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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
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Zadown

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A scent drifted through the hall. It was a mixture of moist flowers and dry spices, pungent and sweet, a smell far more vivid than the pale colors of the hall, far darker than the soft, all-encompassing light of the multitude of candles.

 

Most warriors ignored the intruding perfume, some pausing for a short moment with an unreadable look passing through their perfect countenances. Shields were being polished, swords sharpened. There was no time for being interrupted with things that did not touch the areas of their duties. Only one of the host of angels lifted his young face from his work and frowned before turning towards his nearest veteran companion.

 

"What is that?"

 

"What is what? Is it a call to battle, a tug in the chains that bind our true names, an intruder or a messanger? Do you see the Herald with his trumpet, hastatus?"

 

"No, but ..."

 

"There is no 'but', young one."

 

Exasperated, the older angel pointed at the direction the irritating diversion was wafting from with his broad longsword, taking the opportunity to admire his godly reflection on the bright blade.

 

"That way lies our leader. Nothing he does or does not do is within our limit to question. If he feels like dabbling in alchemy at the eve of a battle and produces clouds of exotic vapors, that is good. If he does not, that is also good."

 

When the old veteran turned his gaze on the younger warrior his look turned stern. He sheathed his blade and pointed a finger at the youth.

 

"I have no idea - and no, do not tell me! - whose servant you were before our Lord caught you and bound you, but here is a friendly advice, the adage of angels: exult in your existence within its limits."

 

"Of course, elder."

 

"Or ... you could just follow the advice of our Lord. Most planewalker Lords barely notice the armies they command, and to gods we are but a cog in the great machine, but our Captain knows what is it like for us."

 

"He does? I mean, he is not of the Law, and ..."

 

"Ha! I see you truly are freshly caught."

 

Their conversation was interrupted by a wave of metal and muscle standing up as their planewalker captain appeared in the doorway. The sound was like a sea of armor crashing against a shore of shields, the innate sense of harmony of the angels suffusing it so it was a triumphant song of battle instead of a jarring cacophony. Their captor, master, Lord and captain nodded to his army, his satisfaction seen less in that tiny gesture than in the blazing silver color of his shifting eyes.

 

He was wearing robes of creamy white, the dark hilt of his greatsword jutting from behind his narrow shoulders. Even though tall, amidst the noble and heavenly warriors he stood out in his scribe's garb. There was nothing soft in his voice, however.

 

"My warriors! Freedom in death or oblivion in bloodlust! RAH!"

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The surface underneath him was slippery. Blood or putrescent bile or something worse, but he could not turn his head downwards to look. At the lower edge of his vision still figures lay down on the floor, frozen into their last posture of twisted agony. He kept his eyes averted.

 

Do not look!

 

Zek swallowed empty air and gripped his bolt pistol so hard his bronze skin was pearly white underneath his flak gauntlet. The golden aquilla on the gun's side gave him some degree of assurance, but the faint feeling of warm certainity melted as soon as he lifted his gaze and saw something moving in his peripheral vision.

 

Do not look do not look!

 

He felt the weight of his other weapons, each one of them a reassuring burden, a tool to cleanse this vast universe from its innumberable taints, one flaw fixed at a time. The Emperor's work. But a formless creature was rising from the field of corpses, making a sound like a thousand maggots devouring a rotting body at accelerated speed, and Zek's faith shook. A short glance at the aquilla to steady it ... and all he saw was a skeletal vulture etched to the side of his bolt pistol, worms staring at him from the eye sockets, black filth pouring down over his gun, over his fingers.

 

"AAAAAAAAHHH!"

 

He turned and saw the same maggots that had defiled his sacred gun standing upright in the guise of a man, pointing a disgusting abomination of a gun at him, maggots writhing where its face should be, maggots swarming and squirming everywhere a man, the only perfect being in the universe filled with xeno-filth and warp corruption, would have skin. His finger convulsed on the gun's trigger, but the decomposing weapon failed him.

 

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAHH!"

 

*

 

For a moment, the horrible face was still superimposed upon his vision, its eyes stars on the sky, its worms the thin wisps of dark clouds, and he could hear it whisper "I am your Nemesis" before reality banished the dream.

 

Waves struck the sides of the small ship and the crew muttered to each other in the local dialect of Low Gothic, their sailing jargon almost incomprehensible. The wind smelled of brine and rotting kelp, his senses giving up on the dream one by one, the painful thundering of his heart dying down with excruciating slowness. Zek removed his scratched flak helmet, worn from the inside to be as comfortable as the best pillow, and ruffled his own sweaty hair. Prone shapes similiar to those in his dream all around him but sleeping instead of dead, Wollsey awake and watching the dark sea with photovisors. Zek took a sip of water from his canteen and coughed faintly.

 

"See anything?"

 

"Not really. A fishing boat far away a while ago, nothing else. Looks like we have broken through the siege as easily as these smugglers promised."

 

"The Emperor protects his chosen servants."

 

Wollsey nodded and resumed his watch.

Edited by Zadown

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"That's it. The Treshold."

 

"That's all? I thought it'd look more impressive."

 

"Ah, but that's exactly the point. It's the end of impressiveness, the edge of the world. Nothing to see here, you have reached the end of the net and all that."

 

"Hmmm."

 

She lifted her hand and stared at it, felt vaguely nauseous when she realized she could see the pixels without zooming. Their sense of smell had already vanished at the boundary of 4.0 Wolfpack and 3.2 Bluecoat, one layer back. Even with pixels what they saw had degraded the least - it was almost silent this deep, and the few objects they had touched on their way had given out granular sensations. She waved the offending hand in jerky, lagged motions towards the next layer. Or towards the lack of a real layer.

 

"So what happens if you downgrade here?"

 

"You'll log off or get a greyscreen. I've surfed enough history to know 1.0 Misty Mountains was never meant for humans. It's just sub-AI underhead zone ... like a set of service tunnels for the reality. You could say we are under the ground as it is."

 

They stood there in silence for a moment, watching the green sparkle of distant packets hurrying far below them. The view into the abyss was not as nondescript as they had complained, just lacking in obvious majesty. After a while she grabbed a lost packet and threw it through the layer. When it hit the treshold it lost its dimensions, its weight and color, and tumbled downwards as a raw, abstract piece of code.

 

"Ever done it?"

 

He turned to really watch her the first time since they had entered this layer. She was a caricature of what she had been, most of her sexy animations lost somewhere on the way, her jagged edges and limited color palette making her seem like some ancient flesh-age ancestor of theirs taking her first steps in the elevated reality. Changes to avatars were nothing new to either of them, but this simplification bothered him on some deep level. He knew now that they should not have come all this way, no matter how bored they were with the current trends at the top layers. A stab of panic shot through him as he wondered if they had come too far to sustain proper simulated personality, if their souls were now irrevocably as pixelated as their current avatars.

 

"... what? Done what?"

 

He could not read her face any more and their voices were stale and flat like those glyphs used somewhere to store communication and information. Stale as text, yes, that was the archaic word. His panic blossomed like a flower of blood from a gunshot wound, a half of him going that way. The other half detached itself, muttered about backups and previous saved setups, whispering patiently into the first half's ear a constant stream of becalming platitudes.

 

"Why, ever logged off of course."

 

Madwoman. He had come to the Treshold with a madwoman.

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Of course at first I thought - no, I hoped - that I was sick. I had enough money for the best care, and my private doctor checked everything that can be checked, but nothing was wrong. A shrink, next, althought I never had liked them. I am sure she mocked me behind her professional smile but she went through the motions, made her questions without finding any scientific, described sort of madness. All this I went through with the echoing curse ringing in my ears, first knowing and then just hoping it had nothing to do with any of it.

 

I should never had rented an apartment to one of their kind. It was bad business, but the place had been empty for a while and I had no other apartments in the building. Of course, she could not pay the rent after a while, and when I went to foresee her removal from my property she spat at me, and cursed with the force of her old, centuries-heavy degenerate beliefs. Ugly words, but I had heard worse in my line of work, and thought nothing of it. Not at first.

 

It took time, of course, for the curse to grow its roots into my life. There must've been other, smaller things before what I recall as the first incident, but I'm not a superstitious man and I try not to dwell on things that should not be. If my senses tell me things are wrong, they might be lying - they lie to our minds all the time, coming up with faces in the clouds or adding up half-heard pieces of conversation the wrong way.

 

So, a sickening smell, like something small curled up dead. Too vile to just let be in the heat of the summer, no knowing how bad it would be the next day and so I looked for its source a grimace on my face, expecting to find a wet, glistening corpse too deep in a hole for me to remove. It did not take long for me to realize it wasn't coming off any wall, but nearer the middle of my tiny apartment. I found the source alright, and heard the echoing curse in my mind, the first time since it had been uttered.

 

There it was, the point of change, the point of no return. A different world with different laws, things you took for granted mere shadows your grasping hands can not touch and the illusions of your nightmares tangible, loathsome realities.

 

Of course I thought it was a passing hallucination at first. Then, as I said, I hoped was sick. But its been too long now, every day plunging me deeper into a world I want no part of. Now, when I pay my morning newspaper, I do not look around if others can smell what I can. I hardly flinch any more.

 

Even if the money feels like rotting flesh.

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"You wanted to see me, sir?"

 

"Yes. Have a seat, Enoch. How do you feel?"

 

The nodescript man (nearing middle age, body in passable shape, wearing robes resembling those worn by the Ecclesiarchy with a worn icon hanging from his belt) sitting on the edge of a comfortable chair looked bewildered for a moment. The emotion of confusion seemed to eclipse the man himself, so clear a brand it was on so unremarkable a face.

 

"How would you like me to feel, sir?"

 

"Ah ... fine would be a good start."

 

"I feel fine, then, sir."

 

"Then you are ready for service again."

 

"I am always ready to serve the Emperor to the best of my abilities."

 

Something lit behind the pale eyes, a flame of conviction, and Enoch's hand clasped his precious icon.

 

"What happened during your last mission, Enoch?"

 

The interviewer was a veteran of far more years than his face showed, a veteran of countless conversations that decided the lives and deaths of those he talked with and often the lives of countless others (in an indirect, abstract way - but he had had time to think on such chains of consequence), and for only that reason he could see the fleeting horror pass over the pale blue eyes, extinguishing the flickering embers in them.

 

He imagined he could see as if through a long, dark tunnel the lone figure of the man who now thought himself as Enoch, kneeling in a pool of gore, spent shells trapped in the viscous liquid like flies in amber. That moment lasted for less than a blink of an eye, then Enoch's composure turned utterly calm. Enoch frowned.

 

"I can't quite recall, sir."

 

"And that is how it should be. Your last mission and everything related to it has been classified."

 

A moment of silence, Enoch's frown changed shape and faded.

 

"Ah. I trust ... I acted as a loyal servant of the Emperor should."

 

A benign faint smile and a nod.

 

"You are one of my trusted acolytes, Enoch. We would not be having this talk otherwise."

 

"Oh, of course. Am I to be sent to another mission, then?"

 

"In due time, in due time. First I'd like you to meet the squad of acolytes you are being assigned to. Once there is a suitable case you all will be sent to take care of it together. I have sent a message to the supply officer - follow my assistant here and take whatever you think you might need."

 

Enoch stood up, bowed and left, following a clerk. Nobody in the room, now, and he sighed deeply with what he realized was relief.

 

That went better than we thought it would.

 

He summoned the picture to the screen of his data slate once again, the last frame Imperial Guard Balthar's camera had taken from the floor: blood everywhere and still, headless forms, walls riddled with bulletholes. In the middle stood a grinning wild psyker wearing an insane version of Enoch's face.

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Everything had been just right, just a moment ago. The Emperor guarding the door inside my head, my fellow acolytes and me against yet another putrescant pustule of heresy, together. A world of order.

 

Now, two guns were pointing at me.

 

I had trouble hearing their harsh words. Something about a murder, and an accusation, but I knew I had not killed anybody. There were two of them, wearing the armor of enforcers, autoguns in hand. I could feel my hands beginning to tremble. It was just like in my nightmares, like one of those shattered visions that haunted me even during the day. All alone, like I had been then, only the Emperor on my side.

 

"Oh Emperor, grant me strength and hold the warp at bay."

 

I could hear the fervent, fevered despair in my whispered prayer but I had no time to dwell on it. The thumb of my left hand brushed reverently the worn surface of the icon I was carrying, a compulsive gesture. Time seemed to slow down, the black holes of the two autoguns growing larger, all senses straining as cold terror rushed through me.

 

I let the Emperor open the door inside my mind, just a bit. Warp surged around me like a growing wind, formed a dozen spectral hands, two dozen, three - and smashed one of the two enemies down, the cackling laughter of the demons in my ears.

 

I could see them more clearly. A red glow illuminated the view, coming from somewhere behind me. The faces underneath the helmets were twisted, bestial, the hands curled around the guns like claws, blood spattered over everything. Blood forming the forbidden patterns of Chaos. It was no surprise when he fired at me, the black maw of his gun spitting yellow fire and slugs of metal. Those same spectral hands plucked the slow bullets out of the air, one by one, chittering and screaming as they did so.

 

I embraced those hands, knew I'd be close to invisible under their swirling mantle. More futile gunfire, more bullets clinking to the stone floor as they fell down, harmless, their fury spent. I ducked into cover muttering another quick prayer to the Emperor. I was breathing too hard, too much blood was pumping through my veins, and at first I could not call His help. I saw the walls painted red, dead and dying at my feet, carrying somebody in my weak arms, a dozen, two dozen, three of these false enforcers all around us, that vision and the reality mixing into one truth.

 

I would not surrender, and I would not die.

 

That was enough. I jerked the door wider, let a bit too much raw warp out and the sword of the Emperor appeared on my side. A glorious thing of fire and fury floating in the air to protect me, as invisible as the hands of the warp to the foul, mundane beasts I was against.

 

Now ... now this would be easy.

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I call them the stone people, for the lack of a better term. They aren't, of course. We see ourselves in everything, our pain and hate and love and anxiety, the way we would feel if that would happen to us, and so if somebody says "hey, there's sentience here" we think "oh, they are like us, then".

 

All bullshit, of course. The way they think is utterly alien to us, closer to math or physics than biology. I've brought friends with me, back when I still thought I could share this. They look at the way sun shines over the fields of stone and rock, find faces in the formations as if that was what we are looking for. The shadows obliged them a few times and they were happy like little kids.

 

Faces, for christsake. Faces are sentience to your average guy.

 

It's easier to skirt around the subject, to scribble and scratch at the immaculate white surface until the words show a shadow, an absence where you suppose the thing you cannot describe will live. Not faces, not like us, not the play of shadows on a rocky patch of ground. But no matter how you do that, the unspoken space is amorphous, even more elusive than the utterly alien stone people all around us, here.

 

Of course, easiest way to solve this would be to call me mad. That's the easy way out, though, and I've never gone for that route, never let others either if I have been able to help it. And it would have to be a highly specific madness, one note wrong in the vast chorus of my thoughts. I am excellent in what I do, have passed all the psych-tests, every year.

 

Still I hear their whale song, the undeniable wisdom and intelligence in them. I am long past the need to take field assingments, but that's where I can hear it the loudest, out there in the unclaimed airless wild. They talk behind my back about my trips. Tolerable, so far - people in my position have bought the right to be slightly eccentric provided we do no mistakes. It does create a wall between me and the crew. Sometimes, when I'm alone listening to the low rumbling whispering of them below me, the incomprehensible susurrations of alien minds brushing mine, a melancholy grips me inside my suit, pushes me downward, reminds me of the gravity of the original home. Bittersweet moments, those, and a price I'm willing to pay.

 

I'm not really sure if they've even noticed us. Maybe they call us rolling stones or a sandstorm, our tiny flickering presences dancing on the surface like a swarm of fireflies in the night would be for us. That's antropomorphism again, yes. The gulf between us and them is vast and wide, and there's only so much you can do with this language and this brain.

 

That's why I call them the stone people, for the lack of a better term.

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I'm a modern, urban man. Untainted by superstition, used to walking the night, not chained to the rhythm of any celestial body. Jogging at 1am does not feel odd to me and it is only through great imagination I can try to grasp what it was like for my forefathers to brave the sleeping forests past sundown.

 

Five hundred years ago they had their saints as a shield against the limitless wilderness that started a few steps from their wooden houses huddling together for some communal warmth. A thousand years ago they didn't have even that. Christianity was a muttered foregin legend, a foolishness of the ignorant, far-away southerners. No GPS, no maps, no streetlights, no asphalt roads - their existence was not defined against a fixed, explained background but beset from every direction by the feral nature, the gods and goddesses dwelling there holding tenuous, hard bread in one hand, a sword of ice, thorns and claws in the other.

 

No communication, no news, no clocks - lives following organic patterns, not grids and graphs made of math. The abstract world lacking a framework to exist, there being only THIS and the spirits, the weather and the seasons present in every chore in a way it is hard for me to grasp in my house of stone, water and heat pulsing through its walls, at my disposal more things than anybody needs. I am absurdly rich and yet poor by relative measures, a god-like potential at my fingertips to anybody able to gaze me from those bygone years: dry and papery knowledge, manufactured goods, the ability to travel across the known world.

 

Any one aspect of the life they had, those long-gone people narrowing their eyes against the brilliant glare of future when they watch me, me frowning back at the indistinct shapes fumbling around in the Dark Ages, any one aspect can be comprehended, easily. But trying to capture the essence, the all-encompassing mental state of such life, is bordering on the impossible. They lived in a different world in the shadow of different gods, life so hard and unforgiving it did not leave room for existential nonsense, no room for philosophers or atheists, not here in the frozen North beyond any drawn edge of civilization.

 

How much could they love their children, knowing that maybe half would live to adulthood, if lucky? No painkillers, no understanding how human body works, no insight into diseases - loved ones being felled by the invisible influences of the greater powers, sometimes surviving their brush with death, sometimes their breath stilling and body growing cold, their soul receding away into the black lands of Tuonela.

 

What terrors struck their mind when they saw two red embers burning in the black forest, flickering and moving, when they saw what I do on my lonely jog at the darkest hour? I pause there with a fraction of that true awe-inspiring fear whispering through me and watch the black cat walk past me, unconcerned.

 

What terrors, indeed.

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It vexed him that the moon refused to be in the proper phase for this. Ah, well - showing annoyance would not do, not during an encounter with somebody who could actually be counted his peer. He made the last nervous gesture he allowed for himself before the meeting, flicking long since dried blood of the newborn from his thick leather gloves, then muttered the top-most stanzas of the recitals for calm. A light trance, a state of unruffled and dispassionate air as was befitting to one of his stature - a necromancer king, lord of the dead, shackle-keeper of the passed. Going through his self-claimed titles made his thin-lipped mouth curve in slight smile above his greased black beard.

 

Sun sank lower, its rays of light turning the appropriate shade of red. His dark robes whispered in an unseen wind. They had been still during the painful hours before dusk when he usually did not move around, but now that light was failing they were stirring again. Like going home, it was - old lovers and older masters caressing his flesh, their essences entwined into the soulcloth. They woke up fully and the robes started to wail and moan. A sound that would drive a lesser creature insane. He smiled.

 

A spark of white fire directly opposite to the embers of falling sun wiped that smile off. It was far away but coming closer fast, reaffirming his logic that they would not let him wait, not with darkness approaching closer every moment. Sun was irritating but the white fire would be worse. He adjusted his impressive hat, the bones and talismans attached to it clattering softly against each other as he did so.

 

They needed him and as much as he loathed it, he needed them. To claim any different would be emotional and worse yet, conventional. No matter how irksome the rapidly closing confrontation would end up being, the mere fact they were trying to work together made him want to cackle in delight. He could see their white hoods now, the fabric glowing with inner light in the rising gloom, and the creamy coats of their blessed mounts shedding sparkles against the darker background. Without a sideway glance at the ranks arrayed around him he made a curt gestures with two fingers. There was a satisfying wailing clatter as his majordomo's bones whirled together into an indistinct form to tower next to him.

 

The forces of light were almost here, painful to stare at with his forever dark-adapted eyes. Forms he had used to seeing only on the far side of vast battlefields or twisted upon his torturing racks, great names the foolish peasants whispered with awe. He could already see the pureness of their inner light waver in this place, in his presence. He gritted his teeth against the piercing glow and raised his hand in the age-old gesture of parlay, locking his eyes with the leader of the other party.

 

Oh, what magnificient shadows they would work together!

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He was finally at the gate. Something to feel sad about, for sure. Goals always had that chasm behind them, the finality of a journey done, the dark void ready to be filled with a new ambition. He spat on the cracked and shattered piece of old bones that was the excuse of a ground here. Not a good idea, but it was a deeply rooted bad habit. The water flask was almost empty, the wind dry and wailing, dust riding it like claws on a dead cat's paw. Angel Gate, a dry hell, a place where tears came down to die. Great place for pilgrims.

 

It wasn't just the thirst. That he could manage – it was something that would never kill him, though the idea of going back as a desiccated mummy made his withered soul shiver, sent a downward ripple through the muscles surrounding his mouth. Thirst was bad, but it wasn't what kept his gaze lowered, his ears desperate to tune out everything except the wailing wind. His hat sliced the world in half, the bottom dusty broken bones and angel feet, the top a shadow blocking his view. He didn't really want to see them, not yet and perhaps not ever. Their keening lament weaving in and out of the all-enveloping sound of the dusty wind was bad enough. He would never die and this place showed why that could easily be turned into a curse, a hell on Earth. Angel Gate, going nowhere, a peek upwards a journey into torment, the whole depth of it revealed in a blink of an eye. You wouldn't be able to unsee that.

 

He breathed out, let his thin exhalation join the whistling wind. Folding himself down, he sat on the remains of his more mortal predecessors, turned his gaze down and blocking the Gate itself from his view. He sniffed and sneezed once. There was dust everywhere already. He lifted his hands, studied their pale, dust-covered features against the morbid background. It would be easy to stay here forever, with the wailing angels. He was the proper color for it. This place had a weight, a pressure it exerted on his thoughts – a gravity that crushed instead of pulled, molded his mind so it would fit the desolate, grim surroundings. Death in his mind, the death he would never be able to attain. He had thought there'd be serenity here, a lagoon of dead calm to anchor his drifting soul to for a moment, but now he realized the place was a pit instead of a mountain top. A trap.

 

”Death and taxes.”

 

It was a muttered growl so mundane it pried open the jaws of the snare, a desperate splash of color on the desert of bone white. He would, of course, never pay either. Taking a deep breath he turned his gaze upwards to see the full reality of the sufferers, to hear the actual words of their endless lament.

 

He would need the jolt.

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