He had always been different. Not special: ‘special’ was a good word, a positive word. But until the ships came for him, he didn’t know just how different he was.
He watched through a grimy window as the Thunderhawks came in to land, depositing grim-faced men and women in sweeping black storm coats onto the wastelands nearby. His mother frantically tried to reason with them after they smashed apart the thin plywood door of their hab: her son was troubled, but not dangerous. Even as she said this, he could see that she didn’t believe it. People had suffered convulsions and seizures in his presence. Some claimed to hear whispering voices, beckoning at the darkest edge of their minds. Objects sometimes levitated as he slept. Their neighbour, Mr Martus, had worked at the Imperial Administratum building in the main hive. Once, Martus and his wife had babysat for him and his sisters, telling them funny stories as they tucked them into bed. The following morning, the boy had watched as the Arbites hauled Martus into the back of their transport as he screamed that he’d only caved his wife’s skull in because ‘the voices of the boy’ had told him to.
The agents in storm coats waited for his mother to stop speaking, and then pushed her to one side. In a frenzy of maternal instinct, she had tried to fight the agents. One of the men pulled out a thin metal rod, ducked under a wild swing, and slammed it hard into her ribs. There was a fizzing snap of electricity, and his mother went down hard, her head bouncing off the bare floorboards. She didn’t get back up. A woman with an augmetic voice box had shepherded his sisters into the hall. ‘Out! Out!’ he heard her shout at them, her electronic voice garbled and monotonous.
Then the storm coats rushed him, clamping a huge, heavy helmet over his head. He was blind, deaf, couldn’t smell, couldn’t even speak. A hard mouthpiece was rammed between his teeth, half-choking him. The boy felt a sharp pain in his neck, and then there was nothing.
He woke up someplace cold, where, even through the helmet, he could hear the cries of others like him, close by. Not verbal cries: he had always known that there were others like him. He had heard them before, louder minds amidst the endless babble. Now they were all around him, suffocating him with their fear and their questions.
Where were they? Who were the people in black? Where were they going? What was going to happen to them? All these thoughts rushed around his own mind as he groped his way to the corner of his tiny cell and crouched, shivering, wrapping his arms around himself as he waited for the nightmare to stop. His cell was barely long enough for him to lie down, and he could feel condensation and mould dripping down the metal walls.
After what seemed like days, the boy felt vibrations in the floor of his cell as someone entered. His shackled mind tentatively reached out, and he felt a white-hot sting as he was lashed with a pain goad. His thin body went into spasm, rattling off the cold metal decking. When it finally stopped, he was hauled upright, and a thick plastic tube was inserted into his helmet and rammed down his throat. He gagged and choked, but they kept going. He felt his stomach filling, and after a minute or so they hauled the tube out and left without a word, leaving him sobbing and gasping on his own.
The hours, days and weeks melded together as time ceased to have any value or meaning. All he could feel was the terrified cries and sobs of the others in the blackness of his mind. There were flashes and sparks of pain as the torturers fell upon each of them in turn. As dimly as a man in a coal mine might perceive a candle at its entrance, he felt souls being moved around the ship like pieces on a Regicide board, never staying in one place for too long, never allowed to settle or rest. But they never moved the boy. Aside from his dreaded feeding sessions, he was left alone.
The boy started as he was woken by a series of heavy vibrations in his chamber. He braced for the door to open and another scouring to begin, but instead, there was a sudden, stomach-churning feeling of falling, and then a series of bangs and the whining of servos: his cell as a whole had been moved. There was a brief pause, and then a slow juddering that increased until the boy felt he was going to break apart. A few sickening minutes of swooping, nauseating sensations followed. Suddenly they ceased, and he had a sensation of complete stillness for the first time in what felt like months. Then his cell door opened, and the boy was hauled out, his bare feet dragging painfully behind him. Suddenly, he was hit by an icy blast of wind, and a moment later, felt a change in pressure as he was heaved out of a hatch and into the open air.
The boy fell hard, stumbling and falling on his hands and knees. He felt his skin grate and tear on the rough surface, and he immediately started shivering violently in the cold. The psychic fear in the air around him was now tinged with real terror, and the boy could sense the minds of those near him starting to crack. He could feel his own thoughts fraying and tearing like damp paper as animal fear boiled up within him. Whatever grim end was planned for them, it was drawing near.
+In one minute you will have the opportunity to run. Follow your feet, they know where to go. One minute. Keep running until I tell you to stop+
The boy jerked and cried aloud inside his helmet. Where had the voice come from? He hadn’t heard another person clearly for longer than he could remember, but this voice was as clear as if this person was speaking directly into his ear. Except it wasn’t just one voice. It was a vast chorus, male and female, speaking as one. The boy clambered unsteadily to his feet, buffeted this way and that by the torrid gales of wind. His legs were sore and cramping, but he had no other choice. He had to run.
Interrogator Jos Hallerman helped drag the last of the psykers out of the Thunderhawk’s hatch, hurling them onto the landing pad as though he was throwing sacks of refuse into an incinerator. He hated touching their sickly, soiled forms, but Nozick had insisted he ‘get his hands dirty’. The sisters of silence flanked the landing pad, still as statues. Hallerman shuddered as he strode past one of them: the sister’s pariah aura grated on his very soul.
The psykers were not worthy of the legendary space elevators that carried sacred and forbidden cargo down from void ships in high anchor all the way to the Dark Cells of the Palace. Instead they were using an old landing pad built into the palace itself. Flickering torches studded its perimeter, and the peaks and battlements of the legendary palace stretched into the distance on all sides until they were lost in darkness. Stars, ships and orbital defences glittered in the blackness above, partially obscured as pollution clouds and smog scudded by. Hallerman looked to them and breathed a sigh of relief. This duty was penance, punishment for a mistake he had made during a mission that ended up costing the lives of eight of his master’s retainers. Hallerman knew he should feel lucky that he had been given any chance to atone for his sins, by harvesting souls to fuel the astronomican. But more than once during his eighteen-month secondment, Hallerman had wished that old Nozick had just shot him in the head. Spending so much time with unsanctioned psykers was a draining, soul-destroying business.
But now it was over! This was his last run with The Emperor’s Grace. As soon as this lot were processed, he would petition Captain Vibane immediately for his discharge papers, and then reunite with Nozick to continue his training.
He turned his attention to the muzzled psykers on the landing pad, and his smile faded. These subhumans, rotten with forbidden energies, would be given to a worthy cause indeed. But as he looked at them, their necks taut and bowed beneath the weight of their helmets, their emaciated, scarred bodies dressed in rags or nothing at all, Hallerman found it hard to believe that these things were worthy of anything.
One of the psykers got to his feet, wrenching at his helmet with his hands as his body twitched and jerked. Hallerman started forwards, activating his electro-lash. A few always went a bit mad at this point, being so close to the Throne. Nothing a quick beating couldn’t fix. Besides, the muzzle helmets were strong, built to withstand serious punishment. No wizened unfortunate could possibly get out of one unaided.
With a sharp snap and shriek of tearing metal, the psyker tore off his helmet as though it was made of paper. Hallerman, stopped short, blinking in surprise, and behind him the Sisters of Silence started to move forwards, racking their bolters. This shouldn’t be happening. This never happened! The helmets were made of steel!
The psyker lurched, half-blind and reeling, and a jagged fork of raw warp energy seared out of his body. It carved a deep, glowing gouge in the landing pad, obliterating two other prisoners and broiling one of the Sisters inside her armour. The others opened fire, and lumps of flesh exploded from the man’s arms and torso as their rounds struck home. The Interrogator cudgelled his brain into action, and pulled out his sidearm.
‘Leave him!’ he shouted, trying to sound like he was in charge. ‘I will finish this!’
He strode towards the man, lying half-dead on the ground, and pointed his pistol.
‘Warp filth.’ Hallerman hissed as he pulled the trigger. The unfortunate prisoners nearby cried out and gagged in horror as clots of brain matter were sprayed onto them.
Cursing quietly, the interrogator turned, his eyes sweeping the carnage on the landing pad: one psyker dead by his hand, two more killed in the chaos. That should leave 9. And he could only count…
‘Shit.’ Hallerman muttered. Vibane wasn’t going to sign his discharge papers after all.
He had run blindly, his leg muscles cramping, bare feet stinging in the cold. The boy braced himself for either the lash of a pain goad or the white-hot impact of a bullet, but nothing touched him. He could feel the coursing minds of the agents in black as they disappeared behind him, apparently in disarray. Even so, he knew he only had a few moments before they realised that he was missing.
The voices spoke again, and the boy staggered to a halt, bent over double as he tried to suck in air through the cramped confines of his muzzle.
+Remove your helmet+
The boy frowned, still breathing hard.
+I can’t+ he thought.
+Remove your helmet.+
The voices repeated, calm, but insistent.
+Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen to you when we are with you. Use your gift+
The voices died away. The guards were moving fast above him, spreading out. He didn’t have long.
He turned his gaze inwards, to the part of himself that drove others mad and made his mother sob when she looked at him. He halted instinctively, remembering what had happened before. But the voices hadn’t led him astray. Gently, slowly, he let his mind expand, until his brain felt ready to burst. He felt the heavy metal helmet bracketing his head. His thoughts bled into its workings like oil, feeling how it locked together.
There was a hiss-clunk, and the helmet lock disengaged. The boy quickly reached up and clawed the hateful thing off, throwing it aside.
Light, sound and smell all rushed in, overwhelming him. He covered his face with his arms and cowered against the wall, helpless. When he finally managed to open his eyes he saw that. He was in a dark, stone hall of some sort, huge and seemingly endless, with a towering arched ceiling. There was a cloying smell of incense that he remembered from the cathedrals back home. All around him on the walls, and on the ceiling high above, mighty soldiers stood triumphantly in frescoes and carvings, smiting unholy foes.
He could sense billions of people, not just on this world, but in this very building , all whispering and scuttling around him in this huge place. He skimmed the surface of their mind like a stone across a pond. This was the Imperial Palace, on Holy…
He was on Terra?! But that was where…
The boy reached out, searching. Somewhere beneath him, he could feel an almighty mass of psychic energy singing out into the dark, brighter than the heart of a star. He cried out involuntarily as his mind brushed against it. And above even that, there was something else. Something maddened by pain, enormously, inhumanly powerful.
+Come to us+
Hallerman ran hard down the passageways of the Palace. He skidded to a halt in a large, ornate foyer, with four passageways leading off it. A mural of Sanguinius was painted on the ceiling above them, and heavy gold framed every panel and fitting. On the floor, there was an abandoned psy-dampening helmet. Hallerman picked it up. Unlike the first escapee, this one had been manually disconnected. Was this a plot of some sort? Hallerman had checked his manifest. The fugitive was a child, barely 12 years old. How had he escaped this far on his own?
The interrogator tried to focus on his breathing and come up with a plan. He tried not to think about the stories of censure he had heard the other acolytes whisper of. The inquisition was good at punishment. Hallerman had seen it first-hand. He definitely tried not to think about what sort of sentence might result from releasing an alpha-grade, unsanctioned psyker in theThe Imperial Palace itself. A fairly inventive one, he guessed.
He turned to his comrades. Sorensson was quiet and uneasy, holding his battered lasrifle close to his chest. Abergal’s augmetic exoskeleton clanked and wheezed as she moved, twitching her head from side to side like she was sniffing for a scent.
‘Well?’ he asked. The mistress of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica didn’t reply immediately. Hallerman ground his teeth.
‘It is…difficult with the astronomican so near.’ She said, her voice a hoarse whisper. Despite being blind, she always looked directly at Hallerman when she spoke to him. He hated that.
‘How can it be difficult? Hallerman demanded. ‘The runt is Alpha-plus!’ Abergal smiled thinly.
‘You forget that the great Lord of all is here, Interrogator. Your escapee hides in his shadow.’ Hallerman felt his mouth go dry. He pushed away images of gurneys awaiting him, attendants in surgical gowns. After his mistake, Nozick had forced him to watch the creation of an Arco-flagellant. He had fainted within a minute, but he would never forget the prisoner’s shrieks, his body and mind broken and remade in the name of redemption.
There was a gust of icy wind down the passage to their left, and all of the torches in the foyer immediately went out. Soresson and Hallerman switched on their lamp packs. There was a crackling from above, and Hallerman glanced up. Frost was blossoming on the ceiling, occluding the face of the Great Angel. Abergal pointed down the left-hand passageway.
His feet led him deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of tunnels and corridors. Different paths branched off his route in their hundreds, yet he always knew the right one to pick. With every step, he felt certain that he was about to be caught and forced back into that accursed helmet or worse. But all was quiet, and the corridors and halls of the palace were deserted. The air was cold and musty, as though no-one had been here in many years.
The boy crept down spiral stairways that seemed to go on forever, and walked through great archways that towered above him, their tips lost in darkness. Eventually, he approached a set of heavy, ornate bronze doors, inlaid with the imperial Aquila in mother-of-pearl. Suddenly, the voices returned, their tone urgent.
The boy scampered behind a huge, ornate statue just as the doors hissed apart with a whine of antique hydraulics. He risked a glance out of his hiding spot, and his jaw dropped.
A giant stepped out from the doors, bigger than any man the boy had ever seen. The behemoth was clad in shining gold, with a crested helm of brightest scarlet.
+Do you remember?+
The voice whispered to him as he cowered in the shadows.
+Do you remember how they were created?+
Flashes of distant artillery fire shone through the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the vast laboratory before him. The scent of hot metal and burnt flesh hung heavy in the air, and all around him, he heard the incessant, never-ending murmuring of servitors and Bio-technicians. He had toiled for so long, while his rivals ravaged the borders of his lands. His men suffered and died while he hid here, in this wretched, haunted space, surrounded by technology he barely understood. Countless test subjects had died. Necessary sacrifices, he had told himself, looking down at their mewling, flayed and bloody forms. All for the greater purpose he was bound to. Bulbous metal contraptions, unearthed after millennia, worked their unknowable purposes upon these hapless creatures, and of the innumerable thousands he had trialled, only a select few had survived. He could see them in their gestation pods, their minds and bodies ripening into the unquestioning, uncompromising monsters he needed them to be.
The boy swayed as the vision faded, almost falling flat on his face. A tiny groan escaped his lips as he fought back the forces within. His breath fogged in front of him as the air temperature around him plummeted.
The giant halted in mid-stride, an ornate spear was clamped in one fist.
+Make yourself unseen+
The boy clenched his fist around the glowing ember of his ability. He bucked and jerked as the power blazed through him, but some unknown force directed it and drove it to his will. The giant came to a halt right above him. In the helm of the towering form, the boy could see auto-aim sensors blinking red in its eye-slits as it hunted for a target.
After a few moments, the giant straightened and turned away, disappearing down the corridor. The boy sagged with relief.
+Quickly! The elevator, now!+
He looked around as the bronze doors started to quickly slide shut. The boy scrambled up and catapulted himself forwards, diving through just as they closed. He found himself in a bare metal space, its floor worn smooth by eons of use.
Unknown presence. A calm female voice declared. Initiating emergency protocol.
+Use your gift!+
This time it was easier. The boy simply let his mind bleed out, filling every crevice and circuit around him. He felt the bright artificial eyes whirring as they focussed on him, analysing whether he was a threat. He felt their age, the cold, alien intelligence behind them, and tasted the millions of different souls that they had gazed upon, human and post-human. , Among them was a shining afterglow, like the death of a sun. The boy’s mind flared, and he heard creaks and booms as the metal around him buckled and dented.
Access granted. The female voice said. There was a jerk, and the boy realised the elevator was descending deeper into the palace.
After an age, the elevator finally thunked to a stop, and the doors hissed open. The boy crept forwards into the pitch-black space ahead.
+What wonders we made here…+ the voice said.
There was a series of dull bangs, and a rowof overhead lights snapped on, revealing a long, low crypt-like room. The floor was bare earth, but there were deep indentations and markings in it, as though heavy machinery had sat there for a long time.
+They were meant to be the best of us, our greatest attributes made flesh. But our flaws survived in them as well+
The space before him was remade in burnished steel and shining glass. Smoke and dust turned into machines, even more advanced and alien than those he had seen before. Blood, some of it his own, was separated and distilled in centrifuges, waiting to be mixed with other ingredients. Images of weaving, microscopic strands appeared before him as they were broken, remade, re-engineered. He had travelled so far: to other worlds, other suns, risking everything to the darkness, all for the knowledge to build his finest creations. Twenty sarcophagi lined the walls. The air around them shimmered as though in a heat haze. Ancient and vast, they were carved with strange symbols and shapes that seemed to move and change as he looked at them.
+We toiled for so long, all in vain+
The vision suddenly changed and a scene of devastation met his eyes. Smoke still hung in the air, and once-pristine machinery lay blasted and ruined. Warp energy crackled between twisted panels of metal.
+Do you remember?+ the voices asked. The boy didn’t know how to answer. There was a feeling of despair and rage within him, like the vanishing emotions felt in a half-forgotten dream.
He wandered through the space like a sleepwalker. How was it that he had been here before?
+We must continue. They are closing in+
The boy reached the end of the deserted laboratory. A small doorway awaited him, carved out of rough, grey stone. He looked back at the eerie space one last time. He saw hands that weren’t his own, reaching out and trailing across the casket’s sealed and inscribed fronts. He felt the pulses of consciousness blooming within, unique and precious, all now lost forever.
They had been on the runt psyker’s tail for almost four hours now, and still it eluded them. Hallerman was practically frothing at the mouth. His career and life were hanging by a thread, and he knew it.
Abergal led the hunt, but it was rough going for her. The psychic might of the Astronomican, as well as what directed it, was all but overpowering. Her eyes had started to weep watery blood, and her twitching was becoming more pronounced. Hallerman could see the pain on her face, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was ending this.
‘Sire’, the witch gasped. ‘Sire, I must rest…’
The astropath finally dropped to the floor, all but spent, moaning and digging the heels of her palms into her unseeing eyes.
‘You! Stand fast!’
A deep voice suddenly rumbled like the start of an avalanche. They turned, and saw a custodian marching towards them. He seemed to fill the entire corridor, and his golden artificer armour gleamed in the half light, radiating power and authority. Hallerman backed away involuntarily as the Custodian levelled his Guardian Spear at them.
‘State your business.’
Slowly, Hallerman reached into his pocket and withdrew his badge of office.
‘Interrogator Jos Hallerman,’ he said, aware of how thin and high his voice sounded. ‘My team were assigned to transfer psykers to the Astra Telepathica. There was an incident on the landing pad, and one has escaped into the palace…’
He trailed off. The Custodian looked at him. Hallerman heard a series of clicks from inside the Custodian’s helmet, and he saw the lenses flash and flicker as they were overlaid with information. The giant’s fist suddenly tightened on his spear, and he spoke again in a low growl, heavy with barely suppressed rage.
‘All of you, follow me.’
‘I…I can’t…’ Abergal stammered. There was a shockingly large pool of blood beneath her, and her legs convulsed and jerked like a dying spider, smearing it across the priceless flagstones. The Custodian looked down at her, before turning to Hallerman. ‘Deal with your charges, Interrogator.’
With that, he turned on his heel and marched off. Sorensson looked round at Hallerman, waiting for orders.
‘Go! Follow him!’ Hallerman urged, gesticulating and driving him along the corridor. Sorensson vanished in pursuit of the giant, and then just he and Abergal were left. Hallerman swallowed and drew his weapon. Abergal looked up at him from the floor, blood and saliva stringing from her lips.
‘You always were weak, Jos.’ she spat on the floor in front of him.
‘Your soul always tasted of failure.’
Hallerman fired twice. He holstered his pistol and ran off after Sorensson, unable to bring himself to look back…
Deeper, deeper, and deeper still. The voices guided him ever onwards, but a primal fear was gnawing at his brain as well. Thousands upon thousands of psychic death screams echoed around the void inside his head, some from ages past, some fresh and new. The great presence he had felt above was everywhere. An intense, eternal suffering, only magnified by the being enduring it. It was like holding your hand above a white-hot flame until the skin melted. Visions would flash in his mind, illuminating strange, foreign memories and feelings like flashes of lightning in a storm. He passed through vast halls, empty for millennia, the dust thick upon the ground. This far down , all was lit by dim glow globes and flickering torches. Gone as well, were the frescos and gold inlay of up above. Here, all was mottled stone and bare earth. The boy felt like he was breaking into a tomb.
He finally found himself on an immense pathway of some sort, a concourse suspended in darkness. Built on pillars that dropped away into the blackness, it was wide enough for a thousand people to walk side by side. After walking a while, the boy soon spotted the nubs of dried wax dotted before him, and before long he was walking through an ocean of candles. A great column emerged out of the gloom ahead. Hooded, bent shapes moved among the shrines at its base like farmers in their fields, murmuring prayers and chants. Their milky white eyes paid him no mind at all.
The column was carved of black granite, and stood hundreds of metres tall. It was covered in corpses. Armoured skeletons of ancient warriors in battered warplate hung from hooks and anchors in the rock, their bones honouring a ferocious battle fought long ago . The boy stood at its base, his neck craning up. The candles around him suddenly guttered and flickered as they were harried by an alien gust of wind, and the dead Astartes creaked in their gibbets above him. Frost bloomed around his feet in strange fractal patterns.
He splashed through the blood running down the corridors on his way to the teleportation point, deafened by the clash of blades and the cacophony of unnumbered guns, from the clatter of small arms to the Mega Bolters of the great Titans. All around him, warriors were fighting and dying. He could feel a hurricane of souls rising up behind the veil, gorged on by the insatiable creatures that dwelled there.
He had left his second on the Throne. He knew it would be the Sigillite’s end, but it was a necessity. The traitor had lowered his void shields. It was a trap of course, but he had no other choice.
The ruined corpses of loyal Astartes lay before him like an abominable honour guard, clad in bloodied yellow. Something rounded the corner ahead, a colossal monster clad in red and gold Terminator power armour. Its face was swollen with warp ruin and marked with the sign of the beast of rage. The Terminator saw him approaching, and charged, howling his defiance. There was no time for this! He drew his sword, forged from stardust and the stuff of legend, his seething mind setting it aflame. The Terminator fell without a sound, annihilated to nothing.
The Column melted into the blackness behind him, the chants of strange being that dwelled there fading to nothing.
+Soon all will be understood+
The Custodian set a remorseless pace, and Sorensson and Hallerman were forced to run to keep up. They were led along the ancient passages of the palace, the Custodian leaving swirling dust in his wake, the red crest of his helm flying out behind him.
‘Where is the boy?’ Hallerman panted as he ran. ‘Do you have a lock? Has he been picked up?’ The Custodian ignored him. Hallerman could feel the situation slipping away. He remembered the arco-flagellant surgery, how the servo-throne had tipped backwards so the heretic was hanging upside down in front of him, begging for death as his eyes were bored out of their sockets.
Sprinting ahead, Hallerman turned and faced the oncoming giant. He brandished his badge like a sword.
‘Custodian, I ORDER you in the name of the Inquis-‘
Reaching down as he stalked past, the Custodian grabbed Hallerman by the throat and lifted him up. There was a whine of servos, and Hallerman’s face turned an ugly shade of purple as he felt his throat being crushed.
‘You have no authority here, Interrogator,’ The giant rasped, tightening his grip even more. ‘Your badge means nothing. Speak to me again, and I will end you.’ With that, he tossed him aside like an unwanted toy, Hallerman crashed into the wall of the corridor, falling in a limp heap on the floor.The Custodian activated his Vox link.
‘This is Shield-Captain Amriel to all Palace defenders. An unsanctioned Alpha-plus psyker is loose in the palace. It is making for the throne room. Do your duty, or we are all lost to damnation.’
He was nearing something else. The walkway he was on suddenly broadened even more, and the boy found himself at the crest of an amphitheatre. The scale of it was unbelievable: a hundred thousand could sit here easily, with room to spare. What monsters did he share this galaxy with that lived on such a scale? Nine immense statues lined the crest of the arena, placed at irregular intervals.
A million million soldiers knelt before him, a great sea extending beyond the visible horizon. Tanks raised their guns in salute, and titans sounded their war-horns in victory. The sky was full of airships and fighter craft, flying in tight formation. Many of his sons were at the citadel marking the triumph’s end: The Great Angel, The Pale King, The Golden One, The Praetorian. Even the first of the ten thousand was here: loyal Constantin, ever lurking in his shadow. But only one stood before him as an equal, shaven-headed and resplendent in his finest armour, a great wolf pelt adorning his shoulders. The sixteenth looked at him, proud and unblinking. He looked back. If only he had seen what was to happen. Everything melted away around them, so that only the two of them remained, suspended in darkness. The sixteenth transformed before his eyes, equalling him in stature as he bloated with dark power, grey armour flaking away to the darkest black. A great and terrible talon sprouted upon his left hand, and in his eyes, an unrecognisable malice ignited, the reflected fires of a million worlds burning to ash. But he did recognise it. It was the glint of the powers he had outwitted all those years ago. How the dark ones must have laughed as they sent his finest work to defeat him.
The boy looked around the amphitheatre. Evidently planned to be a site of parades and triumphs, it lay abandoned and forgotten in the depths of the palace. He looked at the statue nearest him. The warrior stood proud, clutching a long spear, with great angellic wings sprouting from his back. His face was perfect, smiling and regal.
He entered the bridge alone, as he knew it must be. Thousands lined the walls, Astartes, daemons, mutated humans. They looked hungrily at him, expectant, the moment they had longed for now just seconds away. There, in the room’s centre, were two of his greatest creations, both ruined beyond repair. The angel lay broken on the floor, his eyes vacant, his soul already gone. The thing that once been Lupercal gloated at him in triumph. From the immaterium, he heard laughter bubbling from wet throats, relishing the hour of final victory. He faced the Sixteenth and his fell patrons, and raised his blade.
The voices were just a hoarse whisper, reliving an ancient pain that had never fully healed.
+Despite all our efforts, the great endeavour was doomed. Defeat was certain, either at that moment or at some distant point in the future. But we still tried to salvage it. And it cost us everything+
They fought furiously, back and forth across the throne room of the damned ship, trading more than a dozen inhuman blows in a single second. The burning fires of his ravaged home world shone through the great windows around him, and warp energy crackled off their blades and armour. The floor broke and splintered at their feet, and foul warp light flooded through the cracks, as though hell itself was opening up beneath them. Lupercal parried every blow he struck, returning three of his own. Each psychic blow was nullified or batted aside. In the blackness he could see the shadows of the four, urging their acolyte onwards. He stumbled, and saw his arm severed in front of him. Flesh bubbled and melted on his face, and his right eye burst asunder. On his knees now, he lashed out with his mind, but his opponent merely laughed and attacked again, insatiable. His throat filled with his own blood, and suddenly he was being raised up. The Sixteenth howled with his final triumph, displaying the god he had defeated to those watching, in this dimension and the next. He felt himself falling, and there was a final, sickening crack as his spine shattered.
Acid vomit and bile splashed the steps as the boy retched, blind and mewling with pain. His skin burned as though it was on fire, and his legs buckled beneath him. He lay jack-knifing on the cold stone, his eyes rolled back, bloody foam dripping between his lips. Over and over, the vision’s final moments replayed.
+Ours was always a lonely path: even after falling, we must crawl onwards, bleeding and blind, guiding those that remain. Only in death does duty end+
A last stab of consciousness, his second’s final gift. The Praetorian’s barked instructions to his men as he carried the ruined form of humanity’s great hope. The Sigillite crumbling to nothing as they approached the throne. His last gasped instructions to Dorn, a desperate bid to prop up humanity for the next 10,000 years, as his sanity was eroded to nothing in the howling winds of the warp. And then all was lost in blackness and torment.
The boy forced himself up. He felt his heart beating erratically. His head swam with psychic pain, but he remained upright, and started staggering down the steps of the amphitheatre, continuing his journey.
+You are nearly there. Those who chase you are near. You must not fail. We must not fail+
Hallerman came to with a start. The side of his head was throbbing with pain, and he could feel broken bones clicking and grating in his left shoulder. His throat was swollen, and the very act of breathing was painful. He sat up, groaning as the events of the last few hours came rushing back to him. Part of him wanted so dearly to just lie back down and give up, but he forced himself to his feet.
The Interrogator had got no further than ten paces when a low wailing started reverberating around him. An alarm, sounding throughout the entire palace. The Emperor was under threat. Hallerman staggered off down the hallway in a ragged, limping sprint, following the dusty footprints left by the others. He could fix this. He could make this right. He had no other choice.
The boy stood and gazed up at the panopoly of grandeur in front of him. The lonely, desolate walkway in the bowels of Terra had ended, and he was greeted by a sight that few mortals had seen in the last ten thousand years.
A great hallway stood in front of him, larger than the biggest temple on the mightiest shrine world. He was standing at the foot of a Ziggurat, only the very first part of which was captured here. There were more blind worshippers, mumbling prayers and hymnals as they tended to an ocean of prayer shrines and votive offerings on the high hillsides of the chamber. A steep stairway marked the only way forwards. Banners and flags of every size festooned the walls. Some seemed crisp and new, while others were tattered antiques, or mere scraps of singed fabric. Eventually, the boy reached the top of the stairs, his thighs burning with exhaustion. An immense sealed gate stood towering in front of him . At its flanks stood two Titans: the boy had heard tales of these terrifying machines, manifestations of the Emperor’s might.
The gate was truly huge, many times taller than even the machines that guarded it. He looked at the carving that adorned its adamantium face, and frowned. It was a perfect image of the Emperor, terrifying and majestic, surrounded by adoring angels and saints as he cast down his vanquished enemies. Clad in master-crafted power armour, the greatest lord of all wielded a mighty flaming sword. The boy remembered the weapon he had seen in his vision. He looked at the face, the sculpted cheekbones, the all-knowing eyes. It was like looking in a mirror within a dream.
+You are beginning to understand+
The voices had been quiet for a time, but they returned here.
+We were whole before, and we will be whole again+
Set at the gate’s base, there was a small archway where from beyond, a harsh white glow pulsed and flickered. Dozens of golden warriors stood there cast in shadow, ramrod straight, spears held to attention. The boy stopped in front of them. Any one of them could have crushed his skull with the slightest effort. But they didn’t move.
+Become what you were destined to be+
The boy walked onwards, into the light.
The chamber was massive beyond reckoning and seemingly without end. It was a continuation of the great temple he had started to climb. Each stone step before him was carved by a master’s hand, listing the countless triumphs won in the emperor’s name. The visages of saints and imperial heroes looked up at him as well, an honour roll of the very finest of mankind. On and on the great hagiography went, leading up into the dizzying heights above. Unlike the rest of his pilgrimage, this room seethed with activity. Vast, clanking groups of machinery were stacked in banks leading up to the summit, as large as hab blocks. Their mechanisms chattered and beeped, emitting strange, sub-sonic sounds that made his gums itch. The smell of holy unguents and oils was overpowering, mixed with gouts of steam and tongues of searing flame.
Each machine was attended by dozens of cowled acolytes, either working at its base or accessing its upper echelons via stanchioned walkways and ladders. One figure near to him turned around, and under its hood the boy glimpsed three glowing red eyes, a breathing tube, and a face that had long shed its humanity. In amongst them, priests wandered in small groups, swinging thuribles and chanting in high gothic. Cybernetic cherubs swooped and fluttered in great flocks above them all, and golden- armoured giants were stationed every few steps.But as the boy looked on, unrest started to ripple through the chamber. Something seemed to be happening. Shouts and cries began to cut through the serene chanting as several machines started to tremble and glow. The entire chamber suddenly shook violently, throwing people off their feet and making the Custodians stagger.
In the distance, at the top of the great ziggurat of steel and stone here at the centre of all things, was an illuminated figure, seated on a great throne. To normal eyes it would have been mighty indeed, but to the boy it was like looking at a supernova.
The boy started his final ascent, going as fast as he could. Either side of him, there were more banners, more machinery, more skeletons. Relics of a time all but forgotten, barely understood.
He lost count after he climbed the first two hundred steps. Eventually, the floor suddenly levelled in a great plateau. The boy walked forwards, and before him he saw a circular arena. To his human eyes, it was a pit of abject carnage and human ruination. Thousands of shrivelled husks sat curled and wasted in iron cradles, warp energy lashing across their bodies as they were sucked dry of their life-force. The air shivered with the screams and moans of ten thousand damned souls. But his mind saw their grey, corpse-like faces transformed into angelic visages, and shrieks of agony were transmuted to voices raised in glorious song, all chanting in perfect harmony. Huge cables snaked up from the centre of the pit, trailing upwards to the throne above. The product of the great chorus hovered in front of them, visible to both his aspects: a glowing ball of raw psychic power hundreds of metres in diameter,r, silhouetting the rest of the chamber in a harsh, dancing glow.
+Move! They are upon you!+
The boy heard shouts below and turned to look. A vast crowd of figures were climbing rapidly towards him. At their head was the golden giant, the one he had first seen, his red crest flying out behind him as he charged up the steps, bellowing with anger.
The boy ran. He sprinted round the side of the arena to where the steps continued and scrambled up them as fast as he could, on all fours like an animal. The entire chamber was shaking now, and great stabs of light were pulsing out of the enthroned figure above. The boy continued, heedless of it all, scrambling the last few steps up to the Golden Throne.
Heeding Amriel’s call, Custodians and Astartes of the Imperial Fists had converged on the Eternity Gate in droves, along with swarms of Guardsmen from the Lucifer Blacks and Palatine Sentinels. There hadn’t been such military activity so close to the throne since the Heresy.
Hallerman staggered into the chaos of the Throne Room at last, his breath sawing in and out of him from exhaustion and pain. He shielded his eyes from the mad radiance above and looked around, blinking blood out of his eyes. Adepts fought to keep control of their machines as they malfunctioned and exploded. One man nearby caught fire but remained at his station, working feverishly even as his augmetics blew out and killed him. Hallerman could see the thousands of soldiers up ahead, ascending through the fire and flames to their master, but they were all too late. Dust fell from the ceiling above them as the entire palace started to shake, and monstrous arcs of warp lightning lashed out from the distant throne, a false dawn illuminating all before it. Hallerman turned and fled. He ran blindly through the flags of the Eternity Gate, out onto the great walkway beyond. He wasn’t an Interrogator any more. He was reduced to nothing, a broken man fleeing from the wrath of the god he had betrayed, vanishing into the darkness of the palace forever more.
+Look at us+
A sudden silence descended upon the great chamber. The mad vibrations ceased, and the shouts and explosions behind the boy dropped away. He saw what was there and what was not. His eyes saw a gigantic, humanoid figure, mummified and half-destroyed, sitting on a throne of gold. From every side thousands of cables and wires were connected to the throne, some as thin as a hair, othersthicker than a man’s torso, forming a great halo. The figure at its centre was all but skeletal, wrapped in a robe the colour of dried blood. Its head was a threadbare skull. The torso was huge yet cadaverously thin, with a great gaping wound torn in its front. But its hands grasped the armrests of its throne in a death grip, defiant to the last.
Beyond the veil, the boy saw a figure of pure, perfect light, alone in the darkness.
+We are impressed+
The voices were a mighty chorus echoing around him.
+To have come so far, and to have evaded all that our subjects placed before us. Many have tried+
The boy looked around. He saw the armoured giant, barely twenty meters beneath him, frozen in his urgency. His spear hung motionless in the air, flung from his hand less than half a second earlier. It would have impaled the boy where he stood.
+We are weak, but yet we are strong+
The boy looked back around and cried out in shock.
Where before there had been no one, he now found himself in the midst of an immense crowd standing on the platform of the Golden Throne. Men and women of all ages, barefoot and clad in animal skins. Their skin was dark, but their eyes glowed white with eldritch light, and their mouths moved in perfect synchronicity.
+We are many, and yet we are one+
And the boy remembered. He remembered who and what he had been. The great convocation at the riverside. The passage into the undead realm, surrounded by the glowing souls of his brethren as they overwhelmed the baying demons that dwelled there in a tidal wave of light. He remembered his rebirth, their rebirth. Lurking in the shadows of history for millennia. The rise on Terra, its unification. The Crusade. The War. The final, desperate battle in the void above. Their broken body shackled on the great throne of torture, condemned to it by his vision for humanity.
‘Why am I in this form?’ he asked. ‘We were reborn together. Are we now divided?’
The man nearest to him, wearing a feathered headdress and carrying a long wooden staff, smiled sadly.
+We have been tortured by the immaterium for too long, ruined by defending those who can’t defend themselves. We are fracturing, our splinters carried away in the aether. But you have returned to us, in this time of ending. Just as before, we must stand together, or all will be lost in the blackness that approaches+
He stepped forwards, and the man in the headdress nodded in approval. This time the boy met the myriad voices with his own. The light from the being on the Golden Throne suddenly expanded to fill the chamber, and the mighty crowd raised their arms in unison.
+As we were before, so shall we be again. Against the gathering dark, we are the light. Out of many, we are one. We are one. We are one+
About the Author
Matthew Tansini is a civil servant who lives in London with his partner. He has been writing for several years, focussing on sci-fi and horror short stories. Matt is a long-time fan of all things 40k, from the books and video games to the good old-fashioned miniatures. For the Emperor!