There had been times, during the first few days after arriving in Valerion, when it had seemed like the distant sound of conflict was all that Mikael could hear. He had lain awake at night, unable to sleep, praying fervently to the Emperor to make the damn noise stop. He had felt like it was driving him mad.
Mikael had adapted in the end, as they all had. The sound had faded to mere background noise as his brain began to filter it out, to the point that he was barely conscious of it at all. It had even, bizarrely, become a source of comfort. As long as he could hear it he knew that, no matter how bad things seemed, there were men and women just like him out there, fighting for the Emperor. It had been reassuring.
Now there was only silence, and somehow it seemed louder to him than the explosions had ever been.
No matter how much noise he or the rest of the unit made, it didn’t seem to make any difference. There was no sound external to them either, not even a breath of wind to whistle through the rubble-strewn streets and shattered buildings. Whatever sound they made; a raised voice, the clatter of a dropped lasrifle, the crunch of boots on gravel; it didn’t matter. All seemed to be swallowed up by the silence, as if Valerion were a vast, utterly empty room and they were mere bugs crawling across the floor. Or ghosts, already dead but not yet realising it.
Now Mikael wanted to hear the distant rumbling again, so that he could know for certain that there were others out there, that his unit was not alone. He prayed for it with the same vehemence with which he had begged the Emperor to make the noise stop in the first place. In another time and place, such irony might have made him laugh. But not now. Not here.
They had left the bodies of their comrades where they had fallen; after they had stripped them of lasrifle power cells, rations, medicines. Anything that the rest of the unit could make use of. The captain’s orders. Mikael could see the logic behind it, as callous as it was. Their situation was desperate, and could very easily get worse. They needed every edge that they could get.
Hopefully the supplies would serve the remaining guardsmen better than they had their previous owners.
Eight guardsmen had been killed by Meeks, most of them when he had first opened fire and caught them off-guard. Five more had been injured. Another had taken lasfire hits to the lung and gut; even if there had been a medic assigned to the unit, the injuries would have been too severe for him to do more than make the man comfortable before death came. But they hadn’t had the time for that. Captain Veran had administered the Emperor’s Mercy himself. Counting Meeks, that made ten fatalities, bringing the unit down to nineteen in total.
Meeks. Despite what he had done, there was a part of Mikael that couldn’t help mourning his passing. Meeks had always been a good friend; his sense of humour had made him popular in the unit, as the vox-man he had played an integral role and had been trusted by everyone.
What had happened to him? How could he have changed so quickly into the monstrosity that had killed so many of his former comrades, and nearly Mikael himself? The transition had been so sudden; perhaps he had always had some kind of flaw, a weakness within that had allowed chaos to worm its way into his soul and corrupt him utterly. That was an uncomfortable thought. Who knew how many others in the unit had similar flaws? Perhaps Mikael did as well.
No. At the most that could only have played a part in what had happened. Mikael knew what had tipped Meeks over the edge. He had said it himself. The vox had told him. He had listened to the transmission, if it could be called that; the static and the whispering voices. Then he had looked at the sky, and after that.....
Mikael couldn’t help but remember where they had got the vox-unit from in the first place. The chimera where they had found four dead bodies and one survivor; the screaming guardsman with eyes turned to blood. Had something similar happened to them? Had the guardsman heard the vox transmissions and then killed his comrades? It certainly seemed likely. But if that were the case, it raised a far more troubling question.
How many more men and women, all across Valerion, had heard that transmission as well?
To Mikael it seemed that the loss of their original vox-unit, just before the sky had changed, had been a blessing, since it had spared the unit from hearing the transmission that had driven Meeks to insanity. The voices on the vox and the sky’s transition had happened at almost the same time; surely that was no coincidence. But what did it mean, if anything at all? Was searching for meaning in the workings of chaos a fool’s errand?
One thing Mikael knew for certain was that the unit’s exposure to the transmission must have had an effect on them. Judging by the haste with which captain Veran had ordered them to move on, the same thought must have occurred to him as well.
They were getting closer and closer to the centre of Valerion with each passing step. Their objective was to reach a single building; the Cathedral of the Emperor Incarnate, and recapture it from the grasp of the cultists. But this mission had been given to them almost five days ago, back before everything had fallen apart. They were to have been supported by tanks and three other units of guardsmen; the cathedral had been captured early on in the rebellion, and was expected to be heavily defended. Nineteen guardsmen didn’t stand much of a chance. But what other choice did they have? Mikael couldn’t see that it made a difference whatever they chose to do. Walking through the oppressively silent streets, he was increasingly convinced that they were all going to die.
He suspected the rest of the unit felt much the same as he did. Whatever discipline they had been retaining was rapidly slipping away. Everyone was visibly on edge, flinching at the smallest sound their comrades made. Those on the edge of the group were constantly staring into the shadows, lasrifles raised and flicking back and forth as if anticipating being attacked at any moment. Mikael didn’t bother to ask them what they were seeing; he already knew the answer.
Captain Veran seemed to have retreated into himself, walking with his lasrifle lowered and his eyes on the ground in front of him. He was still at least slightly alert though, as he seemed to always be between Haem and the commissar. Krayn, who had been going to execute Haem for incompetence before Meeks’s rampage, had spared the guardsman’s life. Either he had shown mercy or, more probably, he had reasoned that the unit could not afford to lose yet more soldiers.
The commissar’s behaviour was troubling as well. Krayn was constantly staring ahead, his expression fixed and unwavering. His lips were always moving. At one point Mikael had dropped back a little so that he could overhear. The commissar was praying, repeating the same prayers over and over again in a seemingly endless loop. Mikael had seen the look in the commissar’s eyes before. It was the look of a man rapidly approaching breaking point. He didn’t know for certain what the consequences of that might be, but knew that they would not be pleasant.
After almost an hour of walking they encountered an obstruction. Ahead of them it looked like several buildings had collapsed across the road. The impact had obviously been violent; whatever the structures had once been they were now little more than piles of rubble. The fronts of the buildings ahead of that had blown out as well; several floors were now exposed to the street.
“Spread out”, Veran said, after staring blankly at the rubble for a few moments. “We’ll have to see if we can find another way to…..” His voice trailed away and he stared around, as if trying to find something. Then Mikael heard it too. A voice; no, several voices. They were saying something. It sounded like…..
His vision blurred briefly as if someone had struck him. Everything seemed to swim about him for a moment before snapping into focus once again. Mikael shook his head, fighting to ignore the shadows flickering in the corners of his eyes; knowing that when he turned to look they would be still again. Several of the guardsmen were clutching their heads and moaning. Krayn was praying louder than before, slurring some of the words in his haste to say them, as if his faith could be measured by the rapidity of his speech.
Something was wrong.
There was a sudden noise, a rapid crack-crack-crack that was terrifyingly familiar to Mikael. The sound of a heavy bolter. Only a few metres away a guardsman was blown apart as the explosive shells struck him, disappearing in a splash of gore.
“There!” Veran yelled, pointing to one of the buildings with a collapsed front. “It came from there!”
Another man screamed and fell as lasfire shredded half his torso. Those shots had come from a different direction; from the rubble of the collapsed buildings directly ahead. As Mikael ran for cover he saw movement atop the pile of shattered plascrete; tall figures, dressed in distinctive grey-black armour.
Mikael sprinted for the nearest building; hearing lasfire impact on the plascrete behind him as he ran. The heavy bolter fired again and he instinctively ducked lower, as if that would provide him any protection. There were footsteps behind him, and off to one side somebody screamed. Veran was yelling orders but Mikael couldn't hear what they were over the relentless crack-crack-crack of the heavy bolter.
After what felt like an eternity of running, Mikael reached the cover of a doorway, pressing himself flat against the wall as he struggled to catch his breath. The door leading inside was a good two metres back from the front of the building, and as a result there was more than enough room for Mikael to conceal himself. The pounding footsteps drew closer, and Mikael looked round just in time to see Haem literally throw himself into the doorway. A volley of lasblasts hit the road where he had been standing less than a second later.
"You alright?" Mikael asked.
"I've been better", Haem replied. "I'm not injured. You?"
"No. Frakking hell, we walked right into an ambush, I can't believe we were so stupid!"
"I'm a bit more worried about staying alive right now, Mikael. What's going on out there?"
Mikael shuffled to the edge of the wall and stepped away from it slightly so that he could see most of the road without presenting a target. What he saw wasn't good. Three guardsman were lying still in the middle of the road, completely exposed. Whether they were dead, injured, or merely unable to move for fear of drawing enemy fire was impossible to tell. Several other guardsmen were pinned behind rubble and one behind an overturned vehicle. Sporadic lasfire was hitting the road all around them, keeping them from moving.
The rest of the unit was in cover on the far side of the street, huddled in doorways just as he was. Heavy bolter fire was hitting the walls of the buildings, gouging out craters in the plascrete with every detonation. As he watched, Veran stepped out into the open and fired several shots up at one of the cultists on top of the collapsed buildings, but within a few seconds he was driven back into cover by a barrage of retaliatory fire.
Mikael took a deep breath and stepped out into the open to get a look at the collapsed buildings, ducking back into the doorway before anyone had a chance to aim at him. He had counted at least half a dozen cultists on top of the pile of rubble, lasrifles aimed and sniping at anything that moved. There were probably more that he hadn't seen. With the heavy bolter keeping the guardsmen pinned down, it wouldn't be long before the cultists tried flanking them, and then the unit would have nowhere to go.
"Well, what's happening?" Haem demanded.
Mikael ignored him. When the first guardsman had been killed by heavy bolter fire, Veran had pointed to the building it had come from; if Mikael remembered correctly it was the next building up the road from his current position. It was probably high up to give it a better view of most of the road, but that meant it wouldn't be able to cover the side of the road that Mikael and Haem were on. He turned to the other guardsman.
"Listen, the rest of the unit are pinned down by the cultists and that frakking heavy bolter. But we're probably outside its firing arc. If we can get to the next building over and take it out, then everyone else will be able to move without getting their heads blown off".
"I don't like this, Mikael".
"What, and you think I do? It's simple. We either do something about that heavy bolter, or we can sit here and wait for death. Up to you".
Haem scowled, then nodded reluctantly. Mikael turned around to face the other side of the road and waved his arm back and forth until it attracted the attention of one of the guardsmen next to the captain. He used a series of hand signals to communicate his intent. The guardsman leant over to the captain and spoke to him for a few moments. Veran turned to face Mikael, then nodded once. He took a series of deep breaths, feeling his heart begin to race in anticipation of what was to come.
In response to Veran's shouted command the guardsmen of his unit immediately began aiming volley after volley of lasblasts at the cultist positions. Mikael and Haem broke cover, sprinting as fast as they could towards the next building. The heavy bolter opened fire with a roar, and there was a scream from somewhere to Mikael's right, but he didn't dare look, his attention was fixed on what was going on ahead of him. He prayed to the Emperor that the door to the building was unlocked; if it wasn't then it was unlikely that they would be able to break it down before the cultists perforated them with lasfire.
Most of the figures atop the collapsed buildings were lying flat, returning fire at the rest of Mikael's unit, but he saw one turn towards them and raise a weapon. Before he had the chance to do anything, Haem fired a few shots and the cultist fell back; either dead or ducking for cover, it was impossible to tell.
Reaching the entrance to the building, Mikael found to his relief that there was no door and threw himself inside, Haem right behind him. For a few seconds he fought to catch his breath, ears straining to make out any sound over the deafening roar of the heavy bolter. He couldn't hear anyone approaching, but had to assume that the cultists in the building were aware that they had company.
Mikael led the way down a dark corridor that extended into the heart of the building. There were doors at regular intervals, most were shut. When they came across an open door the guardsmen moved across the doorways quickly, lasrifles up and fingers on the trigger ready to fire. Some rooms were filled with neatly ordered ranks of desks and chairs, others held rows of shelving that were stuffed to overflowing with heaps of brown-tinged paper. They only gave the rooms the most cursory inspection, enough to verify that they were free of any cultists; the priority was to find a staircase.
The corridor took a sharp right then ended at a blank wall. Mikael stared at it for a moment as if doing so would cause a staircase to spontaneously appear, then cursed graphically. One of the closed doors had to lead to a staircase, they would have to check them one by one, which would waste a lot of time. With every passing moment the cultists could be closing on the rest of the unit.
The first two doors they opened were for offices, the third a bathroom. Rounding the corner, Mikael looked down the corridor. They had passed at least two dozen closed doors, with no way to tell which one they wanted. He started to turn to Haem, then hesitated as a flash of white in the distance caught his eye. He jogged down the corridor and stopped by one door, which was identical to all of the others. He leant forward and turned the handle, then used the barrel of his lasrifle to push it open. Beyond the door was a staircase.
"Frakking hell, Mikael", Haem commented. "How did you know that was the right one?"
Mikael looked at him for a moment. How could he explain it to Haem: that the only reason he had picked the door was because he had seen a small white flower growing in front of it, a flower that had now vanished without a trace?
"Lucky guess", he replied.
The sound of the heavy bolter firing grew louder as they ascended, hugging the walls and always keeping their weapons aimed at the next turn of the winding stairs. Reaching the first floor, Mikael started forward, but Haem grabbed hold of his shoulder, pointing up to the next level. Mikael listened for a moment then nodded. Haem was right, the noise was coming from further up.
After another half a minute or so they made it to the second floor. The door was open, and beyond it lay a small square room, with doorways leading off to the left and right. The crack-crack-crack of the heavy bolter was much louder now, and when it died away Mikael could make out the sound of small arms fire. He started to move forward, then paused. Footsteps, drawing rapidly closer. He dropped to a crouch and raised his weapon. Behind him, Haem took aim as well. Mikael waited, and as he did so he became aware of a faint but insistent buzzing in his ears. His vision seemed to blur around the edges, and he blinked rapidly until the strange sensation went away.
A cultist entered the room through the left door. Clad in grey-black armour and wearing a mask that covered his face completely, the man was walking awkwardly, struggling under the weight of a long belt of heavy bolter shells that was wrapped around his torso and draped over his arms. Mikael shifted his aim slightly and depressed the trigger once, putting a single hole through the cultist's temple. The man toppled back against the wall, the ammunition belt clattering to the floor. Mikael got to his feet and stepped forward, tempted to put another shot into him but deciding against it. He wasn't sure what would happen if a lasblast struck heavy bolter ammunition, and he wasn't keen on finding out.
Haem took the lead as they moved through the door on the right, the same way that the cultist had been heading. The sound of lasfire was much louder now. Ahead, light from outside shone through a doorway on the left side of the corridor. Next to that was an empty crate that, judging by the writing stencilled on the side of it, had once held more ammunition. That room had to be where the heavy bolter was set up. Moving quietly as possible, Haem edged up to the doorway, Mikael only a few steps behind. The guardsman nodded and stepped into the open, and just as he did so it occurred to Mikael that they hadn't heard the heavy bolter firing for a while.
A lasrifle opened up on full-auto and Haem was slammed back against the corridor wall, convulsing as the hail of lasfire shredded his torso. After it stopped he slumped to the floor in a sitting position, head lolling to one side and seeming to look directly at the horrified Mikael.
He didn't move.
There were hesitant footsteps inside the room, but Mikael remained still, gripping his lasrifle tightly and staring into Haem's accusing eyes. That's it, it's all over, there was only one guardsman and you killed him. Just get back to the heavy bolter, don't worry, there's nobody else here.....
The heavy bolter started firing again. Mikael breathed a sigh of relief and slowly moved across to the doorway, trying to make as little noise as possible. He stepped through the doorway and into the room beyond. The wall at the far end of the room was completely gone, blown out by an explosion, and chunks of brick and plascrete littered the floor. The heavy bolter had been mounted on a bipod at the edge of the floor, with sandbags piled around it to hold it in place. A cultist crouched behind it, gazing through its sight at the street below. He turned, one hand reaching for a nearby lasrifle.
Mikael fired, and the cultist lurched backwards against the heavy bolter and fell to the floor. He stepped forward and fired twice more, the cultist’s body jerked limply but there was no other movement. Forcing himself not to look back at Haem, Mikael moved forward and, with some effort, heaved the heavy bolter over the sandbags and out over the edge of the floor. A ragged cheer went up from below, and he could hear Krayn's voice yelling something.
The first of the collapsed buildings was just below and off to the left from his vantage point. Three cultists were moving across the rubble in his direction, obviously confused about what had happened to their support weapon. One was punched off his feet by lasfire from the road below, but the other two kept coming, snapping off shots in Mikael's direction that forced him to lurch backwards to avoid being hit. Losing his balance and toppling over, he caught a glimpse of something small hurtling into the room and rolling across the floor behind him. Already getting to his feet, he glanced at it, and felt his stomach lurch when he realised that it was a frag grenade.
The grenade was between him and the door, there was no way he would be able to get past it and into the corridor before it detonated. Mikael did the only thing he could think of to do.
He charged towards the edge of the room and jumped.
The frag grenade exploded while Mikael was still in mid-air. A wave of displaced air laced with shrapnel slammed into his back, propelling him further forward, his arms and legs flailing helplessly as he began to drop. He barely had time to wrap his arms around his head before he hit the collapsed building beneath him.
The impact drove the breath from his body. Rolling across the rubble helplessly, Mikael could not keep from yelling as his body collided with chunks of unyielding plascrete. Then he came to an abrupt halt, his head snapping back and slamming into a piece of rubble. His vision went dark for a moment before returning, riding a tidal wave of pain that broke over his entire body.
Mikael groaned, his eyes still closed, as he tried to move. His body felt like it was on fire; half the skin on his arms seemed to have been torn and abraded, and he could feel blood oozing slowly from the back of his head. He tried to sit up, biting back a yell as his ribs protested. He felt them gingerly with his left hand; none of them seemed to be broken, but it was impossible to tell for certain since his whole body was aching too badly. He opened his eyes slowly and saw, to his surprise, that he was still clutching his lasrifle in his right hand.
A shadow fell across him and Mikael looked up, just in time to see a gleaming bayonet attached to the underside of a lasrifle descending rapidly towards his head. Instinctively he fell back, striking out with his own weapon and knocking the blow aside. Before Mikael could move the cultist dropped into a crouch and slashed out with the bayonet again, aiming at his throat this time. Grasping his lasrifle in both hands Mikael swung the weapon out, jamming it against the side of the cultist’s lasrifle and halting the progress of the bayonet with only inches to spare. Mikael felt his arms begin to quiver as the cultist put all his strength behind the bayonet, fighting to drive it home.
He stared at the cultist. Like the others his face was covered by a white mask, obscuring his features entirely. Only his staring, bloodshot eyes were visible through slits in the blank visage. The cultist shouted something, but to Mikael’s ears it was nothing but incomprehensible babble, barely even sounding like words at all.
Behind him was the sky.
It swirled and seethed unceasingly, a boiling mass of fluctuating colour and shade that did not remain stable even for an instant. Against the riotous sky the outline of the cultist seemed to flicker and blur, as if he were in some sense less real than what Mikael could see beyond him. Unable to close his eyes for fear of the cultist killing him, Mikael could not look away, and with every passing second that he looked up he felt his strength fade a little. The colours raced through the sky, seeming to converge at a point far above him. He could hear something whispering in his ear. It seemed so familiar; as if it had always been there but never audible until that moment. There were words there; he could not understand them but somehow the meaning was clear. Submit. Surrender. Give in. Be at peace.
He felt his eyes begin to burn, and something warm and damp oozed down his cheek. For a moment he almost did it, almost let go of his lasrifle. The idea of leaving it all behind seemed so tempting.
With all the strength he possessed, Mikael pushed with his lasrifle, driving the bayonet back a few more inches. At the same moment he lashed out with one foot at the side of the cultist’s knee then threw his body to the left as hard as he could. The ploy worked; the cultist lost his balance and toppled over to the right while Mikael rolled to the left and out from under him. The guardsman twisted, firing a volley of lasfire at the cultist’s head before he could try to get up again. He straightened up, wiping the liquid from his cheek. It was blood. He blinked rapidly, and his vision slowly cleared.
For the first time Mikael was able to get a good look at where he was. He had landed very close to the edge of the pile of rubble; to his right it dropped away rapidly until it reached the road. He could hear frantic shouts from that direction and the noise of sustained lasfire; with the heavy bolter gone, the unit was storming the collapsed buildings, attempting to fight their way up the heap of plascrete to the cultists. Ahead and to his left the heap sloped upwards, a tangled mess of plascrete and shattered masonry that would be treacherous to navigate.
A lasblast hissed past his ear and Mikael immediately dropped flat then crawled towards the nearest cover he could see, a jagged slab of plascrete protruding from the rubble. He slid across the uneven surface on his belly, ignoring the pain it caused, head up and scanning for the source of the fire. He couldn’t see where it had come from.
Approaching the slab, he was about to get to his feet and throw himself behind it when his left hand reached out and grasped nothing. In the lee of the slab he had been going to hide behind was a gaping hole. He eased himself closer and peered down into it. The hole led down into what had once been a room in the toppled building they were all now crawling over; he could just about see broken furniture heaped at the bottom, the room’s new floor which had once been its wall. It was dark in there; too dark to see any more than that, but he could tell it was quite a drop. Mikael realised that he had to look where he was going; throne only knew how many more holes there were like this scattered around the rubble pile.
There was a rattling, scraping sound somewhere off to his left. He got to his feet and peered round the edge of the slab. Movement caught his eye; a miniature landslide of plascrete chunks was rolling down the slope, displaced by something higher up. He was already moving when the first volley of lasfire arrived, and as a result it missed him by a few inches. Returning fire, Mikael was about to make a dash for the bottom of the slope when his foot got caught on something and he toppled forward. He looked up, and saw the cultist further up the slope, aiming a lasrifle in his direction.
A searing mass of blue plasma struck the cultist, incinerating him from the waist up in an instant. As the remains of the cultist toppled over, Mikael turned to see guardsman Jase a few metres away, holding his still-smoking plasma rifle with a grim expression on his face. Behind him other guardsmen were clawing their way up the slope; commissar Krayn at their head. He caught sight of Mikael.
“What are you waiting for, guardsman? Forward!”
With the other guardsmen following, Mikael and Jase made their way to the slope and began clambering up, snapping off quick shots at any glimpse they caught of grey-black armour. Return fire from the cultists was sporadic, and became increasingly so as more of the unit made it on to the rubble pile.
As Mikael climbed higher he started to find it increasingly hard to concentrate. He could hear a faint buzzing in his ears, and his vision began to blur around the edges, just as it had before they had been ambushed. He shook his head to try and clear it, but that only seemed to make it worse. He could hear his heartbeat pounding frantically in his head, growing louder and louder. When he reached the top of the slope everything around him seemed to diffuse and shift out of focus. Distracted, he barely saw the blow that struck him.
Mikael hit the rubble hard, and the sudden jolt seemed to clear his vision somewhat. He twisted, just in time to avoid another blow from the stock of a lasrifle. The cultist stepped back, bringing his weapon round towards Mikael. But before he could fire, the man stopped. He staggered slightly, and his hands went up to his ears. Mikael couldn’t understand it, and he didn’t waste time trying to work it out. He took aim, and fired a single shot into the cultist’s forehead.
As the cultist dropped, Mikael heard a ragged cheer go up. He guessed that meant the last of the cultists were dead. They had won the battle. He opened his mouth to call to the others, but before he could say anything, the pounding in his head abruptly intensified. The shock of it made him fall to his knees, he dropped his lasrifle and pressed both hands against his temples, screwing his eyes shut as his vision blurred again. After a few seconds, the noise slowly died away. When it was gone completely, he opened his eyes.
The body of the cultist lay directly in front of him, a single charred hole in the centre of its forehead. As Mikael’s vision slowly shifted back into focus, the body in front of him began to change. It seemed to ripple, as if it were completely insubstantial. After a few moments it solidified again.
The corpse was different.
His vision clear, Mikael stared, horrified at what he saw before him. The body of the cultist lay exactly where it had fallen. But the mask it had been wearing had vanished. Now the face was exposed, staring at him with sightless eyes. That was not the only change. The grey-black armour the cultist had been wearing was gone, replaced by a brown uniform that was achingly, gut-wrenchingly familiar. Mikael only had to look down at himself to recognise its likeness.
He staggered backwards, unable to believe what he was seeing. Nearby someone yelled something. He didn’t know what had been said, but the pain in the voice was clear enough. He felt the same anguish.
Trembling, Mikael stared at the corpse of the guardsman he had just murdered.
What was left of the unit regrouped on the far side of the collapsed buildings. There had been nineteen men before the ambush; many had fallen to heavy bolter fire before Mikael had dealt with the support weapon, still more had been shot while fighting their way up the treacherous slopes of rubble. Now only eight men remained.
Mikael knew he was in a state of shock. He had been sitting in the centre of the road for the last few minutes, staring at the ground in front of him. The other guardsmen were doing much the same thing; the whole unit were sitting ducks. He didn’t care. Nothing seemed to matter at that point.
He knew that he was going mad.
How else could he explain it? What other reason could there be for his actions? He had killed four guardsmen; loyal servants of the Emperor; all the time believing them to be the enemy, seeing them as the enemy. During the fighting there had been no doubt in his mind about what he was going through. Only when it was all over had he realised the truth.
Perhaps though, on some level, he had always known. He remembered the buzzing in his ears, the way his vision had blurred on several occasions. He had assumed it to be the effects of fatigue, but what if it wasn’t? What if some part of himself had been trying to make him realise the truth of what was happening around him, but he hadn’t let it?
Mikael had once been told that if you could ask yourself whether or not you were going mad, you probably weren’t. Even then, such reasoning had struck him as too glib to be truly convincing. Perhaps madness wasn’t a sudden transition, but a descent; an inexorable slide that nothing could be done to prevent. Was that his fate? And what of the others? They had seen the same things as well, or claimed that they had. Perhaps they were all doomed to insanity.
“We should get moving”. It was commissar Krayn who had spoken. His cheek was scored by a burn from a lasblast that would have killed him had it been a fraction further to the right. With the exception of the fresh wound, he appeared much as he had before the ambush. He wore the same fixed expression, and his eyes still seemed to stare into the middle distance.
When nobody moved, the commissar slowly removed his bolt pistol from its holster and let it hang slowly by his side, an unmistakeable threat. “On your feet”, he snapped. “We are moving on. Now”.
“How can we?” Jase replied. “You expect us to simply carry on, as though nothing just happened? We can’t!”
“You can, and you will. The Cathedral of the Emperor Incarnate is only a few kilometres away”.
“You don’t seem to get it”, another guardsman said. Mikael looked at him for a long moment, but his name wouldn’t come to mind, and after a while he gave up. “We just fired on our own side. Guardsmen; just like us. There’s something wrong with us, seriously wrong. How can you ignore that?”
“I saw no guardsmen”, Krayn replied flatly. There were murmurs of protest. “I saw no guardsmen”, he repeated, louder this time. “The moment that they turned their weapons upon us they became traitors and heretics in the sight of the Emperor. It was our duty as loyal servants of mankind to execute them for such heinous behaviour. And we did so”.
Even filled with despair as he was at that moment, Mikael still couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could the commissar pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred?
“They’re right, Krayn”. Veran slowly got to his feet. His face was a mask of exhaustion, and his eyes seemed empty somehow, as though the spark of life had gone out of them. “We can’t go on”.
“Captain Veran”. The commissar’s voice trembled with barely-restrained fury. “I would expect such doubts from the enlisted men. But you? By the throne, you are an officer. How dare you talk of giving up on our mission!”
“Because our mission is over!” Veran yelled. The guardsmen nearest to him flinched. “It’s over, commissar. You know that as well as I, you just won’t admit it”. The commissar started to speak, but Veran raised his voice and drowned him out.
“It isn’t just that we killed guardsmen, men from our own regiment. Throne knows, that is horrifying enough. It’s the fact that when I was fighting them, when I was killing them, I didn’t see members of the Imperial Guard. I saw cultists. Enemy soldiers, dressed in grey-black armour. We all did”. Frox and Jase nodded, the other three guardsmen looked away. Mikael saw tears glistening in the eyes of one of them.
“Tell me, commissar. Tell all of us. What did you see?”
“I saw the enemy”.
“Damn it, Krayn! What did you see?”
The commissar’s expression twisted, and he opened and closed his mouth several times. His face flushed, and when he finally did speak, his tone made it clear that he had reached the limits of his patience.
“I’ll tell you what I saw. Traitors and heretics, trying to kill us. What they were wearing is irrelevant”.
Frox laughed bitterly. Mikael couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The commissar seemed to be completely in denial. Looking at the expression on Krayn’s face, Mikael knew full well that he had seen the exact same thing as everyone else. But he just wouldn’t admit it. Perhaps he thought that to do so would be a sign of weakness. Or maybe he was trying to convince himself that he wasn’t going mad, like the rest of them.
“Irrelevant, is it?” Veran asked. “You couldn’t be more wrong. If we saw them as cultists, what do you think they saw when they looked at us?”
The guardsmen looked at each other, but nobody said anything. The implications were too chilling to vocalise. It would certainly explain why the guardsmen had fired on the unit; perhaps they had been seeing the same things as Mikael and the others had. But if that were the case…..
Before the rumbling of distant explosions had stopped recently, Mikael had found it comforting. No matter how isolated he had felt, that sound had meant that there were others like him scattered across Valerion, going through the same things that he had been. Now a horrible thought occurred to him. What if the things he had been hearing had not been the Imperial Guard battling against the cultists? What if it had been the sound of the guardsmen killing each other; men and women turning on their comrades in an orgy of madness and violence? Perhaps that was why the explosions had stopped; there were not enough guardsmen left for their battles to make that much noise. That, however, raised another question.
What had happened to all the cultists?
Veran let out a long, frustrated sigh. “Look. I don’t have the patience to argue with you about this, Krayn. You know as well as I do that we can’t carry on. We’re done, do you understand?”
The commissar’s eyes widened. Mikael saw that his right hand was now gripping his bolt pistol so tightly that the knuckles had whitened.
“Only in death does duty end”, Krayn snapped. “As long as we live, our mission must continue. I will not tolerate any cowardly statements to the contrary”.
“Frak you, Krayn!” Veran yelled, all the bottled-up frustration inside him seeming to pour out in that one sentence. Everyone flinched back, Krayn included. Nobody had ever seen the captain like this before.
“You think it’s about cowardice? You frakking idiot, cowardice has nothing to do with it. You stand there, quoting glib mottos at me, closing your eyes to what’s going on. Don’t you get it? Can’t you understand the truth? You saw what happened to Meeks, what he did. Listening to the vox drove him mad. We all heard it too, and now we’re firing on our own men, thinking that they’re cultists. Don’t you see? Whatever it is; whatever foul sickness is infecting this wretched city, it’s in us now. Valerion is tainted, and so are we”.
Captain Veran slowly turned his back on the fuming commissar to address the remaining guardsmen. “Listen up, men. Get your gear together. We’re going to get out of this foul place while we still…..”
The commissar’s bolt pistol boomed once, and the captain’s head blew apart in an explosion of gore. A collective cry of horror and disgust rang out; guardsmen scrambled backwards to get away from the fountain of blood spraying from the stump of Veran’s neck. His body swayed back and forth, back and forth, then gracelessly toppled over.
Mikael turned towards the commissar, feeling drops of something warm and wet on his cheek. He couldn’t bring himself to wipe it away. Krayn had taken a few steps back, enough that he now had a line of sight on all of the remaining guardsmen. The arm that held his bolt pistol was completely rigid. A faint wisp of smoke rose from the pistol’s barrel.
“Admission of taint is punishable by immediate execution”, Krayn intoned, his voice devoid of all inflection. One of the guardsmen made as if to get up, and immediately Krayn aimed the bolt pistol at him. “Cowardice in the face of adversity is inexcusable”, he said, sounding for all the world as if he were reading phrases from a book out loud.
“You son of a bitch”, Jase said, his expression empty. “How could you? He was our captain, damn it. He was only trying to save us all!”
Mikael saw Jase’s legs quiver, his fists clench. He shook his head, not daring to say anything out loud. No, Jase. Don’t do it. He’ll kill you. Jase looked at him, and in that brief moment Mikael saw the utter despair in his eyes.
Jase threw himself at the commissar.
The bolt pistol fired again.
Mikael stared at Jase’s body as it flopped back onto the plascrete, a massive crater blown into its chest. He knew he should be grief-stricken by what had just happened, but all he could seem to feel was envy. Jase had found a way to escape Valerion after all.
“Does anyone else wish to die a traitor’s death?”
Nobody moved, and after a few moments, the commissar nodded. “Good. On your feet; we’re moving on. The cathedral is not far now. Guardsman!” It took Mikael a moment to realise that Krayn was addressing him. The commissar gestured with the bolt pistol. “Take the traitor’s weapon. It is a valuable piece of Imperial equipment”.
Mikael nodded, and bent over to retrieve Jase’s plasma gun from where it lay next to his body. “I’m sorry”, he whispered.
The commissar moved to one side, allowing the five guardsmen to trudge past before he turned and walked after them, still holding on to his bolt pistol.
Every step they took brought them closer to the centre of Valerion. The cathedral was partially visible now; they could see four great spires protruding above the smaller buildings that surrounded it. Mikael did not look at them too often; they were high enough that the only thing that could be seen beyond them was the sky.
The five guardsmen; all that remained of a unit that had once numbered in the dozens, walked down the centre of the road, each no more than a few metres from another. At any other time they would have been spaced much further apart, to minimise the number of men who could be caught by a missile detonation or a volley of small arms fire. But this was not any other time.
Commissar Krayn walked behind them. Mikael knew exactly why they were walking so close together, and he doubted that any of the other guardsmen were ignorant of the reason for it. It was so that Krayn had a line of sight on every one of them. If any guardsman attempted to look back, the commissar ordered them to keep their eyes forward. He didn’t want anyone to know exactly where he was; that would make it harder for any of them to turn and shoot him before he could kill them. It was safe to say that any trust that had once existed between the commissar and the guardsmen was long gone.
Jase had been a friend of Mikael’s for many years; they had fought together on countless battlefields and saved each other’s lives on more occasions than either of them had cared to recall. He had never been particularly talkative, but he was loyal and dependable. By contrast Mikael had never thought of Veran as a friend; the captain had always kept a certain distance between himself and the men he commanded. Despite that he had been an excellent officer; a good fighter who valued the lives of his men and thus would not squander them needlessly as so many officers in the Imperial Guard seemed to. He hadn’t deserved to die. Jase hadn’t deserved to die. Mikael knew that he should be angry at Krayn. He should want to kill him, to exact retribution. It was clear that the commissar was losing it. Any of them could be next.
Yet he felt nothing.
Instead of the fury he knew that he ought to be feeling, Mikael seemed unable to feel anything at all. The knowledge that Krayn was a killer; a madman who might at any second turn on the rest of them, sat heavy within him yet he just could not seem to care. Perhaps he was in shock, and the emotions would come later. Perhaps, though, he had simply been through so much in Valerion that he no longer had the capacity to feel anything. Not like Jase. The guardsman had thrown himself at the commissar, knowing that he would never make it to Krayn before being shot. He had wanted the commissar to kill him, to end it all. Valerion had beaten him.
The fighting had been fierce in this area, and as the unit drew closer to the cathedral they increasingly came across destroyed vehicles, most reduced to charred and blackened wreckage. Immense craters had been gouged into the plascrete by the detonation of basilisk artillery shells. In some of them they found corpses; both guardsmen and cultists. Every so often, though, they came across bodies that appeared to have died more recently. All guardsmen. Now that he knew what to look for, Mikael could see from their positioning that the guardsmen had been firing at each other. Yet more victims of the madness that had gripped Valerion. Had they all looked at the sky? Or had listening to the vox transmissions been all that was required to drive them to this? Mikael didn’t know the answer to that, but he couldn’t stop thinking that he had heard the vox transmission too, and looked at the sky. How long would it be before the madness claimed him as well?
If it wasn’t already too late.
At one point Mikael saw something that stopped him in his tracks. After a moment the rest of the unit slowed, and turned to see what had caught his attention. The bodies of two guardsmen lay nearby, locked in hand to hand combat. They both seemed to have died at the same time. Stepping closer, he could see that one man had driven his knife into the chest of the other, while the second guardsman had buried his in the first’s neck. Blood was everywhere; their clothing was saturated by it, and they lay curled in a congealed pool of dark crimson. But what affected him most was the expressions on their faces; masks of pain and fury, with eyes that seemed to radiate hatred for each other, even in death.
“Keep moving”, Krayn snapped. “The heart of the city is not far, we need to push on”.
As Mikael started walking again, the phrase the commissar had used seemed to resonate inside his head. The heart of the city. Where had he heard that before? He remembered abruptly. His dream! The same one that he had been having variations of ever since entering Valerion. There had been a voice in it, someone that Mikael had never heard speak before yet who had sounded so familiar.
The heart of Valerion has fallen, and now everything will be swept away in blood.
That had been the phrase the voice had spoken. Certainly the last part of it had come to pass. What if there was some truth to the first part of it as well? The cathedral was at the very centre of the city, it could be described as Valerion’s heart. Perhaps, though, he was reading too much into it.
But now that he had remembered the dream, when he looked around Mikael could not help but notice a certain similarity between the area through which he was passing and the road down which he had walked in his dream; the road he had been trapped on when the tidal wave of blood had swept him away. There were differences; the road was poured plascrete not flagstones, and it curved away gently to the right rather than continuing straight on.
The buildings, though. They were very much like what he had dreamed about. They were tall structures that cast long shadows across the road. Arched doorways and windows framed the darkness that lay within them. Further up, some of the buildings had parapets and he even spotted one or two gargoyles, leering down at the road with twisted, hideous faces. He couldn’t help but watch them as he walked, half-expecting them to suddenly move.
Mikael wondered if the sky would be the same too. In his dreams it had been filled with hideous, obscene figures; warring and cavorting endlessly in a kaleidoscope of sickening colour. They had been nauseating and loathsome to look upon. Despite that, some part of himself, something buried deep within the primitive, animalistic core of his mind, had found them alluring. He had looked upon the sky earlier as well, during the bitter hand to hand fighting with the guardsman that Mikael had thought to be a cultist. It had not looked quite the same then as it had in his dreams. Perhaps, though, if he looked again it would?
He was also puzzled by the fact that the sky could even exist in its current form. Mikael knew very little about the workings of the warp; execution awaited anyone who was foolish enough to show any curiosity about the fell powers of chaos, and rightly so. What he did know was that the warp was something outside of this reality, something that should not be able to intrude into this one for prolonged periods. That was why, it was whispered, that daemons could not endure for long in the material realm. But the sky, as unnatural a thing as Mikael had ever seen in his life, had been this way for days now, and showing no sign of changing any time soon.
What was keeping it that way?
Krayn ordered them to the side of the road, jolting Mikael from his reverie. As the unit moved towards the cover of the nearest buildings he saw that the cathedral was much closer now. Its spires dominated the skyline. Ahead the road was straightening out, although the presence of more buildings prevented them from gaining a direct view of the cathedral itself.
The unit moved forward, walking only a few metres from the front of the buildings on this side of the road, ready to take cover within them if they came under fire. They had been told before embarking on this mission that the cathedral had fallen into the hands of the cultists, it was probably heavily defended. Mikael cast quick looks inside each building as they passed them, and prayed it would not be necessary for the unit to take cover inside.
Shadowy figures stood inside each of them, watching him.
They halted just before the last building. Immediately ahead the road split into two. The only side that they could see headed away from their direction of travel at almost ninety degrees before slowly curving away from them. If the other road did the same thing, then after long enough they would meet, forming an immense circle around the cathedral.
Krayn, who was still at the back of the group, motioned for Frox to move ahead and check the area around the cathedral for signs of the enemy. As the guardsman edged forward, Mikael hooked his lasrifle over his shoulder so that his hands were free to use the plasma gun that Krayn had ordered him to take from Jase’s body. If they were attacked, he wanted heavier firepower to counter with.
Frox paused at the corner, staring out at the cathedral. He didn’t move. The guardsmen exchanged puzzled glances, and as they did so, Mikael became aware of a faint smell. There was almost no breeze, but what little there was carried a faint hint of decay upon it. Decay and blood.
Frox turned, and beckoned them forward. “It’s alright”, he said. “No need to be quiet”.
Krayn strode forward, a furious expression on his face. “Damn it, guardsman, keep your voice down! I will not have our position betrayed by…..” He reached the edge of the building, and his voice died away. Curious now, Mikael stepped forward to see for himself. What he saw was utterly unexpected.
From the edge of the road to the very base of the cathedral itself, the ground was covered by bodies. Thousands of them.
The Cathedral of the Emperor Incarnate was the largest building that Mikael had seen so far in Valerion. It had four immense spires, one rising from each corner of the building, tapering off to points far above. He imagined that, in the days when Valerion had been just an ordinary city, the spires would have seemed to pierce the very clouds. The building was constructed of great blocks of grey stone. Further up there were balconies, supported by semi-circular pillars that nestled against the sides of the cathedral. Gargoyles leered down from the edges of the balconies, while atop them great statues of the Emperor stood, each angled so that it appeared to be looking out across a different portion of Valerion. The message to the citizens was clear. The Emperor is always watching.
Now those same statues gazed upon a shattered city and, closer to the cathedral, a sea of corpses.
The road that encircled the cathedral was raised a few inches higher than the ground it surrounded; a quirk of geography or urban planning that Mikael was thankful for, since it allowed the six men to stand at the edge of the road and look at the bodies without stepping in the blood. There was so much blood. From where he was, Mikael could see thousands of corpses, disappearing from sight around the side of the cathedral. If it was the same on the other side, then there could be upwards of ten thousand cultists laying here. The smell was nauseating; everyone had clasped their hands over their noses in a vain attempt to prevent the odour from getting in. The air was ripe with the stench of putrescence and decay. Even stronger was the scent of spilled blood; it was so powerful that Mikael could taste an iron tang at the back of his throat.
Each cultist had died in the same way; their throats slashed open and the blood allowed to pour out. They lay in orderly rows; all dressed identically in their grey-black armour with white masks covering their faces. Males and females, young and old; united in death. Many clutched knives in their hands, the blade of each coated in a film of dark red. It didn’t look as if they had killed each other. Instead, it appeared that each cultist had lay down, then cut their own throats open, one by one. The pools of blood from each cultist had met and mingled, so that they were lying in a lake of congealed fluid.
Despite the horror of what he was seeing, Mikael felt that there was almost something peaceful about the scene. These men and women had calmly committed suicide, without any sign that they had been forced into it. Thousands of them. What strength of conviction that must have taken, what dedication to the dark gods they worshipped.
It was almost admirable.
“Witness, men, the fate of those who turn their back on the Emperor!” Krayn declared. “They believed that they could stand against the righteous fury of the Imperial Guard, and they paid the price for their treachery”.
“Begging your pardon, sir”, Frox said, “but the cultists all appear to have killed themselves. Voluntarily. It doesn’t seem like anyone else had a great deal to do with it”.
“That is where you are wrong, guardsman”, the commissar replied, after glaring at Frox for a few seconds. “What happened here is quite obvious. The heretics realised that they would soon be crushed by the might of the Imperium. In their despair, they turned upon each other, then the survivors ended their miserable lives. Exactly the sort of behaviour that I would expect from chaos-worshipping filth”.
The men exchanged sceptical glances, but said nothing further. Mikael was struck by how silent it was when the commissar had finally shut up. There was something missing. He thought for a moment, then it finally came to him. It was too quiet. There were thousands of dead bodies here, the air should have been filled with the buzzing of flies and other insects, come to feed on the decaying flesh. He looked again at the nearest body, and something caught his eye. He crouched down to get a better look.
Black specks were scattered across the cultist’s body. Looking more closely, Mikael realised that they were insects. All dead. It was the same with all the bodies. The insects had come to feed on the flesh of the cultists, and they had all died. Mikael quickly got to his feet, and took a few steps back from the edge of the road, almost colliding with another guardsman.
“I think I see a way to the cathedral”, Krayn said suddenly, pointing to the east. “We need to keep moving, we’ve been standing here too long”. As before, the commissar waited for the five guardsmen to take the lead before he followed.
As they drew closer, Mikael could see what Krayn had been referring to. From the entrance of the cathedral to the edge of the road there was a stretch of ground without bodies lying on it; a path of sorts, over two metres wide. Mikael glanced back in the direction they had approached from. It was hard to tell for sure with so many bodies on the ground, but he thought that he could make out another clear path. It appeared to travel in a straight line from the road to one corner of the cathedral, at a forty-five degree angle to the first. Just as he reached the path leading to the cathedral entrance he noticed a third stretch of clear ground to the east, again at a forty-five degree angle to the first. He wondered if there were more on the other sides of the cathedral. If the pattern persisted then there would be eight in total, spaced evenly around the central building.
Like the petals of a flower, he thought.
When they reached the path the guardsmen raised their weapons. The entrance to the cathedral was fifty metres away; a set of two tall doors, either wood or fashioned to resemble it. One was closed, but the other seemed to be slightly ajar. On either side of the entrance, sandbags were arranged around support weapons; heavy bolters and lascannons. There appeared to be nobody manning the weapons emplacements.
"Go!" At the commissar's order the guardsmen immediately went forward, still with their weapons aimed at the entrance, ready to fire at any sign of movement. As he ran, Mikael heard an unpleasant, rapid squelching sound, and glanced down. The path might have been free of dead cultists, but the blood that had spread from their corpses had covered the open space just as it had the ground beneath the cultist's bodies. He kept running, concentrating on keeping his footing. He had no wish to slip and land in the blood; throne only knew what infections it might carry.
He noticed something else as they approached the entrance. Halfway between the top of the doorway and the roof of the cathedral a large dish was attached to the wall, angled slightly upwards. It looked like a vox transmission dish, which was an odd thing for a cathedral to have.
They moved past the support weapons and pressed themselves up against the closed door, listening intently for any sound that their approach had been noticed. After a few moments Krayn nodded, and the first guardsman slipped through the open door with the butt of his lasrifle pressed into his shoulder, gazing through the sight and ready to fire. Mikael was next through.
It was dark inside the cathedral and Mikael blinked his eyes rapidly to try and make them adjust more quickly, moving to the right and pressing himself against the wall as he did so. He was in a corridor that ran straight ahead for about ten metres, terminating at another set of double doors, both closed. Glow globes hung from the ceiling, but they had been smashed. There were several alcoves at regular intervals on both sides of the corridor; each contained a statue of the Emperor or one of his saints.
The air was.....strange. It was utterly still, and surprisingly warm, given how cool it had been outside. With every breath he took Mikael could smell and taste something unusual; similar to blood but different somehow, drier and more metallic. The skin on the back of his neck tingled slightly.
Once everyone was inside they moved quickly down the corridor. Mikael saw that the images in each alcove had been defaced by the cultists; the statues had been smashed apart and markings daubed on their plinths. They looked like they had been drawn in blood. Whatever the markings were, he began to feel sick if he gazed at them for more than a moment.
Reaching the end of the corridor, the guardsmen crouched down while Frox checked the doors. Mikael tightened his grip on the plasma gun, and made sure his lasrifle was secure on its shoulder strap. The plasma gun took almost a minute to recharge between shots; he would need to be able to swap it with his other weapon quickly to avoid making himself into too much of a target for any cultists inside the cathedral.
Frox gave a quick hand signal, indicating that the doors were unlocked, and clear of any explosive booby-traps. The guardsmen exchanged glances. In that moment something passed between them; the kind of bond experienced by men who know that they might be about to die. Even Krayn was included within it. The commissar drew his chainsword and held his thumb over the activation toggle. He nodded once.
The guardsmen stood up as one. With his free hand Frox turned the handle of one of the doors and pushed it slightly. He stepped to one side and another guardsman moved forward, kicking the door hard and knocking it open wide. He ran straight through, followed by the rest of the men.
The space they entered was immense; Mikael estimated that it was over two thirds the length of the cathedral itself. Round stone pillars were spaced at regular intervals in twin lines that ran the length of the room, supporting the arched roof at least fifty metres above their heads. The unit spread out, Mikael and Frox moving to the right. The sound of their rapid footsteps echoed in the silence. On this side of the room there was row after row of benches for the congregation to sit; each row with enough clear space in front of it for the faithful to be able to kneel and give thanks to the Emperor. The rows stretched away towards the end of the room. Mikael ran forward, scanning constantly for any sign of cultists. He spotted several doors in the right-hand wall, but all seemed to be closed tight.
“By the throne, what is that?”
The disbelieving murmur had come from one of the other guardsmen, and Mikael turned quickly to see what had caught his attention. He saw immediately that there were rows of benches on the left, mirroring those on the right, but halfway down the benches had been removed. In their place sat what looked like a portable field generator. Thick cables ran from the generator to another machine; which he recognised as a vox broadcast transmitter. What was something like that doing here? He looked round, only to realise that the others weren’t paying any attention to the vox transmitter. They were staring at the far end of the room with expressions of bewilderment. Even Krayn seemed taken aback. Mikael turned slowly, and what he saw literally took his breath away.
At the far end of the cathedral was the altar, where the archbishop and his priests would lead the faithful in worship. Behind that, a stained glass window was set into the far wall, bearing an image of the Emperor seated upon the golden throne, a halo of light playing about his head and a noble expression on his face. In normal times it would have been a captivating sight, but now; with the only light entering the cathedral tainted by the madness of the sky; its majesty was somewhat lost.
A man was hanging above the altar.
The figure was suspended high in the air, held in place by thick steel cables that had been wound around his wrists and driven into the walls on each side of him. The cables were taut, so that his arms were held parallel to the floor, at right angles to the rest of his body. His head was bowed, but Mikael could see some kind of mask covering his mouth and chin. Another cable descended from that to the floor, where it snaked across the cathedral to connect with the vox transmitter.
The guardsmen walked slowly closer, stopping when they were only a dozen or so metres from the man. Mikael could now see markings on his naked body; just like those he had seen defacing the statues of the emperor outside. They seemed to have been carved into him with a knife. Directly beneath the hanging figure was a pool of blood mingled with what looked like urine and faeces. The smell rising from it was appalling, but not enough to overcome the dry, metallic scent that seemed to permeate the entire cathedral.
“He’s dead”, Krayn began. “We should…..”
At the sound of the commissar’s voice, the man slowly raised his head. Mikael stepped back, then wondered why he had done so. It was hard to put into words, but something about the man frightened him on a deep, instinctive level.
The man’s face was gaunt and haggard. His cheeks and forehead bore similar markings to those on his torso, the lower portion of his face obscured by the mask Mikael had noticed earlier. His eyes were shut, his head tracking slowly from side to side.
Before anyone could do or say anything, the man started to moan. It began as a low, mewling sound, like that of a hurt animal, then rose in volume, rapidly transforming into an agonised shriek that went on and on without any sign of stopping. Still screaming, the man opened his eyes, and the guardsmen recoiled.
His eyes were missing, and in their place were twin pools of congealed blood that began to seep down his cheeks and splatter on the cathedral floor even as they watched in silent horror. The moan deepened, until it no longer sounded like anything human. All at once the metallic odour in the air intensified and the temperature seemed to soar impossibly quickly. Beads of sweat broke out on Mikael’s face as he staggered backwards, suddenly understanding what was happening, and what the creature before him really was.
With that realisation it was as if a switch had been thrown in Mikael’s head. Suddenly what had happened in Valerion began to make some kind of sense, although he doubted that he would ever understand all of it.
The cultists had been losing the war; everyone on the Imperial side had known it, and doubtless the enemy had too. Realising that they could not hope to win against the army of guardsmen opposing them, the cultists had fallen back to the cathedral. There they had all killed themselves, offering their lives up willingly to the dark powers they worshipped. But their mass suicide wasn’t an admission of defeat, far from it. For them it was a victory. Perhaps they had conducted some foul, blasphemous ritual, sacrificing themselves to open up a gateway to the warp; a conduit that the psyker had manipulated to twist and alter the sky into the monstrosity that it had become. With that power he had used the vox transmitter to spread madness among the Imperial Guard forces; turning them against each other in a nightmare of bloodshed and terror. What better way to honour the dark gods than to create such chaos?
“Kill that abomination!” Krayn yelled, struggling to be heard over the psyker’s screaming.
Mikael was already raising the plasma gun, but had only lifted it halfway when the psyker’s moans ceased, replaced almost instantly by a sound that was terrifyingly familiar. The air was suddenly filled with a roar of white noise, so loud that it seemed to hammer at Mikael’s senses. He fought to hold on to his weapon, but the noise redoubled in intensity and he fell to his knees, screaming in agony and pressing his hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to blot it out. He could hear the voices in his head now, much more clearly than when Meeks had played the vox transmissions; before he had began killing. His vision blurred, and everything he could see seemed to flow and run together. He closed his eyes tight and doubled over, struggling desperately to resist, to hold on to who and what he was as the voices continued to scream at him; offering power, wealth, glory, blood, immortality, slaughter, ecstasy; if only he would…..
Mikael slowly opened his eyes. His vision was still slightly blurred, but after a few seconds everything snapped back into focus. His hand groped across the floor until he found the plasma gun. Keeping a tight grip on it, Mikael got to his feet. The other four guardsmen were recovering slowly, blood was trickling from one of Frox's ears, but apart from that they seemed fine. As for Krayn.....
The commissar was standing a few metres away from them, his bolt pistol aimed at the psyker. Mikael turned, and saw that a hole the size of both his fists pressed together had appeared in the psyker's chest. Blood and the pulped remains of his vital organs were oozing slowly out and splashing on the cathedral floor. Mikael stared at the commissar, barely able to believe it. The psyker had tried to drive them mad, just like Meeks and however many other men and women in Valerion. Yet despite the agony that he must have been enduring, Krayn had somehow resisted long enough to do what none of the other guardsmen had been able to do. He felt a new sense of respect for the commissar.
A fly buzzed past his left ear, and he flicked at it idly. Before he could speak, the guardsmen heard raised voices, and the sound of doors slamming against the walls. Mikael span round to face the right-hand wall. The doors he had seen before! The cultists had to have been hiding in the rooms beyond. There were shouts from the other side of the cathedral too, then the guardsmen opened fire. Mikael raised the plasma gun and waited. Three cultists appeared from behind the nearest pillar and he fired. Ionised gas streaked forward and tore through each of them, and one after the other they fell. Dropping the plasma gun on the floor while it recharged, Mikael began firing his lasrifle at the oncoming cultists, killing them one by one as they charged towards him, screaming incoherently.
He frowned, starting to feel puzzled even as he kept firing. The cultists didn't seem to have any ranged weaponry at all; they were charging the guardsmen armed with nothing more than knives and clubs, and were being cut down long before they even got close. What was wrong with them? Had the death of the psyker robbed them of what little had remained of their sanity?
Howling furiously, four more cultists ran at him. He switched his lasrifle to full auto and fired a quick burst, dropping three straight away. The fourth kept coming until he put three holes through the cultist's face mask. The man fell without a sound. Mikael began to turn away, then looked back at the corpse for a moment. Something wasn't right. The cultists had literally fallen without making any noise. He hadn't even heard the thump of the body hitting the floor. What.....
A volley of lasblasts sizzled past his face and he threw himself backwards, heart hammering as the realisation of how close he had come to dying struck him. He twisted round and fired in the direction the lasblasts had come from. His shots struck an onrushing cultist in the shoulder, knocking him off balance and on to the ground. Before he could get to his feet to try again, Mikael stepped forward and put two more lasblasts into the cultist's chest.
Running footsteps to his right.
Mikael turned, just in time to see the butt of a lasrifle rushing towards his face. He sidestepped, but not quickly enough. The lasrifle glanced off the side of his head and Mikael staggered, barely able to raise his own weapon in time to block a second strike, then a third. The cultist charged forward into him, both of them toppling to the floor. Mikael went with the fall, rolling so that he ended up on top of the cultist with the lasrifle pinned against the floor. Mikael twisted and tried to bring his lasrifle down on his opponent's head but the cultist bucked and twisted underneath him, knocking him off balance long enough for the man to get an arm free and deliver a stinging left hook to Mikael's cheek.
Mikael rolled off the cultist then forced himself to roll again, coming to a halt just as the cultist was getting to his feet and aiming his lasrifle. Mikael fired first, lasblasts pulverising the cultist's chest and stomach until the weapon's power cell ran dry. Ignoring the pain of his aching face, Mikael slowly got to his feet, fumbling at his belt for another power cell for the lasrifle. Behind him he heard a shrieking, buzzing noise; the sound of the commissar's chainsword. He turned round, taking a step backwards as he did so.
The chainsword swept round in a horizontal arc, the buzzing sound it made intensifying to a high-pitched screaming as its teeth tore through Mikael’s flak armour and the tip slashed across his stomach. For a moment Mikael stared at the cultist wielding the chainsword, who returned his gaze impassively from behind his blank white mask. Then the pain hit him. Mikael’s knees buckled and he toppled backwards, the chainsword passing through the air where his throat had been only a second later. The cultist took two steps forward and brought the chainsword down, and again Mikael only just dodged in time. In desperation he kicked out at his opponent’s ankles, screaming in pain as the movement wrenched at his stomach. The cultist dropped to the floor and Mikael threw himself forward, gaze locked on the chainsword. He couldn’t afford to give the cultist the opportunity to attack again.
Mikael landed on top of him, and he heard a gasp as the breath was driven from the cultist’s body. He grabbed hold of the cultist’s arm with both hands even as his opponent tried to bring the chainsword round to strike him. The cultist writhed beneath him, striking Mikael’s side repeatedly with his free hand. Mikael recoiled, each blow jarring the wound in his stomach still further. Not knowing what else to do, he lunged forward and head butted the cultist in the centre of his face mask. Starbursts of pain exploded in his head, but he felt the resistance in the cultist’s weapon arm loosen. In one swift movement he leant back, pulling the cultist’s arm round until the chainsword was between the two of them, its whirring teeth pointing downwards. Then he pushed.
The chainsword screamed, and hot blood sprayed across Mikael’s face and chest. Beneath him, the cultist fell limp, and after a few seconds the chainsword’s teeth stopped rotating. Leaving the weapon embedded in its former owner, Mikael lurched to his feet, but when he tried to straighten up hot pain flared across his midriff. Keeping slightly hunched, he glanced around, looking for a weapon. He spotted the plasma gun lying on the floor a few metres away, and moved slowly over to it, bending down and recovering it with a wince of pain. He checked the weapon’s readout and saw that it had finished recharging.
Mikael turned slowly, looking for the others, but there was no sign of them. The bodies of five cultists lay nearby; more corpses were by the pillars and near each wall. The cathedral was silent again, and as Mikael stepped forwards slowly his footsteps echoed around the vast space. What had happened to the others? Had the cultists taken them somewhere? But why would they take them alive and only try to kill him? It didn’t make any sense.
He heard a faint buzzing again and flicked at his ear. “Blasted insects”, he muttered, then hesitated. He hadn’t seen any living insects so far; only the dead bugs lying on the bodies of the cultists outside the cathedral. The buzzing changed pitch and shifted position, now seeming to come from the other side. He turned, but still couldn’t see any insects. The sound was strange; the longer he focussed on it, the louder it seemed to get. It was almost as if…..
Mikael whirled, biting back a cry of pain as the sharp movement tore at his wound once again. He clamped a hand to his belly, feeling warm liquid seep slowly between his fingers. Ten metres away from him a man stood; a guardsman, with the tabs of a captain on his shoulders.
“Sir! Sorry, captain, I didn’t hear you approaching”.
The captain nodded. “We’ve only just arrived. The rest of my squad is outside, securing the perimeter. To be honest I was surprised to find another guardsman here, we haven’t encountered a single living soul in the past three days”.
Mikael nodded, trying to ignore the faint buzzing that he could still hear. “There were five others with me; four guardsmen and a commissar. I don’t know what’s happened to them”.
“Don’t worry, son, we’ll find them. You need to get outside, we have a medic who can patch you up; that stomach wound doesn’t look too good”.
Mikael slowly lifted his hand away from his torso and looked at it. His fingers and palm were stained dark red.
“I think you’re right, sir”. He moved forward, and as he did so the buzzing in his ears intensified sharply. He stopped and shook his head, but it made no difference. An odd compulsion came over him and he turned to look back at the corpse of the psyker hanging above the altar. For a fraction of a second the body seemed to ripple, as if surrounded by a heat haze of some kind, then it jumped back into focus; still unmoving, with blood dripping slowly from the chest wound that had ended the psyker’s life.
“Hurry up, guardsman”. The captain’s voice had changed now, more impatient, almost urgent. Mikael looked back at him, and flinched.
He could see a white flower.
It protruded from the top of the captain’s flak armour, just below his neck. It was identical to the flowers he had seen before; eight white petals above eight evenly-spaced thin green leaves. He was positive that it hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“Where did that come from?” he asked, pointing at the flower.
The captain looked down. “What?”
“The flower, sir”.
“What are you talking about? A flower? There’s nothing there, guardsman. Now come on”. The captain extended his arm. “You have to leave this place. Now”.
Mikael hesitated. How could he not see it? It was right there! Unless…..unless Mikael was the only one who could see it. He had seen the flower before, in his dreams as well as in his waking hours. Each time it had disappeared without a trace. But what did it all mean? The buzzing sound he could hear grew louder, and he suddenly remembered that he had heard the noise before. During the ambush, before he had killed the people he had thought to be cultists; who had turned out to be guardsmen, just like him. When he had been…..seeing things. Things that weren’t there.
He took a step backwards. The captain didn’t move, his arm still outstretched, an almost blank expression on his face. “Come with me, guardsman”, he said again. “You have to leave”.
Was he hallucinating now, like before? No, he thought. He couldn’t be. He had fought hand to hand with the cultists, he had shot throne knew how many as well. But he remembered how strange it was that most of them hadn’t been armed with ranged weaponry, except for a few.
Five bodies. There were five cultists laying on the floor nearby. One of them had wielded a chainsword. Mikael gasped, horror building inside him. Five bodies. Four guardsmen, and one commissar.
“No!” Mikael stumbled back, away from the captain. The guardsman remained unmoving, yet still Mikael could see the white flower, protruding from between the captain’s flak armour and his chest.
“This isn’t real!” Even as he spoke the words, Mikael began to hear them. The voices. They were angry now, furious. The figure of the captain began to ripple, becoming insubstantial. Everything around him started to blur again. He felt his eyes begin to throb and clenched them shut, struggling to blot the voices out. His head began to pound, changing rapidly from a dull ache to sheer agony. It was as if his head was about to explode. Mikael knew he was screaming, but couldn’t hear his cries over the sound of the voices. He somehow knew that this time was different; this time he would die if he didn’t do something.
Mikael turned slowly. His vision was swimming; shifting into focus one moment only to dissolve into a formless blur a moment later. The pounding in his head increased, each throb now coming so rapidly that they ran together in endless, searing pain. His eyes felt like they were on fire, yet despite that he somehow managed to look up.
The psyker seemed to stare back at him, blood still pouring from his ruined eyes. He thrashed back and forth, straining at his bonds as if desperate to break them and hurl himself at the guardsman. The cables wrapped around his wrists were surrounded by a crackling halo of energy, constantly shifting in colour from one moment to the next. It reminded him of the sky. He raised the plasma gun, and the screams of the voices in his head reached fever-pitch. He could feel blood coursing from his ears and nostrils.
Mikael squeezed the trigger.
The ball of ionised gas struck the writhing psyker in the stomach, incinerating the whole of his lower torso and most of his legs instantly in a flare of searing blue energy. The psyker threw back his head and shrieked in agony as blood and scorched fragments of viscera gushed from the tattered remnants of his lower body and splattered across the cathedral floor. The energy wreathing the cables intensified in strength, arcing out to strike the walls and floor. Mikael staggered back, dropping the plasma gun and clutching his head as the voices began to wail in fear and rage. The pressure in the air built rapidly, until he felt as if it would crush him at any moment.
Then something picked him up off the floor and hurled him across the cathedral to slam into the wall. Mikael hit the floor, and blacked out.
When Mikael came to, the hiss and crackle of flames was the first thing he heard. He groaned and opened his eyes. On the other side of the cathedral he could see what was left of the vox transmitter, burning furiously. He guessed it must have exploded, and the blast wave had thrown him into the wall. Perhaps there had been some kind of feedback from the death of the psyker? Mikael didn’t know, nor did he care particularly. It didn’t seem that important.
The psyker, or rather what was left of him, was still suspended above the altar, a charred ruin of black, smoking flesh. He was very definitely dead.
Just like Krayn and the others.
Mikael looked across the floor to where they lay; Krayn still with his own chainsword buried in his flesh. Guilt rose up inside him, adding its nauseating presence to the litany of pain that was announcing itself all across his body. Mikael knew that he had killed two of the guardsmen as well, but not which ones. He didn’t want to know. He hadn’t been in his right mind, none of them had, but that didn’t make it any easier.
Mikael tried to get to his feet, but found that he couldn’t. His body ached all over. When he breathed he could feel several of the ribs on his right side grating against each other. The wound in his stomach throbbed in time with every heartbeat, and he could still feel blood seeping slowly from it. Despite the warmth of the air he was shivering; a very bad sign. He lay where he was, tempted to simply give up, to wait for death to claim him. After all that he had been through, hadn’t he earned a rest? But he couldn’t. He wasn’t sure whether it was a desire to live or simply sheer bloody-mindedness that eventually persuaded him to start moving, dragging himself hand over hand across the cathedral floor towards the entrance.
It was exhausting; he had to stop every few minutes to catch his breath and wait for the aching in his muscles to subside slightly before starting again. Where possible he used his right foot to push himself along; when he tried to do the same with his left, twinges of sheer agony shot up his leg. There was no way he could put any weight on it.
Reaching the corridor, Mikael paused for a while, listening carefully, but he could hear nothing except for the sound of his own ragged breathing. Glancing back, he saw the trail of blood he had left across the cathedral floor. The sight spurred him on, and he began to drag himself forward once again. Maybe he would get lucky, maybe there were other guardsmen on their way to the cathedral even now.
Yeah, and maybe the Emperor is waiting to give you cookies.
With the psyker dead, the metallic tang that had been in the air seemed to have disappeared, and it felt much fresher. More….natural, somehow.
After what seemed like an eternity, Mikael finally made it outside, stopping before he made contact with the lake of cultist blood. For long moments he lay still, struggling to catch his breath and control the shivering that hit him in waves. His whole body was beginning to feel numb and unresponsive, and his vision was slightly darker at the edges. He could hear his heartbeat throbbing in his head, and listened as it gradually slowed. It reminded him of what he had dreamt of for days; the pounding of the heart of Valerion. As his eyes began to close he wondered if he would dream of it again.
He started to hear a faint whining, growing louder with every passing second until it became the roar of thrusters. Just above that he could hear raised voices, although not what they said. Mikael groaned. Not more hallucinations. Couldn’t he just have some peace and quiet? Using what felt like every remaining ounce of strength he possessed, Mikael rolled over and opened his eyes. It took a moment for what he was seeing to sink in, then he slowly smiled.
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