by Chris Cook

'At last my preparations are complete, and the time approaches. I have worked hard to make myself a worthy recipient of the powers I call here, and it is my desperate hope that the Great One will bless me with its spawn, and lift me from this terrible life to a place beyond the wonders conjured by my poor imagination. I have no regrets in taking this final step on the path I have chosen. I have seen what is beyond, and I cannot return to the false Emperor now.'

The scratching of a pen floated around the shadowed room, mixing with various other soft noises of night-time. The writer finished his task and closed the heavy metal-bound journal, pulling tight the silk cord around the pages. He raised the seal-bolt to his lips, gingerly letting it touch his tongue, pulling away as the moisture hissed on the hot metal. He quickly pressed the bolt into the ends of the cord, sealing the pages and leaving the burned impression of the symbol of Slaanesh.

Carrying the heavy journal under one arm he crossed the room and touched a panel in the wall. The hushed sounds, the sighing of the wind and low chirping of insects, ceased, replaced only by the hum of air circulators. A second touch at the panel locked the room's main door. The mage crossed the room again, coming to rest in front of the featureless back wall. He traced a pattern in the metal, following paths invisible to the eye. When he was done the geometric shape he had drawn glowed softly for an instant, then vanished again. A panel in the wall slid aside. The mage looked inside, then nodded to himself and stepped inside, letting the panel slide shut behind him.

The room was six-sided, with a high ceiling lost in darkness. The mage laid his book aside and took a taper around the room, lighting the six candles in the candelabras mounted at the junctions of the walls. Their light flowed into the room, a little too slowly and softly to be comforting. As the mage lit each corner he passed by the still figures hanging from the chains driven into the walls. The six were still, their breathing so shallow as to make no sound, their chests barely moving. Each had been a menial of some sort, a scribe or clerk, men of no consequence who were not missed. Their bodies were dotted with tiny injector-bulbs, which had been left in place after their contents had been emptied into the men's nerves and muscles. Trickles of blood and fluids drained away in channels in the floor. The mage passed them without reacting to their presence, so familiar was he with their tortured forms. If prompted to remember them, he would recall that the first had been brought here over a year ago.

The room lit, the mage returned to the altar in the centre, beneath the billowing silk drapes that hung from the ceiling, emerging out of the shadows like waves from a mist over the sea. On each side of the smooth stone block was a human form, cloaked in folds of white silk. One was breathing softly, as if in a deep sleep, the other was still as death. The mage went to the still body first.

It was well-chosen, he reflected as he pulled away the wrappings. The dead man was just another menial, but through some chance of genetics he had a soldier's body, strong, wide shouldered, the face proud and handsome. The mage hauled the body upon the altar with some difficulty, then drew a thin curved dagger from the folds of his robes and set its point carefully against the base of the man's spine. With surgical sureness he began cutting, paying no attention to the blood that spilled over his hands and robes. As he progressed further in his task the blood pooled around the edges of the altar, and began inching its way across the floor. It reached the other hidden form, which murmured something in sleep as the cold liquid touched it through its coverings.

Finally, his work done, the mage pushed the remains of the menial's body aside, leaving the altar clear, the stone stained dark by the blood that had soaked into it. He then took hold of the crumpled shape he had removed from the body and held it up, letting its length unfurl. He nodded again to himself and let go of it with one hand, reaching up into the silk curtains above the space in front of the altar, directly above a pentagram carved into the ground, the shallow channels now filled with dead blood. His fingers closed around a hook, and he brought it to the end of the thing still held in his other hand, passing the hook through. He found a second hook and did the same again, standing back to let the thing hang free. The menial's empty skin hung from its arms, the face flopped between its loose shoulders. A few drops of blood fell from the cuts in its back as it swayed gently.

The mage took a moment to admire his work, then turned to the second figure. He peeled back the wrappings to reveal a young woman, perhaps twenty, her face calm and angelic as she slept. This one was no menial - a highly-placed daughter in one of the administratum dynasties, she would surely be sought. The mage had engineered her abduction only hours earlier, to ensure he would have enough time to complete his work before her family could locate her - if they found him too soon they could destroy everything he had worked so long for. Once the ritual was complete, no power on the world would be able to touch him.

The mage lifted her slim body free of the silks and onto the altar. He took her wrists and placed them gently in soft leather cuffs bolted to the stone, pulling the straps tight. As he did so he paused for a moment, his hand on the soft skin of her arm. But he pulled away. Unswerving dedication to his goal had brought him here, to within a single step of ultimate power. Such distractions could wait. It would not be too much longer.

He walked around the perimeter of the room one last time, and this time he stopped to face each of the hanging men. From his robes he produced for each one a last injector-bulb, placing the needle carefully at their necks and squeezing the bulb to release the serum. He was counting underneath his breath, timing his actions precisely. Everything had to be perfect. With all six of the men attended to he returned to the head of the altar. He touched an injector, a different colour to the ones used on the men, to the young woman's throat, pulling the needle out again and using the treated pad on the back of the bulb to seal the tiny pinprick it left. He stepped back and raised his arms as she began to stir. He took one last look at the two figures - the empty skin, the vessel for his servant; the girl, its first sacrifice. He raised his voice and spoke in a deep, resonant tone.

"Navicula suaves. Bring light to darkness, bring darkness to light." A faint breeze blew through the room, despite there being no windows or open doors for it to come from. The skin swung, its chains clanking quietly.

"Ordehu suaves. Bring passion to life, bring passion to death." The woman's eyes blinked open, still sleepy, uncomprehending.

"Ordehu suaves. Bring guilt to the innocent, bring sustenance to the wanton." She tried to move her arms, pulling against the restraints. Gushes of air were whipping around the skin, making its empty form jerk wildly.

"Navicula suaves. I summon and bind the emissary of pleasure." The skin suddenly seemed heavier, fuller.

"Navicula suaves. I summon and bind the servant of the Great One." Its limbs grew thick, something growing inside them. The dimensions of the body were changing, the form of the man vanishing as the daemon imprinted its own shape on its vessel.

"Navicula suaves. I summon and bind the warrior of souls." The head began to rise from the chest, trails of pink mist dancing in its eye holes.

"Ordehu suaves. Take pleasure in the gifts I bring you." Around the room each of the hanging men suddenly jerked alive, blood spilling from their mouths, a brief clatter arising as the injector-bulbs fell to the floor, forced out of their bodies by the sudden motion and clenching of their muscles.

"Ordehu suaves. Give power that I may find greater gifts." The woman's stare found the writhing skin suspended before her, and she let out her breath in a silent scream.

"Navicula suaves. Slaanesh give me life!" The thing's feet touched the floor, and it tore its claws free of the hooks that held it. It looked down at its newly-acquired body, then back up and the struggling woman bound before it.

The door exploded inwards with force, its remains crashing through the table where the mage had written his journal. Arbites poured in, shotguns ready for any danger. Finding the room empty they began tearing apart every piece of furniture and furnishing. It was just as a man wearing the long, flowing robes of an administratum Master stepped through the shattered doorframe that the panel in the wall slid aside.

The Arbites were instantly alert, shotguns pointing at the open space. The robed man pushed their weapons aside as a slim figure fell through the opening, crumpling onto the floor of the room. The man was at her side instantly, pulling off a layer of his own robes and wrapping it around her shivering shoulders. He cradled her face, wiping away the blood and tears that streaked her cheeks.

"By your mother's grave, I thought I'd lost you," he said, his voice choked. "Are you alright? Are you hurt?" He gently pulled her aside, cradling her in his arms, as Arbites ducked through the low opening into the room beyond.

"Father," she whispered.

"I'm here," he said quickly, stroking her forehead, "it's alright, no-one's going to hurt you now. You're safe, you're safe now."

A yell erupted from the opening, followed by a sickly crackling sound, like a dozen bones breaking at once. A shotgun boomed in the enclosed space, and the Master quickly turned to shelter his daughter behind himself, glancing over his shoulder as more Arbites poured into the room. As he glanced back, he noticed a smile on the young face before him.

"I'm not hurt," she whispered. He nodded and drew up a smile as another shotgun blast echoed through the opening.

"It'll be alright, Sylelle," he whispered, "everything will be alright."

"I know," she replied. The wall of the room crashed down, but the Master was already fading away, his own ceremonial dagger buried up beneath his ribs. Sylelle stood, letting the improvised robe fall from her shoulders, as the daemon strode out of the wrecked summoning chamber, the broken bodies of two Arbites clutched in its claws. With a roar it hurled itself into the remaining warriors, as Sylelle watched with a lazy smile.

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