"Duty is the altar upon which men bleed."
- Saint Tuomos Kirschein
It was the heat that got to him, always the heat. Even in this supposedly air-conditioned building, where it was cool enough to take off his vac-sealed helmet, he was sweating profusely.
Marshal D'Albeqaas gritted his teeth and fished a stained rag from a pouch on the exterior of his carapace armor with his free hand—his helmet was tucked under his other arm—and wiped his brow with a clumsy gloved hand. Perhaps that was part of the problem: in spite of the frequent live exercises he participated in, and that he put all of his arbitrators through, he never felt wholly at home in his armor. It was bulky, constricting, and felt little cooler, at times, than the desert outside. What idiot, D'Albeqaas wondered, had had the bright idea of foisting regulation black armor on the arbitrators posted to a Throne-damned desert world? He tucked the rag back into its pouch and glanced irately out the window that made up three of the room's walls again.
His vantage point here in the comms tower provided the best available view of the mining emplacement. The habitation quarters his men were searching lay sprawled out immediately beneath him, nestled into the rugged mountainside. Three mouths yawned open in the sheer rock face along the minehead's left edge, leading out onto the loading area that served as a central plaza: entrances to the mine shafts proper. Five Arbites Rhinos idled on the plaza, their bored crews covering the openings with their pintle-mounted storm bolters.
Inactive processing machinery girded the right side of the loading area, which broke away into the well-used dirt track the Rhinos had taken up the mountain switchbacks to get here. The area's far side dropped away to give a breathtaking view of the tired, ancient desert that stretched to Myria's horizon.
But it wasn't just heat and discomfort in his armor that fed D'Albeqaas's growing frustration. The whole situation felt bad. A question bubbled in his gut and buzzed at the back of his mind, a question he dared not ask aloud in front of his men and that his men dared not ask him. Where was everybody?
Footsteps rang on the metal stairs. D'Albeqaas turned and found Proctor Zyphes approaching.
"Update?" he asked. Unspoken: have you found anyone? He didn't begrudge Zyphes the task of reporting to a superior officer in such a foul mood as his.
"Ah, not much, sir," Zyphes replied, snapping a salute. "Just coming to inform you that Harbess has finished his diagnostics downstairs and made successful contact with Aquinas Base—the vox systems are functioning fine. No reason that we, ah, shouldn't have heard from the arbitrators stationed here."
D'Albeqaas pursed his lips bitterly. It had already been evident from the time they had arrived to find the minehead empty that it wasn't a technical fault that had caused the mine to go silent. It was not some irritated machine spirit that refused to cooperate or a broken transmitter, like he'd hoped setting out. Still, he'd had to check, and what pieces of the puzzle he'd found so far had left him only more bewildered—and infuriated. Undisturbed beds, no signs of violence: something stranger was at work here, something that had spirited away the population of the mine, overseers and all, and he'd be damned if he knew what.
"All right," he snapped. He refastened his helm, sinking himself back into a world with limited visibility, a world that smelled of acrid sweat and poorly purified air. He spoke into his vox: "All squads, come in. Return to the staging point. If we haven't found anything yet, we're not liable to. Time to head down into the tunnels. Dismissed."
Zyphes saluted again and turned on his heel, heading back down the stairs to the operations room of the comms tower. D'Albeqaas received confirmations from his other proctors, picked his shotgun up off the table, and slowly followed Zyphes downstairs. He took Squad Alpha back out to the plaza, where they were soon joined by Proctors Bowde and Mesry, who led Squads Gamma and Delta, respectively.
"Beta and Epsilon," he snarled over the helmet vox, "you're tardy. Gaur, get your ass out here."
"Yes, sir. Coming, sir." D'Ableqaas could almost hear Proctor Gaur biting back a retort. Of course the two squads that Gaur had led deeper into the complex would take longer to extricate themselves. Gaur was a fine officer, D'Albeqaas recognized, but it did him good to keep him in line, and to remind him that results were what mattered, not excuses.
"All right," D'Albeqaas said, turning back to the assembled three squads. "Alpha, you're with me down the center. Bowde: you and Gamma have the right tunnel. Mesry and Delta: the left. Gaur: you and Cheris will hold Beta and Epsilon up with the Rhinos as a rearguard. All of you: until we know otherwise, we assume the worst—that the convicts have overwhelmed the garrison and are hiding out in the mine. Keep firm trigger discipline, though; I'll want a report and mandatory volunteer castigation hours from anyone who fires at shadows. Move out."
The squads hefted their shotguns and riot shields and marched past the Rhinos with crisp discipline. D'Albeqaas and Squad Alpha led. He could hear Mesry belaboring her squad to keep in tighter formation (unnecessarily, as it were—but he approved of his proctor's belligerence). Behind them, Gaur and his squads were emerging from the housing complex.
The thick layer of gravel crunched beneath his feet as he approached the minehead. His suit was sweltering, as ever, but he dared not take it off. The armor was a variant of Arbites gear not usually issued, but considered a necessity for the operation of these equatorial penal mines. Without proper protection, Myria's blazing sun would cook a man within minutes.
It was too quiet. The only noises were the clatter of his soldiers, the subdued rumble of the idling Rhinos, and the faint whistling of the wind as it slashed itself across the jagged ridge. None of the usual machinery thrummed beneath the earth. No overseers barked commands at clanking gangs of convicts. As his squad neared the gaping maw of the mine shaft, D'Albeqaas checked his shotgun, making sure that it was ready. If the mine was occupied by hostiles, now would be the time that they made their move, so he had to be sure that-
Wild shrieks shattered the sweltering silence. Workers burst from the mine shaft mouths, their bare flesh exposed to the blistering heat. Their shouts sounded utterly unhinged: not cries of pain, but howls of insane, boundless rage. What was this madness? The heat would char the miners' skin in minutes; every breath would sear their lungs. Nevertheless-
'Address!' barked D'Albeqaas. His squads drew into tight lines and raised their riot shotguns. He cursed himself mentally for not moving up supported more closely by Beta and Epsilon. His own squad, farthest forward, would bear the brunt of the wave. 'Respond!'
Shotguns roared, spraying the oncoming mob with buckshot. Penal miners staggered, but none fell. The front rank had been bloodied but their charge continued unfazed. The arbitrators fired again. Several miners collapsed, but the press of bodies carried the remainder forward, injured or not. As the enemy closed the last few meters, D'Albeqaas's men let their third and final volley fly to devastating effect.
The five arbitrators in the front rank locked their riot shields en echelon and braced themselves as the mob crashed into them. Nevertheless, the thunderous impact nearly swept them off their feet. Shotgun blasts from D'Albeqaas and the rear blew miners back, relieving the pressure on the front and freeing the shield-bearers to swing their power mauls.
Miners died, their flesh roasted by electrostatic discharges; holes blasted in their torsos; their bones broken; and their limbs severed. Those slain were swiftly replaced by more of the crazed criminals, whose charge spilled around the edges of the small arbitrator formation. They clawed at the arbitrators' unguarded sides as the squad shifted to meet the foe. One arbitrator, then a second, was torn down, dragged out of line and into the voracious, grasping mob, before D'Albeqaas's men could reform into a bristling, deadly ring.
Crazed penal miners piled over the broken corpses of their compatriots and each others' flailing bodies to get at the squad. They tore at the arbitrators with their heat-scorched hands, their crude weapons, and their jaws.
The arbitrators fought back, pumping shell after shell into the writhing mob and lashing out with power mauls. D'Albeqaas saw the other arbitrator squads moving in on the melee, weapons firing. The Rhinos' pintle-mounted storm bolters stitched bloody furrows through the mob.
D'Albeqaas blew the face off another lunging attacker and his shotgun clicked empty. He clubbed the next miner, a scrawny woman, back and fumbled for his holstered bolt pistol. An armored face jerked into sight, a man wearing a standard arbitrator-overeer's armor and half-helm—not one of D'Albeqaas's task force, who all wore environ-sealed masks and rebreathers. A throne-damned looter; it had to be. The man lashed out with a flaring power maul and shattered the neck of the arbitrator beside D'Albeqaas.
D'Albeqaas cursed and lunged forward, grabbing the man's arm in an attempt to disarm him. His opponent batted his grip aside with a standard Arbites counter, and D'Albeqaas jerked away.
This was no miner in stolen gear. Here stood one of the mine's original, conditioned overseers, fallen as far into madness as his penal charges. The traitor laughed scornfully at D'Albeqaas.
Blind, unreasoning fury surged through D'Albeqaas, and he leapt from the relative safety of his squad's formation to lash out with his shotgun. He swung his gun by the grip, as if it were a child's bat, and knocked the arbitrator back.
The power maul came around to parry his second blow, but D'Albeqaas had expected that. He grabbed the enforcer's wrist, yanking his opponent close, and rammed his armored forehead into the man's bare chin.
The man staggered back again, spitting blood and teeth. His lips were already blackened and splitting from the deadly heat, but his face was still locked in a crazed grimace.
D'Albeqaas didn't let him recover his balance. He swung the shotgun again, slamming its full weight into the enforcer's face. The man dropped, and D'Albeqaas followed him to the ground. The marshal rammed the shotgun butt repeatedly into the enforcer's mouth and nose.
The man was surely dead, but that didn't matter to D'Albeqaas. He kept pounding at the corpse. This scum had attacked him, killed one of his men, and broken his holy oath of service! Rage coursed through D'Albeqaas's being as he smashed the overseer's face into a pulp.
Another miner crashed into D'Albeqaas from behind, knocking him off the fallen man and to the ground. The miner landed atop him, scrabbling at his helmet. D'Albeqaas pistoned his fist up, knocking the wind out of the man. He rolled aside and grabbed the dead traitor's power maul, then scrambled back to his feet and slammed the maul down, dispatching the winded miner. Another tried to tackle D'Albeqaas, once more from behind. He roared with fury, shouldered back into the assailant, and whirled to crush the wretch.
A shotgun blast removed the back of his new-found challenger's head. Black-armored forms, D'Albeqaas's men, marched past, their guns barking.
He pushed away his bloodlust and looked around, taking stock of the battlefield. Corpses of more than a hundred miners littered the ground, interspersed by the occasional carapace-armored figure. Some of the latter were his men, but more... could no longer be counted such.
As the last of the miners were dispatched, vox reports filtered in:
"Five dead, three from Alpha-"
"-get these three back into the Rhinos, now! They've lost their helmets-
"-were they thinking? It's just insane-
"-sir? What do you-"
"-handful of incapacitated-"
He shook off helping hands, letting his newfound power maul hang limp in his grasp as he took stock of the situation. The enemy welcoming party had decimated his five squads. There were far more than this hundred penal workers stationed here, he knew, too. Closer to six times that, plus forty arbitrators. What had prompted them to this? And if they had all turned to this inexplicable madness, he considered with horror...
The necessary cleansing would be bloody.
Blood. The word resonated in his mind and dragged his gaze downward. The red, iron-rich soil was greedily drinking in the blood bloodblood of the fallen and running into depressions in the plaza's flat, dusty ground.
Depressions shaped almost like...sigils.
Throne of Terra, no.
'Get back!' D'Albeqaas howled into his voxbead. 'Fall back to the Rhinos!'
The sigils flared with unholy light and convulsed, sending a painful shudder through the ground and through his gut. The blood bloodbloodblood was a ritual, a God-Emperor damned summoning-
Reality shrieked and the gore-soaked earth, unnaturally rich and dark, swam upward into shapes.
Terrible, terrible shapes.
What sphinx of plascrete and adamantium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Imperator! Imperator!