@ VulkansNodosaurus - Thank you very much and I'm glad to find another TS fan. I hope you enjoy the next chapter.
Inno, Mizar subsector, Syntyche sector
Years later scholars called it the Great Awakening.
The Warp’s energies, turbulent and seeking a way out, ripped forth violently from the Immaterium. Crashing like a wave through the opened rift, the polluted energy spilled into physical space and across countless Imperial worlds and sectors. With its passing, the latent psychic potential of millions were unlocked and with it, a terrible destruction. It unleashed hell to millions more. The holds of the infamous Blackships, already fit to burst, weighed heavy with the birthing of so many new psykers.
Inno, a farming world of no remark and operating within a feudal caste system, was such a world heavily affected. The planet revolved alone in the great silence of space, hanging on the edge of the Segmentum Obscurus, a world where proud lineages and noble histories dated back to the time of the Great Crusade. The Kith lineage, as reputable as any house, was decimated by the Great Awakening, their story a microcosm of tragedy against the backdrop of the greater whole, but one which echoed painfully nonetheless.
Amara and Katea were born on the same day.
Amara in the morning as the sun rose, Katea toward the evening, quiet where the other was loud. Their mothers were sisters, identical twins whose cursed story was well-known. A superstitious belief on Inno persisted; the offspring of twins were fated to a cruel existence where death and discord followed. In most instances, these unfortunate children were put to death. The Kith House, wealthy and influential, paid the midwives handsomely to hold their tongues of the births. The coffers of the Ecclesiarchy were filled; a new church constructed for the newborns baptized in the light of the God-Emperor.
Life, uneventful on Inno, continued without incident. This peace was an illusion, lost when the Warp’s taint rippled over Inno’s surface. Amara and Katea were six when their lives were changed forevermore.
Bells from the Ecclesiarchy churches rang, summoning the faithful to mass while unnatural lights from the Warp storm clashed in the sky overhead. As the tempest covered Inno, the pious prayed, hoping their words reached the God-Emperor. Inside the family chapel on the Kith estate, the family sat in hardback pews with bowed heads and rosaries wrapped around trembling fingers. Scores of candles lit the small building, running wax encrusting the candelabras, the air wavering in the heat. Plumes of incense rose from the marble altar, the smell pungent and heady, a concoction of cinnamon and myrrh. While Father Curasso, a man of portly built and face likened to a pig's, murmured a scriptural passage, Amara and Katea slipped out the servant's door. It was not difficult; their grandfather was asleep next to them.
“I want to see the lights,” Amara declared, running the length of the courtyard to the servants’ gate. Unlatching it, she waited until Katea passed before shuttering the wooden door behind them. Both giggled in childish amusement at disobeying their grandfather's strict orders to not leave the chapel, following the dirt and stone pathway down to the wheat fields.
“Father Curasso doesn't know what he's saying. I think the sky is pretty, not bad.”
“We shouldn't go too far. Grandfather will cane us if he finds out.” Ever the voice of reason and caution, Katea fastidiously smoothed down the ermine trim of her dress.
“I promise we'll return before Father Curasso's finished.” Amara solemnly replied, crossing her fingers over her heart. Any child knew the importance such a gesture entailed. “I know the perfect place to see the lights.”
Katea followed slowly, more intent on looking at the colourful borealis over the winding curve of the path. Her heavy skirts restricted her movements, and she gingerly raised the hem of her gown lest it get muddy. Amara, unmindful of the expensive dress she was dirtying, continued walking without a care. Overhead, vivid colours wove into each other, the sky a loom with an invisible weaver at work.
Katea tugged Amara's hair. “Tell the truth. You know what happens when you lie! The God-Emperor weeps and bleeds. We always get caught and then we get punished.”
Grinning cheekily, Amara grabbed Katea's hand as green and blue lights mingled above them. “Promise, promise, promise,” she singsonged, racing into the tall stalks.
Expansive wheat fields rippled in the warm breeze, colours burnt gold and bronze, stretching into the distance. An envy to the rival Houses and the pride of the Kith, the cropland was a rich source of income year after year. The Kith estate overlooked the vast tracts of land from the ridge it was built on, an ancient castle jealously guarding its territory. Crunching through the high stalks, ears of wheat tickling her face, Amara walked ahead confidently. Katea had no choice but to follow her adventurous cousin. She loathed being left behind. Even if she were to be punished, she wanted to be included as part the stories Amara told the other children. Their small forms hidden by the fields, Amara led them onwards, racing down hidden paths only she knew. After what seemed an eternity, Amara's cry of delight signalled their arrival.
“Here it is!”
Dropping Katea's hand, Amara excitedly rushed forward and broke free from the fields. She stood in a small clearing, where a towering boulder of granite sat in the center. Standing like a sentinel, its surface flecked with brown and gold, sides weathered from the seasons, the boulder was without remark. Its top was ground flat, offering a vantage point for anyone who managed to scale its rough side.
Amara was already climbing, hands gaining purchase in the small cracks and grooves she found on the rock's face. Crying out in annoyance, Katea joined her cousin in the climb, unwilling to stay on the ground. Throwing her leg over the top and skirts ripping in the process, Amara pulled herself over the edge. She stood with her hands on her hips.
“I won!” Her triumphant shout echoed weirdly in the discordant air. A reddish haze broke across the blue bowl of the sky, Amara framed against the violent colour. So bright was it her wispy blonde hair appeared drenched in blood. The sight made Katea gasp and, a horrible feeling entering her stomach, she refused to climb further.
“We should return to the chapel. Father Curraso's sermon is over.”
“No.” Grabbing Katea's wrist, Amara pulled her up until she stood beside her. “Look at the sky, Katea! This is better than staying in the chapel. Look at all the colours!”
Katea's eyes turned skywards at her cousin's insistence. A veritable kaleidoscope of colours and sparks danced and whirled on high, the flames of a fire leaping in brief and chaotic patterns until they were swallowed up by the whole. Magenta clashed against emerald green, overshadowed by a swath of garish orange, only to be embraced in a midnight blue and their existence snuffed. Each burst of colour was greeted with a clapping of hands or loud exclamations. To the innocent eyes of children, the display likened to the performance of travelling acrobats or a puppet show. Simple entertainment which left smiles on their naďve faces. No sinister undercurrent was seen, and nothing horrid the adults whispered about the storms raging in the heavens.
Both held their tongues when the faces appeared, each believing the other did not see them. Twisted countenances grinned maniacally down at them or glared in cold fury. A few were frozen in heart-wrenching sobs. All drifted back into the flashing lights, insubstantial wisps of smoke.
Katea's eyes slid away from the glowing lights, catching movement in the wheat fields. From her vantage point, the little girl saw tall figures stalking through the cropland, garbed in the livery of an unknown House. They moved as shadows, seven in all, attempting to hide themselves, unaware their presence was noted. Katea reacted by dropping on to the flat top of the boulder, dragging Amara down with her.
“Strangers.” Katea pointed at the unknown men. They wore light black armour edged in red. “Invaders on grandfather's land.”
Amara would have thrown a rock and shouted for them to leave, at first. Her action halted when she spied the lasrifles the men carried. Their faces were cold and merciless, with the intent to cause harm radiating from them. Sweeping the barrels of their lasrifles to and fro in the waving stalks, it was obvious the men were hunting. Perhaps to catch a serf in the fields, a vassal of the estate to ransom or a corpse to leave behind for provocation.
Neither of the girls wanted to be in the fields now. Thoughts of sanctuary behind thick stone walls, protected inside the family chapel, held a glamour which dulled the majesty of the borealis. Their small adventure had come to an end as a harsh reality descended.
Nudging Katea's arm, Amara motioned for her cousin to climb down. “We can run back to the house and warn grandfather.”
Katea shook her head, blue eyes wide in fear and heart fluttering like a caged bird. The boulder was a safe haven, the fields a labyrinth where they could become lost. Hunted to their deaths. To leave the only shelter they possessed was madness. Scowling in anger at the cowardice of her cousin, Amara clambered over Katea and began her descent. Once on the ground, she gestured hurriedly for Katea to follow. Moving awkwardly in her cumbersome skirts, Katea started climbing down when, as a clash of forked lighting burst overhead, she was seen.
“Take your mark! Death to the Kith House!” The leader of the men bellowed across the wheat fields. Sharp pangs of fear charged the girls' bodies as they stood in terror.
Lasfire streaked the air, the stench of burnt ozone following. The boulder's aged surface was scored black as lasrifles targeted the children. A flash of deadly silver light burnt the hem of Katea's dress. She screamed, tumbling heavily to the ground where she did not rise and her vision burst with stars. Hysteria gave Amara's tiny body strength. Grabbing Katea by her wrists, she dragged the girl into the yellow stalks to hide. The hunters moved quickly to the boulder. Finding no one, they spread out and began to search.
Katea's wits were slow in returning. Images faded in and out of focus, her head throbbed, and her bruised body protesting with each movement. Someone was speaking to her, murmuring just beyond the point where syllables became words. Raising a hand to wave the voice aside, Amara grabbed Katea's arm. When she tried to protest, Amara shushed Katea, whispering “We can hide in the fields. I know the way back. I promise.”
It became a mad chase to stay ahead of their pursuers, never certain if a lasbolt would catch them in the back. Katea's eyes rolled back into her skull. Minutes became moments, hours stretched into years. She lost sense of where they were going; many times her mind blanked. Who was she? What did it matter if she would soon be dead? The quiet voice grew louder as another chimed in, posing more questions. Running deeper into the fields, Katea's sweaty hand clasped in Amara's, she let her cousin lead while her eyesight filled with pin-pricks of light.
Amara refused to believe they were lost. But the further she pressed, each direction looked as similar as the next, a sea of amber with no discernible features. Disoriented, unsure where the family estate lay, a cold dread crept into the girl's chest. Her throat tightened. Amara forced her terror into the recesses of her mind, balling hands into fists.
She wiped away the tears and sweat on her face. She refused to cry. She was the elder, she had convinced Katea to come with her to see the lights, and she had gotten them lost. It was her duty to bring them safely home.
Harsh shouts from the men came from all directions. A raucous yell, the crack of a lasbolt whining close by sent Amara jumping, pushing Katea back from the danger. Spotting the retreating forms of the children in the high wheat, one of the assailants signalled the others. The chase ended with the terrified quarry circled. Several barrels pointed at the childrens' heads, fingers on hair-triggers. The leader of the unknown House faction chuckled.
“We're sent to raise a little hell against the Kiths and what do we find? Stumble right across their little whelps. We'll claim a higher fee after we've scalp these two and brought back the evidence.”
His words unbound the fear Katea held. The voices crowed their rage, clamouring for Katea to do something. A nameless pressure had built inside her since tumbling from the boulder. Now it restricted her breathing as it rose through her small body. Katea heaved against the pain it brought. Her eyes watered, those wretched stars continually bursting in front of her. She wanted to claw at her eyes, her skin, her very hair. She needed to set it free. She had to or be crushed by it.
The lasrifles were raised, an ominous sound of metal clicking together.
Huddled in the dirt and broken wheat, Amara's arms wrapped about Katea's shivering form. She whispered a prayer to the God-Emperor, but her words did not reach Katea. Thunderous voices filled the child's ears, shouting at her. They screeched for attention, demanding the young girl listen to all of them. There was so much for her to know, to be made aware of; they could help her. Colour rippled behind Katea's eyelids.
“Leave us alone!” Katea screamed, her voice adding to the millions echoing madly in her mind.
Amara was never certain of what she saw that day.
She remembered the sheet of flames, unnatural in their icy colour, and the chill emanated as the fire immolated the men. The flames ravenously ate the flesh of the men, gnawed on their bones until charred husks remained. Mouths opened in screams brought the fire rushing into their bodies. Painful, soul-wrenching screams came from blackened throats to end in harsh gurgles. One of the hunters tried to run, with his legs buckling under him before he had travelled three paces. Another ran flailing into the fields before collapsing. Blackened corpses twisted beyond recognition were all that remained.
The wicked fire leapt from the would-be murderers and into the fields with horrid speed. Everything touched was consumed by its monstrous appetite.
Katea floated in the center of the azure flames, her long blonde hair whipping about in a silent wind. Dancing a hand's breadth above the ground with her head craned painfully back, blinding light poured from her eyes and flitted about her head. Without thinking, Amara lunged for her cousin. A current of power crashed into her as she touched Katea, making Amara feel nauseous. Yet the jolt was enough. Katea fell back to the earth as a dead weight atop of Amara.
“Katea!” Her cousin's eyes were shut tightly, sickening light flickering behind closed lids.
“My eyes burn! Help me!”
Katea's pained wails rose over the crackling flames and oily black smoke. Outstretched arms fumbled until they touched Amara's. Amara held Katea in a death-grip, helping her cousin stand. She began to run with Katea stumbled behind, racing from the fires and the carnage left behind them. The wind rushed overhead, the stalks seeming to part before Amara. Everything was moving quickly, faster and faster until her feet no longer touched the ground and the landscape became a blur. She knew the way now, she knew
where to go.
The estate's bells were ringing. Seeing the smoke rising from the fields, the serfs had issued the warning to mobilize aide. Amara followed the sound, the peal of the bells beautiful and discordant all at once. She gasped in relief when she burst out of the maze with Katea, thankful to be free of what nearly became their tomb.
Vassals were running with servitors into the fields, heavy equipment loaded onto pile-beds to douse the flames. In the middle of the frantic efforts, directing every action with force, was Beslan Kith. Not yet a century old and with the vigour of youth still about him, the patriarch of the Kith House was never idle. Dressed in his finery from the chapel with only his wig askance, Beslan Kith hurried to his granddaughters huddling on the edge of the fields. Following him were his twin daughters.
Amara's breath hitched in her throat at seeing her grandfather. She would endure whatever punishment he meted out, so long as Katea was taken care of. She stumbled forward with a smile on cracked lips. “Mother, help--”
“Witches!” Father Curasso's voice lashed the air. The priest pushed through the swirling crowd of servants, scarlet robes matching the hue of his puffing face. He jabbed a meaty finger at the children. “Lord Kith, look to the tainted spawn and see what has become of your House! They are the ill-cause of the fire and storms!”
Amara shrank back from the priest's accusation, not understanding why her mother and aunt began to cry. Father Curasso grabbed Beslan before he touched his granddaughters, swatting the patriarch away. Behind Amara, Katea toppled into the dirt, the last of her strength finally spent. Turning her back on the growing crowd to tend to Katea, Amara heard the hateful words grow in strength.
“Stay back from them,” the priest roared authoritatively. “The taint of the witch lays heavy on them! Stand back lest their pollution destroy the rest of us!”
Father Curasso's voice stopped the Kith family from touching their children. Amara's hair floated in a halo framing her face, but she was beyond noticing. She cradled her cousin's head in her lap, covering Katea's glowing eyes with soot-blackened hands and crying. What was happening? Why was nobody helping?
Above them, the colours in the sky continued to mix and tumble in a wild dance.
“Mother,” Amara screamed out, “Katea's eyes are burning. Help her!”
“Pollution has entered the Kith lineage. We must purge them!” Father Curasso's heavy bulk filled Amara's eyes. He stared down with unmasked hatred at her. Fumbling for the gold aquila tied to his waist, the priest drew it forth. “Suffer not the witches to live. Do not shirk, do not falter. Give them the God-Emperor's justice!”
“You're absurd,” Beslan sputtered. “My family line is pure, corruption does not dirty these blue veins. We stand as pure as any Terran.” Beslan Kith knelt to hold Katea. Curasso hauled the man to his feet, throwing him back with a force only the pious or insane held.
“My Lord Kith, do not touch their stained bodies. They are no longer kin. They are abominations. Is it not written 'Love the Emperor and follow His words, for they alone will save Mankind'
? And has not the Emperor decreed the taint of the witch be sought out and purged wherever it is found?” Curasso's words hooked the heart of the patriarch. “We cannot allow ourselves to hide behind the title of family. Humanity itself is a family, and to guard the many we must destroy the few who would destroy us.”
The proud man humbled, Beslan nodded. “What do we do, Father?” Next to Beslan, his daughters sobbed for the future awaiting their children.
Curasso made the sign of the aquila. Those closest to the priest followed his example with heads bowed. “The witches shall be taken to the capital of Inno. The Astropathic Choir will summon the Blackships once these unholy storms past. The names of these children are to be stricken from the family records, their existence denied, and the House of Kith must undergo tests of purity.” His eyes slid meaningfully to the mothers, mindful of the curse twins carried for all.
“I will fetch the Arbites,” Beslan murmured. “They will deal with this matter.”
He left his fields to burn and ignored the wails of his daughters, striding quickly away. Beslan's mind was set, the course would not be altered, and he would accept the punishments given to his House. Behind him, the things
once called his grandchildren screamed.
“Mother,” Katea's cries were piteous. “Mother! My eyes, they burn!”
“Help her! Help--” Amara's cry was cut short as a family retainer struck her in the head with the butt of an antique rifle. She slumped to the ground unconscious, Katea screaming as she sensed the rifle butt careening down upon her.
Mercifully, the swirl of colours ended and there was only blackness.
waited in the eye of the Warp storm, untouched by the powerful tides which roiled and seethed beyond its sapphire and golden hull. Ghosting alongside the starboard of the Acheron-class battle cruiser was the Meskhenet
. Both vessels, centuries old and bristling with armament, fell under the command of Ahriman, even as the latter belonged to Pathoth. Having translated into the Mizar subsector with no issues, the exiled Thousand Sons awaited new orders. While the sinister currents of the Warp covered the surface of Inno, those who came to the planet with a darker purpose planned. In Ahriman's staterooms, the grand sorcerer stood before the scroll plundered from Jollana Librarium. Unfurled across the marble table, the parchment's surface was covered by a multitude of arcane symbols and near incomprehensible writing.
Acting in accordance with the signs the scroll gave, retrieving the psykers whose names appeared, the potential future was unlocked. It was fragmentary work at best. Decades past from one revelation to the next, the time between difficult. Yet now Ahriman had reached his final destination. After Inno's name, the script concluded. No conjuring would bring forth more. No planets or names revealed themselves, the future murky. Ahriman held a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration in himself, knowing a momentous truth would be exposed. Another part of the cosmic puzzle, his to unlock and take once he held the key.
It was finding the key which proved troublesome. Ahriman's concentration was broken when Pathoth spoke.
“What is more fickle, the changing Immaterium or the faith of humanity in their corpse Emperor? I desire this new riddle of mine to spark fierce debates. Even amongst the Word Bearers if possible, for if I can speak with one of their dark chaplains, I believe my logic will supersede his.”
Ahriman turned from the scroll to Pathoth's sonorous voice. The vizier gazed out the stain glass porthole into the Immaterium beyond, and Ahriman controlled his rising choler. How like the sorcerer to be concerned with petty trivialities when something grander was afoot. Drumming his fingers against his black staff, Ahriman subdued his emotions with a calming incantation.
“Do as you wish. Dare not bring your riddles or conundrums into conversation when I am in the same room as those fanatics.” A pause. “What do you see out in the currents of the Great Ocean that demands your attention?”
Pathoth shrugged, the gesture theatrical. “The damned and lost souls. Fate spinning us onwards. The final step in the writings of the scroll.” He smiled cynically. “An underpopulated planet where the people have no idea who is watching them from on high. The storms are a sign from Tzeentch that which you seek is here.”
Each tolerated the presence of the other without open hostility, but it was an uneasy truce. Pathoth kept himself and his own to the Meskhenet
unless his presence was required by Ahriman. His advice, while not often sought, was well-situated when needed.
“You failed to mention one thing of critical importance, Osis.”
“I have? Pray tell, what has my precognition failed to warn of?”
Ahriman directed Pathoth's attention to a data-slate recently brought, lying next to the Jollana scroll. Scanning through the contents, the vizier's face remained impassive as he read.
“The Blackships approach. It is a singular annoyance to know they will translate in system just as we descend to Inno.” Ahriman's voice was clipped; he turned back to the scroll and consulted the information. “Time is running out. I need to discern this psyker's bearings before the Blackships come to claim them.”
Pathoth moved to stand across the table, looking at the scroll upside-down with a bemused smile. “Can you find the mortal and escape before the Imperium's arrival? That is the true question. I would hate to lose my vessel to the Blackships.”
Ahriman scoffed, “Nothing is hidden from my eyes.” He spoke with a conviction born of past experiences, of the impossible being but a word. Words shimmered on the vellum and changed. Ahriman traced his forefinger in a complex symbol over the words, and they twisted once more, reforming. The key, hidden inside itself, was unmasked and the bearings of the final psyker were displayed.
“Who will you take to the surface?”
“My inner coven, those beyond the fourth tier. A small force, for this strike will require speed. A Thunderhawk will transport us to the holding cells placed in the capital. Undoubtedly, Imperial Arbites are defending the prison, many who have never seen Astartes. They will cause little trouble. You will take brief command of the vessels.” Ahriman disliked the sudden gleam in Pathoth's eyes. “Should the Blackships appear, I trust you know how to engage a space battle.”
The vizier laughed. “I have witnessed my fair share. The single battleship which protects this backwater world is unlikely to find us. We are too well hidden by the Warp storm to appear on its auspex, and should we encounter it, their eyes will see the void soon enough.”
“Just ensure the Blackships do not block our escape.”
“Do you believe this task will succeed? We skirt the edge of danger.”
“Victory will come from this,” Ahriman replied. “I was meant to go to Inno, just as I was destined to take the scroll from Jollana. I will return with the psyker and fate will show the next step to be taken.”
She woke on a stone floor, cold and uncomfortable and terrified. Her head felt heavy. To move too much brought waves of pain. Dried blood coated Amara Kith's left cheek, having patterned down from her forehead where the rifle had struck. Slowly, her eyes focused and the girl took in her surroundings. Lumen globes shed weak light against the stone walls which loomed overhead, the ceiling wreathed in shadows. No windows offered a clue to where she was, nor gave any fresh air in the stagnant room. The single door of black metal rising up before her was firmly shut, an embossed death's head grinning spitefully across the space.
Amara tried to rise on weak legs, the sensation of pins and needles acutely felt in each hesitant step. A surging pain throbbed against her skull, reminding her of the injury done. Collapsing to the floor, knees cracking against the stone, Amara cried out. Through the hazy pain she noticed the bindings on her; a psy-collar fitted around her neck and cuffs locked her wrists together. The collar emitted soft beeps, a green light winking as the machine spirit diligently suppressed Amara's psychic talent. When she became aware of the sensation, or lack thereof, it halted her tears.
Out in the fields she had felt invincible. Nothing could touch her, the landscape was hers to travel at a whim in the briefest of moments. With the psy-collar locked around her throat, the dog chained to be obedient, everything was now flipped. Colours were muted, the presence of loud sounds dulled to echoes barely registered, and the physical pain amplified more than her body could bear. Yet for how her 'witching' powers manifested, it was nothing compared to Katea's. She had burned those men alive, lifting off the ground as though ready to ascend into the realm of the God-Emperor with her eyes blazing.
“Katea,” Amara whispered frantically, whipping her head about to find her. Pain lashed against her skull without remorse.
The other child was in the cell. Unconscious and similarly bound as her cousin, further precautions were taken with the girl who had mercilessly immolated several men. Katea's head was covered with a dampening hood, only leaving the lower part of her face exposed. Crawling over to Katea, Amara nudged the girl on the shoulder. Katea stirred, mouth drawing back into a grimace.
Amara wondered if she felt sickened and muted with the psy-collar in place, what did Katea feel?
“It's okay,” Amara whispered. A lie, a damned lie. “I think we are somewhere--”
“Not home.” Katea's voice rasped from a dry throat. “Where are we?”
“I don't know.” Admitting made Amara feel powerless. A shudder of fear wracked her body.
“I don't feel good. My head hurts. I feel sick, as though I ate a bad piece of sweetmeat.” A light sheen of sweat covered Katea's pale skin. She pushed herself to her knees, each movement awkward and encumbering without the girl having her sight. “Did grandfather abandon us? He won't come and save us?”
Hot tears pricked at the corners of Amara's eyes. Katea's words exposed a harsh, cold truth. The awful realisation that no one was coming to save them, family abandoning two children in an unknown cell, and not a single soul caring was too much for Amara Kith. If Katea could see, she would have watched the blood drain from Amara's face, her mouth forming a wordless scream. Amara's mind lurched with hands gripping at the edge of the deep ravine, desperately scrabbling for purchase. To plummet into the dark gully below meant madness, an end to everything, leaving Katea alone to fend for herself.
Amara's mind scape titled one way, twisted another until it balanced. She dragged herself up from the pit with the sole foothold she still had.
“I’ll protect you, Katea.” Simple words, innocent words, childish words. Amara would protect Katea. She was the elder of the two. The responsibility fell to her. However their lives would end – and Amara felt it would not be far off – she could keep that promise.
“Do you swear this time? You're not making it up?”
Amara bumped her chained hands against Katea's, patting her sweaty skin. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Without sight, Katea relied on sound to deduce the truth. Amara would hold to those words. She never heard a waver in the girl's voice. Convinced, Katea curled up next to her cousin, attempting to ignore the way her stomach churned. Silence descended, broken from time to time by the distant sounds of boots or the whine of long-slumbering engines brought to life. Amara was jolted from her thoughts when Katea spoke.
“Will we be taken to the stars?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Ships are coming. Big ships to take us away. Father Curasso--”
Metal banged against metal outside the cell. Footsteps were heard, the lock holding the black door shut released with a deafening clang. The door slid open to allow two Arbites entry, faces hidden behind reflective helmets and weapons trained on the children. Behind them, a tall man dressed in the voluminous white robe of an apothecary entered, a medicae kit carried in gloved hands. Just like the Arbites, his face was concealed in a heavy hood, a shadowy face with no smile and no frown.
“We can't have you both awake now. It isn't time yet to move you.” His quiet voice resonated in the cell, sounding too warm and fatherly from a figure whose face was hidden. “This should help you sleep for a time.” Opening the kit he retrieved two vials of clear liquid, fitting them into a metal syringe. Amara backed away from the man, trying to hide Katea behind her.
One of the Arbites cocked his rifle. “Speak again and you'll be without a head.”
Katea whimpered in fear at the sound of the weapon racking. Amara closed her mouth, biting her tongue. The apothecary approached Katea first, sliding the hypodermic needle into the base of her neck and injecting the clear liquid in one smooth motion. She never made a sound, slumping forward as the sedative took effect. Amara wanted to struggle, to kick at the guards and gnaw the hand of this so-called healer and as his hand descended on her shoulder, she shivered at the touch.
“There now child,” he spoke with false commiseration, “you will sleep. When you wake again, everything will change for the better.”
Amara wondered for whose betterment it was. The throbbing of her head diminished, the world growing dim around her. She never heard the cell door close, metal shrieking against metal, already lost to consciousness.
Ulsan. The capital city of Inno – indeed, the only true city on the planet – was a sprawling warren of streets, back alleys, and prefabricated houses which had seen better days. The heart of Inno from which the arteries extended to the provincial towns, Ulsan did little to dominate the landscape. Only three buildings appeared to fight against the overwhelming vastness; the Ecclesiarchy cathedral, the Governor's palace, and the Arbites ziggurat. The last struck fear into the minds and souls of the populace with its imposing presence and bristling armaments.
Inno's most heavily fortified structure, it held the imprisoned psykers who waited for the Blackships. Rising over a mile into the sky with dungeons plunging just as deep, the grey monolith was a shadow set against the darker night scape. No one could approach the Arbites causeway leading into the compound without a hundred turrets tracking each movement. It was foolishness to assault the ziggurat, a madman's plan doomed from the start. Nothing would survive the cross-fire barrage of heavy shells or deadly lasfire. Should someone try to escape, their retreat would be blocked by adamantium blast doors.
A pity the military architect never gave thought to an airborne strike.
Moving in two-man units, Arbites walked the night patrols. They strode with the confidence of being on just another patrol, walking the same path across the plasteel and concrete ramparts. The ziggurat was secure, and come the morrow the Blackships would arrive and relieve the Arbites of their heavy duty. Two Arbites deep in conversation kept their eyes away from the dark heavens and the waning storms above.
“What happens to the witches? I thought we'd get to kill them. Better off for everyone, and easier on our resources. Too dangerous to keep them here until the-- what're they called again?”
“Yeah, until the ships come to take them away. Imagine the security risk we have with so many witches beneath us.” An image of milling psykers who could read minds or kill with a thought under his feet caused the Arbites to squirm.
His friend snorted in laughter. “The last thing we do is execute them. About security threats, each cell in the lower levels – you've been there, but you're too dumb to notice it. Anyway, each chamber holds a psy-dampener generator. It reacts to the bonds the psykers are placed in, stops them from using whatever witchcraft they try.”
“How well do those psy-dampeners work?”
“Works really well from what I've heard. Least that's what the cog-boys say when they go to check the machines. Anyone who has a smidgen of the Emperor's un-blessing won't be able to use their tricks, no matter who or what they are.”
“And if the generators fail?” The uncomfortable stretch of silence did little to support the guard's fear.
The man replied, “God-Emperor damn us all, I guess. But these people get tested by the Blackships. I know armoured shuttles come to bring the witches to the holds. After that, it's no longer our problem. We get paid, the monsters leave Inno alone, and I can go home to my wife and a good meal.”
The night watch stillness was broken by a thunderous shriek of engines. Descending from the upper atmosphere and its storms, a sleek craft caught the Arbites attention. One man pointed, in itself a useless gesture. Everyone could see it from the ziggurat walls and the speed it approached with. Even, one could say, the singular intent it was designed for.
“Speak of the devil. Do you think it's one of the crafts now?”
“Looks like it. Sleek, fast, what you'd expect for those Inquisitors. They always get the best of everything. Thunderhawk-pattern, I reckon, which means we might see the fabled Astartes.”
“Maybe. Some Inquisitors have them on the Blackships. Though,” the Arbites guard pursed scarred lips. “Usually we receive shuttle notification in advance.”
Banking left around the Arbites ziggurat and firing its retro-thrusters, the Thunderhawk's speed cut sharply. Its nose angled upwards, the craft came to land on the top of the compound. Already a captain was striding briskly out from the blast door, his group of officers following. No doubt everyone was thankful the collection team had come. Eyes from the ramparts looked in apprehension to see who would disembark. An Inquisitor, the captain of the Blackships, perhaps a Space Marine.
The Thunderhawk's ramp dropped without ceremony. An armoured figure, majestic and terrible, strode from the vessel. Each human registered the image; monstrous in height and build, the presence radiating from the warrior placed awe into their hearts. Extending his gloved hand in greeting, the captain's words were overturned as a bolt round split his head open like an overripe melon.
Pandemonium descended. Arbites covering the walls yelled orders to raise the alarm, the vox-comm crackled to life as, on the compound's tarmac, the men began firing against the new arrivals. No time to think, only to act, and even the resistance given was not enough. Confusion intensified into outright fear as figures of legend followed the first down the ramp, knocking down mortals too slow to move. Bolt rounds pinged against ceramite armour, lasfire twisted away from its intended targets. Retaliation from the enemy came as lightning hurled from outstretched hands or the bark of bolters.
Ahriman's staff flared with Warp fire, creating human infernos from would-be challengers. Very quickly, the compound was quiet with the tattered corpses of Arbites strewn across the cold tarmac.
“Keep the area secured,” he ordered to the Rubric Marines he had brought. “We have limited time to collect what I require.”
Signalling two of his coven, Ibhar and Noph, to come with him, Ahriman entered the Arbites ziggurat and the maze of halls within. Stepping inside the monolith confirmed his suspicions of psy-dampeners placed throughout the massive complex. The divestment of his powers became a lead cloak wrapping over him, draining his talents. Locating one of the psy-dampeners generators close by, Ahriman's bolt pistol made short work of the arcane device.
His powers flickered too and fro, the weight of the cloak temporarily retreated. No doubt the sorcerer-adepts with him felt the same. For every generator the Thousand Sons came across in the vaulted halls, the machine became a blasted heap of metal. The archaic machines could not drown out everything. Ahriman sensed, between the flareups of his powers, the presence of the psyker he had come for. Out of the hundreds in their cells below, hidden under the multitude of floors, the single psyker's raw talent burned bright.
“Like a lumen next to candles,” Noph muttered, swinging his power sword in one hand, cutting down a group of Arbites who attempted to ambush them. “I would almost want to see the disappointment in the Imperial lapdogs faces when we take this one from them.”
Coming to the first bank of elevators, Ahriman chose a lift to take them down. Going as far as the first lift could, the Thousand Sons continued to move from one elevator to the next, penetrating deeper into the ziggurat. No map was needed. Ahriman let the pull of destiny guide his armour shod feet.
Foolish or brave Arbites created cordons to stop the Chaos marines; brute strength from the warlocks replaced dark spells. Bodies crumpled under ceramite gauntlets splashed red. Ibhar and Noph preceded Ahriman to protect their lord's passage. In moments where Ahriman's powers flared and psy-dampeners were destroyed, he sent shrieking bolts of lightning down metal corridors to coldly murder Imperial lackeys.
From the cells, voices of those who knew they were damned pleaded for their deaths. Or salvation. It was difficult to filter the swelling cries of each person, voices overcoming the next until it they became an indistinguishable mass of humanity crying as one. Hands pounded against the steel walls until the flesh was bruised and bloodied, but the Chaos marines did not stop.
“Should we release them, if only to cause confusion for the guards?” Ibhar glanced at the cell blocks strung with purity seals and holy vials.
“Does a librarian settle for a tome of minor importance when he can take what's the most rare? We have enough sacrificial slaves as it is. Leave these beings.” Ahriman took no untalented whelps under his tutelage.
A central lift brought them downwards, rushing through a tunnel of pitch black amid the shriek of alarm klaxons. The sub-levels were reached, where the most dangerous psykers were kept. Enslaved.
Motioning for Ibhar and Noph to halt at the lift and their only means of escape, Ahriman proceeded alone. He found the psy-dampener generator not far from the elevator lift, making short work of it as he had the others. The lead weight dragging the sorcerer down lifted substantially, returning with it a wave of psychic ability.
Stone corridors where protective runes were carved into the black surface made his skin crawl. Faceless black doors held the most deadly, the most insane, the most gifted of humankind behind their heavy locks. Ahriman's blood pulsed against the holy words bathed in the light of lumen stripes. Here, in the furthest recesses of the Arbites hold, a torrent of flames housed in a weak corporeal form waited.
Ahriman came upon the cell, the door breaking under a touch from his staff. Pushing the door aside, Ahriman found two girl children in the cell. Huddled in the far corner, their young minds did not understand who was standing before them or what was happening in the ziggurat above. Ahriman saw their potentials at once, surprised by their divergence. Where one could hope to delve into the mysteries of the universe, the other might wish to read the minds of others. He saw the grand future of one tied into his own and the short thread of the other.
“Go away!” It was the unhooded girl who screamed. Waving her bound hands at the towering figure, she clumsily made the sign of the aquila. “Leave us alone!”
Crossing the chamber in three strides, Ahriman knocked aside the child who played at being a hero. He easily lifted the other, hooded and passive. Blinded from truth. At the unknown contact she began to scream and kick out. The empathic build-up of stress from the child washed over the room, throwing the space of the chamber to a place between
for a handful of moments. Even with the psy-collar and dampening hood in place, the feat was noted by Ahriman.
“Amara, help me! Don't let them take me!”
Channelling a measure of phlegmatic into the girl's aura did little good, the psy-bindings flaring against the intrusion. Mentally reprimanding himself for coming under prepared and without sedatives, Ahriman turned on his heel to leave. His exit was barred by the other girl child.
“Give me back my cousin! You have no--”
Whipping the end of his staff about, Ahriman's blow sent the girl careening into the far wall. Baleful eyes stared down at the child's tiny frame. “I will leave you to your own ends, as short as they are.”
Shrieking child under his arm, Ahriman left the cell. Thrashing in the unknown grip, the girl screamed again and again, each wail ringing against the sorcerer's helm. The air bubbled and compressed once more. Above them, lumen stripes crackled and shattered, their glass raining down to cut the psyker child's exposed skin. Sparks ignited into flames, which rushed down the dark halls to scorch whatever was found. Matted locks of the girl's long hair caught alight, adding further to her terror.
“Curse you!” Ahriman shouted over the gale of fire. He batted at the flames, snuffing them, not wanting the prize to end up a charred corpse.
Rejoining his cohorts, the Thousand Sons ascended the lift. In their wake they left a scene of mayhem, the klaxon howling after them. The weight of the psy-dampeners dropped away and once on the rooftop of the Arbites ziggurat, it felt as Ahriman were taking a breath of fresh air for the first time. Still wriggling in his grasp, the child screamed her voice hoarse. Ahriman could not effectively quell the girl's outbursts without removing the shackles holding her powers in place, and he would not risk it.
He handed the child off to one of the coven as easily as passing a doll from one massive hand to the next.
Rising over the Arbites compound and the sleeping city of Ulsan, the pilots put the engines into a full burn. Punching through the atmosphere and the gravity well of Inno, those strapped into their harnesses still felt the relentless pull. It was a testament to the Thousand Sons fleeing a world slated for the Blackships.
“Lord Ahriman.” The pilot's voice crackled over the vox.
“Report.” Ahriman gripped the webbing of his harness, buffeted from side to side with the shaking of the Thunderhawk.
reports of ships translating in system. They estimate seventy minutes until the Imperial vessels reach our position. We also received confirmation of the Imperial battleship defending Inno. It has found us.”
“When did-- Nevermind! Send a communique to the bridge of the Khermuti
. They will wait for us, they will wait.”
And then, having to outrun the Imperium's Blackships.
Red lights bathed the command deck of the Khermuti
, warning of ships translating at the edge of the system. Linked via the hololithic display, Pathoth saw the same red colour the deck of his grand cruiser. His crew's actions mirrored those on the other bridge; adepts running to relay commands, firing batteries primed, waiting for the inevitable and costly engagement.
From the inbound Imperial forces there were picket ships, fast cruisers and escorts having their engineers run the drives red-hot to make it to Inno. Behind them, the battle fortresses of the Blackships, commanding firepower which could pulverize even the Meskhenet
, cleared their Warp jump point. Compounding this unfortunate information and driving anxiety high, the original single vessel thought to protect Inno was confirmed to be a Gothic-class cruiser.
With the Warp storms dissipating the Gothic-class cruiser had found the Chaos interlopers, manoeuvring to engage the hostiles in Imperial territory. Hanging in the void and dangling between two approaching forces, the Khermuti
waited. The option of a retreat had been stripped from Pathoth's hands until Ahriman returned. Pathoth's left eye twitched imperceptibly as he tracked the Imperial cruiser across the auspex screen. It would soon cross Inno's terminator line and be in prime firing range against the Chaos ships. The sorcerer could only imagine the damage the forward batteries would wreck against his vessel.
“What are your orders?” Bethos' calculating eyes looked at the vizier.
“How long until Ahriman returns to the Khermuti
“Precisely seventeen minutes, fifty-two seconds.”
“How much time until Imperial forces engage us?”
“The Gothic cruiser will be upon us in less than twenty minutes, another fifty with the Blackships and their trailing pack.” Keeping the worry from his voice proved an effort, yet a slight tremor betrayed Bethos.
Pathoth considered, furtively scrying the future. Muddied aether greeted him and his senses, leaving Pathoth unable to untangle the most accurate path. Not that he would rely on potential futures and disregard logic, but knowing what could be always helped. Running outbound to gain the necessary distance for a Warp jump would leave their broadsides and backs exposed. Having to face an enemy on both sides was an unwilling and costly manoeuvre which could end in the damage of either spacecraft. Either option presented losses Pathoth was not willing to risk. A whisper drifted across his mind.
Another path was open to the dedicated followers of the Great Manipulator.
“We create a gateway. It is the most readily available option.” Bethos blanched at Pathoth's words. A few of the magi-adepts shifted nervously. Osis Pathoth gestured for Mhkai to approach.
“Haste is required to leave this system. Mhkai,” Pathoth directed the second-tiered mage. “Prepare the coven. I require the sacrificial fires lit and my sorcerers to stand ready. The Great Ocean will need to be drawn and parted for this endeavour.”
Bethos interjected, “Vizier, we can run to the edge of the system. Creating a gateway will cause--”
“Dare you to counterman my decision?” Pathoth turned against the fourth-tiered sorcerer, his voice laced with contempt. His will beat against Bethos, pulling him down. “Sacrifice a hundred slaves to the fires, a thousand! I care not! A gateway will be opened. The Meskhenet
will precede the Khermuti
once we confirm the Thunderhawk with the psyker is safely on board.”
Creating a gateway rent from the fabric of space required time and finesse, neither which Pathoth could give. Keying his vox-channel to the command bridge, Pathoth led his coven into the upper chambers to begin the ritual. The very state of unpreparedness smacked against the vizier's precision. Ceremonial candles were lit and from the oily smoke, Pathoth drew invisible sigils in the air. The first death-screams of the slaves reverberated through the corrupted halls. Pooling their talents into the deep well of Pathoth's abilities, the coven latched on to the souls of the slaves to be used as fuel.
Projecting his astral form above the Khermuti
, body quaking with the mental effort, Pathoth raised limbs that were and were not his to the void. Stars vanished and reformed in the haze of the dying Warp storm, the eddies and whorls battering against Pathoth's concentration. A mere slip of thought and he would be dashed against the shoals of the Immaterium. Visualizing a great chasm opening before the ships, a tear in reality to the realms beyond, the vizier poised. Unencumbered by mortal flesh, he could sense the foreboding Blackships approach, the Gothic-class cruiser rearing to strike, a Thunderhawk sweeping under the belly of the Khermuti
and to asylum...
“We confirm Lord Ahriman's Thunderhawk has docked in arming bay 38-N.”
Pathoth waited no longer. Plunging psychic hands into the dirty aether surrounding the vessels, reaching through the weakening Warp storm to grasp imperceptible threads, he tore the fabric of space. Fuelled by the sacrifices and supported by his cabal's mental exertions, the vizier created a howling gateway in the vacuum of space. Lighting arced over the metal hulls and into the void, unearthly shrieks gibbering in a soundless blackness. The Meskhenet
dove through the hastily constructed rift first, its engines flaring to life. Close on its heels the Khermuti
Ripped back into his enhanced physique coughing blood, Osis Pathoth collapsed, spent. Sweat coated his face as both his hearts beat out of tandem, struggling to find a normal rhythm. The members of his circle fared little better, one sorcerer-adept flailing about as mutation broke over his body. A small sacrifice, all silently considered, for the greater plan.
“Pathoth to Lord Ahriman. Have you the psyker?”
A howling scream cut across the channel. Sounds of men shouting were drowned out by Ahriman.
“As I told you, Pathoth, my victory was assured from the beginning. Where are you sending us tumbling through the Warp to?”
Crashing sounds drowned out Pathoth's answer. Pattering across the floor of the ritual chamber, a mutated familiar informed the vizier his presence was required at once in arming bay 38-N. His well-situated advice was obviously required.
As quickly as they had come, Ahriman's forces departed having claimed their prize. The future wove on and on, a contorted path Ahriman walked without knowing what lay at the end, but prepared for whatever waited for him.