User:Michael Bard/The Bloodstone's Gift
The Bloodstone's Gift
by Michael Bard
Stopping, Ilsana looked around for a moment before spotting the maintenance singer, who'd been working to repair an area of the carven sealwood that had cracked with age. The steady light from the glowing ceiling showed a thin body, with a long and lean face, and his hair, tied into a ponytail, fell down his back.
"I'm sorry, I have to go--"
"The ceremony to induct your son will wait for you, Ilsana. Take it."
She looked down at what he was holding -- it was a gem, like a spirit stone, but larger, darker, a deep glowing red in colour; its setting was wraithbone, old, worn to a rich ivory, engraved with faint symbols. Memories of her old Paths, of flight, of dancing, tinkled through her as a sweet singsong voice in her head, a whisper, a hint, told her to take it. "I-- I can't accept this."
Before she could react, he was in front of her, pressing it into her palm. "It's meant for you."
At its touch, she felt a warmth press through her palm into her body. She could feel her blood pumping, flowing through her veins, through her heart. The room seemed sharper, the lines of the runic patterns crisper. Wind seemed to howl around her.
On their own, her fingers wrapped around the gem, cupping it so that only a thin blood-red glow shone through their flesh.
The man patted her hand, "Now go, or you'll be late." His touch was cold, dark, and she'd have sworn she could feel his soul tugging at hers. But that was impossible!
Her mouth opened, then closed; she turned, scurrying, her sandaled feet hissing on the worn stone of the floor. The sound was consumed by the walls as she vanished, and the maintenance tech returned to his work. Stroking the cracked piece of sealwood, running his fingers over its slick, almost greasy surface, he gently sang to it, tugging at it with his mind so that it grew and healed.
Arriving barely in time, breathless, Ilsana saw Tansilas standing in the antechamber, looking at her through the red crystal lenses of his helmet. He didn't say a word, didn't move a limb, just stood there as still as only an Exarch can. Kicking her sandals off, Ilsana padded across the naked wraithbone of the floor, worn from eons of bare feet. She could feel the spirits of the dead tickling at her heels, reaching out to touch life, to try and remember reality, as they hid in the wraithbone from She Who Thirsts. Doffing her robes and tossing them into their box, she pulled out the bodysuit that was all she would wear.
For a moment she stood there looking at the suit. It wasn't the complete armour: the protective plates of pscyhoreactive plastic, the armoured upper bodysuit, the helmet, all were put away for when the Eldar went to battle. Ilsana had been on so many Paths, both great and small, that, even after a century, the Path of the Scorpion had nuances she had yet to master.
Ilsana was old, for the Eldar can live immense amounts of time if the universe doesn't kill them first. Like the rest who'd been abandoned by Yriel when he returned to Iyanden, she'd come so close to damnation, falling into the joy of death and destruction for the sake of it. Torturing and killing and raping the humans for the sake of the sensations. She'd followed Shakarandras, led by the Harlequin, to the abandoned worldship of Haras ag Iadonna, and there she'd pulled herself from the brink of damnation, moving her spirit from chaos to order. Since then she'd followed many Paths, some of music, some of construction, some of tending living things, but she'd always returned to the Paths of War. First the Hawk, then the Banshee, and now the Scorpion. So far she'd managed to avoid becoming lost, becoming so focussed on a single Path that there was no escape, only an eternity of that Path, mastering it to unimaginable heights of perfection.
Shaking her head to clear the old memories, she looked at the suit in her hands. It was older than she was, found here amongst so much else when they'd come, waiting amongst the death and silence. She didn't know why she'd chosen it, just knew that when she'd touched it she'd known that it was the one. Her lithe body slipped easily into the soft silken material and it hugged her, keeping her warm and supported. In a sense the bodysuit was alive, like leather in its toughness, like silk in its feel. It was jade green, flat so as to not draw the eye, and covering all except for her head. As she lifted her spirit stone that hung from her neck, the chain tangling in her long braided hair, she remembered the stone the singer had given her. It was still in her palm, faintly glowing with an inner light. She couldn't remember how it'd managed to stay there, as her hand and arm were gloved in the soft material of the bodysuit. Without realizing what she was doing, she pressed its setting against the back of her spirit stone, and with a click more felt than heard, the two sealed together.
She had just enough time to snug the suit around her chest and shoulders, to let the spirit stone, and the gift, fall against her chest, and to grab the practice cane. Her spirit stone glimmered in the light waiting to hold her spirit, her soul, if her body should die. The new stone, the blood stone, pressed between her breasts, and she could feel its warmth seeping into her body. Running, her clothed feet now silent, she made her way to where the others were waiting.
The practice room was circular, a large ring of naked wraithbone. One for each of the many squads, all spreading around the central Shrine of the Scorpion in a complex three-dimensional geometry. Most had never been used since they'd been led here. The wraithbone that made the worldship, the craftworld, created gravity wherever, and in whatever orientation, it was needed. Though halls might curve in physical space, to the walker they seemed flat as they pulled one ever down to the floor. This particular chamber, unique like every other one but sharing common features, was a circular room, arching up overhead to a dimly shadowed peak. The walls were ribbed, each rib glowing with a steady yellow-blue that was relaxing to the eye. Unlike human shrines, there were no banners, no emblems, no insignia, just naked bone worn smooth by the touch of many hands and eons of time. The chamber remembered, containing a psychic echo of the countless practises and trainings that it had witnessed. Every Eldar who came here could feel the shrine in their soul, could sense the whispers of ancient memories in their spirits.
Taking her place in the circle, she stood there, flexing one muscle group after another to keep them ready. All around the other members of her squad stood in silence, currently seven others. Each knew their place in the circle, though the places weren't marked in any visible way. Without thinking, they'd spaced themselves to leave room for the newcomer, her son, still awaiting his summons.
Her mind falling into the Path of the Scorpion, Ilsana watched the others. All were male, their faces calm and expressionless, their eyes slowly focussing from point to point always watching for the enemy, even here. That was part of all of the Paths of War. Each held their practice cane at their sides, its tip touching the floor in front of them. Standing in front of Athelorn, holding an ornate cup filled with blood that dripped from the Avatar where he slept, was their Exarch, Tansilas. He dipped a gloved finger into the blood and lifted it, dripping, then quickly painted the Rune of the Scorpion on Athelorn's forehead. Ilsana could smell it, could feel the blood of Kaela Mensha Khaine, the Bloody Handed God, the ancient God of War and Murder, calling her to battle. Its soul making her blood run quicker, her emotions hotter. But, the sensations were still faint, an echo of an echo.
As the blood rolled down his face, Athelorn closed his eyes and leaned his close-cropped head back. His stance changed, changing from one of quiet rest to one of eager readiness, from relaxation to a preparation to strike. Opening his eyes, they were revealed as the eyes of a predator, a hunter. Tansilas moved to the next squad member, painted the rune, and the same change swept over him. He came closer, drawing the runes with the ease of long practice, the bloodlust buried in every Eldar rising on those he'd painted.
She swallowed, her throat dry, as he moved closer. The room faded as memories of the Paths she'd been on wound through the labyrinths of her mind. The dry rasp of blowing sand as she ran across it with her sister Banshees, the faint whistle of wind on her wings as she flew with her Hawks. Those Paths had seemed so right, but then so did this one! But not right. She'd talked to the seers, but they understood it no better than she.
Tansilas stood in front of her, the crystal eyepieces of his helmet glistening. She'd have sworn he looked down at the spirit stone resting on her chest, but his head didn't move. The coppery scent of Eldanesh's blood, eternally dripping from the hand of Khaine as reminder of the murder, coiled rich into her nostrils. It wasn't like Eldar blood, or human blood, or anything else of the mortal universe. It was hatred, sacrifice, anger, murder, honour. As he'd done for the others, Tansilas dipped his finger into the rich liquid and painted the Scorpion rune on Ilsana's forehead.
The blood was cold and her skin wanted to curdle away, but it called to the bloodlust buried in her soul, fanning it to strength, drawing it to the front of her mind. To an observer she just stood there, the blood beading as a drip rolled down her cheek, curving towards the stone on her breast. The liquid, echoes of a crime so long ago, was cold as ice, slithering beneath the soft material she wore, and then vanishing into the hot blood stone. The chamber blurred before her, its sight overlaid with battlefields of the past, some seen from the air when she'd been on the Path of the Hawk, others filled with humans as her power sword sang, slicing into them, when she'd been on the Path of the Banshee.
She shook her head to clear it, braided hair brushing against her neck, focusing her mind back on the here and now, forcing her will over the bloodlust that sang to her. It was easy, for that lust was still weak. The helmet would awaken it fully, but that was safely put away until the last moments before battle.
"Brothers," Tansilas hissed, his voice clicking out amongst the room. Almost all scorpions were male, and Ilsana had gotten used to it. "We welcome another to the strength of the Strike from Surprise, to the Hidden Death. We welcome Belfessus amongst us, into the Path of the Scorpion."
With that, a bit nervously, Belfessus stepped out and into the spot in the circle that had been left open for him. Before the blood rune she'd have smiled, but, though she controlled it, she was now a warrior first, and a sister second. It wasn't her son she saw, but a fellow Scorpion and her mind catalogued his strengths and weaknesses. He was untrained, would need to be protected. In the short term he would be more a liability than an asset, but he was a squad brother. He would be protected from his own naiveté.
Tansilas tapped his practice cane on the bone floor, the click echoing and reverberating, and they all focused upon him. Then he led them through the steps of the Scorpion, slowly and carefully for Belfessus' first time, and then faster and faster. Each move was smooth, but sudden and unexpected. His was smooth, Ilsana's nearly so, Belfessus' rough and uncertain. She knew, the suit knew, and both worked together in total focus. The cane, an extension of her arm, was just ivory, but it represented the whining chainsword she'd carry in battle. In her mind she could see each of the glimmering crystal teeth as they hummed in a line into the blade, and down its length, and out, and back, ready to bite and tear into flesh and metal. An eternal circle of death. Her other hand clenched, though empty in reality she could feel the warm bone of her pistol's hilt, and her mind remembered its tiny soul's happy song of destruction. With the others she stepped and fired, struck with her sword, killing their enemies in a long practiced path of death given to the Eldar after The Fall by Arhra, before he'd fallen to She.
Like one they stopped, each in the same position, left leg forward, cane raised above their heads in the fifth strike position. They breathed in unison, in and out, in and out. Tansilas turned and stepped towards Ilsana, each footstep clacking on the worn floor, stopping in front of her.
That was when Ilsana realized that her pose was not identical to the others. For an instant she could feel outstretched hawk wings on her back, and had angled her shoulders to snap them at opponents on either side of her. Her legs were positioned differently too, to balance the weight of the wings. And yet, the weapon of the Hawk was the Las Blaster, and she knew she was holding a chain sword. This had never happened before! With that thought, she almost lost her balance, almost gasped, but she kept silent and slipped back into the proper position.
"You have left the Path of the Hawk. There is no place for it here."
"I--" She felt the blood stone warm against her chest and could see a faint crimson reflection on Tansilas' armour. Looking up, she peered through the crystal into the empty gaze of the Exarch. She knew that inside his armour was nothing. Just dust, as the armour animated itself with the spirits that lived in the stones on its chest. Each had been alive once, but then each had lost themselves in the Path of the Scorpion, lost themselves so deep that they could not escape. They'd put on the suit of the Exarch. It had consumed their bodies, merging with their spirit to create the ultimate warrior. Sliding her feet against the worn bone, the material hissing softly, she stood in the position of respect and nodded her head. "I am sorry."
"There is no place for that on the battlefield." With that, he turned away, and then cocked his head for a second, listening to voices she couldn't hear. "And it seems that we shall soon see if you can do it right. The seers are sending us to battle."
Ilsana looked at her son, worried about the liability he represented. His face was pale. To war? But Ilsana hadn't sensed the Bloody Handed God's avatar awakening.
Tansilas looked at her. "Not to war Ilsana, to battle. It seems that the blood calls to you, I just pray to Khaine that your answer will not cost you your life." Turning away from her, he raised his voice: "You have a day to prepare. Then you'll proceed to your assigned quarters on the Ashintar. Your equipment will be ready."
Turning, he walked off into the inner sanctum where only the Exarches went. Whether to meditate, to practice, to dream of becoming the Young King, sacrificed to awaken the Avatar, nobody knew what they did but they.
And they never spoke of it.
The practice finished, Ilsana went and got undressed. As she washed off the blood, took off the undersuit, the rage that flowed through her faded to a dream, a distant memory. It was when she was leaving the common showers, water glistening on her pale flesh, that Belfessus ambushed her, and hugged. "Wasn't it great?! I could feel the hatred! And we're going to war!"
She looked down at her son, so young, so innocent. He'd spent a long time on the lesser Paths, listening to the stories his mother told with a mixture of horror and eagerness. Though not a son by blood, not one of those who'd followed Shakarandras and Yriel, she'd adopted him when he came to Haras ag Iadonna as a refugee. Though he wasn't her blood child, he was her son in the love and caring she felt for him. Fear curdled through her mind, fear suppressed and buried when she'd been under the influence of the blood. It was too soon by Khaine! He needed more time. "Belfessus, you don't need to go--"
"Not go?! Mother, the blood calls to me. It sings in my soul!"
She looked at him, a shiver twisting down her spine. Dimly she could sense the presence of She Who Thirsts, but how? She wasn't a seer, that Path had never interested her. And yet-- "Belfessus, you're not ready. One practice session isn't enough. And, outside of the suit you must fight the anger, you can't let it consume you. You can't let She in."
He glared at her, and then stepped back, pushing her away. "I'm in control mother. You're just jealous of how I performed, and how you failed." His eyes glittered. "The battle will be so glorious!"
Closing her eyes, Ilsana remembered the good times, the friendship, the joys. Healing him from the wounds he'd suffered from the humans. Teasing and teaching him, bringing his mind back from the abyss the horrors of war had driven it to. Running free beneath the trees planted before The Fall, climbing their branches, swimming in the quiet pools fed by bubbling brooks as the dome arched above them, keeping the vacuum out of their fragile lifeboat.
Wrapping her arms around her little son, she hugged him tight, and then kissed him on the forehead, a hint of the iron taste of blood still there, the hint calling up echoes in her soul. "Son, just be careful. Listen to the suit, watch the others. You're on the Path, don't stray."
Blinking, he looked at her. "I'll show you. I'll--"
"Listen to me, curse you! They'll try to kill you! You know that, they did before, but you weren't ready to protect yourself! You're still not ready!" She sighed. "Belfessus, this is not a game, not vengeance for what they did to you. It's simply a duty we must perform. The spirits in the suit will guide you. Let them! And, just-- Please be careful."
He looked at her, a hint of a tear, a hint of old love. Then he threw off her grasp and turned and ran, the only sound the soft shrush of his sandals on the stone floor of the hallway, before the ancient carved wood swallowed it into silence.
Ilsana went to her quarters and ate a quiet meal, but she couldn't stay still. Her quarters were typical, luxurious and oversized, grown with wraithbone sung into the desired size and shape, the naked surface covered in carved and polished stone and wood and ivory. There was a bed, a chair, some moonroses in a pot that she dutifully watered, though the wraithbone would do it for her, some books, souvenirs of places she'd been. One place behind the desk was naked wraithbone, a link to her ancestors, to all the stored knowledge and information aboard the craftworld she was on as it drifted eternally through the vacuum of space.
Sitting down on the bed, she changed into a nightgown, the scent of Alladrios still faint in her nostrils. He'd been fun, but it wasn't love, just an affirmation of life. And another Path that a part of her so desperately wanted to follow, yet couldn't.
Sighing, she pressed her palm against the naked wraithbone and called up memories and records. Not a pleasant fiction to read, not a guide to gardening or playing the microharp, not even discussions of fighting in battle. Instead she called up notes on the tactics of war.
It was odd, even under Yriel she'd been fascinated by war, by its facets, entranced by the way it was organized. Entering the Paths, she'd searched for one that fit. But, the more she tried, the more she failed. Now she read and studied how war was fought, not as an individual, but as a group. Where before it had fascinated her, now it absorbed her, possessed her. For hours she sat and read records of what had been. Of battles fought before the Fall, and fought after. Struggles against the human Red Guard, the elite Space Marines of the Agrippa sector. Fights against the crusading Templars as they tried to take what the Eldar knew was their own. The great battle against the Imperium around Amun Tower.
Before the records had been sketchy, the details glossed over, but now everything was there. It was like she'd been given improved access, but that made no sense. Who'd have done it? Before her were reports of the seers, the exarchs. Recordings of the events. They entranced her. Before, she'd felt that mistakes had been made, but had never been sure what they were. Now she knew. She was absorbed, possessed by learning, obsessed by the need to master the art of war.
But why? It was the seers who led, the warriors who fought. It had always been done that way.
And yet, they were wrong! Amun Tower should have been held, except that Orhedron had moved the superheavies too far forward, needlessly bringing them into range of the Red Guard weapons, even though the tanks outranged the primitive human laser cannons. It was a waste!
Her trance was broken by the hot scent of food that had appeared beside her, oozing out of the wraithbone as it was teased and shaped from flesh and plant to energy and particles, and then back. She shook her head. This whole obsession was wrong. There was no Path of War, just the Paths of Warriors, and the Path of the Seer.
Was the hand of She on this, leading her into damnation? Was she, Ilsana, going to try and command the Eldar and send them to their doom?
Hungry, she wolfed the flesh and fruit down, crunched the sweet seeds, her mind consumed with the Path of Eating. Too soon she finished, and looked back up at the paused video of a Tempest tank being destroyed by human fire, laser light, reflecting off the dust raised by the tank's motion, wasted energy flashing as the laser cannon punched through into one of the primary energy batteries. Half the image was washed out by the sudden release of the stored power shattering the tank.
So senseless, so wrong.
With an effort of will she tore her mind away and thought about the trip to battle. She wasn't worried about it as she'd been there before, and would again. The Exarch would take care that all she really needed was packed. Other than that she'd only take a couple of tomes to read. Ancient, ivory bound works on war and tactic-- No! She'd leave them behind. She would practice and meditate. Clear her mind of She.
She would not fall like her race had!
Her eyes drifted up to the paused recording. She'd have done it differently. Held the tanks back, kept the reserve against the teleportation assault that Orhedron had known was coming--
With a physical effort, she dragged her mind away, turned her head to look at the moonroses as they whispered their quiet pleasure at light and carbon and water. Leaping to her feet, she threw on a robe and stalked out.
The hallway was quiet, dimmed for the night. Even here, after millennia drifting between the stars, they maintained the schedule of their lost worlds, consumed so long ago when their race had failed the test the universe had provided. Closing her eyes, she remembered the betrayal when Yriel returned to Iyanden, and the vote to leave him. They'd followed him when he'd been driven from Iyanden Craftworld. And when he'd gone back to Iyanden, invited back to live as the honoured High Admiral by those who'd driven him out, they'd refused, and Yriel had abandoned them. Without him they'd wandered, letting the bloodlust sink into their souls, feeling the call of She Who Thirsts consuming them. And finally they'd been guided here, to lost Haras ag Iadonna, empty and drifting for so long. A chance for redemption, for peace. A rest that she, that all of them, had so sorely needed. Shakarandras, so many other refugees lost and hopeless in the eternal wars. And even after having taken so many aboard, the craftworld was still so agonizingly empty.
Shaking her head to clear the memories, she made her way into the largest of the garden domes. There she checked out a pair of wings, similar to those of the Path of the Hawk, but softer, slower. Where the Hawk flew in quick spirals, made sudden changes and jumps, dove to the ground and snapped their wings open at the last instant, these were for gliding, for simple curves.
For peace, not war.
Dropping her robe, she strapped them on her naked body, closing her eyes as the tiny souls in the wings melded with hers, as the wings grew painlessly into her flesh, becoming part of her. An artificial organic compound bound to her soul, transforming her into a silent winged bird. She flapped strongly, once to get the feel, and a second time to leave the ground. Unlike the Hawk wings, there were no jets, no massively powerful gravitic drives, for such weren't needed for the quiet flight these were made for.
Soaring upward, she left the dark leaves of the trees below, arcing high up towards the dome, clear now so that the stars shone down, cold and hard, reminding them eternally of what they'd lost. Here and there was the spark of a sheltered spirit, at rest in the wraithbone, dreaming of life. Souls peering down at the glittering energies of the trees and brush, which was how they perceived the world from beyond the grave.
For hours she swooped and soared, curving and arcing through the quiet air. The only sounds were the rush and tug of wind past her ears and over each feather of her wings, the rustle of leaves, the occasional screech and cry of night hunters. Once she stalled, listening, as in the distance, something screamed, and then fell silent. One of the night hunters had found a prey, something small and helpless. Something now dead.
Such was the universe.
The artificial dawn was just beginning, the great glistening crystal starting its glide along the outside of the dome to create the illusion of day, when she landed on the shore of a quiet pool. She and Belfessus had come here often. All around trees sprouted, the old ones fading and falling, their spirits safe from damnation, to fertilize their young. Looking down, she watched a multi-finned fish slither and glide amongst the rocks. A life so simple, so peaceful. Until something ate it.
Undoing the straps, she let her wings slide to the ground, their pscyhoplastic material separating from her body, their tiny souls sighing as they lost consciousness and fell into sleep. She dove her hot sweaty body into the cool water, her form barely splashing, and began to swim. Like all else, swimming was a Path, though a minor one.
Deep beneath the surface the blood stone glowed, its fire bursting across her chest, and her mind was swept away into memories--
Ilsana stood in the midst of a great city. Tall arching buildings surrounded her, but she stood on a plain of decorated metal and concrete. All around was the roar and scream of engines as shuttle after shuttle took off, arcing into the skies. Each struggled to rise, overloaded with screaming panicked people, their gull-swept wings grabbing at the thick, almost liquid, air. Crowds of the screaming damned swirled everywhere, their clothes torn and dirty. The sky was blood red, and the heavens above swirled and heaved with waves and currents of crimson and purple energies, shapes and streams that looked more like hands than tornadoes, stretching downward, grasping for the souls of the panicked hordes around her. She could feel the universe pulsing in her soul, rippling and grinding, screaming in waves of hate and love from birth pangs as She was born from the soul of the Eldar.
A hand grasped her shoulder and spun her around. "We have to go, now! The transport can't wait much longer. It comes!"
With an almost audible snap, her soul returned to her body, returned to the present. Lungs quivering, she burst to the surface, sucking in air as her limbs splashed and struggled. The glowing crystal was just above the trees now, and its blue-yellow light scattered through the leaves as the blood red glow faded from her chest.
What was this stone? She grasped at it as she stood on the bottom of the pool, feet settling onto the rounded pebbles. Maybe she should just throw it away, but that would be so wrong. She'd ask the seers about it later today--
Today! Memories burst upon her, and she remembered that she had to get ready to leave. The ship wouldn't wait!
Stalking onto the shore, she shook her head to clear the memory. It wasn't hers, but it was. And she knew it. She knew that she'd seen the final exodus to Haras ag Iadonna as She had been born. The doomed exodus.
Shivering, and not from the cold, she strapped the wings to her body and took off after giving them the seconds they needed to grow into her. No grace. She had to get going, gather her books. No, she'd leave them! She refused to lose her soul to She.
Her blood sang at the memories of what she'd done, at the knowledge that it was battle she was heading for. Clean battle on the Path of the Scorpion, her soul safe on its Path, her spirit stone to protect it from She safe on her breast.
She wouldn't be late.
Life aboard the Ashintar quickly settled into routine. Eat, sleep, practice, rest. Yet, Ilsana wasn't happy. Submerging her mind to the spirits in the suit, being the Scorpion, she worked with the others, and Tansilas only looked at her from time to time. But, she was restless! Part of her wanted to fly, but there was no room aboard the ship. Instead, she took to standing in the observation lounge, looking out into the Warp where She lived. During travel the room was normally empty, sealed, but it had opened for her.
She was standing there, leaning on the polished wooden railing, standing on the worn sealwood floor, looking out through the transparent dome and across one of the flicking orange-red warp sails of the great vessel. Beyond them, through the flickering shields, was the raw energy of the Warp: curdles and streamers of light and fire, waves of coolness and bubbles of quiet. She could feel a faint vibration of pulsing energy, could hear the deep grumble of bound and unbound forces. With one hand she caressed the bloodstone on her chest.
She hadn't taken it off, some part of her refused, and that worried her.
The field shimmered and flashed, and a hideously distorted face stretched around it. Eyes flashed with mindless hunger, teeth slavered and tore at the protective fields, before the thing was swept away by the currents and the ship's motion. Ilsana shuddered.
"So you're the one--" an old voice whispered.
Ilsana spun around, and looked into the pale face of Milanus, the seer in charge of the expedition. "Seer--" She bowed, not meeting his eyes.
"There are safer places aboard the ship."
"Something draws me here."
A wordless hunger scraped at their souls, and they both turned and watched a gibbering thing scratch and claw at the fields defending the ship before being swept away by the currents of the Warp.
"Those are not the ones that should worry you Ilsana."
"You know my name?"
"I know many things. Those that break upon our shields are the mindless hungers, the ones who've been abandoned by the Chaos powers. The powerful ones lurk and wait, massing, watching us. They know they'll never break in, so they wait for the rare weakness--
The bloodstone glimmered with crimson fire, and Ilsana's mind was ripped from the present--
She was cocooned on the bridge of the Ashintar. The crew of Eldar vessels were cocooned, their bodies kept safe, whilst their minds merged and joined with each other, and with the mind of the ship. And, through the warp, each ship merged with each other in the fleet. Within the gestalt each member was an individual, and part of the whole at the same time. Ilsana, though in communication with the gestalt that ran the mighty vessel, and the fleet, wasn't part of it. All around her she could see the flickering waves and patterns of the Warp. It wasn't like it'd been through the dome; now it was a raging storm. Blasts of deep red and orange pressed up against the shields of the Ashintar and the shields of the flock of refugee ships she was escorting towards the trading vessel Haras ag Iadonna. All around, currents crashed and twisted, seething with energy. The Warp was crowded with faces, things of claws and teeth and virtually nothing else. They tore at the shields of each of the ships, screaming their rage and anguish as they were denied.
Behind was the dying world they'd fled. In the warp it was a glowing beacon of life, once silver-fire, now deepening to purple-tinted pink. The glimmer wasn't steady, it bubbled and roiled, growing and shrinking as its colour deepened. Energy erupted from it and stretched out towards the refugees, almost like an arm, no, something else. Seductive, beckoning, calling the Eldar to it.
But none wavered.
The arm darkened, claws extended from it and swept across the three rearmost transports. They touched the psychic shields, energy sparkled and glowed, and then the shields failed as the claw faded. Instantly, the things rushed to the rear, pouring into the crippled ships, fading into corporeal existence to tear and eat the delicacies that were Eldar souls.
Around her the gestalt of the fleet wavered as the screams of the dying ran through it. Images flashed, refugees screaming as their souls were ripped out of them by mindless, faceless hungers that glowed and shimmered, crew were ripped apart, souls screeching as they were shredded and fought over, before the shreds were sucked down to the planet they were fleeing. Other ships slowed, turned, began to tumble. The fleet began to break up.
"Captain!" she mentally called. "Tell everyone to get out of the fleet gestalt. Each ship runs alone. It's our only hope!"
The captain screamed back, just hanging on to sanity. "I'll try, Autarch--"
--or failure. Then they pounce, ripping their way in and feasting on the delicacies within us."
Ilsana collapsed against the window, its pane cold even through her shirt. Shaking her head, trying to bring the world back into focus.
"Are you all right?" Milanus asked.
"Sometimes they can reach in, but only with a shadow. Maybe your mind felt--"
"No-- No--" She turned to him. "Seer, I was there. Aboard this ship as she fled the homeworlds. I saw--" She shuddered. "I saw She reach out and rip ships open. I saw them-- them--"
"It's the past--"
"I saw them feed!"
The seer grabbed her shoulders, shaking her, violently, as the glow of the bloodstone faded. "Ilsana, it's the past. Long ago. The shields are firm, we're safe. Completely safe."
"I felt Isha cry!"
Milanus looked at her. "Child, Isha is dead, destroyed with all the other gods by She Who Thirsts. It's the past, nothing more. It was a horrible time, the time when we failed. But it's done!"
Ilsana shuddered and fought back tears.
"That is why we fight Ilsana. We fight to try and stop that from happening, to bring hope."
"Ilsana, let me show you something. Get your mind off it. It's the past. Remember it, honour it, but don't let it consume you."
The seer reached into a pouch and drew out runestone after runestone. First was a glowing purple-red stone, the Rune of Conflict. Releasing it, the runestone hung there. Then a tiny silver stone, the symbol of an opening or gate which he released to orbit tightly around the first runestone. Following it was a black stone, death, and it spun tight around the rune of the gate, touching it. More runestones were drawn, the Rune of the Human, just facing their trial. It spun tight around the purple-red rune. More stones were drawn, the Tau, the Orks, the Necrontyr, the beckoning pinkish-purple inversion that was She. And the Eldar. Each rune orbited about the purple stone in the middle as they danced around each other in a complex, ever changing configuration.
"Ilsana, we go to the world Syl ag Iadel. It's an old world that may once have been a Maiden World, but all that's left now is dust and rock. The terraforming, if there was any, either failed, or only lasted temporarily."
"Then why are we going?"
"We're going because Shakarandras," Ilsana couldn't help but hear the revulsion in his tone, even though he tried to hide it, "ordered us too."
She motioned towards the Rune of War. "We're going to help the Tau and the Human then?"
She looked at him, and then looked at the runes as they clustered. In one group were the Human and the Tau. In the other-- She couldn't believe it. Clustered tight with the Rune of the Eldar were the Orks, the Necrontyr-- even the inversion that was She--
"You see it then. We fight alongside She."
"But-- but-- why?"
"Because Shakarandras has ordered it. His hatred for the Imperium has blinded him to all else. Child, it's a narrow path we must tread. We fight the Tau, but we're allied with them -- the act that cost Shakarandras his mortal existence. We're allied with those who serve She, but must still resist them. What Shakarandras has ordered is that we encourage our enemies to fight one another whilst we do what we must."
"What must we do?"
"There's a gateway buried -- there were Eldar here once. It's quiescent, but we must close it forever." He looked at her. "The Necrontyr are rising, and soon we'll all have to fight for survival."
She nodded, and then stood watching the runes orbit and spin, closing and separating. The paths of the future were there she knew, but she could not read them. Only the seers could. "This is the future we need to make real?"
He pointed to the gem that represented Syl ag Iadel. "Shakarandras is sending us here for his reason, for his personal revenge. He sees only the future he wants, not the futures that we must fight. I'd have refused to lead this expedition if this path was our only hope for the future. As long as Shakarandras remains consumed by his hatred, all the others are too dark to contemplate."
"Then why do we not war?"
"We do child. We war with ourselves."
She bowed. "As you will, Seer. But first," she fingered the blood stone. "I have a question."
He looked at her, expression unreadable behind his helmet which he never took off. "Ask then."
She held up the blood stone. "I was given this, but someone-- it attracts me, but-- Seer, is this stone safe? Or is it a tool of She? What should I do?"
Milanus looked at her, raised an arm slightly towards the blood stone, and then let it fall to his side. She'd have sworn he looked sad, but there was no way to tell, no face to read. Like the Exarchs, the greatest of the Seers were trapped, spirits inside their suits.
"Child," he said, his voice sounding ancient and tired. "The blood stone is safe. Keep it close by you, guard it and it will guard you. Learn its lessons."
"Ilsana-- You need to get going. Tansilas is looking for you -- you're late you know. And stay in your quarters the rest of the trip. It'll be better for you."
Nodding, he turned and looked out the window as she hurried back into the ancient wraithbone depths of the ship.
Syl ag Iadel was a dead world, covered entirely in brown-red dust and desolate rock outcroppings long worn by the ceaseless wind. The Ashintar was not the first of the Eldar forces to arrive; Bonesingers and a small force had been there for a while preparing the landing site and the main base. It was still quiet; the Eldar and their allies controlled local space. So far there was only a minor Imperial presence, though everybody knew there was more on the way.
The Haras ag Iadonna base was being constructed around the ruins of a long abandoned outpost. The curves reaching for the gray sky with faint wisps of cloud, the tarnished ivory materials, all suggested that Eldar had built it. Most of the work had been repairs: singing to life the tiny spirits in the buildings and the control systems, fixing cracks and areas shattered by eons of freeze and thaw, cleaning out the fine red dust that got into everything.
The Vampire class dropship Allarielle settled onto its landing pad without incident. It had finished the descent solely on antigravs as this wasn't a combat drop, and thus there was only a faint cloud of dust blowing away from its armoured underside, the heat of re entry pouring off it in visible waves swirling the red-brown powder. Syl ag Iadel had roughly two thirds standard Eldar gravity; the dust would be carried by the wind for hours.
Ilsana was seated near the nose of the dropship, at the front end of the long transport compartment. Her body was clothed in the worn material of her undersuit, and the mail was over top. Armoured boots protected her feet and lower legs, plates protected her knees and thighs and arms, and thick overlapping sheets of the same psychoreactive plastic protected her chest. Life support and communications equipment were in the tiny backpack that was part of the upper body armour. The armour had been tinted in the colours of Haras ag Iadonna, those colours derived from what Yriel had adopted so long ago. The leg armour was crimson, representing the blood caused by Yriel's betrayal, the chest armour and backpack were blue, and the knee and crotch pads were yellow. On her left was her pistol, holstered, on her right her sword, sheathed.
Others before her carried bags over their shoulders containing books, games, music, instruments. A few, including her brother, had pulled the respirator out of the helmet and slipped it on, their breath rasping faintly through it. Ilsana hadn't bothered, the air was classified as breathable, and she'd been in far worse.
Like the others, Ilsana carried her yellow, grey-striped, helmet under her arm. It would go on only when battle was imminent. And, as always, Tansilas was in full armour.
Ilsana's squad disembarked last, following a squad of Banshees also carrying their helmets at their side, their power swords sheathed. Already the ramp was powdered with the omnipresent dust so that as Ilsana paced down, she carefully planned the placement of each foot. The air was dry, icy, her breath misted faintly in front of her. And it was thin, so thin that her breathing quickened as her lungs struggled to pull out enough oxygen to survive. A couple of the others coughed at the dust, but Ilsana refused, even though her throat itched.
Most of the dust had been blown away from the landing zone, so her first step onto Syl ag Iadel was a clack onto the ancient igneous rock, cracked and polished to a dull bronze. Dust powdered in the crevices, and tiny zephyrs danced around. Behind her the door began to raise up, and the engines begin to rev up as the Vampire took off, its massive gull-shaped form and forward-swept wings straining up into the sky as the antigravs kicked in. Ilsana braced herself slightly against the gravitational force as she kept marching towards the designated barracks.
Ilsana hadn't let herself have much time to think during the rest of the trip. As Milanus had suggested, she'd thrown herself into endless practice, both with Tansilas, and on her own. She'd focused her mind, thrust away the memories of other Paths of War, and had had no more visions. Half a dozen times she'd lifted her spirit stone from around her neck and reached to try and pull the blood stone off, and half a doze times she'd dropped the necklace back around her neck.
As she marched, she looked up, the sky pale and gray, the light of the system's primary dull and red, turning the few tiny clouds that stretched their fingers across the sky crimson. Ripping her eyes away from the desolation, she turned and looked towards the looming tower and associated outbuildings. The base was smaller than the vast fortifications that had been constructed around Amun Tower, and a lot of the ruins had remained been untouched, still slowly giving up their life to ruin. Bonesinger squads, with the aid of Guardians -- Eldar not on the Path of the Warrior but who still served their craftworld by supplying artillery crew, vehicle crew, and support infantry -- were pouring the foundations for fixed weapon emplacements. The actual weapons and psychotronics were in the turret, which were part of the cargo shipped from the craftworld. In the distance a runway had been cleared, and she could make out a short line of swept-wing Nightwing fighters, and gull-winged Phoenix bombers. A tiny fraction of what the craftworld could field, but still impressive. Parked further along were ranks of Wave Serpent transports and Falcon and Fire Prism assault tanks. All the vehicles were coloured a deep and glistening blue, their undersides blood red as were their weapons. Crew worked around them, their canopies were closed to keep out the dust. Even with all the care, everything was tinted with rust from the fine dust.
As they reached the entrance to the tower complex, the massive armoured portal recently installed gaping open, a Guardian handed them each a canteen of water, warm but fresh. Ilsana sucked down a few swallows, rolling the liquid around her mouth before swallowing. Other let their respirators fall to their chests as they drank. The Guardian whispered to Tansilas and Tansilas nodded and led them off. Ilsana, still mostly herself as the blood had not been painted and the helmet was off, blushed a little and cracked a small smile as she walked past Alladrios. They wouldn't do anything here, each had the bloodlust of death on their souls, but maybe later--
The hallways hadn't been touched -- lights were strung intermittently along the ceiling shaping the passage into pools of light and shadow. It was made mostly of rock, carved and worn by footstops of those long forgotten. Unlike Haras ag Iadonna, the walls were bare, naked rock and concrete that tore at her gloves with their rough surface. Turning down the hallway after Tansilas, Ilsana felt a cold chill soak through her. If she hadn't been primed by the armour, she might have fled, but instead she was able to stand and keep walking as Milanus paced by, his robes rustling against the wall, and behind him, armoured feet thunking on the floor, came-- She stopped, blinking her eyes in disbelief. She hadn't really believed when Milanus had told her, but now--
As one, her squad turned so that their backs were against the wall. Ilsana's hand was on the hilt of her sword, as were those of the rest, and her helmet was already moving towards her head when Tansilas lowered his arm. The squad relaxed, their helmets once more held snugly against their sides. Ilsana still kept her hand on her sword.
Behind Milanus marched a trio of humans, but not humans of the Imperium. They had fallen, sold their souls to chaos, to She in exchange for what they thought was power. She could feel their souls, feel She inside of them, and her blood stone flared up drenching their pink armour in a blood-tinged glow. The trio stopped, and the leader turned and looked at her. His armour was pink, a blood-tinged pink edged in gold and purple. The chest was black, and a mouth gibbered and whispered below a pair of massive feminine breasts, ichor dripping out the sides of the mouth and down each of the warrior's legs. His shoulders and arms were massive, far larger than the frame should be able to support. The shoulder plates looked to be black metal, edged in gold, with a leering face stretched over one that silently screamed at her, and a rough beaten eight-pointed star of chaos decorating the other. The thing looked at her, and her soul quailed; she might have backed away, or struck out, or screamed, except for the warmth that soaked from the blood stone into her.
Its face looked at her, a mashed thing of two heads either pulling apart or squishing together. One head, the partial one, had a long snake-like tongue hanging out, licking the armoured breasts, the other had deep ancient eyes that glared at her. From that head spiralled goat horns twisted, their ends purple and soft. Between its legs its armour softened, shaping and stretching into a familiar organ, greenish ooze dribbling out of the growing tip. Below it lips smacked and gurgled. A seductive odour of sex and blood twisted into her nostrils, and it was all she could do not to gag at its thick cloying feel.
"If you come with me," the voice whispered, "I'll show you pleasure such as your ancestors never knew." The face winked. "You can join me, have them serve you as slaves, as they serve me. They still know how to scream." Its tone wasn't one of eagerness, but one of absolute boredom. She knew that he was damned, eternally in quest of new sensations that he could never find.
Ilsana glanced around. Behind the chaos marines were three Banshee Exarchs. Their bodies were tense, plumed helmets watching the chaos marines, double handed power weapons drawn, the energies crackling and hissing as the blades moved above the Exarch's heads, ready to strike. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Tansilas grasp her brother's arm to keep him from drawing his sword. The others in the squad remained silent, but she could feel them watching her. Her knees wanted to shake, she wanted to collapse into a crumpled heap on the floor, but she refused to give that thing the satisfaction. Before she realized it, she spoke: "I slew the daemon Perlanthor. Killing you isn't worth my time."
For a moment there was silence. Nobody breathed. Ilsana had no idea where that had come from, and yet she knew it was true. In her mind she could see herself standing on a plane of flesh, spouts of blood bursting, as the daemonic servant of She, the Keeper of Secrets Perlanthor, marched towards her, its thigh high spiked boots pricking the ground so that it bled with each step.
She'd never been there, never done it, but her muscles, her mind, remembered the grinding of her chainsword through the daemon's chest as it died. She knew then that part of her had done the deed. Or at least that she had memories of doing it that she'd never had before.
For a timeless moment the Slaneshi Lord, a thing that had once been human ten thousand years ago, looked at her.
A puff of sweet smelling pinkish smoke hissed from the exhaust of one of the marine's backpacks, and eyes blinked, the moment broken. The Lord turned and stalked off, his armoured boots clanking on the floor. Behind him and his bodyguard, the three Howling Banshee Exarchs relaxed, returning their flickering and crackling power glaives to a ready position as they followed the marines.
"Come," Tansilas said. "Let us settle, and then go through the positions."
The tension fled from them, and they all turned and followed, Ilsana last. Looking back, she watched the chaos marines vanish past a curve in the hall.
She couldn’t take this any more!
They'd only had three days at the main base before being sent to an advance outpost as a garrison. And there they'd sat. Practice had been outside in the dry dust at the base of the looming cliff, and the only excitement was helping the guardians shovel the dust away from the bunker entrances each morning.
She should have brought reading material, she really should have, but she knew it was wrong! And, she wasn't sleeping well, still having nightmares about that thing she'd confronted the day she'd arrived. At least she hadn't had any more visions. And, Belfessus was improving -- he might actually live through his first battle, if they ever had one.
The rumour mill stated that the humans and Tau had come in force and were pressing hard against the other allies, but for them there was just silence. A recent rumour said that a force of the human Red Guard had destroyed one of the other Eldar outposts, but nothing had been confirmed.
And now, they were all inside the transports, parked, waiting. Ordered there by Milanus after he joined them this morning. Meanwhile, the flyovers by Nightwings had increased, the scream of their passage sinking into her bones. Her mind nagged at the problem -- why were they waiting in such a state? With the tanks parked, they didn't have the defense of their speed and had to depend on their armour, weak compared to that of the humans. If the enemy was coming, why not circle the base, or even better yet hide up on the cliff?
Unless it was a trap? Were they bait?
For hours she'd sat there with the brothers of her squad, all silent and staring. The blood rune had long since dried on their foreheads, they were ready except for the helmets which were racked above them. Inside the transpport compartment of the Wave Serpent it was crowded, the only sound the click and whirr of the ventilation fans as they ran for a few minutes, and then hummed to silence. The air was hot, dry; it stank of their unwashed bodies. The sanitary facilities at the base were next to non-existent.
Ilsana wanted to kick something, but there was no room.
Glancing around with her eyes, she watched the others seated on the too small seats, their bodies pressed against each other. The dim red-yellow light that ran along the centre of the roof cast their faces in shadows, cast their armour in crags of light and darkness.
If this were a trap, then a trap for whom? She'd heard no rumours of any human or Tau movement. The pilots of the Phoenixes mentioned nothing when they landed with supplies. The Rangers crept around, staying to themselves. They might know, but they weren't talking.
Belfessus scratched his neck, and a few squad members turned their heads to watch. Something was going to happen today, everybody knew it. There was a feeling, a pregnancy of the air. She could feel something calling to her soul, knew the others could feel it to. It wasn't She--
Tansilas’s cold voice echoed through the transport: “It is time.”
With a clackle of wraithbone plates, the rest of the squad pulled their helmets from the hooks and Ilsana followed. The helmet was the final step in her transformation into cold, analytic warrior and it slipped easily over her head, its weight making sure it settled snugly, yet loose enough to let her hair hung out and down her back. All uncertainty, all nervousness, all fear, vanished and was replaced with a cold hatred. A thin red film drenched her vision and she was ready. Cold, hard, certain. She'd do what it took. The minor spirit in the helmet meshed with the minor spirits in the armour and, with a click, cool fresh air hissed from the tanks on her back and into her lungs, to be filtered and the carbon dioxide expelled through the grill of the respirator. Shaking her head, the helmet settled comfortably and she looked around, her sensorium expanded. She could see all around her. Status readouts flashed through her mind, and in one corner of her sensorium an exterior view showed a Wraithlord advancing towards the Wave Serpent. It was a huge Eldar construct for war, a towering elder-like figure of wraithbone and weapons containing one of the spirits of the dead as a soul. It strode forward, its long heavy legs sinking into the dust as the dim sun glittered off its massive eyeless head.
A Wraithlord? By Khaine, it was Eldar they were fighting! But-- Of course, most Eldar would fight against those who'd sided with chaos, with She. But she was one of those-- The rage in her soul pushed all those thoughts aside. The Wraithlord was the enemy, the attackers were the enemy, and they'd all die. Nothing else mattered.
With a rising whine and a jerk, the Wave Serpent rose off the ground, antigravs kicking dust up around it as the turbines started to accelerate it forward. She could sense the small spirits flowing through the wraithbone, warming up the weapons turret and turning it towards the enemy mechanism as the transport accelerated.
The acceleration wasn't enough. A bright flash burst from the massive weapon on the Wraithlord's shoulder and the transport jerked forward as one of the turbines spun out of control, the compartment vibrating with increasing force. With a loud clack every member of the squad grabbed bracing rails. The vibration quickened, becoming audible, a high pitched scqueal filtered down to bearability by the psychic field of the helms. Silence. A massive jerk. And the Wave Serpent smashed down into the ground.
Nobody said a word, just waited for Tansilas' order.
He pulled the manual release and the hatch scrunched down onto the ground. The Wave Serpent was canted at an angle, but they clackled down behind their Exarch, crouching behind the smoking wreckage that had been their transport.
The sky was a cold red-tinted silver, cloudless, glistening with sunlight. A faint black smoke rose from the wreckage around them, and the whine and snap of high energy weapons along with the shiver of unresolved psychic charges wavered across the battlefield like a faint mist. Under Tansilas’ command, her sensorium focussed, the rest of the battlefield fading into the distance. All their senses focused on the Wraithlord advancing towards them with a slow, deliberate pace. A small fraction of Ilsana shook in fear and awe as the enemy Wraithlord peered at her soul, seeing her as a glimmering spark of life. A larger fraction wanted to look around, to analyze where the squads were, where they should go.
She forced both down.
With the rest of the squad she began creeping over the crashed form of the transport. Small bits of scarred wraithbone broke under her fingers, and she felt the semi-sentients inside flowing into the attached prepared crystals for later reuse. A bone spider scuttled out of the way and crawled into the damaged engine already beginning repairs.
Something grabbed at her, called at her blood, and her head involuntarily turned. It was a burning brightness, a psychic presence, forcing its way into her mind, into her blood, and her soul strained to answer its call as the blood stone glowed. For a second she watched as a squad of Eldar on the Path of the Banshee ran, no bounded, across the reddish-powder. She remembered when she'd been among them, the red plume of her helmet flicking in the wind as she ran lightly and gracefully, the crackling of her power sword as it hummed and struck and reaped-- But now she was on the Path of the Scorpion. Her eyes were drawn after the Banshees, watching as their lightly armoured forms leapt into the enemy guarding the Avatar of the Bloody Handed God. The Avatar! A splinter of Kaela Mensha Khaine! She must follow the Avatar, fight for Khaine-- Shaking her head, she forced herself to think. It wasn't her god, wasn't Haras ag Iadonna's fragment of Khaine, it was theirs! The enemy's Avatar--. Staring at the towering figure, heat pouring off it, she fought its call. Fought the call of the shard of Khaine, split off when he'd fled from his battle with She, fled to aid all of his children by leaving a fragment of himself to lead them in war when he was needed.
Tansilas pulled her mind back, helped her tear her gaze away, and made her focus on the enemy Wraithlord still recharging its weapon from its attack on the transport. She could see that she wasn't the only one who'd been distracted, for the Avatar's blood called to the bloodlust the ritual and armour raised in their souls. At Tansilas' order, the squad leapt to the attack, their souls flickering behind the psychic fields around them. At a steady jog they advanced towards the Wraithlord, their armour was too heavy to run in. Around them, the plates stretched and shrunk like extra muscles. The physical joy of movement filled her, the anticipation of what would happen, all of it cleared her soul of the Avatar's call.
Ilsana couldn’t hurt the Wraithlord, none of them could except for Tansilas, yet the rest of them were necessary. They were distractions, tools of the whole wielded by their Exarch. Crystal splinters spat from the tiny weapons on either side of their helmets followed by pulses of laser following along the path shaped by the splinters, but all they did was scar the surface of the enemy. Tansilas ducked under a grasping hand and tore a slice from one of the construct’s legs with his claw.
Staggering, it stayed upright. And then, with a speed that seemed impossible given its size, the Wraithlord grabbed Saniltes, snapping his spine, and then throwing him away. His body twisted and spun through the air, armour cracked, blood oozing out, before thudding onto the ground in a cloud of dust.
The dance continued, Tansilas ripping off chunk after chunk but never getting in a disabling blow. Each time the Wraithlord struck, a member of the squad died, crushed or ripped apart. Soon Ilsana's pistol was sadly empty, and only the psychic joining of the suits kept the squad from breaking. Barely half were left before Tansilas finally ducked under an outstretched arm and ripped the primary spirit-trunk out of the lower portion of the torso, isolating the soul inside the glittering spirit stone from controlling the monstrous construct. As one they leapt away, Belfessus among them, as the construct collapsed into the dust in a pile of limbs and weapons.
Tansilas motioned them down and they crouched behind the wreckage of the Wraithlord, the squad small enough now to be entirely covered. Pulling a replacement magazine from her belt, she yanked out the depleted one, and shoved in the new. A happy feeling informed Ilsana that her pistol was reloaded as she crouched; the rest were doing the same. Although enemy troops were falling, their Avatar kept them from breaking. Gradually the god was working its way through the Banshees, killing them one by one. Their blood dripped from its glowing sword as Eldanesh's blood dripped from its fist. Only a handful of enemy Guardians were left, their chainswords twirling in slow random motion, but there were only a handful of Banshees left too.
Both sides, the Guardians and the Banshees, both were lost to the bloodlust in their souls, the bloodlust fanned to a roaring fire by the Avatar amongst them. The thing was immense, a towering construct of glowing metal barely holding the fire of Khaine's splinter inside. It glowed red and yellow, the metal cracking and healing as it swung its immense sword, runes on it glowing white, as it slew and slew.
Ilsana watched the dance, her blood stone softly glowing as the violence called to it. She had no trouble resisting the Avatar's call now that she knew what it was. Looking around, she saw that the enemy army was mostly rangers, the force must have spent days sneaking across the red sand, avoiding patrols and flyovers. It might have worked, she thought, if they hadn't brought their god, for there was no hiding him. She realized now that she had felt him before the battle, and couldn't imagine how far away the seers must have sensed him.
Tansilas decided and motioned; as one they leapt over the wreckage and jogged towards the Avatar, the clackle of their movement across the rock and sand washed away by the Avatar’s psychic presence. With quick slices of whirring sword and bright spits of laser, Ilsana hacked her way through the remaining guardians. A long-practiced slice of her saw took one of the enemy in the chest, the whirring teeth splattering her arm with blood as the body shuddered and died, only sliding off the blade as she lowered it towards the ground. Beside her Belfessus staggered as shuriken tore through his chest and he fell to the ground, blood bubbling out through his respirator. Buoyed by the bloodlust roaring through her soul, Ilsana crouched behind her brother's body, and shot her happy pistol, taking out the Guardian who’d shot him with a cloud of shuriken.
And then only they and the Avatar were left. With disdainful ease it swung, sending the head of one of the Banshees spinning off into the reddish sand, blood spraying out as the soul fled into her spirit stone. Ilsana struck through the opening in the Avatar’s defense, her chainsword scraping against the near molten iron body, the heat and hatred making the spirits in her weapon cringe with terror. Leaping back, she dodged the swing of its sword as the god struck at her. That distraction was enough, as Tansilas seemed to climb its back and clasp the Avatar’s head in his claw, squeezing. The Avatar screamed, fire roaring from its mouth, as its iron skull began to crumple. Still it fought, swinging its massive sword around, cutting through the air and striking towards Tansilas. With a move she couldn’t follow, he deflected it, the Avatar’s weapon tearing teeth from Tansilas’ blade as it scraped along the biting edge. He never stopped crushing the god's skull.
The splinter of Khaine screamed louder, and then its head cracked and exploded, releasing a fountain of fire and hate into the heavens. Energy burst out, throwing them all back as the shell dulled and crumbled to the sand.
Tansilas slid to the ground in a cloud of reddish dust, and Ilsana crouched beside him. Somehow she knew that Tansilas knew, that they'd never cross the plain to the enemy in the face of the sniper rifle fire. The two of them, all that survived, readied their pistols. She peered around, knowing that the enemy was there, hidden in the sand, their chameleoline cloaks blending into the ground. Movement! A rifle barrel shifted slightly, sand falling from it, and Ilsana fired shot after shot, cloud after cloud of shuriken whizzing from her happy pistol, into where she knew the ranger must be. Razor sharp discs hummed through the air and then thunked into flesh and bone.
Splashes of red stained the chameleoline as the figure fell, jerking as he died.
With that the battle was over. A signal hissed over the common band into the headphones resting against her pointed ears, giving the order to cease. Lowering her pistol, still wary, she watched as Milanus spoke to the enemy as they requested to salvage the souls of their dead and withdraw.
Officially and ritually admitting their defeat.
As the enemy left, the survivors wandered around, almost aimlessly, gathering the spirit stones of the dead. Unlike aliens, both sides had been careful. No stones had been broken, She would get nothing from this fight.
Ilsana made her way back to where Belfessus had fallen; she could feel Tansilas looking at her but she didn't care. Feeling around her neck, she found the catch and released it, the rest of the catches clicking open so that the helmet sat loose on her head. She lifted it off and secured it to her belt.
The air was dry, cold. The once silvery sky was clouded in black smoke and the air was filled with the stench of death. She remembered battles against the humans, remembered the stench of their dead, the smells of oils and unguents and fuels-- None of that here. Just blood and death.
She made her way towards the carcass of their Avatar. Already it appeared to have been there for a century, its shell decaying before her eyes into a rusty red dust. Stepping across the bodies of the Guardians, empty now, the glittering stones on their chests removed, she made her way to where Belfessus lay. It was easy to find his body, to undo the catches of the helmet and pull it off. It was easy to look into his wide open, lifeless, staring eyes. Spittles of blood had dried on his chin, and she found it impossible to turn away.
She stood there, the sight of his form breaking through the bloodlust fanned in her soul by the rune and the helmet. With the helmet off, the blood had lost its power. It was still there, keeping her from wailing and tearing out her hair, but that was all. Leaning down into the dusty soil, she ran her gloved hand along his body, far too young to be dead, moving it up to the glimmering spirit stone on his chest.
Before it had been dull, lifeless, a piece of crystal. Now it glowed and shone, silver light glistening from inside in an ever-changing pattern, swirling with the warm colours of the soul it sheltered. She held it up to her cheek and felt the warmth of her brother’s soul through her tears as the blood stone took her away into memories.
So few who had fled the maelstrom had survived to make it to Haras ag Iadonna. So few out of what had been so many. The ship echoed hollowly, Eldar crouched in their quarters, sobbing, crying. Friends and families holding each other.
She'd taken command, one of the few war leaders to escape. Every night she cursed herself, knowing that she should have stayed behind, fought. Maybe she could have allowed a handful more to survive. Maybe--
A hand knocked on her door, wrenching her out of her self pity. Grabbing a tissue she dabbed away the tears as she stood. "Enter." Her harsh male voice echoed throughout her quarters.
The finely carved wooden door was pushed open, and Karadyrel stepped in. He was one of the handful of seers to survive the evacuation, and his eyes echoed the pain he must have felt at the disaster. "Autarch--"
"I should have stayed behind--"
"Autarch, what is done is done. You may have saved a few more, but more likely none of us would have escaped without your guidance. We need to think of the future now."
"What future?" Through her mind echoed memories of her parents, her grandparents, friends, families, those who'd served under her. So many, so very many, and all were dead. Turning away, she looked at the fresco on her wall. It spoke of love, obviously a gift of some kind for whoever had lived here before. But that person was dead, those who had given the gift were dead-- Even though it was unmanly, she leaned against the wall and wept.
"Autarch, you can sorrow. We all need to. But you must hold it back. I've spoken to the other seers, and we now know the true depths of our damnation."
"How can we be more damned!"
He swallowed. "Autarch, you know of the Warp, of the entities that live there?"
She just ignored him, lost in her sorrow.
"Ever since the Slann created us, children to aid them in their fight against the Necrontyr, there have been things there. With the rise of the humans, their souls have formed others. Now we have created our own curse."
That got her attention and she turned, looking at him through a blur. "How can we be more damned?!"
"Autarch. Our gods are dead. All of them, though there are rumours of the Laughing God-- it doesn't matter. They're dead, consumed by the child of our unbridled passions. The creature has a name, a form." He paused, his voice lowering to a whisper. "Slanesh."
"So?!" She wanted to beat him, to run a sword through his frail old body. What did the gods, the warp beings matter?
"Autarch, you don't understand. This Slanesh-- she's our curse. Before, when we died, our souls, our spirits, went to live with our gods. To rest and heal before being reborn into new flesh. It-- it-- they don't."
A cold chill swept through her. "What do you mean?"
"Our souls, all of them, go to She. And-- and-- they're destroyed. Utterly. Consumed. Twisted and warped and torn apart." He looked at her, pain in his eyes, body shaking. "There's no escape for us because, when we die, She eats our souls. Like-- like candy--"
She just stared, the meaning sinking in. She was so used to fighting, to winning. But she'd always been secure in the knowledge that she was loved, that she would come back. That there was hope.
Now there was none.
"Autarch, one amongst us, Eldrad Ulthran, has an answer."
"Do you recall the research into copying spirits to control engines? The High Council had ordered it abandoned--"
She did. The idea had been to build artificial constructs and then copy the spirit of an Eldar warrior to live in that body, and control it. Thus one warrior could be trained, and then provide the template for thousands of war constructs to fight. It'd been inspired by the Iron Men the humans had developed, the same that had turned on them, breaking their unified technic civilization into shattered fragments even as they were defeated. Ilsana nodded.
"It was ordered abandoned because there seemed no solution to the problem of a visual interface for the spirit -- it would need a living body as an anchor to guide it. And, every attempt to copy resulted in the soul being transferred out of the living body. They had no success returning them, and eventually the crystal containers were ordered destroyed."
"I never knew it went that far--"
"Eldrad proposes that we all wear these crystals, spirit stones he calls them. They'd be a haven for a souls, a refuge from She."
"A horrible fate."
"Far less than what we face otherwise. It's also temporary. We think we can modify the wraithbone we use, create conduits for the souls to live in, protected, sustained." He stopped and looked at her. "It gives us time to create a more permanent solution. It keeps the race alive!"
Her eyes turned bitter. "We failed. Our race is dead, we just haven't acknowledged it yet!"
"Autarch, believe what you will, but you have to tell the survivors. You have to make them listen. It's our only hope."
Shaking her head to clear it, she looked at Tansilas standing beside her. In a cloud of dust thrown up by its antigravs, a Vampire was landing, disgorging repair troops, and Guardians to gather up the dead. Even though the bodies were husks, their equipment would live on, and their flesh would return home to fertilize the forests that kept the air fresh and breathable for the living. She looked at him, at his gaze, knowing that he could no longer understand what had happened, considered the death only a pause, a delay before the next battle.
Kissing her brother's soul, she slipped the glimmering crystal into the pouch on her belt.
The next day the survivors were recalled to the main base, rotated with a new garrison. Ilsana certainly wasn't going to complain. With the helmet on she would have just shrugged, ignored her stench, and done her duty, but it wasn't on. The seers had assigned numbers to the showers at the main base, and she paced back and forth through the ancient halls awaiting her turn. When it finally came, she stripped and stepped in, letting the hot steaming water pour down her dirty and bruised body, and it was heavenly, like a gift from Isha, the ancient Goddess of the Harvest killed by She. After a few minutes of luxury, the steaming water pounding her back, she quickly soaped herself and scrubbed, then let the water rinse the brownish suds off. She stood there for a few more minutes before the water clicked off -- her time was up.
Stepping into the dryers, she let them suck the water off of her body to filter and recycle. She took back the ancient undersuit, it self cleaned, and slipped into it like an old friend. A quick trip to the washroom, and then off to the quarters she shared, now almost half empty, to sleep. Curling up on the hard mattress, holding her brother's spirit stone tight against her, she gave him what comfort she could. As to the blood stone, well, it had helped her against the Avatar, and Milanus had told her to keep it. Still-- She ended up falling to sleep with the blood stone nestled between her breasts.
The next day things returned to normal, or as normal as battle ever was. She dressed in her armour, everything except for her helmet, and went outside into the dry ancientness. It was colder than it'd been, and her breath misted in front of her in thick clouds. Joining Tansilas on the practice grounds, she noticed that two others of her squad were back on their feet. Lorizael had survived too, but he was being shipped back the Haras ag Iadonna as his wounds would take longer to heal.
Their squad had been joined by five others, all dressed and armoured but for the helm. She knew three of them, Eldar on the Path of the Scorpion from other squads that had been decimated by the Red Guard, or so it was rumoured. The last was Aya, a Guardian who'd come along as support, and who'd felt the call of the Scorpion. Today was his first day along that Path.
With disturbing ease she let the blood Tansilas painted on her forehead draw her into the ritual, and went through the moves with the others, going faster and faster as her mind wandered--
She was standing in a newly formed chamber, a circular room grown out of the raw wraithbone the seers had been calling into being. They were enlarging the trading vessel into a world, a craftworld it was being called, as they were crafting it into a world. There were others with her, survivors of the Fall, beaten, demoralized. Each was dressed in the general undersuit warriors had used for centuries. Self-cleaning, a semi-living material that survived from the cast off skin of the wearer, a material that would grow and heal itself.
In front of them was a massive figure, tall in looming helm. His armour was ornate, thick, heavy -- she had no idea how he could move in it. He bore a massive chain sword, ancient and ornate, sheathed at his side, and his right arm wore a massive power glove, a claw to rip and tear. Grossly oversized microlasers extended from either side of his headpiece, and he looked at her with a blank glare behind the ruby lenses in his helmet, towering and jagged. She could sense a darkness about his soul, a hatred, a barely simmering anger.
She remember standing at the webway entrance, the portal that led from the growing trade ship into the tangled tunnels that the Slann had created so long ago to provide instant travel between worlds through the Warp. Too small for ships, too small for most vehicles, they were the easiest method to get from planet to planet, from ship to ship, for an individual. But now they were dangerous, too many ways led to the lost homeworlds, twisted warped places of magic and insanity. Others went nowhere, their exits, anchors to reality, destroyed by the humans in their civil war, or by other forces. And there were rumours, lost Eldar who had been driven mad by the Fall living somewhere in the tangled corridors, building a city of darkness as they fed She souls they captured, bribing She to maintain a semblance of freedom. And it was whispered that the Harlequin were still there, hiding, regrouping. Ancient elite warriors created by the Slann--
"My name is Arhra." His voice was old, once seductive, but now twisted by hate. "You've all heard of Asurman, and his leadership in finding a new way for our race. Whereas before we had let our passions rule us, chose to do whatever we wanted, that way failed us.
"Our minds have incredible potential, and incredible power. We live within the world, not observe it from a distance like," he spit the word out, "humans. Whatever we do, we do with a total focus of concentration impossible to any other race. We become the skill, the ability, with all the physical and mental power we possess."
She remembered Asurman arriving, his massive plumed helmet barely fitting through the gate entrance. With him had been the greatest of the surviving seers, and from them had come the concept of Paths, a route to salvation for the race, or so Asurman had believed. She'd accepted his wisdom because no one could think of any better solution.
"We know, all of us, this curse that the Slann gave us to help them fight the Necrontyr. To manipulate the Warp, we had to experience the world. You," he motioned at the survivors around him, scarred, bitter, angry, depressed, "had the wisdom to not let the drug corrupt you. But, most of our people didn't. They failed to control their excesses, drank in experience after experience as a feast of life and power, and threw themselves into a decadent madness devoted only to doing, without care or concern."
She'd heard this, first from Asurman, and then from the others that'd followed, Fuegan, Baharroth, Jain Zar, the cold hatred that was Maugan Ra. As each had come, she'd listened to them, let them teach her. Some had appealed to her, Fuegan had taught her the Path of the Dragon, taught her to use the fusion gun which was an outlet for the burning hatred in her soul. Baharroth had taught her the Path of the Hawk, taught her to fly and take her hatred to the enemy. Jain Zar had taught her the Path of the Banshee, and introduced her to the sweet song of Battle. She'd been one of the few males, but Jain Zar had just smiled and hugged and told her that it didn't matter. The Path called to the soul. The Path of the Avenger taught by Asurmen, the Path of the Reaper taught by Maugan Ra, neither had grabbed her. In fact the Path of the Reaper had terrified her. But, she could feel the Path of the Scorpion already soaking into her, and knew it would forever be a part of her.
Grabbing the spirit stone around her neck, she clenched it tightly until it dug into her palm through the material of her undersuit.
She'd learn to fight again, learn to fight in this new way. And, with those skills, she'd lead her people to survival, and to victory.
"From the wisdom of our seers, under the guiding hand of Asurmen, we channel our desires into Paths. Rather than experiencing everything all at once, in an uncontrollable orgy of sense, we focus ourselves, our being, utterly on one skill. This is the Path we must walk, a narrow band of safety and focus that lets us grow, and keeps us from falling to She."
Ilsana nodded. She'd heard this all before, but there were refugees who hadn't. More made their way every day, ragged survivors of the holocaust. One room, deep in the core, had been hung with pictures, mementos, plaques with names, all to remember the lost, to remember the horror of The Fall. The refugees needed to hear this, needed to know why they had to focus.
The Paths were working, or so the seers said. Already, the mental disciplines of the Paths were spreading to other endeavours. Paths of the Microharp, of the Moonrose, of so many other things, were forming. It was a rigid chain, but it kept their souls safe from temptation, something the humans so badly needed to learn.
Turning her focus back to Arhra, she followed him through the motions of the Path of the Scorpion, of the Sudden Strike, of the Attack from Surprise, letting the ritual soak into her.
"You stray from the Path."
Shaking her head to clear the memories, she looked at Tansilas as the rest of the squad remained still, all looking straight ahead, none at her. She, swallowed, realizing that she wasn't wearing the wings of the Hawk, that there was not a fusion gun slung over her shoulder.
She shifted her limbs back into the proper position.
Tansilas reached out a hand towards her spirit stone. No, towards the blood stone. It was on top now, but she could still see her spirit stone as she glanced down. For a moment she panicked, but the warmth of the blood stone poured into her, reminded her of what Milanus had said. She managed to keep her hand off the softly glowing gem.
He touched it, and she felt his soul, all of the souls that resided in the Exarch suit, look and examine. They jostled for dominance, each of them greeting what resided in the blood stone. And the blood stone greeted the eldest. There was order as Tansilas withdraw his hand.
"Ilsana, you have a destiny. But, for now you are Scorpion. Remember that, or you won't survive long enough to become what you're fated to." He stepped back into the centre and raised his sword. Unlike on the craftworld, they were all using swords and pistols, not cane and imagination. "Resume."
Ilsana concentrated and fell back into the rhythm, but her mind spun. She had a destiny? What was the blood stone? Why was it so important that she had it, and that she not give it up. What was going on with it? If she hadn't known that the Seers had only the best interest of the race at heart, she would have ripped it off right there and then.
She forced her mind away from it, and focussed it on the Path of the Scorpion. Utterly focused it.
A month passed and the battles ground on whilst Ilsana and her squad drilled. Slowly they became a unit, a single tool for the Exarch's hand. Meanwhile, the rumours slowly got worse. Though no advances had been made on the Haras ag Iadonna positions, a raid sent against a human battle sisters outpost failed miserably. Only a few survivors got out on a Vampire.
The defeat was made even more horrific because of the fanatical nature of the female warriors. To them you were either human, or heretic. And the only thing a heretic deserved was death. Whereas with the Red Guard, and most of the imperial troops, you could negotiate a withdraw and be allowed to recover the dead, and their spirit stones, with the sisters there was no such honour. They burned the bodies and shattered the spirit stones. There were whispers that some were even kept as adornments.
News from orbit wasn't any better. Though the Haras ag Iadonna fleet had been triumphant, a human ship had accepted an offer of recovering her crew and sending them down to the human bases on the planet. When the Skinkal had moved alongside to take off survivors, the human ship had self-destructed, destroying the Skinkal with all hands. No spirit stones were recovered.
The news burned at Ilsana, she felt so helpless. The raid nagged at her, she wanted to know what'd happened, what'd gone wrong, but the survivors had been sent home. Nobody was talking. She wished more and more she'd brought the books with her, but studying them with such fanaticism had to be wrong. Just like the blood stone should have felt wrong, but it felt so right.
Each day she practiced, alternating between drills and more extensive simulations with other squads, spending the rest of her time pacing and watching. Clenching the blood stone in her fist, forgetting about her brother's spirit stone in her pouch, she dreamed of days ten thousand years ago. Dreamed of aiding the humans against the followers of Horus, the great human traitor who'd almost destroyed the human Imperium when he turned to chaos. Often she'd end up climbing to the roof of the central tower and looking out across the landing field as the cold wind blew her hair in complex tangles. Alone, she'd watch the takeoff and landing of Nightwing fighters and Phoenix bombers, contruction, repair, and the movement of patrols and practicing squads, all far below her. In her soul she knew the Haras ag Iadonna position was weakening, and yet Milanus kept them on Syl ag Iadel.
It didn't make any sense!
The lack of offence, of battles, suggested that the humans weren't attacking them. That the humans were avoiding them. Given the resistance the Haras ag Iadonna had put up compared to that from the other allies, she wasn't too surprised. Still, it seemed too silent. If she was in Milanus' position, she'd be sending strategic information to the Tau, using the old adage of Let's you and him fight.
She was at practice with her squad when Milanus interrupted them, pulling Tansilas away and talking to him for a bit. Though she strained to hear, she couldn't make out what they were saying, though her soul burned to know. After Milanus left, Tansilas turned and spoke: "Prepare for battle. We leave tomorrow at dawn. Take supplies for five days, including extra oxygen. The Bonesingers have it all ready for you. We'll meet back here." Then he turned and left.
Ilsana just looked after him. This didn't make any sense! Meet here? Not on a transport? Were they going to walk to the battle field? She could see that the others were just as confused. Licking her lips, drawing strength from the blood stone, she turned and walked back into the tower. There she'd shower, sleep, and what would happen tomorrow was what would happen.
Except she couldn't sleep.
As she had so many nights in the past, she spent the night on the roof of the tower, pacing back and forth, watching the aircraft take off and land. Lights shone to guide them in, and others glittered like fireflies as the Bonesingers worked to repair and refuel the craft for another patrol. Patrol, patrol, it was always patrol!
She must have dozed off standing there, as she woke up as dawn was breaking. The sky was dark, stars glittered, lights in the heavens moved as the starships above orbited and waited. Something boomed in the distance and she watched the horizon, watched lights flashing. Minutes later, the dull boom of human artillery rolled across the plains.
Ilsana stood there, watching, listening, as the thunder boomed and the lights flashed. From a distance war was often beautiful. The sounds and lights didn't die off until the sun was peaking above the horizon. Ilsana wondered what had happened, who'd fought, who'd won. Her soul ached to know, but the whispering wind didn't give up any answers.
Realizing the time, she ran downstairs and was with her squad on the practice field only a few minutes late, having picked up her pack from the Bonesingers whilst leaving Belfessus' spirit stone with them. She refused to risk it being damaged in battle. Not only were her squad of Scorpions there, but also a squad on the Path of the Dragon. Their armour was similar to hers, but it was smoother, cleaner, not as heavy, and the helmets had a thick stubby fin that ran along their back. Instead of sword and pistol, each bore the heavy form of a fusion gun, an arcane slow firing weapon that focused pulses of energy on the target creating great heat, enough heat to melt through the thickest armour. The fusion gun was a particularly horrific way to die as your body vapourized. With them was their Exarch, his armour heavier and more ornate, bearing an ancient gilded firepike, a heavier, longer ranged, version of the fusion gun.
Ilsana's fingers twitched, remembering the feel of a fusion gun, even though she'd never been on the Path of the Dragon, had never handled one. Still, she could remember firing it at a human marine in blue armour, white symbol on his shoulderpads. Could remember laughing as he screamed, the flesh melting from his bones.
A small part of her shuddered, but most embraced the memory.
It didn't take long for Milanus to arrive, accompanied by two warlocks, lesser seers, as bodyguards and assistants. One, named Karandrus, she knew. The other was a stranger. After looking around, Milanus spoke: "Proceed."
With that, both Exarchs pulled sealed bowls of blood from their belt pouches and quickly painted the appropriate rune on each of their followers.
Ilsana smiled, a feral smile, as the bloodlust rose in her, and eagerly snugged down her helmet when ordered.
Milanus had led them back into the tower, and down through hidden doors and stairs and ladders deeper and deeper into the planet. Soon the floor became covered in a fine powder, the detritus of ages from the rough-hewn stone ceiling and walls. And still they continued downward. One of the warlocks pulled a crystal from a pouch and blew on it; it began to glow a soft yellow, providing enough light for the vision systems in the helmets to function. A few hours later, the air became so stale, so ancient, so corrupted with dust and decay until it was no longer breathable, that they switched entirely to the oxygen in their suit tanks.
They slept that night with four, two of the Path of the Scorpion and two of the Path of the Dragon, always on watch.
Next day was more of the same as the group proceeded single file down endless labyrinthine passages. Every so often Milanus would stick a marker onto the wall to indicate the proper turn. It was a tiny fragment of wraithbone, with a tiny and frightened soul. Ilsana could hear it calling for them as they proceeded onwards into the stygian deaths.
Unlike more terrestrial planets, Syl ag Iadel was dry, utterly dry, the only moisture brought by the visitors, and this was reflected in the black depths they marched deeper into. There was no dripping water, no pillars joining floor and ceiling, no glistening falls of rock, just endless dry dusty passages. They were not carven, but formed in some ancient age as the rock cracked and heaved under long forgotten forces. Here and there were signs of ancient work, edges hacked at to make room to pass, rough hewn stairs carven into the eons dead rock to ease passage. But the work had been done long ago, and the party had to detour around massive slabs of granite that had plummeted from the black darkness far above to shatter on the floor in their path. Once the Fire Dragons had needed to carefully blast their way through an obstacle.
And the path itself was not clear. Other than what they left, there were no markings, except for the widely spaced signs of long forgotten labour. Often Milanus would pause and consult his runes. Regularly they'd proceed a ways to a dead end, having to retrace their path and try an alternate way.
Always they wandered deeper.
As time passed, Ilsana had to exert her will to keep her breathing steady. She could feel the uncountable tons of rock looming over her, pressing down and crushing her like a gnat. Others felt it too, and sleep grew short and pained, Eldar waking up with their weapons drawn, seeking some unknown enemy. The only ones not affected were Milanus and the Exarchs. Milanus kept searching out the path, and the Exarchs marched with them, keeping order, watching for traps, always on the alert for enemy, even though the passages had been abandoned for an eternity.
They stopped before a bridge stretching across a chasm. Unlike humans, nobody tossed down a rock, they were too intent on the Path of the Warrior to even conceive of something like that. And, at least in the case of Ilsana, she really didn't want to know. The bridge was artificial, made of some black rock, or rather metal that glistened in the dim glow of the crystal, somehow sucking the light into itself. Without warning the tiny spirit in the crystal screeched and died, sucked away into nothingness. Darkness plunged over them, but not the stygian dark Ilsana had expected. Instead, there was a dim radiance, a dark and oily green glow oozing from the metal of the bridge. It rippled, twisted itself into the mind, summoning visions of death and madness. What it promised made consumption by She seem clean in comparison.
Without a word, Milanus put the dead, cracked crystal back in one of his pouches. All of them refused to leave anything down here.
He stepped onto the bridge first, a thin arch of alien metal without railing or carven markings of any kind. As his foot touched it, a deep groan vibrated through all of their bones, almost beneath the threshold of their enhanced hearing. The light flickered, deepened, and seemed to flow towards Milanus, bathing his purple robes in a green phosphorescence that tinted them an oily black, the protective runes woven into the cloth glittering a sickly silver. One by one the marched onto the bridge, and even the Exarchs seemed to hesitate before advancing.
When it was Ilsana's turn, her entire body turned cold, her muscles became stiff as rock, and she was barely able to step forward. Icy coldness swept up her legs, sucking the warmth from her bones. But it wasn't a clean cold, it was a grasping cold, a hungry cold, a cold that wanted her warmth, wanted her warmth to destroy it. Heating elements in the backpack clicked on, and the body armour warmed, but it only slowed down the icy death, it didn't defeat it. Even the blood stone was muted, and Ilsana could feel the soul trapped within pressing against her, trying to crawl into her body to escape the hateful anti-life of the bridge.
Somehow she made it across, like all the others but one. Aya slipped, and fell into the depths screaming. Ilsana would have sworn that the bridge twisted, that it had come alive for an instant and thrown him off, but that had to be her imagination. He'd been in front of her, and she'd grabbed at him as he twisted, grasped for his arm, but her footing, or so she'd swear, moved, yanking her hand just far enough away that her grasping hand missed.
His scream took a long time to fade away into the deathly silence, and she never heard him hitting the bottom.
He was the only casualty.
The end of the bridge was almost three metres beneath the platform on the far side, and one by one they climbed up, easily finding foot and hand holds in the cracked and bitter stone. For almost an hour they all just stood at the far edge of the bridge, their exhaled breaths loud and rapid in the silence. Only the Exarchs remained unchanged, Tansilas stood at the edge of the bridge, ready in case something attacked, whilst the Dragon Exarch slowly circled around in front, watching for something from that direction.
Even Milanus was shaken, as it was a long time before he pulled another crystal from one of his pouches and summoned a spirit in to light it. The light glowed, brave in the darkness, and their eyes adjusted. They were on a platform, maybe fifty metres across, in the form of a half circle, the bridge canted at an unsettling angle from the arc, and the chord of the circle ending in a wall of rock. But it wasn't rock, it was the same black-green metal of the bridge, completely flat and stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see, an endless polished sheen of jade tinted obsidian. Only the ground they were standing wasn't made of that smooth alien metal. It was jagged and uneven, fingers of rock sticking up like grasping hands and shards of bone. Ilsana guessed that a massive chunk had fallen from the ceiling far above and landed here, shattering against the alien metal below, but providing a haven to stand on.
As they stood there, watching, the wall began to glow, the light sliding off it like oil off of water. Golden symbols appeared inside the surface of the metal, circles and lines and crescents in some kind of pattern that twisted at the mind. And none of them were perfect shapes, the arcs were ever so slightly off, the lines ever so slightly not straight. They were wrong.
"This thing must be sealed," Milanus' voice rasped in the headphones of her helmet. "It may once have been of the Eldar, but it has been corrupted. You must protect myself and the warlocks at all costs, just as we must succeed at all costs."
With graceful motions the two warlocks stood to either side of Milanus, and all three turned to face the shimmering wall and began chanting. Warp energy sparkled around their fingers, and the wall seemed to recoil even as the symbols grew brighter. A hint of the graceful arcs of an anchor for the webway shimmered in the blackness, and Ilsana saw what had been, saw the green paradise the planet once was. Before death had come.
As if she had seen the future, the ground all around then crackled and groaned; all around them it began to rise, age old rock shattering, falling like rain as something stood up. Something long buried, something that should have remained buried. Ilsana watched, unable to move, as hunched skeletal metal figures shook themselves out of the debris, ancient metal gleaming a dull polished silver as the dust slid off, seemingly repelled. Glimmering metal skulls turned to look at them, a green glow rose up into a baleful fire in the eye sockets as the soulless monstrosities looked around. They clambered out of the ancient rock as though climbing out a pit. Tarnished golden rifles appeared from beneath the dust and debris, clutched in bony fingers of metal. Transparent greenish barrels began to glow with a malignant radiance, lightning bolts sizzling inside as a faint hum of power groaned all around them.
"The Necrontyr--" someone whispered.
As if that was a signal, the skeletal metal forms stood to their full height. One of their weapons turned, focusing on the Fire Dragon who had spoken. Lightning arced, energies groaned and whined, and jagged fingers reached from the gun to the Eldar who'd spoken. For an instance the pit, the bridge, were lit in brilliant green silver, and then the Fire Dragon screamed. His armour dissolved off him, the wraithbone flayed into nothingness, its very atomic structure ripped apart. The tiny spirits screamed before they too were shredded. The Fire Dragon stood naked, silhouetted, and then his skin was ripped off, and then his muscles, and then his blood and organs. All of him wiped from existence, his body, even his soul. The spirit stone was destroyed too, shining forlornly for a second, but its destruction didn't matter for there was nothing for it to capture and nurture.
His bones clattered to the floor.
For a moment there was silence, except for the chanting of the seers. With a whine of machinery one of the heads rotated almost a hundred degrees, looking at Milanus.
As one, both Exarchs ordered, "Attack," their voices loud and clear in the silence. Long drilled reflexes kicked into play as the Eldar moved to fight their most ancient of enemies. Screams shattered the silence as they let loose ancient forgotten battlecries, a thin armour against the mindless destruction of the Necrontyr. Fusion guns roared, their energies shattering the air as they snapped into the Necrontyr melting and warping their ancient metal. Some went down, but more shook the blast off, whether it missed or something in the arcane technology of their construction saved them, it didn't matter. The Exarch fired his firepike, and the skull of one of the Necrontyr melted, falling in on itself as the steel body collapsed. Then Ilsana and the rest of the Scorpions were upon them.
With mindless efficiency, the Necrontyr shifted their grip on their gauss flayers, and swung them down, the twisted blades sticking out of the bottom of each barrel thirsting for life. Laser blasts from Ilsana's helmet reflected off one's armour, shuriken discs from her pistol shattered, shards flying in all directions, but her chainsword struck true, sliding between two of the metal ribs and deep into the hidden machinery inside. The thing groaned, screeched, and then silently collapsed in front of her. Even before its skull hit the ground, Ilsana had her sword free and striking at its neck, monomolecular edged teeth biting into the metal. The head canted, the neck cut half way through, as she brought up her pistol and stuck its muzzle into one of the thing's eyes. The spirit in the pistol quailed, but did its task and accelerated the shuriken discs outward. Something gave, metal cracked and ran, dribbling out the thing's head as it collapsed to the floor. The skull cracked open, spilling glittering golden machinery, etched in circuits that tried to draw the eye into their twisting innards, across the floor.
Others weren't so lucky. Though Tansilas held off his foes gun with his blade, and crushed its chest, Saaraine misjudged his defense. The Necron slid the barrel of its flayer along the screaming teeth of the chainsword and the blade dug into his chest. Blood oozed out, hoarded breath gurgled, and he slid to the ground. At least it was a clean death, his soul fled into his spirit stone which glittered and shone in the darkness. The Necron had only time to turn its head before energy from the firepike struck it in its chest. Gradually, hesitantly, metal melted, and the thing collapsed in on itself.
For a moment Ilsana felt hope, they were winning! But then the Necron she'd killed, no destroyed, began to stand. As she watched, gleaming metal seemed to flow as its skull began to reform from the jaw upwards. A swarm of gnats buzzed around it, looking like flies on a corpse as the thing rebuilt itself. Looking around she saw the others doing the same, all those except a few killed by the massive energies wielded by the fusion guns and firepike. One of the Necrons pushed itself upright with one hand, nothing surviving below the waist, and fired its flayer one handed at one of the warlocks. For a second Ilsana thought the rune armour would hold as it flared, but that was not to be. Like the Fire Dragon, the robes melted away as the flare died, and then the flesh, and then the organs, until the warlock's bones clattered to the ground.
And, unlike the Necrontyr, the warlock was not going to get back up.
More Necrons rose up out of the rock and dust surrounding them, remorselessly advancing. Weapons fire knocked them down, melted their forms, shattered the ribs that protected their inner workings, broke their skulls in half. But nothing stopped them. Time after time they would get up, bodies rebuilding themselves as flies, or were they tiny machines, swarmed around them. One by one the Eldar went down. A Fire Dragon to a gauss flayer, a Stinging Scorpion to the harvesting scythe on a barrel. Their circle shrank as they stood, defending Milanus and the last warlock, stepping back one pace at a time, keeping a solid line of Scorpions protecting the Fire Dragons as they fired and fired again. The Necrons began to thin, but not fast enough.
As one, the Necrontyr concentrated their fire on the Fire Dragons, killing them one by one, flaying their bodies, their souls, into non-existence. The Fire Dragon's armour provided some defense, for not every shot killed. The armour of the Scorpions was even better, its weight saving them again and again. But the numbers of the Nectrontyr were so much greater that it was only a matter of time.
Behind them the chant of Milanus and the warlock grew louder, more insistent. The black wall began to shimmer, it almost seemed to stretch outwards. Silhouetted, the Eldar gate fought it, flickering in and out faster and faster. The wall glowed brighter, the runes shone until they were too bright to look at. The warlock's chant faltered, and Ilsana saw the wall stretching, warping, as a shrouded metallic figure began to ooze out of the black-green metal. Dimly behind it she could see more warriors, bigger than those they were fighting, huge hulking monstrosities pushing their way through towards them. Karandrus' rune armour glowed, holding off the energies of one gauss flayer, but another crackled against it and then began to eat the screaming warlock. His cries fading to a gurgle, his lungs dissolved and his dry bones fell to the floor.
Milanus kept chanting, his voice louder, more insistent. The warriors around them continued, pushing their way forward as they fell and stood up again and again.
Tansilas leapt out of their circle, his sword a shimmer of motion as his power claw struck out, crushing one Necron chest, ripping another head off the body. The Necrons moved against him, their forms bathed in fusion fire from the surviving Dragons, shurikens bouncing and clattering off their metal frames. One by one they went down under the onslaught, but more often than not they got back up. Behind Ilsana she felt the last of the Fire Dragons fall, screaming, leaving only the Exarch. The blood stone glowed, its light reaching a new radiance; spinning around, she grabbed a dragon's fusion gun before the creeping death could consume it. With the Exarch she fired blast after blast into the mob surrounding Tansilas who fought on, a whirlwind of destruction. Another Scorpion fell, there were only three left plus herself. The shrouded figure was almost half out of the portal, a black obsidian staff beginning to arc with lightning as it reached towards Milanus. The Necrons that weren't engaged with Tansilas concentrated on him now, bolt after bolt of their gauss flayers arced towards him, lightning bursts of horrific death that Milanus somehow sensed, even as he was chanting the spell, even as runes swirled around him, somehow he managed to step out of the way. Some he couldn't avoid, and those his rune armour stopped. One got through, his robe tore, dissolving, but from somewhere he summoned his will and drove the green lightning back. His body remained upright, his breath rasping but steady, as the naked muscles of his back glistened in the sickly light. Another Scorpion went down. A Necron raised its rifle, pointed it at Milanus. Ilsana raised her gun, dropping her sword, bracing it with both arms, and fired. Malignant energies oscillated up and down the barrel of the thing's gun as its arms, its chest melted and it slid to the ground. Necrons aimed towards her. Milanus screamed out words.
A long deep moan roared out from all around them, a cry of utter hatred screamed at them, a vibrating bass shout.
All around the surviving Necrons collapsed into swirls of black dust. The half melted bodies, the crushed forms, collapsed. A wind howled, their powder blew away in swirls of silver and gold and black. A rustle of robes and a thud as Milanus collapsed to the ground. Ilsana turned, saw two thirds of the Necron lord sticking out of the dead rock that encased the Eldar gate, lifeless. Its staff only a bare foot away from Milanus' body.
Looking around, she counted the survivors. Tansilas was there, rising from the dust that guttered off him, the Fire Dragon exarch, herself, one other Scorpion, Beuthlas. And that was it. One Fire Dragon was still in existence, his spirit stone glimmering with fire, five Scorpions were likewise dead, but preserved.
If Ilsana wasn't wearing the helmet, she would have either broken down sobbing and retching, or fled screaming. She didn't know which. Instead, she stood there, listening in case anything else came to attack as she reached down and picked up her sword.
"Ilsana--" Milanus called to her.
He lived! Turning, she saw him in the glittering light of the spirit stones, and ran over to him, sword forgotten. There she cradled his bleeding form in her arms, the dead air picking at his naked muscle as blood oozed and bubbled. Wrapping his robes around him as best she could, Ilsana turned him over to face her. Behind her she heard the Exarchs move to defend as Beuthlas began gathering the spirit stones. Her blood stone flared, shimmering over the seer in a glowing red warmth of life. "I'm here," she whispered.
"It is done."
"The gate is sealed-- Sealed as best I can. For how long-- Don't know." His hand fumbled into a pouch, he pulled out a crystal and pressed it against him. Her arms could feel his flesh beginning to scab over, and his breathing through his helmet steadied.
She checked his life support and found that, thank Khaine, the gauss flayer hadn't compromised it. He'd lost most of his oxygen, but the other suits would have some to spare. Her mind flashed back to the observation deck on the Ashintar, remembered Milanus telling her about the gate-- "You saw this! You saw that we would close this gate!"
He nodded, and coughed.
"Why didn't you bring more down with us then?!" She sensed Beuthlas turning to listen.
"Ilsana, this is what had to be. You had to be here, and just those I brought."
"The future is tangled child, and I juggle it as best I can. A greater force would have made this easier, but that would have rippled through the futures, and we'd lose the more important war."
"This is what must be!"
She looked at him and thought, memories of the distant past from the blood stone flooding into her, enabling her to understand. "Strategy--"
"Take an early risk to have a better position for the battle that matters. But how can this," she motioned around with her free arm, "help us against the humans."
"The humans can have this place now."
"But-- Now the Imperium will win-- Shakarandras--"
"He can damn us for all I care. We've shed far too much blood on this cursed planet all ready, too many souls have been lost. No longer will I help them".
She shivered at the raw hatred in his last word.
"Gather the dead -- we'll leave nothing in this cursed place. Those we can't carry will be destroyed, utterly, by the firepike. Seal the tunnels behind us. And when we're back on the surface, we'll all leave this place."
It didn't take long for the Haras ag Iadonna troops to withdraw. The party returned from the gate in barely a day, Tansilas carrying Milanus on his back as the Dragon Exarch advanced ahead, and Ilsana guarded the rear. Blasts from the firepike destroyed their marks, and more blasts put decoy marks. Meltabombs carried by the Dragon Exarch, and scavenged from the bodies, were used every so often to collapse the passage behind them.
Ilsana kept the fusion gun on its strap over her shoulder, and Tansilas didn't say a word.
After they got back to the surface, she took her brother's soul back from the Bonesingers, and kept it with her, but that was more because of habit than any emotional need. After the battle she hadn't said a word, not that Milanus had said anything, or the Exarchs. Her mind was wrestling with the future. Was her interest in unit tactics her own, or was it the soul in the blood stone taking her over? She remembered reading about them before she'd been given the stone, but, could there be other influences? Ilsana didn't know, and a growing piece of her soul worried. But, the blood stone had helped her, and Milanus had told her to keep it. Still--
As the fleet still controlled near orbital space, the removal of the surviving troops and equipment from the surface took another two days. Shaped charges set by the Bonesingers collapsed the repaired buildings, and destroyed the bases for gun emplacements. The turrets were shipped up. The worst wounded, including Milanus, were teleported directly up to the orbiting ships, the rest had to go up in the Vampires.
Without a look backwards, the fleet left orbit and proceeded away from the primary until they could slide into the Warp. The only person who looked behind was Ilsana, standing on the observation deck and watching the planet disappear. She'd had to surrender her fusion gun upon boarding on the Ashintar, and her helmet had gone into storage to be returned to the shrine. With its departure, she worried. Before she'd held the blood stone as a talisman, now that she knew what it was, she began looking at it in fear. Not because it was evil, or wrong, but because it was changing her.
She didn't want to change!
The return trip seemed much faster than the outward one, which was fully possible given the vagaries of the Warp. Eldar on the Path of the Healer sung psychic energy into the wounded, and almost all were fully recovered by the time they reached Haras ag Iadonna, including Milanus. Arriving home, the fleet entered a slow orbit around the massive craftworld, massive compared to any ship in the fleet, but still tiny compared to a planet. Ships docked and the unloading commenced, proceeding quickly as the distances were short, and the docking tubes wide. Too soon Ilsana found herself back in her quarters, along with the blood stone and the soul of her brother.
She remembered the first time she'd come home from battle, when she still lived on Iyanden craftworld, long before following Yriel into exile. She'd stayed in her armour as long as she could, and when she'd had to take off the helmet, she'd concentrated on the sensations of soaring through the heavens above the battle for she'd been on the Path of the Hawk then. It wasn't until she'd gotten home to her room, after she'd managed to keep a straight and stern face before her mother, her father being long dead, that she lost it and the full horror of war hit her. The horror of what she'd done.
Now, now it was just a part of life. The cost of survival. She took a long, luxurious shower, and then soaked in the bath with creams and unguents to get the stench of battle, the stink of living in her battle armour for weeks on end, fully out. Drying off, she crawled into her well remembered bed, thought about grabbing a book, but instead lay down and tried to sleep.
The blood stone glistened beneath the thin cover, and she felt its memories flowing into hers, becoming part of her. And the soul trapped inside, mad, lonely, tried to be part of her, even though he, she knew now that it'd been male once, tried to resist the temptation. And yet, she couldn't bear to take it off.
She wasn't sure how long she lay there, the stone calling to her wordlessly. Before the bloodlust had kept her mind focused, kept the intruding thoughts below her conscious level. But now --
Sitting up, she cradled the blood stone in her hands. The soul inside had been there so very very long. She had no clue why it hadn't gone mad. It couldn't take her body, not even if she somehow became an Exarch. But she couldn't abandon it-- It had done nothing deserving of that--
She looked from the blood stone to her brother's glistening spirit stone sitting on the table beside the moonrose.
She was going to do it tomorrow, but--
With new determination, she clambered out of bed, put on pants, shirt, slipped into soft boots, and put a decorative sash around her waist. She even clipped off one of the moon roses and put it in her hair. Grabbing her brother's spirit stone in her hands, she cradled it for a moment, gently kissed it, and then walked out of her room and down the hallways and corridors. The blood stone rested between her breasts, and she could feel the soul inside saying that this was wrong, but she ignored it.
She'd free both souls into the wraithbone. With the blood stone out of her life, she'd be free, and could do something different. Another Path maybe? Possibly starship crew? That might work! Become a captain of an escort or destroyer some day.
The twisting hallways were empty that late at night, the craftworld felt abandoned. She could feel the soul inside the blood stone cradling against her, afraid. It was a strong soul, unlike her brother's, but then her brother had died so young. She wondered what would happen when she died. Would her soul be strong? Would it be called back to serve her people beyond the grave in a wraithguard or wraithlord construct?
The trip was long and twisted. There were small warp tunnels scattered through the craftworld, short cuts from one end to the great vessel to the other, but this time Ilsana preferred to walk. It gave her time to think, to remember. She was still alone when she came to a large chamber where a number of passages intersected, there'd been a gate to the webway here, but it'd been sealed before the Harlequin had led Shakarandras, and her, to this craftworld. Nobody knew why, but this chamber, this particular intersection of passages, had come to be known as The Pool of Blood. Nobody knew why. It-- It just felt right. That was the best word for it. Soaking the walls were ancient, near invisible, stains of blood.
As she entered, the blood stone flared, and forced her down the path of its memories:
It was the same intersection, the lights bright, unchanging, and oblivious to the scene within. It'd been so sudden, without warning. The only reason she'd lived was because she'd been fighting humans who'd dare lay claim to one of the maiden worlds, a world that had been seeded with biological material by the Eldar centuries ago to terraform it for their needs, not for those of humans! The fight had been furious, but the human invaders had been exterminated, wiped out entirely. She'd returned with her troops through the webway, to home, to Haras ag Iadonna.
She knew that she'd long ago lost balance upon her Path. Lost her way. She led because that was what she did. There was nothing else. She'd seen a few others go that way, lose themselves on the Path of War. They became fixated, the eternal warrior. And now she was fixated, always searching for the prefect strategy. And yet, it felt so right.
The eternal warrior, she'd been prepared as she stepped through to home, and that had saved her. The chamber she'd walked into, walked out of the webway into, was full. No, crammed, with daemons. Ilsana had always feared that She's servants would find them, drag them back to the lost homeworlds, but these weren't hers! They were servants of Khorne, the Blood God, the chaos manifestation of mindless violence and death. A pack of things, blood red with hard spines along their backs, huge gaping fangs in their mouths, curved horns off the back of their heads, had been sniffing around when she'd stepped from the webway onto the floor. For a second they'd stared at each other, and then, with a screaming howl, they all leapt towards her.
There hadn't been room to fly, but she was the Autarch of Haras ag Iadonna, and she refused to go down alone! Swinging one of her wings, she'd thrown the nearest across the room and into the wall where it squelched and screeched. That gave her time to draw her chain sword. She felt its warmth in her hand, heard the happy song of its tiny soul as the teeth whirled and hummed. Swinging it around, she felt its teeth digging through the neck of another of the hounds, human and Eldar blood long ago sacrificed to Khorne spraying from the thing's veins as it screamed its hatred. Even as it died, its teeth still slavered and chomped, trying to get at her. Two more hounds jumped on her back, one ripping at the primary bone of her left wing, its teeth digging into the wraithbone elbow that had been a part of her for so long, sending the wing's tiny soul screaming into her backpack. The other chomped and bit at her leg, its teeth grinding on the wraithbone plates, slowly forcing their way through as it growled and slavered. Drawing her pistol, she'd shot its head off as more hounds jumped onto her.
She'd have died then, but her distraction had bought enough time for the first of the Exarchs to come through the gate, behind them the Eldar on the Path of the Warrior. As the returning soldiers fumbled for their weapons, screaming and dying to the flesh hounds, Kansildryel, Exarch of the Path of the Scorpion, leapt forward, his biting blade, an ancient mighty chain sword, digging into the bodies of the hounds, dragging them off her, saving her from death. By the time she blew the head off the last of the hounds that had fought for her neck with her pistol, blood and gore spraying against the wall, more Exarchs had come through and they'd cleared the chamber of the flesh hounds. It was too late for Kansildryel though, for he was dead. Killed by the hounds as he'd fought to save her.
"Get everybody through now!" she ordered. "Full battle preparedness." She stalked over to one of the walls where naked wraithbone stretched through as a control conduit. She sent a query for a status report to the bridge, to life support, to engineering-- None answered. Turning to one of the seers, she told him: "Kelmon, seal this gate when the last is through. I don't know what happened, but they're here. Everywhere. As squads are prepared, form them into groups, no fewer than twenty in each. At last half should be assault troops. Each take a passageway. Reapers will stay here, holding our bridgehead." Her soul twisted with terror, fear for what she knew was happening. All she could do was pray that they'd gotten back in time to save somebody. "I don't know where the things came from, but we have a home to--!"
Somebody grabbed her wrist, yanking her out of the memories. Blinking, she looked at the hand. It was Eldar, but the hand was clothed in bright yellow. With her eyes, she looked at the wrist, the arm wearing checkered material, the shoulder-- He wasn't armoured, but his figure glowed softly, and his face was masked, blank. His other arm had a weapon strapped to it, a bulbous tank just above his wrist that fed into a long tube that extended from the back of his hand. She recognized it, a Harlequin's Kiss. The Harlequin used it, pressed it against the body of a foe, and then released strands of charged monofilament wire that was pushed by a psychic field into the opponents body where it twisted and curled, cutting through flesh, bone, tissue, until the victim collapsed in a pile of bone fragments and flesh scraps.
The Exarch who'd saved her, no, who'd saved the soul trapped in the blood stone, he'd been the first wearer of the suit Tansilas wore. She'd felt his soul's touch when Tansilas had examined the blood stone, but hadn't recognized it, hadn't known that she could recognize it, till now. Her head spinning, her eyes stared at the floor, at the spot where he'd died. Focussing her mind, and she realized that she knew the figure grasping her wrist. Not by sight, but by feel.
The tech who'd given her the blood stone!
Squinting, she looked, and she felt the coldness of She in his soul. Only one Harlequin would feel like that. A Solitaire, the most terrifying and efficient death dealer of the entire cult. They were always alone, and their souls were promised to She upon their death, unless the Laughing God tricked it away from Slanesh. Why was he in armour? And why was he here?
She looked around, the vision of the chamber full of flesh hounds, full of screaming Eldar, full of death and blood and gore, still filling her vision. Every near invisible bloodstain glowed in her vision. She knew what had happened here.
The Solitaire spoke: "We must go to the Dome of the Crystal Seers. They await you there."
She looked at him, still shaking her head to try and clear it. That was where she'd been going, to give the soul inside the blood stone, the soul of her brother, into the Infinity Circuit, into the wraithbone, to be safe and protected. But who would be waiting for her?
Looking at the Solitaire, she shivered. How could anyone live knowing that their soul was already owned by She. Was anything worth that price?
"We must hurry."
Clasping both stones, she let him drag her behind him.
Ilsana had to hurry after the Solitaire to keep up, and they passed nobody, likely because the Solitaire led her on an odd and round about way to the Dome. Sliding the door to the side, she stopped, only going into the chamber when the Solitaire pushed her.
She'd been to the Dome before. The first time was with Shakarandras when they first found this place, empty, ancient, and they'd all been amazed that the spirits in the Infinity Circuit were still there, safe, even though they'd been unguarded for millennia. The dome was huge, hugging the underside of the craftworld, assuming the bridge was on top, and it was entirely of naked wraithbone. All around were glittering crystal trees and each one marked where a spirit stone had been laid to rest. A stone would be placed there, and wraithbone would grow around it, eventually arching up into a graceful tree of pale white bone. Over the centuries, she'd come here with so many spirit stones, each holding the soul of a compatriot lost in war. Standing there, her eyes moved from one familiar tree to another. But there was something wrong, something-- a feeling--
"Milanus," a cold voice groaned, echoing and reverberating throughout the dome. "I am disappointed with your failure."
The Solitaire grabbed Ilsana and dragged her between the silent trees. All around sparks fled through the wraithbone, more and more clustering up ahead, watching whatever the Solitaire was dragging her towards.
"Phoenix Lord Seer," Milanus began. Ilsana recognized Phoenix Lord as an honorific for a soul implanted into the body of a wraithlord, but Seer? "I did what had to be done."
"You did not!"
"Too many died who didn't need to, because of your thirst for revenge, Shakarandras."
The Solitaire stopped in a clearing, and Ilsana stopped too. Before her were three figures, two she knew, Milanus and Tansilas. The third-- the third loomed over them both, formed of ivory white wraithbone. Ilsana stared. She'd known, everybody had, that Shakarandras had his soul implanted in a wraithlord, but seeing it, comparing the paleness of the construct he inhabited now to the vitality of the body he'd lived in--
"The living don't matter!" Shakarandras screamed, the voice formed by psychic manipulation of thin wraithbone hidden behind the massive shell of its head. Normally the voice was thin, faint, but Shakaradras' reverberated through the room. A few trees shook in sympathy.
Ilsana couldn't move. All she could do was watch, the hand holding the blood stone pressing it against her heart. The construct was massive, taller than any other wraithlord she'd ever seen. And, it was-- different. The legs were thicker, but still long and graceful. The tiny waist was incrusted with glittering silver runes. The psychic control systems, the vanes that filtered the faint wisps of thought, were thinner, more graceful. It had two arms, each longer than an Eldar was tall, thin and graceful, and both ended in flamers. The left also had a long and graceful bright lance, a heavy energy weapon, growing out of the back of the lower arm and hand. But, dominating the figure, was the massive oblong that was the head. Unlike the smooth and featureless heads of other wraithlords, this one was ornate, covered in picked out silver runes. There were no eyes. Like other constructs Shakarandras saw only the spirits of life. He had no need for eyes.
But, what terrified Ilsana, more than anything in her life, more than the chaos marine, more than the necrons, was the drenching waves of hate that boiled off Shakarandras and flowed across the chamber. Wave after wave of hate passing across her, pressing into her mind.
"How can you say that, Shakarandras! Even at our lowest point when we were fleeing from the Raven Guard human marine chapter, you kept us alive!"
With a silence that should have been impossible given the constructs size and bulk, the arm with the bright lance moved, pointing a single finger at Milanus. "The humans," hatred dripped from Shakarandras' voice and rippled through the room, shaking the ivory trees, "have Syl ag Iadel. You let humans live!"
"I closed the gate, and that was the only reason we needed to be there!"
The Solitaire held Ilsana as Tansilas silently moved up beside, and slightly in front of, Milanus.
"Milanus, you disobeyed me. You were to kill the humans, all of them. You were to teach them the true meaning of terror! Instead you virtually ignored them!"
"And what was I supposed to do? Fight them exclusively? I'd have had to fight the Tau, and what would that have done for the alliance you gave your life for?!"
Ilsana could feel energies building up in the bright lance, a ruby glow building at the crystal lens at the muzzle of the cannon.
"The Tau are meaningless! The Imperium must die! They're the true evil--"
"Shakarandras, your hate has blinded you! We need the humans to fight what you know is coming!"
Ilsana felt the burning hatred in Shakrandras' soul. He'd always hated, but never like this! Gasping, she closed her eyes as the blood stone fed her memories. The soul in the stone had felt such hatred before. Had felt that same darkness, but in Shakarandras it was so much stronger than the soul remembered!
The blood stone thrust a memory into her mind, burning it into her soul.
The fighting had gone on and on, but they'd fought back, taken back Haras ag Iadonna. Nobody had encountered any life, just bodies of Eldar, some even still in their beds. All had been torn and shredded, by teeth, or by sword. Some of the bodies were barely recognizable. But, in each case not only had their heads been taken, their spirit stones as well.
And it was only daemons they'd found. Nothing living. Flesh hounds, howling, teeth snapping. Bloodletters running down hallways towards them, or leaping out of trees, blood coated axes and swords swinging towards the Eldar as the twisted horned human-like things screamed and gibbered.
Chamber by chamber, room by room, they took back their world. In her mind, Ilsana marked off areas that had been cleansed, directed squads to break up or join together, depending on where they were in the great vessel. Eldar died in the fight, but they were few compared to the bloodbath at the webway gate. As each entrance to the webway was cleared, she sent seers to seal that gate. She refused to risk having anything getting into their secure rear.
The Forest Dome was a sea of blood and gore. The brook was clogged with slime and bodies, all Eldar. Maybe some daemons had been killed, or maybe not. There was no way to know as their corpses would have faded back into the Warp after they died.
Ilsana led the main push, the most important push, towards the Dome of the Crystal Seers. They all knew that the demons would have gone there first, feasted themselves upon the souls that had thought themselves safe from She in the Infinity Circuit. The fight was long, bloody, endless. The halls would have been clogged with the dead if they hadn't eventually faded into nothingness. The spirit stones of those that fell were left, nobody had time to grab them, and nobody was sure what could be done with them when the madness was over.
Ilsana wished the Avatar had awoken to accompany them. Even now she could feel it raging deep inside the craftworld, helpless, but nobody had time to awaken it to full mobility. And she couldn't afford to sacrifice anybody to it.
Finally she reached the entrance to the Dome.
Looking at Kelmon, he nodded, drawing runestones from his pouch one by one. They orbited and spun, fast and close. Grabbing them, he shoved them back into the pouch, the only sign of his mental strain the loud sound of his breathing through his respirator. "Autarch -- the source is in here. Along with the dead. But-- something is hidden, or the runes have been corrupted. All I can guarantee is that it is alone, and it is there."
Nodding, she motioned the Dragon Exarchs, Pilgessus and Tarathran, with her to open the door. The other Exarchs, four, crowded close around her. There were three Banshee Exarchs, and one Scorpion. And their squads pressed tight behind.
As one, both Exarch's lowered their firepikes and the door vanished into a blaze of vapour that shimmered and blasted outwards. The only reaction any of them had was to brace themselves against the force of the blast. Together they poured into the room, screaming out their hate and desperation.
The Dome of the Crystal Seers was silent, the only sound being their own screams which sputtered into nothingness. Sparks of souls poured down the walls and clustered behind them, the trees seemed to brighten at their entrance. Above them the soulless stars glared through the thin, transparent wraithbone, looking down at their fallen children. There was no sound, no screams, no howling.
"With me!" Ilsana ordered on the internal comm, their helmets playing the sound through headphones, and muffling any leakage so that nobody not in the circuit could hear them. Then they spread out, moving from tree to tree, using them for cover even though such an act tore at their souls. The Exarchs advanced with her, the others stayed behind.
Ilsana was the first to reach the clearing in the centre of the storm. Almost she dropped her weapons as she stared.
"Arhra?" she whispered, her mental command causing her helmet to broadcast her voice. She watched as he held one of the glittering spirit stones that were piled all around him. His helmet, his armour, it was wrong. Once it had been a cold green and purple, relaxing to the eyes. Now-- Now his undersuit gleamed blood red, his armour crimson and brass. And his helmet-- It was no longer anything made by Eldar. Long twisting curling horns grew from it, the wraithbone it'd been made from torn and shattered as they'd burst out. And the faceplate, the respirator, the mask, it was all gone. What stared out had never been Eldar. The snouted beast smiled at her, its face in the shape of a wolf, but no wolf that had ever lived. Red eyes with pale white pupils leered at her, a black forked tongue flicked out and licked blood and drool from the thing's lips. Opening its mouth it roared its hunger, its mindless hate. Ivory fangs glistened in the silvery light.
The thing that had been Arhra held up the stone, licked it, saliva dripping from the stone's glistening surface. Its tongue wrapped around it and the stone burst into blazing light for a second, and then went dark as the thing, the Daemon Prince, swallowed it like a candy.
"Arhra is no more!" the daemon screamed. "The Blood God has made me powerful beyond your dreams, Autarch. With his help I will crush Slanesh!"
She just stared at he who would become known only as the Fallen Phoenix.
"But, I must feed him, give him our blood to prove our race worthy of his aid."
Ilsana screamed, leaping into flight. Beating her wings frantically, the antigravs straining, she charged onto the monstrosity. It grabbed a handful of spirit stones and crunched them, consuming their souls. All around the world rippled, reality burst asunder as raw Warp burst in, and flesh hounds and blood letters roared into existence.
"Blood for Khorne, the Blood God! Skulls for his Throne!"
Milanus was somehow keeping his voice calm, even though his volume was close to shouting. "You're the one who showed me Shakarandras. The Necrontyr are rising! If we do not stand with the humans, then we'll die, all of us'll die, become their food forever."
"It doesn't matter Milanus!" Shakarandras' voice turned cold, twisted by hate. "The Imperium will fall, nothing else matters. If you do not serve me alive, then you will serve me dead!"
Screams filled the room as Eldar on the Path of the Banshee burst in, power swords glistening and crackling. Shakarandras fired his bright lance at Milanus, but, something, either his rune armour or his foresight, allowed him to survive, even as the Banshees howled towards him. Leaping out to guard Milanus' back, Tansilas interposed himself between Milanus and the Banshees. A power sword glittered and slid off his chain sword, teeth snapping with static discharge from the defeated energy. His power claw pushed aside another sword as he reached out and clenched, snapping a Banshee Exarch in half, her scream faltering to a hissing silence. One sword, another, and another appeared in Tansilas' chest--
The room wavered, like it had in her memories, reality being pushed asunder by the warp. Something grabbed her --
-- and dropped her in a large room. It was dim, ivory runes along the wall fading as the teleporter sealed the hole through the Warp. Standing at the control console was the High Admiral, dressed in blue armour and flowing red robes.
Ilsana blinked, trying to get her bearings, and then recognizing that she was back aboard the Ashintar, even though she'd never been in this teleporter chamber before. Rather she hadn't -- the soul in the blood stone had.
Milanus looked around, and then focused on Ilsana as the Solitaire let her go. Even the High Admiral, known to the humans as Mockingbird, was looking at her.
"Seer," the High Admiral said, "she'd better be the one. Phoenix Lord Seer Shakarandras is raising the bridge; my crew doesn't know what happened, but it won't take them long to trace you here."
"She is." Milanus walked over, robes rustling on the pale floor, and then stopped in front of her. "Ilsana, it is time for you to chose."
"Ch-- ch-- me?!"
"I'm sorry child, but it must be you. You are the path to the future."
"Child, we don't have much time!" With that Milanus reached into his pouch and began pulling runes out one by one. "None of us knows how soon this future will come, but it will come."
The first rune that came out was black as night, but a flat dull black that seemed to absorb everything. It shimmered green gold, and Ilsana didn't need to see the rune to recognize that it symbolized the Necrontyr. More runes followed in rapid succession. The rune of the Eldar, gleaming and golden white, the red rune that represented the humans, the Imperium. The slowly orbited far away from the Necrontyr, but tightly about each other. Another rune was added, that of the Tau, new and shining and sleek. It moved into the human-Eldar pair. At first it seemed indecisive, but then it swept close around the human rune, orbiting so close that the two almost became one.
"This is now. Next is a potential future."
Around Ilsana the lights seemed to dim, reality flickered between her and Milanus, and arcane energies wove around the runes as Milanus opened his mind to the paths of the future and chose one. She watched as the rune representing the Eldar dove into the human/Tau pair. The three collided, swirled around each other in a complex tangle, each clattering off the other two. Another rune joined it, the rune of Chaos, of Khorne, the Blood God. It swept in and swirled around the Eldar.
The rune of the Eldar clattered to the floor.
But it wasn't over. The Tau and human runes swept around each other, tight, moving close and then apart, struggling about each other. The Rune of Khorne joined them, fostering the struggle. Other runes joined the swirling mass, the other chaos runes including the one that represented She, and then the Rune of the Ork appeared, picking at the edges.
And all the time the grouping orbited closer and closer to the Necrontyr.
The human and Tau runes finally aligned, tight and struggling together as the chaos runes battered against them. All at once, the chaos runes fell away, clattering to the floor.
At that moment the Rune of the Necrontyr swirled, and the three remaining runes were sucked down into it. Sucked down and destroyed, vanishing out of existence, literally, leaving only the baleful Necrontyr hanging there.
With physical effort, Milanus grabbed the Rune of the Necrontyr and clenched it.
"Ilsana, this is what will happen if we don't stop Shakarandras. You know this. You know what Shakarandras is becoming."
Ilsana nodded, she'd felt the hatred in the Phoenix Lord Seer, and she knew that it was the same that the soul in the blood stone had felt in Arhra so long ago. "But, why me?!"
The High Admiral broke in. "I can give you, maybe, ten minutes -- they know I'm here, but I've killed external communications."
"Ilsana, the fates have picked you," Milanus answered. "I don't know why, but you're the one. You were born with this fate. Before The Fall, our souls were reborn from the pool of those who'd gone before. Now they're drawn from wisps of the Warp, from echoes we left behind before we fell. Yours is an echo of long ago, one that has waited for this moment. We need you!"
"Why me?! Shakarandras will destroy us if he's not stopped, so stop him yourself!"
"Ilsana, that'll only delay the inevitable. I can stop him, though it will cost me my life if I go alone. That will divide the Seers as there will be no clear leader. We'll remain divided as a race, and eventually we'll fall. The Ondilinde craftworld Seers knew this. It's why they decided to flee into the void between the galaxies, fleeing from the future that terrified them. If we fall, if the galaxy falls, then they'll eventually die too."
"I can't do this!"
"You have to do this! You have the skills. With the blood stone you have the legitimacy. It contains the soul of the first Autarch, the first War Leader, of Haras ag Iadonna. Join with it, it will guide you and enhance your gifts. We need you!"
"I'm sorry child, but you have no choice. If you don't do this, then Shakarandras will kill you."
"You don't understand! I can't do this! I'll-- I'll keep the stone. But, that won't help here! My armour is in the shrine, on the craftworld. Tansilas is--"
"Tansilas is dead. And his armour is here."
And then she knew. Everything had been planned. The blood stone being given to her, the battles on Syl ag Iadel, the sealing of the Necrontyr gate--
She looked at Milanus, for the first time seeing the cold manipulator.
And yet, was it wrong to manipulate the few to save the many?
Turning, she looked at the form of Tansilas, his armour already repairing the gashes from the power swords. The suit was flat for there was nothing inside, hadn't been for ages. On his chest stones glistened and shone from the souls protected there.
It would be so easy. She'd put on the armour, it would consume her, make her a part of it. And then she'd fight, and fight, and fight until she died.
Her hand cradled the blood stone, gently stroking it, and she felt the warmth of the soul inside, the desperation of it, the loneliness.
"Well I still be me?" she asked in a quiet voice.
This time the Solitaire answered. "Yours will be the dominant will, but the others will be a part of you. The soul, the voice will be you, but you will be changed."
"Five minutes," Mockingbird stated. He walked to the door and sealed it, pulling off his glove and pressing his hand against the wraithbone, commanding the door to open only to his will.
"I don't really have any choice, do I?" Ilsana asked.
"None of us do, child. We Seers least of all."
She licked her bottom lip, and let the blood stone fall between her breasts. With a sudden violent motion, she thrust her brother's soul into Milanus' hand. "Keep him safe." Shoving her loose hair over her back, she ran over to where Tansilas lay, or where his armour lay. The catches were the same as on her armour, and they sighed open at her touch. The chest armour opened at one side, unfolding with hinges on the other. Same with the leg armour. She pulled at the jade cloth, pulling it out of the boots, out of the gloves, and both clattered on the floor. Stripping, she slid into the undersuit.
It was old, supple, and it fit her like a glove. The material caressed her, hugged her, and she knew, in her soul, that this was right.
After that was the armour, plates for the thigh, the heavy boots and the lower leg armour, the knee pads and crotch pad strapped and clicked into place. Lifting the blood stone on its necklace off and setting it on the ground, she put the chest plate over her shoulder, and then folded it shut, latching it secure around her. It pinched, pressing her breasts tight against her chest, stabbing her with pain. Soon it wouldn't matter, for her body would fade, fall to dust, its energy absorbed by the armour. Putting on one armoured glove, she looked at the power claw and left it. She picked up the blood stone and hung it around her neck, lifting her long hair and letting it drop so that the chain of the necklace was cold against her skin, her hair pressing against it.
The blood stone blazed, filling the room with a crimson glow that overpowered the glittering of the other gems. Somebody banged on the door. The Solitaire stepped beside her and handed her another glove, and then a plain fusion gun, the same one she'd used against the Necrontyr. Putting the strap over her shoulder, she adjusted it so that it hung low, almost ready to fall off because she knew something was going to happen. She leaned down, strapping Tansilas' belt around her waist, and with it the scabbard for his sword, the holster for his pistol.
Milanus handed her the helmet.
There were bangs outside. "The door won't hold long!" the High Admiral called.
For a second Ilsana looked at the helmet. It was heavier than the one she'd been using, more ornate, more jagged and angry. Before she could have a second thought, she shoved it over her head, rammed it down, and then buttoned the gasket around her neck, around the necklace that held the blood stone.
She felt the souls in the armour. For the first time she heard the voice of Kansildryel outside of memory, and it thanked her. And there were others. The soul of Durell, the second to wear the armour, silently hugged her. He'd fallen to a warrior of the Red Guard. And then there was Tansilas, eager to fight, he just saluted her. And, for the first time, she heard the voice of the Autarch, known so long ago as Faeruithur, instead of just feeling his thoughts. His sorrow, his honour, his desperation to redeem himself poured through her.
"There is one more memory you must have child," Faeruithur said. "You must know of how I failed, and you must learn from it. We can never afford to fail again.
And the memory swept into her.
Daemons in the service of Khorne had erupted all over the craftworld, behind their lines, sweeping into the wounded, into those who'd thought they were safe. But the Eldar fought back, their Autarch leading them. She cleansed the Dome of the Crystal Seers, though far too many fell with her. Raging, she ran through corridor after corridor, through chamber after chamber. Eldar would join her, and she'd lead them into more of the daemonic hoard, and they'd fall one by one, leaving only Faeruithur standing over the dead.
Not that she noticed. She was after only one thing: Arhra. Nothing else mattered anymore. Nothing. Screaming the traitor's, name she ran through the corridors, the bridge with the empty control points, monitors showing the empty warships orbiting, for Arhra had lured their crews onto the craftworld before calling the daemons. She hunted down the things that had destroyed her world, slashing them with her sword, melting them into goo with her fusion gun, but never did she find the one he sought.
Until the very end.
Arhra was standing, waiting for her. He was leaning against the wall beside a naked glistening entrance to the webway, the portal swirling with red and purple, flicking lights splashing against the far wall. Faeruithur remembered ordering it closed, sealed, for it led back to the world of Salinthar Ianna, where her family was dead and damned. She'd ordered it sealed when the last refugees had fled through it, leading the servants of She onto the craftworld.
She'd killed all the daemons herself. Cursed daemonettes, twisted parodies of the Eldar, their arms ending in black ribbed claws like those of a lobster, pinkish red horns growing from their skulls. Even as they'd died, they'd wiggled their behinds at her, plumped up their oversized breasts, whispered sweet seductions.
"Khorne calls to you Faeruithur. The Blood God calls, and you answer."
Arhra laughed as she'd launched herself towards him, and then stepped into the portal and vanished. She flew after him, wings beating. The only thought in her mind was Arhra, and his destruction. She'd get vengeance for the evil he'd done. For the betrayal!
An ageless time passed as she followed him through the webway, followed him along the curving tunnels as daemons leered and scratched at the barriers that kept the traveller safe. She'd see the red of his armour, smell the stench of his blood, but never quite catch him.
And then she burst out into the world where she'd been born. Or what was left of it.
For a second she just stood, her feet crunching into soft rippling flesh, faces leering at her, crying, sobbing. Overhead, the sky was a deep purple, glowing with an uneven light that flickered and pulsed. There was no primary, no stars, no moon. In the distance, the elegant towers of the Eldar reached for the heavens, but where they'd once been clean and white, now they were pink and red and blue and green, glistening and pulsing with sheens of colour that burned at her eyes. Birds, or what had once been birds, flew through the sky, but their wings were grasping fingers, and below them hung blood dripping organs that pulsed and quivered, eternally questing. The air was sweet, full of odours that were rich and powerful, that would have drugged her except for the straining filters in her respirator. She switched over to her onboard oxygen and the driving sensation of the world, the creation, around her faded.
She looked around for Arhra, but there was no sign of him. Leaping into the air, she saw one of the faces that made up the ground, and recognized it as an old friend. She could sense it begging her to free it, but she didn't care. It wasn't Arhra. Leaping into the air, she beat her wings for height.
With a paean of bells, the ground erupted with daemonettes, slashing and clawing their way up through the flesh. She ignored them, until they sprouted wings and leapt into the air after her, breasts naked, alluring and offering. Having no choice she dove on them, blasting them with her pistol, her fusion gun, slashing them with her sword. Blood spewed from their wounds, and they sang praise at the sensation of death.
More and more came, the sky was full of them, but she struck and slew and slew, their blood raining upon the ground and staining it a glowing red. Days passed, maybe months, and all she did was slay until the ground was covered with their bones. Hatred sang through her, hatred and anger. She struck out at She, killing She's servants again and again. But that was an old hatred, her new hatred, her new anger, kept searching for the betrayer.
The sky darkened, and a glistening silver and gold barge flew towards her, pulled by swans with screaming Eldar heads. Daemonettes drove them, riding their backs, digging claws into their necks so that the swan's blood stained their feathers red. Diving upon them, she slashed and hacked, killing swan and daemon inseparably, letting her hatred for She pour out of her as she screamed.
The barge tumbled from the skies and squelched into the fleshy ground. Skin tore, and blood oozed around it as it stopped, canted. Languishly, a monstrous form stretched, looking up at her from a monstrous horned head. Its purple form was dressed in dark leathers, screaming heads were hanging from the black straps that entwined the thing's body, and thigh high black boots with obscenely long spiked heels wrapped themselves up its legs. The thing had four arms, two arms burst out beside its monstrous breasts, breasts that pointed straight out instead of hanging down as every rational law said they should, each of the two arms ending in long lobster-like claws. From its shoulders sprang two more arms, and these ended in human-like hands, with long sensuous fingers covered in heavy gold and silver rings, each holding a spirit stone glittering with a trapped soul.
"Who dares excite the rest of Perlanthor?" Its voice was sweet, a voice that every Eldar woman Faeruithur had ever known would have killed for. It hung in the air as the obscene birds flew around the creature, rubbing their hanging organs against the thing's flesh.
The image did nothing for the Autarch, for all she wanted was vengeance. Hovering above the thing, she shouted out, "Where is Arhra?!"
"Arhra-- yes, he is here. Have you come to slay him for me?"
"I do nothing for you!"
The daemon walked along the canted deck, its behind wiggling obscenely back and forth. One of its hands caressed one of the birds, and another grabbed one and crushed the life out of it. With a squelching sound, it jumped off the deck and onto the plain of flesh, its long heels digging in as blood spurted out around their points. "I could tell you, for a price."
Ilsana grasped her fusion gun, braced it with both hands, and aimed it at the thing's skull. Her wings stretched out behind her, the control surfaces sculpted to look like feathers shifting slightly to maintain her stillness in the air. "Where is he?!"
With a melodious squeal, the thing reached behind and drew a long glistening sword from a scabbard on its back. The blade was covered in what had once been Eldar runes, but were now twisted and curved, pressing against each other as they moved and slid along the glistening metal.
A wind rose up, out of nowhere, a storm that screamed with the agony of a billion souls, and Faeruithur was driven downward towards the thing's blade. She struggled, her wings flapping frantically trying to slow her descent, but only succeeding slightly. Firing once, the energy twisted and curled, and the thing screamed as the flesh of one of its breasts melted. That last shot exhausted the fusion gun's charge; she let it fall, and drew her blood drenched chain sword, slashing it at the thing's blade as she fell into it.
They struggled and fought, no quarter asked, none given. Faeruithur drew her pistol in her other hand and used it to attack as she used her sword to defend. The thing struck at her again and again, as she struck back, covering its glistening body with long jagged shuriken wounds that bled and gibbered. It's sword beat at her wings, slicing through the wraithbone, eating the tiny souls within, and she fell to the ground, the daemon looming over her.
Hatred burned through Faeruithur's veins, feeding her strength. The world blurred, all she could see was the daemon, the daemon that knew where Arhra was, but refused to tell her. With all her strength she struck, holding up her pistol so that the creature's sword sliced through it but missed her, eating the tiny soul. She shoved her chain sword between its breasts, the teeth whining as they dug and tore. Grasping the hilt with both hands she dragged it downward, carving the daemon open like a rotten grape, blood and gore and bones spilling out as the thing fell.
"Oh, well done Faeruithur!"
Before she could even spin around, Arhra shoved his sword through her back and out her chest, the grinning mouths futilely sucking her non-existant blood for the Blood God.
"Well done indeed!" Yanking his sword backward, he let it go. Faeruithur fell onto the ground, the sword pressing further through her chest, as she looked up at Arhra's leering face. "The blood calls to you."
She just glared at him, her vision red with hatred.
"Can you feel his strength in your veins? Trust me, you can! Join him, join us. Live to kill Slanesh."
Even though she had no veins, just soul and hatred surrounded by armour, she could feel the rage draining from her.
"Swear yourself to him. Accept that you serve Khorne!"
She remembered the webway open behind her, open and leading from this accursed hell to the dead of Haras ag Iadonna, the souls glittering in their spirit stones, candy for the daemons she'd left the way open for.
Her body shook as the hatred fell from it, and she knew that she was damned. Knew that she had damned everybody who'd trusted her.
Even though she was damned, she'd be damned in her own way. She refused to be a play thing for anybody! "Never!"
Arhra reached down with his hand and yanked her spirit stone off her chest. She felt her soul sucked into it, flowing out of the armour and into the faceted world of the dead. The world faded, glittered with souls screaming in the ground. Looming over her, Arhra was a screaming red daemon, lusting for blood, chained through psychic ropes to the Blood God far away. She clenched her soul tightly into a ball, waiting for death, refusing to give anything. Her soul was her own!
"So be it," Arhra said. "You shall have all eternity to consider my offer." Warp energy swirled around her haven, building barriers, marking her as belonging to Khorne even as she fought to stay free. "Stay here, watch what Slanesh has done. And, when you're ready, I'll come, and we'll destroy her together!"
With that, he threw her fragile prison to the ground where it bounced and rolled, settling into a pool of oozing blood as the soul inside it fought to stay sane.
Ages passed. Daemons played with Faeruithur's soul, toyed with her, but none could touch her. And always, Khorne whispered to her, promising release, promising to kill Slanesh. Ages of whispers and promises and no other sensation as her soul huddled in the fragile tomb of the crystal.
Until a hand reached down, burst through the wards. A shining form of an Eldar, living, yet owned by She.
Her hand fell after closing the last clasp, and then she stood, her mind calm. She saw the Solitaire, recognized him as the one who'd recovered the blood stone. In the distance was more banging on the door. Ilsana inhaled her last breath.
The gems on the suit flared, their fire sank into her, silver and crimson, the crimson from the blood stone riding the rest. It poured through her body, filled her organs, her bones, her mind, her soul. Surrounding her, permeating the suit, her armour, she felt them transform into a shell of wraithbone and cloth.
And then her skin began to change. The armour lightened, still protecting her, but allowing her more mobility. The chest plate flexed, grew, stretching to fit her body even as her flesh dissolved and faded into the suit. The backpack grew, streamers of fire burst out behind her shoulders, followed by veins and rings of growing wraithbone as her wings grew out. They blossomed longer and longer, control surfaces and sensors bursting from the naked bone and growing into feathers. Tiny spirits broke from her, from the gestalt that was all of them, and flowed into the wings to act as sub processors and component controls so that she didn't have to worry about it. Her helm burst, the ornamental sting at the top opening up like a bud as a bright red plume burst out replacing her long hair that was consumed by the psychic energy. Above it formed a skull, not formed, ported, her own skull, pale and white and leering, psychically pushed through the Warp to the top of her helm. A reminder of the death that awaited them all. Crowning it, grew a golden rune, a rune of life, of hope. A reminder of what she fought for.
Other changes occurred, small, subtle ones. The groin cloth of a Banshee streamed between her legs, weaving itself out of blue fire, blue the colour of the Haras ag Iadonna, and of Yriel whom they'd followed to there.
The last of her body faded, vanished, absorbed by the suit she now wore, that she would always wear. The armour that was her body, the helmet that was her head, the crystals that were her eyes. On her side rested her chainsword, its psycho-sensitive plastic grip altered slightly so that it fit her hand perfectly. The same thing with the pistol holstered at her side, and the fusion gun over her shoulder.
And inside, the souls that filled the suit merged with hers, no, not merged, melded. They were there, but subservient. She had their knowledge, their wisdom, their will, their skills, but her mind was in charge. The last to join the gestalt was Faeruithur, and she felt his soul relax, knowing that he'd survived the ages of torture, that he could now redeem his great failure.
Energies swirled, sliding through the blood stone that rested against her arm, separating out her spirit stone that had merged with it, shaping the fragments so that one held the ancient soul of Faeruithur, and the other glowed into existence in a glittering setting on her forehead. No, on the forehead of the armoured plate that would have protected her head if she still had one.
Older, wiser, she looked around.
"They'll break through any time," the High Admiral stated.
Milanus, the Solitaire, both looked at her. A few minutes ago she'd have inhaled, trying to calm herself, but now it wasn't necessary. Besides, she had no lungs, just a swirling psychic net that wore the armour that was its skin.
"High Admiral, are the Banshees still with Shakarandras?"
He communed with the ship's soul before answering. "Yes--"
"You'll beam them out. I believe this ship has multiple teleporters? Then you'll beam us, Milanus, the Solitaire, myself in. This will be resolved one way or another."
"Ilsana, Shakarandras is not Arhra," the Solitaire said.
Turning, she looked around and then at the Solitaire, seeing the world overlain with the shimmering fire of souls. The Solitaire's gleamed, even though it was clenched in the hand of She. From Faeruithur, Ilsana could feel the rage, the hatred, the agonizing sense of failure, and she knew that she, that the gestalt of which she was queen, would never forget. "I know. We all know. He'll have one last chance."
The Solitaire nodded.
The High Admiral was standing at the main control console, the wraithbone trunk tied directly into the ship's teleport systems. "Everything is ready Autarch."
"The correct command is energize." She saw humour flickering in his soul.
"High Admiral, energize."
The room wavered and faded, she felt her soul, her armour, being thrust through the warp. Somewhere she could hear Khorne raging, could hear the screaming of Arhra as he realized that his victim had finally escaped. She ignored it both. Arhra was not important, what was done was done, and she had a craftworld, a people, to save.
The Dome of Crystal Seers wavered into existence and she felt the floor under her as she materialized, cold and hard, even as the Banshees were fading out of existence. Sparks, no the gleaming light of souls, glittered overhead, swirling and flowing through the wraithbone to gather beneath her, for the ones who'd survived Faelruithur's failure remembered. Remembered their Autarch.
They whispered to her, told her that the Harlequin had come after she left, that the Harelquin had kept their craftworld, their souls, safe. Together they'd awaited the arrival of Shakarandras; together they'd awaited her.
Stretching her wings, muscles within the armoured shell tensing and pulling them down and then up, and then down again, psychic messages making it feel as though she were beating them with her own muscles, she flew. Jets fired, anti-grav generators burst to life, and she leapt into the air, grasping the fusion gun from her shoulder and checking the charge.
Shakarandras ignored her, turning its concentration onto the glittering soul that was Milanus. "You return to beg for mercy? It's too late."
Milanus drew his sword, but Ilsana focused her mind on the looming wraithlord, the strong soul of Shakarandras raging inside it, tinted red with hate and blood.
"Shakarandras!" she called out, hovering above him, half way between the floor and the apex of the dome. If Shakarandras fired, it'd, crack the roof. Pressure doors would seal, but they'd all survive. A part of her watched the Solitaire glide behind one of the trees, watching the scene unfolding.
Psychic currents gleamed, and the wraithlord's head turned to regard her.
"Shakarandras, I know the hatred burns, but it must be put aside. You've seen the future. You know what'll happen if you don't change."
"It doesn't work that way-- Ilsana is it? You were here before. I tried, and was betrayed, my body destroyed. There's no peace, only hate. And I will have my revenge!"
Faster than she'd have thought possible, the bright lance whipped up and fired, glistening energy pouring out of its tip. She dove, seeing the flash from the lens an instant before the energy raged towards her. It missed, and slammed into the ceiling, into the wraithbone of the dome, shattering it. Air roared out, fragments of bone thrust twirling and spinning into the void. Shakarandras just stood there, oblivious, the Solitaire grabbed the tree, and Milanus jammed his glistening black witchblade into the floor, hanging on to it as the air whistled out. Ilsana stretched her wings and rode the maelstrom, hovering, the anti gravs in her wings playing with the gravity generators in the floor to keep her in place.
Ilsana had Shakarandras' answer. As Milanus was getting to his feet, his suit keeping him alive, she was already diving, fusion gun firing, its raving energies pouring into Shakarandras' form. It swept both arms out, ravening flamed gushed out at her, gaining oxygen from the energies that formed them. Below Ilsana, Milanus, standing now, chanted, summoning Warp energies that swirled around her. Flapping her wings, she dove and spun firing again and again. She heard an arcane voice whispering, telling her where to aim, where to dodge Shakarandras' fire as the energies of its bright lance burst where she'd been, shattering another hole through the dome.
Listening to the voices, mystic guidance summoned by Milanus, Ilsana's final shot dug deep into the primary control column, the same location as the one she remembered Tansilas ripping out, melting it into glittering ends sputtering with impotent psychic energies.
The construct stood there, motionless, powerless, as Shakarandras raged inside his spirit stone.
Bone spiders had quickly regrew the holes in the dome, summoned by the psychic pain of the damage. Pumps had repressurized the chamber once they knew the hole was patched. Somehow the Solitaire had left. Ilsana hadn't seen him go, didn't know if he was still on the craftworld, or if he'd gone into the webway, off to wherever the Laughing God sent him.
She'd watched as Milanus carefully removed the spirit stone that contained Shakarandras. "He needs time to rest, to heal," he told her. "He'll be cared for, and when the hatred is cleansed he'll be released into the Infinity Circuit."
Afterward was the examination, the power struggle. She and Milanus were fortunate that the High Admiral backed them, and that Shakarandras had terrified the members of the Council of Seers. All of the council, the most powerful seers aboard Haras ag Iadonna, had known what Shakarandras had foretold. And all them, except Milanus, who had been one of them until now, had been afraid to act.
After hearing them out, consulting the runes, and likely under pressure of the souls in the Infinity Circuit, they had dropped all charges. Milanus was re-instated, and life went on.
They made Ilsana the High Autarch of Haras ag Iadonna. An old position, long forgotten, but the future demanded it. And the Council had learned to heed the future. Milanus, they ended up sending off to oversee the garrison on Silvan ag Ialanus, an Exodite world allied with Haras ag Iadonna. He'd told her, in private, that he'd forseen his death there, fighting the final battle that would drive off the human Templars from the world. The Council probably knew that too, but then Milanus was too visible a figure, had been too visibly opposed to Shakarandras, to keep around.
Ilsana was left alone. Respected, almost worshipped, afraid of the future but refusing to flee from it. What filled her with terror was the fear of failure. Of giving in to hate, to rage, and betraying everything. It was the High Admiral, with his weird fascination with human video plays from 40,000 years ago, who showed her the path. He made her watch a video play about something called Iedi, and it showed how they had light and dark paths. The dark path was hatred, vengeance.
But the light path was the path of love and caring.
Ilsana loved her people, and she would serve them with her soul, no matter the cost.
And that, ultimately, was all anybody could ever do.