The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Six
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Five.
“They’s everywhere at once, boss!” a Nob yelled angrily, firing his shoota into the treeline. Hedbreakuh slapped him upside the head.
“I know that, ya git! Get the burnaboyz up here, we’re going ta torch ‘dis whole forest!” he hollered. The pack of boyz behind him charged up to the trees, hosing them down with napalm and promethium. One of them pitched forward, his back ablaze, a hole appearing in his tank and engulfing him in burning promethium. The others spun to face the spot in the trees where the shot had come from, blasting it with fire.
On the opposite side of the river from where the Orks were busily falling into his trap, Jaghatai Khan grinned widely. He had been wreaking havoc on the local greenskin vermin since his arrival nearly a week ago, and it was paying off. They had done more damage to themselves than he had done to them, and though their numbers were still too high to confront directly, they were on the verge of panic. They just needed one more good prod before they collapsed entirely…
Jaghatai snuck back from the trees he had been hiding in, then sprinted the ten meters to the next copse of trees. Beyond it, he could see the huge series of craters where the Warboss Hedbreakuh had made his camp, and much of it was in gratifying turmoil.
The Gargant he had damaged with his out-of-control Squiggoth was in ruins, the Warboss having blamed the Big Mek for the chaos at first. When the dust had settled, everything larger than the Squiggoth itself was wrecked, and the Orks were in a blood frenzy. Jaghatai had retreated to hunt and lay traps, and the Orks had stumbled into the traps with a regularity that was both amusing and productive.
After nearly a day of having them chase their own tails, he had snuck into the camp and butchered a Gretchin, dropping his bits into the food tanks the Orks had made. They hadn’t even noticed for several hours, but when they did, it had turned into a brawl.
More and more Orks were being drawn away from sentry duty or building things to search for him, and the smarter Gretchins were refusing to leave the camp entirely, provoking several more brawls. All the while, his actual target was sitting in the middle of the camp, awkwardly chained to a tree, its handler long since dead. Jaghatai stared at it and smirked, before redirecting his attention to the Mega Nob in the far side of the camp. It was time to sow some more anarchy…
Meanwhile, back on the Cardinal Moon of Averus Lona, a small group of Ecclesiarchs were busily whipping themselves into a frenzy. A team of white-robed servitors were clearing furniture and people from one of the meeting halls, and the sector’s Cardinal fidgeted at the front of the room. “Do you think that the God-Emperor will arrive in person, or just drop Lord Vulkan off?” he asked his aide worriedly.
“I haven’t the foggiest, your Eminence, but the Astropaths said that the message came from the Emperor Himself,” the young man replied. “We shall see…he should arrive any second now.”
“Yes…oh, goodness me, my skin is crawling. I’ve not felt this sort of nerves since I was younger than you!” the wizened old Cardinal said, rubbing his hands together. Before the subaltern could reply, a purple mist flooded into the room. The servitors shuffled the last of the other people out just before the air in the room parted with a CRACK, and the Emperor appeared. Vulkan dropped face-down on the floor. The Cardinal slowly raised his hands over his mouth, his eyes as wide as tea cups.
“FATHER, GOOD TO SEE YOU. THANKS FOR AGREEING TO TAKE MY SON IN ON SHORT NOTICE,” the Emperor nodded, hiding his distaste for all things religious behind a veneer of gratitude. The Cardinal didn’t react, he and his younger colleague both looking a bit green around the gills. A member of the Sororitas, who had fortuitously accompanied them both to the meeting, poked the Cardinal in the ribs, jolting him from his horrified stupor. He scrambled to his knees, as did his sidekick. The Sororitas reverently took a knee as well.
“Most Divine, you bless and honor us with-”
“ENOUGH,” the Emperor said with mounting irritation. “GET UP. SISTER, PLEASE SEE TO THE WELFARE OF MY SON. VULKAN HAS HAD A VERY TRYING…MILLENNIA OR NINE.”
“As you will, Holy One,” The Sororitas said, rising to her feet. She hurried over to the slumbering Salamander, and gingerly draped one of his arms over her shoulder. She hefted him to an upright position and effortlessly carried him to the rear entrance of the room with her power armor-enhanced muscles. She nudged the door open, and placed the comatose Primarch on a medicae cart that the Sororitas of the moon used to transport their own wounded, and started to wheel him off to the infirmary. The Emperor turned back to the two priests, who were trying very hard not to look at the bestial Emperor’s form with revulsion.
“THANKS AGAIN, SIEUR, I’LL BE BACK TO RETRIEVE HIM IN A WEEK OR SO. IF HE WANTS TO, YOU KNOW, LEAVE BEFORE THAT, JUST HAVE THE ASTROPATHICA LET ME KNOW, THEY KNOW HOW TO REACH ME,” the Emperor said casually, his demeanor all business. “I MUST ATTEND TO ANOTHER MATTER. FAREWELL.” With a CRACK of air that nearly knocked the two priests off their feet, he was gone again.
The old Cardinal turned to the subaltern, gaping. “I…oh, forgive me, Emperor, but…I hadn’t expected him to look…”
“Like something Arbiter Foreboding would shoot?” the younger priest finished wryly. “Yes, it was quite…unnerving. Still, Lord Vulkan will be our sacred guest until he recovers…we must make a good impression.”
The Cardinal turned to the door through which the comatose Primarch had been unceremoniously carted off, and made to follow. The younger priest held him back with a hand on his shoulder. “Your Eminence, if I may ask a question before we see to Lord Vulkan?”
“What is it, child?” the Cardinal asked, his face betraying impatience.
“Where are we even going to let him stay? If he heals quickly, he won’t want to stay in the medicae ward,” the young cleric pointed out. The Cardinal thought for a moment.
“I have many friends on Sedris’s Fortune,” he said after a moment. “I’m sure we can arrange a quiet place to rest there.”
“Surely…such a base place, though,” the priest said distastefully, walking towards the exit. The Cardinal sped up to match him, falling in at his side.
“Well, it’s the best we can do under the circumstances, until a ship can come to retrieve him, or the Emperor returns to pick him up,” he said, his tone final.
For the fifth time in nine days, Castellan Creed found himself standing in front of the Emperor. This time, however, the meeting convened with the two of them standing in a Titan maintenance bay in Kasr Vortiga, the rain outside far too torrential for another outdoors meeting.
“SO, WHAT YOU’RE SAYING, CASTELLAN, IS THAT YOU HAVE NO IDEA,” the Emperor’s psychic voice said wearily. Creed nodded, a flake of tobacco drifting from his cigar.
“Correct, my Lord God,” Creed said carefully. “Fifteen of the civilians from Lord Russ’s group have died from illness or malnutrition since you brought them here, and while his Astartes are…well, they’re made of sterner stuff, and not dying, something is clearly weakening them. We have no idea what it is.”
“I CAN BLASTED WELL TELL YOU WHAT IT IS,” the Emperor snarled. “IT’S THE DAMN PLAGUE THAT MOTIVATED ME TO GET OFF OF THE THRONE AND COME HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE. I THOUGHT SEPARATING ABBADON FROM HIS LIMBS WOULD FORESTALL THE PLAN. I GUESS NOT.”
Creed bowed, choosing his next words with exceptional care. “Ah…forgive me, my Lord God, but didn’t you tell the High Lords of Terra that it was some conspiracy by rogue Inquisitors and daemon-proofed psykers that motivated you? The Lord Commander Solar informed me quite privately sometime after they made their message to the Imperium.”
“YES I DID, AND YES IT DID. I COULD HAVE DEALT WITH A WARP-MADE PLAGUE FROM THE THRONE, BUT THE ILLUMINATI’S LITTLE GAMBLE WOULD HAVE MADE IT MUCH, MUCH HARDER. THEY WERE TWO HALVES OF THE DECISION. AND STOP GROVELING, LORD CREED, REALLY. IT’S EMBARRASSING.”
Creed straightened up, shifting his shoulder uncomfortably. “Yes, my Lord God.”
A pair of white and red-robed Enginseers meandered into the room, arguing about something amiably. They both stopped dead upon seeing the colossal orange Emperor, and backed out of the bay, bowing and mumbling prayers. Creed let the sight distract him for a moment before returning his attention to the Emperor. “Does that mean that you will be attending to the matter personally, my Lord God?”
“I MIGHT AS WELL. EVEN I CAN’T BRING BACK THE ONES WITH THE PLAGUE, BUT I CAN STOP IT AT ITS SOURCE. THE PLACE WHERE I FOUGHT ABBADON, CAN YOU FIND ITS EXACT LOCATION ON AN ORBITAL MAP? POSITION A SHIP WITH AT LEAST GRAND CRUISER-CLASS BOMBARDMENT WEAPONS OVER IT IF SO. I’LL BE RIGHT BACK,” the Emperor roared, glancing at the open primary doors of the bay, where the torrential rain was visible.
“I certainly can, my Lord God, and Lord Admiral Clenden’s flag vessel is scheduled to pass overhead in two hours. He can divert to the battle site until needed,” Creed said.
“SWELL. I’LL FIND YOU WHEN I NEED THE BOMBARDMENT TO BEGIN.” Without another word, the huge Emperor ambled out the door, vanishing with a loud CRACK of air.
Creed spun on his heel, marching up to the Comms room. The operators stood at their station as the square-jawed Lord Castellan walked in, then sat back down as he distractedly waved.
“Get me a secure line to Lord Admiral Clenden’s flag vessel,” he said to the nearest operator. She nodded and mumbled a few lines of the Litany of Activation to her console, poking a few runes with her mechadendrite. The image of the greying Lord Admiral appeared in the middle of the room, flickering quite a bit. The techpriest grimaced and fiddled with a few more runes, and the image smoothed out.
“Creed. What can I do for you?” the Admiral asked, the confused movement behind him resolving into several ship crewers bustling around, tending to the ship’s well-being.
“Not for me, Admiral, the Emperor,” Creed said drily. Clenden cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Creed said, in no mood for games. “He has visited me personally down here, trying to get a status update on the state of readiness of the troops on the ground. I told Him about the civilians dying off, and he said he was going to deal with it. He has instructed me to tell you to position a bombardment-capable ship over the spot where He fought Abbadon.”
Clenden’s jaw dropped. “Ah…really. Well, my ship will be overhead shortly, but I can’t bombard a target with any accuracy if I don’t know the timing.”
“I told Him you’d be overhead in two hours, and He said that was fine,” Creed said.
Clenden glanced at the viewscreen visible behind him, digesting its contents, then nodded and turned back. “Yes, that should work. I’ll be over the spot, weapons hot, two hours out.”
“Excellent. Thank you for your time, Admiral,” Creed said, saluting the image.
Clenden echoed the gesture. “As the Emperor wills,” he said, perhaps rather more literally then usual. He cut the transmission.
Creed slumped into a vacant chair, rubbing his eyes wearily. One of the techpriests watched him for a moment before speaking up. “Lord Castellan, may I ask a question?” she asked cautiously. Technically, she was as far outside his authority as a Sororitas or Commissar, but it never hurt to be respectful.
He glanced up, dropping his cigar butt in the trash as he did so. “Sure. What is it?”
“Well…you’ve seen the new Emperor in person, sir?” she asked. He shook his head.
“No, it’s the same Immortal God-Emperor of Mankind as He ever was, just in a new body with…new accoutrements I suppose.”
The techpriest gaped. “Accoutrements? Sir, what does that even mean? The High Lords’ message said he had taken over a Greater Khornate Daemon…”
“Yeah, more or less,” Creed sighed, standing again. “He’s fifty feet tall and seventy feet long with teeth the size of cattle, but, hey…”
The techpriest looked like she was going to faint. “Omnissiah’s cogs, what…how in the world…”
“Who even knows,” the Cadian Castellan said, stretching and pulling another cigar out of his pocket. “Such matters are beyond us. Anyway, I’ll be in the command office if the Admiral replies. Let me know if anyone tries to reach me; just route it through my comm-bead.” He walked off, his head hung low.
The air parted and folded with a burst of purple haze as the Emperor appeared in the same spot he had confronted the hapless Sergeant Lustig days before. The place seemed unchanged, save for the footsteps of a Titan which had clearly walked through the place recently. The trampled rubble of Abbadon’s HQ structure was still there, with Rhino tracks leading away from it. That, however, wasn’t what the Emperor was there for.
He plodded up the hill and stared at the huge, pus-covered strip of land where the Plaguemaster Glubtil had seeded his Fetid Grounds, a seething block of rotting flowers and open sores in the ground. “WELL, THIS IS PRETTY MUCH WHAT I EXPECTED. DIDN’T THINK THAT GREASY LITTLE DAEMON WOULD ACTUALLY RELEASE THE PLAGUE, THOUGH, THAT WAS MY DAMN FAULT. I SHOULD HAVE KILLED HIM WHEN I HAD THE CHANCE.”
He reared up on his pillar-like hind legs, his beady eyes shining purple light. “WELP, HERE GOES NOTHING.” He opened his cavernous maw and fired off a torrent of pure energy at the Fetid Grounds.
The brilliant purple torrent slammed into the Nurglite toxins like a brick through plate glass, shredding the rotting plants and ground, turning the soil beneath into glass and dust, which vaporized just as quickly. The Emperor dropped down onto his forelegs again and nodded his huge head, pleased at his work. “YEAH, THAT SHOULD DO THE TRICK.”
The drifting, putrid smoke cleared, and the Emperor snarled in displeasure. The virus-laden soil was gone, but the reek of Chaos-taint still lingered, the area was drenched in the Warp. “THIS IS GETTING ME NOWHERE,” the Emperor said, irritated. “WHAT THE FUCK, IS THIS GOING TO HAVE TO…OH.” He thought to himself for a moment. “YEAH, THAT’LL WORK. THIS’LL BE TOUGH AS HELL, BUT…IF IT WORKS…WELL, AT LEAST ELDRAD WILL OWE ME ANOTHER FAVOR.”
A commotion behind him alerted him to the arrival of the Plaguemaster, Glubtil. The shambling mass of sores and illness jumped from his looted Rhino, gaping at the devastation. “My garden! Doggie, why did you do that?! That was mine!”
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU CALLING ‘DOGGIE?’” the Emperor roared, amused. “MY GOODNESS, YOU’RE A DISRESPECTFUL LITTLE THING, AREN’T YOU?”
“Disrespectful? You’re the one who just destroyed my garden!” Glubtil yelled.
“A GARDEN THAT WAS KILLING PEOPLE. IT’S LESS THAN YOU DESERVE. NOW…” the Emperor snarled, planting his clawed forelegs in the grass, “GO BACK TO NURGLE.” Without another word, he fired off the same beam of ravening energy that had destroyed the Fetid Grounds, incinerating the little daemon and his vehicle with a shriek.
A smoldering line drew itself across the Cadian pine barrens, the Emperor’s power unleashed. Clouds of steam boiled out of a brook the beam crossed, obscuring the devastated forest. The Emperor didn’t spare the sight a second glance, though, turning back to the simmering, tainted ground where the viral plants had bloomed. “OKAY…NOW, LET’S GO SEE WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT THIS.”
The Emperor took a few plodding steps forward, looking this way and that at the huge black patch of earth. After a minute, he sighed. “YEAH, NO CHOICE. I HAVE TO CUT THIS SHIT OFF AT THE SOURCE,” he muttered. “WELL, NOTHING VENTURED, NOTHING GAINED. LET ME SEE…”
A keening whistle sounded off in the air above him. The Emperor looked up. “WHOA! FUCK!” he yelped and leaped aside, a moment before a krak shell from a Chaos Predator landed where he had been standing. The Emperor skidded to a halt ten meters away, dirt and sand pattering off his body.
“WHERE THE FUCK…?” he asked aloud, before seeing the tank parked on a distant hill, its autocannon barrel aimed high. The Emperor shook his head. “REALLY? FINE. I’LL PLAY.”
He leaped forward, his divine might lending his daemonic form speed it could never have possessed naturally. The tank depressed its barrel and opened fire again, letting off ten rounds at the loping God-Emperor.
The shells seemed to twist and pass him by, skirting past him without hitting anything. The crew opened up with their sponson-mounted lascannons, but the beams simply did not hurt him, the marks they left on his armored hide fading after a few seconds. In desperation, the tank crew fired their single Havoc missile, which froze in midair before it even reached him. The crew slammed their tank into reverse, still firing their autocannon and lascannons, but to no effect. The Emperor leapt up, landing mere centimeters from the tank, and thrust his clawed legs forward, gripping the turret, and pulling it clean off. A pair of Warpsmiths inside looked up and screamed, pitching themselves out of the tank, desperately scrambling to clear their sidearms. The Emperor casually slammed the turret down on one, reducing him to a greasy stain on the hillside, and batted the other one into a tree with his free claw.
After the snapping noises stopped, the huge Emperor looked back at where the shimmering warp taint was still staining the distant hill, and shook his massive head. “WHERE WAS I?” He walked back to the rift, much more sedately. He stared at it, contemplatively. “YEAH…WELL, HERE WE GO…” Without hesitation, he walked on through.
Deep in the Warp, the rotlings and Nurglites lazed. The endless Virulent Gardens stretched towards the non-existent horizons, and fetid clouds of fungal spores blanket rotting plants. Here, Nurgle’s Mansion sits, rotting away and decrepit, but still intact. At its center, Nurgle toils away at the Cauldron of Pestilence, creating the most foul diseases and poxes his twisted mind can conjure.
In a locked cage in the corner, Isha sits caged. The impossibly beautiful yet matriarchal Eldar goddess of healing, she is Nurgle’s unwilling “companion,” the test bed for Nurgle’s newest horrors. She is beyond illness, as the Eldar warp-spawned entity of healing and birth, but that delights Nurgle all the more.
“C’mon, cutie, try this one out,” he chuckled, rolling a vial of something black and bubbling through the bars of her cage. Isha sat, her back almost touching one side, her knees drawn up and her head bowed, staring pointedly away from the festering God. Nurgle sighed.
“I promise you’ll love it,” he said. Isha glared at him.
“You like it. Your tastes and others’ do not run in step, Nurgle. I’ll not drink your poison. Any more than I did the last million.”
“Aww, come on…” the rotting carcass said in vague disappointment. He scrambled around for another vial, filling it up from his cauldron. He swirled it about looking at it for any sign of dilution, then unceremoniously tossed it on the Eldar goddess.
Isha whimpered in pain, the warp-tainted illness eating at her skin like acid. The scarred Lady of Fertility wrapped her arms around her knees and pulled them tight, then pressed her forehead into them, trying to blot out the pain. She dipped into her reserves of strength, healing the pox even as it ate away at her, the greenish haze that suffused the room turning red and yellow and blue through the pain.
“Nuts. I was hoping it wouldn’t do that,” Nurgle sighed in disappointment. Even as Isha cured herself of the putrid ailment, her skin knitting back together and her eyes coming back into focus, Nurgle fished the first vial back from the cage and stared at it angrily, as if it would apologize for its transgression. Who knows, sometimes they did. With a final sigh of regret, he slammed the vial like a bottle of energy drink, then tossed it over his shoulder, where it bounced into the corner. “Maybe next time,” he said, already hard at work thinking of the next disease.
Isha slowly relaxed her arms, the scarring from the corrosive skin disease fading, the more stark signs of her torture at the hands of Khaine reappearing. She slumped back against the slimy wall and wept, her tears rolling down her face and vanishing. They would become Soul Stones at least, she reflected, appearing in a basin on one of the Crone Worlds…for a Commorragh raider to consume, or a daemon to weaponize, or for Craftworlders to get killed trying to retrieve, her mind went on, the black clouds of despair swarming across her mind.
“Well, here we go,” Nurgle said cheerfully, dumping a warp-drenched fistful of rotting fish into the cauldron. Isha tried not to look like she was gagging. “Doo de doo…let’s see…what do those Tau call those…green things that cause blood clots…hmm…”
“KNOCK KNOCK MOTHERFUCKER WHO ORDERED A BEATING?” a psychic voice suddenly roared, shocking Nurgle from his cooking and Isha from her ennui. A huge orange Khornate daemon slammed through one crumbling wall. Before Nurgle could react, the enormous daemon slammed his forelegs into the rotting wood right in front of the Chaos God, pitching up a cluster of termites and splinters. Nurgle raised his ladle and tried to cast a curse on the animalistic monster, but it opened its mouth and fired a blistering stream of pure energy at him.
Nurgle screamed, with a sound like a sea lion in a wheat thresher, and pitched back against the cauldron, then screeched with shock as the hot metal seared his rotting sores. The beast opened its maw wide, displaying grey fangs, and arcs of purple light streamed around its horns and eyes, before pouring into a growing ball of purple light in its mouth. Nurgle spun back around, his green chest pouring brown blood, and lurched forward.
The beast fired.
A stream of bright purple death tore loose, slamming into Nurgle’s wound. Nurgle screamed in pain and panic, and toppled backward into his own bubbling cauldron, his cry muffled by the gurgling poison. The beast turned and knelt next to Isha, who scrambled back against the bars of her cage in horror.
“HEY, GET ON, QUICK, WE NEED TO LEAVE BEFORE THAT FAT FUCK GETS OUT,” it said, its tone urgent.
“I’ll never go to Khorne, beast,” Isha gasped, dizzy with fear. The monster sighed angrily.
“DAMN IT ALL, THIS BODY’S MORE TROUBLE THAN IT’S WORTH…FINE.” The being swiped one massive claw at the top of the cage, which snapped like metal twigs. It reached in and grabbed the shrieking Eldar goddess, gingerly wrapping a hand around her as if she weighed no more than a pebble. “TRUST ME, YOU’LL BE OKAY, WE JUST NEED TO GET YOU OUT OF HERE. HANG TIGHT…” with a final blast of purple light, the creature vanished.
Mere seconds later, Nurgle rose from the bubbling cauldron, his eyes steaming black. The poison sloughed sheets of skin off his body, even as he gripped the edge and tumbled out. He lifted his ladle and spun to see Isha’s empty cage, and the daemon’s absence. He tilted his head back and roared, a call of rage that echoed throughout the Eye of Terror.
After a few seconds, he slowly slumped back down, and sullenly turned to face the cauldron. He shrugged and sullenly started stirring again. “Oh well…”
Isha tried to struggle, desperately, pushing against the creature’s iron grip, and to her surprise, succeeded. She slipped one arm free of the daemon’s claws, and shoved against its grasp.
“WHOA, HEY, RELAX. YOU WANT TO GET SUCKED BACK INTO THE WARP?” the thing asked. Isha spun her head around, seeing at last that they were racing through the warp, protected by some sorcerous field of energy. She instinctively slung her arm back, away from the sight, and found herself caught by the daemon’s other hand, which closed around her, blocking all movement.
“Asuryan’s memory damn you, daemon, I’ll not slake your master’s lust,” she snarled at it. The thing sighed angrily.
“CALM THE FUCK DOWN, ISHA, I’M NOT A DAEMON. JUST BORROWING ONE.” The creature’s eyes flashed an unnatural purple, the same light as before, and the spinning madness of the warp faded away. They were on a green hillside, its natural beauty defaced by two massive black streaks and a crumbling building.
The huge daemon…or whatever it was…released Isha, and she tumbled out of his hands, just barely dropping to her feet before falling. She managed to avoid it, straightening up, staring at the nearly alien sight before her.
“OKAY. I’M BACK. ARE YOU ALL RIGHT? BEYOND THE OBVIOUS, I MEAN?” the creature asked, taking a step or two back. “WARP TRAVEL’S HARD ENOUGH WITHOUT A SHIP.” If Isha could hear it, she gave no sign. She slowly sank to her knees, her legs failing her completely. “ISHA?” it asked, concerned.
Isha’s bare back shook, her ragged hair falling around her. A muffled, manic giggle erupted through clenched teeth, turning into uncontrollable peals of laughter a few seconds later. She fell back on her back, her arms wrapped around her ribs. Tears of laughter fell down her face, transforming into soul stones even as they dropped off her face. She rolled onto one side, relief eliciting hysteria, as she coughed, and slowly calmed herself down. It was all she could do not to keep laughing after being imprisoned by that fat fuck Nurgle for eleven thousand years, but she still had her unexpected rescuer to consider.
She drew herself back up to kneeling, her hands on her knees, as the sunlight – the blessed sun! How long had it been? – fell down on her back, warming her up. She traced a finger through the dirt at her feet, torn up by the creature’s claw, and smiled from ear to ear as a tiny white flower rose from the dirt at her touch.
She plucked a petal from the flower, and whispered a few words of Eldar. The skin of her finger flashed for a moment, and the petal melted and shifted into a small pool of white liquid. She dragged her hands through the rich, Cadian dirt, and sprinkled the molten petal across the resultant garden. In a few seconds, they had shifted form as well, into a simple white toga-like garment, which she struggled into – her own clothes long since destroyed by Nurgle’s acids.
Dressed at last – she had honestly forgotten what clothes felt like – she turned back to the creature, which had been staring at the spectacle with a mixture of concern and amusement. “FEEL BETTER?” it asked, with what was presumably mild sarcasm.
“Infinitely,” Isha said dreamily. “Anything’s better than being used as a lab rat by Nurgle, or a toy by Slaanesh.”
“REALLY? BECAUSE YOU WERE PROTESTING PRETTY HARD WHEN YOU THOUGHT I WAS TAKING YOU TO KHORNE,” it said drily.
“Well, yes, that would have been bad too…” she replied, cocking her head at the creature as her voice trailed off. “I do know you…from when you battled the Metal Emptiness.”
“THE WHAT NOW?” the Emperor asked, baffled. It thought for a moment. “OH. THE VOID DRAGON. YEAH. I WHIPPED ITS ASS AND SEALED IT IN A PLANET,” he said, as if it were analogous to buying a bottle of water or crossing the street, disregarding the fact that it had been the third hardest fight of his life.
Isha shook her head, ignoring the Emperor’s sly comments. She slowly stood, reveling in the feeling of actual, living grass under her feet again. “So…what now? And…what do I call you?”
“OH HELL, I’VE HAD SO MANY NAMES THAT I DON’T EVEN CARE. CALL ME EMPEROR, IF YOU MUST, THAT’S WHAT MORE OR LESS EVERYONE ELSE DOES,” he roared. “AS FOR WHAT NOW, WELL…NOW, WE WATCH. LET’S SEE IF I WAS RIGHT.”
“Right about what?” Isha asked, nonplussed. The Emperor gestured to the patch of dirt from which the plague that had infected Russ’ refugees had spread, leaking their illness into the warp, where it had filtered back onto Cadia and probably hitched a ride on the Space Wolves.
Isha saw the spot and grimaced, her angelic features creasing. The patch of ground looked like a rash on the surface of Cadia, all the more disgusting for the damage it was inflicting to the beautiful clearing around it. The rifts seemed to be fading, though, their visible damage to the materium disappeared. “EXCELLENT,” the Emperor proclaimed, turning to face Isha with a smug look on his horrifying face. “I WAS HOPING THAT WOULD WORK. KILLING THE LOCAL PLAGUEMASTER AND WRECKING NURGLE HELPED. MY OWN POWER CAN SEAL THE RIFTS NOW.”
“So...then, why did you rescue me, if I wasn’t needed to heal the rifts?” Isha asked, bewildered.
“I NEED A REASON TO HELP SOMEONE BEING TRAPPED AND TORTURED BY THAT ROTTING CRETIN?” the Emperor asked evasively. Isha narrowed her eyes for a moment. “WELL, I SUPPOSE I WANT THE CHAOS GODS AT EACH OTHERS’ THROATS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE BEFORE I FUCK THEM UP."
“Lord Castellan Creed, a message for you from Lord Admiral Clenden,” an engineer’s voice sounded in Creed’s comm bead. He tapped it reflexively.
“Copy that, Comms, patch him through to me directly,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, looking over the buzz of auspex operators and comm officers in the command room, glaring at anyone who was too obviously trying to listen in.
“Creed, this is Clenden. I will be in geostationary orbit above the spot for a four minute window, two minutes from…now,” the Admiral’s voice came through, buzzing faintly.
Creed nodded. “Good. We’ll have the confirmation from His Majesty any moment now, I expect. In fact,” he said casually, as a nearby Astropath doubled over in agony, “I bet that’s him.”
Sure enough, the Astropath straightened up, rubbing his ears. “Ah…Lord Creed, the Most Divine says…call it off.”
Creed sat bolt upright. “What? Call it off?”
“Yes, Lord,” the psyker said, wincing. “He says Clenden is…is not to fire on the spot…he fixed the problem with some groundside help.”
Creed’s square jaw worked for a moment, before brusquely cutting back into the channel. “Admiral, His Majesty has called off the strike. The situation has resolved itself.”
“SO, NOW THAT THAT’S DONE, YOU SHOULD GET TO CRAFTWORLD ULTHWÉ,” the Emperor roared, returning to business. Isha seemed to consider the words, then shook her head, flipping her hair back behind her.
“I cannot do that,” she said resolutely. “Long ago, the Veil was raised between our world and the world of mortals. I can not interfere with the-”
“YEAH WHATEVER,” the Emperor roared dismissively. “IF KHAINE IS ALLOWED TO WALK AROUND ON THE CRAFTWORLDS, I DON’T CARE IF YOU DO TOO.” Isha flushed angrily.
“I don’t recall making it your call, Emperor, what the gods of Eldarin are allowed to do,” she said coldly. “My gratitude for rescue aside, the fact is that I can not simply go to a Craftworld, not now, when the balance between the active forces in the galaxy are so upset. I can feel it.”
“YEP,” the Emperor said, clearly ignoring her complaints. “YOU HAVE SO MANY OTHER PLACES TO GO RIGHT NOW. YOU SURE ARE LUCKY TO BE SO FLUSH WITH OPTIONS.”
Isha glared at him for a few more moments, before conceding his point with a forced shrug of her shoulders. She had to admit, privately, that the idea of actually visiting a Craftworld, about which she had heard so much, was tempting. “I suppose you are right.”
“SURE AM,” the Emperor said idly, a familiar purple mist appearing around the two of them, whisking them away.
Fairly close at hand, Taldeer was sitting beside her father’s bed, trying not to fall asleep. Eldrad had fitfully stirred in his sleep several times, jolting her out of her catnap, but each time he had just rolled back over and settled down. The Warlock had pried off his mask, and to Taldeer’s vast relief, the horrible grin on his face had faded into the slackness of sleep.
Her daughter, Lofn, stirred in her lap. “Mom, why is Grandpa Eldrad shaking?”
Taldeer glanced over at his body, and sure enough, his hand was in spasm, his fingers scrabbling against the cushion. She shook her head sadly and reached over, gripping his hand with her own. His movements stopped. Lofn watched sleepily. “He…he’s trying to rest. He’s so tired and so hurt that it’s hard.”
“It’s hard to rest because he’s tired?” Lofn asked. Taldeer hesitated. She didn’t want to scare the poor girl.
“Yeah…sweetie, he’s sick, too, and that makes it harder.” Lofn blinked acknowledgement, and settled her head back against her mother’s breast.
“Oof, you’ll be too old for this before long,” Taldeer said, forcing a small smile, shifting her near-numb leg under her daughter.
“No,” Lofn said, her voice trailing off. “Not for a while more…” Taldeer smiled again, this time quite naturally.
LIIVI appeared at her shoulder. “Is she asleep?” he asked, so faint even Taldeer’s Eldar ears could barely hear him.
“No, Dad,” Lofn said softly. “I’m not going to sleep yet. I want to be here when Grandpa wakes up.”
LIIVI looked over at the comatose Eldrad, and tried to imagine what would happen if he awoke with Slaanesh’s taint still in his mind. Taldeer glared at him behind Lofn’s head as she sensed the assassin’s thoughts.
LIIVI put one hand up defensively, then crouched down beside his daughter. He squeezed one little hand gently, and she turned to face him blearily. “I guess you weren’t around when he got lost, huh?” he said faintly.
“No,” Lofn said tired. “I wasn’t born yet…” she said. Moments later, she lost the battle to stay awake, her eyes drifting shut and her head slumping back onto Taldeer. LIIVI waited a minute before gingerly lifting his slumbering daughter off of Taldeer’s lab, then effortlessly carried her over to the opposite wall, where Macha had thoughtfully placed a deeply padded seat for the occasion. Macha herself was seeing the other Farseers off to their own Craftworlds, but promised to come and relieve Taldeer soon enough.
LIIVI sat down in the chair, and lowered his daughter into his lap, then tilted the chair back a few degrees so she was leaning back on his chest. He found himself grateful he had swapped his usual outfit for a padded shirt. Taldeer stood and stretched, various popping noises emanating from her joints. She tried to stifle a tired squeak as she did so. “Mmm…love, I have to go see what’s taking Macha so long…be right back, ok?”
“Sure, take your time,” LIIVI said, crossing his arms over Lofn and grabbing the dataslate Taldeer had secured for him the previous time she had left Ulthwé. It was just some tabloid rag, but it was the closest he could ever get to actual Imperial news. Idly, he wondered how the Imperium was reacting to the Emperor’s new form.
Certainly, the Eldar reaction was being overshadowed at the moment. The throngs of Guardians and dedicated Aspect Warriors guarding the Webway Assemblies had spun to face the Emperor’s massive form as it appeared before them; though he had simply warp-traveled there rather than utilizing the Webway. Their eyes, however, had immediately traveled to the woman standing beside him, clad in a simple white toga and barefoot. It had only taken a moment for the assembled Eldar to recognize the intricate eye-shaped scar on the backs of each of her hands, carved there in contempt by Khaine millennia before. Within seconds, the assembled Eldar had fallen to their knees, in total silence.
Isha slowly walked among them, kneeling alongside a few, whispering something to them. She stared up at the beautiful, crisscrossing lights of the Craftworld and let a smile cross her face. It wasn’t home – nothing would replace her home in the immaterium – but it was good to be among her children once more. The Emperor waited several minutes, tolerating the bowing and scraping for as long as his natural distaste for religious pageantry allowed, plus a bit of pity, before finally speaking directly into her head.
“ISHA, WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NOW? RULE THE CRAFTWORLD?”
She turned to face him, smiling happily. “No. I thank you for convincing me to come here, Emperor of Man. I have missed this. The love of my children…the scars of Nurgle are fading from me.”
“YEAH, GOOD FOR YOU. LISTEN, I’LL JUST GO CHECK ON MY SON AND BE ON MY WAY, ALL RIGHT? HE SHOULD BE AMBULATORY BY NOW,” the huge Emperor said distractedly.
“Your son is here, on Ulthwé?” Isha asked in surprise, letting her eyes fall back to a Guardian who had knelt at her feet and was silently tearing up, in fear or joy. She reached down and laid a hand on his shoulder, and his silent tears broke loose. Joy, then.
“YEAH, I CALLED IN A MARKER WITH ELDRAD ULTRAN A WHILE BACK. WELL, HIS DAUGHTERS. I SAVE ELDRAD FROM SLAANESH, THEY SAVE MY SON ROBOUTE FROM STASIS.” “Things have become interesting of late,” Isha thought to the Emperor as she traced her gaze over the prostrate Eldar. Aloud, she added “Rise, my children. Go about your days. I will have much to say when the time comes.”
Very nearly beside her, a Farseer wearing Biel-Tan colors rose, her face a mask of shock and delight. “Lady Isha…oh, never did we see this…”
“I gathered as much, Farseer Macha,” the beautiful warp goddess said wistfully, eliciting a gasp from the redheaded scryer, “I was rather surprised myself.”
“I wish now I had not seen off my colleagues,” Macha managed, “forgive me. Moments ago I was bidding farewell to Farseers, and Spiritseers, from eight other Craftworlds, after a conference. Had I foreseen your return, I would have not sent them away.”
“Nothing to forgive, my child, my return was as unexpected for me as it was for you,” Isha said, glancing at the enormous Emperor, who was staring around himself as if expecting to see someone.
Taldeer’s gravlift pulled up short at the Gate Assembly, and she stood, turning to find her sister. Before she made it five steps, her sleep-fogged brain recognized what she was seeing: the Mother Goddess of the Eldar and the Emperor of Mankind. Her jaw dropped, and she nearly stumbled from the shock. Luckily for her, Macha spotted her before she could do anything stupid. She quietly, gestured the black-haired Taldeer to her side, an uncharacteristic look of pure glee on her face. Taldeer slipped through the gaping crowds, and reached her sister soon enough. Despite herself, she could not help but bow deep before Isha.
“Mother Isha, I am your humble servant,” she said.
“Surely, my child Taldeer, but I understand you need my service rather more,” Isha said, smiling beatifically. I understand your father is in a bad way, and desperately needs to have his mind cleansed of the taint of the Foul One, She Who Thirsts For Souls.”
“Yes, Lady,” Macha put in. “Though…” she trailed off, looking sidelong at the Emperor who was wearing a familiar smug look on his scaly face. “The Emperor of Man, here, did a fair job of cleansing Father’s soul before…well, before we got him back.”
“Then I thank you, Emperor, for your help in rescuing him,” Isha said, to the complete and total astonishment of the Eldar present. Their complete shock was compounded as Isha closed her eyes and nodded her respect to the human leader, as if they were equals!
“NO PROBLEM, THAT PRISSY SLUT SLAANESH HAD IT COMING ANYWAY,” the Emperor roared modestly. “LIKE I SAID, I NEEDED A FAVOR, AND ELDRAD OWED ME ANYWAY. SO, THAT BRINGS ME TO MY PRIOR QUESTION, WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? YOU HEAD BACK TO THE WARP, NURGLE WILL KILL YOU. YOU FLEE TO THE WEBWAY, AND YOU’RE DEAD IF THE DARK ELDAR FIND YOU BEFORE CEGORACH DOES.”
“Yes, my darkened children have failed to learn the lesson that saw my beloved brothers and sisters slain,” Isha said, her face briefly twisting into something horrible. Macha took a full two steps back before common sense reasserted itself. Isha let her eyes drift closed, and her anger faded. “I will remain here, for a time, I think, then travel the Exodite worlds, doing what I can.”
“As you so will it, Mother Isha,” Taldeer said. “Any of the ships in the fleet of Ulthwé would ferry you to the Exodite world of your choice, I am sure.” “As am I, Farseer Taldeer,” Isha said. “Now…where is your father?”
Isha stood in the room in which Eldrad slept. The attending Warlock, once she was done bowing, had allowed Isha to see the patient without a single protest, though LIIVI had steadfastly refused to allow himself to be ejected from the ward. The Warlock would have turned forceful, surely, had Isha, Macha, and Taldeer not all cast disgusted glares at her simultaneously. LIIVI sat in the same chair he had sat in before, though he had lain Lofn down on the hovering bed next to her. Isha’s hands drifted a few centimeters above Eldrad’s ragged armor, frowning at the taint she sensed the Emperor hadn’t entirely purged.
“This is…grave. If She had not kept your father intact to savor, he would be beyond my help.” She looked over at Taldeer, whose pale face turned sickly at the news. Isha smiled, and Taldeer’s complexion started to look a bit more lifelike. “Fortuitously, I am in time, and the human Emperor has started the healing already.”
As she draped her hand over Eldrad’s forehead, however, Lofn stirred. She sat up, taking in the bizarre sight with wide, sleep-clogged eyes. “Mom! What is that lady doing to Grandpa Eldrad?” she asked fearfully.
Taldeer started, her reverie broken. Before she could react, LIIVI was suddenly at Lofn’s side, his hand on her shoulder. “Easy, hon, it’s all right. She’s here to help.” Isha broke her trance to glance up at the girl, who was clutching LIIVI’s arm like a lifeline, and smiled serenely. Lofn hid her face behind her father’s arm, but didn’t make a sound. Isha cocked a blonde eyebrow at LIIVI, who darted his eyes from Taldeer to himself. Isha caught the meaning and allowed another half-smile, before returning her full attention to Eldrad.
Lofn slowly poked her head out from around her father’s arm, watching. Her panic faded as she watched, her own psychic abilities allowing her to see what Isha was doing. She wasn’t pure Eldar, which explained why she didn’t realize it instinctively, but now she could see it, even if she didn’t understand it.
Isha’s eyes glowed under her closed lids, the light shimmering through, red from the blood in her capillaries. For a moment, Eldrad’s lips drew back into the horrible smile he had worn when the Prince of Excess had held him at his mercy. Macha gasped inaudibly, nearly grabbing Eldrad’s hand, but reason held her back. The Lady of Fertility drew her hands back from Eldrad’s body, looking a bit tired.
“It is done,” she said. “His mind is restored.” Eldrad’s grin vanished, and he groaned softly in his sleep. Isha took a few steps back, allowing Taldeer and Macha to walk up to their father’s bedside. His eyes creaked open, at long last.
“Macha…Taldeer? What…where am I?” he croaked, his voice strained.
“Father…” Taldeer managed, the emotions she worked so hard to control in front of her colleagues and troops slipping out. She grasped his nearest hand, squeezing it tight. “I…dad…” she broke down, tears coursing down her face. For a few, terrible years, she had thought his soul consumed by Slaanesh, the worst possible fate for an Eldar, and now…here he was.
Macha managed a little more restraint, as she grabbed his shoulder and struggled to keep a grin off her face. “We thought you lost, Father…we thought you gone forever.”
“So did I,” Eldrad mumbled, bleary. He raised his head a fraction, not seeing anything beyond his daughters at first. “My…” he paused to clear his throat. “My daughters, where…is this Ulthwé? How did I get back here?”
“We had a favor given to us, Father,” Macha said, not allowing her pronounced distaste at the state of things color her voice. “The leader of the Imperium has returned, and snatched you from the jaws of She Who Thirsts.”
“Yes…I remember…oh, Lady of Mercy, I remember, the horrors…I thought my soul would feed…feed Her…” Eldrad shuddered, his hands falling limp. The memories flooded back to him, the terrible pleasures of the Pit, Slaanesh’s taunting, the poisons he had breathed, enjoying them and filled with terror at the thought…
A warmth on his other side alerted him to another person in the room. He started and looked over. A small, black-haired girl was nervously clutching his free hand. She looked odd for an Eldar, yet Eldar she was, by the feel of her in the Warp around them. He blinked at her, confusion etching itself onto his face.
“Grandpa Eldrad?” the girl asked in a small voice, hesitant. Eldrad stared at her blankly, confused. Taldeer walked around to the girl’s side of the table, placing a protective hand on her shoulder.
“Father, this is Lofn, my daughter.” Eldrad’s eyes went as wide as dinner plates at the words.
“I have a granddaughter? I have a son-in-law? What?”
“Yes, Father,” Taldeer said sheepishly. “Ah…you’ve been gone long enough for…events to occur.”
“So it would seem,” Eldrad said faintly. He reached his hand over to where the girl was, a faint smile crossing his lined features. “Hello there,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Nice to meet you, Lofn.”
“Um, nice to meet you too,” Lofn said, trying to remember which words to use. Eldrad let himself slump back into the bed, then experimentally lifted himself into a sitting position, his back to the wall. Macha hurriedly placed a pillow behind him, which he sank into gratefully. Continuing his sweep of Lofn’s side of the room, his eyes lit upon LIIVI, and he froze.
“What…what in the world is he doing…” he asked, aghast. LIIVI had to exert a great deal of self-restraint not to stare suggestively at Taldeer at that point, as he was fairly sure she would never forgive him. Taldeer hastened to explain.
“This is my partner, Father, LIIVI. He saved me from the Imperium, nearly getting himself killed in the process. He’s Lofn’s father.” LIIVI bowed respectfully, tapping his closed fist against his chest and inclining his head. Eldrad stared. He stared at one of the couple to the other, his eyes dropping occasionally to Lofn, who was still standing uncomfortably at the side of the bed.
Finally, he spoke, his voice slow and uncertain. “These are…fascinating times…it seems…”
“I quite agree,” a beautiful, melodious voice spoke from the other side of the bed. Eldrad twisted around and nearly fainted. Lady Isha, Mother of the Eldar, was standing under a meter from him, looking for all the world like she had been free of Nurgle’s captivity the last ten thousand years.
Eldrad stared at her, his jaw agape, his ten thousand years of life failing utterly to provide him with inspiration. “You get trapped in the Warp for ten short years, and the universe inverts…” he finally said.
Several stories away from where Eldrad was having his mind blown, Roboute Guilliman was having an equally odd day. A one hundred thirty ton daemon was sitting in the middle of a disused parking square, telling him that it was his father.
Guilliman instantly recognized his father, of course, just as he had on Macragge nine thousand years prior, but the new body had shocked him. “Father…forgive me, but I recall you telling that traitor Magnus in no uncertain terms that sorcery was expressly forbidden. Yet…here you are. A daemonhost.”
“HALF-RIGHT. THE DAEMON IS HOSTING ME,” the Emperor roared. “COME NOW, SON, YOU WERE ALWAYS THE PRAGMATIC ONE. YOU HAVE TO SEE HOW DESPERATE I WAS. NINE THOUSAND YEARS, TIED TO A CHAIR, BEING TORTURED BY A CEASELESS BOMBARDMENT OF ELDRITCH WARP ENERGIES. I COULD BARELY STAND IT AS IT WAS, AND THEN THIS SHIT WITH ABBADON AND THE ILLUMINATI HAPPENED…”
“Yeah, that’s another thing, Father,” Rouboute said, flustered. “How did you find out about that? I don’t think it was active in my time…”
“NEITHER DO I, SON, BUT I FOUND OUT ABOUT IT A FEW YEARS BACK FROM A RENEGADE INQUISITION MEMBER WHO LEARNED TOO MUCH. DRACO I THINK HIS NAME WAS. ANYWAY, WHAT’S DONE IS DONE. I’M CLEARLY STILL IN CONTROL, AFTER ALL, AND MORE POWERFUL THAN I EVER COULD HAVE BEEN OTHERWISE,” the huge Emperor said, dismissively.
“Magnus said that, right before Russ beat him half to death and Tzeentch turned him into a daemon Prince,” Roboute said, irked. The Emperor rose to his massive feet, and the Primarch felt a drop of sweat run down his back. After a moment, the Emperor sat back down.
“FAIR ENOUGH, SON, BUT DO NOT MISTAKE ME FOR MAGNUS,” the Emperor said, reining in his temper. “MAGNUS SOUGHT OUT HIS POWERS THROUGH GREED AND THE TAINT OF CHAOS. I SUMMONED THE DAEMON BECAUSE HUMANITY WAS DOOMED WITHOUT IT. I WOULD NEVER HAVE DONE IT IF I HAD THE CHOICE. DO YOU RECALL HOW HARD MAGNUS CAMPAIGNED TO MAKE SORCERY LEGAL AT NICAEA?”
“Naturally, Father, and we both decided it was too risky.”
“RIGHT. IT’S LIKE I TOLD THAT MORON INQUISITOR VALENTINE. THIS IS DESPERATION, NOT DESIRE.”
Roboute stared at the Emperor, his face unreadable. After several seconds, he nodded curtly, abandoning his argument. “I understand, Father. What do we do now?”
“WELL, I NEED TO TALK TO ELDRAD AND ISHA BEFORE WE LEAVE, AND I SHOULD TALK TO THAT VINDICARE ONE MORE TIME. I THINK HE’S LYING TO ME.”
“About why he’s here, you mean, Father?” Roboute asked wryly. “Yeah. He’s obviously lying. He told me it was an ‘extended, informal loan.’”
“YEAH, HE JUST SAID IT WAS ‘PHENOMENALLY COMPLICATED’ TO ME,” the Emperor said in the same tone, presumably. “IN ALL HONESTY, I THINK HE FELL TO THE INFLUENCE OF THE XENO, TALDEER.”
“Why are we openly consorting with these Eldar, Father?” Roboute asked, cutting to the heart of the matter. “I’ve tolerated their presence and they’ve tolerated mine, but I’m clearly not welcome here.”
“BECAUSE, SON, YOUR NECK WAS BEYOND THE MEDICINES OF THE IMPERIUM,” the Emperor said. Guilliman fingered his throat, grimacing. “BESIDES, THESE ELDAR OWE ME A FEW HUGE FAVORS. I’LL CASH IN EVERY FAVOR I’M OWED WITH THEM BEFORE LONG. ALSO, I SUPPOSE I SHOULD POINT OUT, WE’RE FIGHTING BECAUSE OF FULGRIM. IS THAT A NOBLE THING TO DO?”
“Fuck that treasonous dog,” Guilliman snarled. “But is it not the way of the Imperium to never again bow to aliens? Did you yourself not cleanse Saturn and Jupiter of the taint of xenos?”
“I DID, SON, BUT TIMES CHANGE. THE ELDAR ARE THE ONLY RACE LEFT IN THE GALAXY OF ANY IMPORTANCE BESIDES OURSELVES THAT WILL FIGHT CHAOS BECAUSE THEY SHOULD, NOT BECAUSE OF THEIR GENES.”
“Very well. I suppose I can put up with them if they become useful,” the Ultramarines Primarch said distastefully. “I put up with ratlings, ogryns, squats, and psykers, I can tolerate Eldar as long as they’re handy.”
“I’M A PSYKER, YOU KNOW,” the Emperor said mildly. Guilliman pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.
“Yes, Father. I know. I apologize.”
“FORGET IT. YOU JUST HANG OUT HERE FOR A FEW MINUTES WHILE I SQUARE THINGS WITH ISHA AND ELDRAD.”
“Very well, Father,” Roboute said. “I shall wait here for your return.”
The Emperor teleported out, appearing in the same large room in which he had deposited Eldrad before. Eldrad himself was out cold in the next room, having finally slipped back into sleep after the shock of the various changes the world had experienced in the preceding few years had faded, and Macha had treated him to an unfiltered explanation of all that had happened. Isha had stood at his side, listening in silence, as she too had been out of touch. When Macha’s story had ended, and Eldred ran out of questions (‘Where did you meet the human, Taldeer?’ chief among them), Isha had bade the others leave, so that Eldrad could rest. She had laid her hand on his shoulder, and he passed instantly into a deep sleep, while the others shuffled out, going their separate ways.
Macha returned to her own guest quarters, while Taldeer went to tuck Lofn into bed. LIIVI, however, had made straight for the conference room, the Emperor’s private psychic summons too strong to ignore.
He walked into the room and made the sign of the aquila, then knelt at the massive Emperor’s feet. “My Lord God.”
“SO, ASSASSIN, I THINK YOU OWE ME A STORY,” the Emperor began without preamble. LIIVI nodded.
“Yes…my Lord God. I was dispatched to Cronus to kill off a whole array of anti-Imperial forces, from Chaos Marines to a Necron Lord and Pariah Lieutenant to an Ork Warboss. I saw Farseer Taldeer, and helped her escape a trap. We came here, and I fathered my daughter, Lofn. That is the story, my Lord God.”
“UH HUH, SURE IT IS,” the Emperor said, his psychic voice thick with sarcasm. LIIVI shuddered, genuine fear bubbling up in his heart.
“My Lord God, I have found the life denied me by birth here.”
“I CARE NOT, ASSASSIN, WHAT LIFE YOU FIND. I AM ON THE VERGE OF LAUNCHING A GREAT CRUSADE THAT WILL RAZE THE STATUS QUO OF THIS GALAXY TO CINDERS, AND THE LAST THING I NEED TO WORRY ABOUT IS ONE OF MY ASSASSINS GOING ROGUE. I CAN SEE YOUR HEART, VINDICARE, AND I CAN READ YOUR VERY SOUL. YOU CAN NOT HIDE THOUGHTS FROM ME. I SEE THAT THERE IS MORE THAN PURE EMOTION BINDING YOU HERE, I SEE THE IMPRINTS THAT WITCH HAS LEFT ON YOU.”
LIIVI found his fists clenching, and had no idea why. “And what ‘imprint’ has my wife left on me, my Lord God? I love her. She bore me a daughter. I do not care about a crusade, my Lord God, I want nothing more than to be left to the life I chose. Did you do differently when you chose to create your own sons?”
“TOO FUCKING FAR, ASSASSIN,” the Emperor said flatly, his psychic voice draining of all emotion, and LIIVI felt the color drain from his face. He looked up and recoiled, his eyes widening. The Emperor was baring his fangs, the claws of his hands flexing horribly.
After the longest six seconds in all history, the Assassin broke the mood. “My Lord God…I beg your forgiveness,” he said, his voice reverting to the emotionless monotone that had been drilled into him from childhood, his response to fear.
“I FORGIVE YOUR CONSORTING WITH XENOS, MORTAL, ON THIS ONE CONDITION: REMEMBER THIS. THE ELDAR ARE A CRUEL AND DECEITFUL RACE, WHOSE HUBRIS, GREED, AND WANTON LUST CAUSED THE DOWNFALL OF THE GALAXY AS WE KNOW IT. THE AGE OF STRIFE, THE FORCES OF CHAOS EXPANDING BY A FULL QUARTER, COUNTLESS IMPERIAL WORLDS BUTCHERED TO SAVE A FEW ELDAR SOULS. THEY ARE USEFUL, BUT CAN NEVER BE TRUSTED.”
The Emperor straightened up, putting his teeth and claws away. LIIVI felt his heart resume. “IF YOU’RE SO SURE THAT TRUSTING THESE XENOS IS A GOOD MISTAKE TO MAKE, FINE. I WON’T SABOTAGE WHAT LITTLE THEY FEEL – ACCURATELY – THAT THEY OWE ME BY MAKING YOU WISH YOU’D BEEN BORN A PARIAH. BUT YOU MAY NEVER MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING OF THESE XENOS AS ANYTHING BUT OPPOSED TO HUMANITY IN THE LONG TERM.”
“As anything but not people, my Lord God?” LIIVI supplied, his courage returning.
“ESSENTIALLY,” the Emperor’s psychic voice said, all the louder for not having made a physical sound the entire argument.
“When you have witnessed an Eldar mother shrieking in horror and regret after seeing her child fall out of a car and die without wearing a soul stone, knowing with certainty that his innocent soul is feeding Slaanesh, it becomes difficult not to see them as people, my Lord God,” LIIVI said flatly.
The Emperor didn’t really have anything to say to that.
A few more words of discouragement later, the Emperor dismissed LIIVI and – far more politely – summoned Isha to the room. Though her face betrayed her raw displeasure at being called like a common servant, she allowed him some leeway in regards to the fact that he was too big to fit into a different room.
“Well, I suppose that we must part now, Emperor of Humans,” Isha said. “I thank you once more for returning me to my children, but I must know: what role do the Eldar play in your scheme?”
“SCHEME?” the Emperor said. “NO SCHEME. I AM GOING TO RETURN HUMANITY TO ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE IN THE GALAXY. WHETHER OR NOT THE ELDAR HAVE A ROLE IN THAT FUTURE IS UP TO THEM.”
“I am not so naive as to think that your vision of humanity’s ‘role’ in your plots involves anything but dominance, Emperor,” Isha said cooly. “The Harlequins still spin tales of what happens to those who presume dominance over others.”
“YES, THEY DO, ISHA,” the Emperor said, “BUT THE TALE OF THE ELDAR IS ONE OF UNCHECKED ARROGANCE AND HUBRIS, ONE OF PRIDE BEYOND BELIEF. I HAVE COUNSELED MY FELLOW MAN ON THE TOPIC OF UNCHECKED DOGMA IN THE PAST.”
“And such good it’s done you,” Isha said, scorn coloring her features for a moment. “Within eight hundred years of your climbing your shiny chair, a book you specifically ordered banned for all time becomes the state religion. Your children are no better at avoiding their darker impulses now than my children were ten thousand years ago.”
“MILLENNIA AGO I WOULD HAVE DISMISSED THAT CLAIM, ISHA,” the Emperor said. “BUT TEN THOUSAND YEARS TRAPPED IN A GOLDEN HELL OF MY OWN CREATION THANKS TO A BETRAYAL I THRICE FAILED TO PREVENT HAVE TAUGHT ME WELL.”
“Then hear me,” Isha said, her demeanor returning to normal. “The Eldar can not defeat the Necrons, Chaos, and the Tyranids alone. Neither can the Imperium. And even if we were to join our forces, we couldn’t fight off all three of those threats, AND throw back the Glasians, AND hold the Orks in check, AND prevent the return of the Harrowing, AND keep my Dark Children in Commorragh at bay. Even disregarding the Hrud and the Tau.”
“I AM BECOMING AWARE OF THAT, ISHA, THANKS,” the Emperor said, his own patience straining. “DO YOU THINK I TOOK THE MONUMENTAL RISKS OF CONFRONTING SLAANESH AND NURGLE IN THEIR OWN LAIRS, DEVOURING AND BEING DEVOURED BY A KHORNATE DAEMON, AND RESCUING MY SONS FROM THEIR PRISONS BECAUSE I THOUGHT MY IMPERIUM CAPABLE OF OVERCOMING ALL ODDS ALONE? THEY NEED ME. AND WHILE I FREED YOU FROM NURGLE BECAUSE I NEEDED YOU TO STOP THE PLAGUE THAT WAS LITERALLY DAYS FROM RAVAGING CADIA, YOUR ‘CHILDREN’ NEED YOU TOO.”
The Emperor pointed one huge claw at the floor, on the other side of which Roboute Guilliman was preparing himself for travel. “I SAVED ELDRAD TWICE FROM SLAANESH, AND HE KNOWS IT. I SAVED HIM AGAIN A FEW DAYS BACK, THEN I SAVED YOU. YOU SAVED MY SON ROBOUTE, AND RELAYED A SENSITIVE MESSAGE TO THE SALAMANDERS. YOU OWE ME TWICE OVER. I WILL CALL YOU UP ON IT. UNTIL THEN, ALL I ASK IS THAT YOU STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM IMPERIAL WORLDS. IF I HAVE TO CLEAN UP TEN THOUSAND YEARS OF BAD LUCK AND BAD DECISIONS FROM MY OWN GOVERNMENT, THE LAST THING I NEED IS THE ELDAR BECOMING INTRUSIVE.”
“Intrusive?” Isha asked archly. “Intrusive? Really?”
“ASK ELDRAD WHAT ROLE HE PLAYED IN THE SECOND AND THIRD WARS OF ARMAGEDDON, I’M SURE IT WILL BE ILLUMINATING,” the Emperor said. Without another word between them, the air parted, a purple mist rushed into the world, and the Emperor – and Guilliman – were gone.
Several dozen buildings away, Taldeer sat next to her daughter’s bedside. Lofn was abuzz with questions. “Was that really Lady Isha?” she asked excitedly.
“Yes, hon, it was,” Taldeer said, smiling. “The mother of all Eldar. She came back from the Warp to save Grandpa Eldrad.”
“I liked her,” Lofn said decisively, apparently after a moment of intense consideration. Taldeer grinned.
“Did you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lofn replied, sounding like there needn’t have been any further discussion on the subject. “She looked friendly inside.” Taldeer looked blank for a moment before realizing what she meant.
“Her soul? She had a kind soul?”
“Yes, it was all white, but she was sad too, red and blue in it,” Lofn said quietly. “She looked like she cried a lot.”
“I think she did too,” Taldeer said softly, trying not to let the surprisingly bright girl see too far into her own thoughts. It apparently didn’t work completely, because her daughter looked up at her with that expression that meant she was about to ask a question Taldeer wouldn’t like.
“Why did the spiky one help her? The big orange guy Daddy’s afraid of?” she asked, searching her mother’s face. Taldeer hesitated.
“I…I’m honestly not sure, Lofn. He’s a very strict man, and he doesn’t like trusting people. I guess he wants Lady Isha to owe him a favor.”
“What will he ask for?” Lofn asked reasonably. Taldeer shook her head.
“I don’t know, hon. He could ask for a lot. Lady Isha is the most important person left in the galaxy to the Eldar. And…well, we sort of owed him before, too. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure he’ll…be fair.”
Lofn kept staring at her mother for a few more seconds before apparently deciding to believe her. “Okay…will I get to see Lady Isha again?”
“Surely, you will,” Taldeer said, trying desperately to return to safer ground. “I’m sure she’ll want to stay until Grandpa Eldrad feels better.”
“All right,” Lofn said, her eyelids getting heavy again. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Tell Dad I love him when he gets home, okay?”
Taldeer smiled. “You bet. Sleep tight.” Lofn was asleep by the time Taldeer had hit the lights.
Outside in the sitting room, LIIVI was sitting in a chair in the corner, cradling his head in his hands. Taldeer walked straight up to him, sliding into the chair beside him. “Your daughter says she loves you, and wants to know if she’s going to get to see Lady Isha again,” Taldeer said, kissing LIIVI on the cheek. He didn’t reply for a few seconds.
Finally, he turned to her with a haunted look on his face. “He was going to soul-strip me. Emperor for…I mean, I really think he was going to soul-strip me. I managed to convince him that that would poison negotiations with the Eldar in the future, but…oh FUCK…” he doubled over, holding his stomach. Taldeer wrapped an arm around his shoulders until he straightened up.
“Fuck…Taldeer, I’ve been a hairsbreadth from being eaten alive by a daemonette and I have never been more afraid.”
“I was watching,” Taldeer said drily. “I thought she was going to eat you too. Isn’t it funny how those look like good times now?”
LIIVI managed a curl of the lips, a sign of how far gone his humor was. “I honestly want the Imperium to return to its rightful glory,” LIIVI said, the smile vanishing again. “But…Taldeer…the Emperor is a daemon. How can this possibly end well?”
Taldeer was silent for a long moment. “I think if we’re very careful about how this gets played out, we can keep Ulthwé safe. But…the galaxy has gone utterly mad. I don’t see how the two of us can change that.”
“We can’t,” LIIVI said, standing and walking towards their bedroom, shucking his shirt and belt. “If I can keep one pocket of this psycho galaxy stable enough to have what I want, that’s enough.”
Taldeer followed, shedding her own clothes as LIIVI dropped face-first into the bed, then rolled over. She lay down beside him, letting him wrap his arm across her stomach, his hand instinctively covering the scar where a very lucky Ork had nearly broken her in half. She placed her hand over his, and for a moment the two simply lay there, as she reached out with her own mind to brush against his, seeking the comfort his infinite stability lent her. His lingering fear from his brush with the Emperor faded as her vast, alien mind wrapped around his own, and they found the love they shared.
“If we can keep a place safe, that will have to be enough,” she whispered. He nodded and favored her with the faint smile he saved for her.
“It always has been.”
Continued in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Seven.