Signs and Wonders

The deafening silence of carnage after the fact.

An ocean of bolt-riddled bodies, as far as the eye could see. Corpse crests and blasted troughs, black with blood and swarming with flesh lice. Plunging breakers of ragged remains and shattered armour, marking the abrupt end of some maniacal charge. The trampled mulch of the fallen: deviants, the daemon-possessed and warriors in desecrated plate. Hideous faces of indescribable rage. A battle-smear of wretched flesh, hammered out of its misery by some merciful trajectory. The Emperor himself, it seemed, guiding the path of each blessed bolt and blast.

Approbator Vaskellen Quast of the Ordo Obsoletus pulled his scented neckerchief down and brought the grille of the meme-vox to his lips. ‘Twenty-seven fifty-eight hours, Central Planetary Time. Certus-Minor – Adeptus Ministorum cemetery world.’ The stench of gore steaming in the morning heat seared his nostrils, prompting the young acolyte to snort, hock and spit. ‘Praga subsector, Segmentum Obscurus.’

Quast clambered carefully across a ridge of corrupt forms. His advance was frustrated by more than just bodies. Beneath the carpet of bone-jutting butchery lay the cemetery world surface: a crowded expanse of ornate tombstones, mausolea and funerary sculpture. Every square metre of dirt was devoted to the art of burial and the infrastructure that served that hallowed purpose. Space on Certus-Minor existed at a premium, with grave plots and baroque memorial markers almost built one on top of another. This created a landscape of cold, crafted stone. A graveyard on a planetary scale.

The approbator could see little of the surface from where he was standing, covered as it was with the splattered remains of those who had never reached the solace of an Imperial grave, and those who didn’t deserve one. Knee-deep in the Chaotics and carnage, Quast felt tense with overwhelming disgust. It was more than just the stench and warming rot. He felt that his very soul was in danger just standing in the presence of the unhallowed dead – that the corrupting influence of the Ruinous Powers was still in evidence in the mutilated remains and that it was aware of his God-Emperor-fearing footsteps.

Behind the acolyte hovered a Valkyrie carrier, as black as a silhouette against the pearly cloud cover of the cemetery world sky and marked only with the sinister insignia of the Ordo Obsoletus. About him stalked Inquisitorial storm troopers from the 52nd Ranger Pelluciad, all field masks, humming weaponry and camo-carapace.

‘Ruling pontifex and planetary governor,’ Quast continued, ‘one Erasmus Oliphant. Tithe grade: Solutio Tertius. Population at last Administratum census estimated at one million Imperial souls. Certus-Minor, revised estimates, post-atrocities: zero.’

The Cholercaust had built its fearful reputation on such barbaric efficiency. The Blood God’s servants couldn’t help themselves. Survivors weren’t a strategic consideration. The Slayer cared little for the tales of victims-in- waiting and what others might do with such information. Its tactics were always the same: uncompromising, overwhelming and savage. Where hearts beat with the defiance of life, the goremongers raged, honouring only the razored edge and baptising worlds in torrents of blood.

‘Hadria, Dregeddon IV, L’Orient, Callistus Mundi, Port Koronach, among a hundred other worlds, all similarly butchered. All victims of the Cholercaust Blood Crusade. All planets on the path of the Keeler Comet.’

Quast’s vox-bead chirped. ‘Proceed.’

‘Sir, the Providence reports that a large vessel has just translated in-system.’

‘Markings and registration?’

‘Still collating that information, sir. I can tell you that it has achieved high orbit.’

‘Probably a Ministorum heavy transport, bringing in penitents and frater labour from Bona Phidia. Get a visual. Keep me informed. Quast out.’

The approbator let his eyes linger on the charred mountain of rubble that was Obsequa City. The smouldering ruins before Quast had been a beautiful, baroque metrapol. A vision of towers, steeples and spires. Stained-glass and rockrete, dark with age, thrusting for the heavens with reverent majesty. With nearly every square metre of dirt on Certus-Minor devoted to the dead, even the city was considered an extravagance. Like a tiny, ecclesiastical hive, Obsequa City comprised bethels, basilicas and cathedrals that were built tall and tight. The narrow alleys and passages were steep and cobbled, leading up to the crowning monument – the heart of the city in both a physical and spiritual sense – the Umberto II Memorial Mausoleum.

The huge dome of the vault had once dominated the city skyline. Now it was a blasted remnant. A demolished edifice, collapsed in on itself – open and exposed to the elements. It had originally been built to honour and house the bones of Umberto II – Ecclesiarch, High Lord of Terra and prosecuter of innumerable wars of faith. Under Umberto, the Ecclesiarchy’s influence across the galaxy grew and the forces of darkness in and around the Eye of Terror made precious little progress. With Umberto’s leadership, the common faithful of the Imperium rose up and took the fight back to the Ruinous Powers, standing shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and sisters in the Imperial Guard and the Emperor’s Angels of Death. Ancient Terran scholars ascribed the near two thousand years of uneasy peace between the Eleventh Black Crusade and the Gothic War largely to the legacy of Umberto’s efforts in the segmentum.

Quast watched the frater burn teams clear bodies about the wrecked city. They were uncovering the arterial routes of the necroplex – the labyrinth of lychways and paths that ran through the crowded memorial burial plots, mausolea and cenoposts. With the main roads leading into Obsequa City clear of death and destruction, the Adeptus Ministorum forces had started to move in heavy equipment and excavators.

Dig-teams swarmed across the city rubble and the ruins of the great Mausoleum. The cemetery world already had a new planetary governor, Pontifex Clemenz-Krycek, newly arrived from St Ethalberg with manpower and instructions to purge the hallowed ground of Certus-Minor of the taint of corruption. The irresistible bureaucracy of the Imperium implemented even in the face of carnage and catastrophe. Quast had felt it prudent to meet Clemenz-Krycek before initiating his investigations. He told the pontifex little of his true purpose there. The driven ecclesiarch seemed not to care, engaged as he was with the small army of frater militia faithful that were piling and incinerating the corrupt forms of the battle-dead and excavating the ruins of the mausoleum. Quast found that the pontifex’s vows of devotion to the God-Emperor had done nothing to quell the fire of ambition burning in his veins. Clemenz-Krycek clearly hoped to find Umberto II’s bones intact in the spiritual stronghold of the underground vault. Safe from the corruption of Chaos. Even without the ecclesiarch’s bones, the pontifex was boldly heralding Umberto II’s sacred remains as responsible for the halting of the Cholercaust Blood Crusade.

The investigation of such assertions was well within the remit of the Ordo Obsoletus, but information already in Quast’s possession made him question such a possibility – that and the fire behind the pontifex’s eyes. Clemenz-Krycek was already mooting recommendations for Umberto II’s veneration to the rank of Imperial Saint – a call that, if approved by the High Ecclesiarch, would undoubtedly improve the pontifex’s own prospects in the ranks of the Adeptus Ministorum.

A rusted breastplate creaked underfoot and, with a crack, the approbator’s boot slipped down into the stinking chest cavity of a fallen giant. Its armour was a god-pleasing red and one shoulder plate was spiked like an ocean urchin. A studded gauntlet still hate-clenched the shaft of a brute axe, unable – even in death – to surrender the weapon. The monster’s helmet was missing and the monstrous head with it. As Quast’s boot sank into corruption, liquefied tissue spilled from the neck brace, thick with squirming flesh lice.

‘Merda!’ Quast spat in gutter Gothic, flicking gobbets of rot from the toe of his boot. The approbator shook his head. He was a savant, a researcher – not a field operative. What he had learned aboard the Ordo Obsoletus Black Ship Providence, however, was too important to leave to another. If he had found evidence of an authentic miracle – an event beyond human phenomena, alien curiosity or the pollution of Chaos – then it was his solemn duty to ask challenging questions and hunt for elusive answers. Answers his venerable

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