Short Fiction

After the Craftworld

After The Craftworld

An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Chris Buxey
Reading Time: 19 minutes

‘All pulsar batteries lock on to the Worthy Tides! Destroy it the moment you have a firing solution!’ yelled Alara as she sprinted through the wraithbone corridors of the voidcraft.

‘I…yes my captain,’ replied Machmas. He was her felarch, a loyal lieutenant who never questioned her orders and had never once failed her in battle. Alara knew that he would not fail her now. Machmas said nothing further, and the comm-link went dead. Alara ran through the corridors of the Worthy Tides as fast as she had ever run in her centuries-long life. Behind her, the passageway filled with screams.

An hour earlier, Alara had been walking the corridor in the opposite direction, her steps slow under the crushing weight of the news she had just received.

‘Thirty-six million dead?’ she echoed. The number was somehow overwhelming in its enormity and yet also a meaningless abstraction. Elamdrad did not reply as he walked alongside her. He had nothing to add. The merchant princeling kept his head bowed, his porcelain features lined with the hard cracks of sorrow beneath his topknot of auburn hair. 

‘Thirty-six million…’ Alara repeated to herself.

‘Or thereabouts,’ replied Elamdrad, ‘the final tally of survivors is not complete. These are still fresh wounds. But that’s nearly…’ He trailed off.

‘Nearly all of us,’ finished Alara, running a hand through her short dark hair.

The ship felt numb, a psychic aftershock of emptiness that reverberated within its wraithbone hull. Refugees crowded  the corridors, just as they did in ships across the remains of their craftworld’s threadbare fleet. Backs propped against the elegantly curved walls with bundles of possessions at their feet as the dispossessed citizens of the craftworld plumbed depths of despair that only an Aeldari could experience. Somewhere, a brave soul played a lament on the psy-lyre, but the notes fell on deaf ears. Here a gyrinx nuzzled an unresponsive owner, there a grief-speaker applied the skills of his Path, but there was no consolation for the loss of a craftworld.

Captain Alara had brought the All Sorrow’s Mourn to the annual prearranged rendezvous with the craftworld of An-Angau at the edge of the Boten nebula cloud. The craftworld was not there. Instead she had found a refugee flotilla of Aeldari barques and dhows huddled around the eldritch merchantman Worthy Tides. It was a ship she knew well.

‘How is this possible?’ asked Alara, still unable to process the loss of An-Angau.

‘We have both travelled the spin and arc of this galaxy,’ said Elamdrad, ‘we know that anything is possible.’

Alara could only shake her head. She had always found the Worthy Tides a relaxing place to be, but there was little comfort to be found today. Normally the scent of wines and spices was deliberately cycled from the hold to entice visiting traders. Today the smell of funeral lilies was cloying in the corridors.. They walked on in silence until they reached the elaborate doors that led to the merchant princeling’s private staterooms. Elamdrad paused outside, smoothing down his robes of fine warp spider silk.

‘Before we enter you should know that the autarch-apparent is not lucid. I have not heard him utter a single word since he came on board,’ Elamdrad told Alara. He took the corsair captain’s hand, affection shining in his soft brown eyes. ‘It is good to see you Alara, even under these circumstances.’

Alara nodded once, then entered the staterooms. Autarch-Apparent Talriel was propped up on a chaise-lounge, his battered and scorched aspect armour at odds with their opulent surroundings, making Alara self-conscious of  her own corsair armour. Talriel did not look up as they entered. His youthful face was slack and his gaze blank, long ash-white hair framing his vacant expression. Farseer Matriarch Baelerana stooped nearby, attending to the catatonic warleader, her movements crystal-veined and slow.

‘Farseer Matriarch, what has happened?’ asked Alara. It was more a plea for answers than a demand.

‘Captain Alara, it has been a long time. I am glad you are here.’ The farseer took Alara’s hand, drawing her in close and adding quietly, ‘The shroud of fate hangs heavy around you today.’

‘Not as a funeral shroud, I hope,’ replied Alara, before blanching at her own words. ‘Forgive my impropriety Farseer, I have been on the Path of the Outcast for too long.’

‘Rather that…than this,’ replied Baelerana, placing a hand gently on the autarch-apparent’s unmoving shoulder, ‘and in answer to your question, it was the Ancient Enemy. Daemons were upon us before we knew we were under attack, flooding the parks and avenues of our beloved An-Angau. The unimaginable has happened – the seals on the portals in the Chamber of Midnight have failed after more than a hundred centuries.’

‘Is it not the task of your order to keep the wards strong?’ enquired Elamdrad gently. ‘And if they cannot be kept strong, to warn us of their weakness?’

‘Peace, Elamdrad,’ said Alara, holding an empty palm towards their host, before turning back to the elderly farseer, ‘Where is Autarch Cadarn?’

‘Missing, feared dead,’ answered Baelerana, ‘the same for his consort, Fásail. Both are seemingly lost, along with the Spear of An-Angau.’

Ardara shook her head in dismay. The loss of the Autarch and his consort would be a severe blow for any craftworld, but the loss of the potent pre-Fall relic would be felt especially keenly.

‘What of the Avatar of Khaine?’

‘Fallen fighting a vile daemon lord,’ said Baelerana. ‘We witnessed its destruction with our own eyes, and saw the daemon feast on the spirit stones that adorned its chest. All this was too much for young Talriel to bear. Autarch-apparent he may be, but the grief robbed him of his senses.’

‘Thank you seer, your ability to see the obvious does your path credit,’ interjected Elamdrad. The farseer matriarch fixed him with a gaze as hard as wraithbone.

‘I see more than you could possibly know, merchant.’

Elamdrad snorted derisively, an uncivilised habit he had picked up in trade from humans.

‘Walk with me, Alara,’ he said, turning and striding from the room. The corsair captain bowed her apologies to the Farseer, before reluctantly following the merchant princeling. Together they walked to a crystal-glass viewing area that overlooked the purple bruise of the nebula and the refugee fleet clinging to its hem. They watched in silence for a few moments before Elamdrad spoke.

‘We are the most senior individuals remaining from An-Angau, all that now passes for a ruling class. It is up to us to lead the survivors.’

‘Is this a council meeting then?’ Alara said softly. ‘Should we not include Talriel and Baelerana in this?’

‘Talriel is young; he is autarch-apparent only by dint of his family ties and the fact that no others survive. Besides, you have seen the state of his mind.’

‘And the farseer matriarch?’

‘She has failed us twice over already. Why allow her the chance to fail us a third time?’

A quiet note in Alara’s ear interrupted the reply that was forming on her lips.

‘Speak.’

‘Captain, this is Machmas,’ said her felarch, ‘our void dreamers whisper of a growing psychic pressure in the aether. The exact origin is unknown.’

Alara looked again at the rag-tag fleet. The ships were still, sunlight glinting from their solar sails. The nebula cloud hung over them menacingly, its depths impenetrable. She suddenly wondered just how lost An-Angua was, and if it would remain lost.

‘Get the ships moving. Shepherd them away from the nebula. Form a rearguard as best you can, and be on alert for hostile… craft, emerging from the cloud.’

‘Your will, captain.’ The link ended with another chime.

Elamdrad looked at her questionly, the half of the conversation he could hear more than enough to tell him that important events were in motion.

‘Something is coming,’ said Alara. ‘Pressure grows in the aether. We need to be on the alert and put some clear void between ourselves and the nebula.’ Elamdrad inclined his head in agreement, then opened a link to his lieutenant.

‘Olabyn, bring us about and lead the survivors away from the nebula. Coordinate with the All Sorrow’s Mourn, they will form a rearguard. Do what needs to be done.’

‘We should get back to the matriarch,’ said Alara, moving to leave the viewing area.

‘Alara, wait.’

The corsair captain turned back to look at Elamdrad. He was silhouetted against the lambent glow of the nebula. Behind him, ships were gracefully forming up into a flotilla, with All Sorrow’s Mourn a distant speck of light at the rear.

‘Before we return I should tell you the reason I brought you here to speak in private. I needed to share certain…whispers that have reached my ears.’

‘Oh? You trade in rumours now?’

‘There is precious little else left to trade with!’ exclaimed Elamdrad. ‘But you must hear this. Rumour has it that our late autarch’s consort – Fásail – was a Harlequin Solitaire.’

Alara’s mind reeled. Solitaires were chosen to play She Who Thirsts in the pageants of the Harlequins. Both respected and shunned by Aeldari, to take one as a lover was an act of supreme arrogance, even for an autarch.

‘Fásail was a Solitaire? But that defies all reason! To merely touch a Solitaire is to invite damnation upon yourself. To lay with one invites…’

Elamdrad said nothing, but gestured at the scene behind him. Across the void, the scattered refugees of An-Angau tacked their solar sails and began to glide away from the Boten nebula.

They walked back to the Elamdrad’s state rooms in silence. Alara’s mind churned over the significance of this rumour. She didn’t want to believe it, and yet… had their former autarch damned them all with his hubris? Perhaps more relevant now, had Autarch-Apparent Talriel known what his father had done? Did that explain his current state? She found that she did not want to look at the young autarch any more, her stomach roiling at the thought of his guilt by association. As it happened, Alara didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter; upon their return to the state rooms Talriel was the only one present. Baelerana had vanished.

‘Where is Baelerana?’ Alara asked Talriel, overcoming her revulsion to address him directly. The autarch-apparent did not respond, gazing through her exactly as he had done since she arrived.

‘Here is the third failure I spoke of,’ said Elamdrad with satisfaction. ‘It now falls to us to take charge of An-Angau’s legacy.’

Elamdrad took Alara’s hand in his and gently turned the corsair captain to face him.

‘We could lead together, united as merchant princeling and corsair princess.’ 

Alara withdrew her hand.

‘I’m a captain, not a princess. I’ve always protected An-Angau’s interests, but from the periphery, not the centre. That’s why-‘

‘Yes, yes I remember well,’ interrupted Elamdrad, waving away her objection with a hint of irritation. ‘How could I forget? You told me I was more in love with the politics and power of An-Angau’s court than I was with you. I still feel the wound of those words! But there is no periphery to protect any more. We are all that’s left! Here and now, we are An-Angau. What protects An-Angau’s future more than the founding of a powerful dynasty?’

‘I am flattered,’ said Alara, shaking her head, ‘but our relationship ended long ago, and this is not the time to rekindle it. We will get our people to safety, then we can worry about how An-Angua will endure. Now let’s locate Baelerana. I cannot think where she has gone or why.’

Elamdrad opened his mouth to argue further, then thought better of it. 

‘You said something stirs in the aether? Perhaps the matriarch has gone to investigate? Or maybe it is guilt and shame that cause her to hide her face. In either case, we will find her. She must still be somewhere onboard.’

Alara heard the quiet chime of Elamdrad’s communicator. The princeling paused for a moment to listen, his body language expectant, and then turned back to Alara.

‘News of Baelerana?’ she asked.

‘The matriarch can wait,’ replied Elamdrad, a gleam in his eye. ‘Olabyn has bought me confirmation of something I have suspected these past few hours. The Avatar of Khaine reforms aboard this very ship!’

Alara’s eyes grew wide. At last, a thin sword of hope to fight back against despair.

‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’

‘I had to be sure,’ replied Elamdrad, ‘but now it is confirmed. The gods themselves acknowledge my claim to lead An-Angau. There can be no surer legitimacy than that! We will build a new craftworld, with Worthy Tides at its heart.’

Alara turned to leave, but Elamdrad halted her with a hand on her armoured shoulder.

‘Wait, where are you going?’

‘Should we not see the Avatar for ourselves?’ she replied. Elamdrad hesitated.

‘I had thought to wait until He had fully reformed, and then unveil him to our fellow citizens as a sign of hope and favour.’ Elamdrad paused for a moment. ‘But yes, very well. I must admit to being curious.’

Together they hurried from the state rooms, heading down towards the wraithbone heart of the Worthy Tides. As they passed scattered groups of refugees, Alara noticed that a change in mood was slowly creeping through them. Heads were raised, eyes bright with hunger. She could sense the thing that her void dreamers had spoken of now; a gentle pressure behind her eyes and a quickening of her  heart. The refugees were restless, exchanging harsh words or jostling for space in the cramped corridors. She felt the hunger that she saw in the face of the others, although whether it was a hunger for a new future or revenge for past losses, she couldn’t say. 

‘Did Baelerana feel this too? Did she come to see for herself?’ Alara wondered aloud. There was still no sign of the farseer matriarch. ‘How did she get so far ahead of us when she is so near the crystal change?’

‘What the seer lacks in speed, she makes up for in wiles,’ observed Elamdrad. Alara was unsure whether that was a compliment or not. In moments they reached the sealed entrance to the wraithbone chamber that nestled at the core of every Aeldari void ship. A handful of surviving Aspect Warriors from different temples stood vigil around the chamber, their heightened sensitivity to the call of Khaine drawing them here before all others. The pulse of the Avatar’s reawakening beat through the wraithbone structure of the ship. Nearby a Swooping Hawk’s wings unconsciously twitched in time with the rhythm. Elamdrad cast an eye over the gathered warriors, doing a poor job of hiding his satisfaction at having witnesses to his moment of triumph.

‘Are you sure you won’t reconsider my offer?’ he asked Alara quietly as they stood before the great doors. Alara could feel a subtle heat radiating from the closed portal.

‘I am certain. Now that I have turned you down twice over please do not allow yourself a third failure,’ she said. Elamdrad frowned.

‘As you wish.’

Elamdrad strode forward and touched the doors. They swung open and together the merchant and the corsair entered, the eager Aspect Warriors following closely at their heels.

Alara had glimpsed the Avatar of An-Angua once, long ago when she trod the Path of the Warrior, its molten heat burning through the haze of a distant battlefield. She knew what it looked like when it led the craftworld to war, full of fiery wrath and ruin. But she did not know what she expected to see now. A humbled ember, slowly regrowing on a wraithbone throne, perhaps? Broken pieces joining back together? A sundered fragment of a god, majestic in its rebirth?

The thing that confronted them was none of those. The Avatar that crouched before them glowed with an obscene purple light, the metal of its frame flaking like diseased skin. A stench of ozone and hot copper filled the air. The Bloody Hand was bloody no more, but instead ended it a wicked looking pincer claw. Gone too was the arm that held the Wailing Doom, replaced by a nest of writhing tentacles. The Avatar slowly turned it’s lopsided head to look at the delegation of Aeldari, warpfire flickering in its hollow eyes, and let out an agonised scream.

Elamdrad fell to his knees in adoration of his god. The pulsing in the wraithbone around them had changed. It was no longer a psychic call to war, it was a demand to surrender themselves to abomination. It was a deep infrasonic hum that vibrated in the chest and stalled the limbs. An Aspect Warrior was the first to shrug off the debilitating effects. He opened fire, shuriken whickering out to nick at the Avatar’s frame. Alara scrambled back in terror, snapping off shots with her las pistol. Elamdrad remained where he was on the cold deck, looking up at An-Angau’s salvation. The mutated Avatar crossed the chamber in a heartbeat, untroubled by the desultory small arms fire. It scooped Elamdrad up in its claw and stuffed him wailing into its distended maw.

‘Fall back!’ cried Alara in anguish.

The Aspect Warriors obeyed, battle focus taking over from shock. Shuriken, melta beams and slicing orbs zipped out at the mutated Avatar as the surviving warriors of An-Angau retreated from the chamber. The beast screamed in rage, their combined firepower slowing it momentarily. The noise of the creature, the sound of weapons discharge and the psychic roar reverberating through the walls combined into a deafening cacophony.

As they fled into the corridor, a Striking Scorpion Exarch wordlessly took a defensive position in the doorway, buying the others a few extra moments to make their escape. His brave stand did not last; as Alara and the Aspect Warriors reached the end of the joining corridor, the crushed body of the Exarch came flying past, smashing into the wall like a broken trinket. Alara snatched a glance over her shoulder as they rounded the corner and just caught sight of the mutated Avatar crouching to force its way out of the door of its rebirthing chamber with the sound of cracking wraithbone.

Alara ran, not certain where she was going, just adamant that she must get as far away as possible. All around her the corrupting pulse of the Avatar’s cry echoed through the walls, a perversion of An-Angau’s noble call to arms. The Aeldari refugees lining the corridors took to flight, or collapsed in hysterics or else set about their former friends and neighbours with pummeling fists, goaded into a frenzy by the coming of the corrupted beast. One by one the Aspect Warriors accompanying Alara succumbed to the call of slaughter, turning on the maddened refugees or making insane last stands against the daemon avatar that stalked them. The corsair captain could feel the throbbing insanity rising in her too, but her long years on the Path of the Outcast gave her some resistance to the seductive bloodlust. The deaths of the Aspect Warriors and the difficulty the Avatar was having forcing its bulk through the corridors had bought her space and precious moments to consider a plan. She settled on one quickly; she would find Talriel – and Baelarana if she could – and  get off this ship. But most importantly, she needed to stop the corruption spreading to the rest of the survivors’ fleet.

‘All pulsar batteries lock on to the Worthy Tides! Destroy it the moment you have a firing solution!’ yelled Alara as she sprinted through the wraithbone corridors of the voidcraft.

‘I…yes my captain,’ answered Machmas, barely audible above the screams of dying Aeldari and the thundering footfalls of the beast.

Alara crashed through the doors of the stateroom, sliding to a halt on the fine marble floor. Talriel lay dead on the chaise lounge, his throat slit and a fine Aeldari blade in his bloody hand. His glassy gaze regarded her, finally empty of nightmares. Alara briefly considered closing his eyes, but realised that even in death she still didn’t want to touch him. Above her the crystals on a fine chandelier rattled in time to the approaching footfalls of the nightmare Avatar.

Alara ran back into the corridor just as the mutated Avatar rounded the nearest corner. It howled and loped towards her, its huge back bent to fit through the corridors as its tentacles writhed horribly. Alara turned and fled towards the aft, hoping against hope that the minor webway portals located there would still be active, and that they’d take her somewhere sane.

The corsair captain managed to put some ground between herself and the daemonic Avatar again, only to come up against another obstacle. The door in front of her was sealed, trapping her near the observation window where she had spoken earlier with Elamdrad. The wraithbone of the door pulsed with the same energy as the walls of the corridor. She attempted to put a las round through the door in desperation, but she may as well have been firing at the legs of a wraithlord. Alara turned to face her pursuer, horror creeping through her veins. The daemonic perversion filled the corridor, molten arteries of purple warp energy coursing through its corroded metal frame. The noise and sight of it filled Alara’s senses. With a shaking hand she took aim at its face, knowing it was pointless but not willing to surrender to fate. The Avatar laughed, and it was a sanity splitting thing to hear. But before it could strike, Baelerana stepped from the shadows, the fabled Spear of An-Angau clutched in her ancient hands, the relic glowing with the soft light of reason.

‘Come no further, beast,’ said Baelerana, thrusting the spear at the un-Avatar. The point struck true and the creature howled as the anathema of daemons burned away a splinter of its soul. Baelerana clung to the haft of the weapon as the beast thrashed and writhed in the confines of the corridor.

‘This is the moment of fate!’ called Baelerana over her shoulder, ‘Cadarn, Talriel and I were the past of An-Angau and we have failed you all with our hubris. You are the craftworld’s future! There can be no victory here, but you can lead our people to fight another day. Go!’

Alara hesitated, loath to leave the farseer matriarch to her fate. Baelerana seemed to sense her hesitation without looking around.

‘My path ends here! You cannot assist me! Go now!’

The beast pulled free of the spear and redoubled its attack, driven into a frenzy now that it had been wounded. It loomed over the farseer and lashed out with quicksilver speed, every blow intended to remove a limb or open an artery. Baelerana spun the Spear of An-Angua and deflected each blow a hair’s breadth before it hit home. The noise of each clashing strike was deafening and the motion too fast for Alara to track. Baelerana was guided by her foresight and the spear’s preternatural hatred of daemons, but her weary body could not keep up. The farseer was giving ground before the monster, slowly stepping back towards Alara with every impract. It was clear Baelerana couldn’t hold the corridor much longer. Through the viewport beside them the sleek form of All Sorrow’s Mourn loomed large, bringing its prow batteries to bear on the corrupted merchantman. Alara touched a rune on her collar and deployed the emergency void helmet from her armour.

‘I will remember you!’ called Alara.

‘You can’t remember me if you’re dead!’ grunted Baelerana as she span the spear in a whirling arc. ‘I’m not doing this for sport! The time is now!’

The possessed Avatar finally slipped a claw past the farseer’s guard, warp-chitin clashing with rune armour in a shower of blue sparks. Baelerana cried out and staggered, swinging the spear wildly in a desperate last ditch effort to prevent the beast getting past her. Alara turned and put three neat las rounds through the crystal-glass window. Explosive decompression carried her out into the void. A rush of noise outside her helmet turned to crushing silence. She deployed the thin wings of her corsair flight pack and rode the momentum of the escaping gas away from the Worthy Tides. Looking back through the emergency containment field that had formed over the shattered window, she could see the beast finally overwhelm Baelerana, disarming her and casting her messily to the floor. Alara said a silent blessing for the fallen matriarch before angling her flight towards her waiting ship. All around her blinding light suddenly lit the void.

 All Sorrow’s Mourn was an Aurora-class light cruiser, and Worthy Tides was merely an Agrimony-class merchantman. The haunted vessel came apart under the pulsar lances of the corsair warship like ice before the summer sun. Alara stood on the bridge and silently watched the firestorm take the other craft apart. The bombardment continued until the wreckage was less than dust and the void dreamers could no longer hear even the fading echoes of the false Avatar’s psychic call.

The task done the All Sorrow’s Mourn set its solar sails and led the battered survivors of An-Angau away from the Boten nebula and into an uncertain future. Alara was sure of only one thing – they were all on the Path of the Outcast now.

About the Author

Chris Buxey is a writer, laser safety officer and occasional Tony Stark impersonator. He lives in southern England with his wife and two children. Chris has been travelling the Warhammer 40K universe for nearly thirty years and has so far managed to keep his heresies hidden from the Inquisition.