The first sign of the Inquisition was a smoke-signal, across the sky: the vapour trail of an armoured landing craft. The wheat forest rippled as the craft passed, stirring up a plume of dust that would take days to settle.
I watched the craft from the vegetable-patch of my garden. Arepo’s town had originally congealed around the harvest machinery, in keeping with the old Reachworld tenet that permanent structures don’t last, but temporary ones are never gotten rid of. When I settled on Arepo many decades ago, most of the towers and arches had already long since been repurposed as habitation. So I lived in a cracked conical silo with fan-ducts for windows. Tolerable quarters, but I had no separate administerium. The Inquisition, to my deep embarrassment, had found me at home.
‘Arbiters, ma’am?’ asked my neighbour, over the fence.
‘Ordo Xenos,’ I said. He didn’t know what that meant.
The landing craft wasn’t quiet, like a harvester drone. It roared and wheezed as it set down in the main conduit. Four figures disembarked. One was a lean soldier in a trenchcoat, another a young bald woman with a data-tool, and a third a colossal armoured knight. The knight had no helmet, and had an astonishing jawline and short blonde hair. Adeptus Astartes, Space Marine! His armour was dark and scratched. These aspects matched the times, as the Eastern Reaches were gnashing in woe in those days. He wore a sword on his back, and his finger rested on the trigger-guard of a huge rifle.
I anticipated some diplomatic difficulty. A few families of harvester technicians had appeared in the street, and greeted the visitors according to custom, offering tiny copper charms of Saint Thedra. The young bald woman politely declined, but her giant armoured comrade was less gracious, calling the charm a heathen insult.
‘I am Acolyte Plex of the Ordo Xenos,’ the young woman said, approaching me. She had a slight hiveworld accent – a strange thing for an Inquisitorial agent. ‘These are Acolyte Surdus and Brother Caecus, and this,’ – she indicated the fourth visitor – ‘Is Inquisitor Reynias of Thrax.’ That last figure, evidently the leader of the company, was an immensely tall man in a rough cloak, worn over heavy leathers. He had short unkempt hair, almost as grey as mine. A silver watch-chain hung across his breast.
Our town marshal, Ambervale, had emerged from the crowd. ‘Bugger off, ‘quisitor!’ he snarled, brandishing his rusty lasgun. ‘If you won’t wear Saint Thedras, you best go on home! We ain’t zeeners, we ain’t hurtics, we pay our tithes!’ His own Saint Thedra was on a choker around his sunburnt neck. His unkempt young son was clinging to the hem of his long duster coat. ‘Are they here to catch the mowing-devil?’ said the boy.
‘Welcome to Arepo, Reynias of Thrax,’ I said, quickly. ‘I am Verona, governor of the planet. This is William Ambervale, leader of my planetary defence force.’ When he is sober, I might have added, and if there were one.
‘Greeting, governor,’ he said. ‘How many are you, on this world?’
‘Fewer than five hundred citizens, lord,’ I said, ‘All in this one settlement.’
Plex scanned her scroll. ‘I understood that ten thousand lived here,’ the Inquisitor said. ‘You pay high tithes – your export of grain is enormous!’
‘Aye,’ I said, ‘But no census-taker has come here since our founding. Many families long since went spinward to the hiveworlds.’
Caecus, the giant, stepped forward. ‘Inquisitor, there’s pagan idolatry here!’ he said. ‘Th’women offer’ witch-charms!’ declared Acolyte Surdus, in slightly clipped and slurred speech.
Reynias waved dismissively at his offended minions. From that moment on, I nearly liked him. ‘Is there a problem with our yield, or our tithe?’ I said.
A rumble of worry passed through the growing crowd.
‘We should speak privately,’ said the Inquisitor.
Inquisitor Reynias stooped to clamber through the front hatch into my kitchen. His retinue waited on the terrace outside, standing vigilant among the vegetables, trampling my tea leaves. But inside my home, the Inquisitor’s demeanour changed: the stern colonial officer turned into a decorous gentleman of the type that we don’t see much of in the Reach – or not anymore. He even perched small spectacles on the end of his nose.
‘You must forgive my servants for their rudeness,’ he said. ‘Brother Caecus is a fearsome warrior, but has lived only in monasteries and on battlefields. Neither place teaches decorum, exactly.’
‘No apology is necessary, my lord,’ I said. I set about brewing some blackleaf. ‘Brothers of the Astartes have visited us before, once. Their armour was red. They visited, oh, decades ago.’
‘The Ninth Legion!’ he said. ‘The Blood Angels. That was a captain called Montresor. He’s regarded as a bit of a rascal, now – for not having reported back.’ He sipped a cup of tea – then coughed and grimaced. ‘By Terra!’ he said, ‘Strong stuff!’
‘On Arepo, it’s all we drink,’ I said, ‘It disguises the taste of the groundwater.’ I took some tea to the acolytes in the garden. The crowd had dispersed, and the acolytes were watching the comings and goings of the harvester machines. To offworlders, the flying drones are an odd sight, flitting back and forth quietly, climbing in and out of silo towers.
Back inside, I found the Inquisitor examining the talisman on the mantel. A ‘Saint Thedra’ is a small copper disc with holes in it, so that it resembles a spoked wheel. ‘That’s what the citizens outside tried to give your acolytes,’ I said.
‘‘Thedra’…’ said the Inquisitor, studying closely. He held the talisman to his ear and shook it. They do rattle a bit. ‘One of the first colonists?’
‘A legend. Saint Thedra demanded the first tithes, centuries ago,’ I said. ‘So the settlers conjure up a devil, and it harvests all Arepo’s wheat in one night, with a flaming scythe. Then Thedra relents, or perhaps punishes them.’
‘An inauspicious beginning to a colony!’ Reynias said, amused. ‘You’re not a native, yourself, are you? You look – forgive me – you look like you must have been raised in zero-gravity.’
Astute! ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘My parents were intersystem traders. Why?’
‘That’s something we have in common, then, governor!’ he said, cheerily. This man did puzzle me: he had a giant’s physique, and a zero-grav upbringing alone didn’t quite explain it. Could he be a Space Marine, without armour? Surely an Adeptus Astartes knight couldn’t have an astigmatism. ‘Now, tell me about the harvest routine,’ he said.
Getting to the point, at last. ‘The planet is almost completely covered by Demetic squat-wheat,’ I said, ‘The stalks reach a hundred feet or more. The yield is collected by those flying harvester machines, which return the grain to silos here, and we send grain-pods up to orbit, to be collected by long-haul freighters.’
‘For a small colony, the yield is staggering,’ Reynias said. ‘I suppose you know that you are feeding all of Minea, and Ichar and its moons, and a dozen other worlds?’
‘So they tell me,’ I said, ‘But once the grain-pods are sent up the skyhooks, we don’t give them much thought. Is there a problem with the quality?’
Reynias stood up. ‘I’m not a Prefect of the Tithes Chamber, governor,’ he said. ‘A contaminant of xenos origin has been discovered in grain exported from Arepo.’
For the governor of an agriworld, this is a nightmare. I babbled many useless questions. It seemed that on Ichar, a year ago, a grain ship had ‘raised the yellow jack’. The unknown source of the contaminant had been assigned a cryptonym: Larkspur.
‘This contamination is not merely chemical, but psychic,’ Reynias said, ‘All along the Eastern rim, citizens’ thoughts and memories are being encrypted by it. Hopes become fears. The mask becomes the face. Doctors sicken their patients and schoolteachers slit children’s throats. Larkspur is somewhere in your harvest-chain, exerting this evil influence. Even if there was no mowing-devil at the foundation, there is one now. I’m here to find the threat and destroy it.’ He consulted his chronometer. ‘That’ll have to suffice, for tonight, governor,’ he said. ‘Expect me again at dawn.’
Dusk had come and gone. Nights here are always cold and black, because the wheat forest drinks the clouds. The Inquisitorial acolytes had waited patiently; Plex had apparently persuaded her comrades to drink my tea, out of diplomatic courtesy, and to my surprise they seemed to have found it agreeable. She thanked me and they departed.
I spotted Ambervale lolling at my gate, lasgun slung over his shoulder, flask of rye in hand. ‘Is it the tithes?’ he said.
‘No. And what happened to calling me ma’am?’
‘Ain’t right inviting them in,’ he said, angrily. ‘Shoulda made them wear Thedras. Sons-a-bitches… What if they see circles in the wheat, and fly round lookin’ for mowing-devils? You had any brass left you’d help me run ‘em off-world on a hook!’
‘This sort of nonsense is why I’m governor, Bill,’ I said, wearily. ‘Your huffing and puffing won’t impress the Inquisition. As for the other thing: a man in your office shouldn’t believe ghost stories.’
He cursed governors and women, and stumbled off. ‘If you want cheering up,’ I called after him, ‘Think on this: when Terra’s dissatisfied with yields, they don’t send gentlemen in spectacles. They just send arbiters to bash the governor’s head in!’
Later that night, I wrapped myself in a flax coat and took my own small flyer up over the town, to flit with harvesters for a while. The town was quiet, and dark, except for the odd lamp glowing behind a cracked shutter. The Inquisition dropship sat in the street, and I saw light spill out as its forward hatch opened. One dark figure disembarked, and I lost sight of them in the darkness.
Then I flew out over the wheat forest, to the east, where the unfarmed stalks rustle and creak. Out there, I could forget about tithes and Inquisitors, and pretend just once more that the warm wind in my hair was a breeze from the distant ocean.
On the second day, it was young Plex who knocked on my hatch – two hours after dawn. ‘The Inquisitor has sent us on an errand,’ she said, as soon as I opened up. ‘Your drinking water here is nauseating, by the way.’
The errand took us to the primary silo – a huge fat cylinder at the centre of the town, covered with dark windows through which the harvester drones crawled from dawn until dusk. We climbed the exterior stairs to the very top. But the access bulkhead was rusted shut.
I paused to take in the view of the town and our yellow sun playing across the wheat forest. ‘This is the only door that goes inside?’ Plex said. I nodded.
Close to the bulkhead, but out of our reach, was an umbilical gantry, protruding down at an angle from an aperture in the silo wall. It was a way for drones to pass through the silo sheath and crawl up through the tunnels to empty their abdomens into the hoppers.
Plex clambered over the stair’s railing. ‘Wait here,’ she said.
‘Don’t be daft, girl,’ I said. ‘I can go back down and fetch my flyer!’
‘No need,’ she said, and leapt from the railing. My heart leapt with her – the drop below was precipitous! It was a wider gap than I could have leapt, even in my youth. Still, she landed safely, clinging to the side of the umbilicus. She ducked between its struts and began to climb the inside.
‘Careful!’ I called. ‘It’s a harvester-tube! You’ll be squashed!’ I was right to worry. Suddenly a harvester drone landed, heavily, facing backwards, at the bottom edge of the umbilicus.
It had been a few years since I had been so close to one of our mechanical workers. They are huge metal things, somewhat resembling insects, and as big as a grox, or bigger, with a dark red hull. The eyeless head has one long antenna. The winged thorax has blunt triangular limbs that weave a razor-sharp collection mesh, for flaying grain stalks. The abdomen is a huge cube, stamped with numerical Mechanicus glyphs. Of course the whole machine is caked with wheat dust.
Such was the creature that reversed clumsily up the gantry toward Acolyte Plex. Its abdomen fitted neatly into guiderails, filling the gantry completely, and ascending faster than she could climb. Realizing her peril, she tried to haul herself out through the upper struts.
‘Stop, harvester!’ I shouted. In moments the idiotic drone would crush Plex against a metal strut, so that she would fall dead in two halves! She was only halfway out when the drone’s swollen abdomen reached her: she braced against it with her legs, and grunted, but even one of her stature couldn’t possibly have the strength to slow such a brute. I hurled my stick, to no effect. Then I realized I was clutching my Saint Thedra charm. In desperation I snapped its cord and threw it.
It was a good throw, but another force was at work too. When the charm struck the drone’s head, it had the effect of a lightning bolt. The drone emitted a terrible scratching bleep of alarm, and slid back down the umbilicus, spraying sparks. It bounced off the side of the silo and tumbled all the way to the ground, landing with an awful crash. Why it didn’t flap its wings on the way down, I cannot tell.
Plex was relieved, but climbed back into the gantry. ‘Come out, girl!’ I shouted, ‘Another will come along in a moment!’
She scrambled up the inside with greater haste and vanished from view through the hole in the silo wall. I waited with great concern, calling for her uselessly. Several more drones arrived and entered the silo, unimpeded.
At last there was a muffled clang from behind the bulkhead door, and the rust cracked. Gauntlet fingers, caked with grain-dust, appeared in the gap, and wrenched the door open inwards. ‘That was a close one!’ said Plex, with a grin. She lit a lamp. We ascended the inner staircase. The clunks and thumps of drone-tasks echoed around us.
This bald-headed acolyte interested me now: she was evidently no mere scribe. I examined her as we climbed in dust and gloom. Her armour was scratched and worn in many places, and her skin – the few patches I could see – was just as scarred. I wondered how I’d punish someone who had carved such scars into a granddaughter of mine. ‘How did you ever come to join an Inquisitorial retinue?’ I asked.
‘I’m a perplexa!‘ Plex said, with some pride. ‘That’s what they tell me. I grew up on Necromunda, but I had a strange – that is, I saw something strange.’ She tapped her head. ‘So they shoved me in the Priory of the Red Mask, and that’s where the Inquisitor found me. The Inquisition has entrusted him with my education – I’m the subject of a fiat ineffabilis!‘ I had no idea what most of that meant, but she seemed talkative, so I mentioned the secret name, Larkspur.
‘Wow, the chief really has put you in the picture!’ Plex said. ‘If you know that name, you know as much as me and the lads do. Larkspur might be a xenos, or a disease, a magic spell… even a wyrd or a daemon!’
‘I thought this Ordo Xenos only dealt with alien species,’ I said.
‘Yeah, we should,’ she said, ‘But the chief – that is, ummm, the Inquisitor, I mean – he does go off-road now and then. Aha, this is the place!’ We’d reached the uppermost bulkhead. This one was rusted open.
The panopticon is at the summit of the silo, directly beneath the aetheric transmitter that speaks to the skyhooks. In the centre of the room, with screens facing every which-way, was the huge cogitator that monitored Arepo’s harvesting machinery. When I had begun as governor, I’d accessed the cogitator every day. Then it was weekly, then yearly. The real upkeep of the drones and silos was all done from a long ladder, with a multiwrench. So eventually the cogitator had been switched off.
We stepped over trailing cables. ‘I doubt anyone has been up here in years,’ I said. Plex flicked a switch back and forth, with no result. ‘Did it ever work?’ she said.
‘It used to be alright at setting the drone patterns,’ I said, ‘But then it became uncooperative. I dispatched a data-packet to the tech-priests, once – but that was years ago. I suppose they must have a backlog. We hardly need the thing, anyway.’
Plex produced a dataslate and crawled into the dark space under the control consoles. ‘There are broken wires,’ she said, immediately. ‘I can probably fix it.’
A few minutes later, the cooling fans stirred, and the cogitator’s panels flickered to life, one at a time. Machine-code streamed across them, then a Mechanicus cog-and-skull sigil appeared, waiting for something.
‘I expected this,’ Plex said. She indicated a black square of glass at the edge of the console. ‘It wants a genetic pattern. Any skin contact should be sufficient.’
I pressed my hand to the glass, uneasily. ERROR – INVALID GENEPRINT. ‘It used to recognize me,’ I said, scratching my head. Plex blew the dust away and polished the glass and we tried again. This time a chime sounded, and the panels displayed an image of Arepo’s wheat forest, undulating below a blue sky.
Plex coupled her dataslate to the cogitator and rapidly entered many commands. The panels drew a familiar geodesic model of Arepo in glowing amber lines. More commands summoned an exhausting analysis of the wheat harvest, filling the panels with three-dimensional drawings of sugar and starch structures.
‘Triticum demeticum tarentum,’ said Plex. ‘Saccharide fibres, water, glycerides, globulins, albumins… harmless impurities within tolerances… there it is! Unidentified impurities, one part in ten trillions!’
‘That is absurdly high,’ I said, cursing my own stupidity.
‘The Inquisitor thought it would be – and that’s only what can be detected. Isolation, unsuccessful. Analysis, unsuccessful. Identification, unsuccessful. Threat, nil. Hah!’ She transcribed everything to the dataslate and switched off the cogitator. But she was excited, now. As we descended, she told me – to impress me, I think – that there had been no rust, or dust, or char, on the severed wires that she’d repaired. Those wires had not been frayed in some ancient accident: they had been cut deliberately, and recently.
Reynias, Surdus and Caecus were coming down the street. As they approached, the townsfolk – who had been gawking at the fallen harvester drone – vanished into doors and conduits, and closed the shutters, and kissed talismans in worry.
The drone that had nearly crushed Plex was not dead, but was wriggling on its back, near the foot of the stair. Its rear box had cracked open, scattering huge wheat grains across the street. I found my walking stick lying there, and kicked through the grains, hoping to see my Saint Thedra illuminated in a ray of sunlight. No luck.
There was one person not worried by the drone: Ambervale’s scruffy young son. He was perched on Caecus’ armoured shoulder, with the air of a feudal lord on the wall of his castle.
‘Good morning, Governor Verona,’ said Reynias. ‘Oh, flip that warped thing over, will you, Caecus? It’s driving me mad.’
Caecus put down the child, ducked past the fallen drone’s twitchy wings, braced against the thorax, and shoved. This job would usually require a ten-strong gang with prybars, but Caecus’ exertion was enormous, and the drone tumbled over, then struggled upright and took off in a cloud of dust, without showing gratitude. Now we will have to catch it to mend it, I thought.
‘Who’s your new pal?’ said Plex, gesturing to the boy, who had watched Caecus’ feat of strength with awe.
‘This is William Ambervale Junior,’ said Reynias, ‘The newest honorary battle-brother of the Adeptus Astartes, and already prepared to die for the Throne. We found him looking for his feckless father, and he’s been telling us about the mowing-devil. Have you heard that story, Plex? It has a scythe of fire, and it was conjured by Saint Thedra, to teach the lazy farmers of Arepo a lesson.’
This friendliness , on Junior’s part and on theirs, unsettled me a bit. ‘Run home now, boy,’ I said – not expecting the poor waif to find much of a welcome there.
‘Inquisitor, I’ve got valuable intelligence,’ Plex said.
‘I’ll say. Report, acolyte!’
She briefly described our morning’s adventures and showed the Inquisitor the dataslate. But she also added an observation I had not been aware of. ‘Every harvester machine,’ she said, ‘Is branded with Mechanicus serial numbers corresponding to flight paths and sectors of the planetary surface. I’ve seen more than a thousand machines this morning; the higher-numbered ones that departed before matins haven’t come back yet, and the low-numbered ones fill their bellies and return much more frequently.’
‘So, from my observations, the behaviour of drones in the range X0010011001 to X0010100100 is anomalous.’
Reynias looked at the flocks of drones flowing through the sky. ‘I can’t see any in that range,’ he said.
‘That’s what is anomalous,’ said Plex, with a grin.
The Inquisitor grabbed her bald head and kissed it, paternally. ‘Magnificent!’ he said. ‘Where don’t they come back from?’
The dropship took us east, chasing the sinking sun. Inquisitor Reynias insisted that I accompany the expedition, though I couldn’t imagine what use he thought I could be. Our pilot, Brother Caecus, flew a zigzag across a sector that Plex had identified. Whatever they expected to find, for hours they didn’t find it. Reynias became visibly irritated. But Surdus had a hawk’s eye: at last he tapped the Inquisitor on the shoulder and pointed out of one of the tiny viewing ports.
From the air, the canopy of Arepo’s dense wheat forest forms an undulating landscape of ochre and gold. There should be essentially no landmarks, apart from our settlement. But I could see a pattern, below. Huge shapes had been carved into the surface of the wheat! Wheat had been felled, in concentric circles and crescents and equilateral triangles that intersected and branched off from one another, joined by long lines at precise angles. There was something faintly alien in the patterns, and the geometric precision banished any notion that it might be the product of nature. My world had been used as a parchment for the writing of sigils!
‘Could be aeldari,’ said Plex, very close to my ear. That made me shudder.
‘Set us down,’ said Reynias.
We landed in a punctuation point, at the end of an alien sentence. There was nothing but rustling wheat for miles around. Brother Caecus and Acolyte Surdus barrelled out of the craft with rifles raised, and scanned the clearing with lamps. They advanced to the mouth of a long alley which had been trampled through the wheat forest, and Caecus stood guard there. Surdus returned. ‘N’thing,’ he said.
Reynias crouched to inspect the wheat under our feet. Plex watched him and did the same. The fallen stalks gave the impression of having been pushed flat quite gently, so that they bent only at the base, and did not break or uproot. Dark blackish-red leaves had begun to poke up between the flat stalks. The weeds and ferns were enjoying some sunlight for once.
‘It’s big,’ said Reynias, to the young acolyte. ‘Tall and strong, but not heavy. Here frequently, and recently.’ He stood up. For a moment he was deep in thought, staring at his gloved hand and flexing his fingers. Then: ‘Governor, we go on foot from here. Come with us or wait in the ship – it’s up to you.’
Certainly I would go with them. Brother Caecus quietly growled at me: ‘Fall behind and you’ll be left behind, old woman.’
‘We’re used to hardship on the agriworlds, boy,’ I said. ‘I was out-marching soldiers when you were still sucking at your mother’s tit.’
For a long time, we did march, in the amber dusk, over the flattened wheat stalks, down a wide avenue of that alien writing. Harvester drones passed overhead from time to time. We came to immense clearings, circular and triangular, where lines intersected. Inquisitor Reynias made examinations of the ground, before directing us onward.
We found the missing drones, in the range whatever-it-was to such-and-such. Smashed and scorched drone carcasses, some of them half-buried in wheat and earth. Drones had been dying around here for a long time. Most had been incinerated into slag by some terrific heat.
‘A scythe of fire,’ said Plex.
Night fell. Still the Inquisitorial retinue kept up their pace. The alleys were getting narrower, and the wrecked drones more common, and the black ferns underfoot were now a tangle. My old bones ached, but I didn’t give Brother Caecus the satisfaction of hearing me complain.
We came to a glade where luminous fungus glowed among the wheat stalks. Fox-fire spores wisped idly through the warm air, dodging any hand that tried to catch them. Here Reynias stopped, unexpectedly, and I saw why. His foot had struck an object on the ground – a metal helmet, blood-red. Beside it, half-sunk in dust and earth, was a human skull.
‘Caecus!’ he hissed, ‘Beware!’
A white star flared ahead of us, a false dawn. For an instant the wheat seemed like the columns of an immense temple and threw impenetrable shadows. A beam of light swept silently through the air, spurting flame where it struck a wheat stalk. I threw myself to the ground in fear.
The armoured giant wasn’t dazzled: he raised his rifle instantly. ‘For the Emperor!’ Caecus bellowed, and I was deafened by the blasts of his gun, and the flashing muzzle-flames. Surdus fired rhythmically and precisely with his pistol. The light-beam passed over my head, then vanished, and the gunfire ceased too. The only sound was the hum of drones, far above.
Plex appeared beside me and lifted me to her feet. Her eyes were wide. ‘It’s a wraith-warrior, Plex!’ cried Reynias. ‘Damn and chaos, we need–’ Then the laser blazed out of the shadows. ‘Bloodletter’s balls!‘ said Plex – blasphemy, from monks! She shoved her Inquisitor back and pulled me to one side, and as I sprawled in the dust, through the wheat stalks I saw it: the mowing-devil of legend! A skeletal figure, three times the height of a man, with a faceless head and a single curved horn. Then it vanished from sight.
The hum of harvester drones? A flock of drones was swarming above us – but they didn’t normally buzz like that, or the noise would have driven me mad years ago. No, that rising sound told of a peril greater than any laser-weapon. It was the unspooling of the microplastic threshing wire. The harvesters were deploying their collection meshes! We had only moments before every scrap of living matter within a mile was flayed to ribbons for its grain!
Habit drew my hand to my throat, clutching for my charm of Saint Thedra, but I had lost it, of course. I shouted desperately, trying to warn Plex, as fibrous flax and chaff began to fall around us, but it was hopeless and too late. Then came the awful swish and click of the threshing wires. The filaments gleamed as they scoured vicious paths up and down the wheat stalks, stripping off chaff until fallen husks heaped around my ankles. The swirling dust was unbearable, and I’ve breathed and blinked grain-dust all my life. Reynias and Surdus were lost to me. I could see the muzzle flash of pistols, but I couldn’t hear them. Still the mowing-devil’s laser struck back and forth.
Electrostatic coils span down around us, and huge wheat grains were dragged upwards in seething, churning bunches. I staggered through the tempest, and fell helplessly at the feet of the mowing-devil itself, expecting to die. It stared down, faceless, eyeless, entwined with vines and roots, dark leaves and petals, and strange branched crests of bone. A misshapen alien limb stretched down to crush me –
– and was parried by a bolt of lightning! The devil recoiled, screeching. Brother Caecus was beside me, holding the lightning bolt in his hands! He dropped and rolled. The mowing-devil raised a titanic leg to step on him, but his grip on the lightning-sword shifted, and he flicked the blade upward, spearing the monster’s abdomen. The sword was wrenched from his grip. The mowing-devil renewed its attack: the laser struck the Space Marine, transforming that poor wretch into an incandescent statue. Blazing heat washed over me, but I heard no scream. And he and the mowing-devil were gone into the howling dust.
Plex and I were drowning in rising chaff. I struggled toward her. She was fumbling with some small dark object – scrubbing it furiously against the fabric of her cloak. She pitched it at one of the harvester coils, and the drone pulled it up into its belly.
Light and fire and smoke burst out above. The chaff falling around us was burning. Wheat grains burst and blackened, and the stalks themselves were toppling, sheared cleanly by the wild flailing of the meshes. A mass of flaming wheat fell toward me, my head struck a rock, and I was dimly aware of being grabbed and hauled upright by a gauntleted hand. There I lost consciousness.
The destruction of that harvester drone set an inferno in the wheat forest. I remember little of our escape, but I have since been told that Acolyte Surdus summoned the dropship to lift us out while the devil was distracted with Caecus. At first I feared that the whole colony would be threatened by the flames, but a long-forgotten subroutine had stirred in the brains of the harvester drones, and they rallied in huge numbers to extinguish the blaze, spraying immense quantities of phosphate powder.
The next day, when the flames were quelled, Reynias and Plex took me out over the wheat forest again. This time, Surdus was the pilot. Brother Caecus was not discussed.
The alien patterns in the flattened wheat had been mostly incinerated, but here and there I could still see the edge of a rune, and I wondered aloud if there was meaning left, if ever there had been any. Surdus quickly found the site of the attack.
Here was the corpse of Caecus – dead with honour, I suppose. Fused to molten slag. If Reynias and Surdus mourned his passing, they didn’t show it, except by their silence. Plex sighed and crouched next to him, and attempted to remove the helmet from the ruins of his armour, but it wouldn’t be separated. Then she sat down in profound misery. ‘He saved us,’ she said.
‘He knew what he’d signed up for,’ said Reynias, although I could tell that he wasn’t really so unaffected.
Here, too, was the corpse of the mowing-devil. It was a tall skeletal alien thing. The roots and vines entwining it were a product of its own flesh. The creature had died almost upright, slouched, with Caecus’ sword stuck neatly through its body. It had succumbed to the sword, and fire, and bullets, and the lash of the harvesters’ mesh, which seemed fortunate, because only one or two or three of those things might not have been enough. A few small wheat stalks around the creature had been bent flat, as they burned: it had tried to trudge out its odd circles even as death took it.
‘This is Larkspur, then,’ I said. ‘What is it, Inquisitor? A daemon?’
‘A devil, perhaps!’ said Reynias, grimly. ‘But one that sows more than it reaps, I think!’ He grasped the hilt of Caecus’ sword with both hands, and kicked against the mowing-devil’s twisted leg, pulling the blade free. The devil’s remains toppled to the ground, scattering burnt fronds.
‘A monster made by alchemy,’ young Plex said. ‘The stuff they call wraithbone.’ Reynias retrieved something small from the shattered remains. Then Surdus and Plex recited a prayer in High Gothic, and hauled Caecus’ lifeless form to the ship.
‘Is that it, chief?’ Plex said, bitterly, when they had finished.
‘Not quite,’ said Reynias. ‘I have one more question for the governor. And I expected to find – here, look, look!’
With the tip of the sword, he pushed over a charred object among the ashes. The smell of cooked flesh wafted up. The lasgun had melted, and the duster coat burned away, and the skin was scorched, and the throat gashed open, but there could be no mistake: it was the corpse of my planetary marshal, William Ambervale.
‘A regrettable chain of events,’ Reynias said, lighting the pipe with a wooden match, ‘But at least order has prevailed, praise the Emperor.’
He was perched on a chair in my kitchen, again. Plex and Surdus were with us. It had been a trying few days for me, so I had brewed more tea, in a preparation even stronger than the acolytes had drunk. Concerns lingered in my mind. It’s best to fortify oneself.
‘Arepo owes you much, Inquisitor,’ I said. ‘The mowing-devil’s destruction has likely spared us much bloodshed. I’m curious about what could have led Ambervale to traffic with it, though, if that was what he did.’
Reynias chewed the stem of his pipe. ‘Here on Arepo,’ he said, ‘Is the sort of task that Inquisitor Mycos likes to set me, because she thinks my logis implants will atrophy without it. And she’s correct. Plex’s report will make me look very slow-witted, and deservedly. The legend of the mowing-devil – ‘
‘Chief,’ said Plex, ‘They’ll expect us on Talasa…’
‘Yes they will. The legend of the mowing-devil, I heard twice. Governor Verona, you said that it was the farmers who conjured up a daemon, to give the grain to the dark gods. But Ambervale’s son told us the mirror-image of that story. In his version, it was Saint Thedra who was upset by the harvest, and threatened to have Arepo mowed by devils.’
‘The story exists in many variations,’ I said, and blew on my tea. ‘But can that be what Ambervale was doing – offering our crop to dark powers?’
‘No. Knowing some High Gothic, we can – strip away the chaff, can’t we? Come on, Plex. The name ‘Thedra’…’
‘A messed-up version of cathedra,‘ said Plex slowly. ‘High Gothic for ‘chair’, or ‘the place of the chair’...’
‘Full marks, acolyte. Such distortions occur across the galaxy, and are hardly heretical: the farmers of Arepo are acknowledging the Supreme Throne of Terra. The mowing-devils in the story aren’t daemons – they are those harvester drones, which the Chamber Exactio sent to replace a troublesome workforce. So Thedra was as good as His word.
‘And devils those drones certainly are! We might even call Arepo an honorary deathworld. The harvest apparatus is a dangerous trap. It’s the perfect neighbourhood for Larkspur. If a pious fool like me or Montresor blunders in, all that’s needed is a pretext to send us to the cornfield.’
‘Could the Blood Angels have been sent to their deaths deliberately?’ I said. ‘I don’t think Ambervale would even have been born at the time of the Ninth Legion’s visit!’ Then a worrying thought struck me.
‘Indeed not,’ said Reynias, ‘And when we found Ambervale’s body, he was without a charm of Saint Thedra.’ He passed a charm back and forth between his fingers. ‘Every native of Arepo wears one of these. But you’ve all forgotten that it’s part of the harvest machinery. The dropship’s instruments could tell, once I told them what to look for. The charms contain tiny transponders. If you’re wearing one, the harvester drones will avoid you. If you’re not, they won’t! Plex, you weren’t carrying one when you climbed the silo gantry, and one of the blind brutes didn’t know to stay out of your way until the governor bounced a charm off its skull. The drones probably scan for charms before each harvest – but Montresor’s squad refused to wear pagan amulets, and so did we!
‘Ambervale must have known all that, but his Thedra charm wasn’t on his body. He wouldn’t venture into the wheat forest without it. And he was leagues from the town, with no transport. No, he was dead before he went into that glade, and not from harvester wires or a laser beam. His throat was gouged by a small sharp knife. His death was an improvisation on the part of Larkspur – who is still alive.’
‘If Ambervale was part of a heretical coven,’ I said, ‘How can your hunt be over?’
‘I didn’t say that it is.’
Surdus was standing and had a heavy pistol on his hip; the holster was fastened. Plex was sitting, and unarmed. Both had the expression of being utterly lost.
‘You had a question for me?’ I said.
‘It’s one I’ve been asking all over the segment,’ Reynias said. He stared at me over his eyeglasses. ‘Redam s’as iyanden?‘ he said, in the tongue of my mothers and grandmothers.
Mine was a good run, all things considered. Strange how things pan out.
The mon-keigh’s words struck me like that thunderbolt sword. It had been years since I heard my native tongue spoken out loud, and it stirred a raft of memory. Iyanden, a city of gold, gleaming towers higher and more numerous than the wheat stalks of Arepo.
‘I beg your pardon, Inquisitor?’ I said.
‘Redam s’as iyanden?‘ he repeated. Horrible, to hear aeldari trip neatly from a human tongue. Iyanden, where I was born, and to which I will return, the city where my Path began! If the mon-keigh knew that ancient name, his inquisitions had proceeded further than any before him. I was surrounded, with no way out, except one way.
I sighed. The burden of years slid from my shoulders. I peeled the layer of false grey hair from my head. Real human hair, it was, which had taken some weaving! Then I blinked loose the horrible milky lenses in my eyes, and tucked my fingers behind my mask.
Slowly, gently, I peeled the holographic mask away from my face. The psykovivid polymer tried to maintain its illusion, but failure was inevitable. My human face warped, and flickered, and vanished. Gone were the hideous bloated human cheeks and sunken brow. The Inquisition looked, for the first time, on my real face.
‘You’re a xenos,’ said Plex, astonished. I smiled, and scratched the lobes of my ears, mutilated of old.
‘Governor Verona is our Larkspur,‘ said the Inquisitor, gravely, without taking his eyes off me. ‘She is an agent of sorcerers. The horrors across the segment are the fruits of her toils here. Your disguise is a good one, governor, though I’m still a fool to have been taken in. Now you must talk to me, or I’ll have to take you to Talasa, to Inquisitor Mycos. Her methods are severe.’
So I’d expect – but there are fates worse than torture and death. Fail in your task, my Exarch had told me, and the Enemy will deserve your soul. ‘I am fian’ynnsta-agaith,’ I said. ‘The nesting cuckoo. Your threats mean nothing to me.’
Surdus clenched his fists. ‘I c’n make it talk,’ he grunted.
‘Perhaps I can say a little on her behalf, first,’ said Reynias, uneasily. ‘You’re much older than you look, governor. You erred badly in mentioning the Blood Angels, because they came to Arepo nearly a hundred years ago! I was slow to notice that, but your position was precarious, and you knew it. You sabotaged the silo cogitator, afraid that it could reveal the nature of the contaminant. But you were hasty and your sabotage wasn’t thorough. You’d killed Ambervale as a scapegoat and dumped his body near the rune-circles.’
I told you, children and grandchildren, that I met Ambervale, and later took my flyer out for a spin. All true, you see – but between those events I’d also followed Ambervale into a dark conduit and cut his throat! It wasn’t just to give the Inquisition a dead heretic. Ambervale knew of the runes-circles, and even had some idea of what made them, though it frightened him.
‘You needed us to blunder into the path of the harvesters,’ Reynias continued, ‘You came with us, but you couldn’t even take a Thedra charm of your own, as it might have protected us too. I commend your devotion to duty – you were prepared to die.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
Plex gaped. ‘You two-faced old cow!’ she said, and advanced towards me, but her master was on his feet, and pulled her back. ‘As for that faceless wraith-thing,’ he went on, ‘I presume it came with you when you travelled to this planet. Its odd behaviour is the result of long separation from the energies of its craftworld. The Ordo Xenos is not entirely ignorant of these creatures, you know. I retrieved its spirit stone.’
That sickened me.
‘This, gettin’ us nowhere!’ Surdus snarled. ‘Worlds are dying! Where’s th’ poison, Eldar?’ Then, to the Inquisitor: ‘Let me at it. It’ll sing.’ I wouldn’t.
‘Quiet,’ said Reynias. ‘You’ll open your wounds. We’ve already found the poison, and tasted it! It’s that blackleaf tea plant, which grows on the governor’s trellises. It grew on the monster, too, and was sown widely as it wandered, and harvested with the grain. It was under our feet in the crop circles.
‘Blackleaf fronds, when ground up, are a reddish-brown snuff-like powder that’s a resilient narcotic, invisible to the harvester machines. We’ll need to take a sample with us. But what I don’t understand is why Larkspur here would feed us her drug on our arrival. Could its effects instantly cripple us, or turn us into addicts? Our digestion is a little more resistant than most humans, due to a few standard enhancements. But were you mocking me, governor?’
There were limits to the mon-keigh’s powers of deduction, after all. ‘Of course not!’ I said, ‘I merely underestimated your resilience. The purpose was to kill you! That preparation came from root-crystals, not leaves – ‘
Reynias lunged towards me, sweeping the table aside.
‘ – and it is the same brew that I drank even more deeply, a few moments ago.’
Gauntlets seized my wrist, my throat. I was lifted into the air. But I felt the first pangs of the poison. ‘Where’s Iyanden?’ Reynias snarled. ‘Where’s the craftworld? Where is it?’
I flicked the wraithbone knife from my sleeve. If Reynias had been as slow as an Arepo farmer, I could have cut his throat easily. But he jerked backwards, and the knife sparked on his collar, and caught his chin. Still, a scar to remember me by! Plex showed her quality again: she struck my wrist with precision, and I dropped the knife. Reynias let go of me.
I flexed as I fell, looking for the knife. The fall seemed like a long one. I landed on my feet, and my hand found the blade. Surdus had drawn his pistol, as I expected.
‘No!’ the Inquisitor cried, ‘We need her—!’ But his acolyte was too zealous.
I reflected on my accomplishments. Across the constellation, Saint Thedra’s hiveworlds thirsted for an alien drug that was repugnant to him. The mon-keigh might try to cultivate the narcotic themselves – but blackleaf is a fruit of Yavanna, where it grows in groves sacred to exodites, and only the love of the Eldar can nurture it, or the hate.
I didn’t think the mon-keigh would try. Only the eradication of the tainted wheat would appease their Emperor. Arepo would become a dustbowl. I felt slightly bad about that, so I was glad to have tasted the poison myself, in the end. I hoped that it would weaken the Emperor’s worlds at the hour my autarchs required.
Still, I wished that Reynias and Plex hadn’t come to Arepo.
Then bolter shells tore me from my flesh, and sent me here, to the bones of my city, to the river of my ancestors.
About the Author
Tim Wilkinson-Lewis is a writer, illustrator and book-dealer based in Cambridge UK. More of his work can be found at his website, linked below.