When Inquisitor Eusev Paladini awoke, he did not know where he was, but he was surprised to wake up at all. The last thing he remembered was the fire, the smoke, and then, the daemon….
"I don't have such a great feeling about this, boss," Yngolson had said. "There's got to be at least thirty of them."
"Thirty naked, unarmed cultists who don't know we're here, and, if you do as I bid, will never know what hit them," Paladini answered, gathering his small retinue around him. Yngolson had been a card sharp, confidence man, and semi-professional burglar when Paladini had recruited him back on Moretius II. The man was a scoundrel, but he had a way of getting into places and hearing things that were meant to be secret and secure, plus he was pretty good in a fight. Scapelli and Merko were both ex-Guardsmen, and they hadn't survived repeated actions against the 'Nids and the Orks by being weak or stupid. That left Ionsan, the tech-priest. Until recently, they had been six, but his psyker, Borinall, had channeled the powers of the Warp once too often, and Eusev had had to give him the Emperor's mercy.
"Now listen," he said. "They've been dancing around that bonfire for at least an hour now, so they're probably starting to tire, and they've got to be pretty distracted. If nothing else, they must be night-blind from the light. So here's the plan," and, with that, he started distributing eye patches to each of them, before continuing, "we're all going to put these on—over our stronger eyes, to accustom them to the dark. Then we're going to sneak through the woods to the edge of the clearing. Ionsan, you have the suppressor grenade?"
"Yes," the tech-priest replied in his synthetic voice, "and I believe I see your intent. I take it that I am to throw the grenade into the fire at your signal. The super-cooled gases in the grenade are anathema to flames, and so will instantly snuff the bonfire, plunging the clearing into darkness—"
"Thus blinding our targets. At that point, we all switch the patches to our other eyes and move in. As I said, they won't know what hit them, and they won't have any idea how many of us there are. They won't stand a chance. Use your shock mauls, boys, I want prisoners for interrogation."
"What makes you think these people know anything?" asked Scapelli. "From what we heard back in Falport, they're just a bunch of bored nobles playing cultist."
"We'll see. It's alright if you kill some of them, but I want at least a few for questioning. Now let's go." With that, the five of them crept off the ridge where they had been spying on the cultists by amplivisor, and started creeping through the woods….
Paladini forced his attention back to the present. There was no sense dwelling on the past, when there could well be Throne-knew-what dangers here in the present. Not that the situation looked dangerous. Looking around, he seemed to be lying on a large, soft bed in a well appointed bedroom. One entire wall was taken up by a large picture window, through which he could see a spectacular view of the mountains. "The Falcono range, if I'm still on the same continent," he thought to himself. "And the same planet."
The sheets he was lying on were as soft and silky as any fabric he had ever felt, and he soon realized that, but for bandages, which were wrapped around his head and midsection, and which appeared to be clean and fresh, he was naked. On the nightstand next to the bed was a vase of bright local flowers, which reassured him that he was likely still on Valadar Prime; he hadn't bothered to learn the name of the white and blue blossoms, but he'd seen them growing throughout the forest and foothills of the Falconos. "I'm probably not far from where I fell."
As he inspected his bandages, taking an inventory of just how injured he was, his mind cast back, unbidden, to how he'd gotten those wounds in the first place. Things had gone exactly to plan, at first. The fire had gone out suddenly, and he and his retinue had waded into the cluster of confused Slaaneshites, laying about them with shock mauls. The cultists started screaming, and falling all over themselves trying to get away.
Then the fire suddenly roared back to life, green and then blue in color, and some strange and horrible creature walked out of it. Silhouetted as it was against the fire, Eusev could only make out its outline, for which, he thought, he would be eternally grateful to the Emperor. Just the outline, though, was dreadful enough. From the neck down, it seemed, the thing had the body of a man, or something man-like, at any rate, but where its head ought to have been, there was naught but a writhing mass of tentacles, reaching out for him and his companions.
Eusev had not become an Inquisitor by being a coward, though, and so he drew his bolt pistol and opened up on the…thing, screaming "Ave Imperator!" Around him, he could hear the crack of laspistols and his retinue also opened fire. Not that all their shooting seemed to do any good, for the thing seemed altogether unfazed by their fire. And then one of the tentacles was around him. Realizing his mistake, he dropped his shock maul and reached for the chainsword at his waist, but he was already too late. The tentacle was squeezing the breath out of him, and he heard, as much as felt, his ribs crack.
Then he was flying through the air, and slammed against a tree trunk, hitting the back of his head. His vision swam, but he heard his comrades screaming. He tried to rush forward, back into the fray, but he found he couldn't move. It was as though he were stuck to the tree, his body suspended off the ground. He flailed his legs, but could find no purchase on the ground. "What?" he thought to himself stupidly, still dizzy. He looked down and saw a tree branch sticking out of his midsection. He realized that he must have been impaled on it when the daemon had hurled him against the tree. Then he knew no more.
That was when she walked in. Eusev felt the breath go out of him in a painful rasp. She was astonishingly beautiful, so much so that Eusev feared for a moment that he had died after all. She was tall, slender, with a swan-like neck. Her skin, what he could see of it, was as smooth and fair. She wore a pale grey dress, simple but elegant, that flattered her figure, but was quite modest, leaving only her head, neck, and hands uncovered. Her hair was done up in an extremely elaborate coiffure of interwoven plaits that must have taken half a dozen handmaids hours to fix. It was intricately dyed as well, so that the braids alternated colors, brown, blonde, red, and so forth, all woven together. "Oh, good, you're awake," she said, and her voice, warm with evident relief and concern, was as beautiful as the rest of her.
"Wh-whe-where am I?" he tried to ask.
"Shh, don't try to talk yet," she said, coming over and sitting on the edge of the bed. "You're still badly injured. You're lucky to be alive, in fact. Would you like some water?"
He nodded weakly.
"Good. Now, can you sit up? Don't strain yourself."
He tried to prop himself up with his arms, but found he lacked the strength.
"Alright," she said, reaching her arms under his armpits, "I'm going to try to prop you up on your pillows. Just try to relax." As she wrapped her arms around him to help him sit up, her body brushed against his, and even weakened as he was, he felt himself begin to respond. Then, with surprising strength, she hoisted him upright and released him, letting him recline against the mass of down pillows. Then she reached over to the nightstand for a pitcher and glass behind the vase. She poured water into the glass and held it against his lips. "Don't try to drink too much at first."
The water was cool and sweet, and after a few sips, he felt like he might be ready to try again to talk. "My friends?" he rasped.
Her eyes went down, and he knew at once that they were dead. "I'm sorry," she said, "but their lights have returned to the Great Ocean."
He let himself feel only the most momentary pang of grief. They had been his friends, it was true, but it was in the nature of things for an Inquisitor to lose acolytes in the line of duty. Something about the way she phrased it worried him, however. Throne knew the Imperial cult had a thousand variants from world to world, and any number of them had strange euphemisms for death, but all the same, something about that phrasing set off alarm bells in his head. He could not, for his life, have said just why at that moment.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"In the guest bedroom of a cottage belonging to a friend of mine." She smiled a little at the word 'cottage.' "Between you and me," she stage-whispered, as if sharing some great secret, "some people might call this a mansion, but it's in the country, so it's a cottage."
"It must be nice to have rich friends," he said.
"It can be. It certainly worked out well for you," she said, smiling even more now. Then she turned serious. "I'm glad you're alive. You had me very worried for a while there."
"Who are you?"
"Pardon me, I have forgotten my courtesies. Medeana Kirkena Nimuena von Rothbardt," she said, standing and curtsying, "at your service."
She laughed. "No, I promise, that really is my name. My parents had, well, strange tastes."
"Not about that. You said you had rich friends, but—"
"Actually, you said that, but you're quite right, I do."
"But you are clearly rich yourself."
"Now there you are wrong, sirrah," smiling and laughing once more. "This dress that I am wearing," and with that, she curtsied again, "is all that I own in the galaxy—and even it was a gift."
"Ah, but your manners indicate clearly that you had a noble upbringing, and you must have many servants to wear your hair that way." He indicated her hair with a small hand gesture that took nearly all his strength, and, as he did so, noticed something odd. The interlaced locks of her plaits were brown, red, blonde. "Hadn't they been brown, blonde, red before?" he thought to himself.
"Very good!" she said, with a clap of her hands, interrupting his train of thought. She was grinning broadly now, and it managed to make her more beautiful still. "Yes, you're quite right, I am indeed the daughter of a noble house, although from a hive world far from here, but I have long since left them and their fortune behind. And yes, I have received…assistance with my hair, although that was freely given, more or less. All the same, I see your powers of observation and deduction are no less than I would expect from an agent of the Holy Ordos."
"Holy Ordos? What makes you say that?"
"I found your rosette when I was undressing you. Relax, you have nothing to be ashamed of."
"Wait, how did I get here? And where is here? Who are you and your friends?"
Her mien became much more serious. "I told you, you are in a house belonging to a friend of mine. And you are not far from where you were injured. As to how you got here, my friends and I carried you here to better treat your injuries."
"You still haven't answered my third question. Who are you and your friends?"
"Haven't I? Did I overestimate your powers of deduction?" Her hair had changed again: the pattern was now brown, blonde, red again, but the brown had darkened to black, and the blonde had turned pure white. The room was pleasantly warm, but Eusev felt his innards go cold.
"You were the daemon, the thing in the fire."
To be continued….