A Field Trip

Let my enemies cower at my advance and tremble at the sight of me!
— Evocation to the Immortal Emperor

Once they reach the Port Suffering starport on Iocanthos, Senior Inquisitorial Quaesitor Aristarchus leaves his team on board the trade-hauler Brazen Sky; he is gone for a week. Upon his return, Aristarchus hands his four assistants "tickets" (big rolled-up scrolls) for the Chartist vessel Misericord, as well keys to lockers in port where they will find uniforms and cover identity papers for the next mission; they will board the Misericord and travel under separate covers from Aristarchus.

For now, Aristarchus and his assistants officially disembark at Port Suffering, and get past an officious little bureaucrat thanks to Aristarchus' authority. Aenid Fraal is very uncomfortable — this is the first time she has been on a world that is not of artificial origin. Everything is too hot, too dry, smelly, and poor; all the locals look like hard cases.

Fraal, Jemadar, Hernandez and Xanthia drop off their travel papers in their lockers before continuing on to the Cathedral of St. Drusus, still under construction. A thin, mangy, nearly naked man covered in tattoos shrieks upon seeing Teniente Hernandez, and throws himself upon him, calling him the Crow Father, and babbling about prophecies and traitors. Nearby, others seem to become agitated. Fraal tries to knock some sense into the man, but ends up slamming her hand into the locker. Another local tells them to leave, their kind is not wanted here.

A skirmish ensues, in which Xanthia is knocked about — and Aristarchus is knocked unconscious. The crazy man has disappeared during the fight, but Commissar Jemadar manages to knock out and capture the ruffian who seemed most coherent (and aggressive). The team finds a cheap hostel to hole up in.

Jemadar, with help from Hernandez, interrogates the prisoner, Skab. He reports to reports to his pack leader Ragna, who in turn reports to the vai Grim. Jemadar scares the fear of the God-Emperor into him, tells him that the next time they meet they will extract a favour that he will have to supply whatever it is, and let him go.

Aristarchus at last comes to, and goes over the mission briefing. He explains that he was chosen, rather than Narthax, because he volunteered; he is a distant relative of St. Drusus, and feels a special connection to this project. He has done some castings of the Emperor's tarot and determined that there are indeed psychic phenomena taking place around the cathedral, but the details remain nebulous. He has procured a ground vehicle, since the air approaches draw more attention.

Before the evening concludes, Aristarchus and Xanthia cast the Emperor's tarot again. They draw the Page of Cups: beginning of a great creative act, new relationship, new perspective on a difficult situation. Xanthia suggests that something new and great is being created on the planet. Aristarchus suggests it may be the cathedral; somberly Xanthia adds: "… Or something else."

The next day, Aristarchus takes them to a beaten up old Imperial Guard flatbed, and Jemadar gets behind the wheel. Aristarchus, when he's riding in the cab, keeps consulting his tarot deck. The only animals seen in these barren lands are the eyeless "shale crows". They are reputed to be harbingers of doom. At the end of a very long day of travel, they reach the base of the foothills, where they stop and make camp. The four assistants split up the watches through the night as Aristarchus is still recovering from the beating he took in Port Suffering.

In the middle of the night, Aenid Fraal sports a humanoid figure at the edge of her vision. Fraal starts sneaking up on the figure, who stops at the edge of the camp. It appears to bear tattoos. Fraal decides to tackle him — but as soon as she connects, the "man" flies into pieces like sticks and ichor. A hideous stench arises, and Fraal has to evoke a litany of the Emperor to keep her self-control. Everyone in camp awakens; Jemadar runs to the assistance of Fraal, who is stepping away from the mess.

Despite Fraal's advice, Jemadar flashes a light on what appears to be an old, badly decomposed body with its eyes pecked out. Hernandez carefully examines the camp perimeter but finds no other activity. Jemadar examines the body, determines that the man was killed weeks ago, his head nearly severed from the left side. There are no signs of defensive wounds on the hands or wrists. Although they have never seen his tattoos before, Jemadar memorizes them carefully. The walking corpse left footprints coming from the direction where the party is headed. They wake Quaesitor Aristarchus, who is surprised; he detects no sign of psychic activity. As they get ready to leave in the morning, they burn the odorous body.

A couple of hours later, Hernandez and Xanthia notice a shadowy figure in the hills, which then disappears. Xanthia also senses that something terrible happened here and weakened the Barrier between Reality and the Warp. "Commissar, stop," she says. Jemadar stops the vehicle; Xanthia explains what she sensed and decides she must examine the area. Jemadar accompanies her to act as bodyguard, but they find nothing.

Fraal conquers her discomfort in this open setting and climbs to the spot where the figure was seen; she discovers a freshly burned pictogram of a bird grasping a skull in its talons. The burn is still hot. She recognizes it as an archaic symbol associated with St. Drusus, and captures a picture to show her companions. Aristarchus thinks it's a good sign, but he is troubled at the evil Xanthia reported sensing; he senses nothing like this. He goes away for a few moments to meditate and cast the tarot again; but he says he can learn nothing more of what happened here. Jemadar notes the location and they resume their travel.

As nightfall, they approach a camp; a man armed with a battle axe and a rifle waves them to a stop, examines them, then welcomes them to Stern Hope.

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