Flickering blasts of red light chased the shadowy figure as it flitted across the cramped hab-unit, searing super-heated holes in the cheap plascrete wall and setting the thin mattress alight as it was ripped apart. The half-seen after-image of their target coalesced for a brief moment, a leering grin framed by lank hair, with blazing eyes like burning coals. Tanitha shrieked a denial and held the trigger down on full auto, expending the last of her lasrifle’s power pack in a blistering storm of fire.
The figure was gone. Dust fell in rivulets from the ruptures in the tiny apartment’s prefabricated walls. Cladding collapsed in powdery clouds. The acrid stink of burning chemicals and vaporised masonry hung in the thick air, choked now with the dust.
Arbites Officer Tanitha Stren was motionless, her weapon still aiming at the point their prey had stood a moment before. Her partner, Aeric, looked around at the solid plasteel security door through which they’d entered; an incongruous marvel of Imperial security welded to a lowly factorum-worker’s glorified cell of an apartment. He was experienced enough to know just how many alarms that should have raised, and jaded enough to know precisely why none had been.
‘How’d you know he was here?’ he asked eventually, moving to close the heavy door through which their quarry had somehow fled, right past them. He shuddered, recalling the soul-chilling horror of seeing the man enfold himself in shadows and rise grinning into the empty air.
‘I followed him,’ Stren replied finally. She let her weapon clatter heavily to the floor and moved into the apartment, frowning down at the piles of books – ruinously expensive real paper books, from the looks of them – and picts scattered carelessly across the floor. Aeric followed his partner’s gaze to the apparent disorder and looked sharply away as a primal part of his mind screamed there was a shape to them, the shape of something lithe and sinuous, something with deep, black, pitiless eyes. He blinked, trying to shake off the feeling and the strange compulsion to look again.
‘Followed from where?’
‘The bar in my hab-unit. He was there one night. I…he sold me something.’
‘He what?!’ Aeric felt his hand move unbidden to the holstered pistol at his side. It hovered there, hesitating. She glanced at the gun with a sad smile.
‘He’s been there before. Sells…things. Portraits. Beautiful portraits of his customers, looking their very best…’ Stren bent to pluck an image from the floor with a sigh of delight. Aeric felt sick; it was a pict of something so unspeakably vile he could barely glance at it.
No response. Through the holes in the wall thunder crashed amidst the pattering of rain.
‘So beautiful,’ she whispered, between shuddering sobs, barely audible above the thrashing storm. ‘So beautiful.’ She sounded tired, exhausted. She barked a short, mirthless laugh.
‘But it isn’t, is it?’ she added, tears welling in her eyes. ‘I know that now.’
‘Stren, we need to get you out of here,’ Aeric said, trying to ignore the leering image in her hands. He could feel it watching.
‘I should have known,’ Tanitha said, the fingers of her free hand lightly tracing the golden aquila over her armoured chest. ‘Arrested him on the spot…’ She trailed off and moaned in adoration as she looked at the vile thing. She sank to her knees.
‘I’ll cover for you. They won’t find out.’ Aeric tried to tug her up, but her body was a dead-weight. She slumped, staring, her pale face intermittently lit by the flash of the shattered lumens.
‘Tanitha, we have to go now. You could be executed if they find out you’re involved.’
‘I knew it was wrong,’ she gasped, ignoring him, ‘the way it watched me. Making me need it. Promising so much if only I adored it…’ He could see the struggle on her face, the strain of keeping her eyes away from the hideous image. She trembled violently as a strange howl, perhaps the wind, perhaps something else, echoed through the night.
‘And I did. I did…but I resisted…just long enough to get you here…forgive me…’
Aeric wrapped his arms around her. She whimpered softly.
‘I’ll fight for you, Tanitha,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘You turned yourself in, that has to count for something.’ She shook her head, once.
Then she pulled back in sudden terror.
‘Oh Tanitha,’ something else whispered through her lips, ‘Such nobility. But all defiance has its price.’
Aeric fell back as Tanitha Stren laughed giddily and split open from stomach to mouth, her skin peeling back as a keening wail seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Bone and organs flickered and writhed, reaching up like tendrils to flail madly at the air. Above the rippling tentacles of wet meat Stren’s eyes locked onto Aeric as he scrabbled away, his hands fumbling for his autopistol. She lurched to her feet, the shrieking taking on a new note of desperate hunger as the thing that had been Tanitha Stren folded back even further, turning inside out, writhing limbs forcing themselves out of the screaming cavity in her torso. Claws like blades extended from every whipping appendage, becoming a blur of rippling, gleaming knives.
The pistol bucked in his hand as he fired on full auto, forgetting everything he knew about ammo conservation and weapon safety in a single moment of mind-twisting horror. The rounds glanced and bounced from the cloud of shrieking blades, unable to penetrate. Aeric threw himself to the side as the monstrosity whipped towards him, impossibly fast for a thing of its size. He landed heavily on the image Stren had adored; it cracked beneath him. Instantly the spawn-thing roared and stumbled, its tendrils writhing.
Aeric scrambled desperately back, the autopistol hot in his hand. A heady rush of adrenaline-fuelled hope flooded through him as he aimed at the loathsome picture and closed his eyes.
‘I’ll make this right, Tanitha,’ he promised.
He pulled the trigger.
About the Author
Steven is an aspiring writer, an occasionally competent father, a moderately decent lawyer, and a massive Warhammer geek. His hope is to one day save a Harlequin’s life and ask for publication in the Black Library as a reward.