The Hymn of Deliverance lay at anchor in the upper atmosphere of Avignon Epsilon, the vaporous, rad-laden clouds of the gas giant effectively obscuring its presence from the Ork and Chaos forces that battled over the moons Araklun and Viridilun. While Inquisitor Hewris remained aboard the cutter, attempting to make long-range vox contact with the rumoured loyalist enclave at Silent Town on Canlun, Interrogator Rachmein, Corporal Egbert and a contingent of Inquisitorial vassals had been despatched to the ruined pleasure moon of Farlun. As Egbert had recorded in his report on the moons of Avignon Epsilon, Farlun had been a significant supply station for the traitor forces assailing the inner worlds of Avignon but, in the months since the report was compiled, activity on Farlun - more specifically in its spaceport, Skerrik's Fall - had dropped off considerably.
Rachmein's detachment had made moonfall on the outskirts of the settlement, and the Interrogator had seen fit to begin the mission by investigating a source of unidentifiable energy picked up by scouting servo-skulls. He had cast his warp gaze in the direction of the disturbance but registered only unreadable psychic static: there was no option but to approach the site on foot, working their way through the eerily quiet ruins.
Rachmein and company crept through the shattered buildings and the anomaly, a stone gateway that crackled with unfathomable energy, came into view beyond a cluster of mouldering graveyards. But Rachmein swiftly signalled for his entourage to halt and take cover: they had been beaten to the anomaly by persons unknown.
Rachmein turned to Ordinary Mytlich and, using a simple sign-cipher for the benefit of the newly-inducted Ministorum priest, commanded that he take his arco-flagellant charges - Abraheim, Martinus and Ioannes - through the ruins to outflank the unknown operatives.
Over the last year, Egbert had learnt something of the guttural battle-cant of the stimm-addled 22nd Undalk Redemption Corps, and Rachmein had him order the three Scapegroxen that accompanied them to take up concealed firing positions looking out onto the street.
Confident that his minions would do their duty, Rachmein peered out over the tombs. A thin, bilious mist hung across the area, but the cluster of figures by the gate were hazily visible.
+++Data: connect: neural connection made: begin upload
++++My Lord, geno servitors retrieved.
++++Data retrieval of particular interest
++++Initial Analysis indicates adjunct anomalies; capillaries from an arterial transit route
++++These appear linked to planetary constructs. Cogitations indicate we posess a means of altering passage through the anomaly to enter the adjuncts.
++++Proceeding with initial testing
++++Neural connection severed
They were followers of the Machine God, all atwitch with augmetics. Two techpriests, it seemed, marshalling a band of combat servitors and cyber-assassins of various stripes. And one figure that stood out: a gaunt blue xenos, brandishing an icon of some kind. Even at this range, Rachmein could sense the poweful psychic aura emanating from the alien.
Rachmein cast his mind back to the dossier he had read on the Mechanicus Demenses of Seriphos, trying to recall which of the myriad subfactions of the Cult Mechanicus these white-robed tech-adepts belonged to. It occurred to the Interrogator that they may not even be of Seriphos - what if they had arrived here through the sinister gate?
It seemed the Techpriests' refined scanners had detected Rachmein's squad: the cyber-assassins skittered forward on metal limbs. A pair of mutants emerged from the sewer grates only to be cut down by the assassins, who barely broke step as they went about their lethal work.
Anannaki instructed the sisters to proceed ahead, maintaining a litany of vigilance. Moment later a humanoid of entirely flesh construction appeared from a waste cover and approached the sisters. Litanies of vigilance were ceased and a hymn of destruction for the God Machine and was begun in anticipation of ensuing tissue sampling. "Flee" the fleshing called "Danger, this place is filled with danger" before turning and running away from the Sisters towards the derelict city buildings. Even at a distance Anannaki was intrigued how an apparent human had survived this otherwise desolate city, subroutines fired and the signal given to his underlings. The old man was downed with a shot to the back - all major organs avoided, perfect for tissue culture and genetic sampling.
The Interrogator turned to Corporal Egbert.
RACHMEIN: Egbert, go out there and hail these techpriests.
EGBERT: Sire, I rather think yourself, as ranking officer, should be the one to do the greeting.
Rachmein grimaced. Egbert's long service to the Holy Ordos could be attributed as much to his canny avoidance of peril as his nondescript appearance.
RACHMEIN: You'd defy me, Corporal Egbert?
But he knew already that the guardsman had won the argument.
EGBERT: Look, sire, Mytlich and the arco-flagellents have gone ahead, they'll be on your flank, and I can round up the Scapegroxen. We'll be right at your back. If these do turn out to be true men of the Mechanicus, it wouldn't do to have the Interrogator cowering at the -
RACHMEIN: Very well, very well!
At Rachmein's command, two of the Scapegroxen broke out across the street, heading for the graveyard on the far side. Even as they did so, more mutants crept out from the sub-street level, peering sheepishly from behind a nearby building. It was too much for the oncoming Scapegroxen, who were already in a state of stimm-born battle thirst.
1st SCAPEGROX: Death before detox! Get them muties!
2nd SCAPEGROX: Death before detox!
RACHMEIN: Thronedammit, those idiots! Egbert, rein them in before they start throwing lasbolts around!
EGBERT: Aye, sir!
As Egbert barked Undalk battle cant at the wayward Scapegroxen, Rachmain paused in the doorway and glanced up the street. Ordinary Mytlich had driven the arco-flagellants into a viable flanking position, close enough to come to Rachmein's aid promptly if it came to it. Marshalling his steps into a bold stride, the Interrogator stepped out into the street.
RACHMEIN: Pax Imperialis! Pax Imperialis! In the name of the Holy Ordos of the Inquisition, identify yourselves!
The Magos replied with a screech of code which coalesced into a synthetic buzz of Low Gothic.
THE TECHPRIEST: Hail, traveller. What business have you here?
Rachmein produced a seal bearing the insignia of the Inquisition from his coat. While it carried but a fraction of the authority of a full Inquisitorial rosette, it was still a powerful symbol of Rachmein's connections to the Holy Ordos.
RACHMEIN: I am Interrogator Rachmein, servant of Hewris of the Ordos Xenos and Seriphos of the God-Emperor's Holy Inquisition. Come closer, let us parlay!
As the techpriest approached, Rachmein became aware of a scratching at the edges of reality and a foul stench pervading the air in the vicinity of the graveyards. Could it be that these machine-priests were hereteks of some kind? No, aside from the xenos lurking at the rear of the group, they were warp-clean, showing no signs of corruption that Rachmein could perceive. What of the gate? No, the disturbance was nearer.... it was coming from the graveyard....
But the techpriest had drawn near.
ANANNAKI: I am Magos Biologis Anannaki. Your presence here is unexpected. What is your purpose?
RACHMEIN: My master Hewris has work to attend to here in Avignon. We detected a warp anomaly in this vicinity and came to investigate. What of you, Magos? Did yonder gateway also attract your attention?
Anannaki swayed inscutably, mechadendrites whirring. He paused, Rachmein thought, a fraction too long.
ANANNAKI: .... Affirmative. We also came to investigate the anomaly.
Rachmein was about to question the Magos further but the noisome stench emanating from the graveyard intensified as the bilious mist coalesced into a line of twisted, misshapen forms. Grinning, writhing, brandishing fell icons and striking tarnished bells, the Plaguebearers strode forth, chanting.
THE PLAGUE PARADE: Thrixis! Thrixis! Aqua contaminatus! Thrixis!
The Interrogator flinched. Thrixis? Might one of the mad Inquisitor's lost tomes, of such priority to the Inquisition, be connected to this incursion of horror?
The air waxed thick with the cloying chill of intruding unreality, a sensation all to familiar to Egbert, who left off corralling the Scapegroxen and turned up the street.
EGBERT: Daemons? Ach, not again. Emperor preserve me!
He called back to the Scapegroxen.
EGBERT: Forget those muties, sinners! The devils of hell are upon us!
The grim procession marched forth, seemingly oblivious to the mortals on the other side of the cemetery railings.
Rachmein felt a tugging on his sleeve and whirled around. Another Farlun mutant had crept out of the sewers and was pleading with him.
MUTANT: Please, sire, please!
Rachmein brutally shoved the lune-headed mutant, who fell to the ground with a whimper.
RACHMEIN: Mytlich! Cut them off at the gate! The rest of you, open fire!
Magos Anannaki was emitting a stacatto stream of modulated binary. Rachmein presumed it was a similar order to his own, as those tech-warriors armed with ranged weapons brought them to bear on the daemons.
The Scapegroxen let loose a volley of overcharged lasfire but the shots passed through the Plaguebearers' warp-spawned bodies. The guns of the Mechanicus proved no more effective.
Mytlich herded the arco-flagellants towards the daemon procession, but the Mechanicus minions received no such order to advance from Anannaki. Rachmein turned to the magos furiously.
RACHMEIN: These abominations must be cast back into the warp! Command your men!
ANANNAKI: The abhorrences are not fully coropreal. Calculations indicate a 67.458% chance of close assault proving ineffective.
RACHMEIN: By the Throne, man, I -
Rachmein was once again cut off as Egbert, who had stooped to speak to the mutant Rachmein had cast aside, interrupted.
Magos Anannaki emitted a long vibrato drone.
Meanwhile, Abraheim, Martinus and Ioannes had reached the line of Plaguebearers. Behind them, Ordinary Mytlich attempted to chant a battle hymn to further fire his charges' murderous zeal, but the cloying, rancid air caught in his throat and he stumbled forward, coughing. It mattered little to the arco-flagellants, whose stimm-sped augmetics found purchase in the slowly-solidifying flesh of the Plaguebearers. Two of the daemons were torn to shreds by the frenzied pentitents.
Rachmein was turning to the Magos, a smirk blooming on his lips, when he saw the mist swirl and congeal at the back of the line.
Two more Plaguebearers materialised to replace their banished bretheren.
Rachmein cursed. Perhaps there was no winning this fight. Perhaps it was time to make a strategic withdrawal from this cursed town and leave the Techpriests to their fate. Or at least time to give the impression that this was a viable plan.
RACHMEIN: Egbert, we're going to withdraw. The master must hear of these developments.
EGBERT: But, sire, if there is a Thrixian tractate nearby....?
RACHMEIN: The master must be informed. Who'll do that if we all die fighting warpspawn?
EGBERT: But the Techpriests....?
RACHMEIN: Cannot be trusted. You know that as well as I. Who knows what their agenda is, especially if they're natives of the Seriphos Demenses?
EGBERT: Very well. I'll at least round up those mutants. Perhaps they can tell us more about what happened here.
During the exchange, Rachmein had used subtle gestures, one of the coded forms of communication that Hewris insisted his acolytes master, to indicate to Egbert his true intentions.
As the column of daemons continued its inexorable march. The Magos transmitted subsonic codes to his minions. Egbert's mention of the water purification plant had not gone unnoticed, and the tech-warriors skittered between the headstones and up ladders to investigate the ruined facility and its stagnant holding tanks.
Rachmein backed down the street, away from the Mechanicus team and the horrors beyond. He'd made quite a show of withdrawing, and was hoping to provoke a reaction from the uncooperative Magos.
Egbert and the Scapegroxen had the lune-headed mutant and his crony cornered.
EGBERT: Don't move. You are prisoners of the Inquisition.
As he neared the end of the street, Rachmein was beginning to wonder if his bluff might have been in vain. He glanced back: the Plaguebearers had stopped, forming an untidy line and intensifying their chanting.
The waters of the purification plant churned, and a hideous, mutated form broke the surface. The Plaguebearers were not the only minions of the Plague God to be haunting the graveyard district.
The Magos's vox units bellowed after Rachmein, entreating the Interrogator to parlay again, offering greater compliance. Rachmein obliged.
RACHMEIN: We shall lend our arms to wipe out the abominations here, Magos. But first, tell me, what is your business on this moon?
ANANNAKI: We are affiliated with an Inquisitor. We investigate the warp anomalies in this system.
RACHMEIN: As does my master. And the books of Thrixis?
ANANNAKI: Known to us by reputation. Their recovery is in the interests of the Omnissiah and the Imperium.
Rachmein nodded. This was progress, but the Techpriest was still withholding something..... There would be time later. For now, the area must be cleansed.
The emergent toad-beast proved resilient, but not impervious to the hail of fire from the Mechanicus forces. Yet no sooner had the thing in the purification plant been blasted into fleshy chunks than another burrowed up from the graveyard earth.
The Plaguebearers lolled in their ranks, their chanting taking on a mocking tone.
PLAGUEBEARERS: Thrixis! Thrixis! Thrixis!
Even as Rachmein was directing his warband to support the mech-fighters, two more toads wriggled out of the crumbling earth.
The slavering, mutated beasts bounded over the railings and into combat with the Magos and the arco-flagellants.
Fierce battle was joined. The augmetic weapon-limbs of the Mechanicum assassins and arco-flagellants hacked the leathery toad-beasts to pieces.
As the Scapegroxen surged forward to join the tech-warriors, the waters of the purifiction plant bubbled unwholesomely and an unmarked scroll case floated to the surface.
More toad-things emerged from the sewers, their spongy bodies flexing appallingly as they squeezed out onto the street.
Choking out a prayer of deliverance to the God-Emperor, Ordinary Mytlich threw himself at the nearest toad beast, but the abomination's long, sinewy tongue wrapped around the priest's head and shoulders. Mytclich was dragged into the mutant monster's maw, and so ended his career in the Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition.
Rachmein barely registered the priest's demise - he had more pressing concerns. The Magos and the junior Techpriest were each attacked by a mutant toad. Rachmein observed the nearest one with his mind's eye and, having ascertained that these were no daemons, but merely hideously mutated creatures of realspace, the Interrogator reached out mentally, trying to take control of the beast. But its frenzied animal brain resisted the subtlety of Rachmein's suggestion and the toad-thing continued to assail the Magos.
The Plaguebearers, having concluded their ragged chanting, lurched forward individually, intent on spilling mortal blood with their rusted weapons. The minions of the Omnissiah fought valiantly against the warp-spawned horrors, sustaining grievous blows as they whittled away the infernal foe.
Over in the street, the arco-flagellants and the Magos dealt their attackers lethal blows.
The secondary Techpriest was laid low, an antlered assassin diving into the fray to protect his master.
A final toad-thing flopped into the path of one of the Scapegroxen, who raised his overcharged las as the beast loomed over him.
SCAPEGROX: Death before detox!
But the penal legionairre never had a chance to fire. The beast stopped short. Rachmein had made a second attempt at mind control, this time directing the mutant's animal cognition with crude force. It proved much more effective: the toad-beast bounded away and consumed one of the remaining Plaguebearers, before being shot to pieces by the combined fire of the Scapegroxen.
As the final few daemons were cut down, their severed remains dissolving into the bilious gas which had formed them and dissipating in the cold air, one of the Mechanicus assassins emerged from the purifaction plant carrying the mysterious scroll case.
Rachmein cursed inwardly. If this was indeed a tome of Thrixis, it would be a great annoyance to leave it in the custody of the Mechanicus. But all were exhausted after the horrific battle, and Rachmein sensed little appetite for further conflict. After all, were both groups not loyal servants of the Emperor? It seemed to the Interrogator that this was a fitting moment to apply the doctrine of Amalath, and seek cooperation.
Rachmein approached Anannaki.
RACHMEIN: We have done the Emperor's work here on this moon today. My thanks to you, Magos.
ANANAKKI: Likewise, Interrogator. And what now?
This one is evasive indeed, thought Rachmein. But at least we're talking.
RACHMEIN: My master, Inquisitor Hewris, will be most interested what has happened here. The mutants, the malefic incursion, the artifact that.... you have recovered, even the gate yonder.
Rachmein gestured to the stone portal where he had first seen the Mechanicus contingent. It had grown dark and silent, all traces of unnatural energy subsided. Another matter for further investigation.
RACHMEIN: All such things are of interest to the Inquisition.
Another calculated provocation of the Techpriest. Autonomous from the Imperium in many respects, even the servants of the Omnissiah were not beyond the scrutiny of the Holy Ordos. The Magos let out a long, metallic buzz.
ANANNAKI: Then perhaps it is fitting that your master meets my associate, Inquisitor Thaddeus.
As Rachmein had hoped, the Magos was keen to deflect attention from himself. Whoever this Thaddeus was, Hewris would be keen to make contact with him and ascertain his agenda.
RACHMEIN: Indeed. Let us talk further, Magos, and make arrangements....