Faith & Pestilence
"If it is His will that I should die today, then I shall accept it whole-heartedly. But until he sends a very clear message stating that, I'm going to keep kicking the ever-loving crap out of anything that gets in my way!"
-Yours truly, on one of my better days
Part of being an Inquisitor meant standing firm when everybody else is evacuating their bowels at an alarming rate. The tension in the air was palpable as our ragtag team of soldiers and arbites gazed into the darkness where thousand upon thousand of the walking dead pounded at our door. I could hear the murmurs from the crowd behind me and while the Kriegans remained unflappable, the rest of the troops were rapidly losing their composure. Our little fireworks performance attracted every undead shuffler in a half-mile radius. To make matters worse, the constant pounding on the iron gates was making an even louder racket and was serving as a continuous beacon announcing our whereabouts. Just in case the explosion wasn't obvious enough. And while what we saw was disheartening at best, like a bad case of dysentery, what we had below us was just the beginning.
"Everybody into firing positions now!" I shouted. Years of Commissarial training kicked in as I tried to take control of the situation. I had to stamp out the fires of fear before it consumed the entire group. And sure enough, when the Kriegans fell into line, those who were reluctant or hesitant followed suit. "Snipers, start picking off targets; the rest of you, hold your fire until the gate has fallen and aim for either the head or the legs. We just need to hold them off until we get the lorry running again." Everybody took position in the windows and on the balconies while a couple of snipers in the upper windows began popping heads with their long-las. I needed to update Spike on the situation, as well as deliver the wrench, so I hurried back to the lorry. Despite all the noise and the explosion, Spike was still at his post beneath the tarp.
"All the horrors of the warp about to break loose, boss?" Spike asked when he heard my footsteps approaching.
"How long do you need?" I asked as I handed him the wrench.
"About twenty minutes," he answered.
"You have less than ten," I ordered. Ten was being optimistic given the mass of enemies we were now facing. However, given the fact that the lorry was our only way out of there alive, I intended to give Spike every minute I could. "Verity, stay with Spike," I added. She had already stayed behind to help Spike with the vehicle but I just needed to make it official. I wanted her someplace safe, which was unfortunately the opposite of where I was going. On my way back to the front, I met up with Balasz and despite his vocal opposition, I had him follow me.
"You know, a shrine has got to be the last place in the galaxy I want to die in," he commented as we regrouped with Gustav and the others.
"Really? I can't think of a better place to make a last stand," Gustav answered, sounding almost excited at the prospect. Unfortunately, while last stands made for great reading material, being dead would have made it extremely difficult for us to retell the story later on. For a Kriegan, however, I suppose it was about as good as a career end as one could hope for. To expand on Gustav's earlier adage, Kriegans didn't retire – we got buried. "Besides, how would you prefer to go out?"
"Preferably at a very old age due to cardiac failure in the midst of a massive orgy…but maybe I'm just picky," Balasz said as he helped himself to a spare lasgun. A few soldiers within earshot had a slight chuckle but Gustav seemed disappointed. There was just no pleasing everybody it seemed. Nonetheless, while Gustav and the other Kriegans might have been content to make the shrine their last stand, I had every intention of living through this – if not for my sake, then for Verity's. It was my fault for letting her tag along on this mission even though every shred of maternal instinct had told me otherwise. It was strange how, when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, notions like Emperor and Imperium and righteousness all seemed moot to me. The only thing on my mind, the only thing that motivated me to act, was my desire to get my child out of here alive. It was no wonder that most Inquisitors didn't have children – it seemed like too much of a distraction when you looked at it. But then again I hadn't planned on Verity…she just sort of…well happened. I could not bring myself to give up either the Inquisition or Verity and so I was stuck with the nerve-wrecking game of trying to find a balance to both. And looking back on things now, I doubt I would have had it any other way.
Strangely enough, we soon reached the point where we just wanted the gate to collapse just so we could get it over with. Watching the gate rattling under the constant batter from the undead was bad for our blood pressure. It was quite aggravating given what I had gone through to make sure nobody would freak out. To make matters worse, Sister Devi emerged from the shrine, likely wondering what all the commotion was about, and let out a shriek when she saw what was knocking at our door. "Emperor preserve us!" she gasped when she regained some semblance of composure.
"I think we're a bit beyond that point, doll," Balasz replied as he steadied his lasgun.
Like any good daughter of the Sisterhood, when faced with adversity, Devi immediately dropped to her knees and bowed her head. "Oh Immortal Emperor, please watch over your faithful in this dark hour. Shine upon us with your light and guide us to-"
"Oy prayer girl!" Balasz interrupted. "Either grab a gun or go back inside because you're seriously distracting me here."
Were she not so terrified, she probably would've kicked him in the head for his remarks. Personally, I was used to listening to all kinds of prayers and litanies during stressful times – it was a common outlet for soldiers and so long as they kept their weapons levelled and their hands at the ready then I had nothing against the practice. But Devi did stop her prayer and tried to shoot Balasz the angriest glare she could muster, which was pretty weak given her non-violent nature (and rather pointless given the fact that Balasz wasn't even looking in her direction). But then something else caught the Sister's attention and rather than retreat back into the shrine, she pushed up to the front. "Father Magnusson!" she called out. And that was when we all noticed the crazy bastard walking towards the main gates. In the darkness it was hard to make out what he was doing but it appeared as though he was leading some kind of one-man procession. In one hand he held a thurible, which left a faint smoke trail as he swung it back and forth, and in the other arm he had something propped up against his shoulder, which we mistook for some kind of processional banner. As he moved towards the gate, he chanted a High Gothic litany. I knew not what it meant but it was one that I had heard many times before…albeit almost solely by priests attached to Imperial Guard regiments.
"What in the Emperor's name is he doing?" Gustav remarked.
"Aside from offering himself to be killed?" I replied. The gate wasn't going to hold for much longer but Father Magnusson had walked straight into our line of fire and was standing only meters from the gate.
"Oh Emperor…please protect him!" Devi exclaimed, falling back into prayer mode.
I had to make a call and quickly. Most faithful were not going to openly fire on a priest, even if he was stupidly standing in our way. It was tempting to take the shot myself, or even order Balasz to, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. It could damage my authority and credibility with the soldiers, not to mention it risked hurting their morale. Finally I made up my mind and muttered, "I'm going to regret this." I raced down the stairs and across the courtyard, intent on hauling the idiot priest back even if I had to knock him out to do so.
"A spiritu dominatus, domine, libra nos! From the lightning and the tempest, Emperor deliver us! From the heretic and the darkness, Emperor deliver us! A morte perpetua, domine, libra nos! That thou wouldst cast thy enemies into the pyres of destruction, that thou wouldst guide our righteous blade, that thou wouldst cast thy light unto your faithful. Emperor, we beseech thee, deliver us!" Despite all my usual misgivings about the Ecclesiarchy, I had to admit that they knew how to deliver a speech; even the audience was uncaring and undead. Just as he finished, and with me still some distance to run, the gate finally gave out. Father Magnusson stood just far enough back that when the gates crashed to the ground, they had landed at his feet. And yet the priest did not move, even as the zombies began to rush towards him. "Stand tall in the darkness and light your way with the pyres of burning heretics!" he shouted and suddenly swung the thurible at the closest zombie. We realized he wasn't using Ministorum-approved incense when the shattering thurible erupted into a giant wave of fire, engulfing more than a dozen in holy fire. The horde's tight packing allowed the flames to jump from corpse to corpse with ease. In the light of the flames, I could see Father Magnusson still standing steadfast at the gate and I saw the other item he carried was not some religious icon but an eviscerator, a massive two-handed chainsword often found in the hands of battlefield priests. "Praise the Emperor and strike down his foes!" he bellowed as the massive blade roared to life. Its adamantium teeth and chains let out a harrowing shriek terrifying enough to make even the undead give pause. Strengthened by bionic arms, each swing took out several zombies at once, sending limbs, torso, and heads scattering across the courtyard.
And for a brief moment, we all just stood back in awe-struck silence. For before us stood a lone man, one against a thousand; and he did so without a second of hesitation, without an ounce of fear, and motivated solely by the fire in his heart. Most surprising of all, he was not just holding his ground but he was actually beating back the horde. And while I cannot say with certainty that the priest sang hymns as he cut a swathe through the undead ranks, I cannot say he did not.
Now that I, and everyone else, looked like a little twelve-year-old juvie, I decided to do something about it. In hindsight, I'm not certain what was running through my mind as I drew my sword and charged into the undead ranks; perhaps I had been inspired by his acts, perhaps I thought that taking some of the attention off of him was the only way to get him out alive, or perhaps I just attacked because I didn't want to look so weak in comparison to a seventy-year-old half-crazed priest with a chainsword the size of an adolescent child. I must have been crazy to think that assaulting a horde of zombies head on was a good idea. I fired a flurry of shots as I raced in and then decapitated the nearest zombie with a quick slash of my blade. The key to fighting zombies was to keep moving; to not give them a chance to latch on to you by moving from target to target and dispatching them as quickly as possible. And, of course, to make every swing count – chopping off heads and limbs were good while basic body strikes and stabs were a waste of time. Fortunately for me, the curved blade of a sabre was perfect for this method of combat. When the occasional zombie got too close for me to swing effectively, my sword's basket-hilt gave me the extra force I needed to knock out a few teeth out and discourage the frisky.
I thought that between the priest and I, we were doing a pretty decent job of holding back the tide. Then I heard Gustav's voice piercing through the darkness like an over-charged lasgun. "For the Emperor!" he bellowed. The crack of his bolt pistol rang close and I soon realized that Gustav had led his troops headlong into a frontal assault on the undead. Gustav was probably dismayed at being emasculated by a pint-sized female Inquisitor and an ancient priest and decided to not let us have all the glory. The Sergeant-Major, profane and boisterous like all Gustav clones, ran straight into the first zombie he could find (not like that was a difficult task), knocking it straight to the ground and finishing it off with a bolter round to the skull. Then, with chainsword in hand, he began carving through the zombies like an Emperor's Day roast. A few other chainsword wielding soldiers joined in, hacking away at the enemy and driven by righteous fury or a whole lot of pent-up frustration. Any sensible tactician would unanimously agree that we were all a bunch of damned fools; charging into a melee against a numerically superior force, abandoning superior elevation, and many of us forgoing our ranged weapons in favour of fighting an enemy in close-quarters. Those that didn't have chainswords kept a few feet back and were firing into the masses as they poured in. Somehow, despite our abandoning a positional advantage and therefore trading a possible victory for a horrific defeat; our zeal and fury compensated for our oversight . Of course, not everything went our way; during the fighting I saw several of our soldiers get overwhelmed by the zombies, often caught reloading or leaving themselves an awkward position after a kill. I do not know if those lives could have been saved had we stuck to the original strategy but I reminded myself repeatedly afterwards that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Without the priest's inspiration, our lines could have crumbled; or by letting them into the courtyard, they could have spread out and enveloped our numbers. But by engaging at the gate, we created a bottleneck. In the end, there was no changing what we had done and all we could do was leave the results of our decisions to the Emperor.
Now if anybody in our group embodied the notion of zeal and fury, it was the Sergeant-Major. As my old friend Watz once said, clones from the Gustav stock weren't known for their charm or wit, it was their stubborn nature and their absolute refusal to back down in the face of the enemy. Gustavs tend not to have long careers so to see one attain the rank of Sergeant-Major meant he had defied the odds by beating them to death. If I didn't know any better I would say that he enjoyed the melee – shouting incoherent slurs and insults as he cleaved, shot, and pounded his way through the undead.
"Abel, what's your status?" Spike's voice buzzed through the comm-bead.
"Hectic," I answered curtly as I sliced off a zombie's arm, side-stepped it's cumbersome lunge, and then took its head off as it stumbled past me. "Tell me some good news Spike."
"Lorry's fixed up but we just need a few more minutes to jump-start the engine," he answered. Given how easy it is to look track of time in a battle, I wasn't sure if he had been quick or not in fixing the lorry nor could I tell if we would be able to hold for a few more minutes. It was difficult to tell during the fighting but when I took a brief moment to analyze our surroundings, I noticed we had been pushed back several meters. It wasn't that the enemy's numbers were too great but simply that all the dead bodies were forcing us to continually step back in order to have firm footing. The blood and bile made trying to fight atop of corpses difficult along with the fact that a downed zombie was not necessarily a completely dead one, a fact I learned quickly when I tried to move and noticed that a decapitated head was trying to chew on the steel toe-plate on my boot. With a quick snap-kick, I flung the head straight into the face of an approaching zombie, which did little more then cause its head to snap back long enough for my laspistol aerate its skull via a round entering under the jaw and exiting through the top of its head.
Though our line was slowing backing up inch by bloody inch (mostly the zombie's blood), the positive effect was that the layers of corpses were slowing down the flow of the zombies. It was a fortunate turn of events as I was starting to get a little winded hacking through scores of the undead. There was now ample time to take a few extra breaths before I had to decapitate the next zombie. However, even though the flow was slowing down, our line was getting stretched thinner and zombies were beginning to seep into the courtyard.
"There's no bloody end to them," I remarked to nobody in particular. After popping the head off a couple more zombies with my laspistol, I was forced to take a moment to reload, which was when I noticed that I was already down to my last few power cells. I decided to holster my pistol for the time being so when the next zombie shambled up to me, I simply drove my augmetic fist straight into its mouth, knocking all its teeth in. In hindsight there wasn't much use in punching a zombie but it felt good. A quick swipe from my phase sword took off the upper half of its head.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour of shooting, punching, hacking, and slashing through waves of undead, I heard the roar of an engine coming from behind. I took a quick glance over my shoulder and saw the lorry peeling across the courtyard lawn, tearing up all the perfectly manicured grass in the process. "Rides here!" I shouted over to Gustav, who happened to be nearby. He didn't respond at first as he was too busy smashing a zombie's face with a Catachan kiss so forceful that it left bits of teeth and bone clinging to his helmet.
"Emperor's blood…just when things were starting to get interesting," Gustav remarked before he let out an ear-splittingly loud whistle. "Soldiers, we are leaving!"
Lucky for us, breaking off an engagement from the shambling undead was as easy as breaking up with a deployed boyfriend. The only person that actually took some convincing to leave was the priest, who was waist-deep in undead while the rest of us were running for the lorry. Since I would have felt like an absolute bastard if I left him behind, I had to double back when I realized he had declined to follow us. "Magnusson!" I called out as I had to cut my way through several zombies just to keep sight of him. "We're pulling out! You need to come with us!" I wasn't sure if he failed to hear me or wasn't paying attention but either way I had to get closer if I were to get his attention. "Get the frak out of my way!" I started shouting even though the things getting in my way weren't going to listen. I began pushing my way through the zombies, many of which seemed more interested in trying to get to Magnusson than notice a pint-sized Inquisitor cutting her way through them like jungle brush. "Hey, crazy priest!" I called out, skewering a zombie through the back of the head while it pushing its body aside, "are you not listening to-"
My words were cut short, along with everything around me, when Father Magnusson swung my direction, along with his eviscerator. Thankfully, having far faster reflexes than the things around me, I was able to duck under while the giant chainsword cleaved everything around in twain. Finally, I was just sick and tired of being overlooked so I reached out and grabbed the priest by the robe and pulled him down so we were face-to-face. "Listen you stupid bastard, if you want any of that glorious salvation you were espousing before, you better follow me!" He was much more cooperative at that point, mentioning something about the Emperor's guidance as we ran for the lorry. "Mulder," I called over the comm-bead, "we're pulling out so get Sister Devi and get to the lorry."
"Already on it," his voice buzzed in response. As I had figured, Mr. Mulder was the only one of us who decided against running headlong into the deathless horde. I am certain that he was relieved that we were all so zealous about holding back the enemy and he felt he could leave the fighting to the professionals.
Magnusson and I were the last to reach the lorry. Much to my relief, Verity was sitting in the front cabin with Spike, which I figured would at least be the safest for her since it was the only part of the vehicle with a roof. "Praise the Emperor, you're both safe," Sister Devi greeted with much relief as we were helped onto the flatbed.
Once secured, I pushed my way to the front where I could at least see where we were going. Gustav was at the front too, standing firm and vigilant and splattered head to toe in zombie guts. He gave a curt nod when I reached his side. "I hope none of that is yours," I commented in half-jest. He didn't react but I couldn't tell since his gasmask covered his face. "By the way, you really stink."
"That's the smell of victory," he replied proudly.
"Funny how victory always seems to smell of decaying bodies," I commented just as Spike began to accelerate towards the gate...and the horde of zombies standing in our way. However, as the truck sped towards the exit, I suddenly had a realization and pounded on the cabin, shouting at him to stop. Were anyone else driving, they would have ignored me but Spike trusted my orders implicitly and the lorry screeched to a halt. Amidst a sea of 'what's going on?' I heard Spike ask for new instructions. "Back 'er up," I ordered. Again, he followed without question. The zombies might have been advancing but the courtyard was large enough that we had plenty of time. Spike kept backing the lorry up until we came to a halt in front of the shrine's main steps. Only one other person clued in as to why I had ordered the truck to head the opposite direction we needed and that was the Sergeant-Major.
Gustav immediately pushed his way to the rear and pointed to the three nearest soldiers to the next. "You, you, and you; get that heavy bolter on the double or you're walking!" he bellowed. Two of the soldiers immediately offloaded and disassembled the remaining heavy bolter, while the third gathered its ammunition. It took a bit of effort to get the heavy weapon onto the flatbed but once it was up, we moved it to the front and set it down atop the driver cabin.
"Let's get out of here," I finally ordered. With precision and efficiency, the two soldiers had the heavy bolter in position and loaded before Spike even got the lorry up to speed. "Verity, you might want to cover your ears," I warned just before Gustav gave the order to 'clear a path through this filth.' The zombies that weren't cut down by the spray of heavy bolter fire were plowed down by the speeding lorry. I had concerns that the piles of bodies we left might bog the lorry down, maybe even stop it completely, but we had enough mass and velocity to push through the mess, although it was a rather bumpy ride.
A few of the soldiers let out cheers and relieved sighs once we were clear of the major threat but Gustav was quick to shit on their parade. "Don't get too excited girls," he said sternly as he looked back to the weary troops behind him. "All we did was get out of the driveway; we've still got a space port to deal with." That somber reminder silenced everybody on the flatbed, save for me as I was unaware of a crucial detail. When I asked what made him so certain that the space port was going to be rough he answered, "Once the pansy-arse governor realized how much shit we were all standing in, he tried to get as many people off-world as possible. Needless to say, that meant a lot people crammed into the space ports. You can pretty much guess how well that worked out for them." Indeed I could and I could also put the pieces together and realize that it meant that what we had fought through was going to look like a brisk summer afternoon stroll compared to what was likely waiting for us at the space port. And anybody familiar with the exploits of my career can attest to how often the galaxy liked to save the messiest part for last.
The roads through the streets were relatively devoid of any sign of the undead. Occasionally we would see a zombie shambling along the side of the road and one of the soldiers would try to club them in the head with a lasgun as we drove by, often with minimal success. In the flatbed, Father Magnusson held a miniature sermon, telling the troops that it was faith and devotion that had seen us through the danger and not the lasguns and chainswords. At one point, when it safe, Spike stopped the truck long enough for me to climb into the front cabin. Primarily, I just wanted to check up on my daughter but also to get away from Magnusson's pedantic prattle. "How are you holding up there, kiddo?" I asked as Verity slid over to make room for me to sit.
"I am managing," Verity admitted after a moment to mull it over. Verity was rarely one to struggle with words, a side-effect from having a biotically-enhanced brain, so the three word answer wasn't as comforting as it had sounded.
"Are you sure?" I asked. I didn't necessarily think she was lying but like me she was not always forthcoming with her feelings. She preferred trying to figure things out on her own as she was accustomed to; a sense of self-reliance that served her extremely well later in life but made her early years difficult at times for her mother. It often led to unrealistic expectations and as I had to be there to cushion her landing when those expectations fell through.
"I admit these feelings of anxiety are a bit distressing," she admitted reluctantly. "I do not like having to stand back and leave my fate in the hands of others…n-not that I think you will falter, mother. I'm sorry to fail you mother; I am…scared."
After a moment of thought, I put my arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. Once again, I had been torn between reacting like a commissar and behaving like a mother. I didn't want to coddle her but I also knew her courage was something that needed time to develop and mature. It would have been foolish of me to think that a young, relatively sheltered juvie like Verity would be brave when faced with hordes of flesh-eating zombies and trying to goad courage out of her would have been damaging in the long run. Or at least that is what I kept telling myself; I am certain there are those out there who would have disagreed. "Nobody is expecting you to play hero, dear," I reassured her. "It's a pretty frightening galaxy out there…everybody gets a little scared."
"Speak for yourself," Spike boldly scoffed.
"Forgetting about Simmiae Secundis? I remember a certain someone doing a lot of running and screaming back then," I remarked.
"That wasn't fear, that was distress and you'd be distressed too if a six-hundred pound, four-armed gorilla was trying to have its way with you."
"And whose fault was that?"
"How was I supposed to know it was frakking mating season?"
No sooner had Spike said that, I reached over and smacked him on the back of the head. "Mind your language, there's a juvie present." Our little back and forth helped to cheer Verity up as she tried to stifle a quiet chuckle. "As I was saying Verity, everybody gets scared from time to time. How you respond to that fear, however, is what's important. And over time you'll find the inner strength to stand against that fear."
"You know what would help her feel a bit braver?" Spike chimed in once more. "A weapon."
"Didn't we already have this discussion?" I replied. "She's too young to be waving a weapon around and you yourself said her aim still needs improvement. Even if I gave her a weapon, she wouldn't be able to hit them in the head and if things got hectic, she might hit somebody else in a panic."
"She can hit a man-sized target at close range," Spike argued calmly. "And given how numerous our enemy is, you can't be certain somebody will be watching over Verity at every instance. What if she gets separated or if you lose sight of her for a moment? If we're going to be walking into a space port that could be teeming with undead, she should have something to protect herself with as a last resort. Give her your plasma pistol – that'll do serious damage regardless of where she hits them." Once again, Spike's tactical analysis provided a more objective assessment of how to deal with my child. I still held reservations over handing a plasma pistol over to a juvie but I reminded myself that she probably knew more about the pistol than I did. And it wasn't as if she hadn't handled a weapon in combat before, against living opponents no less. In the end, I couldn't argue against Spike's logic and I reluctantly unbuckled my plasma pistol's holster from my hip.
"You know what this is Verity?" I asked with my best 'serious mother' tone.
"A MKIII Sunfury plasma pistol with added heat sinks, customized focusing lenses, and enhanced energizers," she answered with quick precision.
"Correct," I answered. As I was about to set it in her awaiting hands I pulled it back for a brief moment. "It is not a toy, nor a gadget, nor a trinket, nor a relic; it is a weapon. You are to treat this with the utmost respect. This weapon is to be used as a last resort only. And I do not ever want to see you aiming this anything you do not intend and need to kill, do you understand me Verity?"
"Yes, mother, I understand," she said with a steadfast nod. I was still a bit uneasy about handing over an advance piece of ordinance over to my daughter but at that point I was beyond any hope of calming my nerves down. The only way I'd be calm was when I was back in orbit.
Before I could say anything further, Gustav knocked on the back window to get our attention. "Stop the lorry for a second," he requested. I promptly gave Spike the okay and he brought the lorry to a slow halt. I wasn't certain why the Sergeant-Major requested us to stop, given that we were still on a highway, but I was confidant that he had a reason and there were no immediate threats in the area to make me consider otherwise. The moment we stopped, he hopped off the flatbed and walked over to the nearby guardrail with an amplivisor in hand. "The space ports just over there," he said when I walked over to find out why we had stopped. The highway we had been driving on for some time took us along the outer rim of the upper level of the city; its elevated position offered us a clear line of sight to the space port in the distance, which sat on the edge of the upper level like a cup-holder nailed onto the end of a table. The usual assortment of space port lights was still blinking in the darkness but they were part of automated systems. From a distance, the main control spire appeared to be undamaged, not that I expected zombies to knock down buildings, but there was no way of knowing how infested the area was without getting a bit closer.
"I don't suppose you know your way around that place?" I asked as Gustav handed me the amplivisor.
"Spent a few months protecting it from rebels and rioters trying to steal food supplies as they come in," Gustav answered. "The main gateway will be the easiest way to get inside. Once inside, we can use the service entrance to access a roadway that will take us straight to the control spire."
"Alternatives?" If the area was as infested with zombies as my paranoia suggested, I didn't want to head into a space port without a back-up plan. While true that my track record with plans wasn't that great, as plans had a tendency of imploding once they were introduced to the enemy. However, they were always comforting to me and gave the illusion that I had some idea of what I was doing.
"The cargo transport route would be the second best option – it's not as direct but it still avoids all the passenger areas. Biggest problem for that route, though, is all the gates that we'll probably need to open to get into the central area. There're three of them and with no easy way to bypass them." Gustav's alternative wasn't as encouraging but it was still a viable plan. Plus, between Spike and Verity, there weren't a lot of doors that we couldn't break through. "Worse case scenario, we proceed on foot and use the passenger terminals and fight our way through to the control spire. The inside is still relatively open and there plenty of chokepoints we can use to thin their numbers if need be."
"Do we even have the ammunition to shoot our way through?" I asked with a hint of concern.
"Inquisitor, I will get you to that control spire even if I have to beat every Emperor-forsaken zombie to a second death with my bare frakking hands," Gustav reassured me. Had I not witnessed earlier what that Kriegan murder machine was capable of, I would have pegged it as another boastful claim but I had a feeling that he would do exactly that if need be. Besides, a general goes to war with the army they have so it wasn't as if I could go to supply depot and ask for a different Sergeant-Major.
"Well, no point waiting around here then," I said. A bizarre thought popped through my mind just then, causing me to let out a quiet chuckle.
"Something amusing Inquisitor?" Gustav remarked.
"Nothing just…well, before the Inquisition, I served in the Commissariat," I explained. "My first real battle was a landing at a space port. I just thought it was kind of funny that my career might now end in one."
"Don't think like that," Gustav replied, "something could still kill you before we even get there."
"Heh, good point," I said with another chuckle. Kriegan humour was generally so grim it could be considered dead.
Once the Sergeant-Major and I got back on board the lorry, Spike sped off and we continued on our way to the space port. As we drew closer to our destination, we noticed more and more lone zombies meandering along the roads. Gustav forbade the troops from trying to take any shots at them since we needed to conserve as much ammunition as possible. Things were going smoothly until Spike alerted me to an oncoming problem.
"Uh…we've got traffic," Spike said as he directed my attention to the distance. Unfortunately, we had failed to take into account left-over civilian traffic from all the panicked citizens trying to evacuate. The roads were more stuffed than an Emperor's Day roast with barely enough room between cars. With few alternatives, Spike veered the truck towards the shoulder of the road, where there was at least enough room to squeeze most of the truck through. "Arms and legs inside the vehicle," he warned as the truck clipped the first car, shoving it aside with a loud grinding noise. Any hope of getting to the space port without making too much noise was now as dead as the rest of the population. The truck bumped and smashed and shoved its ways past each car, knocking out windows and mirrors and doing a terrible number of its paint job. "What I wouldn't give for a chimera right about now," Spike grumbled as the truck ground to a temporary halt. The next vehicle was a bit reluctant to move. He quickly threw the lorry into reverse, backed a few meters, and gave it another go. This time, we had more success as the truck knocked the stationary vehicle aside, although it left the engine with an unsettling chugging noise.
After having shoved aside about a dozen cars, our truck finally shifted into an empty lane. Seconds later, the driver's side door, which had been the unfortunate center of a metal-and-rockrete sandwich, promptly fell off its hinges. "Please tell me this heap of metal can make it the rest of the way," I remarked as I noticed the passenger side door was clinging to the proverbial edge.
"As long as we don't have more collisions like that," he replied. The impacts must have knocked the axles out of alignment as the truck was constantly drifting left, forcing Spike to constantly correct for the drift, resulting in a swerving motion. An occasional puff of smoke was coughed forth from the engine compartment as most enginseers would agree that they were not intended to be used as battering rams. Of course, Spike's rationality towards improvised bludgeoning devices consisted of 'if it shouldn't be used to smash things, why was it made from six hundred pounds of solid metal?' The truck pulled a sharp turn into the space port's main yard, crashing through a few chain-link fences in the process. Despite Gustav's pervious warnings, there appeared to be very few zombies in the outer areas of the space port.
"You'll want to head that way," Gustav shouted through the back window, directing our attention to a large bay door at the base of a ramp.
"Thank the Emperor, we're almost-" Spike began but never got a chance to finish the sentence. He was interrupted to the sound of someone in the back shouting 'incoming' followed by a series of explosions that hit the side of the truck. The impact sent the truck into a slide before momentum tipped it over and sent it crashing onto the asphalt. One would think that after so many years I would have learned to always remember to buckle up my seatbelt but apparently I needed a refresher course. When my senses came to, the lorry was on its side with me laying on the passenger side door with a dazed Verity atop of me. Spike was the only one smart enough to have remembered the important safety feature, which had saved him from being flung out of the vehicle when it flipped over. "You two okay?" Spike asked as he adjusted his position.
"What the frak was that?" I groaned.
"Either the zombies learned how to use a rocket launcher or some friendly plague-spewing harbingers of the apocalypse are close by," he replied. It turned out that the space port wasn't just our closest point of escape but also the current location of the being we had been seeking. However, a psychotic, planet-dooming minion of Chaos wasn't our immediate concern as we noticed masses of zombies beginning to swarm towards the lorry, including one that was right in front of the now-shattered windshield. "Shit! Cover your ears!" Spike warned as he grabbed his shotgun and took aim. However, instead of palming my ears I instead clasped my hands over Verity's just before the shotgun rang out. Firing a slugthrower inside a giant metal box was a quick and easy way to ensure that you'll need hearing aids further down the road. The zombie was splattered across the asphalt but all I could hear was an echoing, ringing in my ears. I couldn't hear what Spike said afterwards but judging by the waving of his hand he wanted us to get out of the cab. Verity and I crawled through the broken windshield while Spike clamored out driver's side door.
"Where's everybody else?" I shouted, albeit oblivious to just how loud I actually was. I wound up drawing a lot of attention to myself. The passengers in the flatbed had been scattered across the asphalt by the blasts. Some weren't able to recover from the shock of the landing before being overwhelmed by the undead, while some of the others were regrouping around the Sergeant-Major. "Where's Mulder?" I asked when I couldn't spot him.
Verity was able to find our missing conman, pointing out his location several meters back. He must have fallen off the lorry first got struck, along with Sister Devi, and were quickly being surrounded by zombies. As callous as it may sound, were it just Sister Devi I would have written her off as an acceptable casualty but Mulder was kind of important to my work. "Verity, stay with Spike," I instructed before I drew my blade and charged towards Mulder's position. Most of the zombies weren't paying attention to me, making it easier for me to cut and cleave my way through their numbers. After about a dozen zombies, I finally made it to Mulder's position. The zombies seemed to have been ignoring him as well, instead focusing on Devi, who was rapidly reciting prayers while Mulder held them back.
"We need to get out of here," I shouted as I took a zombie's head off and then pushed the body aside.
"No argument here," Balasz replied. A zombie stumbled past him on route to Sister Devi, to which Balasz quickly whipped out a concealed derringer and put its single bullet right into the zombie's eye socket, complete with all the subsequent gory results.
He moved to follow me when I quickly stopped him and said, "Get the girl."
I could see the frustration in his eyes but he said nothing and quickly doubled back for Sister Devi. "On your feet lady," he instructed as he pulled on her arm. He did it just in the nick of time too as he pulled her away from a trio of zombies that were about to make a midnight snack of her. "For frak's sake, you're about to die and all you can think of is praying?" he griped as he fired off three rounds, one into each undead skull.
"I'd rather die without sin than out of breath," Sister Devi answered, sounding almost indignant that Balasz interrupted her prayers. However, a few oncoming zombies and several more gunshots quickly left her silent so we were able to regroup with Gustav with little difficulty. The Sergeant-Major and the remaining survivors had formed into a tight circle and were fighting back the hordes. Unfortunately, it was plain to see that such a position could not be held for very long.
"We need to leave, now!" I stated as though there was any disagreement to the notion.
Well, actually there was one person who didn't like that idea. No prizes in guessing which among us was so mentally deficient to think that fighting impossible odds was the ideal solution. "We cannot leave now!" Magnusson exclaimed as his eviscerator revved up. "The darkness descends! The scourge of heresy stands before us! We must press forth and purge the wretched horror lest it stains our very souls!"
"Yes…stay and play with us…" a sickly, bloated voice wormed through the air. I had parlayed with the Ruinous Powers before but servants of Nurgle always left me feeling…dirty. Their voices were always as if somebody was vomiting right into your ear. Our harbinger of foul-smelling death was fairly easy to spot even from our distance as he stood head and shoulders above the undead hordes. The darkness left him as little more than a vacuous silhouette but there was no mistaking him for anything other than a Plague marine. If there was any lingering doubt whether it was a sorcerer or not, they evaporated about as quickly as the skin from a nearby PDF soldier. He let out a wretched scream of agony as his skin suddenly burst into scores of oozing sores and boils, which enveloped him in seconds until he was little more than a bubbly, deformed lump of pus-leaking flesh. Spike and I had to hold back the remaining PDF trooper who tried to go and help his comrade; unfortunately, there was nothing we could do for the man at that point.
"Emperor have mercy," Sister Devi gasped at the sight, turning several shades paler in process.
"We're leaving!" I shouted. "Everybody stay close!" There was no room for debate anymore as we all ran in the opposite direction, shooting and cutting down anything that was in our way. Even Father Magnusson was following along, though it seemed to be mostly because Devi was constantly pulling on his arm. Many would argue that my decision to show my hind-quarter to the enemy was unbecoming of an Inquisitor but I cannot stress it enough that we were grossly outnumbered and completely exposed on every flank. We were down to about a dozen people but we made good progress through what opposition we faced. For whatever reason, the Plague sorcerer did not seem interested in pursuing us, though some sorcerers could teleport through the Warp so it didn't necessarily mean he was out of the picture. Either way, we were relatively safe as long as we kept moving and once we broke free of the main cluster of zombies, it was an easy sprint across the tarmac to the maintenance tunnel door. "Verity, get the door open," I ordered once we reached it.
"Her? Is she some kind of tech-priest?" Gustav asked with understandable confusion.
"Not exactly…but she does know her technosorcery," I said, not wanting to get dragged into long explanations when we still had death looming over our heads. "How's it look, Verity?"
"It's a rudimentary multi-digit access code terminal. Zero security, zero hindrance," she answered as she pulled a cable out from the depths of her dark hair. A sharp metal spike extended from the end of the cable, which she promptly jabbed straight into the control lectern. Everybody, save for the three of us who'd seen this a dozen times before, were all taken aback by this action.
"What manner of child is she?" Devi asked, sounding less surprised and more suspicious.
"The very special kind. This is really not the time to be discussing this," I replied impatiently. No sooner had I finished my sentence, Verity let out a successful cheer, followed by the door slowly opening. Elation turned into disappointment, however, when the door opened to reveal that we had unlocked the door into the zombie convention hall. It made the crowd we had just fought our way through look like a social tea party. "Oh for frak's sake," I groaned and put a lasbolt into the nearest undead freak. Needless to say, we decided to find another direction to run, now with a few extra thousand zombies to motivate us. We had little choice but to go with Gustav's third option – heading inside the passenger terminal and proceeding on foot. Luckily, the entrance to the aforementioned building wasn't too far away and we only had to fight through a few dozen zombies from the original horde we had been fleeing from. After some of the most frantic running of my life, we eventually found ourselves in the depths of the passenger terminals, surrounded by cold darkness and a lot of heaving lungs. Even I, one who normally tried to maintain a level composure, resigned to collapsing to my knees in order to catch my breath.
"I…am getting…really tired…off all this running…" Spike gasped between breaths. "Are we…at least…in the clear…for now?"
"Yeah…I think so," Verity answered as she looked around cautiously. Were anyone else answering, I would have remained on my guard but with all of Verity's bionic augmentations, nothing short of a rift in the warp would get the drop on us. I would have preferred to have kept moving but once the madness had subsided, I had trouble finding the energy or motivation to move my legs. Upon a cursory evaluation, the rest of my party had similar feelings. Thus, I acquiesced to the fact that a short rest was going to be needed if we were to carry on with any semblance of haste. The air inside the terminal was dry and stale; every breath scratched at my throat as though I were breathing in sandpaper. Spike, always one to keep prepared, passed a canteen around but with a half-dozen thirsty mouths (since most of the soldiers had their own flasks) by the time I got my hands on it there was barely enough to wet my tongue. In hindsight I probably should have said something when I noticed Verity chugging back almost half the canteen on her own.
"Remind me again why we came to the space port?" Balasz said sarcastically while checking his weapons. "Because it seems to me all we've done is put ourselves in the middle of the worst frakking place on the whole damn planet! Next time you have a brilliant plan Abel, just shove it up your arse and call it a day!"
Since complaining was what Balasz always did, I simply ignored him. Sister Devi, however, decided to step up to my defence and slapped the scoundrel so hard across the face that it echoed throughout the terminal. "How dare you speak ill of her? Were it not for her you would probably be dead right now!" she shouted.
Balasz was probably accustomed to getting five across the face that he didn't even seem annoyed at the physical strike, instead focusing his irritation on her accusations. "Lady, if it weren't for our wonderful Inquisitor, I'd be half-way across this galaxy, sitting on a nice little beach with a glass of twenty-year-old amsec surrounded by gorgeous, scantily-clad women. I would certainly not be traipsing across the sector or masquerading as a luncheon on legs and I most certainly wouldn't be wasting my time saving a worthless little bitch like you! Next time you want to drop to your knees, you'll want to shout louder cause your Golden sack of bones can't hear you from ten thousand frakking light years away!"
On the Ferrograd, Balasz's borderline heretical behaviour was reluctantly tolerated. He got into arguments with crewmembers from time to time but most just refrained from talking to him, which was kind of how he preferred things. However, spouting blasphemous remarks in front of several highly devout Kriegan soldiers and a priest with a five-foot chainsword ranked on the stupid scale just below playing scrumball in a minefield. Unfortunately, my usual method of saving Balasz's arse was the 'drop him, I drop you' tactic. Said tactic wasn't very effective when dealing with soldiers who didn't consider anything a victory unless somebody had died for it. The only thing I could do on such short notice was quickly pull the idiot back and put myself between him and all his adoring fans.
"Okay, toys down folks," I said to the half-dozen lasguns and revving chainswords now directed towards me. "There's enough death and dismemberment outside that we don't need to start carving each other up."
"One does not turn a blind eye to the scourge of heresy, lest he allows his other to be plucked from his skull," Magnusson said. Given the size of his eviscerator, he could have cut Balasz and I in half with one swing and given his fanaticism, I wouldn't have put that thought past him.
"As hard as it may be to fathom, he could very well be the only one that can keep us alive," I said. Frankly, I didn't expect that to win the argument since even I would have been skeptical of such a claim but Balasz was my wild card.
"Tis better to let a thousand innocents burn that allow one to fall in worship to the daemons!" Magnusson retorted.
"Hey, now wait a second," I quickly interrupted, "Balasz might be an arsehole of gargantuan proportions but he doesn't worship daemons. I've had this guy on my ship for a while now; I'd know if he were up to something as serious as that. He's a harmless fool...an extremely irritating and pompous fool but a harmless and very useful fool nonetheless."
"Gee, thanks for the support boss," Balasz muttered into my ear.
"To tolerate such blasphemy only encourages it," Gustav said sternly with his bolt pistol aimed square at my face (since Balasz kept his right behind it). "The only thing required for heresy to thrive is for good men to do nothing."
It was always irritating when I had to stand and defend Balasz. I always felt like I was sacrificing a piece of my own integrity by claiming the man should not be put to death for blatant heresy…even if a part of me did agree to that. Hell, a younger version of me would have stood alongside Gustav ready to shoot first and blame it on the heretics. She would have even used the same words that Gustav had, quoting from a famed Kriegan officer from during the civil war. I decided to return fire with the verbal equivalent of an Exitus rifle's bullet.
"Ich werde diese Last tragen, so dass es nicht zu behindern Sie auf Ihrem Marsch zum Sieg," I answered calmly. Father Magnusson didn't react but all the Kriegan soldiers slowly lowered their weapons with what I imagined were stunned expressions behind their masks. They were words that only made sense to a Kriegan; when Colonel Jurten ordered Krieg to be cleansed with atomic fire, he risked open revolt from his own troops as a result. The Colonel was able to pacify his disgruntled troops with his now famous words, originally spoken in the old Kriegan tongue, 'I shall carry this burden so that it does not hinder you on your march to victory.' He could be considered a monster or a hero depending on who you asked but virtually all would agree that it was because of Jurten's actions that Krieg was eventually returned to the Emperor.
"You…are of Krieg?" Gustav asked.
"Does the nuclear haze glow gold in the morning?"
"Well, if you really think he's worth it," Gustav said reluctantly as he motioned for his men to stand down.
"He is…not that I technically needed your permission," I said as I motioned to Spike and Verity who stood behind the Sergeant-Major. Both of them had their weapon trained on the cluster of soldiers. In the end, I couldn't help but be a little irked that being a Kriegan meant more to these soldiers than being an Inquisitor. But then again, I couldn't fault them for adhering to their principles and duties; Inquisitors were, after all, susceptible to heresy as well.
"Wait, that's it?" Devi interrupted with a hint of surprise. "She spouts some random babel and you just fall in line?" I detected a hint of the 'sore loser' syndrome in the young lady as she probably would have enjoyed seeing Balasz's guts perforated by laser fire.
"Why not? That's what you do all the time with your Emp-oof!" Balasz tried to get one last cheap shot in but I swiftly elbowed him hard in the gut to keep him from re-lighting the fire. With the situation pacified, we were able to continue moving on.
"This reeks of 'bad idea' Abel," Spike said after quickly evaluating the situation. Whether by luck or the Emperor's divination, we were able to reach the control spire without further incidence. The downside, however, was that the only access route we could get operating was a back-up lift that only had enough room for a couple of people to fit in. Given the height of the spire and assuming that the lift operated at 'recaf machine first thing in the morning' speed, it would take a half-dozen trips and close to a half-hour just to get everybody to the top. Since we only needed to go up in order to make contact with the Ferrograd in orbit, I had decided that only one party would head up while the rest remained below to hold the position. Despite Spike's insistence, I opted to take Gustav and Verity with me – I needed Verity in case there were problems with the communication systems and Gustav was better at close-quarters than Spike. I also needed somebody I could trust to watch Balasz in case the others had a change of heart.
"I've made my decision," I said sternly. "I want to spend as little time as possible up there. I need you to make sure this area doesn't become a zombie convention in the meantime."
"At least let us send a second lift of troops up there," he argued.
I shook my head. "If I run into trouble, I don't want to be waiting for the lift to return. We go in, we make the call, and then we get out. Understood?"
Spike let out a reluctant sigh and nodded. "Understood Inquisitor."
"Excellent, then let's not waste time then," I acknowledged and motioned for the Sergeant-Major and Verity to follow. The lift was just barely large enough to fit the three of us, with Gustav and I pressed against each end and Verity tucked in between us. As we shut the lift door and it began to ascend, I had to take a few deep, calming breaths to keep my claustrophobia from kicking in. The elevator was definitely cramped and the only source of light was a single luminator orb above our head but by constantly reminding myself that it was a lift that would soon arrive at a wide, open space, I was able to keep in check. Nothing destroyed an Inquisitor's credibility faster than a complete mental catastrophe (also know as 'flipping out').
"Mind if I ask something a bit personal Inquisitor?" Gustav spoke up after a few moments.
"As long as it's not my personal vox number, go ahead," I replied.
"Is it really wise for you to have brought a child, not to mention your own child, on a mission?"
"Well, she might not look like it but she's got a special gift and a lot of potential," I explained as I glanced down to her for a moment. She beamed with pride at my remarks. "She's got some fairly advanced bionic implants."
"Really?" Gustav replied in slight disbelief. In his defense, Verity did look like a run-of-the-mill fourteen-year-old juvie but that inconspicuous appearance just made her even more valuable. "How advanced are we talking?"
"'Dark Age of Technology' advanced. The Adeptus Mechanicus would probably try to hunt her down if they knew about her." I was even wary of leaving her unattended around the tech-priests on my own ship and that fear of the Adeptus Mechanicus was another why I kept her with me.
"How'd you manage that?"
"That…is a long story," I said with a sigh. I wouldn't have even been able to give Gustav an abridged version since a few moments later the lift came to a halt and the doors finally opened. The control spire was thankfully devoid of anything that shuffled or groaned. A few bodies were off in a corner but judging by the gunshot wounds to the head, they were some unfortunate souls that had become trapped in the spire and opted for the painless way out.
"We're going to need more guns," Gustav commented plainly as we both looked out the spire windows. The windows offered us a clear view of the surrounding space port though I soon regretted taking a glance to the ground below. Our sorcerer must have acted as a beacon to the undead because the tarmac below was…writhing. Thousands of them were gathering at the main landing pad where an old freighter was still parked. It became pretty clear what was going to happen soon.
"Once we contact my ship and get out of here, we can blast this space port into dust," I said as I headed over to a wall of computer consoles. Verity had ignored the window when we arrived and had gone straight for the consoles. She was already at work while Gustav and I were admiring the view. Most of the systems appeared to have been powered down but Verity was already on top of that issue and was prying panels off the machines. "Can you get it running again?" I asked. I would have offered to help but I barely knew technosorcery beyond what went into my guns and even that was limited.
"Give me one of your power cells," she said. I trusted her judgment and handed one over, which unfortunately left me with only one power cell to spare. Within a couple of minutes, Verity had the power cell hooked up to the console as an improvised power source. She was, however, quick to inform me that even a power cell would only allow maybe a minute of transmission at best. She initiated a few quick rites of activation and soon the lectern lit up like an Emperor's Day tree. "Clock's ticking, get talking," she advised me as she handed over a receiver for me to speak into.
"This is Inquisitor Abel calling the Spirit of Ferrograd; Ferrograd come in, over."
"Spirit of Ferrograd?" Gustav remarked before chuckling to himself. The ship's name was another Krieg reference. Ferrograd was the name of the only hive city not to fall to the rebels during the civil war and it was where Colonel Jurten began the five-hundred-year-long campaign to retake the planet. I figured it was a fitting name for a ship trying to reclaim the Imperium one star system at a time. I anxiously waited for a response; each second of dead air seemed to stretch for ten times as long and I worried that the power would die before I heard anything.
"This is Captain Engelhart," a voice weakly crackled through the receiver, "where the hell have you been? We've been trying to raise you for hours. The whole planet seems to have gone to hell, over."
"I know. I'm smack-dab in the frakking center of it," I replied. "Tell Celeste to load up the Zweihander and get down here for emergency extraction. Landing zone is hot so bring some heavy hitters with her. Lastly, bring the Ferrograd into geo-synch orbit over my position and prepare for orbital fire. Please acknowledge, over."
"Zweihander will be sent immediately to your location for extraction. We are moving the Ferrograd into position for bombardment and will await further orders, over."
A few seconds later, the connection went dead, along with all the lights on the console. "Hello? Argentus are you still there?" I tried in vain for a few moments before tossing the receiver aside. "Well at least that takes care of one problem," I said with relief.
That relief, like most positive experiences on this mission, was short-lived when I heard a bizarre crackle noise come from behind me, followed by an unsettling rush of air against my skin. I had felt that sensation enough to recognize them as the hallmark features of a teleportation through the Warp. Instinctively, I spun about face while drawing my sword and found myself standing face-to-putrid-face with a towering Chaos sorcerer of Nurgle. I was barely able to keep my stomach from doing a back-flip when I was hit by its pungent odour. Like all plague marines, his body was so bloated that it bulged and cracked the power armour that barely contained it; his right arm had broken free of the armour casing and held a sizable blade that dripped with unholy toxins. "So you are the one who stands against me," the sorcerer spoke, his voice once again making my ears feel as though they had been used as puke buckets. "You cannot hope to stop me."
"Well what if I asked really, really, really nicely?" I remarked. Not surprisingly, he simply chuckled at my remarks before taking a swing at me. Why the Chaos sorcerer opted to use a sword instead of just filleting me with his mind was, and still is, a mystery to me. Perhaps the Emperor was watching over me that day since I had absolutely no defense against a direct psychic attack; or perhaps gutting me with a blade was more satisfying to him. Whatever the reason, his massive size and strength was no match for my nimbleness. Being short had the slight advantage that even a mid-level swing for the sorcerer was at head-level for me. I rushed inside his reach, ducked under his swinging arm, and then drove my blade into his side. Unfortunately, I am fairly certain I hit nothing but pus and swollen flesh as the sorcerer didn't even seem to flinch at my attack. And to make matters worse, my blade was now stuck. I got stalled trying to extricate my weapon from the swollen sack of flesh, giving the sorcerer ample time to grab me by the scruff of my coat. I was promptly hoisted off my feet with my blade still sticking out from his side.
"You're pitiful attacks cannot harm me!"
"Like I haven't heard that one before," I said mockingly. "I'd take your head for a trophy but it would stink up my waiting room."
Servants of Chaos were usually very easy to rile up and when they got angry they had a tendency to not notice the guy with a chainsword sneaking up behind them. The whine of Gustav's chainsword was quickly dampened into a churning gurgle as he plunged it through one of the fissures in the sorcerer's armour, spitting out blood and yellowish-goo across his uniform. That was enough to get the sorcerer to drop me though I wasn't able to retrieve my blade as he turned about and swung his blade at Gustav. The Sergeant-Major parried the oncoming attack before falling into a roll and raking his chainsword across the sorcerer's knee. I tried to move in to reclaim my sword but the sorcerer was quick to respond and struck me with its giant, bloated arm. Despite looking as though they were the flabby-arms of a morbidly-obese governor, it still felt like getting hit by a tree log swung by an Ogryn. And like the ball to his bat, I went sailing across the room, bouncing off a console, tumbling across the floor, and finally crashing into the lift.
"Are you okay mother?" Verity asked. She had taken shelter in the lift when the trouble began.
"Just a few contusions…to go along with all the others," I groaned as I sat up with one arm clutching at my side. I lifted my head just in time to dive back to the floor as my sword came hurtling back at me, narrowly missing my head by a few inches and lodging into the lift wall. A few seconds later, Gustav got to enjoy a similar trip as I had, landing just outside the lift door to the tune of a half-dozen profanities.
"We need to pull back," I groaned as I got back to my feet. While in terms of swordsmanship I figured we had the upper hand but it was only a matter of time before the sorcerer got bored of playing with us and turned us inside-out with his psychic powers.
Gustav nodded as he too returned to his feet, chainsword firmly in hand. "Yeah, you need to get out of here," he replied.
At first I thought he was simply agreeing and by the time I noticed the subtle difference in his response I was too late and he slammed the lift's button. "Gustav wait!" I shouted in vain. Alas, the doors slammed shut in my face and the lift began to descend. "Dammit!" I cursed as I slammed my fist into the door.
"W-why did he do that?" Verity asked.
I let out a prolonged sigh, taking a few steps from the door and leaning against the opposite wall. "He's doing what he promised he would…" I answered quietly. Despite the rational part of me knowing full well that Gustav's sacrifice was not only justified by necessary but it still hurt knowing that somebody was about to die for my sake. I tried to tell myself that it was the only way to protect the lift while it descend the control spire but that didn't change the fact that he was gone because of me. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to feel sorry for myself as a call over the comm-bead came bearing even more bad news.
"Uh…Abel, I don't mean to hurry you up but we've got a bit of a situation brewing down here," Spike said.
"I'm already on my way down," I replied. "What's the situation?"
"Just more restless natives," Spike said nonchalantly. "They're pounding on the doors at the moment but I don't think they'll last much longer."
"They're unarmed. How are they going to break solid metal doors?"
"You'll see when you get here." More problems were not what I needed at the moment. At the very least, I took some comfort in the fact that help was on its way and knowing how Celeste flew, it would be here soon. When I arrived at the ground level, I found Spike and the other troops arranged in a firing line with their weapons trained on a heavy metal door in the distance. At first I wondered what had them so concerned but then I heard a very loud thud come from said door, which bulged slightly from whatever hit it.
"I see we have door crashers," I remarked as Verity and I stepped out of the lift.
"Yeah we…hey, where's Gustav?" Spike asked. His remark drew all the Kriegan's attention towards me.
"He…he's buying us time," I said plainly. I honestly didn't know how long he would last against a Chaos sorcerer but it would not be long. If we didn't hurry we'd have an even bigger problem to deal with. "We need to get moving? Which way to the landing pads?"
"Umm…that way," a Kriegan answered as he pointed to the door that was ready to come off its hinges. The banging grew louder with what I thought at first was an echo but soon realized that it was just more pounding on other doors around us. The tension grew thicker with each hit the door took until finally a hand the size of a power fist broke through the frame. A second later the door was ripped out of the frame and a hulking zombie came barging in to the sound of 'Ogryn!' hollered by the troops. Ogryns…as if normal zombies weren't difficult enough to deal with. The giant brutes were hard enough to kill when they were still living and damn near impossible when they weren't. Its decaying flesh (along with the remnants of the flak armour it wore) absorbed several volleys of las fire without hindrance and even direct hits to the head did nothing to fell the monstrosity. Three meters of nightmare-born flesh came crashing upon our line, scattering troops to the ground and seizing one in its giant mitts. The arbite's screams were short lived as the ogryn chomped down on his head as if it were biting off the end of a ration bar.
"Former comrade of yours?" I remarked to a nearby Kriegan as the ogryn wore the standard ogryn-sized flak armour and bandoleers.
"Yeah, they were attached to first company," the Kriegan replied. "Guess that means their sector got overrun."
"Spike!" I shouted out. "Get everybody moving; I'll keep this thing busy."
"Should I skip with the obligatory 'you're insane' remarks?" Spike replied, remaining unflappable as always.
"Just go," I said as I charged the ogryn with sword in hand. In retrospect I probably was being extremely foolish but we couldn't have a zombie that could tear through plasteel doors chasing after us. I figured the easiest way to get its attention was to make myself the biggest nuisance so I jumped onto the thing's back and plunged my sword into its upper back. It snarled and thrashed about trying to shake me free but I kept a firm grip on its bandoleer. "Time for a little brain surgery," I quipped as I thrust the blade through the back of its skull. Apparently, when Spike joked that an ogryn's brain was the size of a frag grenade; they weren't exaggerating. Alas, it was a fact that would have served me greatly had I known before attempting to skewer the elusive organ beneath several inches of flesh and bone. The ogryn slowed momentarily, which were the three seconds where I thought I had actually succeeded in my crazy plan, before suddenly reaching over its shoulders and grabbing hold of me. This time I managed to keep a hold of my sword but the ogryn wasn't phased by my sword tearing an even larger hole as we were hoisted out in front of the beast, upside-down no less. "Well this is undignified," I grumbled as I wormed my free hand loose from the ogryn's grip.
I had to act quickly before I wound up like the arbiter. Being a quick learner, I decided not to gamble on attempting to hit its brain so instead my aimed my laspistol for its mouth and started firing. I figured that it would need a mouth to eat me so I simply kept firing until most of its face had been reduced to a pulpy mess of bone and broken teeth. And yet it still kept going. If it had any semblance of emotions, I imagined it would have been pissed that I blew apart its face and jaw but it didn't even seem to realize that it had nothing to bite with. It's attempts to jam me into what was left of its gullet were met with stiff resistance as I jabbed and twisted to keep my head from being shoved into its gaping orifice. After the ogryn failed attempts to swallow me whole, I realized that I needed a new plan. I quickly noticed that there was a perfectly intact frag grenade still hanging from the bandoleer. I had to juggle with my weapons for a bit but I eventually managed to snatch the grenade from the ogryn. Taking another page from the 'insane, spur of the moment' playbook, I shoved the grenade as far down the ogryn's gullet as I could (using my bionic arm of course) and then pulled the pin. Unfortunately, I hadn't thought far enough ahead to consider what I would do now that there was an armed hand grenade in the throat of the ogryn who was still holding onto me. There was only five seconds to make a decision so I did the only thing I could do – I broke the record for fastest, most desperate plea to the Emperor for protection, covered my face with my arms and jack-knifed myself into a vertical position putting myself as far from the blast as possible. Few people get to witness the mosaic of the crimson flourish that results from an ogryn's exploding from the inside out. Like the birth of your first child or the first time you see a star supernova, it is something that you carry with you for the rest of your life. And if you thought they smelled bad on the outside, it was nothing compared to the new fragrance I now sported, which would've been strong enough to make even Jurgen take a step back.
"Now there is a smell that will haunt me until the day I die," I groaned as I peeled myself off the floor. I scrapped some of the excess bloody pulp off my coat and shirt, including picking a few chunky pieces out of my hair. I also did a quick spot check to make sure no flying bits of bone broke skin but with all the stains across my chest and arms, it was impossible to tell. Unfortunately, in reality, near-deaths rarely give you time to pause and reflect on how close the skid marks were to your head. I was still smack in the middle of a space port with thousands upon thousands of zombies trying to break through any of a half-dozen doors as well as breaking the cardinal rule of any zombie apocalypse – never split up.
After loading a new power cell into my laspistol, I raced out the doorway in hopes of catching up to the rest of the party. It wasn't too difficult to figure out where they had gone as the doorway led into a maintenance corridor that ran back out to the tarmac. Once outside, it was a simple matter of following the bodies and the distant sounds of gunfire. However, the hundred or so zombies out on the tarmac had other plans for me. Alas, my new perfume did little to dissuade their advances. I once again readied my sword and laspistol and ran headlong into the fray. I never thought I would see the day where I would actually consider fighting to be 'boring' but cutting down zombies was about as challenging as cutting grass. After dedicating a large portion of my day to dispatching the deceased, it was starting to become monotonous. Thankfully whenever my arm got tired from swinging I would switch to my bionic arm and was good for a few dozen more. I kept moving and slicing but it was becoming more and more difficult to figure out where the others were heading. That concern magnified when I realized, coincidentally when the horde was thickest, that I couldn't hear any gunfire nor follow the telltale trail of bodies. I was, for the lack of a better term, lost and lost in the worst place of all – in a sea of the voracious undead. Even with all the rage of an Astartes kicked in the crotch I doubt I could have cut my way to safety.
Just then I felt a pair of hands seize me from behind, pull me with surprising strength and speed through a doorway that I hadn't even realized I had been standing in front of. The speed had taken me by surprise and I promptly let out a shriek as I spun about and swung my blade. I would have connected with soft tissue had a hand not intercepted my own before I completed my swing.
"Easy there boss," Spike said reassuringly as he loosened his grip on my wrist.
"Sweet Emperor, it's just you," I replied with a sigh of relief. As it turned out, Spike and the others had taken refuge in a small side building, a storage shed or something of the sort, that I had luckily stopped in front of. "Next time, warn me before you do that," I said as I sheathed my blade and took account of my new surroundings. The building was small and dark with the only sources of illumination being a few chem-lights a Kriegan had cracked and my small, hand-held luminator orb. As far as I could tell, the only way in or out of the building was the door that Spike was now leaning against to keep our adoring fans at bay. On the far side of the building, Devi and Balasz were once again having another verbal sparring match. And that brings us back to how this entry all started – huddled in a building with little ammo, morale, or patience. The soldiers looked to me for answers that I wasn't certain that I had.
"Please tell me that you at least got into contact with the ship while you were in the spire," Balasz said from his spot in the far corner, still spinning the chamber on his stub revolver.
"Celeste is on her way with reinforcements," I answered. Alas, it provided little comfort. "She should be here in about thirty minutes or so…if we're still alive by then."
"Lovely," Balasz said sarcastically. "In hindsight, perhaps dying at the shrine wouldn't have been such a bad choice after all; at least then I get to see the sky one last time before I shuffle off this mortal coil."
"Well you're welcome to step outside and enjoy the starry sky with the zombies" Spike suggested but didn't move away from the door. "Otherwise, would you kindly shut the frak up?"
"Why don't you come over here and make me?" Balasz challenged.
"How about I shut you up instead?" one of the Kriegans stepped up.
Balasz was quick to react to the new threat, whipping out a concealed knife and pointing it towards the soldier. "You're welcome to try clone-boy."
Given that Kriegans are never the kind to back down from a challenge, the situation rapidly degenerated into shouting matches as more Kriegans stepped up to support their fellow soldier. I was tempted to walk over and begin thumping the idiots but I was focusing what little energy I had left on more important matters. "Would you all just shut up for a minute?" I shouted at the top of my lungs. Inquisitors were one of the few things in the galaxy that could use words to so effectively silence a crowd, with the exception of perhaps a sonic cannon. "If you could all please refrain from further bickering, I am trying to think of a way to keep all our arses alive."
"My children please," Father Magnusson spoke up as he walked into the midst of our bickering ranks. "So long as our lungs draw breath, we still have duty to adhere to; for a man who has forgotten duty is no longer human and becomes less than a beast. They have no place in the bosom of humanity nor in the heart of the Emperor. The darkness of despair may fog our path but it is those who look upwards to Him shall find the guidance they seek." Even after all these years, I still have no idea what in the galaxy possessed me to cast my eyes upwards. My gaze fixed on something rectangular in the ceiling which, upon aiming my laminator orb upon it, revealed to be an access hatch to the roof.
"Son of a bitch," I muttered. There wasn't a ladder to it but fortunately there were plenty of boxes, barrels, and crates lying. While Spike redoubled his efforts to keep out the uninvited guests, the rest of us stacked as many boxes and barrels as we could into a pile under the hatch. Once we had a sizable pile, Father Magnusson, being the tallest of us, climbed to the top and popped the hatch open, revealing the starry night sky above. We quickly climbed onto the roof, one at a time, until it was just me lifting Verity up to Balasz and Spike still keeping the door shut. "Come on Spike," I said as I motioned for him to join us.
"Go on ahead boss, I'll be right behind you," he insisted. As always, reason was on his side as he was the only thing keeping the door shut. Being vertically challenged, I needed some help from a couple of the Kriegans above to get onto the rooftop.
"Get a move on Spike!" I shouted down once I was safely on the rooftop.
"Just a second," he said as he got ready to make his run. As expected, the second he tore away from the door, it burst open as the undead poured in. Reckless as always, Spike hopped his way up the pile but then proceeded to kick off several of the boxes and barrels. He shortened the pile until one was no longer able to reach the hatch by merely standing atop of them, successfully preventing any zombies from following us up. However, that always made it tougher for him to reach the hatch but as he leapt up, I reached down and grabbed onto his arms. With the help of a few Kriegans, we were able to hoist Spike onto the roof before the zombies could grab hold of him.
"So…now we just wait up here until the rescue ship arrives?" one of the Kriegans asked.
"Yup," I said as I sat down for a short rest. "Have a few keep a watch for anything big and ugly; otherwise, rest up."
Our refuge provided an unpleasant view of the surrounding tarmac. There were still masses of zombies surrounding our small building, which left an unsettling feeling in the pit of my gut that made resting a difficult prospect. Having slept through artillery barrages, I thought that a horde of shuffling, moaning undead would be of no consequence. However, the shuffling only served to remind me that I was still in dangerous waters and that heightened sense of vigilance made rest impossible for me.
Things were fairly uneventful for several minutes until one of the Kriegans exclaimed, "Throne of Terra, is that what I think it is?" At first I thought he had spotted our ride off that dirtball but rather than pointing skyward, the Kriegan directed our attention to something in the midst of the zombie horde. It took me a few moments for figure out what he was pointing towards but eventually I saw it – a zombie, shuffling like all the others but was dressed in Kriegan garbs and sporting the bars of a Sergeant-Major. Since there were only a few non-coms of that ranking within any given regiment, it didn't take an Inquisitor to guess who it used to be.
"Sweet Emperor…they killed Gustav," another Kriegan said wearily. In our hearts, we knew that Gustav had died when I had parted ways with him but a man of his nature earned a reputation for being tough as nails so it was discouraging nonetheless to have our fears confirmed; moreover, to see a man of his stature being reduced to a husk of his former self added salt to the wound.
"Those bastards," the first Kriegan growled.
"Hand me your lasgun," I said to the nearest soldier. The others clued in pretty quickly as to the purpose of my request and not a word was said as the weapon was handed over. It was a long-range shot but it was nothing my steady hands and determined mind couldn't hit. I went onto my knees, settling the barrel of the rifle on the waist-high parapet, and took a calming breath as I placed the Sergeant-Major within my sights.
"Um, Father Magnusson…perhaps a few words would be appropriate?" Sister Devi spoke up. I would have preferred to have just taken my shot and go the task over with but now that Devi had put the idea into the priest's head he decided to act upon it.
"Even a man who has nothing can still give his life to the Emperor," Magnusson began with what I hoped to be a relatively brief eulogy. "And truly, there is no honour greater and no man better embodied the virtues of the faithful soldier better than Sergeant-Major Anton Gustav. So we pray to thee O' Immortal Emperor, guide the soul of Anton Gustav so that he may live on in the hereafter. Protect him so that we may one day join him at your side. In the name of the Immortal Emperor, our Father and Guardian. Amen."
"Amen," repeated the rest of us. With that I pulled the trigger and put the Sergeant-Major to rest.
It was one of the longest hours I had to endure but despite our weariness, there was absolute elation through our ranks when we heard Celeste's voice crackled over the vox network. Though we could not see her ship, I knew the cavalry was close by if she could get a signal to even our short-ranged comm-beads. "This is Zweihander to Inquisitor Abel, do you copy?"
It was a weak signal but there was no mistaking her voice. Though daring and reckless (but what pilot isn't?), Celeste Engelhart was always a welcomed sight – mostly because she was coming to bail our arse out of trouble. I cannot recall how often her timely arrival had changed the tides to our favour or the number of times we were extracted in the nick of time thanks to her borderline-insane piloting skills and her disregard for those troublesome burdens known as 'safety protocols.' "This is Abel, I read you. What's your ETA?"
"I should be visible in just a minute," Celeste replied. "Just mark your position and I'll take care of the rest."
"Roger that," I said and motioned for Spike to drop a smoke flare. Within seconds a bright plume of red smoke rose into the sky, signaling our position to the ship just coming into view.
"By the Emperor, is that a Thunderhawk?" asked one of the Kriegans when he recognized the silhouette.
"Confiscated from a renegade sect of the Adeptus Mechanicus," I commented with a hint of pride. The Zweihander was definitely an envy-inducing piece of technology and one that made our tech-priests pop a sparkplug when it was placed under their care. It was almost unheard of for a thunderhawk to be employed outside of the Adeptus Astartes and the Adeptus Mechanicus kicked up a stink when they found out I had confiscated it from a rogue sect. They had demanded its return but I couldn't part with such a versatile space craft. I likely lost a few fans in the Adeptus Mechanicus but they were always bitter when outsiders held onto prized technology; if they had it their way, the rest of the Imperium would be relegated to sticks and stones while they held onto all the technology. We watched as the vessel soared high above and began looping back for a second approach.
"Keep your heads down, I'm coming in hot," Celeste warned as the Zweihander lined up for its run.
"She wouldn't…" Balasz groaned.
"She is," I sighed.
The other Kriegans took note when they noticed me and the rest of my ground ducking beneath the parapet and quickly followed suit. Thunderhawks weren't just good for transportation but were excellent gunships as Celeste demonstrated. The Zweihander began her strafing run with a salvo of rockets, which blasted huge holes into the undead ranks. As the shipped flew past us, its heavy bolter turrets rained further desolation until the surrounding tarmac was little more than a cratered mess carpeted in fleshy chunks. With almost ninety-five percent of the zombies converted into fertilizer, the Zweihander drifted over to the nearest landing pad and touched down.
"There's our ride, let's not keep them waiting," I said as I motioned for the others to mobilize. Celeste's strafing run obviously didn't destroy every zombie in our way but what few remained were easily taken care of with what little ammunition we had remaining. We were half-way to the landing pad when there was a sudden flash ahead of us accompanied by a violent crackle of warp energy – our Plague sorcerer had emerged once more from the warp and was now barring our path.
"Leaving?" the sorcerer remarked venomously. "How rude."
I was just about fed up with this sorcerer and the whole damn planet. It seemed like every time I was about to get Verity to safety, this sorcerer reared his ugly head or summoned another pack of zombies. He was like a goddamn nightmare and it was time to put him to rest once and for all. "Spike, take the others and flank around to the side while I keep ugly here busy," I ordered as I took a few more steps towards the sorcerer. "Except for you Balasz – you stay with me."
"Of course; because why should you get to face certain death without me?" Balasz grumbled as he walked to my side.
"What are you doing? This is suicide," Sister Devi protested, likely from concern for me rather than my begrudging comrade.
"O' ye of little faith," I said with a reassuring smirk. "Now there's no time to argue. Go!"
For whatever reason, perhaps because I was the apparent leader of the cabal, the sorcerer entirely ignored the others as they circled wide past him; instead, he remain fixated on me. Thick clouds of warp-spawn flies buzzed around him, each one carrying enough of Nurgle's plagues to turn me into a puddle of puss.
"Let me show you what true power is and release from your slavery to the false Emperor," the sorcerer mused arrogantly. However, that was precisely what I was counting on and as he stepped towards Balasz and I, the swarming flies suddenly seemed to pull away from him and he stopped dead in his tracks. "You-! What in the…how is this possible?" the sorcerer growled, recoiling back in disgust. Suddenly the tables had turned and now I was the one smirking confidently. Though the powers of the Warp were formidable and completely pants-staining terrifying but the Ruinous Powers were no match for one who walked in the Emperor's light…and was accompanied by a psychic blank. Not only was Balasz Mulder a blaspheming bastard but he was the thing that scared psykers shitless.
As the sorcerer pulled away, Balasz and I stepped closer. "What's wrong? Scared? Don't you want to stay and play anymore?" I taunted as we kept close enough to keep the sorcerer uncomfortable.
Now the degree to which a blank affected a psyker was proportional to how powerful the psyker was. It was the reason why daemons recoiled in horror while a low-level astropath would just find a convenient excuse to leave the room. Our Chaos sorcerer was visibly disgusted by Balasz's proximity but the natural endurance of a former space marine meant that he could weather the discomfort and still wring us dry. Hence it came as no surprise when the sorcerer simply decided to take us down with his plagued blade instead. His target was, of course, Balasz but that just gave me the advantage as I knew where my opponent would be focused; that allowed me to intercept his first broad swing, pushing it up and over our heads before slashing across his gut. Decayed ceramite offered only modest resistance to my phase sword and once my slash carried me past him, I spun about quickly and plunged my sword through the opening I made. Centuries of honing psychic powers instead of swordsmanship was visibly evident as the sorcerer attempted to bring the sword down on me, only to hit tarmac as I ducked to his backside and hacked several times at his power armour's back unit. I doubt none of the life support systems had any purpose but disabling the stabilizers would impede his mobility. He swung about in rage but I easily ducked under the giant's blade, although he almost hit Balasz (who was trying to keep a safe distance from the two us). For the most part, Balasz kept behind me but thankfully Balasz was adept in the art of 'getting out of harm's way' so he was able to avoid the swings that sailed past me. All I had to do was keep the ugly giant's attention on me. As I weaved past his clumsy attacks and continued making light, but numerous, hits, the sorcerer's rage grew and his attacks became more reckless. What semblance of Astartes' discipline once existed had vanished along with his loyalty.
Unfortunately, it was difficult to fight an opponent and keep Balasz out of harm's way at the same time and I inevitably made a mistake. When the sorcerer swung the blade down, I dodged to my right…but Balasz went to my left. That unfortunately put an angry, ugly giant between me and my partner and said giant knew that as well. I had no choice but to make a desperate gambit – lunging quickly and stabbing the sorcerer through the hand to knock the blade loose. In doing so, I kept Balasz alive but I had over-extended myself and was standing with outstretched arms in front of my enemy. A bloated hand the size of my head lashed around my neck, almost crushing my windpipe altogether as he hoisted me into the air.
"I…will…rip you…limb from limb!" he snarled into my face. For a brief moment I was thankful that his vice grip was at least keeping me from catching a whiff of his breath. I instinctively reached for my sidearm only to be reminded by the empty space that I had loaned it out.
I was dangerously close to blacking out for the last time when I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. "Hands off my mom!" echoed Verity's voice, accompanied by plasma bolt that slammed dead-center of the sorcerer's chest. The super-heated energy melted through his flesh and armour and a follow-up bolt hit the same spot, knocking him back a step. After the third shot, I slipped free from the sorcerer's grip.
"Kill that bastard!" Spike shouted, standing alongside the Kriegan soldiers. A barrage of las and plasma bolts pelted the sorcerer. The holes burnt through the armour by the plasma bolts allowed the lasguns to gouge deep into the traitor marine's flesh and by the time their guns ran dry, there was a massive, charred crater where the sorcerer's chest used to be. Yet, even after all that punishment, the monstrosity did not fall but that was when Magnusson raced up to the Chaos marine and demonstrated why it was known as an eviscerator. The massive chainsword plunged into the crater in his chest, tearing apart flesh, bone, and metal as though they were nothing. Magnusson tore opened the sorcerer from notch to crotch and spilling out the most grotesque pile of mulched viscera as though somehow had squeezed out the contents of a blood sausage. Everybody took a few steps back as the hollowed shell teetered for a second before falling onto its own pile of guts, splattering them across the tarmac and ruining everybody's boots.
"Well that's never coming out," Balasz grumbled as he looked down at his ruined shoes.
Still cradling a smoking plasma pistol, Verity trotted over me and gazed up at me with hopeful eyes pleading for a sign of approval. "You did good, dear," I said as I patted her on the head.
"Can we go home now?" she whined.
I spent close to an hour in the decontamination chambers before the medicae staff felt comfortable enough letting us back into the main parts of the ship. Most of that time was spent in the showers making sure that every flechette of that ogryn had been washed away. Needless to say, the expedition had left me stiff, sore, and drained both physically and mentally. The hot water was a much needed relief. As I stood beneath the pouring water, I mentally took stock of the motley cabal of survivors I had brought home with me – a priest of questionable mental stability, a sister with the usual holier-than-thou attitude, five soldiers from the Death Korps of Krieg, and one PDF trooper that was still flinching at the slightest noise. For a moment, I wondered if they had been worth the Aquila lander that I had left behind. At the time, I felt as though I had gotten the short-end of the stick in the trade-off but I reminded myself that stopping the plague's spread was more important than a single landing craft. And in time, what I had gained that day would more than compensate for what I had lost. For a few minutes, or at least that's how long it felt, I held my hand up to the showerhead and watched as the droplets pelted my bionic limb; I watched them as they splashed against cold plasteel and then traced down the dulled, worn metal contours of my forearm. Often had I wondered if my life would have been better were I as unfeeling as my artificial limb; able to allow death and suffering to wash aside like the dried blood upon my metal digits. How often had I risked life and limb out of pure sentiment rather the reason and logic that should have been guiding my hand. At moments such as those, I almost wished I could disappear once more beneath the immense shadow of my former mentor, where I had a fair and level-headed man to answer to. With Commissar Cain, I was accountable to a man whose standards I was familiar with. Instead I was accountable to only the highest authority – a prospect that was both liberating and terrifying.
My train of thought was derailed when somebody knocked on the outside of the shower stall. "You still in there boss?" It was Spike, whose presence brought a sense of relief. He was the only person on the ship who I was comfortable enough with to talk to about anything at any time, including when stark naked with only an inch-thick plastic divider between us.
"Yeah, I'm here," I acknowledged half-heartedly. "I take it you've spoken with Argentus? What's the damage report?"
"Well I expect the space port to be gone after an orbital barrage but I meant the whole planet."
"So did I," Spike said solemnly. He took my lack of a response as a call to elaborate. "The tech-priests were able to tap into the planet's satellite network and turned the auspex arrays planet-side. The plague has spread everywhere ma'am…every city and village shows little to no sign of human life. There are a few pockets of resistance from PDF or Guard reminents but they're all far-flung, isolated, and completely surrounded."
"What's the planet's population again?" I asked after a quiet sigh.
"Roughly four billion. Verity estimates about 95% of the population has turned. Shall we try to launch rescue operations for surviving units?"
At first I said nothing, simply continuing to stare at my lifeless limb as water trickled down it. As cruel as it sounded, Balasz's original remarks about the planet were true – it really was a worthless little shitball. Cocytus was a tiny planet inhabiting a small pocket of stable space but ultimately held no strategic or economic value. The resources required for a purge would be astronomical. Reason left only one option even if it was unpleasant to stomach. "No," I said quietly. "Put out an order to the nearest battlefleet to quarantine the planet…and then order an exterminatus – viral bombing followed by cyclonic torpedoes."
"Isn't that a bit…extreme, Ariel?" Spike asked.
"We can't afford to let anything of that plague get off the planet," I explained. However, it felt as though I was trying to convince myself more than I was trying to convince him. "The planet's lost…there's nothing left worth fighting for."
"I understand," he said reluctantly.
"How are our guests by the way?"
"Tired…but relieved. And grateful of course."
"Excellent. When you have the chance, ask if the Kriegans would like to try a new career path." It wasn't uncommon for Inquisitors to bolster their ranks with the people they pick up during expeditions and investigations. A quality soldier that I could trust wasn't exactly the easiest to come across and while I had the authority, I rarely conscripted troops from active regiments unless they displayed exemplary skill. Few things pissed off commanders more than taking away their best troopers. Plus world-consuming catastrophes had a way of leaving only the most capable and competent troopers behind so there was no question about the skills of the Kriegans we had picked up. In the end, all of them agreed to join up with our crew, while the lone surviving PDF soldier was dropped off at the next Imperial world we passed by.
"One other thing," Spike said after a prolonged silence in which I thought he had left in, "I offered Sister Devi a position as well."
"Really?" I asked rhetorically. "She's a bit on the 'preachy and abrasive' side but…I guess our medicae facilities are a bit…um…"
"I was going to say 'understaffed' but you've made your point," I said with a quiet chuckle.
"I'm afraid there's a bit of a catch to it that you might not like…" he continued reluctantly.
"What is it?" I groaned at his ominous remark.
"Sister Devi will only join us if we allow Father Magnusson to remain on board as well. Apparently she refuses to go anywhere without him."
"Agh…Emperor on Terra, what did I do to deserve this?" I groaned once again. As unsettling and downright disturbing as the priest was, he was a nuisance that I could tolerate if it meant having a trained medicae professional on staff. However, I also got the suspicion that Spike would've recommended he stayed even if it hadn't been a condition of Devi's employment. Emperor knows he and many others had been pining for a new priest for months now. At the very least, I knew that Father Magnusson was able to swing an eviscerator around with frightening proficiency so that made him preferable to most priests of the Ministorum. "Okay, the two of them can stay," I said after a while (even though I had made my decision rather quickly).
"I'll let the quartermaster know to assign them some rooms," Spike said. "Anything else before I go boss?" At first I said 'no' and dismissed him but after a few moments I had a sudden urge to speak with him again and I had to stick my head out of the shower stall just to get my voice far enough down the corridor for him to hear. "You bellowed?" he mused when he finally trotted all the way back.
"Do you think it was a good idea to…bring Verity here?" I asked reluctantly, wringing the shower curtain with one hand all the while. Being an Inquisitor, I was always expected to have my act together, all the answers, all my eggs in many baskets, and all my dinner plates sparkling clean; seldom did I have the luxury to voice self-doubt or personal concerns. In my defense, most Inquisitors didn't deal with the burden of parenthood as I foolish thought I could handle alongside my other duties. "I mean…this is barely a place for most grown men, let alone a child."
"Verity is here because she wanted to be here," Spike reassured me. "If we left her in some schola, she'd be bored out of her skull. Plus, I don't think there's any place where she'd feel like she belonged, save for this ship."
"I guess that's right…and Emperor knows what would happen if some other Inquisitor found out about her gifts; or worse yet, the Adeptus Mechanicus. I guess I'm just…having trouble knowing when to be her mother and when to be the Inquisitor. I mean…she's still young; I want her have something that resembles a normal childhood."
Spike just let out a quiet laugh, which proved highly contagious as I found myself laughing a few seconds later. "Ariel, that girl was grown in a vat using machines that date back to the Dark Age of Technology. Her body has been enhanced with bionics that even she doesn't know the full potential of and her brain has been fused with the machine spirit of a twenty-thousand-year-old cogitator…what the frak about her do you think is even remotely normal?"
"Well when you put it that way…" I replied once I had my laughter under control. "This whole motherhood thing is a lot tougher than I thought."
"It's not as though you went down to that planet expecting to come back with a kid," Spike joked once again. "At the very least, Verity has a parent to look after her, which is more than what can be said for a lot of people in galaxy, including you and I."
"And she has you."
"Well…yes, but I didn't really want to toot my own horn," Spike said modestly.
"You're probably doing a better job at parenting than I am," I insisted. "But no more scary holo-vids for her, okay? She'll have enough on her plate without you adding to it."
"I'm a mother, that's part of the job."
"Was there anything else you needed?"
"Nope, that's all the rambling from me for today," I said with a renewed sense of self-worth. "I better get finished in here so I can send a report to the Lord Inquisitor. I have an unsettling feeling that this whole zombie business isn't going to be a one-time thing." It was a suspicion that would eventually prove true as zombie plagues were used frequently in the prelude to the 13th Black Crusade many years later. While I would eventually be grateful for not having to deal with any further zombie outbreaks, they would have been a welcomed relief in comparison to the disasters I had to deal with during those years…at least zombies don't try to eat your soul.
"Oh by the way," Spike spoke up just as he had turned to leave. "Father Magnusson is going to be holding a little sermon in the mess hall in about thirty minutes."
"You're point?" I asked rhetorically since the look on his face conveyed his purpose quite clearly. He didn't say anything in response, most likely because words would give me something to argue against. "I just said I had a report to write," I insisted but still got no response other than a penetrating gaze rarely seen outside the halls of a schola – a disapproving glare that rivaled those of old mothers. Despite the fact that I was an Inquisitor, accountable to only the highest authority, nothing in all my training and arsenal could defend against disappointing my closest and oldest friend. "But I…I need to…I, uh…" I eventually let out a defeated sigh. "You said the mess hall in thirty, right?"
Note from the Author:
Well this took a lot longer to finish than it should have. Clearly my muse and motivation are in need of a recharge so I'll be taking a short hiatus (not that you'll likely notice given my update schedule lately…) to peruse Cain's latest adventure. Hopefully within a month I'll return to a more regular schedule with Hounds of Erebus