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THAT OLD TIME HOLIDAY CHEER: or, Viscum album, Ilex aquifolium (Mistletoe, holly)

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“Bethema va Shumak, 11 years old.”

A rank, metallic smell with just the hint of sweet and spice rolled at her in thick waves. Humidity touched her face like clumsy fingers and traced water down her cheeks in place of the tears she wouldn’t shed. She was a good girl. She wouldn’t waste the water, not like Yhan von Rinnert down the street had wasted it last year when he’d fallen and broken his arm. They all knew what happened to Yhan. Her parents had taught her better than that. She was strong, and she would not cry. Instead she trembled and shook her head, denying, pressing herself against a tall column and willing it to crumble and fall down, to crush and kill her.

“Bethema va Shumak, 11 years old. Drank the last drop and did not tell a soul.”

The worst thing was how its mouth did not move in synch with its speech, like a broken holo-pict. From her left side came a low chuckle that rose into the high-pitched yips of hyenas, then it faded and came back from the right. She dared not look around, her eyes stuck on the red, red figure that shuffled towards her carrying an empty bag in one hand.

“Bethema va Shumak, 11 years old. A bad child this year, when all’s been told.”

Her mouth was dry. She had swallowed her lucky pebble when the thing first appeared, skipping out from behind one of the eroded rocks and reciting her name in its sing-song voice. There was a faint accompanying echo to its words, like the ringing of bells from far away.

“Stole the cookie from the cookie jar,” it said, “or was that Beyatra va Shellyk, 9 years old?”

Another giggle, now from behind the pillar she was pressed against. She jumped away, whirling, her mouth opened to let out a shriek. Only a rattling release of air escaped, swallowed up in the unnaturally wet air. She tripped over the wooden bucket she had dropped earlier. It bounced away off the soft ground in the direction of the figure, spilling half-melted snow in its wake. The red figure hopped over the bucket.

“A bad child,” it said, shaking its horned head. Its shadow reached out before it, a long purple shape made by the light of the setting Saviour. In that patch of darkness, eyes stared out at her and mouths moved, speaking soundlessly.

She shook her head, equally mute, shuffling away to avoid letting the shadow touch her feet. Impossibly, the shadow began to bend. She heard the laughter of hyenas all around.

“Bethema va Shumak is a liar,” it crooned, right in front of her. “Liar, liar, soul on fire.” The smell was awful and pressing, like bad eggs and burnt plastic. This close, there seemed to be symbols or some kind of writing formed by the deeply lined and cracked skin, as if the wrinkles had been shaped deliberately. Her vision blurred, and now the lines looked like faces with mouths opened in screams drowned out by the relentless hyena laughter.

She was a good girl, a good child. She had been good.

She could taste the sweet chocolate of the last cookie on her tongue, and her mouth filled with the water she had drank up so greedily in the hot summer.

“Lying is bad,” the monster said. Its voice was now hard and stern, and the sing-song rhyming had been replaced with the tone of the school disciplinarians. “Liars are bad children. Bad children go into the sack.” The shadow on the ground curved from the feet of the red figure all the way around in a circle as it reached out and grabbed Bethema’s shadow by the ankle.

Bethema va Shumak, 11 years old, fell a long way in the cold dark of the bag, chased by wild laughter and the distant jingle of bells.

-----

Wall ornaments exploded in jagged white chunks that missed me by a narrow margin as I turned the corner at a run. I ducked back, half crouched, and crept forwards again as automated fire from a sentry gun disguised as a prancing unicorn perforated a marble statue where my own head had been moments before.

The grand ballroom was a lush, overblown affair. Its eggshell-white walls rose high into delicate arches from which elaborate chandeliers and heavily embroidered curtains hung down. For the festivities tonight, every candle from chandelier to wall sconce had been lit, providing the room with a soft, burnished glow. Now the lights flickered and guttered out as gunfire tore through the air. Through the holes shot open in the walls, the desert night rushed in and cold air chilled the sweat on my brow.

At times like these, I missed having a team.

The guests ran past me in panicked flocks, their glittering, colourful coats covered in dust, wine, cake, and blood. I pushed my way through them, shoving hard, my gun raised above my head as I tried to see past the tall headpieces of a matching pair of emerald-clad guests. They screamed in my face, then screamed louder when they saw the gun. They split apart, ripping the red cord binding them at the wrist, knocking over their neighbours in their haste to scramble away from me and each other. I hoped their relationship survived the evening’s festivities.

It was tempting to use my powers to clear the way, but I needed to conserve my strength, and there was no sense in causing more panic. I ran the few steps necessary to reach a racked display of ornamental swords that hung over a mantle just above the nearest fireplace, one of many. I tore a mid-sized, single-edged blade off the wall. It was a weighty piece, half of its heft coming from the fat jewels on its pommel, but was otherwise well balanced in my head.

A cherubim, rosy-cheeked and smiling sweetly, swooped down and began raking the crowd with gunfire. Shit, I thought as red blooms burst around me and the screams changed pitch. Before the crowd was panicked but focused, directing themselves towards exits, their minds bent on escape. Now they were seized with animal fear, the fight part of instinct kicking in as people caught the scent of death in the air and felt trapped. They began to turn on one another.

People clawed at my coat, teared at my face and sleeves. I stomped forwards, my augmetics whining and clanking, my weight cracking the floor as I neared the end of the crowd and began to pick up speed. I was much larger than the natives here, with additional bulk from the machinery that kept me moving over the years, and in their retreat to instinct, the people recognised the danger in meeting my charge head-on and flinched out of the way.

I finally had room to maneuver, space to breathe. I turned and relocated the cherubim; it hovered under a chandelier, making a noise that was not quite a giggle, and shooting into the crowd in lazy arcs. I aimed, fired, and turned away to continue my pursuit without staying to watch, hearing the satisfying sound of machine and meat exploding behind me.

---

Inquisitors collect and hoard resources and information alike. Identities, credit in physical and electronic form, the coordinates of safe houses and remote places in Imperial space -- all are tucked away for use on a rainy day. Lately, I was trapped in an endless monsoon season.

I was travelling under false papers as always. They were not the best. They would pass the scrutiny of the usual overworked, underpaid port authority officers, but if I happened to pass through the transfer station under a neurotic manager, my files would be sent to an Administratum database as protocol demanded and likely raise a red flag.

I didn’t relax until I was planetside, on the shuttle to my hotel. Even then, I didn’t relax until I was locked in my room and activated an anti-surveillance field.

Things had not been going well. I had been forced to disband my latest team after my investigation on Cyclona. A successful endeavor -- I was not losing my touch there at least -- but the conclusion of the affair had been rather more dramatic than I’d wanted. Even with centuries of experience, and study of thousands of years of available knowledge, xenos will always surprise you.

The biological fireworks of mass infestation were comparatively harmless, a last weak shot by a race that had failed its attempts to infiltrate the populace, but they attracted the attention of every ordos-sanctioned agent in the vicinity. It would not be long before my description circulated, and then every headhunter would be back on my trail.

I had only enjoyed the company of my team for three months. It was touching that they expressed such heartfelt regret when we parted, even before knowing of the generous termination fees that awaited each of them.

I do not wish to risk them sharing my fate when I am caught. Still, leaving behind the talented men and women whom I recruit, train, live with and fight beside for anywhere from days to years, is never an easy thing. I rely on them not only for their abilities, but for companionship, for a connection to humanity, for a semblance of what might have been. Perhaps solitude is easier when you are young, when you can be kept warm on passion alone.

However, I am old, and I am tired, and I have been running for a very long time.

The best disguise, our masters taught us, is one close to reality. By living up to what people expect to see, one can present a falsehood that masks the truth with little effort.

When I left Cyclona, I walked out without a falsehood at all. Or more accurately, I rolled out.

I left in a wheelchair as the recently ex-Arbritrator Detective Loemus Quellis, headed for the planet Mirth and its well-known if lately unfashionable resort spas. Rest and relaxation on a two-sun dry world was many an old retiree’s longed-for fate. I looked near enough to death that there was little speculation on why I didn’t look more enthusiastic.

The northern hemisphere of Mirth was in the height of its winter season when I arrived in the resort city of Teselska. Seasonal festivities were in full swing if the bright decorations and celebratory atmosphere were anything to go by.

In my experience, there is no person alive without something to hide. Teselskap was a place that seemed to be exactly what it advertised itself as. The city was almost suspicious for its honesty.

Teselskap was bordered by several bodies of water, the largest a small ocean known as Kaasinan, where the earlier extraction of its other more valuable minerals had left behind enough salt that the surrounding area became a wasteland. There was little vegetation or animal life that survived there, but mankind can always be relied upon to cling to what they know. Generations had lived and died in the same hab blocks that stood along the coast today, and would likely continue to live and die there for as long as that sector remains under Imperial protection.

It made no difference that moving to a more hospitable area would improve their lives. This was where their ancestors had settled and toiled in the heat of the two suns and the shadows of the factorums, separating rare minerals from rock and earth and bringing wealth into the city.

According to its current inhabitants, this land of salt and desert would live again if they persevered as the early settlers had.

If my hotel was anything to go by, the fabled rebirth of Teselskap’s fortunes was a long way off.

---

The air in the cavernous hot springs was damp, though not unpleasantly so. I wiped sweat from my head using the provided towel, a fluffy pink thing the attendant had handed to me with a motherly smile. There was no sign of rejuve treatments on any of the people I’d met in Teselskap, but I found myself unable to discern their true ages, excepting the very young or the very old. Paper pamphlets at the front desk of the building I had checked into advertised the various health and beauty benefits of Teselskap’s natural resources and the secret techniques passed down from the founders that were responsible for the population’s agelessness.

I was soaking in a pool carved from the mineral-rich rock the area was so famous for. There had been no need to remove or protect my augmetics. The place catered to the crowd I was pretending to belong to, and they had devised various strategies to accommodate older or cheaper work than my own. I admit, whatever they had added to the amniotic fluid I was half-submerged in, it worked as advertised. I was more relaxed and comfortable than I had been for many years.

Around me, other men and women were similarly sunk into private basins or the primary large pool that occupied the centre of the room. The ageless attendants -- all healthy and whole, with no trace of augmetic or chemical enhancement -- walked up and down the chamber, bringing towels, serving food and drink, offering massages, or checking the composition of the baths and adding minerals as required. There were no servitors here on the resort grounds, not even to clean the rooms or sweep the floors.

“The human touch is important,” the pamphlets proclaimed. I can’t say they were wrong. Despite the economic difficulties Teselskap must have been facing with the decline of the tourism industry, there was something idyllic about the city, something innocent about the people despite the horrors that infected this age. Even time moved differently here. The planet rotated half a day slower than sidereal, and between its two suns, afternoon was longer than night and morning combined. At high noon, the populace collectively moved indoors for a midday nap, then a communal meal and a soak in the baths was shared between families and neighbours as they traded daily gossip and news.

One of the many skills I learned to cultivate during the long course of my inquisitorial duties was the ability to listen. Not in the sense of being a good friend, or a shoulder to cry on, but the ability to fade into the background, to project a politely interested, but uninvolved air that made it comfortable for people to speak of private matters despite my presence. I have heard the most interesting conversations this way

“I don’t think the renovations will be complete in time. The designs are just too complicated. I’m not sure how he expects us to get it all done.”

“Have you visited the new centre yet? So much frozen water! I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“Bit much, but the kids love it.”

“It can’t be helped, the war’s only a system away. Not many people want to travel through that, and you wouldn’t want the ones who do...”

“Speaking of, how have the Shumaks been coping?”

“I think it’s lovely. I’m baking a cake shaped like the palace.”

“It’s a flagrant waste of water, my Jahnas says.”

"Can't even look at birds quite the same way anymore now that they have the new security things everywhere. Looking in my windows! What if I were changing?"

“Twenty crowns! Twenty crowns, I tell you. You’d think she was serving gold bricks and not canned grox.”

“He’ll have to kiss me under a mistletoe!”

I have also heard the most banal ones.

It was the week of Yule in Teselskap. Most of the talk and activity around the city centered on the upcoming celebrations and whether the governor’s latest plans either lacked or were in line with the city’s traditions. Mirth might be mostly desert, but strong remnants of early Terran culture persisted. Some of those traditions skirted the edge of heretical belief, but there was no taint here as far as I could sense, only the rustic ignorance that is present in many of the fringe worlds.

Later, after it was all over and we were on the run again, I wondered if I would have sensed the darkness earlier had I been more alert, less dulled by daily exposure and constant struggle to a more malign evil; if the people of Teselskap hadn’t been so naive and complacent, so desperate to believe that everything was fine and this was how the world worked.

It was another thing I missed about working with others. I was only one man. There was only so much I could accomplish on my own.

“Dear sirs,” said one of the attendants with a smile as she crouched by the pool, “can I get you two anything?”

Of course, I am never really alone. I am bound by my mistakes and arrogance as tightly as any of the people of Teselskap were by their hopes and traditions.

---

I must stay honest, if I want to continue my work. The rosette and the power of the institution behind it are not important; it is the Emperor’s will that I must strive to stay faithful to and to serve without doubt.

It was my own fault, a moment of weakness. Transportation off-world and my new identity had to be arranged hastily, and my limited mobility and lack of weapons had worried me. My mental shields were in tatters after dealing with the fallout of the infestation, and only strict conditioning allowed me to keep a tight leash on the most important of my responsibilities, that of keeping Cherubael under my control.

It made sense at the time to keep Cherubael next to me, to use him as part of my disguise. A retired, unmarried Detective would have the funds to hire a personal assistant to take care of them. I would be able to keep a close eye on Cherubael, and have a powerful asset on hand should things turn ugly during my escape.

In hindsight -- well, what’s done is done. Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can continue to gather regrets to me before they become too heavy to bear.

---

There is an irony, or perhaps a kinder soul would say a tragedy, in the fact that my only companion these days is the one responsible for my isolation.

“Do you smell that, Gregor?”

We were sitting at a table on the terrace of one of the many elegant, if worn around the edges, cafes in the city. I sipped my tea before I replied. “Smell what?”

“The smell of ice and children.”

Cherubael, for reasons I did not wish to understand at the time, had chosen to keep the shape of his current host body. He tweaked the skin only as far as a healthy tan, and eschewed the tiny horns and fanged teeth that marked a daemonhost. This suited the purpose of my disguise and therefore I had no cause to remark on it. He clothed himself in a smart suit and conservatively short hair. He stuck close to my side at all times; a little too close, as people mistook our relationship for something other than the professional cover I had envisioned. It made little difference to me, but it did encourage Cherubael toward mischief.

We had come to an understanding, or as close as one can get to one when dealing with a creature as pernicious and whimsical as a daemon. I didn’t trust him, and I knew he was constantly seeking ways around the wards and bindings I placed on him, but he was all I had left. In return, I kept him entertained and in this realm. It worked, after a fashion.

“That would be the new festival centre, if I’m not mistaken,” I said, glancing at the coloured glass dome in the distance. It winked in rainbow flashes as it caught the light of the waning first sun, Tyrant. The dome was the only visible part of the building above the surrounding green trees. From the middle of the dome, a small cone of dark green poked out, topped by something that winked gold like a beacon.

The waiter came over and refilled our cups.

“Would you like anything for dessert, sirs?”

Cherubael smiled at the man. “Yes. What do you have that’s special?”

It hurt, hearing my old friend’s voice, seeing his expressions and mannerism, and knowing that it was only mimicry, only a game to the perverse creature wearing his corpse. It hurt, yet I could not bring myself to tell Cherubael to stop.

“You’ve come at the right time for that, sir!” The waiter beamed, radiating pride and an eagerness to please. “As you may well know, it’s Yule in a few days. Are you familiar with the holiday?” He was obviously accustomed to foreign visitors. His manner and tone had something of a showman's quality that smacked of a well-prepared speech.

“No, tell us all about it,” Cherubael said, the corners of his eyes crinkling in good humour. He looked at me. “We’re very interested in traditions, aren’t we?”

He was up to something. It was harmless enough to play along at the moment. “Something of a pet project now that I have free time,” I said.

“You never stop investigating, do you?” Cherubael shook his head and patted my hand with mock affection. I suppressed the instinct to lash out or pull out a weapon at his touch. I tried a smile instead.

The waiter looked at me curiously, then returned his attention to his job, launching into that very speech I was anticipating. “Well, we don’t get real winters with snow and cold around here of course, but we still have shorter days. So we carried down the custom of celebrating the solstice as they do on Holy Terra.”

I politely listened. He was enthusiastic, if a bit over-rehearsed. His tone and manner was more suited to a younger, or possibly older, audience than I was, but he was quite clear with his information. It confirmed my impression of how far off these people were from modern Imperial beliefs. Still, they couldn’t be blamed for the failures of human memory. We have institutions for just such fallibilities, but it was a difficult issue to address when contending with vast distances, and we have lost so much in our endless war.

In these situations, I would normally visit the local church to ensure the Ecclesiarchy authorities were fulfilling their duties. However, it seemed tradition had it that the priest went travelling at this time of the year to offer his services to nearby townships. Inconvenient, to say the least.

It was frustrating, but in my position, there wasn’t much I could do. As long as the inhabitants of Teselskap hadn’t started desecrating shrines to the Emperor and proclaiming affiliation with the Ruinous Powers, my duties would lay elsewhere.

“The spiced cake,” Cherubael decided, after the waiter had finished his lengthy explanation of the holiday, then gone on to describe the lengthier history and significance and ingredients of the twenty dessert dishes they offered. “With ice cream, if there’s any left.”

“Certainly! Lord-Governor Anzanble places an order every year,” the waiter said. “He gives out great quantities to the children during the holidays, so we've plenty at hand. And you, sir?”

“Just tea, thank you.”

“I’ll be right back,” the waiter said. I waited until he disappeared into the cafe before I turned to Cherubael.

“What was that about?” I never expect a straight answer when I question Cherubael without making it a command, or even with command, but I could be surprised one day.

“I’ve never had spiced cake or ice cream before,” said Cherubael, “isn’t that strange? So many years in your constricting little dimension, and I’ve never had the chance to eat your foods.” He tilted his head in a purely daemonhost manner, cracking the bones of the neck with the impossible angle. “Not predigested, that is.” He cracked his neck back into place and glowed.

The waiter came back with a fresh pot of tea and a plate of dark brown cake topped with a mound of white frozen cream. He waited, exuding good will, as Cherubael obligingly picked up a spoon and scooped up a perfectly calculated mouthful of cake and ice cream into his mouth.

“Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Your governor is a wise man, yes?”

“Yes! Best thing that could’ve happened to Teselskap, even if some folk are a little skeptical of some of his proposals, like installing servitors on every corner. But just look at Wonderland. I would be the first to admit it sounded like absolute insanity when he proposed its construction, but the children love it. To be honest, I do too. I’m becoming quite good with these long thin boards called skis--”

There was a chatter of high-pitched, loud voices from the front of the store. A group of children were crowding through the entrance and heading with intense purpose for the holiday dessert display.

“Excuse me,” the waiter said and rushed off to deal with potential disasters.

I stared at Cherubael, who continued to eat his food with all the appearance of enjoying it.

“Children,” said Cherubael, licking cream off his lips with a too long, too pink tongue, “are a joy and wonder in these dark times.” His eyes were bright as he stared back.

---

There was nothing wrong with our hotel per se. Certainly, I had stayed in worse places, and it was palatial in comparison to the best habs in a hive city. There was a large, comfortable bed, clean sheets and a wardrobe that smelled of pine, a sitting room furnished with two couches, a small dining table, a pict-screen mounted on the wall of each room, and a marble and stone bathroom that resembled a miniature version of the hot springs in the lower levels.

However, there was a patina of age and weariness to the place, a quiet desperation in its grand emptiness that couldn’t decide whether to draw attention or hide away in shame. Recent plasterwork had been added to the walls, done in the same curling, fanciful style of twining leaves and rolling waves that were newly present on other buildings in the city as well. But the building’s history could still be read in the hard, square edges of old prefab habs; the gray uniformity of neighbouring structures dated the settlement of this world to a period during the Imperium’s earliest reclamation efforts in the far-flung corners of space.

Now in Teselskap, they were trying to reinvent themselves, fueled, it seemed, by their current governor’s ambitions and tastes. I applauded their self-determinism, but I confess there was something unsettling about the curved lines and decorative flourishes that were swallowing up the familiar pointed arches and orderly ribbing more common of Imperial architecture. Most of my mental energy was directed towards keeping Cherubael under control, but I made an effort to brush the minds of the people several times to confirm the lack of foreign taint.

I suppose as one ages, one likes less and less to see the world change around them. Change was a sign of two things to an inquisitor: deviation from the Imperial Creed and radicalism thus leading to heresy; or rediscovery of ancient truths and innovative thought thus leading to triumph and the Emperor’s light.

It was a very fine line.

The hotel was renovated for its current usage, and renovated again to fit the current aesthetic trend. As I said, it was serviceable. Where it failed was its booking system.

I had requested the best rooms, thinking there was no point in not indulging myself under the guise of my cover story. Whether the translations had been misunderstood -- the common tongue on Teselskap was a variant of standard -- or someone later changed the reservation, I never had time to discover.

I blamed my exhaustion for my failure to recognise I occupied the hotel’s honeymoon suite. It took the waves of good will and multiple congratulations from the staff before I realised the mistake, and by then it made little sense to protest. Cherubael did not need to sleep, and if he did, the couch or floor would suffice.

The little chocolates they kept leaving on my pillows were delicious too.

“Let’s go skating tomorrow.” Godwyn’s voice, whispering in my ear.

I woke up confused, fuzzy-headed, a warm familiar body at my back. It was dark outside, and the room was lit by the soft, ambient blue glow from the bathroom.

“There’s something you should see.”

Godwyn Fischig was long dead.

“Cherubael,” I growled, and pulled at one of the wards. He hissed and was thrown back, clawing and pulling the blankets with him. I shuddered at the sudden chill and the effort.

For many years, I had kept him on tight bindings that left him muzzled and obedient, unable to exercise his will to scheme against me, much less talk back. As my path became harder, as my resources dwindled, I came to rely more on both my own innate abilities and the daemonhost’s. I needed more power, and so the compromise I originally placed on Cherubael was reversed. He was still bound to my service, but I returned his freedom to express himself, within limits. Or so I hope.

I am still trying to decide if the risk is worth the company.

I sat up, resisting the urge to tug the blankets back to cover myself. “What are you doing in here?”

One of the imperatives I’d written into Cherubael’s bindings was of protection -- guard duty. In the field, this meant he would hang in the sky and act as both scout and lookout. When he travelled with me personally, disguised, he was a deceptively overpowered bodyguard. When I slept, he watched the door.

The bed was nowhere near the door.

“Evil never rests, Gregor,” Cherubael said, still using Fischig’s voice but with the additional rough rasp and crackle of the warp slithering behind it.

“Out!” I willed.

It was like training a puppy. A puppy from a Death World that wasn’t a puppy at all, but a caged and drugged predator that waited with infinite patience for its jailor to slip, to miscalculate.

Cherubael squirmed away, taking more of the blankets with him. “You don’t mean that. You’re bored. I can tell.” He tried to crawl close again, smiling with his head tilted, square human teeth glinting in the blue light. He’d kept the chipped lower tooth from when a shell casing had ricocheted off a wall near Fischig’s face, a story from his days as a chastener on Hubris.

“I’m on vacation,” I said stiffly and yanked the blankets back to me. I am cranky when my sleep is interrupted.

“I’m bored.”

I swear, he positively whined.

“And there’s work.”

“I believe your work is in the other room,” I said, and lay back down, pointedly turning away from him. My body was relaxed, but my instincts screamed of danger. It would never do to show weakness, however.

“Gregor,” Cherubael said softly, drawing out the last syllable of my name into a low purr. “You know better than I that only in death does duty end. Usually.” He floated out of the bedroom.

I was absolutely not tempted to throw a pillow after him.

---

The Winter Wonderland was both a marvel of Mechanicus technology and visionary design, and a crass waste of limited resources that was so commonly seen in places with corrupt governments. However, the Wonderland seemed to be the pride of Teselskap’s citizens, and admission was free. As the plaque on the front of the building read, it was a structure built out of generosity and love. It was a perfect symbol for the longest night of the year, when the community gathered together and shared warmth and food, lit fires in the dark, and celebrated the coming return of the God-Emperor, as represented by the sun.

“Shall we save the best for last?” Cherubael said as I studied the holo-map of the attractions available.

Unlike many of the other buildings in the city, the Winter Wonderland was a wholly new structure. It was built on top of what had once been one of Teseslkap’s hypersaline lakes. A little over a hundred years ago, the remaining water had been drained dry to supply a battlefleet heading out to the frontlines. The salt crater left behind was inimical to even the hardiest -- or most fool-hardy -- of the Teselskapians.

Extensive landscaping had transplanted a lush, rich forest more suited to boreal biomes on the barren salt land. Visitors entered the Winter Wonderland along a broad path carved straight through the towering evergreens. The dark granite path was bordered by holly bushes, their glossy green leaves and bright red berries a natural festive decor later echoed in the main hall by strings of tiny, winking glow-globes in various colours and twists of glittering silver tinsel.

The main building was hexagonal, with each side leading to a connected annex. In the centre of the hexagon was the grand attraction of the Wonderland: a massive fir tree whose star-tipped top I had spotted from the cafe the day before. The tree was festooned with more of the tinsel, though in red and gold colours, and from every branch hung delicate blown-glass spheres, carved figurines of Imperial saints and the Angels of Death, golden filigrees of aquilas and winged skulls studded with semi-precious stones, and, here and there, long ribbons of cream-coloured parchment on which prayers and praise had been written in High Gothic.

It should have looked ridiculous. Instead, the atmosphere of hundreds of people enjoying themselves, the sharp smell of the cold air, the dioramas of snow-covered scenes scattered around the room, the cheerful music played by an unseen band, all conspired to transform the place into a world from an older, kinder, happier time.

A woman standing just inside the open doors of the main entrance was passing out fluffy scarves. The temperature in the Wonderland was kept many degrees colder than a warm mid-morning in the city, when Tyrant was nearing its noon position and Saviour had just started to rise.

I accepted a wide, striped scarf, having dressed lightly. The scarf was spun from lapin hair, dyed bright orange and pink, and according to the woman knit by the descendants of the local mining families. I think there were tiny blue mining drills depicted on some of the stripes, or else they were something like stars to match the pom-pom tassels on each end of the scarf.

I can honestly say it was the most hideous article of clothing I had ever had cause to wear, but it was, if nothing else, warm.

Cherubael accepted a scarf twice the length of his armspan. The wool was black on one end and graduated into a deep red on the other. Cherubael wound it around his neck and the lower half of his face several times. It looked like someone had cut his throat. I suspect he’d manipulated reality to provide himself with the least garish scarf amongst the riot of colours and patterns the woman otherwise had on offer.

“Ice cream?” said Cherubael, voice muffled as a servitor shaped as a fat, winged cherub flew past.

“They’re handing it out by the skating rink,” the woman said, gesturing to the left, “second wing that way.”

I raised an eyebrow at Cherubael, but he had already started off, grabbing my hand as he weaved through the crowd.

Despite the early hour, the hall was as crowded as the famous open markets of Delphi-9. Makeshift booths of different sizes were set up in haphazard, curving rows. People and sellers were all busy chatting, looking at wares, laughing with each other.

Their joy and wonder washed over the ragged edges of my psyche, soothing the stresses of the recent past better than any mineral soak. The high spirits of the season infected my own, and I allowed Cherubael to lead me with little protest, basking in the warmth I felt to the core of my being.

It is unusual for a trained psyker to open themselves up to the world at large without first taking care to shield themselves. Densely populated areas, or events where crowd emotions are apt to run high, are like minefields to an unguarded mind.

Imagine experiencing the pain and misery, the hatred and fear, the jealousies and hungers, of one mind shouted directly into yours. Imagine that sudden spike seizing up your own thoughts, overriding your own emotions. Imagine that multiplied a hundredfold, a thousand. Layers of foreign ideas fighting for precedence, subordinating your identity as they establish themselves by sheer volume. Heads exploding from this kind of unintentional assault is not the joke many assume it to be.

“Hurry up,” Cherubael said, tugging. His eyes were focused in the direction of one of the annex entrances, above which hung a sign proclaiming it the ice rink. Other annexes included, according to the map, an indoor ski slope, a snow fortress defense-attack wargame arena, an ice sculpture garden, and an indoor climbing range. The sixth annex was not yet open to the public. It was between the entrance and the ice rink. As we passed, I saw the massive doors were firmly shut and locked with chains, and an elegant placard stood in front proclaiming “COMING SOON” in gold type.

A lineup of children snaked back and forth in front of the closed sixth wing. The ice cream stand was set up there, and we got into line. I felt faintly ridiculous and concentrated on studying the strangely named flavours they had on offer.

While I was trying to fit in despite towering above the tallest child in line, Cherubael had slipped away. I could will him back to me, but I was still finessing the limits of my control now that I had let him off the leash, so to speak, and Cherubael liked to respond as destructively as possible to my summons on a good day. If he was in another room and I called him to me, he was apt to smash through the wall, and anything else in between.

Before I could decide whether to risk a botched summons or getting out of line to find a space not full of innocent people, Cherubael returned. I had reached the front of the line by then. The blood-coloured scarf still blocked half his face, but his smug amusement was obvious even without our connection.

“The Emperor’s Reward for him,” he ordered before I could say anything, “and Warriors of Ultramar for me.”

We sat on one of the benches placed near Yule-related sculptures and miniature gardens, eating our ice cream and watching as a miniature team of clockwork reindeer circled a model town. As they dipped low over the artificial snow-dusted rooftops, the bells attached to their harnesses jingled merrily.

“Didn’t you have something to show me?” I said. I wanted to be annoyed, but the good mood of the crowd and the surprisingly chocolate ice cream had made me mellow.

Cherubael licked his confection a few more times before he answered. “Children and ice,” he said. “This is really good.”

That was true enough. “Do you have a point?”

“I can’t do everything for you,” Cherubael continued, making short work of the waffle cone. “Unless you want me to.” He had pulled the scarf down to eat; I could see his sly smile. “Do you want me to? No, not yet I think.” He nipped the crumbs off his fingers, as neat and precise as a cat.

“If there’s something I should know,” I started, letting the command go unspoken. It helped to let him feel he had some choice in the matter.

Cherubael shrugged and rewrapped the scarf, hiding his mouth again. “Enjoy your vacation, Gregor.”

Creatures of the warp are manipulative and deceptive beings with the patience to play the long game. But so are inquisitors.

---

Later, I was sitting in a therapeutic soak bath, dutifully enjoying myself in ways I hadn't the luxury of in a very, very long time. Perhaps Teselskap was at it seemed: a strangely idyllic haven as innocuous as its name, and blessedly free of the corruption that plagued so many other towns in so many other worlds. It was only a matter of time, of course, before Chaos got its sharp fingertips in and made its slow, inevitable creep into the minds and souls of the people here. This complacency was Emperor-blessed, but there was a curious lack of vigilance that left the mind unguarded and open for evil to quietly steal in unnoticed. That would not happen today though, and until it did, I resolved to take the time to truly... relax.

It was surprisingly difficult. Something about the last few days was bothering me, teasing at the corners of my mind and I could not quite grasp what it was. I mentally reviewed the last few days. The food was good enough. As were the lodgings. There was nothing to complain about the wait staff. I have yet to happen across any idle rumblings of discontent.

The door to the parlour opened and a new attendant entered, bearing a cart laden with small bottles, stacks of towels and a large bowl of steaming water. She was a dark haired and slender woman, but mousy and drawn-looking by age. Surprising, given the wholesome appearance of the other attendants. Strain lines creased a face that might have been pretty if something had not given her a greyish pallor, and if she did not have the pinched look of someone perpetually bitter at life. Her hair was thinning at the temples due to the severe knot she wore to keep it out of her face.

How many times had a woman such as this, quiet and unassuming, harbored secret corruption?

It was my one and only moment of disquiet, and I firmly put it from my mind. Cherubael was laughing quietly to himself as he sat in a chair at the end of the tub. I closed my eyes, to allow the woman to start her ministrations and not due to the sudden stab of nostalgia at the sight of the smiling face of my long-gone friend.

The woman worked quickly. First she applied the hot, moist towels, then a gentle scrub with salts. Then some smelly, muddy concoction she slathered carefully on my face with a small flat spoon.

"Help me," she hissed.

I barely heard her. Caught in a half-sleep state, I'd almost thought I was dreaming.

"Help me," she repeated. I opened my eyes and when she saw that she had my attention, she dipped her head lower to whisper, "You are my only hope."

She spoke strangely. Her voice was pitched low and in the back of her throat, her face barely moving. She was nervous, visibly sweating as she glanced around the long room at the potted plants and towel-wrapped patrons in baths or on beds, serviced by other attendants. As if she thought someone could be watching or listening, invisible to the eye.

My face betrayed none of my thoughts (For obvious reasons. The thick layer of mud, for one.) so after a moment of confusion, I asked, carefully, "What is it?"

"I heard you were a detective. I need your help finding someone."

With gentle encouragement both verbal and mental, I drew the story from her.

Her young son had disappeared the year before, during the Yule. She gave me a list of his habits, his school records, various circumstantial proofs that the child was free of taint. The woman was unusually long-winded for someone who did not wish to be heard and whom did not appear to be a naturally talkative sort. Perhaps she simply needed to share and I was a friendly, non-judgemental face. She sounded as if she had much bottled up inside of her.

I would help her, no question. This was what I had been looking for since I'd first arrived. This hint that all was not well in this place. My senses were already awakened, remembering, reanalyzing the strange tone much of the town had, recalling details as best I could.

Too clean. Too healthy. Lacking in necessary vitality. But it did make me wonder why she came to me, the stranger in their midst, rather than turning to the local law enforcement.

"Why me? Why not go to the police?" I asked.

"Because you are not from here," she said. "They all think my son was taken by Kastiyen, the punishing one. They say he was taken because he was bad. But he wasn't. He prayed to the Emperor every night. He dreamed of one day being able to serve His will in whatever ways He saw fit. He was a good boy, and no one will look for him. And now little Bethema has been taken and nobody cares.”

She stopped her furious whispered barrage, eyes shining with tears.

Cherubael, his fingers glistening with the scented oils from the bottles the woman had brought along, stroked the bottoms of my feet. The oil made the callouses on his fingers feel soft, slick. His touch was shockingly warm, though the room itself was hardly cold. The strength in his fingers was not surprising, but the pressure he used as he dug his knuckles into the soft parts of my feet with deliberate and slow circular motions was disturbing for the comfortable sensations they wrought.

"I'll help you," I told the woman. She smiled at me with unabashed gratitude, with bright relief. It transformed her and I could see that Teseslkapian agelessness return to her features.

Cherubael was also smiling. I kicked him in the face.

---

The things you see as an inquisitor are unimaginable, beyond the limits of horror and wonder. Children will play at being space marines or generals, but nobody plays at being an inquisitor, not even in the most depraved private games -- because the Inquisition or a commissar or a priest would hunt you down if you did. The types of stories you have to make up, the thoughts that they would lead you to -- you don’t have to be unlucky for a denizen of the warp to reach out when you call.

But that is not the worst the universe holds.

No, in some ways, some of the worst I’ve seen in my centuries alive is always perpetuated by ourselves on each other. The bogeyman exists, but it lives within the human mind. Our worst nightmares are those of our own making.

Oh, the warp helps. But the creatures of the Immaterium are what they are. It is their nature. The choice to hurt, to harm the innocent, made consciously by a rational mind -- it comes up in more cases than I wish it did.

The Inquisition’s reach and knowledge is vast. At any given time, a million cases are being investigated, a million being solved, and a million new ones being created. Our numbers are not few, but we are not so many either. It is not unusual to come across a new case in the midst of a completely unrelated one.

I was sitting in the resort’s hot springs again, eyes closed as I let the faint ringing drips of water and the gentle murmur of the other bathers soothe my head. Overusing my psyker talents back on Cyclona had left me with a constant, low-grade ache that had yet to go away. It was not helped by the constant presence of Cherubael at my side, but I was healing, if slowly.

I let the warmth soak into my battered body. My mind wandered. Most of my mind, anyway.

A picture was forming. Snippets of conversations, snow in the desert, traditions and tales, missing children. The presence of those damnable winged servitors that seemed to be everywhere. All preceded by the less-than-subtle hints dropped repeatedly by Cherubael. And they were hints, I decided. He was smug in his knowledge of something and keen to share it.

The case presented itself.

I opened my eyes to find Cherubael watching me, eyes glowing green in the dark cavern.

“Cherubael,” I said quietly, pulsing a command. The start of his smiled twisted into a grimace, and he cut through the water, a gliding shark, to settle himself in front of me.

“Yes?” he said, drawing it out into a hiss.

“We have work to do.”

He bared his very human teeth. “Yes. Finally.

---

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was addicted to it, but I wouldn’t be effective if I didn’t like my work. Now that I had made my decision to properly investigate the events happening in Teselskap, all feelings of age and injury fell away in the face of purpose.

Using a combination of guile and natural authority, and my fake credentials as an ex-Arbites officer, I accessed the city’s meagre police records. Crime was unsurprisingly low, but the regularity of missing child reports being filed year after year during this exact time, confirmed what intuition had told me.

In many respects, it seemed ridiculous that nobody had done anything about this before. That nobody had any suspicions, that nobody had brought up the remarkable phenomenon to friends outside the city. Even the priests here had not thought the disappearance of one or two children a year was a cause for concern.

Insanity, indifference. Or worse.

I had always been a moderate amongst my peers. As I travelled farther into the forgotten corners of space and lived amongst the outlier societies that still believed themselves honest Imperial citizens, I discarded many of my earlier assumptions. I began to see a certain degree of latitude must be given, that flexibility could exist alongside faith and obedience, so long the final result was sound.

If this makes me a radical, so be it.

The people of Teselskap believed, truly believed, that a demon walks free in their city to take away children who have done bad things during the year. On Yule night, if the child redeemed themselves, the Emperor would rise to fight the demon and free the child.

None of the missing children had ever come back, not one in the last 113 years since the first report was recorded.

I refiled the last stack of pristine records. The natural cool and dry air of the basement, coupled with the lack of people going through these files, made the records room as clean and organised a place as any I’d ever come across. It was yet another sign of Teselkap's perfect-seeming exterior. Sadly, the brighter the light, the darker the shadow that can hide behind it.

I stepped outside into the late afternoon, the desk clerk and the security guard both wishing me a happy Yule as I passed. The streets were just starting to fill again as the two suns started their downward path, Saviour driving out Tyrant in a daily reenactment of mutated myth. I squinted up at the surrounding buildings, admiring the sparkle of crystalline salt strings someone had strung up between the streetlamps. The smell of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine wafted in the air. Somewhere, I could hear the jingle of bells and the laughter of children, the bark of dogs and a lone flute whistling a merry tune. The quiet whirr of small flying servitors as they whizzed from street corner to street corner, bearing holly wreaths and festive ribbons.

“Did you find anything?” I said as Cherubael approached, his shadow stretching before him. I walked down the steps carefully, stomping as I went. Cherubael walked up to my side and tucked his arm in mine. To others, it would appear he was assisting a crippled old man down the steps of the station. Which was, in fact, what he was doing, but his form of assistance included a touch of power that lightened my feet. It was like floating back to level ground. “Thank you.”

He huffed. He still found this type of work beneath him, but there was little he could do to refuse. “Yes, I was able to track down a trace of the Shumak child. It was recent, and it hasn’t rained, not naturally.”

“Excellent, lead the way.”

Investigation would never be Cherubael’s strong point, and I would never dare to have him conduct interviews alone. A daemonhost is a weapon, a blunt hammer. For a powerful daemon like Cherubael, sending him out as a bloodhound was like asking a Mechanicus adept to do your taxes. This wasn’t to say Cherubael could not be intricate and subtle, as evidenced by how I ended up as I am in the first place. It would require giving him more freedom however, and I already strained to control him as it were.

“This is a waste of time,” Cherubael said; nonetheless, he began guiding me to his findings. “You could just ask me. Then we can get to the retribution.” His eyes darkened, and he put a flush in his cheeks.

“No,” I said, enjoying the feel of walking without pain. “I want to do this properly.”

He growled, body vibrating against my arm. A dog that had been lying on a porch looked up, yelped, and ran off.

“Hn,” he grunted. “So slow.” He stopped and turned to stand in front of me. His hands reached for my face and I reached for the wards, trying not to flinch.

“Cherubael?” I said, tense, ready.

“Glasses,” he said. He took them off my face with surprisingly delicacy, pulled a case out of his suit jacket, put the glasses in and tucked it back into a pocket. “There.” He brushed my hair back quickly with blunt fingers. “Better.”

I stared at him. He pulled his lips back in something I couldn’t determine was a smile or a threat.

“Appearances,” he explained.

I couldn’t stop looking at the chipped lower tooth.

“Mister Quellis!” A young girl caught us on the edge of town. “An invitation!” She skidded to a halt and executed a practised curtsey, then stepped forward with both arms out in front of her, presenting a square blue envelope in her hands.

I knelt down with some difficulty and smiled at the child, accepting the envelope. “An invitation?”

“To the Yule Ball!” she said. “At the palace! I wish I were going, but it’s only for grown-ups, the governor says.” She shrugged with feigned casualness, then brightened. “But he’s going to open up the Wonderland all night for the rest of us who don’t get to go. And free ice cream! All night!” She looked awed.

“You must have been a very good girl,” Cherubael said.

The girl’s cheer went cold and fearful. I looked at Cherubael sharply. He turned his face to look out at the dark green of the woods around the Wonderland, just beyond the white-gold borders of the city.

“Y-yes,” the girl said, “I’ve been good.” She bowed again, awkward now, then ran off as fast as she could.

“Help me up,” I snapped at Cherubael. He shuddered and obeyed.

I pushed him away when he tried to take my arm again and continued under my own power, letting the sharp pain remind me of my duty, of the danger of getting comfortable.

Cherubael trailed after me, silent as the unnatural woods.

The temperature was artificially cool here, and a thick snow covered the ground and trees. Cherubael passed me the hideous scarf from the other day, which I grudgingly used. The bright light of the suns was muted under the tall canopy, hitting the frosted ground and glittering like scattered jewels. Even my usually heavy footsteps were muffled in the hushed air. Cherubael floated, disdaining to get his pristine shoes wet.

We reached a wide clearing in the forests. The white snow was deep where it was untouched, but several depressions marked paths and footsteps where previous visitors had come in and out of the area. Rising from the ground in a rough circle were six salt pillars, worn smooth around the base and still covered in bulbous, irregular growths at the top. Their edges glowed with faint translucency in the reflected light off the snow. Condensation dripped and slid off them, leaving shallow pools of salt water at their base.

I breathed deeply, organised my mind’s defenses, and commanded Cherubael to explain what he had found.

In a desert environment like that found on Mirth, drinkable water was a precious commodity. When the economy of mining towns such as Teselskap was good, water was imported from offworld by the Administratum to support the rapid population brought about by the large-scale industry.

Many a town founded during those times adapted quickly to the so-called modern way of living.

Many a town died shortly after their native resources were stripped, having forgotten how to thrive on less.

Teselskap had been blessed with a series of shrewd governors who enforced and encouraged traditionalism. They passed building edicts that ensured all structures would continue to look as they had when they were first built. They ran the year’s festivals off the old observances rather than allowing the Ecclesiarchy to implement changes.

I hadn’t worked out how the current governor could have afforded to run an installation like the Winter Wonderland, but the people were already taking advantage of its existence. The tracks in the clearing always stopped at a deep, rectangular depression, where enterprising citizens had scooped a bucketful of the frozen water to bring back home. Whatever mechanism provided the snow eventually replenished it, and so the Wonderland’s popularity was secure as both an oasis and an entertainment centre.

Cherubael traced the paths he had found, a perfect if sulky forensic scientist with the powers he could access. He pointed out a specific trail made by a small, light body a few days ago, the retreating path it took away from a larger mass, the dropped bucket. He revealed the hidden mechanisms hidden within the thick needled branches of the trees that projected holograms and sounds. He showed me the tracks made by something that stood on two legs with cloven hooves.

“And there’s no trace of taint?” I asked.

“None at all.” He seemed disappointed.

“Hm,” I said.

This was not turning out to be the mystery it ought to be. I admit, I felt some disappointment myself, but relief too. The solution to this would be straightforward and hardly dangerous, and the city itself would suffer nothing more than a loss of innocence, as opposed to a full purge by the likes of the Inquisition.

“A few interviews and I think this case will be closed by tonight,” I said to Cherubael. He was hardly a captive audience, but it was nice to have someone to talk to, or I’d spend all my time composing private entries in my head. “Rather handy that I received an invitation, don’t you think?”

Cherubael smiled his terrible smile. “Your God-Emperor works in mysterious ways.”

I let that pass.

We headed back to the hotel. With Cherubael supporting my weight again, it took less time than the journey out. Tyrant remained a faint glow on the horizon, while Saviour chased ever after it. A chaotic line of children passed us on the Wonderland path, headed to the centre. A pair of older children in their early teens, bundled up as round and colourful as their charges, wished us a happy Yule as they passed by.

“That’s going to be messy later,” Cherubael said, twisting his neck farther than it was meant to bend as he tracked their passage behind us.

“What?”

“Am I invited as well?” he said, ignoring my question. “To their little ball. I don’t have anything suitable to wear.” He picked at the lapel of his immaculate, business-like suit with distaste.

“You’re not going,” I said. I’d forgotten how annoying he could be with the freedom to speak his mind and constant proximity.

“Why not?” Cherubael said, stopping abruptly. I tripped forward, avoiding landing on my face only by Cherubael’s strength.

I composed myself and cocked an eyebrow at him. “You want to go to the ball.”

“Am I not part of your disguise?” I think he tried to look pitiable at that moment, but it looked more he’d bitten a sour lemon inscribed with prayers and filled with holy water.

“Not tonight. I have other uses for you,” I said.

“Oh, I am your servant in all things, Gregor,” Cherubael purred, and we left behind the forest that was becoming more and more a scene from a children’s fairytale, the kind that warns against the evils of the world.

---

I sent Cherubael on his way with a firm command before heading to the palace. With the playful mood he was in, it was best to keep him away from anything that required delicacy, in case he decided to indulge himself. And as my strongest weapon, I needed him ready in case it turned out there was more involved here than I suspected.

The moment I arrived on the doorsteps of the governor’s palace that night, I was struck with a nagging sense of familiarity. It took a round through the foyer and down several guest-filled halls before I realised what had bothered me: it was picture-perfect.

Bunting arced across every doorway and ceiling point. Sweets towered in pastel-colored pyramids on top of white and gold-gilt porcelain dishes, themselves arranged in complementary patterns on a long, white-oak table.The servants were as layered in velvets and lace as half of the guests, their wigs powdered, their fingers encrusted with gems. Everywhere I looked was a scene lifted wholesale from an painting, a coloured plate in an ancient storybook.

Even the guests were strangely well-behaved. Not one person spoke too quietly or laughed too loudly. Guests had yet to drink themselves to excess, despite the hour and my own late arrival. I could easily spot those native to Teselskap because they kept their behavior in check with the ease of those who were long accustomed to doing so. Foreign guests followed suit, casting furtive glances at their friends and partners, who in turn surreptitiously directed them with hands placed on wrists and quiet whispers.

All in all, while I could hardly boast of being an expert of parties -- that would’ve been Titus -- it was disconcerting that my own lack of festive spirit was exceeded by the people who should’ve been celebrating.

Cherubael had insisted I wear a monstrosity of a coat he’d procured from, no doubt, some dark corner of the Immaterium, as well as a red cap with a dangling sprig of mistletoe on its brim. I’d refused both, but now I wondered if I should’ve gone with a compromise on the coat.

I was wearing a deep red velvet coat trimmed with short white larisel fur that hit at the top of my thighs. Golden looping embroidery accented the cuffs, the high collar, and the double-breasted row of golden buttons with inset red rubies. The augmentics on my lower legs were painted gold and Cherubael had twisted holly and ivy on the outer struts, the festive colours standing out all the more against my black boots and dark red trousers.

My outfit was positively dour in that crowd. About the only thing that I wore that matched the excessive exuberance of the native fashions was a holly and mistletoe-laden hat they had gifted me with at the door. I won’t bother to describe it, because it was something best forgotten for the sake of my sanity. It did match what I wore, or so Cherubael remarked when it was all over, smug that he had gotten his way in the end. His compliment alone made me suspicious of how I had ended up with that hat in the first place.

My circuit around the grand ballroom lead me past clusters of dancers and a wine fountain to reach the most richly dressed guests I had seen yet. Their wigs were twice as tall, their lacing more overwrought, and gems were placed on top of gems on top of everything else, right down to their shoes.

The man in a teal coat standing in the centre of the group caught my eye, waved and came up to meet me as I approached. It would have been difficult not to spot me in that crowd. I was a dark, gaunt figure amongst the pale colors that dominated the gathering, and likely looked about as welcoming. The years have not been as kind to me as they had to the complacent Teselskapians.

Close enough to shake his hand, I could see there was opalescent dust brushed over his skin. A small emerald beauty mark reminded me sharply of Maxilla, but he had none of the carefree energy that the ship's captain had had. Instead, there was a frozen, stilted quality about him, like a man poised at a door's threshold, refusing to take the first step through until all eyes were focused on him.

He smiled at me with perfect, even teeth.

"Lord-Governor Anzanble," I said, pulling his identity from the minds of those around him. He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Thank you for the invitation. It came unexpectedly -- I have not been here for long and did not expect to come under anyone's notice."

"Not at all, I like to personally welcome any and all guests to Teselskap," Anzanble said expansively. “And please sir, you are an Arbites officer! That’s something anyone would notice and want to celebrate.” He pulled a lace kerchief from his front pocket and pressed it to his lips as he smiled at me.

“Retired now,” I said, and skimmed his surface thoughts as I began to ask him a series of innocuous questions ranging from the weather to his general plans for the town.

He had many, as it turned out. While his lips spoke extensively about the planning for better infrastructure, his mind settled on something far different, far darker than the white spires and renovations meant to draw in new tourism. I pressed a little harder as I'd done a million times before in similar situations.

Typically, my target would not even notice the intrusion, but either he was more sensitive than I’d expected, or he didn't like my line of questioning. He stepped back from me suddenly, a frown nearly cracking his makeup, his lace kerchief no longer flapping before his face. "What was that?" he asked abruptly.

"What?" I replied, confused as to what could have alerted him.

One comes to expect certain attributes, reactions if you will, in the kind of people that warrant investigation, especially suspects of Lord Anzanble’s stature.

Lying, certainly. Paranoia. A lack of guilt backed by plenty of guile. Many armed guards. Surveillance everywhere.

What I didn’t expect was for a Lord-Governor to tip one of the tables into my path, sending pastries and wine glasses flying like a thief knocking over a fruit stand during pursuit. Guests turned at the loud crash, startled by the unexpected disturbance to an otherwise controlled environment. Moments later, the cries of alarm turned to shrill panic as Anzanble triggered his security system and a gold seraphim detached from the ceiling. He vaulted over a settee with a surprising agility for a man wearing fashionable heels and ran, his coat flapping around his legs.

I gave chase, naturally.

I exited the ballroom and found myself in a long corridor that was one wing of the palace. The walls were made of pink-veined white marble. Cheap plaster detailing overlay the original structure, transforming its workmanlike origins into highly decorated doorways, shelves, and trompe l’oeil windows, all framed with swirling motifs of vines, flowers, leaves, and laughing skull-faced cherubs.

These cherubs were inert, mere decorations or at most recording devices unlike their winged cousins, but the respite was short-lived as I stumped across that long space.

It was at about midpoint, past the large double doors leading to another wing of the house, that the statues came to life. Their eyes glowed a malevolent red, and it was then that I realised that these too were battle-capable servitors created by Anzanble's paranoid mind.

Explosive ones.

It was by the grace of the Emperor that I skidded forward on an ornate silk carpet, giving me a lead of scant seconds before the first explosion occurred. The satyr nearest the door I had entered from blew up. Then the next and the next, one after another as they chased me down the hall. I kept running, my laboured pace keeping me just ahead of the searing heat and flying debris. I dove for safety as a severed stone horn violently propelled past me.

Followed by explosions, I crashed through a window near the end of the hall and into a large white sculpture that crumbled to dust the moment I fell into it. I caught sight of a teal coat, its tails flapping. I rolled, slipped and fell into another white edifice -- some many-layered, brittle thing that crumpled as easily as the first I'd destroyed. It was only then I realized I was swimming in salt and that I was standing knee-deep in a portion of the town's artisanal offerings for the annual Yule Day salt-sculpture contest. I was surrounded again on all sides but this time by spires, large lizard creatures, and a couple of space marines.

I dragged myself upright, open cuts burning, and began to run again, knowing now where Anzanble was headed.

The winning prize for the competition, a personal flyer, was sitting somewhere in the garden as a gleaming centerpiece atop a bed of roses. I had a vague recollection of the layout of the palace; the rosebed was likely past the Elegiac Fountains, a small raised platform surrounded by natural salt pillars in the center of a low hedge maze.

I was too late, stomping out of the maze just as Anzanble disappeared within the flyer, the hatch already shutting before his wigged head became visible through the front window. The flyer whirred alive, lifting off to hover with a deceptive ease. It was built for ostentatiousness like everything else Anzanble touched, but it was light despite the large curved horns of a golden ram's skull molded on to the nose. Despite its lack of aerodynamics, I was certain it would have enough power to attain a good speed. I wouldn't be able to keep up with it even if I were I to find a similar vehicle right this moment.

It was useless. There was no other flyer and the golden ram's head was already swinging around, its guns come to bear even as more deadly cherubs and armed servitors came at me from three directions.

If he opened fire, he would destroy them as well. I doubt he cared.

A cherub dove at me. I twisted away, shooting it out of the air as I spun, hitting a second cherub that flew in behind it on topaz-encrusted wings and a gun with a barrel shaped like a trumpet flower. A double shot from my own gun, and blood and fleshy bits burst alongside its mechanical components. Another laborious turn on my heavy legs, and there was a man this time, too close to bring my gun to bear. I punched him in the face instead. He went down. He was not a large man and he must have been inexperienced to have rushed in so recklessly.

Other guards were approaching, all human. These were larger, bulkier than the man I’d knocked out, their muscles straining through the teal and gold threads of their uniforms.

I still carried the blade I'd hastily torn off the wall on my way out, nearly forgotten with all the running and dodging I’d been doing. It was a sword as overwrought with useless jewels and soft metals as everything else in this place, but the blade itself was good steel, sharp and gleaming with a razor wickedness that belied its decorative camouflage. It was an appropriate weapon for someone like Anzanble.

I shot one man in the face as my opposite arm went in the other direction with the sword, stabbing a second in the throat. As I spun to get clear, I severed his head from his shoulders. Another man approached, his blade raised in challenge. We crossed swords as arterial spray from the beheaded body gouted, splattered our faces. This guard had experience, training. He was faster than the other two and not so easy to eliminate. We traded blows as more of the palace’s defenders arrived.

I was surrounded and already physically tiring. "Back," I willed. No point in hiding my talents now. "Put down your guns." They did so, eyes blank with the force of my command. Still, there were more coming. I could see their helmets and the muzzles of their guns glinting over the ornamental hedges as they ran back and forth through the chest-high maze to reach us.

Anzanble's patience had been reached, his panic peaked. The flyer turned around and a loud grind of gears made me turn in time to see the barrel of a large heavy bolter emerging from the vehicle’s underbelly. Complete overkill. But then, Anzanble had never struck me as anything less than flamboyant. He needed to make as grand a statement in this as he'd done with his plans for Teselskap. If he'd simply opened fire with the smaller guns already focused on me, I would have been dead from the beginning.

Death has finally come, I thought as I threw myself backwards by habit, weighed down by several men, their limbs and bodies splitting, falling apart as my borrowed blade rose and fell in automatic motions even as my world narrowed down to the endless black hole that filled my vision. The moment that gun fired, I would be perforated chunks of flesh amongst the scattered red rose petals.

Time slowed to a crawl. I could see faint puffs of distorted air as the explosive rounds exited the large barrel.

There was a brilliant, blinding light.

It burst over the battle-torn garden with the intensity of a nova cannon flashing in the dark of space.

The rounds never reached me. They detonated in midair, catching the small flying cherubs in their wake.

A figure appeared in negative, limned by a white-hot flame. It was naked but for the brilliant coruscating surface of its skin, the shifting whorl of unsettling colours that shimmered the air around it, and a strange cloud of falling dust that faded beneath its feet. It floated down in front of me, filling my vision, its lights swallowing the flyer and easily exceeding its suddenly dull appearance.

It held its hand out and the flyer stopped, held in an invisible grip. There was the ringing noise of metal tearing, glass tinkling, and a man screaming. The glowing figure began to rise into the sky again, golden fire as bright as the sun, but more fantastic. More otherworldly.

I remembered that I did have an ace up my sleeve.

The world went dark.

---

I awoke under a bough of mistletoe. Several of them, in fact. I was covered from head to toe in boughs.

Cherubael hovered above me, giving me an unusual and unwelcome view of Fischig's naked form from underneath as he came down from the sky again. He no longer glowed, but remained covered in, I realised later, a fine layer of gold dust.

He smiled, as brightly as the tinsel and the decorative embellishments that had sprouted from every fixture on every surface in the town. He bore in his hand the smoking, smoldering front end of Lord-Governor Anzanble's flyer, the golden ram's skull both absurd and perfectly at home in his glitter-covered hand.

Cherubael took more care in setting down the burning, smoking wreck of metal than he did the rest of the flyer -- Lord-Governor Anzanble crashed to the ground, crushing topiary and salt monuments beneath his shredded hulk. The side hatch was still operable and it popped open partially with a protesting hiss. Anzanble was forced to pry the doors open the rest of the way.

The manservants masquerading as guards were only just regaining their feet. Cherubael sent them sprawling again with casual wave of a hand. As my vision stopped spinning, I saw that he was wearing a series of garlands, thin sprigs of greenery that were strung together haphazardly by beaded scraps of lace -- possibly torn from one of the many curtains decorating the halls I'd only just been partially responsible for destroying. While impressive when in the air, he had an insouciant air of post-party drunkeness up close.

I could hear a thrumming, buzzing in my ears like a swarm of bees or flies, though my eyes saw none. "Mistletoe?" I asked. "Don’t think that you’ll have any more success with these than you did before." He'd made many a joke at my expense when giving me that hat. It wasn't until after I said this that I realized it might come across as playful. I wasn't.

The brush of hot lips across my cheek was startling. Lips that just barely missed the corner of my mouth as I turned my head at that moment and saw the Lord-General had reached us, shouting and waving a pistol.

I shot him in the face.

He fell silently, brains and bone splattering across the ground already thoroughly coated in a thick layer of white salt. His body twitched as we watched him silently, fingers scrabbling, feet wiggling and spasming in its final throes.

"You still haven't found the children, you know. Where he kept them." Cherubael was sulking. From the clean death, no doubt. The Lord barely suffered.

My skin still burned from that slight touch and I dragged my thumb across my cheek. It came away covered in glitter. "I don't need to ask him anything. I've already pulled it from his mind."

Cherubael continued to sulk. His petulance irritated me.

There is a certain rhythm to a proper investigation. One becomes used to long periods of very little happening, of stiffening joints and sore muscles due to prolonged inactivity which is then followed by a sudden burst of frantic adrenaline and activity. Perhaps it was the a nature of my experience, of the escalating strength of my opponents, but even the chase through the ballroom and grounds had felt almost anticlimactic. All the energy that had sustained me through the last few days abruptly left me. I couldn't help the momentary twinge of guilt the moment that thought crossed my mind.

I supposed nothing was barring me now from finding this Secret Palace of Anzanble's, the garish dollhouse that had been front and foremost in the man's mind.

Cherubael echoed my thoughts. "This hasn’t been very exciting," he said, then slyly added, "I could make it exciting for you, if you want."

"I do not," I replied crisply.

"Well, what then? I've done as I should -- I deserve some sort of reward for my good behaviour."

I sighed. "When this is all over, I'll get you an ice cream."

---

We found the missing children, who had, after all, not gone very far.

It wasn’t a clever hiding place. If anyone had bothered to do any investigation, instead of writing off the cases as the Emperor's Will, over a hundred years of heartbreak and trauma could have been avoided.

Cherubael frolicked in the snow next to the granite path as we walked to the Wonderland. Our way through the hushed stillness was lit by a rare full moon on that solstice night. I was physically exhausted, as tired as I had been when I first arrived on Mirth, but my mind was sharp with the excitement of the evening. The ache between my eyes was gone. My control was solid and my purpose was clear.

“Doors,” I said to Cherubael. “But contained. There are people in there.”

“Yes,” he hissed, and warplight leapt from one outstretched arm into the grand glass doors of the Winter Wonderland. They exploded inward with a crump and shriek of warped metal, but the shattered glass and flying debris halted in midair, caught like a high-speed pict-capture.

“Gently,” I warned.

“Don’t you trust me?”

“No.”

“I’m hurt,” Cherubael said, sending a deep chuckle into my thoughts. I frowned and pushed him back out.

“Not now,” I said.

“You’re no fun anymore, Gregor.” The remains of the destroyed doors began to draw towards each other until they were compressed into a cube the size of my hand. The cube drifted down to the ground and settled with a quiet ringing sound as I strode past into the main hall.

The hour was late, and though the children should be home in bed, some of the adults were still there, enjoying the lack of crowds and spending a quiet evening out together. They stared wide-eyed at me in my blood-stained, blood-red clothes, and the glowing golden figure that floated behind me.

I looked around at the curling deco, the smiling cherubic faces painted on the walls, the quaint scenes of snowy landscapes and cozy homes, and felt anger and sickness at the lie that had been allowed to perpetuate here.

We stood in front of locked doors of the sixth annex. Cherubael melted them to slag with a merry laugh and a single finger.

“I love this part of an investigation,” Cherubael said. His grin was wide enough to see wisdom teeth. “And the fighting, there should be more fighting next time. Something really dangerous, Gregor!”

I ignored him and stepped over the melted lumps on the ground, and into another picture-perfect scene from the twisted mind of Anzanble.

It was a grand ballroom that rivaled the palace’s. From the pieces I'd snatched from Anzanble's mind, the palace had been a prototype and this was the masterpiece. Soft white, gilt gold, pastel blues and pinks, and everywhere the swirling, curving, florid and asymmetrical designs that gave the room, for all its grandeur and intricacies, a light airy impression.

My eyes, however, could only focus on the children.

They sat around a long table in the center of the room, over a hundred children dressed in the finest dresses and suits. The girls were in butter-yellow silk, skirts in layered poofs. The boys wore cream coloured suits accented with gold and green brocade. On the table was a spread of green-rimmed ivory dishes and silver platters piled with cakes, candy, and fruit. Teapots with exaggerated handles and spouts sat between every child, and delicate teacups shaped like folded leaves beside them.

The air was cool and dry. I could smell flowers and spice, burnt sugar and the faintest hint of decay. From the main hall, tiny bells jingled and music played.

The children sat, each in the midst of a different action, their skin pale and sparkling faintly with frost, all of them as still as death.

They were not dead.

These miracles, these respites -- I pray I may always be blessed to draw strength from them.

---

EPILOGUE

Some years later, in another system, I was sitting at the window table of a cafe, drinking a cup of tea as I waited. A star winked high up in the clear dawn sky, watching me, guarding me from afar. Plotting an end that I will fight, though I suspect I have already lost.

A small crowd of school children passed by as I did passed the time doing research on a complimentary data terminal. The children were dressed in long, solemn black gowns, but they were all giggling and chatting, faces sticky with the ice cream cones they were eating, skin glowing with health and youth. An exasperated teacher herded them along, wielding tissues in one hand to wipe the worst of the messes up, his other hand carrying a slim dataslate already dirtied despite his best efforts.

It was pure whimsy. It was the combination, I believe, of the ice cream and the children, of the melancholy that suddenly fell over me as I sat alone, waiting.

I searched the data archives for news of Teselskap. I wondered if they had torn down the Wonderland, if they had ripped out the fading plaster moldings on their buildings; or if they had endured, as their ancestors did, and found their city finally revitalized.

Instead I found notes about a new tradition gaining popularity on Mirth. It was based on a legend, some say a true story, of the Emperor’s Saints and the Kastiyen Anzanble. It was a simple tale about the evil in men’s hearts and a child's saving innocence.

It’s funny to think that I might be a monster story myself, some day. I hope it is otherwise. I wish there might be a different ending to this story.

If I have learned nothing else in my long years of life, it is to expect nothing but that which you bring upon yourself.