“We have traveled far and have but one small request. We simply want to know the name of the Pilgrym.”
The words scratched almost inaudibly at the back of my brain, or what was left of it, preserved in an amniotic cask on my back, enhanced by cyber-neural circuitry and silicon memory engrams. But I was sure that I had heard it.
“Tell us the name of the Pilgrym!”
Yes, I had heard it. It was hard to focus on two places at once, both my physical body, and that of my partner. In fact, it would be impossible without the surgery, without the cybernetics. But with a practiced concentration, I was able to do it; I could filter out the unnecessary data, leaving each of us in our own worlds. Me on the ground, Bronwen in the air. At least until a key word or phrase was spoken. In this case the trigger was Pilgrym, and it was the reason I had infiltrated the damnable Red Church to begin with.
“We demand a…
Despite the neural dampeners, there was always spatial disorientation after a partial consciousness shift. Accompanying the disorientation was the customary loss of color, my vision temporarily going into monochrome, a curious phenomenon that the tech magi have never been able to explain. I was told that the two were associated, but I suspected that the color loss was a consequence of the machine spirit relinquishing control to my projected mind impulse, because within a few seconds after the transition, color leaked back into the world. The disorientation likely came from the partial displacement of the other animal’s sentience. No matter how strong my bond was with Bronwen, my cybernetically-enhanced owl, he always resisted, a spasm of electrical potentials throughout the gray matter of his brain.
Like always, the auditory transition came first, an assault of minor sounds and an acute sense of pitch. It allowed me to triangulate the source of the second voice, just as my out-of-body vision snapped from pixelated static into sharp focus, still momentarily black and white. I fought the predatory urge to fixate on the patter of tiny feet emanating from the cyclopean chapel at my back. No matter the precautionary measures taken during consciousness shifts, the strict compartmentalization, there was always bleed through, often base emotions or feelings. Sometimes I found it useful, but a fixation on the unseen scurry of rats was simply a distraction.
“We demand a Naaame! The Pilgrymmmm!”
The Pilgrym. The Pilgrym. The phrase gave us focus and clarity. Our mission, its completion was close at hand. Bronwen and my desires fell in unison, as we saw the two beseeching crusaders. They were stocky, imposing forms, tattered, grimy robes not quite hiding their battered platemail and sparking bionics. They were strung with tiny shrines, hourglasses, and other eclectic geegaws, with clunky machine pistols in their mailed hands, each in ill-repair, pitted and flecked with rust. Their faces were pallid, taut and leathery. Each a mass of scar tissue. One had a bundle of cables sprouting directly from his temple, disappearing into an archaic circuit box on his chest. The pair were leading a rabble of unwashed pilgrims, each genuflecting or throwing their hands in the air in exultation, praising His name. But now all eyes were fixed on the raised pulpit looming in front of them.
The pulpit was more of an armored bunker than anything else, sloped adamantium walls, broken by an armorglass viewport. The lectern was a gilded mass that resembled the engine of a Valkyrie Assault Carrier more than a podium, surrounded by four ornate, spiked finials. At its head was the Pontifex Maximus, High Cardinal Philippus, “the Ageless.” The epithet was a ridiculous conceit, for the Cardinal had no qualities of youth. And if I were being honest, Philippus had very few human qualities either. A segmented beetle carapace arched over his back, spilling cable into his torso, a bulbous layered mass of armor plates, held upright by blocky slabs of oiled metal which approximated legs. The only remnants of his biological form were a withered and skeletal hand clutching a dark lacquered cane, and his face, a skull with flesh stretched thin and seemingly pinned in place with a sea of tiny cables and wires.
Time seemed to trickle to a halt and the world went silent as everyone looked expectantly at the High Cardinal, waiting for a response. Finally, his lips began to move, forming words a fraction too soon, out of sync with his voice, a metallic warble emanating from an electronic voice box.
“It is the young one.”
Upon this simple utterance, his mouth clenched shut and his eyes, grey watery orbs, lost focus. With the rasp of unoiled joints, he turned to his aids and royal guard, his speech done. Those watching seemed awestruck that they received an answer at all from such a Holy figure and dumbfounded by the cryptic nature of his response.
The words lolled through my head, looped back continuously, such were the technological benefits of being with the Ordo Machinum. But any deeper meaning in the syllables were lost to me. It is the young one. It is the young one. It is the youn….
Our vision shifted across the lower concourse of the steps of the Daylight Wall. Bronwen was distracted… No… Bronwen was searching, scanning the mass of worshipers for an oddity he had noted passingly that morning. A baby carriage.
Bronwen found it effortlessly, such was the clarity of mind and sharpness of vision of my avian friend. Our collective sight fixed on the peculiar scene. A baby carriage being led through the mass of worshippers thronging the Steps. While the ascent leading up to the Daylight Wall was frequently home to unexpected sights, vistas of grandeur and vistas of decay, a microcosm of all of the faithful servants of the Emperor from across the Imperium of Man, newborns were rarely seen. The limitless queue of dignitaries and aristocrats, of supplicants and adepts of the Ecclesiarchy, of soldiers from the Guard and Navy, of traders, and countless more, did not make for a good place to care for a child. Despite this, there it was being shepherded through the cavalcade of faithful. The carriage was peculiar in its own right, no cloth, no cheer, and no love characterized the vessel. Instead it looked more like some sort of deep-sea submersible, a rigid steel frame with a spherical observation blister at the fore, glossy black and opaque. There were no wheels; instead it hovered lightly above the ground via some manner of anti-grav generator.
The cast of characters leading the carriage forward had a grim, yet pompous air to them. A few household guards with archaic knightly breastplates, helmets and pin-striped pantalones. Striding in their midsts was a corpulent giant, a loose robe hardly covering his bloated form. His body was covered in open wounds, his arms corded with muscle, leaning a massive thunder hammer across his back. His head seemed entirely too small for his body, yet the physiognomy had a noble cast to it, cables taking the place of his lower jaw. Behind him, suspended on a rusting anti-grav disc, was an exceedingly tall and frail elderly woman, her stature accentuated by a long conical hat. Noting the device clamped to her chest and the vials around her waist, I judged her to be some form of a wet nurse. At the prosessions head was who I presumed to be the father, Lorde Castor Marguardt, Ædhelinge of a backwater mining world known as Mercina. He was a stocky man who held himself with rigid dignity. A fine leather stormcoat was draped over his shoulders, partially concealing an ornate enameled breastplate. In place of hair was a mass of thick cables emanating from his scalp, framing his regal features. No amount of rejuvant surgery would have been able to eliminate the stretched quality of his skin, struggling to contain the knot of wires innervating his skull.
Also curious about the carriage procession was that it was completely unchallenged and avoided by all others on the Steps that day. Usually every traveler on the roads of Terra was swarmed by other souls trying to capture some small aspect of the holy place; such was the mass of humanity that one could not sit down if they wanted to. But around Lorde Marguardt and his group there was no one. Some of the High Cardinal’s penitent soldiers, his Guarde Curze, seemed to be breaking a path for the Lorde and carriage through the crowd. Breaking being a little misleading since those ahead parted without a word or protest, unease plain across their faces. Even the Curze, seasoned killers serving time for past transgressions, seemed twitchy and nervous, as though the seemingly innocuous carriage projected a palpable veil of foreboding and dread.
The carriage. The young one. The Pilgrym. All one in the same, I was sure. They needed to be confronted in the name of the Holy Ordos and spirited away from Terra. If the being contained within that armored capsule actually held the key to the God-Emperor’s second coming, blessed be His name, it would not be realized by any of the fools on Terra, shackled by blind religious fervor or vain political ambition. No, His coming would be forged through the hands of Lucanus Molnár, guided by the rational principles of science. Knowledge is power. But for that to happen, I needed confirmation, and I needed to get the child off-world quickly. As I was observing the carriage from Bronwen’s vantage, I knew that the fragile calm that enveloped the Steps would not last. The Church of the Red Athenæum, a radical splinter of the Imperial Faith that I had infiltrated to learn about the Pilgrym, had just broken onto the steps from deep within the shadowy bowels of Terra, with me at their side. They were out for blood, weapons drawn. If they had it their way, the Pilgrym would be murdered in a heretical piece of theatrics, a ritual called the Red Hour.
I was broken from my reverie by a flash of scathing pain.
Teeth. Clenching. Pain.
It was a phantom sensation of course; I had been without teeth, or even a skull for a long time. But the pain, that was real. It was a white hot agony of searing nerves and rupturing blood vessels. And with it, my consciousness was wrenched back violently into my physical body. The involuntary transition from Bronwen’s mind back into my own left me in a momentary haze. Normally, due to strict mental conditioning and the aid of cybernetic modifications to my frontal and parietal lobes of my cryogenically stabilized brain, I am able to operate simultaneously in the mind of Bronwen while maintaining operative function of my physical body, albeit at a limited capacity. In this case, I had been careless. I had seen the potential end to an investigation that had consumed the better part of 3 years of my life, and I lost focus in my physical body. And I was paying for it in pain. A puncture wound.
But I recovered quickly. My digital sensor arrays taking in my surroundings in milliseconds. We had not moved far from the elevator shaft, where the other members of the Church of the Red Athenæum and myself had arrived on the Steps of the Daylight Wall. But where there had once been a nervous calmness to the mass of humanity milling about the Steps, there was now panic and screams, punctuated by gunfire. Sister Reese was a few meters ahead of me calmly loading shells into her 12 gauge, before taking aim at what appeared to be some straggling royal guard from Lorde Marguardt’s host, who by my judgement were much further advanced up the stairs. More troubling still was a swirling melee that was engulfing the lower steps, at its center a trio of shambling plant horrors. Humanoid in form, their skin was coarse cracking bark flecked in moss, their faces, driftwood smooth and toothy, crowned with a tangle of thorns and roots. Via withered claw and rusted barb, they struck down any unfortunate faithful in their path with apparent disinterest, intractably advancing down the stairs. None of this, however, was an immediate problem. The immediate problem was behind me.
It had been a large bore needle, inserted through a joint in my carapace armor, that was the cause of the burning pain, more specifically the caustic elixir that entered my bloodstream as a result. The worst of the injections effects were mitigated a second later as my automated homeostatic harness flooded my system with a complex mixture of synthetic hormones, chemokines, and epinephrine. In this same moment, I spun lightly on my feet to meet my opponent, arm raised. My elbow connected with my assailants extended arm, sending the syringe they had been holding clattering down the stairs.
Finally, I was “face to face” with my opponent, an expression that I could not not help myself from using despite having lost mine in an incident on Dathomir, 14 years back. My foe was a tall woman in a gown of luminous turquoise silk, parting to reveal segmented golden platemail. Her physiognomy was that of a distorted skull partially hidden beneath a voluminous feathered hat. I knew the woman by reputation, Lady Novellis of House Dessicum, a reproachable body-snatcher sanctioned by the Officio Sancti Exanimus. What her wretched House was doing here on the Steps of the Daylight Wall, in plain sight of everyone, including the traveling faithful they preyed upon, I did not know. I feared they might also be in search of the prophesied Pilgrym. If so, time was running out; I needed to confirm Bronwen and my suspicions that Lorde Marguardt’s child, contained within that armored carriage, was indeed the Pilgrym and get them offworld. This petty conflict with the matriarch of House Dessicum was the least of my concerns.
I took a risk and allowed instinct and muscle memory to guide my duel with Lady Novellis, as I transfered back into Bronwen’s perspective far above me, leaving just enough of my sentience in my physical body to fend off any further attacks. It was reckless; I would need to confirm the identity of the Pilgrym quickly, lest I sustain more permanent injury. There was the familiar synaptic stutter, and the transitory grayscale vision, giving way to the saturated bionic vision of Bronwen’s optical implant, and I was back at the top of Daylight Wall.
In the short span of time that I had been separated from Bronwen, things had turned for the worse. Castor Marguardt’s procession had dispersed, letting one of the royal guardsmen and the emaciated wet nurse guide the hovering carriage onward up the steps. Lorde Marguardt and the bloated hammer-wielding giant had turned back. This did not overly worry me. What gave me cause for concern was the cyclopean being that had just scaled the sheer face of the Steps and was lunging towards them. It looked like some lugubrious tree, skeletal branches wavering in a calm sky, ribbed cables and wires intertwined with thorny roots trailing from its strangely humanoid trunk. But it was not a tree at all, it was a withered and faded old man covered in a rotting robe reminiscent to that of an adept of the Adeptus Mechanicus, its reds replaced with earthen greens and browns. Sprouting from all over its body were pieces of oxidizing copper, the verdigris bright and expansive. It carried a wooden cane that looked more like a weapon than something to assist in walking. Some 3 meters in length, it was covered in vicious thorns that could pass through a person’s torso with ease. Lorde Marguardt’s rotund knight hefted his thunder hammer into both hands, and broke the ambulatory tree’s charge, a titanic crash of cracking timber and tearing flesh.
Their attempts to quell the verdant horror would buy us time. With the carriage passing by High Cardinal Philippus’s fortified lectern, Bronwen swooped down from a garret window and with a high-pitched screech and claws extended and clasped a new perch on the gilded pulpit. The guard and nurse saw us alight, but to keep their attention, Bronwen spread his broad wings and cocked his head, eyes boring into that of the nurse’s, hovering nearby on her anti-grav disc. With a tinny rasp I spoke, my words projected through the vox grill inset into Bronwen’s chest.
“In the name of the Holy Ordos, and that of the God-Emperor of Mankind, I demand to know the contents of this carriage! Withhold anything and prepare to face the wrath of the Inquisition!”
Crooking her neck to face us, she replied in a high wet voice:
“You will get nothing from me. I answer only to the God-Emperor.”
With that, she turned her head to the carriage and signaled to the last guard, and they began their slow ascent anew, paying us no further heed. But her words were all the confirmation that I needed. Seemingly to stress the point, however, a glance at the tree magos revealed that it had made short work of Lorde Marguardt and his corpulent associate, both crumpled ruins on the cold steps, and was now advancing rapidly towards the Pilgrym’s ascending carriage. Furthermore, many steps below a new group had arrived, professional military types, faces covered in chrome rebreathers, dressed in black insulated void suits, carrying compact drum-fed carbines. Leading them upwards was a brute of a man in a sculpted suit of black enameled power armor, his left arm and leg both high-grade bionics, and an ornate crimson besagew defiantly displayed his Inquisitorial rosette. I recognized the face; it made my blood turn cold, a delayed sensation that hit my displaced body further below. Captain-Inquisitor Lazaros, of the Ordo Opscuros, guardians of the Black Ships. I had never met the man, but his reputation for brutality and callousness in all matters proceeded him. Molnár had known the man in his early days, a zealous daemonhunter in the Ordo Malleus, and a Thorian like himself hell-bent on finding a Divine Avatar suitable for the reincarnation of the Emperor, blessed be His name. Their ideologies often clashed, however, with Lazaros beginning to embrace more radical tendencies, which eventually lead to a falling-out between the two. Lazaros could only be here for one reason. He too wanted the Pilgrym, the fabled crux in the Battle for the Emperor’s Soul. His plans for the child I could only guess at, but I could not leave things to chance; I needed to get up there.
The transition back into my body this time was far easier than the involuntary shift from before. With a single-minded concentration, my consciousness slammed back into my augmented physical body. The shift occurred as my body was in mid-motion, it following through with an instinctive sidestep, which allowed me to narrowly avoid the slash of a green-tinted dagger in the hands of the skull-faced Lady Novellis. She had overextended; the reckless strike leaving her momentarily off balance, a mistake I would capitalize on. I did not kill her; there would have been no reason for it, save for getting entangled in local Arbites bureaucracy. A swift kick was sufficient to send her tumbling down the crowded stairs, crashing into those unfortunate enough to be in her path.
With the matriarch of House Dessicum out of my way, I needed to intercept Inquisitor Lazaros and that shambling tree horror, before they reached the Pilgrym. I sprinted past the vacant elevator that had brought me above ground with the Church earlier that morning. Taking them three at a time, I flew up the steps, muscles burning from exertion. There was panic all around me, worshipers and other faithful were frantically trying to vacate the Daylight Wall, forcefully pushing their way down the stairs, murmuring prayers, screaming, and trampling those that lost their footing. Anything to distance themselves from the bizarre tree kin and violence above.
I was not going to make it. I had gotten past the whirling mass of fleeing pilgrims, but Lazaros and his crew of psykonauts were already starting to surround the hovering nurse and the Pilgrym’s carriage, while the impossible tree magos was rapidly gaining ground on them. I would not be able to interdict them both; I needed to make a choice, target Lazaros and his ilk, letting the tree magos go uncontested, or engage with the sentient flora, and trust that the Inquisitor still had the Imperium’s best interests at heart. The decision was a simple one to make, as a servant of the Ordos myself, following Lucanus Molnár of the Ordo Machinum, I had to trust in the Inquisitorial system. What would be the point otherwise? If what I had been told was true, Lazaros had been a staunch Thorian, well versed in the finer points of the God-Incarnate enigma. What could I say about the green magos? That he was an unholy union of flesh, machine, and plant. Unsanctified in the eyes of the God-Emperor and the Omnissiah. Suffer Not the Unclean to Live.
Mid-stride I raised and readied my firearm, an Urdeshi-made U90 submachine gun. Iron sights, like the one I carried in the Guard. Complicated, technical optics served little purpose for me anymore, and if I was being honest, something about using a rifle MIL-SPEC from one of the forges of my homeworld comforted me. I deftly switched magazines for the rifle, favoring tungsten carbide cored rounds over the hollow point .45 caliber man-stoppers that I had been using. Racking and releasing the bolt, I neatly caught the last hollow point cartridge, before stowing it at my waist. Training the firearm on the tree magos, I squeezed the trigger in controlled intervals, minimizing the muzzle creep and sending short bursts of shells in its direction. The sound was deafening, drowning out the shouts of confusion and pain from the steps behind me. The shots found their mark with a wooden clap, severing odd cables and clipping branches. I emptied the magazine and loaded a fresh one; the first seeming to have caused no lasting damage. Thankfully, the shots did slow his advance, what I had been betting on. The magos cast his gaze on me, effulgent and mossy. It held for a moment, as if sizing me up, taking my measure.
A shot rang out, a single throaty roar, that broke the moment. Inquisitor Lazaros lowered his bolt pistol, as the skeletally thin wet nurse teetered back and forth, a gaping hole in her chest. Finally she collapsed, spilling from her floating platform and slamming into the armored carriage of the Pilgrym. With some final surge of vitality, she seemed to tap out a sequence on a hidden keypad.
She died as the observation dome slid open on the carriage with a depressurizing hiss.
An inhuman shriek, like the peal of a newborne star, boomed across the concourse of Daylight Wall. Perhaps it was in my mind. I did not have time to judge, as the temperature plummeted and in an instant the steps were rimmed in sickly green ice. There was a scratching at the edge of my mind, as though a presence was just out of reach, a thousand eyes boring into my subconscious. The chittering servo skull at Lazaros’ side exploded in a sea of sparks and crashed to the ground. A wedge of pain knifed into my mind and I began to hear nearly inaudible whispers, the words confused and disjointed. A dull moan issued from the mouths of the Inquisitor’s black suited companions, as bright oxygenated blood welled in their eyes, bloodshot and wild. Lazaros began to move. It was as though he was moving in slow motion, each step fighting through a gale that did not exist. His straining hand reached the carriage, and painstakingly keyed in a series of runes. The carriage began to hiss shut. A final sensation of undiluted terror, encased in ice at the bottom of an ocean. And then it was over. A weight was lifted from our shoulders and time moved normally again. The Pilgrym was contained once more.
I renewed my efforts to close the distance between the Lazaros and the Pilgrym, but after a few strides, I heard the tell-tale hum, a buzzing like a swarm of insects. And then came the blinding flash of transorbital teleportation, and they were gone. The Inquisitor, his psykonauts, the fried null-drone. The Pilgrym. Gone.
Around me there was a strange calm, as though a storm had just broken. Silence. I turned to the green magos with a start, U90 submachine gun at the ready. He fixed me with a willful, knowing stare. A flicker of acceptance passed through his eyes as he turn on creaking limbs and disappeared over the side of the Steps, back into the Botanicarium whence he came.
Things had changed, my mission parameters would have to shift, but the Pilgrym was no longer a myth. It existed, and it was now in the hands of Captain-Inquisitor Lazaros, likely in the hold of his Black-arke Garm’s Maw. I had chosen not to fire upon the Inquisitor and his henchmen earlier, the lesser of two evils, a considered risk. But I did not trust him. The hunt would continue for Bronwen and I, with a more concrete target this time. I turned to look down the broad expanse of the Steps at Daylight Wall, considering how we would begin to track Lazaros, when I noticed two figures milling about aimlessly and frantic. They had the jet void suits of Black-arkers, the sigil of Ordo Opscuros on their shoulders.
If I still could, I would have smiled.