by Chris Cook

Rain beat out a solemn rhythm on the stone paving. Silent and immobile, the warriors lay beneath their cover, waiting. The city was silent, its inhabitants long gone. All that remained were the shells of buildings, their superstructures rising from the crumbling stone like skeletons.

Solari glanced at the sky again, tightening her grip on the ancient power axe by her side. The crystals in her sensor unit were still, showing no disturbance in the warp, but she felt that something was closing in. A thousand years of warfare had taught her to trust her instincts.

Far away, a doorway had opened. Jain Zar stepped through and waited for the webway gate to close. When its light had faded, she looked around her dimly-lit destination.

Her surroundings seemed to be composed entirely of crystals, huge blue gems rising from below, towering above. The Banshee picked out a path between them from memory, ignoring the strange echoes that drifted through the place. She arrived in a chamber where a figure sat, surrounded by mirrors, each one a different shade, a different shape. The figure moved slightly, then turned, the reflections turning with her.

"I saw you would come here," she said. Jain nodded. She could see, beyond the hunched woman, a collection of bright jewels floating in complex patterns.

"What else did you see?" The Phoenix's voice was calm, her manner comfortable, non-threatening. The figure returned to its runes.

"Much," she said eventually. "Many things. The circle of fate, the mirror, destiny to be fulfilled, destiny to be overthrown. The beast, the star, destruction, rebirth. The circle broken." She seemed to think about this last statement. "Broken, and remade in new form."

"You know what I ask of you?" said Jain. The figure nodded.

"Intervention. Difficult, much to consider. Paths must be followed, the consequences must be known. This is not to be taken lightly."

"Perhaps not," said the Phoenix, "but if it will be done, it must be done quickly." Again the figure nodded. Jain Zar continued. "You can help them. Alone they will fail. You must know the consequences of that."

"It is known. If it changes, nothing can be known for sure. The risk is yours, not mine."

"I will take it," answered Jain.

"I know. Intervention, then."

"Who will you send?"

The figure stood, ignoring the faint noises of the runes falling to the ground. There was a blaze of light, reflected in the mirrors. It faded to reveal a change had taken place. The woman stood taller, looked younger. She now wore armour, blazing yellow crossed with jagged black slashes. The light died in the mirrors, leaving coloured reflections of the new Eldar. She turned, and each reflection stepped out of its mirror in turn. Eleven different warriors stood around their leader, weapons materialising in their hands.

"I will go," said the woman. Jain Zar nodded and turned to leave.

The skirmish had soon turned into a full-scale battle. The bestial roars of the Orks echoed through the streets, sometimes drowning out the haunting cries of the Banshees as they charges. Hundreds had fallen to them already, but the greenskins were, as always, numerous. Their crude vehicles rumbled behind their ranks, spitting shells and sprays of flame at anything that moved.

Solari knew that the Orks had to be defeated quickly. Their army would overrun the city eventually, but by then the Eldar would be gone. It was merely important that they not win today. That was what the Seers had concluded from their meditations. Solari wondered if the Seers had ever had to meditate while fighting a hundred times their number of hostile aliens in a city that seemed to be waiting for death. She swung her axe, decapitating an armoured Ork, and let the thought pass without comment.

Taking a moment to stretch through the minds of her troops, she found that the battle was not moving fast enough. Reinforcements for the greenskins were too far away to tip the scales back in their favour, but the forces here already were too numerous to be quickly beaten. A pair of armoured vehicles was providing difficulty among the Scorpions several blocks away. One had been an Imperial tank until the Orks had captured it, the other was too heavily modified to tell. Their firepower, though inaccurate, was slowing down all attempts to push the Orks from the centre of the city. The Reapers were too far away to help. Solari wondered whether she could cover the distance fast enough to eliminate at least one of the vehicles, and still lead the current counterattack down the Ork flank.

"Stay where you are," a voice echoed through her mind. She didn't recognise it, and could tell that it had not come through one of the dozen psionic channels she was monitoring. Had the fleet arrived back so soon?

A flash of light caught her eye, between the buildings, where the Ork vehicles were dug in. She allowed herself to split her vision, keeping track of her surroundings by instinct while looking out of the artificial eyes of the sensor web attached to a weapon platform that had been covering the advance of the Scorpions. A lone warrior had appeared in open ground, barely twenty metres in front of the Ork tanks. Its armour was a deep red, shimmering in the rain-dulled light, and its golden helmet turned to face the vehicles. A shadow behind it became a weapon, which swivelled onto its shoulder. Before the Orks could react a hail of missiles impacted on the lead tank, blasting it open. Its weapons fell silent as the crew scrambled to escape the fires inside.

The other vehicle blazed away with a plasma cannon in return, but the ghostly figure disappeared a moment before the weapon could be aimed properly. As it faded, another appeared a few metres away, this one in green and yellow, soft colours. It raised a bulky rifle to its shoulder, dipped its head to look through the sight, and fired a single shot. The laser beam hit the second Ork vehicle, causing an impressive explosion on its armour. The beam held steady, blasting away layer after layer of armour until the vehicle exploded in a ball of flame. The lascannon lowered, its gunner nodded once as if in satisfaction, and then it was gone.

"Now attack," said the voice in Solari's mind. She felt the presence of the other mind for a second, sensing something ancient, but she saw also the image of a bird rising from a sea of flames. Whoever these strange warriors were, Solari now knew that they were here to help. The rune of the Phoenix could never be used as a deception.

She leapt forward, her mask joining those of her bodyguard in a high-pitched battle cry, paralysing the front ranks of Orks as they closed the distance between them. Solari kept watch on the rest of her army, and was not surprised to see the occasional glimpse of brightly-coloured armour among the Orks. Here a figure in white, a rifle weapon held in one hand, its barrels spinning in a blur, energy beams stabbing out at the greenskins. Here, where the Scorpions were attacking, a tall warrior, blood red armour overlaid with a skeleton pattern, chainsword flashing and drawing blood. When the Orks made a clumsy effort to counterattack, they were stopped by one whose black armour bore images of fire and lightning, who stood calmly among the hail of primitive explosive projectiles and picked off the Ork bosses, one by one, until the nerve of the mob broke and they ran. Everywhere the Orks fell back, some firing as they went, others running desperately, all thought of battle forgotten in their scramble to get away.

Solari watched the Orks through a magnifier. During the night they had made no attempt to approach the city. Instead, they fired artillery, shattering the dead buildings further but achieving nothing. The last of her army teleported out of the city. She turned from the army, barely visible on the horizon in the light of the dawn. Someone stood behind her, an Eldar wearing bright yellow armour, its smooth lines broken by jagged black patterns. The stranger made a motion with her hand, leaving a trail of fire in the air for a second that looked, before it vanished, like a phoenix. Solari nodded, then spoke.

"We are grateful. But... who are you?"

"Sapphire," said the stranger. "Ask no questions, champion of the Phoenix. I can only offer my answers, and you must find your own." She smiled, and faded from view without a sound. Solari looked around, seeing nothing but the ruined city. She touched a control and disappeared in a flash of light, leaving the city to its dead.

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