Prologue, A Poor, Suffering Thing
Terr was dead. The feral worlder’s eyes kept staring accusingly at Wynder and the rest of the acolytes, as if they were to blame for his fate. In a way, they were – Terr had been babbling about the planet becoming their doom for weeks already, only because the lander they had arrived in had been red, the colour of death in Terr’s eyes. If only they had listened. The aversion to the colour red had been a bizarre trait in the feral worlder, and one that had made his and Jerrick’s relationship a sour one – the holy colours of the Machine God had made Terr suspicious of the Tech-Priest. None of that mattered now of course, Jerrick was dead as well – shot to pieces by the ruthless mercenaries that had also slain Terr. Wynder could still hear the machinist’s death scream, a sad shriek as his chest had been burst open by a superheated las-shot.
Not that the situation looked that great for the rest either – Wynder was mostly intact, thanks to his Arbites-issued armor, but he was running low on on ammo for his shotgun, Jenna the Psyker had been knocked cold after a nasty blow to the head, and was unlikely to recover quickly unless she got medical attention, but considering that the team’s surgeon, the aristocratic Annabeth, was currently trying her best to just survive under the onslaught of firepower, it was unlikely Jenna could help turn the tide. Wynder lobbed a stun grenade – his last one – over the makeshift barricade they were hiding behind, hoping to hit as many of the brutal killers as possible for a brief respite from their plight. For a brief instant, the hail of fire stopped, replaced by screams and curses.
“Grab her! Let’s try to make a run for it!”, Wynder shouted at the surgeon, who merely nodded grimly and grabbed the psyker who let out a moan of pain – at least she was still alive, if nothing else.
They had seconds at best before the mercs would recover, and Wynder hoped that was enough – he had spied an open door a short way from where they had been under fire, and the door seemed a heavy one. Perhaps, if they were fast enough, they could run through, shut the door, and lose their pursuers in the drilling platforms dark corridors. It seemed unlikely, they had clearly been expected to come to this accursed place, but perhaps their ambushers had made a mistake. There was always a faint hope.
“Move, move!”, Wynder screamed, and together he and Annabeth dragged their moaning comrade through the door, the recovering killers having resumed their fire. Las-shots and solid projectiles pinged everywhere near the three, but miraculously, they managed to stumble through the opening and heave it shut. Wynder offered a quiet prayer of thanks to the Emperor, for the door could be locked from their side. It would not take long for the mercenaries to take out the door, but perhaps it would be enough time for the trio to return to their shuttle and get the hell away from this hellhole, and more importantly, send their report. What they had found in the depths of the facility… The Inquisitor needed to know. Someone was preparing to unleash all sorts of nightmares, that much was certain.
Jenna was slowly recovering her wits as the others dragged her upstairs, babbling nonsense as usual: “The key, the gate, the prisoner… the doom of worlds… oh! It hurts!”
It told something about the situation that neither of her comrades bothered to tell her to shut up as they usually did, there was no time to waste on something like that. Secretly, Wynder was glad – at least her mad blathering told him that she was at least relatively okay. Of course, it was unlikely that any of them would survive for long, but there was a small ray of hope still left. “Not far now”, he mumbled, smelling the fresh sea air already. Could it be, could they survive? Wynder barely dared to hope. “I can see the shuttle!”, the noble suddenly cried in relief, her eyes wet with tears. They had made it to the top of the drilling platform, and their shuttle was still there, intact. Perhaps it had not been an ambush after all, Wynder thought, relieved. Perhaps they had just stumbled on the place’s security. Even Jenna ceased her babbling for a few seconds, and looked at the shuttle with wild eyes, the mere sight of it seeming to give strength to the psyker who could, by now, walk by herself. The surgeon took this as a sign to let go of her comrade and she began to run towards the shuttle’s open doors, shouting something about starting up the engine, and so on-
Wait. The doors were open? Wynder was confused, hadn’t they closed them when they left? A sudden chill went up his spine as he understood what it meant.
“Annabeth! Watch ou-”
The gunshot seemed to drown out all other voices. The screaming of the wind, the crashing of the waves, the breathing of the Arbite and the Psyker. It all seemed to slow down. A bolt pistol, Wynder thought, his horrified mind watching as the noble’s head burst, the twitching body falling to the deck with a quiet thud. Jenna was screaming, Wynder noticed numbly as a dark figure stepped out of the shuttle, a cloak like the feathers of a crow enveloping the stranger’s form. The man’s face was covered by a crow-like beaked mask, the hateful eyes behind it being focused on the other two acolytes on the deck. The man in the crow-mask raised his bolt pistol to aim towards the two acolytes, and instinctively Wynder covered the Psyker with his body, hearing another monstrous bark of the weapon. As he fell to the deck, his body quickly becoming numb, he saw Jenna stumble in terror towards the railing of the platform, falling over it with a scream. She disappeared. The arbite didn’t know how far down the ocean was, but he knew it was an almost certain death. Better than what his fate was about to be.
The cloaked figure approached the downed arbite, keeping his weapon aimed at the man even though there was a massive hole in his stomach. The masked one was not about to do a mistake, Wynder thought, gasping from pain. The killer looked over the railing for a moment before turning his attention back to the dying arbite, kneeling besides him, slowly shaking his head.
“Tut, tut. Why did you have to insist on coming here, hmm? It’s your fault they died, you know?”, the man asked remarkably politely, poking the barely conscious arbite in the cheek with the bolt pistol. Some voices could be heard coming from below, and the crow-mask looked briefly in the direction of stairs the acolytes had come from such a short time ago. The gunmen were obviously coming, finally catching up to the acolytes, as if it meant anything by now. Wynder tried to sputter something, but his collapsing lungs prevented him from making any sounds other than meaningless gasps. At least he could still try to spit on the madman’s mask.
“You shouldn’t try to talk you know, it only makes it hurt more. Trust me on this, I’ve seen a lot of people die in a lot of different ways over the years – and yours is particularly brutal. Your intestines are gone, and your lungs are a wreck. Poor bastard”, the man continued, speaking in a friendly tone all the while wiping away the spat out blood from the mask’s beak. The man was a monster, the Arbite thought in his delirious state. “Khh-khhiii-”, Wynder tried to ask the man to end his suffering, but, once again, only hisses came out. And again, the masked killer just watched him for a few moments before he stood up with a sigh, aiming his bolt pistol at the Arbite’s face.
“Oh, you poor, suffering thing. Let me release you from this pain – you won’t have to see the things to come. Let that be my small gift to you.”
Another bark of a bolt pistol, another dead acolyte. The Crow sighed a little as he holstered his bolt pistol, yet another fool. Well, the Arbite would certainly not be the first, or the last to die. Not by a long shot.
”Just another sin amongst many…”, he mused as he looked down into the ocean, trying to see if he could notice the psyker’s body. Tying up loose ends was always nice, even if it was unlikely the witch had survived the fall.
Somewhere, in an undisclosed location
“Cerra’s chosen the next group?”
“Yes, Inquisitor. Your seer has got the five names ready.”
“I see. Prepare the letters.”
“As you wish, Inquisitor.”
“Tell Dragos to seek these five.”
“Your will be done, Inquisitor.”
“One last question.”
“Has there been any word from the cell led by that Arbite, Wynder I think he was called?”
“No, Inquisitor, nothing. They are presumed lost.”
“May the Emperor protect their souls.”
“The Emperor protects.”