"The people of Cetshwayo are my one care, my over-riding temporal responsibility. The Emperor knows this, as he knows my sincere and true heart. All I have done I have done not for my own profit or sport, but for the wellbeing of my people."
King My'thyo L'farga, Imperial Governor of Cetshwayo, shortly before his execution for tithe evasion.
Imperium – Vermane – Small Ecclesiarchy Priory on Eastern Continent
It had not taken long for matters to progress. Two female visitors, hooded and cloaked, were proof enough that someone was taking the Prior's report very seriously.
"Sisters, I bid you welcome." Brother Faramond inclined his bald head. "I trust your journey was not too onerous?"
"Not too onerous brother," replied the taller of the two, lowering her hood to reveal a marble-cut face with harsh grey eyes. Her confident bearing, along with her distinctive hairstyle, made her allegiance unmistakable. "Please announce us to the Prior."
Brother Faramond bowed again, concealing his trepidation, and hurried away through a side door, leaving the nave deserted. Flickering candles cast writhing shadows on the walls, seeming to dance to and fro between the arched stone pillars running either side of the nave. It gave the place an atmosphere of subtle menace.
"Was it right to dismiss him so?" The other lowered her hood, revealing a younger face with long hair hanging unbound.
"We are of the Sororitas, child" her companion replied. "And we do not have time for pleasantries. This is a matter of great import to the Missionarius Galaxia and to the Ecclesiarchy as a whole."
"I am aware, Sister. It will…" she stopped suddenly as the rotund Prior entered through the door by which Brother Faramond had left, striding with affected dignity, wearing a red chasuble evidently donned in a hurry. He inclined his head as he reached the duo.
"Sisters, we are honoured to have you here. I am the Prior of this humble house. It was I who contacted his grace the Bishop on this matter."
"I am Sister-Superior Mariel Kytaro of the Order of the Seeker in the Night." Sister Mariel acknowledged his respect with a brief nod. "This is my ward, Jeanne of Calion. We would see the young man immediately."
"Yes? I mean…yes of course!" the Prior spluttered, gesturing for the pair to follow.
The sacristy was fairly large, considering the size of the Priory overall. Images of Imperial saints covered the walls, the wardrobes and cabinets. Rich carpets covered the floors, which were of finely-cut stone. The one window was set with stained glass in an image of Saint Morgenthal. It was also, they noticed, somewhat warmer than in the nave and better lit.
"This is the young man," the Prior gestured at a thin mattress, seeming rather innocuous in the richly-decorated chamber. On it lay a young man, his face well-proportioned with high cheekbones and narrow eyes, framed with long black hair reaching to his waist. A pilgrim's grey cloak had been laid over him as an improvised blanket.
"How long has he been like this?" Sister Mariel asked, as Jeanne knelt beside the mattress.
"He has slept like this since he collapsed, a week ago," the Prior replied. "We could gain no response from him."
"He is tormented, Sister-Superior," Jeanne laid one delicate hand on the youth's sweat-stained brow. "His eyes move, and he sweats profusely." Indeed, Mariel could see his eyes moving frantically under the eyelids. His lips twitched as though to speak, but no sound came.
"Tell me again," she said to the Prior, who was looking rather nervous. "What exactly did he say?"
"He said that someone 'bade him', Sister," the Prior replied. "He said that he was bidden 'from the throne'. Also, something about children of gold and of stone doing battle under the eye. I could not make sense of it, Sister."
Mariel did not reply, but reached under her cloak and brought forth a pict-slate. Tapping the icons in a pattern the Prior could not make out, she moved back over to the mattress and held the pict-slate close to the boy's face. On it was a frozen image, of a young man in white, leading a charge of strange elfin-eared warriors. The Prior craned his neck to see the image, noting the strange pictograms and gothic script superimposed at the edges of the image. He got the impression that something had recorded it, but exactly what he could not tell.
"They are alike," Jeanne said, just a little emotion creeping into her tone.
"Yes," Mariel stood up, putting away the pict-slate. "He is the one to whom the Crimson Guardians referred. He is Valarion of the Alliance of High Humanity."
"Our purpose is clear then, Sister."
"Yes," Mariel turned to face the Prior, who backed away quickly. "Father Prior, we will remove this youth as soon as transport can be summoned. By the authority of the Orders Sabine and the Adepta Sororitas, I lay claim on him."
"As…as you wish, Sister," the Prior stammered, more than a little relieved that she had not chastised him for eavesdropping. "But…must transport be summoned? Is he of such import?"
"More than you realize, Father-Prior," Mariel headed through the door and out into the transept. The Prior had the good sense not to follow.
"Your grace, we have found him."
"You are certain?"
"Yes. His face matches the image we were given." There was a hiss of what might have been satisfaction over the vox.
"Remain where you are. We will be with you in a few hours, but there have been…complications."
"What do you mean, your grace?"
"An Inquisitorial Frigate entered orbit less than an hour ago. I have only just received word."
Mariel cursed, then made the sign of the Eagle. Getting Valarion off the planet was already going to be difficult, but the last thing she needed was interference from the Inquisition.
"How did they find out?"
"I don't know. But do not let the Inquisition take him. Use force if you must. We cannot afford to lose him, especially not to the Inquisition."
"I understand, your grace."
"And keep an eye out for PlanSec. I don't know what they know, but I'll wager they've been listening. The Emperor Protects." The vox cut off before she could reply.
Vermane – Eastern Continent – Stahlheim City
The Aquila Transport's engines thundered as they calmed, hydraulics hissing and clanking as they came to rest on the landing pad of the Ministry of Planetary Security's continental sub-headquarters. The reinforced-plasteel roof groaned as it slid back into place, blocking out the stars above and concealing the landing pad from prying eyes.
The ramp clunked as Tiberius Denathril came down. Two lines of grey-uniformed PlanSec guards snapped to attention as he stepped off and onto the scorched plasteel of the landing pad. Before him stood an aging, grey-haired PlanSec higher-up, a General if his rank insignia were anything to go by. He snapped off a salute, the medals on his white jacket jingling.
"My Lord Inquisitor. Welcome to Vermane." His voice was clipped and harsh. "I am General Freidmann of the Vermane System Ministry of Planetary Security."
"It was you who noted the presence of the outsider?" Denathril replied abruptly. He was in no mood for pleasantries, even if an Imperial Inquisitor's arrival could warrant a full PDF Review with air-shows and services of thanksgiving. Some of his colleagues had inflated opinions of themselves.
"Yes my Lord. An informer of ours reported his presence at a small priory outside Cyrinsgard. I trust the portfolio was all in order?"
"All in order, General." Denathril was carrying the portfolio under his arm. "But I have important business to attend to."
"Of course my Lord. This way."
After a long walk through a series of sterile-looking cream-painted corridors, they entered a large room with a holoprojector in the middle of the floor and a series of dark screens lining the walls. Younger officers in grey uniforms sat at stations under the screens, others moving between them, conversing in low voices, engaging in what appeared to be everyday secret police work. They stepped up to the holoprojector, which had a servitor wired into a terminal on one side.
"Bring up the Cyrinsgard map, File A42-44768" Freidmann said perfunctorily. The servitor made no reply. A servo-arm extending from its shoulder drew a thin datacard from a rack in what was once its stomach and pushed it into a slot on the terminal in front. The holoprojector hummed to life, displaying a three-dimensional map of a small town. One building some distance outside the town was highlighted in red, with the road leading to it highlighted in blue. Other buildings were highlighted in pink, none of which were on the highlighted route or the similarly highlighted smaller roads branching off it.
Denathril had to admit, PlanSec was nothing if not thorough.
"I assume that is the priory," he pointed out the building highlighted in red.
"Indeed, my Lord." Without any prompting, the servitor withdrew the card and replaced it with another. The map fell away leaving only the priory, which expanded to provide a more detailed image. Denathril could even make out the doors and windows, all highlighted in blue of course.
"We are certain that the subject is still inside. But two other subjects entered the priory just before you arrived. Our agent on the ground sent a picture." Another card, and an image appeared, showing two cloaked figures entering the priory through the main door.
"Then it is certain the Ecclesiarchy is on to him," Denathril said darkly. "But there may yet be time. Have they sent any signals?"
"One secure channel from the priory to Saint Morgenthal's shortly after they arrived. We have a recording, but it's still being decoded."
"Show me." The mechanical arm moved again, one datacard removed, one put in its place. The image of the priory disappeared and was replaced with a ream of scrambled gibberish, with one or two recognizable words and letters in Imperial gothic here and there.
"It's a Sororitas code," Denathril's tone was grim. "Favoured by the Orders Sabine."
"General!" Both looked to see a younger officer, a lieutenant by his insignia, standing nervously to attention opposite them.
"Report!" the General snapped.
"Forgive me, my Lord Inquisitor, General," the young lieutenant swallowed, evidently nervous. "But we've received a report from observer team 7A in the capitol. Activity at the Cathedral." He thrust out a sheet of plas-paper in one gloved hand. Freidmann grabbed it from him and read it quickly, his eyes sliding back and forth like pendula.
"Fuelling two gunships," he hissed. "My Lord, it seems we are running out of time."
"Exactly how far away is the capitol?"
"2,480 kilometres my Lord. If you leave now there's a chance you'll beat them."
"Indeed," Denathril eyed the General suspiciously. "I will be requiring transport, of course."
"Yes…my lord." Freidmann had done his best, but he could still detect the reluctance. "There should be a helicopter on standby over in C-block. Lieutenant, show his lordship there." The Lieutenant saluted, utterly failing to conceal his rising panic, and gestured for Denathril to follow.
They walked in silence for a while, their boots thumping on the thin carpet. Not that Tiberius had much to talk about.
"Two gunships? Evidently the Ecclesiarchy want him as well. For the Missionarius Galaxia perhaps? This could complicate things."
Almost certainly if the Orders Sabine were really involved. It would explain the gunships if nothing else.
"I hope this helicopter of yours is fast, Lieutenant Walpur." It was not exactly polite to go rifling the boy's mind, but Denathril was tired of calling him Lieutenant.
"You should reach Cyrinsgard within an hour, my Lord," Walpur replied, his answer making Denathril curse inwardly. The capitol was over 2000 kilometers away, but Sororitas gunships, if indeed that's what they were, could easily manage the distance in an hour. This would be cutting it fine indeed.
"My lord, I…"
"Lieutenant Kirin Walpur," Denathril cut the boy off. "If you wish to succeed in an organization such as PlanSec, then you must learn not to piss your pants in the presence of superiors who can have you disposed-of on a whim. This is an important skill and invaluable vis-a-vis your promotion and mortality prospects."
"Yes my Lord," Walpur all but spluttered the words. "I'm sorry, my Lord."
"You may address me as Inquisitor, Lieutenant." He was growing tired of being called 'lord'. "By the way, was their anything else?" He nodded at the bundle of documents and heavy-looking cylinders Walpur was somehow managing to carry under one arm.
"Yes, Inquisitor," Walpur followed with the considerable feat of managing to extract one of the cylinders while moving and without spilling the whole lot on the floor. "This arrived care of the Governor's residence. It has an Inquistorial cipher." Denathril took the cylinder, noted the cipher, pulled out the document and scanned it quickly.
"Well that's one thing," he slid the document into the cylinder and handed it back to Walpur. "Take a message Lieutenant. They are to proceed at the PlanSec safehouse in Cyrinsgard and show appropriate caution. Is that quite clear?"
"Yes Inquisitor." On top of everything else, Walpur had managed to draw out an archaic reservoir-pen and notepad, and had written down the message without dropping anything. "I will need to…"
They stopped suddenly as they came to the end of the corridor. Two more grey-uniformed PlanSec officers came past with a straitjacketed man held between them. The man had a bag on his head. As they turned the corner and continued, Denathril put it out of his mind.
C-block turned out to be pretty much identical to the block they had vacated, and he didn't even know which block that was. He had noted a complete lack of directional signs or markings of any kind on the walls. Presumably this was to make infiltration or escape more difficult.
As Walpur arranged for his return message to be sent, Denathril examined the helicopter standing idle on the landing pad in front of him, being attended-to by an enginseer and two servitors. It was an archaic design dating back to ancient Terra, painted a light grey. A fuselage not dissimilar in shape to an Imperial Navy Valkyrie though somewhat larger, topped with a four-blades which, if he understood this technology correctly, rotated at high speed to keep the machine airborne. A rotary assault-cannon protruded from the chin, and two cockpits faced forward, one slightly above and behind the other.
"Is it ready?"
"It is ready, Inquisitor," the enginseer replied, his artificial voice harsh and metallic-sounding. As he spoke, Walpur returned with two flight-suited pilots in tow. They snapped to attention as Walpur halted, faces hidden behind mirror-visors.
"Inquisitor, I have sent the message, it is received and confirmed," Walpur rattled off, seeming a little impatient. "You are cleared to leave as soon as the roof is open."
"Excellent," Denathril replied. "Come along then." He turned to the helicopter as the pilots climbed into their cockpits.
"Inquisitor?" Walpur blinked in surprise. Denathril stopped and half-turned to regard him. His opinion of the boy had just been confirmed.
"You are authorized for firearms I assume?" he nodded at the autopistol holstered at the Lieutenant's waist.
"Yes, Inquisitor, but…"
"Are you hard of hearing, Lieutenant?"
"No…Inquisitor." Walpur gulped, then clambered into the helicopter, the roof above rumbling as it began to open. Denathril strapped himself in, listening to the whine as the main rotor began to turn. The doors on either side of the compartment slid shut. In a few moments the whine was drowned by a harsh staccato tapping as the blades reached full speed, the helicopter lifting off.
Denathril relaxed, ignoring the tug of inertia as the helicopter leaned forward and accelerated. Craning his head sideways, he could see the city of Stahlhein laid out. The simplistic, stacked architecture of the administrative district, looking like something made by a child with building blocks. Endless rows of seemingly-identical kilometer-long hab-blocks, a grid-pattern of tiny lights below him. The vast fabricatories were just visible in the distance, glowing red like a false sunrise, still churning out the battle tanks, APCs and support vehicles of which the Imperial Guard was in constant need.
Right now more than ever, Denathril thought. The founding ceremony was in two days, and they would be working up to the last minute to ensure that the fifty new regiments would be fully equipped.
Either that or heads would roll, and not just heads. No Imperial Governor wanted that kind of embarrassment, especially not during a founding.
Looking up, he could see the headquarters building receding into the darkness, a set of tall skyscrapers that seemed to have merged together like ancient trees. Then he looked at Walpur, who looked ready to be sick.
He was young, Denathril thought, and looked it. His hair was black and neatly combed, with trimmed eyebrows and nervous-looking eyes. He seemed basically fit, but not exactly in shape. Denathril sighed inwardly. The boy was a bureaucrat in the making, with what appeared to be an almost feminine aptitude for multi-tasking. That he had been able to walk down a corridor, carrying far too much, pick exactly the items Denathril wanted, and even write notes, without dropping anything, was evidence enough of that.
This was almost certainly his last chance.
Alliance of High Humanity – Dethneskhir
Palinek, Chief Sorceror of the Desecrator Legion, truth-sayer to the Death-Angel, regarded his surroundings
These Alliance ships were very different to what he was used to. Everything around him was smooth and slick, walls and floors of silver-coloured metal in which his armoured form cast misshapen reflections. Flat, featureless screens across which bright runes and sigils danced at the brush of a finger. It had taken a few attempts to use them without driving his finger through in a shower of sparks. The illumination strips set in the ceiling and walls bathed everything in harsh, sterile light.
As much as it made him think kindly of the brooding shadows and dank air of the Lord of Vandilore, it was not enough to dissuade him from his purpose. The Kiluvaro was a treasure beyond compare, and through his masterful plotting, and no small assistance from the dark gods, that it had been taken entirely intact. That the interior was not what he was used to was nothing more than a minor irritant.
It had any number of useful nick-nacks on board, so many that he had not yet had time to inspect them all. The most immediately useful however was the Sky Bastion, on which he presently stood.
It was small as such constructs went, only a few-hundred meters long, built like a starship but not warp-capable, needing to be brought to and from the battlefield by a mothership such as the Kiluvaro. It was nonetheless of considerable use, equipped with void-shields, a considerable arsenal of energy and missile weapons, along with an extensive command-and-control suite. It appeared to be the Alliance equivalent of an Imperial Leviathan, but somewhat smaller and airborne.
To his left, like raptors with spread wings, Doomlord assault craft streaked away from the Lord of Vandilore, bearing reinforcements to the battles in the western hemisphere. The great Styx class heavy cruiser loomed over the helpless planet, a sword aimed for its still-beating heart, flight after flight of Hell Talon fighter-bombers swarming away like locusts. Before him he could see the blooms of flame still covering much of the larger southern continent, a great black pall spreading in all directions about it, already covering the entire southern hemisphere. The orbital bombardment had done its work well.
And beside him stood the being who had made it all possible.
"Does it please you, Dao?" he asked, his voice distorted by his helm-vox.
"It does," the Humanoid replied, staring down at the burning continent. "This is a great day for our cause."
"And ours also," Palinek allowed no more emotion into his voice than Dao did. "Thanks to the Alliance codes you gave us, we destroyed forty-per-cent of their ground forces from orbit, to say nothing of the boon that is the Kiluvaro."
"I trust my brothers were of help in securing it?"
"They were. I wish to make a gift of the Kiluvaro to my lord Malcidar. I could not present it to the Harbinger in anything but pristine condition."
They stood silent for a while as the Sky Bastion descended through the upper atmosphere. There was no ground fire; no beams of incandescent destruction lanced up from the surface, no torpedoes rose on tails of fire to blast them from the sky. The Humanoid crew, provided by Dao, sat calmly at their stations. Their hands sat steady on the opaque screens, electoos glowing as their minds linked to the Sky-Bastion's systems, runes dancing in response to their thoughts.
The plan was working, thus far.
"Lord Palinek," one of the Humanoid crew spoke up. "Lord Zer'faru is transmitting."
"Very well," Palinek sighed inwardly. "On the main monitor."
"Ah Sorcerer!" the voice boomed forth even before the image had time to form. "I see you are still alive. Your scheme is working then, I trust?"
"All is well, Zer'faru," Palinek replied, staring up at the screen and trying not to get angry. "How go your battles?"
"As well as can be expected," the visage that was Zer'faru replied airily. "Though our minions have had some problems. Those Humanoids are such stubborn creatures, delightful though they are to behold."
"The Death's Head Legion is a finite resource, Zer'faru." It was all Palinek could do not to lose his temper. "Kindly do not exhaust it prematurely."
"You'll never change, Sorcerer," Zer'faru's divinely-crafted face twisted into a grimace of amusement. "Always you prattle on about the so-called big picture." The grimace became a sneer of contempt. "Are you a warrior or a quartermaster, Lord Palinek?"
"I serve the Harbinger as you do, with my strengths," Palinek replied with complete equanimity. "Though I would serve him best if I were allowed to complete my plan without interruption."
"Just make sure you don't make a complete fool of yourself," Zer'faru cocked his beautiful head, smiling generously. "Also, bring me a nice young virgin psyker and I might forgive your insolence." His image vanished from the screen, and Palinek felt his head clear.
"You seemed…distracted by him," Dao observed.
"I should have known it wouldn't affect you," Palinek thought irritably. Zer'faru was as beautiful to behold as his voice was to hear. To deny it was self-defeating, like denying that stars shone. Such were the gifts of Slaanesh.
"We are approaching the Serayen Fortress," Dao went on, craning his neck slightly to see. As the clouds rolled away around them, they could see the Serayen mountain range below. A parade of tall mountains, thrown up millennia ago by a tectonic collision of unimaginable violence, capped with snow and wreathed at the peaks in cloud. One of the white peaks was pock-marked with dull-grey growths, great bastions and gun batteries built to defend the most vital fortress on Dethneskhir. The shimmering dome of a void shield covered it all, capable of resisting all but the most massive orbital bombardments.
That was not an option. Who knew what treasures could be found within?
"It is time, Dao. I hope for both our sakes that they will accept your clearance codes. That void shield will complicate things otherwise." And it would. He did not particularly want to spend weeks besieging such a stronghold.
"My life in payment if they do not, Lord Palinek" Dao replied, striding across the bridge to one of the control terminals. Palinek watched in mild interest as Dao placed one exquisite hand on the console and closed his eyes, the electoos on his hand glowing. The sorcerer returned his attentions to the mountain below, his mind's eye scanning over the rugged surface, noting the gun turrets and missile batteries, the auspexes and vox-transmitters. He scanned, searching for any indication of a response, any sign that his plan had failed.
"They have accepted my story, Lord Palinek," Dao called from the console. True to his word, the void shield shimmered and faded, inviting them to come forth.
"Come then, Dao" Palinek turned and headed for the grav-lift at the back of the bridge. "We will teleport as soon as we are under the shield."
The grav-lift bore them down to the main teleportarium. Down below the lights were noticeably dimmer and the atmosphere was dank, heavy with more familiar scent. The teleportarium had not been taken easily. Dried blood caked the walls long after the corpses of human and humanoid alike had been dragged away.
Thirty traitor marines awaited them, clad in armour of dark blue, with red on the helmets, shoulders, knees and boots, brass rims wrought into spikes and fanged, snarling mouths. They clutched ornate boltguns and heavy bolters, dragon-headed flamers and a single humming meltagun. Grenades of all shapes and sizes hung at their waists. Serrated machetes were strapped to their thighs.
Their leader stood apart from them, armoured in similar colours, a heavy black cape of daemon-hide hanging from his shoulders, tall horns decorating his helm. He inclined his head in respect as Palinek stepped from the grav-lift.
"Are they ready, Aesherah?"
"They are ready, Sorceror, and so am I," the Exalted Champion raised his head to look straight at Palinek. The Sorceror noted that he was keeping a very tight grip on the sword sheathed at his waist.
A very tight grip.
"It is time," he said, via a secure link direct to Aesherah's helm-vox. Your mission is to secure the main control centre, then the surface-to-orbit weapons. Apart from that you need only keep the garrison busy, then mop up when I contact you."
"As you wish," Aesherah replied, stood up, and turned to his marines, switching his vox to broadcast.
"Brothers! We go now to our mission! These enemies have proven themselves weak and unworthy, but make no mistakes! Kill all you find, but control your fire, for wondrous treasures lie within the fortress below! We shall offer them up to the dark gods, and to our Lord Malcidar, also called the Harbinger, also called the Death-Angel!" Exultant, he thrust his free hand into the air.
"For the Warmaster! For the Harbinger!"
"For the glory of Chaos!" the marines roared back, thrusting their clenched fists into the air, sharing in his exultation. As they filed onto the teleportaria, opaque circular pads set into large alcoves, Palinek turned to see someone coming down the grav-lift.
"Ah, Magos Caermak." It was a strange thing that emerged from the grav-lift, looking like some bizarre sea creature. It had tentacles in place of legs, a mass of long silvery mechandendrites sprouting from the waist, itself encrusted in technology the purpose or origin of which Palinek could not fathom. More mechandendrites extended from the arms and back, writhing in the air around it. The head, if it could be so-called, was in its traditional place, concealed by a hood the colour of dried blood.
"Truth-sayer," it said, its artificial voice just audible over the background chatter of binary code and who-knew-what else. "I thought you might want your puppet. His improvements are complete." Behind Caermak stood a pair of heavily augmented servitors, and between them was Nimarkao.
Or rather, it had once been Nimarkao, Senior Tribune of the 63rd Sentinel Battlegroup, Lord of the House of Nimar, noble of the Alliance of High Humanity. Now it was a naked, shriveled thing bound in chains, runes cut into its pale flesh, the true meaning of which Caermak's barely-biological brain was not capable of comprehending.
It might just come in useful, Palinek thought.
(A thousand apologies for the long delay. I have other responsibilities and this needed rewriting a couple of times to get it just right. I can't wait to hear what you think of it. I hope this story is starting to make a bit more sense now that the Chaos Space Marines have arrived. I was told it needed a bit more description, so I've tried to describe the people and places a bit better, particularly with Vermane, which I based on a combination of East Germany and North Korea, hence the bad architecture. I hope this all came across all right. I decided on a helicopter after reading about something similar in James Swallow's Faith and Fire, and I thought it seemed like a nice, simple concept for a minor plot convenience. Incidentally I'm not quite sure how big a Leviathan is, so please forgive me if my description of the Sky Bastion doesn't make sense, though I'm sure a Leviathan is quite a lot larger than a few-hundred metres long.)