We are the monsters who protect you from the other monsters.
- Motto of the Imperial Inquisition (unofficial)
They found the first corpse impaled on a rusted metal bar near the edge of the Tangles. Evidently dead for some time, the corpse's flesh had already entered an advanced state of decomposition, the process no doubt accelerated by the humid conditions. Its skin had necrotised and begun to fall off, and the flesh underneath was covered with clumps of an odd blue mould. The stench was incredible, and every member of the cell found some way to cover their nose before venturing deeper into the twisted maze of pipes.
The Tangles, as the region was known to the locals, was an area of the underhive where pipes from dozens of different manufactories all met on their way down to the sump pits at the very base of the hive. Several dozen miles of pipes wove through and around each other, interconnecting in places until they formed a veritable jungle of metalwork. The occasional leak made the atmosphere within both humid and disgustingly rank, until only the lowest of scum would contemplate even going near them. It was also the lair of the sorcerer they were hunting.
Nico paused for a moment, adjusting the thick cloth that covered his mouth and nose. It didn't help much – he could still smell the assortment of rank stenches that filled the air around him, and they almost made him physically ill. He'd smelt much worse before – growing up in the depths of Volg Hive, popularly believed to be the least appealing location in the sector, he had been used to the vile stench of the bogs and the pale things that lived within them. But he had not set foot in those lightless depths for many years now, and the acclimatisation had faded. Stifling the urge to curse, he consoled himself with thoughts of what exactly it was he was going to do to this sorcerer once they located him.
On the other side of the narrow pathway, Elise stopped and turned to look at him. Her face was hidden behind the emotionless visage of a gas mask, but he got the feeling that she was smiling at him. Nico rolled his eyes and moved on, clenching the shotgun to his chest as he advanced. He was clad in the plain and functional grab of a factory worker, disdaining any form of bulky armoured suit in favour of a light vest of mesh armour concealed under his top. His tattooed arms on display, the psyker knew that he looked like a common thug, but he didn't much care. If his enemies underestimated him based on his commonplace appearance, then they only handed him the advantage.
Up ahead, Jonas crouched down behind a low-lying pipe and peered over the top at something beyond, before raising a clenched fist in the air. Of the group, the soldier was the only one who showed no adverse reaction to the horrible smell on the air. An encounter with poison gas some years ago, in one of the brutally sadistic 'training exercises' run by the brother-generals of the Merov Penal Legions, had robbed Jonas of any sense of smell or taste. He was wearing the armour of his old Legion now, and the carbine that rested on the ground next to him bore the tell-tale marks of the customisation practices such men frequently applied to their gear.
Nico slid forwards, keeping his head low until he was crouched alongside Jonas. Elise slide in next to him, while Roth hunkered down on the far side of the Legionnaire. Looking over the top of the pipe, it was immediately apparent what had prompted the stop and sudden stealth. They had found the sorcerer's lair.
It was a squalid thing, little more than a dozen or so animal hides stapled together and draped across a number of the pipes to form a crude, if spacious, tent. A series of small braziers guttered within, and the strange colour of their smoke told of some unusual fuels. Blankets and mats were arrayed on the ground underneath the covering to form a makeshift floor, until the entire ensemble resembled some kind of nomadic encampment.
The only things that spoiled the image were the bodies. Eight of them, impaled through the chest on long, corroded metal pikes that stood outside the tent. It was hard to be certain from this angle, but Nico was fairly sure that he could see some sort of pattern traced on the ground between the bodies, most likely in the blood of the dead men.
"So, what do we think?" Jonas said in a harsh whisper. His eyes were fixed onto the shadowy interior of the tent, trying to locate some trace of the warlock responsible for the ghastly scene outside. Nicodemus took a risk and raised his head slightly higher in order to get a good look over the scene before ducking back down. He shook his head.
"Amateur. Probably just some backstreet witch who doesn't fully comprehend what it is that he's summoning up. Really, it's a miracle he hasn't already called something beyond his control and gotten himself eaten."
Roth was studying the whole area intently, his eyes serious. "No need to deviate from standard procedure then. Kill the heretic, secure any blasphemous items, and burn the rest to the ground." He seemed pleased at the thought, if in a somewhat morbid fashion.
"Then let's not waste time." Jonas growled. "On my mark... go!"
They left the cover in a rush and ran silently towards the tent, instinct compelling them to choose a route around the circle of corpses, even though they lay directly between the cell and their objective. They advanced without a sound, not wishing to alert their prey through anything as trivial as a war cry. Such things were for noble warriors like the Guard or Astartes, those who fought against the evils without in honourable combat. The evils within deserved no such respect, and the Inquisition would afford them none.
It wasn't until the cell passed the first of the impaled corpses that things went wrong. The heads of the dead men, which had previously been dangling limply against their chest, snapped up and craned to face the acolytes. Purple flames boiled in their eyes, and with the tearing of skin their mouths opened wide, revealing empty gums bleeding and raw. Their unholy shrieking filled the world, and Nico staggered under the sheer force of it, his own cry of agony unheard over the horrible sound as he fell to the floor.
From up ahead, a figure emerged from the darkness of the pavilion. Scarlet eyes gleamed with infernal amusement and waxy skin pulled taut over prominent cheekbones as the sorcerer laughed. In one withered hand he held a staff of sinew and bone that seemed to echo the bubbling laugh of its master. His other arm terminated in a waving bundle of leech-like tendrils, a sickly pale yellow in colour, and in it he cradled a mammoth tome close to his chest. Through the haze of pain, Nico saw him and cursed his own presumptions. This was no petty warp dabbler, no amateur working beyond his abilities. This was a true witch, a warlock with infernal powers beyond the dreams of sane men.
The horrible screaming sound faded, and for one brief moment Nico thought his eardrums had burst under the assault. Then he looked up from the ground and felt his breath catch in his throat. Elise stood over him, her body instinctively interposed between her lover and the sorcerer. The unnatural howling of the daemon-corpses could not affect her, and while he remained nearby Nico too was spared the agony of their cries. With a gasp of effort, he forced himself to rise, limbs shaking as he hauled himself upright.
There were a pair of harsh cracking sounds, and this time in was the sorcerer that took a step back, the cruel laughter suddenly cut off. His eyes, still burning with madness, lowered as he looked down at the two smoking holes in his torso, directly over the heart. Elise smirked triumphantly, an expression that swiftly faded when the warlock refused to fall. Instead he raised his head again, taking a long look at the girl that stood defiantly in front of him. A slow grin spread across his features as long streamers of energy seemed to leap between the screaming corpses and their master, healing the wounds with incredible speed.
The first hints of real fear began to claw at Nico's mind, and he looked desperately around for his comrades. Jonas lay just a few feet to the right of them, thrashing like a grounded fish. His weapon lay abandoned on the floor as he clamped hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to block out the sound tearing at his mind. Roth was beside him, forced into a crouch by the assault. His face was twisted in pain and rage, but despite it he was still rising to his feet, his axe held in a death grip. Nico was sure that the priest was beyond the range of Elise's protective aura, yet somehow he managed to conquer the overwhelming pain and move.
The sorcerer noticed it as well, and an almost comical expression of disbelief crept its way onto his face, replaced a moment later with a feral snarl. The bone-staff swept through the air, and a solid cone of brilliant purple fire erupted from the tip, racing forwards to engulf the defiant priest. In the instant before it hit, Roth brought his axe around in an instinctive warding gesture. The gleaming metal seemed to blaze with a brilliant light, almost as bright as the flames. Nico could only stare in complete astonishment as the fire broke and flowed around the Black Priest, like a thundering river split by a stone. Roth stood in the heart of the inferno, his robes billowing in the currents of heated air that raged around him, holding his axe before him like some sort of talisman that burned with a pure white light.
Jonas had no such protection. The roaring fire washed over him like a wave, charring flesh from bones in an instant. The soldier didn't even have time to scream before he was immolated, his mundane armour no protection from the unholy flames. The sight jolted Nico from his paralysis, and he raised the shotgun and pulled the trigger with desperate haste. He did not bother to target the sorcerer; instead his shot smashed into the screaming face of the nearest corpse-totem. Its dead flesh ruptured under the impact, and the glow faded from the vacant sockets in its skull.
The effect was instantaneous. The destruction of the corpse puppet broke the sacred ring of eight, and in an instant the unnatural vigour left the remaining corpses, allowing them to slump back down brokenly. The screaming cut off as well, and Nico almost cried in relief as the horrible sound faded away. On the far side of the clearing, the sorcerer staggered backwards, almost dropping his staff in shock as the sounds cut off, and with them the invigorating streams of energy that he's been leaching from the ritual circle. The summoned flame flickered and faded, revealing Solomon Roth standing there, smoke rising from the very fringes of his robes. The priest looked up, a fearsome rage burning in his slate-grey eyes.
"And by His hand shall they be cast down, their bodies broken and their works undone." Roth intoned coldly, stepping forwards. "His wrath shall consume them, and they will burn in eternal fire." He raised his axe, holding it in a two-handed grip in front of him. Nico and Elise fell into step on either side, cruel smiles on their faces. "His hand guides me. His will empowers me. His word is on my lips and His sword in my hand. What do you have?"
The sorcerer licked his lips and smiled. Gracefully, he lowered himself into a perfect courtly bow, the action almost entirely at odds with his appearance. A cold breeze filled the air, and things stepped out of the shadows.
They were tall, far taller than a man, and spindly. Their bodies were hidden by grey robes, with hoods pulled up to reveal only a trio of burning eyes. In shrouded arms they held long poles capped with thick sheathes of parchment, as though they were twisted mockeries of government scribes. The Assessors made not a sound as they glided forwards, and the air grew chill before their advance.
Nico took a deep breath, and stepped away from his two companions. Almost immediately, the torrent of thoughts poured into his head. The sorcerer's mind was aflame with insane glee, like a child that has discovered a new game to play. The Assessors were icy tornados, self-contained pockets of cold malice and lethal intent. And Roth's mind radiated a burning sense of hatred, like a branding iron fresh from the fire. That was exactly what Nico needed.
Telepathy was a complex discipline, and no two of its practitioners ever wielded it in quite the same way. Some could lift thoughts from the minds of others, reading them like a book without them ever knowing of it, but Nico had never possessed the subtlety necessary to be so precise. If he wanted anything more than vague impressions and sensations from the minds of others, he had to rip it from them, which tended to have serious consequences for the victim. And whilst he was capable of overwhelming the minds of his foes and turn their own bodies against them, the delicate techniques of persuasion through thought induction were beyond him.
There was, however, one area in which he did excel – enhancement. He could magnify the thoughts and feelings of others; interest into obsession, animosity into hate, nervousness into outright terror. And he could move those feelings, shifting them from person to person, place to place. When faced with the daemonic, creatures that might as well be raw concepts personified, such a technique could form a very effective weapon.
He took Roth's rage and hatred, gathering into a tight bundle in his mind and stoking it until it was a raging inferno. The Assessors paused in their advance as they detected the shifting in the aether, but before they could act against him, Nico released the energy with a hoarse yell. In his witch-sight, the shimmering ball of scarlet met the icy cold bundles of darkness with a crackling roar, the each unravelling the other like a ball of string. In the physical realm, the effect was considerably more striking, the Assessors spontaneously combusting, wreathed in brilliant flames that consumed their flowing robes.
They made no sound as they burned, nor even as Roth stepped forwards and cut them down with three quick strokes of his blessed weapon. The priest looked up, locking eyes with the sorcerer. The warlock took half a step backwards, his mouth dropping open in shock.
Elise shot him in the face.