This extract from Cain's archive may seem somewhat atypical; most of the time I tend to take fairly robust, complete accounts of single campaigns, although said robustness only really extends to what Cain was doing at the time due to that wonderfully self-absorbed attitude of his. However, this particular part is somewhat different; this takes place approximately eight months after the events on Periremunda described in an earlier section of the archive and during the campaign on Trawets. There's nothing particularly unusual about that; at this point, Trawets was undergoing a relatively minor Chaos incursion by followers of Nurgle, and the 597th had been dispatched to aid the local PDF in their attempts to stamp out the heretic threat. It was almost certainly not an important planet or even a particularly dangerous infestation, and the entire campaign lasted just short of a month. From certain files I've been able to locate, it would appear that Cain was able to convince Zyvan into assigning him and his regiment to Trawets solely on the grounds that Cain had, and I quote, a 'funny feeling about it'. Of course, I don't believe this for a moment. While it is true that Cain does seem to have an almost preternatural ability to sense danger, no doubt as a result of a lifetime being entirely too close to it for his own liking and quite possibly some very faint traces of psychic ability, I get the distinct impression that Cain saw the opportunity to take a short holiday with a relatively simple and safe mission.
Naturally, as I would have thought Cain would have worked out by this point, it is never that simple when he's concerned. In the very first day of the campaign, he somehow managed to break his leg and was immediately sent back to Axle, Trawets's capital city, for recuperation. I've attempted to find out exactly how it happened as it is carefully skirted around in the extract, but Cain appears to have meticulously destroyed all reports of it for reasons that even now are not clear. My own feeling is that it was either a deliberate self-injury, which I would certainly not put past Cain, or something extremely embarrassing, which is even more up his street. The one account I have been able to locate is contained within that galactically-renowned literary masterpiece, the memoirs of one Jenit Sulla, but even she only manages to report a rumour told to her by one of the troopers that involves Cain fighting a Chaos Space Marine in hand-to-hand combat and shouting various excitingly heroic things. While he has in fact done precisely this several more times than he would doubtless have preferred, including once in this very extract, I would take the claims that Cain, and I quote, 'launched himself eagerly at the beast, his eyes aflame with the righteous wrath of the Holy Emperor and his breast swelling with a heroic war-cry' with several grains of sodium.
The following piece is so short that I have seen no reason to divide it into chapters or even provide my customary expansions to Cain's narrow narrative, as they would eventually take up more of the text than the original memoirs. Should you desire further explication of the Trawets campaign, I refer you to the only halfway competently-written (if overly dramatic) account of it, Chari Dwinskard's 'The Chaos Delusion: Venom In The Veins Of Trawets'.
~ Inquisitor Amberley Vail, Ordo Xenos
Well, I suppose it was my own fault in the end. I should have learned after all these years of narrow escapes and steadily increasing levels of peril that there's no such thing as time off for the Hero of the Imperium, no matter how undeserved an accolade that remains.
For a few weeks, though, I was in bliss. Although breaking a leg is extremely painful, as I had always privately believed and can now confirm, the following time in the Grand Imperial Hospital in Axle was anything but.
I don't recall a great deal between the injury and waking up on the twentieth floor of the hospital, (1) a result of a nasty blow to the head I took at the same time and a series of suitably powerful painkillers administrated by the medical staff both in the 597th and in the hospital. I do know, however, that my faithful aide Jurgen managed to save my leg from the surgeons, insisting that I would rather let it heal than have an augmetic one put in its place. Apparently, they didn't really understand my preferences there, but Jurgen isn't exactly known for his willingness or, indeed, ability to compromise. Don't get me wrong; I see the benefits of aug-limbs and the fact that it would probably have made my life easier at some point to replace that peg, but I just wasn't too keen on adding to my aug-fingers unless it was absolutely necessary. On the bright side, however, it does seem to have somehow added slightly to my erroneous reputation: I'm now renowned as a man willing to do almost anything to preserve the body the Emperor gave him out of some farcical notion of extreme piety.
1. In what could either be his typical modesty or his equally typical self-absorption, Cain fails to note that he in fact displaced Rong Bowdorn, the deputy of Governor Reina and thus the second most important man on the entire planet, from the most comfortable ward in the entire hospital, something that Bowdorn was extremely angry about later on - despite the fact that his being moved to a decidedly less luxurious suite on the third floor doubtless saved his life. The man had the temerity to lodge an official complaint with the Imperial Guard higher-ups, as poor a career choice as ever.
Investigation had led me to believe that the hospital's administrator was something of a Cain aficionado, with close examination of her private logs (2) revealing her elation at the Hero of the Imperium himself being in her hospital. This, doubtless, is why I was given such a comfortable room, there atop the shimmering glass pillar that was the primary medical facility for the rich and famous (or at least what passed for famous on a rock like this). There are the obvious downsides to my profession, namely the bowel-throttling terror and feeling that almost everything in the universe is personally gunning for me, but they're very occasionally offset by boons like this.
2. We would, I feel, be better off not asking exactly how Cain managed to access her personal logs. Even worse, I have the horrible feeling that this is some kind of euphemism.
That fateful morning, I had exactly no idea of what I was going to be facing. If I had, I'd have hobbled screaming for the door, fumbling with the antique crutches the hospital kept around out of some misguided sense of tradition and getting as far from that hospital as my plaster-covered leg would let me. As it was, I was idly looking forward to another day of blissful tedium largely consisting of me lying in bed, drinking tanna leaf tea and casually perusing the latest reports from the front. Kasteen and Broklaw, in what I could only interpret as an attempt to cheer me up (what with how much I hated not having anyone trying to kill me at any given moment), had made their reports extremely graphic and detailed, causing them to read like miniature combat novels. Broklaw dipped into outright prose at several points, I'd noticed, and it actually worked rather well. Perhaps there lay the soul of an artist beneath the grizzled soldier's exterior.
While I was absorbed the gripping (and most likely lavishly embellished) tale of Lustig and his men taking on a Chaos Space Marine as they liberated a small town on the perimeter of the Chaos-infested territory, Penlan apparently having accidentally attracted its attention with an unfortunate ricochet, the all-pervasive presence of that familiar odour alerted me to my aide's presence.
"Morning, Jurgen," I said, without looking up. He had, by this point, long stopped asking how I always knew he was coming, doubtless putting it down to some sort of Commissar-exclusive sixth sense. Being around him for so long has almost reduced me to four.
"Morning, sir," he replied, the cacaphonous clatter of crockery telling me that he was bringing the breakfast trolley in his customarily chaotic style. "How's the leg?"
"Feeling better," I said absently, then realised what I'd said. "Still not good, of course. It'll be a few weeks yet for that, I fear." A good save, I thought, although Jurgen was the only person I know who I've never had to trick (3), his unswervingly direct devotion to the Emperor and me resulting in a man whom I could tell the sky was falling and he would just nod politely and ask if I wanted something done about it.
3. Obviously, Cain is being facetious here. He's never tricked me.
Were I any other man, my motives for remaining in luxury several hundred miles behind the lines would have been extensively questioned, but my reputation put pay to that. My repeated insistence that having an injured commissar around would demoralise the troops and that my possible contributions in this state would amount to sweet frak-all looked like I was putting the needs and problems of the regiment ahead of my own war-loving nature, which, far from weakening my renown, actually strengthened it. I despair of the universe sometimes. Well, all the time.
"Anything interesting happening at the front?" Jurgen asked, unloading a steaming pot of tea and what looked like some rather good sugar-glazed croissants onto a tray.
"Says here that Penlan accidentally shot a Traitor Marine," I said, waving the dataslate in his general direction. "Lustig shot it in the face with a bolter. Six times, according to this."
"He would have gone on, but apparently he ran out of face."
"Did Penlan survive?" Jurgen said, more out of curiosity than any genuine concern.
"Apparently so, although Birke wasn't so lucky. Says here," I said, peering at the bright text, "that he was 'rent in twain head to toe' by a, um, 'vast, roaring, many-toothed cleaver'. I think we have to assume he means a chainaxe."
"Is that right?" he said blandly, carrying the tray over to me.
"Oh, yes. Broklaw was very specific. He goes on for around a page about it," I said. "It's very stirring stuff." I eased the wooden tray onto the bed beside me. The typical hospital bed is about the width of a grox, and probably no cleaner. This one was a vast, Emperor-sized fort of billowing purple sheets and expensively robust mattress, giving me an unparalleled view over the rain-lashed cityscape of Axle. It wasn't a particularly large city by Imperial standards, barely scraping over five million inhabitants, but almost all of the technology on the planet seemed to have been concentrated in this one impressively soggy coastal city, which at least meant that the standard of living was high, if somewhat damp.
"Remarkable," Jurgen said laconically, and turned to leave with the trolley. I squinted suspiciously at his slightly stooped back. Had that been sarcasm? I didn't think he even understood the concept.
I dismissed it and turned to my breakfast with undisguised relish, setting the dataslate aside. It wasn't often that I got to eat this well, all too frequently having to close my eyes and force down whatever we had left in combat zones and only having meals of dubious quality and even more dubious ingredients during the many weeks of the year I would spend in the Warp, so I tucked in vigorously. My mouth was full of croissant and I was about to take the first swig of tea when I caught sight of something moving outside the plate windows that covered one wall of my room. I leaned closer. That was far too big to be an aircar, having more the shape of a full-sized shuttle, and it was coming this way.
I would have gone right back to my breakfast, but as I saw that silver speck, an angular rectangle of a ship about as aerodynamic as Jurgen, shooting towards the hospital on an absolutely level plane, my palms began to prick. I have learned, through a great deal of painful experience, to listen to the Palm of Truth. It does not lie.
I swallowed, still watching it draw ever closer and ever larger, and the uneasiness grew, eating away inside me like a hungry trit (4). I had a horrible idea of exactly what was about to happen.
4. A small, rat-like mammal commonly found in the tunnels of hive worlds across the Imperium. Noted for their single-minded devotion to eating everything they can find; very few other animals in the Imperium actually have cholesterol poisoning as their most common cause of death.
"Jurgen," I called, keeping my voice in check admirably.
"Yes, Commissar?" he replied, ambling back into the room with his personal stench probing the way ahead of him.
I pointed out of the window.
"Does that shuttle look like it's about to crash into this building?"
He crossed over to the window and looked out gravely.
"I would say, sir," he said detachedly, rubbing his beard, "that it does."
"Do you think we should call someone?"
"Well, if it does hit the hospital, everyone will know anyway," he said phlegmatically. "No point telling them that."
"And if it hits us?" I said, transfixed by his brutally logical way of thinking.
He shrugged haphazardly. He was a man built for shrugging. Sometimes, I could swear he doesn't actually have shoulders.
"The Emperor protects," he pronounced, and vaguely made the sign of the aquila.
"I sodding well hope he does," I muttered, all thoughts of tea forgotten for the moment. The shuttle was now alarmingly close, a lot less than a klom (5), but perspective now allowed me to see that it was actually coming in quite a lot lower than our lofty perch (6).
5. A Valhallan abbreviation for 'kilometre' that Cain appears to have picked up from his long association with the regiment.
6. Logic would appear to dictate that the height of the shuttle would have been visible ever since Cain first saw it. I'll put it down to his memory failing him, although a less charitable observer would have looked suspiciously at the effects of Cain's 'bowel-throttling terror' on his mind. Of course, I am nothing if not charitable.
"Get me my crutches," I said, loathing the words as they left my mouth. "I have a feeling I'm going to need them."
"Right you are, sir," he said cheerfully, and vanished. There have been a great many times over the years when I've wished I had Jurgen's wonderful ability to completely ignore danger and fear, though I have my sneaking suspicions that it stems from his somewhat unimpressive intellectual faculties rather than any particular mental fortitude. Perhaps there's no real difference. Quite a lot of the bravest people I've met have been suicidal idiots who seem to think the definition of 'hero' is 'someone who gets into a lot of extremely violent situations very quickly and gets killed/disembowelled/mutilated/eviscerated/excoriated/defenestrated even quicker, most of the time for a reason roughly as well-thought-out as an Orkish dinner party', and consequently my address book isn't exactly flooded with their ilk. It's not that full anyway, but I digress.
I hauled myself from beneath the warm sheets with a sorrowful grunt and rolled over to the side of the bed, my plastered leg dragging behind me with an unpleasant scraping sound beneath the grey hospital pyjamas. I sat up, and the shuttle, which had grown massively larger far faster than I was expecting, disappeared beneath the window.
There was a sudden, bone-shaking impact and a screeching roar of twisting metal as the shuttle smashed into the hospital, just a few stories down. The whole room seemed to leap sideways for a second, and all the furniture jumped with it, shaking violently. The antique wooden dresser shivered and disintegrated into a cloud of splinters. The tanna tea pot, which I had at least had the presence of mind to close before it spilled its scalding contents all over me, clattered onto the floor with the tray. The fluorescent lights flickered. The chair my greatcoat was draped over fell over with a crash, and the inextricably linked twin sounds of expensive crockery smashing on the floor and Jurgen cursing wafted through the cacaphony. I was shaken off the bed and landed in a heap on the floor, pulling half of the bedsheet with me.
"Emperor's bowels!" I yelped, struggling to my feet as the tremors ceased and the sirens began.
"Are you all right, sir?" Jurgen asked diffidently, lugging my crutches back into the room and looking out of the window with interest. One of the vast panes, I noted, had a large crack running diagonally across it.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," I said, looking apprehensively at the plume of smoke that had started to curl ominously from the crash site below. There was a rumble of activity coming from below us, although I couldn't make out exactly what was going on from either being too far away or being barely holding myself back from gibbering with fear, whichever seems more plausible.
"Reckon that was a Chaos shuttle?" he said. Again, I really must stress that the man has the emotional range of a teaspoon.
"Either that, or there are some frakking low standards for a pilot's licence here," I said, hopping over to the fallen chair and retrieving my coat. My combead rolled onto the floor from my front pocket, and I jammed it into my ear.
"-think they got him, sir," a worried voice was saying. "I'm trying to-"
"Got who? Me?" I said, shrugging the coat over the thin shirt I'd been wearing. It didn't have the full impact of the complete commissar's costume, but it would do for getting me a way through the panicking crowds that were doubtless forming even now. There's just something about the knowledge that I'm someone who can kill them and only be punished with a few minutes' paperwork that works so well for maintaining my authority.
"Commissar!" the voice said, obviously relieved. "You're alive!"
"Reports of my death," I said, reaching for my cap, "have been greatly exaggerated." An old line, certainly, but he probably didn't know that, and I was damned if I was going to miss a chance to use it. Old Sculthorpe would have rolled over in his grave (figuratively, of course; there wasn't enough left of him for a proper burial) if I hadn't used the quote he'd spent two years drilling into my head back at the Schola Progenium. I always wondered if he should perhaps be teaching us something more than a series of pithy one-liners and comebacks, but then I entered the field and found the ability to sound wittily unconcerned to be utterly indispensable, as anyone who's read even a tenth of this archive will recognise.
"Move over, you - Commissar Cain? This is Colonel Jarrot of the PDF," a different, stuffier voice said, the sort of voice that I subconsciously ascribed a moustache to. "Good thing you're there."
Not for me, I thought grimly, fishing my weaponry belt from the floor where it had fallen. The very faint sounds of distant screaming started to penetrate through the floor.
"What happened?" I said, doing my best to sound composed and confident. I was, of course, neither, but a lifetime of manipulation hasn't left me any slouch in hiding the real Cain from view.
"Chaos shuttle got past our defences," he spat, and I could practically hear the moustache quivering with righteous rage. "Ramming a hospital? What sort of bastards would do that?"
"Heretical ones," I assured him, clipping on my belt. The chainsword and lasgun there weighed it down satisfyingly, and I felt a little better. "Specifically, Nurgle's followers. There's nothing they hate more than a clean bill of health."
"Disgusting. I'll have my men there to clear them out in- eh?"
The transmission suddenly exploded into static and died.
Silent as the grave.
"The Colonel's dead," (7) I said, my heart sinking. This wasn't good at all. Was this actually a coordinated attack?
7. Reports are sketchy, but it appears that another shuttle divebombed the local PDF headquarters and kept them busy for a few minutes longer. Cain, with his usual disdain for the effectiveness of the PDF as a fighting force, seems to have underestimated how fast they would respond. Jarrot himself didn't actually die, contrary to what Cain assumes, but was incapacitated for several months. Had Cain bothered to follow it up, he would have been delighted to learn that Jarrot did indeed have a moustache, and an impressively bushy one at that.
Jurgen looked on at me impassively, still holding the elaborate metal crutches. His precious melta was already slung over one shoulder, nestling there like some kind of explosive metallic parasite. Both a bolter and lasgun hung on the front of his belt, which was the style at the time, and a large flamer was slung over his back. (8) He looked as happy as he ever does surrounded by the oversized weaponry.
8. This would not usually be issued to standard footsoldiers such as Jurgen, but any combat with Nurgle's followers necessitates the use of fire to avoid spreading the disease, although Cain (and, knowing him, his aide) would have been inoculated against a great many of the plagues they carry beforehand.
"Any PDF aid?" Jurgen said, not sounding particularly bothered.
"We have to assume we're on our own for now," I said. "And I, for one, can't just sit up here. There shouldn't be more than just a few cultists, if any. Most of them probably died in that crash, as well."
Jurgen nodded thoughtfully as I forced my bare feet into my boots, not bothering with socks or proper trousers. I'd almost believed what I'd just said, but I was about to find out it was more than a little wide of the mark.
I took one of the crutches from him, ramming it into my left arm. The straps automatically wormed their way over my coat and fastened tightly. Jurgen proffered the other and I shook my head.
"I've got a nasty feeling I'm going to need my weapon hand free," I said. He shrugged, and tossed it onto the bed.
"Now," I said, retrieving my cap from the bedpost and carefully depositing it on my head at that special angle I've discovered that balances rakishness and purposefulness so well (9), "let's be off. We'd better head for the lift."
9. If you've only seen Cain on a poster, you won't have seen this angle properly, as the artists never seem to get it quite right. I can, however, personally vouch that the effect is in fact rather impressive.
"Right you are, sir," Jurgen said, blissfully ignorant (or uncaring) of the fact that the Hero of the Imperium should really fight his way through his foes at all possible times.
As I took a step towards the door, testing my weight with the clanking crutch, it clattered into the intact tea pot on the floor.
"You're not getting away that easily," I told it vaguely, and hooked the handle over my belt. I'm personally of the opinion that disrespecting good tanna leaf tea is a crime right up there with heresy and selling ad time in holodramas.
We edged cautiously out of the door. The twentieth floor wasn't reached by lift, leaving me to stumble down the stairs with my crutch groaning and ringing against the hard metal steps and Jurgen watching carefully over me, ready to extend a filthy hand to haul me back from the abyss if need be. Thankfully, I managed to keep my balance all the way down to the nineteenth floor. I conscientiously tried not to think about what I would have to do if the lift were broken.
The screams emanating from a few floors down had grown slightly louder. I shuddered involuntarily as we came to the vast metal doors of lift, hoping like the Warp that the damn thing would work.
Jurgen reluctantly extended a finger and mashed it into the call button, and a chime sounded.
I don't know if you have much experience with lifts, but I don't. Most places the 597th ends up deployed to have about ten buildings over two stories tall, and in those you usually have to use the stairs. My early life in the bowels of a hive world inoculated me against claustrophobia, true, but I've never liked trusting large machinery with my life. Jurgen probably didn't have the intellectual capacity to reach the latter, but he embraced the former with gusto, carrying over his predilection for motion sickness to the contraption admirably. I'd probably have taken the stairs even with my leg had there not most likely been a swarming mass of Nurgle cultists waiting a few stories down simply out of a desire to avoid Jurgen becoming spectacularly ill as the lift lurched its way down, but my life comes before my comfort. The central creed of Commissar Ciaphas Cain. (10)
10. Cain appears to have acquired his ancestors' almost abnormal affinity for added alliterative appeal.
We waited there in growing discomfort (or, at least, I did) for more than a minute. The screams now seemed to be dying away, which was somehow worse than the susurrus of terror that had been there earlier.
There was a sudden rustle behind us, from the direction of the stairwell. Jurgen and I both spun instinctively, me lagging behind a little as I struggled to bring my crutch around and draw my lasgun at the same time, heart suddenly pounding jaggedly like an Orkish drumma. When I recovered, the distinctive crack of lasgun fire popped away merrily from Jurgen's gun as I brought my own around to bear and got a good look at my enemies for the first time since I'd arrived on the planet.
I had encountered Nurgle's minions before, several years back; at the time, my previous experience extended only as far as Slaanesh and Khorne, but I'd reasoned that Nurgle's followers probably weren't much worse.
I'd been wrong. What staggered towards me from forty metres down the corridor was, like the monsters I'd met then, hideous, a horrific parody of a human being; skin crusted and perforated with gaping, weeping sores, clothes hanging in rags filthier than Jurgen's socks, lolling, worm-riddled tongue hanging out of its mouth with foul liquid dripping copiously from it, and the skin tone of a corpse that someone had dipped in the sewers of a thousand worlds. I gagged as the impossibly pungent stench of disease and death preceded it down the corridor.
"Emperor's bowels," I muttered, splattering its head all over the walls in an acidic splash of pestilence with a well-aimed laspistol round. There were maybe a dozen more of them stumbling along behind it, deceptively fast. There was a low, soulful moaning coming from them, and I was reminded of some old zombie-outbreak holodrama I'd seen a few years before, Consilium Novem. Chaos has an unnerving way of existing when all sense says it shouldn't, and these were no exception; how they could even stand with their exposed muscles rotting away like that was beyond me. Some Warp sorcery, possibly. I hoped there was nothing human left in them, if there ever was. Nobody should suffer that.
Jurgen had switched to his bolter, presumably out of his deeply held conviction that the larger explosions were the Emperor's favourites, and the first few of the monsters shattered into clouds of brownish-green pus. Their bodies were frailer than human ones, the taint of the thousand plagues they bore tenderising the flesh to the point where I could probably have pulled one of their arms off with ease, had I been feeling particularly insane that day. At least you only got the viruses they were covered in by touching them or their fluids. If it hadn't been for that, we'd have died within minutes, or worse. There are few worse fates I've witnessed than to be enveloped and eaten away by one of Nurgle's putrid cancers, and most of them involve meat grinders. (11)
11. Probably a reference to some mysterious event Cain alludes to vaguely throughout the archive, presumably taking place inside an abattoir of some description. I have as yet been unable to uncover what happened, Cain having covered his tracks typically well. One can only assume that it was as bad as he says, but rest assured that none of Cain's secrets are safe from the Inquisition. We move in very unexpected ways.
The good thing about the standard cultists, I reflected, was that they were seldom in good enough shape to hold a gun. There were usually a few leaders whose bodies had been ravaged slightly less, leaving them able to operate weapons and, evidently, shuttles, but the usual cannon fodder quite often didn't actually have hands. They usually just ran at you and tried to spew their foul juices onto you which, while nasty if they actually managed it, was rather easy to avoid if you could hit the inside of a battle cruiser with a lasgun.
The last one fell to the deck with a wet thud, an already gaping hole in the middle of its chest made so much worse by a well-aimed bolt from Jurgen that the entire torso stopped existing in a brown mist.
"Burn them," I said shortly. Jurgen silently pulled the flamer from his back and blasted a roar of cleansing fire down the hallway as we slowly advanced, the promethium eating away at and utterly destroying the flimsy corpses left behind. One of them wasn't quite dead yet, and gurgled sickeningly as the promethium stripped away its entire musclature, leaving just a charred skeleton grinning wildly at me. I looked away, focusing on the sheet of flames Jurgen was spraying liberally ahead.
At last, maybe two minutes later, we reached the end of the bodies, the stenches of roasting meat and rotten bodies mingling in the air as pockets of flame still burned behind us. Jurgen shouldered his flamer again, and we proceeded carefully down the stairs, me holding tightly to the railing. We descended in silence, glancing through the doors into each storey as we went. Everywhere, there was destruction, devastation. The impact had been just a few stories below us, and what had obviously happened was that the cultists had spread across the nearby floors like the viruses they carried. There were dead, festering bodies lying everywhere, slumped against the walls of the corridors, which were themselves starting to bloom in a filthy green fungus. There were still a few cultists wandering around listlessly, but none of them noticed us. The screams had given way to an oppressive, stifling silence aside from the odd groan or bubble; clearly, the cultists had done what they came here to do.
I wondered vaguely why they hadn't gone downwards, towards the rest of the hospital. Maybe they had, and there had been more of them than I'd thought. If they had, we were going to have one hell of a time getting out.
We went down a few more stories, and I lost myself in my thoughts. I was only shaken out of my reverie when, half a second after we turned yet another corner, a lasgun bolt whistled about an inch past my ear and smashed into the plain wall behind me, leaving an interesting crater. Jurgen pulled me back instinctively as a crackling barrage of las-fire pulverised the wall directly behind where I'd been standing.
The shooting stopped.
"Hello?" a woman called out cautiously. Not a cultist, then. Their speech usually consists of an exciting variety of groans and gurgles, not pleasant sopranos like this.
"Identify yourself," I snapped. As a general rule, I'm not inclined to like those who nearly put a hole the size of my fist in my head, no matter how soothing the voice. After all, back when I encountered Emeli, the siren damn near ate my soul despite having the voice of an angelus.
"You identify yourself!" it replied, sounding understandably shaky. I relented a little.
"Commissar Ciaphas Cain," I said, knowing the effect it would have.
"C-Commissar! Thank the Emperor!"
I sighed heavily at the misplaced trust, and went back around the corner. I saw, to my horror, that the stairs ended there in a doorway rather than a way down. Why? That was terrible design. (12)
12. This particular design foible (the hospital has six seperate stairways, each of them alternating which end of the building they're situated in) stems from a long-held superstition on Trawets that seems to forbid staircases of more than seventy-seven stairs and having more than seven staircases in a building, for a reason nobody would explain to neither Cain nor me. The ridiculous things some planets come up with never cease to amaze me.
I descended slowly, stepping over a pile of shredded cultist corpses with distaste. The thick tergum of my boots would doubtless protect me against any of the fluids they were exuding, but that was no reason not to avoid ruining them.
There was a barricade erected in the double doors leading to the sixteenth floor, a ramshackle collection of everything the survivors could get their hands on. I could make out a stretcher and a gurney in there, but the rest of it was just a jumbled pile of miscellany. Peeking over the top were three lasguns and three frightened faces, two women and one man. I could see the start of a green shirt on all of them, and I realised that they were nurses. In fact, I recognised one of them vaguely, the short brunette in the centre, from earlier.
"What are you three doing here?" I said, coming up to the barricade. I noted with faint amusement that their noses had wrinkled as Jurgen stepped into range behind me, apparently smelling worse than the noxious secretions of the dead cultists. I've had years and years to get used to it, so I suppose it doesn't affect me anywhere near as much as it does others, which I suppose I should be thankful for.
"Hirton told us to hold off the..." she gestured at the corpses, "things while they got the patients down."
"Well, looks like you didn't need my help," I said, offering my best warm smile of encouragement. I got three faint smiles back in return (although, on reflection, the man's looked more like a grimace), and suddenly things looked brighter. "We need to move out."
"But we had orders to-"
"And I'm giving you new orders. Take down the barricade and let us through, and we can head for the other stairwell."
She looked hesitant for a second, then seemed to make up her mind. I had the distinct feeling that the phrase 'more than my job's worth' was finally going through her head. It would have gone through mine the instant someone gave me a lasgun in a hospital.
"Yessir. If you could just give us a hand-"
"I've got a better idea," I said. "Go and find some cover."
"Preferably in a different building, but another room will probably do. Jog on."
The faces glanced at each other in consternation and vanished. I waited a few seconds, then motioned to Jurgen. He stepped forward, bringing his melta around and aiming at the barricade. I limped behind a useful corner a couple of metres to my right, and a sizzling explosion rang out. I looked back, and the barricade had been reduced to so much molten slag, glowing red hot. Jurgen returned his melta to his back with a distinct look of satisfaction.
"Good work," I said absently, hoisting myself through the burning door frame. "You can come out now."
The three emerged cautiously from a side room some thirty metres down the corridor. I was impressed by the quality of their self-preservation instincts, being something of an expert in the field.
As we made our way towards them, there was a rumbling sound. I stopped and looked around suspiciously. Rumbling is never good.
The nurses were doing the same thing ten metres ahead, looking apprehensively around themselves. Unfortunately, they never thought to look up.
Cracks suddenly raced across the ceiling, and the area directly above them completely collapsed. They disappeared beneath the rubble as a Plague Marine crashed down on top of them. A bright spray of blood squirted out from one side of the pile, dyeing the wall crimson.
I stayed there, frozen. The thing was monstrous, a titanic heap of ceremite armour moulded vaguely in the shape of a man. The armour was a sickly grey-green, smothered by a noxious crust of pus and fungus, while the sagging, unhelmeted face was riddled with gaping, seeping sores that enveloped one full side of it, making it look remarkably like a rotten potato. It carried a vast, elaborate sword, dripping with the same foul fluids. A thin veneer of some putrid grey mist seemed to envelop the blade, extending maybe an inch from its edge.
The thing roared, a cloud of mucus and some horrible, unidentifiable liquid bursting from its mouth in a thick cloud, and charged us, sword held out ahead of it like a lance.
"Frak!" I yelped, ducking the blow awkwardly. The sword crashed into my crutch, shattering it completely, and gouged a deep groove in the wall above my head with a piercing screech of metal. A foul-smelling mould immediately began to blossom along the edges of the gash. The sword came down again, and I rolled away across the floor, weapons clanking uselessly beneath me as I struggled to move. The injury that I'd thought had been my ticket out of danger for a few months looked like it was about to cost me my life.
Mercifully, the marine caught sight of Jurgen trying to bring his melta around to bear and went after him with a roar, leaving me to flail for a handhold to haul myself from the floor before it came back. I carefully avoided the patches of the vile seepage oozing across the floor and drew my chainsword, using it to prop myself up before I started it with a choking, spluttering roar. I whirled around just in time to see Jurgen try to block a blow from the sword with his melta and get thrown backwards down the corridor for his troubles, landing in a heap some ten metres away. At the time, I'd thought he was probably dead, or at least seriously injured, but he woke up about ten minutes later none the worse for wear. Looking back, I'm beginning to wonder whether he can actually be killed or not; as far as I know, he's still alive and well despite having been at my side for so many decades, a truly remarkable achievement.
The thing turned back to me, a terrible triumph written on what was left of its face.
"Feel Nurgle's love!" it bellowed, spitting a plume of greenish vomit residue onto the floor with a noxious splatter, and charged me again, feet driving spidering cracks into the floor. The great sword dripped ominously.
"Go love yourself," I retorted, ducking under the clumsy blow again as sharp bolts of pain shredded through my legs. "Frak!"
The shell of the marine swung the blade back as it lumbered past, and I brought up the chainsword to block it. The massive force of the blow pushed me back against the wall, and I fought like frak to keep the whirring teeth from bending back into my own face. I desperately scanned the scene for options. Jurgen's melta was the only weapon that could do anything to the giant's armour, but that strike from the sword had broken it cleanly in two. My own lasgun was too weak and too small to make an impact, and I couldn't do anything against the monster with just a chainsword despite my years of forced practice.
I sidestepped quickly, turning the sword aside and into the wall with a thudding squelch as I hobbled away, mind racing. There was no way I was going to survive at this rate, not with my injured leg and no Jurgen to save my sorry arse yet again.
"Do you despair?" the marine boomed, driving the sword towards me again. I dodged again, but only just; I could swear that the toxic edge of the blade drove past my face just a centimetre away from injecting its deadly venom into my bloodstream and killing me almost instantly. The force of the attack took my cap off, whirling it away to one side. The sword thudded into the wall and left its bacterial bloom as it forced its way through to the other side, the wall rotting away like tissue paper.
"Not really. Do you?" I said lamely, stumbling backwards. I admit, that's not among the best comebacks I've ever come up with, but the situation was stressful, to say the least.
That wasn't a good phrase. It usually meant that whatever was trying to kill me at that moment wasn't human, and was therefore probably a lot larger and scarier.
It wrenched the sword free, scattering dissolving concrete across the corridor, and swung again. I couldn't jump out of the way in time, and brought my chainsword down to try and force the sword out of my way. It worked, the power armour obviously not as effective with the body inside so rotted and decrepit, but it probably wouldn't work again. The blade chewed a hole into the floor, which rapidly started to open up. I half-jumped, half-fell backwards, wildly slashing at the oncoming giant and landing a glancing blow on one of its pauldrons. The chainsword bounced away like it was made of rubber, kicking up a shower of white-hot sparks from the ceremite armour that fell back and burned miniature scars into my face, some of which are still there today.
That sledgehammer blow came down again, cleaving vertically through the air towards my head, and I was only able to bring up a half-hearted parry with the chainsword. The power of the assault ripped it from my grasp despite the aug-fingers, and it skittered and sparked back between the Traitor Marine's legs and into the hole, falling to the next floor. I gazed at my empty hand in mute horror, and scrambled backwards again.
"Resistance is futile!" it bellowed, and I rolled past yet another blundering blow into a room off to the side of the corridor, where the door was hanging limply from one hinge. As I did so, I heard a horribly ominous clatter, and saw my lasgun ripped from my belt by a jagged shard of wreckage stuck through the floor. I was now utterly defenceless, still lying on my back and forcing myself away from the monster as it forced its way through the small doorframe, masonry crumbling around its shoulders.
Something on my belt clanked, and I reached for it instinctively to find the pot of tanna leaf tea, dented and battered yet miraculously intact. Despite everything, I half-smiled. Going down with the tea. If I had to die, at least I wouldn't be alone.
I sprang to my feet (or, more accurately, my foot), the next heavy-handed blow landing on the tail of my trailing coat and slicing clean through it, and held up the pot like some kind of holy talisman, which, in a way, it was. (13)
13. Cain takes his tea very seriously.
The giant squinted at it suspiciously.
"What's that?" it boomed, hesitating slightly. That was all the opening I needed. I jumped up, ignoring the sudden fiery hooks digging into my leg, and, opening the lid of the pot with my thumb, dashed the steaming contents into the marine's ugly, half-eaten face.
"Tea up," I snarled.
The effect was instantaneous. The behemoth reared back, roaring in surprise and pain, and desperately pawed at its eyes with its vast armoured fists. I darted past it, teeth gritted against the pain and terror, and snatched my laspistol from the ground with my left hand, the right still hanging onto the tea pot for dear life. I didn't have time to switch them but brought the laspistol around, sighting the back of the marine's head along the length of the gun.
I fired, and fired again and again. The first shot took off the top of its skull, exposing the pulsing grey brain below. The second missed entirely, making a smoking hole in the opposite wall. The third was a direct hit, splashing into the brain and making a terrible mess of it. Grey chunks splattered outwards and redecorated the drab walls.
The giant stayed stock-still for an instant, hands still at its now non-existent face, then pitched forward with an earth-shaking crash.
"Commissar Cain!" a voice called, somewhere below me. I looked around in dazed astonishment, finally seeing a group of armoured PDF troopers wearing full-face helmets through the now-vast rent in the floor. "Are you alright, sir?"
"Never better," I said drunkenly, although I'm damn sure I didn't look it. No cap, torn coat, no trousers, no chainsword, carrying a laspistol in one hand and a tea urn in the other. I must have been a bit of a surprising sight, which the voice evidently agreed with.
"Are you sure, sir? Do you need medical aid?"
"I'm fine, but my aide could probably use some," I said, looking at Jurgen's limp body down the corridor. "Send a team up here for him. How's the rest of the place?"
"There's a lot of infected civilians, but the cultists have all been put down," he said. "We'll be with you in a couple of minutes."
Despite everything, a manic smile slowly spread over my face as I stood there, swaying gently.
I raised up the pot as if in salute.
"Spot of tea?"
(At which point the narrative ends characteristically abruptly, Cain no doubt having been delighted to find a suitably pithy way to conclude it.)