Lucia Valorous, Inquisitor of the Adeptus Hereticus, was as brilliant as she was dedicated. And tonight, after nearly five years of dogged pursuit in which she had called on every asset in her considerable collection, both her brilliance and dedication had finally paid off.
In ten seconds, the dread heretic Malchloros Vandius, whose machinations had created civil war on two worlds and brought a third to direct secession from the Imperium, would walk around that corner. He would be unarmed, and unsuspecting. He would be riven of his powers by the psi-suppressor that had cost two thirds of the covert wealth Lucia had amassed over half a century, through investments and front corporations and outright extortion.
Malchloros Vandius was a genius by any measuring, and had sold his soul to the God of Change for insane magics and even more unholy wit and wicked understanding. He was smarter than she was, and more wealthy, and more powerful...
but tonight, just this once, she had outsmarted him. In ten seconds she would point her gun, pull the trigger, and send his soul screeching into the warp, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
Steam rose from a vent in the alley floor, carrying with it the stench of chlorine. The night was cold. A feather of wind stirred leaves in little circles over the brick. The thin sickle of the moon gleamed down from between buildings and behind a wisp of cloud.
Vandius walked confidently around the corner, some gauze-wrapped bimbo on his arm. Lucia had just enough time to savor the shock on her face (Vandius, as always, was masked) before she centered the red dot of her targeting laser on the arch-heretic's face and pulled the trigger.
Click!Lucia's mind snapped into overdrive at the misfire, even as she dropped the gun and snatched her slim backup pistol from its holster. It wasn't worth racking the slide to chamber a second round; that boltgun would not misfire. Never. Not unless someone.... Interrogator Lereth had seen to her weapons for the last year and a half. Could he have exchanged her purchase with bad ammunition, or removed the explosive primer from the bolts?But no; that was impossible. She had checked each shell herself, while painting the pentagrams onto their tips in silver ink. She had taken no chances. Not tonight.
The heretic was rushing forward, trying to cross the dozen meters that separated them before she shot him dead. His woman was cowering in the corner; she would deal with that filth later. Perhaps the bimbo had been innocent before tonight, though Lucia doubted it, but at any rate she had been too close to Malchloros Vandius, and could be his pawn even without her knowledge.
Vandius himself didn't stand a chance. Her bolter hadn't even hit the ground when Lucia reached the grip of her pistol, thumbing on the laser sight and tugging it from her pocket in one fluid motion.
Still, Lucia hadn't survived seventy years of service to the Golden Throne by not thinking. Someone had set her up, and her bolter hadn't fired for reasons she still did not know. In the half moment between drawing and firing, her mind sped on:Lereth had purchased this batch of bolt shells from Carevon Custom Crafters, a very reputable establishment that provided top notch weaponry to those who could afford the very best. That would be a place to start investigating, after she had neutralized anyone who might have betrayed her. If only she knew why the weapon hadn't fired....
The targeting laser flickered up the pavement and centered on VandiusÃÂ center of mass. She pulled the trigger.
Click!For a moment, Lucia was too surprised to move. Those bullets had never failed, and they were part of the shipment she had bought almost four years ago, before she had taken Lereth onto her team. She racked the slide to clear the chamber, certain that this time it was just a simple instance of bad luck. Vandius was four meters away, now. Lucia's heart pounded with sudden, irrational terror, but she forced her hands steady, aimed, and fired.
Click!The almost inaudible hiss of the concealed suppressor mechanism, indistinguishable from traffic noise except to one who knew to listen for it, seemed suddenly very annoying. What she wouldn't give for an enemy she could kill without spending billions of Imperials on a psi-suppressor she would only...
The psi-suppressor field could interact with and neutralize Vaelone-Cordine Compound 4, an expensive explosive similar to the ones used in most firing caps. It was the only explanation.
She dropped the gun, reaching in desperation for the dagger she kept in her jacket just for occasions like this. She was a knife fighter of considerable skill, and had ended many lives at the point of her bladeÃÂthough of course there was always risk.
Yet despite her skill, she was terrified. Her usual anticipation of combat was replaced by a desire to flee for her life. She would have done it if running would not have taken her out of the range of the suppressor field and made her easy prey for the heretic mage. VandiusÃÂ eerie silver eyes, visible through his mask, chilled her to the marrow.
He drew a stiletto from a sheath within his cloak and darted at her, cobra-quick. She dove to the side, rolling away from whatever his favored attack combination might be. The brickwork bruised her back and shoulder, but she came up in a sprinter's crouch, weapon ready. She tensed and waited for the opening she knew would come.
Somehow, the Tzeentchian must have arranged for Vector to fit her pistol ammo with VC Compound 4, rather than the compound she specified. And he must have influenced LerethÃÂthat traitor!ÃÂto get the bolt shells done the same way. When she finished with Vandius, Lucia would have Lereth crucified and quartered, and his remains put to the cleansing flame.
Vandius turned quickly, with the grace of a skilled fighter; he kept his center of balance low and his knife ready. His left hand was open, not fisted: he would try to grab her knife hand, if he could.
Two meters away. She lunged, twisting into an elegant, lethal strike that had only one counter in all the known arts of knifework. And the only person alive who knew it, other than she, the only man who had ever seen it in action, was...
Lereth!Lucia had a single moment of absolute, horrified certainty before the heretic's dagger flashed through the air and slammed into her sternum. A subtle twist of the heretic's hips at just the right moment brought his neck out of line with the glittering point of her weapon; it hissed harmlessly over his shoulder. LuciaÃÂs momentum carried her up against Vandius body. She gasped for air, coughed. Blood spattered the heretic's mask, centimeters from her face.
Vandius wrenched the knife out of her chest, shoved her back, and buried the blade in the soft flesh under her chin. She crumpled. He left the rune-inscribed hilt protruding from her neck, turned his back on her twitching corpse, and walked away.
Some meters away, his woman had risen. Perplexed interest showed on her face where seconds before she had worn a look of tremulous fear.
ÃÂHow did you know she was going to make that move?ÃÂ she asked. Her voice, low and sultry, might have charmed an Arbites on parade duty right out of his armor.
Malchoros eyes crinkled behind the mask.
ÃÂI don't know," he smiled. "Lucky guess.ÃÂBy Jake Radowski