Prologue – Whispers in the Dark
Voices. Low and hushed, they drifted through the dust and shadows of the underground chamber. Tucked away deep inside the catacombs below the temple of Kronos, there rested an ancient tomb – the tomb of one of the first men to aid in the settlement of Artorius, a descendant of one of the lowly commoners who first dared to don the void iron armor of the Imperial Inquisition at a time when it was needed most. It was a resting place none would dare defile.
Or so they thought.
Two men approached the tomb, one from the north tunnel, the other from the south. Both wore dark hoods and cloaks, as if to protect them from the dust that hung in the air around the vast halls of the dead, or else in the hopes of not disturbing those resting souls around them. When they met, they lifted their heads almost in unison, meeting each other’s gaze.
First one, then the other, slowly reached up to their own faces and, with one finger, traced a hook under their eye. Not a single word went exchanged before they turned down the tunnel to the noble’s tomb together.
The passage was already open. They descended a long staircase, down into shadow, until they saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, they joined others like them: men and women hooded and cloaked, some hunched with age. Altogether, there were perhaps ten of them… a sizable number.
An altar rested to the far end of the chamber, and around this, the cultists gathered. One stepped up to the stone platform, drawing something from a pouch and carefully placing it in the center of the altar.
It was a stone. A solid black stone – perhaps obsidian. Its perfectly cut edges gleamed in the glow of the braziers all around them, shining back and looking almost like a terrifying spearhead.
Turning to face his fellows, the man who had put the stone on the altar threw back his hood, revealing an elderly figure, his head entirely devoid of hair and his thin skin ghastly pale. His eyes were sunken and set in blackened pits of sockets that made him look like a living skull, or at least they would have, were it not for all the sickly blue veins crisscrossing his wrinkled flesh. His harsh, steel-grey eyes glared around the room, shadowed by his overhanging brow. He looked like a hawk waiting to strike.
Slowly, he lifted his hands and said, “Such magic – such ritual – as we now prepare has never before been performed, and perhaps it never shall be again. The gods themselves may not have intended for Men to be capable of such unholy treason as we now commit… Such treason would bring the deities of the Aether and the archdemons of Hel together to end the way we shall twist fate, for it would anger all those who claim reign over the immortal soul.”
He smiled and went on, “They say no mortal may survive a burden of this type… And indeed, none have, thus far. But one of you has been chosen to test your mettle and carry this highest of honors. And it shall be you who will bring about the return of the one true master of this world.”
The hooded figures looked amongst themselves, some daring to remove their cowls. Many resembled the old man himself, sickly and hideous, though some were quite young. Others did not appear this way at all, and some were even handsome, young and noble in appearance.
A young man stepped forward then, a smile on his dashing face, his blue eyes gleaming with anticipation.
“I have been chosen, my lord,” said the youth. The old man looked down his face at him, a sneer pulling at his lip, but he gave a single nod.
“You seem young and strong enough, perhaps,” he said, his tone icy and dripping with envy. Stepping aside, he gestured with one hand for the young man to approach the altar. As he neared it, the old, bald man spoke again, offering a dagger to the young man as he began to chant.
“Aeternus animus Imperatoris, si dignus est…”
The chamber fell silent – all the chanting came to a halt as a voice, deep and powerful, echoed through the room like thunder. But it was not the voice of their emperor, nor of the young man who stepped up to the altar. It was the voice of a traitor – and it came from behind them.
“Who dares—!?” demanded the old man, wheeling to the entrance to face their adversary…
But darkness fell upon them, the braziers going out at once as if snuffed by the wave of a god’s hand. The last thing many of them saw was the image of a tall man, pale and clad in a great, black cloak, standing in the archway to their secret chamber.