The noise made when a power maul crashed against a chainsword could not be described in human words.
I ducked under one of his arm-numbing strikes and smacked him hard in the stomach with the guard of the chainsword. My fingers were clenched so tight on the grip that I couldn't feel them. It took all of my focus to concentrate on avoiding two quick jabs.
Bojock might have lost his humanity, but he retained his skill. He was a fast and furious swordsman, utilizing the power maul to its fullest. Rapid thrusts coupled with lightning fast backhands kept me stumbling backwards as we fought. I was not a swordsman. Drop the weapons and I could take him in a brawl. The chainsword was a cumbersome weapon. Lady Kairi had mastered it after years of training. I had plenty of experience, but hated it. Would have taken Lord Verne's power sword over it any day.
"Did you volunteer for that?" I ducked under a blow and stomped on his instep. It should have set the man reeling. Instead he growled and shoved me away. His power maul barely missed my back. "Did you surrender your humanity on your own or did he force you to?"
I didn't think Bojock could speak anymore. The grunts and other noises coming from his split lips made me sure. Anger flared in his eyes nonetheless. He could understand me, and the question hit him hard. An inhuman howl keened through the air and he lunged forward. I made to block the attack, but pulled to the side at the last second and brought the chainsword down on his arm. The blade chewed through his flesh until it saw the arm off. The power maul dropped to the ground with an explosive crunch.
Losing an arm only slowed the brute down for the second it took for him to realize he was down a limb. In that moment I danced behind him and brought the chainsword down through his back. Bojock was split nearly in half. He toppled to the floor.
The mutants took a step back as if struck. I stood over the body and raised the chainsword to aim at them.
"Who's next, bait?"
A few began to shuffle forward. I set my feet and shifted so that I could watch them all. There were too many for me to handle with the chainsword. Then a shot rang out and one of the mutants fell with a hole in its eye. Adin called my name and threw me the hot shot. I caught it, swung it around, and rammed the last stake into the underslung. The mutants did not understand their peril until I fired the stake behind them and into the throne. The silent crack-whip of the psychic energy washing over the crowd broke Shechem's hold on the others. Even as the bodies began to topple in droves, the others snapped out of their reverie and began to fire. Josephus let loose a cry so powerful and full of disgust that I actually leapt out of the way.
He struck the remaining mutants like an Ogryn among Ratlings. Bodies burst apart as he tore them to pieces. He raged through them like a winnowing scythe. The Sisters were a step behind him as they vented their fury. I stood back and let them do their work. I could almost see how powerfully enraged they were at having been held hostage by the heretic's psychic power.
Lord Verne was not so vengeful. He came to my side and looked me in the eye. For the first time in his retinue I saw uncertainty. The realization that he was shaken by Shechem's power threatened to tear my heart out. That wasn't supposed to happen. Lord Verne always knew what to do. Even when I hated him, he was the power and the authority. He was always in control.
"See to Lady Kairi. Can she move?"
I knelt beside her and checked her pulse. Her eyes fluttered as she stirred. Her cheeks were soaked with tears.
"Kid, you alright?"
"I'm sorry" she mewled. She grabbed my arm and curled up against my knee. "I'm so sorry."
"That face. We knew him, Kane. We knew him."
"Shh…" I shushed her and checked her arm. It looked bad. Every bone was shattered. "Don't worry about him."
"My hand…" A whimper slipped out of her mouth. "It hurts."
"We'll take care of it." I helped her to her feet and handed her the chainsword. She held it awkwardly with one hand. Putting on a brave face, she swallowed and looked at the others. Jospehus and the Sisters had slaughtered the few mutants that survived the stake's explosion. The hall fell strangely silent in the aftermath.
"Orders, Lord Verne?"
Lord Verne brought everyone in. He pointed towards the door Shechem had exited. "We follow him and kill him. Kasrkin, it is time to bring your powers to bear."
"I'll try" was all I could promise. It was good enough, and he told me to lead the way. I checked the charge on my magazine and frowned. Last magazine. Our time was really up.
Shechem's path took us down several long hallways. No more enemies greeted us, though we heard their skittering in the shadows. It was a good thing we did not see more. Almost everyone was injured. My side was bleeding, I could feel the warmth on my stomach. Breathing was getting harder.
We entered what looked like a grand bedroom, perhaps the old Lord Governor's place. Half a dozen slim bodies lay curled up in the sheets of a bed that could have held a whole squad in comfort. Their throats were all slashed, their bodies soaked in dried blood. I overlooked them and continued my sweep of the room. Several figures stood in the shadows. They pulled away from the walls and the curtains that draped about the windows as we entered. Each one drew a pair of long, gleaming blades.
I shot the first one dead before it could move. Then the others leapt forward and set about with their swords. The melee was short and brutal. The creatures were wreathed in shadow so that all we could see was their eyes. It made them no harder to kill. I blocked one stroke with my hot shot. The blade cut through my underslung and chipped the muzzle. Twisting the rifle, I wrenched the blade free and struck the creature with my rifle butt. It did not make a noise, but faded to wisps of smoke as my hand passed through. Another sprang up in its place. I took a risk and headbutted the creature. It dropped like a stone.
They did not leave evidence as they fell. When Lord Verne rent the last asunder we found ourselves standing in the room with no evidence of the battle. Only that of our own blood lying in little spots on the floor. I took a quick inventory of the party. Everyone remained.
"Search the room, find where he went."
I went immediately to the back of the bed and began looking for some kind of hidden panel. The movable-bed-escape-route was cliché for a reason. It was a solid bet that a man of this importance would have installed such a thing.
"It is not there."
The voice was so soft and feminine that I started in surprise. Spinning around, I drew my sidearm and leveled it on the speaker. It was one of the throat-slashed women. She was sitting up in the bed with vacant, filmy eyes. Her head turned in my direction, moving with the deliberate slowness of a body possessed. Everyone in the room was staring.
"Who are you?"
"I have no name. That who I was is gone long ago."
"Lord Verne?" I looked to him for advice. He was studying the body with a severe expression, arms tucked across his chest. The noble Ecclesiarch and Sisters were aiming their weapons and glaring with unadulterated spite. I understood that reaction. It was mine too. This thing, whatever it was, was a monstrosity.
"Why would you speak to me?"
"I feel your unpresence. It is like a cold wind in the midst of a fire. You are one of the Ungifted."
I said nothing. Lord Verne came to my side and faced the thing. She did not look towards him.
"What are you? Are you a daemon?"
"As your flesh knows us. My sisters served the Master. He promised us freedom from the Warp. We gave him power in exchange for these forms to wear."
"You possessed these women."
"We wore them to give the Master service. But he lied; he did not intend to give us freedom. He slew my sisters."
"You deserved it" I spat. "Flaming little shits. Where did he go?"
"The Master speaks falsehoods. That way leads to death." A hand rose and pointed towards a dresser. "The true path is there."
I exchanged a look with Lord Verne. Adin limped over and checked. After a moment he pressed something and the dresser slid to the side to reveal a small passage.
"Why would you tell us this?"
"The Master returned my sisters to the Void. He has vengeance awaiting him."
"Works for me." I shot the creature in the forehead. Rotted brain matter spewed out on the sheets and it flopped limp across the others. No one complained. Turning to Lord Verne, I holstered my sidearm and headed for the passage. Sister Cammi cut in front of me. She drew her bolt pistol and headed down the way. I followed her at a trot.
"Nice to have a shield up front."
She looked back at me and snarled something along the lines of a warning to shut up.
The passage led for a good half kilometer before opening up to a large, dusty field. Shechem was on the far side, surrounded by fifty cultists. They stood about him in the shape of an eight-pointed star. The chanting could be heard from where we stood.
We did not give them the chance to notice us. Our guns blazed as we charged the cult. Cultists began to fall in small clusters, and the chanting diminished. But it was not enough, and we were running out of ammunition. My hot shot clicked dry. Slinging it over my shoulder, I began firing with my sidearm even as the others slipped their weapons away in favor of other options.
It was too late. I felt the thrumming rise in the ground as Shechem rose into the air. His body began to spin in circles. A blackish light began to pour out of his body and a different, alien voice began to fill the air. It was a terrible voice, one that wailed of death and destruction and hopelessness. A burst of energy shot out and struck one of the Sisters. She vanished in a puff of ash and smoke. Her chainsword fell to the ground. I snatched it up in stride and primed the blade.
More bursts of energy began to shoot out of Shechem's body. One slapped me straight in the face. The energy washed over me with such brute force that I was thrown back despite my Blank dampening. Pain of a kind I had never felt jolted my body and I felt, for the first time in my life: psychic pain.
I must have screamed, but when I came to I was sprinting for the tornadic storm encircling Shechem's body. Another burst shot out, and the energy flowed around me like water over a rock. Sister Cammi fired her last bolt shell and killed two cultists that stood side by side. The round tore straight through one and exploded inside the other. Energy began to lash out and consume the remaining cultists. One by one they exploded into fine misty shadows.
When the last one fell the alien voice reached a crescendo. Shechem's scream reached through the noise and his body disintegrated. A new creature, a towering monster, sprang out of the void left behind. It landed on weak and developing feet that continued to grow even as it stretched forward.
I had never seen one before, but I recognized the size. It was hardly full grown, but it towered over the Sisters as if they were children. It was a greater Daemon. No, it was a Chaos Daemon Prince. It could not have been mistaken for anything but. I felt a pang of fear. Worrying about it was one thing. Facing it was entirely another.
"Have no fear! The Emperor is with us!"
Josephus hurtled past us, his speed incited by the sight of such a monstrosity. His massive chainsword rose above his shoulders as he charged. The Daemon glanced at him with a face that constantly shifted and whirled about as it sought to find a settlement. One partially formed arm stretched out towards the priest. A light-devouring whip shot out and cut the priest in half at the waist.
"Frack! Who's got firepower?"
Sister Cammi and the remaining Sister charged into melee combat. Our only hope was to kill it before it finished forming itself. They tore into the creature with righteous fury, but their blades did not harm it. It was regenerating too quickly, and wounds closed up as quickly as they formed. Sister Cammi died first as the Daemon crushed her in its claws. Her death wail was lost in the creature's triumphant roar.
Lady Kairi stumbled in to take the woman's place. Her chainsword hacked away at the more finished parts of the creature, doing some real but superficial damage. I tried to get in behind her to help. A massive backhand grazed us both and sent us flying dozens of feet in the air.
"YOU FOOLS! YOU CANNOT HARM ME. I WAS AT THE FIRST SPARK OF EXISTENCE, AND I WILL BE WHEN IT ENDS. SURRENDER YOURSELVES TO YOUR DEATH!"
Adin stood his ground beside me, firing relentlessly at the Daemon's head. It hardly did any damage, but it drew attention. I threw myself to the side as the Daemon loped forward to take a swing at him. He dove to the side and I found myself staring at its underside. I drew and fired without hesitating.
The Daemon roared as the weapon caused unexpected pain. It whirled around to stare down at me. Taking in a mighty breath, it roared down at me with a powerful psychic bellow that should have turned me into dust.
That wasn't what happened. The power struck me with an intensity that should have overwhelmed my abilities and killed me anyway. It didn't happen that way. Something ripped in my mind and excruciating pain washed through my body. My throat closed and I couldn't even scream. Thousands of tiny daggers stabbed at my nerves and it threatened to break me. Ice cold replaced the pain. It rolled out of me in waves, wiping away the psychic energy. It was Blank power like I had never felt.
The Daemon suffered. It recoiled away from me with an anguished shriek. Its skin bubbled and boiled from its proximity. The creature's tongue rolled back in its mouth as it melted away.
Lady Kairi was screaming beside me. Blood streamed from her eyes, nose, ears and mouth. She rolled over and over, hoarse shrieks barely heard over the Daemon's roar. Her body jerked in vicious spasms. I felt the power radiating even stronger as the Daemon tried to take a step towards me. Its hand that reached for me shriveled. Growling in anger, it drew a massive broad-bladed axe and brought it down in an overhand chop. I rolled to the side, away from Lady Kairi, and punched it in the ankle. Bad decision. Its skin cracked and bled, but the touch burned my hand and made me numb to the shoulder.
"Get clear" I tried to shout. I could barely speak, and what came out was a mere whisper. Lord Verne struggled into the fray, coughing up blood with every breath. He lashed out and stabbed the Daemon multiple times before the Daemon spun and took his hand off. The Inquisitor Lord's face went white as his arm melted into ash. He managed one final shot with his inferno pistol before he turned into a pile of dust.
"Somebody kill this fracker" Adin shouted. He dashed in and scooped up the inferno pistol. Before the Daemon could get him he scrambled back and started firing. A dozen Cadian expletives surged from his mouth. "Anybody!"
I surged to my feet and rushed away from the Daemon. Grabbing Sister Cammi's power sword, I charged the Daemon from behind and struck at its back. The first blow gouged a deep gash in its side. The second took a finger off. The Daemon lashed about drunkenly. It was weakened by my very presence, and that registered somewhere in my subconscious as a spark of hope. We had a chance to kill it. We could do-
Its battered hand caught me and hurled me away. In the next moment it turned on the last Sister and skewered her like a pig on a spit. She hurled a krak grenade into its face as she died. The explosion washed over the now-formed armor. A long, healed tongue licked out and ripped the skin from her face. She died in agony.
"Too… strong" Lady Kairi whimpered. She had pulled herself up to her knees. Striking at its knee, she watched her chainsword shatter against its armored flesh. Blood flowed freely down her face and throat. She raised one weak hand and pointed to me. "Kane…"
A hail of gunfire erupted from the direction of the palace. Twenty Justicars charged out of the passage. A familiar, bloody figure led the way. Sergeant Opryszko's ragged voice crackled in my earpiece.
"Saving your ass, shiny? This is starting to become a habit."
Their hail of concentrated fire set the Daemon reeling. It howled and threw its arm up to cover its face. I have hope for a moment that we could beat it. Then the men drew closer, and those hopes were dashed. A few dozen men, dented and scratched and close to death. They all bore signs of battle and wept from a dozen wounds. This was not reinforcement, this was the pitiful remains of the Justicar army. They were the few that had pressed through the enemy and fought their way to our side. They were not going to last.
As if to hammer the point in, the Daemon dropped its arm and bellowed at the men. A rippling wave of psychic energy boiled their bones into mush, and eight dropped away from the charge. A crack of its whip slew three more in the time it took them to take three steps. The numbers dropped away so fast I could hardly believe it. But the men did not falter. Sergeant Opryszko was running with a bad limp, but he survived the Daemon's attacks and hurled himself at the monster with a demolitions charge in his hands. The explosion threw the Daemon on its back. Nothing remained of the Phantine sergeant but a bloody rain.
I took a step forward and staggered. The wound in my gut had to be gushing now. I felt the wetness creeping down to my legs. It hurt to stand. My head was swimming from pain and coldness. When I blinked I found myself lying face down on the ground. The Daemon approached and snarled. It stood well over twenty feet now, and wings were sprouting from its back. The sword in its hand could have sliced through a Leman Russ without slowing down. And its aura began to push back mine. The cold began to grow warm, and in that warmth I found myself growing drowsy and sluggish. The others were affected worse. Adin fell over on his side, eyes closed and barely breathing. The Daemon had not even touched him.
Every inch of me hurt as I tried to crawl to my knees. My arm gave out and I collapsed. The Daemon's foot landed just inches away. Fully formed now, it was devouring my aura and utterly unaffected. It lifted its sword and growled what might have been a curse.
"A FOOLISH DEFIANCE. I WILL ENJOY FEASTING ON YOUR SOUL."
"Come and get it, you fracked up piece of sh-"
A shadow passed over us. I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but for the three thunderclap explosions that followed a moment later. The ground quaked so hard my body leapt off the ground. A cacophony of bolters opened fire all around, interspersed with the whooshing roar of flamers and meltas. Lights flashed at the same time, and I felt a new, overwhelming source of psychic energy come rushing to the field.
"Destroy the daemon! To me, brothers!"
The vox-filtered voice boomed through the cacophony of death. A powerful presence was making itself known, and I felt the cold rise up like a brand new spring. It gushed out of me so badly I choked. The Daemon might have felt the rising Blank again, but I couldn't tell. My head felt so heavy… and the others had it under control.
No, frack that I thought to myself. I fought to my feet, and crawled towards the dropped inferno pistol. The roar of the guns was so powerful I couldn't even begin to count them. Other, stranger weapons began to fill the air. Twin sonic booms that fired in rapid succession, the snapping fury of psychic bolts.
A rising chant filled my ears. I did not understand it, but it sang from a hundred vox-speakers and it filled me with dread. Deep red boots clanked down by my face. I grabbed blindly for purchase and pulled myself up against its knee. Lifting the inferno pistol, I joined in on the barrage.
The Daemon was being blown to pieces, bit by bit. Thousands of rounds of fire chipped away at it, every shot landing where it was meant to, digging deep and fatal furrows into its skin. A blue-armored figure stood before the Daemon and engaged it with a force spear. The man's unhelmeted face seemed to glow blindingly. When I tried to look at his face, my head hurt and a pounding rose in my temples.
The Daemon fell with a long, drawn out cry that shook my bones. It smoldered as it melted into the ground. The chanting droned on louder and louder until my eardrums felt like they would burst. My vision went white, and I curled up in a ball. Eventually the shooting stopped. I found out later the whole encounter lasted about thirty seconds.
Faint, muffled boot steps echoed in my mind. Something was drawing nearer, a burning light through my eyelids that made me want to shrink away. Psychic cold tickled my burned skin. My mind was too unfocused and dull to push it away. The being advanced towards me and all I could think of was that I wanted it closer. I reached out for it, begging my muscles to follow. It was only a few feet…
The room was dull and gunmetal grey. Three lights ran across the ceiling in a parallel course. It was a harsh light, hurt my eyes when I looked anywhere near them. Restraints kept my arms and legs down at my sides. They were painfully tight, but padded. I craned my neck to look around. The room was a medical room, a shipboard medical room. My heart began to race as I looked for identifying symbols. The room was utterly devoid of anything that could have identified it with a ship or an organization.
A dozen different tubes were plugged into me, filling me with all kinds of healing fluids. They were ones I had not seen before, things that did not exist among normal, or even privileged, Guard units. Whatever it was, I assumed it was working. I could feel the fingers on my burned hand. When I tried to crack my neck I felt something big and metallic wrapped around my throat.
I lay there for what must have been hours. After a long time the door opened with a loud hiss of decompressing air. It was behind me, and try as I could there was no way to see who had entered. The only clue I had was the near-silent whine of repulsors drawing closer. A large black object floated into view. It took me a moment of staring to recognize it. When I did, my heart sank like a heavy weight in a calm sea. The force chair swiveled to face me as it came to halt beside the bed.
"Senior Sergeant Leon Kane." The vox-speakers were terrifyingly flat and toneless. "So nice of you to finally join us. Your trial is ready to begin."
"What fracking trial?" My voice was weak and cracked, dry from a long time of not using it.
"Lord Verne's records have been examined. You shall stand trial for the murder of two members of the Adeptas Sororitas and for the charge of heresy. I, Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor, will oversee your trial. Do you have anything to say in your defense?"