I have no excuses for this delay, nor guarantees for future update schedules. But here's another chapter, at least.
The command barge of Overlord Anrakyr of Pyrrhia hurtled through the tunnels south of Noctis Labyrinthus, with every turn getting closer to the Dragon’s haven. On it, Anrakyr himself stood tall, a brilliant blue halberd standing adjacent and ready to be grabbed at less than a moment’s notice.
Srequi Lantrane, formerly a Magos of the Adeptus Mechanicus, stood next to him, exchanging information with the xeno artificial intelligence. It was an act utterly forbidden and antithetical to the Mechanicum’s ideals. Somehow, despite Lantrane’s clear guilt, she felt not a trace of doubt about this path. The times were too desperate, and the exchange of information too fascinating.
Perhaps she was a traitor to the human race, but withholding something wouldn’t change that, not by this point. Besides, Anrakyr was being increasingly open, himself. She respected that.
“Wait,” she said. “All those heroes are male. Was there a strong gender dichotomy in your species?” She was no xenologist, but she knew that a number of alien species had such a trait.
“Ah, gender,” Anrakyr observed. “A fascinating concept, but one foreign to us. Necrontyr biology made no distinction between male and female. Some Old One philosophers tried to explain that through the toxic light of our star, but there are other exceptions to the two-gender rule: the Swirenn were also unisex, for instance, and the Kinelux had three sexes. A minor species in the galactic northeast, known as the Eureur, had no less than five genders, with certain sets of three being able to produce offspring. I believe they went extinct due to underpopulation. Even the Orks were mono-gendered, though the Old Ones designed them themselves.”
“The Orks? Green, belligerent fungoids? They existed in your time?”
“Yes,” Anrakyr observed, “designed as weapons against us, during the War in Heaven. When I discovered they still plagued the galaxy to this day, I was extremely displeased. There were other species, too, though none of them were successful in stopping our advance.”
“The Orks were our strongest foes in the Great Crusade,” Lantrane said. “But why were they designed as a weapon? It seems illogical to create a weapon you could not control.”
“They were more unified, when facing a unilateral threat. Moreover, they have undergone a devolution over the epochs. West or east?”
“West,” Lantrane said. “And then we should emerge to the forbidden regions of the Labyrinth, which I have no data on.”
“I should be able to detect the Dragon soon enough,” Anrakyr said. “How big were the greatest Ork empires you faced during the Crusade?”
“Only a few hundred worlds,” Lantrane admitted, “though most of those were nomadic.”
“That is still likely to pose a significant difficulty, especially if those realms were left unstressed for some time. Which they would have been, from your tales of ‘Old Night’. If there were no major galactic powers, that is.”
Before Lantrane could reply, the barge screeched to a halt. It took a microsecond longer than it should have for Lantrane to realize why.
A man, an adept of the Mechanicum, was standing before them. He looked almost baseline human, if one could ignore the fact that he had no less than ten arms instead of two. He wore a work robe, and his hair – with only a few mechatendrils within it – was more truly silver than gray. There were blades in his belt, and he looked like he knew how to use them better than most skitarii. But his stance was not hostile.
“I am Adept Semyon,” he said. “Who are you, and what is your purpose here?”
“I am Anrakyr of Pyrrhia,” the Overlord replied, “and I desire to take knowledge from the Dragon, and prevent its escape.”
“You are not lying,” Semyon said, “and… any allies will do, I suppose. Come with me. I am the Guardian of the Dragon, and I dread that I will be the last.”
He beckoned them off the command barge, and then Lantrane and Anrakyr followed him down, through metallic caverns that were barely recognizable as having, once, been simple service corridors.
“Anrakyr,” he said. “You seem to be aware of what the Dragon is, but then you also know that it will not be cooperative.”
“If it will not, then I will kill it,” the Overlord said. “It is a mere shard. And I do have information of my own to offer it, if necessary.”
Semyon looked unsure, at that.
“I was being serious,” Anrakyr said, “about helping your defenses. They were hastily erected, and though I cannot help long, my race’s technology is superior to yours.”
“They were hastily erected, yes, because Kelbor-Hal would not have allowed any to pass here in the Order’s service. There was no need for severe defenses.”
“A risk like this deserved extreme defenses regardless,” Anrakyr observed. “But the trap will defend itself, better than much of what your people could achieve anyhow.”
“Well,” Semyon stated, “I can’t… I won’t refuse your aid. Thank you. And as for you, Magos Lantrane?”
“I was Anrakyr’s guide through the tunnels of Mars.” Lantrane focused her gaze on Anrakyr. “Anrakyr, may I accompany you into the Dragon’s haven? Take whatever precautions you deem necessary. I only want to see this fragment of malevolent power. And I have nowhere else to go, anyhow. Wrought Axis has fallen to the Iron Hands.”
“So be it,” Anrakyr stated.
Semyon looked somewhat flabbergasted, but chose not to argue with the ancient machine. “In… that case, follow me. Preferably on foot.”
Lantrane dismounted, and Anrakyr followed, after directing his barge to park itself in place. The hovercraft attached itself to the tunnel floor; given her prior awareness of the Necrons’ technology, she doubted it could was physically possible to dislodge it, at least without destroying it. They followed Semyon’s brisk pace through the branching corridors, most of which gently sloped either up or down. It was a labyrinth indeed, reproducing in microscale the terrain of the surface – or something similar, at least.
They walked in silence, and Lantrane again contemplated her three betrayals. Together, they had combined to turn her away from Mars and mankind. And yet she still could not wait to see the Dragon’s face (if it had a face), to encounter a being mortals were supposedly not meant to know. It was not, she was forced to admit, a question of whether she had turned to darkness. It was a question of whether she had always been doomed to do just that.
They came to a staircase, a winding helix cut from basaltic rock, and Semyon led them downwards, stepping carefully and occasionally skipping a dilapidated step. The circular wall was carved with intricate murals, perhaps crafted by Semyon himself and his predecessors during their endless vigil.
They descended hundreds of meters into the Martian crust, before at last the stair turned into a flat corridor. Anrakyr gave an appreciative hum.
“The spatial confounders were good enough to fool my sensors,” he remarked. “Impressive, for such a young race.”
“We aren’t that
young,” Lantrane felt obliged to say. “Thirty thousand years is more than some other galactic powers.”
“Not infantile,” Anrakyr accepted. “But young.”
They walked into a large marble cube, which Semyon’s touch caused to slide apart to reveal a narrow second-order tunnel. They passed through that tunnel, and Lantrane was painfully aware of the turrets aimed at the party, stationed throughout the passage. Most of them were thankfully completely inactive, not even in sentry mode.
It was a dark place, barely lit at all by the occasional lamp. It was also almost bereft of metal, unlike most locations on Mars. A bizarre location, by the Red Planet’s standards. But perhaps it had to be such, to be a cage for this monster?
Srequi Lantrane did not pretend like she knew; but she chose not to ask, because she doubted Semyon would respond well.
They walked on, through three heavy and unmarked gates. The fourth was carved with binary, warning of doom to the one who entered. It presented a convincing argument for why the Dragon’s sanctum was not worth entering – a completely false argument, but a convincing one nonetheless.
Semyon pushed the gates open. They, unlike the previous ones, did not take in his bio-signature. Instead, they were protected by nothing except grandiose claims of destruction that, somehow, understated the true danger of what the vault contained. They merely promised death to the owner’s family, after all, not to everyone on Mars.
The three metallic humanoids walked across a hall towards the doors at its other end. Their path was convex, as if they were walking along a lying cylinder. Its sides dropped off into a gaping pit.
“Lantrane,” Semyon said, “once we pass the door, you will stay with me.” He clasped one of her hands in one of his own, quite firmly, to signify. “I have not forgotten your past membership in the Order.”
Holding her hand in one of his own right hands, and Anrakyr’s in one of his left, Semyon, the Guardian of the Dragon, passed through the final door without opening it, and entered the chamber of the Dragon.
It was like a primitive world’s cathedral, but instead of light reflected through glass, it was filled with darkness reflected through fiber optics. And in the center of the darkness, there stood a vast machine, roughly octahedral in shape, holding within itself a greenish, eldritch light that seeped through the cracks. It was as beautiful as any marvel of technology Lantrane had seen, intricate to the nanoscale and presumably beyond, combining the best of human technology with a slight sliver of xenotech.
“Oh Dragon of Mars,” Anrakyr of Pyrrhia said, in a voice far more assured than even the one Lantrane had heard him use previously. “Oh Great Shard of Mag’ladroth. Black hope, soul breather, sun farmer. I will have words with thee.”
And the green mist within the massive octahedron spoke in response.
“The human language, slave-rebel-prince?”
“The human language, false-god-shard.” Anrakyr had let go of Semyon’s hand, and moved to the front of the adepts, holding his halberd at a threatening tilt. “My question is simple. Where is our king?”
“Szarekh,” the Dragon of Mars said, and Lantrane shook with the strength of its hate. Her noocables, despite being specifically insulated against the Dragon, were picking up much from the eldritch being.
Why was she still here, standing, learning from the Dragon? Should she not be killing it, running from it, liberating it?
“Szarekh, the Silent King,” Anrakyr of Pyrrhia agreed, like an equal. And here, at this intersection, an equal he was, backlit by the green fire of the Dragon, and aflame with cerulean force himself. “Where is he?”
“Very well,” the Dragon said, purring like a mechanical feline, “but there shall be a price. A simple one. The female Adept.”
Her. Was that what she was, in the end? A price to be paid? She was… strangely accepting of the concept. It was poetically correct. The inhuman’s inhuman doom, for tampering with forces beyond her comprehension.
“No,” Anrakyr firmly stated. “No more sacrifices.”
“That is my price,” the Dragon replied. “My only offer.”
“Then I shall kill you,” Anrakyr said. Lantrane felt a shiver pass through her biological components. Anrakyr’s defiance was not for her, it was out of principle, but still it was wrong.
“She will not end,” the Dragon stated. “Merely die.” A common Mechanicum platitude, said to reassure adepts with the fact that their mechanical components would be recycled. Lantrane was not sure if Anrakyr knew that, but she could not interrupt at a point like this.
“No,” Anrakyr said, more furiously than before. “Nevermore. And you will
“I would curse you, as the Flayer had.”
“You are a mere shard,” Anrakyr responded. “You may kill me, but you will not destroy our kind.”
“How certain of that are you? And how certain are you that you can
kill me? Your weapons are mighty, but no Talismans of Vaul.”
Anrakyr was silent.
“You know it will take more than her to free me,” the being within the octahedron declared. “It would be a souvenir, nothing more.”
“No,” Anrakyr repeated, and slowly began to raise his halberd.
“Yes,” Srequi Lantrane answered, knowing well that it would be her last word.
She jerked her hand out of Semyon’s, running towards the Dragon’s prison. Semyon tried to hold his grip firm, but Lantrane’s cybernetics were too strong for that. With inhuman speed, she saw from behind as he raised an arm, the tip of a cannon emerging from it. But the Guardian would be too late; any shot would risk hitting the cage. Anrakyr, meanwhile, stepped aside. His facial expression was unchanged and unreadable; Lantrane had no idea what the Overlord thought of her sacrifice.
Probably that it was idiotic. Perhaps even that she was under the Dragon’s influence. But she was not, merely certain. She had betrayed everything, every commander, every ideal, except for knowledge. And now, allowing Anrakyr and the Dragon to clash would be a betrayal of that last thing.
She placed her flesh hand into a crack on the Dragon’s cage, almost muttering a prayer to the Omnissiah on reflex; and it slid apart, ever so slightly. Green mist poured out, disassembling and transforming her body and mind.
She was Srequi Lantrane of the Wrought Axis. And she would die as Srequi Lantrane of the Wrought Axis, for whatever Anrakyr had planned. An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk.
Her mind focused on that point. An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk. There were drums, she felt. She had never died before, but wondered whether it had always been like this. Eternity stretched out, and she was at the end of it all. The last black holes evaporated, as a world that had never been descended into the void of heat death. Nothing remained.
This was not real. This was not even a past reality. This was merely her mindscape, here at the end.
No. This was not apocalypse, she mind-pushed upon the world around her. This was her end, but the universe’s beginning.
And something was reborn. A vast metal sphere, built of nickel protected against proton decay by the energies of hope and fear combined. The radiation that fled those black holes, collected eons of information, entered and swirled, following equations Srequi Lantrane could not quite comprehend. The doctrines of chance assaulted it, trying to break pieces off by ancient law. This was right, the natural order of things. So all things ended –
“No,” she said, everywhere and nowhere at once. The end was but one last shadow. “An iron dawn, to avoid final dusk.”
And in her acceptance and refusal, the metal shattered, flying out as iron embers, and igniting as copper stars. Light, physically impossible and physically inevitable, flared across a dark universe for the first time in many trillions of eons.
The universe was alive again. Different, eternal, stripped of weakness and initial power. But it would never know death again. It was death, but it was not the end, and would never be.
Metal multiplied, and she saw its promise. It would multiply, fill the entire universe. Block out the void, replace it with endless crystal. Block out the light.
“No,” she said again, with more certainty than before, and the universe shifted again, less willingly, but in rhythm with her dedication. Metal slowed, eroding and being recreated in rhythm. It was a universal-scale orrery, now. A calm and quiet home. Orderly. Safe from all possible dangers. Safe from –
Safe from knowledge, and newness, and identity.
She was Srequi Lantrane, magos of the Martian Mechanicum. She had betrayed everything for knowledge. She would never surrender that final, fatal quest.
“No!” she screamed. To avoid final dusk….
An iron dawn.
Srequi Lantrane of Mars did not open her eyes. She merely began to see through them.
Anrakyr stood before her, holding his halberd as stalwartly ever. Semyon was using four of his ten hands to scratch various parts of his head. And the green mist lit up the room, enough to let her see her reflection on the wall behind Semyon.
She was human once again – or, rather, she was thus at first glance, an adult human woman some would even consider attractive by baseline standards. Except this was only true approximately, in shape. For her skin was now built of the same silvery, flowing metal as Anrakyr’s, in every part of her body, not a touch of organic matter remaining within her. She had not regained her humanity, but instead surrendered it completely.
“Overlord Anrakyr,” she spoke in Gothic, though it seemed strange and half-forgotten to form the words. “This is how the Necrontyr concluded?”
“How we leaders were,” Anrakyr stated. “I am not sure if your retaining your mind was the shard’s intention; but you should have Szarekh’s location in your memory.”
“This… doesn’t feel so terrible,” Lantrane remarked. “Stronger, more intelligent, still sapient…. But there is something… absent?”
“There is,” Anrakyr said, as he motioned Lantrane and Semyon to leave. “Your soul.”