcing back to this damned crucible. What lay before them was the ruins of an elaborate structure, a riot of tumbledown architecture that bore no resemblance to Imperial aesthetics past or present. If one looked beyond the destruction wrought by the surveyors, the actual condition of the columns, arches and walls was surprisingly well-preserved. Lisbeth couldn’t begin to imagine just how long this prison had existed undisturbed, hidden with such care away from the daylight of the world above.
And make no mistake, this was a prison. Every aspect of the complex was built around a central octagonal-walled well a couple of metres deep. Outlying walls enclosed this focal point, mirroring and enlarging its form; painstakingly-crafted sigils and wards covered their every square centimetre, designed to reinforce and amplify the fundamental binding geas that wove the whole together. Runnels were cut deep into the floor, linking each corner of the central well with a corresponding raised platform beyond the farthest outlying walls. Without knowing why she thought it, Lisbeth wondered how many sacrificial victims had been required to power up this containment, how much blood had flowed down those runnels to fill the well at the heart.
In the darkness within the well, something evil lurked. Hounded and harassed by these mortal upstarts, the daemon had been forced back, step by hateful step, to the original site of its confinement. It was not happy.
With a precise, assured tread, the two Astartes of the Relictors chapter made their way through the prison. Montanti was to the fore, intoning the binding ritual with a grim, sweating concentration. Balefire whipped around him and dust devils sprang up in his bootprints as he bulled his way forwards. Steltz followed close behind him, his bolter raised and questing for a target. Conscious that she had begun to lag behind a little, Lisbeth hurried forwards.
Her haste almost proved her undoing. In her desire to close the gap on the Astartes, she inadvertently drew level with the line of Montanti’s advance, almost breaking the ever-tightening circle.
The daemon in the well saw an opportunity in her carelessness and erupted towards her, a semi-formed shape of nightmare that trailed stinking clouds of oily black voidsmoke in its wake. Too many fingers and too long claws stretched hungrily for her.
Faced with such a manifestation of unfathomable malevolence, Lisbeth froze like a rabbit before headlights. Uh oh, was all she had time for before it was within killing range.
As it reared up to deliver a blow that would have torn her in half, there was a hard, flat crack of sheet lightning and it rebounded backwards, tumbling in a flail of limbs. It tried again, powerful legs propelling it towards her. Again, it hit the wall of Montanti’s wards and was rebuffed painfully. It scrabbled at the barrier in vain fury, howling and crying impotently. Frenzied saliva spattered her. Absently, she noted that it smelled of daisies.
Montanti pressed on, the circle tightening until the daemon was forced back to the well itself. Its final howl of rage transformed into one of soul-freezing despair as it toppled backwards and vanished from sight. The Librarian slammed the grimoire shut and clenched his free hand into a fist as he completed the ritual of binding, the last syllable spat forth with a hiss of vindictive triumph. With a flicker of contorted reality, the well became capped, a cold-cracked blue haze screaming into being.
‘It is done’, said Montanti, his voice suddenly weak and raw-edged. He hawked and spat, a mixture of blood and acid hissing on the ground before him. To Lisbeth’s eyes, he looked smaller somehow, diminished in some way she couldn’t readily identify.
Steltz nodded and slowly, reluctantly, lowered his bolter. With some bemusement, she belatedly realised that it had been aimed squarely at the back of the Librarian’s head throughout the conclusion of the ritual. The Relictors continued to regard one another wordlessly, neither willing to move or speak.
Unable to stand the silence a moment longer, Lisbeth coughed theatrically and pointed towards the capped well. ‘So ... now you’ve caught it, what’s next? Are you going to kill it or, like just hide it and hope no more blastheads wander by and free it again?’
Her words had the desired effect; Montanti dropped his gaze and reached around for the sword that was slung over his shoulder. He unwrapped it with the same care he had shown the previous evening, murmuring a quiet prayer and kissing the wrappings before smoothing them neatly on the ground. He then laid the sword on top of them, hilt towards him.
This was the first time that Lisbeth had gotten a good look at the sword and she wished she hadn’t. Free of the bindings that had hidden it from casual view, it was obvious that there was something fundamentally, horrifically wrong about it. The blade was forged from a pale, almost translucent metal that seemed to shimmer slightly as she gazed upon it; it was not wholly straight either, being bent and twisted the absolute tiniest degree. It stank of age and disrepair, although physically it was perfect. No one thing repelled her but the combined effect was terrifying. Keeping her eyes on it for any length of time left her feeling vertiginous and queasy.
She jumped, startled, as Steltz spoke from just behind her. So horribly fascinated had she been by the sword, she’d totally failed to register his approach.
‘I see you are unsettled by Kul’Askir’, he observed. The name sounded harsh, even allowing for the mauling it received through the vox unit, and it didn’t sound like it came from any language she’d encountered before.
‘It is a weapon that was taken from the corpse of a champion of the Archenemy, doubtless gifted to him by the foul Powers that they serve. It had a fell reputation indeed, and in his hands it was a thing of slaughter, of genocide.
‘In the hands of our champion, however, it has served the will of the God-Emperor, becoming an instrument of righteous vengeance against the spawn of the blasphemous Empyrean. None but the most resolute and blessed among our brothers have had the honour and responsibility to wield Kul’Askir in times of great need’.
‘So you’re going to use it to kill that thing down there? Fine .. get ‘er done. Do me a favour and put the damn thing away afterwards, though – it gives me the creeps.’ She turned aside, not wishing to gaze upon the sword for another moment.
‘Regrettably, it’s not quite that straightforward’.
The words came from Montanti, who was looking across at her from where he knelt before the sword. Even down on one knee as he was, they were still eye to eye. The Librarian continued where Steltz had left off: ‘A century ago we were forced to expend the full energies of Kul’Askir to banish an accursed Bloodthirster back to the Warp. The blade was shattered in the effort, the daemon inside annihilated utterly.’ His hand unconsciously traced an old scar along his jaw line. ‘We gathered up the fragments in the aftermath and turned them over to the finest artificers in the chapter. They performed wondrous work and the weapon was forged anew but it lacked - you’ll pardon the metaphor – its cutting edge. Without a daemonic presence bound within, the blade was naught but a shadow of its former potency.’
He rose smoothly to his feet and paced forwards, halting at the well cap. Lit from below by the flickering cold light of the ward, he appeared an inhuman, menacing silhouette. ‘This thing here has long been thought of as a suitable replacement. Alas, whilst the information gifted us by our ... sympathisers ... told us how to capture the daemon, it was not forthcoming as to where we might find it. We have been searching this sector for almost three decades now. It is truly the God-Emperor’s divine will that we intercepted your astropathic call for assistance.’
Lisbeth looked between the two Relictors with a growing feeling of sick horror. ‘And so you’re going to somehow force this ... this ... abomination into the sword? How is that possible? And anyway, how can you even contemplate doing this? It’s dangerous and powerful and evil – it will bring nothing but calamity to whatever it touches. This is madness!’
‘Strength of will. Courage of will’. As one, both Astartes murmured the psalm.
‘As to the how ...’ Montanti raised a beckoning hand towards Steltz, who tossed him a wadded ball of material. With a sickening jolt, Lisbeth recognised it as the rag she’d used to staunch her bleeding nose earlier. ‘The sword must be baited with a mortal soul, to tempt the Warpspawn within. It’s a simple ritual, requiring an offering of blood.’ As he spoke, the Librarian opened out the piece of vellum and folded it over Kul’Askir’s blade.
As her blood touched the unearthly metal, Lisbeth felt a stabbing chill run through her, reducing her stomach to a knotted ball of agony and sending cold fire roaring through her veins. Her legs gave way and she fell heavily to the ground, wracked with muscle-tearing convulsions. From her collapsed position, she looked up to see Montanti carefully rubbing the scrap of vellum along the length of the blade, the blood smearing briefly before it disappeared, sinking into the porous metal. As the blood faded so, mercifully did the pain, ebbing like a tropical tide.
The nothingness that replaced the pain was soothing, comforting; she sought refuge within it as if she were burrowing beneath a pile of blankets on a cold winter’s night. In her detached state, she was distantly aware of being hauled up to a sitting position by Steltz. He had knelt down beside her and was supporting her limp body carefully with one hand. With the other, he reached up and unlocked his helm, pulling it clear of his head with a twist and puff of pressurised air.
The face that looked down into hers was, as with the rest of his body, all exaggerated masculinity. His features were broad, pugnacious and solid, with clear grey eyes holding her gaze unwaveringly below a frown that was half scowl. Four silver studs glittered on his forehead, marks of long service to his chapter. His hair was cut back to the scalp, a black fuzz that failed to hide an impressive crosshatching of old scarring along the left side of his head.
‘I am ... sorry for the way that this has turned out and I regret the necessity of our activities. If it provides you with any consolation, you should know that what you do here today will further the cause of the Holy God-Emperor more than if you served a thousand lifetimes in the Imperial Guard’.
Unaugmented by his helmet’s vox, Steltz’s voice, whilst inhumanly deep, was a lot softer than she would have expected it to be. Had she still been capable of surprise, she was sure she would have felt it. Surprise, however, like all her other emotions and conscious thought itself, was fast becoming no more than a receding memory.
He carried on speaking, but Lisbeth found that she no longer had either the ability or the will to listen. Her senses were all tumbling in a profound entropic spiral, through which all she could feel was the soft, relentless dissolution of her own self.
Her head lolled against Steltz’s breastplate, the raised Aquila sparking with psychoelectrical discharge where her cheek lay against it. Her vision fractalised then greyed out, and she felt herself tumbling headlong towards ... she did not know but vaguely, dimly suspected it wouldn’t be an improvement on her present situation. Everything faded through grey.
Steltz cradled her until she went away.
The rest of the ritual went quickly. Once the last of Lisbeth’s soul had been absorbed into Kul’Askir through the blood rite, Montanti hefted the sword in a firm two-handed grip. With a whispered litany of hatred on his lips, he took up a braced position at the lip of the well and raised the blade high above his head before reversing his grip and plunging it straight down, deep into the aetheric ward covering the opening. The barrier shattered with a coruscating implosion, twinkling shards of cobalt light spinning in erratic orbits around the sword.
Unslowed by the impact, Kul’Askir continued downwards, driving into the body of the daemon trapped below. It screamed as the blade bit deeply, its howl of agony echoed by the Librarian’s roar of triumph. The beast’s manifested body spasmed and thrashed, flexing in ways which would have caused irreparable damage to a flesh and blood form, slamming with immense destructive power into the sheer sides of the well shaft. Montanti was unrelenting, keeping up the downward pressure with the sword all the while, inexorably forcing it down through the inhumanly tough trunk of the daemon.
The massive, sustained amount of trauma finally proved too much for even the iron will of the daemon to endure. Its form began to distort and liquefy as it began to lose its footing on the mortal plane. The normal course of events would have seen it jettison its assumed physical form and flee, screaming back into Warpspace. Its passage back to the Empyrean was barred, however, by the prohibitions of the blood rite inscribed upon Kul’Askir.and so it thrashed in agony, caught between a rock and a hard place.
Something had to give. Reality stretched and fragmented, twisted far beyond its tolerances, and the daemon’s body abruptly jack-knifed violently. Horribly, impossibly, it began to fold in on itself, pulled into the eager blade of the sword like debris into a singularity.
Abruptly, all was silent and still. The hellish cacophany that had accompanied the daemon’s struggles died away, free on the breeze. The sword fell from Montanti’s nerveless grasp, dropping into the pit. The Librarian almost followed it, sagging forward onto his hands and knees in sudden, total exhaustion. Steltz caught him and hauled him back from the edge, helping him to a sitting position to catch his breath. His gaze was wary as he looked down at his stricken colleague, his bolter again pointed at Montanti’s head.
‘Art well, brother?’ he enquired in a conversational tone after a few minutes had passed and Montanti’s breathing had become less-laboured. He looked deep into the psyker’s eyes as he spoke, alert for anything that seemed even remotely ... off ... about him.
Montanti gave a brief, tight smile that was utterly devoid of humour, returning the gaze unwaveringly. ‘Well enough. The struggle was ... hard. The creature sincerely did not wish to become penned within the blade. It will take a while to break it in, I fear’. He smiled again, indicating the bolter trained at him. ‘Rest assured, nothing of the beast fled into me. I am as I have always been, o my keeper’.
Steltz lowered his bolter and offered his hand. Montanti graped his forearm and hauled himself upright with a grunt of effort. He still looked weakened from his battle of wills with the daemon and was a little unsteady on his feet, so Steltz scooped up the daemon-blade’s canvas wrappings and quickly recovered Kul’Askir from the pit, careful not to handle the sword directly. He then gathered up Lisbeth’s body and placed it gently inside the well, standing over it for a few moments in silent reflection before arming a melta-bomb and dropping it down on top of her. As soon as the two Astsrtes had reached a safe distance he detonated it, the huge roar of heat and light obliterating all traces behind them.
‘We are done here’, he called across to Montanti. ‘Let us depart’.
Scouts had flashed word back as soon as they spotted the first indication of the truck’s return, so by the time the two Marines reached the compound, virtually the entire complement of the Pioneer Corps was waiting for them.
Steltz rolled the big truck to a halt. He remained sitting, cramped and awkward behind the wheel for a few moments, letting the engine tick over whilst he appeared to gather his thoughts. As he had on the outward journey, Montanti rode on the flatbed.
Urgent, buzzing whispers filled the air, the assembled Guardsmen aching for news. The susurration swelled as the silence stretched; the sound jolted Steltz from his contemplation and he slowly raised his head and put up a hand for silence.
He got it.
Easing himself out of the truck’s seat, he stood before them, inscrutable behind his helm. His vox barked harshly, the amplification sending it echoing around the compound. ‘The creature will trouble you no more’, he said, simply.
An avalanche of whoops and cheers slammed in to fill the brief silence following his pronouncement. Fists punched the air and jubilant soldiers hugged and pounded one another in a release of tension that was as profound as it was inarticulate.
In the midst of the celebrations a lone figure stepped forwards. Captain Dverski, back in his preferred fatigues and soft cap, advanced slowly towards the Relictors with his head cocked slightly to the side. ‘And what of our comrade?’ he asked quietly.
His words were as a stone thrown into a pond. A ripple of silence spread out around him, causing his men to cease their exuberant rowdiness and look, in turn, towards the truck. As the ripple spread, soon enough everybody within the walls was staring at Steltz, who stood mutely before them.
It was Montanti who answered. He rose to his feet and stood atop the truck; his gaze was towards Dverski but his words were meant for all. ‘Corporal Arramaine was lost to us during the battle. She gave her life willingly and proudly, dying with the name of the God-Emperor on her lips. Honour her memory’.
Dverski nodded slowly, regretfully. ‘Aye, that we will. My thanks to you, my lords’. He sketched a bow and turned to face the mob of soldiery crowding around, dismissing them with a nod.
As Steltz and Montanti made their way back to the shuttlecraft that had brought them to Koulinis IV, the quartermaster leaned disconsolately against his doorframe. Whilst the Librarian’s words offered some comfort, they didn’t come close to easing the feelings of grief and guilt that were tearing through him. He’d not considered for a second that sending Lisbeth out with the Astartes could be dangerous – they were Astartes, for Throne’s sake – but he had to face up to the fact that he’d gotten her into harm’s way and, ultimately, killed.
He watched with a detached numbness as the Relictors strode up the ramp into the shuttle. Steltz was to the fore and he halted at the top to half-turn and give the compound a last sweeping glance before disappearing inside. Montanti followed without so much as a backwards look, the sword slung over his shoulder swaying as he moved.
The sword ... The quartermaster’s eyes narrowed then widened. The pommel of the sword – it had been a clear crystal when the Astartes had arrived, colourless and cold. It now shone green, a familiar green that reminded him of sunlight and summer. But the sunlight had faded and the summer was long past.
Then the airlock banged shut and the Relictors were gone.