The Tale of the Mirror Unfettered
An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Kyle Tam
Reading Time: 35 minutes
There is a place that exists outside the edge of reality, accessible to a chosen few of great power and strength. It exists at the edge of imagination and sanity, hosting a vast expanse of all known knowledge.
There is a way to reach out to it, if you are careful.
Think of nothing but staggering emptiness.
Understand that in this universe you were born alone, and will die alone, an insignificant speck in the grand and total vastness of reality.
Do you see it, coming closer, growing larger?
It is not a wall, as you may think in the depths of your despair.
It is a door.
Jet black and emblazoned with a sigil foreign to you.
It is your only hope of escape.
You stagger into this unknown chamber, unable to breathe or think. Around you is the sound of steel on steel, the sight of unnatural fae dancing and weaving a tapestry of sword and movement.
For a moment, your breath leaves you.
A lithe figure stands out, handling each opponent with uncanny grace and ability, clad in a swirling coat of indescribable colours and smirking mask. All others are silent in concentration, but as your wits return you can hear the figure’s mocking laughter. It is toying with the others, always three steps and four movements ahead. Untouchable. Then all halts, and the troupe turns to you as one. The masked figure in his coat of a million colours bows.
‘Welcome to our show, honoured patron. I am Au’reale, the leader of this merry band.’ Around you the light begins to dim, until a single spotlight illuminates Au’reale, whose coat begins to shimmer brilliantly. ‘We are the Masque of the Crimson Edge, and our mission tonight is to both entertain and educate you.’ Behind the showman a curtain is illuminated, dyed a deep and menacing red, marked by the emblem of a laughing mask eerily similar to that adorning Au’reale’s face. They move into position directly behind you as the curtain begins to ascend.
‘Our kind are known by many professions. Performers, guardians, prophets, warriors and dreamers.’ The curtain opens onto an empty stage, unadorned, but this is no ordinary emptiness. It is that magnetic emptiness of the void that calls to you, daring you to dive in. ‘Of course, we are most well known by one epitaph and one only.’
A gong sounds, enough to make you blink for merely a moment. When your eyes open you see the stage now occupied. The two are in a sweet and loving embrace, one elder with firm hands stroking the flowing hair of the younger.
‘As our story begins, the wheel of fate turns…’
‘Why did she have to leave us, Father?’ Illaris would never see her mother again, never hear her lullabies, or fall asleep in her arms. Her sobs are muffled into the clothing of her father Rhystaros, who for the sake of his daughter had to put on the pretense of a strength he didn’t truly feel. ‘My child, only her body has left us.’
With tear-stained eyes the girl looked up, suddenly brimming with hope. ‘Truly?’
‘Truly.’ From a pocket he procures three jewels: one a shimmering blue, one a resplendent gold, and one a pure white. The blue jewel is pulsing and brimming with light, and it is this the girl tentatively reaches to hold. ‘These are Spirit Stones, which we hold in order to-‘ He hesitates. She is so young, was it worth telling her about the Fall? No, not yet. There is so little innocence left in the universe. ‘In order to give us a better link to those who pass, so that they may join the eternal cycle of our ancestors.’
He passes her the white jewel as well, making sure the girl keeps it safe and sound. Carefully, he thinks on the options before him. ‘Would you like to see where we will bring her?’ Illaris nods excitedly, and hand-in-hand father and daughter head together to the centre of their world, surrounded by the austere and proud hallmarks of its people.
The father and daughter begin to walk away from the centre of the stage, and around them is illuminated a complex hive of structures, threads of strength woven together and binding the world and its people. It pulses with a warm, honey-coloured glow, overwhelming in scope. You feel as if you are heading deeper into the heart of this place, and indeed it feels as if the door they are heading towards grows larger and larger until the actors knock.
It is opened by another in regal attire, wielding a fearsome staff. His mask is almost blank save for a delicate symbol carved into its right cheek. The father and daughter kneel before him, presenting the shimmering jewel to this elder. Hands outstretched between them, they halt as your host once again takes up the thread of the story.
‘What you see before you is the heart of eldar-kind. Living in worlds of their own creation, woven with the energies of the universe into physical form, beating with the hearts of their ancestors and forefathers.’
Swiftly the jewel is passed over, placed into the heart of a crystalline sun. A surge of blue energy bursts from it and lights the sky above, mingling and finding its way into the structure around it. It pulses, like a heartbeat, deep within the veins of the world before fading into obscurity. The father breaks away from the daughter, her arms outstretched and grasping for thin air as he moves further away. Another comes out of the shadows, clad in leather mystery. The father takes the hand of this stranger, and they begin to sway and dance together.
‘Of course, for all the purity and pride those people hold, there are always temptations that draw them away from their principles. In the case of the father, it was the call of his baser instincts and the allure of companionship. So he strayed, and with filial respect his daughter followed.’
Emerging from the shadows, in dark clothing of metal and leather, the dancers take their place. From a place unseen to you a melody is piped into the room, resonant with bass and the sounds of suffering. It is unnerving, but the movement on the stage is in perfect harmony. Step by step, moving and twirling in this unending dance, as the warmth of the honeycomb pulls away to be replaced by grey threads woven together across the stage.
Like a web.
Like a trap.
The dancing has distracted you, and now the stage is divided in half and bridged by a single door, still adorned by webs of deceit and fear. On one side is the father and his new companion. They are embracing passionately, laughing delightedly. On the other is the young girl, kneeling before the door. Knocking. Knocking. Her head is bowed, and her shoulders are shaking.
‘Father? Father?’ Illaris knocks on the closed door once again, but again there is no answer. She is afraid, in this new place. She is afraid of the people here, who leer at her with their ugly eyes and say all manner of obscene and terrible things. She is saddened by those in their cages, the ones who try to run and the ones who don’t, covered in scars and begging for death.
Eventually, the door is opened, but it is by that woman. Half-dressed as always, there is no sign of Illaris’ father when the girl tries to peer in barring a figure too far to see clearly. She spits on Illaris, sneering as she speaks.
‘What do you want, you little brat? I thought I told you to leave.’
Whimpering, the little one speaks. ‘W-Where is my father? I haven’t seen him in days, and I… I-I…’
A sharp, barking laugh, her cruelty unfettered. ‘And you should leave. Right now, if you know what’s good for you.’
Shaking and sobbing, Illaris runs. Behind the door there is a drowsy, addled voice. ‘Astyria, wuzzat my little girl? Daddy misses his lil’ girl…’ The temptress turns on her heel, slamming the door shut. What was once a man of honour is now a wreck, incoherent and unable to discern anything of the world around him. There are needle marks traced along his body, his face and body emaciated. A dead man walking.
‘Don’t worry yourself about that. Just a pest.’ Another needle pressed into the skin and he is emboldened with chemical bliss. His captor ensures the father is asleep before passing through the room into a hidden door.
The woman enters a chamber as the world pulls away. This hall is austere, adorned by nothing but a simple frame holding glass within. She looks into it and sees her twin, and you realise that this is not a frame but a mirror. They move, perfectly synchronised, until the temptress waves her hands and in a cloud of purple mist it is no longer her twin but the little girl in the mirror.
And then it is not her, but a lady fully grown, clad in pure white. Tall, fair, beautiful.
She is eternity.
She is purity.
She is perfect.
Then it is no longer the woman, but pure nothingness except the bedraggled visage of the temptress. Unable to look on the scene any longer, she strikes the mirror. Again and again and again, each strike brings forth a flurry of red petals from her arms, until she is surrounded with them. It is horrifying. It is mesmerising. She breaks down in tears, sobbing, and for a moment you wonder if this life of hedonism is what she wanted. If, perhaps, she yearns for that which she can no longer be.
But her sobbing turns to laughter, shrieking and shrill, and your sympathy fades as quickly as it arrived. From the shadows emerges what you can only presume is a warrior, because they are dressed in a shell of clothing that looks jagged and rough, bone white and fearsome. In their hands they hold two wicked looking swords, but they stand to attention firmly. Her cruelly pointed finger is directed towards the door, and with a nod the warrior moves. Faster than the wind. Faster than the world.
They are gaining on the girl, and all you can see are those two, running in circles. For a brief moment you wonder if they will stay in this perfect cycle, chasing and chased. But then, to your horror, you see that the gap is closing. In desperation, the girl takes to the skies on wings of silver, flying into the heights of the stage and coming so close to you at such a furious speed you feel a gust of wind as she passes close to you with her Hunter close behind. He is gaining. Unstoppable. Furious. Frantic.
She will be lost.
You try to reach out to grab the Hunter, but your host halts you. You sit back to try and enjoy the show, attempting to relax and let the events proceed.
And they do, in a blaze of glory.
A burst of light and the girl lies floating on her wings of silver. The Hunter soars, heading in for the kill. There is another explosion, another barrage of fire and noise. Who and what is causing this? Frantically you scour the room for any clues, as does the Hunter, when both of you lay eyes on something you can scarcely believe. It is a contingent of other actors, they are clad in looser, coarser clothing. One is commanding the others into action, as a particularly nervous individual hurls a barrage of explosives in a relentless assault while the others unload all of a staggering arsenal of weapons.
The Hunter is adept, dodging and diving to avoid everything aimed their way, but they are not well-equipped for this kind of battle. A well-aimed bomb clips one of the Hunter’s wings, and they plummet out of the sky in a plume of brilliant purple smoke. The contingent cheers until one of them points out the girl still floating. There is a huddled discussion which you cannot overhear or understand, but judging by their actions and frantic glances they are deciding what to do with the girl.
She is descending.
Only one of them has noticed, and he motions to the others, but they are still too trapped in the bureaucracies of their lives to notice she is falling. A single moment of hesitation, but then he grabs a clunky device and takes to the sky. It creates clouds of noxious fumes that hang over the stage, but it is enough. He carries the weight of this little girl in his arms and retreats to the ground.
Before you the stage shifts to a utilitarian room filled with eight beds and assorted clutter. It looks lived in and homey, and you can see the soldier struggle under the weight of the girl as a larger friend easily and delicately takes and places her on the bed. All of them leave for their own devices except for her rescuer, who begins running a battery of tests with urgency.
‘Thank the Emperor you’re awake.’ Blinking back bleary eyes and confusion, those are the first words the girl hears upon returning to the conscious world. It is a reassuring voice, young and full of hope, and she cannot help but take a liking to its owner. There is a needle embedded in her arm pumping in some strange viscous liquid, and the voice immediately becomes apologetic. ‘I must admit, I couldn’t give you the care you probably need. My specialty’s battlefield medicine, not long-term care, and a lot of it is guessw-‘
‘Why did you do it?’
A long silence before he pats her arm reassuringly. ‘Listen… how about I show you around first? Get you acquainted, and all that. I’m sure you’ll like it.’ It’s not the answer that the girl wants, but her body feels heavy and laced with sadness, so she agrees. Carefully, carefully, the man carries Illaris in his arms, and for a moment she remembers a father who once carried her this way. But then he is gone.
It is humble, but as the girl is carried through the barracks she marvels with audible gasps. Lived in, almost, with the warmth and comforts that accompany such a place. It is iron and steel crudely cobbled together, but in many ways more real than where she has been. They chance upon a small, ratlike man, verbally sparring with another soldier more interested in the sparking machinery at his feet. Both have been arguing audibly through the hallway, but in the presence of a child they halt their bickering.
Soon there is the sound of laughter as the small man begins to ape and mimic tales of adventures past. A scant three minutes, no more, but in those three minutes she comes to learn that these are no ordinary men she is in the presence of. She laughs and it sounds like the tinkling of bells, and there is peace among them.
She bids the two farewell, who soon resume their argument at a reduced volume. Already there is change coming to this place, drifting on the wind. A different room this time where two of the soldiers, for she knows now that is who they are, are playing a game of cards. As the two approach the larger of the two, heavy and solid as a mountain, invites them to play.
The game of cards is an excuse to converse, rules being discarded easily and often made up along the way. Between hands they tell her stories, some so absurdly fanciful they cannot be true, others too brutally blunt to be false. In their words are their hardships, comrades lost, and scars gained, but even so they still smile and laugh with each other. She in turn tells them of her trials, but is interrupted as the large man abruptly holds her close to his chest in sympathy and kindness. It is the first time in a long time someone has held her like this, and the starlight girl finds that she is blinking back hot and bitter tears. The other man hands her a biscuit, charred crisp on the outer edge. It’s the best thing she’s eaten in a long time.
‘If the worlds were full of kindness such as this, perhaps then we would not have to resort to war.’ There is a wistfulness in the tone of your narrator, almost a longing, and you are not certain whether those words are narration or tear-tinged observation. ‘Even so, there is a gulf of understanding that is near impossible to bridge, and in this case it was no different.’
A third room, this time filled with a hushed silence. Unlike the first two pairs, who greeted her with some warmth and kindness, there is nothing but a damning suspicion from within. Illaris’ saviour doesn’t even bother crossing the threshold, as the girl notices a tripwire just barely visible to the naked eye. The silence is cut only by the sounds of a chainsword revved as a warning to leave imminently, and the girl buries her face in the chest of her companion who can only give her hushed apologies.
The pair come to one final door and approach.
‘Permission to enter, sir.’
‘Granted. And none of this Sir crap, do I look like a bloody officer?’
‘Whatever you say, Sarge.’
The two enter, protector and charge. She is placed gently onto her own two feet, but even then she shakes, scrutinized by the gaze of the older soldier standing before the window.
‘Sit, the both of you.’
Her guide sits promptly and gestures for the girl to take the other seat, as she does. The window depicts a beautifully painted city full of smog and decay, and you cannot help but wonder what kind of world would breed such ugliness.
‘Tell me, either of you. What is the motto of the Deathwatch Marines?’
The girl’s companion doesn’t hesitate. ‘Something about xeno murder, probably.’ She winces.
‘Good enough. And do you know why that’s their motto?’
Another answer, without hesitation. ‘Because Xenos are what soldiers call the quote unquote enemy, Sarge.’ Again, another answer designed to strike fear. The girl is getting ready to run.
‘Don’t bother running, I’m sure the entire hallway’s already been rigged up. Now, tell me Doc… Why did you make that choice, in that split second, knowing you would probably rescue an alien?’
The one known as Doc takes a long time to answer. ‘I… I’m not sure myself, Sarge. I wasn’t really thinking about the Imperium. About procedures and that. Just that she was so small, and she must be so scared, and wouldn’t it be terrible if she died like that.’
The figure at the window turns, and Illaris sees he is a firm man, rooted in his beliefs. He approaches her, and she trembles. ‘You’re lucky, young lady. Had you run into Space Marines, you’d have been shot on sight. Had you run into the Inquisition proper, you’d be on a dissection table by now.’ Instead, there is a short chuckle and a slight tip of the hat. ‘But luckily, you found us. Our orders never mentioned little girls, pointy-eared or otherwise, and I’m not bothering the Inquisitor about one little girl. Now, I’m going to give you a choice: either you find a way to make yourself useful and earn your keep, or we jettison you onto the nearest planet with some food and a laspistol. What’s it gonna be?’
The choice is obvious. Around you, again, the world seems to shift. The eight soldiers take up weapons, some rather mundane and some incredibly extraordinary. The one known as Doc ensures Illaris gets a weapon of her own, and the players leap into action. Moving in formation they rush in to foil wave after wave of foes that appear out of the shadows.
One group is clad in slapdash armour and green, and they multiply. From two to four to more, constantly being cut down only to rise up again and again. It requires a stream of flame from another bulky gas-spewing device, blazing hot and making you sweat with its intensity, to eliminate them from the floor for good. Another is an ever-growing mass of insects, a swelling wave that needs to be swatted down, and you can see the whole group struggle and band together against this overwhelming force. They defeat it triumphantly.
There is a large, hulking creature whose roar shakes the theater, each step taken overwhelming. It is held back by the power of the young girl. She is strong, but she cannot hold alone. The warrior with the chainsword yells in defiance and carves at the beast as the others retaliate with the rapid rhythm of gunfire. It is enough to fell the beast, and the soldier dies smiling as his sword revs down and is still. A movement to a few somber moments, gathered around his body as they carry it to its final resting place. They move from battle to battle, each leaving them a little more bedraggled, a little more lost, a little more jaded and hardened. But always, they work together, and in the middle of them all is the little girl.
‘As time passed, as time often does, they all grew together. Gaining in injury, in skill, in knowledge. None grew so much as the little girl. She was beloved by all she met, sheltered and protected by her good folk for as much as they were capable. She was a daughter to them, and they were fathers to her. Unbeknownst to them, however, a threat loomed over the horizon.’
You hadn’t noticed it, but lurking during every battle and only truly visible to you now is the Hunter. They, too, look worse for wear. Their armour is cracked and jagged, stained over time with blood and grime, nearly bursting with the energy of its wearer. It is less a person, and more of a monster, that stalks the group at every possible interval. Biding its time.
‘They did all that they could to protect their starlight girl. They set traps.’
Around the Hunter there is a wave of explosions in blinding reds and yellows, set off by the twitchiest soldier and too much for you to look at directly without blinking back tears.
‘They cut deals.’
The Sergeant trades salutes and sharp words with a series of increasingly decorated officers. The mechanic confers with creatures forged from metal and bone in hushed whispers.The smallest soldier shakes hands with all manner of people, each handing over weapons in an ever growing pile.
Despite everything thrown at it, the Hunter gets back up again and again. Bloodied, bruised, its helm cracked over one eye exposing jet black sclera and iron will, it endures. It will not be deterred, and once again it is relentless in its movements. The others have left now, leaving the girl and the largest companion sleeping peacefully… until trouble bursts the door down. The Hunter is no longer a person, or even a creature. It is a force, unwavering, with a mission.
The largest, quietest soldier stands directly in front of Illaris, shielding her. You can see, in his stance low to the ground, in the way he pushes her behind him, she is still that little girl from so long ago. The Hunter is circling, a predator eyeing its prey. But prey has ways of protecting its young, and as the gentle giant lifts a particularly large gun he issues a challenge to the Hunter, receiving a mutely nodded reply. The world goes dark.
There is no panache, no artistry here. Only the rat-a-tat of gunfire in a brief second, illuminating a cruel-edged sword as it finds its mark.
A red flower blooms as the man slumps over, lifeless.
Using the body of its victim as a stepping stone, the Hunter wordlessly stalks after its prey. She utilises all of the psychic ability at her disposal, in a flash of lightning and force, but it continues to press onward, yanking her by the hair to screams and cries until those are no more than an echo in the distance. The others reemerge in celebration and mirth, no doubt after some successful campaign, but the jubilation dies on their lips as they see the red flower’s bloom.
‘What do we do, Sarge?’
They cannot afford to be sentimental. First and foremost, they are soldiers, and a good soldier must be able to look death in the face. Even now they dust off their uniforms in readiness, checking their weapons and supplies. Still, their movements are clumsy and affected. They’re all thinking about the girl. Their girl. She was a xeno, an alien, by all accounts scum. This was their just desserts for protecting that which should have been extinguished.
The sergeant paces aggressively, walking the length of the stage. He remembers a younger man, who appears from out of the darkness surrounding the stage to shadow his future self. Less grey in the temples, less lines under his eyes. Another man who had decided to spare a little girl the closest thing to mercy he could. A man without any family except the one he’d made here. The two face each other, and each salutes the other before the past walks offstage. Rubbing his forehead and wincing, the man known as Sarge sighs.
‘Right. We’re going on an eldar fishing trip.’
All is dark, until a single line is illuminated along the stage. A figure swaddled in grey gauze wordlessly guides the contingent by the gleaming light of a single star. There is nothing but harrowing, deafening silence, and you dare not breathe for fear of disturbing it. You had first assumed that they were alone, but you are deathly wrong. In the glimmers of the light you can see them. Dark and terrible creatures, stalking the group and held back by the light. Some bear horns, some hold claws, some are shapeless, and some have far too many features. All of them watching. Waiting.
And then the lights go out.
All you can hear are the noises surrounding you, drilling into your head. Shrieking screams and guttural groans of creatures unknown to anything except the void. There is the occasional illumination of explosives or gunfire, exposing those valiant few raging within the light. It feels like an eternity when the light returns, showing a body unceremoniously splayed on the floor, petals spilling out from beneath it. There is no time to mourn, as that single light begins to give way to the beating heart of a honeycomb world.
What opens before them is a golden path, but where before it seemed warm and welcoming, the hexes are now cold and unforgiving. Compared to what surrounds them the soldiers seem shabby and uncouth, entirely at odds in such an alien environment. In these glittering halls they are observed by legions of masked fellows, hiding their unflinching gazes. Still, the troop does not waver. They cannot afford to.
Finally, they come upon an ornate door. Light pulses around it, threading through the passageways of the world and illuminating the way. Their commander knocks once and the door swings open, revealing a cabal of well-dressed eldar with nearly identical masks. In the background is another of a different order, mask ensorcelled with all manner of runes.
‘This is no place for mon-keigh.’
There is audible frostiness in that voice, and the mood in the room plummets to sub-zero. It is an impossible occurrence for inferior beings to find their way onto one of the eldar craftworlds. Heads would roll when someone discovered who had given them permission to land, never mind come here to this most sacred of places. The first soldier to walk through, and the senior, bows his head and motions for the others to do the same.
‘Trust me, xeno, we wouldn’t have come this far if we didn’t need to.’
A deep intake of breath. No games, no doublespeak.
‘We’ve been raising one of you for a long time. Protecting her. Sheltering her. Now, she’s in trouble, and we need your help.’ Nothing but the tapping of fingers drumming along a table, extending an already awkward silence until the eldar speaks again.
‘Tell me, mon keigh… how long was this “one of ours” in your care for?’
There is a hushed discussion amongst the group, and they turn back. ‘Ten years, give or take a month or so.’
Languidly the speaker moves to face the group directly. He towers over them, overbearing and with a powerful presence. ‘A long time? Ten years, a long time.’ A second passes, then two, until the speaker breaks out into a powerful fit of laughter that echoes among his brethren.
‘A long time? What a pitiful excuse of a joke you’ve told me, mon-keigh.’ He wipes away an invisible tear of mirth. ‘Ahh, but at least you’ve allowed me some measure of mirth.’
You feel a faint breeze behind you, the mark of movement, but try to think nothing of it.
‘That is nothing to our kind. We live for centuries, if not millennia. Ten years would pass in the blink of an eye, and one of your feeble lifetimes means nothing before our vast experience and intelligence. You are a speck, in the grand fabric of the universe, while we are the heralds of the dawn.’
It takes all four of his fellows to hold the sergeant back, but his fury clears enough space for another to speak.
‘Farseer, I don’t believe you’re giving their statement enough weight. Like it or not, one of ours is still one of ours.’
The Farseer turns to the speaker, unhappy to be questioned. It is the warrior in the background who speaks, and warrior she is, stance always poised and eager for combat.
‘Oh, so you are suddenly so wise now, Veriyna?’ A spotlight shines to illuminate the both of them, leaving the rest of the stage dark and barren. ‘What an imbecile, to put any weight behind the words of mon-keigh. Humans are foolish to think that they can pull the wool over our eyes. Those are lies, and poorly crafted at that. They eliminate that which is alien on sight – there is no reason for them to aid our kind. They must wish to use our resources for some foolish goal.’
Once again the chamber is lit, and the Farseer readies a proclamation.
‘Be thankful we do not eliminate you where you stand. Take your idiocy elsewhere, to a more gullible folk.’
Standing firm to attention the four salute, the one known as Doc shrinking into his boots as his commander shakes with visible rage. As they leave the room they are followed by the uproarious laughter of the eldar from all but the outsider Veriyna. She stands upright and firm, hands placed along the hilts of her twin swords. The lights flicker, and there is the sweet giggle of a child. When they return the room is empty save the outsider, hands resting on nothing now.
Head sharply turns to see a figure in colourful garb giggling as it runs, waving the swords aloft, and the outsider runs after it in pursuit. They weave together through the winding passageways, running in circuitous loops. Finally, she catches up to the figure and pulls on its sleeve, only for it to disappear in a cloud of glitter. As she picks up her swords Veriyna sees the shadows of the mon keigh illuminated along the wall. There are the desperate sounds of a man sobbing and his fellows trying to console him.
‘Get a grip, man! We can’t afford tears.’
A choked sob. ‘But she’s m-my baby, Sarge. And I left her, and now she’s gone, and they’ve t-taken her and-‘
The hard sound of a smack. It’s hard not to wince. ‘She wasn’t just yours. She’s all of ours! We WILL get her back, even if we’ve gotta go through hell alone.’ The sergeant begins to pace, thoughtful and anxious. ‘Now, all we have to do is figure out how to jerryrig one of these ships and find out where they’ve taken-‘
‘Or, you could just say please.’
Out of the shadows the outsider emerges, giving them a curt bow. The soldiers raise their weapons warily, but Veriyna puts her hands up in a sign of peace. ‘My name is Veriyna Sindarin, and I am not your enemy. This girl you speak of… truly, you raised her?’
All of them nod, proud of their fatherhood.
‘Then she may have a part still to play.’ She begins to run, beckoning for them to follow. ‘Come now, quickly, before anyone discovers what manner of deed we wish to accomplish.’
Once again the six journey through the winding pathways, gleaming warmth giving way to a clinically cold hangar bay. It is populated with the shadows of starcraft far too vast to be expressed on the stage, but the awe in the humans is difficult to ignore. The prow of one peeks through a multi-coloured shroud, pulled away to reveal a brand-new ship emblazoned with shooting stars and eldar runes.
‘What does it say?’
The warrior reads and translates, voice laden with confusion. ‘Cegorach’s… Smile? Odd…’ Again there is the faint childlike giggling, deepening into a man’s throaty laugh. If those on stage can hear it, they pay it no heed.
‘Let’s take it as a sign. A blessing from the God of Fools himself.’ The stage unfolds to reveal an interior cockpit with ample seating, as each member of this fellowship attempts to find a place to sit and gain their bearings. With a practiced ease the warrior begins to ready the ship for departure as her human fellows begin to get their bearings. ‘Tell me, who was it that took this girl of yours?’
The soldiers look to each other, and the smallest one pipes up. ‘We called it the Hunter. We first found our Illaris when it was huntin’ her, y’see. Scary sonuvagun, what with his spiky armour and those freaky swords.’ The others nod. ‘Ten bloody years, and it kept at us.’
‘So… you’re telling me you’ve been hunted for ten years by an Incubus.’
‘An Incubus, a sworn and devoted warrior who will stop at nothing to kill and maim anything in their path?’
‘Well, iunno what it’s called, but his armor’s reeeeeeal spiky and nothing’s stopped ‘im so far.’
‘And it didn’t immediately kill her, but took her away somewhere.’
‘Well, there was only the one body, so probably.’
‘… Madness. Sheer madness..’
Another peal of laughter, one with a hysterical edge. The world fades away as the hangar gives way to the darkened void of space, covered in shimmering stars as the group begins to conspire. Closer and closer looms the ever ensnaring web, casting dark shadows over the party. Pace is steady, and progress is regular.
At least until one of them trips and lands face-first onto a comically red button of convenient timing.
The chamber is filled with maniacal laughter intermingled with the sound of an engine breaking critical barriers. Our heroes are battered by staggering winds, barely able to hang on for dear life. A burst of bright red trails behind their cockpit, streaked like a comet’s tail. It is over in seconds, but takes longer than that for the woozy team to come back to their senses. Even Veriyna has to turn away to heave dramatically in the corner.
When they finally come to it is in the shadow of cobwebs and dark spires threatening to engulf the stage. The sky is dark and removed from the stars, as the haunting refrains of what could be laughter or screaming echo all throughout. It makes the smallest of the soldiers shiver, and even the others are wary. He pipes up, then, speaking through chattering teeth.
‘W-what is this p-p-place, ‘xactly?’
‘Commorragh.’ There is venom in the warrior’s voice, who spits the name out. ‘It is home to our darker halves, the drukhari.’ The crew now extract themselves from the ship, keeping their weapons at the ready.
With practiced speed and grace the eldar warrior moves decisively, able to stay hidden within the shadows and even taking advantage of the space behind the stage. The drukhari are quick, but she is quicker, easily evading their piercing gazes. Still, they know something is wrong, and it shows in the tighter grip they hold onto their weapons and the aggravated arguments they start in the streets.
This is, unavoidably, not the case for the soldiers. Stealth in their case is clumsy and even comical, not even bothering for deception when it is obvious how alien they are to this land. Still, whether by sheer coincidence or fool-favoured fortune, they are able to pass through unaccosted. A crowd is gathered around a raised stage, lit by a sinister purple light. They are chanting for blood, and at their head is a figure garbed in deep purple robes. Throwing back the hood you see it is the temptress up to her old tricks, and you hiss at her presence. Her voice is strong but sly, a terribly charming contradiction that belies the malice within.
‘My fellows! My brethren! Cease your clamour! For too long have we hidden within the confines of Commorragh. Certainly, we have had a most wonderful time at this eternal party,’ and here there is laughter and cheering, ‘but as all parties do this one must come to an end.’ There is a collective boo from the crowd, but she raises a hand to halt them. ‘I say this only in order to begin a new one, when we dominate the universe!’
She basks in their adulation, egging the crowd on to cheer louder and louder before once again calming them. ‘You may now be asking how I plan to accomplish this feat, when She Who Must Not Be Named still lurks and hungers for our souls. Fear not, fear not, Mother Dearest thinks of everything. Now, bring her in!’
The Hunter appears, hidden in shadow, dragging his despondent captive along in chains. In her captivity Illaris is radiant, and even the boorish drukhari stand in awe of her. ‘She is the key in all of this! Born of Eldar, raised by Man, untouched by sin and blessed by the gods themselves. This shining girl,’ and here the vixen cannot help but leer at Illaris, ‘will be our salvation. Within her blood is pure, liquid purity, and in this blood we shall be bathed and born anew, protected from our oppressor herself!’
It takes the strength of his peers to hold back Doc, visibly fighting them at every step. At every opportunity he tries to break free, but not even the strength of a protector can hold against his brothers. So they lurk in the background, watching the ongoings. Illaris struggles and chafes against her restraints, but some of the fight has gone out of her. The temptress looks on and smirks, before beckoning forth some new figure from the darkness of the eaves. ‘Now come here, Rhystaros, and say hello to your little girl.’
What was once a noble father is now a misshapen creature, slobbering and barely recognisable as even the shell of a humanoid. It is an aberration, oozing black sludge in its path, and all onlookers give it a wide berth. Chuckling, the temptress pats its scaly hide. ‘You’ll be glad to know, my dear, your father held out a whole thirty minutes before forsaking you and the rest of eldar-kind.’
She hands the creature a jet black whip, and it is impossible not to wince when you hear the first crack of it along the back of the innocent, unleashing a torrent of petals. Again and again the whip strikes, but its target does not yield nor cry out. The petals flow endlessly, flooding the stage. It clings to the troupe, the black and greys of their costumes being marked with red, but you are starting to see that the petals are crystallising on their skin, changing colour to an iridescent, pure white. Even the temptress herself, with this blood on her hands, can do nothing but weep at the petals in her hand falling softly to the floor.
All at once, in perfect harmony, the drukhari scream. Why, now, are their emotions being reawakened? Salvation, perhaps, or judgment. She of starlight lingers on the cusp of life, and it is in this time of great anguish that her would-be rescuers slink out from their hiding place and begin to lead the starlight girl away. But they cannot force her off the stage, as she points out a new arrival to the occasion.
A blur of colour dances gaily amongst the people. Wearing a mask with a crooked grin and eyes dyed red with kohl, they walk among the crowd waving at some unseen companion. No… not among them. Willingly, or unwillingly, the crowd parts as if some unseen force has opened the path. Wherever the jester passes, those in the way fall to the ground laughing in hysterics at some unknown joke, some whispered secret too difficult to bear without falling to madness.
Looking in your direction, they point in your direction. Not at you.
You smell a deep aroma, heady roses tinged with the blossoming fruit of desire, and in your mind’s eye it evokes your first everything. To be touched, to be held, to be loved. But then it turns, and threatens to overwhelm. There is ash, salt, and the faint taste of blood on the wind, threatening to suffocate you. Gasping for air, you attempt to evade that now souring scent, even as the rest of the stage is beginning to fall victim to its allure, returning once again to their desire to satisfy themselves.
Rushing past your face you see a figure dressed in pure night, trailing that sickly sweet smell behind them. Pace for pace, the shadow and the light cross to meet in the middle of the stage, one almost impaling the ground with every step while the other gaily skips towards their destiny. You see the attacker wears the twin to your narrator’s mask, wreathed in a furious scowl to match that mocking grin. One hand extended, the other behind their back.
An invitation to dance.
Music strikes up, unseen, a surprisingly lively tune in an almost sinister key. Hand in hand, pressed close to each other, they dance cheek to cheek. Like partners. Like lovers. Flowing like water, gliding and soaring. Wherever they pass the troupe collapses and moves to disappear into the shadows almost effortlessly, leaving behind nothing but the crystalline petals that had clung to their skin. At first you think it is evenly matched between the clown and their companion, but you can see how hard your storyteller grips the hand of their assailant, guiding their path even as their body shakes with the effort. One false move, one misstep, and terror will be unleashed in full.
The starlight girl rushes to collect the fallen relics with what little energy she can expend. The first to join her is Doc, her beloved father. They don’t need to speak to each other – even you, an observer, can see the trust by which they work so thoroughly. Tracing the path of destruction, they gather what they can to preserve even the souls of those tainted by darkness. There is some hesitation from the others, but eventually the Sergeant rallies his men and even the eldar joins them.
A beautiful and bloody path is being carved out by these two in their unyielding dance. Every few steps, another body, another pearl, another shower of crimson petals. It is becoming difficult for the party to follow through as they wade with difficulty through the sea of red, threatening to engulf the whole theater. The smallest soldier cannot cope and goes under, flailing and fighting the tide. His comrade dives down for him, but he too falls prey to the relentless sea of petals.
You cannot bear to watch, but you cannot avert your eyes.
Illaris is beginning to fade, and has been laid onto her side. As the music reaches a crescendo, you can see that she will not last much longer. The god of mirth is losing face, and all shall be lost. Tearfully, she reaches towards her father, and that once hopeful soldier grips her hand tightly as she draws her last breath. Heads are bowed in respect, until Verinya points to something within her grasp.
In her hands is that precious pure jewel, the gift of the eldar. Face to face the warrior kisses the moon child gently, before taking it in hand. It swells and glows with an unmistakable light. The laughing god is fading now, as that avatar of darkness swells to unimaginable heights. The eldar kisses the jewel reverently, then attempts to shatter it onto the sea of collected petals. It doesn’t break. It is not enough.
The god is tossed aside with wheezing breath as his aggressor searches for new prey to corrupt. Stalking towards the crew, it seems to almost engulf the entire theater with its presence aided by its enormous shadow. But mortal though they are, the fellowship do not back down from its piercing glare. They stand at the ready, prepared for a final stand… at least until that most nervous of soldiers walks with an uncharacteristic calm.
Behind the calm mask, you can tell there is a smile. In his hands, a detonator.
A series of rapid explosions bloom from across the stage, each in different myriad colours of the rainbow and beyond. Making the horror recoil back, the explosive potential is echoed back by an incessant ringing coming from those crystalline petals, glittering stars gathered around the brightest jewel. From around you, glowing lights emerge in all manner of colours, surging through the honeycomb to join those gathered around the stage, a protective shell around that pure white gem. The construct emits a bright and vicious light as the music swells to grander heights. The music is nearly drowned out by the wheezing laughter of a dying god.
When your vision returns to you, you see not the battered and diminutive group that had dared to stare down madness itself. Instead there are two figures, looking out towards the audience resplendent in their finery. There is a powerfully built human, as tall as two men and as strong as four. He is clad in armour of a brilliant blue, and bears a sword which looks as if it would cleave mountains for its wielder. The eldar warrior stands stalwart and emboldened, clad in the finest wargear. She looks on with pride at the figure in the forefront.
In the flesh and surrounded by a halo of light is that frail starlight girl resurrected. The light in her eyes is no longer diminished but blazing brightly, and she is clothed in the blackened leather and metal that was the last gift of the damned. In her hands is the whip that claimed her, thorny and cruel, and as she passes her hands over it it becomes a sword unmarred and ready.
She is eternity.
She is purity.
She is perfect.
Without speech or hesitation, she leaps with a perfect grace, swinging her blade.
Time stands still on the eve of battle.
The curtain closes, and you rise from your seat, providing what applause you can.
About the Author
Kyle is a writer, dreamer, and full-time complainer from the Philippines. She is the EIC for Electric Town Lit Mag. Her work has been published in Mineral Lit, Idle Ink, and Analogies & Allegories among others. She’s a fan of the stage, and often wonders what it would be like to act upon it.