The Silk Spire
An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Jenny Strath
Reading Time: 26 minutes
‘The good die first,’ thought Dazia as she dragged hungrily on her lho-stick. The smoke slithered into the stale air, out and around the clumsily carved face of the Emperor in the meagre shrine that took up the majority of the tiny living space. With a sigh, she stubbed out the lho-stick into the tin of shiny pebbles at the icons feet, pocketing the stub with the others for later.
No alarm sirens rang outside the hab-quarters, just the arrhythmic thud of the mills and the stifled din of the crowded street outside. No one was going to interrupt. In the bedroom, the three corpses had melted together on the bed, two large and one small huddled between them. They hadn’t been dead too long, but the toxins in the air had already made a congealed mess of them. She could feel the tearing of muscle fibres through her thin gloves; and she plunged her hands into the formally human mass. Throat, fingers, wrists, pockets; probing anywhere objects of value might be found. The adults had worn plain matching metal bands, barely worth a ration between them. Though around the neck of the infant was a gold-coloured rosary of Saint Keeler with blood-red beads. Might fetch a decent price if she could find the right idiot. Pastor Mallard at the Back Markets was always looking for cheap religious iconography to fleece onto his congregation, at an impressive mark-up of course.
Dazia walked past the kitchenette without slowing. No point looking in there, if there had been food in the cupboard there wouldn’t be corpses on the bed. By a small empty cot there was a ceramic sculpture of a four-legged animal. Clumsy, made as if the creator had only ever heard of the animal in a story. She held it for a moment, before cracking it on the side of the dresser and gently pouring its contents into her satchel. She would pick through it later. The taste of the lho-stick was being replaced; the tang of the bodies was beginning to settle at the back of her throat.
Finally, in a drawer under the dresser was a stub-pistol. Dazia checked the clip. Still full. She glanced over and the mess of bodies on the bed. Maybe if one of them had used this gun wisely, they wouldn’t have had to starve.
The taste of the air barely improved as she returned to the street and closed the door behind her. No one looked up as she rejoined the flow of bodies from the alley into the marketplace.
‘Arbitrator Dazia.’ Matlif nodded as Dazia took an uncomfortable seat at his bar. She unslung her power maul and placed it on the counter. ‘Recaff,’ she replied and tossed a credit to him. The hunger pangs were returning as the lho-stick had completely worn off, recaff would last her a little longer.
‘So, Borysko?’ he ventured as he placed the drink before her.
‘Dead,’ she replied, inhaling the recaff steam deeply, trying to clear the stink from her nose.
‘Damn. Wife and the little one too?’ He shook his head at Dazias nod. ‘Shame that, he was a good lad. Too good. After his officium closed, and he wouldn’t join a gang, I offered to set him and his wife up at the brothel; but he wouldn’t hear it. Unclean in the eyes of the Emperor and all that.’
‘I guess Borysko can take that up with Him now,’ Dazia said.
Matlif barked a laugh, and poured a shot of grain alcohol from his hip flash into her recaff with a wink. ‘Find anything valuable in his hab? Think he had a stub-pistol at least, sure he never used it anyway’.
‘Nothing,’ she shrugged.
She had only taken the first, bitter sip when screams erupted from outside. Enforcer Sumas appeared beside her shortly after her third sip, red-faced under their helmet and puffing.
‘Pardon Senior Arbitrator Dazia? Pardon?’
Fourth sip. ‘Yes?’
‘We…we have an issue outside.’ The point was punctuated by a particularly loud scream followed by a wet crunch.
‘A Nephilian escape,’ she replied. Fifth sip. Sumas was nervously jumping from foot to foot, looking furtively at the door.
‘Yes Ma’am, so do you think maybe possibly be that we should…’
Dazia held up a finger as she knocked back the last of her recaff. Grabbing her power maul off the table, she slammed the tin mug down on the bar and headed for the door.
The street outside was writhing in panic. Screaming, as the quadcycle sized azure arachnid clambered over empty food carts and low walls, rearing and stomping its spindly legs and viciously biting anyone unfortunate enough to get close. Those bitten dropped dead immediately, veins pulsing and turning a vivid blue as the venom raced through their bodies.
‘Sumas, take note of the branding. If this is house Ilith again, we must have a word with them. The incompetence really cannot stand.’
Sumas nodded, making the sign of the aquila and mumbling a prayer as they moved closer. Sumas winced as Dazia let out a shrill whistle that cut through the noise of the crowd. Most of the eyes of the Nephilian shot over to them, and it began to gallop in their direction. The mass of bodies parted frantically before the charging beast, as Dazia continued her whistle and stood her ground. Twirling her set of bolas above her head with increasing speed as the creature loomed closer, she released them as it came to within a handful of paces. Spinning low over the street, the bolas caught the front set of arachnid legs from under the beast and tied them in a tangle of tightening wire. It flipped over, landing hard on its back, flailing its three free legs uselessly in the air as it shrieked and chittered.
With the practised movements of an executioner, Dazia approached the twitching mass, and raised her power maul. Activating it in the final motion of the arc downwards, she caved in the beasts head.
Dazia spared a glance at the sigil burned into the deflating thorax. ‘Get Illith’s guys out here. They’ll want to harvest the powders. But tell them this is a gift, I could easily pass this off to House Kaar or Thinos. We will be requiring a meeting with their superiors. And don’t bother calling out protein recovery, most of these people died from the venom, so they’re useless. By the time they get here the others will have already started to fibrecate, it’s a…’ Dazia checked a small device at her belt, ‘78% Crocidolite air today, so the meat is already ruined’.
Sumas’ hands flew across the cogitator keys as quickly as Dazia barked her orders. All the praying and smiling was tiresome, but damned if Sumas wasn’t a good second. It was unorthodox to take on a second and allow them to work on the planet of their birth, but since the Great Rift tore the sky, they were short of options in every possible way.
‘Sometimes I don’t know why they bother any more,’ Dazia opined to no-one in particular, though Sumas was nodding along as if this were another lesson. She lit another lho-stick as they watched the scions of House Illith meticulously dismantle the Nephilians body. Piece by piece, they placed it in airtight containers to be atomised into a brilliant blue powder. Not a single speck was splashed on their pure white hazard suits. Every part of a Nephilian was toxic, alive or pulverised into prized pigment-dust. If the dye was breathed into the lungs, that was a particularly unpleasant death.
‘It’s been decades since Ultramar’s envoys came to collect their precious pigment, longer than even our last nutrient delivery.’ Dazia exhaled the smoke slowly, trying to force her empty stomach to unknot.
‘They truly believe in the will of the great Lord Guilliman, and wait ready for his call in their part of adorning his noble Legions livery. It’s inspiring,’ Sumas said, scrolling through a list of messages on their cogitator.
Dazia snorted and spat. ‘It’s a waste of time.’ They watched for a moment longer in silence. ‘This is a waste of time, too. Do we have a meeting with Illith yet? I’d much rather enjoy ration time in peace, not stuck with some Tailorcrat with a bolt of silk up their arse.’
Sumas laughed dutifully whilst still scrolling through alerts. ‘Yes, it seems they have room to speak with us now.’
Sumas had to jog to catch up, as Dazia had already begun to walk away.
The poverty was starting to rise to this level of the hive, that was clear. Every low-level textile worker was emaciated. The unemployed and infirm had died first over the last five cycles. Now even the hard-working employed barely had two crumbs to rub together. Violent crime was rising as desperation crept into hollow eyes. Dazia could tell by how steadily her paperwork pile was growing. Her position didn’t spare her from the cost of rations, which had risen to more than their weight in pigment. She didn’t bother to stop the few people going through pockets, or stealing the boots of the dead in the street, as they exited the market.
In the years after the Cicatrix Maledictum, most of Dazia Arbities retinue had been killed in the madness-induced riots that smothered the city. She had been a junior officer then, only her second off-world rotation. The riots never really stopped, they just fatigued and waned into resignation. Her friends and colleagues were gone; having either been ripped apart by the mobs, or joining them. There was only a handful of them left now, stretched thin across the hive. A facade of some kind of law, some kind of oversight from Terra. So on they went, making a show of enforcement because there had been no-one to tell them to stop. Consoles filled with reports that Dazia had eventually accepted would never be read by High Command. Every day a needle sewed her inexorably into the tapestry of this fraying world.
The Runner pulled up at the lowest entrance of the Illiths trade spire. Sumas leaned back in a frankly embarrassing way to try and see the peak of the spire so high in the distance. They would have to enter through the factory floor, but it was faster than finding a vehicle that could fly them to the upper levels. Dazia wanted this dull formality over with as soon as possible.
Double steel doors groaned apart as they entered. Menials scuttled out of their way as they strode through rows of stalls containing chained Nephilian. Plasteel bits kept their fangs stretched too wide to bite, and they hung suspended with spindles drawing cobalt silk in long strings from their spinnerets. All around, people and servitors saw to the extraction as massively long looms spun at terrible speeds.
Further down the line, there was a cry as a man, trembling and frail, was knocked into a spindle. The flesh was ripped from the back of his arm as the spindle was knocked to the ground. A mass of silk gathered in a knotted, blood-splattered mess on the ground. Within seconds, two enforcers descended upon him, berating him as they kicked repeatedly until he was still. A servitor appeared to drag him away.
At the sight, Sumas tripped on the stairs up the catwalk with an echoing clang which caused the structure to sway. Lumens shuddered, casting many-limbed shadows of dozens of stalls. Dazia snorted, but slowed to let them catch up. She cleared her throat expectantly and tapped her chronometer.
‘Sorry Ma’am, coming Ma’am.’
After a short elevator journey, they were ushered into an office. As Dazia entered, a tall, blond man in an elaborately embroidered suit pushed past her going the opposite way. He did not slow as he knocked her to the side, the indigo eye not covered by his golden fringe glancing her up and down in an instant. Clearly she was not worth his time to acknowledge, let alone apologize too.
The disrespect was deeply vexing, but Dazia knew the low degree of the safety violation and his obvious high standing placed him above her reproach for now. Sumas looked outraged, but Dazia shook her head and rolled her eyes. Not worth it.
The hate she felt for the plump bureaucrat in the office before her was a dull ache. The short lift trip plus the false wooden desk meant a low-level official, yet his belt strained against his midsection. As Sumas laid out the disciplinary papers, Dazia consoled herself that she might at least get a decent ‘bonus’ out of him. He looked the sort to have a few nutrient bars hidden in his desk, another disciplinary offence. Once the official proceedings were done, she’d send Sumas out to inspect the escape site. She hoped it was on the other side of the spire, she didn’t like the way this Floor Monitor’s beady eyes were staring at her. And it would be mildly amusing to work out some tension with casual violence on the pretence of further ‘interrogation’. Sumas didn’t need to know where the extra bump in their paycheck came from, they are a good kid.
Dazia was massaging her fists by the lift door when Sumas returned. As well as fat, the manager had been unpleasantly greasy. While she hadn’t gotten any extra rations out of him, her satchel was heavier by a few credits at least.
As Sumas got closer, Dazia began, ‘The usual excuses? Servitor error, broken hoist, doors left open while the guard snuck off for a lho? Incompetent fired. End of investigation. Let’s get outta here.’ She punched the keys to summon the elevator.
‘I’m…I’m afraid I don’t think so,’ Sumas replied hesitantly.
Dazia pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, ‘What then?’
‘Well…there was no empty stall. The records were in order, but I insisted on seeing the site of the escape…You did tell me to be thorough?’
Dazia nonchalantly checked her knuckles for blood, and nodded for Sumas to continue.
‘I had a dig into their insurance inventory. Nephilian are worth thousands of credits, so surely they would collect, but from that end they are still all accounted for.’
Dazia furrowed her brow, ‘It was most definitely an Illith. Maybe they are hiding some of their resources. But why?’
‘What do you want to do?’ asked Sumas, looking furtively down the hall. ‘This could be big. Nephilian are huge ration sinks. If they’re hiding some, that means they must be getting black market nutrient from somewhere.’
Dazias stomach rumbled as she glanced at the open lift. She thought of the Tailorcrat who had knocked her aside. ‘Illith is already putting the cover-up into action, but it’s being rushed. We might not get another chance that they’ll slip up again.’
A series of three shrill beeps cut the air. All across the hive the message blared in a harsh mechanical static, degraded over time to be barely comprehensible. To the inhabitants however, it was like the most beautiful psalm.
‘Ration Time. Ration Time. 30 minutes. Consuming is now permitted. Any persons caught consuming outside this time will be prosecuted.’ The announcement finished with three identical beeps.
‘Beep. Beep. Beep.’
Dazia clenched her teeth. ‘Come on, let’s go find some Illith uniforms. We have 30 minutes to disappear.’
Dazia and Sumas slipped in with the night shift Dazia in an Illith enforcers uniform and Sumas in the livery of a drink server. They’d found a locker room during Ration Time, when the corridors were briefly bare, and had hacked into it easily enough to retrieve the disguises.
‘Check, Sumas. Over,’ Dazia whispered into her comlink.
‘Checking in. Over,’ came the reply.
‘Get as high up into the spire as you can. I’ll do the same. Stick near anyone who seems important. I’ll stay out of sight and check the empty offices for information.’
‘Emperor be with you, Ma’am.’
Dazia marched up several floors. Thankfully the menials didn’t even look at her as she played her role. The enforcers large shock-stick at her belt made sure of that. It was a pale imitation of her maul-of-office, but she carried it with the same authoritative menace. Keeping out of the eyeline of anyone wearing the uniform of an official and nodding dutifully as they passed by was enough to avoid any trouble. The night shift wasn’t any quieter than the day, as the mills and looms clanked beneath her feet, so she knew there was still a while to go.
After emerging from an empty office, the cogitator of which was filled unhelpfully with duty rosters, she froze as sensed someone behind her. As a hand rested heavily on her shoulder, she spun, raising her fist and executing a brisk punch to her assailants throat. The enforcer staggered and dropped to one knee as Dazia reached for her baton. But the huge man held up his hand, both gasping and chuckling as he clutched his throat. She hesitated as he stood back up, shaking his head and smiling.
‘Sorry, that was my fault. Should have known better than to sneak up on a level six,’ pointing to the orange stripe on her shoulder. He had recovered quickly from the blow, and judging by his size he was packed with growth-stims. He would be difficult to take down quickly or quietly on her own.
‘Yes. You should have,’ she replied sternly, assuming authority.
‘I was just looking to sneak a lho and was wondering if you had a spare, sixs always have the good stuff. Ration time was a little thin and…’, he gestured to his significantly muscular build, ‘I take a bit to run. Gotta keep bulking up if I ever want to get to level eight,’ he said, pointing ruefully at his green stripe.
Dazia looked at him sceptically.
‘Uh, you going up? I gotta go all the way up to top-spire too, and frankly, Ma’am…’ He leaned in conspiratorially, ‘They give me the jeebies up there. Permission to accompany you?’
Dazia had always found that the less she said, the more others would speak. This was certainly the case for this man. They walked through identical corridors, puffing on lho-sticks as he carried a large metal crate on one shoulder. Slowly the walls turned from bare steel to painted pale blues. Velvet runners began to appear underfoot, finally becoming lush black carpets. The thudding of the looms faded away. No passers-by made to stop them. The man, Patrin, waved cheerily to enforcers with green bands, and nodded respectfully to anyone with orange or red as they ascended.
‘Been here two solar cycles. Gang life was a bit of fun, but there just ain’t rations in it these days, ya know?’ Dazia did not reply. She briefly heard her own stomach complaining, but tried to drown it out as she listened.
‘I get to go up top more than most threes, they say. Think it’s just the liftin’ though. Easier than getting a servitor hooked up right for one job. Plus the Top Spires don’t much like servitors. I heard ‘em say they like the way us Downers smell? I don’t know. Like I says, they give me the jeebies. Keep touching my arms too. I’m sure you understand.’
‘Why would I understand?’ Dazia asked.
‘Uhh well, you know…looking like you do. No offense, Ma’am. You took me down faster than most of me old gangers coulda.’
A glamorous man and woman wearing turquoise silk robes, simple jewellery and with immaculate cosmetics passed them. They were clearly not menials or even office workers, but proper Tailorcrats. Finally, Dazia was getting somewhere. For just a moment, Patrin fell silent. Once they had passed, Patrin let out a breath.
‘Why do they always gotta stare like that? Like we’re nutrient bars or something.’
‘We are to them,’ Dazia replied, mildly surprising herself. She knew what he meant. The way they had eyed Patrins muscles, and at her person, made her feel like there were worms under her skin.
‘So where exactly are you off to?’ Patrin asked pleasantly, attempting to shake off the unease.
‘I don’t know. I was merely summoned,’ she replied neutrally.
‘Ha! Mysterious as always, those Tailorcrats. Well, we Downers have a saying: Don’t meet in the Feastroom, or you’re meat in the Feastroom!’
Dazia chuckled politely. ‘Yes, of course.’
‘This is my floor,’said Patrin as they reached another landing of a staircase. He swiped a keycard to open a door to a wide hallway.
‘Mine too,’ replied Dazia, slipping past him through the door and holding it open for him on the other side.
‘Perfect. Going left?’ he asked
‘Right,’ she said. She had been lucky to get this far. No need to push it any further.
‘You going to be long? I could wait for you, I’ll only be a minute.’ He smiled broadly.
‘Not sure. You know how it is.’
He laughed. ‘Sure do. I’ll see you later at the Bar? I owe you a drink!’ He tried to salute with the arm holding the crate and stumbled, then switched to his free arm.
Dazia threw a quick salute back before taking off at a brisk pace to the nearest corner.
After parting ways with Patrin, Dazia buzzed her comlink. ‘Sumas, report. Over.’
‘Sumas receiving. Not too far off, Ma’am. I got lucky and found a Tailorcrat to follow, praise the Emperor. They don’t even acknowledge I’m here until they order a drink. Over.’
‘I’m close to top spire now too. Not much information as yet, but I’m getting close. Something is definitely off with this operation. Over.’
‘Agreed, there’s definitely something going on. They keep talking about her. I think maybe there is someone in charge of all this. It might be who we have to find, but I haven’t heard a name. Over.’
‘Keep listening, I’m going to see if I can find more documents. And watch out for something called the Feastroom. I don’t know what it is, but it sounds bad. Over.’
‘Understood. Sumas out.’
Carefully, Dazia watched the passage of both the high and low inhabitants of the spire. The further up she went, the more likely it was that someone would notice that she didn’t belong. Likewise, she was looking for something that didn’t belong either; any crack, any imperfection in the routine. It was a pack of servitors that gave it away. A set of four slack-jawed cleaning servitors trundled past from a room carrying bags and bins of refuse and rockcrete rubble. Patrin had said they didn’t like servitors up this high in the tower, which meant they needed to be here for a reason.
Following the route from which they came, she came upon a door with fine particles of grit and dirt leading from it. Casting a quick glance both ways, she slipped inside.
‘Sumas, get to my location. I’ve found something. Over and out.’
The air coming in from the massive hole in the outside wall was still humid, but had less of the chemical tang to which Dazia and Sumas were accustomed. Gaping out into the black night sky, Dazia peered carefully over the edge to see the hive glittering far, far below, and the tops of sister-spires pricking the horizon. A thick strand of Nephilian silk was flung over the edge. Most of the glass shards and loose rockcrete from the Nephillians escape had already been cleared away. But still inside was another Nephilian, suspended like those downstairs. It twitched as they passed by. Across from it was a similar set-up, but broken and empty. The present Nephilian was more rotund than the ones downstairs, and an even deeper shade of stunning blue.
‘Look,’ said Dazia. ‘What do you see?’
‘This rig is different. No spindle, so it’s not extracting any silk. It’s just hanging there. Is that a breathing tube?’ asked Sumas.
‘No. Nephilian breathe through organs in their abdomen. It’s a feeding tube.’
Sumas pulled out an auspex from their pack, scanning over the area and clicking on some keys.
‘The tube looks to feed into several nearby rooms in the same way. Are they fattening up Nephilian? Throne, the food they must be using to do this…They’re not even extracting silk! Why are they doing this?’ Sumas’ voice cracked. They stood briefly silent but for the soft gulping of the force-fed creature and the aching growl of their own bellies.
The eyes of the Nephilian were locked onto the tear in the wall; but the restraints were too tight, and its joints too swollen for it to move.
‘There may be more clues at the source. Scan those pipes again, we need to see the extent of this stockpiling. We’ve got an unlicensed Nephilian, black market nutrient and falsified records, but there’s still something we’re missing here.’
At a stern pace, Dazia and Sumas followed the scan-sim of the pipes. Sumas kept their auspex under a folded cloth napkin laying over their arm. They caught a few wary eyes, but did not glance aside or break stride as if great purpose hurried them onwards. Several hours had passed since the infiltration, and their unrestricted movement at this high level would be noticed at some point.
At last, they came to a set of doors, richly carved from what looked to be real wood with an unobtrusive digi-lock beside it. Sumas went to plug in a key device, but Dazia waved it away. In the years since being stranded on this world, she had picked up certain skills, outside the strictures of Arbities protocol. Her duties more and more involved entering wherever she pleased and seizing whatever she wished. Locks were an uninteresting delay to both.
The storage room was high-ceilinged, with pallets of nutrient crates piled in neat aisles. A conveyor belt slid to the left, automatically feeding crates into a distributing tank at the back of the room. Pipes led outwards to where they had traced them in walls. It was almost an entire Thunderhawk shipment of off-world supplies secreted away here. Dazia scarcely remembered the last time she had overseen a distribution. Sumas was too young to have ever seen one at all. So Sumas stared wide-eyed, whispering prayers interspersed with utterances of disbelief. There was so much.
Dazia plucked a vid-recorder from her satchel, and began taking shots of serial numbers. She was so fixated and Sumas immersed in prayer that they didn’t sense the new arrivals until it was too late.
‘Dazia, correct?’ said a voice like caramel.
‘That’s Arbitrator Dazia,’ she responded as she straightened up to face her challenger.
‘Lord Ather,’ he replied, gesturing to himself as if to answer a question she had not asked. Flanked by four surly enforcers, the Tailorcrat stood relaxed. His floppish hair sat over one eye and every inch of his silk suit was embroidered to match the elaborate pistol he held loosely in his hands.
‘Ah, excellent. The rather bruised man you left downstairs wasn’t completely addled. Unlike this fool here, who never thought to ask your name.’ His one visible eye flicked to his left. Patrin gave an apologetic shrug with his muscular shoulders, though to whom Dazia was not sure.
‘Well Ather, you’ve saved me some time. You and your household are under arrest for…’
‘That’s Lord Ather,’ he grinned, sauntering closer to her. The thick, sucrose smell of his perfume was sickening. ‘Arrest me for what?’ he chortled. ‘I think you’ll find we purchased these rations quite legally. We just happened to get the pigment in the right place before they were delivered to the Governor some cycles ago. But don’t worry, he got his share as well. The Nephilian as well are quite well accounted for. Since they don’t produce any silk, they are simply accounted for as pets under…oh, someone’s personal name. Perfectly legal, unlike your trespassing here.’
‘There’s almost here enough to feed the whole hive, you spindle licker!’ Sumas exploded, charging towards the man with uncharacteristic anger. But was quickly halted by the buzz of activating shock-sticks. Despite this, Ather, clearly no fighter, stumbled backwards from the potential assault.
As the enforcers began to surround Sumas, Dazia struck out. Unholstering her own weapon, she activated the energy field on the downward swing with a practised motion. She caught the first enforcer full in the face, and he fell instantly to the ground. A second twirled on her heel and landed a swift kick into Dazias stomach. Dazia took the momentum to drop to her knees, swinging the stick back up into the enforcers jaw with a satisfying crunch. Screaming obscenities, the enforcer spat shards of teeth and blood into Dazia’s face as she lunged forward, but too slowly. Dazia reached into her satchel, her fingers closing on the stolen stub-pistol. She fired two rounds into the enforcer’s chest, with a final shot between her eyes as she fell.
The third enforcer was upon Sumas, his broad, meaty chest drowning them in a body hold. This one was even bigger and more growth-stimmed than Patrin. It took two stub bullets into his back just to get his attention, but before she knew it she was intercepted by Patrin. He grabbed her by the back of the neck and threw her several metres across the room, stub pistol and shock-stick skittering across the floor as she landed in a heap.
‘Sorry,’ he muttered as he raised his shock-stick above his head for the decisive blow, but Dazia was faster. Once again, she slammed her knuckles into his windpipe, and he dropped gasping.
Dazia could see Sumas struggling with Ather, who screamed petulantly as Sumas ripped the fine laspistol from his hands and threw it atop the conveyor belt, carrying it out of reach.
The third enforcer changed her like a Taurox, blood pulsing from the wounds in his back. He carried her in his tackle and pinned her to the wall with a grunt, making to squeeze the life from her. Gasping, her arms struggling around his massive bulk, Dazia found the pistol wounds in his back and dug her fingers savagely into his flesh and ripped the wounds wider. He howled and dropped her. Throwing herself aside, she scrambled over to claim a fallen shock-stick. He ran at her once again. She made to meet his charge by running at him. He smiled, there was no way she would be able to match his muscle, even armed. But at the final moment, Dazia dropped into a slide, and delivered a blow directly between his legs as they passed. Hopping up behind him as he crumpled forwards onto all fours, she delivered a final charged blow to the back of his head.
Dazia whirled around as she heard a charged crack followed by a cry of pain from Sumas. The first enforcer was standing over the prostrate Sumas, snarling through the blood flowing thickly from his shattered nose. In his frenzied eyes she could see he craved for her to move, to give him a reason to do them both further, grisly violence.
Ather cleared his throat in mock impatience and straightened his crumpled lapels. Wearing an oily smile, he said, “Now, now, this doesn’t need to be so displeasurable. Why don’t you join us for an evening aperitif, and perhaps a small bite?”
Fresh enforcers joined them as they were marched onto a garden balcony. Ather took his time to re-apply some cosmetics and re-adjust his hair into an intentionally tousled curl.
Dazia couldn’t believe how fresh the air smelled. The terrace was made of dark glass and elegantly twisted gold lattice. Lumens bathed the curled paths and gazebos in a warm glow. Night flowers were in bloom and a small artificial waterfall trickled pleasantly in the garden. The water was clear and clean, without the greasy film or vinegar odour of ration water. The Great Rift bruised the night sky above.
Sparkling laughter heralded the arrival of the Spires inhabitants. A coterie of exquisitely dressed individuals emerged from the double-doors across the way, trailed by servants, and swarmed by dancers and stern enforcers. One of them was walking a dazed juvenile Nephalian, a jewel-encrusted bit prying apart its fangs and shackled in gold chains.
Dazia and Sumas were made to follow a winding garden path leading to an elaborate gold and glass gazebo, to meet the other group. There were cushions and carpets and various furs scattered in an intentionally haphazard fashion around a long, low table. The inhabitants had already arrived and were making themselves comfortable, sampling hors d’oeuvres.
‘As if people like this were ever anything less than comfortable,’ Dazia thought bitterly. As she was pushed roughly onwards, she added consuming outside ration time dully to their list of offences.
As they took seats around the table, servants laid more platters of food out around a peculiar glass sculpture. It was beautiful and delicate, looping and curling back into itself, with several slender tubes protruding from around the top. The conversations were trite; this seasons silks, petty house gossip. They paid no attention to the arriving prisoners, greeting Ather with smiles and small kisses.
A hush fell as another servant approached, holding a brilliant blue canister. Exactly like the canister Dazia had seen collected from the Nephillians corpse this morning. Some of the guests clapped their hands giddily, while others licked their lips and inched closer towards the table. The servant patched some attachment from the canister to the sculpture, and from inside shocking blue powder clouded and swirled inside the glass. Pigment. Dazia struggled to hide the confusion from her face.
‘What could a bunch of rich party goers want with toxic raw dye?’ whispered Sumas. The others were all transfixed on the servant and his bounty.
‘Nothing good,’ Dazia hissed.
Several trembling hands shot out to grasp the tubes on the table, as the guests pressed the open mouth-piece ends rapturously over their noses and mouths. The others chortled at the eagerness of some, but patience for their turn was visibly thin.
As Dazia and Sumas were pushed to their knees in front of the table, finally the most elaborately dressed seemed to notice they were there. The youngest of those inhaling the pigment did not, but seemed like they had drunk far too much amsec. They were giggling, rolling around atop silks and furs or shoving small cakes into their mouths. The older and more refined took a single puff or two leisurely, as if sipping a fine wine.
‘In Throne’s name what are you doing?’ Blurted Sumas, before being sharply struck on the head by an enforcer. Ather was passed a tube and took his time inhaling whilst not taking his eyes off them.
‘Not that I would stop you,’ started Dazia dryly, ‘But isn’t pigment highly toxic?’
‘We do this every night!’ said a young woman brightly, pausing briefly from dancing clumsily to the soft music before inhaling more pigment. The canister was already a third empty. Every night the girl had said. A whole Nephilian of pigment every night.
‘I wouldn’t expect someone of your…status to understand. You are not blessed with joy. She showed us the way,’ said an older man haughtily, crunching down on some sort of pastry. The sound made Dazia feel sick with hunger. Sumas let out a soft moan as the guest threw the uneaten half aside into a flower bed dismissively.
‘She blesses us. To take the colour into our souls. To brighten the sky. To become one with joy,’ said a young man, sliding his hands around a dancing woman’s waist.
‘She could bless you too, you know,’ said Ather, holding out a platter of warm, spicy smelling meats. He passed it in front of their noses slowly before placing it before them.
Sumas was shaking.
‘You…you monsters,’ Sumas muttered, unable to look away from the food before them.
Those nearby laughed patronisingly.
‘Monsters!’ Ather placed his hand to his breast in mock outrage. ‘My dears, we simply looked at a galaxy that didn’t care for us, and decided to care for ourselves. Not monsters, not criminals. Just clever enough to win.’
‘You’re no cleverer, no better than the people down there,’ spat Dazia.
‘The Emperor will spit out your souls into the abyss,’ said Sumas. Athers eyes flashed with a sudden rage, the oily smile briefly sliding from his lips.
‘There is no Emperor here. Since the sky split and rained blood into the streets, we looked into the Abyss and found no saviour from Terra. No meaning in the slaughter. There is only us and Her and joy,’ he snarled. His oily smile returned quickly, ‘Maybe we should show you.’
Two enforcers grabbed each of their heads to hold them painfully still. Ather loomed closer over Dazia, as the old man did to Sumas. With one hand he held her nose closed, while the other thrust one of the pigment mouth-pieces over her face. Struggling, Dazia held her breath for as long as she could, before breathing deeply of the fumes. It was like drowning in sand. It was like swallowing a live serpent. It burned like ice. It stung and tasted like promethium and flowers. When he finally released her, she fell forward, choking and wheezing.
Sumas was laughing. Or perhaps crying. When the world finally ceased to spin and the roar of blood in her ears subsided, Dazia righted herself towards her protégé.
Sumas was eating. Stuffing their mouth with handfuls of meats and breads and whatever they could reach.
‘No!’ Dazia cried as she tried to grab Sumas’ arms and stop them. With surprising strength Sumas threw her back, without even looking up. She tried again, ‘Stop!’ But again she was thrown backwards. The crowd was laughing now.
Dazia looked hopelessly around. She had seen this before. In the early days of the famine, a band of vagrants had risen up and slain a warehouse crew to raid the food storage. In an irony as cruel as the galaxy, they had gorged themselves to death. The storage hold had been full of bodies when she found it. They had been so starved that their bodies didn’t have the strength or nutrients to break down real food. Some had even eaten until their shrunken bellies had burst. Dazia went to that warehouse still sometimes in her dreams, to stand among the corpses killed by hope and desperation. She had taken a pack of lho-sticks from one of the slain warehouse overseers pocket in the hours she waited for the clean-up crew to arrive. It was the first time she had taken something from a corpse, but it was not even close to the last.
Enforcers were holding her back now, as she desperately tried to rip the food from Sumas’ lips. Dazia felt a nose crunch under her flung elbow and blood spurt from a deep gouge of fingernails. Someone grabbed her hair from behind and slammed her face into the table twice.
Dazia almost vomited from the blows, the smell of food and whatever the smoke had done to her. But there was nothing in her stomach to regurgitate. When her vision cleared, Ather’s face was almost touching her own. He puckered her cheeks with his fingers and forced a grape into her mouth.
‘Come on now, give us a smile,’ he cooed, but she spat the grape and blood back in his face. He slapped her quickly. Dazia could still hear Sumas eating beside her.
‘You really are a miserable bitch, aren’t you?’ Ather spat, wiping his face with a silk napkin. He turned to face the audience. ‘I don’t think she likes our little party. Our warm embrace is not enough to melt her frozen heart,’ The audience theatrically sighed, as if spoiled of a great sport.
‘Maybe she’d have more fun in the Feastroom,’ he clapped his hands together affirmingly. The audience giggled and cheered in agreement. ‘I think She will be the only one who can bring the wretch The Joy.’
As the Enforcers pulled Dazia to her feet and started marching her towards an opulent golden door, she could hear Sumas start to choke. Start to vomit. Start to die.
The music picked up and played on.
Brocade and silk curtains hung in the room’s haze. The air was thick with perfumes that were both sweet and bitter, delightful and disgusting. The Feastroom was the most decadent place Dazia had ever seen. The walls were painted with blue and gold, and featured intricate murals of fantastic creatures and landscapes. Tiny figures danced and fought, crafted, ate and indulged in other lascivious activities. The ground was scattered with lounges and pillows, low tables covered in food and drink on crystal crockery. But all the glamour of the room fell away and Dazia lay her eyes upon it.
Moving with entirely inhuman fluid grace, the creature sashayed slowly towards her. Dazia could not move, utterly enthralled as she was by the creature before her. Her hair defied gravity and curled about her face as if moving underwater. Eyes darker than the true night sky shone from the most perfect face, its needle-like fangs grinning from behind the plumpest lips. Half of her lavender body was covered as if molten silver had been poured onto her naked flesh; the other half was draped in sapphire silk sewn with glittering gems. Dazia knew she had never seen beauty until this moment. It tugged at the cold knot inside her. An unfamiliar, wet warmth rushed to her eyes. A delicate, long-fingered hand, bedecked in rings, brushed the side of Dazia’s face. The other arm ended in a crustacean claw.
‘You are so cold,’ sang the sultry voice from her forked tongue. ‘What would warm you?’
Dazia felt an electric jolt as she tried to fight the lull of the monster before her. A flash of defiance, as she struggled to remain upright. She felt blood begin to trickle from her nose.
‘Worship me. Submit. You shall have all that you desire. What is it you want?’
There it was. Never had Dazia been able to articulate, to understand, the answer to that question. Wanting had taken so long to fade, it had been like it had never been there at all. She began to shake, almost seizing from trying to resist. As she replied, it felt as if all weight had fallen from her shoulders. The world spun and as her lips formed the words, she soared.
The Daemonette laughter was like a summer breeze as Dazia confessed. ‘Oh darling, you’re going to love it here.’
Dazia’s new master raised its gorgeous claw, and traced a feather-light rune upon her forehead. Blessed. Warmth soaked into her to the bones. She could feel every thread of the uniform against her skin. Brushing a hand on the shock-stick holster fed her the joy it felt with every swing. Falling to her knees, her palms upon the floor, Dazia felt the tread of every foot that had passed, every delicacy ever experienced upon the marble. Memories of all that had passed. She could feel everything.
This wonder, this goddess, was everything. Dazia wished nothing more than to throw herself upon her altar and give over the very fibre of her being. Eyes streaming with tears, she was desperate to give all she had. Gathering her small satchel, Dazia poured its meagre contents upon the ground, feeling sparks of sensation as each item whispered a story under her palms. She felt the psychic imprint of every human soul imbuing and tarnishing each object with memory. A knuckle duster filled with hate. A coin hoarded jealously. A ring worn with love. Fossils of feeling, each whispering their stories.
But one item did not whisper. It roared, it burned, it screamed.
Rising trembling from her knees, Dazia clutched the infants red rosary painfully between her fingers. Imperfections in the cheap stones drew pinpricks of blood. Proffering the find silently in her hands, the Daemonette nodded in condescending appreciation. Dazia slipped behind the creature, and draped the chain around its elegant neck. The Daemonette did not notice Dazia quivering as the empathic connection overwhelmed her. The feeling of desperate, gnawing emptiness returning to her belly like fire. The unspeakable helplessness of repeated prayers. The sweet lies heard on that bed. The sorrow and shameful relief felt when the child ceased crying. The tight press of bodies before they too fell limp.
Too late did her brief god realise the danger. The daemon’s sumptuous skin began to crack like living porcelain the moment the chain touched it. Black blood trickled and sizzled as it touched the rosary infused with wretched anguish. An amulet of anhedonia; anathema to a creature of hedonism.
As Dazia looped the chain tighter and tighter around the monster’s throat, she screamed the scream of the lost. She pressed her knee into its curved back as it thrashed, trying to grab her with its hand and claw. The deep gouges it carved into Dazias arms and shoulders as it struggled did nothing to release the tension. Dazia could feel only the rosary’s cry. Crystal goblets shattered as the Daemonette shrieked. No longer dignified, its hooves slid wildly on the wine-slick floor. Black ooze ran in rivulets down its neck over silver plate, soaking darkly into silk. Blood drooled from Dazias mouth as she clenched her teeth. The creature began to whisper more promises, then it began to beg, then it screamed curses. Finally, in the only mercy the room had ever seen, the Daemonette fell silent.
Dazia held the rosary tightly over the limp body, drawing gasping sobbing breaths as the suffocating sorrow subsided and the spell faded with the Daemonette’s diminishing presence. Only once the violent sobs had faded into ragged breaths did she unclench her bloodied fists and let the corpse fall, its flesh sloughing off into a pool of thick ooze.
Staggering past a food-and crystal shard-covered table to a nearby lounge, Dazia collapsed onto the seat. With a slow, shuddering exhalation, she reached to the small metal case at her belt and lit a lho-stick. Fingers trembling, she took her time. Dazia puffed slowly on the lho as she watched the most beautiful thing she had ever seen dissolve into a pile of silver, silk and black lumps of meat.
Cries were coming from outside as fists began to beat on the door.
A series of three deafening beeps cut the air. A harsh mechanical static, degraded over time to be barely comprehensible.
‘Ration Time. Ration Time. 30 minutes. Consuming is now permitted. Any person caught consuming outside this time will be prosecuted.’
‘Beep. Beep. Beep.’
About the Author
Jenny Strath has previously written for Cold Open Stories and is the author of “The Consuming Gaze” and “The Good Citizen”. A lifelong lover of fantasy/science-fiction, horror and gaming, she found her home in Warhammer. Based in Melbourne, Australia, her other passions include history, heavy metal, high heels and her Alaskan Malamute, Fenris.