Awakening protocols cascaded through Khazekh’s inorganic brain. Each command initiated activation of a different cogitational sector. Membanks were accessed randomly, emphatic engrams slow to link with the entries.
The process should have been supervised. Conducted like a symphony. But there was no conductor, and the instruments played of their own volition, vying for control among the chaos.
Logic engines eventually came online, cutting through the jumble of queries and false returns. A semblance of order was slowly established, but the personality core remained aslumber.
Temporal and physical metadata helped connect the discordant recordings of past events. A semblance of order has been restored, prompting the personality to emerge.
‘Attend me, slaves,’ Khazekh boomed, his artificial voice echoing around him in the darkness. Nothing stirred. Light remained in absence.
Advanced sensors came online, sweeping Khazekh’s surroundings in myriad ways. He had a perfect recollection of where everything in his tomb should be. And everything was in its exact spot, same as it had been millions of years ago. The sole exception was the constitution of the air. Dust had become prominent.
It still did not explain the darkness. With a creak of badly maintained necrodermis, Khazekh rose from his sarcophagus. Self-repair subroutines sluggishly began assessing the many faults his body had amassed over this extremely long period. Some of it was to be expected, but the rest showed signs of neglect.
‘I will punish the slaves personally,’ he said, metal voice rasping. A phaeron’s awakening was supposed to be a grand ceremony attended by his warmakers, viziers and slaves. Yet he felt forgotten. Abandoned. Such an affront was unheard of among the dynasties. Or at least it should’ve been. This was not the eternal glory he had been promised.
‘Where is everyone?’ he asked the darkness, but it kept its secrets. A dull fury built in his chest.
‘WHERE IS EVERYONE?’
Khazekh’s roar shook the very walls of the tomb. Meticulously crafted obedience protocols should have had every system respond in the Tomb World, yet there was nothing. Absolutely no response.
‘Have we lost? Did the C’tan return and claim us?’ he mused aloud as he limped from his chamber and into the vaulted hall where his guardians should’ve stood sentinel over his resting place. And there they stood, inanimate and powerless. He prodded the nearest with a claw. The guardian toppled, falling into a heap of unmoving limbs.
Khazekh continued his travels, passing through magnificent chambers and wide passages. Lifeless bodies glared at him accusingly, as if it was his fault his domain had perished. Indignation flared, and he glared back. How dare they question him even in death? It was their fault they had succumbed to this state, whatever it was.
As the phaeron, Khazekh had access to every bit of information stored in his archives. Given enough time, he could learn everything that needed to be learned to reinvigorate his thralls. But the Tomb World was as dead as his servants and he could not access the archives in their offline state.
Like the pilgrims of old, Khazekh travelled the length and breadth of his domain. The lifeless fingers of entropy had everything in its grip, not willing to relinquish them even at his behest. The Phaeron continued undaunted, searching for a glimmer of hope amid the desolation even as time and distance passed like entire deserts through the slender neck of an hourglass. The dead cared for neither and Khazekh found himself in accordance with them. There was no benefit to be had from the knowledge.
At long last, he had returned to his chamber. Every mote of dust had been as undisturbed as he left them upon his departure a dozen solar cycles ago.
Was this truly it? Would the eternal darkness claim him like it did all his subjects?
Khazekh ran a hand down the contours of his long forgotten flesh form sculpted perfectly into the sarcophagus’s lid. It was a form he had yearned for, but his desire now seemed permanently out of reach. He could do nothing alone to change his future. The thought was sobering.
With a deathrattle, he climbed back into the confines of his eternal resting place. It would have been unseemly, had there been any witness around, to let the darkness take him. Phaerons were beings beyond mortal reckoning, beings of immeasurable power and knowledge. For one to willingly depart the lands of the living was an alien concept.
Khazekh reached out with glacial slowness and pulled on the lid, when a faint blue light shone through his chamber’s doorway.
‘My liege? Have you awoken?’
The voice and the rank idents floating behind it told Khazekh who the speaker was.
‘Yes, great Phaeron, it is I,’ Sunamuhn said, floating into his master’s chamber. The cryptek floated on gentle waves of anti-gravity, cubes of raw energy rotating in containment fields above his emaciated form. Caged lightning corruscated down the length of the voltaic staff held in his hand.
‘I am pleased to see you,’ Khazekh said. He pulled himself from his sarcophagus as if he hadn’t left it before or never considered eternal slumber just moments ago.
‘I live to serve,’ Sunamuhn said with a shallow bow.
‘Tell me, Sunamuhn, where are my servants? Where is my honour guard? Why do you come to wake me alone?’
The Cryptek hesitated for a fraction of a nanosecond, but long enough for Khazekh to notice.
‘They are inoperable, my liege,’ Sunamuhn admitted.
‘How is that so, Cryptek? Is it not your duty to ensure my domain does not fall into disrepair?’
‘It is, my liege.’
‘Yet I hear no apology.’
‘Would it change anything?’
‘No, it would not,’ Khazekh said. Silence fell as the undying lord of the dynasty and the cryptek sworn to his protection looked at each other. Khazekh was the first to break it.
‘Surely you must have a reason.’
‘That I do possess, my liege,’ Sunamuhn answered with another bow. ‘If you would honour me with your presence, I would have you accompany me to the Observatory.’
With a creak and a groan, Khazekh rose from his sarcophagus for the second time since he regained consciousness.
‘Lead the way, Cryptek.’
Bobbing like a witchlight in a marsh, Sunamuhn led the way through the bowels of the Tomb World, heading unerringly towards the centre of the complex. They passed millions of soldiers lying in dormancy. Vast monoliths stood in rows, the edges of their steep flanks highlighted by the cryptek’s glowing cubes.
‘So many lost,’ Khazekh remarked. He observed Sunamuhn’s most minute reactions.
‘Lost, my liege? But they are right here.’
‘In body, perhaps, but they lack a force to motivate them.’
‘The C’tan devoured that.’
‘That is not what I meant. Even after biotransference, they lived and served for thousands of years. Returning from fatal wounds time and again. Powered by our science and the shards of the C’tan, after we broke them across our knees.’
The cryptek did not answer immediately. Again. When he eventually did, Khazekh wasn’t satisfied.
‘They had been dead even before the Great Sleep, they just didn’t know it yet. Had not the capacity to do so.’
‘Tread carefully, Cryptek Sunamuhn. What you suggest borders on treason. My dynasty may have been laid low, but I will not brook dissent from my last servant,’ Khazekh said, his command protocols flaring, ready to be unleashed.
‘Apologies, my liege. Such a thought never occurred to me as I followed your instructions to the glyph,’ Sunamuhn replied, his every word tagged with sincerity markers.
Khazekh reigned in his temper and left it at that. They continued to travel down, using ramps wide enough to accommodate armies on the march. The sounds of their steps were lost in the vastness of the empty space. Nothing stirred.
The energy cubes above the cryptek’s shoulders were the only illumination. They spun lazily despite the enormous power caged within them. The stored motive force in just one of them could have brought a Monolith to a full charge. All three might have been enough to cause a resurgence of the Tomb’s mainframe.
Khazekh was tempted to strike down the cryptek striding in front of him. Yet he felt a profound weakness. His body was active and superficial repairs were administered, but he possessed none of his martial might of old, nor his war regalia. Without arms and armour, he was physically inferior to the cryptek. All Khazekh had were the command protocols. Despite their potency, he hesitated to use them without access to the Nodal Command. Thus it was a risk he was not yet willing to take.
The distance to the Observatory was significant without access to the Teleportation Matrix. The true scale of the Tomb complex was once again a grim reminder of the greatness of Khazekh dynasty and its former glory. The Observatory was in the same state in which he had found it during his previous journey across his domain. The sole difference was the cerulean light emanating from Cryptek Sunamuhn.
Debris littered the floor of the circular hall. Great scrying crystals hung from the ceiling on limp arms. Dust had settled into the hieroglyphs etched into the walls. The Observatory’s dome was lost in the darkness.
‘I see here what I’ve seen everywhere else, Cryptek,’ Khazekh said.
‘A moment of your patience, my liege,’ Sunamuhn answered with a hand held up to silence the Necron Lord. Khazekh was too intrigued now to be affronted over such a slight.
Sunamuhn reached up and gingerly took hold of one the energy cubes. Sparks and raw energy slithered around his fingers. Khazekh could see the cryptek’s resilient necrodermis blacken and deactivate around his fingertips. Without flinching at the damage, Sunamuhn set the cube down. It immediately began burning through the blackstone floor. When it sank out of sight, its containment field disengaged.
The explosion threw Khazekh from his feet and slammed him against the wall. He suffered no damage, except on his dignity.
‘Cryptek!’ he bellowed, angry. Sunamuhn floated where he had last been, protected by his wards and the power of the two remaining cubes.
‘Apologies again, my liege. I did not expect this unfortunate side effect, but the Observatory is now functional again,’ Sunamuhn said and spread his arms.
The hieroglyphs in the walls blazed in the familiar dark green of Necron technology. The debris floated up into the air and began spinning in complex patterns. The scrying panes rose and assembled around them, enlarging sections of what looked like the galactic domain of the Necrons.
‘I can see that. But why waste that precious energy on the Observatory? How will this help me reclaim what is rightfully mine?’
Sunamuhn seemed to ignore him as the cryptek summoned the scrying crystals. Khazekh joined his servant and looked into the distance.
He could see nothing but war. Old enemies, new races and even an alien swarm. They all did battle across the old domains of the Necron Empire, destroying everything in their wake. The galaxy they had fought to claim so that their race might have a future free of struggle, disease and pointless death was being ravaged and decimated. All that they had ever loathed and despised became even more prominent. The worst the galaxy had to offer became its most prominent feature.
‘The Aeldari almost destroyed themselves when their whole race burned in the fires of birthing a new primordial force. Now small remnants fight to survive in primitive ways, some even embracing a deathcult to overcome the dread fear of their own making,’ Sunamuhn said. His blackened fingers manipulated the crystals to show points of interest.
Worlds flashed past as the crystals revealed one location after the other across the galaxy. Towering metal anthills were consumed in the fires of hate and faith. Continent-sized spaceships of spirit and bone were overrun by legions from the nether realm. Khazekh caught a glimpse of a vast, dark city hidden in a pocket dimension outside reality, its inhabitants killing each other in an unending cycle of torment and desire. A festering wound carved into the Materium’s flesh writhed across the length of the galaxy, perverting the very laws of existence.
‘The Krorks have devolved, but they are as numerous as before, rampaging left and right, wherever their corrupted gestalt might take them. The humans, a race of hairless primates who currently dominate the galaxy, fight themselves as much as they fight everyone else. They are barely better than the Krork’s remnants, but instead of a psychic gestalt, they have elevated their strongest psyker to false godhood and they venerate his corpse. Believers fight unbelievers, yet neither is ever victorious.’
‘A small race near the Sautekh Dynasty’s realm is enslaving a number of others through lies and continues to expand their territory in the name of an ideology they themselves do not adhere to. And, if we ignore the rest of the minor races close to extinction, we have the extragalactic swarm. A single entity controlling an uncountable number of bioforms that, not unlike the ancient plagues of old, devour planet after planet of harvestable resources. If this leviathan of a creature is left unopposed, it will scour all biological life from the galaxy, leaving behind but empty husks.’
‘What about Szarekh and our kind? I see no sign of them,’ Khazekh said. He kept his voice free of worry, but deep down in his personality core, he knew he would not like the answer.
‘The Silent King is nowhere to be found. The rest of our kin awaken one by one, only to be caught up in the local conflict that had prompted their Nodal Command into action. Sometimes they prevail, but more often they do not. Less than a handful of dynasties managed to remain active and in fighting form after their awakening. The rest have been destroyed beyond recovery.’
‘So you mean to tell me that we have slumbered for millions of years for everything to be just worse? That awakening itself is a death sentence for most and there is no hope of ever recovering what is rightfully ours? No chance that we might prevail and undo biotransference, to live as we should have, had the Old Ones not been greedy?’
‘I am afraid that is the essence of it, my liege,’ Sunamuhn said. The cryptek looked ashamed, as if he had hoped never to admit their defeat out loud to anyone. Least of all to his master. Yet here he was, the damning words spoken and the truth laid bare.
‘Has your faith in me deserted you, Sunamuhn?’
The question caught the cryptek unaware. His head tilted to the side in confusion.
‘No, my liege. Why would you ask me that?’
It was Khazekh’s turn to hesitate. Confronting Sunamuhn was untimely, yet he could scarcely control his need to dominate his servant. His self-control directives were fraying. Wandering through his dead domain eroded them with each step and his emotional buffers were close to bursting. With an effort, he shunted the empathic detritus into oblivion.
‘If I am to rebuild what has been taken from me, I must know that my last active servant remains loyal to me. Reaffirm your loyalty engram to me, Sunamuhn!’
‘As you wish, my liege,’ the cryptek answered. ‘But first, allow me to show you something. It is quite extraordinary, if I may say so.’
‘I do not condone your stalling, Cryptek. It hints at a reluctance,’ Khazekh warned. ‘Nevertheless, I will indulge you for the time being.’
‘You are most magnanimous, my liege,’ Sunamuhn bowed. ‘Please, follow me.’
Their destination unspecified, Khazekh followed in his cryptek’s wake from the Observatory. As they stepped through the room’s threshold, the power feeding the machines fled and darkness swallowed everything. Khazekh heard the arcane galaxarium’s pieces fall to the floor again. The Observatory became as dead as they had found it.
Sunamuhn led them down a concourse lined by statues of the greatest heroes of Khazekh’s dynasty, rendered in blackstone and precious jewels. They passed through the reliquary, a treasure trove of the highest grade Necron technology, sitting upon the plinths like so many dead birds.
‘We are almost there, my liege,’ Sunamuhn said. Khazek could guess their destination, for there was nothing else in the vicinity that he would find of interest.
The Tesseract Vault was the prison of a transcendent shard of the Nightbringer. Khazekh had his finest crypteks build it in accordance with the plans disseminated by Szarekh’s court. By sacrifice unlike any other, the impossible had been achieved and the shard imprisoned. It was the primary source of motive force for the Tomb World and Khazekh suspected that the lack of energy meant that the shard had escaped. How, he did not know, but apparently Sunamuhn had an answer.
Before the cryptek’s arrival, Khazekh had walked past the C’tan’s prison, but did not enter. There was nothing inside that could offer him answers or help. Even The master of a dynasty stood no chance against the unfiltered fury of a shard, let alone without his regalia.
Cryptek Sunamuhn stepped through the Tesseract Vault’s yawning portal without a moment’s hesitation. It would have been unseemly for Khazekh not to follow with the same confidence.
He did not know what to expect. If the shard had managed to escape containment, it would have destroyed the Tomb in a whirlwind of revenge. If the Tesseract Vault still operated despite every sign to the contrary, the shard within would destroy them for trespassing. Khazekh’s mind could conjure no further alternatives.
‘Have you ever seen a dead god, my liege?’
‘I was not there when the C’tan were broken, if that is what you are asking,’ Khazekh replied. Sunamuhn was present for most of his reign, attending his court throughout the War in Heaven, so the cryptek should have known the answer to that question.
‘Perhaps you have seen it in a dream?’
‘There was no dream during the Great Sleep. That would have meant a corruption of my memory.’
‘Quite so, my liege. Yet the shards are powerful enough to affect us even through containment. I admit to having seen dreams,’ Sunamuhn said.
‘I would command you to get it sorted, but seeing that you’re the only cryptek still around, that will have to wait.’
‘Yes,’ Sunamuhn answered.
The Tesseract Vault was the most sublime thing the Necrons had ever created. They could cage within beings with the power to alter the very fabric of reality. Each prison had to be designed specifically for each prisoner, to ensure their respective gifts could not break the locks and chains binding them.
Something brittle crunched to fine powder under Khazekh’s tread. He looked down and saw a dead hand, his step separating it from its body.
‘What is th-’
The words froze in his vocaliser unit. His logic engines went into frantic overdrive as he tried to process what was before him. Cryptek Sunamuhn watched him patiently, letting Khazekh deal with the shock.
The shock of finding the corpse of a god at his feet. A transcendent shard of the Nightbringer, capable of annihilating whole star systems, lay dead before him. The desiccated remains were as brittle as sandstone, easily destroyed by even the smallest accidents.
‘How? How can this be?’ Khazekh asked, shocked. He even took a step back, his terror palpable.
‘The Nightbringer killed itself,’ Sunamuhn said.
‘Be that as it may, that is what transpired. Observe.’
The cryptek pulled the second cube from above his shoulder and put it gently on the dead shard’s chest. The blackness from his fingertips spread up to his elbow and the arm flopped uselessly to his side.
The energy stored within the cube snaked across the dead body and a glow built within its chest. It did not stir, for there was not enough energy within the galaxy to bring a god back to life, but a vortex of information given form spiralled above it.
Khazekh reached out and touched the vortex. Information flooded his consciousness and he witnessed an accurate recounting of the past.
The shard sat caged within the still working confines of the Vault, biding its time until it would be free again to do as it pleased. Time was irrelevant to a being such as it, yet it still suffered. Imprisonment was one thing, but solitude was another. The Nightbringer’s shard craved slaves to attend to it.
Cryptek Sunamuhn appeared in the shard’s memories. The cryptek came and went, offering his company to the shard, yet never doing its bidding. Instead, the cryptek talked to it while affecting repairs to the Vault. The more the cryptek worked, the more the shard weakened.
It took millennia for the shard to expire, but it did. It slowly fell on the ground and all of its energy fled its physical form. Sunamuhn was there to capture the escaping essence in invisible fields. The dead god’s energy formed glowing blue cubes that floated above Sunamuhn’s shoulders.
Khazekh’s mind was ripped from the recollection and he looked at his servant aghast.
‘You! You murdered a god? But how?’
‘I admit it was difficult and I’m not sure you could’ve comprehended the specifics in your prime, my liege,’ Sunamuhn said with an apologetic shrug. ‘In the most simple terms, a Tesseract Vault folds reality back into itself. The laws governing the material realm were reset so fast not even the C’tan could manipulate them fast enough in a shard state. All I needed to do was slowly introduce the deathpulse of our brethren lying dormant. The death of billions permeated this pocket reality. I steeped the shard’s very existence in their moment of expiration. Until it could resist the moment of mortality no more and succumbed to it of its own volition. It killed itself.’
Khazekh’s mind raced with the possibilities of what Sunamuhn had achieved. The true death of a transcendent shard was considered impossible. No mortal has ever achieved such a feat.
‘Are you satisfied, my liege?’
‘I admit your achievement is unparalleled. But sacrificing my whole domain without my permission? That is preposterous, nay, outright treason!’
‘I did not intend for you to ever awaken, my liege. There was no point in coming back from the Great Sleep. The state of the galaxy deteriorated instead of improved, and there is nothing that any of us can do to remedy that. We are bound to disappointment. So I saved us the trouble. I let those slumbering pass on with the prospect of victory still at the forefront of their memories. Saving them from cruel reality was nothing short of merciful.’
‘Cryptek Sunamuhn, you have gone insane,’ Khazekh said. He armed his command protocols and unleashed them all at once. ‘Kneel before me and face your judgement!’
Sunamuhn sighed, despite spending the last 60 million years without lungs.
‘I am afraid I must decline, my liege. Please, allow me instead to send you on your way.’
Khazekh stepped back as Sunamuhn advanced on him. The cryptek wielded the voltaic staff in his still operational arm. A flick of his wrist sent the weapon swinging. Khazekh dodged the staff’s head, but its lightning field sent a billion volts of electricity through his necrodermis, short circuiting most of his primary systems. Overvoltage dampeners saved him from a catastrophic failure. Backup systems kicked into life and emergency protocols propelled Khazekh into a frantic flight.
‘Please come back, my liege! I only wish to cease your suffering!’
Khazekh, the lord and master of the Akhorten dynasty, ran for his artificial life. Ruler of a hundred Tomb Worlds and master of a trillion Necron warriors, he stumbled through the dark halls of his empire’s capital, fleeing his trusted servant.
‘There is nowhere left to go, my liege,’ Sunamuhn said from somewhere behind him. The cryptek floated on his trail with steady determination, the blue glow from his last remaining energy cube giving away his position.
‘I will not die a pauper’s death,’ Khazekh growled to himself as he rounded a corner. His words were lost among the high rafters of the reliquary. He grabbed a phase sword from the nearest plinth, but the weapon in his hand was nothing but a piece of intricately carved metal. The resurrection orb on another would’ve been insufficient even as a toy for children. The veil of darkness was nothing more than a tattered piece of black cloth interwoven with complex nano-machinery.
Khazekh donned them nonetheless. If he was going to be killed by that treacherous scoundrel, he would go down fighting.
Haloed by the last scrap of a dying god’s energy, Sunamuhn stepped into the reliquary. He stopped when he saw Khazekh stand his ground.
‘I am pleased to see you have come to reason, my liege,’ the cryptek said sincerely.
‘Reason has nothing to do with this, traitor,’ Khazekh spat and launched himself at his opponent. The inert phase blade swept down in an overhead swing with all the power Khazekh could muster. Sunamuhn whipped his staff into the sword’s arc and the two weapons came together with a loud crash. The staff’s energy field blew the sword’s blade into a billion tiny splinters, leaving Khazekh unarmed.
‘That was quite beneath you, my liege,’ Sunamuhn said as he raised his staff for the next blow. Khazekh did not step back.
‘I care not for your opinion, servant,’ the Necron lord snarled and thrust the resurrection orb he held in his other hand into the single floating cube above Sunamuhn’s head. A cryptek was not a warrior; Sunamuhn never expected Khazekh to attack with the orb.
The dead C’tan shard’s power flowed into the resurrection orb, its light changing from blue to a tesseract green. Khazekh’s arm began to smoulder as impossible energies ate away at his necrodermis.
‘What have you done?’ Sunamuhn asked, surprise and terror mixing in his voice.
‘What I had to,’ Khazekh replied.
The conflicting energy fields finally gave way and a tremendous explosion eradicated master and servant from the material realm.
Green lightning coruscated along the surfaces of the Tomb World, reigniting every quiescent machine, flowing through millions of Necron constructs and filling their inanimate limbs with motive force. Dormant personalities were annihilated in a blinding flash. The looped torment of all the Necrons dying, marinated in the final moments of a god’s passing, overwrote everything with an insatiable and senseless desire to destroy. Annihilate. Exterminate.
All life would be wiped out until there was nothing left to suffer the fear of death.
About the Author
Daniel was born on a sunny, peaceful spring morning in Budapest, Hungary. He preferred watching television over reading books. That changed when his school took him to the public library and everyone was forced to pick a book to read. He chose The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Despite his initial disdain, our hero devoured the book in a few days and hasn’t stopped reading since. If you got this far, please send help, his budget (and shelves) can’t handle more books! Oh, and he occasionally entertains the idea of being a writer. The fool.