This is for everyone who's been so supportive and encouraging. Thanks all
C&C actively welcomed, as always.
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.
Officially, the world of Fremas did not exist. It appeared on no star charts, nor was it mentioned in any Administratum tithe records. And yet there it lay, an arctic planet, glittering faintly with the reflected light of its distant, blue-white sun. Desolate and isolated, it had spun in peaceful isolation, ignored by all outsiders.
The planet’s largest mountain – un-named, as was every other geographical feature on Fremas – stood proud of its fellows, shouldering its way up into heavy perpetual cloud cover. A small plateau jutted from its hip, worn smooth and dull by countless millennia of unremitting scouring winds.
Clinging precariously to this was a shuttle craft, its underside and engines still glowing blood-red from its knuckle-whitening descent through the atmosphere. It rocked slightly on its landing gear, buffeted by the winds that skirled impatiently around the mountainside.
Tracks, already virtually obliterated by the wind and snow, led from the shuttle to a vertical crack in the mountain’s side, a fissure wide enough for five men to walk comfortably in line abreast. Within was a tunnel, hewed from the living rock crudely but efficiently by Mechanicum labour.
At the far end of the tunnel lay the ruined remains of a heavily-reinforced blast door. The two people making their way along the tunnel paused here, turning to survey the full extent of the damage.
‘I presume that this is where they effected entry?’
The woman’s tone was brusque, with no extraneous social niceties tacked on to soften its edge. She was tall and whip-thin beneath her bulky cold weather clothing, with a natural hardness underlined by overt combat augmetics. Although her face wore its habitual expression of mild chastisement, anyone who knew her would be able to see, by the set of her jaw and the crinkling around her grey eyes, that Jakarta Merriweather was in a foul, foul mood.
Fortunately for him, Guard Recon Majeure Aethelred Considine did know her, having worked for her several times over the past few decades. He wisely opted to ignore the ironic tone to the question and answer it straight.
‘We believe so, Madame Inquisitor. Two guards should have been posted here’. He pointed back up the tunnel. ‘We think they were lured outside. My team’s approach sweep located what looks to be their bodies, at the bottom of a ravine five klicks below’.
Merriweather stepped over the ruins of the blast door, steel-shod boots clumping surprisingly heavily for someone of her slim frame.
Considine nodded. ‘It would appear so’.
The Inquisitor retrieved a sophisticated miniaturised auspex unit from within her coat and played it slowly over the wreckage. ‘The degradation pattern is of a type we’re familiar with. I can petition the Mechanicum to find out the forge world from whence it came’.
She slipped the auspex back into the voluminous depths of her coat and the two of them walked beyond the threshold, descending into the complex beyond.
The corridors through which they passed were smooth and even, displaying none of the crude tooling marks of the exterior. The proportions appeared slightly off, to the trained eye of the Recon Majeure, as if the people who had originally dug it out had not quite been of Terran proportions. Sourceless pearlescent light enabled them to take in every detail of the running slaughter laid out before them.
And slaughter it had been. At almost every intersection, every bend of the corridor, lay the bodies of the complex’s defenders. Merriweather’s face didn’t change expression as she inserted a boot tip under the body of the first prone corpse they reached, rolling it onto its back for a closer examination.
The man had been a veteran soldier of the Imperial Guard, clad in the raiment of the Ordo Malleus. His right leg was missing from mid-thigh down, torn away by the spiteful detonation of an explosive shell. He had bled out quickly and messily, by the looks of things.
The Inquisitor’s eyes narrowed as she gazed upon the dead man’s face. The two gaping black holes where his eyes had been formed a startling contrast to his waxy skin, bleached white from blood loss.
Without looking up, she fired a terse question at Considine.
‘Are they all like this?’
He bobbed his head as he replied. ‘Aye ma’am. Eyes gouged out, all of ‘em. Why the desecration? Is it some form of degenerate ritual?’
Merriweather pursed her lips. ‘More likely a foe well-versed in our methodology. They wanted no-one to see them. Hence the blinding’.
‘But …’ The Recon Majeure was nonplussed. ‘This was done after death’.
Merriweather’s face twitched with the faintest hint of a smile. ‘Even the dead can still see’. The smile slid towards bitterness as she continued. ‘If they still had eyes, that is ‘.
The pair resumed their descent in silence, stepping over or around the scattered corpses. Most had been killed by what looked to be bolt rounds, but a fair few had been systematically taken apart with heavy-duty combat blades.
‘No trace of the attacking force, I presume?’ enquired Merriweather, with little hope of a positive answer.
‘No ma’am. We presume they exfiltrated with their casualties’.
‘Or likely didn’t take any in the first place’, opined the Inquisitor moodily.
After a pause, Considine spoke again. ‘Forgive the impertinence, milady, but me and my boys, we were trying to put an age to this place. I mean, it’s obviously old but we’ve nothing similar to match it with. It has caused a fair degree of debate’.
Merriweather shrugged, replying with rare candour. ‘I don’t think anyone really knows, Majeure. This facility was already ancient beyond knowing when a chance movement of the earth cracked the mountainside and betrayed its presence to an Explorator unit. It was long-deserted and empty, save for the lowermost chamber’. She looked him square in the eye, urgent yet somehow resigned. ‘The chamber. Tell me ... how is it?’
Considine gestured ahead as they rounded a final bend in the corridor. ‘See for yourself, milady. We’re here’.
Four of Considine’s Recon cadre stood flanking the doorway at the corridor’s end. The space between them was filled with crumpled, twisted bodies, mute testimony to a desperate, futile last stand.
The door itself was a blasted wreck, with fragments of layered plasteel and ceramite strewn over the pitted stone floor.
Merriweather strode into the chamber beyond, casting her gaze around urgently. Her usual guarded expression slipped as her shoulders sagged slightly. She swore with sulphurous bitterness.
‘Gone’. The word was hissed between clenched teeth, anger and despair vying for dominance in her tone.
Considine remained outside the chamber, maintaining a carefully neutral expression. He chose not to meet the enquiring glances of his Recon team, gesturing instead for silence with subtle hand cant.
On the inside, his mind was racing with professional curiosity. What could have been so important that a senior member of the Ordo Malleus was sent out to this icy, forgotten rock, this oubliette at the fringes of the Imperium?
He wouldn’t ask, of course. He was pretty sure he’d serve his beloved Imperium better as a Recon Majeure than a lobotomised servitor.
What in the name of the Throne could it have been?
‘So that’s it, then?’
Brother Steltz was leaning comfortably against a bulkhead as he spoke, watching the unloading of the Thunderhawk in the port docking bay of the Relictors’ strike cruiser Affirmation of Faith
. His grey and black battle plate glinted in the harsh wash of the deck’s spotlights and his broad, scarred features wore an expression of quizzical interest.
Scout Sergeant Lendahl padded down the gunboat’s ramp, shucking his white camo carapace armour as he did so. ‘Aye, that’s the Diomedes Archive. For something we’ve spent decades searching for, it’s not much to look at, is it?’
Superficially, the sergeant had a point. Upon casual inspection, the Archive resembled nothing more than a motley pile of old, leather-bound books, lashed into some vaguely cuboid agglomeration. If one looked a little closer, however, the smaller, more unsettling details began to reveal themselves. The books looked to have been sewn together, the stitching holes in the leather bindings crusted with part-dried blood. To open some of the books looked like it would require access to more than the usual complement of dimensions available to the casual browser. Worryingly, it gave the impression that it wouldn’t be a problem. And the tarnished gold lettering embossed along the spines and covers of the various conjoined tomes had a way of appearing to ooze across the surface when it felt it wasn’t being observed.
With a double-blink, Steltz tore his eyes away from the Archive. Naturally stoic and robust in humour, even he felt a little uneasy at being in its presence. He was quietly glad it was contained within a stasis field.
He ambled over to Lendahl and embraced him, as a warrior and a brother both. ‘How fared the mission?’
Lendahl’s expression was unreadable as he broke the embrace. ‘As expected. We left no trace and no alarm was raised’. He paused, adrift in reflection. ‘We go now to submit to judgement and do penance for our deeds’.
The two Astartes stood momentarily, sharing unspoken thoughts, before Steltz clapped Lendahl on the shoulder.
‘Strength of will, brother’.
‘Aye. Courage of will’. Lendahl formed up with the other five members of his squad as they descended from the Thunderhawk. They were all sergeants from the Relictors’ 10th Company, all volunteers, and they headed towards the bay’s armoured pressure doors, where stood the waiting, brooding figure of Chaplain-Redemptor Keele.
Steltz watched them leave with a sympathetic eye. The path they had all chosen – the true path, illuminated by the light of the Immortal God-Emperor Himself – sometimes meant that they needed to do terrible things, awful things, to enact His will. The certainty of a golden tomorrow was sometimes scant comfort when coming to terms with the atrocities of today.
His vox chimed, snapping him from melancholia’s siren call.
Captain Erskine’s voice, clipped and assured, crackled from the vox speaker, ordering Steltz to move the Archive into secure storage and then report to him.
Steltz waited a second before replying, thinking best how to frame his response.
‘Sir, with respect, we have standing orders from the Librarius that the Archive is not to be moved unless personally accompanied by one of the Chapter’s Librarians’.
He closed his eyes and winced as he imagined his captain’s reaction.
‘I see’. Silence. ‘Tell me, brother Steltz, when Sergeant Lendahl and his team returned, did you happen to notice if any of them were drooling and slavering, or perhaps sporting horns and claws?’
A grin split Steltz’ broad, flat face as he replied. ‘I am happy to say, brother Captain, that I noticed no such thing’.
‘Then I think we can safely assume that the Archive is safe to handle within its stasis field, no?’
‘Aye, sir. Compliance’. Steltz broke the connection and summoned a pair of deck servitors to wrangle the suspensor trolley holding the Archive into the specially-consecrated munitions bunker which would serve as a stopgap home for it. Once he was satisfied it had been safely stored, he jog-trotted back through the ship to report to his commanding officer.
Travis Erskine’s personal quarters aboard ship were simple, straightforward and uncomplicated. It would be tempting to say that they were a reflection of the man himself, but that would be doing the doughty commander a singular disservice.
Erskine was a shrewd tactician and an innovative, free-thinking warrior. It had been due in no small part to his leadership that the Second Company had come through its century-long penitent crusade in good order, whilst others, most notably the Lamented Fourth, had fared rather less well.
To see him looking troubled, therefore, set Steltz on edge.
Erskine nodded a greeting as Steltz saluted, beckoning him inside. He held a vellum sheet in his hand, torn from an astropathic transcription pad. It looked wisp-like and ephemeral in his massive, gauntleted fist. Even here, in his personal sanctum, he was geared for battle, clad in ornate artificer-crafted power armour, edged and chased with gold. Sword and pistol hung heavy on his hip and his crested war helm was on his desk, close at hand.
As was his way, Erskine did not trouble with any preamble.
‘I am troubled, brother’.
Steltz cocked his head to one side. ‘Fear of discovery, lord? I have confidence that Lendahl and his team were extremely circumspect during their assignment’.
Erskine shook his head. ‘I worry not about my enemies, for those I can bring to battle. My concern is with those who would call me friend’.
Illumination dawned for Steltz. He gestured towards the parchment in his captain’s hand and said, ‘Am I to assume that our mysterious benefactor has broken cover and gotten in touch?’
‘This very afternoon’, confirmed Erskine. He paused before adding, ‘The message was delivered riding an Omega Protocol’.
Steltz raised an eyebrow, his long-service studs winking in the cabin’s light. The Omega Protocol was only used with messages of the utmost sensitivity. Once sent and acknowledged, a hidden psychic subroutine within the body of the message triggered a cerebral brainstorming fit, excruciating and invariably fatal, in both the sender and receiver. ‘The subject matter is not trivial, then?’
‘”It is imperative that we meet” apparently. He has “information of the utmost criticality” regarding our “recent acquisition” that he must pass on personally’. Erskine gave the quoted extracts heavy emphasis.
Steltz considered the message and its import. ‘If our patron feels strongly enough about this to relinquish his anonymity, should we fear the worst?’
His captain gave him a frosty smile, arching an eyebrow as he spoke. ‘We are the Immortal God-Emperor’s own Astartes, brother Steltz. We know no fear.
‘A healthy dose of caution never hurt anyone, however’.
It took another month before there was further contact. Another month before another pair of astropaths died screaming, violet haemorrhagic froth oozing from their eyes, nose and mouth.
Following receipt of the message, Erskine convened a meeting in the Affirmation of Faith
’s strategium of his coterie of most trusted warriors. Among the dozen honoured veterans around the table were Steltz, Lendahl and brother-Librarian Montanti.
After some initial discussion, the captain outlined the contents of the message to them. ‘… and so we’re to meet three weeks’ hence, bringing the Archive with us’.
‘No’. It was a simple word, delivered flat and hard. Everybody turned to look at Montanti, who sat back in his chair, pale and weak. The Librarian had almost killed himself in his efforts to divine the hiding place of the Archive and was still, almost six months later, far from fully recovered.
Yet his voice was strong and his gaze unwavering as he continued to speak. ‘Excuse me, captain, but our attempts to engage with the Archive are at a delicate, critical stage. If we’re forced to uproot it and haul it Throne knows where, we’ll be right back to the beginning. At best. That’s unacceptable’.
Lendahl spoke, ending the silence which followed Montanti’s declaration. ‘You speak as if it were alive. It’s a bestiary, is it not?’
The Librarian shook his head, leaning forward over the table for emphasis. ‘Not a
bestiary, sergeant. The
bestiary. The Sum of All Names. Within its memories it holds the true names of every Warp-spawned horror that’s ever torn through the Bloody Veil into our universe. Its potential as a weapon, a tool, is …’ He stopped, coughing, then continued. ‘It’s simply staggering. We cannot risk antagonizing it’.
Lendahl held up a placatory hand. ‘I stand corrected’, he said dryly. ‘That being said, can we afford to ignore this summons? The fact that our patron is prepared to compromise his own identity cannot be put aside. He has guided us true so far’.
Erskine mulled this over. ‘Aye, without his assistance, the Archive would be naught but a myth, a tantalising footnote in the stricken histories’.
Steltz caught his captain’s eye. ‘So what instructions does he give for this meeting?’
‘It’s to be aboard an abandoned orbital station, a little over two weeks’ voyage from here. We’re both to go in via shuttle, with no other vessels within six hours. To limit the risk of exposure, he’s requested I go in by myself’.
‘There’s a whole lot of deniability there, lord.’ The new speaker was Idrinii, a senior assault sergeant famous throughout the company for his legendarily morose and pessimistic worldview. ‘A lot of accidents can happen aboard an old junker’.
Erskine grinned. ‘I am well aware of the tactical disadvantages of this scenario, sergeant. Thanks all, I am resolved.
‘The meeting will go ahead as requested’.
Montanti opened his mouth to protest but was stopped in his tracks as the captain stabbed a finger at him. ‘Your objections are noted, brother-Librarian but I’m afraid we cannot take the risk that we may be tampering with the Archive lacking some critical information’.
He pulled up a hololithic schematic of the orbital. ‘Brothers, we have work to do’.
Caractacus High Orbital spun, alone and unloved, about the abandoned world of Excigilia. It had served faithfully as a transport hub for freighters taking on deliveries of ore from the planet’s vast strip-mining complexes until that fateful day two decades ago when the presence of ferrous rotspores had been discovered in a random sample of ore. The Mechanicum had enacted an instantaneous quarantine to prevent the spread of the infestation, successfully containing it within the Excigilia system. The mining colony and its personnel were abandoned and Caractacus left, quite literally, to rot.
Erskine brought his shuttle around in a wide, curving approach, keeping his distance from the strobing warning buoys and observing the pernicious evidence of the rotspores’ work. Most of the station’s extensive docking rings and refuelling gantries had been eaten away over the years, and it looked like the infestation was working its way through the central hub – sweeping tracts of the outer layer were open to vacuum and whole sections of the superstructure appeared to be coming away like sections of a rusty glacier.
He admired the choice of venue as he lined up the shuttle to dock. A month from now and it was likely the entire station would have come apart, neatly disposing of all trace evidence in such a way as to avoid all suspicion.
He had detected one other shuttlecraft during his approach, powered down and clamped to a docking umbilical on the opposite side of the station. It appeared his host was already here.
Confirmatory runes lit up green across an overhead flight panel and Erskine slid his seat back, standing up from the cramped pilot’s station with a rolling of his shoulders. He wandered aft to the hold and scooped up the remote actuator for the Diomedes Archive’s suspensor trolley, powering the unit up with a stab of his thumb. It shuddered and rose jerkily from the floor, finally bobbing at knee-height.
Erskine settled his helm on his head with a clack and a hiss of pressurisation, rapping twice on it with his knuckles as was his habit. He smiled self-consciously at his personal piece of superstitious ritual and steered his cargo towards the shuttle’s airlock. He had to turn the trolley sideways to fit, balancing himself precariously at one end with his knees drawn up to his chest. As the airlock cycled, he had his plasma pistol drawn and pointing unwaveringly at the door.
The lock ground open to silence and darkness. Although there was still some semblance of gravity here, this part of the station was void-breached, plassteel panels and struts eaten away by the all-devouring rotspores. As he crunched gingerly through the ruined, flaking hulk, he wondered idly how long it would take for the chapter serfs to scour his armour to remove any traces of the spores. It’ll keep them out of mischief
, he decided.
His passage through the Orbital’s carcass took a good hour; sometimes he had to stop and backtrack because of complete structural failure before him, and at other times the bulk of the suspensor trolley meant he needed to find alternate means of progress. Eventually, however, he arrived at the point designated on his HUD’s floating map. Thou hast reached thy destination
chimed a soft machine voice, by way of confirmation.
He stood before a functional airlock, industrial in scale. According to the schematic, the central storage hub of the Orbital lay beyond it. Green tell-tales mounted at the side of the airlock controls promised a viable atmosphere inside. Erskine verified this with his own scanner, noting also the presence of three life signs within.
‘Here we are’, he said aloud to no-one in particular. His deep, gruff tones sounded tinny inside the sealed environment of his suit. He loosened the plasma pistol in its holster and activated the airlock.
As the breath of life roared into the airlock chamber, Erskine closed his eyes and mouthed a silent prayer to the Lord of Terra. Thy wisdom is infinite; thy plan assured. Allow me the insight to perceive my place therein so I might do that which is Right
Its cycle complete, the inner airlock door ratcheted open. The chamber beyond was simply immense, easily five times the size of one of the Affirmation of Faith
’s hangar bays. It towered upwards into gloom and stretched out before him, shrouded in neglectful decay. Ore containers and miscellaneous crates were scattered at random about the deck, all work obviously abandoned mid-shift when the call to abandon the station had been made. Erskine took it all in from his vantage point at the airlock door.
I am well aware of the tactical disadvantages of this scenario
. His words, spoken casually at his strategium briefing, slid uncalled-for across his mind as he stood there. With a tight smile, he advanced towards the three life signs, currently out of sight behind the towering piles of rubbish.
They were waiting for him at the centre of a hastily-prepared amphitheatre. A dozer unit had been used to smash a cleared area in the centre of the chamber. The three still, silent figures tracked his progress with their eyes as he approached. He disengaged the gravitic motor on the Archive’s sled when he was ten yards distant from them. It sank to the deck with a machine-sigh of relief and Erskine casually tossed the remote actuator on top of it. Only then did he turn to meet their gaze.
The man in the centre was undoubtedly the leader. He was a tall, bulky figure, obviously with more years behind him than his physical body would indicate. He carried himself with the arrogance of complete self-assurance. He wore simple clothes, exquisitely-cut, and his eyes were hidden behind dark glass augmetic lenses. He carried no weapons about his person.
The weapons stood to either side of him. They were lean and lithe, clad in contoured combat skinsuits, and they stood as if frozen, a preternatural stillness which spoke of years of training and genhancements. Erskine had seen – and on one nightmarish occasion, fought – their kind before. Cult Assassins, nihilistic artisans of death.
, he thought, whilst his helm’s battle cogitators revised the hypothetical threat levels for this encounter upwards.
The well-dressed man smiled, a genuine look of pleasure on his face. He stepped forwards and bowed, making the sign of the Aquila with an open, expansive gesture.
‘Honoured brother-Captain. You have no idea how much of a pleasure it is to finally meet you face to face’.
Erskine remained unmoving. ‘You have me at a disadvantage, my friend’. It was more than just the vox distortion that made his works flat and toneless.
His host palmed his forehead theatrically and affected a contrite look. ‘Ah! My apologies. I am Cyarro of the Ordo Hereticus. Well met, sir.’
Erskine nodded slowly, weighing his words before replying. ‘Our Chapter has historically not gotten along well with the Inquisition, so forgive me if I remain cautious’. He still hadn’t moved from his spot next to the Archive.
Cyarro looked aggrieved momentarily before the smile returned with full force. He spread his hands in a disarming gesture.
‘I am aware of how harshly you were treated in the past. Indeed, that is one of the main reasons why I sought you out specifically. I do not offer any apology, nor do I seek forgiveness for the actions of my peers. All I will say is: do not tar us all with the same brush, captain. Are you and yours cut from the same cloth as the Ultramarines? The Blood Angels? The Death Hands? You and I, we both serve the Immortal God-Emperor above all. Not those who seek to supplant Him by inches’.
‘Your faith must be strong indeed to risk open warfare with the hierarchy of the Holy Inquisition. The Archive was in the care of the Ordo Malleus, was it not? They are not the sort of people to take this well’.
Cyarro twitched a smile, eye-lenses twinkling in the hazy light. ‘You have a talent for understatement, my friend. Yes, this is a deadly serious endeavour. What can I say? I am a driven man. As passionate as you’.
Erskine nodded agreeably. ‘If only there were more with the clarity to see the truth, eh? We would not need to skulk here in the shadows like poisoners’.
His good humour cooled and he made a small gesture around the debris-choked crucible in which they stood. ‘But here we are. Now, what is so vitally important that I must risk the Archive, the undoing of years of effort? We have shed and spilt blood to get where we are now. We have done … monstrous things’.
‘Tell me what I need to know’.
Cyarro hesitated, acutely aware that what he was about to say wouldn’t be received with good grace. With a breath to steady his nerves, he spoke.
‘My precognitors have foreseen a great disaster, should the Archive be opened. They tell of a second Eye of Terror springing forth, full-formed, from its pages, leading to the ruination and destruction of everything within the Imperium of Man. The final and irrevocable death of the dream of Unity. It is not a weapon, captain. It is a trap’. His voice rose as he spoke, ending on an impassioned high, as if he was trying to drag the other along by sheer force of will and oratory.
If Erskine was impressed, he gave no sign.
‘And how much credence do you give these soothsayers?’ he shot back, his voice rasping in the silence.
Cyarro spread his hands wide again. ‘Enough to risk myself by being here now. This is not a conversation that could be had any other way. The Archive must
be put beyond the reach of anybody – no matter how pure or earnest their intention – who could possibly rouse it from its slumber’.
The Astartes nodded along as the Inquisitor spoke.
‘And I suppose you’d be the person best-placed to look after it?’
The question was asked softly, the tone non-confrontational, but behind his helm, the target reticules overlaying his vision hardened from green to red.
‘Believe me, brother-Captain, I would much prefer not to have anything to do with this but I fear you’re correct. I have space on my shuttle and can put it beyond the reach of all temptation within the week. It will disappear absolutely’.
Cyarro was staring intently into Erskine’s eye lenses as he spoke, desperately trying to make a connection, to find some leverage to sway the captain to his side.
The lenses gave nothing back, remaining stubbornly flat and cold and dead. With the tiniest shake of his head, Erskine rejected the Inquisitor’s impassioned plea.
‘Thank you for the information. I see now why you felt compelled to deliver it personally. Rest assured, the Archive will remain safe … I’d wager that any protection you can provide for it would fall short of an entire Chapter of the Emperor’s own Astartes. None shall wrest it from the stewardship of the Relictors’.
Cyarro’s jaw clamped shut and his mask of bonhomie slipped fractionally, a glimpse of a predator in the dark ocean depths.
‘Captain’. His tone was flint-edged, a barely-checked threat. ‘I’m sorry to observe that you appear to be on the verge of making a catastrophically poor judgement call. You must
entrust the Archive into my care’.
Erskine stood firm, relaxed and with open, empty hands. Combat drugs began to sluice into his system, lending a brittle sharpness to his perception and ramping up his already formidable martial reflexes into overdrive. The effort to remain externally calm under such overwhelming stimulus was colossal and his nervous system screamed, ablaze with cold fire.
‘Last warning, captain’. The voice seemed to come from a long way away. ‘I have a dozen kill-teams secreted within this bay. All locked on to you. Hand it over and walk away’.
Erskine snorted with derision, jabbing a finger towards Cyarro.
ten teams at best. I doubt they’ll be of any use to you any more’.
‘So be it …’ murmured the Inquisitor, sending out a pulsed kill-order.
Erskine was trembling by this point, his last vestiges of control almost completely washed away by the narcotic rage roaring inside him.
Cyarro re-sent the code, his edge of assurance crumbling as, again, nothing happened.
‘It would seem your kill-teams have been swept from the board. I would advise you
to walk away, Inquisitor’.
‘Impossible!’ spat Cyarro, ‘My men have had two weeks to lose themselves within this forsaken hulk!’
‘And my Scouts have had two days to find them. You have severely underestimated us’. Erskine’s growl rose to a roar and he took a half-step forwards, looking to force a reaction.
Cyarro did not disappoint. He stepped back as the two Cult Assassins flowed into action, salmon-leaping towards Erskine whilst unsheathing their glittering, deadly power swords. Even among their own kind, these two were counted as unnaturally fast, agile and deadly.
Erskine was no slouch himself. With drug-amplified transhuman speed, he drew and fired his plasma pistol, diving to his side even as the ball of superheated energy struck one of the tumbling Assassins full in the chest, smashing him from the air in a ragdolling, gory ruin.
The second Assassin slammed into the space Erskine had just vacated, recovering and correcting so that his sword flickered out, snake-like, to strike at the Relictor. Erskine parried the blow with his right forearm as he rolled to his feet, baring his teeth in pain as the energised blade cut easily through layers of armour and into his arm. The pistol spun from his suddenly nerveless grip and skittered across the floor, out of reach.
The captain cross-drew his own blade, thumbing the actuator rune as he took up a guard position. Its energy field shone a cold, hard blue, a beacon of purity and purpose to ward off the darkness of the treachery besetting him.
They circled one another for a moment, practised eyes alert for any signs of weakness in the other. Erskine shot a risky glance off to the side, to see Cyarro hesitating, torn between the urge to flee and his absolute need to possess the Archive. He was effectively neutralised by indecision, a small part of his brain noted absently.
The Assassin spotted the fractional shift in Erskine’s facing and saw an opportunity to act. He dived forwards, rolling and preparing to spring up and underneath his opponent’s guard, ending the fight with a single devastating thrust. It was a textbook manoeuvre to use against a distracted opponent.
And one that Erskine had been expecting. As the Assassin came in low, he brought back his right boot and delivered a brutal, bone-shattering kick which connected square under the chin.
The Assassin’s body slewed to a tangled, crumpled stop whilst his head described a perfect parabolic arc through the air, landing with a wet thump at Cyarro’s feet.
Scooping up his fallen pistol, Erskine strode towards the Inquisitor. He balled his right fist as he advanced, his Astartes recuperative powers already making good the damage done by the sword wound.
Wisely, Cyarro froze, his palms up and in plain sight. He had played his last card and seen it trumped. His destiny was, for now at least, out of his control. The thought terrified him.
Erskine sagged a little inside his armour, suffering the physical crash which was an inevitable consequence of overdosing on combat stims. In his own ears, his voice shook, although the armour’s vox filtered out that particular weakness, hiding it under a gravel snarl.
‘You have lied to us, Inquisitor. You have lied to me
. Everything that you have done has been to bring this moment about, to take possession of this accursed Archive. You are no more a follower of the True Faith than I am an eldar.’
He clamped his jaw shut and swallowed hard, afraid lest his anger overwhelm his reason.
‘You set us up
, my Company, my Chapter, to do the dirty work of retrieving this thing for you. Nothing in this whole grand game could possibly carry any whisper of your involvement, could it?
‘You’ve known the location of the Archive all along, haven’t you? The hints, the whispers, the missions I’ve risked good men on, all so you‘d have nothing that tracked back to your door once the Ordo Malleus came calling’.
Cyarro’s voice was a barely-controlled whisper. ‘Those fools in the Malleus were afraid to use it, to unlock its full potential. In the right hands – in my hands –it can become a thing of wonder, a power unrivalled in the Imperium’.
Erskine loomed over the other man, an eerie calmness about him. ‘I should kill you here and now. You serve no greater power than yourself. At least, not wittingly’.
‘But I will stay my hand. I will leave you for now, in the shattered ruins of your elaborate plots, to reflect upon your folly and lack of faith’.
Cyarro let out the breath that he’d been holding for a fleeting eternity as the giant Astartes turned his back on him and headed towards the exit from the cavernous chamber. Contingency plans were beginning to piece themselves together in his head, angles to help him regain the initiative and get his hands on the Diomedes Archive. The Relictors would need to be extinguished, of course; with their track history, it wouldn’t be too difficult to be granted sanction to turn the Grey Knights loose on them. Those animals would leave nothing alive which could possibly implicate him …
It took him a moment to realise that Erskine had halted. The captain turned to face him, twenty feet distant, and cocked his head to one side.
‘That’s probably enough reflection, Inquisitor’.
The howl of the plasma pistol drowned out Cyarro’s scream of protest a millisecond before the shot ended his life.
Once back on board the Affirmation of Faith
, Erskine wasted no time in heading straight for the strategium. Steltz saluted as he entered, shunting tacticus primaris command across to him without saying a word.
The captain took a second to absorb and prioritise the myriad datastreams washing over him then asked, ‘Did Lendahl’s team finish their work in the Inquisitor’s shuttle?’
Steltz nodded. ‘Aye, my lord. The shuttle has, to all intents and purposes, performed an emergency automated recall to his ship’. He gestured at the hololithic display before them both; it showed a real-time map of local space within the system, with glowing dots indicating the relative positions of the shuttlecraft and the Inquisitor’s vessel. The dots moved closer together as they watched, merging into one larger dot which abruptly winked out.
‘Explosion detected. Approximately sixteen megatonnes’, reported Steltz impassively. ‘I believe that’s the last loose end tied up, my lord’.
Erskine turned to regard him, a pensive look on his face. ‘For all our sakes, I hope so’.