Welcome back to the tale of the Matroyshka. If you are just joining, part one can be found here. Enjoy
The second battle of the night was beginning in earnest.
Overhead unseen seed pods spewed corrosive death on men and machine alike, while the very pillars themselves shook with the mighty artillery barrage that answered the xeno assault. Reports were coming in of probing advances from around the rim of the plateau, advances Vhuna was almost solely occupied with warning against, often just in the nick of time. New xenos had appeared now; larger, stronger, and with horrendous living ordnance that ate its way into the bodies of the unlucky guardsmen who were falling by the dozens. Reports of men simply melting away and armour dissolving into mush were not easily dismissed as battlefield exaggeration either. Something the chatter on the vox-circuits was calling an arachnifex was apparently pulverising its mindless way through an entire squad of Leman Russ Exterminators.
Something segmented and as long as a freight train had been seen coming up the north-west cliff-face. There had been nothing but vox-noise from that sector since, and Colonel Lekh himself had gone to rally the troops there.
There was confused word that General Kurt had been seen on the frontlines, slicing a bloody swathe through a horde of six-legged warrior-beasts the size of hovercabs in a furious counter-attack, but Vhuna knew it was something that had only happened in the fertile imagination of Commissar Vodalus. Even so, she found herself wishing it were true as the sheer scale of the assault became ever clearer.
From above, swarms of winged beasts had appeared from the north and the east. Without advance warning it was likely that their impact could have turned the tide in the early moments all by themselves. As it was anti-aircraft batteries were hard-pressed, and the line had been breached in a number of places. Furious fighting raged across the plateau as the monsters swooped spitting their grotesque ammunition. The reserves were gone, and as they escorted the Sisters back to the Convent, Vhuna and Koju were making some desperate recommendations about which locations to pull troops from.
And all the while the oily, black stain in Vhuna’s psy-scape came closer and closer.
The three men stood outside the heavily barred door to the cell. Lord-General Tenebrant had indicated they should remain silent.
After a few minutes Koju heard the distinctive noise of the psyker changing form, a sound he would never forget after that morning’s activities, and then he heard the strangled screams of pain from the woman coming dully through the thick metal. They quickly faded. He thought he could hear retching noises, but could not be sure.
The Lord-General smiled coldly. “Now that Fell is gone, we can talk without fear of him hearing us. To answer your question, Cadet Commissar, we simply do not know what would happen if you were to deactivate your limiter and then kill the psyker. Would the subject advance once you reactivated it, or once you left the area? The people involved in running this fecked-up experiment think not. They think that would be an end of the Matroyshka.”
The Lord-General gave a contemptuous snort. “I told you their concern was that the psyker was vulnerable to the warp, but they don’t really know how all this works. Where is Fell exactly when one of his masks is here? Is he more vulnerable than most to the warp because of that? They just don’t know. Yet they expect us to do their field work for them. They do know that Stage One seems stable enough, so keep it at Stage One whenever possible. If you think it has been or is being possessed, or if you see it turn into someone you don’t recognise, then you get to answer your own question. Immediately. Understood? Good. Dismissed.”
Three of the Sisters had fallen by the time Vhuna and Koju managed to get their charges back to the lift. The attacking beasts had flown through a murderous barrage of fire but had still been able to get close enough to loose some of their xeno weaponry on the group. All three had died silently, their zeal for the Emperor sustaining them unto the end, but still their deaths had been difficult to watch.
And it turned out the Grand Schema was toting a weapon older than the Convent after all. It seemed to contain the fires at the very heart of a star, and had simply vapourised the flying hormagaunts on contact. Too late to save the fallen Sisters, however.
Koju held onto the swaying chains of the lift as he made sure everyone got on. According to the vox there were another two reliquaries ready to come down, but they had to get up there first.
“Vhuna, Those larger xeno’s – the airborne ones – where are they? Still off to the east?”
“Yes. If I didn’t know better I’d say they were reacting. You know, to us anticipating their strikes. It’s like they’re holding some of their really large ones back, as far as I can tell. Waiting for a – Koju –” Vhuna stumbled as the lift started to rise, one hand flying to her head.
“What?” Koju hunted around the darkness for a new threat. “What?”
“They’re here. They just – just appeared.” Vhuna was looking upwards. “How can they be in two places at once? That’s not possible.”
“Vhuna, you’re not making any –”
He stopped as the vox-channels burst into life anew. From first one pinnacle and then another, reports were coming in of attackers within the Convent buildings. Dozens were already dead. As the patchy reports multiplied they dissolved into frenetic confusion. An upwelling nova of flame erupted from the apex of the furthest tower to the west, and chunks of masonry tens of feet across tumbled outwards in the sudden light before being swallowed by the night. The command channels were completely off-line and subsidiary channels blocked with frantic pleas for assistance and demands for information.
A body hurtled silently past the rising lift in the blink of an eye. Debris; stone chips and metal scraps, pattered about them. From above, the sounds of pitched battle could now be heard over the thunder of total war from the plateau beneath. A hidden explosion shook the lift and rang the chains like a bell.
Vhuna, staring upwards, jumped as she realised Lucretius was standing in front of her.
“You knew, child of the warp. You knew, but you did not tell us. May your mistake not be your last. May trusting the Guard not be ours.” She turned to her Sisters. “The enemy is here. In our midst. The seals have been broken and the greatest enemy of Man is here. Only fire and death await him now, my Sisters. Let the Emperor’s light be upon us as we cleanse these holy stones of the stench of Chaos.”
With a clang the lift reached the top and stopped with a jolt. Broken reliquary caskets, some slagged and melted, were strewn among the bodies, all burnt and many torn asunder. The smoke from the shattered censers mixed with the choking fumes of scorched flesh. Sisters and stormtroopers alike had been blasted apart on the broad rockcrete landing.
Lucretius walked off the lift, picking her way through the carnage. The cloistered hallways leading off into the darkened Convent were silent and still, but sounds of destruction echoed through the ancient stone from deeper in the Convent buildings. She stopped by one of the reliquaries, now just a molten, smoking mound.
“The Order will not forget this failure, Cadet Commissar. This is the darkest of days.” She did not look back at Koju or Vhuna as she and the remaining Sisters headed off down one of shadowy halls, towards the flickering lights of an unseen fire.
The man and the woman hefted their weapons and hurried after them.
“Are you questioning me, Lieutenant?”
“Sir, no sir. The Lord-General’s staff were quite –“
“– quite clear that the subject was to be escorted back to her unit. Not that you had to be the one to do it. The key, Lieutenant.”
The young officer knew when to pick a fight, and when to pick an ally. He handed over the key. “Of course, Cadet Commissar Koju. It’s a pleasure to assist the Commissariat.”
Koju waited until the echoes of the man’s footsteps had faded from the short corridor before opening the heavy door. The cloying smell of the blood hit him first. Pskyer Vhuna would have hit him second if she hadn’t blanched at his presence and lowered her fist, cursing under her breath as she turned away.
He could see her hands, face and knees were covered with blood from the pool soaking the hard floor. Some of that blood would have been, in some twisted sense, her own.
“Come for seconds, have you?” she muttered.
“You’re to be returned to your unit, psyker.”
“Did you bring a leash?”
Koju unfolded the white towel he was carrying and threw it to her. She caught it, frowning.
“It’s a towel.”
“Ah, the gift of comedy. Why shoot me when I can simply die laughing, eh?” Then she noticed the monogrammed corner, and snorted.
“That’s not bad. For a Commissar.” She turned the towel over. Behind the monogrammed initial was the Lord-General’s personal seal. She smiled grimly as she began wiping the blood off her face and hands with purest wheal-wool.
“Same difference. They don’t suddenly give you a sense of humour when they promote you.” She glanced at him. “IF they promote you.”
“I live in hope.”
“And I live in places like this. You’ll need to tell me what that’s like one day, if you last.”
“I didn’t have you down as the pessimistic sort.”
“You mean, after our lengthy conversation this morning you have me all figured out? The plucky psyker woman with the heart of gold? I have a heart of solid piss. Try dying once in a while. I’ll even help you if you like.”
Koju waited till she had finished with the towel. “So, what’s with the shiny silver eyes? You all have them, apart from Fell of course. His are – actually I can’t remember. Not silver though.”
Vhuna stared at him for a moment. “It’s a psyker thing. Soon everyone will be wanting them. Were you born like this, or did someone hurt you as a child? I guess a blunt like you wouldn’t know much about it.” She dropped the blood-smeared towel on the floor, and then slopped it around the puddle with her foot.
“How’s that for insolence, you piece of –“
“Careful, Psyker Vhuna. Walls have ears.”
“What’s he going to do? Execute me?”
Koju coughed. “Look, about this morning –“
“Don’t!” Vhuna snapped, her eyes flashing and her whole body tensing as she rounded on Koju. “Don’t you fecking dare apologise. Don’t you fecking dare!”
Koju paused, a look of mock horror on his face. He stood to one side, gesturing Vhuna out of the cell. “Well, okay Shiny, but I wasn’t going to. I was going to ask if you meant what you said about my hair.”
Vhuna stopped in front of him on the way out. “Every word, Blunt. And remember, that’s coming from a bald woman.”
He smoothed his lapels, brushed some dust off his sleeve and then followed her down the corridor.
Part 12 will be up shortly
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