Welcome back to the Matroyshka. If you are just joining us, the story begins with part one here.
The encased reliquary was loaded onto the open back of a customised Immolator and bolted in place. The tracked vehicle moved agonisingly slowly over the uneven surface towards the waiting lights of the orbital lander. The Sisters walked with it on all sides. The smoke from the swinging censers rose all around them, joining the smoke from the Basilisks’s guns that was settling over the plateau as the northerly breeze died out.
Koju’s exasperation was beginning to show. He kept brushing imaginary dust from his uniform.
“Not even a General – or a Commissar for that matter – can overrule an Abbatissa in her own Convent, Blunt,” Vhuna said, and then smirked. “It’s not that, though, is it? It’s that they’re women. You don’t like taking orders from a woman, do you?”
“We’re not in the Convent any more. And that’s groxshit, Vhuna. Where’d that come from? They’re a martial order, they know how critical the situation is, and they’re –“ Koju lowered his voice, “- they’re fecking about like this.”
“You don’t mind giving orders to a woman, though. I have noticed that.”
“What? Is that what you are? Guess again, Shiny,” Koju snapped.
“Ouch. Hit a nerve?” But Vhuna fell silent after that, and fell behind the others as they walked, trying to avoid thinking about Koju’s remark.
Something had her rattled, there had been no need to goad Koju like that. She wasn’t always on an even keel so soon after being rebuilt, as she called it, but this was something else. Perhaps that muddiness –
Loud cracks echoed through the night between the grinding roar of the earthshakers. She could just about hear screams as the corrosive spores sprayed down from the erupting seed pods. Some of the bio-artillery had survived the bombardment, at least. Vhuna hoped it wasn’t much. The Imperial forces were badly exposed here, with nowhere to pull back to for cover.
Then she felt the seething biomass at the base of the valley shudder, lurch and rear, almost as if it were a single living thing kilometres across. It began to move. At the same time the air-borne xenos to the north began to move as well, heading straight for them. And some of them were huge.
Vhuna jogged to catch up with Koju.
Koju stopped, and straightened his uniform lapels. “Which ones?”
Vhuna paused. “All of them, I think.”
The woman stopped pacing when the three men entered the bare cell, and turned sharply to face them. Koju got his first good look at her, and was singularly unimpressed. Small, plain, haggard, thin and with the look of a hunted animal about her. Then he realised she probably knew why he was there. He began to feel slightly unsettled about his new assignment.
The woman dropped her gutka-stick and trod on it.
“Psyker Arha Vhuna, Cadet Commissar Reiko Koju. Your new watchman,” said the Lord-General.
Koju strode up to her. For the first time he noticed the pure silver eyes. He glanced down at the crushed stick, and grinned.
“You know, those things’ll –”
“– kill me? Throne, Commissar. You promised me one with a sense of humour this time. Although with hair like that I can see someone’s having a laugh.”
She reached out one hand as if to touch Koju’s short-cropped, blonde hair where the cap did not cover it and then staggered back, colour draining from her face.
Forgetting his effect on psykers, Koju raised a hand to steady her, and she exploded away from him.
“‘Don’t touch me!” Vhuna screamed.
She pressed herself into the corner of the room, as far from Koju as possible, gasping for breath. He backed off.
“A blank, Lord-General Tenebrant,” said Vhuna between gasps. “Very nice. Very fecking nice.”
“That’s enough, psyker. Your Scholaria recommended some control measures for the duration of the experiment.”
Vhuna held up her wrists, a mirthless smile on her pallid face. She clanked the bracelets together, the sound echoing sharply off the blank walls.
“Additional control measures. And any further insolence will be punished, girl. Someone who can die more than once should be very mindful of the respect due her superiors. Let’s get to work, gentlemen, we’re wasting time. Advance the subject, Cadet Commissar.”
The klaxons began again as the convoy reached the edge of the landing field. The Immolator and the Sisters carried on towards the transport ship. Vhuna, Koju and the stormtroopers waited just outside the pool of light.
Koju nodded as he listened to something over his bead, and then gestured up at the steady lights of the Convent buildings, six separate star-clusters in the dark sky. “Good. They’re starting to bring some more of the –“
He stopped as Vhuna clutched her head and staggered backwards as if recoiling from something. One of the stormtroopers put out a hand to steady her, but she brushed him off angrily. Koju saw that her silver eyes were bright with the light of the warp.
“Oh. My. Throne,” Vhuna gasped. “They’re coming. Oh my God Emperor, Koju, what the hell are those things? I don’t want them in my head!”
“To the west? The other traces?”
“Yes, dammit! Of course. They just – I think they were shielded as well – not any more – they are – Throne! I can see them. So dark. So very dark. They’re not life, Koju, they can’t be!”
The two stormtroopers were beginning to look a little unsettled. Koju moved as close to Vhuna as he dared, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“I have faced the Ruinous Powers before, Vhuna. Faced them and prevailed, because the Emperor protects. Everyone who faces them feels the way you do right now. You’re just experiencing it much earlier thanks to your gifts from the Emperor, but I assure you, you will get used to it, Trooper. Now shape up, we’ve got a job to do. I need to know where and when, and how many.”
Vhuna talked and Koju relayed, but he couldn’t help thinking about the only thing that had ever made him feel the way Vhuna described. He had met it when he was on Axanah Prime, years ago. The cursed traitor marine still haunted his dreams, and the wounds it had so reverentially and painstakingly inflicted in that sunken chapel of agony throbbed anew in the cold, night air.
Koju was feeling distinctly queasy as he heard the whine and snap for the fifth time that morning, and felt the shock-wave in the air make his ears pop. He lowered his pistol.
“Psyker Adrial Fell. Cadet Commissar Reiko Koju. Your new watchman,” Lord-General Tenebrant said with more than a trace of boredom in his voice.
Koju looked at Fell, trying again – and failing again – to ignore the carpet of blood he was standing in. The man was surprisingly young-looking, and had the most intense, piercing eyes Koju had ever seen. They seemed to be pinning Koju to the spot, and for a second he even thought about deactivating his limiter.
It was only later he remembered that although the young man was bald like all his masks were, his eyes were not silver. He struggled, however, to recall what colour they had been.
“Lord-General. If I may. Why the dampener bracelets? I don’t really see the point of them.”
“Fair question, Cadet Commissar. The bracelets stop the subject from progressing, unless you deactivate them first. They also suppress their abilities to one degree or another. We are very concerned about – about possible warp corruption of the Matroyshka for reasons I do not intend to go into.”
“The various masks are obliged to wear them. Psyker Fell here volunteered to wear them,” Lord-General Tenebrant continued. “There is no code-key to deactivate his, since Fell can deactivate them himself. He wears then quite simply because he fears his powers just as much as his masters do. As the briefing indicated, Fell should never be required on the battlefield. I hope that’s clear. We – others – feel that the abilities of Stages Three to Five should be more than sufficient for even the most hostile situations. Furthermore, should Fell perish, we would lose the Matroyshka for ever. And that is not an option. You will probably never see Psyker Fell again.” The Lord-General smirked patronisingly. “I think he would be more than happy with that, wouldn’t you Fell?”
Just then Koju realised what had been making him so uneasy about Fell. He had been silently mouthing his and Lord-General Tenebrant’s words just before they spoke them. Koju’s flesh crawled.
Fell remained silent, and kept staring at Koju. He tried to ignore him.
“What if I try and – and advance the subject with the bracelets turned on?”
Vodalus pulled his pipe out of his mouth. “The Scholaria tried that by accident once, I believe. They were immensely relieved to find that although they had a corpse, once the bracelets were finally turned off, the corpse advanced in the usual manner.”
Koju hand went to the device at his neck. “And what if I were to -”“We’re finished, Cadet,” Lord-General Tenebrant snapped. “Fell will revert to Stage One shortly, and then Psyker Vhuna will be returned to her unit. Follow me.”
Hope you enjoyed. Part 11 can be found here
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