Inquisitor Syman Kant allowed himself a brief moment to watch the single bead of sweat work its way down Prewitt’s furrowed brow.
‘Yes, it’s definitely bad,’ Bellane Friemann commented, a half-smile stealing across her scarlet lips, ‘but is it heresy?’
The shopkeeper Prewitt flinched visibly at the last word. Syman regarded the miniature mass-produced painting of the Emperor he held in his power-armoured gauntlet. The features were wrong, almost to the point of being a caricature. Maybe even an offensive caricature. But did that require this man’s death? Perhaps not, Syman mused, at least not by my hand.
‘These are a terrible representation of our beloved God-Emperor,’ Inquisitor Kant told the shopkeeper, looking the man in the eye as he crushed the small painting in his fist. Prewitt was visibly struggling to stop himself shaking. He was small and untidy, just like the shop he kept. Syman allowed his words to hang amongst the sawdust and fumes in the air.
‘But I do not find you guilty of heresy on this occasion,’ he continued. The shopkeeper exhaled, tears welling up in his eyes. ;You are however guilty of attempting to make a quick cred at the expense of our most glorious Imperator. The artistic techniques on display here are appalling.’
‘Hire a proper craftsman next time,’ chipped in Bellane, her arms folded across her chest. Prewitt nodded urgently, looking back and forward rapidly between the Inquisitor, the noblewoman and the hulking beastman behind them.
‘My advice to you is this,’ said Syman, ‘I may have forgiven this transgression, but if a Confessor were to have passed by before I did then make no mistake; you would have been hung, drawn and quartered.’
The shopkeeper was weeping openly now. Bellane shot Syman a look. I’ve made my point, the Inquisitor thought. He gestured at the box of miniature portraits.
‘Find another use for these. Sell them as fire lighters…’
‘Gorchar help?’ growled the beastman, unslinging his flamethrower. Prewitt cowered.
‘Grind them up as a food additive for all I care,’ continued the Inquisitor, ‘but they had better be gone within the hour.’
His judgment passed, Syman turned and strode towards the door of the shop, stooping slightly to avoid the tattered cloth hanging from the ceiling, Bellane and Gorchar close behind him.
Prewitt followed behind them, wringing his hands and weeping, ensuring the Inquisitor that he’d carry out his will and exclaiming what an honour it was to have the Hero of Coripaest visit his humble establishment. Syman did not look back.
Outside the shop the street was clear, the Imperial citizens giving Brother-Sergeant Migliore a wide berth as he stood watch, bolt rifle held at ease. The Blood Drinkers space marine fell into step behind the Inquisitor without a word. The crowd of shoppers and travellers parted before them, a sea of pale, wide-eyed faces. Sometimes Syman felt a lingering sense of guilt about using a gene-forged miracle of the Adeptus Astartes as little more than a lookout. When the marine had been assigned to the Inquisitor’s retinue by a grateful chapter after the events of Coripaest, Syman had felt real pride. Heading his own newly founded Minor Ordo of the Inquisition, with the might of the Astartes to back him up! How could he meet with anything other than unadulterated success?
But in the end the space marine – in all his red and gold glory – had proven to be a distraction. Suspects stood slack-jawed while Syman tried to question them, their eyes never leaving the Brother-Sergeant. Syman had taken to leaving him to secure the perimeter. For his part, Migliore had never voiced any complaint. Sometimes, Syman got the distinct impression that the marine felt he deserved it.
The group walked up the street in silence. Around them teemed the life and machine-animus of Grosvenor II, this sector’s capital world. The spire of the Lorysia hive complex presided over the entirety of the horizon. Grav haulers and personal flyers zipped about overhead. A shape detached itself from the confusion, buzzing down towards them at an alarming velocity.
‘Here come Zelial,’ observed Bellane.
The servo-skull halted briefly in front of Inquisitor Kant, returning from its assigned task. Syman paused to inspect the message rune. Red, no return correspondence.
‘Anything?’ asked Bellane cheerfully. Syman sighed quietly.
‘No,’ he replied.
‘Well anyway, that all went well,’ said Bellane, tying back her long auburn hair. Syman watched her out of the corner of his eye as they walked. ‘Another unworthy representation of the Emperor purged from the streets of Lorysia!’
‘Indeed,’ replied the Inquisitor, attempting to maintain a good humour he didn’t feel. This wasn’t what he’d imagined when he’d founded his own Ordo.
‘It’s… good to end on a high,’ said Bellane.
‘What?’ replied Syman, halting. His mouth was suddenly very dry.
‘I’m going home. Back to Hesiod. I’ve booked passage on a ship that leaves in three days’ time,’ explained Bellane, reluctantly meeting the Inquisitor’s gaze. Hesiod, two sub-sectors away. Syman was lost for words.
‘Is that alright? You always said I could leave whenever I wanted…’ Bellane trailed off.
‘No, I mean yes, of course, that’s fine,’ said Syman, ‘I’ll…I’ll be sorry to see you go.’
They all walked on in silence. Syman burned to ask why, but knew that he wouldn’t like the answer.
Inquisitor Kant rose early the next morning, slipping quietly from his personal compound for a contemplative walk. Zelial trailed dutifully at the Inquisitor’s shoulder. At first he had tried to dismiss the servo skull, but the vocal command had just been met with an error chime, so Syman had relented. Maybe a bit of company wasn’t so bad, even if it was just the desiccated and technologically enhanced skull of his former master and mentor, Inquisitor Zelial. Over one hundred years ago Zelial had been hailed as the saviour of Lorysia hive for uncovering a genestealer infestation. Syman often wondered if his wiley old master ever envisaged this was how he would return to the site of one of his greatest personal triumphs? Syman normally followed that train of thought to its dark conclusion; is this how I’ll return to Coripaest one day?
After the triumph at Coripaest and the casting down of the dark schemes he found there, Syman had imagined his future would be nothing but glory in service of the Emperor. He had founded the Ordo Digna to monitor the quality of religious art and ensure that they weren’t in some way being used to spread heresy. But where were his fellow Inquisitors he had recruited to the cause? Where was Inquisitor Jesco? She had sent word she was following up a lead, but that was months ago and he’d heard nothing since. Where was Inquisitor Silber? He’d simply stopped answering Syman’s messages a year ago. His own retinue had gradually died or slipped away. The glories of Coripaest had never been recaptured.
Without much thought, the Inquisitor wandered up-hive. There was a shop in the upmarket area that made particularly fine recaff and sweetmeats. Partaking of expensive recaff was one of the two indulgences Syman allowed himself as an Imperial Inquisitor. It didn’t seem like he was going to be allowed to partake of the second for much longer.
Inquisitor Kant reached the recaff house and was about to enter as he always did, when something caught his eye. In the window of the emporium opposite sat a small statue of the Emperor, possibly the most perfect representation he had ever seen. He stopped and stared. There was no crime or abnormality for him to investigate here, this was perfect. He admired it for a few moments more, and then entered the recaff house.
Syman sat down with his beverage in the window seat, Zelial hovering at his shoulder, red rune still glowing stubbornly on his spinal display. When his old mentor had bequeathed Syman his skull for this purpose, at first the young Inquisitor had been deeply honoured. Eventually he decided that Zelial had done it just so he could keep an eye on his young protegé. Something of the ancient Inquisitor’s hoary old animus must have merged with the newly installed servo machine spirit. Syman felt he could feel his masters eye boring into him from the empty socket, watching him as his grand plans fell apart. If Syman closed his eyes, he could almost hear Zelial’s voice chiding him. The old Inquisitor had never approved of his recaff habit.
Syman opened his eyes again, and found himself staring across the thoroughfare at the emporium and the statue of the Emperor. His eye was drawn back to it again and again, like a frigate failing to pull clear of a gravity well. Finally Syman stood up and strode across to the emporium.
The shop was like the rest in this district; light, airy, and full of luxury items priced to appeal to mid-hive aristocrats and the wealthy merchant class. The air smelt of cinnamon and ur-wood. Syman found a small collection of devotional statues near the display window. Rendered in a smooth dark green stone, the one that had caught his eye were surprisingly heavy and cool to the touch. The craftsmanship was exquisite. The features lifelike. It was perfect.
‘How much?’ Syman asked the shopmistress.
‘For you my lord, two hundred credits.’
‘This is an exclusive item, my lord,’ she added, ‘from off-world. I only secured a few.’
‘Two hundred will be fine. Tell me, where did you secure it from?’
‘A merchant contact of mine, a guild man named Pesold Auggener.’
‘Where can I find Pesold Auggener?’
The shopmistress hesitated for a second. Her eye flickered to his Inquisitorial signet ring.
‘He is a good man, my lord…’
Syman let her words wash over him. It was always the same when he asked here he could find someone.
‘I don’t doubt it. I’d just like to speak with him.’
She pulled a mem-wafer from her pocket and tapped it against Zelial’s forehead. The chime of data transfer sounded. Syman paid his two hundred credits and left.
Syman paused outside Bellane’s door. Every member of his retinue had their own small, single-storey building in the compound. Many currently stood empty. He raised one hand to knock, the other hand still clutching his newly acquired statue. He looked down at it uncertainly. Was he imagining things? Just looking for an excuse?
Syman knocked. After a brief pause, Bellane responded.
Syman opened the door.
‘Bellane I’d like you-‘ he began, then paused. Sergeant Migliore was inside Bellane’s quarters, his imposing presence seeming to fill the room. The Inquisitor stared at the space marine, who held his gaze with the impassive green glow of his helmet lenses.
‘Is something amiss, my lord?’ asked the Blood Drinker, as respectful as ever.
‘No, I was just surprised to see you in here,’ said Syman, ‘forgive me for saying, but you don’t normally make social calls.’
‘It was my desire to wish Mistress Friemann good fortune on her journey home and future service of the Emperor.’
‘Worthy sentiments, but perhaps slightly premature,’ replied Syman, ‘I need Bellane for one more thing before she leaves.’
Bellane cocked her head in interest.
‘What do you make of this?; asked Syman, gently handing the statue to Bellane. He saw from her reaction that she was surprised by its weight and feel too. He watched as she gave it her expert appraisal.
‘Glorious,’ she said at last, ‘perhaps, a little too glorious.’ Syman smiled, pleased that she had reached the same conclusion. ‘What’s the manufacturing process? I can’t see any tool marks. It’s as if the Emperor has been studied and rendered by a detached, alien mind. There’s no adoration or praise in this sculpt, only cold anatomical detail.’
‘My conclusion exactly,’ said Syman. Good, he thought, he wasn’t just looking for an excuse. Unless Bellane was looking for one too.
‘I think we need to speak with the merchant who supplied these, and fortunately, I know just where to find him.’
The merchant Pesold Auggener’s office was further out from hive-centre, near one of the vast landing fields that tried to keep up with Lorysia’s insatiable hunger for materiel and foodstuffs. A grey, uninspiring municipal building squatting on the side of a vast warehouse complex. It was the sort of place where mid-tier merchants could rent administrative space if they weren’t yet wealthy enough to afford their own permanent holdings in the star port.
They left Sergeant Migliore outside to keep watch on the perimeter of the building. A concierge-servitor greeted Syman, Bellane and Gorchar in the cold entrance hall, then pointed them towards Auggener’s office when Zelial exloaded the contact data.
‘Not expecting to need any muscle on this one?’ asked Bellane as they walked towards the stairs.
‘In truth, I’m not sure what to expect,’ said Syman, ‘but if the need for a little intimidation arises, we have Gorchar here.’
The beastman gave a pleased snort. With his goat-like face, bulky flamer and chest covered in fluttering purity seals and votive papers, the mutant could make anyone think twice about defying the will of the Inquisition.
Auggener’s office was simple to find, but no one appeared to be around. Inquisitor Kant knocked on the door.
‘Pesold Auggener? Imperial Inquisition, open up,’ said Syman, knocking again. Still nothing.
‘Maybe he’s not in there,’ shrugged Bellane.
‘Or he doesn’t want to talk to us,’ said Syman, nodding at Gorchar, ‘either way, we’re going in.’
The beastman brayed and shoulder-barged the door inwards with very little effort, splintering the frame.
‘Strange smell here,’ grunted Gorchar as he leaned the detached door against the office wall.
‘That’s you, my friend,’ said Bellane, patting the beastman on his meaty arm as she stepped past to admire the paintings on the office wall.
‘No,’ said Syman, ‘he’s right.’ Syman could smell it now too. It was hard to define, but it was both musty and spicy, putting the Inquisitor in mind of a freshly opened tomb. Cautiously they advanced across the deserted office. The smell grew stronger until they found Pesold Auggener crumpled on the floor behind his ornate carved-wood desk. Or at least, the husk Pesold Auggener. He appeared shrunken and wizened, mummified almost, as though dessicated and drained of all fluids.
While Bellane contacted the local Enforcers to report the merchant’s death, Syman and Zelial searched the office for any data pertaining to the origin of the statues. Gorchar went to check the adjacent room to see if he could find any more of the statues but returned empty-handed. Eventually they found a data-slate in the desk with incoming shipment dates. All were meticulously annotated with exactly what they were and who was shipping them, with the exception of one entry. That solitary line had no sender ID and was simply labelled as ‘Statues’. The expected arrival date was tomorrow morning and the rendezvous point was a specific loading bay in the adjacent warehouse complex. It wasn’t much, but it was a lead.
Inquisitor Syman spent the evening performing maintenance and prayers over his sable power armour in the small workshop and armoury at the end of the compound. They could simply be walking into a minor trade squabble between rival merchants. But Syman’s years of experience told him it was something more. In truth he would have rather spent the evening with Bellane, but it would have been unwise not to have prepared for their operation tomorrow.
Once back in his quarters, Syman checked a couple of data-slate reports before finally settling down to try and fall asleep. The cold green statue of the Emperor watched over him silently from the nearby desk.
Syman woke suddenly, his heart thumping. Disorientated, it took him a few seconds to get his bearings. For a moment he felt he was back in his dormitory at the Schola Progenium, a place he hadn’t been in decades. No, he was in his quarters in his compound on Grosvenor II. But something was amiss. Inquisitor Kant activated his bedside lumen. The doors and windows were still secure. The data-slates were where he left them. The statue still stood on his desk, the Emperor’s head missing.
The Emperor’s head was missing.
The small dark-green beetle with a single glowing green eye scuttled over Syman’s bedsheets almost quicker than he could follow. The Inquisitor gave a cry of alarm and scrambled backwards, tumbling out of the bed. The beetle came straight for him like a predator that wouldn’t be diverted from its prey. Realising that his bolt pistol was in a drawer on the other side of his bed, Syman grouped frantically for another weapon. His hand closed around the leg of a chair and he heaved it up and over his head, crashing it down on the scurrying beetle with all his might. The chair broke apart and the beetle was momentarily knocked back, but seemed otherwise unharmed. Syman desperately felt for another weapon, never looking away from the beetle’s glowing eye.
Gorchar burst through the door to the Inquisitor’s chamber. He was across the room in two swift bounds, crunching a hoof down on the beetle just before it reached Syman’s feet. Syman could see its many dark green legs whirring frantically on either side of where the beastman had pinned it to the floor. Gorchar gave a growl and shifted his weight, bringing it all to bare on the strange insectoid intruder. With a sickening crack that sounded like the shattering of stone, the insect seemed to split apart. The legs stopped moving and as Gorchar cautiously raised his hoof, Syman could see the light in the beetle’s eye had vanished.
‘Where come from?’ asked Gorchar, forming the Low Gothic words with difficulty.
‘The statue I bought yesterday,’ said Syman, ‘I woke up and the head-‘
Syman paused, looking at the statue. The rest of it had vanished too.
The tide of dark green beetles swarmed up Gorchar’s legs, crawling over his armour, fighting to get to his head and neck. The beastman brayed in panic, swatting at them with his meaty hands. Syman dived over the bed and retrieved his bolt pistol, drawing a bead on his stricken companion. There was no way he could shoot the beetles without hitting Gorchar.
One of the beetles finally found its intended target, sinking pincers into Gorchar’s neck. Syman had the distinct impression it was trying to find or attack the beastman’s nervous system. As Syman watched helplessly, he saw a look of determination cross Gorchar’s eyes. The mutant had clearly decided this was a lost cause and had made up his mind to end things on his own terms.
‘For Emp-roar! BURN!’ bellowed Gorchar, turning his flamer on himself. The super-heated promethium ignited his fur in an instant, and Gorchar’s roars mingled with the high-pitched electronic screeches of the beetles as they cooked and melted. Syman watched in horror for a moment as his companion burned, the ashes of his votive papers drifting away like tiny motes of prayer. He’d finally found the redemption from his birth-sins that he’d been seeking.
The building’s fire suppression system kicked in, spraying water and fire retardants down into the room. It was too little too late to save Gorchar, and Syman wasn’t certain that it would be enough to extinguish the chemical fire of promethium either. The Inquisitor hurriedly gathered some personal items and important documents in a travel case and hurried out of the door, calling to Zelial as he went. The servo skull begrudgingly left his charging perch and drowsily floated after Syman.
Inquisitor Kant hurried across the compound, keeping low and glancing around. He couldn’t say for sure if the threat was eliminated or if this was merely the prelude to a larger assault on his holdings. He knew he should head to the armoury workshop, don his power armour, but he couldn’t bring himself to delay getting to Bellane.
‘And where’s Migliore, Emperor-damn-him?’ Syman hissed to Zelial as he ran, ‘He has transhuman senses, surely he heard that!?’
Zelial pinged an error tone. Syman didn’t disagree.
The Inquisitor slowed as he approached Bellane’s quarters. All seemed quiet. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Dispensing with niceties, Syman pushed the door open and stepped inside. It took a few moments for him to process what he was seeing.
Bellane lay on the bed, seemingly unconscious. A transparent tube snaked from her bare arm and into a small cherub-encrusted pump. The tube swam with red liquid, and blood dripped steadily from the pump and into an ornate chalice, a chalice held in the giant armoured gauntlet of Sergeant Migliore. The space marine was crouched down next to the noblewoman’s bed, his back to the door.
Inquisitor Kant aimed his bolt pistol squarely at the space marine’s helmet.
‘What are you doing to her?!’ he demanded.
Sergeant Migliore calmly turned and slowly drew himself up to his full height. In his Mark X power armour, he easily filled the room.
‘Would you shoot me, Inquisitor Kant, or would you hear an explanation?’
Syman said nothing, but kept his aim true.
‘Do you think you can kill me before I react?’ Sargeant Migliore posed a second question. Syman snarled.
‘Are you threatening a member of the Emperor’s holy Inquisition?’
‘No, merely asking you to consider all the facts.’ Migliore appeared relaxed, but Syman had no doubt the space marine could move far faster than he could think. Would his bolt pistol even touch Mark X armour? The Inquisitor’s mind was whirling.
‘Are you tainted? In league with the Arch Enemy?’ demanded Syman.
‘We found Pesold Auggener dessicated and drained of fluids. Have you selected other victims in Lorysa?’
‘No. This ceremony only ever takes the blood of loyal servants of the Imperium, and only then if they volunteer. We would not want to imbibe anything tainted or unworthy.’
Inquisitor Kant held his aim as the long seconds dripped by.
Bellane seemed to be coming around. Syman’s eyes flicked down to the bed to look at her as she turned to face him. He realised his mistake almost instantly, immediately looking back at the space marine. The Astartes could have easily taken him in that split second when his aim wavered, yet Sergeant Migliore had not moved. The soft green glow of his eye slits regarded the Inquisitor impassively.
‘I volunteered…’ said Bellane whoozily, trying to sit up.
‘With your permission, Inquisitor,’ said Migliore.
‘Help her,’ conceded Syman, lowering his bolt pistol. The sargeant moved quickly and gently to detach the tube and make the noblewoman comfortable.
As Inquisitor Kant watched, the Blood Drinker space marine removed his helmet and raised the chalice to his lips. He muttered a short invocation, something so softly spoken that Syman could not make out the words, then imbibed deeply of the warm vitae within.
‘Do we know of this?’ the Inquisitor wondered aloud, ‘I know the cults of the Adeptus Astartes are esoteric and impenetrable mysteries, but I feel this is something the Inquisition should be aware of. Blood leads to more blood.’
‘How could you not know?’ laughed Bellane softly, ‘They are called the Blood Drinkers! It’s right there in their name.’
‘Yes, but that’s just a heraldic device,’ said Syman, ‘a name to strike fear into the enemies of Mankind. Take the Space Wolves! They’re not literally wolves!’
Migliore remained silent. As he stared at the transhuman giant, Syman suddenly recalled why he had burst into Bellane’s quarters in the middle of the night.
‘This matter can rest for the moment. I was just attacked in my own chambers. Gorchar saved me, but at the cost of his own life.’
The Blood Drinker crossed the room in the blink of an eye, drawing his heavy bolt pistol and placing himself between Syman and the open door of Bellane’s quarters. The Inquisitor’s blood ran cold; Migliore could easily have killed him before Syman could have even reacted. Bellane sat bolt upright in alarm, eyes wide.
‘Threat assessment?’ queried Migliore, at the same time Bellane asked ‘Gorchar’s dead?’
‘The statue I bought today disassembled itself into multiple robotic beetles. I think Gorchar managed to destroy them all, but can’t be certain. I’d say they were likely xenos in origin, but could conceivably have been a type of tained servitor construct.’
Migliore nodded, his eyes scanning the compound. All seemed still. Syman turned to Bellane, who was still staring at him from the bed with an expression of shock.
‘Yes, he’s dead,’ said the Inquisitor grimly, ‘but we should take comfort that he died doing what he loved.’
Smoke had started to escape from the building housing Syman’s chambers. In the distance the warning-tones of the hive’s municipal emergency response servitors droned an impromptu funeral dirge for their fallen comrade.
They returned to the warehouse complex an hour before the rendezvous time on Pesold Auggener’s schedule. Inquisitor Kant did not feel good. His power armoured registered the stress and applied pain balms. It helped a little. He’d spent the night asleep in an armchair in Bellane’s quarters while Sergeant Migliore had stood silent vigil at the window. Bellane had tried to switch places with him, but Syman wouldn’t hear of it. He felt she needed the rest more than him, after the blood loss.
Loss. Was that the right word? Her blood wasn’t ‘lost’, they all knew exactly where it was.
Syman blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. He wished he was going into this fresh. The whole of his head felt warm and fuzzy, and there was nothing his armour’s medicae systems could do to help with that.
‘Do you think you were the intended target,’ asked Bellane quietly as they walked alongside the warehouse, ‘or were you just unlucky enough to purchase the statue?’
‘Impossible to say,’ replied Syman. ‘Perhaps I wasn’t the specific target, but I was probably the right type of target.’
‘Indeed; an expensive statue, an excellent work of religious art, in an exclusive boutique up-hive. If not an Inquisitor, then who else might have bought it?’
‘It’s a long list, and not a pretty one; spire noble, senior Administratum official, cardinal, guild master.’
‘Then it’s lucky…’ began Bellane, before trailing off. Syman had that same train of thought. It was lucky for the Imperium that an Inquisitor had bought the statue. It wasn’t so lucky for Gorchar.
‘Orders, Inquisitor?’ asked Migliore as they neared the side entrance of the warehouse complex.
‘You take point, we’ll move in towards the loading bay identified on the schedule-‘
The door to the warehouse slid open and a metal giant emerged, stooped and limping, using its ornate staff as a walking stick. Sergeant Migliore instantly assumed a firing stance, training his bolt rifle on the head of the creature.
‘Inquisitor, do I engage?’
The creature looked around as Syman and Bellane stared at it in shock. A single green eye glowered at them. It was humanoid, a skeleton made of some nameless metal forged from the very first supernova. Metal and bones were the stuff of which the Imperium was made, yet this walking silver cadaver looked wholly out of place in its surroundings. It exuded an air of permanence – despite its obvious injuries – as though time could not touch it. Syman had the blasphemous impression that far from this metal being existing as a mockery of the human form, the human form was a pale imitation of this creature. It’s expression was unreadable, but the way its body reacted to the sight of the humans betrayed surprise and annoyance. The Inquisitor drank all this in in mere moments, but it felt as though long eons drifted down as they stood there.
‘Inquisitor, do I engage?’
The creature spoke then, it’s High Gothic perfect and its words somehow carrying the weight of aeons.
‘Again? Am I never to be rid of you meddlesome creatures?’
The silver skeleton passed a hand over a glowing gemstone in its chest and then it was gone. There was no puff of smoke, no flash of light or teleport flare. It did not fade. It was simply gone, like an actor cut from the frame of a poorly edited pic-film. The blood pounded behind Inquisitor Kant’s eyes as his mind struggled to process the migraine-inducing effect.
‘What was that?’ asked Bellane.
‘Necron,’ breathed Syman, ‘and yes Brother-Sergeant. If you see that construct or any of its kind while you are in my employ, consider my permission to engage pre-emptively given.’
They entered the warehouse with their weapons drawn and their guard up. Inquisitor Kant had sent a coded comms message to the Grosvenor Planetary Defence Force headquarters appraising them of a possible xenos threat in Lorysia. But even a charitable assessment of the PDF’s deployment capabilities put them several hours away. It was down to Syman and his warband to make a further assessment of the threat, and contain it if possible. Syman called the mission mark. They synchronised their chronometers and stepped into the warehouse.
Forewarned is forearmed, Inquisitor Zelial always used to say when he was alive, and Syman prided himself on his predictive abilities. Not prognostication or warp-craft, just good honest Inquisitorial skills of threat assessment, hard-won experience and always being prepared. But in truth he was not prepared for this. Experience had told him they would encounter middle-men making the delivery of more dangerous beetle-statues, who in turn would lead them to more go-betweens, until they eventually found the xenos puppet master. But to have the puppet-master stagger injured from the warehouse right in front of them… that was beyond Syman’s experience.
The interior of the warehouse was as still as a tomb. The lumen strips glowed, and everything seemed to be functioning, but there was no-one present. Syman had expected there to be others around to help mask their approach; all the normal loaders, porters and crew who helped an off-world logistics operation to function. But there wasn’t so much as a functioning servitor. Their footsteps and the low buzz of Zelial’s gravitic-impeller were all that could be heard as they made their way towards the rendezvous point.
‘Is there going to be anything to find now?’ said Bellane quietly, ‘If we weren’t expected before then I bet we are now.’
‘We need to confirm either way,’ answered Syman. ‘Zelial, uplink with the warehouse cogitator. Is there a side route we can take to approach the objective?’
Zelial’s runes buzzed amber for a few moments, then flickered to a reassuring green. He whizzed off down a curving side corridor and the others followed. The side corridor, as it turned out, was a dead end. The winding path terminated in access to a number of small offices and utility compartments. Zelial’s runes flickered amber then a non-contrite red.
‘Trust your human instincts over those of a machine,’ Zelial had often said in life. Was this a lesson from his dead master, or simply a malfunction? It was hard to tell these days.
They quickly retraced their steps to the main arterial corridor, hurrying to make up for lost time but not willing to disturb the silence of the warehouse by sprinting flat-out.
‘What in the Emperor’s name?’ exclaimed Bellane, drawing to a halt as they rounded the final bend that connected to the main corridor. A solid looking metal security door had closed over the entrance to the corridor, sealing them in the side passage.
‘We should have heard that closing,’ Bellane added as Syman cautiously approached the door.
‘Agreed,’ said Syman, gently touching the metal. There was something strange about it, other than its apparently silent operation. The surface was pitted and corroded, metal flaking away where Syman had touched it. He turned to look at where the door sealed against the wall. The corrosion was just as bad there. The door looked like it had been sealed decades ago and would never open again.
‘We are definitely expected,’ said Syman, turning to the others, ‘Brother-Sergeant, do you think you have enough krak grenades to breach this barrier?’
The space marine had been keeping a wary eye on the corridor behind them while Syman examined the door. He turned to study it himself.
‘Undoubtedly, Inquisitor,’ said Migliore after a moment.
Syman, Bellane and Zelial retreated around the bend in the corridor while the space marine set the charges. He joined them a moment later, a second before the boom of the implosion charges echoed down the corridor. Although the apparently aged and decayed door had presented an immovable barrier, it wasn’t an impenetrable one. Sergeant Migliore used his strength to force the metal of the breach wider, allowing them all to clamber through.
They proceeded cautiously down the main corridor, Migliore taking point. The Inquisitor was increasingly certain that they were either walking into a trap, or they would get to the rendezvous point and simply find nothing, the supplier of the statues long since fled. But to not investigate would be a dereliction of duty. Or is it simply that I can’t bring myself to walk away from the most significant case the Ordo Digna has had in nearly two years? Syman asked himself.
The roar of Migliore’s bolt rifle was as ear-splitting as it was sudden. Syman and Bellane flinched involuntarily.
‘Contact left, engaging!’ growled Migliore, darting down a side corridor. Syman turned just in time to see a flash of silver vanish down around a corner. Migliore was after it in an instant, an apex predator following the scent of blood. The space marine disappeared. Syman heard a second thundering report of his bolt rifle, then a third, then…silence. No crashing footfalls, no calls for assistance, no bellows of anger or pain. Nothing.
Syman slowed as they approached the corner where they had last seen the space marine.
‘Brother-Sergeant?’ he called. Only his echo replied.
‘Migliore?’ he voxed. There was no return ping.
Syman looked back at Bellane, indicating that they should proceed with extreme caution. Bellane nodded her understanding. Together they crept forward as silently as possible. Slowly, oh so slowly, Syman peered around the corner.
The corridor was empty and silent, apart from a single hulking form leaning against the wall a few metres from them, bolt rifle resting across his lap. From the livery on the armour it appeared to be Brother-Migliore, only he was deathly still. His eye lenses were dim, and there appeared to be a fine layer of dust and cobwebs over the Blood Drinker’s armour. There were no signs of any external injuries. If anything, the mighty warrior of the Astartes looked peaceful, as though he was at rest. Together the two humans walked towards him, but the space marine did not react or acknowledge them. Syman placed an armoured hand reverently on Migliore’s backpack. He could feel very faint vibrations through his gauntlet.
‘His power plant is still active, possibly in a low power mode,’ said Syman, ‘let’s get his helmet off.’
Together they managed to unclasp and remove Migliore’s helmet. Underneath Migliore’s skin seemed as pale and dry as ever, his short dark hair pressed against his scalp by his helmet. Bellane leaned as close as she dared to his gigantic face and listened.
‘I think he’s breathing, just really slowly,’ she said, straightening up. Syman looked at the space marine’s face, at a loss on how to proceed.
‘I think he’s in a state of hibernation,’ he said. ‘They can do that, the Astartes. It’s one of the many wondrous gifts bestowed on them by the Emperor. But I have no idea how he had the time to enter this state in the moments since we last saw him, or what we can do to revive him.’
Migliore’s eyes flickered open. Bellane took an involuntary step backwards. The massive transhuman’s gaze seemed unfocused for a second, before he focused on Syman’s face.
‘It is good to see you, Inquisitor Kant,’ he croaked from a dusty throat. ‘I am honoured that you came back for me.’
‘What happened, Brother-Sergeant?’ asked Syman. He could hear the pitch of the space marine’s power plant increasing as systems came back online. The Blood Drinker started to unsteadily rise to his feet.
‘I pursued the contact around the corner, believing it to be the Necron creature we saw outside the warehouse, although this one appeared uninjured. I got off a number of shots, but do not believe I caused any damage. It seems to have some sort of protective field,’ explained Migliore, stretching the muscles in his arms as he spoke, ‘then suddenly it vanished as before. I attempted to retrace my steps, but found that this passage…did not behave as it should. I could not rejoin you in the main corridor – every attempt to do so resulted in my finding myself back at the other end of this side passage again. After a month of trying to escape I was left with little choice but to enter sus-an hibernation in an attempt to conserve my armour’s power and nutrient supplies. When you removed my helm, that activated the chemical revival process built into my armour. I thank you for not giving me up for dead. Tell me, in the time I have been trapped here, did you destroy the xenos and unravel his schemes?’
‘Migliore,’ answered Syman in astonishment, ‘you’ve… you’ve only been in this corridor for a few minutes. We followed you immediately and found you like this.’
Migliore held Syman’s gaze, his expression betraying nothing.
‘My helm, if you please Inquisitor,’ said the space marine. Syman silently handed it over. The Blood Drinker placed it over his head and was quiet for a moment.
‘My mission chronometer informs me that it is five years, two months, thirteen days, seven hours and twenty three minutes since we entered the warehouse,’ the Astartes said without emotion.
Syman and Bellane looked at each other in shock.
‘I’ve got fifteen minutes mission time on my chronometer,’ said Bellane, glancing at her wrist. ‘There’s something unnatural about the flow of time in this place, Syman.’
‘Agreed. I have fifteen minutes too. It’s like our enemy is disrupting the natural speed at which events occur. I don’t know if this is a by-product of whatever goal they are pursuing, or if they are deliberately wielding it as a weapon,’ Syman replied. ‘Zelial, what does your chronometer say?’
Zelial was not with them.
They retraced their steps towards the main corridor. Whatever effect had held Migliore in there for so long had come to an end.
‘When did anyone last see Zelial?’ asked Syman.
‘I think he was behind us just before Migliore…disappeared,’ said Bellane.
Migliore seemed to have shaken off the effects of his half decade hibernation incredibly quickly, although Syman would have expected nothing less from a member of the Adeptus Astartes. The space marine took point again, resuming the position as though nothing had happened. Syman wondered what in the Emperor’s name had happened to Zelial.
‘Help me,’ he could almost hear his old master cry.
He could hear his old master’s voice. Syman’s blood ran as cold as the void.
The three of them burst onto the main corridor. It was still deserted, save for a lone figure collapsed on the ground ahead of them. An old man writhed on the cold metal, naked and disheveled with age.
‘Where am I? Syman, are you there?’ he cried. Syman rushed over, falling on his knees to cradle the old man’s head. It was unmistakably his old master Inquisitor Zelial, dead these last ten years. Only now he was alive again and in Syman’s arms. The Saviour of Lorysa seemed disorientated. The optics of servo-skull Zelial were incongruously attached to the old man’s face where no bionics had existed in life, and the shape of the gravitic-impeller protruded hellishly from the back of his neck. It was as if the venerable Inquisitor had been regrown around the servo-skull. A mix of emotions roiled in Syman; a joy at seeing his old mentor alive again collided with horror at the state he’d found him in.
‘Syman, is that you?’ asked the old man, a leathery hand reaching up to touch Syman as rheumy eyes searched for a friendly face.
‘I’m here, Master Zelial,’ said Syman, his voice catching. The old man seemed to settle.
‘And the Genestealer uprising? Has it been contained?’ asked Inquisitor Zelial, referencing matters that had been settled a century previously, before Syman had even been born.
‘It has, master.’
Zelial smiled weakly, his gap-toothed grin briefly lighting his face.
‘Then Lorysia is safe from the xenos threat,’ he said calmly.
Inquisitor Zelial passed away in Syman’s arms for a second time.
‘It soon will be,’ swore Syman.
Syman reverently lifted Zelial’s body to the side of the corridor, then searched around for something to cover him. The best they could muster was a thermal blanket from Bellane’s medicae kit. No-one said anything. What was there to say? Syman gently kissed the double-headed eagle tattoo on Zelial’s forehead, and then drew the blanket up over his master’s face. The heat was still there behind Syman’s eyes, but it was no longer fatigue. Now it was the white heat of molten rage
‘Let’s move,’ said Syman, his eyes set firmly ahead, ‘we’re almost at the objective.’
They emerged into the cavernous unloading area where Pesold Auggener was to have recieved his next shipment of xenos statues. In the middle of the space, surrounded by abandoned Munitorum containers and inactive servo-haulers, stood the Necron. He was drawn up to his full height and was undamaged, but otherwise appeared identical to the construct they had encountered outside the warehouse.
‘I was told you were coming,’ the Necron said, ‘your persistence is admirable for a cattle-species. I am Hakotep, Grand Crypte-‘
The Necron’s speech was interrupted by the deafening crack of Migliore’s bolt rifle, followed closely by the boom of Syman’s bolt pistol and the hiss of Bellane’s needler. All their shots were on target, but they did not connect. The Blood Drinker’s earlier assessment had been correct – the creature was protected by some kind of energy field. Their projectiles seemed to decay to dust half a metre before reaching the Necron’s chest and the glowing stone at its centre. Even the carrier laser on Bellane’s needler was scattered and diffused to uselessness.
‘Your persistence is admirable, but your sense of decorum is not,’ said the construct, it’s ageless voice somehow sounding affronted. ‘Clearly I was wrong to expect better from you.’
The creature’s eldritch staff whirled around and a beam of energy shot out at Brother-Sergeant Migliore. The Blood Drinker was not willing to become a victim of this monster’s trickery for a second time, and threw himself to one side. His reflexes were superhuman, but it was not enough. The beam caught his shoulder, crackling over the armour.
Migliore grunted in annoyance, and sprinted into cover behind a stack of supply crates. The pauldron on his left shoulder appeared to be undergoing some form of rapid aging where the beam from the staff had struck. The paint of the Blood Drinker’s chapter heraldry blistered and peeled away, followed by layers of ceramite flakes as the armour came apart under the intense pressure of eons. The Brother-Sergeant detached the pauldron and cast it aside.
‘A formidable opponent, this one,’ commented Migliore, reloading his weapon, ‘he uses time itself as a weapon against us, and as a defence. It has already repaired the damage we witnessed previously.’
Syman thought back to the seemingly beaten creature that limped from the warehouse. He thought back to the rapidly aged body of the merchant they had found on the floor of his office, and he thought back to the de-aged skull of Zelial. Pieces of the puzzle suddenly slotted into place in Syman’s mind.
‘Has it?’ he asked
‘What do you mean?’ asked Migliore.
‘What if it hasn’t suffered any damage yet?’ asked Syman, ‘What if the injuries we saw it with are those we’re about to inflict? What if we beat it here and it tries to escape backwards in time to before we arrive. It said it was warned we were coming, but by who? We haven’t seen any other Necron here. What if we beat it and it travels back in time to escape and warn its past self that we are on the way?’
Comprehension dawned on Migliore and Bellane’s face.
‘That makes a twisted kind of xenos-sense, Inquisitor,’ said Migliore. ‘The injuries we saw it with were all to its limbs. We know our shots can’t penetrate the shield on its chest. Perhaps the protective effect weakens further away from the device embedded in its chest.’
Syman peered around the edge of their cover. In it’s arrogance, the creature was not watching to see if they emerged. Instead it had it’s hand out, gesturing with its staff at one of the Munitorum containers. Even from where they were, they could hear the scuttling of a million tiny metallic limbs coming from within. Syman ducked back into cover.
‘Let’s put that theory to the test,’ said Syman.
Migliore burst from cover, firing several well placed shots at the outstretched arm holding the staff. The first shot disintegrated before it reached its target, as did the second. The third struck home, detonating in the Necron-creature’s limb, causing it to stagger and drop the staff.
‘You dare?!’ it began to splutter. But Syman and Bellane had opened-up on it’s lower limbs. Bolt rounds and needle laser fire knocked the feet out from under it. With a cry of rage and alarm it toppled to the floor, groping for its fallen staff.
‘In the name of the Emperor and Sanguinius! Blood demands blood!’ screamed Brother-Sergeant Migliore, slinging his bolt rifle and running at the sprawling creature with his chainsword revving. Although the fallen Necron was clearly long past having any sort of blood to spill, it still took the threat seriously.
‘This matter is not yet done!’ it screamed hysterically as its clawing metal hand finally grasped its lost staff. Despite those bold words, it was gone in an instant. No flash, no after image, simply dislocated from its temporal surroundings. Migliore’s charge slowed to a walk, until he stood alone on the spot where the creature had just been, his chainsword revving angrily.
Once the Necron had vanished, the scuttling noise from the sealed container lessoned, as though the metal beetles within had lost their drive and direction. Migliore used his remaining grenades to turn the container into a funeral pyre for the scuttling beasts. Syman and the others searched the warehouse for the following two hours until the vanguard of the Lorysia PDF arrived, but there was no sign of any other xenos constructs.
‘That’s it then,’ smiled Bellane as Syman walked over from briefing the Lorysia PDF captain, ‘you kept your promise to Zelial. Lorysia hive and all of Grosvenor is safe from the xenos threat.’
‘Maybe, maybe not,’ replied Syman. ‘We don’t know how many statues were sold before I bought mine. It could take weeks or months of investigation to track them all down. I was wondering if you would consent to stay a little longer, to see this through?’
Bellane looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled.
‘Of course. I owe it to Gorchar and Zelial, if for no other reason.’
‘If for no other reason…’ echoed Syman.
‘What next, Inquisitor?’ asked Migliore, walking over with impeccable timing.
‘First, we recover Zelial,’ answered Syman, ‘and then we head to the Astropathic Guild. There are a number of other inquisitors who I think will return my messages this time. The Ordo Digna has a great deal of work ahead.’
About the Author
Chris Buxey is a writer, laser safety officer and occasional Tony Stark impersonator. He lives in southern England with his wife and two children. Chris has been travelling the Warhammer 40K universe for nearly thirty years and has so far managed to keep his heresies hidden from the Inquisition.