The Shilwulf Dynasty
Chapter 09 - Sudden But Inevitable
’That’s just lovely,’ Erata grimaces with disdain glancing sideways at Janus.
The two of them follow behind the retinue down one of the numerous streets of the upscale Kleist Parish. Janus strolls at a leisurely pace as if taking in the sights, admiring the shop windows as they pass. Erata is convinced he is merely putting on a show since the astropath’s actual eyes were boiled away long ago during the Ritual of Binding.
She finds the blue liquid that seems to constantly leak from his empty sockets absolutely revolting. He makes no effort to conceal his disfigurement, and how he can just walk down a street like this she’ll never understand. Curiously the people that pass by don’t seem to notice or at least are polite enough not to say anything.
‘Look, I don’t need some burn-out keeping an eye on me,’ she grumbles.
‘The Captain seems to think otherwise,’ Janus replies, wearing his usual expression of serene indifference. ‘You don’t have anything to hide, do you?’
If her feelings regarding his appearance bother him, however, he doesn’t let on in the slightest. On the contrary, it would seem he is thoroughly enjoying himself, which is especially odd for a voidborn.
‘The Emperor’s grace be with you, child,’ he nods, his ever-flowing blue tears accentuating the edges of the benevolent smile he beams the pyromancer’s way.
If she didn’t know any better, she would swear the old man is just trying to piss her off. Erata shoots him a drop-dead glare but chooses to let the matter lie for now.
‘I can’t wait to see your new armor, Hob,’ Anna beams. ’Aren’t you the least bit excited?’
A suit of power armor is a rare acquisition indeed, even for those with status as influential as a rogue trader. Apparently one of Octavius’s old contacts owed him a very big favor and facilitated a deal. The bodyguard is the perfect candidate to receive such a boon, especially with their plans to venture into the unknown of the Koronus Expanse.
Hob glances down at Annatolla walking by his side, taking an almost sadistic kind of pleasure in maintaining his expression of apathy in light of her obvious excitement. He shrugs.
‘Not really. I’m already pretty unstoppable.’
‘It will certainly be an upgrade to your old carapace armor.’ She punctuates her sentence by thumping the scuffed plating covering his left arm.
‘Speakin’ of which, you need some heavier armor, Doc.’
‘My faith is my armor, Hob.’
With her seemingly non-existent concern for danger or her own personal safety, it perplexes him how she’s managed to stay alive this far. No one could ever accuse him of being a religious man, but after seeing her in battle and walking untouched in the lowdecks he’s beginning to wonder if there is some substance to her claim.
‘Goin’ to be hard for you to patch us up if you’re dead.’
‘Then I give you permission to chastise my corpse should I fall, Hob,’ she offers.
Servo skulls zip past the pedestrians walking along, going about their daily business. All manner of oddities, mostly mechanical in nature, are displayed in the shop windows. Many businesses in this high-end parish have double airlocks to keep the pervasive pollution of Omnicron at bay.
‘Should be just up the street,’ Devalt says. ‘Hope this doesn’t take long.’
‘Jealous, One Eye?’ Hob grins.
‘Me?’ The seneschal glances over his shoulder at the bodyguard. ‘Nah. I have no problem with putting you front and center to absorb all the fire. Better you than me.’
‘Hob, look at this,’ Anna says with a hint of wistfulness in her voice. ’It’s a mechanical elephas. I haven’t seen one of these since I was a child.’
‘Was?’ Hob chuckles as he steps up to the window. ‘You ain’t that-’
Somethin’ doesn’t feel right. he thinks suddenly. ‘Devalt-’
Without conscious thought he ducks just before the shot rings out, its report loud enough to be heard over the din of the busy street. Anna screams, ducking as the window in front of her shatters. Before she comes to her senses, Hob drags her to cover.
‘Get down!’ Devalt orders, crouching beside a heavy track-truck parked on the side of the street.
Erata leaps into an open airlock, her eyes darting between the panicked people running away or scrambling for cover. It barely registers on a conscious level when Janus slowly shuffles over, crouching beside her.
‘I suggest you stay low,’ she advises. ‘Leave the fighting to the able-bodied.’
‘Do not discount the able-mind so readily, child,’ Janus rasps.
‘Your able-mind won’t do much good if it’s splattered all over the rockrete.’
Before the echo of the sniper’s first round can fade away, another shot is fired. The large caliber round hits an innocent bystander just above his elbow, almost severing his arm. Screaming, he drops to his knees, grabbing his shredded limb.
Anna peeks out from behind the chunk of rockrete barrier she and Hob huddle behind. The man is writhing on the ground in pain only twenty or so feet away. She knows he’ll die within minutes if he doesn’t receive treatment.
’I’ve got to get to him,’ she says to Hob.
He pokes his head over the barrier for a quick visual scan. A round whistles by his ear narrowly missing him before biting into the wall behind them. Bits of rockrete patter onto his helmet as he withdraws behind his cover.
‘About ten of ’em, heavily armed,’ he reports over the com. ‘Devalt, sniper at ten o’clock, third-level.’
Anna scans the distance between their position and the wounded man. She slings her medpack on her back and gets ready to move, catching Hob’s eye as she does so.
‘What are you doin’?’
‘Leave ’im,’ he replies coldly, shaking his head.
‘You can’t be serious!’
‘You ain’t goin’ out there, Doc,’ he replies, drawing his bolt pistols. ‘Too many of ’em.’
‘Then I suggest you give me some cover, because I’m not just going to let that man die.’
Hob roars angrily as Anna sprints off before he can grab her. His uttered curses are lost to the wind as she runs into the open. ‘Devalt, give her some cover!’
The seneschal waits until the group of heavily armed mercs gets a bit closer before revealing his position. He aims for the the pair training their weapons on the doctor, his cybernetic eye zeroing in on the sweet spot.
One of the mercs jerks back violently as two of Retribution’s cadmium-encased AP rounds punctures the chest of his heavy armor. His scream of agony turns to a gurgle as he vomits forth a gout of blood before collapsing to the pavement.
While the other soldier is momentarily distracted by his fallen comrade, Anna grabs the wounded pedestrian’s collar. Even fueled by adrenaline, she struggles to drag the unconscious man into a nearby alleyway.
‘Hob!’ the leader of the mercenary squad calls out. ‘Time to send you to hell, you traitorous dog!’
Hob pauses, momentarily surprised at being specifically called out by name. It’s no secret he isn’t the best at making friends, but a kill squad sent just for him? This is a whole new level of accomplishment. For the first time in a very long while, a genuine smile appears on his face.
‘We should have killed you on Bantash, you frakking cannibal!’ the leader adds. ‘Bring me that bastard’s head!’
At his order, the rest of the heavily-armed squad opens fire on the scattered Shilwulf retinue. The bright tails of tracer rounds zip through the air in their direction, tearing a path of destruction through vehicles and shopfronts alike.
Anna hastily applies a tourniquet to staunch her patient’s bleeding. Though he is definitely in dire shape, she’s managed to stabilize him for now. She flinches as a stream of bullets hit the wall nearby, pelting her back with sharp bits of brick and shrapnel. Even she realizes that her chosen cover won’t last for long, but at this point her options are extremely limited.
She reaches for her com, a sinking dread in the pit of her stomach as she finds it absent. Cursing, she realizes she must have lost it while dragging the wounded man to cover. From her position, she can see Devalt reloading his ripper pistol while Janus and Erata remain pinned by a barrage of autofire. Finally her gaze settles on Hob’s hulking shape and is shocked to find him looking in her direction instead of focused on the fray.
He takes his helmet off, setting it down on the ground. She’s seen him angry before, but it’s never been at her. Now is an entirely different story, however, as she can clearly see the fury in his wild eyes even at this distance.
You messed up this time, Marastraza, she tells herself. She feels compelled to mouth the words ’I’m sorry’, despite the impotence of such an overture.
This is my job, what did he expect me to do?
The mercs don’t give her enough time to argue with herself, as the fire coming her way seems to intensify.
‘Get that damned medic!’ she hears distinctly. ‘Gut her and bring me her entrails!’
She hunkers down as more stonework falls, trying to shield her patient from the debris. When she dares to glance again up Hob stands, both of his bolt pistols armed and ready.
What the- she thinks just before realizing what he’s about to attempt. He’s insane!
‘You want me, frakkers?’ he shouts over the gunfire. ‘Come ’n get me!’
He runs toward Anna’s position full bore, alternating between shouting obscenities at his attackers and cracking off shots with his bolt pistols. The rampaging bodyguard takes down two mercs on his way and somehow manages to avoid the barrage of fire coming his way. For a brief moment, Anna rejoices in the chance that her prayers will be answered. Just fifteen feet from the alleyway Hob stops to launch one last volley of fire.
‘That all you got? I’ll kill all of you!’ he vows, firing the last of his ammo. ‘Come on-’
The merc leader draws a steady bead on Hob’s position. Anna looks on in horror as several heavy stubber rounds rip through his chest before exploding out of his back. He stumbles slightly, taking more autogun fire as he charges headlong into the alley.
‘Hob!’ she screams as he collapses in a heap. Scrambling to his side, she groans as she strains to roll him onto his back, her eyes looking frantically over the ruins of his blood-drenched armor. Her attention is especially drawn to the heavy stubber wounds which have gone through and through.
Using her field knife, she cuts the straps and prys the riddled chestplate away. She grimaces, finding the wounds to be even worse than expected. Two especially vicious-looking holes, each easily twice the size of Anna’s fist, are gouged into his chest. Dark-colored blood rhythmically pulses from the deep wounds each time his heart beats. Embedded in the surrounding shredded flesh, bone fragments from his shattered rib cage gleam at her forebodingly.
For now she pushes away the pangs of guilt and forces her medic’s instinct to take over. There will be time for regret later, right now her closest friend is bleeding to death before her eyes. She works quickly, ripping packages of wound dressings open with her teeth. With one hand she applies pressure to the wounds, while the other alternates between retrieving more gauze and batting his hands away.
He’s still conscious, these Mortressans really are tough.
‘Doc, run,’ he rasps, blood frothing from his mouth, his eyes clouded with pain. ‘Run…’
‘Not going anywhere, Hob.’ Anna shakes her head. ’I’m not leaving you here to die.’
After the first crucial moments, she notices that the dressings are no longer becoming saturated with blood. Anna peeks under the bandage, concerned he is hemorrhaging internally. Before her eyes, the skin around the horrendous wounds slowly knits itself together. Mystified, she removes the dressing from another wound, finding it to be repairing itself as well.
Impossible. You’ve made a mistake, Marastraza, she tells herself. Quickly wiping away the blood on his chest, she desperately searches for an answer. Finally he manages to grab one of her hands and hold it still.
‘Hob, stop it with the hands alr-’
Claws? she thinks to herself as she looks down at the hand wrapped around her wrist. Why does he have claws…
Suddenly everything seems so surreal, as if time itself has stopped. Anna blinks. With the back of her hand, she unconsciously wipes the sweat from her brow, leaving a scarlet smear of Hob’s blood over her eye. She looks at his face as if expecting to find the answer to her question and, to her dismay, finds just that.
‘Told you to run.’
‘Emperor damnit!’ Erata yells as a round nearly clips her shoulder. Crouching among countless shards of glass, metal, and chunks of rockrete, it would appear the retinue is on the losing end of this fight. ‘They have us pinned.’
‘Indeed, it would seem so,’ Janus replies, his voice as calm as the surface of a windless sea. The pyromancer takes the time to glare at him for a moment before returning her attention to the mercs advancing on their position.
‘Well, what are we going to do about it? There’s too many of them!’
Erata has a clear view of the seneschal, also pinned behind a truck. Luckily his cover has held up to the barrage of fire sent his way, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess. Cover won’t matter anyway if all they do is sit here and do nothing.
‘My child, have faith,’ Janus wheezes as his bony fingers grip her arm.
‘What the-’ Erata begins. She pauses as a feeling of overwhelming confidence washes over her. From the look on Devalt’s face, it would appear whatever Janus is doing is having an effect on him as well.
‘The Emperor walks with you, child,’ he says. ‘Spare them not His wrath.’
A fury courses through Erata’s veins, more intense than any she can recall. She stands, emerging from her cover completely unafraid.
The mercenary closest to her position bears the brunt of her first attack. Two spheres of flame fly forth from her fingertips, blazing through the air like meteors. She doesn’t even give him a second glance as he’s knocked backwards off his feet, his flame-ensconced body crashing into a parked vehicle. The fire that surrounds him burns as hot as the pyromancer’s anger, reducing him to a charred husk in seconds.
Erata walks down the center of the street with a confident swagger, the mercenaries momentarily taken aback by her audacity. She raises her hands innocuously, almost as if she intends to surrender. The soldiers smile maliciously, internally vying to be the first one to cut her down.
Tendrils of flame begin to extend from her fingertips, swirling lazily around her like liquid. The beautiful dancing tendrils suddenly arc through the air, enveloping three soldiers in a fatal molten embrace.
Devalt emerges from cover, drawing a steady bead on the shocked leader. Their eyes meet for a brief moment before he squeezes the trigger. Even as the caustic rounds do their job, Erata makes it a point to bathe him in flame. Taking great personal satisfaction in the man’s agony, she walks casually to Devalt’s side. He looks at her with an arched eyebrow.
‘He had it coming,’ she shrugs.
‘Truly the God Emperor works in mysterious ways,’ Janus rasps as he sidles up to them. As he walks away, he nods in approval at the smoldering corpses.
The seneschal and pyromancer look on as the last of the mercs retreat down the street. The soldiers don’t make it far, as a muffled pop sound precedes them falling to the pavement. Devalt and Erata look at each other in puzzlement.
Cautiously they approach the bodies, uncertain if this is some sort of ploy to lure them further into the open. Once they get close, however, it’s quite clear neither man draws breath any longer.
‘What the-’ Erata begins, grimacing at the river of blood flowing on the pavement. It appears as though something inflicted a deep wound in their chests, causing them to bleed out in seconds.
‘I don’t know,’ Devalt replies, looking around them. ’I’ll go check on the doctor and Hob, you make sure Janus is safe.’
If there wasn’t a small war raging in the street nearby Anna might have detected the hint of regret in Hob’s voice. Somehow, that battle now seems miles away as she stares at his face, his mouth gaping open as he takes in slow, deliberate breaths. The many sharp fangs that have erupted from his gums glint at her menacingly.
She makes a futile attempt to say something, anything, but the words simply refuse to come. Years of medical knowledge and study stream through her mind, but at every turn she comes up lacking. In the end, faith kicks in where logic fails.
Sorcery. That’s the only explanation for this. Emperor help me.
‘Doc,’ Hob says. The way his lips curl back over his fangs give the word an almost sinister quality.
He watches as her eyes narrow at him just before a change comes over her expression, going from confusion to absolute fury in a heartbeat.
‘Monster,’ she snarls, standing. ‘This is heresy!’
She mutters the word like some terrible mantra, shaking her head in anger and disbelief as she backs away. A yelp escapes her lips as he scrambles, with some effort, to his feet. Unconsciously, her hand comes to rest on the hilt of her chainsword. Before she realizes, it appears in her hand.
‘What are you doin’, Doc?’ he asks, warily eying the weapon.
Anna’s blood-slicked thumb flicks the switch and the motor rumbles to life, its familiar purr giving her a small comfort.
‘Suffer not the mutant,’ she hisses.
‘So you get to be selective in who you spare and who you execute, huh?’ he sneers bitterly.
‘I thought you were my friend,’ Anna yells at him, choking on the words as tears well in her eyes.
‘Funny, thought you were mine. Doesn’t matter. We don’t have time for this.’ He starts toward her but stops when she raises her sword.
‘Put it down,’ he warns. Still she refuses to relent. ‘Weapon or no, you don’t stand a chance against me, Doc.’
‘Though your road will be long, you will not despair,’ Anna prays aloud. ‘For the Emperor will walk with you.’
‘Get down!’ he orders as bullets ricochet down the alleyway.
‘Though the ruinous powers will seek to destroy you, you will not fear. For the Emperor will protect you.’
‘There you are!’ an unfamiliar voice growls from behind her. Concentrating solely on keeping Hob at arm’s length, Anna didn’t notice the merc coming up to the entrance of the alley. She turns in surprise, crying out in pain when he slams the stock of his autogun into the bridge of her nose.
Stunned, she drops to her knees as blood pours from her nostrils. Her beloved chainsword falls from her grasp and skids across the ground.
‘Sarge wanted your guts, that’s what he’s going to get,’ the merc says with a malevolent grin, drawing his combat knife as he advances.
Anna raises her hand defensively before Hob’s unmistakeable bulk slams into her attacker. Both men tumble a few feet before crashing into the opposite wall with a solid thud.
‘It can’t be!’ the man yells, his eyes wide with fear as Hob pins him to the ground. ‘Sarge hit you-’
He is denied the chance to say anything more. With a swipe of his claws, Hob slices open the side of the merc’s throat. Still the soldier struggles, the combination of adrenaline and combat drugs coursing through his veins compelling him to fight to the last.
Hob relentlessly attacks until the man becomes absolutely still, save for the occasional muscle spasm. As the gunfire outside begins to lull, he hears quiet sobs from behind him. He turns to find Anna huddling with the wounded civilian, her eyes telling him all he needs to know.
‘Hob!’ Devalt yells as he runs up. ‘What the-’
His gaze travels between the mutilated corpse, the bloodied Hob, and finally the doctor. His lips purse before he nods to himself, silently committing to a decision. Striding over to Anna, he reaches down and pulls her up by the arm.
‘Marastraza!’ he yells, giving her a shake. ‘Snap out of it!’
Reluctantly she takes her eyes off of Hob, looking at the seneschal dumbly.
‘The authorities will be here soon,’ Devalt explains. ‘Get him back to the ship.’
‘W-what?’ she stammers. ‘I can’t-’
‘You can and you will. Or I’ll bring you up on insubordination charges myself.’
‘I don’t give a damn, we’ll sort it out later. If the authorities show up and he’s still here, it’s going to be a big problem. Too many questions, nowhere near enough answers.’
She hesitates until the wail of the arbite drone’s sirens sings through the air. It’s true. If the police arrive they’ll want answers, and those answers could lead to a burning pyre for each of them. Holstering her chainsword she walks briskly past Hob, refusing to meet his eye.
Neither Anna or Hob have spoken a word since leaving the gruesome slaughter behind them. She’d ventured a glance over the battlefield as they made their escape, having to duck down another alley to avoid some of the responding authorities. The image of Erata standing in the middle of the street laughing at the burning corpses is likely something she won’t soon forget.
‘Doc,’ Hob begins.
‘I wanted to tell you.’
‘But you didn’t.’ She keeps her eyes fixed ahead, unsure how long her resolve to walk next to the abomination will hold. She grits her teeth, absently rolling her prayer beads between her fingers as she concentrates on putting one foot in front of the other.
’Cap’n told me not to.’
He hates the words even as they leave his mouth. People consider him as a fearless warrior with no concern for how others perceive him. Yet despite all the time they’ve spent together, he couldn’t garner enough courage to bring himself to admit the truth to her. Being loyal to the rogue trader is one thing, but shattering Anna’s complete trust in him is another.
Shouldn’t have gotten close. You knew she’d leave one day, they always do. What else did you expect, monster?
Limping along in silence, he winces slightly at his still tender wounds. Regeneration certainly has its perks, but his comes at a price. If he doesn’t consume the raw meat necessary to feed his cellular replication, his body will begin turning on itself instead. Though confident he’ll recover in time, he isn’t quite so certain about Anna.
‘Shit,’ she curses, stopping short as they approach the docks. ‘Harzon.’
Sure enough, the Hymn’s quartermaster stands near the only shuttle up to the ship. With the both of them in their current blood-bathed condition, if she and Hob try to board it he’s going to ask questions. Harzon would simply delight in making things difficult for them, and quite possibly draw unwanted attention their way.
‘We could just wait for another shuttle,’ Hob suggests.
He leans against an inactive loading servitor, watching Anna walk off in the opposite direction of the quartermaster. She starts speaking with a group of the Hymn’s low decks crew working on a cargo skiff nearby. When they stop talking, two of the larger men begin walking in Hob’s direction.
She’s turnin’ you in, he thinks sullenly as she walks over to Harzon. Washin’ her hands of you.
‘Hey buddy,’ one of the crewmen calls to him. Hob’s instincts immediately scream at him to fight, these men won’t prove to be any challenge at all. He could easily get away.
For what? he thinks bitterly.
‘Yeah?’ Hob replies, his eyes leaving Anna as she begins speaking with Harzon.
‘Doc ’Straza said you needed some help, you know,’ the man says, throwing a thumb Harzon’s way. ‘Gettin’ past shit-for-brains.’
Clearly from the expressions on both the men’s faces, they’re a bit concerned by Hob’s appearance, but he smells no fear or tension coming off of them. Knowing the lowdecks as well as he does, Hob knows they won’t dare ask him what happened.
‘Said you two got into a spec o’ trouble. No way is Harzon going to let you take his personal shuttle back shipside. Skiff’s ‘bout to leave, you need to be on it.’
Hob can’t believe his ears. He looks dumbly from the crewmen to Anna, who is now fully engaged in a heated argument with Harzon.
‘Best come on, she won’t be able to distract him for long ‘fore she wants to take a shot at him. He pisses her off somethin’ grand.’
’Why’s she so mad at him?’ He can’t recall her ever mentioning any animosity toward the quartermaster.
The crewman shrugs. ‘You know. Gives her a hard time when she asks for more medical supplies, has to go behind his back to get what she needs. Sometimes that ain’t such an easy thing to do.’
‘Yeah,’ the second crewman chimes in. ’She’s been workin’ real hard to get the low deck’s clinics up and runnin’. He’s made a point of giving her trouble at every turn, too.’’
Clinics on the low decks? What the hell-
’We’re used to it. The uppers don’t care about the lows,’ the first man says casually as they walk up the boarding ramp to the skiff. ‘But Doc ’Straza is the first one who’s bothered to give us a second thought. Gift of the God Emperor himself, that one.’
Hob finds a seat on a sturdy crate, minding his ribs as he sits. The smaller bullet wounds should heal in under an hour, but the heavy stubber rounds did some serious damage and will take longer.
‘Anyways, we’ll get you back to the ship and Harzon will be none the wiser.’
The two men leave to finish loading the last of the cargo, and Hob finds his mind reeling at the new information about Doc. Why would she start medical facilities on the low decks? Why didn’t she just ask Octavius for help? Why did she keep all of this from him?
He chuckles darkly to himself. She kept medical facilities from you, you kept bein’ a cannibalistic mutant from her. Seems fair
As the skiff’s engines whine to life, Hob finds himself doubting he’ll ever get the chance to ask her any of these questions. Though she’ll likely never speak to him again, she at least seems to have no desire to see him executed by the local authorities.
‘Course that still leaves her. He thinks back on how she ended the hopelessly broken soldier in the Hymn’s brig so long ago. It was a merciful death to be sure, but she did it without hesitation.
Gonna have to keep my guard up.
‘Lord Captain, I believe we have a problem.’
Seneschal Devalt punctuates his sentence by placing a smooth, egg-shaped metal object on the Captain’s desk. To many, it would appear to be an ordinary, though slightly fatter than usual, hand grenade, but the two men know this simply isn’t the case.
‘I found that on the leader of the mercs that attacked us. Scooped it up before the authorities arrived.’
‘What is it?’ Octavius says picking the object up.
‘Libram says it’s a mono-filament grenade,’ the seneschal replies.
Octavius turns it over in his hands before returning it to the desk. ‘That is a problem.’
’That’s just icing on the cake. The gear those mercs had was high-end. Man-stopper rounds in every gun, high quality light carapace. They were mobile and well-positioned. Honestly, I have no idea how that first sniper round missed Hob.’
‘Well-positioned means well-informed,’ Octavius says with a serious look. ‘Seems a little too organized for a retaliatory strike this soon from the Ocaturian’s.’
‘I doubt the Ocaturian’s would be so bold to attempt to outright murder on a planet like Omnicron,’ Devalt adds. ‘The evidence suggests that we were merely collateral damage, Hob was the intended target.’
‘I see. Any idea why?’
‘The leader mentioned Bantash.’
The name sounds vaguely familiar to Octavius. After a few moments of consideration, he recollects what the name refers to.
‘Ah, Bantash. One of my early assignments for Hob.’ The Lord Captain stands, clasping his hands behind his back as he walks to the void windows. ‘A tragedy to be certain. I believe Hob was the only one to return alive.’
‘Not surprising,’ Devalt says.
‘Still, that happened many years ago. It seems odd that a group of mercenaries would go to such lengths just for revenge.’
’I’m not certain they were acting on their own, Captain. Two of the soldiers ran away shortly after Erata and I took down their comrades. I heard a pop sound just before both men collapsed to the ground. When we reached them, it looked as though they had been shot in the chest with a high caliber round.’’
Devalt shakes his head. ‘Upon closer inspection, it would appear each one had a booby trapped clip on their bandolier. Since I doubt they were aware their ammo was rigged, I suspect the traps were remotely detonated.’
‘Which means that whoever is behind this already knows the op failed,’ Octavius concludes.
‘How would you like me to proceed with this, Lord Captain?’
‘Very carefully, Seneschal. Very carefully.’
Anna walks into the cool, dark dojo. No mercs are running drills, the weapons sit patiently in their places waiting to be used again. She was hoping to catch Hob before he left, but it appears she missed him. The past few days have been the most difficult she has experienced in a long time. The knowledge that both he and Octavius had kept such a terrible secret all this time sent her reeling. She hadn’t let the Lord Captain off easily, they’d argued at length and his words wore on her.
‘We all have secrets, Annatolla,’ he’d said finally. ‘Some worse than others.’
His words cut her to the bone. The look on his face conveyed deep regret at what he had said, but it was too late. Crestfallen she had simply nodded defeatedly, leaving his study feeling completely numb. She found herself faced with a complicated choice, one that she alone had to make. To fulfill her duty as a missionary she would have to execute the terrible mutant. On the other hand, he had saved her life – surely that counted for something?
‘Hob?’ she calls out. Silence.
He’s not here, she sighs. Catch him tomorrow I guess.
They’ve avoided each other since coming back aboard over a week ago. Devalt had started asking questions, recommending measures be put in place in case Hob ever ‘got out of hand’. Anna found herself bristling at the suggestion, even though she realized the seneschal was right.
She turns, the paper-covered package held in her hands crackling softly as she tucks it under her arm.
’Where’s your servitors, Doc?’ Hob asks from the shadows.
Anna jumps slightly at his sudden appearance, she’d become accustomed to her gut instinct alerting her to Hob’s presence. This time it had failed completely, and that makes her more than a little nervous.
’They’re in their cryo-bays in the chapel,’ she raises her eyebrow in puzzlement. ‘Why?’
‘Thought you’d want ‘em with you.’
Something isn’t quite right. Though she isn’t naive enough to believe reestablishing their friendship will be easy, the uncharacteristic edge to his voice is disconcerting.
They stand there, engaged in some sort of silent stand-off. Tension runs through the air, though she isn’t completely sure why. Her intention is one of making peace, surely he can see that she’s unarmed? When Hob finally emerges from the cover of shadow, Anna gasps but stands her ground.
‘What are you doing, Hob?’
With both his mono-blades drawn, he steps to the center of the room. The overhead lighting shining down gives him an almost ethereal quality. Anna might think it a beautiful thing if she didn’t feel so threatened.
’Let’s get this over with, Doc. Know that I take no pleasure from what I must do.’
‘I don’t understand. What you must do?’ she asks.
And just like that, it dawns on her what the hell he’s talking about. He was her friend, yes. But after living as long as he has, keeping such a terrible secret all the while, it can only be assumed that first and foremost he is a survivor. He may speak, wear clothes, and walk on two feet like the rest of them, but underneath it all he is still an animal. A strong feeling of pity clutches at her heart.
‘You want to end this? Fine. Here.’ She walks right up to him, holding his gaze the entire way. He has tried and failed to intimidate her from the moment she set foot on the Hymn. If these are to be her last moments she will face them without fear.
What he said on Omnicron is true – she has no hope of ever taking him down, not even on her best day. Her peace with death was made long ago, if he cuts her down that will be a choice he will condemn himself to live with. She holds the package up, waiting patiently for him to come to his senses and take it from her outstretched hand. He hesitates.
‘Seriously, Hob? Just take it.’
The muscles in his lower jaw visibly clench. Eyeing her warily, he returns his swords to their sheathes before accepting the proffered gift. Tentatively he tears the paper away, revealing the pic slate beneath. The governor’s ball on Tanstar 88, he and Anna posed for the pictographer just before their dance ended. His brow knits in puzzlement.
‘Octavius told me you’ve been alive for over three hundred years. Is that really true?’
‘Around that,’ Hob nods. ‘After awhile I stopped countin’.’
‘That must be a very lonely existence. Believe it or not, I’ve seen things even worse than what you are.’
This conversation certainly isn’t going like he had played it out in his mind so many times since leaving Omnicron’s surface. Instead of anger and hatred, he finds compassion in her eyes. Though her benevolent nature is familiar to him, he is unaccustomed to being on the receiving end. Admittedly, he finds it extremely disconcerting.
‘Somehow I feel better knowing that you’re looking out for me, Hob. I don’t want that to change.’
With that she turns and heads for the corridor, as if they’d just had a perfectly normal conversation.
‘Bet your brother would have been proud of you for drawin’ on me,’ he calls after her. Anna stops.
‘No. No he wouldn’t have, Hob.’
It wasn’t meant to be one of his usual sarcastic barbs. He genuinely meant it as a compliment. Heinrich had been a warrior, just as Hob is. For her to have bravely attempted to defend herself is something worthy of recognition.
He watches her normally proud shoulders sag as she sighs sadly.
‘Because I allowed you to live.’
This was when Hob’s big secret came out. Of course Octavius knew, but it was a surprise to the rest of the explorers. Devalt met with Anna later to discuss what they should do about it, but Anna said they should be merciful. However, I think Devalt still keeps a wary eye on Hob. One of the drawbacks of Hob’s mutation is that he must eat copious amounts of raw meat. This should be an interesting situation if the explorers ever get stranded.
This was an important chapter for a few reasons, but most especially for the development of Anna and Hob’s relationship. I wasn’t involved “at the table” at this point, and when Eck told me Hob got the crap shot out of him I was like, ‘Wow, guess he’ll be in the medicae ward for awhile.’ Turns out, Hob doesn’t need a medicae ward…
As a Warhammer n00b, I had no clue that players could take on mutations. When Eck explained what Hob was, I asked ‘What the hell am I supposed to do about that? He’s a mutant and Anna is a missionary!’ To which Eck replied, ‘Well, I guess you have a decision to make.’ (/evil smile)
So I thought about it at length, because I agonize over my little pretend worlds. Characters tend to become beings that I grow to care about, as I hope is evident in our writing. Anna and Hob, though completely different people, were thrown together and a tight friendship began to develop organically. It seemed natural that, despite her complete ‘WTF’ moment, the two of them had become so close that she simply couldn’t turn her back on him.
Revealing the Big Secret(™) about Hob brought another dimension to their relationship. He finally had someone other than Octavius that he could trust and Anna proved this to him on more than one occasion, eventually even lying to an Inquisitor.
Though the ultimate importance of the Anna/Hob combo won’t become evident for some time yet, they still remain one of my favorite pairs to create for.