Prologue

There was darkness. There was emptiness. Even if someone had been there once, the slightest traces of that nonexistent person has faded to nothing in the void. All of a sudden a powerful voice broke in.

'Open your eyes!'

The blank murk shattered with a flash of excruciating brightness, and a swarm of visions rushed in with feverish, kaleidoscopic speed. Faces, stars, outlines of weirdest shapes flickered so quickly they could hardly be glimpsed. Colossal walls of a nightmarish shrine glimmer with countless crimson flames. A sad, peaked face is revealed under an imposing horned helmet. An artificial moon's mechanical heart breaks apart. Five doomed warriors come up to a cyclopean gate. Then the voice bellowed again.

'Open your eyes!'

The visions ceded to a blurred view of a dimly lit hall and a tall shape of a man in massive armour. A spiky metal halo over his sharp face reflected the red light of two flaming torches above his pauldrons. Long scrolls sealed onto his breastplate rustled in the draft, and symbols etched into the vermilion ceramite were painful to look at.

Sounds of an eerie chant filled the hall, the choir barely visible behind the man's broad shoulders. Scraps of memories started coming back slowly. I'd seen the armoured giant some day before, possibly, aeons ago. The very hall where I lay helpless seemed vaguely familiar.

A few disturbing words left the man's lips, accompanied by the bloodcurdling canticle, and he stepped forward and walked in a solemn pace till he stopped somewhere behind where I couldn't see him anymore.

I tried to lift my head to have a look at the place. The choir stood before me, all clad in the same crimson armour as their mysterious leader. Most horribly disfigured, their faces and limbs hardly human at all. Another giant appeared from behind and took the leader's place at my feet. I lifted my head again but this time the leader put his cold gauntlet over my forehead and continued his chilling prayer of unwords.

The second man was taller and leaner, and his face was still shaded even when he stood in a circle of candlelight. He echoed the leader's invocation in a youthful melodic voice raising his hands in a fluent gesture, and his aura was even more harrowing than the warrior-priest's.

The leader uttered a brief command, and his ghastly acolyte took out a crude dagger of black flint. I tried to shield myself but my arms didn't obey. The priest raised his voice, and horrific canticles thundered all over the hall.

I thought my heart would stop at the burning touch of the blade. Psychic pain brought tears to my eyes. A quick slash through the cloth of my shirt. My breath stopped as if I was pinned under a giant boulder. Cuts came in a strange pattern, and the incantation roared with almost inhuman power.

Suddenly the acolyte took me up from the stone I lay upon. My whole body got numb at his touch. As he carried me away from the hall, the priest led the chanting procession through a dark passage.

A gust of fresh wind smelled of the sea. The procession walked out of to a rocky path under the clouded night sky. Torches cast reddish glints on the towering cliffs around, voices echoed over the deserted place. The canticle rhythm got weirder and dizzier as the host stopped abruptly. The priest got close again, placing his hand over my face as if giving a sinister blessing.

His gaze met mine for a single moment, and a violent shudder shook my body. My lips parted, but no sound came out. Finally belated fear worked its way through the strange paralysis yet my limbs failed me. My heart leapt up when the acolyte raised me again. Three steps forward, then his grip loosened. Helpless, I plummeted into the murk, and blackout swallowed me.

The wake was sudden as a slap in the face. Troubling presence of something dismal and deeply hostile. Still I was unable to move let alone open my eyes. Voices. Normal human voices, so out of tune with the sulky aura. A bout of sickness struck me as someone approached me.

'Emperor be praised, this is his interrogator,' a woman's shrill voice uttered.

'The cultists are somewhere nearby, her wounds are still fresh,' a male voice replied immediately. 'Plodia keep some distance. Looks like she's a latent psyker.'

The woman's pressing aura ceded, and I passed away in a whirlpool of ghastly visions.

It took days, if not weeks, to recuperate after the failed operation. When I woke from the stupor, I could remember but a few bits from what had happened on that backwater planet. I wasn't too much shocked by my mentor's demise as it had been more unusual for an unscrupulous Radical like him to have lived for so long. To my relief, Uncle, my closest friend and guardian among the retinue members, had managed to survive after the carnage in the mountains.

The old mercenary wasn't fond of my mentor as he had joined the retinue for the last will of my foster parents only. He looked quite solaced when he entered my room and found me conscious.

'Lassie, you've made it. Lord Corydoras was so worried when he learned about that bloody sacrifice. At least that wretch of a heretic won't ditch anyone more.'

A bitter man who'd lost both of his children in a cultist revolt, he was always open to express his hatred for Chaos worshippers.

'The visions are horrible. As if someone is constantly in touch with my soul. I feel the presence even in my sleep. Acrolux the astropath says I won't even pay attention to that in a month or so but it's disgusting.'

'Witch-stuff.' his face got sad. 'I'd hate to lose you as you're like an only surviving child of mine. For the worst, the traitors have managed to get away.'

'Red armoured giants.' Fragmented memories slowly assembled into the whole picture. 'A Chaos priest and his acolyte. No one could have predicted their interference.'

Struggling with headache I tried to recall our late sage's lecture on the Traitor Legions. Not my first encounter with the damned warriors from ancient horrors, but the scariest one for now. Red and steel. Rune sigils. Blasphemous worship.

'The Word Bearers.' I gasped. 'Wonder how our nemesis managed to bargain with them.'

'Worse, lassie. Our late boss.'

I spent the whole day sitting in a chair and talking to Uncle and the inquisitor couple that had rescued me. Luckily the fall from a cliff resulted in a dislocated leg and a few broken ribs only. I was especially grateful for having the ominous sigil removed but its psychic trace was still lingering around.

The goal of the sacrifice had been petty as most of my late mentor's machinations. He needed a daemonhost to settle the score with a long-term nemesis but messed with a far more dangerous power instead.

The day before the fall was still a disarray of random snatches and fragments: a rundown roadside inn, regular reconnaissance in the outskirts of a mountain village, a swarm of cultists rushing out of hidden caves.

'Accursed traitors.' Uncle was indignant as seldom before. 'A bunch of sick freaks like those who have ruined my birth planet, sir, ma'am. The PDF were wiped out first of all, and a few full Chapters arrived to clean the mess.'

'Dark Apostle Imudon.I Plodia was browsing document files on her dataslate. 'An obnoxious menace. More of a keen manipulator than a simple worshipper.'

On that night Plodia's null aura had warded off the daemon ready to seize my body. An inhibitor eliminated most of the discomfort but the blank spot in my psychic sight still caused unrest.

'I was astonished to learn I'm a psyker,' I admitted.

'You're lucky your ability is too small to cause massive harm by itself,' said Corydoras. 'But you will need everyday trainings to avoid getting eaten like your former boss. I've already told Acrolux to instruct you.'

I spent a few months in their company getting ready for my future promotion. I'd rather stay with the friendly couple and their retinue for a year or two but as a black storm was gathering at the Cadian Gate, things got hasty.

These months had brought new skills and acquaintances. Corydoras' retinue was utterly different from my previous one in terms of both teamwork and personal attitude. A tightly knit group of competent acolytes, it would have been suited for apprenticeship much better than random riffraff my late mentor used to hire in underhives and dump without remorse.

I had to hone my fighting skills, learn the tricky art of paperwork, plan the line-up for my own future retinue.

'Two are already a team, Uncle,' I joked sadly on an evening in a field camp looking at Corydoras' acolytes chatting after dinner. 'Usually, when an Inquisitor gets the promotion, he or she takes along some of the mentor's companions. Our boss was so damn 'wise' to have them all killed.'

'Lassie, our patrons are on friendly terms with the big boss, Lord Platydoras himself. They'll find you a hired gun or two, maybe even an astropath or a priest.'

Yet the first volunteer who arrived a fortnight later was truly peculiar. I was filling in the application forms in the Inquisitorial Fortress on Uebotia, the sector capital, when he entered the office. A mountain of muscles and off-white tangled fur, he looked like a cricetine rodent magnified to grotesque proportions. His beady eyes looked quite friendly though, and his voice and tone turned out to be completely human.

'Nice to meet you, m'lady,' he bowed his head courteously. 'I'm currently known under a preposterous name of Fluffster and learned about the recruitment from my friend-in-mishap whom Lord Corydoras and Lady Plodia happen to know as Peachy.'

I tried not to show excessive curiosity but the stranger's appearance and manners seemed too extravagant and intriguing. Probably not a xeno, than...

'Lady Volentia.' He shook my hand with his large pinkish paw. 'Hope you don't find your humble servant too repulsive to join your crew. The life of a Magos is likely to bring unpleasant surprises, and the only way to keep the job going might be shocking for an outsider's eye. Even in this clumsy cricetid body I still serve Him.'

Uncle frowned and poured himself another glass of amasec.

'Wonders never cease.'

Fluffster's politeness didn't last for long though. Quite melancholic and grumpy, he was still of great help concerning both lore and tech. Not too eager to teach me on purpose, he allowed me to watch when he was dealing with cogitators and vehicles and, as time passed, even let me to try my own skills in minor parts of his work.

But that was his only major possession that was really of value for our gathering team - an old owl-shaped trailer he had found on some junkyard and lovingly cleaned and upgraded. Initially designed for family travels, the owl became a mobile home for our little family of five.

The fourth member was an acquaintance of both Corydoras and Fluffster, and he would be a jewel of every inquisitor's retinue. A desperate sergeant of the Blood Angels on his Warrior's Pilgrimage, he yearned for nothing but redemption for a tragic failure that had costed him his entire squad and had almost rendered him possessed.

As for the fifth one, we stumbled upon her in our last joint mission with Corydoras and Plodia right before I had my application approved by Lord Platydoras. We found her in deep snow during a daring raid in the rear of the Black Legion's attacking force, mangled and dying from horrible wounds, left as a grisly warning for her Hospitaller sisters. A lone survivor of a Sororitas cadre captured by surprise by the invaders, she didn't return to the fold of her order when her wounds healed. She chose the vows of a Repentia instead and completed our band of leftovers.

Back at that time, we could see but the first little clouds of the future storm, and I entered the path of my independent service with a certain sadness to part with the people who had become my friends during the months together. Still I was eager to get to work with the team's leadership rested solely on my shoulders. And, to be honest, being in charge itself was easier than realising I was the only one in charge from now on.