by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
The transport compartment of the Wave Serpent was oddly lit, the only light present radiating from a system of hovering spheres. All were in mediation except for Milanus; all he could do was watch and think.
At times he almost pitied the Mon Keigh and their concerns. Here they were wasting untold lives and resources over a planet that nobody had cared about a century ago, and that nobody would care about a century hence. It was a waste. It was petty. Ultimately, it would be futile.
The deep crimson sphere in the center of the hovering system before him began to pulse as the other silver spheres began descending closer to it. Milanus sighed, wondering. There was no way the rebels could sneak up undetected led by their world's Avatar -- yet they were trying. The psychic presence of their fragment spot lit them, and he'd watched for days as they'd crept across the wasteland, hiding from patrols and aircraft. They advanced slowly, carefully, subtly. And he had watched them the whole time.
Closing his eyes he sent a message into the wraithbone mind to be passed on to the others: They will be here soon. Remember, do not react to them until they open fire with heavy weapons. This is the beginning.
Things were changing, sacrifices had to be made. Milanus had never told anybody how deeply his meeting with Shakarandras had shook him. For a moment flashes of memory spun through his mind: Shakarandras leading them with Yriel; Shakarandras leading them after Yriel abandoned them; Shakarandras leading them to Haras ag Iadonna and redeeming them all. The good memories. The memories that couldn't prevent what had to be done.
Though Milanus hadn't been there when Shakarandras was killed, he now knew everything had changed that day. Now Shakrandras brooded, kept secrets, sent forces on suicide missions ensuring only that their waystones were returned. Not caring about their lives. Iyanden might fight with the dead, but they weren't led by the dead.
The system of spheres contracted more as the silver balls orbited the pulsing crimson faster. The wraithbone of the transport sang to him: Nicanthus reports enemy sighted, sentries are down. They appear to still think they're undiscovered.
Milanus sent an acknowledgement which the wraithbone relayed.
He'd thought of trying to talk to them, trying to create an alliance, but he'd seen that path lead to his death and the damnation of them all. There was a way, subtle, dangerous. The Harlequin had shown him that way. Right now the Mon Keigh Red Guard Aspects were attacking a defensive point on the Red Plain, and the defenders were doomed to fail. Improper preparation, carefully briefed leaders... and the majority of them the most intense loyalists to Shakarandras. It had to be done, and Kiontalus had strict orders to sue for terms and recover all the way stones. Milanus would sacrifice those who would have to lose their mortality, but he would not sacrifice their souls!
Again the wraithbone sang to him: Nicanthus estimates the enemy is almost in position.
It was almost time.
She couldn't take this any more!
All around Belfessa the others sat in silent contemplation, the blood symbol of the Scorpion dry upon their foreheads. Even her sister sat calmly. In fact all sat calmly ignoring her, except Tansilus. His helm was never off and even though he didn't move Belfessa KNEW that Tansilus was looking at her, looking at her with disdain. Well, Belfessa knew that she was ready! She'd trained, she'd joined the temple to be with her sister, she'd passed the trials. But she was going to screw up, she knew--
Tansilus's cold voice echoed through the transport: "It is time."
With a clackle of wraithbone plates the rest of the squad pulled their helmets from the hooks and Belfessa followed. Her vision turned red, and all uncertainty, all nervousness, all fear, vanished and was replaced with a cold hatred. A thin red film drenched her vision and she was ready. Cold, hard, certain. She would do what it took. The minor spirit in the helmet meshed with the minor spirits in the armour and Belfessa's sensorium expanded. She could see all around her, seemingly feel the warm bone seats on her naked skin. Status readouts flashed through her mind and in one corner of her sensorium an exterior view showed a Wraithlord firing on the Wave Serpent.
The transport jerked forward as one of the turbines spun out of control, the compartment vibrating with increasing force. With a loud clack every member of the squad grabbed bracing rails. The vibration quickened, becoming audible, a high pitched screech filtered out by the psychic field of the helms. Then silence, and a massive jerk as the Wave Serpent smashed down into the ground.
Through all this the squad remained silent.
Tansilus pulled the manual release to open the hatch and the squad clackled down crouching behind the smoking wreckage.
The sky was a cold red-tinted silver, cloudless, glistening with sunlight. A faint black smoke rose from the wreckage of their transport and the sound of high energy weapons and the shiver of unresolved psychic charges wavered across battlefield like a faint dust. Under Tansilus's command, her sensorium focussed, the rest of the battlefield fading into the distance and all their senses focusing on the wraithlord advancing towards them with a slow, deliberate pace. A small fraction of Belfessa shook in fear and awe as the enemy wraithlord peered at her soul, but that was ignored as the rest of her began creeping through the wreckage of the transport. Small bits of scarred wraithbone broke under her fingers, and she felt the semi-sentients inside flowing into the attached prepared crystals for later reuse. A bone spider scuttled out of the way and crawled into the damaged engine already beginning repairs. In the distance a burning brightness, a psychic Presence, forced its way into her sensorium and almost physically she turned as a squad of Howling Banshees ran across the reddish-powder and leapt into the enemy guarding the God. No, not her God, their God!
Tansilus pulled her mind back and she focused on the enemy wraithlord still recovering from its assault on the transport. He gave the order and the entire squad leapt to the attack, their souls flickering behind the psychic fields around them.
With the aid of her suit, Belfessa pushed her terror back into a tiny corner. She couldn't hurt the wraithlord, none of them could except for Tansilus, yet the rest of them were necessary. They were distractions, tools of the whole wielded by their Exarch. Crystal splinters spat from their helmets followed by pulses of laser, but all they did was scar the surface of the enemy. Tansilus ducked under a grasping hand and tore a slice from the construct's legs and it staggered but stayed upright, grabbing Saniltes and snapping his spine before throwing him away.
The dance continued, Tansilus ripping chunk after chunk out, but never getting in a disabling blow, and each of the construct's strikes killing one or two members of the squad. Soon Belfessa's pistol was sadly empty, and only the psychic joining of the suits kept the squad from breaking. Barely half were left before Tansilus finally ducked under an outstretched arm and ripped a primary spirit-trunk out of the lower portion of the body of the construct. As one they leapt away from the falling form.
Milanus was afraid. So much calculation had gone into this ambush of a raid, and now it was beginning to unravel. Had he waited too long? His transport lurched with another hit, and the vehicle's spirit told him that the primary weapon system was disabled but the spirits were certain they could reroute. The enemy, misguided as they were, continued to advance, pressing towards the small supply dump, and even though they'd been fools on the strategic level bringing their Avatar with them, they weren't on the tactical level. Milanus grabbed his runes out of the air just before the vehicle stopped. Now was when he was needed, and here was where he was needed. He could only hope he was right.
The wraithbone flowed and separated, dropping the reinforced ramp, as Milanus led his bodyguard out. He'd watched the battle through the feeds in his helmet, and even now the reality paled beside the simulation he'd been watching. With his arm he motioned towards the enemy Banshees and his bodyguard nodded and bent the warp to their minds. Milanus watched as the dust shimmered and wavered, as a wave of psychic nothingness formed, curdling from the outstretched fingers and runes of his bodyguard and coiling across the plain towards the target. They stopped, the spirits in their suits trying to resist, but the power was too much and the tiny suit-spirits curdled and died, the wraithbone blackened and curled as though from heat, and their souls fled into their waystones to remain safe from The Enemy.
For an instant, the silent shock of an outraged reality reverberated around the plains, but then almost all of the surviving enemy turned their rifles onto him and his bodyguard and opened fire. Holding runes in his hands, Milanus sought a path and his vision transformed into cascading layers of reality, Eldar dying around him from one shot, or another, or another, depending on what each did. While the crystal slivers were still in flight the future solidified into the best available, and his bodyguard moved in front of Milanus as he flowed to the side. All his bodyguard went down under the onslaught, but he survived and in the ensuing he drew his witchblade and felt his soul flow into it as he began running towards the nearest squad of the enemy.
He would not die this day, but too many others would.
A happy feeling informed Belfessa that her pistol was reloaded as she crouched behind the wreckage of the wraithlord. Although enemy troops were falling, their God kept them from breaking and slowly He was killing those attacking Him. A handful of enemy were left, tripping and struggling over the bodies of the dead of both sides as the Aspects already engaged killed and reaped. The God raged, his fueling his fire. A part of Belfessa wanted to join Him, to give herself unto the blood hatred and kill, and kill some more, but the linked souls of the squad kept her spirit from answering the call
Tansilus decided and as one they leapt over the wreckage and ran towards the God, the clackle of their movement across the rock and sand washed away by the God's psychic presence. With quick slices of whirring swords and bright spits of laser, Belfessa hacked her way through the guardians. A long-practiced slice of the sword took one of the enemy in the chest, the whirring teeth splattering her arm with blood as the body shuddered and died, only sliding off the blade as she lowered it towards the ground. Ilsana beside her staggered as shuriken tore through her chest and emotionlessly Belfessa fired over her sister's falling body taking out the Guardian who'd shot her.
And then only they and the God were left. With disdainful ease He swung, sending the head of one of the Banshees spinning off into the reddish sand, blood spraying out as the soul fled into her waystone. Belfessa struck through the opening in the God's defense and her chainsword scraped against the iron body, the heat and hatred making the spirits in her weapon cringe with terror. At the last instant she leapt back as the God struck at her, and she watched as Tansilus seemed to climb its back and clasp the God's head in his claw, and he squeezed. The God screamed as the iron began to crumple and somehow it spun its sword around. With a move she couldn't follow Tansilus deflected it, the God's weapon tearing teeth from Tansilus' blade as it scraped along the biting edge.
The God screamed louder, and then its head cracked and exploded, releasing a fountain of fire and hate into the heavens, throwing them all back as the shell dulled and slowly fell to the sand.
One by one Milanus struck the enemy down, their robes tearing and collapsing around their bodies like a gentle shroud and then fading to a dusty red as the chameleoline adjusted. He knew where their blows would land, where their pistols would aim, and he was holding his own. More came in and Milaus knew that they would take him down eventually, but not yet. Spinning, he struck another one down, his mesh armour shattering beneath his psychic blade, and he felt tears in his soul that the blood rage of battle would not let him shed.
An aged Peregrine moved around behind the enemy and a squad of Dire Avengers ran out, charging the enemy that surrounded him. They joined into the death, each side stumbling over the bodies of the dead.
Belfessa didn't have time to rest as Tansilus moved their sensorium around and focused it on a squad of the enemy moving towards the outpost. Tansilus charged into a clackering run and Belfessa followed along with the other survivors of the combat, all leaping over the bodies of the dead. On top of the cliff Dire Avengers crouched at the edge of the drop and released a rain of shuriken upon the enemy, but the enemy's cloaks blended into the dusty soil and too many shots missed. A Wave Serpent tried to interdict their path, but they oozed around it, though the fire from its turret-mounted cannon dropped one.
Tansilus slid to a halt in a cloud of reddish dust and Belfessa crouched beside him. Somehow Belfessa knew that Tansilus knew they would never reach the enemy in time. They had only one chance. As one, the entire squad readied their pistols. Belfessa focused on the leader, somehow finding him buried in his cloak that blurred into the sand. She fired, and the leader fell as shuriken ripped into him in splashes of blood that stained the chameleoline red.
The enemy lowered their weapons and Milanus held his sword at the ready and throughout the battlefield combat ceased. Even the mercenary Kroot knew it was over. One of the enemy sheathed his pistol and spoke: "By the ancient laws we accept your victory, and we petition to withdraw."
Milanus sheathed his sword. "By the ancient laws I accept your loss. I will care for your dead."
"We thank you."
Milanus took a step forward. "It is not too late for you to return. Things are--"
"It's too late. You've chosen -- I pray it won't consume the universe more than it has." He turned away, gracefully stepping over the bodies of the fallen.
This fight was senseless! Shakarandras was the enemy, they knew that. Why wouldn't they help? They had to help! Reaching for his pistol, Milanus called out, "Wait--!"
With a whine that echoed over the sorrowful wind, weapons were raised and readied. The one who'd spoken spun around, his robes whirling around him. "You'd betray the ancient laws?!"
Milanus sighed and slowly removed his hand from the holster. "I would not. I... I thank you for reminding me of those laws. As we agreed, you may withdraw."
Slowly the weapons were lowered and the enemy began to retire, ordering the Kroot to follow.
Upon Tansilus' signal, Belfessa released her helmet, and released her bundled hair to fall down her back. The air was dry, cold. The once silvery sky was clouded in black smoke and the air was filled with the stench of death. Letting her helmet fall to the sand she slowly turned around and made her way back to the carcass of the God. Already it appeared to have been there for a century, its shell decaying before her eyes into a reddish dust. It was easy to find Ilsana's body, to undo the catches of the helmet and to pull it off. It was easy to look into her wide open, lifeless, staring eyes. Spittles of blood had dried on her chin. It was impossible to turn away.
Slowly Belfessa reached down to her sister's waystone. It was bright now, swirling with the warm colours of the soul it sheltered. She held it up to her cheek and felt the warmth of her sister's soul through her tears.
His Wave Serpent relayed a message from Kiontalus: the Mon Keigh Red Guard had been victorious and had taken the defensive point and he'd had withdrawn under a flag of truth. Too many had died there, and too many here. And, not enough of Shakarandras' loyalists. Worst of all, the waystone of a guardian had been destroyed by the fire that had killed him.
Another soul lost to The Enemy.
Milanus looked up, all around him the survivors were wandering lost, except for the Exarchs. Sorrow welled up from his soul but he forced it down. He had to be strong. The Harlequin had warned that the price would be high, and only now was he beginning to realize how high.
Bitterly he closed the connection and looked around at the bodies, at the survivors. "Prepare an honour guard to take the dead home. All of the dead."
He hoped that Shakarandras would choke on them.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at email@example.com