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Works of Richard Marsden

The Works of Richard Marsden. Writing and Historical European Martial Arts.


Death Korps: Ascension

Death Korps: Ascension


Achim Jagg, having won promotion to Commissariat Schola on Krieg is faced with the challenges of entering a world not open to a commoner. Faced with challenges as a Cadet, he also has to cope with his newly born child, his sinister patron, Razin and a plot that could end the Kaiserina’s short reign.

Death Korps: The Ascension Conspiracy


By Richard Marsden

I


Comfort

  He had to admit to himself; the man looked positively dashing and every part a gentleman. His uniform was the color reserved to members of the Royal Family, white, with golden buttons running diagonally across the tunic, while an intricate medal denoting Imperial title, dangled from his chest. He stood ramrod straight, laspistol gripped tightly in a gloved fist, the elbow bent, the barrel of the weapon pointing up to the overly bright lights of the level’s ceiling. He looked every part the gentleman; never mind the fact he really wasn’t one.


“Face and fire!” the mediator of the dispute barked with the same tone one might expect from a drill-sergeant. There was no backing out now.


The upstart turned, lowered his pistol and with a gentle squeeze of the trigger sent a round of glittering light into the shoulder of his opponent, ten paces away. Without so much as checking to see if his foe was dead or wounded, he turned to his upstart second and removed one glove, handing it to him, followed by the laspistol and then the other glove, symbolically washing his hands clean of the affair. Not that the groaning man ten paces off was likely to see it as ‘over’.


“I’m getting tired of this,” the pale skinned man said, eyeing his second as if it were his fault for the day’s events.


Jagg glanced to the fallen duelist. He was alive, but clutching his shoulder tightly, while his second cradled him and stared daggers into Razin’s back. He wouldn’t be surprised if the fellow would be the next one to challenge the ex-commissar to a duel.


The mediator clicked his heels together and nodded to each party. “The duel is concluded,” he turned and walked away, “honor is satisfied.”


“How many does this one make it, Commissar sir?” Jagg placed his patron’s accoutrements of dueling into a case, snapped the lid shut and followed after him towards a waiting transport.


A servant opened the door and lowered his gaze while Razin followed by Jagg slid into the roomy back seat of the transport. The seats were highly polished and made from imported grox-hide, while the tinted windows hid from view its occupants.


“Four.” Razin rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I shouldn’t have killed the first one, it’s just got their blood up. I honestly thought the third would be the last. How many Dukes do the High Borns have at their disposal?!”


The transport lurched a moment before taking off down the wide transit halls of Krieg’s inner levels. Unlike the rest of the planet, the inner-levels were graced with medians sprouting plants, supposedly from the same gene-stock of the surface forests that once coated Krieg before the atomic civil war scoured virtually all life clean centuries before. Along the walls, pict-monitors flashed advertisements to encourage the wealthy to make the best of their position and buy rings, custom las weapons, and ornate religious icons. Though none of the wares were by themselves insidious, Jagg couldn’t help but remember the planet of Xanthris. He rolled his shoulders uneasily and absently answered.


“Plenty, I suppose, Commissar sir.”


“Duke. Or my lord. You aren’t helping with my new image every time you call me Commissar sir,” Razin tapped Jagg on the head, “besides! That will be your title, soon enough. How goes schola?”


“About as the same as your Dukedom, my lord,” Jagg answered dryly.


The jumped-up noble gave a wry grin and laughed.

#


It wasn’t home. It never could be home. It was too new, too nice and he damn well knew that when he graduated schola and left the influence of Razin, he would likely never see it or its inhabitants again.


The hab was situated on a side transit of an inner level, not far from the Commissarial Schola and only about thirty-minutes from the center-palace three levels above. To most the nobility and their collected favorites, the dwelling would be seen as fit for a servant. To Jagg, it may has well have been the Imperial Palace on Terra. Two stories with eight rooms; which made that seven more than he and his mother grew up in.


He gave his thanks to his patron and exited the transport, striding to the front door. He paused a moment, adjusting his black tunic and cadet cap before entering. The doors on these levels never needed to be locked.


The smell of freshly baked bread instantly had his stomach grumbling and he found the sounds of his mother humming and Klara idly chatting, welcoming. The rooms were spartan in appearance, but only because everything from their original home barely occupied a single room in their new house. Their house; he mentally corrected himself.


“Bread. You made enough for me?” Jagg said and entered the kitchen offering a smile to his mother and Klara. His mother had not changed very much since Razin arranged for a new housing assignment as well as careers. She wore plain attire and had her hair tied back in a tight bun. Her official duty was ‘maid’, but Razin had placed her on indefinite leave, giving her free reign over the house.


Klara was much more adroit at taking full advantage of Duke Razin’s generosity. The dress she wore was conservative, as all dresses on Krieg tended to be, but it clung to her figure well, and if not for the lho stick dangling out of her mouth, she might possibly pass as a woman of high society.


“My boy! Always enough.” She smiled and said in a sing-song voice, “Schola get out early?” as if he were still eight.


He was almost twenty damn it! He had been trained in the halls of B*tch ot Three, blooded on Jendra, was married and had a child of his own! But before he could lecture his mother on his various feats of manhood, his wife was hugging him and kind enough to remove the lho stick from her mouth. She exhaled a bit of smoke into his face, grinning as he winced.


“You’re dressed sharp and have time enough to visit? A duel was it, Achim? Duke Razin has come out on top again I see. Well, the High Borns are not precisely fast learners,” Klara mused.


His mother continued to tend to the bread, but glanced up to say, “The Duke will teach them soon enough.”


Razin was a b*stard. He had whipped Jagg, threatened his life and led him into danger on numerous occasions. Not to mention he made him play the role of second at his duels and was quick to remind him at every turn who his good fortunes were tied to. But in the house of his mother and Klara, the man was just slightly beneath the Emperor and quickly rising.


Wisely, Jagg agreed. “He will, that or they’ll run out of men with high enough rank to challenge him.”


“Or his wife will find out and put an end to it.” Klara kissed him. “That is what I would do. You should tell her.”


He smirked and returned the kiss with one of his own. “I haven’t seen her since that incident with the Inquisitor.” That ended the conversation. He couldn’t tell either of them much about the said incident, Brecht had made that clear, his interrogator Dranguille had reiterated it and the assassin Arlene had implied it with a look. He told his family enough, that what happened with him and the Inquisitor on Xanthris was a closed matter. Even the teasing of Klara wouldn’t stray into the realm of the Holy Inquisition.


“Fine.” Klara tugged at him. “Come and see your little girl.


She led him away from the kitchen and up the stairs into her room. The bed was small, it would hardly fit two people. She knew as much as he it was unlikely they would share a bed for more than a passing moment. Even with their newfound wealth and patronage, Krieg was unkind to love. Their marriage had been engineered by a cogitator; it was just luck that he actually loved his wife. Most men didn’t have the fortune of meeting them more than once, and most considered them simply a drain on their ration card.


A smaller bed, crafted from a rich mahogany colored wood, was placed at the foot of Klara’s. The little girl within, slept soundly. A year and half old! It was hard to fathom it still. She was a lucky baby, having taken mostly her mother’s traits, though Klara insisted the girl would have Jagg’s eyes. He wasn’t sure that was a blessing. He had been told his eyes had a shifty look about them.


He touched her head a moment but drew back when the girl shifted in her sleep and yawned. “Beautiful. Hadu.” He reached down to shake her. “Hadu.”


Klara’s arms wrapped about him from behind and she drew him back. “Later. Let her sleep. Besides, you play with her and the moment she needs a diaper changed, you have to go. Let’s delay that a bit.” Klara bit his ear once. “She keeps me up all night. I thought the career of mother was going to

be a bit easier!” She peered over his shoulder, smiling warmly at her child. “Our Hadu.”


“Our Hadu,” he echoed.

II

The Tower


His departure from his mother, wife and child was as painful as he expected it to be. He would be lying to himself if he said he didn’t have a few tears in his eyes upon leaving them. He walked to a public transport station and seated himself amongst servants and petty-guardsmen, who all eyed his Commissarial cadet uniform with open suspicion. Jagg ignored them as best he was able and peered out the window at the clean walls and mimicked nature scenes of the inner levels.


When the transport stopped near the schola he exited, swiping his ration card through the reader and not even sparing the driver so much as a glance. He had other things on his mind. Razin’s duel was done, his brief visit home was over and the schola beckoned.


The structure looked like a black spike, thrusting out from the level’s floor, and vanishing into its roof. Golden lights like eyes glittered up its polished surface and a host of servo-skulls floated about the lofty heights of the building named simply, the tower, by locals and residents alike. Within its halls, would-be commissars learned the skills necessary to inspire faith, be it through a smile, glare, barrel of a gun or the occasional execution. He dreaded the place, but not by virtue of its appearance.


Few roamed about the yawning doors of the tower and Jagg wasn’t noticed until he had entered the structure, stepping out of Krieg’s false-light and the warm air generated to replicate summer. He was still trying to get used to ‘seasons’ on the inner levels and had yet to fully appreciate them.


“For a low birth, you leave a whole lot. One might think you have lands to manage or famous women to woo.” The guard emerged from a shadowy control booth. He was a portly fellow, grown lazy on the easy task of watching the main entry of the tower. No one in their right mind would break into a place such as it and Jagg was hardly surprised that men, no good for the redemption of Krieg through battle, wound up as petty gate-guards. Petty, weak and vindictive, the whole lot of them grated on Jagg.


He could not answer, for though he would perhaps one day hold the rank of Commissar, he was currently a cadet, with as much power and influence as he had when he was a conscript, almost two years ago. So much had happened, too much in a way.


“And where were you? Your sponsor has called for you, what is it? Ten times already, eh?” the guard adjusted his belt, and walked closer.


Jagg did not move and stood at attention, his eyes fixed on the doorway which would lead out of the entry hall. He answered stiffly, “My patron has need of me and I am not one to refuse.” The guard was just that, he would get no ‘sir’ and for the life of him, Jagg couldn’t remember his name. Each bloated would-have-been and has-been blended into one another. They were minor obstacles, all things considered.


“Eh. I don’t much like your patron or you for that matter,” the guard stepped closer, leaned in and sniffed at Jagg’s collar. “I know your kind. Both of yours. You two aren’t different than I am.”

Jagg’s eyes glanced to that of the guard’s. “Going to be signing up to be a Commissarial Cadet then?”


The man’s eyes narrowed and his fists clenched. While verbal abuse was one thing, the guard wasn’t foolish enough to get physical with someone who, like it or not, was under the protection of a man with an Imperial Title.


“Get going and enjoy your stay. Mark my words boy, you’ll be doing my job soon enough.” He spit before turning to return to his shadow drenched booth, where he would stare listlessly out of the mammoth doors for hours on end, until a man as equally broken as him took his shift and did the same.


Jagg vowed he would never be that man. He entered the tower.

#


Life in the tower was not like that of a conscript back in B-03 under Sergeant Hauster’s vocal tutelage. He had time off if Razin arranged it, was given free access to the tower and had choice in some of the classes he took. The cadets were all Krieg born and before entering the schola had to be patroned by a member of the planet’s nobility. They were the sons of Krieg’s elite and expected to be treated as such. Not all Commissars of Krieg were from the schola. Razin, as Jagg had learned, ended up as a Commissar by serving as another’s aide for years. Tradmeir, who took Razin’s place with the 76th, was an officer, but no gentleman, at least by Krieg’s standards. But one thing was clear. Those who graduated from the schola were not mere Commissars. The instructors had mentioned time and again, every Lord Commissar in Krieg’s history had graduated from their halls.


It was an elite school meant for only for Krieg’s best. Jagg sighed inwardly. Krieg’s best, and himself.


He made his way to his personal quarters, a little room buried deep within the tower. It was meek by noble standards but just fine by him. It beat a Jendrite shed or a shipping box filled with dish towels and a Commissar.


He showered and changed out of his dress uniform into the black fatigues of the students. His next class wasn’t for hours but he had to study in the library. His fellow students had not only better breeding than him, they could also all read, a skill Jagg still struggled with.


The library was empty, lest one counted the two servitors which tended to the place and fetched required books. He hated the things and avoided speaking to their artificially preserved forms. The sight of flesh mated grotesquely to machinery set a chill down his spine and lately made him think of the horrors he had witnessed on the Xanthris homeworld. The ‘monster’, as the Eldar called it seemed little different than the flesh-constructs that motored about the library.


He settled in and fetched for himself two books; one an Imperial history, the other a children’s reading primer from offworld that Razin had given him upon his confession that his grades were falling faster than an Ork Rok in low orbit. He slid the children’s book within the other, to disguise his failing.


“You’re late.”


Out of instinct, he shut the books and glanced up sharply. His tension receded as he saw Johan von Langer. Langer was his age and bore the frosty blue eyes that so many of the nobility shared. His slightly puffy lips spoke of inbreeding which was not exactly ashamed of.


Jagg opened the books up and showed von Langer his choice of reading.


The noble adjusted his cadet fatigues and slid into a dark wood chair. Supposedly the furniture of the tower was all made from Krieg’s forests, forests that coated the surface in the days before the civil war. He raised brow and sighed. “Still on that one?”


“It’s easy for you. You learned all of your letters when I was being shown vid-picts of Krieg’s history and getting drill on how to disassemble a bolt-action with my eyes closed. Jagg rubbed his crooked nose. “I need a tutor.”


The noble gave a wry smile. “You make a terrible student. But, shall we try again? If I am to help you, you need to meet me here on time, every day.” He leaned in. “Every time you go on one of your little jaunts with Duke Razin, you set yourself back. Tell him that if you flunk out of the tower, it will be a stain on him that no duel will make up for.” Von Langer smiled. “You do know you haven’t very many friends here?”


Jagg laughed loud enough for the servitor to let forth an automated, “Shhh.”


“Yes, I know. Even the frickin gate-guards have made that clear since I arrived.” Jagg leaned back in his seat.


Von Langer nodded. “Right, then let the Duke know he’s ending up one of your enemies at this rate. We haven’t much time before our class on Motivation, Fear and Love, so let us put the child’s book away and at least attempt some of Commissar Scholz’s text on the matter of inspiration.” He produced from his tunic the work in question and opened it.


Over the pages, notes had been scribbled in smaller easier to understand words. Jagg’s eyes widened and he grasped the book. Much of the long dead Scholz’s prose was lost on him. He had no idea what, through rigorous and fastidious use of personal hygienic implements, one can put forth a visage worthy of respect on the parade grounds and in the field of valor, meant. Digesting Langer’s notes off to the side was profoundly easier.


He read the citation aloud, “Brush hair and teeth, shave at home or in a trench.”

Von Langer crossed his arms and gave a disapproving look. “Your pronunciation is atrocious as always. ‘And’, not ‘anz’. And where do you get ‘inza’ from ‘in a’? You cannot just make up letters and sounds as you see fit. Still, you have the essence of it. You read perfectly fine. You just don’t quite understand what you read yet.”


He let out a sigh. “Thank you. You must have spent hours doing this. You didn’t have to.” Jagg flipped through a few other pages, each neatly annotated by his companion.


The noble shook his head. “I didn’t, no. But I want to. Be damned my cousins if they can’t appreciate a man whose been on the front lines. Half of them will probably end up assigned to some pleasant posting on Krieg, they should appreciate the true warriors.”


Jagg turned his eyes onto von Langer. “Like you?”


The man shrugged. “My father insists. And birth comes before a son’s desire. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live gloriously and vicariously. Come on then, we need to see what Commissar Scholz had to say about proper defecation.”


“What?”


“How to take a sh*t.”


Jagg nodded. “Oh, right.”

#


He went to his assigned classes, learning from the Commissars what it meant to be the whip of the Imperial Guard. In class, Jagg watched with narrowed eyes as the men of good breeding listened aptly to advice they would likely never take. What did they know about unit discipline under fire? What did they know about the Repenting Rack or the wholesale executions that took place at the word of a Commissar. Jagg had seen it all first hand. Not that his frontline experience counted for much amongst the dimly lit schola auditoriums.


Commissar von Hurst shuffled across an expensive holographic pict-viewer, casting his augmented face and form in crisscrossing green lines. His black uniform could not hide his metal stump of a leg, claw of a hand and the metal plate which dominated the entire right side of his skull. There were far more attractive augmetics available to a man of von Hurst’s station, but for some reason he had foregone them and chosen the most crudely made ones available.


The instructor was perhaps the most insulting Jagg had to contend with, but his war wounds spoke of a valorous history. He wanted the man’s respect or at least acknowledgement as a fellow soldier, but invariably each lesson drifted into the topic of a man’s birth.


“The rutters are like daggers,” von Hurst began.


The term ‘rutters’ no longer bothered Jagg. It was the phrase used to describe the Men of Krieg who, like him, were of common birth. Such men did not choose their wives. They were assigned, like Klara was to him. The High Born had wives assigned as well, but based along the lines of politics and familial alliances. Such marriages were not like that of the typical Death Korpsmen.


Whereas a Man of Krieg would hardly see his wife or child, the High Born were expected to one day return to Krieg and manage their lands and children and eventually arrange the pairings of their offspring to a House of suitable name and stature.


“Cadet Jagg.” Von Hurst limped across the auditorium and the heads of the students turned to coolly regard the upstart in their midst.


He had played this particular game before. “Yes, Commissar sir?”


“Had a dagger in the trenches, did you?” the instructor’s lips formed a light smile.


Without emotion, Jagg replied, “Yes, Commissar sir.”


“And that dagger. What would happen to it if you left it out for days?”


“Rust, Commissar sir.”


The heavily augmented leg thumped upon the ground. “It would. And if you didn’t sharpen it often?”


“Get dull, Commissar sir.”


“And if you twisted it too hard in the guts of some Ork?” He tilted his head up and the overhead lights glinted off the metallic skull plate.


“Will break, Commissar sir.”


He nodded. “That’s right, my boy.” His tones were endearing, but Jagg couldn’t help but squirm in his seat, he knew eventually the tone would be disparaging.


“Don’t shelter em, they get dirty. Don’t train em, they don’t fight. Use em too hard and they break.”


 Von Hurst grunted, “And you don’t ever unsheathe em, they aren’t good for anything.”


A few quiet chuckles rose from the cadets.


“The rutters are daggers, gentlemen and Jagg.”


There it was.


“They are to be used to knife the foe in the guts and if you don’t treat them right, they’ll not serve you. But like a dagger, you need to know when its spent. When it is time to throw it away and get a new one. Rutters can be like that. Good soldiers for a time, but a few years tick past and you might need to replace more than a few.” Von Hurst gestured with his metallic claw in Jagg’s direction. “They all end up breaking in the end, their duty done. Matter of breeding. Our rutters are hard and sharp! But they shatter in time. If death by the foe doesn’t take em in the field, then it’ll be a lasbolt from you, or one of the men beneath you.”


Tall, blonde and physically perfect, Cadet von Faust gave a leering smile and spoke to the class at large, but kept his eyes on Jagg. “You mean, Commissar sir, that they are all inevitably faulted?”

“Correct. To the last. Otherwise we wouldn’t need Commissars, Lord Commissars, aides to Commissars and so on.” Von Hurst turned his back to Jagg and limped his way through the aisles of desks in the auditorium. “Treat em right, and they’ll work wonders, but be ready in a flash to drop em and draw another weapon. Daggers are cheap, remember that too.” He paused, long enough to look over his shoulder at Jagg. By then, the entire class had joined in.


Jagg was silent and kept his emotions in check. He wanted to shout, bellow and rage against the unfairness of their comments and their implied accusations towards his own character. Two years ago, he might have, but men like Sergeant Taubover had taught Jagg what it meant to be an Old Soldier. He kept his face as smooth as glass and perhaps only his narrowed eyes gave any hint as to what he was feeling.


When all eyes were off of him, he leaned over to the man at his right, von Langer. “He talks like a soldier and manages to insult them at the same time.” His whisper was just enough for the fellow cadet to hear.


Without turning his way, Von Langer whispered back, “Be nice, that’s my second uncle you are talking about.”

#


The class was dismissed and Jagg shuffled his way into the darkened halls of the tower. High Born cadets eyed him, a few whispered despairing remarks, but it was von Faust who elbowed him as he passed by.


His fist curled up and he reared back, his anger slipping through the moment he was physically accosted.


Von Langer was at his side in a flash. His arms wrapped around Jagg and he heaved, pulling him back, hissing softly in his ear, “That is a quick way to get removed from this fine educational establishment.”


Perfect von Faust smirked, having not flinched at the slightest at Jagg’s outburst. He shook his head sadly. “Von Langer, you do your kind a disservice protecting him. You heard the Commissar. They are all bound to snap at some point. His kind do not belong in a schola which is crafting the future Lord Commissars of the world.”


Von Langer released Jagg soon as he stopped struggling. He answered his fellow High Born in the same casual tones von Faust used with him, “And yet here he is.”


“I’m not going anywhere, Faust.” Jagg smoothed out the wrinkles in his uniform, feeling more than a bit self-conscious for his outburst.


“It will be, my lord, from you soon enough. There were a dozen other Commissariat scholas for your type. Yet you dare to reach too high. You and your benefactor will learn the error of striving for such lofty goals; the fall.” The High Born smiled wide, a perfect smile, like everything else about von Faust. He walked away, leaving the pair alone in the entry way to the auditorium.


Jagg resisted the urge to spit on the floor. “I don’t much like that man.”


A wide grin spread across von Langer’s features. “Oh, be nice. That’s my cousin you’re talking about. Come on, we have an hour before physical training. Perhaps we can get you to say a word or two without the careless addition of a z.”

III


Stolen Past

The news was terrible. Beyond terrible. Marena von Alder-Razin paced back and forth through her room, wringing her hands as the potential implications ran through her mind.

“Where is he?” she whispered sharply to herself.


As if cued, the door opened and her husband strode in. Unaware of her plight, he removed his formal coat and stretched his arms. Maenor Razin set a box she damn well knew contained a dueling laspistol and a pair of gloves.


She whirled on him. “There is a problem.”


She almost laughed at how pale he turned. He must have thought she was referring to the duels he had been getting himself into. Such pointless bravado irked her, but she had been pleased to hear that every duel was only accepted when someone brought up ‘her’ honor. It was hard to fault her husband for defending her good name. Besides, she had ensured that each duel he partook in was in some way tilted in his favor. An underpowered charge here, a little bribe there, went a long way in ensuring her husband’s survival. The man had gone to extraordinary lengths to earn the right to marry her and she wasn’t about to let some Duke with a familial pedigree as wide as his waistband take that away from her. In time her fellow High Borns would accept him, that or they’d run out of men to challenge him.


“What sort of problem?” Maenor asked tentatively, then covered for his discomfort by shrugging off parts of his ceremonial attire. “I was overseeing one of our levels. Locals need to know I care,” he lied smoothly. “You should see the smelting factoriums. I believe my changes there have the ladies working their hard-”


“This is important,” she interrupted. Her arms crossed and she said in level tones, “There has been a theft.”


Maenor blinked in surprise and a bit of relief could be seen ghosting across his narrow features. “A theft?” he asked slowly. “What? When? Here?”


She shook her head. “Records. Yesterday. Palace.” She drew in a breath, contemplating yet again how much to tell him. They were married true, but some secrets were beyond her own and that of the family’s. “They are genealogical records of the hand written and very old variety. They cover the lineage of all the High Borns of Krieg from von Adler to von Faust to von Hartwin and so on.” She took a few light steps towards him, placed her arms on his hips and whispered as much as she was willing to reveal, “They are very old. The information within could be considered vital.”


He raised a brow and placed his own hands atop hers. “Could be? How old exactly?”


“The last entry was in 949.M40”


Eyes widened and his hands upon hers clenched. He sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth. “Auspicious year. Would I be presumptuous in guessing the surname of that final addition is one I am married into?”


She nodded.


“I see. And how far back do the records go?”


That information was not relevant to the problem at hand and she stepped away from him, turning her back. “Old, leave it at that. The only issue of concern is the final entry. Penned by scribes of the Ecclesiarchy and making formal the ascension of my family. The records would be needed should anyone challenge the Kaiserina’s legitimacy to rule. Thus their disappearance has her majesty worrying.”


“Someone might challenge her right to rule? Who? Wouldn’t they need the same records were they to push forth their own claimant? Unless they altered the originals…” Maenor stroked his chin. “I need more information. Let me be presumptuous again and take it that her majesty wants you to get those records back and you in turn would like me to do it?”


She turned on a heel to face him. “You like your new role as Duke? Should the Adler family fall, even your Imperial title won’t save you from the political demise of your loving wife.” She nodded. “My cousin ascended with the fortuitous death of her father. We both know her throne has been plagued from the start, despite military success.”


“I told you, Lord Commissar Thrack’s plot to assassinate you had nothing to do with the Kaiserina so much as-”


Once again she cut him off. “I know that! That doesn’t mean there aren’t those that would delight in seeing her fail and with it the von Adler dynasty. A woman rules Krieg! Do you know how that irks most?” A long breath left her full lips. “Maenor, those records are useless except for someone deeply interested in the lineage of the nobility. My cousin has been on the throne hardly three years. I just don’t believe in coincidences.”


Hands rose up in surrender. Maenor spread his arms wide and bowed formally. “I concur. What would the Kaiserina and my wife have me do?”


Her eyes regarded him. She loved him, but she also knew he was slippery. The task she had for him would expose her husband to secrets not meant for anyone outside the highest echelons of the nobility. However, there was none from that esteemed group that could be trusted.


“The records were stolen from Vault 208 in the palace. It is there you can start your search. The records have to be found and hopefully before someone else produces them. Emperor knows they might alter them or a forgery could appear at any moment.” She glided close to him once again. Her blue eyes stared. “There is some good news.”


“Well, given the imminent collapse of our combined fortunes due to nefarious unknowns, I could use some good news.” He kissed her head.


“Whoever stole the records doesn’t know we are aware of it. The vault is well secured but hardly watched. That particular vault hasn’t been opened in almost a thousand years. The vault next to it had been accessed by Magos Daimlan the day prior. When he returned, the good Tech-Priest’s phenomenal powers of observation noticed the seal around Vault 208 had been replaced. He was good enough to comment on the fine job to the vault scrivener, who in turn was smart enough to contact those undoubtedly loyal to the Kaiserina.”


Maenor gave a nod. “Good news indeed. If they don’t know we know they took it, then they won’t necessarily make a move until they are certain they will succeed.”


She giggled lightly, feeling some of the tension break. “That is a lot of they.”


Pressing on he said, “And they must have left perhaps more than a fresh seal behind. I have full authority to proceed with this investigation?”


Her lips pursed. “Yes, but…”


“Discreet?”


She nodded. “Very discreet. Nothing flashy must happen.”


“I’ll need help. Muscle. Someone handy with a laspistol and loyal to me.” Maenor clapped his hands together.


“Jagg,” they said in unison.

IV


The Fall


“You want me to do what?” He couldn’t believe his ears. He glanced around to see if others were hiding, laughing at a joke. As far as Jagg could see, no one was nearby. The trees and grasses of the garden level swayed gently as puffs of artificial wind skimmed by, carrying pollen into the air. He sat on a park bench and if not for the false-light from above, he could almost imagine himself as outside and not deep within the subterranean hive of Krieg.


“Drop out of schola. Fail gloriously if you please,” Razin said, no humor in his voice.

“Let me get this right, Commissar sir. You put me in the tower, a schola reserved for High Born. You’ve given me, a nobody, a chance at making it. Now you want me to throw it all away?” Jagg shook his head.


“That’s exactly what I want you to do. Today, when you get back. Make a complete disgrace of yourself so that no one will question it if you and I vanish for a bit. Hiding in shame and all that.”

Razin rose from the bench. “And for the last time, my lord. Or Duke Razin if you please. It wasn’t easy earning that title.”


“Comm-, my lord, it wasn’t easy making it this far in the schola! I don’t understand.” He was absolutely bewildered. He had crammed his head with von Langer’s notes, spent countless hours trying to keep pace with men of better breeding and education and was now asked to just quit?!

The Duke waved a hand dismissively. “Your classmates and instructors are a bunch of half-wits. They produce men like Thrack and he was squashed flat if you recall. No, its best you quit. Maybe later we can put you in a more fitting schola. You’d make a better line Commissar anyways. Who wants to be safe on Krieg, or advising a general, or-”


“I do!”


“We all have dreams and it’s the nature of the universe to crush them.” Razin turned and started down the path of gravel which wound its way through the paradise of vegetation. “I’m not asking, Jagg. I’ll meet you at your home tomorrow night.” Night being a relative term, the hive never shut its lights off on purpose. “You better be in disgrace.” He glared over his shoulder. “Understood?”


How could he deny the patron who could cancel his enrollment anyways? He wanted to whine, to beg. He never saw himself as an ambitious sort, but he was surprised by his sense of competition within the schola. Letting men like von Faust be right about him, even if Razin ordered it, twisted his stomach. He didn’t beg though. He slumped his shoulders in resignation. He was a dagger, sure as Commissar von Hurst had said and it was clear, Razin needed something pointy.


“Understood, my lord,” he snapped at Razin’s retreating form.


#


He stewed in his private quarters over the latest twist of fate. Anger roiled within him that only gradually gave way to a sick, self-destructive amusement. If Razin wanted him kicked out of the schola entirely, he wasn’t about to fail a test or miss a class to do it.


Commissar von Hurst’s class on discipline and command was perfect for the academic suicide Jagg intended. He could prove the instructor and cadets who loathed him the most that they were right, that he didn’t belong. No. Couldn’t belong.


He hardly acknowledged von Langer as the fleshy noble eased into a seat next to him. He’d miss the fellow. Of all the cadets, he was the only one who had shown him respect. It would be a bit of betrayal to let him down, but Jagg knew it could be no other way. Razin still owned him, as sure as if they were back on Jendra with the 76th. Von Langer would have to be disappointed in the ‘rutter’ he adopted.


The class started, as usual, with a roughly spoken lecture by the limping von Hurst. It didn’t take long for the insults to start.


“Jagg, my boy!”


“Sir!” he answered, a bit too chipper he realized. Did the Commissar know his heart was skipping beats and adrenaline pumping in his body?


“You know rutters as well as I. Give em free time and you end up whorin’, drinkin on duty, smoking. Right aren’t I?” Von Hurst smiled darkly.


Funnily enough, he was on all accounts except the whoring. Jagg had, unlike many of his fellow rutters, been faithful to Klara. But, the instructor didn’t need to hear that. “Yes, sir! Guilty, I’m afraid.”


The instructor sneered a moment, then tilted his head, apparently perplexed at Jagg’s ready agreement. His response wasn’t what Jagg was waiting for, however.


“Disgusting creature,” von Faust said not hiding his disdain in the least. A few of the cadets laughed. Von Hurst smirked.


“I might be, but I have a loyal wife who loves me and I her,” Jagg retorted.


The bait was set and von Faust presented one of his leering smiles. “Really now? You spend your time fighting for Krieg’s redemption, probably using the wrong ‘gun’ half the time, and don’t think to yourself that your precious wife is probably doing the same to every Man of Krieg that happens on by her run down slum of a hab?”


It was too easy really. Jagg rose to his feet. “Are you insulting my wife?”


“What in the Emperor’s name are you doing!” von Langer reached a hand out, but he slapped it away.


“Sit down, Cadet Jagg, your wife’s exploits aren’t worth getting excited over.”


He ignored the augmetic laden instructor and strode to von Faust’s desk. He carried in his hand a book. The blue eyes of the High Born met his.


“An insult and the truth are two very diff-”


“I’d challenge you to a duel if I could. Here and now,” Jagg snapped. “If I was a bloody von, this or von that, I’d slap you in the face and say pistols in the garden level at ten paces!”


“Sit, down!” von Hurst growled.


The striking figure of von Faust leaned back lazily in his desk. He shot a wry look to the cadets around him. Calmly, he looked up and said in tones dripping with sarcasm, “What a pity you are a rutter. Soldier-trash, to be used and expended, unworthy of the honor of facing a true gentleman in a clash of arms. You think, because you’ve been in combat, that you are my equal?! I’ll be commanding whole bloody regiments when I’m through. The First Army of Krieg itself might be mine to inspire as its Lord Commissar. You’ll be lucky if you get the chance to crack a whip at a topside rad-penal colony. ” He grinned. “You are not a gentleman and never will be.”


He peered down at von Faust and ignored the growing shouts of the instructor. “You’re right. I’m not a gentleman. Never will be.”


Jagg gripped the book, a weighty volume by some fellow with a von in his name, and swung it up into Faust’s chin. The perfect head snapped back and Jagg mentally cursed. Even the teeth that flew out of his bleeding mouth looked perfect!

#


The wife didn’t take the news well and he felt at first guilt then a returning sense of anger when his mother cried. He waited on a chair inside the house. It was night, meaning all the windows had their blinds shut, to block out the level’s endless glow. In the dark he waited, hands gripped to the arms of the chair.


Duke Razin didn’t bother knocking, he owned the place. The door opened and the light from outside framed his whip-cord form. A hand fumbled for a switch on the wall and flicked on the room’s illuminator.


He felt some measure of satisfaction at seeing Razin jump back a bit, like a snake rearing to strike.


“Brooding, I see.”


“The wife isn’t happy.” Jagg nodded, narrowing his eyes at the influx of light. “Shut the door, my lord.”


Razin did so. He blinked his eyes a few times, adjusting to the change in illumination. “That, I am sorry about. I’m fond of misses and mother Jagg. Fine work you did.”


“They said I was lucky they didn’t shoot me then and there for striking a noble.” He leaned forward in the chair until it creaked. “But they assured me I would be should von Faust make an issue out of it.”


The Duke grinned once. “I doubt it will come to that. Those in the tower were angry with me, not you. Your rather spectacular failure has cast a pall of shame upon me. I think von Faust and his family are pleased.” He raised a thin black brow. “I hear teeth were set loose?”


“A few.”


“Hmmm. Well, if they do decide to make an issue of it, it will take a week or two before your trial and pre-ordained execution. That gives us plenty of time.” Razin waved his hands. “Pack as if we are going on the run.”


A heavy breath left him. “Commissar, can you please tell me what is going on? Other than my impending execution?”


“Some valuable lineage papers were stolen out of the palace. Records the Kaiserina wants back. The thieves covered their tracks and are unaware we are on to them. Nor will they assume a disgraced cadet and his jumped-up patron will be investigating the matter.” Razin sniffed. “These records are vital, to the rule of our beloved Kaiserina. You know what that means, Achim?”


He was struck by the use of his given name. Such a thing was to be shared amongst friends and it was hard seeing the man who caused him trouble could be anything of the sort. “What, Commissar sir?” he said lamely, his anger flickering out like a like a candle denied oxygen, to be replaced with bafflement.


“If we succeed, the single most powerful person on Krieg will be grateful. Who bloody cares about the tower when she’s likely to name the whole place, the Razin Commissarial Schola with a nice newly added wing, the Jagg Hall.” Razin stepped towards him. “Face it, the moment I became a Duke, I’ve had nothing but trouble holding on. Every day, I face the same challenges you did at the tower. It was really only a matter of time before one of us fouled up and took down the other.”

“I suppose,” he said insincerely, though the thought started to make sense.


“You think the Kaiserina was overly thrilled to welcome into her family a nobody who made a career of shooting men in the back and occasionally giving them the taste of the Repenting Rack?” Razin tilted his head. “This will win her over and with her, you and I and your family are secure.” He shrugged. “Until the next crisis, but that’s how these things work.”


“Can I say no?” Jagg inquired.


“Only if you can say, no thanks, I don’t want a blindfold, fire when ready.” The ex-Commissar raised a hand. “And don’t blame me for that one. I wanted you to fail gloriously, I didn’t think you would perform above and beyond as it were.”


“Fellow had it coming,” Jagg mumbled.


“I’m sure he did. Kiss the wife and mother goodbye, we need to get going.” Razin looked about a moment, then took a seat on the worn grox-hide couch his mother had salvaged from their old hab.

Resigned, once again, Jagg rose. “What exactly do I tell them?”


A light on the stairway snapped on. Klara and his mother stood in it, side by side.


“Apparently nothing more needs to be said,” Razin replied smoothly.  

V


The Vault


Their transport raced through the halls of the level. Traffic was light and no one noticed the three occupants as being unusual. The sleek vehicle traveled up the ramps, and with a flash of a card, passed through the military checkpoints leading up to the palace.


The structure was a clashing one. Looming walls, which like a web stretched to the roof and floor of the level, mixed with the imported plant-life and the colorful banners the Kaiserina decorated her abode with.


“Did I mention, I don’t like this?” Jagg asked.


Razin, confident at the wheel, guided the transport towards a parking area, patrolled by hovering servoskulls and lorded over by heavily armed and armored Korpsmen. He leaned over the seat, flashing a viperous smile. “Several times, in fact. But the argument is a sound one. I’ve only rudimentary skills with a cogitator and you have none.”


“And I have plenty,” Klara said. She offered Jagg a wry smile. “Besides, it’s my lively hood at stake as well and if you want to go through the data-records, it’s either trust a scrivener, or trust your wife.” She nudged him. “Hadu will be fine, your mother raised you well enough, and Lord Razin says this won’t take long.”


The ex-commissar cleared his throat. “I said we didn’t have long.”


“Same results.” Klara smoothed her dark hair back and adjusted her faded overalls. She seemed pleased that they still fit snugly and she brought with her a host of tools. Jagg had never asked much about her career when they first met and after she became pregnant she had stopped working. He wasn’t sure if it was the Emperor’s blessings or sense of humor that it turned out she was decent with the logic-engines vital to modern society and perhaps as equally vital to any investigation they conducted. The words of the Eldar Farseer back on Xanthris rang in his mind.


Irony is the galaxy’s idea of humor.


They exited the vehicle. Razin, dressed in attire fitting of a Duke, Jagg in an unmarked uniform of a Death Korpsemen, and Klara, snug in her overalls. The trio started to draw attention.


A few armored guards glanced their way and as they walked towards one of the many entrances of the palace, a patrol of soldiers halted the trio’s progress.


Razin flashed his identifications and after a silent nod, led them into the interior of the mammoth structure. The walls were stout, inscribed in places with Imperial Scripture, decorated in others with portraits or banners. Combat servitors, vat-grown to enormous size and plated in burnished gold sat, hulking, in alcoves. From each servitor one, human eye stared out listlessly, while a laser-guided augmetic one tracked the visitors. The things set Jagg on edge. He couldn’t help but glare at each and every one.


Down they traversed. It was the first time Jagg had been to the palace and he was struck by how empty it felt. Beyond the half-dead combat servitors and the guards outside, they hadn’t seen anyone.


“Quiet,” he commented.


“All the excitement is several stories above us. We are going towards the crypts, vaults and sanctoriums of the palace. Usually only scribes and the occasional noble mourner will make their way down here.” Razin walked briskly. “Suits me fine. We need to be discreet and the fewer people who see us, the better.”


They walked down long, rockcrete bolstered ramps to a rickety elevator that seemed more at home in a mine than in the palace of the Kaiserina. They fit comfortably in the cage and with a press of a button, the elevator sunk into the floor.


Hallways slide past Jagg’s view, outside the cage. After about the tenth hall, the illuminators were faded or nonexistent. Some pathways led off into complete darkness, yet lower they went.


The chill, customary to Krieg settled in the lower they went, causing Jagg to absently tuck his hands into his charcoal-gray tunic, while Klara did the same in her plain overalls. Razin, made no move,

seemingly unaware of the newfound chill that was usually absent in Krieg’s inner levels.


“My lord, I’ve noticed a few camera ports on the way here and the servitors have cams as well. Did anyone check the vids to see who wandered this way?” Klara asked.


He shook his head. “Not yet. If we make any official inquires, then the thieves will be on to us. Asking for so much as a cup of caffeine here involves an unhealthy amount of paperwork and bureaucrats.” Razin glanced her way. “I for one don’t wish to contend with little angry ladies waving data-slates and in the process expose us.”


She nodded once. “I see. You want me to break into the system?”


“You can do that?” Jagg asked, his voice incredulous.


Rather than answer him she rolled her eyes and peered at Razin.


“Can you do it without those angry little ladies finding out?” Razin rubbed his chin in thought.


A sigh left her full lips. “Probably not. I’m not one to hack, but I can draw out information. Whatever cogitator security exists will know what I have done and if any serious ciphers show up I’ll be hard pressed to crack them. I did maintenance on the things.” She laughed. “I’ve never been told to break into one.”


“What if I gave you a password? My wife has come with more than just hereditary advantages.”

She bit her lower lip in thought. “It would help. But the security system will still know I accessed the logic-engine, or rather that your wife did. It will be her password, right?”


Jagg had a thought. “Sir, if security notes a von Adler tapping into the system, who precisely are they going to inform?”


“The Kaiserina!” Razin clapped his hands together. “That solves that. We can count on her to be discreet.”


Klara clucked her tongue. “So far, that means the gate guards, the mindless servitors, whoever happens to be actively watching the security cams and the security team that notes us accessing the logic-engines will know that someone has been down here.” She leaned on the descending elevator’s metal railing.


“Not ideal, but given the circumstances it’s the best we can hope for. We’ll try and ensure no one else is privy to our visit from here on out.” Razin turned away and stared at the passing and darkened hallways.


#


Jagg didn’t know how long it took to descend to the proper level, only that it was a long time. When the elevator stopped at a press of the button, Razin stepped out of the cage into a dimly lit hall, whose stonework was decidedly older and more worn than that of other portions of the palace. Like the walls above, Imperial Scripture had been carved, but unlike above, it was written in a dialect that was neither Low nor High Gothic.


Curious, he stepped out of the cage and ran his hand along the dusty wall, over the strange writing. He could understand the letters, but not the meaning of them.


“Die Halle der letzsen Helder.” He fumbled over the words. “What does it mean?” Jagg asked.

Klara leaned over his shoulder. “It’s the old Language. They spoke it before the Great Crusade. Don’t they teach you anything beyond how to shoot a gun at schola?”


“Not particularly,” he admitted. “Can you understand it? They teach you this?”


She shook her head. “No, I just know what the Language looks like. Supposedly on the levels near the surface you can find examples of it on the really old transit halls. Strange that they’d use it down here. Palace was built well after the Great Crusade. I was taught the Language died not long after Unification. The palace was built during the Civil War, thousands of years after that. Very strange.”


Razin walked down the hall, he didn’t bother to turn around to get their attention. “History is fascinating,” he said with open sarcasm, “but the vault is this way.”


The three traveled down the dark hall and their steps echoed. To either side, the script covered walls gave way to circular vault doors, each numbered. Jagg glanced at the first one that was illuminated enough to read.


“Five. What vault are we heading for?”


Razin sighed. “Around two hundred more to go, come on.”


They passed by an ancient combat servitor, its flesh having turned the same dull gray as the stone walls, and his armor plating having faded into a more coppery tone, rather than gold. Its red, augmetic eye, dutifully tracked them as they passed by its alcove.


“Here we are.” Razin halted. “Misses Jagg, would you mind popping that service plate imbedded in the wall and see who accessed this vault? The password is lengthy, so...” He reached into his embroidered coat and produced a slip of paper. “Mind eating that when you are done? The wife will be ‘miffed’ as it is that we’ll have to change it after we are done.”


“Yes, my lord!” She grasped the slip of paper, eyed it, then went to task on using her various utility tools to pry off a service panel built into the wall. She hummed slightly.


“Achim, look around for blatantly and fortuitous clues.” Razin sidled up to the circular vault, running his hands along the fresh and newly replaced, pliant seal of black rubber.


“Seal is new,” Jagg reported.


“Amusing.”


Taking the task at hand more seriously he walked up and down the hall, skirting Klara, who on her knees had somehow managed to fit her torso up into the wall cavity of the open panel. It looked as if the hallway was eating her alive. She still hummed gently.


It was dark, but the dim illuminators above glinted off of something upon the ground. He knelt, touched his fingers to the slick substance and smelled.


“Promethium?”


Razin continued to look the seal over. At Jagg’s finding he shook his head, “That would be Tech-Priest droppings I’m afraid. Anything else?”


As far as he could tell, nothing. “No, sir.”


“Misses Jagg?” Razin inquired.


She shuffled herself out of the service hatch and dusted herself off. “The security system is pretty complex. I can tell you so far that no one has opened the vault electronically in ages.”


That didn’t make sense to him. “How did they get in then? Wait, ages? How do they bloody know the records have even been stolen?”


Razin was silent.


“Sir?” Jagg asked.


“Hmmm. Interesting.” Razin paced. “The Kaiserina knows the vault was tampered with and she’s assumed the records have been stolen. I think once we open this thing that will be the case. Why break in and not take the only item of value?”


“But the vault hasn’t been opened,” Klara said.


“No, it hasn’t. Someone removed the old seal, pried the door off its mountings, and replaced it. The vault indeed, never opened.” He laughed. “Rather clever, and I must say, time consuming.”


“Labor intensive too,” Jagg noted. He peered at the large, circular vault door. “That weighs quite a bit. Would take a whole lot of men to pry it off and then remount it. Machinery maybe?”


Razin placed his hand upon the vault’s cold, metallic surface. “Someone would have noticed a large team of men descending into the vaults and the same goes for any heavy equipment.”


“Why go to the trouble?” Klara asked. She gestured to the door. “They’d have to remove it, steal the records and reattach it with a new seal, without breaking any power conduits that would trip some form of alarm.” She frowned. “Why not just hack the logic-engine and open the door?”


The Duke pondered in silence. His eyes blinked. “We are too smart for our own good. The thief hasn’t opened the door, right? No security logs will show it, no records at all, except maybe the security cams. Nice way to get into a place without a password. If the Tech-Priest hadn’t noticed the new seal, no one would ever have known that a theft has occurred.” He tapped at the door with a single finger. “Still, not sure how the door was removed.” Razin placed his hands behind the small of his back. “Misses Jagg, I think now is the time to review the security cams. Can you localize disturbances?”


She wiped her brow. “My lord, there isn’t any monitor in there. Just data-reams and the like. I can tell you when there was a disturbance.” She knelt and crept back into the open hatch. A few moments passed. “Two recent disturbances. One, about two days ago.”


“Tech-Priest,” Jagg and Razin said in unison.


“The other?” Jagg asked.


Klara crawled back out and swept aside a few errant locks of hair. “Two months.”


“Two months?” Jagg rubbed his head and felt a rising tension behind the eyes. “This is getting complicated, sir. Someone has had these records for two months? Why? If they were to be used…”

Razin finished the thought, “Then they would have used them by now. Agreed.” He bowed his head.


“Misses Jagg, open the door.”


She shifted on her knees, twisted her torso, and whatever else she did was hidden from view. “Open?”


“No,” Jagg said.


“Now?”


Something metallic echoed from the way they had come. Razin’s hand slid to his waist, drawing a pistol he peered.


Jagg drew his own sidearm and looked. A large shape filled the end of the corridor. Metal clinked on stone. The shape lumbered, revealing a bulky torso, claw-like arms and a single red orb shined, indicating an eye.


“Misses Jagg, try again. You seemed to have activated the hall’s combat servitor.”


She leaned further up inside the open panel. Meanwhile, the servitor stomped closer and closer.


“Misses Jagg!” Razin hissed.


“Klara?” Jagg asked.


“I didn’t do anything! I’ve told the door to open is all. Oh…”


Razin glanced at her legs. The servitor hunkered low, its frame barely fitting in the hall. The echoes of metal upon stone picked up the pace. “Oh?”


Jagg swallowed. He hated servitors, half-dead men, grafted into metal carriages. This particular model was armed with massive powerfists. A single blow from them could obliterate a man. The thing could rip the doors off the very walls with its augmented grip. Jagg lowered his pistol a moment. “I think I know how the thief pried the vault open.” He stepped back, shying away from the monster out of instinct. He had an urge to grab Klara and just run, but the rational part of his brain warned him the hallway would eventually end and with that, so would their lives.


“Clever.” Razin shot Jagg a look. His eyes dipped to Klara’s legs once more. “It’s going to be killing us in thirty seconds if you don’t shut it down or open that door. Any door!”


The vault numbered 208 slid open. Not so much as a single illuminator revealed what lay within. Jagg pulled his wife by her lean legs out of the service panel. The darkness of the vault was better than the monstrosity charging them.


With a push he forced her into the darkness and took a quick shot at the nearing servitor. His round bounced off the ancient armor gorget, guarding its broad neck. The thing did not relent and the sensation of ice ran down Jagg’s spine.


Razin took aim and fired as well. His shot was more precise, a testament to his dueling, or perhaps the executions he performed prior to that. The sizzling bolt of ruby-red struck the corpse-machine’s face. It did not grunt, cry out in pain, or slow down.


“Frick!” Razin cursed before diving into the vault.


The servitor reached the doorway, it filled the doorway, blocking out the light of the hall. The lone, red eye flickered to life and cast the entire vault in a macabre glow of blood.


The vault, was as Razin guessed, empty of anything valuable. A lone chest of heavy wood, bound in chains, was open and empty. Jagg clung to his wide-eyed wife, while Razin stepped further away from the grotesque vault-guardian.


The being was bulky and slow, but there was precious little room to maneuver. It strode towards Jagg and swung its wrecking-ball like fists.


Klara screamed.


Grabbing her by her arm, Jagg jumped to the side. The gold-plated fist of the servitor smashed into the wall behind him, sounding like a thunder-crack. A cloud of dust and debris exploded from the impact.


The report of Razin’s laspistol echoed in the vault. Three bolts of energy smacked into the servitor’s back. Two rounds deflected off its body armor, the third sizzled into dry, gray flesh, but did no harm. The creature swiveled about, swinging its enormous fist in the Duke’s direction.


He crouched low, letting his knees almost give way. Rock exploded above his head, showering the entire room in hunks of masonry. “Misses Jagg, shut the door!”


She staggered to her feet, jaw dropped at the sight of the gargantuan guardian. Taking in Razin’s orders she shook her head. “No!”


Jagg hauled her bodily out of the vault. “Do it!”


“He’ll be-” she began, but was cut off by another thunderous explosion of fist on wall. Razin stumbled, doing his best to escape the servitor’s attacks.


Jagg pushed her. “No time! Do it!”


“Frick,” she hissed before virtually leaping into the open hatch. Her legs kicked, propelling her body far within. The vault hissed, the door started to slide.


“Sir!” Jagg shouted.


The servitor swung time and again, each blow mortal and devastating. Each time, Razin ducked, spun, or plain ran. As he heard Jagg’s cry he darted for the door and like a diver leaping into the ocean, jumped through the closing portal.


The former Commissar landed hard upon the stone floor and smashed into the vault door opposite 208. 207, slid shut. The door dented sharply, then again, and again. From within, dulled but no less ominous pounding could be heard.


Klara scrambled out of the hatch and grasped onto Jagg’s hand. She breathed sharply. “Damn fool nearly got himself killed!”


Jagg grinned. “Don’t feel sorry for him, it’s usually my life he puts on the line.” Jagg strode over to his patron and helped him uneasily to his feet. “Time to go, sir!”


The door shuddered, golden, blunt fingers punched through the solid metal. Servos whined, the door began to peel open like fruit.


“Agreed,” Razin wheezed breathlessly. Together they darted down the hall towards the elevator. The thudding of the servitor was replaced by the bone-shuddering squeal of resisting metal.


Into the elevator they piled, each breathing heavily. Far down the hall, the servitor emerged, hurling a piece of vault 208’s door. The glowing red eye scanned the walls before narrowing to a point as the thing reacquired its target. Metal on stone rung out once more.


“Emperor’s throne…” Jagg gasped at the sight of the relentless nightmare that pursued them. His finger mashed with Razin’s and that of his wife as they all repeatedly pressed the button to ascend the elevator. It did not rise quickly enough for Jagg’s tastes. The charging thing had come within a hundred paces before sliding out of view; a hundred paces too close.


#


She lit the lho-stick and sucked heavily upon it. “Emperor wept, you two do this sort of thing often?!”


Razin shrugged. “I think that is the first time I’ve almost been crushed by a combat servitor.”


“Fricking pile of flesh and bits.” Jagg spit over the railing. He was sure his sleep would be disturbed for weeks on end by the memory of the corpse-machine.


“Hmmm,” Razin responded. As the elevator slid past darkened hall after darkened hall he regarded Klara. “What exactly happened?”


She blew out a cloud of smoke. “Someone tampered with the control panel. Opening the door, activated the combat servitor. We’re lucky I was able to figure it out.”


“Agreed,” Razin nodded. He stepped closer to Jagg. “Whoever has stolen the records, left a rather fatal surprise for the next fellow to try and open the vault. I’m intrigued as to what sort of thief this is.”


He couldn’t be sure himself. He knew well before Razin drafted him to this latest excursion that it would be over his head. “Someone who had the skill to tamper with the door and a servitor.”


“But someone who didn’t have the authorization or desire to hack into the door’s logic-engine.” Klara sucked deeply on her lho stick. “Someone who wanted to break in and out, undetected.”


“But wanted to kill anyone brought on to investigate,” Jagg added. He leaned his back against the railing. “Any ideas, sir, on who might do that, or why?”


Razin pursed his thin lips. Jagg could see his eyes darting side to side as he thought. The Duke’s head shook. “No. Not at this time. The vids of the security camera might reveal more.”


Pale, ghostly smoke wafted across the cage. “I doubt it,” Klara said. “Whoever broke in was skilled. They sabotaged the door and a combat servitor without tripping any alarms. Granted, the security system on the vault itself was more intense, still.” She shrugged. “You think someone who did all that will leave much in the way of a visual clue?”


The elevator came to a shuddering halt. In the main hall, a squad of Death Korpsmen, in formal attire, leveled their lasguns.


“Hands in the air. Twitch wrong and die painfully,” one of them barked.


Razin sighed. “So much for us being discreet.”

VI


Complications


She couldn’t believe it! Her husband had clawed his way from humble beginnings to the rank of Commissar and from their earned an Imperial Title while in the service of a member of His Holy Inquisition! She expected more from such a man who did so much to earn her hand in marriage.


She paced about the room which bore a detention cell, small armory and several uncomfortable chairs. A few cogitator stations against the wall nosily hummed.


“Well, you’ve certainly landed yourself and everyone else into a mess!” Marena fumed. She raised her fist, flicked up a finger, one which expressed a less than lady-like sentiment. “First, you bring along poor Jagg here and have him get expelled! You said you needed muscle, but to ruin the poor man’s career? Really! He struck von Faust’s son no less? Do you have any idea who the von Fausts are?”


“Some,” her husband admitted calmly. She didn’t know if that was Jagg’s idea or his to actually strike von Faust the younger, but it didn’t matter. This was his fault.


She raised a second finger. “You allowed misses Jagg to come along.” She turned her icy gaze onto the woman in question. “And you! You have a child and should know better.”


The dark-eyed woman dipped her head and swallowed audibly. “I didn’t know it would be so dangerous.”


“Your husband should have made it clear and had you stay home!” She shot Jagg a look that suitably cowed him. She flicked up a third finger, sliding her eyes to regard her cocky mate. “Third, you ended up alerting a good part of the palace security when you antagonized the combat servitor.


Oh, and using our family codes to break into the system?” A fourth finger rose. “You’ve annoyed my cousin.”


“Oh, hell,” Jagg whispered.


“Oh hell, indeed. This was to be a quiet inquiry regarding the precious genealogical records of Krieg’s High Born. Now we have commoners from all walks of life, curious as to what transpired in the vaults.” She extended her thumb. “The thief, or thieves in question, if they have the slightest ear to the rockcrete, will be well aware that someone is tracking them, ruining whatever element of surprise you believed you had.” She sat roughly in a plain chair within the security office.


Armed guards waited outside and she had done her best to minimize who knew what had taken place and prevent any others from taking note. The damage was done, she was sure. Her husband had said the theft occurred months ago and a trap was laid down. He was lucky to escape with his life! But not lucky enough to perhaps fulfill the less fatal aspect of the trap; alerting the thief.


Her husband let out a long breath and gave a smile that he might think was charming but she knew damn well was slippery. “They’ve had those records for some time. If they were to make any move challenging your cousin, I think they would have done it by now. What sort of coup starts with the pilfering of records?” He raised a hand to forestall any outburst. “I spent years as a Commissar, trust me on this. If anyone was fomenting rebellion, then by now you would have heard something about it. Paperwork is last on the list of a traitor’s to do list.”


Maenor lowered his hand. “I know that the sudden death of the old Kaiser has perhaps raised-”


That would be enough of that! “Stop!” She glanced at the pair of Jaggs. Husband and wife huddled close keeping their heads hung low, like a pair destined for the firing squad. If she hadn’t personally apologized to von Hurst the elder for the insult of having his son smacked about with a book, one of them might just have met such a fate.


She inhaled a deep breath of cool, recycled air. “If the absconding of the records are not about rebellion then what else? Names. Names and parentage. The genealogical proof of whose line can claim nobility. What use is it except to authenticate someone’s claim to a title?”


The woman in the overalls didn’t raise her eyes but she fidgeted openly. Marena knew the gestures a commoner made to catch the attention of her better. “Something to say, misses Jagg?”


Jagg’s wife looked up momentarily; a pretty enough woman, who from all accounts, had more sense than her husband. She blamed some sense of romantic loyalty on her decision to risk her life to be with him. Emperor knew that she loved Maenor, but when it came to trading las-shots or dodging combat servitors, she would not be found. She had learned her lesson on Jendra IV that combat was not especially her forte. She rubbed her shoulder absently, recalling a wound taken.


“My lady, we haven’t checked the cams yet. There is a pict-viewer over on that control panel. With your help, I can access the cams and isolate any disturbances.” She lowered her head. “Only those of us in the room would see what transpired.”


It was a glimmer of good news. “Do it.”


The woman swept back her dark hair, drifted to the logic-engine and proceeded to let her fingers fly over its numerous and byzantine controls.


Upon the monitor static gave way to three figures running for their lives, pursued by meaty combat servitor.


“Subtlety in motion,” Marena chided.


Razin drifted to Misses Jagg’s side, peering at the screen. “Go back farther.”


Snow flurried across the screen, images flipped and up and down, settling on a figure in crimson robes, limping his way down the hall.


“Tech-Priest,” Maenor and the two Jaggs murmured.


“Farther back, Klara.” Jagg wandered to the other side of the cogitator. Four bodies leaned in to get a better look at the images upon the monitor.


A figure, clad in a flowing robe of red, walked down the hall. Behind him the armor-plated combat servitor followed in a docile fashion.


“A Tech-Priest!” Misses Jagg froze the image. “He’s not moving like the other one.”


Maenor smirked. “Who else could re-program the servitor, lay a trap on the door and descend to the vaults without raising the slightest suspicion.”


“What does a member of the Omnissiah want with flesh-records?” Marena stepped back, tilting her head in open wonder. The view was top down, exposing the back. The vault in question was too deep down the hall for the camera to pick it up. But the actual crime didn’t interest her, so much as the culprit. “Misses Jagg, zoom in on the Tech-Priest. Red robes isn’t enough to go on.”


She fiddled with the controls of the cogitator, the screen flickered before zooming in on the red-clad figure. The image was larger, but grainy. Marena looked the back of the thief over, one hand was gloved, the other flesh. Was that a mechanical attachment on the back of his still human hand?

“Advance to when he leaves. Zoom in on the right hand,” she commanded softly. The screen twitched, advanced frames and focused on the figure exiting the hall, servitor in tow. His hand could be seen, while from head to toe, fabric hid any mark of identification. The hand zoomed closer. It wasn’t a mechanical attachment, it was a marking.


Jagg leaned in and his lip curled as he squinted his eyes at the less than clear picture. “A black hand?”


“More like a fire,” Maenor mused.


“A crown,” Misses Jagg said with surety.


Marena peered at the image. She nodded in agreement with the other woman. “A crown. I’m not familiar with the Priesthood of Mars, but I’ve never seen one with a marking that wasn’t worn or mechanical and imbedded.”


“What now, my lady?” Jagg asked. His wife looked away from the monitor at her. Maenor too raised a brow.


She made a swift decision. She might not fancy combat anymore, but she could handle politics. “I’ll present this to the Kaiserina. If the Tech-Priests of Mars are running off with Krieg’s records and leaving behind tampered with servitors, she needs to know.” She regarded them all. “I believe it is safe to say none of us here have the slightest inkling as to motive when it comes to the machine priests.”


“Agreed,” Maenor said. “Shall we all pop up and say hello to her?”


“Please, no,” Jagg snapped.


Marena favored Maenor a smile. She turned her back on them and walked towards the door. “I think all of you have done enough. Not the cleanest job, but not nearly as disastrous as I feared now that sedition is off the table.”


“Reconvene back at home?” Maenor offered a smile and turned as if he were going to leave.

Marena glanced over her shoulder. “Wait here, my love. I’ll come fetch you in a few hours.” He needed to stew a bit for his blundering. She couldn’t help but be a bit vindictive. He had embarrassed her after all. And poor Jagg, a career gone to waste so he could help her husband play at Aribite. She left them knowing full well her husband was not smiling anymore.


#


The Cathedral of Candles was packed with the devoted of Krieg’s most prominent members. They sat silently in their pews, heads bowed as clerics of His glorious faith roamed the aisles, waving censors, filling the air with pale and wispy smoke. The gothic walls towered over the congregation, a reminder of how mighty the Emperor was and how small they were, no matter their station.

At the lectern, Arch-Confessor Stemme shouted out threats of damnation to any who could not drive Krieg ever on towards redemption for its past sins of Heresy and civil war. He frothed at the mouth as he cited a hundred victories earned by the Death Korps of Krieg and sneered that such vaunted glories were not even one tenth of one tenth enough to bring the favor of the Emperor back to the world.


Marena had been equally frightened and inspired the first time she had heard the sermon.


Unfortunately, the long-beard had effused the same doom-fire speech since she had first attended mass as a little girl. She had to give him credit for his unswerving fervor, each time he cried out the same old words, he did so with great enthusiasm, as if they had never been spoken before.


She kept her head bowed and her hands placed over her chest, thumbs linked in the sign of the Aquila. Beside her the Kaiserina did the same, her eyes downcast and her expression serious. They were seated, with Krieg’s other highest ranking nobility in the front pew, it made a fine place to speak. Only the Arch-Confessor could see any whispered words that passed between them and he was quite busy casting his eyes to the Emperor above and pleading for him not to cleanse the unworthy planet from his divine Imperium.


Marena kept her head low and her whisper came only when the aged priest was sucking in a gulp of air. “I sent Maenor to investigate the issue.”


The Kaiserina’s ice-blue eyes remained fixed ahead. She spoke softly as well but Marena could hear an edge to her cousin’s voice. “I know.”


No need to elaborate on that then! Marena waited for another pause in the sermon. “We were more discreet in reviewing some vid-pics of the theft. It happened months ago.”


The Kaiserina did not flinch.


“A Tech-Priest managed it. You would know more about their presence in the palace than I would.”

The mistress of Krieg pursed her lips. “This is not a plot to challenge my reign?”


A cherub fluttered past, its mechanical wings beating loudly and sending gusts of rotted air in their direction. The mindless creature’s vox-grill blared out a litany of faith.


Marena resisted the urge to shake her head, but that might draw unwanted eyes. “No. I don’t think so. The time that has passed and the thief in question make it seem like something else.”


“What did you make of the priest?”


Marena glanced up as the Arch-Confessor slammed his fist upon the skull-decorated lectern. He pulled at his fine robe of white and gold, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Let none here falter! Our faith in Holy Terra, the Golden Throne and Him are all that keep us from the depths of abhorration!”


Abhorration wasn’t a word, but in his years of service to the Adeptus Ministorum, Stemme was well within his rights to make up any words he saw fit in Marena’s opinion. She pondered her cousin’s query and whispered the only thing of note, “Typical really, except for one thing. Upon his hand was a black mark, a crown.”


The woman stiffened. Her shoulders only gradually relaxed. “The matter is closed.”

The reaction had her interest piqued. She risked a glance the Kaiserina’s way. “Closed? You mean you’ll do a little prying into the Priesthood of Ma-”


“The matter is closed,” she reaffirmed. Her head turned, frosty eyes focused upon Marena. “You understand?” She was no longer whispering.


Eyes started to fall upon them from either side of the pew. Marena saw the old Ecclesiarch stutter for the first time in her memory.


“You understand?”


The prayers had ceased. Marena felt her cheeks flush. She had never been talked to this way before by her cousin. To have it done in public as well! “Geinivee?”


Her cousin’s gaze turned into blocks of ice, lacking the slightest in warmth. She stood and a murmur rippled through the assembled nobility.


“You understand?” the Kaiserina snapped.


She glanced around and felt the weight of all the observers. Scheming nobles, arrogant officers, shocked wives and a dumbstruck priest were all watching the exchange.


“Yes.”


Without another word the Kaiserina stepped forward, swept the flowing fabric of her gray and black dress back, before stalking down the aisle and towards the main doors, startled servants, guards and members of the military followed suit, each giving hasty final blessings to Him on Earth as they departed after their monarch.


Her heart was beating as fast as it did when Xanthris troopers were trying to kill her. She placed a hand over her chest, as if to slow the erratic beats. She had never seen the Kaiserina lose her composure or her patience with her. To be scolded in public! Amongst the High Borns, reputation and influence was as precious a commodity as any and her own cousin had ruined hers.


“Where was I?” Arch-Confessor Stemme cleared his throat while lesser men of faith gawked and murmured to one another. He cleared his throat once more to draw the eyes of the congregation. “I remember now.” He raised his hands up. “Take heed of the pitfalls of arrogance! Listen close…”


#


She returned home, driven by her household cards in an armored, yet still sleek looking transport.


She hid her discomfort and welling emotions from the men, bidding them to watch the multi-story hab and give her and her husband some time alone.


She did not let herself break down until she was within the hab. Tears streaked down her cheeks and Marena staggered to the nearest couch.


“Maenor!”


From upstairs a sarcastic voice answered, “Coming, my love.” His acidic nature dropped the moment he saw her. Surprise followed by a serious and stern look crossed his features. Within moments he was at her side, grasping her arm and shoulder. Gently he eased her into the couch.


She expected him to ask her questions, but he was silent. He soothed her with a stroke to her head and offered a little smile every time she met his gaze. The quiet was appreciated. It gave her time to cry, something she had not done in a long while.


In the end, he didn’t need to ask a single question, she revealed everything on her own in her own time. She wasn’t sure if it was his Commissarial experience in questioning kicking in, or the dutiful love of a husband. “Maenor, she berated me. In public! Before the entire congregation as mass in the Cathedral of Candles.”


His hand rested upon her brow.


“I’ve never seen her act that way! Not to me. Not like that. She knew everything we had done. The foul-ups and all. Not a blink.” Her eyes flicked up to meet his. “I brought up the mark on the Tech-Priests hand and she insisted the matter be dropped.”


“Someone else will be retrieving her records then?” he finally asked.


“No.” Marena closed her eyes. “She said the matter was closed. Over. Done. Stood up during the Arch-Confessor’s sermon and had me say before everyone that I understood.”


She heard Maenor circle the couch. He mused quietly, “Misses Jagg nearly orphans her daughter, Achim is expelled, my reputation is tarnished because I sponsored him in the first place and you get a dressing down in front of anyone of the least bit of importance on Krieg?”


Her eyes opened a crack. “Yes.”


“And we are to drop the matter entirely? Name sullied, our adopted soldier and wife thoroughly fricked and no chance at all that we are to be rewarded lavishly by your cousin? I sum that up alright?” He placed his hands behind his back while circling his prone wife.


She groaned inwardly as he made it succinctly clear the events at hand. Her thoughts spun at the ramifications. Razin’s name was less secure than she would like. Nobles were calling him out to duel on a regular basis! This turn of events would only exacerbate the situation were they to be in the least bit public. She sniffed, rubbing her eyes of the tears. “We’ll need to be out of sight for awhile. I can keep Misses and Mother Jagg in their current position, but what of Achim? I don’t have any influence with the Kaiserina right now. Do you have any with the labyrinthine departments of the army? I’d hate to see him back in the ranks.”


Maenor laughed darkly. “You have a soft spot, for a von Adler.”


“I take my debts seriously. He saved me from an assassin’s bullet the least I can do is save him from a grueling life and certain death in a trench. You like him too.” She leaned up upon the couch watching her husband continue his lazy circuit. She wanted to cry again.


He smiled, in contrast to how she was feeling. “Like the ba*tard son I never had!” He nodded at her.


“I’ll see what I can do to stall any plans to ship him out. It will take the Departmento Munitorum awhile to find him. They lose whole regiments, you can imagine what they do with single soldiers.


We’ll all be quiet as rats in the meantime. At least long enough until I get your reputation restored, mine cleaned up and Jagg back in the tower and on the road to becoming a fine Commissar. After that, don’t be cross with me if he gets killed in a trench.” He gave her a slim smile. That slippery look came over his demeanor.


She shook her head sharply. “I don’t think so, Maenor. We’ve fricked this all up. I’ll fix it in time. My cousin will forgive me-”


“Forgive you? You? You did exactly as she asked and she’s ruined a few lives for it.” He brought his hands together in a slap. “And I know why.”


She sat up and tilted her head in an inquisitive manner. “You, you do?”


He grinned. “Oh, yes. I’ve seen it before as a Commissar. I know exactly why she is treating you the way she is. The same reason she sent you on the task in the first place.” He slid himself onto the couch next to her. Maenor whispered. “She’s afraid.”


The ruler of the planet afraid? The woman who charged Xanthris soldiers on Jendra with a powersword afraid? “She isn’t.”


“She is! Fear isn’t always expressed by a trembling lip and a wet tear. She was afraid some High Born was going to alter the genealogy records or pin her for the death of her fat-”


Talk like that was dangerous, even alone together in their home. “Maenor!”


He silenced her with a finger to her lips. “Father.” He finished. “Fear motivated her, as well it should. I know fear better than anyone. Every aspect of it!” He narrowed his eyes and sniffed. “The Kaiserina was afraid and then something interesting happened.”


“What?” she could only ask tentatively.


“You told her something that scared her more than she’s ever been before. Scared her so much she turned on her favorite relative in front of a host of people, many of which who don’t much like her. She turned on a woman she trusted to secure her reign.” Maenor leaned up against her. “Our glorious monarch is terrified by a symbol.”


Licking her lips Marena whispered to him, “The black crown?”


He nodded. “Yes. That leaves only one course of action.” He kissed her softly upon the lips then again upon the brow. “My original plan still works. No one will be expecting to see very much of us.”


“So?”


“So, that means we can act without much fear of detection. The whole planet knows we are out of favor. Players out of the game do not get much scrutiny.” He stroked her blonde tresses back.


She didn’t like where the conversation was going, even if she favored his gentle caresses. “Do I want to know what you are planning?”


“No,” he answered. “I need you to trust me. I can’t promise what I have in mind won’t involve embarrassing incidents with combat servitors, but I can promise you this. I’ll make things right. Even if I have to shoot a few people.” He glanced up. “Probably not an if, now that I think about it.”


She really didn’t like where this was going! “Maenor, no. We should just…” she trailed off and lowered her gaze.


“Languish here? I’ll be dead on some field of honor, a gentleman smiling over my corpse. You’ll be a widow, who will be known as a former favorite. Achim will be dead and Mother and Misses will be distraught. The little girl will never see her father.” His smile was without mirth. “How very Krieg. I thought you female von Adler’s were all about breaking traditions?”


She shuddered. “Maenor, I don’t know.” He was right but whatever he had in mind she had a sense was going to go counter to the wishes of the Kaiserina. He was going to delve and pry where she had been explicitly told not to. Yet to do nothing would be to invite all the disasters he had just spoken of. “I’m scared.” She didn’t want to be a widow! She had also grown fond of their adopted soldier, his wife, mother and child and did not want to lose them. She of course couldn’t imagine being anything but the favorite of the Kaiserina. But whatever Maenor was planning might very well lead to disaster! “I’m scared,” she whispered once more.


“I know.” He kissed her again. “And that means you need to trust me. I danced with an Inquisitor to marry you. I’ll dance with a Kaiserina to keep you.”

VII

A Terrible Idea


The knock on the door was too polite to be Deparmento Munitorum men ready to see him off to some regiment of Krieg with the First Army, or worse, to one of the scattered regiments fighting across the Imperium without glory.


Jagg opened the door, then shut it.


“I’m not going away,” Razin’s voice said from the other side.


Grudgingly, Jagg opened the door and frowned. “Sorry, Commiss-”


“Lord.”


“Sorry, my lord. I didn’t recognize you. Thought you were some men with some bad news.” He stepped aside to let his patron in. It had been a few days since he had last seen him, he wasn’t exactly glad for it now that Razin was back. He gave a quick glance to the kitchen where his mother baked away. Upstairs, Klara and Hadu were asleep. His wife had been shaken by the ordeal in the vault and fretted now over his fate. He was touched that she didn’t want him to go.


Razin smiled darkly. “I’m just one man but I do have bad news. The Kaiserina wants the investigation to cease. She told my wife to drop the issue completely. In the process the good Kaiserina was good enough to politically stomp on her as well.”


He blinked. “How?”


“Verbally lambasted her in the middle of mass. The effect is akin to slamming a hefty volume of lore into von Faust’s face. You’d know something about that.” He walked through the room and upon seeing Jagg’s mother grinned. “Ah, misses Jagg,” he said loudly.


She positively beamed. “My lord, shall I prepare some food for you? Might I ask; have things been cleared up?” Her eyes flicked to her son then back to the Duke.


He shook his head. “I’m afraid not, to both. I’m working some things out, don’t you worry.”

Jagg muttered, “Don’t worry? Any good news, my lord?”


The Duke jerked his head and bid Jagg to follow him to another part of the hab that was quiet. Once alone he crossed his arms and lowered his head. “I’m beginning to miss orks.”


“I think I’ll be fighting them soon enough, my lord, if you care to join me with whatever regiment I end up being attached to.” He blinked. He wasn’t sure what would become of him. Would he be a Commissar’s aide? A trooper? Latrine digger? There was no place for him on Krieg, his good fortune had fled with the wave of a text-book. He couldn’t help but glare at his benefactor. It was his idea!

“I have a plan,” Razin assured.


“Good as the last one, sir?”


The thin eyebrow of the ex-Commissar rose. “You’re terribly sarcastic today.” Razin shrugged. “But to be honest, it’s worse. But unless I want to be dead in a duel, you in a trench and my poor wife’s political life at an end, I think any plan is better than waiting around.” He peered intently at Jagg.

 

“Agree?”


Fear tinged at Jagg’s spine. The way the man stared at him reminded him too much of the black-clad Commissar who drove like a maniac and would shoot a fellow for the slightest bit of indecision. “Agree,” he snapped.


Jagg glanced over his shoulder at the hallway. He could smell the dinner his mother was cooking and knew that upstairs Klara and Hadu rested comfortably. He didn’t want to lose any of them for as long as was possible. A Man of Krieg was lucky to see much if anything of his family. The chance at more time was worth a risk. “Plan, sir?”


“The Kaiserina heard the description of the Tech-Priest’s hand and it inspired her to belittle my wife in plain view. I want to find out what this Black Crown is. The mere mention of it put our beloved monarch in a state.” Razin smiled lightly. “Whatever it is, it’s important and scares her. If we uncover it then maybe we can use that.”


“Use?”


Razin shrugged. “It’s the Commissar in me. The Kaiserina is hiding something and I want to know what.”


The idea of opposing the monarch of the planet was undoubtedly unwise in Jagg’s mind. He shook his head slowly. “There might be another way…” he feebly offered.


“Really? Let’s hear it,” Razin countered.


Defeated, Jagg shrugged. “Fine, my lord. What exactly do you have in mind? How does someone uncover this Black Crown? The Kaiserina knows what it is, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to get her on her own and interrogate her.”


“True,” Razin conceded. He paced through the simply adorned room, glancing at times at the windows. “It is a symbol. I generally associate such things with cults. Not typical of Tech-Priests, or so I thought. Still, it can’t hurt to treat it as such. Who do we know that might have some knowledge of cults or at the very least the meaning of strange symbols?”


He damn well knew who Razin meant. “My lord, I think bringing him into this would be a bad idea. He might end up exterminating the planet. Wouldn’t be the first time.” He didn’t say Inquisitor Brecht’s name aloud. Jagg wasn’t entirely certain if the Inquisitor kept tabs on them or not since the Xanthris homeworld. Secrecy had been stressed and it wouldn’t surprise him in the least if Brecht had ‘ways’ of enforcing that secrecy, even from afar.


“Tell me who else would have intimate knowledge on such things? If anywhere in Krieg’s history that symbol showed up, he could find out.” Razin smiled in his viper like way. “He’s an outsider as well. We can’t trust anyone else. We can’t ask the Tech-Priests either. Think they’ll share anything with us mere fleshy sorts?”


Jagg rubbed his eyes. “My lord, I sense you are asking my permission. If you wanted to do this, then why not do it already? You don’t need me to be happy about it.”


“True, but I don’t want to send the message. The Kaiserina will be keeping an eye on anything official I do. But you, you’re a nobody.” Razin grinned. He put a hand on Jagg’s shoulder.

“Oh, no.”


“Yes. You’ll send the message. I’ll write it of course. Ever speak with an Astropath before? Charming sorts.”


The idea had a major fault. “Sir, I’m a nobody, as you say. Only High Borns, men of rank and the like can gain access to an Astropath.”


He sighed. “True. That part I haven’t figured out yet. We need to send the message using someone who has the proper clearance that can be trusted. I’m afraid I haven’t made very many friends upon my lofty elevation.” Razin released his grip on Jagg’s shoulder. “Have you?” He asked casually.


A name came to mind. Like Razin, Jagg had been placed into a position above his hereditary station. Unlike Razin, Jagg had made a friend. If only one. “Yes. There is someone in the tower that helped me before. He took me under his wing, sir.”


“Like I did!” Razin chuckled.


“Not quite. This fellow has delivered less whipping, less threats and a whole lot less trouble, begging your pardon, my lord.” Jagg rubbed his jaw and formulated a plan. It was a bad plan, but that seemed to be the theme of Razin’s visit. “I can get the message off. Do you have it?”

The Duke produced a slip of paper from his pocket. “Yes I do.”


Taking it, Jagg stuffed it into his own. He glanced up, thinking of his wife and daughter. His eyes flitted back to the thin figure of Razin. “I’ll need your help, my lord. I have just the thing you can do.”


He took a small measure of delight at the way Razin frowned when Jagg outlined his scheme. It only served the ex-Commissar right in Jagg’s mind.


#


Breaking into the tower was roughly of equal stupidity as opposing the will of the Kaiserina Jagg decided. He knelt behind Razin’s transport, which had blatantly driven right between the open double doors of the place and nearly crashed into the control booth. The lazy guard within was still gaping at the audacity of someone charging headlong into a schola filled with Commissars.

Razin opened the door of the transport and stumbled out, bottle in hand. “Frick to you!” He pointed at the guard. “Turn away my protégé?” Teetering, the Duke waved his bottle like he might a laspistol. “Who cares about von Faust anyways? I hear he’s much prettier minus a tooth.”


The total confusion on the guard’s face was heart-warming to Jagg. The overweight soldier only gradually puffed up. “You can’t be here, sir.”


“You too? A duel is it?” Razin dropped his bottle of alcohol and clumsily reached for his sidearm, but before the guard could panic and perhaps shoot, Razin swayed and slammed into the transport.


“Where did you take my bottle?” he groaned.


The guard huffed. He strode towards Razin, gently he hoisted him to his feet. “You can’t be here,


sir.”


“My lord to you! Where is Commissar-Captain von Hoff? I want to talk to the man responsible for this whore’s-den!” Razin vomited upon the man. Jagg had to admit, the vomit was the most convincing aspect of the ruse and had the guard entirely disgusted and distracted.


Clad in his cadet’s uniform, Jagg hoped he could pass by without gathering too much attention. Up close, anyone would spot his broken nose and narrow eyes, but in the shadow of the gateway and with Razin’s performance Jagg gambled that he could enter the tower.


He slipped from around the car and walked behind the guard, who was busily wiping filth from his chest and cursing in ways that even Jagg found respectable. Reaching the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder once before entering the building, tugging his cap lower over his brow.


He knew the halls well, but a direct route to von Langer’s quarters would pass him by too many people. He moved down ill-used paths, through classrooms he knew would be empty and slipped into the lavatory the moment he saw a crowd of cadets wandering near.


Halfway to his destination while traversing a long hallway, decorated with a plaque bearing an overly long quote which could have been summarized with, “Fight hard”, a voice echoed behind him.


“Jagg?”


He knew the voice and it didn’t belong to the person he was seeking. He didn’t turn to look at von Faust, instead he made it to the end of the hall and turned sharply down a side pathway. His heart thundered and he found it hard to breathe.


The sound of steps on the glossy, metallic floor echoed behind him. They were getting closer. He picked up the pace, cursing mentally as his own steps rang just as loudly as that of his pursuer.


Ahead, the hallway branched in two directions. A thought occurred to Jagg’s racing mind.


He pulled the polished shoes off of his feet and in his less than sinister cadet socks, darted down the left hall, making hardly a sound. The clicking sounds of von Faust’s pursuit quickened to a run then halted sharply. Jagg guessed he was listening to decide which way to go.


Jagg silently ran giving von Faust no clues to follow. He sprinted, risking a quick glance over his shoulder. Von Faust’s perfect features were thankfully not staring back at him. He made his way down several other passages and for good measure tossed his shoes into a service closet. If von Faust reported an intruder dressed as a cadet, stealth would outweigh fitting in.


No alarm rang and he didn’t hear the sounds of armored guardsman wandering the halls, but every passing cadet or trundling servitor sent his hear racing one again. Upon reaching von Langer’s room he knocked sharply. If he wasn’t there, the library might be another place to try, but difficult to enter without being scrutinized. Thankfully the door opened.


Jagg didn’t give the puffy noble a chance to gasp. He pushed him back into his room and slid the door shut behind him letting out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. “I’m in trouble,” he began.


The room was very small, with a tiny bed and only a single light over a desk to provide illumination. Several books had been piled up on the desk, as well as several unwashed and empty cups. Someone had been studying late into the eve.


Blinking away surprise, von Langer nodded. “I’ll say! You’ve infuriated my second cousin. You’re lucky Marena von Adler spoke on your behalf to his father or you might very well be up against a wall.”


“I need your help. This isn’t about von Faust. Never was.” Jagg pushed his friend back a few paces. “You’ve been good to me and I need you to be good one more time.”


Von Langer opened his mouth, his expression instantly turned apologetic. Jagg didn’t have time to explain everything to him. Instead he fished out the slip of paper and pushed it into the slightly pudgy fingers of the cadet. “You are a noble, which means you have connections.”


Uneasily the man took the paper but as Jagg spoke he sighed deeply. “I do, but I can’t get you back into the schola, my family has no rea-”


He shook his head sharply. Jagg could only dream of ever attending a place like the tower ever again. “That’s not what I mean. That slip of paper contains a message and includes who to send it to.”


Perplexed, the noble glanced over the paper. “You didn’t write this.”


“No. And I can’t send it either, you can.” Jagg licked his lips. “Read it and I think you will be inclined to help.”


A doubtful look crossed von Langer’s features, but he did as asked and skimmed over the missive. He froze.


“Inquisitor?”


“Yes.” Jagg put a hand on his companion’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t come to you asking this unless it was vital and…and…” he cleared his throat.


“And?”


“And I was completely desperate. The message has to reach that Inquisitor and I need to get the reply.” Jagg stared at him hard. “Can you do it?”


“I don’t know,” von Langer began licking his lips nervously. “You’re asking me to risk a lot. It isn’t very gentlemanly of you.”


“I’m not a gentleman.” Jagg stepped back. “Please.”


“Jagg…”


“Don’t make me cry and stomp my feet.” Jagg grinned once.


“Speaking of feet, where have your shoes gone?” von Langer placed the missive into his finely pressed tunic.


He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Will you do it?”


A long breath rushed through the noble’s lips. “Yes. But you’ll have to explain everything. And I mean everything.” His features turned hard a moment. “Meet me at my father’s estate, you’ll be able to find it. In two weeks.” He raised a hand, sensing an impending objection. “Astropath messages can take months to be answered. If this really is going to an Inquisitor, you’ll be lucky if it gets answered in two weeks. We’ll just have to hope. It also coincides with a semester break. That will be excuse enough for me to be lounging about my father’s level.”


Jagg wasn’t in any position to negotiate. Two weeks was a frightfully long time. The Departmento Munitorum would surely reassign him by then. Unless he went into hiding. The thought of abandoning his duty twisted his stomach. He would have to hide and be away from all the places Arbites might come looking for him. It would be the second time he went on the run in his career. It felt decidedly cowardly.


“I’ll see you in two weeks. You might as well read the message in full. It explains everything, as far as we know.”


He nodded. “Very good then.”


They shook hands and Jagg slipped stealthily back into the hallway.


There was no sign of von Faust as Jagg made his way to the main gate of the tower. Razin had also done an excellent job of piling attention atop himself. Three guards, two Commissar instructors and the Commissar-Captain von Hoff himself were doing their best to calm down the drunken nobleman.


Only the vomit-covered gate guard noticed the cadet, minus shoes, walking out onto the main transit way, but before he could take issue with it, Razin was hollering his curses upon the tower once more.


#


The Duke’s transport drove alongside him several minutes later. Razin smiled out the window. “The wife is sure to hear about this, I’ll be sure to tell her it was all your idea.”


Jagg slid into the passenger seat and removed his cap. He rubbed a cold sweat that had broken out over his brow. “Thank you, my lord.”


“Success?”


Jagg gave a quick nod. “Yes. Von Langer will see the message off, but he wants to know what is going on. I have to meet with him in two weeks at his father’s estate.” Jagg glanced at the ex-Commissar. “I’ll need to go into hiding until then.”


“I think I will be keeping a low profile. After this latest embarrassment, all manner of men will be seeking to undo me should I show my face. I won’t be surprised if the Kaiserina herself has something to say about her cousin’s husband puking all over members of the planet’s elite school.”


Razin sped the transport along, driving at his usual over-the-top speeds. “Say your farewells to your family and meet me at the place I had my last duel. I will help you hide.”


Sorrow already seeped into Jagg’s veins. He was committing all sorts of crimes to be with his family and now because of it he would be taken away, the galaxy’s humor was in full effect once more. He hoped the separation would be brief.


#


Von Faust the younger slapped the pair of glossy shoes upon the polished desk of his father. Papers flew about and the loud bang broke the monotonous ticking of the wooden chronometer in the corner. What would his father make of this!


The older von Faust looked just as perfect as his son, though older. His jaw was square, his nose narrow and his blonde hair swept back like that of a lion. He removed the pair of old-fashioned spectacles he wore specifically for reading.


“I believe they are called shoes, son.”


Anger briefly rippled through him at his father’s casual and unconcerned tones. “Shoes that belong to Jagg. I saw him in the tower. I would have caught the rutter if he hadn’t slipped these off.”


The elder examined the footwear a moment, picked one shoe up, dropped it and glanced idly at his son.


“He was in the Tower. He isn’t supposed to be.” He placed his hands upon his father’s desk and leaned closer. “And at the same time, Duke Razin was outside throwing up all over the guards and acting a drunken fool.” He narrowed his blue eyes. “I don’t like it. Grandfather should know someone is prying.”


Unperturbed the elder shrugged. “Are they? Your grandfather is a very busy man and if he is to be disturbed it better be for a good cause. Besides,” he stood to his full and impressive height, forcing the younger to look up. “He’s at the other.”


That bit of news surprised him. He had been out of the loop while at schola, but a break was coming up and time to catch up on the family’s fortunes and plans. “What is he doing there?”


“No better source of information I suppose. You think there is a danger though? Razin and his wife have been rebuffed by the Kaiserina and your little thorn has been plucked from the tower. The incident you described seems to me the acts of two men digging themselves deeper graves.” The larger man strode towards one of the broad windows which overlooked the habs and transit paths of his level. Women and the occasional old man meandered about, going about their daily lives as their better looked down upon them.


“The Tech-Priest’s sources saw them in the vault. We have to assume they are aware that the records are missing. If the Kaiserina has forsaken them, then now is the time to act.” He rubbed his jaw, remembering the sensation of pain as the rutter struck him. “We can be done with the pair. My honor is restored, you don’t have to suffer that jumped-up fool of a Duke and grandfather won’t have anyone investigating in his work.” Von Faust gave a wolfish grin. “Give me a reason not to act, father?”


The elder was silent. Slowly he turned away from the window and strode across the room, back to his desk. He sat, removed the shoes and placed the spectacles back upon his nose. He glanced up from his reading. “The Kaiserina may have had a spat with Marena von Adler, but that doesn’t mean she’ll turn a blind eye if the Duke ends up mysteriously dead. No. Razin will be insulted by an ever growing member of the nobility. Someone will kill him in a duel, eventually. Patience, son.” He returned to his reading.


Growling he stared at his lazy father. His good name had been sullied by a blow not returned. What High Born could suffer a slap from a commoner and accept but a mere apology for it? “What about Jagg?”


“Hmm?” He sniffed. “Take your revenge, but do the job right son. We want it a message to Razin and his wife to stay out of whatever affairs they’ve blundered into.”


Do the job right? He was mildly insulted by his father. “I can handle a rutter.”


The larger man shook his head solemnly. “That’s not what I mean, son,” he said calmly. “The fellow has a mother, wife and young child?”


“Yes, so?” von Faust the younger tilted his head unsure what his father was driving at.

“Then make the message to our enemies clear. When you have some time off from the schola, take care of the entire family.” He turned the page of one of the pieces of paper he was browsing through.


The casual ruthlessness of his father surprised him. “All of them? But…”


“But? If you are going to do something, don’t do it halfway. If you think Razin and his pets are a threat to your grandfather’s work then you must handle it completely and without hesitation. If this rutter, Achim Jagg, has sullied your honor then regain it without hesitation through the elimination of his line.” He yawned absently. “Remember who you are. What you are. Now run along, I have some tax-records to divine my way through.”


He turned without saying goodbye. Killing Jagg would be a pleasurable experience but a pair of women and a child? What kind of man did his father think he was? The thought made von Faust pause just a moment before he made up his mind. In two weeks the semester would end and he would be given leave to attend to family matters. He intended to do just that.


#


Gunter Frema crept cautiously down the alleyway, moving with a well-honed silence. All around him the shadows of long-abandoned habs loomed, their windows dark, their doorways open. Dust coated the road, hiding the cracked rockcrete beneath his feet. He breathed deeply into his oxygen mask and adjusted his illuminator goggles. They gave him some sense of his surroundings in the vast hive-tomb.


The other place had been dead a thousand years, but raiders such as himself still risked the penalty of death to reap from its lifeless levels riches left over from the civil-war. He was deep this time; deeper than he had ever been before, after finding a crack through the level above which he rappelled down.


He was both excited and nervous. A new level meant new spoils, but it also meant he would be exploring the unknown. A missed step and he might plunge through the weakened floor and fall for levels, or he might be crushed by a collapsing hab or blown up by unexploded ordinance. Some areas still smoldered with radioactive residue, but most of those places were near the surface where the Krieg missiles had punctured the hive, and incidentally irradiated half the planet. The other side irradiated the other half either in retaliation, or perhaps they fired first, he never knew nor cared.

He passed by a leaning hab, its foundation surrounded by rubble. He could see a doorway only half buried and picked his way through the rocky terrain. Crawling on his belly he looked in and saw brittle bones of some unfortunates who had been crushed by a piece of the ceiling, or worse, trapped. On the far wall faded paint revealed ancient words.


Gottmänner

The phrase was a common one; scrawled on the sides of buildings and used over and over again on the data-reams of the logic-engines that still managed to pump out a bit of information here and there. Peering closer he could also make out other scratches in the wall that formed letters. He didn’t know the old language well, but he made out some of the phrases. All of them dealt with impending doom, abandonment and death. They were the last messages of the losing side in the war. At least there weren’t any faded, bloody palm prints as he had seen before or rings of skeletons, pistols still in hand, skulls burst open.


Gunter Frema, in all his years foraging the other place, had yet to make sense of the entire old language. It wasn’t worth anything and neither were bones. He scrambled back over the pile of rubble and continued to pace down the empty transit way in search of loot.


He had come across a variety of relics and riches in his time and someone on Krieg was always bound to pay for it. Not that pay interested him that much. He enjoyed solitude and what better place to work alone and avoid the rigors and people a normal Man of Krieg would encounter. Hence the sight of light emanating from a building’s windows made him frown. He lived alone and preferred to work alone. Fellow scavengers were rarely friendly and he wasn’t above shooting first if they had anything of value.


Carefully, he produced his revolver. It was a noisy weapon that he could usually fire a few times and send any rivals scurrying. With easy steps he made his way to the run-down rockcrete structure whose light worried at his goggles. They were designed to work in total darkness and even a dim glow gave his view a washed-out appearance.


The building was as tall as the level and decorated with marble statues depicting men of strength performing physical tasks. That interested him. He had discovered on more than one occasion silver and gold etched into the base of such statues. He would have to search later, however. Sounds were coming from within the building.


“-engine is old. Powering it up may result in the destruction of the knowledge located within. This is the first governmental structure we have found in-tact with a potentially working device. The device itself deserves to be studied and praised. It needs soothing and the Omnissiah’s blessings for it to function.”


The voice was modular and from what he picked up, he knew a Tech-Priest was within. They never came to the other place, it was forbidden and heretical. Something incredibly valuable must have been inside the building for them to either disobey the law or seek permission to bend it.

Gunter glided to the doorway of solid metal. It had been peeled open like a can of ration-meat.


Stepping inside he saw an oval shaped room, several more marble statues and a logic-engine, decorated in gold and other precious metal rising from the center of the room. The floors and walls, like the statues were white and laced in a spider-web of cracks.


Two servitors on spider-like legs ministered to the machine, while another designed for combat, with a massive chain-gun fused to its arm and a robotic claw on the other, loomed over two other figures.


One, was an old man with a beard as pale as the marble around them. The other, as he expected, was a Tech-Priest, wrapped in red robes.


Gunter was a raider. He had forsaken his duties as a Man of Krieg, committed heresy by entering the other place and during his lifetime had traded with corrupt nobles, cultists, topside rad-dwellers and offworld archotechnologists. He was a greedy man and couldn’t bear the thought of a secret being hidden from him. He was not a fool however. Self-preservation always trumped his personal avarice.


The combat servitor was enough to cause him to shrink back. He was a scavenger, not a soldier, otherwise he would have answered the Call. He would find a solid hab to hide within and patiently wait. The strange team would pull forth something of interest, and as much as Gunther wanted such information for himself, he wasn’t going to die for it. No, he would wait and pick over whatever remains they left behind.


As he slipped away he heard the older man speaking in cultured and refined tones.


“They are on to us, Magos Jhar. Or soon will be, if your servitor’s report is correct. That’s why we are here, my friend. We don’t have time to be gentle or cautious anymore. Greater prizes await. Activate the machine if you please.”


Gunter mused to himself, “Greater prizes?” He was dreadfully curious but not foolish enough to give in to such. Scavengers never could ‘choose’ their pickings. The Tech-Priest may very well take anything of tangible value. However, the sight of such an unusual band deep in the other place would be of interest to someone. Information sold as well as ancient technology. 

VIII


The Other Place


He was living as a refugee in the strangest of places. On one of the wealthy inner levels, the one that belonged to von Langer the elder, Jagg lived a shadow existence. He had formed a shelter of refuse and survived off of ration packs provided by Razin. Patrols were often, but the thought of a soldier on the run hiding in one of the most secure areas on Krieg was so unlikely, they didn’t bother to root about the trash pile. If they had, they would have seen the little hovel Jagg dwelled in and his capture would have been assured.


His only fear of discovery came when the women who worked to keep von Langer the elder’s level spotless arrived to disperse the mess. He had to run about buildings, and carry with him the essentials, including several boxes which he called home. It would be almost comical if not for the consequences should he be discovered.


Weeks had passed and he wondered if the women ever noticed the little signs of his existence? Did they even question the bags of human waste he left? Did they even know, or were they mindlessly working in the same fashion as a servitor. It didn’t matter. They did not discover the dirty, smelling Man of Krieg hiding in their midst.


“You still alive?” The com bead in his ear buzzed. It was his only way to pass the time. He adjusted it and spoke into the receiver which clung to the side of his head.


“Yes, my lord. Coming to visit?” he asked.


The com buzzed with static. The micro-beads were notoriously inefficient and Jagg had trouble hearing his benefactor, several levels above him.


Finally Razin’s voice broke through. “-shortly. I’ve set up an appointment with von Langer. Like it or not, they know as much as we do now.”


That was Jagg’s doing and he whispered into the bead, “It’ll be fine. Come pick me up and you’ll see.”


“Hmmph,” was Razin’s only reply.


The ex-Commissar arrived not long later, his transport pausing on the transit hall, guided by Jagg’s instructions. He darted into the passenger seat to be met by the wrinkling nose of the other.


He couldn’t help but offer a smile. “What?”


Razin shook his head and sped down the hall, sparing a glance over his shoulder. “Keep an eye out. I’ve been quiet, but I can’t shake the feeling I’m being watched.”


Jagg leaned around to gaze out the back of the window. He saw stone habs, the ever-glow of Krieg’s false-sun and an empty transit hall marked with broad yellow numbers and letters. If anyone was following, he didn’t see them.


Von Langer’s estate was designed like an ancient castle, with towers, battlements and a rather primitive looking gate-house, complete with portcullis and guards armed with halberds. The lascannons stationed on either side of the gate, were not so primitive looking, nor was the Chimera armored transport Jagg spied in the cobble-stone courtyard.


After a brief discussion and wary looks, the two guards waved in Razin’s transport. He parked it alongside the armored vehicle.


Personal house soldiers in combat attire escorted them into a stone structure detached from the tall main house. All of the buildings were made from heavy bricks mortared together, giving the place an ancient feel in sharp discord with the concrete walls of the level and the electric hum of the ceiling lights of Krieg.


The interior of the building reminded Jagg of pictures of the ancient halls from Krieg’s surface, or rather when it had a surface; with trees, animals, houses and the like. For the past thousand years that surface had been a radioactive mud pile, blessed with acidic pools and the truly wretched of Krieg’s society, the rad-dwellers.


Into a room filled with suits of archaic plate-male they were led. A round glossy table, with the image of the von Langer household imprinted upon it, waited for them. Two men were seated, each dressed in formal attire. They put Razin’s simple white coat with a high collar, and Jagg’s filth, to shame.


The elder von Langer was a portly man, bearing the full lips and wide ears earned through generations of inbreeding. The younger would never be described as handsome; the elder would have been called outright ugly.


His voice however was smooth and polite. “Gentlemen. I’m happy you arrived. My son took an awful risk, trusting you, young man,” he said to Jagg. He placed a jeweled hand upon his chest. “And I took one in sending off your message. Any reason you couldn’t be bothered to do it, Duke Razin?”

Razin offered a small bow. “Since you no doubt read the message I might as well get to the point.


The Kaiserina wanted our investigation into this Black Crown and the missing records to stop. If I were to waltz into the Adeptus Telepathica basilica…” he trailed off.


“She would have taken note. She knows how you ended up a Duke and would be suspicious if you started contacting offworlders,” the elder von Langer finished. He rose and circled the table, lazily drawing his fingers along it. “Your message was received and I have the reply.”


Razin crossed his arms. He walked the opposite direction of the elder, leaving Jagg and the younger staring at one another and their respective ‘betters’. Razin smiled lightly. “My lord, what is it you want?”


“Involvement. You’ve asked an Inquisitor about a symbol which has upset our beloved monarch. You want to know more about it and so do I.” He smiled wide. “I’m too old to be going where you are though, but my son and a few retainers will see you through.”


Jagg tilted his head and shared a look with Razin. He cleared his throat. “Pardon, my lord?”

Von Langer the elder rapped his knuckles upon the table. “Listen up, my boy. Inquisitor Brecht is off doing whatever it is Inquisitors do. But he was kind enough to send information on the Black Crown.


The symbol is old and out of favor you might say.”


Razin pursed his lips a moment before speaking. “It isn’t a cult?”


The younger spoke up. “No, not exactly. It was the battle flag of the other side.”


Even Razin staggered back from the news. He coughed and shook his head. “That can’t be.”


“It is,” von Langer the elder said. “Everything about them is suppressed but you’d be amazed what an Inquisitor can dig up. But the rest of this mystery is for us to solve.”


“What is in it for you?”


“Oh, I’ll make sure I get something from it. Maybe I end up helping our beloved monarch out. Maybe I find out why she recognized the symbol. As monarch, she has access to certain restricted history, but why drop an investigation connected to them?” He placed his hands behind his back and puffed his chest out. “Maybe I find out the Kaiserina’s family has something to hide, something from a thousand years back.”


He saw Razin stiffen. Jagg looked to the younger for some sign of support, but received a blank stare. Like it or not, they were hostage to the von Langers.


“I won’t betray my wife, or her family. I’m not looking to depose the von Adlers. I want back in the Kaiserina’s graces,” Razin said icily.


Unperturbed the elder von Langer laughed. “Of course you do, but I have to think of my own family first. For now, let us be friends. And really now, you were a Commissar, think of your duty to Holy Terra before petty politics. If the Kaiserina is somehow connected to them…” he trailed off ominously.

Razin was silent.


“Good. As I was processing all this mess about the Kaiserina, the records, the Tech-Priest and the Black Crown, a most interesting man contacted me from topside. He has found something interesting and will lead us, or rather, you there.”


“Where again, my lord?” Jagg inquired.


“To the other place. My contact sighted a Tech-Priest mucking about the ruins, deep in the ruins. I don’t much believe in coincidences.” Von Langer the elder waved a dismissive hand. “The guards will clean you up and the chimera outside will take you and my son topside.”


“I’d like to make some arrangements,” Razin began.


The older man would have none of it. “I’ll leave something proper for your wife to mull over. She’ll manage.” He nodded to his son.


Jagg opened his mouth to object but the man was already waddling off.


The younger stood, gesturing to the door he said, “My lord, Jagg, if you please.”


#


The back of a chimera was not a comfortable place to be. The machines were designed to rapidly deploy soldiers into the field and Jagg thought the cold, rigid metal seats and cramped, stuffy interior as a part of the design; a way to get soldiers to hurry out of the things.


House soldiers clung to the wall mounted lasguns, whose barrels protruded from either side of the chimera. Jagg would have mistaken them for Death Korpsmen, if not for the von Langer insignia on their carapace armor. They wore full re-breather helms and had been a quiet lot, speaking only to one another and von Langer the younger. The youth wore more elaborate armor than they did and was apologetic about the cramped quarters and the long drive.


Days. For days they had traversed the surface of Krieg, the driver having to navigate mud heaps, radioactive pools of acid, the occasional pitted ruin, all while avoiding the occasional military patrol or rad-dweller encampment. At night, they slept in the vehicle, dog-piling atop one another. Waste had to be eliminated through a hose on the fully enclosed body suit each man wore. Meals came in the form of liquid paste, also taken in through a straw. Jagg had not had to wear full kit for days on end since he was a conscript under the tutelage of Sergeant Hauster. He reflected momentarily that topside was where he killed his first man. Bunderson; one of his own. A fellow who revealed to Jagg that his people had a bit of a traitorous streak in them.


Jagg tugged uneasily at the uniform. He was dressed similar to the von Langer troops, but was given no armor and the fit of his gray-green attire wasn’t exactly snug. Razin suffered as well, cursing as he worried repeatedly at his full kit.


“We are almost there,” von Langer said through the re-breather helm’s micro-bead. As the leader of the expedition he had access to a multitude of channels and had kept in continual contact with the driver and turret gunner, separated from them by a bulkhead.


Razin rose slowly, reaching a hand up to grip a handle built into the bouncing Chimera’s ceiling. His lasgun, slung over his shoulder, rattled. The soldiers glanced away from their view-ports, eying him.


“A question, dear fellow,” Razin said. He pointed to himself and Jagg. “Why not kill us? You know what we are up to, who is involved and it is your father who has the resources and information to go delving into the mystery. I don’t think we are needed.” He shrugged. “Not that I’m complaining mind you.”


Von Langer’s helmeted head cocked to the side. “My lord! My family are not barbarians. You also have access to the Kaiserina. Even disgraced as you currently are, should our excursion prove useful and even beneficial, then the Kaiserina will be sure to show favor to us all.”


“And if we find something terrible?” Jagg asked.


He shrugged. “If we do, then we must remember we are all servants of the Emperor first, the Kaiserina second.” Von Langer tilted his head again. “We are here.”


Jagg looked over at Razin, but they couldn’t share a conversation without von Langer overhearing them. Even expressive glances were difficult with the goggles, helmet and re-breather affixed.


The ramp lowered, in expert fashion the soldiers stomped out forming a defensive ring. Wind blew sharply across a landscape of mud and vast broken hunks of rockcrete pitted and scored with wounds from a thousand years ago and acidic rain. The sky was an ugly purple, scarred by green, poisonous clouds, hiding a distant speck of a sun.


A great hole marked a breach into what Jagg could only guess was the other place. Their very presence here was a sin, expressly forbidden by Krieg’s government, the Ecclesiarchy and common sense. Below them were the levels of a dead hive, home to the traitors that led Krieg into a civil war lasting centuries.


The dead landscape around them was a direct result of the civil war, but Jagg had two conflicting stories of who fired the dark age atomics first. Even the cause of the war was unclear to him. Schola stressed only the basics. The other side refused the Emperor, and paid for it with their lives, while Krieg’s surface paid for it with hellish nuclear fire and sweeping winds of flesh-scouring radiation.


He descended the ramp alongside Razin, looking the area over. Around them, skeletal remnants of buildings could be made out through the noxious haze, their walls having long ago collapsed, leaving only rust-red beams.


He would not have seen the tent, if a figure had not emerged from its camouflaged protection. The figure was dressed in a full body-suit, wearing bits of armor, boots up to the thigh, and a hefty backpack. His rebreather mask was defiantly a Death Korps design from several years back, while his helmet reminded Jagg of the type the workwomen of the deep level smelting plants wore.


Von Langer, flanked by two house soldiers approached the man. Whatever was said, Jagg could not hear, but he saw several gestures, most of which indicated the hole.


The micro-bead crackled with von Langer’s voice. “We’ll be descending by a rappelling rope, more than once. Mister Frema will be our guide through the levels. Obey his commands as if they were my own.”


Frema waved everyone over. A spike, fastened to a nylon rope, led into impenetrable darkness below.


“There is no light down there. You all have headlamps?” He looked around and nodded. “Good. I use no-light goggles. Try not blind me, eh? The first few levels are dangerous if you don’t follow my path exactly. After that, they are even more dangerous, even for me and I do this for a living.


Questions?”


One of the soldiers raised a glove hand. “Anyone down there besides us?”

Frema nodded. “Other scavengers like myself. They won’t attack a large armed party unless they are desperate. The Tech-Priest and his companions might still be down there. It’s unlikely they would spend days in the same spot, but you never know. But anyone we encounter isn’t friendly.” He turned to face von Langer. “My advice, my lord, is to shoot anyone foolish enough to come into your boys’ sights.”


“You heard Mister Frema.”


The soldiers checked their weapons over and out of habit Jagg did the same. The lasgun was military issue, like most of the house equipment. The soldiers moved in prescribed Death Korps fashion. He wondered if they were former Death Korps, or if the High Borns were able to levy a few of their own soldiers from whatever level they held sway over. He would ask Razin later. Absently he flicked on a weak illuminator affixed to his helm.


Frema demonstrated how to use the rappelling line and placed a solider in a harness and sent him down into the abyss. Three more soldiers made their way into the depths of the dead hive, followed by Jagg and Razin. He was concerned as he slid down the rope as any man would be dangling high up in the air, but the lack of light hid from view the world he was entering and any sense of how far the fall would be were he to come unharnessed. His helmet’s illuminator hardly cut the darkness, giving him only one real sense; the area around them was cavernous.


The gear made a whizzz noise as he descended and a gloved hand grabbed his boot, slowing him down. The three soldiers helped Jagg out of his harness. They manhandled the rope and worked the empty restraints back up the line. Without issue, von Langer, Razin, Frema and a team of six soldiers entered the first level of the other place.


The ground was coated in mud, but Jagg could feel firm rockcrete below. He swept his head side to side, but there was nothing but the immense darkness of the place to gaze at. A sense of dread filled him. They weren’t supposed to be here. No one was.


Frema’s dark shape turned. Over the micro-bead he ordered, “Follow me. Don’t stray.”


They formed a line and followed one after the other. Everyone carried a lasgun, except the soldier following just behind Frema, he was armed with a cumbersome flamer, whose spout sizzled with a blue flame. Personally, Jagg was happy he was behind the fellow.


A hollow moaning sound could be heard from all around. The soldiers tensed. Frema waved a hand.

“Just the wind from topside blowing about,” he said with an annoyed grunt.


Jagg walked ahead of Razin, clutching his lasgun, sweeping his helmet illuminator left to right. Nothing. Not even a wall. He moved taking careful steps, taking Frema’s advice to heart. As well as the moaning, the light clinking of the squad’s combat gear jingled and jangled. At times a soldier would lose his footing on the slick mud, or the flame-trooper would adjusts his promethium tanks, creating a loud knocking noise. These audible disturbances would have Frema halting, glaring from behind his goggles, and moving on. Unsurprisingly, the man didn’t make a sound as he moved.


“How far is it?” Jagg idly asked.


He was surprised that Frema’s voice buzzed in his ear. “Deep. It will take hours to make our way there, if we push it. There are a few more rappel drops we need to do as well. That will slow us up. Maybe a full day before we reach the building.”


Given the man was talking to him and was more likely to share information than the silent soldiers or von Langer, Jagg asked. “What exactly is the building we are going to?”


The laugh was gruff. “They not tell you anything?”


“Not much,” he said quietly. He wanted to mention he was a quasi-prisoner of von Langer, but the puffy-lipped noble was listening in and there was no point. Frema worked for the von Langers. He asked idly, “So what is it?”


“A government structure of the other side. You can spot them down here because they use lots of marble, big statues and have a love of columns.” Frema was but a ghostly image ahead of him. “The ones I’ve seen have been picked over rather heavily. This one is intact and had a logic-engine they were trying to power up.”


“They?”


“Yeah. A Tech-Priest, some old man and a host of servitors. That’s the bit of information your employer was interested in.”


Von Langer’s voice interrupted their conversation over the micro-bead, “Mister Frema, my ahh.. employees… don’t need to know the details of this operation. But thank you for being so enlightening.”


“Sure, sure. I can keep a secret if you want me to.”


The conversation ended and Jagg sighed. Time was hard to judge in the darkness of the other place. The only break they had was the occasional pile of rubble that had to be navigated, the only sign they were in the remains of a hive and not a cave. Finally they descended what Jagg imagined was a transit ramp. His lamp made out slime-coated walls and he had to slow his pace so as not to slip on the mud spattered about the decline.


A cry of alarm sounded out behind him. He turned sharply, just in time to see one of von Langer’s soldiers sliding on his feet. His arms waved wildly before he felt face-first in the mud and skidded down the ramp. The other soldiers jumped aside and Jagg heard a rather colorful curse ring out in his ears from Frema.


The soldier zipped past them all, tumbling and skidding the entire way. His shouts remained loud thanks to the micro-bead. Frema darted after him.


The shouting picked up in intensity, transforming into a wail followed by a crackle and a blaring moment of static. The shouting had ceased.


“Damnit all!” Frema roared through the micro-bead.


The soldiers crouched, leveling their weapons, moving to keep their lord covered. Jagg hefted his lasgun while Razin did the same. Beams of weak light pierced the darkness in sweeping patterns.

“Mister Frema?” von Langer asked, a laspistol held firmly in hand.


Silence.


“Mister Frema?”


From the darkness the scavenger emerged, he kicked at the muddy slope, sending up a pile of filth into the air. His hands planted on his hips. “Lower your weapons, we aren’t in danger.” He turned. “Follow me, and watch your footing or end up like him.”


Von Langer straightened. “What do you mean, Mister Frema?”


The scavenger trudged ahead in silence.


“Mister-” von Langer tried again only to be cut off by Frema’s harsh voice.


“He’s dead. He slid and went through a crack that runs through three levels. He’s probably hit bottom right about now.”


The thought of such a long fall unsettled Jagg. “The Emperor protects,” he murmured.


“Apparently not from falls from a great height,” Razin replied.


#


Understandably, they moved with more caution after the first fatal mishap. Frema ghosted in the lead, sometimes vanishing altogether, only to return when the flame-trooper paused, hesitant to proceed without a clear guide. The vast open split open level changed to eerily familiar transit halls flanked by multi-story habs. Jagg could only make out the vague outlines of the structures, many of which were slumped over, as if they had somehow deflated. Mud gave way to rubble and at times dusty rockrete and broken glass from ceiling lights which had long ago shattered.


Curiosity overcame the fear of being in the forbidden hive. Hours had passed and no one else had so much as slipped and not a single sign of life revealed itself beyond the faint glow of the squad’s illuminators.


“What happened at the end?” Jagg asked, hoping Frema might answer him.


“They all died,” Razin answered instead. “Serves them right for rejecting the Emperor.”


“Most of them died, not all.” Frema stalked out of the darkness, stepping gingerly around the flamer-trooper. He pointed into the void. “There and there, you can see where our atomics split the hive.


Most the people here were cooked, blasted, or just had the oxygen sucked out of their lungs. The damage isn’t too bad though here. Other places, you wouldn’t even know you were in a place that once bustled with life.”


Von Langer stepped up. “You said only most died? What makes you believe otherwise?”


He shrugged. “I’ve picked through this corpse for years. You tend to pick up a little about the former residents. Farther down you go the more secure the levels. Unlike our hive, this one valued the deep.” He started to walk and lead the group on once more. “I’ve cracked into portions of some surprisingly intact levels. What I found odd was that in some habs there was no bones or remnants of life. Like someone picked up everything and left.”


“Other scavengers like yourself?” one of the nameless soldiers grunted.


“No, we only take valuable things. We leave behind thousand year old cutlery, petrified furniture, and the usual rubbish you’ll find amongst the dusty bones.” He trudged along once more melding with the perpetual darkness of the tomb. “Like they packed up and left on purpose. Now, maybe they just went deeper, who’s to say? But not everyone died right away when we broke into the hive. Of that I’m sure.”


Von Langer cleared his throat. “Well Mister Frema, since we are all asking you questions and you’re more of an expert than any of us on this dreadful place, did you ever stumble across why they denied the Emperor?”


The question itself was heretical. Since Jagg as a youth the history on the civil war had been at the most basic, with the details often conflicting. What every school marm, drill instructor and officer had been in concert on was that the other side rejected the Emperor, and that was that. The why of it was never to be asked. Then again, Jagg grimly thought, they were all committing grave sins simply by being inside the other place. Still, was it necessary to know anything about those who had turned their back on the Emperor?


“Never cared really,” Frema answered. “They are different than us, that’s for sure. No monasteries, no aquilas, no Imperial bureaucratic structures, nothing about Holy Terra and Him.”


“Heretics,” Razin snapped. “Who cares the why of their treachery? Mister Frema has made it quite clear. They lived in the absence of Him and in my book that is an offense worthy of a cleansing via nuclear fire.”


“You sound like a Commissar,” the scavenger replied in open disdain.

“Someone has to,” Razin retorted dryly.


Conversation stopped. They moved through cramped, rubble-strewn streets, managed their way down lengthy rappelling lines and crawled under fallen support beams. The obstacles presented varied but the general direction of their travels did not. Down.


The bulk of his suit and constricting nature of his rebreather annoyed Jagg about as much as the empty buildings staring at them sent icy chills down his spine. His legs were sore from the difficult progress and even after spending hours within the tomb of the hive, he could not bring himself to relax. Just when he believed he could get used to the darkened hive, little glimmers of it sent him on edge.


A pile of bones coating one transit hall. A series of statues in a state of serious disrepair depicting overly muscular men. A blackened transport, torn asunder from the disaster so long ago.


It was the little visions his illuminator fell upon that kept Jagg on edge along with the dead silence of the place, broken only by their uneven steps.


“My lord,” Frema said, once more appearing out of the dark to be lit up by the glow of the flame-trooper’s weapon. “We need to camp. Your men are tired and the next part of the journey is tedious. Lots of rappelling.”


A few of the soldiers groaned, Jagg included. The ropes were difficult to manage, hard to navigate and no one liked dangling in the darkness, with hundreds of feet to fall below.


Von Langer gave a curt nod. “I shall heed your advice.” He stressed the word in a clear attempt to remind Frema who was in charge. If the scavenger took the hint, he didn’t show it.


Frema led them to a giant base for a statue which had been toppled, so that only its white, gargantuan feet remained upon the plinth. Carved across the base was the phrase Die Helder der Gottmänner.


“We’ve seen that word before.” Jagg shined his illuminator across the letters, each were as tall as two hand-spans. “It’s in the old language, remember, Commissar sir?” Jagg corrected himself, “Er, my lord.”


Frema, who was setting up a camp and positioning a few portable illuminators for them stood up. “Sh*t! You really are a Commissar?”


“Former, I’m a Duke now.” Razin looked over to von Langer, “And a prisoner?”

“Companion. Who would arm their prisoners?” Von Langer looked at the words. “I’m impressed you can read it, Jagg. Our lessons paid off.”


“Some,” he admitted. Given von Langer knew as much as they, and as a captor was a reasonable enough fellow; he shared with him his thoughts. “When we were in the vault, that word there was inscribed on the wall. Helder. Or maybe it was Helden. Something like that.”


“It means hero,” Frema said. Eyes turned upon him and he shrugged nonchalantly. “I told you, you pick up things as you spend time down here. That word there, Gottmänner, you’ll find it all over the place. I think it was the name of their royal line. I’ve seen the phrase inscribed on just about every official looking building and worthy piece of art. Then again, maybe it just means, ‘important’. It’s usually written with precision, opposed to some of the scrawling marks I find that the poor sots jotted down before they all died.” He changed the subject. “A duke, the son of von Langer, a squad of soldiers and that guy,” he pointed at Jagg, marking him out as different than the rest of the soldiers. “I’m curious.”


Von Langer quickly spoke. “If you want to be paid and remain in the good graces of my family you will set aside such curiosity and worry about the task at hand.”


“Sure, my lord. Just my nature to be curious. Why else would I do this for a living?” He continued to position the illuminators about the camp and settled himself against the blocky plinth. From his sack he produced rations, which he sucked through a straw attached to his rebreather.


Von Langer turned to his soldiers. “Rest up, eat, drink. In a few hours we’ll see what convinced that Tech-Priest to come to this Emperor-forsaken place.”

IX


Shaken Foundations


Von Faust sat comfortably in the back of his transport. Behind him two others followed, the sleek black cars easily weaved through traffic on route to their destination.


He had mentally prepared himself for what had to be done. What a real man could do and a lesser could not. His father’s cold decision at last rested easy with him. Casually he stroked the laspistol at his hip.


There would be other concerns once the deed was done and honor regained. Grandfather’s research had turned up something interesting. Beyond interesting; vital. Just as he was to act against the one whom did him harm and tarnished his name, his father had to act to quickly see grandfather’s work fulfilled and the destiny of the High Borns achieved. Today was to be a momentous day.


The transports slid to a halt in front of the little house, some distance from the palace. It looked miserable as he expected to be, not even large enough to house a tenth of his family’s servants.

As one, the doors to the transports opened, von Faust and his men exited, moving with determination towards the door of the hab. He wore the uniform of his kind, as did every member of his House and if father’s influence was as profound as he hoped, a good number of the High Borns would be dressed the same. The military garb was similar in pattern to that of the Death Korps, but rather than iron-gray, it was a brilliant white; a symbol of purity.


Two men jogged in front of him and the first delivered a flying kick to the door, jarring it violently from its hinges. The alarmed cry of a woman sounded from inside.


Several House soldiers bolted through the doorway, their pistols drawn. Casually, von Faust drew his own beloved weapon. It was a finely crafted tool, passed down from generation to generation and inscribed with text from the old, but not forgotten, language.


Screams echoed from inside the house, all feminine followed by a baby’s cry. Von Faust ordered three of his men to stand guard and entered the home. It was as sparse on the interior as the exterior. He sneered at such simplistic and animalistic living. Why did the tower ever accept such a rutter as Jagg? It didn’t matter anymore, ironically enough his own time at schola was at an end.


What was supposed to be some time off, was going to be an indefinite leave thanks to the success of his grandfather.


He looked around the room, held by a pair of soldiers each, an older woman and a younger were pressed against the wall. The dark-haired younger cradled a crying baby in her arms. They both had the fearful, wide eyes of the weak.


While the women were held, the other soldiers searched the place. It didn’t take long and von Faust didn’t like their report.


“Where is Jagg?” He eyed both women. “Achim Jagg, that is.”


The older one spat. She shook her head. “Not here and he isn’t going to be.”


A little defiance? He was mildly impressed given she was at his mercy. Perhaps they weren’t as weak as he thought. Perhaps that might make the moment fulfilling. “I checked my sources, he has not been picked back up by the army. That means he has been kicking his heels, waiting. Is he at some bar, drinking it up?” He turned his eyes onto the younger woman. “Maybe he is with a whore?”


She curled her hands about her child tighter and lowered her gaze.


“He’s not here. He’s not coming back and we don’t know where he is,” the older said, wincing as one of his soldiers slammed her tighter against the wall.


“I did not drive all this way for nothing. He’s your son?” When she nodded he shrugged. “I have a way to make sure he comes out of hiding, one way or another.”


He brought his pistol up and squeezed the trigger. The weapon was beautiful. It hardly kicked, the sound from the lasbolt was barely noticeable and the effects were as gory as one could hope. He watched smugly as his men let the mother fall to the ground.


The wife of his missing target gaped, stammered and in true primitive fashion huddled over her child. He did not need to steel himself. His father had raised him to be a man, and men did not flinch from their duty. The rutter had insulted him and it was only natural that he pay. That all of them pay.


“He’ll find you,” the younger one whispered.


“What?”


“He’ll find you. He’ll find you and you’ll regret this. Murdering women. A child?!” Her eyes met his and she straightened up. “I’m not afraid. Not of cowards like you.”


The little bit of spirit in her cheered him up slightly from his disappointment that her mate was not about. She was standing up admirably, her hands grasped to the whimpering baby, her dark eyes set on his.


“Not afraid? He took a menacing step towards her and rammed the muzzle of the pistol into her side. He could smell her breath. It was laced with lho. “Not in the slightest?” He jabbed the weapon into her.


She winced, turning her head slightly to the side, but her response was even and solid.


“No.”


He squeezed the trigger gently. She gasped, her legs failed her but his men kept her standing. The woman’s eyes shut, while one shaky hand stroked her offspring’s head.


“How about now?”


Her hand moved, soothing the baby until the cries stopped. Her lips moved, whispering. “Not ever. I commend my soul to the Emperor, may He accept me in his l-”


He pulled the trigger three more times. Her prayers ceased and both hands fell limp, dropping the baby to the ground. The wretched creature started to cry once more. He still felt no satisfaction, or relief from the insult put upon him. Even her acts of defiance didn’t make her death pleasing.


The soldiers watched him in silence. A few glanced at the screaming child. The pair holding up the woman let her drop heavily to the ground, tangling with her child.


“The baby?” a soldier asked.


He pondered it. His father wanted the family wiped out as settlement for Jagg’s willfulness. No rutter should ever seek to rise above his station and no rutter should ever think of crossing his betters.


However, with Jagg alive, the debt was not paid, nor would it be. The child’s demise would not give von Faust what he wanted. With some luck, the wife of his enemy’s prophecy would come true, and Achim Jagg would try and seek him out. Perhaps then he could feel redeemed seeing the fellow’s pain, right before he shot him dead.


“It lives, or it dies. I don’t care. Come, we have to get to the launch bay and the surface levels are far from here.” He turned, holstering his weapon. His men followed behind, leaving the house from which the baby’s plaintive squeals still resounded.


#


Another Chimera sped down the transit outside her home. Marena watched it race along with a tight frown. The world of Krieg was dedicated to warfare and earning redemption for past sins. Every man and woman was expected to somehow serve in the Emperor’s cause. Krieg was at war, always was and always would be; the sight of military transports was not unusual. Having ten of them pass through one of the inner levels within an hour was.


Maenor was not back yet, from wherever it was he had gone off to. He had told her nothing, other than he would find out who stole the records and somehow use that information to please the Kaiserina. The plan was mad, but to do nothing was equally so. Still, she hated waiting.


Another Chimera passed along, this one swerved onto her estate’s lawn, crushing the imported and artificially maintained grass beneath ugly treads. She opened her mouth, to shout a colorful curse taught to her by her husband. The curse died on her lips as the ramp descended and armored soldiers, as well as a familiar figure emerged.


She ran as fast as she was able in her gray dress out of the room, crashed into a startled maid and pushed past a servant who was coming too late with the news. She opened the door to her home and strode purposefully ahead, smoothing her features in an attempt to hide surprise.


“Marena,” the Kaiserina said as she halted her progress.


She had used her first name, a good sign as any. Marena dipped her head, murmuring, “My Kaiserina.”


“I was harsh to you. The reasons aren’t important and can be forgotten. The coup we feared is taking place as we speak.” She stepped forward. “Has anyone contacted you?”


The news of her forgiveness lifted her heart but the bold announcement of a coup stifled any elation she might feel. “Contacted?” She shook her head. “No. Since the Cathedral of Cathedrals and news of my husband stumbling about drunk, I’ve not been on anyone’s social contact list. Coup? Who?


How many are with us? Who is-”


The Kaiserina put a hand on her shoulder. “Shh. It’s not as bad as we thought. The army is with us.”

“How many regiments, my Kaiserina? Which ones are oppo-”


She was silenced again by a squeeze to the shoulder and the barest hint of a smile on her cousin’s face. The Kaiserina whispered, “All of them are loyal. Not one has risen against us.”


Us. She liked the sound of that and the news was spectacular. Her cousin’s ascension was a risky one. Her father’s sudden death and her ‘objectionable’ gender made it very likely that Krieg’s aristocracy, both at home and abroad would challenge her. Yet, not one regiment had rebelled? The news was too good to be true.


“If they are loyal, then who isn’t?” she asked tentatively.


“Some members of the nobility. They’ve taken to wearing their own uniforms and sealing off portions of certain levels. We are containing them, but they’ve managed to secure a launch bay the surface level and have shut down our orbital defense grid by plaguing the machine-spirits of the logic-engines. The Tech-Priests are praying diligently.” She stepped to her side and took Marena by the arm. “A ship has arrived in orbit, it isn’t very large but that still means they have space superiority. For the moment. I’ve alerted the Imperial Navy and I imagine they’ll send the proper response.”


Marena walked with her cousin, safe inside a circle of guards. “The news almost sounds, good.” She raised a brow. “Are you not telling me anything, my Kaiserina?”


She gave a sly laugh that lacked any humor to it. “There are many things I don’t tell you. As for this coup, you know as much as I and we are trying to prevent the public from finding out about it. My generals tell me it’s a rebellion gone terribly wrong; well, right in our case!” She led them into the stifling confines of the Chimera. “I’d like you by my side as we crush these traitors. Marena, if this works out; we’ll purge Krieg of any disloyal elements. My reign will be as solid as iron.”


A few thoughts disturbed her, despite the seemingly delightful news. “They haven’t tried to rally the masses? Isn’t that required for any sort of successful rebellion, coup, revolution, insurrection or what have you?”


The blonde woman shook her head sharply. “They’ve appealed to no one but other High Borns. About a third have gone over to their side.”


Another thought occurred to Marena. “Who is leading this coup?”


The Kaiserina stared at her with ice-blue eyes. “The von Fausts.”


#


A boot tip to the ribs, wasn’t all that unusual as a way to wake up. Jagg opened his eyes and saw Razin’s goggled visage staring down at him.


No words needed to be shared. He rose to his feet, switching on his helmet’s illuminator and giving the toppled statue they rested under a final glance.


The other soldiers hefted their gear, while the flame-trooper adjusted some hoses on his hefty tanks.


Their guide, remained aloof while von Langer waited patiently.


“Be a shame to lose any more, so stay close.” With that, Frema stalked down one of the abandoned transit halls. They fell into line, their steps still wary given the death of one of their own.


Once more in the depths of the dead hive, with little light, no physical features to make out and mark, Jagg lost his sense of time. Down was the only common theme with their journey, which zigged and zagged through the hive, bypassing toppled buildings, skirting collapsed floors and rappelling down already emplaced ropes. He quickly learned to hate the prospect of dangling in the dark, over and over again. The pace was quick, the silence breaking under the steady pants and grunts of the soldiers.


The sound of Frema’s voice startled Jagg. He gripped his lasgun and out of habit scanned the darkness for signs of threats.


“Almost there. Past that rubble is where I saw the illuminators. There is a government building in fairly good shape and they were interested in a logic-engine.”


Von Langer responded, “Fine. It looks dark now. Men, do your duty and House proud.”


“I should go in first,” Frema said tersely.


“I brought soldiers for a reason Mister Frema. Kindly let them do their job, and you do yours.” Von Langer waved his men ahead. He followed behind, pausing to glance at them. “Coming?”

Razin shrugged. “Surprised you let us hang behind you.”


The noble sighed deeply. “My Duke, I told you we are friends, on a joint mission to uncover the mystery of the stolen records. Your paranoia is honestly too much.”


Jagg grumbled, “You didn’t exactly ‘ask’ if we wanted to come along.”


“Would you seriously want to miss out on all this?” Von Langer hurried after his soldiers as they marched at a quick pace over a debris field towards the dim shape of temple-like structure.


Jagg shared a glance with Razin before following. Of Frema, there was no sign. Relying on his goggles rather than an illuminator he could vanish anywhere within the lightless hive.


The flame-trooper crept up the broken steps of the temple, scanning for hostile forces. Peering into the room, whose metal door had been torn open as if burst, he seemed satisfied, jerking his head to indicate it was clear.


He couldn’t have been more wrong. From within the building a roar sounded, flashing light flickered, giving sense of something enormous within. Tracer rounds spat by the thing’s chain-gun shredded the flame-trooper, casting him back down the steps directly into his fellows.


“Combat servitor!” Frema’s voice shouted through the bead.


The corpse-thing strode from the temple, chain-gun blazing in a steady sweep. Glowing tracer rounds lit up the darkness of the hive, casting strange lights and shadows upon the muscular statues and marble columns of the place.


Leaping with a cry, Jagg landed on the ground, behind a hunk of stone which could have fallen from the ceiling from the looks of it. The masonry burst into hunks as the chain-gun swept it, sending a hail of bullets perilously close to him before swaying to another target.


The flame-trooper and a pair of others lay strewn before the temple, their rich, red blood contrasting dramatically with the white marble. The others had sought what cover they could.


For a few terrible seconds the combat servitor attacked uninterrupted. On piston aided legs it descended the steps, gun blazing, robotic claw opening wide, eager to crush the intruders.


The shock passed.


“Fire Emperor damn you! Fire!” Razin snapped.


The ex-Commissar’s voice still had a sting to it, and the soldiers did as they were told by their quasi-prisoner. Red bolts spat forth, puncturing dead flesh and scoring metallic implants.


Jagg drew the stock of his weapon tight to his shoulder, splayed himself prone and propped his weapon atop pulverized stone. He steadied his breathing and while the other soldiers sent dozens of ruby-red bolts into the advancing corpse-technology, he took careful aim. The thing’s brain was dead, but it still had to power some of its functions. He mastered a rising fear, replaced it with hatred towards the thing and squeezed the trigger.


Nothing.


He squeezed again. Nothing.


“Von Langer!”


The noble’s voice was rushed, “Sorry, Jagg. Friends, but just in case you and the Kaiserina are worshiping the Ruinous powers, my father and I thought it best to not be too trusting.”


“Fricker!” Razin cursed. “Jagg, get to the flamer, I’ll dance with it.”


The servitor stomped onto the transit hall, it made a long stride towards one of the soldiers and with a speed that its bulk seemed incapable of, picked up one of the men in its claw. The poor man hadn’t the time to scream before the air was crushed out of his lungs. As the rattling gun tore holes into stone, and sent another House soldier to the Emperor, the servitor hurled the corpse in its claw at von Langer. The two bodies collided with a crack. The noble and his dead charge were still.


Like a striking snake, Razin slid from cover, bearing down on the servitor just as its chain-gun clicked dry. Internal mechanisms groaned as a fresh belt of ammo was loaded, but by then the Duke was skipping past the thing, narrowly avoiding a swipe of its claw.


As nimble as Razin was, Jagg knew he couldn’t last long in close quarters with the thing. He sprinted from cover, dropping his lasgun as he ran. The last surviving House soldier joined him. They reached the dead flame-trooper at the same time.


“Roast it!” the soldier shouted, while his gloved hands fumbled with the harness on the dead man’s body.


He knelt by the body, pulling the lengthy tube of the flamer free from his bloody form. Razin sped away from the servitor, who leveled its re-loaded chain-gun. There was no time to wait for the Duke to get fully clear.


Fire brought hellish light to the darkened hall and bathed the back of the servitor. Flames wreathed its form, which succeeded in distracting it from Razin. Coated in fire, the servitor turned to face them.


“Great, flaming servitor,” the soldier at Jagg’s side groaned as he pulled the tanks free of his companion.


Eyes wide, hands shaking, Jagg let another blast of fire sweep from the nozzle of the weapon and strike the looming thing. Its form became distorted in a glare too bright to look at. Like all of its kind, it did not scream or show any hesitation, even though it was burning up. The steps shook, the claw leaped ahead, emerging from the ball of fire.


Jagg ducked, sparing him decapitation, but the other soldier was struck. He managed to reach his hands up and grab at the metal pincers, which slammed together, deflating his head with a wet pop.

Horror flooded him. He screamed in terror as the contraption of flesh and metal, with an unpleasant halo of fire straddled him. Its claw reared back, the pincers, dripping with blood, opening.


Trembling, he fired the flamer, keeping the trigger depressed. The heat seared him, even through his heavy gear and once more his vision was whited-out by the blaze. He tensed, on his knees, expecting the servitor’s claw to grip him, or the chain-gun to give him a volley at point-blank.


“Stop!” Razin shouted through the bead.


He dropped the flamer, scooting back on hands and knees, blinking rapidly to clear his vision.

The servitor still stood, like a flaming statue, weapon reared back for the final strike. But it was no longer moving. Flesh, dripped off of it in stringy lines and the chain-gun fell off, clattering down the steps.


Smoking from several locations, Razin walked a wide-circuit around the burning hulk of flesh. “I think our Tech-Priest left a surprise here too.”


In hindsight, they should have known better. Jagg gradually regained his composure and with Razin’s assistance stood. There was some good news. “I’m going to beat von Langer half to death. I’d finish him off, but he did teach me to read.”


“I applaud your thirst for revenge, but this is a complicated issue.” Razin patted his arms, extinguishing the smoke. “Taking him at face value, the only reason he didn’t arm us is his suspicion that the Kaiserina might be hiding something heretical. How was he to know how we might respond if it turned out our beloved monarch dabbles with the Warp?”


“Why the hell take us along then? Should have left us on his nice estate and done this himself.” He looked over at von Langer’s prone form. He had the urge to kick the inbred noble.


Frema’s voice broke into their channel and the scavenger stepped out of the darkness. “Probably because if the information discovered didn’t incriminate the Kaiserina, it wouldn’t look good if his House held two of her agents hostage.” He gave a nod von Langer’s way. “He was playing the odds is all.”


The Duke’s arms crossed. “How much do you know?”


“Not much. Just enough from your conversations and the manner in which he treated you that you weren’t exactly with him.” He wandered over to the still blazing servitor, knelt and examined the chain-gun. “Hmmm, I can probably get some good trade for this.” He looked up. “As for you two being agents of the Kaiserina, I’m just guessing.”


“We are,” Razin said. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”


“Not that it’s my business, but what if you do find something terrible about her and her family?” Standing, the scavenger proceeded into the temple.


They followed after him. Razin said coolly, “I’d help in seeing them burned at the stake. This is Krieg, no one is important.”


“Everybody fights,” Jagg said, completing the local phrase.


“And they all get killed for it,” Frema replied.


Tense silence lingered in the air, while the burning servitor collapsed, its ruined corpse tumbling down the steps. The trio moved into the room. Statues stared coldly at them from above, and the logic-engine in the chamber’s center bore signs of tampering. Wires and cables had spilled from its open covers.


Jagg shrugged. “We’ll need to get this back to a Tech-Priest.” He smirked. “A loyal one at that.”


Frema wandered over to the machine, he ran his gloved hands along it, peered at this and that, before giving it a kick.


“That’s an unusual prayer,” Razin commented dryly.


The scavenger shrugged. “Who cares, it belonged to the other side, besides.” He faced the Duke. “No Tech-Priest in all the Imperium could breathe life back into this thing. Dead. When those other fellows activated it, it obliterated the internal workings. I know my trade. It’s amazing they gathered anything from it at all.”


Jagg kicked at the ground. “We came here for nothing? I’m going back to kick von Langer.”


The scavenger held up a hand. “Hold on. That man is paying me, besides, I said it’s amazing they gathered anything at all.”


“Stop playing games. What did they gather?” Razin strode towards the broken machine, looking it over.


Grasping the edges of the logic-engine’s viewplate, Frema pulled upwards. He grunted once before the plate popped off audibly. He held it above his head. “Shine your illuminators on it.”


They did so. Jagg gave a snort in surprise. His helmet’s beam of light struck the viewplate and passed through as he expected. However, on the wall the light cast a series of numbers. “What is it?” he wondered aloud.


“They fried the spirit of this machine, but in doing so imprinted the last screen they were looking at.”


Frema glanced over his shoulder at the wall. “Couldn’t tell you what the numbers are though.”


“I can.” Razin pointed at Frema, “Record that number, I don’t care how and pack up that plate, we are taking it with us.” He looked at Jagg. “Go fetch von Langer. And be nice, we’ll need his Chimera topside.”


Frema did as he was told, Jagg tilted his head. “Sir? The numbers, what are they?”


Razin pointed up. “Coordinates. Galactic coordinates. I’ve seen them before but I cannot read them.


All I can tell you is this, Jagg, whoever stole the records is also interested in a point in space. That means I’m interested in it too. Let’s get moving.”

X


Exodus


They had descended into the tomb of a whole civilization with a squad of men and returned with a handful. Jagg had not taken any petty revenge upon von Langer which in turn paid off. When he finally came to he was grateful they had not done anything terrible to him. Friends once more.


There was some talk on what would have to be done, should the mystery lead to a severe incrimination of the Kaiserina. They had decided, or rather Razin had told them all, that if she was not loyal to the Emperor, then she should meet the fate of all traitors.


Jagg was not overly worried that any decisions about loyalties would come into question. He had fought for the Kaiserina, and though he ascension was suspicious and unorthodox, she had led Krieg towards glory and redemption. He could see no harm in it. Her fear of the Black Crown remained as much a mystery as when their investigation began. Despite her fear; he remained steadfast in his conviction that she was loyal to Him on Earth without question and everyone knew it.


News of a coup the moment they emerged from the depths was understandably vexing.


The Chimera rumbled, while its two crewmen prepped it for travel, after delivering the news.


“We were gone two days!” Jagg exclaimed. “We go in, and the world is fine. We come out and the bloody High Borns have gone traitor?!” He looked over at Razin. “Sir, I recommend we never turn our back on Krieg again.”


“Noted. I’ll take it up with the Kaiserina.” He walked towards the Chimera, crossing his arms as he watched von Langer. Since the news broke the noble had been on a long-rage vox-caster attempting to get details of the rebellion.


“So, are you on our side or theirs?” Razin asked for the third time.


The noble shrugged; “I’ll let you know! Be patient. These insurrections are terribly complex ordeals and I’ve been unable to get through to my father. Someone keeps interfering with communications.”


He detached the wire in his hood, leading from the vox-caster on the machine’s exterior. “We’ll have to try again when we are closer to home.” He gestured them to board the transport. “For now, we’re all on the same side.”


“Speak for yourself, my lord.” Frema produced the glass plate. “I’ve done my bit and I wish your plots and machinations well. But I much prefer it down there.” He nodded towards the great crevice in the ground.


“Your service has been noted, Mister Frema. Your payment.” Von Langer reached into a pouch attached to his cross belt, producing a small device. He tossed it to the scavenger.


The man caught it deftly. He rotated the device in his gloved hands, peering at it through his goggles. Acidic rain started to fall, so he packed it away into one of his many carrying sacks. “Thanks. It’ll be useful.”


Curious, Jagg asked, “What is it?”


The man turned to face him. “Water chip. Mine is broken. With this, I can drink this.” He held a hand up to the rain that slightly sizzled as it struck them.


“Thanks for your help,” Jagg said sincerely. As strange as Frema was, they could not have made it into the other place and out without him.


“Good luck with, you know.” Frema turned and walked away. “Life.”


The Men of Krieg boarded the transport, while the scavenger returned to his modest rad-tent.


The journey over Krieg’s hellish, acid and radiation drenched landscape was done at breakneck speeds. Strapped inside the vehicle, Jagg did all in his power not to vomit. Vomiting inside his rebreather would be an experience worth avoiding, but he wasn’t going to risk removing it until they were within Krieg’s sealed environment.


Von Langer remained connected to the vox-caster, shouting out relevant information as it came through.


“High Borns have secured a level or two, mostly pockets of places.”


“They have a ship on orbit. Our defenses are down.”


“My father has told them to stuff it! That’ll teach the von Fausts!”


The last bit of news had Jagg jerking up. “What was that?”


“We’re friends! My father didn’t throw his lot in with the rebels. Bit of a gamble too, I very well could have come back with information that the Kaiserina was in league with dark powers.” He leaned back in his seat. “I suppose he could have always betrayed her later, but-”


“No! The other part. Von Faust? What about him?” Jagg leaned towards the noble.


“Easy, Achim,” Razin said, using his first name in a familiar way.


“The rebellion is being led by the von Fausts.” Von Langer slapped his hand upon his thigh. “You gave the younger quite the pop. He was furious over the matter, but I believe he let it drop. Or at least he stopped talking about it,” von Langer said.


He felt a decided worry flitter through his mind. He had disliked von Faust the younger immensely.


Some of it was jealousy, he admitted that to himself. He didn’t call the man Perfect Faust with any sense of endearment. But had he intrinsically known there was disloyalty in his veins? Was that his Commissarial training and instinct revealing itself in a ‘literary’ sense?

Something else worried at him. There was no reason for it, other than the sense that one does not leave a position open to a vengeful enemy. “My lord, I think when we get back I’d like to visit my house.”


The ex-Commissar nodded. “I understand.”


“We’re being rerouted by command. There’s some sporadic fighting topside.” Von Langer unlatched himself from the restraining belts, he stood, taking control of one of the Chimera’s port-hole lasguns.


“They know we have valuable information?” Razin seemed to notice what von Langer was doing a moment later. “Define rerouting.”


“To hurry us up, we’ll be driving right through enemy held territory. A Valkyrie flyer is enroute to pick the information up.” Von Gaul glanced back to the pair. “And us, I suppose. You two going to sit there?”


Jagg shared a look with Razin, together they unfastened their harnesses and took control of a lasgun each. A hazy monitor revealed the muddy terrain, pools of acid and flashes of static. He had never had much experience on the mounted lasguns. They were meant to offer sporadic fire. Jagg was quite proud of himself for having mastered sporadic, if not accurate and useful.


He peered intently at the monitor, trying to blink away the glare caused by his goggles to no avail. He expected enemy soldiers. What did enemy Men of Krieg look like?


The Chimera, with a white stripe down its length caught him by surprise. One moment he was staring at a pile of slop, the next, the treaded vehicle was travelling alongside them, spraying up a wash of mud.


“Contact left! Armor”


The enemy war-machine’s turret swiveled to face them. The multi-laser rotated and a steady spray of beams burst towards them. He could see the monitor flashing as the beams impacted the armored hull. While the individual bolts would do little more than score the armor, the continual spray would eventually strike something important, possibly disabling the vehicle.


He pulled the trigger on the mounted lasgun. The single bolts looked incredibly lack-luster on the targeting monitor. Perhaps it was because he missed. Turning away, he looked at von Langer.


“Krak?”


The noble swayed on his feet, using one hand to grip a handrail and another to open a compartment. He fetched one of the anti-vehicular grenades. They were stout things.


“What are you going to do with that?” Razin’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Going to throw it at them?”


“Yes.”


Jagg lurched towards the back of the transport. A yellow bar had on a sticker above it all manner of warnings about opening the ramp while the vehicle was in motion. He pulled and twisted the handle.


The ramp fell heavily, splashing in the mud.


“What are you doing?!” The nobles shouted at once.


He ignored them. “Tell the driver to veer right, far right! Let them get behind us!”


“They’ll fill the interior with lasrounds! Are you mad, Jagg?” von Langer stumbled as they leapt over a small crater. A lasround pierced the hull, bouncing against the far wall.


“Do it! Now!” Razin hissed. He moved on unsteady feet to von Langer’s side, pulling forth a krak grenade from the compartment.


The noble hesitated a moment more then ordered the daring maneuver over the micro-bead.

While von Langer hesitated, his driver had no such qualms. The armored transport spun, as one tread seized up, kicking up a wall of mud. Jagg leaned his back against the side of the wall, armed the grenade and grasped the handle, so as not to fall out. He mentally counted, without even looking to see if the enemy Chimera was behind him he tossed the grenade.


As the weapon was flung forth, Razin passed him another.


“HOT!”


Jagg threw it out the back.


Another, and another.


The grenade earned its name. Krak. Krak. Krak. The Chimera hove into view, only to be struck by the trio of armor-piercing explosives. Unlike a fragmentation grenade, the krak had a relatively small, but powerful, burst radius. Three had been the perfect number to compensate.


The third grenade struck just under the advancing machine, sending its nose into the air. The turret sent streams of deadly energy skywards, missing them. A dip in the landscape had the Chimera tilting back even farther, where it stuck, like a javelin. The treads spun, but only imbedded it further.


Razin laughed. “Well done! Well done.”


Jagg heard the distinct throaty-roar of a Valkyrie mingle with the whipping, toxic wind and deadly, falling rain. The engine of the Chimera slowed to a low purr as it halted, to be drowned out completely by the aircraft outside.


He could still see the enemy Chimera imbedded in the mud. The soldiers within the hold were probably still trying to find a way out, while the gunner and driver had made the wise decision to crawl out and were moving hastily away. They stood out sharply in their white, mud-stained stormcoats.


The pair of nobles moved to exit down the ramp. Jagg blocked von Langer’s path. “Can you have your driver take me to my level? I want to check up on some things.”


The noble nodded. “The least I can do. Good luck, Jagg. I hope we meet again.” He held out his hand, which Jagg shook. “I’ll even give you a real lasgun!”


He smiled and stepped aside for him. Razin nodded as he passed by.


“I imagine we’ll be going to the palace. Make your way there, bring the family. Just to be safe. Use my name like a hammer, I think it will be back in fashion if this information can help the Kaiserina.”


“And if it somehow hinders her?” Jagg quietly asked.


The ex-Commissar gave a quick, mirthless laugh. “I’ll figure that one out if it happens. Get going.”


He stepped onto the muddy ruin of the surface, making his way behind von Langer to the matte-gray flyer which touched down not far off.


Jagg pulled the lever of the door, hydraulics hissed and the mud-stained portal sealed. He managed his way to the front of the transport and banged on the bulkhead. The driver’s voice picked up in his ear.


“Where are we going?”


“To my home.”


#


She watched the holographic map of Krieg with concern. Red flashing light, indicated where the enemy had taken hold. The traitors didn’t have much, but she was beginning to see a pattern to it, though not the purpose.


The command room was massive, a circular shaped compound with a host of servitors, cogitators, Tech-Priets, Tacticus officers, vox-operators and members of Krieg’s high-ranking leadership. Three Lord Commissars, five generals, two of which were responsible for training, a liaison from the Navy, Arch-Confessor Stemme, who decried the ‘abhoration’ of treachery, and a host of Imperial functionaries.


Like a dancer, her cousin swept through the room, rounding holographic projectors, map-strewn tables and cadres of officers. She lent her aide where needed, and kept her mouth shut when it came to matters she knew little of. Marena liked that about her cousin, she knew when to lead, when to inspire and when to shut up and let the men do what they did best.


“I say we slice here,” General von Kapplevorf of the Krieg’ Conscript regiments said. He pointed a fist, entirely constructed from black steel at a point that would divide the traitor’s upper and lower levels.


General von Altzor twirled his impressive, white moustache. “Perhaps, but this only impedes them in their task. They have the landing-pad for a reason. Defended as it is, it is the logical place to strike.


We will win.”


“Not quickly, though. They’ve done a fine job of locking it down. No matter what we do it will be a grind. I’m not against it” the tactical adviser, whose name Marena couldn’t remember offered. “General von Kapplevorf’s suggestion would be a quick maneuver. One that will prevent the traitors from taking any star-side reinforcements to the lower levels.”


The men pondered, debated and countered one another. Meanwhile the floating map continued to flash red in areas, flickering in spots where combat had been reported.


Marena frowned as she noticed the enemy had launched several attacks outside their zone of control. She had already heard what sort of raids. Reprisal attacks. Terror. Sabotage. The men said such feints could be ignored for now.


The Kaiserina’s icy gaze wandered over the hovering map. She hooded her eyes. “I don’t like the idea of letting them ‘do’ whatever it is they are planning. If the landing pad cannot be taken swiftly, then a quicker strike might interrupt them. It will give us some time to make sense of their intentions.”


The soldiers nodded. With the debate over, they moved into the details of how exactly to carry out General von Kapplevorf’s thrust.


“I might have an answer as to their intentions!”


She turned her eyes to the sound of the voice. Maenor! She had heard he was returning, with apparently vital information. He was dressed in combat-attire, freshly cleaned from his visit top-side.


Behind him, a young man stood, his features plump and his skin as pale as her own. She recognized the particular ‘marks’ of the von Langers, a loyal family. Behind her husband, three figures cloaked in crimson stood. Their robotic eyes gleamed, their spindly, metallic attachments twitched, while vapors rose from the various hoses affixed to their hunched over bodies. Tech-Priests.


The Kaiserina stood tall. She spoke casually, despite the intense situation. “It would please me if you shared, Duke Razin. And believe me, you of all people need to please me.” She looked over at Marena, smiled lightly, and affixed her frosty gaze onto the Duke. “Your wife can’t always do it by herself.”


Maenor bowed low. He stepped forward, flanked by his odd companions. “My Kaiserina, I recovered an interesting view-plate from, the other place.” He kept his voice down, but there were few secrets in the command chamber. Everyone knew vital information had been retrieved from there, but hearing the other place mention caused a sudden, uncomfortable lull in the room.


“Abhorration,” the Arch-Confessor spat.


“Quite,” Razin replied. He gestured to the Tech-Priests. “Honored members of the Priesthood of Mars, could you please tell our Kaiserina what we discovered.”


A red-robed figure, whose hooded head was cast in shadow, but revealed far too many glowing eyes, spoke in a monotone voice that broke at times with heavy hissing steam. “The treachery you face goes deeper than a few rogue flesh-things. An element of our order has sided with the disobedient flesh-units. Magos Jhar has been assisting them in research.”


Razin cleared his throat. “Tell her what kind of research, please.”


A series of clicks and whirls emanated from the figure before he spoke. “Genealogy. His expertise is in fusing flesh to metal, his latest treatises have revolved around the use of superior flesh-units to fuse holy technology to. His vat-bred men, once lobotomized, made fine combat servitors, as was demonstrated by his use of two. One, within the vault-”


The Kaiserina cleared her throat.


“My apologies, Magos Kohl, but we are pressed for time. Can you get to the part about the coordinates,” Razin asked politely.


The figure cocked its head, perhaps amazed that no one wanted to know the finer points of their wayward brother. “Very well. Magos Jhar was last seen in the company of Gregory von Faust. We have accessed our lost brother’s records. He has been in close proximity to this elderly flesh-thing for some time. His absence, now in a time or revolt, indicates a high probability of collusion.”


“Isn’t he dead?” Marena asked, stepping closer to the ring of men and her cousin. Gregory hadn’t run the House in some time, his son taking up the mantle. She assumed, as most had, that the man was dead.


Her husband smiled. It was that sly smile. “It gets better.”


The Tech Priest said, “The glass plate brought back from the impure other place bore information that this Duke-Razin-flesh unit claims was accessed by Magos Jhar while in the company of who we believe to be Gregory von Faust.” More mechanics twittered. “This information is a series of numbers, which correspond to galactic maps as coordinates. Our astro-tables have plotted the numbers and numbers are without fault. Magos Jhar was interested in a world listed as Prohibita by the Imperium. This world has been designated by our Priesthood as seven, seven, three, eight,” he began to intone the numbers like the Arch-Confessor would a litany.


Razin cleared his throat.


“Are your vocal strings decaying?”


“Magos, could you please tell us the fleshy name of the world?”


“Titus,” the priest wheezed. “Declared off-limits to all exploration the same year Krieg was accepted into the grace of the Imperium during the Great Crusade.”


The Kaiserina gasped.


“There is perhaps a spreading infection to all of your vocal strings?” The Magos stepped back, crossing two human, and three robotic, arms.


“Gentlemen!” The Kaiserina rounded on her men of war. “Change of plans, if you please. The High Borns aren’t trying to bring down reinforcements, they are trying to leave.”


Marena blinked in surprise, while her husband pursed his lips and said nothing.


“Are you sure, my Kaiserina? They are going to a lot of trouble just to escape,” General von Altzor said.


The monarch of Krieg pointed at the map. “Look! They have secured various portions of levels that run in a line, bottom to top. They aren’t just escaping, they are leaving en-masse. The soldiers are securing the evacuation of Krieg!”


A general murmur rose up from the assembled men.


“I want that landing pad shut down. Whatever it takes.” She rubbed her sharp features. “This isn’t a coup, not at all. It’s an exodus.” Her eyes snapped to Maenor. “You, follow me.” She gave a slight nod to Marena, indicating the same.


They left the bustle of the command room, into a small personal chamber of the monarch. It had a desk, a few chairs and a low level of illumination that was focused mostly on a pair of crossed swords hanging on the wall.


The Kaiserina flicked her coat back, strode to her desk and sat atop it, crossing her lean legs. “I’m going to share with you information that is,” she hesitated, staring at Maenor. “Delicate.”


“I understand,” Marena said. She could hold onto any secret.


Maenor’s response wasn’t what she expected.


“You know what I was before a Duke.”


Her cousin nodded. “Yes. It is why I ended the investigation. Because Commissar Razin might not like what he hears.” She sighed. “But, it doesn’t matter now. They’ve made their move and I won’t protect them. I can’t believe this isn’t a coup!” She shook her head.


“What is it, my Kaiserina? An exodus to where? Why? Who are they? What is the Black Crown?”


Maenor sat lazily in one of the chairs.


The monarch’s eyes flashed. “Certain parts of Krieg’s history are known only to the heads of particular families. This information is passed on, only sparingly, if at all. Some Houses are ignorant of the story.” She lowered her head. “Not story, of the truth.”


Marena stepped up behind Maenor. She placed her hands on the back of his chair. Story? Hidden? “What?” was all she could think of to say.


“The civil war between us and the other side started over an issue of heresy. Not the typical kind either. It had nothing to do with the blasphemous Warp.” She looked at Maenor. “This isn’t about Chaos.”


“Go on,” he simply said.


“The Autarch of Krieg, denied the Emperor and sent our world into a war which has killed its surface and turned its people into those who must forever seek redemption. What is not known, is why he rebelled.” She took a deep breath. “According to Imperial law, all of humanity is beholden to the Emperor. All humanity springs from Terra and we are all Terra’s children. The Autarch believed otherwise. He clung to tales from before the Great Crusade.”


The story was new to Marena. She knew nothing about the other side, except that they were long dead and had deserved it. “He believed Krieg wasn’t human?”


“Not exactly. He believed that Krieg’s nobility descended from a place other than Terra. That these people came to Krieg long before the Great Crusade and interbred with the humanity spread from Holy Terra. To him, it was Krieg’s destiny to see the mixed races separated once more.” The Kaiserina blinked rapidly.


“They rejected the truth and Him on Earth and died for it,” Razin stated. “What does this have to do with Magos Jhar and old Gregory bearing the symbol of the other side and mucking about in their tombs?”


“Here is the part I didn’t want to share with a former Commissar. Or my own cousin. My father told it to me, only because he said I must know fully of Krieg’s guilt.” She rose gently. “The history you know is that the war ended as dark-age atomics were used. The other place was split open and in their hive they died in righteous radioactive flames. This did happen, but they didn’t all die and the war did not end. It could never end because the other side had buried themselves as deep as we had. They made a choice. Or rather, some of them did.”


“They opted to surrender but only if we allowed them back into Krieg’s society.” She cleared her throat. “A chance to end a five-hundred year long war is a powerful motivator, Duke Razin. The leader of Krieg, a descendent of Jurten, the man who first chose to use atomics on our world, agreed. But the surrender was to be masked.”


“How? Why?” Marena asked, her mind spinning at the strange and unknown history of her own world.


“Select members of the other place were shipped in secret to here. They married into the noble families, thus fusing what was once separate. They did it because they believed their race could survive in the well managed eugenics of the nobility. We did it because a handful of marriages seemed a small price to pay for the end of such a dreadful war. The marriages were conducted in secret and the rest of the other place quietly huddled in the dark and died.”


A terrible thought came to Marena upon completion of the story. “Geinivee, what families did the other side marry into?”


Razin stood. “Oh, no.”


“Yes.”


They stared at one another a long while. Razin broke the uncomfortable silence.


“That’s why you rounded on Marena. You didn’t want her to know, because you didn’t want me to know. Krieg’s nobility, including its ruling House, are tainted with the blood of traitors.”


“Yes,” the monarch snapped. “When I knew someone bearing the mark of the other side stole the records, I knew that it would be unwise to have a former Commissar, sworn to destroy His foes and purge weakness in His ranks, find out the truth.” She lowered her head. “I thought the coup was just that. That it was some vain attempt by the few families which can trace their bloodline to the other side. I was thrilled. I could wipe them out and be done with that aspect to Krieg’s history without raising suspicions.” She looked back to Maenor. “What now, Duke Razin?”


He rubbed his chin, eyes passing over Marena. His gaze returned to focus upon the Kaiserina.


Marena put a hand to her chest, breathing fast she whispered, “Maenor?”


He raised a hand to silence her. “I’m His servant. First and foremost. My title is an Imperial title and to the Imperium I am loyal.” He paused. “However, as Commissar I rarely shot one man for another’s deeds. Does everyone in this room believe we are all human, descended from only one place; that being Holy Terra?”


“Yes,” the two women said in unison.


“Then I see nothing to worry about, except those who have opted to reject Him, failing to learn from the mistakes of their forefathers. My Kaiserina, no matter what you do, some of them will board that ship.”


She exhaled deeply. “Thank you.”


Marena rose, she placed a hand on her husband’s arm. “You have a plan?”


“I always do.” The man blinked. “Oh, out of curiosity, what does the word Gottmänner mean?”


The Kaiserina quirked a golden brow. “It’s in the old language. You must have seen it in the other place. It is what they called themselves. The Autarch coined it the day he broke from Him. It means, God-Men.”

XI


The Grim Future


He was only dimly aware of what the gaggle of people was saying to him. Phrases struck out in his mind.


“They came dressed in white.”


“Too afraid to go out and stop them.”


“Arbites are not coming.”


“Others have been struck.”


He walked towards the open door of his hab, a multitude of hands grabbed at him. He shrugged them off, but the hands were insistent. Jagg blinked. It was as if a grenade had gone off nearby.


“I have to-” he pushed forward against the yammering civilians. Mostly women he just noticed, a few old men. Some were crying.


Behind him the Chimera gurgled, its main turret lazily swept the transit hall in search of foes.


“I have to-” he said again, his world numb.


A slap struck him across the face. A man, with hair white as the glowing lamps of Krieg and a face pitted with as many scars as he had wrinkles stood before him. “They are dead. All but one. You are a Man of Krieg.” He leaned in. “No one is important. Everyone fights.”


Jagg stared dumbfounded at the fellow. He raised a hand to his cheek, feeling an almost welcoming pain. He mouthed the words of the top-side scavenger Frema, “Everybody dies.”


The man before him grunted. “Yes. That’s part of the adage to that men my age know. But you know it too now. A child.” He waved the women and other men off as they stood on the lawn outside Jagg’s home. “You still have a child.”


He stared longingly at the open doorway. Within was everything. No! Almost. “Where?” He rubbed his face, frowning as he found no tears. It felt wrong not to feel them.


The crowd parted, a woman who he vaguely recognized as a neighbor cradled in her hands a swaddled bundle. She lowered her eyes in a demure fashion before handing the baby to him. Jagg took hold of Hadu in his hands. She slept, her face one of peace and bliss. She did not know what horror had occurred and he envied her for it. A thousand thoughts spilled through his mind in a shotgun fashion. Guilt, sorrow, anger all consumed him. He staggered back. He felt no tears. He wanted them! They were gone, only Hadu was left.


“Holy Terra,” he whispered while the reality of the situation picked at him. Like the talons of some bird gradually digging into meat. “Holy Terra.”


The old man bowed his head. “I’m sorry for you loss. We all are. They came quick and left quick. Something is happening.” He peered past Jagg at the military transport.


“Who,” Jagg croaked.


The crowd murmured but the old man had become their spokesmen and his voice was the most clear in Jagg’s ear. “Men in white. They arrived neat as you please in black transports. Out they come and for your door. They left only the child behind.”


“Who,” he spat. “Don’t tell me men in white. Tell me who! Think. You all saw it. Was there one amongst them who stood out?” He rounded on the crowd, who shied back in response. Hadu woke up from the gesture, a keening cry arose.


“Who, Throne damn you all!”


The old man shook his head, muttering, “My eyes aren’t good anymore.”


“M-mine are,” the woman who had handed Jagg the baby stammered. She dipped her head. “One amongst them was different. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Very blue, I could see them from across the transit hall. I saw it.” She sniffed. “Why anyone would strike at wards of Duke Razin and Marena von Adler is beyond me.” She glanced at the Chimera before licking her lips. “Sir, please. Is something happening?”


Von Faust had carried out his revenge in person. Slaughtered his mother and wife. He would never see Klara again nor touch her soft skin nor smell that scent of lho on her lips. The smile of his mother was lost; forever until the day they were reunited in the light of the Emperor. The people stared at him with all the mannerisms of a herd of grox. They had done nothing while his family was laid low by traitors. He felt personal guilt for not thinking ahead, but there was plenty of blame to go around. “Get back into your homes.”


The old man sighed. “Sir, please. You know something and we just-”


He turned his back on them. With long strides he made his way to the Chimera’s ramp. “Get back in your homes or I’ll have this vehicle open fire on you.” He didn’t turn around to see if they obeyed.


Reaching up he pulled the handle to close the ramp. He banged a fist on the bulkhead. “Driver.”


Through the vox the driver replied, “We should get back to our posts at von Langer’s estate.”


“You will go to the palace. Unless the Kaiserina is trumped by the von Langers.” He had to shout to be heard over Hadu’s wails, which sounded louder within the enclosed space of the Chimera. Sitting heavily, he stared down at all that was left from his family. A Man of Krieg was a soldier; most never saw their kin more than a handful of times. Most wouldn’t feel a thing if they heard their assigned wife had died. Most would have perhaps even forgotten their own mother as years in the trenches slid by. Such ignorance would have been protection as sure as any fortress walls. Years ago, when he literally walked back into his mother and wife’s life, Razin had warned him not to. The Commissar had cautioned that separation would come again. The finality of it crashed down upon Achim Jagg as if a Titan itself had stepped on him. Hadu was not the only one who cried.


*


Dolph pressed himself against the wall beside the open door. The snap of lasrounds caused him to wince as the tight confines of the passage amplified noise. Red, gleaming bolts hissed through the doorway, scoring the far wall. Warner remained where he fell, crumpled at the end of the hall where it branched off, his white uniform stained with the blood of a true hero. He would be missed. Dolph ducked, leaned around to point the muzzle of his lasrifle through the open portal.


The hallway was blackened from grenade blasts and three of the lesser race lay twisted upon the ground. Behind the corpses, huddled in a doorway just as Dolph was, Death Korpsmen shifted, exposing themselves a moment to fire another volley at his position.


He ignored the sporadic fire, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. His shot sped through the grenade-damaged hall, striking a lesser man in the face. Dolph slid behind the safety of the wall as a dozen lasrounds passed by, smacking his end of the hallway. He could hold them, by himself, all day if he had to. He had the blood of heroes in him, of truly great men.


Dolph roared out colorful curses in the language the lesser men facing him had long forgotten. They answered with another charge. He could hear their feet pounding on the rockcrete. He smiled, waited until he knew they would be leaping over the bodies of their fallen, only then did he strike.

He rolled out, lying prone in the doorway. Two lesser men charged. They started to fire on the move, but a target lying down was not always easy to hit. The bolts passed over Dolph’s head. He expertly flipped the toggle on his weapon to full auto.


Shooting at a pair of standing soldiers in a cramped hall was almost too easy. His weapon kicked into his shoulder, a flurry of angry red bolts flew. The first soldier dropped, clutching his chest. The other made it a handful of steps further before dropping to his knees. Another burst sent him sprawling back.


Dolph rolled back behind the wall. This was glorious!


A voice spoke through the micro-bead in his ear. His heart swelled at the news. He was going to be going home. Standing, he cautiously peeked down the hall to see if any other lesser men were trying to fight their way into the area. There was nothing but corpses. Satisfied, Dolph jogged the other way. He paused a moment, staring down at the body of Warner.


“I will think of you when I walk amongst the God-Men,” he whispered in the old language. His respects paid, Dolph ran to the landing pad to link up with the others of his kind.


*


Marena followed behind her cousin as they reentered the command center. The military men were closing the noose around the traitors. The holographic map showed flickering lights indicating that the landing pad had nearly been surrounded. Only a small corridor remained from the lower levels leading up to it. On the surface she could see blue swarms, pressing with vigor against thin lines of red.


Tech-Priests blasted their strange code-language at one another. Marena couldn’t tell but she imagined they were trying to restore Krieg’s orbital defenses. Magos Jhar had left his fair share of surprises behind.


“What is the status of things?” The Kaiserina asked, crossing her arms as she gazed intently at the floating map of her world.


“They are withdrawing in good order to the landing-pad. We’ll breach soon enough and catch a few on the ground,” General von Altzor said. He had twirled one end of his moustache so much, that it looked like twine.


She nodded curtly. “Good. Let them go. Tell our men to ease up, but don’t stop.”


The Arch-Confessor waved his hands in the air. “Let them go?! The Emperor does not tolerate traitors! Only purging them will make Krieg closer to redemption.” He spit.


The monarch of Krieg smirked. She dipped her head to the aged Stemme. “Your holiness, I agree.


But we know where they are going. If I cut the land-pad, then the ones trapped on Krieg might try to blend back in with society. Hide their ill deeds.”


“So, another change of plans, my Kaiserina?” General von Kapplevorf asked.


“Yes. The information Duke Razin has brought me has led me to a new plan of action. Hear me out, for I see the objection in your eyes.” The Kaiserina raised her hand.


“Don’t be cross with them for wanting to clamp down on the throat they hold in their grasp!” The Arch-Confessor shuffled closer to the Kaiserina.


She sniffed. “I am not cross and I understand your desire to see Krieg free of this…” she trailed off, smiling as she said, “Abhorration. But I want them to escape. They will take their ship and flee. They do not know we are aware of where they are going.”


“Follow?” Marena asked. The question was not spontaneous. They had devised a plan, or rather Razin had, but to spare him future assassination attempts and solidify her cousin’s rule it was decided it must look as if she alone had set a course of action.


The woman nodded sharply. “Yes, follow. We will take a regiment and take the fight to Titus. There is where we will end whatever madness has gripped these traitors!” she hissed.


Magos Kohl separated from his debate with the other Tech-Priests. He wheezed, clinked and twittered as he joined the impromptu planning session. “The world you refer to as Titus is prohbita by Imperial decree.”


“It is,” Stemme agreed while stroking his long, white beard. He looked reflective.


The Kaiserina peered at her top religious authority. Uncrossing her arms she said, “I would not break with Imperial faith in my pursuit of preserving it. However, the traitors are going to this place. Your holiness, if you lead the regiment I choose to send, that might ensure purity on this mission.”


Marena held her breath. Her cousin had told her that the Arch-Confessor was aware of Krieg’s hidden past. It had been necessary to keep the highest levels of the clergy informed, or they might accidently find out and purge the entire planet. As it was, like Razin, the unofficial policy was one of not blaming the current leadership for sins of the past.


“I’m no military man. I will lead it, but I need a General to fight it.”


“Von Langer the Elder has proven his loyalty, he has rank and-”


“Agreed,” Stemme said.


Several of the generals in attendance blinked. A few flushed with anger but they held their tongues. Marena inwardly sighed. They were good men, loyal as well, but the matter of Titus had to be taken care of by men and women who could handle whatever occurred there. Or rather, it had to be commanded by those who could be trusted no matter what was found.


“He’ll need a command staff,” Marena said, on cue.


Her cousin rolled her eyes. “I know what you are going to ask. Yes, yes, Duke Razin can come along. Maybe if he does well I won’t be upset with your oaf of a husband anymore.”


“Thank you, my Kaiserina.” Razin was waiting for the details just outside the room. He knew all along he would be going.


“I will attend on this purge as well. Magos Jhar must account for his willful assistance in the troubles of Krieg,” Magos Khol said in his robotic tones.


Marena suppressed a frown. They had not expected a leading member of the Priesthood of Mars to volunteer. Magos Khol was unaware of Krieg’s secret and somehow it needed to remain that way.


Her cousin offered the red-robed figure a nod. “Excellent. Given what Magos Jhar has left in his wake, from mad servitors to sabotaged orbitals, your presence will be appreciated.”


“I think I will round out the staff.” They wore black for a reason. Lord Commissar Gemnin emerged from the shadows of the command center. He was tall, powerfully built with skin the same hue as his garments, a red sash, laced in gold, danged from his waist as well as a slender officer’s blade.


Marena paled and to her horror the Kaiserina stiffened. Throughout the hurried assembly of Krieg’s leadership to handle the insurrection, no one had seen the Lord Commissar. Perhaps that was his intent.


“I forgot about you, Lord Commissar Gemnin.” She blinked rapidly. “Your presence will inspire this expedition.”


He was not a man from Krieg, having been appointed by the labyrinthine politics of the Commissariat into a position that most would find unenviable. Lord Commissar to the Conscripts. His task was to manage training affairs on Krieg and Marena assumed him to be an administrative fellow. Now that the well-dressed paper-pusher was volunteering, it posed an inherent problem. Not only was he unaware of Krieg’s secret, his capacity as Commissar, and no matter how bureaucratic it was, could pose a serious risk to the leading families of the planet, including her family.


“Good! It will delight me to be back in the field again. I am sorry for all your troubles, Kaiserina of Krieg, but for the chance to shoot traitors,” he paused. “I’m so happy!” He laughed, but no one else in the room did.


*


She was still crying. She was hungry, he knew that but not what to do about it. Klara and his mother tended to Hadu’s needs and Jagg, given his career, only saw the benefits of a baby. Smiles, the occasional burp, giggles. He wasn’t much one for changing diapers or feeding them. The best he could do was sit on the stone bench inside the palace’s main entryway and rock Hadu.


Soldiers and officers ran this way and that. There was much happening but he didn’t care. He had grabbed one of them, insisted upon seeing Duke Razin and had been left to wait.


He huddled over his crying child until a shadow fell over him. He slowly craned his head up.


Resplendent in proper noble attire, Duke Razin stared down at him.


The man’s lips pursed, his eyes narrowed to small slits. Silence persisted between the two.

“Both of them?” Razin asked, to the point.


“Yes.”


“Who?”


Jagg lowered his head. “Von Faust.”


“The whole rotten family has much to answer for. I can’t make things better, you know that?” Razin sat on the bench. “I can’t say anything that will make you feel better or less guilty or less angry. I can only speak to you like a Commissar.”


Jagg cradled Hadu. “What would a Commissar say?”


“That you should hate the von Fausts with every last fiber of your being. That you should feel nothing but hate. That hate and fury and the thirst for revenge should be what you wake up thinking and go to bed dreaming.” He put a hand on Jagg’s shoulder. “Hatred can drive men just as well as fear or holy zeal. I don’t encourage hatred in groups of men. Just the individuals who need it.”


He stood. “Achim, you need hate right now.”


He felt it. Hot, a burning inside his chest that like some built up steam pressure wanted out, yet could not escape. Not yet. Not until he stood face to face with von Faust. “I hate.”


“Good,” Razin whispered. “Listen up; we are going on a trip. The matter is complicated and I will tell you everything. It involves all sorts of people we need to keep unaware of the truth and possibly a Lord Commissar to distract.” He sighed. “Not to mention the Tech-Priest.”


Jagg stared up at his plotting benefactor. “Hadu?” He looked down at his child. “I don’t know what to do, my lord.”


The Duke’s brow rose. He peered down at the girl. “We’ll leave her with Marena. You clearly have no idea what to do and neither do I. Besides, we don’t want the Adepta Soroitas getting their claws on her. She’ll end up a Battle Sister in some convent.” He jerked his head. “Come with me, we’ll go to my estate. We aren’t leaving until a ship arrives anyways and need to make preparations.”


Dumbly, Jagg rose. He followed after Razin and asked. “My lord, your wife is the bloody cousin to the Kaiserina. I don’t think she’ll want to tend to Hadu.”


“Oh she wants a child. But I can’t help her with that.” The Duke turned. “I was serving with the 102nd Death Korps when en-route to some puke of a planet a radiation leak contaminated the entire crew.” He let out a long sigh. “We were lucky all that happened was sterilization. Mind you; when the 102nd found out they were sterile they celebrated. They still call it the voyage of no responsibilities.


Well and dandy if you don’t want children.” He turned. “Time to worry about the details later. We need to prepare.”


“For what, my lord?” Jagg asked, doing his best to hold onto the ball of hate within him. It kept other thoughts and emotions at bay.


“We need to kill Gregory, Haus, and Joachim von Faust. Not to mention all of their followers. Busy, busy. Come on!” he picked up the pace.     

XII


Pursuit


Weeks passed. It wasn’t the swift pursuit Jagg expected and he had to keep the ball of hate inside him warm. Each day the pressure rose, threatening to burst but he would let it ease out of him through physical exercise. Razin had more than smoothed things over with the Kaiserina and as such fortunes changed swiftly. He was a cadet once more at the tower; or at least he would be upon the successful completion of the expedition. In the meantime he served as Razin’s body-guard as per orders of the monarch herself. Thankfully he did not have to speak with her. He had a hard enough time keeping control of himself around Marena von Adler.


She had not been hesitant as he feared when it came to Hadu. His daughter needed a mother and Marena von Adler needed a child. The girl would grow up in the home of the von Adler’s, raised as one of their own. Her life would be as comfortable as one could ever expect. But there was a price to pay.


Hadu would belong to Marena and Duke Razin alone. The girl would never know who he was, who Klara was, that her name was Jagg. The price was one Razin insisted on. Jagg knew it was better she never know, but a little more hate seeped into his body, adding to the unquenched flames within. He would have no legacy, other than the one he carved for himself in the name of the Emperor and Krieg. His line was done for. In a sense; the ward of Marena would marry some day. A piece of him would pass on; probably insinuating itself into the nobility. That brought a smile to his lips.


The door to his little cell within Razin’s estate opened. The Duke wore combat attire, with a gray storm-coat worn off one shoulder. “Ready to hurl yourself into anything that so much as threatens to muss up my hair?”


He rose. “With my life, my lord.” Jagg hefted his combat pack. He looked like a standard Death Korpsmen, minus any unit insignia. Until he returned to Krieg he was outside the military chain of command. A decision Razin said might prove vital.

“Is Captain Sauni here?” Jagg asked.


The ex-Commissar nodded. “He is. Though I think he won’t be doing any favors for the Kaiserina anytime soon until she does him one!” Razin waited for Jagg to exit the room. He led him through the decorated halls of his home. The carpets were plush, the windows tall and elegant. Even his tiny cell bore decorations above the door in the form of baroque swirls.


He pondered the secret they had to try and keep. It weighed heavily upon him. If Krieg had won its war the right way the first time, none of this would have happened. But the past was immutable as stone. He saw Marena von Adler, descend a flight of brilliantly illuminated stairs. She was dressed in a sweeping dress, with her golden hair worn up.


“Be careful.” She looked to her husband then fixated a stare on Jagg. “Both of you.”


“Always!” Razin replied


“Yes, my lady,” Jagg answered. He cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to put a damper on any plans but I was thinking.”


“Tends to get people killed,” Razin said. “But go on.”


“The secret.”


Marena frowned. “What about it?”


Jagg sighed. “The more people who know, the more likely everyone will know. Where we are going I don’t know how we will keep the soldiers and half the command staff ignorant of Titus’ role in Krieg’s history.”


“Difficult, agreed.” Marena crossed her arms and drifted through the room gracefully. “I advise, no prisoners. Don’t even take them for questioning. Purge the place as one would any den of heretics.”


Razin nudged Jagg. “The Arch-Confessor will keep the fires of holy hatred boiling over. We’ll kill them all, destroy what we can and get back home. We might even find those records!”


“Should burn them,” Jagg mumbled.


Marena smiled. “They might be useful to a future monarch who isn’t as well supported as our Kaiserina. A lesser man if you will.” She peered at Jagg. “I’d like the records returned if at all possible.” She passed over towards her husband. A quick kiss was given.


Jagg felt a sting of jealousy over the affection. He added it to his own brewing fire within.

“Let’s get going,” Razin said.


*


Jagg stared out the port window as their lander sped through the void of space towards the sky-anchored Hektor. The stealthy ship was Captain Ibsil Sauni’s reward for plowing his last ship into the Jendrite surface; wiping out their alien archway in the process and thus saving the First Army of Krieg. He had pulled the necessary strings to act as the Kaiserina’s expedition force to Titus. Jagg didn’t want to ponder how difficult it must have been.


“Bring back memories?” Razin said from behind him.


“I miss Kellen Raous. He would have liked this,” he murmured.


Razin laughed. “Kellen Raous is enjoying his life as we speak; of that I’m sure. I for one wish we had Inquisitor Brecht with us, or Interrogator Dranguille.”


He glanced over his shoulder at the thin man. “Not me. Bast*rds scared me. Dranguille said if we ever talked about her po-”


Razin raised a finger to his lips. “Shh.” He settled in his seat as the transport veered towards the antennae festooned cruiser. “An Inquisitor on your side can be useful when you want to establish secrecy. A single threat and he could inform the command staff of everything and they’d damn well keep their mouths shut. Even Lord Commissar Gemnin. As it is, I’m worried. Even if we make it through this; Inquisitor Brecht will want to know why I was curious about heretical black crowns, eh?”


“That isn’t like you to worry, my lord.”


Razin gave a short laugh. “Oh it is. I just don’t show it. You’ll learn. What I worry most about isn’t anything the enemy might say, but rather what we might see on Titus.”


Did Razin doubt? Did he worry that somehow the mad Autarch from so long ago was right? “Sir?”


Jagg shook his head sharply. “You can’t believe in any nonsense that the High Borns trace their bloodline to this place and not Holy Terra. It would be blasphemy.”


“It would be.”


He blinked. “Sir?” Jagg didn’t like the flippant tone.


The Duke clapped his hands, laughing. “Achim, I don’t think any of us in this lander are not human. What I worry about is the bit of truth found in all legends. Mark my words; Titus will hold surprises.”

“And we’ll burn the place down for it!” Jagg snapped, feeling his ball of heated hate tremble within.

“Quite, right! Quite right.”


*


The journey was one of over a month. That gave the 87th time to train and prepare for an enemy who would know everything they did about warfare and fight with equal skill. Jagg followed Razin about the enormous ship, checking in on the training soldiers, officer meetings and the occasional consultation with the regiment’s Commissar, Boht. The man knew Razin and his remorseless demeanor dropped when they were alone and he discovered that Jagg was bound for the tower. It surprised Jagg to see the men in black, become all too human when in the right company. Who knew Commissars used phrases such as, “By the Emperor’s bal**” or, “As hungry as a Soritas in a den of men.”


Jagg also witnessed command staff meetings in a large room set aside by the gracious Captain Sauni. It was decorated with leaping gargoyles and illuminated by a chandelier with over ten-thousand candles, one for each year that passed since the Emperor’s ascension to the Golden Throne. Such meetings were not productive in Jagg’s mind.


The Arch-Confessor Stemme would begin each meeting with a prayer that lasted, if they were lucky, only twenty minutes. General von Langer the elder; assisted by his able son the younger would, outline the day’s plan; mostly revolving around training for a world everyone knew nothing about.


Lord Commissar Gemnin watched from a distance. He was an off-worlder and Razin admitted he had a hard time gauging the man. If Gemnin was hard to gauge, Magos Khol was impossible. How did one know the mind of a man that had more metal in him than flesh?

Following Razin about was nothing new and there was little reason to worry about assassination.


Jagg even figured the nobles would stop challenging him to duels if he became the Kaiserina’s darling. The man always had an angle; he wasn’t sure if he should learn from it or be repelled. As with so many things dealing with Razin; Jagg was conflicted. But he clung tight to the advice about hate. He held the ball close, sometimes even spoke out loud to it. While normally he would feel apprehension before battle; he felt giddiness instead. It wasn’t bloodlust. It was another feeling altogether, hot, yet concealed, vengeance. He would douse the flames of his hate; but only in the blood of Joachim von Faust.


When Captain Ibsil Sauni summoned the command staff to his bridge; it was with eager steps that Jagg followed Razin. He wanted to see Titus with his own eyes; then kill it.


The bridge was as he remembered it, part holy choir, part military command center. The dark skinned Sauni sat, resplendent in his throne, attired in a naval uniform that boasted a few more medals on his chest than he remembered. If the captain remembered Jagg, he made no sign. In fact he seemed to specifically ignore Razin as well. Inquisitor Brecht’s work?

“There it is. This is the first Prohibita world I have seen. I must admit; a letdown.” Sauni pointed at the view-plate of his bridge.


Priests wandered the darkened aisle of the bridge and swayed golden censors of incense back and forth as they chanted in monotone. They seemed especially interested in the Arch-Confessor whom they ringed so often that the old man couldn’t see through the wreathes of smoke without waving his hands.


“Looks dead,” the bearded man huffed.


The world before them was a dull brown, obscured by frosted clouds. There was not a speck of green upon it, and on the darkened edge of the world no pin-point lights indicating civilization. The rogue trader which had transported the traitors was but a small speck, back dropped by the dull tones of Titus.


“The enemy vessel is listing at twenty-three degrees. It is travelling in orbit that is decaying at a rate of several centimeters per standard planetary revolution.” Magos Khol’s robotic arms undulated while the hooded form leaned closer, as if to better inspect what he was looking at.


The bald captain blinked in surprise. “You have good eyes, honored Tech-Priest.”


“I should. I have ten of them. Your ship’s blessed sensors detect no energy readings?” Khol asked.

“None. It is a derelict, though I see no damage. Shall I send over a boarding party of Navy personnel?” He leaned back to look over the assembled commanders of the operation.


Von Langer drummed his fat fingers upon his iron-gray uniform. “That won’t be necessary.”


Of course not; he was in total agreement with Marena on the matter of prisoners or too much information being recovered, the less found and known the better, genealogy records aside.


“Hyru, if you please.” Sauni ordered. The weapon’s officer nodded.


Tiny specks of light leapt from the bottom of the view-screen, rapidly diminishing as they sped toward their virtually stationary target. Though they were small to his naked eye, Jagg knew the torpedoes were as tall as a multi-story hab and packed with enough explosive power to level an entire entrenched breastwork.


While combat on the ground could, at times, be maddening in its alacrity, in space, waiting was part of the trade. The explosion, from so far off, wasn’t altogether exciting.


“Interesting,” Magos Khol’s voice mused, with almost an edge of curiosity to it.


“How so?” Sauni asked.


“A rogue trader of that size should be staffed with a thousand or more flesh-units. There are none. There are no bodies either. This is unusual. It implies every single flesh-unit aboard was brought to the surface. Dead or alive.” Clicking sounded from within the hood. “In Rhasmun’s journals on the functionality of rogue trader ships she discovered that every ship was bound to have a few bodies aboard. These include flesh-units in the morgue who died in day to day rigors; but also servitors a vital component of any ship.”


Sauni perked up. “No servitors either? The ship was truly that empty?”


“Of flesh-units, yes.”


The hate simmered down a bit, replaced by Jagg’s familiar friend; fear.

XIII


Titus


Scans had been made of the planet’s surface. It was a world of mostly rocky mountains, coated in ice at their peaks, while the lowlands were dry and dusty. The terrain was rough and the enemy detected within a high elevation mountain valley. Orbital bombardment was considered and dismissed as ineffective if the traitors managed to go subterranean. There wasn’t much of a debate; the 87th had come along for a reason.


Landers were prepped, men loaded and the Arch-Confessor gave a prayer with so much vigor in it, that it delayed the planetary assault by several minutes.


Jagg piled into the command lander, keeping close to Razin. Von Langer the younger chose a restraint seat next to his in the boxy confines of the vehicle. They had devised a plan, more or less.


Land on the planet, get the records and kill the notables of the exodus. Details were as Razin put it, ‘things that reality kicks in the teeth anyways.’


“Always crammed together, aren’t we,” the pale faced noble said in jovial tones.

“It seems so, von Langer.” Razin pulled the belts about his body and idly asked. “How many combat drops have you been on von Langer?”


The younger man grinned sheepishly. “You know I’ve never left Krieg.”


The older von Langer, resplendent in the uniform of a general eased his bulk into a seat. He wiggled as he struggled to wrap belts about himself. “Bah!” he snorted. “I’ve seen plenty of things such as this. Why in my youth I couldn’t count the number of times they dropped us hot on some dreadful speck in the galaxy.” He smacked his lips. “Been a few years I think.” He stared at them all. “Or did they make these seats smaller?”


Razin smiled and a polite laughter filled the craft. Jagg tried to respond to the old von Langer’s humor, but tension and his hatred were too constant a companion.


The landing ramp sealed soon as Arch-Confessor Stemme seated himself. Lights flickered and the Machine Preist stood, using his robotic arms to fasten him into place. “Omnissiah. Bless this craft so that it might penetrate the atmosphere and not meet with hull fragmentation, nor incineration from improper trajectory, nor vaporization due to heat-shield failure, nor a sudden collision with stationary objects due to navigation error, nor…”


He droned on, listing many ways that they could get killed. And that was before they even hit the ground.


“On three,” the vox grill imbedded in the all blared. “Two,”


Jagg crossed his arm, cradling the lasgun that was secured around him by a strap.


“One.”


His stomach jumped into his throat. He had done this before but he couldn’t get used to the idea that they were falling from the sky, like a meteor. One mistake, or rather any number of mistakes according to Magos Khol and they would end up like meteorite as well. They’d cook and burn or crash and crater.


The vehicle shook violently, jarring Jagg left to right. He felt his combat helm shudder against his skull while a bolt fell from above, landing on the floor with a ping.


“That’s not good,” Razin shouted over the din of atmospheric entry.


The Priest of Mars amplified his mechanical voice to be heard clearly. “No, it is not! If that happens precisely two hundred and seventy two more times, the blessed machine will divide into its component parts!”


Fortunately, it only happened once more, but was met with equal dismay from the Tech-Priest who promised punishments to the Hektor’s adepts for failing to observe proper maintenance rituals.


The lander touched down rather gently, given how rough the ride in was. The ramp lowered.


Immediately cold air rushed into the hold, washing out the scent of promethium.


“Air is thin up here, go to rebreathers if you need to,” Lord Commissar Gemnin warned.


They piled out of the lander. The command staff was a motley crew. The Arch-Confessor wore his full religious attire, complete with oversized hat and flowing crimson cape. He clutched an Imperial Hymn book under his arm large enough to perhaps deflect bolter rounds with. The Tech Priest, cowled in red, tottered down the ramp, his robotic arms whirring this way and that. The older von Langer looked too big for his uniform and the younger bore so many similarities to his father that Jagg couldn’t help but stare at times. Lord Commissar Gemnin, a walking shadow moved his great size with surprising nimbleness down the ramp, followed by vox-officers, aides and other vital personnel to attend on General von Langer the elder.


Razin, Jagg in tow, exited the raft last. Snow crunched beneath Jagg’s boots, while stinging air whipped at his exposed cheeks. His heavy gear and uniform, complete with stormcoat felt stuffy inside the lander, but he was instantly thankful for it. Hefting his lasgun he looked to the Duke, who wrapped his own stormcoat tight about his whipcord frame.


Mountains ringed them, great brown rocky affairs, peaked in snow. The sky above was a continuous hazy white, with only the barest hint of a sun shining through. Wind whistled sharply, sending flurries of white around Jagg’s boots.


Landers were scattered about the plateau, their holds disgorging rushing Men of Krieg, dressed in cold weather attire as Jagg was. With impressive precision the regiment formed a perimeter, emplacing Mr. Heavies, lascannons and a healthy amount of mortars. Given the terrain, no vehicles beyond the landers themselves, accompanied the regiment. It was to be a job for foot-sloggers.

Jutting from the snow, on one of the overlooking mountain plateaus, Jagg spied an unsettling sight.


A stone arm, bearing a sword broken in the middle, jutting up. A statue had once stood there. His narrow eyes shifted to other nearby mountains. He spied a crumbling column, a pile of obvious man-made marble and other signs of a civilization long departed. The architectural style eerily reminded him of the other place.


Razin tightened his coat. “Not exactly inviting, is it?”

“No, my Duke.” Jagg grasped his weapon tighter and stepped close to Razin. “No enemy fire, no resistance. I didn’t think they’d just let us land.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over the occasional shriek of wind.


The ex-Commissar wrinkled his reddening nose. With a jerk of his head he bid Jagg to follow. Razin trudged through the snow towards the command tent soldiers were hastily preparing.


“Well?” he asked as he drew near.


“The valley stretches south, that way.” General von Langer pointed. “The enemy will be there. The valley is tight, means we’ll not have the use of numbers.”


“Can we use the landers to deposit men on the mountains, soon as we make contact with the enemy?” von Langer’s son asked.


His father beamed. “Fine idea, my boy! I don’t see many places to land though. Eh, Magos Khol, your eyes are downright phenomenal. Any way you think we can land some troops yonder?” With a broad finger he pointed.


The shrouded Tech-Priest peered up from a makeshift table and a set of diagrams his mechanical arms kept pinned into place. “Only through rapid descent via fabric lengths.”


“Rappelling!” von Langer the younger exclaimed. He nodded to Razin and Jagg. “We’ve all done a fair share of that, haven’t we.” He bowed his head. “Father, if we are able, I’d like to be with the men making the flank attack.”


The General drummed his fingers on his chest. “Fine, but don’t get killed. Razin?”


“My General?” the Duke answered.


“Keep tabs on my boy, Make sure he doesn’t get killed and all that rot.”


“Gladly.” He looked to Jagg, giving a nod. “We’ll want to be with him. It will let us do what we need to.” His whisper barely reached Jagg’s ears.


“You need something to do? I will assist. Any flanking maneuver will bring the flesh-units near the weaker points of the enemy. Magos Jhar will be found behind defenses, not at the front line.”


Razin winced. He gave a nod, forcing a smile. “Sure, come along.” He sighed and said in sarcastic tones, “Anyone else want to come along?”


“Of course!” Lord Commissar Gemnin offered.


It was Jagg’s turn to wince. The regiment had its own field Commissar, but it was customary for the Lord Commissar to stand at the General’s side. Actually, behind him with a pistol, just in case.

General von Langer was no fool. He damn well knew the flanking units would be given tasks such as record retrieval and high priority elimination. He offered politely, “Lord Commissar. I’ve not been in the field for years. Your wisdom and support at my side may be of use.”


The large man waved a hand, offering a smile that would be genuine and warm, if not for the fact he wore a uniform irrevocably linked to fear. “Nonsense! You’ll do fine. I told you, I want to shoot some traitors. This is a purge and I plan on being in the fire! If things get too bad, just shoot yourself.” He laughed.


No one else did.


*


“I don’t like this.”


“Frick it, Sergeant, let’s just call in mortars and pepper the place.”


Sergeant Eickle spat upon the snow-laden ground. His augmetic eye revealed extra-information for his brain to process. Information on how cold it was! No life-signs, no warmth to be had. If the enemy was hiding, it wasn’t here.


The valley led to a camp, recently abandoned by the looks of things. Medical cots lay strewn about, only lightly dusted in snow. Blood stained the cots as well, but there was no crimson on the white frost beneath their boots. Medicae instruments, a few tents and little else greeted his eyes. They were leading the advance, trudging towards the end of the valley where camouflaged Jägers had reported in a tunnel.


Eickle waved his section on. He grunted into the micro-bead on a channel the other sergeants of First Platoon were on as well as their Leutnant. “The men don’t like this.”


Sergeant Hamlin’s voice grumbled back, “They don’t like anything, Johann.”


“I don’t like it either,” Eickle whispered, careful to make sure his men were not aware of his own misgivings. “Our light infantry isn’t dead is it? Still nothing ahead?”


The micro-bead buzzed with Leutnant’ Kessel’s voice, “They just reported in, Sergeant. They are covering the tunnel entrance. Negative on enemy contact.”


The report of a slug-shot echoed in the valley. The men crouched. Sergeant Eickle gripped his lasgun in one hand and made a motion with his hand. The men of his section and soon all of the 87th’s leading edge went prone.


Another shot followed by a scream, carried by the wind, was heard.


The voice of the Leutnant snapped in his ear, “Alright, Sergeant. NOW the Jägers are dead. They aren’t answering my calls.” The micro-bead switched to a broad channel. “First Platoon, prepare to receive the enemy.”


“Frick it, Sergeant. What enemy? What’s your eye see,” One of his men whispered sharply.

He tilted his head, remaining kneeling while the others around him in the abandoned medicae camp laid flat. His augmetic eye whined noisily bringing into focus shapes in the distance, emerging from the tunnel. They appeared to be people, but something was wrong. They didn’t walk, they shambled.


“What in the name of the Emperor-” his words were cut off by a torso leaning up, just in front of him. Snow fell off the human body, whose frost-encrusted face revealed blank, glossy eyes. A very human hand, assisted the man in standing, a very robotic and inhuman arm leveled a wired-in slug thrower. The gun barked once.


Pain flared in Eickle’s side. He fell back with a groan as the bullet impacted. His men shouted in alarm. Lasgun bolts snapped in the crisp air. Leaning up, Eickle pointed his lasgun, one handed at the servitor and fired most of his cell into it. The thing did not bleed, but rather leaked a black ooze.


All around him his men were firing on the corpse-tech that was activating all around them. Like the dead rising, the bodies of what were once men stood.


He yelled into his micro-bead, “Tell command we found the missing crewmen! The bastards turned them into servitors! There has to be hundreds of them!” He rose on shaky feet to take stock of the situation. Trooper Maus was on his back, screaming as a clunky servitor wrapped metallic cords in place of hands around his neck. Trooper Umeson, was shot in the chest, like him. But still standing, firing off precision rounds into the horde of mindless drones around them. The rest were falling back.


Marking Maus off for dead, Eickle stumbled towards Umeson, reloading as fast as he was able. The blood felt hot coming out his side, but the way it rapidly cooled disturbed him. At waist level, he poured bursts of ruby-red bolts into the nearby machine-things. They were slow and still rousing from their ‘slumber’.


“Come on trooper, someone else is going to have to poke around that tunnel!” He wrapped an arm around the wounded man and walked backwards, firing one-handed into the rising servitors.


*


The command tent kept the chill out and Jagg was happy for it. He didn’t envy the soldiers out in the snow who were apparently being faced with the works of the rebel Tech-Priest Jhar.


A regiment was a rather small unit, when compared to an army. Until recently Krieg rarely bundled up more than a regiment on an assignment. A general was not quite the same as the Field-Marshal back on Jendra. Von Langer the elder had little to do. The 87th’s Grosse- Kapitän barked orders, collected information and as far as Jagg was concerned was doing a fine job given the unexpected situation. As for the expedition’s official commander, Arch-Confessor Stemme, he was outside delivering the sermon of a lifetime to the fighting troops.


“We’ll have the situation well in hand, my General,” the bull-necked commander of the 87th assured. “Servitors are slow and clunky things.” He glanced at Magos Khol. “No offense or blasphemy intended.”


“None taken. Flesh-units are hyper-active, inefficient, fragile, require sleep and sustenance on a regular basis and if not provided mental stimulus will find their own ways of doing such.” The robed figure offered a bow. “No offense or blasphemy intended.”


“Hmmm, right.” The Grosse- Kapitän turned his attention to von Langer the elder. “I’ll dig my boys in, blast them with the mortars and chop to pieces whatever makes it through under a storm of fire.”


The rotund General stroked his flabby chin. He shared a look with Razin. “Duke Razin, mind taking my boy up for a stroll?”


“A little early for that, with respect, my General.” The Grosse- Kapitän pointed to the south where the army of servitors was stumbling along. “The enemy hasn’t revealed themselves. These machines are just a way of stalling us. I wouldn’t recommend flanking until they are dealt with.”


“We’re not flanking. Consider it some preliminary scouting. Just a team of your best will do.” Razin cleared his throat. “Head hunting.”


The commander blinked in surprise. “A little risky for men of note, wouldn’t you say?”


“Sounds enjoyable!” Lord Commissar Gemnin piped in. With his declaration, any debate ended.

“Load up a lander,” von Langer ordered. “Grosse- Kapitän von Horn!”


“Sir?”


“I’d like very much if you could wipe aside this diversion. The sooner that happens the sooner we get to the real enemy. But given what my son is planning,” he trailed off.


Taking the hint the Grosse- Kapitän nodded his head. “I see. Don’t hurry at my job? If it is your will, I shall do so. But out of good conscious I must warn you. Head hunting is incredibly dangerous. I’ll lend you a section of my storm troopers.”


“Noted,” was the obese man’s reply.


Razin, von Langer the younger, Magos Khol and an eager Lord Commissar Gemnin left the command tent. Jagg followed close by. Head hunting! The name was a moniker for squads that were sent behind lines, not to scout, but to actively infiltrate and disrupt. It wasn’t the usual thing Tech-Priests and people with Lord in their title did.


He wanted to ask Razin as to their exact plan, but with Magos Khol’s excellent hearing, he didn’t risk it. A section of storm troopers, wearing carapace armor and over it, heavy gray stormcoats marched up, hellguns and plasma pistols in hand. The mob moved towards one of the prepped landers.


“Sneak in, kill their leadership and get out alive?” Lord Commissar Gemnin asked as he sat on one of the benches.


“Sounds about right. Top priority would be the leadership of this insurrection, the von Fausts. If we kill them, the rest might surrender and we can shoot them later.” Razin belted himself in. “Magos Jhar needs to be dealt with, but I assume you’ll handle that most honored Priest of Mars?”

Smoke puffed up from the cowl of the Tech-Priest’s hood.


The storm troopers checked their equipment over and in rapid, disciplined fashion secured rappelling lines to the interior of the lander. The engines of the craft whined, with a slight shudder it hovered and with the ramp still open, the machine banked. Jagg peered out the back, watching the white landscape, tall mountains, and Death Korpsmen below. He had a quick view of the dug in Men of Krieg, their weapons blazing, and a sickening glimpse of shambling ‘things’ making their way towards their lines.


The journey was hardly a minute, from one end of the valley to the next.


The internal vox-grill hissed with static. “Time to go. Hurry, or the element of surprise will be lost.


This ship isn’t quiet.”


The veteran soldiers didn’t need to be told twice. Their Sergeant barked out his orders and the men silently complied. Lines were thrown, they hooked themselves up and without wavering leapt from the open ramp into the cold air outside.


All but two of the soldiers exited, the remaining then helped the rest of them secure themselves.


Even Magos Khol allowed himself to be guided into a harness. One by one they jumped. Jagg was pushed out, while the two remaining soldiers soon followed.


It was a faster drop than the carefully performed descents made in the other place. One moment he was airborne, the next his harness jerked and he was nearly vomiting. The equipment whizzed as he slid down the line, landing on the snow packed earth with a crunch. Armored hands pushed him aside to make room for the next soldier and the one after that.


A minute in and less than a minute to drop them. It was fast and Jagg hoped whoever was inside the tunnel would remain unaware for at least a little bit, that the enemy was not just on their doorstep, but past it.


The soldiers flanked the tunnel entrance, scanning for targets with their sophisticated hellguns. Razin produced a pistol, as did the Lord Commissar and von Langer the younger. Though it was a bit large for any tight quarters, Jagg preferred the stopping power of his lasgun.


Several bodies were scattered nearby in the snow, their camouflaged forms shredded horribly.


Crimson blood glowed on the ice white snow.


The tunnel itself was manmade, supported by stones and within, white fluted columns. On the tunnel’s entrance Jagg could barely make out letters. Whatever they spelled was lost to him and probably in the old language anyways. The thought startled him. He hadn’t pondered it much, but so far it seemed the men of the other place indeed traced their roots to Titus. Then again, that didn’t mean Titus didn’t get settled by Terra. Shaking off the twinge of doubt, Jagg stepped close to his charge.


The Duke looked at von Langer the younger. “You’re in charge. I’m just here to make sure you don’t get killed.”


“Thanks much,” von Langer responded. Licking his broad lips he said, “Alright. Let’s move in.


Sergeant, mind leading the way?”


The armored soldier didn’t verbally reply. He hefted his bulky plasma pistol and advanced. His men, knowing their role without having to be told, fanned out, moving from cover to cover where it could be found, crouching low when it couldn’t.


The rest of the head hunting team followed behind the storm trooper’s expert advance. Illuminators on stakes glowed within the tunnel, making a clear trail that led into the mountain side. Snow gave way to broken, pale tiles that crunched noisily under their feet.


“Strange they aren’t watching the tunnel,” Jagg murmured.


Khol’s ears once more revealed their true capabilities. “An inaccurate assumption. The tunnel is not watched but that is not strange at all.” A robotic arm swiveled, pointing at several points on the high ceiling. Little black boxes, with a red light, blinked in a menacing fashion. Wires wrapped around the obvious explosives, leading further down the tunnel.


“That explains that. They’re going to blow this place soon,” von Langer whispered.


“And seal themselves in?” Lord Commissar Gemnin snorted. “Suicidal! Unless maybe they know of ways out of here? Who is to say this is one-way.”


“I think we need to keep this tunnel open,” Razin offered. “Honored Priest of Mars, it might take some clever maneuvering, but could you disarm those devices? I have a sense they are yet another gift from your all too generous Magos Jhar.”


The robed figure stood still. Ticks and whining sounds of gears on gears emanated from within the hood. The multitude of eyes flickered brightly. “Sensible. We need four soldiers. Three to help hoist us until out arms can secure the ceiling and another to stand guard in case offensive actions are taken against us.”


Von Langer didn’t wait for any more discussion on the matter. He knew as well as the rest in on the secret that having Magos Khol out of the way, even if only temporarily, gave them more freedom to act. “Do it. Sergeant, you choose who stays. The rest, let’s press on.”


With the men swiftly picked, they continued down the tunnel. 

XIV


In the Ruins of Men


Steam rushed from the hood of Magos Jhar. He gripped, with a human fist, a force axe emblazoned with the imagery of the Priesthood of Mars. On the back of his hand, the black crown was easy to see. He had recently replaced his other hand with a powerfist. The hulking ceramite attachment was the color of iron, wrapped in coppery wires and bearing silvery exhaust tubes.


Joachim von Faust did not much care for the priest, but he had been instrumental in acquiring the genealogy records so vital to their task. Besides, he was a blood relative and a firm believer in the true founders of Krieg, the God-Men. What was it to him if Magos Jhar was more interested in fastening mechanics to the divine flesh than letting it be.


Around the priest, freshly transformed combat-servitors waited. In life they had been loyal soldiers to their cause and it was fitting that they remained so in death. Magos Jhar was pleased with the processing. Tools were limited but he had been quite adamant that the flesh of those bearing the blood of Titus was superior to the flesh crafted from the seed of Terra.


The chamber he stood in was ancient, its crumbling walls, antechambers and marble pillars barely gave the room structural integrity. The engineers under Magos Jhar’s guidance had done a fine job of bolstering the impossibly old room. Several corridors, dimly illuminated by glow-lamps, led off to other portions of the mountain temple.


Soldiers, clad in the purity of white, stood at attention at each hallway entrance. Meanwhile, non-combat personnel including excavators, archeologists and aides bustled about. Outside the mountain the commandeered crew, of their no longer needed transport, were fighting a battle, but the work of his grandfather trumped all else. He waited for the charges the Tech-Priest set to detonate and seal them in. It would be victory or death.


His father emerged from one of the hallways; dust from the ongoing work coated his frame. He shook his lion-mane of a head. “Son, we’ve reached the great seal!”


Joachim’s heart gladdened at the news! He believed in his grandfather’s work, but a part of him worried that the information drawn from the depths of the Titus colony on Krieg was either inaccurate or corrupted. Such ancient information was bound to degrade over the centuries, but the discovery of the seal washed away any vestiges of doubt. “When will we be able to enter?” he breathed out with barely contained excitement.


“Soon enough. Your grandfather is deciphering the codes and text. He recommends we detonate the tunnel now.” He glanced over to the waiting Tech-Priest.


Magos Jhar tapped his force-axe’s haft onto the ground. Whirs and ticks echoed from the depths of his hood. “Oxygen levels will deplete within an hour. It would be unfortunate if you all perished, leaving the work to me and my creations.”


The elder von Faust gave a hearty laugh. “Brother, your sense of humor has not been stripped away from you, though everything else about you may have.” He strode up to Magos Jhar. “Worry not. Our father will open the seal in plenty of time. The technologies within, will be a gift the likes no one has seen in thousands of years. Your Priesthood will join with the superior craftsmanship of Titus.”


“If the Omnissiah wills it.” Magos Jhar’s head jerked. “Accessing the detonator.” A high pitched screech emitted from the hooded figure.


Joachim and his father stepped back, bringing their hands to their ears as the sound blasted forth. As quickly as it came the sound abruptly ceased. White-clad soldiers hefted their weapons while the non-combatants stared with open fear at the Tech-Priest.


“Interesting,” Magos Jhar said.


“Define, interesting, brother.” Von Faust the elder swept his golden hair back and shot on looking men a narrowed glare that sent them on their way.


“The devices have been disabled.”


“Impossible!”Joachim snapped. “Your servitors outside the mountain, have they fallen?”


“No, they continue to fight and hold. The weaklings of Krieg have found another way in. They have brought a Tech-Priest.” Magos Jhar turned, his servitors stumbled after him. “Only one of my brothers could have disabled the explosives without my awareness. I will deal with the intruders.”


Von Faust the elder watched his kinsmen go. He stroked his hair back in an unconscious gesture. “Son.”


“Yes, father?”


“Whoever has slipped in can’t be a large force. Take command of three squads. Hold this room and the hallway leading to the seal. Let none pass.” Von Faust the elder turned, moving towards the hallway in question.


“Just three squads? Father, what about the hundreds of other men at our disposal?” Joachim stared at the retreating form.


“Send them down the main tunnel into the field. If my brother cannot detonate the explosives, then the Men of Krieg will enter this place. That cannot happen. Send them to fight and die. So long as some of us passes through the seal, it is victory,” he turned. “Stop the intruders already amongst us. Soon as that is taken care of, return to me with what men you can spare.” He shrugged, indicating he didn’t care how many that was.


Joachim drew his laspistol in one hand, his familiar dueling blade with the other. “I will see you at the seal.” He looked to the men within the chamber. Beyond, hundreds of others stood guard, worked, or rested. He nodded to a nearby officer. “Rouse the men. It is time to show Krieg how far above them we are!”


*


The squad moved ahead with a surprising amount of stealth, given how heavy and bulky the storm trooper armor was. Jagg kept pace with Razin in the back, while the Lord Commissar and von Langer the younger milled a few paces ahead of them. The tunnel was poorly lit, places for ambush were many, but nothing happened. This almost upset Jagg more than having an enemy to fight.


They had passed by several side passages, some lit, some collapsed from the weight of the mountain, a few lit by illuminators set up by the traitors. They ignored these, focusing on what was the main hall.


The logic was simple. Surely it led somewhere.


“Hold,” the Sergeant of the storm troopers whispered. A sound echoed from the hall. Clicking, ticks and tocks.


“Servitors?” von Langer asked.


“Hmmph,” was the Sergeant’s reply. He was about to prepare his men for combat when Razin interrupted.


“Killing mindless servitors isn’t my idea of head hunting. Sergeant, take that passage to the side there.


It’s lit, it leads somewhere and it means we won’t be wasting our time with mindless monstrosities.”


The man frowned, but at a nod from von Langer complied. The squad diverted down a smaller, but still lit, side passage, moving deeper into the mountain ruins of Titus.


Taking up the rear, Jagg ducked into the passage, keeping his lasgun trained on the main hall. The shapes of tottering men, stumbled past. Motorized joints whined, augmetics ticked and the sound of metal on stone echoed. Amongst the horrific beings, a man wielding an oversized fist and axe strode past, his red robes billowing.


Jagg opened his mouth to alert them that Magos Jhar had revealed himself. Jagg halted his intended action as the little ball of hate within flared to life with renewed vigor. He didn’t come all this way to tangle with a Tech-Priest. He backed up and followed the infiltration team into the ruins.


*


The flesh-unit assigned to guard him made a gurgling sound, indicating a heavy amount of vitae in his throat, before expiring like the rest. Such was the weakness of flesh. The tunnel offered little in the way of cover, but despite this setback the flesh-units put up a reasonable fight, destroying all but two combat-servitors. Magos Khol examined the stationary works of art. His many eyes focused upon their fleshy forms. The pair were physically well developed and the crude, but startlingly effective, fusion of holy machinery was a work of a true master in the field.


“Excellent. You did all this without the full use of a laboratory?” Magos Khol reached a hand out and touched the cold flesh of the immobile construct. His mechanical arms, protruding from his back, swept in taking samples and examining the remaining creations in detail.


The robed form of Magos Jhar stepped behind him, massive force-axe in one hand, while the powerfist clenched, creating a grating sound loud enough that Magos Khol had to use his audio-dampeners to keep the volume at a reasonable level.


The fallen Tech-Priest exhaled gouts of steam through the cowl of his hood. “Yes. I have perfected field bio-mechanical fusion. I was able to process over a thousand Terra-stock men from the rogue trader and several Titus-stock men who were too wounded to survive without the blessing of holy technology.


My combat-servitors using the Titus flesh have better reflexes and are almost as strong as vat-bred flesh.”


Khol turned and crossed his human arms. “There is where we have issue, brother. There is no ‘Titus’ flesh. All flesh comes from the Emperor and thus Terra. And with dedication it can be transformed to the works of the Omnissiah. They are two sides, but the same coin. There is Terra and there is Mars.” His robotic arms lowered, drawing back his hood, revealing an elongated skull of shining metal, with a faceplate bearing a steaming vox-grill and several sets of cylindrical lenses which served as eyes. “There is no room for a third side.”


The fallen Tech-Priest strode several paces down the tunnel, turning to face Khol. Jhar tilted his head back, letting the hood fall. His face bore some flesh, but mostly it was a mass of tubing, wires and little antenna. “You are in error. I have seen the historic records from the other place, I have linked the genealogical records to the families which contain mostly pure Titus blood. In all ways they are a superior race and when all of Terra’s faults are driven out, they will be Gods amongst men. And the flesh of Gods will serve the Omnissiah as no mortal skin can. I am on the road to perfection, brother.


Elevation to the pure machine of the Omnissiah will be found in an alliance between Mars and the sons and daughters of Titus, not Terra.”


Jhar crouched, his robotic arms snapped, revealing blades and small laser cutters. With his human arms he drew from the confines of his red robes a pair of intricate laspistols. “Your deviancy cannot be tolerated. I declare you a Heretic. I commend your work on the combat-servitors. When I destroy you, I will keep them for further study. If you don’t mind?”


“Of course not. These remaining servitors will not involve themselves in this battle, in case I am destroyed. My work must continue. I commend you on the disabling of my explosive charges. May I study your brain upon your potential destruction?” Jhar’s powerfist buzzed angrily, crackling blue light swirled about it, while the force axe hummed. The Tech-Priest opened his arms wide, ready to sweep with the blade or crush with his fist.


“I would be honored.” Magos Jhar leapt towards his fallen brother, who in turn did the same.


#


Sergeant Eickle rolled himself flat behind the barrier of snow he and his men had hastily erected. The motion sent pain into his slug-wound, but the stop-gap’s medicines and hasty bandaging at least kept him from bleeding out. Chattering slug throwers, snapping lasguns and the occasional dreaded whump of a grenade launcher kept him and his pin sufficiently pinned.


The regiment had formed a solid wall and were doing a fine job of keeping the servitors at bay, but Eickle wondered where was some artillery? Perhaps a well placed autocannon or two? Mortars! He felt as if the regiment was only half-heartedly fighting it out. That was costing his section men.


He risked a hasty glance over the snow barricade. Servitors lay scattered about, their dark blood staining the snow, their metallic wreckage adding small pillar of smoke to the air. But the things, for all their clumsiness, were efficient. Eickle growled as he saw two servitors, loop tendril wires around a fallen comrade. They dragged the ‘wounded’ servitor towards the distant medical tables, which were upright and in full use. Through a flurry of frost he saw crippled servitors working upon their own. One slipped off a table, its wounds more or less repaired. Blindly loyal, it tottered back towards the battle.


He looked over to his vox-operator. The man huddled close to his precious machine and listened closely to the receiver. They had all been given micro-beads, in case rebreathers were needed, but the vox units had extended range.


“Anything?”


The vox-man shook his head. “Nothing, Sergeant. Same orders

all across the line. Hold.”


“Throne’s sake, we aren’t here to hold the place, we’re

here to take it!” Disgusted with what appeared to be gross indecision on the part of command, he shouted as his men to keep low and keep the fire hot.


A mindless servitor, made from a multitude of body and machine parts, giving it much the appearance of spider, scuttled over the snow-barricade. It’s head flopped, mouth agape in horror, the last expression it held in life. Like spears, the arms shot forth, striking at soldiers, impaling more than one in its furious attack.


Several Death Korpsmen charged the thing. They grappled with it and in a group push, hurtled the combat-servitor over the short barricade. It landed on its back, and fleshy arms and robotic ones spun about madly, leaving behind trails of blood on the snow.


Eickle dropped his lasgun, letting it hang from straps about his body. Pulling forth a grenade he primed the stick-bomb and tossed it over the barricade onto the struggling spider-servitor.


“Down!”


The barricade was only waist height. Men ducked flat, burying themselves in snow. Eickle did the same. The sound of the grenade’s explosion was much sharper in the crisp air, setting his teeth on edge. He rose to his knees, smiling as he saw a black scorch-mark and the smoking ruins of the servitor. It’s remaining spindly legs twitched while its flesh portions pumped dark ichors freely.


“That one won’t be coming back,” the Sergeant said with satisfaction. Command might not be doing its job, but by the Throne he would do his.


#


Dolph rushed down the hall with his comrades. The explosives didn’t go off as the Tech-Priest planned, which meant the sons of Titus would have to keep their inferior kinsmen away, long enough for some of them to re-unite with their ancestors. While many might fall, Dolph did not plan on getting so close to his destiny, only to miss out on it on the account of a few Men of Krieg.


He led a charge of hundreds of men, their boots stomping on the ground, echoing like gunfire in the poorly lit tunnel. He could see the light at the end of it, but before him was another more interesting sight.


Two servitors stood stock still next to a pile of corpses. He slowed his advance, while others heedless of the sight pressed on. He crouched low and gave cursory examination of the dead storm troopers and disabled corpse-tech. Two crimson robe figures lay entwined on the ground, streamer of smoke rising from their bodies. Electric crackles, spasms, twitches and oily squeaks still resounded from the dead pair.


Dolph frowned. One of the Tech-Priests was theirs and the other that of the enemy, but meshed as they were he could not tell them apart, their cast back hoods were of no use either. He had not seen much of Magos Jhar, nor was his face, which judging by the inhuman pair he looked at, he was grateful for.

The lost sons of Titus stormed past, down the tunnel and out onto the valley plain to do battle. An officer put a hand on Dolph’s shoulder. “Battle is this way,” he said.


“Yes, sir. What about the Tech-Priest?” He pointed down at the dead bodies.


“They’ll still be dead when we get back. Come on.” The officer offered a flash of a smile, tugged Dolph’s arm and the pair ran off.


Silence once more filled the tunnel, broken only by the sounds of the dead Priests of Mars.


Magos Khol leaned up. His chest made a horrid knocking sound and black smoke belted from his vox-grill. “Subterfuge!” he announced, as if such was necessary. He rose on unsteady feet, brushed himself off before staring down at his dead brother. One of Khol’s robotic arms fell off, clattering noisily upon the ancient stone floor. He felt oils leaking from his augmetics and he was certain one of his syntho-hearts had been crushed. Khol was down to only three serviceable eyes, but they were enough to bring his brain the needed sensory information from his fallen brother’s corpse. “Magos Jhar, I will be needing your brain.” He knelt down. “And all of your servitors.” 

XV


The Seal


He had three sections of soldiers, hidden behind rubble from the ruins and overturned tables. Their lasguns kept focused on the multiple entrances into the chamber. No matter what path the infiltrators took, it would pass through the central chamber, before leading on to the seal.


The chamber had been hastily prepared for a defense. But there was little in the way of shielding one’s self soon as the bolts started to fly. No matter, he thought, little cover for him meant little cover for the enemy.


Pistol and dueling blade in hand, Joachim von Faust hugged a wall, keeping a keen eye out for movement and an ear cocked for sound.


By one of the narrow tunnels, two of his soldiers tucked themselves against the wall.


“Enemy!” one shouted.


Before Joachim could direct his men to converge on the tunnel, a heavy metal disk skidded on the frigid floor like a sleigh, passing the two stunned sentries.


Von Faust’s eyes widened. He crouched, shouting in disbelief, “Melta!”


The explosion was akin to the sun appearing momentarily within the chamber. He shielded his eyes with his arms and felt his body tense as a wave of heat washed over him. Blinking stars from his vision he dumbly found his feet. Shaking his head he saw the destruction left behind.


Little fires burned around the tunnel entry, two piles of melted, glistening flesh, popped and sizzled sickeningly. Bricks tumbled from the roof of the tunnel, as it began a slow collapse. His men were recovering quickly, fixing their bleary gaze upon the tunnel, but too late. Storm troopers charged, their hellguns blazing in deadly patterns. Behind them, others emerged firing on the run as the tunnel collapsed with a mighty thud and a billowing plume of obscuring dust. He gave the daring maneuver a moment of credit.


A beam passed over his head forcing him to duck swiftly. He raised his laspistol and squeezed. His ruby bolt, joined that of dozens others who, with their bearings found, opened fire on the invaders.


It was to be a close quarter fight. A storm trooper crouched, his hellgun blazed a beam through two white-clad soldiers hiding futilely behind a table. Before he could level his weapon on another, a son of Titus charged, firing on full-auto from the hip with his lasgun. Even the storm trooper’s carapace armor couldn’t withstand the volley. He fell flat, only for one of his companions to step in and snap the butt of his hellgun into the charging soldier’s jaw with a resounding crack.


Joachim fired off several more rounds before the dusty debris cloud blinded him almost as well as the melta-bomb blast.


“There isn’t that many of them, close in! They must not make it to the seal!” he shouted. Stepping forward he made out the outlines and vague colors of his own men, picking their way towards the collapsed tunnel.


The heavy sound of a boltgun caused him to spin to the right and fire at the source of the sound.


None of his men were armed with such explosive weaponry. A pained cry brought a smile to his lips.


His men were spreading out into the fog. Shouts, cries, las rounds and stitching hellblasts picked up as contact was made. He jogged to a pair of men making their way forward. “You two, with me!” He darted towards where the boltgun had sounded from.


The dust cleared slightly. He could see a bit of blood on the floor, a tiny trail leading towards another tunnel, one that led towards the main hall. Laswounds didn’t bleed much but the path was easy enough to follow. He and his men entered the small tunnel, its decrepit walls given light only from a single illuminator on a post.


Lying against the wall, a dark-skinned man in the garb of a Commissar rested a hand over his stomach. At his side a Death Korps soldier tended to him.


Joachim strode confidently forward, twirling his blade while leveling his pistol. “An interesting sight.


Kill them.”


The Commissar grit his teeth, while the soldier looked up. Von Faust could not believe his good fortune. “Wait!”


His two men stepped back, lowering their lasguns. Behind them the sounds of battle echoed.

“Go kill the rest, I’ll take this one.”


One of the men tilted his head. “Sir?”


“Go. Or do you not think I can’t handle a wounded grox and a weakling man?” He smiled confidently and that was enough to see the pair off. “Achim Jagg. How’s the wife and kid?”


#


Three quick bursts of lasfire sent the servitor stumbling back. Its twin slug-throwers continued to fire, sending rounds over the heads of Eickle and his men.


“I’ve already killed you twice!” he roared, emptying the rest of his power-cell into the thing as he stood back several paces from their snow-emplacement. It didn’t have the decency to fall over and die, instead it froze in place, its human portions shredded, its mechanical sections keeping it upright, frozen in a death pose.


They had thinned their numbers. Command might not be smart enough to use their heavy weaponry, but it didn’t matter. The 87th would grind through the automatons eventually.


“Things are finally going right,” he mumbled to himself.


“Sergeant! Leutnant von Kessel says prepare for infantry attack!” the vox-operator shouted.


His hopes of the battle ending up in his favor were instantly dashed. He threw himself against the barricade of snow and looked over its rim. He promptly cursed himself for voicing aloud any opinions that might in any way lead a man to think things were fine. Tempting fate was foolish of him.


What was once an open field of snow was now a trash heap of bloody and mechanical waste. The medicae tents in the distance were still patching together servitors, but plenty would rise no more.


Beyond that he could make out the shapes of men. They wore white, so picking out details was impossible even with his augmetic eye, but there were a great many of them.


The servitors stopped mid-motion. They froze as if the weather of Titus itself had somehow taken hold. The bit of fortune didn’t change the fact an army of traitors were making their way towards them.


“Ready for them! Reload. Take cover. You know the drill,” he shouted, his orders echoed by other Sergeants along the line. Reloading his own smoking, hot lasgun, Eickle leaned up against the barricade of snow and took aim. A pall of silence fell over the men of the 87th. The servitor horrors no longer clinked and clattered towards them, but a new more familiar foe fast approached.


He let out a steamy breath. A man nearby, coughed up blood. Without medical attention he’d surely end up like the corpses of soldiers around them, whose blood brightly stained the snow.


Through the crisp air the sounds of shells passed overhead. Plumes of snow and rock burst from the landscape. At first a small shower, but soon a rainstorm of artillery thundered into the valley of Titus, shaking the very mountains themselves till some of the crumbling statues overlooking the battle, crumbled further.


A cheer rose from the men and Eickle joined it. About bloody time! He turned his eyes up, smiling as he saw thin contrails of smoke from the passing destructive shells which landed amongst the traitors, clouding them in a mist of white. He rejoiced at what damage was being done.


“Look! The servitors!” a man nearby shouted. A few soldiers began to fire, but the lazy burst of weaponry, slowed, finally halting when the Men of Krieg realized the servitors were indeed re-activating, but they weren’t advancing on them. They were clattering towards the enemy.


Eickle stared in confusion as the shambling corpse-tech dragged, walked, crawled its way away from their barricade and towards the bursts of artillery fire. He laughed.


“Things are finally-”


A few men glared at him.


Eickle corrected himself with a loud order. “Don’t get your hopes up. Fix bayonets, get ready to have at them!”


#


The ball of hate consumed him. He felt his muscles tighten, like springs, ready to propel him at von Faust. Before he could leap at the man, consequences be damned, a broad hand grasped his tunic.


Lord Commissar Gemnin had the distinct misfortune of taking a lasround directly to the stomach.


Though not fatal if treated, he could hardly walk and needed assistance making to a side-tunnel Jagg incorrectly hoped would be safe. Dust clouded what lay beyond, but Jagg heard the sounds of heavy close quarters combat. Razin’s insane plan had not collapsed the mountain directly upon them, but there was no telling if the mad charge after the melta-bomb was working or not.


“You’ll be dead before you stand,” Gemnin said. He winced. “That man knows you?”


Jagg nodded, his eyes set firmly upon the tall, blonde and perfect von Faust, who was clad in a white uniform stained with dust, with a laspistol in one hand and a thin blade in the other.


“I killed this rutter’s family, he ought to know me. If only you were there, Achim. I would have just killed you I think. My quarrel is just with you. You struck me. Did you not think one of your kind would eventually have to account for it?” Von Faust crept further into the tunnel, he made a motion with his laspistol. “Throw the weapon down the tunnel, rutter.”


“Frick you. If you’re going to shoot me, I’d rather be armed trying to kill you.” Jagg stood, shaking off the Lord Commissar’s hand. He knew he had failed. The ball of hate burned hotly, but he knew he’d be long dead before he brought his weapon to bear. The sensation of failure slammed home. He would not cry, not in front of a damn Lord Commissar and the smiling perfection of von Faust.


“Oh, you will be armed. I’m going to teach you why a rutter must never meddle in the affairs of his betters. Throw the weapon down the hall and pick up the Commissar’s blade, if you don’t mind?” The smile upon von Faust’s face was positively wolfish in nature.


Gasping for breath, Lord Commissar Gemnin fumbled for the dueling blade at his side. He drew it, handing it hilt first towards Jagg. “If he likes dramatics, give it to him!”


Jagg cautiously un-slung his lasgun and tossed it behind him down the tunnel into the darkness. He reached down, gripping the ivory handle of the rigid, long, thin blade. He had never handled one before and his fingers dumbly sought out the correct placement.


Lord Commissar Gemnin glanced at the bolt gun at his side, it was hidden by his propped up leg. But the weapon was hefty and moving it quickly, Jagg knew was unlikely.


Von Faust was not foolish enough to toss his laspistol away. He holstered it and made a ‘t’ with his feet. He took a single step and crouched. His free hand came up, resting in a comfortable fashion against his chest.


“Typical dueling stance. Let him lunge, parry his stocatta, riposte over his blade,” The Lord Commissar mumbled.


“Right. Um. Let him come at me, don’t die, hit him back,” Jagg parroted the Lord Commissar’s advice in a fashion he understood. He couldn’t mimic von Faust’s stance, instead Jagg faced the man as if they were in a wrestling match. He kept the blade lowered, ready to slam it into the arrogant murderer’s face.


“How much training have you had?” Gemnin asked, his brow furrowing.


“I had one lesson, Lord Commissar. It involved a bit of advice on how I should avoid his lunge, parry and hit him back.”


“Charming.”


Jagg charged, to his surprise von Faust didn’t flinch, he kicked his forward foot forward and carried his body, as well as the tip of his blade forward. Jagg angled his charge to the right and swept his blade up, connecting with von Faust’s thrust with a loud clack, of steel on steel. The thrust diverted up, Jagg stormed past the noble and swirled his blade around bringing it solidly upon the man’s shoulder. Running past him, Jagg turned, sword held low.


Gemnin groaned.


Von Faust shook his head while giving a mock smile. The blade had landed squarely upon his shoulder, but there was not so much as a rent in the epaulettes of his uniform. The blonde man advanced, shuffling forward, keeping his body a narrow target and the deadly tip of his blade extended.


“What?” Jagg said aloud.


“Duelling blades you dolt! They don’t have an edge.” Jagg had turned Faust’s back to the Lord Commissar who gripped his bolt pistol.


Faster than Jagg could imagine, von Faust spun, drew his laspistol and fired a single round. He finished the pirouette and holstered his weapon once more. Gemnin slumped over, his hand still rested upon the heavy weapon.


“Enough coaching,” von Faust sneered. He remained in stance.


Grasping the hilt of his sword tightly, Jagg advanced, he had the urge to let loose with his hate and bash at von Faust, but though Gemnin was dead, his last bit of advice was critical. He could only stab with the thing. He jumped to one side and thrust his arm forward.


The noble, angled his feet, side-stepped and with a flick of his wrist, parried Jagg’s thrust. Within the same motion he lunged, sending the blade across Jagg’s and its tip into the shoulder of his sword arm. It took very little force to penetrate. Blood flowed quickly.


Gritting his teeth in pain, Jagg retreated from the lancing pain. He put a free hand to his shoulder and felt the hot blood coursing.


“I might as well be fighting a grox,” von Faust said. “You are so blindingly insignificant and inferior.


Shall I count the ways?” He advanced, darted to Jagg’s side and angled a high thrust. The blade outmaneuvered Jagg’s clumsy parry, earning a cry as the tip dug into his other shoulder. Hopping to face his opponent, von Faust twirled his blade. “I’ve had superior training. As you are learning painfully. I am of superior stock, rutter. Beyond just a High Born, I am a God-Born.”


“Gottmänner you mean?” Jagg staggered back, resting against the wall. His shoulders pained him. He could move each, but it seemed the noble had plans to slowly prick him to death.


A golden brow rose. “Yes. Learned a little bit about us? Then you should know that in the great struggle in the galaxy, only the strong survive. The Imperium will wall, in the same manner I take you apart, the sons and daughters of Titus will unravel the spawn of Terra.” He leapt, lunged and prodded Jagg’s leg, retreating before any parry or counter-attack could be made.


The pain flared up his body from the third stab wound. He stumbled to the side, breathing hard. The ball of hate let loose a little. He advanced, swung, thrust, and even attempted to mimic a lunge. Each blow was easily deflected by a smiling von Faust. Jagg slowed his attack, wincing from the heated stings of his wounds. “You’re not better in every way.”


“Really? In the ways that matter, Achim.” He stepped forward, bloody blade twirling as he neared.


He couldn’t win, Faust was perfect. He was strong, fast, an expert bladesman and confident in his abilities. To listen to him, the blood of divine beings ran through him in the same way the Emperor’s blood flowed through the veins of the near-mythical Astartes. Jagg knew when he was outmatched.


In all ways but one.


“I’m meaner, Joachim.” He stepped to the side as von Faust advanced, drew his free hand back and rammed it forward, directly onto the noble’s thrusting blade. The pain burst through him, just as the blade passed through his palm and out the back of his hand. He screamed, while his uninjured fist coiled like a python about the hilt of his sword.


The shock on von Faust’s face was profound. He spit, pulled, but Jagg stepped forward, denying the noble the movement he needed to free his sword from the flesh it had impaled. “Madman!” he shouted.


The ball of hate burst. He reared his sword back, over his head and drove it into von Faust’s chest.


The noble didn’t have the good sense of letting go of his sword. He stared, wide-eyed at Jagg as the soldier drew the blade out and thrust again, again, again, again. It was how Razin found him.


“Emperor’ wept.” The Duke was at Jagg’s side, grabbing him as he tried to deliver another angry thrust at the blood-spattered corpse at his feet. His hand was still impaled upon von Faust’s sword.


Razin pulled the blade free, let Jagg stab the corpse two more times and drew him away.


Jagg panted, sweat poured from him, despite the chill of the Titus ruins. He slumped towards the wall, feeling his wound acutely and a hollowness. The fire had burned a big hole within him, a void was left in its wake, but he felt no regret. Just a deep exhaustion that was beyond the physical.


Razin checked on the Lord Commissar. “Dead.” He stole his bolt pistol. “Are you going to bleed to death?” Razin inquired as he stood.


“Eventually. He only ran me through here.” He held up his hand, blood pattered from the still un-clotted wound.


“I’ll have a stop-gap look you over. While you were killing and re-killing von Faust, we were securing the chamber. Your sad failure to act as my body-guard is forgiven. You should thank Magos Khol for that. The traitors didn’t know what to do when he strode in flanked by a pair of servitors who wisely chose to defect.” He winked. “We questioned the wounded. Most of the enemy is outside the ruin, taking on Krieg. The really important folk, however, are at the seal.”


Jagg shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts and fight off the rising pain that swiftly was replacing the anger. He sniffed. “What the frick is the seal?”


“Come on, I’ll show you. If we don’t get through it, when the enemy is forced back into this ruin, we’ll be swamped and killed.” Razin stepped to his side and offered the assistance of an arm. Jagg took it and limped from the room. Razin sniffed. “Feel better?”


“Yes. No. I still miss them. I still hate him. I feel empty of the hate.” Jagg glanced at Razin. “What do I do about that?”


“Refill it with more,” he replied.


#


The chamber was exactly what an ancient ruin would look like if an uncaring lot tossed in a melta-bomb and a liberal amount of firepower. Several columns had tumbled over, and the ceiling ominously sagged, leaking a steady flow of grit. Tables smoldered and dead bodies lay scattered about. The surviving storm troopers, of which there were few, were trying to make the room defendable again for when the traitors outside the mountain returned. Casually, the Sergeant used a pilfered laspistol to put rounds into the back of the wounded white-clad men clustered against a wall.


An armored soldier jogged over to Jagg, guided him to sit down and produced a medicus kit-bag. He said nothing as he quickly ministered to Jagg’s wounds.


There was no sign of von Langer or the Tech-Priest and the supposedly turn-coat servitors. “Where is-”


Razin crouched at his side as the stop-gap storm trooper worked. “At the seal. It’s down that way.


Save any questions until later. No one is allowed to the seal except those who are already there and,” he grinned, “lucky you, the pair of us.” He nodded at the stop-gap. “Can he fight?”


The soldier shrugged. “Only with one hand. Don’t expect him to run. He’ll bleed out if you have him dance too much.”


“I’ll try not to,” Razin offered. He handed Jagg the bulky bolt pistol. “Take this. They kick, they explode and they make a tremendous amount of noise. Good for making a mess with.” He stood, drew his laspistol and turned, moving towards a hallway on the far end of the chamber, far from the immediate signs of battle.


The stop-gap stood. He gave Jagg a curt nod. “Don’t be stupid and you might live.”


“Says the guy who is going to try and hold a room from an army of traitors,” Jagg replied, wincing as he stood.


“We’re the Glory Boys,” he said with a grin. “What you think is crazy, we call the start of the work week. Good luck, trooper.” He walked towards his compatriots.


“The Emperor protects, Glory Boy.” Jagg limped down the hall after Razin.


The hall, illuminated by standing rods the traitors set up, opened into another ancient chamber. The room had a domed ceiling, with a mosaic, long faded and decayed set into it. The image, from what Jagg could make out, depicted a strong male figure in some form of dramatic pose. Fluted columns ringed the room, most in fairly decent shape. Between each column a statue stood. The nine statues sat on plinths of marble but they themselves were crafted from bronze that had turned a sickly green in places. The statues bore names in the old language and the figures were all of men of physical perfection. They wore bits of armor and wielded a wide variety of melee weapons ranging from swords to tridents. At the far end of the chamber, a circular stone portal, inscribed with all manner of writing, stood. In front of it was a logic-engine that looked strikingly similar to the one he had seen in the depths of the other place back on Krieg.


Von Langer, Magos Khol along with two battered servitors that leaked a mixture of blood and oil, and Razin stood gathered about the logic-engine.


The sight of the crimson robed Tech-Priest was unexpected. Razin mentioned that he had turned the tide of battle prior, but the seal and whatever lay beyond it he assumed was for only those in on the secret.


Limping toward them, Jagg sniffed.


Von Langer turned. “Ah, all here then. Good to see you alive, Jagg. Too bad about Gemnin. Seemed an affable sort, but it does make things easier.”


The noble must have noticed the surprised expression on Jagg’s face. He gestured to Magos Khol. “The good Priest of Mars was made aware thanks to his errant and now dead brother. Or at least told enough that we had to tell him the rest or kill him.”


Khol’s vox-grill warbled slightly as he spoke. “Such violence amongst those who all regard the Emperor in the highest esteem would be wasteful. It is better that our resources pool together and that this aspect of Krieg’s past remain a mystery to the majority. I only demand that all technology found within the seal be under my care. Much can be learned and perhaps much must be hidden.”


“And that’s fine by me,” Razin said. He looked at Jagg. “The honored Tech-Priest is trying to decipher a code. We know it can be done because the rest of the von Langer lot, and whoever they deemed to take with them, are not here.” He gestured to the empty chamber.


Jagg narrowed his eyes at the logic-engine, he gazed at the stone portal beyond which was three times the size of a man in all directions. “Anyone else find it strange that this ruin has not a bit of technology within it that the von Langer’s didn’t bring, except for that?” He pointed at the podium-like machine.


Magos Khol touched it, muttering prayers from time to time. He interrupted his work to turn his gleaming eyes on the soldier. “Very unusual, degraded flesh-unit. More stunning is that this logic-engine is in working order. I detect some repairs made by the obsolete Magos Jhar, but even so the workmanship and durability is amazing. We stand in a chamber that is perhaps from a time when the Emperor walked. While such functioning machinery, if properly blessed by servants of Mars, exists, this device has sat idle for so long that it should not function, yet it does.” He turned his attention back to the machine.


Jagg let out a breath. “So, what should we do, my Duke?”


“Wait. There is plenty of scribbling on the seal, but not in any language we can read.” He placed his hands behind his back.


Jagg limped towards the stone seal. The writings were faded, but had been carved deep enough he could still read them. Small phrases that tingled his mind, but were of no use.


“Schongebiet ist hier,” Jagg read aloud. “Ist hier. Sounds like, is here.”


Von Langer laughed. “Who knew your terrible accent would come in handy. You say those words pretty well. Quite the translator. What might schong-e-bite mean?” He smiled wide.


He hadn’t the slightest. “No idea. Something is here.”


Magos Khol leaned up from the machine. “Degraded flesh-unit, continue using your vocal chords to mimic the inscriptions your oculars are processing.”


“What?”


“Keep reading, Achim,” Razin interpreted.


He shrugged. The writing ringed the seal so there was no telling where he should start. He read aloud the phrases. “Uhh…”


“That sound is not inscribed on the seal! Perform correctly,” Magos Khol chided.


Jagg sniffed. “Das Wort ist für Männer.”


The duke wandered up to stand alongside Jagg. “Männer is men. The Kaiserina translated that word we saw all over the other place. ”Gottmänner. It means God-Men. What those traitors all think they are. Or are related to in the very least.”


“Ist fur. Is for?” von Langer suggested.


“Something, something is for men?” Jagg looked around the place at all the statues of warriors. “Something is here, something for men.”


“Keep reading,” Razin ordered.


“Neun Mann-Standplatz. Ihre Namen für immer bekannt.” Jagg scratched his jaw with his wounded hand. “Ow.”


Von Langer mused, “Something, man stand? Something, name for-”


Jagg blinked. “Neun. Nine. Nine men stand! Their names.” He limped towards the statures, gesturing with his bolt pistol. “Look. Nine statues.”


Magos Khol’s remaining robotic arms twitched. “The degraded flesh-unit is correct. There are names on the statues.” He looked at each and from his hood whizzing and whirring emitted. “The logic-engine will not open the seal without data regarding heroes.”


A boom echoed from the hallway. The enemy had returned.


“Better hurry,” Razin advised. “Nine heroes, try the nine names.”


The Tech-Priest shook his hooded head in a gesture that was surprisingly human. “The creators of this logic-engine were not so foolish as to reveal their password. Leaving a key in front of a locked door is unwise.”


“What do you mean? It makes sense. It wants names, it talked about standing men. Look, there are nine,” Jagg said in exasperation.


Shouts, lasfire and other sounds of combat echoed down the hall.


Khol’s voice droned, “The largest statue bears no name. The password is not complete without it.


The name is not in Low or High Gothic, nor can the sacred Machine-Code divine it without time.”


Another explosion dashed any hopes of waiting for long.


Jagg stared at the statues. Indeed, one of them bore no writing on its plinth. It was different in other ways as well. He had glimpsed them only quickly, assuming them to be similar. This was not the case. While the other eight bore armor and weapons, the unnamed statue was tall, strong and unclothed. “The eight are men.”


“Incorrect, all nine are male humans-”


Razin’s smile was viperous. “No, our degraded flesh-unit is right. Eight are men. That one is a God-Man. Try the name Gottmänner.”


Magos Khol’s hands flew over the panel of the logic-engine. The sounds of violence continued to resound from the hallway beyond. “Success.”


Jagg limped to the doorway along with Razin and von Langer. It was decidedly still.

“It’s not opening,” Jagg stated.


Razin nodded, “Quite. Honored Tech-Priest?”


The Priest of Mars continued to work as he spoke. “The creators of this logic-engine used the password of names to allow access to the terminal as a whole. Door functions would normally take time to isolate. Weeks.”


“I don’t think we have weeks,” von Langer said, licking his lips.

“We don’t have minutes!” Jagg echoed.


“It is fortunate I made good use of Magos Jhar’s brain. He has already done the work. A moment.” The Tech-Priest stepped away from the seal.


The sound of stone grinding on stone was loud enough to almost completely drown out the violent sounds outside the chamber. The seal rolled, revealing a glittering light and what Jagg could only describe as a city within the mountain. It was breathtaking. Tall, silvery towers, reached the top of the cavern interior, roads paved in a shimmering metal traversed the city, where marble buildings supported by fluted columns stood. Poles with glowing lamps made the subterranean world glow.


The air that rushed from the open seal was cool, refreshing and had the distinct odor of being reprocessed. It reminded Jagg of home. For a ruin it was in fabulous shape, he would swear it was a living hive given how it had power, was clean and bore no signs of decay. But it lacked people.


“Marvelous,” von Langer whispered.


“Something like that,” Razin replied. He drew his laspistol. “Come on.”


They stepped through the circular portal. Beyond, a podium-like logic-engine stood. Magos Khol strode confidently to the machine, leaving a layer of oil in his wake. His mindless servitors tottered after him. His hands moved with expertise over the panel and the stone portal slid shut, sealing the party inside the Titus Hive.


“Plan, sir?” Jagg asked.


Razin crept ahead, moving down one of the broad shining streets, flanked by towering columns supporting marble slanted roofs. “The plan remains the same. We get the records and we kill the remaining von Fausts.”

XVI


City of the God-Men


The staggering servitor swept its blade tipped fingers towards Dolph in an ungainly swipe. He jumped back, fired several lasbolts into the thing, causing sparks and flesh to fly. A mortar strike impacted behind the traitorous machine, blasting bits of metal and frigid flesh in all directions.


The sons of Titus were in full retreat. His comrades ran back the way they so had valiantly come. He felt the edges of fear but suppressed them. They may not have carried the day, but the war was hardly over. He ran with the rest of his companions, ducking as he heard the snaps of lasrounds behind him. A man to his left coughed and fell. Another shouted as his leg was struck. He fell face-first and had the misfortune of landing near the torso of a still operational servitor. With a hook shaped armed of metal, the headless, legless servitor slammed its blade into the stricken soldier’s back, kicking up a spray of blood. Dolph had no time to mourn and certainly no time to help. He ran, pausing only occasionally to let loose a volley of fire at the oncoming Men of Krieg and the scattered servitors.


The tunnel was not far off and surely by now the seal was open and a return to their ancestors could be achieved. He pumped is legs faster, kicking up snow as he ran. Explosions thundered into the earth, echoing off the mountainsides and slaying men in destructive bursts. He ran, turning to fire off the rest of his power-cell. There was no time to aim and behind him through the smoking field of war he could make out the glint of metal. It was the sun of Titus shining on the bayonets of the weaker race.


As he passed into the gloom of the tunnel with the racing survivors he slowed is mad dash to a wheezing jog. An officer, his cap missing, ordered men to stand ready and fight. Without the barrage of artillery it would be easier, though cover was sparse.


Dolph pushed through the soldiers, nodding to those he knew personally. They were exhausted men, but true to their heritage, they were making ready to receive the foe. Soldiers stepped over the body of the Tech-Priest and the remains of his servitor. Dolph narrowed his eyes. Where was the other corpse, he wondered.


The sounds of lasfire echoed in the tunnel. The men jerked and a confused murmur ran through the crowded area. The sound had come from behind them.


Dolph ran, along with several others, including a swearing officer. He reloaded his lasrifle and glanced behind him as the sons of Titus took up positions, using the side corridors for cover. Racing ahead, he nearly was struck by rapidly pulsing beam of a hellgun. The soldier in front of him howled as his torso was sliced open. Dolph threw himself flat, using his fallen comrade for cover. The main chamber had been well secured when he left it, but to his annoyance it had somehow been captured by a handful of storm troopers. Their armored shapes clung to rubble, broken pillars and make-shift barricades.


The men of Titus outnumbered the dug in lot, many times so, but it would take time to properly dislodge them. Dolph remained hunkered behind the corpse. He propped his lasgun across it, aiming with care. The enemy was disciplined, not seeming to mind that they would soon enough be facing opponents from multiple directions. Several passages led to the chamber, besides the main tunnel and Dolph had no doubt his fellow soldiers would take advantage of that.


He squeezed the trigger, letting a single bolt fly. It struck an exposed storm trooper square in the chest. On any other man it would have been a fine kill, on the armored form of the storm trooper, it was a grunt and a nasty scorch mark, followed by a return volley of brilliant hellgun fire that had Dolph splaying himself flat along the cold floor.


He heard shouts behind him. Smiling grimly, he knew that the Men of Krieg were at their door.


#


“Flank that Throne-damned opening don’t charge it!” Sergeant Eickle hollered as men from another section were cut down in their attempt to storm the tunnel. He jogged to the left, waving the remains of his section to follow. The tunnel was dimly lit, but his augmetic eye revealed enough. The enemy had the good sense to dig in and cover the only opening into the mountain that he could see. Denied artillery, lacking in any vehicles and unable to bring numbers to bear against the traitors, it was sure to be a challenge to breach the place.


The regiment divided, roughly half moving one way or the other so that the foe inside the tunnel would have no easy targets. Typical of Men of Krieg, soon as they could the soldiers were piling up snow.


Leutnant Kessel panted as he arrived, with a soldier bearing a flamer. He nodded. “Sergeant, sorry to bother you.”


“A little inconvenience never bothered me sir, unless it might get me killed.” Eickle rushed on to the mountain wall next to the opening. A line of soldiers milled about, a few even risking a quick lean around to fire a shot or two down the mouth of the tunnel before darting back as a fusillade of crimson bolts spat forth in reply.


“Afraid that is exactly what I have in mind. This is trooper, Johanson.” The Leutnant patted the flame-trooper on the shoulder.


“Sergeant,” he said.


“His section took it quite hard and he needs a home. Now for the inconvenience. Think you can get him in their?” Kessel adjusted his helmet and let out another heavy breath, still regaining his composure from the charge that had driven the enemy to ground.


Eickle was not a coward, but he wasn’t stupid either. “No, sir. The enemy is tucked back far enough that I won’t be able to get him in. Too cold for gas. Grenade launchers might work to rattle them, but we are facing men who know what it’s like to dig in and take it.”


“Alright, Sergeant. If you had the Arch-Confessor’s ear, or that of General von Langer, what would you say?”


He answered instantly. “Tanks. The mountains are no good for them, but we’re in a valley. We can land them and they can drive right up to the mouth of the tunnel.” Eickle rubbed his jaw. He glanced at Johanson’s flamer-tanks. “Actually, sir. We just need one type of tank.”


“Hellhound,” they said together.


Leutnant Kessel knocked his fist on Sergeant Eickle’s helmet. “I’ll whine like an unpaid joy-girl to the Hauptman. In the meantime, hold here in case you need to be glorious and stuff lucky Johanson down that tunnel’s mouth.” The officer jogged off.


Johanson waited until the Leutnant was out of ear-shot. He nodded to Eickle. “Thanks, Sergeant. I don’t want to go in their first.”


He nodded. “Don’t thank me yet. You’ll probably be going in second.”


#


He stared slack-jawed at the buildings, roads and towers of the underground city. The architecture was familiar, in that it was built by human hands, but strange because it did not bear any resemblance at all to Imperial designs. Even the other place had hab-blocks that were identical to those found on any planet ruled by the Imperium. Jagg swallowed. “Where is everyone?”

The place was silent as a tomb.


“There are audible sounds from that direction.” Magos Jhar pointed towards one of the silvery towers. The Tech-Priest swiveled his head, gazing at everything just as Jagg was. “Pre-unification architecture. STC designs are apparent.”


“STC?” Jagg asked as he peered into one of the temple structures. Its open courtyard had a statue in what was fast becoming typical Titus fashion. Big, strong and male.


“Standard Template Construction. Before the Imperium man had what some called a Golden Age,” Razin said offhandedly.


Von Langer added, “It should be noted that right after this Golden Age was the Age of Strife, so don’t think too highly of it.”


“The flesh-units are accurate. STC scrolls have the ability to give any knowledgeable member of the Adeptus Mechanicus the information needed to create any number of items. Each STC scroll is for a particular machine.” The Priest of Mars drifted to a control panel that was fastened to the stone-work of a building. “There are devices here unknown to us, yet are clearly of human make.” He tapped the panel and soft music floated through the building. “This device creates pre-designed assortments of auditory experiences.”


“Useful,” Razin said with a roll of his eyes.


“Perhaps it can be weaponized?” Magos Khol lingered by the panel a moment more before following after the small group. Greasy oil continued to drip from him leaving a trail back the way they had come.


Jagg licked his lips. “Honored Tech-Priest you are leaking.”


The hood turned to face him. “So are you.”


Jagg shrugged and continued walking. “Not to sound heretical, but where are all the God-Men? There is something to the myth the traitors believe in. These ruins, the statues and the phrases used, they reference the God-Men, but looks like everything here is human. Maybe not Imperial, but defiantly human.”


Von Langer peered around. “I’m a might curious what happened to the inhabitants of this place. Did some of them flee to Krieg and take with them heresy?”


The hooded priest shuffled towards another building, examining a piece of piping. “A possibility. The records drawn from the forbidden hive on our homeworld pointed the traitors to Titus. Elements of Titus are found on Krieg. The probability of this being a coincidence is still being mathematically computated within our neural-network. We are almost certain there is truth to the belief that men from this world came to ours. If this occurred it happened long before the Great Crusade and the Emperor. All civilizations of man have a pre-Imperial history. Many had faulty mythical beliefs that were driven out by His Crusade. Why did they flee here? Any number of reasons and the lack of biological remains are unusual. I have not detected any bones or even any implements of mankind that are not permanently apart of the city. I am inclined to theorize that this place was evacuated on purpose.”


“So there are no God-Men?” Jagg asked.


“Of course not,” Magos Khol said, while steam rose from his cowl.


“What’s that then?” Jagg pointed up the road. The glittering path led to white, marble buildings clustered about the shining tower. They looked no different than the other structures of the city except for their size. Everything about them was larger; from the stone steps to the mammoth pillars, to the enormous doorways.


The party went silent. Magos Khol walked to the lead, he tilted his head. Mechanics clicked and clattered as he examined the cyclopean buildings. He turned to regard the rest. “Big buildings.” He turned, walking towards the tower and the overly large doorway leading into it.


“Big buildings,” von Langer echoed with disbelief. He followed after the Tech-Priest.

Razin’s eyes narrowed. “Jagg, if you see any giant men walking about, be sure to shoot them with that.” He nodded in the direction of Jagg’s hefty bolt pistol.


He nodded, tearing his eyes off the over-sized buildings at the base of the tower. He walked slower than the rest, feeling an increasing amount of pain as the medicines and suppressors of the stop-gap wore off. The hollowness was still there as well, a sense he was walking in a dream. He tried to fill it with hate again, but the fire wasn’t the same.


Magos Khol ascended the steps, but before reaching the open doorway, two men in white emerged from the shadows. They barred the Tech-Priest’s path, leveling their lasrifles.


“I don’t know how you got in here, but you cannot pass. Von Faust is about to commune with the God-Men.”


The shrouded priest’s mechanical arms, sprouting from his back, snapped forward. Blades on their ends slammed solidly into each man’s throat. The Priest of Mars entered the doorway as the sputtering corpses fell away. Their forms twitched and blood flowed down the stairway.


Jagg followed the rest of the team in, sparing only a glance at the dead men. The tower doorway led to a courtyard, illuminated by lights imbedded in the ceiling. Painted on the far wall were clear images of perfectly shaped men and women engaged in athletic sports. Standing behind the scene of activity was an impossibly larger male form, chiseled and mighty, his gaze was set upon the ‘mortal’ players.


The red-robed figure ignored the art and made for the stairs, with each step, Jagg could hear pneumatic pistons at work. Soon as he was out of sight, the Tech-Priest’s words echoed down. “Interesting.”


Razin jogged ahead. “What does that mean?” He darted up the stairs, followed by the slightly pudgy von Langer. J


Jagg cursed as he had extreme difficulty managing the steps. “Am I the only one who gets stabbed and shot on a routine basis?”


The next level of the tower was as Magos Khol had said; interesting. Uniformed, but unarmed men and women stood still around tables containing all manner of mechanical devices, none of which Jagg could make sense of. Power cables led from some of the machines to the stairs and continued on to the next floor.


“Get out of this tower,” Razin spat. He shot a woman standing close by in the head to emphasize the point. Her eyes rolled and she toppled sideways into a table. The non combatants panicked and raced to be first out of the room.


Von Langer sighed, “Surprise is over-rated anyways! Up we go.”


Needing no hints, Magos Khol led the charge, bounding with a sudden burst of speed up the stairs. He pulled forth a pair of laspistols and vanished. The rest followed and Jagg, hopped after them, wincing every time he put too much weight upon his leg. Before he was up to the next flight of stairs, mean and women were shrieking and fighting to get down. He pressed himself against the wall to let them pass. The sound of a lasbolt jerked his attention upwards. He leveled his bolt pistol and fired a quick burst. He only had the one clip, but the effect was what he needed. The flood of people were blasted back, and they cowered. Jagg worked his way up the stairs, snarling at any of them who slowed his progress. The next floor revealed a similar hastily built laboratory and a pair of dead white-clad soldiers.


“Jagg, hurry up you’re making a poor showing as a body guard!” Razin shouted from the next level.


“Frick you, respectfully, sir!” He clawed his way upwards and when the next rush of men and women flowed down the stairs, a leveled bolt pistol and threat was enough to get them to freeze up, long enough for him to pass.


There were more dead soldiers in white. Jagg for a moment was angry that he was missing out on the combat; he then paused. Time and again it was him moving in first and getting shot up. Where did it get him? He glanced at his leg and bandaged hand. Taking his time, Jagg moved up the stairs until he reached the top floor. A conversation was already taking place.


#


Moving heavy machinery from space was a tedious affair and the Navy took things slow. Still, Sergeant Eickle couldn’t help but whoop and holler with the rest of the men as the Hellhound tank, in a lovely urban-camouflage pattern, with a single recent splash of white for humor’s sake, rolled towards the tunnel. The vehicle was similar to the Chimera transports he had spent Emperor-knew how many hours riding in the back of. But instead of passengers the Hellhound carried rotund promethium tanks, and instead of a multilaser on the turret, the war machine brandished a long range heavy flamer; just the thing to flush out a tunnel.


A few lasrounds bounced across its hull, but the enemy had either lacked or expended any heavy ordinance. No rocket-contrails, no blinding beams of a lascannon or mad charges with a melta-bomb threatened the tracked vehicle, whose turret sported the less than original name, Hot Kiss.


“Back away from that tunnel, boys!” Eickle waved the men near the entrance off, far enough away that he was certain the flame-trooper at his side wouldn’t do something unfortunate; such as explode.


A whiff of promethium tingled his nose a moment before the broad nozzle of the Hellhound flared to life. A streamer of blazing fire washed forth, flaring against the tunnel and melting the snow. The machine rolled closer and the next burst of its flamer was a controlled narrow spray. Burning liquid fired forth in a tight column into the tunnel. The roar of the flames drowned out any screams from inside. For a full minute Hot Kiss brought the Emperor’s fury to the traitors, inching forward and rotating its turret left and right. When the fires ceased to roar, black smoke spilled from the tunnel while a pool of water sat outside it.


“She’s first, you’re second. Go!” Eickle pushed Johanson who rushed towards the tunnel. Eickle followed and shouted his praises to the Emperor. Dozens of men darted ahead to make the initial breach, their boots stomping in the snow, slush then water.


The tunnel reeked of burning meat and promethium. Eickle coughed hoarsely and momentarily pondered donning his rebreather. He wrinkled his nose and decided against it, in favor of visibility. Not that there was much, smoke hugged the ceiling and steamy vapors rose from the floor.


Johanson surged ahead, sending out gouts of flame every few steps. As he came upon the first side hall he blazed away before abandoning it to make his way down the main hall.


Eickle followed; his section in tow. He ignored the side hall, and all others as well, leaving them for others to take. Men of Krieg stormed the tunnel and he glanced down at a black, gristly shape that he thought might have at one time been a man. It certainly smelled like over-cooked meat.


“Chamber ahead!” Johanson shouted. A hellgun struck him full in the face, the top half of his head nearly sheered off. He collapsed, brain mater spilling out from the sizzling tear of a wound.


Eickle dropped and rolled towards a dead traitor, whose form had already at one time been used as cover, judging from its curled up position and the black laswounds dotting it. Red beams lanced over head and he heard a soldier scream. Others sought cover as Eickle did, firing a flurry of lasrounds into the chamber.


From what Eickle could make out, the room had already seen its fair share of combat. Bodies littered the floor and white-clad soldiers clung to what cover they could find. Most were armed with lasguns, but a few had somehow gotten their hands on pack-fed hellguns. They fired disciplined bursts, forcing Eickle’s head down. There weren’t very many of them, but holed up as they were he knew it might prove difficult to easily uproot them. He sniffed the air, briefly shutting his eyes to feel it. The flames of the Hell Hound had warmed the place. Titus’ cold climate would chill the tunnel and chamber soon, but Eickle didn’t need long. He looked to his vox-man, who had done an impressive job of wedging himself into a piece of the wall that had been blasted away.


“All channels for this one. Protocol be damned,” he barked and gave the order. “Gas them!”


#


The storm troopers had not died to a man as Dolph hoped. They had been pushed back towards the seal, of which there was only one way to. There couldn’t have been more than two or so left, but they held the passage with bursts of plasma and hellgun fire.


Dolph stripped a dead armored soldier of his advanced weaponry and took it for his own. He glanced over to the teams of men firing down the tunnel leading to the seal, while other soldiers milled about, tended to the wounded or wandered towards the main tunnel to face the inevitable assault.


A terrible screaming sounded from the main tunnel. The men jerked their attention towards it. Orange, flickering light danced along the walls and a puff of heat struck Dolph. He jogged towards the tunnel and his eyes widened.


He could not see the other end, only roaring, billowing fire. He knew well what the enemy had brought to bear. He would have done the same. “Hellhound!”


An officer strode to his side. “Damn it all. Men! Prepare to receive the enemy. Keep the tunnel to the seal covered.” He pointed at others, directing them to go down the ancillary tunnels which joined with the main. “You, your hellgun will come in handy. Hold here.”


“Sir.” Dolph stepped over a few corpses and crouched behind a broken pillar; he readied his weapon and trained his eyes on the glowing tunnel. Heat continued to batter at his face, reminding him of sticking one’s head too close to an open oven. When the fire dimmed, it was soon replaced by smaller, but no less deadly spurts of flame. He crouched lower, waiting for the flame-trooper and the advancing shapes of the Men of Krieg to get closer.


The flame-trooper slowed his advance as he came close to the room. “Chamber ahead,” he shouted over his shoulder.


Dolph leaned forward and squeezed the trigger. The backpack hummed and the weapon gently kicked given the steady stream of slicing red beams which leapt out. The flame-trooper was struck in the face, much to Dolph’s satisfaction. The Men of Krieg sought cover and in a bit of irony he noted one man hide behind the same body he had, not long ago, trying to do the same thing; take control of the chamber.


He fired quick slicing bursts down the tunnel and watched without compassion or pity as men from his homeworld were cut down. They were not truly his kin, they were beyond the seal. He knew he would likely never see the world of the God-Men, but it didn’t matter. Others would. He and the other soldiers of Titus had bought the visionary von Fausts time to complete the exodus.


His compatriots added their fire to his. The cracks and snaps of lasrounds echoed down the tunnel, but was soon joined by the same coming from the side passages. It was all too familiar. The infiltrators were overwhelmed and driven out; so too would they be.


He broke from cover, heading to the tunnel that led to the seal. A pair of soldiers traded ineffectual shots with the storm troopers beyond.


“You two. I’ll lead, you follow. If we stay here we’ll die.”


One of the men shrugged. “We’re dead already. The seal is probably closed. Von Faust wouldn’t leave it open just so the weak race could follow us.”


Dolph hefted his hellgun. “If we are dead already, I prefer to die at the feet of our ancestors, not here.” He didn’t wait for a reply, he charged the tunnel firing from the hip, roaring like an animal.


He saw two storm troopers emerge from the end of tunnel, they paused, apparently surprised by his solitary charge. The hellgun blast struck the one wielding a plasma pistol in the chest, he dropped to a knee and another gleaming spray of bolts sent him sprawling back. The other fired his own hellgun.


The rounds spat across his thigh, threatening to cut through his groin and leg. The pain was immense, but Dolph was a son of a God. He fought through it, flinging himself away from the path of the beams.


Behind him, lasrounds passed overhead streaking towards the lone storm trooper who held the seal room. He crouched, returning fire. Screams echoed behind Dolph.


Baring his teeth, he thrust his hellgun’s muzzle forward and from the prone position fired. Sparks and smoke danced across the enemy’s chest. He staggered, fired once into the air and fell over dead. Dolph panted. He looked behind him to see two men, face down. Worse, he saw a filmy brownish haze. He knew Krieg well and its poisons. He had no reabreather, the members of the exodus didn’t plan on being followed and stuck in a fight, but the path to the seal declined slightly, perhaps the gas wouldn’t seep in. Ignoring the bodies and noxious gas, he painfully crawled towards the seal. They were all dead men, but he knew exactly where he wanted to die.

XVII


Sins of Titus


The old man smiled amiably at the Tech-Priest, Duke, noble and wounded soldier who pointed weapons at him. Behind the older a tall man sporting a lion’s mane of golden hair crossed is arms.


“We just want to be left alone,” the larger man growled.


The top floor of the tower was domed. The ceiling bore a symbol, that to look at made Jagg feel distinctly queasy. The center of the room contained a tall mirror in a gold, baroque frame, flanked on either end by two marble statues of great size holding it in place. One was male and nude, strong and muscular with a smiling face; the other was female and nude as well, her body athletic and her expression one of soft regard. The powerful and unearthly pair looked down upon the reflective glass that they held in strong, unmoving fingers.


Tables, obvious recent additions, were set up near the mirror. Upon them several books sat, their pages were yellowed and dry while the bindings spoke of immense age. A voluminous book, with gold bindings caught Jagg’s eye.


“Stealing those records, inciting rebellion, making me come all this way to freeze my ass off?” Razin’s brow rose. “I hardly call that in the spirit of being left alone.”


The tall man blinked his blue eyes. “The records were necessary, they still are. They dictate clearly who has the blood of the Titus in their veins.” He pointed at von Langer. “You should stand with us. Your family has some of the purest blood of Titus running in it. In you lies the very stuff of the immortals.”


Von Langer kept his laspistol leveled on the pair. “I think he’s slighting me on the account of dreadful rumors involving inbreeding.”


The lion-mane shook. “Bah!” He thumped his chest. “The truth is all around you, yet still you are blind.”


The elderly man waved his hands gently. “If we could have copied the records and peacefully left Krieg to return home, we would have. But membership in the Imperium is not voluntary. If we asked nicely, you would have said no.”


“We’re still saying no, even though you didn’t ask nicely.” Razin looked around the room, squinting as his eyes skipped over the pattern on the ceiling. “And for all your talk of God-Men, all I’ve seen is some large buildings and interesting technology, all of which is quite human in its construction; so says the honored Tech-Priest.”


The hooded figure clicked. “Correct. Titus has signs of being pre-Imperial, but nothing to indicate whatsoever that its people are not from Holy Terra. There are no God-Men. Only the Omnissiah, only the Emperor, only the seed of old Earth.”


“The proof stares at you,” the old von Faust said cooly. He moved towards the mirror, but the raising of weapons in his direction gave him pause. “Gentlemen,” he said, raising his hands to reveal open palms. “If I am wrong, then what harm is there in activating this gate-way to the land of the God-Men? If you say there are no God-Men, then the portal will do nothing. I will turn myself in and give you the names of everyone involved in the Ascension Conspiracy. Many of those people are still on Krieg, waiting for the day they will have their own chance to come here to reunite with their true parentage.”


“Father,” the younger von Faust warned. He was waved off.


“What the frick did you all plan on doing?” Jagg asked, limping closer. He knew who the two men were. He felt his hate flicker.


The younger von Faust looked at Jagg with an azure gaze. “Don’t you know why this place is empty?”


“Evacuated,” Magos Khol said.


The elder shook his head. “No! Not exactly. True, some left and settled on Krieg, but the majority remained and sought ways of finding the original race that had populated Titus and made them, made us, who we are. So much is lost and unknown. Perhaps Krieg was a research outpost seeking the answers on its own. Perhaps it was part of a larger Titus Empire that was cut off during the warp storms of the Age of Stife. Who knows; but my lifetime of study has made one thing very clear. Titus was not evacuated. They ascended! They found a way to link themselves with the God-Men.” He pointed at the mirror. “I’ve had hardly any time to study this properly, but it is similar to the portals I’ve seen mentioned in ancient records scattered about the galaxy.” He stared at the mirror longingly. “That machine will lead us to paradise. That machine is the way home.”


Jagg sniffed. “Can we shoot them?”


“I’m a bit interested in the names. We could torture you for them,” Razin said coolly.


The old man smiled. “You could, but I would die long before you had a single name from my lips. I assure you; I’ve seen things in the galaxy you could not fathom. Crude hooks and barbs don’t frighten me.” He shook his hand in the air. “Please! I’ll activate the portal, if it works. You’ll see. If it doesn’t, then this all ends, Krieg’s history and that of Titus will be separated forever. Let me turn the great machine on!”


Magos Khol teetered closer to the mirror. “Allow the near-expired-flesh-unit to proceed.” He regarded Razin. “This reflective piece has no power, no machinery at all. It is for decorative purposes. If the near-expired-flesh-unit wishes to try and turn it on; he will fail. Krieg can purge itself of this heresy.” He looked at the old man. “Unless you are lying and will tell us nothing upon your inevitable failure.”


“On my word as a son of Titus, as carrier of the God-Men’s genes; I will reveal everything should this fail.” He looked over to the other. “Son, can you bring me the book of Ebon please?”

The hate flared. “Speaking of son, I killed yours,” Jagg said to the lion-mane von Faust. “Stuck him over and over and ov-”


“Jagg,” Razin snapped.


The man’s eyes narrowed. He snorted. “So you are Achim Jagg. You killed my son.” His full brows knitted. “I will remember that.” He strode over to the collection of books, choosing one with a ragged binding. He brought it over to his father.


Razin glided towards the same table; his eyes alighted upon the rather hefty book decorated in gold. Holstering his laspistol, he picked it up, giving a nod. The records were recovered.


The pair of von Fausts looked over the book and glanced at each other and the mirror. Their words were quiet, but Jagg wasn’t too concerned; the Tech-Priest would alert them if anything was amiss. He was eager for them to tap the mirror. He was fairly certain once they failed they would still cling to the idea they were the descendents of God-Men; refuse to reveal any other traitors and need a quick execution. Casually he aimed his bolt pistol at the pair.


Time passed. Gregory von Faust whispered words form the book and glanced at the mirror. He conferred with his son, finally nodding. He regarded his captors. “The portal has a password, similar to that of the seal. The right words spoken will open it and activate the machine.”


“This is a trap; lets shoot them,” Jagg offered.


“The reflective decoration is just that. I know this for certain. No password will open it. The near-expired-flesh-unit and the overly-furry-flesh unit will fail momentarily. Patience,” Magos Khol said.

“Hurry up about it then,” Razin said. “Say the password and then get ready to say a lot more.”


Nodding, Gregory stood before the mirror, while his son stood at his side, holding the ancient book. The old man started to speak in what Jagg at first thought was the old language. The words were stranger than that however. He tilted is head, lowering his bolt pistol in the process. “That isn’t the old language.”


The mirror glowed a soft red.


“Impossible! Error. There is no machinery, thus there is no light. My ocular implants are damaged,” Magos Khol said, very surprised tones were even managed through his warbling vox-grill. He stepped back.


The heads of the statues squealed and their shining visages turned their gazes onto those assembled in the room. The expression of both the male and female became one of perverse, hellish joy.


A man and woman stepped from the mirror. They were tall, giant in many ways, but well proportioned. Each had skin of alabaster white, brilliant, blonde hair and large eyes of the deepest blue. They wore no clothing; and looked every bit like the statues obviously made to portray them. They were giants amongst men and coolly stared at those who had summoned them.


Gregory fell to his knees. He rubbed his face and babbled madly. Tears flowed from his eyes and he curled up into a weeping ball.


Haus von Faust retained his composure. He bowed low. “Father and mother, we have returned. Your children have returned.”


The female smiled beautifully. She knelt and her hands wrapped around the curled up and crying frame of Gregory. Her lips kissed the top of his head. The male looked imperiously at the collection of men before it.


His voice was powerful, loud and tinged with palpable arrogance. “Something is left?”


“Huh,” Razin said, staring blankly at the scene.


Haus rose to his full height. “True father, yes! The sons of Titus are back. The journey has been long but we have come to do as those of this city once did. Join you in your realm!”


The female perked up. “Good.” Her voice was melodic and as pleasant as her features.


The male stared at Haus. “How many do you bring?”


Magos Khol, von Langer and Razin took steps backwards; Jagg did the same, the pain in his leg forgotten as he stared with saucer-wide eyes at the impossible pair of God-Men. He blinked, half expecting them to not be there when he opened his eyes.


“Not many. My father, myself and a few others. These intruders have denied the thousands we intended. There are perhaps a hundred roaming the city.” Haus glanced back at Jagg with an accusing stare. “That one killed my son.”


The female kissed the still babbling elder von Faust’s head. She glanced at her mate. “Only hundreds? The last time the city was full! We had hundreds of thousands. A hundred is not many,” she said sadly. She shrugged. “Some is better than none.” She opened her mouth and took a bite out of the old man’s skull.


“Frick me!” Jagg nearly fell over as he saw the elder von Faust spasm. Before the old man could try to rise, the gorgeous, over-sized woman bit the rest of his head off with a snap of her teeth. Blood flowed down her chin. Her eyes twinkled brightly and she offered a warm, almost motherly smile marred only by the blood flowing from her lips.


Haus clutched at his chest. “No! What are you doing?!” He stepped towards the male. “God-man, we are of your blood! We are sons of Titus! In your perfect image we were made!”


The male reached down, easily pulling Haus up by his tunic. He brought him face to face. “Mortal, you and this place were never our children. You were our disciples.” He smiled cruelly. “You praised us mightily, spread our word, mimicked our perfection, and when we were ready, we showed you that there is only one God and only one way to commune with it.” He chuckled. “Slaanesh, in the end, needs your soul.” He tore into Haus von Faust’s throat, while his mate supped on the stump of the elder’s neck.


“Judicious, immediate, prompt retreat!” Magos Khol blared through his vox-grill. He spun about and on pistoning, hissing legs bolted for the stairs.


The rest ran, Jagg cursed as every long legged step sent agony through him. He felt the bandages soak with blood; he dimly recalled the stop-gap warning him not to move around much. It didn’t matter. He’d rather bleed to death than be found by the things which had emerged from the mirror.


He was the slowest of the group, having to regain his balance whenever the pain became too much.


Taking two or three steps at a time he made his way out of the tower. Outside, the men and women they had flushed out lingered, cowering as he emerged. Jagg followed the oil stain trail left by Magos Khol.


It wouldn’t be long before the hideous entities decided to expand their feast. Terror clutched at Jagg’s heart. He was the slowest! The slowest had a tendency to die first. A horrid and equally clever thought came to mind. He halted his retreat and looked at the assembled people.


“The God-Men are here. You people were right! They’re here! They call for you! We were wrong; you were right!” He gestured to the tower he had so hastily abandoned in his mad flight. “Go and see them sons and daughters of Titus!”


The crowd let forth and excited murmur before moving towards the tower doorway. With a suitable distraction in place, Jagg hurried on his way.


#


Sergeant Eickle swept his head from side to side, panning to make up for the deficiency of vision which was naturally inherent while wearing a rebreather. He carefully tread over the bodies of traitors as well as team of storm troopers. He regretted that he and the rest of the regiment couldn’t have arrived sooner and perhaps rescued them. Just like Glory Boys; couldn’t bear to have their skins saved for a change. How they entered the tunnel complex before him was a mystery he doubted he would ever uncover.


Teams of men made their way through the ruins of the chamber. The air was cooling rapidly and the gas was quickly dissipating. A few las cracks announced a wounded enemy being given the Emperor’s Mercy; not that they deserved it.


Eickle moved towards a lone descending tunnel, motioning his section to follow. Within, a pair of dead traitors lay, beyond them two dead storm troopers. Cautiously, Eickle eased his way down the tunnel. The air was clear. He risked a quick pull at his mask and took a sniff. The air was earthy and cold, but not laced in choking fumes. He removed the rebreather. “Clear. Come on.”


The tunnel opened into another chamber, statues ringed the room while a stone disk of some sort sealed one end of it. A white-clad soldier, wearing a hellgun pack, was slumped by a tall, dramatic looking statue. He twitched.


Eickle and his men raised their weapons. He advanced on the prone figure, whose uniform was stained in a rather wide pool of crimson blood that had flowed from a wound on his thigh. His fingers were dabbed in his own blood and the statue’s plinth was painted. It bore no name, but the mortally wounded man had added one. A word rather.


“What the hell is Got-manner?” trooper Karlson asked from behind Eickle.


“Don’t know, don’t care.” He looked down at the fallen soldier. Eickle kicked him and the traitor’s blue eyes opened.


“The Emperor is pissed.” Eickle fired once, blasting a neat hole into the top of the man’s skull.


The stone disk grumbled. Eickle and his section dashed for cover, raising their weapons and keeping a steady watch on the opening portal. From beyond, shimmery silvery light flowed, illuminating the gloomy chamber in ripples of color. From the doorway, a Tech-Priest stumbled followed by three men.


“Shut it, shut it, shut it!” A wounded soldier shouted as he favored one leg heavily and clung to a bolt pistol.


A dark haired man shouted in a most unseemly way at the priest, “Frickin, Cog-boy! It’s not a machine; let them try and turn it on! Well look what that did! You fricking waste of flesh and metal!”

The other soldier, a portly fellow, stared into the doorway. “I can hear people screaming! Hurry it up!”


The Tech-Priest stumbled towards the logic-engine pedestal before the door. His hands worked over the controls feverishly. “A critical miscalculation on my part, never did it occur to me that Titus would be laced with the foul aspects of the Warp. There was no indication; except in hindsight when one ponders the Titus fascination in physical power and perhaps even physical beau-”


“Shut the frickin door or we’re all gonna die!” the bolt pistol wielding soldier with narrow eyes screamed.


Eickle had no idea what lay on the other side of the circular doorway. From what little he gleaned from the men and Tech-Priest he didn’t want to. His heart thudded deeply in his chest, until the stone door slid back into position, blotting out the almost pretty light. He emerged; leveling is weapon on the strange group.


“Who the hell are you?” he asked, examining them.


The dark haired man grinned. “You mean who the hell are you, my lord. I’m Duke Razin, this young man here is the General’s son. My lord Langer should do.”


The von Langer was a bit full in the face, with bright blue eyes. “Hello, Sergeant.” He said shakily.

The Duke gestured to the others. “Magos Khol, who nearly got us all killed,”


“An error.” The Priest crossed his arms.


“And Achim Jagg. My body-guard. As you can see he’s done a fine job of taking wounds.”


Eickle blinked at them. His hesitation was momentary, he wasn’t about to anger Dukes, or sons of Generals or Tech-Priests. “Throne damn it all! Get a stop-gap in here, I want these men secured and taken to safety.” He nodded at the Duke. “We’ll have you back with command shortly, my lord.”


The Duke glanced at the doorway, his smile instantly faded. He licked his lips and ran a hand over his own narrow features. “I’d like that very much, Sergeant.”


XVIII


Keeping Secrets


The dim conference room suited his needs well. He lounged back in a plush chair, while his shadow-drenched agent stood behind him. She could have remained in the room unseen, ready to deliver death strokes to one and all; but he much preferred her to be seen, casually wiping a white rag along her slender and curved blade.


He had in his time confronted the upper echelons of Imperial society before. Normally they would cower in fear, confront him with a shield of haughtiness, thus revealing their guilt, or outright attack him which did the same. He had never before seen a gaggle of people cowed like children caught doing something they should not have.


The Kaiserina’s lips were pursed, her arms crossed as she sat at the other end of the table, her pretty head cast down. Alongside her cousin sat, a pensive expression on her face. His newly acquired contact on Krieg, Duke Razin, was smiling but his eyes shifted nervously to the assassin who lovingly tended to her sword. The soldier was rubbing his forehead, muttering the word ‘stupid’ frequently, he apparently couldn’t even bear to look directly up. The father and son, their forms large, their features a bit on the degenerate side sat side by side hands in their laps. Lastly, the Tech-Priest stood. It was difficult to tell how a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus was feeling, but under extreme pressure they at times let their humanity slip. Magos Khol was drumming his fingers against one another.


Inquisitor Brecht cleared his throat, causing everyone in the room to jump.


“Now, my lord?” Arlenne whispered behind him.


He waved her off, “Not yet.” He in fact had no intention of killing anyone today, but it was better if the room’s occupants didn’t know that, even Arlenne. It upset her too much and Brecht didn’t want her pouting throughout the meeting at the denial of bloodshed.


“The Holy Inquisition has some information about Krieg’s past. However, you bring to light so much more. Heretics that were not defeated, but actually joined with Krieg’s upper-class.” He clucked his tongue. “Insane descendents of Krieg’s civil war fleeing to a planet which, if I’m not mistaken, is listed as prohibita.” He rose from his chair, sweeping back his brown, long coat. “A lost city, whose builders worshiped powers I dare not even mention.” He slid his hands upon the polished table and leaned forward. “Allowing known traitors to summon things from the Warp,” he pronounced it like a death sentence.


Razin pointed at Magos Khol. “His fault. He’s the one who-”


The Tech-Priest raised his arms. “An error on my part true, but such is my ignorance of the dreaded powers that I had no knowledge that the near-expired-flesh-unit was contacting them. He also was unaware for when the female-horror-thing ate his skull there was obvious alarm on all parts!”

The soldier shook his head. “I wanted to shoot the frickin von Fausts then and there-”

The cousin to the Kaiserina shot the soldier a look. “Jagg,” she snapped. Marena tilted her head the monarch’s way.


The solider blushed. “Sorry.”


“They were frickers,” the Kaiserina whispered sharply.


“My son had no idea at all where this would lead. Remember, it was I who contacted you honorable Inquisitor, our loyalty is without question,” the elder von Langer stated while his son nodded.

“He held us virtual prisoner,” Razin said, crossing his arms.


The younger von Langer sighed. “Only until we knew the Kaiserina wasn’t a heretic herself or a part of some bizarre cult.”


“What?! You thought I might be a part of some heresy?” the Kaiserina’s eyes fixated on the von Langers.


Brecht let them bicker, argue and blame one another for the disaster. He himself had purposefully released a daemon trapped in the corrupted webway on the homeworld of the Xanthris. But he was an Inquisitor, and as such everyone believed he knew what he was doing. Besides, the release of the creature was a secret that only he and a select few of his team knew about. Even fellow Inquisitors would not look kindly on one of their own purposefully setting horrors free.

He cleared his throat.


The men and women of Krieg continued to argue. It was little wonder why they had a civil war in the first place. Brecht cleared his throat. “Enough. Be quiet.”


The room went silent as a tomb, though they continued to glare at one another.

“There is a reason Krieg continually strives for redemption. It’s quite clear now. The sin of opposing Him is still in you.”


“No!” the Kaiserina stood.


Arlene’s blade lowered and Brecht could feel the energy radiating from her as muscles tightened. With a whisper he could have her amongst them in a dance of death. “Sit down,” he said instead.

She plopped back in her seat like a petulant child.


“Where was I?” Brecht eased back into his own seat.


“Sin, my lord,” Razin replied.


“Ah,” Brecht nodded. “The civil war you fought a thousand years ago didn’t end as it should have. It has obviously continued, but the enemy hides in your very bloodlines. Duke Razin, you told me the von Fausts hinted that there were still others on Krieg who believed themselves descendents of the God-Men?”


The sly Duke nodded.


“The planet is corrupt,” he let his words hand and hid a smile as he saw the already pale people of Krieg manage to turn a shade yet paler. “But not beyond redemption,”


“Thank the Emperor,” Jagg breathed.


“Yes, thank Him.” Brecht sniffed. “As far as the general population knows; certain members of Krieg’s nobility staged a coup and failed. That matter is closed. Others amongst you know the truth that the traitors were not trying to topple the Kaiserina, but were in fact returning to what they believed to be their homeworld, Titus.” He tapped the table for emphasis. “That story needs to squashed. That means the high command needs to be told never to repeat it under pain of death.”

“I understand,” the Kaiserina said.


“And the traitors still amongst you who believe it, need to be found and wiped out. I don’t care if whole swathes of Krieg burn at the stake. I don’t care if your purges cause a real coup. The Titus Heresy ends now, as it damn well should have a thousand years ago.”


“I understand,” the Kaiserina said.


“The truth, that the men and women of Titus were either accidently or purposefully worshiping things from the Warp in the days before the Imperium is known only to the members of this room, correct?”


“Yes,” the Kaiserina replied.


“I’m half tempted to let Arlenne dance for me,” Brecht whispered.


“May I?” she said from behind him, her voice painfully eager.


“No.”


“Awww…” she whined.


The men and women of Krieg slumped in their seats. Brecht rose and stared at the planet’s monarch. “The truth about Titus must never be spoken of again.” He looked at each in turn. “If I so much as even think you’ve told another, I’ll make sure this world is vaporized.” He snapped his fingers. In truth it wasn’t quite so easy to declare an exterminatus on an Imperial world. However, those outside the Inquisition didn’t know that and the threat of purging a planet in hellish flames went a long way in keeping lips perpetually sealed. “I’d like everyone to nod if they understand.”


Their heads bobbed in a way he found slightly comical. He kept his features stern, however. “Good. Before I go I am going to be taking something with me.” He nodded at the Kaiserina. “I want the records.”


She blanched. “My lord Inquisitor, those records are the foundation of Krieg’s High Borns. Those records hold proof as to whose line should rule.”


“They also contain proof of an unfinished heresy. In the hands of the Inquisition they will not be used again for vile purposes. Besides, there will be other Kaisers and Kaiserinas and it will be fortuitous to have something to hold over their heads. Should you or your descendents need access to the records, simply ask.” He enjoyed the way she flinched. All in all it was a good trip. The heresy was suppressed, Titus was being watched, now that its daemonic roots were exposed, and the Inquisition had leverage over one of the Imperium’s most infamous worlds. Best of all, he hadn’t had to do anything beyond give a stern lecture and let Arlenne look scary.


“I understand,” the Kaiserina whispered.


“I knew that you would.”


#


He stood at attention, dressed in the black attire he for so long feared. The red sash around his waist, its fringes in gold, hung to one side, while his stormcoat was unbuttoned, exposing his braided tunic. The other Commissars-to-be stood alongside him, including von Langer the younger, who had managed to pack on enough weight to match his father.


They stood before the tower on a parade ground. Krieg’s overly-bright lights shone from above while a collection of onlookers watched as the instructors of the tower gave quick speeches and final instructions to their charges. When von Hurst lumbered to the podium and gestured with his augmetics, Jagg couldn’t help but smile at him. The man still hated him for what he was, a rutter.


But a rutter with the personal blessing of the Kaiserina was rather influential. He was half-convinced he could have burned the tower to the ground and still ended up graduating. Breeding went a long way in the intricate politics of Krieg’s military life, but so did having the right friends.


The ceremony ended with Commissar Captain von Hoff handing out orders to the elite members of Krieg’s Commisariat schola. Jagg took the slip of paper, shook hands with the elderly man and wandered off to the well dressed couple who were ringed by several soldiers in armor.


He wished that Hadu was with them, but Razin and Marena were clear that the less contact he had with her the better. It was painful, but necessary. He sighed only a moment. He knew too many secrets. He smiled as he approached the pair, nodding. “My lord, my lady.”


Marena, clad in a brilliant dress of red and gold, with a high collar, nodded. “Achim. You look like Maenor did when I first met him. Less shifty though. You don’t look like a schemer.”


Duke Maenor Razin wore a red tunic, laced with golden braid. His hair, once all black, bore wisps of silver. It turned out he had been vainly dying his hair for over a year. He had only recently given up.

The Duke smirked. “Scheming is exactly why we are all here today. I am happy for you. Though I rather wish you’d let me pick your assignment. The galaxy is a dangerous place and without a little guidance and influence, the Commissariat might have you traipsing in places that men really shouldn’t.” Razin peered at him. “So, where are you going to do the Emperor’s work and inspire his faithful soldiers?


Smiling at each, Jagg opened the slip of paper and swiftly read it. “The 102nd Catachan Jungle Fighters.”


“Wow,” Marena said her eyes wide.


“I’m kidding.” He grinned. “33rd Infantry, Death Korps of Krieg, to be posted with the First Army on Jendra IV. They are refitting here. I’m to be going right away.” He tucked the slip of paper in his tunic.


The Duke shrugged. “Jendra IV. I suppose the hell-hole you know is better than the one you don’t. I wish you luck and I am sure we’ll meet again.” He extended his hand.


Jagg shook it firmly. “It’s been interesting, my lord. Best of luck. The Emperor protects.”


“The Emperor protects.”


Marena slipped forward. She smiled warmly. “I know you’ll push Krieg toward redemption and its place amongst the Imperium’s finest worlds.” She put a hand on his. “No matter what, I want you to know Hadu will be taken care of. As if she was my own.” He eyes blinked rapidly.


“I know.” He patted her hand. “My lady, thank you.” He felt some of the hole inside him fill out a bit.


It brought him comfort knowing his child would be safe as any could be. He walked towards the public transit. He hadn’t bothered applying for a transport and he had insisted Razin and Marena von Adler issue his former home to someone else. He had nothing holding him to Krieg. All of his goodbyes were out of the way, except one.


Krieg had too many dead scattered across the countless worlds of the Imperium to count, let alone bury. There was no interest in interning any but the most vaunted of Krieg. Common women had no such honors. For the vast majority of Krieg the dead were remembered by little statues, blessed by the Ecclesiarhs, scattered about the levels. The small shrines were festooned with letters, picts, bottles of wine and other offerings to the dead. Jagg pulled his transport over and exited. His knee high boots clicked upon the ground as he wandered near the small shrine. It was an alcove in the side of the transit hall. A few candles burned and a statue of the Emperor was nestled into place. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.


He crouched and stared at the rockcrete ground. “I’ve never been to a place like this. Well, not to talk.” He felt the hole inside him grow and it took effort not to give in to despair. “I’m leaving and I don’t know if I’ll ever be back. Don’t worry, Hadu is going to be fine. She’ll be pawned off as Marean’s own, she’ll not know about us. It hurts, but it’s better this way. I can’t be a father. Few Men of Krieg can.” He rose. “I’ll light a candle for you Klara, for you too mother. Every damnable rock I set foot upon, I’ll light a candle. Before I go, I want to leave something for you”. He placed his offering about the statue. “The Emperor protects.”


Achim Jagg walked swiftly to his transport and entered it. The vehicle’s engine groaned to life and it sped down the hall towards his waiting regiment. The candles illuminating the shine continued to burn, casting soft glows on the offerings of past mourners. About the Emperor’s shoulders a crimson sash with gold fringes proudly hung.

The End

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