Spiritum – Chapter Twenty-four

24.

It was business as usual at City Defence Installation 14. The vehicle yard swarmed with activity as the rovers rumbled through the main gates, carrying squads of guardians home from their patrols in the tunnels and others on their way out. The air was filled with the crackling of welding torches and the pounding of rivet guns, the engineers hard at work on the returning vehicles, many of which had taken a battering. The automata rushed about the yard, some carrying materials for the rovers on their backs, others aiding the medics in tending to the latest guardians to return with injuries, an occurrence that was becoming all the more common.

“Alright, let’s get out of here as fast as we can”. Haldron was unusually pushy with his squad. Yesterday’s argument with the Chief Officer had set him on edge. He wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Helerenna was waiting in her usual spot, tyres several times the height of the tallest man there. It was common for guardians to name their squad vehicles. The rovers were more than just a mode of transport; they were a symbol of pride and dominance over adversity. Helerenna literally meant “She Who Perseveres” in the ancient Ebol tongue. But despite the high value placed upon them, Heleranna, like her counterparts, had seen better days. Her once pristine outer surface was now scratched, tarnished, and decorated with a chaos of dents, scoring, and bullet holes. Her engine had been repaired, rebuilt, and replaced more times than Haldron could count along with just about all of her other components. Apart from the inner chassis, there was little left of the original Heleranna he’d rode in on his first patrol all those years ago.

“You heard the man. Let’s get this done quick”. Benellen was being his more authoritative self. He liked to remind the others that he was nearly in charge of them.

They wasted no time carrying their weapons and equipment up the steps to the rear compartment. Haldron was more than certain the officers would try and put a stop to his mission and preferred to be nowhere near when they did.

In all, Helerenna consisted of only two main parts: the front cabin and the rear compartment, both supported on six wheels and covered with all manner of armaments for whatever the tunnels threw at them. Essentially a mobile bunkhouse, the spacious rear compartment contained everything a guardian could possibly need to be as comfortable as possible while holding back the threats to their city. That included individual bunk beds, a small kitchen and dining area, and bathroom facilities. Patrols could last anywhere between a week and a month. Everyone had their role. Haldron, Benellen, and Rowtenat were riflemen. Erdam was the designated driver, Cravvik was combat engineer, Kallem, medic, Rohbalt, sharpshooter, and Torben, grenadier and the newest addition to the squad.

After he set his rifle and equipment down in his bunk, Haldron returned to the vehicle bay to help load up the supplies. Even the shortest patrols required ample food, drink, medicine, and ammunition. He found Torben near the foot of the steps, rooted to the spot with a crate in his hands. He seemed miles away at first glance but, on closer inspection, was stupefied by the sight of another squad passing by, having returned from a patrol and looking like they’d seen better days. They more resembled walking corpses than living men. Some limped while others were supported on their comrades’ shoulders. A couple were carried on stretchers, one with a bandaged stump below one knee.

“What happened to you guys”? Torben asked in equal part amazement and horror.

The nearest Guardian stopped and turned to him. He looked like he didn’t know where he was. “It was hell. I’ve never seen so many of them. They just kept coming”.

“The Trassani”?

The Guardian nodded slowly, then his dead eyes widened ever so slightly. “You’re not going out there, are you”?

Haldron stepped to Torben’s side. “We are”.

The Guardian sneered quietly. “You’re gonna die out there. We were the lucky ones”. He wandered off without another word. Torben looked the ground.

Haldron took him hard by the shoulder. “Stay focused, Torben”.

“Yes sir”. He gave an unsure nod before heading to the steps.

Haldron could have given that guardian a few extra bruises for that. They were on edge enough as it was. Once the supplies were loaded up, he climbed the ladder to the front cabin where he found Erdam in his usual place behind the steering wheel.

“Are you ready for this”?

The grizzled, old guardian answered with a sly smile. “I’m always ready”. Haldron smiled back. He had to admire his enthusiasm, misplaced as it was. He hadn’t seen what they were going after; he couldn’t understand fully what they were getting themselves into despite the short briefing they’d recieved. The only way to understand was to see it for yourself. Erdam’s fur was completely grey; he was another one who’d become so attached to the tunnels nothing could be said or done to make him leave them. Haldron wouldn’t have been surprised if he was driving the rover on his deathbed.

Erdam was about to power up the engine when a voice stayed his hand. It was Rowtenat. “Haldron”! He then appeared in the doorway.

“What is it”?

“We’ve got a problem”.

A man in a uniform similar to Tolov’s met Haldron at the bottom of the steps. He was one of the senior officers, one of the people not too pleased with him and his refusal to bow to their wishes. “Antulen”. The Officer made no attempt to hide how little he wanted to be there.

“What is this”?

“Your mission is cancelled. You are to report to the General Secretary and Chief Officer immediately”.

Something wasn’t right. “The General Secretary approved this mission. We’re going after the artefact and there’s nothing you lot can do to stop us”.

“It’s not the officers. Please report to the General Secretary and Chief Officer at once”. The Officer left Haldron there, clearly having no intention of continuing the conversation.

Haldron turned to find Benellen by the steps, looking equally mystified. “I’ll come with you”.

They took the tramway to the Citadel. The installation was way up at the edge of the city and their destination lay at the centre. Haldron was pissed. Every wasted moment was another for Searyuhb to get as far away as he could, and for what? So he could listen to the Chief Officer try in vain to change his mind again? His mind was made up; he was going after Searyuhb. Still, he couldn’t understand why the General Secretary would be calling him back, given it was he who approved the mission. Maybe’s Tolov had managed to change his mind. Haldron doubted that was the case, given their relationship.

He’d expected the officers to meddle in his plans, but Haldron certainly didn’t expect the sight that greeted him and Benellen when they entered the lobby of the Citadel. As far as as he could see, there wasn’t a single wall not lined with large men in heavy combat armour, weapons clutched to their chests and glowing eyes fixed on the guardians as they passed tthrough he doors. Both men froze up. Haldron felt a flutter in his stomach and a shiver trickle down his spine. His fur stood on end. Of all the things he expected to see in the lobby of the Citadel, this was one of the last. It had been a long time since he’d come face to face with Imperial soldiers.

“What the fuck is this”? Benellen whispered. Haldron had a mind to loudly demand the same though he doubted he’d get an answer.

The soldiers regarded them with unnerving silence that was broken by the echoes of nearby footsteps. The General Secretary’s assistant appeared from one of the staircases, wearing the same stony expression as all the other times Haldron had seen her.

“Guardian Antulen. You must report to the General Secretary at once”.

“What’s happening”?

“That’s not for me to tell you. You will find out when you meet him”. She gave Benellen a suspicious glare. “I’m afraid only Antutlen has been called to meet with the General Secretary.”

“This is my closest friend and comrade”, Haldron said. “Where I go he goes”.

The assistant’s beady eyes contracted even further. “The General Secretary said nothing of him. He said nothing of a close friend and comrade”.

Haldron leaned forward, mirroring her expression. “I’m sure the General Secretary won’t mind as long as he’s quiet”.

The assistant stepped back, glaring. It was a tense couple moments before she gave an irritated nod and headed back in the direction of the stairs. Haldron took that to say he’d gotten his way. There were even more soldiers further into the Citadel, like statues along every wall until they neared, heads then turning and following them as they passed. They were just as tall as the guardians, some even taller; a surprise considering most Ebol towered over their Haelqen counterparts. They must have passed at least two centuries’ worth on their way to the General Secretary’s office. As the initial shock wore off, Haldron started putting two and two together. It wasn’t hard to figure out that his being called to the Citadel and the sudden appearance of what seemed like an entire army of Imperial soldiers were connected. No way could it be a coincidence. The thought filled him with dread. It could only mean one thing. As they neared the office of the General Secretary, they heard what sounded like a woman screaming at the top of her lungs. This was no ordinary woman, more like a demonic beast. The thick walls did little to muffle the racket coming from within.

The assistant stopped by the door and motioned for the guardians to go on without her, apparently having no interest in facing what lay beyond. She avoided Haldron’s eye as he entered, his closest friend and comrade at his back. They found the General Secretary seated behind his desk with the Chief Officer beside him. They both wore the same expression: nervous, bordering on terrified. A woman with skin pale as the snow on the mountains above and dressed in a stola that looked to have been dipped in blood was raging at them from across the desk. Another Haelqen woman stood nearby, this one with short blonde hair and a stola black as oil. Two other figures occupied the office, clothed in blazing armour that made it look like they’d just been pulled out of a smelter, hands rested upon the pommels of their swords. Their grimacing masks chilled Haldron’s bones.

Haldron recognized the screaming woman. It was Demetria Benedicta Alrianius, the Imperium’s religious leader though he wasn’t sure why they would have sent her, if they were indeed here for the reason he thought. “This is unacceptable! How could you allow this to happen”?

“What’s going on here”? Haldron asked.

The screaming banshee spun around and Haldron’s eyes widened when he saw hers. They glowed red just like those of the soldiers. “Who are you”? she demanded with a voice that sounded like it should have belonged to some terrible otherworldly creature.

Tolov answered. “This is Haldron Antulen, Guardian Senior Three. We sent him to investigate the artefact”. In all his life, Haldron had never heard the Chief Officer sound so frightened.

The High Inquisitor advanced on him, knocking the stone seats out of her way like they were made from polystyrene. “So you’re the one who lost it”.

Haldron’s heart raced. He needed to be very careful. “Respectfully no, High Inquisitor. I was only sent to investigate the reports of its discovery. Had it been entrusted to the care of the Guardians, we would have been able to move the artefact to the Research Sector where it would have been safer”. The General Secretary glared at him.

“And why was it not entrusted to you”?

Haldron hesitated. The General Secretary shook his head, the coward. “The General Secretary felt there was no great urgency to move the object to safety. He decided that a simple salvage team would be enough to ensure its safe transit”. Haldron didn’t mind getting him into trouble. This whole situation was his fault after all.

Demetria stormed back to the desk. “So this is your fault. You dare lie to the face of the High Inquisitor and now, because of your laziness and incompetence, you have allowed an artefact of great importance to the Imperium to fall into the hands of a bunch of primitive troglodytes? Do you have any idea what you have done? I should have you crucified for this”.

The General Secretary could barely get his words out. “Please, High Inquisitor. I beg you to show mercy. But, with the utmost respect, I informed the Imperator of the discovery several day ago”. Of course it was him. Finally, it made sense. He didn’t want to entrust the artefact to the Guardians because they surely would have resisted when the Imperium came looking for it.

“What exactly are you implying”? the other woman demanded.

The General Secretary hesitated. He knew he was in trouble. “That… perhaps if you had arrived earlier… you would have been able to take possession of the artefact before this unfortunate incident took place”.

An ear-splitting scream shook the office and the General Secretary was no longer in his seat. Haldron wouldn’t have been surprised if his eyes popped from his head as he stared at the leader of his city floating above his desk and clutching his throat. The Chief Officer made a dash to help him only for one of the Praetorians to appear in front of him, the blade of his sword pressed to his throat. Haldron felt himself step forward though whether it was out of a desire to help the General Secretary or merely instinct, he wasn’t sure. In either case, he didn’t get far before he found his way blocked by the other Praetorian. He noticed the other woman. Her eyes were glowing as well though hers were bright blue, the same colour as the energy emanating from her hands.

“You stay where you are”, she said. Haldron and Benellen did as they were told.

“How dare you lay blame upon the Imperator”! The High Inquisitor’s voice devolved into an even more monstrous clamour. “You fail him and then insult him by denying your responsibility? You should suffer the ultimate punishment for your failure”.

The General Secretary was trying to say something, likely nothing more than a desperate plea for mercy. He writhed and kicked and struggled to draw breath, hands never leaving his throat. Haldron’s eyes flicked between him and the terrifying woman holding him in the air with only her mind. He’d heard about Arcana but this was his first time seeing it with his own eyes. Ebol arcanists were extremely rare. It had been a long time since he felt terror like this.

The General Secretary fell still and hands left his neck. He hung there limp like a rag doll before he came crashing down like a sack of potatos. “Unfortunately, it is not my place to put an end to your little life”, the High Inquisitor lamented, her eyes and voice returned to normal. “Alas, the Imperator still has use for you”. Despite his dislike for the man, Haldron was beyond relieved to hear the General Secretary draw breath. Corrupt, greedy, and spineless he was, but not deserving of such a fate.

The High Inquisitor turned her attention back to him. “This mission of yours is at an end. The Imperium is taking over the situation. You will not investigate the artefact any further. We will find it and return it to where it belongs. Is that understood”?

“Yes, High Inquisitor”, Haldron immediately replied, certain what would happen if he said anything else.

The scary woman gave a sinister smirk. “Good. See that you do not get in our way”. She shot Benellen a threatening scowl before taking her leave. The Praetorians and the other woman followed though the tension would remain for some time after their departure. Tolov rushed to the General Secretary and helped him to his feet. His quickness to help him despite his feelings reminded Haldron just how good a man the Chief Officer was.

“You heard her, Haldron”, he said as he helped the General Secretary into his seat. “That’s the end of this”.

Haldron wanted to agree, but he couldn’t, not even after everything he’d just seen. “We can’t let them get their hands on it either. If the Imperium find the artefact they could be even more destructive than the Trassani”.

The Chief Officer finally lost his temper. “That is the end of it! It’s over, and you will do as you are told. The Imperium will take care of this now. And as for you, Haldron, you’re on leave, effective immediately”.

“Sir I-”

“Go home, Haldron, and get some rest. That’s an order. Benellen, you’re in charge of your squad in your commander’s absence. You will resume your patrols as normal and you will not interfere with the Imperium in any way. Do you understand”?

“Yes sir”. Benellen gave Haldron an apologetic glance.

The Chief Officer looked to Haldron, expecting or, more likely, hoping to hear the same. It killed Haldron to say it. At least that was how he made it seem.

The guardians headed for the door. “Haldron”. The look on the Chief Officer’s face was haunting. “If you do anything other than what I’ve ordered you to, your life as a guardian is over. Is that clear”?

Haldron repeated himself. Clearly, the Chief Officer wasn’t convinced of his obedience, as he was right not to be.

With the addition of Imperial soldiers, the vehicle bay at City Defence Installation 14 was more crowded than ever. Everywhere you looked, there was a tall brute in heavy armour looking back. Haldron and Benellen did their best not to attract attention as they crossed the yard though their nervousness made that a lot easier said than done. Every few moments, Haldron couldn’t help but look over his shoulder to see if there was a pair of red eyes on them. The closer they got to the rover, the more he noticed. Probably paranoia, but it seemed as if they were keeping an extra close eye on them. You could cut the tension with a knife. It wasn’t just them unhappy with the arrival of the Imperium. Haldron saw it in the faces of the workers and his fellow guardians. The coming of the Imperium never signalled anything good.

“Listen, I’m your friend”, Benellen whispered just loud enough to be heard over the industrial din. “But the Chief Officer said-”

“The Chief Officer is wrong”.

“But the Imperium-”

“You heard me. If they find it before us they could destroy us all”.

Benellen kept up his attempts at changing his mind, even as he mounted the steps to the rear compartment. “They’ll kick you out of the Guardians if you do this”.

Haldron turned to him. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it”.

“And what about the rest of us? You’re gonna risk throwing us under the wheels as well”?

“I’m your commanding officer, aren’t I”?

“Yes but-”

“Then I’m responsible for this. I’ll make sure the officers know that. You were just following my orders”. Benellen stood quietly, conflicted. “You’re my best friend, Benellen. We’ve been through a lot together. You’ve saved my life more times than I can count. You were there for me when I lost everything. I need you again now, more than ever. There’s no one else I trust more to have my back out there”.

Haldron watched his best friend weigh it up. Finally, he nodded. He knew he wouldn’t let him down. The rest of the squad were sitting in their bunks but as soon as they entered they were on their feet.

“So what’s happening”? Rowtenat asked.

“We’re going after the artefact”, Haldron told him like it should be obvious.

“But we thought the mission was cancelled”.

“It was. Now I’m uncancelling it”.

“But the Chief Officer-”

Haldron felt a shock of anger. “The Chief Officer is wrong”, he said for the second time.

But what about the Imperium? All patrols are suspended until further notice. We can’t do anything now”.

Haldron approached his comrade, anger fueled by his. “Look, right now, the most dangerous Trassani warlord this city has seen in over a generation is out there with an incredibly powerful and dangerous artefact of unknown origin. The Imperium want it as well, that’s why they’re here. The Trassani are one thing but the Imperium is something else. If they get their hands on it, who knows what they could do? You’ve all seen what they’ve done to us, how they walk all over us, take from us what’s not theirs to take. Are you going to let these bastards push us around? Are you going to bow down to them”? His zeal spread through the compartment like the most virulent of diseases. The rest of the squad moved up beside Rowtenat, eyes filled with the same fervour that told Haldron they would walk with him into hell itself. “Now we are going out there. We’re going to find Searyuhb and take the artefact back from him and then we’re going to take him out and every last savage that follows him. Who’s with me”?

The collective roar thundered through the compartment. The squad spoke as one, all except Rowtenat who only kept glaring at Haldron. No doubt he had plenty of objections though probably didn’t want to be remembered as the one who bowed down to the Imperium while his comrades stood up to them. That seemed enough to sway him.

Haldron entered the front cabin before anyone could change their mind. Erdam followed. The driver set to work powering up the engines. Haldron caught his eye. “I understand why we need to do this and you know I’m with you. But the Imperium-”

“Fuck the Imperium”.

Erdam shrugged. “Fair enough”.

Helerenna roared to life with a rumble that seemed to come from the belly of a great snarling beast. Her engine coughed and spluttered as vibrations shot through the cabin. “Come on, old girl. Don’t fail me now”, Erdam muttered, pushing buttons and pulling levers as he struggled to get the vehicle into gear. The sounds coming from the engine left Haldron a lot less confident than a few moments ago. They’d be off to a great start if they couldn’t even get out the front gate. “Get in, you old whore”, Erdam hissed. Helerenna sounded like she could give out at any moment.

A few seconds passed and still nothing. The rover was still in its parking spot. Haldron found it harder and harder to sit still, ever more conscious of the fact that the longer they sat there the more time the soldiers had to realize what they were up to and put a stop to it. But then the chugging of the engine suddenly became a lot smoother. “Finally”, Erdam exclaimed.

Haldron breathed a relieved sigh as they backed out of their spot though he wouldn’t allow himself to get too excited. They still had the main gate and the entrance to the tunnels to clear.

“Where do you think you’re going”? a metal-tinged voice demanded from the bottom of the steps.

“We’re just heading out on patrol”, Haldron heard Benellen call from the rear compartment.

“By order of the High Inquisitor, all patrols are suspended until further notice”.

“The High Inquisitor cleared us to leave”.

“Stop this vehicle right now”!

“Get us out of here”, Haldron roared.

Erdam wrenched one of the dozen or so levers in front of him and spun the steering wheel, sending the rover swinging around with such force Haldron had to grip his seat not to be thrown from it. Through the windshield, he watched as the soldiers made frantic dives and dashes to avoid the metal beast careening toward them.

“Open fire on that vehicle”!

“Oh fuck”, Erdam muttered.

The air was filled with the whistling of energy weapons followed by the fizzing of the molten Spiritum melting its way through the top lays of the rover’s armour. Erdam slammed his boot on the accelerator and Helerenna lurched forward, quickly gaining speed despite her age and wear. Soon they were hurtling through the vehicle bay. Haldron tried to ignore the disturbing sounds coming from the engine. They came to the end of the row and with another turn of the steering wheel were facing the main gate a few hundred yards away. It should have been cause for relief but Haldron’s eyes bulged with horror at the sight of the two halves emerging from the walls surrounding the vehicle bay. Once they met that was it. There were no other ways out of the bay, none big enough for a rover to fit at least.

“GO”!

Erdam put his foot down once more and they were moving again. Haldron couldn’t take his eyes away. It was going to be close. He gripped the arms of his seat as hard as he could. They were nearly there, but the gate was still closing fast. They weren’t going to make it.

“Should we use the main gun”? Erdam asked.

“We’re too close”.

Haldron fought to keep his eyes open as they entered the final stretch but when the moment came he failed. Everything went black and the whirring of the engine and sounds of gunfire were consumed by the scream of metal on metal that forced Haldron to bring his hands to his ears. Vibrations stronger than anything he’d ever felt spread through both him and the cabin as it was crushed and warped. The windshield exploded under the pressure, shards flying like sparks. Then there was quiet, the gunfire and screeching having vanished completely. Haldron almost convinced himself he was dead until he heard the brisk humming of the engine and the beating of tyres upon rock. He lowered his hands and opened his eyes to see the highway in front, and the entrances to the tunnels up ahead.

“Welcome back to the land of the living”. Erdam smirked, eyes fixed on the road.

“I think I just shit myself”.

“I think we all just did”.

With a clear road in front of them and the tunnels drawing nearer, Haldron permitted himself a little more optimism than before. Theirs promised to be a journey of many hurdles, and they’d just passed a big one. That was at least some call for celebration. He didn’t allow himself too much excitement. They might have passed one obstacle, a big one admittedly, but it was still only one, and there were many more waiting.

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