WARHAMMER DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. MASS EFFECT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. THE INQUISITION HAS A KILL-ON-SIGHT ORDER FOR ME AGAIN, SO I'M HIDING UNDER MY BED. WAIT, THEY PROBABLY READ THESE… CRAP.

Pro tip: Never try to go after someone who has the friendship of four demigods, and the patronage of their dad.

Star-Bound

Chapter 29

Heresy

Macragge was in an uproar; the Ultramarines and their many successors who had yet to leave, along with the other Chapters still in orbit, flooded the planet, hunting for anyone who might be in league with the Inquisition. Within hours, the entire world was under lockdown, as Astartes searched for any potential breach in the Fortress of Hera's security. The Astra Militarum was kept in the dark to prevent further chaos, only told to stay in their barracks or their ships; as far as they were concerned, this was a matter for Space Marines.

While that happened, four Primarchs gathered, along with their closest advisors, and representatives of the Shepard Crusade. The Ultramarines might have been outraged, but Shepard's friends were beyond furious, and only the stern orders of Guilliman prevented them from declaring war on the Inquisition itself.

"I knew Strakk was a bastard," Helmin said, all pretense of decorum gone; now, he was red-faced with fury. "He's an Inquisitor, it's in their nature. Still, how did he think we would react?"

"He must have believed that kidnapping Shepard was worth the consequences," the Lion mused; of all the Primarchs, he was the most composed, though everyone noted that his hand had yet to leave the hilt of his sword.

"Those consequences can come later," Blaise snapped; her righteous anger, combined with her unwavering faith, haloed her entire body with light not dissimilar to Shepard's own. "For now, we must find her."

"The Inquisitor's ship has already left the system," Corax said. "I have dispatched two of my vessels in pursuit, with Librarians skilled in psychic tracking."

"I have also sent one of my vessels," Phoros announced. "Codicier Nemedon commands the force aboard the Bloody Regret; he was affected by Saint Shepard's power during the battle on Commorragh, and claimed he felt some lingering connection. I trust he can trace that power back to its source."

"We have already narrowed Strakk's trajectory to one of fifty sectors," Dartan said, his hologram flickering occasionally. "It is not much, but every hour narrows it further. I believe we will have the system within the day."

"I have made contact with several other elements of the Inquisition," Guilliman said. "One of them has made her way here to discuss Strakk's actions." Blaise spun on her heel to storm out of the sanctum, likely to throttle the visiting Inquisitor, but was stopped by a gentle grip from the Hand of Dominion. "She swears that Strakk is acting without the sanction of his superiors; more than that, she is providing us with the location of his closest allies."

Brol, who had been quietly simmering with rage as he organized the Reapers' efforts, raised an eyebrow. "From what I understand of the Inquisition, they are not usually so forthcoming with information."

"They are not," Guilliman said, and there was a hint of dark amusement in his tone. "However, they are pragmatic enough not to instigate a war with four Primarchs, especially if it comes to light to the wider Imperium that they were responsible for kidnapping one of the Imperium's greatest heroes in ten millennia."

Russ chuckled. "Can we say something anyway? I'd like to see those bastards squirm when the mobs come for them."

"Unfortunately, as distasteful as they are, they are also necessary." Guilliman tapped several keys on a cogitator. "We will combine all our information to narrow down Strakk's location. He will not stay hidden for long."

"Of that, I have no doubt, my lords," Helmin said, "but I worry about what may happen to Saint Shepard before we find her."

Shepard had suffered pain many times in her life; most of it was of the physical nature, but during her torture at the hands of Mazdamundi, her very soul had been fractured. That had caused a pain that lasted for more than fifty years, until the Emperor had restored her.

That didn't mean that Strakk wasn't hurting her; adamantium chains pinned her to the wall of a cell within his ship, preventing her from moving as he struck again and again.

"Tell me how far your heresy goes, iconoclast," he snarled, every other word accompanied by a punch. "Tell me how many worlds you've corrupted, and I will make your end swift."

Shepard spat out bloody teeth. "If I knew what the fuck you were talking about… maybe I'd answer."

Strakk took a step back and wiped his bloody hands with a rag. "I refuse to believe that you have no idea of your heresy. No one can cause this much damage unintentionally." He turned to leave. "You will meet an associate of mine soon enough; no secret can be kept from her. Until then, I leave you in the care of these men and women."

Four Inquisitorial Stormtroopers, two men and two women, stepped into the cell. Three carried crackling taser goads, and the fourth held a knife in either hand.

"There are easier ways to commit suicide," Shepard told them, then flinched as a knife tore off one of her ears, and the goads sent thousands of volts into her body. She regenerated within minutes, but that just gave her tormentors an excuse to continue. "Yeah, I'm killing you guys first."

Further bravado ceased as she braced for the pain yet to come, and she was not disappointed.

The woman sitting before them was so dainty and beautiful that it was hard to believe she was a Lord Inquisitor. Then again, Helmin mused, that was likely the point. Though she looked young, perhaps only thirty years old, one did not become a Lord Inquisitor quickly or easily, and Helmin wondered just how much of her body was artificial. Her skin had a healthy tan, and her black hair flowed freely down her back; she wore a red dress with several layers that belied how easily she could move.

Helmin almost laughed; take away the Inquisitorial rosette she wore like a brooch, and she could pass for a noblewoman of his homeworld. Again, that was probably the point.

"Lord Inquisitor Zaela Alezo." Guilliman showed no emotion as he towered over her. "I will not bother with pleasantries. Tell us what you know about Strakk."

Had Helmin not known Alezo was an Inquisitor, the pretty sigh that escaped her would have sent his heart aflutter. "Ah, Strakk; not his real name, of course, but most of us rarely use them, or even remember them." Russ snarled, but Alezo's only reaction was to smooth out her dress. "I have already forwarded his known bases and those of my associates most likely to shelter him."

"That is remarkably fast," Helmin said.

"You may not believe me, but the Inquisition takes the investigation of Living Saints very seriously." Alezo smiled at Blaise, but the other woman merely let her hand drift to her bolt pistol. "We don't want to start a war with the Ministorum, and we certainly don't want to deprive the Imperium of such a vital asset as Saint Shepard. Even if she isn't blessed by the God-Emperor, she has not shown signs of disloyalty, and has done nothing but help the Imperium. Only the most conservative of my order would be so hidebound as to see her as anything but useful."

"Is Strakk one of these conservatives?" Jonson asked.

"Oh, heavens no." Alezo reached into the folds of her dress and withdrew a glass vial. "He left this for me before he absconded with Saint Shepard, along with exactly what it is, how it works, and where he got it. No conservative would work with a Drukhari to create a poison that destroys the Tyranid hive mind."

Only the Primarchs didn't react to her revelation, but her words were enough to make everyone else pause for a moment.

"I want to be notified of everything regarding that," Guilliman said, "but for now, our focus must be on recovering Saint Shepard."

"Of course, my lord." Alezo slipped the vial away so quickly that Helmin almost wondered if it had ever been there at all. "Again, Strakk will be thoroughly investigated, regardless of whether or not he survives this. We must know how deep this conspiracy runs, and if others may follow in his footsteps."

Guilliman glanced at dataslate that chimed at him. "Most of these locations are in Segmentum Solar."

"It could take weeks for us to get there, even if the Warp's currents are in our favor," Phoros pointed out.

"Then we must contact anyone we can trust to hit every one of those bases." Jonson held out his hand for the dataslate, which Guilliman gave him. "The ships that have already left are heading towards Segmentum Solar. As much as I wish to aid Saint Shepard, I believe that the Inquisition should be the ones to clean up their mess; the wider Imperium needs us now."

"Whoreson," Russ growled, "you would throw away your debt of honor so quickly? Without Shepard, we would still be sleeping, or lost in the Warp!"

"And I am grateful for her efforts," the Lion said, "but thousands of worlds teeter on the brink of destruction while we stay here. I cannot accept saving one person over the entire Imperium, and unless I have vastly misjudged her character, neither can Shepard."

The tension in the room rose, and Blaise shot Jonson such a venomous glare that it was a wonder he did not fall over dead. She didn't say anything because, deep down, she knew he was right.

"The fact remains that we are potentially weeks away from even finding Saint Shepard, let alone rescuing her." Guilliman sent a questioning look at Alezo, who nodded with what might have been genuine regret. "We will do all we can, but her fate may be out of our hands."

The Imperial Palace was quiet, and that was how its guardians liked it. Quiet meant that they didn't have to worry about invasions or insurrection. Quiet meant that they could focus all their considerable abilities watching for the true threats, the kind that might lurk in the shadows.

The quiet ended abruptly, and had a score of the finest warriors humanity had ever produced on high alert. Footsteps echoed through a hallway like thunder, though their source was capable of moving with barely a whisper. A golden giant sprinted at full tilt towards his comrades; to anyone else, he appeared calm, but to his peers, he was almost panicked.

"What has happened?" one Custodes asked, hand gripping his guardian spear.

"Word has come from the Companions," the messenger said, his voice hushed. "The Emperor imprinted a psychic directive."

Had they been mere mortals, or even Astartes, the golden warriors might have dropped their weapons in shock. Instead, they merely froze for two heartbeats.

"The Emperor sent a direct order?" None of them doubted that it happened, it had occurred before, but none of them expected it in their lifetimes.

"Yes." The messenger pointed to his fellows. "You are part of the Aquilan Shield. A Shield-Company is being assembled for a mission, and you will join them."

The Custodes were ready to go at a moment's notice, and began marching, even as they spoke. "Do you know anything about the nature of the mission?"

"Only that it involves the Emperor's personal order."

That was all that needed to be said. The Master of Mankind had called for his greatest champions, and they would not be found wanting.

Shepard was thankful she was not truly alone; without the Emperor's presence in her soul, she would have broken long before Strakk's ship arrived at its destination. She had lost track of time, but estimated at least two weeks had passed since her abduction. During the voyage, her captors had beaten her, cut her, and employed so many chemicals and energies meant to inflict pain that she should have been reduced to a mindless wreck.

As it was, continuous regeneration of her broken body left her exhausted, and when she was dragged into the dungeons of the Inquisitorial fortress, she had little strength with which to resist them.

Waiting for her in a surprisingly clean room was, at first glance, a child. She looked no older than ten or twelve years old, wearing a red bodysuit under an oversized black fur coat. Her hair was white, and her red nails stood out against her pale skin. Shepard wanted to laugh; it looked like a child had gotten into her mother's dresser and was playing make-believe. Of course, this was the Inquisition, so she was unlikely to be so lucky.

"Strakk!" the not-girl squealed with delight and ran over, dragging her long coat behind her. "You've brought me a new prisoner!"

Strakk bowed at the waist. "Indeed, Lady Delma. This one is special."

Delma frowned. "The last one you said was special only lasted two hours."

"I overestimated his strength," Strakk said ruefully. "This one, however, can regenerate. I know how much you like to work on those."

Delma clapped like the child she appeared to be. "Oh, you know me so well! But what has this one done to earn my attention? She's too pretty to be a heretic."

"Hers is not a typical heresy." Strakk held out a book. "Read it, and you'll see."

After only a few minutes of reading, Delma's smile turned cruel. "Ah, I understand, dear Strakk. I will see how far her blasphemy goes. She will hide no secrets from me."

"I am counting on it." Strakk bowed again. "I will remain on my ship until I am needed. I must confer with several others, and then I must go into hiding. Shepard has many allies—they are powerful, and blinded by her charms to see her for what she really is."

"Then I suppose I will not see you for some time." Delma sighed. "I shall do my best to give you the answers you seek before you depart."

"You have my thanks." Strakk paused at Shepard's side before he left. "Goodbye, false saint; I only wish I had caught you before your heresy took root."

"Fuck you," Shepard spat.

The door had only just closed behind Strakk when Delma reached out and grabbed Shepard's chin. She was much stronger than she appeared, and Shepard felt her jaw fracture in her grip.

"That was quite rude," Delma scolded. "Heretic or not, a lady should be polite."

"Look who's talking," Shepard taunted. "Aren't you a little young to be playing Inquisitor? Maybe you should call your mommy."

Faster than Shepard could track, Delma slashed off half her face with a quick swipe of her nails. "That is your only warning, heretic; call me a child again, and I will make you beg for the sweet release of death."

Shepard blinked as her wounds healed. "Been there, done that; it's not as sweet as you think."

"Then let us see if I can change your mind." Delma waddled over to a drawer and pulled out a series of knives; each had a different shape, but all were equally sharp. "I think I will start with these little toys."

It didn't take long for the screams to begin.

Nemedon staggered as if he'd been struck; arcs of golden lightning played about his armor, and he fell to his knees. He had spent the journey through space trying to strengthen his tenuous connection with Saint Shepard, and instinctively knew that he'd succeeded, only to know a phantom reflection of her pain.

"Brothers," he said into his vox as he stumbled to the door of his quarters, "prepare for battle. We are close to the treacherous Inquisitor, or his allies."

There were acknowledgments from the squad leaders of the demi-company aboard the ship, and then Nemedon was left alone to center himself. He placed one armored hand on the bulkhead and let the pulse of the ship's reactor flow through him like the vitae of his own heart.

The Bloody Regret was a strike cruiser of ancient provenance, one of the few original Lamenters vessels still left in their diminished fleet. Despite her age, and the temperamental nature of her machine spirit, Nemedon loved the ship; she never failed when it came to seeking out deserving foes, and if the speed she had hurtled through the Warp was any indication, Strakk deserved a gruesome death indeed.

Perhaps, Nemedon mused, the ship wasn't so much pursuing a foe as it was hoping to rescue Shepard as much as her crew did. After all, Shepard had purged the Lamenters' curse from all of their equipment, from the smallest combat knife to the ships that carried them to war, including the Bloody Regret. The honor and prestige the Lamenters now enjoyed were entirely thanks to Shepard; honor dictated that Nemedon's efforts were the least they could do.

"Brother," a Hellblaster sergeant said as Nemedon approached the bridge, "we will make realspace translation in two hours, and the Raven Guard are at our wings. They have yielded overall command to you, and have asked if you have orders."

"We will need to know what we are dealing with," Nemedon said. "Once we emerge from the Warp and confirm that Saint Shepard is within our range, our cousins will do everything they can to learn about the enemy's defenses. Only then will we come up with a plan."

"Of course, brother," the sergeant said, and withdrew.

Nemedon's operational command was a formality, and everyone knew it. The Astartes from both Chapters would use their respective talents to overwhelm whatever the Inquisition had waiting for them, they would rescue Shepard, and they would massacre anyone who stood in their way. Whether that involved striking from the shadows or upon wings of blood and fire mattered little to Nemedon.

"Report," he said as he entered the bridge; he could feel the Warp reluctantly letting go of the ship, and he wasted no time. "I want auspex reports, and I want them now."

"A moment, please, honored Librarian." The captain of the Bloody Regret was an older Lamenter, one who had decided not to cross the Rubicon Primaris, and focused entirely on running his ship. Much of his body was machine now, but he was content, since it let him connect with the strike cruiser on a level most commanders could never dream of.

Nemedon waited patiently, despite the flickers of the Black Rage in his heart that urged him to stride forward and kill.

"We have a reading," a mortal officer reported. "One space station, and one Lunar-class cruiser; it matches the profile of the target vessel." Alarms suddenly blared across the ship. "Alert! Warp-translation imminent!"

"Identify the source!" the captain barked. "All hands, prepare for combat!"

Nemedon let the older Astartes conduct the matter of void warfare, and simply observed, both with his eyes, and his mind-sense. The station before them was small, by Imperial standards, and likely only held a crew of a few thousand; knowing what he did of typical Inquisitorial forces, they were likely to be only mortals, and little challenge for over a hundred Space Marines. Strakk's ship was likely even less of a threat against two strike cruisers and a modified frigate in support.

What concerned him was the new arrival; if it was another of Strakk's allies, the Astartes' battle plan would have to be more cautious, especially if the incoming ship was more suited to void-war.

Nemedon had been psycho-indoctrinated to identify almost every type of Imperial vessel, and while the new ship certainly was Imperial, it didn't match any ship classification he knew of. It was knife-thin, by Imperial standards, and cut through the void like a darting fish. Its hull was mostly dark, but gold stood out on its prow, engines, and along its flanks. Only when a long-range ident-pic of the ship's heraldry came into view did Nemedon see the eagle and lightning bolts, identifying who commanded the vessel, and his burning blood ran cold.

"Teleportation signatures detected," another officer reported. "Someone just boarded the station."

"Get us onto that station," he commanded. "I do not know why the Adeptus Custodes are here, but I want Saint Shepard secured before they kill everyone there."

"Do you admit your heresy?" Delma asked, her voice barely audible over Shepard's screams. "Do you yield to the true Master of Mankind?"

Golden light played over Shepard's body, erasing the electrical burns over her face in moments. It did little to ease the pain, made worse by constant injections of chemicals meant to enhance her agony.

"I work for Him, you little bitch," she spat. "And you still haven't told me what I even did."

Delma sighed. "If you must continue this charade, I will humor you." She held out the book Strakk had given her. "You cannot tell me something of this magnitude happened without your consent."

Shepard stared at the cover, specifically the title. "Are you fucking kidding me!?"

Deep within her, she could sense even the Emperor's surprise upon seeing Words of the Empress.

Delma sighed again as she opened the book and read aloud. "'Behold, the Empress knows of the strength humanity holds when standing together, for as she says that no enemy can stand against a million guns.'"

Shepard blinked. "That was a joke I told years ago! Did some idiot take everything I say and turn it into scripture?"

In the blink of an eye, Delma activated one of the many devices around Shepard, and her skin was flensed from her arms in seconds.

"That one was a gift from dear Strakk." Delma giggled. "I'm sure he will appreciate my use of it on you."

Shepard bit her lip hard enough to draw blood; before she could hurl more insults, Delma stood in her chair and stabbed her nails into Shepard's eyes. The pain was made a thousand times worse by the needles injecting one cocktail of chemicals after another into her spine. All she could do was scream until her throat was raw.

She should have broken long ago—hours or days, though she had lost all sense of time—but the Emperor was with her, constantly healing her wounds and encouraging her to stay strong. More than once, during the worst of the torture, Revelation had pulled her into their shared mind-space to protect her sanity.

Just as a series of drills began to dig through Shepard's flesh and into her bones, alarms blared throughout the station. Delma pouted at the interruption and pressed a button; the drills withdrew from Shepard's chest with a sickening pop.

"What is going on?" Delma shouted into a vox.

"Lady Inquisitor, three ships have just arrived," someone on the other end of the line said. "We are identifying them now… Throne of Terra!"

Shepard coughed as her wounds healed, and she grinned. "Ooh, someone's in trouble. The little girl's gonna put in time-out."

Delma shrieked in outrage and picked up a bloody knife. She lunged for Shepard's throat, but just before the blade met skin, the door to the dungeon crashed inward, and a golden blur stormed inside. The knife was hacked away, along with most of the arm that held it, by a gleaming power sword, grasped by the hand of a demigod. He was taller than all but the largest Space marine, and his golden armor was exquisitely carved, its quality only exceeded by that of a Primarch. On the arm opposite that which held his sword, he carried a golden shield shaped like a twin-headed eagle. His conical helmet hid his face, but his posture alone suggested great pride, tempered by even greater discipline.

"Custodian," Delma hissed. "You have no authority here! Leave my station, or face the wrath of the Inquisition!"

The Custodes raised his blade, until its point was level with Delma's face, and spoke with a crisp, baritone voice. "Your authority means nothing to the Emperor's orders. I am here to protect Alexia Shepard, and you will not stop me."

"How dare you!" Despite her missing arm, Delma was throwing a tantrum. "This is my prisoner! You can't have her!"

Rather than argue the matter, the Custodes thrust his sword into Delma's face; the wide blade split her entire head down the middle. Before her corpse hit the floor, the Custodes was at Shepard's side, pulling her free from the torture rig.

"Thanks." Shepard accepted the giant's hand that hefted her to her feet. "I was getting tired. Who are you?"

"Darius," the Custodes said. "Shield-Captain of Shield-Host Shepard."

Shepard tried not to laugh, but it was very hard; the name wasn't that silly, but she was exhausted, and now there was yet another thing named after her. She took several deep breaths before attempting to speak again.

"Thanks again for the rescue," she said. "You got here fast."

"Our ships are capable of great speed," Darius responded. "Especially when our Navigators learned that the Emperor Himself ordered this mission."

Shepard's eyebrows rose. "Okay, I want to talk about that later, when we're not in a dungeon that's got a carpet made of my own blood."

"Of course. Your safety is paramount." Darius turned towards the door. "Three of my brethren are outside. We will protect you until we can reach the forces fighting their way here."

"What forces?" Shepard wished she had a weapon, but Delma had nothing worth taking into battle, and she doubted Darius would share any of his.

"Astartes; Raven Guard and Lamenters."

Shepard grinned. "I knew my guys wouldn't let Strakk get away. Speaking of that asshole, where is he? I want to kill him."

"Elements of my Shield-Company are aboard his ship, as is a squad of Lamenters."

"Just one?"

"The Librarian in command insisted that they were all that was needed."

Strakk's expression was hidden by his blank mask, but behind it, his scowl was intense. He had taken possibly the biggest risk of his life capturing Shepard, and knew that he would be pursued by her deluded followers, but he thought he'd had more time. His ship hadn't finished resupplying, and he had less than an hour to detach from Delma's station and flee; that was time he simply didn't have.

"My lord, the Lamenters have launched a boarding torpedo," one of his bridge officers announced. "It will impact in five minutes."

"Engage emergency thrusters," he ordered, "I don't want them catching us."

"We cannot!" His Tech-Priest's only sign of agitation was her servo-claw's rapid opening and closing. "The Rites of Departure have not been completed!"

"Our options are leaving with an angry machine spirit, or not leaving at all." Strakk leaned in the Tech-Priest's direction. "Which is preferable?"

She bobbed her head. "I will see if I can expedite the process."

"Teleportation detected!" Another officer was far less composed, if the stain on his trousers was anything to go by. "Multiple signals on the station, and… and… two on our ship."

Moments later, a shudder ran through the deck, and Strakk felt sweat drip down his neck. "What was that?"

"An explosion in the engine room," came the report. "Even if we weren't still attached to the station, we're practically dead in space."

Strakk nodded. "Very well. Have all armsmen ready to repel boarders. Seal every bulkhead near the intruders to slow them down."

All around the bridge, officers shouted orders, worked furiously at their stations, or prayed to the Emperor—some intermittently switched between all three. For his part, Strakk mentally reviewed his ship's complement of soldiers; most of them were hardened Guard veterans he'd appropriated for his small task force, and a few squads of Inquisitorial Stormtroopers. If his enemies were what he feared, and assuming that he was the target, he guessed that his soldiers would delay them by about ten minutes.

That was, of course, not counting the Space Marines already on their way. If they managed to get aboard, he could measure his life in mere minutes.

Assuming they do not save me for their false saint, he thought. From what I know of Shepard, she would relish the chance to tear me apart herself.

Another impact jolted the ship, this time closer to the bridge. "I can only assume that was the Space Marines?"

"Y-yes, sir." The man who had soiled his trousers had also voided his bowels, if the smell was any indication. "And they're killing everyone!"

"Of course they are," Strakk said with a wry amusement he didn't truly feel. "They are the Angels of Death."

It took the Custodes less than nine minutes to fight their way to the bridge. By their reckoning, they were two minutes too slow, but Darius had assured them that the rescue of Shepard was successful, and they were permitted to take their time, so long as the rogue Inquisitor didn't get away.

Only blood marred their armor; lasguns failed to so much as scratch them, and anything more dangerous was quickly eliminated by volleys of bolts.

It was only as they approached the bridge that they encountered the first anomaly—a squad of armsmen, so thoroughly butchered that the Custodes could only tell how many men and women had been there by the number of weapons on the deck.

"Bolt shells," one Custodian Guard said, gesturing to the casings resting in pools of blood. "Astartes-grade. The Lamenters were here recently."

"They are not usually so brutal," another commented.

"Remain on alert," a third said. "If they are this furious, they may not discriminate friend from foe."

It wasn't hard to find the Lamenters; all the Custodes had to do was follow the blood. When they caught up, they arrived to find even more carnage than before. Over fifty members of the crew—some armed, but most were not—lay in a pile of various states of dismemberment. The Custodes had arrived just as the Lamenters were finishing the few panicked survivors.

There were only six of them, all Firstborn Astartes, clad in black instead of yellow, and armed with some of the finest weapons their Chapter could provide. One had a masterwork chainsword, two had thunder hammers and storm shields, two more had bolters—it was impossible to identify the sixth's equipment, since he was dead on the deck from a melta blast that had destroyed his top half.

Though only one Lamenter was dead, he shouldn't have been alone. The other five members of his squad were covered in horrendous wounds that should have killed them twice over. The two Marines with bolters had long since run out of ammunition, and were content with beating their victims to death with their empty weapons.

"Death Company," a Custodian said with disdain. "We should leave them to their work. Let them die."

"They are practically dead already," another said as they slipped past the raging lunatics. "Do you see their injuries? They have minutes, at best."

"And they have cleared our path," the third noted. "Leave them to their bloody business, and we will take the Inquisitor."

It took the Custodes less than sixty seconds to breach the blast doors to the bridge, and another fifteen to slaughter everyone except Strakk. For his part, the Inquisitor was remarkably calm as the trio of golden giants marched up to him.

"I surrender," he said, his voice almost placid as he tossed aside his deactivated power spear. "Do what you will; I have no intention of going against the Emperor's own warriors."

One of the Custodes grabbed him by the throat. "Your fate is not ours to decide. You will be brought before Alexia Shepard, and she will deliver judgment."

Strakk laughed. "Oh, then I have a good idea of how this will end. Very well, let us go."

"Saint Shepard, it does my heart good to see you safe." Nemedon bowed his head to her, and then to Darius. "And you have my thanks, Shield-Captain."

Darius gave the faintest of nods. "You have my thanks as well, Codicier. Your attack on the Inquisitor's ship reduced our needed operational time by a good amount."

"I don't think he likes to take his time," Shepard stage-whispered to Nemedon, then shrugged at the Custodes. "No offense, I like to joke around."

"I have gathered as much, and I am not offended." Darius removed his helm, revealing a handsome face with dark skin and beautiful blue eyes. "We are aware that your actions have granted the Emperor strength. For that, you have my thanks."

Shepard smiled tiredly. "After everything He's done for humanity, I couldn't do less. Besides, He's been an amazing storyteller."

Nemedon was clearly confused, but if Darius felt the same, he didn't show it. Shepard was about to suggest they leave the station, but approaching footsteps caught her attention. She turned and saw red when Strakk was marched before her.

"Ah, the so-called saint," Strakk taunted. "How nice to see—"

Shepard didn't let him finish, and punched him with all her Emperor-blessed strength. Strakk's mask shattered, and the sound of his jaw breaking was clearly heard. The Inquisitor fell to his back, more shocked by the ferocity of the attack than the pain.

"Get him on his feet," Shepard ordered.

Nemedon nodded, and two Lamenters gripped the Inquisitor by the arms to hold him up. Shepard got in his face—now revealed to have shockingly wrinkled features, as if he was centuries old, despite his young voice—and held up the book she'd taken from the dungeon.

"Where did you get this?" she demanded. "Who had it before you?"

Strakk spat out broken teeth, much like Shepard had done many times during her torture. "I ask questions, I do not answer them."

Shepard didn't hesitate, and ripped the old man's ear off with a single, savage tug; she ignored the blood that coated her hand. "Tell me, or I'll make what you did to me look like a fucking picnic."

Strakk grinned, and blood trickled down his chin. "Quite the threat; you would have made a fine Interrogator. Very well, but only because I know it will hurt you more." He leaned forward, and the Lamenters holding him tensed. "I found it in the possession of your dear Canoness… shortly after I killed her."

Shepard was still for what seemed like an eternity; then, with a scream of rage, she punched clean through Strakk's chest. Without armor, she broke her own hand in the process, but her anger blocked out the pain. The Lamenters let the corpse fall to the deck, and Shepard stood over the body, her breath heavy from fury and exertion.

Finally, she regained her composure, and she looked at Darius with cold eyes. "Let's get out of here."

It didn't take long for the war council to realize that something was different with Shepard. They would have noticed sooner, but they were distracted by their relief that their beloved Saint was safe, and by the presence of the Adeptus Custodes that now declared that they would be accompanying the Shepard Crusade from now on. Word spread throughout the ranks of the common soldiers that fifty of the Emperor's greatest warriors were fighting at the side of the Living Saint, and awe quickly replaced any lingering confusion about Shepard's weeks-long absence.

Eventually, Shepard's closest friends did see a change in her. Her jokes were less frequent, and her words were curt; anger simmered just beneath the surface, and five days after her return, Shepard brought her war council together to discuss the matter.

"Xem-Beta still hasn't returned?" she asked; her face could have been carved from stone, for all the emotion she showed.

"No, Your Holiness," Dartan said. "It could be as long as several months before he rejoins us with reinforcements."

"He can meet us at Vigilus." Shepard leaned forward and put her hands on the table they sat around. "We have something else to talk about, and it can't wait."

The Space Marines looked mildly curious, but the mortals among the war council were a different story. They ranged from intrigued to nervous, probably because Shepard had never acted like this before.

Shepard held out one hand, and Darius, who had been standing near the door, gave her the book. She slid it to the center of the table, and watched her friends to gauge their reactions. The Space Marines were confused, and Dartan looked like he was putting the pieces together. Helmin sighed resignedly, Rex seemed outraged, and Vils and Blaise looked ashamed; those four refused to look Shepard in the eye.

"You knew," Shepard accused them. "You knew that this… this… insanity was spreading, and you didn't tell me."

"Your Holiness, we—" Rex's jaw snapped shut when Shepard glared at him.

"How long has this been going on?" Shepard demanded.

Helmin sighed again. "We discovered this heresy shortly after we brought Lord Corax to Ultramar."

Shepard stared at him for a moment, then sat back down. "That was years ago."

"And we have done everything in our power to keep this blasphemy contained," Rex said mildly. "The purges have dwindled in recent months, and—"

Again, Shepard interrupted. "Purges? You mean you've been killing good men and women who only made a mistake?"

"They mistake you for the God-Emperor!" Vils protested. "They call you their Empress!"

"And did you ever stop to wonder why?" Shepard grabbed the book and flipped through it, until she found the page she was looking for. "Here it is. 'Lo, and the Empress fights at the side of man, of Astartes, of Primarch, striding the battlefield in all her divinity. None are excluded from her golden light.'" She took a deep breath. "Look, faith can do wonderful things, but there's only so much the average person can do before they need something to vindicate that faith."

Blaise finally looked at her, scandalized. "Surely you don't agree with this heresy!?"

"Of course not!" Shepard's anger briefly manifested in glowing wings. "Just because I hate it doesn't mean I don't understand it! Most people see someone with golden wings and the ability to destroy the forces of a literal hell and see that as a sign of godhood. The only problem is that the Emperor hasn't actually fought in over ten thousand years, and I have!" She tossed the book back onto the table. "Damn it, I should have known something like this would happen."

"Saint Shepard." The war council turned to Helmin, who bowed his head. "We truly regret not telling you sooner, but you are under so much pressure. We thought we would handle this matter so that this very day would never come."

"Well, it did, and because of that, Constance was carrying that book when she was murdered by Strakk." A collective intake of breath made Shepard wince. "Right, I forgot to tell you about that. He killed her."

Blaise and Rex looked sick, Vils scowled, and Helmin muttered curses so offensive that it made Zandtus blink in surprise.

Shepard turned to the Space Marines and Dartan. "You four didn't know anything about this?"

Dartan sighed. "I knew something was going on; the purges were not as subtle as they believed, especially when they happened on my ship, but I did not know of the heresy."

"Nothing like this happened among our Chapters," Phoros said. "We tend to leave mortal matters to mortal hands, though we would have assisted in purging such heretics."

"At least you were honest," Shepard muttered. "What about Xem?"

"We never told him," Vils said. "The Mechanicus never forget anything, and we didn't want knowledge of this to spread."

Shepard closed her eyes for a long moment. "Guys… this can never happen again. This Crusade is too important to fall apart. I want to trust you, I need to trust you, and that means I have to be informed of stuff like this!" She reached out and took Blaise's hand. "I'm willing to forgive this, on two conditions."

"Name them," Blaise said fervently.

Shepard paused, and for a moment, she seemed as ancient as the Vehemence. "First, no more cloak-and-dagger purges. We're cutting this heresy out now; full inspection of every soldier and crewman in the entire Crusade. The First-Blooded will help, and I'd like our Space Marines to do the same."

"This heresy ends before we leave Ultramar," Brol swore. "Every regiment we find innocent will help us root out the fools."

"Good." Shepard hated herself for ordering these deaths, but she knew that the last thing the Imperium needed was a religious civil war.

"As for the second thing…" Shepard looked each of her friends in the eye. "No more secrets, okay? If it's personal, fine, but if there's a real problem that could affect this Crusade, I want to know. I can't do this without you, but I also can't do this if I can't trust you."

Blaise fell to one knee. "Now and forever, my life belongs to you and the God-Emperor."

The other mortals mimicked her, save for Dartan, who was too old to do more than bow his head. The Space Marines brought their fists to their chests and nodded with wordless approval. Only Darius refrained from any motion—not out of disloyalty, but because he was constantly scanning the room for any potential threat to his charge.

"If there's nothing else," Shepard said, and her expression suggested that she fervently hoped that was the case, "then we need to begin. When the Emperor gives us our next destination, I want to be ready."

So, yeah, Shepard wasn't held captive for very long, but did you expect anything else? The majority of the Inquisition was on the case, along with the organizational skills of Guilliman, and the Adeptus Custodes—which means, by extension, the Emperor. Strakk wasn't going to last long.

And hey, new friends join up! Custodes are awesome, and since the Emperor clearly doesn't want this nonsense to happen again, he sent his best to keep Shepard safe. And kick ass.

Finally, there's the purges going on in the Crusade. As Shepard said, the last thing the Imperium needs right now is a religious schism, and her friends were at least able to keep the movement contained, but now it's getting destroyed, full stop. Shepard doesn't like it, but it's a grim necessity in the 40K universe.

As always, please consider buying my book, Alpha Sanction, by Josh Gottlieb. You can get it from my website (link in my profile), on Amazon as an eBook or physical copy. I'm looking for my own place soon, so every little bit helps!

Another way you can help is by donating on P-atreon (link in my profile). Every little bit means that I have to do that much less work, which means I have that much more time to write, and hopefully post more than one chapter per month. My dream is that I make enough that I can write all day, every day.

Thanks to the following people who work to make that dream a reality:

Serious Muffins: Nimrod009, Anders Lyngbye, Matthias Matanovic, John Collins, Red Bard, Aaron Meek, Shaolin Khalil, killroy225, Zann Nightroad, Lokthar

Incredible Muffins: RaptorusMaximus, michaelb958, Crazyman844, Ben Stueckle

Ultra Muffins: RangersRoll, Adam Costello

Next Chapter: With the Crusade purged of the deluded, Shepard sets out once more, for the Emperor has her next task…

In the name of the Muffin, finish this!