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.