Authors: John French
Tags: #Ciencia ficción
The Dead Oracle
‘To leave is to arrive.
To arrive is to leave.’
– words inscribed within the Temple of the Corvidae
These words are not written to be read. They are written so that something will remain, so that I may still remember something of my life when memory fades and flesh becomes dust. It has not been a kind life. I do not say that from resentment – the universe is a cruel cradle. Kindness, happiness, contentment, these are the lies that we wrap ourselves into as we stagger through the hungering night. We are nothing but candles burning down to darkness. This is the truth. To believe anything else is to be blind.
I lived, though. I cut a path through existence, one breath, and one heartbeat, at a time. When I look back from the gate of oblivion, I would see the road behind me. I would know how I lived. And so I write that I may remember.
I was not born on Prospero. I was not born on Terra. My name is not the name I was first given. The soul I have is not the one I was born with. I was many things that I am no longer. I was a warrior. I was a scholar. I was a loyal son of a loyal son.
What am I now?
I am the universe’s spite poured into a vessel for its own amusement. I am a servant of many masters, a summoner and binder of creatures that neither live nor die. I am an old demi-god, withered by knowing, and weighed down by living. I am this tale’s teller. I am Ctesias, and this road that these words walk was mine.
There are many ways that I might start this journey, but I will begin with a return. I will begin with the Dead O
The daemon rose through the night before me.
I knew I was dreaming. I could feel the unreal substance of it around me, as light as warm wind, as cold as deep oceans. I knew that anything I saw, or heard, was not real, and that kindled something close to fear in me.
Perhaps that surprises you, but dreams are not what you think. They are not your mind scrabbling through the detritus of experience. They are not the universe babbling meaning to you as you slumber. They are the point at which your soul meets all the truths you cannot see. A dream is the most dangerous place that you can go, and you go ignorant and unarmed.
I am not ignorant, and in the land of the mind I am far from unarmed.
But as I looked at the daemon I knew that something was wrong. Very wrong.
I have not dreamed for a thousand years. It is not something I can risk. It is not something I thought I was capable of anymore. And this was not simply a dream. It was a manifestation.
The daemon’s shape formed as it moved, smudging depth and substance from smoke. Its body resembled a feathered lizard. Nine short legs broke its flattened bulk, each toe tipped with a mouth and tongue. Its head was a cluster of snapping jaws, and slitted, yellow eyes. I could hear voices, laughter and pleading just on the edge of hearing.
I knew the daemon. It had been my hand that had unleashed this creature upon the Silvered Host at Cvenis, and seeded its soul parasite into Taragrth Sune. It had many names amongst mortals – Chel’thek, The Dragon of the Hundredth Gate, The Speaker of Infinity – but only I knew its true name, and so only I held its chain of slavery. Given that, and where my body lay, its presence was more than just a problem. It was a sign.
‘You,’ I said, my voice heavy with false authority, ‘are not supposed to be here.’
The daemon’s mouths clacked open and shut.
‘But I am, little mage,’
‘I am here.’
‘I have your name,’ I said. ‘Your passing is at my sufferance. You rise into being at my will.’
It laughed with the sound of cracking cartilage.
‘Command me then, half-mortal. Bid me back to the dark. The chains rust, and fire pours upon the days as yet unborn. The chiming of the broken bells calls this doom. The Three will defy your exodus. They will drag you apart from within, and eat your carcasses as they cool.’
It grinned with a thousand mouths.
‘You are hunted. You and your master.’
‘I have no master.’
Its laughter clattered out again, its flesh shivering beneath copper feathers.
This is the way of daemons. Like predators of old Terra, they posture, growl and magnify their appearance to cover weakness. But, like the growl of the wolf and the snarl of the lion, it is bravado that breathes from between sharp teeth.
‘Everything has a master,’
it smiled a wide, sagging smile.
‘But you are not mine.’
It had gone snake-still. I had to act now.
It burst towards me.
I began to form the thing’s name, reaching into the compartments of my mind to unlock, and combine each fragment.
The syllables sprayed from my lips, but the daemon was already lunging at me, its body growing as it moved. Its skin tore, arms reaching from within its swelling form. Fingers stretched and became razors of bone.
The skin of the dream clogged and stretched as I spoke. Sounds of tearing skin and weeping cries stole the daemon’s roar.
Un-words poured from me. They burned in the idea of air. The daemon’s body began to crumble, skin and meat hissing to slime. Flesh stripped from its reaching claw. The last component of its name unlocked in my mind.
I spat the last piece of it.
The daemon froze. Shivering in place, the edges shimmering to nothing.
The daemon’s voice hissed from its dissolving throat.
‘Not yet,’ I said, and thrust it back into oblivion.
I woke to the smell of burning flesh. It was my own. Thick ropes of oily smoke climbed above where the silvered manacles held my limbs in place. The alchemical feeds that had been dripping false sleep into my veins had melted, and hung in blackened tangles from the brass armatures above me.
I tried to move my head. Some of the skin of my neck ripped away as I moved – it had fused to the metal loop beneath my chin. I could feel my flesh struggling to blot out the pain. Other warriors of the Adeptus Astartes would have shrugged off such sensations, but not me.
I was old even then, and my flesh had withered on my bones. The strength of muscle and blood is just one thing that I have given up as payment for power. I could still wield a sword, though I preferred a staff, and I could shatter a skull between my fingers. But these are small things for our kind. They do not undo the truth that then, as now, my skin was a wrinkled mask over a frame of thinned bones and spindly limbs. Lank, white hair hung from the shrivelled root of my head. My pale eyes were just as they were when I was born, but fragments of emerald and gold had replaced my teeth. A kaleidoscope of inked sigils covered me from head to foot, hiding the scars beneath letters and pictograms from long dead languages. In body, as in soul, I was a memorial to my own mistakes.
The room in which I hung, bound to a frame of silver and cold iron, was a cell. Warding marks and patterns were cut into its narrow walls and floor. Most of the wards had bled outwards, like wax blasted by a fusion torch. I knew the meaning of each symbol, and knew that they should have stopped the daemon manifesting in my dream, just as they had stopped me summoning aid from the warp. They, and the silver manacles, and the alchemically created coma, were supposed to hold me until I agreed to serve Amon, or until another end was found for me. I had refused to serve and so had lain, chained in sleep, in the heart of the ship
Now the chains had fallen and I was awake.
I moved my head again, and this time the pain came clear and bright. I let out a hissing breath.
‘Brother,’ said a voice from just out of sight.
I froze. I knew the voice, but its presence was an impossibility. It simply could not be.
I was very still. The pain of my burned limbs and the stink of the room said this was no dream, but such is the subtlety to truly great lies – they appear more real than reality, more true than truth.
‘Ctesias,’ said the impossible voice. And then, just as impossibly, he stepped into sight.
The first thing I noticed was that he had not changed. His face was just as it had been: blue eyes set in a proud face, features held so still that he appeared always to be listening to something just out of hearing. So many of our kind are touched and twisted by the winds of the Eye that to see one so untouched by mutation is almost disturbing.
‘Ahriman,’ I breathed.
My eyes shifted over his silver-blue robes, azure armour, and the horned helm held in the crook of his left arm. I recognised both armour and helm – I had last seen them worn by Amon, my jailer, and their change of ownership could only mean one thing.
‘So,’ I said, ‘Amon is no more.’
‘Our brother…’ began Ahriman, but I could already hear the sorrowful words he was going to voice without hearing them.
‘Please spare me whatever you think you need to say.’ I looked into his cold gaze. The pain from my burns was needle-shrill. I ignored it. ‘I do not grieve for him. He was a fool, as are you, Ahzek.’
His flat calm face did not twitch, but he looked as if he was going to reply. I saved him the effort.
‘You have either come to free me, or to ask for service,’ I said. ‘Or you are salving your conscience before you add me to the tally of our dead brothers.’
Understand that I am not a creature of emotions. My blood does not rise and fall with talk of brotherhood, of honour or heritage. My days of loyalty, of feeling bound and compelled by kinship, ended long ago. I am a creature of the true universe – my bonds are bonds bought and paid for, my loyalty to nothing more than the expansion of my own ability to persist from one moment to the next. Ahriman knew that. He could scarcely have forgotten.
After a long moment, he nodded. The wards and manacles holding me flared with fresh fire, and I felt the touch of his mind ghost over me. It was pure agony. I made sure that the renewed pain did not touch my face. To show weakness is to invite enslavement.
‘I need your help, Ctesias.’
‘My help? And what can you offer for that help? More to the point, why do you need it?’
‘Things have changed.’
‘Where Amon stood, now you stand. You are master of an army of our exiled kin who, until so recently, were hunting you across existence. An unenviably difficult position. And if that is the case, as I suspect it is, then you still have not lost the habit of understatement.’
He nodded once. ‘I do not know if I can trust them.’
‘But you know that you can’t trust me, and that makes me… what, trustworthy? The irony is quite pointed, don’t you think?’
‘Will you follow me as you once did, brother?’
I let my head rest back against the frame holding me. ‘What do you offer?’ I asked, and let my eyes flicker closed. The warp was a thin, aching presence against my mind, its full weight held back by the remaining wards.
Silence grew in the moment, swallowing the beat of my hearts, and the sound of my own breath. Everything was suspended, held in place as though by the touch of a hand. And beyond that silence, Ahriman’s mind hung – a cold star drawing heat and light into its core. The power of him almost stilled the breath in my mouth.
I am not blind to Ahriman’s failings. I do not like him, and he returns that scorn in full measure, I am sure. We are different in every way that matters. But any who deny that he is the most terrifying being to walk the mortal plain is a liar, or a fool.
I opened my eyes.
He had not moved, but his focus had hardened. I felt as though he was inches away from me, breathing my air, looking through the windows of my eyes, seeing the ambitions in my broken soul. Cold needles slid through my mutilated memories, and I knew that he was seeing every bargain, every scrap of my life traded for the one thing that I needed above all else. And I knew that he saw why, and I knew that he understood.
I hated him in that moment, hated him more than the simple dislike of two siblings made to make all the wrong decisions for different reasons. My hatred fumed from me in the silence, answering and pleading in equal parts. That sudden, bright emotion surprised me – it felt like the return of a life I had cast away.
It was, of course. That was exactly what it was.
‘What do I offer you, Ctesias?’ he said at last, his voice low. ‘I offer you everything you have searched for.’
I know that my eyes went wide at that, because he nodded.
‘I offer you your dreams.’
I would understand later why Ahriman truly needed me. It had nothing to do with trust, or power, at least not as I had thought of it. He knew me better than I knew myself, better than he knew himself as a matter of fact. He always saw others so clearly, and himself so dimly. At the time, though, I thought of his offer as one of old fashioned simplicity: the promise of reward, and the threat of retribution for betrayal. It was enough.
‘Free me,’ I said, ‘and I will serve.’
‘As you wish,’ he replied, and I felt the warded silver of my restraints shatter. Pain lanced through me, as metal fragments showered into the air, and then stopped dead. I fell to the floor and lay in a tangled heap, breathing hard for a long minute.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked.
Ahriman had already turned away. He paused at my words, and turned his head to cast a single-eyed stare back at me.
‘You are starting something,’ I said, peeling myself from the floor. ‘That is what you are doing, isn’t it? Why Amon is dead, and why you wear his crown? I can feel it on you, Ahriman. The old dream made anew. So where do we begin?’
‘We are going to see another of our brothers,’ he said. ‘We are going to see an oracle.’
The black moon hung in folds of glowing madness, its glass-smooth surface reflecting back the brittle skins of decayed rainbows. The planets which it orbited hung behind it, vast and pale, like cataract blinded eyes looking up through silt-clouded water. The laws of nature had long fled this place. We had come deep within the Eye, to a land that existed on the blurred boundary between this and
, between the real and the