Short Fiction

Of Duty and Ash

Of Duty and Ash

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Gregory Pickett
Reading Time: 16 minutes

Dawn brought fear, ash, and worse to Hypatia II. Atop the Hive’s brooding peak, the man’s cloak swirled like black mist as his Valkyrie returned to the stars. Hypatia II’s planetary logs omitted the departure, in deference to the insignia on its hull. Knowing it would not return, the man examined the sprawl with eyes like comets.

The Hive was a mountain raised by billions, its Gothic spires mixing clouds with black smoke and tolling bells. Crushing the brutalist tenements at its foundation, it sloped down to a glittering horizon where Hypatia II’s swampland waited to reclaim its lost home. Industrial minds might call it picturesque, save for the glassy smudge on the Eastern slope.

“Relax, Kepler’s rebellion hasn’t gotten this far.” The man’s voice twisted, pulled down by his mouth’s glossy scar. His shadow seethed with something like humor as he examined the sparkling mirage. Gone were the soaring wings of Imperial Saints and planetary macro-cannons, all sunken into a half-mile depression of bubbled char. Small funnels emerged where the slurry drained into the Hive’s depths, consigning tens of thousands to death. When the silhouette beside him shuffled its fingers, the man snorted before facing the steps of Governor Spire.

“No, I doubt the governess is still sleeping after this.”

                                                                                             **

Planetary Governor Catherine Vauld was in fact trying to sleep. Despite being far from the Hive’s ceaseless industry, she slept poorly.Endless deadlines meant nightmares of the Sector Lord’s unwanted attention, and murderous audits. Usually those fears evaporated before her meticulous notes. Afterall, she could recite from memory the Thirteen Metrics of Good Governance for any given day. This morning was different.

In the grey light filtering through her bay windows, a pallid shape floated near the baroque arches of her room. The man’s slumping face was distorted by bulging veins, and a pinkish burn in his forehead. All things considered, it was hardly even a nightmare.

“Prisoner E91, pysker.” Governor Vauld stiffly addressed her guest from bed. “Executed yesterday. I must be getting old; my regrets are becoming hallucinations.” 

She broke the dream by sweeping out of bed. A faint rush followed as blood drained from her head while her muscles cracked into place. Somehow, age had caught up to her, lovingly brushed her cheeks with its withering claw. Wrinkles might have taken her beauty, but not her keen hearing.

“For… me.” The passionless words twisted from a choked throat. 

Following the voice, Vauld saw the swollen bulk braving the daylight. Deftly reaching under her pillow, she withdrew a bolt pistol and fired. The detonation jarred her awake, flattened the window blinds into armored plates, and triggered a dozen alarms. Plunged into darkness, she listened to the bolt detonate with a wet thud. Prisoner E91’s outline collapsed, leaving her painfully aware of a shrill ringing in her ear

“Absolutely unacceptable.” Lowering the barrel, Catherine glared at the gloomy mass. “I’d prefer hallucinations to hearing loss.”

“Secure the Governor.” Her door sprung open, letting a large silhouette sweep in, rifle trained on E91’s corner. The voice behind it radiated danger like molten steel, its owner looking at her from the door. “Governor Vauld, I am Interrogator Romulus. There is an active psychic threat, please stay close to my associate.”

“How timely.” Vauld pointed her weapon at both shadows. Her voice was calloused, gritty as the odor of charcoal hanging in the air. “And why exactly should I believe that?” 

“Ask your guard.” The shadow in the door waved toward its feet.

Frowning, she saw a pile of lustrous ash there, flaking off charred bones. The lasgun beside it had melted, barely recognizable by the Aquila on its side. Her stomach rose bitterly. “Emperor preserve them.”

“Indeed. I dabbled in burnings, but this is pyromancy.” The man in the door stepped in, smudging the ash on his fingers. “Fortunately, it seems you’ve taken care of the source.”

“Dabbled?” Vauld was pleased to hear the indignation in her voice.

Romulus smiled a non-smile. “The Kepler Uprising, before we lost the Adrestia system. Now, I’ve already told your House Guard to secure the floor, can you tell me what occurred here?”

“Wonderful, an Interrogator from a lost war.” Vauld gave an imperious sniff. “To answer your question, this man was a prisoner. One who was executed yesterday.”

“I’m afraid resurrection is a little outside my experience.” Tugging his glove, Romulus glided in while his accomplice padded toward the corpse. As it passed, Vauld’s stomach twisted into a knot that had nothing to do with death. 

“Indeed, resurrection is best left to the Ecclessiarchy.” Thumbing the remote about her throat, Vauld peeled the blinds, bringing a second dawn that revealed E91’s corpse. Its face collapsed where a well-placed shot punched through the nose. She prided herself on her marksmanship.

“No visible markings.” Romulus prowled around E91. “What exactly was he executed for?”

“He was found wandering the Eastern Crater while it was still molten. Despite working in the munitions factory and regularly attending worship, hiscase spoke for itself.” After a long pause, Vauld released a pained sigh. “His last words were, ‘Forgive me.’”

“Guilt then. That’s clear from his facial distortions.” Kneeling beside the body, Romulus turned it by the chin, his other hand tracing the contorted muscles of its face. He stopped, expression dull. “You kept his body though; even dead psykers are dangerous.”

“Father Domnitian insists on mass burnings.” Vauld’s long fingers tapped her upper arm as she glared at the Interrogator’s quiet shadow. “He believes the trial proved this is a test of faith, punishing those sympathetic to Kepler.”

Romulus stood, wiping his hands on a gray cloth. “You disagree?” 

“While Kepler certainly has his supporters, I deal in facts.” Wheeling toward her desk, Vauld selected four papers she handed to Romulus. 

“Thirteen events this year; one more than last year, three more than the year before.” His gaze swiveled to a map marked with thirteen red circles overlapping on public squares. “What’s this?”

“Hypatia’s average citizen operates within a half mile of their domicile. Those circles represent an equal radius around each psychic event. Public squares are a commonality, but our searches there found nothing out of the ordinary. I had to satisfy myself with Administratum records.” Vauld added two plots: Pyschic Incidents over Time, and Public Gatherings over Time. 

“A test of faith indeed.” Holding them side by side, Romulus frowned at the positive correlation looking back at him. “Did you speak to the Father?”

“Of course I did.” Turning toward her window, Vauld gazed upon her waking city. “He remarked that we haven’t seen outbreaks in his congregation. We thought it was limited to the Manufactorum until a wealthy family reported their daughter controlling fire.” Vauld bowed her head to the shadow over the Interrogator’s shoulder. “She is currently awaiting the next Black Ship.”

Romulus waved her attention to him. “Did she attend the gatherings?”

“No, They have a residence overlooking the square, yet of five children, only the middle daughter was afflicted. My Magos could tell you more.”

“Have E91 sent to her, I’ll be along shortly.” Tucking the papers into his jacket, the Interrogator’s awful smile returned. “One last question, what do you do with the naturally deceased?”

“We do not eat them.” Nostrils flaring, Catherine held her head high. “The Ecclesiarchy would have a fit, not that it stops the rumors. Corpses are recycled, but I assure you we have thoroughly investigated those sites. I can provide a list if necessary.”

“Not now.” Bowing slightly, Romulus stepped away. “Might I see where you kept the prisoner?”

“Take the Great Lift to Morgue 23. Ask for E91, they will be happy to assist you” Catherine returned to her desk then sighed. “If any of them are still alive.” 

All she heard was the flick of Romulus’ coat as he left.                                                                                          **

The Great Lift consisted of four hundred elevators connecting Governor’s Spire thousand floors to its classified depths. House Guards and servitor-turrets guarded every intersection, stalling the cumbersome bureaucracy. Compounding matters were ashen skeletons scattered along the way, their morbid attraction slowing traffic. Yet it was Romulus and his shadowy companion who earned nervous glances as he confidently breezed past the checkpoints to commandeer a lift just ten minutes after leaving Vauld. As the elevator began the long descent to M23, the shadow on his right shuffled. 

“I trust Vauld to be thorough.” Resting his head against the wall, Romulus watched the rectangular lights roll away. “She doesn’t seem bothered that it’s all pyromancy.” He responded to the shadow’s dancing fingers with a grunt. “Agreed. We’re victims of our own secrecy; she doesn’t want us thinking she knows too much. Hopefully the Magos is more forthcoming.”  

Fifteen minutes later the elevator stopped in front of an open blast-door titled M23 in angular, white letters. Humming lights revealed a bored edifice of stone, but Romulus stayed back as his shadow darted ahead with the purr of power armor. Touching the laspistol on his waist, Romulus sneered at the morgue’s pallid light. “What in the Emperor’s name am I scared of?”

The hollow thump of Bolter-fire answered, killing the lights as it rolled around sharp corners. In the sudden dark, a figure slumped forward with an inarticulate moan. As Romulus drew his gun, sulfurous flames flared up, licking a slack-jawed man. Seeing the lurid glow soften burn-cracked cheeks, clammy suspense gripped Romulus’ throat as the cadaver reached, sloughing browned meat.

It stopped short when Romulus pressed the gun beneath its chin. “Sorry, waiting for someone.” 

For a moment, he was pale in the corpse-light, then the ghastly thing jerked back. Dry tissues on its skull ignited as a scintillating beam cut bone and brain. Both eyes burst, steaming in the radiant heat before the ruined visage collapsed. In the resultant silence, Romulus heard only his heavy breathing, then the hurried patter of feet on his left.

Crouching around the corner, Romulus fired another blinding bolt a hair shy of the target’s thigh. Skidding to a stop, the man threw up trembling hands. “Don’t shoot! I’m Magos Agamede’s assistant, she sent me!”

“Did you see what happened to them?” Moving his sights to the man’s chest, Romulus was a whisper in the dark. 

“The morticians? Yeah, they-” Diocletian bit his tongue as the dark evaporated, only to mewl as his watery eyes spotted the gold “I” on Romulus’ cloak. It deepened upon realizing he was not the one being addressed.

Emerging around the corner behind Diocletian, the Interrogator’s shadow resolved into a woman in black armor dragging a twisted corpse with one hand. Her black topknot framed the pitiless gems of her eye, aquila-pauldrons pinning a sable cloak dull as the oppressive Bolter she clutched in one hand. Releasing the corpse, she pointed at its burnt clothing and ruptured chest.

“Found this one moving as well.” Romulus nodded to the smoking body by his feet, before turning on Diocletian. “You said you were here for E91. What did you find?”

Diocletian took a shuddering breath. “I saw smoke, heard… sobbing.” Biting his lip, Diocletian flinched as the woman nodded. “There should have been three morticians… they didn’t deserve this.”

“Was this to procedure?”

“No, it was…” Diocletian waved weakly over the scorched dead. “They were nightshift, got away with smoking, pilfering, but they didn’t deserve this.”

“How long will it take us to get to the Magos?”

“Thirty minutes by lift.” Diocletian swallowed. “That won’t be a problem, will it?”

“Use it to think of a good excuse for the Magos.” Romulus clapped the man’s shoulder as his armored companion lifted the corpse. Paling, Diocletian scurried to the lift, her stare biting his neck.    

                                                                                      **

“I asked for E91, Diocletian, not guests.” Swinging toward the open door, Magos Agamede addressed them with a charged hum beneath her words. Crimson robes covered her tall form, vivid as the eight rubies she had for eyes. A dozen mechadendrites escaped her robe to the table behind her where E91 lay in all his glory, intestines spilling as Agamede’s metallic worms rooted through its gut. 

“Apologies Magos, I was… delayed.” Diocletian fixed Romulus with a pleading look.

“There was a psychic event, Magos.” Stepping between them, the Interrogator made it impossible for Agamede to miss his rosette. “E91 entered the Governor’s chamber. Diocletian wouldn’t have found the corpse down there.”

For a moment, the only sound was the mechadendrites’ wet squelch. Then she impassively turned to Diocletian. “A House Guard brought E91 to me.”

“Apologies Magos.” The man ducked his head. Nodding in approval, Agamede turned her numerous lenses on Romulus.

“Forgive him Interrogator, he is usually competent.” Agamede clicked in amusement. “I’m glad you came, I find myself missing intelligent conversation.”

“How long has E91 been dead?” Stepping to her table, Romulus looked blankly at the vivisection. “He was moving an hour ago.”

“Decay to cellular structure and clotting indicates twenty-eight hours, but rigor mortis is just settling in. Subject was not embalmed.” Agamede’s metal tendrils pulled a fine web of brackish threads from the corpse. “Morticians did not flush his veins. Uncertain if laziness or intelligence.”

“You found something in the blood.”

“Intelligent.” Agamede buzzed, gliding toward banks of centrifuges and microscopes connected to glass-encased brains. “The blood clots, yet there is life.”

“Life, Magos?” Romulus followed Agamede to where she arranged the pillaged veins beneath a microscope. “The sort that might explain post-mortem activity?”

“Intelligent.” Agamede swiveled to examine Romulus, powerful tentacles flitting uncomfortably close. “This is exciting, my mechadendrites are trembling.”

“From excitement I hope.” Romulus smiled. “Hereteks are another department.”

“I do not fear. Unwise. Bad joke.” The Magos’ lens glistened in reproach as she waved a tendril under Romulus’ nose. “Revising opinions accordingly.” She paused, then beckoned the man toward her jumbled scopes. “Look. Let us see what passes for intelligence in your murderous order.”

Smirking, Romulus did so. In a thousand times magnification, he saw jellied clumpsof blood platelets, squirming with gel-amoebas. “I know little of biology Magos, but hasn’t blood-borne bacteria long plagued humanity?” When she remained silent, Romulus switched to infrared, revealing heat leaking from the clot-mountains. “Magos, would you please disturb the clot I am looking at?”

Clicking in approval, the Magos flicked her instruments. A microscopic needle collapsed the warm pile. Bacteria-embers leapt out, cooling rapidly into stillness. Romulus gravely removed himself from the instrument. “I don’t imagine bacteria usually behave like that. Yet if it is isolated to the veins, that doesn’t explain the incident.”

“Your Ordo should be proud.” Agamede gestured to her station. “I have samples from the nervous system, brain, and lungs. Satisfactory?”

“It is you who does your order proud Magos.” Romulus’ smile eased the deep crags of his face. “I have something for you as well, let’s hope it’s not as contagious as your excitement.” Behind him, the armored woman dragged in her prize to Agamede’s obvious delight.

“Yes Interrogator, that will do nicely.” While Agamede effortlessly transported her gift to an unoccupied table, Romulus explored the other samples. Most of the bacteria huddled in the lungs, crowding the bloodstream from which they crawled the nervous system into the brain. There, they enflamed the amygdalla as they settled into their new home. 

“It’s inhaled, carried through the bloodstream, then colonizes the amygdalla.” Adjusting the magnification, Romulus voiced his thoughts. “Being an emotional center, that might explain the psychic manifestations.”

“Our thoughts as well.” Agamede hummed. “Behavior exhibits heat-dependence, we are eighty-percent confident this correlates with emergent pyromancy. On Holy Terra, the ancient Lyssavirus modified host behavior to reproduce, expect the same of Xenos.”

“From where?”

“The swamps, off-world.”  Agamede shrugged as she cut away blackened flesh. “Do not assume recorded events are the earliest. Governess Vauld is effective, but even she does not know all happenings in the underhive.”

“True. And the events have only been growing in scale, they may have started innocuously enough.” Seeing his silent companion spin her fingers, Romulus frowned. “If this bacteria compels pyromancy, can we assume it survives fire?”

“Certainly.” The Magos paused with a series of clicks. “Heat to reproduce, hot currents to travel, perhaps ideal infection vector. Genetic differences in host explain non-ubiquity of infection.” Agamede rose to the fullness of her impressive height. “I can create a vaccine, meanwhile you must stop the burnings, transmission of an unknown xenos parasite is worrisome, albeit exciting.”

Romulus Interrogator looked toward the nameless corpse. “What about post-mortem activity?”

Agamede’s myriad lenses tightened. “Additional testing required, have found only trace bacteria in the subject.”

“He wasn’t burned badly compared to latter victims.” Romulus thumbed his chin. “The morticians smoked, suppose that heat revived the bacteria, could they move a corpse?”

“Infection of nervous system may allow crude electrical-control.” Agamede paused her vivisection. “Cannot discount impact of psyker. Colloquial term: ghost.”

“The corpse did go for the governess specifically, though not to kill her.” Pacing by his station, Romulus pinched his brow. “So the colony burned the morticians for heat to stay alive. Then greater distances between victims demanded higher temperature, thus the more complete burnings. All this while the corpses expressed regret just like E91.”

“Indicates human influence.” The Magos firmly interjected. “Merging with amygdalla likely informs post-mortem behavior. Accordingly, burnings must be stopped until a vaccine is produced.”

Romulus raised a hand. “Could you produce a suppressant?”

“Possible.” The Magos pulled away from the corpse to confront Romulus. “Amygdalla changes compromise whole body. Nor would this solution preclude continued powers or post-mortem events.”

“Make it your top priority.”

Agamede closed on him in an instant, pressing two long needles to the man’s neck. “A dangerous jest, Interrogator.”

“I do not jest.” Romulus replied evenly while his companion trained her Bolter on the Magos. “You will produce a suppressant before a vaccine.”

“Allow these xenos to blight the human form a minute longer? The galaxy has gone mad, but I expected better of the inquisition.”

“My duty is to the Imperium’s survival, not its sanity.” Ignoring the needles at his throat, Romulus met Agamede’s blazing stare. “The false saint Kepler threatens the entire system. That is more important than one planet.” 

“You wish for weapons?” Agamede’s scarlet eyes blazed. “The dead walk, Interrogator! That is no weapon, that is damnation.”

“Notice their expressions, Magos.” Calmly extending his left hand, Romulus traced the downward curve of E91’s stiff cheeks. “Our victims grieve, vividly exhibiting human emotions.” 

“You point, Interrogator?”

“The false saint says he fights for the downtrodden.” Romulus looked into the distance as he recited those words. “However, he is known to rigorously screen would-be refugees. Especially after breaking the Imperial blockade. Only those who truly hate us are let in.”

The Magos remained still, lethal needles frozen in place. However, she asked a hoarse question. “What exactly are you suggesting?”

“Kepler understands the political value of accepting refugees. If Imperials defect to him, the stories will grow all their own.” Unflinching, Romulus bared his teeth. “Imagine the emotional turmoil of those exiled from here, their grief and rage. Imagine if the suppressant ran out when they arrived at Adrestia. We had the fortune to acclimate to these events before they grew to become the Eastern crater.”

“Fortunate not to have a medical or administrative center destroyed,” Magos Agamede remarked at the armored woman, disbelief lighting her emotionless lenses. Then at last she withdrew her needles. “You are not asking, are you?”

“No Magos, nor will I ask the governess.” Stopping in the door-frame, Romulus dipped his chin a fraction to look at her with hooded eyes. “We no longer have that luxury.”     

                                                                                    **

“You make it sound like a test of faith after all.” Catherine Vauld sat at her desk, the pen between her fingers strained to breaking. Standing at the bay window, Interrogator Romulus avoided eye contact with Vauld and the sullen women guarding his back.

“In a manner of speaking.” Eyes gravitating to the public squares denting Hypatia II’s skyline,  Romulus ran his fingers along the glass. “For now, burn those suspected of supporting Kepler. Put their family in front to bear witness, then organize their transportation to Adrestia.”

“Pumped full of Agamede’s solution no less.” Vauld laid her pen down. “Barbaric, even by your low standards. You are asking me to villainize Imperial citizens.”

“As you say.” Touching his forehead to the glass, Romulus curled his hand into a fist. “But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Catherine sniffed, turning in her chair to glare at the man. “Is that all you have to say?”

“No. Guard your heart governor.” His shoulders trembled, but his voice did not. “And may the Emperor forgive us.”

About the Author

Greg is a software developer who finally got to writing out of college. Dawn of War exposed him to 40k, where he was drawn to the dense lore and dark fantasy. Metal, Lovecraft, Blame!, and Berserk are much of his current inspiration as he works on his first (cyberpunk) novel. You can find more of his work at viciousstars.com, following the link below.

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