It was too warm below decks, too warm and too dark. The crew had abandoned this place centuries ago, leaving it to the hullghasts, the bendies, the phantoms and bogeymen of the void. It was situated directly below one of the gun-decks and Volos had no doubt they would all be deafened should the broadsides above ever be fired. The thought was oddly pleasing – he would like to see his master robbed of another sense.
Master. He loathed the title, yet was any other preferable? Liege. Employer. Blackmailer. The man who held his leash.
Before they had claimed this place there had been monsters down here. There still were, Volos corrected himself, but before the Maimed had taken up residence here this level had been haunted by hideous, pallid things. Whether they were mutants or aliens Volos preferred not to speculate – he had mainly seen the charred bodies after Sonneillon and his mute-freak assassin Remiel were done with them. No two were quite alike, but all of them shared skin so pale as be translucent, oversized, dark eyes like some deep-sea fish and rotten fangs or, in some cases, hardened gums. Their naked bodies were hairless and covered in nodules and tumours. They were creatures of nightmare, but Volos’ nightmares were crowded enough.
They had spent two days hunting in the darkness, his master illuminated only by a burning sword, too small in his hand. Blind as he was, he could not use the blade with any real finesse, but there was no need. For all his inelegance he was inhumanly and the bisected remains of the monsters fell behind him. Others he set alight with a spurt of fuel from his flamer, their thrashing bodies torches for the rest of the Mained to see by.
A few had attempted to sneak behind them and were quickly dispatched by Remiel’s spear. One lunged at Sonneillon’s artificer, who merely eyed it lazily before the towering space marine span around and lifted it effortlessly by the throat, crushing its windpipe in his gauntleted fist. The legs twitched and then hung loose as the neck snapped, audibly.
Volos had been sick. Presumably it was still here, somewhere. This place had not been cleaned in millennia – slime-moulds and moss covered the areas of decking that had not been used as major thoroughfares by the mutant-things. He had struggled to not be sick again when his master had selected a few of the bodies and cracked open their skulls, scooping out the grey tissue and eating it raw, one of the many nonsensical habits that Volos tried not to think about.
What little light he had merely showed the squalor of this place, all rust and decay. How the mighty had fallen... Once, Volos had lived in a world of beauty and splendour, and now he was in the filthy bowels of some Throne-forsaken trader. Was it the same for Sonneillon? He claimed to have fought in the Heresy, ten thousand years ago, to have lived through the Great Crusade. He had walked alongside legends and heroes and now he squatted in the darkness muttering to himself.
The wan light of Volos’ lantern fell on his master, who had no need of it, and Mordecai, who seemed content to sit and share in his master’s blindness. He was polishing something, most likely a piece of Sonneillon’s armour. Remiel was nowhere to be seen, so it was safe to assume he was close by and watching Volos closely.
Sonneillon was naked again. This seemed to be a more recent habit but Volos had long since stopped trying to understand his master’s behaviour. He could not help but stare at the space marine, his eyes lingering on inhuman musculature marred by old wounds and interface ports that erupted from pale flesh like blisters. His gaze crept to the statuesque face, scarred from scalp to lip. Sonneillon looked as though he had been carved from marble and then desecrated, defaced. In the pale light, however, his empty eye-sockets and shaven head made him look more like a skull.
“My lord. What is your will?”
The archaic phrasing had once been a subtle way of mocking Sonneillon, but now it came naturally. Sonneillon was a relic of a bygone age, a better age, if legend could be trusted. He had been a hero once. No longer. Now he was close enough, Volos could smell it. Corruption. Taint. His master reeked of it. So did the spindly eunuch beside him. It filled him with revulsion, mostly because a small voice inside wondered if he smelt the same. He took out a cigarette, one of his last, to cover the stench and to help settle his nerves.
“Even through the Geller field, the warp whispers to me, Jacques. We travel near to a world that was torn apart by civil war, touched by chaos, abandoned by Emperor and Imperium. I hear a name; Sathvairg. I have seen war there, past and future. The hand of the Blood God, and darker things still. Something is being born here, though I know not whether I hear its first, ragged breaths or echoes travelling backwards through the warp... There will be blood enough to drown nations. There will be suffering and death and perhaps this time I will see a grater purpose to it.”
“Sounds cheery. Am I to assume we’ll be spending a brief holiday there?”
“This is a pilgrimage, Jacques. I hope to find some facet of the truth there.”
The truth. Sonneillon always spoke about the truth. Volos had always enjoyed a fairly loose association with the truth. He preferred lies. The truth was that he was damned and ruined, trapped in the service of an insane antediluvian demigod, his soul promised to otherworldly horrors. The lie was that he would be able to escape someday. He liked that lie.
“What truths do you hope to find in war, my lord? Surely, in all your years of life and battle, you have witnessed enough?”
“You are brave, human, to question my orders.”
“You told me yourself you do not waste tools. Besides, even if I question, I obey. I have a further question; how will we be arriving there? This is a chartist vessel. It will not alter its course and you said the world was blockaded.”
“The Imperium has a great many aphorisms pertaining to faith. They say it can move mountains. They say faith alone can overturn the universe. You are not a faithful man, Jacques.”
Volos knew it was not a question, but he chose to answer anyway. “No, my lord.”
“I value it.”
Volos wondered if Sonneillon was referring to faith or Volos’ faithlessness. He did not ask.
Sonneillon had told Jacques enough for him to know that he was alone, an exile on a pilgrimage to wherever the tides of the warp would take him, searching for a truth that eluded him. Such a man was surely defined by doubt, and yet when Sonneillon spoke every word rang with certainty. So many contradictions and paradoxes... Volos suspected he would never understand Sonneillon, even if he lived as many millennia as the space marine.
“I have a task for you and Remiel.”
A ragged wound in reality opened, impossible colours bleeding into the void. A shape emerged, bathed in the hell-light, a shape not unlike like some ancient trireme.
It was a huge vessel, ancient beyond measure. Many of the spires that protruded from its spine were abandoned, more than half of the great bellies and hangars lay empty and the majority of the statuary that had once decorated the hull had been eroded and destroyed by time. The vitrified paint on the prow was barely decipherable, but it had a name; Demeter. Nonetheless, there was an elegance that shone through years of service, retrofitting and countless repairs. She was a relic from a glorious past, a time of enlightenment when technological and aesthetic sophistication were wed.
Perhaps she was the last of her kind.
She was dying.
One side was a crated and cracked ruin. Hull breaches vented burning oxygen, fires that died quickly in the void as the tunnel to the Empyrean collapsed behind her. The explosions and inertia had left her spinning lazily, the crew unable to right her.
Inside was madness. Demeter had never deviated from her course in living memory, but her Navigator had possessed enough sense to steer her to the nearest inhabited world and out of the warp the moment the explosions had begun, in case the Geller field was affected.
The ammunition had been ancient, seldom used. Though half of the weaponry that bristled from her hull was depowered, broken or disabled, she had always been too large and intimidating for the even the most enterprising pirates to risk attacking.
There was no way to know what had caused the initial explosion, but it had set off a chain reaction in the port broadside weapons. Countless crew had been killed in the initial explosions and the decompression that followed, and now entire swathes of the vessel were aflame, or without oxygen, or filled with leaking plasma and supercoolants. All internal communication was disabled. The bridge crew that remained were mostly panicking, fighting a hopeless battle to maintain order. Most were fleeing to salvation pods.
Tech-priests whose passions had dried up millennia ago, their humanity and emotion carefully excised, wept openly and turned weapons upon themselves. They had tended to the needs of a goddess and now she was dying, as far beyond their help as she had always been from their understanding.
Somewhere among the countless salvation pods, escape-barges and commandeered shuttles that fled the stricken vessel, sightless eyes looked out through a viewing port and saw nothing.