Originally published on the Black Library Forum
Tales of the Verloren Hoop
Chapter 1 - The Orientation of Tomas Annin
After the passage of Hive Fleet Eyrines through the eastern reaches of the Pelegron Cluster (circa 900.M38) the Administratum declared a general import/export quarantine and travel ban on systems damaged by the Hive Fleet. This quarantine was extended to specific surrounding systems in order to facilitate enforcement (see index).
Some of those systems reported severe economic hardship and were accordingly designated as priority candidates for Guard recruitment. Between 300.M40 and 900.M40 records show that five hundred and thirty two Foundings were raised from Mur Ollova, Gherria, Fareval, Third Ossia and Wasserholt, ending with the 101st Gherrian Rifles in 900.M40. Successive thirty-year surveys conducted through 200.M41 revealed these worlds unfit for further recruitment.
Based on the results of a comprehensive sub-sector gene study initiated in 865.M39 and concluded in 130.M41, the quarantine is scheduled to be lifted beginning in 230.M41 and ending no later than 240.M41.
--extract from Administratum Briefing PR0443.332bis
--keywords: 'Third Ossia' | Pelegron | quarantine
"Father, it is dark."
"Yes, my lord. The night-cycle is upon us, and the ship's lights have been dimmed."
"Of course. Be a good man, Father, and light my cell for me, please."
"Best we leave the lights off for now, I think. The apothecary's instructions were quite specific."
"Very well. Where are you, father, your voice seems distant."
"Near, my lord. I am near. You may be at ease."
"Damn but I can't see a thing, must be flash-damage. . . Old Claud would have me scrubbing stables for a month if he knew I went into battle without my helmet."
"What do you remember, my lord?"
"Ah, yes, you weren't there, father. A reconnaissance in force. I had the assault squad, seconded by Sister Adria's Seraphim. A simple affair to assay the keep perimeter before the crusade left Third Ossia. I approached the fourth beacon when the explosion took me."
"That's all. Just light, a flash. Some pain, but not much. Then I woke up here, on the Verloren Hoop. Blind, it seems."
"For now, my lord. I beg your leave, my lord, but I must attend to the company."
"Do so. Tell them I am well, and I will rejoin them soon. As soon as these damned apothecaries release. . ."
". . .release. . ."
Father-Chaplain Donnellan Po lifted his armored gauntlet from the brass sensorium actuator. Soft ceiling lights snapped on, revealing rows of hooded servitors to his left and right, each one mounted on a wheeled cart and hunched over a glowing panel of light.
A short cough behind him reminded Father Po that he wasn't alone.
"Truly, when no one speaks to him, he sleeps?"
The white-robed apothecary behind him nodded. "He sleeps, he dreams, and we wait. It's too early to know when we can begin his orientation. If you please, let me re-install the monitor."
Father Po stepped back and the apothecary rolled the servitor into place; thin cables snaked from the servitor's withered hands into sockets on either side of the panel. There were the wet sounds of gaskets sealing, then the stream of bio-telemetry strings restarted. Father Po thought he heard the servitor cluck contentedly before it started to hum.
"How long will it take before you know?"
"Hard to say. They sleep, they dream, and when they are ready, we begin our work. It's important to be patient. . .we've waited for some of them for quite a while."
Father Po paused by the door to retrieve his Crozius and look back along the long bank of monitors in the creche.
"The crusade cannot wait for one Castellan, doctor. Find a way."
on station third ossia
authenticate | go
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append | 0400 completed corpus callosum shunt at splenium and rostrum. apraxia tests to begin at 1200 with simulated ideomotor failure followed by limb-kinetic activation. oculomotor tests to follow | end
"Good evening, Sister."
"Good. . .yes, sir, good evening."
"I'm glad to know that you were not injured by the explosion."
"Yes. We were very lucky."
"Tell me. . .I have not had a briefing since I awoke, and I cannot seem to access my vox-log in this damnable infirmary."
"Sir. . .that is really the place of the Chaplain, or of one of your Templar brothers."
"Are any of them with you at the moment?"
"No. . .no sir. I am, well. . .I am alone here."
"Very well then. You are new to my command, Sister, but you should know I view your Order as an extension of my company, vow-bound by oath and deed these last hundred years since the last days of thePaxus Crusade. Speak freely."
"Sir. We were southwest of the fourth beacon. The auspex was clear, vox sweeps negative. . ."
"You do not have to make excuses, Sister. I know what we saw. Continue."
"And. . .you touched down with your four assault brethren in a two-one-two dispersal, my Sisters and I were still airborne and beginning to inspect the wire arrays, when. . .when the explosion happened."
"The concussion was. . .the pressure wave drove me and two of my Sisters into the wires, entangling us, and I saw you. . .you were near the beacon when it exploded, two of your brethren were. . .and you. . ."
"Steady, Sister. I expect you have given post-battle briefings before, this is no different. What was your assessment?"
"Sir, the beacon just exploded, out of nowhere, when you got within ten meters of it. If the two brethren weren't between you and the blast. . ."
"Brother Timony and Brother Suentius. Brothers Allanbay and Tossi were thrown clear, they were not injured."
"What else did you see?"
"Sir, there was. . .one moment. . .sir, I'm being asked. . .I have a glass of water for you, can you take. . .take it from me?"
"Water? I'm not thirsty, Sister. Please continue with the briefing."
"Sir, the apothecary. . .he's asked me to give this to you. Just. . .what, oh, just reach out your hand. It's right in front of you."
"Very well, I. . .strange, I can't seem to. . .how curious."
"What do you feel, sir?"
"Damn odd, that's what I feel."
"Try. . .please, do try again, sir."
"There. I have it, but I told you, I am not thirsty. And please tell the apothecary that when I'm thirsty, he's to bring me something stronger than water after what I've been through. And in a flagon, not some odd cold can of sorts. Now, if you please, I'd like you to. . ."
". . .continue. . ."
Sister-Seraphim Adria Ke'lanka pulled her hand from the brass sensorium actuator with a jerk, recoiling as if stung.
"This is wrong what you ask of me, apothecary," she said. Her white hair was matted with sweat as she scanned the small room nervously.
"It is what is required, Sister," the apothecary replied, his hands resting lightly on the leather-cased shoulders of the seated servitor he stood behind. The servitor's head lolled back, a whiff of steam slipping from between the slats of the round grate sewn onto its face, its single articulated mechanical arm still clutching the small metal cylinder that Sister Adria had held out moments before.
"Does he know?"
"I cannot say. Every man experiences this transition differently. There are many steps, many opportunities to fail. But as many to succeed. We must be patient."
Sister Adria turned back to the console and looked down at the servitor hunched over a flickering screen, its hands hard-wired into the panel on either side. She shivered, wincing involuntarily.
"Why. . .I would have told him the rest. Why did you stop me?"
The apothecary looked up from the dataslate in his hands and paused.
"The test was over, there was no need for him to stay awake."
Without another word, Sister Adria pushed past the servitor and ran out of the creche.
on station third ossia
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append | 2200 oculomotor tests inconclusive, successive attempts to test resulted in evidence of dysphoria and labile affect accompanied by abnormally high epinephrine levels. extended shunt to adrenal medulla resulting in immediate drop inadrenocorticotropic hormone with subsequent drops in dopa and norepinephrine to pre-test nominal levels. progenoidal ganglia undamaged and progenocorticotropic hormone levels are consistent with pre-insult nominal levels. subject fitted with near-field auspex adaptor through the corpus collosum shunt with associated far-field hardware-based auspex link adaptor logic. immediate testing recommended | end
"So, Tomas. It comes to this."
"You've come to gloat, haven't you, Paolo."
"Hardly. And you should know Inquisitors don't gloat. We observe."
"I can see you. . .you look perfectly satisfied with yourself."
"I'm satisfied that you are not dead."
"Not dead. . .practically so."
"Now, now, Tomas, you're hardly one to indulge in self-pity. There must be something more to your bad mood than waking up to find yourself floating insus-fluids, your brain hard-wired into a test servitor. Even a fine-looking one such as Roon here. . ."
"Do not toy with me. What are your terms."
"Access to the Conclave."
"Come now, Tomas. . .the Crusade is ready to move on, all of the Strike Cruisers on station in this sector are stirring. Without you to participate in the Conclave, the Verloren Hoop will be left behind. Your command will be forfeit when you fail to report. . .and your Brethren will be cast out. This, at least, I know of the Black Templars."
"You know nothing of the Templars, Inquisitor. And if you think I will break covenant with my House, you know nothing of me."
"Ahhh. . .but I do know something of you, Tomas."
"And I know something of you, Paolo. You arranged for that explosion. And you arranged for me to be taken here, instead of allowing me to recover."
"Are you accusing me of a crime, Templar?"
"I am suggesting that you are not the only one here with leverage."
"Good night, Tomas Annin."
"Damn you. . ."
". . .Paolo. . ."
Inquisitor Paolo diBenedetti lingered over the brass sensorium actuator, cradling it in one brown, soft-gloved hand for a brief moment before releasing it.
"He's an odd one," the apothecary said, working his way down the row of servitors, reactivating each one in turn.
Paolo watched the apothecary work. "You've become quite good at this, Nicolo. Very convincing."
The apothecary giggled, then turned a pirouette. His white robe bloomed around his waist and legs.
"The creche is automated, all I do is rotate the servitors and keep the log. But keeping all this mass on-board is really starting to give me trouble. How much longer do I have to play at this? I've only got so much polymorphine, so I'll start to bleed off in a few days, a week at most."
"Not much longer. What's his status?"
The apothecary lifted a small data-slate from the console and turned it to face the Inquisitor. "It looks like he's been successfully shunted, all that's left is to fit him for a shell. Once that's done, the creche will release him into the Armory, and then the Brethren will take over. My estimate is that he could last here for a week, but realistically he could go any day."
Paolo tossed the slate back to the apothecary and began to pace the length of the small chamber. He sighed deeply, pulling his long frock coat tightly around his torso.
"Return to our ship at your convenience. I have successfully placed the seed of doubt in his mind. Let's see what comes of it."
on station third ossia
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append | 0230 pre-transfer protocol initiated. 0530 shunt removed and transfer initiated. 0630 elevated catalepseanoid and neurotransmitter levels detected during transfer, specifically norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. GABA prophylaxis initiated, retrograde amnesia probable. 0700 subsequent testing showed normal catalepseanoid and neurotransmitter levels. transfer re-initiated. 1100 transfer complete, subject telemetry verified stable. 1200 post-transfer creche purification initiated. 2100 post-transfer purification complete | end
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Gathered around a fire in a place outside of time stood a ring of men, clothed in shadows. Each held steady a wall-shield bearing the device of a black cross on a white field. Each wall-shield bore a red purity seal affixing a distinctive riband. Beyond the circle the shadows deepened, obscuring vast trees rising up to stars that roiled in the many colors of the Empyrean.
From the dark a figure approached; the circle made room, and a new shield appeared, bearing a tattered riband.
"Brother Annin, we feared the worst. Welcome."
"I do not have much time, brothers. I have fallen, perhaps through treachery, and am to be given over to our Armorers for entombment."
The circle of shields leaned forward as one, tilting towards the fire burning at the center of the circle.
"Who do you name to join our Conclave?"
"Before I do, I beg leave to tell you that an inquisitor has forced himself into our company through the offices of the Ecclesiarchy, and he seeks to make mischief of our association. I seek your guidance. It may be of value, my lord, to cast us from your Crusade on another path to prevent this from doing lasting damage."
"This inquisitor, is it young diBenedetti?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Inquisitor Valenti's Krieg interrogator? The untouchable?"
The fire flared for a moment, motes of smoke-tossed ash rising up to the sky.
"This is a rare opportunity. You suspect treachery?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Such a crime would not be beyond an artless pup like the Krieg to arrange."
"I agree, my lord."
"It would not do to have this diBenedetti become part of our greater Crusade, and you cannot cast off the Adepta Sororitas through whom he has joined your company."
"We are oath-bound to the Order of the White Rose, my lord, though it troubles many."
The fire flared once more.
"Your oath was given with a pure heart, Brother Annin, and I will not question it here. Let us do this."
A scrap of parchment floated down, settling before the newcomer who reached out and grasped it.
"You have your orders. May the Emperor receive and protect you, Brother Annin, and may you be a beacon unto your brothers as He is a beacon unto you."
The shield with the battered riband rose up, and with its shadowed bearer, moved toward the center of the circle where the
bright and pure with an undying, unyielding, unbroken light that filled the circle and pierced the sky.
A moment passed, and in the place outside of time the circle reformed, each shield bent in respect toward the fire that had received their fallen brother.
On the armory deck deep inside the Verloren Hoop, Brother-Techmarine Julian, straining hard to hold the heavy flamer in place with his right hand as he worked the rivet-gun with the other, closed his eyes and tilted his head back.
"Will you two sods stop it with the incense? I can't see what I'm doing here!"
The two bare-chested tech-priests standing high above him on the supply gantry paused, looked at each other from underneath their stained red half-hoods, then shrugged. Brother Julian heard their cog-encrusted censers clatter against the metal grating of the gantry.
"Much. . .better!" he grunted, slamming home the last of the rivets connecting the huge flamer to the bottom of the even larger assault cannon assembly. Swapping his rivet gun for a melta-welder, he climbed back up a steep flight of metal stairs to the next-higher level of scaffolding surrounding the dreadnought's right arm. He'd been working on the dread since before mid-day when the call came in to prepare it for service. Brother Julian felt lucky that he had been on duty when the call came.
Working the melta-welder with practiced quickness, he was nearly done with the right arm when the dread's comm-beacon, housed just under its right arm, began to pulse. He dropped the welder and pulled his portable vox unit from his belt. A moment more and he had tuned it to the dread's signal.
The Old Man was finally awake.
The machine voice rising from the small vox speaker was flat, a staccato series of hard syllables.
"Yes sir! How are you?"
The vox-link hissed with bursts of static that sounded, somehow, like laughter, echoing in the sudden silence of the armory deck.
"Nearly, sir, a few more welds and a diagnostic sweep, then you can take it out. . .that is, you can see if you like. . .well. . ."
Brother Julian couldn't help but smile. "Of course, right on it, sir."
The sound of a small rotor actuator caught Brother Julian by surprise, until he looked up and found the metal eyes of the dreadnaught's helmet looking straight at him, glowing with warm, yellow light.
At the first light of morning a mob of ragged cultists paused at the site of the ruined Templar sentry beacon to smear the liveried rockrete pillar with offal and grafitti . A few gathered up shredded lengths of sensor wire and began to swing them around, hooting as they scored the bare arms and backs of their fellows with bloody streaks. From the perspective of the long columns of PDF troops walking astride the grit roadway further down the slope, they seethed like dazed ants.
The road ran straight, rising slightly as it went, through the center of a wide avenue of low scrub bordered two hundred yards out to either side by un-passable woods. A rusted Hellhound , its turret trefoil ensign faded to near-invisibility, cast a long cloud of dust that obscured the line of equally rusty armored Chimeras that followed it. Sentinel skittered up and down the line, scattering troops at random as they darted from one side of the road to the other. Their wild-haired pilots, thick-goggled and howling with manic glee, hurled insults as they passed through the lines; the troops replied with rocks that pinged against Sentinel armor or the bottom-mounted multi-lasers, occasionally landing in the open-topped walkers to the applause of their comrades.
At the front of the column, riding in front of the Hellhound, a black-coated, sallow-faced officer on a motorcycle steered with one hand as he looked uphill through a pair of field glasses. He dropped his glasses to let them swing on their cord around his neck and raised his gloved hand up, fist closed.
Behind him the armored column juttered to a halt. The soldiers walking on either side of the road spread out and sank to their knees, scanning the woods with their ancient lasrifles. The squad of Sentinels rushed past, zig-zagging up the hill toward the milling mass of cultists a hundred yards distant as a blurred black shape screamed over the top of the rise at a height of fifty feet, the violent weight of its screeching arrival scattering the cultists and driving two Sentinels to spin and fall in their vain attempt to track it. The jet wash of the craft's passing pressed the Hellhound's dust cloud down, surrounding the column and the soldiers in a cloud of acrid smoke. It raced over the road, braking suddenly just past the last Chimera with a sun-bright flare to slam violently to earth.
The ramp of the Black Templar Thunderhawk crashed open almost before the gunship had touched down.
Inquisitor Paolo diBenedetti sat pressed side to side with his retinue of Krieg Stormtroopers in the cramped compartment of his Chimera, polishing the barrel of his inferno pistol. His trademark wide-brimmed hat hid his face, but not the sound of his tuneless humming. The vox-link with his Death Corps guard guaranteed that.
The voice of the driver rang out. "Contact in one, stand by."
"Any last questions, gentlemen?" asked Paolo through his throat bead.
Ten identical rebreather-covered faces looked up at him as a immense roar passed overhead, audible even above the already-loud rumble of the Chimera's engine and the road noise. The compartment shook violently, dislodging a spare lasrifle from its wall mount to clatter on the metal deck.
The driver's voice cut in again. "Thunderhawk inbound. Targets acquired. Stand by."
"Observation," came one muffled voice from the far end of the compartment.
The long-coated trooper leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and look back at the inquisitor. "That's an awful lot of cultists they're expecting us to deal with. Sir." He gripped the barrel of his hellgun tightly, twisting his gloved hands around the thick barrel.
A growing whine from the chimera's generators was followed by the percussive sound of the hull-mounted las array laying down suppressive fire. A few random pings echoed off the hull, followed by the rich thump-thump sound of the turret-mounted heavy flamer's pumps and the belching hiss of promethium.
"I know. I asked for the privilege of dealing with them."
A few of the Krieg stormtroopers glanced at each other.
"Besides," continued Paolo, as he sighted down the barrel of his ancient pistol, "it pleases me to. . ."
A two-beat chime sounded in the inquisitor's ear. Nicolo was in position.
The inquisitor smiled in a way his men had grown to fear, and love, in varying but ultimately equal measure.
"It pleases me to remind the Astartes that they should never underestimate the men of Krieg."
The Chimera spun and shook as a hail of impacts struck first its front armor, then its right side armor. A red light on the roof of the compartment began to rotate as the hydraulics controlling the rear ramp released, filling the dark interior of the transport with a sudden flood of smoke and the frantic, animal screams of burning men.
"For the Emperor, and for Krieg!" cried the young inquisitor as he propelled himself between his men and into daylight.
From her vantage point grasping the running rails of the Sororitas Rhino, Sister-Seraphim Adria Ke'lanka watched the inquisitor's heavily-armored Chimera plow straight into the huge mass of cultists to her right, spewing gouts of fire before disappearing in a growing cloud of black smoke.
"Are we clear?" came the voice of the Rhino driver.
"Clear. He's pinned them."
"Amazing. Thanks for the eyes, Adria. You're clear to launch on your mark. Good hunting."
As the transport rumbled over the remains of the sentry screen and approached the edge of the broad plateau, Sister Adria gestured to the four other Seraphim holding tight to the fast-moving transport. Three fingers. Two fingers. One.
The force of her jump pack igniting flecked her vision with tiny motes of light as wind whipped at her visor. Climbing, climbing, she saw the field laid out before her in a sudden tableau; the column of heretic armor on the road, the milling, confused troopers to either side, the four scattered Sentinels, and in the distance, the black shape of the Thunderhawk spilling Templars onto the field.
And close by, a single man on a motorcycle at the front of the column. She dialed up the magnification on her visor to focus on him.
"Father Po, I see the man who destroyed the sentry beacon! Permission to engage!"
The reply came quickly, but with it came the sounds of bolter fire and the screams of the dying.
"Proceed to objective one, Sister. Did the inquisitor. . ."
"Yes sir, the Krieg are on target and engaged."
"Very well. Add your new target as objective three. Po out."
Sister Adria whipped her power sword from its cross-mounted scabbard and leaned down toward the nearest Sentinel, fifty feet below to her right. The gyros mounted in her torso armor, sensing her motion, shifted the angle of her jump vents to accelerate her descent. As the ground rushed up to meet her plumes of fire erupted from the Seraphim to either side of her, lancing downward directly at an enemy Sentinel.
The driver of the Sentinel looked up to see a brief vision of white-armored angels descending before the eyepieces of his goggles cracked, his hair and clothing ignited, and the extreme heat robbed him of his last breath.
Father-Chaplain Donnellan Po saw five points of light descending from the sky further up the slope to his left; the last of his three unit glyphs changed from flashing to solid green, all units engaged, including the Krieg who didn't register on his monitor. He caught a glimpse of the Sororitas Rhino slewing in a long curve to his right as it began to engage the center of the enemy column.
The Black Templar squad, twenty men strong and armed with bolt pistols and chainswords, had overwhelmed the rear-most enemy Chimera and was methodically working its way back up the hill in the face of stiffening enemy resistance. Swinging his Crozius in a wide arc, the Chaplain barely felt the impact as his weapon passed through the torso of a heretic guardsman. But he did notice the misshapen face of the dying man as he fell, how it seemed to bulge and shift even in death.
A blast of las-fire from his left forced him to side-step; a squad of the enemy supported by a fast-moving Sentinel had rallied in the open field and was laying down volley after volley of suppressive fire, attempting to pin the Marines against the armor. Father Po saw one of the young novices spin and fall as he was struck in the shoulder by alas round; nearby Templars stepped over him to shield him.
The Sentinel pilot, sensing an opportunity, began to circle to the left to flank the Marines when a white streak of flame crossed its path, severing one of its two-jointed legs in mid-stride to send it crashing to the dirt.
A Seraphim hovered over the fallen Sentinel surrounded by a hazy nimbus of super-heated air, her power sword crackling with ribbons of coherent light. Templar and heretic alike paused involuntarily; Father Po blinked to drive the hypnotic vision from his eyes.
"Finish this," echoed Sister Adria's stern voice over the vox as her four Sisters descended, hand-flamers searing into the scattering mass of enemy guardsmen. A fusillade of bolter fire to Father Po's right was followed by the tell-tale crump of a melta bomb as one of the heretic Chimeras surged into the air, spinning on its axis as it crashed onto the Chimera in front of it. Through the new gap in the line of armor Father Po could see the Battle Sisters advancing when a spear of fire crossed between him and the Sisters – the Hellhound had engaged, and the vox exploded with sounds of screaming.
As the third unit glyph in Father Po's helmet flickered into yellow, a fourth flashing green unit glyph appeared on the status line with a 20-second counter above it.
"Who. . ."
Standing among the still-smoking heaped corpses of the cultists, Paolo switched his vox-frequency from the main channel to his private coded link; one of his stormtroopers stood at the ramp to the Chimera giving the embarkation hand signal, then gradually stopped motioning as his eyes drifted up to the sky.
Paolo did not need to look. He knew who was coming.
"What do you see?" he sub-vocalized, careful to turn away from the Chimera as he looked down the hill toward the flaming melee below.
"The expected. Our Chaplain Po is no Tomas Annin," said Nicolo over the sound of wind.
"So I've been told. But that's not what I meant."
"I know, I know. Yes, I have my target. The Seraphim commander. . .what's her name. . ."
"Adria Ke'lanka. The Gherrian."
"Ahh, yes. She's been very inventive. Much moreso than these tedious Templars. They're so. . .linear."
"All the better. Just take care of business. I'll pick you up before extraction."
The young Krieg inquisitor switched his vox back to the main channel, then turned to pick his way back to his transport. Behind him, a few hundred feet in the air, the white-hot landing jets of a single massive drop pod cast his long shadow over the bodies of the heretic dead, framing him in light.
The Black Templar keep on Third Ossia was little more than a square-faced cube of granite capped by a central, tapering spire. Situated at the center of a modest plateau on top of an even more modest hill, it was ringed by two concentric curtain walls and had, until recently, been secured further out by a perimeter of slender sentry towers connected by long, taut lengths of ceramite-laced corded wires.
The first occupant of the keep in centuries kneeled on the top of the central spire, held in place against the lashing winds by flexible cording quick-epoxied to the stones and the stubby sensor arrays that surrounded him. Through a direct neural link to the 'scope of his long Exitus rifle, he looked past the slaughter of the cultists, past the ruined sensor tower and the sagging sentry wire.
Calmed by a combination of Vindicare adrenal conditioning and Kreig combat discipline, Nicolo diBenedetti licked his lips and checked off his targets as he played the assassin's game of imagining their final thoughts.
He looked into the skull-faced helmet of the Templar Chaplain as he leaned on his Crozius, and could feel his shame and anger.
He looked through the now-open interior of the massive dreadnought drop pod to the Templar brothers as they ran forward to form a circle around it, and could feel their collective relief.
He looked left through the crackling flames of the ruined Hellhound to the assembled Sororitas as they tended to their wounded, and felt their anger and betrayal.
He looked past the Thunderhawk to spot the Seraphim as they hovered over the last of the Sentinels, and sighting Sister Adria, felt her frustration as she began to speed back to seek her final objective.
Tracking her for a moment, he flicked over to the final point on his target map, a black-coated man half-obscured by the trees and moving quickly.
He felt his fear, the taint of something broken and evil, a blind hatred of. . .
"Splash, move to point oh-five-six to recover."
. . .then he felt nothing. Which was as it should be.
Humming tunelessly to himself as he began to break down his rifle, Nicolo diBenedetti saw the distant shape of the Inquisitorial Chimera drive at speed towards the edge of the forest even as five hovering points of light moved about, searching, searching.
Father Po stood silently with Sister Adria at the observation pict-station two hundred feet above the Verloren Hoop's massive flight deck. The Thunderhawk that carried them back to the strike cruiser had been returned to its service cradle, as had the Inquisitor's
Chimera and the scorched Sororitas Rhino; the surfaces of all three crawled with multi-limbed monotask servitors attached to overhead cables. But what drew their attention was the newly arrived rectangular vessel at the center of the deck, an ugly, functional
Mechanicus bulk lifter painted matte black with scorched blast-shields just under its bow.
As they watched the long ramp making up its near side sighed open, releasing a glittering cloud of quick-frozen air into the icy near-vacuum of the deck. Rotating orange vacuum lights turning inside the boxy cargo compartment illuminated the black drop pod inside and the huge, robotic passenger clamped in place next to it.
The vacuum lights were still turning as the restraining clamps cracked open and the dread stepped down the ramp onto the deck. Even through the feet-thick slabs of deck plating separating them from the flight deck, Father Po and Sister Adria could feel the vibrations up through their feet as the dreadnought stepped onto a large square access pad offset by yellow and black warning tapes.
Father Po, still wearing his death's-head helmet, activated the speaker to the landing deck. His voice echoed in the vast spaces just beyond the port, returning to his ears muffled and indistinct.
"Do you know where to go, my lord."
To Sister Ke'lanka's eyes, it appeared as if the dreadnought looked up to stare directly at the two of them.
The Chaplain folded his arms. "I have your orders, my lord."
Sister Ke'lanka leaned in toward the vox grille. "Yes, sir, and he asked me to extend his compliments to you. He's. . . attending his men at the moment."
"Sir. . .thank you, sir!" stammered the Seraphim. As the square lifter pad began to descend, the dreadnought containing the remains of Black Templar Brother-Castellan Tomas Annin raised its clawed left arm and touched it to its dorsal armor plate. It appeared that the dreadnought attempted to do the same with its right arm, but the restricted lateral range of motion of the assault cannon arm prevented it from doing so.
Father Po placed his splayed fingers across his chest and returned the aquilla salute, then turned to leave. Before he could reach the door Sister Adria stepped to stand before him.
"Donnellan, where are we going?"
Reaching up to his neck seals, Father Po disengaged the circular clasps with a flick of his fingers before he lifted his helmet off. He shook his long blond hair free to fall about his shoulders, the expression of disappointment on his young face impossible to disguise.
"We are going where the Castellan directs. As soon as our engineering vassals repair the sentry beacon we will set a course for quarantined Gherria, twelve weeks by high warp, to attend to the next of our lost keeps."
The Seraphim's mouth opened and shut. "So. . .we're not joining the Crusade?"
"Not at the moment. But you should be pleased, Sister. You are going home. I, on the other hand, am going to the simulators to begin penance for my tactical lapses. Good day, Sister."
His helmet under his arm, the young Templar Chaplain strode out of the observation pod; Sister Adria Ke'lanka spun to face the pict-station in time to see the last of the dreadnought disappear under the flight deck.
"Damn you, Tomas Annin," she whispered as she slammed her armored fist into the display unit, shattering it.
"He asked you what your terms were. What did he mean?"
The inquisitor lifted his head. "I invited you to watch under the sole condition that you didn't interrupt me, if you'll remember."
Lounging on a chair next to the door of the small operating theatre, Nicolo gestured with the crystal balloon of amasec at the naked form of a man strapped to the table in front of Paolo.
"And this after all I've done for you, tsk. Humor me. What did Annin mean, back in the creche?"
"Die, you'll all die," wheezed the man on the table. His head was secured by a circular halo of black metal screwed into his head; a dozen or more engraved silver needles penetrated his skull, each one tagged with a red purity seal and a number.
"Eventually, yes," Paolo said. He pushed one of the needles deeper, producing a frothy moan from the man and a series of spasms down his left side. "Now please be quiet while I speak with my brother, thank you."
Nicolo stood up and began to pace, swirling his amasec under his nose. "You were about to say."
"My master, Inquisitor Valenti. He first met Castellan Tomas Annin over a hundred years ago, somewhere near Catalpa during the Paxus Crusade. If the stories are to be believed, and I have no reason to question them, Valenti performed a service of some signficance for Annin. You know how Templars are about honor."
Nicolo snorted. "I find it hard to believe that avaricious old bastard Valenti never collected."
Using a brass caliper, Paolo measured one of the needles then pushed it in slightly with a twisting motion, producing a barking sound from the man.
"I keep getting the barking, that's absolutely no good," muttered Paolo. He picked up a small oilskin covered notebook from the table and flipped a few pages. "And Nicolo, you may refer to Inquisitor Valenti as 'that avaricious old bastard of blessed memory'. Even then Annin was a dangerous man, a game-player, and Valenti knew it. Better for him to keep his favor. . .and better still for him to give it to me to collect. It was his present to me upon my elevation to the rank of inquisitor. I thought it a rather shabby gift, but lately I've begun to think more of it."
Nicolo wagged his glass impatiently. "Yes, lovely. You asked him for something, for admission to something called the Conclave?"
Paolo laughed, and tossed the notebook to lay on the sweating chest of his subject. "Yes, and that is my finest work yet, to ask him for what he can't give! By asking for admission to some heretical fairy-tale gathering of Templars, he thinks me a zealot and a fool, but one he must keep close as I continue to search for the hidden 'truth' these Black Templars hide."
"But you already know the truth, it seems. How deliciously ironic," Nicolo said. He drained the last of his amasec and stepped to the door.
"It is a conceit, I know. And so, I gain what I came for, an Inquisitorial retinue without compare. . .a fighting company of Black Templars and their pet Sororitas to accompany me in my search for this one's masters. Is that not right, my good man?"
"Die. . .you'll all. . .die", foamed the man on the table through a cascade of involuntary spasms.
"Oh, most certainly," Paolo said, slowly twisting another of the sanctified pins. "But first I will know who trained you, who gave you Imperial-grade munitions, and who let you know the exact moment we would be on Third Ossia. . .beginning. . .now."
Nicolo opened the door as the burbling screams of his brother's prisoner seared into his ears, then quickly closed it again to shut them out.