Esteemed Veteran Space Marine
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Sleight of Hand
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.
Molten wax dripped onto parchment, scarlet and pristine as life’s blood. Inquisitor-Lord Cyarro blew carefully on it, then pressed his signet ring firmly down, stamping the document with the seal of the Holy Inquisition. This simple act spelt fiery doom for half a million people, deemed by the Inquisition to be complicit in the aiding of enemies of the Imperium. Their crime had been to inhabit the same city as a small cell of apostates.
This done, Cyarro put aside his paperwork and turned his mind to more weighty matters. He rose to his feet and crossed the gilded expanse of his office, halting by the soaring window wall that gazed out over the decrepit magnificence of the Imperial Palace.
The Inquisitor-Lord’s office was designed to intimidate. Visitors found themselves at once overwhelmed by its size and opulence and also unsettled in a way they couldn’t identify; all the angles and proportions were ever so slightly out of true, causing uncertainty and vague alarm on a subconscious level. The presence of two simple, unadorned high-backed wooden chairs facing one another before the huge window struck a further incongruous note.
Cyarro fit his chambers perfectly. Tall and heavy-set, he had the appearance of a man in his mid-forties, although he had a couple of centuries’ more guile about him. He had a face that was quick to show emotion and a similarly-expressive voice, equally suited to honeyed persuasion as thundering denunciation. Dark eyes were half-hidden behind smoked-glass augmetics, his only visible cybernetic modifications.
A tell-tale flickered across his vision, alerting him to the fact that his visitor had arrived and was waiting in the anteroom outside. With a twitch of an eye muscle, Cyarro accessed the pict-feed from one of the cameras covering the space. He spent a few moments studying the image, happy to let his visitor stand and stew before summoning him inside.
If his visitor was unsettled by the Inquisitor-Lord’s stalling, he gave no obvious sign. He stood ramrod straight facing the door to Cyarro’s realm, his robes of office immaculately tailored and arranged. His face was a mask of neutral confidence, softened slightly by the youthfulness – real, not recovered – of its owner.
Cyarro nodded to himself approvingly and pulsed a command to the door’s security cogitator system. With a clanking of retracting bolts, the door cracked and hissed open.
Cyarro was standing behind one of the wooden chairs by the window wall. He rested his hands on the high back and called out convivially, ‘Please enter’.
There was a second’s pause (noted by Cyarro – was his guest responding in kind to being made to wait outside?) and then Inquisitor Andreas Solkayn stepped smartly into the office. His eyes flicked quickly about the room before meeting Cyarro’s gaze, a fly eyeing up the owner of the web into which it had become entangled. He drew his robes in about him and gave a collegium-perfect bow. ‘I am here in answer to your summons, my lord’, he murmured.
Cyarro acknowledged Solkayn’s greeting with a nod. He patted the chair’s back with his hands and smiled at the younger man. ‘Andreas, please, let us not stand on ceremony. Come, be seated and we shall talk like civilised people’.
With a rustle of silk and vermine, Solkayn straightened up and hastened across the floor. He sat in the seat indicated by Cyarro, whilst the Inquisitor-Lord walked around to the other chair and sat facing him. As the younger man settled himself, Cyarro regarded him with an expression that an untrained observer would probably have mistaken for fondness.
‘The robes suit you, Andreas. Does the weight sit well with you?’
Solkayn’s lips pursed into a smile. ‘It has been a long time coming. I was beginning to suspect my beloved patron was never going to declare me competent to operate solus’. He paused. ‘Rumours tell that pressure was applied from on high to help her to make that decision’.
‘I’d not heard that one’, Cyarro replied, deadpan. ‘Anyway, it was well past time that you were sent out to cut your teeth in the field. Your potential has not gone unnoticed by those who matter in the Ordo Hereticus. At least you got something low-key with which to begin your career, eh?’
Solkayn’s grin took on a somewhat fixed aspect, although his voice remained calm and measured as he answered. ‘Indeed. The Relictors issue’.
Cyarro nodded agreeably. ‘It was felt that the initial report warranted some action being taken, given their ... unfortunate history’.
Solkayn pulled out a dataslate from a pocket within his robes and made a show of consulting it before continuing. It was a gesture both futile and faintly ridiculous, as he could easily have accessed the information he needed directly from his own augmetics. Still, things were done a certain way when dealing with one’s superiors in the Ordo.
‘Ah ... the Glorious Subjugation of Yamina Minor. I have the details here. According to the after-action report filed by Major-General Bryche of the Unified Punitive Expeditionary Force, the 2nd Company of the Relictors, under the command of Captain Travis Erskine, failed to... umm ...’
‘”Prosecute the war against the Heretic with appropriate zeal”’, finished Cyarro. ‘I’m familiar with the broad nature of the charge but what exactly did this entail? Bryche appears as careless with his words as the results of the campaign suggest he was with the lives of his men’.
Solkayn laid down his dataslate and regarded him levelly. ‘Put briefly,’ – he registered the flicker of approval in Cyarro’s face and made a mental note that brevity was very much the way to proceed – ‘The Yamina system had become isolated by a persistent Warp storm for almost two centuries. The first Imperial ships to make planetfall once the routes were navigable once more reported back that the locals had taken to practising idolatry of the foulest kind. Pleas to return to the light of the Imperial Truth fell on deaf ears, so the Expeditionary Force was assembled and sent forth’.
‘Were the Astartes attached to this task force from the outset?’ enquired Cyarro. ‘The documentation seems a little unclear on the subject’.
Solkayn shook his head. ‘They were not, my lord. The push for the idolators’ capital was already well under way, six months into the campaign, before the Astartes arrived in orbit.
‘Rather than join the main thrust of the assault, however, it appears that the Relictors instead diverted to seize ground far off on an isolated flank, too remote to serve any possible strategic purpose. Once it had been secured, they remained isolated there for five days, deaf to the entreaties of the Major-General’.
‘I see why he was upset. What was the significance of the ground held by the Astartes?’
The younger Inquisitor consulted his neural files. ‘it was one of the idolators’ temples. It was garrisoned but the troops there were too isolated from the main fighting to have had any possibility of affecting the outcome’.
Cyarro nodded thoughtfully. ‘And after this time the Relictors withdrew from the field of battle? Did anybody get a chance to examine this temple afterwards?’
‘Unfortunately not. The Astartes razed the place to the ground and then meltabombed whatever was left. They were very thorough’.
The Inquisitor-Lord heaved himself to his feet and moved to stand facing the window wall, his back to Solkayn. ‘Thus was the decision taken by the Ordo Hereticus to assign an Inquisitor to covertly observe the Relictors in the field’. He turned to regard his junior, a smile hovering on his lips. ‘As I said, something low key with which to begin your career’.
Solkayn matched his smile, although it did not extend to his eyes. The first solus outing for any newly-robed Inquisitor was always subject to intense scrutiny by the higher-ups in the Ordo. Failure was not a habit the Inquisition wished to cultivate. The fact that this particular investigation involved forces of the Adeptus Astartes – even ones whose reputation was as tarnished as the Relictors – meant that both the scrutiny and the consequences of any of Solkayn’s failings were that much more incendiary.
He inclined his head slightly and replied with a warmth in his voice that he did not feel. ‘I really must thank you, my lord, for giving me this opportunity to prove myself and for everything you’ve done to facilitate my endeavours. I find myself deeply in your debt’.
Cyarro oozed unctuous grace as he smilingly shook his head. ‘Nonsense, my dear Andreas. I merely lent my name to the enterprise to get it off the ground and then moved some of the pieces around the board. All credit for the outcome of this operation lies with you’.
The two shared a look. They were both well aware of how the blame game was played.
Cyarro was the first to break the gaze, satisfied that Solkayn understood his position. ‘So I understand you returned from Malian this morning and you are due to make a full report to the Board within the week. I would be obliged if you could give me a quick summary now, so that I can begin thinking about further strategies, should they be necessary’. He circled Solkayn’s chair once more before settling down opposite him.
Solkayn took a moment to compose himself. He understood Cyarro’s desire to have his report ahead of the official release – knowledge shared was power divided, after all – and was glad to have this as a rehearsal before he faced the unyielding, unforgiving scrutiny of the Pre-Investigatory Board.
‘The reports of radicalisation received by the Ordo had proven true. The entire garrison on Malian, along with significant numbers of the indentured labour force, had been turned to the worship of the Ruinous Powers by one Thomastes of the Ecclesiarchy. He was declared Excommunicatus in Absentia and sanction was formally given to Captain Erskine of the Relictors 2nd Company to carry out.
‘The XIV and XXXII regiments of the Household Redoubtables arrived in-system before the Astartes and engaged the enemy, driving them back to their Bastion Primaris. This done, they deployed in a wide perimeter around the heretics’ fortress, dug-in and ready to prevent any attempted break-out manoeuvres’.
The Inquisitor-Lord nodded approvingly. ‘And so the stage was set ... How were you planning on observing the Astartes in action?’
‘Orbital support began the task of wearing down their voids. It was during this initial phase that my men were inserted into the ranks, and remote observation teams sighted themselves in the hills around the fortress, their pict-drones ready to fly as soon as the assault began’.
‘And who liaised with the Relictor captain?’
‘General von Hoorst himself, my lord. I assumed the role of his aide de camp and accompanied him to the strategium session aboard the Relictors’ strike cruiser. I wished to see personally how the Astartes conducted themselves’.
Cyarro’s expression remained one of keen attention but inside he was struck with admiration for Solkayn’s attitude and courage. Destined for greatness, this one. He needs to be handled correctly.
Aloud, he said, ‘And what was your impression of their captain?’
Solkayn thought back to his first encounter with Captain Erskine. He recalled a man with a towering physical presence, yet with a deceptive mildness and surface calm. Scratch below that facade, he knew, and there was a deep-running implacability that had made him really, really want not to upset him. He had shivered inwardly upon first seeing him, profoundly grateful he was shielded behind his disguise, an anonymous face amongst a crowd.
‘He appeared fully open to the idea of a combined arms operation to prosecute the heretics’.
‘So, before the assault was launched, did you observe anything – anything – that might have lent credence to these accusations against the Astartes?’
Solkayn answered without pause or hesitation. ‘No, my lord. I did not’.
Inquisitor-Lord Cyarro leant back and nodded thoughtfully. ‘I see. So then ... tell me everything’.
General von Hoorst waits until our shuttle has cleared the aft docking bay of the Relictor strike cruiser Affirmation of Faith before turning the full force of his glare on me. Tall and spare, with the confident, aggressive stance of a man born to command, he cuts an imposing figure. The cold glint in his eye would easily have cowed any of the men under his command. I’m not impressed. My tutors back in the collegia were far, far worse.
‘Well, boy?’ he barks. ‘Are you satisfied now?’
I swear a touch of spittle strikes my face and I restrain the urge to raise a hand and wipe it off.
Instead, I nod and bow politely. ‘Thank you again for agreeing to this unfortunate yet necessary subterfuge, Lord General. I assure you that it is vital to the successful prosecution of this campaign’.
With a bellicose snort the General bats aside my attempt at reconciliation. He jabs a bony iron finger into my chest for emphasis as he speaks: ‘You’ll be in the first wave once the Astartes have breached the traitors’ defences. Whatever this mission of yours is, it had better not get any of my men killed’.
I smile winningly and attempt to bring von Hoorst around. ‘We’ll be going in behind the Relictors. I doubt there’ll be anything left to pose a credible threat’.
He harrumphs and makes no comment. But the prodding stops so I’ll claim a moral victory.
Peace returned as the bulkhead door rumbled closed behind the departing Imperial Guard officers. The strategium deck of the Affirmation of Faith was habitually a place of considered calm, isolated from the bustle of the command deck which it overlooked.
Captain Travis Erskine stood over the strategium’s central hololithic display. His charcoal-grey power armour was washed in the green light of the holo-emitters, making the proud gold of the Aquila on his chestplate appear faded and tarnished. His plumed helm had been mag-locked to his thigh as a gesture of hospitality towards General von Hoorst and his gaggle of advisors; his craggy, angular face had a wry, thoughtful look to it as he pondered the briefing that had just concluded. He raised his head and glanced across to the bulkhead door, where stood one of his Astartes.
‘Your thoughts, brother Steltz?’ Erskine’s voice was a gravelly rasp, more at home in the middle of pitched, glorious battle than in the contemplative peace of the strategium.
Steltz stepped forwards from his position of parade rest, his armour clanking on the decking as he moved. Like his captain, he too went bareheaded. His dark hair was shaved down to the scalp, criss-crossed old scarring running like contour lines across one side of his head. Sharp grey eyes blinked as he considered his response.
‘The General looked full of choler, although he held it down well. I do not think he is a willing partner in this charade’. His voice was soft in comparison.
Captain Erskine nodded his agreement. ‘Aye’. A hard smile broke his face. ‘Did you see that Inquisitorial whelp skulking behind him. What in the Throne’s name did he think he was trying to achieve?’
Dawn breaks unnoticed on Malian. Night has long since been shredded by repeated lance strikes from Navy vessels in low geostationary orbit. Thus far, the voids protecting the traitors’ Bastion Primaris have handled the barrage tolerably well. Can’t say I’m surprised; datacords show that this is an old fort and they sure built them to last back then. It’s not a big deal – it’s when they fail, not if.
So, I’m in a forward command post, about a klick from the fortress approach. There’s a laager of Chimeras parked up behind me, ready to roll as soon as the voids fail and the Relictors descend like the wrath of the Emperor.
For about the fifth time this hour I check in with my observation units, concealed high up in the hills overlooking the doomed fortress. They’re all set and ready for the off, with ringside seats for the coming mayhem.
The fortress they’re observing is a stubborn little bastard. It’s tucked away within a protective circle of hills, making it hard to target for artillery and other ground-based attacks. Its outer walls are fifty feet high and liberally strewn with murder holes, remote turrets and defensive firing positions for its garrison. Access is through an impregnable set of gates.
None of which will do it any good once the voids come down and the Relictors drop in.
I check the latest Naval intel: battle-cogitators predict void shield collapse at noon, local time.
Six hours to go ...
‘Six hours to go, sir’.
Erskine nodded in acknowledgement, not looking away from the view before him. From his lofty vantage point on the observation gantry overlooking the tertiary launch bay of the Affirmation of Faith, he gazed down on the logistical ballet of a company about to go to war. Five drop pods stood in line abreast, petal doors splayed open in preparation for boarding, with thick, looping power umbilicals providing connection to the deck generatorium. A sixth pod, emblazoned with Erskine’s own command insignia, sat a little apart, technicians dismantling a work scaffold from around it.
Lobotomised servitors shambled through this scene with eerie arrhythmic precision, each with its own ‘to do’ list seared into its cortical matrices. Supervisor-menials scurried around, tending to the tasks to which the servitors could not adapt.
His moment of contemplation done, the captain turned to Steltz. ‘What is the word from the Apothecarion?’ he asked.
‘The surgery was a success; certainly good enough to pass muster. Enough cognitive facility has been retained to enable it to do what is required of it.’
Erskine nodded. ‘And the modifications to my drop pod?’
Steltz hesitated for a second, considering his answer. ‘I have been assured it should be appropriately spectacular. The armourers believe that structural integrity should be maintained’.
His superior gave a barking laugh. ‘I am reassured beyond measure’.
Call me paranoid but I don’t think the others in the vanguard like me. To be fair to them, I’m both a stranger and a last-minute alteration to the plan; both of these are anathema to the common soldier. Even the major giving the briefing keeps staring at me.
The plan’s simple but solid. The Relictors will land six squads inside the walls as soon as the voids fall. They’ll neutralise the immediate defence and blow the main gates, allowing the Guard to pour through and flood the place. The capture of the renegade preacher will be the personal responsibility of Erskine.
Once the briefing’s over (too long ... ack, why do they always have to take so damn long), I trudge outside and go back to staring at the fortress, wondering how this operation is going to pan out. What do I actually want to happen? If I find nothing untoward in the activities of the Relictors, I won’t be making much of a name for myself. If I do find something, however, that’ll certainly get my name known. Assuming I live to tell.
It’s not like the Chapter doesn’t have history, after all. It wasn’t even a couple of centuries ago that they almost fell from the Emperor’s grace following their involvement with the corrupted Inquisitor De Marche. The penitent crusade which they undertook would have killed other Chapters; the Relictors just came through it tougher, meaner and even more fervently loyal. And now I’m sneaking around questioning this loyalty. Yeesh.
My hands wander unconsciously across my kit as I ponder – hellgun, carapace armour, grenades. The Relictors wouldn’t transgress twice, surely?
Erskine was in his arming chamber, kneeling in silent prayer before its small shrine. He was fully garbed for battle, with his helm locked in place and his combi-plasma slung over one massive, black-enamelled pauldron. A well-worn chainblade hung from his belt, a comforting weight against his left thigh.
Purity seals fluttered in the breeze from the chamber’s air circulation system and a fresh Oath of Moment – made from the Inquisitorial Warrant issued for the capture of Thomastes – was affixed to the casing of his weapon.
A dataspurt shunted itself to his helmet HUD. Rousing himself from his reverie, he accessed it with a blink. 10th Company scouts planet-side had located eight concealed observation posts ringing the fortress. Overlaying their sight lines onto an orbital map of the area showed Erskine that he needed to make a slight adjustment to his pod’s trajectory. No matter, the plan allowed for such tweaks.
This done, Erskine cleared his HUD and composed himself again before the shrine. O almighty God-Emperor, Master of Mankind: if this be your will, grant us the fortune to enact it.
His prayer complete, he rose smoothly to his feet, settled his chainblade and combo-plasma at his side and strode off towards the launch bay.
The word’s come down the command net – voids will fail within half an hour. I switch to a secure vox-channel and update my spotter teams. ‘I want those midges in the air the moment those voids buckle’. I’m saying this more for my own benefit than theirs; these guys are veterans of dozens of unterhanders and know what they’re about. I’m the new guy on his first day in charge.
The midges are nice pieces of kit; autonomically-enabled camera drones, small enough to escape notice during the insanity of a full-bore assault. They should provide additional coverage for those areas where the guys can’t get direct eyes-on.
A heavy impact on my shoulder plate rocks me; I turn to see the lead sarge gesturing towards the gaping access hatch at the rear of our waiting Chimera.
Time to box up.
I scramble for the hatch, noticing that the rest of the squad is already inside. The only seat left is the one closest to the door. I smile humourlessly behind my helmet visor: how nice, they’ve saved me the suicide spot.
Crawling and wriggling, I squeeze into the troop carrier and settle down, securely wedged between the closing hatch and the squad sarge next to me.
The things I do for the High Lords of Terra ...
Erskine crossed the expanse of the launch bay, headed for his personal drop pod. The other five were ready to go, sealed and suspended from their launch cradles.
As he approached, he opened the squad vox-channel and transmitted a readiness query. Eight of the power-armoured figures cocooned inside gave immediate green responses. The ninth, of course, remained silent.
Satisfied that his squad was ready, Erskine gave a signal to a nearby deck officer then stepped aboard the pod. He slotted his personal weapons into housings on either side of his seat then settled in and pulled the heavy restraint harness down and over himself. It locked into place with an eager snap, pinning him to the shock-absorbing seat.
As he relaxed into position, Erskine watched the deck officer direct a gang of servitors as they hauled up the petal doors of the pod, securing them firmly in place with explosive bolts. When the green tell-tale went on, he did a dummy run of the firing circuit controlled from his helm’s systems. All appeared well.
It was time to commit his forces to the field. He opened a vox-link to the squad commanders in the other pods.
‘Brothers, we embark this day to do the bidding of the Immortal God-Emperor. We are obliged to fight alongside the faithless, the blinkered and those who have turned aside from the light of His truth. Let not their impurities concern us. We know our purpose. We shall further His cause.
‘Strength of will. Courage of will’.
He gave the ‘execute’ command and felt the vibrations through the deck as the five other pods were spat planetwards like kinetic projectiles. The two-minute delay before his own pod was due to launch irked him as a commander of men; he fumed the seconds away in silence, waiting, waiting ...
‘Voids are down! Standybystandby!’ The driver’s voice over the vox is suffused with excitement. Everyone packed into the Chimera feels it – we’ve been cooped up in here with nothing to do but sweat and smell each others’ interesting conglomerations of bodily odours. ‘Bombardment has ceased! I’m seeing contrails!’ he adds breathlessly. The vehicle shakes as he guns the engine impatiently, waiting for the go command.
I switch to a vox-feed from my observation teams. The mag’s been cranked so it’s a little grainy but I can see the six ... no wait, five? ... drop pods screaming down towards the fortress. AA fire blooms above them – they’re falling way too fast to track.
‘Midges go go’, I murmur, and get crackles of acknowledgement from my people. Two dozen extra vid-channels suddenly go live and I cycle through them at random, knowing it’s all being recorded for more detailed study later.
So far, so according to plan. Damn, I’m good.
I pick a feed that’s giving a good overhead view down inside the Bastion’s walls. The drop pods strike as one, the sheer catastrophic force of their impact smashing the rockcrete surface asunder and bowling over anyone unfortunate enough to be in the open.
The tops of each pod ripple with small explosions and the petal doors blossom open. Death roars out. Grey-armoured Astartes surge into the courtyard, bolters spitting streams of explosive rounds into the shocked, disoriented defenders.
They’re targeting the heretics up on the walls, the ones crewing the heavy weapons. They die in droves as they try desperately to turn the big guns to face inwards rather than out. Those few traitors in the courtyard in a position to fight back are treated with contempt, the return fire from lasguns and stubbers ignored whilst the higher-priority threats are silenced.
It’s a sobering watch. I’ve seen some pretty brutal actions when I’ve been allowed out in the field before but this is on a whole other level. The Relictors fight with an arrogance borne of absolute faith – the briefings I’ve seen tell that they believe falling in battle sees them promoted to join the Emperor’s vanguard, mustering to fight the Second Crusade. In their minds, whatever fate befalls them on the battlefield, they can’t lose.
In a matter of seconds, the heretics’ tactical position inside the courtyard has become untenable. Those scattered survivors with the sense to retreat to fortified firing positions have done nothing but prolong their lives by a scant few seconds. Astartes armed with heavier weapons are emerging from the pods, plasma cannons and missile launchers knocking out blockhouses and remote turrets with sledgehammer simplicity.
The five tactical squads split down into smaller teams, some remaining with the heavy weapons to continue the courtyard suppression whilst the others converge on the gatehouse, laden with meltabombs and breaching charges. I’m struck by the casual unearthly speed of their advance; nothing that massive and bulky should be able to move so damn fast and smoothly.
I’m seriously beginning to hope I find nothing suspicious in the Relictors’ behaviour.
The Chimera lurches and I bounce off the sarge and hit my head on the hatch. I set my helmet straight and brace myself as the driver floors the accelerator and sends the Chimera bellowing towards the fortress gates. The approach is mined, of course, but General von Hoorst used the cover of the lance barrage to send a penal detachment forward to clear a path. Our driver steers a zigzag course, following the cratered section of roadway. Emperor bless the good ol’ size 9 hobnailed mine detectors – it looks like they didn’t miss a single one.
My attention’s suddenly drawn to a priority flashfeed from one of the teams. I switch to the indicated vidstream and rewind to see what the flap’s about.
The sixth Relictors drop pod has made a belated appearance. I’m watching it arrow down towards the fortress when there’s a sudden fury of AA fire from an unsilenced heretic position. Flak flowers bloom all around the pod and I can make out what appears to be a direct impact.
Throne! That’s Erskine’s pod!
Knocked off course, the captain’s drop pod corkscrews into the central keep of the fortress about a third of the way from the top. I cancel the replay and cycle through the other channels, looking for a live feed with good eyes-on.
What I see doesn’t look promising. It looks like Erskine’s pod has smashed straight through the keep’s wall, coming to rest precariously balanced – smoke and steam is venting badly from damaged systems, obscuring any chance of getting a proper damage assessment.
I may not be a trooper but, by the Throne, I know how to swear like one. I’m cursing furiously under my breath as I try to direct spotters and midges around to get some idea of just what exactly is happening inside the fortress. I’m desperate to find out what’s going on.
A feeling that’s obviously shared by the Relictors themselves. As soon as they become aware of their captain’s predicament, they ramp up the aggression and bloodshed even further. If watching them before scared me, now I’m absolutely bloody terrified. With the exception of those tasked to take down the fortress’s gates, every one of the Astartes makes for the keep, annihilating everything in their path without apparent conscious thought.
I witness the lead Astartes shoulder-charge the armoured door at a dead run, a shaped breaching charge jammed against his pauldron. Lasfire from the door’s sentry turrets splashes ineffectually from his battle plate, failing to even slow him down as he hits the door at what must be thirty miles per hour.
There’s a flash of light and the doorway disappears amid roiling smoke. There’s no sound in the pict-images I’m watching; I catch myself mouthing the word ‘boom’. It’s a ridiculous moment of bathos but it’s all I can do ... I’m struggling to articulate any cogent response to what I’ve just seen.
The breach made, the Astartes storm the keep. I don’t envy the defenders.
From his position hanging upside down from his restraint harness, Captain Erskine looked across at Steltz and growled, ‘I trust that was “appropriately spectacular” enough?’ Steltz raised a thumb in response.
The captain hit the release on his harness and dropped, landing comfortably on the inclined hull of the pod. ‘A moment, brothers’, he advised, then triggered the explosive bolts securing the petal doors. The topmost three blew open, wrecking themselves in the process as they were slammed way past their intended stopping points. Erskine vaulted nimbly out, spinning to the left whilst his combi-plasma’s gun cam swept right.
He had a full three-sixty threat assessment within a second and identified a dozen active targets; garrison troops who had the misfortune to be the first responders to the pod’s incursion.
Continuing his near-pirouette, he targeted the six furthest away and squeezed off three short bursts. The exploding bolts made a mockery of their flak armour, smashing them back into the bare rockcrete walls and leaving them in crumpled ruin on the floor.
The annihilation of their comrades was of little immediate interest to the remaining soldiers - they were too busy dying as Erskine ploughed into them, chainblade snarling and spitting. He paid them little heed as he carved them up, his mind already focussing on the next stage of the plan.
The last of the traitors died in terrified, uncomprehending agony, the chainblade protruding through his back and his hands grasping futilely at Erskine’s gauntleted forearm. The captain shook him off of the weapon absent-mindedly and voxed his squad.
Eight of his men emerged from the wrecked drop pod, bolters raised and fanning the room. The ninth remained limp in his harness.
Two Astartes shouldered their bolters and retrieved the last squad member from the pod. He stood, swaying slightly, between them. Whilst this was going on, another of the Marines quickly rigged a two-metre circle of meltacord on the floor in the chamber’s centre. This done, he looked up at Erskine and gave a nod of confirmation.
Erskine and Steltz stood back to back inside the circle, bolters at their shoulders, pointing downwards.
The meltacord was triggered. With a hissing whoosh, it reduced the rockcrete beneath it to white-hot slurry, sending a neat circle of flooring plummeting through to the level below. The two Relictors dropped like stones directly into the traitors’ command centre, ten metres below them. Their bolters roared continuously as they fell, walking fire across the huddled groups of defenders hunkered down behind cover with their weapons levelled at the door.
Stun grenades tossed down through the hole above added to the almighty confusion. Disorientated, panicked men began firing at random, not able to deal with the brutal, unexpected threat vector. Amidst the mayhem, Erskine and Steltz hit the floor, the colossal impact of landing driving them to their knees.
They surged back to their feet, jettisoning spent magazines and slamming home fresh ones as they moved. Still back to back, they set about unleashing the God-Emperor’s vengeance upon everything before them. Return fire meant nothing; they were the eye of an irresistible hurricane.
Finally, the last of the threat icons in Erskine’s HUD winked out. Of the forty or so traitors who had been holed up in the command centre, only one was left.
And what a one.
Thomastes, late of the Ecclesiarchy, stood behind a pile of broken bodies – his fanatical honour guard had absolutely refused to give ground, dying in place before their twisted prophet.
He did not look quite so awe-inspiring now. His gaudy vestments, crudely desecrated with the eight-pointed mark of the Archenemy, were covered in blood and other, less heroic, bodily outpourings. Concussion from a near-miss had caused him to bleed from his nose, and he swayed as if drunk.
As Erskine advanced towards him, he raised a denunciatory hand and began to spit out a hate-fuelled litany of lies.
Erskine raised his combi-plasma.
We tear through the ruins of the gatehouse with the throttle nailed open, the bodies of its former defenders pulping and slipping beneath our tracks. The Chimera’s gunner lays down suppressive fire as we slew to a halt but I reckon it’s more through habit than necessity. The traitors in the courtyard are nothing but bloodstains and bad memories.
The driver pops the hatch and we all pile out, hellguns hot and adrenaline surging. The stench of death all around is intoxicating – we’re desperate to add to it, to make our mark in this charnel house.
Behind us, I hear more Chimeras thundering into the courtyard, deploying squads to sweep and clear the area. I’m not interested – my eyes are on the blown keep doorway ahead of me.
I have to get inside. Have to see. Have to know.
The sarge, as per the orders given to him personally by General von Hoorst, leads the squad into the keep. We run, caution thrown to the winds, taking the wide stone stairs two and three at a time. It’s not just me – everyone wants to be there at the death, to witness the Relictors bring this campaign to its bloody, righteous conclusion.
I’m switching through my vox and pict-feeds faster than a mono-purposed servitor, frantic to get an idea what’s happening in the command centre. There’s lots of static and disruption to go along with the smoke – it looks like the Relictors have destroyed the shielding on some pretty heavy-duty power converters during their assault.
We reach a mezzanine level, obviously the site of a last stand. A half-squad of Astartes are in the process of dismantling a temporary emplacement; two of them are shifting quarter-ton structural beams out of the way whilst their fellows are cleaning blood and gobbets of flesh from the teeth of their chainblades. Their calmness is disconcerting; the fervour and fury which possessed them scant moments before has fled. If it wasn’t for the fact they’re treading pieces of people into the floor as they move around, you’d swear they were on a training mission.
Unnerving though it is, their behaviour gives me hope. I doubt they’d be so calm if Captain Erskine was dead or badly injured.
We carry on up the stairs. They watch us as we go. Silent. Detached.
High Lords be praised! I get a vid-pict squirt come through to my visor. One of the midges is in position and transmitting; its controller is burning through its power reserves to give it the juice to break through the background distortion. Good man – I’ll have to remember to mention him in my report.
The vid-pict is grainy and jumpy but I’m fine with that. The command level looks like an abattoir – I’m guessing there’s dozens of corpses but it’s hard to be sure as a lot of them are in pieces. I blink in surprise, noticing that one of the Astartes is prone on the floor, two of his comrades kneeling over him. Must have been a helluva fight.
The midge pans round a touch and I catch my breath as I see the endgame played out before me. Erskine, bare-headed and raging, dominates the centre of the devastation, his combi-plasma clenched tightly in his huge armoured fist as he stalks towards the renegade preacher Thomastes.
The traitor appears unsteady on his feet and has obviously taken some damage already during the attack. He’s not about to give up, though; as the captain bears down on him, Thomastes throws up a hand – it’s a textbook gesture of invocation ... the bastard’s trying to conjure something up from the Warp to save himself. Kill him! I scream silently as I redouble my efforts and charge up the final few steps towards the command level.
I hurtle through the doorway just in time to get caught in the backwash from Erskine’s combi-plasma as he discharges it point-blank into Thomastes’ face. The traitor’s head and shoulders disappear, vaporised by the bolt of sun-hot plasma, and the corpse collapses to the ground in a boneless heap.
Seemingly unaware of my presence, Erskine slowly lowers his sidearm. The only sound in the room is the soft hiss of coolant venting from its steaming muzzle,
‘So die all heretics and traitors to the Imperium.’ He says it softly, but something about the flat finality of his tone scares me on an instinctual level.
My squad clatters through behind me, spilling into the room and breaking the introspective, menacing tone that’s settled over the scene. Erskine turns slowly to regard us and prods Thomastes’ corpse with the toe of his boot.
‘This is your heretic. Given that he used his sorcerous powers to turn this entire garrison from the Emperor’s light, I thought it prudent to err on the side of caution when it appeared he would attempt to resist us. Please pass on my apologies to General von Hoorst if he was hopeful of a prisoner’.
I nod dumbly, trying to frame a dozen things in my head at once. I start to put together some form of appropriate response but Erskine cuts me off.
‘We must return to our vessel’. He nods towards the Marine lying sprawled on the floor. He’s taken a beating and he’s obviously not conscious. ‘Brother Reyar’s armour was damaged during the impact and he sustained serious injury during the cleansing. He should be fine, assuming we get him back to the Apothecarion aboard the Affirmation of Faith without delay’.
Four of the Astartes carefully lift their fallen comrade and carry him from the chamber, whilst the remainder close ranks about their captain. He turns to leave, then stops and faces us again. Addressing the sarge, he formally hands over possession of the fortress to the Imperial Guard. He then turns his gaze on me. ‘Please pass on my regards to General von Hoorst’, he rumbles. ‘Tell him his men fought well and with honour’.
And then they’re gone.
Idly, I watch through a midge as a Thunderhawk banks in, looking to land just outside. The Relictors are already lining up to embark, their mission completed and responsibilities discharged.
The sarge nudges me in the ribs, gesturing about him with the muzzle of his hellgun.
‘Good job they’re on our side, eh?’ he opines, grinning.
I look at the charnel house the Relictors have left behind, silent testament to their focussed rage and boundless violence. It seems impossible to believe that such destruction could have been wrought so casually, by so few men.
I nod absently by way of reply.
The Thunderhawk howled as it surged skywards, powering through the upper atmosphere and aiming for the stars. The Relictors of the 2nd Company sat in orderly rows in their acceleration couches, occupying themselves with the usual post-battle minutiae.
Captain Erskine leaned forwards and nodded towards the Relictors’ sole casualty of the conflict, lolling limply in harness opposite him. ‘How is he?’
Steltz was sat next to the man. He reached across and unsnapped the Marine’s helm, lifting it clear to make a visual examination. Thomastes’ face was revealed, looking of childlike proportions within the Astartes battle plate. There was an ugly bruise on his temple that looked like it could have come from the butt of a combi-plasma.
‘I think you fractured his skull, brother-Captain. He’ll be fine’.
Erskine nodded, happy. ‘Good. We’ll need him in decent condition to give the interrogator-chaplains something to work with. If our friend is to be believed, this heretic holds the key to discovering the location of the Diamedes Archive. He must not be allowed to die before he gives that information up’.
Steltz turned back to look at the unconscious heretic, a bleak smile on his lips. ‘He’ll soon think that servitor you vaporised got the better of the swap’.
There was silence in the Inquisitor-Lord’s offices as Solkayn finished his debrief. Cyarro leaned back in his wooden chair, nodding to himself as he mulled over what he had just heard.
‘So what will your report recommend?’ he asked, giving the younger man a level, neutral stare.
Solkayn shifted uneasily under the scrutiny, aware of the importance of the correctness of what he would say next, but not getting any cues from Cyarro’s impassive scrutiny.
He steeled himself and looked his superior in the eye. ‘My report will conclude that there is neither reason nor need to invoke any sanction at this time. Captain Erskine and his men discharged their duties with admirable zeal and efficiency. I would recommend nothing further than discrete continued surveillance’.
Cyarro nodded slowly, obviously considering this from all possible angles. ‘Very well. Thank you for carrying out a difficult and delicate task with such aplomb. It bodes well for your future’.
He quirked a smile at Solkayn and turned his gaze to the window wall before them, resting his chin in his hands.
Solkayn took his cue and stood, smoothing down his formal robes of office. He bowed deeply then turned and exited the chamber with a spring in his step, reassured beyond measure by Cyarro’s approval of his activities.
As the door ground closed behind the departing Solkayn, Cyarro allowed the smile that he had kept locked within himself to show on his face. He rubbed his hands together, nodding in quiet satisfaction. The young ambitious fool had played his unwitting part to perfection, buying the Relictors precious time to continue their sacred work.
The Diamedes Archive would soon be found. And Cyarro would possess it.