Its name was Nyx Infernus.
A daemon in the form of a dire wolf dredged forth from Old Night. In my head it ran on four elongated legs ending in wicked hooked claws. Its eyes were the colour of blood, as was its entire body.
I called it Di Yu.
But it wasn’t like this. I wasn’t like this.
My fall was long and slow, but well-deserved.
My grandmother, my Nai Nai, the great princeps majoris of Indomitable, would have frayed me alive and hung me, as a warning, at the family gate. I had become a failure, the failure, the shame of the entire clan. ButYet she was also many years dead.
Tongshi, my cousin and closest ally, would have disowned me as well. Such was his fervour for the family’s pride and Mechanicus precision. He was long dead too.
I couldn’t even leave my situation nor walk away as it is. Why? My fate was intertwined to Nyx Infernus, to Di Yu, to Hell. My flesh had become its circuits. How did I fall? Let me tell you my woeful tale.
Was it temptation? Was it pride? My family was big on pride. We were the best Legio in the sector with massive backing from the Mechanicus. The Legio Furore of the great Chang-An princeps dynasty. Our insignia was the character Huo. Fire. Our ancestors had incorporated the ancient language found everywhere in the family hall and in the Mechanicus forge that built and looked after the powerful Titan god-machines. We advertised our pride and arrogance in crimson banners hung from the gun-arms of our Titans; our skitarii burned across battlefields in a tide of red fury. In our family hall, red couplets greeted the visitor the moment they stepped across the threshold. It was pride, plain and simple, and we were proud because our kill counts were high. We served the God Emperor of Man!
I continued training with the redoubtable Warhound Caelo. Recently promoted to princeps of the Titan, I was proud of my achievement. Caelo was simply Caelo: a growling warrior who only lived for the hunt and would not be bound to any simple organics like me. Caelo only wanted to run and hunt, like a predator.
Tongshi was my moderati. He kept a stern eye on my performance, commented on my increased heart rate and queried about Caelo’s state of mind after every simulation.
‘Caelo is a Warhound,’ I stated flatly.
Tongshi sensed my ire and smiled. ‘You were running hot, princeps.’
‘It was a difficult simulation.’
‘I recalibrated the specs to mimic the conditions of our next assignment.’ Tongshi turned to his console while I disconnected from Caelo. The physical removal of the plugs was both painful and pleasurable. I dreaded disconnection and missed the intimate bond, suffering from nervous tics and nightmares when I was away from Caelo.. The tech priests immediately swooped in to clean the connection ports. The mago biologis checked me over.
‘Observation: the connection ports are clean,’ Magos Yu 88 said, her voice a metallic drone.
‘Thank you, magos.’
Magos Yu 88’s uniform had embroidered sleeves. The red threads glistened in the light. They reminded me of blood.
‘Additional.’ Magos Yu 88 cleared her throat. It was an oddly human inflection from a priest of Mars.
‘Your heart rate was indeed high, as reported by the moderati. Suggestion: moderate and monitor. Most of the time, princeps experience strokes due to their strong connections.’
‘Thank you, Magos, for your concern.’
A slight smile tugged at the ends of the magos’ thin lips. ‘We serve the machines and most of all we serve the Omnissiah.’
I made the sign of the cog and bowed.
In the family hall, the preparations for Spring Festival were in full swing with the clan serfs hanging the crimson banners across the ceiling. I could smell the food from the kitchen, the fragrances of roasting meats, spices and sweet treats wafted tantalising on the breeze from the air vents. As much as most of the princeps were in amniotic tanks, the Warhound and Reaver princeps were still hard-plugged and enjoyed a good feast now and then. My mouth watered at the prospect of savouring fowl with crispy skin.
For the Mechanicus staff, rhyming couplets with praises to the God Emperor, the Omnissiah, and Spring Festival streamed forth in haptic and binary form. You could say that the air itself was filled with festive cheer. I was excited for the feast. Grandmother was the guest of honour, Tongshi had informed me while we strolled briskly down the walkway leading to the family hall. It was still cold this time of the year.
‘She insisted,’ Tongshi said. We all knew Grandmother and her famous temper.
I nodded, keeping my head down. The wind bit my face and its chill stung the connection ports on my neck.
‘The aurora is beautiful tonight,’ Tongshi’s change of subject made me glance at him, and then at the night. Indeed, the aurora that often appeared above the forge’s skies billowed as if by astral winds. It was red tonight, tinged with edges of fluorescent green and yellow.
‘It too celebrates Spring Festival,’ I laughed and hastened my pace, forcing Tongshi to run after me.
‘Hey! Wait up.’
Tongshi finally caught up to me the moment we reached the family gate, painted in vermillion. I could hear human and mechanised voices all raised as if in excitement. The feast was about to start.
‘You still mad with me because I pointed out you were running hot?’ Tongshi said. His eyes twinkled. I liked him when he smiled more. He wanted so much to be a moderati. He had served as famulous to my aunt, who was princeps of the Reaver Hou Yi, before he’d managed to persuade Grandmother and Second Aunt that he could fit as a moderati on Caelo.
‘I have to say I am relieved. But you were running hot. I was afraid the reactor would just give in. Caelo was pushing you hard.’
‘She’s a cantankerous old wolf,’ I said. ‘And Warhounds are known for their stubborn natures.’
Tongshi didn’t reply. He just looked at me, cousin to cousin, moderati to princeps. I knew he was concerned for my safety.
‘I’m alright,’ I said. ‘Come. Let’s enjoy the feast.’
‘We will march on Tartarus’s Gate!’
Grandmother’s voice thundered across the dining hall. Amplified by speakers installed on her tank, her words boomed. Not the whispery tired old-woman’s voice I heard in the Sanctum, it was now twinned with something else, like a god’s. Indomitable, I realised. She spoke in the voice of her Warlord.
‘Legio Furore will fight on Tartarus’s Gate once more!’
The gathering roared their approval.
I glanced at Tongshi who returned a perturbed look.
‘Is… she really going to lead the legio?’ I whispered, my bowl of broth untouched. My chopsticks hung uncertainly over the rice. Everyone seemed to have forgotten to eat. ‘I know Grandmother… can’t…’
‘Shhh, listen!’ Tongshi hissed back. ‘You don’t know what you know.’
‘The council has decided! My daughter will lead. Legio Furore will rise once more like the phoenix!’
I breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Grandmother hadn’t committed to what I worried she had.. Not in her current state…
‘This means we will ship out next week.’ Tongshi was already calculating the logistics. ‘Fascinating.’
My heart began to beat hard. I was finally going into battle with Caelo. A growl rose in my heart.
Somewhere I knew the wolf grinned.
We transited out of the Immaterium two weeks later.
I didn’t like the Immaterium. I couldn’t sleep well, plagued by nightmares and leg cramps. The magos biologis wasn’t perturbed and informed me that this was a ‘normal occurrence’ for hard-plugged princeps. Warlord princeps, ensconced in their tanks, were spared this inconvenience. They were put into stasis sleep, their senses and physical bodies numbed.
I exercised almost obsessively, running circuits around the ship. I sparred with Tongshi at the training hall, using our wushu poles. Tongshi found it hard to sleep as well. We had a running bet on the cups of recaf we consumed per day, with the person who’d had the most being punished with additional calisthenics. The tech priests found our entertainment amusing.
Our Mechanicus barge, Zheng He, orbited Tartarus’s Gate while the priests and enginseers began the process of transporting the god machines.
And god machines they were. Onerous and furious when awakened and reanimated. Princeps often dreaded and craved the reconnection with them in equal measure. Second Aunt likened the experience to the breaking of a wild stallion. You just did it again and again every reconnection. It was an exhausting process: trust had to be earned.
Caelo snarled and snapped her jaws the moment I plugged into the Manifold. Unlike the relative ease of the Noosphere shared by the Warlord princeps, hard-plugged princeps tapped into the Manifold… and the Mind Impulse Units of the war engines. Caelo’s MIU was a growling shadow ready to bite anyone and everyone in sight. Even the princeps bonded to her.
Who are you? Caelo demanded.
I am your princeps, I said calmly.
I don’t know you, Caelo snarled, lips curling to bare fangs.
Like training an aggressive guard dog, I slowly and painstakingly brought Caelo to heel… on my terms. It was a constant battle, to keep the wolf from consuming me whole.
Our target was a Chaos-corrupted forge.
My anger rose, my heart-reactor glowering. Caelo sensed my rage and growled. The hard rain pattered on my ceramite skin. I kept blinking rain drops from my eyelashes. And the smell… Of cordite and something rotten… filled my nose.
Tartarus’s Gate had been beautiful once. Once. From the dossier I’d accessed on the Manifold, it was once lush with forests and lakes. The Dark Mechanicus had taken over and now it was a polluted cesspit.
‘Forward pace. Two steps. Quietly. We don’t want to rustle the grass and scare the snake.’ I ordered. ‘Keep the power at bare minimum.’
Moderati Tongshi and Tech Priest Tieshin chorused their agreement. I began to pad forward, nose to the ground. Hunting mode. I could smell the prey: pockets of fetid rot. Black masses swirled.
A bright flare lit up the Manifold.
Battle was joined.
You could say this was where I began to fall, the very moment I began to ascend in the hierarchy and amass an impressive kill count. It was a delicious irony.
Tartarus’s Gate was where I first tasted the intoxicating blood of victory. The hunt was in my veins. I was running; I was prowling, the wind was on my skin. I was alive. Caelo was alive. When we killed our first enemy machine, Caelo and I howled in unison. We sounded our warhorn. The sound boomed across the wasteland. It was a sorry-looking Reaver covered in black, as if it had been burned in fire. I was glad to see the engine keel over and explode. Its death scream shook the Manifold.
‘Well done, everyone,’ I had said, still trembling from the massive influx of combat adrenaline. I felt as if I had sprouted fangs, my face a wolfish snout and my body a muscular dire wolf. Caelo was inside me. I fought to stop myself from growling.
It was much later when Tongshi told me that I had indeed been growling, hunched over, salivating and panting, as we ran.
The daemon wolf began appearing in my dreams. By then, we were back in the immaterium, hurtling through the madness towards home. We had defeated the foe. The legio returned victorious and Second Aunt was pleased with my performance.
It was a wolf shape made of black, something cut from the void. A shimmering, flowing, sinuous wolf with eyes that blazed like a reactor and fangs like the light of curved moons. It danced in the periphery of my vision, inviting me to run with it through…
… forests, fields, plains, wastelands…
Its lips curled in a wolfish grin.
We hunt, we hunt, we hunt.
In the dreams, I was naked and ran barefoot. I didn’t care. I was a wolf and the hunt was within my very veins. When we brought down prey, I could taste blood, delicious hot blood. The black wolf-shape loped beside me, but sometimes I was it and I felt powerful.
I didn’t tell Tongshi and my crew about the dreams. I blamed it on being unplugged from Caelo. I also blamed the Immaterium, the accursed Sea of Souls. That place was madness.
They put on a lion dance when we returned from Tartarus’s Gate. Grandmother followed tradition, according to Second Aunt. We didn’t have lions on Chang-An.
It was a mechanised lion with segmented parts of crimson and gold. Its eyes were bright lamps, its mouth a serrated maw that clapped as it weaved ato the sound of monotonous drum beats. In the middle of its broad brow was a polished mirror said to deflect and chase away the servants of Chaos. The tech priests took immense pride in this mechanized lion. To them it was a magnificent artifice, combining both mortal artistry and the divine touch of the Omnissiah.
The drum beats resonated in the valley, echoing off the mountain peaks. We bowed to the tech priests as we alighted from the shuttle. A hero’s welcome. I loved the rush of adulation. We were princeps. We were god-machines. When we walked, the earth shook.
Yu 88 approached me the day after we returned. She managed to find me at the training hall of the Chang-Ang stronghold.
The magos biologis was clad in her usual hooded robe of embroidered crimson thread. Only green eyes, the shade of the jade seams in the earth, peered out from the darkness of the hood. For some strange reason, Yu 88 had bionic eyes in the shape of a triangle.
‘Rumination: Your heart rate is too high,’ she said without preamble.
‘A consequence of being hard-plugged to a Warhound,’ I replied, feeling suddenly defensive.
‘All princeps, the Omnissiah be praised, experience the same,’ Yu 88 said. ‘Clarification: Your heart rate is linked to your subconscious activity. You were dreaming. Such an organic word. But yes, your subconscious was indeed very active.’
‘Please peruse this,’ she continued, showing the printout. Yu 88 was an odd one. She liked physical objects like paper instead of the usual digital and binaric means. The numbers looked confusing at first. Then the statistics began to make sense.
‘I see a correlation between heart and subcortical activity,’ I said. ‘But this is not conclusive.’
‘Data is data,’ Yu 88 replied. Was she smiling? There was humor in her voice. ‘Data is knowledge, bless the Omnissiah. Data is evidence.’
‘Observation: You do not know what you know.’
Yu 88 reverently folded the printout into a neat square. ‘Clarification: an affectation of Moderati Tongshi, I believe.’
‘Yes. And the point is?’
‘Suggestion: Monitor this correlation,’ Yu 88 said abruptly before turning and sweeping away, her robes hissing softly.
I stared at her retreating regal form.
The voice sounded as if it was right in the room with me. I gripped my pole.
‘Tongshi, is that you? If that’s you, it’s not funny and it’s not Seventh Month yet,’ I snapped. The Omnissiah and God-Emperor bless my cousin, but he was known for his pranks.
This time, it was right next to my right ear. I spun around, in guard position, swinging the pole about.
‘Look, Tongshi, moderati, enough jokes and enough of your simulations. We are not due for combat, for cog’s sake.’ Tongshi had a habit of creating difficult simulations besides his pranks to make me operationally ready‘. And he was convincing when he did them.
Something shifted at the edge of my peripheral vision: a shadow darting from one side of the room to the other.
‘Tongshi! Bloody hell! Quit it!’
We. Hunt. Now.
The words were right in my head.
A powerful force hit me.
I woke up later, my training pole next to me.
A dream. Perhaps I’d hit my head on something.
No, I hadn’t. There was no bump nor bruise. Nor blood.
I was lucid. Yu 88 was here talking to me.
Then, the voice…
… the voice.
It wasn’t a dream. Or was it?
‘I didn’t see you at evening meal,’ Tongshi said. He took a step back.
‘What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ I said, hiding my fear. What just happened? My mind was in a blurry swirl.
‘You look… you look like you are when plugged into Caelo.’
I caught sight of myself in the polished mirror hung on the wall. My predecessors had a thing about mirrors. Old superstitions and traditions. Like the characters and writing script Grandmother insisted we use.
I saw my eyes gleaming amber, my hands hooked like claws. I had bared my teeth.
As princeps majoris, Second Aunt led Legio Furore. She was my immediate commander and the decider of my fate. She ordered me straight to the labs of the magos biologis, to be thoroughly examined by Yu 88 and her staff.
I could swear that Yu 88 was smiling under her hood, even though I knew that the majority of the Mechanicus frowned upon organic expressions like smiling. And if techpriests could express smugness…
‘I am not defective,’ I stated clearly, emphasizing every word. I admit at that moment I was defensive.
‘Clarification: This is an erroneous statement.’ Yu 88 put away her scanner. She studied me as if I were an insect on the wall.
‘Then what’s wrong with me?’ I tried to sit up, but a firm metallic hand pressed me down. I suppressed an instinctive growl. Now where did that come from?
Yu 88 glided across the lab, uttering rapid binharic instructions to her assistants. She didn’t answer, seemingly happy to let me stew in the silence.
‘Rumination: The word ‘wrong’ is a generic term,’ the magos biologis said, ‘which does not completely fit your current situation. There are cases when princeps identify too strongly with their engines, praise the Omnissiah. You might be one possible case.’
‘You mean I think I am a canid because Caelo’s personality is a canid?’
‘I will not articulate in such a crude manner. But I state: agreement.’
‘So you are saying that I am behaving like this because of Caelo?’
Yu 88 visibly shuddered. That was her only comment. I thought it was extremely human of her.
Second Aunt bubbled in her tank, serene in her power.
Dressed in our dark red clan uniform, I knelt before her.
‘I have perused the techpriest’s report,’ Second Aunt’s voice was low and imperious. I dared peer upwards. Her thin hair floated about her head like a mossy halo. The cords twined around her limbs like the pythons I’d seen in the tropical swamps. Her skin, like Grandmother’s, was wrinkly. For reasons unknown, she had kept her hands and feet. Her nails had grown to the length of talons. I glanced at my own hands, suddenly seeing an overlay of hooked claws. I shook my head. The illusion disappeared. Perhaps Yu 88 was right.
‘Acclimatisation takes time,’ Second Aunt said. Unlike Grandmother’s Sanctum, Second Aunt’s chamber was still human, filled with physical artifacts. Before she became a Warlord princeps, Second Aunt collected vases and examples of elegant calligraphy. Well-preserved replicas of famous calligraphers like Lu Xu and Bei Hong hung on the walls of her chamber. Ceramics done in the style of Neo-Ming graced rosewood shelves. Even now her hobby persisted. Two antique vases flanked her tank. Also Neo-Ming, I noticed.
‘I’m aware, princeps majoris.’ I bowed.
‘Take control or be subsumed,’ Second Aunt intoned and her tank went dark, a sign that the meeting had concluded.
Legio lore was replete with accounts of princeps lost in the Manifold or Noosphere. The MIUs of their engines had overwhelmed them. The princeps in our clans spoke about drowning or being pulled under. Was this what I was experiencing? Being pulled under? Drowning?
No. I was alive. My body sang. In no way I was drowning.
I took out my rage and excess energy at the family gymnasium. Tongshi, upon seeing my mood, stayed far away from me. He knew to give me space.
So it came as a surprise when I received the summons from mother.
My mother was no longer part of the legio. She had been a moderati and famulous to Grandmother, as well as a Warhound princeps, before she’d decided to retire early. Prematurely, as clan gossip went. My relatives hinted it was because of me. Her Warhound had been named Tian Gou. Sky Dog.
Now she tended the clan’s indoor gardens. A horticulturist.
It was indeed a place for respite, for meditation. Mother had made it so, insisted it to be. That was the clan in her: our sheer stubbornness. Under her care, the indoor gardens flourished. Peonies grew as big as my head. Cherry blossoms perfumed the air. Chrysanthemums exploded in all shades of yellow and orange. The carpet grass was lush and – in a world of metal and machines – gratifyingly real.
Mother was clad in a blue gardener’s smock. She had donned a wide-brimmed straw hat. Her hands wore orange gloves that looked well-used. When I approached her, she was digging a hole with a small black mattock. A sapling of an unknown botanical genus rested beside her.
‘Meixing,’ she said. Her voice was warm, like the golden maltose honey treats I’d loved as a child. I bowed before embracing her. She smelled of soil and sweat. A faint lingering fragrance hid beneath this. Lavender.
‘I heard from Second Aunt,’ mother said. ‘Acclimatisation takes time. Do not rush the process.’
There was a hint of something in her voice. Regret?
‘I know, mother.’
‘Tian Gou tested my boundaries so many times, you know. She was such an aggressive creature. Always looking for a fight. She was our best scout.’
Tian Gou was now decommissioned. The Warhound rested in the reserve vaults of the legio. Not one techpriest nor enginseer had awakened her spirit.
‘Caelo might be testing you,’ mother said, patting the soil around the sapling. I heard the soft thud-thud-thud of her hand. They sounded like heart beats.
‘I know, mother.’
‘My sister can be harsh in her words, but she’s genuinely concerned. We have seen this before.’
The voice again. It sounded like me, but not me.
Ignoring the voice, I gazed around the gardens. It was peaceful.
– a burning landscape, Titan corpses littered every inch of the earth –
– the sound of baying hounds in the sky –
– and howling coming from…
– my throat –
‘You are not alone, Meixing,’ mother cut through the brain fog, with a firm tone that brought my mind back to reality. ‘I’ve been through similar experiences. You will emerge stronger.’
‘Don’t fear it. You control the engine, not the reverse.’
The image of the burning landscape remained ,as if seared on my mind. I could smell… fire.
I saw myself in a strange double image. I was Caelo. I was myself. I was a raging wolf made of black smoke and blood.
I didn’t embrace mother when I left. The images terrified me. Was I … drowning? To shake off the feeling of sheer terror, I went for a run around the stronghold. I skipped evening dinner, ignored Tongshi’s messages, and went straight to my bedchamber. There I stripped and stood under the cold shower for a long time.
The dreams that night were of flame and burning and an open wolf maw filled with dripping teeth. I was the wolf. I tore into flesh, drinking blood. I was both corrupted flesh and ceramite. Yet, I laughed and howled. I relished the hunt. I revelled in the pain of my prey.
When I woke up, or thought I woke up, there was thick acrid smoke everywhere.
Alarms were blaring throughout the entire forge. The entire stronghold shook. My home was on fire. I realised I wasn’t in my bed.
I looked down and I saw… Caelo’s Inferno Gun and Plasma Blastgun. An image of talons seemed to be superimposed on them. My head hurt. Everything was bathed in shades of red. Were the talons dripping blood? Human… blood?
I had descended into hell.
About the Author
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Their fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Their RPG experience started with Demon: The Descent (Onyx Path). They write about werewolves in Singapore and werewolf clan wars in space.