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CHAPTER 1 - GIGER


Clinging to the shadows, three cloaked figures beat an urgent pace through the alleyways of Roost. Named for the holy servopitrine who nested in the anchorage, the busy docklands fell vacant every sunset, emptied of workers and servitors by a nightly curfew order. Filled with the disconcerting echo of machine-noise and fluttering wings, the labyrinthine streets felt eerie and accusing to the lonely, hurrying men.

Wearing jarhead haircuts and crimson coats, they would pass casual scrutiny as ships-ratings of the visiting Mechanicus Fleet. Yet the rough neck-scars left by burned registration tats, and the wild cast of their expressions would set them apart from the usually placid inhabitants of Aviary. Bearing a heavy pack between them, the men skittered from shadow-to-shadow, making their way towards the looming shape of the frigate Et Calculum. Between puffing breaths, one of the men maintained a droning chant.

..eterne Deus, omnipotens, sapiens creator, largitor..

“Are you ready, brothers?” whispered the largest man, his bionic eyes shining as they ranged over the looming hull. “We stand now on the verge of paradise.”

They had reached a coil-deposit, crouching in cover with a line of sight to the set-down annex for the orbiting Fleet’s shuttles.

“The tincture is prepared,” replied the other, unzipping the bag and drawing out a bulky device. “And the sacrament performed.”

…per quas ad gaudia paradisi perducamur. Autem Haereticus -” came the chant.

“Do not speak of him!” snapped the leader. “It will draw his gaze.” The three held their breaths, casting wary glances though the gloom towards a distant tower looming on the horizon. The dull light of it’s topmost windows flickered on undisturbed, only the everyday whirr of far-off servo-messengers reaching their straining ears. After several heartbeats, they breathed again, making the mark of the cog and anointing themselves with holy oil. They hefted the machine, creeping between bundles of electrical piping and across to a maglocked bulkhead. With the wave of a security wand, the seal sparked open, and they ventured into the hangar.

Floodlights bloomed across the courtyard, dizzying after the gloom of the docklands. A voice thundered over the loudspeaker, reverberating in the men’s bionics.

<“Halt. You are under arrest for conspiracy to commit treason. Surrender or face summary judgement.“>

Howling prayers, the three men whipped weapons from beneath their coats, spraying blindly into the glare. The flickering crack-rattle of lasgun fire resounded to the oculus-doors overhead, sending sparks and ricochets whirring off into the darkness. Determined to martyr themselves by destroying the overhanging vessel, they clamped down upon the triggers and squeezed with abandon. The chanting man took a single step forward, struggling to hard-plug with the device in his arms.

Cutting across the chatter, three deafening cracks rang out. One after the other, the buzz of projectiles sang sharply, and ceased. Bowled from their feet by impacts, the three men splattered apart soundlessly. Vigiles Centurion Naevius trudged forward, flanked by black-armoured Skitarii Watchmen. Smoke coiled from his shoulder-mounted weapon as he surveyed the pooling wreckage through his visor. Satisfied, he casually waved forward forensics and bomb disposal.

<Report: Two targets dead from shock,> intoned an officer in binary cant. <One in some kind of trance. Stabilising.>

<Query: the device.> squirted Naevius.

<A flux-charge, Centurion.>

<Confirm: Puritan extremists.>

<Probability high. The third appearance in as many months.>

The Centurion nodded, keying his communicator. Out of the overhanging gloom, a strange, silvery drone descended towards him, it’s tentacles spooling with a gentle whirr.

<Request:> blurted the Vigiles, steadying his nerves. <Contact Magos-Governor.>

A holographic display bloomed atop the drone, and a skull-like visage swam into view. A chittering howl filled Naevius’ ears, and his pupils dilated as a torrent of pure data filled his mind. The nearby officers shifted uneasily, averting their gaze from the show of machine-purity to which they could only aspire. Naevius was left breathless and somewhat shaky as the deluge receded. <Yes, Magos-Governor,> he croaked. The unnerving drone was already withdrawing, heading skyward like a drifting sea-jelly.

Turning to his waiting officers, he issued a short command-burst. He congratulated the men for the success of their operation, which had ensured the safe relay of a message to the Et Calculum's Astropath. Counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing with the Mechanicus military would continue, but would be overseen in future by Magos Logis Goji: events offworld now required the Magos-Governor’s direct attention.

Sounding off their acknowledgements, the officers returned to their work. As Naevius reviewed his own extensive instructions, he idly wondered what could be important enough to draw away Aviary’s reclusive ruler. Having built an iron-fisted and pervasive network of surveillance over nearly a decade, it seemed unlike the Lord Giger to leave it in the hands of an underling. As he pondered the thought, Frumentarii officials began arriving by shuttle, and he readied a data-brief for sharing. Crossing the blood-splattered square, he overheard the gurgling chant of the last, dying cultist.

<Hoc ceruos, hoc ceruos …> the terrorist sang, his eyes turning glassy as the chirurgeons worked.


CHAPTER 2 - TORIUS


Golden-masked cherubim flitted back and forth as the harmonies swelled, their laughter perfectly in tone with the music. The concerto gambolled from bright, clear majors to subtle, optimistic strains, a childlike joy evident in every expression. With the ringing of rich strings, the crescendo was reached, and the audience erupted in applause. The small figure on stage held a cello to one side, taking her bow as the orchestra pit joined in the ovation.

“Truly remarkable,” gushed Lady Xo of House Quinn, leaning across the booth to place a jewel-encrusted hand on Torius Redwynn’s arm. “You must be so proud.”

As flowers rained onto the stage and the golden-haired Augustine grinned and curtseyed, every one of the surrounding nobles hurriedly agreed.

Accompanied by a cooing pack, the Scion of Redwynn and his Lady made their way down winding marble stairways toward the foyer. Notaries, officers and other figures of repute fluttered around them as they walked, probing, flattering and testing the couple of the moment. “What a marvel she is,” oozed Farrow of the Munitorum. “And at such a young age!” offered Orgus of the Administratum. Approaching the banquet hall of the Lord-Sire, the group crossed paths with a number of soberly dressed figures. Marked as Winterscale vassals by the boar sigil, they politely returned Torius’ bow, and a slender, black-haired gentleman proffered a smile. He was introduced as Stefan of House Vladislav.

“Master Torius,” he said. “I believe congratulations are in order.”

“You are most kind Master Stefan,” laughed Torius. “But I can take no credit. There is little musical talent in the Redwynn line.”

“Ah,” breathed the nobleman, his head tilting. “Then the young lady takes after her mother.”

He reached out and kissed the hand of Torius’ companion, sweeping her into the conversation. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure, Madame.”

“Where are my manners,” bristled Torius. “May I introduce the Lady Sola of House Grace.”

“Hello,” beamed Sola as Stefan flourished his short cape.

“Delighted, my dear. But I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive my ignorance – House Grace?”

“My Lady’s family are associated with the Lord Governor of Bethany,” interrupted Torius. Nodding to Lady Xo, he added “We were introduced by Lady Quinn at his Lordship’s Imperial Ball some years hence.”

“How marvellous,” he replied, openly scrutinising her. “It must have been a fine thing to grow up in a colonial palace.”

“Oh, I grew up in the countryside,” volunteered Sola. “My grandfather was an overseer before his investiture.”

“Indeed? An agricultural lineage," exclaimed Stefan, conspicuously letting go of her hand. "No wonder she is such a beauty Torius, and your daughter as well - born of such … healthy stock.”

His grin threatened to reach his ears, and a murmur went through the crowd. Though the temper of Stefan’s liege Winterscale was legendary, the Redwyn scion had built a reputation of his own, as a duellist in matters of honour. He had been known to spill blood over lesser insults to his beloved Sola, but here he was squared against one of the Sector’s foremost military families. The noblemen’s eyes and smiles remained locked for tension-filled moment, their white-gloved hands firmly gripping their sword-belts. Suddenly, Torius relaxed, glancing over Vladislav’s shoulder.

“I am fortunate in my life to be surrounded by strong women, Stefan. In fact, do allow me to introduce some of my dearest friends now.”

Gliding down the stairs, three striking women had appeared. Sylvia Locke, commander of the Quinn warship Kingfisher, wore crisp naval dress-whites and shining gold honours. She was followed by Elizabeth Orleans, Captain of the frigate Starweaver, glittering with otherworldly jewels. At last came Captain Marcella Rosalind of the starship Calypso, attired in breathtaking low-cut velvet. Each favoured Torius with a kiss on the cheek, fluidly introduced by their seneschals. Several of the gathered guests openly gasped; the friendship of these handful would constitute a significant coup for Redwynn, and possibly a challenge to the dominance of Winterscale. With sweet smiles of acknowledgement for Stefan, they swept up Lady Sola, arm in arm, and walked her across the foyer to where her daughter was waiting.

“You must excuse me, Master Vladislav,” called Torius, his boots clapping on the marble as he followed after them. “It is to be a working feast I’m afraid, and I have much vital business to address.”

Flanked by Cymbry, Argyle and Casterly, Torius followed the powerful captains as they led Augustine II to meet the Lord Sector.


CHAPTER 3 - VICTRUS


The wasteland had no horizon, the division of earth and sky muddied by lingering petrochemical smog. Blustery winds were stoking up clouds of dust, but the air already smelled of rain and hot cement. Somewhere, not terribly far off, a summer storm had broken. Whisked by the squall, the tank-commander stood rigid upon the Crassus-Tank. It’s idling powerplant grumbled beneath his feet, some part of the chassis subframe creaking as he shifted his weight. The only other sound was the thin patter of droplets on armour plates, and the tin-pipe whistle of wind through the muzzle-brakes of a dozen battle-tanks.

Faintly, beyond the sooty haze, an immense shape was moving towards them. To the commander’s eyes, it looked as if a mountain was taking slow, slouching steps.

A shout rang out, one of the spotters calling movement in the nearby dunes. Dismounting, the commander walked down the slope from the gunline and waited on the friendly contacts. A handful of unshaven men swam into view, their dust-coloured camo-gear fading in and out of focus.

“Sergeant,” he said, raising his voice over the wind. The ork-hunters saluted sloppily, grunting their acknowledgements as they filed past. The commander put out a hand to stop the sergeant, speaking in a low mutter.

“So. Is that thing what I think it is?"

“As long as you think it’s a Gargant sir, roger that.”

He slung his rifle and followed the commander’s gaze, squinting with heavy-lidded eyes.

“We hear right earlier, sir? We’re ceding the ground?”

The tank-commander blew out a long breath, and scrubbed at the grit on his face.

“Intel says the Warboss has bolted, so the comms site isn’t a priority capture any more. Warmaster’s orders are to head south and link up with another column. We’ve just been waiting on you.”

He noticed the ork-hunter’s sceptical look.

“They’ll use orbitals to clear the location.”

“Slag it, you mean.”

The tank-commander shrugged.

“They’re going to catch some friendlies,” the sergeant warned, chopping a hand towards the Gargant.

“How many?”

“Twelve of ours, about an hour out,” he said wearily. “Good few of the Navy boys not far behind.”

The tank commander relayed this news to the Warmaster’s camp, and together they waited on the crest of the dune.

Thirty-five minutes later, the distant thunder of sonic booms drew their eyes skyward. They watched as a tiny, angular shape streaked across the sky, carving dagger-straight contrails in it’s wake. As it neared the lumbering shape, the spotter-jet peeled gracefully away and vanished into the stratosphere. For several heartbeats, red-gold light gathered in the heavens. Then, with a roar like thunder, a blinding column struck down from the clouds, smashing the Gargant in an epic, molten blast. A wall of fire and dust rolled out from the impact, shattering and consuming all in it’s path.


CHAPTER 4 - ROOK


The mob bayed and chanted, rattling the crowd-control barrier. Their faces were made ghostly and demonic in turn, the police lights washing blue and red, blue and red through the drizzling rain. Enforcers stood in glistening ranks beyond the cordon, menacing the crowd as individuals were dragged out and forcibly bio-scanned. The impregnable urban fortress of Sebastion City had been stirred like an ant-hive, gripped by the dread of an assassination threat.

Brushing past the barricades with a flash of his ID, the Mortiurge strode into the secure zone. His rugged armour and tattoos drew mutters and wary looks from the surrounding officers, marking him as an agency operative. Beneath a sizzling refractor-canopy, a Magistrate awaited him, busily reviewing security holograms.

“Bit sloppy,” he said as he approached, motioning to the blurry figure that had been captured by spaceport surveillance.

The Magistrate ignored the comment. “You’ve been briefed?”

He nodded.

“Then get to work.”

Slinging his kit bag, he scaled a rain-slick fire-escape and made for a nearby rooftop. Releasing his drones and unfolding a laptop cogitator, he waited as data pinged back to the screen. Weapon chips, pheromones, and spoor returns scrolled down the screen, as he stared out across the stormy skyline. Finally, he was roused by an unusual alert tone.

At first he saw nothing, sweeping a targeter left and right over the crowd from above. Then a lone pardoner began to drift away from his fellows. The Mortiurge put down the scanner and snatched up a long-las. Separated from the other penitents, the pardoner’s body temperature had dimmed to an inhuman cold.

Pandemonium broke out in the streets as his gunshot boomed. The crowd shrieked, ducking and scattering in all directions, and the figure quickly vanished into the shadows. Dumping the sniper-rifle, the Mortiurge grabbed his shotgun and took a running leap over the side of the building. Air and water whistled in his ears, and his stomach lurched as he hurtled towards the pavement. With a crack, his gravity-chute kicked to life, sharply arresting his descent. The puddles below him were cooked into steam, and he hit the street at a full run. He took off down the alley in pursuit, rushing by the thick [characteristic] blood-spatter glistening on the wall.

He hounded the figure through a maze of backstreets, corridors and dilapidated hab-blocks. It avoided every trap laid by the officers, nimbly changing direction as the Mortiurge broadcast its’ movements. Only catching glimpses of rippling robes, he doggedly pursued the figure, finally bursting into a cavernous warehouse. Looking up at the last moment, he threw himself out of the way as the creature leapt down, catching a blow to the side of the helmet.

"Throne,” he breathed, seeing mottled scales beneath its’ robes.

A gleaming blade slashed against his breastplate, knocking him back and scoring a deep groove. He grunted, blocking the next blow with his gun. The sheer force of it ripped the weapon from his hands, and he rolled aside it struck out again. The assassin roared, then noticed the device at its' feet. The flash-bang rocked the creature back, it's senses taut and ringing. An electrified bolas whistled towards it, entangling it's ankles and jolting it as it hit the ground. Watching with bleary, slitted eyes, it saw the Mortiurge slide a last, sliver disc across the ground, discharging and pinning it down in a thrumming gravity field.

Panting, the Mortiurge probed his broken ribs. He spat blood, taking ginger steps towards the thrashing monster and drawing his sidearm. But as he approached, another shadow bloomed behind him, impossibly close.

He whipped around and fired, but the pistol was batted from his grip. A chambered punch caught him in the torso, hurling him several feet across the room. He landed hard, the breath driving from his lungs. Pulling a knife, he lurched into a crouching position, but the figure blurred around his punch-drunk attacks. It slapped the knife from his hands and a rocking his head back with a whipcrack cross. Caltrops jangled from his spasming fingers, numbed by a two-knuckle jab. As he sank to his knees, he looked up into the assassin's face. An ugly, powerful physique loomed over him, snarling it's blunt, reptilian features. Then he saw nothing, its’ final hook caving his skull and helmet into his brain.

Rook crossed the bloodstained cement, freeing the Kin operative from the trap.

“What were your errors?” he asked, his voice resonant and awful.

“Laxity, Director,” it hissed. “Overconfidence. It had too many trickss.”

Rook nodded, offering an injector of clotting accelerant.

“Were you seen?”

“Yes, Director” growled the operative.

“Good.”

+++

The body of Violet Winterscale was discovered some hours later, well within the safety cordon and dead for many hours. Though sighted by several witnesses and once even wounded, the assassin's movements could not be pieced together in any coherent pattern by intelligence services. Apparently powerless to stop him, the authorities waited in dread for '[Assassin code name]' to lay a final, deadly blow upon the administration. Yet none came. Fear itself seemed the objective of the killing, and fear would indeed reign in Winterscales' Realm for some weeks. And as it ever was among men, when fear and suspicion reigned, the drums of war grew loud.


CHAPTER 5 - GODWYN


Rain sheeted down upon the transport, storm-water sloshing as the screen-wipers worked. Shuddering along the marshy road, the rain-slick vehicle carved southwards, towards Harlon's Run.

Even through filters, the air stank of brine. Clinging to a rocky spar of land and low scrub, the handful of prefab structures were enclosed by miles and miles of iron-grey sea. A shallow bay and cliffs provided harbour to a small fleet of fishing ships, creaking and jostling in the turbulent water. Stepping out in blank, enclosing helmets, the containment team fanned across the street, sighting down their snub-nosed pistols. His snowy hair whipping in the wind, Halion led the team across the street, making for a nearby vox-shack. As they splashed across the square, they passed a salt-encrusted sign, creaking in the gale. It proudly proclaimed the settlement's population as 43.

Coldharbour’s children were often younger than they appeared and smaller than they ought to have been, owing to shortages in colony’s early years. But the settlers had struggled on, finally saved by the fortuitous crash of the merchant liner Lady's Favour. The kid looked about fourteen, but had grown up during the hungry years. To Halion’s witchsight, he glowed brightly in the midst of the wreckage. He was surrounded by overturned furniture, scattered papers and other wreckage, raising his head as the team entered. Bright blue, tear-streaked eyes met Halion's cold, nacreous ones.

“I’ve only done as he did,” said the boy, and the house groaned in the wind. “His need was no greater than mine.”

Halion ignored him, making a subtle knocking gesture against his forearm. One of the troopers stepped forward, an injector in his hand.

“It’s not fair,” raved the boy. “Its always ’do as I say, not as I do’. When you’re hungry, you find food, and you eat. It’s no different. It’s a double standard.”

Halion composed a message for the Capital, reporting the imminent capture. It had been inevitable that Prasinus should have it’s first psyker-birth, but this raving, theta-level latent was a little disappointing. He sent the message as a thought-wave.

“Don’t talk to him about me!” shouted the boy, and a resounding boom flung the trooper across the chamber. The injector spun free, clattering to the floorboards and Halion whipped around in alarm. No theta-level could overhear thought-sending. In rapid succession, the troopers were hurled from their feet, as the windows shattered and the gale roared in."

“He brought her here!" screamed the boy. "He ripped the Lady down from the sky, to feed on her corpse! Why am I different?”

Halion squinted into the deluge, his greatcoat flapping as he was buffeted by the wind. Mustering a fist of psychic power, he smashed it into the boy, but most of the force slid off. A hole was blasted in the wall and floor instead, his second attack likewise deflected. Gritting his teeth and screaming with the storm, the boy seemed to shape the wind, pinning Halion to the wall. Blood ran freely from his ringing ears. The boy stalked towards him, power reverberating in the rickety house. But as he raised his hand, he cocked an ear, as though suddenly distracted by a noise overhead.

“You!” he snarled at the thundering skies. “Have you come to cast judgement, hypocrite!”

The roof exploded, as though struck by an immense hammer. The deafening shockwave rocked the foundations, causing the noise of the storm to wash out. Wood splintered in every direction, and fragments of iron ricocheted in the tight space. Sheeted back by the shockwave, the rain stopped for a moment, then resumed. It merely misted then, a light dusting of droplets after the downpour. At the centre of the ruined house, the boy lay sprawled in a small crater, surrounded by the bodies he had drained of life.

+++

Sitting in the rumbling transport, Halion reached his mind across miles of storm-swept coast, easily finding the Governor's radiant thought-beacon.

Boss he sent. That was a hell of a show.

After a moment, a chuckle bloomed in the back of his skull.

Well, I had the choir.

Even so.

Hope I didn't step on your toes too much.

Not at all. The kid was a bloody handful.

There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence.

Listen, boss. Something the kid said -

About the Lady, yes, I heard.

He said you … well, that you brought her down. Caused her to crash.

He's a psyk-addled teenager, Halion. Not what you'd call credible.

It was damn lucky she crashed here when she did.

The thought stream bubbled, part irritation, part mirth.

Are you asking if I dragged a starship out of the sky? Even for me, that would be a tall order.

Not asking anything, really. It's just been playing on my mind.

Best not to dwell overlong on the ramblings of the mad, Halion.

As the vehicle sped on, Halion thought privately that this wasn't much of an answer.


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