An Ordo Hereticus Interrogator fights for the Inquisition against the Imperium's enemies.
To have faith is to have purpose, and purpose in life is what defines a man, and makes him steadfast and resolute.
Faith keeps him true, and even in the darkest hours, illuminates him like a candle flame.
Faith guides him surely, from birth to the grave.
It shows him the path, and prevents him from straying into the lightless thickets where insanity awaits.
To lose faith is to lose one's purpose, and be bereft of guidance, for a man without faith will no longer be true,
and a mind without purpose will wander in dark places.'
Gideon Ravenor, The Spheres of Longing, II. ix. 31.
The death of Rhea Athonbier's childhood was an agonizing, lingering thing, terminating not as true death does in the final, eternal darkness of the God-Emperor's merciful embrace, but ending in impenetrable blackness nonetheless.
It began, as the death of every Imperial childhood does, at birth. For some of the Imperium's children, youthful innocence was stillborn, dying before it had a chance wail its first breath as the little ones were carted off by their parents to the market and sold into slavery for a scant fistful of thrones. For others, it came a little later but no less brutally, in the daily grind of work in the mines or manufactoriums alongside their parents, in war's desperate demand for child conscripts, in stimm overdose and worse pleasures, and on and on, an endless list of little deaths. Even for the children of the wealthy and powerful, it inevitably came, perhaps suffocated beneath the weight of a planetary government's politics or in something as gentle but fatal to childhood as arranged marriage.
Rhea should have been luckier than most. Her Mater and her dear Fathe were not so cruel as to sell her into slavery or forced hard labor, (although she did begin working early in her Fathe's barristry office), and the Hive in which she grew up was not at war (at least if you ignored the occasional skirmishes of the gangs down below who rarely brought their troubles to the levels in which Rhea grew up). If anything, Pila's and Thirr's only wrong had been in birthing Rhea in the first place, condemning her to the sickness of gene and soul that necessitated the loss of her freedom in her early years and murdered her childhood in adolescence.
Pila Athonbier was a psyker, a witch, and although she had been sanctioned on Holy Terra itself, everyone knew psykers did not deserve trust and bore careful watching. And so a psyker's daut, too, had to be carefully observed, for who knew if she had inherited that dreadful disease or when it would shred her life and the lives around her to strips and tatters?
And so Rhea's childhood began to die early, crushed beneath her parents' fears and her Fathe's stifling watchfulness, and under the mountain of her own terror as well.
Thirr tried to comfort her, but his words rarely helped. "We tried our best to ensure you'd never be born, Daut," her father explained kindly. "But contraceptives be damned; here you are. Now, I've done my best to beat the fear of the God-Emperor into you." His words were true; he'd done so, and Rhea was grateful but still frightened, because then her Fathe would always add, "But if He has bent your soul toward the Warp, no prayers or sermons will spare you from the Black Ships."
"And what shall I do then, Fathe?" she asked, clutching her tedbaer or, later, drawing her knees up under her like a much younger child and not a girl with growing breasts.
"You'll go, Citizen," he said severely but not unkindly. "And you'll pray, pray not that the God-Emperor will spare you the Warp, but that He will grant you the strength and wisdom to control it and not to be swallowed up whole." He stared at her, dark brown eyes meeting dark brown eyes. "Your Mater did it. If she could pass through the fire of her sanctioning, so can you." Then he'd pat her dark brown curls gently. "But you've not manifested, yet. Perhaps you never will. So do not worry your little sparrow's head over it. I'll do the watching and worrying for you, and you just see to your prayers and think on the lives of the saints."
But she did worry. Were her nightmares just nightmares, or the Warp tearing at the edge of her dreams? Would the little steel-gray slice of sky she had once spotted, wedged way up high between two topside spires, one day frame an approaching Black Ship? Would she eventually be sent away from home for sanctioning, only to emerge days or months or years later, a shivering, mumbling shell of a woman with her skull as pinched and narrow as her Mater's from incomprehensible trials?
As a little girl, that was the worst, most frightening idea of all, although she knew, intellectually, that the degradations of flesh and bone were nothing compared to the possibility of being swallowed whole by the Warp. Pila utterly terrified her, and no wonder. She was a frightening woman, twitchy and with a misshapen skull like mutie.
Fathe had slapped her for suggesting it, once. "Respect your Mater! She is a good woman and provides for you as much as I do! You know she looks the way she does because of her sanctioning; you should honor her for her service to the Emperor, and not condemn her for her looks."
Rhea had knelt and bowed her head, hands over her eyes, and requested his forgiveness, but inwardly she had not cared a bit that her Mater---never Mathe, no not she---sent thrones monthly. She was ugly, no matter what Fathe said, and she whispered sometimes under her breath in the language of the Ecclesiarchy or in foreign guttural words that made Rhea's skin crawl when Pila came home once every other year or so while on relief. Worse, she had this way of looking at things that were not even there; she would do it, at times, while focusing on Rhea, but the girl knew Pila's green-splattered brown eyes were not really seeing her.
And did they ever seem to see Rhea? No. Pila's gaze was reserved for Thirr and the Warp alone, and she had few glances and little regard left over to spare for her own daut. It was well and good that her visits were so brief and far between.
It was shortly after one of those visits that the final deathblows to Rhea's childhood were dealt. She was sixteen years old, barely, and her Mater had just left after a painfully uncomfortable week-long visit. At first, Rhea thought the nightmares were merely the result of her mother's recent presence. But then, one night...
...sliding, liquid-cold over the skin of toes. Eyes locked on the sky, cannot look down. What is that? Can a sun be so bright? But no, that is not a sun, nor bright, but boiling blackness stealing the light, never giving it back. The air falls apart and there is nothing to breathe, but you do not breathe here anyway, do you? Do not breathe, do not look away, as black flames spiral closer, a sphere, then a yawning chasm. Look away, you cannot go there! Stop looking and turn away! But turn on what, little sparrow? You have no feet, only bloody stubs, burned away in rivers of acidic fear, gushing and hissing beneath you, a tide of yellow. Your crimson blood does not flow out into that noxious fluid, oh no, the yellow surges upwards, through the place feet used to be, screaming through veins, ...
...she awoke screaming, siting bolt upright, drenched utterly in sweat.
And that was not the worst of it. The worst were the dreams she could not remember, where she only lay on her bed in the dark, limps locked in rigid panic, eyes wide, unable to wake or even scream. The first two times, her Fathe was there to hold her and hush her tears when she came out of her dreams and dissolved into helpless sobs.
The third time the night terror swept down upon her, she awoke to fingers digging into her shoulders so hard that it hurt.
|In better light, in better mind, she might've known it was her father that gripped her. His grasp was tight, emphatic, and she felt, without knowing how, the surge of his impatience, his despair. The ends of his fingers were electric, digging into the skin of her shoulders or under her thin collarbones.|
But she didn't know it was him. The ragged ends of nightmare still clung about him, it, the creature, the nameless thing that had tormented her sleep. But she knew, in the simple way that young people know things, that if water can flow one way, it can flow another.
There was no gathering, no consciousness to it. Half-awake, with no name to put to the terror that held her, that violently shook her vision and screamed nonsense words through her watery half-hearing, she pushed back at that connection, gathering the pain in her shoulders from the Fater-creature's grip.
Somewhere in her mind, in the wrenching, screaming unconscious of her, there was a snap. It was as loud as thunder, and deafened her thoughts, and yet it was nothing, and she wondered, with the detached curiosity of a mortifer, just why it had taken so long.
The rush back was like a flood. She imagined kicking the thing that could not be her father, the sickened thought-thing that terrorized her. Kicking, screaming, clawing, ripping, the pulverizing of muscle, the powdering of bone. Torrential, unstoppable, she poured out her fear and her hatred into that one moment, that connection. Everything she thought, she had, she was, everything raced down the line like a surge and roared over the gripping thing's nerves, body, heart, mind.
She wrenched painfully, suddenly. Her back arched at the base of the spine and a wordless scream poured out, and she wondered, weirdly, at her body lying before her eyes on the bed.
...before her eyes?...
...everything poured out fear anger hatred connection pain grip helpless mindless soulless broken dreaming fater mater psyker heretic witch--
She wore her Fater's skin, a burning mass, so heavy it dragged her down. It screamed in a voice that was not her own mind's voice, wailing and slapping itself. She felt each blow of her father's huge hands as the skin she wore beat itself as if trying to put out flames. She felt the searing, the agony, the rush of anguish that she knew-without-knowing to be her own fears and hatreds given form. She bore the pain strangely, unconsciously, sitting behind the eyes that weren't hers, every now and then glimpsing, as her father's head rolled with her consciousness inside it, her own body, in sweat-soaked sleeping clothes, looking mortified and confused and strangely slack and unmoved by the screaming voice of her Fater.
At some point, though she never commanded it, her view tipped up and away in the dark. She felt something impacting the body she wore (Fater's body?) about the back and flanks, recognizing distantly that the 'something' was his own shoe-clad feet, curled up in a way that her Fater could never have bent. His voice was hoarse now, beneath the place she sat behind his eyes. He screamed silently, wailing without sound at the wracking pain that washed over him and wouldn't go away--
With a snap, she wore her own skin again, settled into it with a perfect fit, like machine-matched tools. She stared down from her bed at the pitiful figure of her Fater, writhed and wretched, bent backward nearly in half, his face a rictus mask of fear and unspeakable agony. He barely moved but to twitch, a weird, tiny wheeze escaping his gaping mouth with every ragged breath. She had had no idea a human mouth could bend open so widely...
"Interrogator?" Del asked, stepping up behind Rhea in the hallway.
With a blink and a tiny jump, Rhea brought herself back to the world. She turned her head sharply, looking at the man beside her. Military-cropped black hair, a black leather bodyglove, a strong jaw and handsome eyes, smiling a charming, curious smile.
"Where did you go, just then?" he asked, in his sinuous voice. He held in his hand a small ident-chip, coded for Green access, the lowest of the Inquisition's passkeys.
Ignoring his question, she turned and faced him directly. "What do you have for me?" she asked curtly.
"A delivery," he said, assuming formality as well, offering the chip. "The Acolytes assigned to Iocanthos have sent back a parcel by warp-transport from Port Suffering. It bears Inquisitorial rosette-security level Green, as high as they were granted. It is unadorned, checked for explosives. Remanded to Inquisitor Arikel, of course, but in his absence, it falls to you, Interrogator."
|“Thank you,” she responded, sliding the ident-chip into her pocket.|
She did not ask if he wanted to accompany her to see what the Iocanthos acolytes had sent, but neither did she refuse him. Del had been her steady shadow these past two years, assigned to her personally by Inquisitor Arikel. He would follow, or not, unseen, or not, as her safety and his professional conduct demanded.
Del was always, if nothing else, the polished example of professionalism.
She departed from the small, spare insulum she had called home these past few weeks on Scintilla and proceeded out of the habitatum wing of the Inquisitorial building. She did not hear Del’s soft, padding footfalls, but that of course meant nothing and she put the question of whether or not he was following out of her mind entirely. Del knew his business. They all did, the hand-picked Acolytes of Arikel. It was always best to let those who knew their business do their business, and bend one’s mind to one’s own duties.
The God-Emperor knew there was always work to be, and Rhea thanked him daily for it.
An ancient, rattling wrought iron lift took her up to the top floor of the Inquisitorial building. Glancing out the tall, narrow window as she unlatched the lift’s gate and stepped into the dim, narrow but tall hallway, she could see the top of the black basalt Ordo Xenos tower, and the ebony Malleus tower as well when she strode up to the window and looked out the crown glass.
Directly below her and situated between her own Hereticus tower and the other two Ordos’ towers was the central roof of the tri-towered Inquisitorial building, where two small transport ships resting like flies upon the landing pads were currently being given blessings by tech priests in robes the color spilled blood in the moonlight.
Another window opened up on the greater Administratum complex outside the Inquisitorial building. In the streets down below, millions of tiny, ant-like people---civil servants, and scriveners, and tax assessors, and copyists and, yes, the occasional Inquisitor, Interrogator or Acolyte of the Inquisition---milled around the Administratum complex. It was impossible to track their destinations, but all were going somewhere, shuffling to and fro between hundreds of archival offices and licensing offices, tithing houses and counting houses, agency buildings and bindery buildings.
Most of these countless millions scurried about with their heads lowered and their hoods drawn despite the insubstantial threat posed by the pale, weak sunlight that managed to filtered all the way down into the surface streets of Hive Sibellus. A small, stationary cluster of people-insects, however, stood in the shadow of the Inquisitorial building. Squinting her eyes, Rhea thought they might be staring dumbly upward, might even be gaping in stupid, terrified awe at the black Hereticus tower she herself looked out from. But they were not looking at her, thirty stories up as she was. Their eyes were most likely fixated upon the massive Inquisitorial “I” stretching up the first five stories of the building, a glaring white High Gothic sigil inlaid in impenetrable black stone and flanked on either side by clustered columns and flying buttresses terminating in small pinnacles.
Yes, indeed, the people below must have been looking there, bending their thoughts toward the might of the God-Emperor of Mankind, and whether or not His servants in the Inquisition had noticed them.
Let them fear. It would help save their souls from damnation.
She cast one last glance at the labyrinthine streets below, at this wretched hive of humanity, and then turned smartly and strode into the recivorium at the other end of the corridor, drawing the ident-chip from her pocket.
|“Interrogator,” intoned the solemn Stormtrooper at the doors to the huge receiving bay, nodding respectfully at her approach. He was anonymous in his plated, gunmetal gray armor, looking like he could weather a bomb-blast. His armament, a blocky, matte-grey hellgun, hung in one hand as he extended an ident-reader toward her. |
She nodded curtly in greeting, reaching into her simple charcoal corduroy long-jacket, and flipped her hand out of the pocket hidden there to present her rosette. She pressed the iron medallion firmly into the thumb-sized indent on the ident-reader, and reader and rosette alike vibrated with a low snap.
A green rune lit as she removed it, and the Stormtrooper stepped away, turning his head to indicate the ident-reader on the wall. “Here as well, please,” he said, his voice made mechanical by the vox-corder inside his helmet. When she had cleared security here as well, the crenellated door to the recivorium drew up with a noisy jangle of chains and machinery, allowing her access to the huge receiving bay.
Del drew up a few steps behind her as she stepped within. The noise of hundreds of laborers and tons of cargo was almost deafening. She hadn't been on the recivorium floor more than a few seconds before an adept approached, looking her over and comparing her face to a pict on his dataslate. “Interrogator?” he asked, raising his voice almost to the point of shouting to be heard over the din.
"Yes," she said, her clear contralto voice nearly swallowed by the clatter, hum and squeal of machinery. She raised her voice slightly. "I am given to understand something arrived via warp-transport?"
The adept gave up speaking and simply threw his head up and down in a hurried nod. Hitching one shoulder slightly as he turned, he gestured for them to follow him. He waded through the mayhem with them sharp on his heels, his dataslate held before him as though to cut his way through laborers, packages and machinery alike.
The adept hurried along, seeming to sweat a little in the presence of real Inquisitorial agents. On a huge pallet of crates near the wall, he singled one out, pointing at a nearby servitor and gesturing at it. The servitor lurched, it's metallic arms surging forward to lift the parcel as easily as one might an infant. It was handled with no real delicacy, though, as the servitor's shuddering motions hauled it up to a functional carrying position.
The servitor rolled along on treads toward a small glass-windowed room off the recivorium, with the word 'Vigilum' inscribed over the door. The adept watched it go before turning back to Rhea and Del and offering the Interrogator his own dataslate. The screen displayed a long series of safeguards and releases of responsibility. The thumbprint-pad glowed a soft yellow beneath it.
Rhea read swiftly over the script but, of course, saw that nothing was out of place. She pushed her thumb to the pad, watching the yellow darken into yellow-green, then fade all the way to deep green as a needle claimed a drop of her blood.
"Clear," the adept confirmed, almost apologetically. He stood aside, and she swept toward the glass room, pausing only to glance over her shoulder as the adept held his dataslate out to Del.
"You as well, Acolyte," he said, staring even more nervously at Del's sheathed blades than he had at the Interrogator.
Del smiled a snake's smile. With theatrical precision, he loosened each fingertip of his black leather gloves, then slid the hand free. The skin of it was crisscrossed with thin, paled scarring, the marks a man would get from thousands of knife-duels. Del's eyes never left the adept's, seeming to relish the man's worried look, the sheen of new nervous sweat. “Something wrong?” he asked conversationally, clasping the bottom of the adept's dataslate and pressing his thumb to it. The rune turned yellow, then deepened to green as well.
Del rolled his shoulders, closing his eyes slowly, like a sleepy cat. “Mmh,” he said, grinning still. “Love that part.” He handed back the dataslate to the adept, who fled before he could hear the crowning statement, which Del turned to say to Rhea: “Gets me every time.”
The servitor rolled back into their presence, looking dumbly up at them. It had clearly once been human, though everything beneath it's ribcage had been replaced with heavy whirring augmetics, culminating in the heavy, triangular rubber treads that allowed it to move around. It's face would have been monstrous if the thing had clearly not been truly human anymore to begin with – uneven eyes, a bald head riddled with strange, curling wrinkles, its nose removed and the holes behind it sealed.
“Your parcel awaits, my lords,” it said flatly, the intonation going from high to low as it spoke, like an old vox-tape winding down. It stood there, waiting for orders, or to be ignored so it could get back to work.
Rhea and Del strode past it, the Interrogator pausing just long enough to snap over her shoulder, "Come."
She stood aside to clear the door, and Del danced lightly out of the servitor's way as well as it lurched into the room behind them. How something that rolled could be so ungraceful, Rhea would never know, and did not particularly care. It did not need to be anything more than what it was, and if it ever did need to be refashioned into something more mobile, some priest of the Machine God would see to it, not her.
"Put it there," she commanded, indicating the low, simple steel table in the center of the room. "Then go."
With an unholy blend of machinic whirring and fleshy squelching, it rolled to the table, loading its cargo so un-gently that Rhea winced.
|The servitor cranked and ground as it retreated from the room. With another application of Rhea's rosette, the security seals on the metal box released, puffing stale air into the room. Rhea and Del looked at each other, both noticing the strangely metallic taste of the released air. |
Atop a jumbled miscellany of items was a Munitorum-stamped dataslate – the packing list. Del lifted this out and set it aside, looking it over while Rhea looked through the items themselves – several neatly folded sets of dark clothing, with what appeared to be reddish dust in the cracks and seams. One of which she recognized – a brown robe, expensively tailored to fit-
“Aristarchus,” Del breathed quietly.
For a moment, Rhea did not wish to even attempt to contemplate what these few, random scraps of a man's life implied. But her heart was resting heavily in her throat, and a viper of unease writhed in her middle as she ran her fingertips lightly over the soft weave of the robe.
Then her mind skipped right over contemplation of her mentor's fate to denial. Her thoughts tumbled one after the other, numb, foolishly hopeful. Perhaps Aristarchus was simply sending his belongings on ahead, and would be returning shortly. No, not in a box, nor an urn, she told herself firmly. Or... or maybe he was in trouble, in simple, honest danger, and this was a warning from someone to notify the Inquisition that he had been taken against his will. Perhaps it was a veiled message from Aristarchus himself, a lesson, something she should be able to decipher after a night or two of meditation over the Emperor's Tarot.
But she knew.
"Mistress?" Del murmured.
Rhea swallowed. "I need to send notice to Arikel."
The gallery's floor was a distractingly polished black stone. Furniture seemed to have been grown out of it, expertly shaped and molded to appear all as one part, engraved with benedictions and maxims, and sculpted at the ends and corners with likenesses of heroes and saints. At the wall farthest fromthe door, huge plasteel windows looked out onto a balcony big enough to accommodate their dagger-like transport, glinting grey and marbled with sunlight reflecting off the water far below.
Rhea sat stiffly on one of the cushioned, molded stone couches, while Del restlessly paced along the walls, admiring meticulously crafted banners of Imperial guilds and noble houses that hung from the high ceilings. He wore a formal black bodyglove over his whiplike frame, pinned asymmetrically with long black prayer-strips that rustled as he moved. His knives, so much a part of his public persona, were entirely absent, and to Rhea's eyes, he looked somehow naked without him, though she knew him to be just as dangerous. The metal crate, Aristarchus's belongings carefully repacked within it, sat open on the floor in the center of the room.
To one side, looking out over the water and the gun-cutter that had brought them, Inquisitor Gavien Arikel stood, somehow regal and grand without the need for gestures or theatrics. Shorter than Rhea by several inches, his skin was a rich black, the color of melted chocolate. Even here, in his sanctuary, he seemed girded for a militant court, in knee-height black boots with the tops turned down to display gold-thread embroidery at the hems. Loose black trousers covered his legs, with the distinctive smoothness here and there that Rhea recognized as flak-plating. His broad torso was made even wider by a cuirass of gray armor plating, hints of which were visible beneath a wide, enveloping cloak, its back and shoulders crafted to form a spread-winged Imperial aquila, itself hidden under thick lengths of black, dreadlocked hair. Rhea took a moment to find the pair blackened rubber cords hidden amongst them, following them from where they appeared at Arikel's belt to where they nestled near the base of his skull.
|Arikel turned halfway to regard them, his speech pleasantly grated, like the sound of smooth stones sliding together. “You know,” he said, arms folded, with the tone of someone thinking out loud. “If it had been merely his clothing, I might have agreed that he was merely saving himself the difficulty of carrying about his luggage. But the Tarot...”|
"Yes. The Tarot," Rhea murmured. "I never saw him without it." Her back was very straight and tense, and her knees perfectly parallel and pressed together where she sat upon the obsidian couch. Her hands clutched the edge of the seat beneath her, fingers curling almost like claws over the slate gray cushion. She did not move at all, body held in rigid control.
She wore a dress, for once, and there was nothing more of excess about it than there was to her posture. A high, wide collar slashed severely across her throat, and sleeveless, the top of the dress winged out just barely past her shoulders and cut sharply diagonal back toward her breasts so that her upper arms were left mostly bare. The stiff black garment had no flowing skirt or flirtatious curves, but only clean lines terminating neatly just below her knees.
"I could think of a million reasons his things might have been sent that did not imply that he was dead," she continued. Her voice caught slightly, but she swallowed and spoke past it. "But then I saw the Tarot."
“Each of the reports was clear about Aristarchus's near-obsession with divinations over the course of the mission on Iocanthos,” Arikel said, stepping away from the window at an idle pace, one wrist in the other hand behind his back. He looked up at the high, hollowed-out rock of the lounge's ceiling, descending a pair of stairs from the viewing windows to the furnished spot. His boot-heels clicked on the ground as he moved.
“Aristarchus ever cautioned against repeated divination, as well as overuse or over-reliance on it's outcome. Yet this deck of the Emperor's Tarot arrived and he would not be parted with it ever since.” He looked down into Rhea's eyes as she sat. “It is significant that the deck was a gift from the corrupted abbot, Skae, don't you think?”
"Indeed," Rhea murmured, mind briefly flashing with hatred upon hearing that name. She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them a heartbeat later, calm.
The small smile Del was giving her suggested the rage had not entirely bypassed her expression.
The Inquisitor crossed to the crate, fingernail tapping idly on the discarded heavy iron lid for a moment as he contemplated these last fragments of Aristarchus' life. After a moment he lifted up the Emperor's Tarot in its black silk pouch, turning it over in his hand and running his fingers along its smooth, faintly warm surfaces as though feeling out its dimensions.
"...there's something here," he said quietly, glancing up at her. "...these cards. Did you run any psychometric tests on them? What imprints did he leave behind?"
"Indistinct, sir, except on one." She swallowed. "He touched it, just before he died." She closed her eyes, a memory not her own playing behind her lids. "A whirlwind of cards about him, vaguely blocking a thick sea of... of people? His hand reaches out and snatches one from the storm. They all tumble down." She lifted her lashes to regard her Inquisitor again. "Then he went to the Emperor."
Arikel's eyes narrowed as he listened, handling the thin cards in his hands with a bit more distance. "Which card was this that he touched?"
"The Magus." Aristarchus' finger had fallen over the figure-eight of Warp energy whirling above the head of the card's crimson-robed figure.
Arikel sifted through the cards and produced the one she'd named, looking it over. “Del, if you please?” he asked tersely, looking up at the assassin as he walked the walls of the room. Del glanced up, nodding, reaching into a pocket of his bodyglove and pressing a small augmentic stud on the side of his thigh.
Instantly, the room seemed less stifling to the other two as Del's limiter activated. Del was a 'blunter,' or an 'untouchable.' To untrained psykers, he was a terrifying presence, a vertigo inducing thing often later recalled as 'soulless,' or even a 'hole in reality.' Del was one of those with the mixed blessing of having no presence in the Immaterium at all, and everyone, even those without any psychic talent, could tell. He felt different, somehow, and without knowing what it was that made them feel that way, most people disdained his presence.
It wasn't a thing that could be controlled, turned on and off inside. Instead, while Del felt no difference at all, the limiter augmentic that had been built into his lean body was able to blunt the worst of the effect and let nearby psykers breathe more easily, restoring the connection to the Warp that Del's mere presence blocked off.
Arikel nodded once to acknowledge that the limiter worked. Del resumed his pacing of the wall, while the Inquisitor closed his eyes a moment. With a momentary effort, and a rushing around him that Rhea knew was not moving air, he reached inside, looking between the fabric-papered atoms, parting them like curtains. Barely a second passed before he awakened again, rebuffed by a matrix of what had seemed like crystals. He looked down at Rhea. “...this one is different, yes. There's something within the card itself.”
Rhea did not particularly want to touch the card, herself, but she nevertheless extended her hand to her Inquisitor. "May I?"
"Please," he said, passing the card along. In her hand, it felt just like any other card of the Emperor's Tarot, with paper so thin but stiff it could cut flesh from bone, and which rang out almost like metal when tapped. "Have a care," Arikel warned as she turned it over and held it up to the dim sepia light filtering through the fogged glass of the glow globes fastened to the walls and ceiling by ward-inscribed bronze chains.
After a moment she shook her head and sighed, returning the card to the Inquisitor. "I can sense nothing beyond the impression I initially received off of it. When you say 'within'... Do you refer to something purely physical, or some manifestation of the Warp?"
An astute question. Arikel said as much, looking into the empty eyes of the clean skull within the Magus's red cowl. “...Aristarchus isn't going to miss it, and it's clear it was no well-intended gift,” he said after a moment's pause. Arikel held the card between middle and index finger, reaching into a satchel at his hip with his free hand. He came out with a golden metallic L-shape, it's shorter end a square frame around a thick pane of grayed-out glass. He slid the longer bar of it over his right ear, eliciting a faint click from somewhere beneath his hair. The glass settled over his eye and a tiny green rune came to life over the bridge of his nose as he examined the card.
“...the card itself. Purely physical. How curious. There is a complicated-looking lattice folded within the card, razor-thin. It looks like nothing the Cult Mechanicus would create, either.” He placed the Magus on the tabletop, picking up a handful of others and looking at them – the Emperor, the Hammer, the Saint, the Rifle, the Banner. “...none of the others seem to contain such a creation,” he declared. The Justicar. The Blockade. The Rosarius. The War-Titan. Arikel removed the golden frame from his eye – click – and folded it at its elbow.
“Our search starts here, Rhea, with this card. Take this back into the Hive and find us a connection regarding this lattice-pattern. Del,” he said, turning to look at the assassin. “Go with her.”
Rhea nodded once, rising to her feet and taking the Magus card as her Inquisitor extended it to her. Wincing slightly with unease, and wondering what such a thing might be capable of doing to her, she pushed it into the wide, flat belt banding her waist.
Her eyes snapped to Del. "Come," she said, jerking her chin toward the door, brown curls slapping the air as she turned briskly on her heel, clearly expecting him to follow.
The black tower of the Ordo Xenos was, when looked on from the front, the rightmost, canted slightly to face the viewer if they stood where the Magna Bona Calixia intersected with the major north-south transit arteries. Spire Hereticus was it's mirror on the left, with Spire Malleus in the center, hung with the great black-and-white banner, bearing it's stylized 'I,' fashioned in the shape of the Calixian Conclave's rosette. Rhea and Del exited the small hired transport that had ferried them back from the Hive-coast, and it moved back into the slow press of traffic.
Del, turning his head to watch the put-upon residents of the Hive pass by them. “You'd think they'd have more appreciation for the Inquisition's vigilance,” he remarked idly as they started toward the trio of towers, In response, a pair of elderly, tired looking women scowled at him, hurrying along and leaving them alone to walk the gray stone pathways up to Spire Xenos.
Rhea grunted in a noncommital way. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, "They need not appreciate us. They need only stay out of our way."
They passed a pair of sentries, tall and glowering men in articulated suits of reinforced armor. Green runes on their long hellgun-pattern rifles indicated they weren't merely at rest, and the suspicious way they eyed Rhea and Del as they passed suggested that merely being regular visitors to the Spire Xenos didn't earn one any trust.
Rhea slid her passkey through the reader-slot, which turned green, admitting her to a long air-cycling chamber with a hiss of releasing pressure. As they passed through, the air gusted in and out, filtering several times over. The scent of the high hive – sweat, the odors of machinery, dust, pollution – were scrubbed out in the time it took them to walk the length of the corridor. A pulsing hum followed them, emitted by the three hovering skull-servitors, each staring with lifeless eyes. By the time the seal-door on the far side opened, the air smelled rigorously neutral.
An unfriendly-looking secretary looked up at them from behind a wrap-around desk that more resembled fortification than furniture. Rhea and Del both presented their silver Inquisitorial rosettes and waited while a scanning eye in the ceiling looked down at them. The secretary's face lit up with green as a confirming light appeared on her workspace. She wordlessly nodded them past.
The lift leading up to the Cognoscum rattled far less and was much cleaner and better lit than the elevator in Spire Hereticus. Then again, this entire place looked and felt different than Rhea's home Spire; surgically sterile where her Spire was characterized by a sort of musty disorderliness, and cold and bright while Spire Hereticus was warm but filled with shifting shadows and flickering lights.
She did not like it.
Nor did she care much for the sudden delay as the lift paused as the fourteenth floor---seven floors below their destination---and would climb no higher.
They stepped out into the hallway, wincing in the overly-bright light of the glow globes upon the walls, and blinked at another sternly frowning sentry. "You are permitted no farther without an escort. I will lead you up the stairs to the Cognoscum. Identifications, please."
Jaw stiffening in displeasure at the delay, Rhea presented her Inquisitorial rosette once again.
Del had already fished his out, standing behind her and looking faintly bored with the whole scene, his head cocked to one side. The Inquisitorial stormtrooper stood at a position just shy of outright hostility, his hellgun pointed slightly to the side, but readied. He took his supporting hand off of the rifle's forward grip, giving a two-fingered wave forward. A skull-servitor floated up from behind him and forward, coming to a stop and protruding a small emitter from within itself like a tongue. It read over their rosettes, beeping softly with each.
It turned, departing, while the stormtrooper stepped forward and gestured them down the hall. They saw as they left the bank of elevators that this floor had no windows, only gray plasteel plating to mark the edges of the building. The walls were stark, each armored panel bearing a long, identical black banner with the seal of the Ordo Xenos displayed. They passed several hallway chokepoints where more armored troopers glowered at them from behind anonymous black visors. Curious plates extended perhaps a half-meter out from the wall at about ankle-height, curling up a quarter-circle from the floor.
“Grenade-catchers,” Del said helpfully, answering Rhea's querying look. His voice, usually soft and sharp, seemed magnified by the oppressive, militant silence of the floor. “Nice touch.”
Proceeding up the staircase was much the same as walking down the halls, only with the stormtrooper escorting them, they were not required to present their rosettes again until they had reached their destination.
Rhea endured the security with far less patience than she had the previous time, her movements becoming stiffer and more abrupt. Del's eyes slid to her, alight with amusement that only increased her irritation, but she said nothing, enduring Spire Xenos' caution and her companion's expression with stony silence.
At last, they were permitted to proceed past the checkpoint with their glowering escort to a high, heavy-iron desk behind which, to her frustration, nobody sat. However a skull servitor floated upward from behind the desk until it was eye-level with her. She scowled at it, but of course it was hardly affected by her displeasure.
"State request," it intoned.
Rhea tapped her fingernails briefly on the edge of the desk, and then at Del's quick glance of irritation, stilled and clutched the cold metal instead. "I need to speak to a representative of Spire Xenos of Interrogator rank or higher. This day, preferably." She doubted it would record the stressed word, but perhaps that was a good thing.
|The skull ascended on it's tiny repulsor-fields, making a faint humming noise as it did. It rotated slowly as it came up to head-height, and grotesquely extended a snakelike mechadendrite from its base, where a spinal cord once connected. A needle-like protrusion at the end of the thick cable slotted into a tiny jack at the desk's cogitator. For a moment, the skull floated there, motionless. Then, in response to some unseen result, it softly beeped. |
“Interrogator Falcrest, representative of Inquisitor Zalack, Ordo Xenos, is present within the Tricorn Palace and is willing to assist you with your query,” the skull intoned from a speaker deep inside it. The voice was a dead thing, as hollow and gloomy as the empty sockets of its eyes. It had a mechanical echo to it, like a man speaking from a cancer-hole in his neck. “He informs you that he can spare twenty minutes, and invites you to level twenty-six, Refectorum Thor for refreshment. He will meet you there presently. Please proceed.”
|Turning halfway over her shoulder with her typical economy of movement, Rhea fixed Del with an irritated scowl. Twenty minutes. Typical. She would only have to hope that the nature of her request would encourage the Xenos Interrogator to spare her a few more moments of his “precious” time.|
Before she could be treated with the sardonic smirk she was sure was lying in wait behind Del’s artfully bored expression, Rhea turned away from assassin, servitor and desk alike and strode briskly back toward the checkpoint behind her. Six more minutes of her time were wasted on yet more security obstructions and a lift that seemed to grow oddly slower the higher it rose.
At last, she and Del were spit out on the twenty-sixth floor of Spire Xenos, and approached immediately by yet another anonymous Stormtrooper. This time Rhea had her rosette at the ready, and at long last was escorted to Refectorum Thor.
|The Refectorum turned out to be huge, taking up the entire twenty-sixth floor of Spire Xenos, ringed on all sides with wide, triple-paned glassteel windows that afforded a wrapping view of the massive hive-city. Repulsor-cars sped by along cardinal directions, navigating between one another on pre-set, invisible pathways through the air. Sibellus's huge manufactorums churned out black smoke and gouts of orange flame in the distance, and the huge banners of Sibellus's noble houses fluttered in the smog-choked wind off to the southwest, where the glistening High Spires peeked into view over the horizon. |
The only objects that blocked the panoramic scene were the sister-spires of the Ordo Hereticus and Ordo Malleus on one side, reflective black windows giving no view to their interior, just as the ones she looked out of surely blocked sight from the other spires.
The Refectorum Thor, named so for the great Ecclesiarch Sebastian Thor whose full-bodied likeness stood in carved stone at the center of the room, was essentially a cafeteria and place of fraternization. Bearing none of the hallmarks of the Ordo Xenos, the scattered tables of Acolytes and adjuncts looked over Del and Rhea with undisguised mistrust before returning to food or hushed conversation.
“What a fun bunch,” Del remarked unnecessarily loudly. “Next vacation, I'm coming to one of the Xenos parties.”
Del slid around Rhea, taking a few steps from the elevator and looking around. “Now,” he hissed, narrowing his eyes as he looked over displayed rosettes or seals of office. “If you were a haughty, no-time-to-spare bastard with a name like 'Falcrest,' where would you be?”
|A ghost of a smile quirked Rhea's lips before she opened her mouth to respond.|
"Right behind you," a new voice, dry as leaves of ancient parchment rubbing against one another, responded before she could speak.
Rhea jumped nigh out of her skin. Beside her, Del cursed robustly under his breath, swiveling around with one hand dropping to the hilt of a powerblade at his waist. He only released it when the unassuming little man behind him, in simple robes the deep, mattte gray of soot, smiled grimly at them both as he stepped from the elevator just to the right of their own.
At a table on the edge of Rhea's vision, a young woman had paused with her fork halfway to her mouth. She snorted now, dark eyes flashing with mirth, and bent toward her companions to whisper fiercely with a choked laugh.
Rhea recovered her composure more quickly than the scowling assassin at her side. Drawing herself upright to meet the other man's level flint gray gaze---a rare opportunity indeed, short as she was---she nodded politely in greeting. "Good afternoon, Interrogator. Thank you for meeting with us on such a short notice."
|“No trouble, no trouble,” he said, gesturing with a wrinkled hand. Rhea's sharp eye picked up a curious little detail before the hand disappeared back into the folds of his garb – a sixth finger, awkwardly crammed in between ring finger and last, crafted of metal and trailing thin wires into the back of his hand. “...what can I do for you? Your recorded message seemed... urgent.” He glanced at Del then, and at the fingertips idly caressing the molded grip of the powerblade on his hip. |
Del sneered a little, looking the Ordo Xenos interrogator over before sharply turning to walk away toward a less occupied section of the refectory. As he strode, he banged his knuckles once on the hard surface of one of the tables, startling the two people quietly seated there even though he was in plain view and they'd looked up to note his passing. Rhea followed as he found a booth seat.
“You've guessed that I'm Interrogator Ethan Falcrest by now, and voxprint recognized you as Rhea Athonbier of Ordo Hereticus... but who is -he-?” Falcrest said as they walked, upnodding toward their table as they approached.
|"Del," Rhea said shortly, and then, realizing a slightly more detailed answer was likely in order, cleared her throat and added, "One of Inquisitor Arikel's finest." She thought it prudent to leave out what, precisely, he was finest at, although part of her wondered what a six-fingered man might think of an Untouchable assassin. Best not to find out. |
The other Interrogator was still looking at her, lips curved ever so slightly in a strange smile, his head cocked just barely to the side as though examining a strange insect. Annoyed, she broke his gaze and changed the topic, pulling a small silk sachet from her pocket. "Interrogator, how familiar are you with the Emperor's Tarot?"
She slid the pouch across the table toward him, feeling the comforting crunch of tiny crystals beneath the fabric. Sea salt was not much use against the psykery, but the card inside did not stink to her of the Warp, but something even more alien, and her Fathe had taught her long ago how to ward against evil.
|Del gestured to let them into the booth, but didn't seat himself, instead striding back into the crowd. Rhea felt her hair stand on end as Del reached into his pocket and deliberately turned off his limiter on his way to the buffet and drinks stretched through the middle of the room on brushed steel trays and tables. |
Falcrest shook his head as he watched the assassin go, before looking back to Rhea. He even managed a shallow, polite smile. "Familiar enough. Another of my lord Zalack's Acolytes is a diviner of reasonable ability and foresight, and I have been present at some of his interpretations."
|Rhea lifted an eyebrow. "Ah... And have you had cause to look upon one of the Acolyte's cards in depth?" |
As she nodded for Falcrest to take the pouch she had extended, she tried---very hard---not to glance behind her and track the assassin's movement with her eyes. What was he up to?
This is not the time for your games, Del! she growled inwardly.
Frowning slightly, the other Interrogator took up the pouch and shook his head at her. "Is there something unusual about the deck, Interrogator? Or---forgive me---should I wait for you to get to your point?"
She managed not to give an unimpressed grunt in response; she endured far worse barbs than that from Del on a daily basis, and could not even summon a faint feeling of irritation. "My point, Interrogator," she continued mildly, "is that there is something unnatural about the card. About its manufacture, more specifically."
She cocked her head slightly as he frowned and loosened the ties of the pouch, emptying its contents---rough granules of sea salt first, and then the Magus card---into the palm of his hand. She pointedly ignored the faint smile that quirked his lips upon seeing the salt.
"Inquisitor Arikel does not believe it is a Mechanicus creation," she continued. "I was hoping perhaps you might have an idea of what it is that we are looking upon, and if not, that you might be able to point us to someone who can."
|Falcrest took the offered card and turned it over between his fingers slowly. "...The Magus," he declared, stating the obvious. A skeletal being stood hunched in profile, the skull clean of flesh and bleached to perfect whiteness, projecting on thin vertebrae from thick, enclosing red robes. "There seems to be nothing unusual about it, Interrogator Athonbier," Falcrest declared, this time not bothering to hide the disdainful purse of his lips. "There is surely something you're not telling me, as I doubt your master would have you waste our time looking at something perfectly normal and speculating wildly." |
Rhea primly waited while the older man sneered along, then reached out, plucking the card from his hand and holding it up by it's corner, occluding one of the refectorum's bright lights. Immediately, an impossibly fine latticework was visible through the translucent tarot card. The lines of structure radiated from a central point, out to all sides. Rhea did her best to grip the card as close to the edge as she could, touching as little as possible. She had viewed the card in this way only a few times, each time keeping firmly in mind that this brittle, hidden system of connections was surely a keystone in whatever had annihilated her mentor.
A moment passed as the two interrogators looked upon the grinning death's head of the Magus and it's concealed secrets. "Ah," Falcrest hummed, nodding.
"Shall I take that to mean you have something to add, Interrogator?" Rhea asked, deftly flipping the card down from the light and letting Falcrest, who was still looking up into it, wince and blink as he looked away. "Or shall I be on my way and inform my master that the Ordo Xenos has chosen not to provide any assistance in this matter?"
Falcrest sniffed, looking out over the sparse collection of acolytes and retainers in the large room. After a moment, he laced his fingers, speaking with obvious irritation. "There is a man you might seek, Interrogator. A contact of a contact, someone one of my lord's retainers apparently works with. His name - or at least, the one he apparently answers to here in Hive Sibellus, is Vorlin Orday. He is a bounty hunter of some fame and passed mention of something similar to your card's little secret. All I can say is that he took a job of some sort for someone in the hive, and so has been somewhat difficult for my cohort to find. Perhaps you'll have better luck - he is known to frequent the Stacks, a poor-house in the Spirefoot suble--"
"I know where it is," Del interrupted, joining them as though he'd appeared right out of the air. He took an enthusiastic bite of the apple in his hand and smiled infuriatingly at the two Interrogators as he chewed.
|For a long moment, Rhea fixed the assassin with a stern stare. When Del seemed neither particularly cowed, nor inclined at the moment to interrupt once again, her gaze flicked back to Falcrest. She nodded her head slightly in a polite bow. "Go on, please," she said evenly.|
Falcrest arched his brows nearly into his unkempt, sparse hair, managing to look for a moment like a tired old owl, feathers askew. "Well, Interrogator, as your man clearly knows what he is about, I suppose I have said all I might say of use on the matter, haven't I?"
The Ordo Hereticus Interrogator resisted the urge to sigh, resisted the urge to grit her teeth, and resisted the urge to snap in irritation at the man sitting across from her. She did, however, flash Del a brief, disapproving stare. He was of course unmoved.
She tried on a small smile. "Sir, perhaps you could tell me what it was that Vorlin Orday was inquiring about?" When the other Interrogator only looked at her blankly, with a curiously uncooperative stillness, she added even more politely, "You said it bore a similarity to the circuitry in this card."
Falcrest cleared his throat disdainfully. "As I told you already, Interrogator, the man has proven difficult to locate, and we have not yet spared the time to look into the matter." His eyes narrowed as she began to open her mouth. "Surely you understand that Ordo Xenos has more important uses for its time than looking into the claim of every bounty hunter or other fortune seeker who believes that he might have stumbled upon Xenos paraphernalia?" he demanded scornfully.
Rhea stiffened. "But---"
Falcrest shifted slightly, and then---to her dismay---rose to his feet and extended his hand toward the doorway though which she and Del had entered the Refectorum. "I trust you can find your way out, Interrogator?"
She supposed she had gotten about as much information out of the man as could be expected with Del lurking about. The next time they visited a contact, she grimly reminded herself, she would have him wait outside or at the very least leave his limiter on. "Thank you, Interrogator," she said, dipping her head curtly but not breaking eye contact.
"Indeed," he said dryly, not lowering his hand until both of the Ordo Hereticus personnel had passed toward the door.
Before the elevator door shut them away from the dour Refectorum, Del sneered, "If we discover anything of interest, we will be sure to let you know."
Falcrest's only answer was a disinterested and dismissive grunt.