Our hosts were the Seer Council of Yme-Loc, led by Farseer Mordannath'che-haliset-yme'turell'caliphey. "That is my full name and title, by which my mind, deeds and lineage are described," he said to me directly, after greeting Paladin in Eldar - he spoke to me in flawless High Gothic. "As you come to us from the Illuminati, with whom we of Yme-Loc accord a degree of mutual respect, it is permissible that you address me as Mordannath, accompanied by the rank Seer or Farseer - the distinction is immaterial to you. Your colleague informs me that, in the human manner of naming, you are known as the Rose. It is a fortunate name - the Eldar translation is both pleasing to the ear and a sign of great potential." With that he nodded, a gesture of greeting to an inferior, and turned away from me.
"Don't take offence," Paladin advised as the Farseer consulted with his colleagues, making preparations to move their army. "Mordannath's social standing among his people is significant, as one of only a handful from his craftworld to achieve the rank of Farseer. It is customary that a Farseer receive guests from the Illuminati, but now that he has fulfilled that obligation I doubt he'll bother with us again. Lower-ranked Eldar are more courteous, typically, so long as they are afforded the respect they feel is due to them. Arrangements have been made by the Illuminati for us to accompany this warhost back to Yme-Loc, where I have some business to attend to with representatives of several craftworlds. Eldar perceive a lack of respect in using mechanical communications, and only among their own kind will they use such means to discuss matters of importance. For dealings with us, they require a representative to meet them in person.
"While I conduct this business, I have arranged for you to study the Eldar language with a tutor who has aided the Illuminati in the past. The language is a complex one, comprising several different dialects, but with the learning techniques you acquired at Haven you should be able to master the Eldar common tongue, which will be enough to communicate with Eldar of most stations. If opportunity affords, you will build on this familiarity later to learn some of the diplomatic and ancient forms, which will enable you to converse more freely with high-ranking Eldar. For the moment, remain silent and follow my lead. Yme-Loc is, as a rule, understanding of the differences between Eldar and human, so we should encounter no difficulties. Your Custos will remain with your ship for now - if the Illuminati have any sudden need for us, there are those on Yme-Loc who will carry a message to us."
We travelled in silence with the warhost, which packed its equipment into anti-grav caskets and prepared itself to march in the time it would take an Imperial Guard commander to deploy a single platoon. Our destination proved to be barely ten miles away, no hardship at the fast walking pace the Eldar kept up. With the battle over the majority of the troops had removed their helmets, and were talking amongst themselves, giving lyrical laments for their few lost comrades and lifting each other's spirits with what I assumed were tales of victory and heroics. A handful of warriors did not remove their helmets and battlegear, and they remained silent and efficient, scouting around the warhost as it marched. The Wraithlord moved at a slow stride which allowed it to keep pace with the Seer Council - I saw one or two of their number turn to it, and I perceived some subtle psychic exchanges between them and the great fighting machine. Paladin and I walked a short distance away from them, accompanied by a pair of silent, helmeted fighters - Guardians, as they call their militia. It surprised me to learn, from Paladin, that the majority of the troops I had seen today, who were every bit as disciplined and coordinated as an army of veterans, were a levy drawn from the craftworld's civilian population - I wondered what their standing army was like. "No doubt you'll see soon enough," he replied, "let us hope from the vantage point of an ally."
At the end of our march was a monolithic structure, a great curved tower of polished bone-like material - wraithbone, Paladin called it - which was fairly seething with warp energy. "A portal," Paladin informed me, "the Eldar have them scattered everywhere. Each craftworld has several, fit for moving troops, equipment, some even large enough to transport starships. They are an ancient network of gateways which our hosts call the Webway. The Webway connects every Eldar craftworld, many thousands of planets, even some Imperial worlds where we have permitted their structures to remain standing. Even the Eldar don't know the full extent of the Webway - some of its gates are in dangerous places, and it is not always safe to travel. This journey will be safe, though - Yme-Loc is not very far, in their terms, and the route is well travelled."
As he spoke the tower began to release its pent-up energy, which seemed to bleed out of its length until the whole structure glowed like the warp itself. The Eldar began to walk directly into its base, not even halting their conversations as they passed through it. When my turn came, I confess I was hesitant, but I felt it would not be helpful for me to show it with the Seer Council watching, so I walked into the light at the same pace I had set all day, Paladin at my side. The light felt like a waterfall as I passed through it - it seemed to be only paper-thin, and beyond it was a long, winding tunnel of energy whose walls flickered and danced. I looked around for Paladin, and the other Eldar, but they were not there - then the tunnel raced at me, and I was hurtling along its length, twisting and turning with it, darting through intersections and junctions. Then as suddenly as it had begun, I was standing in a chamber, on a vessel - I could feel the artificiality of the gravity - and Paladin was leading me away from a circle of light behind me, that I had emerged from.
Yme-Loc reminded me of Haven, in a way, and yet it was at the same time vastly different. It was built on the same impossible scale, a starship that is, in essence, a small planet, complete with its own living ecosystem and vast population, Eldar and animal. But where Haven was purposefully built to demonstrate the magnitude of human accomplishment, Yme-Loc seemed to have been grown, rather than designed. Its structures, which were a combination of various exotic metals and the ever-present wraithbone, had the elegant, natural lines of trees and mountains, and in the massive garden domes - a misleading name, for they enclosed entire forests and lakes - it was not always clear at what point the natural life ended, and the constructed material began.
Paladin left me in the care of my tutor and departed in the company of two of the Seer Council, to whom he spoke quietly in what I took to be a high Eldar dialect. I bowed to the Eldar woman he had left me with, a gesture she returned in kind, and took a moment to study my surroundings. After walking through miles of the ship's interior galleries and gardens, we had come to a smaller dome, containing a grove of ancient trees that rested on either side of a stream, ankle-deep at its middle, that trickled down in a tiny waterfall over a rocky wall at one end of its length and vanished beneath the edge of the dome at the other. My tutor was tall, as most Eldar are, clad in a simple dress that mimicked the dark green of the leaves, and which left her arms, shoulders and most of her legs bare. She wore a simple silver necklace, its chain matching one around her waist, and a pair around her ankles. Her face was lean and intelligent, yet she had a certain quality about her that suggested she was never far from smiling. She beckoned me wordlessly to sit with her on the grass, near the path of the stream, and brushed her golden hair behind her, fixing me with a calm stare from her vivid green eyes.
"I welcome you," she said in accented Gothic, "to Yme-Loc, as a representative of this world, and to my garden as a friend. I am Sorsha - pronounced Sor'a among my kind, but I have a certain affection for the human rendering. I hope you'll forgive my accent - I admit, it's not entirely necessary," and just for those few words, her voice was as human as my own, then the exotic lilt in her voice reappeared "but I find it pleasant to speak as I am, familiar with humans, yet not human myself. Although the fact that I like the sound is not entirely incidental," she added with a grin. She was understating the case, there - her voice was lyrical and beautiful, the melodic accent elevating the simple Gothic words to an art.
"Before we begin, I would ask a favour of you. It is customary among some of my kind to greet new acquaintances with what we call the soul's embrace - a cursory, peripheral contact between two minds, through which we share a little of our life's flavour, if you will, the forms that our experiences have created in our minds. I give you my word no harm will come to you, nor invasion of your privacy, if you consent to this. Would you?" She held out a hand, and I hesitated only a moment before removing my gauntlet and taking it. I expected that physical contact to create the link between us, but it was when she leaned towards me and touched her lips to mine, for the briefest moment, that I had a sudden impression of her nature. She was certainly the scholar I had taken her for, and something of an artist, which her choice of setting for our meeting had suggested, but there was a hidden strength in her that was not evident in her outward appearance at all. She was certainly a warrior, and not merely in the way that a citizen of a world may take up arms to defend it, the way many craftworld Eldar evidently did. It started me, and when the impression vanished - for she touched me only a second, then leaned back - I pulled back in surprise.
"I did not mean to offend you," she said quickly, her eyes full of genuine concern, "I realise that such a form of physical contact is considered quite intimate by many humans. Or if it was that your home frowns upon such contact between women-"
"No," I interrupted, "I mean, I was surprised. You've done nothing to offend me. I've never experienced that sort of psychic contact before."
"Oh, I see," she said, relieved, "I am glad. I find the embrace a useful way of understanding those I teach, and of letting them understand me, so that they may learn more easily. Now, it has fallen to me to teach you our manner of speech - no easy task, for we have the advantage of being born to it, while you are used to a quite different manner of communicating. You have knowledge of what your kind call the learning trances?" I said I had - several of the more advanced tutors I had worked with at Haven had taught me various ways to eliminate distractions from without and within, so that new knowledge might be implanted directly into the memory in perfect detail.
"Good," said Sorsha, "we will first try a trance, then. If you would?" She held out both hands, which I took in my own. The colours around us seemed to become dim and translucent, until the green of the leaves was a ghostly white edged with green, the rocks were dark shadows against the misty curve of the ground. Then I noticed the absence of sound, and saw that the water in the stream had stopped moving - it was like glass, and the waterfall hung in the air, motionless.
"Don't be alarmed," said Sorsha's voice, though her lips didn't move, "it is merely a form of the trance. Our minds are capable of working immeasurably faster than our muscles, if we let them. Time has not altered, only our perceptions - look closely at the waterfall."
I did so, without turning my head or moving my eyes, by acknowledging the sight on the periphery of my vision, rather than the centre. As I watched I began to see that the water was moving after all, slowly but steadily, on the edge of the perceptible.
"In real time, our trance has lasted barely a second yet," said Sorsha's voice. "I sensed during our embrace that your mind was capable of this. Even among those you call Sensei, there are those who are too centred on their own perceptions of time and thought that this trance is unattainable. This will allow you to learn quickly, while we are joined. There is something I want you to see while you are on Yme-Loc, once our task here is done."
And so, sitting motionless with time moving at a crawl, Sorsha began to talk to me in Eldar, while her mind sent me impressions of meaning at the same time. For a few seconds I was merely confused, but then I began to see the patterns in her speech, and the correlation between them and the meanings I was receiving. Soon - sooner than she expected, I think - I had the rhythm of the language in my mind, as I had done with High Gothic all those years ago when I learned from the Sisters Dialogus. Sorsha began to feed me less and less additional sensation as she talked, yet the rhythm remained in me, and I still perceived the meaning in her words. After several hours - a handful of minutes, outside the trance - I could understand her as she spoke, with no additional psychic contact at all, and was beginning to become fluent in speaking her language.
"Good," she said when I had mastered a fairly complex piece of context-enhanced prose, "that will do for now." The colours faded back into the world, and the stream was again flowing past at its customary rate.
"We will try another trance in a moment," she said, "but I find it best to take a break now and then. Will you join me in the water?" I was still wearing my armour, and admitted I had nothing else to wear. "I had not intended to wear anything," she replied, "but if your custom requires it I can have appropriate clothing brought here for us."
I weighed up my options for a moment before telling her that it wasn't necessary. Having spent the better part of five hours in close contact with her mind I knew that she had no motivations or desires that would unnecessarily complicate the situation - though I had never had a sister, the bond that had grown between she and I over the hours in which our minds had been linked was how I imagined it would be. In any event I had very strongly from her the sense that, everything she did, she did for a reason. The reason, in this case, I at once suspected when she turned away from me and let her dress fall to the ground - starting just below her right shoulder, and continuing down to end at her thigh, was a long, flowing tattoo, which to me suggested a script of some kind, a written language unlike any I had seen. I was sure there was meaning to it, though, and that Sorsha was deliberately showing it to me. Why she chose that exact method I couldn't say, other than to recall that my impressions of her - psychic and otherwise - led me to believe that she was a playful soul, and would never undertake a task in a plain way if she could instead achieve her goals with the vivacious charm that I was coming to associate with her. We bathed in the pool underneath the waterfall, where the water was waist deep - it was more buoyant than normal water, so that when we came to be lying at full stretch, staring up at the stars beyond the leafy canopy of the trees and the glimmering dome ceiling, we floated higher than I was used to. She was careful not to turn towards me too much, and then only to fix her gaze on my face, for I think she sensed that my acceptance of the situation was tenuous, and made sure not to impede my comfort in any way.
When we were done she left the pool and tossed her dress to me. "It'll fit you," she said, and I found that it did, once I had waded clear of the water, which rolled off my skin such that I was almost dry the moment I stepped onto the shore. She took a garment from one of the satchels lying near where we had sat, and dressed herself - a tight bodysuit, perfectly white and gleaming under the light like ivory. It struck me as an odd choice of clothing, and for some reason I found that it made me think of her warrior side, though it was certainly not armour of any kind.
Having had our break we sat again, and Sorsha led me into another trance, in which I perfected my speaking of common Eldar, and gained a rudimentary understanding of several other dialects, including some of the noble forms, which she said dated back millennia, and a curious variant which she called the laughing tongue - it seemed to my ear to be more versatile than the other forms I had learned, yet contained elements of all of them. "It is a precaution," she said. "Likely you will never need to use this language, but in the event that you do hear it, the consequences of not understanding could be dire. Your Illuminati have a way of preparing for every eventuality, do they not? There is wisdom in this idea, so I imitate it."
We halted again, after a few hours - in the time that I perceived - and this time Sorsha sang an Eldar song, in one of the ancient dialects, partly to test my ability to put into practice what I had learned, in understanding the complex, poetic lyrics, but also, I sensed, just for the joy of music. She asked me for a human song, so - hesitantly, but growing in confidence as I went, for I have a good voice, though I have never had training to best use it for music - I sang a song my mother had taught me, that she had sung to me for as long as I could remember, ever since I was a baby girl, about a girl who believed in angels so strongly that, though she knew she was not one, she nonetheless took flight and soared among the heavens. "There's humanity in a single song," said Sorsha when I had finished, "you know you're simply an intelligent ape, yet you believe there is a place for you among the heavens. I think you are right."
We entered another trance after that, and then Sorsha declared my education in the Eldar language good enough, "for the moment. I am glad we were able to enter the trances so easily, for it has given us more time than we might otherwise have had, and as I said there is something here I would have you see before you leave." She summoned another Eldar, whom she described as trusted by the Illuminati ("so far as any of our kind are" she added ruefully) and had him bring an anti-grav casket into which I loaded my armour, to be taken to the Webway gate chamber. But instead of following it there, Sorsha took me in the opposite direction, where we eventually entered a cavernous theatre packed with Eldar of all ranks. She politely made her way through the standing crowd, with me in tow, and introduced me to an Eldar woman, Beylis, sitting in the seats near the front of the theatre. Sorsha let me take the single vacant seat at Beylis's side, then leant down to whisper in my ear: "I have a task to attend to." Then she turned and was lost in the crowd.
"The Rillietann will perform," said Beylis when I asked her what was going to occur. "They are... in human terms, they are travelling singers and dancers who are also warriors. In your tongue we call them Harlequins. They carry with them the history of our people, and the future."
Before long the lighting in the great theatre dimmed, and a troupe of energetic masked figures leapt on stage, twirling in dazzling formations that seemed to somehow combine the elegance of a stately procession with the exuberant joy of a bonfire dance. I watched for what seemed like hours as they performed - I had no idea what the significance of their dances was, though I sensed that the Eldar around me attached deep meaning to what they were seeing. The dancers wore bodysuits that changed colour and pattern seemingly at the will of their wearers, which allowed me to guess at some of their roles, for their dances struck me in many ways as being not unlike plays, or dramas of morality, with characters representing good and evil, charity and selfishness, and so on. I caught fragments of stories, but for the most part I was content to enjoy the quality of the dances in the absence of meaning.
Then - in the middle of a dance, it seemed to me - the motion stopped. All the dancers stood straight and made their way calmly off-stage, all except one, who walked to the edge of the stage and looked out at his audience, through a mask that was on one side a perfectly-sculpted Eldar face, and on the other a smooth, featureless mirror.
"We shall perform the dance," he said simply, then left. There were gasps around me, and a thrill ran through the crowd. I turned to Beylis, and she answered my question before I had asked it: "It is the Dance Without End, the pinnacle of the Harlequin art! Most Eldar consider themselves lucky to see the Dance performed once or twice in their lives, it requires the presence of a unique performer, of a kind that does not travel with the troupes. I know not what sway your God-Emperor has with the ways of the Harlequins, Rose, but He has favoured you well today. Watch the Dance - you will know its meaning." The lights dimmed and the Harlequin leader walked off stage. Over the next few minutes, until the lights in the theatre blacked out and spotlights illuminated the stage, more and more Eldar entered the chamber, packing into the standing room behind the seats.
Then the Dance Without End began. Four dancers leapt into the spotlights, carrying out a complex routine in which they danced solo and together, all choreographed to the microsecond, while their suits cycled through a variety of refined, elegant patterns, and their masks took on the aspect of noble, learned faces, wise and patient. The patterns in the suits, the faces on their masks and the motions of their dance were reinforced by subtle psychic impulses that flowed from them over the audience - and from the Eldar watching as well, for it was obvious that, no matter how rarely the Dance was performed, every one of them knew its story by heart. The dancers continued their portrayal of civilisation, testing new methods of motion and incorporating them into their routines, becoming ever faster and closer to perfection.
My attention had initially been so riveted on the four main players that it was only by chance that I noticed movement in the background, and saw that the rest of the troupe were there, their suits matching the patterns of their leaders, but in muted shades of grey, their motions a careful replica of the main dance. They were on the edge of the light, and that combined with their almost chameleonic patterning made them seem ephemeral, and gave the appearance that, behind the boundary of the light, there were thousand, billions more, all dancing in harmony. I watched them for a moment, noticing subtle variations in their movements, which served to make them living beings, rather than automaton-like presences around the four leaders.
Then a new figure appeared, seeming to leap out of thin air in the centre of the dance. This new dancer's costume had the appearance of its fellows, but where theirs were patterns with abstract lines and shapes, the new being formed the same patterns from shifting, surging tides of colour that seemed to be almost alive, as if the costume were a living thing clinging to the body of its wearer. Its mask's face was beautiful but decadent, and its whole presence was subtly disturbing. A thrill of fear ran through the audience - Beylis tensed beside me, as if some subconscious part of her sensed danger.
The decadent figure danced with the others, brushing their hands in passing, adding its own elements to the dance. Its movements were sensual and perfect, as were the traces of itself that it passed on to those it touched, but the symmetry of the dance was starting to unravel. The new being's dance was selfish, and didn't acknowledge the movements of those around it, and in copying it the dancers began to get in each other's way, so that they had to improvise artless twirls and leaps to avoid breaking the dance. Slowly, their costumes began to mutate, taking on the living colours of the decadent newcomer, which had itself begun to shed some of its brighter shades and reveal itself as a creature of flesh, until its patterns were painted entirely in tones of skin and blood.
One by one it took a hold on the other dancers, drawing them close to it, its smiling mask dipping to brush theirs in a motion representing a kiss. As it did so their own faces changed, taking on its grinning, selfish aspect. The first three dancers it took succumbed willingly, but the fourth danced out of its grasp when it extended a hand to draw him close. Unperturbed, the Decadent, as I now thought of it, twirled away, around the stage, approaching its prey from behind. In a sudden, violent motion it caught the dancer by the neck, twisted his body and roughly kissed him - the dancer's body shuddered, and his mask melted into the aspect of his master.
The Decadent now slowed its motions, and took up the position of a ringmaster at the centre of the stage, directing its submissive fellows in dances around itself. At its bidding they alternately moved with stately grace, twirled with complete abandon, grasped each other and kissed, or struck out at each other, tripping their comrades or hurling them to the ground. The Decadent's face became more and more twisted by its pleasure, and the details of its costume more hideously graphic, a change which was in turn mirrored by the other dancers. Behind them on the edge of the light, the backing dancers were undergoing the same change, falling out of rhythm, grappling with one another, some of them falling to the floor, motionless.
Then the Decadent took hold of the arm of one of its dancers as she spun past, and placed a hand at the centre of her chest. She arched her back, still for a moment - the whole stage was motionless in that instant - then she fell back, limp as a corpse. I had to remind myself that I was seeing a performance, for only the sense I had from the audience, that the Dance was fulfilling their expectations, reassured me that the dancer had not been truly killed for the sake of her art. The Decadent strolled among the three remaining dancers, who were oblivious to their fallen comrade, and drew another one out of the dance, sucking the life out of him. It repeated this with a third dancer, and then approached the fourth.
When it seemed that the Decadent would claim the lives of everything else around it, a new character strolled calmly onto the stage. Its dance was slow and carefree, skipping and playing like a child, and its costume was a rainbow of cheerful colours. Its mask was the half-mirror face of the Harlequin leader, the features on its detailed side now exaggerated into a caricature of mirth. This childlike figure moved around the Decadent, which seemed oblivious to it, then it nimbly leapt beneath the Decadent's outstretched arms and took the hand of one of the dead.
The fallen dancer's costume blazed with natural colour again, and she quickly rejoined the dance, now mimicking the motions of the Child, which contained within them a remnant of the first dance, before the emergence of the Decadent. In the instant that she rose the Decadent became aware of its challenger, and leapt towards it, striking out in vicious slashes with its arms and legs. The Child ducked and swayed out of the path of the blows, never striking back, but edging ever closer to another of the fallen. When the Decadent leapt at it, the Child rolled out of the way and brought a second dancer back to life.
The Decadent was furious, and directed its sole living servant against the Child. But though the dancer copied the motions of his master, his skill and speed paled by comparison, and the Child easily avoided him. As they passed, the Child reached out and touched the forehead of the enslaved dancer, returning to him the colours and patterns of the living. From that moment they moved in harmony, and together drew the last of the fallen away from the Decadent, which the Child then revived to join the others in its dance.
The Decadent blazed with fury, the flesh-contours of its costume rippling with muscle and blood. It charged the Child, who again danced out of its way. They executed a long, complex routine of battle, in which the Decadent would again and again strike at the Child, who would always ensure it was just a fraction outside the range of its attacker. Even so, I wondered how long the Child could last, for the Decadent was larger and stronger, and the Child had not yet made any move to strike back. Surely its luck could not last forever, and the Decadent would need only a touch to claim it-
The lights went out. For a moment everything was still and quiet, with not a sound from the thousands of Eldar who crowded the theatre. Then, slowly, the lights returned to show the dancers frozen in their last positions, the Decadent and the Child still locked in battle. As one they abandoned their poses, and all the Harlequins came to the front of the stage, forming a line which bowed respectfully to the audience. At the instant when the Decadent's hand was about to touch those of its comrades, the horrific patterns of its suit vanished, and the face on its mask faded, the visage becoming featureless and white, but for a single rune that glowed on its forehead. With all traces of its evil form gone, it - she - took the hands of her fellow dancers and joined them in acknowledging their audience. Every Eldar in the chamber took this cue to stand, applaud and cheer. A song rose from the audience, a handful of voices quickly being joined by dozens more, then hundreds, until the whole audience - with the exception of myself, obviously - was giving voice to a tune that seemed to match the dance the Child had performed. I caught a word or two of the laughing tongue, but not enough to divine a meaning. The troupe's leader nodded, silently thanking the audience for its song, and then the dancers began to disperse, all except for the featureless figure who had played the Decadent. She stayed for a moment, at the edge of the stage, and bowed once more, drawing a thunderous round of applause and praise. But it seemed to me that she had intentionally turned just a fraction before she bowed, so that she was facing directly towards me, and in that moment I saw clearly the rune on her mask, and recognised it as a part of the tattoo I had seen on Sorsha's back.
Sorsha rejoined me after the audience had flowed out of the theatre, every man and woman there excitedly recounting sequences of the Dance to each other. Beylis had praised the Harlequins without pause from the moment the last dancer had left the stage, and when Sorsha appeared, looking just as she had before the performance had begun, Beylis insisted on recounting the whole story of the Dance Without End - it was very much as I had read it, though she used the word 'enemy' for the character I had dubbed the Decadent, and called the Child the 'Great Harlequin'. When Beylis finally left us, thanking me for my company and insisting that Sorsha would never be able to forgive herself for missing the Dance, I leaned close to Sorsha - the crowd was beginning to thin, and there was no-one close enough to us to overhear what I wished to ask her.
"In the Dance," I began, "was that-"
"Our little secret," said Sorsha with a smile, so I said no more of it.
Paladin had heard that the Dance had been performed, and was pleased that I had had the chance to see it. "Aside from demonstrating what might be considered the admirable side of the Eldar race, it concerns the war we wage against Chaos. You have seen the figure of the enemy before." I knew which one he meant - the Decadent's appearance and dance had put me in mind of the seductive, loathsome representation of Slaanesh I had seen. I remembered Vestitus telling me that this one of the Chaos Gods had been at first a manifestation of the Eldar, rather than humanity. I sensed that Paladin had deliberately avoided speaking the creature's name, or phrasing his remark in such a way that I might take it as a question, and voice an answer - no doubt saying the name aboard an Eldar craftworld would be an insult to them, at best, so I remained silent, confirming what Paladin had said with only a nod. While we waited for the Webway to become available, to carry us back to Scion, Paladin questioned me on my training in the Eldar language, which he found more than satisfactory. His first question had concerned the circumstances by which I had rejoined him in an Eldar dress, having been fully armoured when we parted - whether he was concerned that I had wasted my time on the craftworld trying out new clothes, or that I had 'gone native', I do not know, but he was reassured without question when I told him the dress had been a gift from my tutor. I relayed to him every detail of our time together, and the Dance - every detail, except Sorsha's tattoo, and that I recognised her as the player of the Decadent. Emperor knows I had no desire to hide anything from Paladin, but Sorsha's words - 'our little secret' - carried some weight with me, for though she said it offhand, as if it were a childish game, I knew she had entrusted me with a secret by allowing me to know her part in the Dance.
Paladin, unknowingly, provided the reason behind Sorsha's concealment of her talent. "Your companion at the Dance was quite correct," he said, "the Dance Without End requires the presence of an Arebennian, which in Gothic is rendered as 'Solitaire'. They travel alone, moving through craftworlds according to their own whims, are rarely making their presence known, though in legend it is often the case that an Eldar, meeting a Solitaire without realising it, will later discover the nature of their meeting, and realise some great significance from it. They are a kind of Harlequin, and our knowledge of all Harlequins is incomplete, and drawn from folklore as much as fact. Only a Solitaire can play the part of the Enemy in the Dance Without End. It is said among the Eldar that, were anyone else to attempt it, their soul would be consumed by the Enemy itself."
We returned to Scion without further delay, and were teleported back to our ships. The Imperial Glory's next destination was Hope Colony, a huge starport city built in the middle of the Hope system's giant asteroid belt, from which the colonists mined enough raw minerals to supply three Forgeworlds in neighbouring systems. Paladin briefed me on our mission there.
"It is necessary that the Forgeworld Hephaestus receive increased shipments of raw materials, so that they can continue their experimentation in ablative armour technology. The Forge-Lord has made appeals to Terra to divert resources from surrounding systems, but the political influence of his rivals is such that his appeals do not reach the ears of those who would approve of them. The Illuminati consider it vital that Hephaestus's technology programs go ahead - their projections indicate that the benefits to Imperial armies in this Segmentum far outweigh any cost to other Forgeworlds in the short-term. I will appear before the Governor of Hope Colony, as a representative of the Adeptus Administratum's Harvest Cadre, and authorise the diversion of sufficient of Hope's shipments to Hephaestus to allow their research to continue at its most efficient pace."
I was curious why a Sensei was required for such a mundane transaction - surely, I asked, could not the same effect be achieved by the Illuminati's own agents, spread as they were through the entire Adeptus Terra?
"It may be possible, but it would be a risk. Firstly, all Governors employ the services of Astra Telepathica psykers, called Truthsayers, who can detect the slightest trace of deception in the words of a man they study, even though they may know nothing about the subject of discussion. Truthsayers are powerful - their single-minded devotion to their particular discipline, to the exclusion of all other powers, gives them an unassailable advantage. There are those among the Illuminati who could deceive a Truthsayer, and convince a Governor that his orders derive from Terra, but they are few, and better employed in other services. Sensei cannot be read by Truthsayers - only another Sensei can sense deception when we speak. As the Imperium, beyond the ranks of the Illuminati, has no knowledge of the Sensei, they regard Truthsayers as infallible.
"This, combined with the Illuminati Orders, such as the Harvest Cadre within the Administratum, or indeed the Order of the Blade Corvus whose insignia you wear, cement our authority to issue commands to any Imperial agency in the galaxy. The Illuminati Orders do not exist, yet if a Governor, or a General or an Admiral to whom we speak requests verification of these Orders, by way of confirming our authority to issue directives to them, the Archive Imperium on Terra will automatically transmit verification of authority - and then delete all traces of the request, without any human on Terra ever knowing that the request was made. The Illuminati was instrumental in building the Archive Imperium, and has ensured this - thus we Sensei are able to wield the forces of mankind as a warrior wields a blade, regardless of the corruption of the Adeptae, the petty feuds and vendettas among the High Lords, and the machinations of individuals within the Adeptus Terra whose goals diverge from those of the Emperor."
Paladin had me accompany him when he was presented to the Governor - he in the fantastically ornate uniform of a high-ranking Administratum envoy, myself in my armour, as a Canoness of the Blade Corvus. The Truthsayers were exactly as he described them: during our interview, while Paladin explained the commands from 'Terra' that the Governor was to obey, two of them stood behind the Governor's throne, and I felt their minds reach towards ours, containing an incredibly concentrated spear of power. I could easily believe that no normal mind could hold the abilities of these people at bay, and yet their efforts to connect with Paladin and I skidded off the peripheries of our thoughts, without us having to even make the effort to shield ourselves. The Truthsayers appeared completely ignorant of the failure of their efforts.
While we were on Hope Colony, awaiting the resupply of the Imperial Glory, which I learned had been on assignment for some time, out of the reach of Imperial bases, Paladin received a message from Vestitus, which he relayed to me. Another Sensei would shortly be arriving, on his own business, and Paladin suggested I meet him - he said it would be advantageous for me to acquaint myself with as many of my fellow Sensei as possible, even though - once I had completed my period of apprenticeship - I would be almost always working alone.
He was a small, quick-witted man called Scimitar, who travelled as a Magos of the Adeptus Mechanicus, for his abilities lent themselves to the study and use of machinery, and he had an almost supernatural ability to understand the function of any device put before him. While Paladin was busy overseeing the resupply, Scimitar led me around his ship, the Prospero, which was in essence a mobile laboratory and retrieval vessel.
"Most of the technology the Imperium relies on now was found in the ruins of alien worlds," he explained. "Take those blades on your gauntlets: C'Tan origin, older than the Imperium itself. Only the priests on Mars itself have the knowledge and the equipment to duplicate them, and even they don't know why the blades function as they do. No, there hasn't been any innovation among the priesthood in ten thousand years now, not since the Great Crusade. Since then, mankind has been living of the relics of its own past, which grow more and more unstable with every passing century. Much of what I do for the Illuminati concerns the introduction of newly-researched designs into Mechanicus Forges, in the guise of 'rediscovered' technology. The tech-priests are too afraid of violating the spirits of their machines to risk altering them, unless they believe that the Machine God has already approved their schematics." It sounded like a terrible waste, and Scimitar agreed that it was.
"Consider the Great Crusade," he said, "it began with the entire old human empire shattered, and within the space of a single lifetime, the Imperium had become the dominant force in all five Segmenta of the galaxy. That could never happen today. Look at the pride of the Imperial Navy, the Retribution class - there is not a single such ship in service today that is operating at more than, say, twenty per cent of its original capacity. There hasn't been a new Retribution class battleship constructed in eight thousand years, and the last ones to be built even then were flawed in their reproduction of the original design. The first Retributions to fly out of the Mars and Terra spacedocks were- well, they were behemoths. They could take on an alien fleet single-handed and tear it to pieces. Now the battleships have to travel in convoy with carriers and destroyers and frigates, to patch up the holes left in their capabilities by their own failing systems.
"And they weren't the greatest," he added, his gaze intense - this was a subject close to his heart. "You'll never have heard of an Imperator class battleship. The last ones were destroyed, by each other, in the wars of the Horus Heresy. I've dedicated my life to reconstructing their schematics - against the enemies the Imperium faces today, even a single Imperator would be unstoppable. According to what little remains of the Great Crusade histories, there were only twelve Imperators, one leading each Crusade fleet, and in every battle they fought, their enemies were annihilated. If we had just one such ship operational... it would change the face of the Imperium."
"He hopes to build one," said Paladin later, "he always has. It's a noble dream, and would benefit the Illuminati greatly - you can imagine the battle power it would have - but I fear it may be beyond even our reach. Some miracles of the past are lost to us." He said no more to me of Scimitar then - indeed, his words to me had been few since our trip to Yme-Loc, and he only spoke to me readily when he was providing me with information on one thing or another, and the patches of casual conversation we had shared when we first met dried up completely. When I raised the subject with him, he said that his meetings at Yme-Loc had provided him with unsettling news of the state of the Eldar's war against Chaos, and left him preoccupied - he was not lying, I could sense, but he was not telling me the entire truth either.
If delivering commands to a Governor was a placid introduction to the duties of a Sensei, it was not an impression that was to last much longer. After a month of travelling from one world to another, delivering orders to reinforce vulnerable sectors, consolidate military strength in systems where it was soon to be needed, and ensuring the proper functioning of the Imperium despite the vanity, selfishness and idiocy of its aristocratic class - when I put my opinion of them to Paladin, he ruefully agreed, and lamented that Terra had no leader, besides the High Lords, who were no better than the provincial Governors - we received an emergency call from another Sensei, a woman named Serpentine who, Paladin told me, had been travelling among several of the primitive worlds on the Imperial frontier, subtly reinforcing the tribal worship of the Emperor that their human populations had developed.
"It's all gone to hell," she told us, by conventional vox carrier as soon as our ships had entered the system, "there's cult activity down here the like of which I haven't seen since a thousand years ago. My ship has been destroyed on the ground, but I had confirmation from them beforehand that the Alpha Legion is on its way."
"Traitor Space Marines," Paladin told me quickly, "remnants of the rebellion led by Horus, sustained by Chaos as their champions. The Alpha Legion are most vigilant in supporting the activities of blasphemous cults on Imperial worlds."
"Their warships are hours away," Serpentine said, her voice strained, "but that's not all. There's an army here already, fanatics and deviants, massacring the faithful. Paladin... they've got a Bloodthirster." Paladin was silent for a moment.
"We'll teleport to your position as soon as we're in range," he answered at last, "make your preparations." The vox transmission cut out, and Paladin began to give orders to his crew, for the Imperial Glory to engage the Alpha Legion ships. At his bidding I contacted my captain, and had him put the Stella Maris at the Glory's disposal for the duration of the battle.
"We will join Serpentine. We are three Sensei, fighting as one - it may be enough." I asked him what was down there, that needed all three of us to defeat.
"A Bloodthirster," he replied, "a daemon of Khorne. It is a creature of the warp, summoned and given flesh by the foulness who worship the Blood God. Do you remember what you saw at Haven? This creature is as close to Khorne as can ever exist here, outside the warp. It is a force of destruction unequalled in mortal history, the living embodiment of domination by violence. For a human army, only an assault on a colossal scale can defeat it. We will challenge it, and send it back to the filth that spawned it. Ready yourself for warfare, and be mindful of the techniques you have learned. Do not underestimate it, ever. There is hope, for us - Serpentine is a powerful psyker, even by the standards of Sensei, my own abilities in psychic warfare are considerable, and your tutors at Haven have spoken particularly well of you. Khorne hates all manifestations of mental power, and its beasts never make use of them. Remember that. Do not try to attack its mind, for it is a being utterly unlike us, but use your powers to defend yourself. Go now, and prepare for battle." I turned and headed for the teleportarium, to retrieve my battlegear from my ship.
"Rose," he called to me as I left. I turned back to him, and he was staring intently at me, as if trying to memorise me in every detail. "For the Emperor," he said.
"For the Emperor," I replied, and left.
Serpentine was young, by appearance - the heightened cellular regeneration of all Sensei was more pronounced in her, such that she looked no more than eighteen years, though her true age was closer to eighteen centuries. Her figure was slim and delicate - like an Eldar, had she been taller - and her face was expressive and angelic. But when I first saw her, moving among the tribal army she has amassed to fight the heretics, issuing orders and reminding the head-men of their oaths to the Emperor and their training in warfare, she carried a bleakness with her like a weight on her back.
"They are not ready," she said of her army, "trained as best I could, faithful without a doubt, but nothing will prepare them to face such an enemy as awaits us. If it were only a matter of men, they are brave enough - the wild tribes have attacked before, in great numbers, and many of the veterans who drove off their raids are here. But a Bloodthirster - Emperor help me, Paladin, I didn't see it coming. There were rumours of the wilders fighting amongst themselves, but to spill enough blood to raise such a thing - every act of butchery they committed among their own kind in the past year must have been dedicated to that foulness. There was no evidence of that kind of coordination, I swear on Terra's name - they must have had Alpha Legionnaires among them from the beginning, it's the only explanation. And we knew nothing! For the past five months I've had tribesmen scouting the wild lands, capturing the wilder leaders and spirit men, and none of the ones we took knew a thing of raising a daemon, not even rumours."
"You're not to blame, Serpentine," said Paladin, "the working of Chaos are a darkness to us all. I have been deceived by it before, far more than you. They can hide their intentions even from the likes of Tome." Tome was a Sensei I had heard of, both from Vestitus and my tutors in psionics - they reckoned him the most powerful psychic the Sensei had ever produced, though his power came at the expense of his other abilities. Bessan once told me that, if Tome's abilities continued to increase - and she saw no reason why they would not - he would one day be able to read the minds of whole populations at once. Serpentine nodded glumly.
"So they tell me," she said, gesturing towards a group of head-men, who offered a salute to us in return, "yet they, who have never faced a foe greater than a bear of a snow wolf now march to fight a Bloodthirster. How can they be prepared for that? I have told them of the aura of fear they will feel, and how it is false fear and can be fought with the Emperor's faith, but - by all that is holy, Paladin, you were there on Lethe, ten centuries ago, you saw what one of those things did. Against the Imperial Guard, Paladin, the blasted Iron Legion - whole platoons torn apart, lascannon barely scratching its hide, tanks thrown like toys! And what have we got here? Bows, and a few dozen bolters that I've only had three weeks to train them to use."
"We are both older and wiser than we were on Lethe," said Paladin, "and we are not alone." He rested a hand on my shoulder. "We will deal with the abomination, the three of us. Let your tribesmen handle the wilderness people, and leave the slaying to us." She nodded absently, still preoccupied by the thought of the slaughter she expected.
"I will tell them so," she said, "but even if we can banish the daemon, the battle will not be easy for them. The scouts say there are whole wilder clans on the move, ten, perhaps twenty times our number. I hope we can prove an inspiration to them. They will need it."
When the battle was joined, it was not long before Paladin, Serpentine and I saw our foe. Serpentine's tribal army had arrayed itself at the edge of a great plain, where the hordes of Chaos-worshipping wilder peoples were amassing. There was an element of ritual as the wilders let loose a great howl of rage, and the tribesmen bellowed a chant by way of answer - their dialect was a descendant of Gothic, and I guessed the translation to be 'your lands, your women, your heads', by which I suppose the tribesmen meant that all of these would soon belong to them. Their barbaric introductions out of the way, both sides simply charged, closing the mile or so between them with astonishing speed - the wilders simply yelling and waving axes and swords, while the picked men among our own army halted when they came within range, and let loose a volley from their bolters, as Serpentine had trained them to do, and the bowmen spread out behind the charging swordsmen and let their arrows fly over their heads. Their aim was good, with the bows at any rate, the arrows felling wilders left and right, causing their line to stagger - if they had ever had the wit to build and use bows, the worship of Khorne, with its love of face to face combat, had driven it from them. The fire from our bolters would have broken a drill instructor's heart - even after emptying her ship's stores, Serpentine had not had enough ammunition to give them more than a demonstration of live fire, and the kick of the weapons sent their shots everywhere. Nevertheless the press of wilders was so great that there were more hits than misses - even those shots that flew above their heads fell into their middle ranks, as the bolts expended their tiny fuel stores and dropped out of the air, causing groups of wilders to descend into a panic as shells exploded among them randomly. The destruction wrought by the bolters might have been enough to see them off but for their numbers, for even when the foremost warriors took fright of the explosions and hellish din of the weapons, the mass of men behind them gave them no option but to continue their charge, or be trampled by their own people. In any event, a great number of them were in such a frenzy that they barely noticed the carnage - I saw one man, bare to the waist and with great whorls of red paint - or perhaps blood - covering his chest, have his arm blown clear off him by a stray bolter shell, and not even break his stride as he leapt over the ground between himself and our lines.
Some wit once observed that no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy - having seen my share of battles, I can only say that an army without a plan is even more unlikely to survive. But once the wilders and our people came together there was little even a master tactician of the Imperial Guard could have done to influence matters, as the two hordes of screaming men ran into and past each other. Within a moment the battlefield had become a single melee, half a mile wide and close to two miles long. I could see only fragments of what was going on - it seemed to me, though, that our people were doing well against overwhelming odds, their faith and fatalistic determination counting well against the wilders' insane frenzy.
But it was still a desperate business, with blind luck counting for as much as skill and courage. At Paladin's suggestion I was looking for a stretch of ground containing only wilders, where I might do some damage without risking hitting or terrifying our own people, when Serpentine let out a cry and pointed to the low ridge overlooking the plain, where the wilders had come from. I turned to look, and saw groups of wilder men pushing huge, swaying towers of wood and animal skins mounted on great wheels - I wondered for a moment if they were war machines of some sort, then I saw that their only purpose was to show the bestial icons of Khorne, in whose shape they had been crafted. A ripple of terror passed through our tribesmen at the appearance of these towering portents of doom. Paladin had the same thought as I did, igniting his jump jets and soaring over the heads of the fighting men. As we flew towards the ridge I could hear Serpentine's voice behind us, amplified through her armour's vox systems, leading the tribesmen in a bellowed chant of faith. The wooden tower nearest me had cleared the ridge and was being pushed down the hillside now, gathering speed with its crew keeping it straight and upright - I saw one of them fall and be crushed beneath the tower's wheels, but the others didn't care.
As I landed a hundred metres from the tower I weighed up my options quickly, bearing in mind the effect my actions might have on the battle. I considered an incendiary bomb, but it occurred to me that the tower, still standing and ablaze, might only seem more terrifying. The best effect, I judged, would be to force it to collapse - then our people would see the icon of their enemies toppling, which would be a more certain omen of victory for them than if it simply vanished in an explosion. I thought the telepathic command to trigger the launcher on my shoulder, and using the holographic display that flashed into my eyes I set its target at one side of the tower, right where it was joined to its carriage. Then I said a word of prayer and fired.
The frag missile's wash swayed me, but the jets in my backpack compensated automatically, so that I didn't even stagger. It flew straight and true - with no enemy fire, I had given it no instructions for evasive flight - and exploded on contact with the wooden frame, sending a visible air-pressure shockwave and white-hot shrapnel scything through the tower's foundations, as well as its crew. The whole base of the tower was obliterated - its construction was more haphazard than I had thought - but the damage had been first, and greatest, on one side, and it began to topple sideways, breaking up as it fell. It landed with a terrific crash, throwing debris fifty metres in all directions, and I heard the strains of a cheer from the battle behind me. To my left Paladin had destroyed another tower, blasting its top with his storm bolter as he flew past it, shattering its unholy icons and leaving the tower a headless, smoking ruin. I checked the distance to the nearest remaining towers - there was one more to my right, which I could finish with a missile, leaving me to jet towards the others on my left - when I heard Paladin's cry: "Terra save us!" and from the wilders a great bellow of "Khorne!" The Bloodthirster had arrived.
There is no describing the sheer magnitude of a daemon to one fortunate enough to have never seen such a thing - a man may comprehend its height, shape and aspect, but never the effect that its presence has on the soul of any decent being who looks upon it. It was thirty metres tall, its skin red as the fires of hell, and from its canine jaws it let loose a roar that chilled my soul. I could feel the ground shake as its hooves crashed down, and a blast of air swept over me as it beat its great, leathery wings. In one massive claw it held a whip, as thick as a man's body at its base, tapering to a tip coated in spiked iron, and in the other claw it raised a huge double-headed axe, its dull bronze blades already awash with blood. Looking at it I felt a sickness I cannot truly describe - as if it held within it the certainty of mankind's fall from the Emperor's grace, and nothing could alter the course of the future it promised, when all men would grovel to such abominations and slay each other for its pleasure. It was a holocaust given flesh.
"Rose!" Paladin roared, as the monster drew in breath for a second bellow, "cover!" I knew what he wanted - his armour was heavy, built for endurance and firepower. Mine was lighter, and my jets had more fuel and greater manoeuvrability - I would distract the creature, keeping its attention while dodging its blows, while Paladin would aim for whatever vulnerable parts of it he could, and let loose every weapon at his command. I immediately took to the skies. Behind me I heard Serpentine's voice, "Imperator!" - the cry was taken up by our tribesmen, who had miraculously not broken and run at the very sight of the beast - as she took flight and neared us.
The sense of dread radiating off the thing grew stronger as I approached, but I recited a prayer of battle as I closed on it - it was enough to keep me steady. I flew across its line of vision, and saw it begin to turn as I passed - now I had its attention, it remained only for me to keep out of the way of the axe and the whip. I jumped again the instant my boots touched the ground, jetting away as it carved a trench in the ground with a flat stroke of its whip. An image of the Dance Without End flashed across my mind, the Great Harlequin dancing out of the reach of the Enemy. Below me I could hear Paladin and Serpentine firing with bolters, missiles and lasers. The shots seemed to merely rebound off its skin - its armour, I could see now that I was close enough: its body was covered in ornate plate armour, which was itself black, but was so stained with blood and gore that it looked like part of the creature's hide.
I continued to fly, keeping an eye on my fuel meter, while Paladin and Serpentine kept up their fire - he with what remained of his ammunition, she with bolts of psychic force. The Bloodthirster was beginning to notice them, though its frustration with me kept it from attacking them while I was still weaving before it. I began to think that we might kill the thing, and in that moment Paladin's words echoed in my mind: "Don't underestimate it." As if on cue the daemon beat its wings again, sending me tumbling on a wave of air pressure. I saw the blade of its axe slicing towards me, and barely managed to twist myself out of the way as it passed. The Bloodthirster howled in rage as it missed, but quite by chance the swing of its axe took it close to the ground - the blade touched, sending earth flying everywhere and turning the weapon, and then it slammed with its flat into Paladin, tossing him away like a broken doll. The daemon raised its arm for another strike at me - I don't think it even knew it had hit Paladin - and I half-ran, half jumped with a burst of jets, between its legs to where he had landed, as the axe crashed into the ground where I had fallen, burying itself for a moment.
He was alive, dazed but conscious - his armour was battered on the side it had taken the blow, but it had not cracked and he had taken no injury. But I could see he would need a moment to regain his senses, and he was too heavy for me to carry on my own. Serpentine was on the other side of the creature, trying to gain its attention with a ribbon of lightning arcing from her outstretched hand into its face. It slashed at her with its whip, then turned to face me, pulling its axe free of the ground.
I stood before it, and let fly with every weapon Omega had given me. A rain of krak missiles broke its chestplate - the armour-piercing rounds didn't fully penetrate its body, but they did some damage at least - and a hail of Exitus blasts from the cannon on my other shoulder carved a trail of fire across its stomach. The miniature Hurricane system at my sides opened fire, targeting automatically, covering its body with a blanket of explosions as the shells detonated. I unloaded an entire clip from my bolter, grenades and bolt rounds, and even the lasgun concealed within the laser sight.
The barrage did its job, but little more. The Bloodthirster halted for a moment - whether because of the impacts, or because it couldn't see through the blasts, I don't know. By the time it raised its axe again, Paladin was on his feet, and I took to the skies again. With my jets running dry of fuel I knew I couldn't sustain my diversionary tactics much longer, but I had to give Paladin more time to damage the creature, so that when we did have to close in on it, it wouldn't be able to simply swat us like insects. But at the same moment that my jets started screaming low-fuel warnings in my ear, the abomination became obsessed with me, ignoring Paladin and Serpentine completely, even when they saw my plight and poured fire into the beast. I felt the jets begin to weaken, and saw it ready for a strike - for all its bestial visage, it was a calculating enemy, and knew what was about to happen: I would run out of fuel, fall to the ground, and be obliterated by its axe half-way through my fall.
In desperation I flung out the web Bessan had shown me - she had used it as an example only, and I had never been properly taught how to generate it. I felt the strands uncoil from my spirit, twisting out blindly, as the jets weakened and gravity began to take me. Then, just as I was beginning to drop, a strand caught hold of something, and drew taut, then it spread throughout the entire web. It was holding me, supporting my weight with no effort at all, and I actually laughed at the joy of it as I flipped easily upwards, avoiding the Bloodthirster's axe by metres. It was just like I had dreamed - I could move my entire body through the air as easily and instinctively as I might move my hand. I heard Serpentine yell in surprise, then exultation, as I dodged the daemon's attack.
Now I found I had an advantage, at last. The monster's attention was still fixed on me, more than ever now that I had frustrated it again, this time with psionics, which its patron god hated so. But its size worked against it - the mass of muscle and bone within it made it slow, and now that I had no need to keep my jets properly angled, or touch the ground to allow the thrusters to recoil, I could dodge close to it without being hit. I ignited the two C'Tan blades in my gauntlets - their hilts slid into my palms, and the blue blades rippled into being, emitting a high, pure note as the sliced the air. I slashed at the creature whenever it was safe enough for me to get that close, and there was only the slightest resistance from its daemonic aura as the phased blades carved through its flesh.
It was beginning to slow, now. While I had its full attention Paladin and Serpentine had been unleashing hell itself, and the Bloodthirster was itself bleeding from a dozen crater-like wounds. It reared up, towering over us, and roared its anger to the heavens, a roar which was taken up by the thousands of wilders still fighting not far away. Then, summoning what must have been its last reserved of strength, it flung its whip at me, making me backflip over the massive weapon as it whirled past, only to see its axe descending towards my neck.
Time seemed to slow for me, in that instant, so that I remember every detail, for all that it happened in a sudden rush. I bent over backwards, craning my neck, and the downward blade of the axe passed within an inch of my face. By instinct alone, for I swear I had no plan in mind, I slashed with both my blades at the weapon as it passed me. One blade took a chunk out of the upper axe blade, but the other sliced cleanly through the haft, leaving the blades themselves, two square metres of razor-sharp metal, to fall slowly towards the ground. Positioned as I was - hanging in the air upside down, with my arms outstretched from my attack, like an inverted cross, and facing directly downwards - I was in exactly the right place to see the axe-head spinning slowly as it fell for half a second, then a rush of energy caught it in mid-air and hurled it with a sudden, intense speed into the Bloodthirster itself.
That sudden stroke - Serpentine, channelling all her energy into a single blast of kinetic power - brought me out of my shock-imposed calm, so that I twisted in mid-air and flew away from the daemon even as the blade struck home. I looked behind me as I ascended, to see the creature's body torn open, a huge, jagged gash from its chest to the middle of its back. Its dog-like head, I recall, was hanging by the half of its neck that remained, and it was still looking at me, its gaze a mix of rage and abrupt confusion. It blinked once, opened its jaws, then exploded in such a rain of gore and blood as I have never seen since. Its entire body simply ruptured, as if a great pressure within it had been released - and it seemed for a moment as if, within it, there was a ghostly image of itself, which quickly faded to nothingness as the remains of its physical body rained to the ground. Serpentine ducked at once, turning her back to the tide of gore, but Paladin was at her side in time, and I saw the shields of his armour flickering as they protected both of them from the rain of horrid flesh.
The wilders still outnumbered Serpentine's tribesmen, but the slaying of their great daemon took the fight out of them completely. Many surrendered, some killed themselves at once, and the remainder who continued to fight, hoping to break away and flee, were cut down by our fighters. Those who were captured by the tribesmen cowered in fear as Serpentine talked to the surviving head-men nearby, while Paladin and I watched from a distance - both the wilders and the tribesmen now regarded us with a combination of awe and fear, and kept their distance as respectfully as they could contrive. Imperial Glory and Stella Maris finally made contact, reporting a bruising skirmish with the Alpha Legion expedition - the traitor Marines had been routed, having underestimated the power contained within the two ships defending the system. I was pleased to hear Stella Maris had escaped any serious damage, and that her crew was intact and well - the traitors had all but ignored her at first, concentrating all their fire on the Imperial Glory, until Stella Maris's lances had torn apart a fifteen-deck strike cruiser in a single volley.
If the sight of the daemon, let alone its gory death-spasm, had been sickening, it was nothing compared to what came next. "There are still wilders who worshipped the daemon, and Khorne itself," he explained, "those too young or too old to join the war party, and the women." He frowned, and couldn't meet my eye. "We must... execute them. Their lives and souls are tainted by the power of Chaos. Alive, they are a threat to all the faithful on this world. Dead, their souls may beg the Emperor for forgiveness, and do penance for their sins. The tribesmen will see that none of the prisoners live." He was clearly ill at ease with the idea of it, and that he had to explain it to me as if he approved of it. "When I see such creatures as that daemon, I see the necessity for us to do this," he went on, "but to kill unarmed women and children... I curse this war we fight, for what it forces us to do."
With our two ships back at our disposal, the executions were swift, and for the most part remote - the wilder camps were far from any of the untainted populations, so all that was required of us was to stand on the bridges of our ships and give the orders that would send a single magna-melta orbit-to-surface warhead screaming down into each camp, obliterating it. Paladin and I teleported down to each site after the impact schisms had died down, checking for survivors - at each site there were none, and our bolters went unused. I was thankful for the total annihilation that the magna-meltas had wrought - the sight of bodies, or half-ruined tents and huts, would have shattered the very fragile calm I managed to preserve throughout.
I found myself guiltily relieved that the duties of a Sensei kept me from thinking too much about Exterminatus - the Imperial designation for the deliberate destruction of a population. Even so, what we had done was the most limited form of Exterminatus. In most cases of Chaos activity, all people with any knowledge of it - whether they aided Chaos or resisted it - would be condemned to death. In the event of the followers of Chaos gaining a strong foothold on an Imperial world, the standard practice is to release the Exterminatus Hades: the scouring of all life from the planet, which is then repopulated with a transplanted workforce and civilian population from a nearby colony. Even that is not always enough - sometimes the Inquisition authorises the Exterminatus Venenum, whose poisonous warheads render a planet uninhabitable by any life, human or otherwise, for hundreds of years. The Exterminatus Venenum is not the highest grade of Exterminatus, but it is among the most violent - any living creature exposed to the viral warheads' payload is eaten alive, their lungs disintegrating from within as they try to breathe, while the acidic vapours melt their flesh. In little more than minutes everything on a world meets this fate, and then the by-products of their decay ignite and scorch the world bare of any man-made structure in a colossal firestorm.
The thought of it troubled me, even more so after six months, when Paladin was reassigned, and I took on the duties of a Sensei alone - if such a situation of Chaos contamination now arose, it would be up to me to give the order to kill an entire world. For the most part, though, I was kept busy with a never-ending schedule of meetings with Admirals, Generals and Governors, dispensing the orders which the Illuminati had calculated to strengthen the Imperium's hold on the Segmentum Pacificus, which I quickly learned was defying the nature of its name, and instead becoming consumed by hundreds of petty wars. The Necron attack that had seen me leave the Sisterhood had been the vanguard of a scattered offensive, which was only now beginning to wane, making way for the depredations of roaming bands of Orks, alien pirates, and even groups of Eldar from unaligned craftworlds, caring not a bit for the non-interference policies decreed by the larger craftworld councils. Vestitus was sometimes in constant contact with Haven for days, relaying data to be stored and decrypted in Stella Maris's inorganic cogitator databases, along with lists of orders to relay, and armies scattered across a hundred systems whose impending battles would benefit from the presence of a Sensei, in the guise of a Sister-missionary of the Order of the Blade Corvus.
Vestitus had begun to concern me, though I had no reason to doubt him. When I had travelled in company with Paladin his presence had reassured me - he was a natural leader, but above that he seemed to have an unerring instinct for his duty, above and beyond the letter of his orders from Haven. Whenever we had gone into battle, particularly when the circumstances of the war were not black and white, and we relied on the Illuminati's intelligence to decide which side were the faithful, and which the renegades - for Governors and Commanders are by no means immune to the taint of Chaos, or simple greed, and a rebellion against a representative of the Imperium might easily be just - his resolution had reassured me. This in spite of the personal distance between us, which if anything grew over time - it seemed to me that, away from the battlefield and our diplomatic duties, he became positively nervous in my presence.
Another of the Sensei he introduced me to, Lily - a tall Amazon of a woman with jet black hair who was an absolute terror to her enemies on the battlefield, like the Emperor's wrath taken form - told me during our brief meeting that Paladin had always tended to be over-protective of the young Sensei he had been assigned. She suggested that it was my prominence on the battlefield that troubled him, for since my performance against the Bloodthirster I had taken on similar duties against all manner of enemies, flying dangerously close to war engines and elite troops - often with my jump jets emitting a vapour trail in my wake, to conceal my powers from Imperial troops who would find it suspicious that a Sister of Battle could do such things. Lily had trained with Paladin herself, and on the one occasion we fought together - against a Necron command force - I saw evidence of what she said, in the way Paladin kept an eye on me, and her, from his station on our flank, and periodically fires missiles or hails of bolter shells into enemies that were threatening us.
But no matter how Paladin reacted to me personally, he was a good leader, and I was sorry to be parted from him in more ways than one. Taking orders and advice from Vestitus, I was surprised to find that I didn't entirely trust him. I could sense that everything he told me was the truth as best he knew it, and all that I saw on the battlefield, and in the Imperial palaces and mansions I visited to see the Illuminati's orders delivered, corresponded exactly with the briefings he gave me beforehand. And yet I felt as if there was something I was not being told, no matter that - studying the briefings and orders in minute detail - I could find no fault in them, nor any areas where information had been omitted or misrepresented.
The truth is - looking back at it now - I didn't want to find any basis for my doubts. The Schola had taught me to serve the Emperor in all things, and then the Sisterhood had given me that opportunity - then condemned me. I had wandered, lost, and then the Illuminati had come to me, given me back my purpose, saved me from the complexity of life alone, and returned me to the comfort of having missions laid in front of me, ready for me to succeed or die trying. If there was something amiss with the Illuminati, what then? Though I didn't realise it I pushed my doubts to the back of my mind for a long time, until finally they would rest no longer, and they made me look into the mind of the man I was about to execute, and see his innocence.
The mission had been the cleansing of a Chaos-tainted population amid a war zone, a distasteful duty, but one I was becoming sadly used to. Vestitus had briefed me before I teleported down, on how, in the midst of a war between rival factions on a benighted tech-world, a relatively minor cult had suddenly revealed themselves as Chaos worshippers, and attacked their neighbours, hoping to overwhelm them with the advantage of surprise and the horror of the minor daemons they had managed to call forth from the warp. Their assault had been too early, too presumptuous, and their armies had been annihilated. All that remained was to execute the non-combatant members of the cult, who remained within the ruins of their home city. Rather than risk contamination of ordinary troops, the Illuminati decided to send a Sensei, immune to Chaos.
Those were the orders I was carrying out, as I moved from ruined home to ruined home, checking for any living beings, bolter ready. And then I had found that man, a poor, shrivelled wreck of a man, whose soul, battered and traumatised by war, was utterly devoid of the taint of Chaos.
I stood there for a long time, with my bolter aimed at him, so long that he lowered his hands slightly, so he could see me - even terrified as he was, he was wondering who I was, why I hadn't killed him. After several long minutes, which seemed an eternity, I lowered my weapon, turned, and left the ruins of his house. I signalled Stella Maris, my voice calm, and requested teleportation from the surface. By all rights I should have collapsed in a tearful heap at the realisation that the Illuminati had lied to be, had turned me from a servant of the Emperor to a murderer, but my mind was locked on a single necessity - I had to find out why.
Vestitus was in the communications centre, as he often was, a data slate in one hand, sifting through information. He looked up as I entered the chamber, began to speak: "Your mission went well?" Knowing by instinct alone what I would do I had already taken my right gauntlet off, so I walked straight up to him and clamped my hand around the side of his head. He dropped the slate, and then-
Vestitus was standing several metres from me. One half of the communications centre was as it always was, but the other half was replaced by half of a vast cathedral, in which stood a group of cloaked figures, each before a stained-glass window bearing their likeness. Vestitus was receiving an astropathic communication, his mind in two places at once. I stood behind him as he listened to his masters.
"Use the trigger words," one of them was saying to him, "activate her response to Chaos as you see fit. See that the Rose eliminates the entire group, then conduct data cleansing from orbit. The requisite codes are being transmitted to you." A burst of light flickered before Vestitus, unfiltered data streaming along the telepathic link, directly into his mind. He nodded once the light faded.
"Lords," he said, "she is becoming resistant to the triggers. If this is not corrected soon, she may begin to sense the controls in her mind. It would be best if she were re-conditioned by the Triumvirate as soon as can be arranged."
"It is barely a year since her initial conditioning," another of the Lords answered, "no Sensei has come close to breaking their conditioning so quickly."
"Your Lordships will recall," said Vestitus apologetically, "that I reported a high degree of resistance to manipulation in her. Her responses to the trigger words fade preternaturally quickly at times - in all honesty, we have been lucky that her own psychic senses have not asserted themselves during an operation yet."
"Your concerns are noted, Custos Vestitus," said the centremost of the Lords, "we shall attend to the Rose's conditioning when she returns to Haven."
"Thank you, my Lords."
"End transmission." At the Lord's words, the image of the cathedral blurred and vanished, collapsing to a point before disappearing completely. Vestitus frowned to himself.
-and the slate clattered on the ground. I shook my head, trying to clear the after-effects of being inside Vestitus's mind, his memory. He was still in my grip, immobile, his eyes darting left and right but his body entirely rigid. I collected myself and spoke to him.
"Why do the Illuminati want those people dead?" I asked. As I said the words, they echoed along the link between us, crashing into his mind with the force of a tidal wave.
"A Sensei was located among them," Vestitus answered, unable to resist. "We were slow in locating him, and his powers were advanced. His nature could not be concealed, and many who saw him guessed his link to the Emperor. The Illuminati do not allow outsiders to know the true nature of the Sensei. Their terminations were ordered."
"Why me? Why did you send me to kill them?"
"Only a Sensei could leave no trace. Any other method would leave evidence of our activities. The Illuminati do not allow any evidence of their existence, however slight, to remain."
"What is this conditioning?"
"The Triumvirate prepared your mind to be receptive to the orders of the Illuminati. Certain trigger words activate pre-implanted motivations in your mind, by which we can guide your actions and prevent you from learning that which we do not wish Sensei to know."
It was overwhelming, the scale of the betrayal. They had gathered the children of the Emperor, His own champions, and were using us like robots, programming us to do their bidding without question, standing between us and the Emperor - even turning us against His will, if it suited them. But after all the missions I had performed on this man's orders, there was one more question I had to ask, though I knew the answer would haunt me:
"How many innocents have you had me kill?"
"Three hundred seventy eight," Vestitus answered promptly. I almost lost my grip on him. It was too many. But then, if it was only one - then still one life, that might have become anything, had been snuffed out by my hands. One life, though, I could find a hold on the thought - almost four hundred was... just a number. I couldn't understand it at all, so I let myself be horrified at the thought of ending a single innocent life, because I would be damned if I let myself feel nothing. Somewhere I found the wit to give Vestitus a final command, while I had his willpower utterly subjugated: "Forget."
I had to find Paladin. He had been with the Illuminati for over a millennium, he had to know more about them than I did. Were there factions within the Illuminati vying for control? Were there those among the hierarchy we could trust? Who were the Lords I had seen - the masters of the entire order, or merely a part of it? Paladin might know - and even if he did not, he would believe me, he could sense I was telling the truth, and I trusted him to decide what should be done. If we had to return to Haven, to confront the Illuminati ourselves - and that was when I realised what I had seen, in the last moment of Vestitus's memory: the telepathic signal fading out, attenuating to a thin strand of power linking Vestitus and the minds of those he saw, before it was lost completely. But in that moment I saw the direction the signal came from, the distance it travelled - and unlike Vestitus, unlike any astropath, alongside the signal I had seen the faint glow of the Astronomican beacon. In the ever-shifting warp it was steady, unchanging, and it gave me the single fixed point I needed to lay a map over the spatial anarchy of the warp. I knew, in real space, where Vestitus's signal came from - I knew where to find Haven.
I had Vestitus contact Haven and request an update on Paladin's location - he didn't ask why, or offer any opinion, and I worried that I had permanently affected his mind, at least as far as I was concerned, for he had no resistance to me at all, though I was applying no mental force to him now. I put that concern out of my thoughts for the moment, telling myself that he had done far worse to me already. Knowing for certain of their existence, I found the implanted triggers he had spoken of, lying over my mind like a spider's web, and swept them away with a burst of anger. With my 'conditioning' no longer affecting me I was less agitated - the thought of defying the Illuminati no longer caused a conflict in me - yet the full realisation of my complicity in their crimes now came to me, along with the clear knowledge of how I had ignored my own instincts and followed their orders blindly.
Vestitus found the information I needed - the Imperial Glory was in or near the Helios system - and I gave the orders to my crew to go there. None of them questioned me either, though they were used to Vestitus delivering new courses to follow, and at the least being by my side when I was on the bridge. They were loyal to me, I realised - there was no conditioning in them, simply the sure belief that I, as a Sensei, deserved their absolute obedience. No doubt the Illuminati considered it needlessly complex to alter their minds, when instilling faith would do the same job - and if any of them ever realised the truth, they could be replaced, whereas a Sensei could not. I ordered full cruising speed to Helios, and returned to my quarters to pray for forgiveness in the hours our journey would take.
The Imperial Glory wasn't in-system when we arrived at Helios, but the Asp - Serpentine's new ship - was there, in company with another, larger vessel, which Vestitus told me, blankly, was the Vampire, carrying Tome, the Sensei I had heard about, whose psychic abilities were said to be phenomenal. Serpentine contacted me at once - she seemed to know that all was not well, and I accepted her invitation to teleport to the Asp.
"How did you learn the truth?" she asked as soon as I stepped out of the teleportarium. I told her about the execution order, how I realised their innocence, and what I had seen in Vestitus's memory. She nodded, then remained silent for a moment.
"There are a few among the Sensei who have suspected the truth," she said at last, "myself among them. We have some friends among the Illuminati - no-one with influence, but minor functionaries who do what they can to keep us aware of the situation on Haven. This was why we suspected you had uncovered something, your ship suddenly leaving its planned course and coming here - it was the only explanation. You may have uncovered far more than we hoped. You should meet Tome. He will need to know exactly what you have seen and done."
Tome was a slight man, middle-aged and slow in his motions. His face was deeply lined, beneath the hair which fell to his shoulders - he seemed to be always looking down and away from what was in front of him, so that his hair hid his features most of the time. He listened as Serpentine explained what had happened, then turned to me, glancing up at me briefly.
"You saw Haven?" he asked. I said I had. "Clearly? No interference, no distortion in the memory?" I said there had been none - the part of the cathedral I had seen seemed as real as the room in my own ship I had been standing in. Tome nodded to himself, touching the tips of his fingers together in a complex pattern, like a code of signals.
"She could be the one," he said at last, to Serpentine, "she should be told."
"Told what?" I asked her. She took a deep breath, then motioned me to sit beside her on one of the low couches in Asp's observation deck.
"The Illuminati have kept many secrets from the Sensei," she began, "mostly to facilitate their own ends. Their order was created by true servants of the Emperor, in the time following His ascent to the Golden Throne, but since then it has been slowly overrun by masters who value their paranoid secrecy and unchallenged power higher than His service. One secret above all they have sought to keep from us, for it would shatter the Illuminati, and free the Sensei and the Imperium from their grip forever. The Emperor of humanity is not lost to His people. Even as the remains of his physical mind is preserved on Terra, projecting the Astronomican and giving strength to the Astra Telepathica's psykers, His immortal soul has travelled the warp, watching over His children. The Illuminati have always known this, and more - they have always known that, one day, the soul of the Emperor would be reborn. That He would rise again, in the body of a mortal man, as He did before, and unite the Imperium, leading humanity into a new golden age. The Illuminati fear this above all else, for it would be the end of their power. They watch the Sensei, waiting to find the one who is the Emperor given new life. What they hope to do, if they find Him, we do not know - we suspect even they do not know, for the notion of standing in His way must be almost as terrifying to them as losing their grip on the Imperium."
"You said you had no high-ranking friends among the Illuminati," I said as she hesitated, "how did you find this out?"
"It was not from the Illuminati that we discovered the truth of the Emperor's rebirth," she explained. "You see, for all their power, the Illuminati - even the Triumvirate, their most powerful psykers - failed. They still wait, scanning the mind and soul of each new Sensei they find, waiting for the one that will bring about their doom, and the renaissance of the Imperium. For they failed to realise, when it happened..." she trailed off, as if she had trouble grasping the enormity of what she was telling me.
"The Emperor has been reborn," she said at last. "He is among us now, spreading the truth among those Sensei who have had the power to resist the Illuminati's conditioning. He has been waiting for one who would have the power, the art, to do what you have done - discover the Illuminati's most closely-guarded secret, the location of Haven, and the means to remove the Illuminati from power there. Among those few who know the truth, there were not yet enough with the power to defy the Triumvirate - but with the power you have demonstrated, it can be done. The Emperor will lead us to Haven, and from there He will spread the word among all the Sensei, freeing them from the Illuminati - and together we will change the face of the galaxy. He has known this day would come - He hoped you would be the one we needed."
"He hoped..." I began, "the Emperor, He... who is He?" What I was hearing was even more fantastic than what I had been told by Nomad, when he had first brought me to Haven - yet, just as I had known he had then, I knew Serpentine was now telling me the truth, and that the faith that swelled within her could only be for the Emperor Himself.
"You know Him," she said, "as Paladin."