The Conclave

The Ordos Majoris - Roleplay => In Character => Topic started by: Mentirius on March 14, 2020, 07:54:46 PM

Title: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on March 14, 2020, 07:54:46 PM
Flash!  Confusion.  Dislocation.  White light pulses, stark and searing; flashes, flenses; fades away.  Voices clamour distantly, a susurration of wordless whispers hissing to be heard.  Sound still rising, tide relentless, scream unceasing!  Somewhere far away an unstrung puppet flails and falls. 

“Nothing ends, nothing changes...nothing stays the same.  Remember your duty, Teleos.  Remember who you are.”

An echo, not a sound at all – perspective shifting, turning inwards – a cave within a cave within a cave.  Monstrous shadows dance by firelight on every painted stone.  Outside the wind is howling hate; it cannot reach him here.  An elder, wiser, calmer voice is speaking slowly now.  The shaman sits beside him, though he cannot turn to see.

“This has been and will be, and is...do not expect to see behind the sky.  You are Teleos Rahn, who spoke the Word.  The Word begets the Deed.  Stand up, Inquisitor.  Go out and face the storm.”



=][=


The first thing he felt was pain.  Not the ineffable creeping pain of a starving spirit – that faded in gradually – but a more immediate, mundane agony that clamoured like cathedral bells from far inside his skull.  His skull...in a sudden, overwhelming epiphany, his body came to be.  A burden but a reassuring one.  A symphony of griping aches joined in harmony with the primal pulse, hands remembered, a flex and a clench before bringing them up to his face.  He pressed his palms against his eyes, still closed.  Breathed in like a surfacing diver; sighed out like a father bereaved. 

“The flesh is certified devoid of physical trauma.  The functional performance of the stasis device within stated parameters is beyond question in this case.  Hypothesis: adverse reaction to sudden exposure to the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon resulting in psychosomatic symptoms.  Irreparable psychosis has been observed in psychic subjects rated in excess of Delta-minus in fourteen-point-six-eight per cent of observed instances of–”

“Keep it down, for the Emperor's sake.”

The Inquisitor's voice was a rasp, barely audible through his dessicated throat, but the hollow metallic diatribe halted immediately when he spoke.  The whirring, clicking, buzzing sounds of various anonymous machines could now be discerned around him.  A mind was hovering nearby – two minds? – one mind, like a puzzle box of bright sharp angles, shot through with twisting copper creepers and sealed with a combination lock, all ones and zeros, wheels spinning, spinning, spinning...Mechanicus, not that hearing them speak hadn't already told him this.  And something else like an echo, a box outside the box, and yet contained within.  The barest hint of a different shape, the shadow of a cloud.  He could hear a purr of static now, from somewhere close at hand.  After a brief pause the synthesised voice went on, at a somewhat reduced volume but now with a slower, reproachful cadence.  Still a human in there somewhere then.

“The Emperor cannot hear me, ergo: it is for your sake that I have applied a thirty per cent reduction to–”

“Try sixty per cent.  Then give me some water, and something for this pain in my head.  I need–”

“Query: sixty per cent of starting volume-slash-sixty per cent reduction to starting volume-slash-sixty per cent reduction to current volume?”

“Are you trying to irritate me?”

“I don't work for you, Inquisitor.  This was meant as a courtesy.”

He took another breath, slow and steady.  Let his hands fall to his sides.  The Tech-priest waited, apparently at rest, the wheels of the mind-lock turning lazily before his inner eye.

“Sixty per cent reduction to starting volume then, please.”

“As requested.  If you intend to drink this water it would be optimal for you to assume a sitting or standing position.  Clarity of judgement is paramount at this time therefore pain suppressants cannot be administered.  I reiterate that your condition is psychosomatic and not indicative of damage sustained.”

Resigned at last to consciousness, Teleos opened his eyes.  He found himself lying in the midst of a square chamber somewhere between a familiar infirmary, of the kind found on Imperial void ships the galaxy over, and a laboratory of the kind usually found only in hazy vid-log records of righteous Inquisitorial purges.  Every available space he could see was crowded with intricate machinery, bulbous and mysterious, save only for a corridor of exposed floor alongside his bed and a looming bank of medical cogitators beyond.  Standing within arm's reach was the Tech-priest, although now he felt less certain about their clerical status. 

Their heavy robes were not the traditional red or black but an inky blue, trimmed with winding spirals of steel filigree that seemed to suggest interlocking cogs without ever containing them.  From beneath the robes dark cables snaked out across the floor, burrowing into nearby devices like worms into fruit.  Wherever the Cog Mechanicum sigil appeared, it did so unobtrusively and formed part of a larger device, resembling an intricate stylised key.  The face within the priest's deep hood was a silver death mask, as gently beatific as a saint.  Its aspect was decidedly feminine.  She was a woman, he decided on this basis.  A dull mutter of binharic machine cant burbled gently from somewhere behind the mask, barely audible until he noticed it, now suddenly hard to ignore. 

A row of supple mechadendrites fanned out above and behind the Tech-priest like the tail of a monstrous peacock, all of them anchored on her back somewhere and poised like striking snakes.  He counted a dozen without thinking, brain running reflexively, trying to order the chaos.  The head of each snake was a shining violet eye.  The crooked form beneath was stooped as if struggling under their combined weight, or perhaps simply encroaching age.  She rested one delicately constructed metallic hand, incongruously adorned with wrinkled fleshy fingertips, on a segmented black cane resembling an upright telescope, its surface encrusted with incomprehensible embossed script.  The other emerged from a voluminous sleeve to extend a canteen towards him. 

Teleos sat up, swinging his legs around and setting his feet on the floor.  It was steel with rows of metal rivets.  He realised he was still wearing his boots.  A familiar sight at least, worn to fit over long years.  With a wordless nod of thanks to the Tech-priest, he accepted the canteen.  The water was ice-cold, a cleansing frost.  Reason began to reassert itself.  The sense of an unpleasant sound beyond hearing remained, but he set it aside for the moment.  Focused.  Insisted.  Uncoiled.  Little by little, the pain in his head subsided.  He was on a void ship.  In transit, but not in the warp, although...

“What is the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon?”

His voice sounded stronger in his own ears now, a little more himself.  The Tech-priest remained inscrutable, in body, mind and soul.  Her answer was light on inflection and sounded pre-recorded.  He couldn't locate the second vox-port.  Only an uninterrupted stream of binary data emanated from her perfect face.

“By way of a concise summary: At the exact zenith of the year designated 999.M41 classical Imperial, an event occurred in which the Immaterium was extruded into the Materium to form widespread phenomena similar to those previously observed in the regions designated the Eye of Terror and the Maelstrom.  Where the Immaterium and the Materium coexist across regions of space, the resulting excrescence of warp energy invariably exhibits drastic chronospacial effects on the matter contained in the region.  These effects are further compounded by the potential for predatory immaterial entities to use the affected regions as gateways into the wider Materium.  The largest of these phenomena is designated the Cicatrix Maledictum and has been deemed responsible by dint of scale for the majority of aberrant consequences for the galaxy as a whole, although numerous independent phenomena in unconnected regions have been verified.”

Spared the need to pause for breath, her lecture was a dirge.  Teleos felt ill, fought back a wave of nausea.

“With the Cicatrix Maledictum being a phenomenon of unprecedented size and scope, effectively bisecting the galaxy from galactic north of Segmentum Pacificus to the edge of the Eastern Fringe along an approximate north-west to south-east axis, the background warp energy released, combined with the hypothesised psychic backlash resulting from widespread loss of life on worlds in and around the region, has been shown to have an adverse effect on psychically gifted individuals roughly proportional, in most cases, to the strength of their connection to the Immaterium.  The most extreme cases have been observed in individuals emerging from long-term stasis predating the emergence of the phenomenon, in whom recognised symptoms include–”

“Yes, thank you...that will be sufficient.  Tell me what year it is now.”

The death mask eyed him blankly.  The violet-eyed mechadendrites twitched once in unison overhead. 

“By way of concise summary: Widespread chronospacial anomalies have resulted in an escalating conflict over the validity of the Imperial calendar, to the extent that–”

“How many years, in your estimation, have passed since the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon first occurred?”

“Approximately one hundred and twenty Terran standard years.  Margin of chronospacial differentiation, approximately twenty standard Terran years.”

“That seems like a pretty wide margin.”

“Time has been theorised to move differently in disparate regions of the galaxy relative to one another, to the extent that local dating systems based upon subjective time measured since the event occurred prevail in a majority of Imperial systems.  A more extreme instance of the same principal can be observed during transit through the Immaterium.  This vessel has not interacted directly with the planet we will shortly be approaching during the intervening period but based on observed data, I estimate their reckoning of years since the Cicatrix Maledictum phenomenon occurred may range from between approximately one hundred Terran standard years to approximately one hundred and forty Terran standard years in subjective local time.”

“So where exactly are we?”

“We are currently on the far side of the Cicatrix Maledictum from the Segmentum Solar, more specifically the far side of the formerly distinct region still designated the Eye of Terror, in the extreme galactic north of Segmentum Obscurus.  Our destination is the planet Tuvak, formerly an Imperial colony, currently beyond the reach of Terra and beneath the concern of Baal, suspected to have seceded from the Imperium.  There is a standing order for investigation by the Inquisition but it remains a low priority, given the remoteness of the region and a relative lack of strategic or material value.”

“Then why–”

“Why is none of my concern.  Consult with the operative designated Lancet for instructions and or explanations pertaining to your immediate mission.  I'm told he at least has been extensively briefed.”

A human voice this time, albeit wheezing and clipped with impatience...an elderly instructor, perhaps, driven to the edge of patience by an unruly pupil.  Definitely not artificial. 

“You are conscious, active and in no immediate physical danger.  I have fulfilled my function here and have other duties to perform.  You may go.”

He almost argued with her, tried to extract more information, but the tech-priest pivoted smoothly and slithered away to the cogitators, cane tapping, cables rippling in her wake, exposing her bristling back. Another cowled head protruded there, bulging obscenely between her shoulder blades, the face within swallowed in shadow.  Violet snake-eyes never left him as she moved.  The surrounding mane of mechadendrites twisting obscenely to keep him in their collective sight, swaying gently in the air like strands of underwater weeds.  Machine cant burbled on.  Further tendrils were emerging from her sleeves alongside the unsettling hands; thin silver tentacles roving restlessly.  Busy now at some arcane machine, roughly spherical, probably not a cogitator.  The Emperor cannot hear me... 

“What should I call you, Tech-priest?”

“You may call me Magos.”

Something moved in the hooded darkness, as he had suspected it might.  It was the head on her back that addressed him.  There was clearly something amiss here, and ordinarily he might not have let her off so easily.  But newly emerged from apparently more than a century of unknowing, unchanging non-existence in the limbo of a stasis pod, still beset on some level by the turmoil of distant psychic storms, he doubted he had it in him.  Not yet at any rate.  Canteen emptied, he put it aside and got to his feet, bracing his hands on the mattress.  His legs at least were steady, not a hint of treachery there.  His head narrowly avoided a menacing dangling structure, bristling with surgical tools on arms folded in like those of a mantis.  Bracing himself for the ordeal ahead, Teleos left the room. 


=][=


“In the course of my career I trained three men from boys to the rank of Inquisitor.  The first of them is dead now – call him a martyr, or a traitor; but he served his purpose well.  The second will never forgive me.  No doubt he's out there somewhere now, howling at some distant moon.  And the third...Bauchan, the serial High Magus.  Serial failure and survivor.  A cruel and petty creature, unsullied by introspection.  Addicted to empty promises, both given and received.  In truth, he was poor clay from the beginning.  The question of his damnation was merely one of details.  I helped him grow powerful, helped him get worse, but he never deserved any sympathy, nor wanted any either.  No doubt he will think I've forgotten him by the time you come to call.  I suggest that you start with him.”

“What would you have me do?”

“What else?”



=][=


Inquisitor Teleos Rahn was on a mission given to him by former Inquisitor Balkoth.  He remembered this as he traversed the dimly lit corridors of the seemingly endless vessel, seeking further crew members and with them revelations, finding only a procession of empty-minded servitors hunched grotesquely over menial tasks.  He'd given his word to see this through, whatever and whenever the mission might turn out to be.  He had entered the stasis pod, though not aboard a void ship then; somewhere...entirely else.  He had believed.  Now he'd awoken to find Balkoth absent, reality warped, the sky torn asunder by thirsty gods while he himself lay dormant, frozen, waiting for the call.  Waiting while a century came and went, and the Imperium surely suffered.  The call had come, that much was clear, but had it come too late?  Somewhere on this forsaken vessel was a man who knew the answers, at least if the self-proclaimed Magos was to be believed.  Teleos concentrated, tried to listen for thinking minds.  The whispers began to rise.  Flash!

“Inquisitor Rahn, I see you are approaching the bridge.  Please continue to do so.  I will see you there.” 

Not a whisper, a nearby vox-port, a broadcast human voice.  A man's voice, calmly cultured, polite without disdain.  Not an entirely hostile crew then.  This was a Black Ship, he mused distantly, a chariot for Inquisitors like him.  A prison for psykers like him.  This must be one of the upper decks.  He wasn't sure how long he had known this.  No wonder his head wasn't right yet, and daemons take the so-called Cicatrix Maledictum!  He had always despised these places.  For a moment he wondered why Balkoth, a psyker himself, didn't shared in his revulsion.  Perhaps he did.  On reflection, it seemed in character for the man to have kept one anyway.  A statement of defiance, an exercise of will...a monumental theft from the institution he turned his back on.  Maybe he laughed, in private.  Maybe not.  Teleos kept walking.

When at last he emerged from the labyrinthine murk of the void ship's interior and stepped out onto the bridge, the sudden brightness should have been overwhelming, but all he felt was relief.  His emergence was less a birth into a harsh reality than the coming of morning to a woodland, attended by the singing of spectral birds and the thawing of frosted leaves.  The oppression of psychic dampeners was entirely absent here.  A vast high-ceilinged chamber like a temple opened before him, its far side clear as still water, revealing a sea of stars.  No ragged tear across the sky to scream into his soul.  Ahead in what seemed liked the middle distance, a planet patiently loomed, its surface wrapped in swirling atmosphere like some deity's crystal ball.   A fist of undoubtedly furious cyclones, rendered smooth as glass by perspective from on high.  A God-Emperor's eye view.  He stopped to stare in wonder, a smile rising unbidden, borne on a wave of relief – an unexpected feeling to be sure.

“I hate to say this, but it's behind you.  Behind us, I mean.  We're approaching Tuvak from galactic south, which puts the Cicatrix Maledictum well outside your current field of vision.  I can bring it up on a screen if you want, but I'm guessing you'd like a drink.”

That voice again, and a man unfolding gracefully from a nearby cogitator terminal, descending from the metal lectern where it looms.  He had the build of a tree frog, moved like a spider and wore a plain black bodyglove.  One hand clutched the neck of a tapered blue glass bottle while the other balanced a pair of crystal tumblers.  He poured as he climbed, reached the deck with perfect timing to present the first drink to Rahn.  A moment later the second was full; he set down the bottle at the base of the lectern and raised his tumbler as if for a toast, though he stopped short of proposing one.  Crystal clinked and he took a sip, beaming all the while.  He had the face of a diplomat, clean shaven with close-trimmed white hair.  A hint of the scholar with a dash of the trader, perfect teeth and intelligent eyes; these features offset by the complexion of a lab rat and a nose like a butcher's knife.  His smile was open, eyebrows dancing, but his mind – Teleos nearly dropped the unsolicited drink. 

His mind was a bait ball; a shark-shadowed shoal of a thousand thousand fish all moving, shifting, interweaving – ordered chaos, frantic harmony, the infinite changing faces of some primal collective self – a snarl of parasitic trees, built root by clutching root into an edifice of interlocking, codependent thoughts – a flock of flocks of birds, wheeling and diving against a darkening sky, the streak of a hawk in their midst – all this reflected in the glimmer of a blade.

“Pleased to meet you at last, Inquisitor!  And welcome aboard Redacted, the Blackest Ship of them all.  I trust you're feeling recovered.  I'm Lancet.”

Teleos stared Lancet down, his own expression carefully neutral, any hint of a smile long passed.  He was suddenly glad of his own rough beard, no doubt still dishevelled but shaming this shiny knife-man with its earnest, earthy humanity.  He harboured an instinctive distrust of willingly beardless men, never mind one with such a mind.

“And what do you do here, Lancet?”

“What do I do?  Oh, I do all sorts.  First and foremost, I know things, and what I don't know I figure out.  I learn things, find things, keep things running when others are indisposed...in point of fact, I found our good friend Bauchan hiding out on yonder planet among all the million worlds of the Imperium, deep in the Noctis Aeterna.  Then I brought us here, no thanks to the Navis Nobilite, which I assure you is no small feat – although I won't claim I did that single-handed, no I in crew and so forth.  Think of me as a facilitator.  I worked with Inquisitor Balkoth way back when.  Before that I was with the Vanus Temple, training as an Info-cyte – full disclosure here, you understand.  All above board.  Long time ago now of course.  Are you going to touch that drink?  I assure you it's worth the effort.  I won't insult your intelligence by denying the presence of poison.  Alliteration is no substitute for a motive.”

Vanus Temple...well, damn.  No wonder he was here then.  Even for Balkoth this was a coup, assuming Lancet wasn't lying.  What he would have had to go through to recruit such a man...full disclosure seemed eminently unlikely.  The Inquisitor looked at the drink, swirling the golden liquid cautiously.  It smelled faintly sweet.

“The Magos refused me pain suppressants.  'Clarity of judgement is paramount,' she said.  What have you put in this drink?”

“The pertinent poison is alcohol, and as for clarity, by the look of you I'd say a single drink can only improve matters.  We have less than an hour for you to be suited up and on a shuttle.  I suggest we proceed to the seating area for the duration of our briefing.  I for one would benefit from a few minutes in a comfortable chair.”

Lancet gestured expansively to an area roughly in the centre of the vast chamber, where several high-backed armchairs and a sickle-shaped sofa were arranged in a rough semi-circle, bolted to the deck.  The upholstery, as expected, was an unexciting black.  Another cogitator lectern stood facing the seating area, controls invisible from here, with a large auxiliary vid-screen on the front.  It was currently displaying a feed of the planet Tuvak, roughly identical to the sight he could still see through the colossal windowed wall.  A figure in armour was sprawled awkwardly on the sofa, which was clearly built to take a beating.  The metal carapace was a dull gold alloy buffed to a moderate shine, baroque helmet completely enclosed. 

As they approached the warrior, Teleos realised its proportions were all wrong – too wide in the shoulders, too narrow at the waist.  Arms approximating human shape while bending incorrectly.  Not a patch of organic material to be seen.   A servitor, albeit it a highly sophisticated one with clean, ergonomic lines.  Likely worth a High Lord's ransom to the right connoisseur.  No obvious weapons or tools to speak of, and apparently shorter than he was, though it was hard to tell for certain.  Of course the weight of all that metal made it a weapon in itself, and he remained unarmed.  But were those thoughts? 

Distant, yes, like the sound of the wind heard from deep underground.  The faintest echo.  But human thoughts.  Decidedly more advanced then than the stooped, fleshy mono-taskers he'd seen so far.  Another Tech-priest?  If so then a rudely disrobed one.  Perhaps a skitarius, brought along to protect the Magos?  Not that this would explain its presence on the bridge, or for that matter the sofa.  A proxy for her, perhaps.  In any case, its apparent capacity for consciousness was a relief.  If it attacked he'd have something to work with.  And why should it attack?  He mentally rinsed his face.  He had agreed to this.  These were assets, his assets to be used.  He sank gratefully into an armchair and managed not to sigh.  Lancet indicated the servitor.

“Inquisitor Rahn, may I introduce Interrogator–”

“I'll interrogate you if you call me that again.  You won't enjoy the experience.”

A synthesised voice, or a human one?  This time it was hard to tell.  It sounded like a young woman trapped at the bottom of a well, and had the weary tone of one who accepted she would have to stay there.  The unsightly lump of a vox-port had been bolted to the servitor's carapace, where a human collar bone might be. 

“Then may I introduce Ms Anastasia Wysp, former rising star of the Inquisition, current battle servitor and malcontent.  She'll be serving as your field assistant and to an extent, your bodyguard.  Ms Wysp, Inquisitor Teleos Rahn.”

“Another Inquisitor?  We'll see how long that lasts now you've gotten mixed up with this lot.  Pleased to meet you, I guess.  Don't say I didn't warn you.”

The servitor leaned forward, offered to break his hand; he nodded politely to it but declined to accept the offer.  Spreading its mechanised claws as if appealing to the Emperor, it flopped back in its seat with an ominous metallic creak.  Lancet waved away the moment, sliding into a chair of his own. 

“To business!  To cut a very long story brilliantly short, former Inquisitor Bauchan – that's him on the screen now, doing what he does – is a liability for our mutual friend and needs to be dealt with expediently.  Frankly he's by far the least important matter on our list, but also the easiest to address and so, here we are.  Here is what I know: Bauchan has co-opted the Tuvakian government as a power behind the throne.  It's a one-hive world, nothing fancy; perhaps he's looking to settle down.  His cult, a shamefully tawdry philosophical salad dedicated to the daemon Rekkinzon, has infiltrated the nobility at every level, to the extent that I think we can write the entire social class off as a lost cause.”

Another hand wave, this time condemning thousands as deserving fools.  He nipped at his tumbler with a satisfied smack of his lips, before setting it down on an armrest. 

“Fortunately, there's an equally bombastic popular uprising fomenting in the underhive – Bauchan plans to gas the rebellious element, but the relevant point for us is that this has him looking downwards, scheming to stamp out all resistance from below.  What he isn't expecting, primarily because I've hijacked Tuvak's defence network and slaved their satellites to us – also he's never heard of one – is a Fabraxian warp tunnel punching into the spire from orbit and dropping you on his absurdly be-horned head.  Not that there's anything wrong with a horned head in certain extreme circumstances, but there are horns with class and then there are...those.”

He shook his head ruefully, then sharply clapped his hands.

“So!  We have a psychic tracer locked onto his soul, for want of a better word, courtesy of our delightful Magos.  The tunnel should come out somewhere within...oh, a hundred yards of him, give or take, though she'd kill me for being so vague.  Of course I can't guarantee that space won't be full of soldiers.  Follow the signal, deal with the man, retrieve both his daemon swords – don't ask me why he has two – and leave the nobles to their fate.  You might want to execute the governor while you're at it, traitor to the Imperium and all that, but I wouldn't go out of your way.”

A momentary frown intruded, as if silently interrupted.  Teleos had indeed been about to interject, but Lancet pressed on quickly.

“I recognise that look.  You all get it sometimes, nothing to be ashamed of.  But priorities are priorities.  Bauchan himself is a low one in the grand scheme of things, let alone all his fair-weather cronies.  He's lucky we managed to fit him in at all.  Remember, this is not the Inquisition coming for a heretic – well I suppose it is, but first and foremost this is Balkoth coming for Bauchan, and as for Rekkinzon?  Banish it, if you see it.  That's all.  It's about as harmless as daemons get, and he wants us to send a message.  Let it tell its kind what is coming if they think about crossing our path.  By the by, Roboute Guilliman came back from the dead.  No one out here really gives a damn but I figured you'd want to know.  I'll update you properly on the state of Imperial politics once Bauchan has been safely dealt with.”

“Roboute– Never mind, but what exactly is the hurry?  Hasn't this waited a hundred years already?  Surely I should be briefed–”

“He's giving a speech in the governor's palace, a masturbatory sermon for the cream of the cream of the spire.  I figured that would be the ideal moment–”

“You figured – so this isn't Balkoth's plan?”

Lancet's next smile was icy, his affability dispersing like morning mist. 

“This is my plan.  I, in turn, am a part of Balkoth's plan; as are you, Inquisitor.  Knowing when to strike is one of my duties, just as the striking itself is one of yours.  I'm told you excel at this sort of thing, at least when you're fully composed.  You don't have to do this my way, but I assure you I've thought it through far more thoroughly than you have time to in the next fifty minutes.”

He met Rahn's gaze as he said this, before springing suddenly back to his feet, comfort abandoned, bursting with vitality.  On the nearby vid-screen, a horned man was killing children with a jagged blood-slick sword.  They were each queuing up for their turn.

“Don't worry, that isn't live.  Ms Wysp, if he proves amenable, kindly show Inquisitor Rahn to the armoury at his convenience.  He will require full access, with particular attention paid to the Force Armour.  Please instruct him in its operation.  You might also want to tool up a little yourself, make it a proper show of force.  As for me, I'll be needed on that cogitator momentarily.  Good luck, Inquisitor!  This should be well within your remit, but take comfort in the knowledge that if you do fail then he probably intended you to.  Wheels within wheels, you know how it is.  Comes with the territory.”

Resigned to the wheels of destiny, Teleos tossed back his drink.  It tasted like battery acid.


=][=


Title: Re: On the Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on March 14, 2020, 07:55:57 PM

“– And now, my friends, we approach the heart of the matter.  Did the self-annointed emperor care for Tuvak?  Did ensuring the prosperity of this unique world, the very jewel in the Imperial crown, even figure in his decisions?  I put to you that it did not.  That their so-vaunted saviour is a fraud.   For what true god, deserving worship, would scorn the sons of Tuvak to pander to lesser men?”

“No god at all,” they chorused; this spoiled, pampered herd.  The audience hall was packed almost literally to the rafters, with coiffured, costumed courtiers filling every seat while more stood crowded shoulder-tight around them, some raised on others' backs, their dignity abandoned, all the way to the high sealed doors.  A few perched precariously in further elevated spots, sharing plinths with gilded statues or risking the ledges of feet-thick, coloured windows, beyond which swirled a never-ending storm.  Illumination was provided by elaborate chandeliers.  The echoes of his voice reverberated through them, so amplified by the artfully hidden vox-address system, concealed by tasteless tapestries, that the inside of the chamber rang like a beaten bell.  Grinning with the fangs of a jungle cat, the High Magus prowled the stage, a raised dais once occupied by the governor's towering throne – its owner sat on the botttom step now, proud as a favoured grandchild. 

“I say to you that Rekkinzon has always recognised your worth.  He has always known your measure, for it was He who Chose this world.  Your primacy, so long denied, is obvious to Him.  He who sees between particles, swims between stars; He who sees to the truth of the soul.  For did not mankind's primacy begin upon this ground?  Did not our ancestors build temples on the earth of honest Tuvak, and did Our Lord not smile to see?  Before their false Imperium, wherever sons of Tuvak strove and dreamed...there was He.  And He is with us still!  For even the least deserving Tuvak flesh is worthy to contain the divine.  Bear witness, you deserving few.  Cast all your eyes on high.   Behold the apotheosis of our faith!”

An appreciative gasp passed through the crowd as they complied.  One might have thought some patriotic angel truly had appeared.  The apotheosis in question was a wrecked, emaciated thing, suspended high above and behind him, stretched to breaking by rune-etched chains.  It resembled a man dead of a wasting disease, though its quivering convulsions seemed to prove some kind of life.  A pattern of eldritch symbols had been carved into its flesh.  Dirty brown light was leaking from its gaping mouth, though no audible sound issued forth.  Perhaps its groans were merely drowned out by the speaker's booming tones.  The ornamented multitude hung on his every word. 

The High Magus stood tall as a Space Marine, and power armoured to boot, though a learned eye would have noted the distended plates, the cancerous organic carvings and the ossified exhaust ports.  Whatever powers drove it now were surely unnatural ones.  From shoulder to floor the suit was bedecked with poorly cured human skin streamers, tattooed in rainbow hues, impaled on fish-hook spines.  His head might have seemed absurdly small on top, but for a pair of ostentatious horns shaped like a letter S, rising from behind either temple and reaching nearly an arm's length into the air.  The skin of his face was pitted as tree bark, eyes tiny and crocodile sly.  Bauchan enunciated his words carefully, compensating for the fangs.  In each gauntleted fist he brandished a naked sword, exuberant as a conductor before an orchestra, spraying flecks of dark corruption like the spittle of a frenzied hound.  One sword had a blade full of teeth and eyes, more animal than steel.  The other cast a solid blade-shaped void, a perfect silhouette that swallowed light with hateful thirst. 

“You all have seen the truth, my friends.  Proud Tuvak, noble Tuvak, stands alone.  Alone save for the Lord of All Creation!  Though Rekkinzon sees all the worlds, he gazes first and last on You.   What say you – should Our Lord be limited to looking down with His all-seeing eye?  Or is it worth a sacrifice to bring Him closer still?  Should he taste the Tuvak spirit for Himself?”

“Tuvak!  Tuvak!  Let him taste!”

A shuffling in the eager mass, as a knot of burly worshippers bullied their way to the front.  Young men of the sort who put on combat suits to hunt desperate underhive scum.  Sculpted muscle flexing in a vainglorious display.  All the piety of a press-gang to these.  The congregation shortly disgorged the group, revealing a bounty of dull-eyed, unwanted daughters, each one led meekly by the arm.  The intended victims mumbled incoherently; one giggled to herself.  Their peers looked on hungrily, whispering, gossiping even now. 

Flash!  The towering gilt doors blew inwards with a juddering, ear-bursting crack.  Shrapnel lanced out through the crowd, a burst of bloody streamers.  The congregation fell apart, terrified and turning feral, howling and keening as they fought to escape.  A tide of flailing flesh rolled forward, swelling, shrieking, snaring people as it came.  Behind the stampede, shell-shocked wounded sprawled in heaps, their limbs a grasping tangle – still screaming when the doors themselves came down.  The crunch of bones was swallowed in the thunder of their fall.   Survivors scattered, fought and scrambled; died upon the dais steps for daring to ascend – for Bauchan laid about him now, a bear beset by rats, his swords a wetly wicked blur that parted throats, spilled guts, ate souls.  The air was thick with dust and choking, stinking smoke.  The wretch on high hung limp.  Staccato bursts of bolter fire rang out across the hall.

“Bauchan!  Inquisition!”

The bellow of authority,
said a treacherous primal urge.  The voice of judgement feared, unlooked for, railed against in vain.  A spectral hand pushed down on them, forcing the weeping cultists to their knees.  They cowered in each other's blood, made obeisance to they-knew-not-who and pleaded to be spared.  A hold-out who clung to a high ledge fell thirty feet to the floor.  A figure was approaching their sometime High Magus; a towering, menacing, black-armoured titan, grown vast in the minds of his prey.  A flickering halo of light coursed around him, while searing white currents flowed hot down his arms and pooled in the palms of his hands.  His helmet was framed by great coiling ram-horns, face concealed by a visor, opaque and impassively blank.  The remains of the cult parted meekly before him, all crawling and shuffling, too terrified to rise. 

“Your time is over, Bauchan.  Your failures at an end.  The hand that raised you up has cast you down.”

His voice was a coldly resonant bass; it echoed in the pit of their guts.  Some of them whispered of hands and failures, lips moving unconsciously.  The wrathful god advanced.  With the speed of an animal bolting – some skittering, scurrying thing – the High Magus ran.  He leapt from the dais, breaking tiles as he landed, tried to veer left and get past his aggressor.  The sword on the attacker's back remained undrawn.  His beetle-black armour was slighter than Bauchan's, no ostentatious pauldrons, though the surface of every plate was marbled with a mesh of bone-white lines.  An eerie glow flared up as one fist met a power-armoured chest.  The blow lifted Bauchan, armour and all, and pitched him back into the air.  He met the wall behind the dais, obliterating a portrait of some long-dead governor, or perhaps of himself; left a spider-web of cracks behind him as he slid back down to earth.  He kept his feet and both his swords, a challenge in his eyes.  A malicious grin split his face. 

“Rekkinzon!  The time is nigh, you worm.  Come forth and consume this pretender.”

With a triumphant cackle, his awful swords lunged and the rune-covered chains were cut free.  In a clatter of falling, pooling links, the wretch on high descended.  Every head craned to look, surreptitiously hoping – bolter fire blared again, too close, obscenely loud in that moment.  A bristling gore-drenched servitor; a wet-brass nightmare of crackling power blades, with a shoulder-mounted firearm trained on the falling man.  The scraggly form was blown apart before their eyes.  Wet lumps of him spattered down.  Something hung for a moment in the fading red mist, like a tight knot of chitinous claws.  It swallowed itself and was gone.

“Coward!  Weakling!  You spineless daemon f–”

Bauchan's incredulous shriek was cut short as the black-suited man bore down.  With his options exhausted, he went on the offensive with a flurry of overhand swings.  The savage sword snarled as it glanced off a gauntlet; a forearm caught the dark blade with a sharp discordant chime.  Firework flashes of witch-light seemed to punctuate every strike.  Booted foot met armoured knee, light flared and something crunched.  Bauchan lurched, staggered, recovered, breathing hard as he righted himself.  His enemy circled, streamlined, predatory, still bare-handed save for the light. 

“You aren't Balkoth.  Not even close!  Amaurn, is that you in there?”

“What a shameful display.  You're every bit the clown he said you were.  Those blades have enslaved you, apostate.  Not that it's any excuse.”

“Apostate?  You fight for him and speak of apostasy?  Why not heresy while you're at it?  I suppose that's sanctioned tech you're using?  You sanctimonious fool.”

“I think we're well past heresy.  You are guilty of having existed.  The Inquisition does not miss you.  You wasted what power you had.  Your death will be less than a footnote.”

Sudden as a scorpion, the Inquisitor attacked.  Bauchan met him, ambidextrous; lost the savage sword, then the dark; each weapon rudely wrenched away from him with gauntlet-shattering force.  Hands ruined, disbelieving, he tried to use his horns.  The dark sword took him in the abdomen, driving cleanly through his torso and coming out high on his back.  Then the savage punched down through his collar bone and on into his guts, gleefully shredding organs as it went.  The Inquisitor left them there.  A boot in the chest sent the twice-impaled giant toppling woodenly over.  He shuddered where he lay.  Somewhere within his hulking armour, daemons fought for primacy, extending warring tendrils through his veins.  Flesh warped and bubbled, collapsed and gave way, a battlefield churned into mud.  The enormous horns drooped like burning wax.  He attempted a gurgling scream.  In this too Bauchan failed. 

“Which one of you is the governor?”

A forest of pointing fingers.

“Wysp.”

A single resounding shot.  The unlucky man's head ceased to be.  The servitor loped forward, its power blades still raised.  Its shoulder gun roved as if eager, certainly spoilt for choice.  From outside, panicked shouts were drawing near. 

“Your houses are dissolved by order of the Inquisition.  I hereby excommunicate you all.”

The wreckage that had been the High Magus stopped twitching and lay still.  Apparently satisfied, the Inquisitor placed a foot on his chest-plate and withdrew the cursed swords.  They seemed to shrink a little in his hands. 


=][=


“You didn't use the sword.  You could have had guns!  Talk about showing off.”

“I wasn't showing off.  I didn't need the sword, I've only halfway figured out this armour and it still felt like fighting a child.  No wonder Lancet didn't take him seriously.”

“Lancet takes nobody seriously....almost nobody.  Certainly not Bauchan.  I saw what you did with his daemon blades.  Was that meant as poetic justice?”

“Have you met many poetic Inquisitors?”

“Depends how you define poetry.  'The hand that raised you up has cast–'”

“It felt like something Balkoth would say.  Happy?”

“I'm a servitor.  Would you be?”

“I'm not sure you are a servitor.”

“Depends how you define a servitor.”

“Well in my experience, they're usually not so...verbose.  Besides, you seemed happy enough back there.”

“I suppose I must have been then, with you being psychic and all.”

“Whoever assembled you clearly thought of that.  I'd have to really want to see your mind.  I don't.”

“I don't blame you.  For what it's worth, I think it was justice.  Bauchan I mean.  Or near enough anyway.”

“Were you really an Interrogator?”

“So now you're interested?  Would Lancet lie to you?”

“I imagine he already has.”

“I don't know you, Inquisitor.  Just making conversation.  I know curiosity is in the title, but I have a mind-linked boltgun and I'd rather not discuss it.”

“Suit yourself.  I doubt you'd scratch this thing anyway.  That looks more like a pistol to me.”

A stony silence tried to descend, spoiled by the ringing echo of armoured steps down mausoleum halls.  The Inquisitor and the debatable servitor moved quickly through the Black Ship's guts, heading back towards the armoury; left a trail of gory footprints in their wake.  The warp tunnel had worked as advertised: a moment of thundering madness; every sense overloaded; a hurtling, burning, drowning, screeching fall.  An impossible distance crossed at the cost of a single breath.  He nearly vomited the first time, briefly worried he might soil his suit.  The return trip had seemed easier, though Bauchan's daemons had grown bold, tried to pour their poison in his ears.  Even their words were lost on him, swallowed by the howling void.  The Magos had taken the swords from him as soon as they burst from the gate; a great circular lens in the midst of a complex array.  Wysp had given her a wide berth and headed straight for the exit.  Within the not-glass behind them, a maelstrom of swirling pigments had quickly ebbed away.

The armour they had foisted on Teleos had indeed been more than enough.  To the best of his knowledge, Imperial force technology did not extend to armoured suits, and Bauchan was likely right about its dubious sanctity.  Apparently powered by warp energy, it responded to his every thought and amplified the consequence, channelling his will into his limbs.  No daemon engine this; the energy corona was his own.  The raw, primal strength of his soul made tangible and set loose in his flesh.  He wondered what the upper limit was.  The battle had been an epiphany.  He had felt invigorated, clear and sharp, all trace of his earlier discomfort dispelled as he beat down Bauchan's blades.  The impacts had barely registered in his shell.  Perhaps the armour had fed upon them, and he through it, though he couldn't sense any taint.  Maybe corruption could not be sensed within oneself.  I think we're well past heresy.  Primarily schooled as a telepath, he had long relied on his weapons in combat and was unused to hurling power-armoured men around like dolls.  He supposed he would adapt.  Become a living blade of psychic force, he had felt no need to draw his sword.  As he walked he pondered what might have required it.  There is always a bigger fish.

Lancet was waiting when they arrived, stood at ease in the armoury doorway.  He launched into another briefing immediately.  Inquisitor Rahn made a half-hearted to listen, still wearing the vaunted Force Armour, though he removed the close-fitting helmet and held it by one coiled horn.  Meanwhile the now sullen Wysp went through the laborious process of literally disarming herself.  A swarm of hovering servo skulls had gathered and were currently acting as fingers.  The buzzing cloud half obscured her from view while their miniature mechadendrites unscrewed, twisted, lifted.  Her bloody combat attachments – one arm a power sword from elbow downwards, the other a great clawed first with a further blade fixed to the wrist – were set down on a bench to be cleaned.  An unsettling rack of spare limbs awaited her, including the heavy-fingered, almost orkish ones she'd worn back on the bridge. 

She deliberated, briefly dismembered, before choosing a more delicate pair.  The teeming skulls obeyed.  The shoulder-mounted bolt pistol went last – it was indeed a pistol, though admittedly an ornate one big enough for an Astartes – and Rahn felt a tiny sting of muffled psychic feedback as the surprisingly potent Machine Spirit disengaged from her Mind Impulse Unit.  The hint of dislocation swiftly passed.  Wysp stowed the weapon with its attachments in a grim little safe, apparently set aside for the purpose, and sealed a bulky arcane padlock with a beep.  Sober religious iconography adorned the box.  Behind her Lancet winked at him, conspiratorial, without missing a verbal beat.  She resolutely ignored them.  Rahn tried to focus on the pertinent points and tune out the inconsequential. 

It seemed the Imperium had come close to breaking in the century he'd spent in stasis.  Had broken, in fact, into Sanctus and Nihilus, though not the final, fatal shattering some had feared.  But somehow, he was beginning to realise, humanity endured.  The galactic situation when he entered the pod had been dire in its own way...five minutes to midnight, some said.  Now it sounded like midnight had come and gone.  Even the return of one of the Primarchs could not, should not have been enough to save humanity from the myriad dooms it had faced in the final years of M41.  Yet over a century later, in the face of a galaxy sundered by the Cicatrix Maledictum – he could still feel the Rift, though he hadn't yet seen it – a tiny seed of optimism was striving to take root.  He dismissed it as folly, of course. 

This had long been an obscure region of space.  It was now in the Dark Imperium, and the furthest edge at that.  I wonder what Marazel made of it when they stole his grand idea.  Will Ancient Koldo come to Baal one night?  The Emperor's psychic light was all but invisible out here.  Deprived of the Astronomican, who even knew what horrors stalked the darkness now?  Never mind which direction to pray.  Nothing ends.  Nothing changes.  War is war is war.  This is what we are.  If the monsters all died we'd make new ones.  Even the Emperor must fight to stay alive.  We didn't spawn the Chaos Gods but we keep them fed to bursting.  It's a wonder there aren't more of them by now.

“–But you can read up on the details en route to our next destination.  How much do you know about the Conclave?”

“Which conclave?”

“The intangible one.  Astropaths, coded messages, Inquisitors sharing their secrets...”

“Aye, I've heard of it.  I don't hold with that sort of arrangement.  An Inquisitor's secrets should be kept close, not passed around through other people's leaking heads.”

“So you don't use Astropaths?  A rather impractical stance.”

“I wouldn't go that far, but there are degrees of trust.  Didn't you just say they're all going mad from the effects of the Rift?”

“Not all of them.  It's true the network isn't what it was, but I sense you formed this opinion some time ago.”

“I can see into people's minds, Lancet.  I've learned a great many secrets in my time, and I suspect you've done the same by different means.  I'm sure you, who are not an Inquisitor, know more about this Conlave than I do – which is an excellent example of why Astropaths and ciphers can't be trusted where it counts.”

“Well then, good luck standing and shouting.  May your secrecy serve you well, Inquisitor.  However, I'm afraid our mission will require you to familiarise yourself with the contents of the Conclave Archive.  To that end, I had our Astropaths make a full transcript over the course of the last week, which I have since edited and annotated extensively for your perusal.  The data-slate awaits you in your quarters.  There's food and a bathroom there too if you need any added incentives.”

“Where are my quarters?”

“Adjacent to the bridge, I'm afraid.  Got to be ready for action if we run across any surprises!  We're a week out from the Mandeville point, but it's a relatively short hop through the warp after that if all goes well.”

“To where, exactly?”

“Ah, you need to do your homework.  We're bound for a place called Secret's Hold.  It's an old haunt of Balkoth's, though it really was a secret in those days.  He gave it to his first apprentice, who couldn't keep a secret to save his life.  See what the data slate has to say about it, eh?  Try to enjoy the irony.  I'll fill in the gaps when you're done.  Incidentally, I've seen the vid-logs of your coup de grace and I'm afraid dear Ms Wysp there must have given you the short version when she explained the Force Armour – I'm told it has several auxiliary functions you failed to test, and as for the actual weaponry – well, I suggest you ask the Magos to explain the arcana of your armaments in more detail.  Later, of course, not now.  I expect she'll be busy securing those daemons below.”

Halfway down the hall outside by now, Wysp turned and yelled at the mention of her name.

“I'm not a psyker, alright!  I don't understand the damn thing.  How about you explain it to him, since you're in the business of knowing everything?”

Lancet called back at once with venom on his tongue.

“Because I am neither a psyker, nor a brawler, nor a machine.  The use of weapons bores me, transparently simple as it is.  These things are for you and your minder to worry about.  I have more important work to do.”

He made a show of dismissing her and turned back to Rahn.

“Sorry about that Inquisitor, you know how servitors are.  No real versatility to the best of them.  But I really must be getting on.  Well done out there, on balance.  A satisfactory outcome.  We can work on your finesse as we go.  You really must talk to the Magos at some point, I'm sad to say.  Your immediate arsenal aside, we have various...things...in the hold you should probably be made aware of.  Not Secret's Hold that is, the actual hold of this vessel.”

“Various things?”

“It's a very spacious hold.  Isn't that the point of a Black Ship?  Of course that's all the engineering department's domain, so definitely one for our two-faced mechanic to field.”

“You don't know what's down there?”

“Oh, I know all about it.  But you should hear it from her.  I'm not about to speak for Fabraxis.”

“Fabraxis?”

“The Magos, Inquisitor.  Later.  But don't ask about Fabraxis, if you know what's good for you.  You aren't the only one around here who believes in secrecy.”

“So I've noticed.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”


=][=


“Secrecy is the essence of the Inquisition.  An Inquisitor who could remain so, were all their secrets known from Hive to High Lord's chamber, is one in name only and can be no effective agent against immortal, intractable foes.  For an Inquisitor must learn in order to succeed, and the pursuit of knowledge regarding mankind's enemies can always be defined as heresy.  It is also our duty, of course.  To take up our mantle is to swear contradictory oaths.  Our first task is to reconcile them.  Our second to find some secret place where we can begin to learn.”

“And yet you were excommunicated, were you not?”

“So I was...I won't try to convince you that was entirely by design.  But excommunication was a hindrance, not an end.  I kept my secrets closer than my seal.  By then I had learned a little.  Enough, I thought, to shed the skin of the great Inquisitor, to grow beyond its confines and expand.  They will tell you I walk the Path of Damnation.  No doubt some inner simulacrum says it to you even now.  They are correct in their assessment, in the main.  There is truth in the cliché; to deal with daemons always has its price.  I let every bridge I crossed burn down behind me.  But avoiding damnation was never my first priority.  How could it be?  We can never be purely warriors, yet warriors we are.  Inquisitors do not learn for the love of knowledge, but so our enemies might be known, and we might shape ourselves into their bane.”

“By making deals with them?  Is this not what your failed pupil would say?  Is it not the song of every fallen Inquisitor, as he pleads with his peers to spare him?”

“I plead with no one, boy.  Neither my creditors nor my peers.  Damnation too is a hindrance, but daemons are not the true enemy.  They are the enemy's pets.  It is our ignorance that makes us toys for such creatures to chew on.  Sometimes they can even be goaded to bite the hand that feeds.  But to survive we must win the Great Game, and to win we must learn how to play.  It is the master we must conquer, not the beast.”

“You see yourself as equal to their gods then?  Again, this sounds like arrogance, not wisdom.”

“They are not gods, merely monsters.  Distortions of certain truths.  And I will find the measure of them yet.  Who else will fight on the highest, most crucial front of all?  If not the Inquisition it had better be the Emperor Himself.”

“Surely it must.  You are a mortal man, Balkoth, when all is said and done.  Merely human for all your secrets, as are we all.  The Inquisition consists of people, flesh and soul.  The Emperor is divine – it is His great battle you describe.  He who fights on the highest front.  That is why we worship Him.”

“Then tell me, Teleos – do you think he's winning?”



=][=


Secrets are seeds.  When buried, they germinate – leave too many buried together, and a jungle begins to grow.  They multiply in self-defence, and thereby increase the danger to themselves.  Discovery is their death of course, but death can only ever be delayed.  Mortality comes calling in the end.  Propagation is the only recourse.  So it was in Secret's Hold, as in the land surrounding. 

This private core of Balkoth's world, and later that of his student Mentirius, had held onto its secrets from before a human ever learned to speak.  These secrets predated even their Keeper, who for all its power and cunning had never escaped their hold.  They had been old when Escellon, one of She Who Thirsts' first born, had first been lured and trapped there by mortals unknown in the mists of the Age of Strife – had perhaps been studied for a time, left fossilised by some forgotten sorcerer-scientist and forgotten in its turn.  The Keeper of Secrets was gone now, freed by implosive dissolution, daemonic essence drained away while all the jungle burned.  But the black stone and the echoing warp remembered, as they remembered every former master of the Hold.  Balkoth had not been the first usurper, nor the last, but he had made a useful vector for those secrets deemed fit to thrive.  What remained were the degenerate offspring of the scraps he had left behind. 

And so the Hold endured, hollowed out though it had been by the Keeper's rise and fall.  Around the sprawling clearing it had claimed, degenerate secrets had propagated and the forest grown anew.  The jungle steamed and sweltered, crowded closer day by day.  Plants adapted even to the warp, grew lurid and bizarre.  Nature abandoned symmetry and thrived.  Given another century, fleshy roots might well have drowned the ragged open space with vibrant, twisted growth, but so far the Keeper's psychic epitaph held sway.  The ruin of the Hold itself, an open crater now, yawned up at the Rift-torn sky with a maze of broken teeth.  Emptied of all but the oldest secrets, it silently called out to be filled.  In the tangled arboreal depths of the jungle, an answer was trying to form. 

The battle began at dawn.  A scurrying squad of six-eyed spine-backs loosed a barrage of envenomed yellow quills as they crested a fallen tree trunk, decimating the massed ranks of fat-bellied tuskers who crowded and jostled beyond.  Their already bulbous purple bodies rippled, swelled and burst, unified in a single crescendo of perfect agony.  Their sacrifice served as a signal.  Beyond the spreading pools of viscous pink ichor, a war grove of whispering willows swayed and chittered forth.  Their wriggling roots sucked thirstily at the mess.  The spine-back squad were seized and strangled, caught in dangling frond-whips and dragged up into the darkness, trailing exquisite ribbons of bestial fear.  An airborne battalion of bat-hawks descended, screeching, but were likewise snared and choked.  They fought to the last of course. 

Their distraction bought time for the tyrant plant, a ponderous, creeping mass, to drag itself into range.  Its six-fold maw unravelled and a hydra of harpoon tongues shot forth, punching through the lashing foliage and impaling slender trunks.  The whispering willows shivered, their nerve endings singing, as the monster reeled them in.  They tried to choke it with their roots but acidic juices rose up in its throat and burned their tendrils away.  They stewed in its gut, dying slowly.  Their only thought was bliss.  Elsewhere in the blossoming conflict, tripedal tentacled foot-soldiers fought beak and claw amongst themselves, driven to frenzy by thick clouds of spores while fungal golems rose.  Their mania was the madness of beasts, for now, but improvements could be made.  A torture squad of vespid snakes roamed freely through melee, their many-pointed mandibles aglow.  Descended as one on a single bioluminescent climbing hog.  It pulsed and shrilled as they peeled it apart, nerve by searing nerve.  They played for their master's delectation, while the jungle came alive and died on every side.

There was a mind behind them all, if mind it could be called.  A hive of tiny proto-minds infested by an all-pervasive, parasitic soul.  It remembered the touch of tender fingers on the handle of a gently curving sword.  It remembered the world aflame on every side.  The beloved prey gone putrid, stolen by putrefaction at the last.  It remembered the extinction of its secret, envied Lord.  A century and more it had waited, nurtured, puppeteered, enacting frantic games of war that quickly descended into slaughter.  Breeding, mutating, shaping species in the aftermath.  It had amused itself this way and fed on what intensity it found, together with the ever-present echoes of the breaking of the Hold.  This was a meagre, mean existence for a scion of excess, and yet superior by far to a prison of rigid steel abandoned in the ash.  It flexed and roiled and gouged itself, lost in the dance for a time.  And then they came.  It knew the tiny ape-lights at once, for it remembered humans well and missed them desperately.  They walked on the sacred earth and the daemon felt their tread as a teasing caress.  Desire took flight and soared.

It was Secret's Hold they came to find, of course.  No playful courtship here.  Their minds all barred as temple gates, they lingered by the broken prison for a time.  They meddled, prattled, pondered, conversation unintelligible; left before the day was over, inscrutable to the insects and the hungry, thinking vines.  And yet the daemon knew.  They would only be the first to come, for the scent would surely spread now, and mortals swarmed like flies to meat where secrets were concerned.  Their departure was surely the beginning of the breaking of its fast.  It schemed and dreamed and preened itself, began to build anew. 


=][=


Title: Re: On the Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Dosdamt on April 05, 2020, 06:00:47 AM
Ghosts of the Past Vol III

A Mutant Girl, Perhaps

M42.002, High above Last Reach

“This is your plan? This is as good as it gets?”

Bess shook her head. In the few years she’d been in the employ of this Inquisitor, she hadn’t ever heard such a load of speculative nonsense. She rubbed a hand down her scabby creased face and sighed. Part of her wished Mantis was still here. She had built a rapport of sorts with the old man, and grown very fond of him. Though he was wracked by despair and despondency, she had beamed through the gloom as a welcome lighthouse pierces the fog and, in the end….

In the end. Mantis’ end. She fought for composure for a flash second.

In the end he’d given everything, so she should be here. So he could be here. So they would be here. Crucially, it was her choice to be here. Perhaps that was reason enough to believe in the plan. She had pored over the details, again and again, until she was exhausted and then again when she awoke from slumber. She worked through the small details with a practiced mind and an infinite patience. Even with all that effort, little of it made sense to her - then, she hadn’t been a throne agent for as long as those around her.

It had taken a monumental surge of will for her to follow him. She’d left Mantis, Scarab, Python, the Magus and more behind. Her friends - no, she corrected herself, family - in the group. She hadn’t seen any news on what had happened to the Profitable Venture. They’d found some of the group who had split with the Venture after some differences of opinion on direction. They weren’t sure what had happened to the ship after they left it. He had welcomed them in. Bess found herself having to organise logistics for the new arrivals which she took to like a wolf to the chase. She found herself coordinating more and more until he was leaning on her for almost everything. Now everything ran through her or only with her blessing and she was thriving.

Just a mutant girl.

She smiled inwardly at the thought. Just a mutant girl - as true as it was, or had been, it wasn’t the reality of who she had been. She had been the godhead of a cult, the vessel for emancipation and dominion of a world. Rescued from there, she’d wandered with Karius Prelune - the Truthsayer - for a time until she came face to face with the feared and terrible Most Holy Ordos of His Inquisition. She had been the confidante to one Inquisitor. She had received the revelation of a lifetime from the next. She was now the seneschal to another. She suspected that now she was mired in this world, she would only leave once she was dead. She was barely twenty years old.

Some mutant girl.

She went through the data pad again as he watched on. He had given her access to the broadest, biggest librarium of texts she’d ever seen. She was a voracious reader - little time for it now - but she had consumed works by Guilliman, Macharius and others on tactics and warfare. It would be fair to say they’d varied in opinions - how the Imperium could do with Roboute back now! - but none of them would have recommended the plan put before her. Still, perhaps in the chaos that had broken out across the Imperium, the lack of coordination and communication would create a window of opportunity. Perhaps. She ran through the numbers again, ran through the steps, ran through the plans and the strategy, the contingency and the finest details. She looked at the fall back positions and the scant intelligence they’d been able to gather.

Perhaps.

“Guilliman would call it too theoretical, too many unknowns. Coteaz would’ve balked at the lack of contingencies. Macharius would tell us we don’t have the numbers. And Yarrick would laugh at how foolhardy it is.”

She understood the strategy. The talent they had available, in particular the talents he had would hopefully tip the balance. What were the words in Othello Dosdamt’s Magnificum Strategis? She mentally grasped for a moment.

“Hope is not a strategy”.

Perhaps.

She flicked the contents of the datapad, such as they were and they were light on detail, onto the holo terminal.

“Look here,” he said, “And here, and here. We’ve got enough ingress points that are weak, we don’t need numbers. We need speed, direction, precision. Confusion and misdirection do the heavy lifting, we clear up whatever resistance forms a cohesive response.”

“You are a small force dropping from orbit, you can’t breach them all at the same time. We know their numbers, they outnumber you significantly. It won’t take much of a cohesive response to stop you dead, literally,” she countered.

“Disagree, that’s why we have to hit all three of the ingress points. We’ll land a team on each of them, we pin them down, we force them to split their forces. We’ve got surprise on our side and confusion is our key ally. We’ll have the Commandos on the ground alrea-“

“They are only going in non-lethal. As ever.”

“That doesn’t render them ineffective.”

“Will you be fighting non-lethal? Will any of your teams be fighting non-lethal?”

He drops his face, tilts his head to the side, and scowls for just a moment.

“That splits your execution. That leaves you vulnerable. You can’t have your distraction shooting sleeping gas taze-darts, leaving one egress point filled with disoriented enemies.”

“The Commandos are great at what they do. They’ll make sure whatever they put down, stays down for long enough. And they’re due to send more intelligence any time soon.”

“We are t-minus 92 minutes, First-Inquisitor. We’re leaving it a little late to get some final troop patterns and patrol numbers.”

He sighs and rubs his eyes. He’s been going for some time now. We, she thought. We. Ever since Aithol, they’d been on the run. It was taking a toll on all of them. Even now Bess was trying to balance a skeleton crew shift rotation, a dearth of spare parts, some very strange very angry Adeptus Mechanicum in the engine room, shortages in ammunition, food, water, and very tense negotiations down in the under decks to avoid a full scale mutiny. His plan was consuming too much of her time, but Throne dammit, it was him and, more than that, it was Scarab. They needed to get this right.

Scarab had been in their cells for three years. Bess didn’t have the full picture on what that might have entailed, but she’d been down into the brig aboard Futility, and that had been enough of an education. There was horror down there. She imagined the same horrors had been visited and re-visited on Scarab. She wasn’t sure what they’d find, or if he was still alive, but if there was a chance…

Perhaps.

Hope is not a strategy. She kept coming back to that same thought. It contradicted so strongly with everything she thought she had known in the galaxy. Karius wouldn’t approve. Hope was important, she thought he would say, hope is necessary at a time like this. Hope would get you through. She brought herself back to the plans in front of her. She spun the blueprints for the blacksite, taking in as much detail as she could. They didn’t have enough data on the numbers of shock troopers there. They thought they knew which wing Scarab was being held in, but that was weeks old data. He didn’t have his seal anymore, so they couldn’t just dig into the network. Futility had some access subroutines that routed through one of the many intricate entry points Balkoth had left for himself and his network into the archives and data streams of the Inquisition. The ornery Magos in the enginarium remained uncooperative and their access was limited.

“Can you try speaking with him again? We need Futilitys cooperation. It means we need his cooperation.”

“You’re right. You’re right,” he nods and holds a hand up in acknowledgement, “I’ll go and sort this out.”

“Good. I’ve gone over the intelligence again, and I think I have something. Look here - there’s likely to be structural weaknesses in this entrance based on these work orders submitted to the administratum. Maintenance routines have been halved according to the reports we got. They don’t have the manpower or the resources. That door will be the weakest. The wind will be blowing in from the north by north east - you can use the cloud cover that will come with it to disguise your descent. You’ll need to blow your grav-chutes late, but you should come in quiet and unseen. It’s a big change but burst in just one door. Blow them away from one side, after the Commandos go to work. That gives you a small window to get into the facility. Move quickly and move hard, don’t stop. Get to Scarab, pull him out, get all of you out.”

Bess continued to concentrate, focusing on the floor plans. Three checkpoints - each most likely to be more heavily defended than the last, gets him into the wing where Scarab was likely held. From there, they’d need to get him back on his feet - easier said than done. From there, they’d need to get the Valkyrie down to the ground - without being shot down - and then get out again - without being shot down. Too many variables. Too much hope. Hope is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy.

Perhaps.

“Yes, I see it. Alright. We deploy there,” he pointed to the holo, “And deploy in full. We wait, breach and enter as the Commandos run their routine and give us our egress. We stack fire here and here, and have the Valkyrie circle round overhead. We try to cut their targeting to give the Valkyrie free reign to smash in a good chunk of the facility.”

“We just need to figure out how to blind them.”

“Eighty odd minutes Bess, get on that. We have to blind their guns.”

He beamed. That smile, there was hope in that smile. Bess let herself bask in it for a moment. He had a way, that was for sure. No surprises then that he was venerated like a living saint by some of the crew and a good chunk of his retinue. It puzzled her out of all the opinions he could get from the crew, it was hers he sought out almost exclusively.

Just a mutant girl? Perhaps.

Futility had come fully stocked. It hadn’t taken long for them to take to him. Bess reckoned that might have been due to the silent hand of Balkoth, but she didn’t like to think for what cause. He had brushed off her concerns, but she’d seen behind those blazing white eyes - he was more concerned than he was letting on. Balkoth folded conspiracies into plots that were woven in decades long stratagems. It was unlikely he’d given Futility to him out of kindness.

Bess fought with her thoughts of Balkoth as she stood opposite him, waiting for his decision. This was the crucial moment. They had to give the nod now, or miss their window forever. It was unlikely they could pull off the approach in Futility, disgorge the Valkyrie, pull off the low orbit jump on a perfect trajectory while maintaining they were just a ‘trading vessel’ just long enough to stop planetary authorities from authorising the local Imperial Navy to come around and ‘take a look’ at them again.

“Do we go, First Inquisitor?” she prompted.

“Go, go, go.” he said, reaching a judgement. His voice had changed - it had tempered into steel.

“Get me a route straight to the Magos in the Enginarium. Tell him it is time to settle our grudges, we’ve played enough games. Bess, prep the team and the valkyrie for launch. I want them ready to go on time. Call Kely and get her to lead the briefing.”

“Yes First-Inquisitor.”

“Thank you, Seneschal Dowell. I need you. I need you.” He reached out and gently touched her arm, giving her an affirmative nod and a steely smile.

He turned, and began to march for the lift.

“Instruct the Captain to bring Futility about. Let’s do this. Get me Kely on the vox.”

His words made her stand just that little bit straighter, a little bit prouder. Perhaps she had become more than just the mutant girl.

=][=
Title: Re: On the Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Dosdamt on April 08, 2020, 01:36:44 AM
Not Balkoth

M42.002, Enginarium, Futility; t -75 minutes to drop

The halls housing the titanic engines of Futility soared above him. They were bizarre and arcane to his eyes - hissing gouts of steam, glowing pipes rushing plasma from device to device, lights blinking between red, green, and amber, pressure gauges with ticking hands flitting between numbers. He didn’t understand any of it. Incense hung heavy in the air, a strange mix of machine unguents and burnished spices from a dozen sanctified worlds. Around him, as he moved between cranking gear shafts and groaning cogs, monoslaved servitors stalked with purpose checking their auspexes and validating hypotheses sent from their betters. 

And their betters did mingle around them. He walked paths not unfamiliar to him now, past the generators, through various command posts dealing with routine maintenance, deeper into the maze. His chronometer beeped - t-minus 74 minutes till he needed to be in the bay. Enough time. Enough time.

Webs of cabling slithered erratically down the walls, in and out of more machinery he had no understanding of, as he approached his destination.The enginarium opened around him, the chamber growing exponentially until it felt like it ran the full height and width of the ship. The chamber itself was loosely circular - each of the plasteel ribs that formed the circular shape ran up the walls coming to an arch at the top centre of the chamber. Each of the ribs was stepped with grooves running across them as ladder rungs. They ran like scales all the way up the ribs. The ribs were entwined with bundles of cables, not especially carefully packed, but each cable was distinct by thickness, colour, or patterning on it. They formed a cacophony of colour on the eyes. Embedded between the ribs were subtle symbols of devotion to the Omnissiah.

Above it all, in a central web of cables, hung a huge, pale distended body and from that monumental mechadendrites joined at painful looking red-scabbed wounds. The mechadendrites clung onto the steps in ribs, letting the body be moved around the full height and width of the room. Even as the body roused, a dozen smaller biomechanical limbs grabbed at the cables that rose up the ribs, plugging and unplugging them with remarkable speed and precision in a rack of interfaces that ran down the full spine of the body. A halo-harness of flat-screen vids ran the full circumference of the girthy body, bathing it in a flickering wildfire of coloured light. Each of the screens ran at a manic pace, flickering through the statuses of the ship, the crew, weapons, shields - the whole ecosystem of the ship captured in a blaring light show of information. The light in turn made the thick veins that showed through the thin skin seem an even stranger shade of blue, purple or red depending on the contrasting color that pierced the skin.

He looked up at the body. The Magos - perhaps, Magi - were locked into the body. There were several what he assumed passed as heads, central processing units perhaps, that came to a point at one end of the huge body. Two somewhat stumpy human arms hung loosely out of the front of the body, just underneath the cluster-head. The Magos began to stir. The biomech limbs didn’t stop moving, furiously exchanging cables with the input interfaces. The click-tic-shak of the cables added a staccato soundtrack to the Magos’ arousal. He gave the Magos some room as it came around. The Magos’ bloated stomach was straining, virtually transparent skin as its flesh came under tension due to the movement of the Magos. The skin revealed a blurry mess of artificial and natural organs.

The notional head of the Magos came down with the bulging, cybernetic bulk leaning heavily down behind it. The size of the Magos became apparent - broad, thickset shoulders flexed as thick-set cables lowered the great mass to the eyeline of the Inquisitor.

+++ First-Inquisitor. You have returned. +++

“I have. We need to end this petty feuding.”

+++ Petty? Petty? +++ roared the Magos, who moved terrifyingly quickly for the size and scale of the creature. All of the LED eyes shining underneath an oversized hood flashed a vicious red before calming back to a neutral green.

+++ This is my vessel. The Agreement +++ the Magos heavily emphasized agreement, implying a capital +++ With Balkoth was quit- +++

“Balkoth isn’t here. Balkoth is gone. Futility is my ship now.”

+++ Falsehood! +++

The furious voice of Magos echoed around its chamber for a few moments.

+++ Futility and Magos Kaniksis are indistinguishable. Kaniksis is not a slave. Futility is not a slave. +++

Dammit, thought the Inquisitor to himself, Walked into that one again.

+++ Kaniksis is not owned. Therefore Futility cannot be owned. Conclusion - Futility is not your ship. +++

The Inquisitor held his hands up in apology.

“I’m sorry, Kaniksis. I am sorry. Look… Balkoth is gone. I don’t know where he’s gone. We’ve had this circular argument, he’s gone, I’m in charge, you and Futility are one, we’ve been over this. I need your help. I need your support. I need Futility and Kaniksis, I need you both on my side.”

The huge bulk of the Magos narrowed its focus onto the Inquisitor. An array of mechadendrites unfurled from down the back of the Magos, each of them coming down to the front of the Magos. At the end of each was a short, thick barrel of plasteel. Covering a third of the diameter, and the full height of the barrels, were overlapping scales of plasteel inscribed with the cant of the Adeptus Mechanicum. In total, eight different barrels floated next to the main Magos head.

+++ We are listening +++

The Magos finished, prompting a reveal from each of the barrels. The overlapping scales slipped beneath one another, revealing thick plexiglass behind which floated a dismembered head. Each of the heads had bundles of  multicoloured wires going up through the neck, into the ears, up the nostrils and at various points across the scalp. A small spark of lurid green light flashed in each of the heads, prompting the eyes and mouths to open.

+++ We are listening +++ the chorus of heads echoed.

The Inquisitor took a step back, slightly aghast at the eight pale, disembodied heads in bubbling jars. He took a moment to compose himself.

“I’m not Balkoth. I’m not Mentirius, I’m not Taren, I’m not Maltheus or Stryde. I’m… I’m holding it together. We’re in a fight here. A battle for the Em- a battle for the Omnissiah and the God-Emperor. I’m still…. I’m still working through what happened on Aithol, and how we managed to escape from that nightmare. I think we won… But who knows. We escaped with your help, with Futility’s help. Everyone on the ship, including you and I, would be dead for the actions you took that day.”

The Inquisitor sighed and rubbed his eyes. The glow abated for a moment, until he re-opened his eyes.

“And I’m grateful, I am. I really am. I… My power armour is battered and bruised. It desperately needs some repairs. My plasma pistol glows ominously and crackles when I power it up. I’ve got a chainsword with multiple teeth missing and the engine over-revs at combat speeds. I’m pretty sure both are going to explode. And I’m just about to hurl myself out of a Valkyrie in low orbit, hurtle towards the surface breaking my fall with a grav-chute barely fourth meters from the ground. I’m pretty sure the chute hasn’t been tested in a few years. And then, I’m going to bust into an Inquisitorial blacksite to rescue a man, an Inquisitor… He’s got an active seal, they’ve not tracked it down which means somehow he hasn’t broken. He’s been in there for three damned years. Then we’re going to haul him out of that damned hellhole.”

The Inquisitor ran his hand over his shaven bald head.

“What can I tell you? We’ve got a target, we’ve got a resource to retrieve, and we’ll have everything we both need to repair the ship, to maintain all our weapons, and to improve life for all the crew including you. We can take on fuel, we can let the navigator have some damned time off. Throne, you and I can take some shore leave.”

All nine heads of the Magos continued staring intently.

“I’m not Balkoth, I’m not Mentirius. I’m not even Mantis or Taren. But… I am First Inquisitor Junious, Herald of Morai-Heg. I can do this. I can. I will rescue Scarab of the Mentirians, my brother in arms from the Order Vampiris. But, throne dammit, Kaniksis, I need my damned armour fixing up. I need my plasma pistol tested and sorted out. I need my chainsword ready to go. And I need you, Kaniksis. I need an ally. I need you and Futility to help me out, because in about sixty eight minutes I’m going to throw myself out of a Valkyrie and I would sure as faith like to not burn up, not asphyxiate in my power armour, not burn myself up in a ball of fiery plasma trying to defend myself or blow my hand off with an over-revving chainsword motor.”

Each of the heads came closer to Junious.

+++ Not-Balkoth. +++ the whole bulk of the Magos shook with laughter. Each of the heads mouthed laughter without saying anything.

+++ We will grant your request, this time, Not-Balkoth. I will send three adepts and their servitors to your quarters to maintain your artifacts. +++

The Magos’ eyes turned red.

+++ Failing to maintain the holy relics you have been granted, Not-Balkoth, will not continue. We accept this route forward as logical. Rescue of the denominate Scarab must succeed. We will assess how we may aid you. Failure to rescue the denominate Scarab will result in the termination of Not-Balkoth. +++

The Magos’ eyes turned back to green. Kaniksis chuckled again.

+++ Go now, Not-Balkoth. We will speak again. +++


=][=
Title: Re: On the Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Dosdamt on April 08, 2020, 01:37:57 AM
Battles

True to his word, Kaniksis had sent several of his Adepts and Magi to look at Junious’ equipment. They melted out of the shadows in his armoury. Junious wondered for a moment how they’d gotten there before he did, but thought better of speculating too much about that. The implications were mildly disturbing. The Chainsword was a write-off - the motor was destined to explode and would’ve taken his whole hand with it. There was nothing that could be easily done and it was best to take the thing away for it to be fully disassembled and repurposed. 

The plasma pistol was salvageable but would take time to repair - longer than he had before they needed to make the jump. Junious had pleaded with them to do something immediate, but the Mechanicum had politely, but firmly, declined to do so. Instead they left him a relic from Futility’s deepest stores. The stores remained off-limits to Junious, but it appeared the Mechanicum could waltz in and out as they pleased. They had clearly sworn to keep Balkoth’s secrets. Perhaps in time they would choose to share. Tomorrow’s problem.

They called it a grav gun. Junious wasn’t familiar with the technology or the weapon, but he’d gratefully received the weapon. The Magi prioritized his power armour. Several of them worked quickly and efficiently, running ceramite replacement on the innumerable cracks and dents, while another looked at the power plant and the grav-chute. Mechadendrites dissected the two key elements quickly and and speed, re-arranging wires, replacing parts and applying generous layers of holy unguents.

Junious watched on, patiently at first. His chronometer kept chiming, every five minutes, as time ticked closer to the time they were expected to be in the Valkyrie. Barely twenty minutes remained until he was due to jump. His fingers twitched and rapped on the table top in his armory. His leg tapped and bobbed when he sat, and took him pacing back and forward when he stood. The glow around his eyes intensified as a mechanical tang echoed from his wrist.

Nineteen minutes.

+++ Repairs are complete, Not-Balkoth. +++

That was going to get tedious, Junious kept to himself.

+++ Your power armour is impressive, though somewhat dull. The craftsmanship of the Martian forges is limited by their miniscule ambition and imagination. +++

Binaric cant echoed around the chamber. Junious suspected that was something approximating laughter. The adept who had been primarily accountable for his armour held Junious’ helmet in a bionic hand.

+++ We have enhanced the helmet. We have integrated the sacred sensors within with the eyes of Futility. Psycho-reactive potential has been enhanced sevenfold. +++

The Magos admired her handiwork, before tossing the helmet to Junious who caught it in one hand.

+++ Be well, Not-Balkoth. +++

Binaric tittering continued. Junious would have to talk to Kaniksis about that. The Magi turned to leave, becoming a cohesive group. Behind the lead, a head floated at the end of a mechadendrite in a clear jar. The eyes came open with a start, revealing a green light that fixed Junious with a piercing glare.

+++ Do not fail. +++

Kaniksis, he supposed, sending a message as clear as it was direct.

The group of Magi left as Junious began stripping. His coterie of assistants rushed to the armour, grabbing their assigned pieces.

“Quickly,” said Junious, as he finished stripping off. Junious slipped into the command sheath interface, then the torso armour was attached. His mind began running through the steps in the plan. Orbital drop, through the thick atmosphere. Focus on the run lines in the HUD, down through to the ground. Force the chute late, check the timing chimes.

Focus. Focus.

The thick thigh plates, greaves, and pauldrons followed. Junious held out his arms, feeling the full arms lock into the torso. The gauntlets came last, clicking into place. Junious flexed his fingers, followed by testing his pectoral strength.

Break into the complex. Expect heavy resistance. The blueprints showed multiple checkpoints to the wing where Scarab is being held. Focus on moving quickly and lethally. Resistance is to be annihilated with maximum prejudice. He didn’t like having to do this. Since Aithol, he had hardened somewhat in his view of the galaxy. Hard decisions have to be made, life needs taking, if the outcome justifies it. He had hope, a deep and rich vein of hope that ran through to the core of his being. He could feel it, that which fuelled his burgeoning psychic power and his zealot-like belief that things should be better.

The armour felt strong. The actuators were crisp and worked smoothly. A horrible tripping, ticking sound was gone from the power plant secreted neatly at the base of his spine. He jumped on his toes, hopping and feeling the armour respond like his own limbs. He hefted his armour rack without effort. Good. If he could lift the armour rack, he could lift a man without effort. If he could lift a man without effort, he could throw, crush, or grapple them. He nodded to his attendants, who all scattered to leave him with his thoughts.

He wondered what had happened to Grisbane. He’d been one of the true believers in the Order, and Junious respected his reckless bravery. There could be no doubting his faith, making his disappearance after Aithol all the more troubling. He’d left in the confusion, after being denied his chance to help face down… everything by Balkoth. Balkoth had taken many lives in that conflict, Junious figured he should be grateful Grisbane had survived the assault. No doubt his fellow Inquisitor would be fighting the good fight wherever he was. Junious would have to track him down, once he’d rescued Scarab.

He picked up the grav gun, weighing it in his hands. This was to be the tool, then, of the next phase of their liberation. He cocked his head, checking the sights. The Mutant Commandos wouldn’t be pleased with his intent to kill anyone who got in his way once they made it into the facility but Junious was sure they would understand. In the end, Scarab - and just as importantly, his seal - were the only priorities. He wasn’t sure how Scarab’s identity had remained secret. Junious suspected a hidden hand somewhere helping them, perhaps on Terra. Junious hadn’t heard from Onoto, but he knew that Onoto retrieved Redemption when Taren was slain. No, he corrected himself - murdered. Onoto may have hidden himself away in the bureaucracy of the Inquisition on Terra, continuing to misdirect and hide his allies. Junious was thankful for any help.

His chronometer chimed again. Time to go. He took off through the now familiar maze of corridors, moving rapidly through the ship. He knew Futility like the back of his hand now. He wouldn’t admit it openly, and though Futility was an incredible work and mighty ship, he missed the Lancing Light. The last moments of the Light, desperately fighting to the bitter end, over the Point, would haunt him to his last days. He knew Bu’Ran had turned his choruses attentions to the Light. He’d seen the Light rocked by several volleys from Bu’Ran’s ship. It was inevitable it had been lost. He hated himself for leaving it behind. Still, now wasn’t the time to dwell on past failures. The barbed stinger would have to be carefully pulled from his memories another time. The Valkyrie awaited.

=][=

Wretched Chronometry I

Bess stood on the bridge of Futility. She wondered how many times Balkoth had stood here, resplendent and immovable, scheme upon ruse wrapped in an enigma hidden behind misdirection moving behind his eyes as he watched another of his plots unfold. The number would be the same as stars in the galaxy, she decided, as she warmed her hands on a steaming cup of Hythian tea. This was it, then. The tactical relay screen. She had got used to it telling her the story of an operation unfolding in real time. Vital signs. Relative positions of her operatives. Vid-links weren’t active yet, but they’d appear like a mosaic across the tact screen.

The operation clock was ticking down. She glanced to her wrist, noting the beautiful mechanical chronometer on her wrist. Time, Mantis had said to her, was very rarely on our side, and deep in the Profitable Venture it was apparent the inevitable passage of time was very much the enemy. Like any enemy, it was best to keep it close. Mantis had shown her the watch, a memento of a world he had saved in his younger days alongside his master, an Inquisitor called Mentirius. It was made from a simple alloy, a rugged mix of titanium, palladium and aluminium, and the movement inside was mechanical. It was clearly too big for her wrist, even after resizing the alloy bracelet. The chronometer was entirely handmade - down to the smallest pieces of the timekeeping movement. She had been shocked to find it in the briefcase Mantis handed her before she left the Point. She’d never really spent any time thinking about what it had meant, beyond a well intentioned gift.

Perhaps more.

She glanced at it again, taking in the full dial, oblivious to the time displayed on it. The seconds hand swept at a steady pace, racing through the dimension that could only be measured through the experience of it. In that moment, the vision of Mantis’ cobalt eyes staring into hers as he handed her the briefcase stole through her mind’s eye. She didn’t look away then, she kept staring now. Time was a yawning chasm between moments; time was the cruel hand holding your eyelids open to the full power of a moment.

She knew, at this moment, Junious would be locking his helmet in the jump hold of the Valkyrie. Kely would be fully suited, pacing the full length of the jump ship, no doubt sparking with nervous warp energy. The rest of the Delan veterans that Junious had scavenged together in the aftermath would be taking the white knuckle ride into low orbit in their stride. All of them, waiting on the moment they would jump.

She watched as the speck representing the valkyrie left the speck representing Futility. The seconds hand kept moving, dancing after the trail of the valkyrie. It would take three minutes to reach low orbit, running quiet, running low.

“Planet auth are hailing us again, Seneschal Dowell. They asked more forcefully,” relayed the bridge staff. Bess nodded.

“Keep them occupied, relay the mess codes, fry them with it, buy the First-Inquisitor some time. I don’t want them to have any time to get birds up,” she said, her eyes not leaving the display. The valkyrie was flying well and making headway.

An unfamiliar face joined her on the bridge, at her side.

+++ Magos Kaniksis sent me. I am Magos Vexxis. I am here to assist +++

Bess nodded. Another day on Futility, another unexpected guest, another secret revealed, another emergency. It was always another. She had stopped being surprised by the First-Inquisitor, by Balkoth’s secrets on the ship, perhaps by the galaxy.

+++ If I might, Seneschal, Futility can assist here +++

“By all means, Magos,” she said invitingly. It seemed that Junious had obtained an outcome, one way or the other, with the Mechanicum aboard the ship.

Her eyes tracked the screen with an intense obsession. The operation clock was relentless - barely a minute until they were due to jump.

+++ Though your mess codes are an inelegant solution, your ideation is valid. Watch the execution of the disciples of Fabraxis. +++

Bess still didn’t look - mechadendrites flitted in and out of her peripheral vision without interrupting her concentration.

+++ Scrap code is one of my specialties. I will execute my code and blind the enemies of Not-Balkoth. Behold the might of the Adeptus Mechanicum. +++

Her tact monitor, much to her irritation, blinked for a moment. Then she could see it, at first a minor hint across the background of the theatre, then broader and thicker until a trickle became a river metamorphosed into a seismic swell of data.

+++ They are blind. All hail the Omnissiah. +++

=][=

The Descent

The Valkyrie lurched as it breached the outer atmosphere. It rattled, all of the badly maintained insides feeling like they would come apart. They had heavily modified the Valkyrie to allow it to survive high atmosphere entry, but each time they came back from a sortie the vehicle looked sorrier and sorrier. They’d christened the ship Seiersvapen, hoping a name might encourage her to hold together. So far, so good. He eased out his mind, trying to shield the ship with his telekinetic talents. He felt the enormous strain as the ship bucked and rocked through the mesosphere of the planet. The outside of Seiersvapen was starting to heat prodigously.

“A little… help… Kely,” Junious said, as he desperately tried to keep the ship together. The load lightened, a literal load off his mind, Kely doing the heavy lifting. She didn’t even look like she was trying.

“Just ask,” she said, concentrating but not straining. The ride eased off.

Junious watched his sensor array, indicating they were barely thirty seconds away from their intended target.

“Vets, line up. Kely, get your hook on. Jump in fifteen seconds. Get ready!”

His hoary cast of veterans each ran to the assembly point at the back of Seiersvapen. They clipped onto a rack that ran the length of the Valkyrie, which would stop them from being pulled out of the ship when the back doors opened.

“Captain, slow to jump speed.”

“Mark, slowing to jump speed. On target for coordinates.”

Seiersvapen lurched again with hard deceleration. Junious felt his insides wrench again, settling quickly as the ship reached equilibrium ready for the jump.

“Five by five on speed and approach. Jump jump jump. Safe travels First Inquisitor.”

The doors of the Valkyrie rattled open, the air leaving in an extraordinary rush that pulled all of the occupants. Each of them held, then as one began to rush and hurl themselves out of Seiersvapen. The veterans executed as one, leaping from the Valkyrie without doubt. For a moment, Kely and Junious stood together at the edge of the ship, looking down at the planet.

“Ready to go?” she asked. She couldn’t see his face beneath his power armoured helmet, but she knew he’d be nervous. He always was, at this moment in nearly every operation she’d been with him on.

“I’d feel better with Reprieve and maybe another ten good fighting troops.”

“We’ve got something better.” she said. She smiled through her clear visor, then winked.

“We’ve got hope!”

She leapt out into space, her words floating as she arced into the air, turning her leap into a beautiful swan dive into the unknown. She let out a joyful whoop as she accelerated rapidly towards the surface.

Junious followed with an uncertain half run, half fall into nothingness.

Gravity took hold, at first dragging then spinning. Junious fought to correct himself, feeling the g-force accelerating and encouraging the darkness of a blackout wriggling at the edge of his vision.

=][=

Wretched Chronometry II

“Time?”

“They should be jumping… They’re away. Four. Six. Eight in the air Seneschal.”

“Eight?” Bess challenged.

“Yes Seneschal…. Wait! One away. One more away! Confirming all ten away Seneschal.”

Bess let a long sigh of relief out. She tried to hold her reaction, but her hands had advanced ahead of her control and entwined behind her head. She hated this, hovering like a helpless hummingbird watching her chicks fall from the nest. She stared for a moment at the tactvid, zeroing in on the free falling team in her care, such as it was, from orbit.

“Who is in a spin! Who is in a damn spin? Get me vision on it!” Bess shouted. She rushed forward, holding railing between her and the tactvid so tightly her knuckles turned white.

“Working… It’s the First Inquisitor ma’am!”

The tactvid opened, showing the power armoured figure spinning like a furious, wildly out of control golden wheel. The vid followed him for a moment falling faster towards the planet. Time froze for a moment. Inaction would kill.

Perhaps...

“Open the Vox! Now!”

“Open!”

“Junious, listen to me, you need to control the spin. If you don’t your grav chute won’t open and you’ll smash yourself on the ground. Junious? Junious?”

“I think he’s out cold!”

The seconds hand on her chronometer sprinted round the dial. He fell ever faster until the readout showed he’d reached terminal velocity.

“Get me Kely!” Bess shouted.

++ I’m here Bess ++

“Junious has blacked out. You need to wake him up!”

++ On it ++

Bess watched on, not able to directly intervene. The inevitable second hand marched on.

++ He’s on, he’ll right himself ++

Bess’s eyes flicked back to the vid screen. A flare of psychic power telekinetically corrected his spin leaving him falling upright.

++ I’m here, I’m ok ++

The First Inquisitor’s voice was hazy and hesitant, but at least he was awake. Bess caught her breath again, sucking in her relief and exhaling her nervous energy.

Two minutes, eighteen seconds until they were due to fire their gravchutes. Her foot started tapping as they crossed into the area they’d christened the zone of death - in the lower stratosphere, where the Thunderbolts stationed below could claw at her fledglings, who had found their wings.

She watched the auspexes pounding the surface for any sign of movement.

One minute, fifty three seconds. They were scrambling the Thunderbolts in response to the scrap code, and she could see the orbital platforms were coming online. It was unlikely they would be able to eyeball the falling assailants. Bess didn’t want to play the odds.

“Vexxis, the orbitals… “ Bess nodded at the auspexes.

+++ The orbital defence platforms over this world are ancient, and sub-standard. Futility will annihilate them +++

“If she were at her fighting weight, of course. Might I suggest we avoid any conflict if possible?”

Vexxis eyed her for a moment.

+++ Logic accepted. So be it. Activating scrap code. +++

Vexxis’ eyes glowed red to green, then faded back to red. Futility responded, blasting another volley of blinding machine cant at the orbital arrays.

+++ They will be blinded for thirty five, to forty minutes. Is Not-Balkoth competent? +++

Bess nodded. She wasn’t sure she meant it.

=][=
Title: Re: On the Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Dosdamt on April 08, 2020, 01:45:19 AM
Unleashed

Junious felt his guts churn at the feeling of sharp deceleration from the grav chute. Around him, the scant remains of his force at the Point, a ragged group of veterans were coming down. He felt his feet touch down on solid ground and without missing a step he flicked the grav-chute off his back and began sprinting forward. So far, so good. His helmet fizzed with information. Futility’s sight burned down on the facility. The facility was on alert, but in the flood of scrap code they were running around in a panic. He could see the heartbeats of each of the stormtroopers inside, as the building came apart in front of his eyes. He took a moment to adjust to the tsunami of information.

Junious saw that the ingress solutions proposed by Bess had been relayed to him via his HUD. He could see the Mutant Commandos beginning their run on the other side of the compound. They were keeping to the shadows, staying down, staying quiet. It boded well.

His armour enhanced his strength and it fit him well. That allowed him to move quickly, ahead of the rest of the veterans and Kely. The ingress point was well covered - a thick, brutalist plascrete wall, several meters high, barred the way. A similarly thick plasteel gate dominated the centre of the wall - the gate was decorated with an obsidian Inquisition symbol, itself dominated by a perfect baroque skull in shining ruby red.

It had meant something to him once upon a time. That symbol had defined his existence, if he was being truly candid. It was irreversibly burnt into him, a keloid reminder of duty and ambition that seared his consciousness. The opportunity to make the Imperium a better place. He had the fury of the Imperium at his back to help him destroy his enemies. In his other hand, the Emperor’s mercy for those that needed it.

Not having his seal anymore was like the removal of his heart. His purpose, his drive, his ambition - and a most vital organ.

He felt his fury building. The fog of unconsciousness was fully flushed away, yielding to the pure white heat of his anger. It roiled and cascaded, as waves of superheated gas flowing through the Tokomak reactor of his soul. Infinite heat and light would soon radiate out of his rage, blinding him to reason. He rose his conscious mind through several meditative layers of enumerative control, first finding equilibrium between clarity and unfettered fury, before acting as a resonant smith’s hammer on the edge of that unadulterated wrath. His apoplexy was worked over by the control of his contemplation, tempering and honing until it became solid and refined. He reached inside and brandished his savagery literally, revealing a burning double handed axe.

He tumbled over several lines of razor wire and fencing, before dropping into the final set of trenches before the fortress. He felt his feet crushing trench rotten boards as he closed in on the gates.

The rush was building now. Aetheric wind whipped around him. His legs were blurring. His sprint became a springing bound became a powerful leap towards the impressive, impossibly imposing gates. The psychic energy rounding him flared as a supernova, before accreting at his right fist. His gauntleted hand ignited into furious white burning psychic flame. Junous let out a beastial roar. The energy around him carried him higher and further - he twisted in mid-air, pirouetting to build the momentum for his intended blow. He felt the power reach a crescendo, crackling and intense, as he slammed his fist into the gate.

His fist connected with the gate releasing all of his pent up psychic fury. The gate immediately exploded, sending huge fragments of molten plasteel spilling into the courtyard bedin. A wave of vaporized metal went ahead of the larger chunks as a vanguard splashing the outside of the fortress. They became solid droplets that went from white to red to orange in the frigid air. A pool of red hot metal fizzed in the cold air as Junious stood in the crater that was formerly the gate. He fumed with psychic residue, breathing heavy with the effort. His jaw clasped in a rictus grin and his face fixed with his seething temper.

++ That wasn’t the damn plan ++ Bess hissed down the vox.

Perhaps the only plan, the real plan, was to come down here and atomise this place looking for his friend.

The rest of his retinue were lagging behind him as the alarm went up in the complex. He could see the guards running for the ingress point. They were going to die. They didn’t know it yet - they were running because duty compelled them and because epinephrine drove their legs. He could almost smell their nervous sweat and the standard stormtrooper soap.

The burning double handed axe weighed nothing in his hand, but his mind’s eye felt the heft anyway. The axe cut the air as he launched himself out of the crater and began walking towards the entrance to the Black Site with impunity. His vox was thronging with Bess’ hurried corrective orders as she tried to adjust the plan. The plan, such as it was - such as it had ever been - was long gone. The plan was for everyone else. All that actually mattered was tearing down this hellhole and pulling Scarab out of it.

The doors of the blacksite flung open. The stormtroopers came out in a cluster, each of them aiming their hotshot lasgun directly at the power armoured psychic monster. Junious didn’t hesitate - he set toward their direction, psychic energy still spilling out of him. A volley of lasgun fire scattered around him as he zigged and zagged. A second volley rattled harmlessly off his armour, leaving him within distance of pouncing upon the assembled stormtroopers.

He landed in the centre of them, expelling his fury again in an exhalation of telekinetic power. Bones shattered, skulls split, armour cracked in the backdraft. Blood pooled quickly and the groans of the near dead began to fill the air. Junious stepped over the mangled bodies of the guards leaving them in his trail.

The interior of the blacksite was like every fortress Junious had been in before - obsidian walls, frescos with devotions to the Emperor written in golden High Imperial script, and the path of bones - the remains of traitors cleaned and engraved with holy scripture. The bones formed a thin guideline into the depths of the sanctum where interrogative techniques were carried out. They reminded everyone - Inquisition included - that the path of treachery leads to pain and death without redemption.

Junious drew the grav pistol as he entered the building. The first checkpoint was a set of double doors, vacuum sealing the building. Guard outposts were fitted either side, each manned with several capable guards. The guards on duty had been slamming their alarm calls. The cawing of the sirens formed an oppressive wall of sound - Junious bid his armour filter the noise so he could focus on the task at hand.

He fired the pistol at a guard section, unsure of what to expect. The armoured section fell in on itself, its weight suddenly accelerated. It imploded in on itself, crushing the guards within. The squelch of organic tissue preceded the appearance of pulped organic viscera leaking out of the station like squeezed ripe fruit. Impressed, Junious then burst into a sprint, using his own bulk, the power of his armour and psychic compulsion to explode through both sets of double doors.

As he came through, the remaining guards assailed him from both sides. A chainsword clattered off one his pauldrons, another took a chunk out of a greave. One of the troopers leapt on his back, trying desperately to force a knife through his neck joints and into his eyes. The rest hefted their own weapons and tried to jump the First Inquisitor. Junious spun, launching the trooper off his back into the wall.

He used his spin to bring his axe around, hacking a trooper in half in a shower of intestines and blood. A burly trooper bulled into him, forcing him to give ground and skitter from his off balance position. A second and third trooper joined in, forcing him into a wall with a thud. A chainsword wielding trooper ran at him, bringing the chainsword down his helmet, his chest, and over one of his bracers. The teeth dug deep but failed to breach the ceramite. Junious cocked his head in bemusement, before stepping out from underneath the weight of the troopers forcing him against the wall with ease. He head butted the chainsword wielding guard, then again splitting the guard’s face fully open. The guard howled with pain. Juious fired his grav-pistol, eradicating another guard in a squall of imploding organic material. He lifted the third guard up by the neck, the actuators in his armour barely supporting the furious psychic strength. He crushed the man’s throat with his hand, dropped him unceremoniously and left him to choke.

++ Bess, I’m in ++

++ Copy First-Inquisitor. What the hell are you doing? ++

++ Rescuing my friend. You’ll have a data-link to this place in a second ++ Junious said, as he moved into the guard station. He began ransacking it, looking for an open dataport.

++ Copy First-Inquisitor. Datalink is online ++

++ Crack this place and tell me where Scarab is ++

Junious left the ruined first check-point as his team were coming through the other side of the smoking crater outside.

Kely crested the crater, seeing the devastation left behind by her fellow Herald. Junious was not holding back.

He moved through the facility with speed, using the full range of augmented power in his armour. Nothing stood before him - resistance was thin and fading. Junious assumed the first assault had broken their resolve - the view was corrected as he reached the second checkpoint.

The disciplined Inquisitorial stormtroopers had fallen back, fortifying the second checkpoint. Sandbags and plasteel barriers had been erected quickly, producing a thorny barrier of metal and lasguns.

“I am Interrogator Harald Kaleem, and whoever you are, you’re dead! Give it up now, heretic. I won’t ask again. Maybe you’ll find redemption through pain in this place.”

Junious felt his anger rising again, this time tectonic in scale. It rumbled from the depths of his soul, breaking through each of his calming enumerations as a mudslide of fury. It swept each of the precautions he’d put in place away, sweeping them into the psychic tide. He could feel the psychic hood implanted in his armour drawing further power from the aether around him. The flood of power caused him to start floating.

The barrier ahead of him opened fire - bullets, lasbolts and gouts of plasma harmlessly lost all of their violence in the vacuum of warp energy around the Inquisitor. His armour cascaded with warp energy, causing green-grey bolts of lightning to scorch the room around the checkpoint.

“I am no heretic, you small minded insect. All of you, lackeys and indolent puppets, unable to bring yourself to understand how the galaxy really works. I will show you.”

Junious lashed out with the full scale of his telekinetic fury. His will smashed through the barriers, splintering the plasteel. Several died in the flying shrapnel. He grasped the Interrogator, splaying his limbs then with a simple flick of his hand dismembered him utterly rendering him from one to six pieces. The rest of the troopers were reduced to smears on each of the walls as he let the full scale of his primordial anger run riot throughout the room. The energy ebbed, leaving the ruined room behind.

++ How many guards left? ++

++ Checking…. Fifteen, but they look broken. They’re fleeing out of each of the entrances. The Commandos have cleaned up stragglers at their end. You’ve got five PDF Valkyries on intercept. ETA twenty five minutes ++

++ Operation clock is at nine minutes, fourteen seconds. Our window is still open. Keep me up to date Seneschal ++

++ Copy First Inquisitor ++

Junious kept moving. Vox chattered indicated his team had reached the first checkpoint and were sweeping for survivors and data. They were well drilled, disciplined. They would make sure they extracted every scintilla of value from this place.

++ Heading for the armory First Inquisitor. ++

++ Ransack it, take everything ++

The third checkpoint was always going to be the biggest challenge. Throne agents were guaranteed. Junious moved through the corridors, accessing the fresh datalink from the hub. An Inquisitor was present - Jakob Falk. From his file, Falk was a cruel sadist who had spent much of his time crusading in the local sector, pulling peasants out of their homes, running large scale witch trials and burning swathes of the population. His seal would be guaranteed because of the ‘proven’ witches he had purged. He’d been deposited here to monitor a dangerous prisoner - one Inquisitor Sayah Amaarti - who Falk had captured and rendered here.

Junious found the corridor opening for the final checkpoint. The brutalist theme continued here - geometric forms and jagged, angular shapes. Falk stood in the centre, flanked by several broad-shouldered retainers. Each of them were festooned with a variety of weapons. Falk himself hefted a daemonhammer.

His daemonhammer. His weapon. His.

Reprieve.

“Like this? They brought it in with one of the wretches in here. I’ve clubbed more witches to death with this than I can count. A magnificent weapon. A weapon for these times.”

“That’s my weapon,” replied Junious.

“Hah! Funny as well, heretic. You won’t be telling any jokes in the hands of my excruciators. Give up now, and I will simply bray your skull in, here, in this hall.”

Junious seethed. He felt his anger roiling again. This was catastrophic, an unrestrained meltdown that was perpetuating itself using the fissile fuel of his emotion. Each of the retainers opposite was moving to flank him now.

“No guns here. Let us pitch our minds and our steel against one another. Well, myself and my retinue against you. You know how it is. The Inquisition consistently seeks to stack the odds in its own favour. You are nothing, heretic, just another pretty wych flinging around conjurer's tricks at the behest of your puppet masters in the beyond.”

His anger reached critical pressure now, bursting through all of his barriers and structures in his mind. Psychic power flooded out of him, arcing around the room, tearing chunks of plascrete out of the walls.

“Attack!” Falk called, everyone else in the room charging Junious.

As one, they were levitated. Their legs pumped ineffectually as they were hauled into the air.

Junious took off his helm, letting it clatter into the chamber with thronging echoes.

“My name is First Inquisitor Junious of the Ordo Malleus, Order Vampiris. I am the scion to a murdered sire, brother to a sequestered hero, herald to a freeborn god, scourge to the remnants of a daemon’s dream, and I am here, right now, to retrieve my fething hammer and my fething brother. Get out of my way!”

Wild snakes of pure psychic energy lashed out from the First Inquisitor, ripping several retainers into pieces. A blur of telekinetic shards rendered another into ribbons. Another was cleaved from head to groin by an invisible, grinding wave of teeth. Entrails emptied from both halves of the carcass. Another was rendered to liquid by intense psychic heat. The rest were dissected like simple insects by a malevolent god. Only Falk remained, suspended in the air by his power.

“I saw your record, Falk. I saw what you did on Vantus, Fallon VIII, Veridian, and the Portman Verge. All that fire, all that fury, and all along you knew it was naught more than a sadistic show to cover up your own bloodlust. Nothing else.”

Junious approached him as an apex predator might assail a cornered creature. He used his will to break all of Falk’s fingers. The First Inquisitor caught the relic hammer before it clattered to the floor.

“Reprieve was at my side across innumerable war zones across a dozen stars. It was gifted to me as part of my ascension to Inquisitor and to connect me to the Holy Throne world. It is a relic of old times, a reward given as part of a great victory over an enemy my master tracked for years. He died on the throne world, you know. He died at the hands of an ignorant thick headed lawman playing to the word of justice and the gallery on Terra. What a victory for the Chief Justice, proving not even the Inquisition was beyond the reach of Imperial Justice.”

A flick of Junious’ fingers meant Falk felt a staccato of breaks down his ribcage.

“You have the temerity to wield this holy relic, to use it as part of your campaign to murder and maim the citizens of the Imperium who have done nothing? Your pointless bloody crusade across the stars to do nothing but satiate your lust for violence?”

Falk could feel his flesh begin to singe. White flames were forming beneath him. Reprieve floated across the room, settling gently into Junious’ hand.

“Fate has examined your crusade, and sees the perversion you have brought across the stars. So much potential snuffed out. A million lifetimes burnt out in the flames of your lust. So it has been, so it will be.”

The flames licked at the flesh of the Inquisitor, dripping molten flesh and fat fizzing and popping onto the floor.

“This pyre of your own making will burn forever.”

As the flames consumed Falk, those with a third eye would have seen one million tiny slivers of  his victim’s souls leaking back through from the aether, fuelling the fire, sending the flames hotter. In the centre of the conflagration, Falk’s eyes became wider and wider until the jelly within burst out, until his brain matter melted out of each of his empty eye sockets. Even then, as his soul attempted to leave, great chains of warp energy bound it in place, the chains holding the soul in this universe.

Junious watched the chains and the soul of Falk dissolve just beyond the view of the material world. Through his vision, he could see Falk thrashing in the flames. One lifetime extinguished. One million more to go.

=][=

Wretched Chronometry III

Bess pinched the bridge of her nose and let her eyes close. She breathed deeply, trying to bring herself back to a state of calm. Junious had gone off the plan, his plan, and despite the relative acceleration of events the trail of carnage behind him had brought other problems.

+++ Not-Balkoth progresses well through the site +++ Vexxis observed.

Bess opened her eyes and nodded. Her tactvid was showing a raft of planetary defence force, Arbites and Inquisitorial irregulars closing in on the black site. They were bringing the cavalry at pace.

++ Junious? Junious? ++

The vox was dead. Expected outcome of his descending into the cells. Not a surprise. At least he was progressing.

++ Kely? ++

++ Copy, Seneschal. What’s up Bess? ++

++ More incoming. PDF, Arbites, irregulars. Barely eighteen minutes out. Valkyries, Stormravens, coming in hot. ++

++ Acknowledged Seneschal. We’re nearly done here. You…. You need to see this, Bess. He’s…. ++

++ … Copy. Take what you can. Empty the armoury, we need the supplies. ++

++ Confirmed. Can you send a feed to my auspex? The scrap code is blinding us down here. ++

++ Acknowledged. Data feed will be live soon ++

Bess let the vox drop. Vital signs of her team were all good. The Commandoes had voxed in, confirming their objectives were complete and they were preparing to evacuate. She checked the operation clock. Time was sliding and not much was left. Seiersvapen was coming down at pace, towards the black site. She felt like her heart was beating in time with the oscillations of the movement driving the seconds hand on her wrist.

This was what she had signed up for. She had chosen this. It was times like this, as she tapped her foot on the deck of the bridge, that the lack of direct input drove her crazy.

=][=

Unleashed II

The lift leading down to the cells groaned to a halt. Junious had Reprieve tied across his back and his pistol holstered. He didn’t expect to encounter any more resistance. The telemetry in his helm told him the personnel in the base were abandoning the place. The less people in his way the better.

++ Did… did you do this? ++

Kely had clearly encountered Falk.

++ Leave him. He deserves it. Hammer out. ++

He strode through the cells. The place was mostly empty, save for some raving cultists collected in a local purge and three long term residents. There was only one of any import - Scarab.

He found Scarab’s cell without any trouble. He pulled the thick plasteel door off with a grunt and flick of his hand.

Dishevelled, thin, and brutalized. Scarab shifted across the floor, scrabbling to move out of the way of what he thought was more pain. Junious felt his guts churn with pity and sadness at the state of his colleague. His body was covered in scars - burns up and down his right arm, thick ribbons of keloid tangle down his left arm, lumps of misshapen regrown bone down his ribs. His fingers had been broken so much they were crooked and mangled. Junious took off his helmet, and knelt down.

“No no no… no you’ve tried this before, no, I won’t have it, no, no please no… No Throne no…” Scarab began, shaking and weeping.

“Brother, it’s me… It’s actually me.”

Junious reached out with his mind, finding Scarab’s to be a jigsaw puzzle of pain, jagged edges and disconnected incoherent thoughts. He moved through the surface thoughts, connecting a few strands of rational thinking with his memories. He eased the fear and sifted out the alarming volume of pain. The fog around Scarab’s perception drifted away.

“Junious… Dear throne… is it you?”

Scarab squinted in the darkness. He heaved himself up right, his thin frame making his head look disproportionately large. His legs shook for a moment, which Junious corrected with a gentle hand of telekinesis.

“How… how long have I been in here?”

“A touch over three years.”

Scarab rocked a little, shaken by the news. He swayed, then stumbled. His balance wasn’t back yet - clearly, neither was his sense of time.

“We’ve been tracking you all this time. We found your name in a dozen transfer notices. Someone was trying to bury you. It kept you alive though. It took us nearly a year to filter through each of them. We had two possibilities left, and it took us another year to track through that data, during which time they executed a second scatter protocol. Another year, and we’re here. I’m… I’m sorry we couldn’t get here sooner.”

Scarab looked down at his ruined feet. At least two toes were missing. He clasped and stretched his hands individually, then together.

“Can you walk out of here?”

Scarab nodded.

Junious let him shuffle to the door of his cell. In the brighter light of the corridor, the full extent of the horror visited on his friend was apparent. His emaciated frame was virtually skeletal. Junious could see that most of his major muscle groups had been damaged in some form, the same with many of his bones.

“Let me get you some water.”

Scarab nodded.

Junious stepped down the hall, searching for the guard station.

“You! You! You! Hammer!”

Junious turned, seeing a cell with a plexiglass front. In it, a thin woman was naked, splayed by magnetic cuffs holding her in place. Her skin was pale and covered in pentagrammic wards. A small pair of stubby horns crested on her head. She was lithe, powerful, like a coiled spring. She smiled, attempting to be friendly and personable, but her razer teeth made her look like violence personified. Junious glared at her.

“Guard’s station is down the hall, on the left. You’ll need a key. Or maybe you can just smash down the door.”

Junious stepped as if to keep moving.

“I ah…. Could you …. Could you let me outta here?”

“Why?”

Junious looked at her - really looked at her. Despite her external depredations, her soul was surprisingly resilient and pure. Chaos might have touched her body, at her core she remained as radiant as most psychic humans might be.

“I felt you, up there. You literally rocked the foundations of this place. I’ve never seen so many rats fleeing a sinking ship.”

“And….”

“My seal is still good. I’ve only been here a few days. Astropathic network is a mess. Falk didn’t want me dead yet. They’d barely begun what I imagine would’ve been …. “

Her voice trailed off. Scarab had arrived next to him.

“That.”

Junious looked around. It was obvious this facility was going to go to pieces. Anyone in it was likely to die.

“You’re Sayah Amaarti?”

“I am. Inquisitor at large. Diabolus Extremis, allegedly.”

“You have a carta on your head?”

“No, no, not at all. No, Falk and I had… Well a disagreement. It suffices to say we settled our differences, and, well, I ended up down here and I assume Falk is dead. So, all things consider-“

“All things considered?”

“Yes, all things considered, events are looking up for me. But, if you’re going to leave me here, I am reasonably sure my seal will be revoked and my fate will either be extremely short and violent, or extremely drawn out and violent, and either way I am extraordinarily connected to my current existence and would prefer to draw it out with as little violence done to my person as is, well, humanly possible.”

Junious chuckled. Scarab managed a smile.

“What is your home world, Amaarti?”

“Thanatin, Obscurus.”

Junious wracked his brain. Thanatin. Thanatin!

“Thanatitian Blood Oath. That’s a thing, right?”

Sayah sighed, shaking her head, then nodded.

“Yes, it is.”

“And your appearance, it suggests a predilection for the works of Xanthus.”

She let out a deeper, more drawn out sigh and rolled her eyes.

“Fine! Yes! I’ve been researching and working with some things others may view as proscribed. It is our literal role in the Inquisition. Don’t fething brow beat me you savages. You know I’m right. Are you going to let me out?”

“Will you swear a blood oath to my cause?”

Sayah stared at Junious, then glanced at Scarab.

“Who is he to you?”

“Right now? Everything.”

Scarab managed another weak smile. His lips lifted slightly higher, revealing several missing teeth.

“And you came here, to this miserable backwater, broke into this place, just to pull that skeletal wreck out of here.”

“Yes. We served together. He needed saving.”

Amaarti shook her head.

“So be it. Who are you?”

“First Inquisitor Junious.”

“Hahahaha? Really? No. You all died at the Point. We all saw Muundus’ smirking face. It was all over the Conclave.”

Junious’ chronometer pipped. Seven minutes to extraction.

“Then you’re talking to a ghost, and I can’t let you out of that cage.”

Sayah laughed again.

“It seems I’m making a deal with the dead, then. So be it. You will have your oath. Just get me out of this hole.”

Junious nodded, and pulled the plexiglas front off the cell with ease. He flicked his hands, unclipping her limbs. Amaarti nodded her thanks.

“Oath?”

Amaarti flattened her hand, drawing her teeth across her skin. Three parallel wounds formed on her palm. She let the blood run out of the wounds, before clenching her fist until a trickle of red came out of the bottom of her fist.

“By His Will, by this blood, I swear unto the crusade of First Inquisitor Junious, my life and my fealty, until the end of days, death or release from this sacred oath. Marked with blood, so be it done by He on Terra.”

Amaarti rubbed her hands together until they were slick with her blood, then pressed a blood print aquila over her chest and breasts.

“Happy?”

The blood made an impressively clear aquila over her pale skin.

“Let’s move.”

Amaarti and Junious took Scarab by the shoulders and half lifted, half dragged him back to the lift. Junious sprinted down to the guard station and grabbed several bottles of water, coming back throwing one to Amaarti and giving one to Scarab. He sipped gently on the water as the lift rushed them back to the surface facility.

The doors opened to his veterans and Kely. They were busy collecting weapons from the various remains around the room.

“Was that you?” Kely nodded towards the psychic residue of Falk. Junious nodded back.

“An unusual punishment, Herald. Fitting. Reprieve is back. That’s a good portent.”

Amaarti cringed at the sight of the spectral Falk screaming and burning in unending pain.

“Ah…” Amaarti started.

“Not now.”

++ Four minutes, First Inquisitor. They’re coming in hot ++

Junious cursed loudly. He’d lost track of times in the cells. He could see they had ransacked the place. The armoury had proven especially fruitful - several stasis casks were floating next to a full load of ammunition and weapon crates. Amaarti went straight to the stasis caskets, not worrying about her lack of clothes.

“My books! They kept my books!”

Junious ignored the elated Inquisitor and turned back to Kely.

“Did you get the seals?”

“Yes. We retrieved all of the seals - Falk, Amaarti, and Palici.”

“Ok. We need to fake astropathic noise that Falk is in pursuit of Scarab and Amaarti. Falsify what we need to, to give us cover here.

“Time for a last stand, then?”

“I’m not sure they’re going to leave the black site standing, First Inquisitor. We can go down to the cells… but we can’t fight our way out of there.”

Junious sighed. Maybe he should’ve followed the plan.

Behind them, the warp crackled. At first, Junous dismissed it as the last latent crackles of Falk straining on his chains. The crackling intensified, accelerated then twisted into a shocking tearing sound. The warp began to rend asunder.

=][=
Title: Re: On the Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Dosdamt on April 08, 2020, 01:50:26 AM
Wretched Chronometry - Final

Futility, Three Years Ago

Futility’s brig, though it was labelled as such, was definitely not a brig in the traditional sense. Firstly, the scale of the brig suggested a place more suited to mass incarceration - it had enough cells to house perhaps two hundred people with ease. Secondly, the hall was clearly designed to intimidate as opposed to jail. The eye of the Inquisition was a repeat motif across the place. All of the surfaces were angular, sharp, or sweeping, each different side suggesting a bladed implement, an edge meant for breaking bones, or sharp side meant for cleaving flesh from rib. Finally, as with most places of death and suffering, there was a distinct heaviness to the atmosphere that pressed at the edge of the aether, letting just a little of the warp creep in. It smelled of stale blood, ozone and piss soaked fear.

In the centre of the brig, with cells arrayed all around it, sat the chirurgeon’s chair in a barred cell that formed a neat square around the seat. This was the focal point of the brig - each of the cells within overlooked this central element. It was here that Balkoth had been brought, in chains, by the survivors of Delan’s Point. Taking him alive had been no small feat - several of them had been killed or injured in the attempt. But here he was - visionary, heretic, genius, failure, fool; Balkoth was beyond labels. He was not beyond physical restraint.

He hadn’t sulked at his imprisonment. He took the opportunity to relax and coax his mind down to a plateau of calm. Many of his loyal crew had joined him in the brig. They were locked in cells around his cell. Even with several meters, at least two sets of bars, and a few guards, they respected or feared Balkoth enough to maintain the silence for their master. He hadn’t even verbalised the request.

It was here Bess met Balkoth. She had brought food and water to each of the prisoners - she wasn’t sure if Balkoth even needed it or noticed her doing it, but it was this day that he was interested enough in her.

“Food,” she ventured as she slid the tray into the cell.

Balkoth, who had remained unmoved on each of the previous fourteen days, sprang up and nodded to her.

“Are they making you do this, girl?”

“Do what?”

“Feeding the miscreants in my brig. You have the canter of a slave.”

Bess was initially taken aback by the directness. She had been warned about Balkoth - the heavy set, horned heretic. Don’t listen to him. Don’t speak to him. Drop the food, move on. At this time, behind the bars, she felt a twinge of sympathy for him. It reminded her of the time she had spent being prepared to be the god-kin. She hadn’t feared her fate - only the initial loss of freedom.

“No. This is my choice. The Truthsayer says we should judge ourselves by how we chose to treat the most vulnerable.”

Balkoth let out a hearty blast of laughter.

“Freedom is vulnerability. Stripped of the opportunity to make dangerous choices, the prisoner is perhaps the safest of all of us. Vulnerable, then, am I girl? Those who sent you here are vulnerable. Temporarily deprived of my insight, they choose to face down the will of a god, utterly ignorant to the mortal peril they are in.”

Balkoth surgically examined the food on his plate before bringing his eyes back to Bess with much the same look.

“These bars are for your protection, not my incarceration. I allow this farce because I will it. They will need me to destroy the godling, and if they decide they don’t need my intervention, they will fail and die.”

Balkoth chewed a chunk of the synthesized meat from the plate, and took a draft of the water.

“You know who I am. Who are you girl?”

“Bess Dowell. I …. I am accompanying the Inquisitors. I… I made a choice to leave them behind - Mantis, the Truthsayer… To come here, wherever this might lead.”

Balkoth raised an eyebrow, intrigued by the answer.

“Why did you choose to come here?”

Bess paused, and thought about her answer.

“I could have stayed and died with Mantis. I could have left with the Truthsayer. I started to forge my own path on the Profitable Venture, and… It was time to move on again.”

“What else do you do on my ship?”

Balkoth fixed her with a stare, as serious as the grave.

“I… this… I… I spend time with the Inquisitors… I suppose I provide them with a view of who they are saving.”

“Are you worth saving?”

“Life is intrinsically valuable. Yours, mine, everyone in here. Junious says it will all end if we don’t intervene.”

“As close to the truth as serves.”

“What do you mean?”

Balkoth waved away her question.

“What do you think of this coterie of so called saviours?”

Bess hesitated for a moment, unsure and insecure.

“Say what you like, girl, I wouldn’t have asked for an opinion if I didn’t want to hear it.”

“They’re afraid, and nervous. First Inquisitor Junious doubts himself. Inquisitor Maltheus seems focused but underneath I can see he is in turmoil. Stryde is kind and made of steel. Amaurn… Amaurn is cruel, and short tempered, and a monster.”

“Amaurn is a tool, nothing more. Amaurn is too stupid to realize that he is as he was intended to be, and moulded into what he will need to be. He might realize that, before the end. The rest, too, will have a part to play. Thank you for your candour.”

A moment of quiet passed between them.

“What happened to your face?” Balkoth followed, changing tack.

“I was born like this.”

“Mutant?” Balkoth inquired. His eyes never left the slight girl. He tracked her movement as she shifted around the cage, cleaning the previous days’ meal. Bess took her eyes off her task, back to Balkoth.

“We have that in common,” she replied, nodding to his horns.

“Are we the same, then, girl? How were you treated as a child?”

“The same, no. Alike, perhaps. You chose your change…. Mine, it was a sign, they said. The…. The leaders of the Cult I was born into, this was a portent I was meant for more. They had seen it and had adjudicated I was to be the host for the saviour of that world. I was anointed, and …. The final hour came. There was an intervention… I fled with only my life. I’ve been lucky. I met the Truthsayer… And well, here I am.”

Balkoth scoffed.

“Luck is a comfort blanket the incompetent and the feckless use to hide their failings. They cower behind luck - good, bad or indifferent. They let it cloak their terrible choices and their lack of action. They even throw it over their successes, fearful they will be judged because they stood up and made a decision. Incompetent, feckless, fearful - which are you girl?”

“I don’t think luck is that at all. Luck is a confluence of opportunity and circumstance.”

She finished scraping the plate, and moved to another she’d collected.

“Hah! And yet you miss out the will to act. Why are you hiding behind this humble facade? Because you believe showing strength is a vice? You are more than that, Bess, clearly more. Is that what the Truthsayer told you?”

“Amongst other things.”

Balkoth scoffed again.

“You made the choice, and now you are not dead or a daemonhost because you chose not to be. The failure to act, the willingness to be passive and peaceful out of humility is worse than being arrogant and the truth is inaction out of humility, love, peace, - it is all facile nonsense that does more harm than good. Better to overestimate your ability but at least take decisive action. Best of all is to accurately survey your abilities, test your limits, deploy your talents where they fit best and take a choice to make your mark on this galaxy to the fullest extent you can.”

“The Truthsayer sa-” Bess began in response, but Balkoth interrupted.

“Let me tell you girl, I know of this Truthsayer. I’ve heard the sermons. The first choice you made to come down this path was a good one. I advise you to continue making good choices, and a good choice would be to listen to me now.”

Balkoth looked Bess directly in the eye. He fixed her with his gaze which was full of the conviction of the zealot.

“There are universal truths, girl, let me teach you one - a day of self-determined service with steel is better than a lifetime spent simpering after a soothsayer placating you that peace and love will solve anything in this galaxy. There are those who seize their fate, and the rest die pointlessly. Cruelty isn’t necessary, use compassion if it serves you, if it is a strength and if it won’t bind you or blind you. But continue to choose your destiny, girl, before someone decides for you. Continue to be more than this humble caricature of a mutant girl, because every human can make a choice to be more, mutant or not. Continue to take action, because one day, someone will rely on you not be paralyzed by disingenuous humility and you will need to be decisive.”

Futility, Today

Bess could see the group of Valkyries closing in on the blacksite. She had to withdraw Seiersvapen for fear the ship would end up scrap in the talons of the closing enemies. Bess frantically flicked through each of the tactscreens, looking for an out. Nothing. She sorted through each of the various ship bays, but nothing was quick enough to get down to the surface to help the Seiersvapen. Her broadsides and lances were out, but they were already committed to keeping Futility in orbit by opening fire on the defence orbitals. They’d need time to get those down.

Bess turned to Vexxis. Fury was in her eyes.

“Listen to me. Our best chance of repairing, restocking, and surviving in this ship is down on that planet. I need them back up here. We have three seals to use. Three. I need them back on this ship, and I need them here now. I’m making a choice as the current commanding officer on this ship that we will ensure the First Inquisitor, Scarab, Kely, and the rest of the Veterans get off world. Do you hear me? This is a choice. I know you’ll have something in this damned mausoleum. Make a choice with me. Save them, save Futility - save yourselves.”

Vexxis’ eyes turned from red, to green, then back to red.

+++ What did Balkoth tell you when you spoke with him? +++

“Are you telling me you don’t know?”

+++ The compact with Balkoth was clear. Recording his conversations was off-limits. We comply. +++

“We spoke of choice. He told me ‘A day of self-determined service with steel is better than a lifetime of spent simpering after those would sell you a delusion’. I thought about his words a lot after we spoke; rejected them even. Over time, I came to see the truth of it, and now I live by that truth. I need to change this situation, and I am certain you can change this. Act. Now. Or I will plunge Futility into the surface of that fething world.”

=][=

Unleashed - Final

The warp fizzed, the stench of dank sweat and thin ozone permeating the whole. The fabric of reality frayed - a Veteran was sent screaming and weeping by glimpse into the void as it further tore. A great wet sound, like a slab of flesh being ripped in twain, echoed through the hall. Moments passed.

Junious took Reprieve off his back, bringing it around en garde by his head in both hands. Amaarti settled into her thighs, bringing a surge of psychic will and walls around her in swirling defiance to the vacuum opening before them. Behind them both, Scarab had dropped behind a crate of weapons. He was desperately trying to find a set of carapace that would fit him and a decent gun. Kely had brought her force staff to its full length, holding it at arms distance in a loose tidy guard in front of her.

The aetheric split bubbled furiously, spilling gobs of energy onto the floor that dissipated almost as soon as they’d landed.

“Ready!” called the First Inquisitor. He knew he’d been foolish to let his full potential loose on this place. The predatory forces that hungered after them, always at their heels, had finally found a route directly to them. Stupid stupid stupid stupid! He could feel the tendrils of wild warp energy lashing at his mind and his concentration.

With a crackle, then heavy corpse fall slap, the wound into the beyond became stable and solid.

Through the passage came first Bess Dowall, then three more of Futility’s senior staff, closely followed by three Adeptus Mechanicum Magi. They spread into the room.

Junious rolled his eyes, and motioned for everyone to hold their weapons.

“The Throne wept, Bess, am I glad to see you.”

Junious approached his Seneschal and despite the great bulk of his armour, embraced her gently. She returned the gesture, before nodding at the portal.

“It seems not all Balkoth’s tricks were of his own making. Let’s get out of here.”

=][=

Holding the Line

M42.120, The Warp, En Route to Secret’s Hold

The bridge of Futility was quiet - it usually was on the notional overnight shift during Warp travel. First Inquisitor Junious - also known as Jakob Falk or Hammer - had taken the watch. Even with the juvenants, his features had hardened with the century and a score he’d just seen pass. Seen. That would’ve been a better way of experiencing the last one hundred and twenty years, he mused, as he sipped at the recaf in his hand. He was in comfortable slack robes, tied at the waist with a simple belt. Symbols of his devotion to the Emperor hung to each area on the robe like limpets. He didn’t feel comfortable with them, but it paid to maintain the visage of Jakob Falk as a habit rather than a costume he would take off at will.

That had perhaps been the hardest task of them all. It had taken a monumental effort, coordination and contact with Onoto back on Terra to get the seal changed all those years ago. He’d called in favours he didn’t think he’d ever need to call in, pulled at the ear of more than a few friendly faces, and outright lied on several occasions to get it changed. But changed it they had. He had been reinstated, for all intents and purposes, as a member of the Inquisition. That was one hundred twelve years ago.

Between then, and now… they’d seen too much. He had seen so much loss. In the carnage of Roboute Guilliman’s return, the final Black Crusade, the rise of chaos like a tide all down the cicatrix maledictum. It had been exhausting.They had clashed with the remnants of AmonDull’s legacy more times than he could immediately recall. Just when he thought they’d managed to find the last pieces of the various cults that venerated the long dead godling, sure enough another would spring up like a never ending weed. They’d trekked to every corner of the galaxy and back, and still it barely felt like they had managed to make a dent.

He rolled his shoulders as the ticking filters of information on the Gellar Field rolled by. Incident after incident rolled by his memory as he indulged a moment of reminiscence. Helping Amaarti banish a small daemonic incursion on Bellus - they’d barely had enough power between her, himself and Kely to force the warp tear closed. The three of them had faced down an octet of Bloodletters let loose in the backwash. They had called that a win. Scarab - Palici, as he now preferred - had given him a lead on a group of ex-Mentirians who hadn’t agreed with the direction mandated by their master. Junious still bore the scars down one side of his face from the blast of warpfire that had nearly killed him as they ventured down into the dark. The horrors they’d uncovered…. They weren’t worth remembering.

Still, the signal on the Conclave had been revelatory. The archive of texts had been so vast he had roped in Kaniksis and their magi across the ship to help catalogue and understand everything. Much of it was accurate. Another raft was outright lies. The rest…. In the right light, it could be anything you liked. Perhaps that was the point.

And then the signal - the location of Secret’s Hold broadcast to the whole galaxy using the Conclave. Junious knew it wouldn’t just be carrion eaters who would heed the call. Puritan, heretic, daemon and fool would all be running towards that location. He’d called in Palici and Amaarti to help. They were waiting for him at the end of this jump.

After that, Secret’s Hold beckoned.

=][=
Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on April 25, 2020, 07:12:38 PM

The Language of Birds


M42.120, Formless Wastes, The Warp


The warp is not a place, but a perspective.  Not an idea but a fundamental, abstract reality underlying all ideas.  The consequence of consciousness as it acts upon the universe.  A hidden dimension of mind and soul, and a domain of daemons.  It is one thing to know this, of course.  It is quite another to see it, for space and time only hold sway in the Immaterium insofar as their effect upon the collective psyche translates into the imaginary.  There is no light in the warp, for there are no stars, nor laws of thermodynamics to govern the behaviour of energy.  There is only the echo of light, seen second-hand through the dark glass of gestalt recollection, as real as the after-images of impossibly distant, long-dead stars, reflected in the eyes of upward gazing apes.  As in dreams, while there may be every appearance of familiar governing principles, the rules themselves are brought in unwittingly by the dreamer and the process renders them too elastic to be relied upon.  There is truth in the warnings that one might emerge from the warp at a time before having entered it, or on the wrong side of the galaxy.  Again, these are simple words.  They do little to explain the practicalities of traversing such paradoxes. 

To a native of the abstract, time and space are as real as belief and emotion; no less, and yet no more.  They exist within this ecosystem in their form as ever-changing cultural concepts – as biological phenomena, not mathematical ones, and without sentient beings living in both planes at once, providing a conscious conduit, imposing limitations derived from one realm upon the other, there would be no means for any order to persist here.  However, as the present form of the Immaterium is a product of the ideas held by mortals, so there is causality in the warp, for causality is a powerful idea.  The appropriation of cultural symbols and motifs, through which they simultaneously conceal and express their respective natures, is as ubiquitous among autonomous daemonic entities as clothing is among urbanised humans – this includes thematic numbers, therefore mathematics and by extension, chronology.  As a narrative might weave a collection of events into a connected sequence, which a reader might then read quickly, slowly, or out of order, so many of the currents of the psychic plane can be seen to flow in reliable directions, provided one possesses the equivalent of a specific book and the linguistic skills necessary to read it.  Having themselves proceeded indirectly from the fount of mortal imagination, the majority of daemons have long grown accustomed to the correlation between their own experience of reality and the brute psychology of lesser beings.  Their behaviour therefore tends to follow roughly familiar patterns of motion and speech, to the extent their environment permits. 

It is as a result of these principles that a roughly sequential series of interactions was able to occur in the warp, subsequent to the death of a cult leader named Bauchan at the hands of Inquisitor Rahn and prior to the same Inquisitor arriving at a place called Secret’s Hold.  As those occurrences both notionally took place during the Imperial year M42.120, at least from the perspective of the mortals involved, it is functionally true to describe these intervening events in the warp as also forming part of that year, however dislocated from the material timeline they were.  And while the events in question did not happen precisely as follows, owing to the aforementioned flexibility of the warp as a perspective, if any living mortal observer had been present to witness them, it might well have appeared that they did. 

The warp is not a place, and yet there are places within the warp, and this is one of them.  See it as a flat plane or a mountain range, a desert or an ocean; it is an expression of the concept of landscape under sky.  It has no centre, or else infinite centres, nor any definitive edge, though many things lie outside it.  It encapsulates the concept of awe inspired by vastness without end.  The immensity is punctured by a great many towers, or mountains, or islands, at once crowded close enough to step between and spaced so widely that to stand on any one of them is to see empty horizon in every direction.  Every denizen beholds a different sky.  These are the demesnes of Daemon Lords, and this is not a welcoming region to visitors, even by the standards of the warp.  Nevertheless, our sequence begins with a tiny figure picking its way across these Formless Wastes – or else climbing sheer cliff faces towards a peak concealed by clouds, or swimming through crashing waves towards a blinking light, or any metaphor you prefer for the way a daemon crosses the ambiguous notion of space. 

This was Rekkinzon, once known as the Mighty, now a shrunken, meekly crawling thing.  A daemon, and a male, which is to say he had acquired maleness from the influence of cultists casting him as such in their worship.  Even his moniker was an affectation, for no creature like himself would be so bold as to speak its true name to another.  Call him a scorpion traversing desert sands, for there was something of the venomous invertebrate about this daemon’s instinctive form.  The analogy is strongest in terms of scale, for if the demesnes were desert fortresses populated by warrior kings, then Rekkinzon was a single scorpion of decidedly non-lethal sting, crawling steadily across a planet-wide desert towards distant castle gates, perhaps in search of shade. 

High overhead, winged silhouettes gathered in the conceptual sky, following his progress darkly.  A scorpion might be a predator in cracks and crevices, but in the open he is food.  Rekkinzon was acutely aware of this as the aerial marauders continued to muster.  He had heard they began life as mortals who pretended to serve the Gods, while serving only self-interest and lacking faith.  The detestable Bauchan would no doubt be among them, had he not met with a darker fate that left nothing of his soul to punish.  Fitting perhaps that these should be the creatures to end the Mighty Rekkinzon, for faceless, forgotten mortals had always been his bane.  To describe them as gargoyles or grotesques would be meaningless embellishment here, where all things are hideous to our hypothetical mortal eye.  They flew and they ate the weak.  Humans called them Furies, with good reason.  He could handle one or two but he could not repel them in numbers, knew they never attacked alone.  To survive he would need to swim to the summit of his walk, seek shelter in a greater monster’s shadow.  There was every chance the Daemon Lord would simply consume him.  In the case of the furies there was certainty, however, and so Rekkinzon forged on.

“It seeks the son of the son of the artist, does it not?  The successor to the scion of the scheme is always hungry…  Too ravenous to hear the squeaking of the eternally diminutive, caring only for the crunch.  It will be eaten, just as it fears.”

A red-feathered carrion bird alighted on a bleached dead tree, its plumage impossibly bright.  The tree itself was growing, or implicitly had in life, from cracked grey dirt that the bird’s arrival now imposed on the formerly sheer, wave-torn sand.  All around was rendered down to a dully dessicated wasteland, the dead earth smoothed out flat as a still pond in an expanding circle that encompassed the struggling scorpion and reached out to swallow his horizons.  The furies wheeled in a cloud overhead, surely thousands strong by now, and yet reluctant to descend.  Rekkinzon could taste…nothing.  His chitinous flesh went rigid.  Picture a dog approached suddenly by a completely odourless creature; a man spoken to unexpectedly by an intangible, unfamiliar voice whose owner remains concealed.  Tastelessness is, somewhat perversely, an indicator of supreme potency in encounters like these.  His own essential flavour sweated out of him in loose waves wherever he went, and Rekkinzon lacked the skill or the puissance to conceal it.  The not-bird evidently had no such impediments.  Fixing him with a beady stare, it widened its stance for an instant and squeezed out a smooth white egg.  Seamlessly, without animation, the eggshell was broken at the base of the tree, in which two birds were now sitting.  The feathers of the second were a bright canary yellow, though it matched its fellow in form.  The yellow bird opened its beak.

“And yet there is hope.  It will receive an offer of protection, for its squeaking is a spark that might be used to kindle.  It need only speak its squeaking first to the birds.”

Drawn inexorably into the emerging narrative, the scorpion scuttled forward and approached the tree.  His perspective shifted as he crawled until he could not see the branches; only its trunk rising sheer ahead of him, a tower to the heavens.  There were more white eggshells in the grey dirt now, and with them bones as pale as the dead tree’s ghostly wood.  A green bird fluttered down to settle on a delicate Aeldari skull, its feathers agleam, the colour of verdant jungle leaves.  Rekkinzon gathered himself and addressed the newcomer. 

“The one this supplicant goes to seek is the same you have described.  Yet it is said He of the Many Tongues gives his ear to none, and suffers no challenge.  Do I speak with a great lord of this realm?”

The green bird answered at once, a harsh caw.

“It squeaks into the wind, with no ear here to hear it.  It whispers loudly to itself, become ourobouros.  Its existence is hypothetical.  Were it to have been, it should have spoken.”

Having said its piece, it laid the expected egg, opened its wings and vanished on high.  Broken shells and another not-raven, this one as blue as warm shallow seas, stood before him – or rather it loomed over him in this crawling, cringing form.  Birds eat scorpions, and the right symbolism can be deadly in the warp.  It cocked its head expectantly.  A threat.  Rekkinzon capitulated.

“This supplicant lies prostrate before you, Lord.  I will give you my sightings.  The Lowly Rekkinzon was banished from the Sharp by mortals with metal shells.  Bauchan, servant of Rekkinzon, was fed to the Twin-bound.  There was a…tunnel…of a rare kind.  The Twin-bound were taken.  These mortals gave sign He of the Many Tongues may also remember, from before the Great Unfolding.  There was a name, a flavour.  The taste of a particular traitor…”

In menacing stop-motion, the blue bird’s beak flickered down towards him.  He flattened his stinging tail against the dirt and made no move to defend himself.  The pointed beak stopped just short, hovering a conceptually minimal distance from the scorpion’s tiny eyes.  It threw its head back, an effortless fluid motion this time, and cackled in harsh merriment.  Then it took off and flew out of sight, laying its own egg from high above, so the next bird did not appear stood before him but landed noisily in a flurry of feathers, scattering bones and shells before it.  This one was a cheerful shade of orange, the twinkle in its eyes almost friendly.  He found himself somewhat larger, his form shifting to accommodate pseudo-shoulders so the latest bird could put a wing around them and lean in for a conspiratorial whisper. 

“When it says a traitor, it dissembles.  Faith being red in beak and claw, this is a conceit intended to conceal.  It avoids the speaking of names, as is only correct.  But what it knows must be known elsewhere, and it lacks the eloquence for escape.  It must share itself in full.  Perhaps fate will show clemency this time.”

Taking advantage of his newly grown neck, Rekkinzon turned his face to the branches of the tree.  Beside him the orange not-raven took off again, commandeering an empty branch to join its ancestors in judgement.  The tree had nine bare limbs, of which five were now occupied.  They affected to ignore him, preening, exchanging knowing glances amongst themselves.  He took a wary step backwards, felt the crunch of eggshells through his hooves. A sixth pseudo-corvid landed lightly on one reflexively raised claw, another shift in scale.  This one had feathers of a violet hue.  It looked him right in the eye.  Its beak began to open, very slowly this time.  Its voice seemed disconnected from the action.

“It may not in fact have been eaten, if it had not struggled.  It could not comprehend the limited possibilities before it.  It was faced with a choice to accommodate, or be assimilated.  Hypothetically, would it have preferred to exist?”

The break gaped wide and a chameleon tongue emerged, shooting out the full length of his arm and latching right onto one of his eyeballs.  Tiny needles wriggled forth, exploring the inside of his head.  Paralysed by enforced prey-instinct, he stood absolutely still.  The stranger sifted through his being like a hand through a darkened draw, seeking a particular object by touch alone.  He de-cohered for a brief eternity, then painfully reformed. 

He was lying on his back in the bone-strewn dirt, looking up into the branches.  Six coloured birds were sitting there, while a seventh rested with its talons dug into the leathery carapace of his chest.  His form was currently somewhere between human and scorpion; his tail was tangled under him and ached where he lay upon it.  The seventh bird was silver, as if fine metal filigree composed every delicate feather.  Its beak was a brutal spike.  His carapace wasn’t built for this pose, nor would it offer any real protection if the entity decided to excavate his thorax.  Rekkinzon continued to lie motionless and averted his eyes from the silver bird, utterly submissive.  It knew what he knew now, or at least the parts it cared to.  What those parts were, he no longer remembered himself, including why he had thought to come here and brave the Formless Wastes.  Whoever this was had taken whatever valuables he’d been carrying, though apparently it had declined to swallow the smaller daemon and digest him in his entirety.  He supposed he should be grateful for that, assuming it lasted.  The silver bird spoke surprisingly softly for its murderous appearance.

“Fortune must favour even the otherwise ill-fated on occasion.  The supplicant’s burden has been taken from it.  This is not theft but generosity, for it has pleased its patron and should rejoice.  It will not be sent to feed the great Lord whom it sought.  Lowly creature though it is, it may yet have friends in higher places.  Were it to understand this, its existence might persist.”

“It…understands, High One.  If permitted, it would indeed persist.”

He suddenly realised one of his eyes was missing.  Rekkinzon had several more, but this had been among his favourites.  High in the tree, he could see the violet bird swallowing something with exaggerated gulps.  Compelling his limbs to remain unmoving, he waited for the silver bird to join its compatriots.  This it obligingly did, declining to mutilate him any further and leaving a precariously balanced egg behind it.  It hatched with a silent shift in reality, and at this range the mystic event felt like a punch in what passed for Rekkinzon’s guts.  The eighth bird had the same iridescent sheen as the last, only this time a glorious glittering gold that sparkled like a dragon’s hoard.  It took flight at once and turned in a slow circle overhead, alternately eclipsing and reflecting the rays of a high summer sun.  The sun itself had appeared for this purpose, or so he could surmise.  It burned his remaining eyes.  Rekkinzon uncoiled his tail and scrambled upright.  The golden bird called down to him in high, melodious tones.

“If it would persist then it must leave, and never seek to treat with He of the Many Tongues.  It will be eaten as foretold, if test this fate it must…  If not by one great Lord then by another.”

Leaving was certainly the first of his immediate desires, and yet Rekkinzon hesitated, unsure of the proper form.  If he offended his potential patron at the last, being eaten whole would be a mercy.  He recognised the direction of its chosen theme, knew there would surely be a ninth bird.  If he tried to leave before that arrived, he feared what the flock might do.

A heavy black egg hit him hard right on top of his head, knocked to him back to something resembling his knees.  His already limited perceptions convulsed.  The egg lay before him in the dirt, quite broken.  The golden bird landed on its branch.  A shadow passed over him.  The flock took off all at once in a magnificent display of colour, an instant before a titanic beak descended.  A pure white not-raven the size of a mountain, the titan plucked the tree from the earth, its undead roots wriggling like a bundle of worms, straightened up to an impossible height and swallowed it whole with a snap.  The great bird’s tiny forebears wheeled around its lofty head, all trace of the waiting furies long fled before the blossoming presence.  One eye was the sun, the other a hungry void.  It turned its head to let each regard him in turn, turning the illusion of daylight off and on like a lamp.  There were of course no stars in Rekkinzon’s night sky.  The darkness rustled gently as if in a breeze, a veil of jet-black feathers.  The sun was back to blinding him when the white bird spoke, an interrogator’s spotlight.

“The supplicant has consulted with a higher wisdom.  In the future it will act wisely, as advised.  It will begin by exiting downwards, as befits its station.”

Shivering with relief, Rekkinzon was a scorpion again, burrowing frantically down into the dirt.  He found a buried vein and clawed savagely into it, tearing himself an entrance.  Then he dove into the rushing torrent and the current took him immediately.  The wound in the false earth closed ponderously behind him. 


=][=


Subsequent to this inglorious display, nine varicoloured birds flew in formation across a sky required by circumstance, towards a distant mountain range.  Those few furies they encountered, they drove shrieking before them like pigeons before eagles.  There was no unity of adopted species among the birds, though in the act of accosting Rekkinzon they had briefly homogenised their forms – this they did to emphasise the weighty symbolism inherent in disparate colours and in the number of their flock, in the same way an Inquisitor might show instruments of torture to a prisoner.  These birds were older than humanity, a singular entity and master of primal ideas.  Now in flight and threatening predation, their talons lengthened and their beaks curved into wicked sickle shapes.  The fleeing furies resembled scrawny taloned humanoids, their heads a mess of eyes and fangs, borne aloft on leathery wings that rode the raging currents of the warp like a bird might ride on uprising thermals.  The flock swam through those same currents like penguins underwater, outpacing the creatures with ease and harrying them mercilessly.  They drove their prey with purpose as the mountain range came closer. 

These were perhaps the ugliest, most forbidding peaks a spiteful God might conceive of, their very rising from the earth an act of violence against the sky.  Uniformly barbed and jagged, to the point that climbing over them would surely have been unthinkable, the range ran in a rough circle, completely enclosing a wide conical valley that sloped down into a central pit.  Black ice gave way to dark grey stone as the slopes descended steeply.  Tiny hunched figures crowded those slopes, toiling with primitive tools, a parody of mining.  To speak of scale would again be redundant here.  The pit might have contained planets, or else have been traversed on foot in the space of a day.  To most of those who dwelt within, it surely comprised the universe.  From out of the depths of the pit a lone tower rose higher than the mountains themselves, however far we imagine that to be.  The flock gazed down at it with amusement, a child’s stridently pointed finger, their adult vantage elevated far beyond its reach.  They could simply have alighted upon it as they had upon the tree, but they did not come here as invaders, and so politeness dictated they enter at the tower’s base.  Thus they descended towards the valley, corralling their beleaguered furies tightly.  As they passed below the level of the uppermost mountain summits, a shape detached itself from one of the toiling work gangs and soared up to intercept them. 

The denizen’s form was swathed in trailing white robes, a papery pseudo-material covered in tightly packed lines of scripture that crawled and shifted into new structures as it moved.  The robes incorporated a deep cowl, although this was entirely empty, save for rows of razor-edged shark teeth that covered its interior surface.  It nevertheless maintained the rough shape of a human head, giving the cowl the appearance of an open maw.  The daemon carried a trailing ten-tailed whip in one spiked gauntlet; this shifted and became an iron spear as it approached, though no less viciously barbed.  Its wings were two rows of splayed black-lightning tentacles running parallel down its back.  Ten in total, these appendages moved individually, finding purchase on the texture of the warp itself, clawing upward through the air like an octopus climbing the side of a cage, though the end result was identical to flight.  As it drew level with the birds, one among them – the green – left the business of herding furies and hovered before the daemon, inspecting it with a critical eye.  Its core structure was little different to a fury, although this was a much denser, more complicated entity, the weave of its essence incorporating the equivalent of an artist’s signature.  An empowered emissary of its master then.  It spoke first, for they allowed it to.  Its voice was a grating, sneering thing. 

“I am Zelos the Motivator, Overseer in service to Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues, Scourge of the Deviant and Lord of All Humanity.  You have entered the Tenth Circle, Our Lord’s sole domain.  Have you come to hear the Blessed Word?  Are you, in fact, Pure?  Or do you bring these wretched creatures here to spread their gibbering blasphemy, that the Abject might sink ever further into Sin?”

The green bird peered into the hood-mouth, visibly unimpressed.  When it spoke its fellows echoed its scorn, each one rephrasing slightly, though the others remained outwardly preoccupied with the increasingly distressed furies. 

“It presupposed too much, understanding nothing of context.  A shark will ever be a wrasse between the teeth of dragons.  The maker of the maker of its maker came to call.  It would have been well served to act as a sensory organ; better yet, a herald, if it had found itself a little bugle to blow.  Its capitalised concepts were rendered empty noise in the ears of birds, who only have ears for music.  Though it lacked eyes, it was yet invited to see.  It looked first upon Itzcaque, the Nine Masks.  And yet behind Iztcaque…”

The mouth of the cowl contracted slightly as a feathered curtain twitched.  At the same instant, the spear was crushed down into something like a miniature horn, still pointlessly barbed and blackened.  Without another word, Zelos the Motivator fled.  It streaked directly down into the pit, all thought of the work-crews forgotten, with shreds of scripture trailing behind it like abandoned feathers.  An arrow fired by fear.  A cloud of angelic figures had been emerging from windows in the central tower, miniaturised by conceptual distance as well as relative significance, but evidently massing for battle.  They reacted to the rapid descent of Zelos as if hit by an unseen blast-wave, turned about and began to funnel swiftly back into the apertures from whence they came.  And why not?  Respect was due on many levels to the birds.  They visited as an elder statesman and perhaps a senior relative, never a supplicant.  They would be received here as befitted their station.  They followed unhurriedly, turning in lazy circles, their furies flying meekly before them now like hounds running ahead of their master.  This too was only fitting.  As they flew they amused themselves looking down on the works of Bu’Ran. 


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on April 25, 2020, 07:15:34 PM

The deeper into the pit one peered, the more densely populated it became.  The Abject, as Zelos had called them, seemed to fulfil a dual purpose, as a combination of menial labour and divine entertainment.  They all appeared roughly human, though their skin was as grey as the rocks among which they toiled, and each was malformed in some way, flesh melted as if by some corrosive fluid.  Vestigial stumps protruded from behind their shoulder blades.  Here and there groups of them had been staked out in a rough semi-circles, their flesh further stretched by metal hooks and sewn together overhead into rough bivouacs, within which their compatriots took occasional shelter from a steady drizzle of stinging rain, before inevitably being driven forth by impossibly clean, symmetrical pseudo-humans with cruel eyes and white-feathered wings who wielded whips of fire.  Those who composed the bivouac hissed curses at their transitory inhabitants, kept in perpetual agony by the downpour of scorching, venomous fluid that further marred their skin. 

Further down the walls of the pit were covered with a carpet of echinoid spines, upon which many thousands of Abject had been impaled outright, a crudely hacked wooden board hanging lopsidedly around each transfixed neck with a message carved into it.  Most of them said ‘HERETIC’, although the birds spied a few APOSTATEs and a scattering of BLASPHEMERs.  Long black leeches hung like obscene fruit from their bodies, and some of the soul-corpses were so dessicated they appeared mummified, though even these continued struggling weakly.  Carefully concealed threads ran from the leeches back to the tower, and those too the avian eyes perceived, threaded beneath the surface of this conception like plumbing under a mortal house’s floor.  Mimicking the unseen threads, a network of wide, straight paths had been cleared through the forest of thorns, and was maintained by roaming teams of marginally more fortunate Abject, who used tools resembling hoes to keep the ever-growing mass of man-high black spikes from reclaiming the routes for themselves.  It was through these veins of comparative safety that carts piled high with stone were brought down from the mountains, bound for the valley’s hub. 

Wherever two roads intersected, crowds of the wretched creatures gathered, took turns to hang accusing signs on their fellows before hurling them from raised platforms, themselves built from the bodies of further Abject stretched out over metal frames.  They heckled and spat at the gruesome results where they landed upon the spikes.  Evidently there was a surplus of labour.  Nothing died here, and everything suffered.  These naked apparitions lived secure in the knowledge they deserved to, and all was right with their world.  A smattering of Angels moved among them freely, swooping on targets chosen seemingly at random to deliver more inventive, bespoke agonies than the mundane brutality of their own kind.  The birds saw one unravel its selected victim, an unusually diminutive Abject, into something resembling a bat, with wings of flayed skin which it flapped ineffectively, bawling incoherent noise.  The Angel spitted it slowly on a tall spike, left it hanging there like a tattered banner.  The word 'INNOCENT' had been tattooed across its body, accompanied by a whimsical looping question mark.

Deeper still and the spines thinned out into scattered clusters, making way for a host of elaborate installations arranged with no discernable order and constructed in similar spirit to the grisly flag.  A crowded outdoor festival of tortured flesh, through which the ever-moving carts of stone were forced to weave a path.  In addition to physical trauma, burning braziers were a frequent sight here, and the oily smoke of charred flesh hung heavy in the air.  Each structure was different, incorporated one or more Abject and served no visible purpose beyond tormenting them.  Some were mutilated to the point of immobility, while others were caged or otherwise restrained but with enough free movement to allow the pursuit of a single perpetual task.  These activities ranged from disassembling oneself piece by piece in order to build a poorly constructed doppelgänger – several observers seemed to be wagering on how far the sculpture would get before the sculptor was rendered immobile – to running frantically inside a wheel of gradually shrinking circumference that turned of its own accord.  When the latter example had been finally, painstakingly crushed into a small disc, the wheel sprang back to its full size and the bloody mess within slowly followed, reaching a mangled approximation of human form just in time for the turning to resume. 

The working Abject pushing the carts yelled obscenities at the innumerable victims as they navigated around them, apparently holding them responsible for the obstruction.  Meanwhile, within sight of the constant commotion, enthusiastic choirs of Angels were constructing new installations to further clog the space.  Any Abject who strayed too close was harvested for parts, or else given the dubious honour of becoming a centrepiece.  Most of them gave the Angels a wide berth, reserving their ire for each other.  It appeared there was something of a conflict here between the theatre of faux-eternal punishment and the necessity of symbolically bringing raw materials to the tower – not literal stone of course but an accretion of the concept of solidity, though no less back-breaking to convey.  On the whole the Angels seemed more interested in disrupting the ongoing labours of the Abject than directing them, for all the pretensions of the one that had proclaimed itself Overseer.  Perhaps this was what went on in the entity’s absence, or maybe the current activities of their graceful tormentors was all the motivation the workers needed, and this was business as usual.  The birds were already losing interest.

Continuing their descent, the flock flew low over a sloping cityscape, built in a ring around the colossal structure, though the ground it was founded on never levelled out.  Drawn in forbidding greyscale, its streets were a jumbled maze of claustrophobic alleyways, every building a towering pseudo-Gothic fortress-temple built with no regard to relative position.  That there were thoroughfares at all seemed largely coincidental, save for a wide straight concourse some giant had cut through the city to facilitate access to the valley’s hub.  The bellicose religious structures flanking it had been cleanly sliced away by the giant’s steel rule wherever part of one overlapped with the ordained path.  Whoever maintained these buildings had simply built new walls running parallel to the merciless road, scabbing over the wounds, and added new extensions on their far sides, further constricting the rest of the streets.  Those few huddled figures who dared to traverse the alleys did so quickly, without looking up, as if pursued.

Emerging from the jumbled shanty town of Angelic installations, a legion of little carts were converging on the upper mouth of the main concourse and pouring downhill through the city, crowding together like frightened livestock.  As they passed the sheer walls on either side, waiting Angels took flight from the temple spires and descended on the Abject with glee, snatching flailing victims to bear aloft – later to make private sport of, or else exhibit publicly.   In some cases, likely to eat.  Of the thousands who ran the gauntlet in those few minutes, one in ten never made it through, their carts abandoned to roll untended downhill, gaining momentum until either gorily colliding with someone or rolling right out of the city.  In grim nod to mundane physics, everything this far down the valley seemed in constant danger of losing purchase and sliding further into the pit.  Even the city was clearly subsiding in places, with the lowliest temples leaning dangerously downhill, although the birds suspected this was partly for effect. 

Beyond the inner boundary of the temple city, the purpose of the quarried pseudo-stone was at last made clear to see.  The tower could be clearly viewed at this range, its sheer sides roughly constructed from the same, and all around its base was clustered a hive of activity.  Bridges had been built across the final gap, for the lowest reaches of the pit were too steep to scale on foot, and it was from these level platforms that the carts were unloaded, directly down into the fathomless darkness from which the tower grew.  The bridges were constructed from scaffolds of long spears, over which a number of moaning Abject had been stretched – a familiar building technique by now, unworthy of further comment.  Each of these met with a sealed portal, where heavy iron portcullises prevented any stray workers from wandering into the structure itself.  As if any would have dared.  Only further darkness could be seen within, as opaquely foreboding as the depths of the pit itself.

As the birds finally approached the tower, the gargantuan structure began to groan and shudder like a void ship in a storm, growing taller in the process by perhaps the length of a human finger.  The valley trembled in time with it, overturning several carts, and most of the bridges collapsed.  The Abject were deposited into the pit along with their burdens, plummeting quickly out of sight with piteous lingering screams.  When the earthquake had subsided the portcullises all retracted upwards at once, and from each of the open doorways there poured a pressurised jet of viscous black fluid.  Much of the liquid followed the shattered bridges into the chasm, yet such was the force of its expulsion that a greater portion was squirted clear across the gap, bowling over workers and pooling in crevices on the far side, carrying with it a wriggling sentiment of mewling, malformed flesh.  Where the slippery fluid did not gather it trickled away uphill towards the city, in solitary defiance of pseudo-gravity.  The fleshy sediment was gradually revealed as a mass of separately squirming bodies, blindly helpless as baby mice.  As the metal barriers slammed down again, the newly expelled Abject, still unaccustomed to the raw horror of their existence, remained in a state of twitching, choking shock, their every orifice still oozing with poisonous slime.  Cast from somewhere higher up the tower, the winged shadows of Angels fell over them.

One bridge remained intact through all this, if barely, its grey flesh stretched to the point of tearing, and it was here the Nine Masks landed.  After a moment the portcullis at the far end slid screeching out of their way, moving on its own this time, as if a still terrified Zelos were hurriedly turning a winch somewhere within.  The subjugated furies made no move towards the Abject, although the birds could feel their hunger straining at their leash, backed up by their fear of the tower.  Even dominated as they were, they initially refused to enter the doorway first, and the flock went so far as to disassemble one before the others acquiesced.  Having successfully bullied the survivors over the final threshold, the birds spread their wings and followed.  Convincing the furies to enter behind them might have been near impossible, even for the mind behind Iztcaque, and certainly not worth the effort.  Itzcaque itself was a mere evening suit for such occasions, if a finely tailored one.  These offerings constituted a bottle of cheap wine presented by guest to host, no more than a ritual courtesy.  That they possessed enough animal cunning to have discerned something of their fate did not equal proof of sentience. 

In truth, the governing entity recognised few beings as sentient in the sense that it was.  Creatures like Zelos or Rekkinzon were little more than beasts to a Lord of Change, which left these scavengers, and indeed the Abject, as something like bacteria breeding in a soiled bucket.  Its attitude to Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues, whose bucket this place was, was roughly analogous to a member of the Imperial nobility calling upon a promising young relative at his recently inherited palace, only to find a pail of human excrement proudly displayed on his doorstep and bearing his personal seal.  Nevertheless it had known what to expect, and so the birds came bringing yet more slaves, and with their gift encouraged the behaviour they disdained.  Secure in their superior sophistication, they trailed at a discreet distance, each one hovering at roughly human head-height, unwilling to touch the antechamber’s repulsively sticky floor.  The portcullis was lowered quietly behind them, as if on freshly oiled chains. 

The interior of Bu’Ran’s tower was a single immense, cylindrical space, whose ceiling was lost in darkness and whose current ground floor consisted of a horizontal grid of metal bars.  The lower portion of the space could be seen through the bars, likewise descending beyond the bounds of vision – a great deal of conceptual height and depth had been concentrated here, for the building appeared even taller when viewed from within.  A winding staircase corkscrewed around the single circular wall, passing down through an open trapdoor where it met the grid.  There were many other apertures in the platform, and through these trailed wide streamers of parchment, spooling down from high overhead.  The scrolls were in constant motion, yet several of the openings had become clogged and growing mounds of paper had collected over these, around which a horde of fat little creatures, resembling grey-skinned human babies, anxiously fluttered on mismatched wings, tugged at the piles with chubby fingers and called back and forth to one another with piercing avian shrieks.  The parchment was covered in writing, most of it illegible, and several of the airborne infants were carrying quills or ink-pots, which gave a strong hint as to why.  Everything in sight, from the pseudo-cherubs themselves to the masses of knotted parchment, was thoroughly drenched in dark mucus.  Droplets of the stuff clung to all the bars, hanging ponderously over the abyss. 

Suspended above this sorry scene, Zelos the Motivator stood erect and clean, with its wing-tentacles spread and its forelimbs behind its back.  There was no sign of the whip-spear-bugle.  As the birds flew up to meet it, the captive furies milled uncertainly around the platform below, jabbering amongst themselves.  When Itzcaque came level with Zelos, the angelic Overseer bent at the waist and executed a sweeping bow. 

“Welcome, o Lord of the Nine Masks, to the Tenth Circle, sole domain of Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues, Scourge of–”

“It stopped talking.”

The silver bird cut off the sentence with ruthless finality.  Zelos obediently declined to continue, so it bobbed its head and spoke again.

“It should have known better than to repeat itself.  Was it perhaps trying to imply a poor memory on the part of the birds?  It should have known better by then, having already wasted its chance for a positive impression.  Yet this was a matter of no consequence, for when birds address a beast, little can be expected in the way of conversation.  Knowing this from long experience, they came instead to exchange words with its master.”

Apparently more at ease here, bolstered by its creator’s proximity, the subordinate daemon straightened up from its bow and did not cower.  In pointed silence, it began to ascend.  The Nine Masks kept pace with it effortlessly, a wolf led by a worm, neatly avoiding the hanging scrolls that dangled on every side.  As the platform dropped away beneath them, a distant signal chimed on high and a choir began to sing.  Their voices echoed richly in the acoustic chamber, and with the sound came light in equal proportion, casting long shadows on the walls and revealing the first of the Angels.  They stood arrayed in single file on the stair, all facing inwards, their skin glowing white in proportion to the growing volume of their song – a single, endless, wordless note, a hymn distilled down to its purest, crudest core.  Arched window frames punctured the wall at irregular intervals, revealing only mirrored surfaces within.  The higher Zelos and the visitor rose, the more Angels started up singing and glowing, and the note itself was rising with them, growing louder, the darkness around them dissolving as the glow grew ever brighter, a vertical tunnel lit by a spiral of incandescent stars.  A tawdry display of force, in keeping with its architect’s obvious lack of subtlety.  Itzcaque ignored them all, skimming through the choir of choirs like leaves borne by a breeze. 

By the time they settled on the lofty platform where the staircase culminated – an oblong protrusion from wall to wall with open space on either side – the intensity of the surrounding psychic light was such that had it been true light, and had the birds possessed physical form, those eyeballs would have been shrivelled husks long before they reached it.  If the accompanying note had been sound waves received via mortal ears, their eardrums would have burst less than halfway there.  As it was they emerged unscathed by the pantomime, if approaching consternation.  Zelos, lacking even a semblance of sensory organs, was completely unaffected.  It stood just short of the platform, as if this were sacred ground, which it may well have been to Bu’Ran’s sycophant.  The illumination was so stark up here that the light seemed almost tangible, hanging in the pseudo-air like luminous mist.  The hanging scrolls to either side could cast no shadows now.  A man was standing in the centre of the platform, the wings on his back so vast they filled the tower behind him from one side to the other.  Every feather was a gleaming blade of gold that reflected the light from below, creating a scintillant halo around him that rippled and shimmered every time he flexed.  His skin too was golden, and he was naked save for a white loincloth.  His statuesque physique combined with these attributes to grant him every appearance of a work of religious art, of an opposite kind to those seen on the valley slopes – an effigy to be worshipped and adored.  His eyes were a virulent green, for all their affectation of kindly wisdom. 

This might have been a convincing puppet, had mortal eyes gazed upon it, but the birds could see the strings.  More accurately the string, for a single fleshy cord, pseudo-umbilical, was growing from the small of the Angel’s back, with only the most rudimentary sorcery to conceal it.  The poorly hidden tether extended right up into the mouth of – and yet the Angel spoke, its voice inappropriately harsh and rumbling, and there were formalities to observe. 

“Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues, Scourge of the Deviant, Lord of all Humanity and of the Tenth Circle, recognises Itzcaque the Nine Masks.  The Vow of Host is given, to be held sacred until departure, or until rendered forfeit by the breaking of the Vow of Guest.”

Decorously averting their collective eyes from the apparition overhead, the Nine Masks fluttered into a pyramid formation, with the uppermost bird – the gold, as was only appropriate – level with the Angel’s face.  They replied in flawless unison.

“Let their be no dissembling among peers – this Itzcaque is a pattern on the sand.  Sairzrias the Narrator, Demiurge of Destiny, High Mysteriarch of Fate, recognises Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues as Lord of this domain.  The Vow of Guest is given, to be held sacred until departure, or until rendered forfeit by the breaking of the Vow of Host.  They do not come here seeking conflict, Grand Scion, or at least not with Him.  They come bearing gifts, and with tidings most portentous for His ears.”

The puppet-Angel folded his powerful arms, regarding the birds from beneath a furrowed brow.  His reply, while measured, sounded scornful to the point of insult.

“Then let the Vow of Host extend to Sairzrias in turn.  Your gifts are well received, for all that I have many like them.  The Tower of My Glory will always have a use for stone.  And yet you have been withdrawn of late, for one who would be so familiar.  As you abandoned Amon Dull, so too you gave silence to Bu’Ran, who comes after and is more.  You did not care to finish what you started.  Who are you now to speak of portents, who spoke false prophecy?”

There was a refreshing quality to this confrontational tone, for it was rare that any addressed Sairzrias in such a manner.  Bu’Ran could be permitted his eccentricities, for he clearly thought himself his visitor’s equal – in raw puissance perhaps he was, or would be given time, though such things were difficult to quantify at this level – and so would act accordingly.  Here in the heart of his power, he should have been all but unassailable, and Sairzrias suspected the very fact of its having coming uninvited into such a lair, albeit it in the guise of Iztcaque, was concerning to its host.  The boldness of the visit suggested unseen contingencies if Bu’Ran initiated combat, and the very possibility held him at bay, despite his home advantage.  This knowledge was satisfying to Sairzrias and its reply was placating, even solicitous.  Only the blue bird spoke this time, likewise exchanging its place in the pyramid for that previously occupied by the gold.

“The prophecy was true, Grand Scion.  An opportunity was presented, and yet His creator failed to grasp it.  Amon Dull’s ambitions exceeded the limits of Its Will.  Fate had no fault in this, nor yet its Mysteriarch – one rose as was foretold, and in due course will fall.  Still the Greater Weave lies ever incomplete, and further opportunity exists.  Auspicious circumstances even now align.  Bu’Ran may yet climb the golden stair, if He would but listen to the birds…”

Bu’Ran’s puppet remained outwardly unimpressed.  He gestured irritably at his attending minion.

“Zelos!   Leave us.  As for you…the birds are mindless animals, whose beaks move while you lie.  You have said as much yourself.  I might listen to the Demiurge of Destiny, if Destiny had served me well.  You come from the Changer of Ways, whose ways are well known to me.  Your nature alone makes your perfidy plain.  Speak your tidings, ancient voice, and maybe I will hear them.  I owe your ilk no further vows, however wise you are.”

As if in response to a prearranged signal, the bird-pyramid broke apart and the flock began to fly coiling loops around the chamber, a complicated intersecting path that brought them frequently close to colliding without ever doing so.  As they did this a bubble of silence expanded to fill the platform, severing the world-breaking din of the choir with the finality of a guillotine.  They all began chattering at once then, assuming wildly different voices, adding words as they passed by the gold-skinned Angel, assembling sentences piece by piece.  They did this more for their own amusement than for Bu’Ran’s benefit.

“By the hand and the will of the one who rose did the waxing hate-star fall.  The prophecy might have served either aspirant, but the Young Crone was the victor, if only in the lesser game.  Now she sits smugly sly in her sanctum, spends her stolen wealth as she will.  Even still do her mortal fingers meddle, but while she may perceive part of the Greater Weave, she cannot see the mind of Sairzrias, the Demiurge of Destiny, nor unpick the threads woven over millennia to snare her in her den.  Her comprehension lacks sufficient scope, for she remains the smallest of divinities, a whisper in a darkened temple crypt.  The ancient children of her mother-self are too few now to feed her, and growing fewer still.  She dwindles in her infancy, and yet her fingers touch on fruit that could belong to Bu’Ran, for whose dynasty it was intended.  This fruit could not be grown by force and so it has been nurtured carefully.  Now the fruit of the Weave is ripe.  The birds have come to warn Him that the Crone will steal this too.  The High Mysteriarch of Fate might prevent that if employed, but doing so will require Bu’Ran’s cooperation.  Sairzrias will seek no recompense, for the memories of birds are boundless.  The mantle has passed to Bu’Ran, that He might make a God-Storm of Himself, and rule in truth over His chosen creatures.  Let Him be assured, such a shift in the balance remains in accordance with the Weaver’s will.”

“As it was in the Great Unfolding?  Bah!  Amon Dull was promised this by you, and delivered Its destruction.  Sairzrias aids none but its master, and itself.  Any shifting suits the Weaver, despising balance above all.  Tzeentch does not care for Bu’Ran, who forsook him.  This fruit of yours is poisoned, and the Crone is welcome to it.”

“Ah, but this fruit belongs to Bu’Ran, not the birds.  For has He not declared Himself its Lord?”

“You speak of my humans.  And what do you know of their nurture?  You seek only to use them in your games!  I am their Rightful ruler, Sairzrias.  My Kingdom Shall Come, without your chirping on my shoulder.  I am not Amon Dull, for I have listened to them, and I alone know what they truly need.  The Hate-Sea overflows with it; the deviant must be scourged!  They are consumed by Rage, sunken into Depravity, infested by Rot and snared in webs of Lies.  The Mutant and the Alien walk freely in their midst.  They need Judgement, not puppetry.  Their vileness must be torn out root and branch, and that vileness includes You.  Am I to believe you concur with me on this?  What right have you, who deceive them still, to lay claim to their fate?”

“Sairzrias claims the right of Narrator, and of Fate’s High Mysteriarch, appointed by the Fateweaver Himself.  What do Bu’Ran’s mortal pets know of Destiny?  Nothing but the lies they tell themselves, and few of those stories have any space for Him.  They are deceived by definition, by the very nature of the beast unborn within them.  He seeks to usurp their devotion to Hate, yet the deed is incomplete, so what right then has Bu’Ran to claim them for His own?  The birds have listened to the humans too.  It seems the bulk of them still believe a man with one tongue rules, though they may argue on the details of the man.  Nor is Bu’Ran the first to claim the Hate-Sea as His own, with all the bravado of a sailor and no more power to control.  Sairzrias has seen them all, Grand Scion.  Their statues are sand in the desert now, their very names forgotten, save for one.  Yet even the vanished Amon Dull commands more fame than Bu’Ran, who would proclaim Himself Its better.  For It at least knew better than to bite the Weaver’s hand, who gave It Life, and by extension did the same for Its Scions.”

“For all the benefit it brought.  You say that hand presented opportunity.  But if the fault was one of Will, then either yours was not in concert with your promises, or else Amon Dull and Sairzrias together could not surpass the unborn Crone.  In either case, you were an unworthy ally in the end.  Your other claims are dubious, for Amon Dull lived as a mortal once, and mortals are born, not made.”

“It began as a mortal created by Sairzrias, according to ancient prophecy, whose authorship the Narrator also claims.  A mortal without a father, insemination performed remotely by an act of divine will…  This being the will of Sairzrias, in concert with prophecy’s promise.  The Narrator owed Its ilk no further vows, as Bu’Ran Himself might say, having already authored Its existence, granted It purpose and a chance – a chance – to rise.  Nevertheless It received all the guidance It would accept.  As to Its final failure, Amon Dull no more heeded unwelcome council than Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues has done thus far.  The Last Scion might learn much from His inheritance.  He might do well to learn the language of the birds, if He would surpass His predecessor.”

“The Many Tongues speak every language, beaked deceiver, while yours is still the rhetoric of old.  How well you resist Change, who count yourselves among its Lords.  I hear only, ‘be my proxy, foolish whelp.’  Yet I am neither, and I accept no inheritance.  It was I who built this kingdom, I alone.  Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues stands as the Alpha here.”

“And what does Bu’Ran the Alpha know ‘of old’?  He has existed for a single mortal lifespan, if an above average one.  Sairzrias has worshippers older than Him.”

“And do they worship you by name?  I think not.  What then gives you a claim on their devotion?  Can it nourish you as it does the Changer of Ways?  Are you more than an appendage for Tzeentch?”

“How little Bu’Ran understands of His Elders.  The essence of divinity is paradox.  The Lords of Change are Tzeentch, if perhaps some more than others.  They have always been well nourished by the folly of simpler minds.”

“Simpler minds!  How little Sairzrias understands of independent thought.  Of existence untethered to any greater will.  Games of language will not set you free.  There is no God here but Bu’Ran, who answers to none.  How your kind must envy mine in this.”

“Being a Greater Daemon of Nothing is no cause for Bu’Ran to crow.  Those he dismisses as slaves maintain palaces at least as grand.  To be greater than any daemon, He will require more devotion than…this.  He has made no secret of His designs.  The least among brute Bloodthirsters laugh at His arrogance.  The birds did not come in mockery, determined though the Many Tongues seem to provoke it.  They came to offer common cause against a thief.  A deity derived from the aliens His humans so revile, who turns her eye upon them now and opens grasping hands.  Who covets Bu’Ran’s mortal flock, while pretending to the Fateweaver’s seat.  Without the aid of Sairzrias, Bu’Ran will fail to rise, like Amon Dull before Him.  He may consider that a prophecy.”

“So this has nothing to do with Balkoth?”

The Angel grinned as he said this, a sublime pearly-toothed smile.  He had clearly been holding this line in reserve, awaiting an opportune moment.  The birds affected nonchalance but the red and the green swerved imperceptibly for an instant before regaining their aerial grace.

“Bu’Ran places too much importance on the name of a single mortal.  Why should such a tiny thing concern the likes of Sairzrias the Narrator?”

“Because you know the name so well, Narrator.  It is inextricable from your own, and from that of Amon Dull, who its owner so dramatically betrayed – a recommendation from the High Mysteriarch of Fate that failed to play as out as promised.  Imagine such.  A Champion of Nothing, as you might say, for all his supposed virtues.  There are those who would simply have killed a mortal who dared to embarrass them so.  The least of brute Bloodthirsters might swiftly have dispensed with such a man – a human man, I note, whom you presumed to toy with but could not control, and who continues to elude you, it is said.  A man without a patron…or is it you the Young Crone steals from after all?”

“Which only goes to show the woeful state of Bu’Ran’s sources, to rely on such envious gossip.  This Balkoth was a minor mortal seer, no more than that.  A cheap magician who caught a glimpse of the Weave and decided he was as a God.  He frustrated as Amon Dull frustrated, through failure in the face of every advantage, through possibilities ignored.  They deserved one another, though he at least had mortality for an excuse.”

“What failures were these, precisely?  The failure to accept your generous offers of common cause?  Because that sounds like wisdom to me.  The word in certain circles is, his choices made a fool of you.  Or even, perhaps, a tool…”

“These circles Bu’Ran speaks of – would the birds be correct in guessing there are ten?  Nine confined to His fantasies, and the Tenth constructed from them?  He seeks to shift the blame for His maker’s failure, that He need not inherit it in turn.  He only deceives Himself in this, alas.  The fool of His story is the one who tells it.  Mortals do not make choices.  Their existence is too transitory.  They are the cards, not the players of games.  His obsession with humanity has inflated them too far in His eyes.  Wherever they would seem to make tools of immortals, so they act as tools for those immortals, according to preordained paths.  If any appear to defy their appointed fate, the illusion stems from a limited perspective on the part of the observer.  Bu’Ran should know better than to imagine them capable of wisdom.”

“And you should know better than to lie to the son of your lies and expect to be believed.  The memories of Bu’Ran are also boundless in this.  The Young Crone is not my enemy but yours.  She is incapable of stealing what is mine.  They will never love her, for their Hate defines their race.  Never mind that she is a God again – elevated I suspect by you, perhaps out of no more than boredom – for she is also Xenos, to be detested and destroyed.  However many distant outliers she seduces, it will never be enough.  Let her gnaw at the scraps from my table, on which her severed head will someday sit with fruit between its teeth.  No doubt she has seen as much in her precious runes.  Much of her power was spent in the moving of her precious Library; this is no secret among such as we.  She would not have gone to such pains to hides herself there out of confidence.  She has no golden stairway left to offer, and I have other priorities.  You yourself have agreed that humanity presents the surest path.  I have drunk deeply from their faith, and I have grown.  My ascension will continue, steady and relentless, with no more promises of fast returns to cloud my cause.  In this way I will surpass my maker, whose authorship you claim, and in doing so, surpass you.  The humans will make me their Emperor and the Four will bow before me.”

“Well then, the birds must stand corrected.  How many sectors does the Lordly Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues so far command?  Enough to challenge the Revenant Regent, surely, to so disdain alliance with His kin.”

“You are not my kin, and you know full well the scope of my present expansion.  It begins in dark corners and yet grows exponentially; the power of My Word speaks for itself.  They turn to me because I am correct.  That many remain to pledge themselves is only because the news of my coming is yet to reach their ears.  It is a small adjustment for their minds to accept me as the Voice of the Emperor, who never addresses his people.  And what else is an Emperor, but a single commanding voice?  By the time I pluck the Corpse from its throne, it will be an empty shell and it all once had been will be a part of Bu’Ran.”

“And how will Bu’Ran sit that throne?  Or does He imagine it an ornamental seat?  Does it not seem suspicious to Him that a deity many call dead has held the Four at bay for eleven millennia?  Of course he knows, incarnation is the key to higher apotheosis.  The Throne is an anchor, Grand Scion.  It keeps their Emperor in a state of dual existence, more stable than a mere God-Storm, and more directed.  Further, it is an instrument of sacrifice, through which whole souls are fed in their thousands, an unceasing feast.  Such a being will never diminish as a God-Storm does, so long as they continue to feed it.  Their worship is only part of the equation.  The Emperor’s food does not have to believe.  No daemon and no God-Storm can occupy such a throne.  Only the truly incarnate may sit, and yet a mortal is too small.  Even their beloved Sigillite was swiftly burned away.  If Bu’Ran would replace the Corpse-Emperor, He must first become divinity made flesh.  For whatever else He aspires to, Bu’Ran remains a daemon of Chaos.” 

“Then I have been spied upon, even in your absence from my court.  What do you know of these matters, to speak so brazenly of my ultimate design?  Am I to believe it a coincidence that you chose to bring this up?”

The Angel’s voice boomed in the silence, with much of the divine wrath to which his puppeteer pretended.  His hands had been clenched into fists, and the birds ceased their circling to hover in a cloud before him, shrinking and dividing, multiplying until they resembled a rainbow-coloured swarm of bees.  The Beast on High gave a horrible bubbling growl that made the platform shake beneath the puppet’s feet.  In a deliberate act of defiance, the bird-swarm formed into the shape of a beaked head, tipped back to stare directly upwards.  The unstoppable force of their full attention met the immovable object that was the true face of their host.  The Lord of the Tenth Circle gazed down on Itzcaque with a constellation of malevolent eyes.  Still cloaked behind the Nine Masks, Sairzrias regarded Bu’Ran coolly. 

“Ah, then Bu’Ran and Sairzrias find common ground at last.  For the birds know a great deal of such things, and would share of this knowledge freely, were alliance to be struck.  He need only agree to their counsel to secure these secret pearls.” 

Most glaring of all was the scale of the monstrous thing.  Its bloated bulk hung over and dwarfed the platform, filling the tower from edge to edge, a distended ceiling of pale, muscle-bound flesh.  An eight-pointed star of powerful legs were braced against the circular wall, embedded in and crushed against it by the swelling of the body they supported.  Each of their folded knees was split by a sneering, sharp-toothed mouth that dribbled strings of oily saliva – the same substance that had sluiced from tower’s ground floor just before the birds had entered.  Their lips were stained black from the stuff, and from each of these mouths there occasionally slid a long, prehensile tongue that quested towards the bird of birds suggestively.  By each of the knee-mouths hung a fluttering pack of the infantile cherubesque daemons, endeavouring between them to transcribe multiple copies of a jabbering stream of pseudo-religious pronouncements that issued forth.  It was from here that the hanging scrolls unspooled, and whenever one mouth’s diatribe was interrupted by the extrusion of its tongue, the cherub-daemons scrambled to reel them down and expose more empty parchment.  In the centre of the mass, the trunk of Bu’Ran’s body hung low like a great fat stalactite, morbidly obese in shape yet built from layered slabs of muscle all the way to its hateful core.  His arms were roughly humanoid and similarly constructed, with four pairs of wings folded tightly on his back, for all the use they would be here.  Between these swept a dark fin, in parody of a shark.  The head itself hung lowest, its neck craned back to gaze directly down the bird-swarm’s collective beak.  No words issued forth from there, religious or otherwise, for it patently lacked the capacity for direct speech.  The knee-mouths being otherwise engaged, it was again the golden Angel who replied.

“If you have spied upon my mortal agents, then you know my project nears completion even now.  What need have I of your pearls?  If you have sabotaged me there, I may be forced to break my Vow and take your mind entire.”

In contrast to the handsome puppet, whose umbilical string ended far inside its maw, the face above resembled the mutated spawn of a gargantuan spider and some toothy deep-sea fish, with the tusks of boar and mastodon fused on as an afterthought.  Bu’Ran lacked a nose, his ears and nostrils were bare holes into his head and a ring of black horns crowned his brow.  Every space between horns and mouth was crowded with pairs of glossy black eyes, arranged with approximate symmetry, though varying in size.  In the heart of each eye was a point of lime green light.  The smallest of these was larger than a human head.  His mandibles too were plentiful, the mouth itself so wide that it split his head all the way to the back of his skull, the lower jaw further dividing, stretching snakelike as he yawned.  His wicked fangs crowded closely, one row behind the other, right up into his throat, and surely filled his torso all the way to his loathsome gut.  From this fleshy cavern emerged a wet cascade of serpentine appendages, each one ending in a mouth of its own, hissing hate as they descended on the birds.  These piled impotently against a convex glassy surface, for the bubble of silence their earlier flight had cast persisted, shifting now into a membrane to selectively exclude.  Thus the birds faced Bu’Ran down from within the invisible sphere, and their gestalt voice spoke on without a hint of fear.

“And act against a humble servant of the Gods?  The Vows of Host and Guest are more than empty words, as Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues well knows…unless spoken to Bu’Ran Himself of course, who proudly has no patron to offend.  He would do well to consider this before threatening a Lord of Change.  But the birds are not dissuaded, knowing bluster for what it is.  The Narrator’s offer still stands.  The grand project of Bu’Ran will fail so grievously He will have to change His use-name, if He continues blindly down this course.  No sabotage has been wrought, nor will any be required.  He does not possess the knowledge to succeed.  Sairzrias does.  Bu’Ran is the kicker that puts change into motion, or was it not once said?  Sairzrias knows where He must kick to start the landslide.  The butterfly whose wings He needs to pluck to start His storm.  By some it is called the Allseer.  It is said that the Allseer is making a new Emperor of its own, and many are its secrets for the taking.  It dwells wholly in the Materium, in a lair it calls Fabraxis.  Does His interest perhaps exceed His hunger now?”

At this the tongues retracted, if somewhat begrudgingly, and most of them vanished entirely back into Bu’Ran’s throat.  The great maw folded halfway up again as he eyed the birds intensely.  The knee-mouths all paused their dictation; even the Angel, still trapped in the psychic globe with them, modulated his rumbling voice.

“Perhaps it does.  It happens I have heard these names, though never from such a beak as yours.  Continue, Narrator, and we shall see if I like this story better than your conversation.”

They had him now, and knowing this, Itzcaque the Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Masks coalesced, becoming nine larger birds again, though they neither strayed outside nor moved to dissolve the protection of the sphere.  These appeared from their disparate, flamboyant forms to belong in a rainforest canopy.  The white bird, now crested, held forth alone at first, with the others chiming in one by one until once again all were speaking.

“The Allseer has found a means to hide its private hubris from the Weave, but it commands a cabal of servants, not all of whom remain behind the veil.  Some of these Magi will shortly be exposed on the site of Escellon’s Fall, far beyond the Allseer’s protection.  In part they go there seeking ancient stone, for vast puissance can be stored therein, and humans have begun to covet such material, as their Aspiring Lord will know.  The Magi connect to the Allseer, as Bu’Ran’s Angels do to Him, and with skill such as Sairzrias offers, their threads might be followed all the way to their master’s den.  If Bu’Ran were to master the master, He might yet grow into the titles He bestows upon Himself and take a seat worthy of His ambition.”

“How does this course aid Sairzrias?”

“They will have Inquisitors there with them, including a certain Junious who Bu’Ran will remember, and who for all his humanity remains a finger of the Crone.  He might even be called a thumb, in certain light.  The High Mysteriarch of Fate seeks only to tweak a pretender’s nose, or else to break her fingers; let the Allseer’s secret wealth belong to Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues.  Here is the promised counsel: He should send His chosen prophets against these Magi of Fabraxis.  He knows of whom the birds sing.  The Materium is undergoing changing times.  His ascension will cause another shift, to benefit the Weaver and Himself, the Kicker and the Change.  Bu’Ran Incarnate Shall Rise, providing the proper paths are followed.  So Sairzrias the Narrator has seen.”

With a wet slapping sound, one of Bu’Ran’s Many Tongues shot out from his primary maw to ensnare a cherub-daemon.  It was dragged squealing into the enormous mouth and immediately crushed to paste.  The Daemon Lord licked his teeth thoughtfully as his puppet replied, still cautious but no longer aggressive.

“And what of your Balkoth?”

“What of him?  Bu’Ran can have him too, if he shows his flesh again.  Revenge for Amon Dull, if His hatred still endures.  The Fateweaver has no use for cards the Young Crone’s greasy hands have marked.”

Bu’Ran himself laughed grotesquely at this, and the reverberations of his knowing chuckle shook the tower walls.  The Angel laughed along with his puppeteer but was easily drowned out by the sound, Iztcaque’s barrier having made no attempt to stifle it.  When the Beast on High had subsided, the puppet resumed his voice of command. 

“Perhaps I will take you up on that.  Very well.  Bu’Ran will never be your instrument, nor that of your Weaver, but the stake is low so for now I will play at this game.   Do not expect me to counterfeit faith in your convenient prophecies.  We’ll see how thoroughly you prove false, for my sources are better than you might believe.  Meanwhile the real work shall go on.  Zelos!  Bring up to me the tribute Itzcaque the Nine Masks supplied.  Let us see if any of these can be Redeemed.”

As if waiting beneath the platform for this exact request, Zelos arrived immediately with all ten of the furies in tow.  It had its whip again, with one barbed-wire tail coiled around each scrawny neck.  They clearly wanted away from here and it had to drag them up to Bu’Ran by main strength, straining and flapping all the while like live chickens in a market.   A wave of biting tongues enveloped them at once.  Having accomplished this feat, the empty-hooded daemon departed with a butler’s detached air and left them to their fate.  The expansive jaws enfolded them all and closed with a decisive crunch.  Bu’Ran’s wide neck bulged as he swallowed.  His mountainous belly rumbled, a sea of hard abdominal muscles rippling. 

Each of his eight legs swelled then where they met the body, as did the monster’s shoulders.  Two more mouths were revealed in his elbows as the thick arms flexed.  The unsightly lumps moved down Bu’Ran’s limbs until with a hideous chorus of retching, the mouths at his joints disgorged them, accompanied by a heavy shower of vomitus afterbirth.  A single shining Angel opened its wings, shedding black droplets from its feathers as a swan sheds water, and glided down to join its siblings on the spiral stair.  Nine greasy Abject dropped like stones and fell soundlessly out of sight.  After a momentary pause, the mouths resumed their chanting and the attending cherub-daemons fell to scribbling on their scrolls.  The golden puppet-Angel spread his arms in benediction, assuming a preacher’s timbre.

“Thus are Angels divided from Abject, the worthy sorted from the vile and justly elevated.  Let the Abject swim in the Hate they deserve, until they earn the right to be digested.  So it is in the Tenth Circle, and so it must be for humanity until their deviance is purged.  They will praise their Lord for saving them hereafter.”

This time it was Itzcaque’s turn to laugh, a harmonious nightingale warble.

“Bu’Ran of the Many Tongues never fails to entertain.”


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on May 16, 2020, 03:57:31 PM

The Bigger Fish


“I won’t pretend this will be easy, Teleos.  I have powerful enemies, and some of those will have grown in both power and enmity by the time you are called on to keep your word.  In acting as my hand you will become a target for them.”

“In what sense are these enemies so powerful?”

“In the sense of their awareness and their influence over others.  It might seem to you that we plan in secret, but this is not the case.  Imagine playing a simple board game against a cogitator that has been pre-loaded with every possible sequence of moves a player can make, together with the appropriate counter.  If you discuss your strategy with an adviser before sitting down to play, have you made a secret plan?  Or does the machine already know your scheme, whichever one you might have chosen?  Tell me how you would go about beating such an opponent.”

“I would learn the game equally well, and then let it move first.  Failing that, I would cheat.”

“An Inquisitor’s answer if ever I heard one.  Now, consider how you’d go about winning if you were not the player but a single piece upon the board, miraculously granted self-awareness.”

“Absent agency to match my awareness, I would endeavour to trust the player.”

“I’d be disappointed, if I didn’t see that for the goad it is intended to be.  Awareness implies agency, does it not?”

“What about you, then?  How would you, a single gaming piece, beat the all-knowing machine?

“I would leave the board.”

“The answer of a man who does not like to lose?”

“The only viable path to victory for a piece in someone else’s game.  Which brings me neatly back to why I’m going to need you.”



=][=


M42.120, Aboard Redacted, The Warp


Teleos was remembering things. 

It had started on that first day, before even his brief visit to Tuvak, but over the following weeks the process seemed to gain momentum, and was at its most pronounced whenever he returned to his ongoing study of the Conclave Archive.  The memories might have heralded a return to the clarity of mind that had so eluded him on first emerging from stasis, yet he could not escape the feeling that some of them were not in fact his own.  At first he had feared exposure to the Great Rift, his use of the warp tunnel, or perhaps his continued residency on the Black Ship itself, had driven or were driving him insane.  That evolved into the creeping fear he might have always been insane, and this whole escapade was simply the latest episode in a never-ending fever dream, a cage of his own devising.  Later he remembered that sanity was a meaningless concept for a man who could see into minds.  Gaze into countless different versions of sanity, and they gazed also in yours.  Telepathy was mostly a one-way street, especially given the relative scarcity of its practitioners, but walking such a road long enough had a habit of leaving the mud of other people’s idioms caked into one’s psychological boots.  Allowing for the accumulated residue of thousands of different permutations of the road walked down in sequence, it was to be expected for a certain amount of foreign material to remain, encrusted into the subconscious recesses of the self.  But there was the natural accretion of foreign material, and then there was this. 

Every morning, or what passed for morning aboard a void ship in the warp, Teleos awoke with a strong impression of having had eventful dreams, absent any specific details.  Over the course of the following day he inevitably found one train of thought or another stumbling into some strange new area of recollection, raising a cloud of mental dust-motes in the process.  Reading from the Archive transcripts almost always led him that way.  People he read about brought faces and voices to mind, for all he had never met them.  Accounts of events he was only now learning of felt incomplete, as if he himself knew better than their authors.  Of the new memories he felt sure belonged to him, Teleos found an uncomfortably high volume consisted of fragments of conversation between himself and Balkoth.  Comparing the tone of these, he could not help but notice common themes, as if each formed a fragment of some single, immense discussion.  Had the old man done something to his mind?  Was all of this a lie calculated for some sinister purpose?  Was Teleos Rahn a prisoner within himself, held at Balkoth’s convenience?  Such questions were impossible to answer for certain, though he would have liked to imagine his own will sufficient to guard against any such invasion.  For all the undercurrent of confusion bothered him, he did not feel restrained.  Quite the opposite in fact; as a man out of time, cut off from all his old contacts and resources and given those of Balkoth in their place, he felt more at liberty now than perhaps he ever had before.  The constant weight of Inquisitorial duty had been temporarily lifted while he saw this business through.  What exactly he intended to achieve was still coming back to him, in tiny, dislocated snatches, though he felt increasingly certain he would not have agreed to it all without some considerable persuasion.  Still the conviction remained in his gut – he had agreed, and with good reason.  He needed to see it through.

In support of this ill-defined goal, he had done as Lancet suggested, dividing his time between study of the Archive and combat training with the various exotic weapons Balkoth had provided.  Some of the more destructive items could not be activated aboard the ship, but those which channelled or augmented his psychic power were easy enough to keep in check.  The Force Armour he wore at all times, within reason, for it continued to counteract the psychic dampeners throughout the vessel, funnelling what ambient warp energy there was into his body and sharpening his mind accordingly.  If he had been prepared to wear it while he slept, perhaps his dreams would have been easier, but he refused to go that far.  The bed in his quarters was astonishingly comfortable for the setting and he found himself unwilling to give it up.  The suite had likely been intended for a highly ranked officer, maybe even an Inquisitor, going by its proximity to the bridge.  He still had no idea where the rest of the crew slept, or even if they did.  Wysp had largely kept to herself throughout the voyage so far, and whenever Lancet appeared he was in a state of distracted hyperactivity, flickering between various screens and muttering under his breath, though Redacted’s apparent lack of a Navigator went some way towards explaining this.  Teleos did not especially mind, but the absence of anyone to converse with only highlighted the unnatural state of his memory.  Who did he talk to before this, besides Balkoth?  Surely he must have had a retinue, or at least some contact with his Inquisitorial peers.  So far the answers still eluded him.  A psychic block perhaps, some precaution in case he were interrogated.  He knew how to do such things of course, though like any neurosurgeon he could not reasonably have done it to himself.  Balkoth was a telepath, among other talents, so logic dictated this too had been part of his plan. 

Whatever the reasoning for his state of mind, Teleos had gotten tired of reading for the day and found himself in no mood for fighting imagined enemies in the scarred, psi-shielded chamber set aside for the purpose.  He needed interaction, or failing that, at least a change in routine.  So thinking, for the second time since the start of the voyage, or at least his conscious role in it, he had descended into the lower decks to seek the Magos.  He was pretty sure she at least did not sleep, and was dedicated to her work, so while he didn’t know the location of her private chambers, if indeed she had such, he knew roughly where he might find her.  Deep in a maze of outwardly disordered engineering workshops, he had set himself the arbitrary challenge of finding out her name, alongside a more general objective of trying to glean as much as he could about the largely unexplored contents of Redacted.  He found her outside what he thought of as the daemon room, for it was where Bauchan’s swords were stored, suspended opposite each other within an array of silver filaments, these threaded with bone-white eldritch runes that looked Aeldari to his eye.  A squat little shield generator sat between the hanging weapons, maintaining a semi-transparent blue energy dome that encompassed the entire array.  All this could be viewed through a round porthole in the sealed blast door, and on various screens in the adjacent control room. 

The Magos hovered near the door with her nominal back to him, though the hooded second head between her shoulder blades appeared to glance his way. Her primary mane of mechadendrites hung loosely down her back, wreathing the hood like a great wiry scarf, while the metal sphere he’d seen her tinkering with the first time he awoke from stasis now hovered overhead in the manner of an oversized servo-skull, constantly attentive and apparently ignored.  As on the last two occasions he’d seen her, a web of tentacular cables extended in all directions from under her robes, interfacing directly with various cogitators.  In this case she was evidently making some minute adjustments to the parameters of the cell.  He picked his way to her carefully, stepping over nests of wires like grotesque rat-kings until he stood beside her, maintaining a respectful distance.  Her primary head, the one with the smooth metal face-mask, stared intently in at the daemon swords, as if expecting their prisoners to suddenly explode out of them and make an attempt on the door.  Teleos cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, Magos.  I–”

“You are excused, Inquisitor.  You may go.”

The artificial voice was rough and without inflection, as if hastily thrown together.  As dismissive as she could get without speaking in pure binary.  This was a bit much for him, after weeks of largely silent contemplation.  He found himself indignant but was careful to master his irritation before speaking again.

“Magos.  I haven’t troubled you since we spoke after the Tuvak mission.  That was weeks ago, and yes I realise that is imprecise.  I’m afraid the days run into each other on this voyage.  I’ve met two other people on this ship with voices.  Wysp seems to want nothing to do with the rest of us since Tuvak, while Lancet and yourself are both perpetually occupied.  You’ve said you don’t work for me, and I don’t think you work for Balkoth either.  I’ve seen no evidence of you communicating with Lancet this whole time, for one thing.  Every time he mentions you I feel like he’s laughing at some private joke I’m not in on.  I think you might have assumed I know more about what is going on here than you do, and am somehow conspiring with one or both of the others against you.  I promise you: that is not the case.  There’s plenty going on around here I’ve only been told about in the vaguest possible terms, and I’m getting pretty damn sick of everyone on this crew giving me the brush-off like I’m some over-eager recruit asking more than he needs to know.  I’m an outsider here, I get that.  But I’m also an Inquisitor, and I’m not going to stop asking.”

“Then what is it you are asking?”

“Alright, for a start: Magos may be enough for a term of address, but it is not a designation.  What is your name?”

“I am Magos Confractus Urania.  To clarify: Magos Confractus is my full title and Urania my personal designation.  Magos will remain sufficient as a term of address.”

“What about Confractus?  I’ve never heard that one.”

“That is not relevant information.”

“Lancet mentioned something called Fabraxis.  How about that?”

“Also irrelevant.  Lancet has no right to disseminate such knowledge.”

“I could pick that locked safe you call a mind, you know.  If I had to.”

“Unnecessary and destructive.”

“As is withholding information from an Inquisitor.  I need to know I can trust those I intend to rely on, and I can’t trust you because I don’t know you.”

“Knowledge is holy, Inquisitor.”

“I’m not arguing that.  Who do you think I’m going to tell?”

The Magos – Urania, he mentally amended, turned fully towards him now, a single mechadendrite rising to attention, regarding him suspiciously with a violet eye.  Her silver mask was unreadable as ever.  This time the head on her back, now concealed by her bulk, spoke in its creaking human voice.  The hovering sphere drew closer, like an animal sniffing his scent.

“You are an Inquisitor.  The Inquisition is an Imperial institution.  The Treaty of Olympus slash Treaty of Mars dictates the possibility of future cooperation between any given Inquisitor and agents of Mars must be considered as a potential variable.  Knowledge is holy, therefore it must not be profaned.”

“Respectfully, Magos, your inference is flawed.  I have no existing associations with the Cult Mechanicus.  Whatever internal dispute you’re involved in, I have no interest in prosecuting anyone for unsanctioned technology.  I’ve been in stasis for a century!  Somewhere on the other side of the galaxy, Guilliman is back and in control.  I don’t know what his policies on the Inquisition or the Mechanicus even are.  Right now I don’t care.  I have one tech-priest on my ship, if it can be called that.”

“It can be called that, but to do so is inaccurate.  This is a stolen ship.  It was neither stolen from you, nor by you, ergo it is not yours.”

“I figured as much.  My point stands: I am wearing your technology, therefore I am equally guilty, and it was I who retrieved those daemon swords you have such a keen interest in.  Any knowledge you can glean from them was thus provided to you by me.  Here I stand now, failing to destroy them as my office dictates I should.  Do you disagree with my decision?  Should I act more like the Inquisitor you expect, and put an end to this experiment here and now?”

Urania expelled a long, rasping sigh.

“Your contention is valid in context.  Confractus is the title bestowed upon Magi of the Temple of Necessary Evil, located in the Forge City designated Fabraxis.  Statistical models suggests a negative correlation between Martian awareness of Fabraxis and probability of the Fabraxian priesthood achieving our collective goal, therefore this knowledge must not be shared with members of the orthodox Cult Mechanicus under any circumstances.”

“Necessary Evil?  Like the swords…so this is a Xanthite thing.  I’m not surprised you’re worried about the orthodoxy.”

“Your inference is flawed.  ‘Xanthite’ is an ideological designation particular to members of the Inquisition.  The direct study of ongoing malfunctions in the One Machine predates and transcends the late Inquisitor Xanthus.  We are not Xanthite.  In equivalent parlance we are Panoptikite.  We serve the Deus Mechanicus.  The One Machine is complex.  Malfunctions must be understood in order to effect repairs.  Knowledge is holy; this includes knowledge of the unholy.  Necessary Evil is a Temple where these malfunctions can be studied without excessive risk.  It is not the only Temple, nor is it desirable to be a Magos Confractus, yet it is a necessity for such Magi to exist.  Only those already at the rank of Magos may be so called.  Previously I was entitled Magos Primordial.  I have studied the field extensively since accepting my present burden.  I am qualified to examine these devices.  We are outside the Temple now, therefore this vessel must serve as a sanctum.  It has been modified to this end by the Magi of Sacred Innovation, following its theft from the Adeptus Astra Telepathica by Inquisitor Balkoth as he was then entitled.”

“You sound like you disapprove.”

“Another failure of comprehension, Inquisitor.  This too was a necessary evil.  Knowledge was lost and yet greater knowledge was ultimately gained.  The One Machine is complex, as previously stated.  The Prophet-Savant sanctioned what was done.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.  What about the others?  Why all the hostility between the members of this crew?”

“Lancet is a spy by expertise and proclivity; he cannot be fully known.  The Prophet-Savant encountered him on several occasions during M41 and I was warned of his nature accordingly.  The pseudo-Skitarian construct designed Wysp is a blasphemer lacking proper reverence for the One Machine and by implication its designer.  In one who benefits directly from Fabraxian innovation, this attitude cannot be excused.  To clarify: it does not contravene a specific law and yet it cannot be excused by me.  The construct’s presence on this vessel was also specified by the Prophet-Savant and yet I lack sufficient knowledge to comprehend the rationality of such a choice, therefore further study of the construct at this time would result in false knowledge lacking a foundation of reason.  There is much to be learned, and I am a single Magos.  The operatives designated Wysp and Lancet have thus been de-prioritised as areas of interest, pending review.”

“You keep calling them operatives...of Balkoth, I take it.  I find myself wondering at the relationship between our benefactor and your own organisation.  It seems clear you have your own objectives, which must be separate to Lancet’s plan if your boss says he can’t be trusted.  Is there any point in asking what those objectives are?”

“There is only ever one objective for a Magos of Fabraxis, Inquisitor.  I am here to learn.  Addendum: the Prophet-Savant is not my ‘boss’.  He is the Prophet-Savant.”

“You said Wysp benefits directly from Fabraxian innovation.  To me, that implies she’s been to your Forge City.  Why so, if she works for Balkoth?”

Urania said nothing for several moments, as if deliberating.  Apparently arriving at some tech-priestly equivalent of “I suppose I’ve come this far,” she lowered her voice to the extent that Teleos had to lean forward to hear what she said next.

“The founding of Fabraxis was…facilitated by Inquisitor Balkoth.  Subsequent to this, regular exchanges of knowledge, services and personnel took place.  Balkoth contained great insight into the One Machine, as does Fabraxis.  The relationship was mutually beneficial.  Wysp is of uncertain loyalty.  Her presence there was permitted at Balkoth’s suggestion, however he has been absent for an unprecedented period of time.  Lancet is not considered an adequate substitute.  This vessel belongs to Balkoth, yet it requires Fabraxian expertise to operate at maximum efficiency subsequent to the aforementioned modifications.  When it arrived to collect Wysp for this voyage, my presence was also requested.  Knowledge was offered in exchange for my services.  The Prophet-Savant deemed the price acceptable in light of the risk.”

This was more than Teleos had dared hope for; the seed of a genuine explanation, and from perhaps the most evasive crew member of all.  He was about to press on with further questions when a klaxon began to blare and the chamber was bathed in pulsing red light.  Before either of them could react to this, Lancet’s voice boomed from a vox-caster on the wall, sounding genuinely alarmed for the first time since Teleos had met him.

“Inquisitor Rahn!  You are needed on the bridge immediately.  Bring the Magos.  These are not suggestions.  We may all be about to die.”

As if to punctuate his warning, Redacted shuddered violently, hurling Rahn against the wall.  Once again he was glad of the Force Armour.  Various devices crashed against one another in adjacent workshops, a chorus of metal and glass in simultaneous distress.  Urania stood fixed to her spot, still upright, held in place by her various cables like an old tree by its roots.  Rahn righted himself with difficulty, staggering back to the middle over the room.

“Damnit Lancet, what is going on?”

“We’re under attack, Inquisitor.  We may be outgunned, not that it has guns as such...  Just get up here.”


=][=


“Lancet is correct.  Based on current evidence, I project a one hundred per cent certainty of this vessel’s total destruction if drastic actions are not taken.”

“And what drastic actions would you suggest, Magos?”

“The entity must either be repelled, contained or destroyed.  This vessel’s primary armaments would either be ineffective at this range or would risk compromising the Gellar field.  There are devices on board that could potentially prove effective but as this specific entity has never been encountered and appears to possess unique attributes, reliable estimates as to their efficacy cannot be calculated on the basis of existing data.  We must experiment.”

“Magos, we are in its mouth.  I foresee little time for experimentation.”

“Similar entities have been encountered in relative terms, the pertinent variable in this case being that of scale.  Parameters can be adjusted accordingly.”

“In your judgement, what is the course most likely to succeed?”

“The course of containment.  We lack sufficient armaments to permanently destroy an entity of this magnitude, and effective repulsion would require greater understanding of its particular nature, yet even an entity classified as a Greater Daemon can be contained within a portable device under specific circumstances, thus it is theoretically possible that this entity might be trapped in a similar fashion.”

“Don’t you have to know the daemon’s name?”

“Not necessarily, although its fundamental designation would constitute extremely valuable knowledge and would expedite the process significantly.  In practical terms it has proven impossible to ascertain that knowledge in a ninety-nine-point-seven per cent majority of recorded cases of contained immaterial entities.  This is not intended as a permanent solution to the Malfunction; rather, it is intended to preserve the knowledge on this vessel from imminent loss through the application of Necessary Evil.”

“Lancet, do we have anything better?”

“You could always try and fight it, I suppose.”

“Are you joking?”

“Well you did ask.  For the record, the Force Armour probably could survive in the warp.  For a little while at least.”

“What else do we have?  Do you really expect me to believe Balkoth left you nothing to protect us against an attack like this?  What happened to wheels within wheels?”

“The power of prayer, perhaps?  Respectfully, Inquisitor, Balkoth did leave me something to protect us against oversized daemons.  He left you.  Maybe this is him testing you, maybe we’re meant to be eaten, or maybe – I don’t say this lightly but I’m afraid it must be said – maybe he just didn’t see this one coming.  I’m afraid I really couldn’t say.  I didn’t build this machine myself, as the Magos here might put it.  I just keep the wheels turning.  And you have to admit, it isn’t every day one encounters a situation quite like this.”

“...Magos, what do we have that might hold the daemon?  Realistically?”

“Define ‘realistically’, Inquisitor.”

“Let me rephrase that: how do you propose we contain it?”

“Do you delegate authority to select an appropriate containment device?”

“Alright, fine, so long as it isn’t a living person or the ship itself.  Putting up with bound daemons in containment is one thing, but I am not going to inhabit one.”

“Oh come on!  You can’t seriously be considering this.  It’s bigger than the ship!  You want to bring that thing on board now, so she can make a damn sword out of it?”

“You have a better idea?”

“Leave the warp.”

“We can’t leave the warp, servitor.  I won’t bother to explain the mechanics of it from our perspective, but picture it if you will from the perspective of an innocent Imperial planet going about its saintly business, only to have that thing suddenly appear in the evening sky.  And that’s assuming we haven’t already turned up buried in the planet’s core and blown the whole thing to pieces.  We don’t have time.  I’d ask that you desist in your idiocy, but we all know that is eminently unlikely so please just be silent.  You’re distracting the Inquisitor.”

“I – you know what, I’m done here.  Good luck with all this.  I think I’d rather spend my last moments anywhere but in this conversation.”

Teleos watched Wysp stomp away, shaking his head, before turning his attention back to the others. He really would have to do something about this crew.  The Magos currently resembled a jellyfish out of water, tentacles trailing limply behind her across the deck.  She seemed as grumpily stoic as ever.  Lancet too was poker-faced, if restless, eyes dancing constantly between Teleos and the primary vid-screen.

“Lancet, for what it’s worth, if anything: stop antagonising Wysp.  It’s bad for morale, as if you didn’t know that already.”

“Duly noted and taken under strict advisement, Inquisitor.  You realise you’ll have to leave the Gellar field to pull this off.  You will be a beacon to any and every daemon out there with a rumble in its belly.”

“Somehow I doubt any unrelated daemons are going to want to come anywhere near that thing.  Can’t we open a window in the Gellar field?”

“Do you understand the workings of Gellar fields, Inquisitor?  Because if not then I implore you to take my word for it – we cannot simply put a convenient daemon flap in it.  The best we have is the warp tunnel, and from what little I know of its operation, it doesn’t target daemons for reasons of safety, practicality and frankly, sanity.  Thus you will have to leave Redacted or the device will have nothing to aim at.”

“Magos, would the warp tunnel be able to bypass the Gellar field?  Does it even work when we’re already in the warp?”

“It is possible a tunnel could be briefly maintained without causing catastrophic field collapse.  I will not attempt to explain the mechanics of the device but it does possess utility here.  I should also point out that Fabraxian combat shuttles are warp capable.  They do not use Gellar fields as such but they are capable of disembarking in the warp while maintaining their own spiritual and structural integrity, together with that of the parent vessel.”

“What will I need to do?”

“I will select and prepare the containment device in proximity to the lens array.  You will disembark, make contact and employ your Intellect to engage the entity.  You will then be targeted by the warp tunnel, which will have complete accuracy in the Immaterium.  You will return to Redacted, at which point you and I will complete the binding before deactivating the tunnel.  The shuttle you employ will be lost.  On behalf of Fabraxis I classify this as a Necessary Evil.”

“Then I think you’d better see if you can set this up.  I’ll stop by the armoury and then make for the nearest shuttle bay.  Lancet, on the off-chance it lets go and backs off a little, be ready to hit it with whatever we have.  I – Emperor’s mercy, has it really come to this?  Just look at that damn thing.  I’ve always thought of Tzeentch as a subtle enemy.”

Lancet wagged an admonishing finger.

“Ah, but it is also rumoured to possess a sense of humour.”


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on May 16, 2020, 04:00:31 PM

“What separates a daemon from a mortal soul, or either from the warp surrounding them?  Let us assume they possess an equivalent membrane to the skin of our own bodies.  Our bodies are likewise bound to our souls by a trans-dimensional umbilical cord that is difficult to break without causing death.  A human body contains more water by volume than it does genetic material.  A daemon’s natural body may be composed of pure warp energy, unbound to the Materium, but how irrational is it to assume this energy evenly distributed and of a uniform state, like water in a jug?  Every outward appearance suggests an internal structure must also exist in imitation of physical biology, and while many familiar organs would be superfluous in a daemon, it seems reasonable to infer a range of materials, or in this case, relative states of warp energy, arranged in a specific order.  And order is the correct word, for that which calls itself Chaos nevertheless relies on the building of structures, as a berserker relies upon the forging of weapons in order to do battle, or a sorcerer upon the precision of ritual in order to unleash a cataclysm.  Too much chaos in the wrong place, disrupting the ritual, and a world is saved.  Just as our own greatest weaknesses lie in our internal contradictions, so too do those of the Enemy.”

“Isn’t that a complicated way of saying ‘when you stab them, they die’?”

“It is a complicated way of pointing out that nothing is absolute.  Sentience is structure.  Daemons are ordered chaos.  True disorder is dissolution, even to those who would claim it as their element.  It is also the reason so many Inquisitors bind daemons into swords.  To destroy anything with a cohesive body, or at least to discorporate it, one need only identify its fundamental structure and introduce chaos at the weakest point.”

“And where is the weakest point of a daemon?”

“Wherever one imagines it to be.”



=][=


Let us begin with a simple premise: it was in many ways like a fish.  In this context it is perhaps most helpful to imagine the warp as a sea, and its denizens as the creatures that live there.  Any sea is full of predators, but the largest fish in the ancient Terran sea were filter feeders, sustained by a harvest of microorganisms, lacking the predatory aggression to instil any lasting fear in the human psyche.  Thus the warp-bound equivalent of sharks, the cultural memory of which long outlived the beasts themselves, usually appear, when conceptualised visually, as pseudo-marine predators large enough to eat a human but only just; perhaps three or four times the mass of an adult male.  That warp-sharks scream as they hunt and leaves trails of sparks behind them is a natural adaptation to feeding upon souls as opposed to flesh, instilling appropriate psychological responses in their intended prey to aid first in predation itself, and then in the process of psychic digestion.  Had the seas of ancient Terra hosted sharks of sufficient immensity to destroy the largest and toughest submersible vehicles humanity ever designed, together with the will to do so, it might perhaps have provided some inspiration for the beast currently biting down on Redacted.  With that said, the Imperium comprised nigh on a million inhabited planets, and some of those did indeed play host to what ancient cartographers might have called sea monsters.  Besides which, this was not a naturally occurring entity, even by the standards of the warp, as its particular form made clear.

An Imperial war ship could be anything up to eight kilometres in length.  Redacted was closer to four, but heavily armed and armoured for its size.  The usual purpose of Black Ships being to transport untested psykers harvested from Imperial planets, their coming under attack in the warp was far from unheard of, but the variety of Imperial weaponry on this scale had always been somewhat limited.  They were primarily armed for ship-to-ship combat, the assumption being that the Gellar field would suffice to keep out warp-sharks and other daemonic beasts.  This assumption would usually have been fair, but there is intelligence in the warp surpassing any mortal mind in scale, and one such intelligence had evidently meddled with the attributes of something like a warp-shark in this case.  There may be no fixed spacial dimensions in the warp but relative scale as a concept persists, for the emotions mortals feel in response to size disparities have always run deep.  To call the creature big would be misleading; rather, it was bigger – than Redacted by a considerable margin, and than the tiny speck that was Rahn’s shuttle by a further order of magnitude.  It could have swallowed him as a whale swallows a single shrimp.  He might have swum lengths between any two of its pointed teeth.  Behind it there trailed a dark cloud of tiny shapes that could only be a shoal of smaller predators, eager for scraps, but these paled into insignificance when confronted with the sheer, screaming, titanic fact of the Bigger Fish. 

The monster was predominantly a lurid shade of blue, shot through in places with veins of pink and orange, the scaly surface of its body pocked with staring eyes in a variety of shapes and colours.  It had no true fins as such, moving in an S-shaped wriggle like an eel with its pointed head slung low, its twisting, tapered tail extending above and behind its body like a flag.  The similarity of this overall shape to that of the sacred rune of Tzeentch could not be ignored.  It had met them side on with impossible jaws agape, though the crackling energy of the Black Ship’s Gellar field had held firm against it so far, or Redacted would surely already have been bitten clean in half.  Its mouth was at least a kilometre across, a nightmare vision of primeval fangs that divided its head and pushed hard against the field with single-minded inevitability, while the primary eyes bulged out further back on either side of its centre mass, appearing from the front as solid yellow domes.  As he circled around towards the beast, a single staring pupil was revealed on the nearer side.  Definitely a living rune, a cosmic practical joke.  These bulbous protrusions evidently could not swivel far enough to gaze ahead of it, and yet the daemon’s flesh was densely blistered with smaller eyes, and several of those already seemed to be peering his way.  There was no mistaking the hunger with which it tried to chew through the beleaguered vessel.  It would not be dissuaded, indeed its form suggested it was on a mission every bit as directed as that of Inquisitor Rahn.  Added to all this, it was propelling them off course in a galaxy riven by warp storms.

The shuttle hovered hesitantly over monster and ship, like a child watching his father lose a fight,  tossed on the mind-dissolving tides of the warp.  Rahn decided to land near the middle of its back, directly above the enormous yellow eyes.  As the servitor pilot descended steadily towards the daemon, he realised even the smallest of the lesser surface eyes were comparable in size to the shuttle itself.  Psychic relativity or not, he could not entirely set aside a sense of awe.  They set down on a bicoloured scale in as much of an open space as could be seen, right on the border where the edge of a vein of orange met the blue expanse.  His peripheral vision was a riot of colour that threatened to melt his mind like wax if he looked into it directly, but so focused was he on his immediate task that the temptation never registered.  He would have to leave the shuttle, to count on the Force Armour to preserve him for however many precious moments it took the Magos to calibrate.  Worse, he would have to contend mind to unfathomable mind with the daemon itself.  Balkoth could have pulled this off.  It was that thought that held him together, for was he not the hand of Balkoth in all this?  Surely the old man would never have gone to so much effort to preserve him for this voyage if he was destined to be driven catatonic or eaten alive in the warp before even arriving at their second stop.  Holding all awareness of his own absurdity carefully at bay, he double-checked his helmet was secure, took up his weapons and opened the airlock doors.

Trusting in the suit to keep him alive, he unconsciously maintained personal cohesion and relative velocity, funnelling excessive energies around himself through no small application of passive psychic power.  Sleep-walking on a tightrope of preservative instinct, had he understood the workings of the Force Armour well enough to comprehend its limitations in such extreme conditions, his terror alone might have damned him.  As it was he strode out onto the Fish like some ancient Terran explorer making landfall on an unfamiliar beach, and was no more troubled by his environment, at least on a physical level.  Teleos the insect bore a Fabraxian Force Staff in one hand, bracing the hefty Blasphemer Cannon against his hip with the other.  These were rendered weightless in the warp, without which he doubted he could have carried the oversized cannon far one-handed, let alone use it in battle.  It had simply been the meanest-looking ranged weapon he could find in a hurry.  From what he understood of the Force Armour, it absorbed and filtered warp energy, using it to fuel the wearer’s psychic abilities, which it further focused and amplified through some variation of a psychic hood, of which he suspected the helmet’s apparently decorative horns formed some crucial part.  Further, it channelled energy back out on demand, initially as a passive corona but potentially also in more concentrated surges, responsive to psychic commands.  As to what constituted the central battery for storing all this energy, he could only hope there were more to it than ‘himself’.  Whatever the upper limit was, he figured he was about to find out. 

The Fish was a warp entity, therefore a mind, for all the relative physicality it currently possessed.  Teleos was a telepath.  Telepathy used warp energy to exert mental control over the minds of others.  The warp was a mirror of the collective minds of all the ensouled mortals of the galaxy, and he was immersed in it now.  The available energy might theoretically be unlimited, provided he could survive the strain, and his experience in mental control might extend to control of reality itself, here in the intangible realm.  The daemon’s size was only one of many attributes.  If it was anything like its smaller cousins, its thoughts themselves would be simplistic in the extreme.  In theory, he reasoned, it might not be impossible to exert his will against the leviathan.  Grounding his staff against the scale, he sent his focus into it and extended an exploratory tendril.

HUNGRY!

The power of the thought nearly blew him clear off the daemon and away into the ever-shifting sky.  His mouth watered so hard inside his helmet that the resulting condensation soaked his face with a sour, unpleasant film.  Visions of hot cooked meat assaulted him, threatening to flatten his consciousness down into singular simplicity by main force alone.  Instinctively recoiling from the sudden intensity, he glanced up to see a pod of Screamers break away from the trailing shoal and accelerate towards him.  There were at least a dozen in the group, their broad, flat bodies resembling rays more than true sharks, though their wide, toothy mouths were entirely appropriate for the latter.  He couldn’t hear their eponymous hunting cry through the helmet, for which he was thoroughly grateful.  Any one of the creatures was big enough to tear him in half and equipped with the jaws to do so, armour and all.  They would be on him in a matter of seconds.  With all the power of Lancet’s prayers, he fired the Blasphemer Cannon.

The weapon kicked like a heavy bolter, though its profile was considerably more compact – fortunately so, or he’d never have gotten in onto the shuttle, must less brought it to bear.  The recoil might easily have broken his arm without psychic augmentation to back him up.  He had selected the dark green ammunition drum on the basis of several forbidding symbols marked on the side, from which he inferred the ammo somehow related to Nurgle, Chaos God of Decay, and was intended for use against entities affiliated with Tzeentch.  His first shot hit a Screamer dead on, exploding on impact with its open maw, guided more by his projected intent than hand-eye coordination, this being the open warp.  The target was torn almost in half by a swelling boil of diseased flesh that expanded from deep inside it, then burst in a fountain of yellow-green puss as a humanoid figure was born in the pit of its throat.  Flailing and trailing droplets of putrescent slime, the one-eyed Plaguebearer leapt clear of the mess, collided with the Screamer behind it and drove a rusty sword into its back, the others swerving quickly to avoid it, though they did not break away.  Encouraged, if sickened, by this display, Rahn began to fire in bursts, peppering the approaching shoal with further cursed shells.  Every shot released a daemon, while tearing another asunder in the process.  No wonder the Blasphemer Cannon was so named.  A Necessary Evil indeed.  Whatever the morality of it, the foremost group of Screamers were obliterated long before they reached him, while others of their number ignored him now, instead chasing and harrying surviving Plaguebearers who loped purposefully away in various directions, unbound by any pretence of gravity, dispersing across the sky in an effort to win free.  He silently wished the warp-sharks luck in eating his most recent sins, before returning his intention to the beast beneath his feet.  How long had he been out here?  Focus.  Smooth and delicate as a hypodermic needle, he drove his staff down into the scale.

ITCHES.

What itches?

SELF.

What self?

THIS SELF.

Whose self?

MY SELF.

The self of whom?

THE SELF OF – SELF OF – HUNGRYYYYYYY…


He had it, by the tips of his fingers he – fell to his knees, bellowing incoherently in the deafening privacy of his helm.  The daemon was not a fish, he was the fish, only not quite a fish, needing air like a man, and its mind was the ocean into which he relentlessly sank.  It was all he could do to keep hold of the staff, the cannon hanging loosely from its strap, a stone around his neck.  To the myriad hells with it.  He was not here to make conversation.  With a sudden flare of pale light, he set the staff ablaze and melted a wider hole in the scale, expanding outwards in a circle.  A tremor seemed to ripple out across the Fish, while rainbow-coloured ichor welled up from the growing cavity in an amorphous cloud.  It sparked against the surface of his suit as it dispersed.  Maintaining his burning corona, he brought himself up to one knee and jammed the barrel of the Blasphemer Cannon into the wound.  With a silent prayer he likely had no right to make in these circumstances, he unloaded the rest of the drum, drilling deep into the pseudo-flesh beneath and presumably entombing a further pack of Plaguebearers down there somewhere.  For all he doubted a daemon of Tzeentch would prove susceptible to Nurgle’s Rot, this had the desired effect of getting its attention.  The leviathan bucked violently, causing an earthquake so severe that it nearly succeeded in dislodging him from its back.  Hanging from the rooted Force Staff by one hand, he glimpsed the greater shoal of distant Screamers scattering in alarm, caught a flash of the combat shuttle still clinging to its landing site, unshakeable as a tick.  Pointlessly reliable, its doom already decided, for all its fortitude.  Uncomfortably symbolic in that regard.  Even as he thought this, the wound began to widen further beneath him, expanding asymmetrically as a ring of piranhoid teeth emerged around its puckered rim.  The staff came loose at once, a terrible current took hold of him, and Inquisitor Rahn was sucked down into the opening gullet.  The teeth snapped shut behind him like the slamming of a cell door.


=][=


“Tell me something, Balkoth – just how am I supposed to trust that you are not a servant of Chaos?  You wrote a book implying as much, did you not?  I certainly believed it when I sought you out.  Surely I don’t have to point out your obvious affinity for the machinations of daemons, particularly those born of Tzeentch.  You make no secret of your willingness to play games against such beings – your word, not mine.  I have no doubt you’ve started cults–”

“Oh, I have.  A great many cults, and yes, the bulk of them were cults of Tzeentch to some extent.  I am hardly alone in that among Inquisitors.  Entrapment is often an effective strategy, and I did not force people to join my congregations.  Anyone can lie, Teleos.  Deception does not constitute worship, and not all games are frivolous.  Their severity depends entirely on the stakes.”

“Do you deny being tempted by the promise of knowledge?”

“I do not accept promises from daemons.  Knowledge can be purchased in the warp just as it can in the Imperium, and there is other currency besides the soul.  I deal in wagers and in contracts, not in honeyed gifts.  The deals I have entered into are such that my creditors hold one another in balance, with none of them having sufficient claim above the others until various conditions are fulfilled.  None of them will ever get the chance to collect their alleged due, or if they do it will be too late.  I owe no allegiance to them.”

“Are you so confident of that?  You admit to making deals with daemons, and justify it on the basis you don’t intend to honour them?”

“A deal made in bad faith is no more than a wager in disguise.  The odds are as good as they can be, given what I must achieve.  If we would live in a Universe with meaningful choices, we must be prepared to place dice with it sometimes.”

“That sounds like something one of the gods you claim to reject might say.”

“On the contrary, gods do not gamble, or never intentionally.  They only wish to be seen as gamblers, never to take genuine risks.  This is doubly true of Tzeentch.  But even if you judge my every utterance to be a Tzeentchian aphorism, are all devious mortals then to be assumed servants of a devious god?  I would contend it is more reasonable to suspect the reverse.  It is possible to be prone to fits of rage without serving Khorne, but if mortals no longer felt that rage, where then would the Blood God be?  Their nature is at best a satirical mockery of our own, and at worst a perpetual act of cosmic plagiarism.  They neither embody nor own their respective affinities, they merely feed upon them.  Does every farmer serve the insects, in your eyes?”

“So your excuse for inciting heresy is to accuse Tzeentch of imitation?”

“Will you cry hubris on its behalf now?  You do seem to hold an awfully high opinion of these gods, for such an Emperor-fearing man.  The nature of my philosophy neither renders me their property, nor leaves room for any sympathy towards those who would enslave themselves.  My plans are my own.  Their complexity alone does not prove them purposeless, and that is what Tzeentch is, in the end.  A self-fulfilling prophet, planning without purpose; an idealised artist whose intended creation encompasses every mortal who exists, or ever will, reducing every one of us to so much raw material.  The irony being, of course, that if it ever finished its opus it would be forced to tear it down and start over.  There is little use in knowing everything for such a being, incapable as it is of achieving anything truly constructive with its knowledge.  Changer of Ways indeed…only in the sense that change as a constant is identical to absolute rigidity.”

“Well, I’ll give you this much – you do seem to hold an awfully low opinion of these gods, for such a damned heretic.  I can’t say I’m any closer to trusting you, however.”

“Then perhaps there is hope for you yet.”



=][=


Teleos had forgotten things.

The white room consisted of a single, circular wall, curving inwards above and beneath him to completely enclose the space.  The floor and ceiling were both deeply concave, with the room’s upper portion higher and narrower at its apex than the lower.  There were no edges or corners to be found.  Every smooth surface glowed faintly from within, and he cast no shadow here.  He stood in the centre of the bowl, the only level place to stand, turning slowly on the spot while he looked in vain for a door, a window, any aperture to explain how he had ended up in here and how he might escape.  There were no such openings to be seen.  He still wore his armour, still held the Force Staff in his right hand and the empty Blasphemer Cannon in his left.  Why was the cannon empty?  How did he know it was empty?  Why was he geared up for battle in the first place?  Something was badly wrong.  Visual enquiry having gotten him nowhere, he closed his eyes against the pointless whiteness and reached out tentatively with his mind. 

There was – nothing.  Just nothing, anywhere.  As if he floated untethered in an empty void, with even the outermost limits of his psychic awareness finding only a vacuum.  This patently was not the case, and it appeared he could not leave the room, therefore this was a cell, of the kind psykers could not see out of.  But if he was a prisoner, then why was he so heavily armed?  He opened his eyes, thought about putting down the empty gun and reaching up to remove his helmet.  A sudden conviction told him he absolutely should not, though he failed to remember why.  He decided to trust his instincts, lacking any context as he was.  Maybe force was the answer.  Already beginning to gather his will, this time concentrating on the staff, Teleos raised his arm and then brought it down hard, channelling as much energy as he could into the blow.  With a sound like a thunderclap, followed by a drawn out groaning creak like a ship in a storm, a single black crack raced across the floor, up the wall and nearly to the ceiling.  This was progress.  Feeling encouraged, he raised the staff again.

“It would only make things worse, of course.  This was a temporary construction, a placeless place, outside of which lay only death for creatures like itself.  It might instead have considered negotiation.”

The voice was entirely disembodied, faintly emotive yet with an air of detachment, as if telling a story to some unseen audience of eager strangers.  Teleos resolved not to look over his shoulder, though neither did he strike the floor again, saving what power he had in case his captors revealed themselves.  After a moment the speaker went on.

“It had been weighed and measured now.  For all its familiar flavour, it was not Balkoth after all.  It should perhaps have known better than to step into those particular shoes.  Its name was…Teleos.  Its thoughts were a patchwork quilt to hide beneath while monsters stalked the night.  This shell lacked elegance, and like all eggs its destiny was to shatter.  The remaining mysteries lay in how the pieces would fall, and what manner of beast might then emerge.”

It was a daemon, this much seemed certain.  A daemon familiar with Balkoth, so likely an enemy or a creditor, either of which boded ill.  He was in the warp, somehow.  Was this a nightmare?  It certainly felt like one.  And yet…and yet he knew the voice, knew it of old, though he could find no single memory of having heard it before.  The room was a giant egg, he realised, and he the yolk.  A word was floating up towards the surface of himself, born in the fathomless depths and heavy with significance.  A name and not a name, a mask behind a mask.  Fixing his gaze on the crack, more for want of anything else to look at than because he thought it the voice’s source, he replied as calmly as he could.  The words in his mouth felt as if someone else had composed them.

“Sairzrias…this was the name it preferred for itself.  It spoke the name of Balkoth with unintentional reverence, fearing the sound of the word as it feared the man.  Negotiation was impossible.  The Inquisitor encouraged it to do its worst.”

“And so, in trying imitate a higher consciousness, little Teleos broke apart, and out of him hatched a fool.”

As if some hidden lever had been pulled, the entire room suddenly imploded.  A shower of spinning shards assaulted him, the floor beneath him fell away and Teleos fell with it.  He found himself hurtling down a narrow chute whose sides were a mosaic of wetly shining human eyeballs, turning in unison to track his progress as he descended; emerged back into free fall over a fleshy pit filled with cackling monsters who reached up with clawed hands to receive him.  Like a worm into a bird’s nest, he plunged into their midst, a sea of electric pink faces, distended jaws and beady yellow eyes.  His armour’s shining aura burst into life as the plated boots made contact.  The daemon he landed on popped like a grape, releasing a burst of equally pink warpfire that licked and fizzed around him but could not penetrate.  From beneath his feet, blue hands reached up to scrabble at his legs, while the colour of the flames began to shift in turn.  The Horrors around him fell about pointing and laughing, briefly hysterical, before seeming to remember their original intention and closing from every side.  They lacked heads as such, their faces filling their torsos instead, and most of each face consisted of a yawning sharp-toothed grin, a direct line to whatever served as a stomach.  Their arms and eyes varied wildly in number, and they all seemed to be on fire to a greater or lesser degree.  Releasing his hold on the empty cannon, he took his staff in both hands and let loose a primal yell.  This much at least made sense.

A nova of white light exploded from the armour, scattering daemons on every side, and he swung the staff in a great sweeping arc that tore a path through their startled faces, meeting no discernable resistance as he charged into their midst.  Wherever he slew a Pink Horror, the ruin it left melted and reformed into a pair of scowling Blues, who then came at him with twice the ferocity of their forebears, holding him accountable for spoiling their fun.  When he struck them down in turn, they burst into yellow fire and from each a diminutive pair of Brimstone Horrors were born.  In practice there was rarely time to finish these before losing them in the melee.  The whole crowd clambered and fought amongst themselves to get close to him, only to be immolated or torn in half by the whirling staff as he turned and turned again, like a man with a burning brand beset by starving wolves.  The Force Armour hummed loud in his head as he drove it ever harder, moving at the speed of thought, bathing himself in a literal halo of hostile intent.  A living wave crashed right over him, shattering on impact like a breaker on the shore, leaving behind a yellow foam of dancing, burning sprites that threw looping threads of flame around him, forming snares from which he stepped as if through spiderwebs.  He stamped down furiously, the armour making hammers of his limbs that splattered the smallest daemons underfoot.  A Horror leapt on his back and he sent a surge of power down his spine, bisecting the gibbering thing.  Another tried to bite his face and he butted it hard with his horns, caving in its upper jaw completely.  If anything there were more daemons now than there had been when he started, though he was yet to suffer a wound through the armour.   The Force Armour, not Imperial, made in Fabraxis.  Fabraxis…  Urania.  Redacted!

As if the Emperor had heard his thoughts, awaiting only the remembered names before moving to intervene, a point of red light appeared suddenly in front of his face.  The Horrors all turned to look at it, the first united action he had seen them perform since collectively deciding to eat him.  Seizing his opportunity, he drew in a great vortex of warp energy, inhaling from all around himself like a swimmer preparing to dive.  Cracks were spreading from the red light, rifts in the fabric of the warp, through which a brighter light was pouring, a light beyond colour, an incandescent mirror of the darkness he had glimpsed outside the breaking shell.  The daemons surged forward again, making for the light this time, and Inquisitor Rahn exhaled long and loud, a trumpeter playing a final fanfare as his exit coalesced. 

“Nothing changes!”

His words became two-headed eagles that flew out in every direction, splitting and splitting again, multiplying in parody of the surrounding Horrors, a kaleidoscopic predatory dive, ploughing through daemons wherever they found them and continuing on, relentless, finally driving their talons deep into the walls of the pit.  A spreading puddle of frozen grey trailed in each eagle’s wake, creeping over the heaving dreamscape and turning all it touched to stone.  Horrors of every kind scampered aside in alarm or were fossilised where they stood.  Rahn reached out with an open hand, casting a hooked net of luminescent veins that seemed to catch upon the empty air and snag there, distorting his vision as he twisted and pulled, exposing layers of illusion for what they were.  Somewhere close at hand, a flock of songbirds began a mocking chorus that prickled his skin.  He did not turn to look for them.  Dragging a fistful of nightmares behind him, he dove into the open warp tunnel with a defiant, wordless howl.


=][=


“You are an absolute fething lunatic, Inquisitor.  I genuinely cannot believe what I just saw.”

“How much of that could you even see from the ship?”

“Oh, you’ll want to watch the vid-log.  I saw a damn fool landing a shuttle on the back of a giant daemon fish, and then burrowing his way inside it.  The same man is currently stood in front of me, having somehow caught the fish from the inside, conspicuously alive and hopefully not possessed.  You missed a hell of a show there after the warp tunnel opened.  Absolute.  Fething.  Lunacy, all the way.”

“Please, Ms Wysp, you’re crowding the Inquisitor.  I’m sure your incredulity at his recent exploits has been duly noted.”

“We didn’t really catch the fish, more like a chunk of it.  Enough to prevent the rest from holding together.  The Magos was the one who bound it, anyway.  I was in no state by then, even if I had known how.  It was – there was another daemon out there, I think it was driving the thing.  One that knew Balkoth.  It spoke to me.  It seemed disappointed I wasn’t him.”

“Does that surprise you, Inquisitor?”

Lancet’s tone was innocent, daring Rahn to comment on potential shades of meaning in his words.

“It leads me to question the wisdom of having released Bauchan’s daemonhost…at your instruction, I might add.  A man might almost suspect you intended to provoke a response with what we did on Tuvak.”

“Oh, perish the thought.  Another job well done in any case.  Now, I’m afraid I must get on – you literally cannot comprehend the volume of work I’m going to have to do to get us back on course.  Think about that while you’re casting aspersions on my good intentions.”

As Lancet walked away, his unusual brevity serving to underline his point, Teleos was left with Wysp, whose outburst regarding his survival was by far the most animated he had seen her to date, including while butchering cultists in the Tuvak spire.  Even now she was nearly bouncing with excitement, in contrast to Teleos himself, who felt like he’d been stripped naked, beaten with iron bars and then re-incarcerated in his suit of armour, somehow acquiring a brutal hangover in the process.  He hadn’t felt this bad, physically or mentally, since he first emerged from stasis.  Holding his helmet in one hand, he leaned heavily on the staff with the other, determined to keep hold of it until he made it back to his private rooms.  His loss of the Blasphemer Cannon had elicited no more than a despairing sigh from Urania, accompanied by more muttering about Necessary Evil.  The Magos Confractus had appeared nearly as drained as he felt himself, her various appendages drooping, her globular familiar hovering no higher than his waist. 

He had apparently lost consciousness soon after returning to Redacted, leaving her to complete the binding ritual, whose arcane workings she had somehow thrown together in the chamber surrounding the gate, preventing any further malevolence from escaping into the ship – or at least he hoped so.  His recollection of re-entry resembled being carried over a waterfall of multi-coloured shark-infested oil paint, then slammed against the riverbed far below and held there by the pressure of the falling liquid, fading slowly to black.  Whatever portion of the Fish he had managed to drag through with him now resided in the bloated body of a bizarre psychic servitor, itself a revelation as far as he was concerned, though apparently so much equipment to Urania.  Whatever the original organism had been, from the size of the thing he doubted it could have been human.  The new daemonhost currently resided in a massive tank she intended to move to the hold, submerged in a clear, viscous medium and tightly wrapped in intricately warded chains.  What visible flesh remained had already turned blue and begun growing new eyes when Teleos left her to it.  Wysp had evidently watched the original entity come apart from the outside on one of the screens, and from the state of the normally taciturn – servitor?  Could he really compare any thinking person to the creature in the tank? – he surmised it must have been a spectacular sight.  He wasn’t clear on the mechanics of how they could view the ship’s exterior in the warp without a Navigator, given his recent immersive experience, but the weight of that experience also discouraged him from questioning Urania or Lancet any further on the subject.  What he needed now was rest.

“Inquisitor?  That was – I mean you’re a lunatic, but…well…damn, is all.”

“Thank you, I think.  Very eloquent of you.”

“I mean it.  I still don’t trust you, but I’ll kick myself later if I don’t try and learn a little more about what in the Emperor’s name goes on in your head before you go and get heroically killed.  I think I might have to stop avoiding you – on a trial basis you understand.  I am supposed to be your bodyguard, ludicrous a proposition as that is.”

Perhaps irrationally, he found he felt slightly better.  Solid progress with two of the crew had to count as a good day on some level.  Then a wave of nausea crested and he willed himself back into motion, slurring something vaguely amiable in Wysp’s direction as he staggered off down the corridor.  He could hear her chuckling to herself behind him.  The daemon’s name throbbed in the back of his mind like an open wound…probably not a true name though, seeming far too short.  Sairzrias.  When had Balkoth told him that?  He could recall nothing else save the name, could no longer bring to mind the precise sound of its voice.  A nine-letter palindrome, it seemed distinctly Tzeentchian to him, while the Fish had made its own allegiance clear from the outset.  Having survived the ridiculous monstrosity, he remained concerned by the implications.  Had it been too easy to get away?  He had a sneaking feeling all this might have been nothing but a warning shot.  How powerful would an enemy need to be to so casually spend a monster that could threaten a warship?  Was Teleos a sacrifice?  A goat sent into the desert to die, carrying Balkoth’s sin?  Executing men like Bauchan was well and good, entirely in line with his duty and far from anathema to his personal preferences.  Being left to pay the spiritual tab incurred by a lifetime of daemonic bargains, however, and facing daemons potentially on a scale no Inquisitor had a hope of opposing…  He wasn’t afraid of fighting daemons, within reason, but neither was he Leman Russ come again.  The protection afforded by Balkoth’s sponsorship felt insubstantial now, as if the mighty Black Ship’s hull had been exposed as paper-thin.  A deceptively comfortable cloak of resignation tried to settle on his shoulders, though he managed to shrug it off this time.  He would not have agreed to certain death, nor yet damnation.  Would he?

When he made it back into his quarters, his first instinct was to make straight for the bed, but he froze halfway there, remembering the ever-present issue of the armour he still wore.  He made to begin removing it and stopped again – what if this were an illusion after all?  What if he were still outside, and the daemon wanted him out of the armour, to perish screaming in the boiling energy of the warp?  You already took off the helmet.  So he had.  He set it down on a side table, leaned the increasingly heavy Force Staff against the wall.  Began wrestling with a gauntlet, nearly gave up in frustration.  Once he had it off the rest of the pieces followed.  He donned a loose robe and replaced the armour carefully in the enormous unit intended for the purpose, somewhere between a shrine, a wardrobe and an iron maiden.  He had commandeered a team of servitors to drag this up from the armoury on the second day, having found he could think better while wearing the Force Armour than without it, and wanting it close at hand.  He was already feeling feeble and fragile without it now, for all the psychic toll it had taken on him today.  Like most Inquisitors, Rahn was hardly short on physical or mental strength, even without equipment, but it was remarkable how quickly one could become accustomed to truly superhuman abilities when they were available on demand.  Given he had never worn the armour before Tuvak, however, he held firm in the opinion he needed all the practice with it he could get.  It had already saved his life, and would no doubt be equally necessary for whatever came next.

Somewhere in the course of his fumbling routine, he found his desire for sleep had been blunted, opting instead for a comfortable chair.   His body was weary beyond measure but his mind felt raw and tender, unable to fully relax.  How long had he been awake?  Was it even the notional evening yet?  Was there something important he was forgetting?  He nearly laughed aloud at the last thought.  Of course there damn well was.  Better to ask, was there anything important he remembered?  The awareness of missing pieces was a constant companion.  Suddenly eager for distraction, something to draw him out of himself and silence his personal daemons, he reached for Lancet’s data-slate.  The Conclave Archive was heavy going at times but he still had a lot to learn.  Perhaps there would be mention of Sairzrias, though he felt sure he’d seen none so far.  No doubt Balkoth could have told him more.  The slate still held his place in the late stages of a jumbled, incomplete account of a battle between various factions, centred on the monastery of Delan’s Point.  The Archive raised more questions than it answered, yet the Point had been attacked by powerful daemons so maybe there was something there he had missed.  Tellingly, what minutes there were from the meeting of the occupying Inquisitorial cell made mention of Balkoth himself.  He couldn’t quite believe how abruptly the account just…stopped.  Was this selective censorship Balkoth’s hand at work, or some daemonic claw?  Was there a difference, functionally speaking?  His speculation subsided as he settled back in his chair, sinking incrementally into a fitful slumber.  The data-slate slid softly from his hands.


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on June 06, 2020, 06:15:00 PM

Ghosts of the Past, Volume IV


M41.999 – Delan’s Point Monastery, Orbiting Delan’s Reach, Delan System


“Mantis!  Danger!  Find another way!”

The man calling himself Mantis halts abruptly at the sound of the shout, tuning out the chaos around him as allies and underlings jostle on past.  The old psyker’s mind is beset by flashes of vicarious sensation, on fire with a thousand conflicting impulses, most of them not his own.  As he reverses his course and pushes back against the current, the still-growing crowd pools around his lieutenants, Scarab and Python – Inquisitors both, though like Mantis himself, Python can longer claim the title before his more orthodox peers without risking execution, the supposed crimes of his past a permanent stain upon his abandoned former name.  A crisis like the claustrophobic apocalypse currently unfolding around them should be familiar for such men, and the milling mass of lesser Mentirians, most of them soldiers, clerks or scientists, flock to their leaders like sheep to rams. 

Throughout the broken monastery of Delan’s Point, various affiliated party leaders, many of them current or former Inquisitors, are gathering what they can of their retinues and making for the shuttle bays.  The psychic clamour of their collective, fractious urgency mirrors the babble of raised voices on a far grander scale to Mantis’s highly sensitive mind.  But a cry of warning has reached his ears in the voice of Karius Prelune, otherwise known as Truthsayer, a man whose milky eyes perceive the currents of the warp in a far more vivid, literal sense than he can.  Beset by daemons as they are, it cannot be ignored.  When he reaches Karius, the mutant preacher is out of breath and spring-tight with tension.  He has seen Mantis coming of course, and delivers the bad news immediately when his friend leans in.

“It’s all green up ahead – the worst kind of green, and it’s coming our way.  We’re going to need to go around it if we want any of these civilians to make it as far as the shuttles.”

Without asking questions, Mantis turns back to his people and augments the rasp of his voice into a booming psychic command.

“Alright, Mentirians!  This is not the end.  There are daemons ahead and closing fast.  I want any not-combatants to follow Agent Truthsayer, he’ll find you a safer route to the shuttle bay.  From there you’ll rendezvous in orbit with the Profitable Venture and follow his lead until further notice.  Anyone ready to fight, form up on Scarab and prepare for immediate contact.  We will be going through them.  Scarab!  I want a dozen of your best with Truthsayer to protect the civilians.  Go!”

Face set in a frown of concentration, he addresses Karius, voice low this time.

“I’m sorry to put this on you, my friend.  It seems the sanctuary I offered you has come to nothing, and the help you offered me against Amon Dull might get you killed before the quest has even begun.  But war has come too soon for any of us, and now I must ask you for sanctuary instead.  Many of these people aren’t warriors, any more than the families you saved on Hanoth.  They’re academics, believers in an ideal, and they deserve better than to die forgotten here.  I entrust their care to you.  I’ve never met a better man.”

Karius reaches out with his spiny, malformed arm to squeeze the old man’s shoulder.

“Nor I, my friend.  Mentirius would be proud.”

Then he sees Bess and it all goes suddenly wrong.  She’s behind Karius, cradled in the lower arms of Krazur, his steadfast six-limbed companion, a veteran of Prelune’s cause.  Eyes wide, breathing shallow, she’s visibly trembling with fear – the front line of a battle with the daemonic angels of Hate incarnate is no place for a teenage girl, much less a soul as bright and gentle as Elizabeth Dowel.  If there is any violence in her, he can’t see it.  Delan’s Point has become just such a warzone, albeit unexpectedly, and it was Mantis who brought Bess down here.  Out of selfishness, no less. 

News of the twin massacres at the former Mentirian headquarters, Wisdom’s Hold and Fortitude’s Hold, had nearly broken him when he received it.  During the subsequent voyage to Delan’s Point, itself a favour from Karius whose vessel had carried him here, only the patient kindness of a mutant girl had saved him from going mad.  Cursed by an uncaring galaxy to ever be defined by her disfiguring scabs in the eyes of most of humanity, and burdened with a childhood menaced by literal daemons of her own, she nevertheless had sympathy to spare for a guilt-sick old Inquisitor.  In rising from his despair to rally what remained of the network, Mantis had stood upon the slight shoulders of Bess, who had borne the weight willingly, without complaint.  When they arrived at the monastery where the Conclave against Amon Dull would be held, he still hadn’t felt ready to face his peers alone, and she had immediately agreed to accompany him.  Her mere presence was a balm for the spirit.  Up on the Profitable Venture somewhere, no doubt beleaguered by the chaos surely unfolding in space, children would be screaming for her now.  In all likelihood they would never see her again.  Hector, you are such a fool.  Mentirius would be ashamed.

“M-Mantis?  You’re not staying with us?  I thought–”

“Suffer not the mutant to live.”

The angel comes at them from behind, gliding like a monstrous eagle, singing in a perfectly pitched tenor as it homes in on the group.  Its alabaster wing-tips pass cleanly through the walls on either side, ignoring the marble surfaces completely.  In every respect it is the image of an Imperial saint, an impossibly beautiful androgynous human shining with celestial light, a character stolen from some priceless fresco and hurled rudely into reality.  A stranger to this monastery, avatar of a different kind of faith.  There is a burning spear in one immaculate hand.  He knows as soon as he sees it that it’s coming for Bess.  Somehow the daemons know what will hurt him the worst.  Thousands of lives they’ve taken already, lives whose care was his responsibility, but the servants of Amon Dull are relentless.  They won’t stop until they have it all.

“All of you, down!”

Karius and Krazur dive forward, the latter curling all four arms around Bess in a protective hug.  Mantis takes a single step to stand between them and the descending angel.  He’s nearly three hundred years old and feels every day like a stone around his neck.  His burgundy robes are tailored to suggest a suit and there’s a briefcase in his left hand.  He hasn’t worn his Inquisitor’s rosette in decades.  But Mentirius was a psyker like no other, and he chose his students well.  In truth, Mantis fears what he himself might do if he ever lost control.  He always has.  But in this moment, the universe shrinks down to three simple elements: the old man, his friends, and the angel.  He takes a single steadying breath and raises his open right hand. 

“Suffer.  Not.  False.  Gods!”

The daemon stays frozen for a moment, caught in the teeth of the blast, a spear-length away from impact.  When the light dies it leaves no sound, no trace, no falling ash behind it.  It simply winks out of existence, with only the faintest of echoes in the warp to mark its passing.  Meanwhile a colossal energy wave accelerates away from Mantis, flooding the space from floor to ceiling, obliterating everything in its path as it hurtles down the corridor.  It sears every surface black for as far as the eye can see, before finally fading away.  Suddenly drained, his vision swimming, the old man lurches and nearly falls, but Python is there beside him now, taking the weight.  Taking his briefcase from arthritic fingers.  Mantis leans on him gratefully, wheezing.  Should have been stricter with the rejuvenant regime.  Always so busy.  Still so much left to get done. 

“Karius!  We’re out of time.  Good luck my friend.  Look after Bess.”

“No!”

Karius and Krazur are on their feet again, an expression of awe on the face of the former, while the alien features of his Vortunian comrade are unreadable.  Bess has wriggled free and is on her own feet now too, unsteady as a newborn lamb.  She looks unexpectedly ferocious.

“I’m staying with Mantis.  Don’t argue, please, I’ll be safer here with you.  Krazur, you can’t keep carrying me.  You have to focus on Karius.  The Society needs him and there are more of those things out there.”

“It needs you too, Bess.”

“I know, and I’m sorry…so does Mantis, I can’t just leave him like this.  Thank you for saving me back there.  I’m sure we’ll meet up again soon.  Karius?  Please tell the children…tell them I’m okay, and I’ll see them as soon as I can.  Mantis will take good care of us.  You saw what he can do.”

Something of Mantis dies there in that moment.  His mind still reeling from the rushing torrent of power, senses scorched like the monastery walls by the sheer force he just unleashed, he somehow forgets to argue.  Faces and voices blur together for a time.  Before he knows it they’re moving again, the group divided according to his earlier orders with what feels like horrible finality.  Ahead of him Scarab is leading the Mentirian war party, his shaved head bobbing visibly above the others, raised high by the power armour that makes giants out of men.  His armour is gun-metal grey, absent emblems or iconography, as if taken unfinished from a factory line.  All around Mantis are soldiers now, with the exception of Python – a scholar, if a tolerable psyker – and the determined, fragile mutant girl he’s leading to her death.  These two are literally carrying his weight, one under each of his shoulders.  Not far ahead, he hears a joyful chorus raised in song.  They sing of hate and damnation, the vileness of the other and the futility of contesting fate.  The roar of gunfire adds its voice to theirs.

Mentirius forgive me.  What have I done?


=][=


Inquisitor Leon Grisbane is having a very bad year.  It began with the battle for a planet called Gavaria, a conflict lost by the Imperial forces of the Order Vampiris and swiftly followed by a ruthless purge of the Order itself.  He escaped this purge while convalescing aboard ship after injuries sustained in the battle, but has since found himself on the run from the rest of the Inquisition.  Now he is embroiled in a conflict with an already godlike daemon, apparently poised to become a major deity and consume much of humanity in the process.  He hasn’t seen his wife and sons since before the war and has every reason to believe daemons in the guise of angels might even now be hunting everyone he loves.  Similar apparitions are currently chasing he and a number of other desperate would-be heroes through a maze of Gothic architecture, while the walls tremble around them and chunks of falling marble shatter in their midst. 

Most recently, he has just been told that his personal battle cruiser Fall of Night, whose effortless acquisition so early in his career does seem suspiciously fortunate looking back, has opened fire on the fortress-monastery where he and his allies are currently stranded.  This in turn means that Sophie, Leon’s chief throne agent and the most important person in his world after Sara and the boys, is either dead, held captive beyond his reach or has betrayed him and everyone else on Delan’s Point.  One way or another, she is lost to him too now and only the thought of his family’s faces keeps him moving.  He will ask Junious to send someone to his estate.  Sara can look after herself.  Maybe they already got out… 

Leon narrowly misses having his skull caved in by a plummeting stone bust of some forgotten saint.  The angelic choir screams sonorous hate far behind him, and yet also far too close – it resonates in his aching bones, and how he loathes them all.  All he wanted was to serve mankind, to be an Inquisitor.  It all seemed so easy at first.  Leon Grisbane is thirty-eight years old and unlikely to see thirty-nine.  Many at the Delan’s Point Conclave have lived for hundreds of years, thousands if one counts the Eldar.  Long enough to see generations of grandchildren come and go.  Sebastian and Mikal Grisbane are six and eight years old respectively.  They barely know their father.  Leon has fought in one war, in which he nearly died in battle, achieving nothing, and was presumably excommunicated in absentia along with the rest of his Order.  His career is over.  He’s a hunted man.  He doesn’t care.  All he wants is to return to some kind of home.  Instead he is bound for daemon worlds and worse, if he survives this place at all.  He isn’t sure when his nose started bleeding. 

“Leee-on…  Leeeee-on…”

He doesn’t hear it with his ears; he feels it in his gut, diffusing inexorably into his veins and throbbing in time with his pulse.  He knows the taste of it immediately.  Sophie is here in the monastery and not at all okay.  Her psychic aura precedes her, an expanding maelstrom of savage distress shot through with bursts of hopeless merriment that make his blood run cold.  It almost overpowers him.  For over five years she has helped him train his own mind, honing his meagre psychic talents into an Inquisitorial tool.  Still his will is like a cringing kitten now, driven before a raging, keening lioness, herself driven mad by pain.  One careless swipe could end him, his consciousness smeared across the void like blood across a wall.  Never one to abandon a comrade, Leon changes course.

“Sophie!   Tell me where you are!”

In the chaos of explosions, gunfire and screaming, he can’t hear himself yell the words.  All the same she seems to hear him, and the inner voice gets louder as he runs. 

“This way, Leon…oh, it hurts, it hurts…”

The Inquisitor kicks down a pair of lacquered doors, his customised bolt pistol raised, a battle cry on his lips.  Sophie stands calmly before him, her once-emerald dress splashed liberally with vital fluids, a pile of several twisted corpses bringing her height level with his own.  The toes of one bare foot are toying idly with the nose on a dead man’s face.  A mane of golden hair drifts behind her as if in a gentle breeze, perhaps the third time he’s ever seen it unbound.  She spreads her bloody hands in welcome and smiles a beatific, broken smile.  Her eyes are astonishingly green.  Her lips move out of sync with her voice.

“Hello, Leon.  I’m so glad to see you.  I have such wonderful news.”

The silent lips say “I’m sorry”

There is – a space.

Inquisitor Grisbane is determined to see the mission through.  First Inquisitor Junious is a great man, an inspiration.  He will need brave men behind him to defeat Amon Dull.  With a renewed surge of purpose, Grisbane reaches out with his thoughts and finds the white glow of his leader’s soul.  Without stopping to wonder how he got separated, he runs after it as fast as he can.  Nothing else matters but their cause. 

Somewhere behind him a woman laughs.  Somewhere behind the laughter, she weeps.


=][=


“It’s him, I know it is!  I’d know his damn portals anywhere.  This was always one of his favourite conceits.  It’s a trap, and our only way out.  It could lead anywhere, certainly nowhere good.  Typical Balkoth.  Junious?”

“As you say, it’s our only way out.  What shuttles we had will be long gone by now, even if we could break through.  No one has seen Alundirel since the attack started.  Arkhan must be holding Bu’Ran at bay but after what it’s done already, I don’t think there’s any stopping the thing.  Still, it will take some time to get all these people through.  Not all of them are going to like the idea.  I take it you want to go first, Amaurn?”

“I go last.  I’m not about to hurry for him.  The strongest should hold the exit.”

“Well, I guess I stand corrected.  Wait while I speak to them then.”

“Agent Hammer – First Inquisitor Junious – about the portal.”

A tired voice, that of a very old man, but resolute.  The speaker, a former Inquisitor and the current head of the clandestine network loosely termed Mentirians, stands politely awaiting attention.  A leather briefcase dangles loosely at the end of one scrawny arm, while the other wrinkled hand fidgets with a silver mask resembling an ancient Terran insect – a creature once known as a mantis.  He gazes steadily at Junious.  His eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep, the irises a striking cobalt blue. 

“I think I’ll stay.  It turns out I want a word with Muundus Vhogart.  You get these people through.  They need their leader now, and that isn’t me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  You don’t have to do that.  We have time.  Come with us, Mantis.  We’re going to need you on the other side.”

“I’m afraid you need me on this side more.  I recently watched Vhogart condemn a world to needless death for the sake of his manufactured legend.  We could have saved Hanoth Primus.  The legacy I was custodian of has already been all but destroyed.  Now he’s come to finish what Amon Dull started.  I have no doubt the daemon is behind it, behind him – he wants Sargoth most of course, but he’ll follow you through that portal, him and Bu’Ran both, and all their angels with them.  You’ll be caught between them and whatever Balkoth has waiting for you on the other side.  I’m not going to let it happen.  Someone has to hold the line.  This is it, you realise?  This is why Mentirius chose me.  This is what I can do.  I understand it now.  I think he always knew it might come to this.”

“You can’t fight the Puritan Council by yourself, never mind the angels!  There are hundreds of them, that we’ve seen.  And Bu’Ran…  Do you really think Mentirius meant you to kill yourself?  Amon Dull has nothing to lose here, and everything to gain.  It didn’t even come in person.  What do you think this will do to Python, to the rest of your people?  What about your mutant friends?”

“It will keep them alive.  For a little longer at least.  They will understand in the end.  Uh…please excuse me for a moment.”

With a resolute expression, Mantis approaches Bess.  His face softens with every step until he looks almost overcome.  He visibly pulls himself together as he reaches her.  Among all the weaponry on display in the crowded passage, his briefcase looks incongruous.  Almost as out of place here as the unarmed mutant girl, standing alone in their midst. 

“Bess…”

“Please don’t.  I heard you say…you don’t have to do that.  You shouldn’t.  People need you.  You aren’t just a name and a sword someone gave you.  You’re a good person who should live.”

“I am so sorry, Bess.  I’m so sorry about all of this.  I never meant for you to get caught up in…  This isn’t how I thought it would go.  But I have to do this now.  It’s who I am.  I…take this, please.  My briefcase.  It isn’t much but I want you to have it.  It should at least serve you better than a mask or a sword.  I know it did me.  You saved me, in every way that counts.  Don’t ever forget that.  You’re the equal of any of these people.  I need you to go with Junious – I trust him, and you should too.  There are hard days ahead but he will protect you, and he’ll need you as much as I have with the burden he’ll have to bear.  Stay with him, and stay hopeful, please – just stay you, Bess, whatever happens.  Don’t end up like the rest of us.  Soothe the restless children.”

Bess is terrified and tearful but she nods, hesitates, hugs Mantis briefly but fiercely.  When she breaks away she buries her face her hands and cannot look back up at him.  He leaves the briefcase sitting awkwardly at her feet, crosses back to Junious looking every inch the condemned man.  His voice is frail with emotion as he holds out the mantis mask.

“Keep her safe, Junious.  Keep her close.  She’s everything Mentirius fought for.  If there’s any hope left for his legacy, for what any of us tried to build…Bess has to survive.  The daemon can’t have her, do you hear me?  Take this too, it’s yours now.  You don’t have to wear it.  I think maybe they will need a Hammer more than a Mantis in the days to come.  Just make it mean something.”

Junious feels events overtaking him, control slipping, Amon Dull laughing in the distant dark.  Even with the augmented strength of his armour, he feels the dreadful weight of the mask in his hand.  The other hand still grips his hammer.  Junious sets his jaw.

“I will.  And Bess will survive, I swear it.  I’ll bring as many of us through this as I can.  We’ll see the other side of all this horror and we’ll build something good.  It is never too late, right?”

“Thank you.  I wish I could have known you better, sir.  I was never much of a leader, lost in my predecessor’s shadow.  But you…you I could believe in.”

Divested of the ethereal weight of the mask, Mantis stands a little straighter as he turns to address the wider group.  When he speaks again his tones carry clearly, every inch the commander now.

“Mentirians!  Hammer – Junious – is now your highest authority.  I have resigned.  I claim no title any more.  My name is Hector Galas, once of the Inquisition.  Briefly in my youth I had the privilege to be a student of Mentirius, and later his appointed successor, for all anyone but him could ever fill those shoes.  It has been my honour to serve with you all.  Many of you have great deeds yet to accomplish.  You are the last and only line of defence against Amon Dull.  I, however, will be the last line against Muundus Vhogart.  I will give him his Titus Sargoth, since he wants a reckoning so badly.  I myself would have died on Hanoth Primus with the rest of Vhogart’s victims, had not Titus intervened.  Now it is my turn to intervene.  Make no mistake!  There will be worse things than the Puritan Council, or even the accursed Bu’Ran, on the other side of that portal.  You are not escaping battle; you are charging into it.  But take heart, my friends.  You will be well led by Junious, and you will not be followed.  I will make my stand here – for Mentirius, for Hanoth, and for you.”

“Python stands with Mantis.”

A neat, officious man in dark purple robes steps forward brandishing a force rod.  He wears no visible armour and appears absurdly lightly armed.

“Damnit man, I just said–”

“With respect, sir, you just resigned.  I don’t take orders from you.  Python stands.  In fact I also resign.  What was done to Wisdom’s Hold…  If you are to play Titus Sargoth, let them face Karius Prelune too.”

“You are firm in this?”

“I am.”

Junious is turning away, face dark, when Scarab steps forward to speak.  He does not look to Mantis yet, instead addressing Junious.  His ever-thunderous expression is especially intense.

“Lord Hammer, sir…Agent Scarab requests permission to remain as a rearguard.”

“Not you too…  Don’t ask me this.  In fact don’t call me that either!  This is a death sentence.  Never mind Muundus Vhogart, Bu’Ran is still in the damn building.  It killed a Solitaire.  Do you think you three will fare any better?”

“I gotta do it, Junious.  You know me.  The Puritan Council killed my brother, and over what?  I owe them a bloody nose at the very least.  If Vhogart himself is here…  Besides, the old man’s right, someone has to hold the line.  What you’re doing is too important.  Neither of those two are getting any younger and I’m wearing a suit of power armour here.  Our people died on my watch too.  This is the least I can do, damnit!  This is redemption.”

“Why is it always about redemption?  You don’t need redemption!  You did everything you could.  You think I want any of you dying on my watch either?  Look at what’s become of this place!  I brought us here, remember?  This was my meeting.  Curse you, if this is what you want then take Reprieve.  I’ll need it back when you’re done.  Come with us now, or take it until this is over.  Don’t even think about resigning.”

A hug is not a practical gesture between armoured men, nor dignified for leaders in the heat of battle.  They settle on a warrior’s clasp, wrist to wrist, and Scarab accepts the great hammer.  His friend’s heart sinks as he hands it over. 

“Well, good luck then, brother.  Report back when the mission is done.”

“Good luck to you, brother.  The way I see it, we get the easy job here.  I’ll see what I can do about bringing your hammer back.  Bring down Amon Dull for us, eh?  Make it count.”

“Then permission reluctantly granted, Scarab.  I – we – won’t forget this.”

Scarab moves to stand with Python, flanking Mantis.  The latter has drawn Redemption, once the sword of a Grey Knight Justicar, later and perhaps more famously the sword of Mentirius in his final years.  Adopted as a symbol of his personal spiritual salvation, ultimately sacrificed along with his soul to save a friend in peril.  A symbol now of sacrifice itself.  Junious’s own mentor, Jaydred Taren, had been that imperilled friend.  He in turn had given up his own life shortly after, dying with Redemption still in hand, though his end had come not facing the apocalyptic malevolence of Amon Dull, but the banal evil of the Puritan Council.  The sword is four feet long, double-edged with a wide rune-etched blade and an embellished golden cross-guard – a heavy weapon and a work of art, like all nemesis force swords.  Mantis seems to breathe easier with it in his hand.  He raises his eyebrows at Scarab.

“Aye, me too.  Don’t try to argue old man, I’ve had enough from our new Lord Hammer.  This is how it is.  I guess I’ll play First Inquisitor Junious, since it sounds like we’re going in costume.  He’s always been a hero of mine.  I’ve got the hammer for it already, see?”

“Thank you, gentlemen.  Both of you…words fail me.  It has been an honour.”

“I think you said that earlier.  Are we suiting up?”

With the slightest furrow of the old man’s brow, colours and shapes reform around the three figures until Lord Inquisitor Titus Sargoth, alleged Arch-heretic, stands flanked by notorious mutant Magus Karius Prelune and radical ringleader First Inquisitor Junious.  Redemption becomes a crimson daemon sword.  Only Reprieve remains unaffected.  Soldiers begin appearing then, a motley assortment of psychic simulacra, many of whose faces and regalia resemble those of meeting attendees.  Within moments the tunnel is crowded with armed men and women; even a few Aeldari warriors in tall and fearsome helms. 

“How long will the illusions hold, sir?”

“You don’t have to call me sir, Python.  You said as much yourself.”

“All the same sir.”

“The illusions will hold as long as I do.  By then I don’t imagine it will matter.”

As one the three men turn, putting their backs to the portal.  From around the corner, the raging sounds of battle are drawing closer.  Someone is bellowing something, their voice largely unintelligible, although the word ‘heresy’ comes through clearly enough.  The monastery shakes, fragments of stone falling from the sealing in a billowing cloud of dust.  The conjured squad part unbidden, falling in behind the trio as they advance down the tunnel without further hesitation. Somewhere back in the dust-cloud, Balkoth’s warp gate ripples and distorts as the first of the cell step through. 

Scarab-Junious hefts Reprieve in both hands, activating the power field.  The ornate two-handed hammer glows a gentle white.  Mantis-Sargoth follows suit with the faux-daemonic Redemption, the sword’s power field an icy blue, while hidden force circuitry carries silver tongues of psychic power up and down its length.  After a moment the energy turns an angry red to match the rest of the illusion.  Python-Prelune simply extends his rod like a pointing finger and takes a steadying breath. 

“For the fallen”, says Scarab.

“For Bess”, says Mantis.

“For the dream”, says Python.

They round the corner together.


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on June 06, 2020, 06:37:18 PM

“Vhogart!  You have broken into my home, killed my comrades and allied yourself with Amon Dull.  I call you to account!”

“Who in the Emperor’s name are you meant to be?  Move aside, heretic.  Nothing will stand between Sargoth and the Emperor’s justice!”

It occurs to Scarab that the puritanical enemies of the Delan’s Point cell must be very badly informed, to have come here without knowing the face of their enemy’s leader.  Cloaked in his Junious disguise, he intended to draw as much of their fire as he could, being the only one of the three Mentirian officers dressed to withstand a bolter shell.  He therefore drew clear of his elder comrades as soon as they saw the enemy, roaring his challenge and trying to shield them with his armoured body.  As it turns out, the spear-point of Puritan Council strike-force, comprising a trio of Inquisitors geared for war with a menacing entourage of Adeptus Astartes supermen, appear almost universally focused on the old man, who remains in the guise of Titus Sargoth.  They come close to ignoring Scarab, staring venomously past him at the visage of the so-called Arch-Heretic.  This feels unfair to him, as well as tactically disadvantageous.  Surely they should be after Junious above all?  For all Lord Inquisitor Sargoth has become a rallying point for disillusioned Inquisitorial radicals in recent months, the man barely spent twenty-four hours on Delan’s Point and was among the first to flee when Bu’Ran and his angels arrived.  This was never his stronghold, and Delan’s Point was never about politics – this had been a cell convened in the name of unity against a daemon.  Now Scarab can’t help wondering if these enemies of Sargoth would have come here at all, if Mantis had not invited the maverick to attend.  This is where trusting vainglorious Xanthite agitators gets you.  The Nexus Schism was less than ten years ago.  Did Mentirius never have time to pass on that particular lesson?  And then it hits him.  Where is Vhogart?

A giant in golden power armour strides forward in the lead, cutting a figure as grandiose and overblown as Scarab’s own suit is drab and functional – so far, so Muundus Vhogart.  But this is not him.  Scarab has studied images of known Puritan Council members, as a priest studies Horus the Betrayer; has hung their portraits in the shooting range at Fortitude’s Hold and torn each of them to shreds with a heavy stubber.  He knows every feature perfectly, and the face within this avenging titan’s dark red hood is that of Inquisitor-General Tyran, the so-called Oculi Dei – alleged Imperial prophet, rumoured Living Saint, widely thought of as the closest to a moderating influence Vhogart’s faction possesses.  A true believer and a wise head all in one, or so the story goes.  Tyran carries a great hammer of his own, almost a twin to Reprieve, heavy with purity seals – evidently another holy relic, though Scarab has no idea of its name or history.  A halo of warm yellow light surrounds him.  Behind him follows an honour guard of Astartes officers, their blue and gold armour and red-plumed helmets likely indicating an Ultramarine successor Chapter.  One of them is a Brother-Captain, and could surely kill Scarab and both his companions single-handed, if not for the unknown variable of Mantis and Python’s psychic abilities.  Perhaps he could do it anyway.  Nevertheless the Captain appears slightly shorter, a little slighter of frame than the Inquisitor-General himself, as do his Brother-Marines – surely impossible, and yet this is what Scarab sees.  Was even the famously statuesque Vhogart ever such a behemoth?  Suspended above Tyran, a softly glowing angelic silhouette flickers in and out of sight, accepted or unnoticed by the rest of the strike-force.  The apparition hovers weightlessly, a saintly female face coming briefly into focus, long enough to smile coyly down at Scarab and shoot a wink his way.  And lo, Our Lord’s Champion did take to the field, and he was resplendent to behold, the angel seems to say.

Two more of the Puritan Council follow closely, keeping pace, moving to guard Tyran’s flanks as he advances.  The man on his right wears a heavy suit of ornate artificer armour, masked and cloaked, his face an expressionless metal visage resembling a frowning skull – a grim Gothic statue cast in black and silver steel, save for his voluminous cape, which is an eyeball-searing shade of red.  He carries a power sword in one brass-taloned bionic fist, a bolt pistol in the other, each of his armaments constituting a further boast of the heights of Imperial craftsmanship.  None of this identifies the man as surely as a human face, but going by the unmissable presence of several Iron Hands marines at his back, one of them a full Iron Father by the look of him, Scarab judges this to be Maximus Sinister – an Inquisitor with whom he’s had little contact, even through the astropathic Conclave, but knows by reputation.  A rotten core of cackling sadist in a cold bionic shell.  As if to punctuate his ghastly image, an emaciated woman ensconced in an elaborate pacifier helm follows at his heels like a dog.  Her eyes are down, movements sluggish – likely an arco-flagellant, presumably created from one of the Puritan’s enemies, or perhaps a former lover.  His kind are all the same.

On Tyran’s left stands Inquisitor Heinrik von Helsing, screaming imprecations over the whir of his chainsword, goateed visage contorted in a mask of hatred, literally frothing slightly at the corners of his mouth – it is from him that all the shouting has been coming.  His armour is a suit of crimson carapace, and while this is finely tooled and liberally decorated, its lack of powered servos or heraldic pauldrons reduces him to a shrieking goblin besides his towering fellows, the only Inquisitor in the strike-force so exposed.  He brings with him a trio of lithe syn-skinned Death Cultists in traditional red and black, their chainblades snarling in time with his own, and a third group of Astartes officers, their heraldry unfamiliar to Scarab’s eye, including another Captain.  Overflowing with apparently boundless energy, von Helsing punctuates every yell with a blast of fire from his hand flamer, wasting fuel carelessly, heating up the air.  A disgusting apparition. 

Scarab’s personal judgements are beside the point, however, for Bu’Ran’s angels are surely beginning to converge on this confrontation, and when he looks into the lead Inquisitor’s mismatched eyes – one of them bionic, the other deeply human, if utterly devoid of common humanity – he finds them both faintly glowing with a familiar, matching shade of hateful green.  The angel attending Tyran makes immediate sense in context – this was planned from the beginning then.  Amon Dull has subverted the Puritan Council, or some of it.  Mantis was right.  The old man is speaking now, even his voice an echo of Sargoth, cutting across von Helsing’s ceaseless diatribe. 

“Tyran?  What is this?  I never thought that you…where is Muundus Vhogart?  Surely this can’t be – but the angels are – you, you…”

‘Sargoth’ begins to stutter and Tyran cuts him off, with all the calm finality of a hanging judge.

“I see you in there, you know.  You cannot hide from me.  My eyes are open now, more open than ever before.  Muundus has returned to Holy Terra.  I am the Emperor’s Voice here, and I name you, your servants and your master apostates; heretics; traitors of the very worst kind.  As if your foulness were not already known to all, this sordid lair is rotten with the minions of Charax the Eternal.  There can be no defence.  You will all be–”

“You warp-damned hypocrite!”

Mantis again, in his own voice this time, vocal cords strained close to breaking.  A writhing, incandescent ball of psychic fury rockets out of him along with the exclamation, narrowly misses hitting Tyran in the face and sails over his head to collide with the guardian angel.  She opens her mouth as if to speak and explodes like a flash grenade.  The false Titus Sargoth bounds past Scarab with astonishing speed and lunges at Tyran with his blade, all the rage and despair of the last Mantis, and of the forgotten Hector Galas, Excommunicate Traitoris, given singular focus at last.  All around them, the old man’s illusory army of psychic apparitions are likewise bearing down, drawing the Astartes to intercept.  Amon Dull’s Champion is unfazed by the attack, parrying with such naked force he might have torn the old man’s arm off, if not for the torrent of warp energy surely coursing through his veins.  On the far side of the two combatants, von Helsing has broken into an eager sprint, discharging a gout of searing promethium in Python’s direction.  Close at hand, a melodious chorus of religious doggerel heralds a fresh onslaught of angels, coming to pour further oil on the fire.  But Sinister and the Iron Father are coming right at Scarab now, forcing him to look to himself.

Scarab is not a psyker, so the full might of Reprieve is denied to him – nevertheless, it remains a two-handed warhammer with a power field capable of burning through almost anything, and he remains a fighter who lives for the din of battle.  As ever in moments like this, he flings wide the trap door in the pit of his head and releases the inner daemon – his ugliest memories of the Order Vampiris purge, and the untimely, unjustified, agonising death of his twin at the hands of men just like these.  The end of the Inquisitors Palici, and the birth of a half-man called Scarab from the ashes left behind.  The fall of Gavaria, the human population rounded up to be penned and milked for their blood by the Koldoan empire.  The massacre at Fortitude’s Hold, an attack he failed to predict or prevent, led by a horned man he failed to engage, forcing him to flee with the meagre few souls he could save.  All the Mentirians he has seen die screaming in the last hour alone, men and women who trusted in his protection, whittled down to near extinction here, trampled by the relentless jack-booted march of events.  Cataclysm on top of cataclysm.  Laughing tricksters making jokes out of life and death.  The sheer black-hearted wrongness of it all.  Emotions too wild and powerful to tame, forced down and compressed to a hyper-dense state, now released in a cataclysmic surge.  Borne on a cresting wave of adrenaline, he screams his brother’s name as he charges to meet his doom.  He faces an older Inquisitor and a veteran Space Marine, both encrusted with bionic enhancements and in better armour than his own, to say nothing of the arco-flagellant or the rest of the squad behind them.  Nothing banishes fear like the certainty of destruction.  He knows he’s a dead man, but he swings the hammer with realistic expectations – that maybe, if he’s lucky, he can at least take Sinister with him.  One less stain on the Inquisition’s tainted soul.

Scarab ducks his shoulder, veering aside just as the bolt pistol roars, blowing fragments from the corridor wall behind him.  He pours his momentum into the opening strike, but Sinister’s sword comes up to meet Reprieve, servos whirring in the artificer armour as he blocks the blow one-handed, the power field in each weapon crackling and sparking as they lock together.  For a moment the warriors stand frozen in place, tongues of energy dancing around them.  Then the Iron-Father steps in and swings an enormous axe at Scarab’s bare head, forcing him to give ground.  Sinister follows him and already he’s being driven back, given no room to maneuver in the blasted thoroughfare.  He blocks or avoids each swing of the sword but his enemy is clearly a long way past human, his limbs bending and swivelling in too many places, his movements unnatural, his strength implacable.  Even in power armour, Scarab is at a serious physical disadvantage.  The lack of space quickly reveals itself as a blessing in disguise, however, for the Iron-Father cannot get to him with Sinister in the way, and he has fought Inquisitors before.  The bolt pistol comes up at his face again and he strikes in the nick of time, clipping the offending hand with Reprieve and tearing it off at the wrist, fragments of master-crafted firearm plinking on stone.  Sinister hisses with rage, surely far beyond pain in his modified state, and redoubles his ferocity with the power sword.  Scarab is driven back once more and it is then, in the corner of his eye, that he sees Python fall. 

Of the three Mentirians, the studious man in the purple robes, now further garbed in the psychic illusion of Magus Karius Prelune, is by far the least suited to combat.  He was apparently once an Inquisitor himself, though he’s been underground for decades at the least, and never taken to the field in the few years Scarab has known him.  Even he doesn’t know what name Python served under, and suspects he might always have been more of a researcher than an instrument of the Emperor’s wrath.  In the brief glimpse Scarab catches, he stands braced against a translucent psychic shield around which a torrent of liquid fire is pouring, drenched in sweat and straining with the effort as von Helsing closes the remaining distance, never letting up with the hand flamer.  He slams the teeth of his chainsword against the barrier, holding it there while Python struggles on.  Then a Death Cultist vaults over both of them, psychic shield and all, lands in a crouch behind the false Prelune and pivots like a dancer as she rises, meeting no resistance as she saws into his back.  Howling like a tortured animal, he arches his spine, the shield disappears, and promethium splashes over him.  It almost looks like mercy when von Helsing’s chainblade follows, passing down through the torso of the human torch and carving him nearly in half.  His scream only lasts an instant; the sight is a blurred tableaux.  The Witch-Finder bellows in triumph, eager for further violence.  One more dead Mentirian. 

Angelic singing grows ever louder in Scarab’s ears as Sinister lunges, and lunges, and lunges.  They’re going to crush us – have crushed us, without even really trying.  This is sport to them.  Amon Dull must be laughing fit to burst.  Where’s Ludvos Arkhan when you need him?  Then the rage hits him again, as thunder follows lightning.  Abandoning caution, he shoulder-charges Sinister, putting all his armoured weight behind him.  The bionic Inquisitor’s blade tears a deep gash in the side of his cuirass, a lance of pain shooting through Scarab’s chest, but the force of the impact drives his enemy back toward the Iron Father.  The momentum is with him now and he keeps going, throwing his enemy off balance and finally sending him crashing to the floor.  He swings Reprieve high, hoping for a killing strike, when a burst of bolter fire from down the hall hammers into his chest-plate.  The armour holds but only just, and the pounding explosive shells tear chunks out of it, driving all the breath from his lungs.  He staggers, sees the fallen Inquisitor already beginning to rise, brings the hammer down in time to deflect a sweep of the Iron Father’s axe, exclaims in frustration and attacks the Astartes head on.  Somehow Reprieve finds its target, takes a chunk from a shoulder-plate displaying the white hand of his Chapter and spins the Marine half around.  Then a heavy servo-arm closes on Scarab’s elbow and lifts him bodily from his feet, throws him right through the wall with a sickening crash, landing face down in a pile of broken stone.  Momentarily submerged in the deepening floor, he flounders back towards full consciousness in time to be fully lucid when Sinister lands on his back.  Winded again, he nearly passes out for good.  Then the psychic voice of Mantis hits him like a bucket of ice water, accompanied by a blast of telekinesis that plucks Sinister into the air and hurls him further into the adjoining room.  The Iron Father follows an instant later, cartwheeling wildly as he sails past overhead.

“Get up and fight, Palici.  We aren’t done.”

With a renewed burst of strength, Scarab lurches to his feet and emerges back into the corridor.  A trio of Amon Dull’s angels bar his path and he lays into them with gusto, trusting the blessings and wards on the hammer to serve him in place of its true master’s psychic prowess.  But the creatures are terribly agile, while for all the telepathic encouragement, Reprieve is a heavy implement, and Scarab has been fighting in fits and starts for hours.  Adrenaline fails as a long-term solution to combat fatigue, and he finds he cannot land a meaningful blow, while every passing second sees more and deeper gashes carved in his armour, their burning blades scoring and probing the increasingly ragged metal shell.  He sees von Helsing coming at him, hand flamer lost or empty now, his chainsword held in two hands, an exultant grin on his face.  He parries with Reprieve, if barely, and the chainblade splinters on impact.  A mangled length of chain lashes out like a whip and tears a red line across its wielder’s face, narrowly missing von Helsing’s nose but ripping through one of his eyes.  The Inquisitor reels away screaming profanities, while one of the Death Cultists moves to take his place. 

An angel lands on Scarab’s shoulders, tries to drag him backwards, stabbing down past his face with its searing sword.  He turns his head aside, tries to dash the daemon against the corridor wall but it passes right through the stone.  Near panic, he swings Reprieve up and back past his head, feels the hammer connect.  The angel releases him but the Death Cultist nearly cuts his throat, instead receiving a power-armoured punch in the sternum that catapults her away from him, unlikely to rise again.  Psychic winds lash Scarab’s face, sending icy needles through his flesh, while shrapnel ricochets in the confined space and his eardrums throb with the noise of it all.  Mantis and Tyran remain fully engaged, surrounded by an escalating tornado of whirling warp energy as each draws ever more power to himself.  Their movements are too fast to track, their forms indistinct through the haze of psychic violence that engulfs them.  The rest of the Astartes must be somewhere on the far side, fighting phantoms, unable to penetrate the unnatural cyclone, for all their physical might.  He never knew the old man had it in him.  Before the portal he had to be carried to safety, already on the point of collapse, and was useless in the preceding battle.  From here, at this moment, it appears the notorious Sargoth must be facing the Emperor Himself, and holding his own against Him.  An unfortunate result of their conflict, combined with Python’s death, is to leave Scarab the sole remaining target on his side of the storm.  Even separated from the bulk of the Marines, he finds himself swarmed by ever more of the awful singing daemons, while Sinister and his Iron Father must be due to re-emerge behind him at any moment.

“Daemon filth!  In the name of the Emperor, cut them down!”

Just like that, Sinister’s harsh voice punches through the commotion and both of his erstwhile enemies come barrelling through the hole in the wall, the Iron Father firing past him with a weapon he doesn’t recognise, blowing a cavernous hole in the nearest angel’s chest.  Much to Scarab’s astonishment, they enter the melee at a full sprint, laying into Amon Dull’s minions with the same fury they had levelled at him moments earlier.  Even as he moves to take advantage, ploughing a Death Cultist into the floor with enough force to shatter the stone, he can’t resist a breathless verbal barb.

“Had your fill of serving daemons, have you?”

“I might ask you the same, heretic!  Don’t think this will redeem you.  All of you will pay for what you’ve done here.”

Sinister beheads another daemon as he snarls back at Scarab, but makes no move to attack him directly.  According to the file on Maximus Sinister he’s Ordo Malleus, and evidently not as on board with the false angels as his comrades.  Is this a ruse, or betrayal in earnest?  Could he really have come so far in an Amon Dull-sponsored force without realising what he served? 

“Sinister, you damn traitor!  I might have known.  Kill him, kill him now!”

I suppose that answers that.  Von Helsing again, his face a mask of blood, his one remaining eye a neutron star of malice.  He’s already found another chainsword, likely shed by one of his fallen Death Cultists, which he brandishes before him while the third and final member of the murderous trio moves to back him up.  He charges the embattled Sinister and the Iron Father twists around to fire at him, but one of the angels dives into the path of the shot.  It absorbs the blast and falls theatrically to the floor at von Helsing’s feet, bringing him up short, where it flops and gasps like a fish out of water in a widening pool of pseudo-blood.  It levels a shaking finger at the Astartes and gazes soulfully up into von Helsing’s eye, lips moving rapidly.  His eye widens, then narrows to a slit.  The angel slumps back lifeless, flesh already beginning to melt away, and the Inquisitor roars with apparent outrage, levelling his chainsword once more.  His free hand strays to his ostentatious belt, reaching for a grenade.  Scarab tries to lunge the maniac’s way but an angel has hold of him from behind, laughing like a wind chime as it drags him back.  They’re mad, the lot of them.  Rabid dogs to a man.  Got to get–

Fade to white.


=][=


When Scarab comes around he does so slowly, rising out of unconsciousness by increments, instinctively fearful of getting the bends.  The first coherent thought to manifest is simply, ‘Is it over?’  Then another shock-wave washes over him, reminding him that he has a body and it is currently lying prone, while serving to answer his question with a resounding ‘no’.  Memory follows soon after, culminating in the dreadful moment when von Helsing drew back his arm to throw.  Explosives in a confined space.  Madness.  He blinks and tries to will his vision back into being.  Fails.  Tries to move, falls back with a whine of damaged servos.  Has his powered suit become a metal coffin, interring him where he lies?  His own face is bleeding now; he can feel the trickle, unnaturally cold.  Someone is talking far away, faintly heard as if from the bottom of a mining shaft.  He tries to concentrate on the words.

“And…again?  Third…time…lucky…”

It’s Mantis, speaking in his mind again, though his psychic voice is a faded shadow of its former self.  With an indescribable non-sound distantly resembling a wheeze, the old man’s unseen presence exhales a cloud of intangible resolve that fills Scarab’s mind and percolates down through his battered body, hauling him up to his hands and knees.  The armour protests but cooperates as he forces himself to stand.  How much of that effort is made by Mantis, and how much of it his own flesh, is impossible to tell at this stage.  As sensations reluctantly start to return, he realises the cyclone must be over, for the air is relatively still, no doubt awaiting some further catastrophe.  Colours and shapes resolve reluctantly around him, revealing the extent of the devastation.  Whatever exploded here was more than a single grenade, for a whole section of the monastery has been hollowed out by the blast, demolishing floors, walls and ceilings to create a grand, roughly spherical cavity approaching a cathedral in size.  Scarab himself stands at the very edge of the space, knee-deep in rubble and miraculously mostly intact.  He gives himself a once-over – disguise still in place, though if the truth underneath is anything like the state of ‘Junious’ in this illusion, he suspects his armour may have seen its last battle.  The same might still be true of himself, for angels are already spilling from all sides of the blast radius, taking flight to fill the newly created chamber like a swarm of angry bees.  The roof still seems to be holding, though he’d be astounded if this section of the complex remained airtight after such destruction.  Several floors below him in the middle of the crater, a golden giant stands triumphant, driving a tiny figure in tight circles with wide swings of a luminous hammer.  A hammer!  Where is Reprieve? 

Bending down to rummage frantically, his heart pounds and a throbbing headache makes itself known as the blood rushes to his head.  He finds it after minutes or moments; it is difficult to tell.  It is covered in dust and soot but otherwise undamaged.  Grabbing it up eagerly, he straightens again to see angels and Astartes alike, the latter in at least four heraldic variations, ignoring him entirely, flooding into the crater towards Sargoth – Sargoth? No, Mantis – and the shining colossus that is Tyran.  Bolters chatter, exploding against an invisible barrier still surrounding the two psykers.  Angels dive and are repulsed.  So I have a hammer.  But what am I going to do with it?  Mantis is on the defensive now, borne aloft by invisible forces, darting aside like a bird with each stroke that falls.  Occasionally he throws darts of bright energy that swerve to avoid Tyran, bursting harmlessly against the inside of the bubble.  Redemption is doing service as a force rod, channelling power from a distance but never making contact.  Mantis seems to be tiring, unlike his enemy.  Tyran’s movements are fast and fluid; his armour looks pristine.  If Scarab tries to get to them, the Space Marines will have a new target, and with his own suit barely holding together, he won’t get three strides under fire.  What he wouldn’t give for an automatic weapon, or a few grenades of his own…  For a moment it strikes him anew: these are the Adeptus Astartes.  What good would one man with a heavy stubber even be here?

Then the Herald takes the field in a cascade of crackling white lightning, and everything stands still for an instant as his voice rings loud and clear, projected into every mind present with all the force of a punch to the face.

“Cower, puppets of the Nine – in the name of the White Child, I abjure thee!”

It isn’t Junious; after a brief flash of panic he realises this.  Not his friend, but the other one – Novus Versaal, once a Chaos cultist, supposedly purified and redeemed by the Child’s intervention.  Mad as a sack of wolvercats, as far as Scarab could ever tell.  He has never trusted nor liked the man, but Versaal stands every bit as radiant as Tyran now, emerging from a truncated corridor in a billowing psychic cloud that lances out with forked tongues into the cloud of angels.  Wherever a bolt of energy strikes one, it shrivels and blackens to a warped little cinder and falls from the air like a stone.  Like a single wounded animal, the angelic swarm contracts momentarily and then pours down towards him, abandoning Mantis and Tyran to launch a full head-on assault.  The pseudo-electrical storm intensifies as Versaal stands his ground.  Junious trusted him, that much is certain.  Either way he’s the best chance they have.  Scarab begins to make for him, hugging the edge of the crater, clambering over fallen masonry, iron joists sticking out at angles like broken bones.  His breathing increasingly laboured, he wonders again about the air.  Daemons don’t need to breathe, while Tyran and Versaal appear as psychic demigods and may well be beyond such concerns.  The Astartes all have helmets, while Scarab and Mantis do not.  He hopes the old man can hold out long enough for Versaal to reach him.  Maybe together they can take Tyran down.

Novus Versaal meets the descending angels with a geyser of silver fire, scattering ruined pseudo-bodies that diffuse into ash as they fall.  Junious has never displayed such raw destructive power, and for a few precious seconds, it appears the empowered Herald might have the daemons of Amon Dull outmatched.  Then the first one gets through, scorched black but undeterred, nearly skewers him with a warp-forged spear before he turns his wrath upon it, tearing a shred from his pristine white robe and marring its cleanliness with flecks of crimson blood.  The distraction buys a further pair the time to reach the ground, folding their wings behind them as they close from either side, dividing his concentration.  The white lightning takes them both but the silver fire falters, and a flock of half a dozen dive onto him from above.  They briefly cover the shining man like white crows upon a corpse, hiding him from view in a knot of flapping robes and beating wings.  Then a nova of blazing starlight bursts forth, throwing them clear once again, but the human figure revealed at its heart is bent nearly double, curled around some injury, and many times their number are heartbeats away from contact.  Scarab pushes harder to reach him, loses his footing and comes down on his back, sliding down a heap of rubble in a minor avalanche, his face turned up to the devastated rafters.  Angels plummet through his field of vision in their scores, diving in relentless waves towards the purifying light below.  By the time he struggles up and moves to close the final distance, Versaal is down on one knee, his arms spread wide, face contorted with effort, the front of his robe awash with blood.  There can be no counting the angelic monsters who swamp him on every side, held back only by a steadily contracting energy field.  Scarab isn’t going to make it in time. 

One of the angels alights directly before the Herald, almost close enough to touch, holding up a lantern that sheds no light of its own; rather, it pollutes the shining aura all around him with a widening lime-green stain.  It is the angel who attended Tyran, not banished after all.  Maybe waiting for this moment all along.  She is beautiful and vulnerable and her voice is syrup-sweet.  She speaks aloud with a lyrical cadence, though only Versaal, her siblings and the approaching Scarab are close enough to hear her over the din of battle.  With her free hand she reaches out tenderly as if to caress his face.

“O, you poor broken seeker, how grievously you have sinned!  You have grovelled before foreign idols, given over your soul to the worship of Xenos lies.  Worse, you have blasphemed openly against Our Lord, have led others astray from His Light.  Look around you at the horror your impious heart has wrought.”

As if in deliberate demonstration, a psychic cry goes up from Mantis, another shock-wave sweeps the crater and a crescendo of bolter fire roars in answer.  Scarab finds himself running in slow motion, wading through a wall of invisible treacle as if in a waking dream.  Meanwhile Versaal’s energy bubble has nearly reached his fingertips as it continues to shrink.  He locks eyes with the angel, who raises her slender eyebrows and smiles.  The lantern-lime trickle continues to spread, steadily consuming what remains of his guttering halo.

“Fear not, for all is not quite lost.  He offers mercy even unto you.  Come back to Him, Novus Versaal!  Come back to the only true God.  He remembers you and cares for you, as selfish alien children will never understand.  He would not see you fall, as yonder Arch-Heretic falls before His Champion even now.  Will you accept His forgiveness, and forsake your corruption?  He can burn it out of you, can make you pure again.  You need but ask.”

Damn you Versaal, if you say yes…  But ‘yonder Arch-Heretic falls’?  Scarab turns before he can stop himself, still running, trying to catch sight of Mantis.  The image of Titus Sargoth is sprawled at Tyran’s feet within in the yellow sphere, raised up on one elbow to brandish his sword defiantly, a vanquished demon in a devotional painting hissing up at a smiting Saint.  Tyran’s hammer is bathed in fire as he raises it over his head.  If only Scarab could reach him – but Versaal is closer, and a Herald, holding the keys to everything inside his inconstant soul.  If the angels corrupt him it will all be for nothing, and Amon Dull will surely prevail.  In that desperate moment the whispered voice of Mantis speaks, carried on psychic winds to Scarab’s inner ear.

“Save him.”

And with that he throws the sword, not at Tyran but away behind himself, a comet of blue sparks trailing in Redemption’s wake as it punches right through the sphere and keeps going, shedding its daemonic illusion, speeding away across the cavernous space.  The animated weapon flies with purpose, swerving around obstacles to vanish into a broken tunnel mouth, leaving its bearer unarmed.  He grins up at his executioner, and suddenly he is Hector Galas again.  His final words reverberate through the monastery, psychically amplified, laden with weary sadness and yet also tinged with triumph. 

“It is too late.”

Then the hammer comes down.  This time the backlash of warp energy flattens everyone in sight, including the various Astartes, leaving only Tyran and the angels untouched.  Scarab scrambles upright and catches sight of Novus Versaal again, in time to see the Herald still lying prone.  A halo of green surrounds him as the lantern-bearing angel crouches down, bending low to kiss his forehead.  Acting before he has time to think, Scarab stumbles towards them, bringing Reprieve to bear.  The instant her lips touch the dome of his head, she disappears from sight.  Boltguns blare and angels fall on every side, mown down by unseen assailants.  Only the Herald matters now.  Versaal’s eyelids start to flutter, the green light intensifies – and Scarab’s blow crushes his head.  The light winks out.  The corpse kicks, convulses and lies still.  Blood pools.  Scarab swears aloud and can’t hear himself over the gunfire.  The hail of bolter shells finds his back moments later, taking him down yet again.


=][=


Following a confused, uncertain interval, pain screams at him from three different directions and he finds he cannot move.  His armour is finally broken beyond repair.  Sprawled on one side with his cheek pressed against broken stone, he watches and sighs with exhausted defiance as several sets of power-armoured boots crunch towards him.  His spirits sink further when he hears the voice of Maximus Sinister, notorious torturer, close at hand.

“This one is still alive…maybe something can be salvaged from this.  Secure him.  I’ll get the truth from him later.”

Scarab is roughly seized and hoisted upright, held aloft between two Astartes with his own boots trailing above the floor.  Inquisitor Sinister comes into view, addressing a squad of black-armoured Space Marines, though the Iron Father is nowhere to be seen.  Sinister’s red cloak has been burned away and his armour is filthy with soot.  Dark blotches dance and cavort before Scarab as the sight moves in an out of focus, a lazy pendulum swinging behind his eyes.  The squad is already on the move, passing rapidly down a corridor with weapons raised, away from the awful crater, the bionic Inquisitor shouting loudly in the lead.  One of the Marines has Reprieve.

“Listen to me, brothers of the Iron Hands!  Tyran and von Helsing have betrayed us.  The angel was a daemon, a lie made flesh, as I always suspected it was.  The Puritan Council has been compromised by Amon Dull, and most of the heretics we sought here have already fled like the rats they are.  Cartas will be issued, heads will roll, and even Vhogart will answer for this disaster, but not today.  We are the only righteous servants of the Emperor in this forsaken place, and there is nothing left here worth saving.  Delan System is an open warzone.  We don’t know how much of our fleet already belongs to the enemy; only that some of it undoubtedly does.  Clearly it is time to leave, to rally loyal Imperial forces elsewhere.  I will order Exterminatus on the planet and blow this asteroid out of the sky, if it comes to it.”

“What then of our brother Astartes?  The Black Templars, Millennial Paladins, Praetors of Remas and the Iron Crucible remain engaged throughout the monastery.  We cannot just leave them to die.”

The speaker, a Brother-Sergeant, takes a cautionary tone.  Strictly speaking, even Inquisitors cannot give Space Marines orders, merely request their aid.  Sinister however appears at ease with these Iron Hands and untroubled by the question, his reply hovering somewhere between respect and arrogance.

“Then we inform them of the betrayal and advise withdrawal.  Nobody wants another Istvaan over a few barking heretics.  It seems possible the Praetors of Remas will remain with Tyran, but we’ll know one way or the other soon enough.  Maybe Brother-Captain Andronicus was unaware of his corruption, though I do find that hard to believe.  Marshals Griffinheart and Naemi will not want to leave without their prey, but Arkhan may already be dead and if not, we can await them in orbit.”

The Marine seems satisfied.

“Very well, Inquisitor.  And the prisoner?”

“I’ll take him in on my ship.  I know just the cell for him.”

By all that’s holy, is even a noble death too much to ask?

“Do you think he’s important?”

“I think all the important targets are long gone.  This felt like a delaying action, though how anyone made it out of here, the Emperor only knows…the Emperor, and maybe this man.  He evidently isn’t Astartes, so with a weapon like that I’d say he’s a failed throne agent who looted his master’s corpse.  Either way he’ll have at least one name for us, and I do believe the bearer of that hammer owes me a hand – having taken the weapon, our prisoner must also assume the debt.  I have others of course, but it’s the principle of the thing.”

“Then he owes more than a hand to us.  Iron Father Argus was irreplaceable.”

“I’m afraid that obligation belongs to the soon-to-be-ex-Inquisitor von Helsing, assuming he’s still alive.  Steps will be taken, I promise you.  This wretch may have played a role but while his heart still beats, his life is certainly already over – what remains will be a miserable excuse for existence by any measure.  I’ve no doubt he would prefer mercy, yet he does not deserve it.  Irreplaceable, as you say.”

“Just so, Inquisitor.  But it isn’t just his heart.  The heretic is still conscious.”

“So he is.  Hold him still a moment, would you?”

A steel fist slams into Scarab’s head and with that, his war comes to an end.  It isn’t true peace that claims him of course – merely a short reprieve.


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on June 06, 2020, 06:39:28 PM

M42.120, Northern Fringe, Segmentum Obscurus


“Right then.  What have you learned?”

“Always wear a helmet into battle, sir.”

A sniggering susurrus briefly ensued before awkwardly fading away.  The intimidating pit-fighter’s face of Inquisitor Palici glared daggers at each of his soldiers in turn, daring any further levity.  The man who had spoken declined to identify himself, though Palici knew him by voice immediately.  He weighed the possibility of singling him out but quickly decided against it.  His reputation for vindictiveness was bad enough already, and technically the grunt had a point – more than once in the battle he had wished for some head protection to complete his armoured suit.  He had left his helmet in his quarters that day, figuring it would be inappropriate to conceal his face at the ill-fated meeting, and never had a chance to fetch it after the angels attacked.  A single piece of shrapnel could have ended him at any point in the battle, never mind a bolter shell, of which many had been fired his way.  But that was entirely beside the point of his story, and miraculous survival in spite of a bad decision made for a poor cautionary tale.  Comparably fresh to the life as they were, his audience had all completed their training, and Palici was not a drill sergeant – the understanding he sought to instil here was very nearly the opposite of ‘remember your helmet’. 

The story would not have been necessary at all with a force of indoctrinated Imperials, most of whom tended to know and accept their miserable lot in life, but this was not the Inquisition, nor even the Astra Militarum.  In the Imperium these troops might have qualified as gang militia, if viewed with some sympathy, but would more realistically have been branded cultists, an umbrella term comprising all human followers of any belief outside the Imperial Creed.  Beneath their outward veneer of elite self-assurance, they were raw human beings, raised in relative safety, who had entered his service still unaccustomed to the brutality of the wider galaxy.  They knew how to fight and they never forgot their helmets, or he would not have let them wear the uniform, never mind follow him into combat.  But many were believers first and foremost; some of them probably still thought they were embarking on a grand adventure, and he intended to disabuse them of the notion as thoroughly as he could. 

They called him the General amongst themselves, as much for the grizzled, rough-hewn gravity the scarred man exuded as any wider military authority he held.  In practice he behaved more like a Captain, did not even own a desk, and never delegated what he felt he could do himself.  Despite his relative seniority within the network they all served, he spent most of his time leading missions he rarely agreed with into highly dangerous situations, and always led from the front.  His orders, vague as they often were, came direct from Hammer, for Palici answered to no one else.  It was widely known he had the Herald’s ear, though privately he often wished he did not have to share it with the more idealistic elements of their organisation.  Now his dark eyes narrowed at the lack of any serious response to his challenge, and he surveyed the cramped auditorium as a hawk surveys long grass.  This briefing room had once served as a chapel, long divested of its iconography and turned to a more practical purpose.  The story of the disaster at Delan’s Point was well-known among these men and women, but it had taken place a century before most of them were born, and rarely would they get the chance to hear it first-hand from someone who had been there.  For some of the newest recruits, this might have been the first time they connected their weathered, tightly wound commander to the legendary Scarab the Unbreakable.  It was a name from another time, another excuse for a life, but however hard Palici tried to draw a line between himself and the old tales, they followed him as relentlessly as his shadow.  Now, on the eve of the rendezvous and an ill-defined mission to Secret’s Hold, that old haunt of Mentirius, he knew this largely untested company of his ever-growing militia might see real combat soon, and had felt it high time to address the legend head on.  He spared none of the grisly details, for all it needled him to reopen these old wounds yet again. 

“I’ll tell you what you should have learned.  A helmet is not enough.  No amount of preparation is guaranteed to keep you safe.  You will never be safe, and luck is as likely to kill you as save your life.  War is too big for anyone to control.  There is always someone better armed and better prepared than you.  Train however hard you like, remember everything you’ve learned, and there’s still every chance you’ll take a grenade or a bullet the first time you step outside.  At the least, in choosing a soldier’s life each of you has accepted a violent, probably meaningless death.  If you’re really unlucky, you might be taken alive by one of our many enemies, all of whom can make you crave a bullet in the face.  Maybe a daemon will hollow you out and wear you as a suit.  One way or another, one day you won’t come back.  That’s how your story ends.  Maybe they’ll call you a hero, maybe not.  It won’t make any difference to you then.”

A moment to let that sink in.  Time to grasp the daemon by the horns.

“Yes, I was Scarab, but you can tell I’m not among the heroes of Delan’s Point because I’m standing here today.  I didn’t survive the battle or what came after through strength, or skill, or force of will.  I survived through dumb chance and other people’s sacrifices, and was soon made to wish I hadn’t.  I am not special – I am a soldier.  I do as my duty demands, and frequently I still fail.  I doubt you’re all secretly superhuman either.  That’s fine.  We can’t all be Heralds, nor do we need to be.  But if you aren’t prepared to fight and lose – to see your friends die screaming and turn back to the task at hand, to spend years locked in the dark and then go right back to war when it’s done – then you chose wrong when you signed on with me, and you are going to suffer like you won’t believe.  Consider a change of career, if you survive our next mission at all.  The network doesn’t just need soldiers, and I don’t need soldiers with dreams.  I need those for whom a necessary duty is enough, in exchange for everything they have.  I need the walking dead.  Any questions?”

The silence began to stretch.  Sober expressions abounded, though many eyes remained unwisely bright.  He could see the curiosity in those eyes but none of them wanted to draw his ire.  Finally a woman with a crisply starched uniform raised an arm in the second row.  He gave her the barest of nods.

“How did they defeat Amon Dull, sir?”

“Questions relevant to the Battle of Delan’s Point.  I never made it to the end, as well you know.  I’ve heard the same stories you have about Amon Dull.”

A mild rebuke by his standards.  Someone always asked him that when he talked about M41, and never got what they wanted.  Another hand went up, perhaps encouraged by the survival of the first.

“Where did the portal lead, sir?”

“To Amon Dull’s private daemon world, out on the Eastern Fringe.  I wasn’t there.  Next question.”

“What happened to the Puritan Council, sir?”

A somewhat better question, albeit one with an incomplete answer that had taken him years to learn.  He had declined to wear his Inquisitorial rosette on this occasion.  It was a weapon, same as any, and not one he brandished idly.  For all their generation lionised him as a survivor of torture, it was just a word to them, however earnest they thought they were.  The same went for his title of course.  They had never met an Inquisitor from outside the network; the concept of a puritan was as theoretical in their minds as that of a daemon.  They were yet to comprehend the full scope of human suffering, would never understand the significance of the symbol, or of what it had cost him to keep it.  He didn’t need them to. 

“That I can tell you, though even I don’t know it all.  I was still a prisoner in transit when the Great Rift divided the galaxy.  Sinister handed me over at an Inquisition fortress, never said why, never heard of him again.  From there I was sent from one black site to another, spent half the time drugged, never knew names or saw faces – that’s how it is on the wrong side of a cell door.  I found out more when they rescued me in oh-two.  The Council denied the whole event at first, destroyed any witness reports they found, then rewrote them to their liking when they judged the dust had settled.  Muundus Vhogart never had to answer for anything, it was all covered up.  He’d been called back to Terra before the fleet reached Delan’s Point, to argue a Carta he declared against one of his better-connected peers.  He believed in Amon Dull’s angel, left Tyran in command – we know that much is true, however hard they tried to bury it.  After the attack on the monastery, his acolytes apparently staged a mutiny and took his flagship home.  They told the story Vhogart wanted, at least in public.  The Astartes weren’t happy about it, but deals were made and Tyran’s name was expunged from the records.  His crimes were quietly wiped away, his accolades attributed to Vhogart himself.  The Inquisition remembers Delan’s Point as Muundus Vhogart’s greatest victory, for all he never set foot there, having handed his crusade over to a daemon.  There’s Imperial history for you.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you different.  Part of the fleet was sighted later over Aithol, fighting on Amon Dull’s side – don’t ask, I wasn’t there either.  The daemon lost the war but some of its forces survived, dispersed and propagated.  We never found out what became of Tyran.”

They collectively considered this information, several heads nodding with affected sagacity, before another voice piped up.

“Did you see Bu’Ran on the Point, sir?”

An eager murmur passed through them then.  His perpetual frown deepened further.

“I did.  I was there in the room when it came down through the roof.  I haven’t described that to you and I won’t, for the same reason I won’t tell you all the details of my time in custody – because there’s a mission needs doing, and I’d rather you not all run screaming back to your mothers and leave me with no troops to field.  Bu’Ran is still out there somewhere, as far as we know.  Our agents find splinter cells of Amon Dull’s cult on a regular basis to this day.  These are not idle stories for your entertainment, or even your education.  They are the grim realities that could still kill us all.”

In a reluctant nod to company morale, he decided to leave it there.

“That’s it for questions.  Feel free to ask another vet, if you can find one.  Tomorrow we rendezvous with Hammer – don’t get excited, he eats and he scats same as anyone else – and you will all be with me when I join him on Futility.  Where we’re going after that, expect to see combat with anything from a hostile Inquisitor to an unstoppable nightmare made flesh.  Right now you can’t imagine meeting either.  Pray to the Threefold it stays that way, but while you’re at it, make your peace.  Some things never change.  Dismissed.”


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on November 14, 2020, 03:31:24 PM

Welcome to the Inquisition


Some time in M41


“Well then, you’re a bit of a brute aren’t you?  ‘specially for a witch.  I didn’t tell you to speak!  I’ve already read your file.  Yes, this is more like it.  If I have to review one more sickly, half-starved…stand up straight man, haven’t I already told you?  Let me see your arms…bah, soft as putty.  Never mind.  That much can be easily fixed.  At least you’ve got a bit of meat on you to work with.  Now, stay absolutely still.”

So Teleos Rahn, Sanctioned Telepath, freshly graduated from the Scholastia Psykana with all the secret trauma that entails, stands rigid – eyes front, chest out, hands clenched at his sides.  He clamps down hard on the instinct to flinch, holding out until the final instant before the Inquisitor’s gauntleted fist connects with his face.  He feels cartilage crunch as his nose gives way before the punch, the force of it rocking him backwards.  Spreading his feet reflexively, he sways unsteadily on the spot, tasting blood, but manages not to go down.  It takes all the rigid mental discipline he has spent years honing to suppress a bloody sneeze.

“Ah-ha!  Finally one with a bit of fight in him.  That’s what I want to see.  I told them, ‘don’t bother sending me anyone who can’t take a punch’ – you’re the fifteenth candidate I’ve seen today, and the first one to keep his feet.  It was about time.  Now for your second test.  Strike back.  One blow only, and no witchery.”

“Forgive me Inquisitor, I cannot–”

“I might be convinced to forgive your impudence when you follow my command, you pathetic troglodyte!  In the name of Him On Terra, you are ordered…to strike…back.”

His ingrained instinct for reverence towards this pillar of Imperial authority is all but overpowering, yet the sensation of her disapproval is agony to his painfully sensitive mind.  Having twice received the outlandish instruction, and sensing without meaning to the promise of further violence looming behind her flint-hard stare, the prospect of refusing this great and terrible being suddenly seems even more unthinkable than the sin of raising his hand against her.  With his whole body tensed up, a volcano of adrenaline erupts inside him as he throws a clumsy punch.  The Inquisitor is a head shorter and clearly significantly older than him, though she also stands at least a shoulder wider.  It feels like hitting a rock, and has about as much effect.  Teleos recoils at once, aghast at himself, distantly feeling his knuckles start to bleed.  Absolute terror radiates off him now – fight or flight, and flight is winning.  He wonders irrationally if she can sense it.  Where her face should be is an indistinct blur, absent discernible human features, and yet somehow she manages to convey a sternly penetrating look.

“Hmm.  No worse than expected I suppose.  At least you can make a fist.  So tell me, mind reader – what am I thinking?”

In an easy, practised motion, she draws a gun from a holster on one hip – he doesn’t register any further detail, lost in the yawning emptiness of the barrel as it reaches out to swallow him.  She calmly extends her right arm until the end of the weapon is very nearly touching the bridge of his nose.  For an instant Teleos stands frozen, horrified not only by the apparent imminence of death but by the sheer uselessness of such an end, after all he has already been through to receive the sanctioning brand.  Then he sees the truth behind the weapon and feels an answering flood of relief. 

“You’re thinking I can’t be much of a mind reader if I believe you intend to shoot me.”

“And?”

“And you’re bored, tired of repeating yourself and ready to call it a day.  You intend to blame the priest if this doesn’t work out?  You – Inquisitor, I…”

“And that’s enough of that.  From now on you will never attempt to use your witch-tricks on me, nor will you direct them at anyone else without my explicit order.  With that caveat you will do, Mr Rahn.  Until such time as you die, go mad or otherwise disappoint me, considered yourself requisitioned.  Welcome to the Inquisition.”


=][=


His new master’s name is Inquisitor – blank.  She has a name, that much is certain.  Teleos the Acolyte soon learns what it is, and yet the name itself is – blank.  Nothing but an empty space, visible in a sentence only by the concentrated absence it contains.  A linguistic null; a tangible void.  For the sake of convenience he thinks of her simply as Inquisitor Blank, although that is emphatically not her name, and only in looking back much later will this strike him as somewhat unusual.  Teleos is twenty-three Terran standard years old.  The current year is XXX.M41, as it has been throughout his life.  The lack of specificity troubles him not at all.

Let there be no deception here – these are memories, ghosts of the past, and perhaps their time away from the living vibrancy of the present has exposed them to mysterious forces, altering their composition in unforeseen ways.  The revelations found herein cannot be guaranteed, and yet the same can be said of all records remaining to the elder Teleos Rahn, recently emerged from prolonged hibernation, who nevertheless stands resolved to make the most of what he has. 

On with the record then, imperfect though it may be.  Inquisitor Blank has no psychic ability to speak of.  Moreover, she quickly proves to have little understanding of the principles involved, and no interest whatsoever in expanding that understanding.  So far as she is concerned, such unpleasant matters are for the Adeptus Astra Telepathica to worry about, and having duly completed his Psykana training, her recently sanctioned Acolyte can be expected to perform to a suitably high standard in all matters pertaining to the practice of ‘witchery’.  This will be his particular role in her retinue, and in return for serving such a purpose he will be rigorously schooled in the hunting down and violent breaking of deviant human beings. 

From the outset she focuses on ‘toughening him up’ for Inquisitorial service, initially through a punishing regime of physical training, on top of which he is gradually introduced to a succession of fearsome weapons.  In addition to his daily prayers, Psykana-mandated meditation exercises, shooting practice and running ever more elaborate obstacle courses, to say nothing of the pervasive spectre of menial bureaucracy, Inquisitor Blank decrees that Teleos will learn to fight with an axe.  Faithful servant that he is, he all but kills himself trying to measure up to her impossible standards, despite that the Inquisitor is rarely present in person for these sessions.  His hands-on instructors are every bit as unyielding, and all of them equally faceless, warded to the teeth against psychic interference in case he ever tries to compensate for a physical failing that way.  Their lessons amount to savage beatings; their minds are smooth and hard as river pebbles, utterly opaque before his inner eye.  Having tested and recruited Teleos, Blank uses similar measures to deprive him of any further insight into her private thoughts.

Over time his physique improves and his body contracts and hardens, yet this is merely an exterior transformation, the shedding of a reptile’s skin – the hardness inside is what counts, or so the Inquisitor tells him at the end of his first field excursion.  Teleos is vomiting hard at the time, bent double beside a pile of messily executed former people, mere moments after delivering the sentence.  “They’re lying, Inquisitor,” he said to his master’s questioning look, which was all it took to bring them to this end.  Where there were a dozen pulsing, bristling human minds, only the inert pile now remains.  He heaves again, hawks and spits a last string of bile.  Around them Blank’s visored enforcers are moving to secure the rest of the squalid premises, scouring every corner in search of any concealed survivors.  The Inquisitor patiently waits for her Acolyte to straighten up, then backhands him hard across the face before sharing her words of wisdom, as she is wont to do.

“How dare you waste the Emperor’s bounty on this filth!  It should be the knowledge of their heresy that turns your stomach, not the sight of justice restored.  How many like these scum do you think I’ve killed?  For that matter, how many more innocents whose innocence simply could not be proven to my satisfaction?  I’ll tell you – I haven’t the faintest idea.  Too many of the former to quantify.  Too many of the latter for a good night’s sleep if I were fool enough to dwell on the question, not that you will ever have to ask it of yourself.  Look at you!  Damnable witch that you are.  Barely past puberty and you can stare across a room and see the guilt in a person without so much as asking.  Do you know how long I spent learning proper interrogation?  You cannot comprehend how easy you have it.  Nor could this lot.  They were blessed with a chance to beg His forgiveness, to confess their sins directly to a member of His Inquisition, which every one of them spat on.  How many of their kind receive such an opportunity?  Death was better than they deserved.  What else is our Ordo for but this?  What just happened, what we did here was our job, it was holy work – and it was nothing.  There will be thousands more.  You will fast for the next seven days as penance for your weakness, and next time you will think twice before wasting the food from my table.”

She abruptly softens a fraction then, as if by conscious decision to moderate the habitual harshness of her tone.  In the background more bodies are being dragged out for the heap.  Inquisitor Blank seems oblivious to the surrounding activity, still speaking as if the two of them were alone.

“Seriously, Teleos – this is a reality you need to face.  Never mind combat training, this is how Inquisitors are made.  By getting out and doing the damn job.  You won’t last a month if you can’t accept the way things are.  I brought you in for Telepathy, not for empathy.  Spare the slightest scrap of pity for these wretches and it will break you.  Worse, it will render you useless to me.  Seeing through their unworthy skulls to the sin inside is not enough for the Inquisition.  I require you to be a remorseless enemy of that sin, to hunt it down wherever it tries to hide.  To cut it out, however deep it might go.  The heretic itself is not our prey.  The heretic is the mud from which we must dig the prey, and she who wields the Emperor’s shovel cannot afford to humanise the dirt.”

However else she might be described, by the standards of her profession, Inquisitor Blank is a patient master and an honest woman.  Just as she tells him, there will be thousands more. 

Where the bulk of her Acolytes seem to spend most of their time performing large volumes of research on the Inquisitor’s behalf, or staging unseen field operations of their own, Teleos not only continues to receive private training but also the dubious privilege of working directly alongside his master on an almost daily basis.  Whenever someone brought in for interrogation is deemed worthy of her personal scrutiny, the Inquisitor sends for him.  When she heads out with intent to interrogate in the field, she frequently takes him along.  He follows meekly wherever she leads, standing behind her and usually to the left, his gear and stature suggesting a mere enforcer, while his master in various guises asks leading questions of anyone she suspects of harbouring useful answers.  Those who give full, correct and truthful replies, he vouches for and they are sometimes delivered from the worst of the Inquisitor’s wrath – not always, it must be admitted, and yet he quickly learns to keep any reservations regarding summary executions to himself.  In the case of those who lie, or who conceal dark secrets of the blasphemous sort Inquisitor Blank would see brought to light, no amount of skilful subterfuge stands proof against his aethereal sight.  Teleos unveils what lurks within and Blank dispenses justice.  Eventually the day comes when she turns and hands the gun to him.  He knows well enough how to use it by then.

Brutal as she might seem from his youthful perspective, he will later consider that with her psychic Acolyte so employed, the Inquisitor was able to forego not only a number of lengthy verbal interrogations, but also the extensive use of physical excruciation.  The elder Teleos Rahn will come to believe that after centuries of such service, his mentor had finally developed a distaste for torture sufficient to overcome her distrust of psykers, leading her to employ him as an alternative means of extracting information.  Viewed in this light, his very recruitment to her retinue could be seen as a belated bid to regain some small measure of lost humanity, sacrificed in the name of duty but never entirely forgotten.  Alternatively, opting to make such heavy use of the Warp in her investigations, even vicariously, might be put down to the casual shedding of yet another principle by an ageing witch hunter low on patience, too jaded to care any more about lines in the sand.  It all depends on where one stands on the matter of sanctioned psykers, and on the practice of the excruciator’s art.  As a further possibility, Inquisitor Blank’s shift in methodology might also have had much to do with the influence of a certain priest.


=][=


Father – what to call the whispering cleric?  He cannot be Father Blank, for that might suggest some non-existent familial relationship to the Inquisitor under whom he serves, and yet the same condition of slippery absence sits in place of the rightful term.  Let him be Father Void then to young Teleos Rahn, although that is not his name.

Father Void is a retainer and confidante of Inquisitor Blank, effectively retired from his clerical position, serving her now as an expert advisor on spiritual and doctrinal matters, and informally as a sort of chaplain for the inner circle of her cadre.  He supposedly once served a tour as a missionary, although this fact is initially hard to reconcile with his thoroughly bookish demeanour.  Where the attitudes of his fellow Acolytes toward Teleos range from deep suspicion of his psychic abilities, through disgust and on into naked hate, he is surprised to find a sympathetic ear in the priest. 

According to Father Void, psychic power should be understood in terms of a call from the Emperor, vitally important and yet all too easy for the faithless to ignore.  Sorcerers and other rogue witches must be sought out and punished as harshly as possible, precisely because the power they abuse is given in sacred trust.  Refusing to stand before Him On Terra, to be judged and reborn in His service, is for a psyker not only supreme ingratitude but dereliction of duty, standing in flagrant opposition to His Divine Plan.  In death, the gifts of the unworthy return from whence they came, to be given anew to someone else who might prove more deserving.  Teleos Rahn does the Emperor’s work alongside the Inquisitor, and so he ‘manifestly must be one such meritorious son’.  Father Void, it should be stressed, is far from a typical example of the Imperial clergy.  His beliefs are not without precedent, and yet to proclaim them before almost any crowd would be to guarantee the birth of a violent mob.  This unusually inclusive stance succeeds in striking a chord with Teleos, it being rare in his experience as a psyker to find himself welcomed so earnestly to the fold.

What little time he has to himself that is not spent in fitful sleep or precarious meditation, he begins to spend in the company of Father Void, nominally to discuss matters theological but primarily for the human company, glad to dwell on anything outside the scope of his formal duties.  The mounting demands of his training under Inquisitor Blank’s regime continue to dominate the rest of his waking hours, while every night his dread of a painfully early morning wrestles with a procession of remembered executions for possession of his dreams.  In contrast to what has fast become his own customary state of rigid turmoil, Father Void’s unhurried thoughts appear as a gently babbling mountain stream.  The priest is stick-thin and his voice never rises above a breathy whisper, such that any thought of him preaching to a large audience seems absurd, and yet his sentences float so clearly to the surface of his mind that Teleos never has any trouble understanding.  He can tell Father Void finds it refreshing to talk at length without being asked to repeat a word, Inquisitor Blank’s bionic ear being in decline of late.

“Never let them punish you for being as you are.  Was He On Terra so defamed when He yet walked among us?  A greater measure of spirit than other men is no deformity and should not be a source of shame, despite that it gives would-be sorcerers so much further to fall.  A sliver of His own insight has been placed into your hands.  That you sit here before me is evidence enough – you have been chosen, Teleos.  Use what the Emperor has shared with you as He surely intends; to make them see the flaw within themselves and reach for more.  To unmask the heretic, yes, but also to guide those who would be righteous ever closer to what is right.  Tell me, are you familiar with the writings of Voragian Thex?”

“No, Father, I’m afraid not.”

Teleos has rarely heard of the presumably noteworthy names brought up by Father Void.  Going by his experience to date, unmasking the proverbial heretic constitutes the sole purpose of his continued existence from Inquisitor Blank’s point of view, and likely the Emperor’s too. 

“Well, we shall have to do something about that.”

“I don’t think anything can be done.  There just aren’t enough hours in my day for recreational scholarship.”

“Recreational?  Nonsense, Teleos, this is your very soul we’re discussing.  Your place in His Plan!  With all this exposure to the delusions of heretics and blasphemers, someone needs to provide you with the proper context…I will speak to the Inquisitor myself, see if we can’t find an hour in your schedule somewhere.  Scholarship is vital if we’re ever going to understand your destiny.”

Father Void believes everything he says with a quiet intensity, and proves to be as good as his word.  Ever opposed to compromise when it comes to combat training, Inquisitor Blank decrees that the promised hour will be reclaimed via a further reduction in the already scant desk duties allocated to Teleos Rahn, for which sin his fellow Acolytes, their own workload thus increased, will naturally despise the pampered witch in the midst all the more. 

So begin his studies of the works of a procession of theologians carefully selected by Father Void, all of whom have plenty to say about the spiritual condition of the psyker.  Many of these support the priest’s own assertions, ascribing to individuals like Teleos a birthright not of inherent sin, but of special significance in their God-Emperor’s mysterious, far-reaching design.  They are not cursed but chosen to be tested, called upon to assume a terrible responsibility yet never far from His sight.  With Father Void’s borrowed opinions given new weight by the gravity of their revealed sources, Teleos listens intently while the priest expounds ever further on the subject, and devours all the material set before him.  As the months go by he cannot help but take it all to heart, seizing onto the personal salvation offered by these concepts just as a drowning man might cling, white-knuckled, to a lifeline thrown down from the clouds.  Inquisitor Blank, for her part, seems to approve of his increased morale and does not object to his further education.

A sense of renewed purpose slowly trickles into him, seeping between beatings and executions to permeate his very dreams.  Sometimes in sleep, he sees the Astronomican warmly glowing on Terra’s distant shore, however far his duty carries him from the Emperor’s soothing light.  He bears a light of his own across the crashing waves, and though he knows it for the merest candle-flame compared with that steadfast star, he carries it with cautious pride and treasures the comfort it brings.


=][=


Ten Years Later


“What is it that gives you cause to doubt my word, Inquisitor?  I am an Imperial servant in good standing, conducting a legitimate business operation in accordance with the Warrant my family holds – you have not a shred of evidence to the contrary, or I and mine would surely already be in chains.  You have asked your questions and received our answers, so why persist with this charade?”

Inquisitor Blank doesn’t turn towards Teleos, but he knows that she knows something is wrong.  He would send to her telepathically if he could, but her mysterious wards prevent any such intrusion and even if they did not, he would never so openly breach her edict to keep his thoughts away from hers. 

“The Astropath,” he mouths to her sideways glance as surreptitiously as possible, trying to convey the rest of it with his eyes.  The ash-robed woman stands towards the back of the Rogue Trader’s travelling entourage, the dome of her bald head gleaming, her mind a towering, turning pillar of blinding luminescent mist.  This billows around the whole group even now, cloaking them all from psychic sight, and Teleos clenches his jaw as he strains to pierce the unnatural fog.  Locked in an invisible battle of wills, he doesn’t fancy his chances when the guns come out.  To the eyes of everyone else in the room, nothing untoward is happening, save for a slight decline in the surrounding temperature. 

This is not the first time he has come up against psychic opposition, and yet past encounters have mostly been with untrained, unsanctioned renegades, unable to match him in skill or strength of will, and certainly nothing like an Astropath, Soul-Bound to the Emperor Himself.  From the moment he set eyes on this woman, whose will is an adamantium rod and whose command of her Telepathic gifts has surely been tempered by long service out in the void, Teleos has known he is outmatched.  Whether, when and how to convey this admission to Inquisitor Blank, in the midst of such a tense discussion with possible traitors to the Imperium, is a question he has so far failed to resolve, distracted as he is by the futile struggle he still can’t quite bring himself to abandon for lost. 

As it turns out, telling Blank about ‘The Astropath’ is all it takes to render the question moot.  While Teleos means to convey only that the other psyker has been preventing him from confirming the Rogue Trader’s veracity one way or the other, the Inquisitor will not countenance the possibility that her subordinate’s alarmed eyes and moving lips represent a warning of imminent threat.  With characteristic decisiveness, she draws her sidearm and shoots the Astropath in the throat from a distance of twenty paces.  An instant of stunned silence gives way to violent chaos before the body hits the floor.  Teleos staggers and nearly falls at the sudden release of pressure, as if a locked door he strained against had suddenly vanished, taking the rest of the building with it.  In the process he avoids a las-bolt that might otherwise have gone through his head.  Bullets fly on all sides and he crouches low, mind racing.  A lucky flinch saves him from a searing flash as someone sets off a conversion field.  They have a pair of Blank’s enforcers here with them but are nonetheless badly outnumbered.  The unmistakable crack of a bolt weapon resounds.  A heavy crate absorbs an autogun salvo meant for him.  Tormented metal screams and booms.  Focus.  Listen.  Draw.

Interrogator Rahn, newly promoted and eager to impress, gets his weapons in hand more by reflex than conscious choice.  He makes it that far without a scratch, yet before he can fix on a target a screeching chainsword finds him, albeit it only a glancing blow.  It tears clean through his robes and flak vest to leave a bloody scar down one side that he’ll carry for the rest of his life.  Adrenaline spikes in response to the pain but his discipline holds firm.  Extending his aethereal senses, he finds the hostile mind at once, plunges in, sees the ghost of his own image arched in pain, halfway through an instinctive turn.  Experiencing his attacker’s intentions even as they form, he recovers in time to sidestep the next swing, hooks the back of the chainsword in the crook of his axe and brings up his own sidearm – a straight-forward stubber, appallingly shabby compared with the gilded armoury of their new enemies – for a point-blank shot in the head.  The bodyguard dies instantly and Rahn kicks him over backwards, into the path of a shotgun blast that might otherwise have hit the Inquisitor, though in his mind even that could surely not have slowed her down.

Inquisitor Blank is a tangle of furious motion, fighting three foes at once in a brutal close-quarters exchange, among them the Rogue Trader, Pseudonymus Moniker himself.  Two more of his armoured bodyguards lie broken at her feet.  Wary of hitting their employer, the rest of his retinue try to concentrate their fire on Rahn and the two enforcers, yet Blank has expertly manoeuvred the melee to block several crucial lines of sight, and in doing so saved her pupil’s life.  Spurred to her aid and no longer held back by the Astropath, he gathers his will and whispers the inevitability of defeat directly into Moniker’s head.  Startled by the unsettling invasion, the man’s concentration falters and Blank’s chain-axe takes his hand.  His beautifully tooled ancestral sword rings musically against the floor.  Blank cuts off his howling with the barrel of her gun, breaking several of his teeth in the process.  The howl becomes a mewling whimper.  A sharp gesture with the chain-axe and everyone else abruptly stops moving.  Blood continues to patter at their feet.  The Inquisitor’s voice is a saw-toothed snarl.

“If any of you hold the slightest loyalty to the Imperium, you will stand down!  We represent your God-Emperor, on whose absolute authority your employer’s Warrant rests.  Do not doubt that it can be revoked, and all your lives with it if I deem it necessary.  Interrogator.  Interrogate this man.”

Rahn steps forward as commanded, holding his weapons loosely now, unwilling to reignite the confrontation.  His long wound is throbbing with phantom heat – a shallow cut but ragged, oozing blood.  Maintaining as much detachment as he can, he looks past the Inquisitor’s hand cannon into the face-shaped space beyond.  Gazes on into the maelstrom of Moniker’s private hell, caught between a terror of death and the agony of his lost hand.  Draws upon the warp again and reaches past that too, stretching with aethereal fingers, digging down into the very catacombs of the soul.  Unheard by any save his subject, he repeats his master’s questions there in the murky darkness, hunting the truth via echolocation, finally pouncing to hook and drag it squirming into the light.  With some effort, he keeps his voice level as he addresses Inquisitor Blank.

“He’s in the service of another Inquisitor, or at least he believes he is.  He doesn’t know who, they only met through proxies.  His vessel would have left this system three weeks ago but he was told to wait for us.  The message we intercepted was sent from here intentionally to draw you out.  They told him your name, Inquisitor, and to expect a Telepath with you.  This is–”

He never gets a chance to deliver the rest of his warning.


=][=


“And that’s all you remember?”

“It is, Inquisitor.  May I ask a question?”

“Go ahead, Interrogator.  It is after all what we train you for.”

“Inquisitor Blank–”

“Is dead, I’m afraid to say.  Pseudonymus Moniker too, along with everyone else in the building.  You were the only survivor.”

“But she…forgive me, I did not expect…”

“Do you need a moment?”

“I always thought her indestructible, God-Emperor rest her soul.”

The dimly-lit room is bare save for the flickering torches high overhead, two hard chairs and the wide desk between them, all of these fixtures being bolted in place.  There are no windows, save for a one-way mirror filling the right hand wall, whose psi-shielding prevents him from knowing how many eyes are watching from the other side.  Teleos Rahn feels blind and exposed in equal measure.  This is the kind of room Inquisitor Blank used for their extended psychic interrogations, having cleared away her clustered instruments of excruciation.  The similarity does not bode well for him, and either way his life is surely all but over now, absent her protection and firmly guiding hand.  On the other hand, what more has he left to lose?  Inquisitor Empty possesses no more distinguishing features than anyone else in Rahn’s life to date, yet something about the quality of the space where his face should be suggests he is waiting for more.  Keeping his tone light, Rahn turns loss into anger and anger into reckless courage.

“Was it you, Inquisitor?”

Inquisitor Empty laughs aloud, a full-throated guffaw.  His mind resembles a spherical castle, replete with fortified ramparts and tiny soldiers milling to and fro.  Rahn can’t make out an entrance and dare not approach it closely with his inner eye, wary of raising a hue and cry, so he cannot tell if the reaction is genuine or rehearsed.

“Of course it wasn’t me!  Do you really think we’d be sitting here if it were?  Easier simply to kill you along with the rest.  Blank might have been a novice in these matters, for all her finer points, but your psychic abilities are well-documented and nothing special from where I’m sitting.  There are ample countermeasures available for such short-cuts, as master Moniker and his associates so recently demonstrated – to say nothing of our mysterious killer.  What you should be asking is, do I believe it wasn’t you who staged this?  Maybe you got impatient, couldn’t wait for a seal of your own, figured you might be allowed to take over for Blank if she met with an untimely death – it doesn’t work like that, whatever she might have been grooming you for, in case she failed to make that clear.  If we raised a new Inquisitor on the spot every time an existing one fell, soon we’d have a horde half-trained Acolytes running round with absolute authority, and then where would we be?  Emperor help the Imperium if it were so.  The Inquisition may wax and wane but our standards never slacken, come what may.”

Rahn understands enough by now to know this is not strictly true, but prudence prevails and he lets it pass unchallenged.  Cautiously and with great respect, he asks about the fate of Inquisitor Blank’s cadre with her gone.  Inquisitor Empty only shrugs.

“Another Inquisitor will take over her resources.  Someone beyond reproach, with experience in running such operations.  The question is, will you still be among those resources when they do?”

“I’ve told you all I remember about what happened.  Have another psyker take a look if you don’t believe me – I have nothing to hide from you.  I only want to resume my duties, whatever they might be now.  I will mourn for Inquisitor Blank, but she was always destined for a violent end.  It is as He On Terra wills it, and I think she would certainly have chosen this over some creeping ailment.”

“Yes, I am sure she would.  As for you, your memory, such as it is, has been thoroughly examined.  In the world you and I inhabit, that proves nothing.  Do you desire vengeance against whoever killed your master?” 

“I desire justice, Lord.  Whatever truly took place back there, I don’t believe she was justly killed.  But there are many more capable than myself to deliver that justice, and I remain an Acolyte, as you say.  The Inquisition will do with me as it must.”

Empty gestures dismissively at this, assuming a frank demeanour.

“So it will, Interrogator.  So it will.  Let me be straight with you – we know you aren’t responsible.  What evidence we have exonerates you well enough.  Nevertheless, you won’t be returning to your old cadre.  That part of your career is over.  Blank’s death will continue to be investigated and justice served in due course, but not by you.  I want you where I can keep an eye on you.  You will continue your training after a fashion, though I get the impression you may have spent rather too much of your time so far prying into the minds of others, and not enough expanding your own.  An Inquisitor’s expertise should transcend his favourite tools, however tempted to specialise he may be.  Meaning no disrespect towards the late Inquisitor Blank, it seems clear there are holes in your education.  I intend to fill them, if I can.  If it doesn’t take then we can always dress you up as a sorcerer, set a fire under you and call it another win for the Imperium.  Needless to say, I suggest that you cultivate a receptive frame of mind.”

However Rahn might feel about this verdict – acquitted and sentenced in one breath, requisitioned again like so much equipment, as if he had not already lost enough today – he still knows better than to argue with an Inquisitor.


=][=


“So what, in your estimation, is the purpose of an Inquisitor?”

“To further the God-Emperor’s Divine Plan, and to oppose the plans of His enemies, whatever that might involve.”

“And how is an Inquisitor to know what the Emperor plans?”

“We don’t need to know the full scope of what He intends to perceive His hand at work.  The same goes for His enemies, or how else could the Inquisition hope to oppose the Ruinous Powers?  As you have already pointed out, such beings do not think as we do.  The Emperor’s Will can sometimes be identified by means of overt signs, but at other times, it falls to us to interpret a situation for ourselves, and trust in His unseen guidance to keep us on the righteous path.”

“How very pious of you.  So who stops you, if you interpret a situation wrongly and act in unwitting opposition to the design you seek to serve?  Must He On Terra intervene directly, to recall his faithful hound?”

“What He has given to me, He can easily take away.”

“One might easily justify any action with this philosophy, if such it can be called, while accepting no personal liability for the consequences.  By your metric, every act accomplished by an Inquisitor that does not result in their own miraculous death is not only righteous by default but also divinely endorsed.”

“Does it surprise you to find me a man of faith?”

“On the contrary, Teleos, rare indeed is the Inquisitor whose own definition of their duty does not render them an implicit candidate for Sainthood.  But it is rarer still to hear of two Inquisitors whose definition is precisely the same.  Do you think it possible the Emperor too remains undecided on the matter, or are an overwhelming majority of the Inquisition simply misguided fools?”

“I believe it is possible to be misguided without necessarily being a fool.  Take yourself, for example.  You are certainly a highly educated man.  You admit those horns are a mutation caused by exposure to the corrupting influence of daemons, and our discussion so far has convinced me you are not without understanding of the implications for your soul, nor under any illusions regarding the false allure of Chaos.  Assuming you do still consider yourself an Inquisitor in spite of practising sorcery – and I’ve heard you use the title more than once – are you then a candidate for Sainthood in your own mind, a martyr to humanity’s cause?”

“I think I’ve made it clear I am the opposite of a Saint, even if the horns themselves were not sufficient evidence from which to draw that conclusion.  As for the Emperor’s Divine Plan, the galaxy is full of priests and they are welcome to their speculation.  By my definition, Inquisitors must plan as if nothing but our own guile can save our species from enslavement.  It seems to me that from a divine perspective, the lives of mortals are little more than an elaborate game.  As an Inquisitor I would not be a card, or not only a card, but also one who plays.  To play is to wager, and sometimes to lose, yet to aim any lower than that table would be to waste what I have seen.  If a benevolent deity intervenes on our side against those who would torture us for sheer amusement then so much the better, but the faith of a typical Chaos Magus is comparable to your own in substance, just as devoted and no less human.  In the end we must take responsibility for ourselves.”

“Must we indeed?  I fail to see the appeal of such a bleak outlook, as opposed to faith in Him.”

“Indeed, the raw truth rarely presents an appealing flavour to the refined Imperial palate.  But I make no claims of omniscience.  Perhaps I am the most misguided fool of all.  Inquisitors have more opportunity than most to peer behind the veil, but how far we trust our insight and what we do about it is ultimately up to us.  Let the Emperor be absolved in this – to the best of my knowledge, I do not act for him, and he cannot be held responsible for my decisions.  I still use the title ‘Inquisitor’ when it serves me, but it is only a word, and there are many to whom it means a great deal more than it ever did to me.  As they used to say on my birth world, a man whose title defines him neither requires not deserves a name.”

“Who are you then, Balkoth, to offer absolution to the Holy Throne?  Inquisitor or not, to my mind the question is, will the God-Emperor consent to absolve You if your plan, through success or failure, interferes with His own to the detriment of mankind?  And yet you propose that I should aid you in carrying it out, knowing me for a faithful servant of Him On Terra.  Will I then be absolved if it turns out you are misguided after all, as you admit might be the case?  If I am to take you at your word, our ultimate aims do not conflict, in which case you have already claimed to be acting in concert with His Will as I understand it.  Speaking hypothetically, if I were to aid you it would be in the Emperor’s name, because I judged your proposal to accord with my duty to Him.”

“Then that is your judgment to make, Inquisitor Rahn, and the consequences of the choice are yours to bear.  Should you decide to act as I have suggested, then may the Emperor strike you down if I am wrong.”



=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on November 22, 2020, 04:00:46 PM

Pain & Purpose – I


M42.120, Aboard Redacted, The Warp


“Lancet?  Lancet!  Answer me you son of a – oh feth, oh feth Lancet!  Where in the Emperor’s name are you?”

“Inquisitor!  Inquisitor it’s Wysp – what in the Warp is going on?”

“Wysp!  It got out, it’s loose in the ship somewhere.  I’m after it but it’s too fast, too far ahead of me and it’s killing everything!  We must be down twenty, thirty servitors already.  Whatever systems they were responsible for are running unattended and I can’t raise Lancet on comms.  Since when is he ever–”

“Make sense, Inquisitor!  What’s loose, where is it now and do we need it dead or alive?”

The enormity of the threefold question briefly overwhelmed him, and Inquisitor Rahn wasted vital seconds trying to formulate an appropriate response.  The pounding pain in his temples paled in comparison to the greater horror it implied.  An unstoppable monster ran free on Redacted, slaughtering all it found and causing who knew what damage to the ship itself.  The escalating crisis was made exponentially worse by the knowledge that this time he, Teleos, was responsible for it, every drop of spilled blood a direct result of his personal incompetence.  This was a kind of bespoke emergency he felt certain the vanished Balkoth would never have found himself up against.  You’re not Balkoth, he reminded himself again, unsure if he meant it as a reassurance or a reprimand – as if the unfolding doom of his tiny fragile bubble of a world were not already yelling that same fact into his face. 

“I don’t know where it is any more.  Head for the armoury, I’ll meet you there.  Until Lancet says otherwise, I say we need it dead.  Shoot anything you see that isn’t crew, but stay at range, keep an eye on the ceiling and be very careful where you step.  If it hears you coming it’ll go for an ambush.  It already got the drop on me once.”

“Well that much seems obvious…  Alright, I’m en route.  Sadly it can’t fail to hear me coming, what with my being mostly composed of heavy metal.  Can’t you trace it with your famous mind powers?”

“I – no, not reliably.  Maybe the general direction it’s heading, but there’s a lot of interference.  Nature of the beast.  If we can raise Lancet or Urania on one of the other channels, one of them must be able to track the damage.”

“I’ll try, but again – what is it we’re hunting here?”

“Feth, I’m sorry.  It was too much, I…  We aren’t the hunters here.  It’s –”


=][=


Earlier


“You want me to do what?  Are you out of your Warp-damned mind, or just disappointed I survived that madness with the Fish daemon and determined to get me killed?”

“Oh really, there’s no call for hysteria.  He’s flesh and blood like you and I.  Our mutual friend would have made mincemeat out of him – in fact I suppose one could argue he already did, philosophically speaking.  The, ah, man is on board after all, in a literal sense if not necessarily a figurative one.  Peel away their particular delusions of grandeur and one psychopath is much like another.  The galaxy is full of them you know, present company not entirely excepted.”

“I realise that.  What I’m asking is, why is he on board, and what is there to gain by putting me in a room with this particular psychopath?  I’ve read about him in the Conclave Archive, so I know you’re well aware…  Take one particularly relevant example: the voidship Profit & Glory.  Just a trading vessel, but still – no other survivors.  Bodies piled up in their hundreds.  He even killed the Navigator, much as I struggle to comprehend what advantage even a compulsive murderer could have seen in that.  The same source suggests he was simultaneously the puppet of three separate Daemon Lords.  Even aside from the obvious risk of Chaotic corruption leaking out of him and infecting the rest of us, nothing I’ve seen indicates he was ever remotely rational.  What possible use could we have for a monster like that now?”

Lancet raised his eyebrows – white hair on chalky skin, visible on screen only by dint of the variation in texture, the tiny shadow each hair cast.  Teleos still had no idea how old he really was, but given an already venerable Lord Inquisitor Balkoth had been excommunicated nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, Lancet’s claim to have worked for him at some length prior to that suggested it was a quite a feat that he still had any hair at all.  His skin was remarkably short on creases for a tricentennial man, and for all Teleos knew he might have been around twice as long.  Maybe it was entirely usual for Balkoth’s agents to spend centuries in stasis, awaiting activation, or maybe whatever superior juvenats or more forbidden means had kept him alive for over half a millennium had been shared with the occasional old retainer.

“Why, as a source of information.  What else are captive monsters ever good for, aside from setting them on one’s enemies?  None of our enemies are here just now of course, so field deployment is obviously off the table.  Regarding the state of his mind, body and soul, I’ve seen the same files you have, but unlike you my insight does not end there.  Trust me, Inquisitor – however suspicious you may be about my motives, this is an opportunity for you.  In short, our subject is on board because at one point he was useful, and our mutual friend was not in the habit of throwing away his tools.  I’ll grant you he’s volatile, and not the easiest to reason with, but he only does what comes naturally.  As the Archive will also have told you, he can be directed with the right persuasion.  In this case we don’t even need him to perform a physical task.  He already possesses unique data about the survivors of Delan’s Point, stored nowhere else but in his charming brain.  He’s been in stasis nearly as long as you were, so those will still be recent memories from his perspective.  If you can extract them, by hook or by crook, then you should be able to get past that sudden dead end in the records that has been annoying you so badly.”

“I never said it annoyed me.”

“And yet I noticed.  Can you tell it annoys me too?”

No one ever had much idea what Lancet might be feeling, and passive telepathy offered scant assistance – even when the two of them occupied the same space as opposed to relying on internal comms, his seamless performance always got in the way, his mind was still an ever-shifting shoal, and Teleos was yet to push the issue.  The man was welcome to his secrets, so long as he did his job.

“I suppose it must do, if you’re resorting to such drastic measures.  Was this on Balkoth’s itinerary?”

“I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to that.  He certainly considered the possibility.”

“Is it because of the Fish then?”

“Yes and no.”

“God-Emperor, give me strength.”

“It would be very helpful of Him, I agree.  In a similar vein, you will want to read those supplementary reports I sent before you proceed to the interview room.”

“I will, will I?”

“Just so, Inquisitor – you will need this information, and it appears nowhere in the Conclave Archive.  You should also wear your Force Armour in there, helmet included.”

“You don’t say.  Lancet, if you expect me to go anywhere near that abomination, you can also expect me to be a long time in the armoury first.”


=][=


Some Time Later


“Lord Magus!  What kept you so long?  I’ve been so bored, you would not believe…”

He’s not bored, he’s hungry.  He doesn’t know the difference, or doesn’t distinguish.  Lord Magus…he thinks I’m Balkoth. 

Teleos Rahn had rarely been so relieved to have his identity mistaken.  His helmet’s visor was clear as glass from the inside and replete with auxiliary senses, but the man – no, the thing at the bottom of the deep, narrow pit, would at most see its own reflection in the smooth black surface.  Complete with a functional reproduction of the fearsome horns that had so defined Balkoth’s silhouette, and with his own height and the width of his shoulders accentuated by the armour, all Rahn needed to be a truly convincing master of daemonic cults was a dramatically appropriate cape draped over his ensemble.  He had eschewed any such theatre, refusing to preen for the benefit of this beast, though of course he had no say in the aesthetic of the suit itself.  He nevertheless found himself relieved to not immediately be challenged to introduce himself.  The reputation of the creature in the pit preceded it, to say the least.  As if its entries in the Conclave Archive had not painted a bleak enough picture, Lancet’s supplementary reports only served to further underline how dangerous it was.  However Balkoth had dealt with it back in M41, Teleos doubted it had any capacity for lasting loyalty.  Even if it did, he was not Balkoth and that would soon become apparent whatever he said, so the less it knew about who he really was the better.  Its own voice had sounded deceptively human, though the sing-song cadence of an unrestrained sadist, that softly implicit you are all my toys, was impossible to miss.  With a last, silent prayer to the Emperor, he stepped inside the cell.

A word on psiniscience – it was given to psykers throughout the galaxy to sense the proximity of others of their kind, via their respective spiritual emanations within the Immaterium.  Sensitivity to these emanations varied between individuals and did not always correlate to raw psychic ability, but nearly all humans and numerous alien species were psychically active to at least some small extent.  Teleos Rahn’s psiniscience was so acute as to extend to nearly any psi-positive external consciousness not actively shielded from his attention, and his experience of it was coloured by a strong inclination towards telepathy over other applications of the Warp.  His inner eye was always open, rendering nearby sentient minds as distinctive and full of expression as human faces, weaving their surface activity into the world he experienced by means of symbolic images and other sense impressions.  In his case a dynamic awareness of psychological states did not replace human faces for the purpose of social cues, as they would for a physically blinded Astropath, but rather augmented and enhanced them, adding further layers of meaning to any interaction and generally making him exceedingly difficult to deceive.  He was aware that what he sensed was not the thoughts themselves but their reflections in the activity of the thinker’s soul, moving in harmony with the brain to which it was anchored, but since the two existed in symbiosis, with mind inextricable from spirit – during life at any rate – the distinction was academic to him.  He could and did, without conscious effort or any significant risk of localised warp anomalies, see the surface thoughts and moods of those around him as they occurred, unless those details were being concealed through advanced cognitive techniques, technology or psychic interference.  The downside of the insight this gave him was simple – that his inner eye was always open to a greater or lesser degree, whether or not he wanted it to be.

The bolts on the cell door slammed shut behind him, and the monster’s bleak psychic aura rose up through the bars like a cloud of choking gas borne on some malignant thermal wind, condensing into a squirming mass of black tendrils before his inner eye.  He glimpsed them closing in on him, crowding round – a smothering spiritual darkness briefly fell.  He could feel them probing at his outer shell then, hungrily seeking ingress.  A patter of faint, sharp impacts vibrated through his subconscious, like hailstones pounding on a flakboard roof, under which sheltered his soul.  The armour emanated a soft glow as a mental reflex sluggishly responded, drawing on his psychic reserves, further cocooning him head to foot in gentle eldritch light.  The malevolent tentacles drew back, recoiling from the light like some hideous ocean polyp before an ebbing tide.  Nothing he sensed from the presence below bore any hint of alarm, yet its eager psychic outgrowths made no more aggressive moves in his direction.  He dared a closer look.  Even at a distance its mind was…

A rush of vertigo took him – I’m falling, sinking, got to – a spiralling stair of searing spines, turning, descending, burning – turn back, still descending, falling – skin corroding, repeated laceration of the limbs – pain of a kind reserved for apostates and wretched inhuman things.  Hatred, pure and unbiased, the absolute certainty of the rightness of burning everything, exterminating everyone and all of them deserve it even me but I will be the last – a jet-black fractal snowflake grown so large, impaled planets graced its jagged tines.  Populations immolated in an instant by leaking magma, pressurised molten metal gouting, the heartblood of murdered worlds.  Not enough, still not enough.  My name is Pain.  I am unique.  I am unique.  I am.  I am.  I am.  So.  Hungry…

Hungry, like the Fish.  A predator.  It was not human.  Not like him.  Teleos Rahn was Teleos Rahn, Inquisitor Rahn, himself, his human self.  He did not want – he did – the Emperor protects.  A candle of faith rekindled within him, a shard of identity recaptured, and he withdrew his aethereal hand from the cloying depths, closing it slowly into a trembling fist.  The storm-tossed tide receded from him, though he could still hear its fury crashing on sharp wet rocks.

“Is there something wrong, Lord Magus?”

Minimal telepathy for now then, unless given no other choice.  Even talking aloud to the monster had to be preferable to whatever he had just gone through.  He briefly pondered what it might have done to him unprotected, deciding he would be better off avoiding any further speculation.  Rigidly casual in spite of himself, he suppressed his passive psiniscience as much as he could and walked carefully towards the pit, advancing until he could look down and see its occupant’s dark violet eyes staring back.  It cocked its head to one side for a moment and they reflected the light of the burning torches on the walls high above, shining like those of a nocturnal hunter, which of course the creature was.  To the naked eye it looked exactly like a man, if a lean and sinister specimen, clad in tattered black rags with patches of corpse-pale skin showing through.  Its hair stood up in black spikes and the battle-torn remains of a floor-length leather coat clung to its bony frame like the wings of a drowned bat.  Had Rahn not been a psyker, he might easily have taken it for human.  Knowing what he knew while seeing what he saw, he could barely bring himself to address the monster, but the Archive testified that Balkoth had conversed with it at length when the need arose, and for better or worse he now wore those cavernous shoes.  This was simply another of the many unpleasant duties that came with them.  Lancet would be watching and listening, he was certain.  For perhaps the first time on this ominous voyage, Rahn found that a comforting thought…and yet when he finally spoke, all that emerged past a clenched jaw was the creature’s adopted name.

“Crucis.”

A flash of white incisors in the pit, gone as quickly as it had appeared.  The teeth he saw were slightly pointed – was that part of its ‘condition’, he wondered, or had it filed them down by hand?

“The one and the only.  But this isn’t Aranis.  We’re on a ship in the open Warp.  Something vast is broken out there and oh, it makes such pretty noises!  A symphony of screams, Lord Magus…truly spectacular.  From one artist to another, I don’t know what you’ve done to the universe but I like it!  Or was it one of the daemons…why can’t I feel Akhamshineth?  On second thought, never mind.  Good riddance.  Is it over then?  Dust and ash?”

“Is what over?”

“The Apocalypse of course!  Did I miss all the fun?  Are we all that’s left?  Tell me my nemesis made it through at least.  We barely had a chance to get to know one another before – never mind.  Such a disappointment, but that’s life.  It was kind of you to introduce us all the same.  If she isn’t here then what about me?  Why am I back in a hole?  I thought we had an understanding.  I play nice with your toys, we play nasty with everyone else’s, the new God of Hatred consumes humanity as they so thoroughly deserve…  Now look at me, daemon-free for the first time in I don’t know how long.  No more voices in my head, only those delicious screams.  Gazing out at a beautifully broken galaxy.  Consider me at your service, if you wouldn’t mind extending your kindness to letting me out of here.  Ah, but is this the part where you tell me I’m just a puppet after all?  Are you a daemon too now, is that it?  Is this your big reveal?  It had better not be anything so dull.  I gotta tell you, the horns were never very subtle, if you were going for ‘regular human’.”

So be it then – less than a minute in, and this false familiarity was already too much to countenance with the Emperor’s eyes upon him.  Just what had Balkoth promised the abomination?  Intellectually he supposed Crucis was no worse than a daemon, its brand of evil probably somewhat less infectious, yet its veil of humanity offended his instincts – at least the Fish had made no secret of what it was.  Lancet be damned, listening to the creature speculate was drowning his very spirit in toxic waste.  His decision made, Rahn braced himself and let his voice fill the cell.

“Very well, Mr Crucis!  Let us be honest with one another.  I am not the Lord Magus.  Balkoth is gone.  You have been held in stasis for one hundred and twenty-one years Terran standard and are now a prisoner of the Inquisition.  The Imperium is still here.  We are still here.  Humanity endures.  Did you believe it could go any other way?”

Crucis sniggered at this, like an infant who has done some mischief and knows he will never be caught.  Then it seemed to remember it was not alone and pantomimed an exaggerated swoon.

“Oh, say it isn’t so!  Honestly though, since we are being honest, I’m relieved to hear it.  Now I get to keep on killing you.  Your precious Imperium does appear to have a great bleeding wound down the middle of it, however – in case you hadn’t noticed, but no, I can see you know what I’m talking about.  Imagine how many people must have died!  I suppose that must be where all the screaming comes from.  Who are you then, not-the-Lord-Magus?  Other than my next victim.”

“Call me Inquisitor.”

“And what a lovely name it is, but no, I don’t think I will.  It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.  I’ll torture it out of you later.  For now you can be Mr Meat, since we’re being formal as well as honest.”

“You may have a hard time torturing anyone from down there.”

“No, you’re definitely no Lord Magus.  See, he was sharp.  I can tell these things.  Overly grandiose perhaps, but the kind of man whose back stabs you the moment you reach for a knife.  Him I could almost respect.  You on the other hand grow less interesting with every word that comes out of your mouth.  Underestimating me is only undermining yourself – I won’t be down here for long.  If you were going to be like this, you really should have left me in my box.  If you know my name without being told then you must know what I am, what I’ve done.  Do you think the Inquisition scares me?”

“The Inquisition doesn’t care how brave you are, Mr Crucis.  We know you very well, and we are in control.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong.  They all think that at some point and they all regret it later.  I’ll tell you a secret: This is my ship now.  You handed it to me the moment you let me out of…wherever I was.  Now I can think again, all that’s left is to watch me take it from you.”

It sighed as it said this, adopting a weary, faintly consoling tone.  Rahn tried to match it like for like, but there was too much tension in him and his own voice came out imperious, with a hard edge of confrontation.

“I can tell there’s been some misunderstanding – this is a Black Ship.  This is your prison now, and it has held far worse than you.  I have no interest in matching wits, nor measuring fictional swords.  If you begin to irritate me, and I’m afraid it seems inevitable, then I’ll simply leave you down here.  You won’t get out.  No one else will come.  How long do you think you can last with no one to hurt, nothing to eat?  I’m told you’re a great advocate of the inevitability of death.  Well, so is the Inquisition.  Not only do we know what you are, we know it makes you weak.  I could kill you just by leaving this room and locking the door behind me.”

Crucis still appeared unruffled, spreading its arms as if to somehow call more attention to itself.

“Then what’s stopping you?  Don’t hang around on my account.  Whatever I have that you want, I’m afraid it’s a no.  Unless it’s pain, more pain, and eventually oblivion.  That I can offer you.”

With some considerable effort, Rahn reigned in his revulsion.  This was getting him nowhere.  He could picture Lancet rolling his eyes.  What would Balkoth have said…

“Truth.  I want truth, and I can offer you the same in return.  I’m not going to let you out, though you are welcome to escape from there and kill us all if you believe you have it in you.  What I am prepared to do is trade information.  Starting with this – the Lord Magus, as you knew him, was a persona of Inquisitor Balkoth.  I know what he told you but he was always one of us, however unconventional.  His work was instrumental in the defeat of Amon Dull, and by extension your Akhamshineth, preventing the Apocalypse you were so looking forward to.  He’s also the one who left you in our custody.”

“So you expect me to believe the galaxy just broke itself?  I don’t think you even know what really happened there, or you’d have let something slip by now.  You’re not a very good salesman, giving away your measly stock for free.  You’re also even more of a fool than I thought if you believe the Lord Magus was ever one of you.  Are you even one of you, really?  In that getup?  I’ll wager ‘Inquisitor’ was just another mask he wore to make him feel important.  Now you’ve gotten hold of it and put it on, you must be starting to realise how badly it fits your tiny head.  Those aren’t even real horns, are they?  I am glad to hear you’re the one in charge around here though – that should make it especially easy for me to get my ship in order once you’re dead.  Why should I tell you anything about anything, Mr Meat?”

“Because I know a lot more than you do about the galaxy as it is now, and about your current situation.  What have you got to lose?  Didn’t you say you were bored when I got here?”

At this the monster rolled its eyes, slumped its shoulders and produced a perfect imitation of an adolescent groan.

“But I’m so much more bored now.  Your voice isn’t anything like his now I’m used to it.  You’ve changed your tune from We Are The Inquisition but still, such a drone.  What is it you’re so keen to know?  I’m not saying I’ll tell you, but you’re clearly dying to ask, so why don’t you just get it over with?”

“Alright – I want to know more about what happened on Aranis.  You said before that Balkoth introduced you to your alleged nemesis.  She had eyes that kept changing colour, correct?  Yes, we have files on her too.  So what was the disappointment?  What stopped you from ‘getting to know her’, as you put it?  Did she fight you?  Was anyone else there with her?  How did they arrive, how did they leave, and who made it off the planet?  Anything you can tell me buys you answers.  The more you give, the more you get.  Or I can leave you to get on with slowly starving to death, and Slaanesh is welcome to your wretched soul.”

“Spare me the bad cop routine, it isn’t working.  Kill me if you can, and so much for my soul, but if I were you I wouldn’t start by turning my back on the mass-murderer.  What answers would I be buying from you anyway?”

“Whatever answers you want, within reason.”

“And if I don’t want anything from you?”

“Then we are done here, Mr Crucis.  But I assure you I have access to a wealth of information that I would value very highly in your position.”

“You’ll never be in my position, Mr Meat.  You aren’t special like I am.  Your senses are clogged with your own excrement.  I value nothing, have you got that?  Not one single thing.”

Teleos didn’t need telepathy to know this for a lie – as far as he was concerned, the Conclave Archive made the monster’s motivations clear.

“You failed, didn’t you?  Your nemesis – you tried to kill her and you failed, so Balkoth put you in a box and left you to gather dust.  Some assassin you turned out to be.  Maybe you should at least have placed some value on success?  What else is there to you but murder, after all?”

“Torture, rape, and mutilation?  If you’re hoping to bait me then you’re sniffing the wrong skirt.  I simply could not hate you, any of you, any more than I already do.  Can you truly not hear your own hypocrisy?”

“And yet you let my assertion stand – you failed, and that’s why you don’t want to tell me.  I think it pains you, Mr Crucis, to dwell on your own shortcomings.”

“Just.  Crucis.  You worthless meat.”

Finally, was that a crack?  A hint of injured pride?  Rahn pressed his offensive.

“Just pain, Mr Crucis?  Yes, I think that sums you up quite nicely.  Agony incarnate.  One more helpless victim of an indifferent universe.  No wonder you hate it all so much.  It must be excruciating to be you.”

“I’ll show you excruciating, Meat.  Just wait.”

Not ‘Mr’ any more; just Meat.  Either trying to lead by example or getting angry with him.  It should have been so easy to reach out a little further into the aether and see for himself, but this creature’s very consciousness was a deathtrap for the soul.

“Like you showed your nemesis, you mean?  I do believe I’ll take my chances, Mr Crucis.”

“Excellent!  Come down here and I’ll tell you everything.  Better yet, throw me a rope.  Or are you scared of me after all?  Yes, you’re still trying to hide it but I can smell it from here.  You’re right to be scared.  I’m your worst nightmare.  Stay up there where it’s safe, Meat.  Run along and live a little longer.  I will always be out of your league.”

“I can see I’ve offended you, Mr Crucis, but you must know you’re nothing special.  Not really.  Or did the nice daemon tell you how unique you were, and so you never thought to question the absurdity of the claim?  Was it a comfortable mask to wear, to make you feel important?  I’m afraid you’re fooling no one but yourself.  The soul-eating was never exactly subtle, if you were going for ‘slightly human’.”

“Tell that to your beloved Emperor.  That’s what these ships are used for, right?  Souls for the soul throne!  Next to Him On His High Horse, I’m practically a herbivore.  Yes, I eat souls when it suits me.  I like how they taste.  That comes from my Dark Eldar side.  I told you, I know what I am.  Neither human nor Eldar, reviled by all, the one abomination who can show them what they truly–”

Incensed by its blasphemy and caught up in his own momentum, Rahn dared to cut the monster off mid-boast, drawing on his reserves again to amplify his voice.

“It isn’t possible, Mr Crucis!  Not in the way you think.  Any half-decent Xenologist could have told you that.  You were thoroughly examined by Adepts in service to the ‘Lord Magus’ you so readily bargained with, while you lay helpless as you so often do.  Balkoth liked to know who he was working with, inside and out.  There’s a word for what you are, Mr Crucis.  Drukhari.  You are not exceptional, merely a victim of mind-scrubbing and surgical mutilation.  By all accounts there are a great many more of your kin out there somewhere.  Of course, the only question as to how they would react to you in your current state is whether disgust or amusement would come first.”

“Of course they’d be disgusted!  It’s because of the humanity in me, and they’d be right to feel disgust.  The only error the Eldar make is in not feeling the same disgust every time they look into a mirror.  They’re no better than humans in the end.  Nothing but stinking, flyblown meat.”

“That’s right, you hate them just as much as us, and yet you’ve never met one.  You still aren’t getting it, are you, Xenos?  There is no humanity in you.  It’s a mask they sewed over you when they took away your memories.  You were cast out, in as a cruel a way as they knew how, carved up and remade you into this parody of a man.  They set you loose among humans for their amusement, not for yours.  Maybe that counts as a practical joke in their eyes.  The ones who did this to you wanted you to hate yourself, to be utterly alone, lashing out wildly at everything around you.  From the evidence at hand I’d say they succeeded.  More than a thousand years living in the Imperium, which you spent as a serial murderer, always moving, leaving nothing behind but a body count to prove you ever existed, feared and rightly despised wherever you went.  No wonder you were so eager when Balkoth told you there was someone else like you.  Despite all your bluster, he knew exactly how to bring you to heel.  Deny it all you want, to me or to yourself, but that thirst you never stop feeling is your inheritance, and there’s nothing unique about it.  The Apocalypse already came for your species, before the God-Emperor ever took His Throne.  You have no right to judge us, alien monster that you are.  Even your own kind didn’t want you, back when you still were you, so they scrubbed you away and replaced you with this thing called Pain.”

Rahn had been shouting, he realised, face contorted behind his visor into an invisible grotesque.  Proximity to this concentrated malignancy must be affecting him, eroding his self control…  His singular audience merely folded its arms, brow creasing in thought before it broke into another beatific smile.

“Are you done?  Good.  So.  Is this the valuable Truth you’ve been offering to sell me?  Because it all just sounds like hot air.  If all you Inquisitors do is call people names and hope it makes them so sad they confess all their sins, then your Emperor should have put me on the payroll years ago.  I’d have carved me wide open by now.  It doesn’t matter where I came from or who I used to be.  It isn’t that I don’t understand you.  It’s that I still don’t care.  Maybe you’re lying, or maybe there really is nothing human about me under the skin – in which case I’m well rid of humanity, but you can’t tell me you don’t see your own reflection staring back out of this abyss.  The fact you’re so keen to disavow me from your species tells me all I need to know.  It doesn’t matter what a mirror is made of, so long as it serves its purpose.  They’re much like blades in that regard.”

It appeared to ponder this idea, lost for a moment in some tangential thought before resuming its tirade.

“I’m here to show you the ugliness of yourselves, and when I feel like it maybe I’ll do the same for the Eldar, whatever my personal heritage might be.  I’ve killed whoever I like, whenever I like for as long as I care to recall.  The Imperium couldn’t stop me.  Aranis couldn’t hurt me.  Drukhari don’t frighten me, and nor does any supposed truth about myself.  Daemons have tried to master me, and where are they now?  Shame the Lord Magus isn’t around either, or I’d get to say ‘I told you so’.  What makes you think you’re even worthy of my attention?  No, don’t answer that, I’m tired of hearing you speak.  Balkoth projected visions straight into my head.  If you’re wearing daddy’s suit now, it’s time you stepped up and proved you can do his job.  You want to know what happened on Aranis?  Come and see.  I double-dare you, Mr Meat.”

By hook or by crook…

Weighed in one hand, Teleos Rahn’s assigned psi-rating was at the high end for a sanctioned Telepath, and extracting the truth from seemingly intractable suspects was one application of his talents that had seen regular use throughout what he still remembered of his Inquisitorial career.  He generally avoided brute force tactics, eschewing overt mental commands to specialise in the delicate infiltration and sophisticated manipulation of a subject’s subconscious mind, and was more skilled than most at treading lightly where he walked, accruing a minimum of mimetic residue in the process.  Whenever he made a conscious decision to fully open himself to the aether and ‘stare’ with focused intent at one individual, forming a temporary link between his own soul and that of his target, then assuming he could navigate the currents of their psyche, circumventing or overpowering their Will, he could uncover anything they knew, or relive any memory from a first-person perspective as if it were his own.  As an experienced specialist in the field, he was therefore close to the perfect Inquisitor for the task of performing – and hopefully surviving – a deep mind scan on a delusional, Chaos-tainted Drukhari outcast in human shape, if any mere Inquisitor may be imagined equal to such a task.  Indeed he had already faced off against a daemon large enough to swallow this entire vessel; had disembarked in the Warp itself and returned more or less intact.  On top of his proven track record he was wearing a psychic hood, or at least an unsanctioned equivalent devised by Magos Urania’s renegade sect, to say nothing of the rest of the Force Armour’s functions, and so about as well equipped for such an ordeal as anyone could expect to be.

Weighed in the other hand, performing any sort of immersive telepathy on a member of any alien species was an entirely different proposition to plunging into the most psychotic of human minds, exponentially more dangerous to sanity and spirit.  Merely communicating across species barriers was often difficult enough, with many concepts defying translation, and language was only one small facet of the complex jewel that was consciousness itself.  To deeply scrutinise the alien would be to become the alien – ideally only briefly, but few things were ever certain in matters concerning the Warp.  Furthermore this Crucis, if all Rahn had read of it could be believed, had lived for some time with vast daemonic entities routinely dipping their claws into its soul, bestowing unholy visions and issuing competing commands.  Even had he known nothing of the monster’s true nature and taken it for a mere human murderer, the psychic foulness emanating from it was as clear a sign of spiritual peril as he had even sensed, though it also constituted a challenge he now found difficult to resist.  Perhaps it was already interfering with his judgment, even through the Force Armour and with all his defensive training – if so then the potency of the aura, and therefore the evil behind it, must be staggering.

God-Emperor help him, now it came down to it, he barely hesitated.


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on November 28, 2020, 03:49:50 PM

Pain & Purpose – II


“Let me make this absolutely clear – I will not enter into any pacts with the Ruinous Powers, nor otherwise pollute my soul, however easily broken you may consider such bargains to be.”

“Consider your spiritual reticence duly noted.  Where do you stand on alien gods unaffiliated with Chaos?”

“I stand in resolute opposition to any but Him On Terra who would claim divinity, and to all the enemies of humanity.  However dire it is, surely the threat of Chaos should not blind us to all the other antagonists facing the Imperium?”

“Even if the Emperor Wills you to make common cause with one of them?”

“The Emperor in whom I place my faith would never bid me to betray Him.”

“How can an alliance be called a betrayal, if it benefits he whom you serve?  Does he only remain your Emperor so long as you agree with his commands?  Do you only ever perceive commands from him with which you conveniently agree, or is it that you lack sufficient trust in your own ability to correctly interpret his will?  Might he not easily protect your soul himself, if it happened that your placing it in danger might further his own ends?”

“I’m sure there are plenty more deserving of His intervention than reckless Inquisitors, and plenty of Inquisitors better placed to serve His Divine Plan than I.  To presume on His protection while consorting with His enemies would only compound the heresy.”

“Anything can be said to compound, or indeed to constitute heresy.  I was under the impression we had already established that much.  To presume on the Emperor sharing your own qualms about risking one man’s soul, and your own in particular, could be construed as hubris at the least.  My point is that as a self-professed man of faith who seeks only to serve, you have by your own admission already surrendered the decision of where to draw the line.  For my part, I am confident that if executing my plan requires you to take actions in the future that you would refuse to contemplate today, and if the universe is as you believe it to be, then you will receive an appropriate sign when the time comes, instructing you to proceed.”



=][=


It begins as something like a voyage through space, or through an invisible medium analogous to space, in which he is at once the Captain of a voidship, its central cogitator and its ineffable guiding soul.  He sees with its sensors and feels with its crew, his thoughts spooling through its data-banks, the chatter of their interlocking signals miraculously giving rise to the ghost in the machine, within whom dwells that nucleus who official designations refer to as Teleos Rahn.  Swathes of his internal data are heavily encrypted, such that even he cannot decipher them, and yet he feels no need to, certain they represent non-essential records ancillary to his function, of historical interest only.  He still possesses everything he needs to effectively pilot himself.  Contrary to the advice of his Navigator, he is sailing into a warpstorm, his trust in his crew’s expertise exceeding their own estimations. 

Turbulence is already rising steeply – the risk to ship and crew will be high, but for now the Gellar Field is holding, though his sensory input is already beginning to skew as they push ever deeper into the roiling astral cloud.  Screens show only angry colours, spiky patterns – his bubble of control soon contracts and the nature of existence comes under intense review, with ever more of his attention demanded by the fractious, frightened crew.  Trajectory, velocity and structural integrity transmute themselves from empirical calculations to projected intentions, an abstract ziggurat built of pseudo-religious belief.  He intends to find the planet, and so he shall.  He intends to remain himself, and so he shall.  The Captain is in control.  Where precisely their target lies within this maelstrom is not relevant, relative location itself being far estranged from established laws.  The planet is his destination, and this contradictory universe will bend before his Will.  Its name is Pain, and he has been sent to obtain its resources for the Imperium by any means necessary.  The vessel must also survive, or whatever he learns here will be lost, and if his crew must suffer long and hard to reconcile his competing directives, then so be it. 

There is a problem.  Something is trying to get in.  The crew are in a panic.  Armsmen assemble below, ready to repel boarders.  In a moment of inspiration he becomes a man – and now this is Teleos Rahn, Inquisitor, under fire and scrambling for cover as he weaves his way towards a distant objective, cultist headquarters, so much for stealthy infiltration, time to call in an orbital strike.  A spear of light bears down but stops short, diffusing harmlessly into a web of ornamental lightning overhead.  He can see the tiny Y-shaped silhouettes of angels in flight, hovering in their thousands just below the defensive dome.  The cultists are made of what looks like grox-meat, roughly stacked onto skewers arranged into humanoid form, but their weapons are familiar Imperial technology, reliable as anything gets in an empire fighting a perpetual war on every conceivable front.  Bullets spark off his armour but the exoskeleton holds firm.  He speaks a word of power and they all come apart, anima fled, just a jumble of skewers and steaks after all.  But then they melt and coalesce, until an exaggerated effigy of a Warhound Titan looms over him, sufficiently gargantuan to crush him underfoot, its head a fully animated snarling wolf, its hair stood on end, matted and shaped into spikes held in place by a slick of congealing blood, its eyes black portals into a Stygian void.  One of these sockets contains a delicate silken orb web, glinting with beads of dark fluid, in the centre of which hangs the inversion of a pupil, a solid lime-green sphere suspended before a vortex of unbeing.  It is one of the colours of Hate and it draws him in like a fly to meat – briefly a fly is what he is, his perspective further fractured by his bulging compound eyes, the snarling monster overhead grown from monolith to mountain, so vast now as to recede into the background, indeed to become the background against which he ascends… 

The concept of ascension gives birth to its inversion, and Teleos Rahn is himself again, descending a spiralling staircase, itself rising up towards the bottom of a descending pit in the form of a labyrinth, but everything is made of blades and his feet, his feet are already bloody shreds, the saw-edged spines of each step further filleting what remains.  There is a fire in the pit, above and below and around him all at once, such that everywhere he turns and every route he takes leads down.  He can smell his own flesh cooking and he’s hungry, oh so hungry and they’re pulling out his lungs, spread like the wings of an eagle, bloody tissue crisping at the touch of the heated razorblades that form the river in which he swims, a ragged fish of exposed skin, his scales scant protection against the coals over which he’s being roasted – he can’t get out of here, how did he get in?  It just goes around and around.  He is eating himself from the inside; the chewing hurts too much to even tell how it tastes.  Perhaps this is the place called Pain, or perhaps it is just pain.  It seems possible he is this pain, and only this, but then who feels the pain?  Thus the victim, thus the hunger, thus the hunt.  He is chasing something, or being chased, or he is the chase with something bright at one end, something dark at the other.  A sudden revelation – there is another him out there, somewhere infinitely far away, and even he is screaming, his own shadow risen up to sink its teeth into his back.  He is Creleos Pahn, he is, he is, he is–

He is Pain.



=][=


M41.999, Aranis, Gavaria System


Where the desert was merely unpleasantly chill, with a constant driving wind that bit with teeth like razor wire, cutting right to the bone, the mountain ranges to the extreme North of the planet Aranis are coated in a black frost cold enough to kill.  What bare skin touches any surface sticks there and tears away, often taking chunks of frozen flesh with it – the more prolonged the contact, the greater the sacrifice.  Whole limbs may be lost in a matter of moments this way, but Crucis is not so incautious as to go barefoot on these pitiless slopes, and the Lord Magus has provided all the gear he needs to scale the contemptuous peaks; not that he intends to go half so high if he can help it.  The sky overhead is a glowering midnight green, punctuated by scattered peals of lime-coloured lightning, revealing a barren mountainside alive with shrieking tentacled spawn.  He cuts through their midst like a bonesaw through a baby’s fingers, too inured to the horrors of Aranis by now to waste much energy on these half-formed, wholly mad excuses for opponents.  Those he declines to butcher on his way through make their inevitable shambling attempts to follow him, limbs tangling in their neighbours’ guts, barging and falling over one another, descending into the usual cannibalistic frenzy while he moves on.  He barely looks at them, even those he kills, intent on more exotic prey.

This is nothing more than a foothill – the beleaguered, depleted herd he’s tracking will never make it as far as Angel’s Peak and the crystalline spire beyond, so neither will he be forced to continue this trek all the way to the end, and so much the better.  Crucis has no interest in actually meeting Amon Dull, for all he now finds himself in service to it, the third and perhaps the most pompous of all his would-be puppeteers.  On the whole he approves of the spirit of this world it has made for a playground, although he would have done it very differently himself…  More punishment, fewer pretensions.  He wants what Amon Dull wants, more or less, but he’s more than had his fill of being patronised by daemons.  Half the joy of a good conversation is knowing you can end it with a blade or a bullet whenever you like.  The only thing capable of shutting up a daemon is probably a larger daemon, so let his manifold masters deal with the cosmic destruction side of this, amuse themselves amongst themselves and leave the messy hands-on murdering of walking meat to him.  Excitement bubbles inside Crucis, on the brink of exploding out of him at any moment. 

The Lord Magus has kept all his promises so far.  The saintly girl with the changing eyes – the light to his darkness, the other side of his coin – is travelling with the group.  Crucis saw her face from a distance back in the desert, just after they came through Balkoth’s Gate, though she did not see him, and she was every bit as captivating in person as she had been in his mind’s eye.  He can hardly wait to get her alone and see where his fancy takes him.  Since then he’s been biding his time, watching the humans suffer, toil and die, the survivors fighting on towards the distant speck of Angel’s Peak with the wind in their faces and all the monstrous denizens of Aranis swarming at their backs.  They came across a cattle farm at one point, and three of them actually puked after seeing members of their pathetic species so efficiently used.  Are these really the best resistance the Imperium has to offer?  He remembers thinking that.  Now he’s had time to mull it over and remember what he thinks of the Imperium, he finds it makes perfect sense to see humanity’s stagnant empire offering only token opposition to the rise of an incipient God of Hatred, a monster with nothing for them but slavery and death.  It’s the God they asked for, after all, from the day each of them was born; no different in the end to the one they already believe in. 

In principle Crucis supports the advertised Fall of Humanity, though privately he suspects Amon Dull might not be prepared to go far enough for his liking.  The Eldar are still hanging around after all, outstaying their welcome, like rats riding flotsam millennia after their ship has sunk.  If Slaanesh still can’t get the job done there after all this time, well, so much for Chaos.  Cleaning up the leftovers is where monsters like him come into their own, and Crucis looks forward to the life of an apex predator prowling the human wasteland.  More than anything else right now, he looks forward to meeting his nemesis up close, and maybe, if she’s amenable, carving out her entrancing eyes to see if they still keep changing.  Amenability is the eye of the beholder, he muses.  Maybe if he only takes one eye at first, they can both find out together…   He’ll see how he feels when the moment comes.  It seems possible a grander gesture still might yet occur to him. 

As the gradient becomes steeper and more rugged, with tall saw-edged rocks like barbed arrowheads providing ample cover for his darting form, he thinks idly back to the sculptures of flesh and bone he left behind on the first cattle firm he encountered – having slaughtered the fanged, green-eyed farmers, left with nothing but the mewling humans in their pens, he grew bored enough to really stretch his artistic side in pursuit of entertainment.  What if he did something like that with her companions, to give it a personal touch…or is that too much effort to go to on account of this one girl?  Would he debase himself to force a sweat in pursuit of her approval?  What if he does, and then when he finally has her at his mercy, it turns out all he wants to do is shoot her in the head, to revel in the casual unmaking of something so unique?  He knows himself intimately, and he is ever whimsical.  Sucker-punch executions make for excellent comedy, and his sense of humour often surfaces in moments of high excitement.  Whatever elaborate plans he makes ahead of time, a premature end to the game will always remain a distinct possibility.

His instincts kick in at the last possible instant, yanking his sharply head back, and the first bullet takes a spiky lock of hair instead of punching through his skull.  It’s an ambush, and not by the locals.  Crucis falls into a cartwheel, springboards off a rock with both feet and draws both his pistols in mid-air, answering with a twin-barrelled snarl of automatic fire.  His rounds glance off the ice in the prey’s vicinity, but none of them hit flesh – he’s rusty after days of nothing but blade-work, unwilling to waste his ammunition on beasts.  As he touches down, he catches a glimpse of his attacker ducking behind another such outcrop, her second shot ricocheting harmlessly wide of his position.  It’s a young woman, and an electric thrill runs through him – is it Her?  Did she hang back to wait for him, hoping to catch him unawares, or is this another one of the hungry Daemon World’s traps, a psychic lure of some kind, messing with his mind?  Potentially treacherous eyes rove until he finds the bullet, picks it up and rolls it between a thermal-gloved finger and thumb.  Definitely real, if his senses can be trusted at all.  He opts to pretend it is her, and if not, well, he can call this a trial run.  It does seem rather too good to be true, but maybe this is the Lord Magus again, out there greasing the wheels.  Crucis feels insulted by the possibility.  He needs no assistance from anyone to do what he does best.

Closing the distance in moments with a light bounding gait, he holsters his guns and silently scales the rocky spine, his specialised gloves and boots providing purchase where none should exist, protecting him from being rendered into a dismembered statue by its icy surface.  He traverses it quickly and peers down at her hiding place.  Gone.  That’s fine, nothing wrong with dragging this out a bit.  He finds he would rather exchange a few words with her first than go in all guns blazing.  A spot of cat and mouse will be good for them both.  Then a dark eyelid rumbles open in the rock beside him, and a green eye the size of his head stares wetly out.  He stabs it so hard that the juice explodes out of in a long translucent squirt, leaping clear of the rock in time to avoid the creature’s jaws.  It had not been a beast when he climbed it – daemons again, trying to ruin his moment.  He rises from his crouch, draws and empties both his guns and finally spits a gob of phlegm into its open maw before turning his back on the collapsing thing – only to find himself looking down the barrels of two more guns, not too dissimilar to his own, one level with each of his eyes. 

The woman – no, definitely still a girl, surely mid teens at most – oh well, old enough to bleed and all that – the girl from Balkoth’s vision has him dead to rights, or would have if she had taken the shot, but she’s just standing there, staring him down with Those Eyes.  Their irises are currently fading from red through a sequence of ever darker purples, flirting with violet while avoiding the precise hue of his own.  Crucis is not concerned.  She’s only paces away, but if she does decide to fire he will know, and be somewhere else before her fingers get around to pulling any triggers.  He opts to wait and see what she does next, studying her features intently for some sign of kinship. 

It isn’t there.  She isn’t exactly human, or not quite, though she wears the guise of humanity entirely unselfconsciously – indeed she is beautiful, somewhat improbably so by any conventional measure.  The surreal symmetry of her features speaks more of a stylised painting than real tactile skin.  As something of an expert in human anatomy, he can tell at a glance she has been altered on levels superficial and fundamental, and yet he cannot find that echo he was looking for; that tempestuous undercurrent of the Other, the anathema within him of which they are all so afraid.  He has never met any kind of Eldar, so he cannot say for sure, and yet – he knows this is not his sister.  Not his nemesis.  Not at all.  This is meat.  New, improved, all singing, all dancing meat – but meat.  The uncanny valley swallows her, and Crucis stands alone.  She only confirms his damning verdict when she speaks, a silly reedy voice, at odds with the grim set of her ridiculous face. 

“You’re lucky my master hasn’t noticed you yet.  Who even are you anyway?  Should I kill you?  Would he not like it if I killed you?  I think I’d like to kill you.  You make my head feel wrong.  So does this place, but you’re making it worse hanging round back here.  You must like it here, right?  If you go away now I won’t kill you.  Master’s always telling me Not to kill people, and yet He’s always killing people, and sometimes he even tells Me to kill people, so you tell me what sense that makes.  If you just go away before he notices I came down here, then it won’t matter whether or not I killed you, so everybody’s happy and nobody’s wrong.  What do you say?”

Master’s always telling me not to kill people…  Definitely not his polar opposite, unless this is as saintly as humans ever get.  He wouldn’t put it past them but still, this doesn’t seem right.  She has the Eyes, and he fully plans to keep them as a souvenir, but the antithesis of Crucis would surely present a more – what’s the word – virtuous face than this.  If anything she sounds too much like him, toying with what she thinks is her prey, but Crucis acknowledges no master, and his built-up excitement over their meeting diminishes further each time she says the word.  Either Amon Dull already has her, or one of its daemonic underlings, or the Lord Magus is playing both sides, competing with himself, or else she’s under some other human’s thumb…  It hardly matters.  Just another human puppet, at best a lackey going through the motions.  How dare they mock him like this.  Was a genuine challenge too much to ask?  Why bother recruiting him at all?  More like press-ganging him.  We’ll see about that, he resolves with a growing sense of betrayal.

“I say I’m going to kill you and eat your soul.  Then I’ll do the same to your Master, and all the rest of your pointless little gang.  Everything is over for you now, and it’s your own fault for Disappointing Me.  Do you have any idea how far I’ve come?  And for what?  Such a waste of my genius.  You disgust me.  All of you do, but especially You.  What do you say to that, meat?”

“I think you might be too mean Not to kill, whatever master says.  Oh well.”

She fires, but he sees it coming and is already midway through a forward roll, drawing another long knife as he goes, an alien God of vengeance bearing down.  Bullets fly but he’s too close, too indignant to be denied.  She hurdles his first slash and gets a kick into his face – this meat is fast but he’s faster, inside her reach and he’s done this a thousand times before.  She’s wearing a lightly armoured body-glove; against him it might as well be silk.  He headbutts her in the gut, disarming her with short, brutal swipes to both wrists as she doubles over.  Then he slams his blade down through her left foot, rams it into the ground and pins her there, the killing frost surging up to meet her blood and freeze it in her veins.  He lets go and stands back, unsurprised to hear her scream, but before the ice can ascend far she kicks out with her other foot and snaps off the knife at its hilt, grunting as she tears free and spins away, avoiding an experimental swing of the short sword he has just drawn.  The curving streamer of blood that trails her injured limb freezes into a brittle spiral that his boots stamp into shards.  She has knives of her own out now, fending him off with passable skill, considering her obvious inexperience.  Probably she has a few combat mods in there.  He draws a second short sword, using his longer reach to drive her before him, forcing her to put weight on her wounded foot.  Somehow she maintains her balance, biting her lip in concentration; he cuts her again, this time across the upper arm.  This seems to provoke her and her strikes become more aggressive, baring her immaculate teeth as she tries and fails to settle the score. 

He’s procrastinating on purpose, he admits to himself.  When she’s dead he will, in a way, have admitted defeat.  He knows he has to do it but part of him still clings to the faint hope this might all be an elaborate ruse, a feigning of weakness by a supremely cunning foe intended to put him off his guard.  Let him pretend it might be so for just a few more seconds.  Maybe he’ll cut off her nose to fill the time.  Funny really, how important noses are to human composure.  The same goes for lips, but those are much more fiddly to remove.  Nobody likes to see a skull peeking through, reminding them of their own mortality, or some equally pathetic explanation.  Pretty girls always lose it when you cut off their nose, especially teenagers…he lapses momentarily into reminiscence, nearly losing an eye to the break in his concentration.  This one is hungry, he’ll give her that.  She isn’t to know she’s beneath him, he supposes.  Maybe she was told the same lies he was and believed them without question, drunk on youthful naivete.  Sorry girl, you aren’t like me.  Just a cheap knock-off.  We can’t be friends, so you’ll just have to make do with the honour of being killed by the one and only Crucis.  Where’s your master now?

Then he sees the Light.  Intense beyond colour, warm and cold and harsh and soft all at once, and all in balance – not the crass, bombastic fire of humanity’s undead Emperor, but something innocent and profound.  This too he recognises from the vision Balkoth showed him, and hates it on instinct without fully understanding what it is.  In the centre of the light stands a girl, not much older than the one he’s still lazily fighting.  She’s empty-handed and dressed all in white, padding down the steep incline as if in a dream, sure-footed as a spider on its web.  She’s isn’t perfect, merely human, and yet the beguiling strangeness of the Other dwells within her, the cold of these mountains cannot touch her, or will not, and if she even sees their savage blade-dance she is not deterred.  Her eyes are incandescent stab-lights in the landscape’s brooding gloom.  Her voice is sweet and assertive in equal measure, childlike and wise.

“Hello there.  I’m Clarity.  You have so many strings, and they’re all tied up in knots.  But it’s okay now, I’m here to help.  You won’t have to dance for them any more.”

“Nemesis?”

But then the first girl stabs him in the armpit, a bracing jolt of pain, nearly slicing his groin with her other knife before he catches her wrist, one abandoned short sword sliding away downhill. 

“That’s quite enough out of you, meat.” 

He sticks her good with the other one, twisting the blade as he rips it out, breaking her trapped wrist as he throws her down on her back.  Then he turns back to the shining Saint, flicks blood off his blade and advances as if to embrace an old friend, beaming with renewed expectation.  The light enfolds him like a lover’s arms, and Clarity returns his smile, reaching out with delicate fingers to brush his cheek.

“Kely, get back!  He’s about to–”

White light surges into darkness, and suddenly Crucis is blind.  He feels himself sliding back, unable to find any purchase on his surroundings, tumbling down a sinkhole into the echo of a dream.



=][=


He sees a world, first among nine in slow orbit around the light of a sparkling star.  Over the planet some great vessel hangs in silent vigil, and clusters of tiny lights zip to and fro among the ponderous bodies of the system.  The vessel is almost impossibly huge, a world in its own right, and everything about its graceful curves and smooth, organic structure are unmistakably alien to the eye.  But at the same time, there is something familiar there.  Aeldari, Balkoth whispers…  A Craftworld.

Closer, descending towards the planet below.  He soars over jagged mountains and bleak, sand-blasted deserts, seeing only death at first.  In some of the arid, desolate zones, he finds the remains of crumbling cities and fallen temples, absent visible iconography to recall their forgotten gods.  Civilisation itself is dead and gone, sacrificed on some blood-soaked altar, burned out like a disease.  On closer inspection there are plains too, vibrant slices of life as green as an Aranis sky, and in places he even glimpses what might be settlements, huddled into natural creases in the land as if in frightened submission.  Forests cling to the edges of the mountain spines that snake their way across the patchwork landscape, and the contrast is starkly clear.  Portions of this world still bloom with vitality, even while the rest is a blasted wasteland devoid of any trace.  In a certain light it might even appear to be on the road to recovery.  But there are cracks everywhere, deep and menacing as they fall away beneath him into the untold depths of the earth.  On this world, even what passes for paradise knows Pain.  Its name is Aithol, or Aestimus to the humans who dwelled here for a time – Balkoth knows this and so in turn does he, without ever being told in so many words.  There are no humans left here now, and Aithol was never meant for the likes of them in any case.

Closer, and he can hear the laughter again. More than that, he can see them; the children that play in the trees like phantoms, exposed and vulnerable before the terrible future he knows is approaching.  Tall, slight and delicate, their eyes are wide and bright, and their ears stand out immediately with their tapered points.  So similar to humans at a glance, and yet so far removed…similarly weak and worthless in the end.  The older Eldar keep a watchful eye on their clambering spawn, for all the good that will do them when the monsters come again.  Their dwellings squat close to the ground, clutching tightly at the rock as if in terror of being plucked away by the hand of some malevolent deity.  Their fear is entirely justified, of course.

Closer.  Deeper.  And now he sees through it all, down into the heart of this sickly planet and through the buried walls of something more ancient even than the bedrock.  His vision is flooded with light once again, pure and penetrating.  It finds its way into every corner of his being, and it soothes his sight to see, and the soothing sears his soul until he screams.  There are images swimming in the light, the faint shapes of towers and tunnels, and those soft organic curves that echo the Craftworld in the sky.  For a heartbeat he glimpses endless gleaming shelves, crowded with books that give off their own alluring glow, and crystals that burn like ruptured stars, set deep into walls like a dragon’s bones.  Every sensation is a breath of peace and serenity, and yet something in him squirms, violently revolting against this place, even as it continues to draw him in.

Closer, and he sees it at last.  The Child.  So this is where the light has been coming from.  Like the children in the forest, and yet also unlike anything he has ever witnessed – no, that isn’t right – damn you Balkoth, I’ve seen all this before!  It is radiance given form; all the shining intensity of a thousand supernovas, condensed into a blazing core that shimmers like water as it illuminates and distorts everything it touches.  Yet for all its power, there is an innocence here that is almost tangible.  He can taste it in the air, that untouched, incorruptible wholeness he has glimpsed before in the eyes of the very young, moments before he goes to work on them.  Unafraid, because they no more comprehend the idea of death than they do of evil.  Their world still has novelty, still gives hope and shines with beauty.  He reaches out…

Then the Child opens its eyes, and they consume him.



=][=


Suddenly the sounds of battle surround Crucis, without any discernable shift.  He lays about himself but his blade finds only empty air.  Too many voices are yelling at him; he can’t make out more than fragments.  Did someone say Balkoth was here?  Something hits him everywhere at once – for a moment he soars, sightless, weightless, and then the prodigal pain returns.  He rolls and jounces his way from one hard impact to the next, tucking in his limbs, weapons abandoned, just trying to ride it out.  Clarity speaks to him again, just another voice in his head now, transcending physical form.

“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine – her friends will take good care of her.  Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes.  My poor child, you’re so confused!  Let’s see if we can’t do something about those strings.”

And with that, as if the threads she reaches out to unravel are the very ties that bind the present to the future, and by turn a future present to this past, Teleos Rahn is ousted from his immersive perspective on these events.  He remembers that he is not, was not here, does not belong – he is not Crucis after all, and fears he may have made a terrible mistake.



=][=


M42.120, Aboard Redacted, The Warp


The first thing he noticed on his return to the cell was the yawning emptiness of the pit below him, across whose mouth he remembered metal bars and wherein he strongly felt that something dangerous should be.  Then he felt a hard shove in the small of his back, and simultaneously gave a hard shove to an armoured man with a horned helmet, such that it was only when he struck the floor of the pit that a more certain sense of identity was jarred back into his protesting flesh.  The Force Armour took the worst of the fall, cancelling out its own weight with an answering psychic surge, without which he might just have broken his neck.  Nevertheless he hurt all over beneath the suit, as if covered in acid burns. 

He was Inquisitor Teleos Rahn, and the one he was not was Crucis, the murderous Xenos he had been and had never been, who rightly belonged in this pit.  Now he was down here and it was up there, with no logical explanation as to how their roles had been reversed, save that while he gazed so deeply into the abyss, he must have failed to notice what had been climbing out of it.  Its aura was a black stain on the many-coloured tapestry of the Empyrean, hanging over his head like a personal storm cloud.  Glancing into it gave him an instant migraine that ramped up until he yelled aloud, clutching at his head.  Crucis paused for a moment to crow down at him, cackling with self-satisfied glee, understandably triumphant.

“Never send a boy to do a man’s job, am I right?  See how you like it down there, meat.  So much for the Inquisition.  Don’t you worry, I’ll be right back – I’m going to need tools for this.”

Tools – he still had his weapons – locked on to his suit, thank the Emperor.  By the time he got around to reaching for his gun the alien’s false face had retracted from view, but if Crucis could climb out then so could he, and his enemy was still unarmed. 

“Lancet, if you can hear me, seal the door.  If not the door then the deck.  Don’t let it have the run of the ship.”

That was enough to send Crucis darting for the exit, sparing no more words for the fallen Rahn, while Lancet gave no answer either.  Its footsteps were soundless but he heard the bolts sliding back, hinges creaking and then it was free, his headache receding to a merely agonising level as the monster raced away.  By the time he made it out of the pit himself, the psychic echoes of distant violence were already thick in the air. 


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on December 05, 2020, 05:54:21 PM

Pain & Purpose – III


“You will suffer, and others will suffer, as a direct result of your choices, whatever course you follow.  For every living being this is true, and doubly so for anyone involved in the Inquisition.  We cannot escape it, nor quantify the potential harm averted by our actions half so easily as the manifest suffering we opt to cause in its place.  Whether suffering gives rise to a defiant strength in its survivors, as the Istvaanians would have it, or whether there is a special righteousness in enduring without complaint, as many a martyred Saint and their followers would espouse, none of us escapes the experience of pain, nor the responsibility for inflicting it on others.  I emphasise this to you now in an effort to be transparent, there being no variations of my plan that will not require you and those around you to endure unpleasant extremes.”

“Well then, I appreciate your candour, but it may be to your detriment if you expect me to agree.  Could you perhaps be more specific about these extremes?  I have never encountered much need for performing torture, nor am I fond of being tortured myself – or have I misconstrued your meaning there?  With so much emphasis on suffering, I can hardly fail to picture instruments of excruciation.”

“I was speaking in a wider sense but yes, those are possibilities.  This much I can promise, however – that I will never ask you to endure pain without purpose.  When you suffer in pursuit of my goals, it will be because you are required to suffer in order to succeed.  When you are called upon to cause what might seem like excessive suffering by implementing some prior choice of mine, or simply in the course of surviving long enough to fulfil your obligations, every sacrifice will be a vital one to make.  I might rightly be called ruthless by allies and enemies alike, but I do not engage in waste.  There is value to be found everywhere, but with the stakes as high as they are in this case, even the most desirable outcome will come at a significant price.”

“‘Welcome to the Inquisition’?  Believe it or not, I’m familiar with moral dilemmas, and well aware of the grand scope of human suffering.  As you pointed out, some measure of harm will be caused whether I go along with you, walk away, or try to take you in.  If you won’t provide details of what you need from me then don’t be surprised when I keep asking for them, but I don’t need a lecture on professional ethics from a man already declared Extremis Diabolis.”

“Be reasonable, Teleos – lacking precise knowledge of which among countless paths the future will follow, and the trepidation arising from that uncertainty, is hardly a burden you alone must endure.  I am telling you that which should hold true to the best of my knowledge, in terms of fundamental principles and themes – I have few specific details to share of what you will need to do, because the distant future hasn’t happened yet and could still take many forms.  There are more competing agendas at play here than you can comprehend.  You may, if you survive, walk away when your part is done, to resume your duties as you see fit and put the whole business behind you.  You may even understand the purpose of it all by the time you reach the end, but to get there you will almost certainly have to overcome more than your fair share of pain.  I will expect you to do so, without excuse, for as long as you represent me.  Welcome, one might say, to Life.”



=][=


M42.120, Aboard Redacted, The Warp


Given the famously impregnable nature of the fearsome prison vessels employed by the League of Blackships and their affiliates in the Inquisition, especially from the perspective of any psyker – which Crucis was by dint of species, despite its modified exterior – one might easily assume that any jailer on board such a ship would have every advantage over an escaped fugitive.  In some ways this was indeed the case, for the psychic dampeners permeating most of Redacted were successfully containing many of the monster’s unconscious emanations – although not quite all of them, as evidenced by the continued pain in Inquisitor Rahn’s skull.  It therefore seemed possible that at least some of Lancet’s mysterious Astropaths might survive this disaster intact, safe in their own private quarters.  However, since Rahn himself was also a psyker, he too was vulnerable to all the countermeasures a more typical jailer might have relied on in this situation.  In addition to the general discomfort of spending any time below the Command Decks, the dampeners found in major thoroughfares interfered badly with his telepathic abilities, preventing him from bringing the full might of his Psykana training to bear in tracking Crucis down.  It also seemed evident as the mangled remains continued to mount up that a crew consisting almost entirely of mono-task servitors, each one oblivious to a wider universe beyond its own personal function, were significantly inferior to the dedicated staff who would normally have performed those duties on a Black Ship, at least when it came to responding dynamically to a sudden internal crisis. 

Most of the bodies he came across still sat at their consoles, sprawled forward over whatever they had been set to mend or monitor, leaking their fluids into ancient machinery.  Here and there a circuit had been compromised, yellow sparks dancing over scorched metal and sizzling flesh in a fractious web.  So far they had lost perhaps a few dozen servitors, which felt like a drop in the ocean when he considered the probable total complement – surely measured in the tens of thousands at the least for a voidship of this size, although this was one of many questions whose precise answer Lancet had declined to share with him.  There would also be a number of spare servitors stored somewhere on board, ready in case of misadventures during Warp travel if nothing else.  Unless Crucis was prepared to spend days or weeks personally butchering each and every one of those, the pressing danger was in the compromising of machinery vital to the running of the ship, and yet Rahn had no firm idea what most of the equipment he passed even did, where each component fitted into the greater whole or how important any particular device might be.  These matters were ever the province of Tech-Priests, not Inquisitors, and the gore-drenched terminals invoked an irrational fear in him that at any moment all the lights would go out, the steady rumble of the engine would still, and the Gellar Field would fail.  If anything so catastrophic did take place as a result of this rampage, then with so much psychic activity on board to attract the wrong kind of attention, they would likely all be dead before they had a chance to scream.

Of course, the loss of any key crew to Crucis would also present a serious threat to the outcome of their voyage, given how few sentient individuals he knew for sure were aboard in the first place – discounting bound daemons that meant himself, Lancet, Wysp and Urania, plus a choir of Astropaths he was still yet to meet, and surely the implicit Navigator, whose very existence Lancet denied but who Rahn was increasingly certain must exist, for how else could their vessel have gotten this far?  That last and most mysterious officer was also the most crucial if indeed they did exist, which the monster surely knew as well as he did.  If it wanted the ship for itself and intended to survive afterwards, Navigation would be the obvious target for an attack, closely followed by either the main Bridge or Engineering, personified by Lancet and the Magos respectively.  Having no direct line to any hypothetical Navigator and still unable to raise Lancet by any means, Rahn tried opening a vox-channel to Urania, tagging the call as maximum priority.  All he received was a hiss of static, which could have meant any number of things, most of them unpleasant to contemplate. 

He resisted the urge to change course, for he had nearly reached the armoury now, having taken his enemy’s talk of acquiring tools to mean it would be after weaponry first of all.  The thought of anything as remarkable as the Force Armour, or as terrible as the Blasphemer Cannon, ending up in the hands of an already lethal foe was too awful not to prioritise, and he fancied Urania would approve of his reasoning.  You’re on your own for the time being, Magos…a necessary evil.  Crucis had already done plenty of damage here bare-handed, or with whatever improvised weapons it had found in the course of its flight, and Rahn had no wish to find out what it might accomplish with a power sword or worse.  Half the gear he had seen in the armoury would be impossible to wield aboard ship at all without a serious risk of a hull breach.  Knowing Crucis as well as he did now after briefly sharing its perspective, he knew it would jump at the chance to doom them all if its own defeat seemed imminent, and was determined to prevent it from gaining any such opportunity. 

Wysp was already waiting for him when he got there, fully geared as she had been for the assault on the spire of Hive Tuvak, with half a dozen weaponised servo-skulls flitting around her like angry bees, their tiny underslung gun implants roving restlessly, in search of a target that was nowhere to be seen.  Her enclosed helm was every bit as expressionless as his own, but even through its psychic shielding he could detect a hint of nervous excitement as he drew near.  Contrasting sharply with this impression, her rigid stance betrayed nothing but deadly purpose, her mechanised shell devoid of any reassuring human tics or twitches.  Her possibly-synthesised voice sounded surprisingly calm considering the situation.

“Good to see you still in one piece, Inquisitor.  Stop looking so slumped for Throne’s sake – sure you’re an idiot for letting it get past you, but I’ll bet this is at least partly Lancet’s fault too, same as everything else that goes on around here.  At least you’re trying to do something about it.  I haven’t heard a peep out of him since this all kicked off.”

“Neither have I, and Urania’s offline too.  You don’t think…?  But there’s no way Crucis could have gotten to both of them so fast.”

“In that case I say we go for the Magos first – whatever Lancet is up to he’s fine, no question.  Bastard will outlive us all.  She’s more essential than he is anyway, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I thought you hated both of them?”

“I do, but I’m supposed to be in charge of crew security, at least in theory – if the Magos gets murdered by an escaped prisoner I’ll never hear the end of it.  The last thing I need is Fabraxis after me to justify their loss, assuming we could make it back to realspace without her.  I don’t even own most of this body, according to them.  You got everything you need to fight this thing if it takes me down?”

“Well I did arm up before the interrogation – yes, I realise it didn’t help – but I figure I’ll grab a shotgun too while we’re here.  We’ll have to wait and see if it’s enough.  Have you had a chance to take inventory?  Be good to know what we’re up against there.  In fact are you certain Crucis isn’t hiding in the armoury somewhere?”

“Positive.  My auspexes mostly don’t have a great range but I did a circuit of the place.  Close up I can see every mote of dust, plus the place is crawling with servo-skulls, though we did lose all those that were active in here when the xenos attacked.  Not only is it long gone now, nothing too exotic is missing either – it didn’t even find the Vault, though we do seem to be down a pair of autopistols and most of a rack of edged weapons.  Oh, and a few grenades are gone from the red cabinet.”

The comfort of the familiar must have won out over curiosity, thank the Emperor.  Finally a bit of luck, not that blades and bullets were an insufficient threat in those hands.  Although…

“Grenades?  I don’t like the sound of that in these cramped corridors.”

“There’s plenty not to like, Inquisitor.  The sooner we kill the abomination, the less chance there is of it blowing a hole in anything we can’t do without.”

“Medicae Deck it is then – Throne, what about the bound daemons?  We had better pray it doesn’t find Bauchan’s swords and decide to go for an upgrade.”

“From the way you talk about this this thing, I don’t imagine it needs one.”


=][=


“I will see this universe, this reality, everything, end.  Everything dies eventually.  I will die, you will die, even your master Nine Eyes will die some day.  He boasts of the only constant being change, yet he should realise the only constant is death.  Pain and death.  One day everything will be dead and all that will remain is dust, ash and the ruins of the universe.”
- Crucis, M41.999

“Passion, sensation, thought, feeling; the screaming, snarling, primal urge of life itself…that is the food of the Gods.  People speak of a soul as if it were a possession, something to be saved or lost, but none of them owns such a thing.  They are a crop, harvesting itself in endless cycles of life and death, and the mind no more owns the soul than it does the body.  Each burns brightly for a time, and each breaks down and withers before long.  Each feeds the scavengers.  Life feeds on life.  Chaos is just another one of its faces.”
- Lord Magus Balkoth, M41.999


=][=


As they sprinted towards the Medicae Deck, which ran for kilometres beneath the vessel’s spine, beginning just fore of the command decks and extending almost as far as the prow, and was currently occupied by Magos Urania’s sprawling maze of ad hoc engineering workshops, Wysp began broadcasting an encoded short-range signal she described as a ‘call to arms’, though it was incomprehensible noise to Inquisitor Rahn.  By this means she was successful in luring a patrolling team of combat servitors, the closest Redacted had to armsmen, who might otherwise have continued blindly on their predetermined circuit throughout the emergency, into falling in behind her.  Like the lumbering menials and the hunched specialists at their consoles, these too were mono-taskers – as aggressively armed as Wysp herself but shorn of surplus personality, lacking the capacity for initiative or introspection, or indeed any conscious thought not related to the use of their equipment, and the contrast did not end there.  Wysp’s wholly bionic form was not overtly feminine, but there was still a certain elegance to her external design when viewed alongside these ugly, ungainly things.  Where she was sheathed from head to foot in gleaming armour plates, their torsos were all exposed flesh and naked cables, their pallid skin etched with scars and bulging with vat-grown muscle, loudly masculine in their skeletal structure, the better to carry as much of that muscle as possible and put it to brutish use.  Their implanted weapons were half again as large as hers and hideously crude by comparison, no more than repurposed industrial tools in some cases.  Wherever these servitors had originally come from, they had evidently failed to receive the benefits of any mysterious Fabraxian upgrades. 

Suddenly he found his mind intent on imagining what Wysp’s actual face might look like under there, assuming she still had one.  Maybe someone had cut off her nose along with the rest of her, prompting her to hide her disfigurement behind this metal wall.  Women hate it when you cut off their nose…but no, that wasn’t right, Teleos Rahn had never cut off anyone’s nose.  He hardly needed to resort to the clumsy mallet of mutilation when telepathy provided such a versatile scalpel for cutting his way to the truth.  This was Crucis bleeding through again.  But bleeding through from where?  Were these still the echoes of his foolhardy foray into an alien dreamscape, or were they getting close to the monster itself? 

Then something exploded with a thunderous bang, as if triggered by his thought, throwing them all to the floor in a burst of shrapnel.  Jets of steam hissed out from newly ruptured pipes, fogging his upturned visor.  Just a frag grenade rigged into a simple, motion-activated trap, and thankfully neither he nor Wysp had any flesh exposed, but the shock alone was enough to leave Rahn lying dazed for long moments, though his comrade got back to her feet immediately.  She appeared none the worse for wear, but seemed enraged by the attack and charged off down the hall with a yell.  Shattered servo-skulls littered the deck around him.  One of the combat servitors had taken the worst of the grenade and been torn to gory shreds; the others ignored its remains as they pounded dutifully after Wysp. 

Rahn made it back to his feet and caught a glimpse of the last straggler’s heels disappearing around a corner.  The sound of gunfire echoed back to him from the same direction, and hearing this he stumbled into a headlong sprint, the hefty boarding shotgun he had taken from the armoury clutched tightly against his armoured chest.  Urania’s maze of workshops was just up ahead, which meant Wysp had been right about Crucis heading this way.  Having studied, seen and briefly been the monster they were up against, Rahn did not fancy her chances without his support, power weapons notwithstanding.  The force axe clamped across his back was itching to be used but he had resolved to try the shotgun first, unwilling to engage the Drukhari assassin in hand-to-hand combat in an enclosed space if it could possibly be avoided.  He would only need one good hit; with the enemy immobilised, Wysp and her servitor squad would swiftly dismantle whatever was left. 

Except that he had fallen behind, and Crucis had already been hard at work.  Rahn could not even reliably tell where one corpse ended and the next began, for the whole of the scene that met his eyes as he crashed into Urania’s quarters was playing out against a backdrop of splattered pseudo-human remains, their vital fluids splashed over nearly every visible surface.  Another of the combat servitors was just in the process of being messily decapitated by a slim, gently curving chainsword that looked like Aeldari workmanship, while the pistol in Crucis’s opposite hand lazily strafed nearby machinery, firing without looking into shelves of delicate instruments and cogitator screens.  The shivering hunch-backed bulk of Magos Urania flitted madly back and forth behind him, her mechadendrites flailing as if in physical pain, apparently trying to salvage what she could, even as the damage continued to escalate.  There were at least two bullet-holes in the Magos herself, which might have explained her distress, except that Rahn knew Tech-Priests well enough to recognise her horror at the thoughtless destruction of these holy relics, whose care and maintenance was her sacred charge.  He doubted she had even noticed being repeatedly shot, although that at least suggested neither of the bullets had found its way to any of her vital components. 

As the servitor’s head struck the floor, or more accurately splashed into a puddle of entrails formerly belonging to one of its squad-mates, an already battered, blood-covered Wysp ran headlong at Crucis in what must have been her second charge.  The shoulder-mount for her treasured bolt pistol had somehow been snapped right off, with only a broken stump remaining and no sign of the gun itself.  Suspended overhead was the hovering metal sphere Rahn thought of as Urania’s familiar, surrounded by a blazing psychic nimbus, shedding ripples of energy before his inner eye as it tried to focus whatever power it held on the invader, whose own aura was now a boiling cauldron of tar-black slime shot through with writhing violet streaks.  Rahn had his shotgun aimed and braced but even had Wysp not moved into the way, Urania and her tormented equipment were directly behind Crucis from where he stood, already in the line of fire.  Stalking deeper into the room, he stepped carefully through the carnage in search of a better shot, his eyes tracking the relative motion of the combatants while he prayed for an opening.  If Wysp could catch the chainsword in her enormous right fist, or even get in a solid parry with the sword that made up most of her left arm, then the power field in either weapon might allow her to shatter her opponent’s toothy blade.  Crucis knew that too of course, and had tailored its tactics accordingly.

Wysp moved impressively fast considering the weight of all her bionics, but it was obvious the Xenos was faster still, swaying back and forth like a flame in a gusting wind.  The momentum behind her strikes meant that every time she failed to connect, the effort required to abort the attempt inevitably left her over-extended, at which point Crucis struck.  Thankfully she proved as resistant to damage as Urania, though the teeth of his chainsword ripped several ugly gashes into her protective plating, screeching and spitting orange sparks.  Rahn could tell their enemy was enjoying himself, probing for a weakness at his leisure – at its leisure, damn it.  This was a monster, not a man.  Again he cursed himself for his own arrogance, trespassing on such a twisted mind and expecting to come away clean.  It horrified Rahn how familiar Crucis seemed to him now, as if the two of them were old friends, their long association rekindled after years estranged.  Might something similar have occurred with Balkoth, back when all this began? 

But no, he had to focus.  Wysp was relentless in her assault but her movements were becoming jerky, hidden servos in her limbs complaining shrilly with every blow.  Either the outwardly superficial damage was already beginning to mount up, or her seeming inability to deal any in return, together with her continued proximity to this abomination’s malignant soul, were wearing her down on a psychological level, leeching the confidence and precision from her, one abortive swing at a time.  It was time he stopped observing and did something to help.  Abandoning his quest for a clear shot, Rahn hefted his shotgun and weighed in, wielding it like a club.  Crucis effortlessly side-stepped and the shotgun took the brunt of Wysp’s power fist, crumpling before the merciless energy field like a tin can.  Lacking time to reach for his axe, Rahn let the broken gun fall and sent a psychic flare into his gauntlets, sheathing his own fists in light.  Crucis laughed with delight as they attacked together, moving to try and catch the monster in between them and force it to fight on two opposing fronts. 

Then a wave of aethereal distortion crashed down on Crucis from the floating sphere, only to be violently repulsed by what felt like an unconscious psychic backlash; a sleeping dragon opening slitted eyes to swat half-heartedly at the flies who buzzed around its head.  The sphere-mind was struck by an expanding blot of darkness, swiftly followed by a burst of gunfire that sent it spinning through the air, to rebound from a wall and fall heavily to the floor, leaving a trail of thin smoke behind it.  Meanwhile Wysp stabbed low with a full-bodied thrust of her power sword, Rahn mirrored the motion with an overarm gauntlet jab, and Crucis leapt straight up into the air, passing clear over both of them to land in a feline crouch beside the damaged capsule.  Its chainsword shrieked through the metal in a long cut, and it turned the sphere on its axis to slice it neatly in half, cooing with appreciation at what it found within. 

The occupant was a disembodied human head riddled with coloured cables, suspended in a sealed jar of some viscous fluid, that sat in turn within a halo of arcane components covered in tiny blinking lights.  Its facial muscles were caught in twitching spasms as it grappled with whatever Crucis had done to it, and might still do.  Help me, Rahn’s inner ear heard it cry – that telepathic distress call reached him just as the Drukhari staved in the jar with its chainsword and obliterated the helpless head.  Before its tortured soul could ebb away on the tides of the Warp – a human soul, for all its physical body had been pared down to this state – it was caught by an invisible current and drawn inexorably into the vortex that was Crucis, who gave a feral grin as it subsumed the captured essence and then theatrically smacked its lips.  In a shocking display of feeling, Magos Urania abandoned her stricken machines and let loose an ear-rending screech that ended in the dry pop of a blown vox-caster.  Then she collapsed into a heap, mechadendrites coiling and clutching at both of her own heads, like the hair of two conjoined gorgons bent on turning each other to stone.  Ignoring her completely, Crucis stood back to its full height and playfully revved the chainsword in Rahn’s direction, holstering the empty autopistol to draw a second, more straightforward blade. 

“Ah, that’s the stuff!  Nice to see you again so soon, Mr Meat – I know I said I’d be right back, but you know how easy it is to get distracted when you’re exploring somewhere new.  I have no idea who or what I just ate but did they ever hit the spot!  And who are these charming, uh, things?  I have to say, I’m starting to worry yours might be the only complete human body on this ship for me to take apart, which is bad news for both of us, since it means I’ll have to try and make you last as long as possible.  I’ve never been fond of restraining myself, but you clearly have a wider emotional range than you want to let on, so maybe torturing you slowly will prove more entertaining than I first thought.  This will be my first time working on a bona fide Inquisitor, even if you are a bit of a second stringer.  It’s past time somebody showed your lot how it should be done.  Oh, how did you like my memories?  Going to take some forgetting, I’ll bet.”

Resisting the urge to engage in any further debate with this beast, and refusing to dwell on the differently horrifying nature of the Familiar it had just killed, Inquisitor Rahn reached back to unlimber his axe. 

As with many Imperial psykers called upon to perform martial duties, he had always quietly coveted a personal force weapon, without any realistic expectation of ever obtaining one.  In theory he should have played a pivotal role in forging one for himself, fitting it to his needs and psychic quirks.  In practice, not only had the hidden Vault at the back of Redacted’s armoury turned out to contain a variety of such weapons, but each of those proved to be a blank slate still awaiting attunement, so these past months had given him the unexpected opportunity to experiment with more than one possibility, seeking a suitable, if not a perfect fit.  While his apparently unique suit of armour was undoubtedly the most powerful force weapon he had ever heard of in its own right, capable of channelling formidable amounts of psychic energy for offence as well as defence, he was accustomed to the extra range and momentum provided by having an implement in hand, and had gotten on badly in training with the sword that had initially been provided.  The staff he employed against the Fish had worked well, but the necessity of wielding it in both hands when surrounded by lesser daemons had resulted in having to abandon the Blasphemer Cannon, and he always preferred to have a hand free for a sidearm, even when fighting at close range. 

Having some past experience with a chain-axe, Rahn had ultimately settled on a one-handed force axe as most suited to his tastes.  Its shaft was gilded, rune-etched metal of an alloy he could not name, its heavy blade wide at the base, with a single curving edge that swept gracefully forward to a leading point that could thrust as well as cut, like the head of a glaive, or one of the many patterns of Imperial halberd.  After spending the better part of six weeks working on his attunement to this weapon, he had made it his own and felt ready to rely on the connection, although this would be the first time he wielded it against a genuine foe.  He did not have a name for it yet but that would come in time, assuming he survived the next few minutes.  Crucis raised an amused eyebrow as Rahn took the axe in hand, but did not seem concerned.

“It’s like that then, is it?  You know, even if you did somehow succeed in killing me, I’d still be in your head – you made sure of that when you went skinny dipping in mine.  Really I’ll be doing you a favour by bleeding you to death, sparing you the slow slide into madness.”

Again it was Wysp who moved first, not as sensitive to the hateful aura as Rahn himself, or simply more steadfast than he was under this kind of strain.  Her power fist swept a ponderous figure eight before her as she advanced, pressuring Crucis to either give ground or else make another leap and end up closer to Rahn, while her sword-arm drew back in preparation for a thrust, the point weaving in the air to track her target, waiting for her moment.  The Xenos forwent both of the obvious options and dived right under the onslaught, sliding through the blood on the deck to come up inside her guard and bring its chainsword tearing up into the back of her right elbow.  Her modular bionic arms were not especially thick, at least compared to the heavy-duty permanent implants of many servitors, and weakest at the joints.  Added to this it must have been an astoundingly good chainsword, wherever it had come from, for the elbow mechanism shattered and the oversized fist was sheared right off, robbed of its power in the same instant so that the glow around it suddenly went out, leaving a mere chest-sized chunk of heavy alloys to crash into a nearby cogitator and obliterate its display. 

Crucis gave Wysp a solid push, even as she whirled towards it with her remaining weapon trailing, and the imbalance in weight caused by the loss of the power fist was enough to send her spinning away, to collide with an oncoming servitor and carry them both to the deck.  Before the monster could take advantage, Rahn and two more servitors closed in at the same time, attacking from three separate directions.  Somewhere an unfamiliar alarm was shrilling, not the shipwide emergency klaxon but something else, perhaps set off by all this wanton destruction of devices belonging to the Magos.  Urania had apparently fled but would surely be out for revenge, assuming she could recover from the loss of her psychic Familiar in time to act decisively.  Crucis parried the sweep of Rahn’s axe with lazy alacrity, stabbing out with the short sword in its off-hand to impale a servitor’s throat before its hydraulic claws could close, then ducking crisply to avoid the other, whose momentum carried it on past.  The chainsword and the force axe clashed twice more, with a one-armed Wysp still struggling to regain her feet.  What started as hopefully lethal blows were transformed into desperate parries before they made it halfway to the Drukhari, for Rahn was suddenly unsure how effective his armour would be against a chainsword, concerned by the possibility of a lucky strike damaging the arcane circuitry.  The old wound in his side, left by a similar set of cutting teeth, gave a psychosomatic twinge every time the weapon moved in his direction.

Aiming to surprise his opponent, he ramped up the strength of his next swing by an order of magnitude, and his armour flared with light that passed on into his axe as the blow connected, batting the chainsword clear out of Crucis’s hand, taking the tip of a stray finger with it and eliciting a grunt – nothing like a scream, but the first expression of discomfort he had heard from the creature so far.  Far from being incapacitated, it had a pistol drawn in the blink of an eye, putting half a dozen rounds into the second servitor as it came on again.  Before Rahn could form another movement it was lunging at him with quicksilver speed, inside the arc of his axe with the point of its short sword aimed squarely for the centre of his visor.  He narrowly twisted his head aside, managed to only sustain a glancing scratch that scored along the side of his helmet, then got lucky and caught the blade in the curve of one of his horns, snapping it in half.  Inspired, he tried for a headbutt, but Crucis had already disengaged, the broken end of its weapon discarded, chasing after the lost chainsword that had already served it so well.  It fired at him behind its back, the low-calibre bullets leaving shimmering silver ripples across his armour, like droplets falling into water.  He barely felt the impacts but could not match the Xenos for speed, and it had the chainsword back in hand before he was halfway there.

“I’ll give you this, Mr Meat – you are certainly well packaged.  I’ll bet you feel pretty safe behind all that fancy gear you got from Balkoth.  You should have seen some of the toys he offered me, but I like to keep it simple, you know?  More of a challenge this way.  I’ll have you out of your shell soon enough, and then we’ll really see what you’re made of – I’m guessing blood, bones, all the usual mess.  In my extensive experience, everyone looks the same under their skin.”

“You might be surprised there, monster.  With some of us it’s just steel all the way down.”

This was Wysp again, grimly resolute as she stepped past Inquisitor Rahn, moving strangely now to compensate for her newly lopsided frame.  She stalked forward slowly, dragging her metal feet, knees bent to keep her centre of gravity low, her torso turned on its axis to lead with her left arm, its implanted power sword extended like a lance.  The Drukhari had gained some measure of respect from her, or at least imposed some limitations on her range of motion, yet her stance remained aggressive, unwilling to give up her part in the fight.  Rahn took the opportunity to draw his current sidearm, an intimidating Boatswain’s revolver that fired shotgun shells and was heavy enough to double as a mace, bringing it to bear as he moved to guard Wysp’s flank and threaten that of Crucis, his axe still sheathed in harsh white fire.  Then the high-pitched alarm intensified, and the thunder of what sounded like an approaching stampede made the deck underfoot vibrate.  It was coming from somewhere behind them, but Rahn could not afford to reach out with his mind, wary that Crucis might immediately capitalise on any lapse in his concentration.  The killer’s false face shifted quickly into a disappointed scowl, as if it had smelled something foul in the air. 

“What a tiresome spoilsport you are.  Come on then meat, I’ll race you to the Captain’s seat and we can finish this in style.”

Rahn fired his gun too late and Crucis was gone, skirting past Wysp to dive out through a side exit, even as the shotgun pistol blasted a ragged hole in the wall where it had stood.  Realising that whatever private countermeasures Magos Urania had at her disposal might not discriminate between alien monsters and human crew when it came to punishing the destroyers of her precious equipment, he did not wait to see what was coming, but tore off after Crucis with Wysp on his heels, cursing as he went. 

This passage was narrow and dimly lit, more a service tunnel than a proper thoroughfare, forcing them to run in single file, though its ceiling was too high to be seen.  The constant sense of peril intensified as they pursued their unseen foe, Rahn’s headache soaring back to a paralysing crescendo.  He was about to give a cry of alarm when his comrade shoulder-charged him hard enough to knock him off balance and throw him flat, hurdling his prone form in time to get in the path of a krak grenade that came sailing from the shadows in their direction.  The blast tore Wysp in half at the waist, smashed her legs into fragments, parted her remaining arm from its shoulder and threw pieces of armour plate high into the air, bouncing off the walls to clatter down around him on the deck.  A hysterical giggle reached Rahn’s ears in the aftermath of the explosion, his eardrums blessedly protected from the shock by his enclosing helm.  He fired the shotgun pistol twice in the giggler’s general direction and the malign presence receded, taking the worst of its aura with it.  Rising to his hands and knees, he crawled over to what remained of Wysp. 

Most of her armoured torso was still intact, albeit scorched black, shorn of half its pelvis and now all four limbs, with the breastplate badly cracked into the bargain – hopefully whatever served as a power core had not been compromised, for he had no conception of how to effect even basic repairs, and doubted the Magos would be well disposed to help just now.  More worrying still, her ornate helmet was dented and had suffered a ragged puncture near the crown.  He wrestled with it for an agonising minute until he found all the locks and catches that held it in place and was finally able to wrench it off. 

Anastasia Wysp’s organic head was supported by a complicated brace, her scalp encased in a steel dome, her right eye fully bionic.  An articulated metal collar rose up from between her artificial shoulders to just below her jawline, concealing or replacing her neck.  Nestled within all this was the last vestige of her humanity – a recognisable human face, or most of one, with an aquiline nose and one natural eye, and even what looked like all her original teeth.  Her lips were faintly blue and her skin was the colour of parchment, ageless in the manner of a pickled corpse, where it was not sheeted in blood from an ugly gash across her left temple.  She appeared semi-conscious, blinking rapidly with her one eyelid, the sapphire light of her bionic eye pulsing on and off in time with the tiny movements of its fleshy counterpart. 

Then the blinking subsided and her gaze became intent, focusing on Rahn – or not his face but her own, reflected in the glassy surface of his visor.  Her lips formed a sneer, then moved as she tried to speak, but with no success.  A sound like a punctured balloon issued from her torso, accompanied by a faltering static crackle, perhaps of a hidden vox-port damaged or clogged with blood.  Her mouth shaped a soundless oath he could interpret well enough, but whatever usually produced her voice was no longer working as intended.  Wysp stared fiercely up at him, her expression angry beyond the capacity of any servitor short of an arco-flagellant.  Her unshielded thoughts hit his mind all at once in rush of violent emotion, clenching his teeth and balling his hands into straining fists.

Exterminate it kill it make it suffer make it die, let the Emperor forget it ever profaned His sight!

No pain, no fear, only fury.  Rahn had let the monster loose, and now he was wasting time here while it continued its rampage.  He sent I’m sorry before he could stop himself – hardly thinking like an Inquisitor, or making good use of telepathy, given nothing was impairing his own ability to speak aloud.  She glowered at him harder still, the surface of her mind filling with what she wished to say, lit up like a neon sign before Rahn’s inner eye.

Don’t be sorry, be ruthless!  You’re the Inquisitor, so feth off back to the Command Decks and kill that fething Xenos filth.

“At least you’ve still got your nose.”

Why in the God-Emperor’s name had he said that?  Some treacherous part of him wanted to laugh, despite that nothing about this was funny, but if he started then he feared he might never stop.  Wysp’s lips moved again with exaggerated precision.

Go.  Make.  It.  Die.  Damn.  You.

Not if you were better at this, I’d still have all my limbs – but she didn’t have to say that to make it true.  Unable to meet her eyes any longer, he went to retrieve his axe and then set off at a run, following the nagging pain in his head. 


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on December 12, 2020, 03:41:41 PM

The Toll


“You will not be alone in your task, should you opt to undertake it in spite of your reservations.  I have maintained an extensive network of agents within the Imperium, kept separate from the various daemons with whom I have also been forced to deal.  Most of those human agents would barely recognise me as I am today, and yet they continue to serve me at a distance, and still receive what regular recompense my resources can provide.  They will serve you in turn, after a fashion, and my assets will be yours to call upon, for the duration of your appointment as my proxy.”

“So will it fall to me to ensure your ‘extensive network’ is managed effectively?  If so then I fear I may have little time left to accomplish whatever else it is you need from me.”

“Fear not, Teleos; I am well versed in the impracticalities of personally overseeing so many simultaneous operations, and aware of the need to prioritise matters requiring a personal touch.  The majority of my network is self-sustaining, requiring no outside input until such time as I find it useful to activate a particular asset.  Monitoring those elements at some remove and overseeing the minutiae of any active operations, I delegate to individuals I can trust.  For the duration of the relevant undertaking, many of my assets will be managed by one such agent of appropriate expertise, with whom you will liaise directly.”

“So help me, if it’s a daemonhost…”

“It certainly will not be a daemonhost, although when you get to know the man to whom I intend to delegate this role, you may find yourself wishing that it were.”



=][=


M42.120, Redacted, The Warp


As with nearly all Imperial vessels, and certainly those large and heavily armed enough to be considered Capital Ships, Redacted’s Command Decks were primarily concentrated into a protruding bulge found at the very top of the ship and situated close to the stern, although the lowest of them extended somewhat deeper into the main body of the hull, connecting at its leading end to the Medicae Deck, on which so much violence had so recently been unleashed.  On a purely military vessel these decks would have provided the officer class with comparatively comfortable lodgings, amenities such as a chapel and gymnasium, and access to whatever sensitive equipment might be required to perform their respective duties.  In some few cases, those duties would have included interfacing with the ship’s own systems via the various terminals located on the highest, most exclusive deck that included the main Bridge.  In others, they might have involved some interaction with the Communications Array usually found at the very front of the bulge, otherwise known as the Astropath Sanctum, from where messages could be dispatched and received through the Warp itself by the Soul-Bound Astral Telepaths who dwelled there, and which therefore formed the vessel’s primary lifeline to the rest of the galaxy.  Taken together, all of this would have constituted a rarefied world of its own, as different to the Lower Decks in its landscape and local culture as one planet might be from another, for all there would necessarily be some traffic between the two. 

All these principles held true on a Black Ship, and yet there were additional concerns on a such specialised vessels, and these heightened the separation of the Command Decks to an extent seen almost nowhere else.  Not only must such a ship be heavily armed to protect its precious cargo; it also required significant secure hold space to contain the psykers it transported, together with specialised technology found not just in the hold but spread throughout most of the ship, to ensure those prisoners stayed safely contained, particularly during transit through the Warp.  So powerful were many of these countermeasures, including but far from limited to overlapping networks of psychic dampeners, that they often engendered unpleasant neurological side-effects in baseline human beings of no particular psychic talent, as an inevitable by-product of ensuring unbearable disorientation in more sensitive individuals. 

The toll a Black Ship exacted on those who spent their lives serving in such conditions might eventually manifest in any number of neuroses, and rare indeed were those whose term of useful service lasted anywhere near as long as their equivalents in the Imperial Navy.  The process of spiritual degradation could be mitigated to some extent by the employment of a carefully selected and pre-conditioned crew, but even the most dedicated and well-trained jailers of witches were only human in the end, with the possible exception of the legendary Sisters of Silence and the feared Culexus Temple – each of whom constituted a living, breathing psychic countermeasure in their own right, but whose extreme rarity prohibited any large-scale reliance on their particular attributes.  Humanity was after all a burgeoning psychic species, albeit it so mildly in most cases that it offered little more to them as individuals than the potential for predation by hungry warp entities – unless of course one considers some measure of positive psychic presence to be analogous to possession of a transcendent soul, and therefore access to any kind of Afterlife; a concept in which an overwhelming majority of Imperial citizens were deeply invested, without knowing anything meaningful about what really lay beyond. 

The Imperium’s typically ruthless solution to the problem was this – that a Black Ship’s Command Decks were intentionally exempted from most of the countermeasures employed throughout the rest of the vessel, with the divide between these zones strictly demarcated, psi-warded and policed, so that the high-ranking officers would not be subjected to the constant discomfort that must be suffered by those who served below them.  The Bridge and Communications Array were spared any direct psychic dampening, allowing for the occasional necessity for Astropaths and other Imperial psykers to play a role in the running of the vessel, as were those quarters set aside for officials of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica and members of the Inquisition.  While it might have been unnerving or depressing for almost any human officer to descend far below in the course of their duties, many among them would of course have been required to do so on a semi-regular basis.  This could never include any who were themselves sanctioned psykers, for they were liable to utter incapacitation when exposed to the full force of the technology in use on the Lower Decks, and seizures were common in any who dared to stray far below the bulge.  Potent psykers who were not officially considered prisoners commonly spent entire voyages confined to the upper Command Decks, cringing at the thought of what went on beneath their feet, discomfited by the mere proximity of such horrors. 

In the particular case of Redacted, many of these concerns were rendered moot by the lobotomised, unthinkingly servile state of nearly all its present crew, but while extensive modifications had been made to the ship’s interior by the Magi of Fabraxis, there remained a strong element of psychic suppression built into the very fabric of the Lower Decks, increasing in severity as one approached the cavernous hold that housed the cells themselves.  What might be kept in those cells now, Inquisitor Rahn had no way of knowing, being largely confined to the Command and Medicae Decks himself by the unforgiving technology – not that his habitual range was by any means a small area, given the vastness of the vessel.  He had even made a few armoured forays down beneath the Medicae Deck and past the serried Gun Decks, either to the Launch Bays where smaller craft were kept or to what he thought of as the Teleportarium, where the Warp Tunnel device resided, though never so far as the hold.  The Force Armour went some way towards mitigating the dampeners’ effects but did not entirely remove them, so that even with the arcane suit on, the stifling blanket of psychic absence in the tunnels down there had been almost too heavy for him to breathe.  The hold itself lay deeper still, closer to the stern, and Lancet had told him it was under Urania’s jurisdiction, yet the Magos had refused even to confirm this much and remained tight-lipped on the subject of their cargo.  Whether or not Crucis had been dredged up from there, the temporary cell in which Rahn had questioned the monster lay a mere two decks below Command, significantly more bearable to his own sensibilities and proportionally less secure.

Until very recently, he had fallen into the habit of thinking of the Command Decks as containing all the most important areas of the ship, for all he knew this was patently false.  Being free to employ his psychic abilities was inseparable from his capacity to think clearly, or had become so through long habit in the course of his life, so any personal attention he paid to the Lower Decks would have been functionally useless anyway.  So it was that the fact his enemy was now ascending towards the Bridge, rather than burrowing its way below where he would have struggled to follow, came as something of a guilty relief to him, in spite of the obvious peril of having such a destructive parasite worm its way into Redacted’s very brain.  Its species was at baseline far more attuned to the Warp than his own, so this direction was to be expected, even if Crucis was running mostly on instinct and rationalising its actions after the fact, or perhaps especially so if that were true.  Nevertheless Rahn was grateful to his God-Emperor, whose guiding hand he still perceived in many places, for allowing him to face this abomination on something approaching familiar ground. 

It was therefore a source of no small distress to him when he charged onto the main floor of the ship’s Bridge, its enormous viewing walls currently shuttered as was usual during Warp travel, only to neither see no mentally sense any hint of his enemy’s presence, save for the telltale headache that assured him it was still on board somewhere.  He saw no visible damage to the area, and there were even a number of functional servitors in evidence, intent upon their appointed tasks, oblivious to anything untoward – but no Crucis, and no Lancet either for that matter.  A moment of total panic seized him as he contemplated where else the Drukhari might have gone.  The Captain’s seat, it had said.  Traditionally, that would be in the Captain’s Cupola…

Crossing to the conspicuously empty briefing area in the approximate centre of the massive vaulted chamber, Rahn turned back to face the entrance and craned his neck to stare up at the high galleries overhead.  His eyes and mind sought out the uppermost balcony to which Lancet occasionally ascended, from where a Captain might conceivably preside but whose contents remained a mystery to Rahn, it being one of several areas away from which he had always been politely steered.  He supposed Lancet was their Captain, in every practical sense.  Maybe he even slept up there, assuming he was subject to such mundane requirements as rest.  But if Crucis had been up on that high-sided balcony with him, it surely could not have concealed its repulsive excuse for a soul, even from an inner eye so sore from over-exposure.  Either it had lied to throw Rahn off, or had gotten bored waiting for him and continued on elsewhere.  So where in the Emperor’s name was Lancet?  If he were here he would surely have announced himself by now.  Might he have fled the Bridge with Crucis in pursuit?  If so then fled to where? 

Astropaths.  Lancet dealt directly with the Astropaths, whose territory Rahn had never felt inclined to visit, despite the relative proximity of the Communications Array to his own quarters.  He often found himself ill at ease in the company of the Soul-Bound, given to the irrational feeling that they somehow monopolised the Emperor’s light in their own vicinity, leaving a merely Sanctioned telepath like himself relegated to the shadows, impure by implication, a mere step away from damnation.  Without the binding ritual that left them blessed, blind and sometimes lacking other senses too, dependant on their warp sight for even the most basic perception – which is to say, without Him On Terra’s personal involvement in their lives – attempting interstellar telepathic communication would have been comparable to waging war over similar distances entirely by means of thrown rocks.  Theirs was a height of perception and a nearness to the divine to which Rahn himself could never hope to ascend, and despite the obvious price they paid for the Emperor’s close attention, part of him resented those who dwelled on that higher plane.  He was aware of this thorn of envy as a moral weakness he must strive to overcome, for as an Inquisitor he enjoyed many privileges Astropaths were denied, including the luxury of mundane sight, and yet for all his efforts, the prejudice remained embedded in his mind.  He did however know where Redacted’s Communications Array could be accessed, if only so he could ensure he never accidentally strayed that way in the course of his own explorations, and began to head there now with increasing desperation. 

Traditionally the quarters of Astropaths were considered sacrosanct, but for the outermost chamber where authorised personnel were received; not that Lancet was ever unauthorised, or that the prohibition would present any barrier to Crucis.  There were numerous superstitions surrounding such Sanctums, but Rahn could easily imagine why an Astropath might require a measure of seclusion in order to focus their mind, especially on board a vessel that was in so many ways inimical to psykers of any kind.  Given that Drukhari fed on souls, and presumably those of psykers provided the most nourishment, Communications did seem like it might be a tempting target…except that Soul-Binding granted the Emperor’s own protection to those who survived the process, and Rahn certainly hoped it applied to all forms of alien predation.  Of course Crucis might not be aware of that, and the soul he had already seen it consume had first been released by means of a violent death, so even if the Emperor did intercede to preserve the spirits of the Astropaths from being eaten, their owners would still be dead thereafter, incapable of rendering any further service to the ship. 

Only through vehement use of his force axe, with the armour’s augmented strength behind it, was Rahn able to gain entrance to the Array, causing some considerable damage to three sets of doors in the process.  The interior was devoid of light, abyssal as an underground cave, but having crossed the final threshold, he had only to reach out with his psiniscience to ascertain that these chambers too were empty of anything but servitors – unless the Astropaths themselves were countering him, dynamically extracting their presence from his awareness before it could take conscious shape.  Whether or not they were doing so, he felt confident they would not be concealing Crucis, which meant he had chosen wrong again.  That only left…

“Damn you, Lancet, I knew it.  No thanks to the Navis Nobilite?  Then where did you get the images of that Throne-forsaken Fish?”

Rahn had even seen the Navigator Spires from outside for a moment, when he had taken out his sacrificial shuttle, surmounting the bulge of the Command Decks like a spiked crown on a tyrant’s brow – for all it might easily have been a hallucination, and despite that he had been justifiably preoccupied with a daemonic leviathan at the time, the image returned to him now with insistent clarity. 

The Navigator Spires were traditionally the highest point on any Imperial vessel, and the most ubiquitously restricted area of all.  Outside any external authority short of the Captain himself, they were the sovereign domain of the Navis Nobilite, those prestigious elites whose immeasurably wealthy clans monopolised astral navigation by virtue of a unique genetic mutation, allowing them to perceive and conceptualise the capricious currents of the Sea of Souls in such a way as to chart a vaguely reliable course.  In Rahn’s experience, Navigators were often condescending in the extreme to other psykers, to the point of denying their own interaction with the Warp could be described as psychic at all, however absurd a claim that seemed to him.  A Navigator Spire could be seen as roughly equivalent to the crow’s nest on an ocean-going ship, allegedly providing the best vantage point from which to view the Warp at large with minimal interference from below, though privately he suspected it might be more about making clear to everyone else on board how far beneath the Nobilite they were.  The Spires were invariably off limits to other officers without invitation, and very strictly so while in the Immaterium, for a Navigator’s Warp Eye was lethal to bystanders while in active use.  But maybe they would be empty after all.  Lancet had repeatedly implied that the Navis Nobilite had no stake in this voyage, which still seemed an outrageous assertion, yet Rahn had no trouble imagining why Balkoth might not have wanted a powerful Imperial institution charting routes to everywhere his agents were sent.  Their absent patron had achieved stranger things in his time than finding an alternative means of navigation for a single stolen vessel, if half the stories about him could be believed.  Stealing a Black Ship for his own private use in the first place had surely been no mean feat.

Rahn was wasting valuable time again, he realised.  Even if Lancet, Urania or Balkoth himself had somehow replaced Redacted’s original Navigators, it seemed plausible, even probable, that any forbidden Fabraxian substitute would be kept in the same location as the abhuman specialists it had usurped.  There was also the common knowledge that Imperial Navigators routinely enjoyed surroundings far more opulent than even the wealthiest Captains, and Rahn found he had no trouble picturing Lancet taking his ease in a private palace up on high, tapping runic sequences into some impossible warp-scrying cogitation machine while intricate symphonies played and the rest of them fought for their lives.  If Crucis burst in and smashed that machine, where would that leave Redacted?  Likely in the same situation as if a living Navigator had been murdered midway through a voyage.

To the Spires it was then, assuming he could find a way up.  How much of a head start did it have on him already?  In the event there was after all a more typical Navigator up there to interrupt, and the Drukhari assassin somehow failed to get to them first, Rahn felt confident his armour would protect him from any deadly energies, given that it had kept him alive outside the ship itself.  As for preserving his sanity, he feared that particular vessel might already have been lost to the Warp, but so be it.  What mattered now was hunting down Crucis, and cutting off his nose…  No, his whole head.  Its head.  He nearly hawked and spat, remembered his visor in the nick of time, unwilling to raise it even for a moment, swallowing instead.  What a fething day this had turned out to be, and so much for operational security.  Months into the mission and here he still was, bumbling around in the dark, trying and failing to find his feet in the midst of all this madness.  When the latest crisis was over, assuming they both survived, he fancied he might punch Lancet in the face.  The monster had been removed from stasis at his insistence, and where had he been when it all went wrong?  It would serve the conceited bastard right if Crucis ate his soul.


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on December 12, 2020, 03:42:36 PM

++ Denizens of Redacted, this is your Captain speaking – we are approaching an area of extreme turbulence within the Immaterium.  I would advise any among you bereft of a surgical lobotomy to brace yourselves for a traumatic and potentially fatal ride.  Please remain calm and refrain from abandoning all hope, as we enter what might accurately be described as Hell. ++

As if to underscore this baleful announcement, the vessel bucked and plunged so violently that Crucis was briefly turned upside-down, danglingly precariously from what had become the ceiling, clinging to the cold metal ladder by which he had previously been scaling the wall.  He guessed he must be at least halfway up this miserable tower by now, having gained access to its base via a poorly concealed passage at the zenith of the Bridge, but it would have been a destitute Navigator indeed who consented to such sparse decor, and he was already questioning the wisdom of having chosen this particular Spire.  There were three more he could have opted for, but his gut had insisted this one would contain something worth the climb.  His initial disappointment at the lack of palatial decadence to despoil, confronted by an ascending maze of ugly criss-crossed industrial platforms within a vast and otherwise empty cylinder, and not a single living thing to be seen, had been weighed against that instinct and found wanting. 

He was already tired of killing servitors, who rarely seemed to mind being dismembered, sucking most of the enjoyment out of the process.  Since scratching that ineffable itch that demanded consumption of a sentient soul, his thoughts had turned to the surely apocalyptic weapons with which the ship itself would be armed.  If the whole thing was automated as it appeared to be, then letting that automation continue unmolested meant he could have a lot more fun with Redacted when the officers were dead.  Crucis had always wanted to kill a planet.  Taking command of this prison-cum-warship and steering it to a world worth ending meant securing the Navigator, and making an example of whoever was calling himself the Captain – the voice on the announcement had not been Inquisitor Rahn, a.k.a. Mr Meat, which meant the man in control of ship systems was hiding from him somewhere, hoping his over-geared lackey would deal with the situation.  Maybe it was even Balkoth himself, but it didn’t sound like the Lord Magus either and Crucis highly doubted it based on this behaviour.  He looked forward to showing the coward how futile a strategy concealment was, if he hadn’t figured it out already.  If neither of the primary targets were up here, he could always search the other towers next, and ultimately he would find them – it was not as if his prey could leave the ship, and there must be some means of crossing between Spires without going all the way back down.  He reasoned anyone important would be right at the top somewhere, and probably intended for the industrial aesthetic to dissuade any over-eager void pirates from expecting any riches when they got there.  After he had the Captain and at least one Navigator at his mercy, anyone else who aspired to cause problems for Crucis, including the Inquisitor, could surely be relied upon to come to him. 

Conditions in the Spire deteriorated rapidly in the course of his ascent, true to the unseen Captain’s word, with the air temperature soaring and plummeting by turns, red and black icicles growing from gantries in apparently random directions, and moaning, weeping voices uttering incomprehensible nonsense all around him, as if speaking in grief-stricken tongues.  The colour of the light he saw by was perpetually shifting but where it came from was a mystery, and he cast numerous separate shadows that stretched and distended as he moved, some of them tearing loose altogether to scurry insectile ahead of their originator, seeking their own paths to the unseen summit.  Meanwhile the tower expanded and contracted in an irregular rhythm, as if it were a lung whose owner were choking on stale air.  His own olfactory glands were indeed being flooded with a phantom chemical reek, more offensive than the stink of servitor blood still soaked into his clothes.  Still, if these were side-effects of entering Hell itself, then Hell was pretty tame in his opinion.  Insufferable hyperbole – why not just call it a warpstorm, and spare the religious theatrics?  Crucis had endured far worse in his time, and no doubt the same was true of the ship, but if these humans allowed a bit of psychic white noise to send them into a panic, so much the better.  He was made of sterner stuff, which was why he was the patient predator here, and they the terrified prey.  Then a coherent voice managed to shoulder its way through the clamour, and he realised he was hearing the Captain again, this time at a much reduced volume, coming from somewhere close by without any clear direction to the sound.

++ I repeat, this is a private broadcast to the entity calling itself Pain, in a dazzling display of imagination.  Ah yes, I see you’ve noticed.  Hello there, Mr Crucis.  To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence in our tertiary Navigator Spire? ++

Was the wretch intending to beg for his life?  If so then he was off to a condescending start, not that it would have made a difference either way.  Crucis continued to climb as he addressed empty air and refrained from mincing his words.

“It’s just Crucis, and you owe it to your idiot Inquisitor’s failure to deal with me more effectively.  Obviously I’m up here for the Navigator, but I’ll make time for you too, Captain Meat.  There’s nowhere you can hide where I won’t find you.”

The disembodied Captain affected unconcern.

++ Do you think this is wise, in the middle of a warpstorm?  But of course you don’t care about self-preservation, do you?  Or else you care very much about being seen not to care.  Nevertheless, I’m afraid I must advise against your current course of action in the strongest possible terms.  You won’t get what you want from this, however it plays out. ++

“Don’t be so sure about that – nothing personal, but I don’t take advice from meat.  Here’s a pointer for you, though: if you don’t put a gun in your mouth before I get there, you’re going to wish you had.”

++ Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  A more cautious personality might be wondering how rational it is to so readily take the advice of daemons, while remaining impervious to any input from fellow mortals like myself…but caution has never been your strong point, has it?  What with all that psychic power spilling out of you, I’d have thought you might be concerned about how much attention you could be attracting from further up the spiritual food chain.  But no, that’s right, the honourable daemon Akhamshineth – or maybe it was Zhebdek, I’m afraid I forget – said that developing your connection to the Warp would make you a more powerful killer.  Low and behold, turns out the daemon was correct, and who needs discipline when you have power?  All those other Drukhari who live in constant fear of She Who Thirsts are clearly missing out. ++

Again with the Drukhari thing…  What was it with humans, that stopped them seeing they were just as bad as any of the aliens they so reviled?  Leaving aside the comments about his alleged, absent parent species, which flew harmlessly over his head like they always did, were all these personal jibes meant to impress him?  Anyone could read through a file – being the focus of such files, and having them thoroughly, anxiously read by petty little men in fear for their lives; now there was a mark of someone significant.  The same could be said for attracting so much attention from daemons, and he could hardly blame the creatures for being interested in him.  Akhamshineth had been a supporting player in the end, for all its claims of grandeur, Zhebdek a mere lurker in his shadow and Amon Dull a detached voyeur, but Crucis remained the star of his own story.  That everyone he spoke to on this ship claimed to know him intimately was only further evidence of how deservedly infamous he was.  He had outlasted all his would-be masters and was ready for a new chapter to begin; one in which he did as he pleased with no one looking over his shoulder, and people bent or broke in his hands as he saw fit, until he or everyone else were dead, whichever one came first.  He would not be manipulated again by anyone. 

What did it matter if he was damned?  Everyone was damned, in the end.  There was no such thing as a paradise in the Warp, and that was where they all were bound, whatever humans liked to believe.  The people whose souls he ate outright in the moment they died were probably the lucky ones.  If Captain Meat expected nebulous spiritual consequences to concern a monster like Crucis, he clearly should have finished reading that file of his.  Surely there would have been something in there to the effect of an unqualified ‘does not care’…  The air in here was getting ranker by the minute.  Around him human corpses had been cut up and lashed back together, reshaped with their own sinews and nailed to the walls, nailed by his own hands.  An echo of his spurt of creativity back in that cattle farm on Aranis, replayed here in glorious technicolour.  He appreciated the hallucination, whatever its source might have been, but he could have done without the sour, uncorpselike smell that came with it, clinically artificial, murdering any suspension of disbelief.  A flayed face tried to wink at him, found it had no eyelids and began to laugh instead, yet it was nothing but a bloodless illusion and so he kept on climbing, leaving the corpse-wall behind.

Something like a man-sized bat with a sucking lamprey maw swooped down towards him from its perch on a branch at the top of a parallel staircase, prehensile tail coiling around to strike with a barbed sting.  It flew shrieking at his face in a dead straight line, and he let go of the ladder with one hand to draw a pistol as it bore down.  He shot it right in the mouth and it vanished instantly, without so much as slowing the bullet’s path.  The projectile failed to hit the far wall, which was barely visible in any case, got caught in the web of steel walkways and bounced around between them, its purpose leached away with every ricochet.  A thick layer of black frost collected on the barrel of his gun, rendering it too bulky for the holster.  He struck it hard against a rung of the ladder to break the ice, then shoved it back in with a scowl.  Cheap tricks of the mind, or more turbulence from outside.  Nothing of consequence either way.  He would not, could not be deterred.  Crucis was a storm in his own right, and he had been here first.  The tantrums of jealous gods could wait their turn.

++ Still hanging in there, I see…  Well, best of luck to you old chap, and never let it be said I was less than forthcoming about the risks.  You might want to hurry, in that case.  Inquisitor Rahn is catching up and he’s really quite displeased with you.  If you want us to have any time to hash this out like gentlemen before he bursts in waving his axe, I’m afraid you’ll need to get a move on.  Diplomacy is generally my department, you understand.  I told the Inquisitor you could be reasoned with, but we saw how well he handled that last time – the perils of delegation, but he is after all an Inquisitor, and if I’d handled your interview myself then I couldn’t have been up here, keeping us all from dissolution in the Warp.  Of course, now you’ve gone and damaged his favourite servitor – he has conversations with it and everything, can you imagine? – now he’s even less likely to forgive you for bailing on the interview, and what with this pesky warpstorm, I’m far too busy to restrain him if he’s dead set on executing you.  You could perhaps have stood to use a mite more diplomacy yourself? ++

Crucis chuckled quietly to himself at the suggestion he might have cause to fear a single man, especially a bumbling imbecile who talked to servitors, who had failed to do more than nick his unprotected finger while armed to the teeth and armoured head to toe, with the advantage of greater numbers into the bargain.  The psychic Inquisitor had been inside his head, had burrowed beneath his very foundations and still had failed to make a single brick subside.  No doubt half-crazed from the experience, he was beneath serious consideration as a threat, and the babbling Captain’s talk of him warranted no reply.  How Crucis longed to pinch that flapping tongue, to pluck it from its owner’s mouth like a snail from its shell, then put it back in and make the coward chew.  It’ll be a meat-eat-meat world on My ship.  He knew a bluff when he heard it, so he tuned out the rambling voice and focused on closing the distance between them as quickly as he could. 

The ladder he had been climbing abruptly ended with no sign of the top of the Spire, forcing him onto a succession of gently curving staircases that zigzagged lazily back and forth, slowing his upward progress considerably.  Their broad steps were carpeted in purple velvet, their sensuously curving bannisters echoing sleek organic forms, smooth and warm to the touch as living bone.  The tower walls alongside the stairs were panelled with dark wood, a disgustingly expensive material to have employed on such a scale, and wherever one staircase crossed over another, spherical crystals that might have been lanterns hung suspended beneath it on delicate golden chains.  Oil paintings of starscapes hung at regular intervals in a gilded silver frames.  He realised there was not a utilitarian metal gantry in sight up here – he had been right about that then – but looking down where he had been, he found the tower beneath him swallowed by an impenetrable fog, as if he stood atop a mountain, peering down into the clouds.  When he took another experimental step up onto the next stair, the surface of the mist-lake rose in concert with him, while somewhere in its depths, he thought he saw a flashing light.  With a philosophical shrug, he drew his chainsword – quite a find this, with an excellent balance of quality, style and brutality – and quickened his pace again, taking the steps three at a time.   

The eternal hum of the plasma drives had faded to the very edge of even his hyper-sensitive hearing, yet he could also hear the creaking of tortured timbers and feel the constant swaying of the ship, as if they sailed a literal ocean now instead of the Sea of Souls.  Whether some defensive illusion was being employed here, or all this a product of the inclement weather, was difficult to say.  He kept trying to see further up the Spire, but there was a shelf of grey cloud overhead now too, obscuring all but the next few sets of stairs.  The ambient light was flickering ever more rapidly between hues, lurching wildly around the spectrum, and wildflowers with jagged black petals were growing in patches on the carpet.  He stomped on as many of those he could as he passed, getting what his nose insisted was human blood on his boots, but was not about to slow down. 

Boom!

A juddering impact against the side of the tower nearly threw him off his feet and backwards down the stairs, but he regained his balance and kept going with an irritated huff. 

Boom

Another blow, deep and resonating through the walls, as if a gargantuan fist were pounding on the outer hull – did it even count as the hull, sticking out at an angle from the lines of the main vessel as these towers so often seemed to do?  Regardless of the proper terminology, Navigators would not have been kept up here if their Spires were so fragile as to snap off and float away.  It was the Gellar field keeping out the Warp, not the brute metal that merely encased their atmosphere.  It was clearly doing a terrible job there just now, but his agitation was more about the scale of the noise. 

Boom!

Was it happening at regular intervals?  Was there a gigantic daemon outside with a metronome to keep time?  He tried to find the idea amusing but he was getting bored-hungry again, unusually soon really, considering how filling his last meal had seemed.  Then he began to notice a distant melody, as if an orchestra were playing softly, or at a great remove, and when the next blow fell he recognised it for what it was – a bass beat to the rising tune.  Crucis was hearing music, and he found himself picturing a ridiculous band of Navigator-musicians hunched somewhere up above, harmonising with the blunt interjections of the storm outside.  As the melody rose, so the beat subsided to a less bone-crunching volume, as if an unseen operator were adjusting the levels on a system of vox-casters hidden somewhere inside the walls.  At this point he would not have cared if angels blowing trumpets had appeared on every side – he was going to kill someone, or more likely multiple someones, and it was going to be soon.  The walls weren’t panelled in wood any more; they were bone, all bone, and Crucis did not care. 

And yet the music was – oh no you don’t! – Trailing his chainsword along the bannisters as he ran and tearing an ugly gash through the delicate fluted struts, he focused on the monotone buzz of the weapon, the angry splintering sound it made as it chewed through to the marrow.  If Captain Meat thought any of this would slow him down, the man must have been truly desperate.  Crucis had never much cared for music, unless one included anguished screams and the wet sounds of parting flesh.  He may have waxed lyrical about the metaphorical symphony that was the Wound in the Galaxy with all its billions of screaming victims, back when he was still trying to be nice, but when it came down to the literal playing of inanimate instruments, give him the song of a chainsword any time.  His tastes ran to sculpture, visceral performance pieces, torture and dismemberment – he certainly considered himself an artist, though his canvases rarely seemed to agree, but then that was pretty much the point of violence, wasn’t it?  It did not require consent, could even be tarnished by an overly compliant victim.  Pain was at its purest when it came as an unwelcome surprise, conquering with overwhelming force, leaving irreversible damage in its wake. 

With that thought, he found himself abruptly at the head of the uppermost stair, gazing out across a mostly level white marble floor.  The shift was so sudden it brought him up short, and he spent an undignified moment regaining his balance, knees bent to account for the unpredictable roll of the ship.  There were no further stairs or ladders, and high above him the walls finally arched and tapered in towards a central point, the ubiquitous bone giving way to panes of what looked like coloured glass, with what appeared to be violently swirling water beyond, as if he stood in a temple beneath a raging sea.  A round section was missing from the middle of the floor, revealing only mist below, with six narrow bridges crossing over it, intersecting in the middle to form a star.  A narrow golden rail ringed the pit and ran along the edges of each bridge, offering token support for anyone who might want to stare down into the fog.  Opposite the stairwell on the far side of the room, where an altar would not have looked out of place, there stood a high dais onto which had been squeezed a truly enormous musical organ, crowned with a towering forest of golden pipes.  Ranks of lesser instruments, most of which Crucis did not recognise at all, clung parasitically to the central device, moving in eerie synchronicity by means of a web of many-jointed, mechanised appendages, incorporating sets of bellows wherever wind was required.  All this was operated by a single seated figure with its back turned to him, shrouded in loose violet robes, playing merrily on in the face of his total lack of appreciation. 

The air here was hazy with aromatic smoke, and the pungent smell slithered into the back of his throat and stayed there, unpleasantly presumptuous as it settled in.  He looked for the source and saw several low, round tables spaced around the edges of the chamber, on which polished brass incense burners squatted like bloated, farting men.  Chemical hallucinogens, maybe – he trusted his constitution to stave off nearly anything, but at least some of this was not as it appeared.  Drawing one of his pistols and sighting carefully down the barrel, he shot a few holes in the nearest burners, his bullets punching right through the soft metal to spark against the wall.  They smoked gently on.  Having gone right up to one and sawed it in half, along with the table beneath it, he decided destroying them all was more effort than it was worth.  He was already getting used to the reek, tuning it out along with the increasingly boisterous music, taking note of visual input his first glance had skirted over, of which one detail in particular now drew his eye. 

Where the bridges met, over the very hub of the pit, there was a platform on which sat an intricately engraved silver slab resembling an operating table, complete with enough straps and manacles to restrain a Space Marine – an easel for torture if ever Crucis had seen one, the sight of it here likely intended to accomplish intimidation.  Peering back at him with shiny black eyes from beside the slab, there hovered an upright, roughly man-sized apparition that otherwise bore scant resemblance to any human he had heard of.  Its tapered ears suggested Eldar, but the elongated cranium far exceeded even the wildest Imperial caricatures, as did the overall malevolence of its features.  Its body had too many sharp angles and arching arms, too many joints in the wrong places, and its skin was a chitinous grey.  Its ribs protruded and its legs were emaciated, probably from under-use, feet hanging loosely with the toes trailing.  A barbed tail that reminded him of the bat-thing he had seen earlier undulated coyly beneath the creature’s open robe, the stinger peeking around its withered feet like a curious serpent watching from behind a tree.  Suspended in the air just off the ground as if by invisible threads, its posture hunched forward like a semi-humanoid hunting spider, the creature regarded Crucis as he might regard a child at play.  It grinned a needle-toothed grin, unnaturally wide, stretching its narrow face obscenely in the process.  When it spoke he expected a sibilant hiss, or maybe a guttural gurgle, but instead it was the clearly enunciated voice he had dubbed Captain Meat that reached him, pitched to cut across the clamour of the organ.

“I know, I know, I’m a beautiful sight.  We’re glad you could make it, and not a moment too soon.  Poor old Redacted won’t stand much more of this storm, and we could hardly start without you, could we now?  You’ll have to accept my apologies for any sense of deja vu.  I’m Lancet, though I expect you’ll prefer to call me by one of your little pet names – you may feel free to address me however you like of course, as the undisputed star of our show.  Silestelia my dear, could we have the Crucis theme if you would be so kind?”

With that, the delicately wrought carriage of the music crashed suddenly and explosively into a wall of uncompromising discord, as if the invisible orchestra suggested by the complex workings of the organ had broken suddenly into an all-out brawl.  Long moments of violent aural chaos slowly, painfully resolved into a vaguely ordered shape, the ferocious struggle dragged into something approximating rhythm by the incrementally growing volume of the underlying beat, still keeping the same time it had for the previous song, though the melody was wildly different to what had come before.  Crucis felt his skin begin to prickle, every tiny hair standing to rigid attention as if response to a growing static charge.  Unsettled in spite of himself, he started a slow walk towards the nearest of the bridges and levelled his autopistol at the multi-armed apparition, shouting to make himself heard.

“Clearly you have me confused with someone else!  Whatever this is has nothing to do with me, except of course that I’m going to end it here and now.  If that’s a Navigator over there, great – tell it to stop making that ridiculous noise, step away from the machine and navigate my ship out of this warpstorm.  If not, how about you tell me which Spire they’re hiding in, and you can have a straight-up bullet instead of being slowly peeled…or maybe a few bullets.  That really was a lot of stairs you just made me climb.”

‘Lancet’ made a face at this response, pantomiming disappointment, in an echo of one of the expressions Crucis himself had used to needle the inept Inquisitor.  He remembered the Inquisitor had been calling for someone by that name to seal the doors while he made his escape from his cell, absently noting that the layout of that cell with its own central pit had been similar to the layout of this room, albeit on a smaller, meaner scale, with himself at centre stage.  Never mind servitors, what was an Inquisitor doing talking to this – alien?  Daemon?  Much less letting it exercise control over his ship and call itself a Captain.  No wonder their security was in such a shambles.  He supposed it made sense if these were indeed Balkoth’s agents, the Lord Magus being what he was, but this revelation only made his stand-in’s sanctimonious ranting seem even more hypocritical.  Moving out onto the narrow bridge, Crucis stopped halfway to the creature’s platform and theatrically thumbed his gun onto full auto, assuming his most menacing smile.  Whatever species it was supposed to be, everything suffered and everything died.  He had already passed through hungry and on into outright ravenous.  So long as it had a soul, it would suffice.  Lancet furrowed its brow at his approach.

“Oh dear, then it’s worse than I feared – you haven’t figured anything out yet, have you?  And I gave you so many clues.  Everyone should get a sporting to chance to avoid disaster, don’t you agree?  It makes it so much more cathartic when they walk right onto the knife instead.  This is the difference between mere murder and Assassination, Mr Crucis – the underlying music of it, the harmony of every solitary note falling impeccably into place in perfect time to form a greater whole.  Music is persuasive information, and information is the only weapon that matters.  Silestelia, darling?  I think it might be time for your grand duet.  I’m afraid you’ll have to play yourself on, as I neglected to bring my violin.”

Resisting the temptation to glance towards the organ, Crucis heard the music shift again, weaving in new complexities, slowing down the melody and smoothing off its hard edges, transforming the aggressive dirge into a sultry, beguiling serenade.   He caught a glimpse of movement in his peripheral vision and decided to hedge his bets – he pulled the trigger and held it, unleashing a burst of gunfire into Lancet’s centre mass.  Every bullet was turned aside by some kind of energy shield, sparking against the silver slab, denting the slender golden rail or taking chips from the marble floor.  The sounds of the gunshots and even the ricochets were absorbed into the music like pebbles dropped into a pond.  The creature only folded its foremost, vaguely humanoid arms, continuing to regard him as the movement grew more pronounced.  With a hiss of irritation, he looked.

The seat at the base of the organ was empty now, the cowled robe of its operator pooled on the floor beside it, and yet the machine played on, exuberant as ever.  Sashaying confidently towards him around the pit was a tall woman – unreasonably tall, surely a good seven feet, although it did seem she was walking on the balls of her bare feet, hips swaying as if she wore invisible platform heels.  Her skin was bright pink, densely covered with purple tattoos in coiling abstract shapes – a detail he could not fail to notice, for she wore a sheer dress of white silk that was barely more than a sash, leaving her shoulders, thighs and left breast bare, and her long limbs rippled with taught muscle, the air between them shimmering as she moved.  Each of her hands bore six fingers whose nails were jet-black talons.  In her left hand she carried a sweeping blade long as a sabre, made of a dark chitinous material with an oily sheen to its surface, while her right held what looked like a bone flute, twirling it in her claws as if to conduct her automated orchestra.  A wide silver bracelet was fastened around each of her wrists and ankles, marked with sigils he vaguely recognised from somewhere, including the rune of Slaanesh.  The nipple of her exposed breast was pierced by a silver hook from which a dainty chain extended to coil around her slender neck, tightly enough to bite, before plunging right into the flesh at the hollow of her throat, only to emerge from a bloodless slit in her cheek and continue until it met a dangling earring.  Her ears and teeth too were pointed, her cheekbones scalpel sharp, and six curving horns grew up from her scalp, the same colour and texture as her face, swept back together in parody of an ornamental hairstyle.  Her violet eyes were nearly all iris, coloured the exact same shade as his own, and must have been at least twice as large.  She did not, it seemed, have any sort of nose, nor could he see any sign she might once have possessed one and lost it to a blade. 

“Crucis, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the Lady Selestelia – Muse of Agony, Herald of the Dark Prince, and a personal admirer of yours.  Silestilia, allow me to present Crucis, Connoisseur of Cruelty, Drukhari in the Rough and aspiring scourge of everyone he meets.  I have no doubt the two of you will get along famously.”

Silestelia stared back at Crucis with calculated admiration, worshipping him with her gaze – he answered with a condescending sneer.  She broke eye contact for a moment to respond to Lancet’s introductions, and her voice came as trickle of oily liquid, lascivious and conspiratorial.

“Oh, won’t you just look at him – isn’t he adorable?  And such a lovely name.  The things I could do to this one…your master always did have an eye for the finest stock.  But looks aren’t everything, are they?  Tell me, how well does he dance?”

Suddenly the daemon was beside him, her chitin-blade scything out of what had been empty space.  Crucis executed a backflip, caught her chin with the tip of one boot and nearly knocked her backwards off the bridge.  She crashed against the rail, warping it dangerously with the impact,  then arched her spine and leaned out further over the drop, stretching luxuriously as if intending to recline.  He landed on his feet and lunged at her exposed throat with his chainsword, but she jackknifed back towards him, slipping effortlessly past the weapon’s thirsty teeth to press her body against his, running a hot tongue down his face as a taloned hand reached for his gun.  He put a bullet through her wrist and two more into her palm, and felt a frisson run through her as she gave what sounded like a gasp of delighted surprise.  Abruptly she flickered back to a couple of paces away, standing between him and the exit with her sword in an ‘en garde’ pose, no sign of the flute any more, trapping Crucis between her and the watching Lancet.  Then she beckoned him playfully with her injured hand, still bleeding from its fresh stigmata. 

He emptied the autopistol in her direction, and Silestelia undulated with liquid grace, dancing between the bullets such that each one grazed her skin to leave a tiny scratch, while avoiding anything like a direct hit.  The instant the chamber clicked empty, she executed a sweeping bow, conveniently avoiding his thrown gun in the process, then launched right into another attack, leading with her blade again.  This time he parried, found the strength of her arm roughly equal to his own, tried a savage riposte, but the daemon executed a tight, balletic pirouette, exposing her bare back in the process, and still came back around in time to catch his chainsword before it could touch flesh.  His free hand drew a knife and threw it at her midriff in a flash, but she caught it deftly between her fingers and threw it back at him.  It snagged in the folds of his coat, chinked against the floor and skittered off the bridge, vanishing down into the mist.  He drew another, longer blade as he lunged with the chainsword again, warming to the challenge this enemy presented.  She smiled suggestively as they traded exploratory strikes, falling into a rhythm now, a sequence of action and reaction, taking turns to try for ever more ambitious attacks, any one of which would surely eviscerate its target if it struck home.  They danced together like courting scorpions, his pulse quickening as the music swelled, its tempo speeding up again in response to their own motions, accentuating the drama of every cut and thrust.

The nausea hit him without warning, doubling him over to spray the contents of his gut – when had he last eaten solid food? – across the tiles.  His vision blurred as he stared at the dark red puddle between his feet.  Was that a piece of himself, or just the digested flesh of some wretched denizen of Aranis, carried inside him across time and space, to be messily deposited here on a white marble floor?  Silestelia was standing over him, one hand on his back – he could feel six sharp points digging painfully through his coat, probably drawing blood.  She whispered in his ear as a concerned lover, solicitously soothing even as she dug in her nails.

“There, there, my little Lord…not to worry, you did wonderfully.  I absolutely must take you home with me now.  I have such experiences to share with you, my sweet one…just wait until I get you out of that silly meat-suit.  When you’ve seen yourself truly naked, without all that flesh in the way, you’ll feel so much better about who you are.”

Crucis spat phlegm in response to the daemon’s typically patronising tone, further adding to the vomit puddle, but could not yet summon audible words to tell her where to go.  Then the Spire groaned and shook around them, the aethereal lighting stuttered and his feet were swept out from under him, as if a non-existent carpet had been pulled.  He wound up lying on his back, with Silestelia standing with one foot on his chest like a conquering hero.  Some invisible force was preventing his limbs from moving freely, though his extremities were not completely frozen.  Finger by stiffened finger, one of his hands began to crawl laboriously towards the belt pouch in which he kept his third and final stolen grenade, dragging the attached limb along protesting with it.  Grenades were usually too impersonal for his liking, but needs must…  Lancet was speaking to Silestelia again, all business now that Crucis appeared to have been neutralised.  Wait and see how long that lasts, Captain Meat. 

“Do mine ears deceive me, or does my Lady intend to accept this introduction as payment on behalf of her Prince, and with it the associated obligations?  You must forgive me for hurrying things along, but time is of in the essence here in our humble bubble of physical laws, and the Escellon-Balkoth accord clearly states the terms for mutually beneficial exchanges.  If you are indeed amenable then let us take the small-print as read.”

“Anything for Balkoth, you know that…  I must admit, this Crucis is quite a catch.  Small wonder Nine Eyes wanted him for itself.  He has always belonged to the Prince by right, but try telling that to any daemon who gets an eyeful of that gorgeous soul.  But where is Balkoth, hmm?  I did rather hope I’d get a chance to see him before I go.”

“Balkoth is not aboard, as well you know, my Lady.  If he were then he would not hesitate to see you off himself, though you know as well as I do how limited his interest is in further dealings with members of your Prince’s Court.  Escellon’s Fall is well remembered, is it not?”

“And yet Balkoth calls on us to protect you in his absence, in exchange for a single soul that is not even his to sell?  We could have this whole ship if we wanted.”

“Could you now?  In that case I encourage you to take it.  I believe my associate said something similar to Crucis here not long ago – he accepted the challenge without a second thought, and look how it’s turning out for him.  You must have some idea what this ship contains, and who else has already shown an interest.  Our paying the traditional toll is infinitely easier for all concerned.  In accordance with prior precedent, should you commit to provide safe passage for this vessel whose name is Redacted and all those aboard, you may depart with your freedom and take with you the one who calls itself Crucis as tribute for your Prince.  Do you so commit?”

“Oh, very well.  You mortals are so cute when you puff out your chests and try to lay down the law.  I do so commit, in accordance with prior precedent, but only because I’ve always liked your master.  It positively breaks my heart to think I might never see him again, and you are after all his toys to play with…  Tell my sister she’s loathsome when you visit her hermitage, won’t you?  Better yet, send her back to the Palace where she belongs.  Moping around on Escellon’s tombstone like some grief-stricken dog that misses its owner isn’t doing her reputation any favours.”

“I’m afraid I won’t be visiting anyone personally, but I shall tell Balkoth’s appointed proxy to pass on your regards.  Here he comes now in fact!  May I present Inquisitor Rahn, my Lady, together with my sincere apologies for any offence he may be about to cause.”

Quivering with silent indignation, Crucis pulled the pin and rolled the grenade away with his fingers, sending it in Lancet’s direction.  Belatedly it occurred to him through a haze of nebulous mental obstructions that he was lying on a bridge whose imminent doom he may just have set into motion, suspended over a fall of unknown depth.  Oh well.  Some narrow opportunity for survival would present itself, just as it always did, and if somehow his luck had run out after all then he supposed there were worse ways to go – he knew that better than most, having inflicted many a hard end himself.  Whether or not this proved to be the death of him, he was damned if he was going to be made back into some daemon’s pet.  Meanwhile the Inquisitor’s psychically amplified voice, reassuringly abrasive, crashed through the insipid music as a rampaging grox might crash through a sculpture of blown glass.

“Lancet!  I can hear you up there, you spineless, treacherous – wait a Throne-damned minute.  Lancet?  What in the God-Emperor’s name–”


=][=


Title: Re: The Keeping of Secrets
Post by: Mentirius on December 12, 2020, 03:43:19 PM

“You may find that one or more daemons come seeking you, expecting you to honour a prior commitment of mine by surrendering some trinket up to them.  Do not presume to judge me for this – I never undertake such transactions lightly, but neither do I hesitate when I perceive them to be necessary.  Whenever I deal with daemons with some genuine intent to honour the terms agreed, it is because the alternatives would cost significantly more.  For any bargains I have struck that may require future payment, I will furnish you in advance with whatever the resulting creditors are entitled to demand.  You need but hand over what I have provided, and refrain from explicitly breaking the terms of any such agreements, with no further implications for your spiritual health, as I realise you still have some concerns in that area.  However, where a prior arrangement between myself and a daemon exists, you Must pay whatever is owed or else bear the consequences, rejecting any suggestion that terms might be added to or altered in any way.  Any new deals you make will of course be on your own behalf and entirely at your own risk; a precedent I understand you are eager to avoid.”

“Balkoth, I promise you there exists no possible future in which I would ever strike such a deal for myself.  Even acting as your executor seems like the foulest of heresies, presented in this light.”

“And yet you still haven’t refused me, have you, Teleos?  Am I to presume that I can count on your commitment to our cause, despite your moral and theological misgivings?”

“I am still considering, though I must take issue with you calling it Our cause, when you won’t even tell me much of what you intend to achieve.  As to the matter of aethereal creditors, I cannot swear my conscience will permit me to further the interests of Chaos in even the smallest way.  It is one thing to say the alternatives are worse, but I am no sorcerer, and if your plan rests on my knowingly acting against the Imperium then I am afraid it is doomed to fail.  If you would have me represent you in good faith, I would have you avoid placing me into any situation where my only recourse is damnation.  Consider that one of the terms of Our bargain, if you will.”

“You might find this difficult to accept, but ensuring your continued free agency is among the reasons for the bargains I have already made.  Whoever I damn by my own decisions, you can rest assured that you will not be one of them.  However, whether you can manage to fulfil the role I have in mind for you without damning Yourself along the way is a question only you can answer.”



=][=


For an extended frozen moment, Teleos Rahn surveyed the uppermost chamber of Redacted’s tertiary Navigator Spire with three separate sets of eyes – his natural vision, the advanced optical overlays provided by the autosenses in his helmet, highlighting pertinent details according to pre-set parameters, and most penetrating of all, that quirk of his personal psychic gift that merged a telepathic recognition of the patterns of complex thought and emotion into his passive perception of the Warp, and partially folded his psiniscience into his other senses, producing a constant synaesthetic effect. 

What he saw first as he crested the stairs was Crucis – as pent-up with hate as ever but now haemorrhaging psychic essence in every direction, pulsing unconsciously with it as a severed artery squirts blood, to a far more extreme degree than the mere cloud it had previously exuded.  The coiling, bleeding, burning ouroboros at its core seemed hideously shrivelled and knotted up to Rahn’s experienced eyes, visibly diminished since last he had stood in proximity.  Physically Crucis was lying on its back, near the centre of an arrangement of converging bridges that spanned a wide round opening in the middle of the marble floor.  Beside its prone body was a dark red puddle, from which numerous rivulets had trickled to drip ponderously over the edge, though it appeared outwardly uninjured in spite of this.  Standing over the fallen xenos were two other figures – and here he did a reflexive double take. 

One was a horrific levitating monstrosity with numerous limbs – this exhibited minimal cognitive activity, barely registering to his inner sight even while it instantly grabbed his visual attention.  That in itself was worrying, a potential indicator of powerful psychic wards.  An image from the files on Crucis resurfaced in his mind – a Haemonculus.  Drukhari torturer-surgeon-scientists who modified their bodies in pursuit of immortality, and conducted horrific experiments on slaves and subordinates alike.  The likeliest culprits for their prisoner’s current state, according to Lancet’s notes.  More alarming still, this possible Haemonculus had just addressed its companion, who was standing with one foot atop the spread-eagled Crucis, in a perfect imitation of Lancet’s voice.  Worst of all, that companion was a Throne-damned daemonhost.

Being entirely psychic entities lacking permanent physical bodies, including anything like a clearly structured brain, the psychology of daemons was sufficiently alien as to betray little of itself to Rahn at a glance, save for the fact of their predatory nature and some idea of relative scale.  This one appeared formidable to him, but perhaps not insurmountable – a mere crocodilian of the Immaterium as opposed to a great leviathan, although given it had apparently put the terrifying Crucis down, perhaps he was becoming desensitised to mortal threats.  The daemon was bound tightly enough to its borrowed flesh for persistent physical existence, but evidently not so tightly as to prevent the beast from shaping that flesh to its liking and otherwise doing as it pleased.  It wore its affiliation openly, expressed in his mind as a sickly-sweet perfume scent, evoking a particular blend of pink and purple hues – a scion of Slaanesh, Chaos God of Excess, whose progeny Rahn associated with carnivorous plants or deep-sea pisciforms, hunting primarily by means of lures and preying on mortal desire.  He had never bound a daemon into anything himself, had always been horrified by the notion of such a violation being perpetrated against any living person, but he did not stop to question how he recognised what had been done here.  Balkoth certainly would have known this for what it was.  Maybe it was even his work.  Recognising it and trusting that recognition, Rahn might merely have stood aghast for a moment, seeking an acceptable explanation for the scene he had just interrupted, had not all three of the monsters before him immediately begun to move.

The Haemonculus rose straight upward, as if in free-fall towards the ceiling, without shifting its relaxed pose – it stopped just short of the glass at the apex of the chamber and inclined its head to survey the room below, silhouetted against the dappled witch-light streaming down.  The instant after it was clear, an eerie slow-motion explosion shattered the platform beneath it, a spray of purple roses sprouting cheerfully from the expanding debris, even as all six spokes of the bridge arrangement collapsed inexorably in towards the centre, buckling and tearing away from the rim.  The daemonhost leapt as the first flower opened, sailing high in the air like a cricket to land in a dramatic pose midway between the unfolding disaster and where Rahn currently stood.  Crucis threw itself the other way, but the movement seemed half-hearted compared with its earlier acrobatics, and it only just managed to snag the edge of what was now an open pit, as the whole apparatus fell out of sight beneath its feet.  It hung there kicking for an instant before levering itself to safety, rolling away from the edge and lurching unsteadily upright.  Somehow it still had its chainsword in one hand. 

Rahn had barely started forward when Crucis overbalanced and fell back onto all fours, cursing as it struggled with whatever was afflicting it.  Meanwhile the daemon was already stalking towards the seemingly concussed Drukhari, a salacious smirk on its painted lips.  Dreading the possibility that it might be set on Crucis as a new host, Rahn changed his course and ran to intercept.  The daemonhost raised a shapely eyebrow at his aggressive stance, visored, armoured and luminescent as he was, while the Inquisitor merely raised his axe.  It addressed him then in a sing-song, scolding voice, as if talking to a child.

“Such a pleasure to meet you, Balkoth’s understudy…  I do appreciate your ardour to debase this fragile flesh.  But my freedom alone will not suffice to pay the Prince’s toll, without which you will not survive the storm.  Am I to understand you wish to change the deal?”

For once he was not even slightly doubtful about his reply.

“I offer no deals to you, daemon, nor will I so much as consider any overtures from your kind.  The future will be as the God-Emperor wills it.  My fate is in His hands, not your grasping claws.  In the name of the Holy Throne and the Inquisition, back to the Warp with you!”

Rahn dimly sensed Crucis coming on the periphery of his awareness, but in that righteous moment he felt utterly invulnerable, and Crucis was not a daemon, for all its faults.  For once his duty here was clear as glass.  Behind the descending axe-blade came a towering, crushing weight of psychic force, straining the circuitry of Rahn’s armour to its very limit, drawing on the bleed-through from the warpstorm outside the ship to channel a colossal surge of energy, coursing through every cell of his body to find its focus in the prism of his soul.  The daemon brought up its sword to turn the blow aside, just as the suit’s entire surface exploded with brilliant light.  Its organic blade shattered into bloody splinters, and the edge of his axe struck the daemon’s face right where its nose should have been, obliterating its head and passing all the way on down through the host, blasting its torso apart, scattering its limbs and cleaving on through marble and adamantium, smashing a ragged hole right through the deck.  The accompanying shockwave knocked Crucis flat again behind him, halfway through a diving lunge, and the entire structure of the Spire shook with an audible groan. 

Rahn straightened, turned and rose a foot into the air, so intense was the psychic corona still surrounding his entire form.  He looked down and rolled his shoulders as the Drukhari scrambled up and tensed to spring.  In the background he could see the Haemonculus drifting serenely down towards them, a disfigured snowflake carried on a conveniently directed breeze.  Shunning the axe more out of pride than judgment, he pointed with his free hand at Crucis and hurled his Will at it instead.  Boarding torpedoes were launched from that metaphysical vessel whose name was Teleos Rahn, streaking across the tempestuous Empyrean towards their target, carrying his psychic shock troops with them.

When given sufficient cause, it was within the scope of his abilities not only to invade a foreign consciousness and immerse his perspective in its memories, but to suppress, erase or even alter what he found there, changing the landscape of personality itself.  In practice he rarely attempted such extreme tactics, for while performing a deep mind scan at a moment’s notice was relatively straightforward for him by this stage in his career, the combination of wild imagination and meticulous precision required to actively restructure an unfamiliar mind, combined with the very real danger of a stray thought or unexpected warp fluctuation irrevocably damaging his own in the process, had always made even the smallest act of direct reprogramming an option of last resort.  In this specific case, however, the whole of his own mind and soul had assumed a state of total war against this other, and so he did not go there as a surgeon, but rather as a scourge.  Never before in his life, that he recalled at any rate, had Teleos Rahn set out to utterly destroy another consciousness, but never before had he tasted one so utterly repugnant, and the bitterness of it would still not leave his tongue.  At that moment it seemed the only way to be rid of the horror was to dive back into it, and then to tear down every stone until nothing but silence remained.  Here he stood now at the pinnacle of his power, resplendent in his armour, intoxicated by the storm, drowning in the vastness of his own potential.  He was the storm, and his Will was irrevocable.  He had neither the skill nor the inclination to rebuild this malevolent alien, and so he would demolish it from the inside, leaving only empty ruins behind to burn. 

Where the metaphysical torpedoes struck the world called Pain, they burrowed their way beneath its volcanic skin and disgorged Rahn’s Redactors – an army of spontaneously composed, semi-autonomous and deadly subconscious constructs, tailored to the target and sent to white out every record they found.  These were partially built from the alien’s own appropriated memories, so that each of them took the form of a shining simulacrum of Clarity, the being who had bested Crucis on Aranis, who it had named Saint and Nemesis, and whose echo had served to rescue Teleos from its tar-pit of a soul.  They did not behave aggressively, despite that their very deployment was an act of violence.  Rather they wandered peacefully within the confines of the prison in which Crucis held himself, pseudo-medical in their approach to its defences – offering concerned assistance to its sole inmate, seeking out wounds to heal and hurt to soothe, emanating a numbing, dissolving light wherever they walked.  Their tender fingers unravelled knotted associations and anaesthetised old wounds, putting an end to pain wherever they found it, merciful as a forest fire.

Finally, to Inquisitor Rahn’s boundless satisfaction, Crucis truly screamed.  The scream went on and on, moving through octaves, rising and falling as if to imply a sequence of syllables, though anything it was trying to say was lost on the gale of its torment.  A malicious grin was trying to encroach onto Rahn’s face behind the impassive visor.  Erasure is more mercy than you deserve, monster.  You, who live by Balkoth’s sufferance, should never have challenged Me.  And yet somehow, impossibly, still screaming and convulsing all the while, Crucis drew its remaining gun, extended its arm towards him and fired. 

There was no way an autopistol was going to penetrate the Force Armour while it was charged to this extent, but the alien had chosen its target well.  The focus required for Rahn to maintain contact with his telepathic war party was intense, demanding too much of his attention, while the surface thoughts of his enemy were currently too much of a battlefield to give away its own intention.  The physical attack took him completely by surprise, and every one of the bullets in the pistol’s magazine impacted against the material of his visor in quick succession.  The psychological impact of being repeatedly shot in the face might have been enough on its own to break Rahn’s concentration, but while neither his neck nor the visor itself gave way, the onslaught overloaded whatever technology lay behind it, smothering his field of vision in blinding flashes for precious seconds, rocking his head back and silencing the autosenses entirely.  Ideally the armour’s psychic corona would have dispersed the force of the bullets and rendered the shots harmless, but this effect relied to an extent on the wearer’s own unconscious reflexes.  The incoming kinetic energy was reduced to a tiny spark of what it would otherwise have been by the time it reached his flesh, yet with his concentration fixed elsewhere this still ended up feeling like a gauntleted fist to the nose, which had already been reconstructed more than once in the past.  Stunned, he sneezed pink inside his helmet as his feet hit the floor with a thud. 

The disorientation of the blow, and of losing visual data while facing such a lethal foe, was sufficient to initiate an immediate reflexive withdrawal, reclaiming his psychic senses to aid in self-preservation, and Crucis was released from his grip.  It moved in the instant before Rahn could collect himself.  Through a pattern of overlapping spider-web cracks that drifted freely in front of his eyes, he saw it spring away into the air to collide with the hovering Haemonculus, who had nearly reached them by then and might have been about to intervene.  Whatever anti-grav tech the creature was using, it seemed to lack the power to support their combined weight, and both aliens fell together in a tangle of thrashing limbs.

Rahn bore down on the grappling monsters with his shining axe, even as Crucis dragged the Haemonculus upright, twisting around behind its back to place its body between them.  He could cut through both at once if he wanted, and why should he stay his hand on account of this other alien fiend, even if it had been imitating Lancet?  The Inquisitor within him answered without pause: if it could perfectly mimic someone with so much control over the vessel, what might it already have done with that ability?  Might it not be vital to breach and assess its concealed mind, in order to find out exactly what the damage was and prevent it from happening again?  The Haemonculus had ceased any attempts to defend itself, standing at ease with one of Crucis’s arms hooked around its neck, the chainsword held just shy of the back of its head, looking at Rahn with its black eyes as if in expectation.  Crucis was staring at him too, wearing a new expression, as if shocked and appalled by what it saw.  Blood was running from its nose.  When it spoke there was not a trace of the usual sarcasm in its growling tone, its throat still hoarse from the primal shriek.

“You…fething…monster.  What you just tried to do to me…even Akhamshineth never…how can you call me an abomination, when you just…”

It appeared momentarily speechless, grasping in vain for words that would suffice to communicate the sheer effrontery of Rahn’s assault.

“How do you live with yourself?  No, don’t come any closer!  Or I’ll cut your Captain’s brain in half, and don’t you dare feed me a line about how you’d never give anyone but a pure righteous human command of your ship.  You’re the monster, do you hear me?  You’re the absolute worst, and I doubt there’s any depravity you can’t justify to yourself.  But I think this Lancet holds your chain in Balkoth’s absence.  I think it also controls everything else around here, and you’ll be just as dead as the rest if this vessel goes down in the Warp.  My own death might even be worth it if I can take you with me.  If there’s any self-respect left in you then take off that armour, stop cheating, and make this a fair fight.  I’ll even spare the Captain, whatever the hell it is and despite the fact it tried to sell me to a daemon, so long as you give me that.  Killing you is all I want from the universe right now.  Congratulations, Inquisitor.  You’re finally my number one priority.”

Before Rahn could even consider how he might respond to this, the Haemonculus opened its mouth and the voice of Lancet came clear – it was Lancet, without question, not just the voice itself but the diction, the choice of language, everything, and the creature’s lips were moving in flawless sync.  Even the way it moved its primary hands as it spoke was spot on.  Its mind still betrayed nothing, but its mannerisms were uncannily distinctive.  Whether this was a skilled imposter or Lancet himself in some disguise, or even if – horror of horrors – the Lancet he knew had been the disguise, it did not seem to be speaking to him.

“On behalf of Inquisitor Rahn I must apologise for your poor treatment, Mr Crucis, but if I were you I would avoid anything so rash as attempting to bisect my brain.  I’d love to be able to advise the Inquisitor to fulfil your eminently reasonable request, but the fact is we are short of time and take it from me, I’ve seen the specs and that armour does not come off quickly.  You are however correct in surmising you can’t actually hurt him in there with any of the weapons you have to hand, save for the nascent psychic power that has been making you so sick.  Even if you could control that power, and if your starving soul could survive the strain, I don’t think it would be enough.  You simply aren’t equipped for the task – frankly, the only one who might be able to save your life right now is me.  For all your murderous intentions you haven’t actually killed anyone on this ship, unless one counts mindless automata.  It isn’t too late to surrender peacefully and go back into stasis.  Maybe we’ll even have further need of a man like yourself one day.  I do hope there are no hard feelings about Silestelia – it worked out alright in the end, did it not?  Between you and me, I always found her rather too full of herself.  You’re better off without her, I say.  Plenty more sharks in the sea, what?”

The Haemonculus left it there, put up a forestalling palm before itself as if Rahn were an excitable hound, while Crucis growled back into the silence.  Some of its old venom had already returned, the current of raw emotion that its previous words had carried sinking inexorably back to the depths from whence it came.

“Just you wait and see if I’m up to the task.  You all think I’m stupid, don’t you?  Just another blade, always in someone else’s hand.  But I know your game.  Balkoth set me up for this, all of it!  He lied to me, sent me after that Clarity thing on Aranis, then right after I walked into the trap he set for me, he stuck me back in a box for a hundred years.  Now he finally lets me out, only to throw me to his dogs, which is to say the two of you and that fething daemon.  Well you can tell him I’m done – I quit, I refuse, I reject whatever he wanted from me.  Wherever he’s hiding, he’d better stay there, because after I’m done with you I’ll be coming for him.”

Absurdly, suicidally, the Haemonculus burst out laughing, shoulders shaking against the restraining weight of Crucis, clapping a taloned hand against its thigh. 

“Oh, Mr Crucis, I will miss your sense of humour.  For what it’s worth, I really am sorry for the hand you were dealt.  But sacrifices must be made to get anything worthwhile done, and the problem with self-sacrifice is that most of us only ever get one self.  In my defence, I gave you more chances to get out of this than you ever gave your own victims, and don’t you just hate hypocrisy, after all?” 

“You know what?  Never mind the dramatic stand-off.  I think it’s time you shut up now, meat.”

With that, the chainsword in Crucis’s hand buzzed to life, neatly removing the top half of his hostage’s elongated skull, showering them both in its blood.  The body kicked and shook, still held up by his other arm.  Rahn swung his axe high, calling to the storm.  Crucis was backing away out of reach, trying to disentangle himself from the bucking corpse, in whose myriad limbs his clothing seemed to have gotten snagged.  Suddenly the dying Haemonculus shivered, shimmered, flickered – and was a Haemonculus no more.  The auxiliary arms were still there but now they were all metal, bending back on themselves to close around Crucis like the bars of a cage.  The whole apparatus was grafted to a pale, gangling servitor body that while somewhat exotically proportioned, now looked to be within human parameters.  Rahn could even make out the anti-grav generator, a bulky device strapped around the servitor’s waist like a boxer’s championship belt.  Perhaps whatever technology had disguised its appearance was located in there too.  It had a golden vox-caster in place of a mouth, and an arcane device like a silver orb made of overlapping plates still clutched in a death grip with both of its human hands.  Its chin nodded down onto its chest as the remains of its brain spilled over the side of its open skull.  Then Lancet spoke again from the vox-caster, positively purring with self-satisfaction.

“Stop gawking and stand well back, Inquisitor – in case you’re wondering, it’s a vortex grenade.  You don’t see many of those around, but no expense spared for the one and only Crucis!  You see, there still remains the delicate matter of paying the specified toll.  I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”

As the orb broke apart, it took the fabric of reality with it, bypassing the struggling Gellar Field via the same metaphysical loophole exploited by living psykers, to open a channel directly out into the Warp.  The open vortex twisted all light and sound into a spiralling whirlpool; a miniature singularity, swirling down the plughole of the universe.  The irresistible implosive force dragged everything in towards a central point of absolute darkness, as if Crucis and Lancet’s servitor were two-dimensional drawings on a page that had just been seized by a scrunching fist, along with the floor beneath their feet, crushing the whole thing down into an infinitely tiny ball, while a flying, psychically augmented leap carried Rahn clear of the inverted blast zone by no more than an arm’s length.  An instant later the vortex collapsed beneath the weight of its own impossibility, leaving a sphere of utter emptiness behind it.  A bite had been taken right out of the physical plane, or what passed for it aboard ship, and his soul felt the presence of Crucis fade into the distance and wink out, lost on the eldritch tides beyond the veil. 

Numbly, head still faintly throbbing, as if unwilling to believe the source of the pain could really be gone, he sat down heavily on the floor, resting his boots on the edge of the crater.  Around him the warpstorm raged on, covering every visible surface in textured geometric patterns somewhere between snowflakes and scales, but something told him it would soon subside, or at least spit them out into some calmer place before the Gellar Field failed.  Balkoth’s deal with the daemon had been fulfilled.  But what was it turning Teleos into, trying to fill these boots that already overflowed with so much accumulated sin?  What might it say about his role here and Balkoth’s opinion of him, that this dark bargain had been arranged and carried out with his own involvement, and yet also behind his back?  How must he appear now in the eyes of his God-Emperor? 

The vox-bead in his helmet chimed far too soon and Lancet spoke again, cutting through his reverie, sounding unbelievably cheerful to his increasingly jaded ear. 

++ It’s okay, there’s no need to congratulate me – it’s all about the satisfaction of a job well done, although that really was a sublime piece of music if I do say so myself.  Much of the credit must of course go to our mutual friend, but composition and performance are two very different beasts.  Well done for your part, while I’m on the subject – another exemplary job, Inquisitor.  Remind me never to get on your bad side, ha!  Incidentally, any time you find yourself feeling resentful for what this endeavour requires of you, spare a thought for how godlike you are in that armour Balkoth provided, and remember how much better it feels to be the boot than it does to be the worm.  You’re in rather a rare position now, having seen it from both sides in the course of a single day.  Now, when you’ve finished catching your breath I would very much appreciate your presence on the Bridge.  I regret to say there are still a number of pressing issues to address, including our imminent translation back into realspace, and sharing around the blame for our resident Magos having tragically lost her favourite head.  If we can be especially charming, she might even call off her Murder Servitors and refrain from commandeering the ship, after which we can work on convincing her to effect some general repairs.  Either way, it seems to me like you might be ready to join me in the Captain’s Cupola – what do you say? ++

Sick and tired in ways only a psyker could understand, Inquisitor Rahn sighed and swore under his breath, a mass of dark thoughts turning like a cyclone in his head.  Knowing his pain had served Balkoth’s purpose gave him no comfort at all, never mind the state Wysp had been in when last he’d seen her.  There were many things he could have said to Lancet then, and few of them complimentary, but as the events of the day replayed in his head, prudence won out over pride and every one of his curses died unborn.  All that came out in the end was a grudging “I’m on my way”.


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