“What... what is this place, lord Magos?” asked the terrified tech adept.
Lord Magos Gunnirsson only smiled, the click of his cane like a metronome as it struck the stone floor of the corridor. His adept hesitated, torn between a growing sense of unease, and the duty he had sworn to the Mechanicus. Eventually, as all things must, he returned to his duty, hurrying to catch up to the Lord Magos. As he did so, something deep within the tomb sputtered, an engine coming to life and whirring in the darkness. Lights flickered, and within them, the adept could briefly see a glimpse of something impossible. He nearly collided with his Lord Magos in his haste.
“My... my apologies. Lord, is this-”
“Consider yourself fortunate, young one,” said the Lord Magos as he strode along the corridor. He paid no mind to what lurked in the dark. He did not listen to the whispers of ancient engines struggling after so many years. He did not doubt, and he did not hesitate. He continued on down the line, as his father had before him, and his father before that. It was their duty. The thought made him smile again.
“Tell me, adept, what do you know... of the Squats?”
The adept was unprepared for the question.
“The... they were a group of, ah, of abhumans, my lord. I believe that they served the Emperor much as the Ogryn or the Ratlings do.”
He thought a moment, the sound of Gunnirsson's cane on the stone floor providing a steady rhythm to his thoughts.
“The... My lord, I believe the, ah, the Tyranids destroyed-”
Lord Magos Gunnirsson laughed. It was a single, harsh, barking syllable in the endless darkness. The sound was without mirth, without humor. As dry and dead as the tomb they occupied.
“Not destroyed, young adept,” said Gunnirsson. He paused, his breath drawing in sharply and the servos of his mechanical lungs working overtime. “Merely... adapted.”
There was a sound like a sputtering engine, and it took a moment for the adept to recognize it for what it was: the Magos was chuckling softly.
“Let me tell you a story, young adept. It is a story of two peoples, a story of betrayal, and a story of... let us call it duty.”
He paused a moment, there was the click of the cane, and somewhere in the dark another engine struggled to find life.
“When hive feet Behemoth struck the Imperium, one of the first systems in its wake belonged to a race of our... allies. The Squats, as you call them, more properly the Jernblod, were never quite xenos, and never quite human. For centuries academics, politicians, and Magos like myself argued about their genetic makeup. It held traces of humanity, you see, but unlike our more understandable ab-human cousins... they also held traces of... something else.”
The Magos stopped. There seemed no reason for it. The corridor continued, so dimly lit that one could barely see the path at one's feet. The walls were nothing but shadow. The sounds in the dark, somewhat clearer now. Engines shuddering, coughing, and slowly coming back online. There was another flicker, somewhere in that vast darkness. Another glimpse.
Heads. Rows of them. Hundreds, maybe even thousands.
They were lined up in rows, set carefully atop machines of some kind. They had thick, full beards, full features, a bony skeletal structure. The adept wondered, briefly, if he was going mad. To him, in that ever so brief moment, they appeared to be... sleeping.
The Magos continued his speech but did not move from his spot. The metronome frozen in time.
“It was this taint that sealed their fate, young adept. Our allies for years, untold centuries, who had stood by us, supported our efforts in reclaiming our foothold in the galaxy... The Emperor himself met with the Jernblod kings on many occasions, did you know that?” The Magos shook his head slowly. “He thanked them, for their technology, their logistical support on his crusades... without the Jernblod, we would have had a harder time of things, and that is no speculation. And for such efforts, such loyalty, do you know what their reward was?”
The question hung in the air, unanswered. The adept was afraid, there was something in the air now, he could feel it. Something sinister. He looked back the way they had come, but the path was almost impossible to see, in the dark. Why had he come here? Duty, of course. He felt sweat dripping down his back.
“They were annihilated, of course,” said the Magos, softly. “They could not stand against the might of hive fleet Behemoth. They tried though. They fought long and hard, bringing in fleet after fleet, army after army. Their worlds ran red with the blood of their kind. Hopeless. Futile... but not... heh, let us say, not... a total failure.”
The adept wasn't looking when the Magos turned to face him. He startled, upon turning back and seeing the masked face of his superior, regarding him fully.
“My lord, what... what is this place?”
The Magos tapped his cane several times on the ground, a particular rhythm to its tap echoed across the corridor. In answer, the light flickered once again. Then it was stronger. Ancient engines breathing once again, throwing off light and heat. The tomb began to awaken. Unfathomable devices of bright metal in rows, each crowned with heads. Each head bearded, strong, and as the light grew: very much alive.
“This, young adept, is one of the Jernblod's few remaining Nagholder. They were... assurances, you might say, against the race's total demise. The Jernblod, you see, always knew how terrifying and dangerous the galaxy was. It was why, so many years ago, they decided to take control of their own destiny, their own genetics. They stepped beyond the race of men long ago, young adept. They conquered death through design, just as they once conquered the frailty of man.”
The lights continued to grow. There were thousands, easily, if not tens of thousands. The cavern was vast, unimaginably so. As lights continued to turn, and machinery to awaken, the adept's terror grew.
“This... this is an entire... an entire race!” he whispered, to no one in particular.
“No,” corrected the Magos. “This is but a fraction. A hold out, and an assurance, as it were. You see, throughout their long history: the Jernblod have been all but destroyed many times. We have, each time, sequestered the essential minds of our elders here, in places just like this. Through their shared knowledge, shared dreaming, the true soul of the Jernblod has survived all that came across it. Be that xenos threat, or... imperial betrayal.”
The Adept stared, wide-eyed at the impossibility all around him. Then he heard the soft click, turning to see Magos Gunnirsson remove his mask. He held the thing carefully in his gloved hands, his face beneath hard, bony, and with the faintest traces of stubble breaking the skin. For all that: it didn't look so very different than the thousands that surrounded them.
The adept took a step back, his hands fumbling at his belt, for the las-pistol he had brought with him.
The Magos watched him without expression. It was only when the weapon was pointed did he speak again.
“My people have slept here for more than ten thousand years, young Adept. I, and those like me who still carry the traces of their blood, have worked tirelessly to care for them. It isn't easy, and it is certainly not always pleasant, but the deed needs to be done.”
Something gripped the adept suddenly from behind. A metal claw gripped his hand tightly, squeezing hard enough that the bone within snapped audibly. He called out, the las-pistol clattering to the stone floor.
“You will forgive me, young one,” said the Magos. His expression softened. The adept struggled in vain against whatever mechanical monstrosity held onto him. “I like to... repeat myself here. It's tradition, I think, at this point. Another year, another sacrifice made to my ancestors.”
He looked around, his face a mix of admiration and resolve.
“We are close,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “So very close. It won't be long now, another year, another decade... The machines are waking up. Something within the shared dream has told my people that it is time...”
His gaze settled back on the adept. He took a step closer to him, his cane once again clicking on the floor.
“Look upon me, human,” said the Magos. He stepped closer. “I am Gunnirsson 837, and eight hundred and thirty-six have held my name, my face, before me. I am a cloned body, an immortal mind, and an infallible purpose.”
He gestured to the cavern, and its horrors.
“My brothers sleep even now, but that will not last. Today, as with every other year, I come to give them fresh tribute... fresh... flesh.”
He looked at the thing that held the adept.
“Take him to the chamber. This year, I believe, we will awaken Singroc. It has been too long since I was able to converse with my old friend, and his knowledge of weapons manufacture will prove crucial in the coming juncture.”
There was a deep, rumbling mechanical voice from behind the adept.
“Yes, my Thane,” it said.
And then the adept felt himself being dragged along, gripped by impossible strength, screaming.
He saw the Magos, standing and looking out at the rows of heads. The Magos caught his eye, smiling.
“Do not worry!” called out the Magos. “Your consciousness shall be used, along with all the rest of it! We waste not! While your flesh is re-cycled into that of one of my kind reborn, you will not die! Your mind will exist in our matrices for all eternity!”
He laughed that same coughing barking sound. The adept struggled, but it was pointless. Somewhere nearby he heard the powering up of ancient machines. He opened his mouth to scream again, but before he did he heard the Magos once more:
“Who do you think directs the machine that carries you, little imperial? What do you think lies in store for all those who have betrayed my kind?”
And then it was only laughter, and pain.