Bleeding Out: A Custodian's Story (Warhammer High)

From 1d4chan
Jump to: navigation, search
Small Book.pngThe following article is a /tg/ related story or fanfic. Should you continue, expect to find tl;dr and an occasional amount of awesome.

A story from the Warhammer High Universe. This is a spinoff to Bleeding Out, and is best read alongside the first chapters of the latter story.

Part One[edit]

The Golden Guardian[edit]

Vigilance began even before the coming of the first light. This was one of the first lessons Aurox Quadriga had been taught many thousands of years ago, the words spoken by the one who had reshaped him within and without. It was a lesson that had been etched into every neuron of his brain and every cell of his body. And though the circumstances might have changed greatly, it was something he still kept up with the same stern nobility.

Quadriga was one of the Ten Thousand, the Custodians, the personal guards of the Emperor of Mankind. Shield-Captain, Prefect of the Kataphractoi and more recently Filias-Securitas, five hundred names were engraved upon the inside of his golden battleplate. He had earned them over thousands of years of war, skills that were still sharp in his mind despite the coming of the Pax Imperialis.

A Custodian armed himself alone. The armouries of the Hall of Armaments were silent, solemn places. The Space Marines equipped themselves as a unit, part of the bonds of brotherhood that had seen them conquer a Galaxy. Custodes were armies of one, and each acted and was treated as such. At this point the process of anointing and strapping each plate of Auramite to his body was as automatic as breathing.

Even in this time of peace the duty of the Custodians never ended. The Palace needed to be guarded, the capital-world of Terra garrisoned, the safety of the Emperor guaranteed. And for Aurox there was a further task, one that he alone had been entrusted with. One that taxed him in ways he had never imagined possible during his years as a pilot.

He found his thoughts sometimes straying back, back into the grand expanse of war that had painted the Galaxy red from one end to another. During the long decades of war that was the Great Crusade the fighter’s cockpit and jetbike’s seat had been his natural domain. He had flown in a thousand alien skies throughout the Great Crusade and brought down countless foes with his jetbike’s lance or his flyer’s cannons.

That was then, and his duty now was a world apart. One which required a more delicate touch than the application of superior firepower on a hostile target. A duty he had not asked for, one that in his darker moments he thought might have been a jest made at his expense. But he was a Custodian, made to be a sentinel, a guardian, a protector, even if the subjects of that protection were not what he could have ever envisioned.

He was ready.

The first order of business was to make the morning report to the Captain-General. A brisk walk down the Colonnade Simulacrux to the Upper Ward and from there to the Heliosicon Tower, where Valdor would be finishing briefing whomever would have the duty of Palace Watch for today. It had been more than thirty years since Quadriga had last taken the watch and held the duty of safeguarding the Palace and the Emperor himself for twenty-four long and gruelling hours. Now he had a new watch, one which was ceaseless and unending. For nearly eighteen years it had taken up all his time and energy. It was his burden and his alone, one he had gotten used to even if on some level it still rankled with him.

The Heliosicon Tower jutted from the roof of the palace, offering some of the most spectacular views of the immense scale of the structure crafted within, upon and around the great mountain range that had truly deserved the title of ‘roof of the world’. Though only a small part of those mountains had not been reshaped by the Emperor’s hand, the views of the rare chunk of blue sky peering through the sickly-brown smog and the white-capped rock with great spires jutting out of it to the stars was something even a Custodian like Quadriga could admire.

Constantin Valdor, Captain-General of the Ten Thousand and the Emperor’s left hand stood on the terrace, attended by half a dozen of his fellow Custodes. Quadriga recognised Sentinel-Securitas Justinian Arcadius, the Legion’s Master of Information as well as fellow Shield-Captain Karstode Valerian, who judging by his bearing and the way he was conferring with Valdor was Master of the Watch for today.

Valerian turned and left, followed by Arcadius and the other Custodians. They nodded greetings to Quadriga as they passed. Once they were gone, Valdor waved him over.

“Is it that time again Quadriga?” Valdor smiled.

Quadriga gave a brief bow of his head. “Yes Captain-General. By the Emperor’s command.”

“The Emperor gave you one of the highest duties imaginable, Shield-Captain.”

Quadriga gazed out at the bright solar disk that burned above the palace and even penetrated the lingering remnants of smog and pollution that had once chocked the earth in a shroud of poison, and gave no reply.

“I know your mind, Quadriga. You may not say it, but you feel like this is a burden that removes you from the rest of us.”

“Captain-General, I would not be so presumptuous as to question the will of the Emperor in assigning me to this duty.”

“And yet the burden of duty rests heavily upon you. I was not chosen as Captain-General for nothing. I can tell the moods of my peers.” He rested one gauntleted hand upon the armoured shoulder of Quadriga. “You are still one of the Ten Thousand, no matter where your duty lies. You may not be Master of the Watch or in the Blood Games, you may not lead a Sodality, but you are one of us. When the day comes the Emperor deems the security of the young ones is no longer one we need to oversee, you will return to our ranks and be lavished with honours for the duty you have done.” Valdor shook his head. “Anything else, shield-captain?”

“No, Captain-General.”

“Then let us proceed with the dawn report.”

Quadriga stiffened, his voice clipped and precise. “Activity was within normal parameters. Subject III was on the vox for 2.89 hours last night to various people including Subjects IV, XIX and XX. Call material was within normal parameters. Subject X was 1.4 hours late to bed, working on that locomotor of hers.”

“And today?”

“Subject VI has business with her father, so there’s no concerns there. Subjects VIII and XIV have plans in town, so several extra netflies will be needed to monitor their activities.”

“Any concerns there?”

Quadriga shook his head. “All the locations are covered by the Treasury. I can see no complications arising.”

“Good. After recent affairs, a bit of peace and quiet on that front will not go amiss. Who would have thought we could have so many headaches through them?” Valdor gave a shallow laugh.

Quadriga could not see the jest. “I still wonder what the Emperor was thinking with them. The Primarchs I understand, they were the ones who forged the Imperium in the fires of war. They built the peace we now enforce. But these one? These ‘girl’s’? I cannot for the life of me see why the Emperor made them.”

“That is a question I have asked myself several times.” Valdor replied. “I’ve even asked the Emperor. Do you know what he told me?” Quadriga shook his head.

“That in the old faiths of Terra, there were beings known as angels. Higher than man but lower than gods. The bridge between the two. The Valkyrie of the Norse, the Fravashi of the Achaemenids, the Malaʾikah of the great Empires of the Sands. The Daughters are the secular Angels of our times. They bridge the divide between man and the immortals. They link the two into the unbreakable chain of humanity.”

“Did they ever need linking in the first place though?” Quadriga countered.

“Now that is a question I cannot answer.” Valdor tapped the Apollonian Spear against the ground. “Anything of import on your itinerarium?”

“I have a meeting with the head of the Treasury to confer on matters of security following graduation. After that it will be the usual routine.”

“And I wish it a calm and peaceful one.” Valdor turned and without another word left. Quadriga waited until he was well gone, before also pacing off. There was much to do.

Shield of the Daughters[edit]

The Treasury Security forces had their own office complex within the Administratum Wing of the Imperial Palace, hundreds of miles from where the Custodians had their stronghold. Quadriga commandeered a Gyrfalcon Jetbike and went speeding through the palace, down wide avenues chocked with the teeming masses, mag-lev lines buzzing with passenger and cargo trains and service tunnels deserted but for servitors mindlessly maintaining. Piloting was so automatic to him he could let his mind wander over his meeting with Skuratova.

Akilina Ilyinchova Skuratova, Director-General of the Treasury Security Forces and fellow bearer of the title of Secutarii-Filias. With a name like that, she could only hail from the lands of Ursh, and she had the iron-hard temperament and fiery anger common to the people of those hard lands. Anger that had been directed on Quadriga many times before. He fully expected it to be turned on him again before the day was out.

Half an hour’s flight took him into the vast expanses of the great bureaucratic stronghold from where the million and more worlds of the Imperium were managed. And within this vast warren lay the offices of the human security forces who guarded the Daughters of the Primarchs.

The headquarters of the Treasury Security forces was a plain, anonymous nine-story high block of plascrete and iron that was no different to the tens of thousands of others that the Administratum used. There was no external indication of what went on behind its walls. Only a pair of Tarantula Sentry Guns mounted on the third story could attest to anything beyond the mundane paper-pushing, their guns silently watching Quadriga as he coasted to a halt.

Skuratova was waiting for him outside the Treasury office, flanked by a pair of ‘Beehive’ Security guards. She always observed protocol, even when Quadriga thought it a waste of their time.

“Custodian Quadriga.” She snapped out a crisp salute. She had never been a beauty, but she looked as tough as groxhide boots. Even the bellicose and defiant Lady Furia had never seriously tried to test Skuratova’s limits.

Age had tempered Skuratova but not beaten her down. Her hair was the colour of weathered iron, her face sharp and young-looking but for the crow’s feet that alluded to her true age. The badge of the Tupelov Lancers Regiment of the Imperial Army, one of the famed Old One Hundred, was proudly displayed on her chest.

“You know why I am here.”

“Of course.” Without a word she turned and strode back to the officers, Quadriga shortening his pace to keep up with her.

“Subjects VIII and XIV are to be in an exposed public place later today. I hope that appropriate steps have been take.”

“You already know they have been,” She did not even slow down, the doors sliding open to admit them into the building. “And I wish you’d use their actual names for a change. Using numbers is very impersonal.”

All the treasury guards stopped dead and threw a salute to the hulking form of the Custodian as he passed them by. Quadriga gave them no regard.

“Using their names is a weakness. Personalizing the subjects clouds your judgement, makes you more likely to act under emotion as opposed to with the perfect clarity of logic. I cannot afford to know them beyond how I am to protect them.”

“And is that true of the Emperor Himself?”

“Of course. He is beyond my keen, as he is all other beings in this Galaxy. I know enough to do my duty for Him, but no more. Not even Valdor knows the Emperor’s mind. It would weaken us if we were to know more than is necessary for us to serve Him.”

“I sometimes wonder what the Emperor takes out of your kind when you are remade.” Skuratova remarked. “I know the Astartes know no fear, but what do the Custodes have cut out of them?”

Quadriga gave no reply. It was a question he had sometimes asked himself, but he had no frame of reference to answer it. And he had enough on his mind without questioning his own fundamental nature.

“We have to discuss future arrangements. Schooling at Imperator High is ending, and preparations for the next step must be made now. The subjects are about to disperse, and that will make our job considerably more difficult.”

“We have already been working on it.” Skuratova replied. “There are a number of documents with proposals for the Kourtney detail already laid out. And I’m sure you will have a thing or two to say about them.”

“Yes.” Quadriga stopped before a set of armoured double doors with a pair of treasury guards in front of it. They were visibly nervous as they confronted the golden giant. Most mortals were that way, which made Quadriga wonder how Skuratova was always unaffected by him.

She waved them aside, and the doors slid open to reveal the main briefing room.

“Shall we?” She gestured at him to enter.

He gave a short nod and stomped inside. Now he could finally do what he was tasked to do.

Future Plans[edit]

“…I am not convinced the issue of Heaven’s Gate Starport is being adequately covered.”

Skuratova glared at him over the pile of documents. “The starport has adequate security of its own, on top of our own measures. There is virtually no chance anyone could use it as a back door to the College.”

“Their security is designed to target recidivists and terrorists, not sleeper agents and assassins. And the transit system connects right to the College itself.” Quadriga tapped on a dataslab that was minute in his gauntleted hands. “The current proposals leave an unacceptable amount of risk. A Psi-Screening system should be implemented so any malicious intentions can be detected before it is too late.”

“That would slow down processing at the starport considerably.” Skuratova brought up a schematic of Heaven’s Gate, build onto the flat plains that used to be covered by ocean to the west of San Angeles Hive. “Heaven’s Gate is the main starport for that entire hemisphere. What you are proposing would do far more damage to Terra as a whole.”

“My concern is not Terra. My concern is the safety and security of the Subjects. And Kourtney being on the doorstep of the largest starport outside the Imperial Palace is a major liability.”

The briefing room was a dimly lit, large rectangular space filled by that rarest of things on Terra, a proper wooden table imported from offworld. The rich, dark wood was mostly covered by dataslates, books and other assorted documents. There were seats there for the men and women of the Treasury Security forces, any dignitaries and notables, and a specially-made chair for Primarchs or Custodians that was mostly used by Quadriga in his frequent visits. The off-colour joke that it was the golden throne of the treasury had stuck fast. Quadriga was a statue posed in his chair while Skuratova sat more comfortably in her chair opposite to him. For nearly two hours he and Skuratova had debated, sometimes bitterly the security of the Daughters after graduation scattered them across Terra and the Imperium. Things were soon to get far more complicated for the Treasury and both of them knew it.

“My concern is no less than yours,” Skuratova said irritably, “but we have to make compromises. We cannot impede a vital trade and transhipping hub on the off-chance that someone will use it to get close to Kourtney. And we have enough security set up for Kourtney to counterbalance any weaknesses shown elsewhere.”

“And as I’ve already pointed out, Kourtney is nowhere near as secure as Imperator.” Quadriga stabbed at the dataslab with a golden finger. “It’s not even as secure as Kouthry. At least Kouthry is isolated within the New Arks Hive in Merica, so we can build an effective screening system for all who go in and out.”

“That reminds me,” Skuratova interjected. “Why do Kourtney and Kouthry have such similar names? It’s easy to confuse the two.”

Her sudden change of topic sent a jolt of annoyance through Quadriga, but he decided to humour her. “They were both founded by academic refugees fleeing the anti-intellectual pogroms of the Unspeakable King of Albia. He burned the Universities of his own lands and then turned on the Europan ones, and all the scholars and preservers of ancient lore fled before him bearing what scraps they had held onto down the ages, settling far from where his red hand could reach them. ‘Kou’ is a word for knowledge in one of the lost tongues of Europa.” He impatiently turned the dataslab over in his hands. “But I fail to see what that has to do with matters of security.”

“It doesn’t,” Skuratova have him what she must have fondly imagined was a sweet smile, though to Quadriga it looked more ghoulish. “But it gives me a minute’s breathing space.”

“It gives you a wasted minute that could be better used on more productive matters.” Quadriga countered.

“I find it unusual that an immortal being can complain about wasted minutes. You can afford to waste them.”

“Immortal or not, time is the most precious of resources, one that is always running out. And we don’t have the time for frivolities when there is work to be done.”

Skuratova set the dataslab down, then fixed Quadriga a foul stare. “You seem to forget that myself and the men and women under my command are only mortal. We do not have the legendary vigilance of the Legiones Custodes. We need to take breaks, rest ourselves.”

“And why the Emperor entrusted the security of the Subjects to mere mortals will always confuse me. Your weaknesses have already been exposed on several occasions.”

Red was creeping into Skuratova’s cheeks. “None of the Daughters have ever been harmed under our watch. We have done our duty and done it well.”

“An achievement for sure, but one not purely of the Treasuries making.” Though Quadriga knew very little besides the existence of the Officio Tutamentum, he did know they were a covert protection force operating deep undercover that could cover those areas the Treasury could not. On top of his own efforts and those of fellow Custodians, the Daughters had more security than even the Primarchs. Not that the Primarchs ever needed such measures.

Quadriga saw Skuratova’s hostile glare and felt a prickle of guilt. He always had to remind himself that he could not expect mortals to match the exacting standards of the Legiones Custodes and others. He had to give at least some positive spin on this, lest Skuratova accuse him of demeaning the Treasury again. “The Treasury Security has done as well as was expected, and indeed more so, considering the tasks placed upon it.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “You attempt at a compliment is as sour as unripen citrus.”

Once again, a poor choice of words had left Skuratova fuming and Quadriga annoyed. This had happened countless times despite the many years of cooperation between the two.

He sat in silence, trying to think of what he could say that would defuse the tension. Later, he would occasionally feel the treasonous stab of thought that what happened next had done him a service by making everything else pale in comparison.

Shots Fired[edit]

Everything happened at once. The air was filled with a shrill yelping as the alert sounded and red warning lights flickered into life. Automatic instincts fired up immediately and in that instant Quadriga was on his feet, Paragon Spear in hand. Skuratova was only a split second behind him.

“What the hell is that?” She yelled, already moving for the door. Quadriga was outside in a flash, heading for the Joint Operations Centre, the nerve centre of all Treasury operations.

He burst through the doors within 20 seconds, nearly tearing them off their hinges despite them being made of reinforced iron. Inside everyone was scrambling and yelling and the sirens were blaring and a hundred alerts were sounding all at once, a cacophony of sound and noise that would have overwhelmed almost anyone. But Quadriga was beyond all that, and in an instant gazing at the dozens of screens and taking in the fragments of information displayed upon them he knew everything. And what he knew filled him with grim foreboding.

Skuratova appeared beside him. “What is going on?” She asked.

“Shooting in Startseite. Subject XIV has been hit.” Quadriga’s voice was clipped and tense, but he could not hide the thunder in his words. “Evac has been called, rapid response teams are already en-route.”

Skuratova stood there like she had been shot herself. “Throne…” she whispered.

Quadriga bent down to eye level with her. “Director, this is your moment. This is what we have been preparing for. We hoped this day would never come, but here it is. I need to get there and assess the situation in person. You need to take control here. Keep me updated.”

She nodded, and in that second her iron will reasserted itself. She strode into the room, orders already forming on her lips. Quadriga felt the corner of his lips twitch in what could almost have been a smile. She had been chosen well. Most other mortals would have taken far longer to reassert themselves.

Quadriga turned and in less than a minute was already on his Jetbike, speeding back to the nearest Custodian Guard Station and the Teleport Transponder that would get him to Startseite. It was still a ten-minute flight to get there.

He turned on his vox, and turned it to an encoded channel that he had never needed to use before.

“Mors est tantum in finem Officium.” He spoke into the channel. A few seconds later a voice responded.

“Report, Quadriga.”

“Captain-General, Code Red Seven has been sounded. Subject XIV has been hit.”

“The Rapid Response Sodality is already at the scene.” Valdor replied. “The Subjects are being gathered as we speak. They will be taken to the Palace. All units are being deployed into security positions.”

“And the shooter?”

“Sweep teams are already on the case. You can join with them when you get there.”

“And the Emperor?”

“I am with him now. He is secure. We are already moving to the inner sanctum.”

Aurox could have breathed a sigh of relief. “I will be on-site within ten minutes. I will take command and hold position until relieved.”

“Good. Keep me informed of any developments.” The line cut out.

The Custodian Guards maintained multiple stations throughout the Palace. Not all were manned at the same time, but they were ideal positions from which to defend various areas and rearm and equip if needed. And more importantly for Quadriga, each had a teleport station for rapid deployment.

There were five Custodians currently deployed here, and all were already at battle positions.

“I need the Teleporter.” Quadriga ordered as he dismounted from his jetbike.

“Startseite?” The Custodian asked.

“Aye. And quickly. The Captain-General requires my presence there immediately.”

He was already moving into the armoured bastion, and before they could even spool it up he was in the Teleportarium.

It took nearly a minute for his fellow Custodian to power it up and generate a locus, but then there was a harsh crackling of energy, and the world was consumed by a curtain of writhing static.

A second later, the world vanished. There was brief feeling of emptiness, like Quadriga was falling down a bottomless chasm. And then the feeling vanished, solid earth was once more beneath his feet and there was air again.

He had been teleported true, standing in the streets of Startseite just a short way down the road from the cordon. He could see the plascrete crash barriers hastily dragged into place, the Beehive Security guards swarming like their ancient namesakes and the hulking forms of Aquilon Terminators, his brothers who had been teleported in to secure the sight. He was on the move immediately.

“Auric.” The nearest Aquilon called to him when he got close enough.

“Mortalis.” Quadriga replied.

The Aquilon lowered his Adrathic destructor and waved Quadriga forward.

“Situation?” Quadriga asked.

“The Subjects have both been evacuated. Subject XIV was alive but in critical condition. Subject VIII was in shock and extreme emotional distress.”

“And the others?”

“All of the other Subjects have been recovered or are in the process of being recovered.”

“Who is chief Treasury officer here?”

The Aquilon gestured with his claw at a man with a non-standard longsword at his hip talking with several other treasury guards.

Without another word Quadriga marched over to him. The man’s blue eyes widened as he beheld the Custodian towering over him.

“Aurox Quadriga, Secutarii-Filias. As of now, field command is mine.”

The man gulped and nodded, clearly intimidated. Quadriga knew that he must be under a lot of pressure, and mindful of his earlier episode with Skuratova resolved to try and be more understanding.

“What is your name, Treasury officer?” Quadriga asked.

“Major Axiopolis sir.”

“Boeotia?”

“Yes sir.”

“A stubborn lot, the Boeotians.” Quadriga remarked. “We need that stubbornness now. Give me a sitrep.”

“Both the Daughters were teleported out within seconds of the shot. They’re in a safe and secure place in the lower ward of the Palace. Verispex are examining the scene as we speak.” He gestured at the men and women in Arbite uniforms scouring over every inch of the café.

“And the shooter?”

“Already apprehended.” Quadriga could not completely hide his reaction, the split-second of disappointment that he would not get the chance to deal with the perpetrator himself. “He was in that building.” Axiopolis quickly pointed to a window overlooking the café. “He gave up willingly, did not try to fight or take his own life. He has been taken to the Khangba Marwu.”

“He’ll regret not ending his miserable existence swiftly enough.” Quadriga growled. The interrogators of the Khangba Marwu were the most skilled outside the vicious torturers of the debased cabals of the Eldar.

Axiopolis nodded in agreement. “At this point, our job is to hold the site while anything that can be used as evidence is gathered.”

“Where is Field Sergeant Carver?”

“She’s over there.” Axiopolis pointed to a Beehive guard with short dark hair and a pale face sitting half-slumped in a chair. “She’s taking it pretty hard. You know what happens to those who are on personal duty for long periods.”

“Let me handle this.” Quadriga nodded to Axiopolis and walked over to Carver.

Quadriga had never served in the Sagittarum Guard, but he had been taught their ability to recognise faces from miles away. And in his years of standing vigil, he had taken it upon himself to know all those who he would have to serve with. Every last soldier in the Treasury was known to him, all he could identify in an instant.

Marchenka Carver hailed from the mighty arms-hive of Vantovka in Ursh. In such an environment it was no surprise she was an expert marksman, winning the Treasury sharpshooting award three years running. Quadriga remembered clearly that during her first few years she had been routinely deployed for sniper duties, though her clear skill beyond the mere handling of firearms had seen her promoted to closer detail. She was one of the agents who had managed to endure extended and long-term personal detail in close proximity with the Subjects without succumbing to the so-called ‘Lazio syndrome’, that unforeseen complication that the late Aralde Lazio had brought to the fore. She was ranked in the foremost members of the Treasury along with Clay Witold and Gisemba Apeloko and Skuratova had already marked her for promotion, for greater things. Quadriga knew well enough that this disaster would kill her momentum cold. Her rise within the Treasury would now be dead in the water, and all the blame would be laid at her feet. A fate she did not deserve.

“Field Sergeant Carver?”

She looked up at him, her eyes haggard and weary. She looked like she had aged years in only a few hours. Still she pulled herself to her feet and gave him a salute.

“Honoured Custodian.”

“At ease. You may sit.”

Carver sank back into the chair. She had shared the same fiery spirit that seemed innate to all those born of Ursh, but now it was like the fire in her had been snuffed out, leaving only gleaming embers.

“You have already made a full report to Axiopolis, correct?”

Carver gave a shallow nod.

“I wish for you to make the same report to me. I want to know everything you can tell me.”

Again she nodded. “Routine. Everything was routine. The perimeter had been set and checked twice over. We had made sure there would be nothing within five hundred yards of Mort…of the principal.” Her voice had wavered like a broken record for a second. “It came out of nowhere. We didn’t even hear the shot, just the sound of the round striking home.” Her voice grew steadier and more bitter with every passing word. “The teams were scrambled at once. We got the principals out and locked down the area. All the witnesses were rounded up and have been transported to the palace to have statements taken and psi-screening done in case.”

“You followed protocol to the letter.” Quadriga said. “You did well there. However you did less well in not making checks for longer-ranged weapons before setting up the perimeter.”

Carver shot him a glare. “We have never had to worry about heavy-calibre sniper weapons. There’s screening systems in place preventing them being brought into Startseite. And even our snipers failed to detect the shooter before it was too late. He was well concealed, beyond our snoopers ability to detect him.”

“Screening systems and snooping systems that failed, as it turns out.” Quadriga replied bluntly. “You’re one of our best snipers, you of all people should have known the danger of a long-ranged weapon beyond the perimeter.”

“Could you have done better?” Carver snapped at him.

Without a shadow of a doubt Quadriga answered, “Yes.”

“Oh really?” an undercurrent of venom filled Carver’s voice. “I know a Custodian is beyond even a Space Marine in power, but I doubt even you could intercept a bullet moving three times the speed of sound from a kilometre away.”

“If my brothers were in charge here, there would never have been a sniper within a kilometre or even five kilometres. We have dozens of lifetimes worth to merely learn our craft, let alone hone it.”

“Well, excuse me for not being on the same level as a Custodian.” Carver spat. “Excuse me for not having two hearts, four lungs or whatever else is inside that body of yours. I am merely human, and I did everything a mere human could do to prevent this.” She cursed audibly. “Nothing you say will hurt as much as what I know is being said even now. All the blame, all the recriminations, all of it will be laid on my head.” She held her head in her hands. “If she…if she doesn’t make it, then I’ll have to live with that, if I even live long enough. Maybe that damned sniper should have finished me as well.”

“Are you certain?” Quadriga asked her.

“What?” her head tilted to face him, her eyes wide.

Quadriga drew his Misericorda. “If you wish it, I can give you that end. I can ensure that you will not have to face hostile politicians or a hostile public. I can give you peace.”

“What? No!” Carver stumbled back. “I didn’t mean it that literally dammit!”

“As you wish.” Quadriga sheathed his Misericorda.

Carver shook her head wildly. “You Custodians are way too literal.”

“Better to be literal than to hide your words behind falsehoods.” Quadriga answered. “And they will spin falsehoods about you and your conduct today. That’s why I need to know, so that Skuratova can work out the best way to shield you from what is to come.”

“Skuratova would be better off dismissing me.” Carver’s voice was soft and sour once again. “I am a liability to the Treasury now. Why waste time trying to defend me?”

Quadriga did not hesitate or pause. “Because Skuratova can see herself in you. Because you are a professional who did their best, even when it turned out that was just not enough. Because you are respected throughout the Treasury. Because they take care of their own, no matter what.”

He rested a single finger from his gauntlet on her shoulder.

“There are things no-one can forsee. We all planned in case this day would happen, and from what I’ve been told and what you’ve just told me, your conduct in the crisis was exemplary.”

“But you just said…”

“There are many reasons the Emperor placed the security of the Subjects in your hands, and not those of mine and my ilk. There are things your kind can do that we, for all our prowess, cannot.”

She blinked, clearly confused. Quadriga pressed on. “You will not be made into a sacrifice because you were the one on duty, any more than we would sacrifice Witold if it had been Subject XVI and not XIV under the bullet. Loyalty is one of the strongest currencies in this universe, and the Treasury is loyal to its own.”

For the first time Quadriga could see a spark of something in Carver’s eyes. The dismal failure was still there. But the smallest spark of hope had been added. It was time to fan that spark into a flame.

“You have nothing to worry about. If Subject XIV fails to make it, then we will burn that bridge as we come to it. I have long had plans in case a Subject should fall under our watch.”

“You’ve planned for a Daughter’s death?” Carver exclaimed.

Quadriga’s reply was blunt and direct. “Yes.” He said. “Just as I know the Emperor and the Captain-General had plans in case a Primarch should die fighting the Crusade. We plan for everything. It’s what we do as Custodians. Most of the Treasury’s emergency protocols were written by myself in cooperation with Skuratova.”

“We have plans already in place for what will come next. Trust that Skuratova will do all she can for your sakes, and the sakes of those under you. The public, the Council of Terra, the politicians, all of them we have accounted for. You will not be left to their mercy.”

Quadriga turned and gestured to a nearby Valkyrie with his spear. “As commanding officer here, I hereby dismiss you. Go home. Get some rest. Know that whatever happens next, you did all you could. Maybe if my brothers and I were here we could have prevented this, perhaps not. Either way, you were here, and you did all you could. There is honour in that.”

“Honoured Custodian.” Carver threw him another, more sharp salute and strode over to the others to call for a transport. Quadriga watched her go for a second, and then turned back to the tasks at hand. Her day might be over, but his was only just beginning.

A Summons to the Palace[edit]

The distant glint of an approaching aircraft silhouetted against the growing darkness of the night sky caught Quadriga’s eye. The daylight sky might still be more brown than blue despite centuries of geo-engineering to reverse the effects of Old Night, but the night was still black.

As the craft came closer, he immediately recognised what it was. An Orion Gunship, a vessel he had once been intimately familiar with when he had still been flying for the Legion.

The Orion speared out of the sky like a thunderbolt from the heavens, braking at the last second to land. Quadriga was glad his helmet concealed the small smile on his face. He remembered doing much the same thing back when he was behind the controls.

The rear hatch slid open and several Treasury Guard emerged, clad in beetle-black carapace with lasguns at the ready. Then behind them, resplendent in lacquered black armour covered in gold filigree was Skuratova, a pair of aides following in her wake.

One of the Aquilon Terminators on sentry duty called over to her, “Vigilantia.”

“Confido.” Skuratova called back crisply, and the Aquilon waved her towards where Quadriga was waiting.

“Honoured Custodian,” were her first words to him, along with a salute. Quadriga rolled his eyes, thankful she couldn’t see him doing so.

“Director-General.” he replied. “The site is secure, and all evidence has already been forwarded to the palace. I’m of half a mind to begin dismantling the lockdown so services can return to normal on the morrow.”

“I concur.” Skuratova replied, her eyes flicking over the scene, the Treasury Guards and Arbites standing vigil beside the towering forms of the remaining Custodian Guards.

“Most of my brethren have already returned to the palace.” Quadriga continued. “I intend to follow them as soon as everything is set.”

“You’ll be returning to the palace sooner than that, I’m afraid. I have orders.” Skuratova pulled out a scroll affixed with the seal of the Council of Terra. “We’ve both been called forth to testify. I will brief you as we head back.” She had already turned on her heel and was heading back towards the Orion.

“Could the Council have given us some time to gather ourselves before we have to answer to them?” Quadriga growled. “I am reminded of what the Warmaster once said: that it would our own bureaucrats that would spell the doom of the Imperium.”

Skuratova gave a small smile before turning back to him. “I don’t think they’ll be bringing the Imperium to its knees anytime soon. But that’s not the only reason we are called forth. We have to debrief the Daughters and speak to them on what’s happening next with regards to their security.”

Quadriga grimaced under his helmet. Of all his duties, direct contact with the Daughters was the one he always felt the worst about. They were more alien to him that any Eldar or Ork.

“There is much for us to do at the Palace,” Skuratova continued, “and time is of the essence. Hence why your brothers were kind enough to give me transport me here on the fastest transport in your arsenal. We should be back at the palace within an hour.”

“Allow me to pass my authority on, and I will join you.” Quadriga turned away and heading towards Axiopolis.

“I have been summoned to the Palace.” Quadriga addressed him bluntly. “Command is yours once again. Have everyone dismantle the site and then dismissed. It’s been a long day, and they’ll need the rest. As will you.”

“Yes, honoured Custodian.” Axiopolis replied. “I am honoured to have served with you this day.”

“I don’t think either of us will get much honour out of this day, but your words are noted. Good day, Axiopolis.” Quadriga turned and headed for the Orion.

Skuratova was impatiently waiting for him, and with a loud thump he sat down opposite her, laying his spear down. The hatch hissed shut behind him, and Quadriga felt the faintest movements through the grav field as the aircraft took off and sped away, bound for the Palace.

“So,” Quadriga began. “What can you tell me that I don’t already know?”

“We know the identity of the shooter.”

Quadriga felt his pulse spike. “Who?”

“Ulysses Keiter.” Skuratova handed over a dataslate, which Quadriga gently took. A face, pale, plain and unassuming was displayed on it.

“Employed by the Civil Honors Union in underhive work. No criminal record. Civil rifle and pistol permits. Membership in the Sons of the War.” Skuratova continued. “No known gang or cult activities.”

“Watchword is ‘known’.” Quadriga replied. “No-one would act that way alone. Has his hab been searched?”

“It’s being pulled apart as we speak. Every last thing in there will be taken out and examined. A full search. No stone will be left unturned.”

“Good.” Quadriga rumbled.

“The first interrogations will take place tomorrow. At the moment he is under sedation.”

“Have they set the mind-hounds to him?”

“Not yet, but I fully expect them to as part of tomorrow’s first round. If there’s anything hidden in his mind, they will pull it out.”

“He’s worked in the underhives. That’s where all the recidivists and cultists lie. Those who reject the Imperial Truth and work against unity. My fellows have operated against them in the past.” Quadriga mused aloud. “Whatever drove him to this probably lies there. It might be worth sending a team into the depths of Tetra to see what we can uncover.”

“Surely the Indigatus or the Assassinorum would be better suited for that line of work that the Legio Custodes.” Skuratova pointed out.

To that, Quadriga gave a chuckle that sounded like the grinding of tectonic plates or the rumble of distant guns. “You have no idea what we are capable of. Not even the Primarchs know what we in the Legio Custodes can do. None save the Emperor know the limits to our capabilities.”

Skuratova was silent for a few seconds. Then she said softly “Nineteen years we have worked together, and yet I find you as mysterious as you were the day we first met. You truly are a breed apart.”

“The Emperor made me that way.” Quadriga replied. “He made us all that way. He made the Astartes for one purpose, and the Custodians for another. He made the Primarchs, and for reasons I still cannot quite fathom, he made the Daughters. Each of us is a cog in the great machine the Emperor has made. And now someone has set out to knock out a cog and disrupt the machine. It is our task now to set it right.”

“Your task maybe,” Skuratova corrected him. “My task is to make sure those nineteen cogs of yours that the rest of us call the Daughters are safe and secure, free to live their lives without fear. That is all that matters.”

Quadriga shook his head and his fingers gripped the seat as he felt the craft shudder slightly, engines growling as they pushed the craft higher into the atmosphere. “A risk has now been identified. We have to mitigate that risk. We cannot let this event be repeated. The trouble is that regular humans only ever seem to think in the short term, while my kind are trained to think of the bigger picture.”

“And the bigger picture can wait until tomorrow.” Skuratova growled, her temper flaring. “Right now we have to reassure eighteen scared young women that the Treasury can be relied upon to protect them.”

“They are not the ones you need to assure.” Quadriga countered. “Dealing with them will be simple compared with the Council of Terra.”

“One bloody thing at a time Quadriga.” Skuratova shook her head angrily, before pointedly turning her gaze to the front of the ship. Even her aides shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“Someone has to think of these things. Just as you have to remind me that the here and now also requires attention. That’s why we’ve worked so well together these last nineteen years. You handle the immediate and short term, and I keep the long game in mind. It’s why we’ve done so well thus far.” She turned back to face him, and that hardened face seemed softer in that instant. “I hope you are right.”

The High Lords of Terra[edit]

The rest of the trip passed without incident with the two discussing several plans for what they would have to do next to keep the subjects safe for the foreseeable future. Two hours of hypersonic travel across half the planet brought the gunship to a shuddering halt, and with a hiss of pressure the lower hatch opened to a blast of chilled air and the spires of the Palace jutting out of grey snow-capped rock. Another Custodian Transport, a Coronus Grav-Carrier was waiting for them with a pair of the Sagittarum guards flanking it on either side.

As they emerged into the fading sunlight, in unison the Sagittarum Guards lowered their Calivers, aimed square at Quadriga, Skuratova and her aides.

“Caput.” He barked.

“Pomerium.” Quadriga called back. That instant they stood down and waved the party forwards.

“Do they have to do that?” Skuratova asked. “We’ve been through at least three layers of security already. They should know we are friendly at this point.”

“We are in the innermost sanctums of the Palace now. You are under the aegis of the Ten Thousand.” Quadriga explained as they disappeared into the confines of the Coronus. For Quadriga he had to stoop to fit in, but to the humans it was extremely roomy. He felt the craft lift off and speed away into the depths of the Palace.

Skuratova brought up her notes on her dataslate. “The Council of Terra, or rather those members who happen to be in the Palace at present wish for us to explain what has happened and how we let it happen, and what steps we will take in response.”

Quadriga nodded. “If you wish, I will speak on your behalf. I know how to deal with mortals.”

Skuratova signed audibly. “And that is one of the things I am worried about, Quadriga.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I will address them first. You can speak on the technical matters but leave the rest to me.”

“As you wish.”

The Coronus finally coasted to a halt, and they emerged before a magnificent doorway, every inch of it lovingly carved. A stream of people were moving both in and out in a neverending tide.

“It has been a long time since I was last here.” Skuratova breathed, her eyes taking in the sights.

“The Great Chamber of the Senatorum Imperialis lies within.” Quadriga stated matter-of-factly. “Capable of holding a million people. I hope we are not meeting in there.”

Skuratova pulled out her dataslate. “No. We’re being called to one of the secondary meeting rooms deeper inside.”

“We do not want to keep the Council waiting.” Quadriga was already off and cursing under her breath Skuratova followed.

Just inside the door as the vast crowds parted before the new arrivals, a cyber eagle swooped down and hovered before them. “Follow me.” A synthesized voice came from the mech, and with a beating of wings it flew off to the left, towards one of the dozens of doorways full of the hustle and bustle of people.

The menials who worked here were wide-eyed at the fully-armoured Custodian and the gold and black clad woman marching down the corridors with obvious purpose. The dove out of the way, giving the small group a wide berth.

Deeper and deeper into the bowels of the building they went, and progressively the crowds grew thinner and thinner until aside from the occasional robed figure they were alone, following the cyber eagle through the maze of corridors.

Finally they came to a blank metal door with only the standard Imperial Aquila stamped into it. The Eagle perched above the doorway.

“You first.” Skuratova gestured to Quadriga.

Quadriga banged on the door with the heel of his spear three times.

“Enter.” A voice boomed out, loud enough to easily pierce the heavy door.

The door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges, and Quadriga bowed his head to fit through. Instantly his eyes were up and focused on the half-dozen figures sitting around a bare plasteel table.

Directly opposite him and facing the door was a figure that despite his unimpressive appearance radiated an aura of calm and command. His badge of office lay on the table before him, the usual flames topping it extinguished. His hands were tented before him, sharp eyes burning into the new arrivals. Quadriga blankly returned his gaze for a few seconds, before his eyes turned to the other figures seated there.

There was the welcome face of Constantin Valdor, who with a brief quirk of one eyebrow gave silent greetings to Quadriga. The Master of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica stared at the bare ceiling, eyes unfocused, staff loosely held in one hand. The Master of the Administratum looked the most displeased, a scowl on his lips as he watched them enter. The Paternoval Envoy of the Navis Nobilite looked singularly disinterested in everything while the Lord Commander Militant of the Imperial Army looked like he wished he was anywhere else at that exact moment, the slightest hints of fidgeting visible only to Quadriga’s enhanced eyes. Finally the Grand Provost Marshal of the Adeptus Arbites gave a nod of greetings to Skuratova, the only one to do so.

“Welcome, Secutarii-Filias.” The voice was low but regal, laden with aged wisdom. There was no accent to it, Quadriga could not make out where it originated. That in itself was unusual. “I know that events have not had you at an advantage at present, but we must discuss said events and what our collective response to them must be. Please, take a seat.”

Malcador the Sigilite, First Lord of the Council of Terra and right hand of the Emperor gestured to a set of pressed metal seats facing them, including one clearly made for the great bulk of a Custodian.

“Would you care for some water?” Malcador asked, gesturing to a great silver pitcher on the table surrounded by glass cups. One of Skuratova’s aides helped himself while the others followed the lead of their mistress and sat firm. Once the aide was back in his seat, Malcador continued.

“While we all know the general details of this morning’s incident, the council would like a full report from you.” Skuratova was out of her seat immediately.

“We recognise Akilina Ilyinchova Skuratova, Director-General of the Treasury Security Forces.”

Skuratova gave a deep bow. “My Lords and Ladies.” She gave a hushed cough to clear her throat, then in a steady and authoritative tone launched right into it. “At approximately 10:37 hours local time, a sniper who has been identified as a ‘Ulysses Keiter’ of Hive Tetra fired a single shot from a Gannet .402 sniper rifle. The shot was aimed at the Ladies Kiara Curze and Morticia, who were conversing at a local dining establishment in Startseite much patronaged by all the Daughters. The Lady Morticia was critically wounded in the incident and is currently undergoing emergency treatment in Medicae Primus of Startseite. My agents immediately sealed off the area, escorted the remaining Daughters to the Palace for security and defended the site while evidence was retrieved.”

“This is known.” Malcador said. “What is not known is how this was allowed to happen.” An edge of steel crept into his voice, the barest hint of a threat. “Many safeguards were put into place. How were none of our future scryers able to forsee this?” His words were directed at the Master of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica, who instantly snapped back into focus.

“Lord Malcador, you know better than even I the problems with seeing the future.” The melodic quality of the City of Sight filtered through his words. “Even the seers of the Eldar struggle with untangling the twisted strands of the great weave of future events. And their skills are more subtle and nuanced than ours.”

How the universe had changed. Once, to claim Eldar superiority in psychic arts would have been akin to treason. Now, it seemed a part of normal discourse. Quadriga could never get used to it. He’d killed enough Eldar down the years to instinctively see them as enemies.

The Master of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica gave a pointed gesture of his head towards Skuratova. “Besides, the real concern lies in the hands of the Treasury. While we cannot see everything clearly, it is their task to prepare for what cannot be foreseen in time. That is in their charter, is it not?”

“You are correct.” Malcador said evenly. “The Treasury Security Forces are the newest branch of the Administratum, founded in order to give the best protection possible to the new, extended families of the Primarchs. To show that the lives of the Daughters could be safely entrusted to mere human hands even while some voices claimed that duty should be granted to the Astartes or even the Custodes.”

Quadriga remembered the debates within the Ten Thousand when those proposals had first been voiced. There were plenty within the Legion, led by Tribune Diocletian Coros, who had been vehemently against such a thing. In council Quadriga remembered his harsh words that such a duty was a waste of their talents and a needless diversion from their only true purpose: defending the Emperor. Regardless, it was taken out of their hands when the Treasury was founded to take on that duty, though in the end a single Custodian was still detached to join in the security of the Daughters.

“And yet we have now seen those hands slip.” Malcador’s voice now contained a measure of disappointment. “A Daughter lies wounded, possibly even dying, while those who were tasked with defending her were helpless to act. This was a regrettable incident.”

“This was a bloody balls up more like.” The Lord Commander Militant suddenly interjected, and a hint of a jermanic accent bled into his words. “You had one task Skuratova. One task, and you failed. Were I in charge, I would have you shot for negligence.”

Skuratova’s face went red, but before she could reply the Grand Provost Marshal said. “You might command the legions of the Imperial Army, Lord Commander Militant, but the discipline of the Director General thankfully lies beyond your purview.”

“You cannot be serious about letting her off the hook?” The Lord Commander Militant turned to face him. “The last thing we can do here is allow incompetence to go unpunished.”

“I concur with the Lord Commander.” The Master of the Administratum added. His words were not as fiery, but the venom dripping from them was just as pronounced. “Skuratova bears the responsibility of the Treasury Security forces. Their misstep is her misstep, and blood calls for blood.”

Their anger struck Quadriga as not being entirely genuine. He could read emotion as clearly as though it were a book, and there was none of the tell-tale signs that betrayed emotion unshackled from logic. No, this was advancing an agenda. They needed a scapegoat, and Skuratova was on the chopping block.

Skuratova opened her mouth to defend herself, but the Master of the Administratum was not finished. “The entire idea of the Treasury was a mistake. In an age of supermen and secular demigods, mere humans cannot hope to offer the kind of defence we need for the Daughters. We were persuaded that giving mortals the task would be a test of how well human forces could cope, but that is now proven to have been a busted flush.”

For the first time a look of actual despair flashed across Skuratova’s face. The Master of the Administratum was her overall superior, and if he had turned against her then she was in truly serious trouble.

Malcador tapped on the table with his staff, and instantly everyone went quiet. “Now is not the time for recriminations. That will come, and it will be fair and just. But at the moment we need to decide what we are to do next. Tensions and feelings are high, and that can often cause just as much damage as any bullet.”

Skuratova seized her chance. “Our procedures were sound.” She said emphatically. “For the entire duration of our existence we have kept the daughters safe so long as they are under our direct protection. That café had long been used by the Daughters as a favoured establishment and we had been given many chances to perfect our security measures for it. Our security cordon had been set out to five hundred yards. And we scanned every last building within gunshot range in the hours beforehand, though it now appears the shooter moved in after our initial work was deemed complete. I trust you understand, ladies and gentlemen, just how hard it is to make sure that every single last possibility is covered?”

“Yes. But of all the possibilities, a shooting ranks extremely highly in the risk scale.” The Master of the Administratum pressed. “Surely a permanent watch for the duration on all potential sniper hides is part of treasury guidelines?”

Skuratova’s eyelids were twitching, a sign of holding in considerable anger. “There were approximately fifteen thousand potential sniper locations within standard sniper rifle range of the café. To cover them all would have required each personal detail to have the manpower of a Solar Auxilia Cohort.” Her tone was wearing thin, anger tinging her voice. “I’m sure having that many heavily armed men and women tailing each of the Primarch’s daughters would be unobtrusive and not obstruct the goings-on of regular society…”

Before anything further could happen, Malcador help up his hand. Instantly Quadriga felt a chill of psychic energy and everyone was instantly struck dumb. “My apologies for such a drastic step,” Malcador said softly, “But this is not the time and the place to nitpick. An inquiry is already being set up and it will examine all the evidence. And then, and only then, will we know where the fault really lies. What we need to know is what needs to happen over the next few hours, days and weeks.”

The chill vanished and everyone suddenly slumped in their seats. Everyone, that was, except the only two immune to such psychic effects. Skuratova certainly looked like all the exhaustion of the day had suddenly caught up with her and Quadriga in that split second decided he needed to give her a chance to collect herself. She was not being treated fairly for something he knew she was taking extremely personally. And he had his own ideas that needed to be shared.

“If I may speak?”

“We recognise Aurox Quadriga, Shield Captain of the Ten Thousand.” Malcador announced.

Quadriga nodded and took to his feet. “The Director-General and I have already conferred, and we both agree that urgent steps need to be taken, at least in the short term. We intend to dramatically increase our security measures.”

Now it was time to drop the big decision he and Skuratova had made on the trip over. “For at least the next few days, we have agreed that we will make a joint recommendation to the Captain-General and the other members of the Council that members of the Ten Thousand be assigned on the basis of a single Custodian to each security team. Their task shall be to advise, act as a threat deterrence, and show the masses that we are taking the current situation as seriously as it deserves.”

“Would this be possible, Captain-General?” Malcador turned to Valdor.

Valdor didn’t hesitate. “Certainly, though this can only be a temporary measure. We are not entirely effective at providing the low-key security the Treasury has specialized in and that the Royal Daughters are accustomed to.”

“The wishes of the Daughters can be safely put on hold, at least until more permanent measures can be implemented.” Malcador stated flatly. “Do the other members of the Council agree with Captain Quadriga’s proposal?”

One by one the hands went up. There was both relief and doubt on Skuratovas face as her own hand joined them. Quadriga knew it must have sat ill with her, giving Treasury authority over to members of the Ten Thousand.

“So it is commanded.” Malcador’s words were loaded with finality. “Captain-General Valdor, I leave it to you to find the best way to implement this.”

Valdor nodded. “The Shield-Captain and I will begin making all the necessary arrangements and selecting the best candidates from within the ranks of the Ten Thousand starting tomorrow.”

“As you said,” the Lord Commander Militant interjected, “this can only be a temporary measure. What are we going to do in the long term?”

“What we will not do,” Skuratova said firmly, “is lock those young ladies up in a gilded cage. The Treasury exists to give them the maximum amount of freedom possible while still maintaining for them protection equal to their status. That freedom is something they need in order to get the most out of everything on offer for them.”

“Letting these ‘girls’ run riot has already got you and those under your command into a number of needless scrapes.” The Lord Commander Militant sneered. “They should have been raised with military discipline, the discipline their fathers used to conquer this galaxy. Frankly, from what I’ve seen I find it very hard to reconcile that these troublesome girls are in fact the Daughters of the mighty Primarchs.”

For the first time Quadriga found himself in complete agreement with the Lord Commander Militant. He had fought alongside the Primarchs during the Crusade, and during his early years often mentally tried to compare those kids with their fathers. He had been swiftly disabused of that notion. While there were clear echoes of the Primarchs in the Daughters, by and large the young women were very different entities from the posthuman monsters that they had been made from.

“The Emperor made the Daughters the way they are, and I’m sure you are not questioning the Emperor’s will?” Malcador said, a winter chill in his voice.

The Lord Commander Militant flinched and swiftly belted out, “Of course not, Lord Malcador. But I feel that they could stand to learn more of the discipline and will of their fathers. It would certainly help us at our job.” That last comment was aimed at Skuratova, who simply shot a glare back.

“Well, when this meeting is done, maybe we can ask the Daughters to act a bit more cautiously with regards to their need for security.” The Lord Provost Marshal said good-naturedly.

“I think we’re straying from the task at hand.” Valdor warned.

“Indeed.” Malcador replied.

To the Palace Depths[edit]

The meeting lasted another hour of more menial details before Malcador finally rose to his feet. “That is everything for today. I believe there is one more item of business. The Daughters must be informed. That is the task of the Secutarii Filias to perform.”

“Aye.” Skuratova rose to her feet. “The Shield-Captain and myself will be heading for the bunker. We’ll inform them of the Custodians attached to their duties, brief them on exercising a degree of caution for the foreseeable future and answering any questions they might have that are within our power to answer.”

“Very well.” Malcador clapped his hands together. “With that, this meeting of the Council of Terra is dismissed.”

Skuratova was taken aside by the Lord Provost Marshal, while Valdor came up to Quadriga.

“Who will we assign to this duty?” Quadriga launched straight into it. “Those who served as Aquilan Shields or Oculi Imperator are our best bet.”

“I already have a few names in mind.” Valdor replied. “I’ll be summoning them to the Tower of Hegemon once I get back. Once the selection has been made, I’ll place them under your command.”

Quadriga instantly knew the implication. “So there is to be a new Sodality for this duty, even if it is only temporary?”

“Aye.”

“I have never commanded a full Sodality, Captain-General.”

“And it is high time you did so, Quadriga.” Valdor asserted. “You’ve commanded squads in battle many times. This is the same, only with a few more men.”

Quadriga nodded, instantly assimilating the news and breaking it down. Unlike in the Astartes or the Army, he knew any Custodes under his command would obey any order he gave like it was the word of the Emperor Himself. He had no fear that his command would not be respected, or that he would somehow have to prove himself.

The Captain-General took his leave without another word. The other members of the Council of Terra were not far behind him, no-one seemed to wish to linger.

Skuratova bid goodbye to the Provost Marshall and joined Quadriga as they went back to the surface. Once they were far enough, Skuratova cut loose a long-suppressed snarl, part rage, part frustration. “I knew this was going to be bad, but not this bad. The Administratum are out for blood now. I can’t have an enemy at my back as well as ones in front of me.”

“We can address their concerns at a later date. Right now, we have to deal with the subjects.”

Skuratova shot him a glare. “I would ask you not to refer to them as such to their faces, Shield-Captain.” She put her head in her hands. “How many times to I have to tell you this before it will penetrate that auramite helmet of yours?”

Quadriga stared at her for a few seconds until she broke eye contact and gave a swift shake of her head in despair. "Never mind." She said.

“I would prefer that you handle the subjects, as far as briefing goes. They tend to trust you more than they do me.”

“And why is that I wonder?” Skuratova added.

The two left the chamber and re-boarded the Coronus without another word, but as they were speeding for the buried depths of the Palace, Quadriga began preparations for the next duty.

“Who are we likely to have trouble with as far as this assignment?” He already had an answer in his head, but felt Skuratova was a better judge of opinions. She was a human woman, and thus closer in understanding to the Daughters than he ever could be.

“The obvious one is Miss Angron. She will not take this well at all.”

“If she has an issue with it, she can see how well she’d fare in fighting a Custodian.”

Skuratova gave a small chuckle, her first laughter all day. “Knowing her, she’d try it.”

“And if she did, she’d learn her lesson very swiftly.” Quadriga said dryly. “Subject five will likely be the same.” “I concur. Though she’s far more reasonable.”

“Four might have issue. She’s had bad experiences with her bodyguards in the past.”

Skuratova nodded. The Lazio incident had hit her hard back in the day, and Skuratova still wore it as a badge of shame. “That is why she’ll make no issue of it.”

“Good to hear.”

“Victoria won’t much like it either. A hulking Custodian might well keep all the boys away.”

“And I think that would do her good.” Quadriga replied bluntly. “Of all the subjects, she is one of the most pain-inducing.”

“You got that right.” Skuratova concurred with a grimace.

“I see annoyance from the others, but they will accept it given the circumstances.

“Agreed.” Skuratova then gave Quadriga a serious look. “I need to affirm to them that this will be merely a temporary measure, that they will not have to endure Custodian escort for long.”

“My fellows will feel much the same way. Such a duty I suspect will be seen as onerous and doleful.”

Skuratova picked up on that instantly. “You speak from experience?”

“Yes. I will freely admit that this duty is one that is very taxing on me, and there are times when that burden lies heavy.”

“You have been the most invaluable of advisors to us down the years.” Skuratova said firmly. “As you said, you see what I and my fellows cannot. And we’ll need that skill more from now on. We missed this, but we cannot afford to miss something like that again.” She went quiet for a second, then added softly, “Speak truthfully. If you had been overseeing at the site, would you have found the shooter before he could make his shot?”

Quadriga’s first thought was to say yes, but a microsecond later he realized that was a lie. He never thought of advising the team to sweep further. He had assumed that their standard procedures were enough. The thought had not entered his head to have them to expand their search perimeter, or to hold it for the entire duration. Striking him like a lance to the heard was the terrible thought that his own skills had gone rusty. He could see what needed to be done clearly after the act when he should have seen it before. Their failure was also his. The Council might lay blame on Skuratova, but his failure to offer the correct security recommendations meant her fault also lay with him. It was not a thought that often came to a Custodian, and he felt tainted by it. He was made to be beyond such mortal failings. This should not have happened…

“Honoured Custodian?” Skuratova’s words cut through his fog of thoughts.

“My apologies. That is not a question worth asking, not now at any rate. We can’t change what has happened, but we can prevent it happening again.”

Skuratova gave a fragile smile and nodded. “Damn straight.” She said, some of her usual fire back in her voice. “Now, to inform the kids themselves of that fact.”

The Secret Sanctum[edit]

Deep beneath the bedrock, protected by millions of tons of rock and steel, layered voids and the entire might of the Ten Thousand lay the final sanctum, the sanctuary bunker. There could not have been a more secure location anywhere within known space. Even if the whole planet above was subjected to an exterminatus-grade event, the bunker would endure it. The Emperor could withdraw there until help arrived, or use its teleporter to escape. Not that such an event was ever likely to happen. Since the fall of the Rangda and the demise of Ullanor, nothing existed that could ever offer an existential threat to the Imperium. Still, preparation was a key tenet of the Custodes and so they maintained the bunker should the day come that it was ever needed.

That day, it turned out, was today.

Skuratova and Quadriga disembarked to a solid wall of rock with a single door, a battle barge grade external bulkhead door set into the rock. No less than sixteen heavy sentry guns, ranging from Blaze Cannon Turrets to Adrathic Devastators faced them, set into the walls.

A series of red laser lines painted the two of them as they stood before the door.

“The biometrics here will identify us as a threat if our DNA signatures are off by even 0.9% of records.”

“That’s really assuring, honoured Custodian.” Skuratova sounded anything but.

“At least you know the security here is such that nothing can dream of breaching it.”

“Yes, but it might be leaning on the excessive.” Skuratova suppressed a shudder as the lines painted over them one final time.

With a hiss and a series of mechanical clunks, the locks disengaged, and in a single smooth motion the massive doors slid open.

“How many more of these doors are there?” Skuratova asked.

“Six.” Quadriga replied. “All with the same level of defences.”

Skuratova gave the slightest inclination of her head, enough to tell Quadriga she was somewhat annoyed. He gave her the benefit of offering no comment.

One by one they passed through tight corridors that Quadriga knew were riddled with las-traps and sentry turrets.

The final door was guarded by more than just sentry guns. A pair of Custodians in highly ornate armour stood before them, still as statues, guardian spears at their sides.

Quadriga recognised them immediately, and behind his helmet his eyes widened. Lowering his own spear he approached them, head slightly down in a gesture of respect.

“Tribune Endymion, Tribune Coros, I am surprised to see either of you here.” There were no salutes needed, no outward sign of deference to authority. It was not needed in the Ten Thousand.

“Direct orders of the Emperor.” Diocletian Coros’ words fell from his mouth like bombs.

“Forgive Diocletian, he finds himself where he would rather not be.” Ra Endymion explained. “The Emperor ordered us to see to the security of the principals personally. Not exactly a taxing duty, but one that Diocletian would rather not be engaged in.” Diocletian gave a sharp click of his tongue in rebuke.

Ra and Diocletian were among the most senior of the Custodes, part of the inner council of ten Tribunes that commanded the Ten Thousand and advised the Emperor. Both had served the Emperor since before the Great Crusade itself, when the Emperor’s ambitions were confined to the unification of old Terra. There were few in the breadth of the galaxy who could boast more experience.

Skuratova bowed deeply before them, before straightening up and addressing Ra. “Honoured Custodian, you’ve been watching the Daughters,” she gestured to the door. “How are they faring?”

“Shock, confusion, numbness. Trying to reach for answers where there are none. The usual responses to trauma.” Ra’s voice was clipped and passionless.

“Whatever you bring with you they’ll be eager to hear it, if only to help them sleep better tonight.”

“We both know that’s not likely to happen, Honoured Custodian.” Skuratova replied grimly. “But we need to speak with them, to update them on what we know and what must happen in the future.”

“The Captain-General has already messaged us. You may go on through.” With a hiss of pressurized air, the armoured doors slid open.

An open entrance space, with plush floors and stylized walls, was full of four dozen doors on two levels. Those doors were not made of metal, but instead real wooden doors of a kind extremely rare on Terra. The doors were not made for stout defence, but to set a statement and to make a more comfortable living space. A pair of grand staircases led to the upper level. There were dozens of potted plants ranging from colourful flowers to entire small trees in pots big enough that a human could have hidden within one. A set of chandeliers hung from the ceiling, lighting the room with a soft golden light.

“Second floor, first door on the left.” Ra called over. Skuratova returned a salute to him, before turning on her heels and marching through the open, gilded room and up the stairs at a brisk pace. Quadriga followed, his long paces catching up with her just before they reached the door.

The Subjects[edit]

Skuratova neatly rapped her knuckles on the door, and a second later a muffled female voice called out, “Enter!”

The instant, ingrained responses innate to a Custodian took over the moment the door swung open. A new space before him, he must evaluate it for targets, threats, anything essential.

The room was as luxurious as the entrance hall behind them. The same thick shag of carpet, and a similar chandelier of diamond and crystal hanging from the ceiling that caught the light and split it into a thousand fragments that almost completely banished any shadows. A massive hololithic vid-screen dominated one wall, with several smaller, standard hardshell vid-screens hanging from the ceiling above it. While it might have looked like an entertainment centre, Quadriga could tell it was a multi-purpose instrument worked equally well as a command and control screen for Palace defence.

Clustered around the vidscreens was a rough semi-circle made up of couches, armchairs and other large, luxurious seats. Past the couches and towards the far-left corner was a solid wooden table. A thick, imposing structure, too big and grand to be a mere place of eating.

Seated in the armchairs and around the table were the Subjects. The Daughters of the Primarchs. The Secular Angels of the new era, and to use the rather vulgar language of the Imperial Army, a right pain in Quadriga's arse.

The first thought to enter Quadriga’s mind was in how the Subjects were arranged around the room. There were three distinctive subgroups, each clearly dominated by a single Subject. Just as the Primarchs could be divided into the true leaders like Horus and Guilliman and the followers like Angron, Vulkan, Peturabo and Mortarion, so too was that system of command and obedience that bound the Primarchs together was replicated in their gene-children.

Not one of the Subjects was sitting on her own. None felt like enduring this pain on her own. All united with their closest relations in mutual grief. No stab of empathy or shot of sympathy entered Quadriga’s cold, mechanical mind. What mattered to Quadriga was how he could use these cold, hard facts. He had to convince the Subjects that their Custodian additions to their security would not be an issue for the lives they wished to live, and that the Treasury could still be trusted to look after them. If those three could be won over and swayed to accept the new guardians, it would make the others fall into line more easily.

Evaluate the subjects. Gauge their moods. Who was hurting more than the others, the general tone of the whole group, and how best to address it.

As a Custodian, Quadriga had been taught the most advanced methods of identifying faces, gauging micro expressions and reading a person almost as well as a Telepathic Psyker could. Skills that were vital for a guardian of their capability. And in an instant, he could have the entire mood of the room Subject by Subject.

First his gaze alighted upon the left-hand group, the clutch of subjects seated around the great table. Seated at their heart like a mother hen was the heir of Ultramar. Subject XIII. Roberta Guilliman. She did not attempt hide the measured look of concern unforced upon her face or the hints of red around her eyes that spoke of the aftereffects of emotional shock. While controlling and channelling her feelings, she was not letting them dominate her. The overall result looked far more natural than many of the masks he saw the other subjects wearing to conceal their own turmoil of emotions. She was showing herself to be open enough to give the others a small measure of inspiration. Subject XIII truly had inherited a portion of her father’s legendary skills at acting as a figurehead and a leader of his fellow Primarchs.

Closest to her was Subject VII. Her face was puffy, and her eyes ringed with red. Her emotion was showing far more freely, perhaps thanks to the influence of having XIII beside her. She felt safe enough to let lose the raw emotion, unafraid of who saw it. Quadriga could not help but feel the fleeting stab of admiration at Subject XIII for being that way. Few could exhibit such leadership as softly and firmly.

Facing them were Subjects V, VI and XIX. All had similar mixtures of shock and numbness painted across their features, though none were as distraught as Subject VII nor composed as Subject XIII. Subject VI was clearly holding her emotions deep inside her, Her entire pose rigid and entirely unnatural to her normal lupine poise.

Paired up and speaking animatedly with one another were Subject X and Subject XVIII, the two giving some distance to the others. The precise gestures being made by both suggested a conversation on a mechanical matter linked to their mutual love of forging and engineering.

Catalogued, sorted, processed. His gaze shifted across to the central congregation of Subjects. A gaggle of young woman, the most unusual of the three groups.

These were the ‘outcasts’ among the Subjects. The young women who in this time of struggling with authority did not gravitate to one of the two recognised leader figures among their number, and in their rejection of the shackles of authority loosely affiliated themselves with Subject III. They were recognisably the more troubled and troublemaking members of the Subjects.

That Subject III tended to act as their leader was something that Quadriga could still scarcely believe. The lord of Chemos was not noted to be a great leader of men like his close brothers Ferrus and Horus, and his daughter was considerably less capable than him. And yet somehow she had the support, though maybe not exactly the loyalty, of a small band of her fellow Subjects. Those who seemingly accepted her notional authority as long as she left it notional.

The red hue in Subject III’s artistically sculpted face seemed more like a blush than a reaction to shock, her grey eyes tinted with the softest hints of violet were bright, not faintly dulled like Subject XIII. And yet the minute twitches in her eyes, the uncontrollable soft drumming of one finger on the leather seat and the rigid, static way she was holding her body that mirrored that of Subject VI told Quadriga the truth. She was suffering every but as much as any of them, and was expending a lot of energy putting on the bravest face she could.

Subject IV and the XX Twins were clustered tightly around her, closer than any of the women were in Subject XIII’s group. They were apparently sharing in some form of distracting gossip, the lifeblood of the cutthroat social world of women at that age. None of them really seemed to have their heart in it though.

Quadriga’s eyes paused for a nanosecond one of the more important of the Subjects, the belligerent Subject XII. She was always an issue, one of the ones who Quadriga had to keep a special eye on. Her combination of high aggression, short temper and split-second action made her dangerous and unpredictable. Two things Quadriga was not pleased about. Even her slouch lacked the usual aggressive poise it had, and for the first time it seemed the fire inside her had truly been dampened to mere embers. She sat on the very edge of the group, just close enough to listen while keeping out of the conversation. Unwilling to open up to any of the others. Unable to let her own hurt out.

Complete. Next group. Quadriga’s vision was filled by the final knot of Subjects, spread out across the right-side armchairs. It was instant that Quadriga could tell who they all looked up to. The placement was subtle, but not enough for Quadriga to not read it immediately.

Subject XVI sat like a queen on her throne, her poise immaculate. She was giving off what felt like an aura of controlled energy. A queen trying to bear the grief of her subjects, to take the burdens upon herself. Her grief wasn’t as masked as Subject III, but nor was it as clearly apparent and perfectly channelled as Subject XIII.

The Emperor had once spoken of a great monarch of Albia many thousands of years past. What he had said of her skilled rule and powerful charisma despite the burdens placed upon her as a female ruler was a good fit for Subject XVI. She was a true inheritor of her father’s incredible skill.

Seated together on the right side of Subject XVI were the two principal psykers among their number, Subjects IX and XV. They were of particular concern to Quadriga. Limited empathic ability was a common trait among Psykers, and the emotional overload from the other Subjects would leak into them, leaving each bearing not only their own feelings, but also echoes of those felt by the others. They were uniquely vulnerable, and they both knew it.

And they were both definitely under a considerable amount of strain. Their faces, one an angel’s death mask, the other that of a marble statue in a Prosperine Pyramid, were neutrally plastered upon their heads like clay over an armature. The overall effect was to leave them like bloodless statues bereft of life. As though they had been frozen at the exact moment they’d heard the news and were mere automatons now.

Quadriga felt the tiniest stabbing of a feeling that might be called pity. Pity for the two young women cursed with the power of the mind, trapped by their own unnatural potential into being subjected to a torrent of negative emotion that threatened to wash them away.

Subject I and Subject XVII were also there with them, each in a separate armchair off to the left. Though each was seated on her own from the group, both were half-listening in, their eyes wandering over towards XVI at the centre. Both were outcasts in their own way, but respected and trusted Subject XVI enough to come to her in a time like this.

All of this storm of information was taken in by Quadriga within a fraction of a second. Over the next fraction it was processed and assimilated. Exactly as he had expected, a mood of dull pain and deep gloom. All were affected deeply, all had been bruised by the fateful news.

And now he was dropping yet another complication onto their already upended lives. He could not call himself happy to be the bearer of such news. The picture was broken the moment the hollow echo of Quadriga’s heavy bootstep filled the room.

Nineteen separate heads turned – in such a way that almost came off as comical – towards the two newcomers striding into the room. Microexpressions quickly flashed across faces, alarm, fear at the potential news that was likely being brought to them by the new arrival. From a couple of the Subjects came flickers of hope that it was good news being brought with them. Quadriga could almost pity them.

Quadriga stopped dead as the doors slid shut, standing in the doorway like a statue in an alcove. This was not his territory. He was happy to let Skuratova take the lead here. It was what she was best at.

Subjects XIII and XVI were on their feet almost immediately, closely followed by a number of the others from both groups. They then left their respective groups behind and came over to Skuratova, who stopped and deferentially waited for them.

Subject XIII wordlessly asked Skuratova if it was good news coming with her, a desire for something to take away some of the uncertainty they had been plunged into. Subject XVI seemed to be resigned to more bad news in the way her head hung, hoping that it wouldn’t be too heavy a blow.

Skuratova’s mask that she had been carefully wearing gave the subtlest of cracks as before them she threw the crispest salute Quadriga had ever seen her give. Next second her emotion was once more firmly under control as she locked eyes with them, no deference given to their station.

“My ladies,” Skuratova addressed them all. Her voice was flat and even, betraying no hint of emotion. A mask of authority. “I am glad to see you all safe and well.”

“Director-General, welcome.” Said Subject XVI. Her voice was as hard and carefully measured as Skuratova’s own. “What news do you bring?”

“Good news I hope, Lady Lupercal,” Skuratova replied crisply. “I’m here to answer what questions I can and debrief you all on what comes next.” Her voice echoed throughout the whole room. “I know the next few days and weeks will be hard ones for all of you, and I need to make sure I can do everything I can to help.”

“Any help you can offer will be welcomed,” Subject XIII added, straightening her glasses to try and hide the brief look of relief. “All we have are hints and suppositions from the networks and the vid.”

Skuratova had already won Subject XIII over, and from the faint ghost of a smile Skuratova knew it.

“All of you know that the networks and the holo-news peddle lies and half-truths as facts if it will make more people look at them.” Skuratova said aloud. “Only trust that news you receive from us, from the Lord Primarchs and from the Lord Emperor Himself.”

With a brief gesture of her head, Skuratova moved past the Subjects and took up position in front of the vidscreens. Quadriga stayed put, standing silently like a statue by the entranceway.

The Subjects returned to their seats, all eyes now fixed on Skuratova.

“My ladies, I am here to clear up any confusion that might exist.” Skuratova began. “So here are the facts as we know them:”

She gestured at the screen and a picture of the café appeared upon it.

“This morning, a sniper took a single shot at the Ladies Kiara and Morticia while they were at this establishment,” the café appeared on the screens. “one that I know was a favoured place amongst many of you.”

The identical sad smiles across several faces betrayed those who had most frequented the café. Some would never ever go back. Others might return, but it would never be the same again.

“Lady Morticia was hit, and both were evacuated immediately. As per emergency measures, all of you were swiftly collected and brought here, in case this was part of a co-ordinated effort against all of you.”

“Was it?” Subject IV asked, her voice somewhat unsteady. “Are there…more out there after us?”

“Lady Petra, we have found nothing to suggest that.” Skuratova replied. “All evidence points to this being a lone wolf attack.”

“But who?” Subject III cut in, her tone clearly demanding answers from Skuratova. Subject III had been known to try and use her authority in the past to override Skuratova if she felt pressured, which had demanded occasional meetings with Lord Fulgrim to smooth the issues.

“We have the subject in custody, but until the interrogations are over we won’t know for certain.” Words carefully chosen to minimise the question and avoid answering it directly. She and Quadriga already had a name but they would not put a name to their fear.

“What of Morticia? Any news of her?” Subject XVI smoothly slid her question in. Quadriga was struck by how Subject XVI was deliberately giving Skuratova a way to avoid any more questions on the shooter. Quadriga couldn’t help but respect that.

Skuratova gave a small smile, one with as much optimism in it as she could muster. “Now I can answer that. Morticia is currently still critical but stable. The last news I had before I arrived here was that she was out of immediate danger.”

Relief passed like a soothing wave across the young faces. A real nugget of good news. Good, this would help them calm down, and more importantly leave them open to accepting the bitter pill Quadriga was about to make them swallow.

Speaking of which, it was his turn now. With the tip of his Paragon Spear, Quadriga drew several swift motions, a nonverbal sign to Skuratova. With the merest twitch of an eyebrow she acknowledged him, and then cleared her throat.

“My Ladies, there is also another matter that I sadly must address. And that is the topic of your security in the days and weeks ahead.”

The looks of woe on several subjects – especially Subject XII – was fully expected. They were always the ones who hated their gilded chains most.

“I am not blameless in all this.” Skuratova admitted. “We in the Treasury were tasked with protecting your lives. And we failed.” A hint of her inner turmoil, what Quadriga had seen in that brief second when she had first heard the terrible news filtered through her words, showed the Subjects her own feelings, her own hurt by this tragedy. “We cannot fail again. This means we need your help. We need your co-operation, and we need your consideration. Can you give me that?” She finished softly.

All the subjects nodded in near unison. Even Subject XII, though hers was more reluctant.

Custodian Guards[edit]

The ground was set. Skuratova gave a curt nod aimed past the daughters. Quadirga gave the slightest twitch of his helmet in response.

He banged the floor with his spear twice, the hollow thumps sounding like distant shellfire. In an almost comical fashion seventeen heads all snapped over to him. In a flash of microexpressions Quadriga was almost amused to note a few faces showing surprise at his presence. They rarely if ever saw their hidden guard, and when they did few were ever sure how to speak with him’. He was not some Treasury Guard who could be ordered around. He answered to none of their kind. No Primarch, no Daughter could command him.

“Honoured Custodian Quadriga, do you have something to add?” Skuratova called over.

“Yes I do.” He boomed, a complete opposite to the soft touch Skuratova had given. “Director-General, Sub…Ladies.” Quadriga just caught himself in time. “Earlier today we met with members of the Council of Terra. The topic of your future security was one of those we discussed.”

His voice filled the room like crashing thunder.

Now to lay it upon them. “For the short term your security details will act as normal and continue to be handled by the Treasury, however each detail will be augmented by a single member of the Ten Thousand, there to advise and react in case of latent security threats.”

The room was sharply divided in an instant. Some Subjects gave no outward reaction to the news that soon they would have a nine-foot-high gold-armoured superhuman keeping a watchful eye over them. Some showed instant anger or annoyance, Subject III and XII foremost among those. Others like Subjects IV and XVII showed relief instead.

Subject XIII raised a slender hand, and before he could react began speaking. “Honoured Custodian, the reports suggest the alert seems to be dying down. If that’s true, why do we need the additional security?”

Quadriga was not surprised she had deduced that news for herself, even though the lowering of the alert level was not yet publicly known.

“Surely the answer should be perfectly obvious to you,” Quadriga addressed her like a teacher would a pupil. “We don’t know that for certain. Your security has already failed once before,” Skuratova shot him a foul look in reply. “And we cannot rely on what was being done before. Not anymore.”

Skuratova was not the only one now wearing an expression of thunderous fury. There was no prize for guessing right who the other one was.

“And exactly how,” Subject XII nearly spat, “are we supposed to be able to do anything with a golden monster following our every footstep?”

The implied disrespect towards his fellow Custodians annoyed Quadriga. But it also gave him a chance to put her in her place. “You clearly know nothing of the Blood Games or any of our abilities if you would denigrate the skills of the Custodians in such a way, Subject Twelve.”

That instant he knew he’d crossed a line. The honour of the Ten Thousand did not mean such treatment of a young woman who could clearly not think straight.

“My name,” she hissed, “is Furia.”

He could not back down now, even with his mistake. He had to assert his authority over them.

“Your name,” Quadriga corrected, “Is irrelevant.”

There was stark silence for a second. Then a voice piped up. “Honoured Custodian, that is a rather rude thing to say.” Subject XVI addressed him directly, her own invocation of her authority as a shield for the others.

“Still, that is the truth. You all are subjects of my protection. That is all that matters. Who you are, what you are, none of it means a thing. I treat you the same as I treat any under my protection, including the Emperor himself.”

“You don’t give us the same respect though.” Subject III shot at him.

“You have never proven yourselves worthy of such respect.” Quadriga fired back. “And right now your respect means nothing next to your safety. I’d rather you were protected then respected. You can’t earn respect if you are dead.”

Silence greeted him. None of the Subjects could argue with that. His point had been made.

“Director-General Skuratova has the details, and she will brief you on them and take any questions you have.” Quadriga stated. “She will also address any concerns you may have. We are committed to ensuring your security without infringing on the freedom you have enjoyed, even if belts will need to be tightened in the wake of these unfortunate events. Ladies.” With a nod, he turned and strode from the room. He could feel the glares shot at him as he withdrew, including one he knew came from Skuratova herself.