What Lies Within
01/10/2009 in Warhammer 40K
The voice boomed across the wastes, stronger than the raging wind and the cracking thunder of the everlasting storm. It came from the skies, it came from the ground, it came from everywhere, including the inside of Ahriman’s own skull. And to make matters worse, it was very, very angry.
“Ahriman, you are forbidden from entering my realm and you know it!”
The sorcerer planted his staff into the ground. He and a coterie of subordinates were standing just outside the portal they had opened, in the middle of nowhere amidst the barren wastes of the Planet of Sorcerers. The high spires of the magicians could be seen all around the horizon, but no living soul in sight.
“Lord Magnus,” pleaded Ahriman to the wind, “I return only because of matters of the utmost importance…”
“Worm!” The violence of the answer forced Ahriman to his knees; around him, several of his sorcerer bodyguards crumbled, their minds annihilated by the single word spoken by Magnus.
“You dare return after what you have done?”
“So is the will of Tzeentch!” cried Ahriman in return, which slightly released the vicegrip Magnus had on him as he fended off the psychic attack. Ahriman knew full well that should he remain on the defensive, Magnus wouldn’t be long to overcome his defenses and shatter his mind and body. In any other place, this might not have been the case, but on the Planet of Sorcerers where his will reigned supreme, there was no defeating the broken Primarch.
“You’ve got some guts invoking the Weaver of Lies as an excuse to be forgiven,” laughed the wind with Magnus’ voice as another tidal wave of power hit Ahriman with a destructive strength he had to struggle to contain. For the first time, he began to think this might not have been such a good idea after all.
“You sent me on a quest, master, and I return to you, because it is almost complete.” He cursed himself for the fear in his voice, but continued. “I bring a gift to you! Lord Magnus, I’ve come to offer you the key to the Black Library!”
The wind stopped blowing, the storm ceased to rage. There was only an eerie silence, hanging menacingly in the air. Behind Ahriman, those who had survived Magnus’ anger eyed each other nervously, and braced themselves – this might just be the calm before the hurricane, the water retiring before the monstrous wave.
“Oh, really? How kind of you!” Ahriman had been expecting the psychic blow, but even so, the sheer strength of the impact knocked him off his feet and sent him hurtling through the air, winded.
“And being the loyal subordinate that you are, you brought this directly to me, without a second thought, I suppose?”
The clouds reformed above Ahriman’s small group, rumbling with inner thunder. The sorcerer tried to move but found himself pinned to the ground by an invisible and overwhelming pressure – the strength of Magnus’ will.
“My Lord!”, wheezed Ahriman painfully, “I brought you the key, for I cannot place it into the lock. Only your power… If I can’t do it, there is but one who can.”
The crushing pressure lifted a bit. “I could kill you, and take the key for me. You are too weak to succeed, you ought not to live.” Despite the harsh words, the eased weight meant Magnus was interested in what Ahriman had to say.
“But then you’d be unable to find the lock, Lord. I am a worm, but a cautious worm.”
“Show me proof, liar.”
The pressure vanished, but Ahriman knew Magnus was still ready to obliterate him at the first hint of treachery. He motioned at his suite to drag something out of the portal by which they had come. They obeyed immediately, aware of the danger just like their master. Out of the portal came a strange sarcophagus, almost covered with cable plug-holes of various sizes. An energy shield tinted the glass viewing window blue, but inside one could clearly make the form of an unconscious Eldar.
“The key, my Lord. The only ones who can enter the Library at their will – I offer you this Harlequin Solitaire!”
The wind breathed in surprise. Good, thought Ahriman. He’s biting.
“You captured a Solitaire – alive! Commendable. You have shown me the key – where is the lock?”
Ahriman bit his lip inside his helmet, and took a deep breath. The crucial moment was there.
“I could not find it, Lord Magnus.” He could feel Magnus’ suspicion becoming anger at each of the word he had just said. “So I have reconstructed one! It took time and effort, but I have found willing allies among the Dark Mechanicum. The lock is almost complete now – but I cannot activate it. I have tried many times, and that has cost a great number of lives, but still I can’t force the Eldar’s mind-block that prevents the activation.”
The ground rumbled, making Ahriman grab his staff again and adopt a defensive posture. High above his head, there was a thunderclap-like sound, followed by a purple flash that overloaded even his helmet’s optical sensors; and he suddenly found himself in the middle of a large, round chamber, his retinue still behind him. The floor was paved with black and red stones, forming an intricate pattern of signs, and between the columns that outlined the edge of the room, he could have seen the twisting storm-clouds way below the spire atop of which they stood, if he had cared to look.
But Ahriman’s eyes were fixed upon the large throne in front of him. There were nine sorcerers gathered around it, but they didn’t matter – the real deal was the massive figure which limped down from the throne, leaning heavily on a black iron staff. It was hunched and twisted, wore a shattered armour, and rag-like red hair flowed around its face and single eye, which remained closed. A trickle of blood dripped from under the eyelid, reminder of an old wound which had never properly healed.
Ahriman fell on his knee and bowed deeply, imitated by the rest of his retinue.
“Lord Magnus, the honor…”
Magnus the Red, broken parody of the giant he once was, had a rattled laugh.
“Lies again, Ahriman! You don’t have a drop of honor left in you. Get straight to what you want, or you will die for having disturbed my place.”
“Lord, only someone of your power can force the mind-block and use the key to unlock the way to the Black Library. I have come to beg you to assist me in the task bestowed upon me by Tzeentch himself!”
“And by helping you, I get access to the Library as well. Where is your installation, Ahriman?”
“Aboard my ship, in low orbit, my Lord. We can go there as soon as you feel ready…”
Magnus cackled again, and waved a finger in denegation.
His single eye opened with a flash of warp energy, liberating a shockwave of power which knocked Ahriman off his feet and sent him sprawling on the ground. His bodyguards, less resilient to psychic attacks, were literally blown away, a few crashing into the columns behind them, the rest simply disappearing from view as they were hurled into the open sky.
“You came to beg, Ahriman, not ask. This is my world, and so my rules will be applied. I don’t trust you nearly enough to follow you aboard your own vessel!”
Magnus’ voice had changed. From hoarsh, it had become deep and powerful, and seemed to echo against non-existent walls. Ahriman looked up at his former master and for a brief moment he saw the real him, not the broken and one-eyed sorcerer, but the tall Daemon Prince, armour resplendant and intact, standing without the help of his staff; the psychic image of the soul intact inside the twisted carcass. Then Magnus closed his eye again, and things returned to what they were before.
“Go back to your ship, Ahriman. You have one hour to delimit the area which I will transport inside my tower. Try any clever trick, and I will attach you to my throne with a leash so you can entertain me when I grow bored. Are we clear, worm?”
“Crystal clear,” growled Ahriman.
“So he bought it?”
“Hook, line and sinker,” replied Ahriman, “but we best be not let our guard down. I bet the old bastard is suspecting something, it’s his nature.”
The sorcerers of the small conclave nodded. “Will he be able to force the lock? By Tzeentch, the Safeguards are a dangerous kind.”
“I think he can. He just killed Khadizaar as easily as swatting a fly. He might have been the weakest of us, but still…”
“We should just have him teleport a fusion bomb, steal his secrets and do this ourselves.”
“And pretend he isn’t expecting that? Magnus can’t be fooled that easily!”
“Let’s stick to the plan and everything should work out fine,” started another sorcerer. “Master Doscill, is everything ready on your side?”
The Mechanicum adept looked oddly out of place amidst the conclave, where his red and black robes clashed against the blue and gold of the sorcerers.
“Everything is,” he droned. “The subject has just been put inside the machine.”
“Good,” said Ahriman. “We should be warped to the surface anytime now. Stick to the plan, and the secrets of the Library will be ours, and ours alone.”
Count on that, idiots, he grinned to himself immediately after. I’ll be damned if I let anyone else than me enter the place.
“So, that’s your lock?”
Ahriman nodded. The throne room had expanded itself at Magnus’ will to host a gigantic and bloated mechanical contraption, a mess of metallic tubes and wires all linked to the stasis container where the Solitaire floated, maintained in an artificial unconscious state. Inside the container, a part of the machine was clamped around the Eldar’s head, swallowing it completely; it looked as if the subject’s head had been replaced by the swollen and bulbous contraption.
“How did you design it?” Despite his closed eye, Magnus was acting as if he saw everything perfectly. He probably did anyway, reflected Ahriman.
“Part of it is a mind-control unit. Master Doscill has implemented a corrupted machine-spirit which, he assures me, should help us supervise the brain activity of the subject. The rest is mostly a warp-engine design. We know the Solitaires can travel to the Library at their will, probably by the means of opening a local portal.”
“No one can enter the Webway without the Eldar knowing it,” snorted Magnus.
“I know, Lord. But I do not believe the Library is connected to the Webway. During one of my attempts to corner one of the Solitaires, I triggered a localized Warp Storm and shut off the portal to the Webway through which the Eldar were retreating, but still the Solitaire passed through the portal when the rest of his kin could not. There has to be another passage, another Webway if you will, that leads only to the Library.”
“Your reasoning sounds like it could be correct. How does this machine work?”
“Master Doscill will first engage the generator, feed power into the machine and awaken the machine-spirit and the daemon-minds which run the machine sub-systems,” explained Ahriman.
“Then it will be up to us. We will manipulate the subject into believing he has to return to the Library. When the way opens, his mind will believe he is travelling – these monitoring screens should allow us to see what he thinks he is seeing. As soon as the subject “arrives”, we have him trigger the portal, and the path will open for us too.”
Magnus nodded. “Where did you fail?”
“I have succeeded in tricking the subject’s mind, but I can’t go any further”, said Ahriman. “His mind refuses to travel to the right location and the Library remains hidden to my eyes.”
“Of course you failed there. Despite all your knowledge, you are still a child in the mastery of sorcery. I believe I know where you have gone wrong, little Ahriman.”
Magnus tapped his staff on the ground, and immediately a twisted and mutated scribe brought him a large tome. The Cyclops plunged into the book, mumbling to himself, seemingly forgetting everything else, and as Ahriman looked at him it brought back memories of the old days, of when he and his Primarch would spend days, weeks into the lost Librarium of Prospero. He hurried to chase the thoughts away, for they were unwanted souvenirs of a lost age, and there were other matters to worry about. He turned away to go oversee Doscill’s preparations and didn’t see the faint snarl on Magnus’ lips.
“We are ready, Lord Ahriman”.
“Excellent, Master Doscill. Initiate connexion.”
The adept pressed an activation rune, and the entire room was filled with a low hum as the generators went online. There were series of clanking noises when the power plugs were locked into place, and static appeared on the viewing monitors.
“Perfect,” said Ahriman. “My Lord… It is now up to us.”
The sorcerers had formed a circle in front of the machine, Ahriman standing just next to Magnus, and they began the ritual. Disposed all around the room, Magnus’s best bodyguards were standing still, ready to intervene at the first sign of treachery. The chaotic rune circle drawn in the middle of the circle glowed as the first part of the spell was completed; inside the container, the Solitaire twitched.
The monitors awoke to life and displayed a storm of static, before progressively the image faded to black again. But it wasn’t exactly as before, because the blackness wasn’t absolute. Doscill plugged himself into the monitor station and began operating its controls, adjusting the light levels, and the image became clearer. It was a causeway, long beyond recognition, its even white surface stretching out as far as the eye could see. There was no sky, no horizon, everything simply faded into the blackness that shrouded the landscape. On both sides of the causeway, small streams of water flowed slowly, and in the distance the shapes of gigantic pillars, regularly placed, could be seen. Something stirred in the shadows, a creeping movement that was slowly getting closer.
“We’re here,” said Ahriman. “That is the way. But I could never find its exit – it appears to be endless.”
Magnus had a small, hoarsh laugh that ended in a coughing fit. “Such a clever labyrinth! No wonder you could never find your way out. You have missed the point entirely!”
And with a sudden wave of his hand, the circle between the sorcerers disappeared; making the image slowly turn back into static.
“My Lord!”, cried Ahriman in alarm
“Warp magic is dangerous here. These cabal signs you are using are like an alarm for whatever guards this labyrinth!”
Concentration was contracting Magnus’ face as he mumbled the incantations for his own rituals. Sweat rolled down his neck, and Ahriman’s Conclave eyed each other nervously – the displays were almost entirely static again. Then Magnus opened his eye.
This time there was no blast of energy, but it was clear that Magnus was pouring an insane amount of power into the spell as the monitors became clear again, and this time the causeway wasn’t empty anymore. Strange, tall and white humanoid beings were standing there, looking directly out of the screen. Clearly not human nor Eldar, their faces were expressionless ceramic masks that exhaled a silent menace, and they wore nothing but a long, black cape. Their arms were slender, looking almost mechanical, and their hands ended in long, thin and black metallic claws, and most of all, their numbers seemed to be endless.
“Hah!” Magnus had a cry of triumph. “Here they are. Safe-guards, here to protect the pathway! But they cannot see through the curtain of lies I am weaving. I’m guessing,” he said with a smug grin, “that you had a few problems with them, Ahriman.”
The Sorcerer repressed his fury at seeing how Magnus had so easily overcome the obstacle. A few problems?! That was a gross understatement and he was ready to bet the Cyclops knew it. Those cursed Safeguards, with their ability to use his device against him to penetrate into the realm of reality, and their claws which ripped through armour like paper!
“Yes, Lord,” he mumbled angrily. “They kept blocking my way.”
“But they are paving it for me,” continued Magnus. On the screen, the Safeguards had lined up on each side of the causeway, and stared at the screen – or more accurately at the psychic image of the Solitaire as it walked forward, with their empty, pitch-black eyes.
The walk continued for long, difficult minutes, each sorcerer feeling his power being drained by the exhausting spell, before the causeway suddenly disappeared and was replaced by an immense grass field which undulated under a wind none of them could feel from where they were, an odd sight under the absent sky. A small building, clearly of Eldar design, stood there just on the other side of a quiet river, and through the arched windows one could make out the shape of bookshelves.
“I made it!” This time, Magnus’ voice was a roar of triumph. “That magnificence… That power! I get to behold it at last!”
Ahriman turned towards the renegade Tech-adept, who was still busy tending the machine.
“Open us the portal,” he ordered with barely contained excitement.
Doscill immediately obeyed. The machine had a low whine, which progressively went up in frequency until finally not even Astartes-enhanced senses could hear it, then there was a deafening thunderclap and a brilliant crack appeared in the fabric of reality, expanding until it was wide enough for all of them, Magnus included, to pass through. An otherworldly wind blew gently from the opening, through which all of the Conclave could see the landscape they had been looking at on the monitors.
The first to rush through was Ahriman, followed by Magnus. No longer could he repress the joy of his imminent triumph, and he went from a walk to a quick jog towards the river. Magnus watched him go, keeping his slow pace, with a bemused smile, until a chattering noise coming from behind made him turn around. What he saw made him freeze for an instant.
The Safeguards, no longer fooled, were pouring in their hundreds towards them like a tidal wave , running on their four limbs to gain speed, some even climbing on others in an attempt to get there first. The other sorcerers had seen them too, and seemed panicked, except Ahriman. Magnus looked back at him and saw he was almost by the river now. He smiled. Too predictable.
“Don’t stand here like that, fools!” he snapped at the sorcerers. “Defend the portal. I don’t want any of these things pouring out in my tower!”
His own bodyguards had also felt the menace and entered the portal in turn, already readying their defensive spells, quickly joined by Ahriman’s conclave. Magnus went to join them, standing in their middle and tracing runes of power on the ground with his staff. When the first of the Safeguards laid a clawed foot on the grass, he pointed a finger at it, and unleashed a bolt of terrible power, ripping a great hole in the lines of the Safeguards, immediately filled by so many others. This was a signal for the other sorcerers, and in turn they began to cast their spells. The last battle had begun.
Ahriman had heard the sound behind him, and had smiled to himself. Perfect. He had thought things would go that way. Maybe the Safeguards wouldn’t be enough to bring Magnus down, but at least they would buy him enough time to pass into the Library before his former master did. He looked down at the water, black for a lack of sky or sun to reflect. He could barely make out his own reflection. He looked up again, and saw that the door had opened. Someone was standing there, tall and slender like the Safeguards, but the ceramic mask depicted the traits of a wizened sage.
“Go back, Ahriman of the Thousand Sons,” said the apparition in a calm tone. “I am the Bookkeeper, and cannot allow you to enter.”
“You will, old man, because you’ll have no choice,” retorted Ahriman.
“This river marks the boundaries none of your kin may cross. You cannot enter.”
Ahriman grinned under his helmet, and took a step forward into the shin-high water. Nothing happened.
“Am I here, or is one of your Solitaires trying to come back home, old man? Look! You cannot tell!”
He took another two steps. The river suddenly tripled in width.
“Is that all you can do?” laughed Ahriman. “Delay me? I will cross, old man.”
The Bookkeeper looked at him without any expression as he continued to cross the river.
Things were not going well by the portal. The Safeguards were without fear and without number, and with each blow they could fell an Astartes. So far, only three of them had passed through the barrage of magic directed at them, but Magnus knew they couldn’t hold for long.
“Lord Magnus, we’re being overrun!”
The note of terror in the sorcerer’s voice didn’t escape the Cyclops, and made him grin despite the situation.
“We can still hold them. Don’t weaken!”, he sternly replied, before glancing backwards at Ahriman. He saw that he was almost by the Library, and smiled to himself. The fool had no idea of what was about to hit him.
“Three steps left”, announced Ahriman. “Two… One!”
He was now almost face-to-face with the Bookkeeper, grinning in triumph.
“You can’t stop me!”
“Force is not allowed within the Library,” nodded the Bookkeeper. “No one may disturb the knowledge.”
“Reasoning of weaklings and cowards,” laughed Ahriman as he stepped out of the water, just next to the sage. “I have come to claim this as mine, old man, and you cannot stop me!”
The Bookkeeper said nothing, and didn’t even look at him. With a snarl, Ahriman passed the threshold of the building and didn’t see the old man take out his arm from under his cloak – a clawed arm exactly similar to those of the Safeguards, nor did he have time to dodge the thrusting blow which tore a hole through his armored back.
Blood splurted from his lips as he fell on his knees, shocked both by the horrible wound and the surprise. He could feel life slipping away and knew he would die there. His legs failed and he slumped forward, barely conscious, everything fading rapidly to black. And then, he heard the laugh. The hoarsh, coughing laugh of the Red Giant.
“Im…poss…ible..”, he managed to say just before he died.
“Merely improbable”, snarled Magnus the Red as he pushed the corpse away with his feet into the water, before turning to face the Bookkeeper. “I have to thank you for delaying him. He didn’t even realize I wasn’t with his stupid sorcerers anymore.”
The Cyclops stood taller than before, and his armour was intact again, very much like the brief image Ahriman had had of him a few hours ago in the tower.
“Your allies are dead or dying,” said the Bookkeeper. Magnus didn’t bother to look back. He knew that without him they were hopeless against the Safeguards.
“But I am alive and safe. You cannot hurt me while I stand in the Library.”
“Your son just died because he believed that.”
Magnus shook his head in denegation.
“No. He died because he didn’t realize he had stepped out. No harm can be done inside the Library!”
The Bookkeeper answered nothing. There was a long silence, disturbed only by the screams of the dying sorcerers as they were overrun by the Safeguards, and the dull chatter of claws as the tidal wave of the white and strange killers stopped by the river, visibly unable to cross.
“And they cannot cross either. I have won, Bookkeeper.”
“Why did you have to do this?” The Bookkeeper’s voice was suddenly filled with sorrow and sadness. “It had been foretold that you would come, but I cannot comprehend why you did.”
“For knowledge,” replied Magnus flatly. He knelt down and passed his armoured gauntlet through the tall grass, his single eye now closed again. “Admirable, really admirable. Ahriman was stupid to think that your knowledge lied in books, but I am not making his mistake. It is written all over this field! Each blade of grass, each petal of each flower, each gust of wind… He didn’t see it, but they talk to me, and I can understand them.”
He picked up a handful of grass and got back up, smiling. “The Fabric, Verses Encarmine, The Glittering Road… All these tomes, how I have missed them! I still remember when I handed them out to Father on Nikaea, to prove my good will…”
Regret and anger began to fill the Primarch’s voice. “And then, he sent the Wolves for me. I can have my vengeance now, with all this. I do not need my shackles anymore.”
“You speak of vengeance and war,” murmured the Bookkeeper. “These feelings are alien to me. You humans, why are you so bent on destruction?”
“I wanted peace and enlightement,” snapped Magnus. “But I was left no choice!”
“For some, there is no choice, indeed,” nodded the Bookkeeper. “But what of now?”
“Now I have the power to choose,” said Magnus. “Now, I can be my own master again. Here lies the key to the Warp’s secrets, they key to my freedom, at last!” He lifted a fist towards the blackness which replaced the sky and roared, “Can you hear me? You are not my master anymore!”
The Bookkeeper looked away. “You must leave, now. Many among us do not believe the prophecy and they will hunt you down if you remain here.”
“But you do, Bookkeeper. Why?”
“I have seen what you will do, Magnus of the Thousand Sons. I have seen you break free and wage a war of revenge on Man with your newfound power, I have seen you remain a slave and bring the cosmos to its destruction, and I have found that the former was the lesser evil. Go forth now, Cyclops. I will let you leave.”
Magnus stood silent for a long moment. “Yes”, he whispered. “I will wage my war of revenge. Now I know how to create labyrinths in the Warp to lure fleets away, now I know the nature of its power and of its denizens! Now I know the nature of its gods! The Wolves of Fenris will be the first, and then I will defeat Father and prove that I was right. And then… then, I will be free, at last.”
The Bookkeeper nodded silently, and with a wave of his hand, the Safeguards scattered. Magnus looked at him one last time, and looked like he was about to say something, but he finally turned around and crossed the river again, heading back to his own realm.
The old sage watched him go, sorrow in his heart. “Farewell, Magnus”, he said after the Primarch had gone. “I will not be there to watch you. I will not be here to see you achieving your unrestrained potential, and I will not be here to see you destroy so many of us. I will die today for the choice I have made, saving one human life at the potential cost of so many Eldar souls, but I will die content, because I have maybe wrenched you from the claws of the Annihilator, and because the choice now lies within you.”
“The choice,” he finished as his body began to dissolve and chip away, “to live as a slave or as the being you were meant to be.”
The wind blew away the dust that he had become, and soon everything that had indicated his existence was gone, leaving only the tall grass, undulating softly under the black sky.