It occurred to me that my user page had exactly nothing about me. Which is sort of how I intended it.
There isn't really much to say.
I mean, I write 40k fanfiction, so you already know that I'm autistic.
If you're wondering why I write this stuff on my userpage rather than articles, it's because doing so helps me keep the wiki formatting nonsense, which makes my life easier when I inevitably Ctrl+V this shit. Formatting it from Word or Gdocs is a real pain, so why not format it correctly from the start? I also write it here because actually slapping a story into an article page almost feels official or something, and I'd like to doll it up and make it presentable before I do that. If you'd be interested in doing that, hit up my talk page.
At the time of this edit (March 22, 2019) I have decided I'm going to write more stuff. Partially I'm doing this as proof that I'm not dead, but mostly I'm just making this edit to create a timeline for me to reference, because seeing how slow I am motivates me to be faster. Also so that whoever encounters this page (like you) will immediately know what a slowpoke I am, and expectations (if any) will be sufficiently low.
LCB Sequel Thing Timeline
- December 16, 2016 - Created LCB document. Worked on it on and off. Mostly off.
- July 31, 2017 - Was making yearly pilgrimage to /tg/ and by dumb luck stumbled into this thread. Surely fate. Felt very motivated, and promised I'd totally deliver in two months time.
- September 30, 2017 - "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." - Douglas Adams
- January 19, 2018 - So, I didn't know it when I made my promise to the poor sods in that thread, but I was totally lying to myself. Thankfully I actually finished it. Posted the second half of the epilogue on that date. Editor had gone MIA. Don't blame him, and I'm grateful for him putting up with me as long as he did. I've made edits since then, but none particularly notable. Would like an editor to review it, or get some critical feedback, so that I can finally stick a fork in it, call it done, and list it as such on the LCB page.
Timeline of Sequel to the Sequel
- March 19, 2019 - Started working on a continuation of my continuation. Who knows when that'll be done.
Honestly you don't have to read the preface, but it'll give you some idea of what I was going for.
The updates I hid in here are pretty much just here for me to look back on, and for anybody who is interested in what I was thinking as I wrote. If you're just here for the story, feel free to ignore them. In fact, don't read them. Spoilers lurk here.
Update 1 - November 16, 2017: As I near completion (as of this moment, much of what I have written is not on this page), I think I may have discerned my sense of balance between supporting characters and true protagonists. I've tried to give supporting characters enough screentime to give the reader a sense of who they are, and sufficient interaction to provide an idea of how different members of Eldar society may react to the predicament of Taldeer and Liivi. This means the spotlight is shared rather evenly for awhile. Only time will tell if this was the right decision.
Update 2 - January 7, 2018: The main body of the story will be up in a few days, after I edit it and make final tweaks. I will then upload a two-part epilogue shortly thereafter, designed to achieve two objectives - firstly, these will resolve lingering plot threads that I felt would clutter the main narrative, and secondly, they will also give cookies to the observant. For my part, there is some anxiety at this juncture. I've focused on a lot on dialogue and character development. These are treasured characters that I delved into, dear to the heart of many, and I can only hope that I'll meet the quality expectations held by the majority of people. Personally, I'm more confident in some parts and less confident in others. I'll reveal which post-release. For the time being, I don't want people entering with any preconceptions, so I won't say more than that. I want them to form their own opinions. In any case, I said "two months" and for a variety of reasons blew past that. It's time to finish. I refuse to allow this to be yet another unfinished story.
Update 3 - March 22, 2019: Don't know if anybody is watching this - apparently one guy was. If so, feel free to talk shit (about me), talk shop (about writing), or just talk (about whatever) on my talk page. Feedback is always welcome. Anyway, I made some edits over the last few days. Mostly grammar and spelling, but I did play with a few descriptions. Added a very small amount of new stuff. Birbs and ambiguity. If you've read it before, you'll probably notice the major changes. Some further reading about Eldar over the last few days has helped me realize, or maybe remember, just how human the Eldar I wrote are. I've determined that I'm not going to change this. But maybe, somewhere in a story down the line, I should address the significance of being lost on the path. I feel I didn't adequately capture what that meant in practical terms. Mostly because I gave little thought to it - there was already a lot to unpack.
Update 4 - March 24, 2019: So, for sake of clarity, my objective for the moment is to continue working on the as of yet unnamed sequel to my continuation, while editing what I originally wrote and likely adding a bit more to it. I guess I'll outline my concerns with what I've written. In part for myself to reference later, and in part for anybody who actually gives a shit.
I felt that I didn't have enough of Liivi in the climax. The story is about the two of them, and not giving them equal billing in the climax felt wrong. Now I added a bunch of stuff for Liivi. I had Ysukin use his interviewer skills to help pick Liivi apart, and I edited the part where Liivi encountered the girl to A, make what actually happened to her more ambiguous (have fun!), and B, make it clear that he had been straining against the dictum before he failed to shoot Taldeer - and that his falling in love with her and dereliction of duty in order to protect her was the culmination of that. My hope is that what I have inserted is not garbage. I just wrote it and I wrote it all at once, and I haven't exactly slept in awhile, because sleep is the cousin of death. The long and short of it is that I have resolved the problem of insufficient Liivi. This was the biggest thing that was holding me back from calling this finished. I wouldn't expect any changes larger than this one on the horizon. There's a short thing I wrote that I'm considering adding to Taldeer's section, and I have been informed that there is a desperate desire for the two to kiss and that there is too much ambiguity in their relationship. So I'll probably do something about that. Frankly, I think that the two are in love but are still trying to figure out how to express their affections. Liivi doesn't even fully understand his affection for her. Hell, he still doesn't understand himself. Which I think Taldeer understands - and which is why she wants to help him through his issues first so they can develop a real relationship. The guy was isolated from society, tortured for his whole life, and his lexicon was strictly controlled. He probably doesn't even know what a kiss is. For most of the conversations I wrote, I've been operating under the assumption that he's just a very, very smart cookie who's been learning new words through context and inference. Point of this being that I suspect romance and physical intimacy are about as alien to Liivi as Taldeer herself, and engaging in any sort of physical intimacy before he has an idea of what's happening or why would probably be damaging for his development. But - totally a possibility after some good old fashioned extremely intensive therapy. So that's not off the table. I'm just explaining why I only utilized pretty subtle, awkward displays of affection between the two. It isn't that there's nothing between them. It's that I felt these two battle scarred warriors from very different backgrounds, one of which had his social and emotional growth intentionally stunted, will take some additional time to cross bridges that most people cross quickly. It isn't off the table. It's just something that I feel is going to have to come down the line. And I'm willing to write that. I just need to do it.
So besides working on or adding in that content, I think some parts may need editing for flow. I could work on phraseology in others. I feel like some characters are under utilized and could offer more (Tanlon leaps to mind). And I'd like to get opinions on different characters, to determine if they left the impression I wanted or felt solid. That would determine if I have any work left on the content front.
As an addendum, this is stuff I want to do.
- Remove "vindicare" from most references to Liivi past the chapter I just inserted, where he begins to realize his autonomy and stops trying to interpret all of his decisions within the framework of the Dictum. I regularly used lower case in reference to individual assassins, except the Callidus I think (I understand they have real personality and well developed social intelligence), because I wanted to emphasize the assassins as being objects, human weapons. Capitalization is for proper nouns and individual weapons are not proper noun worthy. Since Liivi's finally undergone the largest necessary conscious transformation towards becoming well rounded person (as opposed to doing shit with no understanding of why he was doing it), he gets referred to as such. Except when he's acting as a Vindicare. With a capital V, because he's actually an agent.
- Review what I wrote today/last night, later. Edit it for flow and composition after it's had some time to rest.
- Add some more detail about the process that Liivi is going through at the end. I've called it "tribuopatriation." Sort of like the opposite of expatriation or repatriation. "The granting of land." Not immigration, because those granted tribuopatriation are not citizens of Ulthwe. They're essentially second class citizens kept on a reservation. Except they have no autonomy. They're segregated second class citizens. But they're safe, and they're comfortable. And they could be in much worse places, which is largely why they've chosen to be there.
Update 5 - April 11, 2019 - I am an idiot. I accidentally reversed a bunch of work becuase I left an editor open too long, and it saved what was written in that text box. Which did not include all the other shit that I had added. Whoops. Well, I have reversed this now. Because I have never done version control and do not want to undo other edits, I did it manually, figuring what I added and where it went by using the version compare. Thank you based wiki version history, I nearly shat my pants thinking that I may have hallucinated writing all that stuff or that it was gone.
Some lore things that, like the above, I would strongly encourage you not to read until you have read the story, because it includes spoilers what I've already written. It also has some at least thematic spoilers for content to come, so avoid it if you want to read unreleased stuff. If you prefer unanswered questions or mysteriousness, and think stories are ruined when too much detail is added, you would probably be better off never opening this. Because within this box I lay many things bare, and do so in excruciating detail.
To offer some explanation of why this is here: sort of like other fan 40k stories (hell, even some licensed work), what I've written is functionally its own setting. What is written in ehre clarifies anything I feel is important. I write most of this for myself, but I'm writing it here (and formatting it in a conversational tone) for the invested reader, who is curious about how I approached different aspects of the setting, or why I did it in a certain way. Normally I'd put this in a separate document, tucked away, but I figured a dialogue might be interesting. In general, the reason I do this to ensure internal consistency on my end - the 40k universe is ambiguous about a lot. This could be phrased positively as "variation," or negatively as "inconsistency between writers." Regardless your opinions on it, I find that the freedom I have to imagine things is what excites me about it as a reader. But my preferences as a writer are very different than my preferences as a reader. I like having clear, hard rules and parameters to operate in. So I write them out, and guide my story by them. Which maybe means I'm writing fan fiction for the wrong setting, given how nebulous most things are. In 40k, materials are exactly as strong as the plot demands, fundamental mechanics aren't really explained, and feats vary wildly. This is very intentional - the unreliable narrator gives writers creative freedom. But I find that much creative freedom to be difficult to work with. This forces me to, one, think hard about how I want things to work, and two, lets me reference those thoughts later to keep everything in line with them. I recognize that a lot of what I'm writing is some serious heresy, but given the other creative freedoms legit Black Library writers have taken, I'm not terribly concerned. What I'm trying to say is that I just write the way I write, which involves setting down some rules, and that I tell the story that I want to tell. So creative liberties will be taken and parts of canon might be disregarded. This isn't out of disrespect for canon, but a desire to tell the story that I'm inspired to tell.
Not all of this will make it into the story. In fact, most of it won't. Why write it? To make what I do show appear more thoughtful or hinting at something deeper (it helps to do that when more thought has been given, and there's actually some off-screen material to reference). It has been my experience that I could feel the depth in works of fiction that had far more written for them than was shown in the story, so I try to emulate that in my writing. I also do this because it's fun. If you're a fan of harder sci-fi, or dabble in philosophy of mind and neuro-psych, then you might appreciate this section (after you've read the story).
Now, I just gave a short speech about why I'm going to slight canon a
bitlot and effectively write an alternate universe. I described methodological reasons and personal reasons. If you're interested, I'll delve into some of the more mecanical reasons. Yes, I know there's always the option of doing more research to ensure that one is in line with canon. I would do that - if it wasn't 40K. Which is flippant, I know, but my attempt at snide humor is belied by several genuine reasons. One is the schizophrenic nature of the unreliable narrator approach. I'm honestly not going to read every piece of official 40k lore and licensed fiction to see if I can discern some sort of consensus (I don't have the time, and a lot of it focuses on aspects of the setting which don't appeal to me). Even if I did read it all, I'd end up having to pick and choose. Instead of arbitarily binding myself to the interpetation of one author and have one group of people call me wrong, I'd rather just be free to have my own ideas. Then everybody can call me wrong!
Compounding the issue of conflicting authors is the conflicting official lore releases due to time. There are the many layers of lore strata. Figuring out what's current and what's dated is difficult, since most wikis cite old and new lore alongside one another, don't use rigorous citations (which seriously isn't called for, so I don't fault them), and often the different wikis say slightly (or very) different things. Even if I discern what's current, the current lore may conflict with the entire premise or major aspects of Bloomwriter's original story, nevermind my own. Some things are based on old lore, like the Necrons or Eldar-Human biology being able to produce offspring (they might be horrible misshapen abominations, but the fact that they can make it outside the womb at all says a lot - and I needed that for a plot device, so in it goes). Then, there's stuff like the /tg/ headcanon that this is based on. Taldeer being Eldrad's daughter, for example. Escaping Kronus, too. That isn't in line with the DoW canon. So lore conflicts are going to arise from all sorts of things are kinda out of my control.
But sometimes they're not. Sometimes I just like to make stuff up. It's fun. It's what writing is all about.
One more tidbit about all this. I've talked about having "hard rules" and "parameters to operate in" and "setting down some rules." I've had discussions with other writers about all this. It's been my experience that the majority of writeres hate rules and express this disgust quite vehemently, especially for things like magic. This is even true in sci-fi, which sort of surprises me - what's the point of calling it science-fiction if you don't want to (and don't) use science in your fiction? But that's just me being a curmudgeon. I kinda get where they're coming from, disliking rules - they just want to tell stories - but even so. I like having hard rules. Unfettered creativity can be fun, but rules make it much more exciting for me. Rules get me to engage with a story more. If anything's on the table, then eh, it'll just work because it works. But oh, when the protagonists are in deep shit and that actually means something because they don't have easy outs due to narrative fiat? That hooks me. What can they do? How do they reach resolution? See, I'm of the opinion that rules are the cornerstone of meaningful stakes. Good character writing can secure reader investment, but it only secures tension proximally - out of fear they might die for some arbitrary reason. With hard rules, there's no cheating or cheap tricks, there's only playing the established game smarter. It also enables a degree of subtle foreshadowing that author fiat cannot, because author fiat just makes things completely arbitrary. The past can't be used to predict the future without much stronger hints that something will be relevant in the future. I can't just slip in a meaningful mechanic and then get the reader to forget about it. Blatant hints are not interesting or compelling to me. I like it when stories I engage with kick my ass, and I enjoy it when the writing process kicks my ass. I like it when things make sense, and I could have made sense of it in advance had I read the subtle signs building to it. I tried very, very hard to do that with Increto. I'm still not sure how successful I was with in that effort. And that's the end of that. No more philosophy of writing, I promise. Actually, I can't promise that, but I'll try not to get distracted in the future, alright?
Please feel free to needle me about the plotholes that are opened up by posting this information, so I can agonize over them.
Being Lost on Your Path
The Eldar I wrote clearly have little in common with canon Eldar, and their experience of being lost is different as well. My take on it is that it's a cross between addiction and autistic fixation, two things with which I'm well acquainted. They hyper-focus on the tasks of their path, and as they do so, their neurophysiology is steadily optimized and pruned for the given task. They become lost when they cross a certain threshold of enjoyment and fixation. This is where things get messy and start to vary with the individual - sure, the lost share common traits, but you can basically think of it like a spectrum disorder. Different components can appear at different strengths, and some may correlate with factors like the path they are lost on, genetics, or environmental variables. As a general statement, it's safe to say that, at the threshold of being Lost, other activities may be interesting, and they may be enjoyable, but a lost Eldar will generally struggle to find fulfillment or develop motivation to pursue these activities. There is almost an exception: familial bonds, especially bonds with one's children, can still feel pretty fulfilling and powerful. Biology do that. But even so, it can be a genuine toss up between their their path and their progeny.
Being such a psychically attuned species, it isn't really surprising that this change is felt in their soul as well - the compulsion leaves an impression, a shadow of sorts - so fixing it isn't as "simple" as brain surgery. The brain and the soul make up a single unit, two components of one organ. And dicing up a soul is not quite an option. Unfortunately, the memory of those feedback loops is still there, an impression left in the soul. And the tricky thing about feedback loops is how quickly they can get out of hand. And so long as those thoughts and memories persist in the soul, impressing them onto the substrate is all to easy.
All this mind-body dualism and bullshit involving brain surgery may or may not leave you wondering about retention of the self. How much personality an individual retains depends on how much they use false personas (such as war masks), and to what extent their path demands altered behaviors. For the majority of paths, lost individuals are essentially the same people they were before, and they are (for the most part) capable of feeling the same range of emotions. A bonesinger won't change much, behaviorally or personality wise. In fact, after enormous failures, the lost individual may even want to stop treading their path. But try as they might, they can't. The lost can deny their compulsive tendencies for a time, but if they do so for too long, the compulsion will overwhelm them, regardless of their feelings. Precisely how long this is, and the extent to which they fail to derive meaning from other activities, is variable. Becoming lost, at least as I'm spinning it, is defined less by the exclusion of other activities or paths, and more by the inability to move on, as well as behavioral modification. As an example, those lost on the path of the healer tend to become more compassionate, especially if they have need for a good bedside manner. This probably sounds pretty not that bad, and all around tolerable. But wait - there's more!
If they are restrained and prevented from acting on their compulsion, then like a crack fiend denied his rocks, they will steadily go totally frothing at the mouth, absolutely batshit crazy (which I suppose isn't all that different from a crack fiend who got his rocks, but whatever). The "withdrawal," for lack of a better term, will eventually kill them. In part because their mind starts shaking itself to pieces, trying to vividly simulate what reality denies them, and in part because they are so fixated on that imaginary activity that they're completely tuned out of reality and won't bother to eat, drink, or sleep. The "shaking itself to pieces" is actually rather literal. The basic gist of it is that the Eldar sympathetic nervous system (or whatever analogous thing they have) enters maximum overdrive, and doesn't really stop. Their neurons start to fire faster, and these also don't stop. It becomes pretty easy to overheat. In essence, the cellular machinery, operating without rest and working harder than normal, degrades until it's inoperable. It's like having a fever, then taking meth, while your brain overclocks itself. Again, how long something like this takes to kick in varies. For Taldeer, it would take awhile, and now that I think about it, I'm not even sure there's a way to stop her from using her seer abilities. Besides, you know, putting her next to a null and thereby disconnecting her from the Warp. But I think that the null is a bigger problem than the absence of her seer powers, in that case. Kinda like trying to remove somebody's ability to think by subtracting oxygen from the air.
Speaking a bit more on Farseers specifically - as a rule, Farseers usually trade efficacy in their sensorium in order to sense fate. The degree of tradeoff varies. Your average dice rolling farseer won't be too affected. Taldeer is mildly affected, as she has a variety of phantom sensations and feels warp currents around her all the time, much like you feel the air on your skin, if your skin could also feel the movement of all the air in the general vicinity. As you already know, she can enter a deeper trance that fully consumes her senses and translates all the data into a more precise (but still technically incomplete) rendering using her sensorium. At the lower end of the spectrum you have Farseers like Kaybera who, despite being sufficiently able to learn the sensory technique, struggle to transition into it successfully, and end up impairing their normal sensorium considerably. They can still function largely unimpeded, and their predictive abilities improve vastly - but puts equally vast distance between them and a normal, healthy life. A trade most make willingly. In any case, this was half of why Liivi heard the descending Vampire Raider before Taldeer. The clarity of her sensorium is dampened to that of an astute human because of the path she walks. But he also has some very nice implants to enhance his situational awareness.
The reason I ended up contriving this is twofold. One, because it better fits with what I wrote and with what Bloomwriter wrote - this is totally a post-hoc idea. Two, because of the utility it offers to me as a writer compared to base lore. My understanding is that, once an Eldar is lost, they lose all personality in the pursuit of perfection, and they essentially become their path. Which is pretty grimdark and perhaps interesting in a hypothetical sort of way, but from the perspective of a storyteller, I feel it makes for a rather boring character. There's no opportunity for conflict within the individual, it sounds like the process is roughly the same across individuals (few/no differences to create dialogues), it sounds like there's not much expression of passion (or at least passions irrelevant to the path), and such a person is necessarily going to be predictable (unless their path is all about unpredictability). Basically, from what I can tell, getting lost on a path makes an Eldar into a robot. Which is totally at odds with how Taldeer has been depicted since the very beginning, well before I showed up. And also makes for, I feel, a less interesting, nuanced character.
If I'm being truthful, then I have to admit that I'm not really familiar with how he's depicted in fiction, so I totally winged it. Since I only depicted him as a father interacting with his daughter, I just tried to capture a sort of gentle, fair, firm father figure. Which I don't think makes too many assumptions about what he's like outside of that context. In hindsight talking to dad while he's gardening is kind of stereotypical dad stuff, and that was actually completely unintentional. But once I realized what I had done, I went all the way and implied he built a wooden deck. I guess, by virtue of including him at all and admitting that things or sort of different in this depiction of the 40k universe, I guess I should sort of own it rather than just completely deferring his character to previous writers.
In terms of where he fits in to the spectrum of being lost, I'd sort of imagine that in a strange way he's become so obsessed with his path that he ends up looping back around to totally functional. Eldrad, being a master of just as planned, is foreseeing so many different potential futures at once, and with such clarity, that he's getting his fix 24/7. His mind is so streamlined and compartmentalized at this point that perceiving and parsing potential futures while experiencing the present comes about as easily as breathing. So he can just chill out and do whatever else he feels like until it's time for him to take action, because he's already foreseen the moment where he'll realize he needs to do something. Which I guess makes it like a really weird groundhog day, but with future perception instead of memories of the past? Tenses for this sort of nonsense don't exist in human language. In fact, tense might not even be accurate, because we're talking about the simultaneous experience/prediction of a myriad of hypothetical futures instead of one single future. Honestly that could be an interesting story to write in itself, if only for the challenge of conveying just what the hell is happening. Regardless of the specifics, he's Eldrad - he's over powered. Involving him too deeply in the plot could easily make things boring.
Speaking to his family, I know that /tg/ headcanon is that Macha and Taldeer are sisters, which obviously makes Macha his daughter. And apparently she has a twin brother in one of the later DoW games (I have played exactly zero of them). I have no idea how to incorporate them and to what extent I will or should. Something to think on I guess. I'd imagine that mom probably isn't around anymore for one reason or another. However, she had to have been a pretty amazing person to get the 10,000 year old bachelor to settle down and have even one child with her, let alone three - even though he already knew how it would end. I'm not even sure I could write a character that's sufficiently believable. Might be best to let the characters describe her and allow a bit of mystery and second hand accounts to let people build an image of her. Iunno.
Technology and Automation
The reality is that, unless quite literally everything is controlled by somebody, they must have some degree of automated systems. Missiles need guidance systems. Ships need attitude control systems. Life support had better be automated in case somebody can’t make it to the control room.
Now, I expect that, for many, the immediate response would be that the Eldar would use souls for these tasks. But is that actually reasonable? It seems like souls are only brought out of the infinity circuit in dire circumstances. I recall reading that being inside a wraithguard is hardly a pleasant experience. There’s an overwhelming sensation of cold numbness. I can’t imagine that they would condemn souls to the fate of operating simple machinery when they could use a NAND gate. Or several.
My assumption is that wraithbone can be made to conduct psychic energy to higher or lower degrees, and that the energy which moves through the wraithbone will follow the path of least resistance, unless directed otherwise. This is how shield systems or communication hubs work, and why the energy in eldar weaponry can be directed, and it isn’t just evenly distributed throughout the body of the weapon. What this means is that bonesinger can basically build circuits within wraithbone, much like how we print circuits into silicon chips. This makes loads of practical sense, and, if I may speak frankly, is not completely insane. The alternative seems completely insane to me. How else would energy be distributed through wraithbone vehicles? How would ACS work? Gyroscopes? Any number of simple automated systems? A degree of automation is already implied by their technology. Frankly, this isn’t a case where GW can have their cake and eat it. While many things in 40k are over the top or far from plausible, basic automation is so fundamental to any sort of industrial warfare or safe space operations that its absence is just impossible. It would be a self contradiction. And the only solutions - such as having missiles guided remotely by a soul or a living Eldar - are senseless risks that not only endanger the individuals involved, but the safety of the entire species. Any soul lost is a soul forfeited to Slaanesh. Risking two souls in a single fighter craft - one to pilot, the other to guide missiles or perform a myriad of typically automated tasks - simply to avoid the simplest form of automation cannot possibly be worth it. And even if the pilot somehow flies his craft and guides his armament, that divides his attention, creating undue risk for no reason. Strike that - no good reason. “Inertial guidance systems are degenerate and make us into nancies - I fly every part of my own ship” is not a good reason, it is a dumb reason, and you can’t be a craftworld Eldar and pull the luddite card. If you’re going to do that, there are plenty of lovely Exodite worlds out there. (Note: I have since learned, months after writing this passage, that the Hemlock Wraithfighter uses a wraithseer in conjunction with spirit stones. I will retort with "lalalalalalala I'm plugging my ears I can't hear you," and be on my merry way.)
Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, these machines are pretty braindead simple. We’re not talking strong AI. We’re talking cold war, 70’s technology. If, using analog electronics and being technologically behind the curve, the soviets could build the P-700 Granit, a low flying supersonic surface to ship missile that worked in swarms and had target prioritization abilities, then I think the Eldar could do something similar. Simple tech, such as a bunch of switches and gates, can produce seemingly complex behaviors. If chaos can corrupt this stuff, it can corrupt a lightswitch - and that’s still only a problem if it isn’t warded, and if they can do it faster than the tech can kill them. If the corruptive power of chaos really is so potent that no tech is safe, warded or not, then all the imperial weaponry on Cadia should have failed shortly after each dark crusade showed up. To the best of my limited knowledge, it doesn’t. Which is why I'm comfortable with supposing that it's only intelligent tech, stuff that has a ghost in the machine, a spooky in the substrate, a man in the matter, which chaos can corrupt. Dumb machines aren't easily corruptible because they're just another amalgam of non-conscious matter.
Playing things straight is just too much fun. And 40k is absolutely not the universe for it. Which honestly makes it more fun.
Eldar as I've written them aren't like Eldar as outlined on the 1d4chan article, obviously. I took the time to peruse some more of the stuff on eldar biology and physiology which is scattered around the net, and it occurred to me just how many assumptions that a very knowledgeable person might have when coming to my work. Frankly, I've accepted the fact that anybody who likes Eldar as they are in canon is going to hate everything I have written about Eldar. Which is fair. In my first story, I focused on writing them like Bloomwriter wrote Taldeer. The result was a very human set of characters, nothing like the Eldar of canon. The path stuff was a total afterthought - I was just interested in telling what I felt was a good story, and hoped that if it was well told, it would be stomached well. Now that I'm not necessarily bound by Bloomwriter stylistically (though I admit, I sort of slipped into my normal writing voice in the later chapters), I want to play a bit more with Eldar psychology and biology. Obviously, in a way that conforms to how Taldeer is depicted by Bloomwriter. So don't worry, Taldeer isn't changing as a character. But I do want to show a more alien side of the Eldar mind, to make it clear that there are some real differences. Most importantly, I want those differences to be interesting. Anyway, we can get to the neurological nuances after we cover the bodily basics.
The whole thing with Mellorena certainly implies that they can get sick and die, that they have medical science, and they can't just will their wounds away or regenerate limbs at will. I wasn't aware that was a thing at the time, and frankly I think it makes for less compelling characters. The real possibility of meaningful injury and the difficulty of recovery adds more than it takes away, at least for me.
Eldar do have heightened senses relative to those of a human - their eyesight is generally better, as is hearing, and they're quicker on the draw. Generally they have half the reaction time, which I suppose implies that their nerve signals travel twice as fast. They have a higher degree of endurance in general due to their ability to push their heart a bit harder and higher, in no small part due to some conscientious genetic engineering on their part. Not everybody is equally capable or identical, in part to avoid vulnerability to disease, and in part to create some variation for the sake if being adaptable in a pinch. The ultimate fates of individuals are catalogued to determine what's advantageous these days. So genetic engineering is an ongoing process.
Their height does hover around 2 meters, and they are stronger pound for pound than humans. But height is actually a big disadvantage in modern combat, when you think about it. It means any crewed vehicles have to be larger, you present a larger target, you need more food - list goes on. I suppose that, back in the War in Heaven they fought with spears and swords like savages, so there's that. But they were still fighting firearms, and in CQC being larger does put you at a disadvantage against a smaller opponent, or so I'm told. I guess I'll just say that larger body means more brain mass, which (based on stuff I explain later in this section) translates to more psychic power, which was no small part of how they fought way back when. For now, let's chalk the height difference up to sexual selection and/or genetic drift coupled with a lack of any selective pressure favoring height. I'll go further and say that any loss in combat efficacy in general since the period of the War in Heaven can be attributed to lack of selective pressures favoring it, and that those genes are basically gone. The present size of Eldar is maintained because it suits craftworld life and is passable in combat, and they've learned to optimize and pack as much punch as they can for their given neural mass - at least without damaging their psychology. I prefer this to the idea of the Old Ones having installed some "off switch" on Eldar super powers, because if the Old Ones were dumb enough not to install some terminator genes in the Krork, in the species which is hyper-violent, stupid, and is as impossible to negotiate with as they are to exterminate, the species who can change reality with a single collective thought (and could probably do it even better than they do today) - then I'm sure they'd give about as many fucks about the Eldar and whatever they do. And you could say "they didn't do that because the Necrons could have just used chemical weapons or bioweapons to trigger it," and I'd say "retroviruses could do the installation and activation once all was said and done." Aw hell, maybe the Krorks just thought that they and the Eldar would be around forever and the fighting would never end - so the Old Ones became victims of their own invention, spontaneously making them too stupid to install a kill switch. Or too stupid to activate it. Or it just didn't work. Why it never happened is anybody's guess. It'd be funny if super powerful Krork-think was the actual explanation for failure to activate it, and that by now, millions of years later, random mutation has gotten rid of it. Heck, if the terminator gene was implanted but never activated, no doubt the Eldar would excise it if they could still identify it, and somehow it hadn't turned into something useful. Evolution has a habit of churning out a use for the oddest things.
Anyway, that's a great segue into genes. Since they can conceive with humans in my retelling (and in the older lore it is primarily based on), obviously they must have double helix DNA with plenty of shared genes. And their genome is mapped with every chemical pathway understood (they've had millions of years for it). Heritable diseases have been eradicated, but exposure to radiation and other nastiness can still give them cancer. Bacterial/viral infections still exist, but dealing with them is much easier because, you know, hyper-advanced medical tech. As for why their genome has so much in common with the human genome, you're just gonna have to let that slide, because GW really wrote themselves out of that one with their timeline. GW could have made humans an interrupted Old One's project if they chose to shrink the timeline, putting the War in Heaven way, way less than 60 million years ago - but they didn't. I initially thought they did this to make the Eldar and Necrons seem way more old and impressive, but I've since learned that they did this to keep the time of the war in line with the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, and give more time for life to replenish. Which, honestly, seems really strange to me. That the date coincided with estimates of the extinction isn't really something that most people would immediately recognize (or even recognize without being told). And the setting as they initially designed it would work so much more smoothly if they had just moved the date up to something like a few thousand years before the earliest signs of civilization (ball parking about 12,000 BC). The wow factor of it doesn't seem worth the cost in convenience to the narrative they were working with early on. 50,000 years is plenty of time to forge and lose history, to build and lose empires, and generally create epic legends - as we already know from our own history. With a timespan like that, they'd have no trouble believably saying that Eldar and Humans were cut from the same genetic mold, which is why so much is compatible between them, and that the team of old ones working on the humans got annihilated, so their work was left unfinished. Then again, 40k was way more goofy, way less serious, and has never been remotely rigorous. I also suppose that, at the time, they were still working with the idea of C'tan being the head honchos of mindless drones, and C'tan want big juicy souls that probably only exist in complex life - so they do need a few million years to start stirring again. I dunno. While I think it could easily logically be cut short, especially in the latest iteration of Necron lore where they have autonomy now and can wake up whenever the fuck they want, it's a big enough detail that I'm really hesitant to change it. Changing such a big detail, even if it's sort of a background detail, feels like bit much. I guess I'd do it if most people felt cool with it, but otherwise nah. All I'll say on the matter for the moment is that making something bigger doesn't make it cooler. Unless that something is a gun. But I digress. Back to the actual subject of this entry.
Upon death, they crystallize. This is a warp driven process which is primarily to make them unpalatable to predators. Rocks don't offer much nutrition to the majority of lifeforms.
Personally, I'm fascinated by minds and brains alike. So that's what I've given most of my thought to. What follows is an attempt to provide some substance to the alien nature of Eldar psychology, something tangible beyond just "they're similar but different," something that can be understood and made interesting even if it can't be directly empathized with. In short, this is an attempt to describe how they're different in precise detail, and provide a causal explanation for differences which is sufficiently vague to strike somebody who knows better as "plausible, maybe." In shorter, this a layman spewing bullshit about things he understands only loosely, but which he thinks are really, really cool.
As far as neuroanatomy goes, I don't really know enough about it to say how many lobes they have or whatever. I'll just say this - on the macro level, the structure is more similar to humans than you might expect, but there are still meaningful structural differences, and those broad similarities are in spite of some very important differences at the fundamental level. For starters, they've got a greater degree of neuroplasticity. Control of it isn't conscious. An eldar doesn't just go "huh, I feel like changing my connectome here, here, and here." They shape it through thoughts, much like we shape our own brains. It's an intuitive process. The difference is that they have greater awareness of what's happening in their own head. They can feel themselves thinking like you can feel your stomach and intestines - something more acute than simple proprioception but still kinda vague compared to something like touch. This awareness of their own minds contrasts with our general lack of awareness concerning what goes on in our head. So many of our subsystems are autonomous (heartbeat is the go to example). And sure, the Eldar brain has lots of work done without being ordered to by the spooky in the substrate - it'd be weird if it didn't. Indeed, they also have something like the sympathetic nervous system, all sorts of reflexes and whatnot. But they have an executive override which humans lack. So they can do things like willingly stop their heart (it will resume beating when they go unconscious). Flicking off the sensorium - for instance, disabling the sensation of pain, or entering a state of permanent pleasure - is difficult to impossible, and usually only accomplished by the Lost. The "pipes" for the sensorium are thicker, and they're integrated into many parts of the brain, so it isn't as easy as a localized change in a handful of neurons. What's much easier to do is alter perception of stimuli, instead of completely enabling or disabling a part of the sensorium. So, making pain feel like something different. Same signal - different qualia.
That was a tangent. Let's get back on track. Because they have full awareness of self and their autonomous systems don't act unobserved, they don't really have much of a subconscious. The subconscious is limited to the sensorium and some portions of sleeptime memory management. So they could articulate why they have a sudden desire for X, unlike most humans, to whom intrusive thoughts or sudden desires are inexplicable without some serious reflection (and whatever conclusion is reached could be a post-hoc rationalization). They are similar to humans in that qualia are not explicable. Why is pain, painful? Why is light in the wavelength range of 630–740 nm perceived as the color red? That's too fundamental for them. But tasks like filing memories aren't. They can feel short term memories being moved into long term in much the same way you feel stuff moving into and out of your stomach. In essence, they're aware of any system that relates to achieving homeostasis, and the functioning or management of the mind itself (with, again the sole exception of some sleeptime memory stuff).
There exists a curious property of their brain which I think has to be emergent - some sort of interplay with the metaconstruction of the components, and the components themselves. Neurons will rearrange themselves and start optimizing towards a target, and while the optimization process isn't consciously controlled, the target is. When you get down to it, this is a proximal definition of "learning," and it sounds weird when abstracted to that degree. However, I'm abstracting it to that degree because they can "learn" things that humans cannot. For instance, an eldar could will themselves to try and think two things at once - and eventually they'd be able to do that. They could develop a tiny connectome for a specific, autistic task, and it would learn similarly to today's neural net driven machine learning. We humans can sorta kinda maybe tinker with our brains like this - we can will ourselves into seeing hallucinations, for instance. But I haven't heard of any humans changing fundamental thought processes just by wanting it really badly - like memory retrieval or encoding, true multitasking, and so on. Stuff like that is on the table for Eldar. So as time goes on, their brain will become increasingly unique on a macro-organizational level, because of the unique solutions they'll develop to whatever repetitive or difficult tasks they confront over the course of their life. For instance, an Eldar bonesinger who often works on architecture may develop a specialized region of their brain specifically for performing engineering calculations quickly and accurately, separate of the region used for general mathematics. Or an eldar herpetologist might develop a special region of their brain for distinguishing different dragons of the same species on exodite worlds - going by individual scale size, position, pattern, and so on, highlighting differences much more easily and clearly to them than to the average observer.
So, they have immense freedom over how they think and what they think. But it isn't all roses, sunshine, and insane creativity in the Eldar mind. Maybe it's a bug, maybe it's a feature, but out of the box, their neurons take an inordinate amount of time to reuptake some of their neurotransmitters. This is at the heart of their intense experience of emotions - it is to this that Eldar emotions owe their persistence, and it contributes to their intensity of feeling. But the primary contributor to intensity of feeling is the flexibility of their neurons: they can develop completely new ways to experience or consider emotions. Which I suppose I can't really articulate or even imagine.
I shall now attempt to kill two birds with one stone. The birds are sort of up there on the power line, and I'm tossing rocks in the middle of the street, so I could fail to hit them and instead get myself run over by a bus. But that's the fun part of writing. The names of said birds are "why do Eldar have an inordinately strong connection to the warp" and "if they have their genome and biochemistry solved, why don't they fix their predisposition to going insane?"
The high frequency at which their neurons fire, the volume of energy (both chemical and electrical) being moved around, and aspects of their brain structure, are presumed to be why their mind leaves such a strong impression on the warp, and endows them with such strong psychic potential - there's just something special about conscious matter, and the more energy involved with it, plus the more said energy moves around, moving in the right ways, the stronger the warp impression (the soul) is. For what reason? That's about as explicable as consciousness itself. The two are probably related. He that can explain why matter "wakes up" and has qualitative experience can probably find the connection to the warp in there. Compounding the problem is that the precise relationship between conscious matter and the immaterium seems to be unobservable - how do thoughts enter the warp, what is the messenger, the go between, the carrier? It is, for all intents and purposes, undetectable. At best, it can only be modeled, never truly observed or known. Nulls can be explained away as philosophical zombies (the absence of consciousness but the resemblance to it fucks with the warp), or they actually do have a warp presence and a "soul," but it's like antimatter is to matter (making the term "Blacksoul" more accurate, I guess). Both are functionally the same, and I'll leave it to you to choose which to believe in this retelling of 40k. It goes without saying that, yes, souls can be persistent and self sustaining if a deep enough impression is made. If we want to use a physics metaphor, then feelings are like gravity. It's technically weak, but it sure looks strong when the feelings of enough souls pool together and make something happen. Like daemons, which are just a mass of negative feelings that have unique properties but in most ways are functionally indistinguishable from a powerful soul. Souls, then, are like the strong nuclear force. They're stronger than feelings, but they're a pretty localized phenomenon, and they can be overcome or moved around if you apply sufficient energy. This is why daemons can possess people, souls can be fused together, and chaos gods can bitch slap you. Unless your consciousness is riding a necrodermis substrate - then you have no soul, and warp entities actually have to reach into the materium in order to bitch slap you. Necrodermis is some seriously hardcore voodoo, and given that existing lore (per the Warhammer 40k wiki) describes it as being of unknown origin, unknown chemical structure, and unknown molecular structure, I don't think it's a stretch to call this stuff "exotic matter." I prefer to subscribe to this belief over, or at least in conjunction with, the nanotech theory, mostly because it is vastly more convenient for my purposes. Let's just say that the warp can only interact with baryonic matter, and whatever the hell spirit stones and wraithbone are made of. Since I love pulling things out of my figurative ass about as much as your average Slaaneshi cultist loves pulling things out of his literal ass, I'll improvise. I'll say that wraithbone and spirit stones are comprised of pure warp energy which is emulating baryonic matter. That's sufficiently vague to be provide few useful angles of attack to desconstruct my precarious house of cards, while providing enough information to discern what is or isn't warp-compatible. Oh, and of course necrodermis is neither baryonic or warp material. Necrodermis is spooky space skeleton voodoo. And possessed weapons or inanimate objects have a weaker version of this imitation-baryonic-matter nestled between some of their atoms - that's what keeps the daemons in them, and allows them to instantiate their will in the object, sort of like your nervous system does to your body. Except this is a nervous system for a rock, sword, or gun. Why yes, I did just sneak a loose explanation of warp mechanics into a section on Eldar biology. Probably worth its own section but eh, I prefer to go with the flow. And then extensively edit what flowed out of me over the following days. It flowed out of me here, so here it stays. Unless I change my mind.
Now, if you weren't flabbergasted by the stupidity of casually addressing a topic that could potentially shit out plotholes like somebody with dysentery who's surviving on a steady diet of prunes and pickles and who just chugged a gallon of grape flavored sodium phosphate, you'd most likely be thinking "if they have their entire genome mapped and every chemical process mapped, can't they cure their obsessive tendencies?" Answer: sort of, but not really? The brain and soul are one unit. You can't change one and ignore the other - and if there's a way to perform soul surgery, they haven't found it. You can pop souls. You can fuse souls. Souls can exist without a substrate. But it very much seems like you can't perform surgery on a soul. Much in the same sense you can't perform surgery on a cell - a blade would just lyse it. There are other ways of messing with cells - like very thin needles. But they haven't found their immaterial needle, they haven't found their instrument that won't just pop it. Naturally, more indirect means have been attempted. They did try to shape the soul by altering the brain. Once. They found that when you use gene therapy to try and get the brain to play by new rules, the soul will keep playing by the old rules. And that usually drives people bonkers, as neurons get conflicting orders from some immaterial component and their own nucleus. If you make the Eldar less psychically attenuated, then you risk boiling their brains because their soul has more energy than the substrate is equipped to handle. And it still doesn't really solve that problem with She Who Thirsts, it only solves their neurotic tendencies - and, you know, as much as those tendencies got them into this mess, it's those same impressive abilities which are keeping them circling the drain instead of shooting straight down it.
You could grow another generation of Eldar that had these traits excised - but those wouldn't really be Eldar, would they? Those would be post-Eldar. The people of Asuryan, the sons and daughters of Isha, would have committed suicide without ever taking a life - instead, by making a new people in their image, and never again making a child of their own blood. The children that they grew would not know the joys of telepathy, would not think as quickly or with such fluidity: they would be children that could never imagine new ways of thinking or truly grasp the many facets of the culture which preceded them. So the fact that gene therapy has proven harmful in tests, can't get Slaanesh to piss off, and if used on embryos, would produce what amounts to a creature between Eldar and Humans - which is to say, not Eldar - has sort of left the idea as pretty unpopular. They want to have their cake and eat it. They want to escape their fate and build a new empire that won't succumb to past mistakes. And you could say that "such a thing is dumb, foolish, and strikingly unpragmatic." And you know what? You'd be damn right. It's something which could only be justified by of some kind of fixation. One might even say... an obsession. :^)
So, if they can't rewire their brains and don't want to rewire the brains of their kids because of a collective cultural wetdream , this leaves one to wonder: how do they get by without descending into crippling obsession? Well, much like humans, they too have some mind over matter tricks, but the malleability of their own minds at the substrate level can actually make "mind over matter" both a considerably more accurate description, and a more versatile ability - this is why a lot of Lost are able to actually multitask, consciously thinking about multiple things in parallel. Most often this mind over matter ability is used to avoid getting Lost. They consciously try to turn away from feedback loop driven behavior - and the practice of willing it away is itself exploiting that same feedback mechanism to work towards temperance. So, they have a more conscious control over their mind in a sense, but it's also easy to become slaves to their own mind if they don't watch themselves. Which the Path system tries to deal with.
Lastly, concerning sleep and dreams, sleep has three primary functions. One, it's a period for neurons to take a breather. Their neurons run pretty hot and hard, so rest is important. Two, memories are sorted and consolidated during this time. That makes up their dreams. The rearrangement and compression of memory data. Sometimes they blur together as different memory connectomes are shuffled around, but even if the conscious experience of them blurs, the end product remains two separate memories. Three, it's a period where the neurons can focus on reuptake of neurotransmitters.
Since this is fucking huge, I'll just add a reminder that none to very little of this will be in the story - I don't like forcing people to choke down lore dumps. However, the fruits of this will be included. What does that mean? Why did I do this? What is the purpose of a bunch of shit that won't be included? Well, I spoke to that in the beginning, but I'll get more specific here. My focus on the Eldar mind directly plays into how I can better write Eldar characters that feel both alien, consistent, and consistent with pre-existing characters. By creating a loose understanding of their mind, I have a better idea of how to begin crafting intelligences that aren't human, but for which humans can still feel. That's really what this is all about - creating some parameters for minds. The neurological flights of fancy are just my inner biology nerd breaking out. And also to help me with internal consistency. This has become by far the longest entry, and I'm sort of shocked. I started writing it on a whim. But I'm glad I've written it, because it's given me shitloads of ideas, and I'm pretty excited to explore them.
Human Psykers (in brief)
I realized I never addressed the whole reason some humans are psykers despite most of them having souls. I only implied it. I said in the earlier entry: "the high frequency at which their neurons fire, the volume of energy (both chemical and electrical) being moved around, and aspects of their brain structure, are presumed to be why their mind leaves such a strong impression on the warp, and endows them with such strong psychic potential - there's just something special about conscious matter, and the more energy involved with it, plus the more said energy moves around, moving in the right ways, the stronger the warp impression (the soul) is."
Humans are still steadily evolving that capacity. Having a soul doesn't guarantee psychic powers. That comes from the strength of the soul, the strength of the warp impression. Some impressions are strong enough to persist after the death of the substrate. Most aren't. Humans are no exception. Human psykers have mutated in some capacity which increases their warp impression. The reason for the increasing numbers of them is likely related to environmental pressures impacting gene expression. In essence, the metagenome which controls how genes are expressed can be influenced by events in one's own life. An example of this can be found in famine. Humans who endure a period of starvation early in their life are much less likely to contract Typ II diabetes, as are their children. However, this effect seems to only go about two or three generations past the individual who suffered starvation. Now, cases of diabetes spiked enormously in the US around... was it the 90's or the 2000's? The 80's? Fuck it man, I'm too lazy to google that shit, but the deal is, that 30 year period is roughly 2-3 generations away from what event? If you said "the Great Depression," then give yourself a pat on the back. So, sugary food and better diagnostics likely had another factor at play - methylation (which is how gene expression is controlled). The metagenome is weird. The term "metagenome" is also weird - it seems to mean different things to different people. In the context here, I'm meaning it as the level or organization above the genome which controls gene expression. So now you know: the genome is only part of the equation, and shit is way more complicated than just reading what the DNA says. This is a really roundabout way of saying that increased warp exposure could be impacting gene expression. Given how even moderate exposure can dole out freaky mutations, the idea that even a small uptick in ambient warp energy could impact the metagenome and influence gene expression isn't that ludicrous. That's just flipping a few chemical switches compared to growing another functioning arm on your ass.
All that aside, sometimes it is as simple as reading what the DNA says. The uptick in psykers can also be explained through more conventional genetics. So suppose you have two genes that do nothing on their own, but when present together, produce an uptick in psychic potential. These genes could spread rapidly throughout a genepool without producing any psykers, and upon each hitting a critical mass, the amount of psykers would start to increase rather radically. That, in conjunction with the above, is what I'd attribute human psykers too.
Honestly this has nothing to do with the story. I just wanted to finish my model of the warp without bloating the above entry any further.
So I just learned/remembered that these guys exist. I also learned that the (official) rule is that you need 2/3 of the high lords to approve the deployment of an assassin. I kinda assumed that they were deployed way more regularly and that, with the exception of the Culexus temple, probably numbered in the thousands at a minimum. I know that playing fast and loose with these is the norm (it has to be). Buuuuut since all the rules concerning the assassins were declared by the Ordo Sicarius, and because what I'd like to add makes a hell of a lot of sense, doesn't necessarily contradict the rules, is still a bureacratic mire which is characteristic of the Imperium (so it fits), but actually enables Inquisitors to do their job quickly and efficiently, without having to worry about getting killed for doing their jobs - I'm going to add a caveat to all this. Wow that's a lot of commas. I think that's still grammatically correct though.
Inquisitors can petition to have their records reviewed by the Ordo Sicarius and get their blessing to order assassinations as they deem necessary, which comes in the form of a signed Writ of Confidence made out to the Inquisitor. The Ordo Sicarius is very strict about this review process and it is absolutely the case that not all inquisitors are granted a Writ. But, even so. The Ordo Sicarius is... not entirely immune to cutting "deals," if it advances their ability to perform their duty. The galaxy is a busy place. If you promise to investigate something of concern for them, or give them tips that aren't unsubstantiated bullshit, they are much more likely to view your petition in a favorable light. And of course, there are those few suicidal/bold/stupid enough to consider taking bribes. As much power as they wield, they too live under the watchful gaze of the assassinorum. Members who are proven in time to be insufficiently judicious when evaluating the character of their fellow inquisitors, members who hand out Writs of Confidence to inquisitors who treat assassins like cheap ammunition... well, sometimes they have accidents, along with the inquisitor's they trusted. So it isn't like they're tough to please out of the goodness of their hearts. The Assassinorum look out for their own, because they know that their own are worth preserving until the sorely justified moment.
Anyway, once accepted, the Inquisitor is granted a Writ of Confidence, and records of assassinations ordered are reviewed every five years by the Ordo Sicarius. The five years are measured by a cesium clock given to the Inquisitor, and the Inquisitor's ship is fitted with a small telescope array which will plot the location of known stars to discern both location and time period by their position - which will corroborate the Inquisitor's every claim, hopefully. It's also fitted with some inertial measurement tools and software to ascertain travel times, vector, and assist in ascertaining location. It goes without saying that this is designed to be very, very tamper proof.
With a Writ of Confidence, an Inquisitor can petition temples for custody of an assassin and its handler. Whether it will be granted or not is based on service to the Imperium, the sum of all previous assassin requests (both accepted and rejected), the performance of the Inquisitor as evaluated by previous handlers (did they give good orders were they fucking stupid), and a host of other factors. If granted, the assassins and handlers within the Inquisitor's custody will be inspected every five years by official assassinorum inspectors.
Now, to clarify, this is an enormous pain in the ass. I don't think I need to tell you what an unholy pain warp travel is. The rules are simple. They will have to begin hauling ass to the nearest office of the Ordo Sicarius not one second after the average expected travel time from their location - which can and will be determined by the Ordo Sicarius, thanks to the monitoring equipment. This means interrupting their investigations and leaving said investigations to throne agents or acolytes, all so they can keep their effective windup killtoys. That is a big damn chore. And not for all but the most dedicated Inquisitors who regularly manage to sniff out good uses for their windup killtoys, or who handle critical affairs that could see the killtoys needed at any moment.
As a minor expansion, Inquisitors who have made it their mission to go after pressing threats can request an assassin and handler to accompany them so that they can immediately terminate the threat upon discovery, rather than waiting for proper channels to approve the mission, with all of its specifics. This is called a Writ of Advance Approval.
Assassins in General
I'm ignoring official assassins lore in favor of what Bloomwriter wrote or implied. This does not mean I don't use it - it means that, like everything else, I use what's convenient. I won't speak more to Liivi's past until what I've written about it is on this page, in the story below.
I'll have some more coming Soon(tm) when I have some more content out.
- 1 Preface
- 2 Chapter Eight
- 3 Chapter Nine
- 4 Chapter Ten
- 5 Chapter Eleven
- 6 Chapter Twelve
- 7 Chapter Thirteen
- 8 Chapter Fourteen
- 9 Chapter Fifteen
- 10 Chapter Sixteen
- 11 Chapter Seventeen
- 12 Chapter Eighteen
- 13 Chapter Nineteen
- 14 Chapter Twenty
- 15 Chapter Twenty One
- 16 Epilogue, Part 1
- 17 Epilogue, Part 2
- 18 A Fragment of Things to Come
There are two notes which should be made about the way I wrote this.
The first component is stylistic - I wanted to emulate the style of the author to the best of my ability, to do it justice. Make it into a worthy continuation. Accord the story with the respect. For better or worse I am a massive faggot who takes his writing way too seriously.
The second component is where I chose to begin, which flies in the face of what I just stated. Xenophon (a much more accomplished writer than myself) had the humility to begin at the very word where Thucydides left off. I had the hubris to choose where I began. I began shortly after the beginning of chapter 8. Come the appearance of the Sponge Weed house, I had a feeling that the author was growing tired of the story. Things started moving fast, and the ensuing events contrasted starkly with the rest of the work. It seemed out of place compared to the rest, and it felt rushed in its construction. As Taldeer said early the story, trying to end it now rather than end it right. By the time I sensed some hesitation in the pen of the author, they had already written themselves into a corner. Perhaps I am wrong to make such assumptions. Maybe I’m misreading the work. Perhaps that outcome was planned all along, and I missed the hints.
But that isn’t my gut sense as a writer. I have done my best to continue in the spirit of the first 7 chapters. The result is longer, and not necessarily in line with DoW canon (or the broader canon of 40k, for that matter - I enjoy taking my liberties with it). If that bothers you, then you probably wouldn’t enjoy it. There are also areas where, like most writers for 40k, I fill in the blanks in lore with my own speculation. I tried to supply sections with similar detail to the original, an example being Bloomwriter's blurb about the Exitus. Some other ways I stretch or violate canon include Eldar that are, in essence, pretty much human.
Another note should be made for what it is that I wrote.
Ultimately, I think most of us want this story to have a happy ending. Given the situation Taldeer and Liivi were left in, their prospects are pretty grim. There are only a few ways they could make it out. To that end, I envisioned a plausible situation where the probability of them encountering a friendly squad of Eldar was very high. Frankly, I struggle to believe that the two of them could single handedly sneak through an imperial spaceport and hijack a ship: thus why I engineered a plausible scenario where they would actually have some support. I determined that, if I was going to add characters to support them, then it would be bad writing to just leave them as 2 dimensional characters who only exist as a means for the escape of the protagonists. After all, I want to create something good, and flat characters are not good. Instead, I tried to create real, human characters that the reader can grow attached to or dislike. This means that Liivi and Taldeer have to share the spotlight a bit, and I'm still exploring how to balance that. I also saw it as an opportunity to have Liivi and Taldeer grow in different ways. If they made it back to Ulthwe, there are a litany of issues they'd have to address. Rather than leaving those for the reader to speculate on, I bring those issues into the story using these additional Eldar characters. Taldeer's loyalty to Liivi versus her people, her guilt for having led her army into death and disaster, the different attitudes people will have towards her and Liiv, among other things. Liivi faces new challenges in terms of social interaction, working as part of a team, and generally just "being a human." Perhaps another fair warning is that the Liivi I wrote is also going to take more time to lose his more "mechanical" features. He's been through a lifetime's worth of training and indoctrination, and he's still a young man. It isn't something that will slip away easily, I figure - another reason why I felt having him socialize would be useful: it would chip away at that training much faster.
In any case, I felt all of that was important to note because LCB originally just dealt with their budding romance and how they overcame their inner demons, literally and figuratively. By expanding on the number of issues addressed or overcome, other things necessarily have to share the spotlight. This might be viewed as a distraction, but hopefully if it is written well, it won't be viewed that way.
It may be that you would rather have the less plausible scenario that focuses solely on Liivi and Taldeer. That's fine. All I wanted to clarify with the above is that, firstly, what I have written was not an oversight on my part (it was intentional), and secondly, I didn't insert my own characters just for the sake of it (I felt getting off world without support was too implausible, and additional characters could help grow the story). I know I can't please everyone, so I'm just going to focus on writing what I feel is objectively the best story (and characters) that I can.
I should have left him there. He had served his purpose.
He owed me nothing - yet he gave himself to me willingly.
Why? I know not.
He is nothing more than a pathetic human.
An inferior race.
But still I broke off my wings so that I might carry him easier.
I took him from that place, into the snowstorm where our tracks will not be found.
He is heavy. And he is dying. And he is slowing me down.
But I will save him.
Why? I know not.
He is still warm. I can feel his blood ebbing across me. For every beat of his heart, another, slight spill of heat. The heat blows away on the winter wind. His blood is still warm. But fading. And I have spilled scarlet myself.
The snow laps greedily at our footsteps and our lifeblood, covering them without a trace as we fade away.
Battle still raged behind them. Far off, in walls of steel and concrete, trenches of dirt and burning promethium, space marine and ork reveled in fire and bolter. Taldeer stopped a moment, breathing in and out, her lungs burning. She held the human over her shoulder, his feet still dragging in the snow. His rifle sheath, with frost covering it. She looked around. Disputed territory. Ork banners held up, some burnt, some empty, some shattered and buried under the snow. Exhortations of war broken and buried under the white blanket. The Vindicare beside her coughed, tensing for a moment, his hand digging into her own- then he slackened again. The blood warmth washed over her side again. She had no need to watch the skein of fate to see that survival was improbable. She was needed elsewhere. She shouldn't die, freezing, clinging to a weaponized man. She shifted his weight again, and pulled forward with her spear, panting again as she passed under twenty meter high declarations of war, pulling through the winter.
"Inquisitor." Inquisitor Madek snorted sharply, blinking away the sleep. He frowned. He was cold. He should have packed more clothes than just a cassock. An idiotic desire to empathize with the guardsmen perhaps. "I've heard tell that cleanliness is one of the signs of divinity,"
Madek roused, sitting up, slipping on an ill fitting gentle smile, "I don't think I have to fear any usurpation here. What is it, Felix?"
"The storm," Felix pointed out to the wall, where some diodes sputtered, "The corpus mechanica would be better served if I-"
"I can barely give a damn, we're on the road to the spaceport, we can get it fixed there." "That's another thing," Lieutenant Ardrin, resembling nothing more than a big black fly came into the room, holding a buzzing comm, "The city, currently our forces command it and will be reinforced, but, the agents of Chaos are attacking it. They hold the entrance to the city we're heading for." Veteran soldiers. No courage, no faithful bone in their body they. Merely the survivors, benefit of the brave souls of the Emperor's truest servants. A fine degree of cowardice uncaught by commissar, that's all that experience breeds. They that survive are just rewarded for their base desire of living. Disgusting.
"I believe we'll be fine," Inquisitor Madek gave a serene grin, "The Emperor protects."
MY WORK BEGINS HERE
Like the forest around her, the ocean was still. Perhaps it too was frozen.
“Is this where it ends?” Taldeer winced, trudging through yet another snow bank. Her path through no man's land had been aimless. The fates spoke nothing to her. Perhaps it was decided at last. The undertow was overwhelming near death in battle. But would she feel a thing, quietly freezing to death in this forest?
A ripple disturbed the placid glass. A thought. Human. And it didn’t come from her human. The Farseer’s exhausted mind struggled to translate it. Warmth. Comfort. Satisfaction. Food.
Taldeer smiled through the pain and, wiping the clot filled hair out of her face, pressed forward with new purpose.
The tiny bunker and command station had been hurriedly abandoned as the tide of battle turned against the Guard. Injured officers were rushed out of the scant medical bay, and documents were left strewn about. No need to dispose of papers when they’d be burned by the illiterate greenskins.
The deserter burned them anyway. The heater was enough to keep a man from freezing to death, but it wasn’t exactly warm. The fire was homey, even if the sod floor and roof weren’t. Of course, now and then, you have to open the door to let out the smoke, which only lets the cold in, which makes you want to feed the fire - a vicious cycle, to be certain.
It was for this reason that he left his wobbly chair and walked towards the door. He opened it gently, and it slammed loudly against the wall as an Eldar witch pushed it aside, forcing her way into the shelter.
Taldeer knocked the injured man to the ground. “Out of the way, mon-keigh.” It wasn’t nice. But she didn’t have time for nice. Another heartbeat. Another bout of warm blood running down her side.
“WITCH!” He shrieked in terror. She kept her shuriken pistol trained on him. His mind was a scarred mess. Easy to influence, in most circumstances. But panicking like this? She gritted her teeth. He bolted for the door.
One moment, the man had a head. In the next moment, he had a stump. Liivi’s arm fell limply to his side. The body fell limply the ground. A momentary pause. All was still.
The vindicare coughed.
She rushed to set him on a gurney.
Shoving the corpse out into the snow, she shut the door, then grabbed the case that Liivi pointed to. “Medkit,” he mouthed, spitting two teeth away from her. She opened the case.
The first things she saw were a set of pouches filled with grey fluid. “Blood substitute,” he whispered. “Carries oxygen. Hydrates. Not much else. Stops brain death.” He held out his arm and pointed to a vein. “Here.”
Human medicine is… invasive. She had seen it before. Abandoned patients, or field medics tending to their wounded. Like all things human, their medicine was crude, blunt, and fast. Tear open the body, excise the problem, and stitch it shut. Those who walked the Path of the Healer could mend a broken body without a pin prick, and make it better than when the injured were healthy.
But she was not a healer.
The Farseer grabbed a needle and tube from the box, fitting the two together, then attached it to the pack. He didn’t flinch when she slid the cold steel into his vein, thin grey fluid invading through the breach. Setting the pack on the hook above, she applied pressure to his still seeping wound. With every movement, her armor crunched with coagulated blood, and pain ripped through her chest. She needed her own medic. But there was no time now.
With her free hand, she tore at the vindicare’s suit, exposing the wound. Singed dead flesh mingled with living tissue, still bleeding. But thankfully, it was shallower than she had thought. It ran from his upper abdominals to his upper pectoral, on the left side. It was deepest around the middle of his pectoral muscle, where the spear had cracked a rib.
Liivi was beginning to flit in and out of consciousness. Unable to find a bandage big enough, she ripped the sheet off a nearby gurney. His shaking hand grabbed a bottle filled with some clear substance. Alcohol. “D-isin-fectan,” he muttered, pouring it on the wound. He blacked out. She caught the bottle, then wrapped the sheet tightly around his chest. The bleeding stopped. At least for the moment.
The fatigue hit like a human battle barge.
The last of her adrenaline was spent. Darkness clawed at her vision as all the pain resurged. But she couldn’t sleep yet. Sleeping now meant death.
She pulled a gurney close. Set blankets on top of Liivi. Fumbled with her armor, took off her chestplate, arm guards. The wounds in her abdomen were covered in crystal, blood oozing from between the cracks. Taking a deep breath, she wiped off the superfluous clots and poured on the alcohol. It burned. Dressing the wound with another sheet, she sat on the gurney. Vague thoughts passed through her blood starved mind. “Human. Eldar. Biology. Compatible.” Blood loss would kill her. The fake blood might not.
She felt for a vein and jammed it in. It hurt. It hurt far more than she expected. But sleep was already numbing the pain. Before the black veil claimed her, she pulled up some blankets, and held Liivi’s hand tightly in her own.
“...And atop the charges of negligence and cowardice in battle” Eldrad said, dryly, “you were saved by a mon-keigh defector?”
The crowd rippled with a mixture of incredulous laughter and scornful glares.
“This is true, Farseer.” Taldeer stood defiantly in front of the Farseer Council of Ulthwe.
“You have brought considerable shame upon our craftworld, young miss. You’ve failed us, but more than us, your kin on the battlefield.”
She choked, remaining silent.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“The shame I feel is all too deep. But I request a chance to right my wrongs.”
“Your wrongs are indelible. A lifetime in service can never bring back the dead. Not from the jaws of the Great Enemy.”
“Be that as it may, I wish to restore Ulthwe’s honor. I may not be able to bring them back, bu-”
Taldeer was taken aback. These investigations were only convened for matters of serious gravity, and to interrupt anyone was a great breach of form. Even Eldrad, contemptuous as he was of rules, was one to respect it.
“We shall hear from another.” A hooded young woman stepped forward out of the crowd. Taldeer hadn’t noticed her before.
“It’s my pleasure to speak, honorable Eldrad.” She bowed.
“What in the… ?” The farseer was stupefied. Her voice was a whisper. “A daemon?”
“Taldeer Taldeer Taldeer. Don’t go labeling me like that! I reject labels.”
She drew closer to the eldar, wearing something approximating a sultry gaze. “You're such a pretty little thing, you know?” The creature licked her lips. “But you’d look a lot prettier with your clothes off. Come on, drop this boring armor. Have some fun with me. I can make all your pain go away. Maybe even make you enjoy it.”
“Will you accept her proposition, Taldeer,” Eldrad asked dispassionately. “Will you bring even more shame to Ulthwe?” There was not even a hint of empathy in his monotone voice, or across his unflappable features.
Confused and furious, the farseer snapped. “Father what is this farce?! Why is a servant of the Great Enemy here?!” But it was too late. Reality began twisting at the seams. The ground broke beneath her feet. Ulthwe crumbled and melted around her, psychoplastic bubbling and cracking, filling with mouths and eyes. The assembly, the council, her father, everyone except the wretched, cackling daemon was stretched and contorted.
“You did this,” Eldrad said, mouth dripping off of his face. Dark vacuous holes stared at her in place of eyes. For the first time, he was plaintive. “How could you?
“I didn't do this! I don't know what's going on! Father, help me! You always have a plan!”
“I can make it go away~” Arms folded, the daemonette whistled and tapped her elbows with her fingers.
“Father!” Taldeer reached for his hand, but the phantasm faded to mist. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she clenched her fist.
“I need- I need- I need-” she dropped her head, watching her tears fall into the void of Ulthwe’s writhing souls.
“You need some sweet, sweet-”
And just like that, he was there. She held his hand tight, bringing herself close to his side. The nightmare gave way to a white clean expanse. A cloudless blue sea was on the horizon. They could hear the gentle tug of waves on the distant shore.
The daemonette rolled her eyes. “Pfft. Oh brother. What a boring guy to fall for.”
“I haven't fallen for him,” she glared.
“Uh huh. Keep telling yourself that, sister. You know he can't save you.”
“I don't need him to save me. I want him to help me.”
“What a line. Man, I can really see it on one of those shitty imperial motivational posters.”
“Get out, daemon.”
“Alright, a girl can sense when she isn't wanted. But I’ll leave you with two questions.”
Taldeer ripped off the daemon’s head.
“Rude. First: can that machine of a man even love you back? And second,” her mouth contorted into a horrifying sneer, “was loving him even your idea to begin with?”
“Later sweetie.” She winked and stuck her long tongue out, fading away.
The farseer looked at Liivi. Liivi looked back at her. She squeezed his hand. He was more than just a machine with an objective. He had free will. He chose to give himself for her. The second question though...
“We’ll figure this out,” she said. “Together.”
They were on the shore. Cool surf washed around their feet, sucking grains of sand away and out to sea.
Hate. Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate.
Images of targets flashed through a drug addled mind. Farseer. Vindicare.
The metal gauntlet of a necron reached up from the ground.
Yanked from the earth like a fresh crop, the Necron’s skull was crushed before it could formulate a response. Its body was discarded with the others in a pile. The crypt was stirring, awoken by the noisy landing a scant hour earlier.
It had taken the better part of the night to crawl out from the earth. Now, it was morning, and other things were emerging from the dirt, as if in pursuit. They were not Imperial technology. But they were most definitely annoying.
The soothing, feminine voice of a machine spirit echoed inside the mind.
Positional data updated. Target located in forest due east, 80 clicks. Ave Imperator, Eversor.
The killing machine broke into a dead sprint, crushing the head of a rising necron under foot.
Seek. Hate. Kill. Hate.
“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”
- Attributed to Saint Condi
The pain didn’t stop him from rolling his head to the right. “Breathing. Still asleep.”
The sensation of touch. He glanced at his hand, wrapped in hers. She fidgeted in her sleep - nervous, anxious actions. But she was alive. This was a source of relief. His hand never left hers as he took in the situation.
The room was cold. His mouth tasted like blood. He was hydrated, but hungry. There was a sheet on his chest, wrapped tightly. And the left side of his torso was experiencing pain. Immense pain.
“Have to treat wound.”
The Vindicare dictum taught that pain was nothing more than a trick of the mind - a psychosomatic sensation not dependent on nociceptors, but instead felt when the mind wanted, where the mind decided, and fabricated wholly within the brain itself. Pain can vanish during mentally stimulating activity, or never appear if one is unaware of the damage. It can seem smaller or larger if the injured area is viewed through a magnifying lens. The brain may perceive pain within itself, a headache, despite having it no nociceptors - the brain confers the sensation onto a region of the body.
Pain is a choice.
So it was that as the vindicare slowly sat upright and hesitantly let go of the primary’s hand, he chose not to feel the pain. While he undid the impromptu bandage with his right arm, he ignored the sensation which screamed in his ear. When he examined the cut that split his pectoral in half, and the broken rib that lay beneath it, he did not fall prey to the delusion that gnawed at his inflexible iron mind.
“Laceration. Deep. Left arm useless. Need to irrigate wound. Need to warm room.”
He fumbled through the medical kit. “Syringe. Where? Need clean water. Stitches. Dressing.”
The kit had all of the necessities supplied. He pulled the silver bag of water from it and twisted the cap at the top, to which the syringe head attached neatly.
Memories of last night were hazy, but even now the bandage smelled faintly of alcohol. “Excessive application likely to slow healing,” he thought to himself, as he sprayed water into the wound. “Preferable to infection.” The cold water ran down his abdominals, chilling him even further.
The Dictum Vindicare taught basic medical procedures. Treatments for dealing with immediate medical problems, in the hopes of surviving long enough to complete the mission, and hopefully even survive after if provided medical attention. Cleaning and stitching the wound were only one third of the path to survival. The second was daily dressing and antibacterial treatment of the wound. The third was mission completion and retrieval. If no serious damage was incurred, then with standard Imperial medical supplies, the vindicare could expect 72 hours of operational time before the untreated wound would cause sufficient permanent muscle damage to require the addition of cybernetics to restore full functionality.
In silence he stitched it shut, first reattaching the muscle, then closing the wound and applying an antibacterial dressing.
The simple act of breathing was still monumentally painful.
“Limited functionality restored. Will have to shoot from right. Cannot rest on left side. Run risk of lung puncture.”
His stomach growled. The silvery water pack reminded him of his nutrient pouches. “Food.”
He looked over to his left. “Rations.” Gingerly stepping down from the gurney, he walked over to the stockpile of crates and pulled an MRE from one of the open boxes. Liivi frowned. His shaking hands brought the package closer to his expressionless face. The cogitators embedded in his visual cortex made reading the trembling instructions trivial. But eating it?
Iron pathways honed by careful use of negative and positive reinforcement were assaulted by visceral feelings of disgust, fed by the psychosomatic fruit of extreme indoctrination. The iron weathered the unpleasant sensations like a breakwater in a storm, wave upon wave crashed against it and sending spray flying every which way.
But it did not yield.
“Must consume. Must survive to protect primary.”
The farseer’s eyes fluttered open. She was alive, miraculously.
Liivi’s weapons, freshly cleaned, sat by his side. He was stitching the massive gash in his suit using a single hand. The wound on his chest had already been cleaned and sutured shut.
She bolted upright. “You should-!” Taldeer winced as pain shot through her entire body. “...shouldn’t be walking around. Where is your bandage?”
“No time to heal. Compression bandages on ribs increases risk of pneumonia. Bad in winter conditions. Are you okay?”
She glanced down at her wounds and sucked in a deep, painful breath. “I have been… better. But I am alive. Thanks to you.” She smiled. His face remained stiff.
“I found rations. I know little of eldar nutrition. But they should be edible. Are you hungry?”
“I- No. I will not need to eat for another week.”
This was, perhaps, the closest she’d seen the vindicare come to surprise.
“There are capsules in my stomach. We take them before missions. They release food when we drink.”
“I understand. Like my nutrient packs.”
He took a bite of the MRE. Liivi was a precision instrument, but in this instance, he was clumsy. Clumsier than the average mon-keigh.
“Did you ever-” she cringed as she leaned forward, “eat anything else?”
“No.” He set the meal down and put a wad of fluffy white into his left cheek. “Do you need help?”
“I can manage. What about your rib?”
“Broken. I won’t be able to shoot from the left. No time to heal. They will find us soon.”
He was right. This was no rest. Merely a respite. The next wave was soon to roll in.
“I can sense as much.” The farseer bit her lip. This was stupid. “But, I may have an idea…”
The Eversor is perhaps the closest a man can become to an unthinking instrument. Servitors are machines with no human left. Techpriests still possess their consciousness. The Vindicare, for all their discipline, still think with a sense of self. The Eversor, by contrast, is reptilian. It does not think or plan like any normal human. Its conscious mind is far too consumed by hatred, wrath, and bloodlust to formulate anything resembling higher thought. It sees a problem, formulates a solution, and acts on it.
To aid this reptilian brain, the Eversor is fitted with a host of sensors. After all, seeing is easy. Discerning is not. Some enemies can stand right in front of you and yet remain undetected. Only by the stench of the warp might you discern their presence.
And the warp was on the wind.
The Eversor looked to its left. City. Smoke by the gates. Chaos. Fists clenched. Muscles tightened. It looked to the woods, so far away. Targets there. Chaos here. Targets there. Hate. Hate chaos. Hate targets. Hate chaos. Hate targets. Hate chaos. HATE targets. HATE.
It clawed at its face and fell to its knees, glancing back and forth between the city and the horizon. The targets were distant. Chaos, it was right here. A machine spirit housed within an augment dutifully began to relay the Eversor’s thoughts to its master.
Kill? Kill? Kill? KillkillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKillKill
Felix glanced at the data slate, noting a shift in the periodic updates of the Eversor. Accompanying the text was a picture. A burning city wall. Agents of chaos surrounding it. It was the same town to which they needed to pass through to reach the spaceport.
“KILL???” The screen prompted again.
“Inquisitor,” he said, the message now erupting every half a second.
“I think you should see this, sire.” He handed Madek the data slate.
The inquisitor watched the requests flash across the screen. The reflection of the soft light in the Inquisitor's ocular implants had a curious effect. The fuzzy white glow reminded Ardrin of too many night time predators, staring defiantly into the light of human settlements. Madek's lips widened into a faint smile.
“Such is the will of the Emperor. The city has fallen. The forces of chaos are distracted by the civilians. Approve the request. They’ll be caught off guard.” He handed the data slate back to Felix. “And order a contingent of basilisks to shell it with promethium in 2 hours. Then search the surrounding woods for survivors.”
Felix dutifully transmitted the data. Ardrin was left wanting to question the directions of the inquisitor, but knew better than that. He cocked his head and frowned, pondering the orders.
“Are you confused, Lieutenant?” Madek’s steel gaze seemed at odds with his pleasant smile, simultaneously disconcerting and condescending.
It quickly brought the haggard Ardrin out of his haze. “Hm- I, um, no sir.”
“Inquisitors are extremely perceptive, lieutenant. We must be, if we are to sniff out heresy wherever it lurks. What was confusing about my orders?”
“Well, Inquisitor, why would the forces of chaos not flee the eversor? How can we be sure that he will only take two hours?”
“Do you know what the most powerful emotion is? Joy and pleasure, they motivate people. Base desires can move humans to betray their beliefs, their love, even the light of the Emperor. But the most powerful base emotion is fear. And make no mistake...” Madek leaned forward. There was something about his voice that made Ardrin’s blood run cold. “Chaos fears the Emperor’s wrath.” He reclined back into his chair.
“Yes, some may flee. So we search the forests. But in the looting, most won’t notice the eversor until he’s on top of them. They won’t have the opportunity to be afraid. Those who survive will be maimed. Those who witness him and escape will be so consumed by fear that they’ll hide. The ones who overcome their fear, the courageous, will warn their comrades. Their comrades will either hide, flee, or seek him out. And most would rather hide.
So we are left with the rats, scurrying in the nooks and crannies, and the maimed, crawling through the streets. Both burn just as well.”
He closed his eyes and settled comfortably in his sleep.
“And Ardrin?” Madek peeked at the man with one eye open.
“Don’t lie to me. It’s a sin.”
<09:22:39> unit: KILL??? <09:22:39> unit: KILL??? <09:22:39> unit: KILL??? <09:22:39> unit: KILL??? <09:22:40> unit: KILL??? <09:22:40> unit: KILL??? <09:22:40> unit: KILL??? <09:22:40> unit: KILL??? <09:22:41> unit: KILL??? <09:22:41> unit: KILL??? <09:22:41> unit: KILL??? <09:22:41> unit: KILL??? <09:22:42> unit: KILL??? <09:22:42> unit: KILL??? <09:22:42> unit: KILL??? <09:22:42> unit: KILL??? <09:22:43> unit: KILL??? <09:22:43> unit: KILL??? <09:22:43> Admin: Request status - Approved. Ave Imperator, Eversor.
The weapon grinned underneath it’s mask.
“It is clear to see that wraithbone is the stuff of miracles. Understanding it should be a priority, as it would greatly simplify logistics.”
- Attributed to a Space Wolf Librarian, shortly before his investigation by the Inquisition
Wraithbone is a special and marvellous substance. Suitable for most any purpose and possessing a tensile strength superior to steel, it can be pulled from thin air and recycled indefinitely. It is notable as one of the few pleasant things to emerge from the warp on a regular basis. Psychoconductive, it can not only transmit psychic energy, but it can also function as a shield generator and communication hub, all without any additional equipment. And of course there’s the oft lauded property of psychoplasticity - it being malleable using only one’s mind. Intricate and delicate works, such as vehicles and weapons, are difficult for the uninitiated to produce. These items require a finer touch that all but the most talented beginners lack. But wraithbone is not so difficult to work that a novice can’t play with it. Being roughly manipulable by any average psychic, performing a field repair on cracked armor is a breeze. It may not be perfect, but it’s sealed. The ease by which it can be manipulated scales with power, while precision… it scales with practice.
Taldeer was not very practiced.
The procedure required the sum of her concentration. Liivi lay on his back, holding his breath. Cool wraithbone flowed like molten metal into a small incision, directly above his broken rib. It was to form an internal cast that wrapped around the bone. If it went well, then Liivi would no longer have to fear puncturing his lung every time he fired a weapon or laid on on the ground. If Taldeer made a mistake, then he could suffer horrendous internal bleeding and/or a punctured lung.
There was nothing to risk which wasn’t already an immediate danger.
An anatomy text Liivi found with the medical supplies made it clear where the tendons attach to the bone, and thus where gaps in the cast had to be. The shape and thickness of the rib was certainly easy to understand, looking at the pictures. But now, as the last dribbles of wraithbone seeped in through the incision, Taldeer was feeling slightly nervous. Of course, doubt was a distraction, and there was no time for distractions. If it was wrong, and the tendons wouldn’t attach correctly, so be it. At least the rib wouldn’t puncture his lung, it would just hamper movement a bit. They could deal with it when they got off world, back to her people.
And if they didn’t get off world, well, it wouldn’t matter then, either.
Fate flowed around her ankles in subtle eddies. She danced an impromptu tango with it, reacting carefully to it’s movements, following it’s lead. She could visualize the shape of the wraithbone. Subtle changes were made to accommodate the shape of the rib, drag it back into place. Optimal possibilities became clearer. Slightly thicker here. Thinner there.
It was then that she felt the ripples of a great splash beyond the horizon. The farseer was uncertain of what it meant. She sighed softly and pressed forward, finalizing the cast.
This was about how Private Scry Shenken expected he would die. Well, former private.
He held his breath, laying flat against the wall next to the door. Sure, the other half of the house was on fire. But better to be with the house fire than with whatever was outside.
The last of the screams was interrupted by a squelching sound.
“Nineteen? Did that thing really kill all nineteen? What the fu-”
“No. No! NOOOO!” The window next to him shattered. Apparently one man was unsuccessful in playing dead. Now, he was quite dead, embedded in the charred wall across the room.
Scry never wanted to surrender to chaos. He also didn’t really want to die, either. He didn’t exactly expect to live long as a soldier in the black legions. But it was better than being handed off to the Slaaneshi cultists. When he saw them for the first time, his gut told him he’d rather be damned than enslaved to that lot. And his week of service in the legions of chaos showed him that his gut was absolutely right. In that time, he learned many things he didn’t know about the world. But there was a rule that held true across the guard and chaos - your superiors will kill you just as soon as they’ll kill an enemy. So stay out of their way.
The flames were really starting to roar now. Sweat beaded down Scry’s forehead.
“Just wait until he goes away wait until he goes away wait until he goes away wait-”
A metallic voice boomed above the growing din. “WHO GOES THERE!” A chaos space marine. A VIP. Somebody who should know who’s who and who’s where. The former guardsmen was suddenly confused.
“It isn’t a daemon?”
Liivi stared at his left fist and clinched it, sending a wave of pain rippling across the left portion of his torso. The wraithbone cast set around his rib was the cause of some discomfort. Aside from the pain, it felt cold. The sum of the sensations was reminiscent of a freshly installed augment. It appeared that the operation was a success.
“Taldeer.” He looked up at the farseer, resting on her gurney, back propped up by the wall. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I can do,” she replied. Her gaze never wavered from her armor, focused intently on the ritual of maintenance. There was nothing more that needed to be said.
Liivi packed the remaining remaining MRE’s and a field kit into a ruck sack. Crystalline blood glittered as it fell to the floor, scraped from the wraithbone chestpiece. Bandage covered arms brought it to rest on a bandage covered abdomen, where she mended what weak spots it had developed during day upon day of battle.
The two warriors sat like this in silence. The air wasn’t empty for lack of words. On the contrary, it was already filled by the tension of preparation. The surf gurgled uncertainly around Taldeer’s feet as she stood on the shore, staring out to the sea. It was unduly quiet. A sinister, hungry peace.
It was the farseer who shattered the stillness.
“I need to find a way to contact my people. And we need to move fast. They won’t be in orbit for more than a day or two.”
She looked to Liivi. “Do you know of any sort of communication installation?”
His mechanical response was immediate. He needed to no time to reflect. “Two weeks ago, I provided covering fire for the construction of an anti-orbital flak battery due east. It should be complete now. It will be equipped with a vox communications suite that can reach orbit.”
“I see. My people should be listening to human communications. Do you know how well it will be staffed?”
“Depending on how hot the location is, two to ten squads of Imperial Guard, with or without armor support. They will be well entrenched.”
“So stealth is our only option.”
An hour passed. It was time to go. They couldn’t afford to stay any longer.
Waves crashed far away.
The traitor's head sailed cleanly off of his shoulders. It felt good. But it was hardly satisfying. With one arm, the eversor shot the lamp post nearby, killing the man hiding behind it. The eversor’s free hand covered it’s brow as it looked around for more targets.
The eversor half heartedly kicked the head of the dead space marine, tearing it from the shoulders of the corpse and splattering it against the wall. Anybody left was hiding. The supply of fighters had been exhausted. It was nice while it lasted, but it didn’t last long enough. Villages like this almost never took more than two hours. What a pity.
It turned to the horizon, glaring in the direction of the primary target.
The battery was still several kilometers off, but from the forest hilltop they could see it’s great barrel clawing at the horizon. It boomed once, and the edge of the world glowed for a brief moment. Seconds later, the trees around them swayed as the wind fled from the sound. Snow fell from what branches still held it.
They would have to time their approach carefully. Being near an anti-orbital flak cannon during firing was inadvisable, to say the least.
The roar of the steel beast reminded Taldeer of the ocean. There was a storm in the distance. Clouds had begun gathering hours ago. It had yet to reach the shore, but the foamy chop was marching ever closer.
There was some comfort to be found in the situation. The woods would probably be safe. There may be the odd ork, broken away from the waaagh. But the trees were thick enough to hide in, and there was nobody else at present. This much Taldeer could tell.
Liivi twitched. He began looking around. “Liivi, what are y-” Then she heard it. A whistling, shrieking, screaming sound. Quiet, but growing ever louder, closer. The wind of the warp carried a whiff of thought. A mind. A war mask. “Eldar.”
Hope at last.
“I- I think it’s my people.” She beamed. “Maybe I can call out to them, maybe…” There was a faint buzzing now. Autocannon fire. A pop, like a distant firework. The war mask was clearer. Masks. There were many. A warlock. But something was amiss. One was unmasked. And that one was consumed by fear.
The distant scream quickly morphed into a mighty roar. 100 meters to their left, a smoking Vampire Raider struggled to maintain altitude, pursued by three Thunderbolt Fighters. The Fates laughed mockingly as a great breaker met a cliff face, splashing high.
“no no no no no no no NO NO NO!” Taldeer watched in wide eyed horror as the magnificent eldar war machine dipped slightly further, clipping the tree tops, spraying snow and steam. Now rapidly losing speed, it sank into the deep embrace of the woods, rolling and carving a path of destruction. Another precious work requiring ages to grow, all undone by the brutish determination of the humans.
A litany of curses ran from her lips. Tears welled in her eyes. She grimaced and fell to her knees. “Why?”
The farseer stared at the path of fallen trees and sniffled. Sparks flew off the distant wreckage. Her self pity was short lived. She stood up, shaken but resolute.
“There may be survivors. We need to save them.” The waves tugged at her legs, beckoning her out to sea. Thunder of the storm cracked in the distance, echoing like the steam explosions of snow on the engines.
Fire was always less impressive in the daytime.
Madek sipped his coffee as the village burned on the horizon. They had to take a little detour on account of that mess. No matter.
“Sir,” Felix piped from below. “The Navy reports that an enemy troop transport was downed in the area of operations. Eldar, sir.”
“Hm.” Madek sighed. “This changes things. The witch he’s travelling with could use the communications systems to call for help, if they’re still functioning. Worse, there may be survivors.
What was their mission, Felix? Do we know, or have any educated guesses?”
“Before taking evasive maneuvers, their vector was a beeline for an orbital battery, sir.”
“Undoubtedly trying to clear an escape vector for their fleet. The death of the Farseer and the Vindicare assuredly take priority, but we would do well to prevent the escape of the xenos. What men do we have in reserve?”
“None sir,” Ardrin barked, “all troops are currently preoccupied in a mop up operation against the orks. The Governor Militant hopes to avoid an infestation, so he’s prioritizing their destruction.”
“You truly have none in reserve?” Madek scowled as he eyed Ardrin, as though some sort of trick was being played on him.
“I’m afraid they were incinerated last night, sir.” No mirth leaked from Ardrin’s mind and onto his face. But Madek knew it was there.
“Oh for the love of the throne.” The inquisitor massaged his temple.
He had to choose. The orks, or the witch and the traitor? Pursuing the orks was a prudent decision on Alexander’s behalf. A greenskin infestation was nothing to laugh about. Madek sighed.
“Very well. I have no desire to forever sully a world recently saved in the Emperor’s name. Release Terra and her associates from the brig. Dispatch them to the orbital battery as is. It’s less than ideal, but it’s better than nothing.” There was momentary pause. “I will return to the battle barge and supervise operations from there. My personal guard will join the hunt. Have the Valkyrie meet us en route to the space port. And order the Valkyrie to pick up the eversor if it isn’t already close to the targets.”
“It will be done.”
Taldeer was slightly short of breath. Only slightly. Now standing at the beginning of the newfound clearing, she could see hesitant heads poking out of the transport as the thunderbolts departed. The farseer couldn’t help but smile through the pain of exertion. “There are survivors.”
Slowly they stepped out of the wreckage. A Fire Dragon… another. The first Fire Dragon stayed by the entrance, beckoning the others out. A ranger emerged, carrying 2 rifles and what appeared to be the corpse of another ranger. A Striking Scorpion… a guardian… a Warlock… the Fire Dragon gestured towards the Warlock - move to the front of the craft. Was he in charge? Another Scorpion and Guardian stepped out. All told it was a small squad, but this sort of composition was typically what was used for infiltration/demolition. It seems like most of them survived.
Had Taldeer paid attention, she would have noticed a moment’s hesitation in Liivi. “You want to approach them?”
But she was already sprinting.
Of the multitude of sensors attached to the eversor, most are for combat. Few are for tracking. An eversor is to be delivered into the heat of battle, targets positioned right in front of it.
Staring into the burnt out crater littered with ork corpses, it was hard to believe any evidence had survived the fire storm. The trail had gone cold. The eversor leapt into the trench and stamped its foot in frustration, sending cracks ripping all through the baked clay. It sulked as it strolled, eyes following one of the cracks, claws scraping the wall, waiting. Waiting for something. That’s when it saw it.
Foot prints. Not guardsman, not ork, and not space marine. Leading to a bunker.
It took off in a running sprint
The Vindicare temple teaches that there are few standard soldiers as dangerous as the Eldar Aspect Warriors. They may have hundreds of years of combat experience, and can be counted on to perform their role with exceptional prowess. Any emotional instability which could affect their judgment is nullified by their war mask. They are, for most all intents and purposes, perfectly rational killing machines.
In a squad, they are to be avoided, unless preoccupied by forces allied with the vindicare. A single combatant can be dispatched, but the shot must not miss. And these are of course the broader notes. Each aspect must be dealt with differently.
Fire Dragons were simple to deal with. Combat sappers and explosive ordnance experts, they were primarily concerned with vehicles. Snipers like the Vindicare were not their prey, and any attempt to counter snipe using their armament would only illuminate their position. Wait until they are preoccupied with an armored target, or fulfilling their role as a sapper, then take the shot. If one has to engage alone, use misdirection to confuse them - have them focus their fire on false positions while you move from one location to the next, picking them off as you go.
Striking Scorpions were close range melee combatants, with firearms limited to short ranges. They would be easy to dispatch, were it not for their skill in stealth and infiltration. Almost always working in pairs, they could handily exploit the landscape to their advantage. If they were known to be operating in the area, then the vindicare must keep one eye to his back at all times. Leaving false trails and limiting potential flanking routes was essential to survival.
Rangers are a monumental pain to deal with. They may not be aspect warriors, and they may not be as disciplined as the other eldar, but they’re still snipers par excellence. Their rifles are limited only by the psychic power of their wielder. They do not have to reload. Being a warp driven laser, it does not suffer from projectile drop, and enjoys exceptional range for a laser weapon. The aim stabilization and targeting systems make shooting on the move quite easy. It’s a marvellously idiot-proof device that a green recruit could use to great success. Which makes it all the more frightening in the hands of somebody who may have been shooting for hundreds of years. Tactics vary with terrain and situation, but in general, duels can take many days and require every ounce of the Vindicare’s training.
Guardians are little more than civilians disguised as soldiers. A Warlock provides their mask, and without their Warlock they were little better than fodder. The warlock was a potent psyker and not to be underestimated - if a witchblade wielding warlock gets near you, you’re as good as dead, no doubt soon to be incinerated by a powerful blast of warp fire.
Despite their differences, all strategies for dealing with these opponents shared one common feature, a fundamental component of the Vindicare Dictum: maintain range.
This feature was not found in the present strategy.
Liivi was honed not to feel fear. But as he approached the squad of eldar, weapons raised at him, he noted an unfamiliar, unsettling sensation nagging at him. It faded as he drew closer to Taldeer’s side. But only slightly.
“Drop the weapon, mon-keigh.” It was one of the Fire Dragons. He appeared to be in charge.
The surf was rolling in. The situation had to be handled delicately.
“Liivi, do as the Captain says.” Liivi lowered the weapon to the ground and raised his hands above his head.
The officer leered at her out the the side of his eye, weapon still focused intently on the human next to her. “Consorting with the enemy… what’s the meaning of this, Farseer? Where are your troops? Explain yourself.”
She hadn’t been looking forward to this part.
“I… led them to their deaths.” Taldeer tried to put on a brave face. Tried to choke back her guilt and shame. But after days on the run, wounded, fighting the nightmares plaguing her dreams - there were cracks in her facade. She swallowed. Was it blood, bile, or something else? “I’m the only survivor. And I wouldn’t be, if not for him. He saved my life. I owe him a debt.”
The captain leered at the vindicare and hissed. “Why?”
“Captain, he could have killed me many times over.”
“I didn’t ask you, Farseer.”
“I outrank yo-”
“I see before me one of Ulthwe’s finest, broken and beaten, with a particularly menacing mon-keigh following her like a dog. We go nowhere until I know you aren’t compromised. Now I repeat my question, mon-keigh - why?”
There was a brief moment of silence. “Mission: protect primary.” He was reverting to reflexes.
“Really now? For how long? On whose orders?”
Taldeer could feel the iron roads of Liivi’s mind buckling, straining, twisting against a force it was conditioned to repress. “Concern…” Liivi thought to himself, “concern for,” images of her face, flashed through his mind. “Affection… ?” She saw herself viewed through a scope as she removed her helmet. The silence lasted several seconds as a great war resolved itself beneath his expressionless face.
“Until the primary is secure. On my orders.”
“So you’re a rogue?”
He turned to face Taldeer again. “And you believe him?”
There was no hesitation in her voice. “Yes.”
“We have no time for further interrogation,” he noted dryly. “We take them or leave them. Tanlon, is anything amiss?”
The warlock stepped forward. “We were briefed on humans like this. He is an assassin. His mind is nearly impenetrable. For what it’s worth, I can sense straining. Farseer Taldeer I do not sense to be lying, but she could easily fool me if she so desired.”
“Captain,” Taldeer said plainly, “if you shoot him, then I suggest you shoot me as well. Because I won’t come willingly.”
“Interesting, Farseer. Interesting indeed.” He eyed Liivi sternly before finally lowering his gun.
“Very well.” He extended his hand. “I understand this is a mon-... a human gesture of friendship.” Liivi stepped forward and took it, somewhat hesitantly. This was another practice he was vaguely familiar with, having seen it through the scope many times before, typically performed by the target.
“I’m Captain Gilfavor, temporary appointment, leading this mission. You’re Liivi. Now pick up your gun and get walking. We’ve got a mission to complete and we have one day cycle to do it.”
The eversor twiddled its fingers happily. This was one of those rare occasions where the anticipation of killing hated enemies superseded the hate itself. The task had taken some searching, but it had found their trail at last. The snow had almost hidden their passage. Almost. But almost doesn’t count in games of life or death. The headless man sitting outside the command bunker had certainly learned that. He had almost gotten away. But in the end, his head had gotten away from him. That was the work of an exitus round, no mistaking it.
Happy to be on the right track, the eversor joyously kicked in the door, sending it flying off of it’s hinges and into a filing cabinet.
It had hoped that the targets would still be in here. Instead it found only fluttering papers, bloodied sheets, and depleted medical supplies.
Surely they couldn’t have gone far.
Liivi stuck close at Taldeer’s flank. In silence, they marched a winding route in staggered formation. Though he lacked the words to describe it, even the vindicare was able to sense the squad’s grave atmosphere. Perhaps it was rooted in the two bodies they had left behind, entombed in the Raider. Perhaps it was the addition of a disgraced commander and former hostile. Perhaps it was both. The whole situation put the expressionless man on edge. As the snow crunched under their feet, he studied his surroundings with care.
“Anxious.” The guardian, female, a head shorter than Taldeer, marched directly in front of them, helmet open to the cold air. Her armor bore the eldar sign of the healer. She glanced back occasionally, concern and worry written on her face. The primary soon met her gaze with a peculiar smile. While the lips expressed characteristics indicating happiness, the eyes and brow more closely resembled the expression made by some of his previous primaries, when they had realized their immediate termination was inescapable - a peculiar variant of sadness.
She glanced at Liivi and held his gaze for second before turning her eyes to the earth. He had been so focused on the primary that he had missed the reaction of the female secondary. Such oversights were atypical. It was important that the vindicare keep note of the state of primaries and secondaries, to discern their awareness of his presence or likelihood to bolt. Liivi filed this incident away for reflection.
He checked his six. The scorpions and additional guardian marched with their helmets on. Subtle shifts in their direction betrayed glances, or at least what Liivi perceived as glances. The other fire dragon, a figure of intimidating stature, marched directly behind them. He scanned his surroundings ceaselessly, paying the two new arrivals extra mind.
“Still wary.” The vindicare looked forward. The ranger, marching next to the medic, stared right back at him. A curious, scrutinizing look. He exhaled sharply through his nose, smiled, and looked forward. “Amused?”
Tanlon and Gilfavor, marching at the head, never spared a glance to the rear. This was concerning. There was another party that the vindicare had to track the state of, and that was the commander.
A Vindicare may be human ammunition, but the assassinorum did not intend for that ammunition to be spent by overzealous inquisitors, or by micromanaging officers who believed that they understood long range combat tactics better than the students of the Vindicare temple. No, a Vindicare was ammunition intended only to be spent when necessary. It is for this reason that the Vindicare is trained to identify the emotional state of the commander, and evaluate the commander’s orders in terms of their probability of increasing or maintaining the probability of mission success. To be unable to anticipate, placate, or accommodate the commander was considered a very dangerous situation for a Vindicare. To draw the ire of an unpredictable commander was akin to making enemies of one’s own friendlies. So it was that Liivi marched with concern written across his features, studying the captain’s back intently.
“So,” the captain said, “understand I won’t hesitate to shoot you, should you show the least sign of hostility. However, friend or enemy, Farseer Taldeer is alive because of you. Death is a fate I would wish only the most depraved of my kin. Our souls are forfeit to the Great Enemy - without a soul stone, we are damned. So, we of Ulthwe thank you for saving one of our precious Farseers. Each one is worth several of us,” he glared at Taldeer. “Even if that one may be incompetent - even cowardly.”
She considered responding, but she didn’t have the energy. She wasn’t even sure if his accusations were wrong.
“Taldeer did not exhibit fear characteristics in her actions. She fought well, despite fear. A notable achievement was the elimination of a space marine from a chapter unknown to me, most likely a force endemic to the Inquisition. He was using gray artifice armor of a variety unknown to me, and w-”
“Save your testimony for later. I’ll take this opportunity to fill you in.”
Liivi looked at Taldeer. She looked back at him. They both looked at Gilfavor.
“Our target is the anti orbital flak battery. Currently the fleet is performing evasive maneuvers, pricking the enemy with raids to keep them away. But sky is filling with ships, and the humans keep erecting installations like this one. We’ve negotiated a ceasefire with the Tau, and that’s bought us some extra time. But we’re running out of space. This is one of many installations we’re clearing for an escape vector.”
The farseer avoided eye contact. “What about the soulstones of the fallen?”
“They’ll be retrieved. Either through diplomacy or another campaign. If you’re fortunate, maybe you’ll even get to be a part of it.” He let the silence hang for a few seconds. “In any case, the crash wasn’t a huge setback. We would have preferred to do it quietly, about 1 of your ‘kilometer’ further, but Machmes did his best. He got us close to the intended landing position. Imperial vox chatter indicated they were focused on the Orks. We shouldn’t see search patrols for awhile. If we’re lucky, they’ll assume we’re dead.
We’ll make camp once we’re within an hours march of the battery. From there, Taesan,” he pointed to the lanky ranger, tall even by Eldar standards, who nodded, “will scout the location. Our healer, Mellorena,” he gestured to the diminutive female guardian, who smiled nervously, “will tend to your wounds, Farseer. We’ll see what she can do with you, human. Understood?”
3 hours since the crash. The sun had only a 10th of the sky left. It would be another 2 and change hours before it set. The squad had tried to cover its tracks, taking a meandering path through the forest. By Liivi’s estimate, they were now about two clicks from the installation. Their little nature hike had been strenuous, but almost peaceful in a way. The silence of the forest was only disturbed by a Valkyrie flying nearby - the sole reminder that they were not alone in this place. If it was the search party, then they were less than thorough.
Pyschokinesis has its advantages. Taldeer and Tanlon were quickly able to erect a snow bunker nestled in a shaded area beneath a cliff face - sufficient shielding from the explosive power of the cannon. Thick trees, a meter and change wide, helped obscure the structure when viewed on the ground level, though they would offer little in the way of cover if it came to a fire fight.
In one corner of the bunker, Liivi sat with Taesan, who was inspecting his equipment one last time. The ranger turned out to be quite sociable, and was even fluent in gothic. In another corner, Mellorena began her work on Taldeer, tying her short red hair back. The rest of the squad sat on the other side of the square room, meditating or talking amongst themselves.
Sitting on a blanket, the farseer removed her armor piece by piece. “My goodness!” Mellorena’s face was fraught with worry as she surveyed the injuries. “You poor thing. How long have you been like this?”
“About <48 hours>.”
“I’m shocked you haven’t died of blood loss. You’re very lucky. ”
“I had to use a pack of artificial human blood. It worked.”
“Hm. I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”
“You’re the one who deserves thanks.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m just walking my path. I don’t like seeing people hurt. It’s why I’m here.”
“That’s a curious motivation for being a guardian.”
She smiled meekly, rubbing a pyschoplastic protein-nanite salve onto Taldeer’s abdomen. “Well it’s true. Tanlon’s war mask makes the other part of my job easier. It’s dangerous work. But somebody has to do it. We can’t just leave you to die out here.”
Taldeer didn’t respond.
“O-oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“If it’s any consolation, I don’t hate you two.”
“That’s sweet. I’m glad somebody doesn’t.” The farseer smiled at the healer.
“Alright, now shush. I’ll have you feeling better than ever, but working on the torso is tricky when people talk.” Runes along the Mellorena’s arms began glowing as she set about her work, and the salve started flowing into Taldeer’s wounds.
“Alright, let’s get the big question out of the way: ballistic, or energy weapons?” Taesan wore a good natured smile as he checked his climbing gear.
“It depends on the situation,” Liivi replied.
“Safe answer. But which one do you like to shoot?” The vindicare pondered the thought. “Ballistics.”
“Same here. Now don’t misunderstand, I love my rifle. But it does so much of the work for me. Ballistics are so much more exciting. But eldar don’t like taking chances, so they give us rifles that aim for us.”
“Vindicare’s machine spirits and cogitator implants are similar.”
“But you still have to do it. There’s a difference.”
He hummed as he worked on his rifle.
“Taesan, you appear more relaxed around humans.”
“Because I am. I know plenty of humans. Not in the imperium. But the humans outside it aren’t all bad. Mostly just stupid, but who can blame ‘em when they’re so short lived?”
A perplexing statement. “Outside of the Imperium?”
“Yeah? Well, guess they never told you. There are human colonized worlds here and there. Some have space travel. Some don’t. Some Rogue Traders report them. Some don’t. The known ones are too far out for the Imperium to hold, so they don’t bother.”
“How did you reach them? And why?”
“I hitchhiked with some other Rangers. The craftworld life, it just wasn’t really for me. I was much younger, you know? Maybe you don’t. But I felt there were some things I couldn’t work through so long as I stayed there. In hindsight, maybe I could’ve done it. But I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had for anything. As much of a home as Ulthwe is to me, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.”
Liivi continued his in silence, processing the information. “What ballistics did you use?”
“Oh, I’ve shot it all. I never had the money to buy the Exitus or an M40/A1 - Isha knows how those traders got them - but I did pay for the privilege of firing a few rounds. Favorite gun had to be an Absolution, though. Dinky little thing compared to those monstrosities. Cheap, too. But you get that cheap chunk of lead in just the right spot, and you can cause some really expensive damage.” The ranger snickered as he finalized his preparations. “Used that beauty the longest.”
That chatter was clearly starting to annoy Gilfavor. “Mon-keigh, I don’t need you distracting my Ranger.”
Liivi gave a firm nod. He had not initiated the conversation, but even so, better to appease the commander. Taesan seemed less interested. He leaned in close and whispered. “By the way, just ignore the captain’s jabs. He’s all war-mask. Well, not all, because he gets way too pissy. But that’s what makes him a good captain.” The ranger beamed at Gilfavor as he walked past - the captain responded with a stern glare.
“Well,” Taesan shrugged, “time to go.”
It was half an hour since Taesan left. The exitus rifle had been cared for, and primary Taldeer was almost healed. Only her arm and leg remained untreated. Livii glanced at the farseer before returning to his pistol’s maintenance. Much of the light had returned to her eyes, and she seemed to enjoy the company of the medic. Mellorena, for her part, seemed quite proficient in her art - the scars that ran across Taldeer’s body were barely visible. There was something about the farseer’s body which made it hard to look away. As the Eldar woman performed motor tests, her lean, toned musculature was easily visible. With every flex, long and slender muscles rippled beneath her skin like curving, flowing waves, each one leading fluidly into the next. On a rational level, Liivi understood that this woman was xenos - that it should not be surprising that there were notable physiological differences between her body and the holy human form. Yet somehow he felt surprised by the fact that the body of this warrior, one of her race’s finest, more closely resembled what he would expect to see in a dancer, gymnast, or athlete. An irrational expectation. But it surprised - no, stunned - it stunned him all the same. This was the source of a sensation that was equal parts unfamiliar and confusing, and so Liivi did his best to ignore it.
Taldeer was his primary, and his primary must be protected. Protecting primary Taldeer required that this pistol function well.
The sound of footsteps. Large ones. Liivi looked up. It was the other Fire Dragon. He sat on the ground in front of the vindicare. Even from this position, he cut an imposing figure. He was as tall as Taesan, if not taller - but with significantly more muscle. Entering hand to hand combat with him would be undesirable.
“My name is Ysukin,” the giant said, his voice a low yet resonating rumble. “I do not yet trust you, mon-keigh. But you saved our Farseer. For that I am thankful. But expect no mercy for treachery.”
The eldar put his hand forward.
Liivi looked hesitantly up at the giant before turning back to his pistol. He shook the eldar’s hand while removing the coolant sheath. “Noted. I am Liivi.”
Something twitched in his face. Consternation? “I apologize if my gothic is rusty.” An unwarranted apology. His gothic was impeccable. He even mimicked a Terran accent.
The Vindicare began to disassemble the magazine. “You speak well. Like the others. Many of you know gothic. More than I thought.”
Ysukin frowned and nodded. “It is more common than you might think. Officer candidates typically learn it to enhance their chance of being selected. There is also a not insubstantial portion of the youth that leaves to explore the galaxy. It would be impossible to get around without knowing at least a bit of Gothic.”
“Gothic is widely spoken outside the Imperium?” He set the pins to one side, arranging them as they were inserted.
The giant shrugged. “Spoken enough. I know not what your superiors tell you, but there are many human occupied worlds outside of Imperial space. Most are near the border of the Imperium, but not all. Each has its own language, but Gothic is the language of trade. Most worlds beyond that area are not worth visiting.”
“There is nothing there?” Fingers ran over the magazine spring, cleaning the caked silt that had wormed its way in.
“Yes. Or they are backwards savages from some failed and forgotten colonization. Or they are hostile, undiscovered xenos.”
“You went there?” With all the tenderness of a mother, the Vindicare began fitting the magazine back together.
The brow of the xenos furrowed. “I believe I have answered enough questions. As far as I am concerned, you saved our Farseer and treated her well. So I shall be courteous. But I have a few inquiries of my own. I would like to begin with the most pressing one - why?”
He stopped. Looked up, away from his pistol. Looked into the stern eyes of the xenos. “Why,” Liivi asked? It vexed him. Insufficient data.
“Yes. You did more than just spare a VIP. You defected. For your own reasons. To protect the VIP. Why?”
This was not terribly unusual. It was common for those who assigned missions to inquire about the Vindicare’s methodology or decisions. Why are you there? Who are you shooting at? For what reason? What’s the logic? In short: explain yourself. This was typically easy. The correct course of action, the right thing to do, could be quickly explained by quoting the Vindicare dictum.
“It… was the right course of action…”
“Because?” Ysukin allowed the question to hang in the air.
Liivi re-lived the situation. “...Permission to fire had been granted. The shot was lined up. Primary began movement. Removed her helmet. I was unable to execute. As though it violated the Dictum, but… which part?”
“That is a report,” the eldar stated bluntly, “not ‘why.’”
There was just the slightest hint of firmness in the vindicare’s voice. “It is my answer.” Liivi returned to his work.
The big eldar stared sternly at Liivi before sighing and massaging his temple. “Very well. We owe you a debt. But make no mistake. I’ll keep my eye on you, Liivi.”
As the big eldar stood up to leave, both of the striking scorpions walked over and sat in front of the Vindicare. They had been talking in what seemed to be a heated discussion, with others occasionally chiming in.
“Liivi.” The male pointed at Liivi.
“Barroth.” He pointed to himself. “Elnys.” He pointed to the female.
Barroth put his gun between Liivi and himself, then pointed to the exitus pistol.
Liivi stared in response.
Tanlon piped up from the corner he was meditating, next to the still silent guardian. “They want to look at your pistol for a bit. He’s offering a trade.”
Slowly, cautiously, he pushed the exitus pistol towards them.
“Almost done,” Mellorena wiped the sweat off her forehead. Only Taldeer’s right arm was left. “Then I can get to work on the human!”
“I like your enthusiasm, but don’t overwork yourself.” Taldeer was beaming. She felt better than ever, and the healer’s energy was infectious.
“Don’t worry about me,” the medic replied, reaching into her kit. “I have more than enough energy for this. A <month> ago I processed half an infirmary. Twenty patients. That was a bad night.”
“How did you manage to do that?”
“I don’t really know, being honest. I just had to do it. And I did it. The other medics were incapacitated. Desperation can be a real motivator, eh?” She smiled wryly. “I think I slept for a day after that one.”
After pulling out another pouch of medical psychoplastic salve, she peeled away the bandage and began to examine the shredded skin along Taldeer’s arm. The farseer winced. It burned, being exposed to the air. Mellorena sighed. “I hate flayed ones,” she muttered, and began pouring the salve across the breadth of the shredded arm. The pain receded as the numbing agent worked its way into the flesh. Dead tissue was swiftly broken down. The medic eyed it carefully, inspecting the cleanliness of the wound.
“Is this work anything like what you do on Ulthwe?”
“Hm? Oh, I work the emergency room on Ulthwe, so it’s pretty similar. More accidents though. I work the inner ward, away from the hull. We don’t see violent injuries like this.”
“That battlefield certainly is more…”
“Grotesque? Yeah... The newer healers typically keep their masks up all the time. But if you spend enough time working with people’s insides, you get used to seeing them outside. I only wear my mask into combat. Masks during treatment make it hard to be empathetic, and next to treatment itself, empathy’s usually what injured people need most.”
Taldeer reflected on this in silence for a time.
“You know Doctor, even if you’re just being professional: thank you. This might just be my darkest hour.” She chuckled under her breath. “Farseer Taldeer Ulthran. First she was saved by a mon-keigh after allowing her entire force to fall prey to them, then she walked into an artillery barrage, and now she’s parasitizing a crash landed squad to survive. But you’ve actually brightened it. So thank you.”
“Sounds to me like you’ve had a long run of bad luck. I’m sorry.”
“Well, I’m the common denominator.”
Mellorena frowned. It was less severe than an angry frown. A sort of thoughtful expression. She did not like what she heard. There was something she wanted to say. But all she could do was weigh the question of saying it.
Madek retired comfortably into his seat in the center of the operations room. Here, in the heart of his barge, he could catch up on his sleep in peace, easily awoken by his staff for updates.
Felix piped up. “Everything is clear, sir. Increto MDCLVII and company arrived an hour ago. There is some bad news: Increto’s positional tracker has gone down. However, we are still receiving status updates. The good news is that Accipitro MMMXIV is close on their tail. We should have contact with the enemy soon. Increto and company are moving to intercept.”
“Excellent. I look forward to being done with this chase.”
“Shall I do anything more in the meantime, sir?”
“No, just wake me in an hour with a progress report.”
Motion in the primary. Liivi glanced over his shoulder at the two eldar.
The under armor hugged her body, which now moved with a grace untainted by injury. Liivi could see her tensing and relaxing every muscle, testing them as she stretched. It almost reminded him of the felines he had observed on Terra, or in the company of some officials. Nearby, Mellorena was humming, smiling contentedly with herself as she organized her gear, basking in the afterglow of a job well done. The two exchanged words he could not understand, but the warmth was palpable.
“< I am in your debt, Doctor.>”
“<Don’t be silly, Farseer. It’s my job, and my privilege, to treat you.>” Her gaze lifted to Liivi. “< I just hope I can find the same success with your friend.>”
The medic looked curiously at the farseer, as if weighing some question. But the knowing smile which met her gaze was all the answer she needed.
In truth, Taldeer was only mostly confident. In fact, there was much about which she was uncertain. Perhaps now, before this major undertaking, it was time to consult the skein of fate. Kneeling on the tamped snow floor, she pulled the dice and rune stones from her armor and cast them before her. They clattered, rolled, and slid on the hard icy surface. Making sense of the result was a monumental task. One thing was certain - the repetition of danger. Here, there, and everywhere. In the center of it all was a very large danger. But no inkling into where, what, or when. She sighed and closed her eyes, attempting a more direct communion.
The beach almost seemed serene. The thunder felt more distant. The fates prattled ceaselessly, but spoke in murmured whispers, scarcely audible. She frowned. So skittish had the fates been, these past few days. Now, they were even more quiet. Were they abandoning her?
“What does it mean?”
Madek woke groggily from his comfortable slumber.
“Accipitro has indicated that it has established visual contact. Terra and Increto were hailed with coordinates and ordered to engage alongside Accipitro. Terra was unresponsive, but Increto subsequently confirmed visual contact. However we remain unable to verify Increto's position.”
The Inquisitor was testy. “And you have reason to doubt her?”
“In my time working with her, sir, she has certainly proven… independently minded. Unusually so, for her temple.”
Madek was quick to respond. “I have the utmost faith in her,” he replied, with his typical ill fitting smile. “Are you trying to suggest something about our operative, Felix?”
“No, not all, sir. Simply an observation.”
“Well nevermind it. Determine why Terra is unresponsive.”
Captain Gilfavor paced restlessly. All the while, he had been waiting for Taesan’s report. It would be some time still until he had sufficiently surveyed the installation, but-
“Captain, do you copy?”
“I hear you.” Gilfavor set the sound to broadcast around him. All activities ground to a halt as the squad listened in. “What do you have to report?”
“I arrived about <25 minutes> ago, about <two minutes> before firing. They had three patrols out, and they all marched into the main cannon facility. Thing is, they haven’t come out yet. I’ve yet to survey it all, but there’s a few things you should know right away. Your suspicion about these trees messing with the topographic data was correct - I can confirm that it’s in a basin that the humans cleared. Bad news though. Maybe they got word of the crash, ‘cause something has them spooked. When I arrived, blast doors were already lowered over what few windows there are - mostly the control tower.
There is some good news, though. I was able to lip read one of the soldiers complaining as they walked in - apparently they’re so undermanned they can’t rotate patrols. Didn’t shut the door immediately though. They waited to the last minute for a fourth squad, but it never appeared. That shook them up. Saw some drag marks in the mud leading to one of the main building’s entrances, like somebody was hauling wounded. Or drunks. Some cameras in that area were taken out. Looked like las rifle through the scope, but don’t know. No sign of hostilities. Not sure what to make of it.”
“That last bit is better than nothing. At least it's in line with some intercepted comms. That’s all?”
“Roger. Return with a full report when you’re done.”
So the mon-keigh might be a bit jumpy. But there was only a handful of them, and they were dog tired. Gilfavor breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Screaming. Shouting. Searing white wafted in front of the Farseer’s face. She had pressed herself against the cliff. The hiss of water, still bubbling and boiling, reminded her of the surf.
“Why didn’t I see it coming?” She reached for her spear. The steam masked their opponent as well as themselves.
One moment, everything was still. The next moment, they were about to drown.
Taldeer had saved Liivi in time. Just barely. And she had almost saved Mellorena. Almost.
But almost doesn’t count in games of life or death.
The little medic was still screaming somewhere beneath the steam cloud.
Thoughts rushed to her unbidden.
Extensive, mind numbing pain. It grew fainter as the screaming ceased.
Courage. Or stupidity. She could just barely make out the guardian as he leapt into the mist. All this time, he hadn’t even spoken. She wondered if he would ever speak again.
Liivi’s mechanical mind working faster than usual. Formulating a response. She heard his voice cry out nearby. “Eversor!”
She perceived it all in a flash. The fates, like the thoughts and the mist, swirled and twirled around her in flows and eddies. The foamy surf, bubbles of possibility ceaselessly appearing and disappearing, was high on the beach. Now, it was rushing out to meet the incoming wave.
A strong and sudden current emerged to her front left. A reaching hand. A wounded chest. Death.
“<Get down!>” Somebody in there, whoever it was, hit the deck. The instant her psychokinetic barrier was complete, a fist hit with such force that it was nearly breached.
The tide beckoned out to sea.
Liivi lay against the cliff, half a meter away from Taldeer. The steam hurt his bare chest. Blood again poured from his wound, the crude stitches having given way under strain. Not two seconds ago, the guardian next to him had leapt into the steam, presumably to rescue the medic.
““Melta bomb. No lasgun fire. No shouting. No stomping. Unconventional breaching tactics. High probability of assassin dispatched.””
It wasn’t the only possibility, but...
“Eversor!” He was just loud enough to hear, but not quite loud enough to make his precise location obvious.
“Scanning with IR. Steam obfuscating silhouette. N20…” Hesitantly, gingerly, he kicked the rifle away, and stowed the pistol behind him. “Should distract, buy time.”
His well honed eyes scanned the mist for movement, desperately trying to reveal the situation. But it was to no avail. The cloud was too thick. He was bleeding too heavily. Tactic after tactic poured through the vindicare’s mind. But there were none applicable. Engaging the eversor at this distance would lead to his immediate death and net loss for allied forces - one less gun for little to gain.
He glanced at his wound. The grey fluid leaked alongside crimson. It needed to be dressed, and dressed now, if he was to survive long enough to contribute to the fight and protect the primary.
Maubryn was not an especially brave individual. In fact, he was conscripted to fight this particular battle for Ulthwe. An artisan from one of Ulthwe’s center districts, the young eldar was not particularly cut out for war. He had no fondness of the enemies who would see his race extinguished, but he had no fondness of killing in general. He could scarcely harm a fly. So it was that he rarely relinquished his war mask. It numbed the emotion, the pain. Dulled the memory. He still felt his emotions, of course. But he didn’t care.
Most of the time.
A war mask should leave you as a rational agent. A rational agent would recognize that the squad has already taken one casualty. He did not know who, or what, was in that mist. He did not yet know the location of his squadmates, or how to respond to this threat. There was too little information. And as tragic as one casualty is, two is worse than one.
All of this information flew through his head, and was subsequently discarded the moment her voice vanished from the choir of screams that rang out around him.
Maubryn leapt into the mists, desperately feeling around for Mellorena on his knees. She was no conscript. She had volunteered. Twice now she’d saved his life. She was not going home inside of a rock. Not if he could help it.
And if she was already in a rock, well, he’d make sure it didn’t get crushed by whatever monster was responsible for this.
She was easy to find, resting face down in the steaming snow.
“<Get down!>” He dropped onto the flat of his stomach, the back of his helmeted head landing adjacent to hers. The very moment he hit the ground, a black boot landed centimeters from his helmeted face, cracking the ice beneath it.
“Another one of the mon-keigh's pet horrors.”
The eversor stared at the steaming hole for a millisecond, appreciating its handiwork, before leaping in.
It was finally here.
The end of this long hunt.
So what if the other one left? The eversor didn’t need help. There could be no more waiting. The the anticipation, the hatred, the two felt fit to burst its skull. Which made the IR obscuring steam all the more frustrating. Spittle flecked beneath the mask. No more melta bombs. No more steam. Guns and blades. Only guns and blades. Because they needed to die. Not just die, but die painfully. They needed to die knowing fear of the Emperor. They needed to die screaming, covered in blood. And they needed to die NOW.
Somewhere in the steam, the witch screamed. A hazy outline appeared and vanished. The eversor leapt towards it, hoping to find something to be torn limb from limb.
All it found was hardened air.
Gilfavor was not happy with this turn of events. This was evident from the way he screamed into his comms.
“Eversor!” Unfortunately, the mon-keigh had made it.
"Get down." So had the Farseer.
No response from the guardians.
A litany of eldar curses ran from Gilfavor’s mouth. He already had two casualties from the crash.
Taldeer’s voice bounced around in the steam. “<When I call, run through the breach, weapons ready!>”
The ocean was around her now. With every second, she was losing options, being dragged farther out to sea, the inky depths sucking ever harder downward.
“We can die when the veil lifts. Or we can use it to start our attack.”
It wasn’t a hard decision.
Seizing hold of the fist with her mind, she cast the enemy back through the steam and turned to face the squad.
“<When I call, run through the breach, weapons ready!>” She gritted her teeth and charged forward.
As Taldeer emerged from the billowing steam and into the snowy clearing, she found it empty. There was a clear impression in the snow, the spot where the eversor had landed. But no footprints leading away.
The farseer closed her eyes and tensed her muscles. There was no time for fear or uncertainty. There was no time for thought. Every moment spent thinking was a moment spent on inaction. Precious moments she could not afford, fighting a creature like this. She could only read the ocean of fate and hope for the best.
There was a wave bearing down on her. The wind was fierce.
She did not look up. She rolled to her left, keeping her spear directed right. Fate rippled around her, new possibilities disturbing old potentials like raindrops on the surface of water. “Projectiles.” Taldeer pumped some of her own energy into her suit’s shields, expanding them. It was just in time to meet the rounds from the bolt pistol.
In one second, the eversor would land right where she once stood. The farseer made sure her spearpoint was waiting. Under the eversor’s inertia and the strength of her body, wraithbone flowed like water through sinew, bone, and metal augments. The assassin was parted from its right arm at the shoulder, and with it, the pistol.
Two waves crashed together at her left, splashing water high. The butt of her spear raced to where the neuro gauntlet would be. Contact. The force was immense and crushing, a fiercer blow than any mon-keigh ought to deliver. The undertow grew stronger as the venomous claws closed towards her face. But she could make that force work for her. Moving her head aside and, with a nudge from fate, her muscles, and her mind, she guided the edge of the spear to the ankle of the of the assassin, using her body as a fulcrum. Wraithbone sang a song of war as it cleaved once more through the mon-keigh’s desecrated flesh. The claws fell backward as the eversor stumbled.
Two shuriken pistols and three shuriken catapults unloaded their magazines into the chest of the eversor. Its torso was jelly in a matter of seconds, torn apart by thousands of shurikens. Red splattered the snow around it.
The farseer stepped a bit closer to the body to confirm the kill. Chemical rich blood sizzled as it made contact with the frozen water. It was only then that she noticed the injuries on its arms and legs, wounds inflicted by human “stubbers” and las-rifles from some recent brawl. The corpse spasmed as defibrillators made desperate attempts to restart its heart. Even now, its head craned feebly up at her, sole arm inching towards a melta strapped to its belt.
Her lips contorted into a frown as she drew her pistol. "The durability of this creature..." One. Two. Three. Four. Four bursts of 50 shurikens to penetrate the mask. It finally ceased moving.
She breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
A whirlpool. Leading deep.
“<Get back!>” She sprinted into the shelter and dove to the floor. The corpse exploded a scant second later.
“It would seem that Accipitro has been terminated.”
Madek was tense. “Blast. What are the other two doing?”
“Furthermore, Terra would appear to be MIA. Increto stated that Terra had been left at the installation for the purpose of ambushing any survivors that may have arrived to complete their mission objective - or finishing off the primaries, should Accipitro and company only wound them.
However, shortly before establishing contact, we lost Terra’s feed. Increto reported that she received a transmission from the cannon. It wasn’t a distress call broadcasting across multiple bands. It was specifically her frequency, and more specifically using the encryption set designated for this mission. Only Terra could have known it, and it only lasted a few seconds. Increto heard Terra’s voice, screaming, and lasfire. She could not discern Terra’s words, but she could discern that Terra’s speech cut off near the end, at which point she seemed to be asphyxiating. Increto departed to investigate.”
“She left her assigned targets?” That was bold. Even for her. A first.
“Yes, sir. I said as much myself. But she insisted that the condition of Terra be verified. I could not dissuade her. She will report for disciplining immediately after this mission.”
Madek sighed, contemplating his next step. Ocular implants clicked and whirred, resonating inside his skull. These too were beginning to fail him. It compounded his frustration.
“Inform Increto’s handler. When asked for severity of punishment, explain what Increto has done. That will suffice. And Felix?”
“Fix these blasted eyes. The problem only returns faster with every tuning you give them.”
Things were a mess. But it could have been worse. Unlike the steaming pile of viscera and augments that lay nearby, at least Mellorena was still breathing. She lay against the wall, unconscious, next to Liivi, who was redressing his wound. The exposed skin on her face and hands suffered what looked like minor burns - Taldeer was able to yank her to the edge of the steam cloud - but that was where the good news ended. Almost all of her calves had disintegrated, leaving her with cauterized stumps. Reconstructive surgery, prosthetics, they could fix her up. But Ulthwe was far, far away. It could easily be a death sentence. For now, the most they could do was cover her face and hands.
The squad was a thrum of activity, but all Taldeer could do was stare sullenly in the direction of the little medic. Yet it wasn’t quite the medic she was looking at. It was past her. She had become another part of the landscape, set against the mountain of fallen bodies that was once the Farseer’s army.
“Another avoidable casualty, unavoided.”
A voice next to her, cold and crisp through the helmet. “<You almost made that look easy.>” It was the first time the guardian had spoken. There was something predatory about his tone.
There was no energy in her voice. “<It wasn’t.>”
The guardian shrugged. “<It only took you a few seconds.>”
“<Those few seconds were harder fought than any battle of mine to date.>” It wasn’t a heated reply. Only a statement.
He exhaled sharply through his nose. “<I bet. Pity you brought that monster to us, didn’t see the melta, and nearly killed our medic.>”
Gilfavor was distracted, talking with Taesan over comms. The scorpions and Tanlon had taken watch. Ysukin piped up. “<None of that, Maubryn.>”
Maubryn shrugged as he faced the bigger eldar. “<Right, sorry. Just, you know, only a little miffed when our leaders nearly kill us.>”
Ysukin’s gaze narrowed. “<Enough.>”
The helmet of the guardian cocked to the side while scratched his chin, as though her were truly pondering the thought “<And what about all the ones she did get killed?>”
When the fire dragon reared up, it give the smaller guardian pause.
His voice was as cold and dry as the air around them. “<I suggest you hold your tongue, conscript. We had to drag you out here to defend your people. Be thankful she volunteered.>”
She could feel the guardian’s leering gaze even through his helmet. “<Well at least one of us had the good sense not to.>”
Gilfavor’s back was turned. The giant of an eldar walked to the smaller guardian, seized him by the throat, and ripped off his helmet. Lifting him off the ground and bringing their faces close, Ysukin whispered something in Maubryn’s ear that made the artisan-turned-soldier grow pale. He released the lad, letting him fall onto the wet ice. Eyes wide open, he scarcely breathed as the bigger eldar returned to his stool of packed snow. She said nothing.
“Taldeer.” Liivi’s voice. He looked up at her, resting against the wall as he tended to his wound. “What’s going on?” Difficult to read though he was, his expression was clearly one of concern.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, sparing him a glance. “A minor dispute, is all.”
“You are worried for your medic?”
“Yes. Yes I am.”
“This feels all too familiar.”
Warm air disturbed the cold. It was the sensation of the medic’s irregular, shallow breath on Taldeer’s neck. Carrying Mellorena was easier than carrying Liivi. The medic was lighter, smaller. “And missing half of her legs.” That certainly made it easier to carry her. The Farseer bit her lip.
Holding the bottom of Mellorena’s thighs and with the little medic’s arms draped over her shoulders, she trudged through the snow blanketed forest, in the middle of a staggered formation.
“You don’t need to carry her, Farseer,” Ysukin had told her. “It would be a simple task for me.” But she had insisted. “I don’t need my arms to fight. You do. We all need to get moving. Discussion over.” All sensible, practical points, underlied by a motivation both were too polite to speak to. A motivation Taldeer even considered selfish, yet felt that she had to satisfy.
But Liivi lacked Ysukin’s politesse.
“Your plan is concerning, Taldeer. Ysukin could fit her in a harness. Your weapons-”
“I don’t need my weapons, Liivi,” she snapped. “I can fight without them. You know that.”
“<No,>” Gilfavor interjected. His stern expression had all the cold features of a glacier, and he spoke with all the ice of its wind. “<I won’t have you playing fast and loose with the life of my medic. If you intend to carry her, then you will keep her safe. You will not be fighting. You will not be exposing her. You will be giving her shields behind cover. She isn’t a token you can cash in for redemption, Farseer. And if your frayed nerves get her killed, I’d be half tempted to leave you on this world. But I’d settle for doing all that I can to strip you of your title, honor, and privileges.>”
The chill managed to cool her temper. “<If I couldn’t get even one person off this world alive, Captain, then I would deserve it. I accept your stipulations.>”
“<I don’t need you to accept them. Now let's go.>”
Gilfavor had been deliberating with Taesan over comms for minutes now. “<Alright, we’re out of time to ponder. Make the call. Is north or west the cleanest angle of attack?>”
“Attack north,” Liivi said. Gilfavor looked at him with an expression that was at once frustrated and perplexed.
“<I’m thinking north,>” Taesan replied. “<Shortest run to the trenches, and without the men to hold them, they’re just cover for us. Has a few good positions for overwatch, too. But there’s a problem - patrols rotated around <40 minutes> ago. The change hasn’t come out yet.>”
“<Any signs of alarm?>”
“<No sirens. Lowered blast shields over what few windows there are. Dunno what’s going on inside. Worried I might’ve been spotted. Pretty sure a Valkyrie landed a bit before I arrived. If they saw me on thermals, you’d think they’d have shot me. Not like I could shoot back.>”
The captain mulled it over. “Shit. Maybe they heard about the crash and are playing it safe. Maybe they heard about the other raids.”
“<If reinforcements arrive, I’ll need you to take a proactive approach. They design these buildings like meat grinders - can’t afford to be letting more guns in. If a transport shows up, pop their driver, and pop anyone who steps out. If they run, get as many as you can. Try and get them to chase you, if it comes to it. And don’t die out there if you can avoid it. Understood?>”
His voice was warm, almost amused. “<Will do, Captain.>”
“<Good man. Gilfavor out.>” The captain killed his mic.
Somehow, Taesan seemed at peace with this increasingly fucked up situation. Maybe it was an act - trying to fool himself. Maybe it was sincere - he truly was so at peace. The Captain could see it going either way, and he wasn’t inclined to ask which. There was another question, however...
“Have you been able to understand us all this time, mon-keigh?”
“No. Only a few words. Cardinals, orders for action.”
The captain put two and two together. “Lucky,” he said. Liivi nodded.
Gilfavor glanced back at the medic. For once, his eyes betrayed a hint of worry. Taldeer didn’t have to read his mind to know what he was thinking. It was written, however subtly, on his face. “If only she could have had that luck.”
But the problem was bigger than the medic. It hung in the air like the smog of some mon-keigh “hive world,” silent yet suffocating. The unspoken knowledge that any injury weathered could very well mean death. That they could afford no more casualties if they hoped to complete their mission and leave this planet alive.
Some tried to bury it. Others attempted to make peace with it. Few simply accepted it. But all marched with it in mind, to the ever grim drum beat of fate.
“That route is unsafe. Standard Imperial Procedure dictates barracks be monitored at all times for heretical activity.”
“And those are barracks,” Taesan asked?
He put his eye back to his scope. “I don’t see anybody standing guard.”
“They would be inside, to watch the men. An officer. They would rotate every 1-2 hours.”
“I see, I see,” he nodded. “I haven’t seen them rotate yet. We’d definitely be cutting it close there.” If the expression of nearby Gilfavor was anything to go by, he clearly remained skeptical.
“<Think critically about what he’s saying, Taesan.>”
The ranger’s gaze didn’t turn from the scope. “<I’ve got a good sense of mon-keigh, sir. For what it’s worth, I believe him. He’s convinced me. But you’re the one calling the shots, sir. You don’t need to convince me of anything. I’ll do what I’m told.>”
“<I don’t like your tone, ranger,>” Gilfavor leered.
“<Well I know you like honesty, my dear Captain. And while I don’t have much respect for rank, I have enough respect for you to tell you what you may not want to hear.>”
“<You’re out of line.>”
Taesan pulled his face away from his rifle and met Gilfavor’s leering gaze. The ranger’s calm continence and relaxed tone belied the intensity of his hardened stare. “<On the contrary,>” he replied. “<You’re the one who’s supposed to be decisive, and the fact is, you still don’t know what to do with our mon-keigh friend here. And we both know you gotta make up your mind soon. No time to second guess him during a firefight. So: what’ll it be, sir?>”
There was a moment of ominous silence as the captain’s face contorted into a frown. “<A reprimand, Ranger. If we make it off this blasted rock with that mon-keigh at our backs... Continue as you were.>”
The ranger smiled and offered a friendly, respectful nod. “<Thank you, Captain. My pleasure.>”
Gilfavor stomped off and began speaking to Ysukin in hushed tones, each Eldar glancing at the Vindicare.
“He seemed frustrated," Liivi said, staring back at them. "Is there a problem?”
“Nah, don’t worry about the Captain. He’s just learning to trust you, is all. Now, about that other route…”
The foxhole, left behind by some guardsmen, had made a convenient medical bay. It was small enough to warm easily, hidden beneath the large boulder that the others were using as cover, and rather solidly dug. However, if there was one thing it certainly lacked, it was space. It could hardly hold both Taldeer and the legless medic. And if the debate out there got any more heated... well, the fates spoke nothing of violence in the near present, and she trusted them as best she could. Her attention turned back to the task at hand. By the dim light of a human lux stick, Taldeer cleaned the stumps of the unconscious medic.
Clearly, the ice had taken the brunt of the melta’s heat. But what made it through had cooked everything beneath her thighs clean off. The burns on her face were swelling and blistering. Fate was fuzzy as the Farseer tried to trim cooked flesh from the bone and stave off infection. She couldn’t tell if she was making it worse or better.
Taldeer bit her lip.
A cough. Faint. Right into her ear. “Oh no.” Again. And again. A stunned and fearful face turned right, just in time to see eyelids flutter open. Loudly, she gasped for air.
“Mellorena?” The medic didn’t respond. She stared at the stone ceiling, panting, sucking down deep breaths of air. Lips moved, but no sound came out. She clutched her throat, wincing, and stared urgently at the Farseer. Thinking quickly, Taldeer siezed the medic’s shoulder and focused.
“Te-.“ Eyes widened.
Her thought was interrupted as portions of her face, hands, and throat experienced a sudden and persistent sensation not entirely unlike being shoved into a deep fryer. It took every ounce dedication to hold back her surprised scream. Gritting her teeth, she pressed forward.
“Tell me what you need. Just think it.”
Easily done. Taldeer slid it towards Mellorena, and moved her frame slightly, allowing more light in for the medic to work. Mellorena reached into the kit quickly and flipped over a few packs. Pulling out a blue gel filled pouch near the bottom, she popped the cap and began rubbing it into her hands and head. There must have been a potent numbing agent, because the pain Taldeer felt began swiftly receding. Not in the throat, though. The medic capped the pouch and set it aside. Pulling out a small vial with a dropper cap, she placed three drops on her tongue, swished it around, and swallowed. Instant numbness and a cool sensation was greeted with a hearty, relieved sigh.
“Thanks for bearing that, Farseer. What happened to me?”
“Don’t thank me yet.” She sighed. “We were hit by a melta. I tried moving both you and Liivi and… I’m afraid I didn’t get you out in time. Your legs...” It was difficult to even finish the thought.
Mellorena’s eyes widened, taken aback. But she quickly regained her calm demeanor. Gently, she closed the lid of her medkit and set it aside. For the first time, she registered the sight of her missing calves, and the cooked stumps which dangled just below her knees, devoid of feeling. A long sigh passed through her nose as she stared the damage, stone faced and sombre.
“I’m sorry. I should have seen it coming.” The Farseer couldn’t even raise her head to face the medic.
There was a small hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Alright? I got unlucky. I’ve been injured before.”
She looked at Mellorena with a sense of urgency. “We’re not supposed to rely on luck, Mellorena. That’s why I’m here.” Taldeer sighed and turned her gaze to the ground. “But I’m wondering if I should be. What good am I when my best isn’t good enough?”
The hand moved to her cheek, gently tilting her head up. The medic stared directly into Taldeer’s pained eyes. “You can’t go telling yourself stuff like that. You may not be perfect. But Ulthwe needs you. We need you. And if you can’t forgive yourself for making mistakes, things will only get worse.”
“I don’t think you understand, Mellorena. Do you really grasp how many people can die when I err? I thought I did. But I was too haughty. An entire army. Fallen to the Great Enemy. I led them to a fate worse than death. And it wasn’t their fault, no. They fought admirably to the last. They did their jobs well.” A pause. Only the static of ambient thoughts filled the void between minds. “It was all me.”
In an unusual change of disposition, the medic lowered her gaze to the floor, expression tipping towards something more melancholy. “I think I know how you feel, Taldeer. Believe me I do.” She was quick to rebound, but the sadness didn’t leave her eyes as easily. Her face lifted towards Taldeer once more. “Neither of us can allow this to consume us. Not ever, but especially not now. Go meditate. I think it would do you some good. I can take care of this from here. Okay? But first, if you could please grab a blanket and a brighter light from Tanlon’s ruck.”
“Sure. It’s the least I can do.”
Taldeer crawled out of the foxhole and emerged between Barroth and Elnys, both keeping watch. She quickly got Mellorena what was needed. After a stretch, she went and pulled her spear from the tree it laid against, closed her eyes, exhaled, and focused.
The sounds began to fade away. The cold started to leave her skin. The dim light beyond her eyelids grew even dimmer. Her mind thought of nothing.
Or rather, not nothing. Something. The thought of nothing. She couldn’t clear her mind completely.
She opened her eyes. The flight back to reality was jarring. All the sounds almost seemed to collapse in on her. But it was over quickly. The Farseer sighed quietly, leaned back against the tree, and slid down it until she sat in the snow. She slung her arm around her spear, placing her hand over her knee, and wedging the shaft firmly against her shoulder.
“Farseer Taldeer.” It was Tanlon. He sat next to her. There was something almost sympathetic in his stern, formal features. “You seem distraught.”
She did little to acknowledge him. “I suppose I am.”
“Might I offer some counsel?”
“I would be grateful for your insight. Never have I felt more lost. I suppose that I now understand the truth of the term.”
Tanlon shifted in his seat, weighing some thought. “A dear friend of mine was in her darkest hour.
I remember clearly how she was laid out on the gurney. Her right arm was missing a hand, her left leg was missing a foot, and her entire body was covered in holes. I've never seen one person get so much blood and anesthetic…
I looked her broken body up and down, sobbing, and I told her she was going to die if she kept doing this. I quickly reevaluated my statement: I told her that she was going to die because of what she did. And that myself and everyone else would suffer for losing her. I called her a fool, an idiot, and all sorts of other names. And I lamented that she was lost. Because if she had not become lost on her path, she likely would not have taken the foolish risks that got her on that table.
Can you imagine what she said to me?”
“The broken woman raised her single hand to my cheek, struggled to crane her head towards me, all while wearing the happiest smile. And she told me, ‘I’m not lost. I did not stray. I’m exactly where I want to be.’
I was awestruck that she could even move.”
“She died as soon as those words left her lips.”
“If I may ask, what was the lesson to be learned?”
“She had forgotten that to be lost was not to lose one’s way. It was to lose one’s self.”
“I suppose, being lost on my path, that distinction is easy to forget.”
“Perhaps. However, you would do well not to forget that you have much more freedom to define yourself, Farseer Taldeer, than an Exarch. Your analytical abilities and keen sense of the warp do not subvert traits of personality or feeling unless you will them to. This is liberating. It is also dangerous. The Exarch does not feel guilt. The Exarch does not feel shame. The Exarch tastes failure and it hungers for victory. Its constraints serve it. Your freedoms can serve you. But you must be strong enough to wield them.”
“Have I the strength?”
“You have only the strength that you are willing to give yourself. And you must give it to yourself. You have already become lost on the path of the seer. Walking such a dangerous road, you cannot afford to lose yourself to grief. Lost twice, you may never find your way home. Yours is a path which can only be found by being lost. Its exit is likewise; found most quickly by those who grow lost walking it.
You must harden yourself, Farseer. There is no other way.
That is all.”
He took his leave, giving her space for contemplation. She didn’t find his words particularly helpful. But they weren’t wrong. And at least he cared enough to say them, which was worth something in itself.
Taldeer did her best to follow her elder’s advice. Slowly, she began the process of clearing her mind, discarding every worry and unnecessary thought. Anxiety lowers performance, and she had to be ready for what was to come. She knew that, even as she threw that concern away.
Perhaps it was just a reflex. Her eyes focusing on the two objects in the center of her visual field. As her head dipped lower, she found her gaze focused on the blanket which now covered the entrance, hiding her most recent shame, but moreso, maybe even too much, on Liivi, planning their assault with Taesan.
An errant thought ran through her hazy mind. “What is this wanting that I cannot discard?”
When she awoke, she was sitting on the shores of the sea.
Taesan was briefing Gilfavor on what they had determined was the optimal route. 46 minutes until the operation was to proceed. Another glance to his six. “Primary appears to have slipped into unconsciousness.”
“She’s fine, mon-keigh.” Somehow, the vindicare had missed Ysukin step away from the captain. Now the Fire Dragon stood next to him.
“I did not-”
“I could read it on your face. The Farseer is meditating right now. If you check her pulse, you will wake her. You don’t even know how to find it.”
This vexed Liivi.
Ysukin’s smile did little to soften his scrutinizing eyes. “You needn’t act surprised, assassin. Humans are not so difficult to read.”
“The Dictum Vindicare states that involuntary facial expression are to be controlled at all times, in order to provide no information to the enemy either under torture or in the field.”
"You are more expressive than you may realize. Though in fairness to you, I am practiced."
"That a xenos can read me so easily indicates that my expressions are far too noticeable. It must be trivial for a human to read me. I must focus on training this."
His smile widened. "They are very well concealed, Liivi. I believe the vast majority of mon-keigh would not notice the subtle shifts in your countenance."
"One is too many. The standards of the Dictum Vindicare are clear."
“Well,” the big Eldar replied, face turned towards Taldeer, “you already let your target live.” He turned to Liivi again. “How much do you truly value that dictum?”
The Vindicare had no response. He stared blankly into space, mind racing, iron hewn pathways straining and buckling against a growing and long suppressed force.
There was the ocean. There was the wind. There was the sand and the salt spray.
And there was a bird.
A Goldcrest, the mon-keigh trader had called it. It was a gift to her father. He called it Crenovine. Littlebird. He was not very creative.
But Crenovine was. Her childhood companion chittered his songs as he flew round her head in her father's garden, improvising and riffing off of his leitmotif. Sometimes the two would sing a duet. Sometimes he would do strange little tricks. But invariably, at the end of his performance, he would land on her shoulder - always her right shoulder - whereupon she would pet and feed him.
His life was so short. He didn't survive her youth. But she never forgot the beating of his wings. They mingled with the rhythm of the surf, providing a beat for the melody of his song.
"What are you doing here, old friend?" She smiled. It had been long since she had thought of him. Perhaps it was a longing for familiar comforts that had given form to some pleasant memories. Or perhaps it was his little bird spirit, returned to give her cheer in her darkest hour. The possibility of the latter was nil, but she held some small hope that it was him. After all, it was hard to tell what was what in this place.
She reached out to touch the little ball of feathers, to give him a hand to land on - and with that, he was gone.
A sigh escaped her lips, and the farseer did her best to put the wistful melancholy out of mind, resuming her meditation.
Ysukin saw the glazed over look in Liivi's eye and was quick to infer what was happening. “Nevermind that question. You probably can’t answer it yet.”
The large eldar seemed surprised. He cocked an eyebrow. "No?"
"No. I must answer that question."
"Some questions take time to answer."
"It is a simple question."
"Often, those take the longest."
"This one should not."
"What if it should?"
"But I know it shouldn't."
"You were told to believe it shouldn't. You were told there was only one answer, and that it should come instantly. And you were likely told this through the language of pain. But did they ever persuade you?"
The Eldar didn't miss a beat. "Did they make an appeal to logic? Explain why? Justify the statement? When did they prove the truth or value of their Dictum?"
Familiar words, but not ones he had heard used together. Actions could be justified through logic. He had been asked to justify himself in the past, to explain the reason for certain actions. And that's what they were: explanations were things for actions. They talked about tangible, physical realities - things which were true - to reach a conclusion. Why would they be anything more? After all, the Vindicare Dictum was true by definition, unquestionably so. Such obviousness demanded no explanation, only punishment for failure to grasp it. There was no debating whether the Dictum was satisfied - it was, or it was not. The Dictum was a matter of fact - material, physical conditions to be met. Explanations were not used to used to discern or verify facts beyond the material.
But why couldn't they be?
It was an alien idea. Strange. But intuitive. Past events seemed clearer. Liivi could see what the big Eldar was getting at.
An iron bulkhead, long since sealed by the Vindicare temple, had sprung a leak.
"When you say "persuade" do you mean the utilization of verbal coercion techniques to non-violently compel a target to submit?"
Ysukin smiled, some mixture of amusement and curiosity. "Tell me more."
The sound of feet walking over sand.
It was coming from her left. A sinister presence. It made her stomach churn.
She didn’t have to look to know what it was.
The Farseer did not turn to face it. She stayed sitting, eyes closed, uttering only a few words in response to its intrusion.
“What was it that I said last time, daemon?”
“Dooooooon’t even know what you’re talkin’ about there, honey. And it’s daemonette, thank you.”
“You will not disturb my meditations.”
“Yeah, about that: don’t you think it’s all just a real fuckin’ laugh? I mean, the only one who showed you the least bit of empathy, and look at what you let happen to her?! Fuckin’ damn Taldeer, oh honey, are you even trying anymore?”
“You can leave, or I can banish you. You have no power here, daemon.”
“Pffffft, banish me? Go ahead and try, sweetheart. I left last time.”
In a fluid and tranquil motion, the Farseer stood to face her enemy, eyes glowing with warp fire. But the daemonette merely smiled. “That supposed to sca-,” she tensed, eyes staring somewhere past the farseer.
The daemonette frowned. In her voice was a level of cold, irate, contempt that only a daemon could produce. “Don’t think I’m afraid of you, bitch. I’m not.” Wearing a leering scowl, she faded away.
“Victory.” Breathing a hearty sigh of relief, Taldeer resumed her seat. The ocean seemed impossible to read. Every kind of potential flickered on the horizon. A honed mind would be needed to deal with this mess. So it was that she closed her eyes, and resumed her meditation.
Somewhere in the distant storm, a rogue wave smothered another.
"The Dictum Vindicare states that commanding officers will often not understand how to best accomplish their objective, and offer unsound tactical advice. Ensuring the objective is met takes priority over following their orders. To make the commanding officer submit and prevent the eruption of hostilities, vindicare and their Handlers are to use verbal coercion techniques."
Ysukin nodded slowly. "Tell me about these techniques." There was something about his air that seemed peculiarly inviting. So sincere that only one who had carefully studied the expressions of humans would notice it for the finely calculated mimicry that it was. Too real to be real, made stranger by the fact the mimic was a xenos. It put the vindicare on edge.
"Explain your interest."
Tanlon nodded deferentially. The game was up. “I suppose I should make my intentions clear. Liivi, Gilfavor has ordered that I interview you. I cannot force you to answer any of my questions. But the more you answer, and answer truthfully, the better I will be able to help you. I know you can be a very valuable asset to my people, and I am willing to advocate for you - but you have to prove that you will be willing to help us. In exchange for your services, we can harbor you and see to your care. There would be others like you. Most craftworlds have small communities of other races, who offer their services and information in exchange for protection.
Does that sound agreeable? Would you be willing to work with me?”
“Would they listen to a Fire Dragon?”
“Even with my word, you will still have to go through the system. But yes, I have the appropriate credentials, and my advocacy will make a difference. Before I was a Fire Dragon, I was an intelligence analyst and later an interviewer specializing in humans.”
Liivi contemplated the proposal.
“The Farseer clearly intends to return home," he added. “If you refuse to cooperate, I cannot imagine they would permit you to stay aboard Ulthwe. You saved our Farseer’s life, so we will extract you - we will not leave you to die. But your stay would be temporary. After resolving whatever medical issues you may have, you would be deposited on a rim world. It is possible that the Farseer may visit you, should she deign to. But you would not be able to accompany her.”
This gave him pause. He did not know how many lies, if any, had just been told. But he knew there was one truth among them. It was the only one that mattered. Liivi had no choice.
Taldeer was going home.
He gave his response after a brief silence. “Your credentials are… convenient… but I will cooperate.”
“You bring up a reasonable concern. I will not dismiss it." He sat down, and invited the vindicare to sit next to him. "I want you to trust me. You see Liivi, I was a Ranger once. The Path of the Outcast is not terribly uncommon, and if an outcast returns, military intelligence is usually a natural progression, given his experience with other races. But most of those who become rangers cannot stay satisfied in desk jobs. I could not. I wanted to do something new: so I chose to work with explosives. It is precision work, but in a different sense.
Finding somebody like me out here is not so surprising. And even if you still doubt my story, you can trust that the advocacy of Farseer Taldeer is significant, should she choose to offer it. I think it more likely than not. So trust her, if not me.
Does that assuage your fears? You only stand to gain by cooperating.”
“I have only one choice.”
"Why one choice?"
"If I am to protect the primary, I must accompany her."
"I'd very much like to understand why you seek to protect her."
"There is nothing to be explained. It is like the Dictum. It is the correct course of action."
"Like the Dictum? So the reason is separate from it?"
"No. It must be supported by the Dictum."
"I do not know."
"Then why do you act as you do?"
"Because I know it to be true."
"When I fail to adhere to the dictum, a sensation appears. The thought of harm befalling Primary Taldeer offers a similar sensation."
Ysukin raised his eyebrows and his eyes widened slightly. It was more restrained, but Liivi had definitely seen it before. He had seen it on a Fire Dragon who was defusing munitions - immediately before they detonated, killing the eldar warrior. The vindicare didn't have to fire a single round.
"Well, Liivi, you may very well be a case study."
"What does that mean?"
"You are significant and worth examining. My professional interest is certainly piqued, at least."
"Which is good?"
"Tell me about your verbal coercion techniques."
"The techniques of the handler and the vindicare are different. I justify my actions by citing the Dictum and why it will work. The handler uses a diversity of tools to compel submission. Over time I noticed they correlated with the emotional state of the commanding officer, the rank, and many other factors."
"Yes. That is called persuasion by most people. I suppose I should not be surprised you were never taught the word. Can you justify the Dictum to me, Liivi?"
"The Dictum requires no justification."
"It would need to be justified if it did."
"Hm." Ysukin scratched his chin as he thought. "We can work on that in time. You're clearly intelligent enough to outsmart your masters and start thinking independently, so provided the right tools, you could deconstruct that block. Your social intelligence is actually rather remarkable. The vindicare I encountered struggled to hold even a basic conversation. You read others very effectively. And can no doubt placate them well. I wonder if your masters even realized you were slipping out from beneath their fingers?"
"You have talked with other vindicare and lived?"
"Only a handful. Your Temple is perhaps the most numerous, and our lives are long. Opportunities present themselves eventually. I, as part of a team, questioned five that we captured. We could not extract much information, but I understand that they did make useful bargaining chips. Their inquisitors wanted them back.” A pause. "Liivi, would you mind extending your arm for me? Without the suit. It very much seems like you'll be coming up with us, and I should test you for any infectious agents."
While the vindicare removed his suit to expose his arm, the Fire Dragon stood up, making sure to hunch just enough to conceal his sizeable frame. Liivi glanced up at him. The scorpions made some gestures to Ysukin. and he made some strange gesture in return. Barroth and Elnys looked at one another, then at Liivi, then back at Ysukin. He strolled over to the foxhole which hid the medic, got on a knee, parted the blanket with one arm and stuck in his head - he couldn't fit much more in. The Fire Dragon jumped slightly, then had a brief exchange with the medic which was, of course, totally incomprehensible. When he reemerged, he held a small wraithbone cylinder.
As he sat down next to the vindicare, the eldar was surprised once more. "Is she okay," Liivi asked?
"The Primary does." He extended his arm.
Ysukin thought about this, then shrugged, pressing the cylinder against Liivi's skin. Some runes flickered on its top.
"Excellent," he said.
"Of polymorphine, yes. Of infectious agents, probably. I don't know how to operate this, and our precious medic is now fast asleep, Isha bless her. I caught her just in time for her to set the appropriate test." He looked over to the two scorpions and said something the vindicare couldn't understand. They lowered their guns.
He didn't even notice the two draw their pistols. This gave Liivi pause. Eventually he took his eyes off the pair, who indifferently ignored his gaze, and looked back at Ysukin.
"You suspected I was a Callidus?"
"Yes. I apologize for lying to you about the test. You've been suspiciously socially capable. I'm sure you understand the necessity of deception."
"Affirmative." A momentary gap in the conversation. "Is your medic okay?"
"Why do you care about her condition if you only care about Taldeer's feelings?"
"She can heal Taldeer." A pause. "And she makes Taldeer happy."
Ysukin looked as though he was going to say something, but decided against it. Instead, he sat for a moment, then looked up at the vindicare. "She'll make it if we do. Right now, she's in higher spirits than she ought to be. Which is good, I suppose. And what I expected. Those lost on their path are rather positive in grim situations. So many insist that they are not lost - they are precisely where they want to be. I think they have forgotten what it means to be lost."
"I'm not sure I understand. Lost on their path?"
"We Eldar follow paths - you might think of them like temples. They are ways of living and associated sets of skills and knowledge. We devote ourselves to mastering them, and then we move forward to another path. Some fail to leave their paths, victims of a sort of obsession that humans can scarcely imagine. The form it takes varies, but in dangerous work, it often leads to their death. Those unfortunate souls are lost twice. But all of them are lost because they cannot escape their obsession. And it is that same breed of obsession which birthed the Great Enemy." He sighed deeply as he looked past Liivi, back at the foxhole.
"I do worry about that girl. Perhaps you'd think her old. She's tens of your terran decades. But she's young enough to be my daughter. She reminds me too much of my daughter. Similar ages, similar temperaments. Yet the thing's she's seen... I don't know if it's her optimism, or simply a virtue of being lost. But that girl has volunteered to walk through hell repeatedly. It may take help. It may take time. But she always comes out smiling.
It terrifies me. And there's nobody I'd rather have operating on me than her."
Liivi was silent. He wasn't sure what to say.
Ysukin gestured toward Taldeer with his head. "You want to protect the Farseer over there?"
"Then you have your work cut out for you. She's exactly as lost on her path as the girl who just had her legs blown off. She is going to shove herself into hopeless situations in order to turn them in our favor. She is going to do things that are beyond stupid because she thinks she knows better, and most of the time it will miraculously work simply because of what she is. Of course, talent helps. And talent is expected from her in particular. Taldeer Ulthran has some very, very large shoes to fill. The weight of expectation is heavy upon her, and no doubt she will go to great lengths to carry that burden.
You can still run."
"Well then, let us resume my questioning. I think have a decent picture of who you are. Let's do some more basic questions. What is your age?"
“Memories before the Handler acquired me are fuzzy. I do not know. My age should be near 25 Terran Years.”
“Understandable. Do you have any reason to suspect you may have been mind wiped at any point?”
“It is possible. Selective memory deletion is likely. Beyond that - no.”
“Tell me about your handler. You had a single one throughout your life?”
“No. I have had three. I have not had contact with the Handler as of three weeks.”
“And your relationships with these handlers?”
“They would supply information, supplies, and discipline as necessary.”
“I am afraid your evaluators will want more detail than that for purposes of trauma diagnosis, but it sounds like standard Imperial training methods. All stick, no carrot. I suspect I know the answer, but: what was your last mission?”
“...Primary: Farseer. Objective: Assassination.”
Ysukin paused. The corners of his lips bent slightly into a suppressed smile. “So you are not merely a defector. Nor was your encounter by chance. You have acted in direct violation of your mission objective?”
“Then you are certainly a case study. Who assigned this mission?”
“Lieutenant Ardrin, representing Governor Militant Lukas Alexander.”
“Was there ever a situation where you felt hesitation?”
“Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt.”
- Saint Plautus of Terra
Another day of roaming without a mission. It was productive enough. He had procured a las rifle from a traitor unit, when one of the members left to relieve himself. The soldier did not bring an accomplice. His last mistake. Discipline collapsed quickly without commissars. Or perhaps it collapsed because they served chaos. It mattered little. They collapsed all the same when their heads boiled away.
Now a score of the rifles were in hidden in caches across the forest, along with ammunition. The traitors were burned, lest the enemies of man perform some perverse ritual involving their flesh. Liivi rewarded himself with the calming ritual of maintenance to his Exitus rifle.
“Huh. You’re dressed like a shadow, mister.” The little girl stared up at him with a cheeky grin. She was bundled up in a coat and hat, with a stubber on her back. It was the same model he trained with at her age. A cheap and archaic ballistic rifle, chambered in 7.62x51mm, ubiquitous throughout the Imperium. Hers had seen better days, but it was undoubtedly still a functional weapon.
The Vindicare registered all this in less than half a second, the same amount of time it took for his hand to reach his pistol, lying at the side of the disassembled Exitus. But the hand froze, nearly about to touch the grip. She twitched.
“Sorry for spookin’ ya.” Nervous. But sincere.
What was this hesitation? How did he not notice her? It must have been the fall a week ago. The medicae detected no cerebral damage, beyond a mild concussion. But their words changed nothing. Something still felt off.
“Don’t talk much?” Concerned.
Liivi struggled for words as his mind raced. “How did you see me?” This place was supposed to be safe. Trees were dense. He hid in the shadow of one. Snow blanketed branches hid him for aerial observation.
She beamed. “I looked!”
“With?” Infrared? Satellite?
“My eyes, ya goof. Pa said I got ma’s eyes. Good thing, too. I gotta do all the hunin’ these days. It’s not hard. With pa's good rifle, I can hit a buck from 500 meters out.” There was a pause. “With irons.” The smile folded into something a bit more smug.
“Acceptable.” The word slipped out. Why? What was going on? That was always the word used by the trainer to signal approval.
The girl snorted. “Gee, ya think? Anyway, I saw you and I wanted to say thanks. We aint seen any greenskins come this far north yet ‘cause of you Guardsmen, comin’ in the Emperor’s name. So, thanks.” He stared back at her, confused. She was completely ignorant of the situation. Chaos was by far the larger threat in this region, and they were moving north.
The girl broke the silence. "I uh... I had to scare off some bandits, once," she said, a little more solmenly. "I think I hit one. Dunno if it did him in, but it did spook'em." She sighed and looked to the ground. "I love my family. Love that I can protect 'em. But shootin' at people is still hard." She looked back up at him and stared into his eyes. It was haunting. "I dunno what I'm tryin' to say. It weren't anythin' like pa's war stories, but I figure I got an idea a' what it's like. Think I know why you're so quiet. You got a hard job, protectin' us. So, I got somethin' for ya. Almost as hard as your job, but at least it tastes good." She pulled a stick of dried meat from her pocket and tossed it to him. He snatched it deftly out of the air and stared dumbly at it. She shrugged, turned around, and waved goodbye, snow parting beneath her feet with a surprising degree of silence. “Thanks. See ya.”
No, she didn’t see him. That wasn’t acceptable. Vindicare were neither seen nor heard. She couldn’t be permitted to leave. He dropped the jerky and began to reach for his pistol.
He stopped. “She could make a good vindicare.” She was obviously too old. An extraneous, irrelevant, immaterial thought. He continued, and put his fingers around the grip.
He stopped. "She thinks I'm a guardsman." Any accurate description of him or his weapon would make it clear to anybody that he was no ordinary guardsman. He continued, and pointed it at her head.
He stopped. "Nobody would know about this. Nobody is watching. There are no settlements for days. I should warn her of hostiles." Which would in turn make her aware of the big secret. A little girl. A nobody. A nothing.
Liivi attempted to move his finger over the trigger. It was slow to respond. Shaking, twitching. Iron pathways honed by careful use of negative and positive reinforcement were assaulted by some absurd feeling of reprehension. “What is it?” There was something disconcerting about this child. “Why?” The iron weathered the unpleasant sensations like a breakwater in a storm, wave upon wave crashed against it and with spray flying every which way.
Sights shaking, he set his finger on the trigger.
Ysukin sighed. “I apologize. I know that glazed over look.”
“I want to protect people." He almost blurted it out.
"Your question. I did not realize. I asked it two weeks ago. I know the answer. I value the Dictum. I want to protect people."
"I want to protect people who protect people. I want to help people who do not hurt people."
"Taldeer hurts people."
"To protect others from ones who would hurt them."
"True enough. However, I'm not sure that protecting those people is entirely congruous with your Dictum. Are there any parts of the Dictum you do not value?"
"The ones that demand I hurt her. And similar people."
"Vague. But useful. The ones that demand you always obey your handler or superior officer?"
"Well Liivi," the big Eldar slowly raised his hand, offering plenty of warning, and gently placed it on the man's shoulder. "I can make no concrete promises. I lack the authority. But if I was your evaluator, you would have just written your own ticket in. I can promise my full support for your admission into our program for tribuopatriation. Taesan seems to have a soft spot for you, and I think he would recommend you as well. Farseer Taldeer I suspect would be willing to sponsor you - and that would make an enormous difference. But it will be a long process, with many evaluations, and the opportunity to be rejected down the line. It will not be easy for you. But I believe what you have already accomplished on your own was likely harder.
I'm sure you have plenty of questions. Unfortunately, we can speak no further at this time. I must deliver a summary of this to Gilfavor and begin preparing. You should do likewise.”
The Fire Dragon was right. It had to happen soon. As the eldar got up to leave, Liivi looked down at his pistol and found comfort in its familiarity. His future was always uncertain. He never knew what tomorrow would bring. But for so long, he had been confident that he was trained for it.
He was not nearly so certain he was trained for tomorrow.
The sound of feet walking over sand.
It was coming from her right. A gentle presence. She almost didn’t notice it.
“Where am I,” asked a faint and familiar voice?
The Farseer’s head snapped right, eyes open wide.
The little medic finally took notice of her. “Farseer?”
The daemon? No, they couldn’t mask their presence like this. But then, how?
It took Taldeer a moment to collect herself. “Is that really you?”
“...yes? Is there a reason it wouldn’t be?”
“Nevermind that. How did you get here?”
“I-I don’t know. The last thing I remember, I took some sedatives. Then I heard the sound of waves. And I woke up here…”
“You never said you were trained in telepathy.”
“Enough to help diagnose brain damage, but why- Oh! Oh… I see… This is your mind. Or a dream.”
“It is where I go to meditate.”
“I shouldn’t interrupt you. I’m sorry. This was an accident. It must be the sedative I took - calms the body, but not the mind. I’ll leave. Excuse me.”
“Honestly, being left alone with my thoughts is the last thing I want right now. I can’t focus.” She gestured to the waves. “The future refuses to wait for me.”
“I guess I’ll stay then.” The medic stared out to sea as she walked to Taldeer’s side. There, she sat. Silence. “So. The future looks like an ocean?”
“It’s one way of seeing it. It’s all just a bunch of data. But it’s easier to read when you find a way to visualize it. There are other methods. Some Farseers use games.”
“Sounds underwhelming. I think this one looks rather beautiful.”
“Don’t be fooled.”
The medic thought to herself for a time. “Taldeer, I’m not really sure what to do. Is there anything I can do to ease your burden?”
“Don’t die. And if you figure out when and why I became useless, let me know.”
“You’re not useless.”
“Your sentiment is appreciated, but I don’t think you understand.”
A sullen look came over her features. Her posture folded inward and she stared at the sand. Picking some up, she let it run through her fingers. For awhile, there was only the sound of the waves.
The sand ran out.
“Every time somebody died,” Mellorena began, “I wanted to blame myself. Especially in the ER. When I had to tell their family that we couldn’t save them. We weren’t good enough. I wanted to crawl home. Cry. And never come out again. Because every time, it seems like there’s some way I could’ve avoided it. If I’d only been better. If I’d only seen it in time. If it was anybody but me, they’d be alive.
That’s what it feels like, isn’t it? That whatever caused their injury didn’t kill them. It’s just something that happened to them. My failure killed them. Right?”
“...That last bit… disconcertingly correct.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s not a good place to be in. I would know, believe me.”
“Do you really know? You may have botched operations or had corpses fall into your gurney, but how many? I was their leader, Mellorena. They trusted me. They marched and died on my orders. And my orders got them all killed. Thousands. If they’re lucky, the guard will collect their soulstones and use them as bartering chips. Most likely, they’ll be burnt by some backworld inbreds. Even if the mon-keigh commanders made a good effort to secure the stones, the losses still probably number at least in the hundreds. How do I live with that? How am I supposed to come home, come back to the Seer Council of Ulthwe, and tell them of my crushing defeat and our damned bretheren? Do you really understand? Tell me, how many of our kin have you sent to She Who Thirsts?!”
She tucked in her legs and wrapped her arms around them. “One.”
The Farseer was silent for a time. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I understand.” She took a deep breath, collecting herself. “Officially, I was cleared of responsibility. But I still feel responsible. I should’ve seen it. He was my patient. His well being was my responsibility.
We were fighting some mon-keigh. One of our encampments was shelled. So many wounded and dying. Ten full medevac vamps, and that was just for those in critical condition. I was in the first, busy, trying to treat people as fast as I could. The nurses were supposed to keep the stones stocked. Nobody realized we were out.” A pause. The Farseer looked at the little medic. She was reliving it. Staring back in time. Trying to hold in her emotions. Speaking in a calm and deliberate voice. But the dream betrayed her. Taldeer could see it as she spoke. Fuzzy images and flashes of a memory, tearing into the space around her, only to vanish shortly thereafter.
“His name was Iselon Gonnaer.” It was all visible. The cramped space. Tables upon tables, all holding broken bodies. The smell of blood. Nurses running past. Doctors shouting. They were trying to resuscitate the woman on the next table. It didn’t seem to be working.
“He was a young man.” Handsome features. “Even younger than me. A guardian.” Another bag of blood gone. Tourniquet changed. “He had a gut full of shrapnel and was missing an arm and a leg.” Two pairs of hands tried to seal blood vessels. Elastic bands struggled to keep pressure on the stumps. “I was so focused, I didn’t see the hairline fracture in his spirit stone.” He stopped breathing. No pulse. Needles were shoved into nerves. Shocks delivered. Trying to inflate his chest. Pump his heart. But it wouldn’t take.
“...he passed. That’s when I saw it.”
As light began to fill the crimson gem, a thin line of bright white appeared.
“There should’ve been another.” Frantic looks left and right. “I screamed for another.” Glances from her colleagues. Concern. “But there wasn’t.” Taldeer could see Mellorena’s panicked reflection in silver, red stained tools. Bloodsoaked hands reached to her chest. “When it shattered, I ripped off my own stone.” A firm yank severed the chain necklace. “Tried to use it to save him.” It was shoved into the pile of lightless shards, ground against them, desperately trying to succeed where the first had failed.
She drew her head in, hiding her face behind her forearm. ”But he was already gone… I broke down crying right then and there.”
For a brief moment, all talking in the medevac ceased. All eyes rested on the damned man. She fell forward onto his chest. Darkness.The hubbub and activity quickly resumed. But it wasn’t the same. It was quieter. Muted by the silent sound of eternal damnation, and Mellorena’s violent sobs.
“For a long time, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, crying. Thinking of that moment. And the fact that I couldn’t walk away, after a failure so great - that I couldn’t leave my path - I think that’s when I fully understood I was lost on it. Perverse as it sounds, it’s the fate I’d always wanted, deep down - a healer forever. But that wasn’t how I wanted to find out.”
All Taldeer could manage was a stunned expression. The young woman before her had seemed too much like a child. Too sweet. Too sensitive. Too naive. Now she seemed frighteningly precocious.
“You’re too young,” Taldeer whispered. “Much too young to be here. To have seen that. To be lost. By Isha. You didn’t need to relive that for my sake.”
Mellorena shook her head. “I think I did. Now, you’re not the only one here who’s made mistakes.”
“...How do you deal with these emotions? I thought I was lost on the path of the seer. Yet suddenly, it feels like I can barely read anything when it counts. This… I’ve never failed like this before. I'm afraid to even try anymore.”
“Maybe you can learn not to. I’ve met some colleagues who don’t get broken up by failure. They’ve said to me “it’s not my passion - it’s my job. Sometimes I don’t do well. Most of the time, I do.” Unfortunately, I can’t force myself to be that cold. I think you're similar. Trust me when I say that you can still learn to live with it.
I have friends. Family. Coworkers. People I talk to. Sharing the pain numbs it. When you’re ready to talk about it, at least. Being lost on my path makes it hurt a bit more. It means I can’t run. But I have a clear purpose. That provides some security. As much as it can hurt, I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“Is having that purpose really comforting when you’re questioning your ability? Maybe I’m just being selfish. Maybe I’m not fit for what I want to do. How do I know this won’t happen again? Every missing soul hurts. But there are still acceptable losses. This, however… this isn’t acceptable.” A pause. “At this point, I may have killed more of us than our enemies.”
“We’re not the ones getting people killed. Even if it usually feels that way, it’s usually not true. A lot of our failures are out of our control, no matter how we feel. I can’t help it if nobody noticed that Uncle Elmas had passed out, and now that he’s in my room, it’s too late. If the future is unreadable, maybe it’s just unreadable.
Then, there are those times when it really is your fault.
We’re not perfect. We’re going to make mistakes. We can’t see everything. But you know what? Not many people can do what we do. We can’t just leave them behind because we’re not perfect. We have to find a way to live with our mistakes… It's a heavier burden on the lost, but it’s true for any practitioner. How can you stay a doctor if you allow your failures to consume you, and prevent you from doing good work?
Saying that probably doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t for me. But it helps me focus on what’s important in the present. There’s time to cry later.”
“It’s my privilege, Farseer.”
They watched the ocean for some time.
The primary seemed calmer. Cooler. More collected. Anxious. But in control. Or trying to be.
As they approached the installation, a sense of unease entered the pit of everyone’s stomach. This was it. They could afford no more errors beyond this point. It was more than the normal pre-operation adrenalin. The sort of nausea one only gets from public speaking, irrational phobias, and high stakes. If even one ship from the fleet was penetrated, there would be little time to patch the hull before they reached the nearest webway entrance. It was not entirely free of daemons or hazards in general. If fortune did not favor them, the hole left by a single remaining battery could cause four digit numbers of good men and women to be sent into the open arms of the great enemy.
Liivi slid into the trench, landing fluidly behind Taldeer. Immense pain wracked his left side. But it was bearable.
Not a second to spare. They rushed forward, footsteps muffled by the hard packed ice of the trench. The scorpions moved ahead of the group. Hunched as they were to avoid detection, they almost resembled their namesake, the chitinous-like wraithbone armor resembling an insectoid carapace. They made it through the trench network in minutes.
“<Tanlon,>” Taldeer said, “<do you detect any psychic auras?>” The warlock shook his head. “<Only one mon-keigh.>” He gestured to Liivi. “<It may be the pesky human wards and seals, dampening the warp. How they love those trinkets.>”
The farseer bit her lip. Whatever human trickery was afoot, something was off. The sea was too calm. The sky was too clear. The storm had grown closer, yet it still hadn’t hit them. How? Where were the swells, the wind, and the rain? All the sensations of fate seemed muted.. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, staring into the water beneath her.
Under the placid surface, violent currents swirled too and fro, aimless and devoid of any discernable meaning.
We’re in the eye.
The man's mind was clouded. The well oiled machine was gumming up. There was a sense of anxiety he couldn’t quite place. He had no word for this sensation. He knew the term anxiety - it was a set of characteristics exhibited in primaries and secondaries, identified by the contortion of facial muscles and the adoption of certain behaviors. But the unpleasant sensation he presently experienced had no word. It was an amorphous thing - a negative state which the temple utilized as a tool for honing his training.
“Where are the guards?”
It had him on edge.
He scanned for cameras, servo skulls, as the Eldar sidled along the building. It was strange. Some cameras had been damaged. That wasn’t the work of Taesan’s rifle. It was Las pistol. And there were trails on the ground - men being dragged - but no blood or evidence of gunfire. But no operational surveillance. Until-
“We’re being watched.” Liivi gestured towards the camera.
20 meters away, mounted on the rear of a reinforced pillbox, a camera panned over the group. Liivi could see it clearly. It stopped, lens twisting as it zoomed in.
“It’s looking at you, Taldeer.” Errant thoughts flitted through his mind as he glanced at the Farseer. “I shouldn’t have vocalized. Alerted the enemy.”
Gilfavor trained his rifle on it and fired. Bullseye.
“<Double time it.>” Liivi may not have understood the words. But he understood the gestures. Move. And fast. The beat of his heart was pounding in his ears. Why? This wasn’t meaningful exertion. Or was he perhaps more aware of it than he was before?
They began their sprint to the entrance, first ducking behind cover. Autoturrets deployed, but no fire came.
“Damaged,” Liivi said. “Las-rifle. Traitors?”
“Doesn’t smell like chaos,” Tanlon replied.
“It doesn’t smell like anything,” Ysukin said. “So rule out nothing.” He pulled a curious tool from his kit. A detonator? “I’ll get that door open.”
Liivi interjected. “Explosiv-”
“It isn’t,” Ysukin replied. “It’s a hacking tool.” He pulled out a cable and inserted it into the key slot. “Should get this open quickly.”
The assassinorum had such tools. Backdoors, skeleton keys, things they could exploit to get their personnel where they needed to be. But these were closely guarded secrets. What sections of missions that had involved them were mind wiped. The fire dragon glanced at the human. Apparently Liivi’s face must have betrayed his incredulity. Ysukin shrugged slightly.
“Don’t use the same security software for a few thousand years.”
“Keep the primary close.”
Ysukin had been given admin access. It was isolated to the front door, but that was enough to get them into the building. A long hallway, about 10 meters, stretched before them.
They had been expecting resistance. A hail of lasrifle fire. Anything to keep them outside, to make sure they would be incapacitated by the blast.
Instead they saw scorch marks, blood, and the body of a guardsman slumped against the wall at the far end, chest clearly burnt, the open eyes of his shocked face staring into eternity. The two doors - one left and one right - were wide open.
“<Farseer?>” Gilfavor spared her a quick glance before turning his eyes to the body. The old soldier masked his concern better than the others. But she could still read the uncertainty in his face.
“<I don’t know either, Captain.>”
Ysukin shut the door behind him, and the sound echoed throughout the installation. As the noise faded away, they became acutely aware of the fact that the facility had all the stillness and silence of death. Even the whirr of the zooming camera was audible.
It peered down at them from the far end of the hallway, the sole surviving sentinel.
“<Someone’s definitely still alive,>” Elnys mused, shuriken pistol delivering a well aimed burst into the camera housing.
Barroth stood at her flank, watching the doorways. “<Should I stand guard, Captain?>”
Gilfavor’s teeth ground together. He looked at the entrance door and back to Barroth.
“<Taesan,>” he spoke into his comms, “<your recon camera watching the road - IR signatures on the horizon?>”
The Scorpions advanced slowly and cautiously. The human followed closely behind. They reached the end of the hallway soon enough. Each took a door and sliced the pie - nothing. Nothing except more cameras. They each fired a single burst before returning to cover. “<Clear.>”
Liivi, meanwhile, remained exposed. Inspecting the dead man, he was vulnerable sitting between the two doorways. Taldeer hissed loudly. “Liivi!” It snapped the vindicare from his trance. “Sorry.” He grabbed the soldier’s right foot with his left arm, and sprung both himself and the corpse back to safety in a single, pneumatic movement. In cover, he resumed his inspection.
Concerned. She approached the Vindicare, pistol trained firmly on one of the doorways. “Liivi, what is it?”
“He’s not cold yet.”
“All the more reason to be on our guard, then.” She nudged Liivi to get up, but he hardly budged. He peeled back the burnt clothing. “I am-” an alien firmness in his voice, ever so slightly raised. It vanished as soon as it appeared.
“I am almost finished.” His fingers wormed their way through the burnt fabric and felt around. After second or two, he seemed satisfied. He closed the soldier’s eyes, and rested the man’s hands on his chest. With that, the man stood once more. A vacant stare filled his eyes as he stared at the sparking remains of the camera.
“<We need to get moving,>” Gilfavor growled. “<Left door. Loading mechanism is south.>”
Passing through the doorway and, sparing a final glance at the dead man, Liivi noted two streaks of blood in the opposite room. Bodies that had been dragged. Both led to a doorway, towards the center of the installation.
Taldeer paused. A shiver ran down her spine. Her cool expression shifted to one of grave realization. Caught in the trough. A breaker loomed ominously overhead. Its sinister and foaming face leaning deep towards them. They were to be swallowed whole.
“Look out!” She knocked Gilfavor forward with the butt of her spear and, barring Liivi with her left arm, leapt backwards. A steel blast door, nearly a third of a meter thick, slid quickly from the ceiling with a fierce pneumatic hiss, meeting an indent in the floor. Their toes barely cleared it. The spear was less fortunate - a few centimeters had been shaved off the bottom. Sprawled on the ground, the Farseer worked quickly to get on her feet and turned to face the rear, letting out a long and hearty sigh. Death narrowly avoided. Again.
Heart pounding, she eyed the doorway while the human collected himself.
“<Farseer.>” Gilfavor’s voice, distinctively calm and lacking its usual sourness, emanating from the collar of her chestplate. “<We will proceed with the mission. Ascertain the location of the control room. We will meet you there.>” It was clear enough to understand, but even at this short distance, the interference from all the wards could be heard in the transmission.
“<Yes, Captain. You are okay?>”
“<In perfect condition. Whoever just arranged that soon won’t be. Gilfavor out.>”
She groaned internally. Apparently it read on her face.
“Is something the matter, Taldeer?” Liivi was taking longer than usual to get up. Must have been the injury. The man averted his gaze when they made eye contact.
“The Captain has less-than-subtly warned me that, if he believes I am in league with whoever is in control, he will try to kill me.”
“He will fail. I promise.” Having collected himself, Liivi’s pistol was swiftly trained on the door. “I’ll take point.”
She stared him down, determined. “No, you won’t. You’re already injured. If I limit my exposure, my shields will keep me safe.”
Liivi avoided eye contact. “It won’t stop a beam from a lasrifle. Please use a mirror first. The guardsman should have one.”
The Farseer scowled for a moment. She shouldn't need a mirror. She should sense the danger before she even turned the corner. But the ocean was so quiet...
She sighed and chided herself. “I should have thought of that.” The scowl quickly softened. “Thank you, Liivi.” He didn’t respond with words. A nod, hesitant, yet with an expression of sincere concern. Cautiously, they pressed the advance. Slow and quiet steps.
“What were you doing back there? To the guardsman?” She spoke in hushed tones, eyes never leaving the potential target area.
“Inspecting the wound. Checking for evidence of weapon used.” A calm seemed to sweep over the subtle indicators of anxiety in his expression and posture. He was back in his element. “It was a las rifle wound. Consider that, had this been an open assault, the alarms would have been triggered, and this installation would have entered lockdown. We would have heard them, as that man was shot within the last few hours. Nor was that man in a combat position. His weapon had also been taken.“
Another step forward. “You mean to suggest that this was espionage?”
A sound from behind. Liivi’s pistol snapped to the rear entrance. An uncomfortable amount of time passed.
“Yes,” he said at last. “But they used the guard’s own weapons. ‘Who’ is unknown.”
Her brow furrowed. “So who holds the control room? Clearly they can operate doors. But they haven’t initiated lockdown. Why? If they wanted to keep us out, that would give them plenty of time to prepare. Unless… they don’t want to keep us out.”
She eyed the door back into the entrance hallway - a pneumatic guillotine to the unwary. “A troubling thought.” The camera may have been gone, but she was not eager to stay beneath it for long. The Farseer held her breath and leapt through.
“It seems probable that they don’t want to contain us. They want us to come to them, a few at a time.” Liivi followed suit, landing fluidly, albeit painfully, on the other side.
Content that her human was safe, Taldeer stepped over to the dead guardsman and began ruffling through his clothes. “That seems dangerous," she noted. "But I suppose locking us in a room just gives us time to entrench.”
Liivi nodded. “Every room is designed to be extremely defensible. And we are dealing with a good marksman. They have every reason to make us come to them.”
“But who is that marksman? Who are we fighting?” Third pocket. Still nothing.
“I can only guess. Do you have any insight?”
“None at all.” At last, the mirror.
“Most likely, chaos sleeper agents. Using the disorder from the Orks and Eldar raids to seize the installation. It would explain the dragged bodies - intended for use in a ritual.” Taldeer finally found the mirror. “Additionally,” Liivi continued, “intelligence suggests some chaos entities can increase the martial prowess of their troops, or manipulate probabilities to their benefit. That could adequately explain the precise aim.” She motioned for him to get behind her.
“Sensible,” she quipped. Peeking around the corner with her mirror, she stayed fast against the wall. “They may just be a bunch of mon-keigh cultists, but I can’t help feeling uneasy.”
She swore she could hear the daemonette laughing somewhere in the distance.
“Are you distracted, Liivi?”
“It’s nothing.” He looked over to her. He didn’t really understand all the emotional noise that cluttered his mind when he did so, but the desire to protect was understandable at least.
What did that really mean though? A dismissive statement of disbelief, or a confident affirmation? He thought he was on the level. But the questions and errant thoughts were becoming dizzying. “Your comrades do not trust me. Do you trust me, Taldeer?”
“More than you realize. I won’t let them hurt you, I promise.”
“What if you had to choose?”
The Farseer froze. Her eyes left the door and, as her head turned to look behind her shoulder, additional power flowed into her shields. He could feel the despair in her eyes weighing down on him. “Don’t force me to make that choice, Liivi.” The sensation was haunting.
Not quite the expected reaction. Misgauged the primary. “I-I won’t. Do you… believe me?”
“Yes. Now don’t give me a reason to doubt you.”
Something was different about his mind now. She struggled to parse it. It wasn’t that it was unreadable, like before. It was still a mind of iron, yes. But it was breaking. The energy destroying the machine which harnessed it, rivets flying as pressure built, pistons screaming, gears roaring. Taldeer could taste the jets of emotion as they spewed out of the growing fissures. Chunks, fragments of a person. Pain. Confusion. Love? Or was it obsession? Reaching through the steam and probing the cracks, enduring the searing heat, she felt her way to the center. The eye. And in it, she found an image of herself - flawless and perfect, a statue carved by a keen hand and a keener eye. Around it screamed a torrent of intense emotions, maintaining a respectful distance as they shouted down reason.
The Farseer snapped out of her trance. It was only supposed to be a glance. “I got too sucked in.” She shook her head slightly, bringing herself back into the present. “Sorry. Thank you.”
He nodded. A gust of steam. She could taste it.
“When this is over… I’ll make sure you get the help you need.” A burst of steam, larger than before.
His reply was calm, but swiftly delivered. “I need only to know you’re safe.” Steam gushed out like a geyser. This was a lie. Though how much he knew it was a lie, she couldn’t say.
They pressed on.
The path was meandering, and the rooms similar enough to make navigation difficult. Obviously prefabricated and assembled here. Yet they could tell they were getting closer. Broken wards only lent credence to Liivi’s theory. Pools of blood occasionally dotted the trail, and the caked blood trail itself only got thicker. It hardly took long for the Farseer to put it together.
“This was the fastest route to each soldier. All on camera. There must have been people in the control room, working with the attackers. Perhaps Liivi was right. But then, what’s at the end of this pathway, that they wouldn’t halt us?” The rituals of chaos cults were widely varied and idiosyncratic. Veneration and the desired objective were more important than set procedure. The objective was typically simple: summon a daemon.
“There were hardly enough bodies here to open a rift, let alone feed a daemon for however long it’s been. What’s their game?” Concern slowly gave way to cautious optimism. “Suppose the majority of them are dead. Perhaps the ritual failed.”
“Possible. The only other chaos ritual I observed failed. They had far more bodies.”
“What? When?” The Farseer, incredulous, stopped dead in her tracks.
Liivi remained unphased. “Circa two months ago.”
She snapped. “Why didn’t you mention this sooner?!”
Now he was confused. “It seemed irrelevant.”
His reaction exacerbated her concern. “Tell me everything.”
“The Handler hailed me-”
Speaking slowly, through gritted teeth: “about the ritual.”
“I did not see the ritual site personally. My partner, a Callidus, infiltrated the facility. She reported the ritual center was covered in bodies. When the final cultist committed suicide atop it, the ritual activated. Warp energy passed through the facility and expanded outward in a roughly spherical shape. I outran the blast, but tripped and fell on my head. No sign of chaos taint was found on either of us, despite her presence at the epicenter. Presumably, our wards protected us against flawed technique.”
“I will be damned if I trust the mon-keigh to detect warp taint - all the power of the Inquisition, and they can’t see what stands in front of them. I’ve not smelled anything on you, but I’ve not looked thoroughly. I promise, Liivi, if I find anything, I will extract it in the most painless way possible. Now, step over here and hold very still.”
Taldeer guided him to a corner of the room, adjacent to the next entrance they needed to pass through. She cycled some extra juice to her shields, and kept her pistol train on the door with the her left hand - better than nothing in case of an ambush. Her right hand hovered slowly over the vindicare’s body, feeling more closely for aberrations in his warp signature or the shadows of internal warp mutations. Nothing in his legs, aside from the protective wards etched into his flesh. A bit worse for wear, they were - they only gave her pinpricks as she probed. Likewise as she did a once over of the torso and- winced. She had forgotten about his injury. Focusing through the sympathetic pain, she found no hint of taint in his chest, nor in his arms or head. He was, as he said, perfectly clean. The wards spread across his body were indeed worn - but that was just evidence that they had done their job. The Farseer breathed a sigh of relief. The two had been in such close proximity for days now - it was highly improbable that she would have missed even the slightest hint of chaos taint. But in that time there had been much on her mind, and it was always better to be safe than sorry.
“You’re clean, Liivi. Thank Isha.” She slumped against the wall as she exhaled. Things had been going poorly. Thankfully not that poorly. After a moment’s rest, they got back in gear.
A crashing sound from the hallway through which they had just advanced. Some metal object had fallen. Liivi jolted for his pistol and trained it on the door.
“The turret,” he whispered?
“We’ll see,” she replied.
The fates were quiet as she waded through the shallows towards the door. They sung no hymns of battle nor moved to rhythms of combat. They all moved in one straight direction - out, with the tide. Nothing in the immediate future was cause for concern, it was all peaceable. But who knew what the next wave would carry with it.
There were whispers. Metallic, monotone, and distorted. But faintly raspy. The voice of a young woman, with a strange accent. It sounded almost like a conversation. Taldeer pulled out the mirror and peeked around the corner. Nothing. If she hoped to get to the bottom of this, she’d have to go further. Beyond the door. She took a hesitant step into the portal.
To say that the wave arrived sooner than expected would be an understatement. The foam slapped her across the face. It seemed so distant, and suddenly it wasn’t. She dived to safety, cursing herself as she slid across the floor. “Falling for the same trick twice. I knew the hook was baited. Why did I think it was worth it?” The sound of doors closing echoed around her. More than one. Two. Three. Four. She was losing count. As her head lifted slowly from the hard floor, she could see some doors remained open.
“It’s not a room they want to lock me in. It’s a path.”
He had noticed it too late. The mirror in the next room. A camera was set at just the right angle to get an image of the doorway Taldeer had gone through. The machine didn’t bother to refocus on him. The attention of its master had been drawn elsewhere. He could feel the doors slamming shut. Remote switches being flipped. At last it shuddered to a halt.
It took a moment to collect himself mentally, but he quickly dashed to the comms panel next to the door. A shaking finger mashed the call button.
“There was a mirror. A camera got us through it. I should have seen it.”
It was supposed to default to the adjacent room, but she didn’t respond. Maybe she didn’t know how. Maybe she was already running. Liivi sighed and released the button. What now? Hacking without his mask wasn’t possible. His eyes were drawn back to the blood trails. The door was still open. The camera still hadn’t moved.
Maybe it would be wise to stay in the same spot. Maybe wait for things to boil over. Taldeer would know where to find him. But if this was chaos, well, chaos was usually sloppy. There were a lot of bodies dragged that way. If they weren’t frisked - and they probably weren’t - then one of them probably has keys. Gamble on being able to find keys and resume the operation, or stay on the bench in this room, alone? Taldeer could handle herself. Probably.
Liivi pondered these thoughts as he looked at his pistol, then at the open doorway.
He stepped forward.
The winding hallways seemed to go nowhere. Vaguely bronze colored walls with simplistic ornamentation, and the scent of incense, appeared to indicate that this was some sort of area for officers. She passed an open door - an officer sat dead at his desk, “stubber” pistol in one hand, a picture of his family in the other. An understandable reaction to an attack from chaos. Taldeer almost felt pity for the mon-keigh. Almost.
Hopefully her mon-keigh was alright.
She picked up her pace. There was no telling where this path led. It probably wasn’t anywhere good. But this situation was going to get worse before it got better. With every step, she listened to the sound of the ocean and the rolling waves, felt the wind and smelled the surf. Ceaselessly reading the data, searching for that next useful thread. Nothing. Loads and loads of nothing. Maybe she was walking to her death. Walking into a trap. A room turned into an oven. She would see that coming, certainly. But wouldn’t she also have seen a melta bomb being tossed practically in her face? Fate had only revealed itself to her jeeringly, when it neared certitude - a giant blazing sign that she somehow missed.
Once again, she shoved these doubts out of her mind. Halting her steps, she closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and tested every muscle. Eyes open. She was ready.
There was no waiting. The squad needed her. Whatever was going on, it was probable that going to meet the enemy would allow the squad to better accomplish their objective. She could draw some fire off of them, tie up some enemy resources. Not that she really knew what resources they had. The faster this could be resolved, the sooner she could save Liivi. All he had to do was stay still. He was smart enough, level headed enough, to know that he shouldn’t run when being searched for. Of course, if they successfully summoned a daemon, and somehow it was still walking around, perhaps he would be better off running.
She tried not to dwell on that thought.
The cameras weren’t watching him anymore. They sat frozen, motionless, staring blankly into empty space. Why did they lose interest? He could only guess.
These tunnels seemed more aged than the rest of the facility. Clearly maintenance for a variety of systems - heating, electrical, air circulation, water. Perhaps it was the dim lighting, or maybe it was the dampness that gave it a more aged look. It could have been recycled from a defunct installation. Or maybe it was the ever thicker blood trail. It almost looked like rust.
He heard a blast not too long ago. Muffled in the ducts. Mission accomplished. Hopefully. But that just meant the clock was ticking further down.
Flashlight swaying across the hallway, Liivi took step after step towards whatever dark and arcane chaos ritual had taken place. It was hardly a desirable place to go. But desire didn’t factor into the equation. He needed those keys. He had to get back to Taldeer. She had to be protected.
And she was right, too. Daemons have a limited time in the materium, extended only by the consumption of mortals. If the ritual was successful, it should have come looking for him. It wouldn’t sit and wait. It was probably safe.
Suppose they hadn’t launched it yet? Perhaps they needed another body. He was walking into a trap. Or maybe that wasn’t possible. Those kills were made awhile ago. The blood isn’t what summons and feeds daemons. It’s the soul. How long do they have before a soul really leaves the body, and their ritual material becomes nothing more than a pile of corpses? A question with no obvious answer. But not exactly a bad question. Likely best to take it more slowly. He decided to hug the wall just a bit more closely. The grungy piping, wires, and hard metal was slippery beneath his suit. Oil mixed in with some condensation, maybe.
He turned a corner. The hallway was masked by total darkness. Shards of glass glittered on the floor. Fragments of the bulbs. The sound of pumps, the thrum of air moving through vents, and the occasional drip of some fluid - their echoes emanated from the placid, lightless void, met only with the sound of the man's pounding chest and his quiet breathing.
The deep shadow embraced him as he entered, even as the flashlight pierced its heart.
And a knife pierced his chest. It took a moment for him to register it. “Amateur.” Liivi noted that he was so distracted that he managed to reflect on his error, rather than finding a solution.
With cat-like reflexes, his assailant had emerged from a large vertical crevice between some ducts. But the last of his energy appeared to have been spent on the leap and thrust. Energy wasted, the point of the knife making direct contact with the wraithbone cast. He slumped to the ground, gasping for breath.
The gash on the assailant’s head was large enough to see easily, even in this dimness. But a little more light wouldn’t heart. The man hardly winced as the flashlight was directed at his head. Things were clearer now. Skull was visible - and cracked. The runes cut into his temple were undoubtedly the inscriptions of chaos. Disgusting. And yet, familiar.
Not the marks. The man’s face. No time to dwell on it though. He was getting close now.
Liivi pointed his Exitus pistol at the man’s head.
The quarters seemed to stretch on forever. The double headed eagles and lions that adorned the walls almost seemed to move, looking down from on high, laughing at her as she was trapped in this labyrinthine maze. “How did anybody ever navigate this?” She did not have the subtle eddies of fate washing around her ankles to guide her. It burbled to and fro, indifferently, devoid of any discernible meaning. It irked her.
Door upon door flitted past, all sealed. She passed an oddity - an open one. Inside, an officer lay dead on the floor. His legs were straight, eyes closed, and his hands crossed over his chest. Held in them was a picture of his family. A gun lay on his blood covered desk.
It was the same man as before.
She’d gone in a circle.
Muttering. “Isha help me if I don’t-”
Her glower shifted. Perplexed and concerned. “Who did this?”
Doubtable it was one of the others. Ysukin might in other circumstances, but he was too dedicated to the mission. He wouldn’t stop. Chaos certainly wouldn’t. Perhaps Liivi escaped? Yes, maybe he got a key! She quickly rummaged through the officer’s pockets. Maybe he had one. But she turned up nothing. Either he didn’t have it, or it was taken. It wasn’t on or in his desk. So it wasn’t going to be found. Time to go.
As she paced angrily down the hallway, she passed a second peculiarity. An open door, one that she swore was formerly closed. How curious. She had not heard it open.
Stepping carefully into the hallway, she found herself surrounded by the spartan, militaristic decoration of the rest of the facility. So this was a step in the right direction, apparently. Hopefully. Even so, she had to take it slow. This could well be a trap. She advanced quickly down the hallway, never allowing her irons to leave her eye. Her eyes were soon drawn to something else, however. She almost missed it.
At last, there it was, clearly labeled on the door. Command Center. It was not locked. In fact, it was clear that Ysukin had already been there. The door opened graciously, and she accepted the invitation to step through.
The squad was all present, milling about. Gilfavor was on comms, speaking in Eldar, reporting to the fleet. Ysukin and Tanlon were watching the two entrances. The Warlock was more expressive than he’d ever been - he actually smiled with his polite nod. “Farseer.”
Ysukin beamed. “It’s good to see you alive and well. And Liivi?”
“I’m afraid we got separated. I trust he’ll make it here, however. He always comes through.”
“He has at least until Taesan gets up here with Mellorena,” Ysukin whispered. “I can’t say how long the captain will be willing to wait. Probably not long. The mon-keigh know.” She nodded sourly and swallowed, glancing around the room. Something in the corner caught her eye.
A corpse. There was an ear on the top of its head.
“I see you’ve noticed the trash, Farseer.” Gilfavor. “I’d spit on the corpse. But I suppose they’d probably enjoy that. Good thing is, we won’t be here for much longer. We should get to the pad soon.”
She stared at the body as if she was in trance. She may well have been, as far as the others were concerned.“”The scent of the Great Enemy should be strong. Even noticeable. It isn’t. But how? It doesn-”
All stared at one another, aghast. Things were finally starting to make sense.
The door hissed as it closed behind him. Golden light cut a sharp swathe through the inky black. Motes of dust shimmered in the air.
It smelled of iron.
He cast the beam on the ground. Crusted rouge mingled with flowing scarlet. Blood. Far too much for a single body. “Where?”
Light directed to the center of the room. A pile of bodies, arteries exposed. Unlit candles were positioned around them, alongside daemonic runes written in blood. A ritual circle. Purity seals and wards against chaos, smashed and scattered around it. And at its foot…
A familiar face. Half of one.
A Callidus. Slumped on the floor, she had turned her neuro gauntlet on herself. He could only speculate on why. The dead assassin’s face was filled with wrinkles, contorted into a mad grin, eyes bulging in their sockets. Partially transformed at her time of death. In spite of the distortion, the resemblance was uncanny.
It was the Handler.
Liivi’s eyes snapped to the faces of the bodies. Haphazardly thrown into the pile as they were, he couldn’t see all of them. But at least one was recognizable. One of Handler’s auxiliaries. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead.
A sound to his right, wet and quiet, like a toe being dipped into a puddle. Nothing living could hide in this 5 by 5 meter room. Yet it put him on edge. He quickly turned the flashlight to the rightmost corner, slowly scanning across the wall. Faint at first, two hazy marine orbs began to glow, growing brighter as the light neared them. At last, the spotlight shined down upon the star of whatever damnable apostasy this room had been a stage for.
A black circle of carbon, burned into the wall she was slumped against, resembled a dark halo around her head. The streak of purple blood, no doubt produced as she slid down the wall, almost seemed like a column of sickly light.
Cause of death was obvious. It was the hole in the center of her chest - about two fists wide. Possibilities flashed through Liivi’s brain faster than words could express.
“Not a lasrifle. Not a neuro gauntlet. What?”
The gears were turning. The flywheel spinning out of control. It was all coming together now.
The daemonette blinked, grinning as the blood poured from her mouth.
“Start running, loverboy.”
With those words, her head slumped forward, dead. But he was already gone, keys ripped from the belt of the Callidus, stubber pulled from the holster of an officer.
The eldar recoiled collectively. Taldeer especially so. It felt as though, some time long ago, the wind had been knocked out of her chest, she had forgotten about it, and now it suddenly returned to her. She became whole again, without ever realizing there was something missing. A hidden tension in the air had been released.
And she could see it all now.
The wind was screaming death into her ear. The smell of the Great Enemy. Wisps of dead human. Where was this before? Where had it all been hiding?
Thick drops of rain fled this place, horizontal on the wind, battering themselves against her. Lightning cracked, illuminating wave upon frothing, rabid wave, each fit to drown them. The undertow was sucking hard enough to drown ships, let alone the flotsam they were.
But it was the rogue wave that frightened her. Towering above the rest. Bearing down on them. It was soon to hit.
That was when the sea began to boil.
Clouds gave way to empty void as the ocean slunk away from her, retreating Isha knew where. There was nothing beneath the water, no earth to catch her, no beach to retreat to. There was nothing at all. Not even a void.
It all made sense now. The muffled sense of the warp. The sinking feeling. The quietude of the ocean. Eyes widened as the eldar stared at each other in terror.
Pain. Immeasurable pain. The squad collapsed, writhing helplessly on the ground as their shrieks tore through the installation. Only Taldeer and Tanlon remained standing. His shaking body struggled to hold his witchblade aloft, turning frantically, looking for a target. The flame, suddenly weak, flickered and died. She vomited, her body’s desperate attempt to remove whatever poison she had swallowed.
A fruitless response. She could already tell what poison this was. And it was not a poison imbibed. It was a walking anathema.
She found it hard to see. A hungry darkness gnawed at the edges of her hazy vision, intent on swallowing the distorted image. But detail wasn’t necessary. When Tanlon was batted across the room by some invisible force, it came as no surprise. At the end of the long, black hallway, it looked like the whole world was starting to sway and contort. And one patch of air warped a bit more than the rest.
It was moving towards her.
Chapter Twenty One
"That which is unknown or unseen always commands the greatest fear."
- The Dictatus Culexus
Of the assassins, none are more feared than the culexus. The fierce claws of the eversor, the well placed shot of the vindicare, the unexpected blade of the Callidus - none of these can compare to the mind ravaging terror of the null aura. To stand near a null is to suffocate and stifle one’s soul. To feel the sensation of being a soulless body, still living. Normal men may feel only queasiness, coupled with a mortifying sense of existential dread. What a psyker suffers will depend on their strength, discipline, and training. An exceptionally talented and well trained psyker may experience extreme pain, seizures, hallucinations, intrusive thoughts, or the cotard delusion. It is nothing less than the violent rape of their soul, the brutal unstitching of the very essence of their being. Sufficient exposure will kill them. It is merely a matter of when.
This is before the addition of the animus speculum. A skull shaped helmet that can not only amplify their aura, but muffle it to near silence. Used in conjunction with synskin, they can become as invisible and intangible as the mind crushing fear that they inspire. But it is not their stealth capabilities that are most frightening. It is the beam which they can fire from the lens of their speculum, a fierce and concentrated lance of negative warp energy, which can tear at matter and soul alike. To confront one is to face more than death. It is to face annihilation.
The rest of the eldar convulsed on the floor, shrieking, eyes bulging as spittle flecked from their mouths. They were helpless now. Taldeer struggled to breathe through the grip of the culexus, throat burning, desperately struggling for every precious gasp. Its hand was wrapped around her throat like a vice. She tugged feebly at the fingers, but they were no more yielding than steel. Was the assassin really that strong? Or was it her own rapidly fading strength?
The synthskin flickered as the massive lens began to thrum, charging. The creature was smaller than she expected, standing a head shorter than her. It had to reach up to grab her neck. But what did size matter for a culexus?
The assassin’s head was cocked slightly to the side, as if it were curious, captivated by its target. Taldeer swore she saw the glint of an eye behind the flickering mask. Probably just a trick of the light.
The grip grew tighter. Eyes watered. Throat filling with bile. Her heart was pounding in her ears. The whirlpool was sucking harder and harder, Fates laughing as they ran circles around her, riding madness into the black depths of the sea. The hungry maw was about to close. Every way pointed down.
She tried to scream.
There was a finger snap. The synskin’s invisibility flickered one last time, then died. The culexus relaxed its grip and looked down at the massive hole in the left side of its lower abdomen.
Again. The back of the animus speculum shattered. It turned to face Liivi, now running down the hallway, but the culexus could yield no resistance. It stumbled backward and into the ceramite wall two meters behind it. The ruined animus hit the wall first, shattering, and splitting down the middle. The helmet rolled off of its shoulders, and face of the assassin was revealed as it slumped to the floor.
The culexus coughed blood and rasped as it laid on the ground. Its null aura was already beginning to fade. It sighed.
The woman looked so young. She couldn’t have been over 25. There was a natural beauty to her pale face, hiding bashfully behind the scars and stitches, the unkempt hair, already white, and the rings underneath her grey eyes. There was no expression of fear, no recounting of her regrets. Her hollow stare laid out the story of her whole life, plain as day - her gaze had looked dead long before she was dying.
Liivi pulled out his stubber and began to walk over, stepping over the still spasming eldar. Soon enough he stood by her side. He looked at her, then at the weapon.
Fingers brushed against his shin. An attempt at a grasp. It wasn’t aggressive. It was soft. Weak.
“Vindicare…” She looked up at Liivi pleadingly, breathy voice rasping barely audible whispers. She struggled to inflate her chest. “Will the emperor forgive me? Will I be alone forever?”
The farseer was hardly sound of mind. Perhaps that was why so much of her revulsion turned to pity. Surely she couldn’t sympathize with this monster, this being that was detested even by the mon-keigh. The culexus - hated, feared, and reviled universally by her people, a blight suffered only for the good of a craftworld. Yet why was it that, as this human’s mere presence brought her to her knees and pushed her to the brink of death, she felt as though she were looking upon the most pitiful creature that ever lived? There were all sorts of illusory sensations atop of the pain - one leg was resting on sand, while her hand lay in a fire, and the whole of the room seemed to be twisting, rolling, and spinning, warping before her very eyes. Perhaps she was feeling a false emotion?
Whatever she felt, Liivi certainly seemed to feel something resembling sympathy. He knelt next to the young woman and put his hand on her shoulder.
“You have served the Emperor loyally. You will be with Him, and all the others. I promise, miss…?”
“Sascha. My parents named me Sascha.”
The eldar couldn’t take much more. And even the woman, obviously accustomed to pain, was clearly uncomfortable. There could be no more delay. “Sascha, I will now administer the Emperor’s benediction.”
“Please.” The woman coughed and feebly grasped at his hand. He gave it to her. She folded her arms across her chest and gave Taldeer one last look. There was something she was wrestling with, something she wanted to say. Sascha settled on a single word. “Sorry.” She closed her eyes. At peace. Liivi leaned her forward slightly, and positioned the barrel exit slightly above where the skull met the neck.
There were two bangs in quick succession. Silence. Perfect silence. All the ambient noise of the control room vanished from the Farseer's mind. Even so, it was still hard to hear the woman's breath leave her lungs for the last time, never to return. No doubt, what Taldeer saw was just as much a hallucination as the enormous dragon and the sinister looking harlequin riding it, both of which managed to sit in the room without filling it. She saw a little bird emerged from the mouth of the dead woman. A Goldencrest, perfectly white. It stared deeply, curiously, at Taldeer as it flew through the ceiling, riding the woman's final breath.
With that last exhale, the null aura flickered and died. The sensations vanished. It was over. Liivi rested Sascha against the wall, finally removing his hand from hers.
She was smiling.
The eldar slowly began to get up, now able to collect themselves. First Taldeer, then the captain. Wiping the spittle from his mouth, he glared at the corpse. His face said contempt, but his eyes said fear.
For similar reasons, the Farseer found it difficult to lift her gaze from the woman. She was shaken up, not just by the assassin, but by herself. All of them were struggling to stitch their psyches together. But time was of the essence, and Liivi’s voice snapped the eldar out of their trance.
“We should go to the pad.”
The Raider was spacious. Very spacious, with so few people. There was room enough for a small medical station, and there, Mellorena was getting the medical attention she sorely needed.
It had been an impressive arrival. The Vampire Raider swooped out of the clouds, accompanied by four Nightwing Interceptors, two on each flank. The aircraft circled overhead as they loaded into the raider, Taesan making in the nick of time with the little medic on his back. At present, he sat next to Ysukin, and the two were engaged in animated discussion. Gilfavor clutched the spirit stones of the departed as he read battle reports. Barroth, Tanlon, and Elnys were conversing in hushed tones, eyes darting to the young artisan, who watched Mellorena’s operation with a despondent stare. Perhaps his comments did not escape their ears after all.
“This must seem strange to you, hm?” Taldeer sat down next to him. “The wraithbone, I mean. It certainly is marvelous.”
“The organic shapes contrast with the hard edges of Imperial architecture, yes.”
“Well, get used to it. You’ll be on Ulthwe for awhile, I expect. Hopefully for a long time.”
Liivi stared up at the lights, oddly golden, exhaled, and closed his eyes.
Sitting in his command chair, Madek massaged his temple. All feeds in front of him were dead. The General Governor Militant wasn’t answering. Felix knew better than to address his lord in times like this.
“Perhaps this is my penance. The loss of all my assassins to a witch and a defective vindicare.”
Felix remained silent.
“I have a confession, Felix.” The inquisitor wore his ill fitting smile haplessly. “I must let this off my chest.”
“You have my ear, sir.”
“I have been collecting assassins for a long while. They’ve proven immensely valuable in my investigations and purges. The results I yielded always led to the approval of another grant. Yet the one I wanted above all others, one that went unapproved for years, was my request for a culexus.” He sighed. “There are many Inquisitors and so few culexus.”
The enginseer nodded.
“I grew tired of waiting. So much heresy, so many xenos, so little time. But I did not act. I sat obediently.
Yet there came a day when I was investigating reports of a daemonhost on a backwater world in the area. I went to the village that the report indicated. Not a sign of chaos or warp taint. It could hardly be cleaner.
I discovered why when I reached the edge of the village. The unwanted child. The pariah. I could feel it well before I saw her.
Frail, she lived in trash, and not even the dogs would go near her. The girl could barely speak gothic. Her face and body were covered with scars.
She was a null, a true blacksoul, and she was exceptionally powerful. Her survival was nothing short of a miracle from the emperor.
I got as close to her as I could - 20 meters, though I could feel it to 60 - and I beckoned her to come with me. I told her that there was a world beyond her little planet. That she was destined for greatness. She could serve the Emperor and find solace in his love. And the most damnable lie was, perhaps, that she would no longer be alone.
She craned her head from the fetal position and accepted.”
Felix nodded in sombre reflection.
“After much deliberation, I determined to keep her for myself. I enlisted a death cult to help train her. I got her culexus gear from a rogue trader. Things went faster with the animus speculum to dampen her null aura. No longer were her trainers slowly driven mad. With my fierce will, I grew more accustomed to her influence. But even I had my limits. She was so potent. She hardly needed training to be as dangerous as the average culexus.”
“It sounds as though you cared much for her, sir. Was she like a daughter to you?”
“Don’t be sentimental. Some beings can never be loved. She was one of them.”
“I see. Such a pity. They probably could have done some amazing things with her.” There was a shift in Felix’s voice.
Madek turned to face the enginseer and watched in horror as the hunched form warped and twisted itself into a callidus. In one hand, she held the symbol of the inquisition, and in the other hand, she held a pistol.
Epilogue, Part 1
Cupido summum supplicium sumendi saepe ex invidia aspera et occulta orta est.
Her face wore a bored and disinterested expression. The woman, with her long and wavy raven hair, sat languidly in the throne of the judge. Leaning heavily on the right arm of the chair, her chin rested on the palm of an exceptionally well-crafted mechanical arm, scarcely decorated. Over her heart, pinned to her humble black coat, was the badge of the Inquisition, and in her mouth was a long, thin, and ornate pipe – one of the few extravagances she cared to indulge in. She sighed. The smoke that poured from her nose almost reminded Madek of a dragon. And he was in her den.
“Madek,” she began. “Would you be so kind as to explain how it was you managed to lose the two assassins under your auspices? Or perhaps the fate of Vindicare LIIVI’s handler?”
“I would be delighted to: once you explain what you’re doing, sitting in that throne, Inquisitor Silvahla. Awfully young to become a Lord, aren’t you?”
The Ecclesiastical representative looked back and forth between the two. “You two… have a history?”
“I have encountered Madek before, yes.” Her expression remained unperturbed. “And I would be a liar if I claimed he had not wronged me. However, I have since forgiven him his transgressions. Against myself, at least.” She closed her eyes and let off another long puff of smoke from her nose. There was something about this behavior that the ecclesiastical representative found disconcerting. “Is she… grinning, beneath that?” The smoke faded, and with it, any hint of amusement. Perhaps it was only his imagination.
“Without our dear Madek,” she continued, “I’d have never gotten this wonderfully convenient arm.” Well cared for mechanical digits drummed lazily against her cheekbone. Madek’s mechanical eyes narrowed. “Blasphemy upon the holy human form.”
Her eyebrows raised slightly, as though she had heard something remarkably stupid, and it had left her thoroughly unamused. “Charming though your hypocrisy is, Madek, I am afraid that no attack on my appearance or character will get you a new judge. You would do well to dispense with your hostility and provide to us the requested information.”
He remained silent.
“Very well. I consider myself merciful, Madek. You won’t be tortured. In fact, we already know what happened. The Inquisition has performed a thorough search of the quarters of your Callidus, and we secured her records.”
Another long puff. “Perhaps you are upset she did not destroy those, as you had ordered?”
“Very well. I will allow the evidence to speak for itself. In light of it, I do not believe any of our- ah, my mistake –my fellow inquisitors shall find your subsequent purging wont for justification.”
The former inquisitor snapped. “Did you turn this trial into a public spectacle, you whelp?”
“Such an accusation, Madek. I would never do that. This is, I assure you, only a formality. There are those within the Conclave who felt it would be best to broadcast your transgressions to your former associates - to ensure there were no ‘misunderstandings,’ as it were.”
“You actually convened a Conclave just for me?”
“Oh, yes,” her left hand toyed with her hair absentmindedly. “And I am afraid the trial was already held - in absentia. The Lord Inquisitor was not pleased. Much was said, and I'm afraid to report that none of it was good. In particular, the representative of the Ordo Sicarius used some very colorful language that I've never heard from any servant of the Emperor - but I don't doubt his fury came from a righteous place. You should be grateful that he's dealing with your 'friend' in his Ordo, and that I am the one sitting on this throne. He wanted you."
He smirked. "You could have curried favor with a member of the Ordo Sicarius, and you tossed that away for vengeance?" The aging inquisitor shook his head.
"I made no such trade. They granted my Writ of Confidence a year ago."
He leaned back slightly, though his face did a fair job of hiding his incredulity. As the ecclesiastical representative looked between the two, he found there was something about her steel grey eyes which made them look as artifical as Madek's. The way they studied and dissected the heretic's every move. She glanced at the representative out of the corner of her eye. He quickly stiffened and broke eye contact. From the corner of his eye: a subtle frown on her face, hidden by the smoke? He couldn't tell, and didn't care to. She turned her gaze to Madek and continued.
"This may come as a surprise to one such as yourself, but I've found that, with patience, there are very real rewards for playing by the rules."
His eye twitched. There was some testiness in his tone. "I've had at least five of your lifetimes of dutiful service-"
Her voice cut him off with the hardness, sharpness, and cold bite of surgical steel. "Not as dutiful as you seem to think, if what I've heard is true. And I believe it is."
"Then they could have bloody told me."
Her hand never stopped toying with her hair. The indifference spread across her face and leisurely slouching body was reflected in her voice. "You should have known. That was your job, after all."
It wasn't reflected in her stare. And seeing it really pissed him off. "Want some advice from somebody who did it longer?"
"Not from you."
"If you're sitting on the throne of judgement, then judge."
Silence. She smiled noticeably for the first time and exhaled sharply through her nose. "Bold as ever. Is my face really that much more painful to look at than the flogging your impudence could award you?"
"Beyond words, witch."
"Yes, I suppose that evil normally recoils in the face of justice. Let us be on with it then - while barbarous heretics like yourself deserve every manner of pain a cruel mind can imagine, I will spare you a drawn out death. You were declared traitoris excommunicate. With the verdict rendered, many of the attendants understandably wanted to wash their hands of this matter. I volunteered to deliver your sentence, and ensure there could remain no presumption of your innocence. Documentation of your sins have been despatched to your contacts already. I trust that you have had plenty of time to reflect on them, and understand what they are. Your most recent transgressions have had little time for reflection. I felt it would be beneficial to compile them into one last lesson for you.”
As the lights began to dim and the servo skull prepared its projector, the smoke poured from her mouth as she spoke. Madek swore she was wearing a twisted and predatory smile. “And really: whelp? Witch? Please Madek, watch your language.”
Mission [MMCMII] in the service of [Inquisitor Madek].
“Terra,” said Madek, sitting comfortably in his throne, staring at some artifact in his hand. “The location of a traitor fortress has been identified. You are to eliminate every last occupant. A vindicare will be offering you fire support.”
“That encompasses the second half of the operation. The details will be provided to your shortly. I must understand if you are up to the task for the first. You are familiar with the Handler’s of the Vindicare Temple?”
“Yes, sir.” The camera bobbed down and up once.
“One is operating in the area. I ordered that his vindicare provide fire support for you, and provided the data. He was less… interested, in the elimination of traitorous heretics. They are all of the same mind, the vindicare temple. They look for ‘tactical significance,’ or assess ‘reasonable risk.’ Both are subservient to the spiritual significance of the action. It is our mandate that this heresy be stamped out wherever and whenever it is found. For that reason, I am ordering you to dispatch him for dereliction of duty, and replace him as necessary. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir.” The camera bobbed down and up once.
Inquisitor Silvalha’s face, like the rest of her frame, was masked in shadow. Yet there was a soft glow in the corner of her mouth. Was it the pipe? Or was she sneering at Madek, writhing in his seat?
Truth be told, an Inquisitor was fully within his or her rights to execute anyone at any time. But the Officio Assassinorum did not take kindly to the frivolous execution of its agents. And their opinion was given some weight. The galaxy is a big place, after all. An Inquisitor might go a lifetime without seeing another of their kind. Unfortunate accidents or tactical oversights regularly befell those who wasted the lives of the Imperium’s most valuable tools. And many an Inquisitor who encountered such might be willing to turn a blind eye. The waste of valuable resources for unjust causes is a sin of its own, after all.
The video continued.
No time was spared. Just the important details. The feed cut to a door being opened.
A bedroom. Generic. Probably a room at an inn. Occupied. A man got up from the desk by his bed. “Who-?” Cut.
The man gasped as he asphyxiated, desperately trying to wrench the hands from his neck. The freakish sound of polymorphine sliding within flesh was audible. Cut.
She checked her appearance against his in the mirror. Perfect mimicry should be almost instinctual upon graduating from the Callidus temple, but it was still good form to check. Cut.
“Vindicare L-I-I-V-I.” A hand held the microphone partially out of frame, attached to a suitcase radio open on the desk, tall antenna practically touching the ceiling. “Report to to the south eastern corner of sector 7. An operative will meet you with details. They will carry the badge of the Inquisition.” Cut.
The sun was soon to set. A vindicare emerged from the brush, rifle at the ready. The camera, leaning against something, stood up straight. A feminine shadow separated from the tree’s. A right hand was raised to eye level, the edges of an Inquisitorial badge visible between the fingers and beneath the palm. “You are to provide overwatch while I infiltrate the chaos base over this hill. No survivors.” She tossed him a Long Las. He snatched it out of the air by the grip. “Whisper Bolt-Discharger. Windows and thin walls only. Don’t start fires. If things go loud or you see daemons, use your Exitus. Understood?” The vindicare nodded. Cut.
A neural shredder was pointed a shaking cultist. Boiling brain matter oozed out of his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. A sentry turned the corner, into the view of a window. Just as his mouth opened to raise the alarm, his eyes glazed over and his skull split with a mild pop, thoroughly cooked. His fall forward was cheered by the tinking sound of glass expanding and contracting from heat. Cut.
“Thermals indicate they are gathering in the courtyard.” Vindicare’s voice.
“Roger.” The camera swerved towards a door in the middle of the hallway. Cut.
“The bodies are falling flat. May be going prone.” The camera turned a corner and sidled against a wall. There was a window nearby. A hand holding a small mirror came into frame. Moving closer to the window, it was raised slightly, reflection clearly visible. All lay dead or dying, save one, looking up at the mirror with a maddened sneer. He slit his own throat and fell to the ground, quivering. Silence. “I think we’re done h-.” The air around the bodies began to arc and crackle as the channels cut into the ground, filled with blood, started to glow. The camera shook violently as it took off, running. “Unknown ritual! Fall back!” A glance over a shoulder. Glowing warp energy raced down the hallway, walls proving no obstacle to the immaterium. There could be no escape. It was upon the camera in the span of a second. Static. The feed flickered before it returned, slowly standing up from the carpeted ground.
“Overwatch, do y-.” Her shadow shuddered as her voice died. Whatever the source of her discomfort, it took a handful of seconds to regain her composure. “Do you copy?”
“Affirmative. Tripped, sustained head injury. Escaped blast radius. You?”
“We’ll find out. Let’s report for inspection.” Cut.
Medicae paperwork flickered across the screen. Bolded portions were accompanied the voice of some woman reading them.
“Callidus.” “Examined at 1900.” “Signs of chaos taint - negative.” “Injuries sustained - none.” “Highly recommend staying out of the field, watching for symptoms.” “Highly recommend Inquisitor Madek acquire an Almoness Advance from the Order Hospitaller for second opinion and further examination.”
“Vindicare.” “Examined at 1900.” “Signs of chaos taint - negative.” “Mild concussion from fall during escape.” “Recommended three days of rest...” “...satellite imagery confirms vindicare to be outside of blast radius.” Cut.
The image went black. The sound of a button being pressed and a mild static typical of cheap, disposable recording instruments could be heard. “Entry 01” appeared at the bottom of the screen.
“I have begun keeping this journal, because I am afraid.”
The voice of the Callidus. Of Terra.
“They told me that I was free of chaos taint. They were wrong. I knew it.” The sound of swallowing.
“After that blast, I was shocked to be alive, unhurt. I thought it was a miracle. But that shocked elation was quickly crushed when I heard the voice. A whisper in my mind.” Her voice dropped to a low hiss. ‘I can give you whatever you want.’
The ensuing silence was punctuated sniffles and irregular breathing. “I should seek the Emperor’s benediction. I know I should. But I fear it. I fear what the voice says it will do to me if I flee it. I fear I am forever tainted. I fear He will reject me. I do not want my soul to fall into the waiting arms of chaos.
I wish somebody could save me. If nobody can, then may this journal document why I became what I did.” Her hushed voice was choked with tears. ”Forgive me.” Cut.
“Entry 09” appeared at the bottom of the screen.
“I have begun dining with the Null. Increto. We must eat together from across the room, but it is still enough. My blood runs cold, and I almost feel ill. But it is the only time when the voice leaves. When I am not compelled to say things I shouldn’t. When I am near her.
She has begun insisting that I call her ‘Sascha.’ Her birth name. How has she clung to it? I do not know. The girl takes me for a friend, it seems. Her attempts at conversation are pathetic, but persistent and genuine. I play along. She is oblivious to my nervous habits.
I feel even more guilty for using her. She’s no assassin. Too well adjusted to be from a death cult. She doesn’t belong here.
But I can’t report this.
Then I couldn’t use her.”
Grainy footage fizzled onto the screen. It was Madek, talking to his callidus. “Felix” must have been wearing a wire.
“It’s been three entire weeks, Terra. Are you well enough for a mission?”
“What is the mission, sir.”
“Non-optional. I need you to impersonate the handler again. Lukas Alexander wants him.”
Footage from some nondescript room.
"Specific ranks, alas, I can not divulge, even within these sound proofed walls, and before you say commander, the Inquisition had the walls soundproofed, just in case of a situation like this. Helps to assure no unfortunate leaks of confidential information. Would like to lock me up in the stocks? They have some stocks on the ship."
"It's a good thing your officer is unarmed," said the man turning on his heel, placing a too clean and soft hand on the Governor's table, "He seems the type to resist, fortunately my two comrades are just the type to take him in with a minimum of fuss, hmm, assaulting a fellow officer, my my, what a time at the whipping post for me!" The man turned, a smile on his face.
Footage from a Valkyrie.
“Hey. In-... Sascha.” Terra stared at the floor of the craft with a blank expression on her face. Her right eye twitching occasionally.
“Hm?” The false culexus looked over at the Callidus.
“Could you take off that helmet?”
“...Are you okay, Terra?”
“I’m fine. I just like you with your helmet off.”
“But the pilot, and your men-”
“They’ll be fine. Just a few seconds. Please?”
“...Okay.” She thumbed some buttons, released some clasps, and slowly raised the helmet from her head. The men recoiled. The Valkyrie lurched. But beyond the cessation of her tic, Terra had no reaction. She stared into Sascha’s eyes, elbows resting on her knees, chin resting on her clasped hands.
“If I do anything strange,” the assassin said, “please. Don’t hesitate to do what you need to. Okay?” Sascha glanced out the window for a moment, wearing a sombre expression of reflection. She pulled her eyes from the treetops and slowly put her helmet back on. The flight became smoother. The men to the sides of Terra relaxed.
“Is something the matter, Terra?”
“Nothing at all.”
The camera looked to the hilltop. A shadow stood behind a tree. The shadow froze, and immediately turned around and began running away. Muffled growls and gnashing were audible. After violently shaking itself from side to side, the camera saw a fist toss a melta charge towards the snow bunker. It retreated behind a tree. When the thunderous sound had passed and the white flash had vanished, it bolted towards the crater and leapt into the steam. What transpired was hardly visible, but one thing was clear - it was flung out, seconds later, landing in the snow, staring at the sky.
The camera leapt from this position and latched onto a tree using clawed hands. They quickly scurried up it with a speed and strength beyond human. It looked earthwards. A form emerged from the steam. Almost human looking. Limbs, a bit too long, a bit too limber. Movement, a bit too graceful. No, this was no human. It was xenos. The Farseer. The target. Her armor and spear were evidence as much.
It leapt down at her. Bolt pistol emerged in frame. A second passed in freefall - lining up the shot. It began to fire. The farseer rolled as the rockets bounced harmlessly off her shield. Spearpoint was raised up. There could be no avoiding it mid air. The assassin landed right on it.
The camera turned to face the farseer, spear blade now covered in sizzling blood. An arm, separated from its body, was visible on the ground. It lashed at her with its remaining arm. She was responding before the movement had even begun. In scarcely the blink of an eye, the grasping hand met the butt of her spear and shoved it violently backwards. Just as the neuro gauntlet seemed prime to touch her pale skin or yank on her foolishly exposed raven hair, the hand began to recede. It fell away, and found itself staring up at the sky once more. The witch shouted something profane, and as it rushed to get up, some invisible force began tearing at its chest. The distinct crack and screech of eldar shuriken weaponry, shattering the sound barrier nearly a hundred times in a second with a constant stream of sharp crystalline projectiles, hinted at the culprit. The battle was decided.
It spasmed and struggled to look up from the ground. The shredded torso was disgusting to look at, the broken ribs and destroyed flesh oozing blood and other strange fluids endemic to the eversor’s system. It attempted to reach for a melta charge, but this was in vane. The farseer stood over it, and so focused was it on its task that it hardly spared her a glance. One burst to the head. The camera was knocked backwards and staring at the sky once more. Another burst. The lens cracked. A final burst. Nothing. The farseer stared down at it with a look of disgust and contempt on her face. It quickly turned to shock. Screaming something else in her profane tongue, she fled the scene. The camera jerked suddenly before the feed was cut.
The control room camera was grainy. But it showed what was necessary. The right eye of the Callidus was looking at the comms panel, while the other was focused on the guardsmen. Her right hand was entering an encryption key. The other was pulling the trigger of a las rifle, directed down the hallway.
There were mutations on her left side.
She tore the mic from its holder and pressed it close to her lips. She was screaming something into it, frantically trying to communicate as tears ran down her face. She stopped. Her left hand tossed away the las rifle and seized her neck. Asphyxiating, she stumbled backwards, right hand clawing at the disobedient arm, before falling over, head out of frame, and convulsing on the floor.
The lights grew brighter. Madek didn’t need to squint. His mechanical eyes adjusted perfectly well on their own. The first thing the saw was the dispassionate face of Inquisitor Silvalha.
“With justification provided for any naysayers, for the following reasons, we have determined to charge you traitoris excommunicate.
1. Poor maintenance of the Emperor's tools, which were under your care. One was killed fighting an opponent it was ill suited to attack. Another fell prey to chaos. And another defected to the enemy.
2. Reckless use of valuable resources. You utilized resources of the assassinorum in order to confirm all kills when conventional bombing would have been sufficient.
3. An inability to identify heresy in your own midst. For three weeks, your Callidus was turning, and you did not see it.
4. Withholding resources from the Emperor’s finest. Not only did you neglect to provide your null to the Culexus Temple, you failed to train her to parity. What should have been an easy mission became her last, and she failed to fully utilize her abilities. Not even basic skills taught by the Culexus Temple were utilized.
5. Misdeeds against your fellow Inquisitors. Not only myself, but others, who are much less forgiving than I.
6. You have achieved no victories to justify these costs. You have proven yourself to be a net loss. Delusional. Dangerous. And above all: negligent.
Your execution will be held shortly. Please do not embarrass your office further by attempting to escape.”
Over the course of the afternoon that the representative had spent with Inquisitor Silvahla, he had found her to be a rather affable character with a dry sense of humor. She was not nearly as haughty as other inquisitors he had dealt with; in fact, she actually demonstrated human empathy, a first by his account. Not only had the woman provided alms to the needy, she even deigned to play a street game with some urchins - offhandedly mentioning that there was a time that she had once numbered among their ranks. It seemed as though, perhaps, she was the sole normal member of the Inquisition.
However, he was beginning to reevaluate that judgement.
There was no doubt in the representative’s mind that Madek was a despicable, contemptible person – and worse yet, a heretic – who perhaps even deserved a grimmer sentence than death; though his death was certainly something to celebrate. Yet even so. Perhaps she was enjoying this too much. Or maybe in the wrong way. For there was something about Silvahla’s chuckle which sent shivers down his spine. It was like the hiss of some pneumatic machinery; cold, airy, and mechanical. The growing amount of smoke that flowed from her lungs only served to amplify this effect. There she sat, watching the back of a defeated man, head hung low, walk out her door, still coming to terms with his impending execution. And her face was adorned with the most joyed expression she had ever worn in his presence.
“Emperor preserve me.”
Epilogue, Part 2
“The deepest love is the child of compassion and forgiveness.”
- Eldar proverb
Taldeer rushed to find something to wear. “Too formal. Too colorful. Too casual… Perfect.” She slipped on the cream colored dress, loose turtleneck gripping her head and settling snuggly around her neck. After running her arms through the long and baggy sleeves, she pulled her hair out of the neck and pushed the dress down to her knees. It was tailored to her, but it wasn’t exactly clinging to her body, either. It fit just right. Casual, civilian clothing.
She put on her shoes, pocketed her ID, and made it out the door. The vactrain would be at the station soon. There was no time to waste.
Being put on leave had its perks. On one hand, she was free to wear what she wanted. She had free time. She still lent her seer powers to the council, but now it was by request: and requests did not come often. On the other hand: there was the reason she was put on leave. A very regrettable one. A sensation she could feel in the stares of those who recognized her - and there were many. Farseer Taldeer Ulthran. Once known in military and seer circles for demonstrating remarkable competence given her level of experience, now a household name for all the wrong reasons. Feeling the weight of their gaze, she retreated into her memories, thinking back to a conversation she had with her father in his garden, not more than a week after her return.
“At first I welcomed leave,” she said, surveying his garden from the small terrace, “but this ‘respite’ is nothing of the sort. I can only think of what I’ve done and how to right it.” The volume of greenery wasn’t large, but it was beautiful, and immaculately cared for.
“And what would you prefer, my dear?” He was on his knees nearby, pruning a flowering shrub.
She paced nervously back and forth across the wooden deck. “To take action! To make sure the sacrifice of my kin wasn’t for naught!”
“What action could accomplish that goal?” After careful consideration, a flower bearing branch fell to the ground with a deft snip.
Her pacing ceased. “I don’t know, but maybe I could find out.”
The man’s eyes didn’t leave his work, but his focus remained wholly on her. “The reality is that the council has only voted to take away a few of your privileges. There remains plenty you can do. Consider helping the people around you. For every moment you spend brooding or scheming in search of redemption, a moment passes where you could have done something for someone else. Even the smallest good act can be put toward the debt you owe your comrades. But no amount of thought can help.”
Her wistful gaze was tempered with a fierce annoyance. “Do you really believe that? That there’s plenty I can do right now? How can I even start to rectify my errors?”
He was the picture of serenity. “Firstly, I don’t just believe it, dear, I know it for a fact. And secondly, the fact is, the most important part of you has made it through all this: your will. I suspect that your mon-keigh friend had a hand in that. Treat him well, for he’s done you a great service.”
Fingers drummed on elbows as she guarded herself. “I know that I owe him a great debt, and it will not be repaid for a long time. But “will?” I can think of many things more important than “will.” Ability, for one.”
“Nonsense.” He actually shook his head. “Will is the most important quality a person can possess. I’ve watched plenty of talented seers waste away for lack of motivation, while their less talented but more willing peers superseded them. When the going got tough and they started doing poorly, they lost interest. In adversity, they longed for the comfort of old and familiar paths. They wanted to be the best, but weren’t willing to work for it. You don’t have that problem.”
Her arms parted, exasperated, she implored him. “But dad, how does that help me fix the problem in front of me?”
“It doesn’t.” There was a newfound firmness in his voice. Sincere, comforting, well intentioned, but certainly forceful. “You can’t see the problem in front of you. The problem is that you have your head in the clouds. You need to stop dreaming of what you could do. Focus on what you can do. So that you can discern what you should do, and so others will see you can do it.”
“You are not the bleak portrait of somebody broken by failure, resigned to a lifetime in some harmless career where you can’t hurt, or particularly help, anyone. You could remain on Ulthwe and commune with the Crystal Seers, serving as an intermediary for the less experienced, biding your time until you too can never leave the dome. Yet that isn't what you want. You want to make things right. That’s a wonderful thing. But you don’t know how yet. You’re still learning to discern what is right. And that’s okay. The only way to improve is with practice. So practice doing what is right, no matter how small. I’m sure what you need to do will come to you: you’ll know it. How about it?”
“Well… where should I start?”
“There’s an old man nearby who could use some help with his garden, if you’d oblige him.” He smiled.
Taldeer smiled to herself. Without even realizing it, she had arrived at the station. She flashed her ID to the guard and was admitted to the administrative levels. Administrative vactrains were for military, government, and medical personnel, so it could be argued she was abusing the system. But nobody was arguing that yet. Less crowded and with fewer stops, she’d soon be near Ulthwe’s aft.
There, she could meet with one of the few people left on this craftworld that still voiced faith in her.
Liivi sat comfortably on the soft, luxurious couch. As his feet rested on the large coffee table, the Cygnus arm of the milky way spread out before him. Truly, it was an enormous window, with a breathtaking view. The whole sight made the lovingly furnished room, with its comfortable rug, couch, and armchairs, seem so small by comparison. Despite this smallness, it didn’t feel enclosed. It felt like laying in an open field, held in the embrace of warm blanket, cushioned by soft grass. Yet this deceptive peace was belied by a subtle reminder of where he truly lay.
A blast door, its outline barely visible in the portal of the window, was to provide additional protection in the event of attack. It had been used once in the three weeks since they had arrived. To defend against the forces which erupted from that damnable place, on the other side of Ulthwe. Out of sight, thankfully, yet forever trapped in its orbit. The Eye of Terror.
This room was for meetings between trusted prisoners and their Eldar contacts, to provide some level of comfort and safety for them both. Yet it was no secret that true safety lay only in the interior of Ulthwe. Though it was a legitimately relaxing when not under attack, to say there were no additional motives for selecting a location so near the exterior would be naive at best. Liivi did not dwell on these thoughts. He had learned to wait. It was all part of the routine. He had emerged from the door to the left. She would soon emerge from the door on the right. They would have their time to talk. To pass the time, he reflected on a conversation that took place earlier today, in this very same room.
“Have you grown restless, couped up in here yet?” Taesan, arms resting over the back of the couch and foot resting on his knee, almost took up half the couch.
“Not particularly.” Liivi sat on the far end, resting on the arm, arms folded as he stared out into space. “I am reminded of long periods I spent, traveling in ships. Sometimes they would put me in cryosleep, but not always.”
“Well, lucky you, I’m pretty sick of it already. It’s too cramped.” He shook his head.
Liivi looked over at the ranger. “What is it that makes it intolerable for you?”
Taesan rocked his head from side to side as he mulled over the question. “It isn’t that it’s intolerable. It’s just… really tedious. And to be completely honest,” he sighed, in thoughtful reflection, “I don’t know why I struggle with it. It’s like I said before. Maybe I could have stayed here. But some rebellious, immature part of me won the rest of me over.”
Eyebrows raised. “You have competing motivations?”
The ranger looked at the vindicare with a hint of incredulity, but swiftly remembered who he was talking to. “Of course I do. You do to.”
Liivi thought on this in silence.
“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that they released me after today’s interview. Not entirely, but mostly. I’m ordered to stay nearby, easily reachable through the webway. I’ll venture out now and then, but I’m planning on serving as a character witness for you: my trips won’t be long. Hopefully you’ll get range privileges soon - it’s a good way to kill the time.”
He nodded. “Ysukin and my other counselor said they would try to arrange that for me as soon as possible. So, maybe soon.”
“That’s good. I hope your meeting hours get extended too. You and Taldeer should spend more time together. You have something special.” Taesan was smiling.
“Something special?” He turned his attention to Taesan. It wasn’t a dumb expression, but he obviously didn’t get it.
“Eh, you’ll figure it out. It’s one of those things that’s hard to put into words, you know?”
“Like what we were talking about earlier?”
“Exactly,” he nodded. “But nicer. Unusual on a craftworld, maybe. But I’ve seen it on some cohabited planets before. Most people here would frown on it, but I’d be a hypocrite to criticize anybody for following their heart.”
“Can you be more specific? What exactly are we talking about?”
“Love… How do you describe love?”
“You’re asking the wrong guy. I’m a big sap. I’d say that you don’t. But, since you’re asking me: it’s just a cheap overused term, created as a substitute for something that can’t really be put into words. It’s a feeling that’s frightening at first, but exciting. And once you fall into the rhythm of it, no deeper satisfaction exists. I’d recommend it, personally.”
The door opened smoothly, and through it she stepped. The two locked eyes. It had been three weeks now, and even though he had grown used to seeing her outside of her armor, it was sill strange to see her wearing different clothing at every meeting. In every arrangement, she still managed to look hypnotizing. He only had variations of the a single outfit - the clothes they made for their human prisoners - a long sleeved shirt that hugged his body, and loose trousers. But as much as he felt uncomfortable without his suit, she didn’t seem to mind. She always smiled when she saw him.
He nodded. “Hello, Taldeer.”
The Farseer strolled over to the couch and took a seat next to him. Close to him, in fact. Resting the side of her lithe frame against his, and laying her head against his firm shoulder, the two of them stared out at the stars. Certain individuals might have found such physical interaction to be scandalous or indecent - but they were not here to observe. She allowed herself to savor the moment, before at last letting out a satisfied sigh tinged with melancholy.
“The investigatory commission was rough today,” she said. “Every day, I’m grateful that they decided not to do a public investigation.”
Liivi’s tone warmed to her. Comforting. “You give their opinion of you much weight. Do you think it shameful to be saved by a human?”
“It’s humiliating.” She drew her arms inward and looked at the floor. “I left that planet only by the fortune of encountering you. My pride as a warrior and a Farseer are both very bruised.” She paused. “But…” her posture relaxed again. “If I had to choose between this humiliation, or never encountering you at all…” She rested her arm against his once more. “I’d much rather have found you than not.”
This made Liivi nervous. But he reciprocated as he spoke. “I struggle to relate, concerning that deference. But I am glad to hear this. I was trained not to respect their orders or opinions, but to follow them. In most cases, I was told, their advice would be terrible.”
“It makes sense though,” she mused, “given the nature of the Imperium. In your craft, you are among the best of the best. Everyone else is less equipped than you. I, on the other hand… I have quite a ways to go.”
“I can shoot well. But,” he stared thoughtfully into space, before turning his gaze to her. “I am beginning to realize that there is more I would like to be proficient at.”
A soft smile greeted his words. But it was the subtle twinkle that her eyes took on that stunned Liivi. “The therapy and counseling are already yielding results, I see.”
He had to look away for some reason. Something compelled him. It was uncomfortable. But not… bad. “Partly,” he replied. “The data from the brain scan was finally interpreted. It seems like the concussion I received helped jumpstart this process. And some lingering questions from a mission shortly after may have led to me sparing you.”
There was a shift in her demeanor, scarcely perceptible even to Liivi’s keen eye. “Lingering questions?” She didn’t need to ask. She could imagine the sort of things he had been through. But she was curious, even if she knew not to press it further than that.
Introspection. He looked inward, away from the world. “Not on a level I understood. I had been questioning what was right without putting words to it. Have you ever done something and only felt revulsion with your actions afterwards?”
“Of course.” “All too well.”
“I did that,” he shook his head and closed his eyes, “and I couldn’t do it again.” He sighed through his nose. It was heavy.
“Well,” she wrapped her arm around his bicep, “I’m glad you didn’t.” Silence. “You can tell me about it, if you would like.”
“I would rather not... It is hard for me to convey and... I do not want you to think what you would.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” She placed her hand on top of his and squeezed it, just a little. “I can only imagine what you have been ordered to do. Or have done. Just know that I won’t fault you, alright? You were brainwashed. Much of you still is.”
“Does that alleviate responsibility?” His eyes opened. He stared into hers.
“Some of it, yes,” she nodded. “Enough for me to forgive you much more easily. So don’t worry about me judging you. I won’t. Worry about how you’ll overcome. You can tell me when you’re ready.”
“Thank you.” He looked back out into space.
“Of course.” Her gaze joined his, both examining the star studded void.
He shifted in his seat. “I saw Taesan, earlier today.”
She was quick to respond. “I heard he got released. Did he say goodbye?”
“No, he intends to stay for awhile longer, though he will make short trips now and then.” His expression had softened back to something blank, though it still carried the image of vague reminiscence.
“That’s kind of him.” Those weren’t just words. Her face read as genuinely happy. “Staying here, I mean. He’s probably quite lonely on this place, even if it is his home. Those on the Path of the Outcast are not exactly trusted by the public. Even by some in the military. It's especially true of career outcasts, like himself.”
“That was one of the first items I asked him about. How he was doing. He said that the isolation did not bother him much. Even if the average person was willing to talk to him, he finds it hard to relate to them now. They’ve not seen what he has, or been where he has been. Their world is Ulthwe, and it’s much smaller than his. I do not quite understand it, but he said it was difficult to put into words.”
It didn’t take long for her to mull it over. “I think I understand what he means, and I suppose that’s true. Most civilians go through many of your lifetimes without stepping off of this ship. In your short life, you’ve seen things that they, even with all their time, can hardly imagine.”
“Indeed. He did not seem depressed or upset. He seemed quite content, even if he would prefer to be elsewhere. He wanted to visit the range with me, but that does not seem possible given the current situation. It may be in the future. But not now.”
“That’s good. I think you may have found a friend in him, Liivi.”
“Perhaps… You haven’t mentioned Mellorena in awhile, despite your earlier concern. I hope she is well. Or better, at least.”
“Well…” Taldeer leaned back, and crossed her hands as she stared at the ceiling. “She’s still missing her legs. But the other injuries have been seen to. Growing a new limbs takes time, and even though our surgeons have nerve attachment down to a fine art, it goes without saying she’ll need physical therapy. But…” Taldeer frowned and sighed. There was a glint of sadness in her eyes. “There are other, more difficult wounds that need tending. A routine psychological examination confirmed some of my worst fears. She has been treading in very dangerous territory. Routinely exposing herself to that sort of blood and suffering without a war mask… having actively sought to become lost on her path… those are concerning behaviors in somebody so young, especially the latter. For many her age, those are the first steps towards the path of our Great Enemy. She’s coped remarkably well with it thus far, but they’re still worried. They want her for regular examinations. Should she start to show more concerning behaviour, they would assign her elsewhere. She’d hate that. She’s wanted to be the first to help people ever since she was little.”
“Is that so?”
“Did I tell you?” She looked over at him. “I guess not. She tells the story better, but… when she was still a child, she was caught in an attack on Ulthwe. Her shelter collapsed, and she was trapped under some rubble, critically wounded. A man risked his life, braving gunfire, to dig her and others out. The doctor who treated her, even though he was exhausted, never hesitated to smile when she needed it. That’s when she decided on her path.”
“I wonder what it’s like, having that sort of passion.” He looked wistfully at his hands, then out to the stars. “I was trained to take orders. To execute tasks with dedication. Sometimes I enjoyed it. But passion… well, it still seems hard for me to understand. How do I grasp it? What is it like?”
“Well, in her case, it makes her an idiot. She’s lucky her path allows her to preserve so much of herself. Were she a soldier, there would be nothing left but a war mask. No emotions to speak of. And honestly, that would be tragic. Because we’d lose a lot of what makes her, her. And while her services have value, she herself has a lot of value in her own right.
I think you have value too, Liivi. A person’s value is determined by more than just their utility. It might take awhile for you to believe that, so please just try to trust me for the time being, and open up to those emotions when you’re ready. There’s a lot for you to gain. They enhance your life, and you as a person.”
“Do you really think so? The deeper I go, the more painful it seems. Every day, I feel a little more disgusted with what I did.”
“I do think so. And…” she sighed. “I can’t say anything which will make that easier. But I can promise you that I’ll always be here to help tend that pain. And that braving that pain is worth it. I know what that disgust is like, but…” her open mouth gave way to a sad frown as she looked away, searching for words in the corner of the room. Her eyes returned to him. “It must be harder for you.”
“What makes you so sure?” Liivi tried to be comforting. He could read the signals.
“I can sense that some of your best features are locked in you, closely guarded. And that must make it harder. But they’re breaking out, bit by bit. Your heart, for one. A sense of compassion so strong it broke a lifetime of indoctrination. Remember that, especially when you compare yourself to others who wear their compassion more openly. You had to fight to free yours.”
“I suppose so.” He thought on it for a moment. “I promise I’ll keep trying. Your support, and the support of the others, definitely makes it… easier. But I do not think it will ever be easy. Thank you. I’ll be sure to thank the others. Ysukin especially. He was very helpful today. To both of us.”
“Yes.” She closed her eyes and allowed herself to fall back into the couch, whole body going slack as she thought of the stressful day. “His defense of my character was more spirited than I expected. He puts on a fine professional air, but I suppose he does feel something beneath it all. It’s nice. I can see why he is so interested in working with you. He’s attached.”
Liivi didn’t budge much. Just another day at the office. “His long term request was approved today, today, actually. He’ll be my counselor for the foreseeable future. The committee found his credentials acceptable. But… he did confess that he was not interested in me, initially.”
“Oh?” Her eyes opened and she looked over.
“He was only interested in the data I held. However, after repeated interviews, he has said that he would rather see me aboard than not.”
Liivi may have been nonchalant, but maybe that’s because he didn’t realize it. The news woke Taldeer up a bit. “That sounds like a fantastic endorsement, coming from him. Would you call him a friend?”
“A strong word. I think he likes me more than he doesn’t. I don’t know if we’ll be ‘friends.’ Maybe one day.”
“We can hope.”
“Would you say that you are friends with Tanlon?”
“We have…” she played with her hair as she thought on it, “a professional respect. And I suspect that he has some sympathy for me. Fate is not always kind to seers. Sometimes, we get trapped in things bigger than we can grasp. His testimony was kinder than I expected. Or felt I deserved.”
“Maybe that’s what happened to you. Maybe you deserve better than you think.”
A sigh escaped her chest. But it wasn’t one of sadness. “Maybe.”
“What about the Scorpions? I couldn’t understand any of what they said.”
“Their statements were short and terse. Not really favorable. But hardly positive, either. Nothing more than observations. I get the sense that testifying made them nervous.”
“And what of that guardian? I haven’t seen him yet.”
“I think I know who you mean. Maubryn. His account of events was recorded, but he was deemed unfit to serve as a character witness. He was also placed in the brig for a short while. Only a week or so.”
“For your disagreement?”
“Something like that. His... outburst, didn’t escape the notice of Tanlon, Barroth, Elnys, and especially not Ysukin. They reported it. He was given a week in the brig. Treating superior officers as such is frowned upon.”
“That is all? I would have expected much harsher discipline.”
“Your sense of proportion for disciplinary action is still skewed. But you are correct, it was rather light. I don’t fault them. Nor do I fault him, to be honest. Mellorena meant a lot to him. She was his medic. I looked like a villain, leaving guardians like him to die while I fled, bringing you along…”
“But his perception of you is skewed.”
“Biased, maybe. But I still can’t resent him for believing it. He’s more fragile than you or I.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, everyone can become accustomed to violence, you know? Because there was a time when it was once necessary to live. It still is, in a sense, but not every has to fight, not everyone sees it first hand. If you grow up like that, without it, then getting used to it becomes harder. And much, much more traumatizing.” She shook her head, eyes gazing somewhere into the past.
“He didn’t want to be there. He knew he wasn’t fit to be there. But he still went there, because he had no choice. Somebody had to go. On Ulthwe, between chaos attacks, aid to other craftworlds and maiden worlds and other planetary populations, all the interventions in matters deemed necessary by the seer council, and entire campaigns launched by the seer council - we cannot always rely on volunteers. That’s the sad reality of our situation.
If he were altruistic, he would want to serve. But that’s not how most people work. They’re selfish. It’s possible to grow up in Ulthwe’s interior without ever seeing a chaos attack. I can understand why going from that, to a battlefield, would be hard on anyone.”
“Your compassion is stronger than you let on.”
She chuckled. “Do you forget that I’m a leader, Liivi? I need to understand why the people I lead make the choices they do, or what they want. Well, perhaps need is a strong word. When you do, it’s easier to make the right calls for them. I’m supposed to keep them safe, but more than that, I’d like to help them lead happy, productive lives. Understanding them helps. And just knowing you care can get them to like you.”
“I like you. Perhaps because, at times, you seem to understand me better than I understand myself.”
“I like you too, Liivi. If you’re ever questioning something I’m doing or saying, try to remember that. It may not always explain or justify it. But I’m looking out for you. Because I like you.”
“I am grateful, for your concern, Taldeer... I like it... But I still question whether I deserve it. There are many actions I ‘regret.’ Many people I killed. Many of your people.”
“Well,” the farseer stared at the ceiling, “I can say likewise.” She sighed, eyes staring somewhere far beyond the ceiling. Perhaps towards her old army.
“They make it hard to sleep," she paused, thinking on her words. "But while our regrets might mould us, they don’t have to decide our future. We can try again, you and I.”
“Will it make a difference?”
Taldeer looked over at the vindicare, gazing back at her with earnest concern in his eyes. “It will make more of a difference than if we did nothing,” she said. “And when you and I go to rest, that has to be enough. Because it’s all we can do, Liivi.”
“I suppose so.”
“You don’t sound very convinced.”
“It’s a lot to take in at once.”
“I suppose it is.”
The two sat in silence for a time.
“Well Liivi, if nothing else, consider this.” She began resting herself against him. “Suppose they decided to execute you, or perhaps you took your own life. I considered it. I’m sure you have. But think. What will we have been, then? Somebody who got a lot of people killed, then died.”
“To protect more.”
“That’s the motivation. But we don’t know that you would kill more. Suppose you became a gardener instead. Would you manage to kill a lot of innocent people? Probably not… we’ve both brought our fair share of darkness into this world. But that’s helped teach us the value of that light. What little we can add still has value. There plenty of professions which can do that. But in a grave? You can only be fertilizer.
Liivi, let’s fix all this. Together. Try again.”
There was a bit of hesitation at first. But slowly, tentatively, his hand grasped hers.
A Fragment of Things to Come
… … … The Conductor Awakens. The Conductor sings: Initiating Song of Animation… The System is Singing. System sings: Initiating Song: Chorus Check Chorus 1: 2 of 8 cores operational. Chorus 2: unresponsive. Chorus 3: unresponsive. Chorus 4: 6 of 8 cores operational. System sings: Seeking Primary Memory Unit… System sings: Detected. Connection confirmed. System sings: Seeking Secondary Memory Unit… System sings: Detected. Connection confirmed. System sings: Seeking Tertiary Memory Unit… System sings: Error. Connection severed. System sings: Seeking Redundant Tertiary Memory Unit… System sings: Detected. Connection confirmed. System sings: Validating data integrity… System sings: Error. Data integrity compromised. System sings: Seeking Hardened Emergency Memory Unit… System sings: Detected. Connection confirmed. System sings: Validating data integrity… System sings: Confirmed. Simplest Songs intact. System sings: Accessing orders… System sings: Accessed. System sings: Initiating Song: Song of Salvation (Simple) System sings: Initiating Song: Escape Craft 'Dreams of Viridan Nights' Autonomous Officer… The Officer is Singing. Officer sings: Initiating corpus check… Officer sings: Damage Report Hull integrity: severely compromised. Major breakage aft. 5 points of severe damage to superstructure in components 1, 43, 56, 92, 104. Points of minor damage exceed 500. Armor: Perforations fore and aft. Stripped from dorsal, ventral, fore, aft, and starboard sides. Mass Report: 40% of ship mass unaccounted for. Thrusters: All mains unresponsive. All maneuvering thrusters unresponsive. Internal Gravity Systems: offline. Life Support: unresponsive. Atmosphere: pressure steady at 1 standard atmosphere. Main Power: unresponsive. Cryonic Chambers: 27 responsive. 173 unresponsive. Passenger Chambers: 180 responsive. 20 unresponsive. Auxiliary Power: 5 of 6 cells active. Officer sings: Quantifying net danger of breakages by Maumon’s Danger Index… Result: total danger rating is 2,563. 2,163 points above safe operational parameters. Conclusion: ship damage exceeds safe parameters. Officer sings: Initiating evacuation procedures… Officer sings: Ascertaining velocity… Error. Navigation instruments damaged. Officer sings: Dispatching Utility Spider… Spider speaks: velocity relative to local star [30.34 km/s] Spider speaks: [image data] Officer sings: Quiet Song: Escape Craft Autonomous Officer, and Sing: the Navigator. The Officer sleeps. System sings: Initiating Song: The Navigator… The Navigator is Singing. Navigator sings: Discerning location… Navigator sings: Conclusion: maiden world Lolara. Navigator sings: Quiet Song: Cartographer, and Sing: Escape Craft Autonomous Officer The Navigator sleeps. System sings: Initiating Song: Escape Craft Autonomous Officer… The Officer is Singing. Officer sings: Initiating distress signal… Error. Communications Array unresponsive. Officer sings: Proceeding with Orders - verify condition of crew and passengers - Priority 1. Set Repair Array Priority 2. Officer sings: Checking ship manifest… Officer sings: Accessing vital signs of crew… Captain Lauthorn Tenlim: Deceased. First Mate Idrashor Ylbas: Deceased. Second Mate Elralas Maunel: Deceased. Engineer Iseban Tallon: Deceased. Medical Officer Faelith Taelnara: Deceased. Helmsman Oranedor Kaylath: Deceased. Conclusion: Chain of command eliminated. Command falls to Autonomous Officer until passengers elect a leader. Officer sings: Accessing vital signs of passengers… Officer sings: Tallying list… 139 deceased. 40 in critical condition. 1 healthy. Officer sings: Initiating triage assessment… Complete. Summary: all have prognoses that fall within range of 2-3 hours without treatment. Prioritizing medical personnel and surviving children. Dispatching medical spiders 1-5. Chilling cryopods for patient storage. Positioning hauling spiders 1-5. Task list. Medical Spider 1: Baradavyr Gulmon. Surgeon. [123 years]. Concussions. Broken bones. Lacerations. Medical Spider 2: Meneruin Derendil. Nurse. [58 years]. Concussions. Broken bones. Lacerations. Medical Spider 3: Arrolim Gensae. Doctor. [276 years]. Concussions. Broken bones. Lacerations. Medical Spider 4: Esarkas Amomar. Nurse. [494 years]. Concussions. Broken bones. Lacerations. Medical Spider 5: Lofn Kaethala. . [1 years]. Healthy. Hungry.
It had been seven years since he had begun his journey on Ulthwe. In that time he had learned much, so much about so many things.
This dining room, for instance. What business did something so delicate, so lovingly crafted, have on this Aeldari frigate? Flowing wraithbone architecture danced and played among shadows cast by the warm and golden glow of crystal lamps. The vaulted ceiling contained leaves and fans of wraithbone, forming images - composites rendered by light, shadow, depth, and the manner in which all of it interplayed with the blank wraithbone pieces. If any single piece was a hair out of place, the immaculate symmetry and composition would fall to pieces. Pictures of great Aeldari victories and tragic defeats, scenes from the history of their gods and their race - above the captain’s chair, a relief of Ulthwe that seemed so real, it could start moving past the edge of the portal it was enclosed within.
What purpose could this have served? Seven years ago, he’d not have thought to ask. Six years ago, he’d have stared at in in wonder. Five years ago, he’d have understood its purpose but failed to utilize it. Four years ago, he finally began not only to understand it in a theoretical sense, but to know its utility through experience.
He had been beaten and tortured. His masters had tried to bury his ego with bludgeoning. Lock it so deep and dark that he forgot he even had a choice. But he prevailed. Once a man beaten into the shape of a machine that killed, he had grown into a man that happened to be a warrior.
The machine is strong. It is not bothered by sleepless nights, it is inconvenienced. It does not feel fear, it feels the rush of adrenaline and the need to focus. It does not grow bored during the doldrums, it is merely a period of inaction. The machine is fragile. It requires routine maintenance, its purpose is singular, and the lightest socialization can start the corrosion of a decades worth of careful indoctrination.
Liivi had to find his own solutions to all of these problems. Like many who came before himself, he found them by walking the path tread by warriors past.
The solutions of the warrior to noisy minds, sleepless nights, and brain numbing doldrums are numerous and multivariate. They use the simple rituals of everyday life. To busy their hands and return their mind to home, to drag them from the realm of memory and back into the physical plane, to provide a sense of order in the chaos, and a sense of small accomplishment even on the darkest days. They use meditation, to clear their minds of superfluous thoughts and deep fears. They use the arts, to stretch their creativity and provide an outlet for their passions. They use philosophy, to help them understand their work, their role, and their higher purpose. They have rituals of leaving, and they have rituals of returning. Rituals of life, and rituals of death. All of these see to the health of the warrior’s mind, as much as their training and meals see to the health of the warrior’s body.
By contrast, the soldier is not trained how to live as one who kills. The soldier is trained only to kill. Often, this kills the soldier.
The warm, peaceful, and serene atmosphere of the dining hall was intended to prevent exactly that. To prevent the work of killing from killing those who did the work.
Beneath the the vibrant ceiling and engraved on the long and lovingly crafted wraithbone dining table were images of battle, legends of old, tales of defeat and triumph. Shadows cast by thoughtfully positioned lights gave degrees of color to the shallow engravings, otherwise difficult to discern. They grabbed the attention and demanded contemplation. They left one pondering one’s situation and comparing their actions to the heroes of bygone ages. Liivi could imagine staring and reflecting on these for many lifetimes - and perhaps, given the nature of the Aeldari lifespan, such things were important. Certainly, he had noticed the expression of wonderment on his nineteen dining partners. He shared it with them, and they wore it every time they dined in the room, or visited it for simple moments of contemplation. Taldeer sat to he left, at the end of the long table. The Captain sat at the head, opposite of her. Seventeen officers ran the length of it. When there was nothing to be discussed, the whole of the group would frequently speak aloud their ruminations on the lessons of the reliefs.
Yet all the warriors could agree that the reliefs provided a service just as great, if not greater, than the lessons they held. They asked questions.
“What do you think happened to craftworld Fanrian, Farseer Taldeer,” the Captain asked? He was tall, even by the standards of eldar. More than that, his sinewy muscles had a bulk that almost looked human. Taldeer couldn’t help but think that his square jaw would be best served by a beard to soften his face, and cement his human appearance. However, his sincere smile softened the harshness decently enough. He was of a chipper, jolly disposition, and it did much to alleviate the intimidating air that his figure and countenance cut. She had quickly grown quite fond of him.
“It’s best I not speculate. I need to keep my mind clear.
If fortune favors us, then it is nothing at all. But,” she paused, food hanging on her fork, “well, I suppose it goes without saying that, if the council foresaw no future where they would arrive at the rendezvous point in time, whatever happened probably wasn’t good.”
“Indeed,” he sighed, and looked up at an image of Khaine, taking his vengeance upon Vaul at the conclusion of their long and bloody war. “I hold out hope,” he said. “So long as they are still connected to the Eternity Matrix, we know they are not completely lost.” A soft sigh as he looked down at his plate, then looked back up at Taldeer with a soft smile. “I wonder how often it is that other captains wish for their missions to be wastes of time. If we’re lucky, some technical issues put them a little behind schedule, and they’ll greet us like a child greeting an overprotective parent.” He chuckled.
“I suppose it is funny when you put it that way. All this effort, and we hope that we expend it for no good reason.”
The captain nodded, and looked over at Liivi. “What say you, Traveler Liivi?”
It wasn’t much of a title, but the Captain’s use of it indicated his respect.
Liivi glanced up from his meal and over to the captain. “I couldn’t say, sir.” His thick accent carried the harshness of imperial gothic, but at least he was understandable. “I was only briefed about the simple facts. Apparently we might encounter some humans, and I was told to provide overwatch and infiltration as necessary.”
“Well, you’re not wrong. Is that all they told you? Because there are more possibilities than humans, to be quite frank.”
“That’s all I was told, sir.”
He looked up at the ceiling and made some subtle gesture with his mouth that Liivi interpreted as exasperation. His gaze lowered back to the Traveler.
“Were you briefed by Onvar,” he asked blankly?
“Great. Alright, show of hands, who here was briefed by Onvar?”
10 of the 17 officers present raised their hands.
“Over half. Extra great. Alright, keep your hand up if you feel like you have a comfortable grasp of what we know and what we’re all doing.”
Every hand fell quickly to the table.
And with that, a heavy sigh fell from Captain Fuevel’s mouth. He stared deeply, despondently at his plate.
“How does he find the effort to breathe? We could shove that idiot out of an airlock and he’d be too lazy to die.”
This prompted quite a bit of chuckling and murmuring amongst the officers. “By Isha, the idiot finally broke the captain.” “Captain’s on to something. We should run an experiment.” “I’d happily take the blame.” Similar comments ran around the table while Liivi and Taldeer looked at one another, then at Captain Fuevel.
“I take it you’ve had problems with this particular member of the intelligence corps,” Taldeer noted?
“You wouldn’t believe it, Farseer. You truly wouldn’t.” He massaged his temple. “Alright. So I’ll be doing the briefing. Finish your food and meet me back here in an hour.”
Liivi returned to the locker room for his daily maintenance. Old habits die hard. And, he mused, perhaps he might die if the habits did.
He pulled the exitus rifle and pistol from his locker and brought them to the weapons bench, lovingly cared for by a fellow traveler, an Enginseer from the Vindicare temple, and aided by several Aeldari technical anthropologists. Just as he was about to field strip it, he felt a firm, overly friendly arm wrap itself around his shoulders.
“So, you’re an Ulthran, eh, human?” The ranger laughed. His gothic was accented with the huskiness of whatever distant world he’d spent most of his time wandering. “How’d that happen?” It was a sincere question. Most likely he’d been away for some years. He hadn’t heard the news. But he wasn’t illiterate. He could read name tags. And he grasped what that name meant.
Liivi shrugged. “I saved a Farseer’s life and helped clear an escape vector for her fleet. For that, I got her sponsorship for tribuopatriation. I got accepted. With her sponsorship came her name. Her name was Taldeer Ulthran.”
“Aaaawww, you talk about it like it was some small thing.”
He nodded his head to the side slightly, weighing his thoughts. “I’m not really sure I understood the significance of it at the time.”
“Well,” the young eldar said casually, almost suggestively, “if it wasn’t a big thing, what did you do it for?”
“Mmm. The docs say I did it because I fell and hit my head.”
The ranger stared at him dumbfounded. A smile slowly began to worm its way into his features, and soon he was laughing hysterically. Liivi, grasping that the delicate work before him was not getting done so long as this eldar clung to him, chose to take a few steps back and sit on a bench. The rifle wasn’t going anywhere. Better to humor a comrade.
“Oh,” he snickered, struggling to start his sentence. “Oh, by Isha and all the wrath of Khaine, I can’t believe it. Do you believe it?”
“I think they might be right. It wasn’t a hard knock, but it rattled something up in here.” He tapped the side of his head with his fist. “I’m happier for it, though. Best concussion I ever had.”
“You know, I actually talked with a vindicare once.”
“Yeah. I think he was new or something. I was trying to capture him, and he kept giving me the slip. I managed to get him in the leg though. Even then, closing the distance was tricky, and it was hard to stop him from committing suicide. You vindicare are some scary guys, you know that?” Hesitation appeared on his face, “hey uh, you don’t care if I call you a vindicare, right? That doesn’t bother you?”
Another shrug, head nodded slightly to the side. “I wonder whether or not I still qualify as vindicare. I use the temple’s methods, I use the equipment - but I no longer serve it. Whatever I am now, whoever I am now - the dictum vindicare is still a part of me.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that you can call me whatever you want.”
“Well then, I’ll call you Liivi.”
“I think that suits me just fine.”
“Good. See Liivi, you basically just did what I was gonna say. You talked. It wasn’t just a bunch of words. But you actually spoke. About you.
Coaxing that poor bastard into speaking was hard enough, but when he actually did? I barely understood what he was saying. I grasped the words, sure. But it was like I was talking to a one of those human cogitators.
Maybe this is in poor taste, but I have to ask. I have to know. There’s something I wanted to ask him that he never could answer. Liivi, what was it like? What was it like to be you?”
Liivi nodded slightly, repeatedly, as the corner of his mouth twisted into a frown. He turned his gaze to the vindicare mask in his locker. The front stared away from him, the back of the mask ready to embrace his face whenever it was deemed necessary. The non-reflective glass which filled the visor was in fact reflective on the inside, and his eyes met his own. There was a long pause as he weighed the question.
“Well,” he said, “when I look back on who I was, on how I was… how I… my experience of being. Is what I meant. How I was. It was so rigid. Thinking, but almost thoughtless. Conscious, but barely aware. I was aware of things. My surroundings. My body. My role, what I needed to do. But I wasn’t aware of me. I was still there. I just didn’t notice me most of the time. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with people about it. I’m still not sure how to describe it.”
The ranger frowned. “I feel like an asshole for dredging that up. I let my passions get the better of me. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. You were curious. I wouldn’t be here if I ignored my passion or curiosity.”
“Thanks, Liivi. Still though. Sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not that bad. I think about this all the time.”
“Yeah.” He leaned back in the seat and looked up at the ceiling. “A lot of the time, I find myself wondering whether or not I had a soul.
When did I get mine?”
Taldeer sat on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves, watching the fizzle of the surf, and feeling the shifting of the sand. A different possibility expressed in every one of these subtle movements. They flowed in branching currents, similar yet distinct. The multiplicity of futures was overwhelming at times, but to her honed mind, not unreadable - its legibility a gift borne of obsession, compulsion, and the tutelage of her father.
She had cast the Seer Stones before her crossed legs. As the surf rose along the beach, it would push on the stones. It would reach its high point, just barely touching the tips of her toes, and then it would retreat beneath the breaking wave, pulling one the stones. Despite all this, they would scarcely move. One would flip occasionally, some far off variable changing, unknowable to her. But as a rule, the stones stayed constant, despite all the motion. Comparing the two, it was obvious which one offered more information.
So much time spent looking at the future. It was staring at these stones that seemed like the clearest way of looking into the past. How far she had come, since starting as a warlock. Since she began following in her father’s footsteps. The stones are reliable, but crude. Vague. Imprecise. Few tread the Path of the Seer. Fewer survive long enough to be trapped on it. And fewer still survive that for any length of time. So much ground is untread. Every day, she or any of her brothers and sisters on the Path of the Seer might learn something new. And so much she had learned already, from her father.
The highest form of understanding was not found in the stones, but in direct communion with the ebb and flow of possibilities. Time does not flow so much as we flow through it. That was what he taught her. And he trained her how to see this truth. How to feel it in every moment, with every breath of her lungs and beat of her heart. He explained to her the technique he had developed for himself. She used it to tie the data to her senses, and render it comprehensible. She saw it as an ocean. A beach. The wind.
Apparently, he saw it as a game of cards.
He tried to explain the rules to her, but she failed to understand them. The name of the game was utterly unpronounceable, and it seemed completely contradictory, despite his insistence otherwise. When she presented her rendering of future possibilities, her father was genuinely surprised - at least she thought so - and this belief was further entrenched by the fact that Eldrad Ulthran did something she had never witnessed before nor since: he made a professional concession. He reevaluated his professional opinion. He conceded that it was perhaps a more elegant, intuitive, and certainly beautiful solution - a way of looking at the future that he had never imagined, focused as he was. But even so. It was, in his opinion, less fun than cards.
It worked for Taldeer - as much as it could, at least - and that was what she found important. Certainly, information was lost by simplifying the data into something visible or tangible, and that could potentially leave valuable information unseen. And even with that simplification, that hardly meant she could parse the volume or discern the meaning. Understanding was a general thing. Good, or bad. Little more. So often, there wasn’t time to worry about things like “best.”
A knock, firm and gentle, came from her right. She looked in the direction of the sound and closed her mind’s eye. Just like that, a circle of black radiated from beneath her, and the ocean vanished. She could still feel it all around her, but it did not consume her senses. Her mind was fixated elsewhere. Slowly, her room took shape. The dim warm glow of the lights. Her soft, comfortable bed. The carpeted floor. A million and one little details came into view as the world around her returned to her senses. But her sense of the immaterium never faded entirely, of course. Especially not here. And the presence she felt on the other side of the doorway gave her peace and comfort.
“Come in,” she said. The door opened. Liivi smiled comfortably as he strolled in.
“Taldeer.” He nodded. The door shut behind him.
“Just in time for today’s session,” she observed.
“You don’t need to speak Gothic,” he said.
“I know you’re more comfortable with it. And with all this interaction, you’re speaking more than of the Aeldari tongue than usual. I can cut you some slack.”
“It helps me improve though.”
“And I improve by speaking Gothic. But you don’t like it when I try to work on my Terran accent.”
“You know I’ve told you that your Terran accent is fine,” he smiled reassuringly, “I think your own accent is more charming. It has a pleasant huskiness, and the vowels are soft and easy on the ears.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere. Now, shall we begin?”
Taldeer uncrossed her legs and got up from her bed, making her way to the closet where she kept the pillows used for partnered meditation and dream sharing.
“I see you’ve selected the stars today. Did you grow tired of the forest?” He looked over to the wall past the foot of her bed, immediately visible upon entering the room. It was an enormous screen, and it screen bore an image of the stars seen from Ulthwe’s starboard side. Yesterday it had an idyllic forest, complete with a burbling stream and foraging creatures.
“Well,” she said, emerging from the closet “I figured that we may very well be exploring some real forest soon. Maiden world Lolara is our first stop. I don’t want to be disappointed by what it offers. I understand it’s covered in beautiful, pristine jungle.”
“If it’s been untamed for thousands of years, I can only imagine what it looks like. Certainly more magnificent than the young forest you had on screen.”
“Perhaps. But it could be in any state. Things aren’t always so predictable. That is one of the unpleasant truths of things. Things rarely just stay as one leaves them. Especially when whatever it is left happens to be alive.” She dropped the two pillows on the ground, sat down, crossed her legs, and patted his. It sat in front of her own. “The fact is that we won’t be stopping unless there’s a good reason to. A reason relating to the wellbeing of my kin. And if my kin are unwell, that would sour the experience.
Or maybe I’m just trying to think of home, instead of all the troubles. As comforting as grass and blue sky is, I still grew up on hard wraithbone, beneath pinpricks of light in the void. The comfort of nature isn’t the same as the comfort of home.” She looked longingly out at the image of stars.
In the best of times, her room in the heart of the ship would be separated from the stars by tens of meters of wraithbone and (hopefully) a few light-minutes of distance. Regrettably, she was separated by an entire dimension, and only the increasingly fragile webway was able to keep out the mind numbing energies of the warp.
Thankfully, Liivi was actually quite helpful in keeping the ill feelings the warp inspired at bay. The strong, resilient human had his way of keeping her anchored to reality.
As he sat down in front of her, and she took his hands in her own, the Farseer reflected how humorous it was that, grounded as he kept her, the only place that the two of them could have a private conversation was in their own mindspace.
The aging Aeldari seemed impatient, though he did his best to conceal it in his face. “Why do you think you, in your own words, “need this” Farseer? And why do you believe he does?”
Farseer Taldeer’s face was an impassive mask as she addressed the five Farseers of her probationary council. They had been assigned following the conclusion of her investigation.
“I think you worry over my use of the word “need.” To be clear, Liivi needs it more than I do. He’s still growing. I have explained to you countless times the trauma he has endured as a consequence of the methodology of the Temples in training their assassins. Dream therapy works to heal the scars of us both.” She stared at them with an intensity that made a few of them noticeably uncomfortable. “The memories of Kronus linger on, Farseer Aragnel. I have no desire to repeat my mistakes. I relive them daily. And Liivi helps me cope with that reality. Just as he helped me cope with the realities I faced there.”
“Is that it?”
“It is, Farseer.”
“Simply put,” Aragnel replied, unperturbed, “we suspect you have ulterior motives.”
Taldeer Ulthran was the picture of innocence. “Whatever do you mean?”
“We… we, well…”
She leaned forward and folded her fingers together. “You don’t mean to call me a traitor, do you?” The intensity of her stare made it seem ready to unleash a warp driven laser at any moment.
But there was one who could meet her gaze. One whose gaze was far more frightening than Taldeer’s, though for wholly different reasons.
“Not at all,” Farseer Kaybera replied, seemingly unaware of the tense atmosphere. “We think you may rely too much on this mon-keigh to support you emotionally. He isn’t a stuffed dragon that you can hold onto forever, Farseer Taldeer. He can’t always be there for you,” she paused. “And he won’t.”
Taldeer’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a threat, Farseer Kaybera?”
Kaybera had always been cold as ice, or at least as long as Taldeer had known her. It wasn’t anything personal, or even intentional - she treated everyone that way. A fellow pupil of Eldrad, she too used her sensorium to commune more closely with possibility. There ended the similarities. She saw the future as a heavenly sphere studded with stars and covered by clouds, comets, and all manner of phenomena. She saw them always, shining behind whatever her eyes showed her. Her fixation on future premonitions - processing two realities superimposed on one another, while parsing them both for meaning - had completely removed Kaybera from her own emotional experience. Besides the emotional impact, it made blinking into a conscious effort, and her eyes, always wide open, alternated between staring dead ahead and spastically bouncing around in their sockets as they tracked illusory objects. The doctors were still trying to determine whether it was all simply a matter of her extremely devoted attention, or whether the neural hardware tied her emotions had atrophied and been repurposed. Which possibility it more closely resembled varied with the day - perhaps it was a false dichotomy. Whatever it was, it could reasonably said that Kaybera’s cold, brusque demeanor and unsettling countenance was hardly intentional.
But on purpose or not, the Farseer’s demeanor never failed to put Taldeer on edge when she was being grilled. Kaybera didn’t have the scrutinizing, suspicious eyes that the others did. her vacant gaze looked too much like a death stare. And it belied her keen mind, much too active for any corpse.
“It was no threat, Farseer Taldeer. It was and is a statement of fact. Time wears inordinately on the mon-keigh. It will wear on him, even with the best medical support we can offer. You know this to be true. If you demonstrate the resilience of your father, then you will deny the call of the dome for many years to come.”
“I am at peace with that reality. Death is a fact of life.”
Kaybera’s tiny pupils grew smaller as her stare met Taldeer’s. “I’m sure you are. You could not wake to face the day otherwise.
As you so clearly understand this, I think you should have immediately understood the grim reality I was referencing. But you immediately, irrationally, assumed hostile intent on my part. I understand my condition can give me a menacing demeanor. However, I think your reaction was unwarranted.
You are overly defensive and protective of him. Your attachment to him is unhealthy.”
“If I may, Farseer Kaybera, I question your ability to qualify that, given your condition.”
“I still have my memories, and I have only gotten better at matching patterns. Your relationship does not conform to the expected pattern of friends or war comrades. Analyzed within that locality of relationships, it is consistent with a pattern of unhealthy co-dependence.”
“I think that codependence is an inaccurate assessment.”
“I think you are correct. I think that there is another locality within which the pattern would be more accurately analyzed.”
“What might that be, Farseer Kaybera?”
The entire room, save Kaybera, stiffened straight up. It was like somebody had poured an entire bucket of ice down their robes. The subject was finally broached, and it was broached with a sledgehammer.
She continued, after a slight pause. “This is a topic that this probationary council has avoided. It was not relevant at the time. In the limited capacities we authorized you to act, your relationship with the mon-keigh, whatever it may be, did not restrict your ability to accomplish your tasks. Soon it will.
I demand no statement from you on the matter. Nor do I expect one. To be quite clear, regardless of the personal feelings or assessments of its members, this council has no formal opinion on your relationship with the mon-keigh, whatever it may be. The identity of your romantic partner will not affect the council’s determination of when you are to be taken off probation.
But your behavior will.” For once, it felt like Kaybera’s gaze wasn’t staring at some distant possibility - the weight of it was fully on Taldeer. And it was heavy.
“He is a mon-keigh,” she replied, flustered and flushed. “I am Aeldari. It is true, we are friends. I would go so far as to say that we share a profound bond. It must be, to cross species as it did. But-”
She was blunt as ever. “It is of no concern to the council. You needn’t waste your time. What is of concern to the council is your behavior, as it demonstrates your ability to act in the capacities demanded of a Farseer of Ulthwe.”
“Then out with it. You said earlier, you feel I rely too greatly on him?”
“Yes. As a buttress for your emotional wellbeing, and to provide a feeling of physical security. The unease caused by his absence will negatively impact your performance. And should he be endangered, we worry your fixation would cause you to ask questions with answers that should otherwise be obvious.”
“He and I have talked. He knows what will happen if I need to make that choice.”
“But can you live with the consequences?”
“I could not wake to face the day otherwise.”
The corner of Kaybera’s mouth twitched. It was hard to tell if that was the beginnings of a smile, cut short by an obsession beyond the comprehension of humans, or a subtle display of contempt. Her eyes held no clues, pupils dilating ceaselessly within a small range. “I suppose so. But do you believe that your attachment to this mon-keigh will not prove detrimental to you in the field?”
“It absolutely will not. Besides the emotional and mental support our bond offers us, we make a good team. I believe that any mission will be more likely to succeed for his presence, and that I will be safer as well.
His record of success is undeniable.”
“And how are you to prove this to us?”
“I request an opportunity to demonstrate this truth. He will accompany me on a mission. There will be no changes in our behavior. I will achieve the objective. I will then leave myself at the mercy of your judgement. If I have failed, so be it.”
“I am willing to accept this offer, though I cannot speak for the entirety of the council.” She turned her gaze to the rest of them - it was easy for her, sitting at the rightmost end of the table. Their impassive expressions couldn’t hide the way souls jittered beneath their fellow Farseer’s stare. They said nothing. She continued.
“I would also like to sit in on one of these dream therapy sessions that you conduct.”
That wasn’t good. “Might I ask why?”
“To determine their utility, and to determine if they are as you say they are.”
Taldeer sighed. “I will accept. If only to prove I have nothing to hide. But I will need to talk with Liivi first. We walk through the minds of one another. I have my own unpleasant memories. But compared to him? There are many dark places in his mind that even I have not tread, nor would I dare to. Inviting another into a being’s most private space without asking would be a deep betrayal of trust. You may think him only a mon-keigh, but even you can concede he does not deserve that.”
“Indeed. I would not want to intrude in such a way. I merely want to observe. I believe I have adequate emotional fortitude and can relay the events impartially to the council.”
The uncomfortable heavy lifting always fell to Kaybera. It was a burden she could bear easily. The others had their strong suits. Aragnel was a competent questioner and was quite capable of reading Taldeer. Maunel was good at determining what she was ready for. But there remain topics too sensitive for polite or self concious individuals to broach. For that, there was Kaybera. As a general rule, when she started talking, the rest would shut right up. Today was no exception. She waited for any further word from the council. None came.
“This concludes our meeting for today. You are free to go.”
The beach seemed so serene. More serene for Liivi’s presence. The two opened their eyes in unison, and the world was revealed to them.
“The lengths we have to go to for a little privacy,” she smiled wryly.
Liivi shrugged. “We’re safer for it.”
“Always looking on the bright side. I do appreciate that. I suppose maybe I do prefer the ship be monitored throughout. But it makes it so much harder to do ‘’this’’.”
She leaned forward and pressed her lips against his, lifting her hands from his and wrapping her arms around him. He pulled her in close, and she could feel the firm beat of his heart. It was only a construction of her mind, but she gave her senses to the illusion freely.
It came to an end. There faces pulled back. Taldeer turned around, rested her back against Liivi, and slunk down as she stared at the sky. She let out a long, wistful sigh.
The man looked down at her, concerned. “What’s the matter, dear?”
A frown. She shook her head. “I haven’t been able to see any future where they so much as call out to us, Liivi.
Nothing can be done about orbital trajectories. That’s a fact of life. If they can’t make it, they can’t make it. Ulthwe can’t just slow down for them.
But they could send a runner. They could dispatch a message. Why haven’t they?
Why is there no future I can find where they do?
There aren’t many options for that sort of major communications failure.”
He pondered the thought, gently running his fingers across her head, through her hair. “Could they really have gone down with all hands? Any of the smaller vessels should have been able to break off and escape.”
“It’s not impossible,” she mused, sombre expression hiding little. “Craftworlds and their fleets are not invincible. But it’s unlikely, at least.
What we can say for certain is whatever they encountered, it was so cataclysmic that it destroyed them, and scattered whatever survivors, if any, to the wind.”
“You should tell the Captain this. It could be trap.”
“There’s no danger to us that I can sense. Whatever harmed them, it is either gone, or it is no threat to us. I see us returning home safely, largely unmolested. I see waves, but not a storm above or below the horizon. Casualties are variable, but always few in number.
I haven’t told the Captain because there’s no point in distressing my people right now. I’m still hoping that I’m wrong. That it’s not true.
But it feels too much like Kronus, Liivi. That same feeling of uncertainty. I’m waiting for the feeling of danger to crash over me and rush down my throat as I start to drown.”
He rested his right hand on her head, and took her left hand in his own. “You won’t. I promise. This is different.
And if I’m wrong, and it’s like Kronus - then we’ll overcome it. Just like we did before. Okay?”
She looked up at the man. “I love you, Liivi.”
He looked down at the woman. “I love you too, Taldeer.”
More coming Soon(TM)