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!”