Authors: John French
Tags: #Ciencia ficción
You need to run…
+ said the Oracle.
My eyes touched the thing that I had not seen, and I saw it then. I beheld it.
And the curtain of the world shredded.
Blood-threaded pus poured from the walls. The mirrored surface crazed. Dozens of tiny hands were scrabbling at the cracks, pulling them wider. Trees of rotting iron rose from the mire forming under our feet, shaking crowns of flayed-skin leaves. Broken backed figures stood amongst the trunks, weeping blades gripped in shivering hands.
The whole tableau unfolded with delicate slowness, but no time passed. It had been there from before we had set foot upon the moon. Everything our minds had seen had been the dried skin of a corpse left as a mask over a skull. The power to blind us was staggering. It implied something greater and deeper than the manipulations of daemons. It spoke of the hand of a god.
Time returned, and we began to fight for our souls.
Ahriman was the first to move. He turned from the Oracle, his aura the flare of a new sun. He
flame. A lance of white heat split the air. Daemon flesh burned with vapour. The leaves of the rusting trees ignited.
Sanakht was the next to react, fire and lightning running down his blades as he sliced through tentacles writhing from the cracked walls. Tiny figures shaped from infected fat dropped from the ceiling, cackling as they fell. Astraeos had his own sword in his hand, the air about him blurring with storm pressure. A tentacle whipped down towards Ahriman, but Sanakht’s swords stuck it three times before my eyes had seen him move. Daemon blood began to fall, fizzing to smoke as Ahriman panned the torrent of flame across the chamber.
, I thought,
this cannot be right. They could never hope to destroy us like this.
But it was as though my mind was watching from behind a thickening fog. Everything was all happening with a poured syrup slowness.
The Rubricae began to fire into the figures advancing beneath the growing trees. Bolts exploded in flesh. Cyan and rose flames spiralled around blackening bones. The warp was a clotting mass of despair, tar-thick and oozing. More famine-wasted figures were rising from the swamp, their limbs forming from the charred soup of their burned kin. They stepped towards us over sizzling heaps of fat and flesh.
Astraeos extended his hand and a line of force razored through the air. Bloated bodies split into a shower of jellied filth and entrails.
And still I had not moved. My thoughts were stuck, like the cogs of a broken clock.
The voice was so weak that it was just a whisper crushed by the noise of battle. +
,+ it spoke again. I looked up. The Oracle hung still in the air. Black corrosion had spread across its silver armour, while foul fluids leaked and bubbled from the helm. The eyes that orbited him still turned, but cataracts now clouded them, and black webs of clotted veins spidered their surfaces. +
It is… This is not the…
It could not find the strength for the next words, but it did not need to. I understood the warning, even as I cursed myself for not having understood it before. Menkaura was powerful, god-blessed and warp-favoured. The power which had laid this trap for us had overwhelmed him and taken this place into its domain, but it had not been able to overwhelm Menkaura utterly. Something of him still remained even as he was consumed, inch by inch, and that part of him was fighting to warn us that the true trap had yet to close about us.
He began to shudder. His armour split. Black fluid drizzled both downwards and upwards from the cracks.
+Ahriman!+ I called, but he was a pillar of brightness, his physical form a soot shadow at the core of the inferno. The daemons were falling back, and Sanakht blurred beside him, swords weaving in arcs of ghost and storm light. Bolt-rounds lashed dead flesh in a deluge as the Rubricae fired and fired. As my gaze passed over the scene I saw a bloated daemon, with the body of an insect, fly at Astraeos. The renegade turned and cut in a single movement. The daemon split in two, its momentum driving it onto the killing edge. It fell, wings buzzing as the two halves tried to lift themselves back into the air. Astreaos stamped down, mashing chitin and blubber beneath his boot.
+Ahriman!+ I called again, and I saw him turn, as he sensed at last what I had seen.
He was just in time to see existence turn itself inside out.
The Oracle’s body ripped down its centre. The sound sawed through the warp. Blood sprayed from the split corpse, each drop a liquid black hole, a splatter of negative space falling through reality. The whole chamber shimmered, and stretched upwards. The ranks of daemons became silhouettes of smudged colour, their mouths holes into another darkness beyond.
We were no longer straddling the barrier between the real and unreal – we were within a garden of decay. We were within the warp.
A psyker is a creature whose mind is a doorway to the aether, a conduit for paradox. We touch the ineffable, but we are still flesh, still made of the dirty clay of base reality. When daemons step into the real world they begin to die, just as a fish pulled from the sea will drown in the air we breathe.
But when we, base creatures that we are, dive into the Sea of Souls, we do not drown.
The inferno around Ahriman spread out in every direction. His shape blurred, dissolving into bright particles at the edges. Sanakht fell, convulsing, arms and neck snapping out as though a lightning bolt had passed through him. Astraeos froze, his limbs locking even as he fought to move. Screaming haloes surrounded the Rubricae, howling with faces formed from splintered light and billowing dust. I do not know how I appeared in that moment, I only know how it felt – it was as if every thought I had held in mind was being pulled by hooks, drawn out of me, and spread across a gulf which grew wider and wider. Everything that made me was a thin sheet of ideas, and memories and will. The daemons were no longer creatures of rotting bone and skin. They were the mirrors of my despair and hope, thin-faced nightmares pulled from every regret I had ever had.
Into this garden of decay slid the being that had been waiting for us. Its shape and form began as a slick bulb of pale slime. Fat and muscles bloated into being, and it swelled, taking on shape and texture like the stuttering image of a plant growing and flowering, then compressed into a few seconds. Its body was a huge mound of moist and torn flesh, its head a mass of broken horns. I could taste burning, the thick, heavy stink of rendered fat and bone soot. The power radiating from it was suffocating. The other daemons fell back, sliding beneath the surface of my sight. It was all I could do not to let my soul spin away into the vast creature’s orbit.
I knew it.
I know of many daemons. Some I have bound, others I have glimpsed, many more I have only heard of. Lesser creatures often spin names and titles for themselves, cloaking their weakness in false infamy, as a beggar who imagines himself a prince will wear a coat of bright feathers and silk. Others have no need of such adornment – their existence resounds through the warp. Titles gather to them like flies over a midden, and their power is second only to the Dark Gods that spawned them. This was one such creature.
Maggot Lord, Lord of the Plague Pit, The Seventh Leech of Sorrow, The Crow Worm – I had heard heralds weep its glory in the depths of the Eye, and seen its shadow in death of billions.
It looked at me. Not at Ahriman, not at the others.
Just at me.
It had blisters for eyes.
It spoke, the words shaking the cloud of my mind.
Do you hope to bind me, little witchling?
’ It smiled. A thick bead of blood-marbled pus oozed from its lips. Maggots squirmed in the roots of its teeth. Its tongue was a mass of dried skin and hair.
I simply shook, fighting to gather my thoughts back into myself, to hold on to what made me.
The Maggot Lord chuckled, and patches of its skin split as its body rippled. It turned its great head to the others. The fire had fled from around Ahriman. No other sorcerer I have ever met could truly rival him, but even he does not challenge the most exalted of daemonkind unless there is no other way. Watching him, I knew that he would be searching for a way out even as the beast loomed above us.
You do not know me
,’ croaked the daemon. ‘
We have never met, but I have watched you. I have seen you rise and fall, and rise again.
‘Where is our brother?’ asked Ahriman, his voice cold with control. ‘Where is Menkaura?’
Gone, exiled son, gone down to the pits to feed the fresh-born. Gone down to become no more.
‘No,’ said Ahriman. ‘Your kind consume, corrupt and corrode, but you do not destroy.’
Do we not? The corpse mires of history and the tears shed beside graves sing a different song.
‘Give him to us.’
No. No, I do not think I will,
’ said the daemon, and shook its head. White worms and tatters of flesh scattered from its rolling chins. ‘
This gathering is not for demands. It is for offers, for the consideration of possibilities.
‘You have nothing to offer us.’
The daemon’s laughter boomed out, great balloons of skin pulsing in its throat. It licked its lips.
Oh, but that is a lie.
’ It raised a huge hand and indicated the Rubricae, and their haloes of scattered pain. ‘
You are the lord of a dead brotherhood. You tried to save what you cared for, but there is only one who can end such suffering.
’ Its voice had become the glutinous rumble of mucus filled lungs. ‘
We would see an end to your hollowness, Ahriman. We would see you and your brothers rise from their dry graves. You feel pain for what they are, for what you did, and for what you think you must do. That pain can end. There needs to be no more sorrow. You can save yourself, and save your brothers.
’ It raised both its arms, fat fingers open, appealing. ‘
All you need to do is ask. Let it go. Let the chains fall. You do not have to embrace this release. You just have to let it embrace you.
Sanakht was forcing himself back to his feet. Defiance screamed in his every agonised movement. The daemon turned its gaze to the swordsman as he rose.
And you, Sanakht – broken swordsman that you are, would you not see the wounds to your soul close? Astraeos, sweet suffering child, the needles of guilt in your heart are lies. They can be plucked out. You can know hope again. Not just the promise of it, but the sweet, wet nectar of its truth.
’ The daemon looked back to Ahriman, and nodded slowly. ‘
All this, the Lord of All offers to you.
There was no mention of alternatives. They did not need to be put into words. The hungering silence of the daemon throng told of what any refusal would mean. I was also not surprised that it made no offer to me. There is little meat on my soul to satisfy a daemon of any kind. I have bound and broken too many of their kind for them to offer me anything but retribution.
‘We shall leave this place,’ said Ahriman, his voice clear and hard.
The daemon shook its head again, its tattered face heavy with sorrow.
That cannot be,
’ it said. The daemons encircling us heaved forwards.
‘No,’ said Ahriman, his voice the ring of a hammer on steel. ‘By the terms under which we came to this temple, I deny you. This is a fane of oracles, daemon. You have corrupted it, you have made its seat your own, but its chains still bind you. You sit where the Oracle once sat. You have taken that throne for your own purposes, but it is not a seat of power. It is a cage’.
The daemon’s jaw shook with anger. Folds of rotted fat trembled. It was afraid.
For just as I saw the truth, so too did the daemon.
The rotten bowl of the chamber shimmered back into sight. Its excrement-slicked walls pulsed in time with the great daemon’s panting breaths. It was trapped. It was a creature of power, of might, but it was blind to the greater subtlety. Those currents lay in another power’s hand.
‘You who sit in the seat of the Oracle, I demand truth,’ said Ahriman. ‘Name yourself.’
The syllables broke from the daemon’s lips. The sound ripped through the empyrean, each a broken tooth of spite. The daemon reared up, mouth moving, its face splitting as it fought to keep the words inside. Blisters of blood formed and popped in the air. Its left fist crashed down in front of it, as its right rose above its head. It had to speak its name to us, but it intended to kill us before that name was complete. A great, rusted cleaver grew in its grasp as it lunged forwards.
Sanakht met and turned the blow, his paired swords hissing as they kissed the cleaver’s tainted iron. The daemon pulled its blade back and charged, liquid bulk rolling. Sanakht spun aside, slicing as he moved. Ribbons of yellow fat and congealed blood fell from twin wounds.
’ The bloody words poured out as the deamon’s cleaver chopped down again.
Astraeos’s sword was a tongue of white and blue flame as it cut the beast’s arm at the wrist. The cleaver and severed hand hit the ground. Ropes of sinew lashed out from the daemon’s arm, and tried to drag the hand and weapon back onto the stump.
It reached up with its remaining hand, fat fingers ripping at its own tongue.
Still the links of its name came from its mouth.
Ahriman had not moved, but now he turned his head to me. ‘Bind it, brother,’ he said.
And then – in that cold instant – I knew that I should never have agreed to serve him.
The last syllable fell from the daemon’s lips, sliding into the air like a scorched snake. I looked at Ahriman for an instant that felt like eternity. My mind was ready. The divided cells of my memory and psyche, intended to hold Menkaura, stood open. I had heard each beat and splintered tone of the daemon’s name. It was mine. A net of chains lay in the fingers of my will.