The Gelt Journal – part 8: Waxy rags

Gossamer strands of smoke had snuck underneath the heavy doors of the chapel and probed the air like a tangle of grey vipers. The scent of burning solvents was heavy on the tongue.

“Fire!” Leora snapped into action, “Rebreathers, now!”

We scrambled for air purifiers while Crisis bundled the map up and stuffed it into one of his voluminous pouch. Mine was a form-fitting Arbites-issue rebreather with a backup tank, good for a few hours of light activity. Proteus had a pair of waxy rags that he stuffed up his nostrils, which I was later informed was charmingly known as a ‘hive-issue rebreather’.

Leora and Mur unbarred the massive door to the chapel while I instructed the rest of us to check our ammo. I flicked the activator on the lamp pack of my autorifle and signalled ready.

It opened with the groan of old iron. Smoke rolled in across the ceiling like a bubble had been burst. There was no change in heat, so the fire must have been some distance away. We filed into the East wing of the estate, the authoritative end of my autorifle leading the way.

It was a wide, straight corridor that lead directly from the chapel to the manse, liberally decorated with person-sized oil portraits and marble busts with noble brows and heroic jawlines. They all bore the same surname: Rauth.

I stopped to examine one of the paintings; perhaps there were clues or hidden signs of heresy in the lineage – even the best painters in the Imperium cannot completely conceal the degradation of mind and corruption of soul. Leora was making notes of names and faces, while Crisis and Mur took over navigation, the prisoner still slumped over his shoulder. I heard the soft click of a flick knife.

“Don’t bother,” Mur called back withoutbreaking stride, “the only person alive that painting’s valuable to is the one we’re going to capture, interrogate or kill. Preferably all three.”

I looked over my shoulder. Proteus was balanced on a marble bust, knife in hand, poised to cut a portrait from its frame. He sneered in grudging agreement and slid down from his vantage point to rejoin us.

We reached the end of the East wing, punctuated with a heavy panelled oak door inlaid with gold filigree in the shape of the Rauth family crest. Smoke poured from inelegant seams that had been warped by heat, and the brass orb handle was warm to the hold my hand near.

Those with rifles shouldered them and I signalled to Crisis to get the door. He wrapped a rag around a pollution-scarred hand and grasped the handle. With a gestured countdown he slammed the door with a might that belied his size and we slipped into hell.

First came the heat. It washed over us like a wave of fire, stealing our breath and watering our eyes. Every nerve screamed in protest and it was everything I could do to fight the base survival instinct to flee from such a primal terror. It singed our flesh and baked the sweat from our skin.

The manse was a roaring inferno. What was once a grand multi-storey entrance hall was now a cathedral of fire, flames licking across every balcony, pillar, marble gargoyle and self-aggrandizing statue. This great chamber would have been a monument to the family’s wealth, heritage and power, made from the rarest and privileged materials available to the lineage. Everything was being consumed. If Rauth was here, he was long gone now.

We fanned out to check corners and exits and quickly realised the futility. We were red-faced and bathed in sweat, desperate for a lead. Between the crackling of burning heritage and the tumbling of masonry, I could just made out the snap of gunfire through the open entrance of another hall to the west. I tapped my comm-bead twice for attention and jabbed with my arm towards the sound of conflict.

The next hall was equally impressive, a multi-tiered open-plan chamber strewn with collapsed pillars and broken marblery. A small squad of Latirian Guardsmen were sweeping through, blackened and bloody, laying down las-fire at a balcony on the second storey high above our heads. The returning fire was sporadic and inaccurate, but enough to keep the Guardsmens’ heads down.

One of them spotted us enter, and although their targets were obscured to us by the balcony above our heads, he cupped his mouth and bellowed “Take cover!”

I believe that’s what he was shouting. We couldn’t hear him over the sickening sound of structural integrity failing. With a series of cascading crunches and snaps, laced with the terrified screams of the falling, the entire balcony above gave way, taking at least half a dozen of Rauth’s House Guard with it. It fell to earth like a meteor, engulfing in a fireball and splashing flaming wreckage across the marble floor.

One of the burning wretches stumbled from the conflagration with the same high-pitched squealing as a crustacean in a crock pot, and the Latirian Guard took no pause to finish him off.

The fire roared on and as cinders fell about us, the lieutenant approached us with a black look, both figuratively and literally.

“That was the last of ’em in here!” He yelled, projecting his voice far above the hellscape around us, “Have you located the target yet?”

I shook my head. He rolled his eyes in exaggerated disbelief. “Get a fucking jog on will you? We charge by the hour!”

I will always be reminded of the priest from my Schola days, an ex-Guardsman doling out spiritual advice to the young officers and storm troopers. His favourite was “without the dark, there can be no light.” I always thought it was a poignant message about the necessity of sacrifice of men for mankind, or that we must sometimes do terrible things to preserve what is good and pure. Now I see he was simply referring to the Imperial Guard’s black sense of humour.

The Latirians filed out of the hall and I scanned the comm channels for chatter while looking up at the world burning around us. The Guard’s frequency was staccato bursts of shouting, it sounded like they had almost taken the courtyard. Time for a rallying speech.

I turned to address the cell. “FAN OUT! THERE M-”

I was interrupted by the sounds of desperate, hammering fists on a locked door near us, followed by a choked, despairing voice:

“Help! Help us please! By the Emperor, somebody save us!”

 

++++++

First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

The Gelt Journal – Part 7: Scalp-caked kukri

Proteus squatted in front of the cowering prisoner, scalp-caked kukri in one hand, bloodied cleaning rag in the other. He fixed the wretched with a piercing jade gaze.

“And why haven’t we’s killed him?” He asked, as though the whimpering House Guard wasn’t curled into a ball inches from his face. Mur said nothing, but his subtle shift in eye line told me he wondered too.

“Humanity is imperfect,” I responded, glowering at the prisoner, “Some more than others, and imperfection begets rebuke. But if all rebuke ends in death, what of humanity would survive?”

Both killers looked back at me, somewhat dumbfounded by the foundations of Imperial law. I changed tack, picking something a little more relatable to their sensibilities.

“And besides, he’ll know where the rest of his comrades are so we won’t blunder into any ill-conceived ambushes. Isn’t that right?” I jabbed the House Guard with an armoured toe and he snivelled in assent.

I grabbed him by the scruff of his poorly-fitted uniform and forced his face into mine. It was creased with stress well beyond his years and his eyes were bagged and bloodshot.

“Where’s Rauth? Where’s your master?” I demanded, affecting a tone and volume that could shake fillings loose.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” He sobbed. I glanced back at Proteus, who had finished picking the last bloody clump of hair from his blade. He made a flourishing gesture that said ‘so we can kill him then?’

“You know something that will be useful to us,” I continued, “Who knows where Rauth would be? How many troops does he have left? Do you know how to access his chambers?”

“Th- th- th- the manse!” He stammered, acutely aware of an impending ramping up of interrogation techniques to knife-related persuasion, “there’s a few of his personal guard left in the manse to watch over the civilians. The quickest way is through the East wing! Look, I can show you!”

He began scrambling to his feet, clawing at the tiles to get traction on the marinade of blood and urine he was lying in. A steel-capped boot connected with his jaw, jerking his neck and spinning him round. He fell awkwardly, out cold.

Mur regained his footing and shrugged lightly. “I would prefer to carry him than to keep an eye on him.”

Proteus let out a mirthless laugh. I added another name to my mental list of people not to fall asleep around. There was a conspicuous throat-clearing behind us. By the Saints, can she move quietly in that plate armour.

“If you’re quite done ‘rebuking’, the Tech Adept and I have found a way in.”  Leora spoke softly but with a mettle I had never encountered before. Her voice carried the weight of a Drill Abbott and the honeyed velvet of a practiced diplomat.

The pair had unfurled the estate map on an overturned pew and we gathered round. Mur had shouldered the prisoner like an empty kit bag. Crisis barely looked up, muttering to himself and making meticulous shorthand notes around the periphery of the map. From his offhand wristguard sprang several slender auto-tools; protractors, measuring devices and other instruments I couldn’t hazard a guess at, and they danced their way across the map, sending calculations to his dataslate.

“The southern atrium will be most detrimentally impacted by crossfire,” Crisis said, addressing no-one in particular, “the risk of serious injury is too high for me to recommend that approach.” 

“Youse cogboys are trained in first aid right? Youse can patch us up if things get hairy.” Proteus chipped in, largely ignoring the map or accompanying discussion. Crisis’ beard bristled and his autotools flexed in visible vexation.

“My specialty is in industrial and agri-engines,” Crisis retorted, “I replace resistor modules larger than your head and reattach fuel couplings as wide as I am with only my teeth. If you enjoy the notion of me treating your considerably more fragile innards as I would a container of shorted spark plugs then by all means, let us take the southern atrium.”

“I believe what Crisis is saying is that the East wing is our best chance.” I interjected. Fury should be directed at our enemies, not each other.

Proteus threw his hands up in feigned surrender, “Got it, got it, upworlder! Youse say jump, yadda yadda. Say…” he interrupted himself, sniffing the air deeply through a wrinkled nose,

“…can any of youse smell burning?”

 

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First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 8: Waxy rags

The Gelt Journal – Part 6: Errant appendage

The chapel was plunged into silence, not the tranquil kind but the awful, anxious, smothering silence of the eye of a passing storm.

My exhausted fury was subsiding and details were returning to my senses. I could hear spent rounds being ejected from weapons and new las-cartridges being slammed into place. The smell of cooked flesh hung in the air. I heard the soft crunch of glass underfoot as the others consolidated. Ripples of muffled gunfire could still be heard from outside, but more distant than before. There was a sniffling noise and the voice repeated itself from behind an overturned pew near the altar.

“Please, don’t shoot! I give up!” A pair of hands probed the air in surrender. Leora had already crossed the chapel and slammed a firm boot into the pew the last House Guard was hiding behind. It slid away, smearing blood from his downed comrade. He was curled into a foetal ball, empty hands above his head. Leora’s sword was already at his neck.

He was young, like the rest of them, and impossibly thin. Tanned skin hung from his bones like worn leather and he bore an aquila tattoo under his left eye. He made the most pitiful noises I’ve ever heard a man make.

I tossed some manacles to Leora and she applied them without question or hesitation, shackling the man’s bony wrists behind his back. He continued his pleas of mercy through hacking coughs and watery sobs.

“I didn’t know what was happening! It wasn’t my idea! I have a wife and children, please! I don’t want to die! I’ll-” he fell quiet, stiffening, convulsing slightly, then falling limp on the floor. I reholstered my humming shock maul. That was quite enough of his whimpering for now. We’ll wake him if we need him.

Leora remained stony-faced, she had spotted something behind me. She knelt down next to a bloodied body, dressed in the robes of a preacher. It was propped up against the altar at the head of the chapel, sat in a pool of its own chestnut blood that had cascaded down the marble risers, viscous enough to have glued the preacher’s robes to the floor. He had been dead for days, weeks maybe. I examined his missing arm, it had been torn from his body by a terrible force, leaving strings of ripped flesh and crushed bone behind. There was no sign of the errant appendage and judging by the pattern of blood, injury and death both occurred here as he bled out on the steps of his altar.

Leora let out a gasp. I looked up from the preacher’s matted habit to see Leora reading through the bloodstained sermon book with one hand over her mouth and disbelief in her eyes. I rose but maintained position; this might have been a trap. She quickly thumbed the pages back and forth, each turn growing her expression of incredulity.

“The sermons… they’re… polluted,” She started, “None of them are outright wrong, and if you sat through one of these sermons the average worshipper wouldn’t notice anything, but…” she trailed off. Mur had silently appeared at the base of the altar, rubbing the preacher’s blood between his fingers.

“He was poisoning his congregation!” Leora finally said, aghast.

“Then we burn it.” Mur spoke. I was taken aback, I don’t think I had heard him say anything up until that point. He gestured around the chapel with his rifle like it was an extension of his fingers. “All of it.”

“No, we can’t. Not yet anyway. This needs to be taken to our superiors, they will know what to do with it.” Leora responded, wrapping the blasphemous tome in a strip of hessian from her backpack.

“It is the only evidence we have uncovered of more than simple civil unrest.” I interjected, part in agreement, part as a reminder of our duties. Whatever did this is unlikely to be amicable to the idea of being captured alive – we would need all the evidence we could find..

Crisis produced a map from one of his many pouches and unfolded it carefully. He examined its contents while scratching his scraggly beard with an absent mind. I imagined this look was the last thing many agri-engines on his homeworld saw before having their recalcitrant machine spirits coaxed back to life. I didn’t think ordinary Tech Adepts grew beards, but I supposed this was no ordinary assignment.

The Rauth Estate was circular, embracing a courtyard in the centre filled with Rauth House Guard and Latirian Special Forces slugging it out over control of the grounds. To the west of the chapel was a large circular room titled ‘the menagerie’. Judging from the map there wasn’t likely to be much cover inside, a poor place to try and flush out heretics from, but an advantageous place to herd them into. To the north was the residence proper, a huge disorderly cluster of rooms, chambers, antechambers, corridors and halls. There could be hundreds of stragglers in there in just as many hiding places. Both connected with each other, so our choice was from which direction to sweep through.

Crisis was muttering something about escape tunnels when the sister strode over and stabbed a gauntleted finger square in the centre of the residences.

“He will be there,” she spoke with a conviction that nobody could challenge, “surrounded by his wealth and sycophants. Whatever other heresies this place is hiding will be present there too.”

“Did someone say wealth?” Proteus looked up from prying the fillings out of the leader’s broken head with a special claw-shaped blade, a strange twinkle in his eyes. We collectively chose to accept this as an agreement and moved swiftly on.

“Agreed,” I said, trying to commit the map to memory, “I will alert the Sergeant over vox and tell him to meet us at the menagerie when he’s finished pacifying the rabble outside. Whatever we flush out of the residences will be trapped between the hammer of the Imperial Guard and the anvil of the Inquisition. We will be the wildfire that purges this estate of its rotten limbs.”

Too much perhaps? I glanced over at the mutilated body of the preacher and his volume of profane sermons. No, whatever this is is the tip of something far greater and far fouler. Our resolve will be tested and our faith will be shaken.

We will need all the rousing speeches we can get.

 

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First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 7: Scalp-caked kukri

The Gelt Journal – Part 5: Blood-marbled grin

A curtain of force rattled the organs in my torso like a half-empty box of lho-sticks. A sulphurous light detonated in the chapel, disorientating even through clenched eyelids. A drizzle of stained glass rain pattered off my flak jacket, shook from its frames high above by the concussive blast. This was as good an opportunity as any.

I was on my feet in an instant, ears still ringing and sun spots dancing across my retinas. The stun grenade from Crisis had found its mark. One of the House Guard was clawing at his eyes. Another was stood still, blood dribbling from his ears. The Sister planted a plate metal boot on his chest and withdrew the massive sword she had sheathed in his gut. He slid from her sword into an unceremonious mess on the chapel floor.

I vaulted the pew, shock maul primed. It sprang to life in my hand, crackling with electric wrath. The servitor was within striking distance, its weapon erratically tracking false positives in the wake of the stun grenade. It didn’t register my presence until maul and head connected.

Lightning arced from the impact and charred skin was scraped from its metal chassis. The explosion of energy burst the visual augmetics in its head like ripe ploinfruit. It staggered briefly but superficially.

I struck again, jabbing the maul hard into its sternum, trying to cook off whatever passes for a heart in this wretched cadaver. Energy surged from the weapon in an awesome display of light and heat, enough to kill a man several times over. The smell of ozone and burning flesh was ineffable.

The power cell in the maul’s handle began to flash, its machine spirit faltering. Emperor’s teeth, how has this not stopped it!? I glanced up from grinding my maul into its chest, expecting a machiavellian sneer or a smug grimace of victory. Nothing. Blackened cheek flesh hung from its jaw with no iota of emotion. It stared through me with a single rheumy eye.

It brushed my hand away with a steel balled fist and sent a piston punch towards my gut. I backed off, holstering my maul and scrambling for my autogun. The servitor lunged forwards, tiles shattering beneath its armoured boot. I tried to raise my rifle in time but I was beaten to the draw by the glare of red-hot muzzle from the servitor’s implanted rifle. Without a second’s hesitation, it fired.

A pitiful click issued from its ammunition hopper. Emperor be praised! The servitor paused, beginning a complex hopper cycle. This blessed reprieve would be its undoing. I shouldered my rifle with practised ease, sighted its damaged augmetics and poured the Emperor’s fury into its skull.

Nothing was left save some mangled data cables and lumps of withered grey matter bound together by blackened sinew. It spasmed, death throes snapping its limbs to inhuman angles. It toppled backwards, leaving a crescent trail of smoke in the air from its severed neck. It had stopped moving before it hit the chapel floor, a viscous dark fluid pumping out onto the broken tiles and shards of glass.

I paused for breath. By the saints, I hope they don’t have any more of those.

I glanced behind me to assess the situation. The Cell had cleaned up. Crisis and Mur were keeping the last two cowering guards pinned down behind a makeshift barricade of broken pews, with a righteous Sister bearing down on them wailing war hymns. By another miracle, I even saw the bloodied Proteus returned to his feet. His chest was in tatters and his face looked like he’d had a wet shave with a chainsword. I was not sure that it wasn’t an improvement.

He noticed me and flashed a blood-marbled grin. In each hand he jangled a red stained coinpurse, both marked by the House Guard insignia, and he slipped them into his pocket, returning to a crouch to pat down the next body. Emperor preserve us, one must admire his conviction to his purpose at least. Remind me not to die before he does.

A scream from the front of the chapel refocused me. One of the last Guard, some kind of leader judging from his uniform, bore down on me with zeal in his eyes and steel in his hand. I turned the first blow aside with my rifle but he was fast, weaving around my clumsy, tired ripostes. He sent a flurry of slashes to my abdomen, but the blunting and bending of his blade made us simultaneously realise his masters had outfitted him with a sword that was more ceremonial than practical. He looked shocked, but not as much as he was about to be.

Three pips issued from the holster on my belt to tell me that we were fully charged. I made an opening with a sweep of my rifle and let out a primal, exhausted roar. In a ballet of fire and blood, my shock maul was in my hand, thumbed to maximum power and swept upwards into his chin. He exploded off his feet, his jaw shattered and fragments of teeth were propelled from his mouth by tongues of flame. He arced gracefully, landing on his neck with a snap. He lay unmoving, save for the flickering embers where his eyes used to be.

I was panting hard, squinting through someone else’s blood to discern any more threats. The chapel had gone quiet. The soft thumping of gunfire in the courtyard returned. Then, a broken, cowardly voice;

“No, please! Don’t shoot!”

 

++++++

First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 6: Errant appendage

The Gelt Journal – Part 4: Serendipity

The boy crumpled at the snarl of my autorifle. His sternum had been reduced to mincemeat from a burst of point blank supercavitating rounds. Gunfire erupted around us, as though exploding off the starting blocks to the sound of a race gun. Beyond the collapsing corpse of the boy more House Guard, hungry men in rich-man’s rags, scrambled for weapons or cover.

All except one – a bulky yet emaciated ghoul of man, his right arm cut off at the shoulder and replaced with a vicious bullet-spewing automatic rifle. Metal plating glinted through torn, leathery flesh and half his skull was given over to cybernetic targeting enhancements. My stomach tightened. It was no man but a man-shaped, brainless flesh-vehicle, lumbering forwards on ruthless subroutines to effectuate calculated slaughter: a combat servitor.

I ducked behind a heavy hardwood pew as the graciously haphazard return fire splintered off the lip of the backboard. The boy lay near my feet. His face bore the same disbelief as when we began our exchange. His sidearm holster was still buttoned.

Small arms fire raged across the chapel, the most enthusiastic coming from the slow, implacable advance of the combat servitor. Our cell had worked it’s way into a vaguely defensible position on the east side near the primary entrance and were doling out fury to anyone caught out of cover. Crisis the tech adept and Mur the sharpshooter were picking their targets carefully, keeping those pinned they could not kill. The Sister was stalking between the rows of benches clutching a bastard sword as long as she was. It protruded behind her like the tail of a great predatory lizard. Proteus dropped the nearest House Guard with a blast of his shotgun, but didn’t see the second one stand up behind him.

“Proteus! On your six!” someone yelled over the cacophony of combat and the battle hymns from the Sister. He turned just in time to find himself staring down the twin barrels of a House Guard shotgun. Proteus smiled calmly and his lips began to move, presumably in some cutting slight on the Guard’s parentage, and took the full impact to his chest. Strips of meat and shredded flak vest filled the air, and Proteus tumbled backwards through a pew.

A split second later the House Guard’s neck was opened and his life fluids painted his uniform a new shade of carmine. Smoking brass pinged out of Mur’s hunting rifle. His face was blank as he thumbed another round into the breach, already lining up another shot. I couldn’t tell if his actions were a comradely retaliation or it just happened to be the clearest shot at that moment.

No matter. It was better to die for the Emperor than live for yourself. There were more pressing matters to attend to, and the weight of its augmented legs shaking the tiled floor I sat on indicated those matters had become extremely pressing. The weight of fire from the servitor was tipping the scales in their favour – Crisis was clipped by a round and sunk behind cover and Sister Leora was struck full force in her plate armour in a staggering display of sparks.

I slung my rifle over my back and unhooked the shock baton from its resting place on my hip, blindly feeling for the activation rune as I tried to keep an eye on the seven different skirmishes that were developing in the confines of the chapel. I hated how ugly and clumsy it felt in my hand when it wasn’t active.

I waited, back pressed against the pew, and prayed. All I needed was an opportunity, a brief pause in its firing solution to change ammunition hoppers, or the ticking of cooling metal as it vents heat from its overloaded weapon.

The Emperor granted me serendipity in the shape of an overweight agri-trac repairman. A warning is blurted across the chapel from the flesh voice of the Tech Adept, followed by a fizzing metal object arcing over the bullet-scarred benches. My hands were already covering my head and burying my face in my flak-lined coat. I knew what happened next.

I heard a single syllable barked from a House Guard, a muffled yelp of warning too little too late.

“GREN-”

 

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First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 5: Blood-marbled grin

The Gelt Journal – Part 3: Not Innocent

There was no noise save the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the last tapering exhale of the grav-chutes. The fireworks of battle could be made out beyond the reinforced stained glass behind the altar at the northern end of the shrine, but their report was muffled by the cold stone walls.

It’s size was modest, easily capable of housing some fifty worshippers at a time. Not enough for every soul on the estate, but certainly those of import. The walls were clogged with beautiful woven tapestries of Imperial saints and incense burners swung gently from the high vaulted ceiling. Rows of hand carved pews that had once stood rank and file for daily worship were being rearranged into defensive positions around the doors. Our master was wise to send us through the ceiling.

My heavy caliber autorifle was levelled at the nearest figure, who was still reeling from the shock of our insertion and my proclamation. He was one of half a dozen others I counted as we arrives, all clad in the flamboyance and artisanry expected of the House Guard of a powerful lineage. He was young, less than 20, but his features had been aged beyond his years by horror. His skull shook in a carapace helmet that was several sizes too large.

He was alive because Imperial law demanded it. If I were a common thug or gang-coloured butcher he would already have several fist-sized holes punched through his centre mass. The law affords him no rights, no guarantee of fair trial or treatment, only a single gossamer-thin opportunity: redemption. I repeated my proclamation and clarified our intent for those who had not been paying attention.

“Imperial Inquisition, drop your weapons! Your Master has been thrice-damned by a jury of your peers for the capital crime of heresy! All servants and members of the House of Rauth are considered Not Innocent by extension, your degree of guilt will be decided by the next actions you take, so I repeat – drop your weapons!”

It was so quiet in those following moments you could hear the squeaking of scales in their heads as they weighed their options. The iron fist of Imperial justice is purer than the fires of Sol that birthed holy Terra, and heavier than all the men, women and children who have shed blood in service to the Golden Throne. How could these poor fools possibly fancy their chances against such an absolute?

They did anyway. The boy’s panicked hand leapt for his sidearm but mine was already primed. With a squeeze of a trigger, the silence in the chapel was shattered in the same way as thunder rends the sky.

++++++

First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 4: Serendipity

The Gelt Journal – Part 2: Nimbus Fists

I had been weightless before. We would run zero-g drills in the Schola on holy days. As a treat the masters would let us dictate our learnings for the day, as a benevolent reflection of the God-Emperor’s grace. We would choose the zero-g chamber every time.

This was not that. The unnatural feeling of helplessness was present, but twinned with a fusillade assault on the senses. Your inner ear spins like a compass at magnetic north. Your body is pummeled furiously by nimbus fists, from which you cannot defend yourself as your arms are whipped back by invisible reins. You hear nothing except the roaring wind. You see nothing through tear-filled eyes. You tumble through the heavens with nothing but your grav-chute and the elusive memories of your aerial insertion training – two minutes of lying on an ammo crate on a guardsman assault course with a drill sergeant barking instructions like we were some thick-skulled ground-pounders.

Perhaps it was my disdain for her petulant remarks that jogged my memory. Perhaps it was catching a glimpse between blinks of a drop zone that was once the size of a grapefruit had now filled my horizon. I would hate to give her crude methods such credence over my own survival instincts. Whatever the case, whichever direction I faced, I reached to the small of my back and ripped he grav-chute cord with all my strength.

Nothing happened. The ground seemed inches from my face, the gothic spires of the shrine we were to land in turned from stalwart monuments to treacherous deathtraps.

Then the grav-chute ignited with a blessed vengeance I have not seen since in man or machine. Its roar was a thunderous, mocking laugh, an affront to gods and gravity. I was plucked from the air by the hymns of saviour angels, played by the part of the whining grav engines strapped to my back. My neck jerked back, like a child being collared while stealing pastries. My limbs flailed in front of me. I was a cartwheeling puppet whose master had snatched up the marionette. Adrenaline burned through my veins and I could hear the blood pumping in my ears drowning out the tattoo of anti-aircraft and small arms fire in the complex below.

It was an impressive estate, designed in traditional high gothic, replete with sky-piercing spires and high arched windows. The grand courtyard in the centre was filled with the disciplined snaps of the guardsmens’ las rifles and the surreptitious crackling of return fire from the House Guard. They were our distraction while we dynamically inserted into the defensive heart of the estate: the shrine.

I scanned the skies near me for my newly minted comrades and by the Emperor’s grace they were present and largely on target. We were four angels of wrath descending on wings of fire.

There was no time to signal to them, although what I would have signalled I’m not sure. We were moments from insertion through the stained glass ceiling of the shrine. I braced for impact.

Time slowed. There was no impact. My feet traveled through the glass as though it wasn’t there. I was a stone dropped into a serene lake, and my ripples exploded the stained glass around me into a violent kaleidoscope of jagged shards. The descent was a blur as every sense was filled with the sight, sound and pain of broken glass and the floor of the shrine rushed up to meet me. The grav-chute issued one last triumphant wail as it spent the remainder of its fuel cushioning my landing.

It took longer than I care to admit to regain my bearings and offer silent thanks to the infallibility of my chute’s machine spirit and the wisdom of the Emperor that made it so. Blessed be my upbringing then, for my hands do not suffer such frailties, and my rifle had been unclipped from its harness and levelled at the nearest target. It struck me how quiet it was, the gunfire just outside the shrine was little more than a muffled rainstorm in the distance.

We had arrived, but we had yet to make our entrance. I was still struggling to focus, but all I needed was my voice. It was time to make our duty known, to fire our warning shot.

“Emperor’s Inquisition!”

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First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 3: Not Innocent

The Gelt Journal – Part 1: Dirtbound

A violent means to a better end; the more concentrated the application of violence, the longer and better the end result. That was the most resounding wisdom imparted to me from my upbringing. Tumbling through space at the speed of sound in an iron coffin was an outstandingly violent means to an end of the cold walls and stale air of our master’s void ship. As fire washed across the nose cone of our lander and the planet engorged in the front viewport, only a single thought occurred to me: was this a commendation or a condemnation?

I was joined in the passenger compartment of our lander by four others; two gunmen, a tech adept and a woman clad in full plate armour. The first shooter was wiry and run-down, with a ganger fauxhawk that had greyed earlier than his age belied. He was clad in quilted overalls sat underneath a guard-issue flak vest we had been assigned before our departure. My briefing told me he was a gunslinger named Proteus, a man whose past was not his own, the bullet scar on his left temple and barcode tattoo behind his ear confirming he was a mind-cleansed agent. Useful enough in a previous life to have his skills preserved, but not his memories.

The second gunman stroked a long hunting rifle and was the only one in the compartment to meet my gaze. Not a challenging or scrutinising look, but a disinterested, vacant stare – as a child might before understanding the social implications of holding another’s gaze. He sported black dreadlocks on most of his grey skull, the left side of his face singed to baldness by some violent means. He was lean, wearing a black assassin’s body glove that exposed his arms branded with a letter ‘X’. The compartment rattled, and an earring bearing the same symbol caught the light. The briefing told me his name was Mur-X52, which explained the symbology, but I could not place the death cult or assassin temple he would have been from.

The Tech Adept was the closest to a civilian we had. He was silver-bearded portly man into his fifth or sixth decade and appeared surprisingly human for a member of the Cult Mechanicus. He wore their colours but where I expected robes, he wore short, practical garments festooned in pockets for tools, geegaws and miscellanea. The roughness of his fingers and pollution scars on his arms told me he worked with heavy machinery, probably agri, before his assignment to us.

The final person was only thing that gave me cause to believe this wasn’t a mission to rid the Imperium of troublesome agents; a holy Sister of the Adeptas Sororitas. Her plate mail was painted purple with white aquila adornments and the gold sashes of her Order draped over top. She had her nose pressed hard into an almanac of the planet we were just about to be forcibly dropped on, but she wasn’t taking it in, just moving her eyes and turning the pages. I knew what fake studying looked like from my classmates in the Schola. Perhaps the act of reading soothed her. It soothed me watching it.

The compartment was suddenly bathed in crimson light and the lander lurched downwards. A Latirian Guardsman escort in our compartment burbled something into his atmo-helmet vox in a regimental cant. I picked up something about anti-aircraft weaponry. Our ‘brief’ was becoming briefer by the second.

The faceless Guardsman addressed us brashly, saying more with his hands than with his amplified voice. “Straps off!  We are dirtbound in fifteen seconds! Hats on asses people, they’ve rolled out the fireworks to welcome us!”

As if to punctuate his charming turn of phrase, a cacophonous explosion rocked the plummeting lander and a sliver of shrapnel punched through both sides of our compartment. Alarms screeched and the light shifted to a more panicked shade of scarlet. The Guardsman knuckled some runes on the rear door’s command slate and the lander shuddered gratefully in response.

The rear of the craft split open, sunlight lancing into the crimson twilight of the cabin. Air and noise exploded into our compartment as the rear doors slowly unfolded, ready to disgorge its precarious cargo. I remember the air tasting like iron, but that could have been the blood from my tongue. Wind whipped around us, tugging at our harnesses and yearning for us to wrap ourselves in its embrace. I checked the straps on my weapons and that there was a round in the chamber. We would be deep striking into the centre of the conflict, so the impatient weapon spirits must be primed for split-second fury. The guardsman gazed out the rear of the lander at the violence that was unfolding on the ground below in the same way as one of my Schola mentors would browse a box of confectionery for the choicest morsels.

An explosion erupted in the sky behind him, casting us in his shadow. He turned to look at us. You could tell by the way he spoke that he was grinning under his atmo-helmet.

“Face first into battle!” He barked as the jump light in the compartment turned the colour of seasickness. “Give ’em hell!”.

And then we fell.

+++

First – The Gelt Journal: Prelude

Next – Part 2: Nimbus Fists

The Gelt Journal – Prelude

“I was not prepared for what I had seen. I had expected a paltry gathering of dead men’s dusty things, or some backwater squatters with zipguns holding up the local merchantry. Not… this.

Bile rose in my throat. My vision narrowed to a distant pair of pin pricks. My body rejected the nature of gravity and my head took leave of my senses. My previous life was vomited into the turbulent stream of my consciousness, but not the part I had expected. I had piled men as sandbags on Caltrax-9 and dug riot trenches through the tank-compacted bodies of water rioters on Daphnia, but those were not what I had flashed back to at that moment.

I had a sudden moment of lucidity amidst the cotton wool clarity my senses were affording me. There I was, barely few decades old and squire to a famous Arbitrator and law-maker, tending to his equipment before evening prayers. He approached me, hand raised, and my gut sank.

I quickly rose to my feet and closed my eyes, anticipating another reprimand. What was it this time? Was it the third rivet on his maul again? I swore I had checked that. Inside breast pocket strap? I had the seamstress prepare another three for me, just in case it snapped again. Only this time, there was no reprimand. I slowly opened my eyes.

I was only a stripling at the time and have since mentally reconciled his immense size, but it did not prevent this particular memory from painting him as a giant. I stared up at him from my position as insect. He was a broad man who blocked the light from the hall when he stood in the doorway and his fist was balled, but this time it did not contain a reprimand, but a collection of images. He asked me what I saw.

I told him I saw the collected works of a serial killer. The pictures were of bodies, all cut in precisely the same way across the throat, sometimes so forcefully that the head was left dangling about the chest by a thread of sinew or a patch of skin. He told me my observation, although precise, must be false. These were done within minutes of each other, but on different planets scattered about the sector. There was nothing connecting these individuals, rich or poor, except the cuts in their neck. This had to be the work of a cult.

Something about that encounter made me overstep my position without hesitation. Even as the words left my lips, I foresaw a lifetime cursed to squiredom, cleaning the slop from the interrogation chambers for the rest of my miserable existence. I told the Arbitrator he was wrong.

So much effort had been made into making it appear the work of a cult, the locations and timings specifically, that the killer had plastered his fingerprints all over every crime scene. Not literal fingerprints, that’s Magistratum work, woe betide the day the Arbites are forced to rely on basic fingerprint evidence to convict. No, the fingerprints of murder.

The cast-off blood from each cut played out identically. Some had struggled, some were killed standing, some were killed sitting, some in their beds while they slept, and yet the cast-off tells the same story – one person, one thing, of the same height, build and strength, did this. As I spoke, I referenced scribes and verispex agents who had done work about this, and I had already begun flicking through my work scrolls for citation. He had already left the room.

I received my deployment orders the next day, a junior post at Caltrax-9. The other squires told me it was essentially a death warrant. Seventeen years later at my posting on Daphnia I receive a missive from the the Segmentum Headquarters. My mentor had been dead for six years at this point, but his signature was undeniably present on the scroll.

The case had been closed, an incredibly prominent member of the Adeptus Terra had been implicated and found guilty, and my name had been signed off as the contributor for the evidence that finally damned them. I was not sure what to make of the information at the time, but it filled my contemplative morning lho-stick time for many subsequent sunrises. There had been a pattern, and I saw it as instinctively as I draw breath. I took a long, purposeful draw on my lho-stick. Tigurian-brand I think it was. The rich, peaty taste turned into acrid death in my lungs.

I coughed and spluttered, falling to my knees. My head swam, the cotton wool on my senses turned to razor blades. The sweet smell of morning lho turned into the sickening smell of poisoned sea air and death. My vision collapsed around me, cascading like a tower of broken glass. The atrocity in that Emperor-damned cave triggered something deep within me. I knew what this meant. This was not the needless wholesale slaughter of Caltrax-9, nor the street butchery of Daphnia.

This was a pattern.”

Next – Part 1: Dirtbound