Sergeant Caleb gazed out into the inky abyss. Frore, the world he stood on only days ago, was now just a puncture wound of shimmering blue light. He held a stub round up against the window and watched the planet shrink into nothingness. A bullet bigger than a planet – he thought to himself – why Caleb, that almost sounds profound.
He looked over his shoulder at the entrance to the command bridge. Great bronze doors loomed over him, vault-like in construction and lavishly decorated. A grand mural engraved into it depicts a scene of copper-coloured warriors laying waste to warlocks and sorcerers. The voidship’s name is carved into marble – the Bronze Harvest.
Caleb hated void travel. The constant noise and alarms, having to suck down someone’s recycled stink breath and the terrifyingly thin skin that separates twenty thousand souls from a horrifying, unnatural end. He found himself tapping on the plas-glass with the bullet. Just how hard would he have to hit it to break it?
“Missing home already, Sergeant?” An impossibly calm, soft voice cut through the chaff of noise from the great voidship. It chilled Caleb to his core.
He span on his heels. Down the corridor strode a tall, cloaked figure, moving effortlessly and silently. His face was skull-like – his skin pale and sallow, his eyes sunken and his head completely hairless. He was the visage of death. Not the violent, bloodthirsty, screaming death that all guardsmen knew. No, this was the death they all feared – the one that came swiftly and silently in the night.
The figure wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with a long, bony finger, producing a tall peaked cap from the recesses of his cloak and placing it carefully on his head.
Caleb mustered a salute and pushed out the bare minimum of respectful greetings through gritted teeth. “Commissar.”
By now the Commissar had glided gracefully next to the Sergeant and stared out the window alongside him. His eyes were as dark as the void, but with no glimmer of light in the distance.
“So good of you to join us to keep us updated on your failures,” The Commissar spoke in deafeningly hushed tones. “It’s always better to soften the blow in person, mm?”
“Powers damn it Jeremiah, it was a trap and you know it!” Caleb snapped, “You’ve read the reports!
“Aahh yes.” The Commissar began tapping on the window with his forefinger. It made the same noise as the bullet. “The reports that say you were surprised not once, but twice by the same acolytes, and while they were wearing their Sunday Best, no less.”
“By the Saints, do you think I don’t know what’s at stake here?” Caleb was seething. “Don’t you think that if I’d had even just a handful of my Ultraviolet cell instead of those Borzoi Hiver cretins I’d have cleared house and secured the Pattern? Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought someone was setting me up to fai-”
A deep boom issues from behind them, drowning the Sergeant out. They both turn to watch the elaborate series of locks and bolts disengage with the percussive tempo of a marching band. With a shudder, one of the doors opens a sliver.
A young girl steps out, barely in her twenties, dressed in an immaculately pressed Navy Officer’s uniform. She holds herself like a woman twice her age and four times her experience and addresses them both.
“Sergeant Caleb, Commissar Krell, the Inquisitor will see you now.”
A tray of measuring tools clatters to the ground. A boney finger readjusts a pair of half-moon spectacles on the bridge of a long crooked nose. Scrivener Malkin pores over the transcription scroll in his hands, a long ream of parchment that snakes around his small chamber and terminates at the vox-receiver. It has been furiously producing vox reports for over an hour now, its transcription arms squealing under the sudden workload.
He had read enough. His pallid cheeks had drained of what little colour they had left. He gathers as much as he can manage and bunching the bottom of his robe together in one hand, stuffs the transcription into the cavity with the other. Holding the bundle of robe and scroll close to his chest he barrels out into the dark stone corridor.
He staggers his way through the Lithologist Guild undercroft. The thick parchment had been re-purposed from heavy duty field seismograph readouts, and he finds himself stumbling every few steps. The sound of his feet slapping against the smooth floor echoes down the hallway.
“Master! Master!” He bursts into Lithologist Tamfrey’s quarters in a flurry of paper. Tamfrey barely looks up from her quillwork.
“What is it now, Malkin?” She responds in a throaty rasp. “I thought I told you to stop scrubbing the vox network for data, you know full well we don’t have the resources and if anyone finds out we’ve-”
“Lord Hojo is dead!” He exclaims breathlessly, cutting her off mid-chastisement. “There was a gas leak on board his train and-”
In a blink Tamfrey was within inches of Malkin’s face, thumbing through the readout for herself. Malkin is breathless at how fast his crippled master in a wheelchair can move.
“Tell me, scrivener,” she scrutinises the quivering scribe with her good eye, “this engine, millennia old, the pride and joy of the Mechanicus of Forlorn Hope, archeotech from the Golden Age, a vehicle that has never once stopped for refuelling or repairs since records began – you want me to believe it runs on gas?” The sounds of her bones creaking as she moved was painfully audible.
Malkin tries to suggest a half-baked theory in consolation but is cut short by the spittle of his master’s conjecture.
“No no no, this is not an accident,” she continues, her good eye glazing over, “This is a power play alright, but by whom? House Chosokabe? House Cutter? The Glassmakers’ Guild?”
She postulates loudly while sifting through papers, each one headed with a different noble household crest. Malkin watches, wide-eyed and dumbfounded.
“Whoever it is will come looking for us sooner or later, such is the price for corruption and moral bankruptcy.” Tamfrey continues, sweeping piles of Hojo-branded documents into Malkin’s arms.
It is 1pm in the afternoon on the Celestine Wharf. It is raining, and the river carries the strong sense of mould. This man-made dead end of foul-filmed water is shadowed by the close press of warehouses from which loading spars spill their rusting chains to water at high tide.
The docks here are long unused and its bays are crammed with rusted cargo barges, while its warehouses are reputedly the haunts of dregs and gangs.
You had spotted some scum unloading cargo from an armoured motor-skiff on the corner of one of the docks. Questions turned to threats, and when the team’s face draws a hold-out dueling pistol worth more Thrones than the entire cargo of the ship, avarice overcomes the thugs.
At the boiling point of the exchange, you hear a deep guttural roar from around the corner of a warehouse.
“WHO’S ASKING QUESTIONS ON MY WHARF?”
an investigation on the wharf
Alongside the adventures of the Orthesian Dynasty, I also have a long-running game of Dark Heresy that meets up once every 6 weeks or so to continue a five-year-long campaign that has spanned multiple planets, systems and characters in an investigation into the cursed Samarra bloodline.
They are currently in the province of Syracuse Magna, a rotten, sodden place where the criminals act like nobles and the nobles act like criminals. You might have seen a previous session on the Canals of Syracuse Magna.
I have used scenery in Dark Heresy before, but this was the first time I’ve used a full-blown game board to represent our scraps. They probably taken an extra hour so to resolve (2-3 hours per fight), but as we get together for an 8-hour session every month or so, we think this is an acceptable use of the time. It’s a great scene-setter and we get to have wild fun swinging off the scenery and lobbing firebombs around.
The previous session ended on a “Roll for initiative!”, so we were launching straight into a combat. It gave me time to set up the board before people arrived, so I could get everything just so. It meant, however, I needed some more watery terrain tiles to better represent a wharf rather than the canals from the previous game.
Building the wharf
Luckily a lot of my work was already done for the canals fight, so this would just be set dressing. I still had a lot of tiles from TTcombat left over, so I upon them with a coping saw to make some different levels of tile. I had lots of ‘plain’ boards, now I wanted some fancy piers, loading spars, rickety wooden structures, that sort of thing.
I cut a large U-shape out of the centre of this one so it would still tessellate with the other tiles, but would still be obviously a loading dock.
I picked up a bumper pack of balsa wood from ebay for a tenner a while back, and pressed a lot of it into service to make the docks. I really, really like working with balsa wood, and will likely find some more excuses in future to use them…
Less practical was my cobblestones. In a moment of panic before the first session I bought some foam and hand-carved the cobblestones with a bunch of broken biros. This had some pretty awful effects on my hands as I whinge about here, but I didn’t really have any alternative to continue the style for these new tiles.
Luckily there was way less coverage required as most of the tile were covered with loading bays or wooden decking, so I only had to do one A4 sheet rather than the five I did for the first project. I had also picked up some pricey textured plastic A4 sheets with cobblestones on, that I had originally planned on covering the entire boards with.
This, unsurprisingly, turned out woefully impractical and hella expensive, so it was used whenever I couldn’t be bothered to cover another small section of hand-drawn cobblestones and to add a bit of variety.
I also had a fewer smaller tiles that I had planned on using as risers, placing them on top of existing tiles to create height variance and all sorts. They weren’t appropriate for the dock, but I figured I might as well sort them out alongside everything else, as future Rob will inevitably have other bullshit to sort out at the last minute.
Then it was on to building docky bits!
I really enjoyed this part. There is/was a potential for combat to occur in the Sinks, a section of District 13 that is several metres underwater from flooding and mudslips, so the Sinks residents have rebuilt their shanties on top of the old town. I had a million and one large-scale projects I wanted to do for those, but I couldn’t justify it just yet as I wasn’t sure if the investigation would even go there at all.
As with everything I make, versatility is a must. I have too many large scale project ideas to allow myself to run away with something that will only get used once.
These dock parts were assembled entirely from PVA, balsa wood and wooden cocktail sticks for pinning. They needed to be both docks (for the Wharf fight I knew I had planned) and usable as other things in a pinch – rotten scaffolding around a large church or walkways on the submerged parts of town were just a few ideas I came up with.
These were painted in the same way as my other wooden sections to keep some semblance of uniformity. They were undercoated Black first, then given a dusting with a reddy-brown rattlecan. Everything was then given a drybrush with a light brown – I often forget what I used previously so this time it was Zandri Dust. The final highlight was a light edge drybrush with Rotting Flesh (which I’m not sure of the modern equivalent) – a very light brown with a greenish tinge.
Both the stone sections and wood sections were given a final light drybrush with Rotting Flesh instead of a light brown or white. The themes for Syracuse Magna are entropy and decay, so it was only fitting that everything was painted to look like it was dying.
All together I’ve got quite a haul! My favourite part is how compact it all becomes once its disassembled – way easier to store and with so many more permutations than a regular solid board.
Showdown on the wharf
It would be mean to not have some kind of battle report on this lovely set of scenery, wouldn’t it?
Although highly inaccurate, and based off more what I can remember from the pictures taken, here’s more or less how it went down.
Pictures vary in quality and subject matter because I asked my players to take photos too, as I always forget to do so about halfway through the game.
The scene is set, including some Blood Bowl goblins one of the players was dropping round for me.
The players will enter from the right. The Undertow thugs are already present on the Wharf, unloading their cargo from a motor-skiff. The players don’t know (or care) what’s in the cargo currently. Probably criminal stuff. Didn’t matter – it wasn’t pertinent to the investigation. It was time for beef.
Had some pretty harsh light streaming in through the one window. There were five thugs present on the Wharf already, and the roar came from the Wharf Boss who was coming in from the left top corner of the board (from around the warehouse) with another two thugs.
The party is investigating some brutal inhuman murders caused by some strange undead killers in bird masks, and a few leads pointed to there being some answers around Celestine Wharf.
The party had just stepped off a boat from further up river, where they had had to make a hasty retreat from a bar fight that went sour. The Cleric drowned someone under a table, the Adept got off her face drunk on mudder’s milk and the Arbitrator killed their only witness with a throwing axe.
The previous session ended with the scum spotting some criminal activity down the wharf – just some crims doing crim stuff. The Cleric was draped in the passed-out Adept and was till picking chunks of her vomit out of his beard when the Scum strolled straight up to the criminals and demanded to speak to the person in charge.
“Hello fellow criminals, what a good day for crime”
Being criminals, they were more than happy to roll on their boss in exchange for cash. The Scum was upset at that concept so drew his duelling pistol and repeated his question. The sound of players rolling eyes was audible.
Initiative was rolled. The Scum went first and, as a man of his own flexible word, plugged the first criminal clean in the head.
As the Wharf Boss took his turn, the gravity of the situation sunk in. He’s a Named Character with a big-ass axe. Better not let him… axe me a question.
The thugs here weren’t prepared for a brawl, so only had what they were carrying on them. A handful of autopistols and shotguns, one of them carrying firebombs as backup. Their plan was to pin and disrupt everyone until their Boss could get round to axing them to kindly leave.
The rest of the team were following up the rear. In the picture below, we have the Guardsman, the Arbitrator, the Techpriest (who was the Cell’s Primus – their elected leader), the Cleric (represented by fabulous cardboard cutout) and the Adept.
Take cover! Shots ripple across the Wharf as everyone takes their bearings. There was a lot of cover further up the board, but brings you closer to the Wharf Boss. The thugs closer to the water’s edge were squishier, but there was less cover.
The team fan out, taking shots with their lovingly-cared-for weapons and pinning/wounding in equal measure.
After the Scum plugged the first thug he was having a chinwag with, the other thug returned the favour. The Scum took a grazing hit and dived behind the nearby crates for cover.
The Arbitrator battles with his low Willpower and being constantly pinned, while trying to lay down covering fire of his own.
The battle lines are drawn, and nobody seems willing to break cover to close the gap. The Wharf Boss realises going across open ground would invite every single player who knows how Bosses work to concentrate fire and bring him down before he can get the opportunity to burn a few players’ Fate Points.
He doubles back behind the warehouse and heads up the ramp to go across the roof. His minions lay down covering fire.
Dice are used to represent people who are wounded. I don’t bother tracking anyone unless they’re hit, at which point they’re assigned a numbered dice and a number on my sheet.
I found this was a good compromise of personal book-keeping, ensuring some information was guarded from players to avoid metagaming, but also so players could see at a glance who had been hit. They might not know the severity of the hit unless they ask specifically (with suitable Awareness/Medicae checks), but they definitely know which baddies are bleeding.
The Boss’s minions take the high ground.
These guys aren’t stupid. Cover is their friend, and laying down suppressing fire helps out their mates on the front line.
The Guardsman had spotted something like a trench, so dived into it and pretty much stayed there for the remainder of the game, slotting fools with his Sollex-Pattern Deathlight Lasgun (tips for pros: this shit does 1d10+5 damage. It’s every las-weapon-lover’s wet dream).
The squishy Techpriest stayed back to administer military-grade combat drugs to get the Adept up and running again, and the Scum took up a position on the stairs to keep the pressure on any Undertow who got any funny ideas about melee combat.
The Arbitrator was spending much of his time pinned or behind cover (Willpower as a dump stat will keep you alive, but not contributing). She was still technically blackout drunk, but the cocktail of Adeptus Mechanicus combat drugs was keeping her coherent for about 20 rounds.
She then launched her coherent plan:
“I draw and throw as many firebombs as I’m allowed to”
We then discovered the exciting combination of having lots of grenades and having a Strength Bonus of only 2. We have an enthusiastic pyromaniac who can’t throw very far.
Cue one long-range missed firebomb later, and the first of the Undertow’s shipments has gone up in flames. Let’s hope there isn’t anything flammable in there…
Using the commotion as cover, the Wharf Boss uses the patented Gears of War roadie-run to cross the platform and make his way over the warehouse, hopefully getting a jump on someone.
The Adept, high on life, sprints across the board (now bottom right behind the cotton wool) to join the Guardsman in his new cover. Naturally, this meant it was time to lob more firebombs.
The poor Undertow thug who had been shot in the face in the first exchange was now on fire. He screams and rolls around for a bit, but ultimately decides to take a dip in the scum-lined waters.
The no-man’s land was now empty, and barring the efforts of the mad Adept, it had become a long-range shooting match which the Undertow were not convinced they would win. Time to cheat.
The Wharf Boss, “Massive” Masslow, injects his combat drugs and becomes subject to Frenzy. With a mighty bellow, he screams down the warehouse firing his massive revolver.
The revolver pings off some nearby cover, but the Arbitrator still decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and hopes that hiding behind the container will make the big bad guy go away.
The Wharf Boss charges down the ramp and takes a couple of huge swings with his Great Weapon. Everyone knew this could hurt, but when the dice came up as near maximum damage, the Arbitrator started sweating when 26 damage knocked him down to -3 health. Medic!
Now it was the Undertow’s time to respond. As all their assets were up in flames now anyway, collateral damage was not something that bothered them any more. They have firebombs of their own, and started blindly hurling them wherever they heard gunshots.
It was at this point that the crates were revealed to be packed with high-grade Obscura, and as the highly-illegal narcotic was wafting across the dock, several members of the party were succumbing to feelings of light headedness and pink elephants.
In a shockingly accurate toss, the firebomb lands between the Guardsman and the Adept, catching them both ablaze. The Guardsman prefers his chances in the toxic soup than with the flames, so goes for a paddle.
Not pictured, but entirely relevant, was the Adept also leaping into the water and clambering back out on a nearby dock, face to face with poor headshot-burning-guy from the first turn, who had taken a dip to cool off as well.
Both dripping with stagnant water, they face down. He grins. His pair of punch-daggers glinting in the half-light. The Adept grins. She draws her fishing wire (?!?) and shouts “I see you’ve played knifey-fish wire before!”.
I’m sure it would have been epic if it had been pulled off, but the Adept’s attempts to parry the pair of punch daggers with a length of wire Jackie Chan-style ended with her in negative hitpoints, just as the comedown of the combat drugs was hitting her and the effects of the Obscura were taking hold.
It was in everyone’s best interests, including hers, that she passes out for a bit.
At this point the Arbitrator is panicking as Masslow looks to take another swipe and finish the job. Luckily for our brave law-maker, our friendly neighbourhood criminal was on hand to make a placed shot into combat and literally explode the Wharf Boss’s head like a grape, pushing him into -12 damage.
As most of the remaining Undertow see their boss explode, they recognised it was time to make a move. The rest of them fleed, apart from one on the stairs who was looking for an opportunity to get some wholesome stabbing in before he had to run. Unfortunately the Guardsman snuck up behind him and critically bayonetted him in the butt, killing him instantly.
All in all a fantastic game which will no doubt be reminisced about in drinking halls for years to come. Here’s to the next one!
Lightning bleaches the purple sky a milky white. The squat iron domes of Complex Priscilla weather the storm outside. The Administration of Kreato sit around a conference table, overlooking the Complex from on high. None of them look at the spectacle of nature ravaging their facility – their eyes are on the outsider who stands at the head of the table.
His face is a patchwork of scars and burns, his hair is long and plaited, looped and fastened around an epaulette on his shoulder. His uniform is dust-choked and his boots still bear the filth from his last expedition. On a simple chain around his neck hangs his master’s rosette – a symbol marking him out as an Interrogator of the Inquisition.
Flanking him are his two most trusted allies. One is terrifically tall, his features obscured by a heavy cloak, his hands and feet masked with wrappings. The other wears a ten gallon hat and snakeskin jacket, thumbing ammunition into a large-calibre rifle. They sit by the entrance to the room, uninterested in the proceedings.
The scarred man checks the last item off a list on his dataslate. The rulers of Kreato squirm in their seats.
“And finally the last item on our agenda.” He speaks slowly and purposefully, a world-weary voice that doesn’t like to repeat itself. “The discovery made by one of my teams at a location of religious significance here on Kreato.”
Although he spoke in vagaries, all those present knew exactly what he said. General Tullius mops his brow. Director Sangreer tries to summon words to her defense. Overseer Thralle is silent. Commander Karabardak stares around in disbelief. The Interrogator continues.
“Let me be abundantly clear. This is not the two thousand year old Titan your survey teams have told you, nor is it the second coming of your saint. Any rumours to the contrary are spoken only by traitors and will be made an example of. It is not a sign of the end times, nor is it a sign to celebrate. The status quo will be maintained at all cost, such is the ruling of my master. To facilitate this, I will be replacing some of the Director’s staff with my own to-”
Director Sangreer is on her feet. “My Lord, I must protest! I think-” She is met with the sound of a shotgun racking a shell into place. She sheepishly returns to her place. The Interrogator continues again.
“-to prevent any administrative oversight that might have occurred in the past. In exchange for your loyalty, your cooperation and your resources, my master will ensure that none this affair will reach the ears of the High Lords of Terra.”
The table mutters with forced platitudes.
“As for the abysmal planetary defenses that allowed an unmarked guncutter to arrive and leave unchallenged while the entire defense force was chasing a decoy, carrying with it survivors of the cabal that escaped my team’s purge, there will need to be some considerable restructuring.”
General Tullius stammers into action, wiping the sweat from his moustache and putting on a veneer of outrage. “And what of the resources you promised us, Interrogator? You promised a relief force and I have yet to see a single troop ship or support vessel! How are we to accept your proposal when you cannot hold up your end of the bargain?”
The two figures in the back are now stood by their master’s side clutching their weapons. The man in the snakeskin jacket spits a toothpick onto the floor. The Interrogator fixes his gaze on Tullius, who shrinks back into his seat.
Great Uncle Thalus has been shot. Julia Griswold gingerly touches the entry wound in his forehead. She needn’t be worried she told herself, he’s pulled through worse. She recalled tales from her childhood about the fierce Great Uncle Thalus who was shot on twelve separate occasions. Perhaps it was because this is the first time he’d been shot after he’d already died. Thalus grinned back at her, his taxidermied arms wide in a welcoming embrace. She brushed some plaster dust off his uniform and straightened his medals.
The estate was a battleground. Hatred and greed had marked every surface and there was barely anywhere without a burn mark, bullet hole or grenade blast. Priceless art had been destroyed and family heirlooms had been lost forever. Dozens of her house guard had been sent to the Emperor in the attack and even Father had been shot. He’s old and poorly but by the Saints he is still as stubborn as ever – the house Chirurgeon expects him to make a full recovery. Some small mercy, perhaps.
She was being crushed by the realisation that one day soon, he won’t be expected to make a full recovery from an affliction or illness. With mother gone and her brother in the Navy battling some xenos in some warp-damned corner of the galaxy, she was the only one left to look after House Griswold. Her head was swimming. She hadn’t slept in two days.
All her life she had watched with apathetic eyes as crime tore apart the other hives, corrupting the rulers and exploiting the people. Why change anything? She could debase and debauch all her days without ever concerning herself with the plight of others. She had always dismissed it as a problem for the Magistratum or those below the Wall, but what does one do when it arrives in your house, kills your kin and shoots your Father?
She slumped down in an orkhide chair, a blanket draped about her shoulders and a glass of something foul from one of Father’s decanters. His combi-bolter lay on the table next to her. An exquisite thing of beauty, passed down through the generations.
She found herself tracing the names etched into the case with her finger – Laurent, Thalus, all the way back to Juliana, the first of House Griswold and Julia’s own namesake. Life was simpler back then – if you wanted something, you took it at the tip of a sword or the barrel of a bolter.
The gun was still warm, still limber – like a caged beast before racing day. Plasma swirled behind the cooling vents, throwing a patina of shapes onto the table like light off the surface of water.
There was a single space remaining on the weapon – room for one more name after her Father’s. A preposterous thought crossed her mind and she laughed nervously to an empty room. She felt its weight, how the grip was moulded for Griswold hands, how its spirit responded to her gene-print like a purring animal. What more sign could she need?
She was interrupted by a house steward at the door to the study. He bowed low. Julia drew herself upright to be addressed.
“Apologies for the interruption my lady, it is Lady Collepan for you. She says she has grave news.”
High Marshall Werthing’s hard features showed signs of concern. 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 the person sharing the observation module with her. 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.”
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.
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.
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!”
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,
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.