Write, oh Scribe, of Pernicus the hunter…
Pernicus ducked under an arm-long spanner swung inelegantly by desperate, wiry arms. It splintered the wooden facade of the pillar behind him, spitting honey-colored splinters into the back of his neck. The escapee stunk of fear and wore ashen "yellows" common to many Imperial penal colonies, their color forever dulled by the ever-present grit of the merconium mines. He struggled to pull the wrench back from the roundhouse strike, eyes wide with fear.
Pernicus charged forward and barged a massive shoulder into the escapee's bony ribs. He massed more than twice as much as the whip-cord convict, who staggered back into another pillar, struggling to keep his feet. The convict let out a pained, wheezing exhale as he regained his balance and brought the spanner back to the ready. Pernicus smiled as the wheeze transformed into a stream of curses and invective that would have put Drill Abbot Linus to shame.
As the convict stepped into another wild swing, Pernicus stepped inside the arc of the strike, close enough to smell the man's rancid breath, as the oversized wrench slapped weakly into the meat of his shoulder. Pernicus drove his balled fist up under the convict's unshaven jaw, the blow lifting him clear of the polished rockcrete floor. The prisoner pitched backwards into the pillar again, the spanner dropping from nerveless fingers while the other hand caught the remains of several teeth.
Pernicus advanced on the stunned convict more quickly than would seem possible for one of his great bulk, and shot a knee up into the man's solar plexus. The convict folded nearly in two and crumpled to the floor, retching for air. Pernicus kicked the spanner away. It scraped along the stone floor and cracked into the wall.
He frowned down at the barely conscious convict. "Yeh're not the brightest of the bunch, are yeh?" So far most of the resistance he'd encountered had been similarly unimaginative, fighting inexpertly with various improvised weapons. He suspected that would change as soon as he encountered the ringleaders of this jailbreak. Something about the whole situation bothered him, but he couldn't say what.
Pernicus batted aside wiry, flailing arms as he enveloped the convict's throat with a hand nearly the size of the man's head. The convict gurgled. Without significant effort, he lifted the prisoner by the neck till he dangled like a child's doll. The convict's hands clawed weakly at the matte gray plates of his carapace vest. He tossed the semi-conscious convict back into the wood-clad column. The man's head hit with a crack and his eyes rolled up into his head. He collapsed limply to the floor in an untidy, dirty pile.
"Neh, not that bright." he said.
Pernicus tugged at his carapace vest to set it straight over the sodden black tank top he wore under it, and ran his hand through sweat-damp black hair. He'd need to cut it the next time he had the chance.
His objective, the grand double doors of Warden Carcus' office lay at the end of the hall. Fashioned from the same honeyed wood as the columns, with the stylized fist of the Departmento Magistratum spanning both doors, inlaid in some darker wood. Deep dents and splintering of a crude battering ram marred the once lustrous inlay. His steelhead boots crunched on the debris covering the rockcrete as he crossed the final distance, glancing left and right to ensure that no other surprises lurked behind the final few columns.
Pernicus stopped just short of the doors, and examined the wood. He could also see the telltale burns of a cutting torch at the seam between the two. It seemed that battering alone hadn't been successful.
He ran his hand lightly along the battered surface, and to his surprise, the door moved slightly in response. "Neh, not bright." he muttered.
He took several deep breaths and steeled himself for the fight he knew lay on the other side of the door. Like the leading edge of a storm, the air was pregnant with impending violence. Fighting seemed to follow him for as long as he could remember, and he was good at it. Drill Abbot Linus at the Schola had taught him a number of martial arts, but he'd quickly grown into his own style. Despite his size, the other Progena always spoiled for chance to best him. Few ever did.
Pernicus gently pushed the door and winced as the hinges squealed in tortured protest. He may as well have knocked - Minerva would berate him for it later.
The opening door revealed a comfortable office, now in some disarray. Over stuffed grox-hide chairs crouched before an expansive desk of polished woods and brass. Shelving built into the walls formed a vertical labyrinth of nooks populated by a collection boxes, baubles, and bottles.
A muscled thug lounged behind the Warden's desk, his feet crossed before him. The dirt and grit from his boots soiled the collection of parchments scattered across its expanse. He'd torn the sleeves from his dingy yellows, which opened to expose a pallid chest thick with coarse black hair. A twisting trail of smoke streamed upward from a fat tabac cigar clenched in his teeth. A small, ornate box of off-world, inlaid wood lay on its side, spilling several more of the cigars across the desk. His brows drew together in annoyance at the squealing door hinges.
A second prisoner twisted around in one of the high-backed chairs facing the desk, the grox hide creaking. Unkempt blonde hair stood out in contrast to dark skin and sharp, angular features. Several squat amasac bottles of dusky, amber colored glass clustered around his feet. His face quirked into a bemused expression of curiosity.
Pernicus ducked his head under the door frame as he entered, and both convicts' eyes widened in surprise as they took in his Ogryn-sized bulk, battered grey Ryza-pattern carapace vest, ceramite cuisses, greaves, and steelhead foundry boots. "Yeh're not the Warden." he observed dryly.
The lips of the convict in the Warden's chair twisted from annoyance to sputtering rage, and he took the cigar from his mouth long enough to snarl, "Who the Throne are you?"
Pernicus showed open palms. He'd intentionally left his weapons locked in the shuttle. Prisoners didn't see as much threat from an unarmed man, regardless of his size. He'd already edged several steps into the room by the time they finally recognized their peril.
The blonde kicked his chair into Pernicus' path while drawing an angular, serrated blade that would have been more at home in the hands of an Ork. His companion in the Warden's chair scrambled to get his feet off the desk, scattering parchments into a swirling cloud that flipped and twisted towards the floor.
Pernicus stopped the sliding chair with a boot and kicked it back with a snarl. The blonde convict sprang into the air, the chair passing beneath his feet and cracking into the desk. A leg broke off and spun off towards the wall. He landed lightly and Perenicus raised an eyebrow at the man's agility, especially considering all the amasac bottles. He'd pose more of a challenge than the lackeys and laggards he'd encountered thus far. Good.
The convict wove the tooth-edged blade in a deft pattern designed to distract Pernicus' attention. It wouldn't work, but Pernicus couldn't fault him for trying. Simple underhive tricks didn't work.
The one behind the desk regained both his feet and composure enough to snarl around the cigar clenched in his teeth, "Ash, end this big frakker!"
"With pleasure, Boss."
"Never the easy way." Pernicus said under his breath as he spared a glance at the ringleader. He'd have to keep that one alive. Well, at east try hard.
He continued his steady advance with short, smooth steps, eyes on Ash's center mass rather than the oversized knife tracing lazy patterns in his grip. The man could handle a blade, Pernicus had to give him that. Throne only knew where he'd learned it though. Probably in the sumps of some stinking under hive. You never could tell with convicts.
Pernicus circled to the right, putting the blonde between himself and the boss. Ash darted out with his Orkish blade, testing the range without overextending. The man had a knack with a blade, but was trying too hard to be tricky.
Ash feinted high and then came back with a gutting stab. Pernicus ignored the fake and then blocked the thrust, enveloping the hand holding the blade with his own. The point stopped just before it made contact with the fauld of his carapace. He squeezed the trapped hand with crushing force.
Ash winced and tried to pull back, but Pernicus' grip held like a vice. Showing more imagination than Pernicus would have given him credit for, he reversed his movement and brought his other fist around in a slashing hook. Pernicus shrugged to take the blow on his shoulder and continued to exert crushing force on the hand around the knife.
"Drop it!" he growled through clenched teeth. Ash didn't. They never chose the easy way.
Pernicus punched the inside of the convict's elbow with his other fist, collapsing the arm and spinning the escapee into an arm-lock. He released Ash's pinned knife hand and snaked his arm around the convict's neck, squeezing closed the arteries on either side of his neck. Another technique from Drill Abbot Linus.
For five flailing heartbeats, Ash clawed at Pernicus' ams and head. His face turned purple and his blows became slower and weaker until he finally went limp. Pernicus did not envy the headache he'd have when he woke up.
He raised his head and found himself staring into the burning maw of a hand flamer and the equally inflamed eyes behind it. He kept Ash's limp form in a headlock, easily holding the deadweight and hoping that his flamer-toting friend would think twice about torching them both.
"I don't suppose yeh're going to set that down and avoid all sorts of unpleasantness, heh?"
"Burn, freak!" the convict shouted at him and pulled the trigger.
In the moment it took him to spit his insults, Pernicus threw Ash to one side and used the impetus to leap in the opposite direction. The roiling stream of promethium barely missed his legs and spattered over the chair behind him. The heat of it lapped blisteringly at his heels.
Pernicus sprinted hard around the desk before the convict could adjust his aim for another shot. He dove into a sliding tackle that would have made his Schola scrumball coach proud, cutting Boss' legs from beneath him. The black-haired ringleader landed atop Pernicus in a kicking, thrashing mess. He still gripped the hand flamer in one hand, it's sooty snout trailing a puddle of blue flame across the floor.
A slicing strike to the temple knocked the struggling convict to one side, and Pernicus quickly reversed their positions, pinning the wrist holding the flamer with a forearm. His knee drove into the man's chest with enough force to crack ribs. Pernicus swatted the flamer from the man's lax fingers and twisted his body to bring his other knee up and across the convict's neck. It turned out to be unnecessary. Boss was already unconscious.
"I'm indebted that you left him alive, Pernicus." purred a silken voice.
Startled, he shot to his feet, pins of adrenaline standing every hair on end, and every muscle tensed for another fight.
Inquisitress Minerva sat serenely in the second grox-hide chair, the guttering flames of its companion casting a red hue over her austere black garb. She normally wore more ostentatious clothing than this. Today she'd donned a simple armored body glove with a large, winged rosette in dark silver thread on its chest and gorget. A silver circlet across her brow channeled a flowing gray mane away from her face. An artificed bolt pistol of some rare pattern that Pernicus didn't recognize adorned her hip.
He cleared his throat as he worked to mask his surprise. He knew even as he did so that it was futile. Very little escaped the Inquisitress' attention.
"Meh'Lady." he muttered more to compose himself than out of greeting. She had an uncanny ability to appear without him hearing a single footfall or catching a whiff of her scent. He didn't bother with a bow or other obsequience. She didn't stand on decorum, and he was still irritated about being caught off guard.
"Tell me," she said in a thoughtful voice, "where is Mamzel Fulgore?"
She was testing him. He could tell, and he resented it. "Not here." he said sharply. "I've been through this whole silo, and she's not in it."
Fulgore was the name of the prisoner he'd come to collect. That was before he'd discovered the all-to-coincidental prison revolt. "These two won't know either - not worth the time teh test." He nudged the ringleader none too gently with the toe of his boot. "These are thugs, small game."
"And Mamzel Fulgore?" she prompted patiently.
Pernicus grimaced slightly. He'd wondered that himself. Roughly two-score prisoners were missing from this silo, mostly from the Deeps, the lowest levels. He'd searched the various guard posts and security stations on the way up. There'd been hardly any sign of foul play at all - no hints as to the location of Fulgore.
His eyes darted around the office, looking for anything that might provide a clue. It was in remarkably good order, all things considered, and hadn't even been looted. Well, not much. Valuables lay undisturbed in the wall shelving, and beside obvious targets like the box of tabac cigars and amasec bottles, very little appeared to have been touched. "No damage aside from what these two have done."
She did this every time she appeared unannounced. Her callow prompts were meant to irritate and distract him. He knew the ploy, but his ire rose anyway.
He could play games too. He heaved an exaggerated sigh and gave her his best impression of Head Abbot Tettus from the Schola, "This was a jailbreak, not an uprising. This whole place would be ransacked if the prisoners had simply run amok." He coughed again to clear his throat of the smell of smoldering grox hide, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "The oppressed would hardly have missed the office of the Warden, Sieur Carcus. Did you happen teh make his acquaintance on your way here?"
The warden was another conundrum. Pernicus had found his body laid neatly in state in the prison's apothacarion, dressed in prison yellows. Whatever the cause of death, it hadn't been anything Pernicus could determine.
"Droll." Minerva gave him a look that somehow managed to convey amusement and dissatisfaction at the same time. "What else?"
Pernicus gave the remaining parchments on the warden's desk a cursory glance before sweeping the whole lot aside, a good portion landing on the unconscious convict at his feet. The cleared papers revealed a beautiful brass-rimmed cogitator screen, built flush with the polished, wooden surface of the desktop. He ran his hands reverently around the edges of the terminal till he found the latches he knew would be there. With a click and hiss the whole assembly of bone- and onyx-inlaid keys slid out on well-oiled pistons. The craftsmanship was exquisite, and the scent of wood polish and devotional oil briefly overcame the lingering smells of tabac and promethium smoke.
"Laus Mechanicus" Minerva said quietly, with a ghost of a smile on her face.
He keyed the rune to awaken the cogitator's spirit from its slumber and smiled as the screen brightened, its machine spirit signaling its readiness. The green glow of the terminal underlit his face, turning the network of scars into an angular virescent tracery.
His broad hands dwarfed the terminal, but Pernicus' fingers flowed nimbly across the keys. The ornate keys clicked softly on their silvered lever arms. He always felt at ease when dealing with machine spirits. They were predictable and picked far fewer fights than the living kind.
Glowing runes scrolled down the screen as the cogitator's spirit granted him deeper access. His fingers continued to dance across the keys in a steady, even tempo. Finally the cogitator offered up the penal colony's data logs for his perusal. He muttered a brief prayer to the Machine God as he scanned through the latter entries.
"My, aren't we the pious one today."
Pernicus grunted something vaguely insulting as his fingers continued to play across the terminal. He'd found something interesting, and his full concentration poured into the data scrolling before his eyes.
"A supply freighter, The Golden Warrant, arrived three days ago. One day before the jailbreak." He snorted, "Very convenient."
"And..." she prompted as his fingers coaxed more data from the cogitator.
More information spooled across the screen. He sifted through transcripts, autonomous logs, and info snares scrolling past. The green luminescence bathed him in its comforting glow. "The Warrant's cargo lighter requested clearance to land - granted - and offloaded supplies in good order." He continued scanning through the data, which reduced to a trickle at the time of the uprising.
"It happened fast." His eyes scanned up and down the last few entries, conspicuous for the absence of certain reports. "Not a single sign of alarm or distress. The lighter never requested leave teh depart."
"Thus, you conclude…" she prompted again in a credible imitation of his Drill Abbot voice.
He smirked at the impersonation and raised his head from the screen, running his hand through increasingly disheveled hair. He scratched at the back of his neck under the edge of his carapace armor.
Minerva gazed at him expectantly, like a teacher waiting on an apt pupil, one eyebrows raised quizzically, arched nearly into her hairline.
"Mamzel Fulgore and anyone else worth putting teh the test left on the Warrant's lighter." He prodded the convict at his feet with the toe of his boot again, earning a muted grunt. "That's why the resistance here was so," he searched briefly for the right word, "disappointing."
Minerva stood from the chair with lithe grace and paced as she spoke, "Isis Fulgore is the mastermind behind this rebellion." She paused mid-stride to lock eyes with his, "You will find her and bring her to me, alive." Her face took on a stern look, "No bodies or apologies this time."
Perenicus frowned as he fit together the available puzzle pieces in his mind. Something wasn't quite right. He placed his palms on the desktop, and scowled as he stood. "Yeh know this, how?" He wanted to pace, but had little room behind the desk. "Any one of these reprobates could be behind this. The Warrant's lighter could have carried down a kill team to help things along." The Inquisitress often had her own sources of information, but he couldn't see the logic behind her conclusion.
The Inquisitress paused before answering, either to select her words or consider his insubordination. He often spoke his mind or questioned her conclusions. These acts would have brought censure - at best - from most Inquisitors. He knew his manner could be abrasive at the best of times. Minerva tolerated it, most of the time.
Storm clouds flashed in her gray eyes. "Mamzel Fulgore has courted my attentions before this. That she has organized this escape only compounds my interest." Pernicus has seen this look before, and knew he'd pushed as far as she would allow. "Alive. No exceptions."
He had more questions to ask, but held his tongue, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to put a finger on exactly what bothered him about the whole situation. The Inquisitress was withholding answers, but that wasn't unusual. He glowered back in silence, thoughts churning, before turning away with a growl.
Pernicus asked one final question, even though he knew there would be no answer, "And where do yeh expect me teh find this Isis Fulgore if she's already scattered teh Warp-knows where?"