This won’t be a major project. It’s just a private thing to go along with my 40k collection. All of the major characters and locations named in this series are from the Rogue Trader era books, chiefly the titular Book of the Astronomican
The flames flickered as the last chemical fires were guttering out amid the wreckage. Twisted metal stuck out at uneven angles from where the ceiling above had blown open; here, deep within the hive, the stern metal confines that had stood for ten thousand years were torn asunder, and in the midst of the bodies of heroes and madmen, Zolz sat with his knees tucked under his chin, rocking back and forth, eyes wide, staring at an iridescent flicker of greenish flame as it finally died.
In the centuries to come, it would be known by the men of his reconstituted regiment that the fighting had been fierce in 281-Chemical Processing 8, after a long fighting retreat through the Lower Hive. That it was here the tide broke, and the advance of insanity had finally been checked. The stories of the heroes who had given their lives to hold the line, who had died standing, would be told with increasingly intense vainglory over increasingly strong drink. They would miss the part where the regiment was wiped out to the last man. Nor would they remember the name of that last man, or what he had seen.
The last shot he had fired had been a lucky one, or perhaps, an unlucky one. There was only one option left once the enemy had forced them back to the alkaline forges. Hitting the pipes that hung above the storage bay, filled with volatile minerals, had caused an all-consuming flood of garishly coloured flame. His final shot had immolated the last platoon of the regiment, and with it, the hundreds of madmen who had been massacring them with clubs and blades and pieces of cut metal. The platoon had spoken about blowing the pipes so many times in the last week that Zolz knew the it would eventually have to happen. When the pants-shitting fear of close quarters battle came, he had expected one of the others to do it. He never wanted to die. Even as they hacked apart the others, he kept backing away, knowing he was supposed to be the one to make the shot, knowing he couldn’t - even as he saw limbs fly and blood spray, even as he shouldered his lasgun and blasted at anyone who came close, he knew that he couldn’t shoot the pipe. His hands were gripping so tightly that his aim was true, but his desperation to stave off the chaotic melee the shot had been an accident. As the roaring sound swept forward over everything and the chemical fires poured out, Zolz never once stopped being afraid to die. Afraid of what lay beyond. Afraid of facing his own failure and cowardice before the Emperor, if He was even real.
The blast threw him against the wall, flames stopping short of killing him. Everyone else around him was killed. Their bodies were not cleanly burned away in the blast. The fire turned everything it touched into a burned, mutilated, withered thing, melting armour to flesh and flesh to bone. He could tell which ones had been his friends by the shape of helmets fused to what little remained of their heads. Most died instantly, in a horrible but brief crescendo to the agony of their battle, but not all. Some kept moving after the fires turned them into the red-and-black eyeless husks that such fire creates. Only a little - perhaps just reflexes in a dying, boiled brain - but arms waved, heads tried in vain to rise one last time. The sheer stench of it was beyond description, but those moving limbs were all Zolz could see as he clutched his uninjured body and rocked back and forth.
The sound of footsteps from beyond did not phase him. His mind was broken, and if into it came death - no matter how horrible - it made no difference to what remained of him. His body, unharmed. Their bodies, meat. A lucky shot. An accident. An instant.
The footsteps came in two registers. To listen, a simple man would hear only the loud, thunderous bursts of a tactical advance. Breach and clear, albeit at a leisurely pace. The crackle of heavily distorted, heavily encoded vox. A military man might know that he was hearing professionals at work. A veteran might even say, “here come the glory boys.” Great force, in great bursts, followed by pause. But behind those sounds, there was another.
There was one pair of lighter footsteps, distant at first, obscured under the sounds of heavy boots on thick metal walkways. But it was there, and it was steady. These feet did not break their gait for tactical sweeps. They simply walked through the carnage lightly, not fast, not slow. They grew closer, and closer still, until they stopped at the twisted bulkhead to the rear storage bay in which Zolz and his platoon had made their stand.
There were sounds great effort, and a moan of twisted metal being forced aside. Thin white beams of light speared through into the fire-flecked gloom, sweeping the burned bodies fitfully, going from corner to corner, searching for signs of life. Miniscule red dots followed them, and the sound of gear clacking against carapace armour followed along. The steady vox clicks of chatter registered. If Zolz had been tuned to their net, he would have simply heard the register over and over - “vertex clear,” over and over, as they swept every inch of the bay for signs of life.
Through the fire the steady footsteps came, pausing for nothing, but still Zolz did not look up. He saw the shape as it came through, cowled, slight, slim, smaller than the stormtroopers. But Zolz did not acknowledge it. He simply rocked back and forth, staring at the bodies, staring at the images in his mind, the deaths of his friends, the emptiness that had claimed everything in fire and fury.
Spears of light illuminated him as the greater shadowed figures in their bulky armour turned toward him, but the smaller shape simply knelt down beside Zolz, reaching a gloved hand out and placing it on his shoulder. At this, Zolz started, looking up as if for the first time.
“What if I told you,” said the Interrogator softly, “that I could take the pain away?”
The atmosphere on the orbital was thin, even by habitat standards. In the darkness of the system’s halo, where the light of the already-dim star was weakest, something as mundane as a barrel of air was weeks of sublight travel and thousands of man-hours. The bare minimum would do. Barely more than a few gantries held together by the technoarkana of men long millennia dead, Solmon had thought it dwarfed by the lander they had arrived in. He worried, as he stared at the video feed, that they would fail to reverse enough thrust and send the thing spinning off into the dark with barely a clip. But the lander was a joke compared to the juggernaut that had docked on the transverse port.
The thing looked like something Horus lost the Heresy in. It was bigger, blockier, but the silhouette didn’t match anything in the endless opsec ident vids and training sessions the Interrogator made them watch. It wasn’t a Thunderhawk or a Stormhawk or a Stormraven or any kind of compound noun he had been made to memorise, but it had that blocky Astartes look; just about the one thing he did know, or at least think he knew, was that it was Ordo Xenos. The ident signature had a heavy blend of codewords used to identify pre-conclave communications with Inquisitors outside the ordos, and he had overheard a scattering of passphrase dialogues used to identify Xenos agents. It fit the bill; they were on the far edge of the Kolarne cluster, which was rife with piracy and never short of orks.
The enormous ship their counterparty had arrived in was a little incongruous, given the reputation of Xenos inquisitors for aesthetics and diplomacy, but needs must he supposed. I mean, what did Solmon really know about anything beyond life in the lowest ranks of the Ordo Hereticus? The Interrogator went to horrible places and brought Solmon and the others along to make things worse once he arrived. A habitat in the middle of nowhere - Zolz had joked to him before they set off that it was probably overrun with daemons, and after Duat it didn’t seem to funny.
He breathed a gulp of the thin air. You couldn’t fit twenty orks in this thing shoulder to shoulder. Four stormtroopers and the Interrogator already seemed overkill.
The thud of the vast ship finally docking shook the habitat, and the gantry rattled uncomfortably. They were in full gear, hellguns primed, and the metal creaked a long moan in recognition of the excess weight. Like so many ancient structures holding the Imperium together, it longed for death.
The airlock cycled slowly, and one of the four corner-seals clattered, whirring uncomfortably for a few seconds longer than it should. It clicked, but then continued spinning. Eventually it righted itself. There couldn’t be many more dark encounters left in this thing before it explosively decompressed what little air remained and killed everyone in it. What were they doing here?
“Weapons ready, hold for my mark,” said the Interrogator softly. All four men shouldered their hellguns. Red dots focussed on the centre mass of the figures who emerged into the dim light as the airlock finally opened.
Two waddling gun-servitors and the enormous silhouette of an astartes Terminator.
No, something was wrong. It wasn’t quite an astartes. Hours of ident recognition and dozens of armour marks streamed through Solmon’s mind, and this matched none of them. There were edges and angles and it all wasn’t quite right, just like the craft. His eyes tightened, but his grip on the hellgun shifted. All four target dots moved to the knee joints. That was the trick with tactical Dreadnought armour, if you could live long enough to pull it off; the ceramite could cover all the joint some of the time, but as it moved, it necessarily had to expose little gaps. Just enough, if you knew where to aim, could hit a pinpoint in a warzone, could steady your hand when the astartes took the field. Just enough for a stormtrooper. Well. Ten stormtroopers. If the marine was alone.
The enormous ceramite beast clambered forward, and the light caught the faceplate. Solmon couldn’t resist moving his eye up as he saw the helmet lock out of place, and behind it, a cowled face. Heavily augmented, but naturally human. That was why the armour didn’t quite look right, he mused. It wasn’t astartes.
The Interrogator knelt.
“Prepared as always,” said a booming, brutal voice. Unaugmented. No vox, no speakers. Just the voice of a man, full of all the dread and wonder men could possess.
“My lordship commands, and I obey,” replied the Interrogator. “At the time and place of your choosing.”
“How does he fare?” asked the booming voice. The Interrogator waved a hand, and the soldiers lowered their hellguns. At last Solmon could take in the whole shape of this vast thing. He looked like a carved relief, like a stained-glass window of the Emperor’s avenging sons. His armour was pitted and scarred with craters and nicks from weapons exotic and brutal. He himself was buried beneath a mountain of trophies that hung from him like a tribal warlord. Glittering oval stones shimmered on strings, clattering gently against his breastplate; the pulled tusks of orkoid beasts and the heads of their owners were upon trophy-spikes on his backplate.
“His enemies are many, his equals none,” replied the Interrogator. The Inquisitor laughed heartily at this, the sound booming through the tepid air like shells on a practice-range.
“Glad to hear it, child. Rise. I come with a warning and a gift. There is work to be done.”
“You wear your labours well, Lord Inquisitor.”
Ordo Xenos inquisitors were supposed to be lithe, silver-tongued borderline techno-heretics with a collection of exotic works and a dozen Rogue Traders on their payroll and a “captive” Eldar sniper in a bomb collar standing two paces in front of them at all time. That was the barracks gossip, and there was more than enough evidence of it out in the field. They collected crystalline dung and had endless debates about the social significance of the precise caliber of monofilament webbing used to cut up whatever poor guard regiment had offended the knife-ears this time. The idea that this beast of a man was a Lord Inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos shook Solmon to the core.
The giant pawed an armoured fist at the chain of soul-stones that hung at his neck.
“They sleep well in these things. It is the legacy of such filth that brings me to you. I will speak plainly. I brought my host to make war on the greenskin mutant Torgox, but his army is broken. I sailed fifty ships into the heart of Kolarne to find that beast and slay it, but whether it lives or dies I no longer know - for the ork-holds here are gone.”
“Death to the enemies of man,” said the Interrogator evenly.
“So I sailed straight for the Claw in loose order to imperil my ships at the mercy of the Eldritch raiders. In hopes I could draw them out and hear what they had to say on the matter.”
“And what did they reveal?”
“Little,” replied the Lord Inquisitor, tapping the soulstones gently. “For their power too was shattered long since.”
A moment of silence passed. The tragic implications of this good news hung heavy in the air. Solmon knew this was no chance encounter.
“There are no xenos here to speak of, Interrogator. I live to spread Mankind’s will and to break the monsters who hide in the dark. But something has broken them here. Whether you find it high atop the spires of Kolarne or deep in the pits of Kynblax makes no difference to me. I will tell you this. On the lips of every broken eldar, of every flayed ork, I hear one name and one name alone: Hylgar.”
The Interrogator straightened.
“A man for all seasons,” he replied quietly.
“Start with the ork, Torgox, if he yet lives,” replied the Lord Inquisitor, ponderously turning in his enormous armoured frame and starting towards the airlock. “Too stupid to lie, too weak to live long. A lost crown makes for a loose tongue. Mark my words, Interrogator. If Julius Hylgar could do what four chapters of the Emperor’s Angels could not, then the Ordo Hereticus will be needed soon enough.”
“That was the warning,” the Interrogator said. “Where is the gift?”
“That was the gift,” boomed the Lord Inquisitor tersely as the airlock began to cycle. “The warning lies in the Library of Faith on Diarack. Seek out the Book of the Astronomican. It will light your way.”