Aboard the troop ship Emperor’s Beneficence en route to Adumbria, Ciaphas Cain is surprised to be hailed by an old acquaintance: Tomas Beije, now regimental commissar of the Tallarn 229th. Cain remembers Beije from the Schola Progenium as a sanctimonious prig, and is less than pleased to see him, though he hides it with the skill of long experience. Beije likewise fails to make a good impression on Colonel Kasteen when they are introduced, as he is unable to hide his incredulity that the Valhallan 597th has a woman as its commanding officer.
In the ship’s main hall, Lord General Zyvan briefs the assembled command staffs, explaining why they’ve been withdrawn from Kastafore with unusual haste: a Chaos warband, calling themselves the Ravagers, escaped an Imperial Navy trap in the Salomine system and their projected course through the Warp will have them invading Adumbria within the next few days. Zyvan’s force is the advance guard, whose job is to fortify and defend the planet as much as possible until the rest of the task force catches up.
A brief extract from Jerval Sekara’s popular travelogue explains that Adumbria is a tidally-locked planet: the side permanently facing the sun is a baked desert, while the side permanently facing away is an eternally dark icescape. The majority of the planet’s population and urban centers occupy the narrow twilight strip between the two zones.
During the journey through the Warp, tensions run high between the Valhallan and Tallarn Guardsmen; the Tallarns express a conservative disdain for regiments that include women, and the Valhallans’ response is natural. Commissar Beije comes storming into Cain’s office after the Tallarns’ regimental unarmed combat champion is sent to the infirmary after a “friendly” bout with one of the Valhallans’, Corporal Magot. Cain breezily lets Magot off with a reprimand, explaining that it would be unwise to demote her before her squad is deployed to a battlezone.
In private, Beije admits to Cain that he is surprised by how far Cain’s career has come since they last saw each other; he’d have expected any Hero of the Imperium to have become much more pious to the Emperor than Cain was at the Schola. Cain detects seething jealousy under Beije’s carefully civil words, and enjoys the moment to the fullest, while maintaining his usual pose of modesty.
As the 597th is disembarking to the surface, Cain accompanies the first shuttle down, which happens to be carrying Captain Detoi’s Second Company, which includes the perpetually irritating (to Cain) Lieutenant Sulla and her platoon. To their surprise, vox-traffic from the surface warns that the Tallarns’ command squad has come under attack. To avoid the same ambush, Cain orders the shuttle pilot to set down on the vegetable garden of a monastery abutting the starport, and the company deploys behind the enemy forces with gratifying surprise. Cain decides to join Sulla’s platoon on the flank, to keep her from doing anything impetuous (and hopefully avoid the main action), but an unwary traffic praetor blunders on the enemy position and flees back towards the platoon, leading a group of pursuers. The Valhallans ambush them, and Cain is surprised at their luridly-coloured and scanty clothes, and their surprising ecstasy at being maimed by lasguns and chainswords. Just as the Valhallans are mopping up, Beije roars up in a Chimera on the way to rescue his Colonel, only for Cain to cheerfully inform him that everything is under control.
A brief excerpt from a history of the invasion explains the political situation on Adumbria: the incumbent Governor died about a year earlier, without leaving an heir, only a welter of squabbling noble houses, with the leading Administratum representative acting as Regent. This unstable situation only became worse when news of the impending invasion arrived.
Zyvan briefs the planetary government and the Guard commanders, saying there is no doubt that a Chaos cult is active on the planet, likely preparing the way for the Ravagers’ arrival.
To Cain’s pleasure, Zyvan tasks him to stay in the capital and liase with the local Arbites, while the rest of the 597th deploys to the dark side of the planet. But danger refuses to leave him alone; a cultist group pilots an aircar into the side of the hotel suite where Zyvan has made his headquarters. A group of luridly-dressed cultists attack, and Cain downs several of them with his chainsword. Then it strikes him that the fight was too easy, and yells for the staff to evacuate the building. Cain’s first impulse is to follow them, but his paranoia warns him that there might be a trap waiting outside. Instead, he stays behind, and looks closer at the wrecked aircar, recognizing a bomb. Sure that there isn’t enough time left for him to run, he demands a vox-link to a Tech Priest, who talks him through defusing it.
A (mercifully brief) extract from Sulla’s memoirs details an early skirmish on the ice side. While performing a routine check on the perimeter sensors, her platoon stumbles across an unauthorized ice crawler which opens fire on them as soon as they challenge it, and their return fire causes it to explode spectacularly, revealing that it was laden with illegal weapons.
Cain visits the regimental headquarters, and he, Kasteen, and Broklaw do their best to analyze the implications (since Sulla, characteristically, didn’t leave any survivors to interrogate). It seems obvious that the heretics are smuggling weapons in through the planetary starport, and caching them in hidden bases. When Cain relays their deductions back to Zyvan, he is dismayed when the Lord General comes to the same conclusion and encourages Cain to lead the search of the likely spots on the ice side.
Kasteen and Broklaw are skeptical at first, saying they don’t have the time or the manpower to search all the possible sites, but Cain, in a flash of inspiration, narrows it down further by filtering out seismic activity picked up by the sensors that they can trace to local, innocent activities.
Leading Sulla’s platoon, along with the regiment’s entire Sentinel troop, they happen onto another crawler, which they neutralize and its trail leads them back to the cultists’ hideout, a prefabricated habitat dome badly disguised (at least to an Ice Worlder’s eye) as a natural snowdrift.
Sulla orders the platoon to assault the hideout, but Cain is squeamish at the troopers (and himself) having to storm any of the entrance doors, which are doubtless heavily fortified. He comes up with another option: grabbing Sergeant Lustig’s squad, he leads them to the wall of the dome, and Jurgen creates a convenient entrance with his melta gun.
Whatever they were expecting to find inside the dome, they are all taken aback: the interior is luxuriously furnished and decorated with loud pornographic murals. Cain also notices a sweet, narcotic scent in the air that brings back memories of the Slaaneshi cult he and Jurgen encountered on Slawkenberg. Outflanking the cultists guarding the doors, they are able to pacify it with minimal casualties. In the center of the dome, Cain finds a hidden chamber, and inside are dozens of dead bodies, mutated and warped by sorcery, and surrounded by Chaos sigils. Cain shudders at the realization that some kind of ritual has taken place.
Another excerpt from the history elaborates that Cain’s discovery increased the fear of how deeply the cultists had infiltrated the planet’s population, although it would be some time before they showed their hand again.
A dispatch from Beije acknowledges Zyvan’s order to search the “hot” side of Adumbria for similar cultist hideouts, while making his opinion clear that it is highly unlikely that heretics could be operating under the noses of such pious servants of the Emperor as himself and the Tallarns.
Cain returns to Skitterfall (the capital), and Zyvan’s Sanctioned Psyker, Malden, reports on his examination of the cultist site. He recognizes the signs of a summoning ritual, but there is no sign of a Daemon appearing on Adumbria, so the purpose of the ritual is a mystery to him. Meanwhile, Zyvan reports that there is no word from the rest of the task force, so he has to distribute their available forces around the planet, with their limited number of troop ships standing by to ferry reinforcements around as needed.
In his bunk at the headquarters building, Cain has a nightmare of Emeli Duboir, who playfully warns him that she’ll be coming back soon.
Over breakfast, Cain receives a call from Arbitrator Hekwyn, who has followed the trail of the smuggled weapons from Glacier Peak back to a corrupt freight dispatcher. Under interrogation, the dispatcher identifies his contacts among the cultists. Several of them own warehouses which could easily be stockpiles for more weapons. Eager to avoid anything really hazardous, Cain chooses to accompany the PDF troop raiding one of the more innocuous names, a bordello owner named Kyria Sejwek. He sells the idea to Zyvan by planting the suggestion that Sejwek—given her profession—may have the closest connection to the Slaaneshi cultists.
As usual, serendipity makes a mockery of Cain’s efforts to keep himself out of trouble. As soon as the PDF Chimera approaches the bordello, they come under fire, mostly from prostitutes wielding heavy weapons with astonishing familiarity. Unfortunately, Jurgen takes Cain’s order to find the nearest cover as an instruction to drive the Chimera straight through the bordello’s wall. Cain reluctantly leads a squad into the interior, dispatching the “joygirls” at the weapon emplacements.
He is stunned when Amberley Vail appears on the staircase, approaching him with a coquettish smile. The PDF troopers are similarly befuddled, even when “Amberley” reaches out and touches one, killing him instantly. As soon as Jurgen reaches Cain’s side, “Amberley” disappears, to be replaced by the rather dumpy figure of Madame Sejwek. With a sneer, Cain informs her that impersonating an Inquisitor is a capital offense, and shoots her with his laspistol. In the depths of the bordello they find another sacrificial chamber, heaped with bodies. Grimly, he concludes that, as with Glacier Peak, they have arrived too late to stop whatever ritual the cultists were conducting.
In a dispatch to the higher office of the Commissariat (which is never sent due to the increasingly turbulent Warp currents around the planet) Beije “regretfully” suggests that there may be something suspicious, even sinister, about the fact that Cain has now been on the scene of two cultist summoning rituals and, in both cases, has arrived too late to do anything about them.
In the next meeting of the command staff, Zyvan introduces his ship’s Navigator, Lady Gianela DiMarco, who informs them all that the Warp currents are shifting in a way she’s never seen before, and these shifts coincide with the times of the summoning rituals. It seems clear to her and Malden that the heretics are trying to do something to the space surrounding Adumbria, but neither of them can say exactly what. Before they can debate the matter any further, Zyvan receives a message from the Navy pickets, informing him that the Ravagers’ fleet has arrived in the outskirts of the system. The invasion has begun.
Although severely outnumbered, the Navy picket ships give a good account of themselves, managing to cripple or destroy the invasion fleet’s advance ships and delaying the Ravagers’ landfall for a few crucial days.
Cain returns to the 597th at Glacier Peak, where Kasteen is grimly assessing the odds: a Chaos invasion force is inbound, a daemon may be running around somewhere, and an unknown number of well-armed insurgents are hiding among the population, just waiting for the Guard to turn their backs. Zyvan calls their headquarters to report that the Tallarns did indeed find another ritual site (after bothering to look for it, his acid tone makes clear). Unfortunately, Malden and the other psykers were unable to examine the Chaos sigils, since the Tallarns burned the site to the ground as soon as they discovered it. Looking at the map of the planet, Kasteen notices something that has escaped everyone else’s notice: the three ritual sites form a triangle bisecting the planet. If there is a pattern to the sites’ locations, they may be able to divine the site of the next one.
The Ravagers finally arrive, landing in a haphazard storm of shuttles that is rather baffling to the Valhallans’ tactical sensibilities. As the perimeter companies begin to engage, Cain excuses himself from the command center (which he’s painfully aware is an inviting target) and joins Detoi’s Second Company, which is being held in reserve.
Naturally, that is the moment when one of the shuttles comes down all but on top of them, disgorging fanatics screaming “Blood for the Blood God!” Given their preference to close range and use melee weapons instead of their ranged arms, the Chaos soldiers are contained and eliminated without much difficulty – at least Cain thinks so until someone screams “unstoppable…!” over the vox, and a squad disappears off the net. Lt. Faril sends in reinforcements, which unluckily sweep Cain along with them as he is trying to slip back to the command center. To his secret astonishment, they are so cheered by his presence that they start shouting his name like a battlecry.
Cresting the ridge where the squad disappeared, Cain sees his worst nightmare: a Khorne Berserker, a full-sized Chaos Space Marine of the World Eaters Legion. Cain is about to turn and run, when the monster leaps to avoid the flurry of lasbolts fired at him, and lands in front of Cain. Cain’s duelist reflexes take over, and he is able to parry or evade the vicious swipes of the Berserker’s chainaxe, and even scores a glancing hit on his Power Armour with his chainsword. Cain buys himself just enough distance for Jurgen to drop the Berserker with a melta blast.
After the initial attacks are repelled, Zyvan reconvenes the command staff and analyzes the enemy’s pattern. Cain realizes that they are not facing an invasion as much as they are caught in the middle between two feuding Chaos factions; he knows from hard experience that the Ruinous Powers are bitter rivals with each other, and for followers of Khorne and Slaanesh to be working together is virtually unheard of. Picking up on his reasoning, Kasteen looks at the map and realizes that the Ravagers weren’t making a coordinated attack on the Guard forces, they were trying to reach the ritual sites. Colonel Asmar admits that he hadn’t considered that possibility, but it could be equally possible on the hot side. With a little luck, Zyvan finishes, they can deduce the site of the final summoning ritual.
The second enemy wave is launched at the planet. The Valhallan Guard forces are hard-pressed, but Kasteen insists on leaving Second Company aboard their one available drop ship, in case reinforcements are needed elsewhere.
Cain is unable to stop worrying over where the last summoning ritual will take place. If Kasteen is right and the other three sites form a pattern, then the fourth point will be somewhere in the equatorial ocean. Cain asks the Arbites to check shipping activity in the area, but Zyvan dismisses the theory; according to Malden, the ritual would need to take place somewhere in contact with the solid part of the planet.
While driving around in a Salamander with Jurgen, trying to find the safest spot possible, Cain is unlucky enough to happen across a corrupted Leman Russ tank, butchering a squad of hapless PDF troopers with its heavy bolters. Jurgen disables the tank with his trusty melta, but the turret is still able to traverse, and starts turning toward the dropship. With the surviving PDF troopers idiotically swarming over the disabled tank, Jurgen is unable to take a second shot, so Cain rushes them aboard the dropship and orders the pilot to lift off immediately to avoid the tank round.
While the shuttle is in a holding pattern above the battle zone, Arbiter Kolbe calls with news; during their check on maritime traffic, they lost contact with an oceanic dredger, a sort of floating manufactorum designed to extract minerals from the ocean floor—physical contact with the solid part of the planet. Cain immediately orders the pilot to head for the dredger, while calling Zyvan over the vox. Zyvan is unavailable, but Malden hears enough to confirm Cain’s theory, and warns that the ritual will likely take place in the next few hours.
In private, Cain confides to his reader that he’d have liked nothing better than to speed into orbit and grab the first warp-capable craft available out of system; however, there was a void battle going on at the moment, and he also knew from painful experience that there is no hiding from some threats, especially Warp-based threats, and your only hope of surviving one is to confront it before its purpose is completed.
Arriving on the dredger, Captain Detoi deploys the Second Company, though they find the cultists heavily dug in. He and Cain conclude that they have little choice but to order a direct assault, but they are interrupted when a small courier shuttle touches down nearby. Beije marches out accompanied by a squad of Tallarns, smugly declaring Cain under arrest for desertion.
Cain tries to talk sense into Beije, who scornfully replies that Cain can’t hide his cowardice behind his fraudulent reputation any longer; he’s been looking for any excuse to escape the main action, and has hijacked a whole company of Guard soldiers to do so. In the midst of this tirade, Beije makes the awful mistake of tossing in an insult to the Valhallans’ “petticoat Colonel”, which trails off when he takes in their murderous expressions. In a level voice, Cain says that Beije is free to say whatever he wants about him, but Beije will apologize to Colonel Kasteen or face Cain in a duel.
Seeing that Beije’s Tallarn escorts at least have some sense in them, Cain insists that their mission on the dredger is in deadly earnest – a fact which is reinforced when a force of five World Eaters teleport onto the dredger and hurl themselves at the entrenched Slaaneshi cultists. The defenses which presented such a formidable obstacle to the Guardsmen barely slow the Traitor Marines down, and Cain, seeing an opportunity, orders the squads around him to follow in their wake, while Detoi keeps the rest of the company dispersed, keeping the other cultist defenders pinned down. Beije orders his own men to follow Cain, ostensibly to stop him escaping.
Traveling cautiously along, they dispatch several wounded cultists, and encounter one of the World Eaters, severely wounded. Seeing them, the enormous figure rushes them with his bare fists. Again, Cain’s duelist reflexes take over, and he disables the World Eater with a well-placed stab from his chainsword, through a rent in the ceramite armour left by a cultist’s krak grenade. The World Eater falls, and Jurgen finishes him off with his melta. The Valhallans cheer, and the Tallarns are awestruck; from then on, as far as they’re concerned, Beije is part of the landscape.
They breach the doors of the dredger’s chapel just as the cultists within have completed their summoning ritual, and the daemon emerges from the Warp: Emeli Duboir, no longer a mortal woman. She lazily tears the last surviving World Eater in half, and sweetly informs Cain that she is about to transform Adumbria into a Daemon World; half inside the Warp, half out, a world remade to her liking and a conduit for any number of daemonic hordes to pour into the Materium.
As with their last meeting, she invites him to join her and enjoy the sublime pleasures Slaanesh can offer. But Cain, whose self-preservation has always outweighed his self-indulgence, replies, “Frak this!” and charges. Under normal circumstances, Emeli could kill him with a flick of her hand, but rears back in surprise as her power is nullified by Jurgen’s presence at Cain’s side. With her link to the Warp severed, the Guardsmen’s weapons can actually hurt her. But she lashes back, and the small wounds from lasbolts aren’t doing enough damage. Even a hit from Jurgen’s melta that burns away half of her face doesn’t drop her, and she smashes Jurgen to the ground in rage. Cain is defenseless, and she rises above him, preparing to rip him to pieces.
Then there is a hurricane of lasbolts, and she is torn apart and disappears, either dead or banished. Cain turns and sees the remainder of Second Company in the chapel, Captain Detoi cheerfully explaining that he decided to bring them up when Cain didn’t vox. One of the few surviving cultists – who happens to be one of the hopeful heirs to the Governorship from the aristocracy – says defiantly that Slaanesh is eternal. Cain retorts that Slaanesh may be, but he’s not, as the cultists are marched out at gunpoint. Cain turns to Beije, who has been practically rooted to the spot since the Daemoness appeared, and says he looks forward to the tribunal.
After the campaign on Adumbria is wrapped up, a tribunal of senior Commissars is convened, at Beije’s insistence, to assess the merit of his charges against Cain. Cain prepares to meet his fate stoically, even though he knows that reason and common sense are hardly the most abundant qualities among the upper levels of the Departmento Munitorum.
The results are all he could have wished for; with the aid of some information discreetly provided by Zyvan, the tribunal exonerates Cain of all charges, and finds that his actions were heroic, and probably crucial to the salvation of Adumbria. Then the Commissars turn to Beije, and inform him that he is being charged with conduct unbecoming his station, and stripped of his rank pending a more formal court martial – which, if he’s found guilty, will almost certainly end in execution.
Cain rejoins Kasteen and Broklaw outside the court room, and Beije staggers out in a daze a few seconds later. Cain reassures him that he will speak in his defense, testifying that his actions – however pig-headed – had only the best intentions. Privately, Cain reflects that as much as he detests Beije, shooting him is not going to do anyone much good; and he would much prefer for Beije to owe Cain his life for the remainder of their days.
Cain politely asks Beije when they may meet for their appointment; Beije, having seen Cain’s skills with chainsword and laspistol firsthand, offers a humble apology to Colonel Kasteen for any offense he may have given, then makes as dignified an exit as he can manage (which is not much). Cain, in a mood to celebrate, invites Kasteen and Broklaw to see if one of his favorite restaurants in Skitterfall is still standing.
So, here’s a complaint that isn’t directly related to the book. Why do some of the book get the Full Synopsis Treatment, like this one, and others are left to hang out like dirty laundry that nobody wants? Where’s the love from the Warhammer 40K groupies? Ok, I’m done with that now.
There is another Commisar and he’s a weak, by the book, selfish and petty kind of guy. He’s also inept and causes more problems than anything. I was kind of hoping he’d get eaten, gruesomely, by the vampiress, but no such luck. Sometimes it can be hard to be a reader, you know?
While I enjoyed the short stories I read featuring Cain, he does much better in a full novel. I zipped right through this and could have read another for breakfast, but my iron will obviously kept me on the righteous path of book rotation. Sometimes I’m so amazing that I amaze even myself. Feel free to bask, there’s no charge.