Authors: John French
Tags: #Ciencia ficción
A book is always more than the writer. Behind the words on the page are a host of people who, knowingly or unknowingly, nudge, cajole or just flat out push the story over the border between dream and reality. This book is no different:
To Liz, for making sure I reached the end and did not get lost on the way.
To Christian Dunn, because a book is always as much the editor as the writer.
To Graham McNeill, for providing mighty shoulders for me to stand on.
To Ead Brown, Colin Goodwin, Trevor Larkin, Andy Smillie, and Chris Wraight, for their encouragement and feedback.
To all of the others who helped in ways large and small.
For Henry French
It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.
Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Astra Militarum and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
‘To talk of destiny and fate is foolish. Time, causality, the observer and the observed; we must treat our assumptions on all these matters with suspicion. We think of the past causing the future, but must that be so? Is fate created by trying to see it? What if we had not looked? Would matters have unfolded otherwise?’
– Ahzek Ahriman, from the precepts of the Corvidae
Haakon Grey Storm moved up the frozen slope of the ridge. His armour had once been the blue-grey of glacial ice, but that had been long ago. Now it was the dull grey of battered metal. Dents and gouges wound across its plates like ropes of scar tissue, and flecks of paint clung to pits and grooves, hinting in bright fragments at the past of the warrior within. Haakon felt the armour creak as he crouched behind the lip of the ridge. Every small movement felt stiff against his skin, as if the battle plate were protesting at the cold. He paused and drew a deep breath of cold air. He wore no helm and the icy wind lifted the black hair from his face as he tilted his head back. The light of stars burning sun-bright in a clear blue sky met his yellow eyes. He let the breath out of his lungs.
He could smell the witch.
Slowly he unclamped the axe from his back. Its head spread in twin curves of polished metal, the golden bodies of dragons tangling across its faces. The leather-bound haft settled into his hand. He held the axe close to the throat, his thumb resting on the power field generator. Its edges glittered sharp against the crystal powder of the chemical snow.
Beyond the ridge the ground dropped away to a road of cold-cracked stone. The witch was approaching along that road. Haakon sniffed again. Her stink was strong even over the fumes that hung above the ice. Sweat, dried blood, and a scent like crushed roses and fresh faeces: the scent of the corruption, the scent of the warp. The warp changed everything it touched and once touched nothing was pure again. Not this world, not the stars shining in a sunlit sky, not Haakon himself. He had once asked a rune priest if he was changing, if the hunt through the worlds on the edge of the Eye had tainted him. The rune priest had not been able to answer, but Haakon knew the truth. He had changed. His sense of smell, always keen, now seemed to reach through matter to detect the flavours of the soul. It was as if his purpose had found an echo in the warp, the hunter’s desire answered with the means to find the prey. The warp had touched him. He was tainted and he always would be, but his purpose was pure, and that was enough.
The witch was close now, her scent growing stronger with each slow pulse of his hearts. She had guards with her, followers of her vile cult. He had their scents too. There were ten of them. He could smell the grease on their guns, and the edges on their knives. He began to move. Snow powder fell away from him as he padded forwards. He took a last breath and let its calm soak into his muscles. His mind and body became one, became a single blade-tip of focused intent. He was close now. Kill the witch, and the witch’s knowledge would lead him to the exile. He could smell the knowledge in her. She might have only glimpsed his ultimate prey once, but it was enough. The exile’s scent was on her, and he would follow it to the end. And then Fenris would have vengeance.
Haakon came over the top of the ridge in a leaping bound. For a paused heartbeat the scene was still beneath him: ten figures in a loose circle, silver masks in the shapes of reptile beasts glinting with polished light. At their centre a figure, hunched under a cloak of tanned skin. He could see the patterns of angular tattoos ripple across the cloak as a breeze caught its edge.
Then Haakon landed. Some of the guards turned and raised weapons. Some scattered. Two became crushed flesh beneath his boots. Haakon’s first axe-cut was lateral, from left to right, backhanded, his muscles uncoiling into the movement. Blood scattered through the air. Gunfire rang against his armour. He spun and cut down, opening a man from bronze collar to groin. Wet liquid sprayed Haakon’s face. He was not seeing what he was killing, not really. Each enemy was a brief blur of movement: an impression of dented armour, a face hidden by a beast mask, a lasweapon worked in bronze. The axe split a skull and pulped the meat inside. At his feet the blood was melting the chemical ice. Fumes rose around him. The stink of ruptured intestines coiled amidst the thickening fog. He cut again.
Something smacked into his right cheek. He felt his flesh burning, and then nothing, as his body numbed the injury. The witch stood, a bronze-cased laspistol in her hand, its barrel levelled at him. Her skin hung in grey sags from her gaunt skull, and the cloak of flayed faces did not hide the twisted body beneath. The arm holding the pistol shook. Haakon looked into her eyes; they were the yellow of fat. Haakon snarled, and the wound in his cheek opened like a second mouth. The witch’s finger tightened on the trigger.
Haakon’s foot slammed into the witch’s chest. The impact shattered her ribs and spun her through the air. The axe severed her neck as she fell back to the ground. Haakon paused, slow breaths sucking between his canines. Hacked meat and slick offal lay around him, heaped in piles, steaming into the cold air. His armour glistened, scarred grey hidden beneath crimson. For a moment his mind was free of the fatigue that had consumed him body and soul. For a moment he felt joy. Then the feeling drained from him, and the needs of the hunt returned like the ache of tired muscles. He must take what he came for now, before the dead flesh cooled.
He bent down and picked the witch’s head from the ground. Lank hair tangled in his fingers as he held it level with his own face. He closed his hand. The skull held its shape for a second, and then it cracked like an egg. Yellow sores and clotted black fluid riddled the flesh within. He brought the bloody mass to his teeth and bit down. The flesh was warm and tasted of memories. Impressions, ghost sensations and broken words filled his mind with every bite. He ate until the skull was an empty shell, and he had what he needed.
His skin prickled as he dropped the skull. There was someone behind him.
His axe was a razor blur as he turned.
‘It is I, brother,’ growled a voice.
Haakon held his blow, but did not lower the axe. A lone figure stood a blade-swing from his shoulder. It looked back at him with familiar blue eyes. Serpentine marks of aversion crawled across the figure’s grey armour, and thick rows of sharp teeth hung from the red pauldrons. In places the serpentine marks glowed with a pale light. Haakon knew the voice and the face that spoke. He knew that he should lower the axe, but part of him wanted to swing and watch the blood flow fresh into the snow.
‘Haakon,’ said the figure in grey. ‘Lower your weapon.’
Haakon did not lower the axe.
‘Oulf?’ said Haakon slowly. The name was thick on his tongue, as if the numbness of the hole in his cheek had spread to his jaw.
‘It is I,’ said the figure. Haakon shifted his grip on his axe.
‘You died on the world of sand and thirst,’ said Haakon.
‘No, brother,’ said the figure. ‘The kill has taken your mind. I did not die. Remember.’ Haakon’s gaze wavered, and he shook his head as if flies were buzzing over his skin. Oulf was dead; Haakon could remember the rune priest’s blood soaking into the white sand. But here he was standing alive before him…
‘No,’ said Haakon, swaying as he spoke. The witch’s blood memories still filled his head, clotting his thoughts with fading images. Perhaps Oulf was not dead? Perhaps that had been a dream. Perhaps the warp was taking his memory.
The figure that looked and spoke like Oulf moved past Haakon and picked up the witch’s empty skull.
‘What did she know?’ said the figure, looking into the witch’s lifeless eyes, and then to Haakon. ‘Did she know where to find the exile?’
Haakon closed his eyes. The wound on his cheek had begun to burn with pain. His head ached in dull throbs.
‘Haakon,’ said the figure carefully. ‘What did she know?’
‘She met him,’ said Haakon. His eyes were stinging and the words were heavy as they came from his mouth. ‘But she did not realise who he was. He was part of a warband…’ He breathed, trying to steady himself. The witch’s memory was fading in his mind: a glance across a battlefield, a chance glance back, a pair of sky-blue eyes.
‘What warband?’ said the figure, and stepped closer. Haakon shook his head again. ‘Brother, what warband? Where did she see him?’
Haakon’s eyes snapped open, and his hand gripped the haft of his axe.
‘You died,’ he said softly. ‘You died long ago, and I am alone.’ The axe came up fast, slicing at the figure that wore the face of Oulf. The figure stepped back faster than anything should move. Haakon cut again and the axe sliced into its chest. Smoke and black blood spilled from the cut. He could suddenly smell ash and burned flesh. The figure went down into a foetal crouch, and Haakon brought the axe around for a kill-stroke.
The figure’s face snapped upwards. A third eye burned red in the middle of its forehead. Haakon felt the air leave his lungs. He was burning from the inside. The ice, blood and sky were vanishing at the edge of his sight. He raised the axe but it was not there; there was just dust in his hand, and a sensation of falling. A wind was spiralling around him, and the world was dissolving into grains of dust.
Pain filled Haakon’s skull. The figure in front of him no longer looked like Oulf; it was an outline of black-edged fire. Two points of green light burned where its eyes had been. Haakon stepped forwards, a howl of rage and hate ripping from between his teeth. His hands dissolved into the cyclone wind as he reached for the figure’s eyes. Pain stabbed into his head again, and exploded in white brilliance inside his skull.
Haakon opened his eyes. He was still howling, the sound echoing around the chamber’s crystal-covered walls. He was lying on a stone table, angled so that his head was higher than his feet. Chains held him at the wrist, throat and ankle. His armour was gone, and spiralling marks in blue ink covered his skin. Gore and bile ran down his chin and chest in thick rivulets.
‘You will tell me what you learned from the witch.’ A figure walked into view. Its skin was golden, its eyes green without white or pupil. Silver scarabs, birds and jackal-headed half-men crawled across the red lacquer of its armour. Strips of closely written parchment fluttered from the pauldrons as it stepped forwards, a black glass knife in its hand. Behind it two suits of armour stood immobile, their eyes shining with ghost light from high-crested helms.
, thought Haakon. His muscles bunched against the restraints. The sorcerer looked down at Haakon and shook his head. ‘You will tell me,’ said the sorcerer, and Haakon felt the soft words shake his thoughts. He stared back and spat. The acid in the blood-laced phlegm sizzled on the sorcerer’s chestplate.
‘You cannot stop us,’ growled Haakon. ‘My brothers will find him and then we will come for the rest of you. We will hunt you until you tire, and when you are weak we will split you open and feed your hearts to the crows.’ Haakon was breathing heavily, his muscles straining against the chains. The sorcerer shook his head as if in sympathy.
‘You will not find him, wolf. Nor will any of your breed.’ The sorcerer paused, looking at the point of the black glass dagger in his hand. ‘You will not find him because we will find him first. We who were his brothers
find him.’ He looked up from the dagger, and Haakon saw something in those blank green eyes that made him bare his fangs. ‘His fate is ours, not yours.’
‘I do not lie. Your prey is our prey, and the greater cause is ours. You dogs hate us all, but we, we Brothers of Dust, we were his brothers, his followers, his friends. He deceived us, destroyed us and forced us into exile.’ The sorcerer put the point of the dagger to Haakon’s throat. ‘You will give me what I need to find Ahriman. I will not allow you to deny me.’
‘The dark tides will swallow you, and the ice will freeze over your corpse,’ snarled Haakon, his muscles bunching against the point of the dagger. Blood welled up and trickled down his neck.
‘You are resistant to our craft, your kind always were. But I do not need to break your mind.’ The sorcerer shook his head slowly. ‘I must thank you for reminding me that there are other, less refined paths to knowledge.’
Haakon’s pupils went wide and he roared as he realised what was going to happen. He was still roaring as the dagger punched into his neck. The sorcerer sawed the blade across Haakon’s throat just under the jaw. Blood ran in a red sheet over the stone table. Haakon kept roaring as the sorcerer reached into the grinning wound and pulled the soft white gland from his neck.
For a second, the sorcerer looked at the blood-covered meat in his hand. The gland was a progenoid, the root of the genetic miracle that had created the Space Marines. They held blood memory more surely than a human’s brain. Slowly the sorcerer tipped his head back, opened his mouth and ate the gland. As they had for Haakon, memories unfolded in the sorcerer’s mind like blood tipped into clear water. For a moment he swayed. Then his mind found what it sought: the memory of another blood feast, of the warm flesh from the witch’s skull between Haakon’s jaws. The sorcerer’s mind reached out and grasped the memory as it formed.
‘Har…’ The sorcerer’s mouth struggled to form the word as it solidified in his mind. ‘Harrowing,’ he said, and spat a thick splatter of blood onto the floor. It was what he needed. It was a name, and names held power. With this name he could track its bearers through the aether, and that would take him a step closer to finding his quarry, his prey, as Haakon would have said. He would send word to his master and the rest of the Brotherhood of Dust. The trail of the exile was clear, and they moved a step closer to their end.
On the stone table Haakon twitched, alive despite his slit throat. The sorcerer drew his sword, and looked into Haakon’s eyes.
‘Thank you, Haakon Grey Storm.’ He raised the sword above his head. ‘Our brotherhood thanks you,’ said the sorcerer, and brought the sword down on Haakon’s neck.