Suffer The Little Children

There are no civilians in the battle for survival!
— Evocation to the Immortal Emperor

In preparation for retrieving Vownos Kaede's psychic orphans, the acolytes purchase a dozen slave children and make arrangements with a limpet ship pilot to transport them planetside when they reach Scintilla. At Calpurnia Jemadar's urging, they plan on switching them for the coven of diminutive psykers and taking those to the Black Ships, putting the mundane children on Kaede's shuttle.

Things have heated up quite badly in the Beyonder quarters of the Misericord, with regular witch-hunts and burnings being conducted by the Chaliced Commissariat in between attacks on the Merciful. The night before the ship is due to reach Scintilla, Kaede comes to knock again at the acolytes' door. He says it is now time to go get the children, and take them to his shuttle in Bay 187 — while he leads Inquisitor Rykehuss on a chase. He will not be able to join them on board but is cheerfully confident that he will evade Rykehuss's forces.

They head down for the orphanage of the Sisters of the Void in thye lower levels. They are at one point stopped by an officer of the Merciful for wandering outside the Beyonders quarters, but Aenid Fraal manages to convince him that they are simply lost and are returning to their proper area — before breaking loose and sneaking back down. At last Aenid leads them back to the orphanage, where they introduce themselves as friends of the man with the dishevelled hat. They are given a letter from Kaede and taken to see Mother Superior Iphimedeia.

Learning of Kaede's (relatively benign) double-cross, they resign themselves to going along with his plan and moving not a dozen, but three hundred orphans — all mundane, according to Xanthia's scan. Mother Superior Iphimedeia generously supplies them with the money they will need to rent more cargo space to transport the children, and assigns Sister Zerabeth to help them. They put the hundreds of children in chains and start slowly moving them as slave cargo! They also have to retrieve the other children being sent to Kade's non-existent shuttle; Rollando is sent to get them and meet the rest of the group at the limpet ship.

This is slow going and they expect being stopped any minute. But when they are, it's not by the Merciful or the Chaliced Commissariat. Calpurnia and Xanthia spot the ambusher just in time to react — a dark shape in a black body glove. Calpurnia recognizes the two curved, scythe-like blades he's wielding as similar to the ones used by the enemy who ambushed Rollando and her back on Ysai Ydumi! The ambusher is agile and fast, and keeps trying to kill Calpurnia, but she manages to keep him at bay. Xanthia blasts her psychic bolts at the attacker while Aenid and Calpurnia shoot, finally bringing him down.

Calpurnia quickly examines his body to look for identification, finding only a medallion showing a serrated question mark on one side, and on the other side a phrase in High Gothic: "What is the question that cuts?" But at that moment she realizes that the curved blades are emitting a high-pitched whine — like plasma grenades about to blow. Aenid and Calpurnia each seize one and throw them as far as they can. They detonated, but the damage is greatly reduced. Nevertheless, several children are killed or badly injured.

The acolytes guide the group to the hangar bay without further encounters. When they try to negotiate with the limpet ship pilot for more cargo space, they discover that there is plenty of it: a strange man has purchased all the remaining space for them and left it empty… At last they leave the Misericord for Scintilla. On the planet, they arrange for the orphans to be taken care of and sent to the Schola Progenium on Maccabeus Quintus; all doors open when they mention the Sisters of the Void.

They then contact Narthax, who has them picked up and brought to the Tricorn. They are taken to debrief, and witness Narthax's initial shock at learning of Aristarchus' death on Iocanthos. "It should have been me! Me!" he screams. But then they see him visibly change, as if he had turned off a switch — as they figure he may well have — and become entirely emotionless. He hears their story, then asks them whether they are very certain it was the Ruinous Powers they encountered in Stern Hope. They say they believe so and give their entire report, in all its long detail, showing the remnants of the xenos artifact that had be disguised as a tarot card, as well as the pendant from the more recent shadow attacker.

By the end, Inquisitor Astrid Skane herself walks in; clearly she has heard everything. They give her the dataslate sent by Vownos Kaede. To at least some of them's amazement, she commends them highly. She tells them that because of their encounter they must be checked for purity, and turns them over to the Adeptus Astartes: two huge men in Terminator armour walk in to take the acolytes to the tower of the Ordo Malleus. They spend an uncomfortable week being interrogated in excruciating detail about their mission.

They are released in time for Aristarchus' funeral, and Inquisitor Skane gives them commendations for the excellent work she says they did; acolytes of their inexperience were never expected to survive, let alone overcome, such a challenge as a meeting with the Ruinous Powers. They are promoted and decorated, and Skane announces that she has a new mission for them…

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