Valedor, page 1
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It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.
Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Astra Militarum and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
The voidspawn creature clattered to a lifeless halt, the stump of its neck hissing. Prince Yriel of Iyanden landed lightly next to it in a crouch, head bowed, one hand upon the blood-slick firestone paving, the other holding his power sword out behind him in the posture of Death Brought With Precipitate Cunning. Before the last twitches had left the creature’s six limbs, Yriel had artfully killed another, then a third, until there were none left within his reach.
Shuriken fire whistled behind Prince Yriel, massed volleys fired by the surviving Eldritch Raiders. Voidspawn shrieked as the rounds hit home. There were shouts and the cracking buzz of power weapons hitting chitin, the soft rattle of alien bodies falling. One last scream, and the plaza of Red Moon’s New Birthing was clear.
‘Yaleanar! Yaleanar! My shadow!’ shouted Yriel. ‘Secure the entrances to the plaza!’ He gestured to the three grand archways leading into the square with his sword.
Yaleanar, a gaudily armoured warrior whose back was busy with pennants, snapped back a quick nod and ordered the remaining Eldritch Raiders into defensive positions. The last stragglers were running into the plaza.
Too few, how many have I lost? thought Yriel in dismay. His bold voids-men were dying for him.
The archways opened onto an intricately decorated pentagon a thousand paces across. A clear-sided tower stood over the plaza, ten thousand paces tall, walled with transparent composites that afforded views of the stars and decorated with a thousand statues of Ulthanash. And on the far side, the forbidden shrine. The place he had sought. Or had it sought him?
He strode towards it, the tug of its call impossible to ignore.
None but those of the direct line of Ulthanash might enter the shrine, a number of eldar reduced now to Yriel himself alone. But Red Moon’s New Birthing was for all. It had been a place for those new on the Path of the Warrior to come and meditate on Ulthanash’s fate, to pray that they would not fall to Khaine as he had. So it had been for ten thousand passes, until five cycles ago, when Khaine had come calling upon the Red Moon in person, and offered up his own dedications.
Blood coated everything. Dead eldar lay in piles, the corpses of their mindless enemies around them. Shattered psychoplastics skidded across the smooth floor with every tremor of the war-wracked worldship. Broken wraithbone ribs bled light. The fighting had moved deeper into the craftworld long before Yriel had landed. The aliens they had encountered had been of the lesser types, a feeble rearguard, but still he had lost a quarter of his corsairs getting to the shrine.
Iyanden shuddered bodily, rocking the prince. Yriel nimbly redistributed his weight.
He looked up to the gate of the Shrine of Ulthanash, a shimmering wall of energy held between the arms of an alabaster arch set with runes of bronze and iridium. It was marvellous, this power of the ancients on display. Calamity strode the halls and causeways of Iyanden unopposed, but the shrine remained imperturbable.
Waiting for him.
Yriel had a grave choice to make. The Crown of Ulthanash, rendered in red gold and jade at the apex of the arch, seemed to glower down at him.
To walk under it, he thought, is as good as placing that crown upon my head. I will crown myself with nothing but his curse, the king of fools, last scion of Ulthanash’s line. That is not an honour I wish for.
On the outside of the rippling field stood Captain Yriel, corsair: fickle, sometimes callous, always full of rage, lauded and feared in equal measure. On the other side, at the heart of the shrine, another Yriel awaited, and the manner of that Yriel was unknown to him. This Yriel, proud Yriel, Yriel the pirate, was free to make the choice between the two, as free as he had been to choose to return at his birthplace’s time of need, as free as he had been to abandon the restrictions of the Path in the first place. To pass through the shining wall and enter the Shrine of Ulthanash, or to let his home die, turn away from those who had dishonoured him and remain the exile pirate king?
‘Choose choice, or choose to relinquish choice forever,’ he said. ‘There is no departing this path. And it appears for all my efforts, there is no escaping the Path.’ He laughed. ‘How delightfully absurd, how dreadfully irritating.’
He remained where he was, lost in thought. Shouts came to his ears, more screeching. A wave of aliens tried to break through the Eldritch Raiders’ defensive perimeter. There were not many of his voidsmen remaining, deadly warriors all who had followed him to the edge of the galaxy and back. They fought expertly. He was sure that no more would fall here, now they were in a good position. But they were ready to die for him.
To die, so that he might vacillate.
I am lost, he thought. Lost is the word for it, in thought and in deed. I have been for a very long time.
He pinched at his slender chin with armoured fingers, as if this were a choice such as those on the Path of Dreaming might make, a phantom decision to prepare him only for more phantom decisions, from which he would awaken excited but untouched by consequence.
He dithered. He, Yriel, decisive and bold, wavering in the face of responsibility. Insight flashed in him like lightning, although in truth it was but the first strike of a storm that had been gathering for many passes. What if he had abandoned Iyanden not because of his wounded pride, but because of his inability to bear the burdens placed upon him?
This is what he thought: For all my prowess, am I a coward?
‘My prince! You must hurry!’ shou
Iyanden rumbled. The winds of far-off decompressions tugged Yriel’s robes. A foul taint came fleetingly onto the air. The infinity circuit screamed in outrage as the hive mind assailed it. Crystal shattered somewhere distant, wild screams chasing after the delicate sound.
I have rushed here. Why do I delay? he thought.
Because I have not made this choice, another part of him countered. I have not come here of my own volition. Coming here was not my choice to make. It never has been. The dead hand of Morai-Heg grips the threads of my destiny tightly, dragging me pace by painful pace to face the duties demanded by my heritage no matter where I hide.
He shifted his posture.
I have been brought here by what is hidden within the shrine, but it cannot make me enter.
Yriel’s mind was heavy. The pain of the embattled infinity circuit was his pain, the implacable wall of the Great Devourer’s intellect opposing it threatened to crush his spirit. Through this psychic tumult still the shrine’s ward had pulled at him. Freedom was not the lot of any eldar, not since the Fall. He realised that now.
They call me proud, arrogant, he thought. So be it. I will not let fate take me on unequal terms. Coming to the shrine was not my will. Entering it shall be.
‘Yaleanar? Where is my shadow?’ Yriel had lost two-thirds of his fabled Hundred Ships destroying the voidspawn’s fleet. But faithful, deadly Yaleanar lived. A bad voidsman, but a great warrior. He ran across the plaza from the corsairs to the prince and saluted, armoured fist clacking upon his breastplate as he dipped his conical, tiger-striped helm. ‘My prince.’
Yriel looked over the warriors crouched in cover by the plaza’s entrances. ‘A fine spread, my shadow.’
‘We have lost no more. We are secure here.’
Yriel smiled sadly. ‘What would I do without you?’ He sheathed his sword.
‘Die, probably,’ said Yaleanar, the humour Yriel loved so much evident as always despite their circumstances. Yaleanar had such marvellously insolent body language that he had better-mannered persons simmering with outrage within the microcycle.
‘Oh, do take away your helm,’ said Yriel irritably. ‘If yours is the last face I see, I do not want it to be the grille and eye-lens in my memory.’
Yaleanar complied, lifting the tall helmet off with both hands and shaking out hair coloured a subtle lilac. Intricate patterns were painted on his face.
‘You are going to do it?’
Yriel shrugged, hands moving in gestures indicating equivocation. ‘I am going into the shrine. If I take up the spear or not is another matter.’ He trailed off, sinking back into his thoughts.
An explosion rumbled nearby. Alien shrieks closed.
‘Yriel? I am sorry, my prince, to hurry you, but you must, well,’ Yaleanar grinned, ‘hurry.’ He replaced his helmet.
‘You will await me here?’
‘Where else would your shadow be other than right behind you?’ Yaleanar hesitated. ‘If you do not return?’
High over them a flight of eldar attack craft sped through the void, their outlines rippled to fragments by holo-fields. Biological projectiles chased the fighters, green bio-plasma sending them on at speed. A fighter was caught and exploded silently. Bright light flared on the plaza. Guilt stabbed Yriel. He was losing his composure. Another death on his conscience. This would not have happened had he remained autarch-admiral.
‘If I am gone longer than a tenth-cycle, do as you think best. Fall back to the ships, or fight on for unsung glories. The choice is yours, my shadow. Either way, the final death of our kind will be snapping at your heels when Iyanden falls. Fly to some forgotten corner of the galaxy, and still fate will find you, as it has found me.’ He drew in a shuddering breath. ‘I left the path, Yaleanar, in my pride and my arrogance. I came to see destruction’s beauty. Dishonoured here, I exerted my will upon the stars, and for what? Who was watching me, who marked my cunning and my audacity but my own vanity? Is this my punishment, Yaleanar? Is this what my pride has wrought?’ He lifted an ichor-stained hand and swept it around the dome. It was as heavy as stone, weighted with guilt.
‘My prince,’ said Yaleanar. He grasped his friend by the shoulders, an intimacy Yriel allowed no one else. ‘We are all prisoners of the skein. What could you do but follow your own thread?’
Yriel was not listening to him. Tears streaked the filth on his face and dripped to the floor to mingle with the blood of his countrymen. ‘My passion for adventure has gone. I left the path and lost my way.’ He looked up at the gates again, determination entering his voice. ‘The way has found me.’
With those words, he stepped through the shimmering curtains guarding the shrine. No one else could have done so and lived, but he was Yriel, last of the immemorial line of Ulthanash, who strode the heavens tens of millions of years ago when the eldar race was young and the numberless days of glory had not yet begun.
The exiled prince had come home.
Dynasties of silence reigned over the chambers of the shrine. Dust lay thick upon the floor. Yriel followed a single line of footprints – his own, made the first and only other time he had visited his ancestor’s temple, over an arc before. No other eyes had lit upon the pre-Fall masterpieces that lined the walls in shadowy alcoves since; no heads had bowed to the mighty idols whose upheld arms supported the ceiling.
Dead gods with dead gemstone eyes, thought Yriel. Meaningless relics, the ephemera of a vanished civilisation, protected by stasis fields for no one to see. And yet, he had to admit, they represented something; something pure, something that he had the power to save, should he so choose. Yriel passed them all quickly; the compulsion of Ulthanash was on him again, drawing him deeper into the shrine.
Battle-sign had made no mark here, for the doom of the shrine kept war from its halls both in the material plane and on the mess of potentialities that made up the skein. Past sealed portals and the tattered banners of extinct houses Yriel went. In one place he found the footprints of another, smaller than his own. He traced these with his eyes, knowing he looked upon the last mortal traces of his mother, a woman he had barely known. There had been more such footprints on his last visit. Dust had blurred their outlines. In time, they would be gone.
He wrenched himself away. He soon found himself in the small domed chamber at the heart of the shrine. As he remembered, it was dominated by a circular dais. Twin statues of maidens, twice life size, knelt either side of a pedestal upon the dais, their faces covered by their hands. Delicately rendered tears seeped through their fingers as they wept an eternity for what had been lost.
A cone of light illuminated a wraithbone cradle on the pedestal. Resting within it was a long, leaf-bladed spear. Yriel’s mouth went dry as, for only the second time in his long life, he looked upon the Spear of Twilight. Ulthanash’s weapon, immeasurably ancient, trapped in a bubble of frozen time. Through the stasis field that held it, the spear’s fell nature could be felt as an oily darkness on Yriel’s soul. The air around it was somehow thicker, the light of a sinister quality. The weapon of Ulthanash was cursed: anathema to those not of Ulthanash’s House, and slow death to those that were. It had filled him with horror when he had seen it as a youth. It filled him with horror again.
A voice spoke to him from the darkness of the shrine. Female, mocking.
‘Why have you come here, Scion of Ulthanash?’ A woman came forward, her outline blurred by a dathedi field as she walked around the dais. Yriel had the impression of a mirrored face mask beneath a bright cowl of yellow and purple diamonds. A Shadowseer, a mistress of illusions. One of the Harlequins.
Yriel found his voice. Her purpose here he could not guess at, but he knew his own. Confronted by the spear and the fate chosen for him, in freedom’s absence his pride returned. ‘I seek the means to deliver Iyanden from the Great Devourer. I will
‘Is that all you seek?’ Laughter ran through the voice, as bright as sunlight on rippled water, or on blood.
‘You mock me?’ he said.
Swift movement, a blur of trailing diamonds lost in the dark. The voice spoke from somewhere else. ‘I am Sylandri Veilwalker, last of the troupe that came to the aid of the people you abandoned. All my friends are dead, and I laugh yet. Cegorach mocks all, prince and fool alike, and especially foolish princes,’ she said. ‘Answer me, last of the line of Ulthanash. My question is a fair one.’
Yriel paused. Was there more? Was sacrifice his only aim? He looked deep inside himself, past the veils of shame and guilt.
‘No, it is not all,’ he admitted. ‘I have failed those whom I swore to protect. I would atone for my error, if such a thing were any longer possible.’
Laughter rang out. ‘Then take up the weapon of your forebear. He too was led astray by pride, but found redemption in battle and, soon after, his death.’
Yriel took a step, stopping before he reached the dais. ‘You are a seer. Grant me a boon and tell me: will I perish, as did he?’
‘Would my answer alter your resolve?’
Yriel cocked his head and laughed in his turn.
‘You laugh too, I see. A good tonic to all ills, even death.’
‘I laugh because there is an irony to my situation, being pushed into servitude by the servants of the last free god.’
‘The choice is yours.’
‘I would fain it were not,’ said Yriel. ‘The hour is late, the time of desperate measures is at hand. I do not think knowing the hour of my death would change anything, for we must all die.’
‘Then, young prince, choose your fate in blissful ignorance. The skein is not set. Can you not feel it? Here, all things are possible, just for a moment. A rare moment. You will experience no other like it in your lifetime. Here is your chance to decide for yourself.’
The weapon called to him, like to like. Both of them were poison to those they protected. For the briefest fragment of time, he did not move, allowing himself an indulgence, a last savouring of choice.
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