A greyscale spaceship the size of a large city floated high above the icy planet Phamaz, keeping a watchful eye on the snow-scape below like some sort of metal god. Onboard the massive ship scurried tens of thousands of busy Children of the Imperium, working tirelessly for their overseers like mindless ants would for their queen and their hive - making sure their home, the Oculen, remained afloat among the stars. The Oculen was a monument of the intellectual drive and ingenuity of humanity, remaining adrift between the two colonized planets of the Rendast Galaxy for nearly four centuries. On many parts of the ship, it was beginning to show its age, with inescapable rust claiming several sections of the inner hull and noticeable deterioration demonstrated on most bits of wooden furniture.
Even though ancient in relativity to the human lifespan, its usefulness and technological prowess were second to none, housing the best machine creations when it came to necessities such as oxygen filtration, crop rotation, and water filtration. On the bridge of the ship, an Imperium flight crew shuffled hastily past each other, engrossed in their task of preparing for a slow descent towards the blue-white planet of Phamaz. Behind heavy steel, locked doors stood a man gazing out a broad glass window, staring into the swirling white clouds of the glacial planet below. He donned impeccably clean crimson-black armor made of some of the rarest, lightest metals available to the Imperium. His hair was long and intensely black, curling elegantly down to his wide shoulders. His gaze was a red steel, and the curve of his smile radiated a uniquely deafening confidence only a natural king could wield. There was no actual "king" aboard the Oculen, but if one had been named, he would certainly hold the title. He was a Council Leader to all, God to many, and the touch of death to some.
What a miserable place to call home. Varkin thought to himself distastefully.
He had unfortunately been to the frozen surface of Phamaz several times over the years, each time less enjoyable than the last. It seemed, at least to him, that the few locals they captured and interrogated were telling the truth - Phamaz was certainly dying. Each day grew colder, and life was beginning to snuff out like some poor, hopeless candle in the wind. Why this was happening he could not be certain, but he had his theories. He remembered a specific instance in which they captured an older Phamazian man and his naive son stealing precious metals from an Imperium Blue-Ice Mining Facility in the Eastern Plains. He hadn't been there himself, but he had dispatched a different council member, Weren, to oversee the situation.
Weren was chosen specifically for his incredibly brutal nature since it was obviously imperative that the two "disappear" after the questioning, considering they had the skill and knowledge of how to break into Imperium facilities. It was simply too much of a risk to let them live. The brief exchange was recorded and although he only spared some of his precious time to watch the video, it was truly telling of the planet's plight. As Varkin glared into a wintry storm that brewed on Phamaz below, he recalled the tape and smiled maliciously.
Deep into the Eastern Plains of Phamaz, so far East that it came alarmingly close to the frozen Yefarian Sea and its icy fields of nothingness, a barely functioning Imperium mining facility tore at bits of Blue-Ice, destined for transportation to the Oculen for a variety of agricultural and engineering uses. Five men occupied a cold, dimly lit, grey room of little importance. A harsh, slicing cold cut at each of their throats, keeping everyone on edge and agitated. Two of them were Imperium Guards, tall and firm, keeping watch of the large, steel door on one end of the room. Being born and living the extent of their military lives aboard the steel walls and iron grating of Oculen Barracks facilities, and under the constant watchful eye of the Imperium, rigidity was honed and absolute. Their shoulders wide and unwavering, their gaze tightened forward and resolute.
There were two others, doomed souls bound tightly to chairs. One of them, the older man, already sported bruises as blue as the darkest ice and deep red smears of blood from over an hour of ruthless questioning. The last, a tall, confident man, his arms crossed, stared at the wounded man with disdain, but not an overtly hateful feeling. He pierced the man with the same disgusted look one would give a rat that'd made its way into a kitchen. Towards something that didn't belong - someone who didn't deserve to live. His well crafted, blackish grey leather armor cost no small amount of coin, and his matching cape draped elegantly over his stout back. His short hair was grey ash yet he himself was fairly young, only forty-five years of age. Several weapons were at his hip, yet the most dangerous tool at his disposal was a sly, almost lustful looking smile across his sharp, toned face. This man was Weren of the Imperium Council. This man was the merciless snake that coiled around its prey, squeezing and squeezing out air and guts and information until he was satisfied. Squeezing not only with brutal torture, but with heart wrenching words. Words that tore gruesomely and dispassionately at even the best men and women.
Weren nodded at an Imperium Soldier who proceeded to walk over calmly and break one of the man's fingers in two with an abrupt snap that bounced off the metal walls. Screams shot from his mouth and he writhed in the metal chair, struggling against the constraints that kept his body from involuntarily lashing back in pain. Weren didn't flinch, used to witnessing suffering much worse than simple broken bones. If anything, the soldier was being kind by breaking the bone so quickly and cleanly. Alas, he figured it wouldn't take much more to break the weak old man's will. Just a little more squeezing.
"So... I ask you this simple thing again, in hopes that you will come to your senses. Where is your home? Your encampment? The other Phamazians that would be foolish enough to break into Imperium property?"
His words were an elegant venom, and his voice radiated power. Weren paced in front of the bloodied man, hands on his hips casually. The man spat a thick swash of blood and a piece of jagged tooth onto the ground that landed with a crude splat, but he simply stared forward in resolute defiance.
"You really want to venture down this path? You do understand what that will mean for the young one?"
Weren's words must have cut through the man because finally, he blinked furiously as if trying to rid his mind of the awful thoughts that seeped their way in. Weren saw the breaking point and tried to drive the dagger home, through the beating heart. "
You know," he whispered into the man's torn ear, "I do think he's a strong-looking young lad, I wonder if he can take more punishment than you. Shall we find out?"
With that, Weren paced hastily to the other side of the room before the old man could even raise his head, standing before the young man who sat restrained but unharmed. Although no physical damage was done to him, Weren could tell from the tear streaks and glazed over eyes that he was already broken and bruised in a very different way. He bent forward, putting his face close to the young man's own, staring deep into terrified green eyes.
"Your father is strong, you should be proud. Are you proud of him?" Weren's tone was very obviously falsely genuine and the boy didn't speak, only grimaced in anger. "You're upset, that is understandable." Weren stood upright and continued to pace between the two. "But this all can end right here and now and we all can be on our way. Simply tell me what I need to know." Each remained stubborn and silent, staring at the other with pained expressions.
The people of Phamaz are always so stubborn, it must be the cold that makes them so. Very well, they simply need some stronger motivation... Weren thought.
"I have to say I'm getting tired of this. I honestly don't have the time." Weren walked towards a nearby Imperium Soldier and held out a hand impatiently. The soldier immediately upholstered his pistol and placed it on the open hand, moving back a few steps after doing so. With a cold fluidity, Weren walked quickly and deliberately over to the boy and held the pistol to his forehead. The boy instinctually let out a short yelp of terror. It was pressed so firmly against the skin that he could see wrinkles of the indent begin to form just a second after raising it. The boy began to heave frightened breaths through his lungs rapidly and his eyes darted from the revolver to Weren's cold, steel gaze. Weren turned his head and glared towards the old man with deadly seriousness, as if he'd done this very thing hundreds of times before. In fact, he'd only done it a couple of dozen.
"Look at me now, you frozen imbecile. Does this look like a face that will not cave your son's head in without a second thought?" He spoke quicker and more furiously, trying to strike the man's mind with his words like flint to steel. "The Imperium's forces are busy with several important matters, even if you give a location, I doubt they even send a small task force for such a small band of rebellious Phamazians.. Give me information, something so that I don't have to kill your son - right now." With calculated precision, Weren lifted his eyebrows and displayed the smallest amount of understanding, trying to build the smallest, most subtle level of humanity between himself and the old man. To his surprise, the man finally spoke through coughs of wet blood.
"You fools search... for ghosts." He struggled with the words, his body very clearly desperately clinging to life. "The planet... dies. Each day... colder than the last. Everyone...is gone. Buried beneath mountains of snow. Fields of ice."
Weren stared at the man, deep in thought. Examining each facial expression of the man, searching for some sort of tell. For a reason to think he was lying. There was none, it was obvious.
"They have truly all died? Is that why you come to this nowhere land in the Eastern Plains? For some sort of hope?" Weren spoke softer as and with a twang of disgusted pity heavy in his tone.
"Yes." The man said, struggling to find the words.
"I understand." Weren looked at the ground in deep thought. "I hate to be the one to tell this to you, but there is no hope to be found here. This is no hope to be found on this planet. Hope is dead and burned for the warmth of the damned." With each word his expression grew colder and his eyes narrowed further into demented anger. "I'm sorry for the loss of your people, and I'm sorry for this as well."
The words no more than came out of Weren's mouth when the old man comprehended what was about to happen and yelled in defiance, spitting blood across the room like a sprinkler. The pistol was swiftly lifted with calculated, steady precision and Weren's finger pulled the trigger all the same, sending a sizable round spiraling at two-thousand feet per second into the sobbing young man's skull. A loud crack echoed painfully within the small, metal-walled room, and a thick coat of red splattered across the wooden chair and the steel wall behind. Weren noted that the wet crunching sound as the young boy's head caved to the force of the blast made the veins of his arm throb in pleasure, and a malevolent, satisfied smile involuntarily found its way back onto his face.
The old man howled uncontrollably, his body twitching in either pain or distress, Weren assumed both. He walked calmly next to the old man and squatted down at eye level as if nothing had happened, tilting his head, examining the animal in its cage.
"I'm sorry it had to be this way. I have orders, you know..." His words feigned compassion and he maneuvered his hands in a sort of apologetic way. The old man sobbed tearlessly for a few more seconds, his body devoid of fluids, except for a slowly waning blood supply. After dry heaving several times, he halted his wailing and his emotion flipped abruptly to anger, glaring at Weren as he spit what he surely assumed were his final words at the smug Imperium council member.
"The Imperium will pay for this! You are the reason this planet is dying! Without its Keeper..." The old man coughed frantically, ejecting more blood and spit. "There will be... a new Keeper. You all will pay." Weren rolled his eyes at the comment.
"Come on now, don't tell me you're one of those religious fanatics. Planet Keepers and legends, made up stories that parents tell their children so that they may hope for a better future. I thought a smart man such as yourself would know better!"
He examined the smoking pistol, pondering whether to send a round through the old man's skull.
"I'll let you in on a little secret. The Imperium is the future. I am not a zealot like the others, claiming our Imperium Council Leader as the invincible God, but I certainly don't believe in the Keeper's Kin either. I just see the facts and the likely future as it is laid out before me." Weren spoke freely, even though he knew that the instance would be recorded and perhaps even seen by the Council Leader. In fact, he hoped it would be.
"Really, the only thing I believe in is this." Weren nodded towards the pistol he held with praise. It was large and made of thick, grey steel. A new model that had an extended clip below. The guard has great taste in weapons! He thought to himself. "This is my god. My religion." Weren smiled as he stared at his instrument of justice.
"And I suppose good ole Duscan-Iron." He tapped lovingly at the dagger sheathed on his side, a parting gift from another poor soul he was tasked to uncover and interrogate long ago on the sister planet, Duscus.
"One day..." the old man grappled with the choked words "One day that religion of yours... will betray you." The smile left Weren's face, replaced with irritation. "You'll find yourself... on the receiving end of your god.." The snowscape wanderer held his head high and proudly as he spoke "The Keeper will take reign over the City of Ice... The Imperium will collapse... Oculen and all." His head bowed after he finished the sentence, his body and mind obviously too exhausted to continue.
Weren clapped his gloved hands together methodically, applauding the performance. "Well said, friend. Well said. For a blind man, unable to see a future even when it's laid out plainly before him." He slowly circled around the restrained man like a shark that smelled blood. Truthfully he was annoyed that the old man still had the willpower to argue, let alone speak at all. He thought that seeing his son's head split in several grisly chucks across the room would leave him basically incapacitated.
The man has more fight in him than I anticipated... Weren was annoyed, but ultimately, even if only ever so slightly, impressed. Maybe I won't kill him after all... I will be kind enough to leave him with even more adversities to overcome. His son's gruesome death as only the beginning.
"You know, I think I've made up my mind. I won't be killing you. Even though at this juncture, I'm sure you wouldn't mind such a fate, would you?"
The man remained silent, breathing slowly, head hung low and towards the floor - a mixture of spittle and blood oozing from his mouth and nose like a spigot.
"I didn't think so. Well anyway, I really must be off. Good luck on your enlightenment. Tell your god, this Keeper you so desperately wish for, that I do certainly wish him the best."
Weren lowered the pistol and made for the door, which was guarded by the two Imperium Soldiers, clothed in thick, dark leather armor, embedded with various sheets of grey metal attached in places like the forearms and chest. They were fearsome looking, yet both averted eyes as Weren approached them, clearly fearful. Weren gripped the handle of the heavy, metal door to the brutally cold outside world and tugged it open. He no more than cracked the door open when a gust of bitter wind and snow rushed its way into the small room and consumed their vision for a moment. The wind was sharp and fast and made a forceful whistling sound - Weren knew an intense storm was coming. Just before stepping outside, he stopped in the doorway and turned to the larger of the two soldiers. Placing the pistol he'd borrowed back in his open hand.
"Our friend chooses to be blind to the truth. If blind is what he yearns to be, then only blindness will set him free. Carve out his eyes and leave him in the snow. Toss the other corpse outside somewhere, from the look of this storm it should be buried six feet by morning."
The Imperium Soldier, trained from a young age in discipline and duty and to never disobey an order from those above, simply nodded his head and exchanged a few words of compliance. "It will be done, sir." With those few words, he walked towards the old, broken man without hesitation while the other kept guard at the door. The man's eyes grew wide as he realized what was about to happen, more screams of misery pouring from his dry throat. It truly sounded like a dying animal.
That was all Weren cared to think as he stepped out into the tundra for what he hoped would be one of the last times, even though he knew it wouldn't be. As long as Varkin continued to live, he'd continue to send him to these atrocious places on these dreadful missions. Unlike the naive old man who was currently getting his eye sockets scooped out with a rusty knife, he was not blind. He knew Varkin only sent him on assignments such as this because he was the only one who could stomach the necessary outcome. He hated doing them, but a part of him also cherished them. There was a certainly remarkable sensation about seeing another man or woman sincerely suffer. If only Phamaz and Duscus both weren't such miserable planets, he may actually fully enjoy his tasks on the council.
The door clanged shut behind him and he was left alone with the hissing of the wind and a frost that bit at his exposed face. For a second, he thought he may have heard the old man screaming. It was too hard to discern screams from the gusts of snow and ice, but he secretly convinced himself they were indeed his screams. He took a deep breath of frigid air that tore at his lungs, thinking long and hard about his future on the council before stepping towards the wide, grey landing ship that transported him from the Oculen to the Blue-Ice mining facility.
Yes, as long as Varkin lived, I'd be sent to these ghastly places, doing dirty deeds in his shadow. As long as Varkin lived...