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.
Blood and minute viscera spattered the sink, sluiced clean from the skinning knives, hooks and flensing blades by the liberal application of a flagon of holy water. This done, Chaplain Terle raised the tools of his trade to the light, inspecting them closely for anything he might have missed. His enhanced eyes compensated easily for the blue-tinged gloom of his chamber, missing not the slightest detail. Very little escaped Terle’s gaze, as a rule.
Satisfied, he laid the tools reverentially in a bath of sacred oils, there to remain, pristine and inviolate, until such time as he would have need of them once more. Without even looking, he plucked a proffered hand cloth from one of his initiates and dried his hands, slowly and thoroughly.
As he did so, he allowed his gaze to roam unbidden around the room, taking in everything and dwelling on nothing. It was a usual part of his post-interrogation routine, granting him time and space to regain his spiritual equilibrium.
Everything within his chamber, with the exception of the sink and the steel surgical table, was a thing of unsurpassed beauty. Paintings and frescoes crowded the walls and statues and a host of other art pieces fought for space atop desks and shelves. Every piece showed the creative spirit of humanity at its finest. It was both a reminder and encouragement for Terle; testament to what mankind had been capable of under the benevolent gaze of the the God-Emperor and would, His Will be done, await them all in the glorious future when the Master of Mankind would once more bring Enlightenment to the galaxy.
He felt sometimes that this room, this idealized oasis at the heart of an Astartes strike cruiser, kept him sane.
The pressure door hissed open, two of his initiates hauling the sealed body bag over the threshold as they headed for the ship’s furnaces. They were followed by a third, assiduously wielding a mop to catch the odd smear of blood and preserve the ivory-inlaid rosewood floor.
Through the closing door stepped Travis Erskine, Captain of the 2nd Company of the Relictors chapter. He was attired, as was his wont, in full battle plate of grey and black, and he sought out the Chaplain with keen, questioning eyes.
Terle accepted the bow Erskine offered him with a gracious nod, shaking down the sleeves of his simple black robe. Whilst not as tall as the captain, Terle was a solid figure of an Astartes, with the look of a prize fighter with a rather laissez-faire attitude to the discipline of fitness. He looked round but not soft.
‘The heretic was broken before he died?’ Erskine phrased it as a question but he was only expecting one answer.
Terle did not disappoint. ‘Naturally, my captain’. He smiled, clear-eyed and beatific. ‘All was said ere all was done’.
‘So what did you discover?’
Terle pursed his lips in disdain. ‘Once the insanity had been pared from him, there was little of meaning or significance remaining. It was clear that the rot set in before he travelled to Malian, so we need to work backwards, to find where he came into contact with the Diamedes Archive’.
‘You are certain it was contact with the Archive that corrupted the priest?’
The Chaplain nodded slowly, assuredly. ‘Aye, my lord. From what little we have learned of this cursed artifact, I would say so’.
Erskine laid an armoured hand on Terle’s shoulder, a smile of grim satisfaction cracking his face. ‘Excellent work. As always. So what was the previous posting of this misbegotten son of the Ecclesiarchy?’
A brittle, brutal flicker of a grin snapped across the Chaplain’s features. ‘Before he turned the garrison on Malian to Chaos, our dear Thomastes was Confessori Primaris to the Planetary Governor of Darrinis VIII’.
The Planetary Governor lowered his las-pistol, the after flash of its discharge leaving ghost lightning strobing his retinas. He took a deep, calming breath as he slowly returned the bejeweled heirloom – symbol of honour and office both – to its holster. The alarming purple tinge to his cheeks faded as he composed himself, before turning his glowering gaze on his Lord Chamberlain. With his beefy, ruddy complexion and thick-set build, he looked more like a yeoman than the absolute ruler of a world of over two billion souls.
The Lord Chamberlain returned the stare with practiced equanimity. He had been in the service of the Fahim family for decades, serving as young Barnabas’ chamberlain for a great many years, and was used to his entertainingly volatile outbursts of choler. He gave the smoking crater in the wall to the left of his head a sidelong glance, making a mental note to get an artisan in to patch it up.
‘As I said, Your Vigilance, a delegation from Holy Terra has arrived and has requested a meeting with your august self’. His voice – tone and modulation both – was urbane and reassuring, oil to the troubled waters of his master’s temper.
‘Tell ‘em to inseminate a grox!’ Barnabas snarled. ‘Don’t they know how busy I am?’
The Lord Chamberlain braced himself. ‘They carry a letter of introduction from the Holy Inquisition’.
A second las-bolt blew chunks from the delicate blue eggshell wall a foot to the right of the his head.
‘I understand, sir’, he murmoured. ‘I’ll send them in’.
The Lord Chamberlain bowed deeply and backed out of the audience chamber, pondering the advisability of bringing in a structural engineer alongside the artisan. Just in case.
Alone now in the grand, sprawling audience chamber at the heart of his grand, sprawling palace, Barnabas Fahim holstered his pistol once more and stood. He paced the room, fuming. Although he would admit it to no man – least of all himself – he was more than a little alarmed by this news. Unexpected visits from agents of the Inquisition were never things which ended well. What did they think they knew?
He stomped over to a heavily be-cogged decanter – a gift from a local representative of the Adeptus Mechanicus – and poured himself an exuberant quantity of liquor. He tossed it back in one slug as he heard the doors open behind him, feeling the deliciously feisty heat of the Catachan courage burn outwards from his stomach.
Bring ‘em on he thought, as he turned to greet his honoured guests.
His audience chamber suddenly seemed neither as grand nor as sprawling as it had before the four Astartes swept in. The reassuring warmth in Barnabas’ gut lurched to bile as he sized up the threat before him. He felt like a pawn on a regicide board, isolated and inadequate as the powerful pieces were set down before him. He attempted to regain his naturally pugnacious and combative nature, tilting his chin back to make eye contact with the largest of the four interlopers. The armoured giant gazed back at him, the faintest of scowls defining his angular features. Barnabas knew instinctively that this was their leader; he had that look about him.
‘Gentlemen’, he growled, making the greeting sound like a curse. ‘Welcome to my residence. How can I be of help to you?’
The Astartes’ leader gave a grim smile in return; everything about his attitude screamed to Barnabas At best, you are nothing. At worst, a problem to be excised.
Two of the accompanying Marines – one in full battle plate with a beaked helm and the other in a lightweight suit of carapace armour – took up position flanking the chamber’s double doors. The third, the one clad in the pure electric blue of a Librarian and carrying a large, tightly-wrapped sword over his shoulder, drifted about the room seemingly at random, his gauntleted hand running lightly over the various trophies and nick-nacks that the Governor had accumulated over his years in office. Barnabas was about to protest at this flagrant breach of etiquette when the leader finally spoke.
‘Thank you for agreeing to see us at short notice, Governor. Your co-operation has been noted’.
Barnabas dragged his attention back to the genetically-engineered giant before him. He peered up at him closely as he replied, searching in vain for any clues which might help him to get a handle on this whole situation.
‘You have me at something of a loss, gentlemen. Our tithes are paid on time, our regiments fight valiantly across the stars and we are not – to the best of my knowledge – in imminent danger of invasion. So please – and I ask this with all due deference and respect – who are you and why the hell are you here?’
‘Reasonable questions, Governor. I am Erskine, Captain of the 2nd Company of the Emperor’s Relictors. I bring with me Brother Steltz and Brother-Librarian Montanti. Also with us, from our 10th Company, is Scout Sergeant Lendahl.
‘As to why we are here ... we are looking into the background of somebody we believe to have been a former member of your staff’.
Uh oh thought Barnabas, as he strove to keep the mask of quizzical irritation in place about his features. Aloud, he said, ‘Hmph. I have a staff of close to a thousand – leeches, louts and layabouts all. I can’t be expected to keep track of all the shiftless bastards’.
Erskine nodded in agreement then paused before continuing.
‘Quite so. I would hazard, however, that you’ll remember this one. His name was Thomastes’.
Barnabas flinched, cringing inwardly as his worst fears were confirmed. What in the name of the Throne had that lunatic done?
The Governor’s flinch was mirrored exactly by Montanti, his hand twitching and sending a chromed netsuke piece spinning to destruction from its perch on a side table. The Librarian raised his baleful, brooding stare to the Planetary Governor’s face.
‘Oops’, he rumbled.
Barnabas coughed, a rattly sound from an ash-dry mouth. He forced a look of polite disinterest onto his face at mental gunpoint and nodded a couple of times, buying time to bring steadiness to his voice.
‘Ah yes. And how fares my old Confessori?’
He glossed over the fact that Erskine had referred to Thomastes firmly in the past tense, hoping desperately that if he didn’t question it, it wouldn’t become an issue.
His hopes were dashed as the Relictor leaned in over him, the scowl on his face becoming harder and deeper.
‘Executed for heresy of the most vile and perfidious nature,’ hissed the captain. ‘it was a singularly wretched affair that has – to date – caused the deaths of thousands’.
He leaned in ever closer, eclipsing the Governor’s view of the room. ‘We are still looking for loose ends to tie up’.
With the Planetary Governor’s full co-operation helping them along, the Relictors’ investigations proceeded apace. The picture that emerged was of the young Thomastes, freshly-arrived and brimming with approved righteous ire, looking to make a name for himself. Over time, however, the priest had become distant and detached, almost reclusive in his habits. Even the most basic of his Confessori duties were neglected (much to Barnabas’ delight). Instead, Thomastes had retreated to the Governor’s family library, haunting the bookstacks and withdrawing almost completely from palace life.
The Lord Chamberlain had been assigned to liaise with the Astartes for the duration of their investigations and it was he who now led them to the library. It was located in a sparsely-occupied wing of the palace, quiet and alone. The contrast to the bustle elsewhere was quite noticeable, and Lendahl remarked on this as they reached the locked library door.
The Lord Chamberlain nodded in agreement as he unhooked the key from his belt, favouring the stocky fair-haired scout with a wistful smile.
‘it’s a sad truth you speak, sir. The library sees little use these days, I’m afraid. The current Governor reacts badly to what he sees as over-education. On top of that ...’ he paused briefly, aware that he would be sounding vaguely ridiculous. ‘On top of that, the place has taken on a bit of an odd character. It makes people feel ... uneasy’.
He smiled to acknowledge his foolishness and turned the key in the big, solid old lock. The door swung open and the Astartes ducked their heads and made their way inside.
The library was a large, spacious room with three tiers of bookshelf-rammed gantries stretching up to the high, vaulted ceiling some fifteen metres above. The wall opposite the door was dominated by a huge, shield-shaped window of stained glass, with some form of coat of arms picked out in blue, yellow and green. A large antique writing desk was planted in the exact centre of the room, plum-red on the green carpet.
‘Deserted’, observed Lendahl, walking across to peer out through the window.
‘But not empty’, murmured Montanti. The Librarian stood on the threshold, glancing thoughtfully about him. Erskine shot him a look, eyebrow raised.
Montanti shook his head in response to his captain’s unspoken question. ‘Nothing more than a feeling at the moment, lord. I believe we’re on the right track, however’.
Brother Steltz turned to look down at the Lord Chamberlain, who was standing diffidently behind them in the passage. ‘So what attracted Thomastes to this place?’ he asked, voice rendered cold and sterile by his helm’s vox.
The proximity and indifferent belligerence of the Astartes didn’t faze the Lord Chamberlain. He had faced far worse from his master during his tenure. ‘Homework, I suppose you could call it’, he mused. ‘Although not so much now, it used to be that we had quite the reputation as a centre of learning here. Some of the texts in here are rare indeed, hand-copied and annotated variants of reference works long since lost to time and history’.
He gestured up towards the top tier of shelves off to his right. ‘The current Governor’s great-grandfather was something of a hagiophile, and amassed a rather splendid collection of biographies of Saints of the Imperium. It’s my understanding that Thomastes had been tasked with transcribing their contents for dispatch back to Holy Terra’.
Erskine strode across to join them. ‘And is that what kept the heretic confined to this place? I wish to see any notes or scribblings he left behind ere he departed for Malian’.
‘Not possible, I’m afraid’, answered the Lord Chamberlain. ‘Thomastes set a fire in his chambers on the eve of his departure. Everything that was his went up in flames. As did half of the southern wing of the palace’, he added ruefully.
‘Then we’ll begin as he began. Brother-Librarian, you have some reading ahead of you’.
It was a mere six hours before the summons was sent. The others hastened back to the library, where they found Montanti; he was circling slowly around the central writing desk, the daemon blade Kul’Askir naked in his right fist, its hilt and pommel crawling with a sickly green light. He looked energised, a triumphant half-smile playing across his features.
Steltz unslung his bolter and took up position behind the Librarian, the sound of the slide racking loud in the expectant silence.
Montanti looked back over his shoulder and his smile tightened a fraction. ‘So quick, brother?’
Steltz gave an apologetic half-bow, his red-lensed gaze never leaving his companion’s eyes. ‘The path which we have chosen to walk can be full of mis-steps. We can’t have you slip and fall’.
Erskine interceded, calling Montanti’s attention back to the desk. ‘What have you found, brother?’
A single book lay open on the table. Around it, a circle of containment had been gouged into the wooden desk top by the Librarian’s combat knife, which he had subsequently jammed point-first into the previously-pristine veneer.
‘This is what caused Thomastes to fall to Chaos. It purports to be a chronicle of the teachings of St Mikhail the Obscure but it has a strong stink of the Warp about it’.
Erskine looked from it to him. ‘Can we use it?’ he asked.
Montanti hesitated before answering, making a judgement before he spoke. ‘Not directly, lord. This is a small fragment of something immeasurably larger’.
‘You believe it to be part of the Archive itself?’ If Erskine was surprised, neither his face nor his manner betrayed him.
‘That is my contention, aye’.
Steltz frowned behind his beaked faceplate but spoke casually enough. ‘If what we have been led to believe is correct, this Archive could be a source of almost limitless power. Are you comfortable getting close to such a thing?’
His thumb absently flicked the safety rune on his bolter as he spoke. On. Off. On.
The Librarian shook his head slowly, regretfully. ‘I know my limitations, o my keeper. I have no wish to meet the same fate as my predecessor’.
‘My honour and my curse’, was Steltz’ bleak response, more to himself than the others in the room.
Montanti sighted down the blade of Kul’Askir, pointing the eldritch weapon squarely at the open book on the desk. ‘The corrupt cannot be corrupted. The daemon bound within this blade will glean what we need for us’.
Scout Sergeant Lendahl raised an eyebrow and glanced across at Erskine. ‘Assuming it can be done, how can we be sure that the fiend will speak truth?’
The captain nodded agreement, looking to Montanti for clarification. ‘A fair point. Brother-Librarian?’
Actinic ghost lightning sparked from Montanti’s gauntleted fist, wreathing the daemon blade in painfully bright balefire. Its own sickly green glow dimmed, cowed by the calculated aggression of the display. He slowly turned the sword over, regarding it with detached interest as the aetheric energies played along the length of the blade.
‘The beast and I have an understanding’, he said softly. ‘It knows better than to try to mislead me’.
‘And should the daemon manage to draw strength from this fragment of the Archive? What then?’ Steltz looked the Librarian square in the eye as he spoke, his body language carefully neutral.
‘I trust that I am strong enough to do what is expected of me’, he replied. ‘And even if I am not, I know that you are’.
The small smile he gave did not serve to soften the words he had spoken. But then, it was not really meant to.
‘You have my complete confidence, Brother-Librarian’, said Captain Erskine. ‘What do you need from us?’
‘Privacy and time, lord’.
‘You shall have them. Brother-Sergeant Lendahl, you have your orders. For myself, I must speak with the Planetary Governor. May the God-Emperor guide you, brother’.
Steltz closed and bolted the library door behind the two departing Astartes. After a second’s hesitation, he walked over to Montanti and offered his hand. The Librarian took it and the two embraced briefly, as warriors, as brothers.
‘Do this right’, growled Steltz.
The sourness of Planetary Governor’s mood had not abated since last he had met the Captain of the Relictors. He sat, slumped in a hide-covered, overstuffed chair, in his private quarters. A guttering fire spluttered towards a slow extinction in the hearth. He couldn’t help but consider it to be a worryingly apt metaphor for his current position.
With a world-weary sigh, he raised his glass and took a sip. The chilled Odka steadied his nerves as it slid down his throat. He belched softly and looked askance at Erskine, who was standing halfway between the door and the fireplace.
‘So this whole sorry affair’s been bookended by the sodding Inquisition. You put us in this position and now you’re standing there, ready to mete out some righteous punishment. Hardly seems fair to me’.
Erskine frowned. This came as something of a non-sequitur – they had been discussing Thomastes’ increasingly erratic behaviour during the latter part of his time in the Governor’s service. He presumed the alcohol had been a contributory factor. Whatever the reason, it screamed for elaboration, so he pressed the Governor for more information.
Barnabas downed the rest of his glass before replying. He felt relaxed enough to not give a good goddamn about any possible repercussions to this late-night discourse that tomorrow might bring. To hell with it.
‘I only took the bugger on in the first place because of pressure from the Inquisition to place him with me. I was quite happy with my old Confessori’, he added, a touch mournfully. ‘But no ... when they request something, a man’d be a bloody fool to say no’.
Erskine folded his arms and affected a puzzled look. ’I was led to believe that it was the Ecclesiarchy which was responsible for the placement of its tub-thumpers. Was that not the case?’
Barnabas snorted in derision, looking up at the Astartes through vaguely-focused eyes. ‘Ostensibly, yes. But you don’t have to be a ... highly-trained investigator to see through that nonsense, eh? Eh?’
Suddenly sober, suddenly serious, he fixed Erskine with a cold, hard stare. ‘Whatever game the Inquisition is playing, please don’t let my planet pay the penalty. We are loyal subjects, Astartes. Do you hear me?’
The library existed in its own detached reality, complete unto itself. The light filtering in through the huge stained glass window gave no real clue as to the passage of time and Steltz was damn sure he’d been here for far, far longer than the eight hours claimed by the chronometer on his helmet display,
He shuddered slightly as his autonomic system sent another shot of stims coursing through his veins. His senses expanded to optimal efficiency once more and he refocussed his heightened attention back onto Brother-Librarian Montanti.
The psyker was leaning forward over the heavy wooden table, splayed left hand taking his weight whilst he held Kul’Askir in a one-handed grip in his right. The skewed, reforged blade trembled slightly as Montanti held it in place above the open book and Steltz could hear both of the Librarian’s hearts thudding, staccato counterpoint rythms betraying the horrendous effort his communion with the beast was costing him.
Montanti’s irregular rasping breaths were underscored by an alarming, gurgling susurration. Steltz was no apothecary but he knew the sound of some fairly extensive hemorrhaging when he heard it.
This had to end soon – the Librarian was fast nearing the end of even his superhuman endurance. Should his reserves be depleted, he would be unable to maintain his psychic defences, leaving himself vulnerable to the howling depredations of the Warp. And if that happened ...
No. Not again. Steltz gritted his teeth, urging Montanti to pull back, to withdraw from this murderous battle of Will.
With a wet tearing sound, Montanti’s secondary heart gave out. He pitched face forwards onto the table, his primary heart going into spasm in a desperate attempt to compensate. An avalanche of red warning runes crashed down Steltz’s helmet display and he exploded forwards, jamming the muzzle of his bolter to the exposed psychic hood that cradled the back of the Librarian’s skull. Absently, he noted that Montanti’s scalp had become charred and burned from contact with the hood. The smell would have been unpleasant.
He leaned down, pressing Montanti’s head hard against the desktop, and whispered a quick prayer.
With a whimpered growl of effort, Montanti hurled Kul’Askir across the room, embedding the daemon blade to its hilt in the far wall.
Steltz jerked his bolter up and away, taking a quick step back from his comrade’s limp form. He raised the weapon to his shoulder and took aim once more. ‘Brother?’ His tone was urgent, almost imploring.
What little could be seen of Montanti’s face was a deathly grey colour, rendered even more alarming by the sharp contrast it made with the expanding pool of crimson blood on the table.
Slowly, agonisingly, Montanti forced a hand across the desktop, smearing his blood across its surface as he inched laboriously closer to the book. Time slowed to a standstill. Every instinct, every hard-wired reflex was screaming at Steltz to shoot.
He held his fire.
Montanti’s straining hand reached the book. With a supreme effort, he flipped it shut and pawed it weakly away. One eye, bloodshot red and sunken deep into the grey hollow of his face, swivelled to regard Steltz. His voice when he spoke was a death whisper, cracked and drawn.
‘Your conscience is clear for another day’.
He passed out hard, the weight of his body and armour dragging him to the floor like a ceramite-plated rag doll.
Steltz stood over him, stock-still and unheeding of the critical medicae data flowing across his vision. He was looking for something much more important.
After an age, he reached a decision. Clamping his bolter to his thigh, he opened up a priority vox-channel.
There was a click of acknowledgement and the channel went dead.
On a rooftop overlooking the library’s stained glass window, Scout-Sergeant Lendahl eased his finger off the trigger of his sniper rifle.
Darrinis VIII was a rocky ball of inconsequence, falling away unremarked behind them as the Affirmation of Faith boosted out-system.
Erskine was waiting on the port observation deck, gazing out at the matchless wonder of the void beyond the viewport. Steltz clambered up to meet him, greeting his captain with the sign of the Aquila.
‘The word from the apothecaries is that he will recover’.
Erskine nodded, although he had already established this for himself. ‘And the sword?’
‘As we suspected, it leached significant power from the Archive fragment. Apparently, it took three Librarians to make it safe’.
Erskien raised an eyebrow. ‘Power indeed. Is it still able to be used?’
‘Aye, but I wouldn’t give it to a neophyte’.
Erskine gave Steltz a steady look. ‘We have the location of the Archive, brother. All we have to do now is wrest it from those who currently hold claim to it’. He smiled oddly. ‘It should prove to be a challenge’.
Steltz returned his gaze, grey eyes displaying stoic certainty. ‘None can stand against us when our cause is just, lord. Against whom will we be pitted?’
‘The Ordo Malleus. We will be going to war with the Holy Inquisition’.