‘There are places that man ought never explore. No one, including you.’ Ventis Sturluson, Scion of Seventh Spire, carried a tray of two golden goblets. A sea was etched in each rim, their waves trampled by white stallions. Crimson wine rippled within, reflecting the lavish painting of eight knights gathered beneath a large tree that covered the ceiling.
Crammed into the Hive’s upper reaches, the study was small as it was opulent. Venomous winds lashed the gilded windows, carrying ashen swirls from the factories sprawling to the horizon. Two figures watched the smoky fingers break: a man in a gray jacket and a helmeted woman in obsidian power armor. Both turned at Ventis’ cultured tones, nothing amicable to them.
‘I go where the Throne requires, not where I ought.’ Interrogator Romulus walked up to Scion, his jacket’s folds thudding against his chest. His companion trailed him, the red lenses of her helmet a warning, the Bolter in her hands a promise.
‘Ah, I meant no disrespect. One cannot help but hear these sorts of platitudes, and at my age, they have a tendency to stick.’ Setting the tray on an old-wood table, Ventis lowered himself into an immense chair. Oiled leather murmured as it accommodated him, while decorative jewels flashed. None glittered quite so bright as the man’s eyes, magnified by compound augments. Drinking deep of the cup, he smacked his lips then leaned back with a cybernetic whir, smiling when Romulus’ remained standing. ‘You clearly are not one for social visits, so what can the Sturluson family do for you?’
‘Your tithe was deemed suspect.’ Romulus lowered his chin, casting shadows over his eyes as he reached into the folds of his coat. Ventis held his breath, jaw clenched tight as Romulus withdrew his hand. ‘I am not here to assign blame, the Administratum has already found you all guilty.’
A Bolt-pistol gleamed in the window-light, glossing the horse-trampled waves decorating the barrel. Deftly flipping the pistol, Romulus offered the grip to Ventis. Taking the offering, the Scion’s hand settled firmly about the handle with experienced strength. He slid the receiver, then tested the trigger in a cursory inspection.
‘I confess I see no defect.’
‘Horses do not have eight legs,’ Romulus clasped his hands. ‘It would be a novelty, if not for the fact all your previous products had four.’
So why come to me?’ Ventis swirled his glass. ‘Is it because Eighth Spire was abandoned?’
‘No, though I am not blind to the symbolism.’ Romulus crooked his lips. ‘I am here because the other six Scions are already in custody.’
‘Is that so?’ Ventis sipped delicately from the glass, the gun still in his other hand. Smacking his lips, he flashed a smile. ‘You work fast then, my men just informed me you had landed.’
‘They were less than compliant, though you need not worry about their wellbeing.’
‘A lack of leverage then?’ Ventis nodded sagely. ‘We Scions can be stubborn creatures, family pride and all that.’
‘It is not leverage I lack.’ Romulus leaned forward, hands entwined under his chin. ‘It is time.’
Ventis said nothing, but tightened his grip on the gun. In an instant, the woman in black crossed the room, pressing a red-gold Bolter to his head.
‘Your title is already forfeit,’ Romulus gestured for the man to rise. ‘Do not be so quick to throw your life away.’
As the freight elevator trundled past the floodlights of yet another floor, Romulus stopped counting. They were now two hundred floors beneath Eighth Spire; it would not be long until they arrived. He lifted his chin, watching the landing climb into the infinite darkness overhead.
‘If I may remind you, Eighth Spire has been defunct for decades. You will find no Manufactorums here.’ Ventis Sturluson pulled his fur-cloak tight, glancing sharply at the woman half-seen in the corner. ‘I don’t mind that this is unorthodox, but we are both busy men.’
‘The Blackships found your other contributions… wanting,’ Romulus answered in a dull monotone, face bleached in the sterile floodlights. He looked down, staring at Ventis with all the intensity of a corpse. ‘Do you know why the Eighth Spire was abandoned?’
Ventis shrugged. ‘A comet struck.’
‘Not enough to stop the elevator or lights.’ Romulus did smile then. ‘Curious, no?’
Ventis contented himself with an implacable shrug.
The elevator stopped at the next landing and dropped its gate with a squeal. Motion-sensitive lights snapped on, revealing a trio fitted with bulky flak armor and lasrifles. The man in front, a veteran weathered by the suns of a hundred worlds, waved the snickering pair behind him into silence before saluting crisply.
‘Ready when you are Interrogator sir!’
‘My, the Interrogator is thorough.’ Ventis clapped politely. ‘Alas, so much for my dastardly plan to dispose of him.’
‘One inspects the crime scene before bringing the criminal. Imagine my surprise when I found Captain Sheller guarding an abandoned Spire.’ Romulus gestured expansively before looking askance at Ventis. ‘Did I mention the Psykers? They all talked about the sea. I figured they meant the Spire’s reservoir.’
‘There are places—’
‘That no man ought to explore. But there are requests no man ought to refuse.’
‘How insightful.’ Ventis sniffed, then walked past the trio. Ahead of him, the tunnel ravenous maw awaited them all. ‘Very well. I can show you, but I cannot promise you will like what we find.’
‘What do you mean?’ One of the guards scoffed, voice twisted by the thick burns climbing her neck. ‘He’s Inquisition, they’re never happy.’
Sheller pinched his nose. ‘Lag, the interrogator can hear you?’
‘So.’ She folded her arms, digging herself in as the Imperial guard always did. ‘I’ll follow orders, I’ll kill, just don’t expect me to sing for joy.’
The remaining guard broke into a smirk. ‘Good, be heresy with that throat of yours anyway.’
‘Alright, that’s enough.’ Straightening his shoulders, Sheller pointed after Ventis, who hadn’t slowed for their benefit. ‘Baldr, you take point. Ventis might disappoint the Interrogator, but I don’t intend to.’
‘Then hurry, Sheller.’ Romulus stepped through the trio, followed a moment later by his intimidating shadow. ‘We have little time.’
They walked in silence, stalked by echoing footfalls and muttering drips. With every step, they passed circular grates set in the curved walls. For every ten that Romulus counted, they arrived then passed through a great intersection, where ancillary tunnels sank into overflow lakes. After they had passed the seventh, Ventis finally stopped beside a nondescript gate. Confidently hooking his fingers around the damp metal, the Scion pulled. With a tired groan, the gate fell away, exposing an oval passage. Raindrops fell from the dewy ceiling, splashing into the thin river limp upon the floor.
‘This it, huh?’ Lag sneered as Ventis ducked into the passage. ‘What’s so special about it?’
Ventis looked solemnly at her. ‘It’s the right one.’
‘Eighth gate of the Eighth block, is it?’ Romulus’ voice was flat as the floor. ‘I have given you time to contemplate your lies, now tell me the truth.’
‘What is there to tell that you have not torn from our stolen children?’ Ventis snapped, unconsciously shifting away as Romulus’ armored companion took a step closer. He was composed in an instant, answering in clipped tones. ‘You heard about the sea from them. But did they tell you a great, white, tree grows from it?’ He held his hands wide to embrace the sky. ‘It branches the cosmos like the tree of life, but upon it, a man hangs from a spear in his side.’
‘I have not. But your tale has a… familiar ring to it.’
‘Everything you see is already heresy, why not give you more rope?’ Ventis smiled, gold glittering in his jaw. ‘That way, I might at least die standing.’
‘He thinks it’s the Empra’ sir,’ Sheller growled. ‘Sees a man pinned on some overgrown and thinks it’s the Great Protector.’
‘Oh, the tree is grander than any throne, guardsman.’ Ventis murmured, gazing longingly down the hall. ‘Nature always exceeds man.’
‘If I was an orthodox man, you would be dead.’ Ambling to the tunnel’s mouth, Romulus looked into the darkness. Then he met Ventis’ acute stare. ‘Fortunately for you, I am a curious man. Tell me, what of the horses?’
‘So the great Interrogator does not know it all.’ Ventis lifted a brow, his voice bouncing off the stone. ‘A white stallion bears a one-eyed warrior in furs. Even now, he searches the tree’s boughs to find salvation for his father.’
‘Interesting’ Romulus climbed into the tunnel. ‘How old is this myth?’
‘Old. Look to your left. Time has taken much, but what remains should interest you.’ A minute into their claustrophobic advance, Ventis gestured as best he could in the tunnel’s confines. The wall shimmered in the guards’ electric torches, condensations of fat tears distorting the design.
Swiping his hand along the wall, Romulus saw that there were two murals. One, which extended behind him, had been reduced to faded smudges like ash on the wind. The second, up where Ventis awaited, those lines formed into something. The guardsman watched in undisguised interest as Romulus cleared a larger patch.
In the first of three frescoes, a knight-legion in gilded armour waded through a faceless mob. Led by a long-haired giant, the warriors walked the gauntlet, not so much as lifting a finger against their ineffectual assailants. Ahead of them, a tender sapling sprouted from a crater in the city’s heart. A wolf-headed serpent coiled about the sprout, jealously watching the knights.
Dead knights littered the second fresco, broken by the beast. Roots poked up in the bloody puddles, while the sapling had become a tree. At its base, the long-haired giant held the beast’s severed head, one foot placed triumphantly upon the eight-legged corpse.
Upon the third, the tree enveloped the heavens. A knight in full armor dangled from its trunk, pinned by the spear thrust through his heart. The red river flowing from his side widened, like a satin curtain across the tree. And through that billowing gateway, stepped the long-haired giant.
‘Empra’s mercy.’ Sheller blinked. ‘His angels, here?’ He swallowed, the silence so complete it was like a gunshot. ‘I’ve heard the fables. One of the arch-angels went looking for—’ He bit his tongue as he jumped backward. His company did too, repelled by the same instinct as the woman in black stole between them.
She paused beside the painting, studying it a moment before flashing her fingers. Watching intently, Romulus absently addressed Ventis. ‘Spire Eight was not abandoned, was it?’
‘We were, and are, always faithful servants. You shall see.’ Ventis Sturluson squared his shoulders, then tore away from the mural and stepped over a threshold where the passage changed from smooth rockrete to crumbling brick. Far away, no larger than a thumb, a white sun wavered, trapped so far beneath the city it had been crushed into nothingness.
Romulus drew a skull-marked cap low over his eyes.
‘Guardsmen, if you fear for life and soul, I release you.’ Romulus drew a weapon, the Hellgun’s tip smoldered with carrion-red energy, yearning to breathe its fire. ‘My rosette will not protect you here. Should you proceed, you are sworn to secrecy until death or the Throne releases you.’
‘Now that’s an offer.’ Lag huffed. ‘Count me in Interrogator.’
Baldr just shrugged.
‘Be easier to say no if you didn’t look like a commissar.’ Checking the charge on his rifle, Sheller leaned it against his shoulder. ‘Let’s get this over with and go home.’
‘Only in death does duty end.’ Romulus showed a wane smile. ‘Walk quietly.’
Stepping into the tunnel, Romulus dissolved in the dark like a silhouette at night. All that remained were ripples painted with hellfire.
Little by little, the dank walls crumbled away into a muddy shore extending indefinitely to the left and right. A sea whispered against it; the far reaches hidden in shimmering mists. Overhead, the reservoir’s stony ribs climbed out of sight, supporting bulbous veins perpetually draining the grim waters. Yet that was not all which crawled to the city above.
Marble creepers entwined the pipes, crawling in pursuit of the sun. These were the roots of an alabaster tree in the lake’s heart; its bark transparent like a sheaf of marble but stained by a ruddy half-oval in its center. A shadow stirred within, pinned by the slender limbs spreading far into the misty horizons, resplendent with bright leaves murmuring in unfelt winds.
Motes drifted from those arms like fireflies, dappling the water with stars. It was these lights that illuminated the submerged bridge leading the island. Yet they did not reveal if there was stone beneath the veneer of knotted roots.
‘You see it now?’ Stopping upon the soft shore, Ventis pointed. ‘There is your horse.’
Standing impossibly upon the glassy waves, a pale horse waited. Eight hooved legs curved from its lithe body, gorgeous as the eight purple eyes burning in its long face. It moved gracefully as the wind, yet left not so much as a ripple So, like a dream, it danced over the waves, spreading from rounded shapes shivering in the waters. Hundreds of dream-drunk voices recited a language Romulus did not know, though he recognized a prayer-cant all the same.
Silently stepping toward the bridge, Romulus waved a finger to his left. Sheller and the other guardsmen padded that way, forming a firing line flanking the underwater bridge. Romulus didn’t so much as hear them, but the beast looked over, like a hound on the hunt.
‘What do you see?’ Romulus looked to his armored shadow, only to see her vanish in an alchemical roar. Her Bolter’s heavy action cycled, spitting a swarm of meteors.
Innocent as a child, the eight-eyed beast watched the onrushing light. Unmoved, the mass-reactive shell crunched through bone before detonating. In an instant, those eyes were callously torn apart as the beast’s head disintegrated. What remained was a shredded meat mass drooping from once-proud shoulders. Yet the beast sunk not an inch in the placid sea, and silence descended.
‘That might be the first time you ever answered me out loud,’ Romulus whispered. ‘Should I inform your sisterhood?’
Before anyone could answer, golden light flared in the tree’s heart, racing out to the creeping roots. As one, those formless mounds rose on cold-trembling knees, becoming an army of young and old, their eyes golden beneath dripping hair and lax brows. They charged the narrow bridge as a moaning wind shook loose the crystalline leaves and wove them into a protective veil about the charging horde.
‘Around her.’ Calm as ever, Romulus moved to the woman in black. While the guard hurried to follow, they were slowed by the thick mud. Their lasguns weren’t. A hundred narrow lasbeams carved into the bizarre shield, only to shatter into feeble splinters.
Aiming his hellgun at the center, Romulus fired. The resulting ray punched through the flickering screen, causing it to thrash like a wounded animal clawing at its burning stomach. Through that window, Romulus saw a knot of steaming corpses splash awkwardly into darksome water. Then the mass closed ranks, and pressed forward.
A bolter’s chuff, sharp as snapping bones, stopped them. One was thrown sideways, his arm dissolved in fire. Another toppled forward, her ribs transmuted into a lethal cone of debris that scythed through two more. Each boom baptized the isthmus in gore and scattered the leaves. Beyond the doomed charge, Romulus saw the headless horse. It was moving.
Galloping fast upon the silent lake, the headless thing swept in like nightfall. A howl rose from the flayed neck as it bubbled; loose flesh knitting together and sprouting white fur. Then the bloody haunches snapped into slavering jaws; amethyst teeth brilliant as its eight furious eyes. Bursting across the bridge, it tossed the dreamers like chaff as it descended.
Ventis Sturluson straightened as the wolf’s hoary breath numbed his face. Then it was past, leaving behind the patter of bloody rain.
Baldr was knee-deep in mud and far from the woman in black when the beast opened its maw. Jagged purple light enveloped him, leaving only an oily outline as it rushed toward the woman in black. Yet the wave fizzled, loathe to touch her. The wolf had no such reticence.
Roaring, Sheller drove his shoulder into the creature’s chest. He bounced away with a pained cry and the smell of cooked flesh.
Lag squared her feet and held the line, firing until the twisted thing struck her square in the stomach. She was dead before her corpse broke against the wall.
Searing the scene into memory, Romulus set his crosshairs on the wolf head. He fell before he could pull the trigger, his feet knocked away as the eight-eyed maw flashed overhead. Looking sideways, Romulus’ saw his shadow pull her foot back, quickly squaring herself against the foe. They collided with a crunch, knocking her down.
Bathed in her Bolter’s staccato glow, the woman in black wrestled her weapon up. The fat rounds punched through the beast, ripping fistfuls of flesh from its back. In return, the hooves lashed out, leaving smoldering rings in her armor until one blow caught the crook of her left arm, shearing it off at the elbow.
Silent as death she leaned forward, planting her gun to the beast’s taut belly and firing. A muffled thump splashed sizzling viscera across her before the beast’s momentum carried it away. Writhing like a serpent, it slammed against the wall, its convulsions mincing Lag’s remains.
Heaving himself off the floor, Romulus took careful aim then sent a beam through the wolf-head. With a final tremble, the creature fell still. Dropping his hand, Romulus looked to where Sheller helped up the woman in black.
‘Hurts like a bitch, doesn’t it?’ Sheller stumbled back as the woman regained her feet.
‘Be glad you live.’ Touching the man’s shoulder, Romulus looked to his shadow. Pulling a hand from her truncated elbow, she awkwardly wagged her fingers.
‘Too slow like that.’ Romulus sighed. ‘You need a replacement.’
‘Spoken like a commissar, get a flamer installed while you’re at it.’ Sheller chuckled, though it became a pained gasp.
Another flurry of approving signs.
‘Do not give her ideas Sheller, she is plenty dangerous already.’ Reaching into his jacket, Romulus pulled out a large battery fitted for his pistol. ‘But if you have the time to joke, I hear the Guard know a thing or two you can do with these.’
‘Aye. There isn’t a magos watching, is there?’ Sheller’s eyes lit up as he sized up the tree.
‘Interrogator.’ The group turned coldly at Ventis’ words. Though he carried himself with dignity, there was feverish energy in the Seventh Scion’s voice. ‘It seems you were not the one who disliked what he saw. Whatever fool I may be, I know that no good thing survives a bolt to the head.’
‘A keen insight.’ Paying the man little mind, Romulus started kicking his way across the carrion-choked isthmus. The pieces floated off; torn and twisted, more jellyfish than men.
Watching the miserable things drift toward dark arches, Sheller looked back to the bloody shore.
‘Guardsman Sheller,’ Romulus called over his shoulder. ‘The dead must wait.’
‘Aye, sir.’ Sheller hugged his rifle and marched into the tree’s shade. There they saw the golden veins beneath the bark, pulsing with a hypnotic beat. His eyes caught on a black spar driven high in the trunk. It was too large to be called a spear; with red-brown sap melting off the iron like it was still warm. From there, the flows spread out to resemble a door.
Ventis frowned slightly at the scene. ‘No knight, how interesting.’
‘Interesting?’ Sheller bit his lip. ‘Not wondering how a tree got down here?’
‘Without soil or sun?’ Romulus eyed the alabaster feelers chewing through stone. ‘The simplest answer is that it did not grow here.’
Ventis chuckled approvingly. ‘Clever.’
‘Let us assume a warrior entered this tree. The mural likely depicts this place’s past, while in your dreams it is in a starry sea.’ Romulus brushed the trunk’s red stain. ‘I understood the sea as this reservoir, but perhaps it was instead other side, and this spear, this doorway, are only reflections of the other side’
Sheller grimaced. ‘Don’t much like that thought sir.’
‘Agreed, so we do what we must.’ Romulus extended a hand toward Sheller, the battery rolling in his palm.
Nodding silently, Sheller grabbed the battery and sat. Pinning it between his knees, he used his combat knife to delicately peel away an outer layer. While he worked, Romulus took a clutch of grenades from the lining of his coat and laid them at the tree in offering.
‘I doubt something so crass will help.’ Beside him, Ventis tapped at his chin. ‘It feels—’
Frost bit Romulus’ cheek as an ice-rimmed hand the size of his head swung by. It connected to a tall-haired shadow beneath the bark, like a man reaching through an impenetrable bubble. Yet those fingers closed about Ventis’ head. The Scion of Seventh Spire shuddered, his lips turning blue and cracked as he was dragged into the bark like it was quicksand.
Golden sap flew as a bolt exploded that monstrous hand. Fighting the recoil as best she could, the woman in black fired again, putting a crater beside the shadow’s head. Then she stopped, glaring down the smoking gun as Ventis became another shadow beneath the surface. Long-hair pulled one arm back, holding a long, thin shape.
Romulus stood a moment, memorizing every detail. Then a muted scream escaped the tree, rising as Long-hair lifted Ventis’ shadow and drove his hand forward. A spear tip burst the bark, leaking crimson drops that filled the old discoloration. As they dribbled down, the wet bark rippled like a curtain in the wind.
‘The spear.’ Romulus calmly pointed to the weapon.
Nodding once, the woman in black locked her Bolter to her magnetic holster then reached for the iron haft. Sheller joined as Romulus did, and all three had to stretch for the weapon, and its chilled metal stuck to gloves and flesh. It came free like pulling a knife from water, leaving the three sagging under its weight.
‘Hide it behind the Scion.’ Teeth grit, Romulus led the others; setting the spear behind Ventis’s shadow and angled toward Long-hair’s heart. Letting go, the woman in black gripped the spear’s base and threw her weight behind it. Power armor hummed as synthetic muscles kicked the weapon forward. Easily as it had come away, the spear cut bark and flesh. The shadow flinched back, but the spear hungrily followed.
‘Sheller.’ Releasing the weapon, Romulus pointed to the shaved batteries.
Nodding silently, Sheller ran to his work; followed by Romulus and his companion. Long-hair lunged after them, and this time the bloodied bark gave way; exposing a void studded with stars. An unearthly howl pierced Romulus’ soul, rising until Sheller swung his arm down and the world was engulfed in fire. Throwing an arm over his eyes, Romulus refused to look away.
Wreathed in flames, the tree wilted and charred. Its vibrant leaves shriveled in the conflagration, falling off to drift in miserable embers.
‘That’s it?’ Sheller broke the silence with a cough. ‘All that death for a Throne-damned tree?’
‘Two deaths, Sheller. Do not waste breath counting heretics, you will need it.’ Romulus pointed toward the distant arches. This reservoir touches others, and even if it is only dreams, the Spires will be measured. Perhaps they will stop, and their madness will lift.’
‘If it doesn’t, sir?’
‘Then we do another kind of arithmetic.’ Romulus stared at Sheller with eyes void of emotion. ‘We live on a knife’s edge, any slack, and we fall upon the blade.’
‘Suppose we’re all expendable then? Like Lag and Baldr?’ Snarling, Sheller pointed back to the shore. ‘Two loyal soldiers, thrown away for what’s going to become a slaughterhouse? If I dream, are you at least going to have the decency to shoot me yourself?’
‘You have composed yourself admirably, Guardsman, do not disappoint me now.’ Tone wearily soft, Romulus began the long march across the isthmus. His words lingered, like the floating ash.
‘I can protect one good man.’
About the Author
Gregory loves dark fiction, which has had a place in his heart since cracking open the works of HP Lovecraft. He finds dense, inhospitable worlds are simply fun to explore. Inspired by books like Lord of the Rings and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, he tries to take that same love to the Warhammer universe when inspiration strikes.
Otherwise, you can him working on Daemon Circuit, a cyberpunk novel about misinformation, greed, and man’s designs. It’s a bit less cosmic, but still grounded in the same brooding, violent mood that makes punk, punk. (Or so he hopes.)