They’d driven for two days straight, practically non-stop, and had barely seen anything different. Nothing but craggy walls and darkness for miles and miles and miles. Beyond the odd out of place boulder and low-hanging beam, they came across nothing out of the ordinary, as was usual when patrolling the tunnels. Each member of the team had spent a few hours in the driver’s seat. The only times the rover stopped was for them to switch with whoever’s turn it was next, the hope being to put as much distance between themselves and the Imperium as possible. It wouldn’t have taken long for the High Inquisitor to learn of their decision not to follow her instructions. She was most likely in hot pursuit with her forces at that very moment. Haldron hoped Tolov and the General Secretary hadn’t suffered too much of the bitch’s wrath. No doubt they were the first people she would have taken her rage out on.
But despite their efforts to cover as much ground as possible in as little time as possible, Haldron knew the gap between them and their pursuers was closing rapidly. Helerenna took a pounding during their escape, far greater than anything she’d endured before. The front windshield had been shattered with nothing else to keep the cold tunnel air from streaming into the front cabin and making it seem like they were sitting in a freezer, more than half the main headlights were broken, greatly reducing their visibility in front, and, worst of all, the front tyres had been knocked out of alignment, slowing them to what was little more than a crawl in comparison to the speed Helerenna was usually capable of. Haldron also didn’t like the sounds coming from the engine. The further they went, the worse they seemed to get. The damage left him a lot more nervous than usual about travelling the tunnels. They weren’t making it difficult for the Imperium to track them down, not to mention being an easy target for some of the tunnels’ larger and more ferocious beasts.
It was Erdam’s turn behind the wheel again though there were no complaints from the old guardian. Haldron had barely moved from the passenger seat since their escape. In almost two days, he’d allowed himself little rest, to the point that staying awake was proving to a be mountainous task in and of itself. He couldn’t go a minute without yawning and every time he closed his eyes he came dangerously close to nodding off. He should be resting. He was in no condition for searching for artefacts or fighting Trassani, or just about anything else. He knew all this but still couldn’t bring himself to lay down in his bunk. He almost convinced himself it was because he wanted to be awake in case something happened. But Haldron knew the truth. The thought of what he might see when he drifted off filled him with both hope and dread. He’d been seeing them a lot lately, innocent smiles and eyes full of joy, an image of happier times. But then everything changed; joy was replaced with terror, happiness with pain. And then they were gone. “Haldron”!
Haldron looked up, expecting to see something important. But there were only rocks and darkness. “What is it”?
“I think you need to get some rest”, Erdam said, one eye on him and the other on the road.
“You’re asleep on your feet, or you would be if you were standing up”.
He’d nodded off again, despite his best efforts. “I guess you’re right”.
“You’re gonna be no good to us like this when the Trassani descend”.
Haldron nodded. “I know. I guess I’ll go and get some sleep. Where are we”?
“We’re about an hour from the junction. We’ll need to stop soon and figure out what we’re gonna do when we get there”.
“Alright. Let me know when we’re near”. They were headed for Orda Treima, the region Searyuhb’s people were believed to call home. That was probably where he and his raiders had retreated to after the attack on the mines, and where they found Searyuhb they would also find what they sought. Tracking him was easier than other bands. Most were nomadic in nature, never staying in one place for more than a week, but Searyuhb’s band was long believed to be operating out of a permanent encampment somewhere near the Fallen City of Elsheim though, aside from that, there was little to indicate their exact whereabouts. Some believed his base to be set up within the ruins of the city itself. Haldron had always been sceptical of the notion. Even a savage like Searyuhb couldn’t be crazy enough to hole up in that death trap.
Haldron found the rest of his squad in their bunks. He sensed their unease, the casual chatter ceasing as soon as he entered. Over the past two days, much of the bluster he’d instilled in them had fizzled as they became ever more conscious of the situation they were in. They’d followed him into some of the darkest valleys imaginable but Haldron had to wonder if he’d finally asked too much of them. He’d risked their lives many times with his decisions but never like this, placing them in peril not only out here but back home also. The Imperium would never stand for them interfering in their plans. Surely they would seek vengeance.
“Look who’s decided to join us”. Rowtenat’s bitterness was plain as ever. Two days on the road had done nothing to temper his anger at effectively being pressganged into a mission he wanted nothing to do with.
“How are we all doing”?
“Oh, we’re all just fine”.
Haldron sat down in his bunk but he didn’t rest. He had something to say. “I want to make something clear to you all right now. We all know the Imperium is less than pleased with us and what we’re doing”.
“Just a little”. Haldron understood his friend’s anger, but his irreverence was quickly getting on his nerves.
“When we return. If we return, I promise you all that I will accept full responsibility for everything that has happened here and whatever consequences come with that”.
Haldron prepared himself for whatever snarky comment Rowtenat might have but Benellen spoke instead “Not to be ungrateful, Haldron, but I doubt the Imperium is going to be that understanding”. Benellen was right; even if they did manage to retrieve the artefact from Searyuhb and make it home alive, there was probably nothing good waiting for them. The Imperium would make sure of that. In all likelihood, he’d doomed them all. If nothing else, their situation was at least a testament to his friends’ seemingly unbreakable loyalty to their commander, a demonstration of how willing they were to follow him into hell itself. Either that or their unending stupidity. They would happily lay down their lives for him (most of them, at least) though Haldron prayed he would never have to ask.
The quiet returned to the rear compartment. It seemed as if a shroud had been cast over Haldron and his team, heavier and darker than any other. It came with the object, its arrival heralded by the darkness falling over everything it touched.
“You know, Haldron”, Rohbalt began. “You haven’t really told us much about what it is we’re after”. It then dawned on Haldron that his comrade was correct. Aside from the short briefing beforehand, he’d told them practically nothing about what it was they were risking their lives for, so focused on getting out of Chintell before the officers could stop them that he’d never stopped to properly explain what they were going after and why.
“Or what the Imperium want with it”, Kallem added.
Haldron wasn’t sure where to begin. “We’re after an artefact that was found in the mines under the city. That was why I was called away the other day. The Chief Officer wanted me to investigate the report”.
“Why you”? Cravvik asked. “That sounds like a job for the Sentinels”.
“The Chief Officer doesn’t trust the General Secretary, or the people working for him. He wanted someone he could trust to find out what was going on”. Whatever trust the Chief Officer had for him was probably as dead as Krazzik and his miners by now.
“Seems like the smart thing to do”, Kallem muttered.
“But what’s the big deal about this thing”? asked Rohbalt. “Why all the secrecy? And why are the Imperium here for it”?
Haldron paused. This was the part he didn’t want to talk about though he supposed his men deserved the truth, given the risk they were taking for him. “It is a strange object, stranger than anything else I’ve come across in all my years as a guardian. We don’t know what it is or what it does. All we know is it’s powerful, and probably dangerous in the wrong hands. That’s why we need to get it back from Searyuhb”.
“Do we have any idea where it came from”? Kallem asked.
“Or who made it”? Cravvik added.
“No”. Haldron answered both questions a lot sharper than he’d intended. He didn’t want to say much more. Even talking about the thing almost made him shudder. He could feel it watching, listening. “We don’t know anything about it, except that it’s powerful, dangerous, and we didn’t make it”.
Kallem looked to Benellen. “You were there as well, right? What did you see”?
“Not much more than you already know. Just a big weird block in some mine”.
Rowtenat sneered. “All this for a fucking block”.
Haldron felt a jolt of anger. His patience with his comrade was wearing thin. “You were there as well. You saw it. You know how powerful it is. Who knows what kind of damage the Trassani could do with it? Not to mention the Imperium. That’s why we’re out here”.
“Yeah, I was there. I saw it, and I saw you. It had quite the effect on you, didn’t it “?
That part Haldron most definitely didn’t want to talk about. Things had already gotten more than a little crazy. The last thing he needed was his squad thinking he was going crazy too.
“What’s he talking about”? Torben asked, nervous. “What happened down there”?
“I don’t even know”. Rowtenat answered. “One moment we were just looking around and the next he’s acting like he’s in some kind of trance. Even Benn couldn’t get through to you”.
Torben looked to Haldron. “Is that true”?
“I don’t know what happened down there”. Again, Haldron answered more sharply than intended. “Whatever it is, it has a power that we might not be able to understand. As I said, we don’t know what it is or who made it or why. All I know is it cannot be allowed to remain in the hands of the Trassani or be captured by the Imperium. Our mission is to retrieve it, not learn its secrets”.
Rowtenat snorted. “Yeah, right”.
Rowtenat hesitated. Perhaps he hadn’t meant for his commanding officer to hear that. “Well, seeing as we’re risking our lives for this, maybe you could do us the courtesy of telling us the truth”.
Every head turned in Haldron’s direction. “I’ve already told you everything you need to know. Everything else is irrelevant”.
Haldron glared at his comrade. “Well why don’t you tell us? Seeing as you seem to know everything”.
“Maybe I know a lot more than you give me credit for”.
“What’s he talking about”? Torben asked.
Rowtenat was answering before Haldron could open his mouth. “Well we all know who it is we’re after. Does anyone here really think we’d be going to so much trouble if it was someone else”?
“Rowtenat”, Benellen growled.
“I don’t know about anyone else but if I’m going to be risking my life, I’d like to know why”.
All eyes alternated between Haldron and Rowtenat who might have seemed like they were engaging in the most competitive staring contest in the history of the galaxy. It was quiet now, too quiet. Haldron couldn’t even hear the familiar rumble of Helerenna’s engines, nor its coughs and splutters.
The door to the front cabin opened and Erdam appeared. Judging from his look, it wasn’t good news. “Guys, I think you’d better come and take a look at this”.
They descended from the rear compartment with rifles and carbines in hand, the pale tubes from the ends of their weapons dancing like fireflies. The way below was a bottomless chasm before their feet met rock. Their footsteps punctuated the silence. Cool air brushed their faces. Were it not for the ever-looming threat of an ambush, Haldron could almost have allowed himself to find some peace in the deadness.
He went first, the arm of blueish-white from the end of his rifle shooting between the ground and the space in front. Every step was a risk. Every inch held the potential for a trap or ambush. The light at the front of the rover neared, their beams mixing with it like drops in the ocean. They stepped from one world to another and were then able to lay eyes upon the what had brought their mission to a standstill. They had no need for their flashlights, even with the headlights in the state they were. They saw well enough.
There were eight bodies in total, hanging like sacks of potatoes from the beams above by a rope at their ankles, hands tied behind their backs, and nothing but a red stump where a head should have been. The once brown rock beneath was now stained crimson, the puddles having converged to form a single red lake before drying and becoming one with the ground. Haldron edged closer. He spied something at the light’s threshold. A face floated in the intensity of his beam, with a head and a neck but nothing else. The eyes were open but he saw no life in them. In place of a body was a steel spike driven into the rock, surface stained the same colour. Haldron scanned the darkness and found another head and spike, then another, and another. He couldn’t help but be impressed with the uniformity of it all. Two straight rows, four on one side of the tunnel, four on the other, each spaced roughly the same distance apart, all about the same height and all looking in the same direction. For some, it would be almost impossible to imagine how any creature could be capable of such brutality but for Haldron and his men it was just another day. The bloody spectacle barely rattled him, his years of walking the tunnels having left him well-numbed to such things. Nothing shocked him anymore.
In the light of Helerenna, he discerned the blue of their uniforms, guardians, a whole squad by the look of it. That was strange. He hadn’t heard of any squads reported missing. He wondered if they were from Chintell at all. On closer inspection, Haldron’s suspicions seemed all but confirmed. There, the breast of the nearest body, the symbol of the city from which they came, not Chintell but…
“Varramar”. Not a great distance from the capital but it was no less strange finding them here.
“What the fuck are they doing here”? Rowtenat asked.
“Only one reason”, Benellen answered.
“But why would they put them here”? Torben still wasn’t fully desensitized to the Trassani’s viciousness.
“For saps like us to find. Their idea of a joke”.
Something else caught Haldron’s eye. He moved his light from the heads to the wall where he saw the symbols he’d seen too many times before: three lines, the middle vertical, the others diagonal. “Searyuhb”. He’d recognize those markers anywhere.
“Fucking savages”, Erdam grumbled.
The glyphs and letters were drawn in the blood of dead guardians, grisly calling cards left behind to taunt and gloat at those unfortunate enough to stumble across the scene. Trassani never let their kills go unrecognized, nor did they risk someone else taking credit for their work.
Haldron felt the rage bubbling inside as he stared at the red symbols turned black by his torchlight, so absorbed he almost didn’t notice Benellen appear at his side. “I don’t think these were meant for any old saps”.
Haldron thought the same. “They’re not as dumb as we like to think they are. They knew someone would be coming after them”.
“And they knew what route we’d be using”.
“We’re walking into an ambush”.
“What do you want to do”?
Haldron looked to the blackness beyond the bodies. “We can’t go back. The Imperium are catching us up as we speak, and Searyuhb’s probably watching every tunnel for miles”.
“Imperium on one side, Trassani on the other. Perfect”.
“We have no choice. We have to keep going. We’ll deal with Searyuhb when we get to him”. Haldron turned to the others. “Alright, let’s get them cut down and bagged up. We’re not leaving them here”.
“What are we gonna do with them”? Cravvik asked.
“We’ll take them with us. Once we’re back we’ll see they get to where they belong. Varramar is missing eight good men. I’m sure they’ll want them back”.
It was a grim job, but one Haldron and most of his team were well acquainted with. Torben, Rowtenat, and Rohbalt stood guard while he and the others set to work cutting the bodies down and zipping them up in the bags they carried with them for such an occasion, all the while remaining vigilant themselves for signs of impending ambush. They worked as fast as they could. Searyuhb’s people could have been lining up shots right that second for all they knew. It didn’t take long to clear the way ahead but their lives were only about to get worse. There was still the matter of the heads. It didn’t help that their eyes were still open, faces frozen with the emotions of their final moments. Some had been terrified, others looked like they couldn’t care less.
Haldron took hold of the closest with both hands though not before closing its eyes. He didn’t look very old. His head had been driven onto the spike with such force the end had smashed through the top and was protruding like an antenna, one caked in dry blood and bits of skull and brain. It required a surprising amount of force to shake loose. The sounds of flesh and congealed blood sliding along cold metal sent a shiver through Haldron. With a final tug, the head was separated from the spike though he didn’t feel much better to be holding it in his hands like a children’s toy. What an undignified way for one’s remains to be handled. That had to be part of Searyuhb’s joke, a final insult to the poor men whose lives he’d snuffed out.
They tried their best to match the heads to the bodies but, with the darkness and the pressing need to get moving, it was difficult to be exact. Very likely they’d put a couple heads in bags with bodies to whom they didn’t belong but there was no time to worry about that. The gap between them and their pursuers was closing. They loaded them into one of the cargo compartments at the back. Haldron prayed they wouldn’t be loading any more bodies further down the line.
It was time to get moving again. They’d wasted enough time as it was. Haldron kept guard as the others climbed the steps. An uncomfortable feeling twisted in his stomach. He’d spent enough time here to last the rest of his days. Benellen was the last to climb the steps. Haldron was about to follow when something stopped him, eyes drawn back to the dark he’d just been aiming at.
“Haldron? Is everything alright”?
He heard his friend but couldn’t bring himself to reply, or even acknowledge him. Something held his attention, so tight nothing could tear it away. Before he knew what he was doing, he was heading back to where the bodies of their comrades had hung.
“What are you doing”? Haldron still couldn’t respond, far too absorbed by whatever was calling him. He kept going until he’d reached the limit of the rover’s glow, the point where light became dark. The rest of the squad had exited the rover now. Haldron heard their footsteps on metal and rock.
“What the fuck is he doing”? Kallem asked.
He knew he shouldn’t be here. He should be back aboard Helerenna with his squad, making their way toward their objective and hoping the Imperium didn’t catch up before they did. But he couldn’t bring himself to return to them. Something in the darkness beckoned him, like in the mines, overriding his senses and holding him in an iron grip. His first thought was of the artefact; this had to be its doing. But how? It was so far away. How could it know where he was? This was something else. This felt different. Instead of the fear he felt in the cavern, Haldron felt things he hadn’t in such a long time, and certainly never in the tunnels. They filled him all at once: warmth, safety, love, and a presence that brought hope and joy, a presence he’d felt before and thought never to again. It was right there in front of him. All he had to do was step forward. His foot started to move. The darkness consumed his toecap. It was so close.
A hand took him by the shoulder as he was about to immerse himself, and then he was face to face with Benellen. “What the fuck are you doing? We’re fucking exposed here”. Haldron still couldn’t answer, able only to stare into his friend’s eyes. Benellen stepped closer. “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been acting weird ever since we found this thing”.
“The fuck you are. If you were fine, you wouldn’t be standing here waiting for a fucking raider to blow your head off. They could be lining up shots right now”. He was right; every second stood there was another begging to be taken out. “The guys are worried, Haldron. They think you’re losing it”. He did as well. Haldron could hear it in his voice.
“They could be right. I don’t know what’s wrong with me”.
“This isn’t the time or the place to be going crazy. We need our commander. The guys need to know you’re alright. You have to show that now, even if you’re not. Can you do that”?
It should have been straight forward but it seemed now nothing in his life was. The best Haldron could manage was a sigh and a nod.
“Alright then”. His friend’s faith sounded far from restored. “Now let’s get back on the rover before we die here”.
Haldron followed though all he could think about was what lay behind. It was still there, still calling. Even as he approached his men, he wanted nothing more than to turn back. The others were waiting by the stairs, all wearing the same expression, except Rowtenat. When he looked to him, all Haldron saw was disdain. He’d done it now. Their confidence in him was all but shattered. It was likely just blind loyalty keeping them from refusing to go any further. He doubted he’d be able to rely on that for much longer.
Erdam started up the engine and then they were moving again. The darkness in front was washed away but Haldron saw nothing out of the ordinary. Whatever was there before was gone, but something told him it wouldn’t be the last time he felt its presence. Something was out here, something that knew him and wanted him. Maybe he really was losing it. What if he was imagining all of it? Even what happened with the artefact, the way it attracted him, drew him in, and seemed to watch him. What if it was all in his head?
This just got better and better. They had the Imperium on one side and the Trassani on the other, they were walking into an ambush, and now their commander was losing his mind. He needed to be careful. If he didn’t watch his step, it wouldn’t be the Imperium or the Trassani putting a stop to their mission, but his own men.
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