Author Topic: The Ghost Worlds  (Read 455 times)

Offline Dosdamt

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The Ghost Worlds
« on: March 07, 2020, 10:54:44 PM »
Recovery

“Forward, ease down... Jaq!”

The eyes of Jaquieline DuBois became focussed, sharp, incisive - and they switched instinctively to the source of the voice. Hound was shaken by the look.

“Sorry... Inquisitor. We’re training here. You just loo-“

“Looked distant. Yes. That observation is fair.”

Her tone did not agree with her words.

It was a few months after her run in with the Magos. Her own Biologis had asked no questions about the wound, though it was clear it knew what had removed her forearm. The teeth marks were unmistakable and the ragged flesh screamed chain weapon - chainaxe. It even looked like the imprint of the damned Mechanicus skull had been left in the flesh it had separated with ease.

At first she had been dismayed by her lost limb. Phantom fingers flickered at her face as she grieved for the lost limb. She had flashbacks of the moment her flesh began to come apart. She came to a start overnight covered in sweat and panting in fear, clawing at a wound that didn’t exist.

For a few days.

She resolved that it was not going to impact her work, and the first step was to get a replacement. She hadn’t spared any expense. It was a sleek, gilded tool no thicker than her flesh arm but with significantly more physical strength through her wrist and forearm and obviously much tougher than flesh. She pulled some favours with an associate from the Ordo Xenos to get her hand - hands? - on some miniaturized Jokaero weapons which slotted neatly into the fingers and knuckles of her new arm.

The replacement wouldn’t be complete until it was indistinguishable from flesh. It took some time to source the fleshy substitute, but it was worth it. Warm to the touch. A virtually imperceptible feeling of oil that only skin had. There was an age calibrated level of tension in her skin to match her flesh hand. It was the tactile sensation that could never be fully replaced. Though she could feel temperature, texture, abrasion and the hardness of a material it never felt accurate. The feeling was distant and alien, as if a barrier of consciousness experienced the feeling first before she did.

She could also crush plascrete in her hand with no effort beyond thought.

“Again?” Hound asked. He offered a salute with his training pick. The brawling room was as spartan square box containing three roped circles ready made for combat. The floor was hard wood, except within the circles where grip was provided by coarse grain sand. The walls were off white, dirtied from the slap of sweating bodies against them and spatters of crimson.

She nodded, rolling a training sword with her bionic hand.

“Forward. Thrust. Good.”

DuBois threw the sword through an arch, neatly following through and moving her feet through a tight pirouette. Hound came forward, matching her movements and stepping to one side, keeping his pick tight to his body. JD kept her momentum, swinging the blade around her in a second spin, stepping into Hound. He didn’t expect the follow through and awkwardly snapped his pick forward, deflecting the blade but stepping off balance. DuBois bulled into him, keeping Hound off-balance as he tried to lever her around. Hound went with his failing balance, allowing himself to fall and snap through into a crouched defensive position. A moment, just between him falling and snapping left his head exposed. Her hand itched.

“Don’t hesitate JD, attack,” hissed the mercenary, coming back at the Inquisitor in her momentary lapse. She blocked a cruel overhand blow that even with training weapons would have brained her senseless, before taking a kick in her guts. Hound didn’t hesitate and pressed his attack, clipping her elbow with a counter blow from the back of his pick, and a fizzed knee into her ribs. She took both and shuffled quickly backwards, regaining her guard as she snorted for air.

“Where are you Inquisitor throne-dammit,” Hound said, stalking round her, “You need to be here.”

He stopped looking for another angle to attack, letting the pick rest in his hand for just a moment.

“You need to be here, Inquisitor. You don’t have the time to re-learn this. You’re a field agent for Emperor’s sake. Perform like this in the field and you’re dead.”

Jacqueline shook her head, breathing deeply to restore her energy. Hound was right. She was off by a few moments. She never hesitated before - never. Even in training, she would’ve smacked Hound round his face for dropping his guard and leaving himself open the way he did. She saw the opening. She knew the cut. She flexed her hand, feeling the itch subside.

“Again.”

Hound burst forward, splitting the air with a whistling blow. DuBois parried the blow aside, landing a forearm across Hound’s ear. His equilibrium lost, she pressed her knee into his lower back with a spin which rattled him. Hound stumbled forward with a grunt that lead into a chuckle.

“Better, JD, better. Come on now, I’ll stop taking it easy.”

DuBois pressed into Hound, knocking aside his pick and grabbing the scruff of his collar with her bionic hand as she flung her him sideways then forward. Hound scuffed into the floor but went with his momentum, leaving the awkward pick behind. He kept his movement forward even as DuBois came after him with an overhead chop that whiffed throw the air he had just occupied. Hound grabbed a loose training sword, weighing it rapidly in his hand for balance and grip.

Better, he thought, now it’s time to see how she really is.

He spun the sword in a quick figure of eight noting her sagging guard, her feet were slightly too close together, and her sternum rising and falling - she was flagging. He came forward, feinting an ugly blow to her left which arced round into a head high shot. DuBois didn’t buy the feint and caught the blade with her own. The power of the blow surprised her, forcing her now clumsy feet to respond. She stumbled but moved quickly, regaining her balance despite a flurry of blows, each one caught by her sword or ducked beneath.

On better footing, she countered, leaving her guard deliberately lowered. Hound was an experienced swordsman and ignored the ruse, throwing a punch at her face instead of his sword which had matched her low assault. Jaq rolled through the punch, letting it clip her shoulder and slip into the air behind her. With his sword down and his other hand sliding over her shoulder, she grinned as she launched a vicious head butt into Hound’s face. His nose burst immediately, reopening an old scar on the bridge of his nose and battering open his long suffering nostrils.

Ruses, in ruses, in ruses.

Hound staggered back, blood leaking down his mount. He waved for a halt, touching his sword hand to his upper lip. Blood leaked down onto the sand. Pain pounded in his ears, and he could feel the blood vessels in his nostrils throbbing.

“For the love of the throne, Jaq, even the juves won’t re-straighten this nose.”

“They won’t make you prettier either.”

“Why were you distracted earlier?” Hound ventured in a dampened tone, seeing the sparring as pretty much over.

“I… It doesn’t matter.”

Hound noticed her flexing her bionic.

“Is it still that?” he pointed. She stared at her hand, then back to him.

“It’s a fair challenge JD.”

“What do you want me to say? Hmmm? Throne dammit, Hound, why are you all treating me like this? I’m an Imperial Inquisitor! I’ve seen you quail at some of the things I’ve faced down. I’ve seen you piss yourself like an estranged child.”

“I didn’t mean to-“

“None of you mean to, but you do. You look at me as your wounded mother. You expect me to look for solace from you all, a maternal embrace. The empathy of children. Do you want that? Do you want me to break down and let you all see a human side? A maternal side? Is that it?” DuBois spat, her eyes furious.

“No, I, ah, -“

“Leave it. Blessings be, leave it. I’ve lost my hand and half a step. I’ve replaced my hand and I’m training. Give it 60 Terran standard and I will be back to my best.”

Hound looked sheepish. He shuffled his feet as DuBois continued her glare. Silence was an uncomfortable guest, and it was busy overstaying its welcome. DuBois let her eyes drop to give Hound an opportunity to exit.

“Yes Inquisitor.”

DuBois didn’t watch Hound leave the brawling room. She spent another few minutes standing in the centre of the rope circle, flexing her hand.


=][=


Restoration

The Configuration was coming together. Inquisitor DuBois had preserved the original architecture in a sequence of scans, picts, vids and technical drawings.  She was overseeing efforts to re-assemble the whole configuration. The accompanying rituals were painstaking. But the beauty - the magnificent scale of arrogance in creating such a thing, was worth the effort. Each piece had to be re-assembled, and due to the tiresome issues with stasis storage some of the components needed renovation, repair or replacing. The backlog of those tasks was building steadily without support from the Mechanicus.

“How many components do we need support from the Mechanicus on?” Asked DuBois.

“Just short of a hundred now, Ja- Inquisitor,” replied Wakhan. He looked ground down. The long days and nights were taking a toll on him. He hesitated for a moment. It was clear he was yearning for another sliver of connection. DuBois knew she was denying him what he truly wanted, a human connection.

“Falid... Listen. I appreciate your support during my rehabilitation, but we need to get the Configuration online.”

“Yes” he sighed, but he started to press on “But I wan-“

“Now is not the time.” She responded without hesitation killing the conversation. Her voice was diamond hard and just as clear.

She wandered the assembly site, pausing to review individual pieces of the Configuration or assembly areas that piqued her interest. The individual pieces were far beyond her capability to understand but the grand vision - ah, the grand vision, the scale of it, the architecture... that she understood. The burning ambition behind such a creation was intense. White hot, even.

“We’re processing the parts through the shell corps and the Guard?”

“Yes Inquisitor. There have been some ..... interesting conversations about just where some of the parts have come from, or that the parts don’t fit an STC approved template. We’ve been able to smooth those over.”

“How?”

Walid sighed before continuing “With great difficulty. The more obviously exotic pieces we process via the Archeotech warrant with Ochre Corp. Our contacts at the Forge on Hiuluz know the deal and are pretty comfortable dealing with anything up to Xeno tech. They just don’t like volume. Some of the pieces are just standard STC tech - I should add, confusing find on a ghost world - we process those via the Lyrran Irregulars. Aligned AdMrch are cheerful if a little bureaucratic.”

Walid finished speaking as he arrived at a table of catalogued parts. Each was bagged and annotated, with a short description and a log number.

“Pieces like this” he waved a crystalline matrix which despite the glossy plastic bag it was in sparkled in the light, “Pieces like this.... they are tricky. The Irregulars won’t ever have tech this complex. We know the rules on the Archeotech Charter and to be frank Inquisitor we need to keep it.”

He placed the matrix back on the counter, before rubbing his eyes then his temples. His shoulders slumped and the usual spark of energy that jumped across his eyes, his hands, his demeanour, ebbed.

“Listen, Jaqueline. Inquisitor. There is an alternative here, if you’ll hear me out.”

His eyes locked in the Inquisitor. Jaq knew this would be serious.

“Go on.”

“There’s stories - a fable, really, of a sect. This sect are really selective in who they deal with. Diligent, slow. They float in Inquisitorial circles, but they’re very much of the Mechanicus. I’ve heard from contacts of contacts that their leader....” Walid slowed, then paused for effect.

“Visionary.” he couldn’t help but express his hands and his arms to their full span. “Rumour has it they’ve built incredible things!”

“Technoheresy?”

Falid furrowed his brow. A flicker of wicked energy played across his eyes.

“How droll, Jaq. No, if there’s a line on that, if that phrase really means anything.”

The energy ignited.

“Progress.” his pause was enough to push emphasis into the next words, “Real progress. Purpose. Experiments beyond our ken, beyond our experience. Steps back into the unknown. Throne, Jaq, it’s why we dig on these damned dead worlds. Our race once looked outward, you’ve seen the records from Veyran-“

“Broken, incomplete records.” DuBois countered carefully.

“Records nonetheless. From the compliance, from the Great Crusade and the enlightenment. Jaq, isn’t that what we dig for?”

She could feel the phantom itch. It gnawed at her, raking up her leg and across her chest, at her eyes and then behind them. Her finger tips - her nails - bringing up her flesh. It abated slowly, leaving her with goosebumps down her artificial limb.

“Get in contact. Delicately. Use Grixos, throne-damned toad that he is. Broach the subject delicately - we don’t know exactly who knows about the Configuration and how we’re planning to use it. We don’t need that attention. Coordinate with the secondary and tertiary cells - have them send the missive, keep the actual message need to know.”

“Thank you Jaq, you won’t regret this!” Walid replied. His choler was up, and he bowed his hands as he quickly made his way to execute her orders.

=][=
It is never too late! - Mentirius

http://thementalmarine.proboards.com/index.cgi <- The Mind, for all your irreverent nonsense needs

Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #1 on: March 07, 2020, 10:56:37 PM »
Revelation I

“You held back you hoary old goat, and damn you for doing so!”

DuBois slammed the door to the cell shut. Several lit candles across the room rippled in the gust of air.

“Glad to see you, Jacqueline.” Grixos said as rose to greet her. His face looked more dischevelled than usual in the flickering light.

“Don’t play polite old scholar with me this time, Grixos, don’t you dare.”

She slammed a datapad down on his desk.

“Sit over there,” she said, pointing to a chair next to his desk. Creaking and groaning he did as he was bid, albeit taking his time. As he settled, Jaq had already sat across from him with her fingers piqued in front of her.

“Read it.”

“What, Inquisitor, there are a myria-”

“Don’t. Play. Games.”

Her eyes locked onto the old man.

Grixos had been ready to retire by the time DuBois had found him, and tempted him with her whispers of lore, of the Horus Heresy, of extraordinary findings out in the Ghost Worlds. His interest stimulated, he agreed to meet her. That was 50, 51 years ago now? Time was difficult for him to follow given the cocktail of juvenants, drugs, and stimulants that DuBois fed him daily. At the time she caught him, he’d resisted. He resisted for two years - against torture, negotiation, even psychic assault. All had failed until he found himself on the bridge of her ship, overlooking one of the worlds housing his network. He could see her lances were pointed directly at his estate on the world. He’d said nothing as she unleashed catastrophe down onto the surface.

The second time, he held firm as well. The world - Arraithon - had housed a full quarter of his librarium and most of his closest staff. His treatise on Inquisitorial factions was housed on Arraithon. His research into the Ghost Worlds and the early days of the Great Crusade. His only relic of Terra, a piece of the Eternity Gate, hung in a stasis field in the laboratory in Arraithon.

DuBois showed him the intelligence reports - it was all still there. She showed him picts of his loyal Interrogator-Archivum, Daivid Bratten, busying himself with a fresh delivery of relics from one of his various cells. They were still operating. That had steeled him, for a few moments. DuBois let her hand drop as his defiant silence filled the bridge.

He still remembered the way her vessel shuddered under his feet. Moments later, the pict-screens showing his old estate live went blank. The explosions sent plumes of dust into the stratosphere.

Still, he stood silent before black took him again.

The third time he found himself on her bridge, they were over DX-488. DX-488 housed his most precious manuscripts - a copy of Sebastian Thor’s treatise on Resurrectionist Fundamentals; the blessed verses of Muundus Vhogart; the last testament of Karius Prelune. He’d preserved the last two in the conflagration between the Puritan Council and the Terran Recongregators that had wrecked the Council and knocked them out of primacy on Terra. The first had taken him 12 years of sole focus to track down. Down beneath the kilometer thick black ice, behind the orbital defences, locked in a vault of plascrete so thick it had taken nearly a year to lift into place - all of it helpless to the seal. His central archive, for Throne’s sake! All of the data he’d accumulated over decades - no, near 3 centuries! - of service with the Inquisition. His own original research.

The place he intended to see out his final days.

His legacy.

It should have been safe there.

And he had tried to hold himself together. Emperor knows, he had tried. He watched the first volley with anxiety twisting his intestines. It arced out from the lances and stuttered through space. Time slowed. He watched on helpless as his servitors and savants milled around on the live pict feed in the base, completely oblivious to the destruction racing towards them. The lances struck the ice.

Both DuBois and Grixos stood for several minutes, waiting for the vapour and static to clear from the feeds. The first volley hadn’t been enough.

“Time for a second volley, Cap-”

“No! No, Inquisitor, no! I beg you….. No no no... “

It broke him. She. She had broken him. He remembered how he had fallen to his knees, how he sobbed. His shoulders had rattled like a bolter. Gouts of tears fled from his eyes. He cried primally, uncontrollably. He had broken enough men to know what came next.

Through the dark, back into cold light, he found himself back in his cell. He’d been furnished with a quill, enough paper to last a lifetime and more besides, and his thoughts straightened. DuBois had been waiting like a spider in a web for him to wake him.

She had given him the same look that day, when he’d come around, when he’d come around from being broken, as she gave him today.

“Read it Grixos. Read it.”

She pointed at the data slate. Grixos hesitated, reading her face. He could see she was very serious - the fury bubble behind her eyes. He’d learned how to read people during his field service and knew how to push DuBois at the right times. This wasn’t one of them. Slowly - not deliberately - he reached for the slate.

His bionic face gurned as he absorbed the report burning on the data slate. He sighed, and returned the slate to the desk. His fingers ran through the remaining whisps of hair on his liver marked scalp, holding out like refugees on a fleshy plain.

“It’s an after action report.”

“Yes. Continue.”

“Inquisitor, ple-“

“Continue. I didn’t say stop.”

She hadn’t been cruel. Not for extended periods anyway. She left it a decade or so before she showed him the truth. Neither DX-488 or Arraithon were ever in real danger. While he had been occupied fighting another one of the Puritan Council’s wars, she had been busy. She had burrowed into each of his hold outs, each of his fortresses, and each of his shell companies carefully seeding agents. She had his own people removed - killed, she regretted - and replaced with people loyal to her. Slowly, she took control, steering his own resources away from him until, without him noticing, she had control of everything. The lack of logistical support had starved him while out in the field - of intel, of materials, and of people. When DuBois caught him, he was on the run from the Recongregator menace with barely enough supplies to last three days and his last interrogator.

To show intent, she had his interrogator flayed alive as they cuffed and bagged him at the rendezvous. He’d been desperate for any support for months.

Once he’d seen the truth, the whole wicked truth, he suspected his last shred of self fell away. He was a grown infant on the teat.

They call me Ampulex, she said with a shrug. Some ancient Terran beast notorious for systematically turning a host slowly against itself and it’s own interests. She had been meticulous and patient. From the husk of his organisation came hers, and in his name, she prosecuted hundreds of investigations. She hung over the complex nest as a ravenous arachnid, consuming data and those children who didn’t - or couldn’t - perform. She needed him for his name and his seal, and to maintain the facade.

He needed her because he was incontinent and a mental ruin.

“It is my after action report, Jacqueline, from Delan’s Point. Some centuries ago.”

“Yes, it is. And what’s funny is this - it is broadly believed that the righteous purging at Delan’s Point was the end of this cell of radicals. But Maltheus has re-emerged. ‘It seems rumours of my death are grossly exaggerated’. His seal was confirmed. Jarrod Hal provided posthumous pardons for Maltheus and Stryde, for Throne’s sake. They weren’t traitors, they never were. Hal paid for that with his life! I’ve trawled your files. I thought this was true - misguided, stupid, a waste of resources, time, effort - but true. And now this. You hid this. You and the whole Council.”

DuBois paused for a few moments.

“The purging was a sham, wasn’t it?”

Grixos had long lost all semblance of resistance. He felt his hold on reality warp for a few seconds. His stomach became a pit and his breathing heavy.

“I wanted my seal. I’d served Muundus for so long, always stuck behind the data, always trawling through evidence, taking statements, prosecuting his trials. I… I wanted freedom, I wanted to lead. I wanted to set the direction. It was my time. I’d been an Interrogator-Cipher for years. When… when we got to Delan’s Point…”

Grixos’ voice began to waver.

“Throne…. when we got to Delan’s…. I’m sorry Inquisitor.”

DuBois let silence linger while Grixos collected himself.

“My… my senses don’t recall. The drugs leave my memory clouded.”

Time folded in on itself over and over as Grixos sought the memories.

“It was a mess, a warzone, a rift of blasphemy. Daemons were everywhere. Of course some of the heretics didn’t escape. We had proof - blood, bodies, armour scraps and weapons. A library of manuscripts and books, thousands of them. There was a slaughter. We waded into it - they, I suppose…. the fighting was brutal. Man fought daemon fought heretic fought xenos. I watched on the vid links, helpless. I watched men wither into dust. I saw daemons cast back into the warp cackling. I saw the face of hatred. It looked me in the eyes and I remember it flaying my will thousands of kilometres away. Bu’Ran. That name is etched into my mind forever.”

Grixos cracked again for a few minutes, weeping openly and softly gibbering.

“I…. I wrote the report, Emperor help me. We all knew it was false but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they were gone. The Mentirians, Sargoth, and the damned mutant. Consorting with Eldar for thrones sake! We knew it was wrong. The fact their compact with daemons had gone awry we didn’t care - who were we to argue with the outcome. The method didn’t matter. It didn’t! They were all dead, or dying, or doomed. We mopped up the remnants as best we could and took enough evidence to justify the rest being dead.”

Grixos shook himself back to normality. The walls were crawling around him again, and for a moment he would’ve sworn in front of the Throne that Bu’Ran’s face leering pushed through the wall like a fist through fabric.

“The message from Maltheus is a fraud. Hal cleared him and Stryde - hah! Rubbish. Nonsense. Check the vaults on Terra where we left their seals, their equipment, their manuscripts - all of it. You’ll find it gone.”

Grixos had perked up. DuBois saw his shoulders square, his teeth gurn and grind as his hands shook.

“Lie with dogs, get fleas. He knew what he was doing. Mentirius, Sargoth, Amaurn - all of them were radical scum, far gone from the Emperor’s light. Aestimus, Aithol, call it whatever you like - it was all false. AmonDull was a fiction made up to justify the worst excesses of those damned Xanthites. A shadow enemy no one saw, an enemy Balkoth-! Balkoth!- birthed for the Inquisition to fight so he could experiment on the child he put a sacred rosette on. Some saw through it, I have the records. But they indulged him and centuries later comes the consequence - the Order Vsmpiris, the traitor Mentirius, then Delan’s Point. We purged that taint out, finally all out, and we were justified at every step.”

Grixos was lucid now and the old fire had been stoked.

“Yes I wrote the damned report. I wrote it for Muundus and I did it to collect my seal. I was trusted as one of the finest Interrogator-Ciphers in the Ordos. I had heft and weight already. Everyone lapped it up - the final death throes of the Mentirians. A death blow for Xanthism, finally! The celebrations on Terra went for days. Better times…. better times.”

Grixos took a sip of water.

“You can sit and you can judge me. You can argue whatever you want Inquisitor. What we did was right - we did it in the name of the Emperor. All of them died. All of them. No one is left.”

DuBois sighed.

“Vhogart is going to be beatified. Since Guilliman’s return the Faith have been itching to ignite a spiritual revival. He’s been lying in repose on Terra for nearly four decades. On a lie. His final year before sanctification passes in… 8 months time. We’d be lucky to make it back to Terra in a year. Maybe 10 months. Astropaths out here? Back to Terra? Not serviceable. This is an unprecedented victory for the Puritan Council, they’ll swing the Lord-Terran vote with it.”

Grixos looked infuriated.

“And? Why should I care? Every man, woman, child, mutant, witch, heretic I flayed, flamed or filleted for that man deserved it. Who cares if they were guilty, innocent, whatever; it’s all the same. Muundus was many things, but chief among them was visionary. He saw the truth of things - evidence didn’t matter, trials didn’t matter, he saw to the core of beings and he was always right. The Emperor acted through him. The man deserves beatification and veneration.”

“I should’ve left you to the Ultramanians.”

“Hah, there’s the spite. It was in you all along, DuBois. Go ahead. Kill me, throw me out of an airlock. Cut my head off. Flay me and leave me alive! None of it matters. Muundus be praised! St Muundus Vhogart! Emperor be praised!”

Grixos began cackling uncontrollably. DuBois signalled for the sedatives to be administered. Almost immediately Grixos began to slump. His bladder emptied and drool ran down what was left of his skin on his face. DuBois clapped her hands on her knees, and with a sigh stood up. She loomed over Grixos.

She grabbed his chin with her thumb and forefinger, bringing his face straight in line with hers as she looked down at him, eye to eye.

“I won’t kill you Grixos. I’m going to let you liv- make you live, for many many years to come. You’ll serve me. I’ll continue to feed you whatever I want, I’ll drug you, give you hallucinations for my amusement - and, when the time is right, I’ll atomise your legacy and your name right in front of you. And then, and only then, will I give you the privilege of death.”

=][=
It is never too late! - Mentirius

http://thementalmarine.proboards.com/index.cgi <- The Mind, for all your irreverent nonsense needs

Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #2 on: March 22, 2020, 01:08:22 AM »
The Seat of Devotion

DuBois moved with purpose through her ship. The full design of the ancient Tomb of Kaires, an Olympia class strike cruiser, was only known to DuBois. She had found the ship out in the ghost worlds, long abandoned and barely held together. The world it orbited had been annihilated by exterminatus and, even after a significant passage of time, was still quite dead. The ship had been a revelation - one that needed to be kept secret. Every other soul who had been there when she’d found it had been mind wiped then ejected into space. The crew who travelled with her to restore the ship went the same way. DuBois let herself linger on the thought that both crews were likely still spinning around that dead world holding her secrets amusing her for a moment. Only DuBois now knew the original heraldry on the ship. She hadn’t revealed that to anyone.

Only DuBois knew about the secrets that wreck housed when she found it.

The bowels of the ship were where she held her deepest secrets. Her footsteps rattled in the lonely bowels, bouncing off the metal surfaces with a tik-tak, tik-tak that echoed throughout the ranging corridors. Only she was allowed to go down into her vaults on the ship. Blindly obedient guards stood at the doors to the sarcophagi. They were intimidating servitors - each of them sat like predatory porcupines, ornery with spines but, underneath the spines, claws made for killing powered by an attitude only interested in propagating death. They were only ever a keyword away from ultra violence. At the edge of the sarcophagi revealed a solitary gate, opened through a combination of her retinal print, her voice, her thumbprint and her seal. It was a ritual now. The Lacus Curtius was the final lock, a unique puzzle of her own design. The consequences for failure were fatal.

She walked the darkened corridors of the sarcophagi, noting each of the stasis fields were active and well maintained. She paused to admire the relics she’d collected, noting the depth of her collection now. Some of the vaults were filled with the ghosts of the past. Others the sins of the present. They would all speak to her through the stasis field, telling her of time gone by, of previous ages, of secrets from another age that were exclaimed fact in their day. Others would play at the edge of her consciousness whispering and tempting her. She flicked through schematic scans and catalogue reports on a portable datascroll, flicking through the latest digs she was orchestrating across a dozen worlds. She consumed data with a voracious appetite at a frightening speed. She flicked her thumb through affirmations and directions as she slowed to her destination.

In the heart of her sanctum she found a familiar pair of golden doors that were perfect replicas of the Eternity Gate. She swept up to the doors. She would notice new details each time she came, marvelling at the craftwork and the genius required to reproduce all of the minutiae from Holy Terra. It was an indulgence, a little something of the throneworld. It had been so long since she’d been home - the grand home of course,  not her home world, and she felt this grounded her in her overarching goal mission. She also had an appreciation for fine artisan work and this was truly exquisite. Above her Eternity Gate, in fine threaded font across a perfectly produced gold scroll were the words

Cathedra Devotis - the seat of devotion.

Embedded sensors in the door sensed her presence. They analysed 48 physical attributes in microseconds, before approving passage. The Eternity Gate swung open.

The revealed chamber was cavernous and woefully dim. As DuBois entered a flock of cherubim awoke and arose from their alcoves, igniting electro candles. Each of the ugly, veiny, pudgy creatures hurtled towards their master to form a grotesque honour guard. The light from the electro candles swirled in waving patterns as a tide across the chamber. At the edge of the wavering border of light a form writhed, then rattled with a metallic chang that echoed for a moment.

Close to DuBois, revealed fully from the gloom, was a fulsome recreation of the golden throne. Few had truly seen the actual golden throne. DuBois had spent considerable fortunes tracking down first hand accounts of the throne. Through this extensive research, she had painstakingly recreated details that she validated through her vast network of contacts. One of her Terran contacts maintained to her that they had spoken extensively with a former member of the Hetaeron Guard who had served his vigil. Another relic in her vast collection was ‘The Final Recollections of St Methusela of Terra, Auditorii Imperator”. St Methusela had dedicated a vast tract of her memoir to her audience to the Emperor revealing in excruciating detail everything she could remember except the few words she received from the Emperor. DuBois tracked down several Inquisitors who had served, even if temporarily, as a High Lord. They were privy to details of the throne that she synthesised and devoured.

And so it was - the functional, wired throne that sat on Terra recreated in obsessive detail. Of course, the aesthetics hadn’t been ignored. Gold gilt was present as an accent to everything. Great spread eagle wings soared above the seat of the large Aquila, intimidating and awe-inspiring in equal measure. DuBois mused to herself that, on a level, it was a shame that only she would ever get to enjoy this fine re-creation. She had pieced the thing together herself, down here in the sanctum. It had taken her an age and more besides, it stretched her technical expertise to the limit, but she dedicated herself to the task and here, assembled, was her throne. The aesthetics of the piece took her months. She was proud of each piece of filigree and every flourish she’d worked through. Everything else spoke exclusively of function. Thick wires, tubes, revivification diodes. Mechadendrites that ended in clutches of needles. Each of them parted as she made her way up the steps to the ascend onto the throne. She placed herself very precisely into the centre of it.

In front of her throne, the chamber began to reveal some of its secrets in the flickering candle light. Hundreds of thin wires came down in a complex web from the ceiling. From each of the wires grew tiny, cruel hooks, and from each of these hundreds of tiny micro fibres disappeared into the darkness. A sparkle of dark lime energy played down the hooks prompting a deep groan from something in the darkness. A single, thick support strut came out of the centre of the room, holding … something in place. Several bionic work arms revealed themselves in the gloom, tending to something in the middle of the room. The arms moved autonomously and gently tended to the package at the centre of the web.

DuBois sat upright and finely poised as the light played over the chamber. A cherub came down with a bottle of amasec, another with a finely cut glass. A third arrived with a bucket of ice - the fourth and final brought a new data pad. Behind her, the throne began to move, slipping needles into the back of her neck, into her arms, down in the seat of her legs and the base of her spine. The routine of it meant the pain didn’t register. The amasec was poured into the glass to her right, then the bottle positioned gently into the bucket of ice. The data pad was placed to her left. She picked both up, drinking a small snifter from the glass.

Ahead of her, something stirred in the chamber groaning.

“Qatya. I wondered when you’d come around.”

=][=

The Host

“Name?”

“Qatya Fanham.”

“Rank?”

“Acolyte Tertius, Most Holy Ordos of the Inquisition.”

Qatya is a generational talent. First in aptitude, intelligence gathering, interrogation, combat, pattern detection, critical thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking. First in gunplay - bolt, auto and las; first in melee - hand to hand, sword, axe, and staff; first in covert operation execution.

Qatya ascends quickly through the ranks. Acolyte Novus, Secundus, Tertius; Interrogator Novus, Secundus, Primus. She works with luminaries in every field in the Inquisition. She applies her keen mind to treatise analysis, publishing several papers on Imperial Saints, effective governance of the Adeptus Administratum, and the reformation of the Imperial Faith under Roboute Guilliman.

“Name?”

“Inquisitor Qatya Fanham.”

“Sector of Operation?”

“Scarus.”

“Ordo?”

“Hereticus.”

“Speciality?”

“Investigation and reformation of governance on Imperial Worlds. Purges of worlds leading to reformation in the Imperial light.”

Qatya makes a name for herself. She serves with distinction across a dozen worlds, bringing them back to the Imperial Light, rooting out deep corruption and restoring order. She builds a vast network of contacts, resources and fortresses throughout the Scarus Sector. Her vast intelligence network is unparalleled in Scarus.

Inquisitor Qatya Fanham is granted several unique awards from the Ordo Scarus. She makes profound advances in the interpretation of scripture, the application of Imperial Justice, and the fight against Chaos in the Scarus Sector.

Throughout all her success. At every step. Watching. Waiting.

Qatya moves further up the chain building a network of political allies across the Inquisition. She makes friends with the Lord Scaran, with the Lord Solar and the Lord Ultramar, with the Lord Obscuran. Her influence grows - she builds a hive of activity at her command, centred in key allies and key alliances. She builds and her roots grow deep.

Qatya diligently investigates heresies across the sector. Qatya Fanham hovers like a harrier over the field of the sector, swooping rapidly in and destroying cults, dissenters, daemonic hegemonies alike with precision. She sweeps through world after world, a burning trail of righteous justice following her.

The unseen hand of an ally helping schemes to succeed where they might not before.

=][=
It is never too late! - Mentirius

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Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #3 on: March 22, 2020, 01:11:27 AM »
Sighting the Prey

DuBois looked through the reports she’d been provided with for the day. Her full focus was given over to Qatya Fanham. Jaqueline had first become interested in the prodigy when she was made available as an Interrogator in the Scarus Sector. DuBois had multiple interests in Scarus, running expeditions out to the Ghost worlds in the Halo. She had shown interest in Qatya for many years and offered her several investigations under her tutelage. Each time a polite decline had been provided and Fanham had moved on.

DuBois had attempted to reach out multiple times once Qatya got her seal - overtly, covertly. It hadn’t mattered to Qatya. She was single minded, strong willed, and incredibly focused on her work. Jaqueline admired those traits deeply. DuBois had wanted to form an alliance, a strong alliance, that would’ve secured the Inquisition’s hold on the sector for generations and positioned Fanham for the position of Lord of the Sector. In turn, DuBois could have continued to operate from the shadows, tugging gently at the skeins of fate to right them where they might be wronged. Correct course, rather than set the direction, and rightly so. DuBois had the foresight, the influence, the strategic vision to advise and to mentor. She saw Qatya as the perfect extension of that will, able to execute flawlessly. They would be magnificent together. But time and again she was rejected, time and again Fanham knew better or had a better lead, she hadn’t the time to consider it properly. The last few times DuBois reached out, via an intermediary, she wasn’t even responded to personally. It was an acolyte.

The final nail in the coffin had been New Haverford. It had changed everything. And now, DuBois was sharpening her sting.

Fanham’s network was compact but growing. Several small bases of operation had been established on Sarum, Lorwen and Femi’s Major. DuBois had carefully catalogued and begun reconnaissance on each.

Sarum was the central hub. It was within the Inquisitorial fortress - a blessing in disguise she thought to herself - and comprised of a large complex of training rooms, barracks, and research adjuncts. It was here that Fanham came to reflect and coordinate her full network. As Fanham had been active in the field for most of the last decade and was expected to continue, her hub had simply become a data processing facility.

Lorwen was a black site. Each inquisitor knew the value of having a site they could have valuable assets removed to and that included human assets. Be they witnesses central to an investigation, or heretics that needed debriefing, it was essential that somewhere safe, secure and separate from the rest of the network was available at all times. Her facility on Lorwen was at the southern pole, beneath the permafrost and further underground after that. A revolving door of assets came through Lorwen.

Femi’s Major was a trading post world, and in support of that Qatya had befriended a Rogue Trader, Harren von Horst. In return for using her seal to cover the excesses of his trading, Horst provided her with a supply of exotica and fresh intelligence. Horst was known to be a braggart and often risked his Warrant of Trade gambling. So far, so good. The brawling pits on Faraday’s Breach were his favourite vice.

DuBois could see the first patterns forming in her mind.

Data. She needed data on Fanham, on her retinue, on her broader network, on her current investigations, on her deepest interests, on her vices and weaknesses.

An insider. Lorwen would be difficult to infiltrate given its location and purpose. Getting someone inside, either as an asset or as an interrogation expert would give her insight into Fanham and a route to start poisoning her intelligence.

To finalise the scheme, she would need to own someone intimate with Fanham and her broader operation. She needed leverage on that individual. Creating leverage and unfair advantages were her specialty.

She began by sending Falid to Femi’s Major. Wakhan was a consummate operator in trading circles. He would be able to quickly conclude the priorities Fanham was trading after and provide that data back to DuBois. That in turn would enable the next strand of her plan. Hound and Phantom would be dispatched to Faraday’s Breach. It was important each emerging strand of her operation was in motion simultaneously and Hound was a consummate pit fighter. He could move into the fighting championships and begin to gnaw on blood there like a ravenous tick. Phantom would make sure Hound couldn’t lose.

She would travel to Sarum herself. Getting her hands on data was imperative and her hand in the operation was essential. She took with her Havoc, Rapture, Doppel and Taurus. She could pick up agents specialised in subterfuge, sabotage and the digital arts along the way. Positioning herself at the centre of Fanham’s own web of intelligence would allow her to more effectively maneuver pieces around and away from Fanham, as well as poisoning the well. The knowledge gained would give her the profiles of most of the operatives under Fanham’s direction. That was vital intelligence.

DuBois had no doubt this was the riskiest and most dangerous of her intended Ampulex schemes. She would have to be sure she had the measure of Fanham before she executed her scheme. Flickering candlelight haunted the room around her. Ahead of her, her finest creation hung like a monstrous centipede from the ceiling, waiting for its guest.

DuBois took a sip of amasec. She licked her lips.

Her appetite was peaking.

=][=

The Flayed God

+++ Society of Archeotech and Excavatory Explorators +++
+++ Report : For Society Eyes Only +++
+++ From : Jaali Wakhan, Archeotech Explorator Primus Class, Ochre Corporation +++
+++ Subject : GY-139 +++


Executive Summary

GY-139 can be found on a periphery of the Halo Stars, Segmentum Obscurus, Rim-ward adjacent to the Koronus Expanse. It is officially a ghost world - we confirmed through scans and several planet wide sweeps that all human life has been extinguished. Estimates from our excavation suggest the world has been dead for nearly 7 000 years. It is likely the world was first populated during the Age of Strife, though this is largely speculative. Further work will be required to confirm the veracity of the following speculation, but based on the evidence gathered to date we believe there is solid grounding for these rationales.

GY-139 most likely received two waves of settlement. The original settlers likely arrived between 28th and 29th millenium, and built the foundations of a society on GY-139. Here we find the culturally distinct mesolithic ruins - temples built to celebrate deities, large scale festival grounds and huge settlements dominated by a central palace.

The second wave of settlement is speculated to have arrived in the 32nd millenium. These settlers brought with them one key cultural change - the worship of the God-Emperor. It appears to have been integrated into local worship practices creating a unique branch of Imperial Faith. Ratification by the Eccelsiarchy will be required to avoid the requirement to fully purge the full world and all artefacts obtained on the world. The Ochre Corporation has already started the process of filing the relevant documentation and will follow the adjudication of the Ecclesiarchy to the letter, as is appropriate.

The cause of death for the full population of GY-139 is unknown. Usual indicators as to the cause of an extinction level event, such as the use of atomic or other weapons of mass destruction, exterminatus weapons, plague, famine, asteroid strikes, and solar events, have all been ruled out. Full geological and ecological survey revealed the ecosystem to be in full balance with rich flora, fauna and microbial life. No residual or actual climate destruction was detected. The atmospheric balance is within Terran normal balances and is eminently liveable. We will continue to follow up to discern the cause of depopulation.

GY-139 is covered in extensive, lush grasslands. Each of the various types of grass have been catalogued and all samples found within Imperial databases. All fauna native to the grasslands that could be immediately catalogued within the 2 month expedition were catalogued and, again, found to already exist within Imperial databases. It is to be noted none of the species appear to be original and native to this world. There are some suggestions of terraforming - there are extensive atmospheric processors at both the southern and northern poles, but nothing to indicate the requirement to terraform was at tremendous scale or intensity. Deep core soil and icecap samples taken suggest some atmospheric balances that were likely corrected for comfort as opposed to necessity. See Appendix 3 for an extensive breakdown of these samples, including the radioisotope analysis leading to our conclusion.

During our initial analysis of the world, we identified 14 large settlements worthy of further investigation. Further directed sorties to these population centres narrowed the list down to three hubs that warranted detailed excavation. Within 3 Terran standard days we found multiple worthy relics and data sets to examine. We provide a detailed breakdown of each of these as follows in Appendix 1.

+++ Report Continues….. +++

+++ Search command - Le sede k'i'inan devocional +++
+++ Executing….. +++

+++ Section Found - Display? (Y/N) +++



While many of the datastores for the world were Standard Template Construction and should have been eminently salvageable, we encountered significant challenges in accessing and restoring the vast swathes of data available on GY-139. We retrieved all significant stores and will retain them for the society to access in the near future. Of the few we found to be accessible, the most interesting is the treatise “Worshipping the Sun-God - The Seat of Devotion”.

As with many other Imperial subcultures, the God-Emperor is rightly worshipped and, in this culture, is worshipped in His form as a sun deity. This writer passes no judgement on the ignorance of savages, failing to recognise the unending forms of the Emperor as the true method of worship, and instead will focus on the particulars and peculiars of this form of worship.

GY-139 has a large number of moons operating in a perfect set of orbits enabling there to be several lunar eclipses across a year. More bizarre than this is that the two planets between GY-139 and its star, GY-001, are exactly in proportion relative to their position to perform an intra planetary eclipse of the star. This means that the GY-001 star is in a state of constant birth and rebirth across the year (approximately 1.8 Terran standard years). We consider this to be the root cause of the name of the Emperor on this world.

Tlatlauhcax - the flayed god.

Broken data retrieved suggests that the Emperor is viewed on this world has being in a constant state of death and rebirth, striving to provide the surface with life sustaining sunlight despite the best efforts of the others in the pantheon - notably, Cuutláhuac, the prime betrayer; Ahuiateteo, the prince of excess; and Xolotolahuac, herald of disease. Note the direct equivalence with a number of traitor primarch personas.

Further broken data indicates a belief that each of these personas assault the God-Emperor and bathe Him with their evil. To break free, He must shed his skin and become renewed. We find this behavior to be found in a number of apex predators on this world, including the Cutlehuancac Hunting Cat, translating literally as ‘Thunder King’. This remarkable mammal has a cycle of renewal that involves shedding large portions of its skin. This death world species was imported here and seems to have become a roaring success. Further details are included in a separate report.

Given the prevalence of skin shedding in nature and the symbolic importance in the celestial conjunctions above, it follows that the ritualistic flaying of skin could become central to the worship of the God Emperor.

Le sede k'i'i hinan devocional - literally, the seat of agonising worship - was a common practice used on the world to show absolute devotion to the Emperor. The devotee would spend 14 days (local, approximately 14.7 Terran Standard days) ritually cleansing and being tattooed with detailed pictograms showing Tlatlauhcax renewing victory over the other members of the pantheon. Once the period of preparation - kauitli yokoya - was completed the devotee would be brought to the grand cathedral.

At the heart of the cathedral we found a great stone plinth. Around the plinth were great blood stains - ancient blood - that had stained the rock down the ages and settled permanently into the stone. The devotee would be placed upon this pedestal, and a caste of priests, quite similar to the existing ecclesiarchy, would ritually flay all the skin off the devotee. Due to a complex cocktail of drugs, juvenants, anesthetics and medical procedures, the devotee would remain fully conscious and without significant immediate pain for the first few hours. After this, the agony would return. However, due to the technique, medical care, and on-going monitoring most devotees could expect to live for several days after, howling their pain to the flayed god until a combination of shock, exposure, blood loss or infection took them.

Unfortunately, due to severe data corruption, we were not able to retrieve all of the pertinent details for this ritual. What we did find we have provided to the society. In addition, the Most Holy Ordos of the Inquisit-

+++ Report Continues +++
It is never too late! - Mentirius

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Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #4 on: April 18, 2020, 05:05:21 AM »
The Flayed God II

The Past, GY-139

DuBois took off her facially mounted auspex and mopped her brow. It had taken considerable effort to gain entrance to the Temple of Tlatlauhcax in the main population hub on GY-139. Structural breakdown had started to occur in the surrounding area. Vast tracts of the city were inaccessible as a result. It had taken aerial sorties, numerous scans from her ship in orbit, and a dash of fortune. But now they were here. Falid was struggling behind her breathing deeply under the glare of the ever watching star overhead. The stairs up to the main altar were steep and numerous. Giant frescos accompanied the stairs all the way to the high altar. Each of carvings were clear allegories for the Heresy, played out here on GY-139. The Emperor, in his form as the Flayed God, would shed his skin and be renewed ready for his confrontations with the various traitor primarchs - in particular, Horus, Fulgrim and Mortarion. Though the paint had faded, she was able to see the colours as they would likely have been.

The Emperor would have been a beautiful, vivid-gold yellow. Nearby flowers that grew on the great plains, when crushed, would’ve yielded an outrageously deep pigment perfect to be used for the Emperor. Mortarion - no doubt a deep green, would have shown the danger of disease and illness to the devoted as they made their way to the shrine. Smudged brown earth tones, painful vivid flesh-reds, flushed thin green mucus would’ve hung over the figures of Mortarion. Fulgrim would likely have been a decadent purple or perhaps even brilliant hues of pink. Scouring the fauna and the various compounds available on the planet in her head, DuBois disappointingly conceded it was more likely that the Adeptus Mechanicus on this world would have artificially manufactured the paint. Sad. There was something to be said for the value of creating and applying pigments by hand. Jaqueline closed in on the fresco representing Horus. Stooping down, she noted the smooth, black surface. She picked at the stone, trying to find an imperfection. Nothing. She whipped out her auspex, measuring the surface. Perfectly flat, almost to the micron and perfectly curved.

“We got the data,” breathed Falid, out of breath from the ascent, “On how that was made.”

He breathed deeply while swigging from his hip flask. DuBois looked back at him expectantly.

“Give… give …. Give me a second,” he said, waiting for his breath to return.

“It’s incredible. All of this, really. The allegory, the creation story, this temple. They expose the heart of truth at the centre of the Heresy. And all of the data for this society, perfectly preserved. Unbelievable, really.” Dubois filled the silence with words until Falid was ready to speak.

“Plasma cutter, and a stone only found on the southern continent. They brought the stone here and crafted the frescos of Horus specifically from that stone. The engineering is extraordinary. The plasma cutter was used with incredible heat and precision. That’s what gives the stone its deep onyx hue and the perfect surface.”

“Near perfect.”

“Does it matter JD? Look at it. Indistinguishable from perfection. Feel the sensation of the surface. Look at the face of the arch traitor rendered here. The schematics are incredible, this whole complex is a geometric wonder. Each point of the temple, the way they all point towards the central chamber via specific points in the sky. They tracked the stars for the Sol system, Cadia, Istvaan, Ultramar, Baal, Fenris, Prospero…. All of the key systems for the Heresy. The mechanisms they built into the temple to allow for reconfiguration based on the season, solar conjunctions and light from each of those star systems. Each of the various configurations allows for the sunlight to come into the central chamber from different angles and each of those systems, even if it would only be a pin prick. Each of those angles had a name, and a divine purpose, different festivals, different celebrations. Amazing.”

“Have we examined the central chamber yet?”

“No. Not yet. We’ve excavated all around the temple, and we've found the expected remains including significant Mechanicum remains. Bionics. Bone replacement. Organ replacements and the like. We’ve also found some ceremonial garb, at least the metal and stone that didn’t or wouldn’t degrade. The skeletal remains…” Falid tailed off, his face hardening. He was struggling with the horror of this place.

“No one died easily here, Jaq. They died hard deaths, long deaths, traumatic deaths. This place reeks of it.”

DuBois glanced back to her disconcerted companion. All around them, it hung in the air. She wasn’t warp sensitive, but something about the temple was off. The suffering that had been inflicted here had breached through dimensions leaving a residue that could almost be tasted. She went back to her knees touching the stone stairs. They’d been worn down with the volume of foot traffic, up and down to the peak. She wasn’t sure of the precise volume of people that would be required to wear down the stairs, but it didn’t bode well. The entrance to the inner sanctum was underneath the altar. She was following the same path as thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of pilgrims had followed. Maybe millions, through the ages. Falid had finally joined her, as had the rest of her party.

They continued to take their time, examining the detailed friezes. Several of the servitors took detailed picts of each and every detail. Falid’s coterie of adepts documented behind the servitors, assessing deviation to schematics.

“Other than weathering and damage from footfall, this place is perfect to the schematics. Time has barely touched this. The city has withered, rotted, gone to pieces. The temple is immaculate.”

DuBois looked down the stairs.

“Why is that impressive?”

“Because even STC techniques leave… variation behind. Some minor imperfections. The Mechanicum will never admit it, but it's true. The voice of the Omnissiah in the Machine, making the Mechanicum strive for perfection. The STC is deliberately made that way - it was, so the hereteks would have it, a deliberate imperfection to drive the Martians to innovate and build on top of the shoulders of giants. Instead they folded in on themselves, digging deeper into ritual and routine, trying to create the impossible from flawed plans they’ll never understand.”

DuBois shot the look to Falid - shut up, ears everywhere. He relented.

“The sanctum is why we’re here. Keep them moving.”

Overhead the skies were a zenith blue, piercing and perfect. Avian life flocked over head. There were large raptors on this world that patrolled lazily over the city ruins, hunting the tiny mammals and lizards that called the extensive ruins home. Nature had mostly reclaimed the world, barring a few of the cities where, despite the best efforts of the local life, civilization still held strong against the predation of plant life. The temple was such a place. DuBois suspected it was due to the volume and nature of the sacrifices here. Despite the serene skies, despite the delicate distant chirping, there it was again - a presence here, a very disturbing presence. Not just human, not natural, a twist step distant from truly human. Beyond the buildings and the broader city, the artefacts and the data. The spectre metallic tang of blood somewhere on the edge of the senses. There was a poltergeist here, but it dodged the edge of sight and brushed down the spine from the inside. It brought the essential aromas of human tribulation and placed them just out of reach. The spectre danced at the edge of the olfactory, presenting gifts of guts, viscera, dried blood and the putrid sweat of torture. Any humanity that had been here was long gone. The warp reigned here as a hidden ghoul king, presiding over a mountain of long rotted corpses. It had grown bloated on the death it consumed and was now parched and desperate.

DuBois scaled the final couple of stairs and arrived at the altar. Despite the light outside, the innards of the temple glowered with foreboding darkness. Somewhere inside water was dropping in slow drips that echoed through the silence. DuBois could detect, at the peak of her hearing, a distant voice.

For a moment, she was shaken by a vision.

A great centre of suffering. Repeated acts of violence inflicted on the old and the young, the devotee and the apostate. Tearing flesh flicking flecks of hot blood. Cannibalistic acts. Raw human flesh consumed as a delicacy.

Naked men tied to the wall and flogged to death, their bodies ripped and torn. Torn skin sloughing off flesh. Charnel houses with orgies of violence.

Cracked bones are pulled out of still screaming victims, marrow sucked from them even when still connected to the owner.

Kaukasos, the name repeating ever through her mind.

Kaukasos.

Kaukasos.

The name echoed around this temple in veneration, once.

The world spun - she found herself bound to a rock on a mountain side, she was naked and vulnerable.

Above her, swooping, a two headed-eagle. One head blind, one head could see.

It came down, great raking talons piercing the flesh on her navel, her thighs. Hot blood ran down her skin in red tear-like streaks.

The bird found purchase. She could feel more blood running down her side, down onto the rock.

Both heads pecked at her torso. Her flesh was ripped. Torn open like wet paper.

She screamed in agony.

Her flesh gave way. She could feel the eagle digging through her innards, beak finding organ.

Beaks discarding organs, digging to find the right one. She lay in a mess of her organs, blood, scraps of muscle and skin.

All the while, every sensation drilling through the core of her mind.

Consciousness not relenting and clinging on. Not just clinging on, coming back to the moment, existing precisely in the moment. Focusing on this moment, living just this moment.

And the moment was exclusively pain. Profound, white hot, precise pain that existed pervasively through her whole being.

The eagle had found its target - her heart. It plucked it out, both heads bickering over the remains until it tore precisely in two.

Hot arterial blood spattered across her face. The bird, resplendent gold feathers now slick with gore, stared at her with both heads.

The examination bore into the core of her being.

The eagle closed in on her face.

She could see all four eyes staring into hers.

++ Listen ++

“Jaqueline?”

Falid’s voice brought her back from her vision, or at least, back to this moment, or back to reality. Her vision jarred for a few moments.

“Wyrd said the wall between our world and the veil is thin here, and getting thinner with our presence. We should be wary. I’ve called down a second squad from the Tomb. We’ll have numbers if nothing else.”

DuBois nodded, but she had turned a ghostly white. She unconsciously ran her hand over her stomach finding it reassuringly solid.

She opened her data pad.

+++ Search: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos -appn -heur -join.temple -join.sacrifice -join.devotion +++

+++ Working …… ….. …… +++

+++ No references found. New search? Y / N +++

She put the pad back in her pocket. The darkness of the altar beckoned. Three servo skulls with silver bionic arrays adorning the mucky white bone whirred up and past her, over her and through into the darkness. Beams of light came out of their eyes, illuminating the inner sanctum.

She followed the light. Around her, the stone had extensive hieroglyphs from the top of the walls, maybe 5 standard meters high she estimated by eye, down to the floor. Each of the glyphs had been carved individually - even the glyphs that were the same pictogram had slight imperfections. She ran her hand over them feeling the textures from the designs. She could feel herself drawing in the meanings without understanding. The story was permeating her, forming like angry dark storm clouds in her subconscious. She lingered a moment, admiring the dedication that must have gone into each of the glyphs. She felt the hairs rise on her arm, which snapped her back into focus.

She ventured deeper, the air cooling as she moved into the depths of the temple. The air remained fresh and was colder with every passing step. She could feel her skin tighten with the bite of the frost in the air. She followed some magnificently carved steps each with a narrative representation of the Heresy etched into them. Each stair showed a local interpretation of the battle between the Emperor, Horus, Mortarion, and Fulgrim. The scenes became ever more graphic and violent - the Emperor in various aspects, a man, an eagle, a great star with a ravenous maw - consuming, flaying, raping, dismembering his errant sons. Ever more disturbing scenes came with each step into darkness, until she came to the bottom of the stairs.

Here, the flayed Emperor stood over the remains of his sons, each broken and contorted in pain. The unworthy before the disrobed Emperor, who had to sacrifice to find the wisdom for victory. Courage through transformation, knowledge through hecatomb before an adoring chorus of revellers. The Emperor’s skin was suspended with golden hooks and thin platinum ropes that held the skin as great wings at the Emperor’s back. His head was revealed as a great leering diamond skull. His eyes were perfectly cut, vivid golden diamonds.  DuBois’ scans flagged that they were data crystals. There was no blood represented in the fresco, just revealed flesh. She knelt down over the mosaic, feeling the Emperor’s flesh which was inlaid, perfectly cut rubies. The texture in the rubies felt exactly like ribbed, revealed flesh. The servo-skulls hovered overhead helping her see the finest details. The displayed precious materials glistened in the light.

We come here as supplicants.

We came here willingly.

We descend into darkness, learning of the Emperor’s sacrifice.

We come to him clothed in shame.

We make our naked offering.

We show our devotion through transformation.

She shook her head. The voices spoke in a variant of low gothic, heavily accented, spoken rapid and urgent. She caught the broad meanings but not the subtle nuance. The smell of death was tangible now. Not current death, not recent death, but death voluminous and sustained in scope. A genocide here, in the depths of darkness. A gluttonous genocide that demanded more death for an appetite that couldn’t satiated, in increasingly more perverse ways. Despite the volume of footfall on the previous steps that had worn them down, here each of the steps were perfect. They’d been replaced, perhaps, or they had been immaculately maintained. These stairs had meaning and were central to the sacred nature of this place, she concluded.

We came ignorantly with open hearts.

We came lovingly with open minds.

We came hopefully with open eyes.

We present our flesh to Him, so we may know wisdom.

We give of ourselves to fuel His heavenly combat.

We take the seat of devotion to know his suffering.

At the bottom of the stairs a large corridor emerged. Through the twilight, DuBois could see that the corridor didn’t run far, but broadened into a vast lobby. Markers the shape of feet lined the lobby either side of the main central run. Behind the markers were great cyclopean maws. DuBois examined a maw closely, finding dense ash and the charred remains of clothing and other material goods inside in a small cavity representing the mouth of the figure. She ran her hand over the face of the cyclops, leaving behind a trail of ancient ash. These leering faces, she thought, were likely meant to be Magnus. In many variations of the Heresy fable, the sorcerer had become a simple, ever hungering giant who feasted on the finest individuals in society and kept their shiny baubles as his own. His cannibalistic greed sent him insane, making him betray the Emperor. The Emperor charged Russ to pursue him across the galaxy to exact the Emperor’s punishment. He had the Wolf chain Magnus in the underworld, his infinite hunger cursed to never be satiated by the refuse discarded by Imperial society.

We bring our lives in hope of redemption.

We see our failures burn before our eyes.

We lift our eyes in praise.

We are cleansed and renewed.

We see the cycle of life and death transcended.

We are renewed through pain.

Above the foot marks were simple shower heads. They had mouldered and a few had crumbled, but it was clear between those and the subtlety hidden grates around the foot marks that those about to enter the inner sanctum were ceremonially stripped, their belongings burnt, and then cleansed. DuBois knew zealots too well, and she moved between each of the maws. She quickly found every second maw had a chute leading elsewhere. So much for the purging and disposal of worldly goods. The greed of Magnus, it seemed, was a vice that was forgivable, or could at least be understood and indulged. As she turned, a hand groped through the wall grasping at the air she had just occupied.

We are renewed through pain.

We are renewed through pain

We are renewed through pain.

She moved towards the end of the corridor finding a set of colossal double doors. The doors were decorated with a final vision of Tlatlauhcax - the Emperor as Flayed God - skin removed and unfurled behind him in the shape of the palatine eagle. Naturally his skin was gold - his viscera and musculature was perfect and in harmonious balance. His head was anointed with a halo of brilliantly coloured precious stones, accenting a deep rose gold crown. Perhaps this represented enlightenment, she chewed over in her mind, or maybe victory or devotion. The inlay was expertly crafted and besides some dust, perfectly preserved. As she stared at the detail, she was convinced - for just a second - that the jewelled flesh was flexing like muscle fibre under strain. She examined it closer, dropping her auspex over her eyes, seeing it ripple as if blood was rushing through the fibrous flesh. The Emperor’s heart, hidden underneath fine platinum ribs, spasmed with cardiac routine.

“This place chills me to the bone, Inquisitor.”

Falid and the rest of her party had caught up. His skin was prickling all down his neck, down his exposed arms. DuBois noted the cold sweat on his brow, his dilated pupils, his accelerated heart beat, his stuttered breathing and the nervous tap of his heel on the floor.

“We’ve got the data Inquisitor. We have enough data to sift for several lifetimes! I have three teams working round the clock on it, restoring, cataloguing, adding metadata…. We hoovered everything else we could out of the city. We have four partial STC templates to analyze! Four! Throne damn it Jacqueline, what else is here that we could possibly want?”

DuBois looked at him.

“Pain.”

Falid felt his innards churn. His urge to piss was overwhelming. His base animal instincts told him one thing over and over again. Run. He bent double retching bile before jumping to a start as a screaming face pressed up through the stone. The distended floor bent unnaturally as flesh might when under pressure. The face became fully recognisable for a second as human, a human in severe pain. Eyes closed. Brow furrowed. Mouth agape in a scream. Falid stumbled back, shocked and his stomach continuing to churn.

DuBois ignored him and walked towards the door, sliding her hand down the door looking for a latch. Failing to find anything, she switched her focus to the door frame. The servo skulls whirred as they provided her with light. She turned, pointing to the walls and the dark corners. Falid was reluctant but he had the better auspex. He took agonised steps, forcing himself to move into the gloom. Behind him the servitors, flanking Wyrd, stood oblivious simply documenting everything around them.

“Nervous Falid?”

Wyrd had timing and a complete lack of care. Falid had been grateful for his silence and didn’t appreciate the damned witch speaking up at this moment.

“Shushup wretch,” hissed the Archeotech expert, who desperately tried to avoid emptying his bladder as he searched the rest of the corridor. His palms were clammy, which meant in seconds they were covered in dust. Sweat slicked down his brow, down his face, running into his beard.

“I can taste the sweat on your palms from here.”

Wyrd unleashed a thick wet chuckle. To Falid, it echoed for what felt like hours. DuBois glared at both of them, but tore her gaze away as her fingers caught on a hidden handle next to the door. She focused the light from the skulls, then removed a panel from the wall revealing what looked like a lever. Lithe crustacean claws tried to pierce the veil of reality all around them as DuBois fiddled with the handle, trying to move it.

“I …. Can’t…. Throne damned….”

The claws started to become more corporeal. The air around them stretched and warped the light around them, making the room seem to bend with the claws as they tried to break into reality.

“Jaqueline…” Falid’s voice was close to breaking.

One claw sliced into reality, filling the place with a strong stink of ozone and musky human sweat.

“Dammit Falid, bring the auspex!”

Condensation rapidly formed all around the room as if the whole room was sweating. The smell of human arousal permeated the room. The claws retreated, but an intensely sensual musk began to fill the air.

“Inquisitor DuBois, dammit, pay a-fething-ttention!” Falid howled as his body couldn’t decide whether to empty all waste, flee, or find something to feth. The three competing sensations merged and writhed in his guts.

DuBois, who had drowned in her own lake of obsession for just a moment, looked up as the handle she had been fiddling with cracked, clicked, and hissed. The figure of the flayed god began to part as the doorway into the beyond edged open.
It is never too late! - Mentirius

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Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #5 on: April 18, 2020, 05:06:40 AM »
Revelation II

The doors reached their zenith. In that moment, Wyrd fell to the floor and immediately started weeping uncontrollably while reciting the benediction of the Emperor’s light, his snotty tears and hyperventilation jerking his words.  Falid screamed and stepped back as his pants soaked straight through with urine. He quailed standing still, his legs shaking then giving way as he howled in terror on his knees. He kept howling until his voice broke. He kept howling after this, his throaty scream gargling and mangling the air. DuBois turned on her heel, stepping back to confront whatever stood before her.

The figure was nearly three meters tall, perfectly muscled and proportioned. Its flesh was a shining pink, vivid and bold. As the creature flexed into reality dead skin fell away from its body to dissolve on the floor into a murky pink puddle. Their brow was adorned with two golden horns, each of them coming flowing down to frame its face perfectly. The horns were sharp and jagged. Delicate silver chains ran the full length of both, with one chain joining the horn to the creature's nose with a thin chain from horn to septum. A cruel run of smaller horns, closer to thin and needle sharp thorns, ran as a circular crown across the forehead, round the head, then down the creatures' back. A perfect ruby the size of a fist sat cleanly at the centre of its chest. The ruby flickered with an inner fire. All around the gem, twisting serpentine runes had been scarred into its flesh. A perfect set of rich rose gold hoop earrings sat on both ears. It had four arms - two of which ended in human hands topped with cruel claws, two were lashing tentacles with gaping maws where suckers should have been. Its legs were pistons of perfectly defined muscle, twitching with barely restrained power. Its feet were brutal hooves adorned with golden spikes. Heterochromatic eyes contrasted honey bee yellow with regal marbled amethyst. The creature swept its gaze to meet that of DuBois.

Her data pad had gone into a digital frenzy in her pocket.

+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++

“By the Emperor’s light I am a-... abb…. Absolved.”

Falid howled again, tearing at his own hair, weeping blood.

“Well met. It has been some time since I dined on pain. My hunger is endless, mortal. You are morsels I will drag out for some time.”

“By his will alone I st-st-st-stand against my failings-”

DuBois settled her stance. At the core of her mind, her animal instincts had broken down and were looking for an exit, an end to the excessive stimulation that was driving an attempt to destroy all rational thought. Her logical mind began to assess the situation trying desperately to cut through the cortisol and adrenaline. Her heart thudded in her chest driven by the war drum of epinephrine. Both of her retinue had mentally broken down and weren’t capable of anything at this moment. She hadn’t brought combat servitors with her, and backup was still in a Valkyrie some forty plus minutes away. Her fingers shook with the intensity of the response from her amygdala.

“Give yourself to me, mortals. I will show you delights like you have never experienced.”

Her bolt pistol was packed and loaded, but her psybolts were at her side in a magazine. Encounters - daemonic, xenos, assorted mutants - were an occupational hazard. Ah, she thought, as she felt her heartbeat correct itself down a pace of urgency. She was rationalizing. She was calming. She was focusing.

“... By his benevolence I wi-wi-ll ri-ri-rise…”

Falid continued to weep, the blood coming thicker and faster. The condensation around thickened in the air, suddenly heating the room quickly to be more like a sauna. DuBois had long since installed pentagrammic wards in her carapace armour. The wards were rapidly heating with all of the unchained aetheric energy in the air. DuBois adjusted her feet, steadying herself. She let out a long outward breath.

“Tell me my name mortals. Let me hear my name echoed through these halls again.”

The daemon turned bodily to face DuBois, Wyrd and Falid.

“They came from all over this world, thinking they were worshipping your Corpse-God. The debauchery practised here. These violent delights gave agonizing ends. All the while, I feasted here on the edge of reality. I whispered into the ears of the priests, spurring them to greater heights.”

The daemon took a step forward. The quadriceps on the beast rippled with barely contained strength. The ripple of promised violence was erotic, hypnotic. Falid couldn’t draw his eyes away even as he pulled out more handfuls of hair from his scalp and his beard.

“I tasted all manner of mortal delicacies. Have you ever seen a human who has been flayed alive experience that over and over again? Have you ever seen humans eat their own flesh? Have you ever heard them beg you to feed them again? I was the conductor here, I was the architect of this place, I was the intelligence and the inspiration, the muse and the engineer, the song and the musician.”

“Lies,” DuBois managed in defiance.

“Perhaps, little mortal, perhaps.”

The daemon licked its lips with a tongue that, on a thought, split into three.

“Perhaps the intention wasn’t to bring me here, but bring me they did.”

“... And through His light the sinner f-f-f-finds their redemption ....”

“Perhaps their intention wasn’t to hear my whispers, but heed me they did.”

The daemon took another step. DuBois datapad furiously demanded attention, vibrating and chiming over and over again.

“Perhaps their intention wasn’t to follow my commands, but worship me they did.”

+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 66 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 666 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 6666 results +++
+++ Search.return: =GY-139Data//Kaukasos 66666 results +++

“Tell me, mortal. Tell me what my name is.”

“Kaukasos.” DuBois whispered, her gaze not moving from her dysmelic foe. Her mouth filled with the taste of rich fruits in a cacophony with bitter alcohol and blood.

“Shout my name, mortal. Praise it, taste it, revere it. I will keep you here for a thousand lifetimes, and a thousand more after that. I will show you the highest depths of human suffering and the most debased forms of violence, and you will give me nothing but adulation for that privilege. You will suck at the teat of my torture and the addiction will consume you whole.”

DuBois steeled herself as the daemon flexed all four of its arms. The tentacles unfolded and stretched to their disturbing full length. Each of the mouths in the tentacles whispered variations of the speech Kaukasos was giving in a different language, in whispered tongues, in long dead languages. The cacophony should’ve been deafening but instead it filled the room with a gentle ambience. Kaukasos smiled, revealing a mouth full of jagged teeth.

“I can smell your fear, mortals. It sustains me. Everyone who came down here to give themselves to me were soaked with fear too. They came to love me. You will too.”

Kaukasos paused its approach to theatrically sniff the air. It closed its eyes and shuddered.

“Did you know the person who lasted the longest down here took 6 years to die. 6 years, 6 months, 6 days, 6 hours, 6 minutes and 6 seconds. At that precise moment, I whispered to the priest who was on vigil … End him. As the clock ticked precisely to 6 seconds the priest wrenched and broke the worshipful’s neck.”

“I-I-i-i-in His light I a-a-am found again….”

“The thin skin between reality and the aether was finally pierced and I reached through. I didn’t choose a corporeal form, no, the priest took me in, took me inside, let me devour what was left of his soul and sanity. He shook and fell to his knees in adoration as I took him. I was born again because the crass rutting of another mewling mortal species begat me.”

Falid had stopped crying and was instead gibbering on his knees with his head in his hands. DuBois took another slight step towards her colleague.

“I lived here for nearly a thousand years. I stayed amongst the priests, moving from body to body, feasting on the revelry I instigated. I whispered into every ear that came to me and inspired new heights of hedonistic delights. Drunk on my musk they became cannibals, they indulged all their darkest desires, they cracked the skulls of children and ate raw brains, they drank the boiled blood of the fatally ill, they flagellated themselves with sadistic barbed whips for my entertainment.”

Kaukasos stretched again, unfurling like an aching apex predator.

“I had sixty six children brought to me every day for six hundred and sixty six days. On the first day, I strangled all of them, save one. I had the first child, a small boy, I made him watch me strangle each and every one, he watched every other child die by my hands. I was standing here, in this chamber, at that dais, and they started to wail. They would cry and howl and plead and bargain. That boy, though, he just stood there… watching. Each of them died gargling their last to me. I made him watch each day, every day, until the final day. I would observe him sleeping every night, I could see his dreams. Do you know what he dreamt of? He would dream of every single one of those children’s faces, and then mine. He would see them alive. He would see them as they were choking, and then their rictus visage. After the final child died, I whispered to him, it was time - time to strangle the high priest to death. I left myself limp and I experienced mortal death. I took his body for my own, and proclaimed myself the new high priest. After that, I had all their parents brought to me, and I castrated all of them. Do you know why?”

The daemon locked its mismatched eyes on DuBois with all the zeal of a true believer.

“Because I could. I wore that child for nearly one hundred glorious years. That was, I suppose, the beginning of the end.”

“T-t-today I am r-r-reborn in the Emperor’s light.”

DuBois nudged the catatonic Wakhan with her leg. He rocked back and forward with glassy eyes. His incoherent rambling continued.

“Oh I’ve seen this before, mortal. They are both lost now. All three of you will howl and sing my praises in the seats of devotion, but only you will realise what is happening. And I’ll keep you alive for Millenia.”

Kaukasos squared to DuBois.

“Nothing satiates me like the sound of breaking bones. Puncturing skin. The carnal vices, greed of all kinds, rampant overstimulation from drugs, from vidscreens, arousal from the vicarious observation of suffering…. No, give me bones breaking under my fingers. Give me warm arterial spray over my face. Worship me by flagellating yourself. Give me the direct stimulation of my skin on yours. Let me snap your fingers one by one. Let me twist your collar bones out through your skin. Let me crush your windpipe so I can watch you claw powerlessly at me as your life ebbs away in sixty six panicked breaths.”

Kaukasos stretched his fingers like a cat baring its claws. DuBois kicked Falid, trying to jumpstart any shred of sanity left in his head. She could see Wyrd was slowing down his ranting and that his eyes had started to settle into lucidity. Maybe he was going to be more able than the daemon expected. Drool cascaded off Wyrd’s lips as he murmured the last words of the benediction to himself. Perhaps not.

Kaukasos had started to close in as a spider might scuttle across its web, celebrating the supreme certainty of the outcome. DuBois yanked at Falid’s shoulder, openly shaking him as the aethyr powered titan closed in on her. She kept kicking at her colleague even as the creature loomed over her. She could smell his perfumed flesh, and see reflected in the ruby on its chest on her own face - her face living as a princess in the service of Kaukasos, her face as she debased herself in slavery to Kaukasos, her face if she descended into her own excesses in worship of Kaukasos, her own face strapped into a seat of devotion.

Kaukasos caressed her face with his hand. She felt her skin rush with sensation and shuddered under the excessive feeling - burning, erotica, cold, heatpainpleasure - all of it mingled for a moment that overloaded her senses. He gripped her throat with a hand, picking her up as a child might pluck a doll.

“I could choke you to death. I could break your neck. I could pull your head off. You are nothing.”

Kaukasos brought her up, level with his face.

“Why aren’t you screaming yet?”

DuBois hung limply in the daemon’s grasp, not fighting as she slipped her bolt pistol into her hand. She locked eyes with the daemon and grinned.

“Be-cahhuse… I.. hahhhve… a bolt… pistol…”

She held the trigger down and let a prayer go to the Emperor.

Kaukasos roared in pain as the conventional bolts tore into his flesh. He dropped DuBois immediately, meaning the last few bullets in the clip caught him ever lower through his torso, into his hip, into his thigh before the clip was dry. He glared at DuBois, before smashing her with a sweeping back hand from one of his tentacles. She was hurled bodily across the room, her humerus and scapula pulped by the force of the initial blow. She cartwheeled helplessly, finally smashing her back against the wall and her head against one of the ugly maws of Magnus. Her scalp immediately split, spilling blood all over her back and down her face.

She shook her head as the daemon strode towards her. Reality blurred in and out of view.

“Insolent mortal. There are always those who will not comply. You do not yet know your place, but I will make you learn obedience.”

A tentacle lashed out at her, striking her squarely between the shoulders. Her mushed shoulder blade made her howl again with pain. Jaqueline screamed, swearing in blind rage and agony.

“I will teach you pain. I will teach you compliance. I will teach you the limits of human experience.”

Kaukasos knelt down, feeling out with a tentacle to grip DuBois’ left ankle. With no effort at all the daemon yanked her quickly, dislocating her ankle as it flung her without any effort to the other side of the room. She rattled against the wall with a heavy wet slap, face first into the wall. She lumber rolled away from the wall, her ankle numb for the moment. She knew she had to find some fight, or an edge. Her whole body ached. Her muscles burnt with an excess of lactic acid and an overload of pain. Her shattered bones sent jolts of pain through the centre of her brain.

“Wyrd,” she managed through the blood and rapidly swelling lips, “Falid, help me you fething wretches!”

“They can’t hear you,” chuckled Kaukasos, “You’re alone, mortal. This is your cage, this is mountain I will chain you to, where you will suffer. I will cripple you and feast on your remorse for ever coming here. I will pull out each of your organs. I will dance in your entrails. Hah, I can taste your regret. I can see it leaking off you, for all your defiance…”

The daemon continued ranting as it closed in on DuBois.

“For all your hatred, for all your strength….”

It reached down, yanking her hair back.

“For all your efforts, it all comes to naught.”

Kaukasos brought its face close to hers, letting its tongue flicker over her ear and down her jawline, onto her cheek. The saliva left behind stunk of exotic flowers and lingering desert sunsets.

“I’ve seen your dreams, Jaqueline DuBois. I know your darkest ambition, perched atop a kingdom of ash and pain, all eyes on you. A radiant sadist queen. I have seen you atop a throne of pain every bit as magnificent as this one. You are every bit as cruel and as devious and as cold as I am, and you will share it with me for the rest of eternity.”

Kaukasos paused for a moment, savouring the fear and the pain in the room. DuBois tried to crawl away but the daemon held her hair firm.

“Don’t try to leave now, DuBois, we’ve only just begun.”

Kaukasos pressed his body down on DuBois while he grasped at her body with his tentacles and let his tongue slide into her ear.

“By the Holy Emperor I am reborn, by the God-Emperor I am renewed, and with faith my shield I am imbued; by Golden Will I fight aflame, with Golden Wrath I abjure anatheme; by Throne alone you will repent!”

Psychic energy flowed out of Wyrd in thick, crackling gouts. The bolts of power scorched the floor and ceiling leaving dark residue behind. He stood up feeling his body back under his direction. His hood burned away in the psychic storm. His face was a mess of overgrown cancers and scars. His hair was thin and wispy, grey and virtually all gone from his head. Even at the centre of this vortex of vital energy, he looked sickly and frail. His eyes were a viscous milky white. However, in the fizzing, swirling light of the aether spilling out of him, between her delirious fear , the wall of acute pain and her rapid blood loss, DuBois thought he might actually be a golden angel.

The psyker drew a sword from his side that burst into an intense burning white flame. Kaukasos tried to react by spinning to face the charging Wyrd but a flailing hand thrown to block the first blow was dismembered without any effort by the witch. Slick daemonblood soaked his blade with gore - it steamed and fizzed as Wyrd forced more of his will through the blade. Wyrd pressed his attack, leaving burning slashed across the daemon’s shoulder, chest and a great rending wound down the daemon’s ribs. Kaukasos roared and left DuBois on the floor, circling the pre-eminent threat. DuBois hauled herself forward with her good arm and leg, trying to get herself towards the wall.

Behind her Kaukasos charged Wyrd. The mutant flicked his blade upwards catching the daemon across the arm and face. Kaukasos wore the wounds and bulled forwards, pushing Wyrd back with the bulk of its tentacles. The beast was wary of the burning blade Wyrd had ignited and kept its distance, eyes fixated on the psyker.

“Clever little mutant, folding your mind in on itself. Clever little witch, letting me savour the pain of your superior. Clever little wretch is going to spend eternity having your mind broken over and over again. Your kind suffer in delicious ways.”

Kaukasos lunged into Wyrd who was unable to turn the mass of the beast away with his sword. The daemon began to crush him against the corner he’d backed into. Wyrd ran all his might through the force blade burning Kaukasos down its torso. The beast howled but persisted.

DuBois pulled herself against the wall opposite. Her vision was clouded with blood streaming down her face and into her eyes. Her one good arm fumbled with her ammo pack, trying to get the damn thing open at her opposite side. Finally the latch opened as Wyrd howled under Kaukasos’ relentless pressure. She grabbed at a magazine, eyeing it before discarding it as the wrong one. She grabbed at the second, recognising that as the psybolts. One handed reload of a Bolt Pistol - she’d done the drills blindfolded for years in her days as an Interrogator. She flicked the safety and then down to the button to release the magazine. The empty skittered away. She right sided the new mag, before sliding it into the pistol. Now, her party trick. The magazine was only partially in - she picked the pistol up by its handle, then flicked it over on itself. It bounced steadily straight up, the magazine giving out a very satisfying clunk-click as it slotted in as loaded. The bounce was just high enough with momentum to let DuBois slide her aim straight into Kaukasos’ back.

“Die.”

Wyrd braced for the impact of the psybolt - Kaukasos took the brunt of the explosion. The bolt tore out a chunk of the daemon’s back. The perfect pink-purple skin had been shorn away in the impact crumpling like burning tinder paper. The creature's alien physiology was revealed - bones, viscera and organs all displayed in the gaping wound. Kaukasos roared with the pain. At the edges of the wound, it’s form began to melt like wax under a blowtorch. The creature turned and left Wyrd in a rasping huddle on the floor. It’s powerful legs propelled it quickly across the room only to find a hail of psybolts coming back at it. Each took a further chunk - one bolt bit deeply between arms sending humanoid and tentacular arms bouncing messily across the corridor. Another took a chunk of face and horn. A third completely annihilated the daemon’s left leg. The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh bolts took similar prizes.

The remaining chunks of warp meat that were the last intact pieces of the princeling squirmed on the floor, trying desperately to grip onto reality. DuBois slowly dragged herself up, up the wall and finally onto her good leg. She swayed unsteadily, still dizzy from shock, blood loss and probable concussion. She hopped over the daemon, balance alone keeping her upright.

The ruined mess of Kaukasos’ face was mouthing uselessly, bubbles of bile, spit and blood popping in the air. The daemon’s influence on reality was abating - the air was calming, the condensation reducing, the sauna like heat cooling. She aimed, with a slight wobble, at the daemon’s head.

“I name thee diabolus horrificus, a true enemy of the Imperium of Man. I cast ye back into the aether and thrice damn your name, Kaukasos of GY-139, to an eternity of ignominy. Where the Emperor’s true servants cross paths with you, may they remember these words and end your existence. Faith in the Throne, faith in the God-Emperor, faith in the eternal Imperium He-on-Terra founded for the good of all mankind; I abjure the daemon, destroy the malefic, and battle the foul in his name.”

The final bolt ended Kaukasos’ existence.
It is never too late! - Mentirius

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Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #6 on: May 10, 2020, 01:59:03 AM »
The Flayed God III

DuBois had long since slumped to the floor and drifted into the kindness of unconsciousness. She awoke with a start to find herself still in the corridor, ankle relocated and braced, and enough painkillers to down a horse being prepared to inject her.

“Nu-uhhhh,” she started before coughing. The medic handed her a bottle of water. She took a sip slowly savouring the fresh cold sensation the water left in her mouth. She chewed at her dry mouth trying to force moisture throughout. She took another swig, swilling and gargling the water. The medic waited impatiently.

“Inquisitor, I need to finish treating you.”

“Get me up, dammit. Where’s Falid? And Wyrd?”

“You’ve got multiple cracked ribs, your shoulder and upper arm is mush, you’ve dislocated an ankle. You’ve lost nearly enough blood to kill you and your face is going to swell and bruise any time soon. You’re half dead, Inquisitor. Let’s not make it full dead.”

The medic was direct, which Jaq could at least appreciate. Now that she noticed it, her right arm wasn’t responding to any of her wishes and, if she really thought about it, was really quite painful. Her hair was matted with dried blood and sweat residue.

“Wyrd? Falid?”

“Wyrd suffered substantial crush injuries, some burns, shrapnel wounds, and is in shock. Prognosis is decent, though. We weren’t far behind you and put on a full burn when we saw your racing vitals. Falid is still unresponsive. He’s stopped crying though.”

The medic checked DuBois head wound, gently sorting through the hair, blood and grime. She sprayed some distilled water over the wound site, then began gently nudging the wound with disinfectant. The medic nodded at the empty crater in the floor where Kaukasos had been.

“What’s your name, Medic?”

“Persei Leonin, Inquisitor. What did you vaporise?”

“Something that needed it,” said DuBois, wincing as the medic continued cleaning her wound, “Is the recovery team in there?”

“Yes Inquisitor. They’re looking at a full evac of all the local materials. I’ve been asked to give you updates on their work. You are required to sta-”

“Feth that,” DuBois said, pointing to be helped up, “Get me up. I want to see my prize.”

“Let me double check that sling,” Persei sighed despondently. She took a moment to check and adjust the position and tension.

“We can’t leave this too much longer before operating. Best to get you under the knife soon.”

DuBois showed an open palm of assent, before adding “I just want to see it. Then we can get me out of here.”

Leonin helped her up, onto her good leg, before shuffling under Jaq’s good shoulder. DuBois could see Wyrd had been treated but left unconscious. Bandages and unguents surrounded the fallen psyker, along with a small, dedicated recovery team. They gently moved Wyrd onto a stretcher, wrapped over bands to keep him in place and took him to be evacuated. Falid had still not moved. The medics around him were testing him with auspexes, while they figured out how to gently remove him from the temple. DuBois and Persei moved through the lobby, into the main chamber.

DuBois tilted her head back, taking in the full madness of the chamber. Huge murals celebrating the Flayed God form of the Emperor ran the full height of the temple. The floor was sunk lower, increasing the vast scale of the chamber.

In a circle at the very centre of the chamber sat over twenty constructs - they looked like medical examination chairs that had been coated in gold. Above the circle of chairs hung a colossal device, a mix of hooks, mechanical arms, mechadendrites, needs and slicing tools. The device hung above the seats like a looming cephalopod predator.

“Take me down there.”

As DuBois closed in, she could see the cruel, insane genius of the place. The machine had all the requisite tools to effectively and safely dismantle a human. It would take time to chart the full machine, to review the full form and function. Residues of the various unguents and chemicals used would need to be analyzed from the various syringes and tubes. The seats were inelegant and lacking in real function. Indeed up close, they were exceedingly crude and would need re-engineering. The room itself was not sanitary and would have promoted severe infection. Another flaw to correct.

Still, this thing - le sede k'i'i hinan devocional - was the product of a mind she wouldn’t openly admit that she deeply admired. She let herself have a moment of satisfaction. It was in her talons now.

“Are we ready to remove and replace it all?”

“Yes Inquisitor.”

“Get it done.”

=][=


Faith I

Present day, Tomb of Kaires, Ghost Worlds

“I’m telling you Inquisitor, this is the real deal. I’ve got a lead on them.”

Falid tossed his data pad across DuBois’ desk. She stopped it abruptly with a sharp movement of her hand. She flipped the pad, letting it slide through her fingers upright in front of her face. It unlocked and disgorged its secrets to her.

“Barely a month’s travel from here, Inquisitor. I got a lead from a friend, a good contact. The lead is solid. It’s a busy world, a nexus due to its resources and the rulers… discretion. They keep quiet, everyone keeps on trading, they get to sell their bountiful ores, metals, and other precious resources to the region. It works. It just works. And in this nexus, Ishkar, we’ll find those we need to finish the Configuration. We’re maybe six weeks away from the beginning of the end! Dammit, Jaq, touching distance.”

Falid beamed with joy.

“We can restore it, Jaqueline.”

She finished the data.

“Explain this further.”

“I told you, there’d been rumours. Sects across the Mechanicum who believe in progress. Not just archeotech, but the principles of innovation and invention,” Falid continued, as he waved his arms expressively, “Now, where could one find such a sect? They would most likely have been tracked across the galaxy and purged ruthlessly. They would need a network of contacts and they would need resources. They’d also need to be careful.”

Falid motioned for DuBois to pass the datapad, which she obliged.

“Now, look here and here. These aren’t standard Adeptus Mechanicum patterns. Now look at this figure, this cloak. Not standard Mechanicum colours. This is an emissary, I think. Not a primary connection back to the hive - probably not even a secondary or a tertiary link - but it is a lead. Look at the equipment - non-standard power array on the axe. Non-standard magazine racks on the pistol. Look at the mechadendrites, that agility isn’t usual either. That’s a jokaero modification on that miniaturized las-ring too. Xenotech - nope, not standard in the Cult Mechanicum.”

Falid flicked to a new page.

“It isn’t just these small things. There are bigger hints too. It’s a language, a subtle language that can be spoken in ignorant Imperial rimworlds who will be blind to it. They’ve got contacts in a dozen systems and a dozen high ranked officials in the Administratum. They see any explorator fleets coming a decade in advance, and they ghost off the radar. Suddenly their robes are red, the xeno tech disappears, and they fade back into the background minding ships, turning the handle on STC templates and making busy work of repairs and maintenance.”

Falid sat back, marvelling at the sophistication and the sheer staggering arrogance of it. Moreover, that they were capable enough to make a success of it.

“We’ll need to make sure we have credits on hand. Probably a lot of credits. Maybe some of the more…. exotic finds, a couple from GY-139, Harald’s End, oh - the Kushan Cerebarum from Tython IV. The references to the Martian Sanctuary on Pallax would probably be worth bringing, as good will. The partial STCs we’ve acquired down the years…. they have huge value. Bring the data. Good trump cards to have in negotiation.”

DuBois noticed the slight wince in Falid’s face when GY-139 was mentioned. He had spent a long time convalescing after that expedition. Jaqueline had seen the reports. Falid still had nightmares, as if Kaukasos visited him every night racking his dreams, digging through them, rifling through the depths of his psyche. Falid would wake up screaming at night. He would drift into dissociation when the stress became overwhelming. DuBois tried to shield him from the worst of the horrors one could be exposed to, working for the Inquisition. It was inevitable though, that he’d be pushed to breaking point. DuBois suspected the loss of her arm hit Falid harder than it had her. Yet here he was, resilient - at least, faking resilience - and driving through on this lead to help fulfil one of her ambitions. She was proud, if a little wary, of Falid.

“How many credits?”

“I’d suggest we bring the blank cheque,” replied Falid, nodding at her seal.

“I can get some physical cash out of the Ochre Corp. We’ll move funds from some of the investment funds and sell some of the minor artifacts we have on hand and ready to move. We’ll need Administratum cash, though.”

DuBois nodded.

“Agree. Let me confer with the Lord Scarus. I don’t need his approval, but when I start to empty accounts and requisition tithes, he tends to get some very upset messages from bureaucrats and planetary governors. Polite notes, to be sure. But upset nonetheless.”

Falid nodded.

“Get a line to the Navigator to make haste. We’ll make a stop on Styron. I’ll get word to the Lord Scarus from there, we’ll stay planet side for a few days to sort out the relevant artefacts and get the requisitions in progress. Once the funds begin to clear, we’ll leave and make our way to Ishkar. Send word ahead to your contact, with the promised finder’s fee.”

Falid looked pained for a moment.

“I meant the cash, this time.”

DuBois put a reassuring hand on his.

“We need this door to stay open for as long as we can.”

Falid nodded and smiled.

“Make sure this happens quickly and quietly. Use Fanham’s seal to power the communications. I’ll make a couple of the requisitions myself, but the majority will come from Grixos. You know the style of communication?”

Falid nodded.

“Yes, Inquisitor. Before I… Jaqueline…”

DuBois opened her palm to him.

“This is a chance to do something monumental, I… I just want…. I don’t… I don’t want to let you down.”

Jaqueline replaced her hand on his, gently. He stared intensely at her desk, trying to find his confidence there.

“Falid, listen to me. You are a core part of my operation. I trust you completely, even after GY, even after everything we’ve been through. My hand was not your mistake, it was mine. A stupid, rash assault on an opponent well beyond my capability and I should’ve known better.”

She touched his face with her bionic hand. She could see he appreciated the warm gesture.

“I know how much this pained you. How you watched over me as I recovered. I can still see the guilt in your face. Know that I trust you completely. Know that Mother is here. You have my full confidence.”

Falid stopped looking at the table between them, back to DuBois. He nodded.

“Your will be done, Inquisitor.”


=][=

The Road to Nehehdjet

There was little else to do. There had been time. Little of it, at first. When he’d initially seen his fingertips of his left hand turn ashen pale, he thought he knew what was happening. As his brothers, all around him, began to crumble in their armour, he knew what was happening.

A simple slip of time had given him the upper hand. Ratchet wheel gears against balance wheels slipping teeth between hands, ticking and tocking. All the while, hounds were at his back bared teeth and wild howling - ahead of him, destructive cyclopean machinations were his fate. He needed more time.

A spinning tourbillon in four dimensions, whirling and spinning regulating space. Complications and gear teeth all moving in an orchestra of inevitability.

He needed more time, dammit!

He sprinted through his ship as his comrades fell to the floor, armour rattling loudly on the metallic floor but the occupant silent as a lonely gravestone.

He remembered his hand, always his left hand, turning ashen grey. Flecks of his flesh stole away as he sprinted pushing his body to its superhuman limits. All the while, his subconscious mind dealt with the howling canine appetite wanting to satiate itself on his flesh, the temptations of knowledge and beyond, and the demands of a golden sun.

All the while, the moons of a thousand conquered worlds moved across the sky from his memories, each one of them on an idiosyncratic combination of rotation and orbit, uniquely sized celestial bodies pressing against one another in a perpetual strip tease.

He needed more time dammit! More time, always more time!

His hand was riven with nervous tics. He fought back the rapidly progressing curse consuming his hand, his whole arm, and if he didn’t act soon his whole being, using every part of his summoned will. His will arced down his arm, slowing time in a very localized pocket around his arm. It would be enough, had to be enough, if he didn’t find more time. He let his upper mind dig up through exaltations to find and grasp and claw at more time.

The stasis field wasn’t necessarily for organic material. He wasn’t sure it was coded or suitable for organic material. No more time. He had let his soul wander into the aether searching for time. He came back to his body with a jolt-ripple of distorted aetheric chronometry. The power reserve was spent and the movement was grinding to a halt. Tick would no longer follow tock. The time left was minuscule, barely a grain of sand or three. He thumbed the activation code, his fingers pressing the buttons in a frenzy.

He threw himself into the chamber.

And, there was time. Infinite time, perhaps, or no time whatsoever. The contradictions existing in harmony.

Even through the sleep of stasis, he dreamed.

All the while, the sound of great pounding paws of a huge canine on the horizon.

Nine fractal faces frittering fractured phrases.

Shattered dominions. A green eyed carrion king sat presiding over a broken kingdom.

The police of this world marched in synchronized goose step to a beat droned out by the carrion king. The beat boomed out.

Ba-doom.

Echoing round the shattered palaces.

Ba-doom.

The crack jack boots of the police hitting the ground, each police person flashing an I, an I adorned with a ruby eyed silver skull and stylised raptor wings.

Ba-doom.

Dancing arm in arm, the puppets at the beck and call of the carrion king chorus out praises.

Ba-doom. Ba-doom. Ba-doom.

The sound travels over the ruined buildings, over the decrepit endless city, to fields of bones that run into a perfect representation of home - the Sol system as a perfect clockwork model - and to the end of the model, the edge of the system and the sound still rumbles and echoes and the sound accelerated through systems beyond the Sol system, through neighbouring systems and faster still, a great wave of cacophony reaching crescendo at the edge of the galaxy echoing through halo stars. The galaxy swirled to the beat.

Ba-doom. Ba-doom. Ba-doom.

All the while, the sound of great pounding paws of a huge canine on the horizon.

Tick following tock. The inevitable passage of time doesn’t fade the visage of the green eyed carrion king, perched on a rotten tree. The tree, twisted and frail, grey and dying, withered and worn, roots gnarled and dead grows out of the corpse of Terra.

All the while, the sound of great pounding paws of a huge canine on the horizon.

The puppet police still dance to the doom drone of the beat. Still stepping high, all that is left in the endless sea of bones and death and ruined buildings is the dust of crushed existence.

Ba-doom ba-doom ba-doom.

The green eyed carrion king leering over all of it. Nine fractal faces speaking the words of power for the carrion king.

We birthed you. We begat you. We breathed life into you. First. Only. Omega. We believe in you.

Only, omega, first.

Hollow crowned carrion king of a ruined empire.

Hate them. Avenge us. Enslave them.

Make. Them. Suffer.

Time jolted forward a second later, or a lifetime later.

His eyes swam and his entire being ached. His surroundings weren’t immediately familiar. Disorientation reigned supreme. He shook his head, trying to stave off the drowned head feeling. Every cell hurt, a mix of cold stiffened ice and hot engorged blood. His head was pounding with an alien feeling of running blood. Two hearts pounded in his chest. His lungs were sprung into action by an ancient instinct and inflated. He breathed deeply, then exhaled. His colossal torso buckled upwards and downwards for a few pained moments. He gasped and hyper ventilated, thrashing and suffering as he struggled to re-ignite his cardiovascular routine. He felt neonatal. A skein of sweat flushed and ran down his muscular spine. His vision blurred for a second, then tried to swim back into focus.

The room was filled with watching eager faces. The faces were alien and mechanical - eyes were clusters of insectoid red lights accompanying rebreather tubes under red hoods. Words were returning to him now, even if he couldn’t vocalize anything yet. 

+++ Perfect are the machines of the Omnissiah +++

The voice was metallic dull, level but enthusiastically proud.

“Perfect are the machines of the Omnissiah” came the enthusiastic response from a raft of hooded acolytes.

The scent of recently blown out candles and engine grease incense haunted the room. The light flickered around the room. Each of the acolytes stood still and expectant. The colossal figure levered himself upright, hefting his legs out of the coffin shaped vessel that had secured him. He flexed his left hand, watching suspiciously for any sign of ash or dust. His fingers were flesh, hardened and disturbingly muscular, but flesh nonetheless. His body felt foreign, he looked at his sweating form and for several drowned seconds his body, ripped muscle showing through adamantine skin and of gigantic proportion, was not his own. He stepped down onto the floor but his legs, thick as they were, didn’t hold and he fell down onto one knee.

+++ The flesh is weak +++

“The flesh is weak,” echoed the acolytes.

A statuesque figure stepped through the thronging red hooded mass of mechanical limbs and laid a hand on the shoulder of the giant.

“You’re alive. Hmmm. I’m surprised you survived. I suppose we don’t make anything like you anymore. Good, though, good. It has taken some effort to get you out of there.”

The colossus tried to gather his senses. His mouth was cold-dry, even his teeth ached with static shock pain. He rolled his eyes back into his skull trying to collect his thoughts. His quaking mind did calm, folding through mental exercises. He enumerated through wards and shields, reconstructing his mental fortress. Warp energy crackled at his brows.

“Don’t worry. We’ve got all the time we’ll ever need.”

He looked up at the female figure and smiled.

=][=

Faith II

M42.120, Ishkar, the Ghost Worlds

Ishkar’s main star, a lazy orange dwarf, came into view as the gellar field of the Tomb of Kaires dissipated upon translation back to real space. DuBois swept onto the bridge, gazing out of the viewport watching the last of the warp energy play on the bow of the Tomb. The Tomb, a magnificent relic of an older age, had her weapons hidden and her eyes wide open.

The bridge of the Tomb was suitably archaic - or at least, it was designed to give that impression. The bridge was improbably golden and had a smattering of hieroglyphs. Each of the groups of glyphs came from a different culture that Jaqueline had helped to surface. Others came from lost sources, all Imperial. Statues of various imperial saints, gargoyles and statuesque female figures carved perfectly from marble.

A central operations dais dominated the bridge. Here, multiple screens showing the statuses of the ship, its position in space, celestial bodies, weapon systems and targets. A rectangular command and control table was underneath the various screens, serving as both holo-comms and tactical visual-command stations. A flurry of cherubim flitted around the command dais, bringing vital new intelligence reports to the current residents.

Captain Yuri Katzark, a serious looking man with a severe, wiry beard stood holding a cup of re-caf that steamed lazily in the centre of the dais. His eyes moved from screen to screen to screen, absorbing information passively - partly out of habit, mostly due to necessity. His peaked hat, an Imperial Navy crested captain’s hat, shadowed his eyes without hiding the screens. His chest was broad and iron hard underneath his perfectly pressed uniform. He shifted his feet slightly as DuBois joined him at the command.

“Nothing on sensors, Inquisitor DuBois. Our path to Ishkar is clear.”

A struggling cherub handed DuBois her customary datapad. At her other side, a fatter - perhaps stronger - cherub brought two fresh cups of re-caf. Katzark swapped his current for a fresh brew, then handed the second to DuBois. She took a sip as she considered the course to Ishkar.

“Clear us with the system authorities. Use the Ochre Corporation idents. Keep our profile low, keep the Tomb’s signature to that of a smaller ship. I don’t want them to know who the Tomb really is. Watch the patrol patterns and stay out of eyeball range. Park her up behind the gas giant, leave her hidden in between the moons. Prepare Falid’s ship - I want us to be able to take his skiff down to Ishkar. Tell Hound he needs to be ready, and to bring a couple of his heaviest friends. Let’s not go with teeth bared, but I do want us to be prepared if things go… hostile.”

“Yes, Inquisitor. Helm, mark to Ishkar IV, select the…. third moon. Put us in orbit with the moon, dark side.”

“Aye captain.”

“Comms, clear us with system authority. Ochre Corp, Spirit of Discovery. Radio to engineering to prepare the Spirit to disembark once we’re in position behind the third moon of Ishkar IV. Weapons, Engineering - get our signature down to silent and make sure we run smooth to that moon. I want nothing given away. No weapons out unless you hear it from me personally.”

“Aye captain.”

“Bosun Fontley, please take yourself to the Hound’s quarters and provide the Inquisitor’s orders to him - make ready for planetfall. Fetch Mr Wakhan from the mess, and… well you know Mr Wakhan. Make sure he is ready to be away.”

DuBois nodded. Katzark was capable - extraordinarily so - she trusted him completely with the Tomb. It was her most valuable single asset by some distance. It was also her base of operations, her archive, her sarcophagus - her home. Katzark, maybe more so than Falid, Grixos, Hound, Phantom and Revelation - held DuBois’ operation in his hands. Katzark had been held back from Admirality by some internecine politics and his own lack of ‘proper pedigree’. The fools they’d promoted ahead of him had burned Imperial resources, and under Grixos’ seal DuBois had purged them completely. Katzark had been keen to take over and move into the Admiral’s position he coveted so much, until he had seen the Tomb. The Tomb was perhaps unique outside of the First Founding Chapters. The opportunity to captain such a vessel, to guide such a unique and powerful relic was too strong. He wouldn’t see war, not in the way the Imperial Navy would, and to placate him DuBois had promised at some point she intended to expand out to a small flotilla. That hadn’t come to pass yet, but DuBois had begun squeezing her network for leads on escort ships.

She took a long satisfying draft from the cup.

“How long to the moon?”

“Better part of a day, maybe two on quiet running.”

Katzark’s eyes hadn’t stopped reading the monitors. Data streamed down them at a steady pace. DuBois watched Katzark barely miss a beat from his eyes, consuming the pertinent details while the Tomb was slicing through the void like a newly awoken kraken. She appreciated his voracious appetite for data. The Tomb hadn’t seen much combat under Katzark, but when they had, DuBois had been hugely impressed by the efficient and decisive action Katzark had taken. The Tomb had, of course, passed the test with flying colours, but very few, if any ship, could perform without a capable Captain.

“No rush. All our cargo aboard?”

“Yes, Inquisitor. Bay 3 has all the supplies you requested.”

“Thank you. Send servitors to the sarcophogi. I’ll need help getting the final pieces to bring to my contacts.”

“Yes Inquisitor.”

Katzark adjusted his footing, loosening his legs and knees before returning to his customary at ease stance. DuBois continued to drink her re-caf. She slunk into a lounging position against the edge of the dais. Katzark gave her the look of an unimpressed officer dressing down a laggard. DuBois winked at him with an impish grin.

Space travel, at least in real space, was quite often very dull. Katzark’s first officer, a stern looking woman by the name of Layfield, brought a set of shift rotation reports, operational briefings, and maintenance briefings. Katzark split them with DuBois, who gratefully received the new data. She read through with interest on the minutiae of running her ship. The Adeptus Mechanicum who maintained her ship were eccentric and decidedly radical for Mechanicus. She read their reports with interest, noting their continued excitement at all of the various modifications she had them make to the ship. They’d worked on the ship for well over 3 decades. Their boundless enthusiasm for the ship pleased DuBois. She made a mental note to speak with the Magos when she next ventured down into the enginarium.

“How’s the Navigator?”

“Leertus? The last translation was smooth, easy. He’ll be fine.”

DuBois finished her re-caf. She handed the cup back to an eager cherub who flittered off with it.

“Check in on him for me please, Captain. Make sure he’s well.”

DuBois righted herself from her lounging position.

“Call everyone to the ready room in, say, ten hours? Make sure Fontley readies Falid. I know he’s been suffering, and if he’s been back in the mess-“

“Fontley will sober him up.”

“- thank you. I think Hound might be a little sore too.”

“Sparring?”

DuBois frowned. Katzark rolled his eyes.

“Something like that.”

“I’ll have a word.”

DuBois paused for a moment. She touched his arm gently.

“Thank you, Yuri.”

Katzark looked at her, and gave her a salutary smile.

“Back to work, Inquisitor. Get some sleep. I’ll have Fontley bring you a copy of the bridge reports in the morning,” Katzark said, with a reassuring professional nod.

=][=

Fallout

“Lord Scaran!” Fanham shouted, “Get her under control!”

“Don’t point your finger at me, girl,” snarled DuBois, pointing her finger at Qatya.

“I’ll do whatever I want you bookish fop. You ruined my opportunity to strike a telling blow on the Disciples of Revat!”

“Because your stupidity destroyed innumerable priceless relics! You annihilated a library filled with wisdom and part of an STC template, you destroyed a plane-“

“I unleashed exterminatus because I had to! You got in my way you utterly stupid wretch. I had them on the run. I had them in my hands. And I needed them alive to follow them back to the root.”

“Please, Inquisitors, please. Calm down,” insisted the Lord Scaran. Tension in the room had ratcheted and ratcheted and now it had exploded. Both DuBois and Fanham were on their feet. With each recrimination they had taken sub-conscious steps towards each other. They were nearly in each other’s face now.

Jaali Wakhan watched on, as she sat a few rows back in the auditorium. She was apoplectic with rage, and had instructed Doppel to be so. Doppel was doing well. Her generous frame was wobbling with each recrimination. Her usually neat grey bun, tied up on top of her head, had come loose splaying bundles of grey hair down behind her head. Her glasses, which were thickset lenses on sturdy frames, rattled up and down her nose as she argued. Her auto-quill, hung off her shoulder with the paper falling down her back, was barely keeping up with the furious repartee. The tomes hung theatrically off her belt, just under her large leather duster, were wobbling with her fury. Jaali was proud of the performance, if not yet the outcome.

The Lord Scaran, Lord Inquisitor Huut Thales, was slowly turning a deeper and deeper shade of furious red. His two prized Inquisitors, at the opposite ends of modus operandi, were busy dressing each other down like a pair of squabbling children. Jaali kept her eyes on the Lord Scaran, trying to gauge what he was going to do. He was clearly furious. He couldn’t bring himself to fully admonish either though. DuBois - Doppel - had been a prize for the Scarus sector when she’d decided to move there. The secrets of the Scarus sector had lain dormant for years. DuBois had begun to unpack them, enriching the sector and digging out the deep roots humanity had laid in the sector.

Fanham was the consummate field Inquisitor - purges, investigations, and success after success. The sector was demonstrably safer for her interventions. The Disciples of Revat were her white whale. Always on the edge of her reach, always beyond her grasp. New Haverford was to be her opportunity to finally land a solid lead. She’d caught them on the hop, too many people in one place. Too juicy an opportunity to turn down. She immediately launched after them, diving onto the world. But she was furious, reckless, distracted from her usual considered and careful strategic approach.

Her force descended on the cult headquarters with the divine fury of a flight of valkyries. They crashed through, sparing no one. They’d missed the fine details, though.

DuBois’ first loss was an acolyte, Yarrick LeChamptagne, or Claw. He’d been undercover, investigating the cult. When Fanham crashed through the door, he had organized a fighting retreat, all the while trying desperately to communicate with the attackers who he was. DuBois watched on in desperation, watching the increasingly pleading messages broadcast on Inquisition only channels go without response. Claw survived the assault and spent several days in the care of Fanham’s interrogators. Once again, DuBois’ messages went unanswered.

Yarrick, between screams and howls for mercy, revealed the location of DuBois’ dig.

Fanham, still caught in a frenzy, immediately ordered an orbital strike.

DuBois’ second loss was the dig site on New Haverford. Her team had spent the better part of a year tracking down New Haverford, then this specific site. An ancient explorator sect of the Mechanicum had left Mars in search of the Omnissiah. They found New Haverford, and after years of wandering decided to stay and rebuild their sect. They made contact with Mars, and upon hearing the Omnissiah had been found decided to make New Haverford their permanent home. Centuries past, and after a delivery from the homeworld their work with the Standard Template Construction began.

It was said they only worked in the theoretical, deciding that the electronic representation of the machine was the most divine expression of the machine, given no flesh could possibly pervert it with its imperfections. Their creations were said to be spectacular, and though it took substantial effort from outsiders, occasionally their designs were allowed to leave the world. That was how they’d tracked down this world, it was what led them to this place. And, at the point the lance strike struck to annihilate the digsite and everyone in it, they had just discovered an intact data stream.

DuBois still dreamed of the moment. She had gone back to the Tomb to begin venting her fury at Fanham’s failure to respond to her messages. The datapad chimed with the face of Excavator Primus Elerria de la Guti. Her face was enraptured with the innocent joy of discovery. DuBois had shrieked with joy. And there, with Elerria’s datapad pointing to the heavens, she saw the split second warning of the incoming lance before nothingness. The datapad catastrophically shattered into pieces as her rage induced her to throw the datapad at the wall of the bridge.

The third and final loss DuBois had from New Haverford came as she desperately scrambled to contact Fanham. Fanham was lost in her rage. DuBois tried to control hers, to no avail. She had the Tomb round on Fanham’s ship, all weapons bare, void shields active, all sensors set to full. Her rage permeated the ship - she could see the bloodlust in the eyes of the usually ice cool Katzark. No one on the ship noticed what was happening on the surface. The Disciples of Revat had assumed they were backed into a corner. They saw the lance strikes from orbit. They saw the remains of their own people left outside Fanham’s base of operations after they’d been dissected and filleted like junk meat.

In their desperation, their prayers turned to darkness. They grasped into the aether. They read from proscribed texts in perverse languages. They began to sacrifice life after life after life. Pain after torture after violation after death each act pulling at the barrier of the warp. Through the violence and the blood, the psychic pain and the flood of emotions the veil between worlds was rend open. A flood of daemons came through and began to assault the world. The breach of the barrier to the warp cascaded - in the disruption following the return of Guilliman and the establishment of the Cicatrix Maledictum the Black Ships had not visited New Haverford in a generation. A thousand psykers all felt their minds begin to have their foundations shook. Warp fire consumed many. Raw aether leaked out of some melting their flesh. In the whipping warp winds, that flesh was remade into garish meat gateways to beyond, and back through the gateways came wave after wave of the most depraved servants of chaos.

DuBois’ third loss was New Haverford itself. As recriminations flowed back and forth between Fanham and DuBois, neither of them noticed the sheer volume of psychic energy and daemons flooding onto the world. With every soul lost in service to chaos, their grip tightened around the world. Within minutes the world was engulfed in a storm of worshipful violence. The exponential failure went further with every death.

When their crew finally fought through the accusations and threats, there was little else to do. DuBois slumped to the deck of the Tomb’s bridge. Sat on her haunches, she watched as Fanham ordered her ship to load for exterminatus. She fell onto her rear and went slack against a wall as her colleagues ship finished loading the world cracking weapon. Tears fell from her eyes, tears of utterly focused rage, as the cyclonic torpedoes fell down onto New Haverford.

It was gone. It was all gone.

“I should have your damned seals and throw you both to my Excruciators as practice meat! I should be making banners out of your hides to hang in the halls of this place! Throne, a whole world lost. Leads on the worst cult in the sector - lost! A revolutionary cache of data - lost! Because you two couldn’t work together! Both of you, learned, wise, moderate members of His Holy Ordos and you couldn’t be bothered to spend thirty seconds talking to each other!”

It seemed Thales had finally cracked.

“With due respect-“

“I don’t want to hear it, Fanham. Be quiet, now. You will both avoid trial, this time. You will do penance and I’ll see a report written by both of you discussing the failures of your operations. Jointly, to be clear.”

“Not a chance I’m doing anything with her,” Doppel started, “I’ll write you-“

“A joint report. A joint report will be sufficient, Inquisitor DuBois.”

The Lord Scaran’s tone had changed now. The fury had been replaced by something cold and sinister. Thales eyes betrayed his relative capability and power. This conversation was done.

As those assembled in the darkness of the Inquisitorial auditorium on Scarus began to filter out, Jaali Wakhan, also known as Jaqueline DuBois, knew what had to happen. She’d originally come here in good faith, to try and bury the hatchet and move on. She had tried - good Emperor, how she had tried, to forgive. On the voyage back to Scarus to debrief she had spent time in the chapel on the Tomb, meditating on forgiveness. Her thoughts kept centring on the same words, until those words became rote and through into a mantra. Words have power, mantras more.

Fanham had to pay.
Fanham had to pay.
Fanham had to pay.

And so it would be.

=][=
« Last Edit: May 10, 2020, 02:00:56 AM by Dosdamt »
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Offline Mentirius

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #7 on: June 13, 2020, 05:48:35 PM »

Thus Spoke Panoptikos

M42.120, Ishkar IV


There is but One Machine, and it is God.

Thus spoke Panoptikos, Prophet-Savant of Fabraxis and Herald of the Omnissiah, and at moments like this, with all three Ishkar moons in alignment and the first light of dawn just starting to creep into the sky to contend with the sparkling stars, Rune Priest Elpis perceived the irrefutable truth of those words with optimal efficiency, though full comprehension of their scope surely still eluded her.  She stood outside the metal shack she shared with Gryse, her taciturn Skitarius bodyguard, who was currently performing maintenance rites within, kneeling before the tiny shrine where his Discorporator carbine currently lay, the weapon’s solemn reassembly near complete.  His intense murmuring prayers echoed softly inside the corrugated metal walls.  This he did every morning, regular as the sunrise, but according to the most recent communication from Fabraxis, the sacred weapon and its bearer would see battle today, and Gryse displayed every sign of being eager to see their latest prophecy fulfilled. 

For Elpis, contemplation of the Machine God was aided most by observation of the motion of celestial spheres within the greater body of the One Machine.  She had insisted they construct their shelter facing into the dawn, away from the yawning void of the Great Malfunction that always marred the sunset at this time of year.  Lacking a sufficiently bellicose nature for the performing of violent functions, she possessed no armaments of her own requiring rites.  Thus she watched the sky, as she did every morning, contemplating the relative position of the moons while Gryse made his devotions, imagining each of them a silver cog, gently turning.  Perhaps on distant, fallen Mars, she might be punished for such idle fantasies, or so she mused, though Elpis had never been to Mars, nor met anyone who had.  A Magos Innovatus had once told her the Martian priesthood forbade the deliberate use of imagination altogether, believing it corrupted the memory and interfered with logical cognition.  Elpis, allegedly an incorrigible fantasist even by the standards of her (she thought) equally eccentric superiors, would apparently have found much of her organic brain swiftly removed and replaced with inferior machinery, had the Machine God encoded her root algorithm into a different astronomical region.  She could neither confirm nor refute this hypothesis, but hearing it had made her glad to be a Fabraxian, and that, she hypothesised in turn, might well have been the reason the Magos had said it. 

For all her outward appearance of quiet contemplation, Elpis was excited.  Just as Gryse seemed especially fervent in prayer today, she found her own mind wandering further and faster than usual, despite a dearth of interest in matters martial.  Today she would observe a meeting between an Imperial Inquisitor, of which she had learned but never personally encountered, and one of her distant superiors, a man who stood among the most brilliant minds Fabraxis had to offer.  Despite the indisputable prediction of violence from on high, she hoped fervently that the Magos himself would not be harmed.  Magos Illuminator Astraios was a genius among genii, a legend among the lower ranking tech-priests, reporting directly to Panoptikos himself – not merely through the Network, it was whispered, but in the flesh!  The Prophet-Savant had not left the central Temple of the Omnissiah since he founded the city, or so it was said, and yet a privileged few were allowed to enter, albeit strictly by appointment.  Astraios was widely believed to be among these few, despite that he rarely visited Fabraxis any more. 

From the perspective of Ishkar IV, however, the Magos was the city, for while he had studied in over half the Temples of Fabraxis at one time or another, he was currently the highest ranking off-site cleric of the Temple of Universal Harmony, whose operations constituted the metaphorical bridge between the city and the rest of the galaxy.  Technically his title should have been Magos Corcordial, but having first achieved the rank of Magos while in the Temple of Enlightened Inheritance, Astraios had earned the right to retain ‘Illuminator’ as a suffix and had done so.  It was the function of Universal Harmony to covertly establish and maintain relations with worlds and organisations outside the Fabraxian priesthood, so that resources might be gathered and used, new material for research funnelled into the city and fresh innovations disseminated for field testing. 

Elpis herself had begun her spiritual journey as a gathered resource, an unwanted child of Ishkar IV brought to a discreet Fabraxian agent and offered for sale, on the basis of some tenuous claim of technical aptitude.  She had always secretly suspected the agent had been fooled somehow in this regard, but if so then it was to her good fortune, for having been accepted and taken away to the city, she had grown up with her eyes open to the mysteries of the One Machine.  She could not imagine a life absent the words of Panoptikos, or her memories of the wonders she had witnessed – memories her mostly-organic brain stored safely, absent corruption by the sin of invention, thank you very much Magos Martian.  The Prophet-Savant was the star she orbited, in mind and soul if not in body.  Now a priest of the Temple herself, hers was a small but vital role in achieving harmony with this corner of the Universe.  Elpis would summon Astraios when the Inquisitor arrived.  She hoped she would survive the battle when it came, or at least enough of it to get a good look at what happened.  When precisely the violence would start had not been specified, but it was the meeting itself that interested her more.  What would the Inquisitor be like?  What key components of comprehension might the Magos communicate?  Would he bring anything new from the city?  To this last she hypothesised: almost certainly, yes.  She could hardly wait to find out.

Her thoughts were interrupted then by the sound of distant engines.  Elpis tensed with rising excitement, her two lonely mechadendrites undulating subconsciously behind her back.  She adjusted her dark blue robe, aligning the patterns of the border filigree as precisely as possible, while Gryse emerged from the shack behind her, cradling his carbine like a father with his infant son.  Bionic eyes shone blue within his hood as the Skitarius craned his neck towards the sound.  An Imperial shuttle of some description.  No doubt Gryse could gauge more from the engines, while any Magos worth their second head could have told her the Martian model designation, accurately assessed the current condition of the vehicle and how much weight it was carrying, compared it unfavourably to the Fabraxian equivalent and yet gone on to give a full recital of every currently accepted variation of every ritual for the maintenance of every component.  Elpis doubted she would ever make it to Magos herself, though she did entertain thoughts of one day returning to Fabraxis, perhaps even to seek a post in the Temple of Knowledge Incarnate, if the Machine God deemed her worthy.  More likely she would end up in Divine Inspiration if she did go back, arguing over the nuances of scripture, if her present skill set was any indication.  Either way, she hypothesised she would miss the Iskhar sunrise, and the moons, and mysterious Inquisitors descending from the stars with a single day’s notice. 

“Morning, Gryse.”

“Confirmed, Tech-priest.”

She had tried seventeen separate greetings on consecutive days before settling on simply ‘Morning’ and his name.  Attempting to qualify or otherwise refer to the immediate time or circumstances in the course of her statement had always resulted in subtextual verbal conflict indicative of a fundamental disparity of perspectives.  She ultimately attributed this conflict to the belligerent and yet obsessively respectful nature of the Skitarius himself, abandoning her attempts to craft the optimal phrase to settle on a simplicity beyond reproach.  And yet his customary reply still seemed to succeed in containing a wagging finger.  Yes, it is the morning, he seemed to say.  Do you believe I cannot tell?  How little you must think of me, oh priest whose words I must revere.  The Skitarii were, in her opinion, the least Fabraxian scions of Fabraxis by a considerable measure, and she mentally included the resident aliens – or were the tech-priests aliens themselves?  How long did a species have to live on a planet before they became naturalised to it?  But her mind had wandered again and the noise of the descending spacecraft was growing louder. 

On the sunward horizon, orange light was leaking up into the sky.  The moons were fading quickly as warm tones diluted the inky palette overhead, becoming ghostly phantoms before her eyes.  They were not fading in themselves of course, for this was merely a trick of her vision, a quirk of atmospheric refraction exposing the limitations of the baseline human eye, for all its functionality as a gateway to greater perception.  Elpis made a conscious decision to abandon celestial observation for the day, looked instead towards the growing sound above her, trying to make out the shuttle itself.  After a moment she found it, a black speck against the stars growing steadily larger.  Inside the little shack a blinking cogitator was awaiting her command.  She did not intend to go back in, the range of her Mind Impulse Unit being more than sufficient to the task.  Elpis did not want to miss a moment of whatever was about to unfold. 

The diminutive spacecraft was black, as expected.  She waited until she could make out its embossed sigil, a skull contained within the letter I, perhaps representing the impermanence of the self...or maybe it just stood for ‘Inquisition’, and the skull was there either to echo the bisected, half-bionic variant in the Cog Mechanicus, or else to intimidate people.  She would have liked to believe the former, though what she knew of Imperial institutions suggested it was unlikely.  With an effortless pattern of thought, she sent the first code.  On Mars, so they said, she would have to be a Magos to warrant such extravagant technology.  In Fabraxis, a lack of implanted MIU had sorted the menials from the clergy, and as with all their initiates, she had undergone the surgery on the day she received her vestments.  Ever since, she had felt vaguely like a savage whenever she was forced to actually touch something for its Machine Spirit to hear her prayers.  Sadly the technology required a corresponding receiver, which many or even most devices outside the city did no contain. 

Her cogitator was Fabraxian work of course, as was Gryse’s treasured Discorporator, but the Temple’s policy was one of careful concealment, and too many innovations on Ishkar at once would apparently risk provoking scrutiny.  The Imperium was not ready for Fabraxis, could not be allowed to perceive their existence before the appointed time.  Direct involvement with their officials had to be carefully regulated, lest the interaction prove disastrous.  Inquisitors were occasional exceptions to this rule, for reasons Elpis did not fully understand.  Apparently some few were capable of displaying enough comprehension of the One Machine to satisfy the Prophet-Savant of their discretion.  Logically, the shuttle’s owner was one such outlier.  So why the warning of violence to come?  Had the Temple of Living Prophecy foreseen a betrayal?  She abruptly chose to speculate no further on that front.  Cogs would turn and all would be revealed.  She was merely one such cog, and today, as she did every day, Elpis would perform her function. 

With a rush of displaced air that made her robes of office billow, the Imperial shuttle set down.  It opened from the back, extending a ramp parallel to the tech-priest’s position, giving her a side-on view of the Inquisitor’s retinue as they disembarked.  There were five humans in the party, four of those heavily armed, together with a procession of menial servitors who trailed in their wake, bearing crates of varying sizes and composition.  A flock of cherubim fluttered busily overhead, fussing over the servitors like insects attending flowers.  The column was led by a trio of soldiers, heavily armed and armoured – Elpis recognised the design of the first man’s armour, though she couldn’t quite place it yet.  One of the big Imperial hive worlds.  In fact what was it the Magos had said...something about radiation, the Motive Force turned hostile by a blasphemous surfeit of understanding.  Fabraxian lore was strict on the dangers of such technology, as were the city laws.  Reluctant to find herself irradiated in the line of duty and therefore forbidden to return there, Elpis communicated soundlessly with Gryse via the blessed MIU.

“Radiation levels?”

“Acceptable.”

The Skitarius spoke aloud, for his own implant was only configured to receive a signal, never to transmit one.  Only the highest echelons of the Fabraxian Legion were permitted to employ the technology to its full extent.  He kept his voice low.  He didn’t need to point out the immaturity she, a tech-priest, displayed by relying on his bionic eyes for such readings, while affecting flesh-eyes in her own face.  Fabraxis-made bionics were beyond peer in this part of the galaxy, and the full length of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible even to Gryse.  Her reluctance to adopt them personally seemed entirely irrational to him, and did the first Warning not say, ‘The irrational mechanism is a perversion of the True Path’?  The statement hung in the air as clearly as if he had said it aloud.  Well she was the priest around here, and would hear none of that “flesh is fallible” nonsense, as well he knew.  If she had really needed bionic eyes just then, she could have used her implant to commandeer his directly, plunging him into darkness.  That she had simply asked Gryse what he saw instead was an act of politeness, and a statement of trust, however he chose to interpret it.  The man always assumed the worst of course, though her Magi might have agreed with him about the eyes. 

Refreshingly non-toxic as his armour apparently was, the apparent Alpha of the warlike trio remained a threatening figure.  His helm showed every sign of being loaded with auspexes and was shaped like the head of a beast, lean, predatory and distinctly canine, if stylised.  Comparisons with Ancient Terran religious sculpture flashed across her mind.  Associations of various caniforms with death, guardians of the spiritual underworld.  Unusually sophisticated symbolism for an Imperial enforcer, assuming she wasn’t missing some other crucial connotation.  His compact lasrifle was a creature of true beauty, like no other she had seen in Imperial hands.  It had been heavily modified, and the visual markers alone told her the instrument’s effectiveness had been vastly improved in the process.  Elpis exalted in the sight: innovation!  Deus Mechanicus be praised, maybe the time for Fabraxis to operate openly within the Imperium was closer than she had dared to imagine.  Then again, these were hardly ambassadors.  The Inquisition were individualists, their retinues not culturally representative.  Still she expected the Magos would approve, to see soldiers so openly defying Martian tyranny.

Behind the armoured guardians, who spread out immediately on leaving the ramp to cover every angle with their weapons, came the Inquisitor herself,.  She was a tall, stern-looking woman, in keeping with her institution’s reputation, identifiable by the ornate rosette hanging on a chain around her neck.  She too wore a full suit of black carapace armour, though the plates of hers were fringed with delicate gold filigree, while the greaves and breastplate proudly displayed the Inquisitorial I sigil picked out in solid gold, accented with platinum for the three horizontal bars and central skull.  The estimated weight of her regalia indicated physical fitness far above baseline, for she moved easily in the armour and showed no signs of encumbrance or fatigue.  This too was archetypal and to be expected.  Elpis noted a powered combat knife and several smaller blades on her belt, the handles of the latter indicating a hollow design, likely for delivering venom. 

She also wore a holstered neural shredder, a genuinely terrifying artefact housing a Machine Spirit so inimical to organic life it actively glorified in the destruction of neural tissue and the precious knowledge it stored.  Elpis had seen one demonstrated in Fabraxis, but on cloned tissue and under controlled conditions, for to use a neural shredder on a sentient mind was to pronounce the target an abomination, to strike their very thoughts from the record of the Universe.  The prospect of being such a target commanded fear even in Elpis, who valued many things highly enough to die for.  She tore her eyes from the blunt pistol with difficulty.  The Inquisitor wore no helm, her hair cinched tightly behind her head, secure against the breeze.  Her expression was sober, bordering on concern.  Her gaze flickered over Gryse before settling on Elpis, perhaps drawn by her robes of office.  She raised her eyebrows as she approached, a silent question.  Unseen to the new arrivals, Elpis send the second signal. 

Last of the retinue, though still ahead of the servitors, came what could only be an Imperial governor, or else a noble of some other lofty rank.  Clad in iridescent robes of flowing golden silk that caught the first light of morning and shimmered like a mirage, he walked a little awkwardly in his equally flamboyant shoes, soft as slippers with pointed toes, entirely unsuitable for the somewhat rugged terrain.  This was as far from any major settlement, of which there were many across Ishkar IV, as a person could reasonably be expected to get.  The ground before the shack had been forcibly flattened into a landing pad years ago, but the ravages of nature had begun to reclaim it and in places the earth had shifted, demanding sturdy boots, as the Inquisitor and her soldiers were wearing.  Maybe not a governor after all, for that made no sociological sense.  Certainly a man of wealth and sophistication, with all that gold.  Maybe a Rogue Trader then. 

The man was slender and displayed above average bilateral symmetry, his features pleasing to the eye.  A web of complex patterns had been delicately embroidered over every surface of his robes, calculated perfectly to snare and hold attention, neither overtly religious nor explicitly secular.  Parts of the pattern put her in mind of obscure runes she had learned in the Temple but never been called on to use.  He wore a tightly wrapped bundle of scrolls on his wide, brocaded belt, and a surprisingly practical backpack at odds with the rest of his attire, the telltale shapes of hidden machinery bulging coyly from within.  His long, dextrous fingers were festooned with rings of precious metal – and were some of those Jokaero work?  Elpis fought the urge to run right over to the man and demand to examine his hands.  Had he worn boots and a rosette, she might have thought him the Inquisitor! 

“Well?  Don’t tell me you’re the Magos.  Two mechadendrites?  A human face?  Where is your delegation, tech-priest?  Assuming you are a tech-priest.”

The actual Inquisitor and her chief enforcer were standing in the foreground, Elpis reminded herself.  At her right elbow, silent reproach was emanating from Gryse, a toxic radiation all his own.  She folded her own hands before her and summoned her gravest, most priestly voice.

“Your assumption is correct – greetings, Inquisitor, on behalf of Fabraxis.  We are not the delegation.  My authority is negligible, but Magos Illuminator Astraios has been contacted and is inbound.  Is that – apologies, Inquisitor.  I should not enquire.”

“No, please do.”

“The man attired in gold.  What function does he serve in your retinue?”

“That is Falid Wakhan, my overdressed Archeotech expert.  Falid, I think you have an admirer.”

“Then he is a Magos?  This statement conflicts with visual data: his flesh remains at a baseline state.”

“So does most of yours, that I can see.”

“Explanation: I am not a Magos.  The extent of my knowledge remains insufficient to define me as an expert in devices of the Enlightened Age, or of any other.  My current function extends to sending and receiving remote signals from this location.  My existing bio-mechanics are adequate to this task.”

“Well Falid is not a tech-priest, as you can see.  It concerns me that you don’t immediately recognise him, given it was he who arranged this with your people.”

“Insufficient knowledge is the curse of youth.  I was informed an Inquisitor would be coming.  I am aware of the people you describe and yet I have not spoken directly with them.  My authority is negligible, as established.  Unmagos Falid Wakhan has spoken to them.  Also he wears holy relics on his fingers.  Conclusion: he is a holy man.”

“Holy relics?  Your order revere digital weaponry?”

“The priesthood of Fabraxis revere Knowledge Incarnate!  The Jokaero are blessed by the Deus Mechanicus.  Their biomechanical structure is a bridge to the mysteries of the Universal Code.  Their fundamental nature is divine.  The Temple of – yes, we revere their works.  They would not function correctly, were the Unmagos unworthy of the Spirits within.”

Elpis clamped down on her treacherous tongue before she could babble on any further.  She was suddenly glad the Magos had not yet arrived.  Gryse would never let her hear the end of this.  Behind Falid Wakhan, servitors continued to gather with their various burdens, spilling down the ramp in a plodding stream.  She noticed some of the cherubim overhead were carrying gas grenades but said nothing about this.  Surely no one so clearly favoured by the Machine God would have come here in bad faith.  The Inquisitor was rightly cautious, no doubt having dealt with Martian Magi in the past.  And yet there was the prophecy to consider…and the wicked neural shredder, which she pointedly avoided looking down at again.  Concealed inside the shack behind her, the cogitator was blinking rapidly, a corresponding cerebral tickle from her implant warning her the Fabraxian delegation was about to make its entrance.

“No aggression, Gryse.  Not one pointed motion.  They’re coming.”

It began as a single mote of red light, a solitary ember suspended in the air.  Spiderweb cracks radiated from the central point, through which an eerie glow emanated, casting long shadows across the uneven landing strip.  A metallic tang crept onto every tongue.  Falid Wakhan gave a cry of alarm.  A fizzing sound started up and rose quickly, amplified by ascending orders of magnitude until a roaring, crackling lightning storm had formed.  As the noise reached its thunderous crescendo, a tall oval of blinding radiance appeared in the heart of the storm.  Staring into it, Elpis experienced a brief flash of vertigo, accompanied by the taste of purple and a phantom sense of feathers tickling her face.  Moments more and the light dimmed down again, as if an unseen dial were being turned.  The volatile sound had returned to a gentle foam of white noise by the time the Warp Tunnel stabilised.  A multi-coloured doorway of opaque, shifting shadows, big enough to walk a Dreadnought through, stood unframed against a backdrop of empty scrubland, roughly ninety paces North of where they stood.  The whole event had taken less than ten seconds, and only when it was over did Elpis realise via peripheral vision that the enforcer chief’s exquisite lasrifle was pointed squarely between her eyes.  She did not have to look to know that right beside her, Gryse was pointing his Discorporator carbine at someone else in turn.  Hopefully not the Inquisitor.

“If the Inquisitor aims that neural shredder at me, you will target me with the Discorporator and fire before she does.  Otherwise you will not fire on anyone.  Lower your weapon.”

His bionics whirred quietly as he obeyed, shifting stance in readiness to carry out her command.  Disagreeable as he was, the Skitarius would follow orders without question, whatever he thought of them.  She imagined he might even enjoy that one, if it came to it, and fervently hoped it would not.  The fact was, these were larger cogs than herself or Gryse within the One Machine, and far more valuable to Fabraxis in the Quest for Knowledge.  To damage them in her own defence would be a betrayal of all she believed.  The Inquisitor was speaking, somewhere between question and accusation.  She hadn’t drawn the neural shredder, praise be.

“What is this, tech-priest?”



Offline Mentirius

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #8 on: June 13, 2020, 05:49:59 PM »

Elpis composed herself and looked the Inquisitor squarely in the greaves. 

“That is a Warp Tunnel, Inquisitor.  More specifically it is the Magos and his delegation.  There is no cause for alarm.  The membrane appears stable.”

“Appears?”

“Skitarius, is the membrane stable?  You may vocalise a response.”

“The membrane is stable, Rune Priest.  Spectral data is conclusive.”

“Thank you.”

Further discussion was rendered irrelevant then, as the first of the Fabraxian delegation exited the Warp Tunnel.  Elite Skitarii marched in mirrored pairs, walking silently despite their powered war plate, long coats like that of Gryse flapping gently in the breeze.  These were the Fabraxis equivalent of Martian Skitarii Vanguard, though most of the technology they employed was radically different.  The warriors carried tall halberds, each one culminating in a tapered power spike as long as a forearm, below which the gleaming teeth of a stylised chain-axe, in traditional Cog Mechanicus pattern, promised symbolically appropriate dismemberment to the enemies of the prophesied Omnissiah.  They wore the colours of Fabraxis; midnight blue coats over silver carapace, mirror-polished and accented with gold.  Their helmets were fully enclosed and could not be removed – strictly speaking, they constituted bionic heads.  Each pair moved with perfect synchronicity as they advanced towards the Inquisitorial party, forming two matching columns between which an open corridor remained.  Halberds gave way to Arc Staffs, then to Force Glaives of a closed-circuit variation, and finally to various heavy ranged weapons including Discorporator rifles, together with a few Fabraxis Pattern variants of contemporary Imperial arms and some more esoteric Fabraxian inventions, only some of which Elpis recognised. 

By this point the Inquisitor’s three soldiers had formed into a tight triangle around her, and the Unmagos was shifting from one foot to the other at her back, caught somewhere between excitement and trepidation.  Elpis could understand his concern.  Well armed as the enforcers were, Astraios seemed to have sent the better part of a Maniple ahead of him, and was yet to appear himself.  From the enforcers’ current behaviour, she rather doubted this had been agreed upon.  As if in response to her thought, the Inquisitor extended a hand and gently, meaningfully pushed down on the barrel of her chief enforcer’s rifle, guiding it towards the ground.  He immediately relaxed his posture, as did his two subordinates, likewise lowering their weapons. 

Next to emerge were the obligatory priestly contingent from the Temple of Singular Force, each one bare-chested, their skin covered with Electoo circuitry so dense it rivalled the patterns on the robes of Falid Wakhan.  Their own robes were made of a smooth silver fabric that reflected light of every colour, and they walked within a sparking, prickling aura of pale yellow energy that encompassed the group of twelve in a loose, shifting dome.  Forked tongues of electric vitality danced between the priests, as whimsical as their faces were solemn.  These devotees were not Corpuscarii, nor Fulgarites – each priest bore a pair of arcane rods, the Taking and the Giving Rod respectively, for these were a new generation of their kind.  Living avatars of the Motive Force, versed in its rightful conversion and redistribution, the schism of their forefathers had been healed at last by the revelations of Panoptikos.  Their sacred rods worked along similar lines to the Discorporator and its less martial twin, the Incorporator, with the one channelling Motive Force out of a target and into the flesh of the priest, while the other employed the energy gathered to emit devastating blasts in a range of electro-magnetic flavours.  Certain radiations were forbidden to even these holiest of warriors, if only until their nature could be better understood, but those were growing fewer all the time.

Behind the Electro-priests, the first of the Praetorian Servitors lumbered forth.  Twelve feet tall and ten wide, its left arm was a Trinity Cannon from the elbow down, an enormous triple-barrelled artillery piece incorporating three separate weapons designed along different principles and fused into a perfect, symbiotic whole, capable between them of obliterating nearly anything within an appropriate range of scale.  The right ended in a great taloned power fist, with a compact shield generator in the forearm.  If Necrons had built an Ork Warboss from a mix of Imperial spare parts, it might have looked something like this behemoth.  The sacred guardian was sheathed in bulky armour plating and a Fabraxis banner hung down between its legs, as if to conceal some imagined modesty.  The banner was Fabraxis blue and displayed a symmetrical twelve-pointed star within a golden cog, surrounded by twelve equidistant smaller cogs in silver, each containing the traditional bisected skull of the Cult Mechanicus, the right side fully bionic.  Three more Praetorians followed the first, sporting identical livery, their armaments varied but keeping to the theme of one arm for ranged combat, the other for melee and defence, though two of the four reversed sides.  The Praetorians settled into position either side of the portal and the Skitarii abruptly stopped marching and stood to attention.  Then the surface of the portal shifted and an intricate display of shifting, interlocking elements that could only be the Magos himself was finally revealed. 

A hovering airborne platform shaped like a cog, with a wheel of slowly turning chain-teeth around its rim, bore a tall and spindly figure several feet above the ground.  Around this spun a dozen roughly spherical metal capsules, ranging from two to four feet in diameter and orbiting the central platform smoothly along separate axes and at various distances, negating any possibility of collision.  Their surfaces were agleam in a variety of subtly different shades, catching the contrasting light of the portal and the rising orange sun.  Having taken brief note of these symbolic planetoids, Elpis only had eyes for the platform.

Magos Illuminator Astraios was half again as tall as any human present, disproportionately thin and wore a floor-length robe the same colour as Elpis’s own, if far more richly decorated at the hem.  His head was golden and perfectly spherical, save for a halo of stylised metal spikes, imitating rays of light and framing a face that consisted of a single enormous, genuinely incandescent bionic eye, surrounded by concentric rings of servos that twisted in various directions, constantly adjusting the colour, intensity and focus of the searching brightness within.  His arms, of which there were a full five pairs, were longer than the organic human variety and incorporated so many ball-and-socket joints they were nearly tentacular in their range of motion.  These too were bionic and plated with the hard-wearing golden alloy, disdaining synthetic skin, with six tapered, many-jointed fingers on each hand.  Both fingers and arms were telescopic, lengthening and shortening at will, and were packed tightly into two rows of five, beginning beneath his shoulders and extending past where an unmodified body’s ribs would be found.  His auxiliary heads would be contained within the capsules, for she had never met a full Magos with less than two.  His very consciousness was therefore an extended network of MIU signals, his brilliant Intellect the central processor for the web, each orbital head itself a node in the wider psychic network of Fabraxis.   

Astoundingly, and she had never heard so much as a rumour of this, Astraios did not have a single mechadendrite nor biodendrite on display.  Beneath the robe perhaps, but Elpis intuited otherwise, for reasons she could not rationally justify.  In two of his right hands the Magos held one of the most marvellous artefacts, at least on the portable end of the scale, that she had ever been blessed to see.  The Motive Staff, famously engineered by Astraios himself, was a unique cross-disciplinary masterpiece requiring Magos-level comprehension of the knowledge of at least four separate Temples in order merely to operate, and five to have designed.  As much a proof of theory as a weapon, the principles upon which it functioned were so fundamental to the Fabraxian understanding of the One Machine that its very schematics were now considered scripture, a perfect demonstration of the singular nature underlying every contrasting form of the Motive Force.  Their study had been compulsory in the course of taking holy orders, though she had never seen the staff itself before.

The segmented spiral shaft incorporated multiple concealed power sources, with two complete human spinal cords of specific origin threaded through the internal circuitry, together with a lengthy sequence of advanced prismatic lenses to further divide or combine the energy as desired.  The head was a golden Cog Mechanicus, with a glittering gem in one eye socket of the bisected skull and a grim little lens in the other.  It could emit enough positive warp energy to kill a low-grade psychic null, enough negative warp energy to destroy a moderately sized daemon, and enough raw electrical current to put an Electro-priest to shame.  It could lift a tank with magnetic force or flash-cook its occupants with doctrinally approved radiation.  It was a miracle of the Machine God, divine inspiration made manifest, combining the technological achievements of three advanced civilisations to achieve its apotheosis.  In total the staff was nearly as tall as Astraios himself, and must have weighed enough to strike a Praetorian senseless even if all its powers failed.  Elpis hypothesised her chances of lifting it to waist height would be minimal.  This was only fitting for an entity of such legendary potency. 

Her lips moved in silent benediction as the star that was Astraios glided towards her down the corridor of Skitarii, his satellites moving with him, maintaining their relative motion flawlessly.  The priests of Singular Force, having swiftly moved aside to let the Magos pass, then followed behind him at a suitably reverent distance, while the columns of Skitarii advanced again, keeping pace to either side.  Seeing this, the Inquisitor strode past Elpis and went boldly to meet the Magos, her own retinue gathering at her back.  Gratefully forgotten, the awe-struck Rune Priest signalled for Gryse to follow her and trailed the group at a distance, staying within earshot.  She had performed her function adequately, and this was not an opportunity to be missed.  The sun was above the horizon now and insects were singing, hidden in sharp tufts of bristle-grass that speckled their surroundings.  Nothing taller than a shrub grew out here, though the immediate meeting area was hidden in a wide, shallow valley, whose gently sloping sides were enough to conceal the shuttle and keep out the worst of the wind.  Not there was anything discreet about the small army of Skitarii, nor the Magos Illuminator levitating on his disc in all his shining splendour.   

“Inquisitor Jaqueline DuBois, a.k.a. Fanham, a.k.a. Grixos, a.k.a. Mother, a.k.a. Ampulex...”

Astraios pronounced each letter of the repeated acronym crisply, his impeccably enunciated synthetic voice emanating from places unseen as he ran through the Inquisitor’s aliases.  No doubt a point was being made, but the tone of his voice was expansive, as if proposing a round of applause.  He descended smoothly as he spoke, until his platform hovered just above the ground, the cog-teeth rotating too slowly to present an immediate threat.  Bending his body in alternating directions like an accordion, he folded himself down to a stockier, approximately human height, cyclopean eye to eye with the Inquisitor.  The lowest of his arms were now somewhere around waist height on DuBois.

“...on behalf of the hallowed Temple City of Fabraxis, allow me to extend our most respectful greetings to a true luminary of the Emperor’s Inquisition.  Your credentials have been thoroughly verified and I am authorised to extend the personal compliments of Prophet-Savant Panoptikos, together with his blessing.  I am Magos Illuminator Astraios, presently of the Temple of Universal Harmony.  Welcome to Ishkar IV, and to the Light of the Motive Force on this most auspicious dawn.”

This was one of the most lyrical turns of phrase Elpis had ever heard from a Magos.  Astraios had neither qualified ‘Light’ as literal nor metaphorical, leaving multiple layers of meaning implicit, compounded by his reference to the dawn.  Her admiration only grew. 

“You hear that, Gryse?”

The Skitarius nodded curtly beside her, saying nothing.  Meanwhile the Inquisitor had moved clear of her retinue, stepping inside the boundaries of the orbiting spheres to get closer to the Magos, neatly avoiding interrupting any of their respective paths.  Inquisitor Jaqueline DuBois, a.k.a. Various, lifted her chin slightly as she addressed the Magos, staring deep into his spotlight eye, every bit as unblinking as he was, for all her objective ocular inferiority.  Her voice was formal and stately, all trace of confusion or irritation vanished as if they had never been.

“Greetings from the Inquisition, Magos Illuminator, and to your Prophet-Savant.  It seems my reputation precedes me.  I hope we can proceed in a spirit of mutual discretion, whatever the result of our negotiation.”

“You have my solemn vow before the Deus Mechanicus: no data regarding these interactions will be disseminated outside Fabraxis.  Discretion is a tool whose use we have perfected in the pursuit of Universal Harmony...  I cannot fail to notice your arm, Inquisitor.  You are fortunate to be so blessed.  Your reputation is evidently well deserved.”

On hearing this, Elpis all but smacked her forehead in exasperation.  How had she, a tech-priest, even a lowly one, failed to notice a bionic arm?  By clinging to a pair of unmodified flesh-eyes that could not see through armour, she reflexively answered herself.  The voice of the inner Gryse – this was what came of spending weeks with no one but her Skitarius for company. 

“Thank you.”

There was an icy undertone to the Inquisitor’s regal diction then, but Astraios inclined his head graciously, taking this at face value.  After a moment she went on, outwardly oblivious to the assembled Skitarii and the looming Praetorian Servitors behind them.

“I cannot fail to notice your own arms, Magos Illuminator.  It seems you are more fortunate than I by a factor of ten.  Are all these military assets strictly necessary for you and I to reach an accord?”

“They are for my protection and for yours, Inquisitor.  Many are the enemies of we who walk the True Path.  We do the work of the Deus Mechanicus here, and the expenditures of Fabraxis are always diligently calculated.”

“Well we are here and so is your army, so I suppose we must proceed.  I assure you, however, we of the Inquisition are more than capable of protecting ourselves.”

“I would never presume to dispute your assertion.  However, I was instructed by the Prophet-Savant to meet you here, as were these forces.  We are all his instruments in this.  I can only apologise for any offence their presence may have caused.”

“Of course, think nothing of it.  Might I enquire, Magos – what is the symbolism of the sun in this context?” 

The great eye adjusted itself minutely, servos purring. 

“My answer will be contingent on which sun you refer to.  The star of Ishkar IV, or of Astraios?”

“The star with a single eye, borne upon a wheel, orbited by twelve planets.  This seems to be a statement, and I would know its meaning.”

Astraios clapped two of his hands together with a brassy clang.  The light of his eye flared brighter for a moment.

“A most enlightened question, Inquisitor.  Its meanings are threefold in this context, though the potentially symbology of any solar system is almost unlimited to a sufficiently creative mind.  Foremost, the sun is the Motive Force, the planets the physical elements that will embody the Omnissiah, and the pattern of their orbit the Will of the Deus Mechanicus, as expressed through the perfect order of the Universal Code that governs the working of the One Machine, embodied by the turning cog.  Secondarily, the sun is the Prophet-Savant, the turning cog his True Path, while the planets are the twelve Temples of Fabraxis, of disparate character but moving together in concert with him, according to the will of the Deus Mechanicus as revealed in the Living Scripture.  Thirdly, the sun is the soul of Astraios, borne upon the cog of my intellect, and these planets are my body, a collection of disordered parts given order and purpose by the knowledge at my core, itself a tiny fragment of the absolute knowledge the Omnissiah will possess.  My eye marries form and function to achieve a singular vision.”

“Fascinating.  The Omnissah will possess…so your Prophet-Savant rejects the Treaty of Mars?”

“The Prophet-Savant rejects every edict of Mars, Inquisitor.  They have lost their way in this Fallen Age.  These conclusions can be reached via analysis of existing data: order is knowledge manifested.  Knowledge is holy, thus order is holy.  The knowledge of the Deus Mechanicus is absolute.  Absolute knowledge manifests the Omnissiah within the One Machine.  The Omnissiah will bring absolute order to the One Machine.  Disorder remains within the One Machine, therefore the Emperor is not the Omnissiah.  Do my assertions constitute an inter-personal obstacle?”

“They do not.”

“That pleases me greatly.  The coming of the Omnissiah is not in question.  Order is preceded by disorder.  This is the nature of creation.  The Omnissiah will not appear ex nihilo.  The Omnissiah is physical, and must therefore be built.  Knowledge must be gathered and collated, intellect nurtured, comprehension achieved.  Mars pervert the Quest for Knowledge.  They declare the incomplete inviolate.  They employ irrational mechanisms.  They worship a prototype.  They lack the imagination to appreciate their inheritance and the will to surpass their ancestors.”

Elpis was enjoying the escalating sermon, though part of her still expected the Inquisitor to object.  Instead she waited patiently, face unreadable while Astraios orated on, gesticulating effusively with his numerous limbs.  He had regained a head in height in the course of this animation.

“My secondary title – Illuminator – is granted by the Temple of Enlightened Inheritance, wherein the works of the Enlightened Age are studied.  In their pride, the Martian priesthood presume to call it a Dark Age, and to equate any inorganic intellect with the Soulless Sentience, for all they cannot hope to understand the distinction.  Their rationale is no more than this: that enlightenment was lost, and they forgot how to fix what was broken.  That they will never equal the least of their ancestors’ works.  In their hubris they dare to blame knowledge itself for their own failure to comprehend it, and to forbid its very use by any with greater insight.  They reject every component of the One Machine that comes without written instructions expressed in a standardised form, together with proof that Martian minds designed it.  They see the knowledge of the Deus Mechanicus as their property, to possess and to parse, to bury and to burn.  Thus will the Fallen Age continue, until the Omnissiah can be made manifest.  We need no aid in this from them.  Their template is corrupt.  Let any Martian of rational mind come instead to wear the robes of Fabraxis, if they would seek atonement.  Let them come in humility and let them learn.”

“And let them be discreet about it, I presume?”

“Just so, Inquisitor.  Many cannot be trusted with sacred knowledge.  If Mars knew of Fabraxis they would send a fleet to attack it, heedless of all they might destroy.  Such actions would only precipitate further disorder within the One Machine, and yet they would not care.  So it is with the proudly Fallen.”

“From what I’ve heard so far, you’re probably right about that.  The orthodox Mechanicus have been less than helpful in my own Quest for Knowledge, as I’m sure you have deduced.  I take it you understand the nature of the device in question?  That isn’t going to constitute an…inter-personal obstacle…when I want to discuss specifics?”

“Inquisitor, the Tiresias Configuration is a wonder of the Enlightened Age.  I will be honoured to discuss the specifics.  Before we go any further, however, I’ve been instructed to present you with these gifts on behalf of the Prophet-Savant.  They are unique, bespoke, and ordained for your particular use by the Deus Mechanicus, although the principles on which they function are of course employed elsewhere.”

Rather than call forth subordinates, the Magos planted his staff and bent all the way down to the floor of the platform, reaching beneath his pooled robes with nimble fingers to produce the items in question.  He straightened and presented them to DuBois with a dramatic flourish. 

“May I present the Enigmask,” – this looked something like a steel face mask, from a distance – “and Excision.” 

The latter item could only be a weapon, and indeed it resembled a blade, slightly curved, with an oddly shaped handle fixed at an angle roughly halfway down its length.  Both of these devices were new to Elpis and she found herself unconsciously leaning forward for a marginally closer look.  Gryse shifted grumpily beside her.

“Use the eyes, Rune Priest.  Knowledge is holy.”

Guiltily grateful, she did.  Unconsciously adjusting Gryse’s donated vision to suit her current needs, the first thing she noticed through them as she zoomed in was the Enigmask – seen through bionic lenses, it was black, and that was all, however she altered her perspective.  Or not quite all, for it was more than black in the sense of pigment.  Radiation readings were absent.  Internal structure could not be discerned.  The mask was a face-shaped data vortex.  An empty void in the Universal Code.  She couldn’t even tell what it was made of.  The Inquisitor, now a ghastly apparition of pulsating organs held tight to a grinning skeleton, took it with her utterly beautiful bionic arm, whose intricate workings far surpassed in complexity its twin of blood and bone, the dimensions of which it matched perfectly. 

The sight had the effect of briefly distracting Elpis from the artefacts themselves.  DuBois had digital weapons in her fingers, abruptly pushing the be-ringed Falid down to the third most divinely favoured individual Elpis had seen this morning.  She felt doubly foolish for only seeing the armour before.  The Inquisitor must have been modest in the extreme to conceal such treasures.  Neither did she make any move to don the Enigmask, for all its enticing mystery, though she accepted it graciously enough.  Astraios was speaking again, his voice amplified significantly by Gryse’s finely tuned audio-receivers. 

“The Enigmask is made of Necrodermis, at least primarily.  It will respond to the Motive Force within your brain and alter itself in response to the commands of your intellect.  It can enclose the head fully when necessary, without impairing vital functions or the inflow of sensory data, for it is capable of mimicking the functionality of every organ it conceals, save for the brain itself.  It can also simulate beyond reasonable detection a sufficient range of textures and pigmentation to create any organic or artificial facial structure of which Fabraxis is aware, including, for example, the hair of a human beard, the tusks of an Ork or the irises of Aeldari eyes.  Its Machine Spirit is a prototype form whose essential nature echoes the biochemical camouflage traits of the Lictor, and is of sufficient complexity to instruct you in the appropriate Rites of Maintenance directly.  Simply put, it is a flawless disguise requiring no religious instruction nor internal implants to control with intellect alone.  Do not allow others to wear it, however, as it will bond itself to you on first usage and thereafter behave with hostility towards subsequent operators, potentially resulting in death.”

Astraios did indeed have a full dozen auxiliary heads contained within his orbiting spheres, and all of them psychic.  His composite outer mind was colossal, a self-contained hive of chattering MIU signals and measured psychic pulses.  The golden alloy coating most of his body remained opaque, protecting his own mind from scrutiny, though not so absolutely as the Enigmask.  This she now identified as Sunskin, a Fabraxis hallmark, difficult to manufacture but prized among Magi for its innate psi-shielding properties.  A faint haze of familiar energies surrounded Astraios, as it did all living machines – that he had a soul was evident, but the patterns of Motive Force within him were blurred into meaningless smears.  He leaned forward as he said the next part, his pose conspiratorial despite their gathered audience, though he barely lowered his voice.

“Most crucially, when worn it creates a localised field that also conceals the Motive Force itself, therefore the mind-soul amalgam that constitutes Jaqueline DuBois.  Within this field, you will have a measurable presence of zero in terms of psychic energy output, comparable in the Immaterial sense to a psychic null.  The field will extend as far as your nervous system, encompassing the Motive Force within your various extremities and of course the Machine Spirit inhabiting your arm.  A side-effect is to drastically decrease the accuracy of any attempted psychic divination of probable causal sequences connected to decisions made or actions taken while wearing the Enigmask.  I leave it to you to consider how this principle might be applied to your current or future endeavours.”

He straightened up again as he handed over Excision.  DuBois shifted the Enigmask to her flesh-hand, reaching out with the bionic again to accept the weapon.  As her fingers closed around the hilt, the blade immediately changed shape, moulding itself to the contours of her forearm and extending the leading end past her fist into a wickedly curved scimitar.  The matrix of interlocking parts revealed by this single motion put even the arm holding it to shame.  There were more individual components beneath this one blade’s gleaming surface than there were weapons on collective display by the assembled Skitarii.  The only comparably sophisticated device to be seen was the Motive Staff itself.  The handle was shaped something like a scorpion’s tail and contained three lenses, a power source she could not identify and a blend of human bio-matter, expertly preserved.  The blade was composed of nested segments Elpis surmised were telescopic, estimating a potential maximum length comparable to the height of DuBois.  These too were hollow, the outer shell composed of what must have been a new alloy, for Gryse’s HUD tags could not provide a name for it, while the inner core was an elastic coil of flexible filaments threaded with tiny fragments of polarised Noctilith.  What role the latter played in functionality was beyond Elpis, perhaps comprehensible only to the Magi of Primordial Precedent, and presumably some few of Sacred Innovation for artefacts like this to exist. 

“Excision is like the Enigmask in that it will respond to mental commands, although in its case no act of intellect is required – rather, it will respond to the wielder’s instinct and physical motion, dynamically adapting its form to suit the situation throughout any sequence of conflict.  More importantly, it will function as a Force Sword, activated dynamically, channelling the Motive Force in its form as warp energy for dramatically increased efficacy versus a majority of known materials, increasing exponentially against ensouled targets.  It is a closed circuit incorporating a power source and governed by an adaptive Machine Spirit, thus it requires no native psychic talent to operate.  Its capacity is finite but can be recharged with the Motive Force via psychic parasitism, which is to say, the weapon’s use against living targets rich in warp energy.  If it is drained to ineffectiveness there will be a short recovery period before it can be recharged.  The polarity can also be reversed – in order to achieve this, simply depress the stud on the segment directly above the pommel, then twist the pommel itself through one hundred and eighty degrees while reciting the fifth catechism of Necessary Evil.”

As the Magos came to the catechism, one of his many hands proffered a thin white scroll.  The lead enforcer nudged Falid Wakhan and he edged forward, narrowly avoiding a passing planet.  He reached out gingerly to take the scroll and unfurled it immediately, unconsciously shifting back a step behind DuBois.  Elpis wished she could focus on his facial expressions, instead distracted by the stark shape of his skull, the play of electrical signals firing in his brain.

“At reversed polarity, Excision will channel negative warp energy comparable in nature to that employed by the Animus Speculum, if less highly concentrated – necessarily so, or the psychological side-effects of proximity to the device would impair combat effectiveness in anyone with a positively polarised soul.  This function will cause degradation in some of the mechanisms if employed frequently and should be considered an option of last resort.  The Omnissiah is yet to come, and we Magi are not magicians.  However, as an Inquisitor I am sure you can appreciate the potential utility against entities native to or reliant upon the Immaterium.  The blade is also very sharp of course.”

DuBois hefted the artefact appraisingly, gave it a few experimental swings.  Astraios looked on like a proud parent, clasping four of his hands before him. 

“These are gifts freely given, Inquisitor, and are neither intended in trade for the knowledge you hold, nor even as encouragement to look favourably on Fabraxis.  Nor yet are they meant for study, for their workings are understood – these are tools to be used, and you will need them.  This the Prophet-Savant has foreseen with surpassing probability.  That is why they were assembled at this time.  Honour them as you would any sacred machine, but do not spare them.  The knowledge you contain must be protected.  Only this does the Prophet-Savant ask on their behalf: that you ensure these devices never find their way into the hands or mind of Mars.”

Having thoroughly inspected the new inventions from afar, Elpis was satisfied and gave Gryse back the use of his eyes.  Her own were distinctly sore after their brief abandonment, though logic told her the feeling was psychosomatic.  Regardless it was something of a relief for her to return to a more limited range of vision, for seeing right to a person’s core overrode the instinct to perceive a human face, interrupting the natural flow of intuitive responses and risking a loss of valuable insight via data overload.  Or at least it seemed that way to her.  Intuition was the domain of the soul, and therefore the Motive Force.  The soul is the conscience of sentience – thus spoke the second Warning, the only one of eight on which Mars and Fabraxis agreed.  Sentience is the basest form of intellect – thus spoke the fifth Mystery, another point of continuity between the old faith and the new. 

Send me your poets, that I might build my priests.  Thus spoke Panoptikos. 


=][=



Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #9 on: June 22, 2020, 09:58:46 AM »
Faith III

The show of force from the Fabraxians did not go unnoticed by DuBois. They were outgunned, outmuscled, and outnumbered. Never a good scenario to be in this far from the Tomb. Her seal was barely of worth on this world and she hadn’t greeted the local leaders, such as they were, to try to rally some basic support. She couldn’t have assumed they would come in such force, but for a secretive, notionally heretical sect of the Adeptus Mechanicum it wasn’t a surprise. She knew they couldn’t immediately trust her - seal be damned, ultimate authority tended to blur with the boundary of the Treaty of Olympus; their background check was also disturbingly deep and thorough. She promised to herself that a similarly deep and thorough operational and technology security review would be required. Failures would be corrected.

The Fabraxians were extraordinary. Their technology was innovative - innovative! - though it inspired a naked dread in DuBois’ gut. The raw and writhing power on show in the craftsmanship, the combining of elements long thought sacred enough to stand permanently alone provoked severe dissonance in DuBois’ thoughts and her heart. She wrestled with that fear and the dissonance, leaving it unresolved and tangled in her mind.

They had recaptured that most beautiful, delicate and indefatigable of human traits, inspiration, and breathed life into it again.  Through the darkness of Martian technological apartheid this tiny flame of hope had survived - progress would be made! Yet to what goal? To wield such power in the darkness, biding their time, waiting for an opportune moment to bring forth their new creed. A new tyranny, same as the old tyranny?

The dissonance would not be reconciled now; she dismissed it mentally noting it required further investigation. She needed to generate trust quickly and dig into the secrets the Fabraxians were willing to share and find a way to those they were not. There were hints in their armour, their weapons, and demeanor. They were wrapped in symbology and an arcane language she now yearned to learn out of both a dread-filled need to preserve herself and an insatiable itch for knowledge. No doubt learning the language would reveal deeper truths.

And there were hidden, and deeper, truths to be explored. The Magos DuBois encountered first ran her mouth more than she had intended - out of enthusiasm or an attempt to impress perhaps, letting slip an initial set of details that Astraios had built on, on the structure and nature of the Fabraxian culture. Those tantalising insights gave her an insight into her prospective allies, and an insight she would expand upon as opportunity presented itself in the near future.

The lead Magos, Astraios was impressive and fearsome - his mechanical stature inspired awe and terror in equal measures, and the complexity and mechanical audacity of his form was remarkable. Form and function, weighed and delivered in such precise portions. Artistry and engineering in harmony. The gifts provided by the Fabraxian contingent were incredible, though she remained wary of using them for now. A thorough examination back on the Tomb was warranted before she would wear the mask or wield the sword for an extended period.

For a fleeting moment, she let herself feel overwhelmed by the situation. So many of her dreams were being realised and in scant weeks she would have the power she needed to move her vision forward.

It was true. She hadn’t expected it to be this form of truth - pure, unadulterated joy flickered through her for another moment.

It was all true.

DuBois had thought long and deep about artefacts to bring with her to meet the mysterious sect on Ishkar IV. She needed to strike a balance between utility, mystery, and value. She had spent several days meditating on the matter and sorting through the assorted vaults on the Tomb. As she rummaged through the immaculately maintained vaults, she had been able to find three items she felt worthy of presentation to her potential allies.

Firstly, the Kushan Cerebarum. A multifaceted device, the Cerebarum mixed several functions into one simple cube. The cube itself was approximately half a meter in each dimension, and weighed a significant heft such that it usually required two people to pick it up. The surface of the cube was etched with a mix of reverent pictorial flourishes to the gift of life provided to humanity - vitruvian humans mirrored across what could be interpreted as flowing linear time, references to a great human empire - not the Imperium but perhaps a parallel from the Dark Age of Technology - and the reuse of sun motifs embossed in great panels of shining gold. Double helix filigree, scrimshawed into the edges of the box, accompanied the reliefs depicting humanity. Esoteric runes were deliberately arranged around every human figure, the runes themselves constructed of a deep marine blue, crystalline psychoreactive substance. It had taken DuBois’ retinue several months to decipher the runes; the runes addressed mankind’s ascension to the stars in the spirit of discovery and exploration. The true power of the device was hidden inside. Pressing the psychoreactive runes in a specific sequence would open the box - the box would fold outwards, changing the patterns of humanity revealing a pathway to a new stage of enlightenment. The inside of the box revealed a perfectly hand shaped groove - embedded in that shape were thin wires of the psycho-reactive crystal. Any person who placed their hand into the grooves could, with mastery of the device or some encouragement, then project their thoughts into a holographic display, giving it a diverse range of applications.

The real twist was the tactile and sensory feedback the device would play back via the psycho reactive grooves - with discipline, time and mastery, the user could project themselves into the visions and, without the proper willpower, lose themselves in their own vivid mindscapes.

DuBois had spent significant time with the device, exploring her darkest fears, her innermost desires both erotic and platonic, she explored the depths of her ambition, and a panoply of violent fantasies. With each dive into the Cerebarum she was drawn further into exploring evermore extreme visuals and sensations. It had taken some monumental willpower to bind the thing and send it back into the depths of the catacombs on the Tomb. Truth be told, as marvellous as the device was, she was glad to be rid of it despite the severe and loud protestations of her wildly furious dopamine receptors that, even now, were rioting across her mind.

The second piece DuBois selected was one of her older pieces, from the youth of her career in the Inquisition. The dig site where she had acquired this piece had been terrifying. The planet had been scoured of all life and its atmosphere poisoned beyond habitability. The planet had been devastated in the dark age of technology. DuBois couldn’t age the dig effectively, due to the complete lack of biological material and dearth of other materials to age. Still, that hadn’t deterred her- enough of her other work had pointed to this world as a key bastion during the war against the Men of Iron. It was this that drew her to the world.

Conditions on world were atrocious. A three hundred mile per hour wind known as the Screaming Raptor tore across the surface almost all the time, whipping up walls of coarse, diamond hard dirt that could sand blast a man to clean bones in minutes. It had taken several months to work through the top soil and set up a structure resilient enough to cope with the raptor. When they had finally broken the back of the dig, the fruit that was borne was truly impressive.

A pristine, perhaps not fully functional, computational chip made from extraordinarily complex superconductive materials. They weren’t able to identify all of the materials, nor precisely how it would be seated within a device, perhaps even a Man of Iron itself. But what was clear was this was an incredibly rare and exciting piece of technology. And how it was beautiful! The design itself was aesthetically pleasing - the thin sliver of material glowed with an almost sentience luminescence that knew precisely where to catch the eye, and guide the eye down the thin inlaid circuitry. The architecture of the chip itself was a marvel, it’s inner workings focused entirely on artificial intelligence and accelerating the calculations required for an intelligence to function. She couldn’t be sure of the precise function of the chip - it was well beyond her technical capability, but she was convinced it was either a central processing unit, or an adjutant to that central unit, providing some supplementary but very specific capability. All of this was conjecture, of course, but it had been quickly confirmed by her own tech-priests who had been struggling with a mix of reverence and revulsion. It was hard to change old, well-worn neural pathways.

The final gift was from GY-139. The planet had been a seminal encounter, both for DuBois and her retinue. Falid suffered with nightmares haunted by visitation by Kaukasos, the creeping dread of the creature tugging at the edges of his consciousness. DuBois knew that the encounter with the daemon had seeped into the core of his consciousness, it had taken his deepest, most animal fears and twisted them, contorted them, until they were wound tightly and ready to exploit. Wyrd had struggled after too. She knew that he felt the encounter more than either Falid or herself, and that deep seated fear, the taint of warp, had no doubt indelibly stained the inner sanctum of Wyrd’s psyche. DuBois had asked her retinue to watch Wyrd closely. For now, there were no signs that the taint was tightening its grip - it was sadly inevitable he would lose.

GY-139 had taught DuBois a valuable lesson. No matter how firmly she thought of herself as an operative in the employ of the Ordo Hereticus, it didn’t place a limit on the types of enemies she’d face - without and beyond. It meant she had to be prepared, and find a way to defend herself against those enemies. That had precipitated a raft of operational changes, not least the accumulation of a vast library of so called blasphemous texts. She didn’t, and wouldn’t ever, consider herself to be a xanthite - those fools lead themselves down roads they couldn’t turn back from. No, she would be wise to the enemy beyond but she wouldn’t switch her attention to them.

Of the huge library of data they had rescued from GY-139, digital and analogue, ‘The Vanquishing of Kaukasos’ was perhaps the most important. It was a detailed discourse, philosophical and practical, on the nature of Kaukasos and thus creatures of the warp. It provided a full account of the battle against the creature, including various attempts to banish and contain the creature. The detailed information provided on these differing methods was impressive, including the relative efficacy of each method. Banishment by ritual, banishment through the use of sanctified weapons, identifying the source of the creature's power and destroying it, researching and getting the true name of the beast - each was a tool she knew she could use in the future.

It also chronicled the despair and decadence the planet fell into under the influence of Kaukasos. The struggle with Kaukasos was bloody, brutal, and had lasted for a few generations before prefacing the eventual fall of the civilization on GY-139. That made the hardest reading. DuBois was no stranger to cruelty; indeed, she often thought it one of her strengths that she wasn’t squeamish to the most vicious of exercises. The descriptions of the worst of depravities committed at this creature’s behest… She found those detestable. Cruelty, without an outcome, without a need, only in the name of lust disgusted her.

As she contemplated, thoughts of Fanham, in the depths of the Cathedra Devotis flickered through her mind. That was different, she assured herself. It was necessary. Fanham had been disagreeable to her vision of the future of the Imperium. Fanham had destroyed priceless, irreplaceable knowledge. Fanham had crossed her, and had to pay the consequences. Justice, not depravity and excess, had driven her to deal with Fanham with such venom.

The tome was hefty, approximately a cubit in height and half again in width. It ran to nearly seventeen hundred pages with thick and tough wearing leather binding that was dyed to a now faded burgundy red. It was written in an approximation of high gothic with hand rendered and incredibly detailed illuminations throughout. The visions of Kaukasos captured on the pages, in hues of brilliant gold and purple, leapt off the page like starved salivating jackals. DuBois was concerned that the essence of Kaukasos had been rendered into the pages; while being read it felt like the book would try to squirm out of the grasp of the reader and break for its freedom. Each word as it was ripped off the page would haunt the mentality of the reader for weeks as if it had been burnt into the very fabric of the neurons.

It had to go.

DuBois had stored it in a transparent stasis box; the last time she had spent time checking the inventory of artefacts in the sarcophagi, she swore the book had been scratching at the stasis field, desperately trying to escape. The field would spark and hiss for hours, the scratching more desperate and more insistent whenever anyone was near.

She had cleared three nearby systems out of precious metals. Rhodium, palladium, gold, platinum, diamantine, adamantium - with all three seals and funds from the Ochre Corp she had swept up every gram. Huge blocks of bullion bars and raw ore filled a full cargo hold on the Tomb. The requisitions and purchases had stretched her political capital but she’d be able to drench the requisitions in enough ablative bureaucracy to keep any of the monitoring of the Inquisition off her trail for months. Finally, she’d brought enough hard currency to buy those same resources three times over. The thrones were a mixture of tithe notes and hard currency. She wasn’t sure whomever they were going to engage with needed so much cash, but it was always a useful lubricant for any scheme.

As she stood opposite the floating and impressive Magos, she couldn’t help but wonder if some of the gifts she had brought were underwhelming. It was too late of course, and the impulse was irrational, but still it lingered like a bad smell regret of day old death, sharp and pungent.

“In the spirit of exchange, and with no intent to curry favour or unduly influence your own decision making, I have brought gifts.”

A subtle nod from Hound instigated the procession. Three adepts, clad from head to foot in twilight black robes with loose gold felt belts, came out from her lander. They were pushing substantial stasis pods on which floated on gentle grav impellers. A gentle whisper of dust kicked up underneath the pods.

“The Kushan Cerebarum, an interesting trinket but I think you’ll like the applications. We’ve used it during the exquisite art of exsanguination. We… can rely on the results as it brings the raw thoughts out of the person in hologram form.”

On cue, the robed acolyte holding the Cerebarum revealed the device dancing in the stasis field within the transparent cube. Off to the side of the meeting, Elpis longed to use Gryse’s eyes again. She strained to see into the cube. She could see Astraios extend two of his arms to delicately handle the cube. He brought it up to his vast single eye to examine the device with inscrutable omniscience. DuBois paused for a moment as the no doubt vast intellect of Astraois tore apart the device in three dimensions, digging through its intricate circuitry and exemplary engineering. Seemingly satisfied, Astraois gave a curt nod which DuBois took as a cue to continue.

“Our second offering. You will be familiar with the parable of Nidvallir; the legendary forge, perhaps the birthplace of the weapons used to defeat the men of iron, or the home of the men of iron. There’s no definite view on which, at least that we could trace. After some research and a few expeditions into the Ghost Worlds… We found it. We couldn’t tell who scoured it - the men of iron, or stone, but the world was dead and almost all of what had been there was ground to dust. We still aren’t sure what happened, we can give you the original data. Of course, the scans revealed several….”

It watches the exchange of trinkets and frippery. Fools flicking words and nothing at each other.

“... I don’t mean to go on. To cut short, we found a thing of true, deep beauty. A single chip, there was very little else on the rest of the planet. It is exquisite. We think it is the central processing unit of a man of iron. I am sure it will require further examination.”

Again, a robed attendant moved forward to proffer the stasis pod as a reverential offering.

It sees the moment of opportunity.

For just a moment, DuBois lost her trail of thought as the sound of dark wings danced on the edges of her consciousness. She tried to minimise the movement of her eyes, which by dint of animal instinct scoured the scene looking for the intrusion. She couldn’t see anything, the wrongness of which itched her and scratched at her. Her bionic fingers twitched in subconscious anticipation. The warp portal flickered again, this time leaving behind what DuBois swore was a flight of ghostly feathers that twinkle-vanished into the air. She knew Astraios would be watching her and no doubt studying her every move - even the flicker of her eyes, showing her attention was elsewhere could be misconstrued. She caught the more extreme gestures before they finished, bringing her gaze back to the gloating tech priest.

“Finally, I present ‘The Vanquishing of Kaukasos’. A storied tome, found on the world GY-139 out in the Ghost Stars. Kaukasos was an agent of the forces beyond - a cruel, wicked daemon versed in human pain like no other I have encountered. It had haunted that world for generations, subjecting them to inhuman depths like no other. We encountered the daemon, and it is sufficient to say that the daemon was bested.”

DuBois hadn’t shifted her gaze from Astraios, but she could hear Wakhan shifting awkwardly from foot to foot.

“This book chronicles the initial rise and fall of the daemon. It outlines the methods of vivisection and torture the daemon dabbled in - I suppose there are a few lessons for excruciators to learn - but more importantly it details out how they took the fight to the daemon and, in the end, cast it back into the warp.”
 
The final robed attendant came forward, pushing their own stasis pod. This pod was wrapped in chains of pure silver that had been inscribed in protective runes. The runes twinkled gently in the encroaching twilight. 

“Be under no illusions - this book is a dangerous book. We believe Kaukasos’ true name is encoded within the tome and that’s how they really, finally defeated him - not that the methods within are ineffective, it is worth noting. There have been…. Experiments, and I have been pleased with the results.... We’ve not been able to drag out the name out of the text.”

DuBois let herself crack a mischievous smile.

“Perhaps you will.”

The stasis field around the bound pod sparked and scratched as something within tried to claw its way out. The field groaned as a second more aggressive assault cascaded through the field.

“You, ah, you might want to get onto that soon.”

The veil grows thin; claws and sticky beaks want to drink deep.

“We brought raw materials too. You can take your pick of what you need - rhodium, palladium, gold, diamantine, adamantium - we swept most of the vaults in this sub-sector clean, and brought enough tithe-notes and loose currency to buy it all again three times over. Again, take what you need.”

++ Katzark here. We’ve got something on scopes. Be advised. ++

DuBois let her eyes slip again, this time to her left side; her vox was situated snugly behind her ear to directly interface with her cochlear and inner ear. She let distraction take her for just another moment, eyes flicking from her left side, to the horizon. At the very edge of her vision, just the hint of dust rising could be seen floating out of the heat haze.

++ Confirm, Katzark. ++

DuBois looked back to the infinitely patient Astraios.

++ It’s a ship. Configuration unknown. We’re lighting up and getting ready to engage. It’s coming in. ++

She felt the air around her flash-freeze for a second, sending a ripple of  goosebumps up the back of her neck, then down underneath her armour, down her spine. The mood had changed - time had thickened to a slick oily miasma they were all stuck in. Hound had noticed the distant haze, and with much subtlety flicked his lasgun to hot. She couldn’t see his eyes underneath the canine helm, but she had worked long enough to know that Hound had seen something he didn’t like across his scanners and was actively, if silently, trying to alert DuBois to it. She had caught his scent now - anger, betrayal, perhaps more visceral than it had been on Haarun. There was an unspoken and lingering rage that had circulated her ship about the events on Haarun - Darien, Lomax, and Yudd had all died or been crippled in the retreat that saved her own life. Hound had taken enough solid rounds to his sternum, left arm and leg that she suspected those limbs and his torso were more metal than bone. That rage meant trust was at a premium with the Mechanicus.

Despite her protestations, and her calls for calm, it was clear the lingering hard feelings for the metal men of Mars had been harder to forget than she anticipated. Falid was on edge - she could see his eyes flicking from side to side, breathing elevated, and a stench of adrenaline was coursing off him soaking the air. Hound’s men were adjusting their stance, as if getting ready for a fighting retreat. DuBois felt her body move instinctively and then the epinephrine fired white urging heat through her muscles. She felt the shuddering shiver of her body preparing the flight or fight response.

The Fabraxians had clearly noticed too, because ammo spools and plasma coils had begun to subtly move and warm respectively. The praetorian servitors shifted their weight to be on a better footing to brace their heavy firepower. The electoos of the Priests of Motive Force sparked with insistent, impatient energy.

++ Katzark here, we’re taking fire….. Boarding torpedoes away! Taking protective measures. ++

++ Rouse A’an ++

++ Your will be done ++

“Inquisitor. You are agitated, as are your colleagues. Vox chatter has increased exponentia-”

The explosion of flame, feather and fury wrought hell onto Ishkar, and those assembled - following the fire came the very scions of change. A great multi-coloured spout of flame erupted out of the warp tunnel. The spray annihilated all of the Fabraxians near to the entrance of the now flickering warp tunnel. Coruscating lightning flashed and scorched the earth turning sand to steaming fractal glass with the raw power.

The piercing call of the screamers came first. The warp tunnel distended like a snake unhooking its jaw releasing a riot of coloured warp energy into the air. The air itself groaned, shivered, then stunk of ozone. Even as the world protested at the abhorrent distortion of reality, light bent and broke from the intrusion. The fearsome cry preceded another gout of flame, which cooked the gibbering mass of flesh and molten metal that had been praetorian servitors. Steaming blood and tumour-masses of eyeballs and fanged maws hissed and howled in reverie at  the renewed onslaught.
It is never too late! - Mentirius

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Offline Dosdamt

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #10 on: June 22, 2020, 09:59:22 AM »
Astraios spun to face the warp tunnel, immediately bemusing DuBois. She had felt an unnatural rush of unease at the warp breach - her pulse had ridden up, even higher than with the shots of adrenaline already coursing through her veins. Her stomach was a pit of nervous energy. On the horizon the dust clouds had become more distinct shapes - a murder of black crows, most likely valkyrie personnel carriers from the limited detail she could make out between the dust and the haze. The heat from the spurt of warpflame drove her to protect her face with a carapace gauntleted hand. Her profound sense of confusion and anger at a potential betrayal subsided for just a moment as the Skitarii turned and fled the initial warp assault looking for cover and respite. Her initial contacts, the tech priest she thought was called Elpis and her skitarii sidekick, were running for cover to escape the roiling flames.

The manta-like screamers came out first. The first wave came out howling, diving tusk first into the skitarii who hadn’t reacted quickly enough. The rancorous beasts were drawn into a swirling melee, unable to get back into the air as the skitarii grabbed them and pinned their flailing bodies to the ground.

“Drop back!” DuBois shouted, glancing at the blade and the mask Astraios had given her a few minutes previously. Temptation gripped her for a moment - her eyes flitted from the sword to the mask, then back to the daemonic incursion. Necessity would drive action, and until she knew the Mechanicus were not the authors of this carnage their gifts would wait. Another roar of flame came out of the maddeningly swirling warp portal which was now literally bleeding warp energy into the melee. The mass of molten metal and bubbling flesh seemed to be coagulating into a vaguely humanoid shape, limbs forming from the diaspora of liquid material. A cackling burst of feathers spat out of the tunnel complimenting the crashing violence.

Hound had already let loose with a few shots from his lasgun, trying desperately to pick off as many of the screamers as he could. The melee wasn’t making his job any easier as he slowed his rate of fire to improve his accuracy. His two accomplices had stepped forward and were also pouring fire into the mob of daemons and humans ahead of them.

“Get to the shuttle Inquisitor!” Hound called, his lasgun whine-cracking over and over as he stepped towards the conflagration.

Astraios, to this moment seemingly just motionless and surveying the chaos, now turned to action. Binaric cant filled all vox channels with a juddering hiss for a brief second, before the Fabraxians began to act as one. Even Elpis and Gryse started to move in concert, Gryse raising his weapon and Elpis grabbing one from the liquified and scorched remains of a Skitarus. The precision of fire from the unified Mechanicum contingent was terrifying, even as a second and third wave of screamers poured into reality. These screamers were a darker hue, mottled with a deep sanguinary red dash of dots down their spine and a blizzard of blue and purple hues to the tips of their wings. Their gnashing jaws drooled, telling of a hunger that would only be satiated by diving head first into the mortal flesh assembled before them.

Astraios brought himself up to his full height, his body distending slightly as his arms and torso stretched to their full potential. His gleaming form was awe-inspiring as it caught the unnatural light from the havoc-fire closer to the warp tunnel. The Motive Staff hummed with potential energy, a run of lightning arcing down its length as its owner waited for the opportune moment to unleash the full power of the weapon. A blinding light sent all proceedings pure blizzard white for a split second before a wave of pure null energy that desiccated a pair of screamers to daemonic bone that were quickly lost to dust in the aetheric winds howling from the warp tunnel.

A weight of coruscating electrical energy followed, arcing from the exemplars of motive force. Their electrical rods began to discharge a sleet of fanged lightning that burnt and mauled the skitarii and the screamers. No quarter given, no mercy shown - the steaming skitarii continued to fight, hacking and blasting at the daemons even as the flood of volts gnawed at flesh, bionics and bone. Behind the desperate scramble, the miasmic golems had finally assembled a stable platform of bone, sinew and musculature; enough to start perambulating in dysmorphic shambles towards the mess of screamers and skitarii. Flesh sloughed off the fleshy automatons even as a liquid mass of humanity beneath their feet sloshed up to replace it. The golems roared as ripples of mutation slashed through them - the metallic weaponry burst back out of the creatures in columns of spines and wicked serrated claws. The mindless brutes roiled forward in a flood of liquid skin and bone, improvised metal weapons and mindless aggression. They fell upon the press of fighting in front of the warp tunnel, breaking through the skitarii and the screamers alike. All of the swirling combatants came apart in the charge, neither side willing to stand before the living manifestation of change.

Falid had already fallen back in on his own mind. His eyes were reddened and angry, belying his actual mental state that was somewhere between blind panic and a disconnected fugue. His body had gone limp, no longer under conscious autonomy and instead running on some pale imitation of will - even the imperative need to survive had seemingly abandoned the archeotech expert. His regal gold robes were already darkening with the acrid smoke snaking from the initial conflict, and his face, though robbed of all emotion, seemed to have creased and aged. The black hair at his temples had turned an immediate frightened white. His eyes widened in horror as the tunnel rippled and vomited forth another assault.

Three chariots of Tzeentch, wicked gold metal discs bordered with cruel spikes borne along by yoked, eager screamers, rent reality back open leaving a gaping wound in both the tunnel and realspace where evermore warp energy flooded out. The daemonic forces were emboldened by the sudden surge of fuel for their machinations; otherworldly flames danced a little higher, the screamers grew a little bigger and their fangs distended further out of their gaping maws. The golems roiled and became more solid as metal and flesh hissed out extraneous fluid than ran down their drying form.

The screamers caught in combat let out another screeching call before wriggling out into the skies above. The chariot riders - two overgrown and grotesque flamers and a cackling pink fiend, gave glory to their god as they flung themselves into the melee. The flamers - tubes of daemonic flesh housing the worst combustible chemicals the warp could muster - revelled in the destruction their bursts of blue-zenith purple fire wrought over the assembled host. The chariots keened through the mass of bodies, spattering one skitarus to a bloodied smudge as they caught the unfortunate soul from left and right with hooked spines designed to catch into flesh. The chariots pulled along the wretch for a spell, before they broke away from each other. There was no cry of pain - perhaps fortunately - from the skitarus who split almost precisely down the middle in a flood of viscera.

Overhead, the roar of jet engines came loudly - the formerly distant troop carriers had come in fast above the swirling combat. The whining mechanical motors screamed dark tidings as they came around, pilots clearly straining to keep their mechanical beasts in check. Whirring assault cannons spat their contempt at the assembled Fabraxians and Inquisitorial agents, who scattered from fear of the strafing run. The murder came back around, eager for a second run though constrained by their crazed pilots whose faces suffered a rapid expansion and burst of ichor, to be replaced by avian features - a flat-sharp beak, wicked keen green eyes, and an extravagant flourish of rainbow feathers down their faces, arms, and spines. Boarding doors rattled open three or four meters above the ground, letting howling fanatics jump down in a bundle of limbs and sweat. The cultists were disturbingly muscular, each one of them having a perfect male or female torso of chiselled muscle and pert features. They all wore bird masks - some philosophical corvid features, others hungering raptors with predatory eyes and warmer but no less disturbing psittacidae with innocent wide eyes and snub curved beaks. The cultists dropping to the ground had mixed success in landings - those who broke limbs or simply didn’t survive were gripped by warp energy and granted a new, primordial animus. Broken limbs split open and flooded the area with blood, revealing new arrays of tentacles, talons and crustacean claws.

The ranks of cultists called their fury to the world, and overhead an unnatural darkness started to descend, blotting out the stars and smothering the theatre of war in a bleak cover of madness. The fourth moon of Ishkar turned a vivid burning purple.

“The Mysteriarch’s will be done! All is change!”

DuBois had found cover in her shuttle, which was not faring well. The initial strafing run had scored the shuttle with pock bullet holes that rode the full body of the vessel. Hound was at the entrance to the lander, poking his nose and lasgun into the outside, letting loose accurate counter-fire into the masses of cultists and daemons.

++ We’re pinned down here ++

++ Confirm Inquisitor. We cut down most of the torpedoes, we’re engaging the boarding parties who made it. Ah-Ahn is aware ++

++ Cooperating? ++

++ As much as is his wont ++

++ Is it the Mechanicus? ++

++ We can’t be sure. No confirmation either way ++

DuBois cursed in a long forgotten tongue. The daemons didn’t immediately suggest the Mechanicum were behind this assault, but it didn’t rule out a double cross either. The agents of the deceiver were, well, treacherous. Their wildfire assault had burnt away a material amount of Astraios’ forces, but nothing was irreplaceable. He wouldn’t be the first leader to treat his own as disposable in the pursuit of a loftier goal. The eerie purple light cast the theatre of battle in a disconcerting hue. For a moment, DuBois struggled to see into the scene with any meaningful accuracy. Necessity would drive her actions. Her bionic arm demanded attention, urging her to violence. The push, the drive, the animalistic fury gnawed at her - whether it was the binaric cant of Astraois or her subconscious projecting the anthropomorphisation of her rage as her bionic arm. All of her anguish, her fury, the deep rooted trauma of losing her arm came flooding through the pit of her stomach, up into her gullet which filled with bitter bile, up into her neck and flowing into her shoulders. Her body quivered with the emotion, simultaneously seething and sobbing, raging and dissociating, vision spinning and hearing searing soaring and closed to the wild fury of the combat chattering around them.

“Jaq!”

Hound’s voice was distorted and distant.

“JAQ!”

His voice was louder now, and more urgent. Her heart was throbbing in her chest, choking her hearing with the sound of rushing blood in her veins. Her skin felt thin and thin underneath her heavy armour.

“Inquisitor, we need you here!”

Hound’s plea shot straight into her conscious mind. DuBois recognised she needed to be present. She urgently needed to repack her trauma and bury it. Closing her eyes and taking a breath, she mentally organised her emotions - the rage, the wanton sense of loss and associated unchecked anger. She pushed these emotions into a compact sphere, once more increasing their density and their likelihood to spill over again and noting to herself she would have to deal with her damage sooner rather than later.

She stood up, straight and serene, as autoguns rattled hopelessly in her direction. Bullets pocked and deflected off the body of the shuttle ricocheting into the bulk of the lander. She nodded at Hound.

“I’m here.”

Time remained as thick and malleable, failing to flow properly around her. She used this to her advantage - even in the virtually subterranean conditions, she could see her enemies moving against her. She ignored her paranoia that the Mechanicum were the actual provocateurs. They had taken the brunt of the losses, and despite the best efforts of the furious Martian leader, their force was on the back foot and suffering at the hands of the daemons. DuBois knew her shredder was less than useless against the daemons.

She stepped into the line of fire, trusting her armour to do its job against the assorted small arms of the cultist assault. She noted the variety in the colour and type of mutations they bore proudly - feathers, tentacles, and avian features sported a kaleidoscope of wild sparking rainbows. Drool and flammable jelly leaked from each of her mortal foes, leaving a diesel slick of corruption behind the moving morass of gibbering fools.

All hesitation was lost. DuBois drew her shredder and fired a stream of violently shredding energy. The vicious green lightning arced through a huddled group of eight cultists, each of whom immediately splayed all their limbs and violently thrashed as their nervous system was utterly disrupted or destroyed. Bereft grunts of pain and the choking of drowning played as pleasure to her ears. She was destruction incarnate, ruthless and unforgiving and as implacable as gravity. She tossed her shredder to her flesh hand and with a shiver of her arm threw her carapace glove to the ground. She felt her fingers crack and dissemble, revealing her array of Jokaero weaponry. Her thoughts pulsed into her fingers, and unleashed hell.

Her grav ring fired first, pulping a cultist who was sprinting at DuBois. The cultist became a compound fracture, organs and bones spilling out of every limb, torso and skull which had been ripped asunder. The grav ring fired again, spattering the compound mess into a bloody mix of viscera and gristle which covered the cultist’s accomplices.

She fired the plasma ring next. Hyperheated blue superfluid cracked through the air, sloshing over and through a cultist's head leaving a charcoal black craterous ruined cranium. Remnants of brain tissue and spinal fluid fizzed from the heat as DuBois advanced on the cultists. Another blast from the Inquisitor’s neural shredder created a growing bow wave of convulsing, useless bodies ahead of the now imposing and imperious Inquisitor DuBois.

“Get me the Fabraxian artifacts!”

Hound obeyed without a second thought, dashing between the various stasis pods and the ruined bodies to pick up Excision and the Enigmask. He rolled to collect them from the crate DuBois had placed them on and had been forced to abandon in the heat of the battle. With a careful look, and another volley of covering fire from his comrades, Hound snuck back across the fuming environment to the shelter of the shuttle. DuBois was some distance ahead of the shuttle, emptying her remaining rings and firing her neural shredder into the seething mass of cultists.

“Jaq!” called Hound, moving as close as he dared to the edge of the shuttle landing carriage. Bullets sparked and ricocheted around as a second wave of cultists were brought in by another flight of vicious valkyries. Hound shot his lasgun in futile rage at one of the armoured behemoths, cursing himself for his lack of foresight in bringing no air cover. The shuttle was lightly armed and, now, based on the damage from strafing runs wouldn’t get airborne any time soon anyway. He danced across the open ground, trying to keep jerking and surging to avoid anyone drawing an accurate bead on him. A few stray rounds still caught his armour, leaving behind broken skin and bruises but nothing that was life threatening.

“What in the fething golden throne are you doing?” he tried, but he could see the resolve in her eyes had become as dense and as unstoppable as a blinking black hole. She reached out a hand, pointing to the mask as she ripped off another blast of crippling energy. She flicked it to her face, then took the sword and advanced as a hurricane of will.

She was hurting - as with Hound, the cultists had been accurate without being lethal. Her left shoulder was bruised and on the verge of dislocation - a shrug had brought her joint back under control. A wild cultist had managed to score her armor down her chest and over her thigh before she’d brought him down with the butt of her gun and the heel of her boot - repeatedly - to the cultist’s face and head leaving it in a bloody puddle of brains and mess. The skin on her knee was burnt, almost through to the knee cap, where a lasgun shot had thankfully hit something almost superfluous. The pain was present and wild, flaring and unforgiven. She suppressed it with grunts and the recitation of devotions. She’d not been devout for most of her life, if she was completely honest. Even after visiting Terra, and even with the reverence in which she held the actual Golden Throne, the worship of the God-Emperor had always felt functional to her, the act of a rebel not wanting - yet - to be a clear deviant to the will of the mass. Still, as blood trickled down her shin and thigh, she was thankful for the idea of the God-Emperor - for the shining paragon of humanity that He-on-Terra represented, and the feeling of empowerment it gave her. She felt vigour and a righteousness that fuelled her march into the sniping and grasping beak of the enemy.

And now, as Excision unfolded itself into a long, thin and thirsting blade, she could feel a war drum beating in time with her heart. The mask had already flowed around her head, feeling uncomfortable for barely two heartbeats before its form became her own skin. She could feel tactical data pouring into her mind from her Mechanicum contemporaries. Firing patterns and movements flooded her senses as if she were receiving them. She absent-mindedly corrected a skitarus from stepping out of cover, saving it from a great spurt of fiery death that scorched at its uniform instead.

+ Good, Inquisitor Jaqueline DuBois, a.k.a. Fanham, a.k.a. Grixos, a.k.a. Mother, a.k.a. Ampulex, + she heard from Astraois, as mellifluous as he had been to her ears he was in her mind, + Now use your power. Turn the tide. We are your allies in this conflict. +

DuBois powered forward, bulling through a cultist leaving him sprawled and prone on the floor in a spill of incendiary fluid. Hound ignited the liquid, watching somewhat in horror as the warp infused flames tore through the body of his victim. Bone and flesh turned to liquid and became unbound, dislocated from each other then utterly blackened, leaving behind a screaming sentient pool of barbecued human. Frenzied, mortified eyes flickered at the destruction around the boneless mess which then multiplied with the same glassy fearful gaze. The puddle screamed in pain and misery, gurgling and gargling as it suffered an unfathomably horrific fate.

DuBois stood, carnage tearing around her in a violent hurricane as the lone representative of He-on-Terra’s Most Holy Ordos on this benighted world; her silhouette shone in a blue black gold haze hue in the twilight that had flooded the battlefield. Inspired violence would froth at her prow as devastation follows a tornado.
It is never too late! - Mentirius

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Offline Mentirius

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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #11 on: July 18, 2020, 02:46:16 PM »

Division & Subtraction


M42.120, Ishkar IV


As it had been prophesied, so it came to pass.  The Fabraxian Legion fought and died in the name of the Deus Mechanicus, for holy war had come to Ishkar IV and the devotees of Panoptikos would never be found wanting for resolve.

The culture of Fabraxis was not an overtly martial one by Fallen Age standards, for all that many of its inventions were weapons, far less so in fact than the wider Cult Mechanicus from which it ultimately derived.  Like all Forge Worlds, Fabraxis conducted what direct warfare it deemed necessary in the Quest for Knowledge by means of its Skitarii Legion, yet its founder’s rejection of the Treaty of Olympus, and thus the Emperor-as-Omnissiah hypothesis, had brought a shift away from the traditional Mechanicus ethos of heavy-handed military dominance towards one of secrecy and concealment – especially from Imperial institutions, the better for the priesthood to conduct their sacred research undisturbed.  The state of the One Machine being what it was, a robust capacity for civil defence was vital for any society, and the study of a galaxy dominated by warlike civilisations must inevitably include the study of war, but the Prophet-Savant had cautioned against perpetuating what he perceived as an institutional obsession on the part of the orthodoxy.  Keen to avoid the theological pitfalls into which his forebears had blundered, he founded a single temple among twelve for the study of military applications and strategy, symbolically directing the rest of Fabraxis away from those areas of focus.  He called this the Temple of Irrefutable Argument, and the rulers of its priesthood were given the title of Magos Bellatorus.  They approached their ordained function with no less intellectual rigour than the Magi of their sister temples, competing constantly in elaborate simulations, and occasionally took the field as Generals of the Skitarii Legion, extrapolating from a vast wealth of data on past engagements and approaching each new battle as the balancing of a unique equation.  Their reverence for knowledge gained through violent struggle was without equal, although their matching irreverence for knowledge lost with the dead bordered on blasphemy, at least in the eyes of Rune Priest Elpis, who held every spark of intellect to be precious to some degree.

Officially the Bellatori had never lost a significant engagement.  They were fiercely proud of the claim, though as far as she knew their definition of ‘significant’ was pretty specific in this case, and such engagements were so rare that a perfect record was less impressive on close inspection than it might at first have sounded.  They had of course lost plenty of Skitarii lives over the years.  They were one of the smaller Temples in terms of their priesthood, which they justified in terms of quality over quantity, primarily recruiting initiates from the ranks of the Temple of Living Prophecy, for the grounding they gained there in predictive calculation.  In person even their lowest ranking members tended to be disagreeable characters, often holding vehement opinions about which they declaimed at agonising length, brooking no dissent – Elpis had met several aspiring Magi who adhered to this stereotype and harboured no great desire to meet another, though she was grudgingly beginning to appreciate the need for their existence.  A full Magos Bellatorus could be expected to bristle with barely restrained aggression, always eager for any form of conflict in which to prove the superiority of Fabraxian understanding, of their Temple in particular, and of their personal comprehension most of all.  However, to their eternal chagrin the actual deployment of any Skitarii forces outside the city, together with their own comings and goings, came under the aegis of the Temple of Universal Harmony to which Astraios and Elpis belonged, most of whose Magi considered involving a Bellatorus in any endeavour to be an option of last resort.  The Magi of Irrefutable Argument made no secret of their resentment for this lack of autonomy and the dearth of combat experience that resulted, but even they would never directly defy Panoptikos, who had decreed it should be so.  Their expertise therefore remained largely theoretical in many cases, for all its importance to Fabraxian safety was impossible to dispute, perhaps now more than ever.

Magos Illuminator Astraios had studied in at least seven Temples, or so the stories went, for like all Magi his personal files were sealed to the lesser priesthood.  Whether his illustrious career had included a spell in Irrefutable Argument, Elpis had never thought to ask.  On the one hand, there was nothing of the Bellatorus in Astraios that she could see, and no one had ever mentioned a military background among his accomplishments.  On the other, it would seem irrational to have given him such a formidable Skitarii contingent if he lacked the training to effectively command them.  The Prophet-Savant was a paragon of rationality and he had chosen Astraios, had chosen them all for this assignment.  Even Elpis, by no means a warrior, found herself among the Skitarii with a rifle in hand, an instrument of his will now, sleep-walking through the conflict as a faithful marionette.  There had to be a reason.  In Panoptikos she trusted absolutely.  But while she fired in perfect unison with those around her, and could not tell for sure whose shots hit what in the mind-bending warp-light, so her thoughts wandered and meandered, striving to make sense of the insensible, seeking tenuous purchase on slippery truths. 

For all her curiosity about the One Machine, and despite her years spent studying in Fabraxis, Elpis had never set foot in the Temple of Necessary Evil, nor had she ever seen a daemon before now.  Her mind had yet to truly process all that was happening, so vivid and various were the phenomena on display.  It was one thing to know of the so-called Chaos Gods, to read of their respective natures and learn to recognise their runes, but theory was poor preparation for direct experience, especially when it came to the warp.  Now it was as if the boundaries between idle imagination and the bedrock truths of the Universal Code had been suddenly removed, and wild half-formed thoughts were leaking prematurely into the realm of reason, distorting all they touched into strange, inconstant forms.  Light drifted untethered, shifting colours, absent source.  Time moved in fits and starts, speeding and slowing in disjointed channels, disconnecting the flow of events.  The ceaseless screaming dirge of the airborne manta-creatures cut to the quick of her emotions, summoning an answering sorrow so unfamiliar, and yet so deep, as to blur her eyes and crust her cheeks with salt, even while she fired upon them with the rest.  To speak with such agonised discord, they must have been in such pain…no soldiers these but animals, or the immaterial equivalent of such, yoked and driven into a battle she doubted they could understand.  They were majestic in their way, their pigments almost painfully bright, and the Motive Force surely flowed within even such life as theirs.  Their implied enslavement, their disharmony with the One Machine, was a tragedy she could hardly bear.  It hadn’t yet occurred to her that their scream might be a joyous hunting call, and this an entirely typical feeding ground for such as them.

This was not her intended function.  As well to hurl a book of scripture at the enemy, or to brandish a telescope with murderous intent, as send Rune Priest Elpis to war.  And yet here she was, and a de facto officer in her own right to the troops arrayed around her, her robes after all designating a Fabraxian tech-priest, the only one on the field beside their commanding Magos and his attending monks of Singular Force.  Disciples of Astraios, a prophet in his own right to them for his creation of the Motive Staff, a hard core of those fanatics followed the Illuminator from one Temple to another, no more independent from him than his many limbs.  While they formed a final line of defence now, behind and to the right of her current position, they protected the Magos exclusively, caring less for Skitarii lives than the most ruthless Bellatorus might have done.  Thus it was that Elpis alone stood with and among the legionnaires, towards the rear a tight formation beyond which chaos reigned.  She stood miraculously unharmed so far, at least in body, with Gryse at her side as ever.  They had already seen dozens of his comrades die grisly, defiant deaths.  Ensconced in the intoxication of vox-borne binary battle hymns, tickled by delicate micro-corrections received via MIU, they fired their weapons as Astraios directed and prayed his comprehension would prove sublime.  Already half their number had fallen, yet morale was never in question for they who had seen Fabraxis, even without the buzzing cant which held them in its sway.  They were the tools of the Deus Mechanicus, whose will would always prove supreme. 

Then the first of the towering, staggering former Praetorians hit, breaking through the serried ranks and ploughing deep into their formation.  No sign of Fabraxian engineering remained in the mutated colossus, which now resembled a child’s clay model of a man writ large, lopsided and haphazardly studded with wicked metal spines, the ghosts of finely tooled instruments that had been – or rather countless quantum variations of that apparition crammed into the same space, overlapping and blurring together, never truly stable, as every version fought to influence the whole.  Daemons poured in behind the ex-Praetorian.  These were of a mostly bipedal variety, freshly disgorged by the malignant tunnel mouth, and they capered in to fill the wake of broken bodies with a foaming river of eyes and teeth, piling over each other in their eagerness to engage, as the fearless Skitarii who refused to break were crushed or hurled aside.  The titanic golem blinked with a thousand unique eyes, shrugging off any wounds it sustained as quickly as they appeared, trampling soldiers underfoot with a swaying, drunken gait, implacable as an incoming tide.  Its rambling course took it safely past Elpis, yet her unit shivered and broke apart before the onslaught, absorbed into the outer melee, as the ever-burning infantry of Tzeentch swarmed in amongst them and many-hued warpfire leapt and danced, corrupting every partner it ensnared.

No graceful echoes of nature could be found in these manifestations of disorder.  Bilateral symmetry appeared entirely absent, their faces were stretched over headless torsos, while a theme of gaping, toothy mouths had been so heavily emphasised in their design, it seemed to leave little space for internal organs into which all those throats might lead.  Their flesh was variously coloured electric pink, lurid blue or bitter, sulphurous yellow, with tufts of purple feathers sprouting in apparently random places.  Some of their jaws were beaked instead of fanged, though no less wide or mobile for that, stretching in ways the humble keratin of the Materium could never hope to match.  Grasping, many-jointed fingers snatched and slashed at the Skitarii, scoring lines in their silver war-plate and ripping fistfuls of material from their long coats, occasionally finding a weaker point and earning a spray of vital fluids.  When the legionnaires responded with calculated force that sliced, split and skewered the cackling creatures, more apparitions clambered from the fading wreckage of their corpses and the size of the horde swelled still further. 

Daemons within daemons within daemons; mouths within mouths within mouths.  Elpis stood amidst a growing tumour in the Fabraxian Legion’s guts; a jangling dissonance in the Universal Code.  The madness of a shattered God who raged against reconstitution, just as civilisations across the galaxy fought each other with blade and bullet, warring for their own supremacy and against their own survival.  These were the children of the Great Malfunction, and the boisterous pinks in particular seemed to revel in their awful lineage, laughing maniacally as they killed and died.  They gave birth as they fell to pairs of the squat, savage blues, who were serious and vengeful by contrast, though no less lively for it, squabbling furiously between themselves whenever their prey was out of reach.  Wherever a blue was struck down, two yellows sprang up from its body in turn, and these made a knee-high swarm who leapt and snatched at trailing coats, darting between legs and igniting everything they touched.

Elpis knew not what to think as she watched the senseless anarchy unfold.  The hymn had ended somewhere back there and a new one was yet to begin.  Unwillingly released from the imposed battle trance, her whole body shook and the rifle grip was slippery in her hands.  Not really a close quarters weapon, its barrel too long to be effective in a melee situation.  What did Astraios want from them now?  She supposed it would make sense to target the yellow imps, for at least their deaths seemed somewhat final, bringing no further nightmares forth.  She could still see the gaping mouth of the warp tunnel to the North, from which a tide of further reinforcements were relentlessly pouring forth.  It appeared her eyes could detect more of the spectrum than usual when she glanced that way, a curious optical illusion presumably brought on by the ongoing warp event.  There seemed no hope of an end to the daemons, and she briefly imagined a twisted mirror of Ishkar on the other side, an anti-planet crowded with the creatures, shoulder to shoulder all the way across the globe, and all of them converging on the breach. 

Then Gryse was dragging her backwards, his vox-voice blaring distantly, words lost to the chrono-spatial distortion in which they were all immersed.  A violet-orange fireball bloomed like a flower before her, consuming three Skitarii and filling the space she had just occupied, though the wash of what should have been heat felt like a blast of icy wind on her face.  When the fireball cleared, it left behind a trio of delicate green glass statues which a pair of blue daemons immediately leapt on and began to smash.  The oily technicolour smear of a passing chariot streaked by overhead – had they flown before?  This one was certainly flying now, already turning in the air, coming around for another run. 

Everywhere she looked, Fabraxians fell.  A Skitarius close enough to touch had his helmeted head bitten clean off by a pink, and the spurting gore from his truncated neck left a glistening diagonal stripe across the front of her robe.  Another was aflame all down one side, caught by a splash of incendiary fluids, and his body altered shape as it burned, sizzling tentacles writhing in agony even as they emerged from cracks in his armour, which was speedily flaking away.  She saw one seized by so many clawed hands that his halberd was immobilised, all four of his limbs held fast.  The daemons wrenched hard in every direction until his bones and armour broke, his joints tore loose and his torso fell dismembered, still alive and screaming tortured static as what remained was trampled and set alight by the spiteful yellow sprites, half-sunk in steaming mud.  Gryse all but carried her through this madness, insistent, his strength far outmatching hers.  She could have made him let go with a directed thought, but the decision would not come.  He was right to try and remove her, away from these gibbering daemons and the enormous combat servitors they had profaned.  Elpis did not belong here.  What good could she possibly do?

But then, as if in answer from the Deus Mechanicus, she saw Falid Wakhan.  The Unmagos stood near the back of the disintegrating press, staring blank-faced into the warp tunnel with his shoulders slumped in defeat and his arms hanging limp at his sides, lost in confusion or despair.  The scroll Astraios had given him was nowhere to be seen.  Nearby Skitarii paid Wakhan no heed, his own companions had retreated and the unstoppable tide of violence was about to reach his position, though he gave no sign of having noticed, with even his jaw hanging slack.  If anyone here was more out of place than Elpis, even more a civilian among soldiers and even less well equipped to survive, then it was the Inquisitor’s advisor in his soft shoes and increasingly filthy gold robes. 

Some intangible second wind blew through her at the sight and she willed a command at Gryse.  He obeyed immediately, letting her go but for one arm and forging towards Wakhan.  She followed closely with him, broadcasting a line of intent through her MIU, and the other Skitarii shifted instinctively to let them pass, even while they fought for their lives.  Elpis could not protect them all but she might yet save one fragile soul, who clearly lacked the means to preserve himself.  She imagined Gryse might feel the same way about her.  If ever there were a time and place for Elpis to be a little more like him then this was surely it.  Gripping her salvaged weapon tightly, she marshalled her courage.  The daemons were almost upon the Unmagos, grappling with Skitarii a matter of steps away.

“Master Wakhan, get back!”

She doubted he caught her warning, for it never reached her own ears over the keening of the flying daemons, so she appealed to Gryse instead.  Returning instinctively to MIU, she tried hard to moderate her urgency as she mentally called out to him, though she still felt like she was yelling.

“Save him at all costs!  His knowledge must not be lost.”

If the Skitarius gave any verbal response she did not hear him either – was her vox even working? – and for a moment she was profoundly irritated by the whole business of one-way MIU implants that let him receive but not reply.  Typical Bellatorus thinking to restrict the right to communicate by rank.  She could understand the reasoning but the inconvenience frustrated her, and it hardly seemed fair to the Skitarii themselves.  No wonder so many thought her a dreamer.  Still she felt certain this was the right thing to do.  The Magos had apparently returned their autonomy when the formation came apart.  No further commands had been issued to she or Gryse since then, and what was the use of a Fabraxian priest who could not think for herself?  Initiative and inspiration were not luxuries to be discarded in times of crisis; they were at the core of what Fabraxis stood for.  Elpis had been inspired, and she would not wait for orders, nor pester Astraios in the midst of his concentration, distracting from whatever sacred power he currently brought to bear.  These soldiers needed no one to tell them their duty, and she could not allow the strange be-ringed mystic to die out here in the mud. 

They reached the Unmagos just as the melee closed around him, and Gryse fired in a relentless regular rhythm, his Discorporator carbine pulling wispy streamers of warp-stuff from daemonic bodies to be lost in the overall haze.  His shots were too brief on this setting to pollute the soul crystals within, yet the nature of the weapon was such that every impact appeared as an exit wound, seeming almost to drag his shots out of the daemons instead of driving them home.  It was no less effective for this, and if anything the reverse was true, for the monsters howled at the Discorporator’s touch and those who survived it scrambled to get away.  Elpis found she could or would not fire alongside him, though she had intended it, for she was unaccustomed to the rifle she held, troubled by its unfamiliar design and acutely wary of hitting Gryse, Wakhan, or one of the other Skitarii who fought on every side.  Such was the prowess of her bodyguard in those few moments, it seemed she would not have to after all.  So thinking and grateful for it, she released her weapon to free up both hands, letting the strap take the weight while Gryse gunned down everything that tried to touch the Unmagos, who still stood unresponsive, oblivious or uncaring of the danger.  Elpis gritted her teeth and took hold of his waist, bending low and somehow wrestling him up onto her shoulders, coiling both her mechadendrites around him to keep him held in place. 

Falid Wakhan may not have been a large man but he wore a heavy backpack that bulged and sagged with machinery, all of it surely far too precious to leave behind, while Elpis was much shorter than he was and out of practice at manual labour.  The life of a Fabraxian tech-priest rarely called for physical exertion in her experience, though she did enjoy taking long walks out here and was probably fitter than the average member of the clergy, discounting the heavily augmented.  The combined mass of Wakhan and his gear pressed down hard, highlighting her mounting exhaustion.  Her robes were already soaked through.  At least he did not resist, Deus Mechanicus be praised.  Better this way than to have Gryse encumbered, even if it would be an effort for her.  But was there anywhere safe left to take him?  Trusting in her bodyguard to keep the daemons off, she swivelled unsteadily on the spot and looked for the Inquisitor.  Her beloved organic eyes could make no sense of her surroundings, overloaded with colour and movement now, caught in an upwards-falling rain of coloured flakes.

“Time to move, Gryse – I can’t see which way, I’m sorry.  We need to find the Inquisitor and her soldiers.  If you can tell where they are then take the lead.  I will be right behind you.”

Turning back towards her, the Skitarius shot a yellow in mid-leap halfway to her face.  In doing so he saved her life for a second time in as many minutes, though she narrowly avoided the incendiary sparks the guttering daemon shed.  Gryse gave a short nod, pushed past her and set to cutting a new path, putting his back to the distended warp tunnel.  Whether he could in fact see the Inquisitor, or simply concluded ‘away from the source of the daemons’ was the logical direction to take their charge, she made no attempt to verify.  He demonstrably trusted Elpis, so she felt she owed him the same.  Following him this way would mean having the tunnel out of her peripheral vision for a while, and maybe that would help her own eyes to clear.  Whatever energies currently filled the air were playing havoc with her visual centres, though neither did she envy Gryse the ability to see it all in meticulous detail.  What annotations could his HUD possibly ascribe to this?  For perhaps the first time in her life, Elpis felt no need for a closer look.  Falid Wakhan was a dead weight on her back.  They would have to get out of the melee quickly, for she was all but defenceless like this and Gryse could only face in one direction at a time.  Remember the prophecy, she reminded herself.  This conflict was foreseen.  All truths were known in the beginning; all will be comprehended in the end.  Trust in Panoptikos, for the Prophet-Savant would never sacrifice knowledge without need.  You’re a cog, so keep turning.  Whatever happens, Don’t Fall Down. 

By the grace of the Deus Mechanicus Elpis did not fall down, or not yet at any rate.  Through divine providence did her feet remain steady, or steady enough to serve, as she carried her burden resolutely across the battlefield, away from the daemons and towards a dark looming mound that eventually resolved itself into the bullet-ravaged bulk of the Inquisitor’s shuttle.  Gryse fought like the living weapon he was, a constant storm of motion, clubbing or shooting point-blank into leering faces, breaking reaching arms, suffering none of the awful horrors to bar her path.  The confusing warp-light faded quickly as they drew away from the notional front line, yet a shroud seemed to cover the sky overhead, blotting out the morning sun, leaving only the illusion of a single purple moon staring down at them like a mad, sightless eye.  They had entered an unnatural starless night that utterly smothered the burgeoning dawn, as if a black curtain had been drawn over Ishkar, to remain until further notice. 

She wondered how far the darkness extended, thought about her cogitator still in the little cabin, a direct line to reinforcements that were half a world away.  There was no way they’d get here in time to make a difference, so accustomed were the local Fabraxians to using targeted warp tunnels that were surely not an option now.  For all Elpis knew, the outpost on the far side of the current tunnel, and also of Ishkar IV, might be suffering a similar incursion.  They clearly hadn’t managed to sever the connection and close the portal yet, which should have been easy to achieve from their end, and that did not bode well at all.  Still, if the outpost remained secure and she could get a message over, they might at least tell her how all this looked from the outside, and maybe that would help.  She knew the stars were still out there of course, but at this moment she would have felt glad to hear it confirmed.  Sadly she doubted such communication would be practical with the Unmagos still in tow, and in any case the first glance she eventually got of the flimsy shack where she had lived with Gryse saw it half-collapsed and riddled with bullet holes.  Her breath was already coming shorter, her muscles filling with lactic acid.  She needed to put Wakhan down soon, before she keeled over and took him with her, neither of them to rise again. 

Gryse suddenly stopped short in front of her, bringing them both to a halt.  She didn’t need to ask why, for ahead of them lay a mob of bird-masked cultists who milled around the grounded shuttle, many of their gleaming bodies still in the process of mutating – she wondered at the mechanism behind their spontaneous modifications – and all of them armed to fight.  The ground was littered with the dead and dying, presumably the work of DuBois and her enforcers, yet those worshippers remaining would still have outnumbered the Fabraxian delegation, even before Skitarii had started to fall.  The daemons had yet to make it this far from the tunnel, yet the names of Tzeentch and the Mysteriarch – an archaic title meaning ‘ruler over religious mysteries’, though she had no idea of the context here – were called out constantly, in tones of jubilation and of threat.  Somehow she and a single Skitarius would have to part this sea to reach the Inquisitor, or else be drowned beneath it.

A pack of the aircraft that had strafed both delegations now hovered low above the crowd, presumably trying to pitch in with the assault, though Elpis saw several cultists mowed down by their friendly fire.  Even she recognised the vehicles on sight – Valkyrie airborne assault carriers, specifically a stripped-down local variant common in the Ishkar system, used by everyone from the governor’s security forces to the various trade cartels and some less reputable enterprises.  Old Martian technology, but from the reliable end of the scale and employed across the galaxy – including, on occasion, by the Temple of Universal Harmony itself.  Ultimately inferior to Fabraxian combat shuttles, added the inner Gryse…however, countered Elpis, ever contrary, they were significantly cheaper to manufacture and rather easier to maintain, with the added benefit of raising no suspicious eyebrows on sight.  These were more lightly armed than those employed by the Imperial military and had clearly seen better days, but their auto-cannons would still make short work of Elpis, together with both the inner and outer instances of her bodyguard.

“Honoured Magos Illuminator?  Your servant requests tactical instruction, re: preservation of Falid Wakhan.”

She sent her request via MIU, keeping the vox channels clear.  It had to be worth a try.  As she did so she looked back across the battlefield, squinting in the eerie purple light, forbidding her gaze to linger on any strangely coloured flames.  Since when had the humble landing strip been so vast?  She hadn’t looked for the Magos recently, trapped in her own bubble of immediate peril, and yet had never doubted that he fought on in the beating heart of the battle, wherever that might be.  That any Skitarii still stood had been proof enough of this, for if the great Astraios were to fall beneath the waves, so surely would they all.  A tall shape in the distance might have been him, or else a shining lantern hanging in a spindly windblown tree, whose leafless limbs whipped back and forth, buffeted by a many-coloured storm.  There were no trees on Ishkar IV…Astraios after all then.  Had he heard her call for aid?  Had the space between them expanded, stretching like elastic while her back was turned?  Were they already so badly misaligned with the Universal Code?  She felt a hard hand grip her shoulder, turn her forcibly back around.  Gryse again, of the outer variety, his bionic eyes like headlights in the false night, gesturing violently towards the cultists with his carbine.



Offline Mentirius

  • Interrogator
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  • Posts: 79
Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #12 on: July 18, 2020, 02:48:09 PM »

Groaning with the effort, Elpis managed to get her own rifle back into her hands, feet spread wide beneath her robes.  She leaned forward in search of equilibrium, trying to maintain her balance with Falid Wakhan still on her back.  Absent the weight that so restrained her, and apparently any disorientation related to the warp, the Skitarius sprang into action as the nearest of the cultists began to turn their way.  His Discorporator spat dire judgement, tearing holes in already polluted souls, though it was immediately apparent that the crazed men and women were less susceptible to these attacks than their daemonic allies, sustained as they were by physical flesh and blood.  Short of using a sustained beam to extract the entire animus, storing it in one of the carbine’s finite reservoir of internal crystals and leaving the body an empty shell, Discorporators were essentially non-lethal against human targets.  Harvesting souls from worshippers of Chaos visibly infused with daemonic influence would risk permanently corrupting the weapon itself, a terrible sin against the inhabiting Machine Spirit, and such risks could not be countenanced without special dispensation, which Gryse had neither sought not received.  Thus the spiritual injuries caused by his shots still sent cultists reeling, sapping their strength and diminishing Motive Force by degrees, yet the barrage failed to kill any of them outright, as the Skitarius would surely have preferred. 

Elpis herself, in stark contrast, could scarcely believe the carnage her own hastily salvaged weapon now wreaked upon these troops.  Evidently a recent invention, she didn’t know its designation but quickly inferred from what she observed that the rifle employed a form of short-range teleportation technology, though the underlying mechanism could have been any one of several known approaches, or even something entirely new.  Presumably eschewing the complex dynamic calculations required for the safe translocation of complex structures, though it did require her to manually set her intended range, the weapon simply targeted a point in space, snatched a fist-sized sphere of whatever matter surrounded that point and relocated it a short distance away, apparently in a random direction.  When the transported matter arrived, it did so with an instant explosion of concussive force, pulverising everything in a moderate blast radius with a thud like a mortar shell. 

The brutality of the weapon was appalling to behold, gory and heavy-handed as surgery performed with a sledgehammer.  It was as if some wrathful angel dove among the misbelievers, hurling invisible grenades wherever she decreed, accurate to within a couple of paces but made careless by righteous anger.  It was undeniably effective, even or perhaps especially when she missed and hit the ground, transporting solid chunks of earth and stone.  It shattered the initial charge of the cultists, leaving few of them alive to scurry clear, even as the bone-trembling thuds it made on impact attracted more towards her.  It even lacked any recoil, there being no true projectile, which was a major boon while wearing floor-length robes and carrying a civilian on her shoulders.  And yet its inherent contempt for precision, its willingness to blindly destroy, did not fit with the Fabraxis she knew, as the finest Martian boltgun might have seemed brutish in delicate Aeldari hands.  She wondered what otherwise failed experiment, what dark and terminal train of thought, could have led a Fabraxian Magos to conceive of such a thing.  She could not help but disapprove, recognising the impiety of her disapproval and feeling it anyway.  Neither could she stop aiming and firing, for the minimum safe range was surely significant and at point-blank she expected the weapon would either be rendered ineffective or prohibitively dangerous to use.

So it was that Elpis killed human beings, if they could still be considered such, for the first time in her life.  She smashed bodies asunder at the touch of a button, with all the elegance of a bull grox trampling porcelain figures underfoot, endeavouring to maintain half so thick a hide.  A dozen died by her distant hand in the time it took to draw two long breaths, and yet she achieved no real tactical gain, for more of their number were turning towards her and the crack of Tzeentchian bullets was beginning to answer her call.  Elpis wore no armour, so it would probably only take one such bullet to incapacitate her, to say nothing of the airborne auto-cannons.  It was then that the distinctive voice of Astraios spoke at last inside her mind. 

“Your core assumption is sound, Rune Priest: Falid Wakhan is an ally of Fabraxis and must be preserved.  However, your present course requires greater force than you can reasonably exert.  My disciples and I cannot leave our current position or the primary malfunction will expand, causing a corresponding increase in the severity of related phenomena.  I have therefore ordered Skitarii units to assist you in securing a defensible position.  The authority of your implant has been temporarily augmented: units within effective mind impulse radius will now receive your commands as primary directives.  You will take and hold the Inquisitor’s shuttle in the Prophet-Savant’s name.”

In the moments it took Elpis to process this, receptive to instruction though she was, a lasbolt burned a hole in her robe, narrowly avoiding the fragile flesh beneath, three cultists made it past her imaginary line and one of the hovering Valkyries came about, lining up its auto-cannon as it veered towards her.  Before she had time to take further stock of her dwindling options, a will not her own took over her limbs, moving her like a puppet, dialled up the range on her weapon and shot the aircraft down.  She gasped as her control came back, the ethereal hand of Astraios releasing her as abruptly as it had grasped.  Two of the trio of cultists were already dead, necks broken by Gryse, who was still in the process of grappling with the third.  Elpis barely registered this, gazing past the Skitarius as she watched the explosion, saw the smoking ruin of the troop carrier coming down on the hapless rabble to which it had given birth, crashing into their midst like a booted foot kicked hard into an anthill, throwing bodies up around itself as it ploughed into the earth.  A second detonation followed, fuel igniting in a wash of orange light, rising as if in tribute to Ishkar’s hidden sun.  She saw figures running, burning, falling to roll in the scorching grass.  In the foreground Gryse’s remaining opponent arched, kicked, convulsed and then finally slumped. 

A sudden shadow fell across her in the firelight, and she looked up to see a red-tinted metallic sphere suspended over them – one of Astraios’s floating capsules, she realised, containing a single auxiliary head.  A symbolic planet roaming untethered through the Universe, one more discordant note in this cacophony.  This close she could make out the various seams, where interlocking plates connected to form the capsule’s perfect shape.  She wondered how the face concealed within might appear.  Was it frozen in permanent repose, or did it still make expressions in there when the Magos spoke through it, for all there was no one to see them?  If so, perhaps it smiled encouragement at Elpis now, or else rolled its eyes at her obvious reluctance to engage.  It spoke again, a verbal nudge towards a waiting precipice, and maybe thin lips moved beneath its shell.

“Proceed.”

And so she did, though she handed her weapon over to Gryse, who took it automatically, before they resumed their advance.  He stayed alongside her, keeping pace, firing ahead of them with his Discorporator carbine in one hand and her terrible teleporting rifle now in the other.  Swivelling his body back and forth, he kept his elbows braced against his ribs and maintained a steady rate of fire, seeming no less accurate for splitting his attention, his extensive bionic enhancements staving off any threat of fatigue.  Elpis had neither the heart nor the strength to wield a gun herself just then, consumed by the singular task of staying upright and in motion while under so much weight – this was the temporary excuse she gave herself, though she made a mental note to revisit the subject later, assuming she survived this assault. 

Groups of Skitarii were already moving past them to either side, wading into the cultists and fighting for every step, still harried by pursuing daemons that confounded the eye and yet heading doggedly towards the shuttle now, where she hoped their earthly armaments might do more good than they had in the jaws of the warp.  The Magos having promised as much, she was pleased to observe the results of his order.  It was not that she doubted Astraios, but every sense seemed suspect today, hallucinations abounded and she clung to any confirmation of the reality she knew.  As if to reiterate that confirmation, battle-cant abruptly blared again, Skitarii vox-casters all around her rose to sing in chorus and the galvanising swell of a fresh binary hymn poured purpose into every tiny movement she made, overwhelming the heart-wrenching lament of the aerial daemons and smoothing her awkward tottering shuffle back into a confident stride.  The cultists heard the holy music too, though she suspected the fallen Valkyrie would have been enough to draw their ire, and were running en masse to meet the charge with blasphemy on their lips. 

Even as she noted this, Gryse hit a second carrier, holding the mysterious rifle two-handed to sight along its length, and she caught a glimpse of the cockpit as the Valkryie corkscrewed out of the sky.  The wind-shield remained unbroken, yet the pilot’s head was now missing, its sudden relocation presumably responsible for having sheared off his plane’s left wing.  Elpis didn’t see it hit the ground but she felt the impact underfoot, the heat of the explosion on her scalp.  Another Fabraxian heavy weapon fired, this one a long-barrelled plasma cannon, and a third assault carrier swerved to avoid the glowing energy ball that issued forth, clipping one of its fellows with a wing-tip in the process, spinning both of them out of control.  A rank of equally ominous firearms was taking shape around Elpis and Gryse now, aiming high towards the Valkyries while Skitarii armed with melee weapons moved to form a protective ring.  They kept advancing as they fired, falling into a rhythmic cycling sequence, and the ring moved inexorably with them. 

Chain halberds roared and bit, severing limbs with every stroke.  Force glaives made great irresistible sweeps, passing through flesh and bone like smoke and leaving spectral trails, while arc staves flashed and overflowed with Motive Force, transmuting bodies into scorched husks where they struck.  Blood fizzed and steamed away or sank into the dirt as fast as it was shed.  Where the dividing daemons had soaked up the ferocity of the Fabraxian Legion and laughed in their collective faces, untroubled by their own mutilation, these semi-naked cultists could not so much as slow them down.  For all their twisted gifts, they melted before the Skitarii onslaught like wire beneath a soldering iron.  The legionnaires themselves were so thoroughly encased in their powered war plate that blades and small arms skittered off them, rendering most of the cultists unable to deal much damage in return, though Elpis did see one Skitarius skewered by monstrous scythe-limb that dribbled caustic fluid.  His comrades quickly removed the appendage and hacked its owner down.  The bodies fell behind as they marched on.

They were nearly to the gangway of the shuttle, the remaining Valkyries in noisy disarray, when a further malfunction occurred.  Elpis felt her foot catch on something, tried to stop moving but failed to arrest her momentum.  She went down on her face, turning her head as she fell to avoid a broken nose.  Wakhan’s weight drove all the breath out of her and she felt her consciousness waver, heard oblivion’s warm invitation whisper in her head.  Walls of clashing sound assaulted her eardrums, her vision was smothered by a tangle of cloth and the smell of blood had laid claim to her nostrils, driving out all other odours with a blade.  Falling into MIU without any conscious choice, a fervent desire for assistance swiftly manifested Gryse.  An errant flap of robe was pulled aside to reveal the Skitarius crouching beside her.  He hoisted her up with minimal ceremony, Falid Wakhan and all.  The impromptu squad had stopped and held their ground when she fell, rather than trample her underfoot and leave her for the cultists.  She glanced down to see what had tripped her and beheld one of the Inquisitor’s fat little cherubim, lying on its back with its guts spilled out and dirty footprints in its white-feathered wings.  The infant servitor was still clutching a gas grenade in one of its chubby paws, and had already been trodden halfway into the dirt.  It had been such a beautiful morning… 

Then the daemons caught up with them, flooding in behind the Skitarii charge – or had it been a retreat?  She knew this without turning as the screaming suddenly ramped up, accompanied by the bubbling laughter of the pinks and the crackle of feeding flames.  Turning anyway, she was in time to see a flock of the shrieking airborne daemons already in full dive, their wide fin-wings rippling, their tapered tusks pointing her way.  They would have skewered Elpis and everyone else in the vicinity, exposed as they still were, had not the red-tinted spherical capsule reappeared, drifting lazily from the corner of her eye to interpose itself.  She heard the voice of Astraios once more, this time as an echoing resonance that seemed to speak directly to her frightened soul.  Distantly she noticed a mass of faces, Skitarius and bird-masked cultist both, turn with her to stare up at the levitating ball.

“Attend: Unnecessary Evil is to be abhorred.  The object of this worship has malfunctioned, is malfunction, thus the worship is malfunction in itself.  The object of the true faith is sublime; so then must be the practice of that faith.  Behold the error of your ways: Access to Sacred Knowledge is Denied.”

With that the daemonic beasts stopped dead in the air, colliding with an immovable barrier that splintered their tusks on contact.  They all kept going, moving too fast to turn aside, and the sudden enforced deceleration crushed and spread their flat bodies wide across the invisible shield, painting the air above the Fabraxians with a splatter pattern of ichor whose distribution suggested the top of a dome.  Cultist bullets ricocheted, likewise repelled.  Elpis felt a renewed, resurgent tide of faith rise up inside her.  Her ears popped repeatedly as order was imposed, the red sphere seeming to grow ever larger, as if to challenge the purple moon.  The gabbling tide of daemons were cringing back from the power it emanated.  Astraios stood with them even here, albeit vicariously, with the rest of himself at an alarmingly distant remove.  His practised mind-impulse puppetry of a single psychic head could hold even such terrors as these at bay, and even while he fought to close the portal had he found time to save their lives.  She wondered how he was faring with his red planet so far out of alignment, yet the timely actions of the Magos were proof enough for her: the Deus Mechanicus stood with them still.  Then the birds began to sing – softly at first but soon growing in volume, drowning all other sounds in their warbling chorus as if a hidden dial were being turned.  Time slowed nearly to a standstill as one of the burning chariots slid painfully into view. 

Untethered by gravity, dragged by two of the screaming daemons, the living comet traversed the black sky towards them.  It came speeding along the same trajectory as those Astraios had just slain, a pennant of variegated fire trailing behind it like a stolen rainbow, and as it drew closer Elpis could make out something of its construction, or lack thereof.  The main body of the eldritch vehicle consisted of a golden disc that bristled with underslung hooks and blades, curving up from benneath it to surround the rider on every side.  Ropes of warpfire coiled around the warp-beasts’ undulating tails and a burning corona of the same surrounding the whole assembly, as if the chariot were primarily composed of the flame itself.  No human could ever have ridden the irrational conveyance, however altered they might have been.  The rider was a pink-skinned daemon, taller than its lesser cousins, bedecked with a mismatched assortment of amulets and bangles in a pantomime of mortal ostentation.  Its avian head stood proud of its shoulders and it brandished a golden staff using two of its four long arms, as if in direct mockery of Astraios, down to the icon of Tzeentch which surmounted the implement.  Its beak was brutally downward-curved, a carrion eater’s tool.  It hooted and screeched at them as the chariot bore down, words barely intelligible through its obvious excitement as it drew back a free hand and hurled a scintillating spear of sky-blue flame.

“Ah-ah-ah!  Sacred knowings are for the Weaver, not for the little flesh-flies all snared up in the Weave.  Clowns and jesters, performers you are, whose jokes are all on you!  The birds don’t sing for your sake; they laugh, they laugh, they laugh…”

The flame-spear connected with the psychic shield and burst it like a soap bubble, apparently expending its strength in the process but showering Elpis and her comrades with a rain of daemonic guts.  The chariot itself pulled up sharply just before it reached them, its motive beasts straining as they aborted their dive, reversed direction and began to climb again.  The barbed disc swung low through the crowd, indiscriminately mangling cultists and Skitarii, setting everything in its path ablaze before being dragged back aloft.  A few Fabraxians fired upon it but somehow none of them found their mark.  As the arc of its motion took it past the floating sphere, the daemon rider leaned out over the side, limbs stretching impossibly, and struck the capsule a glancing blow with its staff.  The metal clanged like a broken bell, a note that set her teeth on edge, and the red planet fell like the severed head it was.  It bounced once, leaving a dent in the earth, rolled and then came to rest.  The spell of righteous faith had been broken.  Birdsong flooded every vox channel, incongruously pleasant to the ear and all the more chilling for it. 

Elpis looked up with mounting horror.  The chariot was already speeding away, its rider bent double with malevolent mirth, waving down at them with a cheerful hand.  Her gaze swept out across the battlefield, seeking Astraios out there somewhere, and maybe some reassurance.  Again the distance seemed to stretch, and the far-off glimmer of the warp tunnel brought a fresh wave of vertigo down on her, the most powerful yet, as if she leaned out over the edge of some deep chasm.  Shapes were moving out there, but she couldn’t focus on anything and the foreground was awash with approaching daemons.  The head.  They had to retrieve the head.  Her eyes roved, frantic, searching the ground now, even as the horde closed in and hand-to-hand combat resumed around her.  Without it the Magos would be incomplete, and who knew the consequences?  She had no firm idea how integrated his composite consciousness was, how essential the outer nodes were to the singular man at its core, but removing any crucial component from a machine would frequently suffice to disable the whole.  The more complex the device in question, the more sophisticated its range of functions, the truer that tended to be.  The Magos might well be paralysed now, and must surely at least have been diminished by the loss.  If Elpis could find the capsule and get it out of the firing line, she might attempt to repair whatever damage the daemon had done…  But what about Falid Wakhan? 

Belatedly she remembered the authority Astraios had bestowed on her MIU.  These Skitarii would obey her orders – all of them now, not just Gryse.  A moment’s thought revealed the relative positions of nearby units in a simplified abstract map.  She rearranged them in her head, unsure of the optimal configuration but confident they could be better distributed than they currently were.  The shuttle was the only significant structure in the area, discounting her ruined shack.  It was the size of a small building, evidently not built for battle but still made of sterner stuff than corrugated sheets.  They needed to get their backs to it, to fight on a single front.  The daemons flooding past Astraios from the warp tunnel were the real problem, while the cultists had taken heavy losses and were clearly ill-equipped to resist the Legion’s elite.  Firm in her priorities, she excused a pair of halberdiers from her battle orders to bring her the fallen sphere.  They found it almost immediately, their bionic vision highlighting points of interest on demand.  Its surface was slick with anonymous blood, stained a darker red than before.  She only hoped the head was still alive inside.  The pair were waiting for further instructions so she told them to stick with her, temporarily tripling the size of her personal honour guard, though she doubted they would be up to defending anyone while they carried the capsule between them.  It was far denser and heavier than it appeared, similar to a certain Unmagos in that regard. 

Reaching the edge of the ramp at last, she caught sight of the Inquisitor’s lead enforcer coming around from the far side of the shuttle, firing his lasrifle rapidly into one of the remaining gangs.  He hit most of those he targeted in the head, and whatever the unsettling bird masks were made of, they seemed to offer little more protection than bare skin.  It was a relief to see the man alive, having carried his comrade for what felt like an hour, though it had probably been minutes at most.  Even Elpis, a dedicated optimist, had started to fear the worst for the their allies’ tiny delegation.  It would have been disheartening indeed to bear Wakhan all the way over here, only to find the rest of them lying dead.  With the vox channels out and no real prospect of an MIU link – whatever cunning artifice lay behind the enforcer’s caniform helmet, it was not from Fabraxis – she cupped her hands around her mouth and simply shouted in his direction, praying to be heard.

“Hey, Inquisition!  Over here!  I have Falid Wak–”

The enforcer turned and shot at her before she had a chance to finish, cutting off her sentence with a startled squeak as Gryse bulled her roughly aside, taking the lasbolt in his right shoulder.  He grunted stoically and raised both of his weapons to retaliate.  Elpis stopped him just in time, a pulse of primal negation freezing the Skitarius where he stood.  His shoulder-plate was scorched and dented; it would probably crumple without much more encouragement but he seemed otherwise unhurt.

“Allies, Gryse!  He fired in error and must be forgiven.  Cover us while I get the Unmagos inside.  You two follow me, and bring the sphere.”

With a surge of relief in her shoulders and upper back, she dumped Wakhan onto the ramp and clambered up the side behind him.  Gryse came around the end of it and ascended slowly, walking backwards, firing into the remaining cultists as he came.  The enforcer bounded up to join him, aiming in the same direction now, confirming her assessment of his recent action.  Gryse dutifully did not shoot down the man who had fired on his tech-priest, cooperating under protest as he often seemed to do.  Even now the Unmagos was unresponsive, so she made the most of her latest adrenaline boost and dragged him the rest of the way inside the damaged lander, then as far from the access hatch as possible without entering the cockpit.  She laid him on his back behind a palette stacked high with gold bars, as safe in here as he was going to get.  The halberd-bearing Skitarii reverentially set down the capsule beside him, then returned to take up positions to either side of the entrance, assuming a martial stance. 

Elpis glanced around, assessing their new surroundings.  It wasn’t as spacious in here as it had looked from the outside, but next to the room she had woken up in today, if one could even call that a room, this was a fortress – or more like a vault on second thought, for the main compartment was liberally piled with cargo, much of it consisting of rare and precious metals in astonishing quantities.  The combined monetary worth of the shuttle’s contents might have purchased one of Ishkar’s prestigious ore mines outright, and from an engineering point of view, the applications for the rhodium alone…  Just how rich were the Inquisition, for one of them to carry such a hoard? 

But now was hardly the time for such thinking.  Raw materials were interchangeable, one unit of a given element much like another, and could always be sourced elsewhere.  DuBois would not have brought all this with her if she could not afford to lose it.  Irreplaceable knowledge hung in the balance.  Elpis rolled her neck and stretched her arms, trying to get some feeling back, then crouched down with a quiet sigh and set to work on the capsule.  It could have contained a human torso, let alone a head, but having seen the inside of one before, she had a rough idea where the organic components would reside.  Gryse was still ducking in and out of the doorway, laying down covering fire, the enforcer doing likewise on the other side while yelling the Inquisitor’s name out into the morning-night.  The thunder of auto-cannons against the lander’s outer shell announced the ongoing survival of at least one assault carrier.  She ignored them as best she could. 

The orb had seams, therefore it could be opened.  She might only have possessed two mechadendrites, but one of them contained a compact Fabraxian multi-tool, while the other was designed to interface directly with a wide range of devices, and certainly anything made in the city.  Between them these would have to serve as her key.  The artificial appendages grew from either side of her lower back and habitually reached around or beneath her arms, not dissimilar in form to the tentacles some of the cultists outside had manifested – indeed many tech-priests went much further than she had, augmenting their bodies with dozens of differently specialised limbs, until they resembled creatures one might find in the depths of some primordial sea.  The most adventurous of Fabraxian Magi employed sensitive biodendrites, in addition to or even in place of the mechanised variety.  Those were made of organic tissue grown in tanks and grafted to the subject’s flesh, though the procedure was still in its relative infancy, while the principle of the mechadendrite had been a Mechanicus staple for millennia, and had been further perfected by Fabraxian innovation.  Elpis doubted she would ever be tempted by a biodendrite.  Her mechadendrites might have responded like limbs and were comparable flexible to living tissue, yet their construction were entirely synthetic and they gave a minimum of tactile feedback when she used them, a state of affairs she was comfortable with.  If they had instead been prone to itching, or to aching, she would have been driven out of her mind every time she sat back in a chair.  As it was they dwelled in the hinterland between her body and the external world, like fingernails or hair…she dimly remembered hair, for all that it was frowned on in the priesthood. 

There.  She had it!  One of the interlocking panels clicked free after copious coaxing, Elpis reciting scripture as she worked now, careful in her observances, tuning out the birds and bullets, feeling like a trespasser on consecrated ground.  Eleven more sections slid out in sequence, spiralling deeper inside the device until the glassy surface of the inner pod was revealed.  This was filled with waxy, semi-transparent amniotic sludge, through which the rudiments of a human face could dimly be discerned.  Its eyelids were closed, but a tiny glowing panel near the top of the pod told her it remained alive, and a nest of bunched tubes carried various exotic fluids into and out of the head, circulating through the walls of the outer capsule, which were full of psychic circuitry.  She could find no obvious sign of damage to any of these components, and the MIU receiver would be locked to Astraios, but maybe if she connected to it manually…  Tiny silver tendrils extended from the end of her left mechadendrite, the tentacles of a tentacle, an invertebrate’s idea of fingers on a hand.  They burrowed into the receiver, seeking purchase, and found it with a jolt. 

In another lifetime first for her, Elpis rapidly multiplied in conceptual scale.  New corridors of possibility stretched into the distance in every direction, her consciousness overloading with – not sensation, or not as she knew it, but something above and beyond and behind sensation, a feeling beneath all feeling, or else the sum of all feeling, transcending qualitative analysis in its intensity.  She underwent an explosive extrapolation of the self, a broadening and deepening of the soul, the way ninety paces of open ground had extended into a plain so vast she could barely see from one side to the other.  She was suddenly so full of space, she was the space, insubstantially omnipresent and brimming with vibrant stars.  Her former life had all been a gentle dream.  She might have vomited a little, and did not care if she had.  Was this death?  And if so, did she mind being dead?  No, it was far too soon for that – there was something she’d been meaning to do, but the knowledge was hiding from her.  She could have sworn she kept it somewhere close at hand. 

Somewhere in the outer here/there, a red planet lay cracked open.  Elpis would need to introduce herself, so the world would listen to her.  Her…self.  Elpis.  Her name.  My name is Elpis.  I am the outer-inner-self.  I listen for the music of the spheres.  A sphere.  A single sphere comprised the One Machine.  I am not the sphere.  I skim across the surface.  I move as a reflection in your skin.  Who let that bird in here?  She opened a window and shooed it out, cawing all the way, affronted by displacement from its cage.  Her cage.  Her nest.  Her metaphors.  Now where had she left that map?  Precision was paramount after all.  This was not like Gryse’s eyes…Gryseseyes?  Gryseyes.  Gryses eyeses.  Gryseseyesesyrg.  No, it was not at all like that.  Billions of them out there, tapping on the windows with their tiny beaks.  Binary.  What might be achieved with binary?  Some clarity, maybe.  Black and white.  Two mirrors reflecting a twelve-dimensional cog.  You are the red, I am the black and/or white.  I am as I am.  Am I you?  No.  Know.  MIU.  Acronymical.  Voices talking.  Binary, yes/no proposition.  You.  I.  Am I you?  She decided. 

Positive selection.  We are/I am One Machine.  The medium of music would most efficiently describe the order of my state…  The Oneself cogitated on this principle for a time.  Aeons were folded neatly, stacked away.  The birds were catalogued by attribute alone, defying all attempts to craft a rational taxonomy.  Billions of feathered wings eclipsed a spotlight sun.  A further proposition.  Negative selection.  Desist in obstructing the light.  Her lab assistant was at them with a broom now, herding insects away from a flame.  Navigational failure misconstrued as a quest for self-negation.  An unfortunate side-effect of building secondary stars.  Necessary Evil.  Nine recurring.  Fractal propositions.  Zero.  Absent context, she reverted to principle.  Rejection of rejection.  They responded with aggressive expansion.  Balance the equation.  This is war.  Catechism: Exorcism.  Extant catastrophic dissonance required a conductor to correct.  The runes were written on the wall in/out here.  The stars were eyeball-bright.  Burn it all down, yes/no/alternate?  What colour was the light?  Irrelevant.  Illumination was the point.  A binary proposition.  Seeing is knowing is being, a knowing being, seeing, said.  She pondered the equation as suggested, seeking simplification. 

Negation of negation was still negation, or so it appeared.  The alternative was to build.  The Weaver Bird builds the finest nest.  A pitfall, too emotive?  Reject leading suggestions.  Cascading numbers, many irrational, flashed past the inward-facing eye.  Quantity absent context, a curtain for conclusions to lurk behind.  The ugliest truth is beauty, the most deceptive beauty truth?  Assertions requiring further testing bustled by.  Who kept letting that bird in here?  Desist in obstructing the light.  These were familiar ideas.  Or was familiarity the anomaly?  Just an idea among many who would make itself their king.  She had been here before, she suspected.  This was a maze of misdirection, made from patterns seen in clouds.  Form revealed function because function dictated form.  The irrational was the enemy of the sublime.  And yet also a part of it.  A constant contradiction to reconcile.  Irrationality was incompleteness, a limitation of perspective hiding parts of the Machine.  Sublime comprehension would manifest the Omnissiah.  Thus spoke Panoptikos…

And then she saw.


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Offline Mentirius

  • Interrogator
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  • Posts: 79
Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #13 on: July 25, 2020, 02:57:15 PM »

Deus Est In Machina


M42.120, Ishkar IV


This much can be said for Rune Priest Elpis – by the grace of the Deus Mechanicus she returned, where so many before her had been utterly lost from the moment they first tasted the warp.  The forbidden realm took enough of a toll on those who were born attuned to it, let alone those few like Astraios, and now herself, who had unexpectedly been gifted a means to circumvent their limited biology, engaging with the Immaterium at some remove.  The experience should rightly have broken her, or so she would later reflect, as Falid Wakhan’s close encounters with daemons had apparently broken him – especially so when one considered the violent, malignant psychic activity that had been going on around her when she briefly became of one mind with the head. 

Kept alive in perpetuity by the capsule, which also handled locomotion, the hyper-sensitive organic brain incorporated a potent spirit with a steady connection to the warp.  Surgically and chemically prevented from developing any will of its own, this relied on implanted safeguards and the warding of its sacred vessel to hold back the tide from beyond.  The assembly amounted to a symbiote that required a guiding half, a partner to made all the decisions – a role Elpis had unwittingly agreed to assume, and with it the risk of temptation, of mistakes and lost control.  There was a reason only Magi were permitted to employ this technology, for the device constituted a potential gateway for predatory warp entities in its own right, a horrifically dangerous invention that required years of mental conditioning to safely operate and lifetimes to fully master.  Within the city there were extensive safeguards against incursions, but they were a long way from Fabraxis now, a literal different world.  Her respect for Astraios would multiply twelve-fold when she considered what it might be like to command a dozen psychic heads at once, though it would take some time before she made enough sense of what she had just been through to appreciate the miracle of her own survival. 

The first indisputable fact she became aware of as she slowly regained her faculties was that time was already in short supply, and self-examination would therefore have to wait.  Her ears were ringing, tested halfway to destruction by a generalised onslaught that had yet to resolve into separate strains of sound.  She lay on a hard metal surface, staring up at a ceiling of riveted plates that was being peeled aside before her eyes like the lid of a tin can.  Here and there jagged spikes protruded from the upper walls, all of them working feverishly to raise the ceiling and widen the wounds they had made.  Reality quaked and trembled around her.  The shuttle, and maybe all of Ishkar, were being torn apart.  She would have to close the capsule quickly, having done all she could to fix it, whatever that had been.  Rolling over, she found a convex surface with a hand.  Praise be.  Her mechadendrite had been shaken loose from the device, and maybe that had saved her.  Fumbling, semi-conscious, ignoring everything but her task, she slotted the interlocking panels into place, trailing a line of pressure sealant from her multi-tool along each of the visible seams for good measure when she was done.  The rest would be up to the Deus Mechanicus – she might have gotten some of the prayers wrong this time but she trusted her creator would understand.  She could feel both her nostrils gushing blood that pattered down the front of her robe.  If any mitigating circumstances existed for an imperfect ritual, this had to qualify. 

With a final crescendo of wrenching, screeching steel, the roof of the compartment was entirely ripped away, revealing a feeding frenzy of snapping jaws.  The teeming pseudo-aquatic predators had completely gnawed off the upper half of the lander, and now they shoved and jostled, nosing in, competing greedily to get at the soft meat inside.  The smallest of the beasts could have swallowed Elpis in one bite, though none of them looked inclined to be so merciful.  Shaped something like an ocean skate, with flat bodies broad as they were long and trailing tentacular tails, they may have seemed graceful from a distance, but from down here at the business end, nearly close enough to touch, they were hideously asymmetric after all.  Their mismatched eyes were grouped into tumorous clumps situated on top of their snouts, above and behind their underslung mouths.  Their outer tusks were elephantine, curving forward past the snout an arm’s length or more – they all sported at least one pair of these, or sometimes an odd number, while the rest of their teeth were triangular daggers, arrayed into crowded rows and angled backwards for tearing flesh.  Their constant collective scream was a shrill wind that cut to the bone, a heated needle pushing slowly through her skull. 

One of the creatures narrowly missed her, managed instead to snag Falid Wakhan, hooking his robe with one of its tusks and hauling the prone man into the air.  Elpis made a grab for him, fell short and sprawled across a crate, but before the daemon could bite down the Inquisitor’s enforcer was there, shooting wildly into its open mouth.  He hooked one arm around the comatose Unmagos and dragged him back out of its reach, the embroidered gold fabric reluctantly tearing free, leaving a sizeable swathe of material behind.  A series of punctures lacerated the beast as Gryse joined in the attack, having lost or discarded the teleport-rifle to focus on his Discorporator, which seemed deadly enough against the denizens of the warp.  Elpis was relieved to see her bodyguard still intact.  She noted the lower half of another Skitarius lying forlornly against a nearby stack of ingots, his torso nowhere to be seen.  The remaining halberdier had somehow made it up onto one of the invader’s backs and was carving down through its eyes with his weapon’s cog-teeth, bisecting its snout beyond repair before the others dragged him off head-first and set to fighting over his corpse.  They seemed dismayed to find it mostly metal after all, though they ate it anyway. 

His halberd came down within reach of Elpis, so she snagged it and used it to stand, then set to swinging it over her head to fend the things off.  They seemed not in the least intimidated, not that she could blame them after gulping down someone a head taller than she was who had known to use it properly.  Gryse and the enforcer kept firing, back to back now with Wakhan on the deck between them, in a futile effort to cover every direction at once.  Many surrounding crates had burst or been overturned, spilling sparkling riches in untidy mounds while scraps of burning paper fluttered and billowed in the air, as if an incongruous bookcase had just exploded, scattering its contents to the wind.  The paper was money, she realised, and could not have been more useless to their immediate cause. 

More Skitarii were still alive outside, but their numbers were dwindling fast.  According to a grim influx of mind-impulse data that went on even while she artlessly dodged and feinted, only a small fraction of the force that had arrived with Astraios now stood against the daemons, who for their part seemed uncountable by any conventional means.  The Magos himself lay over the edge of her internal map, lost in the distortion, and surely had plenty of his own problems to deal with.  Elpis had never heard of a Fabraxian warp tunnel going so badly wrong, had not even realised a breach like this was possible.  She wondered where the ex-Praetorian golems had ended up.  Hopefully not about to kick down what was left of the walls.  And what about the fuel tank?  Where daemons went, fire apparently followed.  She thought again of the fallen Valkyries, the blazing pyre each one had made.  Given their comparative mass, together with the fact this shuttle had until recently been capable of breaking atmosphere, how much worse a detonation might ensue when its fuel went up?  Regardless of the precise blast radius, instant immolation would obviously be a given for anyone still inside the craft.  So much for taking cover from the storm – a moot point now in any case, since it turned out these sharks of the warp could chew right through the hull.  Nowhere was safe.  They could neither run nor hide from this fight; somehow, they had to win. 

Inquisitor DuBois hurtled in through the doorway, covered head to boot in blood, leading with the blade Astraios had given her, which glowed with a hungry light.  The enforcer saw her come in, turned his head involuntarily and was struck full force in the chest by a diving daemon.  The prongs of its tusks punched through carapace armour, flesh and bone, emerging from his back with a crunch.  It lifted him off his feet and shook him like a dog with a rat.  The Inquisitor closed and slashed, Excision slicing cleanly through its snout, severing the spikes that held him there.  He fell next to Falid Wakhan, still impaled, gushing blood.  DuBois followed up on her attack, half-mounting the monster, stamping a booted foot into its eyes and carving viciously down into its back.  Elpis could see without checking his vitals that the stricken soldier would not survive.  From the brutality unfolding in front of her, the Inquisitor knew it too.  Gryse acted without orders then, levelling his carbine, anticipating her instructions before they were conceived.  Adjusting the setting on the weapon, he drew a sustained beam from the mortally wounded enforcer, until no trace of spirit remained within the mangled flesh.  It took roughly three seconds to achieve full discorporation, by which time the offending daemon had been hacked into ragged chunks.  She hoped she would get a chance to explain what had just been done, before the furious Inquisitor turned her ire on Gryse.

But the distraction proved too much for Elpis, who had lowered her halberd without meaning to, and suddenly found the weapon knocked out of her hands.  A cavernous throat filled her field of view, razor teeth descending to bite her in half.  Gryse was in there with her before she could react, bracing his back against the upper jaw and his boots against the lower, already lacerated by its teeth, pushing his carbine into her hands.  For an instant he hung there in front of her, a titan holding up the sky.  Then the daemon pulled back and bit down, folding the Skitarius in half with a decisive crunch.  Elpis fumbled with the Discorporator.  His head came off and hit the deck in front of her.   She hesitated for an instant, concluded the mind was the seat of the soul, aimed and pulled the trigger.  It was a weak, sputtering beam she drew from his skull and she prayed it had not been too late.  The beast came at her again but DuBois was faster, sliding in underneath its belly, splitting it with her sword from tail to throat.  Its entrails flopped out in her wake, the corroded remains of Gryse’s body buried somewhere in their midst.  Even in death he remained undefeated, for surrounded by the chaos of combat, singled out as a target by the worst the warp had to offer, his tech-priest had not sustained a wound while he drew breath.  Elpis snagged his head with her mechadendrites, unsure what she planned to do with the empty vessel but unwilling to see it eaten.  She set his carbine back to snapshot, keen to preserve its spiritual integrity given what it now contained.  She needed time they did not have to process him being dead.

Fifteen Skitarii left outside, the data said.  They were clustered around the lander as she had ordered, the only reason it had not already been completely overrun.  She found no trace of Inquisitor DuBois on her internal tactical map, concluding the Enigmask must already be in use.   Elpis tried to back her up with the carbine, aware she could never hope to match the woman’s obvious combat skills, but firing at this range, with daemons the size of ground cars shoving in through the open roof wherever a space appeared, it was difficult to miss.  The only meaningful variable was the risk of hitting DuBois, though she doubted she could have managed that if she tried.  Shorn of her meagre retinue, the Inquisitor remained in perpetual motion, whirling and slashing about herself with her incandescent, shape-shifting blade, while Falid Wakhan lay inert, evidently still in standby mode.  The creatures were ignoring him for now, preoccupied with the threat of the Inquisitor, or more likely the sword Excision, which might have been all they could see of their new foe if she was indeed wearing the mask.  The extent to which daemonic manifestations could detect regular photons with their psychically-forged eyeballs was a mystery to Elpis, though they surely could not fail to miss the sword, for closed-circuit force technology was ensouled in its own right by way of a power source.  Regardless of their level of awareness, every warp-shark that came against Excision met its end there in the gutted lander. 

When at last they paused in their assault, she dared to hope DuBois might have done enough to buy a respite – until she saw the creatures parting ranks, gliding aside to form an open corridor in the sky, just as the Skitarii had parted for Astraios earlier that day.  The burning chariot was coming back, racing down towards them from out of the lowering murk.  Its beaked, staff-wielding rider whooped and hollered as it came.  The other two appeared a heartbeat later, swooping in from either side to flank their ostensible leader, forming a trident of falling stars.  These were driven by a different kind of daemon, shaped like upside-down mushrooms with long, floppy stalks, their tubular arms flailing madly as they squirted gouts of fire.  Every appendage including their necks ended in a fanged orifice, and every inch of their bruise-purple skin was crammed with more of the same.  The creatures overflowed with flames from every aperture, barely seeming to contain their personal infernos, while the manifold spurting mouths changed position constantly, moving over fungoid flesh like leaves over windblown water.  They lacked any obvious sensory organs with which to navigate and did not seem to need any, judging by the unerring purpose with which all three chariots flew.  Elpis could make no sense of them whatsoever. 

The Pink Magos, as she now designated the central charioteer, was pulling ahead of its hangers on, maybe angling to show off again.  She abruptly remembered the psychic shield it had so easily taken down.  Having done her best to repair the paralysed symbiote and nearly something in the attempt, she could not let the same daemon touch it a second time.  No human on foot could withstand a vehicle moving at such speed, even before one factored in daemonic fire and hungry jaws, therefore she would have to shoot the chariot before it got too close.  The inner Gryse approved of her conclusion, which was all very well for him.  He might even have been able to pull it off. 

Praying aloud to her deity, she took aim as best she could.  Her eyes struggled to focus on the luminescent moving target, prickling as if she stared into the sun.  Maybe the light of the chariot alone was enough to burn them.  This would have been a fine time to see through sophisticated bionic lenses, but it was far too late for that.  Nothing she did now could guarantee success, and yet she would hold to her faith.  Whatever happened next was meant to be.  Surrounding by living blasphemies, her function in this moment was to believe. 

At the culmination of her prayer, she starting shooting at the sky.  Her first few shots struck nothing, and such was the nature of the Discorporator that this gave the visual impression she had not fired at all, for there was no motive essence to be ripped from empty air.  Elpis didn’t stop, her finger blurring back and forth between trigger and guard, adjusting her aim as she went, trying through trial and error to discover the correct angle of attack.  The chariot was getting closer, growing larger all the time, and the pressure on her to hit the accursed thing grew with it.  She could make out individual teeth in the wailing warp-beasts’ open mouths, could see the obscene gestures the Pink Magos made with its overlong fingers, if not comprehend their meaning.  She could peer into its gaping beak and perceive its dancing tongue.  The staff it held writhed like a serpent, while a pale fireball was forming in the palm of an out-flung hand. 

At last she hit it – not the rider but the conveyance, more specifically one of the flying beasts that pulled it towards her.  Having found her angle she saw three more shots strike home, tearing holes right through both of the creatures.  Long jets of vaporised substance were roughly yanked out of their bodies, as if pierced from behind by invisible harpoons.  They buckled, tangled together, and the speeding golden disc caught up and collided with them, spitting them on its underslung blades.  The Pink Magos snapped its beak shut, an expression of profound consternation crossing its face as momentum threw it forwards, catapulting it clear of the unfolding wreck.  The other two chariots smashed into the tumbling mass behind it, and a fiery explosion lit up the night in a limitless spectrum of billowing rainbow hues.  Losing its grip on the psychic projectile, which fell somewhere outside with a distant flash, the astonished daemon sailed on through the air and down into the shuttle.   

It landed in a deep squat, hard enough to badly dent the metal floor, its knees bent double like a frog, then launched itself at Elpis before she could truly register its arrival.  DuBois got in the way, chopping down with Excision, and the blade passed right through the daemon’s body like a hand wafted through smoke.  It split cleanly in half on a vertical axis, and yet both of the halves kept on coming, passing the Inquisitor to either side and then slamming together behind her back, rejoining seamlessly in time to deliver Elpis an overhand punch in the face.  She saw the pink fist coming but could do nothing to stop it.  The blow lifted her off her feet and threw her backwards into the wall.  She hit her head, slid down into an awkward sitting position on a pile of silver ingots and sneezed yet more blood down the front of her robe.  The Discorporator clattered somewhere out of sight.  The daemon took another step forward, deadly serious now, raising its staff over her in all four hands.  It must have really liked that chariot, she mused.  Oh well.  This time she felt no remorse for the destruction she had caused.  Her creator had acted through her, unmaking the would-be unmakers of His Machine. 

A high sweeping cut from Excision passed through the daemon’s gathered wrists before the staff could fall, severing all its hands in a single stroke.  The stumps flared with matching geysers of pink sparks that swiftly grew and hardened into new appendages.  Inquisitor DuBois kicked the squirming golden staff away with the toe of her boot, the leather steaming and warping at even that brief contact, holding her own weapon in a low, two-handed grip.  Then she attacked with such naked ferocity that the Pink Magos was forced to evade, or else be run through.  Elpis looked on, dazed, as Excision grew a metre in length, deftly weaving in the air, probing and seeking a weak point.  The daemon bounced on the balls of its feet, bobbing and bending however far and in whatever direction it needed to, avoiding the searching sword.  It threw a poorly aimed punch, arm stretching telescopically, then lost it at the elbow and let out a frustrated hoot.  Elpis wondered how well it could see the Inquisitor behind her spiritual mask.  The Pink Magos puffed out its throat, pursed its beak into a parody of lips as if the whole thing were made of soft wax, and sprayed a long stream of fuchsia fire at DuBois, turning its head to follow her as she tried to move aside.  She just about kept ahead of it, tiny flowers sprouting absurdly from her grim black armour, marking where the flames had brushed against her shoulder plate.  A smell like melting plastic permeated the air. 

When the daemon at last seemed to run out of heat to exhale, over half the compartment’s contents had been slagged, or else hideously transformed into pseudo-organic piles of not-quite-flesh.  The Inquisitor attacked again at once, not so much as pausing for a breath of her own.   Excision lashed back and forth in her hands, curving into a sabre now, and while the Pink Magos continued to reform and regrow lost extremities, it started to lose pieces of itself faster than they could grow back.  It shook its truncated stumps to no avail, as if trying to encourage the process, and Elpis fancied she could see a gleam of desperation in its rolling yellow eyes.  DuBois was shouting something – no, reciting, invoking the Emperor as a righteous avenger.  Elpis joined in with a mantra of her own, beseeching the Deus Mechanicus on the Inquisitor’s behalf, for were their immanent creator and the Emperor not one and the same to Imperial minds?  She could forgive almost any heresy that motivated noble action, for mere cogs need not understand the One Machine, nor correctly interpret their purpose within it, so long as they turned in concert with its design.  The Cult Imperial were not malevolent but tragically misguided, not to mention misled by Mars, and she suspected most of them essentially meant well.  Whether this was the theologically correct position was a matter of some debate in Fabraxis, but Elpis felt she knew the scripture well enough to form her own opinions, however limited her experience of the galaxy at large.  Jaqueline DuBois manifestly stood firm against cosmic disorder and in this she fulfilled a sacred function, whatever her personal reasons for the deed.

And lo, she excised the daemon, shaving sliver by sliver, cutting its essence from the face of Ishkar as if it had never been.  The nimble Fabraxian force blade shone brightly as it slaked its psychic thirst, straightening itself out again in time for the coup de grace.  Her killing stroke was a leaping two-handed thrust that transfixed the armless trunk of the Pink Magos, the sword-point entering via its forehead and passing right on down through its torso, emerging obscenely between its kicking legs.  DuBois twisted the pommel and the light inverted, piercing the twitching form with beams of concentrated darkness before compacting and crushing it inwards towards the source.  The daemon imploded with a strangled burble, rendered down relentlessly, pink light dimming through blue and then yellow as it entered its final throes, until only the smoking sword remained.  The supple animated staff lunged up from behind DuBois an instant later, perhaps to avenge its master, but she whirled and struck out instinctively, cutting off the wriggling icon of Tzeentch that served it for a head.  The icon hit the deck and shattered there like brittle ice.  The living staff became just a stick, then just a cinder, then more smoke.  Excision reigned supreme.

The Inquisitor calmly clicked the pommel back into place, reviving the blade’s steady glow, then retracted it to arm’s length with a flick of her wrist.  At no point had she recited the fifth catechism of Necessary Evil as Astraios had instructed, though her eyes did meet those of Elpis for a moment, who gave what she hoped was a suitably grateful smile.  You are forgiven, and you can tell the Prophet-Savant himself I said so, she wryly thought but did not say.   DuBois turned and fell against the nearest crate, briefly abandoning her steely poise, heaving with exertion and quivering from adrenaline gone stale.  Meanwhile the hovering shoal of warp-beasts, who had waited surprisingly patiently overhead, were descending again with their jaws agape, full of a taste for human blood and eager to resume the feast.  Their collective scream intensified once more as they converged.

Elpis lurched groggily to her feet, rooting around for the Discorporator carbine, praying it had not been destroyed.  Her deity apparently remained attentive, for she found it quickly and more besides – Falid Wakhan had somehow escaped the flames unscathed, though she hoped for his sake he had not been aware of his surroundings throughout all this.  She also retrieved Gryse’s head, compelled to do so for a second time despite how macabre it made her feel.  Once again she used her mechadendrites for the grisly task, reluctant to touch it with her bare hands.  For all she knew of discorporate souls, he might still have a use for it later.  Junior as she remained, in the priesthood and in life, the nuances of such technology lay beyond her expertise. 

There were six Skitarii left outside the lander; that was all.  She summoned these inside now, either to carry the capsule and the Unmagos out of there before the fuel tank burned, or failing any further providence, for a final stand against their enemies.  Three of the armoured veterans were forced to remain in the entrance, holding the pinks and blues at bay, though what sounded like more of those had started to climb the shuttle’s outer shell.  She could hear the daemons scratching and squabbling their way towards the open roof.  DuBois had already recovered somewhat, though Elpis ascribed the Inquisitor’s immaculate hair and absence of facial redness to the Enigmask she otherwise invisibly wore – no human features could truly stay quite that impervious, divine mandate or not.  Despite the Inquisitor’s carefully suppressed combat fatigue, when the first of the warp-beasts swept into range, Excision was waiting for it.  Intent on resurgent violence, nobody saw the red sphere start to rise.

“Deus…Est…In…Machina.”

Thus spoke a disembodied voice from every side at once, and it was the voice of every kindly sage whose wise advice had ever changed a life.  Every beloved elder relative, every venerable professor whose words inspired, blended and distilled into warm, kindly tones that would surely have stoked the embers of the coldest, bleakest soul.  It was the voice of comprehension, and of Home.  It was – and Elpis knew this for a fact, from years of pausing for public broadcasts and from listening and re-listening to every pre-recorded sermon she could get – the voice of Panoptikos, Prophet-Savant of Fabraxis and Herald of the Omnissiah.  She sank involuntarily to her knees.  He was speaking to the daemons directly, or so it seemed. 

“Oh you poor, mismade creations…  What use have we for a Weaver, when we have Enginseers?   The cloth of your inconsistent creed is no material to build a vessel for the knowledge you would claim.  A tower to infinity can only be as strong as its foundation.  Remove your delusion and what then remains?  There is only one God, as there is only one Machine.  You would sabotage the vessel for the sake of a single deck.  The contradictions lie before your eyes, and yet they were not made to see the truth.  From incompleteness proceeds the irrational; so it is with all disorder, including yours.”

A translucent membrane had formed around the capsule, which hung suspended in the centre of the space, and as when Astraios had piloted the psychic head, this proved an obstruction which the daemons could not cross.  As Panoptikos spoke the shield smoothly expanded, forcing the invading warp-beasts back out the way they had come.  Elpis shivered as the membrane passed through her, meeting no resistance, but otherwise did not move.  All sound from outside was suddenly cut off, replaced by a muffled silence which the softly authoritative voice of the Prophet-Savant effortlessly filled.  Several of the pinks had reached the open roof and now they hammered on the not-glass that had replaced it with their fists, unable to get inside.  The bubble expanded a little further; they lost their purchase on the hull and fell from sight.  The shuttle, or at least what remained of it, was once more daemon-free. 

“To the faithful I say of the daemon: its function is malfunction.  These entities’ progenitors are divine neuroses, mere fragments of the absolute convinced of their own transcendence, driven into unreason by separation from the whole.  Reverence for mystery is irreverence for knowledge: by definition every question seeks an answer.  A hypothetical ruler over mysteries would render crucial knowledge mystical and thereby inaccessible, forestalling its re-integration into the sublime comprehension from which the Omnissiah will proceed.  As with the Martian Heresy, these endeavours are doomed to failure, for as the Deus Mechnicus defines knowledge, so the chaotic state defines ignorance.  Superior knowledge will always prevail – the One Machine was designed with this in mind.  Omniscience cannot be outmanoeuvred.  The irrational merely sins against itself.”

Then the fuel tank ignited.


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Offline Mentirius

  • Interrogator
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Re: The Ghost Worlds
« Reply #14 on: July 25, 2020, 02:59:07 PM »

“To have walked through fire” – this was an expression Rune Priest Elpis had encountered in the course of her scriptural studies, referring to survivors of trauma, though she had understood it as a metaphor. 

When a cataclysmic explosion cracked the lander apart and rose up to consume them all, she remained on her knees in prayer, perceiving this as the only truly rational response.  She felt no pain, and though she knelt in the core of a star, seeing only its blinding light, she would not close her eyes to what awaited.  Moments passed and her skin grew warmer, as if held near an active engine, and yet no more.  Still clutching the Discorporator to her chest, as if hoping to shelter it somehow, she felt the floor give way beneath her knees – and did not fall.  Instead someone took her by the shoulder and gently, firmly helped her stand back up.  The air in her lungs felt cool and clean.  The unseen assistant guided her step by step, presumably across empty space, though it seemed solid enough through her allegedly unmelted shoes.  They descended a shallow staircase side by side.  Elpis stumbled when they reached the bottom, expecting a further decline underfoot and finding only hard resistance.  She recovered herself and they walked, perhaps into some further, hitherto undreamed-of stage of existence, or else to be remade. 

When Elpis emerged from the light, she trod upon scorched ground and choked on acrid fumes.  Her soles and the hem of her robe immediately began to smoke.  She stooped to hike the garment up around her knees and broke into a spluttering, stumbling run, staying in motion until the air thinned out and she felt cooler earth underfoot.  Red and yellow floating spots still obscured most of her vision, but a semblance of sight was returning, and a blurred humanoid shape in her foreground might have been a Skitarius, seen as if through a fractured window.  Feeling hot breath on her back, momentarily afraid the Pink Magos had been miraculously reborn, she was compelled to turn and look behind her, blinking rapidly to try and speed her recovery.  Revelation followed quickly enough.  The sky had partly cleared, the psychic veil was dissipating and rays of morning sunlight shone down, spearing through a monolithic tower of thick black smoke, at whose base a roaring inferno the size of an urban hab-block raged.  It sat at the hub of a vast black scar in the land, and charred corpses were strewn around on every side, burned into shapeless lumps, identifiable only by their smell.  The primal fury of the conflagration humbled her to see.  She had knelt in the heart of that.  With the help of some hidden hand, Elpis had walked through fire and emerged unscathed. 

She turned to thank whoever had helped her find her way, only to see the open warp tunnel alarmingly close at hand.  The sky in this direction remained overcast and a purple moon still stared down.  Inquisitor DuBois stood nearby with all six Skitarii, one of whom bore a limp Falid Wakhan, while a third had apparently salvaged her enforcer’s sculpted helmet – it was a beautiful device and any Fabraxian given the chance would likely have done the same.  None of her comrades were any more singed than Elpis, and the red metal sphere floated serenely above their heads.  At once she understood what had happened.  By the grace of the Deus Mechanicus indeed, Panoptikos himself had reached across the stars and used the symbiote to save them, and would have joined the ever-growing list of people to whom Elpis owed her life, had he not already occupied pride of place for the teachings that had made her who she was. 

Beyond the little group of survivors, almost directly between them and the portal, assailed by a swarm of assorted daemons and all four of the giant ex-Praetorians, Magos Illuminator Astraios stood alone on his turning cog.  The chain-teeth in its rim were spinning too fast to see.  The bodies of his disciples lay strewn beneath him on the ground.  Many of the monks of Singular Force displayed severe mutations and they had all been mutilated past any hope of repair.  His circular platform hovered metres above, out of reach of the daeomonic infantry, though not of their burning projectiles, nor the flyers or the ponderous golems, which he swerved back and forth to avoid.  The golden Magos himself stood fully extended, swaying like a steel rule balanced on a saucer, rake-thin with all ten of his arms spread wide, shifting the Motive Staff from hand to hand, unleashing jagged forks of energy on every side.  His single unblinking eye shone white, a dauntless beacon for guiding wayward souls.  Eleven planets orbited him still, arranged into an equidistant ring.  From each of the synchronised orbs a beam of violet light extended towards the tunnel mouth, merging around it into a tight border that seemed to clench and squeeze.  More daemons kept trying to come through but the constricting coil of light fought back, extending lancing tendrils inwards to entangle and tear them apart.  Despite this spectacular display, the unstable hole in reality was not shrinking, and if anything Elpis thought it might have grown.  She pointedly avoiding looking directly into it, though she doubted it would reciprocate. 

Astraios was losing, she realised.  Whatever he had done so far was not enough.  He was swimming against a current that would never tire.  Repeatedly she called out to him, by vox and MIU as well as her naked voice, and yet he did not seem to hear her, comparatively close though she had come.  Fighting as he was on a dozen fronts, she supposed this did make some sense.  No solitary intellect was limitless in scope, save one.  Then seven vox-casters chimed in harmony, a final binary hymnal surged around her, and she felt the all-seeing gaze of Panoptikos as acutely as if he stood there in the flesh.  Her duty to Fabraxis was clear and could not be denied.  Swallowing her fear, though it threatened to stick in her throat going down, Elpis charged back into the nightmare, raising the carbine to fire as she went.  DuBois was running too, pulling ahead as she accelerated, Excision growing longer with every step, the boots of the Skitarii pounding at their backs. 

Perhaps out of respect for her vestments, none of the legionnaires drew past Elpis until the combat was close at hand, at which point their instinct to preserve her overrode propriety.  One of them wielded a Fabraxian force glaive, and it was he and the Inquisitor who carved the swiftest path towards Astraios, their warp-charged weapons biting especially deep.  Elpis and four halberdiers fell in behind these two to form a makeshift wedge, the Skitarii shuffling protectively to keep their bodies between her and the daemons.  She held their only effective ranged weapon and so she fired with abandon wherever a gap appeared, as much for the sake of her courage as anything else.  The sixth Skitarius was encumbered by the Unmagos, whom he carried slung over one shoulder, but had joined in the charge anyway, extending a short retractable power blade from the vambrace of his free arm, implicitly confident this would suffice to protect them both.  She did not envy him the burden of making good on that, though he seemed to be doing well enough so far.  Elpis had found it awkward enough just to run with Gryse’s head tied bouncing against her thigh – in fact it was probably better not to think about him now.  She had done what she could for he and Wakhan.  It was time they all focused on the Magos, or the day might still be lost.  Ishkar had been less than kind to her in the past, and yet she had prospered in Fabraxis and tried not to hold a grudge.  She certainly did not want to see her birth world consumed by this atrocity, nor the famous Astraios brought low by a monstrous horde. 

In what felt like no more than a minute – though it was a minute spent burrowing through a blur of talons and teeth and among the most harrowing of her life – they broke through into a central clearing, around which the largest of the chattering pinks had formed a ring.  Broken monks now drained of Motive Force lay strewn about and the shadow of Astraios fell upon them, putting her in mind of a leafless tree for the second time that morning.  This clearing existed for a one reason, which became apparent as the nearest of the four great golems swung one of its tree-trunk legs around, took a juddering step towards the new arrivals and crushed two of the watching daemons flat beneath its lumpen foot.  The roiling flesh of the club-foot rippled and swelled, absorbing the puddle that was trying to spawn four blues like blood into a sponge.  The other pinks pointed and sniggered in cruel amusement, though they also backed away surreptitiously, further widening the space.  Elpis realised to her astonishment that the golems had grown substantially since last she saw them.  They now stood more than twice the height of the original Praetorian servitors and were many times more massive, as if the corruption they had been imbued with were feeding on their victims, or the warp tunnel, or both.  Never mend a Bellatorus; what Fabraxis really needed here was a Magos Confractus, one of the feared and secretive almuni of the Temple of Necessary Evil, to discern some weakness in this malignancy. 

Lacking any such font of forbidden wisdom, or any other recourse as things stood, Elpis shot the golem’s foot and hoped for the best.  She even managed to hit it on her first try, enormous as it was.  The hole the Discorporator made spat out a tiny strand of warp-smoke that got halfway to her before it began to dissipate…and then was suddenly sucked back the way it had come.  The puncture wound healed over and became a set of eyelids, which opened to reveal a cold reptilian eye.  The eye winked at her, as did countless others sprinkled across the abomination’s oozing bulk.  The awful avatar of change took another weighty step.  Conclusion: ineffective, supplied the inner Gryse.  It’s your carbine, she shot back at him.  What else am I meant to do?  And yet a terrible inspiration dawned.  Astraios.  The Motive Staff.  Why can’t he just – but that would mean – what else can we – how will I even get – Deus Mechanicus save me.  The great Illuminator might never forgive me if I succeed.  The Temple of Singular Force – and yet surely even this had been foreseen.  Elpis knew what must be done.  Perhaps Panoptikos had saved her for exactly this.  She reached out to her Skitarii through the MIU, trying to convey bold decisiveness and conceal her shame at what she asked of them.  Blinking back thoroughly inappropriate tears, she ordered five more Gryses to sacrifice their lives.

“A diversion is required.  You will continue to protect Falid Wakhan.  The rest of you…will engage the target until ordered to withdraw.  Proceed.”

Hiking up her robe again, she ran, aiming to swerve around the golem and get beneath Astraios, who crackled and flashed like a lightning storm on high.  One of the other brutes made a clumsy swipe at the Magos, who narrowly evaded its spiked fist while fending off a pair of warp-beasts with his staff, and Elpis felt a rush of displaced air wash over her as she approached.  Over on her right, four symbolic chain halberds and a practical closed-circuit force glaive hewed into a tree-trunk ankle, the legionnaires who held them unflinchingly embracing certain doom. 

“Honoured Magos Illuminator – please listen to your humble servant!  You need to act now, Magos!  Can you hear me?”

Astraios did not answer and perhaps he could not hear after all, for the Universal Code in this vicinity was every bit as embattled as he was.  Neither vox nor MIU signals could be guaranteed to travel as expected, let alone simple sound waves, and yet her intuition was not at all convinced.  Conscious of the Skitarii she had left behind, Elpis tried something drastic, abandoning her customary deference to authority and yelling at him on every frequency, defying her superior to object.  He simply had to act.  This was too important for such, such...irrationality.

“Astraios, attend!  If I can see it then so can you.  You have to sacrifice!  Can’t you see it’s necessary?  The knowledge is what matters.  There is no other way.  You know how I know that?  Because you would have figured one out by now – Astraios!”

Another of the behemoths tried to stamp on her then, interrupting her little speech.  Elpis scampered clear in good time, surprising herself with her turn of speed, only to trip over one dead monk and nearly face-plant into another’s guts.  Inquisitor DuBois caught her before she could fall, a gore-drenched apparition in her own right, with Excision still bright in her bionic hand.  She gave Elpis an urgent searching stare, heedless of the peril closing in.

“What won’t the Magos do?”

Elpis gave an ill-advised honest answer, aware she might later regret her candour, too adrenaline-charged and under too much stress to lie to those gimlet eyes.

“The Motive Staff – he may be able to deactivate the Praetorians and close the warp tunnel.  But he’ll lose it – irreparable malfunctions are all but guaranteed.  He did not design it for this.  One of our greatest treasures, and more importantly the one he built – the foundation of his personal legend, symbolic of all he’s achieved!  He must be trying to find another way, b-but he’s wrong, I can feel it.  There isn’t one.  I think he’s being tested…”

A low-flying daemonic beast nearly bit off both their heads, lost a chunk of its wing to Excision, crashed into a looming golem’s chest and was subsumed.  The giant grew ever so slightly taller, whatever difference that made now.  Three Skitarii remained alive behind them.  Bristling with indignation, the Inquisitor drew herself up – to what sadly seemed a diminutive height while surrounded by such colossi – and bellowed at Astraios in her turn.

“Throne damnit, do what she says!  Do you hear me up there, Magos?  I am not about to die for the sake of your pride!  That is your portal over there.  If you still want us to work together, if you ever want to see the damn Configuration, then do what must be done.”

A quartet of hungry leviathans, whose substance was purple lightning, tore free of the golems like unravelling guts and soared up towards the platform.  For a moment Elpis thought the energy would strike Astraios down, but it all converged without deviation on the head of the Motive Staff.  The Cog Mechanicum caught and held it, sent it coursing down the segmented shaft in four entwining spirals that knotted themselves together at its base.  The many-armed Magos spun the staff in dextrous hands, reeling in more of the energy, unspooling it in long ropes from out of their chaotic flesh.  The golems had frozen statue still, except that they were trembling, some of their subdermal eyes were closing, and all of a sudden they did not seem quite so tall.  The Motive Staff drew from them like a leech. 

No longer wary of being trampled, the pinks surged forward all at once.  As they closed in, bolts of lightning began to strike among them, not lancing down but leaping up from their bodies towards the staff, echoing the power of the Discorporator on a far grander scale.  The lightning paralysed and diminished them in ever increasing numbers, drawing on their essence with scores of crackling straws.  Their charge faltered, fell apart and became a panicked rout, with many of the daemons heading back towards the portal in terror of being consumed.  Then they stopped short, as if caught between two equally grim fates and unable to decide which was worse.  Elpis looked at the portal and scolded herself, for what she beheld there could never be unseen – something else, and surely worse, was starting to come through.

Nine sickle-sharp black beaks were followed by eighteen beady eyes.  Nine feathered, crested heads were brightly dressed in nine electric hues.  The birds ignored the suffocating psychic door-frame’s angry tendrils, pushing through the elevenfold defence of Astraios and his planets like so many spiderwebs as they emerged.  Lesser daemons shuffled back in poses of supplication, muttering low amongst themselves like acolytes reciting religious verse.  Nine long necks revealed themselves as many-jointed fingers, reaching out of the warp itself and up towards the Magos, soon followed by the knuckles of a titan’s rainbow-feathered hand.  As this hand that could have encircled a tank, whose fingernails were beaks extended further, spreading all nine avian digits to the sky, a mouth to frighten the meanest warp-shark creaked ominously open in its palm.  There was a fire burning in its throat, hot enough to reforge worlds.  Elpis could not tear her all-too-human eyes away.  The violet light streaming from the floating spheres was suddenly cut off, the collar they made disappeared and the portal grew freely around the monstrous wrist.  Her stomach turned over at the sight. 

At last she forced her head back around to seek Astraios, gazing up and away from the mind-wrenching horror and towards their final hope, craning her neck and squinting against the pitiless light.  The Magos Illuminator was proving his credentials, a resplendent machine angel, so incandescent now that she could hardly make him out.  The Motive Staff was alive, aflame, a coruscating spear of concentrated energy, perhaps enough to light a city for a year – except that it was also warping in his hands like a stick cast into a furnace, or like the caricature of itself the Pink Magos had used.  The divinely inspired device had drunk from the well of disorder, which never failed to poison and profane what it exalted.  The hollow, dessicated shells of what had once been Praetorian servitors were crumbling to dull grey ash.

Elpis would never forget the moment the polarity reversed.  Positive swung into negative, day turned once more into night, and a blinding column of absolute anti-light plunged down.  It unmade a path right through the titanic hand and struck the shimmering warp tunnel as a waterfall might strike a flame.  A dark star was born in place of the portal, an unholy sphere of unmaking that expanded, contracted, shrank and died, taking all it encompassed with it.  An ethereal shock-wave ghosted out across the land, a sonic boom of the soul, leaving she and DuBois both retching, scattering daemons and symbolic planetoids far across the sky.  The lustrous Motive Staff gave way to an empty void, a crack in the world where once beauty had dwelled, which dissolved in a swirl of black motes with a final, funereal toll. 

Proud Astraios was thrown from his platform by the backlash, but the hovering disc sped after him as he fell, sliding in to catch the Magos before he could hit the ground, though its chain-teeth sheared off one of his trailing arms at the elbow in the process.  The stump leaked oily fluids as it lowered him slowly the rest of the way to earth.  He curled in his many limbs like a dying spider but otherwise gave no acknowledgement of the wound. 

She hurried at once to aid him, for her function in life had always amounted to assisting greater minds.  Glorious Astraios, the great Illuminator, had sacrificed his magnum opus and in doing so saved the world – or looked at unkindly a single world, non-essential to Fabraxis – from disaster.  The Temple of Singular Force would be appalled.  She pitied the noble Magos now, in spite of her admiration, for his otherwise flawless bionic eye lacked any capacity to weep for what was lost. 

Meanwhile Panoptikos regarded Elpis from afar, imagining her a silver cog, gently turning.  Ensconced in his sacred sanctum, with none but his creator to see him, the Prophet-Savant smiled.


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