The Inquisitor's chamber always sent chills down my spine. We never left that room without a kill order. Not that we minded kill orders. Inquisitor Lord Verne was plenty fun. He always had the most dangerous and crazy assignments. Nothing compared to the apocalyptic killing grounds of Cadia, but demon hunts came close.
"You are late."
I forced down the slight bit of trepidation that threatened my stomach as the Lord Inquisitor turned to regard us. Cold, glittering eyes regarded us with passing interest before returning to the floating image above the table. The slim figure beside him, a golden-haired woman with hard grey eyes and a ruthless smile, stared longer. Her lips curved in a wicked smile as I returned her gaze. Interrogator Kairi. It had not been long enough since I had seen her last.
"Apologies, Lord. The medicae were overzealous in their examinations."
The woman's smile widened. Her teeth showed through blood-red lips, gleaming like daggers. Lord Verne merely shook his head and motioned for us to join them. We did, keeping a respectful distance away from the Inquisitor's squirrely henchwoman. Focusing on the image, I began picking details and names. A hive planet called Kairn. I did not recognize it, but it was designated a penal colony. That's where the scum of the Imperium went.
"Our target, Lord?"
"The hive planet Kairn is in the midst of a planet-wide riot. Communications from the Adeptus Arbites indicate demonic infestations are the root of the problem. Senior Judge Montcalm," a face appeared on screen, "is the highest ranking Arbites on the penal colony. We lost communications with him yesterday."
"The planet's going to hell?"
Both Inquisition members bristled at the question. I offered a careless shrug.
"Are we hunting demons or hunting cultists," my companion asked. Adin's pale face gleamed with the faintest sheen of sweat. Lord Verne's face soured in distaste at his shoddy appearance, especially the thin beard showing on his jaw. Some Inquisitors loosened grooming standards for their troops. Lord Verne did not. He hated facial hair.
"For now, we are hunting a psyker. Demons may yet come of it, but there have been no critical infestations worth our attention. Extracting key personnel will be counted on a case-by-case basis."
We waited for him to continue. The image zoomed, shifted, and a list of names came to the forefront. I did not recognize the names, but I knew the titles. Sister Superior Myrabeth. Sister Cammi. Sister…
"Adepta Sororitas? What are they doing there?"
"The Adepta Sororitas uses the penal colony as one of many training grounds for Sister Hospitallers. They have a small detachment on the world at this moment. If we should run into these they will provide valuable support and local knowledge."
"Are they a mission priority?"
"No." The finality in the Inquisitor's tone left no room for argument. "They are expendable. We are all expendable."
The doors opened behind us and a fifth figure entered the room. I turned to watch, curious at the unfamiliar armor and markings on his gear. A Guard sergeant, in dress uniform decorated with a dozen medals and ribbons. He was a bear of a man, with short black hair gelled straight and a burn scar on his right hand. It showed when he came to attention, snapping a crisp salute.
"Sergeant Opryszko reporting sir."
"Phantine," I muttered, eyeing the unit patch on his shoulder. "Nice."
The sergeant shot me a sidelong glance. "Kasrkin. Interesting."
"Find yourselves interesting all you want," Interrogator Kairi said, catching our attention with a soft voice. "On your own time. The clock is ticking, gentlemen. Sergeant Opryszko, is your team situated?"
"That they are Miss. My thanks for the accommodations."
"Team?" I eyed the Inquisitor Lord sharply. "This is serious, isn't it?"
"Sergeant Opryszko and his squad are members of the Phantine Skyborne. They are an elite urban combat unit."
"I've heard of them."
"Then you know how effective they are in a hive. You could learn from these men, Sergeant Kane."
"Of that I have no doubt, my Lord." At his permission I turned and introduced us. "Senior Sergeant Leon Kane. This is my comrade Troop Sergeant Adin Cisk. Pleasure to have you aboard."
His grip nearly crushed my hand. Offering a stone-faced grimace, he inspected our armor.
"We're not here for show," I said, letting the challenge hang in the air. The Phantine sergeant scowled. His grip increased, growing painful, and his eyes glistened. The Interrogator sighed. Stepping forward, she put a hand on each of our shoulders.
"Later, boys. Pay attention to the task at hand. Measure your dicks after we kill the demons." Her eyes twinkled playfully as she shot me a glance. "And make sure I'm invited."
"That is enough, Interrogator. Return to my side."
Lord Verne's frown could have stopped a Nob in its tracks. Giving the man one final challenging squeeze, I let go and followed Interrogator Kairi back to the table. He had brought the mission plan to view. The detailed pattern did not surprise me anymore. Inquisitor Lord Verne had the entire mission planned to the final letter. Not that the plan ever survived contact. But it made the Inquisitor happy, so we did not complain.
"We will be using the Phantine's Valkyrie to drop on the Arbites compound. Once we ascertain the nature of the infestation we will pursue the demonic presence and destroy it. The particulars of your roles are listed here…"
The Valkyrie's hold had been specially modified to hold two slightly smaller squads instead of one normal-sized squad. That did not mean that it would be uncramped. Between the Phantine squad and Lord Verne's retinue we were shoulder to shoulder. I sat between the psyker twins, Pae and Lonn. They were an odd bunch, even by psyker standards. They actually enjoyed sitting in the nullifying field my body projected. I did not believe them at first, but after a mission or two they proved to be quite accommodating.
Not that I would ever become friends with them. Psykers never remained long enough in an Inquisitor's service. More often than not they fell victim to the Warp, Chaos demons, or cultist fanatics. These were the third contingent of psykers under Lord Verne since my unit had been seconded.
Adin caught my attention with a hard-linked vox burst. Our company's encrypted channel had been broken by Lord Verne on the first day, but he hardly ever checked it. We did not expect any prying ears. I answered the vox with a blink that activated my end.
"Enjoying the ride," he asked, his teeth chattering. We rattled about the Valkyrie's hold as it cut through the cluttered satellite cemetery surrounding the planet. "Reminds me of a flak field."
"Flak fields are calmer," I replied. He raised his hand and I pounded it. The motion drew the attention of a couple members. Our channel buzzed as Lord Verne's Interrogator joined in on the fun. Adin and I immediately switched off the channel.
Three minutes to DZ, the pilot announced, his voice blaring over the internal radio. I slapped the psyker twins on the knees and offered a thumbs up. Neither appeared excited about the prospects facing them. The only person in the hold who showed any anticipation was the Interrogator. Interrogator Kairi had an unhealthy fascination with the hunt. She hardly seemed bothered by the fact that we were about to drop onto a planet of the verge of hell.
The Phantine sergeant's hands became a blur of motion as he began signaling his men. Three fingers out and chopped down and they began checking their packs. A two finger twist and they began slapping shells into their shotguns. It was all accomplished in a silent and efficient manner. By the time the shrill cry of the air brakes filled the hold they were locked and loaded for a fight.
The cabin depressurized rapidly as the side doors opened. The burning orange sun filled the hold, blinding the unshielded occupants. Choking smog swept in and through, but no one flinched. One Phantine soldier on each side rose and manned the heavy bolters. They scanned the spiraling rooftops for signs of trouble. I took it as a good sign that they did not fire.
Touching down now. Clear the deck, lubbers.
The Phantine piled out, spilling out of the Valkyrie and forming a protective ring around the vessel. Adin and I leapt out on either side of Lord Verne, presenting an armored shield to ward off any sudden shots. The Inquisitor's retinue followed somewhat slower, not as quick on the take.
I was not going to lie, Lord Verne made for an impressive sight. On his vessel he wore the plain robes of a holy man. In the field he donned a specially woven duster inlaid with ablative threads. Under that was a set of finely crafted carapace armor. In addition to that he was protected by the consecrated charm of a refractor field. He was safer here than in his barge.
"Landing zone secured," Sergeant Opryszko reported. Two of his men broke away and approached the stairs leading down to the Arbites main structure. I followed their progress idly. The fact that there were no Arbitrators to greet us did not bode well. My hands itched under their gloves, straining on the trigger.
Emperor's mercy watch over us.
"Kasrkin," Lord Verne said. He gestured towards the stairs. "Take the Phantine troopers and clear us a way to the Judge's office. Keep your eyes peeled for an ambush."
I saluted and headed for the stairs. Adin and Opryszko stuck on my heel, their weapons seeking out windows and doors as we crossed the back of the top floor. The city faded into mist a dozen stories below. Hundreds more stories led below that. I could not imagine how long it would take to hit the bottom. At that point a man would have died of suffocation.
The doors in were sealed. Shifting further down, we cleared the way for a diminutive corporal armed with a meltagun. He nodded once in my direction before bracing his feet and taking aim. Steaming slag sprayed across the grated walkway as the meltagun cut through the steel door. It took him a full minute to pierce the bars that held it shut.
Done, the corporal settled back and admired his work. Three neat holes the size of a man's fist marked the former locks on the doors. I slipped around the corporal and prodded the door with my foot. It opened easily.
"Good work, trooper."
The corporal smirked confidently. Attributing it to the cocky reputation of the Phantine, I eased him aside and gestured to Sergeant Opryszko. His shotgun provided the greatest defense in the cramped hallways of the Arbites compound. The Judge's office was close to the landing pad, as befitting the noble office. Visitors were entertained in the hall to the left. Visitor chambers on the right. The hallways were silent and dark, the lights dim. I felt my heart thudding relentlessly in my chest as we passed empty office after empty office.
A ruined set of grand doors marked the entrance to the First Hall. Dried blood coated the floor and the walls. Upturned desks were strewn against the walls, no doubt a failed barricade shoved to the side. It was not our objective, but I went to the door. Stepping inside, I leaned around and took a look.
Countless shotgun shells littered the floor in a sea of glittering brass. The mosaics detailing the glorious history of the Imperium lay in ruins, burned to ash in some places, shattered by shotgun blasts in others. It churned my stomach to see other, fouler things done to the storied art. Adin's heavy footsteps thumped beside me.
"So it always is," he sighed. I nodded slowly. "Can't wait to see the bastards burn."
"Just make sure you smoke the right ones."
I heard something muttered under Adin's breath, but he returned to the hallway before I could ask. Lord Verne waited silently outside. He paid the desecration a scant glance.
"Your horror of the heretics' sacrilege is commendable," he said, his voice flat and emotionless. "But time is not our ally here. Continue on, Kasrkin. I would see what remains of the Arbites."
"As you wish, my Lord."
The Judge's office stood just beyond the First Hall. These doors remained shut. I hesitated from the touching the door. Not content to trust the apparent safety, I checked my auspex. No contacts showed on the inside.
Opryszko lined up on one side of the door, Adin on the other. Standing in the middle, I loosened my legs. There was still a touch of tightness about my calves from the transport. Nodding to the others, I held up two fingers.
I kicked the door as hard as I could. The doors exploded inwards, propelled by my boot. Opryszko and Adin spun in to sweep the room, weapons at the ready. In the rush of movement I saw a wire snap.
The explosion engulfed the hallway. My head smashed into the wall as flames washed over my armor. Adin's bulky armor crashed into my legs and I tumbled to the ground. For a long moment I lay there, my visor darkened and my vox overloaded. Frantic screams rang in my ear. Groping hands pulled at my shoulder and I found myself being dragged down the hall.
Interrogator Kairi's face appeared over my visor. Her lips were pursed in a worried frown, and her hands moved in a dance as she deftly removed my helmet. The air stank of iron and blood. Her fingers wiped across my face, coming away bloody.
Hold still, she shouted, her voice strangely muted. I nodded and sat up. The motion sent a wave of dizziness and pain through my skull. The Interrogator caught me as I swayed, propping me up against the wall. My vision swam too badly for me to see anything.
Perimeter! Set a perimeter now.
Five men down. Five... By the Emperor that was-
Medic! Sergeant's going into shock. Medic!
Hold him down. Vlad, apply pressure here. Come on Sarge, don't pass out on me. Look me in the- Don't shut your eyes. No, keep your eyes open. Come on, come on, Vlad hurry up with that tourniquet.
Munzi, drag the Kasrkin out of the way. Shit that's a lot of blood. Munzi, get his helmet off. Check his pulse. Is he dead? No, he's alive. That's good. What about the other one. Yes, Sergeant Kane.
A pair of armored boots clomped into view. I leaned my head back and looked up, wincing slightly as a sliver of pain tweaked in my neck. Lord Verne stared down at me, his expression as calm as ever.
"Can you move, Kasrkin?"
"I think so."
Pulling myself to my feet, I took a hesitant step. My leg buckled and I fell against the wall, slamming hard into my shoulder. The armor dulled any pain I would have felt. Lord Verne tsked under his breath and motioned for me to sit down again. Continuing on, he passed by a lifeless Phantine soldier and stood over Adin's body. It hurt to turn by head, but I had to watch.
His body twitched violently, bucking like a man in the throes of seizure. Explicators Dondree and Munzi attended to him. Their medi-packs were open and ready. That was a good sign. Opened medi-packs meant he was going to survive. It did not look so good for the Phantine sergeant. I could not see much, but the frantic activity was a decent indicator.
Interrogator Kairi reappeared at my side. A wry, emotionless smile creased her lips and she motioned for me to stand up.
"We need to get out of the hallway. Come, I'll help you get into the room."
We staggered into a small office on the other side of the hall. This one had not been touched, but Interrogator Kairi swept the table clean with a single stroke of her arm. Valuable equipment shattered on the ground. Ignoring that, she helped me slide onto the table. It felt good to lie down.
"You look terrible," she said, wiping my face clean with the sleeve of her robe. Her fingers probed delicately at my face, checking for bruising or broken bones. My nose stung at her touch. I did not think it was broken though.
"Tripwire," I gasped. "Didn't see it until the doors were open."
"Of course." Her voice betrayed nothing. Despite her apparent calm her eyes flicked too often to mine, and for a moment I could have sworn she trembled.
"Were you hurt?"
"Me? No, I was unharmed." A cool hand pressed on my forehead, easing the throbbing pain in my skull. "Be still. You have a concussion at the least. Emperor knows how that did not kill you."
"I get that a lot," I joked. The feeble laugh I managed died when her glare turned icy.
"Men," she hissed. Turning abruptly, she left the room and returned to the hall. The shouting had died down, replaced by quiet murmurs and hushed orders. Sergeant Opryszko's body was dragged into the room by two of his men. The hulking man snored peacefully, out like a light. I could not help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it.
Only one had died. The unlucky Phantine trooper behind us had taken a chunk of door shrapnel through the throat. He had most likely died instantly from the trauma. For his sake, I hoped he had. Either way, we were in no position to move. Adin had walked away mostly unscathed, what I had seen earlier was his bionic arm spazzing from a fried circuit. His arm had absorbed the majority of the blast. But Sergeant Opryzsko and I were in no way to walk so soon. Lord Verne did not like it, but he ordered us to take a rest.
A two-man team scoured the Judge's quarters with Lord Verne while the rest of us settled into the untouched office space. The Explicators busied themselves with studying and downloading the records in the office, the psykers searched the near floors for signs of incoming enemies under the watchful eye of an armed Phantine soldier. It was not until they finished their psychic search that the man relaxed.
"We're clear," Pae said. "The explosion did not set off any alarms."
The news cheered us a little. My headache lessened as night fell, sped on its recovery by the Interrogator's delicate touch on my face. Interrogators were mainly known for their namesake, but in the process of learning how to cause pain they also learned how to relieve it. Her fingers found just the right points, working so smoothly that it made me shiver.
"Cold?" she asked. I shrugged helplessly. "I can fix that for you."
Butterflies danced in my stomach when she leaned forward and planted a teasing kiss on my cheek. She backed away, eyes sparkling, and winked.
"Think on that," she said. "And what I'm going to do to you when we finish this mission."
The Phantine soldiers stared after her as she slinked from the room. Corporal Anton half-stood, a question forming on his lips, but he shut his mouth when I shot him a warning glance. Now was not the time to talk about the Interrogator's eccentricities.
I tried sitting up, taking care to not rush. Corporal Anton helped hold me steady. Soot and dust coated his face and armor, making his bright blue eyes stand out comically. A single trail of blood trickled down his forehead.
"You alright, corporal?"
"Took a little knock. Don't worry about it."
My legs felt stiff as I slid off the table. Looking around, I took stock of the situation.
"How is your sergeant?"
Corporal Anton laughed, a boisterous, manly laugh that felt out of place with his small stature. He slapped my shoulder, reminding me how unusually strong Phantine were, and pointed to the other side of the room. Sergeant Opryszko sat by some of his men, his face a mass of cuts, a bottle of brandy in his hand. Seeing me watching, he waved the bottle and took a mighty swig.
"Found it in one of the drawers. Tastes like jet fuel. Still, it's better than using our water."
The bottle passed around until I got my turn. The smell made me gag. Jet fuel did not begin to describe the scent. More like Ogryn ass-sweat. I passed it on without taking a drink.
"How long are we sitting?"
"Lord Verne's waiting on you," Opryszko grunted. "Wanted to see if his shiny took too much of a blow."
"Shiny, huh." I gave my armor a look-over. The Kasrkin paint job still showed under the faint layer of dust. "Doesn't look so shiny to me. Sure he wasn't talking about you?"
"I don't know, Kasrkin. You're the one who's got his pup all randy."
My eyes narrowed sharply. The sergeant offered a smug grin and gathered his gear.
"Come on, shiny. Let's go see your Inquisitor."
He handed me my helmet. Checking it for tampering, I slid it on and followed out into the hallway. Lord Verne stood in the ruined doorway of the Judge's office, Interrogator Kairi and Adin by his side. I nodded subtly to Adin.
"You are well enough to travel," Lord Verne said. I was not sure whether to take that as a question or a command.
"Rearing to go, my Lord."
"Good. The Judge is missing, I assume dead. Our next stop, therefore, is the Library Administratum. I have called in the Phantine Valkyrie. They will meet us on the roof in ten minutes."
We fell in behind as he marched the way we came from. The hallways were filled with a different kind of silence on the way back. The suspense was gone. We all knew for certain what we were facing. We were on hell.