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Emperor Preserve Us

There are days when I find myself wishing for a simpler life even if it meant a more mundane job. I suppose that’s common to people with jobs like mine, if you could call what I do a job that is, some would say it’s a calling, whilst I’ve often thought of it as more of a curse.

Sorry I’ve been droning on and I haven’t even bothered to introduce myself. Name’s Varran, Quintos Varran and I’m an Ordo Xenos Inquisitor. Wondering what I meant by calling, well this is it. Anyway for the last three months, my travelling band and I have been stuck on Gaul, a miserable forestworld where the undergrowth is broken only by the half dozen or so hive cities and the small inland seas (well, big lakes really, but the locals like to think of them as seas).

Now why anyone would think such a place was worth fighting over I don’t know, but one thing I’ve learned about the Xenos in my long years of studying them is that their thought processes are nothing if not alien to the human mind. Assuming of course that an Ork thinks that is and while the leaders might, I’ve seen plenty of evidence to suggest that the rank and file rarely worry about anything more than where their next meal is going to come from, or who their next kill will be.

Anywhere four months ago two Space Hulks showed up in orbit and deposited their green guests upon the surface. The local PDF managed to do a good job of holding them up long enough for reinforcements to arrive, though I think it had more to do with their familiarity with the terrain than any martial ability. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of respect for PDF regiments, their willing to face any number of threats despite having a fraction of the training a Guard regiment receives.

In any event it was a good thing we showed up when we did, which I mean myself, my retinue and three regiments of Imperial Guard, two of them Catachan, the other was Cadian, spread out to defend the cities, while the Catachans had taken the fight directly to the Orks. Naturally I’d accompanied them, looking to confirm reports as to which particular Ork commanded this horde. If as I suspected it was ‘Da Helmet’ then it might make my excursion to this Emperor-forsaken dirtball worth it.

For decades now I’d been hunting this particular Ork, known only by his curious moniker, a title bestowed from the fact that he never removed his helmet. Given the truth of this I had come to think this Ork was one of the elusive Smartboyz, Orks who actually understand the need for strategy and tactics and were all the more dangerous for it.

Such a hunt meant that I’d embedded myself and my retinue in amongst the foremost elements of the Catachan advance, choosing the Catachan 701st, known as the Vipers, as my regiment of choice, their penchant for reckless behaviour more than likely to bring me into contact with the elusive Warlord.

To give you a sense of what I mean, this particular regiment had once coated themselves with a substance known to attract the native predators of some Emperor-forsaken Deathworld, then run headlong through the thick jungle canopy towards enemy lines. Passing over them the arrival of the Predators had dealt with the sentries and ensured that in the mayhem resulting from the feeding frenzy, they were able to complete their mission undisturbed.

So here I am with my small band in amidst the action. Besides me there’s my military advisor, Captain Sau (awful name, but she makes up for it with her talents), Inquisitor Loman (my apprentice, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, though not likely to remain that way unless he learned to show a bit more respect). Beyond these two were all the usual freaks you might expect, first there was my pet psyker Arianne, who ever since we landed had been unable to stop babbling, occasionally uttering some word of sense (I feel really sorry for her, as I did for my last three psykers, but their a means to an end nonetheless). Then there’s the resident Xenologist, Kline, whose expertise where the Orks are concerned, is matched only be his equally impressive, but largely boring knowledge of the other races I’ve encountered during my work for the Ordo.

Beyond our group are the Catachans themselves, bounding along in their stripped down Chimeras, anything likely to impede egress having been removed from the vehicles, small groups of Sentinels lopping along at their sides. So far they’ve proven noticeably taciturn, even to each other. Squads have tended to keep themselves to themselves, even within the same platoon, which I find curious, but then I suppose when your regiment has such a reputation for throwing themselves headlong into danger, that it comes with the price of high casualties, making intersquad relationships short-lived at best.

Nevertheless I’d come to have a fierce respect for them in the short time I’d been with them, and while I doubted they would ever warm to my presence I was fairly confident that I had at least been able to earn some respect in my turn from them.

Leading the regiment was the grim, hard-faced Colonel Kurzan. A woman I had come to learn whose only redeeming feature was that she was as willing to share in the risks she subjected her troops, as she was to casually throw their lives away. She would have possessed what would have been a classical beauty had she been born on say Macragge, Pavonis, or any other of the more civilised systems of the Imperium. However her Catachan upbringing had conspired to distort that beauty by giving her an aggressive musculature, short cropped hair, most of which was hidden under a bandana, and finally, small, pinched eyes that caused her to glare accusingly at anyone who made eye contact.

Besides the customary Chainsword, she had taken to wielding a Powerfist, though where she had received it, I felt it best not to ask. Probably it had been given to her as a gift or reward after completing some particularly difficult assignment, but given her perpetual scowl (which for me at least, only ever gave way to a sneer), I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she’d pried it off the hand of some dead Space Marine. Trust me that’s more likely than it sounds, not every guardsman (or woman) holding the Space Marines in quite the same reverence as most of the Imperium.

Apart from her though, I hadn’t been able to introduce myself to any of the other Catachans, apart from Sergeant Marras, my liason and unofficial aide whilst I was with the regiment. What I’d been able to gather from him (apart from the fact that he appreciated Sau’s talents in the same way I did), was that most of the officers in the regiment learnt very quickly that it was best to keep stumm around Kurzan (probably out of fear, not an uncommon feature amongst the Imperial Guard commanders that I met, sadly). I also learnt that many of them had once been sergeants, promoted for their bravery rather than any tactical awareness, which meant Kurzan preferred those who would tend not to ignore her out of deference and concentrate on following their orders rather than thinking them through (again another common feature amongst the Guard commanders I’ve fought alongside).

Still she was a good enough commander, and the regiment had comprehensively wiped out several Ork warbands we’d come across, often with minimal casualties. This wasn’t going to be the case this time.

“They’ve registered contacts, a few hundred metres ahead,” Marras reported, turning to face me as we rattled along in our Chimera. For a moment I was surprised that the auspex could penetrate the undergrowth, then I remembered it was more likely that Scout Sentinel pilots had seen the Orks, developing firefights up ahead confirming what I suspected.
“Colonel’s ordering us to engage” relayed Marras.
“Excellent” I replied, my hand tightening around the grip of my Powersabre as I readied myself from combat, behind me Captain Sau raised her Boltgun. It was such a routine that had saved our lives many times, as it was to do now.

All of a sudden Orks began leaping down from the treetops, Kline’s scream the only warning of their entry to the battle. Many wore unusual arrangements of camouflage consisting of whatever fauna they’d been able to scrounge along the way, but their intent was no less deadly despite their comical appearance. Sau’s Boltgun ended the ambitions of the first one, her fusillade splitting the creature in two, Marras’s Lasgun frying the brain of another, but the rest were upon us in short order. Two rushed me, doubtless recognising my clothing as something denoting importance and I found myself hard-pressed to deflect their blows as I parried. Ducking one poorly aimed attack I was able to thrust my sabre into the first Ork’s guts, disembowelling the creature.

Unfortunately this gave the second Ork a good angle to make a killing blow, but he hadn’t counted on Marras’s chainsword, which cut his head clean from his neck. All around similar scenes were being played out in the other Chimeras, those few Catachans not engaged in fighting the Orks were mounting the multi-lasers and heavy stubbers, methodically cutting down the few Orks left in the trees. In between fending off the Orks who thought I’d make a good trophy (at least they have taste in that regard), I caught a few glimpses of Colonel Kurzan in the thick of the fighting, including one of her strangling an Ork (something to be said for all that musculature).

Others amongst my band were making their contribution to the fight, Arianne taking a savage delight in seeing how long it took to kill an Ork by making it bludgeon itself to death (remember when I said about her being a means to an end, well this is what I meant. If she weren’t so useful she’d have been executed long ago, that she hadn’t been was the reason I tended to feel sorry for her). Even Kline was managing to overcome his initial terror and engage in the fight, if bashing an Ork with a somewhat battered book to make it back off, can ever be described as fighting.

Even as the Catachans engaged in the melee, the Sentinels were striding up and down the line, their Multi-lasers making quick work of any Orks outside of combat, whilst their pilots used laspistols to deal with any that were. It was this irony, that the Catachans were the ones with numbers on their side, that did it for the Orks and for all the audacity of their attack, once the Catachan numbers came into balance the tide began to turn against the Orks, and one by one they went down, heads being cut off and throats opened to ensure they didn’t get back up again.

After the engagement had ended I made my way towards Kurzan, who was listening to one of her subordinates detailing casualties, this time far heavier than in previous engagements, the scowl had deepened and it was obvious to me that her mind was trying to decide what was more important, railing against the incompetence of her subordinates (and yes this was yet another common feature amongst the Guard commanders I knew of) or deciding upon the next course of action.

To her credit she decided on the latter as the main priority and turning to me, she began outlining her plan.
“Inquisitor I assume you would agree with my deciding to press on.”
“Of course, I must find this Warlord at all costs.”
“As I must uphold the honour and reputation of my regiment, very well we shall press on, but I want to disperse our forces lest Orks as cunning as these decide to repeat their erstwhile comrade’s performance.”
“Excellent, would you mind Colonel if my retinue and I were to ride nearer to the front of the advance.”
Kurzan’s scowl deepened further still, but refusing an Inquisitor’s request is a dangerous thing, even Warmasters tend to quake at the thought of doing such a thing (something quite useful in my line of work, though not to be used to often).
“Very well, but I will not have you and anyone else from your little band interfering with my mission.”
“Colonel, our missions are the same.”
Kurzan snorted derisively at that and resolved to make sure I kept a closer eye upon her.

Later as the regiment resumed it’s advance I asked Marras to tell me what I could of Kurzan’s past. The sergeant hesitated a little at this request and I was sure his telling would not be a willing one. Nevertheless as I’ve said refusing an Inquisitor’s request is a dangerous thing, far more so for a mere Sergeant than for a Colonel.
“Well sir, what do you know of Catachan?”
“I know that it is a Deathworld, inimical to Human Life where every native species is predatory, that only the strongest survive, that noblemen and women from all the Imperium travel there every year hoping to claim some of those predators as prizes. That the Catachan Devil is thought by some in the Magos Biologos and the Ordo Xenos to be some form of Tyranid sub-type.”
Marras seemed impressed, but that might have been for my benefit, you never can be sure that people aren’t trying to impress you in my line of work.
“Well sir, what most outsiders don’t know is that even on Catachan there are family feuds, even small wars between relatives as disputes escalate out of hand…” I did know this but decided to let it pass, “… and every so often they result in one side of a family being wiped out, this occurs mostly amongst noble families though, but sometimes there might be a survivor or two. The Colonel’s family was consumed by one of these disputes and her parents, brothers and sisters were killed. However she was a witness to what had happened, so to keep her from talking she was exiled deep into the jungles of our homeworld, where she was expected to die.”
I was beginning to see where this story was going, having heard quite a few versions of such a tale over the years.

“She obviously lived in spite of her family’s intentions” I remarked.
“Yes sir.”
“And she returned to take revenge upon her family?”
“Oh yes sir, quite spectacularly too.”
My raised eyebrow indicated that he should continue.
“You see sir the Catachan Devil can track a quarry by scent, so what she did was she coated herself in a scent know to attract them and then…”
“…Ran towards her family’s house, bringing the creatures in upon the unsuspecting relatives, who were presumably consumed in a feeding frenzy?”
“Yes sir, how did you kn… oh.”
“Quite.” Well, at least it explained the Colonel’s fondness for frontal assaults, along with one or two of the Regiment’s more interesting exploits. It also confirmed a few of my suspicions regarding the Colonel’s command style.

Given her lack of charisma, along with seemingly perpetual scowl, it was becoming obvious to a man of training and experience such as myself that the Colonel had built a cult of personality around herself that was deeply unsettling. Unfortunately it was also something I would have to investigate, distracting me from the hunt for ‘Da Helmet’.

It’s at this point that I suppose it would be remiss of me not to tell you a little more about ‘Da Helmet’; after all I’ve been hunting him for the better part of twenty-five years. You see about thirty years ago, there was a Tyranid invasion of one of the numerous petty Ork domains that litter the Eastern Fringe. At the time we weren’t too worried about it, after all if they wiped each other out, so much the better for us, but before long reports began to circulate that some kind of Messiah was leading the Orks to victory after victory.

I know the use of such a term in connection with Greenskins is blasphemous, but since most of my colleagues have used it, I see no harm in following suit. Anyway this Messiah seemed at first to be just another warlord, possessed of the size and strength to bully his fellow Orks into doing what he wanted and we weren’t to concerned. After all if he decided to come after the Imperium once he was finished with the Nids, we had more than enough to deal with him, with no less than five regiments of the Imperial Guard, two chapters of Space Marines, and an order of the Adeptas Sororitas ready to answer any summons to arms.

Such hubris was our downfall however, because once ‘Da Helmet’ was done with the Tyranids and it didn’t take him long (according to one highly suspect report, he turned them against one another), he turned on us. Only he didn’t attack head on, the way you’d expect for an Ork, instead he started by preying on Imperial shipping, striking at will and disappearing before any retaliation could strike him.

Within months Imperial Navy vessels, even Space Marine strike cruisers were forced to provide protection to the convoys now necessary for shipping to continue, drawing them away from the systems they had been stationed to defend. It was these systems that ‘Da Helmet’ had then raided, carefully attacking only the military centres of these worlds, along with anything that could produce new arms for the Imperium.

In this way he ensured that the burden of protecting the civilian populations became all the greater, and that ever more ships and troops had to be dispatched to defend these systems, drawing them away from other worlds, deeper in the Imperium, which were then attacked in turn. In this way ‘Da Helmet’ had conducted a chevauchee that within a generation had taken him all the way across the Imperium, leading him eventually to this planet and my hunt for him.

Time and again I’d seen the results of his attacks, of systems ravaged by his horde, of cities utterly untouched save for the destruction of manufactorums, of areas where only military bases had been destroyed, everything around them left untouched. In many respects I wish he’d been more like a typical Ork, then I could have just brought him to battle with the advantage of overwhelming firepower and been done with it.

Even the attack we’d just experienced had been but a test and I had little doubt that ‘Da Helmet’ had sent it for no other reason than to gauge our strength, in which he had succeeded. Even as the attack had been ending a few of the soldiers reported seeing Orks scurrying off into the undergrowth at a pace we couldn’t match.

Unfortunately now I had to worry about Colonel Kurzan and the cult of personality she’d orchestrated, intentionally or otherwise amongst her troops. Now the more capable commanders are always going to enjoy a certain popularity with those they command, but one thing we in the Inquisition have to watch out for is when popularity transforms into worship, for the sake of the soldiers who adhere to it as much as for the Imperium’s.

Far too often I’ve seen zealots and fanatics condemn the innocent for no crime greater than being in the wrong place, as I feared would be the case with these soldiers, unless I were to intervene. True few overt signs could be discerned of such a cult existing, but in truth it didn’t matter, the very nature of her command would be enough to damm her in the eyes of those who justified any number of atrocities in the Emperor’s name.

I brooded on these and other thoughts as the regiment proceeded ever onwards, the soldiers in the Chimeras watchful of the trees at all times, but so far there had been no repeat of the earlier assault, which seemed par for the course where ‘Da Helmet’ was concerned. Though I would never admit it, I was grateful for this, as it gave me more time to consider the Colonel.

Outwardly she seemed like any other Catachan I’d ever met, practical, reserved where outsiders were concerned and the kind of leader who preferred to be at the fore of combat rather than holed up in a command bunker. However I’ve embedded myself in Catachan regiments before and normally they’re boisterous, happy and tend to enjoy a good camaraderie between officers and the common soldiers.

Not this one, by contrast they were as reserved as their commander, the first piece of evidence towards proving my unwanted suspicion.

“Tell me Inquisitor” said Colonel Kurzan, stepping down from her Chimera and clambering aboard ours as easily as a cat might jump onto a chair, “what do you know of this Ork warlord we are fighting?”
I considered the question carefully, wondering whether it was just a simple request for information about her adversary, or something more…
“That he seems unorthodox for an Ork, at least where his tactics are concerned, though he seems as rapacious as any of them when it comes to slaughter and carnage.”
The Colonel nodded at this, satisfied, at least for now.
“I take it Colonel, that you know much the same as I?” I asked, carefully trying to draw out some indication of her true purpose. As an Ordo Xenos Inquisitor I never fail to be amused by the irony that in a galaxy full of aliens, Humanity remains it’s own greatest enemy.
“Yes, though I must admit I had not expected such a clever strategy from an Ork until I had seen it for myself.”
Upon hearing this, my first response was to smile, thinking that at least there was something human to the Colonel after all, but the more I thought over it the more I realised such a comment could not be expected from someone of Kurzan’s background. Instead it seemed designed to keep me off guard, but if anything it had confirmed my darkest fears.

There was some connection between ‘Da Helmet’ and the Colonel.

As the next few hours passed, I considered what this connection might be. As unlikely as it seemed for an Imperial Officer to ally with an Ork warlord, it would not be an unprecedented development (though in most cases it was greed that motivated such alliances and they usually ended badly for any Imperials involved). Far greater a possibility was that she had been coerced in some form or another; ‘Da Helmet’ having some kind of ability to sequester his enemies that I suspected was psychic in origin.

Yet could it be possible that he had found a way to control an entire regiment of the Imperial Guard, of all the men and women who made up such a force? Perhaps he had simply determined the existence of Kurzan’s cult of personality in his own inalienably Orky way and found a way to exploit it. In any event never problem was my greatest concern, as surrounded as I was by Catachans, I could not simply kill their commander and expect to escape alive (a state of being I enjoy very much). Some things, even inquisitorial privilege cannot protect against.

However there was one ray of hope (if you’ll forgive the cliché, but then storytelling has never been my forte) amidst this vista of gloom, namely that whatever this connection was (and my mind had not hesitated to supply any number of ideas) it would be revealed once the final battle was joined. ‘Da Helmet’ after all was still an Ork and whatever his other attributes; he still had the love of battle (some call it a craving) that was common to his species.

Still such a certainty did nothing to help alleviate the sense of helplessness I felt.

That feeling deepened as hours turned to days, then weeks without any sign of the Orks, yet there was no change in how the soldiers behaved. In any regiment that advances for weeks on end without sign of the enemy you’d expect to see boredom, complacency or some other sign that the unending routine was having an adverse effect upon them. Not so with these Catachans, their manner never changing, not even within what I would expect of such a stoic people.

As time passed I consulted with Kline, Arianne and Sau, trying to find some indication that something else, Eldar, Daemons, anything I could understand could be at work here, but none of them had noticed anything. So instead I just sat back waiting, at times considering that maybe I and my retinue should strike out on our own, but I knew we’d never be able to equal the speed of the Catachan advance in this terrain, let alone move faster than they were, so we stayed put.

More and more, my ability for rational thought was giving way to paranoia, strange thoughts occupying my waking hours, doubts over my calling, over my understanding of my enemy. Was he even here, on this planet, or had he left long ago? Were these men and women who surrounded really men and women, or were they just automatons whose strings were being pulled by some unfathomable intelligence?

Though I hadn’t noticed it I hadn’t bathed in weeks, my chin was covered in the beginnings of a beard where I’d always taken care to remain clean-shaven. Yet as I looked around none of the Catachans seemed to have changed, none liked any dirtier, any older. There were no grey hairs from stress, no beards from a lack of shaving, though none could have had a chance to shave on this relentless advance the Colonel was maintaining. This strange truth was further reflected in my retinue and more and more I began distancing myself from them, ignoring their attempts at counsel, at conversation, soon ignoring them entirely.

Upon this whole world, I was the only thing that seemed to be changing; almost everything else remained the same. This one thought kept nagging me, until I was utterly obsessed with it, letting myself be slowly consumed by it. When the final battle came, with all the bizarre panoply of war that comes with an Ork horde, it seemed a blessing and I heard myself giving thanks to the Emperor that something had broken the oppressive calm of the never-ending advance.

As I lost myself in fighting my way through the Ork masses, I caught sight of the Colonel doing the same, her Chainsword swung with as much precision as my Powersabre, her Powerfist ripping apart any number or Ork Walkers and Trukks. All around her there swarmed Greenskins, yet none could bring her down.

Even so it could only be a matter of time and I fought my way towards her, Orks dying by the dozen as I hacked away with my Sabre. Yet the closer I drew the more Orks there seemed to be, both dead and alive, and I felt those strange thoughts coming back up to the surface of my mind. How could such an impossibility be real?

The closer I got to the Colonel the more it seemed that such an impossibility could indeed be happening, for Kurzan was bleeding far to much for her to still be standing, yet no wound could dislodge her from the ground she held. At last I reached her side and it seemed we were but a small Island about to be swamped by the endless, crashing tides of the Orks. Risking a quick glance at her wounds, I saw her stomach had been cut, the organs within threatening to spill out. Even Catachans aren’t so tough they can ignore such a wound, then I looked down and saw to my horror, that I to had been wounded in that manner.

Sensing this Kurzan turned to look at me, pity and sorrow mixing in her eyes. Around us the world seemed to slow down until eventually it froze. At length I recovered my wits enough to utter a single word, “how?”

She looked at me with those eyes, much softer now, reminding me of a kindly old grandmother rather than the Colonel she was.
“Look over there Inquisitor and you will see the truth of it.”
I followed her direction until I saw ‘Da Helmet’ for the first time, the huge helmet he wore utterly obscuring his face. Around him swarmed a number of Catachans equal to the Orks around us, dozens of Chainswords and bayonets piercing the Warlord’s flesh until he uttered a final howl of anguish that seemed to freeze my soul.
“You are always the last to realise Inquisitor, which is why you are the only one who changes…”
I looked at her, mute with horror as I realised the truth of this place, of what it was, what it represented.
“… and I am always the first to know” she finished.
“Emperor preserve us,” I mumbled, out of habit rather than thought.
“Yes” agreed Kurzan, “in a way he has, just not the way we were expecting.”
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