The Shilwulf Dynasty
Chapter 05 - C S I Tanstar
|Present Location:||Planetside, deep forest|
As dusk falls, Devalt drives the small truck down the rutted dirt road that winds through the thick forest of evergreens. Wedged between the seneschal and Hob in the cramped cab, Anna cringes each time they hit a bump. The seats in the aged military vehicle seem to be little more than solid metal covered by a gratuitous layer of thin canvas. Neither Hob or Thurman show any sign of discomfort, however, so Anna keeps her complaints to herself.
’I’m curious as to why those tribals had any Imperial technology at all,’ Devalt muses. ‘Trading with heathens is an act of heresy.’
’I’m more concerned with the fact that the crime scene was staged,’ Anna replies, wincing as the truck bounces over a particularly rough bump. ‘Someone went to the trouble of making it look like the natives murdered our crewmen but they were clearly killed with Imperial weapons.’
‘Maybe the natives shot them, they had enough lasguns,’ Hob observes.
‘And then stabbed them after the fact?’ Anna asks, her eyebrow arched skeptically.
‘Sometimes you want to make sure somethin’ is dead,’ he shrugs, throwing a sideways glance at the seneschal.
‘This again?’ Devalt sighs exasperatedly. ‘I took that damned warp beast down first. Period. The end. Nothing walks away from three shots from Elsa.’
’Can’t believe you named your gun,’ Hob shakes his head. ‘And it was still standin’ until I gutted it.’
‘Whatever gets you through the day,’ Devalt replies, throwing his hands up innocuously.
‘Tell ’im, Doc, tell him who-,’
’What’s that?’ Devalt asks, looking ahead.
The seneschal slows the truck as they pass the singular military vehicle on the side of the road. Judging by their insignia it looks like they belong to the Tanstar PDF, and he purposely doesn’t return the hard glare the pair of soldiers throw their way. With their investigation still underway, causing ripples with the local law enforcement won’t help them get any closer to solving the mystery.
Hob glances in the passenger side mirror, noting that one of the guards says something over a handheld radio. Once out of sight, without a word he opens his door and climbs along the outside, disappearing into the back of the truck.
‘What the frak is he doing?’ Anna asks, her mouth agape. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Maybe nothing, maybe something,’ Devalt replies, keeping an eye on his side mirror.
As he suspects, a few minutes later the vehicle they passed appears behind them but keeps its distance. A few miles later it becomes apparent why the soldiers tailing them had been so patient. They find their way completely blocked by a large PDF cargo hauler surrounded by several more soldiers with their weapons drawn. It would seem the locals are less than enthused with their visit.
‘If I tell you to run, you run. Understood?’ Devalt tells Anna as the old truck rolls to a stop. She nods numbly, wondering what the local PDF could possibly want with them.
Thurman cuts the engine as a man wearing sergeant’s stripes approaches the driver-side window. His name tag identifies him as ‘Drake’.
’Where’s the third one?’ he inquires. Devalt shrugs. ‘Step out of the truck. Both of you.’
Without the rumbling engine the world seems eerily quiet. Their boots kick up small clouds of dust as they hit the ground, the rusty doors squealing in protest as they slam shut. In the distance, thunder rolls as a coming storm approaches from the west.
‘No sign of him,’ another soldier reports, hopping down out of the cargo area.
’Doesn’t matter,’ Drake responds. ’We’ll find him soon enough. Check them for weapons.’
Where is Hob? Anna wonders, scanning the woods for any glimpse of his familiar silhouette. He must have gone back to the outpost for reinforcements.
’I’m growing tired of you outsiders meddling in our business.’
‘You killed our crewmen?’
‘A necessary precaution.’
‘And you’ll kill us, too?’ Anna gasps. ‘Why?’
‘Easier that way.’
A soldier pulls Thurman’s Inferno pistol from its holster, eliciting a low whistle from the sergeant.
‘What do we have here?’
’I’d be careful with that if I were you,’ the seneschal cautions.
’I’ll keep that in mind,’ Drake smiles.
‘The girl is clean.’
The sergeant looks her up and down for a minute, brushing a long soft curl away from her face. He smiles nastily at her scowl of contempt.
‘Where is your friend?’ he asks.
‘If I had to guess,’ Devalt responds before Anna can reply, ’I’d say he’s watching us right now.’
‘Really?’ Drake laughs. ‘Does he think he can take out eight armed PDF by himself?’
‘He doesn’t think,’ the seneschal shrugs. ‘He knows.’
‘Tough talk, One Eye. Wonder what he’d do if we shot one of you. Maybe just take out a knee to start with?’
Anna glances around nervously as the troopers snicker at the suggestion. It is true, though, there is little they could do to stop them from torturing them to death. Miles from base camp, it would be hours until search parties found their corpses, if they found them at all.
‘To be more specific,’ Devalt continues, unintimidated by the sergeant’s threat. ’He’s probably sizing up the two guards on the girl. He knows I can handle myself.’
‘Well, I suggest he shows himself soon,’ Drake sneers as he draws his sidearm, a standard issue las pistol. ‘The girl is coming with us, we need to figure out how much they know. Take him into the trees and shoot him. Leave his body for the wolves.’
‘No!’ Anna screams, straining against the man holding her from behind.
‘Gag her, too,’ Drake orders. ‘I don’t want to listen to her screaming.’
The doctor starts as a splash of warmth splatters onto her right cheek. Bewildered, she looks on as the guard in front of her drops to his knees. With surreal lucidity her eyes come to focus on the hilt of a large combat knife firmly embedded in the man’s neck. A moment later she hears a sickening snap before the guard’s grip on her relaxes as he slumps lifelessly to the ground.
‘There he is!’ Drake yells, pointing toward the tree line. ‘After him!’
Three of the PDF pursue Hob’s massive dark shape as he crashes through the thick underbrush.
‘Run!’ Devalt yells.
Anna does as she’s told, running into the forest for cover. Her heart sinks at the distinct crack of lasgun fire behind her, but if the seneschal told her to run surely he must have a plan. Fueled by pure adrenaline she has no idea how far she’s run, coming to a stop only when her lungs burn and her legs shake. Gasping for breath and her mind racing, she decides to try making it back to the outpost to bring back help.
Hearing footfalls close behind she forces herself onward, cursing as her foot catches on a rock outcropping jutting up from the ground. She tries to scramble to the cover of a large fallen tree close by, screaming as someone grabs her by the ankles and drags her back
Drake flips Anna over and straddles her waist, attempting to grab her flailing arms. She growls, surprising even herself when she manages to punch him in the jaw. Her small victory is short-lived when the sergeant snarls, backhanding her across the cheek. Dazed, she can taste the coppery tang of blood in her mouth as he slaps a pair of manacles onto her wrists.
‘Settle down,’ he seethes with a venomous glare. To further punctuate his point, he rests the palm of his free hand on the grip of his holstered sidearm. He stands, dragging the doctor up from the ground and roughly shoving her toward the other guard. ’Let’s go.’
Octavius sits in a comfortable overstuffed leather chair, sipping hot recaf in the Quartermaster General’s plush office. From the decor it would seem agriculture has been profitable for Tanstar, it isn’t often administratum officials on back planets like this have such luxury.
Though his face is a carefully maintained mask of professionalism, his concern at not hearing from his people yet is weighing heavily on his mind. Glancing out the window behind the Quartermaster, he can see stormclouds brewing over the fields in the distance.
’I’m certain we can accommodate your requisition, Lord Captain,’ Quartermaster Peskin says, his long purple administratum robes swishing as he sits down behind his desk.
’That’s good to hear,’ Octavius replies with his best appreciative tone. He figures it can’t hurt to turn on the charm. Eager to head into the Koronus Expanse, he isn’t fond of the idea of being stuck for months on an agricultural planet.
‘Now, if we could go over this list I can arrange for your re-supply to commence as soon as possible.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Octavius begins, setting down his recaf on the table next to him. He looks over his data-slate a moment before tapping one of the line items. ‘Well, we can start with the rations. Then -’
’Cap’n,’ Hob’s voice whispers over the comm. Even hushed, the Mortressan’s words are clear and sonorous.
‘Excuse me a moment, Quartermaster,’ the rogue trader says with a disarming smile while putting his hand up to the comm in his ear.
‘Of course, Captain Shilwulf, no rush.’
‘Yes, Hob?’ Octavius says.
‘Got some PDF shootin’ at us. Think we stumbled onto somethin’ we weren’t supposed to know about.’ Octavius hears Hob grunt followed by a scuffle, ending with a familiar tell-tale snapping sound. ‘Sorry, Cap’n. Had to take care of somethin’.’
‘Not a problem. Bring one back for Janus if it’s not too late,’ Octavius responds, his smile never wavering.
‘Affirmative, Cap’n. Hob out.’
‘As I was saying, after the rations are re-stocked we will also require enough fresh water to last until Omnicron,’ the Lord Captain continues, never missing a beat.
Hob sniffs the air, taking in the scents of evergreens, bare earth, and the various wildlife of the surrounding forest. He crouches on a thick tree limb near the trucks, waiting patiently for his human quarry to arrive. A master survivalist, he had no trouble negotiating the rugged terrain or leading his careless prey in circles. He and the seneschal had successfully divided the group of inexperienced troopers, his six to Devalt’s two.
I need to make it a point to bring that up later, he grins.
As he waits his thoughts turn to the young doctor somewhere in these same woods. When he received the order to protect her, he assumed it was simply because of the obvious attraction Octavius has for her. Then to his surprise, she not only had the balls to stand up to that jackass Harzon but had compassion enough to allow the mutant from the brig to live. He finds it a curious thing, to have such a devout servant of the God Emperor show mercy to a lowly twist.
Initially he considered protecting the Captain’s woman and teaching her to swing a sword a waste of his talents. Admittedly though, over the past few months he’s come to enjoy the time the two of them spend together. Usually his cold demeanor combined with the aura of unease he exudes is enough to put people straight off.
There are the occasional exceptions like the Captain, of course, but honestly never someone as easy on the eyes as Annatolla. Though he sometimes manages to shock her with his dark sense of humor, she never seems truly phased by his behavior. On the contrary, often it seems she finds comfort in his presence.
Don’t get attached. She’ll leave like everyone else when she finds out.
He tries to force himself to focus on the task at hand, but the damage is already done. His attempts to push the thoughts of his friend out of his mind fail miserably as he recalls her kind smile, her stubborn determination to best him in the training room, the warmth of her touch. The looming certainty of losing these things begins to awaken a long dormant rage inside the Mortressan.
Moments later, he hears the approaching footsteps of two troopers. His nostrils flare as the distinct scents of fear and anticipation waft on the air, a sign of unseasoned soldiers. Without even a hint of remorse he looks down from his perch at the contorted corpse they are about to discover. As his anger grows, he almost regrets having contacted the Captain.
‘Kelson?’ one of the troopers says, running over to his friend’s body. ‘God Emperor, he’s dead!’
The other soldier catches up after sending a brief message over his radio, shaking his head in dismay at receiving only static in response.
‘Sarge isn’t responding, either.’
‘Maybe Kelson tripped?’
The second trooper shakes his head, looking around warily. ‘Tripping doesn’t twist your head around like that.’
As intended they hear the branch break above them and by the time the troopers look up it’s too late. With a primal roar Hob crashes down, his hulking mass smashing both men to the ground. Remaining crouched, he hears the footfalls of another trooper running up behind him. Giving himself over to instinct, Hob smiles malevolently as he chooses to return his combat knife to its sheath on the side of his leg.
He flexes his hands, feeling his fingernails recede as ebony-colored claws protract to take their place. Needle-like fangs erupt from his gums, thick strands of blood-laced spittle spilling down his chin. His pupils dilate as his senses grow even more keen, taking in everything around him in superhuman clarity.
Long ago, someone once told him that the truth can’t stay hidden forever. Every day that passes makes it that much more difficult to tell Doc about the affliction he has endured for over two hundred years. The truth will be revealed eventually and it will fall to her to purge his existence.
Suffer not the mutant, he thinks with a sneer.
True, she spared the prisoner in the brig but compared to him that girl presented no threat at all. When Doc sees him for the monster he truly is there’s no doubt she won’t hesitate to put him down. And he knows, for the first time in his centuries-long life, he’ll go down without a fight.
The guardsman charges, intending to slam the stock of his las rifle into the back of Hob’s head. In an instant the mutant turns, wresting the weapon from the man’s hands. As the soldier stares into the eyes of the beast, his mind fights to comprehend the abomination of life that stands before him but comes up lacking.
Hob swings the rifle at the man’s knee, rewarded by the satisfying snap of the joint. The guardsman cries out in pain as he falls to the ground, desperately trying to scramble away from whatever Emperor forsaken thing he has encountered.
Hob strolls slowly toward the wounded soldier, savoring the feeling of toying with his prey. These men had intended to torture the very woman he was ordered to protect and that cannot go unpunished, even if it means facing his own death at her very hands. She has her duty as does he, and he will fulfill his to the end.
He leans down, grabbing a fistful of the soldier’s hair and pulling his head back. In one quick motion Hob’s claws slash across his target’s throat, sending arterial crimson arcing through the air. The limp body slips from his fingers as he turns to face the pair of recovering soldiers behind him.
His lips curl back in a snarl as he crouches down, baring his fangs at his attackers. Another man might have empathy for his victims as they suddenly realize that they will never return home again. But not Hob.
He takes the guard on the right down quickly, twisting the man’s head in such a way that it almost decapitates him. The other has the presence of mind to make a run for it while Hob is momentarily distracted with killing his friend. The hunter gives chase, smiling victoriously to himself as the soldier looks back over his shoulder, his features twisted in abject terror.
Hob grabs the soldier around the waist, tackling him to the ground. As they roll, his claws are already rending through his opponent’s flak armor. The man screams in horrified panic as he desperately tries to fight the the feral beast with his last strength.
Lost in his primal rage, Hob roars fiercely before snapping his jaws firmly onto his enemy’s unprotected neck, his sharp fangs penetrating the flesh with ease. With a quick jerk of his head he rips the screaming man’s throat out, a gout of dark blood splashing across his face and torso. The frantic cries turn to a liquid gurgle before the guardsman spasms then becomes still.
Seconds later, Hob finds himself standing alone amidst a gruesome scene. With cold detachment he wipes the sweat from his brow as he slowly returns to his senses. The claws and fangs retract, a pain that was once almost unbearable now barely even manages to register on his consciousness.
As his senses slowly return, he gets a niggling feeling like he forgot something very important. It isn’t until he looks around and realizes he’s bathed in the the blood of his victims that it hits him.
‘Frak,’ he mutters, activating his combead. ‘Devalt?’
’Cap’n said for you to bring one back alive.’
‘Did he now?’ the seneschal replies sarcastically. ‘Fine, but you owe me one. Devalt out.’
Escorted by the sergeant and the other guard, Anna walks through the forest in silence. As the last light of day wanes, she hopes her friends fared better in their escape than she did. She glances up at Drake walking in front of her, contemplating how much longer she has to live.
Blinking, she could swear the nearby bush just shimmered, like heat rising off of rockcrete on a scorching day. Just as she begins to discount herself and blame it on a hallucination caused by fatigue, a disembodied arm reaches from the blur and plucks Devalt’s hellpistol from the sergeant’s holster. Anna stops short, the guard behind her bumping into her back as she stares perplexed at the blurry shrub.
Suddenly Devalt materializes from thin-air and grabs Drake by the collar of his flak armor. As the sergeant yelps in surprise the seneschal twists him, effectively turning his new hostage into a body shield.
Anna gasps as the guard behind her wraps his arm around her throat, pulling her into a headlock. She struggles to avoid choking as the panicked soldier pulls her to one side as he tries to draw a bead on Devalt. The much more experienced seneschal, however, has an easier time moving his hostage since the barrel of ‘Elsa’ is pressed into the base of Drake’s skull.
‘Let the girl go,’ Devalt orders firmly.
‘Like hell I will,’ the guard barks. ’How’s about you let sarge go.’
’You’ve lost this one, boy. Do as I say before you do something stupid.’
‘What, you mean like shoot the girl?’
Anna winces at the sharp pain of the las pistol’s muzzle digs deep into her ribs.
‘We outnumber you,’ Drake points out but Devalt just shakes his head.
‘Might want to check your math. I count it at three to two now.’
The sergeant laughs, ’You’re a good liar, I’ll give you that.’
‘Have your man check if you don’t believe me.’
‘Parker, Hodges, this is Adams. What’s your status, over?’
A few moments of tense silence pass. ‘Parker, Hodges, report!’
The receiver finally crackles to life, ’They’re dead. So are their buddies,’ Hob’s deep voice reports.
‘Son of a bitch,’ Drake spits, stomping his foot angrily.
’You’re going to want to let her go before he finds us,’ Thurman advises, ‘Remember how this started?’
With no logical alternative, Drake knows he’s forced to concede. ‘Cut her loose.’
As soon as she’s free, the seneschal nods toward Drake, ‘Bind him, Anna,’
‘With pleasure,’ she smiles wickedly, making certain to secure the shackles extra tight.
‘How did you do that?’ Anna asks as Devalt finishes disarming their prisoners.
‘Cameleoline,’ he replies as if she has any idea what that means. Seeing her confused look, he holds up the cloak for a demonstration. At first the fabric is easily seen but after a few moments its color adjusts to match its surroundings.
After emerging from the woods, Devalt loads the two soldiers into the back of the truck. Anna scans the forest’s edge for any sign of Hob, wondering where he is.
‘Thank the Emperor,’ she says with relief as his familiar form finally emerges from the woods. She gasps as he steps into the light of the truck’s lumens, seeing him spattered in blood.
‘Hob, you’re wounded.’ She pulls a field dressing out of her medikit, gently pressing it to his arm. Her well-trained eyes quickly scan him for open wounds.
’Ain’t my blood, Doc,’ he says simply. Reaching out he tilts the side of her face toward the light, looking at her swollen cheek and cut lip. He glances at Drake, a low growl rolling deep in his chest when the sergeant throws him a grin.
‘Doctor, you okay riding in the back?’ the seneschal asks, noticing the exchange between the two men. He is plenty wise enough to know that if the bodyguard is left alone with their two prisoners the PDF will be dead long before they make it back to the outpost. ‘Might want to check Hob over just to be sure.’
‘Sure thing,’ Anna nods before climbing into the truck, completely oblivious to the glare Hob shoots Devalt’s way.
‘Where are you taking us?’ Drake demands as the truck lurches into motion.
The sergeant chuckles, leaning back in his seat. ‘I won’t say squat.’
’Don’t need you to say anythin’,’ Hob shrugs.
Once they arrive back on the Hymn, the seneschal escorts Drake into a small, cold room. The sharp smell of antiseptic hangs in the chilly air. Two chairs face each other, one normal metal while the other is much more substantial with a multitude of leather straps to secure a prisoner. Nearby is a long table with a large selection of neatly arranged knives, needles, and other wicked-looking instruments. Devalt sits the sergeant down roughly in the large chair.
‘Need me to strap him down?’
‘That won’t be necessary,’ Janus rasps as he emerges from the shadows. He sits across from the prisoner, his bone-thin hands settling on the cool metal, a heavy cowl pulled over his face.
Drake glances at the thin man then laughs and shakes his head. ‘This is your interrogator? You have to be kidding me.’
‘Leave us,’ Janus says. ‘I will inform the Lord Captain when I have completed the interrogation.’
The heavy door clangs shut behind the seneschal, leaving the two men sitting in silence for a few moments. Despite the chill, beads of sweat form on the sergeant’s forehead, betraying his facade of confidence.
‘What are you going to do,’ he sneers, hitching his head toward the table of sharp implements. ‘Cut on me? Give it your best shot, I won’t tell you anything.’
Janus glances at the nearby table covered with interrogation implements. ‘No, those belong to the seneschal. Far too crude and unreliable for my tastes. I prefer to utilize more direct methods.’
‘Maybe you should bring the big guy in here if you want answers then,’ Drake laughs. ‘You look like one of those skinny-ass administratum types anyway. Doubt you’ve got the stomach for interrogations.’
‘That won’t be necessary Sergeant Drake, I am quite capable of extracting the information I desire without using such primitive methods.’ My only advice to you is not to resist.’
Aldos slips into his unsuspecting mind with barely an effort. He walks around freely, undetected for the moment. It would seem the sergeant isn’t very imaginative, as his mindscape resembles his real life closely.
Janus crouches behind a tree, watching scouts circle the perimeter of the small fortified outpost. Though he appears to have some mental defenses, Drake’s guards appear to be smoking and playing cards and so far seem unaware of the telepath’s intrusion.
Carefully sticking to the shadows, Janus stealthily makes his way past the patrolling scouts toward the main gates. Smiling confidently to himself, he begins slowly pushing them open to reach Drake’s inner sanctum a second before they slam shut in his face. A harsh squealing alarm begins blaring and the previously lackadaisical defenders of the sergeant’s mind are instantly on their feet.
Back in the interrogation room, the sergeant begins sweating profusely as he tries to fight the mental attack. Janus draws back his hood, revealing his hollowed eye sockets. Blue ichor oozes over his cheeks, hanging in droplets on his lower jaw before pattering softly onto his robe. The astropath stares at him, his face a picture of serenity.
Drake watches as a thick layer of frost begins to creep toward him across the floor from beneath his interrogator’s feet. He panics, futily straining at his bonds as fear grips him to the core. ‘What are you?’ he gasps.
Janus returns to the mindscape, finding himself surrounded by numerous guards. He takes a moment to center himself, gathering his full energy before morphing into his own psychic version of a space marine. He laughs as his armor easily absorbs the impotent barrage of las fire from the guard’s weapons. Drake’s soldiers desperately attempt to protect his mind from the invader, but to no avail.
Janus returns with fire of his own, white-hot bolts of psionic energy fly forth from his hands, dispatching his foes with pathetic ease. When they lay defeated at his feet, Janus punches the gates with his huge armored fist, smiling as they fly off their hinges and burst into a shower of splinters.
‘Stop resisting,’ Aldos advises once more. ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’
Troops pour out of the sanctum, swarming the telepath despite the damage he has already inflicted. Shaking his head with a disappointed sigh, the super soldier leaps impossibly high into the air. With a roar he slams down into the midst of the troopers, sending out massive concentric shockwaves.
As the dust settles he stands, casually rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck. A quick survey of the cataclysmic destruction surrounding him is evidence enough that there will be no further attacks. Finally unhindered, Janus strolls into Drake’s fortress.
Sometime later, Janus summons the Lord Captain and seneschal to the interrogation chamber. They find the sergeant in a fetal position on the floor, lying in a pool of his own urine. Blood trickles from his nostrils as his body is wracked by soul-wrenching sobs. Aldos nonchalantly steps over the prisoner as two arbites hurry in to drag the hopelessly broken man to the brig.
‘He and his soldiers are definitely responsible for the deaths of our crew. Apparently our men stumbled on a deal going down between the natives and Drake’s crew.’
‘We suspected as much,’ Devalt nods.
’I’m afraid it’s much bigger than you think, seneschal. The tribesmen that you met have access to a Xenos site and have been retrieving relics and trading them for Imperial goods. They then bring the relics to a warehouse in Tanstar Prime. Unfortunately, it appears this is no small-time deal.’
‘How far up the chain?’ Octavius asks.
‘All Drake is aware of is an administratum official named Charles Peskin. He was the initial contact and the one who authorizes the extra pay for Drake and his men. If it goes further than that, the Sergeant has no knowledge. However, it would seem Peskin hired Drake and his associates exclusively.’
Octavius strokes his goatee in thought. ‘Peskin, eh? Now that we’ve taken the corrupt PDF out of the picture we may be able to turn this to our advantage.’
He turns to Devalt wearing his signature roguish grin. ‘Up for a little recon, seneschal?’
This was our first in-person session and I wanted it to be a good one. Snowmoon and I spent a week coming up with a cool murder mystery to solve complete with leading clues, red herrings, and interesting NPCs. Then Janus shows up with his newly purchased Mind Probe and more or less solved the mystery in the first hour of game play.
The chapter differs from the table events quite a bit, but the end result is the same. At the table, Janus mind probed the blue tinted natives, the explorers ambushed the PDF and got them to surrender, and then they planned how best to confront Peskin.