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Fist of demetrius, p.1
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       Fist of Demetrius, p.1

           William King
 
Fist of Demetrius


  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.

  Exhibit 509-H. Extract from transcript from xenos artefact recovered on Procrastes 4. Warning – this translation is heretical and spiritually contaminated. Access partially de-restricted as part of ongoing investigation into possible beatification of Lord High Commander Solar Macharius and related trial of former High Inquisitor Heironymous Drake for heresy and treason against the Imperium.

  These records will be interpolated with the testimony of former sergeant Leo Lemuel (missing, presumed deceased) to provide a partial narrative of the Procrastes campaign and the events surrounding it.

  Prologue

  I bathe in the sound of their screams. Their pain renews me. The scent of their fear fills me with joy. Such pitiful things they are. I had hoped, against my better judgement, for the smallest of challenges, something to drive away ennui for this brief moment of eternity, but what I got were mewling animals, barely fit to sully my blades with their blood.

  I stand here, surveying the field of battle from atop a mountain of corpses. I would think it a waste of valuable slaves, save for the fact that there are plenty more humans where these came from. They breed like vermin, filling the universe that was once ours with their squalling progeny. It is good to teach them their place once again.

  One of the humans raises its crude weapon and points it at me. The creature is so slow. I spring to one side and the las-bolt strikes the corpse on which I had stood. Flesh sears. A stomach bloated with charnel gases explodes.

  It matters not to me. I am nowhere near any more.

  I see fear written on the human’s clay-made, brute features. There is no appreciation of the beauty of my movements. It does not have any sense of how blessed it is, to be killed by my hand, to give up its life to feed me.

  I leap, crossing thirty strides at a suspensor-assisted bound, and land beside it. My blade flickers. It looks at me dumbfounded. It has not felt anything yet. It looks down and sees that its coarsely-woven tunic has fallen apart where my blade cut. It looks relieved for a second, in its last few painless moments of life, then it sees the blood starting to leak from its flesh. It wonders what has happened. It has no concept of how to kill with artistry or die with dignity.

  I smile and move my blade again. Delicate as a haemonculus’s scalpel is my movement. I peel back the flesh like the cloth of the tunic. Muscle is revealed, then vein, then the white, white glimmer of bone. The human’s mouth goes wide as its eyes. It gurgles then clamps shut its lips, trying to hold in its whining.

  I am careful not to break anything, to sever anything. It has all happened too quickly for the human. Its sluggish nervous system is just starting to register the first glimmerings of true agony. I feel myself flush with a small jolt of pleasure. Its mouth opens again, a fish out of water, drowning in air. A faint trickle of saliva glistens on the corner of its lips, catching the wan sun’s light like dewdrops on a leaf.

  I pause for a moment to consider the loveliness of it, and as I do some of the creature’s oafish companions blunder into view. Their faces are distorted with animal rage. They have interrupted me in my meditation, and I resolve to quench their anger with their blood and fan the flames of their fear until it is a sun-hot blaze.

  I reach out with my free hand, to caress the dying human’s face with the razor-sharp fingers of my gauntlets. I insert a blade into an eye socket and listen to the scream. It is a simple pleasure but one I always enjoy.

  The humans stand their ground. One of their leaders bellows orders. Its harsh speech offends my ears, so I draw my pistol and fire. My shot is not intended to kill, so it does not. It sears the tongue and stoppers the creature’s offensive grunting, changing a bellow to a gabbling whimper. The humans continue their slow, slow movements, raising weapons to their firing positions.

  I pick up the dying creature and twirl it like a partner in the Tarentina of Skulls until its body is in front of me. I make sure it has a moment to realise what is happening, to bring its one good eye to bear on the weapons of its comrades. Something wet squirts down its leg; whether blood or urine I do not care.

  It stiffens, knowing what is happening. It faces a firing squad of its own companions. Its form partially obscures mine for all the moments I need. It screams, thinking it is going to be a barrier between me and its comrades. It does not even have the wit to realise it is merely a distraction.

  I leap as the dying human’s skin sizzles under a storm of las-bolts. The greasy smell of frying flesh penetrates the nasal filters of my armour. I make a note to see that my artificer is suitably punished for its laxity before it dies. One thousand hours of screaming seems appropriate.

  My leap carries me to the cornice of an ancient temple building above the squad of humans. They continue to fire, responding to the wails of their dying compatriot, cheering and grunting, somehow under the pathetic delusion that they are harming me. I take a second to look at their jester caperings. Overhead, the huge face carved into the side of the mountain looks down mockingly. I laugh, and the amplifiers in my armour project my mirth thunderously.

  They look around, their bestial minds confused, lacking the wit even to look up. I could kill all of them in this moment. It would be simple. One grenade would do the trick, but where is the artistry in that?

  There are twenty-seven of them, a figure divisible by three, which has always been a fortunate number for me. I decide to spare every third one of them, to let them survive to face the torturers. I will kill one third of them cleanly, to give the survivors something to regret they did not receive, and I shall make one third of them chorus their screams unto the heavens.

  I spring among them, a carnivore among a herd of plant-eaters. For a moment I am amid the press of their bodies, surrounded by so-rippable flesh, looking upon meat puppets made to mock the shape of the eldar. I feel a delicious tingle of utter hatred. I stand stock-still for a moment to appreciate it before springing into action.

  They still have not realised what has happened. I strike one down from behind, applying a careful measure of force so that the skull does not break. I snap another’s neck. I punch blade fists into the stomach of one who turns, and pull out the ropes of entrails. They squirm like sticky purple serpents. I see the pulsing of the
thing’s heart within its chest cavity and I resist the urge to pull it out. That would be too quick. I loop a rope of intestines around the throat of another and pull tight. It is not intended to kill, merely to mock. I vault over the shoulder of the squirming soldier. My kick snaps the neck of another.

  I handspring as they try to track me, panicked, squeezing the triggers of their weapons. Their clumsy crossfire burns each other. I send a razor edge flashing into the throat of one, shoot another. I kill them before they can accidentally slay those I have chosen to let live. I do not wish them to spoil the symmetry of my creation.

  I shoot and strike and lunge, killing one, sparing another, maiming a third. They are too slow to stop me. One of them at last realises it and draws a grenade. I see the delicious fear in its eyes and I know what it intends to do. It is so frightened that it thinks it is going to drop the grenade where it stands and die taking me with it.

  The grenade begins its slow, slow fall to the ground. I snatch it from the air, grab the human by the head and force the bomb into the creature’s mouth, then down its throat. I backflip away, suspensor-assisted, soaring into the air as its head and chest explode in a fountain of blood.

  In the confusion, the humans have lost track of me again. I pick three at random and execute them with head-shots. They mill around, leaderless now, knowing something is killing them but unable to strike back. They are a rabble, not even worthy of contempt.

  Sudden boredom strikes me. I am tempted to end the game and simply kill them all, but that would be undisciplined. One must finish what one starts. One must keep to one’s purposes. The true artist never loses sight of his goals, even though the agony is its own reward, as is the terror.

  I catch the pheromonal trace of something new, a human scent that, surprisingly, does not speak of fear or horror, that carries an icy tang of calmness and control. I swivel my head, seeking its source.

  A human in a long black coat advances on the rabble as they turn to flee. It looks cleaner, more austere and disciplined than the rest, which is like saying one mon-keigh looks less idiotic than another as it flings its excrement at the bars of its cage. It shouts instructions but is ignored by the panicked mob. It draws a pistol and executes one of the fleeing humans. I feel a faint flicker of annoyance. The newcomer threatens to disarrange the symmetry of my work. There is only one way to prevent that, which is to make it take the place of the man it has killed.

  I drop to the ground in front of black-coat.

  ‘Xenos scum,’ it snarls, marginally quicker on the uptake than the others. ‘Die!’

  The translation engines give its voice a flat, metallic ring. It raises its pistol to shoot me as it did its fleeing species-mate. I enjoy the way it froths at the mouth as it tries to bring its weapon to bear as I move. I am glad I decided to spare this one for later, because breaking its will and teaching it to worship me will be more amusing than simply killing it out of hand.

  I reach out and snap its wrist before it can pull the trigger. I strike a nerve cluster that I long ago learned will immobilise a human, and then slap it unconscious with the sort of contempt I am sure it will understand when it comes to contemplate it. All around, the rest of its pack continues to flee. I pick them off, one by one as suits my purposes, taking a few extra moments to ensure that the corpses fall in a pattern that is pleasing to the eye, that the blood spatters are random but beautiful, and that there is more than a suggestion of intelligence at work amid the havoc.

  I pause in contemplation at the centre of the artwork I have created. It has been a pleasant few minutes of relaxation, but now there is work to be done. I allow the communications channels to open again and listen to my followers as they go about their business.

  It seems that they have encountered no more resistance than I have among the so-called defenders of this once sacred site. In a way, it saddens me. There are so few challenges left in the universe, so little of interest. I hear reports of captives being taken and that cheers me. Soon there will be feasting and gladiatorial contests and sport to be had with our new slaves. It is good.

  This petty world is ours now. We have a secure base. Soon I will open the Gate of the Ancients and claim their lost treasures. I have taken the first step on my long road back to Commorragh and eventual triumph over my enemies.

  Reports are coming in from all over this pathetic planet. The defences are every bit as poor as our scouts suggested they would be. Cities have fallen. Citadel towers are under our control. The population of most of this continent is subdued. We are masters of this valley now and will soon have access to its ancient secrets. The humans cannot stop us.

  Of course, these valleys have some significance in their primitive faith. It is only natural. They are looking upon the work of their racial superiors, and no matter how weak our ancestors were those eldar were still as far above humans in the great scheme of existence as a human is above a puke-lizard.

  I push such thoughts to one side, unsure as to why I am even bothering to contemplate them. I confess there is something mildly disturbing about this place. The temples of our ancestors rise above us like the tombs of forgotten gods, which is, I suppose, what they are. I stride up the hill, acknowledging the respectful salutes of my warriors. Discipline is lax, a few have already begun to feast, flaying alive their still-living prey to consume the delicious agony. I make a note of the miscreants’ names. I will see that some suitably subtle penalty is enforced later. They will get the message.

  I stand in the shadow of the Temple of the Night-Dark One. I have come a long way to find sanctuary here, in a place where none of my enemies would think to look. My rivals are still back in Commorragh, enmeshed in their endless schemes. Can it be that I am really the only one who has read the ancient books of lore? It seems unlikely. I have learned to mistrust good fortune. Too often it is a smiling mask that covers the schemes of one’s enemies. It is always wise to look closely when the universe offers you a gift. It proffers many a poisoned chalice in a form that looks like a victor’s cup, as I have learned to my cost. The price of failure in the intrigues of Commorragh is very high.

  I inspect the great entrance to the place. Above me stands an enigmatic stone giant. Its face is somewhat like mine, long and lean and beautiful, with pointed ears. Its shape is tall and slender compared to that of the disconsolate human corpses it looks down on.

  I pass through the entrance and into the cool interior. This cave was once a spot sacred to my soft ancestors, back when they believed in their milksop gods. There are niches and alcoves with many small shrines where once offerings were left, flowers and incenses and such. I remove my helmet and make an offering of spittle on the face of a deservedly forgotten deity. A human, robed as one of their priestly caste, makes a shocked sound. My lieutenant, Sileria, digs her finger-blade into a nerve cluster and it screams.

  ‘The forgotten ones have found new worshippers,’ she says. She sounds amused.

  ‘Deserving ones,’ I say, and she laughs. There has always been an understanding of sorts between her and me. ‘Mon-keigh who have no understanding of what they abase themselves before, who do not even know that the things they worship are themselves long dead, devoured by She Who Thirsts.’

  ‘I have secured the shrine as you commanded, Lord Ashterioth. No one has approached it, or will until you have inspected it yourself.’

  She wears a questioning look. Clearly she is wondering why we are here and not pillaging the human cities of this world, taking slaves for the Dark Feast. I consider taking her into my confidence, but I am not suicidal. She might try to buy her way back into favour in Commorragh by betraying me to my rivals. She will learn what she needs to know when she needs to learn it. I wonder if she has sneaked into the inner sanctum herself to gaze at what we have come so far to find.

  Of course, she has, and she is confused because she has found nothing of value.

  A beautiful creature, Sileria, but one lacking in both understanding and imagination. For her, if it
does not glitter or scream it can have no value. She does not understand what else might be found in an ancient, empty shrine. I can see she is nerving herself to ask me a question, so I nod encouragingly.

  ‘Is it true that you intend to desecrate all of these shrines, my lord?’ She gives the word lord a faintly submissive erotic twist. I remember her writhing beneath my lash in bedchamber games of dominance and submission. Surely she is not so simple as to think I would let such memories influence me. But, of course, there is value to be had from encouraging her in such a false belief.

  ‘In a sense, Sileria,’ I say. In a sense it is true as well. If the ancient texts are to be trusted, I will be committing an act of desecration when the gate opens. I will take what the ancients built and twist it to my own purposes, which, most assuredly, were not theirs. She nods as though I have told her something significant; possibly it is something significant as far as her limited understanding is concerned. No matter how much she schemes, Sileria will always be a follower. Some are born to lead and others to follow, even among the Pinnacles of Creation.

  ‘I go within,’ I say. ‘Make sure I am undisturbed.’

  I leave her absently-mindedly stroking the human with her blades. Its whimpers are a mixture of pleasure and horror and pain. She will keep her new pet alive for some time, I am sure. I turn my mind to higher things as I descend into the long darkness beneath the temple complex. I have a long way to go before I find what I am looking for.

  It looks like nothing. Even I, who know its significance, cannot suppress a feeling of disappointment. This is what I have come all these long light years for? For this I have travelled through the webways, absented myself from the intrigues of Commorragh and lost my high place among the Exalted? This?

  I stand in a large chamber, surrounded by defaced statues of extinct gods. Before me looms an archway large enough to fly a skimship through, except that it would be impossible. There is nowhere to go. The arch looks as if it is a carving emerging from the wall. It leads onto nothing but blank stone laced with shimmering crystal. Is it possible I have made a mistake, I wonder, that the ancient texts are wrong, that I have become the victim of some gigantic, cosmic hoax?

 
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