Fire Lake, The Hive Bottom
The light was strange in the gigantic cavern, coming as it did primarily from the great lake that filled most of it. As far as the eye could see, the viscous fluid glowed with a milky light that cast unhealthy shadows upon what little could be seen of the serrated ceiling. Here and there great pillars of wreckage thrust up from the slime to support the ceiling, and the hive city above that.
On the jagged shore Exene Thrush walked, carefully favouring her injured hip. After a short time she came to a spot where a long pipe ran far out into the lake and turned to her right. She followed the ancient thing to a point where it went into the wall of the cavern about a hundred yards from the shoreline. Stopping, she carefully wrenched away the frame of a ruined water still, long ago stripped for parts. Moving the junk revealed a hole in the conduit. The gang leader rattled the tip of her sword around in it before she reached deep in to pull out a dirty old cylinder about three feet long.
Exene sighed in relief as she placed the thing across her knees and began cleaning it. She nearly jumped a foot when she heard the “tap tap tap” that the Daughters used to signal an approach to another who might be wary. She turned slowly to face Sindi Sixx, her red haired point girl.
“Heya, Sindi. What’re you following me for?”
Sindi settled down on a cleaner section of the oxidized pipe and pulled a slender leg up to her chin. “Oh, I don’t know. When the Boss wanders off alone with a bad leg, sometimes it falls to us to keep an eye on her. Given her own orders about not wandering off alone and all that. With Ethyl asleep, the duty happened to fall to me. What’s the stash?”
Exene smiled, “You’ll never believe it.”
The gang leader scraped the rest of the corrosion from the catches and flipped them open. They snapped to with the tiny screams of metal too long untended. She had to pull fairly hard to get the case open. Finally the lid came up and she looked down into it with a nostalgic look before turning it around so Sindi could see.
“Holy-” the ganger exclaimed, reaching out then stopping. She pulled the half glove from her right hand and carefully wiped her fingers before stroking the shimmering fabric. “Exene, where’d you get this? And why?”
Exene smiled wistfully, her eyes taking on a distant look that clashed with her carefully developed hard exterior. “Lots of you grew up down here. In the Underhive. I grew up mid hive. This was my prom dress.”
“What’s a prom?” asked Sindi, with all sincerity.
Exene had to laugh, but it was slightly forced. “It’s a celebration. A dance mostly, to mark finishing tech training. Mine didn’t go so good.” The gang leader stopped and bit her lip before continuing. “I caught my guy with another girl. A rival. There was a fight and she got hurt. I don’t know how badly. I didn’t want to face what had happened so I ran downhive and didn’t stop for a long time.”
“Kicked the crap out of her, heh? NOW that’s the Exene that I know!” Sindi was smiling with pride.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t the Exene my parents or the constables knew. If she’d been hurt really badly I’d have been in a lot of trouble, that kind of thing doesn’t go over well up hive. There’s no telling what might have happened to me. Hell, if she’d died I might have been sold out of the courts to the Downhive Guilders. We’ve seen how those girls live. If you can call it that.”
“Yeah, it bulls me that we can’t bust up them damned brothels because they’re Guild. That really bites.
“Speaking of the Guild,” Sindi continued, “what’s weird about all this is that we ain’t been posted. Why the hell would that be? If the Guild wants us, or somebody Uphive, why not just Outlaw us plain and simple? It’s a lot simpler than all this cloak and dagger shit. We starve or die but in the end, we’re gone. Those bastards have got all the cards, why don’t they play ’em?”
Exene allowed a smile to creep back onto her face, tossing her indigo hair which caught purple brilliance off a flare from the Lake of Fire, “That might be what saves us, Sindi. Somebody doesn’t want anything to happen to the Daughters public-like. If we just go away, another tragic gang taken down, then there ain’t nothin’ anyone can really say. If we’re Outlawed, there’ll be records. People who’ll talk. That kind of thing. If anybody checked, somebody could be deep in it.”
The scout snorted, “C’mon, Exene, we’re talking about the Guild here! They got nothin’ to be afraid of from anyone. They is the big cheese!”
Exene Thrush nodded. “In Cascade, on Lodi, yes. That’s very true. But the Imperium is a lot bigger than Lodi, or so we were taught in school. A whole lot bigger.” She let her accent fall back into Underhive, “There’s some Space Marines and a Commissar out there what owes us a favor or three. Earning them favors cost us a lot and pissed off some folks. Big folks, mebbe. I don’t know. But the outworld’s got big pull too. Big enough we didn’t get Outlawed after capping a Guilder and bustin’ up his boys. So they got some power. Enough to face the guild and make ’em back down.
“But them big time offworlds, ain’t around anymore. It’s been over a year and my bet is that the local biggies figure that things have cooled enough that the Daughters can have an accident. Just enough to quietly make the point down here that takin’ the wrong side ain’t healthy. Be good for the forces that be and nothin’ would ever be provable.” She nodded as though finally convincing herself.
“That’s the trick of it, Sindi. I’m sure of it. All this crap is a knife in the darkness. Aimed right at the heart of the Daughters of Dystopia. But I think we caught ’em out. We’ve found the edge of their blade, and I think; I hope that I know just the folks to blunt it!”
Exene snapped the canister shut again and stood, favoring her bad hip just a tad, “Come on, Sindi. It’s time I sent that letter.”
South Central Command HQ
The snore didn’t stop.
“Hmm, wha?” Senekal opened bleary eyes to try to locate the familiar shattered voice. A voice that could only belong to one man, “Liche? What’s up? Are we being attacked?”
“No. No of course not. Your troop saw to that with the destruction of that Titan force.” Even half asleep, the guardsman could detect a certain amount of wry irony in that statement. As if it had been a foregone conclusion or something.
“Oh.” The Colonel looked around at the dark metal of the hallway where Liche stood, towering over him in his blue terminator armor. He tried to rub the sleep from his eyes without much success. “Then why’d you wake me up?”
“My friend, we haven’t seen each other in years! Despite your victory, time may still be short.”
“Liche, old boy,” The Colonel said with a smile as he sat up and ran a hand through auburn hair, “before this little cat nap I was trying to get I hadn’t slept in near two days. I’m not a marine, you know.” Despite the complaint, the words were said with a warm smile. There was little doubt that the human was most certainly glad to see the Librarian.
Liche’s ancient face actually went ashen with embarrassment. It was seldom that such emotions crossed it and it managed to look so strange on his normally over-grim countenance that Senekal had to chuckle again. “Not to worry. Not to worry. I think I’ve gotten enough for a while. Exercise or something must be agreeing with me. Don’t seem to need quite as much sleep as I used to.” His smile went conspiratorial and he whispered sotto voce, “The poor troopers been calling me The Man Who Never Sleeps these days what with pop inspections at all hours. Couldn’t have ’em getting slack before this.”
“Before what, my friend?”
“Before the Gathering, Liche. Can’t you sense it? It’s in the air, how important this is – the potency of the forces arrayed against us. It’s almost tangible.”
Liche’s eyes narrowed in surprise. That wasn’t the kind of statement he’d expected from his friend. He wondered for a second, and then suppressed the thought. Silly. Senekal had no psychic ability of any kind – as a Librarian he’d have long since detected it.
“Indeed, it is like nothing we’ve seen before. Nothing that has happened since, perhaps, the Heresy itself when marine fought marine for the fate of all the galaxy. Oh, there have been Black Crusades before, but not like this. Such a great force deployed here. This is likely the most serious attempt to take control of the Cadian gate in millennia. Possibly the most serious ever.”
“Ain’t that the truth. You gotta wonder what’s going on up there. What the hell are they up to?” Both human and marine looked up at the ceiling. As though somehow they could see through it to the answer.
Battle Barge “Skull Throne”
His body flared with barely remembered pain and his form mirrored that discomfort with a flash of warp flame that leaked from the burned seams of his ancient, baroque armor. Before him, the glassteel of the viewport was clouded and dim around the edges where it met the brazen images of skulls and the multi sided star of chaos, evidence of its great age. Its dim surface reflected his body’s flare. Amankhan waited, the great wings which grew from his back rustling slightly.
Cadia reminded him of Earth. The green, blue and white making up a softly brushed marble of beauty in the velvet blackness of space. More green here, to be sure. Earth had been built to near hive status long before his birth and that had been thousands of years ago. Still, close enough in many ways.
Senses beyond what normal men were born with told him of the life below, the resistance and the shattered blackness of the chaos controlled isthmus where the world itself seemed to scream in agony. Conquest. They had come for conquest. Why did it always seem to become this way, the blackened husks of worlds at war, each time he and his brethren took the field against the Imperium. Sometimes, it caused him to doubt. Sometimes he wondered about the wisdom of the choices he and his had made. Choices forced on him, betrayal and pain dealt to those who had stayed loyal despite ridiculous dictates! Flames began to shoot from the gaps in his armor with more vigour. He made a visible effort to calm himself again.
The Sorcerer Lord forced himself to relax. He focused on the carving above the viewport. The only part of the frame that was original to the ship – a great fanged mouth devouring a planet. The emblem of the World Eaters whose ship this was, and had been since before the great civil war.
Waiting. How long was he to wait here? On the pleasure of Him who sat beyond the doorway. This was Amankhan’s assault. It was his legion that had begun this Crusade in response to that upstart Void Phantom’s letter of redemption that had somehow reached him even in his fortress in the Eye.
No. He reminded himself. It had been Amankhan’s Crusade. It was His now. He who brooded beyond the doorway. His alone and Amankhan would have to be content to be the one who had begun it. There was no arguing with that which waited beyond.
To his right, the great doors rumbled open. The discordant tones of martial music, badly played, echoed through the antechamber, rebounding in a fashion so disturbing that in places the sound seemed to bleed into the very warp, resulting in strange half seen eddies and currents in the room.
The Sorcerer Lord stiffened his back and entered the room. He faced The Presence and bowed low. Those who did not do so, did not survive.
The chamber beyond was vast beyond imagining. In fact, it should not have (and didn’t) fit within the space on the Barge that would have contained it, if it could have. From the outside, the vessel appeared normal, but this space simply didn’t exist completely in the normal universe. Amankhan began the long walk, several kilometers, to the being which waited at the end – serenading him with suppurating music that did not so much echo as bleed.
He’d been warned to avert his eyes (or what now passed for such) but as a Sorcerer, scientist and seeker after truth, he simply could not do so. The figure was gigantic. Well over fifty feet tall in complete defiance of the cube root law that governed such things normally. He was a giant humanoid, naked, with dark red skin, horns and great batlike wings. He cradled a great harp in his clawed hands and played it, badly.
Amankhan reached the great chair, constructed of skulls and bones, so many that they supported the giant daemon’s weight, and waited on the pleasure of Angron, Daemon prince, once Primarch of the World Eaters.
“I can no longer play, Sorcerer. The music itself is now corrupted by blood and death. It hears the blackness in my soul and is dismayed. Ten thousand years, and still I try to play.”
Amankhan shuddered at how similar the giant’s thoughts were to what he had earlier been thinking. Was there something to chaos that they denied but knew anyway? Sometimes, in his more lucid times such as now, he believed so. “You summoned me, Lord?”
The great daemon sighed with sadness and slapped down the harp with a thunderous noise that brought to mind a regiment ordering arms. “The Titans have failed.”
“My Lord, that is not possible! Your plan tied all the loyalist forces down. Their own pathetic Mechanicus Forces could not have been a match. There were no others to block them, the auguries-”
“Were wrong!” Boomed the Prince. “They are destroyed. By what I do not know. Their blood sang Khorne’s song as it was reaped. There is no mistaking it. Will you pursue your scheme or shall we fall back to the Eye? The advantage is no longer with us and this place – tires me now.”
Amankhan was taken aback. The great war daemon Angron a coward? This was not to be believed! “My forces will continue the attack, Lord. No matter what your own troops decide. This Crusade will get to Earth! We shall re-take it!”
“Without the support of Mortarion? Without that of your own Magnus? What of Fulgrim where is he? Or even that upstart Abaddon who feels he is so strong? The force here assembled is worthy, Amankhan, but our support is eroding while that against us grows. If we are to progress, there must be victory. Soon.
“Begin your magick, Mage. We will make a last attempt. We will strike Zymran’s Ferry, the very heart of our enemies. Huron will lead the assault and I expect your Sorcerers and Daemons to support him. If we can take that place and kill those there present, we stand a chance. If not… we shall fail. Also take with you Jher Khan. He is raving about some human commander whom he says is below. Let the Rotted Lord have his opportunity. If nothing else, at least he will be a distraction.
“Go! When you leave, I will stand ready and when you have broken the outer walls, I shall be there!”
The Sorcerer Lord backed away. A much shorter distance than his arrival. As the doors closed behind him, the sound of bleeding music began again.
The woman in the shimmering silver dress ran an identity card through the reader at the Barrier, that thick wall that separated the mid-hive from the Upper hive. The Uphive was where the nobles of the great houses ran their businesses in the bright light of Lodi’s day as the sun streamed through the great skylights. A far cry from the poorly lit dimness of the mid and under hives. Those who knew Exene Thrush, particularly the heavily armed gangers in the shadows by the Barrier gate, would not have recognized the demure lady that strode through the opened door on hastily repaired high heeled dress shoes. The purple make up and hair dye was gone, replaced by the more stylish Up hive Glitterdust and eye shadow. Her hair had gone back to it’s natural dark brown and her nails were done in a silver that matched her dress. Only the prominent musculature gave the lie to what initially appeared to be a beautiful houri on her way to visit a noble lover. Still, one never knew what the various nobles liked…
Within the Uphive, Exene paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the bright light that flooded the giant concourses. She marvelled at the trees and shrubs growing in carefully manicured splendour amidst songbirds from Lodi’s long gone ecosystem. She moved purposefully, not wanting to give the constables any excuse to question her. There were people here somewhere who did not have good feelings toward one Exene Thrush.
A brief pause at a directory told her where to go. The trip was to the most rarefied high points of the Hive, a home to nobility and all its trappings. Crossing the concourse she reached the tower lift that she needed and rode it up. People came and went from the car. Those on the lower levels were not dressed as finely; those on the mid levels, she vanished into. To those on the upper levels, she looked almost like a pauper. One man with thinning hair and a receding chin and dressed in an incredible jewel laced black velvet doublet, stared at her with a look that gave away obvious intentions. When he raised a hand toward her waist she simply turned her emerald eyes on him with a glare so withering and deadly that he snatched his arm back as though he’d been stung. He left the car quickly. One stop later, so did she.
The office was small, and by the standards of the balcony on which it rested quite spartan. An unobtrusive plaque read, “Adeptus Astra Telepathica, Imperial Offices.” There was no one there, not even a receptionist, but it was only moments before a man with milk white eyes in a green doublet entered the room opposite her. He scanned her up and down with those blind orbs before settling comfortably into a chair that he didn’t have to look for. “Well?” he finally asked.
Not on her turf and virtually unarmed, Exene was uncomfortable to say that least, but she steeled herself with all her will. “I need a message sent.”
“You can pay?” She nodded.
“A military unit. An Imperial military unit.”
“Where are they?”
Exene shook her head, she had no idea.
“Very well. That will be extra for the directory. Leave the message. Payment is 6500 Crowns.”
Exene gritted her teeth. With the conversion from Guilders she could only pay half that much. “Half in advance,” she said. “The rest on receipt. I won’t pay for you to masturbate to the music of the spheres and then claim a warp storm.”
The Astropath chuckled lightly. “Wise. I like you. You have great courage coming here. It must be important.”
“It is. See to it you get it right.” She handed over half the asked for money. Virtually all she had.
“Are you expecting a response?”
“It’s all in the message. I understand you Imperials can be trusted not to get involved in local affairs?”
“Not really. In theory yes, we’re neutral. It doesn’t work that way in practice. But then, what does?”
“Not much,” Exene replied. “Cross me and I’ll kill you. If it takes twenty years.”
“Could you?” The psyker smiled a bit.
In a mid-hive washroom, Exene was doing a quick change back to her usual self when Ethyl stuck her much pierced head in. “How’d it go?”
“Could have been better. Let’s hope it was enough.” She strode out of the little room, buckling on her powersword, “Let’s go, ladies!”