The altar room was silent; no moans of pain, gleeful sacrifices or chanting priests. Yet there was a still an atmosphere, charged with deadly intent, latent yet potent, like the calm before a storm. Dried and blackened blood coated the altar stone, semi-rigid flakes curled into a myriad of patterns.
A low sonorous rumbling began, the flakes moving as in a gentle dance whose tempo was soft and stately. Then, as though caught in a weak magnetic field they aligned themselves, tracing the stylised rune etched on the slab’s surface. This time there was no pinpoint of light, no whirling shapes, instead without warning the slab cracked neatly, the hairline fissure a perfectly straight line.
Small stone particles bounced merrily as the noise increased and with a final explosive snap, the altar split in two. Each half falling inwards and revealing a deep, dark cavity below.
A single bass note could be heard, so low it was almost inaudible. Again it came, the pitch varying slightly. Now there were two notes then three, then more. A strange melody filled the air, seductive in its simplicity.
There were a small number of priests who had remained within the Fortress and it was they who first felt the inexplicable desire. It was as though a tantalising smell wafted before them, teasing them with its mystery. They were drawn step by step, down to the lower levels where rested the altar stone. Glassy-eyed they ignored all attempts to communicate with them, and from the moment they answered the enigmatic call, they were doomed.
One by one they came, and the strange siren call filled their minds. They paced slowly towards the altar and entered the blackness beneath. Their unknowing feet found small steps, leading ever downwards and on they marched. To anyone watching, the scene would have appeared surreal, their bodies jerking as though pulled by a fine cord. Each step was preceded by a pause, then a stumble, as the line was reeled in.
As the last of them took the first fatal step into the maw of darkness, the screaming began. It was a long, terrible sound, of pain and suffering beyond measure. Yet none faltered, none wavered, on they went, blissfully unaware of their fate.
When the last indescribable tone faded away, there was only silence. Then a single bass note rang out……..
“Ah, this is so much better,” said the Inspector who sat comfortably in General Wolfe’s chair, a glass of brandy in one hand and a half-empty bottle in the other.
“Please gentlemen, do sit down,” here he indicated the hastily arranged folding chairs.
The two men glared at each other, but neither wished to risk Artix’s anger.
“Why is he here,” asked Wolfe, pointing at the dishevelled form, slumped into the second chair.
“Hmm. I asked General Hamner to join us, because, strictly speaking, both of you are as much to blame.” responded Artix.
“I resent that remark,” gruffed Wolfe.
“I really don’t care what you think, my dear General,” interrupted the Inspector acidly, “here, only one opinion counts, and that I am afraid is mine.”
He took a small sip of the liquor, rolling the fiery liquid on his palate, before swallowing. Placing the bottle on the nearby table, he leaned forward in his chair, lowering his voice to a near whisper.
“This, and believe this when I say it, is a very delicate situation, it could mean the summary execution of both you.” and smiling at the shocked looks upon their faces, he continued, “Not that I recommended such a course of action. I in fact cautioned a more, shall we say, patient and understanding approach.”
With that he leaned back, picked up the bottle and refilled his glass.
Glancing at Hamner, Wolfe spoke, “What is it exactly that we are supposed to have done? I came here to relieve this incompetent of his duty. To try and salvage some order out of this fool’s mess.”
Artix laughed ironically and shook his head, “A most unfortunate choice of words, most unfortunate:”
Wolfe gulped, his face reddening and tried again, “Things here were completely out of control. We were killing our own troops and the Tauran forces, unknown in their intent, were running amok.”
“And things have changed ….?” injected Hamner, with a sneer on his face.
Wolfe jumped up, his chair thrown backward by the force of his anger, “How dare …”
The words were spoken in a soft, yet unmistakably icy tone.
Wolfe hastily picked up his seat from where it lay and quickly sat back into it.
“Where was I?” said the Inspector, “Oh, yes. So, I argued for a different approach, that of you working together to resolve this situation.”
“There is absolutely no way I will work with this fool!” snapped Wolfe, instantly forgetting, the last few moments in his rage.
“Nor I with him!” spat Hamner.
“This,” continued Artix in a calm, impersonal voice, “is most regrettable. I have already indicated that you have no choice, however, you continue to insist on this idiotic behaviour. Let me spell it out for you both; you leave this room in one of two ways. Either, as part of a team dedicated to the Church’s cause, whose sole aim is to wipe out all trace of the Tauran’s from this planet. Or ……..”
“Very well,” muttered General Wolfe, after only a slight pause. Hamner nodded in agreement and waited for the Inspector to speak.
“It seems that a number of people made a tiny mistake, with respect to this world. Not that I’m one to criticise, you understand, but if I have been consulted previously, we just might have been able to avoid all these misunderstandings.”
“What exactly do you mean?” asked Wolfe quizzically.
“We, and I speak here in general of the Inspectorate, are tasked with certain studies, sometimes a little bit out of the ordinary. In one particular instance we have been gathering information for some time now, which points to the existence of an anomaly. No let me explain, I’m just getting into the swing of it.”
General Hamner stopped in mid breath and gulped back his question.
“Thank you. It seems that there are references to a particular place in a number of outlawed texts. Some call it the Fortress, ah I can see that I have your attention now. There are many other names for this place, difficult to translate you know, but all speak of it as important. A repository shall we say, for an artefact whose very nature intrigues me, or rather should I say us.
“The Tauran forces on this planet, seem to have been here for an entirely different reason, one perhaps we will never truly know nor understand. What I do know, is that we need to make sure that the Fortress is in the hands of the Church. We need to do that quickly and by that I mean yesterday.”
Wolfe carefully phrased his question, “What exactly is this artefact and what does it do?”
“You really don’t want me to answer that do you?” replied Artix, “The Inspectorate has a penchant for guarding its secrets, in the name of the Church of course. Too much information could possibly in this case be a very bad thing. Trust me.”
General Wolfe looked into the cold, dark eyes of the Inspector and shuddered.
Unexpectedly, Hamner came to his aid, “In that case what would you like us to do?”
“That,” said Artix cheerfully, “is quite simple, gentlemen. I want you to expend whatever force is necessary in occupying the Taurans. Keeping them busy, killing them, you know. Whilst my special assistants and myself take care of our business.”
“I ….. think we understand, Inspector,” agreed Wolfe.
“Well,” and here the Inspector’s voice changed, becoming cold and deadly, “let me spell it out for you, clearly and concisely. You will commit one hundred per cent of your resources in the annihilation of all enemy forces on this planet. If this requires you to sacrifice every last one of your personnel, in order to allow me the time I need, you will do so.
“And to make myself crystal clear. Right now, the only two people who have a seat booked on my shuttle out of here, are you two gentlemen. It’s a small craft and I would imagine it would be difficult to fit in any more.”
Both sat quietly for a moment, then nodded in agreement.
“Good,” the Inspector’s tone was once again normal, “then I won’t keep you gentlemen any longer.”
With that they both left the room, closing the door quietly behind them.
Inspector Artix watched the door close and looked wistfully at the nearly empty bottle. He knew the two Generals were incapable of working together, but he was not really all that concerned. Their roles in this were minor, the more of their men that were taken care of now, the better.
Of course, he grinned to himself, there were no seats available for them either.
On leaving the room, General Wolfe turned his back on Hamner and made his way in the opposite direction. He needed some time on his own.
Originally, he had arrived here with the intention of saving his men, but gradually had been forced to change his opinion of the situation, on the ground. Not many men had accused him of being foolish in his time, but right now, he realised that they had a right to do so. His infatuation with the destruction of Walters had blinded him to the real threat and had brought him to this unpalatable choice.
Similarly, he was under no illusion as to the outcome of this mission. There would be no escape either for him, or any of the many Church Forces on this planet. Whatever it was that Artix was looking for, no-one outside of his confidants would be allowed to speak of it. Of that he was sure.
Hamner watched Wolfe stride away, sneering at his vanishing figure. He was not stupid, irrespective of whether the Inspector thought so or not. He would carry out his orders, and ensure that there was only one person on the last shuttle out of here. Him.
It was obvious that this was a test and he needed to impress the Inspector. If they were successful, he knew that reports could be rewritten and his career would once again be in the ascendancy.
Artix climbed back into the shuttle, gazing wistfully one last time at the flurry of activity all around him. It always brought a tear of pride to his eye, this show of the Church’s strength. Such a shame that their participation would end so badly for them.
The jerk as the craft lifted off brought him back to reality. There was only one real variable in this situation, or so it appeared to him at that moment, and that was whether the two Generals were capable of keeping the enemy busy. The Inspector had read the reports on Walters and his rag-tag army and dismissed them. They would be just one more helpful distraction.
An eerie silence pervaded the Fortress, its gates hung slackly open whilst the battle raged outside.
There was an absence of life here, even that deformed version which had belonged to the Lord. The last war machine stood idle, its turrets pointing haphazardly into the sky. Abandoned weapons, discarded armour, clothing and supplies littered the ground.
Beasts, men and K’ran fought and died on the battle field. Slowly, the Taurans retreated, unable to withstand the onslaught led by Walters. Without the Lord, their cohesion was broken. There was no fear to bind them, no blood to joyously spill.
Inside the altar room, the music had ceased, and instead, a chill green light pulsed spasmodically from beneath the broken altar.
Guest post with D.P. Prior
Hace 2 años