Short Fiction

Illusions of Choice

Illusions of Choice

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Stephen Bondar
Reading Time: 33 minutes

The old woman had always known that it was only a matter of time before the darkness came for her grandson. 

She had done all she could to push it away, and pushing was what it felt like. The coming darkness was like a physical, tangible thing. The light from her fireplace and guttering tallows did little to press it back, and only for a short time. Then the darkness returned, threatening to envelop all again. The candles flickered and shadows crept in through chinks in the log walls of the cottage to cavort and caper on the walls and floor. 

Now darkness had come for Jaymie, the only thing she had left in this world.

A gust of wind through the open doorway set the shadows leaping even more violently, as though in eager anticipation of her coming bereavement. Four men, with night shadows clinging to their clothes, followed the wind inside the isolated domicile.

There was no doubt as to what the outcome of this interview would be. 

She had tried to push back the rumours, the whispered innuendo, with arguments of simple coincidence and happenstance. She was as successful combating the rumours as her candles were battling the enveloping night.

She even knew the correct term.

Psyker.

But the people of Morgreine, once known as Barnesworld, were a simple and superstitious lot. Even this far north, they had their own word for what they believed her beloved Jaymie to be.

Witch.

And now the Black Ships had come to take away the only reason she still bothered with the daily struggle of staying alive.

+++

She offered refreshments to the men. She presumed them to be men, though the cloaks that shrouded them put certainty just out of reach. She was gracious to these men who had come to despoil her world. All declined, with polite but silent shakes of their heads. Three remained hooded and their hoods alone did not account for the depth of shadows obscuring their faces. Two remained standing, one to each side of her only door, after the last to enter shut it firmly behind him. Their hands remained stuffed inside their cloaks, and she was sure that their fingers rested on the trigger guards of concealed weapons.

There would have been no seats for them anyway in the sparsely-furnished home. Their companions pulled up the two chairs to one side of the eating — ‘dining’ would have been a wildly inaccurate description of the kinds of meals served on it — table. The old woman sat herself on the bench built into the wall on the other side of it, calling for her grandson to come out of the cottage’s only other room, which contained the straw-filled pallets that served grandmother and grandson as beds.

Only one of the men pulled back his hood, revealing a clean-shaven head and face that contrasted starkly with their surroundings. He would almost have qualified as an albino, were it not for his dark grey eyes that had not a hint of pink about them. A livid scar-line bisected and distorted the left side of his face. His eyes were piercing, yet more weary than unkind.

There was pink, though, but it nestled in the recesses of the second man’s hood; some kind of augmented, or mechanical eye. As he wordlessly took the chair to his companion- and apparent leader’s- left, the old woman was sure she heard a soft whirr-click from the vicinity of that pink orb.

Obediently, Jaymie joined them. The leader’s grey eyes followed him as he took a seat on the bench beside his grandmother, and so, it seemed, did the pink dot. 

Whirr-click.

Grey-eyes inclined his head. ‘This is the boy?’

Before she could stop herself, she blurted, ‘Please don’t take him! He’s all I’ve got!’

‘Madam, we —’

‘He’s a good boy! He’s never harmed anyone. He actually helps people —’

This time the man cut her off more firmly.

That is exactly why we are interested in him. He helps people. But the kind of help he gives might better serve the God-Emperor of Mankind.’

He turned a piercing look on Jaymie. ‘What would you say to that, boy? Putting your talents — such as they are — at the Emperor’s service?’

Jaymie opened his mouth as though to reply, but then only licked his quivering lips as he shot his grandmother a confused and frightened look. In her eyes, his plaintive face was accentuated by the twisting shadows on the wall that seemed to frame her grandson.

She found herself speaking for him again, hoping that the trepidation in her voice didn’t make it shake too much, revealing her panic.

‘Sirs, how could anything he can do be of service to the God-Emperor? He doesn’t have any — he’s not got any powers of magic that —’

‘That is for us to decide, woman.’ A grating, metallic rasp came from the shadows inside the hood containing the pink orb, which whirred and clicked again as it shifted to settle on her, almost in the manner of a gunsight. ‘Do not presume —’

‘But all he has is — all he does is have vivid dreams!’ Her voice was rising, her whole body trembling; she felt sick to her stomach. ‘He’s never hurt anyone! He —’

‘Be silent, woman!’ The metallic voice boomed, seeming to reverberate off the walls. ‘Interrupt us again, and you will regret it, as will he!’ The eye returned its attention to Jaymie, having dismissed the old woman.

In her own home.

Whirr. Click.

Like a trigger cocking.

Throughout the exchange, Grey-eyes had not looked away from Jaymie.

There was a long silence, broken only by the gusting wind, which sometimes found its way through the chinks in the walls. The continuous dance of shadows was the only movement in the room.

‘You have vivid dreams?’

Jaymie took a deep breath, shuddering. 

‘Yes, sir … I do … sometimes.’

‘Your grandmother used the word ‘vivid.’ Grey-eyes leaned forward slightly. ‘What did she mean by that?’

‘I … I guess ….’ Jaymie paused for a moment. Grey-eyes said nothing to prod him, only waited for the boy to continue.

‘I guess they seem very real. Not—not all of them, I have regular dreams, too. You know, the kind where all kinds of stuff are mashed up together and doesn’t make any sense.’

Grey-eyes nodded slightly, and leaned farther forward. ‘But recently, you’ve been having less and less of that kind, haven’t you?’

Jaymie sighed again, with an air of resignation. ‘Yes, sir.’

A knot in one of the fire-logs burst with a sharp crack and light leapt up around the boy, framing him for an instant, before receding just as quickly, and casting him into an even deeper shadow.

Grey-eyes’ lips formed what could have been a thin smile. It was without humour, but not devoid of sympathy.

‘And these dreams are about people and places you know?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘About things that are happening, or have happened to those people or in those places?’

‘I think so, sir.’

There was a pause as Grey-eyes looked down for a moment, seeming to consider, before returning that piercing gaze to the young boy.

‘Has anything that you have seen come to take place later? Think carefully now, boy, this matters.’

But Jaymie did not hesitate in his reply, seeming to gain a little more confidence with each answer.

‘No, sir, my dreams don’t foretell the future. If they did, then even I’d know I was some kind of witch, and I’m sure I’m no such thing.’

‘Oh, you are a witch, all right,’ rasped the voice from the depths of the hood containing the augmetic eye. ‘The only question is what kind.’

‘What do you mean?’ the old woman blurted, despite the earlier warning.

Whirr. Click. 

The eye seemed to focus on her. Her bowels turned to ice, but she did not look away.

‘The kind we can use, or the kind we must destroy. Now be silent, woman, you’ll not be warned again.’

Grey-eyes glanced at his companion before returning his attention to Jaymie, and although the old woman would have wagered that she was probably grasping at straws, she believed she saw a hint of annoyance cross his features.

Was this a calculated game of ‘good enforcer, bad enforcer’?

These were no mere enforcers, however. This was the all-powerful Inquisition, bound by no laws other than their own. If they even had any, that was.

She shuddered, not only because of her fear; the room was getting colder. It was time to put more wood on the fire, but she dared not move. The heat and light from the fire did not reach the corners of the room, particularly the upper ones, where the shadows coiled like snakes and deepened. It had to be an effect of the smoke and an overstressed imagination.

‘What my associate means to say,’ Grey-eyes continued, locking his gaze back on Jaymie, ‘is that persons who have such dreams often have certain abilities. They can do things with their minds. Lucid dreams are often the principal manifestation of such an ability, and it often goes no further than that, at least not without the application of certain disciplines and training, which we can provide.’

Jaymie seemed about to reply, or ask a question, but Grey-eyes continued.

‘So if you don’t dream of things that later come true, do you dream of things that have already happened?’

‘I — I guess so ….’ Jaymie faltered.

‘Don’t guess, son. Think hard.’ The Inquisitor’s voice was firm, but not unkind. ‘I am trying to help you here. Take your time and think harder. Do you dream of things that have happened, or of things that are happening right as you dream them?’

Something about Grey-eyes’ tone, or something else about his manner, which the old woman wasn’t privy to, allowed Jaymie to relax. This time, the young man responded with more confidence. ‘No, it’s not like I’m some kind of spirit flying about spying on people. More like I dream about what so-and-so has done the day before or the week before or something. And even though I’m sleeping at night, I usually dream about stuff that happened in the daytime.’

‘Things that really happened, or just things you imagine about people you know?’

‘I’m not sure, really, at least not all of the —’

‘But enough of the time,’ the voice from inside the dark hood rasped in unmistakable accusation.

Grey-eyes shot another look at his companion. ‘Sometimes people do have lucid dreams without being psykers. You might remember that if you weren’t already more machine than man.’

Receiving no response of any kind, Grey-eyes turned back to Jaymie. ‘Have you ever—’

To the old woman’s surprise, Jaymie, who appeared to be focused and concentrating, cut off the Inquisitor.

‘-Dreamed about something that had happened for sure? Yes, sir, I believe that I have.’

With rising panic, the woman interjected, ‘But all he does is help people —’

There was no reaction this time from ‘more-machine-than-man’, but Grey-eyes stopped her mid-sentence with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘I know — he helps people. We’ve already established that. But I want to hear how, and I want to hear it from him.’

‘Really, sir,’ Jaymie plunged straight ahead, in an obvious attempt to divert attention from his grandmother, ‘I just sometimes help people find things that are important to them that they have lost.’

 ‘Such as…?’

‘Well, important things, like jewellery they had from their parents, or a good axe. But one time, I helped a family find a little girl who had wandered off into the woods and gotten lost, and was crying. That was when people started to talk about me.’

Grey-eyes actually smiled. ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’

Jaymie quickly continued. ‘Most of the time, it’s nothing important, and I don’t say anything, especially not after that time, unless I know it’s something really important to the person.’

Grey-eyes nodded. ‘And how do you know when or where the person lost the item?’

‘I see it happen. I mean, in my dream, I see how they lost it, or where it is now, if it’s something like a lost canid. Or a little girl.’

Grey-eyes leaned forward, his gaze even more focussed, if that was possible. Shadows seemed to move with him, both trailing and reaching for the boy, although it was surely only an impression caused by the faltering fire.

‘You see where a canid is now? You just told me you don’t see events as they actually occur.’

Jaymie pursed his lips, but matched the Inquisitor’s posture, leaning forward to lock eyes with him. ‘That’s not — that’s not exactly what I mean. At least, I don’t think so. I think I see where it last was, before my dream. And that probably helps, because — ‘

‘—Because the animal often stays around the same general area? Then its’ owner searches, based upon what you tell them you dreamt?’

‘Right.’ Jaymie nodded slowly, as though he was starting to piece something together in his own mind.

Another knot burst in the fireplace. Steeling herself, the old woman made to rise. ‘Sir,’ she said in a voice that she almost managed to keep the tremor out of, ‘May I just tend to the fire for a moment? The cold —’

‘And the dark, I know,’ Grey-eyes replied, barely glancing in her direction. ‘But sit, you needn’t wait on us.’

And she heard him continue softly, as clear as a bell, Considering why we’re here, we don’t deserve it. She was startled, certain his voice was only in her head and that his lips hadn’t moved.

At a barely perceptible gesture of his hand, one of the two guards went to the hearth and added a log. The wood caught, but even as the flames grew, they seemed to arch backwards into the fireplace, curving away from the occupants of the room.

‘Thank you,’ Grey-eyes said as the man wordlessly returned to his post.

There was a long silence as the Inquisitor locked eyes with the young boy, who somehow managed to hold firm, and not look away.

At length Grey-eyes spoke again, and the old woman could have sworn that the flickering shadows leapt up the walls as he did. Meanwhile, a yellow-orange light gathered around her grandson in an oval nimbus.

‘What else do you see in these dreams?’

‘Nothing, sir.’ Jaymie shook his head. ‘Usually, they just stand out from the middle of a bunch of other dream junk, you know the kind everybody has.’

Grey-eyes’ lips formed the thinnest of smiles. ‘Son, I assure you that your dreams are not at all like the ones everyone else has. So what else do you see? Or hear?’

Jaymie looked down, shaking his head. ‘Nothing special, like I said, and hearing … that’s not really anything but the same random rubbish …. Wait.’

He looked up, meeting his interrogator’s gaze again. ‘Maybe there is something. The vivid ones, the ones we’re talking about, where I see things. They’re like, silent. Like a silent picture show.’ He paused, holding eye-contact. ‘I never really realised that before—before you made me think about it.’

‘That’s good, Jaymie, that’s good, that’s the kind of thing we need to know,’ Grey-eyes replied, nodding encouragement. ‘Now I want you to think about the noise, the regular ‘dream-junk’, as you called it.’

The boy’s gaze dropped to the floor, this time in neither resignation nor submission, but in apparent concentration, his eyes unfocused. As though he were trying to piece something together, and deciding how — or whether — to relate it.

Everyone waited; even the fire chose this moment to make barely a sound, which was odd, a new log having just been added to it.

Finally, he looked up, and locked eyes with the Inquisitor.

‘No, I don’t hear anything weird during those dreams, but sometimes I imagine I feel something.’

The Inquisitor shot a glance at his hooded companion, and then just as quickly returned his eyes to Jaymie, who hurriedly continued.

‘And sometimes I do hear something, just before I wake up from one of the … the special dreams, you know, like, when you’re waking up, but can’t see anything anymore.’

‘What is it like? What do you hear?’

Jaymie pursed his lips and inclined his head, surrendering the lower part of his face to the shadows in the process.

‘I — I’m not really sure — like not absolutely sure — that I hear anything, but sometimes I think I do. Like … like someone whispering outside your bedroom door, or from under the window outside your bedroom at night, where you can’t make anything out — can’t even be sure that they’re really even there.’

Grey-eyes cocked his head to one side. A gust of wind through the chinks in the walls sent the shadows leaping. ‘You said ‘they’ — is there more than one voice?’

Jaymie looked back up, shaking his head as though to clear it. ‘It seems like it, but … but it’s just like the voices themselves, you know — I couldn’t one hundred per cent swear they’re even there.’

Grey-eyes sighed quietly. He blinked slowly, then fixed Jaymie with his gaze. ‘Oh, they’re there all right, boy, and they’ll get louder. Until they’re almost all you can hear, awake or asleep, and they’ll only give you peace — for a time — if you give them whatever it is that they want.’

The old woman’s chest was tightening, she could barely breathe as she looked back and forth between her grandson and his interrogator. She had never felt so helpless in all her life.

‘So what do I do?’ she heard Jaymie ask.

Instead of answering, Grey-eyes pressed on with another question. ‘You spoke of sometimes feeling something. Can you describe it?’

Jaymie shuddered. ‘Yeah — like someone put a spider inside my skull, and it’s crawling around inside my head, scratching and trying to get out.’

‘It’s not trying to get out, boy,’ rasped the voice from within the hood, ‘it’s trying to get in.’

The old woman forced herself to draw enough breath to speak. She was feeling sick and dizzy.

‘You’re talking about an evil spirit attacking my Jaymie? I assure you that in my house,’ -her conviction gave her strength and lent her a tiny morsel of illusory control.- ‘In this house, we pay homage to the Golden Throne, and nothing else.’

Whirr. Click.

The augmetic eye zeroed in on her again, but Grey-eyes dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand.

‘It’s not just an evil spirit, madam. It’s a daemon. And I doubt not your piety for one instant, nor that of your grandson for that matter, but regardless, once this thing gets stronger, and once it finds its hold, there will be no stopping it.

Jaymie hugged himself tightly, protection against the cold draft, the shadows, and what these ominous-looking men revealed to him. ‘Is … there any way to stop it from getting stronger? I mean —’ Jaymie shot a frightened look at his helpless grandmother — ‘am I going to become daemon-possessed, and then be …?’ He trailed off, but the unspoken words hung in the air, punctuated by another loud crack from the fireplace.

Burned alive as a witch.

Grey-eyes nodded. ‘Unless you do something about it.’

‘How —?’

‘That is, let us help you do something about it.’

Jaymie looked back and forth between his interrogators. His grandmother couldn’t take her attention from Grey-eyes, as she knew instinctively that any hope of her grandson, maybe either of them, getting out of this alive rested with him.

‘You would help me … why?’

‘We’d be helping each other. As I said, there is no higher service than to the God-Emperor of mankind, on His Golden Throne on Holy Terra.’

‘I know that, sir!’ Jaymie made the sign of the aquila on his chest. ‘But could not some priest banish this daemon? Then I could join the Militarum!’

Grey-eyes barked a laugh that seemed to make the very shadows flinch away, and a metallic snort of derision came from within his companion’s hood.

‘So the Ecclesiarchy can keep you as ignorant as everyone else around you? That is exactly what they want.’

The old woman sensed, rather than felt, her jaw dropping, and she began to utter an instinctive response, but was cut off.

‘You think I speak blasphemy, woman? Let me assure you; it is I, the Inquisition, who decides what constitutes blasphemy.’

He looked back at Jaymie. ‘You have a rare ability — or perhaps curse — that by its very existence has already predetermined the course of your life, limiting you to two possible paths. Believe me, because I once sat, in a manner of speaking, exactly where you do. So I know that only one of the two is viable.’

Jaymie was still hugging himself, shivering, as the fire burned low again, seemingly much faster than it should have. The room grew darker.

‘So you’re going to exorcise this daemon, or stop it from possessing me?’

Grey-eyes responded with another razor-thin smile before answering quietly, ‘No, boy, not at all.’

‘You’re going to let it possess me?’ Jaymie’s voice was rising, but not quite shrill, and actually had an air of defiance to it.

‘No, Jaymie.’ This time the Inquisitor’s smile showed some teeth. ‘We’re going to teach you how to deny it, and if my estimation of your abilities is anywhere near correct, maybe even show you how to possess it.’

‘Possess it?!’ Jaymie cried out in disbelief, while his grandmother’s sharp intake of breath could be heard throughout the room.

‘Well, perhaps ‘possess’ is the wrong word. First, you need to be able to resist a daemon’s—or even a sorcerer’s—attempts to take control of you. Then you can turn the situation around to establish dominance over it, and bind it to your will, so that it will answer questions, and sometimes even perform tasks for you. Daemons can be very tricky, sometimes even recognising that you are under attack before it is too late is a challenge.’

‘But that’s witchcraft!’ Jaymie exclaimed, echoing the words that tore through his grandmother’s terrified mind. The boy was drawing back in his chair, pulling himself as far from Grey-eyes as possible. ‘You’re here — you can’t really be —’

‘Oh, we are servants of the Emperor,’ Grey-eyes cut him off. ‘And it’s only witchcraft if it’s done by a witch — which is exactly what you are now, or are certainly turning into—but not when it’s done by an Imperially-sanctioned psyker, which is what we hope to make of you.’

The old woman could tell that her grandson was doing his best to act brave, and hold back tears. He’s just a child, for Throne’s sake. Her own tears cut dirty streaks down her wrinkled cheeks, but she cared not, she had given up all such vanities long ago. 

‘But sir, sirs — Jaymie looked from one interrogator to the other and back again, ‘what if I don’t —’

‘Don’t use your powers?’ A laugh more like the creaking of a rusty hinge than anything human came from Grey-eyes’ companion. ‘You don’t have any choice, boy. Either you learn to control and use them, or something else, some foul being from the warp, will sniff you out and make use of them through you. Those are your choices, boy. Witch or psyker.’ He leaned forward.

Whirr. Click.

‘And you know what happens to witches and to those who are found guilty of harbouring them. The pink orb focussed, this time squarely on the old woman. ‘Those are your choices, boy. Your only choices.’

‘The … Warp …?’ Jaymie asked slowly, eyes wide, trying to keep up with all he was being told.

Grey-eyes shot another look of irritation at his companion. ‘Yes, Jaymie, the Warp—or the Immaterium, as many call it. Surely you have heard of it at least in passing, as it is what starships travel through to distant parts of the Galaxy. But what you don’t know — what you’re not supposed to know — is that it is far from uninhabited.’ He paused to take a deep breath, or perhaps for emphasis. ‘And nothing that inhabits that place is a friend of humanity.’

‘But where is it? If —’

‘All around us,’ Grey-eyes spread his arms, ‘and also nowhere.’ Other realms exist besides the one we live in.’

The Inquisitor locked eyes with Jaymie, who, to his credit, did not flinch or look away. ‘Now you know more than the vast bulk of the multitudes of Imperial citizenry does.’

And will not be allowed to live to tell about it, unless you go away forever with these men, thought the old woman, just as sure as the sun will rise. And then, as a mere afterthought, Me neither.

Just hours earlier, she had been teaching him how to make soup. He had taken a keen interest in why the root vegetables were added in a certain order. She had explained that their density determined their cooking time. The memory already seemed to belong to an incredibly distant past. Now the only question racing through her mind was whether he would make it through this dead or alive. Or perhaps something even worse?

‘If your abilities and resolve are even close to what I think they are, we will teach you all of this and much more. Much more. You will be trained to control your abilities, and to protect yourself against the psychic attacks that you are already attracting. Believe me, boy, those are mere gropings in the dark, compared to what’s coming.’

‘What’s coming …?’ Jaymie looked back and forth between Grey-eyes and his grandmother, who was doing her best not to look terrified, but failing miserably.

‘This!’ The Inquisitor snapped as he shot forward in his chair, eyes boring into those of the young boy. The flames in the hearth — and thus the shadows they cast — flinched away. The room suddenly felt like a fishbowl of light surrounded by blackness. The temperature plummeted, and ice crystals began to form around the darkened doorway. All the candles were snuffed out, and darkness pooled, clinging to the upper corners of the room. This darkness was more than the mere absence of light, it had solidity. It was black and oily, writhing and twisting in upon itself, simultaneously devouring and regurgitating its fleshy essence.

Hoar frost continued to form in various spots, particularly before the doorway. Creeping along the floor, like a kind of runner carpet rolling slowly and inexorably out. 

Straight towards Jaymie.

The boy had jerked ramrod-straight so hard that the old woman was surprised that he hadn’t smacked his head against the wall, his eyes wide and empty, staring up at a ceiling that was now so shrouded in shadow it was virtually invisible. His jaw hung slack and open, arms hanging limply at his sides. Drool was collecting at the corner of his mouth.

‘Stop it!’ she croaked. ‘St —’ Her throat constricted. Her voice, her very ability to form words or make sounds was cut off abruptly. 

Be silent, woman, if you value your grandson’s life or your own.

It was Grey-eyes’ voice, not loud, but stern and commanding, and inside her head again. She was certain she had not seen his lips move, and he had not shifted position in any other way, or taken his attention from Jaymie even for an instant.

She was hearing him in her mind.

As soon as she acquiesced, she felt her throat loosen so that she could breathe again. At the same time, she noticed that even the two guards had taken a pace or two to their respective sides, putting distance between themselves and the advancing river of ice crystals.

In another minute or two, it would be under Jaymie’s feet.

Although the grip that had held her had been released, she found herself unable to move. Her breath came in short, shallow gasps, her heart beating so hard it threatened to burst up through her throat into the room.

She couldn’t move or speak because she dared not, there was no other force preventing her. She was paralysed by fear for everything she had left in the world to care about. She was hyperventilating, a word that her own vocabulary did not contain.

No one was paying her any attention.

She could see Jaymie quivering, no, vibrating, rivulets of sweat running down the sides of his face. His feet — she didn’t know how she could tell, but she could — were pressing into the floor, arms straight down at his sides ending in fists clenched so tight that all colour was gone from his knuckles. She was sure his nails were cutting deeply into his palms. His eyes still bulged, directed up at the no-longer-visible ceiling, but it was obvious he was seeing nothing, or at least nothing in this world.

Jaymie’s mouth snapped shut, the sound of his grinding teeth filling the room, yet somehow his lips managed to crack open just enough to allow yet more drool to run down his chin, dripping onto his shirt.

The ice advanced; no one and nothing else moved.

The crystalline carpet narrowed as it approached Jaymie, like it was zeroing in on a target.

 Nearly imperceptible at first, but then more obviously, its advance slowed, as though the source of the motive power was running down. But it was only a dozen centimetres from where Jaymie’s feet were locked to the floor.

The old woman prayed as hard as she had in all her many years, to the God-Emperor and every one of His saints. Oh, Golden Throne of Terra, Oh Master of Mankind, let not this thing take my Jaymie.

But the advance did not stop.

Whatever this is, let it take me instead! Me — but then who would look after him, you stupid old cow?

Never mind after. Just don’t let it take him now! Take me!

But the ice continued to advance, the only movement in the room, save for Jaymie’s quivering, the free running of his sweat, and the preternaturally slow and silent dance of light and shadow.

The old woman felt dizzy, and feared she was close to passing out as she sucked in rapid breaths.

Was it only in her imagination that the march of ice crystals was slowing? No …. But what if it didn’t stop? What would happen when it reached Jaymie? Would he turn centimetre by centimetre, to ice?

She knew not exactly how, but the one thing she was certain of was that when that advancing carpet reached her grandson, it would devour him.

Then it stopped.

Less than three centimetres from Jaymie’s toes, it stopped.

It seemed for a heartbeat or two that even the shadows held still, and then in the blink of an eye the ice crystals turned to vapour, taking only seconds to disappear, leaving not even a trace of moisture on the floor.

Jaymie tumbled off the bench like a puppet with its strings cut.

The old woman, despite her dizziness, leapt from her seat, kicking the table hard enough to move it in her haste to get to her grandson’s side. Damn the consequences.

‘Woman!’ boomed the rasping, metallic voice from inside the hood, with an intensity that made the walls shake, ‘You have been told —’

‘Let her be!’ Grey-eyes snapped, and then, after a pause, added, ‘She has little enough time left with him anyway, as you well know.’

The two looked at one another for a moment, before Grey-eyes broke the silence. ‘Primaris grade. At the very least.’

‘I concur,’ came the reply, again reminiscent of a badly rusted hinge.

Crouching beside him, grandmother cradled grandson in her arms, as she had so many times before when he was smaller, and had had fears, stomachaches, all those ordinary and not-so-ordinary bad dreams, or even just because. Just because she loved him.

His eyelids were fluttering when she reached him.

She held him to her chest. ‘Jaymie, oh my Jaymie ….’ She realised she was sobbing.

The first words from her grandson’s mouth, hoarse and ragged: ‘Granny … your heart … it’s all right …. Calm yourself ….’

She only hugged him tighter, as if she could somehow save him from the night if she held on hard enough, if they could only stay in the dwindling light of the fire.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. ‘Calm yourself, grandmother,’ Grey-eyes repeated Jaymie’s words gently, ‘he has not been harmed, nor do we intend him any.’

Jaymie’s eyes were open, and his breathing was returning to normal, but his grandmother’s still hadn’t. The look in his eyes was that of one who had just returned from somewhere far, far away.

‘Jaymie! Jaymie — what — what did you see? Where were you?

The boy licked his cracked lips, and began, ‘I —’

The Inquisitor cut him off crisply.

‘Boy, let this be your first lesson — the first of many. Tell her nothing of what you have seen, nor where you have been, if you value her sanity, or her life.’

Jaymie blinked, looking up at Grey-eyes, then nodded his head as if coming to a decision. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, squeezing his grandmother back, ‘I think … I think he’s right, Gran. I love you.’ He drew in a deep breath, and released it slowly. ‘But I think I know what I am now.’

‘What you are is my —’

‘He is, but also so much more than that, madam,’ Grey-eyes overspoke her. ‘I launched a not-insignificant psychic assault on your grandson — of course a small one — but significant nevertheless. Without any warning, either. Without any training, without even any real knowledge of what was transpiring, your grandson instinctively — and successfully — defended himself.’

‘And what if he hadn’t been able to?’ the old woman snapped, anger overcoming her trepidation. ‘What then — would you have killed him, just like that?’

‘If he didn’t,’ came the reply from behind her, ‘then it wouldn’t have been long in any case before your ignorant neighbours did. In fact, it might have been a mercy, compared to what they might have done — burned him alive, and maybe you too, right here in your own house.’

She glanced back quickly at the mechanical-sounding speaker, then met the Inquisitor’s eyes. Surprisingly, he glanced away, as though embarrassed or ashamed.

‘Perhaps not as merciful as you might think,’ he said so quietly that it could have been to himself. Then he shook his head sharply, and looked back at Jaymie and his grandmother.

‘I am sorry, I truly am — I always am in these —’ He cut himself off, stood a little straighter, and for the first time reached into his cloak, to bring out what looked like a large medallion, in the shape of a rosette featuring a large High Gothic ‘I’.

‘By the powers vested in me by the Holy Ordos, and the very God-Emperor of Mankind, I hereby requisition the services of this boy,’ he nodded towards Jaymie, ‘for the service of His Divine Majesty’s Inquisition, Ordo Malleus.’

‘F — for how long?’ the old woman managed, her guts knotting again, going cold with terror.

‘Life, probably,’ rasped the other man, ‘as long or short as that might be.’

Grey-eyes shook his head again. The old woman rose, only to fall to her knees in front of him, hands clasped before her in supplication, her eyes wide and brimming.

‘Please don’t take him from me! Please, he’s all I have, I — I need him!’ And then, with less certainty, ‘He needs me ….’

‘No,’ replied the Inquisitor, ‘he does not need you.’ And even as the tears ran freely down the old woman’s cheeks, as she bowed her head in silent, trembling prayer, he spoke again, but this time the timbre of his voice was completely different. It was much like the voice she had used to calm her crying little grandson- and his father before him- when cradling him in her arms and gently rocking him. As it washed over her, her trembling abated, and her heartbeat and breathing slowed.

‘As much as I know you love him, and he loves you — of that there is no doubt, for I have seen it in his mind — you simply cannot give him the help he must have. I say must, because what is happening to him now is only the beginning, and it will get worse, far worse, until his mind breaks, and he goes mad, if your neighbours don’t burn or lynch the both of you first.’

‘And the Emperor requires — needs — his services, and those of others like him. Believe me, woman.’ He continued, and she could almost feel his voice gently caressing the back of her neck, soothing her in a manner she would never have believed possible. We are beleaguered by horrors beyond our comprehension, both within what you would call reality, and without. A glimpse of which would shatter your mind. But not his. Not with the proper training, which we will — I personally — will provide. And then he will become a weapon against these dark forces that surround us, a megawatt spotlight that drives back the dark, making it cower in its corners and holes, even banishing it altogether.’

There was a silence, and it was Jaymie who broke it, putting his hand on his grandmother’s neck, exactly where she had felt the psychic caress.

‘He’s right, Gran, you know he’s right. He let me see into his mind a little too, and I saw a lot of things that I cannot describe to you. Or anyone. But I can tell you that — Ikarius is his name, and he is a good man.’

‘Lesson two,’ the Inquisitor interrupted him. ‘Never again disclose your real name to a stranger, nor that of one of your comrades. You have surprised me again. I did not give you my name, and yet you found it.’

Even above primaris grade,’ rasped the other voice from inside its hood.

‘Names have power,’ the man called Ikarius continued, and from this moment, you will be Jaymie only to a select few.’

Ikarius put out a hand to smooth the boy’s hair, having put away the rosette. Simultaneously, he offered the old woman his other hand, and helped her to her feet.

‘Now go, boy,’ he said to Jaymie, ‘collect anything that is really important to you, but only that; we travel light, and all of your necessities will be seen to. You belong to the Inquisition now.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ Jaymie replied, his voice gaining strength and confidence with every word. But he turned and hugged his grandmother fiercely one last time, burying his face in her breast. ‘I love you, Gran,’ he said, and she could feel the wetness on his cheeks as her homespun clothing absorbed it.

‘I love you too, Jaymie —my Jaymie,’ she replied, almost with a note of defiance. ‘And I’m proud of you. Never forget that. Please. And don’t ever forget me, at least not in your prayers. My sweet boy.’

Jaymie pulled away gently, until they were at arm’s length. ‘Never, Gran.’

They each knew that they would never see one another again. Not in this life.

Jaymie released her, and she him, and he went through the door to their little sleeping-room, closing it behind him.

A little of the light seemed to go with him. The old woman thought it was surely a trick of the fire and the shadows.

The old woman looked at Ikarius, shaking her head, mouth open and quivering, holding out her upturned palms.

He held her gaze, and she could see unfeigned sympathy in his eyes, although she supposed that he must have done this —this shattering of a family, a home- many times before. She could sense that, despite the nature of his duties, there was good in him.

And there was nought but good in Jaymie. If he was meant to serve the Emperor, and thus mankind, who was she to stop him? Which, in reality only meant binding him to a life of hard labour, living from hand to mouth, and eventually having to take care of her as well.

But while true, none of that made the sudden and imminent loss of all that she had loved—hell, stayed alive for— any easier.

Seeming again to read her thoughts, Ikarius said gently,There are things we can do to help you get through. And believe me, I am sorry for your pain and for your loss. You, too, madam, are a casualty in a war that is probably without end.’

With a jolt of surprise, she heard the other voice, this time like a gentle rubbing of sandpaper. ‘I too, am sorry, madam. I am still human.’

‘What —?’

Ikarius sighed. ‘I could go into your mind, and erase all traces of Jaymie from your memory. You would —’

‘No!’ The old woman, who had just been spoken to with as much respect as she had in her entire life, was horrified. ‘I may no longer have anything to live for, but I want to at least remember that I once did.’

Ikarius nodded. ‘I suspected as much. Not to mention that other people’s memories of your grandson would remain, and your sudden claim that you know not of whom they speak, well, that road leads nowhere good.’

He sighed again, and continued to hold her gaze for what seemed a long time. Then, softly, ‘Do you wish us to grant you the Emperor’s Mercy?’

It took a second for understanding to dawn, but when it did, she nodded, tears welling up again in her eyes.

‘So be it,’ said Ikarius, and his hooded companion rose from his chair and approached the old woman, no hint of threat in his manner. But she was sure she heard a mechanical click from inside his robe. When he held out his right fist to her and opened it, palm up, his sleeve fell away, revealing that his hand and arm were entirely augmetic. In his palm lay two round, black capsules.

Gingerly, fingers shaking, she took them from the cold metal hand. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.

The still-nameless man stepped back, speaking in a low rasp. ‘Wait until after we have left. Your boy never needs to know of this.’

She nodded slowly, taking a deep breath, looking down at the lethality that could be easily held in the palm of one hand. She looked back up at Ikarius. ‘W — will it hurt?’

He shook his head. ‘No —well, you might feel the beginnings of a slight headache, but you will fall asleep so quickly that it won’t have time to get any worse.’

Suddenly, the guard to the left of the doorway spoke up. ‘My lord,’ he addressed Ikarius, ‘may I?’

‘Yes, of course,’ the Inquisitor nodded. ‘That’s very kind of you.’

‘It’s the least I can do, my lord,’ the man said as he crossed the room, producing a small, elegant flask which he handed to the old woman.

‘Amasec, madam,’ he said, ‘one of the best in the subsector. Please use it to wash down … those.’

‘Are you sure …?’ She held out the flask.

‘Absolutely. I have many of them. And I myself rarely drink. I just keep it about me for situations —situations like this one.’ He returned to his post, adding only, ‘Please hide it in your pocket, along with the pills, until we leave.’

‘Thank you,’ she replied in a voice barely above a whisper, doing as she had been asked.

Before anything else could be said, Jaymie reappeared. All he had with him was a small box.

‘Is that —’ the old woman began, out of pure maternal instinct.

‘It’s all that really matters to me, Gran. And this bracelet.’ He held up his right hand to show the leather loop around his wrist that she had made for him on his last name-day. Then he opened the box, and pulled out what was by far one of the most valuable items in the entire home.

A hololith of himself and his grandmother, taken some two years ago.

She was again unable to hold back her tears, but was also smiling in that way that paradoxically could only be born of heartache as she went to Jaymie. She enveloped him in one last embrace, before he left her forever.

After a long moment, they both heard Ikarius: ‘It’s time.’

They pulled apart, still holding one another’s eyes.

‘You take care, Jaymie.’

‘And you, Gran. Thank you for —for everything …. For my life.’

She nodded. ‘I love you. Never forget that someone loves you.’

‘I love you too, Gran.’ Jaymie stood up tall and straight. ‘I’ll see you again, in the Emperor’s Light.’

The old woman nodded. There were no further words.

Ikarius and the others nodded their thanks as Jaymie took his warmest cloak from a peg, and wrapped himself in it. His grandmother had made him that cloak. She hoped he knew he was wrapping himself in her love.

They opened the door, and one by one, the hungry darkness swallowed them.

About the Author

Stephen has a background in medieval history and also in law. He has self-published works in Amazon’s Kindle store, the flagship of them being 1176, a tale centring on the battle of Myriocephalon. He is an avid fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and hopes to one day write for Black Library.