The Imperial Condition: Tales of Onus

High Marshall Werthing’s hard features were apprehensive. There were a lot of resources going into this project, and very little to gain even with a perfect outcome.

“How is our subject, Magos?” She asked to the person sharing the observation module with. She knew his augmented audio receptors would pick up the quiver of trepidation in her voice, and hoped he was still human enough to ignore it.

Magos Byrdsong gestured at a nearby dataslate and the observation room was filled with dribbling green infostreams. His perfect gene-sculpted features pulled a number of exaggerated expressions and his luscious vat-grown hair billowed as though he was underwater. He had spent centuries sculpting his likeness into the perfect human form, but Werthing had never met anyone so unnervingly inhuman.

“In layman’s terms, the subject is exceeding simulated predictions.” The Magos spoke in lilting harmonies from several artificial voice boxes.

“What about non-layman’s terms?” Werthing responded.

He turned to look at her, tearing his eyes away from the subject in the adjacent conditioning theatre. She swore she made out his ice-blue eyes rotate and dial in on her like a camera lens.

“Tissue scrubbing protocols are at 97%. Electro-purification has been 82% effective and the visual and aural memories have been cleansed down to a tolerance of 1 in 32 pico-units. Frequency blockers have been installed, resulting in 44% less negative feedback from aetheric trauma. Mental conditioning is also at peak performance; will and resilience are up 14%, but this may come at a cost to the subject’s hazard perception.”

Magos Byrdsong gauged Werthing’s reaction, deeming her non-responsivity to such impressive figures as incomprehension. “The subject has been purged of taint and measures taken to improve resistances to it in the future. Without further field testing, we cannot say what long term effect this will have on their mental condition.”

Arcs of lightning dance around the conditioning theatre, striking a throne in the centre of the room. The observation module flashes a dark blue through the tinted windows in time to the rampant energy surges.

“What about physical condition?” The High Marshall continued her inquiries. She didn’t need to understand it, her rank only demands she know it.

The lightning cut out. Copper restraints snapped open and the subject collapsed from the throne into a smoking heap on the theatre floor. With a subtle gesture from Byrdsong, the conditioning theatre is flooded with amber warning lights. A pair of combat servitors rise from the floor of the theatre on hydraulic lifts.

With a second gesture, something small and metal tumbled from a repository in the ceiling – a rusty scalpel. With a shaky hand, the subject gingerly picked the scalpel up from the floor, blood and filth soaking their matted hair.

With a third gesture, the combat servitors powered up, their implanted weapons spinning and whining so loudly Werthing could hear it through the armoured observation screen. Byrdsong looked back at the High Marshall, a perfectly calculated grin of pleasure splashed across his immaculate features.

“This is the part I’m most proud of. Let me demonstrate.”

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Tales of Onus is a section for short stories from the Onus Region, a place our roleplaying games are set, including a 4+ year campaign of Dark Heresy. There are so many stories that don’t get told during the course of a gaming session, so a select few are written up to be enjoyed here.

You can find rules for submitting your own characters for Imperial Conditioning here.

Siege of Sky Stone Peak: Tales of Onus

Every morning a longhorn wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest panthera or it will be killed. Every morning a panthera wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest longhorn or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a longhorn or a panthera. When the sun comes up, you better start running.

It was an old proverb, but Imani knew it well. He wiped something hot and metallic out of his eyes. It could have been blood; his or a clansman, or it could have been whatever passes for blood among the Siad Ruh. It didn’t matter, he could see again, and he staggered to his feet with the help of his hunting spear.

It was dawn, and although it had been light for several hours, the sun was only just beginning to creep out from behind the jagged mountains ahead of them. The largest, Sky Stone Peak, and the fortress that dwelled beneath it, was their goal. The Siad Ruh came from here, and it was down to these few hundred souls to stop them.

Another lumbered towards him, its face a horrid, twisted death mask, leathered by the heat. It moved in a sickening fashion, like its leg was broken but couldn’t feel it. One arm was a wicked hook of metal and flesh, somehow growing from the elbow where its hand should have been.

Imani gulped down his exhaustion and hurled his spear. It sailed through the air, puncturing its brittle chest. The thing staggered but kept coming, hook held high, scrambling up the scree of the outcrop Imani stood on. He glanced at the flintlock in his other hand that the offworlders had given him. With all his faltering strength, he levelled the pistol at the charging abomination and yanked the trigger with two fingers.

For a fleeting moment, he held the power of a volcano in his hand. It bucked hard, wrenching from his grasp. A tongue of flame roared from the gun, accompanied by an explosion of light and smoke.

The shot punched through the Siad Ruh’s shoulder, exploding it like rotten fruit. A split second later, the ragged shards of dried flesh and metal bone ignited. The fire spread in an instant, immolating the unholy creature like wildfire. Fiery chunks sloughed from its frame like wax. The worst part was it’s utter silence, still as the grave, as it cremated in front of him. The only sound was the hissing and crackling of burning skin.

He gasped for air. The smell of rancid cooked flesh filled his nose and mouth. He looked around, trying to take stock of the carnage. He and several hundred others had marched the length of the capital heartland for this moment. A scant few hundred Thole clansmen from all across Brimstone, displaced and desperate, their families butchered and their homes burned by the Siad Ruh. Many of the enemy had taken the forms of those they had killed, but he knew it wasn’t them. Not any more.

They stood on the lip of a dried riverbank, the great, featureless steppes stretching out in front of them. The sun was low, but its heat could already be felt, and the long morning shadows were ebbing away under blood and sand. Between them and Sky Stone Peak was a carpet of Siad Ruh, tumbling from their rocky hiding places and pulling themselves out of the ground.

To the right, the King and his serpent-helmeted Royal Guard held a line, firing down into the morass in well-practised salvos that sounded like rolling thunder. To his left, dozens of armoured Panthera guard were advancing forwards in phalanx, shields locked, breaking only to strike out with their deadly claw-staffs. With Imani, in the centre, were the Thole faithful. Over a hundred clansmen from as many different clans, giving their all in defense of the Heartland.

Several Siad Ruh broke through the central line of the faithful and lumbered up the ridge towards him. Imani fought back the self-doubt that had been creeping, summoned all the courage he had remaining and bellowed a war cant in his clan tongue, followed by a rallying cry.

“Sons of the Dragon! We sing with fire!” He staggered down the loose rock as best he could, pistol raised. He was within striking distance of the nearest creature, let out another roar and squeezed the trigger.

It clicked impotently in his hand. He stared at it in disbelief. One of the beasts was on him now, a pair of sickle blades raised above its head. Imani raised his spear weakly in response.

The creature’s head separated from its body with enough force to toss it over the fighting and out of sight. One of Marshall Tusker’s Panthera Guard stepped into view, shoulder barging another back down the ridge where it was set upon by the faithful. The Panthera Guard was a mountain of a main, glistening in the dawn light with sweat and blood.

From behind his lion mask, he called out to Imani. “One shot, brother!”

As the lion-headed man returned to his shield wall, Imani looked about him in horror. They were less than half the number they were when they arrived, and the tide of Siad Ruh seemed to be only growing. Their task was never going to be easy, and he wasn’t sure he expected to return from it – lure the creatures from their lair so the offworlders can sneak in and destroy Sky Stone Peak. He prayed they were moving swiftly, and making good of every moment bought with Thole blood.

A thousand curses on the noble houses, this was their fight too! If only-

His thoughts were cut short. The shriek of a thousand banshees filled the air, followed by a thunderous blast and a tidal wave of flame. The sea of creatures in front of them turned to fire, as though a hundred volcanoes had erupted beneath them. The explosion was immense, knocking most of the faithful to the ground. Something had immolated legions of the Siad Ruh, and Imani was sure they were next. He looked around, panicked.

“It’s the lady of the shouting mountains!” He heard someone cheer. He spun about, trying to find this sorcerous woman the Panthera Guard were shouting about.

Stepping out of an adjacent riverbank came a hulking beast of blue metal, walking on two legs like a man, but five times as tall. A box on its back was smoking, half filled with red arrowheads. Its hands were weapons of steel from which fire and fury poured. It made the noise of the whole Royal Guard salvo with every heavy metal footfall.

“It doesn’t look much like a lady!” Imani shouted, a mix of relief and sheer terror.

“It’s a lady on the inside!” Someone shouted back. Imani paused. That didn’t make any sense either. Whatever the case, Imani redoubled the grip on his spear and watched the metal beast for its next move.

It hunkered down, and prefaced by the banshee wail, the rest of the arrowheads flew from their quiver, propelled through the sky by long trails of fire. When they struck the Siad Ruh horde, it swallowed hundreds of them in the conflagration.

The smoke slowly cleared. The Thole were coughing and spluttering from the sand and dust that had been thrown up. The lady of the shouting mountains was nowhere to be seen, but her throaty growls could be heard rolling across the ridge.

Imani looked out across the throng of dead and burning Siad Ruh that now littered the steppes. The Thole were regrouping, looking around for leadership. In the distance, Imani spotted a large, heavy figure standing on a column of stone. It was wide and its head set in the centre of its chest. Its body rippled, like it was changing while Imani watched it. It was moving its arms in erratic motions, but the shambling Siad Ruh were moving completely in time with it. It must be a leader of some sort – the head of the snake.

Although the numbers were still greatly in their favour, the Siad Ruh were disparate and scattered. Now was the time to strike.

He grasped his spear firmly in both hands, set his sights on the leader beast, and started running.

+++++++

Tales of Onus is a section for short stories from the Onus Region, a place our roleplaying games are set, including a 4+ year campaign of Dark Heresy. There are so many stories that don’t get told during the course of a gaming session, so a select few are written up to be enjoyed here.

This is a short piece to run parallel with an ongoing campaign on the planet of Brimstone. One day the GM’s campaign notes will get written up and/or its material disseminated here. This is not that day, however, so short stories and out-of-context snippets are the order of the day.

For a little more context, this is Lady Patience.

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!”

 

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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-”

 

++++++

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!”

++++++

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