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Kanis raised his hand to temple, massaging his head to try and alleviate the pain. But it was no good, the voices had wrestled control. It had been almost a decade since they had been able to induce this much agony. It felt as if a mental dam had burst, releasing the voices into his mind in a swirling torrent. Every step he made sent shivers of pain through his body, but not with the intensity within his head.

He knew this was his fault, he had gone too long with proper subsistence and sleep. It had drained him of his energy to keep them locked up. A lapse in control, even for a second, can spell major consequences. He decided that he needed time to recharge, enough to at least stave off the worst of the migraine.

Staying close to the ground and moving with as much speed as he dared, Kanis returned to the chapel, the place he had called home for so many years. However, the bustling masses on their way to praise the Emperor had been replaced with decomposing bodies, some contorted into horrible positions. Kanis shuddered as he walked past them and through the open archway.

Poor souls, may the Emperor’s light guide and protect them in the gloom of the afterlife’ he thought

The passage of time was very difficult to measure in the twilight which now engulfed the lower hive, but it was clear that there had been activity here since Kanis last visited. The pews had been overturned, smashed into pieces.

Probably scavengers, getting something to burn for a fire

He glanced around the great hall to see that nothing had been left undisturbed. All the murals and artefacts of the chapel had gone, leaving nothing but a fine layer of dust and bodies. The number of bodies had increased since last he was here, suggesting that the looters must have fought over the remains of this once glorious beacon of faith. Kanis felt only sadness, for he knew that this was done out of desperation, not malice.

Hard times such as these are the true test of a man’s faith, and many fail

As he approached the statue of the Emperor, the focus point of the whole place, he was relieved to see that it had been left fairly unscathed. The voices in his head already began to retreat back into the depths of his mind as he glazed upon its majesty. But they were not going quietly. He could swear they were hissing curses at the glorious figure before him, as if being this close to the statue hurt them. As he kneeled to pray, the last vestals of resistance from the voices vanished. He felt the pain recede, and a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He prayed for the souls that still remained, and asked the Emperor to look down upon them with mercy, and to guide them to his light. As ever, all that he received in return was the statues stony silence. When he was younger, he had asked how the priest knew if the Emperor could hear their prayers. He was told that the greatest gifts the Emperor could bestow on his followers was hope and faith, and that if he believed strongly enough, he would know the Emperor was listening to him.

Kanis opened his eyes and immediately launched himself backwards. His servo skull had hovered in front of his face while he prayed, meaning that when he opened his eyes it floated only a few inches from his nose. Swearing silently as only a mute could, he got back to his feet. He watched his silent companion for a few seconds while he caught his breath. Kanis had always admired the servo skull. It was a relic of the chapel, being in service for countless years. Overtime, its machine spirit had gained a curious nature, as if it had a child’s curiosity.

It was then he felt his stomach churn, with his attention on his pounding headache, Kanis had neglected the emptiness of his stomach. A quick scout of the area showed that everything had now been taken, so he would have to search further afield.

The Emperor likes to test to flock, doesn’t he

Checking his pack and making sure all his belongings were in place, Kanis left the chapel through the rear entrance, in case he had been followed. He began heading south, towards a habitation block, but then froze. Something was wrong. Another side effect of his prolonged battle with the voices were that occasionally, they granted him a heighted sense. He couldn’t explain this even if he could speak, but it felt like he was able to get a glimpse of the surrounding world through disembodied eyes. He was being watched.

Hitting the ground as quickly as he could, Kanis looked around, incase someone had taken arms against him and were hoping for a distance shot with a rifle. His first day out of the chapel had seen him run into a gang armed to the teeth. He had escaped by the skin of his teeth, and had made him more wary of being out in the open for too long. After a few moments, he decided that it must just be a side effect of the earlier battle with the voices and returned to his feet.

Kanis considered his next move. With a feeling of unexplained dread of the habituation block in front of him, he decided to go East instead. He vaguely remembered there had been a manufactorum that produced vast quantities of food, and thought that perhaps there could be some scraps left over. He moved quickly, trying to dispel the feeling of being watched. He was sure he could hear something a voice perhaps, but decided it must be his nerves playing tricks on him. The further east he travelled, the more Kanis felt happy about his decision, he couldn’t explain why but he felt that every step he made was right, as if he was treading a path which had been laid out in front of him.

Perhaps my prayers have been answer

He headed down a narrow street, turning right down an even narrower corridor. Bodies still littered the streets, some looking fresher than others. He then found himself turning left onto a main street until he could see the manufactorium in front of him. But something was wrong. He could see in the distance the doors were wide open, and what appeared to be a glint of metal.

Raiders

Kanis dived behind a wall, waiting for the sound of incoming fire. After a few minutes of silence, he decided that either he had not been spotted or the glint was just a metallic piece of rubble. Not wanting to risk an ambush in unknown territory, Kanis decided that he would have to find another potential source of food. He looked up at another habituation block just a few yards from his hiding place. He could see the doors were still closed, and there appeared to be no tracks leading to or from the building. It seemed odd that this building had been left untouched, but perhaps the raiders didn’t want to leave the manufactorium in case a rival gang swooped in and took it from them. Knowing there would be less food to find, Kanis slowly crept up to the doors, deciding that at least this should lead him away from a firefight. He still could not shake the feeling something was watching him, waiting for him to lower his guard just for a second. He pulled out his knife from its sheath around his belt, its weight comforting in his hands.

May the Emperor guide my blade to victory, so that I may serve him and bring justice in his name’ he silently chanted as he pushed open the door.

On the cusp of hearing, Kanis heard a familiar voice, the first voice he had heard as a child when the curse began. It only surfaced when the others disappeared, as if waiting for him to fall into a false sense of security before striking. It was the only voice that he truly feared, for it took the guise of his former self, the child who had his tongue ripped out, the child who had been left to die, the child who sought the darkness and who the darkness still seeks to claim.

POOR CHOICE
 

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Kanis remained crouched, fear had frozen him to the spot. The voice had caught him unawares. It took all his willpower to force himself forward into the corridor. He tried to calm his mind, his thoughts returning to chants of praise. He decided that he would start his search on the first floor, any raiders or looters passing through early during the mad panic would have surely swept the ground floor clear.

By the time he began climbing the stairs his mind had returned to state of calm. He found himself cursing his moment of weakness, and thanked the Emperor that it had not cost him more than just a few moments of panic. Still remaining low, Kanis moved down the first floor corridor, and picked one of the rooms at random. The door was unlocked, so he pushed the door open slowly.

He found himself in a small room, the floor space almost taken up completely by the small single bed. Apart from the bed and a few discarded possessions, the room was bare. He searched underneath the bed and found what he believed to be a survival bag. Those who were on the run from gang members tended to make up small packs, in case they needed to make a quick getaway. They usually consisted of a small amount of credits, clothes, and a bit of food to keep them going until the next safe point could be found.

Sure enough, as he rooted through the bag he found a can of processed meat. Kanis pried the can open with his knife and quickly devoured the contents within seconds. He settled down on the bed to allow his stomach ample time to digest the measly meal. It would sustain him for a while, but he would soon need to find some more.

It took Kanis a few moments to realise his mistake, and when it registered he could feel fear attempt to grip him once more. He had left the door of the complex open, and it wouldn't take a fool long to figure out someone was here. This fear was quickly replaced by another. This pack had been left here in case of emergencies, if a man needed to escape in a hurry. So why was the pack still here?
 

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The silence that followed seemed to go on for a decade. Kanis listened intently for any sounds of movement, but there was nothing but the pounding of his heartbeat and the gentle hum of the servo skull, who was intently staring at the bag.

‘If this was a trap something would have happened by now’

He relaxed again and allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes. The past few hours had drained him of what little energy he had left. The measly meal would take some time to replenish some of his stores so it was probably best to rest in relative comfort for a while.
He wasn’t sure how long he had shut his eyes for, but as shown as he heard the footsteps he knew the time for rest was over. Acting on instinct, Kanis jumped up from the bed, grabbed the servo skull and dived under the bed. Under any other circumstance Kanis may have simply waited and perhaps even announced his presence, opening a friendly palm. But his recent encounter with the voices had made him more wary.

“BIG MISTAKE” the words rattled round his head.

No, he could take no chances. The voices were a nuisance and a curse, but they had saved his life in the past. The skull tried to fight his grasp, desperately trying to escape. He touched the activation rune and the skull powered down, he couldn’t afford it giving away his presence.

The footsteps echoed down the corridor until the door of his room burst open. Kanis shuffled as far back under the bed as he could, hoping he could go unnoticed. A figure entered the room and grabbed the empty bag. Kanis couldn’t see anything bar the person’s legs, giving him no indication of who they were or their intentions. The springs on the bed gave way slightly as the bag was thrown onto the mattress. It was clear the intruder was searching for something in the bag, it wouldn’t be long before he would discover the missing food.

“Can’t go back, not there. Can’t go back. Can’t go back”

The figure muttered as it rummaged through the bag. The voice was male, but as choking fumes in the hive tended to deepen everyone’s voices, it was difficult to determine an age. Eventually, the man must have found what he was looking for as the feet turned away from the bed and towards the door. It was then that Kanis heard the second pair of footsteps.

This was not panicked running that had propelled the first figure here. No, these footsteps were far more ominous, each carefully placed to project the echo as much as possible. This person clearly wanted their victim to hear their approach, to terrify them, perhaps to make them reveal their hiding place. With every footstep the first figures breathing became more rapid, their muttering increasing until Kanis was barely able to tell what they were saying anymore. He knew he had to keep his wits, to remain calm. His thoughts returned to happier times in the chapel and prayers to the Emperor.

“Come on child, don’t hide. Come out, come out wherever you are”

Kanis’ heart stopped dead. The voice echoed from the corridor, it was clear that the second figure had reached this floor and was getting ever closer to the room. The voices in his head began to stir, he could hear them laughing and taunting him, mocking his attempts to keep calm and telling him to run. He tried to block them out but this just spurred them on. The footsteps reached the doorway and stopped.

Click

Kanis knew that sound only too well. The gang leaders always carried a pistol to show their superiority, and anyone who heard that click knew that their death would soon follow.

Thud

Thud

Thud

“There you are”

Kanis heard the first figure gasp. He wrapped his arms around his head, and waited mere seconds for the inevitable.

BANG

The first figure collapsed to the floor, blood pooling out of a head wound. He could see that this was just a boy, barely at the cusp of manhood. The dead eyes stared into his, and all Kanis could do was stare back. He knew that things had gotten worse after the Event, but he didn’t expect this. This wasn’t a man protecting his own from a band of looters, this was a boy who had been hunted for sport.

*Sigh*

Kanis turned back to the doorway and saw the legs of the murderer. He gathered they must be admiring their kill, for they made no effort to move towards the boy or to loot his remains.

“You’ve gone and hidden again, haven’t you.”

Kanis almost jumped at the suddenness of voice. The playful tone had been replaced with an urgency, as if this man’s life depended on finding Kanis, like a father desperately search for a lost offspring. Did he know he was here? Was there someone else nearby?

“Don’t worry, I’ll find you. Daddy always does”

It was clear the murderer was a psychopath. There was no pity, no remorse in that voice. It rattled through the ears and plucked at the primal regions of the brain, the parts which know why you should fear the dark, and those who dwell it in. The legs disappeared back into the corridor. By the sounds of footsteps, they were moving further down the corridor.

“DOESN’T THIS SEEM FAMILIAR?” The voice mocked him, drowning out the others. “COWERING, LIKE THE PATHETIC INSECT YOU ARE. DO NOT WORRY, IT WILL ALL BE OVER SOON”

As long as I draw breath the Emperor will guide me, The Emperor Protects!

The voice sneered and disappeared once more into the throng of the others, clamoring and clawing at his mind. He knew he had three choices, he could try to defend himself, remain hidden or make a bid for freedom. He knew that no man could outrun a bullet, and it was only a matter of time before he was discovered. So that left only one option.

Kanis had never killed a man before, even on the streets he had always fled before a situation had escalated that far. He reached for his knife he stowed away in his pocket before he had hid. He would have to get close, and that would be a very dangerous thing to do. It was then Kanis noticed the glint. The boy had been clutching a pistol in his left hand. Slowly and quietly, kanis raised himself from under the bed and grabbed the pistol. It was cold and its weight felt unfamiliar in his hands. This was the first time he had ever held a firearm, he had no idea how to use one. He couldn’t rely on himself being able to use it effectively without risking his life unduly. He didn’t even know if it was loaded or how he would even check. Would the Emperor condemn his soul to oblivion for killing his fellow man?

No’ He thought, ‘This man had lost his human status the moment he fired that weapon, he is nothing more than an animal

Kanis quietly slid the pistol into the open bag and slipped it onto his shoulder. When he had time he would figure out what to do with it.

It was then he got an idea, perhaps there is a forth option.

Kanis re-activated the servo skull and activated the control dataslate. He quickly typed a command to the servoskull and watched it fly out into the corridor. Muttering a prayer under his breath Kanis quickly typed a message and hit send. The servo skull spoke in a loud, automated voice.

Citizen, you are in direct violation of the laws and ordinance of the hive! Put your weapon down or face the Emperors Justice

As soon as the skull had begun to play back the message, the animal in the corridor raced towards the sound. Kanis could not judge how far they had run, or even what direction, but he saw this as his only chance. He ran towards the staircase as fast as his fatigued legs would carry him.
 

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The plan seemed work. The skull’s announcement drew the predator’s attention for enough time for Kanis to escape. He flew down the stairs as fast as he dare move. It was then he heard footsteps, chasing after him.

‘That accursed skull must have led this way!’ Kanis thought.

Kanis darted behind a wall and glanced behind him. Indeed, there was the servo skull, closely followed by a man. He was carrying a shotgun with both hands, but it was not raised. It seemed to Kanis that his pursuer wished to finish this encounter close up. As he began to run towards the main entrance a thought crossed his encumbered mind, the man was not holding a pistol. A shotgun at that range would have splatted the poor boys head, so was this the same man who was stalking the corridor?
Kanis burst through the door and fell down the front steps. He cursed silently at the sharp pain in his knees as they connected with the hard ground. He could not keep this pace up, this was where he would meet his end.

‘May the Emperor have mercy on my tattered soul’

He thought as he turned towards the front door just in time to see his pursuer catch up to him. Kanis raised his arms outward to expose his chest and closed his eyes, hoping for a quick death. He heard the man run towards him and felt a tightness in his chest. But there was no pain, only a warm and tight embrace. Kanis opened his eyes to see that the man was hugging him, as one might embrace a loved one. This puzzling turn of events became even stranger as the man spoke.

“Oh son, I thought I had lost you. It was all so dark, and I…”

He pulled away, tears streaming down his face. He met Kanis’ with an intense stare, a stare which mirrored that of his own parents when they told him to run. It was a face put on to shield a child from the harsh reality, attempting to look calm and reassuring. But it was the eyes which concerned Kanis. They looked half-crazed, the eyes of one who has seen too much for the soul to handle. Kanis tried to back away slowly, it was clear this man’s sanity had not survived the time after the Event. But he moved closer, wiping his tears from eyes.

“But I’ve found you and now everything will be ok. Just like it used to be”

The man looked barely older than Kanis, and yet was convinced that he was his lost son.

‘Perhaps I can reason with him’ thought Kanis as he scrabbled around in his pocket for the servo skull console.

Suddenly a howl emanated from the end of the street. A huge beast stared at him with cybernetic eyes. He knew that some of the families were able to afford cyber-mastiffs, but this was the first he had seen. It was more machine than dog, its hind limbs and head glinting with robotic enhancements. It barked again, this time with a tone of urgency, as if it was willing them to move on out of harm’s way.

“Come on Son, let’s go!”

The man grabbed Kanis’ arm and pulled him down the street and followed the cyber-mastiff down an alleyway. He felt the grip lessen and was able to pull his arm free. Kanis looked behind him, he could easily make his escape now and leave the poor soul and his dog to their fate.

‘No, I swore and oath to help those in need’ he thought, ‘This must be the Emperor’s plan, he leads the faithful!'

'NOT ALL MEN OF FAITH FOLLOW THE SAME PATH' The voice sneered.

Taking a deep breath, Kanis followed his new companions.
 
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