A Tale of The Deathwatch in Warhammer 40K
The inquisitor hung from where he’d been shackled to the cross brace. Sweat ran across his skin, cutting through tracks of dirt and blood alike. His chin practically rested on his chest, and he stared at the floor with half-lidded, unfocused eyes. His breathing was slow and steady. He had barely said a word since he’d been bound there nearly three days ago. His silence did not bother Trixentia. Truth be told, she liked to take her time with the early steps of the dance, drawing out the beautiful agony that was yet to come. And as the one who had taught her the art of confession had said, a body will tell you secrets even if the lips stay silent.
The callouses on his hands told her, for instance, that he did not come from privilege. They were not the marks of a bladesman, but the marks of simple tools used roughly. The tattoos along his arms were crude, depicting skulls and blades, and most of them had faded and blotched with time. They spoke of the choices of a violent youth, and of the deeds that had been done to survive just one more day. The marks on his back, particularly the brand of the Inquisition that had been gilded and beautified over time, told the story of one who had been taken as a slave, but who had risen to become a master of sorts. The scars on his chest told tales of battles won and lost, and the sound of his heartbeat told her there was more beneath his skin than one might realize at a glance. He was long and lean in a way that spoke of a life hard-lived, rather than one spent training under safe, controlled conditions. His face, much like his body, had been broken and put back together more than once, though some of the repairs were more expertly done than others.
All of this Trixentia had known before she’d reached for her instruments, and made her first, probing steps into testing the man who had become her canvas.
She had begun slowly, using the current in the wracking rod to test his nerve endings and muscle reactions. He was unusually sensitive to that instrument, and it had left him gasping. At first she had been disappointed, sure that her initial read of the captive was wrong. But when she had brought out her brands, he had barely even stirred at their application. Even as the smell of cooking flesh filled the room, his face hadn’t so much as twitched. The blades had come next. He didn’t like them, she could tell that, but he didn’t flinch from them. Even when she’d de-gloved one of his fingers, peeling back the skin and wrapping it up carefully, all he’d done was clench his jaw.
She had found that measure distasteful this early in the process, but it had been at Captain Drystara’s command. No one onboard had cared much for Iranthias, but when the captive had used a weapon concealed in a ring to melt a hole through his torso, an example had to be made. That ring, along with the rest of the inquisitor’s possessions, sat on a table along one side of the room. They were close enough to provide a temptation, but far enough he would never be able to reach them. He’d barely even glanced toward them since the first day. He was a creature of endurance, and getting suffering from him was like squeezing blood from a stone. It came in time, though, and when there was enough pain for her to breathe it in, Trixentia found the essence of his torment made her skin tingle, and her blood sing.
“Now then, mon-keigh,” Trixentia said in her soft, persuasive voice. “Shall we talk, you and I?”
He raised his head to look at her. His eyes were bloodshot, and they seemed to have difficulty tracking her. She knew from experience that three days with no rest was a torture in and of itself to creatures of his kind, and no matter how hardy an example of his people he was, the exhaustion was taking its toll. He tried to speak, but a spasm seized him, and he coughed. Trixentia enjoyed the way his body contorted for a few long moments, then she took a cup of water from the table. Watching her captive intently, she sipped at it. She waited to see if he would ask for some; a small crack in his defenses she could worm her way into.
“What would you know?” he asked after a long, silent moment. Trixentia smiled. There was no servility in his tone. Nor was there fear. His words were slurred slightly around the edges, and his voice rasped from his dry throat, but it seemed he had chosen to step into the dueling circle.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“You don’t care about that,” he said. She smiled. It was a clumsy parry, perhaps, but it showed he still had fight left in him.
“No, I do not,” she said, letting her long fingers caress the hilt of the skinning blade strapped to her thigh. “But tell me anyway.”
The inquisitor’s gaze didn’t follow the motion, but Trixentia knew he heard the threat in her voice. He blinked away a bead of sweat, his nostrils flaring as he drew another breath. “Quintus.”
“Is that your name, or your family name?” Trixentia asked. She took a step closer, running the point of a single finger claw down the inquisitor’s neck. She didn’t draw blood, not quite, but a shallow flesh furrow followed her light touch.
“Neither,” he replied.
“And whom do you serve?” Trixentia asked, putting the tip of one claw beneath his chin. She lifted his head, and blood ran down the steel encasing her finger.
“The Inquisition,” he said. She increased the pressure. After a long moment he added, “Ordo Malleus.”
“And what was a daemon hunter doing so deep in the black on that ship?” Trixentia asked.
Quintus pulled away from her touch, shaking his head. He blinked rapidly, and for a moment it looked like he was going to lose consciousness from the sudden movement. Or vomit. Perhaps both. He drew a deep, shuddering breath, letting it out over his cracked and bloody lips. When he looked at Trixentia, his gaze was sharper, and fully focused. Questions floated in his eyes, but he was in no position to ask them. His eyes flicked toward the table that held his weapons and clothing. It was a momentary glimpse, but Trixentia noted it all the same.
“I will tell you,” he said, looking into her face. He seemed more focused now, deliberately pronouncing his words so they were not smudged by pain or exhaustion. “But it is not a short tale. I need water.”
Trixentia contemplated her captive for a long moment. She thought about making him beg for it, and then denying him that drink, but she felt they were in a delicate stage of their dance together. One misstep now would reduce the whole effort to nothing more than a clumsy pantomime. It would lose her the progress she’d made, but worse, if Quintus chose to close his mouth once more then the captain might blame her for his silence. She couldn’t have that. So after giving the bound man a smile with all the beauty and warmth of a bared blade, she turned to draw another drink.
Water splashed into the fluted glass, but instinct told Trixentia something was wrong. She replayed everything the mon-keigh had said so far in her mind, but it all rang true. She glanced over at the table, and a flash caught her eye; a red light glimmering where there hadn’t been one before.
Everything happened at once. Trixentia dropped the glass, spinning on her heel as her hand darted for the blade on her thigh. As she took a step closer to the inquisitor, a tension filled the air. It felt like the gathering calm before a lightning strike. Her steel cleared leather, and she took a second step. Bright light came from everywhere, and nowhere, blinding her. Her eyes slitted against the glare, Trixentia took a third step, and drew her arm back for her strike. Before she could take another step, a huge shadow fell across her. She struck, but rather than the knife sinking into soft flesh, the flensing blade smashed into something hard, and unyielding. The steel snapped, splintering into a dozen pieces, and something hammered into Trixentia’s face. Before she could fall, a vise clamped around her mouth, lifting her from the floor.
Trixentia raked at whatever it was holding her aloft. The claws on her right hand grated against metal, and she kicked up with one leg, snatching at the dagger held in her boot. She swung blindly, but something caught her wrist. There was a soft whisper of machinery, and her bones broke in a dozen places. Her dagger fell to the floor, and she tried to scream, but all that passed her sealed mouth was a muted wheeze.
“None of that, little darkling,” chuckled the shadow that had grabbed her.
The blinding light vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. Trixentia’s eyes readjusted rapidly, and the shadow that held her aloft took on sharp details. The thing was a colossus sheathed in armor, its head reaching nearly to the ceiling. On its breast was a tarnished, silver skull with widespread wings, and its left shoulder bore a pauldron was a litany of words, sealed by a death’s head. Its helmet had the long, sharp lines of a vulture’s skull, and it stared at her with unblinking red eyes that clicked and whirred as they focused on her. The rest of its armor was the flat, unpolished black of an executioner’s garb.
More armored giants filled the room. One unshackled the inquisitor, his movements precise even in armor. Another figure supported the inquisitor’s weight, gently lowering him to the deck despite a bulky apparatus mounted on its wrist that seemed to be a combination of a chain weapon, a power drill, and several other tools. One of the hulks stood apart from the others, a heavy shield on one arm that covered him from shoulder to greaves, and a massive gauntlet on the other hand. The gauntlet crackled with sparking energy, and filled the room with the stink of ozone. In the center of them stood a fifth titan, still as the eye of the storm as it took in the activity all around it. A falchion was sheathed at its hip, the blade’s guard carved into the shape of a back swept golden wing, and the pommel cast into the head of a striking eagle.
“Such pretty tools you have,” the one holding Trixentia said, his voice quiet, as if he were confiding a secret to her. “A shame we do not have time to use them.”
“Phobos,” the sergeant said without turning to look at him. “We don’t have time for your games.”
Phobos heaved a dramatic sigh. He released Trixentia’s ruined arm, but before she could make any other move, she felt a heavy, cold pressure beneath her arm. The space marine’s knife slid out from between her ribs, and he leaned closer, staring into her eyes as her pierced heart pumped blood into her chest cavity, and her ruined lungs refused to draw breath.
“Her stomach awaits you,” Phobos whispered. Trixentia’s eyes widened, and she struck at him, thrashing against his powered grip, tearing her wounds even deeper as she tried to free herself. By the time Phobos had finished sheathing his blade her grip had gone slack, and her eyes were nothing more than glassy marbles in an empty face. He tossed her body into the corner of the room, and took up position at the door.
“Chiron,” the sergeant said. “Status.”
“The inquisitor is stable,” Chiron said. The apothecary tilted his head, running his ocular scan over Quintus’s body. “Notable blood loss, tissue damage, and lacerations. Both original and implanted internal systems still functioning.”
“Daedalus, gather his things,” the sergeant said. The marine who’d freed the inquisitor stepped to the table, quickly and carefully bundling the inquisitor’s possessions together. “We jump in three, then reduce this ship to scrap.”
“No!” Quintus snarled. His hand shot out, limp, half-numb fingers grabbing at the apothecary’s gauntlet. Blood pumped from the inquisitor’s wounded hand in a small spray. His eyes were wild, his teeth gritted. “This ship has cargo we can’t afford to lose.”
There was a pause in the mission’s machinery as the squad waited. The sergeant took a knee next to the apothecary, but out of his way.
“You have two minutes,” the sergeant said. “If I am not convinced, our plan remains unchanged.”
“I followed a series of incidents to a black ship,” the inquisitor started, wincing as he tried to work feeling back into his cramped and screaming muscles. Chiron took his injured hand, applying a clear, liquid dressing to the naked muscle of the stripped finger. “After ascertaining that the subject I sought was onboard, I was in the process of negotiating with the captain and the Sisters of Silence for his release into inquisitorial custody. The details were almost wrapped up when the drukhari hit the ship.”
Chiron opened a pouch hanging off a web belt, and withdrew an injector. The apothecary turned the inquisitor’s head, and pressed the needle into his neck. Recognizing that their target was a mostly unaugmented human, he had come prepared. The effects of the stim were rapid, but the inquisitor didn’t waste so much as one second of his allotted time to make his case, speaking even faster.
“The ship’s defenses took a toll, but the drukhari came in numbers. They slew the sisters, and took the psykers. They split them among their ships, then parted. I made sure I was on the same ship as my target.”
“And how did you do that?” the sergeant asked.
“I killed the first mate,” Quintus said, holding up his wounded right hand. The drying dressing caught the light, and he offered a humorless smile. “I knew the captain would have to answer that insult, and he’d need to take me with if he wanted to do anything more complicated than shoot me dead then and there.”
“I like this one, Cadmus,” Phobos said from the door.
“What makes this psyker so special?” the sergeant asked, ignoring Phobos.
“I’m not at liberty to disclose that,” Quintus said, baring his teeth in a humorless smile. “And even if I were, there’s no time for me to go into the necessary detail. So let’s just say that I want him badly enough that I put myself in this position on the extremely slim chance that a kill team would pick up my distress beacon, and show up to extricate me, and my target.”
The sergeant didn’t reply to that. He stared down at the inquisitor for several, long seconds. Chiron continued his ministrations, coating the worst of Quintus’s burns with the same salve he had used on the inquisitor’s hand. Cadmus rested a hand on the hilt of his weapon, his thumb idly stroking the eagle’s head as if it were a worry stone.
“Daedalus, resource analysis,” Cadmus said.
“Our ammunition stock was intended to hold off immediate threat for extraction, not for a ship-wide purge,” Daedalus said. He set the inquisitor’s possessions down next to Quintus, then slid his bolter back into his hands. Daedalus checked the display on his weapon. “If the vessel is operating on less than a full crew as the inquisitor implied, and we maximize melee effectiveness, it could be done.”
The marine with the boarding shield turned his head, listening. The sergeant noted the motion, as did Phobos and Daedalus.
“Movement,” was all the shield-bearer said, stepping forward and putting himself between the door and the inquisitor, his shield presented. Daedalus repositioned himself, pressing his weapon to his shoulder and drawing a bead on the still-closed door.
“Confirmed,” Phobos said a handful of moments later, his voice a soft whisper through his vox as he nearly pressed his head against the wall.
“The situation has changed,” Cadmus said to his men. He drew his blade, the steel humming softly as it left its sheath. “Daedalus, message Captain Theramin and inform her of our plans. Assume transmission will be intercepted. Garm, you’re our battering ram. All of you, minimal structural damage, avoid human casualties, preserve ammunition when possible. We make for the bridge. Purge any xenos we encounter.”
A flurry of motion followed Cadmus’s orders. Phobos drew his blade once more, checking his bolt pistol where it was maglocked on his hip. Daedalus shifted the selector switch on his bolter, already speaking into a private channel connected back to Captain Theramin and the crew of the Knight’s Dagger. Chiron helped Quintus to his feet, and the inquisitor dressed in a flurry of motion that spoke of long practice, and muscle memory. Drawing components from half a dozen different locations, he assembled a compact las pistol that seemed too decorative to be of any use. The way he held it, though, suggested this weapon was an old companion. The corridor beyond the torture chamber was dead silent; as if the ship itself was holding its breath. Cadmus raised his sword, then slashed it downward.
Garm charged the chamber door, putting his shoulder and his armor’s servos behind the blow. The door buckled under the assault, exploding outward into the corridor beyond. Shuriken rounds filled the air like angry hornets, the waiting drukhari raiders firing as fast as they could squeeze their triggers. The spinning projectiles splintered into deadly shards as they made contact with the door, or embedded themselves deep into Garm’s boarding shield, turning it into a razor-edged porcupine. He’d barely cleared the threshold when two more drukhari stepped in to try to take him from behind, their blades drawn back for crippling strikes. Phobos drove his knife into one of them, and grabbed the other by the neck, squeezing hard enough that the drukhari’s head separated from his body. They died without ever knowing he’d been there.
Daedalus came next, his bolter swiveling as he advanced, firing as regularly as a metronome. His shots flew past his compatriots by bare inches, as if he always knew exactly where they would be standing before he squeezed the trigger. Several of his rounds struck home, but others forced the raiders to duck and dodge, stepping out of view where they couldn’t bring their own weapons to bear against the advancing astartes. Chiron followed, a humming plasma pistol in his off-hand, sweeping back and forth, the blinding blasts of energy taking off arms, legs, and heads. Quintus pelted after, his rosette bouncing on his chest, his reclaimed digital weapons glowing on his good hand as he tried to make his own shots count. Cadmus brought up the rear, calling out every risk he saw to the others over their private channel, and putting his blade to work whenever one of the raiders tried to close in on them from behind.
The drukhari’s vessel was not a ship in any sense that a sane mind could comprehend. The glimmering contours of the bulkheads distorted perception, fracturing light and shadow into a nightmarish dreamscape. Spires of sharpened steel twined together like murderous lovers, and the smells of perfume and blood permeated everything. The light that filled its interior felt wrong, and muffled screams came from everywhere and nowhere. It was as if the ship was whispering the sounds of the collected blasphemies committed inside its corridors, replaying them for the titillation of those who wished to experience the second-hand agonies for themselves. It had the beauty and lethality of a spiderweb, and the spiders populating it were converging on the threat in their midst.
The crew of the vessel had been knocked onto their back foot by the sudden onslaught of violence, but they knew every crevice of their ship, and how to use it to their advantage. They flitted in and out of cracks and gaps, their blades flashing and cannons firing as they sought to bring down the interlopers. More than once the kill team found themselves shooting at shadows as the xenos came from below, above, or behind. The drukhari fired weapons from concealed murder holes, and triggered barbed portcullises as elegant as they were deadly. Alarms blared, sending alien music through the ship like the maddening trill of pipes, calling what crew yet remained to the battle.
The kill team had been given their mission, though, and nothing was going to stop them from achieving their objective.
They reached the sealed doors to the bridge in five minutes. The astartes were scorched and scarred, their armor gouged in a dozen different places. Garm moved stiffly, one of his legs wounded by a blow to the back of his knee. One of the lenses in Phobos’s helmet was cracked, a single, dark eye glaring out from the interior. A rent in his gauntlet locked Cadmus’s hand into a fist around his sword, hydraulic fluid leaking from the armor like blood. Even Chiron hadn’t emerged unscathed, the deep grooves along his gorget and helm showing where a monofilament wire had nearly ended him. Quintus, for his part, had given a good account of himself, even if he had a few new wounds to show for his efforts. They were nothing that would not wait, though. Daedalus stepped forward, lowering his weapon and running his hands over the doors.
“Can you breach it?” Cadmus asked.
“Uncertain, sergeant,” Daedalus replied. “Without knowing the precise composition of the metal, or what further safeguards are behind it, I can’t guarantee access. But all signs indicate this is a craft built for speed and stealth rather than durability.”
“Give me your best estimate,” the sergeant said.
Daedalus was quiet for a long moment. Then he replied, “73 percent chance of breach, if my assumptions hold.”
“Blow it,” Cadmus ordered.
Daedalus plucked several krak grenades off his belt, activating the magnetic grip and placing them with care along the seam of the doors, as well as where the anchoring locks should be. The others took the time to reload their weapons, tossing aside empty magazines. On instinct each member of the squad covered the others, never lowering their own weapons until someone else was able to stand guard. Daedalus slapped his last fresh magazine into his bolter, racked it, and glanced at the others. They took cover behind Garm, who crouched behind his scarred and battered shield. Daedalus nodded, programmed the fuses, and then took his place in the stack.
Five seconds later, the doors detonated with a deafening roar.
The kill team rushed in before the smoke had a chance to clear. They swept the bridge, seeking a target for their wrath. All they found were dozens of unmanned stations, and a single drukhari at the helm with a piece of steel shrapnel hammered through her torso from behind. Dark blood dripped from her wounds, steaming from where it puddled on the floor. Phobos frowned, approaching the dead xeno, and leaning in close.
“She was strapped to the helm,” he said. “Dead less than a minute.”
Quintus’s eyes went wide with realization. Cursing he turned back to the ruined doorway. “They’re in the hold. It’s the only place they could be.”
“Garm, disable the ship,” Cadmus said. The order had barely been given when Garm slammed his power fist through a console. Electricity crackled, dancing from one bank to another, the lights going dark, and the musical sounds of the instruments going silent.
“Form up,” Cadmus said. “We don’t know how many are left. I want minimal collateral damage. Quintus, what does this boy you were so intent on look like?”
“Young, scrawny, pale, dark-haired.” The inquisitor said, biting off the ends of his words. His hand shook slightly, the stims warring with his injuries and exhaustion. He balled his fingers into a fist, gritting his teeth until the shakes subsided. “Gray eyes, wine stain birthmark on his right cheek. Claimed to be ten cycles, though he looks a little stunted if that’s the case. Answered to the name Remus, though I doubt that name appears on any imperial records.”
“Don’t kill any children, then,” Phobos said, a note of dark humor in his voice.
“Move,” Cadmus said.
The team advanced more cautiously this time. The element of surprise, and their initial momentum, was lost, and that required a shift in strategy. They staggered their line, making use of what cover there was within the vessel. The astartes fell back on using hand gestures, and private comm channels to maintain silence. Chiron remained near Quintus, guiding him with subtle gestures and an occasional whisper through his vox. They met no resistance as they descended into the bowels of the ship, which either meant there was none left, or the remaining drukhari were planning something.
As they approached the lower decks, voices came to them. They spoke in a dozen different variations of Low Gothic, each layering over the other to become a single, meaningless misery. Some voices begged, offering anything they had to escape what was to come. Others gave prayers to the God Emperor to save them. Some murmured incoherently, babbling whatever words bubbled to their lips in the depths of their fear. The voices stilled almost as one at the armored tread of the astartes, and as they rounded a corner, the kill team saw what lay before them in the belly of the ship.
The walls and floor were lined with bodies. Men and women, young and old, they’d all been bound in place with thick chains, and held in torturous positions like some kind of breathing, suffering art. Blood and sweat caked them, and their muscles trembled with exertion and the dregs of adrenaline. Every, single one of them wore the heavy collars that marked those taken by a black ship. At the end of the corridor of quaking bodies stood five drukhari, their weapons raised, and malicious smiles twisting their otherwise ethereal beauty. The one who stood in front was marked as the captain by his clothing and tattoos of rank. Dueling scars marred his cheeks, and he held a shuriken pistol pointed down the hall. He also held a boy in front of him, a blade pressed under his chin to keep him in place. The boy was small, scrawny, and nearly naked, his dark hair falling over his face. He bore a winestain birthmark on one cheek, and he stared at the astartes with wide, gray eyes.
“Not one more step,” Captain Drystara said, increasing the pressure against the boy’s skin, drawing a thin bead of blood. The kill team and the inquisitor halted. The captain’s smile narrowed, sheathing his teeth, but doing nothing to hide the contempt in his eyes. “You are determined, inquisitor. Though you do not deserve it, I salute you.”
“Let the boy go,” Quintus said, stepping in front of the marines. He kept his hands, and his weapon, pointed at the deck.
The drukhari all laughed at that, the captain hardest of all. Though his shoulders shook, his hand remained steady. The boy’s eyes were wet, his chest rising and falling rapidly. The corner of his mouth twitched, and the cords in his neck flexed. From behind him Quintus heard the click of an internal channel from Chiron’s helmet, and a reply from Cadmus.
“Oh yes, and then what, mon-keigh?” the captain asked mockingly. “You will graciously allow us to depart with our lives, perhaps? No, we both know that is not the way this game is played.”
“Your bridge is destroyed,” Cadmus said. “Our vessel has a lock on you. If you attempt to use an escape shuttle, you will be fired upon.”
“Well, well, if we are so out of options, then why are we not dead yet, hmmm?” The captain pursed his lips, his eyes fixed on the inquisitor. “This is what you want, is it not? Perhaps there is a way that you may yet survive and gain your prize.”
Quintus saw the boy’s eyes widen. His mouth opened in surprise, and a tear spilled down his cheek. His breathing stopped, then started once more. He swallowed, sending a fresh rivulet of blood running down his thin neck. He appeared to be listening to something that only he could hear. He tried to shake his head, but the blade prevented him. Then he moved the first finger of his left hand, raising and lowering it deliberately. Quintus frowned, and held up the hand not wearing any of his rings as he returned his gaze to Drystara’s face.
“I’m listening,” the inquisitor said.
“Leave your weapons behind, and give yourself into my custody,” the captain said. “You will depart from here with myself, the remains of my crew, and the boy in our shuttle. Your presence ensures we will not be set upon by your dogs, and when we have reached a point of safety you and the boy will be released.”
“And you expect me to trust you?” Quintus asked.
“Of course not,” the drukhari said, baring his teeth once more. “But we are at an impasse. If I give you the boy, you will kill me. If I slay the boy, you will kill me. You offer me nothing but death, mon-keigh. I, at least, can offer a chance at something else.”
Remus closed his eyes. His breathing was deep and steady now. The lines of fear had smoothed from his face, and he seemed almost relaxed. Quintus frowned. Deeply-ingrained instincts first acquired in a youth spent in the shifting shadows of the underhive raised the hair on the back of his neck. The inquisitor felt more than heard a whisper; two words slipping into the center of his mind.
“What say you, mon-keigh?” Daystara said, pressing his blade a little more tightly against Remus’s throat. “Do I buy this boy’s death with my life, or do you roll the dice one more time?”
Daystara’s eyes narrowed, then widened. The muscles in his forearm bunched, the strain throwing his sinews into stark relief. The hand holding his pistol shook, his knuckles growing pale as if he held the weapon in a death grip. He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a retching gurgle. A sharp crack filled the hold. The collar around Remus’s neck fell, the locking mechanism twisted apart by some invisible force. As the two halves of the collar struck the deck, Daystara’s arm was wrenched downward, the movement violent enough that it sundered every joint and tendon from his fingertips to his shoulder.
The raiders broke, each trying to go their own way. One lunged for Remus, his arm drawn back for a killing blow. A single shot from Daedalus took him in the chest, the bolter round blowing the drukhari’s body cavity outward in a shower of gore. Another turned to flee for the escape pod, and was cut down by one of his fellows, who lost his head to a plasma bolt from Chiron, the high-energy projectile leaving a smoking crater in the bulkhead. Another tried to duck behind Remus, using the boy as cover, but Phobos was faster. One round from his bolt pistol caught the drukhari’s foot, and as he fell a second shot took him in the head. The final raider, left standing alone on a field of blood, hesitated. That was when Remus turned, and stared at her. The boy screamed, a sound full of rage, pain, fear, and the echoing roar of the Immaterium.
The last of his captors was not merely slain. She was unmade, flayed apart one layer at a time by the force of the boy’s psychic fury.
Remus stood there, breathing heavily as tendrils of cold snaked through the air around him. The other psykers, still in their suppression collars, moaned and flinched, turning their faces when they could and closing their eyes when they couldn’t. They became a tableau; the shackled sinners looking away from power, lest they be named as heretics. Chiron mag locked his weapon on his hip, and approached slowly, his hand out as he stepped between the bodies. The others began to follow, but the apothecary waved them back.
“Remus,” he said, voice firm, but gentle. “It’s all right. It’s over now.”
The boy half turned, looking back. His eyes were filled with light, as if a star burned inside his skull. Steam rolled from his lips as he spoke, and his voice seemed to come from somewhere much further away than the other end of the short corridor.
“I can hear them, Aharon,” Remus said. “They say they’ve been looking for me. Can you hear them, too?”
“Remus, I need you to listen to me,” Chiron said, taking another step forward. “No one else has to get hurt. That’s done now.”
For a moment Remus didn’t say anything. The temperature dropped further, and frost began forming on the grating near the boy’s feet. He tilted his head, frowning. His forehead furrowed, and he looked up into Chiron’s helm as if he could see right through it to the face beneath.
“No it isn’t,” the boy said. “Not for you. And not for me. Our paths end in blood.”
Chiron slowly lowered himself to one knee, bringing himself and Remus as close to eye-level as he could. When he spoke again, his voice held a whisper of power, the energy invading his words almost despite himself.
“We did not ask to be chosen for this burden, Remus, but we were.” The apothecary held out his hand once again, as if he wanted to save the boy from drowning in his own mind. “I know what they’re showing you. They want to scare you. They want you to embrace them because they seem the only option you have. They are not. Your choices are your own.”
The boy stared at Chiron for an endless moment. All around them an unseen precipice yawned, its silent winds tearing at their minds and souls as it sought purchase. Whispers hissed and slithered, just on the edge of hearing as they beckoned one to lean just a little closer. Remus closed his eyes, and drew himself up to his full height. The light burning behind his eyes faded, and then everything went still. There were no more whispers. No more eyes watching from the darkness. No more gaping void waiting to swallow them all. Remus opened his eyes, and they were once again the gray, scared eyes of a child. He fell into Chiron’s arms, and let the tears come.
“There now,” Chiron said, lifting Remus and pressing him gently to the scarred, black armor on his chest. “You did well. Very well indeed.”
Behind the apothecary, so quiet it was all but unheard to those without superhuman senses, was the distinctive click of Phobos’s dagger sliding back into its sheath.
Garm lay on the table, his hands gripping the stirrups. Stripped of his armor, the muscles from his wrists to his shoulder bulged, and his jaw was tightly knotted, but no sound escaped him. Sweat beaded on the hard planes of his back, and along the scars that crisscrossed his bald head. Chiron clucked his tongue, his narthecium whirring as he removed the temporary fixes that had been made hours ago, and repaired the damage done to his battle brother’s leg with more permanent solutions. Applying the last of the skin patch, the apothecary cured it in slow passes with the narthecium’s lamp. Garm slowly released his hold on the stirrups, popping his jaw loudly enough that it echoed in the narrow room.
“That’s going to take some time to set,” Chiron said. “Do not put your weight on it. Not until it’s had time to properly heal.”
Garm grunted, pushing himself to a sitting position. Chiron pressed on a pair of switches, folding the stirrups back into their slotted compartments, turning the reinforced island in the center of the room back into an all-purpose table. When Chiron lowered his shoulder, Garm slung his arm over the apothecary’s neck and allowed himself to be helped to his berth. Though huge by the standards of the serfs who crewed Knight’s Dagger, the hexagonal chamber referred to as the Citadel in the center of the ship was just large enough for the astartes, their equipment, and the other systems necessary for their trade. There was a single bunk for each of them to sleep in, automated racks for their armor and weapons, as well as a foot locker for what personal effects they had. Medical equipment, spare ammunition, compact repair units, and other necessities were stowed beneath the central table, and contained in a repair node that hung from the ceiling above said table.
“I don’t know what’s more stubborn, you or your armor,” Daedalus said from where he knelt near Garm’s armor rack. He was still clad in his own power armor, but he’d removed the greave and cuisse from Garm’s suit, and was making repairs to the long, narrow gash along the rear that had done so much damage to his battle brother. Sparks flew from Daedalus’s hand torch, and cerumite dust covered the floor from where he’d cleared away the few jagged edges with the whirring grinder.
“The pup’s growing teeth,” Phobos said, chuckling darkly as he scoured nicks from his dagger’s blade. His bird-like helmet was on the bunk next to him, and his long, dark hair spilled over his shoulders. Phobos’s eyes were pools of shadow in the midst of his pale face, and the grin he gave Daedalus seemed sharper than it should have been.
“Between his injury, and not being in his armor, I’m confident Garm won’t try to answer any perceived insult at this exact moment,” Daedalus said, laying aside his torch and picking up a pressurized injector tool. “My hope is that he will be pleased enough at my repair that he will forgive me any overstep.”
They all laughed at that. Even Garm managed a snort of amusement. Cadmus, dressed only in his black fibro-muscle underlayer, raised his right hand with two fingers extended; the signal a dueling master would use to acknowledge a touch given. Blowing back a lock of white-blonde hair that had escaped his braid, the sergeant returned his attention to the delicate circuitry of his damaged gauntlet. Chiron removed his own helmet, now that the enhanced sensors in it were no longer necessary. He tossed his shock of black hair out of his face, smiling at Daedalus. That smile made the deep blue tattoo of a stylized eye that encircled the apothecary’s true right eye, wrinkle slightly.
“Attack a weakened foe, and protect yourself from reprisals with bribery,” Phobos said, chuckling as he gave his knife’s blade another long stroke. “You are learning.”
Daedalus had drawn breath to reply when a chime sounded from the Citadel’s hatch door. Conversation died as if a switch had been flipped. The astartes’ hands reached for their weapons, and their postures shifted to face the door. A droning, electronic voice announced, “Inquisitor Quintus Verus requests entry.”
The squad looked at one another, speaking in the silent language of those who had killed and bled by one another’s side. Cadmus stood slowly, gesturing with his left hand for the others to ease themselves. He drew himself to his full height, and when he spoke, the authority of command was back in his voice.
“Request granted,” Cadmus said.
Locks disengaged, and machinery hummed as the heavy hatch pulled back, and drew aside on a steel track. Quintus stepped through. He was more extensively bandaged than he had been, and one arm now rested in a sling. He’d also been bathed, shaved, and his clothes had been cleaned. He wasn’t parade ground ready, but his eyes were clear, and he seemed sharp. He looked around the room, his gaze sweeping over every member of the team before settling on Cadmus. The door shushed closed behind him, the airlock sealing with a quiet hiss.
“Kill Team Errant,” Quintus said, offering a thin smile that was barely a quirk of his lips. “I’ve heard the stories. I’m glad for my sake that they weren’t just stories.”
“What can we do for you, inquisitor?” Cadmus asked.
“In light of the service you provided, I felt it only fair that I be the one to debrief you regarding the current situation,” Quintus said. He nodded stiffly toward a stool. “May I sit?”
“If it pleases you,” Cadmus said.
Quintus crossed the chamber, and clambered stiffly onto the stool. With only one arm it took him a moment, as the seat was clearly made for a being several times his size. Still, the inquisitor showed no sign that he felt foolish or uncomfortable. He slowly reached a hand into his breast pocket, drawing out a long, electric pipe. As he took a deep drag from it, the marines noted he was not wearing his digital weapons.
“As you know, roughly 37 hours ago, we secured the drukhari vessel listed in the imperial record as Thorn of Agony. The surviving psykers were taken off the ship, including the boy Remus, who was placed into temporary stasis.” Quintus took one more puff from his pipe before he tucked it away once more. “I was then unconscious for roughly 21 hours. I have since been informed that in response to astropathic messages, the Endless Pursuit arrived to provide aid and to secure your position.”
“Watch Captain Dionus was good enough to provide aid when we reached him,” Cadmus said.
“No he wasn’t,” Quintus said, his swollen and scabbed lips parting in a mean, knowing smile. “Dionus hates your guts, and except for the oath he took to the Watch, and his honor as an Imperial Fist, he wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire. He is also, in my personal estimation, seething that I opted to remain on your vessel while asking him to act as guard dog, and to get word to the black ships to pick up most of their stolen cargo. As per our last communication, which was chilly enough I could use it as a compress on some of my bruises, a vessel is currently inbound to reclaim said shipment.”
Quintus winced slightly, scratching at the side of his neck where the stim had been injected. The inquisitor tilted his head toward Chiron, without shifting his gaze away from Cadmus.
“I also wanted to address the informal request left by your apothecary regarding my charge. Because while I appreciate the service you’ve done for me, I cannot allow you to retain the boy as a chapter serf.”
“Remus needs training,” Chiron said. Cadmus shot him a warning look, but Chiron ignored it, his words driven by a caustic combination of anger and well-reasoned argument. “Not at some point in the nebulous future when he reaches Terra, but immediately. He may be a child, but his power is enough that he’s been taken note of. If he doesn’t learn how to control his abilities as soon as possible, he will be a hazard to all those around him.”
“He isn’t going to Terra,” Quintus said.
The room fell silent. The only sounds that could be heard were the soft rush of filtered air in the vents, and the electric hum of the Citadel’s equipment banks. Using his one good arm, Quintus shifted around on his seat, meeting Chiron’s eyes.
“I have no doubt you could teach him what he needs to know. Left in your care, the boy would likely become a powerful psyker, and an asset as a chapter serf to the Deathwatch.” The inquisitor shook his head slowly, once. “His destiny is on Titan. I trust you know what that means, and that it will not leave this room.”
Chiron’s face blanched. For a brief moment, a shimmer passed across the tattoo on his face. Phobos cut his eyes to Cadmus. The sergeant gave the most minute shake of his head. They had all heard the whispers of warriors clad in silver power armor. Soldiers immune to fear and corruption, who were as strong and skilled as any space marine, but whose psychic might was enough to banish even greater daemons back to the warp. They had heard the rumors of how these gray knights tested their candidates, and of how little was left inside of them, even if those candidates survived both their trials, and the transformation that came after. They were one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Ordo Malleus, and none dared to speak of this mysterious order, lest they be declared heretics merely for knowing of its existence.
“He’s a child,” Chiron said, real anger in the apothecary’s voice.
“So were you,” the inquisitor said. “So were we all.”
Quintus levered himself back to his feet, and drew himself up to his full height. It must have been painful to do, but it didn’t show on the inquisitor’s face. He looked at each of the astartes, holding their gazes for a moment before he turned, and walked back to the hatch.
“Now that I am recovered from the worst of my immediate hurts, I will be on my way,” Quintus said, pressing his hand to the panel. The hatch opened with the same, soft hiss as it had before. “The Endless Pursuit will escort myself and Remus to a rendezvous point, from which we will continue our journey. May the Emperor watch over you.”
The hatch closed behind the inquisitor, and the astartes were alone again. Chiron leaned on the table, staring into nowhere. The silence was heavy, and filled with terrible truths none of them wished to speak aloud. Phobos glanced at the door, idly tapping his gauntleted fingers against the hilt of his dagger.
“I could change his mind, if you want,” he said. Chiron glanced at him, and Phobos gave the apothecary one of his serrated smiles. “I can be very persuasive.”
Chiron laughed. It was a tired, bitter laugh. The apothecary shook his head, pushed himself back to his feet, and stepped into his armor rack to begin the automated process of removing his second, cerumite skin. Daedalus turned back to mending the damage done to Garm’s armor. Phobos shrugged, and began field stripping his bolt pistol to clean it. A troubled look crossed Cadmus’s face, but he returned to his own armor, liberally applying lubricant to the joints in the repaired wrist mechanism. Garm said nothing, but when Chiron stepped out of his armor, he caught the apothecary’s arm. He held Chiron’s gaze, and nodded to him.
The kill team fell into the quiet routine they had developed over their years together. The sharp snap of weapons being reassembled, the smell of sacred oils, and the whir of servos turned the Citadel into a chapel offering promises of destruction. The lost sons of the Emperor prayed, and prepared, for they knew in their twin hearts that as long as the Imperium was at war it would need every weapon it could bring to bear. They knew that even swords as tarnished they were would not be laid aside… not while they could still serve.
More Tales of The Grim Darkness of The Far Future
If you enjoyed this tale, then please consider leaving a comment or a like, and sharing it with other readers! This is the latest installment of my Table Talk series, and if you wish to help me keep putting out new stories then consider becoming a Patreon patron, or just buying me a Ko-Fi as a way to put a tip in my jar for a job well done!
But if you're in the mood for more tales of the grim darkness of the far future, check out some of the following examples! These stories can be found in my Vocal archive, but many of them have also been dramatized by A Vox in The Void, so make sure you check those out as well!
- Broken Heroes: Rann was sent out to retrieve a lost weapon, but now he and the squad who came with him are surrounded by the colossal, insectoid creatures that claimed the forest. When a brave act crashes him through the ground and into an ancient bunker, he finds something far more potent than he could ever have hoped for... something that wants to finish the fight it started so long ago.
- Field Test: When Inquisitor Hargrave came to the world of New Canaan a few days ahead of an ork rok, she promised them a weapon that would destroy the greenskins. When that weapon was unleashed, though, none could have predicted just how powerful, or how dangerous, he truly was.
- Beyond The Black: The Emperor's Hand: Gav Smythe has fought daemons and traitors in the Emperor's name all his life... but this may be the greatest challenge the ogryn has yet faced!
- Waking Dogs- A World Eaters Tale: For my fans of Warhammer 40K, this is a story I felt compelled to tell about one of the infamous World Eaters remembering who he once was.
- Broken Chains- A World Eaters Tale: The sequel to Waking Dogs, we see that Crixus is taking his personal crusade seriously. Word is beginning to spread of his deeds, and his old sergeant Atillus realizes that the time may have come for him to pay for the decisions he made so very long ago.
About the Creator
Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.
Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary
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