Main Menu


If you are having problems registering, please e-mail theconclaveforum at

The Keeping of Secrets

Started by Mentirius, March 14, 2020, 07:54:46 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


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 –"



"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.


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.



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."


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. 



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. 



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.



++ 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. 


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. 


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. 


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–"



"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.

"  What you just tried to do to me...even Akhamshineth 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".