+++ I +++
‘She was a guardswoman,’ Demar’s mother, the Lady Oscyllia de Vrjier snarled, her lined and weathered face inches from her son’s. ‘She was a menial. She was fodder. She was unimportant. She existed to do one thing and one thing alone: to serve the Imperium.In death, her duty has been fulfilled.’
She was the love of my life, Demar thought, his eyes on the thick red carpets of the chamber in which he sat. He could not bring himself to meet his mother’s gaze. The two normal eyes, green as venom, were bad enough; the third eye in her forehead – that of a skilled and exceedingly powerful former Navigator, though hidden by an ornate headpiece of gold and silver – seemed to bore into his soul from behind its veil.
‘And you are married,’ the Lady Oscyllia continued, straightening her back to look down her nose at her youngest son, so that her blood-red robe cascaded over her thin frame like a sanguine waterfall. ‘I understand men have needs, but a guardswoman?’
The choked huh of disgust that left her thin lips sounded like the warning call of an avian predator. ‘Your father and I have spent decades building up the good name of de Vrjier and I will not have it sullied by such a scandal. It’s a damn good thing the woman is dead,’ she hissed. ‘You are married,’ she said again. ‘Your actions will not endear us to the noble House Beauleforte.’
Demar glanced up at the other figure in the room. A small but stern-faced woman dressed in a cream-white gown. Her eyes were hard. Her jaw was clenched. The hurt that had been etched on her face had been chiselled into hate, no doubt by his mother’s words.
With a final glare, Lady Oscyllia turned away from Demar, snapping her fingers at the woman. ‘Come, Calienna,’ she said, her voice softening only a fraction. ‘Let us leave this miserable wretch to which you are unfortunately wed to his despondency.’
+++ II +++
Full, hungry lips against his. Firm hands on his body. The way her perfect form had moved beneath his touch.
She had held him as if he were the only thing she had, as if he were the only thing that mattered. Her breath in his ear had whispered, ‘my love’.
In the darkness of the night, there had been nothing else. Just the two of them, the rest of the universe forgotten. There had been no Imperium, no war, no politics, no deals, no duplicity. Just eyes the colour of the sea, hair like the sunset, and a smile that made his heart race.
Outside of the clifftop demesne, the sea lapped gentle waves against the great granite cliffs upon which the sprawling house was built and stars shone down on the manicured gardens. The wars that raged amongst them were distant and ephemeral. For a time, everything had been good, everything had been right.
Everything had been perfect.
+++ III +++
Demar awoke alone. Silence.
He reached out a hand to the space in his bed beside him, hoping it had all been a terrible dream, desperate to feel the warmth of a woman – not just a woman, the woman – beside him.
His fingers found only the cold bedding that wrapped the mattress. No fingers clasped his reaching hand, only the weight of the sheets.
Calienna Beauleforte, his wife, slept in her own chambers, her own rooms, her own bed. Far from Demar. Alara slept the eternal sleep of death, gone forever.
For hours he lay twisted in the sheets of his ornate bed, lost in sorrow, the shards of his broken heart heavy with grief. Sometime, long after midnight, he found himself on the balcony of his chambers, looking down from the cliffs at the roiling sea below.
He had stood here with her the last time they were together. They had embraced one another in the golden light of sunset. Now, nothing more than a memory.
Like the sun, she was gone and in her wake was only darkness. The night wind whipped at his gown and drove daggers of cold into his exposed flesh – yet this paled before the agony in his soul. Below, where the waves roared against the cliffs, words seemed to be writ in the foam. ‘Fall,’ they said. ‘Let go. Join her in oblivion.’
He stepped up onto the carved stone balustrade that ran around the balcony. The wind jostled him, snatching at his night robe. For a moment, he teetered on the edge of the balcony. It would be so easy, he thought, to just step forward and let go. To make all the pain disappear and be with her once again.
‘Fall,’ the waves whispered up to him. ‘Let go. Join her in oblivion.’
I could, he thought, fresh tears on his cheeks. I could be rid of it all. All it would take is a step, a single pace out into nothingness.
Demar swallowed. But he could not do it. He could not take the step.
With a sigh, he stepped away from the ledge and turned his back on the precipice. Behind him, the midnight sea roared, calling him back to the ledge. But he did not turn. Instead, he walked through the wide glass doors to his chambers and sat at the writing desk pushed to one side of the room. Sleep would only invite daemons of his own making; he may at least try and make himself useful.
Piled on the desk was a stack of correspondence and papers he had been ignoring. Missives from managers at his family’s mines and factorums across the planet; invitations from dignitaries to attend parties (he tore all of those up without even opening them); and more official correspondence regarding the wider Imperium, including a pamphlet from the Ecclesiarchy.
He had heard of how folk found solace in belief and faith, and studied the pamphlet for a moment, looking at the zealous words written in High Gothic across its folded faces – but not reading them.
They meant nothing to him. He cast it aside.
Demar buried his face in his hands and slumped over the desk. He loved the Imperium. He loved the Emperor. But the love he had felt – still felt – for his Alara went beyond all the taught adoration he could muster. She had been his world, his whole life, the only thing he wanted. And she was gone.
He sat up and sighed. The precipice was calling to him again. The words of the crashing waves against the cliff whispered through the doors to the balcony. ‘Fall. Let go. Join her in oblivion.’
Something on his desk caught his eye,and for a moment he forgot the whispering waves and the closure they promised.
It was a memorandum from a facility on the other side of the planet: a small, recently-established outpost of the Adeptus Mechanicus. The Cult of Mars had taken interest in a small pocket of minerals unique to Belissiad. The memorandum detailed the need for their outpost, the work they planned to undertake, and how the denizens of the planet would be required to support them.
But Demar did not read the memorandum. He threw it aside and raced to his wardrobe. He pulled on a smart suit and threw a handful of outfits into a carry-case. As he was pulling on his boots, he pushed a button next to his bedside. After a moment, a voice – tired but well-enunciated – came through a concealed vox-unit.
‘My Lord Demar, how may I assist you?’
‘Make my shuttle ready.’
+++ IV +++
‘Have you ever been off-world?’
Alara looked up at him. The warmth of the day had flushed her skin and the scars she wore on her cheek and brow looked pinker than usual. She squinted her eyes – beautiful sea-blue eyes – as she peered past the sun’s light to look at Demar. ‘Once,’ she said. ‘It’s how I got this.’ She tapped the scar on her forehead. ‘Cultists in some wretched hive city. They’d subjugated a lot of the population. Was a long, grim war.’
Demar put his arms around her and looked up at the sky. Today had been a day for them and their love, not for the shadows of the past and all the hurt they contained. He pressed his lips to her forehead, over the scar she had indicated. It was his way of saying the mark meant nothing to him, that he still thought she was beautiful.
The gesture brought a smile to her rosy lips. She shuffled across the grass to sit closer to him.
They sat on a hill overlooking Belissiad’s primary spaceport. The mass of metal buildings sat oddly amidst the rolling green hills and forests of tall trees that composed the planet’s most populous peninsula. But it was not an ugly thing; there was a newness to it, a gleam to the metal structures that made them shine like silver and jewels beneath the golden sun.
It was a peaceful spot, and Demar loved watching the ships coming and going from the port. Plus, Alara’s knowledge of the military vessels always astounded him. They had brought a small picnic: just simple, local foodstuffs – as well as some of the fruit-filled cakes with cream that Alara adored.
‘See that?’ she said, pointing to a Y-shaped vessel descending through the clouds. ‘That’s a Stormraven. It’s hard to tell from this distance, but it’s either a Blood Angels or Crimson Fists vessel. It’s probably come from a much larger ship somewhere in orbit. Who knows what mission the Astartes aboard may be on?’ She grinned up at him before taking a bite of one of the cakes. Her eyes rolled into her head in pleasure for a moment and she gripped Demar’s hand. ‘These are so good,’ she said around the mouthful. ‘We get nothing like this at the commissary.’
She had spoken for hours through mouthfuls of fruit-and-cream cakes, telling him all about every military vessel that came and went. She told stories she had learned from other guardsmen all about the Astartes chapters they had encountered, her voice a song: her tone light and joyful, as if always perched on the edge of a laugh.
In turn, he had identified the civilian ships and told her of the noble houses that used them. She listened to his words in the same enraptured silence with which he had listened to hers, her eyes turning from the vessels overhead to where he had sat beside her.
The sun made golden threads of Alara’s hair; the sky had glittered in her sea-blue eyes. A moment, one of peace and harmony, had stretched on as they had sat on that grassy hill and watched. Together.
It had been peaceful. It had been perfect.
+++ V +++
‘In the name of the Omnissiah and the Imperium of Man, identify yourself,’ a voice rasped through the shuttle’s built-in vox unit.
It had taken days to get to Mars from Belissiad. Demar had not left with much of a plan, just a single nagging idea. He had roused his pilots and demanded they get him to the home of the Adeptus Mechanicus with all haste. The two pilots had looked at each other, bleary eyed and shocked, but had complied.
They had flown from his private clifftop residence to an orbital spaceport, where Demar’s shuttle had joined a much larger warp-faring vessel. An agonising trip through the Immaterium had followed, but the Warp had spat the ship out into the Sol System.
Now, with Mars looming as an enormous iron-and plasteel-scarred mass in the front viewing port of his private shuttle, its many towers and spires rising high into the atmosphere, Demar was relying on the hastily-sent messages he had managed to fire off through the Belissiad Orbital Spaceport Astropaths having been delivered, read, and accepted.
‘Repeat,’ the voice came again, ‘in the name of the Omnissiah and the Imperium of Man, identify yourself.’
The two pilots Demar had enlisted to come with him turned. ‘Sir?’ one of them said.
Taking a deep breath, Demar rose from his seat and strode to the vox console. He pushed down the communications button and cleared his throat. ‘Lord Demar de Vrjier of the noble House of de Vrjier of the planet Belissiad in the Valour Eta System,’ he said, his voice sounding far more powerful and authoritative than he felt. ‘I am expected.’
‘Of course, Lord de Vrjier,’ the voice came back. ‘Make your way to Docking Bay Four-Nineteen, please. Magos Sadrith is waiting for you.’
The pilots could not understand his relief. Demar barely heard them as they thanked him for his intervention. In a daze, he headed back to where he had been sitting and strapped himself in, preparing for descent.
I have a chance, he thought.
The shuttle descended as the pilots guided it to the designated docking bay. Out of the front viewing port, Mars grew larger and larger until its great spherical mass of red sand and man-made metal augmentations filled the glass.
A host of servitors – men and women of flesh bound in sarcophagus-like augmetics – greeted Demar as his shuttle touched down into the sprawling docking bay. As he stepped onto the landing pad, Demar felt as if he had walked into the guts of some great metallic beast: organ and artery-like pipes and tubes spiralled away from the chamber in all directions; great pillars and beams of plasteel arched like bones across the walls and ceilings.
One of the servitors approached and held out a small holodisk in its hand. With the press of a button, the image of a figure – or something like a figure – appeared. A great, octopod-like bulk appeared etched in floating red light. It wore across its mass of iron tentacles and claw-like limbs the red robe of the Adeptus Mechanicus. The image of it flickered as it peered into whatever receiver through which it was seeing Demar.
‘Ah, Lord de Vrjier,’ a voice rattled through the speaker in the unit, metallic and hollow. ‘It is a pleasure to see you. Please, allow these servitors to escort you to me. I understand we have much to discuss.’
Demar tried to speak, but found his tongue was dry and leaden in his mouth. He could only incline his head to the red projection before it flickered out of existence. The servitor that had approached and held the projection-disk bowed low before turning and leading him away. The rest of his silent company formed up around them, becoming an escort of metal and meat.
Flanked by servitors, Demar was led into a veritable maze of passages and halls. Sprawling thoroughfares of plasteel and iron arced away from him in all directions. Scions of the Mechanicum, be they servitors and menials, or heavily-augmented post-human figures, more machine than man, passed him. Everyone seemed to have a task, something to work towards, for no one idled or lingered. The great passageways rang with the sound of rushing feet – be they the heavy treads of boots or the clanging of metal augmetics.
Eventually, Demar was led aside down a smaller passageway and the noise began to fade behind him. Soon, after more twisting and turning corridors, he found himself outside a pair of tall, heavy wooden doors – the kind one may expect to find on the exterior of an Ecclesiarchy shrine.
As Demar’s escort arrived outside the heavy doors, the servitors all bowed and left him in a single movement, walking as if controlled by a hive mind. Demar found himself alone.
Tentatively, he knocked at the door.
The voice was rusted iron over stone. Demar began to tremble, wondering if perhaps he had made a terrible mistake in coming. But before he could stop himself, he was opening the doors.
The interior into which he stepped reminded Demar of the cavernous chapel his parents had built on their estates back home on Bellisiad. Columns of marble rose to support a vaulted ceiling above and the floor was stamped with black and white tiles. There was even a dais – but there the similarities ended.
Every inch of the sanctum had been given over to the workings of machine and metal. Tables and workbenches were pushed against every wall and filled much of the floor, each groaning under the weight of dozens of augmetics, weapons, and other creations Demar could not even begin to fathom.
At the back of it all, like a king of old sitting atop his throne, was the man Demar had come to see.
Magos Sadrith Kraal was a roiling, tentacle-like mass of tubes and pipes beneath his red robe of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Four luminous green eye-orbs glowed from beneath his hood. A bronze vox-unit, implanted where a mouth should have been, rasped out a faint, rhythmic inhale-exhale.
‘Thank you for seeing me,’ Demar said, crossing the chamber to below where the magos sat and dropping to a knee.
Magos Sadrith lifted a many-clawed metallic hand and pushed himself up. Where Demar had previously thought he had been reclining, he now realised the magos had in fact been working on something atop a small table before him. So tangled was the knot of parts upon which he worked, it was all but indistinguishable from the rest of the magos’ form.
‘Please, Lord de Vrjier,’ Magos Sadrith said in a voice only faintly human, ‘there is no need for platitudes, prostrations, or postulating. Speak plainly, so that whatever matter it is you bring with you may be addressed.’
Demar rose to his feet and bowed his head. ‘I have a request, Magos,’ he said, his voice trembling. ‘I… need you to make something for me.’
Magos Sadrith’s eye-orbs flickered. Luminous green light flashed over Demar’s face. ‘You desire augmetics?’ he said. ‘I see you have precious few. I would be happy to oblige, I-’
‘No, Magos. I need you to make something… unique.’
A pause. The hush in the chamber was almost crushing.
Demar swallowed. ‘I need you to make someone.’
Silence pervaded the sanctum. The arches and apses threw the word back at him as an echo: someone; someone.
After an agonising moment, the Magos Sadrith spoke. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Whom?’
A rasping laugh broke from the vox unit. ‘A guardswoman? They exist in their millions. Surely you can find one on the surface of any Imperial world. I fail to see how you need my help with this.’
Demar swallowed. He could not hold the gaze of the luminous eye-orbs in the magos’ iron-shod face. His eyes fell to the floor. ‘She is dead,’ he said.
‘Ah,’ Magos Sadrith said, the intrigue dripping from his voice. He rose to his full height upon his mass of tentacle-like appendages to loom over Demar. ‘So, this is the crux of the matter, no? I had heard of the scandal of the House of de Vrjier, their youngest son’s love of a guardswoman, and thought it all to be rumour and folly. Yet here you stand now. It makes sense.’ Magos Sadrith’s voice became a calculating hiss. ‘A love-lost lordling, pining for the embrace of his sweetheart.’
Demar glanced up. The magos’ bright green eye-orbs illuminated his face and clothes. ‘Can you help?’ he said, his voice a whisper.
The magos’ great bulk swayed gently from side to side, as if the being inside was lost in thought. ‘What you ask me to do borders on heresy,’ he said, his artificial voice a metallic rasp. ‘Your request sounds as if you are asking me to create an artificial intelligence, Lord de Vrjier.’
‘No! No, please!’ Demar took a step back and held up his hands. ‘I know artificial intelligence is forbidden. I had merely hoped there may be some way, something you could do…’ He trailed off and shook his head. ‘I am sorry, Magos. I had simply hoped. I will leave you.’
‘You have come a long way,’ Magos Sadrith said slowly as Demar made to leave. ‘It would be a shame to turn you away, no?’
‘And yet, I wonder just what I can do,’ Sadrith said. ‘Flesh is weak, and flesh fails, as it has done for your guardswoman. Mine is a discipline of metal, of artifice and mechanical undeath.’ A many-clawed hand reached up to where a chin would have been. A metallic tap-tap-tap echoed through the sanctum as a dozen fingers drummed on metal carapace. ‘I could beseech the Machine God for a suitable spirit, but even then…’
‘Please,’ Demar breathed, the Magos’ words bringing him hope once more. ‘I can pay. I’ll give you whatever you want. I can’t live without her.’
The tap-tap-tap ceased, fading to an echo, then to silence. ‘Such an offer. Such a project. Such a task. What would the Omnissiah say?’ Magos Sadrith turned to face the icon of the Adeptus Mechanicum, the black and white skull set against a cog that hung over his chamber.
‘The challenge,’ the magos said, his words a whisper. ‘The discoveries. The progress.’ He spun, tentacle-legs clicking and clacking on the stone of the sanctum floor. ‘I shall do it. I shall render you a lover as precious in form as she is in your heart: a beauty of silver and gold. She shall be perfect; she shall be free of the failings of the flesh: unending, undying, and eternally beautiful.’
Demar’s heart began to race. ‘You will?’ he said, scarcely believing what he was hearing. ‘You’ll help?’
‘She will be perfect,’ Magos Sadrith said, though not to Demar. He gazed at the sanctum, green eye-orbs casting fell light and dark shadows. ‘A woman of iron and steel, a lover of silver and gold. A masterpiece.’ He spun on his iron tentacle-legs. ‘You must tell me everything about her,’ he said, his voice hard. ‘Every detail, every minute feature, aspect and part.’
Demar nodded and took a breath.
+++ VI +++
The sunsets on Belissiad were always beautiful.
The world had been the home of the de Vrijer’s for centuries. After his parents had married, Demar’s mother and father had used their extensive connections within the Imperium to become profitable traders. Almost overnight, the fierce former navigator, Lady Oscyllia, and her husband, the noble Lord Samthrid, had taken ownership of every mine on the planet’s surface. Their mercantile empire had expanded from the surface of Belissiad and soon the de Vrijer’s had established themselves as not only one of the foremost noble houses in their sector, but also as the most prominent producer of raw materials for the Imperium in their sliver of space.
Demar had stood on the balcony of his own private residences, looking over the sea. Alara had been beside him, her body close to his, her arm around his waist and his around hers. She rested her head against his shoulder and sighed as the warm summer evening wind caressed them.
The sigh; the warmth and the embrace of summer. Peace.
‘I will have to leave soon,’ she had said.
‘Not today,’ Demar had cut her off. ‘Not today, no.’
She had squeezed him. ‘Dee,’ her voice had been so soft and gentle. In spite of the scars and calluses on her hands and the marks on her face, she had possessed such a gentle soul. ‘I must. We could get into so much trouble. The commissars-’
‘Will leave you alone if I tell them to,’ Demar said firmly.
‘Dee.’ Again, such a gentle voice. So full of warmth and kindness. ‘I’ll come back,’ she said. ‘I promise.’
He looked down at her. The light of the sunset over the sapphire-blue ocean danced in her golden hair and cast shadows of the soft features of her face. The scar on her forehead, the one on her cheek. The mark on the side of her nose, the dimple when she smiled.
‘I will come back,’ she had said.
As he gazed into her sea-blue eyes, he believed her.
‘I love you,’ he said.
‘I love you.’
She had not come back.
+++ VII +++
In the weeks following his return from Mars, dinner became the only occasion when Demar saw his wife, Calienna. They sat at opposing ends of a long table in silence, eating the food brought to them by servants in sharp black suits and robes. Neither looked at the other.
It was a formality. Both knew they did not have to eat with the other – they did little enough with each other during the day – but both still attended. He, for he hoped she may forgive him the hurt he had done her. She, because she wanted to hear an apology from his lips. Neither would ignite any passion between the two, and neither would be the first to speak.
And so they sat in silence.
Demar’s marriage to Calienna Beauleforte had been arranged, as most amidst the nobility of the Imperium were. Calienna’s family, House Beauleforte, were responsible for the second-largest number of raw material exports in the sector; a marriage between her family and the de Vrjier’s had been inevitable. Before the pair had met, they had each been told they would wed the other. Neither was hostile to the idea: the marriage was good for their families, and what was good for their families was good for the Imperium.
So, they had wed. And that had been that.
They had, for a time, lived together in good form. They had been a poster-perfect couple: young, beautiful, wealthy, loyal to the Imperium – and, of course, always treading on the cutting-edge of fashion. They had been the subject of envious whispers at every soirée and ball they had attended, and the cause for smiles of pride from their families, who watched on as their schemes and machinations came to fruition around them.
But then Demar had met Alara and that had all changed.
Footsteps interrupted the tinkling sound of fine cutlery against finer plates. Demar looked up: a smartly-dressed servant in a neat black suit approached. He held a small silver dish in his hand. He arrived at Demar’s shoulder.
‘A message has arrived for you, my lord,’ the servant said. He held a silver tray in his hands, upon which was placed a folded piece of paper. He offered the message to Demar from a respectable distance , so as to make him aware of its arrival but not to interrupt his meal. ‘It comes from Mars, judging by the seal upon it.’
Demar glanced from the servant to Calienna. She had paused, her dark eyes fixed on him.
‘Thank you,’ he said, wishing suddenly he were alone. ‘I will read this in my chambers. If I may?’ he made to leave, the question directed at Calienna.
She slammed a fist onto the table. ‘You may not,’ she said. ‘The last time you slunk off to your chamber with secret messages, you entangled yourself in a scandal that almost sunk our families.’ She seized the napkin she had placed on her lap and threw it onto the table before getting to her feet. ‘You will read it here. Out loud. To me.’
Demar swallowed. ‘My dear, I-’
‘I have never been your dear,’ Calienna said, her voice venom as she stormed across the dining room to come to a halt before Demar. ‘Read it.’
Demar paused a second too long. Calienna snatched the paper and broke the seal with the nail of her thumb. Demar thought to snatch the letter back, but knew it would do nothing more than incriminate him further. He had hurt Calienna enough already. She may as well learn of this quickly, instead of dragging the ordeal out.
Her eyes skimmed over the missive, her lips tightening and twisting with each line. When she had finished, she crumpled the paper and threw it into Demar’s face. ‘This is what you’d do now?’ she said, her voice dangerous. ‘After all you’ve done to me? To your family and mine? You’d instruct some magos of the Mechanicum to build you a… a what?’ She reached down and snatched the crumpled paper from the floor and unfurled it. ‘A “bride of silver for your soul”?’ she snarled, her voice rising higher and higher with every word. ‘A “queen of gold for your heart”?’
She slapped him.
No, she punched him.
Demar’s world flew into colours and blurs. He reeled sideways, colliding with the dining table and sending deep crimson wine over the white tablecloth. He tried to grasp onto something, but succeeded only in pulling the tablecloth – and all that was placed atop it – onto the floor with him.
‘You’re a worm, Demar de Vrjier,’ Calienna yelled at him as she loomed over him, blood on her knuckles. He touched his face; his nose was bleeding. ‘You’re a writhing, pathetic worm. You’re a parasite feeding off the Imperium, off your family and mine. Grow up and act like a man of your station should!’
‘Said the woman who just punched me,’ Demar muttered as he tried to push himself to his feet.
Calienna’s foot shot out and kicked him to the floor again. ‘You drop this matter; you drop it now, or else I swear, by the Emperor himself, you will rue the day you embarked down this path!’ She spun on her heel and marched away, leaving Demar on the floor, covered in food, blood and wine, and draped in a tablecloth. The servant who had brought the missive stood as still as stone, eyes wide and sweat beading on his forehead as he tried not to look at his lord.
Demar sighed sadly as he pushed himself to his feet. ‘Prepare my shuttle,’ he said to the servant, who hurried away as if all the daemons of the Warp were at his heels.
+++ VIII +++
He waited at their normal spot just outside the city, slightly away from the road in a small cluster of trees. This time, he had remembered to bring a small parcel of the fruit-and-cream cakes she loved so much: Demar loved the way her face lit up when she saw them.
She always arrived at sundown, the golden light catching in her hair. Her eyes always shone, the sea-blue catching the last of the daylight and holding it as if they were precious gemstones.
He waited for the moment she would appear, dressed in her fatigues, her lasgun, helmet and armour stowed away in her footlocker at the barracks. The wind always snapped at the fabric of her jacket and tossed her hair about; she almost looked ethereal. That moment when she first appeared was worth the wait; a spirit of beauty painted in august light.
And so Demar had waited.
By midnight, he was afraid. He left the spot and strode into the city, past the haggard guards at the barricades – who dared not challenge him – and up to the barracks located a few kilometres inside its walls.
He demanded to see whoever was in charge, and was led to a poky office by a guardsman with dark rings around his eyes and the look of a man who had seen much and spoke little of any of it. The guardsman managed an exhausted salute to Demar as he admitted himself into the office.
A commissar with a bandaged hand had sat behind a desk, a thin lho-stick clenched between thinner lips. His chainsword was discarded on the floor and his hat had been tossed over a cabinet, revealing a balding head. A bolt pistol was in the stages of being cleaned on the cracked wooden desk before him, its components pulled apart and oiled.
The commissar glanced up at Demar, but had not stood. He held in his bandaged hand a rag and in his other a pistol part. ‘Forgive me if I don’t stand,’ he growled. ‘It’s been a day.’
Demar towered over the desk, doing his best to look tall and imposing in spite of the fear he felt. ‘I am here about one of your soldiers,’ he said.
The commissar growled and rolled his eyes. ‘Terra preserve me, what now?’ he said, tossing his cloth and pistol part down. He rubbed the bandage around his hand. Demar noticed it was fresh; the wound beneath was still oozing blood into the fabric of the wrapping.
Demar looked from the wound to the commissar’s face. ‘Are you well?’
The commissar’s laugh was a hoarse cough around his lho-stick. ‘There was a riot earlier,’ he said, rubbing his bandaged hand. ‘Some menials at one of the mines outside the city got their hands on a few weapons and started shooting at their overseers. The guard stepped in. A few of us were wounded. One was killed.’
Demar’s heart stopped.
The commissar nodded. ‘Guardsman – what was the name?’ he flicked aside a sheaf of papers and put out his lho-stick on the wood of the desk. ‘Oh, here we are. Guardsman Alara Fadix. Nasty business. Shot clean through the head.’ The commissar pulled a face.
The parcel of cakes he had carried scattered themselves across the office floor.
After that, his nights, once lit by candlelight and spent with the woman he loved, became haunted things.
In his dreams, Demar saw Alara lying amidst rubble, surrounded by unwashed menials and labourers, clutching filthy weapons in their hands. He had to push his way towards her, fighting through their sinewy flesh to reach her as a figure stood over her, gun pressed to her forehead. He screamed, he cried, he fought, but no matter what he did he could not reach her in time.
Demar had never seen a person get shot before, and his imagination wrought the aftermath in visceral detail every night. In some dreams, Alara lay still with a simple burn on her forehead. In others, her face collapsed into a gaping wound which oozed gore and brain matter. In the worst, her head exploded as he reached her, showering his face with wet bits of her. Those were the worst. He awoke from those screaming and clawing at his face, finding instead only tears on his cheeks where his mind had splattered blood.
Time and again he found himself on his balcony at midnight, driven from his bed by dreams and sorrow. The black waves roared against the cliffs. ‘Fall,’ they continued to say. ‘Let go. Join her in oblivion.’
And so he mounted the stone balustrade and stood there, legs weak as he tottered on the precipice. ‘Fall,’ the waves said with their foam. ‘Let go. Join her in oblivion.’ Water and stone gnashed together like jaws. Opening. Closing. Opening. Closing.
It would be so easy.
The wind even seemed to push him as he swayed. A gentle nudge in the right direction.
It would be so fast.
‘Fall,’ the waves cried with their black mouths and their frothing foam of bone-white. ‘Let go. Join her in oblivion.’
Demar stepped down. He always stepped down. Something drew him back to his bed, back to the tangle of sheets and nightmares.
+++ IX +++
It took Demar days to reach Mars following Magos Sadrith’s ill-timed summons. It felt like an eternity since they had last spoken, one told in the threads of a tapestry heavy with sorrow and heartbreak.
But as Mars appeared in the viewing window of Demar’s shuttle, for the first time in forever, he felt something other than grief and hopelessness. As he gazed at the planet – an orange-red orb tattooed with great sprawls of iron and steel where the Imperium of Man had anchored civilisation and industry to the world – a faint spark alit in the broken ruins of his shattered heart.
Hope. Gentle, bright and golden. Just as she was.
Magos Sadrith stood where he had been standing the first time Demar had met him, atop his dais-like rise at the back of his sanctum. The many tables and workbenches scattered across the wide marble-flagged floor were just as heavy with parts and pieces as they had been months before, but one thing had changed.
Beside the magos was a tall, slender object covered in a floor-length silken sheet.
At the sight of the hidden object, Demar’s heart began to race. ‘You’ve done it?’ he said, running across the floor to stop at the foot of the dais. ‘I don’t believe it, you’ve actually done it!’
Magos Sadrith stood beside the covered object, his many-clawed augmetic fingers tapping against his impressive tentacled bulk. ‘A pleasure to see you, Lord de Vrjier,’ his voice rasped out through the grille in his face-plate. ‘You have been a fine patron and I can only hope that what I have created fulfils your desires.’ He gestured to the sheet covered object beside him with a many-clawed metal hand. ‘Please, do the honours.’
Whole body shaking, Demar ascended the dais. He stared at the covered object – he could already make out shapes beneath the cloth: a head, a pair of shoulders, the curve of breasts upon which the cloth sat. The height is right, he thought, swallowing hard. His mouth was as dry as sand. His throat was raw with anticipation and fear. What if it isn’t her? he thought. What if she’s not right?
He reached out a trembling hand and touched the cloth. Eerie green light from the magos’ many luminescent eyes fell upon him. There was no turning back.
Holding his breath, Demar gripped the cloth and pulled.
The light from the chamber convened before him, dancing upon metal. Demar staggered backwards, stunned and dazed by the sudden flash as all the lights in the magos’ sanctum shone bright upon the revealed figure.
Alara stood before Demar. Her flesh was wrought in silver, the scars on her cheek and forehead rendered in a pinkish copper. She was still and neutral, blank and emotionless. She stared past Demar, into nothing.
‘My queen, my love, my heart,’ Demar breathed, reaching out to touch a cheek wrought in silver. ‘Is it you, can you hear me?’
A pair of sea-blue eyes blinked. Hair of woven gold caught and danced as a silver face turned. ‘Demar?’ a voice said. A voice that sang, a voice so beautiful, a voice that was all he had longed to hear for so long.
Demar fell to his knees before the figure. ‘My Alara,’ he said, tears pouring down his cheeks. ‘Is it you? Is it truly you?’
Silver hands reached down and took Demar’s face between glittering fingers. ‘It’s me, my love,’ the silver figure said. ‘It’s your Alara. I am here.’
+++ X +++
They were on the balcony again. Their evenings always ended on the balcony.
The sea whispered below, the sun caught her hair and braided it with gold. They held each other, her head on his chest, his cheek on her head. The smell of her – the intangible melding of a thousand scents to make one that was uniquely her – filled his nose. The warmth of her firm arms around his back.
She looked up suddenly, eyes afraid.
‘Will you leave me?’
He was shocked. ‘What?’
‘For some pretty noble lady. At some ball. Will you replace me with someone who wears jewels in her ears and at her neck? Who can afford to have her augmetics plated in silver and gold?’
He pulled her to him, felt her breath on his neck. ‘Never,’ he whispered. ‘Never. You are perfect.’
+++ XI +++
By the time Demar returned back to his clifftop demesne, Calienna had left, taking with her all of her possessions and half of the wealth in the house. As he stepped from the cold night outside into the warmth of the entrance hall, Demar’s servants clustered around him to tell him of her departure, apologising, bowing, curtseying, offering tallies of what she had taken and where they thought she might have gone. But Demar found he did not care. It didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. Not anymore.
What mattered followed him and stilled the tongues of all those crowding him.
A woman whose skin sang in the starlight. A queen of the heart, made of metals as precious as she had been in life. Her beauty was immortal, the perfection of her form immortalised in the finest silver Demar had been able to afford. Her eyes wrought in gemstones the colour of the sea. Her hair was of flaxen gold, so fair that it could have been sunlight.
Demar walked past them all, Alara behind him. He went straight to his chambers with her, and there sealed the doors.
Full lips of gleaming silver pressed against his, hungry. Firm hands of metal gripped his body. Her form moved beneath his; a mirror, a reflection of perfection, the echo of a memory.
She held him in silver arms as if he were the only thing she had, as if he were the only thing that had mattered. She whispered in his ear, her voice perched at the edge of a laugh, ‘My love.’
Everything was right.
Everything was perfect.
+++ XII +++
The dream. Again.
‘Get away from her!’ Demar screamed as he fought through a wall of muscle and sinew. The menials and labourers clasped their las weapons and roared like animals, firing at anyone and everyone who moved. Demar saw a supervisor fall, then a trio of servitors twist and tumble like spinning tops.
But he did not care. He pushed and forced apart the wall of bodies. This time, he told himself as he always did, this time I can save her. I can save her and all will be well.
With a roar of effort, Demar threw the last menials aside and rushed towards where he knew Alara would lie. But where, on a hundred nights before, had slumped the corpse of the woman he loved, there lay no figure. Only bare, shattered rockcrete.
Just the cold, hard ground.
+++ XIII +++
Demar awoke. Silence.
As he had done so many nights before, he reached out a hand to the space in his bed beside him, hoping it had all been a terrible dream, desperate to feel the warmth of a woman – not just a woman, the woman – beside him.
His fingers touched something cold. Something hard.
‘My love?’ There was a pause to the voice. A hesitation. In the darkness, cold metal fingers touched Demar’s hand and walked their way up his arm. ‘Are you well?’
Demar shivered. He breathed in, desperate for the smell of her. No, metal. Only metal.
He swallowed. ‘I… I had a bad dream. A nightmare.’
‘Oh, my love,’ Alara’s voice came through the gloom. ‘What happened?’
‘I… I saw you die. Again.’ But I didn’t. You weren’t there. You were gone.
A cold arm was draped over his back. He shivered again, drew away from the chill touch. ‘My love, I am here; I am not dead,’ came Alara’s voice. Except it wasn’t. Not quite.
There was a tinniness to it. A robotic, metallic clang – like the rasp of Magos Sadrith. It was Alara’s voice, he knew it – it had all its sing-song elements, those notes of untold joy that made his heart leap – but somehow, it was also not. It paused, as if she were always thinking, as if trying to remember how she should respond. The words did not come with the same ease as they had. When they had sat and watched ships coming to and from the spaceport.
A terrible dread settled in Demar’s chest. It’s not her, he thought. It’s not.
‘Alara.’ He spoke the word into the darkness. He could feel his hastily-mended heart cracking.
A pause. ‘My love?’
He shook his head, fought back tears.
Then, a thought. ‘I need a cake,’ he breathed.
‘This late?’ the voice that was almost Alara’s came through the dark.
Demar was on his feet. He pulled on his night robe and crossed to the writing desk at the side of the room. He pulled open a drawer. Within was a small, airtight, refrigerated box. He popped the locks with his thumbs and lifted the lid. Within lay a trio of cakes – fruit and cream, Alara’s favourite.
He pressed a switch on the wall. Light flooded the room. Alara did not move, did not raise an arm to cover her eyes as a real human would when suddenly dazzled by light. Instead, her silver body sat up and looked at Demar with wide eyes of sea-blue crystal.
Demar held out the cake to Alara. ‘My love,’ he said, voice trembling, ‘would you eat this?’
Alara looked at the cake, the light gleaming on the silver of her body. ‘That is kind, my love,’ she said in that near perfect voice, with a smile that almost warmed his heart. ‘But I am not hungry.’
‘But these are your favourite,’ Demar insisted, his hands beginning to shake. ‘Do you remember? The fruit and cream cakes we ate on the hill overlooking the spaceport? We could have some now, a treat – just you and I.’
There was a pause. For a moment, the eyes were empty, the expression frozen. Then, as quickly as it had come, the stillness vanished. ‘Of course, my love,’ the not-quite voice said. ‘I am simply not hungry. You enjoy it, for me. I love you.’
Demar’s hand fell to his side. The cake slipped from his fingers and broke apart upon the floor.
It’s not her, he thought. It could never be her.
‘How clumsy of you,’ the Alara-thing said. ‘I’ll clean this up right away.’ She swung her silver legs out of the bed and crossed to the door.
Demar stood and watched the not-Alara creature leave. Her silver form faded into the darkness and disappeared. Tears sprang from his eyes. ‘You fool,’ he whispered. ‘You complete fool. Nothing would ever be her. I could melt this pale thing down and forge it into a hundred trinkets more worthy of her than this monster.’
He sighed, rolled his shoulders and turned away from the chamber. He crossed to his bed and took off his night robe, folding it neatly and leaving it atop the duvet. Then, without a word, he opened the glass doors to his balcony, crossed to the balustrade, and pulled himself up onto the ledge.
Below, the black waves roared and gnashed, opening wide their jet-black maws to swallow him whole. ‘Fall,’ they howled, spraying their foam high into the air. ‘Let go. Join her in oblivion.’
He stepped off.
About the Author
Rob is a Master’s Degree-holding graduate of Medieval History who currently works in university administration. With a passion for historically-inspired fiction and a penchant for fantasy and sci-fi, he is a huge fan of Warhammer fiction and Black Library releases. Also an avid miniature painter, when he’s not staring at the dozens of unpainted Stormcast Eternals miniatures that have taken over sizable portion of his house and whispering ‘What have I done?’, he can be found producing content for internationally-renowned hobby website FauxHammer.com, where he is Lead Writer and Assistant Editor.