The prayer beads, worn smooth by calloused fingers over the course of decades, slipped around his pearl white neck. His dark eyes widened in surprise as he was suddenly yanked back against something unyielding. He fought to slip his fingers underneath the beads digging violently into his flesh, but the force pulling overwhelmed him. Black splotches danced before his eyes as he frantically clawed at his own skin. His legs kicked out, trying to hit something, anything. Silence enveloped him, but not for long. He could hear She Who Thirsts coming for his shrivelled soul.
Absakov watched the scene unfold with his mouth agape. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The frail-looking Sister had just strangled the xenos with her prayer beads and not even batted an eyelash. The very same xenos that had killed a dozen armsmen with ease in the Enginarium just minutes ago. Now it lay dead at her feet.
When the Sister looked at him, Absakov sank into the folds of his crimson robes. There was a look in her eyes that made him recoil in terror. She said something, but he didn’t catch it.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Now now, young man. It’s “Would you please repeat that, Sister?”’
‘Would you please repeat that, Sister?’ Absakov whimpered, abashed at the reprimand in her voice.
‘Better, but still a long way to go. Now, on your feet and tell me your name, status and everything you know about our situation,’ she commanded.
He couldn’t have refused even if he had wanted to. This Sister was the embodiment of every powerful woman he had ever encountered.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replied as the resurging memories of strict matrons brought forth the obedient pupil. ‘I am Enginseer Absakov and the Swift Salvation has been boarded by these pirates.’
He glanced at the dead thing. It was encased in black segmented armour adorned with spikes and blades. Its thin alabaster face was twisted in unspeakable torment. Absakov touched his throat and gulped.
‘Go on,’ the Sister prompted.
‘Excuse me Sister, but I really don’t know more. Vox went down just minutes after the first reports came in and we barricaded the Enginarium as protocol dictates. Much good did it do us. The armsmen with us were killed with ease and the rest were dragged off in chains. I was the last to be found.’ Absakov’s voice trailed off. He did not want to admit that he had decided to try and hide. A glance into the Sister’s flinty eyes told him that he may as well have said it out loud.
Absakov felt an overwhelming urge to examine the toes of his work boots. His unspoken admission of cowardice to a Sister was bad enough.
‘Just this,’ he mumbled, pointing at his nose. It was a brass aperture, tarnished by the fumes in the Enginarium, its location the main hint at its function. As much as he had wanted to join the Machine Cult and earn his first augmetic, he was ashamed of it. It made him look like a caricature, which had promptly drawn the unwanted attention of his colleagues. They’d found plenty of nicknames for him, but the one that stuck was Sniffler. If he neglected any part of the standard maintenance routine, it would leak fluids and he’d be sniffling until he came off shift and had a chance to fix it.
The Sister’s fingers caught his chin in a grip and lifted his head. Turning it left and right, she examined the mark of his elevation – and his constant shame.
‘This might do,’ the Sister said and let him go. The imprint of her fingers on his jawbone lingered. No wonder the xenos couldn’t fight her off. The Sister was something else. Absakov had yet to decide if that was a blessing or a curse.
‘Now, breathe in its musk,’ she commanded. He looked dumbly at her finger, which pointed at the corpse. Absakov opened his mouth to ask for an explanation, but deep down he knew better than that. He knelt next to the expired creature, leaned in close and inhaled.
Tiny cogs clicked and whirred in his nasal implant, sending microtremors through his eyeballs. It made his brain itch every time. He squeezed his eyes shut, the only way to prevent the feeling from getting worse.
‘What now, Sister?’
‘Tell me what it smells like. Give me all the little details. Spare nothing.’
With his eyes closed, Absakov found he could focus on the whole palette of scents exuded by the dead creature. He hesitantly started listing the chemicals he could identify. Metals, plastics, fabrics, the easy ones. But he couldn’t avoid the abhorrently alien fragrances forever. Talking about the xeno’s scent was like describing a brothel turned slaughterhouse. Like famished underhivers feasting on the innards of still living spire nobles. Like the sweat drenched terror of a nightmare that you never wake from.
Absakov was startled by the Sister’s light touch on his shoulder.
‘That will do, lad. There is a reason we do not consort with xenos,’ she said, as if that was an ample explanation. A chill ran down Absakov’s spine. Lurching to his feet, he stepped away from the corpse, looking at it with newfound disgust.
‘Now, we have dilly-dallied long enough for his mates to figure out something’s wrong. Come, we still have work to do.’
Absakov had no idea what she had in mind, but he had no wish to linger here with the dead xenos. He quickly hurried after the Sister.
Pink smoke billowed among the lines of chained prisoners. Drool escaped slack lips, while glazed over eyes stared dumbly at the walls of the hangar deck. The nerve gas kept the mon’keigh sedated and ready for transportation. Kaeteque walked among them, inspecting the bounty. It was substandard flesh, with maybe a handful of exceptions.
Still, he felt the barest inkling of satisfaction. It was the first raid he had organised on his own and it was a resounding success, so far. It had cost him all his savings to hire the mercenaries and acquire the assault boat. If he could turn a hefty profit – and he intended to – financing his next foray would be easy.
He spied Armavahr talking in hushed tones with two of his ilk by the chamber’s entrance. Kaeteque did not like that. He wouldn’t allow them to ruin his first raid through greed and treachery. Slipping between the lines of dazed slaves, he snuck up on Armavahr. Kaeteque couldn’t help but take pleasure in the look of surprise on their faces his sudden appearance provoked.
‘Do I pay you to stand around and chat, eh?’
‘No, Captain,’ Armavahr replied immediately. He kept his voice free of insolence, but Kaeteque could feel the faintest stirring of betrayal turning the air rancid. Before he had the opportunity to reprimand them, the mercenary continued. ‘Ezshar hasn’t returned yet from the engine cave. He stayed behind to flush out some of the stragglers, but he should’ve been back by now and isn’t responding to our hails.’
‘Take Terabris with you and see if you can find Ezshar. If he’s just taking his sweet time with one of the mon’keigh, cut off his nose,’ Kaeteque commanded.
Armavahr and Terabris bowed and hurried off to complete the task. Kaeteque looked at the remaining mercenary still standing there, unsure what to do without a direct order.
‘Start moving the slaves into the cargo hold. We don’t have all day.’
The Sister walked briskly, moving with a surety that beggared belief. Absakov could barely keep up with her. She took them through service tunnels and maintenance hatches he hadn’t known existed. How could she know the vessel with such intimacy? She’d only boarded a week ago. Surely she couldn’t have explored everything, could she? Could she?
Before running into the Sister, Absakov would’ve laughed at the suggestion. Now he wasn’t sure what to think. The last hour had been confusing, to say the least.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked tentatively.
‘We need to gather intel on the boarding force, as well as find out what’s left of our own forces. We need to know what we’re up against to devise our counter action.’
‘You want to fight them? Alone?’ Absakov asked. The incredulity in his voice made the Sister stop and turn to face him. The look in her eyes made the breath catch in his throat.
‘I am never alone. And nor are you. He is always with us. Trust in Him and He will guide you. The Emperor protects.’
‘I follow the Omnissiah,’ Absakov whined. This single act of protest consumed all of his reserves for bravery. He didn’t know what to expect as he trembled underneath his robes of Martian red.
‘They are the one and the same, silly boy,’ the Sister replied. The absolute confidence in her voice struck Absakov like a pneumatic hammer. Who was he to question her, an embodiment of Imperial Faith? Not to mention, after her introduction, he was less than eager to get on her wrong side.
Before he could utter some weak excuse, his quietly purring implant switched gears, setting his brain aquake. The unpleasant and unexpected sensation was quickly overtaken by olfactory data. His brain translated the input into vivid pictures of flayed skin, burned nerve endings and sizzling blood.
‘Wha-‘ he wanted to ask, but the Sister clamped a hand over his mouth. She held a finger in front of her mouth before ushering Absakov into a small alcove behind a forest of utility pipes and colour-coded cables.
‘How many?’ she whispered. Her breath tasted of cloves and cinnamon. The enginseer hadn’t the faintest idea why she would ask that. The scent that crept into his nose was fainter in their hiding place, but he could still make it out. Without recourse to any other action, he breathed in deeply. Isolating the alien odours from the ship’s familiar, mundane scents, the impressions came back. Burning blood. Flayed skin. The scents were similar, yet distinct.
Absakov held up two fingers before pointing towards the intersection beyond the bulkhead they had hidden behind. The Sister nodded, pointed at Absakov and then at his feet. He was to stay put. The enginseer gratefully hunkered down, making himself as small as possible. Absakov watched the Sister depart in the direction he had indicated.
He saw her move, caught glimpses of her boots beneath her grey habit, but it was like a faulty pictfeed lacking the audio track, for the Sister made no sound. None at all.
Armavahr and Terabris made their way through the deserted tunnels of the mon’keigh ship. Its primitive aesthetics were an affront to all sentient beings. The half-dead cyborgs that tended to its halls and tunnels lacked the faintest hint of grace.
‘Boring,’ Terabris said, inspecting yet another intersection that looked just like the previous dozen.
‘Everything. The mon’keigh. Their ships. Everything they build. They’re just boring, repeating themselves over and over. Hunting them no longer brings me joy.’
‘But skinning them does, doesn’t it,’ Armavahr grinned slyly. Terabris did not even deign to shrug.
‘One takes one’s pleasures where one finds them,’ Terabris quoted his mentor. He’d enjoyed skinning the old hag when her luck had run out. Her cured scalp still adorned his armour’s shoulder spikes.
‘What do you think happened to Ezshar?’
The xenos arrived faster than she’d anticipated. They both wore form-fitting dark armour and carried splinter rifles. She could only tell them apart by their trophies. One had skin stretched across shoulder spikes, the other wore a necklace of burnt finger bones. Silently, she recited the Hymn of Temperance to the tempo of their steps. The dark ones were in position by the third line of the second verse.
The Sister swung from overhead, squarely stomping one pirate in the face. Bone crunched beneath alabaster skin as its head snapped sideways. Straight into the shoulder pad of its fellow, the barbed spikes ripping his face asunder. It hissed in agony, lurching aside and clutching its bloody face.
The other reacted swiftly, bringing its splinter rifle around. The weapon unleashed a deadly hail of poison crystals, ricocheting around the close confines of the corridor. The Sister hummed the Psalm of Precision as she stepped behind the blinded xeno, which unwillingly absorbed the shots meant for her. Sidestepping the crumpling corpse, she spoke the penultimate line of the Hosanna of Hatred.
‘Dark Gods swallow your soul, o ye of sinful existence.’
The dark eldar’s response sounded like a kicked up nest of razor vipers. It stepped back, trying to open up space between itself and the Sister. Yet for each of its steps, the Sister had taken three. Surprise crossed its inhuman features, followed by pain. Fingers as strong as steel speared into its throat, crushing its windpipe. The last thing it saw was the Sister’s grey habit enveloping its head.
The Sister held the xenos until it moved no more. She loosened her grip and let the dead body slide to the floor. With a shuddering breath, she waited for the adrenalin to drain from her body. Despite her centuries of training and battles, she was still fighting armed xenos pirates with nothing but her wits and the gifts the God-Emperor bestowed upon her.
They would be enough. They always had been. But she would not let complacency be her downfall, for He always demanded the best from her. Putting aside her disgust, she dragged the corpses next to each other and rummaged through their belongings. Using the bone necklace and a grenade she had found on the bodies, she left a surprise for any curious xenos.
Absakov had to bite down on the hem of his robes to stop himself from crying out in despair. He’d heard the scuffle, followed by shots from xenos weaponry. His imagination painted a vivid image of the Sister twitching violently, her body riddled with holes. It fell quiet soon after, but the Sister did not return. Despite moments of optimism, he was sure the Sister was dead and the xenos would soon come looking for him.
He was so preoccupied with his visions of dread, he didn’t notice the Sister returning. His frightened yelp drew an irate frown from the Sister.
‘Shush now, it’s me,’ she scolded Absakov. An embarrassed blush ran up the enginseer’s face, circumventing his nasal implant. The Sister stepped back, letting him get back to his feet.
‘Are… are you okay, Sister?’
‘Why would I not be?’
‘I just heard the shots and thought you might be in trouble,’ he said. The Sister smiled at him, perfect white teeth glistening in her ebony face.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, laddie, but it’s just as well you didn’t blunder into our little fracas. You’d just be dead and we can’t have that now, can we?’
‘Why not?’ Absakov asked and immediately regretted the hasty response. The Sister’s smile was changeless, as if stapled to her face. He couldn’t help but notice the wrinkles around the Sister’s eyes. They were deep crags on otherwise perfectly smooth skin. The clearest sign of extensive rejuvenat treatments.
‘I like my little helpers like I like my God-Emperor: alive.’
Nodding in earnest, Absakov decided it was best to remain useful to her. He did not like the idea of no longer being valuable to the Sister.
‘Now, let’s head to the vox station and summon ourselves some cavalry, before these eldar scum have their way with our dear fellows.’
Absakov quickly fell in line behind the Sister as she navigated unerringly towards the vox station.
The exquisite fragrance of unspeakable suffering made Kaeteque giddy. Each scream, each whimper, each plea for mercy tasted more luscious than the last. He caressed exposed nerves with the razor sharp edge of his skinning knife. Its obsidian blade had been forged from the heart of a dying star aeons ago.
This mon’keigh had been the ship’s master, one who ruled over life and death within his domain. Now he was a wreck, skin peeled back across his whole body, revealing wet flesh and naked bone. Spikes had been driven through ligaments, pinning his partially deconstructed body to a cargo crate. Every breath caused unfathomable agony, yet still it was nothing compared to the pain visited upon him by Kaeteque.
‘I ask you again, mon’keigh. Who is the warrior aboard your ship?’ the drukhari reaver hissed, the primitive’s language tasting like ash in his mouth.
The human’s tongue twitched and rolled, as if trying to form an answer, but then it ceased moving. Kaeteque gently plucked at a disassembled nerve bundle and fresh torment convulsed the yet breathing corpse.
‘No… warrior… amongst… passengers,’ the Captain managed.
‘Interesting.’ Kaeteque tapped his chin with the bloody tip of his knife, pondering the answer. His victim had answered truthfully enough, but there was something he was still obfuscating.
Instincts honed within the deadly politics of Commorragh had taught him early on not to trust anybody. Thus he had sent Merisira to shadow Armavahr and Terabris and uncover their treachery before it could gain momentum. She’d lost sight of them and by the time she found them again, they were dead. It seemed like a scuffle between the two, but something was amiss. Merisire had inspected the bodies on his orders and he was rewarded with a muffled explosion. Psychotropic gas filled the corridor in moments and her deranged screams echoed across their Susurrea communicators. Kaeteque had to order the handheld resonating crystals switched off until she was put out of her misery. At least her sacrifice wasn’t meaningless.
He was now absolutely sure there was someone on this joke of a vessel capable of standing up to his mercenaries, which was a threat to his whole operation.
His victim was almost spent. He had time for one last question.
‘Was there anyone special? Answer and I’ll make your final moment painless,’ he lied. The mon’keigh groaned and trembled, before settling down. With a final, shuddering breath, the Captain uttered a name.
Kaeteque smiled as he slowly plunged his knife into the human’s exposed heart. After savouring the last morsels of sweet torment, he activated his susurrea and spoke into its crystal core.
‘Bring me the kroot hound. It is time it earned the coins and flesh I spent on it.’
‘Where are we?’ Absakov asked. He knew they had approached the bow and were climbing upwards, but these tunnels were disused and unfamiliar. It felt as though he had stepped onto the dread halls of an ancient space hulk. The dust covering the rockrete floor was so thick he could easily imagine no one had passed this way since the Swift Salvation had first left its berth.
‘Three decks below the primary entry point of the voxtower,’ the Sister replied. She wiped the grime from a bronze plaque riveted to the wall with the hem of her grey habit. Absakov squinted in the gloom of the emergency lighting. Directions were laser-etched into the metal, but in a version of the High Gothic he wasn’t familiar with.
‘What is that language? And how do you know of these tunnels, Sister?’
‘You sure do ask a lot of questions for an enginseer.’
‘I’m sorry, but this? All of this? This doesn’t make any sense! I admit I wasn’t the most senior of the Priesthood on this vessel, but I’ve been around long enough to know it by heart. So how come these passages have remained hidden from our eyes for so long?’
Absakov felt panic creep into his voice with each sentence. He started sweating, a very human and wholly disgusting habit he intended to shed one day. But these revelations, coupled with the threat of the xenos pirates, had made him forget who he was addressing. Emotions bubbled up from the pit of his stomach and threatened to overwhelm his sanity.
‘We really don’t have time for your theatrics, young man. But if it helps put your mind at ease, know that this vessel was commissioned to be built to a specific design by my Order. These passages were meant to stay hidden.’
The Sister sighed. Absakov was suddenly terrified of the idea of the Sister losing her patience with him. Without a guide, he might wander these forsaken corridors until the xenos eventually found him. He was about to back down when the Sister answered.
‘Some secrets are best left undisturbed. You’ve already seen far more than you were destined to. Now come, we must reach the auxiliary vox station before it is too late.’
‘There’s no auxiliary vox station,’ Absakov protested.
The Sister sighed again and shook her head.
‘There’s really no helping you younglings.’
The reinforced cage shook as the kroot hound ripped at its prison in a frenzy. It wanted to be free: from the cage, from its captors, from its own life. Its existence had become an unending cycle of murder and agony.
‘You truly intend to unleash that thing while we are still aboard, my Captain?’ Dazasath asked. His second in command had proven trustworthy so far, but such brazen questioning of his authority clearly marked the end of an era.
‘Yes. I do. Now quit your snivelling and prepare to open the cage,’ Kaeteque commanded and his mercenaries obeyed. The massive cage had been rolled up against the entrance of one of the mon’keigh habitation holes. It was tiny and drab, just like their whole diminutive race. Besides the abundance of religious effigies their degenerate species seemed obsessed with, there wasn’t much to indicate anyone had lived here.
The cage’s doors were pulled aside and the kroot hound bolted inside the room, only to find itself in a dead-end. It let out a deafening roar from its malformed throat. The mercenaries took a step back as they finally laid eyes on the beast proper. The unleashed creature no longer resembled a kroot hound. It was more akin to a grotesquely muscled simian. Its wickedly sharp beak had been reinforced with adamantite and its bristling mane was sheared off to give way to arcane machinery that had been violently embedded in its flesh. Unnatural liquids of every chromatic hue sloshed in the vials of the auto-injector grafted to its spine.
Kaeteque lifted a control wand and depressed the command stud.
‘Mark the target,’ he hissed to the wand and it relayed his order to the bionics of the hound. The contents of a vial were plunged directly into the kroot hound’s spine and its demeanour changed instantly. It lowered its massive head and started sniffing around, clacking its metal infused beak as it did so. Shuffling about in search of a scent, it demolished the room’s meagre furniture.
‘That looks nothing like a kroot hound,’ Dazasath remarked as he sidled closer to Kaeteque, yet keeping his sight on the doorway behind which the monstrosity lurked.
Kaeteque did not like the mercenary’s tone. Dazasath was in no position to question him, yet had done so anyway. Kaeteque’s paranoia flared and, for a moment, his mind was overcome with tantalising visions of extreme torment visited upon Dazasath. With an effort, Kaeteque stopped himself.
‘The haemonculus I purchased it from assured me that it had been force fed flesh from an assortment of creatures that excel at hunting. A number of further improvements have been visited upon its flesh to make it obedient. As long as I have this gene-coded control wand, our safety is assured,’ Kaeteque explained smugly.
The control wand chimed twice.
‘Pull the cage aside and let it out.’
As his lackeys removed the cage and shifted it between themselves and the hunter-killer, Kaeteque approached the door. The sniffing had subsided. The silence was not necessarily a good sign. Like the long legs of an arachnid embracing its prey, Kaeteque’s fingers slid around the grip of his splinter pistol. That damned haemonculus had better not been lying, Kaeteque thought.
The kroot hound appeared in the opening, taking Kaeteque by surprise with its speed. Its genetically despoiled muscles rippled beneath its thick hide as it fought against the neural implant restricting its further movements. Pure, unadulterated rage radiated from the kroot hound. It sized up Kaeteque with eyes that had far too many pupils and shimmered with an almost palpable insanity.
He did not trust the haemonculus’s promises enough to approach this abomination any further.
‘Capture the mark,’ Kaeteque ordered it from a safe distance. He pressed the corresponding stud on the wand to ensure his command was carried out.
The kroot hound froze for a moment, before letting out an ear-splitting shriek. Kaeteque winced at the sudden aural assault. By the time he had blinked the tears from his eyes, the kroot hound was already tearing down the corridor towards the engine cavern.
‘What was that?’ Absakov asked suddenly, freezing in his tracks and glancing about fearfully. They were still in the secret passages, closer to their mysterious objective, but he couldn’t tell how much closer. The Sister’s stare prompted him to reconsider his words.
‘I think I heard… steps. Maybe? And I think I can smell a musk,’ Absakov explained as he sampled the particles drifting through the air, turning his head this way and that.
‘One… or maybe two. I’m not sure. But it’s human, I can assure you of that. Also, I detect traces of promethium in the air. The molecules have been altered,’ the enginseer said.
‘Keep talking,’ the Sister mouthed and Absakov obeyed. He continued to provide data on the scents he had detected, keeping it meaningless. The Sister began to prowl across the passage, passing silently from one wall to another as she inspected the dusty floor. Absakov knew she had found what she was looking for when she turned sharply and snuck up on an electric control box.
If he had known what the Sister was about to do, Absakov would have warned her that it was dangerous for the uninitiated to open the box, but she did it before he could react. Many had died from simply coming into close proximity to such a direct conduit of the Motive Force and he half-expected her to scream and flash fry from the discharge of electricity. Yet nothing happened, not even when the Sister’s other hand shot into the box.
‘By the Omnissiah!’ Absakov gasped. The Sister must truly be favoured by the Deus Mechanicus to survive such an ordeal. His surprise turned into confusion as the Sister dragged a struggling and cursing woman from the control box.
‘Hush, you coward,’ the Sister scolded the woman and gave her a solid smack across the back of her head.
‘I’ll fucking break your arm for that, you old hag!’ the woman spat back and swung a half empty bottle of moonshine at the Sister. Or at least where she had been a moment earlier. Before she could realise her target was gone, the Sister had slapped her across the face and twisted the bottle from her hand in the same instant.
‘Ow! God-Emperor damn it!’ she cursed and was immediately rewarded by the twin sister of the previous slap.
‘Do not blaspheme in my presence,’ the Sister warned her, the cold menace in her voice more sobering than the beating she’d handed out so readily.
‘Okay! Okay! Sheesh!’
‘Who are you?’ Absakov asked, still bewildered by the sudden torrent of unexpected developments.
The woman clambered cautiously to her feet and dusted herself down, keeping one eye on the Sister. She wore a standard jumpsuit emblazoned with the insignia of the Swift Salvation, but nothing else. Absakov was suddenly acutely aware that he could see more naked flesh than was appropriate. She noticed the enginseer for the first time.
‘Oh, hey cogboy! You with the mean Sister here?’
‘Silence, wench,’ the Sister hissed and raised the back of her hand. The woman immediately fell quiet, casting her eyes down, sullenly rubbing her reddened cheeks. ‘Only speak when you are spoken to. Now tell me who you are and how you got here. This place is off limits.’
‘I’m Aleksaya Madrakova, previously of the Valhallan 827th and now an armsman here on the Swift Salvation. And I was, um, off duty.’
‘Off duty?’ the Sister raised an eyebrow. ‘Only in death does duty end.’
‘Or at the end of my shift,’ Aleksaya quipped, dodging the anticipated incoming slap. What she did not anticipate was the slap catching her across the face despite her best attempt at evading it. ‘Ow!’
‘Confess your sins, before I lose my patience.’
‘Honest to God-Emperor, I was off duty! And so was Horge. So, you know, one thing followed the other. The fool had his pants down when the xenos came. The look of surprise on his face was priceless as he turned towards the door, his gun still erect. Even the xenos seemed surprised. Long enough for me to leg it, anyway. Got a bit lost, found this hiding place and here we are.’
‘Fornicating; abandoning your duty; and hiding from the enemy. I had never known a Valhallan to be a coward,’ the Sister said sternly. Absakov was once again reminded of his old Scholam mistress.
‘What would you have done in my place, Sister? Fuck them to death?’
‘Do not attempt to explain your sins to me, Madrakova. Now fix your attire, lest you distract Enginseer Absakov any further. I need him to be attentive to his surroundings,’ the Sister said.
Absakov coughed, feeling far too aware of his overwhelming organics when the Valhallan gave him a sly look. The armsman was certainly attractive, in a rough-and-tumble sort of way, and her musk was upsetting his hormonal balance.
Absakov surreptitiously inhaled some more, like a would-be addict finally finding the right drug. Something wasn’t right though. He could smell not just Madrakova and the Sister, but something else as well. The scent was part biological, part inorganic and wholly alien.
Tortured metal screamed as the bulkhead was torn from its casing and flew across the accessway, crashing into pipes and ducts. Steam hissed from the ruptures, obscuring the kroot hound as it smashed through. It shook its massive beak as the hot fumes confounded it for a moment.
Kaeteque skidded to a halt, unable to follow his hunting beast into the scalding vapours. He heard it vault the railing of the accessway and hit the deck one level below them. No matter how powerful the kroot hound had become through the augmentations visited upon it by the haemonculus, its cognitive functions hadn’t changed, making it direct and careless.
His mercenaries caught up, but hung back in case their client decided to vent his frustration on them. Kaeteque, on the other hand, considered this another sign of potential mutiny.
‘What are you waiting for? Find another route!’
They obeyed, but for how long, Kaeteque didn’t know. He had to finish this before the situation got out of hand.
Absakov screamed as a hulking monstrosity from his darkest nightmares burst from an intersection behind them. It slammed against the corridor’s wall, leaving a dent the size of a landcar. Without losing any of its momentum, it sped towards them and let loose an ear splitting shriek. In the close confines of the ship, it reminded Absakov of the warhorn of a Titan.
‘Omnissiah preserve us,’ the Enginseer whimpered and fell to his knees in abject terror. He couldn’t outrun this thing, let alone fight it.
He heard the Sister roar and turned to look. Aleksaya was running away full tilt, leaving them to their fate. Too slow, Absakov thought and turned to face his death. It was almost upon him. Time crawled to a grinding halt.
The Sister jumped forward, her grey robes fluttering like the wings of an angel. She seemed so miniscule in front of the abhorrent amalgam of xenos flesh and technology. The thing drew back a great arm covered in sharp quills and bulging with grafted muscles. The Sister ducked underneath the arm and came out on the other side so fast Absakov couldn’t follow her. Blood dripped from her hands. The beast still let the punch fly, clawing huge gouges into the flooring.
Blood cascaded from multiple puncture wounds. The beast huffed in confusion. Its prey was unarmed, small and frail. The momentary confusion was overridden by a fresh injection of stimulants and it jumped back into action with a maddened shriek, its massive taloned arms swinging.
Absakov couldn’t believe his eyes. Ever since meeting the Sister, he had witnessed one miracle after the other, but the Sister going toe-to-toe with this xenos brute was beyond even his wildest imagination. He watched in awe as the Sister danced around its wildly flailing claws, avoiding them by a hair’s breadth each time. The creature’s uncoordinated attacks offered plenty of opportunities for retaliation. She weaved her way in range, shaping spears out of her fingers. Her arms became grey blurs as she punched holes into the alien fiend’s tough hide with the strength of an industrial piston.
The auto-injector kept pumping vial after vial of stimulants into the kroot hound’s system, boosting its speed, strength, and reaction times. It was gaining on the Sister.
‘It’s healing itself!’ Absakov shouted in horror as he saw flesh knit itself back together. The Sister did not react to his words, her focus entirely dedicated to the beast. Absakov felt ashamed that he couldn’t do anything, but his legs wouldn’t obey him, so what chance did he have of helping? With a sinking feeling, he realised he could see the first signs of fatigue appear on the Sister. She started wheezing and the number of strikes she was landing dwindled. More and more wounds healed and the monstrosity’s attacks began to show more signs of cohesion.
‘Watch out!’ Absakov cried, but it was too late. The Sister had slipped on some blood and that moment of imbalance gave the beast the opening it so desired. It backhanded the Sister with the force of a Land Raider, smashing her into a wall. Absakov expected her splattered remains to cover everything from floor to ceiling, but the Sister was still in one piece. She pushed herself from the wall and threw herself below the next swing. The kroot hound kicked out with a hindleg, its massive talons catching the Sister’s side. She spun away, trying to dissipate the impact instead of absorbing it, but fresh blood stained her grey robe where it was slashed apart by the monumental blow.
The scent of its target’s blood enraged the beast further and it pounced on the Sister. She wasn’t fast enough anymore to avoid the collision and went under, trapped beneath the thing’s massive bulk. Absakov thought the weight of the nightmarish thing would crush her to death, but the Sister continued to struggle. The kroot hound lowered its immense head and shrieked its fury into the Sister’s face.
A beam of pure crimson light flashed down the corridor, passing over Absakov’s head and striking the monster in the eye. It reeled back and shrieked again in pain. More shots followed in a slow but steady rhythm, yet the beast was thrashing about and the shots missed other vitals. Aleksaya stepped into Absakov’s field of view, a standard Guard issue M36 lasrifle raised and maintaining a steady rate of aimed shots.
The hulking monstrosity released the Sister as it tried to shield itself from further pain, even as it gathered itself for a charge.
The Sister rolled from underneath it. She was covered in blood, mostly not her own. She was panting heavily and grimaced in pain as she spun back on her heels. Glancing about, she seemed to be assessing the situation. If she did not find a way to neutralise the kroot hound, it would kill them all before Aleksaya had a chance to empty her clip. Time was quickly running out for the Sister, but she remained immobile even as the monstrosity gathered itself for a counter-attack.
‘Sister! Move!’ Absakov screamed, who was crouched down just a few feet away from the monstrous xenos. If she stayed there any longer, it would notice her and that she’d be dead in the blink of an eye.
‘I’m almost out!’ Aleksaya barked, not taking her eyes from the huge beast.
The floor beneath the Sister dented as she exploded from her position, ricocheting from floor to wall to ceiling. She hung there for a heartbeat, seemingly defying gravity, before launching herself down onto the kroot hound. Her bootheels struck the auto-injector rig with the power of a lance strike.
The abomination’s back broke from the colossal impact, the mechanism grafted into its spine splintering into a thousand pieces. Broken vials and shards of metal peppered its spinal cord. The monstrosity’s hindlegs gave out and it toppled onto its side. The Sister held onto the remains of the injector rig and relentlessly pummelled the exposed spine with her fists.
It whistled and trilled in agony, snapping its wicked beak, its still-functioning legs scrambling for purchase aimlessly. The Sister continued her barrage of thunderous punches. Absakov heard bones crack open with a sickening crunch and the hound shuddered before going limp.
‘Well fuck me,’ Aleksaya muttered.
‘How did she…?’ Absakov asked, dumbstruck.
‘No idea, cogboy, but I sure as hell ain’t pissin’ her off no more.’.
The Sister stepped from the corpse, shaking gore from her hands. The monstrosity behind her began to shrink in on itself, its meat bubbling beneath the skin. Acidic sludge seeped from the wounds that had not had time to heal before the abomination’s demise.
‘We must be on our way now. I’m sure its master will be along momentarily,’ the Sister said and walked between the two. Absakov and Aleksaya shared a glance, then quickly fell in step behind the Sister.
The control wand pulsed the colour of spilt blood in Kaeteque’s hand. He hadn’t bothered to ask the haemonculus about all of its features, but he knew a mortis pulse when he saw it.
With a roar of pure rage, he smashed the wand against the rockrete floor, shattering the delicate device into a thousand pieces. His mercenaries stood back, giving him plenty of space to vent, lest they suffer his fury. Frustration gnawed at him with acid fangs. The threat of failure loomed above, but he would not give up. Not this close to his quarry.
‘Find and kill whoever did this. No prisoners. Not this time,’ he hissed between clenched teeth, eyes ablaze with murderous intent. His men circled around Kaeteque and rushed off to do their client’s bidding,.
Kaeteque unhooked the agoniser from his belt. The thong uncoiled with an angry hiss as the weapon’s energy field bit into the rockrete floor. A flick of his wrist made the agoniser crack with a thunderclap. A dreadful grin crawled across Kaeteque’s pale, inhuman face as he set off after his mercenaries.
Calling the tiny shrine hidden behind a bank of forgotten cogitators the auxiliary vox station was quite an overstatement. It lacked all of the sophisticated features an august communications instrument would require in order to appease the Machine Spirit housed within.
‘This is it?’ Absakov asked doubtfully, glancing about to see if he could spot anything that actually resembled a vox station. He found nothing.
‘It shall suffice in an emergency. Trust in the God-Emperor, lad, and He shall deliver upon us a miracle,’ the Sister said.
‘Bloody get to it, cogboy. I think I can hear footsteps,’ Aleksaya hissed from the door that led into the storage space where the shrine was hidden.
Absakov knelt in front of the shrine and began the Incantation of Activation. He had never operated a vox system before, but he prayed fervently that the Omnissiah would show him the way. At the end of the first verse, he pressed the activation rune. The Machine Spirit buzzed to life, exhaling stale air from its vents. Dim light seeped from beneath its ivory keys and brass dials as a palm sized screen blinked to emerald life.
‘Fuck! They are here!’ Aleksaya cried and Absakov heard her unleash a salvo of lasfire. Even distracted with the activation sequence, Absakov’s nose implant could detect ozone as the lasbeams burned the air. He tried to ignore the hail of poison crystals peppering their position. The Machine Spirit signalled its willingness to accept a task by blinking a command prompt into existence on its monochrome green phosphor screen.
‘Sister! What’s the message? Where do I send it?’ Absakov asked. He couldn’t see what was happening in the rest of the storage room, but he could hear Aleksaya continue to fire.
‘Liberate Me Ex Xenos!’ the Sister shouted. Absakov keyed in the message carefully, making sure he spelled the High Gothic words right. He wanted to ask the Sister again for the broadcast frequency when Aleksaya screamed and her lasrifle fell silent.
Absakov flinched, but he couldn’t hesitate any longer. Setting the vox to general broadcast, he commanded the Machine Spirit to begin transmission. Something smashed against the cogitators he was hidden behind and he yelped.
There was now a gap between two of the defunct machines and he could see what was happening on the other side. Aleksaya lay on the ground, frothing at the mouth, her body spasming as alien toxins overwhelmed her. Her lasrifle lay discarded, more poison crystals embedded in its worn frame.
The xenos were tall, dark shadows brandishing wicked knives and murderous smiles as they slithered into the room. They had the upper hand and wanted to take pleasure in their victory. A dozen knives descended upon the Sister in serrated silver arcs. Absakov watched in shock as the blades connected with the Sister and passed through where she was supposed to be standing.
A grey blur zigzagged between the aliens like dirty lightning and, one by one, they crumpled to the ground. Fist-sized holes had been driven through their necks, ripping through armour, skin and bone with equal ease. Suddenly, the Sister was back in the position where Absakov had last properly seen her, a mere heartbeat earlier. Fresh blood and shredded meat sloughed from the rigid speartips formed by her fingers. She exhaled slowly and turned towards Absakov’s hiding place.
‘It’s fine now, you can come out,’ she said. Her face had turned haggard from the sudden expenditure of energy, but a beatific smile lit her up. Absakov couldn’t help but return the expression, before it quickly turned into a look of surprise.
Kaeteque stood outside the doorway, shocked to hear the mon’keigh speak. A dozen of his hired muscle had entered the room. Yet instead of emerging with the skinned corpses of their foes, they had died to a single female mon’keigh. As stupid as their deaths were, they had given him an opportunity. The mon’keigh was occupied with another.
Stepping into the doorway, Kaeteque whipped the agoniser at the first target he could see. The mon’keigh wore a grey robe and looked old for its kind. The barbed fall raked her back and drew blood, followed by a flash of corruscating energy. The agoniser’s discharge burned through the Sister’s nervous system, turning her world into one of blazing agony.
One lash followed the other in quick succession, lavishing her body with bouts of blinding pain. Without armour, no amount of training or augmentation could protect the female against the devastating onslaught. She crumpled to the ground where she continued to spasm with each whiplash, her tormented cries caged behind painfully gritted teeth.
The shriek came from a row of defunt machines. A mon’keigh with a grotesque brass nose sprang from behind them and rushed Kaeteque. The Kabalite shot the repulsive face full of lethal splinters without a second glance. The panicked mon’keigh fell face first and gargled as his tongue melted in his mouth and slowly suffocated him.
Kaeteque continued to lash the Sister until he was sure she would not be able to fight back. He bound her arms and legs with the thong of the agoniser and dragged her from the storage.
‘You cost me a lot of money, but I’ll make sure you’ll repay me in Commorragh,’ he hissed with glee.
The Swift Salvation’s corridors were empty and devoid of life. There was no one else left aboard the mon’keigh ship to contest Kaeteque. He would return with a bounty that was beyond his wildest imagination. A female mon’keigh that could kill Drukhari with ease was extremely rare. He would make a killing with her, either by selling her or, better yet, having her fight in the arenas.
‘You were hard to catch, you mon’keigh bitch,’ he sniggered and licked his lips. Her suffering would bring him great pleasure.
A painful pressure began to build behind his eyeballs. Kaeteque winced and shook his head. A thin line of dark blood trickled from a nostril and hung from his upper lip. He touched his face, shocked to see blood on his fingers.
‘What in the name of -’
A score of blinding flashes surrounded him. He squeezed his eyes shut against the brightness, reaching for his splinter pistol. A shot hit his elbow, the impact followed by an explosion that ripped his arm off. Kaeteque screamed and reached for the stump, but more bolt shells hit his body. Miniature explosions ripped him to shreds from the inside.
The Sister jolted awake to the scent of smelling salts. The crowd of worried faces leaning over her was a sight for sore eyes. She managed a weak smile.
‘Thank you for coming, Sisters,’ she croaked. A Sister Hospitaller offered a flask and the Sister drank deep from it. She felt some of her strength return and sat up with the help of the Hospitaller.
‘We have received your message, Sister,’ a Canoness Superior said from behind the Hospitaller. ‘I am glad we arrived in time. Locking onto your teleport beacon was difficult.’
‘Don’t worry, darling. All is well,’ the Sister replied as she stood with a pained wince, dusting down her grey robes.
‘What about the Children?’
‘They are safe with me,’ the Sister replied, gently touching her neck and chest. The power armoured Sisters all fell to their knees before her and offered thanks to the God-Emperor for His protection. The Sister led them through the prayer. When it was finished, she beckoned them to rise.
‘Now, be a dear and exterminate any remaining xenos on this ship, would you?’
‘Yes, Sister Supremus!’ the Canoness Superior cried in unison with the rest of her honour guard.
About the Author
Daniel was born on a sunny, peaceful spring morning in Budapest, Hungary. He preferred watching television over reading books. That changed when his school took him to the public library and everyone was forced to pick a book to read. He chose The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Despite his initial disdain, our hero devoured the book in a few days and hasn’t stopped reading since. If you got this far, please send help, his budget (and shelves) can’t handle more books! Oh, and he occasionally entertains the idea of being a writer. The fool.