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Secret War: Upon Blood Sands

Posted: Wed Sep 29, 2021 10:41 pm
by Adrassil
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Three years after Secret War. Attelus and the other survivors are sent to investigate the war-torn world of Sarkeath. With Attelus' hallowed heroes, the men of the Velrosian 1st fighting on the surface, it's personal. Especially when their leader, General Tathe, had ordered a successful Exterminatus months before. Is this yet another scheme of their shadowy foe? Or a dead end?

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8

Chapter 1

Posted: Wed Sep 29, 2021 10:44 pm
by Adrassil
"This is accurate?" asked Attelus Kaltos as he looked up from the data slate, his hazel eyes wide with surprise.

"As much as it can be," said Interrogator Arlathan Karkin, who reclined back in his seat, smiling.

They sat in Arlathan's office on the Audacious Edge; the room was large, a good fifteen by thirty metres. The walls of shining adamantium and Arlathan's desk were built with an advanced cogitator. A very long Nalwood cabinet sat against the right side wall, keeping Arlathan's large collection of Amasec and other alcohols. Behind the Interrogator was a window taking up the office's entire width, allowing a good view of Scintilla, the sector's capital world below. The smog covered hive world reminded Attelus unnervingly of Omnartus.

Shit, it'd been three years, three frigging years since the destruction of Omnartus. So much had happened since then and yet so little, Arlathan's promotion as Inquisitor Enandra's Interrogator, the death of the Space Marine chapter responsible, The Destruction Inculpators and Attelus' ascension to master assassin by Glaitis' old cult.

It'd taken Vex six months to decipher the data downloaded from Taryst's cogitator, and Attelus had travelled far and wide, investigating into the leads it gave. Adelana was working with him as his apprentice. But all of it had been for nothing, no true clue of Etuarq's whereabouts.

Until now, perhaps.

"And it'd been seven months since it'd occurred?" Attelus asked, trying to keep the anger from his tone.

Arlathan shrugged, looking at Attelus with weary eyes. Much had changed; Arlathan now sported an impressively thick, neatly kept beard and his once pitch-black hair now speckled with bits of grey. His pale skin, marked with scars, two crossed on his right cheek, and one ran from his brow onto his left cheek. Scars said given to him by the traitor Inquisitor, Devan Torathe, on the bridge of the Imperial Crusher, so long ago.

What had gone on there, Attelus still didn't know. Arlathan and Inquisitor Enandra seemed determined to never talk about it. Something which he didn't like but had to respect.

Attelus absently touched the huge, ugly black scar just under his left eye at the thought of scars. The scar he still refused to have covered by false flesh unless the job needed it, instead electing to hide it underneath a thick fringe of brown hair.

"You know more than anyone how slow information in the Imperium of Mankind can move," said Arlathan. "This occurred in the Gothic Sector, way to the galactic south-east; we're bloody lucky we received it this soon."

"Of course we were," Attelus sighed, placing a palm over his face.

"Let me have a look," said Karmen Kons as she got up from one of the couches and approached.

Attelus smiled and handed it to her. Karmen's attractive features didn't smile back. She wore a black bodyglove, her shoulder-length blond hair dead straight and parted in the middle. She was lovely, beautiful, perhaps. Her face was heart-shaped and high cheekboned. Without a word, she took the data slate and began scrolling through it.

"Taryst's records indicated a tenuous at best connection," said Attelus.

Arlathan raised an eyebrow. "To general Tathe? Yes, I know you're unwilling to pursue this thread. They are from your homeworld; they were your heroes as a child, Estella's too."

He furrowed his brow and looked pointedly at Karmen; she ignored him, continuing to read the data slate.

"You've been avoiding it," said Arlathan. "But now you can't afford to any longer. A world was put to the sword at general Tathe's behest, Attelus."

"The information is lacking," stated Karmen. "Doesn't even say the world's name, nor even where it is."

Arlathan sighed. "That was beyond our accessibility; that information is classified. Vermillion level."

"But it did happen?" said Attelus.

"Do not know, the information was taken from the Gothic sector's Inquisitorial data banks by one of our long-range operatives, but it still seems worth investigating," said Arlathan. "The Elbyran contingent is taking part in a campaign subduing worlds still held by the archenemy in the Orar subsector since Abaddon the Despoiler's 12th Black Crusade. With the sector highly weakened by Abaddon's forces, they've been importing Imperial Guard regiments from other sectors to help."

"Where are they now?" Attelus asked.

"The last we heard, the Munitorum had sent them to retake the mining world of Carkeath, in the Savath system," said Arlathan. "That was a month ago, but there were problems."

"And what are they?" asked Karmen, looking up from her dataslate.

"A day after they were scheduled to arrive, the system was cut off by a freak warpstorm," said Arlathan. "We know that the Orar astropaths received a message from the invasion force just before the system went dark..."

"And let me guess," Interrupted Attelus. "The contents of that message too was Vermillion level."

Arlathan nodded.

"Isn't that a little strange," said Karmen. "Only bits and pieces of that information being classified."

"All of it is classified," said Arlathan. "Our agent isn't high enough on the totem pole to be able to access just the Vermillion level encoded information."

"And fair enough too," agreed Attelus with a shrug. "But Karmen's right. It is strange. Why not all of it being Vermillion?"

Arlathan smiled. "Does this stink as much to you as it does me?" he said.

Attelus smiled and raised his eyebrows, which said, 'of course I frigging do.'

"How does it feel?" said Attelus.

"How does what feel?" asked Arlathan, his eyes narrowing.

"Since being made Interrogator, you've become quite the uhh, exposition teller," he said.

"Exposition...teller?" said Arlathan, with a bemused furrowed brow.

"Never mind," said Attelus quickly, shaking his head. "What does the Inquisitor want us to do?"

Arlathan tapped his desk with the tip of his fingernail as a guilty expression crossed his face, "she wants you to travel to Sarkeath to investigate the Velrosian 1st and general Tathe. Find out the why and how the Exterminatus happened and if it's connected to Etuarq. Also, to find out the fate of the Elbyran contingent."

He took out another two data slates from under his desk.

"We've got a team lined up for you, and a ship readied to take you to the Gothic Sector," said Arlathan.

"Yeah, that's all well and good and all," said Attelus leaning back in his seat, folding his arms across his chest. "But that's going to be hard because, y'know, it's cut off due to a warp storm and, it's also so frigging far away."

"Yeah," sighed Arlathan. "But she also said that isn't her problem. That if you have to wait on Orar for the warp storm to clear, then you'll wait on Orar for the warp storm to clear."

"What!" both Karmen and Attelus exclaimed at once.

"That could take frigging centuries!" cried Karmen, showing the most amount of emotion Attelus had heard from her in a long time.

"The Inquisitor also said that's what rejuvenant treatments are for," said Arlathan. "She also said during that time you could set up a better spy network for our organisation in the Gothic Sector."

Attelus frowned and looked at his data slate, scrolling through the list of agents; he really liked what he saw, but...

"Yeah, and how can we do that with a squad of ten people?" said Karmen sullenly, verbalising the question Attelus wanted to ask too. "Including us."

Arlathan shrugged. "She said you'll also be well funded. You can hire your own agents once there."

"Of course she did," Attelus said as he shook his head with a smile. "What else did mamzel Enandra say?"

"She also said that Attelus would say 'of course she did,' a few times and would be quite happy with at least one member of the squad," said Arlathan, then he looked at Karmen. "She also said that Karmen wouldn't be..."

Karmen's narrowing eyes made Arlathan quickly shut up.

Arlathan cleared his throat and straightened. "All the rest of the information you need is in your data slates. She also said that it's up to you to brief your squad members."

"Of course...," Attelus started to say but smiled and stopped himself. "We're done?"

Arlathan nodded. "The mamzel wishes for you to be gone in as soon as two days. She'd also like you to give us a call over the vox when you're ready to leave. So we can see you off."

Attelus got off his seat with a sigh and, they turned and started toward the door.

"Attelus," said Arlathan causing Attelus to stop in his tracks. "About Adelana..."

"You've already said enough on her," Attelus snapped. "I don't want to hear anymore! Okay?"

Arlathan expression creased with sadness before he nodded and lowered his gaze to the cogitator in his desk.



The door slid closed behind Attelus as he stepped into the corridor. Karmen stood, her arms folded over her ample chest, her full lips pouting in annoyance. There was no sign of the horrid, self-inflicted scars on her face anymore; the false flesh that covered them was grafted perfectly by Inquisitor Enandra's best surgeons.

Attelus met her gaze for a few seconds before he turned right and continued down the corridor, studying the data slate, his feet silent as they walked over the steel grating.

Karmen fell in step with him, her footfalls clanging in contrast to Attelus' complete silence.

"What do you think?" she said.

Attelus sighed, stopped and lowered his data slate, turning to Karmen.

"That this assignment is a right royal pain in the arse," he sighed before continuing again.

He'd only made a few metres more before Karmen's voice said in his mind, +can your other benefactor help us in this?+

Attelus shrugged; I'll ask her, see what she has to say. It wouldn't be the first time Farseer Faleaseen had provided them with a literal shortcut in their endeavours. Only Adelana and Karmen knew of his connection to the Eldar, but it seemed that was changing.

Temporarily, perhaps.

Karmen nodded. "We have better get the others together," she said, reaching for her vox bead, but she stopped as Attelus raised his hand.

"No," he said, "Inquisitor Enandra seems to know everything about everyone. Let's see if we do. We'll try to find them."

"Sounds like a complete waste of time to me," said Karmen, folding her arms again.

Attelus grinned. "Come on, Karmen, just humour me here, please."

She rolled her eyes but was smiling as she groaned and said, "fine! Have it your way! I swear you're like a child sometimes. If we're delayed because of it, it's on you, alright?"

"Don't you worry, we won't," he said.

"Where to first?" she asked.

Attelus smiled. "The training area, of course."



Attelus had lied, of course. Along the way, he just had to stop at the kitchen to get himself a cup of caffeine.

They walked side by side, Attelus with one hand in his black flak jacket pocket while sipping from his cup with the other.

Karmen couldn't help but smile. She remembered the little, stick-thin but deadly teenager she'd found in the ruins of Varander ten years ago. Now Attelus was an exceptionally handsome and accomplished young man. He was thin but svelte. His skin was pale white, and his lips deep red. His sharp-featured, elfin face was quite feminine, made even more so by his shoulder-length brown hair. Karmen always felt he'd look even better if he had his hair cut short; she'd suggested it once or twice but was promptly ignored. Attelus was far older than he looked, being twenty-seven, but looking perhaps, eighteen, nineteen how he managed to look so youthful after everything was quite beyond her. Karmen knew more of Attelus Kaltos than she'd cared to admit; she knew how hard a life he'd had and couldn't help marvel at how well he'd pulled through it all.

He'd had help, Karmen supposed; Inquisitor Enandra and the little bitch had given him much in the way of moral support over the last three years.

Attelus quickly noticed Karmen looking at him; his five senses were always as sharp as Karmen's sixth and smiled at her.

Karmen forced away her own smile and looked away; she hadn't forgiven him; she would never forgive him.

He frowned sadly and fixed his attention forwards; he'd seemed to have got the idea of their relationship a long time ago. There was to be no friendship, they were acquaintances, professionals, and that was that.

It was his own damned fault, as he would say, in all honesty.

They turned and walked through the doorway leading into the training facility.

All around, dozens upon dozens of elite soldiers under Enandra's command were practising hand to hand drills, bayonet techniques and disarming and wrestling style fighting on blue soft mats.

Almost everyone was a large bastard, as muscular as Attelus was thin. Their every technique was brilliant and practised almost to perfection. She tried not to stare; many men were stripped to the waste, their sweat-slicked torsos corded with muscle. Some were women, but only a few.

In the corner of her eye, Karmen saw Attelus looking on with a small measure of an amused, half-smile, his brow furrowed arrogantly.

None of them could even come close to taking him and, he knew it. Attelus was one of the most dangerous individuals Karmen had ever met and, that was saying a lot. His arrogance was almost justified, almost. He must never forget that there was always someone, somewhere better.

Karmen looked over the Stormtroopers training but saw no sign of anyone on their list.

"Try the sparring cages," Attelus said, scratching the back of his head before slipping his hand back into its pocket and taking another sip of caffeine.

They moved through the thoroughfare; many a soldier noticed them and stopped to salute or make the sign of the Aquila.

Attelus and Karmen nodded or saluted back politely.

They eventually came to the five large sparring cages set at the huge hall's end. In the first one, the figure was a complete blur of speed and skill, fighting off five close combat servitors with blunted blades at once, so much so Karmen couldn't even make out who it was.

"Hey, Darrance!" Attelus yelled quickly as they stopped to watch. "A frig head says what?"

It was Darrance; how the hell Attelus was capable of telling that was anyone's guess.

Darrance didn't deign to reply; he just continued his battle.

"Hmm, was worth a try," said Attelus with a smile and a shrug, looking sidelong at Karmen

Karmen was about to reply when abruptly, there was a loud buzz and, a servitor's flat toned voice said, "horizontal slash to sternum a fatal blow, end of session."

Darrance let out a frustrated growl as he spun away, flourishing his long, two-handed sword to whip off the imaginary blood and stalked toward them. Darrance was very pretty as well, but his features were grimmer, much more gaunt and haughty. His white hair was once long, but now he wore it close-cropped and short. He was also thin and long-limbed but was much taller than Attelus being just under two metres. Darrance was obviously highborn; Karmen had been a lord's daughter back on Velrosia; she had to have many dealings with the upper class as a child, so she knew his type well.

Spoilt and totally up himself, but he wasn't without his merits; he was a swordsman of equal skill to Attelus and was also an extensively talented pilot and held much in the way wisdom and intellect usually more correct than not in his statements and assumptions. He and Attelus were once mercenaries working under the same assassin sect; they still did but were permanently outsourced under Enandra's command.

But, Karmen was sure both of them were truly loyal to Enandra.

"I hope you are aware..." Darrance gasped but stopped himself and frowned; he was obviously going to call Attelus 'apprentice' but, that title didn't fit him any more. "Attelus, you made me frig up then."

Attelus grinned as if it was the greatest achievement of his entire existence; it proved infectious and, Karmen couldn't help smile along with him. After Omnartus' destruction, it'd taken a long time for Attelus to be able to smile again, a very long time. He had a nice smile and, she'd missed it greatly.

Darrance smirked, shook his head, turned away and barked, "training simulation! Level ten, start!"

Attelus took another sip of caffeine and, they walked on, idly gazing into the sparring cages. In the next were two more assassins from the cult, Delathasi and Kerlia, were sparring. Delathasi was wielding dual short blades while Kerlia fought with a two-handed axe.

Both were a blur but not quite as quick or skilled as Darrance. They were young, seventeen so inexperienced. Delathasi was apprenticed to Darrance, and Kerlia was under Hayden Tresch. However, Hayden was nowhere to be seen. Kerlia was like Hayden, more of a sniper, but she still seemed intent on practising with close combat weaponry.

Attelus and Karmen stopped, watching them. Karmen, a long time ago, before she had focused on her gift, was quite the swordswoman, and she could see Delathasi was holding back.

"Hmm, pretty good," said Attelus, his words tinged with melancholy and Karmen knew why they both reminded him of Elandria.

In the third, they found two of the people they were looking for, Adelana and Helma, were locked in combat. They wielded blunted practise long swords, and Karmen couldn't help but be impressed by their skill. Both had only started to learn the blade three years ago, and both had learned under Attelus.

Attelus smiled like a proud father and drunk back the rest of his caffeine in one long gulp.

"Still got a long way to go, though," said Attelus absently. "To catch up with Delthasi and Kerlia."

"And those two will just keep on improving as well," said Karmen. "I don't think they'll ever catch up; Delathsi and Kerlia have been training since they were really young."

Attelus grimaced and shrugged, quickly seeing her point.

Karmen felt a very familiar presence, a very familiar feeling, this despite her trying to suppress her gift, and she turned to see two women in black singlets and combat pants walking toward their way. Karmen recognised them as trainees on the mats and quickly remembered their names, troopers Salantha and Olianthis. Both were drenched in sweat and looking at Attelus as they walked past. The emotion which radiated from them like a blindingly powerful lamp pack was attraction, but Karmen didn't need to be a telepath to tell that. It was a regular occurrence, and Karmen fought back her annoyance; women were just as bad as men at objectification, if not even worse. With her gift no longer so suppressed, she started to sense at least twenty of the men around in the room were attracted to her, looking at her. Their thoughts ranged from disgusting to moderately respectful; some were even somewhat nice.

Hissing through clenched teeth, she pushed away the thoughts whirling through her mind, then gave the two women a withering glare that caused them to look away and continue quickly onward.

Karmen looked back into the cage, and she glanced sidelong at Attelus. He was so entrenched in watching he hadn't even noticed them checking him out, which was uncharacteristic. Karmen knew why; he was really looking at Adelana, who was also only in a sweat-slicked singlet and combat pants. Adelana was a pretty thing, beautiful in fact, her face diamond-shaped, with a long nose and full, lusciously red lips. Her skin was pale and covered in freckles; she tied back hair red with brilliant blonde streaks.

As Attelus has said, Adelana was truly beautiful, but in an understated way, like many bird species back on Velrosia. They were coloured with dark greens and blues, unlike the birds of the Elbyran continent of Aluthisa, where they were bright, overly ostentatious. Velrosian birds were no less pretty but in a different way. As Attelus was popular with the women, she was just as popular with the men and, there were many competing for her affection in the organisation.

Karmen frowned and folded her arms; they didn't have time for this.

+Helma! Adelana!+ she sent, with a bit more force than necessary, causing them to stop and flinch in pain. +Get out here; we've got a mission!+

Both Helma and Adelana glared at her, but quickly Helma opened the door, and they stepped out.

"A mission?" growled Helma; she was a short, plain-faced woman with ruddy brown skin and a large, ugly scar on her left cheek. Her blonde hair was close-cropped short, and her build more muscular than many men. She was a soldier, hard-edged and unsentimental, a leader. She'd been a captain in the 51st Fenksworld regiment, and so was a captain in Taryst's mercenary forces, which was modelled on the Imperial guard. Over the past three years, she'd proven a masterful military tactician and a dependent, ruthlessly effective long-range fighter but lacked a true talent for undercover work.

"Yes," said Karmen and looked to Adelana; she was the exact opposite to Helma. While she, too, was an excellent shot and only average close combatant. Adelana seemed to have a natural affinity for undercover and stealth work. Only after three years of training she was already one of their best. Karmen had to admit she and Attelus made for an excellent team, both having skill sets that complimented and contrasted each other well.

"It's a pretty big one, too," said Attelus.

"We finally have a lead on Etuarq?" asked Adelana, sounding excited and looking at Attelus intently.

He shrugged and met her gaze. Adelana was one of the very few native Omnartisians left and, so was one of the most eager to bring the rogue Inquisitor to justice.

"Perhaps," he breathed; Karmen knew out of all of Adelana's features, Attelus appreciated her large sea-blue eyes the most. "But there's no guarantee."

Adelana pursed her lips and nodded in disappointment but continued to look at Attelus.

"Anyone knows if anyone else on the list is here?" said she, and Karmen read from the dataslate the list of squad members assigned to the mission.

"No," said Helma bluntly, and she furrowed her brow. "Why do you ask? Why not call them over the comms?"

Karmen smiled and waved a thumb at Attelus. "Mr weirdo here wishes to waste time tracking all of you down. I thought I'd humour him."

"I'm right here, you know," said Attelus but still grinned.

"Says it's a test," said Karmen. "See how well we know the people who are to work with us."

"And I was right," said Attelus proudly. "I knew they would be here."

Karmen raised an eyebrow. "It hardly takes a genius to think that someone might be at the training room, Attelus."

Attelus raised his hands, the empty cup hanging from his index finger. "Alright! Alright! Is it annual take the piss out of Attelus day, is it?"

"Every day is take the piss out of Attelus day," Adelana laughed.

"Story of my life," said Attelus with a good-humoured sigh.

"We may as well come with you," said Helma, "try to speed up this farce a bit."

Attelus pursed his lips and tore his attention away from Adelana to Helma, trying to see if the ex-guardswoman was joking or not and frowned as he quickly saw she wasn't.

He sighed, slipped his free hand into its pocket, turned on the balls of his feet and started back.

"Alright, alright," he said. "Can't waste any more time; we've better head on then."

"Where to first?" said Adelana as they started after him.

"I'm taking a wild guess," said Karmen. " And saying...the shooting range."

Attelus, with his back to them, muttered something indignantly.

"Yeah," said Karmen, smiling. "We're going to the shooting range."



Much to no one's surprise, the shooting range was, indeed, their next destination.

Attelus was the first through the door and, they approached the desk of the range's custodian, a grumpy middle-aged and going to seed ex-guardsman named Gorres. Gorres sat back casually in his worn leather chair, reading a data slate. Karmen knew how much of a sleaze the old bastard was and had no wish to know what he was looking at.

"Yo," said Attelus as they approached, and he held up his cup. "Mind if I give you this?"

Gorres sat up and glared Attelus up and down as though he'd just asked if he could lay with his daughter. (Calestia Gorres was a pretty little trainee just starting in the Stormtrooper corps)

"Please," said Attelus, grinning and shaking the cup.

"Ahh, give here!" growled Gorres and snatched it from Attelus with impressive speed. "You may be a big mighty Throne Agent now, but I've been workin' in this organisation before you were even in ya daddy's sack! I ain't ya bloody servitor, got it?"

"Fair enough," said Attelus, raising his hands in diplomatic supplication. "Never would've even considered you were, not for a second. Thank you, by the way."

"Yeah," growled Gorres. "If ya gonna go into the range, don't forget to wear your damn ear protectors."

"Of course," said Attelus as he approached the wall, the ear protectors hung off and, he began to take them down and started to hand them to the others.

They walked through the thick glass steel doors and into the range, and even with the ear protectors on, the discharge of weapons fire was horrid. Causing Karmen to wince involuntarily.

The firing range was huge, easily as large as the practice area. Still, despite this, it wasn't large enough, as they passed by a long line of soldiers waiting to take their turn at the range—most of them gazing appreciatively at Adelana and Karmen while they walked.

They were halfway through when they found another assigned to their team, and Karmen wasn't surprised at all to find him here. Trooper Jelket stood, las gun braced as he took shot after shot at the target. He wore his Stormtrooper carapace but went without a helmet. Jelket was an average looking man of average height and average build. His skin was tanned, and his black hair curly, scruffy. He'd lost his right arm from an Astartes bolter round back on Omnartus; now, it was replaced by an advanced augmetic. That seemed almost normal at first glance. But at a closer look, one could see the joints in the fingers.

Karmen liked Jelket; he was an intelligent, forward-thinking, observant character but also strangely dumb in other circumstances. He was awkward but always pleasant, kind, but more than a little bit paranoid. A real conspiracy theorist, in fact, he was one of the first people who'd figured out about Taryst's secret before anyone else.

Most of his other theories were a bit beyond reality, even for Attelus's taste, who was paranoid beyond belief.

Jelket paused in his shots and turned to them as they approached, grinning widely.

"Hey! What are you guys doing here?" he said.

"You caught up to Hayden yet?" asked Attelus.

Jelket shook his head; he was one of the best shots in the organisation, but Hayden Tresch was the best and, the two had a friendly rivalry. Karmen had never felt any bitterness from Jelket for being second best (in fact, he held that position with at least three others, depending, as it would change constantly, but Jelket was always at least fifth, there was fierce competition for second place)

"You guys here to support me?" asked Jelket, sounding legitimately hopeful. "Cheer me on?"

"No," stated Helma, folding her arms across her chest; her tone implied she thought such a thing would be the biggest waste of time in the galaxy.

Jelket pursed his lips and grimaced, looking highly disappointed.

"We're here because we need you for another mission," said Karmen, trying to abate the young ex-guardsman's frown.

"Oh? Really?" he said. "Something about that shit-head Etuarq?"

"Perhaps," said Attelus. "Can't guarantee anything yet."

"You know I suggested we look into Marius Hax, right?" said Jelket. "He must be involved being the lord..."

Attelus raised a hand, causing Jelket to cut his sentence short, "yes," he sighed. "You've said that on numerous occasions now, but there is no true evidence that he's involved; there was no mention at all of him in Taryst's records. Anyway, Omnartus was a hub world; its production of minerals was huge and served the sub-sector and even the entire Calixis sector well. It'd even supplied some excellent Imperial Guard regiments, many still in service now, I really doubt, even if he is a traitor he was involved at all."

"But that's what he wants you to think!" insisted Jelket.

Attelus sighed and rolled his eyes, then checked his wrist chron, "and how do you propose we find that out? Burst into his office, put a laspistol to his head and get him to spill his secrets? We maybe Inquisition now, but we haven't the right without sufficient evidence, and even if we did, every Amalathian from here to Thracian Primaris would be on our arses faster than you can say, 'you idiot.'"

Attelus sighed. "Just please meet us at briefing quarters 56a at 1600, got that?"

"Yes, sir!" said Jelket with a salute.

They pushed past Jelket, who continued with his practice.

"You and I are both aware that we have, as we speak, spies investigating into Marius Hax and his underlings on Scintilla," Karmen whispered in his ear.

"Of course," said Attelus with a small smile. "But I wouldn't admit that to him, would you?"

Karmen smiled, seeing his point.

"Besides," said Attelus, while stretching his long arms over his head and intertwining his fingers together. Karmen was sure that he didn't even know he was doing it, the instinct so entrenched in his psyche. "It's just a necessity; we're doing it with pretty much all the rulers across the sector, or at least trying to. You know, just in case."

They only had to walk a few metres more to find another squad member. Torris was waiting in the line; shotgun slung over his shoulder, his arms folded over his chest.

Torris was a large, muscular man with very dark brown skin. He was once one of Taryst's most capable employees and a member of the Adeptus Arbites on Malfi before that. With his law enforcement background, he was incredible at reading people, so much so Karmen couldn't help suspect he might have some latent psychic ability. He had, after the Omnartus incident, in respect to his murdered friend, Jeurat Garrakson, taken up training for heavy weapons and, due to his size and strength, proved a natural.

He'd once been a charismatic, cheery caring person, but after Omnartus, he turned grim and ruthless. Torris still blamed Attelus for the death of their friend and would never forgive him for it, which Karmen couldn't help feel was a true tragedy. If Adelana could forgive Attelus for his role in her homeworld's death, why couldn't Torris forgive him for what Garrakson did? What also made it sadder was Karmen was sure it wasn't really Attelus' fault. They'd been good friends, and Attelus had needed that friendship over the last three years. Karmen had attempted to talk with Torris in private once or twice about it, but the ex-arbitrator wouldn't hear of it.

Despite this, Torris was pragmatic enough to put aside this for the mission. He still respected Attelus somewhat for his skill as a spy and an assassin, but that was that.

"Marcel," said Karmen as they approached.

Torris sniffed and looked them over. "We got a mission?" he asked.

Karmen nodded.

"Good, about frigging time," he growled and looked at Attelus from under a hooded brow. "And you're the leader, I assume?"

Attelus frowned and said, "I am."

Torris nodded but showed no emotion.

Adelana stepped past Karmen, her hands balled into fists.

"We're to meet at briefing room 56a at 1600," she growled through gritted teeth. "Alright?"

Karmen pursed her lips; it was generally well known that Adelana really disliked Torris. For obvious reasons.

Torris grimaced slightly, looking down at Adelana and folding his thick arms across his wide chest.

Karmen didn't have to be a telepath to tell it meant; what right do you have to order me around, little girl?

Karmen cleared her throat, causing Torris to look her way.

"We're looking for Verenth, Hayden, Vark and Halsin," she said, ignoring Attelus' glare and pouty look. "You know where any of them are?"

Torris shrugged. "Where Hayden is, is anyone's guess, could be with the Tech-Priests, could be in the armoury, could be at the frigging library. Verenth's probably in his quarters; he isn't here, so he's most likely there. Vark's probably in the Ecclesiarch. Halsin, well, he's most definitely..."

"Here," a voice interrupted him, and Torris turned to reveal Halsin, who approached them. A laspistol held confidentially in his left hand.

With his bulging thyroid eyes beneath his thick-framed glasses, he always looked like he was in a constant state of surprise.

Halsin was once a tall, scrawny, awkward junior medicae under Taryst's employ, but he'd grown over the past three years. Volunteering as a front line medicae, he had served on many assignments since they were taken under Inquisitor Enandra's wing. This, as well as countless hours of training with the Stormtrooper Corps, had hardened him, giving him some confidence. He wasn't as good as any of the elite soldiers but could still hold his own in a fight. Unless it was close combat, he was still gangly but only a little less now. But his supreme skill with a scalpel, bandaging and ability to keep calm under pressure more than made up for that.

"Halsin!" said Attelus. "Good to see you."

Halsin was one for few words; he simply grimly nodded in reply.

"Been practising at the range?" Attelus said. "What's your percentile now?"

Halsin grimaced in distaste and answered hesitantly, "seventy-nine."

Attelus shrugged. "Still better than me."

"Well, even a cross-eyed Grox could shoot better than you!" said Adelana, but with a playful grin causing both Torris and Helma to chuckle with amusement. Karmen couldn't help roll her eyes. She hated their flirty, playful banter.

Attelus furrowed his brow and pursed his lips before a wide smile crossed his face. "I do get seventy to seventy-three; I doubt a cross-eyed Grox could do quite that well. We all can't be good at everything unless you're a freak called Hayden Tresch."

"The only freak around here is you," said Helma making mostly everyone, even Karmen, chuckle.

"I am presuming we have an assignment," said Halsin, as humourless as ever.

"You presume correctly," said Torris. "You seen Verenth, Tresch or Vark?"

"Verenth and Hayden, I wouldn't have a clue," he said. "But I saw Verenth not long ago when I was leaving the medicae. As I understand it, he's getting a tattoo."

"What? Yet another tattoo?" exclaimed Adelana.

"Yes, another tattoo," said Halsin, sharing none of Adelana's astonishment.

"Well!" said Attelus. "Next stop, the medicae."

"Or you could, you know, call them," said Helma. "Because that's what Vox links are for."

Attelus shrugged and sighed, "alright, we'll go get Verenth, then call the other two."

"That's not what I meant," muttered Helma; although Helma had been a captain and older than Attelus, she'd never begrudged his more senior status. Still, she had little patience for his eccentricities.

"You guys wanna come with?" said Attelus, ignoring her.

Halsin and Torris exchanged a look.

Torris shrugged. "Yeah, I'll come, don't want Attelus having his own bloody harem, do we?"

"What? You jealous, Torris?" said Attelus with a wide grin.

"Correction," said Torris. "Don't want him thinking he's got his own harem."

"I think; therefore, I am," said Attelus.

Torris pursed his lips and shrugged, conceding defeat. "You make that up now, or get it from somewhere?"

Attelus shrugged back, not rising to the bait.

"I guess I will come too," said Halsin. "Will need to retrieve some equipment from there anyway."

"Alrighty," said Attelus. "Let's get going, then."



It didn't take long for them to find Verenth in the large medicae; they just had to follow the loud buzzing sound to its source. Verenth sat stripped to the waist as surgeon Solvik applied the ink to his bicep.

If Adelana could describe her fellow Omnatisian in one word, it would be, 'snake.' She'd never actually seen a snake, not first hand, but she'd read about them and seen illustrations. Verenth was a tall, skinny and long-limbed young man, but that wasn't what was most snake-like about him. That was his eyes. Stark, pitiless and coloured a strange, light green. His plain, gaunt, almost chinless face was hard, perpetually frowning. His head was shaven, allowing everyone to see the numerous tattoos covering his skull.

Adelana was never sure how to act around the passionate, intense ex-hammer; he too was one of the few remaining survivors of Omnartus, which made any and all interaction out of assignments very awkward. Not just that, but he scared her, constantly it felt he was going to explode into a rage in any second, especially when around Attelus. Adelana had once thought it was because of the part Attelus had played in the destruction of their homeworld. But she'd learned from Attelus that it wasn't just that, but the assassin had also killed Verenth's brother; Verenth had even witnessed it. Unlike Torris, he had an excellent reason to hate Attelus, but the ex-hammer still worked under the ex-mercenary despite this. Like Torris, he was pragmatic and saw the big picture enough to know more at stake.

"Hey Verenth," said Attelus with a small wave as they approached, causing the ex-hammer's attention to snap at him, his perpetually frowning face somehow frowned even more.

"What is it?" he growled, eyeing them from under his hooded brow.

"We've been assigned a mission," said Attelus, still sounding cheery despite Verenth's demeanour. Verenth never seemed to intimidate Attelus, or Attelus never showed the intimidation he felt. Out of everyone in their group, besides, maybe, Tresch. Verenth had the highest chance of killing the superhuman. He was a gunslinger, his hands faster on the draw with his autopistol and Stubbrevolver than thought, inhumanly fast in fact. He was also one of the five top contestants for the organisation's second-best shot. If he could somehow catch Attelus off guard...

Adelana glanced at Karmen, who stood next to her; the psyker's expression was unreadable, her arms folded across her ample chest. No, Adelana corrected herself; if anyone here could kill Attelus, it was Karmen Kons. Adelana knew she didn't like her, hated her in fact, and she knew why. This, despite Adelana never intending to ever have any kind of relationship with him, in spite of...

Adelana should've been utterly terrified by the psyker's enmity, knowing what Karmen Kons was capable of, but she wasn't. The Psyker was not petty; in fact, she was one of the most reliable people on the team; she'd saved Adelana's life on countless occasions over the past three years. In fact, if it weren't for her, Adelana would've died with Omnartus.

"If you haven't guessed yet," said Attelus knocking Adelana from her train of thought.

Verenth sighed, shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I guessed, boss. I was just hoping it wasn't, that somehow not saying it would make it untrue."

Attelus smiled, apparently ignoring Verenth's sarcasm when he said 'boss.'

"Fair enough," said Attelus, he never seemed to begrudge Verenth of his immense dislike toward him. He understood it and was genuinely regretful for the injustice he'd perpetrated. "And as much as I respect anyone who fights fate, the frigging bastard. I'm sorry to say it's won this day."

Verenth groaned. "Alright, just let Solvik finish my tattoo."

"Can he do it in..." Attelus checked his wrist chron. "Fifteen minutes? We've got briefing room 56a booked at 1600."

Verenth scowled and looked pointedly at the tattoo on his left bicep. Adelana was no expert, but it seemed far from finished. From what was done, it looked like the starting of a winged, green-robed, faceless figure holding a sword to its chest, tip downward.

"Hmm," said Attelus, stroking his thin chin. "Dark Angels, right?"

Verenth stiffened visibly.

"They saved my homeworld from invasion," said Attelus. "They've interested me ever since."

"Funny," growled Verenth. "Space Marines saved your world but destroyed mine."

Attelus frowned. "That's why I find it ironic that you would-"

"Last time I checked," said Verenth. "It wasn't the Dark Angels who did it; it was the Destruction Inculpators or The Desolation Inculpators, whatever, they're gone now, faced justice. Just because they did it doesn't mean all Space Marine chapters are the same."

"Besides," said Verenth. "I think it just looks frigging cool."

Attelus nodded. "Sorry to interrupt your tattoo, but if it's any consolation, this mission may or may not involve our enemy."

Verenth's snake-like eyes widened briefly. "You mean the enemy?"

Attelus shook his head, and he turned to walk away. "Perhaps an emphasis on perhaps," he said with another brief wave. "See you soon."

"I'll be there," said Verenth as Attelus lead them away. "I'll frigging be there."

Adelana could see Attelus was smiling slightly and Torris, glaring at him in disapproval. That was another reason why Torris didn't like him; he could be so very manipulative.

If anyone scared Adelana, truly scared her, it was Attelus Xanthis Kaltos. She knew he'd been through hell and couldn't help admire that he didn't come out of it worse off, but she knew he was constantly teetering on a precipice between sanity and insanity. That in any second, he could fall permanently into the metaphorical darkness, into his murderous, manipulative mentality. It was the only sheer force of will that prevented it. That was one of the many reasons she didn't want more, to be more than just colleagues; she knew he dearly wanted that, but...

"I'll get Hayden and Vark over the vox," said Helma interrupting Adelana's thought process, and she reached for her microbead.

"Yes," said Attelus. "You do that."



After Halsin collected his equipment, they left the medicae.

It took them about five minutes to walk through the thin, gunmetal grey corridors, and Adelana's mind wandered. She'd been through much in the past three years, fought alongside Space Marines on two separate occasions. The first time was with the Space Wolves, second, the Death Watch when she and Attelus had allied with the Ordo Xenos Inquisitor, Lorris, to stop a Genestealer cult on Sinophia. She'd even travelled all the way to Segmentum Ultima via Attelus' 'connections,' and back. She'd faced down mutants, heretics and even daemons. But most of all, she'd killed, she'd killed a lot of people, more than she could've imagined. The first time it'd been traumatic, on the flagship of traitor Inquisitor, Torathe. During the initial boarding action, she'd taken the top off a Stormtrooper's skull with one well-placed shot. She hadn't felt anything at the time due to the adrenaline, but after the fight, when recovering from her injuries, she'd wept.

Attelus had helped her through it; he was unusually open with his emotions and told her he'd felt the same the first time he'd killed too. A chaos cultist invader during the invasion of his homeworld when he was fifteen.

Despite never enjoying the killing, she felt right; she had a purpose and a truly worthy one at that. A far greater one than if she'd wound up working in the Magistratum as she'd initially intended. She just wished that it didn't need to start with the death of her homeworld.

She'd never get over that, not truly. Not even after they hunt down that bastard Etuarq and bring him to justice

Adelana eyed Attelus as he walked ahead of her, in his usual pose, hands in the pockets of his black flak jacket. She'd forgiven him for the part he unwittingly played in Omnartus' fate; it'd been frigging hard, though and taken her awhile. He'd saved her mostly due to selfish reasons, all just because she'd been nice to her.

It was pretty damn pathetic, pitiful, almost. In fact, it'd taken her longer to forgive him of that than the role he'd played in Omnartus.

She'd learned a lot from the now master assassin over the past three years, and despite some initial hiccups, he'd proven a pretty damn good teacher. Eventually.

Adelana had often wondered why the Inquisitor had promoted Arlathan to Interrogator over Attelus or Karmen Kons or the many other more senior candidates. But so far, Inquisitor Enandra had led them exceedingly well; she'd made very few mistakes. She'd helped Adelana through the depression after the death of Omnartus; Enandra must know what she was doing.

She'd worked exclusively with Attelus for so long she'd never actually seen Arlathan (who worked exclusively with the Inquisitor), So she didn't exactly have the best knowledge of his abilities, but surely they paled in comparison to the superhuman Attelus or the extraordinary psychic abilities of Karmen Kons?

Adelana had never approached Karmen on the matter, but she had once asked Attelus. He'd just shrugged and said.

"Arlathan knows his shit; he used to be a selfish arsehole but has changed for the better. I respect him, and I really don't envy him the responsibility. Besides, I think it's also more uhh personal if you catch my drift."

Adelana did 'catch his drift' (a saying she'd never heard before, must be native to his homeworld) Arlathan was a very handsome man, even with the beard. It was well known that Arlathan and Sergeant Kollath, the leader of Enandra's personal bodyguard, were in constant competition for the attractive Inquisitor's affections. Still, Adelana had hoped it was more than that. Attelus seemed to believe it, so maybe it was, but it wouldn't be the first time he was wrong, and it definitely wouldn't be the last.

In silence, they turned the corner headed toward 56a, their footfalls clanging on the metal grating. Everyone's beside Attelus' and Adelana's.

Three men stood waiting at the entrance Jelket, Vark and Hayden Tresch.

Vark was dressed in his Stormtrooper carapace and took up most of the corridor's width with his bulk. Vark had been designated as Karmen Kons' bodyguard long ago, accompanying her on missions to watch over Karmen when she'd leave her body in her incorporeal form. An effective soldier of all-around ability, he'd once served in Taryst's elite Stormtrooper corp. A deeply religious man (a rarity amongst mercenaries, even before he became a former mercenary), Adelana, who'd never been terribly religious and recognised the organisation's more secular nature, found it disconcerting. He could proselytise often, and it got on her nerves. He and Karmen were both quite religious, and that, Adelana guessed, was one reason they worked together. Vark's was plain of face, his skin a ruddy brown and his small beady eyes light blue. His closed cropped hair blond. Vark's most unique feature was his large cleft chin; it was hard for Adelana to keep her attention away from it when in conversation with him.

Unlike Vark, Tresch didn't need to wear Stormtrooper carapace to dominate the corridor. Broad-shouldered, long-limbed. The large, two-metre tall sniper wore a grey bodyglove and leaned against the wall, arms folded across his wide chest. He was perhaps one of the most talented individuals she'd ever met. As Attelus had once said, Hayden was 'a jack of all trades and a master of quite a few too.' (Attelus was always fond of his rhymes) Tresch was an excellent sniper, an explosives expert, a hacker; they were only a few among many skills under his name. A former Adeptus Arbite, he was a grim man, one of few words. Many women in the organisation described Tresch as a 'grey fox' or 'tall, dark and handsome' due to his once brown hair mostly overtaken by grey. Adelana didn't understand this sentiment; she'd never found him particularly attractive; she preferred her men younger.

She could help look briefly at Attelus, and well, more pretty.

Tresch was at least in his late forties. His square-jawed face lined and weathered. Attelus had once said both his eyes were augmetics, but they looked so normal she'd never have guessed it. She'd always thought it was a bit of a cheat; surely they'd aide him in his inhuman accuracy?

"Hayden, Vark, Jelket," said Karmen. "Good to see you are here already."

Vark shrugged. "Mamzel Helma said this may involve that bastard Etuarq so I got here as quick as I could. We may finally end him, God-Emperor willing."

"Emperor willing," echoed Karmen, making the sign of the Aquila. "We just have to wait for Verenth; then we'll start the briefing."

"Let's head in, shall we?" said Torris.

In silence, they started to file through the door, Attelus in the lead, but he stopped and straightened briefly, seeing two more in the briefing room.

"You," said Attelus sternly and stepped aside, allowing Adelana a clear view.

It was Darrance and his apprentice, Delathasi.

"What are you doing here?" said Karmen perplexed. "We have this room booked."

Darrance grimaced and exchanged a look with Delathasi, "when I saw you walking through the training facility. I thought something was up, so I gave Arlathan a vox and guess what? There was, he said that it might involve that shit stain Etuarq, so there's no way in hell Delathasi and I are not taking part."

"You are aware that I'm going to be in charge, right?" said Attelus.

"I am," said Darrance. "But I'm willing to swallow my pride and follow your lead this time."

Adelana could've sworn she heard Helma mutter something along the lines of, "I bet that's not the only thing you'll swallow."

Darrance obviously overheard her as he treated Helma with a dark look.

"I'll be your new designated pilot," said Darrance smoothly. "Delathasi can help you on the ground. I am sure you don't want to be the only close quarters specialist, do you, Attelus?"

"Who was going to be our pilot?" said Vark. "Originally."

"Ulysses," said Darrance, "but Interrogator Arlathan superseded it."

"He must've owed you one hell of a favour," said Torris. "For him to do that, what did you do? Give him a blow job? Must've been good; I'm sure you've had a hell of a lot of practice."

Everyone, even Delathasi laughed, Darrance's face darkened, but it didn't last long before he just shrugged.

Adelana realised that Delathasi was looking appreciatively, almost gapingly at Attelus. This caused Adelana to smile and shake her head in amusement.

Delathasi would've been pretty if it wasn't for the very present acne on her tanned skin and boxer's nose. She was shy and kept to herself constantly, but she was a force to be reckoned with her dual monomolecular blades when in battle. Tall and lanky, she had plenty of power in her limbs.

The door behind them abruptly slid open, and Adelana turned to see Verenth step into the room. His piercing gaze silently travelled over them before finally sitting down on the nearest desk.

"Well!" said Attelus rubbing his hands together excitedly. "Now everyone's present and accounted for, let's get this party started."

Chapter 2

Posted: Wed Oct 06, 2021 10:18 pm
by Adrassil
"I think she's on to us," said Attelus as he paced across the sand, hands clasped behind his back. "I think she has an idea, at least."

Faleaseen's large, almond-shaped eyes narrowed as she towered over him. The Farseer, like most of her race, was very tall, inhumanly thin, and long-limbed. Her features were deceptively soft, beautiful, and benign, but her gaze was filled with melancholic wisdom earned through great toil and burden. Showing her surely ancient age. A long time ago, Attelus had noticed there were what seemed to be shimmering green crystals crawling up the nape of her. He hadn't managed to gain the courage to ask why.

For this dream meeting, the Eldar had conjured up a beach Attelus had lived near to in his youth in northern Velrosia. Salteera bay was replicated in almost insane detail, the beautiful, rocky tree-covered coastline, the clear blue water, the island that jutted out in the small harbour. All of it was exactly how he remembered it. Salteera bay was just one of the countless beaches that littered the huge Vandeeran river's coast. It was a river that cut through the continent until it met with the Lake of Varander. A river which at points could be as wide as five kilometres and the source of thousands of runoff rivers that provided the continent with much needed, life-giving water.

Velrosia was set almost right in the continent's epicentre but may well have been an island nation, riddled with numerous lakes and set where the Vandeeran river was at its widest. Seafood was a huge export for the country, along with timber and livestock.

"I am sure she does have an idea, Attelus Kaltos," said Faleassen; her attention wandered with the pacing Attelus as she stood deathly still in her esoteric, form-fitting armour.

"We've completed missions far faster than initially thought," said Attelus. "Reaching the planets faster than warp travel would normally allow."

"Yes," said Faleaseen patiently. "You have only done so on four separate occasions, but I can see why that would arouse suspicion from the Inquisitor."

"She gave me this mission because she knew this," said Attelus. "She also knows that we can bypass the warp storm."

"Many of her kind would have you executed even for the suspicion," said Faleaseen.

Attelus sniggered and paused in his pacing. "Well, that won't stop me for long, would it? Do you think she knows of the webway's existence?"

Faleaseen shook her head with what seemed almost wry amusement. "I doubt that, not many Mon..."

She trailed off in her sentence as she noticed Attelus' glare. "Humans know of the webway."

"I wouldn't underestimate Inquisitor Enandra," said Attelus. "If anyone knows, it's her, and she isn't even Ordo Xenos."

"So," said Faleaseen, scratching her sharp, slender chin with a thumb, an oddly human gesture. "We are at an impasse; if you do use the webway, it will impose more suspicion upon you. If you do not, you will miss out on another lead to stop Etuarq, assuming this is not yet another trap."

"It has to be another trap," said Attelus.

"I do not know," said Faleaseen. "I do not understand why Etuarq would lay such a trap. He has a plan for you; that much is certain."

"He knows I'm perpetual, that I'll come back from whatever he throws at me; perhaps he wants to kill my allies? My friends?" said Attelus while continuing with his pacing. "Perhaps they are interfering with whatever fate he has in store for me?"

Faleaseen nodded. "That does seem a logical assumption."

"Perhaps," said Attelus but trailed off.

"Perhaps what?" said Faleaseen, although Attelus' suspected she already knew.

"Perhaps I could come clean, tell Jelcine of our alliance?"

Faleaseen pouted her full, ruby red lips and looked to the sky in thought.

"Or you know, you could, you know, zap it from her mind like you did back on the Audacious Edge three years ago," said Attelus.

Faleaseen sighed. "Neither course of action is wise, Attelus Kaltos. I have already performed mind manipulation once on her from this long-range; I would not risk it again, too imprecise. I may cause her irreparable damage, especially because of her strong mind block. Confessing could lead to your termination, and while I will bring you back, you will be separated by the allies and power of being in her employment. I would rather you complete this important mission than confess when confronted. Either way, it would set us back considerably, but one more than the other."

Attelus sighed. "So what will we do, then?"

"You will take the webway to this Sarkeath and investigate," said Faleaseen. "You must know once you have entered that system, I will not be able to assist you. I have already attempted to see the planet, but the warp storm is too powerful for me to pass through."

"Of course it is," Attelus sighed, stopping and stamping his foot into the sand like a petulant child. "Does Scintilla have access into the Webway?"

"Yes, it does," said Faleaseen. "But would that not arouse more suspicion? You, leaving for Scintilla and just disappearing from there? I have an idea; there is a small planet to galactic east which you can use, and naturally, you will require a guide once you enter."

Attelus fought back a frown and nodded; the last few times, they'd been forced to ride in Eldar spacecraft through the webway, piloted by Eldar Rangers or outcasts. Each time it'd been awkward, to say the least; all of their Eldar hosts were aloof, contemptuous toward them. Attelus and Adelana were forced to live off dry rations for the weeks of transit because the Eldar wouldn't share their food. But what had to be done had to be done.

"Alright!" Attelus sighed, rapidly scratching the back of his skull. "Alright, Just give me the name and coordinates."

Faleaseens smiled a rare smile and tilted her head, her insanely long red hair tied into a top knot flowing gracefully with the movement.

"This time, it will be different," she said. "I am sending someone special to meet you, someone, who has wished to meet you for quite a while now."

Attelus pouted and tilted his head. Well, that didn't sound ominous at all.

Not ominous at all.

Faleaseen, still smiling, said, "the planet is what you humans call, Iocanthos."



It would be a week's warp travel to Iocanthos, and they'd decided on a day of prep before leaving Darrance didn't seem too impressed (along with everyone else, he was just the most vocal about it) that they might have to transfer to the Gothic sector permanently.

Adelana didn't mind, though. There was pretty much nothing here left for her in the Calixis Sector, and the mission sounded important. Also, she knew of the 'shortcut' Attelus had access to that the others didn't. She wasn't sure what the others would make of this revelation; she knew the Imperium's attitude toward Xenos and humans who work with them.

Incredible importance.

Adelana sat in the large, brightly lit, white-walled mess hall, poking absently at her food with a fork. She was so lost in her thoughts; she almost missed her friend's approach.

"Adelana?" said a familiar, friendly voice and Adelana turned to her friend; well, there was one thing.

Seleen Gorret was another survivor of the Omnartus but not a native; in fact, she was from the same world as Attelus Kaltos, Elbyra.

'Unattractive' would be a word to describe her if one was polite, very polite. But Seleen was one of the kindest, sweetest people Adelana had ever met. She'd helped her more than anyone else during the dark days. They'd once worked together in the mail delivery room in Taryst's tower and had for two years before the incident. During that time, they'd become friends as well as colleagues. After Adelana had lost her parents, she'd been like a surrogate mother to her.

Seleen was once quite fat but had lost a lot of weight over the past three years, and due to some rejuvenant treatment, she looked younger. But even at her peak Adelana doubted men would look at her often.

"You wanted to talk?" said Seleen as she sat at the table across from Adelana, placing her food in front of her.

Adelana nodded. "How're things going at the library?"

Seleen smiled and shuffled in her seat, "same old boring same. My job isn't quite so exciting and interesting as yours. The place is stuffy, cramped and my colleagues old, boring once-administratum clerks and all male. I really miss you when you leave with him on your many...excursions."

Seleen emphasised 'him' and 'excursions' pointedly, causing Adelana to frown; she knew where this conversation would go, so she quickly, deftly changed the subject.

"Speaking of my 'excursions', I have bad news..."

"You're on yet another, right?" said Seleen as she stuffed a fork full of food into her mouth. "How long will you be away for this time?"

Adelana pursed her lips and swallowed, glancing at the ceiling. "I don't know," she croaked. "It could be months; it could be..."

"Years?" said Seleen after Adelana trailed off, her eyes wide.

Adelana bit her lip, or centuries.

"Oh honey," said Seleen looking at Adelana with tears in her eyes. "I'm guessing you can't tell me where you're going?"

"Nope," said Adelana with a shake of her head, causing her ponytail to weave with the movement. "I'm sorry."

It was Seleen's turn to shake her head, "no need to apologise, honey. It's all part of the job, isn't it? You're in the service of...No, the highest service to the Emperor if I were younger."

She paused and smiled. "And even a little bit physically capable, I'd be there with you, fighting mankind's enemies. I must say I do envy you at times, Adelana."

Adelana bit her lip as she fought to contain the anger suddenly flaring through her.

"You know one other reason why I envy you," said on Seleen.

"Don't start this again," said Adelana, shaking her head.

Seleen shrugged. "He obviously likes you, and you like him, so I don't understand..."

"We're colleagues, Seleen," Adelana sighed. "Besides, he's my master..."

"But he respects you enough to insist you never call him that, and he never calls you apprentice," Seleen interrupted. "Most men would kill to have a woman call them master constantly."

"Maybe it's because he isn't that much older than me," said Adelana with a shrug. "Besides, if we become more, it might get in the way of our work and..."

"Oh, don't give me that!" snapped Seleen, but with good humour and a dismissive wave. "It won't make a lick of difference; you two have feelings for each other whether or not you get together. It's going to get in the way, anyway. In fact, I think it'll help and not to mention bring you and him much needed happiness."

"But the other girls..."

"Who cares what the other girls will do," said Seleen. "Besides, you and he are leaving for years, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but..."

"Yeah, but what?" said Seleen.

"He scares me, Seleen," said Adelana; this was the first time she'd told anyone this, and it felt like she was getting a weight off her chest. "He really freaks me out; he's got a dark side. I've fought with him for years, and when he fights, I see his dark side. He enjoys it; he enjoys it way too much. He has issues, Seleen and I fear with one push..."

Seleen nodded but didn't say anything.

"I think I want to," Adelana paused and shook her head. "I think I need to ask for a transfer and..."

"And if you start up a relationship with him, you fear it will be too hard," Seleen finished.

"And also, Karmen..."

Seleen nodded yet again. "I understand; what are you going to do?"

"After this mission, I'll talk to with him," said Adelana.

"That might be the 'push' you had mentioned," warned Seleen.

"I have to," said Adelana.

Seleen sighed and leaned back in her chair. "It has been three years. Weirdly, he hasn't made a move yet."

"And thank the Emperor he hasn't," said Adelana. "It'd be awkward. I think he has issues with women; he's very, quite shy about that sort of thing. Maybe he knows deep down that he'll be rejected."

"I still think you should reconsider," said Seleen, but Adelana silenced her with an outreached hand.

"Seleen, can we please talk about something else?" she said. "I might never see you ever again. I've only got one day before we're scheduled to leave."

"Don't say that," said Seleen. "Just have faith in the God-Emperor, and he will see you through."

Adelana bit her lip. "Yes, of course."

Seleen smiled. "Alright, let's talk about something else. We could talk about yet another of your many suitors. How about Jharn Omis, the crewman? He's quite handsome..."

Adelana's furrowed brow and pursed lips caused Seleen to trail off in her sentence. Then a huge grin split the older woman's face.

"I'm joking! Joking! God-Emperor, if looks could kill, not even the Emperor himself could have saved me then!"

Adelana couldn't help but laugh, laugh the hardest and longest she'd laughed in a long time.

"How's the sword training going?" asked Seleen. "How's Helma? You two getting on?"



The door swished open, causing Arlathan Karkin to look up from the reports sent from their acolyte cells on Solomon.

It was one of the Stormtroopers standing guard at his door; Arlathan had forgotten his name. They all looked the same to him.

"Interrogator," he said. "Karmen Kons wishes to speak with you."

Arlathan groaned and rubbed his forehead.

"Send her in," he sighed with a weary wave. What, in the Emperor's name, does she want?

With her usual confident swagger, Karmen walked in.

"I gather you and Attelus have gathered your squad and briefed them," said Arlathan.

"We have," said Karmen, and there was something in her tone he instantly didn't like.

He sighed again and gave her his full attention. "Is there something wrong?"

"Frig, yes," she growled. "I would like to know the real reason why you've sent us on this fool's errand."

Arlathan raised a scarred brow. "It doesn't seem a fool's errand to me."

"You know it is!" Karmen snapped. "Now tell me why before I tear through that mindlock of yours and find out myself!"

Arlathan frowned and steepled his fingers, elbows placed on his desk. "I don't know, Karmen. If there's any other reason for it, only mamzel Enandra knows and hasn't shared it with me. By the Emperor, I swear Attelus was meant to be the paranoid one. Shouldn't he be here and not you?"

Karmen grimaced and straightened slightly, seeing that Arlathan was telling the truth. Then her eyes narrowed.

"Tell me what you think, maybe other reasons why we may have been sent on this fool's errand."

Arlathan sighed yet again. "Karmen, this is far from being a 'fool's errand' I understand you're angry. I would be too if in your uhh boots too. We've got to chase any and all clues of Etuarq, and you, Attelus and the others are the most qualified..."

He trailed off as he saw she still looked down at him, narrowed eyed, arms folded.

"Alright," he said. "Do you really want to know?"

"Would I ask if I didn't?"

Arlathan smiled and shrugged. "It's a test. A test for Attelus, mostly. We've noticed how he and Adelana, over the past three years, have used a 'shortcut.' Despite some subtle looks into their minds by Helva, what that shortcut is, is still a mystery. I think Enandra believes he will use that shortcut, that, once you return, we might be able to find how they're managing it. Also, because of that shortcut, I think Enandra believes Attelus will find a way not just to get there faster than anyone else but also to bypass the warpstorm. Somehow."

Arlathan studied Karmen carefully as he expressed this but saw not even the slightest change in her expression or anything. If anyone else knew the truth of the matter, it was her.

"Why do you figure that?" she asked.

"Figure what, exactly?" said Arlathan.

"That he will be able to bypass the warpstorm?" said Karmen.

Arlathan shrugged. "That I don't know. Everything I've just told you is conjecture, pure and simple."

Karmen didn't say anything, and Arlathan smiled.

"But I'm sure you've already come to such conjecture yourself," he said, swivelling in his chair. "As Attelus has too, I'm sure."

Karmen frowned, and her attention fell to the floor. "What might happen to him if he's found..."

"To be keeping secrets?" finished Arlathan. "Depends on the secrets, Estella."

"Don't call me that," she breathed.

Arlathan smiled. "He still thinks I found out your real identity by researching into your past, doesn't he?"

"Arlathan! Shut it!" she hissed. "It was one time, okay? I was upset and...Besides, according to the gossip engine, you and the Inquisitor have something going on. I wouldn't want to see her get jealous and y'know, kill you."

Arlathan couldn't help but grimace behind his beard, he would very much like that, but that bastard, Kollath, was constantly in the way.

"Or not," said Karmen as she approached the large leather couch and planted herself on it. "I'm surprised you and Kollath haven't killed each other yet."

"Why does it have to be so complicated?" sighed Arlathan.

"It's as they say," said Karmen. "Don't mix work and love together; keep them as separate as Heretics and loyalists."

"Well, if we had any kind of life out of work, that would be possible," said Arlathan.

"She likes beards, doesn't she?"

Arlathan absently stroked his beard. "I was growing it before...before..."

Karmen laughed though it held no humour and laid on the couch. "Here we are, the both of us. Rejects, homeless, hopeless and have no life besides our jobs."

"Hey," said Arlathan. "At least we aren't indirectly responsible for the death of an entire world and billions of lives with it."

Karmen sighed. "Yeah, at least we're not that."

For a good half a minute, they were silent.

"Do you think she'll kill him?" Karmen asked, breaking the silence.

"I most certainly hope not," said Arlathan. "I'll try to talk on his behalf, Karmen. That I swear."

"What makes you think I care?" Karmen growled, but it lacked any real ire.

"You do," said Arlathan with a smile. "I don't need to be a mind reader to know that."

Again, they were silent and again, it was Karmen who broke the silence.

"As much as I hate to admit it, I'll miss you," she said.

"Purely in a platonic way?" asked Arlathan with a smile.

"Yes," said Karmen, without hesitation, but it brought Arlathan no pain. He understood what their relationship was going to be a long time ago. They were friends, friends who were attracted to one another and had once eloped, but that was that, nothing more. Both of them had stronger feelings for someone else, who then, in turn, had stronger feelings for someone else.

"I'll miss you because you can put things in perspective," said Karmen. "And, well, it's not complicated, y'know?"

"Yeah, I know," said Arlathan. "I'll miss you as well, Estella Erith."

She raised her head and met his gaze, smiling. "And despite everything, you aren't as burdened by cynicism and pragmatism like so many others here."

"You really think that?" said Arlathan, finding it very hard to believe.

Karmen climbed off the couch and stretched a nice sight while wearing that black bodyglove.

"I do," said Karmen as she made for the door. "See you when I see you."

"There could be another reason why Inquisitor Enandra has sent you and Attelus to the Gothic sector," said Arlathan, causing Karmen to stop and turn to him, their eyes locking.

"She actually believes you are good enough to be able to start an entirely new network there and good enough to perform such a feat well," said Arlathan. "It is a huge, huge endeavour. It shows more respect and honour to you and him. I think Enandra admires you, all of you. No, I know she does, even if one or two of you are keeping secrets. Perhaps that might be one of the reasons. That they were able to keep it hidden for so long, that takes skill. Who knows?"

Karmen smiled. "You're almost there, Arlathan," she said, then turned and started again. "Almost."



With Arlathan and Kollath at her flanks. Inquisitor Jelcine Enandra stood in the large, bustling hangar bay. They were waiting at the base of the boarding ramp of Attelus and company's assigned Guncutter. It was a Salvani class VIII Guncutter, the very same Salvani class VIII Guncutter they'd escaped Omnartus three years ago. It'd proven a reliable and capable void-class ship over the years.

Arlathan, on her left, eyed the inquisitor side-long; she wore her master worked, black lined with gold power armour, and she just seemed to radiate authority and charisma with such strength it was almost palpable. Her piercing blue eyes fixed forwards, her attractive features unreadable.

Jelcine's healthy, chocolate brown skin shown in the bright light and her very long, thin white hair was tied up in a top knot and a pointed, wide-brimmed hat customary for the Ordo Hereticus tucked into her armpit.

To say the symbolism was obvious would've been the biggest understatement of the millennia, as Attelus would say.

Kollath stood on her right; his helmet was held under his arm, revealing his ridiculous to the point of being cartoonish, masculine, handsome features, the tip of his ceremonial power sword on the floor.

Arlathan grimaced slightly and turned to young Vex Carpompter.

The slightly built young hacker stood straight as an arrow, trying his hardest to look tough and failing miserably.

"Relax, kid," said Arlathan, and he couldn't help but smile, "you look like someone's stuck a Lascannon up your proverbial rectum."

After Jeurat Garrakson had died on Omnartus, Arlathan had taken up teaching Vex how to fight; in the sporadic times, they could both get the time. Arlathan, over the past three years, had grown to think of Vex as a little brother of sorts. He reminded Arlathan of himself when he was young, arrogant, talented and about as coordinated as a drunken Grox.

Arlathan had worked through that and became the top hand to hand combatant in his Magistratum precinct. It'd taken him a few years of constant training, but he got there; Vex still had a while yet, even after so long.

Or maybe Arlathan was just a terrible teacher? He quickly dismissed the thought, as a low life Marshall, he'd taught his fair share of recruits, and they'd all done pretty well.

Vex visibly relaxed. "S-sorry," the kid stammered.

Arlathan smiled and shook his head.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" asked Kollath gruffly. "Shouldn't you be at your little Cogitator typing away, with your skinny, girly little fingers? That's where you belong, isn't it?"

Arlathan glared at the Stormtrooper sergeant. "Shut it, Kollath," he growled.

"Or you'll what, pube face?" said Kollath. "Shoot me? My arse has a better beard than you, by the way."

"I outrank you, remember, sergeant," said Arlathan. "So shut up."

"Well, I outrank the both of you," said Enandra; her voice was soft but cut over the din like a powered blade cutting through paper. "So both of you shut up. Oh, and Kollath. Vex has every right to be here, he might not be seeing his friends for a long time, so of course, he'll see them off."

Kollath grimaced and muttered, "he even has friends? News to me."

This elicited another glare from Arlathan, and he wondered for the thousandth time what Inquisitor saw in him.

Jelcine placed the wide-brimmed hat on her head and asked, "Arlathan, how do I look?"

Arlathan opened his mouth to answer but quickly stopped himself, knowing he'd just gush. To Enandra, it'd just come off as arse kissing, and if the Inquisitor truly hated anything, it was sycophants. Them and Amalathians and the Ecclesiarchy and Chaos and mindless fanatics, the list was long.

"You look like the embodiment of all the Ordo Hereticus stands for, ma'am," said Arlathan, after some thought, and it was the truth.

A small smile slowly crossed her full lips, "I hope you are aware of the irony of your words, Arlathan."

"I am," said Arlathan. "But it doesn't make it any less true, ma'am."

It was then that Attelus and his team walked into the hanger.

In the lead was the young man himself; he walked with his usual confident, casual, graceful gait, indicative of his status as an extremely skilled swordsman and martial artist. This despite carrying three big, bulky equipment bags. One on his back and one in each hand. It was easy to forget just how strong Attelus was due to his slight height and slender build. He was the only one smiling.

Next was Adelana and Halsin. The young, lovely red head's face was as unreadable as always. She wore a grey syn-skin bodyglove and a pack on her back almost as large as one of the three Attelus carried. Slung on her left shoulder was her signature weapon, a silenced bolter with a wire stock attachment; she too was far stronger than she looked, being of similar height and build to Attelus. The irony wasn't lost on Arlathan that an agent with a more subtle skill set would use such an unsubtle weapon.

Halsin looked not quite as calm; he carried not just one pack but many pouches of medical equipment that hung awkwardly from his webbing. They would've added a lot more weight on the poor young man's thin frame, this on top of an auto gun. Even many hardened Imperial guard veterans would suffer under such weight, which made the young medicae's physical fitness level all the more impressive.

After them was Karmen Kons and Vark, Karmen carried just as much as Attelus and just as easily, but this was because she was wearing power armour of similar form-fitting design to the Inquisitor. It was coloured a dull grey and withheld much of the more fanciful decoration of the Inquisitor's, but that didn't detract from the aura of power and intimidation the armour gave off. A psychic hood hung over her head. Karmen Kons was easily the most powerful and skilled psyker the organisation possessed. There was a rivalry between her and Enandra's personal psyker, Helva, but it was mostly one-sided. She'd been gifted the power armour because of that extreme power and strength; it would also protect her during the many times Karmen would leave her body in her incorporeal form.

Vark was in full Stormtrooper carapace; his rebreather mask hung from his helmet. He carried his Hell gun with the casual calm only the truly professional was capable of, his small blue eyes darting anywhere and everywhere, soaking every detail. Despite still being on a ship full of friendlies, he was already in full-on bodyguard mode. As much as Arlathan had his misgivings of the ex-mercenary's personality and beliefs, he couldn't deny he was skilled and experienced beyond belief.

Following was Hayden and Jelket. The reason why Jelket had been assigned as Hayden's guard and spotter instead of the sniper's apprentice was that their cult had called Serlia back. At Hayden's and Enandra's recommendation, she had been deemed good enough to have finished her apprenticeship. Once she'd completed her trials, she would be re-assigned under Enandra again.

That was if she completed the trials; apparently, they were as hard as hell. Just after the destruction of Omnartus, Attelus had to take them too, and even he had struggled to pass. However, he'd never supplied Arlathan with any detailed summary.

Hayden was weighed down even more than Attelus and Karmen, although he struggled noticeably. The huge man wore a black bodyglove, equipment bristled off his webbing, and he carried two bags in each hand and had his Long-las and a knapsack slung on his broad back.

Jelket, like Vark, wore his full Stormtrooper carapace but carried a Long Las, yet on top of that, he also carried a Hellgun and charge pack. To anyone else carrying both weapons without power, armour would've been awkward, to say the least, but the ex-guardsman somehow could manage it, easily in fact, being able to change from one weapon to the other in the blink of an eye. It made him a very adaptable soldier, perhaps even more so than Hayden. But this also made him incapable of carrying much else. (hence why Hayden was carrying five bags)

Just after was Torris and Verenth. Torris had stubbornly refused to wear Inquisitorial carapace, foregoing it for the lighter but not as strong, dark blue Arbites carapace. He carried his Melta gun and slung his shotgun under his left arm. On his back was surely the largest backpack of all one that contained the igniter fluid drums for the high powered tank-killing weapon he carried. As usual, Torris looked angry, his brow furrowed, brown eyes fixed forward. His lantern jaw so strong that he rivalled Kollath in manliness.

Verenth was a complete contrast to Torris, both had opposite backgrounds, and he wore no armour at all. Still electing to wear his gang's leathers back on Omnartus, the insignia on his back. The tall, lanky young man was also laden with equipment, her face a mask of intense concentration.

Last it was Delathasi and Helma.

Delathasi wore a black bodyglove, like Hayden. Her twin mono-blades sheathed on her back. The tall, long-limbed apprentice walked with an easy grace belying her lankiness despite carrying another large bag and struggling to keep it from dragging on the floor. Delathasi's attention was set downward, her soft features contorted with strain. It was a shame to Arlathan; she would've been beautiful if it wasn't for her pugilist's nose and very noticeable acne.

Arlathan glanced at Vex, who stood entranced by the girl with that thought. Arlathan didn't know if the young assassin felt the same, but he couldn't help feel sorry for Vex.

Again, Helma wore full Stormtrooper carapace and walked with so much confidence it almost became haughtiness. She easily carried two huge bags and had her Hell gun slung casually over her left shoulder. She was strong, easily one of the strongest women in the organisation; Arlathan had decided a long time ago to never mess with her.

Following them were seven servitors carrying the bulk of their equipment.

The crewmen and other servitors moving throughout the hanger stopped and stepped aside, allowing them a way through. Such was the respect they commanded.

Attelus approached and stopped, not even having to drop his huge bags to bring his hands together and make the sign of the Aquila at his chest. Everyone else halted behind him, and there was a collective sigh as Delathasi, Halsin, Verenth, and Jelket dropped their bags.

"Mamzel Enandra, Interrogator Arlathan, Sergeant Kollath, Vex," he said. "It's good to see you."

Enandra smiled. "You do know we have more Servitors to carry your equipment, right, Attelus?

Attelus shrugged. "A bit of strength training has never hurt anyone," he said.

"Yes, it has," said Helma.

Attelus just pouted and furrowed his brow.

"Well," said Enandra. "This will be your first mission leading such a large team; you nervous?"

He shrugged. "Well, if you hadn't assigned me so many people who hated me, I'd be a bit less nervous."

"That's understandable," said Enandra. "Just don't let that nervousness overtake you, and you'll do fine. I have great faith in you, Attelus. I wouldn't have made you mission leader if I did not."

"I won't," he said with admirable conviction. "There's too much at stake here, mamzel, and thank you."

"Good," said Enandra with a nod. "Good to hear that."

She pulled her gaze away from the assassin and looked over his compatriots, meeting each pair of eyes in turn. Arlathan followed her gaze, as did Attelus.

What she saw caused Enandra to sigh. "I can see that many of you are not happy to be assigned this mission, and I'll be honest, I sympathise. There are surely varying reasons why you feel like this, and again, I'm sure they are good reasons."

She paused and began to pace; Arlathan watched her, enraptured; her skill as an orator wasn't rivalled. Well, except for one, Inquisitor Brutis Bones, also of the Ordo Hereticus, was almost as good.

"Some might feel that I am exiling you, getting rid of you; that is not true," she said, her armour joints whirring with every step. "Some of you might feel that I send you away because I think you incompetent or expendable; that as well is not true. In fact, that is the complete opposite reason."

Enandra paused again, meeting the eyes of everyone once more. "I send you because all of you, bar none, have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are among the best. Not just the best in my organisation, but amongst the best of the Ordo Calixis. Time and time again, you have proven your skill and ability and reliability and excelled in your field of expertise."

She stopped her pacing. "Individually, all of you have made great achievements. Attelus! You have killed Space Marines! Not just one, not just two, but three! Three! Or four, depending on who you ask. I couldn't even claim such a feat! Adelana! You managed to infiltrate a Slaaneshi cult and kill their leader and slip away hours before the cultists even had a clue what happened! Verenth! You have headshot an enemy from two hundred metres on the draw! Torris! You managed to single-handedly hold off dozens and dozens of attacking cultists for hours, allowing for Imperial Guard reinforcements to drop in and finish it!"

Enandra trailed off and smiled. "If I stood here and listed all of your achievements, I would be here for hours, but I think you get my point. If you could perform such feats alone, imagine how many you could achieve together. I believe, no, I know that you will take down Etuarq and do much much, much more!"

"Maybe even conquer a world?" she said eventually, and many laughed at such an absurdity.

She shrugged. "You never know. Now I will not hold you up any longer. I wish all of you the best of luck, and may the Emperor be with you."

With that, she stepped aside, and they began to file into the Guncutter, saying their farewells as they went.

"Thank you for that," said Attelus as he too allowed the others to pass. "Amazing, awe-inspiring speeches like that aren't exactly my forte, in all honesty."

"Everyone has their own style of leadership," said Enandra. "You'll find yours sooner rather than later. I know it."

Attelus smiled and held out his hand, which Enandra took and shook. "Well, I hope we'll see you again, and sooner rather than later."

Then he started up the ramp after the others.

"Oh! And Attelus!" she called, causing him to stop and look over his shoulder at her.

"Remember, anything and everything to win, right?"

Attelus stared at her blankly before saying, "as you wish."

Then he started up the ramp again, muttering, "as you wish, indeed," with an unseen smile.



Part 2: Iocanthos



The week of warp travel to Iocanthos was uneventful.

Enandra had organised them a ride on the trading frigate The Calamandastron. Needless to say, the shipmaster, a haughty, aristocratic character named Durpount (who also had a moustache very much worthy of his name), Was not happy they wanted to stop off at Iocanthos. The initial plan was to travel all the way to his destination, the hive world of Canopus, where they would organise another ride to, hopefully, straight to the Ixaniad sector.

Having to transition out and back into warp space at Iocanthos would delay him by an extra four days.

It'd taken Karmen and Attelus a good hour of negotiation with the very irate Durpount to come up with a solution (which meant their funds took a bit of a hit)

As much as Attelus dreaded having to travel with Eldar again and the potentially far-reaching consequences, he was frigging glad they didn't have to exit and enter the warp over and over and to negotiate with shipmaster after shipmaster for transport for months on end.

Luckily, Karmen was a seasoned negotiator (even when not using her mind control powers, which Attelus insisted she didn't)

As they came closer to Iocanthos, the cold, clammy feeling of anxiety in Attelus' chest became all the stronger.

How the hell was he going to explain them travelling with the Eldar? He'd asked Faleaseen in one of their dream conversations, and she wasn't very helpful at all.

"I am afraid that you will have to figure out the answer to this conundrum yourself, Attelus Kaltos," she'd said. "I cannot hold your hand for everything."

Attelus had frowned at that; she'd helped him over the years without a doubt, but he'd managed to achieve much by himself, and out of all the times, he could've truly used her help. It would've been now.

He'd wiled away the hours training with the others in team-building exercises he'd researched on the cogitators back on The Audacious Edge. They were doing well, not as well as he hoped but not as bad as he'd expected. The one who'd proven the most stubborn toward it was Hayden. He was old, the oldest of the group, but how old exactly Attelus didn't know, he looked in his late forties, but that didn't mean much in the Imperium of man, with rejuvanent treatments and such. He'd worked alone or in pairs for so long now he was set in his ways; he seemed to passive-aggressively resist it at every turn, much to Attelus choler.

Two days before they were scheduled to transition into real space, Attelus, Karmen, and Adelana met in the Guncutter's common room to discuss how to handle having to travel with the Eldar.

Strangely it'd been Adelana who'd suggested that Karmen use her powers to influence their minds, hide it from them.

Karmen was quick to shoot that down, citing that it would be impractical. Due to the length of the voyage, the complicated nature of such manipulation on so many minds and the psychic blocks protecting them had been made Helva, complicating it even further.

In the end, they'd decided there was no choice; they had to come clean. Then Adelana and Karmen agreed it was Attelus who was to do it.

"Why me?" Attelus had whined, despite already knowing the answer.

Karmen smiled. "You are our fearless leader, aren't you? Besides, it's because of your connection with the Eldar that we're doing this, is it not?"

Attelus had glared at her and clenched his jaw, remembering that Karmen had a 'connection' to the Eldar as well but chose to keep that quiet.

"They won't like this," Attelus had said. "They've got enough to be pissed off about, and Verenth and Torris have enough reason to hate me already. And now they're going to learn I'm collaborating with Xenos?"

"I don't know if Verenth and Torris should be the people you worry about, Attelus," Adelana said. "Vark's a true believer in the Imperial Creed; he'll probably take the News the worst."

"The Emperor hates me, doesn't he?" Attelus had sighed.

"Well," said Adelana. "If he does, who could blame him? Really?"

Even Karmen laughed at that, and Attelus couldn't help but smile.

So here he was, a day later, standing in the Guncutter's common room, every one of his squad (and Darrance) scattered around and staring at him intently.

He took a long inhale before starting, "thank you for coming."

Attelus paused and scratched the back of his head vigorously; public speaking had never been his forte. He couldn't help remember back at his scholam at twelve years old, having to perform a speech in front of the class and how terrified he'd been. It was funny; the bullies had long ago learnt not to mess with the quiet, pale, skinny little freak in class 11/5. He'd never been scared to face down five children twice his size and intent on beating the shit out of him, but having to tell the past of his idol, the legendary prince Royd Antares of Velrosia, to an audience of twenty-four or more. It almost made him shit his pants.

Now, obviously, he'd long got over such fear, but in a situation like this, not so much. A brief image popped in his head of Verenth just abruptly drawing his auto pistol and blowing his brains out the moment he finished. He imagined Vark screaming and shouting so strongly spittle sprayed all over him like torrential rain. Attelus always had an overly active imagination, which had proven to be a curse after he'd decided to join this line of work.

He looked over his audience and saw them watching on with a mixture of bemusement, impatience and annoyance. Eventually, he met the gaze of Adelana, who gave him a small smile and a slight nod of encouragement.

That was all he needed.

"The reason why I have called you here today is," he paused again, trying to figure out exactly how to carry on. "This mission comes with another twist."

There were some mumbles and glances of bemusement exchanged.

"I have arranged a shortcut," he said. "A faster way to travel to Sarkeath."

"Alright," said Helma. "That is...certainly a twist."

Torris' eyes narrowed sceptically. "I don't understand," he said.

Attelus sniggered and shrugged. "I don't quite understand, either. In all honesty."

He stopped again, expecting some sort of ridicule, but they just looked at him with almost enraptured interest.

"As all of you know, now, we're making a stop off at the agri world..." he trailed off, even calling Iocanthos an agri world was a bit of a stretch as its first and only export was Ghost Fire pollen, the main ingredient for a combat enhancement used by the penal legions of the Imperial Guard. "Of Iocanthos, and there is a very good reason for that."

"And that reason being?" said Darrance with a raised eyebrow.

"That is where we'll be meeting...them," said Attelus.

"Them, who?" asked Torris when Attelus didn't continue.

"Them," he stopped and shuffled nervously, may as well just tell. "Them meaning, the Eldar."

There was a very long pause as everyone stared at Attelus blankly.

"The...what?" said Vark.

"The Eldar," Attelus said, straightening and placing his hands behind his back; there, the secret was finally out, and it actually felt good. "They are our allies in this endeavour, and they are going to help us reach Sarkeath far faster than normal."

"But, I don't understand," said Jelket. "When I was in the guard, I fought against the Eldar once; they were psychotic, cruel and used horrific weapons, that caused...that caused...Oh, God-Emperor!"

He trailed off as a slow look of dawning horror crossed his ruddy face.

Attelus sighed. "Please calm down; it's not that kind of Eldar, Jelket. These are a different kind. Those are known as the Dark Eldar; we are being helped by the Craftworld Eldar. There's a difference."

"Which means?" said Helma. "That they're just going to kill us?"

"Which means we won't suffer horrific, horrific torment at their hands," he sighed yet again. "and no, they're not going to kill us. I hope all you have heard the saying, the enemy of my enemy is my friend?' Right?"

There were a few hesitant nods.

"Well, this to the empth degree, they want to stop Etuarq almost as much as we do," Attelus said. "They have something they call the Webway; it's like a sub-dimension between the material universe and the warp. It allows for faster and safer travel than the Immaterium."

"I've never heard of this, webway, before," said Darrance.

"Of course you haven't; not many humans have," said Attelus.

"Except you," said Vark, darkly, and Attelus had to fight back the urge to flinch as the cold anxiety in his chest abruptly got worse.

"Well, I," he stammered, losing his bluster; that was when Adelana got to her feet and walked to his right.

"I know as well," she said. I've known for a long time now."

"As have I," said Estella, then she too stood up and walked to stand on his left.

Attelus had to fight back a smile.

"So you two are Xenos collaborators as well?" growled Vark.

"We are," said Estella. "You are aware of the circumstances, aren't you, Vark?"

Vark said nothing, just sneered. It was an ugly expression.

"How?" said Hayden, his deep voice reverberating through the silence and seemingly the entire ship.

"That!" said Attelus. "Is a long and sordid story, Hayden. One which I cannot and will not tell you."

A collective bellow of anger and frustration caused Attelus to flinch with fright.

"I'm not telling you, and that is that!" Attelus roared so strongly it caused the others to fall into silence. "I have my reasons, and you will respect that!"

"We deserve to know!" snarled Vark. "This is heresy! Against all that the God-Emperor teaches! Collaboration with Xenos is an affront to mankind."

"Yes," said Attelus. "Perhaps it is."

There was a weighted moment of silence.

"If only this galaxy was actually in reality as black and white as you seem to believe, Vark," Attelus growled.

Vark was suddenly on his feet and face to face with Attelus. "And what the hell does that mean?"

Attelus smiled. "It means, Vark, that your belief, your whole worldview doesn't coincide with reality."

"Oh? And what? Your's does? What the hell makes you so qualified, huh?" Vark demanded.

"I'd say I'm more qualified than you," Attelus said without a hint of hesitation. "I never let myself be brainwashed by Imperial dogma, and a whole world is dead because of my actions. If that doesn't lend perspective, I don't know what does. And that's why I'm in charge of this mission, not you. So stand down before I put you down."

Vark didn't move. "is that why you can do all that shit you can do? Is it the Xenos who made you like that?"

Attelus didn't say anything, just clenched his jaw.

Vark turned away. "You hear that? He all but admits his guilt! He isn't just collaborating with the Xenos! He is one of them! How can we trust him knowing they are influencing him? Corrupting the rest of us with his role as our leader? He is their pawn-"

"I was once meant to be their pawn," Attelus interrupted. "But after everything, I earned their respect and trust; I earned her respect and trust. I'd hoped I'd earned yours as well."

"You did!" Vark snapped. "But after learning this..."

"After learning this, you now know just how far I'm willing to go to stop Etuarq!" Attelus said. "I know this is hard for you to swallow, hard for all of you to swallow, but please, just hear me out."

Everyone was silent, even Vark and all attention, back on Attelus.

"I am, a student of Imperial history and throughout the millennia there are countless times that humanity has corroborated with Xenos breeds, there are as we speak Rogue Traders today that are trading with Xenos on their homeworlds for important materials..."

"But that's different," said Vark.

"Yes, it is," said Attelus quickly. "I'm not denying that it is different, Vark; you're right. But, how many times have the Ultramarines, supposedly the exemplar of all the Imperium of Mankind and the Astartes in general stand for, corroborated with the Tau against the Tyranid menace? How many times have the Eldar and humanity fought together to defeat the forces of the Ruinous Powers? It is pragmatism, simple pragmatism. What I have learned over the years is the Eldar aren't that much different to us. Sure, they live a hell of a lot longer, but they live and love and fight for their existence just like us. They aren't interested in destroying us; they don't want to corrupt us, they just want to be left alone and survive, and Etuarq is a threat to that. He is their enemy as much as ours, and thanks to them, we have a way to reach Sarkeath early enough to maybe make a difference!"

Attelus paused, close to being overwhelmed with emotion; he briefly shut his eyes and took a long breath before continuing, "in the end, all it comes down to is this, I ask you, all of you. Do you want to have to stand by and have to watch another world burn?"

There was no answer, and he didn't expect one.

"Do you want to stand by and watch it with the knowledge you could've prevented it? That you let your prejudice get in the way of saving billions more innocent souls," said Attelus. "Because that's what will happen if you abandon me now. I can't do this alone; I need you! All of you!"

"If that's true, why don't you just work with the Xenos, then?" snarked Vark.

"Believe it or not, Vark, I'm still human," said Attelus with a smile. "And In all honesty, I'd rather the twelve of you watching my back than a thousand Eldar! Once we reach Iocanthos, you may leave. I will find go to Sarkeath by my myself. But once I fail, which I surely will. I'll be the only one with a clear conscience because I was the only one who at least tried, so are you with me? If you are, please raise your hand!"

Adelana and Karmen both raised their hands without a second's hesitation.

For what must've been less than half a minute, but to Attelus felt like a lifetime when the third person finally raised their hand. That person was Hayden Tresch; a few seconds later, Darrance followed quickly by Helma, Delathasi, then Jelket, Halsin, Torris, and eventually, Verenth.

Attelus had to fight back the tears welling in his eyes.

When Vark saw all of this, he let out a growl of frustration, and he too reluctantly raised his hand.

"Alright! You win frig you!" he snarled. "But once we get back, I'm telling the Inquisitor everything; you got that?"

"I wouldn't expect anything less," said Attelus. "And thank you, thank you...All of you."

He sniffed and rubbed his eyes with a forearm.

"Are you crying, Attelus?" said Helma.

"No," he whined. "It's just the recycled oxygen getting in my eyes, is all."

There were a few laughs at the feeble lie.

"And thank you for already agreeing to come because I'm sorry to say it only gets worse. I'm sorry."

Then he told them the rest.

Chapter 3

Posted: Wed Oct 27, 2021 6:46 pm
by Adrassil
Needless to say, the others weren't happy to learn they would have to travel in a Xenos' vessel for a fortnight.

"Stay in the Guncutter, then," Attelus had sighed. "No, I order all of you to stay in the Guncutter. The alliance is tenuous enough already; I don't want any of you causing any trouble."

"I'm guessing the psyker and your girlfriend are exempt from this?" Darrance had sneered.

Attelus didn't say anything, he'd smiled, and his face turned red with embarrassment.

"Yes, you are correct," Karmen had said in Attelus' stead. "Does that upset you, aristocrat?"

Darrance didn't reply, just sneered again and folded his arms across his chest.

"Is that everything, Attelus?" growled Helma. "Or have you got even more 'twists' for us?"

Attelus frowned and shook his head. His eyes fell to the floor, and he shuffled uncomfortably.

"Good," said Vark. "And dismissed, we're dismissed, right?"

Attelus managed a nod.

"Good," growled Vark. "'Cause we're done."

Then everyone but Adelana and Karmen started to file out.

"You'll still help me, right?" Attelus stammered desperately.

It was Torris who turned and answered, "yeah, only because you'd manipulated us into promising before telling us this. You'll never change, will you?"

"Nice work, apprentice," said Darrance.

"I'm not an apprentice anymore; I'm a master now. Remember?" Attelus sighed.

Darrance turned on him, "do you seriously think that I'll ever call you master? On second thought, do you want me to call you 'master'?"

There was a long, weighted pause before Attelus said, "no. No, I do not."



The next day, The Calamandastron entered real space, and an hour later, the Guncutter flew out of the hangar bay. Into the void.

Attelus had confined himself to his quarters, as had Karmen and Adelana theirs. He gave any instruction over vox and only if asked. The others barely talked to him. He hoped this wouldn't last long.

This was a mistake he was determined to learn from. He remembered three years ago how he lectured Brutis Bones and the others on the importance of telling the truth.

How much of a hypocrite Attelus was.

At the thought of Brutis Bones, Attelus wondered what happened to the Inquisitor. Had he escaped the destruction of Omnartus? Attelus doubted that it would be him if anyone managed to escape. Had Brutis gone all the way back home to Segmentum Pacificus? Attelus envied the Inquisitor's natural charisma and leadership ability and wondered, what would he do now?

The answer quickly came to the Throne Agent. Brutis Bones wouldn't have gotten in this predicament in the first frigging place.

The beep of the vox caused Attelus to jump from his introspection.

"We're approaching the coordinates you gave," said Darrance. "You and your girlfriends better get ready."

"Got you," Attelus said as he stood and retrieved his sheathed power sword in an instant. "Anything on the scanners?"

"No," said Darrance as though it was the stupidest question in existence. "If there is anything, I will call you."

"Forget that," said Attelus. "I'm going up there."

"Sure," said Darrance, uncaring. "You do whatever you want to do; you are the master. After all.'

Attelus winced while stepping out the door.

Attelus was walking onto the small bridge when the Eldar vessel seemed to shimmer into existence. It was only two hundred kilometres away and dominated the view.

Attelus gaped; he expected another moderately large explanatory craft. But this was a warship it was large, perhaps two kilometres in length and bristled with the esoteric weapons from length to width.

"Not what you were expecting?" said Verenth, who sat at the hull-mounted weapon controls.

"No," said Attelus. "Not even close."

"Well," said Vark. "Just shows what you know."

Attelus' attention snapped to the smirking Stormtrooper who sat at the scanner. "Unlike you, who knows everything."

Vark shrugged.

+Mon'keigh,+ a soft male voice suddenly echoed through Attelus' mind, causing him to flinch. It was heavily accented, a stark contrast to Faleaseen's easy to understand words. +I am Warlock Klrith of Dalorsia; this is the Kaltoria, the flagship of master autarch Raloth Arlyandor. I will psychically guide your pilot to what you term "the docking bay." I will not try to warn you what will happen if you do or even think of anything out of place. Even you Mon'keigh have the mental capacity to understand that, I hope.+

"Charming," said Darrance. "What a positively charming Xenos. Maybe I'll share a recaff and cookies with this 'Warlock' and share war stories. That will be fun, sure as sure."

The corner of Attelus' mouth twitched, and he had to clench his teeth to keep from pointing out the pilot's hypocrisy.

Then Darrance looked over his shoulder at Attelus. "Are you sure this is the right way?"

"Yes," said Attelus without hesitation. Then he turned and left, saying: "Excuse me, I have a meeting to attend to."



Attelus wanted a smoke of Lho. He'd given up a few years ago, but the cravings still came when he was at his most nervous. Karmen and Adelana walked into the white, brightly lit, huge hanger bay. Their footfalls echoed on the wraithbone floor, and Attelus was uncomfortably reminded that his bones were made from the same stuff.

Twenty Eldar stood in disciplined ranks, watching their approach through impassive red slits in their high helms. Everyone was at least two metres tall and inhumanly slender. Their shuriken catapults held in confident grasps.

They were guardians, the militia of the Eldar. In the now-familiar colours of craftworld Dalorsia.

"What do we do?" Adelana whispered in Attelus' ear, causing a shiver to go down his neck.

"Stop there, that is what you do," said a voice that didn't just echo but boomed. It wasn't shouted but projected with such power and clarity all three of them couldn't help freeze but in their tracks. It was the voice of a true commander, one of incomparable experience and charisma.

Abruptly, the lines of guardians snapped simultaneously aside, making an opening in their ranks and two figures approached through. One was shorter than the others but no less slender, and he radiated an aura of such strength it was almost impossible not to stare. His armour was more ornate, and two flags flowed from the top of his backpack. In one hand, he held a shuriken catapult; the other held a beautiful single-edged power sword with a glowing red gem in its hilt. He lacked a helmet, and his long, brown hair was pulled up in a top knot and his almond-shaped eyes, fierce as he glared from under a hooded brow.

The other wore robes covered in glowing, eldritch runes and whose elaborate helm stared at Attelus with indifference in stark contrast to the other.

As they came close, Attelus had to fight the urge to flinch back. Neither Adelana nor Karmen managed it, though

While he was short for an Eldar, the helmetless Eldar still loomed over Attelus, almost literally looking down his nose at the Throne agents.

Then much to Attelus' surprise, the short Eldar suddenly sighed and facepalmed.

"I cannot believe that I am losing out to you," he muttered, like Faleaseen; his voice lacked a strong accent indicating he'd spent some time mastering Low-Gothic.

"Excuse me?" said Attelus, his eyes widening.

"Never mind," said the Eldar, quickly finding his poise. "It is nothing to concern yourself with. As you may have guessed, I am master autarch Raloth Arlyandor, formally of Dalorsia, which is warlock Klrith. I welcome you aboard the Kaltoria; you are Attelus Xanthis Kaltos, I assume..."

The autarch's eyes narrowed as he paused, "I have heard much about you."

Attelus couldn't help but straighten and smile brightly. "Really?"

"Yes, really," sighed Raloth Arlyandor. "And who are your companions?"

"This is my...Apprentice Adelana Helgen and my sanctioned psyker, Karmen Kons."

"Is this all of you?" said the warlock, his real voice even heavier accented in person. "As I understood, there were meant to be at least ten."

"The rest of them are staying in the ship," said Attelus through clenched teeth.

"Ah! I see," said Klrith. "Dissension in the ranks, how typically Mon'keigh of you."

Raloth sighed again. "Klrith..."

"And I do not understand that term 'sanctioned psyker," said the warlock quickly.

"It means I am sanctioned by the Imperium of Mankind to practice the psychic arts in the Emperor's name," said Karmen.

"That, sometimes I forget," said Klrith. "Most of your kind are blind to the skein, and the rest of you fear it out of ignorance."

"Well," said Attelus. "Who can really blame us fearing it when you can blow up frigging buildings with a thought."

"I will not have smart mouthing from you, little Mon'keigh," said Klrith. "Even if you are the leader of your little band of thugs. Well, supposedly the leader, not a very good one if you ask me."

Attelus frowned, and his gaze fell to the floor. "Well, I have a lot to learn."

"And that is one of the reasons you are here," said Raloth. "I am here to teach you much of what I know."

A long, weighted silence and Klrith's impassive mask swivelled slowly to Raloth.

"The Farseer did not-"

"She did not tell you because she knew you would whine about it," interrupted Raloth, rolling his eyes. "How do you think I feel about this, Klrith? How?"

Klrith's head tilted in what seemed amusement. "I do not know if this path is wise-"

"It is the farseer's order, Klrith," said Raloth. "You do not have the right to question, for you lack even half the tact and wisdom she does."

"Of course you would say that you will do anything she tells you to-"

"Dismissed, Klrith. Back to your quarters, that is an order."

Klrith bristled, looked at Attelus, Karmen and Adelana witheringly. Then turned and stormed off.

"My apologies for Klrith," said Raloth. "Believe it or not, we are all not like him. He is an excellent warlock, his talents make him one of the best under my command, but he can be rather...opinionated."

"You're training me," said Attelus; he stood stiffly, barely processing this new revelation. Unable to even point out the autarch's massive understatement.

"I am, and we haven't much time, only two of your weeks, so we will start in three of your hours, and in one, we will be entering the webway, understand?"

"Understood."

"Good, I will meet you here, then. Be ready, but it must be you and you alone, okay?"

Attelus hesitated but nodded, gave an awkward salute, then turned on the balls of his feet, and he, Karmen and Adelana started back to the Guncutter.

"What, a twist," said Adelana.

"Yes," said Karmen, then glanced conspiratorially over her shoulder. "But at least we know they aren't a whole race of Darrances, now."

Their combined laughter echoed.



In silence, Raloth led Attelus through the corridors of his ship. It was like all the others Attelus had travelled in over the last three years. Quiet, there was no hum of engines. No smell of recycled oxygen purification chemicals. It was like he was back on Elbyra again, walking languidly through the Velrosian plains.

The hustle and bustle of activity guardians ran back and around in training exercises throughout it. Attelus even managed to see a squad of five Eldar warriors in dark blue armour and white helmets. Multicoloured plumage of red, yellow and black rippled from the top of their helms. They wielded longer shuriken catapults than the guardians but what really set them apart was the fierce, almost palpable aura they emitted. Theirs was different than Raloth's, though. It was a war. Attelus had never truly fought in a large scale battle before, but he knew it when he felt it. One of them, a woman whose plumage was taller than the others, she wielded a powerspear and set on her arm was a strangely shaped, copper coloured device similar to that Raloth had on his left arm. Her aura was stronger than the others, it made Attelus nauseous, and he had to fight to keep himself from slowing. He was already struggling to keep with Raloth's long strides.

"Raloth," said Attelus once the warriors passed and he regained his composure.

"Refrain from calling me Raloth," said the autarch. "From henceforth, you will call me by my title; autarch will do. I do not put precedence on the 'master' I may command the armies of Dalrosia as a whole, but there are other autarchs who surpass me in other ways. If I truly earned the title of Master, I would have to complete all the aspect warrior paths."

"Yes, autarch," Attelus stammered. "I'm sorry, but may I ask, who were the warriors in blue armour?"

Raloth kept his back to Attelus as he let out an amused snigger. "You asked to ask, then asked anyway. Is that not a contradiction? Yes, you may they; Attelus Kaltos are aspect warriors. Dire Avengers of the temple of Graceful Wrath. I had once trained under their Exarch, the one who wields the spear and the force shield. Haliazel Kelzein many, many cycles ago. Of course, she was not known as Haliazel Kelzein then. Her father had inhabited the exarch armour in those days."

Attelus flinched as a thought hit him. "Autarch, why are you telling me this?"

Raloth laughed. "That is an excellent question and one I did not expect from you. I believe farseer Faleaseen placed an incredibly elaborate, powerful block on your thoughts, did she not? So I believe that you would not be able to share this information even if you wanted to. And no one short of Eldrad Utlhran could pry it from your memory."

"Falea...The farseer has mentioned this Eldrad Ulthran on a few occasions now. Who is he? Or she?"

"Questions, questions, you are truly a hub of questions, are you not?" laughed Raloth. "I am sorry, but I do not believe you need to know about the famous Eldrad Ulthran, not as of yet. Anyway, here we are."

Raloth suddenly turned off the corridor and through a pair of hissing doors into a small cylindrical room. It was simple, unadorned but was obviously a training area.

"This is my training quarters," said Raloth. "Usually, I would be training with my warriors, but over the next two weeks, we will be in here when you are not with your people on your ship."

"Ah! I see!"

"You see what?"

"You train with your warriors to boost morale, am I right?"

"You are, correct," said Raloth. "But it does not take incredible mental capacity to figure that out. Now, Attelus, before we start. I have a question for you."

His eyes narrowed. "And you must answer truthfully. I am no seer, but I will know if you lie."

Attelus nodded.

"What do you want?" said the autarch.

The question took Attelus off guard, but only for a second. "I want to hunt down Etuarq. I want to bring him to justice and avenge the countless people he has killed."

Raloth looked at Attelus for a few, weighted seconds.

"No," said the autarch eventually.

"What? What do you mean, no?" Attelus exclaimed.

"Remember, title! I am your teacher, Attelus Kaltos! This is a rare honour for a human such as you! And you will show me the respect I deserve! And yes: no. It is not the answer I am looking for. Now answer the question again and answer correctly this time. What do you want?"

Attelus let out an animated sigh and stood struggling to think up another answer.

"I...I don't know," he said. "Adelana? I want to be with Adelana; does that suffice?"

Raloth shook his head, sighed and stroked his thin nose. "Yet again, you are incorrect."

Attelus let out a loud groan and hunched forward.

"Okay!" said the autarch. "Perhaps I am going about this the wrong way. You are human, and while the Farseer has gifted you immortality, you are unaccustomed to the thought of living so long and so...Why are you smiling?"

"You said okay," said Attelus. "Autarch."

"Yes? So?"

"It is a term commonly used on my homeworld. My country, Velrosia to be exact, autarch."

Raloth stared at Attelus briefly before flinching suddenly.

"Forget about that!" Raloth snapped. "It is immaterial! Now, Attelus. When I asked you what you want, I meant uh, I forget that word. It means in a long time. I mean, what do you want after you manage to defeat the Etuarq mon'keigh. What do you want in the...In the-"

"Long term?"

Raloth pointed at Attelus with an animated movement. "That is it! You mon'keigh and your low-Gothic! I have spent many cycles trying to master the language but have yet to achieve it."

"Well, nobodies perfect," said Attelus with a shrug, and he had to fight the urge to shuffle impatiently.

"Wise words, I must confess," said Raloth. "Not even my kind, no matter how much many of us proclaim so. So, Attelus Kaltos, now you understand what I mean, please answer the question. Take your time if you must."

Attelus smiled and thought, but it didn't take long for him to find the answer. The memory of sitting in that aircraft, flying to Taryst's tower three years ago, suddenly sprung into his mind.

"I want to travel the galaxy," he said. "I want to teach what I've learned in my long life to later generations. Teach them the mistakes their forefathers made, so they may never repeat them again."

Raloth smiled. "That is a noble cause, Attelus. But I fear it is one doomed for failure. As I understand it, your Emperor tried the same, and he failed. Spectacularly. What makes you think you can succeed? And what may or may not be mistakes could be up to interpretation."

"I don't know, autarch," said Attelus. "But by the throne, I'll try. And I'll try to keep it simple. Don't build nuclear weapons, don't worship the chaos gods, etcetera, etcetera."

The autarch nodded with what might've been respect. "That is a sign of wisdom, Attelus Kaltos. Being able to admit that you 'don't know' when you do not know. I am steadily seeing what Faleaseen sees in you."

Attelus couldn't help be taken aback by the melancholy tingeing the autarch's tone.

"D-did I answer correctly?"

"You did," said Raloth as, with blinding speed, he drew his power sword, and it blazed into life. "Your training begins in earnest!"

Then with a snarl, he charged.

For seemingly the fiftieth time, Attelus was thrown onto his arse. Power sword flying from his grasp.

"You have skill," said Raloth as he lightly paced. "And your speed and reflexes are far beyond normal humans, perhaps even rivalling some of the dark kin. But you have yet to reach your true potential."

"I thought you were going to teach me how to be a leader," said Attelus. "Not kicking the ever-loving crap out of me."

Raloth barked out a laugh. "Your speed, it even outdoes mine, but I have something you do not."

"What?"

"Experience. I have been an autarch for over five hundred of your years. I have fought against the dark kin; many were more skilled than I. I have killed Space Marines who have given their souls to the four and have received their blessings. I have even fought and defeated the elite of the elite, the assassins of your Imperium who were far more skilled than I, but yet I am here while they are not. Why do you think that is?"

"Hmm," Attelus mused as he climbed to his feet, searching for the answer, but it alluded him. "Sorry. Don't know why?"

"Patience, thinking ahead," said Raloth as though it was the most obvious answer in the galaxy. "Fighting and the Path of Command are the same things. As I understand it, you humans have a game called Regicide, am I correct?"

"I suck at Regicide," Attelus sighed.

"Well, get better; you must learn to think not five or six moves ahead but dozens, even hundreds if needs be. There is always someone stronger, faster and more skilled than you, so do not just trust in your skill and speed but in your mind as well. You have trained, so your body moves on its own accord, I can see. Your mind is clear, so use it."

Attelus nodded; his father had never said that. Serghar Kaltos had always emphasized going in for the kill. Plan for the initial strike, but whatever happened after was fair game, but Serghar wasn't a commander; he was an assassin, pure and simple.

"I see."

"You must think the same way of those who you command," said Raloth. "You must know the strength, weaknesses and personalities of your men. What they will do and how they will do it, ten, twenty moves ahead."

"Just like one must know how and why all the units in Regicide move," said Attelus, his eyes widening in realisation.

"Precisely, but do not think of them as mere units on the board. They have hopes, dreams and wants and needs just the same as you. Tell me, Attelus Kaltos, what is the true meaning of being a commander?"

Attelus pouted and shrugged. "Command?"

Raloth laughed and shook his head. "Yes, but no. The true meaning of being a commander is to serve. You serve those which you command; you serve them so they can be the best they can be. You direct them while you consider the big picture while they consider the small."

"I'm the mind; they're the body one and same, yet separate. I serve them, so they serve me. Is that right?"

"That is correct. But yet again, it does not take much intellect to figure that out. Do not be too happy with your achievements; there is always, always, more to learn. Now, I think that is enough for today. Go back to your companions, and we will start discussing the why and how your group has fallen out tomorrow."

Attelus nodded and started for the door but paused and looked back to Raloth.

"If you know so much about those under your command, why did you only let Klrith know now you were training me?" Attelus said. "You must've known he would react so negatively."

"I did," said Raloth.

Attelus waited, expecting elaboration, but the Eldar said nothing more.



Verenth sat at the table in the common room. He paused in the midst of reassembling his auto pistol. He must've done it dozens of times now. His trigger finger twitched. He wished he could do target practice, but the Guncutter was too confined, and he wouldn't have left into the Eldar hangar bay even he wanted to.

Verenth had watched through the bolter turret's window as Attelus, Karmen, and Adelana had met them. He had never seen an Eldar before, but they were as alien as he imagined.

That was until he saw the one without a helmet on and...

It seemed human, nothing like he'd imagined.

"I don't get you," said a voice that knocked Verenth from his thoughts, and Vark approached, pulled out a chair and sat across from him. "After you joined the Inquisition, you could've wielded Hell guns or bolters or so much more, but you still insist on using that dinky old autopistol; why?"

"My brother gave me it," said Verenth.

"The brother that Attelus killed, right?" said Vark.

Verenth furrowed his brow.

"No, I get it," said Vark. "You're very sentimental; that's kind of your thing, right? But you know what I really don't get-"

"How I can work with the man who killed my brother?" Verenth said.

"Yeah."

"Vark, we've fought together on a few occasions, and you've saved my arse, and I've saved yours. But as far as I'm concerned, we're colleagues. No more, no less. I'm never going to ever tell you that. Got it?"

Vark exhaled through his nose and leaned back in his chair.

"I understand, fair enough," said Vark, raising his hands in deference. "But I have another question for you."

Verenth grimaced; he didn't like the Stormtrooper's smile.

"You are a pious man, aren't you?"

Verenth looked at Vark but said nothing.

"You and I attend church regularly, but have you ever wondered why so many of us don't? Least of all the senior staff. I have never seen Arlathan, Attelus or even the inquisitor herself. Have you?"

No, thought Verenth.

"That's because she, like Arlathan and Attelus, believe that it is better to serve the Emperor through action rather than prayer," said Helma as she approached from the stairs Delathasi following her. "I am the same. What are you trying to do, Vark?"

"I'm just having a conversation with my good colleague here," said Vark. "And I would say that both prayer and service would be better."

"Yes, well, you don't have quite the same responsibility they do," said Helma. "I was a captain in the Imperial guard, remember?"

"Yeah! And now you're subordinate to some lying little Xenos lover, how about that?"

Helma sighed. "We are in the Inquisition now, Vark. It's a whole new mentality, a mindset I don't have. I don't mind being demoted at all; you and I are soldiers, Vark. Not Throne Agents."

Verenth couldn't help snigger. "I agree, Helma. Vark, your manipulation skill is about a subtle as a bolt round."

Vark grimaced.

"I just think something is wrong," said Vark. "First, we must work with Xenos, so what next? Heretics?"

Vark was answered with silence, so kept on, "and if Attelus has been keeping this under wraps, who knows what else he's keeping. Who knows what else the Inquisitor is keeping."

"We all have secrets, Vark," said Delthasi. "You respected Verenth's choice to keep his, didn't you?"

Vark gaped. "That-that's different if it's important to the mission-"

"I would say Attelus has already shared the information that was important to the mission," said Delathasi. "I am angry; you are angry all of us are, and rightfully so, but there is more at stake here than our anger."

"Like bringing down the bastard responsible for destroying my homeworld," said Verenth as he began to reassemble his autopistol again. "And stopping him from doing it again."

Vark glared at Verenth.

"Wise words, Delathasi," said Attelus as he abruptly appeared at the head of the left side staircase. "Thanks for sticking up for me."

Despite her dark skin, Delathasi's blush was hard to miss.

"How was your time with your Xenos friends?" said Vark accusingly.

Verenth guessed not very well by Attelus' beaten, ragged appearance.

"Could've been better, could've been worse, in all honesty," Attelus shrugged. "They're surprisingly accommodating, actually."

"You're not dead, so colour us surprised," said Helma.

"Not dead yet," corrected Vark.

Attelus sighed, walked past them and into the kitchen. "If they wanted us dead, we would already be dead," he said while sliding out a ready-made ration meal from the food chiller.

"But what if we already are dead, and this is one of their witches playing tricks with our minds?" said Vark.

"And people call me paranoid!" said Attelus.

"Just saying we shouldn't trust 'em is all," said Vark.

"And what do you think we should do, Vark?" said Attelus. "Fly out of their hanger bay, into the webway with no idea where to go? What to do?"

Vark shrugged.

Attelus abruptly angrily tossed the meal into the micro oven, folded his arms and brooded, back against the bench.

Verenth raised an eyebrow; as much as he disliked the kid, he had a point.

The micro oven beeped, and Attelus opened it, took out the meal and stormed out.

"Excuse me, just had the crap kicked out of me for the last three hours," he said. "Really need some sleep."

A thought occurred to Verenth, and he quickly picked up his pistol then followed Attelus down the stairs.

"You know you and me have a lot in common," said Verenth once they stepped off the stairs and started toward the living quarters.

Attelus stopped and turned to Verenth; eyebrow raised, "are you hitting on me? Because despite what many people seem to believe, I don't swing that way."

"I wouldn't hold it against you if you did," said Verenth.

"You already have enough more than enough to hold against me, Verenth."

"We both were the scum of the 'verse not long ago," said Verenth. "So we both know that not much is black and white."

"Yes."

"So don't blame Vark too much. He's just doing what he thinks is right, and a lot of what he just said is what you said three years ago."

Attelus nodded, visibly taken aback. "Thanks."

Verenth nodded back, turned and left.



Attelus barely managed to back-step Raloth's horizontal slash, then weaved aside a stab.

"So this Vark character," said the autarch as he parried Attelus' counter. "He sounds like the model Imperial citizen."

"He is!" Attelus gasped as his diagonal downward cut was sidestepped. "And he's a right royal pain in the arse!"

"But this Verenth character who has more reason to hate you than anyone else seems on your side."

"Yes!" said Attelus as he danced away from a thrust. "I can say I never saw that coming!"

"People will always surprise you," said Raloth. "No matter what you know."

"Or think you know!" said Attelus, cutting horizontally at Raloth's neck, which the autarch leaned back from.

"Indeed!" said Raloth as his uppercut connected with Attelus' side and sent him sprawling to the ground. "Although I knew you left yourself wide open there."

Raloth approached Attelus and offered his hand. "I am surprised you didn't kill this Vark."

"What? Why?" said Attelus as Raloth pulled him to his feet, and he tried to ignore the pain in his ribs.

"He is a threat, a threat to your leadership and to your mission. Many of your kind would have killed him as an example."

Attelus shook his head and wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Vark is a veteran of the Omnartus incident, and there are few enough survivors of that as it is, and we have worked together on a few occasions-"

"You are letting sentiment cloud your judgement, Attelus Kaltos."

"Would you have killed him?"

"No," said Raloth. "I would not have."

"But you said that sentiment was clouding my judgement!"

"Yes, I did, and yes, you were. You did the right thing but for the wrong reason."

"Why wouldn't you have killed him then, autarch?"

"There are a few reasons. First and foremost is it will make you look like a bully and a tyrant. One who leads by fear, and you have already established you do not want to be that kind of leader, so killing him will contradict this. In my long experience, it is better to lead by example. To earn loyalty through word and action. The tyrant's way is the way of the dark kin, and many of the leaders of your Imperium and more likely will lead you to be murdered in your sleep or abandoned when at your direst hour."

"It's also the way of the liar and manipulator," said Attelus, remembering with disturbing clarity his former master, Glaitis, shrieking in agony. A knife lodged in her spine. Attelus hoped he had learned from Glaitis' and Taryst's mistakes but seemingly not.

"Indeed," said Raloth; he said nothing more, just stared down at Attelus.

The Throne Agent shook his head. "I've tried to reason with the idiot. He just won't see sense. What...what do you think I should do?"

Raloth sighed. "I will be honest with you, Attelus Kaltos. He has a right to be angry; they all have a right to be angry. I only have one suggestion, but I do not think you will like it."

"What?"

The autarch told him, and he was right; Attelus didn't like it. Not at all.

Chapter 4

Posted: Thu Nov 04, 2021 12:31 am
by Adrassil
Adelana was shocked, shocked into silence since Attelus stormed into the Guncutter and ordered another meeting. Shocked since Attelus stood before everyone and told them they were meeting the Eldar.

She had never seen Attelus so driven. She had never seen him so commanding. It seemed he was only her master in name in their three years working together. While he would constantly teach her, he always treated Adelana as an equal. He'd politely ask her to do tasks instead of ordering. But then he'd seemed like a master—a leader.

Vark and Torris had tried to argue, but Attelus would brook nothing. He shot them down with a cold, calm rationale. I got to the point where Vark was almost yelling in his face, but Attelus never raised his voice, never showed anger, but he didn't back down. His lessons with the autarch were already making a difference.

And Adelana liked it.

She walked alongside him as they led the others down the ramp of the guncutter and into the Eldar hangar bay.

Twelve Eldar stood waiting a few metres away. They wore elaborate, finely made robes. In her travels with the eldar, Adelana had seen a few wearing such beautiful garments, even the males. Despite their bright colours and designs, they never seemed gaudy. If a human attempted to wear such clothing, they would, but the eldar had such refined style and grace they could get away with it. None of them was alike; it was such a contrast to their incredibly uniform armour.

Adelana was never much into fashion, but secretly she liked to try on those robes just once. But she didn't think they would have any clothing in her size, and again she'd make it look ugly.

The eldar regarded them with impassive expressions.

Attelus stopped, and so did everyone else. He looked relaxed with his hands in the pocket of his flak jacket but radiated purpose and strength,

Then the eldar silently parted, and Raloth Arlyandor stepped forward. Unlike the others, he was only what looked like an advanced, black bodyglove. His long brown hair wasn't in a top knot and flowed around his strong shoulders. Despite this, his force of presence wasn't negated; in fact, his more it seemed to enhance it. He was quite a sight.

The autarch regarded all of them one by one. His large eyes lingered on everyone for a good time. He seemed to see into Adelana's very soul, but this didn't make her uncomfortable. Adelana almost felt privileged that such a great leader would bother giving her his attention.

"Greetings," he said. "I am autarch Raloth Arlyandor, and I apologise. I am no seer, but I can see the vast, vast majority of you do not want to be here."

He paused. "So again, I apologise. I apologise to all of you."

Then he did something that shocked Adelana; he looked at everyone again and, in turn, said their names.

"If there is anyone you should be mad at, it is me," said Raloth. "It was partly my decision that led you to be here. Yes, Attelus here hid it from you until the last minute, and that was a foolish thing to do, isn't it, Attelus Kaltos?"

"Yes," murmured Attelus through clenched teeth.

"But yet, can you blame him? Really?" said Raloth. "Our races have had a long, chequered history. You hate us, do not trust us, and much of us look down on you, deem you a lesser species. We have used you and manipulated you for our own ends for millennia. So I, for one, think your hatred and mistrust is well-founded."

Raloth paused again, letting his words sink in, "so when you know this, can you blame Attelus here for being scared? For being hesitant in telling you of our alliance? I do not think so. In fact, I know so. I am here; we are here to put that behind us. We are here because of a common cause. Believe it or not, we are not here to manipulate or use you; we are here on equal footing. As allies."

"Because it does not matter who is better or who is lesser. In the essence of all things, we are equal. We are nothing but ants in the vast cosmos. Our existences mere eye blinks in this universe. I think we eldar who stand before you here believe that we have done things the wrong way. We believe that if our races are to survive in this grim, dark universe, we will do so by co-operating-"

"So will you be there with us?" interrupted Vark, whose voice boomed from the back. "You and your people will be fighting with us on Sarkeath?"

Adelana expected anger from the autarch at the interruption, but Raloth sighed, and his gaze fell to the floor, "we are not, I am afraid."

"Well, you go on about co-operation but won't even help us in a fight?" said Vark. "Typical Xenos!"

"Believe me, Vark," said Raloth. "I want to be there fighting almost as much as you. But we can't, and for good reason."

"Yeah! And I'm guessing you're not gonna tell us!" said Vark. "Everyone has their frigging secrets!"

"No, actually, I am going to tell you," said Raloth. "You deserve to know. As you know, the reason why our enemy is destroying your worlds is to collect souls. We eldar, without exceptions, are what you call 'psykers', so our souls have more power than the normal human. What our leader, farseer Faleaseen, fears is any eldar dying will fuel whatever scheme Etuarq has, bringing it into fruition faster."

Vark grimaced and shuffled his foot, muttering something Adelana couldn't hear.

"If it means anything, I agree with you, Vark," said Raloth. "I believe the farseer is being too cautious, and one day, no matter what, we will have to show our hand and fight. That will be sooner, not later, I am sure."

"I would like to know," said Torris. "Why you are talking to us and not this 'farseer? Who is your actual leader.'"

"Excuse me, autarch Arlyandor," said one the eldar, a female whose blonde hair was cut short to her thin jawline and whose robes shimmered with shades of purple. "May I answer that question?"

"Of course, Coulyte," said Raloth, stepping back with a slight smile.

"Thank you, autarch," said Coulyte. "I am now upon the path of the weaver, but only a few cycles ago, I walked the path of the seer. Our enemy is powerful; we do not know for certain, but we are sure that this Etuarq uses those souls to power himself. We do not know how. The farseer and the seer council must stay in the main ship. There they are near the infinity circuit, so there they are at their strongest. They attempt to break into the skein, to catch glimpses of the future to guide us. This Etuarq has somehow blocked our vision."

"I thought the eldar were meant to all high and mighty," said Vark.

Coulyte frowned, "we thought that too. Our enemy has humbled us somewhat."

"Now I bet that's the understatement of the millennia," snorted Torris.

"All this exposition is good and all," said Vark. "But why are we here exactly? There must be some other reason."

"There is no other reason, Vark," said Raloth. "We are here to talk. If we are going to be successful, I believe this bridge must be gapped and believe it will start here."

Vark raised an eyebrow. "Just by talking?"

"Yes," said Raloth. "It must happen and must start somewhere. So here we are. So talk."

"About what?" said Vark. "We haven't got anything in common. You're not like us."

"Oh, I disagree," said Raloth. "I think you will be surprised just how much we have in common."

The eldar Coulyte approached Adelana, smiling.

"I noticed you seem interested in our garments," she said. "My name is Coulyte. What is yours?"

"Adelana," said Adelana hesitantly.

"Pleased to meet you, Adelana. As I mentioned earlier, I walk the path of the seamstress. I am only here now as a guardian assigned to the Kaltoria on a temporary vocation. I have brought some material with me if you would like me to make something..."



Attelus watched in shock. They were talking, actually talking. The only one standing separate was Vark; he leaned against the wall, arms folded and grimacing in disgust. Attelus didn't expect the ex-guardsman would. But he didn't expect all the others would. There was Torris, hesitantly conversing with a female eldar in green and orange robes. And Delathasi talking to a male in blue. Karmen was engaged in conversation with two, both male. Attelus could tell they were talking about their powers.

"Do not look so shocked," said Raloth he approached. "Such a display of emotion is unbecoming of a commander."

"I-I can't believe it."

"Another saying you humans have, seeing, is believing. Which I think is a foolish saying as your mind and eyes can lie and be deceived, but in this case, I think it is true."

"When do you think a fight will break out?" said Attelus, finally regaining himself.

Raloth sighed. "So cynical-perhaps-in fifteen minutes? I will concede. It is possible."

Attelus' didn't answer; his attention was busy being fixated by Adelana as she talked to the eldar in purple.

Adelana caught him and gave him a smile with a wave.

He couldn't help smile widely and wave back. His heart was all aflutter.

"Can I ask you a favour?" said Attelus.

"You wish for the Adelana girl to join in our training sessions?" said Raloth.

"How?"

"For someone who has supposedly been trained from an early age to be an assassin, you are truly terrible at hiding your intentions."

"Well, can she?"

Raloth smiled. "Yes, of course, she can."

Attelus couldn't help jump for joy.

Chapter 5

Posted: Wed Nov 10, 2021 10:26 pm
by Adrassil
Despite Attelus prediction, a fight didn't break out, but it didn't take long for Vark to storm into the guncutter when one of the eldar tried to start a conversation with him. No one tried to stop him.

They did this for half an hour before the eldar leader ordered the other Xenos to their duties, and the team walked back into the guncutter in silence.

Torris' mind whirled; that was, without doubt, the strangest thing he'd ever gone through in his life. The eldar he talked to was named Faldreth, and he was very interested in law enforcement of the Imperium once Torris said he was once an Arbite. Faldreth bombarded Torris with questions, most of which Torris was hesitant to answer.

But he did for a few reasons; the first and foremost was the eldar seemed to ask them with an almost child-like elation born from curiosity than anything sinister.

They only were in the small hanger-storage area, which held their armoured all-terrain vehicle five bikes; their feet clanged across the metallic floor when Attelus stopped and turned back to the group. Smiling.

"I'd like to thank you, all of you," Attelus said. "You have truly amazed me today, and I am forever in your debt."

Torris frowned, and no one said anything. He wasn't sure if this was Attelus being manipulative or not.

"From now on, every three days, we will be having gatherings with the eldar, just like this one," said Attelus. "These will be strictly voluntary, but I strongly request you come."

He turned and started on. "Adelana, can we talk, please?" he said, and the pretty redhead nodded and followed. A slight smile on her full lips.

The rest of the group didn't move an inch; they stood silent for a good minute.

Uncharacteristically, it was Halsin who broke the silence.

"I do not have a clue what to make of this," said the young medicae.

"Neither," said Helma gruffly. "You guys think if the Inquisitor finds out about this, she'll kill us?"

"No," said Torris without hesitation. "I remember she said to Attelus as we left, 'anything and everything to win,' it's one of Attelus' little, pragmatic philosophies. I think she knew this was going to happen, or at least had an idea. It's official; we work for a radical inquisitor, everyone."

"Figured that out a long time ago," said Karmen.

"Yeah, well, we don't have quite as much seniority as you," said Torris. "I'm pretty sure we all suspected it, but now it's confirmed, without any doubt."

Karmen shrugged and pursed her lips. "It depends really on whether she kills us when we get back; until then, it's not really confirmed at all. It's conjecture, Marcel."

"You say that even though you said you'd already figured it out," said Jelket. "I think Marcel's right. Inquisitor Enandra is a radical. I've been saying it for years."

"Of course you have," said Karmen. "But you say a lot of things, Jelket."

"Well," said Delathasi. "It all depends if Vark rats us out."

Vark emerged from the stairway, frowning with his arms folded. "I heard you, then, girl," he growled.

Delathasi smiled. "I knew you would and knew you were up there."

"Are you? Are you going to 'rat us out?'" Verenth said.

"I'd already promised I'd tell the inquisitor everything once we get back," said Vark. "I'm a man of my word. Anyway, does it matter? That psyker bitch of Enandra's will just pluck it from our memories."

Vark smirked at Karmen pointedly. "Or this psyker will pluck it from our memory."

Torris couldn't help stiffen as Karmen's face darkened and her jaw tightened.

"That's if you get back, Vark," Karmen growled.

Vark's expression turned murderous. "Is that a threat, Karmen?"

Karmen's face lightened. "No, it is just a mere statement of fact, Vark. We have no idea who will make it back. If anyone will at all. You and I must work together, so I would never threaten. You are just pushing it, is all I'm saying."

"You attend the ecclesiarcal services, too," said Vark. "I do not understand how you can be so casual to our leader's radical tendencies."

Karmen sniggered. "Vark, she hired me. I was a rogue, mercenary psyker. Of course, she's a frigging radical, and of course, I don't mind she is one. I believe the God-Emperor is above all things but also believe that his rules he made during the birth of this Imperium of man were more suited to a different time. I believe that he now understands that much must be done for the continued survival of our species that ten thousand years ago would be deemed wrong."

"Like mind-controlling a thousand mercenary soldiers to be slaughtered as a distraction for our escape," said Darrance.

"I hope, Darrance," said Karmen. "I truly hope."

"Or you pray," said Darrance contemptuously.

There was a long, weighted silence. The only sounds were the slight hum of the engine and shuffling feet. Again it was Halsin who broke it.

"Is anyone going to meet the eldar next time?"

"I will," said Verenth. "I think we could learn much from them."

Vark sneered.

"Much we can use against them if needs be," elaborated Verenth.

"I will too," said Hayden. "I think we will need them as allies in the future, and the one I spoke to mentioned he was once a Ranger. I have heard they are brilliant snipers, and he might teach me how to improve my shooting."

"I wouldn't have thought that to be even possible," said Helma playfully.

Hayden smiled.

"As will I," said Delathasi. "I talked to one who said she was once a 'Howling Banshee,' she said she would be interested in teaching me a few sword techniques."

Karmen laughed. "I have a lot in common with their kind, them being psykers and all. So I will be seeing them again."

Eventually, everyone but Vark and Torris admitted they were interested.

Torris, in truth, was going to meet the eldar again too. But for a different reason. He wanted to know how they ticked—their exact thought processes. So far, he could only view them from a human eye, so he had no choice but to project his own human mentality onto them, so what little he and the others had learned from this bizarre encounter had little merit. The ones they spoke to seemed like outliers. A very liberal minority that didn't look down on humanity, hence why this 'autarch Raloth Arlyandor' chose them as ambassadors. If Torris truly wanted to learn more, he had to talk to at least one of the majority.

That warlock Klrith would be perfect. If only Torris could find a way to interact with the arrogant, prejudiced creature, somehow.

He could only think of one way, and it depressed him more than he could say.

"Marcel?" said Karmen, knocking Torris from his thoughts. "We're getting something to eat; you want to come?"

Torris nodded and started up the staircase after the others, cursing quietly under his breath.



"You want to do, what?" said Attelus; he sat on his padded chair behind the small black office desk in his quarters—looking at Torris with a raised eyebrow. Like all of the Guncutter's interior, it was luxurious, with dark red carpet and walls wallpapered a lush white. Gold abrasions lined the walls and floor. It was once Taryst's ship, and everyone in the organisation knew of the rogue trader's more flamboyant tastes and his obsession with crimson, gold and white. Sometimes when Torris walked through the ship, it would take him to the old days. Back to simpler times.

"I said-"

"I heard what you said. I'm sorry, just reminiscing. This place takes me back."

Attelus nodded. "Yeah, I guess it would. Do you seriously want to talk to that arsehole?"

"I don't want to talk to him," said Torris. "I just feel if we want to get the whole picture, we need to talk to those not so...not so..."

"Accepting?"

Torris nodded. "You are connected. As far as I know, this Raloth could just be putting up a front. Can you try to arrange this meeting?"

Attelus frowned. "If he was putting up a front, I don't think Klrith would've been the one to guide or landing."

Torris shrugged. "Maybe. But by talking to him, I might be able to figure out why he hates us, why they really look down on us, and that might help us in our future diplomatic endeavours. Who knows? Maybe I could put him wrong."

Attelus sniggered and leaned back in his chair, "yeah, good luck with that."

"Look, just ask the autarch. Okay?"

Attelus thought on it for a few seconds before shrugging and saying, "yeah, I don't see why not. But whether the warlock will agree is another story, entirely. It's funny; first, you were all against meeting the eldar, but now you're all for it."

"What is that saying of yours? Know your enemy?"

Attelus sighed. "They aren't our enemy, Torris."

"Yeah, these aren't. But what about the others out there?"

"All right, point taken," Attelus said.

"Did you tell her?" said Torris.

"Tell who, what?"

"You and Adelana had a private talk. Did you finally tell her how you feel?"

"No, that was about something else. Why?"

"It just seemed you finally got some balls, kid."

Attelus shrugged. "I will tell her soon."

"Yeah, well, we're running on borrowed time in our line of work. We're lucky we're all still alive after these three years. So do it soon."

"I'm not."

"You're not, what?"

"Running on borrowed time."

Torris frowned and furrowed his brow at Attelus' arrogance, then turned for the door.

"Why do you hate me, Torris?"

Torris looked back; it seemed like the boy finally got some balls after all.

"I don't hate you," Torris said.

"Okay," said Attelus, leaning back his chair and pursing his lips in bemusement. "Then...what?"

"Unlike the others, I know exactly who and what you are, and what you could potentially become. I saw it when you manipulated Jeurat. I saw it when that Rodyille character tried to rape Adelana. You've got evil in you, you are capable of great evil, and I don't like it."

Attelus sighed and swivelled in his chair. "Don't you think I know that? Why do you think I haven't told Adelana my feelings yet? I'm sure she'll say no because she knows that too. I'm trying to be a good person, Torris. I'm really trying as much as I can to be a good person when I'm a murderous, manipulative bastard. Isn't that enough to earn your respect? After all the shit I've been through?"

It was Torris' turn to sigh. "I do respect you. I respect your abilities, believe it or not. But that doesn't mean I have to like you. I'm sorry, that's just how this cosmos works."

"Whatever," Attelus growled.

Torris took that as his cue to leave and turned away.

"Marcel," said Attelus, causing Torris to stop and clench his fists. "You're a good person. You and Jeurat."

Torris said nothing.

"I'm not a good person. So tell me, what means more, Marcel? Someone who's inherently good, doing good? Or someone who's inherently evil doing good, despite their ingrained nature?"

Torris stood, struggling for a response. But he couldn't think of anything, so he said instead.

"Even still, you need to tell her," said Torris.

"I will, one day."

"For someone who supposedly has a shit ton of willpower, you're still a frigging huge coward."

Attelus furrowed his brow and frowned.

"Yeah," said Torris. "As Elandria used to say, 'whatever.'"



The following days passed by. Attelus and Adelana trained under Raloth. He taught Attelus the way of the commander while teaching Adelana swordplay, and much to Attelus annoyance- Adelana made more progress with the sword in that week than she had in months under him. On the fourth day, Raloth made them meditate. Neither Attelus and Adelana had done it before, and they struggled. Adelana grasped it quicker than Attelus, of course. Attelus mind was always a chatter. Telling him to clear his thoughts was the equivalent of asking him to stop breathing.

The following meetings with the eldar went well. Every one of the group took part in each. Even Vark, who still kept in the background but whose expression slowly changed from furrowing anger to one of genuine interest as he unashamedly listened in to the conversations. Adelana received her robes from Coulyte on the third meeting. She put them on later after some convincing.

They were made of patterns of shining gold and red. Matching her hair and every man's jaw dropped when she emerged into the common room, blushing like hell. Adelana thought she looked terrible, and no amount of words would convince her otherwise.

On the second to last day, at the end of the training session, Attelus asked Raloth about Torris' meeting Klrith.

A flash of anger crossed the autarch's sharp features.

"And why would Torris want to talk to Klrith?" said Raloth.

Attelus straightened, seeing he'd hit a nerve. "He wishes to understand why Klrith looks down on us humans. He hopes it'll allow us to understand why much of your race does."

Raloth sighed and scratched his nose. Adelana and Attelus were coated head to toe in sweat, but the eldar had one slight bead running down his patrician forehead.

"He sees through this," said Attelus, seizing the initiative. "Torris knows that the eldar we talk to are in the minority. He wishes to see the other side. Not just the side you want us to see."

Raloth shook his head. "Yet again, I find I have underestimated you, humans. Okay, I will ask Klrith, but I truly doubt he will acquiesce. He has been sulking in his quarters ever since your arrival."

Attelus rolled his eyes.

Three hours later, Raloth and Klrith marched into the Guncutter's storage area.

Verenth and Helma were there, sparring in hand to hand combat while Adelana was in the midst of practising her cameleoline cloak technique and Jelket, bench pressing weights with Hayden as his spotter. All froze in abstract shock, even Jelket. No eldar had set foot in the guncutter yet.

"I wish to speak with this Torris, mon-keigh!" Klrith snapped.

With Karmen Attelus and Adelana. Torris was led into the Kaltoria by Raloth and Klrith. An escort of ten eldar soldiers in their strange armour surrounded them.

Torris had never been so far into their ship before, so he couldn't help staring in wonder. He caught Klrith looking at him once. Torris couldn't read the Eldar's expression behind his helmet, but the contempt Klrith radiated was almost palpable.

Eventually, a door slid open for them, and they walked into what seemed like a large dining room. A long, white table sat in the centre and was covered in lush food, beautiful meats, vibrant fruits and what might have been vegetables. The smell made Torris' stomach rumble and mouth water despite none resembling any food he'd ever seen before. Over the past weeks, they'd been living on dry, tasteless rations. This was like heaven.

Raloth indicated their seats, and Torris sat across from Klirth. Attelus sat beside Torris; then it was Adelana and Karmen. Raloth was next to Klrith. Humans were on the right side of the table, eldar on the left.

"Here we are," said Raloth. "Torris, Attelus, Adelana, Karmen Kons, you are our honoured guests. Please help yourselves to food."

"Are they going to give thanks to the corpse they so foolishly worship?" said Klrith. "At least we have the intellect to stop worshipping our worthless gods and admit they are dead."

"I know many an eldar who still pray," said Raloth.

"That is just foolish sentiment," said Klrith.

Raloth's gaze wandered over the humans who sat in awkward, shuffling silence.

"Please, do not be afraid," said Raloth. "Eat if you so wish."

Hesitantly, Attelus and Adelana began to take food and place it onto their plates. But Torris and Karmen didn't move.

"What is it you wish to discuss?" said Klrith. "Do not waste any more of my time."

Torris grimaced and decided to get straight to the point. "Why do you hate us?"

He fought the urge to flinch as he remembered Attelus asking him that very question days before.

Klrith made what may have been a snort, "hate? I do not hate your kind. You are not worthy of my hatred. You are mere ants. Not even in billions of years could you mon-keigh live up to half of what we have achieved!"

"Why?" said Torris.

"What?"

"Why do you think that?"

Klrith paused, seemingly taken aback by the question.

"Because it is truth! And I do not think it, I know it!"

"So, you can see into the future?"

"Do not ask me such foolish questions."

Torris frowned and leaned back in his chair, it was exceedingly comfortable, but it was made for an eldar, so his feet swung in the air. It made Torris feel like a child again, back in his Schola Progenium on Malfi.

"My apologies," said Torris. "But you claim not to hate us, and I am no expert on your people's psychology, but how you act, it seems indicative to hatred."

"No, you mon keigh cannot be experts on anything. Your lives are too pathetically short, so spare me your foolish beliefs."

Torris' eyes widened as the realisation hit him; this Klrith, he had suffered from some horrific trauma. One enacted by humans.

"Tell me, Klrith," said Torris. "Why do you always wear your helmet?"

Raloth straightened as Klrith flinched, and Torris knew he'd hit a nerve.

"That is my business and mine alone!" snarled Klrith and was suddenly up and leaving.

Raloth was on his feet almost at the same time and grabbed Klrith by the shoulder. Klrith turned on Raloth, and they launched into an argument in their language.

For a good five minutes, they roared back and forth with such intensity it took Torris' breath away. It was becoming more and more obvious the eldar were like humans in many ways but felt emotion on a far, far greater level.

Finally, Klrith seemed to acquiesce, and things calmed down. Raloth sat back down, but Klrith still stood, seeming to stare into space. Suddenly he tore off his helmet.

The visage beneath made everyone but Raloth flinch in horror. Klrith's face was a mass of burnt tissue and scars. His eyes were barely visible, but it was obvious they watered with tears.

"If you truly must know, this is why I wear my helm," said Klrith. "Does this make you happy, mon-keigh?"

Klrith didn't wait for a reply, but Torris wouldn't have been able to anyway.

"Your kind did this to me! When you invaded our craftworld many cycles ago! Mon-keigh in the millions who had given their souls to She Who Thirsts, led by Space Marines of the Emperor's Children! I lost my family! My friends! My lover, she was a Dire Avenger, and I was forced to watch her die! We fought, and we fought, culled you by the thousands, but still, you came. But then the Harlequins came, they came telling our seers of a prophecy. ."

He paused, his hands balling into fists. "They told us if we did not abandon our craftworld if we continued to fight that it would not just lead to our extinction but the extinction of the entire eldar race!"

Klrith laughed; its bitterness resounded through the room. "At first, out seers ignored the harlequins. Surely they would know better than them? Surely they would have foreseen such a dire future? We could win! We knew we could! It would cost most of us our lives. But we would win! But as we culled and culled, more and more of us fell, and soon many of the seers saw that even if we were victorious, the price would not be worth it and began to argue amongst themselves."

Klrith shook his head. "That was until the then warlock Faleaseen managed to penetrate the skein and despite not being a full Farseer. She saw it, she saw this future, and so approached the council. And She revealed this vision. Instantly they made the decision to abandon the craftworld. So we took what we could of the infinity circuit and gave the Harlequins the soul stones of our dead. Then we, in mass, left. Fled into the webway with the little ships we had. This happened to me when I was fighting in the rearguard when a mon-keigh tank exploded in my face! So I swore I would never get it healed. That I would keep my face like this so I would never forget!"

As Klrith said, this Torris noticed Attelus flinch and touch the horrible scar on his left cheek.

"That is why I hate you and your kind! That is why it sickens me that we are to co-operate with you!"

With that, Klrith retrieved his helmet and walked out. This time Raloth didn't try to stop him.

For a long time, they sat in silence.

"I had no idea," managed Torris.

Raloth sighed. "No, and I do not blame you for not knowing. You mistook his prejudice for being driven by the same arrogance inherent in much of my people. I was like him many cycles ago. But I have moved on. I know that you, Torris and the others had nothing to do with that atrocity. I wish he would have his face healed so that one day, he might too."

There was another long, weighted silence.

"That is another reason why farseer Faleaseen hesitates to order us to fight," said Raloth. "We have already lost many Dalorsians already. Those mon-keigh still live in our craftworld, even today. I do not know how they survive, but they do, and that just adds to the insult."

"God-Emperor," breathed Karmen.

"I hope this truly establishes our dedication to this cause," said Raloth. "That we were willing to abandon our home. That we are willing to co-operate with the same race which was responsible for the tragedy."

"It seems we have more in common than I could ever imagine," said Karmen. "All of us are orphans, and many of us are marked with facial scars from our individual traumas."

She looked at Attelus. "And some of us will not allow those scars to heal."

"I am sorry," said Torris, fighting back the tears in his eyes. "I did not mean for this to happen."

"It's not your fault," said Raloth. "It is mine for underestimating you yet again. But you need not feel guilt, what is done is done, and the war for Dalorsia was generations ago for your kind. Now we must look to the future. I just hope, beyond hope, that something good will come out of this for poor Klrith. For now, please, eat."

No one touched any food after that, and it wasn't long before the humans took their leave.No one touched the food after that, and it wasn't long before the humans took their leave.

Chapter 6

Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2021 7:31 am
by Adrassil
With their guardian escort around them, they walked back to the guncutter in silence.

Adelana couldn't help stealing glances at Torris the entire way. The ex-arbitrator's face was a mask of rage, his hands opening and closing.

She fought her fear, Torris seemed on the verge of violence, and he was frigging scary at the best of times.

Attelus and Karmen seemed not to notice Torris and his inner conflict or ignore it.

Adelana couldn't help wonder if Torris saw some of himself in Klrith. That Klirth's hatred was horrifying to behold, but unlike Torris, it was far more justified. Also, that Raloth, despite going through the same trauma and similar turbulent emotional state, was able to overcome it.

After three years, Torris maybe saw that he needed to let his grudge go. Torris was a brilliant, observant character. But maybe that was the problem. Torris was so busy analysing others; he never bothered to look inward. To analyse himself.

Even some of the most educated, good people can lack self-awareness.

Adelana looked at Attelus as he walked ahead of her. That was one things Attelus had, self-awareness. Even though Adelana wished he had it more, she wished he could see just how self-centred and manipulative he could be, but no one was perfect. Least of all him.

Or her. Adelana couldn't help wonder- was she like Torris too? She shook away the thought if she was, she wouldn't have forgiven Attelus.

After what seemed hours, they emerged into the hangar bay and to the comforting sight of the guncutter that Adelana had become so well acquainted with over the past three years. It was beautifully silver and sleek but still boxy and primitive compared to the eldar fighters and transports around it.

Their guardian escort stepped away as they were about halfway through the hangar bay and as they started up the ramp. Vark was waiting for them.

"How did it go, Marcel?" he said. "They're grox shitting us, right? They're not to be trusted?"

Then Torris punched him in the face knocking Vark off his, and carried on into the guncutter.

Attelus stopped and offered Vark his hand.

Vark glared at Attelus.

Attelus stood without saying a word, his face neutral.

Vark eventually accepted it, and Attelus pulled him to his feet. Vark nodded begrudgingly, then turned and walked into the ship, wiping his bloody lip.

It seemed things were okay; Adelana hoped it'd stay that way.

She doubted it.

"Well, Adelana," said Attelus, smiling as she approached. "That went well, don't you think?"

Adelana frowned.



The next day, they exited the webway and immediately, the tangy smell of nervous, adrenaline-filled sweat sprang into the air as everyone began prepping.

They were a well-oiled machine- Attelus didn't need to say a word.

Vark, Hayden and Torris, with two servitors, made final checks on their vehicles. Halsin collected and collated his medical equipment. Hayden then gathered the explosives: grenades, tube charges and separated them for each person as per their expertise. Verenth, Jelket and a servitor took the ammunition, counted it and recorded the numbers. Delathasi, Adelana and three servitors sorted the survival equipment: nutrient packs, water, liquid recyclers, re-breathers, glare-masks, portable solar re-chargers and various things.

When Attelus wasn't training with Raloth and Adelana, he was researching the information that'd been uploaded into the Guncutter's cogitator. Then with Darrance, Helma and Karmen went over his plans. This was all theoretical and subject to change once they reached orbit.

Attelus had planned much himself and was getting a final critique. It was a test he had set himself, and he'd passed, almost. There was a misunderstanding over the angle for the Guncutter's landing, so they had to adjust the landing three hundred and sixty-five metres east of the initial spot. Darrance had taken no small joy in pointing that out. Attelus also hadn't taken into count how Torris and his heavy weapon'd slow them once they were forced to move on foot, as pointed out by Helma. As well, Attelus had planned for Karmen to stay in the guncutter, in orbit with Darrance and Vark. But Karmen argued she wouldn't be able to unleash her full power and could be easier detected and blocked by any enemy psykers, not just that she would be slower to react due to the range. It might have worked for their usual infiltration or undercover operations, but in a warzone, not so much. Also, it was damned obvious Attelus just wanted Vark out of his hair.

Otherwise, the plan was sound.

It was an hour before they were due to leave when Attelus called everyone into the cargo bay. They didn't have to wait long for Raloth and the eldar they'd talked to over the last two weeks to arrive. Adelana was wearing her robes and gave Coulyte an enthusiastic wave, who smiled and waved back.

Following them was Klrith, who still wore his helmet, arms folded. Attelus couldn't help be surprised to see him there.

"Well, this is it," said Raloth. "I have organised an outcast vessel which will be arriving in the system in three weeks to retrieve you."

There were a few frowns but no verbal complaint.

"I'm assuming the warpstorm hasn't a baited?" said Attelus.

Raloth shook his head, "you are correct in that assumption, but I am afraid the news gets worse, Klrith?"

The warlock stepped forward, his impassive gaze wandering over each human in turn.

"We have been trying to look upon the world since we have arrived," said Klrith. "We cannot; there is a fog surrounding it which hides it from us."

"Like a fog of psychic energy?" said Adelana, eliciting a glare from the warlock.

"No," said Klrith. "It is anti-psychic, not psychic."

Attelus furrowed his brow and pursed his lips in confusion as the hushed conversation began, but it was silenced when Attelus raised his hand.

"It has the stench of the god of blood and slaughter strong upon it," said Klrith. "Khorne has infected the planet like a virus. This Sarkeath is not what it once was."

There was a weighted silence as they struggled to take this in.

"Will I be able to use my power on the surface?" said Karmen.

"We think so," said Klrith. "But you will be severely limited. I..."

He trailed off. "I must implore you to turn back; you will find no answers upon its surface. You will find nothing but madness and corruption and death. That I assure you."

Attelus raised an eyebrow, surprised that Klrith would care.

"We've come too far to turn back now," said Torris.

"I thought that you would say that," said Klrith, then he took off his helmet.

To Attelus' shock, Klrith's face was no longer a mass of scars and burned tissue. It was sharp, handsome, even more so than Raloth. Restored.

"I have learned recently that some scars must be put behind or else it will consume you," said Klrith. "I see that most of you have been scarred by your defeat three years ago. It is driving you, and if you go down there, it will consume you. Destroy you."

"We must try," said Verenth. "We have the God-Emperor on our side, and He will help us. We must try!"

Klrith smiled sadly.

"Screw the God-Emperor!" snapped Darrance. "We will get through this by our own strength, our own will. You underestimate us!"

"Perhaps I do," conceded Klrith. "We have seemed to have underestimated you at every turn thus far. So maybe, I am wrong yet again. I wish all of you luck, and may your faith in the god-emperor or your own willpower protect you on the coming days."

With that, he turned and left.

There was a long, sombre silence that followed.

It was Halsin who broke it.

"We will get through this; there is too much riding on us. We have to."

Raloth nodded, and soon the eldar and humans gathered to say their farewells.

"I am proud of you, Attelus," said Raloth. "You have made much progress in so short a time."

Attelus frowned and shrugged. "I wish there was more time. I still have a lot to learn."

"As I have said, there is always more to learn," said Raloth. "I have lived for a thousand of your years, and even still, I know so little. Never has this been made so abundantly clear since the past two weeks. I wish you luck and hope we will meet again one day."

With that, they shook hands.

As the eldar were leaving, Raloth paused and turned back.

"If you wish it, Attelus," he said. "I could have one of my healers heal your scar."

Attelus absently touched it.

"No, thank you, but no," Attelus said. "This scar is there to remind me of what selfishness and cowardice can lead to. I will keep this; I must."

Raloth nodded and left.

For a few seconds, they stood in silence until Attelus clapped his hands.

"Alright! We've still got a crap ton to do, people! Let's get on with it!"

Chapter 7

Posted: Wed Nov 24, 2021 10:31 pm
by Adrassil
Image

When they'd seen it out the cockpit window, they thought it some sort of mass mirage. That their eyes, or worse, their minds, were playing a trick on them. It was Attelus who said that it couldn't be either (yes, he was aware of the irony) that seeing was believing.

The sand, it was blood.

As far as the eye could see, the sand had transformed into a deep crimson, reflecting the sunlight almost to a blinding degree. The sun hung in an eerily, beautiful, clear blue sky. That was the most unsettling; the contrast of the brilliant blue and the blood-red, it frayed their nerves, made their minds reel at the impossibility. When they'd gazed on the world from orbit, it'd seemed the brown-beige of a regular desert world.

When Attelus had said it was real, he was only saying what everyone knew. It was blood, the blood of billions, no trillions.

When Attelus had seen it, it'd almost driven him over the edge. But he hid his fear, his recognition. He'd forgotten the disturbing vision Faleaseen had shown him three years ago, of a ruined city bathed in sands of blood and a blue sky. It'd rushed all back. It was sheer willpower that prevented him from falling into a panic attack.

All of them knew, no matter how much they didn't want to accept it, that the entire planet was made of blood sands.

No one was willing to leave the ship, least of all Attelus. Despite this, he was the first to step upon the blood sands.

His breathing into his re-breather was almost deafening. When his boot had landed, he'd expected it would be wet; it wasn't; it felt normal. That just made it more disturbing.

Attelus could feel the eyes on his back of the others watching him from the cargo bay.

"How does it feel?" Karmen's voice erupted over the vox, almost making Attelus jump out of his skin.

"Like, sand, normal sand," Attelus said as he stomped his foot, trying to make it look comical. "There's nothing wrong here!"

Karmen didn't reply, and Attelus turned back to them. Everyone, including Darrance, was there and in full gear. Syn skin bodygloves and cameleoline cloaks. Their faces hid behind re-breathers and inbuilt glarevisors. Only Karmen stood out in her form-fitting gold and white power armour.

No one wanted to breathe the air of Sarkeath, but the Adeptus Mechanicus recently invented their re-breathers. Instead of working like normal re-breathers, with the canisters having to be replaced after a few hours, they recycled carbon dioxide into oxygen; they could continuously use them for two weeks before the filters need replacing, more if used sparingly.

The only thing that set them apart was their builds, what weapons they wielded, and their initials painted on their mask's foreheads. Attelus wore his trademark black flak jacket, so he stood out; he had to, as the leader, he needed to be easily identifiable.

That meant easily identifiable to the enemy, of course, but Attelus didn't mind this. He, unlike his allies, was immortal.

"Poor choice of words," said Adelana as she shuffled her foot. "Something is very wrong here."

Attelus frowned. Now that was the understatement of the millennia, he wanted to say, but kept his mouth shut.

It wasn't long before everyone followed Attelus' lead and first stepped on Sarkeath's surface. For a few minutes, they awkwardly wandered around the ship.

It was Halsin who broke the silence.

"Maybe, maybe we'll acclimatise to it," stammered the medicae.

"And that is exactly what I'm afraid of," said Vark.

Attelus frowned; he couldn't help agree with the Storm Trooper.

"That eldar was right, wasn't he?" said Jelket. "We're going to die or lose our minds, aren't we?"

"Or both," said Helma.

Helma's words sent a sudden wave of anger and determination through Attelus. It quashed his fear and trepidation like a boot crushing an ant.

"No, we're not," said Attelus as he turned and started back to the guncutter. "We've got a mission we're going to complete, and nothing will stop us! We're throne agents! The elite of the elite! Not daemons, not blood sands or even Khorne himself can stand in our way! We've wasted enough time. Now move!"

Attelus' determination seemed infectious as the others were knocked from their stupor and started moving. Only Adelana stayed still, her expressionless attention fixed on him.

"What are you staring at me for?" Attelus said.

Adelana said nothing. She flinched and fell in step with him.

Time to get this over and damn well done with, thought Attelus.

Jelket sat strapped in his seat, fighting the bile rising in his throat and the sickness welling in his guts as the all-terrain vehicle bounded across the blood dunes.

'The blood dunes,' a term coined by Verenth. 'Blood sands,' 'blood dunes' Jelket wasn't sure what term was worse. Verenth sat across from Jelket, his head bounding about and silent. The silence seemed to dominate everything. Trepidation and was thick in the air despite them wearing re-breathers.

Jelket gazed past Verenth, out the small window behind him. He saw one of the bikers, driving beside them, although he couldn't make out who. The bike disturbingly kicked up red dust in its wake.

Attelus, Adelana, Hayden, Delathasi and Helma rode them. While Vark drove the ATV and Torris was at the pintle-mounted storm bolter. Karmen sat in her trance, he couldn't see her face, but every so often, she would twitch and writhe. Obvious even in her power armour.

Jelket frowned. He'd worked with Karmen many times, and on countless occasions, she'd leave her body, but he'd never seen her so stressed and strained before.

He'd grown fond of Karmen, despite her ability and her penchant for extreme pragmatism. Jelket hoped this mission wouldn't cost her.

At times like this, Jelket missed the good old days under Taryst's employ. Back when all he had to was patrol corridors and practised at the rifle range. His thoughts wandered back, back to his old squad. All of them had died along with Omnartus, although none he'd seen die first hand. Jelket smiled and looked down at his prosthetic hand as he opened and closed it repeatedly. He'd lost his arm and lost consciousness a split second before his sergeant and best friend, Roldar, had lost his head. Jelket closed his eyes and exhaled heavily out his nose. He supposed he was lucky. Lucky it was him and Roldar who had carried Attelus back instead of another. Lucky that his arm had exploded instead of his skull. Jelket frowned and looked out the window at the outrider, who he thought might be Attelus. Or was he? Roldar had been ranting and raving at Attelus for keeping secrets, but now Jelket knew; he wasn't sure if he wanted to. Despite his search for truth in other fields. Maybe Roldar was the lucky one. He'd died a quick, honourable death. A death not many soldiers of the Imperium would.

Jelket had left the guard because he couldn't handle the constant battles and death, yet here he was, at it again. The others could go on about having purpose and all that crap, but Jelket was here because he had to be. He wasn't inhumanly skilled and fast like Attelus or as vastly talented as Hayden Tresch. He was a damn good shot, but in essence, he was just normal, a know-nothing ex-guardsman who lived in the shadows of the best of the best.

At least he wasn't responsible for the death of an entire world.

Karmen suddenly jolted upright in her seat, causing Jelket to flinch back into reality.

The vox crackled awake.

"Attelus!" Karmen said. "I have finished my sweep of Kelitia."

Kelitia was Sarkeath's capital city and main hub. Containing its largest spaceport and the head base for its administratum. That naturally made it their first target to investigate.

"Yes, go ahead," Attelus said.

"I..." Karmen paused. "I could not go far...I..."

"It's okay, Karmen," said Attelus. "We understand-"

"No, you don't. It is like the world itself resists me. The air is like sandpaper, constantly scratching on my ethereal form, and something just keeps trying to pull me into my body. I have never experienced it before. Every second I'm out is painful."

"I'm sorry, Karmen. Did you find anything?"

Karmen sighed. "Honestly, no, Attelus. I could only see as far as the outskirts; there were no life signs. Nothing. But the entire city is incomplete ruination."

"Like it was bombed?" said Halsin.

"No, that is where it gets strange. I have seen cities destroyed by bombardment. But the ruins of Kelitia seem different-"

"What do you mean, different?" growled Vark.

"They...I am no expert on these things, but it seems that it was crumbling. It seems to have aged for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. It's like nothing I have ever seen."

There was a long, weighted pause.

"This is just getting weirder and weirder," said Halsin.

"Now that an under..."

Attelus wandered off in one of his catchphrases.

"Halt!" he cried. "Everyone, stop! Now!"

Instantly Vark stopped the ATV.

"What? What's wrong?" demanded Karmen, her voice shrill.

"Figures at our twelve o'clock," said Attelus.

"I never saw anyone!" said Karmen.

"Karmen, please calm down," said Attelus. "We know your abilities are being repressed, don't beat yourself up."

"Have they spotted us?" said Verenth.

"No, they...by the Emperor!" Attelus breathed.

"What's wrong, now?" said Vark.

"Don't worry, they're enemy; I don't doubt it. Fifty or sixty, about a kilometre away," said Attelus. "Delathasi, Adelana, Verenth with me on point. Hayden, cover us. The rest of you guard the ATV. We're going to-"

"I want to go," said Jelket on a whim.

Attelus sighed. "Jelket, we're just scouting and-"

"Please, boss."

Attelus sighed again. "All right, if you must. Just hurry it up! They might see us soon!"

As the others threw the cameleoline tarpaulin over the ATV and took up their positions. Attelus, Adelana, Delathasi, Hayden and Jelket advanced. Hunched and silent, invisible beneath their cameleoline cloaks. Jelket could barely keep up and didn't feel invisible. He was sweating despite having his bodyglove's fans on full power.

Jelket had yet to see these enemies. Soon after Attelus had reported their presence, they descended into the bottom of a dune.

Attelus had described them as 'Khornate cultists.' Jelket had fought their kind many times during his years in the guard. But despite this, when they converged on the dune's peak, lain prone, and Jelket watched them through his scope. Jelket reeled and barely contained a gasp, understanding why Attelus had cursed earlier.

Never had Jelket seen such brutish freaks. Their skin brown and bronzed from the sun; they were covered in rough scars, scars that almost seemed to cover every inch of their freakishly bulging musculatures. Many scars carved into patterns and sigils on their sun-beaten skin made Jelket's stomach turn. Sigils announcing their allegiance to their horrific god.

They didn't wear armour, just robes. Robes that were once white but now stained all over with blood. It differentiated from cultist to cultist how stained the robes were. It was obvious that those with less staining stormed at the back of the large, unruly mob. They were unhealthy, their eyes bloodshot and psychotic. The weapons they carried varied as well; many had chainswords or long bayonet swords, or massive two-handed axes. The ones with less bloodied robes carried auto guns or las guns, all in terrible condition.

All of this Jelket had expected what caught him off guard was their teeth. To a man, if they could be called 'men' anymore, their teeth were sharpened into jagged, disgusting, brown incisors, like the teeth of feral predatory animals.

"By the Emperor," Jelket breathed.

They were moving quickly, almost with purpose. Kelitia was still fifty kilometres away; if they'd come from there, they must've been walking for a while. Did the enemy know of their presence already? Send out this party to intercept them?

Jelket doubted it, but as Attelus would say, 'there's no such thing as coincidence.' And it seemed like one hell of a coincidence that this cultist mob just happened to be heading their way at this time.

Jelket's microbead beeped.

"Fall back," said Attelus. "I'd like to ambush them here, but it'll only be a few minutes before they're here. So we'll fall back, fifty metres. Adelana, myself, Helma, Verenth and Torris will set up twenty-five metres north. Delathasi, Jelket, Vark and Hayden twenty-five metres south. Karmen, Halsin reveal the ATV. Draw them in with the pintle mount; we'll hit them from the flanks. Throw frag grenades, then catch them in a crossfire. Any questions?"

There was a chorus of confirmations.

"There's frigging seventy of the bastards!" said Jelket.

"We can do this, Jelket! Fall back, now! We haven't much time!

Jelket barely kept back a curse and did as ordered. Was Attelus losing his mind or lost it already?

"Take any survivors for interrogation?" said Adelana.

Attelus barked a laugh. "Adelana, we've got more chance interrogating intel from a rockcrete wall than getting anything from these zealots. Kill them all!"



Attelus hated waiting, but as much as he hated it, over time, he'd learned to cope with it. Well, 'cope' was a strong word, in all honesty. A long time ago, he'd decided he didn't have what it takes to be a soldier. Waiting, standing still, was a large part of soldiering. Ironically, he was commanding an infiltration squad into a warzone, a job that would usually be the realm of soldiers.

"Hostiles sited," said Halsin over the vox in his almost enviously cool, calm manner. "Opening fire."

The heavy chatter sound of storm bolter fire erupted.

There was a psychotic, blood-curdling roar that shook Attelus to his core, and he had to fight the urge to cover his ears and writhe.

Perhaps he'd overstepped the mark; perhaps Jelket was right.

Attelus repressed the thought; if the others thought the same way, they'd have said so.

"Seventy metres," announced Halsin.

"Prep grenades," Attelus hissed into his link as he pulled the pin of his, applying pressure on the stub.

"Sixty metres."

Attelus clenched his teeth and gripped the handle of his autopistol harder. He wanted to check the clip of dumm dumm rounds for the hundredth time but fought the urge; even the slightest movement could give him away. They might be blood-crazed khornate cultists, but he wasn't going to underestimate them.

"Fifty-five."

The scarred bare feet came into view, stampeding past so hard it seemed to shake the very world.

He waited for as many pairs as he dared before giving the order.

"Grenades! Now!" Attelus snarled and threw his.

The explosions ripped through the horde, sending many screaming and sprawling in every possible direction.

"Open fire!" Attelus snarled, throwing off his cloak, his silenced autopistol spitting, sending reeling a reeling cultist writing off his feet.

The others opened up a second after, Adelana's booming bolter fired a metre from Attelus' left. Attelus saw half a stunned cultist's torso explode into a red haze. Another cultist's head was vaporised as he raised his lasgun to fire Hayden's work. Helma's hell gun blurted flurries, slicing through cultists with almost innate accuracy. Torris's shotgun barked over and over. Erupting messy holes through the cultist's ranks.

Attelus cut down cultists left and right. There was no cover, so he and the others focused their fire on the enemies with ranged weapons. His dumm dumm rounds were hollow point, designed to expand on impact against soft tissue. Low on penetration, but high on stopping power. Unlike the others, he didn't wield a rifle due to his close-range specialisation and desire to travel light.

About forty of the enemy lay dead or dying in the initial few seconds of combat. But despite this, the cultists gathered themselves with impressive speed and charged. Six came at Attelus, screaming out their devotion and rage. They were, even more terrifying up close, their savagery breathtaking in its intensity. Spit flew from their razor-sharp, brown maws. Their bloodshot eyes wide and chainswords and blades raised with unskilled wild abandon.

Attelus knew their horrific appearance, and the psychotic way wasn't just for their god. It was calculated and used to inspire fear and demoralise their enemy. He fought the fear thundering through him, hiding it under a cool, calm exterior.

He killed two with the last three rounds in his clip, blowing out the back of the skull of the first, then put two through the second's chest. Even with his quick hands, Attelus didn't have time to reload, so he dropped his pistol and drew his powersword, activating its edge in a blaze of blue.

The third cultist was on him, swinging his whirring chainsword at Attelus' skull. With ease, Attelus ducked and disembowelled him with a horizontal slice.

The fourth cut down wildly. Attelus slid out the way then beside the cultist and slashed through the cultist's ribs and heart.

The fifth and sixth came at him almost at once. One thrust his long blade at Attelus' guts, the other chopped around his chainsword. They were quick, deceptively skilled, but to Attelus, they seemed to move in slow motion. Their attacks were ridiculously telegraphed. Attelus darted aside of the long blade, and his powerblade decapitated the cultist. The one with the chainsword was still in mid-swing as Attelus lunged and plunged the tip of his sword through the side of his chest.

He pulled out his sword and glanced about. Only a few cultists were left. Adelana, with her monomolecular sword, engaged one. Adelana was struggling. Losing. This while Delathasi was fighting three at once, another two lay dead near her. Delathasi was skill was impressive as she dodged and weaved and parried. But she wouldn't last much longer.

Attelus didn't hesitate. In a split second, he crossed the distance and cut down Adelana's attacker as he was preparing the final blow.

The gasping Adelana nodded her thanks, and Attelus nodded back before charging at one of Delathasi's enemies and severed his spine with a slash. Another turned to this new enemy, but it opened him up for Delathasi to open his throat with one of her mono blades. She weaved beneath the third cultist's chainsword, then half his torso exploded, sending his limp corpse smashing to the sand. Attelus turned and saw Adelana knelt, her bolter raised and smoking. She gave him another nod.

The fight lasted a few seconds more, as the last seven cultists were cut down by Jelket, Verenth, Helma and Hayden in a vicious crossfire.

Attelus forced his breathing to slow; adrenaline pumped through him painfully. Blood sprayed over him.

Delathasi approached. "Is that it?" she said.

Attelus nodded dumbly, and with a shaking hand, he looked around. No one was down; no one had suffered an injury.

Attelus knew they could've avoided the cultist mob; he knew it was a huge risk. This engagement It'd used precious munitions they may need later. But they needed this. They needed a morale boost.

That was why he'd risked this; that's why he'd risked everything.

He just thanked his luck that it worked.

Attelus activated his vox link.

"Everyone, regroup!" he ordered.

Chapter 8

Posted: Wed Dec 01, 2021 11:18 pm
by Adrassil
Image

Hayden Tresch paused as he stood and started to approach the others. He looked east, furrowed his brow, then descended the hill with Jelket, Verenth and Vark.

Attelus was finishing the injured enemies with Delathasi and Adelana as Hayden approached.

"We are being watched," said Hayden.

"What?" said Attelus as he tore out his sword from a cultist's heart and turned to Hayden. Eyebrow raised.

"Two kilometres east," said Hayden. "Movement."

Attelus nodded. "Enemy?"

Hayden shrugged. "Maybe? The Velrosian 1st have reconnaissance specialists. Their elite. It could be them. Maybe following the cultists?"

"Hmm, makes sense. You saw them a while ago, didn't you?"

Hayden frowned. "I saw something following their mob. Wasn't sure it meant anything."

"Nice work," said Attelus.

"I can't believe it!" said Jelket. "Seventy of the bastards!"

"Well, seeing is believing," said Adelana.

"Or kicking is believing," said Vark, as he kicked one of the corpses. "Heretic scum!"

Adelana looked at Attelus.

"You don't think that these cultists just so having to come this way is a coincidence, do you?"

Before Attelus could answer, Jelket stepped forward.

"Of course it isn't! Somehow, they know we're here!"

Attelus stroked the chin of his mask. "Perhaps. Perhaps someone could've seen us land, somehow. Or Darrance taking off."

"It was their blasphemous god," said Jelket. "It told them. Kelitia is still fifty kilometres away! They must've been walking for ages! They must've known where we'd be before we even arrived!"

Attelus shrugged and frowned, looking like he wanted to argue, but Jelket's logic seemed sound.

While they talked, Hayden kept glancing at the source of the movement. He saw nothing more. He could only assume that movement was them turning back to fall back. If they were still moving, there was no sign. They were good, very good.

Attelus had briefed them on the Velrosian 1st and the rest of the Elbyran contingent. The young assassin master's description had been glowing, full of pride. Hayden had thought, due to his bias, Attelus had exaggerated their abilities. That the propaganda had fooled him, but now Hayden was re-evaluating that assessment.

If Attelus found out Hayden even considered that, he would explode.

"Or maybe the psyker gave us away?" Vark.

"The 'psyker' could be the reason," said Karmen, her voice hard as she approached, her power armour boots sinking into the sand. "It's always 'the psyker,' isn't it? But we don't have all day to stand around making guesses. We've better start moving."

"Agreed," said Attelus as they turned back to the ATV and the bikes still hidden beneath their cameleoline tarpaulins. "Although I beg to differ, we do have all day. Sarkeathan days last forty-eight hours."

Hayden glanced over his shoulder again, across the rolling blood dunes. He just hoped they were this famous Velrosian 1st. But even if it was, it didn't mean they were the same Velrosian 1st Attelus once knew.

Hayden looked around. With the world turned into this hell, he doubted it.

There was an old saying, 'never meet your heroes.' A saying Hayden was afraid will soon be proven true.

It was only a few minutes later before they were moving again. Attelus' bike bounced and bounded over the dunes. He smiled behind his re-breather as he listened to the comm chatter of his squadmates. His gamble had paid off; spirits were high. Jelket was awestruck at their achievement, Vark was enamoured that they'd killed the 'heretics,' Helma was in a state of grim determination, unsurprised and unmoved by their achievement. Still, her usual state of negative snarking had almost disappeared. Halsin passive-aggressively bragged about being the one with the biggest kill count so far and how successful his distraction was. Verenth was his typical 'man of few words' self, but what he contributed to the conversation was positive; he too seemed to enjoy 'slaughtering heretics.'

All of this Attelus had predicted would happen; what he hadn't predicted was when they'd stopped and searched where Hayden had seen the movement that there was nothing. No footprints in the sand, no trace of prone figures. Attelus trusted Hayden's senses, perhaps even over his own; if he saw movement, he saw movement, there was movement. Attelus smile fell into a frown. As much as he admired them, the scouts of the Velrosian 1st weren't that good. Amongst his many talents, Hayden was also a supremely skilled tracker. Attelus, too, held some skill in tracking, and no matter how hard he tried, he also found nothing. Karmen also didn't sense any trace of life.

Attelus sighed. But in all honesty, she wasn't all that reliable, now. The only one who hadn't perked up was her.

He activated her private vox line, and it took a few seconds for her to answer.

"Are you all right?" he said.

"No, do I seem all right to you?"

Attelus didn't answer.

Karmen sighed. "I'm sorry, Attelus. I didn't mean to jump down your throat like that."

"Karmen...Estella. I've never seen you like this before-"

"Yes, you have."

Attelus' gaped. Yes he had.

"You know you aren't useless; you don't have to prove anything to anyone."

"Attelus! I can barely use even the most basic psychic techniques! I am useless."

"Remember, nine years ago, when we first met and how well you did? You killed how many of the elite Blood Pact single-handed? You didn't need your powers back then-"

"Since then, I've specialised in my gift! I'm no way near the shot or swordswoman I was then!"

"Even if that's true, you'd still be better than most!"

"Stop grox shitting me! You're just trying to make me feel better, Attelus. You're just afraid I'll become a liability."

"I'm not grox shitting you, Estella! You've still got your armour and weapon; you can still fight!"

"Yes, but you forget this is a stealth mission! I've lost most of my skill at stealth, and power armour isn't the best to wear and-"

Rage welled in Attelus, and he fought the urge to cut the link.

"Well, Karmen! Will you become a liability? Because the way you talk now, it certainly makes me think that way. Of all the people in the squad, I would've thought you the least likely! Vark, Torris, Verenth but not you."

Karmen sighed. "I think I already am."

"No, you're not! Estella! If you let this negativity get the better of you, you will!"

She laughed.

"This is familiar, isn't it? Back when you begged me not to scout the enemy base knowing in my pride and effort to prove myself, I'd get myself killed. Whoever said that history never repeats is beyond stupid. But now you aren't begging me; you're pretty much ordering me. Back when you loved me."

Attelus bit his lip, fighting the urge to splutter out, 'but that hasn't changed.' He loved both Estella Erith and Adelana. He'd hoped his feelings for Karmen would've withered over the years, but it hadn't, and he suspected they never would. Despite everything she's done, despite how she tried to brainwash him.

It was messed up.

"Estella-"

"Stop calling me that! Please!"

"Karmen, don't give in to depression. We need you...I need you, please."

"I'll...I'll try," she said, then cut the link.

Attelus sighed. Why did everything have to be so damned complicated? Why couldn't they be Space Marines? The warriors of the Adeptus Astartes never fell in love, never felt attraction for another. They just had their duty and brotherly bonds. Or as far as he knew, anyway.

He revved his bike and sped up, shaking away the thought. He couldn't help wonder if Jelket was right. There was no way in hell that those cultists showing up then was a coincidence, but he doubted their god had a hand in it. Attelus suspected Etuarq. He also doubted the movement Hayden had seen were the Velrosian scouts.

It was Etuarq's agents.

Attelus remembered his encounter with Rodyille three years ago how the psychotic bastard seemed to be able to just mould into the shadows. That he'd almost killed Attelus if his faint movement hadn't caught the corner of his eye.

They had to be here; they had to have contributed to this.

And if that were true, perhaps that'd mean he'd finally see Elandria again.

The thought caused Attelus to clench his jaw, and he sped his bike more.