The astropath opens his mouth and begins to mutter. Not words but the edges of words, little scraps of sound, corners of consonants and little grunts and murmurs of vowels, and no sound that he makes dies away. They echo, hanging there in the air, overlapping and overlaying, ebbing and flowing into a sea of whispers.
And not all of them are in – well, I don’t know what his voice sounds like, do I, but not all of them are in the same voice at all. I kind-of expected to hear my own voice there (I’m yelling at someone unspecified to stop it and I sound terrified) but there are more – people I know, people I remember. Yilya, our housemistress when we were nothing but orphans, I’ve hardly even thought about her in years. Interrogator Gennid, trapped in a burning building, yelling into a handset. Sister-Superior Drabbe, preaching, her eyes alight.
More. Everyone. A nine-year-old Vanyssa yelling that I did that on purpose. Rakil asking me if I really meant a billion. A man I heard yelling on the street this one time, screaming the message of the Imperial Redemption into the passing crowd of unmoved commuters. Porsia, thirteen and full of zeal, telling me I’d never make it with that attitude. Sister-Superior Croix explaining for the dozenth time that if you did that with a real chainsword it’d foul and twist in your hand. Sister-Superior Drabbe, preaching, in the words I know well that had nothing to do with the Emperor.
Niwall telling me she doesn’t want to drown. A voice I don’t know, clipped level accent like Gennid’s, saying that Stilletto quire recognises Baelis Tertius tower.
My own voice, speaking clear if hesitant battle-language. Gennid, identifying himself like he keeps doing, then saying –
“Primary objective complete success, casualties six. Datalinks to midhive confirmed severed.” A humourless snort. “The jinx is most certainly still active. Cult activity-” He looks straight at me, looks me in the eye. “Not impossible.” My own voice, repeating a prayer of the Saint as if in answer. Niwall, nine years old, repeating the Mortification with her eyes closed to prove she doesn’t need the words. “But I can confirm that uphive is isolated.” Sister Drabbe – or at the very least, something with her voice – repeating a prayer I’d never heard before that day, repeating it with a burning inhuman intensity, and my very blood singing along with the words.
That unfamiliar voice again, talking about interference. Gennid raising his voice as if that will help, speaking battle-language now as you would with a malfunctioning vox. Saying once again that he’s done his damndest to cut the reins by which the hive is steered and that he’s pretty sure of success. Reinforcing that uphive is jinxed repeat jinxed. Drabbe saying – oh, fuck –
My mouth opens unconsciously, I take a breath in and make myself bite my top lip because you can’t do that and sing. My teeth draw blood. Hand-sign with my left hand because my right has my weapon, absolute silence. Vox-click, think that was Rakil. I hear Niwall start to say a word and then stutter to a whimpering halt.
Sister-Superior Croix patiently repeating the catechisms of the bolt gun, the words familiar as our own names from sleep-learning, as the class follows the actions the astropath of the Stiletto, suddenly bell-clear and pin-sharp, stamping on all our minds the searing impression that our message is garbled to shit but the gist is clear. Clear target zone (as if that’s possible). My head is ringing, there’s pain deep inside and I think it’s mine, like the distant voice was actually made of dripping fire. I open my mouth long enough to spit blood on the floor. It bubbles. My throat is bleeding just like it was when
Drabbe’s voice singing a hymn that is burned into me like a brand.
I clamp my traitor mouth shut so hard it hurts.
Gennid, confirming that he heard that as if this is a vox, and asking for a tactical update as if the astropath would have anything for him, and all the voices that aren’t singing begin to laugh. Sister Manda laughing, delighted, with the news that she’d outshot every single girl in the cloister. Housemistress Yilya laughing as she says that no, I don’t get out of chores on my name-day. One of the heretics I killed, didn’t notice at the time but he was laughing as he died. Drabbe, preaching, and there’s nothing funny about that at all.
The distant voice repeating something that all units were ordered to do. My voice repeating Drabbe’s words, and I don’t ever recall sounding so happy about anything and I know for sure my mouth is shut.
The distant voice saying something about fire. Rakil’s voice repeating Drabbe’s prayers with the same burning fervour she gives (used to give) her solos and behind my right shoulder her terrified intake of breath turns into a sob. All the voices are saying the same thing now and Drabbe is leading them. Listing the titles of a being that she never outright refers to as the God-Emperor. Words I saw scrawled upon the walls of a place that part of me never left
LORD ON EARTH AND ELSEWHERE LORD WOVEN THROUGH THE WARP AND WEFT OF THE UNIVERSE
– no –
“Stop it!” I make myself yell and my words fly apart into nothing, snatched away on the tide of sound. “Astropath, stop it! Cut the link!” It’s a huge and painful effort of will to keep my voice to myself. The corpse in front of me is repeating the litany so loudly my voice can’t be heard so I boost the volume on my synth. I have not the slightest idea how astropaths work. “Moral threat! Secure, regroup, retreat! Close the channel! Don’t listen! S-stop talking!” All delivered at a volume that in a dusty mundane logical part of my head I know should cause physical pain to hear, and my ears ring, but all I hear is a hoarse stage-whisper
ARCHITECT OF FATE LORD OF NINE LIGHTS
There is sticky white light spilling like tears from the broken empty sockets of the astropath’s eyes. His mouth isn’t moving, his teeth clenched and his lips drawn back. His skin is flushed beetroot with the drugs and with some enormous invisible effort. I don’t know whether he’s even trying to do what I said. I try and formulate as clearly as I can in the front of my head the shining golden fact that if he doesn’t make it stop right this second, then he will die at my hand –
A surge of thick choking helpless inescapable predestined terror -“No!” shouts Gennid, I have no idea who at. The voices are rising in chorus. “Stop it! Who d’you think you’re helping?”
Drabbe’s voice calling out clearly
CHANGER OF WAYS
I cue my maglock and my blade is in my hand and I yell, “End this! Now!” And the next words out of my mouth were going to be or we will–
But Rakil is carrying a riot-gun, and the white wall of the chamber is suddenly and extensively red.
The astropath didn’t have time to make any kind of noise at all.
Rakil was standing to my right, range all of ten feet, a clear shot, an irregular fistful of ceramic shot impacting just behind his right ear and painting the spotless white of the wall in front of him in a random patchwork of crimson. The roar of the riot-gun dumps burning freezing adrenaline into the pit of my stomach – as the body begins to slump forward I’m already recovering, ready for anything, as all those voices begin as one single chorus to scream.
Niwall calling my name, raw hoarse panic in her voice. Sister Croix snarling at me to stop it – it was that time I tried a smart cross-step and magboot cue to turn a right angle at a flat run, stripped every servo-sheath in my left lower leg and snapped my shinbone. (My own voice, answering my name loud and clear at my investiture.) Porsia yelling my name in the heat of battle. Gennid damning me for a know-nothing idiot. Getting harder to distinguish the voices, harder to hear what they’re saying, torrents of invective overlapping and interfering and I wonder if the others are hearing my name or their own, and I don’t think I’m hearing this with my ears (don’t clap your hands over your ears, you’ll hurt yourself)
It’s only been the barest instant. The body is still spraying blood and organic matter, red and a sickening shocking purple against the white wall – a glance at Gennid and his jaw’s dropping open and he’s reaching under his coat, his hand scrabbling for a weapon like it’s somehow the spray of blood that’s the threat. I cue the vox, thinking to give an order they’ll actually hear – but – yes, Ellayn, what was it you were going to tell them, again?
And we must have been too late. The purple, it’s spreading. That’s not blood. It’s like everything else is happening in slow motion. There’s a, a depth there that there shouldn’t be, a – there’s something behind the wall something purple and the whiteness is like whitewash covering it up and the blood is washing it off and showing us what’s really there –
it’s got hold of both sides of that uneven ragged splash like it’s a hole in the wall – daemon – it’s pulling, two no three splayed clawed hands great purple wings daemon and it’s pulling and it’s coming for us and fuck taking on crawling clawed horror with nothing but a knife and the interrogator has fumbled some kind of yellow handgun out of his holster but his hand’s shaking so much he dropped the damn thing. I unsling my lasgun quick as I can and point it with a wordless yell that isn’t a scream because I’ve decided that it isn’t (I guess it went out on the vox) and beside me Niwall and Rakil raise their guns and the instant we see a pair of eyes between those claws –
I know that face –
– we unleash hell.
Or we do our best. Niwall’s got a laspistol, a semi-auto sidearm that’ll put a right deadly fist-sized crater in a target if there isn’t smoke in the way, assuming the target has water or volatiles in it to give a proper plasma flash. My lasrifle isn’t putting its shots out quite straight and it’s not listening to anything but a request for autofire – lucky guess, little spirit – but the laser shots themselves dump no more energy than the pistol. Rakil’s at least got some stopping power there, I guess – the muzzle-flash and report are impressive at short range if you never saw a big gun before – but its bark is worse than its bite, those are frangible rounds specifically designed not to be a danger to hard targets. Is a daemon fucking daemon with Drabbe’s face a hard target?
The horror blinks, slowly – right between the eyes we hit it, all three of us, and I hold my finger on the touch-plate and there’s no recoil to drag the barrel off course – and then it moves. We stung it, you see. It goes for what looks like the biggest threat. The one with the big loud noise and the bright flash that’s maybe a real gun?
And Rakil’s got damn fine reflexes. She fires right into the horror’s open mouth and then it’s gone past as she slams over backward with a heartbreaking scream. I spin as fast as I can, the lasgun stitching a line of fruitless little scorches in the wall, but the thing’s already turning around. I distinctly see one of its eyes light up with plasma flash from either my weapon or Niwall’s we shot it in the eye with a fucking laser and all it does is blink and go for Niwall.
I’m there. Didn’t even consciously think about it, it’s my sister and she’s crying. Stab the gun into the daemon’s side like it’s got a bayonet on, still got the trigger held down as I feel the weapon’s plasteel case snap under the impact, next thing I know is an earthshattering blow about the level of my belt. The thing’s backhanded me and I see stars and feel sick – the magboots let go, because it’s that or break my ankles. My feet go out from under me and the impact knocks the breath out of me, try to fall relaxed and I land skidding on my front as the suit pulls my arms forward in a breakfall. Lasrifle’s nowhere.
It sweeps both its hands up and back and then down and Niwall is so fast. She’s not where it swung. I’ve no idea how that thing telegraphed but she saw it, she moved, and spins with it like she’s dancing. Her knife’s in her other hand and that put a neat little slice in the horror as they moved. Again it moves, as I stand – she dodges, leaves nothing in her place but a cutting edge – and the daemon ducks under her blow like it doesn’t have any bones at all, hits her with a stamping kick to the gut with a sound like a piledriver, puts her down on the ground like she suddenly decided to sit down, not even breath to yell.
And then its hand is on fire, sick pink flames, and I’m pushing to my feet and the magboot cuts in and throws me forward as the flame licks forward and everything seems to stretch. The daemon is paying all of its attention to Niwall and I can see white all the way around her eyes and she’s scrabbling backwards away from it as the fire reaches out almost softly, as it passes gently through her breastplate as if it wasn’t there, as the purity seal on her shoulder ignites like it was made of magnesium –
And I hit the damn thing like the Emperor’s own spear. My sarissa is sharp and hard enough that you could use it to carve steel, and I’ve put all my strength and all my weight and all my suit’s into this one overhand blow between its shoulder blades. I feel the hilt slam into the creature’s rubbery flesh with a colossal impact – step – hit it again – I pull the creature towards me, or the blade through its flesh, either works, and my other fist unwinds into an uppercut that could’ve made a hole in a concrete wall, and the blade tears clear with a gout of pink ooze.
Fucker doesn’t even stagger. Bonelessly it reverses its arms at the elbow, opens eyes in the back of its head – I try and put the dagger between them – a clawed hand flashes past under my guard and comes away bright crimson red and the world goes black and white with pain. Some kind of suit alarm shrills in my ear as involuntarily I stagger back a pace. Three broad lines across my midsection are suddenly demanding all the attention I can give, my hand goes to the wound automatically and there’s the clack of ceramite on ceramite as if I simply imagined that blow – I will not look down, I will not fall, I will not, the Emperor is my strength –
“IGNI EXPURGATUR!” Gennid’s voice cuts through the clamour and pain like a rusty knife. The little man is standing to my right holding something up with arm outstretched as he screams the High Gothic words at the daemon. The thing he’s holding, it’s a little yellow-and-black cylinder covered in aquilae, little nozzle at the top, and I recognise it in the instant it all happens.
It’s an exterminator, it’s a fucking exterminator. The simplest smallest flamethrower you can get. Just a little pressurised canister of blessed incendiary and a way to let it out. Crazy bastard was carrying one in his breast pocket and he just pulled the pin and everything in front of him goes white with the wash of flame as he continues with his exorcism. I hear Rakil swearing, pushing herself frantically away from it on the floor. All I can do to keep my feet but I’m staggering back myself – no helmet no helmet if that fire gets onto me then I will die burning –
“I AM THE HAMMER!” The tendons are standing out on Gennid’s scrawny neck as he plays the shockingly broad stream of white fire straight at the daemon. “I AM THE SWORD OF THE EMPEROR!” It’s squealing, it’s turning towards him but it’s being driven back against the wall and everything around it is on fire. “I AM THE TIP OF HIS SPEAR!” Its skin is blackening and bubbling. “I AM HIS SHIELD!” It slams into the wall, twisting and fighting the stream of flame –
And the little flamethrower falters and coughs and is spent, and in the same moment the daemon stops squealing and starts laughing. It peels itself off the wall and out of its blackened burned ruined skin and it’s an obscenely naked anoxic blue underneath, a parody of the human form that used to bear its face as it pulls itself forwards into the rapidly dying knee-length flames between it and the interrogator, as he pulls out the silver aquila on its chain around his neck and raises it up as he continues his prayer at the top of his lungs like he’s got absolutely nothing left but just that – as it reaches out a hand with an obscene horrible skull’s smile and the aquila glows a sudden cherry red and starts to sag and droop as if from extreme heat –
Imperator protegat Emperor protect me famula sua Ellayn in hora exigentia protect Your handmaiden in her hour of need – Holy Throne please –
The maglock in my right hand must have thought I was talking to it and I feel it pull and click – and in the next instant somehow I’m holding a blessedly familiar weight and the rest is automatic. Gennid’s aquila falls off its little chain and the horror has its hand around his neck as if it’s got all the time in the world to tear his head off. The action of the cocking handle is reassuring and familiar and at a range of six feet I hardly need to even aim and then the roar of the bolter and the detonation of impact are one single thunderclap.
The bolt takes the horror in the left shoulder and it turns to me in that instant as Gennid falls coughing to the floor. Unconscious action flicks the fire selector and I fire again and the enclosed space fills with the sound of the Emperor’s wrath. This gun came with me from the cathedral, it’s the one I committed blasphemy with. Two rounds hit the daemon in its open mouth and blow a hole right through it and it’s the blasphemy’s turn to stagger backwards in shock and confusion and pain.
Niwall (ohThrone Niwall her eyes rolled up into her head) hadn’t thought to ask me when she was playing quartermaster, pulling spare mags from jammed weapons. I don’t know how many rounds I have but it’s more than I’ve fired. I squeeze the trigger again and pain screams from my wound but suit servos lock and hold me steady, multiple detonations knock the thing downward and backward and I track it back and down and give it another burst when something among those remains tries to get back up, blessed explosive shells bursting inside it and tearing it apart like it was a range target.
And then it isn’t anything, wasn’t anything, just a smear of organic and nameless goo around the walls and floor of a sphere that’s half on fire and filling with lung-burning acrid smoke as the electronics spark and chitter and our brains try to tell us that none of that happened at all.