Ill-met by Starlight

Ill-met by Starlight


[//{IMGrecall=FAIL – ident{INCERTO+]

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
[//Keats, J; M2+]


She was an experienced interrogator, unflinching in her work and could handle herself in a combat zone. Indeed, Inquisitrix Emmeline van der Veigh had been one of the first in her order to earn military honours in this god-Emperor-forsaken war.

Nor was van der Veigh a stranger to warp travel. As she had come to expect, translation had been accompanied by a teeth-gritting, marrow-deep ache, and seemingly endless waves of debilitating nausea. She bore it stoically. Disquieting or disturbing, perhaps, but void travel had never induced in her anything as mundane, anything as everyday, anything as human as fear.

This day brought her the latest in a line of arduous diplomatic missions on behalf of her Ordo. Van der Veigh was to interview Captain Vermithrax of the Charnel Guard as part of the ongoing war effort. In the wake of Coldforge and the loss of familiar Chapter Masters, word had come from the Senatorum Imperialis – that the High Lords themselves had deemed it necessary for the Ordo Astartes to stay in close contact with the Chapters of the Pentarchy. 

Nominally this was for mundane, practical reasons, of course; reasons familiar to any force in time of war – the sharing of intelligence, upkeep of good relations and communication, and the no-inconsequential shoring up of morale amongst the broader forces of the Imperial Orthodoxy.

The Inquisitrix, however, drew her own conclusions. This was an exercise in control; her unstated mission was to directly challenge the tame Astartes Chapters and goad them into giving up their carefully-hoarded information. It was difficult enough in this war, she thought resignedly, to keep tabs on friend, let alone foe. 

[//+Tactical Squad and Chaplain, Charnel Guard. Seconded to Inquisitor Vincenze Prospero [not pictured]. Engaged here with partisans of the Red Fish Chapter, sectorial south+]


The void shuttle journey from the Inquisitorial vessel to the Blood Angels successor’s ship was conducted in complete silence – an uneasy start to the mission, though she discounted the temptation to treat it as ominous. She was escorted by two tall, heavily robed and hooded emissaries of the Charnel brethren. They did not speak and never showed their faces. There was a strange but not unfamiliar odour about them, which nagged at the Inquisitrix as she tried in vain to place it. 

Running varying scenarios of diplomatic exchange through her mind, van der Veigh gazed out of the shuttle’s tiny observation window at the huge warship. The Rose of the Pentarchy on the vessel's prow, appeared freshly-applied against the void-scarred surface. It was elaborate and immense; and grew still larger as they approached, as though attempting to swallow the galaxy.

Instinctual military musings came to mind. She reckoned the Charnel Guard craft to be at least three times the length of the sizable Inquisitorial vessel which she had just left, and many times higher. Despite the sleek, slender black hull stretching away like an obsidian dagger, van der Veigh couldn't help but wonder at the craft's displacement. Some of the larger hull plates and the prow were a maroon colour, giving one the impression of dried blood caked on the blade. 

As the distance closed, she noted  how few lights she could see shining in portholes and other windows. A few cold blues here and there and the odd green among the lower decks, but nothing like the yellows and off-whites usually found on a crewed spacefaring ship. 

Still closer the shuttle came, until the Inquisitrix could no longer see the star-spattered blackness of the void; only the vast, ominous bulk of the Charnel Guard ship before them, filling the window entirely. Van der Veigh could now make out details; the silvery-black glint of ordnance nestled among the casemates, jutting spires, sweeping archways, flying buttresses and gunports. In the dim light from the shuttle and the warship’s windows, she saw that that much of the external architectural sculpture was given over to the monumental depiction of death; murals and carvings of figures in mourning, sword-wielding winged warriors, fallen heroes at rest, the spoils of victory – and the claimed bones of the vanquished dead.


Being an Inquisitrix, van der Veigh was not one to start at shadows. Indeed, it was her calling – and obsession – to actively seek them out. Where shadows were darkest was usually where the most profound heresy and deception could be uncovered. 

Nevertheless, she suppressed a shiver as the shuttle docked and she descended into an atmosphere that struck her as closer to a mausoleum than a naval warship. The sombre chamber was steeped in a reverent darkness, and she could see neither the end of the vast dock, nor the recesses of the vaulted arch ceilings above. The interior was decorated in a similar fashion to the ship’s hull; more carved figures and ornate melancholy. Time and decay suddenly weighed heavily upon her. 

She turned to look at the two emissaries who had followed her out of the shuttle. Afterwards, she could never decide whether she had turned to them in search of reassurance, or some instinct, as or prey to predator.

Both remained utterly motionless for a long drawn-out moment – until both suddenly bent double in a low bow. Van der Veigh turned back to the chamber, and an approaching figure. The height and bulk made it unmistakeably Astartes; a conclusion reinforced by the predator’s prowl in each stately step. So vast was the chamber that, despite its deceptively fast pace, the figure took nearly a minute to reach the shuttle. 


Robed in black from head to foot, the only colour the figure bore was the deep maroon of his pauldrons and the silver glint of a helmet beneath his cowl. She quickly realised she was in the presence of one of the Custodi Sepulcrum – a Grave Warden. 

The Pentarchy officials had told van der Veigh of these solemn figures. Charged with overseeing their slumbering, stasis-bound brethren whilst on long journeys and between engagements, their superhuman patience and ability to endure was – in the words of that belligerent oaf, Master Enoch, 'not unlike the guardians of the Holy Father of Mankind on Sacred Terra'. 

This one appeared to van der Veigh to be dressed in funereal raiment – and the skull trophies about his person reminded the Inquisitrix of the Flesh Eater Chaplain she had seen stalking, like some vengeful spirit of the martial dead, among the Pentarchy ranks on Morgant. Perhaps, van der Veigh thought, The Grave Wardens perform similar duties to those Chapter’s warrior-priests, too?

“Welcome Inquisitrix.”

The stern, sonorous voice – marred with a slight sibilance – flew at her from the Warden’s helm voxmitter, almost violent in the ship’s eerie quiet. Van der Veigh struggled to find a reply for moment, her mouth dry in the unaccustomed silence that had marked all her time in the Charnel Guard’s care. When no further introduction was forthcoming from the Warden, the Inquisitrix found her voice:

“Greetings to you, custodian. On behalf of His Holy Inquisition, I thank you for admitting me on board; I believe that Dirijor Vermithrax is expecting me? I am of the Ordo Astartes, Emm-”

“I know of you. Follow me.” 

The Warden's manner was curt, but not unexpected. There was, after all, a war going on – and van der Veigh was here to interview the Charnel Guard Captain, not exchange pleasantries with crypt keepers. 



Such was the Warden’s pace and the length of his great strides, that the Inquisitrix almost had to run so as not to lose sight of him in the ship’s umbrous interior. On their way to meet the Captain, she saw few Charnel brethren. One or two, perhaps, lurking near the walls or standing guard. Not one acknowledged her presence. She did, however, see more of those hooded emissaries moving through the ship – and again caught that odour, which she still could not place. 

What struck her, all of a sudden, was that there didn’t appear to be a single serf aboard.


After what seemed as though she had jogged a short foot race, van der Veigh was finally led up a ceremonial staircase to a set of large, ornately-carved double doors, flanked by more brethren of the Charnel Guard. As ornately armoured as her host, they gave no outward sign of respect – or even registered her presence. She and the Warden simply stopped in front of the entrance. A few moments passed. Van der Veigh was about to speak, when a firm voice from behind the doors bade them enter. 

Assuming the two guarding the doors would open the portal, van der Veigh glanced at them – but they remained as immobile as before as the Warden stepped forward to open the doors. Van der Veigh followed the Warden inside.

The chamber within was as tall as it was wide; with spiral staircases winding their way up to the high ceiling, piercing and framing vast bookshelves, display cabinets and various battle trophy cases as they went. An observation window thicker than the hulls of most tanks took up most of one side of the room. The dim lighting of the chamber offered no competition to the glittering backdrop of stars, planets and distant galaxies in the void without. Van der Veigh spied a large, unhelmed figure seated at the far end of the room and guessed this must be Captain – Dirijor, she reminded herself – Vermithrax. 

The Grave Warden stopped just within the doorway, leaving her to walk the rest of the way alone. As she stepped forward, he withdrew, striding back through the double-doors, which closed quietly behind him. She could see the glowing, crimson-tinted lenses of Astartes helms in the dark corners of the chamber, but without turning to look directly, had no idea of how many of them were skulking there. Grimly, van der Veigh approached the seated figure, who was armoured like his Brethren, distinguished by an ample robe the draped from his huge shoulders and was belted at his waist. He looked up at the Inquisitrix from the vast array of books, data slates, star charts and other ephemera on the dark slab of a desk in front of him, but remained seated.

“I am Supleant D’Varr.” His was the deep, accented voice that had admitted them a few moments ago.

That's their word for 'deputy', she thoughtsome form of Lieutenant, perhaps? 

She kept her tone even as she replied. In her line of work, van der Veigh was not often surprised, but this was unexpected. 

"I understood I was to meet Captain Vermithrax.” 

Dirijor has been called away on urgent matters of war. He instructed me personally to ensure you are guaranteed an audience, Inquisitrix.”

“I see” she said, looking around her. “Did the Dirijor also instruct you to ensure I am guaranteed somewhere to sit?” A chair for van der Veigh was noticeable by its absence.

Argat.” D’Varr called into the darkness, “A chair for the Inquisitrix.”

A few moments later one of the Charnel Brethren – and so similar was his armour to those guarding the chamber entrance, she could not have sworn it was not one of them –  emerged from the shadows with an ornate seat and placed it facing the Lieutenant. With a gesture of obedience, he blended back into the chamber’s tenebrous walls. 

The chair was proportioned for an Astartes, and quite clearly far too large for the human Inquisitrix. For a terrible moment as she seated herself, she feared her feet would be left humiliatingly dangling. Avoiding this by perching imperiously near the front, van der Veigh rallied somewhat by making sure she took up as much room as possible. So seated, she continued the exchange.

“Well, if there is nothing further, Lieutenant, shall we begin?”


The interview with D’Varr was heavily political and diplomatic. She made notes on her dataslate, as was her habit. Van der Veigh had committed to memory most of the interview topics given to her by her Ordo Astartes allies, and so interjected only when necessary, making sure to phrase the most searching questions with the most delicacy. Indeed, it was almost rote duty, and were it not for the uneasy feeling her opposite number aroused in her, might even have been dull. 

She recognised the same sibilance in D'Varr's voice as she had the Grave Warden. At first she had put it down to a quirk of the Chapter's regional dialect, but as she D'Varr continued to speak, she noticed the unnervingly long eye teeth half-hidden beneath his thin lips.

It was then, as D'Varr drew his hand in a gesture over one of the star-charts before them, that the Inquisitrix realised it was the first time in this whole assignment that she had seen one of the Charnel Guard unhelmed.

His head was half-shaven, the rest of the hair falling past his face in a silvery-white cascade which hung down a little below his broad chest. As she looked more closely, she considered that the strong jaw and prominent brow typical of the Astartes seemed softer; more refined somehow, than those of the captured Red Fish she had interrogated. Beyond that, and the usual slight distortion and exaggeration of the features common to all Space Marines – and the teeth, of course – there was little else immediately remarkable about D'Varr's face. The cheeks were a little hollower than most perhaps, the eye sockets a hint more shaded. 

D’Varr’s eyes, however, were both alarming and hypnotic. At once transfixing and alert, when the lieutenant directed his piercing gaze at her directly, she found the skin on the back of her head began to crawl.

[//Charnel Guard officer – {identval=INCERTO. Sub-query:: redacted[?]+]


Later – much later – in her career, she recalled her travels with the Emperor’s Space Marines. They had always appeared remote, but most had struck her as equally dutiful and oddly courteous. She recalled her Golden Hands bodyguard, Astron, a scion of that honour-gelded and muzzled Chapter, as an exemplar of that.

Of the Charnel Guard, however, she recalled a coldness that left she feeling insignificant and faintly ridiculous, like she was some dolt to be humoured. This silent contempt and poorly concealed impatience were not something to which she was a stranger; she had experienced far too many high-handed Inquisitorial and Munitorum officials to even bat an eyelid at this, but it was the nature of how these Astartes – and D'Varr in particular – did it. He had radiated a calculated subtlety that evoked in her an uneasy sense of the warrior's poorly-hidden contempt; perhaps even revulsion. 


Perhaps, van der Veigh thought, D'Varr felt that to go through so much to become a member of the Adeptus Astartes had earned him the right the treat humanity with disdain? It was, she knew, a mark of loyalty in whether, and how, any Astartes chose to exert this power. Equally she knew how infamously difficult it was to second-guess the motives of post-humans. 

What marked the Red Fish apart from the Charnel Guard, at root? Grand concepts of history and courage? Something smaller – hollowness in the cheek, or sharpness in the jaw, perhaps? No: loyalty. Aye. Always it came down to loyalty – but that begged another question. Loyalty to what – and more pressingly in this war, to whom?


With a wry internal smile, she considered the delightfully not-quite-heretical thought of considering the Astartes almost alien in their thoughts and actions. Spurred by her dislike of the Lieutenant, van der Veigh decided to test him, push beyond her planned questioning.

“Lieutenant D’Varr," she interrupted. "Are you able to tell me to what end the atrocities in the Abraxas Subsector with the Flesh Eaters were conducted?" 

D’Varr's cold eyes snapped to her face, blazing like cold-burning promethium. It was quite clear this line of questioning was out of bounds. She pressed on, nevertheless. "I presume the Senatorum Imperialis was aware of this – particularly since your chapter has been granted the favour of the Collegia Titanica’s Legio Punica?”

Van der Veigh met the Astartes' gaze evenly. For a brief, horrifying moment, she wondered if she had pushed too far – but he just as suddenly cooled. His lips drew back in a corpse's smile, revealing his long eye teeth, and he simply said:

“Kindred spirits.”

Intending to press the point, van der Veigh got no further than drawing breath.

Argat!” D’Varr called. “Escort Inquisitrix van der Veigh back to the shuttle. Our business is complete.” 

One of the pairs of glowing eye-lenses once more moved forward out of the darkness. The towering warrior inclined his head to D’Varr and then simply gazed down at the Inquisitrix, evidently waiting for her to start moving. Standing with as much dignity as she could muster, van der Veigh turned to D'Varr, and said in parting: 

“I trust I have not taken too much of your time, Lieutenant. I shall be sure to make a full report to my superiors, so they know all that has transpired here. Detail," she continued, "is a strong point of mine.”

D’Varr, still sitting, merely smiled. The icy disregard for her had returned to his eyes. She turned and left with the Charnel brother.


Later on, van der Veigh would privately – and begrudgingly – admit that the presence and guidance of her guide had been reassuring, even if his manner had been less than cordial. Walking back alone to the docking bay would have been more than a little unnerving, even for a member of the Imperial Inquisition. There had been too many twists and turns in the cavernous, silent, half-lit vessel for even her excellent memory to recall with anything approaching precision. She suppressed a vision of running, lost and desperate, amongst the echoing labyrinthine corridors; the shuttle launching without her, leaving her stranded on the craft; alone in the dark. 


Upon reaching the shuttle bay, the black-robed emissaries emerged from the dark as she approached them. Van der Veigh stole a glimpse of the chrono on her dataslate and realised, with a start, that more than two standard hours had passed. The shrouded figures did not seem to have moved an inch. Stock-still, they stood as though rooted, awaiting her arrival with patience that bordered on inhuman. 

Without a word between them, nor from the Inquisitrix, the emissaries parted, revealing the open door of the shuttle ready to receive her. Glancing over her shoulder, van der Veigh realised that her Charnel Guard escort had vanished; she never heard or saw him leave. She turned once more to the shuttle, rueing that the enterprise had left her with far more questions than answers.

It was at that moment, with her back to the ship’s cavernous interior, that the Inquisitrix realised that she recognised the emissaries’ odour. 

It was the smell of embalming fluid, barely covering the miasma of death beneath. 

It was a measure of her resolve – and pride – that her chilled steps faltered not one bit as she stepped between them to board the shuttle. The conversation with D'Varr still ringing in her ears; her skin still prickling from his terrible gaze; the unshakeable feeling of being watched from the shadows... and now the prospect of being escorted back through the void to the Inquisition vessel by those silent envoys was truly discomforting. 

It was at that moment, for the first time in her memory, that Emmeline van der Veigh felt a shiver of fear.


[//Charnel Guard Destroyers+]