A Breath Of Fresh Air

‘Thou shalt not defile this church of thine Emperor!’ I shout. Not so intimidating when that church is a barely-held-together collection of metal plating, and the quartet of would-be defilers are encased in dark green armoured bodysuits, but as the teachings tell: a missionary should always endeavour to defend their converts and their place of worship.

‘You don’t get to come down here and threaten us with your fancy words, uphiver, or offworlder, or whatever you are,’ the leader of the gang snarls, female voice pitched high through her helm’s speakers.  ‘And you definitely don’t get to set up a temple in the territory of Fatal Exception.’

Well, good to put a name to a criminal enterprise sure to be making my life Hell in the foreseeable future. The two-dozen or so townsfolk crammed into the makeshift pews are silent, but I feel their eyes swing from the Spider to me, looking for a bold reply from their priest. I raise my empty hands, trying my best to smile through the fear of those las-carbines.

‘This is no challenge to thine control of this territory, friends. This building merely serves as a place for the fine folk of Foursprings to gather, sharing their faith in the Emperor. Its purpose is but to offer a sanctuary of hope and comfort.’

‘Foursprings don’t need some outsider for that, preacher. Folks was doing just fine under our own ministrations.’

‘Ah. Were I but to introduce myself, perhaps we two could come to an understanding? I am Father Donativum, and I bear a licence with the seal of Lord Helmawr himself which-‘

A deafening las-blast into the ceiling cuts me off. ‘That may fly uphive, but down here it means less than slag.  In the absence of any officially sanctioned Guild watchmen, Fatal Exception are the law around these parts. And I for one have no record of you acquiring a permit from us about this here preaching house.  Maybe you have it there, Tortin?’

One of her identical, faceless underlings shrugs as he replies, static fuzzing his words. ‘That I do not, Ildico.’

‘If it be money thou want, I can-‘

A click and a hiss, and the six-eyed mask covering Ildico’s face opens, metal plating retracting toward the back of her skull to reveal a long and limp, hairless face. Weak blue eyes stare at me from deep sockets as she speaks, voice scratchy without its helm speakers..

‘This ain’t about creds. You? Doing this, setting up this whole charade?  It’s just gonna bring the wrong sort of attention to this town. If it were up to me, I’d let you do whatever the Sump you please in here, but I gotta look after these people, when they don’t know what’s best for themselves. There are folks a whole lot less forgiving than me out there who’d fall over each other in an effort to burn this place to the ground.’

‘Look, Miss Ildico, this may not look like much right now,’ I try, ‘but this is just a beginning. This community can only grow and improve with every effort put into its betterment.  At its heart lies a relic of sacred Terra itself, which should earn thy respect if nothing else.’

Ildico rolls her eyes briefly before her helmet bites back into place. ‘I don’t care if you’ve got the Emperor Himself hanging out back there, you’re not staying. And seeing as how you’re not set on leaving peaceably, I guess we’re going to have to make a martyr of you too.’

On cue, all four las-carbines rise and point at me, and the townsfolk vent their own gasps, prayers and screams. I can’t make a noise myself, too busy controlling the urge to turn and run. A missionary never knows when the Emperor will need them to lay down their life in His name, but I had rather hoped it would be a few more years down the line.

‘You leave the priest be,’ grunts a deep voice. The aims of the Fatal Exception waver, two of them jerking across to cover the woman in a long coat rising from her seat.

Tall and robust, she’s a stark contrast to Ildico’s unhealthy features, but not familiar, not one of the townsfolk I’ve spent the past week getting to know. Her garb is travel-worn and well-patched, a matching hat clenched in one fist while her other holds down the shoulder of whoever sits next to her.  ‘You leave the priest be, and let these folks go about their business.’

Brave words, but she hasn’t even drawn a weapon. Ildico doesn’t so much as glance her way, confident in numbers, in firepower over bluster.  I wonder, would she be as brave as this stranger, without her goons? 

The two that have their guns pointed at the woman lower them, and Tortin pipes up again. ‘Ildico, I think that’s Spider-Eats-Rat.’

‘I know it is! And… Fine! We’ll get going. We got no cause to go starting feuds here.’ Ildico backs away, her underlings already tramping toward the broken doors. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though. They’ll be coming, and all the faith in the hive ain’t gonna stop them from smashing that relic of yours.’

As the last of the Fatal Exception gangers leaves, the crowd lets out its collective breath only a second before I do. I approach the woman – this Spider-Eats-Rat? – as she’s cramming her hat onto her head.  ‘My thanks to thee for standing in my defence. Art thou new in town?  If so, perhaps thou might consider aiding us in whatever trouble is to follow..?’

Spider turns to me, and seeing her front on I can appreciate the array of guns and knives in her belts that gave pause to the Fatal Exception, a pristine bolter in pride of place. She tips her hat as she pulls her colleague to her feet, a slighter woman with a bruised cheek, manacles clanking. ‘We’ve got places to be. Next caravan hits town, we’re outta this pit.’

‘Then there must be some other way in which I can repay thee?’

Lurching into the aisle, Spider’s now-free hand snares the iron collection tray from across the way, upending its scattered credits into a coat pocket. ‘Reckon that about makes us even. Still, you’re right about that trouble that’s following, and you’d be well to prepare before the Saints hit town.’

Before I can ask what she means, she’s stomping out, the other woman following slowly in her wake. As she goes, the prisoner smiles at me, offering a few words: ‘Me, I’d love to stay! Never even got to make my confession to ya!’

And with the strange pair departed after the gangers, the townsfolk turn back to me, as if I could smoothly resume my sermon after all that. 

‘Well, mayhap ’tis time for us to consider silent contemplation of our gratitude for our lives lived thus far, and reflect ‘pon the nature of sacrifice…’

‘We’ve gotta do something about that accent of yours,’ Ilsar Gripe tells me, sliding a bottle of Second Best down the bar to the patron at its end.

‘What dost thou mean by that?’ I ask, and Ilsar merely raises her thick eyebrows to Robigus at my side.  ‘What?’

‘It just sets the wrong first impression,’ Robigus offers, turning and leaning casually against the rusted bar, imminent destruction of the town not a worry. I suppose if I’d survived seventeen tours with the Necromunda CVI, I might have gained a similar calm. A similar collection of facial mutilations as well, no doubt. He scratches at the burns around his bionic eye before continuing. ‘I seen it with the offworld commissars they sent to tend to the troops. They think a fancy accent of breeding and education is all you need to be a commander of men. And sure, it comes in handy during the rousing speeches, but the rest of the time the soldiers under them just think they’re jackasses.’

‘Thou art saying that I am a jackass?’

‘No, no, I was just saying how you give damn fine sermons. Damn fine.  Pretty words are no good for arguing with the Fatal Exception, though.’

‘I’m the only one here that knows not who they are, yes?’

Ilsar leans forward, favouring me with a metal-toothed grin. ‘They’re a gang from House Van Saar.’

‘Ah, now that name is much more familiar!’ The initial briefing sermon had been very thorough in detailing the various High and Clan Houses of Necromunda, as if my duties were to involve fraternising with their higher echelons, instead of slopping through their waste several miles below. House Van Saar being a tech-household, closely tied to the Cult Mechanicus, surely explained their high quality battledress.

Ilsar had paused at my interruption, shoulders slumped and eyebrows raised. Metal teeth grind away in her mouth. ‘Forgive me,’ I say, fishing for a cred token, ‘I meant to ask thee for a bottle of WildSnake.’

The pricey bottle rattles down onto the bar before me, and I hold it glumly, a vow of abstinence making it worthless. Still, Ilsar resumes her tale happily enough. ‘They and the town go way back, coming to Foursprings back when it actually had four springs! They drove off any effort at the town raising its own militia, since the settlers’ crummy stub guns were no match for all their mil-spec firepower. Warp, they’re the cause of the Bolt-Hole getting its name!’

We all look to the crater that dominates the back wall, a proud scar in the Underhive. As if she’d timed it, another section of the roof clangs to the ground at that moment. Town legend has it that one day this whole structure will collapse on account of that damage, and when the bar falls, so falls the town. That’s how Ilsar tells it, anyway.

‘It ain’t so big a deal,’ Robigus mutters. ‘You only went for the name because Gripe’s Hole would’ve driven away all your customers!’

I let the silence around us settle for a moment, but Ilsar leaves the statement unchallenged, picking up  as if Robigus hadn’t spoken. ‘We call ’em Fex. We would have told you about them earlier, Father, but it’s been some time since they last passed through to collect their dues.  They don’t normally cause no fuss, but it’s still creepy to have them and their pasty, flaky faces around here.  Never know what rad-poisons they may be bringing with ’em!”

‘Yeah, wouldn’t want to lose your good looks now, would we?’ laughed Robigus. This time, Ilsar does turn to scowl at him, but I interrupt any potential argument.

‘So, these… Fex might genuinely have been here to spread a warning about whatever iconoclasts seek to defile the church?’

‘Don’t know about no ‘Iconoclasts’, but chances are it’s the Saints that’ve got ’em scared,’ Robigus offers.

‘That’s short for “Saints-To-Be”,’ Ilsar clarifies.

‘Which itself is only short for “Saints-To-Be-Chosen-By-Our-Merciful-Emperor”,’ he snaps back, ‘which in turn probably has an even longer version. Those religious types do so like to go on and on, after all.  No offence.’

‘None taken. Religious, thou sayest?  Then why wouldst they wish me harm?’

‘These House Cawdor types, they ain’t religious in the way you are, Father. They ain’t looking to bring the community together in praise of Him On Earth, so much as get to burning all the “heretics” that disagree with their beliefs.’

‘And they got them some pretty weird beliefs,’ Ilsar says, before turning to another customer.

‘They’re so scav-poor, anyone better off than them must have made a deal with a daemon to end up so, that sort of thing. No way they’ll have any truck with a church preaching anything other than their brand of hatred, let alone one with some false idol of a relic.’

‘The Breath of the Emperor is far from a false-‘

Robigus raises his hands. ‘Their views, Father, not mine. And you’ll not convince ’em otherwise, not with them already starting off hating you with your rich clothes and your richer words, showing them up in their rags and rat-bones.’

‘So the Fex are scared of the Saints, and fear that they’ll come to town just to get me.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t say the word ‘fear’ to the face of any of those Fex, but the Saints coming to town could be disastrous.’

The moment he finishes, an explosion blasts in from the street, rattling the swing-doors of the Bolt Hole with its force, carrying with it a heavy smell of smoke, of fire. There are whooping cheers in its wake, and while Ilsar ducks behind the bar and the other customers seek what shelter they can, Robigus is heading out, toward the commotion. I follow him into a warzone.

Foursprings has never been a big town, and it seems even smaller now, the dozen or so scrap-built buildings that cluster the town square lit by a fire that smokes up higher than their most ambitious second storey. The flames rush from large, square holes in the sides of a flaking metal box, and when I see the staggering bearer-servitors tangled in their burning harnesses I realise that it had been a caravan wagon.

The four servitors are hosed with fire themselves, a hooded man giggling as he plays his flamer’s nozzle across the exposed skin of their cyborg frames, moving between them as they start or stop moving. Behind him, seven more figures in patched leather coveralls – all masked similarly – cheer him on, though they quickly shush as the tallest of them makes a cutting motion with his arm.

He’s tallest by dint of the mask he wears, which not only points a hooked nose at me, but rises a foot or so in height in crude imitation of an Imperial bishop’s mitre, melded from bones and broken cogs. ‘The idolator arrives!’ he proclaims, spreading his arms wide, his followers hissing as they cradle their guns. “Now is the moment of your judgement, and with you this whole benighted township!”

There will always be resistance to a missionary’s efforts, the lessons say.  Robigus makes to step in front of me, but I move first, channelling the Emperor’s confidence even as once-human meat cooks before me. A quick clearing of the throat and I speak, picturing the confines of a church rather than a vision of Hell around me.

‘There is no further need for violence this day, brothers! Are we not all united in our faith, in our love of the Emperor?’

‘Looks more like you got more of a love of the bottle!’ jeers a Saint, and as his comrades laugh with him, I remember the Wild Snake still in my hand. Damn.

‘I won’t stand idly by and let you lead these poor folks from the path of Redemption!’ the leader continues, his voice rolling from the buildings around us like that of a well-practiced drill-abbot’s. ‘Even if I have to burn every one of them alive, I will save their immortal souls from your wicked ways!’

‘There is no need for that!’ My voice seems awfully weak compared to his, failing to crack only through some miracle. ‘Truly! I have been here but a week, unable to impress mine influence ‘pon their minds.’ It’s not a lie. ‘Please, spare these innocents!’

‘I reckon I could see my way ’round to some mercy for these wretched sinners… Maybe flogging and branding will learn ’em not to allow an ash-viper like yourself into their midst. But you, you high-tongued daemon?’ He stands, rocking on the spot with a finger extended directly at me, as if he’s forgotten what he was going to say, ‘YOU MUST BURN!’

‘As thou sayest, friend. Yet, wouldst  thou not have the township entire witness my death? With a goodly portion out gathering the crop this day, ‘twould be a poor audience tonight.’

The Saint casts his eyes around at the sorry crowd. Beside those cowering in the Bolt Hole, only an unlucky few caught on the street at the time of the attack stand in sight, frozen while numerous others peek through gaps in their shanties.  Robigus stands at my shoulder, unclenching his fists.

‘Very well! Three hours past rising tomorrow, we shall return, and House Cawdor shall save the souls of Foursprings! Such is the promise of Makrius, Saint-To-Be! And we shall bring the roaster of reprobates when we do!’

‘The roaster! The roaster!’ The flamer-toting ganger giggles and capers at the thought.

He is the last to leave as the rest of the Saints depart into the darkness at the edge of their destructive bonfire, jetting one final flame burst into the gore-smeared heap of servitors I sag, but Robigus catches me. ‘I reckon that went better than expected,’ he opines. ‘Tonight might be a good time for you to take up drinking.’

Sneering at the bottle of Wild Snake in my hand, I look to the church. ‘I have one hope yet afore I drop myself in that particular damnation.’

When the time came for each of the eager young novices of the Missionarus Galaxia to be assigned their first post-ordination territory, we were informed as well as the highest of Imperial servants. Most potential sites were feral worlds, with much attention given over to the natural predators that threatened the primitive humans there, and what natural forces they had taken to worshipping. Those featuring the marginally more advanced feudal worlds went into great political depth, the warring factions explained, along with which religious figures could be adapted after the fact as Imperial saints.

Somehow, the description of Necromunda, one of the oldest planets of the Imperium with millennia of history and a rugged industrial culture, managed to outdo them all for savagery.

Images of emaciated children with spiders laying eggs in their eyes even as their picts were recorded, tales of warlords seizing power over swathes of the Underhive with force of arms, and a dismal fifteen-percent literacy rate amongst the greater workforce.  Nowhere to my mind seemed more in need of the Emperor’s teachings to save them from despair.

As I look out over the faces of the townsfolk gathered before me, I still feel that need to save them. A well-established group of fifth generation fungus-farmers, the people of Foursprings may be fairly well-to-do by the standards of the Underhive, with a steady food supply, medical knowledge from resident Doc Motto and a location well-away from most beasts’ hunting grounds.

Yet still the shadow of war hangs over them, brutal gang belligerence from outsiders who would seek to profit from the hard work of others at the point of a gun. I grip tightly to the oil-drum lectern as I think back to the truths taught to me in the Schola Progenium, the best ways in which humanity might protect itself from the ravages of battle.

‘We must fight!’ I announce, and the faces before me pale, many gasping as I roll on to the next stage. ‘For too long hath the Fex come and gone as they pleased, dictating rules to thee for thee to follow without question!  And now the Saints would impose their own will upon thee as well, declaring that they doth know what is best for a community they are not a part of! But we shall show them our true mettle, show them that we will not be cowed, show them the strength known by true servants of the Emperor!’

Without singling anyone out, I allow a finger to drift across the crowd, taking in each face as they intone their own ‘Praise be to Him’. ‘They think thee weak! They think thee unable to defend thyselves, but we shall prove them wrong! For as our divine Emperor fought back the darkness, so too shall we!’

‘Praise be to Him,’ they chant again.

My final flourish: to draw forth the holy relic itself, an unassuming flask of standard Imperial design, only its unique filigree of cherubic faces exhaling clouds marking it apart. ‘In my hand I hold a vial of air from Holy Terra itself, precious gas that may well have been breathed by the Emperor Himself!’

‘Praise be to Him’ is whispered now with awe, not just by rote.

‘We would fight not only to defend this town and its people, but also this relic of Humanity itself, more valuable than all of us weighed together.

‘Now, who is with me?’

The resounding cheers I had expected do not come. Robigus, leaning against the doorway, shrugs, but it is Doc Motto, rising from his place on his metal cane, that explains. ‘We are not fighters, Father. That is the reason we came here, to get away from the conflicts further uphive. None of us has fired a weapon in anger for years. Even if we had, we have no guns! Do you expect us to fight off these madmen with our fists and fungus-hooks?’

‘Well, I had hoped…’

‘We like you Father, we genuinely do, but it’s not like things were bad before you arrived. If the Saints kill you and move on, and the Fex resume business as usual, Foursprings would survive. Given yesterday’s sermon on the spirit of sacrifice, wouldn’t that be the right course for you to take?’

I have no words to answer his kindly, aged face, and see many of the townsfolk nodding in agreement with him. Perhaps it is still too soon to expect them to unite behind me, before I’ve had time to properly prime their minds. A missionary’s greatest ally is patience, after all.

‘We’ll do a shrine for you,’ someone pipes up from the crowd. ‘A proper martyr-memory for you. You won’t be forgotten, no worry!’

Again, I’d like to hope for a few more years before martyrdom became a career option. ‘And in this thou art all agreed?’

There is a muttered chorus of apologies and well-wishes, but the townsfolk one by one stand to leave me. The young look away, the old offer smiles of condolence, but none has any words for me. Seems today would not encompass quite the grand fight I had envisioned. Where had I put that bottle of Wild Snake?

‘I’m still with ya, Father,’ Robigus offers. ‘I got a few guns stashed, we can make a fight of it. I’ll be damned if the last of the Necromunda CVI lets someone die alone and unremembered.’

‘No, no, if I am to die, there is no value in having thou by my side,’ I sigh, sitting on the floor. ‘The two of us could no more hold off the Saints than I could convince a group of scared farmers to die in His name.’

‘Might be I could help you out,’ Spider-Eats-Rat says, strolling into the church, surly companion still leashed to her belt.

‘I have no ready credit with which to pay.’

‘I reckon I could waive the fee for the present. May well be rich pickings off them Saints once we’re done killing ’em.’

‘Give me a gun! I can kill ’em right alongside you!’ shrieks the manacled woman.

‘Hush now, Leddi; that poster didn’t say nothing about bringing you in with your tongue attached.’

Seeing me and Robigus exchange glances, Spider explains. ‘This here’s “Bad Trails” Letti.’ As her captor speaks, the prisoner sits on the floor, dirty, manacled, malnourished yet with the casual confidence of a hive lord. “Made a living guiding green hiver settlers to their doom: nests of ripperjacks, quake junctions, gunk outflow, the works. Picked over their remains to enrich herself. Enough survived to put together a decent bounty.”

‘That’s why you always go with a Ratskin for a guide,’ Robigus says.  ‘You may not wear the pelts Spider, but you certainly got that wild look about you.’

Spider has laid Robigus on the floor with a right hook before I can breathe, and he rubs at his jaw as I rise to my feet. ‘I lost the right to the skins when the tribe cast me out, born as I was under such ill omen.  But I will still not have you judge them.’

I keep my mouth shut: best not explain how I had been told that the Ratskins of the Necromundan Underhive are ignorant animists in desperate need of education. Last thing I need is another enemy right now. Taming the savages can wait until after the life-or-death battle.

‘Still,’ Spider shrugs, offering a hand to help Robigus to his feet, ‘Leddi can have a stub gun tomorrow morning. Four shooters is better than three.’

‘Thank thee for assisting us in our hour of need!’ I gush. ‘Truly the Emperor has sent thee both as a sign of His trust in me!’

Spider spits onto the floor of the church. ‘Hey, don’t get crazy on me now, Father. I’m only sticking around for now because the Saints just destroyed the last caravan outta town.’

Throne help me, should Robigus tell me one more time that ‘the waiting is the worst part’, I may start the shooting early. The Emperor will not judge me for it.

We’re crouched down atop the Bolt-Hole, ruined chem-pipeline all that keeps us from being seen from the street. In addition to the las-weapons we hold, he also managed to dig up his old Guard uniform – ‘Still fits!’ – and the jagged greys and blacks cover his body like spiderwebs.

Below us, the caravan wreck is gone, leaving a wide, empty space: the townsfolk contributed that much seeing as how they’d be needing the town clean whichever way this fight ended. Spider had constructed a small platform of scrap in its place, reasoning that the Saints wouldn’t be able to resist posturing on a stage when they arrived. She and Leddi are in the church now, probably as calm as Robigus, if not enjoying it quite so much.

‘Now, when they arrive, the important thing to remember is that the trigger-‘

‘I have fired a lasgun before,’ I tell him. ‘A missionary must learn all the arts of the Emperor.’

‘Maybe you will fit in here after all, Father.’

Rolling hymns presage the Saints’ arrival, enthusiastic but tuneless.  The words aren’t right, substitutions made in aid of rhyming verses defacing the beauty of the originals’ symbolism. Do these fools even know the meaning of their ditties?

I chance a glance, and see the mob descending the beaten trail into town, spreading out around the square, some gesturing wildly in time with the music, one banging a pot with a pipe, and Makrius himself leading the singing from a tattered book. Each one bears weapons, mainly shotguns and crude automatics, but plenty of vicious blades and bludgeons for close up work.

The loudest singer of all is the giggling Saint from yesterday, now dragging along a much heavier flamer, its hoses and tanks requiring a second Saint to serve as a bearer, all but crushed beneath the weight.  His voice is high in pitch as well as volume, and he punctuates the words with spurts of fire into the air.  The same fire that these idiots are planning to burn me with. As if they have the right to judge me. These fools, spitting out their garbled children’s rhymes.

Standing up, I put a fully-charged lasbolt into the tank of the heavy flamer. The explosion engulfs the foremost Saint and his tank-bearer and puts an immediate end to the singing. Instead the invaders scramble for whatever cover they can find as Makrius drops his hymn-sheet.

‘Thus are heretics scoured from the sight of the Emperor!’ I shout down.  The burning flesh wafting up in the thick cloud doesn’t smell too dissimilar to that of the servitors before.

Robigus drags me down, and solid shots begin smashing into our fragile shelter. Makrius might be shouting something, but the cacophony of his followers’ gunfire drowns it out.  Bellowing in my ear, Robigus is all too clear: ‘I thought you were going to try talking them down, first?’

‘There can be no tolerance for such as they. The Emperor insists on their deaths.’

‘Throne, now you sound like a damned commissar! Couldn’t you at least have stayed hidden? I don’t know that we can get out of here with an entire underhive gang concentrating fire on us.’ For emphasis, a bullet penetrates the piping, zipping between the two of us into the distance.

‘Have faith. This is why we have the bounty hunter backing us up.’

A scream, and our pipe stops growing holes quite so quickly. The rattle of Cawdor autoguns is punctuated by louder blasts, and the distinctive eructation of bolter shells tearing humans asunder.

‘Okay,’ Robigus says. ‘Okay. We have a chance. So, on three, let’s get out of this kill zone.’

Then he rises, tossing a fist-sized canister down below. Smoke billows up from the impact, and he taps my shoulder before scrambling away, boots ringing off the corrugated iron. Clutching my lasgun close, I stumble up and run, desperate to be anywhere but here, bullets still punching through the pipe, and the building at my feet.

‘Your perfidy will not go unpunished!’ Makrius’ voice calls from within the smoke. 

I’m impressed; I hadn’t thought he’d know a word like ‘perfidy’. Bolter rounds blast in time with my pounding boots as I discover a few of the more recent bullet holes.

My foot catches, my leg jerks, my sprint stops: I fall and drop off the roof. My flailing arm catches on something jagged, ripping cloth and skin, jerking my shoulder before my robe tears fully, smiting me to the ground. It would be nice to imagine the Emperor reaching out to slow my fall, but as I lie here on my back I can only groan as I witness the truth of matters.

Above me, blood-soaked scraps of my vestments hang from the jagged edges of the Bolt Hole’s namesake. I sit up to feel at the bare skin of my left forearm, tender and bleeding.  Still, better that than my spine on the hive’s unforgiving metal ground.  At least I can still stand.

As I do, a man runs from the smoke.  Tears flood the eyeholes of his terror mask, but the axe raised above his head looks very sharp. I stumble back against the wall and his slash misses, but a lasgun is difficult to aim one-armed. Even as I strain to bring it to bear, he crashes bodily into me, grunting and spitting, words failing him.

‘Back, thou miscreant!’ I command, but he’s heavier than he looks. I earn a headbutt for my troubles, tears of my own almost blinding me, only the glint of the axe’s edge catching my eye.

‘The Emperor hates your idolatrous ways,’ he sneers, bunching my robe in his free hand to hold me steady for the chop. 

‘Then let me pray for forgiveness, on my knees before Him! Allow me to seek redemption!’

‘Sure,’ he sniggers. ‘On your knees, it’ll be easier to take your head off. A right proper execution.’ That hand gripping me presses me downward, and I comply. ‘Maybe I’ll keep your skull as a souvenir, eh?’

Were I not already convinced of his deviancy, that comment would have proven it. ‘Get on with it!’ he snarls, fondling his axe in both hands, ready to raise it above his head. ‘Say your prayers!’

‘Emperor, may thou guide my aim,’ I intone. It’s much easier to one-hand a lasgun from a kneeling position, putting a satisfying shot through his chin, splattering the insides of his skull through the holes of his mask.

My breathing calms as I drop the gun, taking the axe instead. Killing a man in fire at a distance is one thing, but this…

The church is to the left; I can hear Spider’s bolter blasting. Through air still choked with smoke – as much from the flamer and the constant gunfire as from Robigus’ grenade – I lurch toward it. The shadows of Saints stride through the smoke, their shots sounding puny in contrast. The cold barrel remains fearsome as it presses against my skull, however.

‘Bang,’ a voice breathes. ‘Coulda killed you, priest.’

Leddi steps around in front of me, free hand scratching at the wrist-scabs where her manacles had been.  ‘Them out here will kill you, so let’s get inside. That soldier-boy about anywhere?’

‘I… I don’t know.’

‘Just the three of us, then. Don’t know how much longer she can hold the fort alone, right?’

‘Thank thou for this,’ I say as Leddi takes my shoulder, guiding me back.  ‘Thou risk much venturing out for me.’

‘Not much of a risk when they’re all dead out there,’ Spider tells me, sliding photo-goggles up onto her forehead. Leddi helps me onto a pew and the bounty hunter reloads.  ‘These Cawdor inbreds never seem to learn not to rush into an open space to get gunned down.’

‘In a better cause, their devotion would be admirable.’

‘Yeah, the Imperial Creed does so love its fanatical cannon fodder, doesn’t it?’ Spider leans back against the wall, uncaring of the greasy moulds. ‘That why they sent you down here, Father? Get the Necromundans clamouring to join some big crusade, out there?’

‘Thy cynicism is unwarranted. I have no goals for this community beyond helping it remember what it owes the Emperor. Thou must feel some similar compunction, to remain here and fight the Saints with no promise of material reward.’

‘Yeah, you Emperor-bothering softie, you!’ Leddi adds.

Spider frowns and steps toward her prisoner, just avoiding being caught as the metal behind her crumples and folds, churning and brattling steel teeth thrusting through a newmade opening.

The standard grox-gutting ‘eviscerator’ chainsaw is designed to cut apart flesh, and now I see the ingenuity of the Necromundans as it carves through a solid wall in the hands of an obscenely muscled madman in a mask, a second mass of Cawdor on the other side behind him. The mob rushes forward, slicing their own flesh on the jagged edges of the gash in their rush. The first through takes a bolter round to the face, further washing his fellows in blood.

It enrages rather than discourages the charge, zealots raging to tear the ratskin apart. Spider stumbles as she backs into a seat, and her second shot takes the eviscerator bearer in the knee. He falls, the weapon tearing into the packed crowd.

‘Hey, don’t look away, Father,’ Leddi says. ‘Don’t you want to see the heretics get splattered all over the walls of your church?’

‘You will be the one getting to clean up this mess, after all,’ Spider grunts, lurching upright and approaching the tangled mass of severed limbs. ‘Don’t suppose there’s much left here to claim a bounty on any of these fellas.’

‘The bounty of sin is death!’ Makrius leaps over the gore, landing on Spider and sending the bolter clattering. He alone, of all those deluded fools, lives to fight on. It’s not even as if he lead them to their deaths, unless one can lead from behind a safe bastion of loyal underlings. Just as Leddi sees the Imperial Creed itself.

‘Craven cowardice is the only sin I see here!’ Before I know it, my legs have propelled me forward, the axe swinging down on the Saint’s arm.  One of his knives drops from shocked fingers, the other slashing to keep Spider back. But he can’t fight both of us; soon victory will be in our grasp, this Redemptionist facing his true, deserved retribution!

A gun tolls, louder than our hurried breaths, louder than the gooey grumbling of the clogged eviscerator: Spider drops beside me, shot through the back of her coat.

‘I’ll be taking that shiny relic before I go, Father,’ Leddi shouts from behind me, while Makrius rallies to my front, both no doubt grinning with a similar feeling of triumph.  ‘I’m leaving you alive in thanks, but that bounty hunter can go melt in the Sump!’

Makrius stabs at me, robbing me of a chance to lambaste the treacherous fugitive. With both of us favouring one arm, jabbing or cutting where we can as we slowly bleed out, what we each would have idealised as a duel with an enemy of our faith amounts to an embarrassment. I chop, too slowly, and he steps aside, lunging upward with a knife that I let pierce an empty length of robe.

Spider growls from the ground, pushing herself upright. ‘Just… kill him!’ Still alive, she crawls toward her fallen bolter. Makrius sees this, steps himself toward the weapon in its holster of Cawdor innards.

I follow, Makrius and I grabbing for the gun as one, our knife and axe dropped and forgotten while we strip away the last of our dignity in the dirt. We kick, we gouge, we each grimace at our wounds agitating.  ‘Redemption!’ he gasps. ‘I shall absolve you… in your blood!’

A surge of strength and he kicks at me while his arm pulls. I roll back with a choking gasp, while he barks in triumph, the bolter his as he slides free…

…into the still-chugging teeth of the eviscerator.

As Makrius bodily impales himself, the hungry tool finally clogs itself on his bones, whining to silence as the preacher’s own scream dies. 

‘Well, that’s done,’ Spider says.  ‘Help me up and-‘

I ignore her, walking toward the back room and its ill-fitting door.  ‘Leddi is not taking the Breath.’

Ratskin curses follow me as I enter the reliquary, a fancy name for a mouldy storeroom of boxes where my missionary supplies dwindle day-cycle by day-cycle. Of heavy duty Imperial design, ordinarily I’d require aid to move a single crate.  Now, their grey bulk has been displaced, forced aside from where a trap door has been opened from below. They are scattered in the shadows around a sprawled Leddi, whose scalp bleeds from falling against a crate’s corner. The figure standing over her is spider-spindly even in the rugged green bodysuit.  The glow from the helmet’s eyes glitters off the glass edges of the vial of the Emperor’s Breath in the figure’s hand.

‘Give that to me,’ I instruct this newcomer, and the helmet snaps into focus on me.

‘No,’ Ildico’s helmet speakers screech. ‘I won’t. This scummer tried to take it from me, and I’m not above killing a man of the cloth, Father.’

‘Just to get a relic that thou sneerest at? You think to get rich from the Emperor’s works?’

Her helmet peels back, and she stares at me from within her sunken face. ‘I may not come crawling to your church to pray, but I believe in the Emperor’s power. All our Van Saar archaeotech has done nothing to halt the rad-phage that kills so many of us. Where’s the harm in trying a little divine intervention?’

She raises the bottle toward her face, ready to remove its purity seal.  ‘Thou wouldst breathe in the sacred air of Terra, tainting it forever with thy disease! Thou wouldst defile it!’

‘And “thou” can’t stop me. No gun, with a broken arm and here’s me in my suit. Just sit there and watch me inhale this cure-all. You could very well be witnessing a miracle.’

Her hand settles around the neck, ready to pop the vial open, and I raise a bottle of my own.  Miraculously not shattered through all the fighting, the Wild Snake crunches satisfyingly into the Fex’s skull. No doubt weak from her disease, she folds at a single blow, dropping the relic. 

I grasp for it, but the fingers of my injured arm refuse to clasp, and it dashes to pieces before me. Sacred air from Humanity’s home mixes with the foul exhalations of countless hivers. Gone forever, lost from my care.

‘Gone,’ I say, though neither of the women in the room can hear me.  ‘Emperor, forgive this humble servant for his failure…’

‘Yeah, like I’m sure you’ll forgive all these bodies their trespass,’ Spider says, having forced her upright self to the doorway. ‘You know where Robigus is? Or better, Doc Motto?  Stimms’ll only keep me going for so long…’

‘As always, thou hast concern only for thy self! This was a sacred relic of the Emperor Himself, a beacon to all of His people!’

‘A spirit within a bottle ain’t much use to anyone. Now it’s out, mingling and purifying just a little of the hive’s air, doesn’t that make things better? Warp, it can hardly make things much worse…’

About the Author

Laurence J. Sinclair’s tumultuous history began deep in the underbelly of Necromunda. Clan rumours are that they’ve been known to feed on spider eggs and the hearts of the fallen.