Most travellers in the webway are cautious. Protected by ancient field generators, guided by complex navigation coders, they tread lightly and hasten through the winding passageways, their eyes always on the distant point of light that signals the return to real space. In the webway a single wrong turn is all that stand between life and things worse than death. Only the Harlequins walk the paths of the webway with familiarity.
The troupe approached its destination with the air of a travelling theatre. The bright costumes of the troupers reacted to the writhing lights of the warp, their patterns shifting and forming lazily across the lithe bodies of the wearers. A Warlock strolled through the group, his mirror-faced mask tilting as he exchanged a few words here and there. The ghostly Death Jesters strode silently, pushing gold and red chests on anti-gravs, like coffins.
Only one figure seemed out of place. She walked alone, behind the Death Jesters, as one who had been allowed to travel with the troupe, but who was not one of them. From beneath the hood of a long cloak she watched as the Harlequins talked with each other, strolled back and forth along the column of troops, their masks bobbing in conversation, an occasional laugh echoing through the warp tunnel.
Without warning, or apparent communication, the mood of the troupe changed. Suddenly there was no laughter, and all of the Harlequins' impassive painted faces were looking about themselves, scanning their surroundings for danger. The Death Jesters stood a little straighter, their hands not far from the grips of the shuriken cannon and bright lances resting on top of the chests they pushed. The masks of the Warlocks darkened, from mirror silver to obsidian black, and one by one they moved from their positions throughout the column to speak with the leader striding ahead of them. He did not look up as they spoke, and dismissed each in turn with a wave of his hand.
When the last Warlock had spoken to him and returned to his position, the leader turned sharply and walked back between his troupers, the rainbow tails of his coat whipping behind him. He stopped beside the cloaked figure and fell into step with her. She turned her face towards him.
"Ardathair?" she asked, addressing the High Avatar formally, as the sudden situation seemed to demand. He nodded slightly, his mask's impassive, androgynous face still staring ahead of him.
"We return to your people shortly," he said, in a voice that seemed to sing as it spoke, "but all is not as it should be. We will be cautious."
"I will be ready," the eldar woman answered.
"Good. You have travelled well with us, Eloshar. If battle awaits, you shall play your part." Without waiting for an answer he was gone, striding ahead. The woman, Eloshar, let the hood fall back from her head and unclipped the jewelled clasp holding the cloak around her shoulders. Free of this hindrance she walked and waited, her hand resting on the hilt of her witchblade.
The runes on the surface of the great upright circle flashed white-hot for an instant, until the power bled out of them and coalesced in the centre, slowly opening a gate to the webway. When the gate was complete, a vertical pool of rippling light, four figures stepped out, the Death Jesters. The long barrels of their weapons swung around, covering the open plain, but they found no targets. Easing slightly then moved to covering positions as the Warlocks emerged, surveying the devastation that was all that remained of the eldar camp. The fires were burning low among the ruins of the buildings, and the local scavengers had long since had their fill of the bodies.
The High Avatar walked slowly to one of the bodies, staring down into its charred face. He turned to Eloshar, who stood behind him.
"It is Novine," he said. Eloshar nodded - she had already recognised the remnants of her mentor's robes. The Avatar left her for a moment, speaking to his Warlocks, then returned.
"The enemy here is long gone, and we must leave." Eloshar looked around the desolate scene for a moment, but knew it would serve no purpose to argue. "Your presence with us has been well-received," continued the Harlequin, "and we will not forget. Call our name from the other side of eternity and we will answer." With that he turned back to the webway gate, followed by his troupers until Eloshar stood alone among the ruins of her craftworld's outpost. She sighed, and turned to the gate sequencer, keying in the position and path runes, finishing with the symbol of her home. When done she placed her hand palm-down on the sequencer, and felt the rumble as the gate came to life again. Slowly it began to turn, the dozens of separate rings making up the giant circle spinning against each other, locking into place one by one.
Eloshar looked again over the battlefield. She knew Novine always travelled with a bodyguard, as was fitting for a craftworld's High Seer. He preferred Scorpions, and on taking a closer look she thought she could make out a green-armoured body half-buried in one of the burned outpost buildings. The wreck of a Walker jutted up from the ground not far away, its bone surface stained red by the blood of its pilot. The destruction was total. She wondered what could have done such a thing, and why. Few things could move without being seen by Seers as powerful as Novine had been. Behind her the gate shuddered as one of the major rings thudded to a halt, bringing the gate one step closer to opening.
A movement among the debris caught Eloshar's attention, and she focussed her senses on it. She could see a shape, indistinct through the heat-haze, but when she stretched out with her mind she found no light to mark the presence of a soul. Drawing her sword she crossed the distance to the nearest burned-out building at a sprint. Carefully, ignoring her insistent mental senses telling her she was alone, she leaned out to try to catch a fleeting glimpse of the intruder.
Now that she was closer she could hear a steady thud-thud as feet hit the ground, as regular as a soldier marching. There was a clang as a piece of wreckage was propelled out of the way, then she saw a gleaming silver body flash for a moment in the gap between two buildings. It was enough, she had recognised the thing: a Necron.
She had begun to draw her shuriken pistol when she was thrown to the ground by a force on her back. She rolled quickly, bringing her sword up to parry the expected blow, but instead she felt another impact on her stomach, as if from a ranged weapon. Expecting to feel pain at any moment she sprang to her feet and dived beneath the half-collapsed roof of the nearest building. Taking a moment to assess the damage, she saw her Seer's robes had been blasted to nothing where she had felt the impacts, but the paper-thin rune armour beneath was unscathed. She offered a quick thanks to Vaul on behalf of the unknown bonesinger who had forged the armour millennia ago, then raised her pistol as she heard the steady mechanical footsteps growing nearer.
The first Necron to round the broken doorway fired as it turned, but it was aiming at head-height. Eloshar, crouched below the beam of its weapon, leapt forward as she fired. The machine's face exploded in a shower of shrapnel, and when Eloshar rose from her crouch and kicked the things' legs from underneath it, it collapsed mindlessly. Knowing the ability of the machines to regenerate damaged parts, she fired her pistol again, directly into the broken faceplate, the shuriken discs shredding the delicate circuitry of the machine's brain beyond repair.
There was a hum from behind the wall of the building, and she leapt out of the doorway, past two Necrons standing beyond, and into the gap between another pair of buildings. Behind her the rumble of a gauss cannon blasted the wall inwards, and the hum rose to a shriek as a hovering Destroyer climbed quickly to regain its target. Over the noise of the vehicle's engines, Eloshar heard the whirr of the webway gate as it locked in another major ring. She leapt from her hiding place and sprinted back towards the gate, dodging from side to side as the air around her rippled with gauss beams.
She passed the spot where Novine's body had lain, now marked only by a charred depression in the ground where a gauss weapon had obliterated the corpse, and drew up short as a new silhouette rose up on the horizon of the hills beyond the gate. Atop a powerful, weapons-laden body a head composed of dozens of rangefinders and targeters turned toward the gate. The thing reared up, easily ten metres tall, each of its six legs crashing into the ground in turn as it lurched forward. A sixth sense warned Eloshar of danger an instant before one of its weapon batteries turned towards her, so that she had already hurled herself aside as a massive, wide beam of gauss energy carved a trench out of the ground where she had stood.
She came to rest against the wall of a low bunker, still burning in one corner. Almost as soon as she had time to look up again she heard the hum of another Destroyer from behind her. She took two steps forward, then turned and leapt up, her hands finding the jagged to of the wall and propelling her up and over. As she let go the wall shattered beneath the gauss beam, but she was already twisting through the air, landing awkwardly on top of the Necron pilot before it could react. Its head turned to her, but with its limbs wired into the vehicle it was powerless to defend itself as Eloshar placed her pistol to its metal skull and fired.
The Destroyer slowly tilted, its engines rising in pitch to a warning wail, but she twisted around on top of the wrecked pilot and took hold of the arm bolted to the control mechanism, pulling it up as the craft's nose began to dip down. At the same time she felt the shape of the machine's controls with her mind, tracing the patterns of electricity that ran through it. Without the presence of the pilot it was a simple matter to override the primitive brain built into the vehicle, so that as she struggled around to face the right way, hauling on the pilot's arm to steer, the gauss cannon began to charge for another volley.
As she began to gain speed and height another Destroyer rose up beside her, its weapon turning to face her. She ducked behind the body of the pilot, but the cannon failed to fire, emitting a shrill whine as it dissipated power. Uncomprehending, the Necron piloting the vehicle attempted to fire again, but again the cannon refused to fire. Her mind being tuned to the myriad electrical signals surging around her, Eloshar could almost feel the conflict between the pilot, which recognised her as an enemy, and the vehicle, which refused to fire on one of its own kind. Sparing no sympathy for the confused machine she leaned towards it and slashed with her witchblade, severing one of the Destroyer's three grav plates. With an abrupt lurch the vehicle vanished, spinning towards the ground.
This small victory was forgotten in an instant as a gauss beam raked across Eloshar's commandeered vehicle, leaving a trail of sparks and broken control wires. She looked up to see the huge Necron war machine readying itself for another shot, turning the barrels of its many cannons to track her flight. Wrestling with the suddenly sluggish vehicle she forced it into a dive, skimming half a metre above the ground, passing the gate on her right side. A formation of Necrons scattered as she passed, too slow to return fire. The war machine's weapons fired, trailing behind her as she veered left and right, carelessly blasting the metal warriors to the ground in its attempt to destroy the rogue vehicle. The sound of the weapons ceased for an instant, and Eloshar pulled the Destroyer straight and caused an electrical charge in the cannon's firing circuitry.
The beam carved into the metal giant, flaying layer after layer of armour from its huge body. After a second an explosion rocked the machine and it lurched sideways, its left legs seeming unsteady. But its motion had caused the gauss beam to lose its focus, and as it again began to bore through a fresh patch of armour the machine swivelled a bank of cannon and returned fire. The Destroyer's cannon took the full force of the blast, sheering off its cradle in a shower of sparks and fragments of metal. Eloshar nearly lost her grip on the slack arm of the pilot, as the mental contact between her mind and the weapon's electrical paths was broken. Acting on instinct alone she regained her grip and pulled sideways, bringing the craft around in a wide arc, almost flying sideways as it banked, its underside towards the war machine.
Again the cannons fired, striking the underside and causing minor explosions all over the craft, but ahead Eloshar could see the gate, its primary ring almost aligned. She pulled the Destroyer up one last time as the gravitic motors began to fail, then let go of the pilot and readied herself for its impact. The gate's last ring aligned, and its runes flashed and melted into the centre, the pool of light opening just as a single Necron rose up in front of the falling Destroyer. The vehicle's damaged prow hit its chest and both vanished through the open gate.
The Destroyer thudded to the ground, but now it was a floor, fashioned from wraithbone, with runes carved over every inch of it. Eloshar leapt away from the vehicle and rolled as she landed, rising to her knees and firing her pistol as the Necron struggled to pull itself from the wrecked Destroyer sliding to a halt not far away. Seeing its head severed she turned back to the gate, breaking into a sprint towards the sequencer, identical to the one she had used to open the webway link. Another shape began to emerge from the light as she slapped her hand down on the prime rune. The gate snapped shut, leaving the barrel of a gauss rifle, and the faceplate of its owner, to clatter to the floor, severed from their owner on the other side of the gate.
Eloshar let out a long breath, closing her eyes as the tension drained from her. When she opened them again she saw the webway portal attendants rising from behind their consoles, eyes wide. A squad of Guardians burst into the chamber, shuriken catapults poised to fire. Seeing only her, and the wreckage of the Destroyer, they calmed and lowered their weapons. A robed figure appeared in the doorway behind them, stepping through the mass of soldiers to approach the dishevelled seer. Eloshar bowed as Farseer Aranthiel removed his helmet and gave her a curious smile.
"Welcome back, Lavair," he said, using her official title, "I see you have had an interesting journey."
A soft chime echoed through Eloshar's quarters. Her quill pen paused in its journey across the page of the thin book she had laid on her lap.
Aranthiel stood silhouetted in the light from the corridor outside. He stepped forward, allowing the doorway to seal behind him, returning the room to its former darkness, lit only by the soft golden glow from a single lamp, and by the dim stars that shone through the oval windows.
"I was told you asked to speak to me," said the Farseer levelly. Eloshar closed her book and stood.
"I did," she answered. "I wish to accept the position of first Lavair of Zaran."
"You are sure?" asked Aranthiel, staring into her eyes, seeing only determination. "You were to spend a further two star cycles under the tuition of High Seer Novine. Even with his loss, it might be best to wait, to allow matters to settle."
"I am sure," said Eloshar as the Farseer paused for her response. "I have spent my entire life training for this. Before I left I had spent three cycles in Novine's care, learning the ways of the High Seer. I have travelled with the Rillietann as tradition demands, and have seen all aspects of our people. I have walked the halls of the great craftworlds, the streets of the dark city, even the lands where the Great Enemy is strong. I am ready."
Aranthiel looked at her for a long while, then turned to stare out into space.
"The Lavair is important to Zaran," he said, matter-of-fact, "moreso than any other craftworld. Leader of the Seers, guide on the paths of fate, keeper of the past and weaver of the future. Welcomer to the sea of time. We have entered troubled times this past cycle. I had come to rely on Novine's counsel a great deal." The Farseer turned to Eloshar, giving her a steady gaze.
"I will rely on you no less," he continued, "and I believe you will guide me well. Now, you will come with me to the great hall. Audience has begun."
"Novine had suspected a force acting against us," Aranthiel explained as he and Eloshar moved along the walkways of the craftworld, towards the dome that held the great hall. "The attack on him is not an isolated incident. Seers from Saim-Hann, Briori, Iybraesil and Vulnath have been ambushed and killed. No trace has been found of the hostile force, but the precision of the attacks suggests this is no coincidence. Your thoughts?"
"An enemy who knows our ways," speculated Eloshar as they entered the hall's dome, "but who seeks no conquest. Not immediately. Weakening Zaran, and the other worlds you spoke of, would have little effect. We are far from Briori, Saim-Hann almost as far again, Vulnath is isolated almost completely. The intention of the attacks was not to weaken the craftworlds. The Seers themselves? Something they possessed, or knew of?"
"That is a probability," said Aranthiel as they came to the ornate wraithbone doors that sealed the great hall. At his touch they swung inward, revealing solid darkness beyond. Both eldar stepped through, into the hall itself, revealed beyond the isolation field in the doorway. Hundreds of Seers and Warlocks were gathered, some in the variety of colours that denoted ranks and proficiency among Zaran's psykers, others present only as holographic images, their skin and robes appearing in icy greys. One of them, the image of a Farseer, was elevated above the rest. Eloshar followed Aranthiel through the crowd and took her position at his side in the inner circle of Farseers, of whom all the others were projections.
"In addition to the attack on Zaran's High Seer," the speaker was saying - the voice suddenly carried clearly as Eloshar took her place, "the warhost of Draeva of Yme-Loc has not returned on schedule." The speaker's image flickered out of sight as he finished talking, and another appeared in his place.
"We recognise the presence of Eloshar of Zaran," the new speaker said, "the Council asks her opinion of the attack on Novine of Zaran. Can she identify the enemy force?"
"Alshad of Ulthwé," whispered Aranthiel, "second to Eldrad." Eloshar nodded and stepped forward, causing her image to spring into being overhead, alongside Alshad's.
"The force that attacked while I was present were the Sleeping Ones, the Necrons," she said, "but I do not believe they were responsible for the attack that had already taken place prior to my arrival."
"You have proof?" demanded the image of Alshad. His tone suggested that he was not interested in anything less than certainty.
"The bodies of the dead were still at the scene of the attack," Eloshar answered. "The Sleeping Ones leave no bodies behind. During the attack I witnessed, the Sleeping Ones eradicated the bodies. Novine's body I myself saw removed from where it had lain. I believe the Sleeping Ones intended to raid our encampment, and had no knowledge of the earlier attack."
"That is your conclusion?" sneered Alshad. Eloshar's eyes flashed at his tone, but she kept her voice level.
"It is," she answered grimly.
"Our conclusion also," said Alshad, "you are dismissed." Eloshar took a step back, reminded of why she disliked craftworlds such as Ulthwé, one of the most conservative among the Council worlds. Their leaders always tended to assume a position of authority, despite the nominal statement that all among the Council were equal.
"The Council elders have deliberated," continued Alshad alone, "and have concluded that these attacks are the work of the Dark Kin. They have the knowledge of our people and ways stipulated by the accepted scenario. Steps will be taken to diminish the power of those responsible for these actions. The runes guide us to the junction of webways at Star's End. There we will defeat the dark ones and put this matter to an end."
The image of Alshad vanished, replaced by another, lesser-ranked Seer. Aranthiel guided Eloshar away from the Circle of Farseers as more questions were raised and answered.
"The Council has decided," he said, by way of asking her opinion.
"So it seems," she answered, "but I am uncomfortable. I wish to spend time studying Novine's books. He was to meet me here, and only sent word of the change to the troupe eight days ago. Do you know the reason for his journey?"
"I do not," confessed Aranthiel, "I suspect he wished to conduct further investigations into some matter before bringing it before the Seers. He always liked to double-check himself."
"Novine asked that you be his successor when the time came," went on the Farseer, "I will have his belongings made available to you. I share your unease, but cannot find good reason to question the Council's decision. Perhaps you can. It is likely you will be required to lead Zaran's warhost soon, when Eldrad returns from his journeys to lead the combined forces of the Council worlds. Use what little time you have well."
Aranthiel watched, still apprehensive, as the tiny figure of Eloshar boarded the sleek transport moored in Zaran's spacedock. On an anti-grav trailing behind her were stacks of books, all written by High Seer Novine during his long life. Aranthiel remembered his conversation with the new High Seer, and the wariness in her expression as he had told her of the Council's decision to begin acting against the Dark Kin immediately.
'There's something here,' she had said, surrounded by the books, 'something Novine was searching for. He didn't seem concerned about Commorragh. He knew he was in danger, but there is no mention here of the Dark Kin, no allusion to their kind at all. I wonder if,' she hesitated, unsure.
'Speak your mind, High Seer,' he had said to her.
'I wonder,' she began again, 'if the Council is acting too fast. No-one, not even Eldrad himself, can be certain of the future. Possibility, probability, but not certainty. I feel we are not acting, only reacting. A reaction can be provoked, by the proper stimulus. I fear some force wants us to behave in this way.'
The hatch of Eloshar's transport locked closed, and the craft slid from its moorings as its energiser sails flickered into being between the projector masts. It left the craftworld Zaran and turned towards the giant webway gate trailing off the world's stern, where a fleet of warships and transports was massing. The transport became a tiny point of light, then vanished as it entered the Eclipse class cruiser Maiden Archer. The lead elements of the fleet turned and vanished into the webway, the cruisers following.
Eloshar sighed, her mind aching from the prolonged effort of absorbing information. Novine's books were all around her, masses of information, but unfamiliar to her. Novine himself would have been able to explain it all, but to Eloshar it was unconnected. She needed to find the key, not just to the books but to the series of events that had led her to war so soon after returning to her home. Somehow, with one more piece of the puzzle, it would all begin to make sense.
She left the book in her hands open, and eased her mind away from it to the psycho-sensitive wraithbone control resting on the desk she sat behind. At her command a starmap of the fleet's destination appeared. Star's End, where five separate branches of the webway converged. The worlds themselves were unremarkable, but the presence of so many gates, over twenty in all, spread through space and over the planets throughout the system, meant that the Dark Kin were never far from it. Despite the multitude of webway connections, the craftworlds avoided the use of the place.
She sighed again, despairing of finding the key before the time for battle had come, and let the book in her hands fall closed. She lay the book down on the desk and crossed her arms over it, laying her head down, resting her eyes and mind from the effort of reading the psychically-imbued pages. Then her eyes opened again. She lifted her head and looked at the book, at its cover. Staring back at her was an intricate design, dozens of disparate strands of gold weaving together to form a coherent pattern. Beauty from disorder, the symbol of the source of all creation, the maiden goddess Lileath.
Thoughts ran through her for a moment, then she quickly activated the wraithbone control again, connecting it to the ship's communications tower. A moment later the image of Farseer Aranthiel appeared among the floating planets and gate markers of the starmap which still hovered in the air.
"The craftworlds you spoke of," Eloshar began without preamble, "Saim-Hann, Briori, Iybraesil, Vulnath. Our own world, and Yme-Loc was also attacked."
"Yes," confirmed Aranthiel, curious, "you have found a connection?"
"All worlds founded in memory of Lileath. Novine's thoughts turned to the goddess during his research, I felt it from the pages of his books. Some aspect of Lileath is important to this, central."
"If that is true," mused Aranthiel aloud.
"If that is true, the Dark Kin are not involved," insisted Eloshar. "I have been to Commorragh and seen their ways. They have no interest in the times before the Fall. And if the attacks were theirs, the Seers would have been captured, not killed. Of all the attacks, in only two cases the victims were not located."
"I will contact the Council, and the Circle of Farseers," began Aranthiel, "but there may be immediate actions to be taken. If you... att..." his voice began to break up, and the image flickered for a second before vanishing. Eloshar muttered a curse and summoned a communication link to the bridge.
"Why have we lost our link to Zaran?" she demanded.
"Long range antennae are non-functional," replied the Warlock commanding the ship, "elements from Ulthwé and Lugannath have begun the assault on the Dark Kin at Star's End. The enemy have disrupted the webway locally, preventing communications. A ship would still be able to make the journey, if Zaran need be contacted..."
"No," interrupted Eloshar, "there is no time." She stared at the starmap, looking not at the webway gates and the gathering forces, but at the worlds themselves. Her eye fell upon one small planet, isolated from the others and the gates. "The Maiden's Garden," she said aloud.
"Your pardon, High Seer?" asked the Warlock.
"Change course," Eloshar ordered, "the world of the Maiden's Garden, seventh from the primary star. Run silent and prepare to land the warhost."
"High Seer?" questioned the Warlock. "We have instructions from the Lugannath fleet commanders to engage the Dark Kin on the third worlds of the secondary..."
"I am overruling those instructions," snapped Eloshar, "change course now and prepare a landing force."
"Yes, High Seer," said the Warlock, concealing his uncertainty at the abrupt change in plans. His image vanished, leaving Eloshar alone.
Through the fierce electrical storms raging in the planet's upper atmosphere, five Vampire transports flew, ignoring the tendrils of lightning raking across their shields. Inside Eloshar stood among her bodyguard of Warlocks, making the final adjustments to her rune armour.
"This world, the Maiden's Garden, has been sacred in Lileath's memory since the Fall," she was explaining to Ashee'a, the bodyguard's Warlock Master, "and Lileath is the single factor connecting all the attacks that have occurred."
"But all the gods have been dead since the Fall," protested Ashee'a, "they live only in our memory now. Why would anyone risk war with the craftworlds over a memory?"
"I don't know, but the answer may be here." Eloshar tapped one of the screens built into the transport bay of her Falcon, which was relaying data from the Vampire's sensors. The flyers were leaving the storms above them now, dipping down into the placid lower atmosphere. A lush green landscape was becoming visible through the clouds, mountains poking through the cover like islands in a white ocean.
"The Maiden's Garden," said Eloshar, half to herself. "Lileath the Prophetess dreamed of a garden in which the souls of the world grew around Her as blossoms of unparalleled beauty. It is said She could trace the fates of all lives simply by touching their petals and tasting their scent. This world was named for Her dream, such was its beauty."
"Our world is founded on the memory of the Prophetess," said Ashee'a, "yet this story I have not heard."
"I travelled with the Rillietann for many cycles," said Eloshar quietly, "and learned many things. Some not so beautiful." A melodic signal rang through the Falcon's transport bay, and the Warlocks took hold of the stabiliser nodes that would protect them from the effects of sudden deceleration.
"Energy sources five shades distant," said the disembodied voice of the Vampire's pilot, echoing through the communications grid, "possible hostile force." Eloshar touched the crystal that connected her thoughts with the grid.
"Disembark at battle readiness. Assume unidentified targets are hostile but do not fire without my order. Lileath be with us."
The five Vampires swung low over the grassy hills leading towards the foothills of a string of mountains, passing so close to the ground that their wake flattened trees and tore the grass from the soil. In perfect synchronisation the five cargo bays opened, allowing the Falcons and Wave Serpents contained within to slip back out of them. The vehicles dipped toward the ground, pulling up at the last moment to skim at top speed towards their distant target. The lead Vampire dipped its wings from side to side in salute, then led its fellows back above the clouds.
Inside the lead Falcon Eloshar was glued to the sensor screens. Ignoring the whine of the vehicle's engines on full thrust she concentrated on the hill ridges as one by one they approached and revealed the valleys beyond. As the flight of vehicles neared the valley where the Vampires had detected energy usage, a strange silhouette appeared on the ridge. Eloshar's mind was already in the sensors' controls, stabilising and enhancing the image until she could make out the shape, the armoured mass atop bulky mechanical legs, adorned with chains and blood-stained cloth, painted with a symbol known and hated by all eldar - Slaanesh.
"Fire," she ordered dispassionately. She retracted her mind from the sensors as a burst of light emerged from her craft, obliterating the dreadnought.
The eldar vehicles crossed the ridge at top speed, letting loose a volley of untargeted firepower into the valley beyond before slowing and picking their targets. A lucky shot clipped the wing of a battle-scarred Doomlord flyer as it was lifting off from a makeshift landing pad, but for the most part the sudden bursts of fire served to throw the unsuspecting enemy into confusion.
Eloshar counted five heavy vehicles, and perhaps thirty human warriors visible. The ramp of her Falcon lowered, allowing the light from a nearby explosion to stain the inner walls of the transport bay red. A shudder ran through the deck as the vehicle slowed drastically, giving Eloshar the seconds she and her bodyguard needed to disembark safely. The Falcon picked up speed and sped away, scattering to the ground a squad of the chaos warriors that had been in front of it. Eloshar led her Warlocks towards them, her witchblade flashing with psychic energy as she cut down the champion while he struggled to his feet. Seeing him unable to defend himself, pawing feebly at the massive wound that dug into his chest, she took a moment to draw together and release a psychic blast, scattering his thoughts without killing him. If he didn't die from his wounds he would be able to provide answers later. Eloshar gently touched the minds of her squad leaders, splitting her thoughts to allow her to observe the battle while fighting her part of it.
'Take prisoners if possible,' she instructed, 'but risk no harm to do so.' She lent a portion of her calm to the Exarch leading the Scorpions, sharpening his vision so that every shot his shuriken pistol fired found the weak joints of the Slaaneshi marines' armour. Her own pistol carved a trench through the thick chest armour of the human she fought, through which her sword easily penetrated, opening his ribcage. She felt a rush of wind above her as the Scorpions' Falcon passed overhead, its turret weapons sending twin bolts of energy to blast open a crude tank that was rumbling in towards the sudden melee. Her mind dipped for a moment into the Falcon's targeters, firing a second bolt from the star cannon which flew through the jagged hole in the tank's side, causing a massive explosion as the vehicle's fuel ignited.
With a last stroke of her witchblade her seventh enemy fell, and she paused to look around with her eyes as well as her mind. The brief battle was over, only eldar standing among the ruins of the camp around the landing pad. Eloshar sensed distress in one of her Warlocks, and found him crouching over the body of a Guardian, whose bleeding body lay crumpled beside the corpse of a champion of some sort. The dying eldar saw Eloshar approach, and glanced at the twisted human who lay beside him.
"I felt him outside my mind," the Guardian whispered, his thoughts supplementing his failing voice, "but I fought him..." He coughed, his mind replaying for an instant the brief, bloody combat. "I fought him," he repeated, "he didn't get into my mind... I fought..." His voice and thoughts faded away, and a moment later his eyes closed. The red gem on his chest began to glow from within, then all of a sudden was alive with light. The Warlock took the spirit stone from the Guardian's body and placed it gently in one of the pouches hanging from his belt.
"He joins his family in the infinity circuit," said the Warlock. Eloshar nodded, searching for and failing to find words that would fit. She had seen enough - more than most eldar - to know that this was an unforgiving galaxy, and there were far worse fates than to find the comfort of the fellow dead in the heart of the craftworld. But that was what her mind knew, not what her heart felt. With a sigh she returned to where her Falcon had set down.
The champion she had felled was waiting, a Warlock by his side. Eloshar could sense the Warlock's mind coiled around the humans, blocking the frantic impulses he was trying to send to his limbs. She sheathed her sword and stood over the chaos champion, steadying her breathing, bringing her mind to as emotionless a state as she could manage. Slowly, eyes closed, she reached out with her thoughts, ignoring the primitive, untrained psychic talents of the champion, touching his mind.
The connection was made. She opened her eyes to see his thoughts writhing before her, a coiled mass of serpents. Their faces, appearing briefly from the mass, hissed and bared their fangs as she watched. She walked forward, ignoring the creatures that lunged at her. Her training guided her, and the razor-sharp teeth passed through her like ghosts. She felt cold where they touched, but no more.
Having passed through the hostility of the champion's consciousness, she let her mind unravel a little, creating thin areas in the walls around her thoughts through which she could probe the human's memories. This was the most difficult part - reading a mind so complex as this was no easy matter, for memories and thoughts bore little resemblance to the clean logic or bright emotions that are apparent to the conscious mind. Here, everything was association, memories scrambled together, linked by seemingly-random pathways of dreams and drives. And in order to find anything the unconscious had to be stimulated, and like as not its answer would be couched in the imagery of the question she asked.
Clearing her mind as much as possible of its own associations, she broadcast an image of the dead Seer she and the Harlequins had found - she dared not name him, for she knew that the flood of emotion and memory from her own mind would wash away any memories she triggered in the human. Instantly she saw the same image, his charred body lying among the smoking ruins of the encampment, but from a different angle, that from which the human had seen him. She gently prodded the memory, listening for any clues that might accompany it. A moment of light and sound washed over her, then the thought faded away.
The human was dying, she sensed. She would have to be more aggressive than she would normally consider. On a carefully measured bolt of strength she pushed a single thought deep into the human's mind, the name Lileath. She knew this would inevitably colour the response with her own thoughts, but there seemed no alternative. Quickly, like a strobelight, she saw images. Herself studying Novine's books. A garden being torn open, the ground bleeding. A face, human, female, alive with pleasure at her own cruelty. A Seer falling to the ground, dying as his mind bled. Herself trapped inside a crystal sphere, her own image reflecting infinitely.
She pulled away, severing the link as she felt the thoughts grow weaker. Few things were as dangerous as being in contact with a mind as it died. Opening her real eyes she saw the champion, blood soaking his chin, cough up a last breath. She took a step back and summoned Ashee'a to her side.
"Something was taken from here," she explained quickly, "he did not know what. An artefact perhaps, something to do with Lileath. The leader of these creatures tore knowledge from the minds of the Seers she killed. What became of the craft that took off as we attacked?"
"The Vampires shadow it now," reported the Warlock. "It has achieved high orbit, but does not seem to be moving further. Possibly it awaits a mothership. It is unaware of the presence of our craft."
"Good. Have the Vampires contact the Maiden Archer. She will watch the chaos craft while we are retrieved. On my orders, the craft is to be destroyed as soon as a mothership arrives, or it attempts to leave orbit."
"It will be done. Are you injured?"
Eloshar had lost her footing for a moment, and now slowly lowered herself to rest on her Falcon's prow wing. She shook her head wearily.
"Being in the human's mind," she explained, "having to break in like that, by force..."
"There was no other way," said Ashee'a.
"That was not all," continued Eloshar, "he had felt that before. Some thing, some creature had been in his mind before. Hurting him for its own pleasure." Ashee'a looked unusually shocked. The joining of minds was a delicate art, and even if properly achieved any pain inflicted would be felt by both minds, not just the victim. A creature that would enjoy such a thing... but such were the servants of the Great Enemy.
Above the storm-cloaked world the single Doomlord transport curved gently in its path, passing into the slim line of true night left by the two stars nearby. Its hull glowed with energy, and tendrils cast about in front of it, leaving ripples in the void where they touched.
Eloshar saw the image of the ship as she re-entered the bridge of the Maiden Archer, and recognised the beginnings of a crude warp gate. Through shielded relay probes her crew was able to observe the chaos transport without risking her own ship. The Warlock commanding the bridge rose from his seat as Eloshar appeared.
"High Seer," he intoned. Eloshar nodded in reply. "Confirmation of our original orders has been received," the Warlock continued, "I have laid in a projection for our return to the strike zone. At your command..."
"No," she interrupted, "we will continue to follow that ship. Its master is the cause of this war."
"High Seer," repeated the Warlock, this time giving the rank an added inflection displaying his disapproval of the current state of affairs, "Eldrad himself has returned and now leads the combined fleets of the Council craftworlds. Our continued absence will surely be noted."
As if on cue a chime rang through the bridge, and the image of an ornately-decorated helmet faded into focus in front of the projection of the Doomlord. Eloshar had never met the eldar who now appeared before her, but any eldar would recognise Eldrad. The helmet turned slightly, fixing Eloshar and then the Warlock with its eyeless gaze.
"The Council demands the return of Maiden Archer and its subsidiary vessels to its fleet," said the ancient Farseer, in a strained voice strangely reminiscent of the crackling of melting ice. "This will be done."
"Farseer," said Eloshar, bowing quickly, "we have encountered forces of the Great Enemy, I believe they are the cause of the attacks upon our Seers. We are now tracking one of their vessels..."
"This is unnecessary," broke in the Farseer emotionlessly, "the runes have been cast correctly. Our vengeance upon the Dark Kin for their actions is at hand. Maiden Archer will return. If you will not order it so your fleet commander will do so in your place." Having delivered this final order to the Warlock, the image vanished abruptly. Eloshar turned to him, meeting his gaze.
"I cannot refuse the order of the Farseer of Ulthwé," he said, a degree of helplessness in his voice. The High Seer held his gaze for a moment, then turned away.
"You will elevate the fleet course to primary status," she said, taking a last glance at the hologram image of the Doomlord, "and rejoin the Council fleet as soon as my transport has cleared its moorings."
"Your transport?" questioned the Warlock, as Eloshar made to leave the bridge. She turned in the doorway.
"Carry out your orders, Warlock," she said.
Eloshar sat at the helm of the transport, quite aware of how alone her tiny ship became as the bulk of the Maiden Archer banked away and accelerated towards system's distant second star. She concentrated on the relayed image of the Doomlord, watching as it completed its tentative formation of the crackling warp gate and slipped out of real space. The gate sealed itself after a moment, but Eloshar knew the traces of the disturbance would remain, perhaps for days. Such a small ship could not carry a very advance warp interface, and human technology was not subtle at the best of times. She carefully programmed her transport's mechanical mind, forming her thoughts into linear structures and imprinting them on the ship's sensitive psychocell databanks. At her command to form a gate to the warp several of the bland nodes on the wraithbone console lit up red and yellow, but she soothed the alarms with a thought and continued.
With a soft series of chimes the transport took control of itself. Eloshar closed her eyes, carefully settling into her seat. Concentration was all-important if she was to follow the chaos ship into the warp. Her ship was capable of tracking the Doomlord almost indefinitely, but if she allowed herself to become distracted she would be dead in seconds. The warp was home to any number of creatures besides the powers of chaos, and an eldar mind shone like a beacon to them. Eloshar slowed her breathing, allowing her thoughts to spread through the space around her as a precaution before falling into a dreamless trance. Unseen by her, a warp gate formed ahead of her transport, remaining in place long enough for the ship to pass through before collapsing in on itself.
Her first impulse was that something in the shape of things was wrong. She awoke and acted by instinct, standing and turning in one motion, her pistol aimed towards the source of the wrongness. As her mind caught up with events she realised that a point of energy was cutting through the door leading into the rear of the transport. The slow dripping of the molten wraithbone was what had changed the shape of the helm chamber, and alerted her sleeping senses. But she was not dead, so she could not still be in the warp - but if that was so, if her ship had followed its target back to real space, why had it not awoken her? She pushed such thoughts from her mind as the energy completed its circle in the doorway, vanishing as the disc cut from the door fell inwards.
The first thing that emerged from the smoke-wreathed rear compartment was the bulky form of a human marine, clearly one of the Great Enemy's warriors. Eloshar's pistol cut it down quickly, a line of shuriken discs vanishing beneath the jaw of the helmet carved into its helmet. Another was behind it, moving quickly, and the fall of its comrade gave it enough time to react to the eldar's presence, so her pistol merely carved a furrow in its massively-armoured shoulder. Eloshar swung her sword one-handed, putting enough psychic force behind the blow to shatter the human's mind as the blade splintered the rough alloys of its armour. A third appeared, ducking below the second swing of Eloshar's sword, and as she let fly a volley of shuriken into its chest a fourth was appearing.
Stop. The word came not as sound but as a thought with the force of a meteor strike. Eloshar felt her limbs suddenly heavy, crushed beneath a massive weight that, instead of down, pushed her into immobility. She recognised, behind the suffocating effect, the strands of psychic power, and relaxed her limbs as her mind fought the force. With some effort she found the power lifting, and regained control of her body. The human marines around her had no such luck, each held utterly immobile by the power.
"I know you can resist me," said a human voice, female, with a graceful singing tone that almost made the cumbersome syllables of the Gothic language sound lyrical, "but not for long. Eventually you would fall beneath the crude fists of these creatures, and that is no fitting end for such a one as you. And I have a much more pleasing use for you." A slender shape emerged from the smoke curling through the torn doorway. She was distinctly human, wider in the shoulders and hips than an eldar, as most humans were, but she walked with a self-assured grace that her species tended to lack. She carried no obvious weapons, and what little she wore left no reasonable place to conceal any, but Eloshar knew instantly that she was far more dangerous than the armoured warriors around her. Around her body, stroking and caressing, the power of the Great Enemy swirled.
Eloshar watched intently, remembering every detail, as she was propelled through the chambers of the Slaaneshi human's warship. It bore resemblance to the human Imperial ships that she had travelled on at times, but in every corner the warping presence of chaos made itself known. The blinking lights set into relays and access panels seemed to follow passers-by like eyes, and the hum of the ship's engines, rather than a steady tone, was the dull throbbing of a heartbeat. Scattered glimpses through portholes told the eldar that her captors were somewhere in the webway, but there seemed to be a landscape underneath. Eloshar had glimpses of rolling hills, bright forests, glowing in sunlight even though there was no sun in the webway's sky. The marines at her sides held her arms firmly, and she could still see the traces of psychic energy floating around her, keeping their distance as long as she remained docile. She held herself in check, ignoring the miasma of darkness spread by her captors' minds, and occupied herself with analysing the pattern of the power, remembering every fluctuation in its form that might prove useful when the time came to fight it.
She was eventually brought to a cavernous chamber, evidently once some sort of cargo bay, but now modified in a strange way. A vast circle of the deck was missing, and below, through thin films of cloud, the impossible landscape was visible. Tendrils of energy, visible only to the psychic mind, were flowing up through the hole, power being released from the land, or drawn out of it. Above the hole, suspended in a network of scaffolds and gravitic supports, was a great crystal which was the recipient of the power being drawn up. Deep within it glowed a soft silver-blue light, like a moon that had discovered how to shine like a star.
Eloshar was brought to a gantry leading out over the hole, encircling the massive crystal. The sorceress led the way, sprinting ahead of Eloshar and the marines to press herself onto the smooth surface of the crystal. She turned and beckoned her warriors forward, and they propelled Eloshar before them to stand in front of her.
"Step back," she ordered the marines. They left Eloshar and returned to the far end of the gantry, where they took up guard positions. The human smiled at them, then turned her attention to Eloshar.
"Forgive me for my rudeness," she said lightly, "I haven't introduced myself. I am Sylelle, and I'm sure you have already deduced that my Mistress is your 'Great Enemy'. And you are Eloshar. I know you, you see," she explained with a chuckle, "I have seen you many times before." She held up a hand, a halo of blue light playing around her head as she concentrated her powers. A long, thin object detached itself from the far wall of the chamber and flew to her. As she caught it, Eloshar recognised the weapon - the singing spear that had belonged to Novine. Her mentor's spear was a work of art as well as a weapon, its blade carved with intricate patterns, the tiny gems set into its handle sparkling as always. The bone-white rune of the Lavair, the symbol of Novine's status, swung around on its tether as Sylelle brought the spear down, its base denting the gantry floor as it made contact.
"The owner of this little trinket knew you," the human went on, "better than you realised. Did you know he thought of you as his daughter? He would never have admitted such affection to anyone, not even to you if he'd had the chance. I had to push very deep to learn all his secrets."
A flare of anger arose in Eloshar quicker than she could suppress it, and she knew from the human's sudden wry smile that she had noticed it. The eldar fought down the instincts that told her to strike out at the grinning sorceress.
"Oh yes, dear Seer," she continued, "even the secrets he kept from you. Look below you. Would you?" Eloshar kept her gaze on the human. "Oh, if you must," Sylelle sighed. "What you have already seen down there is the resting place of the dreamer. My Mistress consumed all your gods upon her birth, save for the beast Khaine who fled into his prisons aboard your craftworlds. And in your stories and songs you champion the Laughing God who escaped, and defied Her will with his tiresome games. But a third one escaped, though no-one knew of it then. The dreamer, prophetess Lileath, left her dreams in this place as she awaited her death. And here we are. You are fortunate, dear one, you alone will see the end of your god, as this last fragment of her is taken by Slaanesh."
"You do not have that power," replied Eloshar calmly. Sylelle laughed.
"So sure!" she exclaimed, "but so mistaken. My Mistress knows all the ways of your race, from which She was born. You can hold no secrets from Her, or me. One by one I have given my Mistress the greatest of Lileath's descendants, the few who walked among you with the spirit of the prophetess within them. Your mentor was the crucial piece of the puzzle, the one who led me here. Now there is only one more. You, lovely creature, are the last descendant of the prophetess, the last mortal truly of her line. Soon I will have your power, and with it the means to return Lileath to her rightful owner."
"I would sooner die," said Eloshar, mentally probing the landscape beneath the ship. The vague impressions she received confirmed her fears - there were echoes of the Prophetess there, a fragment of the once all-seeing goddess, and it was weakening.
"You will do both," answered Sylelle. "But you needn't die as the others did, raging against their fate. You," she continued, stepping closer to Eloshar, "you could accept what must be. There would be so much more pleasure for both of us." She leaned against the eldar, a hand around her back to stop her from retreating, and whispered into her ear.
"I've not had the opportunity to have a Seer until now. You will be my first." Her face turned, her lips almost touching Eloshar's cheek, edging closer to her lips. "And I know you so well..."
The High Seer's patience reached its end. A psychic blow cracked against the human sorceress, sending her staggering backwards, a hand to her face. When she looked up her cheek was red from the contact, and a drop of blood appeared on her lip, which quickly vanished as her tongue darted out to taste it. The human stared for a moment, anger and amusement fighting for control, then a cruel smile faded onto her face.
"You tempt me," she purred, "but now is not the time. We will have all the time we need for such pleasures, soon enough." With a wave she summoned her marines, who took Eloshar's arms and led her away from the crystal and the sorceress.
Eloshar's mind tested the metal of the lock that held her wrists above her head in the ship's containment section. When the time came for her to move, the chains would not pose an obstacle. The two marines watching her from the other side of the room, bolters aimed, would require more delicate handling. The Seer watched their thoughts, waiting for an opening, but for all the corruption swirling in their minds they were well-trained soldiers, always watchful. Every time she touched a bundle of distraction, layers of training and indoctrination smoothed out the mind again. She wondered if a more forceful attack would be required, but decided to persist a little longer with the subtle method.
A few minutes into the silent mind game the sorceress appeared, followed by a champion, a bodyguard perhaps. Eloshar's attention fixed on her instantly, although she kept her eyes unfocussed, staring vaguely at the opposite wall. The human approached her, but stopped within a few feet, silently contemplating her captive. Eloshar despaired of quickly unravelling her complex thoughts, and decided on a more direct approach.
"You've come to watch me die?" she asked, without emotion. Sylelle shook her head.
"It's not time for that yet. Later."
"Yet here you are."
"Here I am," the sorceress answered. She looked away. "You do know," she went on, "I can see the thoughts of all my servants. All the warring hopes and despairs, the dreams and drives. I tire of them quickly. I can't read you," she added, looking back at Eloshar.
"Disappointed?" asked the Seer, hoping to bait her captor. An emotional mind became easier to steer.
"No," the human answered slowly, "I had hoped it would be like this. All the moments and memories I saw of you, practically your entire life until you left your home to travel with the Harlequins, as Novine did long before you. I remember his journeys. I imagine yours were as eye-opening. But in all that time he never tried to read your thoughts. I acquired memories of a person I could not read - I know you, yet you are a mystery. I don't understand you."
"I imagine there are many things you don't understand," retorted Eloshar. "The Great Enemy's servants rarely see beyond their own minds." The anger she had expected from the human never arrived.
"True," she said, "too true. The galaxy holds wonders beyond the dreams of mortal minds. You have seen some, haven't you? In the strange places you have walked. Tell me you never felt the glory of creation stir in your soul, as you looked upon them. Have you never seen the gardens of the gods, and known what is it to be above mortals simply by existing in such places, seeing such sights... feeling such passions?"
"Ironic that you should speak of gods," said Eloshar, putting some venom in her voice to derail the human's monologue.
"Hah," she laughed back, "your precious Lileath. But think, what could she offer? Until this day you knew her as a memory, a fragment of the distant past consumed by your Great Enemy. And when my work in this place is done, that will be true. My Mistress will be served to Her content, and your people will know nothing of what has happened here."
"And I will be dead," replied Eloshar, "so why do you wait?" Sylelle turned away again, and almost seemed hesitant.
"I had not been entirely truthful," she said after a moment. "With more effort, and more risk on my part, the consumption of the prophetess could be achieved in any case... without your death. I may, perhaps, have been too hasty in deciding that. On reflection, I would enjoy your mystery."
"You can't be serious," Eloshar retorted flatly.
"Of course you resist," the sorceress mused, half to herself, "as did I to the notion, but think for a moment. Why did you travel so far from your home? To the ends of the webway, to the dark city, perhaps even to the Eye of Terror itself? Simply because of the tradition of your world? The Lavair must see and know all? No, I think you are not so docile as to follow such a path simply because it was demanded of you. You wanted to know what was out there, beyond the walls of your home. You wanted to see the limits of space, time and soul. Unknowing, you were searching for me. You were an explorer, constantly searching for new horizons to peer over, new unknowns to chart. And here I am, the other side of every threshold you sought to cross. And like you, I seek a new mystery. Perhaps we could both find what we seek."
"We are nothing alike," answered Eloshar, ignoring the slight vein of truth she heard - she remembered all too well the regret that consumed her as her travels came to an end, and she began the long journey home.
"I thought the same, once," replied Sylelle. She cast a fleeting glance at the Seer, then turned and walked slowly to her champion.
"Stay," she said, quietly enough that Eloshar only heard the words through the skills the Mimes had taught her, "keep her safe for me." She turned back to Eloshar for a moment.
"I must see to your prophetess," she called, "but when that is done we will have more time." She left the room, the champion and the two warriors remaining to stand guard.
Eloshar thought quickly. The warriors remained alert as they had been trained, but she saw discord in the champion's thoughts. Closing her eyes and seeing with her mind alone, she found the patterns of anger, jealousy, hatred - strong emotions beneath the surface, more powerful than any discipline the champion had acquired through his training. She opened her eyes again and looked carefully at the champion's twisted face, confirming her suspicion - this human was jealous of his mistress' interest in her captive. To the Harlequins, such feelings were as good as levers in the minds of their enemies - they turned people into puppets, for those who knew which lever to pull. They had taught her enough.
The human would be suspicious of a direct approach, Eloshar mused, but perhaps there was a way. She shifted her weight a little, pulling on her chains, while reaching out tentatively to enhance the champion's hatred towards her. Hate was attractive - he would not be content to let her suffer alone when he thought he could hurt her more. True to form his milky eyes settled on her, and a frown crossed his face. He took a step closer, his gaze rising to the chains around her wrists.
"Not used to being bound, elf?" he sneered. Eloshar seemed to hesitate for a moment, then spoke in a soft voice, a whisper that she raised just enough to carry the sound to him, as if she had meant the words for herself only.
"Where is she?" The human's eyes widened in surprise.
"You think she'll let you go? You're just a plaything, elf, nothing more. She'll tire of you quickly enough."
"So you think," Eloshar shot back, appearing angry, and perhaps irrational, "what would you know? You think I can't handle her?"
"An eldar? You live without pleasure, on your soulless craftworlds. You know nothing of indulgence." He was confidant now, ready to be made angry. Eloshar laughed at him, and saw it strike him like a fist.
"How naive," she laughed, "you truly believe that's all? That we follow our path by day and rest easy by night? You know nothing beyond what we permit you to know. I could tell you, human, of the pleasures I have lived. You think this," she rattled her chains theatrically, "hurts me? This is a poor shadow of the luxuries I have at my disposal when the mood takes me. But what would be the point of telling you, you're nothing but a child. You think you know pleasure," she sneered, then finished with a sigh. "I'm bored. Go fetch your mistress." She smiled inwardly as the champion quickly crossed the distance between then, holstering his pistol and removing his gauntlets.
"You don't deserve her," he growled into her face.
"If you're the best she has had," Eloshar replied, as if unconcerned, "she'll be thankful for me. Now go away, child."
At this last insult the human's patience came to an end. He reached up to her shoulder, taking a handful of her robe as if to tear it away. As his skin brushed her neck she used the contact to jump into his mind, firing a whirlwind of fear and pain into his thoughts. He screamed, as the links of Eloshar's chains broke with tiny flashes of psychic energy. Both the warriors standing guard had raised their weapons, but the first fired over Eloshar's head as she ducked, while the second, who had been slower to react and had seen her drop, shot the champion in the back as she pulled his writhing body up to shield herself. She pulled his pistol, ignoring the feeble attempts he made to claw at her as he died, and aimed a shot at one of her guards, guiding the primitive shell to the neck joint in the human's armour. The second warrior fired again, blasting apart the champion's head. Ignoring the spray of thick, bloody flesh, Eloshar calmly aimed and fired a second shot. The shot found its mark, and the human fell beside his comrade.
Eloshar quickly crossed to the doorway and listened, hearing shouting, but none very close. She stepped through, finding the corridor outside empty but for a rack of weapons of all sorts, presumably taken from various captives. Her sword glittered, then leapt to her as she stretched out a hand towards it. More warriors were about to round the corner to her left - she fired a single shot from the pistol, hitting a conduit that gushed steam, cutting visibility in half, then tossed the weapon towards the cloud and reached for her own shuriken pistol, which threw off the assorted smallarms it had been buried under to fly to her hand. She caught it and fired at the bolt pistol clattering across the smoke-shrouded floor, noting with satisfaction the screams as the weapon's ammunition detonated with a series of deafening cracks. She quickly vanished in the opposite direction.
She had learned, while hunting shade lizards on an Exodite world, how to track prey by scent, and she found the sorceress Sylelle particularly easy to follow - her sharp, exotic perfume was in sharp contrast to the sickly incense and assorted mechanical smells put out by the rest of the ship's inhabitants. Without having to stop or guess her way she quickly left the scene of her escape, and had only to hide from unknowing wanderers in the ship's corridors as she made her way closer to her target. Only once did she stop, when she found a communications junction. She took a moment to disassemble the unit and rewire it, managing to encode a weak signal in the power flowing through the ship's primitive, mechanical comms network. It was a faint hope, but if the ship was already in the webway, perhaps someone would hear her call.
Her hunt led her to a doorway leading into the chamber she had seen before, which she now found guarded by a pair of warriors. Glimpses of the chamber beyond them told her there were many more inside, and it occurred to her than a direct assault, alone, would achieve nothing. But she knew how the followers of the Great Enemy thought. She stepped into full view of the guards and walked towards them. Both aimed their weapons at her, but she flipped forward as they fired, over the bolts, landing close enough to swipe both guns out of their hands with her sword as she landed.
"Take me to her," she demanded. The warriors stopped, both in the act of reaching for the holstered pistols on their belts, and looked at her in surprise. She regarded them impatiently.
"Bring her inside," echoed Sylelle's voice from beyond the doorway. The warriors hesitated, confused, but Eloshar simply pushed them out of the way and strode past them. The expansive bay was as she remembered it, but the great crystal now glowed brighter than ever. Never pausing, Eloshar walked straight past the group of warriors that had gathered to stop her, her eyes on the sorceress. Sylelle watched her with unconcealed amusement.
"Oh, you are entertaining," she said, "but do you mean to entertain me now? Or do you challenge me?" She raised her arms, now adorned by a pair of jewelled blades mounted on ornate golden gauntlets. "I see you have already dealt with Endros," she continued, gesturing to the smeared blood drying on Eloshar's face and robes, "but I would have do as much myself soon. He was so tiring."
Eloshar wasted no time, crossing the walkway out to the crystal's gantry at a run, cartwheeling the last few steps to bring her sword slashing down at the human's head. Sylelle blocked its swing with the claws on her arms, nearly jerking the sword from Eloshar's hand. The human dodged sideways to avoid a stream of shuriken discs, then slashed at her opponent, causing Eloshar to jump back out of range.
"So," the sorceress hissed, "is this the way it must be? Is your goddess so important to you that you would give your life for her, just when you had found everything you wanted?"
"You're nothing I want," retorted Eloshar.
"I know you're lying," Sylelle taunted, "I can see it in your heart. But you've been with your kind for too long, you've caught their disease of self-denial." She blocked Eloshar's sword again. The Seer emptied the last of her pistol's ammunition to give herself time to recover, then tossed the useless weapon away, holding her witchblade two-handed.
"This is how it must be," she said as the human closed in on her. "You are everything I hate, and all that my people stand against."
"I am everything you want," smiled the sorceress, "everything your people will never be able to give you. You know that, don't you?"
Eloshar dodged as Sylelle attacked, her witchblade striking sparks against the human's lightning claws. Even holding the sword two-handed she was at a disadvantage, every swing she tried was parried by one claw, while she was forced to evade the other.
"That's why you hate me, isn't it?" Sylelle continued, shouting to make herself heard over the cheering of her warriors at the edges of the chamber. With a sudden burst of anger she struck Eloshar's sword aside, causing the seer to lose her grip with one hand. Her other, sword in hand, was pinned against the great crystal by Sylelle's claw. The sorceress caught her free arm as it swung at her.
"You hate the part of yourself that wants me," she whispered, her face suddenly close, "you hate that you want me to show you what I know. You want me to teach you the secrets..."
Sylelle leaned slowly closer, but before she could make contact the walkway shuddered, the deep rumbling of an explosion running through the ship's hull. Alarms began to blare, red lights flashing in the corners of the chamber. A second blast, much closer, sent a hail of shrapnel through the open doorway leading to the rest of the ship.
"You did this," said Sylelle, a statement rather than a question.
"I brought help," answered Eloshar. "Perhaps you can beat me, but not the Harlequins."
At the name, Sylelle's eyes widened and darted to the doorway. Blurred, indistinct shapes were moving beyond it, and as she watched the first entered, resolving into a brightly-coloured Harlequin just long enough to behead one of her bodyguard, then leaping forward, dissolving again into a cloud of colours. Sylelle turned her attention back to Eloshar, releasing her hand to grip her throat, not quite choking her.
"Slaanesh wants your prophetess," she hissed quietly. Eloshar's free hand found Sylelle's throat, pushing her back.
"Get used to disappointment," she hissed back. The pair increased the pressure they exerted on each other, their breathing becoming laboured and heavy.
"Slaanesh always gets what she wants," panted Sylelle. With a howl she lifted Eloshar from her feet and drove her to the deck of the walkway. Her witchblade clattered away, coming to rest on the edge of the deck. The Seer ignored it, curling her legs underneath her to push into Sylelle's body, throwing her away. The sorceress landed heavily on her back, but rolled and spun to her feet, her hand finding the handle of Eloshar's sword.
"Child!" Eloshar half-turned, hearing a familiar voice call out to her. Across the gulf between the walkway and the rest of the ship, the Harlequin Avatar stood, his multi-coloured costume red with human blood. In a swift motion he threw a weapon towards her before blurring back into the battle. Eloshar reached out automatically, and found herself holding the shaft of Novine's spear. The rune of the Lavair rested comfortably over her wrist as she turned the weapon to face Sylelle.
"Well then," the human said softly, "do it. You can kill me. You have the power, I know. But I don't think you will" She held her arms out wide, inviting the death blow.
"Prove me wrong," she said, staring intently into Eloshar's eyes.
The Seer lunged, driving the tip of the spear towards Sylelle's throat. She had expected the sorceress to parry, but the human's outstretched arm, holding the witchblade, was immobile. At the last moment Eloshar let the spear drift sideways, missing its mark by a fraction. She cannoned into the stunned sorceress as the spear drove past her, striking the massive crystal in the centre of the nearest of its facets. Both human and eldar collapsed to the deck as the spear continued on its own, plunging into the crystal, sending out rivers of fissures from within it. At the last moment Sylelle took hold of Eloshar and rolled her over, shielding her.
The crystal exploded in a supernova of razor-sharp shards, releasing a whirlwind of silver-blue light that tore around the enclosed bay. It passed through the clouds of light that were Harlequins without incident, but each Slaaneshi it touched was flayed in seconds, skin and muscle dissolving to leave only bone, and then not even that. The light flew together into a brilliant beam, aiming itself at the centre of the chamber, where Sylelle had dragged herself to her knees, gasping in half-pleasure at the pain from the slivers of crystal embedded in her back.
Eloshar saw the light leap forwards, and ignored the pain in her muscles to stand in its path, in front of the dazed sorceress. For a moment she lost all sight, then the light flowed under her skin and vanished into her. She could hear distant whispering in her mind, and felt her thoughts being peeled apart, examined and finally replaced. She collapsed to the deck in shock, her body twitching as energy coursed randomly through her.
A shadow fell over her face, and she looked up to see Sylelle. The sorceress wore a strange smile, equal parts cruelty and pleasure.
"Now you believe me," she whispered. She leaned in and quickly kissed Eloshar on the lips, then vanished in the light haze of a teleporter beam. The Seer struggled up to her elbows, then felt hands around her shoulders, helping her up. She looked up into the strange, impassive face of the Avatar's mask.
"Home," she whispered quietly. The Harlequin glanced back at his troupers.
"If we pursue quickly, we have a chance to capture the human," he suggested. Eloshar felt a power rise up within her.
"Home!" she demanded, hearing her voice overlaid with a thunderous sound, seeing a blast of blue light reflect from the Harlequin's mask. He fell back a step, and if Eloshar could have seen what lay behind the impassive face she might have seen fear.
"What is the meaning of this?" Farseer Aranthiel fell into step beside the Harlequin Avatar as his troupers helped the half-conscious Eloshar through the webway portal. They immediately set off towards the craftworld's core, the huge transport network that ran the full length of the giant ship.
"She is holding the spirit of the prophetess Lileath," explained the Avatar tersely, "she cannot survive for long. The goddess must be released before the Seer dies. She has asked to be brought here, to the Throne of Khaine." The group quickly entered one of the transport modules in the core, the presence of the Harlequins ensuring that all other eldar kept their distance.
"It's empty," protested Aranthiel as the module detached from its dock and picked up speed within the hollow core, "this craftworld was built after the Fall, we never had an Avatar of Khaine, the Throne has never even been used..."
"It is not for us to question a god," replied the Harlequin.
Eloshar seemed to gain strength as the group approached the cold doors leading into the darkened Throne chamber. Blue fire played lightly over her, seemingly helping her to stand.
"Leave," she whispered to the two Harlequins supporting her. Even with her voice so quiet, the barely-contained power within it rumbled through the floor. She stumbled as the Harlequins retreated, then staggered forwards into the Throne chamber itself. Aranthiel craned his neck to see within, and caught a glimpse of Eloshar collapsing into the Avatar Throne just as the heavy doors thudded shut.
"Now what?" he asked. The Harlequin Avatar shrugged, his eyes never leaving the doors. Aranthiel followed his gaze just in time to see a ripple of light cross the doors, flowing into the joints and seams, sealing them shut. For a moment the light glowed brighter, as if drawing to a climax, then it faded. The doors swung open.
Aranthiel was the first to move when Eloshar appeared out of the swirling mists in the doorway. He caught her just as she began to fall, guiding her arm around his shoulders to hold her upright. For a moment he thought he saw something else within the chamber, a tall figure seated on the Throne, then the mists closed and the doors swung back into place. He turned to the Harlequin, who had not moved at all to help Eloshar.
"What happened out there?" he asked. The Harlequin tilted his head, then shrugged.
"That remains to be seen," he answered. He turned on his heel and led his troupers away, his patterned coat billowing behind him.
Later, Eloshar walked through the trees in Zaran's largest garden dome. She followed a path mapped by childhood memory, until she came to a place where the distant walls were hidden by greenery, and only the stars remained as a reminder that she was not on a real world somewhere. She leaned up against a tall, ancient tree, finding the perfect curve of the tree's roots to settle into.
'You used to come here.' It was not a voice, or a sound, simply a sudden impression of meaning in Eloshar's mind. She nodded.
"When I was a child. When I had to get away from the training, the learning. There were times I needed to be away from destiny."
'And now you come here in search of me.'
"You saw my mind," Eloshar said, carefully, "you know. I could have killed her. Denied the Great Enemy a powerful servant. I should have. Why did you," she hesitated, "why did you even let me live?"
'One day you may understand.'
"Why did you come here?" asked Eloshar absently.
'Other craftworlds are protected by the Avatars of Khaine. When they go to war, they are led by war. Perhaps it is better to go to war led by a prophetess. You shall have the Avatar of Lileath to protect you. You fight for the future, do you not?'
"I don't know what I fight for," admitted Eloshar. "I used to think I did. But the person I believed I was would have done what was right. Sylelle... would have died."
'Now you know better who you are,' replied the ghost of the prophetess. 'This is not a perfect universe. Not even the gods can be perfect within it. Perfection would destroy us. Be content to be yourself. Hope the future will bring you peace.'
Sylelle slumped into her throne with a heavy sigh. It vaguely occurred to her to wonder why Slaanesh had not appeared to her, after such a failure - she might have expected vengeance of some sort. But, on the other hand, she was not of a nature to question her Mistress' actions, whatever they may be. She played the events over again in her mind, experiencing the shadows of the feelings.
A renegade champion approached her and bowed, snapping her out of her reverie.
"Leave me alone," she said tiredly. He frowned and looked at her questioningly, finding her mood unfamiliar.
"Leave me!" she yelled, unconsciously unleashing a blast that flayed the armour and skin from the human. She looked around the empty audience chamber as the bloodied corpse dropped to the floor, her eyes coming to rest on the witchblade still in her hand.