Esha’s book seems tantalisingly decipherable, but I have not the skill to unlock its mysteries. Reluctantly I turn my mind to the current confrontation with the warlord Kos’ke and the death-singer Esha Raine, to which I have been listening with but half an ear. Grimm has asked (politely) for some sort of alibi; Zarkov has asked something about medical treatments and Jahr has asked (also politely) if we can rest here. To all, the answer appears to be “no.” So what we need is a way to report back to Aristarchus, ready to apprehend him, while seeming to have done our duty by arresting Esha.
I ask if we can be spared a few spars and rope, to which Esha assents. With the help of one or two of the younger Ashleen we lash together a makeshift travois, onto which we tie our water and enough of the now-rotting Crow corpses to make a human-size mess.
Then, we drag it down the trail to our useless flat-bed, and use the tarp off the flat-bed to wrap the corpses into a roughly Esha-shaped lump. This should get us through the township gates and through to Aristarchus without being challenged.
For our decision is set. We cannot afford to leave Aristarchus’ obvious insanity unchecked any longer. Whether Skae and Severus are deep in the same heresy, or their own heresy, remains to be seen. Our plan (such as it is) is to end the heretical plot in the Cathedral, and see if Aristarchus’ mind begins to clear.
We trudge back, timing our arrival at the Stern Hope gates for dusk. There are no guards. There are no lights, save for a dim haze that somehow seems centered on the Cathedral!
Letting the travois drop, and taking a last few swigs of water, we enter Stern Hope.
Here and there in the dusk-filled shadows I see people cowering, looking shocked and scared. Bodies are strewn here and there in no particular pattern. On closer examination, each appears to have committed suicide.
Our instinct is to bore straight in to the Cathedral – the obvious source of the menace we all feel – but without a definite plan to enter or confront the enemy, we circle round, down the main thoroughfare and over to the Crying Clota, our Inn.
Inside the Clota all lies wrecked. Not from gunfire though: perhaps a large-scale physical struggle. Or perhaps from something berserkly powerful? Grimm takes point as we make our way upstairs to Aristarchus’ quarters. It is just as damaged. He begins searching it, turning over the various items methodically. I spot a regular bulge tangled in linen [06 Awareness], and unearth a data slate. Disappointingly, it is damaged. Even more disappointingly, our party tech Zarkov cannot access its contents.
We spread out a little as we leave the Inn. Jahr and Grimm take the front, and I and Zarkov hide behind them. Franz brings up the rear in open order, Autogun at the ready.
We continue our circle around the great mound of the Cathedral, trying to recall any side-entrance. We’ve previously searched the Priory for tunnels, so when Grimm suggests it I dissent: but something makes me look over at the Priory steps anyway [04 Awareness]: and I see a body there, and two lying just inside!
We arrive at the body on the steps. Is it Lamark? It is Severus. His eyes have been put out.
“That lets Severus off our list of suspects” – Zarkov
“Check. Severus was ordered to be arrested for his own protection.” – Mola, editing her data slate
As well as Severus, we find the similarly-mutilated corpses of three junior clerics. Grimm methodically searches Severus. He holds up a Pass Key triumphantly. He lays aside Severus’ ax, Las-pistol and knife.
A ragged touch of breath from inside the Priory draws us in. Lamark is slumped up against one of the old bulkhead doors. He too has lost his eyes, but is still alive, clutching Las-gun and aquila.
We carry Lamark to the infirmary and Zarkov uses his mid-kit as swiftly as he can [Medicae-20, success]. While he is being tended, Lamark begs us to save his “flock” in the Cathedral. From his mumbling we discern that both Aristarchus and Skae are to be reckoned with.
Jahr loots Severus’ ax and Zarkov up-guns himself with Lamark’s Las-gun, and tucks the Las-pistol inside some aperture or other under his robes. Franz contents himself with a spare charge pack.
Jahr swings the ax appreciatively.
“Mono-ax! Whucking good!” – Jahr
“Here, Guardsman – we don’t want to be fighting revenants later – why don’t you just whick those heads off as we go?” – Grimm
Our traverse to the Cathedral doors is punctuated by the “whuck-thunk” noise of Jahr taking the heads off all fallen. The air seems thick and dark. Grimm draws the Pass-Key out ready, but the doors stand part-open! From within, an eerie white glow shows. We creep up the great steps of the Cathedral, and peer in.
Most of the light comes from the altar area. There, Aristarchus – as if we didn’t know – stands atop the altar. His Psyker Tarot deck floats around him, circling and twisting in a weird helical orbit. The Stern Hopers stand in the pews, frozen. In the dome above Aristarchus – Divine Imperator Protect – the Warp bleeds through!
- Franz OK.
- Mola, Zarkov, OK after spending a Fate Point for re-roll.
- Jahr, Grimm Fail: Shaken, -10 all tests, otherwise no damage.
We begin creeping closer. I strain my eyes to pick out what the weird white glow might be hiding. Aristarchus’ eyes flick open, and he babbles some mad imprecation. But he babbles in High Gothic, which I fail to understand. Above Aristarchus, the Warp draws closer. His eyes are crazed with an alien hue.
“See his eyes? Remember Esha’s oracle? We need to shoot for the head!” – Grimm
From behind the altar, a familiar robed form stirs and stalks forward. Skae – for it is he – seems palsied of limb. Skae shuffles even further forward, until he draws between us and the altar. His face spasms and he draws himself up to fix us with a loathly twisted sneer, and gloat in the muck-thick tones of a strangled corpse!
“Behold! …Miracle of Faith! …St. Drusus returns! Fools! …I shall use this vessel, and for you light shall be extinguished… forever!!!” – Warped Skae
We feel the beating of an alien will on our selves, and now only our Faith can preserve us!
- Franz, Mola, Zarkov OK.
- Jahr, Grimm Fail.
Beside me, Grimm drops his Hand-cannon, and shuffles helplessly towards his nemesis. Behind me at the doorway, I hear another gun fall, and Jahr, eyes rolling in terror, passes me at the same shuffling gait. Inspiration strikes me and I reach for my Vox unit and call to Zarkov at one and the same time!
“Zarkov! Only our God Emperor can save them! Use your loudspeaker to blast a prayer!” – Mola
I yell the Common Intercession into my Vox unit, so that it dins in the ears of my helpless comrades. Zarkov (who, ‘tis true, shares not my passionate belief) pushes the same sort of divine message over some sort of feedback-screeching device.
- Jahr Fail.
- Grimm OK after spending a Fate Point for re-roll.
Battle layout: From the great doorway of the Cathedral to the altar is about 40 meters. Zarkov is still at the doorway, using it as cover, and (in order) Franz, Mola, Grimm and Jahr, and finally Skae, are standing on the broad aisle between the doorway and the altar. As Initiatives are rolled, Grimm has turned to sprint back to his “piece” lying near Mola, Jahr is still helplessly shuffling forward, and Zarkov has been aiming at Aristarchus.
Round 1: Skae leaps forward onto the closest opponent, and (luckily for Grimm, who began a few meters closer than Jahr) the GM judges it to be Jahr. As he leaps, hands distend into claws! But he fails to rend through Jahr’s armor [needs 68, misses]!
Mola advances at the crouch [1/2 move] and feels the effect of a dread aura surrounding Skae [WP -20, OK] but she is brave and true, and leveling her Auto-pistol, fires a burst at Skae, hitting twice [9 to body and minor damage to body]. She knows a called shot is needed but has to get to within 15 meters. And cover!
Grimm sweeps up his Hand-cannon [1/2 action] and takes aim at Skae [1/2 action].
Franz has taken aim at Aristarchus in the moments the tableau unfroze, and his Autogun bellows. But if his shot was accurate, it is dissipated by the orbiting Tarot-deck. Zarkov, guessing there is some power-field around the heretical Psyker, changes his aim and snap-shoots for Skae, striking his body again, hard [11 damage]!
Round 2: Skae, riding on Jahr’s massive shoulders, savages at him, and gouges into his thick armor. But it seems to have little effect on the tough Guardsman. [Primitive weapon: 12 damage to 4 armor doubled and 4 Tough = no effect.] Skae snarls in frustration.
Mola’s Auto-pistol jams as she slides into cover behind a pew and tries another burst. She drops it, ready to reach for her trusty Stub.
Grimm steadies his aim [1/2 round action completes full-round aim] and fires at Skae’s eyes [Called shot: -30BS] taking one out! Skae screams hideously in a “warped” voice! Franz aims [1/2 round] and hits the other eye [Called shot: -30BS]!
Aristarchus explodes – that is the only word for it – as the Warp dissolves. All that is left is a lone Tarot card lying near the altar.
Zarkov picks up the card, and mutters an oath to his (heretical) techno-idols. Part of the card’s surface has burned or abraded away – and we can glimpse some sort of heretical tech lying in its core!
After the terrorized folk of Stern Hope are freed, we find ourselves feted as heroes. Our accommodation becomes free, if no better quality.
A couple of months pass, and finally a patrol arrives, alerted by the “Psychic scream” emanating from the vicinity, that knocked out every astropath in the system. We return to base, our report on the incident fully polished and watertight. Two months back-pay (more, for Franz) awaits us. The God-Emperor has indeed blessed our devotion!
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