The statue is crying. As he walks down the wide nave, that’s all he can think. Rain coming through the shattered window of the façade is spattering in its face and running down the front of the statue to the floor, an uncanny mockery of emotion that seems to mourn the bodies which lie ripped and torn at its feet.
A voice crackles in his earpiece. “Clear two. Proceeding three directly.” The second element of his team are sweeping the ancillary chapels and shrines to the east, while he leads his own retinue through the main cathedral. Farl stalks the aisle to his right, augmented muscles conveying an air of tightly-restrained brutality, his flamer slung over his massive back as he concentrates on an auspex. To his left, Meyer and her gun-servitor mirror Farl’s procession down the aisle; her one organic eye is narrowed, anger at the defilement of this holy place clear on her face, and her fingers are white as they grip her bolter tightly. He knows she will not let her emotions affect her professionalism, but finds the depth of her faith – which some call fanaticism, but he calls devotion - reassuring. Five metres behind him, Haldon carries his heavy stubber nonchalantly, his deceptively casual slouch masking an animal alertness and combat reflexes that have saved all their lives more than once.
The four of them advance slowly, methodically eliminating all potential hiding places as they go. Who or whatever has done this was able to enter a holy place of the Emperor in the planetary capital and, apparently, slaughter everyone inside at will; they will die for the outrage they have committed, but they are capable and resourceful and will therefore not be taken lightly. He is still concerned that the planetary governor seemed entirely unaware of the gravity of the threat from heretics even after being apprised of the events on Syriis VII itself; as he walks he replays their last conversation in his mind.
He smashed his cane hard on the desk in front of him.
“You were informed three weeks ago of the atrocities carried out by Traitor Marines on the capital world of this whole sub-sector, and what did you do by way of increasing security? Nothing!”
The governor blustered in return. “I did everything that was required of me by Imperial law! We increased border checks and spaceport security details, I personally prohibited all unauthorised travel and all shipments from off-world were rigorously checked!”
“Yes, yes. All the usual measures in times of unrest. Tell me something. Did the confirmed presence of Traitor Marines in the very next system not strike you as something unusual, perhaps deserving of unusual measures?”
“Does the lack of extraordinary measures taken in this system perhaps indicate that the only thing greater than your complacency is, in fact, your incompetence?”
At this the governor rose from his gilded chair, even more red-faced than before. “Now see here! I will not be spoken to like that, not even by the likes of you!”
There was a limit to what he would suffer from even the most diligent and dutiful servant of the Imperium, and this braggart was neither. He strode forwards to the edge of the man’s desk, and leaned forward till his eyes were only centimetres from the man’s own.
“The likes of me?” He kept his voice even and quiet. “Do you have the faintest conception of the things the likes of me can do? I have merely to give the order and this planet will be cleansed of all life! You think you hold the reins of power here? I’ve seen a thousand men like you, you strutting little popinjay, and I can tell you most assuredly that all I have to do is give that man behind me a nod and you will spend the rest of your days with an excruciator attached to every major nerve centre in your body.”
Behind him, Farl smiled in a manner more suited to some kind of predatory reptile, as if to make the point. Although he actually possessed a keen mind and was fond of debating the minutiae of philosophy till the early hours over a glass of amasec, Farl was happy to play the role of psychotic thug when the situation demanded, and the boosted musculature of his two-and-a-half-metre frame only accentuated this image.
The governor flinched, seeming to shrink within his robes. “I…” He swallowed, the gravity of his personal predicament seeming suddenly to affect him more than what was happening to his planet all around him. “We…”
“You wish to apologise for your rudeness, and you’ll help us in every way? I’m glad to hear it. I do so hate having to have the families of planetary governors executed by way of encouragement, the paperwork is most tedious.”
Behind him, right on cue, Farl looked slightly crestfallen.
“Clear three, proceeding on four directly. Lord…we think there may be movement in the adjacent chapter house; requesting permission to investigate.”
“Granted. Proceed with all due caution.”
They have reached the crossing at the centre of the cathedral, a wide expanse of green local marble with a high, domed ceiling. Meyer scans the space around them in all directions; as she does so, the assault cannon mounted in the gun-servitor that is slaved to her augmetic eye swivels, matching the movements of her head with smooth precision. Haldon rests his gun over his shoulder and looks around him, the towering, intricately-carved pillars of the cathedral no more than tactical impediments to him, while Farl examines the round plate of solid platinum inlaid into the small raised dais at the centrepoint of the crossing, which is cast in a likeness of the Emperor with a nimbus of light around His head. There seems to be blood on the metal, but there are no bodies near this area of the cathedral. Farl’s brow furrows.
Lord Inquisitor Silas Mourne stares up towards the apse at the far end of the cathedral, a hundred metres away. Even from this distance he can see that the frescoes and statuary there have been defiled in some way, and while the dim light of this stormy afternoon affords little by way of illumination there appears to be blood spattered liberally on the walls and floor. The defilement of the cathedral appalls him on some deep, visceral level; his unshakeable faith has seen him survive the depredations of heretic, Traitor and Daemon alike over the centuries, and to see a holy place of the God-Emperor soiled like this fills him with revulsion and a righteous fury that dwarfs even Meyer’s.
What concerns him - even more than the ingrained uselessness of the planetary government - is the fact that he has heard nothing from the detachment of the Adepta Sororitas that arrived on this world just as he was having his conversation with the governor. The Commandery of the Order of the Blooded Thorn on Marianus V were actually the nearest suitable force able to respond to potential Traitor activity, but bizarre warp activity has delayed their arrival here until after his own. Canoness da Silva should have been in contact with him by now, and the continuing silence worries him deeply.
“Lord!” Haldon’s voice is loud in the dripping silence. “Above us!”
He looks up, Farl, Meyer and the assault cannon doing likewise, to see the figure of a man far above where the domed ceiling hung above the crossing; his enhanced eyes zoom in and make out the shape of Cardinal Wulf. The Cardinal’s body has been threaded with barbed wire and hung suspended above the crossing of his cathedral, his eviscerated torso the source of the blood Farl had seen; as if this were not crime enough, he has been decapitated. Meyer mutters an obscenity as she looks, followed by what Mourne can hear to be a whispered prayer for Wulf’s soul.
“Ach…we must continue. This is vileness, to be sure, but we must press on. We will return to give him the burial he deserves, but now our priority has to be to find the ones that did this to him.”
Farl’s mouth is set hard with anger, and even the normally laconic Haldon looks grim, his weapon now held at combat readiness. They resume their advance along the half-kilometre length of the building, now walking together along the central aisle, weapons covering each side. Meyer is a few metres forward of the rest, the gun-servitor following on; abruptly she pauses, peers ahead and then makes a low, guttural sound in her throat.
“Oh feth…look. Lord, look.” She points south at the apse, having advanced just far enough to see what has been done at the apse. Joining her at her side, Mourne can now make out what has made his companion of forty years turn pale with revulsion.
Seven of the Adepta Sororitas hang at the far end of the cathedral, having been staked to the wall over a metre off the ground and divested of their power armour. Their eyes have been removed, and blasphemous symbols daubed on their robes and faces with what looks to be their own blood. Despite his horror Mourne still recognises the symbol of the Plague God Nurgle, obscene at any time in its own right but an especially atrocious sight here, fouling the bodies of the Emperor’s own in His own place of worship. The expressions on the faces of the Sisters show that they did not die easily. Farl strides forwards until he is only a few metres from the ghastly tableau, then checks his flamer before turning to look at Mourne.
“Mourne…please? Let me cleanse this?”
He can only nod at his subordinate, his mouth dry. Farl activates the igniter of his flamer and proceeds to bathe the bodies of the Sisters with fire, washing it back and forth until almost the entire apse of the cathedral is ablaze. His angular face is set like volcanic rock, illuminated by the fire he has set in the dim remains of the afternoon. The mixed stenches of promethium and burning flesh fill the dank air of the building.
As Mourne watches the bodies burn, his earpiece erupts with noise.
“Contact! I say again, contact! Hostiles unidentified, incoming bolter fire!” Heavy gunfire is clearly audible even over the vox’s limited frequency range, and Mourne is surprised to hear what sounds like panic in the voice of his usually unflappable second-squad leader. “Two do-…three down! Request immediate assistance!”
He turns and barks, “To me!” before setting off in the direction of the north-eastern chapter house, part of the extensive complex of cloisters and secondary chapels that huddle around the main cathedral building. Meyer, Farl, Haldon and the gun-servitor sprint after him out of the echoing space, leaving blood and fire behind them.
The gunfire continues in Mourne’s ear as he leads his squad through the back of the apse out towards the cloisters, and as he runs he can hear the change in sound as they draw nearer to the fighting, bolter and continuous lasgun fire becoming clearly audible now without the need for a vox-link to convey it to him. Their footsteps echo through the cold stone of the cathedral’s outbuildings to the cloisters, where high stone walls encircle a manicured garden perhaps two hundred metres square. On the far side of this space, in the gloom beneath the looming wall of an Ecclesiarchy chapterhouse, the glare of bolter fire is mixed with the actinic beams of lasgun fire; Mourne can see one of his men fall even as he watches, shredded by a storm of bolter fire from a hulking shape in the shadows of the cloisters.
Meyer yells in anger, and opens up with her bolter at the shape, followed almost immediately by the assault cannon mounted into her servitor; stone chips spray as it tracks its firepower along her sight-line towards the shrouded enemy. Haldon adds his heavy stubber to the hail of fire, though it is inaudible beneath the hammering roar of the assault cannon, and Mourne’s own plasma pistol adds its voice to the chorus. After a few seconds of the cannon’s work there is so much dust in the air that the enemy is no longer visible, and they cease fire with an almost telepathic synchronisation, advancing carefully towards the spot where they last saw the men of the second squad while keeping their weapons trained on the spot where they last saw the unknown enemy.
No sign of an antagonist can be seen once the smoke has dissipated, but it is clear that all of Mourne’s second squad are dead. Most lie on the floor of the cloisters, bearing the stigmata of bolter fire, but one appears to have been sliced in two by some huge bladed weapon. Meyer watches at Mourne as he surveys the carnage, seeing the way his jaw grinds and knowing he is as angry as she has ever seen him; after the deaths of his entire second squad, and especially the obscene fate of the Sisters, this is the mood that has seen him put cities to the torch. And worse. Wordlessly, Mourne strides over the bodies of his men, seeing that the far end of the cloister is marked by a tall stone arch over a doorway into the chapterhouse. His three companions follow on, checking their weapons’ ammunition displays as they go and trying not to look too closely at the severed halves of a man that lie on either side of the stone floor.
The entrance-hall of the chapterhouse has at least some illumination in the form of lit torches on the walls, smoke curling upwards and fading into the darkness of the high ceilings above. Simple wooden tables and benches are situated around the walls, one or two smashed into kindling and one decorated with the body of a monk, skin pallid with some kind of sickness and an iron stake driven through its heart into the wood beneath. Half-way along the east wall of this hall they can see a large archway with stairs behind it leading down; lit torches can be seen along this stairway’s walls.
“The crypt. Of course.” Mourne’s voice is calm and steady, belying the raging anger within. “We are obviously being led; Haldon, take point. I need the best eyes and ears we have alert for whatever’s down there. Observe silence discipline.”
All pretence of nonchalance is gone from Haldon now, and his movements are as cat-like as his eyes as he descends the stone steps. Meyer and Mourne follow with the gun-servitor a few metres behind while Farl takes rearguard, flamer unslung and igniter lit. The steps descend in a spiral for what Meyer estimates as thirty metres before opening out onto a large, low-ceilinged chamber, simple stone arches spaced roughly four metres apart stretching off into the darkness which is relieved only by an occasional torch hanging from a wall. The shattered body of another monk lies surrounded by smears of its own blood in the middle of the floor about twenty metres into the crypt; Mourne gestures with battle-sign language to Haldon to check the body. Haldon dutifully creeps forward to the corpse, leaning over it carefully in case of booby-traps, checking for probable cause of death. He stands and signs back; blunt weapon to skull and chest, most bones broken, no sign of traps, looks safe to proceed. A drip of water from the dank ceiling punctuates his signing.
Slowly, silently, they advance, eyes constantly trying to make sense of the shadows and alert for any sound. The crypt beneath this cathedral complex is larger than any Mourne has seen, walls dotted with burial spaces for the monks who have lived here for millennia; the desecration of so vast an edifice of the Emperor’s might fills him with a very real nasusea. Here, in the foundations of this cathedral, he feels more intensely than ever that faith is the foundation of the Imperium Of Man; faith is what sustains him, and Meyer, and all the people like him who fight the darkness. He knows that the Emperor truly protects those who have faith in Him.
Meyer holds up her hand to signal a halt, perhaps seeing something ahead; she turns to Mourne, and as she begins to sign a bolt round blows off the back of her head, spraying Farl and the gun-servitor with blood and brain-matter. The gun-servitor, slaved to her nervous system, collapses to the floor as she does; its eyes have always been as blank as hers now are. Mourne stares in shock as the woman who has fought alongside him for four decades, her faith and strength at least the equal of his own, lies in a spreading pool of her own fluids at his feet. Farl is beginning to point his flamer at what he thinks is the spot the bolter fire came from when another bolt round detonates in Haldon’s gut, almost cutting him in half and leaving him twitching on the stone floor, eyes wide with uncomprehending shock. Mourne and Farl aim at the place where they saw the muzzle-flash of the enemy’s bolter, a combined gout of flame and plasma erupting out into the darkness. As soon as they stop firing they can hear the sound of something heavy hitting the floor from the direction they had been aiming at. Hearing this, Farl charges forward before Mourne can stop him, a grin of savage triumph on his face.
Mourne has time to yell “No! We couldn’t see-“ before Farl is stopped in his tracks by a focused torrent of foul-smelling ooze, exuding a stench somewhere between vomit and rotting meat that makes Mourne himself gag reflexively. Farl stands motionless in shock for a second, covered from head to foot in the noxious substance, before beginning to jerk uncontrollably as the acidic slime begins to eat into him. Mourne can see Farl’s face beginning to run and dissolve, liquefying flesh streaming over his flak armour as he screams and shudders in his agony, collapsing to the floor. He puts a plasma bolt through his loyal companion’s head for mercy’s sake, then runs to the wall and grabs one of the guttering torches.
Stalking forwards now, heedless of any pretence at stealth, Mourne shouts his fury and hatred into the darkness.
“Where are you? Show yourselves, you bastards! WHERE THE FETH ARE YOU?”
Less than a minute later he reaches the far wall of the crypt, a rough hole in the wall leading on to a narrow tunnel of crude bricks. The torch drips embers onto the ancient stone beneath his feet, reflecting jumping orange highlights off his ornate power armour and the gleaming metal of his pistol. Mourne feels cold despite its flames, his fury having honed itself to an icy pinnacle of rage that will most likely see this half this world burn before it is sated. He is gripping the torch so hard that a thorn from its haft is causing his left hand to bleed, but he does not even feel this, so focused is he on vengeance.
The passage opens into a cave, large enough to make his footsteps echo. Much of it is wreathed in shadows, but there is some kind of altar ahead with a ring of torches around it. Mourne strides towards this, as he can see something odd behind the glare of the torchlight, and as he draws closer the true nature of this cave becomes clear.
Lying in the centre of the circle of torchlight is a metal circle, almost like a shield of some kind, and on it are two human heads. One is the tonsured head of Cardinal Wulf, eyeless and pallid. Next to it, as if forming two points of an equilateral triangle, is the similarly-abused head of Canoness da Silva. There are no words to express the anger and lust for vengeance that Mourne now feels, and he simply utters a hoarse cry of rage as he turns to look for some sign of the author of this atrocity. Nothing is visible apart from a few unevenly-spaced stone columns that shore up the roof of the cave, so he thrusts the torch ahead of him and begins to hunt.
He is not sure whether he actually hears the blade descend or whether he senses it psychically somehow, but he manages to throw himself to one side just in time to avoid being bisected by a huge crescent of rusted metal that carves the air past his right ear. A hideous low gurgling noise comes from the darkness behind him, and as he turns to face the enemy at long last he can see a huge form silhouetted by the torches behind them, stalking him slowly and deliberately. He raises his pistol but the blade sweeps around and back faster than he would have thought possible, moving in a low figure of eight to cut off his right hand at the wrist. While he is still only aware of the shock, before the pain has started to feed through to his brain, the huge figure cuffs him to one side and forces him up against the nearest column of stone. The agony of his wound is still only a slow trickle as he is held there, but the pressure increases all the time as he is slowly crushed against the stone.
With an odd clarity, he can hear the pings and groans his armour makes as the metal is stressed to the point of deforming, and smell the stench of the millennia that surrounds the entity that is killing him. The gurgling noise comes again, and he realises that it is a noise of pleasure, like a feline purring; his enemy has been enjoying this game all the while, and it is a game he has played alone. The chestplate of his armour finally collapses, and he feels his ribs begin to splinter; then the pressure is suddenly relieved and he collapses to the floor, the stump of his hand finally bleeding profusely and his chest a huge mass of pain from what is probably a punctured lung. He is spun over onto his back, and for a moment he can see the face of the enemy clearly in the torchlight as he watches the blade descend.
There is a sensation that is too massive, too profound to be mere pain. Vision begins to dim for the last time, but he sees enough to realise that his own head is being placed next to the other two, forming a perfect triangle, before the darkness that he has fought all his life finally swallows him.
He has come. The Traveller is here. Praise the Father!