The hammer struck the nail, and a bloodcurdling scream echoed through the Grand Amphitheatre. Each strike drove the point further until the whole hand was pinned. The Imperator watched from the comfort of his personal box. The impacts of hammer on nail sent a surge of glee rushing through him.
With one hand fastened down, the executioner moved onto the other. The man screamed and begged for mercy but received none for his trouble. The executioner set down his hammer, then stepped back and raised his hands above his head. The cross rose with them to the cheers of the crowds who’d turned out in force to witness the spectacle. The Imperator shared his people’s elation as he watched the cross rise. Not even the itching of his mark could dampen his pleasure, nor the burning of his throat and lungs, or the need to cough that refused to leave no matter how hard he fought to relieve it.
There were twenty-two crosses at the arena’s centre, turned inward so their occupants could watch each other’s suffering. From each hung either a human male or female, naked skin stained red and decorated with wounds from the tortures they’d already suffered. Fresh streams of red flowed from the punctures made by the nails. Theirs promised to be a slow and harrowing demise.
The Imperator gazed down from his throne far above the areas for the rabble. The amphitheatre was huge, built in the image of the colosseums of the Ancient Dranastonic Empire. Ten stories of sandstone, granite and marble, and one of the Imperial City’s most popular venues.
It was a fine day for the citizens of the Imperial City to be out and enjoying a good crucifixion at the Grand Amphitheatre. Normally, the Imperator was happy for the city’s weather systems to simulate whatever the conditions were like in the Haelqen homeland back on Karasen, but on this day he’d demanded almost tropical heat so as to encourage as many of his subjects as possible to turn out and witness the justice of the Imperium.
The Imperator’s attention was drawn by the sounds of sandals on marble, approaching fast. “My Imperator? Might I approach”?
He looked over his shoulder to find a young man in the archway. Just a runner. He beckoned him over. “What is it, boy”?
“A message from the homeworld, My Imperator”.
He beckoned the boy closer. It must be important. They wouldn’t be wasting his time with it otherwise. As the young man whispered in his ear, the Imperator became less and less interested in the spectacle he’d gone there to watch and, by the time he’d finished, he’d lost interest entirely. He gave some rare praise and sent the boy away, then wasted no time making his way to the exit.
The walkways were packed practically to bursting point. It seemed the entire city had turned out to make the most of the weather. The crowds parted to make way for their Imperator and his people, all bowing their heads at the sight of their leader. The whispers of “My Imperator” were a never-ending song that was as soft as the breeze yet carried the strength of hurricanes. He still sat in his throne, now carried upon the shoulders of his bearers. Tacitus and his praetorians strolled at his side, drawing fearful looks from the people who did their best not to get in their way. The message concerned a matter of great importance but the Imperator saw no reason to hurry. The situation was very much under control, he’d been assured. He hated travelling by skycar, much preferred to traverse the streets of his city on foot, or at least carried by people who were on foot.
Tacitus was quiet, a little too quiet. Something bothered him. He could always tell. “What troubles you, my friend? I always know when there is something weighing on your mind”.
“Might I speak freely, My Imperator”?
“I expect nothing but”.
“I implore you, My Imperator. Do not be swayed by the council’s cowardice. Our armies and fleets are more than capable of managing any threat that presents itself”.
He understood his friend’s disappointment, for he felt it too. “My decision is final, my friend. It would be unwise to instigate any conflict at this time”. It was a moment of weakness, nothing more. He lost sight of the true goal. It wouldn’t happen again.
“With respect, My Imperator, I am puzzled by your decision”. The Supreme Commander was one of the few people permitted to question his will. Most others would have ended up on a cross for such an insult.
“The time will come, my friend, when we shall cleanse the galaxy of heresy. Though we must remain patient, for the right moment has yet to arrive”.
Tacitus didn’t answer, thinking, judging. He could see it. Even among those whose loyalty was unquestionable, he sensed judgment, as he did among all the others. Everywhere he went he felt their eyes like bugs on his skin, analysing, scrutinizing, probing for any trace of weakness. No one, not even those most faithful, could be allowed to observe any such trace.
The Imperator took a wheezy breath. “The council is weak and craven, yes, unfaithful too, but not stupid. Their advice is to be valued. . . at times. They do not act in the interest of the Imperium or its people, only themselves. However, their interests and those of our society are sometimes the same. If the Imperium dies they will die with it, and so they must be taken into consideration”.
“I understand, My Imperator. Your will is my only concern”. Not even the Supreme Commander was above scrutiny. No ounce of weakness could be betrayed. Too many times trust had been placed in those unworthy of it. So many promises made and broken. No one would trick him again. There was nothing left to exploit.
“I know, my friend; and besides, war at this time would serve only to distract us from the higher goal, the goal that we have been working towards since the very beginning. Once it is achieved there will be nothing left to stand against us, and then the Confederacy and all the other heretics will know our wrath. Have no fear, my friend. Our victory is coming”.
“Of course, My Imperator”.
There were no more words on the topic, the Imperator satisfied he’d set his friend’s mind at ease. He couldn’t afford to have the supreme commander of his military second-guessing him, especially in such unpredictable times.
“There is something else I must ask, My Imperator”.
“What is that”?
“Why did you not allow me to kill that whelp Domition today”?
“It was not what I wanted”.
“He insults you and your Imperium every time he opens his mouth. He speaks out of turn, openly spits on everything we stand for. His presence at the meetings of the High Council alone is an insult. You have had greater men than him put to death for far less than what he has done. Why do you continue to tolerate him? Why do you allow him to insult you”?
“Relax, my friend”. He didn’t like how pushy Tacitus was being. “Despite his aggravating nature and open heresy, I believe that the young Domition will prove to be of use to us in time”.
“How so, My Imperator”?
“His service to the military. The skills of an infiltrator are invaluable, Tacitus, you know that. He is intelligent also, capable and resourceful. If only he could be made to be less wilful. I believe he could be an extremely valuable asset if something could be done about his… ideals”.
“And how would we go about doing that, My Imperator”?
“Patience Tacitus. There are more important matters that require our attention. Do not fear. We will deal with Domition in time and, just as the time will come when we will rid ourselves of our enemies, so too will the time come when we will break him down and make him into what we need him to be”.
“I look forward to that, My Imperator. Immensely”.
“As do I, my friend. As do I”.
They eventually parted ways. The Supreme Commander of the Imperial Military had more important things to do than follow the Imperator around all day. The Imperator continued until he reached the gardens of the Princeps Domum, the High Temple. The white of the High Temple was so bright in the afternoon sun it was barely visible without squinting. The intensity was only made worse by the windows that dazzled like crystals. Had he known he would be going there, The Imperator might not have demanded such a bright afternoon. The bearers carried him up the gravel path, past the flowerbeds and fountains. The din of the city was nothing more than a whisper there. They set him down at the base of the steps. He continued on foot. The interior was just as marvellous, granite walls carved with images of the history of the Imperium and the Haelqen themselves. Sunlight poured through the glass ceiling. Just inside the entrance, the Original Nero towered with greatsword in hand. The clattering of the Imperator’s sandals and walking stick pricked the silence. Pain shot through his leg as he lowered himself to one knee.
“I enter your house as your servant”, he whispered. “I kneel before you in the hope you bid me welcome”. Tears welled in his eyes. Even kneeling, he wasn’t worthy of being in his presence. The Imperator rose, with difficulty. His Praetorians didn’t aid him. Any display of weakness within the High Temple carried with it great dishonour, especially for an Imperator.
Beyond the first statue, the rest of the Great Ones stood facing each other in two rows. There was Tacitus, first-born son and heir to the Original Nero, Septimus who led successful campaigns across the lands of Halaq, Gaius, who led the first campaigns into the land of Eradutan, Lucian, who put down the first Ralenta slave revolts, and many, many more. Each statue told a story, a chapter in the history of a race, without which the Imperium would not stand as it did today.
The eyes of The Great Ones were like drills boring into him. They were the only ones permitted to judge him. He could only hope they would find him worthy of joining their ranks when the time came. The tunnel ahead reached deep into the bowels of the High Temple. It ended at another atrium, with row upon row of curved benches around the platform at the centre. The glow of the fire pits was all there was to stem the tides of encroaching darkness. The benches were filled with worshippers in matching white and gold togas and stola. They sat in silence, and looked to the top of the platform where Madam Alrianius and her companion, Inquisitor Urgollania, basked in the glow. The Imperator and his Praetorians remained in the shadows, and listened as the High Inquisitor delivered one of her many impassioned speeches to her congregation.
“Just as they did millennia ago, the Haelqen people find their way of life and very existence threatened by the treachery of the heathens”, Demetria called to her flock with evangelical fervour. “And just as how the Great Ones took up sword and shield to defend their people, so too must we stand up against the evil heathens who seek to corrupt our souls and destroy our Imperium”. The words of the High Inquisitor drew more tears from the Imperator’s eyes. The faith his people placed in what he had created often left him overwhelmed. “The Confederacy and all others who reject our ideals stand between the Haelqen and their destiny. They seek to deny us what is rightfully ours and drag us into lives of sin and despair, the foundations upon which their society rests, led by poisonous minds that seek only to corrupt the hearts and souls of all who walk the path of purity and righteousness. We mustn’t stand by and allow this filth to threaten our way of life. We cannot allow the hordes to rise from their station and deprive us of our destiny. We must defend our ideals and way of life. We must destroy those who seek to corrupt us. We must show neither mercy nor compassion otherwise all will be lost”. Demetria’s tirade went from fiery and overzealous to soft and gentle. “Now, my brothers and sisters in blood. Let us pray, so that we may reinforce our faith in the path to our salvation”.
The worshippers bowed their heads and joined hands. Their voices melted into one as they followed their leader. “Oh, Great Ones. Please grant us the strength to defend your Imperium and punish those who reject your will”. The Imperator quietly joined in with the prayer. “May you serve as the torches to light our way and cast out the shadows. We pray that you offer your hands to us so that we may walk beside you along the path of purity and righteousness. We ask that you accept us as your humble servants and that you protect us against the influence of those who would lead us back to the darkness”.
The voices died away and Demetria raised her head. “Thank you, my brothers and sisters, for your attendance. Now may you go from this place and do everything you can to serve your Imperium well and be sure to remain righteous at all times and do not allow your faith to be challenged by the lies of the heathens”.
With the sermon over, the Imperator began his way to the platform. The throngs of worshippers bowed their heads as he brushed by. Demetria descended the steps, accompanied by Madam Urgollania.
“It was a wonderful sermon”.
“These are trying times for our people, My Imperator”, Demetria replied, eyes cast to the floor. “I must make sure their faith is strong”.
He placed a wrinkled hand upon her shoulder. “With you as their guide, their faith will never falter. For yours is strongest of all”.
Demetria raised her gaze. “Your words bring me great joy, My Imperator”.
“I must speak with you about a matter of great importance… in private”. Madam Urgollania and the Praetorians backed out of earshot.
“Of course, My Imperator”.
He stepped closer, so there was barely an inch between them. “There has been a message from the homeworld. An artefact has been discovered”.
Demetria’s eyes widened, as if with disbelief. “An artefact? You do not mean- ”?
“I believe so. Its description matches that which was described to be me by the Great Ones”.
“After all this time, it was on the homeworld all along. Where was it found, My Imperator? Surely atop Mount Domum? Or beneath Caleldel”?
The question brought with it an injection of rage, for it was not discovered atop Mount Domum or beneath the ancient Haelqen city of Caleldel. “It was discovered in a mine beneath the Ebol Capital”. The most important artefact in the universe and it was found beneath the capital of a horde race? It was almost like a cruel joke.
“How can that be”?
“I cannot say. Alas, the Great Ones did not reveal to me where it would be found”.
The High Inquisitor’s joy became fury. “We cannot allow those mongrels to desecrate it. They cannot be allowed to put their filthy hands all over it”.
“I know. This is everything and, loath as I am to admit it, the Ebol are clever. It must be recovered before they unlock its secrets and discover its power. There is nobody I would trust with this task more than you”.
“Your trust is not misplaced, My Imperator. I will not fail you”.
“I know you will not. You have always been one of my most capable instruments, and I know you will continue to be until your last breath. You will have whatever resources you require. Go to the homeworld and recover the artefact from those beasts. But know this, this task I entrust to you is of extraordinary importance, not only to us but our people as well. With the artefact in our hands there will be no stopping us. We will achieve the destiny our race has waited so long for. There can be no mistakes, and failure is not an option. Do you understand me”?
“I understand, my Imperator. But I must ask that Inquisitor Urgollania accompanies me. She is my closest companion, and I trust her in all things”.
The Imperator’s eyes went to the woman standing a few metres away. Like her superior, Madam Urgollania was a capable and loyal servant of the Imperium, but it was no secret as to Demetria’s true reasons for wanting her by her side. The love they shared was more than platonic, and known to many although no one dared to challenge them. The Imperator had always been happy to overlook the illegal and perverse nature of their relationship. It was the least he could do. They’d been there since the beginning, their loyalty unquestioning and, in many ways, without their help the rise of his Imperium would have been impossible. As long as they kept their filthy activities behind closed doors, he was willing to pretend they never took place at all.
“Very well. Now go and bring our race the glory that it deserves”.
He doubted Demetria’s ability not for a moment. She was strong, intelligent, and powerful, as was her lover. Nothing would keep her from her goal. On his way from the High Temple, the Imperator experienced a joy unlike anything he’d experienced in such a long time, almost orgasmic. His efforts were coming to fruition, at last. He would never admit it, not even to those he held closest, but the past few months had proven most challenging to his faith though, upon hearing of the discovery of the artefact, it was strengthened like never before. They were true, the words of the Great Ones spoken to him in the darkness. They were all true, and finally they would come to pass.