Hypocrite

Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim, dark future there is only war.

Hypocrite

Postby Anne Marie » Fri May 13, 2011 2:55 pm

Belail's story continues after Liar. I realize after writing a half-breed into this piece, something GW quickly got rid of fluff-wise back in the old Rogue Trader days, I still decided to forge ahead. Mostly because I like the challenge of trying to write a believable Eldar/human mix. If it can be done, ah the masochistic challenge all authors face. This short falls under the 12,000 mark, but I've broken it into different segments to make it easier to read. This part of Belail's story also ties into Incubi Umbraeque; once again, because I like the challenge. Critique, point out faults, I can only improve. My thanks in advance, Bolthole.

Hypocrite: One who plays a part; one who feigns to be other and better than he is; a false pretender to virtue or piety.

________


The aptitude I have for surviving the worst trials fortune creates has been nothing short of astonishing. In my prolonged life, what I have witnessed and played a part in has been recorded in the archives of distant history. A history so far removed from the present that people believe it to be legend. Needless to say, the existence I have led is one blessed by the Great Manipulator. Should Tzeentch favour me in the future, no doubt I will continue in this manner for many centuries to come.

In those movements where I would hang between life and death by a mere thread, the Architect of Fate has always cast me a lifeline. Pulling me from the dark waters to the equally dark shore, Tzeentch sends me down the proper course with a watchful eye, ensuring my survival to ends that suit the Ruinous Powers means. There have been many instances I can recall where, if not for the Weaver of Lies’ interception, my life would have ended.

The destruction of Prospero. The doomed siege of Terra. Being far from the new daemon world of the Thousand Sons when the Rubric, created by Ahriman, was cast. My psychic talents, meagre in comparison to the other sorcerers, would have been stripped had I been there, damning me to be a soul trapped in power armour for eternity. Do not tell me that it was not Tzeentch who whispered to greater minds to order my leave before that ill-fated spell was cast.

Following those three upheavals by which every Thousand Son defines himself, I moved about the Eye of Terror and the Imperium as I wished, returning to my Legion only when summoned. I dedicated my new found freedom from the false Emperor by seeking out the knowledge lost in the flames of Prospero, travelling to where artefacts and books of power lay. There were many times when I employed my services to Chaos war bands to get close to what I sought, often with mixed results.

Running for my life across a frozen wasteland while being hunted down by Khornate berserkers is one memory that stands out. Suffering through a plot of the Inquisition to pilfer a book of forbidden lore that, in the end, was something I already knew, was another. Yet the one which still haunts me is not my near death at the claws and fangs of a Tyranid swarm. It was almost being married to a Slaaneshi princess. The memory still leaves me awake with a cold sweat in the dark nights.

At the forefront of these life or death troubles, my survival on the world of Atlantis is the most recent. Once Lord Raum died, in-fighting quickly broke out aboard the Laughter of the Gods. I took those opportune moments to depart as the hallways of the ship filled with the sounds of bolter rounds and the stench of blood. Night Lords, eager for bloodshed and impatient to talk things through like civilized minds.

All of these events I lived through. Each one gave me the terror and dread a Chaos marine can feel yet keeps well hidden from others. Every experience gave a further understanding of how quickly my life could be swept from the board if I were not faster than the hand that played the pieces. Tzeentch helps those who help themselves. With the way I spin my falsehoods, I am as skilled as the most powerful Chaos sorcerer who walks the Immaterium.

However, the Lord of Change is unpredictable even to his committed servants.

I had attempted to meet up with a company of Thousand Sons en route to Abbadon’s newest Black Crusade, his thirteenth if my memory serves. The vessel I was travelling on was caught in a Warpstorm until, crippled and the hull almost breached, it was thrown out over the world of Deidre. All attempts to establish contact with my Legion were useless; the Warpstorms were raging over the planet, making communication impossible. I made the best of the situation, kept my head low, and took to researching the planet and the Maharra system I found myself stranded in.

Was it just a coincidence that once the storms had cleared, I received word the Black Crusade was ended? By then, even if the crusade was turning in favour of Chaos, I would have been blind to its dealings. I had found something more worthy of my time. Tzeentch held a higher mission for me. Indeed, it was the Weaver of Fate himself who caused the Warpstorms to send me to this world and deny me from participating in the Black Crusade.

I found in my research that on the main planet of Maharra, there was evidence of an untouched Eldar Webway. Any Thousand Son worth his salt will say there is nothing more enticing than finding a Webway portal and gaining access to the treasures beyond. Being one of the handfuls to step in to the fabled Black Library is a highly coveted and oft dreamt of achievement. I modestly count myself as one of those having daydreamt about the prospect, and to now have it dangling before me… Fools have fought over less. I was no fool to let this opportunity slip past.

If technology and I were more compatible, I would have taken myself to Maharra. From my distant training days, learning to pilot a Thunderhawk and fire a bolter was standard practice. Arcane lessons took precedence over standardized drills as time wore on. I was a sorcerer, use to being where Tzeentch required me to further my god’s ends. Having a license to operate every craft in existence was not a prerequisite. I would have to hire a pilot.

Deidre was a backwater agri-world of no cultural significance. The only city of any importance, the capital Seibzhen, was where the spaceport was located. Seibzhen was a pitiable sight, the habunits and governmental buildings rundown, its streets poorly maintained, the infrastructure decaying. Like the cargo ship rusting in the overgrown field behind the control tower, the spaceport had seen better days. I strode past open bays where small rigs and outfitted cutters sat, deducing whether any of them could be trusted to fly, and not as a rapidly-expanding cloud of flaming debris.

“Tzeentch provides,” I muttered under my breath.

Tightening the thick pilgrim robes I wore over my power armour, I gripped the metal case my bolter was hidden in, taken from Laughter of the Gods. I clutched at my staff, aggravated that I had to cover the runes and take off the focal point. I gave a false smile as I stepped in to the office, my eyes adjusting quickly to the change in light, my ears picking up the various orders ringing from the vox-comm. The mechanical din from the hangers rang through the doors to my left, the shouts of the mechanic crews and the drone of heavy-lift servitors moving about their tasks. At the back of the office, underneath a banner of the Imperial aquila and sitting behind a metal desk, a paunchy man looked up from a stack of papers and eyed me warily.

“Can I help you?” His tone was anything but cooperative.

“You may. I need transport to Maharra. I was informed the pilots here don’t ask questions and for the proper fee, go anywhere. Pilots of venerable skill are who I wish to employ, mainly those having served in the honourable Guard units across the galaxy.” The last was a complete fabrication; any pilot who held a sense of worth would have left Deidre without looking back. Flattering the manager of the spaceport that he knew talent, however, could result in having a competent guide.

It also helped that a stud embedded over his left eyebrow spoke of active duty in the past.

He looked down his pug nose at me. There was a crack of a smile. “News gets around slow here. Maharra’s under quarantine from the recent Warpstorms. You know how it is.”

“Indeed,” I said, even if I did not. Warpstorms held no fear to the followers of Chaos. “However, the work I am charged with cannot be delayed, regardless of the factors involved.”

He leaned across the desk, eyes squinting. “Comin’ from me who’s seen a lot of things from my time in service, you can get in. Cost you a bit more for the trouble. The old Maharra 608th, before it got disbanded, we did a lot of undercover work that never went on record.”

“I trust the word of a veteran Guardsman,” I replied smoothly. Adulation works wonders, particularly on those who want to relive their glory days. I also trusted the simplistic greed a man has even more, taking out the required thrones. “I need to leave within the hour on the fastest craft. Of course, the less written in the books, the better it is for all.”

He chuckled. “I hear you. There’s a cutter solid enough to take you and get in undetected. And the pilot knows Maharra inside and out. Just to let you know,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “you’d better be on your guard. Pilot’s a mutant and you know you can’t trust those black bloods. I can’t believe me and the 608th died for scum like that. But damn me if the mutie’s not a good pilot, though I’ll never say it out loud to ‘em.”

The owner pressed a button on the vox-comm and spoke quickly. I waited, casting a bored look over the holopicts and old data-slates around the office. Movement from my left; the door leading to the office from the hanger bays opened. I heard the manager whisper “Mutant” and quickly make the sign of the Imperial aquila. I followed his gaze to see just how mutated this pilot could be.

I raised my eyebrow a fraction. Wearing oil-stained coveralls and covered in the grime of a mechanic stood a young woman. She was taller than most, her limbs slightly elongated and awkward looking, her skin pale, and uneven dark hair pulled back from a high forehead. She looked ordinary, unworthy of being called a mutant. Even so, something was odd about her.

“What’s up, boss?” Her voice was loud.

“You have a customer wanting to go to Maharra, Kel.” The manager pointed at me. “You know the planet pretty well and your cutter’s not dinged up too bad, so you’ve got the in-system run. Get your ship ready. He wants to leave in an hour.”

Her face turned dark with a scowl. “Yeah, a run’s all well and good, but the place is under quarantine. Nobody goes in or out. Rumours say ships have been blown out of the skies by the PDF without ever being hailed. They’ve blockaded everything.”

“The pay’s good.” A deadly tone entered the supervisor’s voice. “Who hired you when no one else would? Who makes sure you can store your cutter so the rust doesn’t get on it? Who looks the other way when you don’t give the proper devotion to the Imperial Cult?”

“Who keeps on getting sent on illegal runs while everyone else gets to lax off? If you’re trying to get me killed, you know I have the bad habit of staying alive. I’ll just keep on coming back.” She regarded me. Walking over and extending her hand, she offered a brief handshake. “Name’s Kelvenia, but you can call me Kel for short. Yours?”

“Iszak. I am a curator under the Administratum Anthrologos, and just received new orders from my superiors.” Offering up the back story was simple. I had been using it since being marooned.

Her eyes narrowed when she saw my gauntlet, curiosity blazing. She was close enough for me to note the slender facial structure despite the all too human jawline, and the distinct point to her ears. Eyes slanted more than a human’s and were wider spaced; long and spidery fingers; and her movements were the final clue I required to be certain. Kel was not a mutant as her manager thought, but she was not wholly human either. Well travelled as I was, and from fighting the various xenos races in the galaxy, it was easy to see the Eldar blood in her.

How curious a half-breed should be here of all places. I had seen one, once, hung from the gallows of a hive city, the body half-skinned and carved with Ecclesiarchy symbols. That was over two centuries ago. To see one alive was a rarity given how the Imperium purged these abominations when found. The Eldar were not any better, looking at them as cast-offs to not be given a proper name, considered lower than humans themselves.

“Well, you got the best pilot from the spaceport to get you to Maharra, that’s for sure.” Kel smiled easily. “If you have everything you need with you, then just follow me and get settled while I get my ship ready.”

Walking back the way she came, Kel held the door open to the hanger. I followed, passing other spacecraft and the people working there, noting the wary looks they gave Kel. I ignored these trifling matters, for my mind was caught up in higher pursuits. I took the finding of a half-breed as a sign that my mission to Maharra would succeed, for if I should find someone who carried the same blood as those who constructed the Webway, it surely meant my endeavour would do well. In a galaxy of endless possibilities, what are the probabilities of finding everything one needs so close at hand? The Great Manipulator was certainly casting his favour in my direction.

________


“This is my pride and joy. All someone needs for freedom in every sense of the word.” Kel declared the fact, often and loud, at every opportunity. She hadn’t stopped talking the moment I had boarded, continuing as we passed the gravity well of Deidre and its double moons, and prattled on while engaging the main drive for the small jump to Maharra. The cutter lurched forward as it hurled through the well-plotted space route to its destination.

Her source of joy stemmed from the cutter she owned, operated, and carefully maintained. Sitting in the passenger seat, higher and further back than the pilot’s, I tried to make myself comfortable. The metal chair groaned under the weight of my power armour. I stored my staff under the seat and hidden in its carrying case, my ill-gotten bolter. I was as prepared as could be for whatever lay waiting on Maharra.

A vague sound issued past my lips. “The concept of freedom hinges on the individual.”

Kel tapped the side of her head. “I never let any of the mechanics touch her when she’s in port. I’ve worked on this cutter from the frame up and know it inside and out. Who knows what they’ll do, and I know they’ll do something to it because they think I’m a mutant. Being paranoid is well worth it in this place and age.” Glancing over her shoulder with a grin for the judgemental conclusion, I smiled banally, offering no words.

I crossed my arms and closed my eyes, hoping my body language showed I did not desire conversation or wanting to listen any longer. The way she attacked the Low Gothic language made my head hurt. I knew Khornate berserkers who formed more cohesive sentences than Kel. Not that I wanted to exchange my present cohort for one of those madmen.

“A lot of people hire me as a pilot because I’m more competent than the other slackers working for Varr. That’s my boss’s name who, by the way, I think looks like a pig. He thinks he’s a big shot because he served with the Guard, fought some Orks, and after living long enough, got honourably discharged.” She huffed. “He’s just lazy.”

Finally, there came a long lapse of glorious quiet when the choice of topics ran dry. Folding my hands together and changing my breathing pattern, I slipped into a light trance to meditate on my next move. Kel broke the silence. Tzeentch damn her.

“So,” the word became a drawl. My eyes snapped open. Kel had turned her seat around to look at me. “Where did you get the interesting armour?”

“From the tech-priests of Mars. The Imperium does not allow its servants to go in to the dangerous unknown without some measure of security,” I responded effortlessly. The excuse worked before on others. The chance of Kel knowing about power armour was not impossible, though seeing a Space Marine could be.

“Have you ever been in a fight while in the ruins you Anthrologos guys go through? Like in those holovids?” Fixing me with a considering gaze, I noted the colour of her iris was a plain brown, not the heightened colours the Eldar displayed. “Against feral worlders wanting to make a ritual sacrifice out of you? Stealing forgotten relics from temples while working for rogue traders?”

“A few times, but nothing that couldn’t be handled.” Running faster than the slowest person in the group had its advantages. Acolytes held their uses as decoys, and when necessary, body shields.

She gave a nod, spindly fingers tapping away on a data-slate. “Then if you don’t mind me asking, what’s so important about Maharra that you’re risking a quarantine to go?”

Now the real questions began. Kel was a nuisance, but I was a fair conversationalist who could manoeuvre to a safe topic with a few well-placed words. “There are claims of Eldar artefacts on Maharra. I am to investigate for my Ordo no matter what problems the planet might be involved in. Eldar ruins are a rare find and worthy of consideration.”

“Really?” There was no hiding the curiosity in her voice. Having picked up on the word ‘Eldar’, Kel would start talking about the most important thing in reference to the word – herself.

“Yes. There--”

“I knew it!” Kel threw her hands in the air and laughed. “I knew there was something on Maharra, I knew it! I could always feel something tugging at me, my mind, whenever I got close to the northern hemisphere. Do you ever have those moments, Izsak, when you just know without knowing?”

My interest was piqued. “And what is your hypothesis on that assumption?” Who was I to say it wasn’t genuine what Kel believed? Tzeentch was playing a very controlled hand in my favour, sending this pilot who, without knowing it, was in perfect psychic sync to the relics of her mixed inheritance.

“Because I’m half-Eldar.” She declared smugly, a grin played across her curved face. “Nobody else thinks so, but hell, they aren’t me. And I know Varr sent me on this run in the hopes that I’ll end up getting blown out of the sky. Sure, he hired me, but he doesn’t exactly like the fact that the ‘mutant’ keeps away the better business. Then again, what type of business is there to be had for pilots on a dust ball of a farm world, huh?”

Now that Kel was talking again, I would no longer have peace until I reached Maharra. Only fools interrupted idiots to get a word in edgewise. For every moment Kel spoke, I gained information about her that could be beneficial. The Eldar I had encountered in my travels had been tight-lipped individuals who kept their lives and dealings private. Kelvenia obviously inherited the gift of prattling from her human parent, unafraid in voicing her opinions, beliefs, and feelings of superiority.

Keeping my expression objective, I played to her ego. “How did you come to the conclusion that part of your heritage is Eldar? It’s a rather grand declaration for someone who lives on the ‘dust ball of a farm world’ as you put it.”

“Ah,” she snapped her fingers, “good for you to ask. Not just for the way I look,” and she tugged at one ear. “I know because I was given this.” She fished out a necklace from under her shirt. Hanging from the fine chain was the Eye of Isha, and though I have seen counterfeits, this one appeared genuine. “One of my parents gave it to me. It’s proof, just like the way I look, that shows I’m not a mutant. Maybe one day I’ll find my way back to the Craftworld I’m from. It’ll show those people at the schola I’m better than they ever were or will be.”

“You never knew which parent was which, or what Craftworld they hailed from?” Not that it actually mattered, though as a sorcerer I was keen to sift for as much information as possible.

She shook her head. “Not a clue. I’ll know one day. I wasn’t raised in this system – I just caught the first freighter that was leaving my old one before landing here. Whoever my folks were, they never bothered to register me in the Imperium’s system at birth, so I have,” Kel paused in finding the right words. “A free ticket.”

Turning back to the control panel to judge the cutter’s progress, Kel’s concentration was held by her work. I threaded a line of psychic energy against her aura, intent in checking the legitimacy of her bold statements. Detecting a faint pulse of psionic energy emanating from the necklace, its aural weave complex and xenos in nature, I confirmed its Eldar origins. It was… perplexing how I hadn’t sensed psychic talent surrounding Kel, given all Eldar were latent psykers to various degrees.

I pushed further, delving into her mind. I found Kelvenia used her grand heritage to cover for her inadequacies, clinging to the Eldar half to stand apart and know she was better that others. Her imagination created the illusion of her mother as an Aspect Warrior, or her father a Farseer, never considering they may have been less. She clutched at these beliefs with a desperate intensity to find meaning to her existence. Underneath these swirling thoughts, at the edge of her awareness, a psychic ward halted my search.

It was complexly crafted, far beyond what I had seen in others minds. This mind lock, deliberately set with great precision, undoubtedly came from the Eldar side of Kel’s family without her knowing. Testing the protection of this was beyond my abilities, but I sensed cracks within the foundation, a wearing over time that could be fixed only by the creator. And leaking from those cracks was the very witch-sight I had been looking for. It confounded me, the power firmly locked away. Unable to tap into it, escaping the eyes of the Imperium’s watchdogs, this lock was a gift to her when she had been a child for protection. I privately seethed at the strength she held compared to mine. Such a waste.

“I’m getting a headache,” Kel muttered. “Do you mind if I play some music? Not much longer to Maharra, just under two hours. In-system runs are so easy but I get bored without something to listen to.”

Abandoning my psychic analysis, incensed at the injustice of the universe, I shrugged. For the remainder of the voyage, I was forced to endure harmonies which the composer’s inspiration was the guttural screams and bellows of Orks.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the proximity klaxon rung, signalling our destination. I would soon be off this vessel and one step closer to my goal. Kel’s fingers raced over the glass panelled controls, shutting off the in-system engines and taking control of the ship. Before us, hanging in the silent void of space, was Maharra. A lush world of greens and blues, it dominated the cutter’s canopy, serene and unconcerned with the galaxy. And somewhere on that planet, the portal to the Webway was hidden.

“Plot a course to the northern hemisphere,” I instructed Kel. So close to my prize, I failed to notice a more pressing and immediate concern.

A warning klaxon blared, the sound ominous in the confines of the cutter. My eyes turned from the auspex to the reality, cutting across the black gulf with lethal intent. An Imperial cruiser, one of the many involved in the blockade, was approaching. No warnings were issued across the vox-channels and, as it drew closer, I could see the gun ports priming.

“Oh, by the left finger of Isha,” Kel breathed. “It didn’t appear on my auspex before.”

The half-breed, reacting quickly as years of experience took over, powered up the engines of her cutter. “Hang on,” was all the warning she gave before the cutter jumped forward, racing down in the gravity well of Maharra, the speed sending my hearts arrhythmic.

I gripped the armrests of my chair and held on. Kel’s face was a mask of sheer concentration, eyes narrowed to slits and lips set tight. The cutter shot downwards in a spiral, its acceleration building, the metal hull beginning to glow red from the forces exerted on it. Two small lights pinged on the auspex, rapidly moving away from the Imperial cruiser and gaining on us. Pursuit craft. The Imperium was deadly serious in not allowing anyone to land on Maharra. In the back of my mind I wondered what the truth behind this quarantine was about.

The auspex identified the smaller vessels as two Lightning fighters. It meant nothing to me, but caused Kel to start swearing. She yelled a command in the cutter; the auspex and warning klaxon fell silent. I heard her rapid intake of breathe, a muttered plea to Isha, the roar of the engines as we continued the plunge. The shrill klaxon suddenly returned, screeching as we entered the upper atmosphere of Mahrarra.

Missiles had been fired; I whispered a dark prayer swallowed up by the confusion.

Kel shouted, “Don’t you dare blow me out of the sky!” as she wrenched the cutter to the left, diving into a layer of thick cloud for cover.

Plummeting through the atmosphere, nearly out of control, I saw the half-breed work at a speed no human could match. A series of buttons were pressed, followed by a high-pitched whine, and the cutter’s speed increased substantially. The pitch of the engines changed in temper, the machine spirit undoubtedly angry, and all the while Kel continued to race ahead of the Lightnings and their weaponry.

Memories of being inside Thunderhawks tearing through the sky surfaced. I tasted blood, realized it was my own from biting the inside of my mouth. The cutter, without any defences, relied solely on speed and agility to take us to safety. My eyes were fastened to the image on the auspex; seeing the missile blip out, I assumed it lost track of us. Later I would ask how Kel had augmented her cutter to include military-class thrusters. Now I let the pilot do her job, trying to control the pace of my hearts.

Kel whooped as the missile alert died away, swore again when the Lightnings appeared through the heavy banks of cloud. Pulling the spacecraft though a series of rolls and tight turns, anything to lose the Lightnings, we dropped into the lower atmosphere. Great expanses of heavy jungle appeared, jutting rocks and high plateaus falling away in to narrow canyons. A new warning siren blared and the cutter was wrenched violently to the left. The thrusters on the ship flickered and died, our speed dropping sharply.

“Frakking lascannons! I hate you, I hate you so much!” Kel gunned the acceleration; only to see the rune turn red, informed by a hololithic pane the thrusters were damaged. The cutter’s voice chimed unhelpfully to find the nearest docking station to begin repairs, Kel howling at it to shut up.

The Lightnings were closing fast and I realized why I never enjoyed battles engaged in the sky. There was absolutely nowhere to run to.

“Get close to the forests,” I barked, my nerves feeding into the intensity of my tone. “We can--”

Blinding white light arced through the air. The cutter's arrays were thrown in confusion, Kel fighting for control of her ship as the lightning rolled over and past us. My skin crawled at the intensity behind it, gritting my teeth against the all too familiar sensation of Warp magic being unleashed. It ended abruptly, and the auspex’s data feeds registered we were the only craft in the air. Kel awkwardly brought her ship about and, wreckage plummeting into the forests below, saw what remained of the Lightnings.

“Lucky,” she breathed shakily, then laughed. “And we’re in the northern hemisphere to boot. I'm lucky.”

“Don't speak,” I hissed. My mind churned, hesitating on whether I should believe what I saw or if it was hap stance. There were few who claimed the power I had witnessed, and on Maharra where a Webway portal existed, there were even fewer who would be drawn without a purpose similar to mine. Instinct born of training took over and I armed myself quickly, taking the staff from under the seat, removing the bolter from its useless case. Kel’s eyes followed my actions, growing wider when she saw the weapons. She was about to speak when the lightning struck again.

Electrical systems fried. The engines overloaded. The cutter dropped like a stone from the sky with the forest hurtling toward us. I braced myself, knowing my power armour could withstand the impact; Kel struggled pointlessly with the controls before bracing against her web harness. Metal screeched, twisted and was torn when the cutter struck through the trees. The frame of the spacecraft took the brunt of it; a wing sheared off by a tree as thick as the leg of a Warlord Titan. Smoke filled the cutter, red lights flashing to signal a fire in one of the back compartments.

We crashed.

Even for the reinforced physiology of a Space Marine, one is fortunate with no limbs lost in a controlled crash. In this instance where the craft was out of control, it was a dark miracle I walked away from the wreckage. Tzeentch truly protects his favoured servants.

I remember fragments after the collision, brief snatches as the urgency to live clawed its way to the front. Kel had popped the canopy of the cutter, letting the oxygen-rich air of Maharra into the enclosed cockpit. Flames erupted behind me, the searing heat blistering the back of my scalp. I threw myself forward, desperate to escape my grave. Kel, coughing as she inhaled the thick smoke, struggled to undo her harness. I easily ripped the metal and plastek cords holding her in place, hauling the half-breed out of the front seat and pushing her out of the burning vessel.

No sense in leaving the best chance of finding the Webway portal behind.

Moving a safe distance from the demolished cutter, I dropped Kel unceremoniously on the ground. She moaned about the loss of the craft between coughing fits, eyes red-rimmed and watering. Finding the hem of my robes on fire, I ripped off the scorched remains and tossed the cloth aside. I no longer needed to hide who I was. The light from the burning wreckage glinted off the gold and blue armour of the Thousand Sons. With the mark of Tzeentch displayed across my right pauldron, the Thousand Sons Legion along my left, I knew I was a fearsome sight. I looked in Kel’s direction.

“Speechless? It never occurred to you that I was anyone but an Imperial lapdog? I thought my height alone would have given it away. Oh yes, truly you are one of the brighter people living on that dust ball.” I checked the bolter and chuckled. “Now, onto business. You said you felt a pull in the direction of the Eldar artefact every time you came to Maharra. Start by pointing us in the right direction and you can stay alive a few hours longer.”

“You,” she coughed, “bastard. You owe me a new ship! When I get back to Varr, I’m turning in my notice. Hell if I’m working for him or anyone like you!” Staggering to her feet, she gestured rudely. “I’m not afraid of you or those like you!”

I gave a bemused look. “It would be worth your while to help me. Whatever shot us down might come looking for us, and it would be best if we put as much distance between ourselves and your,” I gestured to the blackened hull, “ship. This is enemy territory and neither of us wants to be caught.” Turning my back to her, I began reconstructing my staff.

“Like hell you’d want to be caught. What’s a marine who works for the Emperor--“

Chaos Space Marine,” I corrected her. The mention of the false ruler burned my ears. “You will help me and you will start now. Do not make me force you, or you will find the tales true about what the followers of Chaos do to those who do not obey.” In truth, I wanted to choke her then and there. Yes, that was how I would kill this half-breed once I finished with Maharra. Asphyxiation seemed the proper way for Kel to die, having her throat crushed, unable to speak in the afterlife.

“Great! So somehow I’m stuck with a Space Marine--“

“Chaos Space Marine sorcerer,” I interjected, “of the Thousand Sons.” That knowledge passed over her as she continued ranting. Idiot.

“--who’s technologically inept, on a quarantined planet in the middle of a forest! My poor ship! Let me guess, the next big surprise out of the bag is that you’re pretending to be a sorcerer but you don’t know how to use magic at all!”

How fortunate my back was to the Kel or she would have seen my eyes widen for the merest of moments. She had no idea how she hit upon the truth without knowing.

“I only need you for as long as it takes to reach my intended goal.” I smiled venomously, giving a view of my sharpened teeth. “After that, you are obsolete.” Kel quietened immediately. I gave a mocking smile to the woman. “Did I strike a nerve, Kelvenia?”

“What’s stopping me from running away, or leading you in the wrong direction?” She defiantly crossed her arms with a glare.

“Before you consider those poorly planned tactics, know this. You have two options available and only those. The first is you can guide me to the Webway portal on your own feet or,” I aimed my bolter at her. “You can drag yourself there. The choice is yours. Walk or crawl, but we will find the portal.”

In the end, Kel opted to walk. How amazing that people turn to the rational choice when given one. We marched for half a day in a northerly direction, Kel stopping every few miles to gain her bearings. I said nothing, keeping my bolter trained on her the entire time, watching for deception or trickery. When she slowed and complained of needing a rest, a quick strike across her shoulders convinced her to keep moving. The forests of Maharra stretched before us; we crossed under great roots as big as triumphal arches, climbed over fallen logs where multitudes of insects scattered at our approach, found pathways through jagged upheavals of rock. As night fell we entered a clearing and I, not knowing any better, walked into a trap.

The shadows stopped us. I thought it a trick of the twilight, how the lengthening pools of inky blackness appeared to reach out as talons. Yet they hooked themselves to our shades, refusing to let go, coiling like serpents to lock us in place. Kel struggled uselessly, hyperventilating, her eyes rolling into the back of her head. Shadows gripped my legs and pinned my arms, numbing my grip on the bolter until I dropped it. The weapon hit the ground with a muted thud, a choking cloud of dead leaves and dirt rising up. My staff was ripped from my other hand and sent spinning across the clearing, shattered against an outcropping of stone.

The designers of the ambush revealed themselves after that.

“I find it odd you risk coming to a war zone. I hold no surprise to see you breathe; you always lived through the worst, Belail.” Ahriman, former grand sorcerer of the Thousand Sons, melted out from the shadows. “Unless, of course, you knew your chances of success were certain. Here for the Webway portal as well, I assume.”

My luck, once so fortunate, turned sour. I wondered when it would happen, and thought it could not grow worse. Still arrogant and all-assuming, I was contending with Ahriman, a sorcerer of such calibre that to even think of treachery against him was madness. At the very least, Ahriman’s presence confirmed the presence of a Webway portal. He never went after the mundane and trite artefacts. At the most, I knew I was at a disadvantage encountering the traitors Magnus exiled from the Planet of the Sorcerers. Brethren though they are, their viewpoints sharply contrasted with the Legion proper. Nearly heretical, if one wanted to divide the different factions of what made a heretic.

Others appeared from the twisting shadows; two sorcerers and a contingent of Rubric Marines. One of the sorcerers, the adept mage holding the spell’s reality, twisted his arm and drew the shadows back. I staggered in mid-step before finding my balance. Kel fell to the ground hard, chewing her lips in fear and gripping her knees. Could I run? As nonsensical as the idea was, it went under serious consideration. Instead of flight, I turned to the honeyed use of words.

“To whoever crippled the Imperium’s fighters with the magnificent display of psychic power,” I bowed to Ahriman, “you have my thanks. Whatever machinations we all have in the grander scheme, our reasons for coming to Maharra remain the same. The Webway is all and Tzeentch has led us to it.”

“It’s useless to give thanks, Belail. The fighters were blasted from the sky not for your sake, but for ours. We need no prying eyes in our search for the portal.” The words came from the sorcerer to Ahriman’s right; taller than the others, his daunting presence radiated across the clearing. The armour was all too familiar, the silver helm not easily forgotten. Time hadn’t diluted the memory of the Vizier of the Magus whom I served as equerry.

“Osis Pathoth?” I was incredulous. What was the Great Architect playing at for my liege lord to appear on Maharra, and in league with Ahriman? I blurted out, “You were with the Rubric Cabal?”

Three strides. Three strides and Pathoth was across the clearing, a swift blow delivered which sent me reeling to the ground. I spat out blood and remembered Pathoth, a man of grand words, was not to be angered on any account. Kel, fates damn her, chose to speak up.

“Whoever shot my ship out of the sky owes me a new one. You guys look like you have enough money to--“

Ahriman stepped forward, his gaze transfixing Kel. Whether the grand sorcerer muted her speech or she was intimidated by his presence, Ahriman had done the impossible. He shut her up.

“What strange company you keep, Belail.” He flicked his hand. Kel rose up until she hovered above the ground. The blood drained from her face while her limbs spasmed, no longer under her control as the sorcerer exerted his influence. “Wherever did you pick up a mixed blood and one so uncouth?”

“She was piloting the craft I hired from Deidre.”

“Still relying on others for transport, I see. How pitiful.” Since last seeing Ahriman, he hadn’t changed. His imperious tone would always mark his personality. He began to slowly pace around Kel. “What use is this extra weight? What does a half-breed have anything to do with yourself? Are you having others work their psychic talents to mask the lack of your own, and you reap the praise?”

Knowing it would only take a whim for Ahriman to pick apart my mind and know what I intended, I quickly hissed, “She’s to help gain entry to the Webway and find safe passage to the Black Library.”

“Truly? Belail, I am amazed. You believe anyone with the merest of psychic talents can just enter and take what they wish? Do you know how hard I fought to gain access, what I am attempting once more? Someone of your paltry aptitude cannot even begin to compare.” Ahriman’s mocking tone was a parent’s to a child.

Had I the smidgen of talent he did, I would have used it against him. I would have charred the skin from his bones, boiled the blood in his veins, ripped his soul into the aether and let the daemons feast on it. But I could do none of those things, so I used the talent I did have: misdirection and half-truths. “I heard from a reliable source you were ejected the first time. The second time the legendary Harlequins attacked you and your third attempt--”

Ahriman waved a hand. “Yes, yes. All trifling setbacks, lessons well learned. I will not be fooled again. But I have set foot within the fabled library and with my star on the rise, I will succeed. The knowledge will not remain hidden much longer. My quest is drawing to a close after all these centuries.”

“Indeed, perhaps you will be pardoned by Magnus.” I hastened my words, knowing that Kel’s life, and more importantly mine, hung in the balance. “My belief is with someone of Eldar blood, a human’s presence can be masked long enough for admission to the Black Library. The Harlequins might not attack immediately if we are hidden within her psychic aura, as limited as it is.” It was a lie, a glorious stretch of the truth where no kernel remained, but it was all I had. I looked beyond Ahriman to Pathoth, praying to Tzeentch he did not give away my false words.

Ahriman could not resist the implications behind the thought I planted. His gaze slid to Kel, full of sinister thought. “What is the price you place on your life and soul, half-breed?”

“I p-promise…” A thin line of blood dribbled from her nose, the mental strain she was enduring apparent. “I’ll g-get you there…”

“Good girl,” Ahriman chuckled, the sound disturbing. “Time is essential to the task at hand. We depart now for the Webway portal.”

She whimpered as her limbs came under control again, and she dropped to the ground. Kel quickly hid in my shadow as though I would protect her. Osis Pathoth gave a word of command and the Rubric Marines fell into line. Ahriman led the way, Kel and I behind as Pathoth, the unnamed sorcerer and the Rubric Marines brought up the rear.

“So,” Kel was blunt. She wiped her bloodied nose. “Iszak, huh? Or Belail? Which should I use?”

“Belail. Iszak’s the name of a colleague of mine; he would dislike it to know I appropriated his name.”

“If he ever punches you, you’d deserve it.” Kel stared at me hard. “I was right when I said you don’t know how to use magic, wasn’t I? You’re nothing but a sham and the only reason you’re not dead is because you’re as useful as I am.”

“Do not think I will save you if we encounter trouble,” I growled back. “From this point on, it is each for their own. I never return to help anyone.”

________


We came to the Webway portal before dawn. Ahriman knew the way without needing Kel. Overgrown with vines and huddled under the mighty trees, the portal might have been passed over by others as an odd piece of masonry in the middle of nowhere. For those with eyes to see, it meant so much more. My breath caught as I looked upon the portal entrance, its design magnificent. Rising in a graceful arc across a platform of delicate wraithbone, the eldritch doorway consisted of interlacing circles and diamonds patterned within the next, a geometric puzzle of nightmarish quality. The potent runes of the Eldar were carved on the wraithbone, catching the sun’s light as it rose over the tree line. Each Thousand Sons marvelled at this artefact of xenos ingenuity, of what it represented, the weight of what it contained beyond staggering.

“If it’s a doorway, where’s the doorknob to open it?” Kel asked, breaking the moment.

The stupid question turned judgemental eyes on the half-breed. It amazes me how many people in the galaxy never think their words or actions through. Brushing past without a glance, Pathoth handed Ahriman a pouch from which a set of stones were withdrawn. Spirit stones, ill-gotten gains taken from Chaos knew where. Aligning them in recesses cunningly worked into the design, the Webway portal began to shift, rotating within itself. The doorway cracked open, an iris unfurling to a chasm. Beyond the threshold, lights flickered and above, space stretched out into the infinite.

“Belail,” Ahriman commanded. “Bring the half-breed here. You both have the singular honour of entering first to protect our advance.”

“I have a name,” Kel shot back, “and you--“

“Quiet,” I hissed, pulling her forward. “Keep your thoughts to yourself and your mouth sealed.” I bowed to Ahriman, repeating the motion before Pathoth. My exhilaration and trepidation combined, I stepped into the Webway, knowing the triumph of a goal reached. Even if I was a prisoner, here I was.

Where ships sail through its grand corridors and the darker cousins of the Eldar lurk, of coveted knowledge hidden and the Laughing God making sport with the deities of the Immaterium, the Webway defies an exact understanding. Time becomes useless and the meaning of space distant. No words could describe what I saw in the faint iridescent glow. My hands shook from excitement. Beside me, Kel craned her neck back to look at a whirling nebula, a minute scale to its grander version. Or perhaps the opposite. She stretched out a hand to touch it, fingers passing through its ghostly light, before it was consumed in the blink of an eye.

“Wow,” her voice echoed down the pathways of the Webway. “Are you actually seeing this? Does anyone have a data-slate so I can take picts of this?”

“Observe strict silence or have your tongue cut from your mouth,” Osis Pathoth ordered, proceeding after us with the Rubric Marines. To the souls locked in the armour he gestured, “Keep within the radius of the half-breed, weapons ready. We won’t be caught off-guard by the Harlequins.”

The Harlequins. I nearly forgot about those beings. Now reminded of them, I paused. I was unarmed. No one thought to arm a prisoner who might shoot someone else in the back, fair enough, but if the Harlequins attacked my escape would be complicated. If Kel could not cloak us from their eyes and twisted minds, then by the skin of my teeth and luck I would find a way to flee.

The Webway, a labyrinth through space, left no trail markers for its explorers. Footprints left no impressions on the glowing walkway. Attempts to carve runes into the wraithbone dulled the edges of the blades. I watched Ahriman perform a hexing across the entryway to keep it from closing. A way out, an opportunity for flight. I held the belief this venture was cursed. This expedition had all the grace of a drunken grox stumbling blind in the dark, while at least a two-person team had the chance at stealth. There was no slyness here and my fortunes, while on the wane, could still wax full with a favourable get away.

Did the presence of the half-breed create a blanket masking our entry? I wished to believe the lie. Looking at Kel, dwarfed by the Chaos marines surrounding her, I flexed my hands. She better have some use with her mixed blood or this corridor could become my grave. Ahriman directed us down halls which twisted and turned like a serpent, the wraithbone darkening in places we passed, tunnels veering off to who knew where in the galaxy. At one point I looked up to find we were upside down, a yawning spiral of stars whirl pooling above my head. I saw a battleship phase into being for moments before it wavered, the psychic imprint left behind caught on ethereal winds which blew it to the eight corners.

“Steady, Belail. Illusions are birthed here to distract the unwary and provoke those with singular pride to their fall. Keep to your duty and all will come to pass as it should.” Pathoth’s words, cryptic as always, were unexpected. He walked alongside me, the magnificent staff he carried crackling with eldritch power. “Remember my words from the Planet of the Sorcerers.”

“Noted, my Lord,” I bowed my head respectfully. “Though I would like to have my questions answered as to why you are here and in this company.” Centuries since last seeing my lord and while I was humbled once again in his great presence, I could not feel secure in the territory of the Eldar. No matter how great the psychic powers of the sorcerer each had limitations. Not that I’d seen Pathoth’s yet, or Ahriman’s.

“You have many questions running about your mind.” I could feel the smile hidden in his words. “I have neither the time nor the means to explain. Do not ask the ‘why’; be content in following my orders. They have not changed. Fate is unyielding and what you – what we – are doing at this moment is precisely what is crucial.”

I remembered those words and, nodding in confusion, I checked the pathway. Could I leap from this height and survive the fall if escape appeared? Would another of these tunnels open up and return me to the entrance of the world of Maharra? Then what?

Laughter echoed down the halls, shrill and foolish. Ahriman stopped; even I could see the sudden tension rippling in the air around him. His grip on his staff tightened. Echoing madly, the laughter intensified, coming from all directions at once. It spun over us, screamed beneath our feet, capered at our heels when the grand sorcerer ordered a quick advance. Never letting up, the chuckles and shrieks of delight overlapped and followed. I swore I caught the faint strain of music twinning through the air.

“Hurry,” Ahriman barked the order, pointing the way ahead. “Keep up or fall behind, the troupe is on our heels.”

Kel, exhausted as she was, kept the pace with an anxious gait. So much for her masking our presence. The Rubric Marines were the only ones unaffected by the unstopping laughter. I envied them in that moment. I knew what was coming for us and what I didn’t want to face. Pathoth drew his khopesh, whirling the curved blade in his left hand, sweeping his staff ahead.

Booming laughter, a maddening discordant peal, signalled the attack.

Slivers of light rippled in the air, rents torn open, giving passage to the jesters who tumbled out. Masks of bizarre patterns leered at us; the muzzles of guns flashed, the sharp edges of blades cut the air. The Rubric Marines opened fire on the Harlequin troupe. It was impossible to miss in close quarters, but against the Harlequins, nothing turns out as one hopes. Flurries of colour, the Eldar troupe danced and skipped through the barrage of bolter shells, their blades cleaving the armour of the Rubric Marines. A combination of dance and quick attacks was how they fought, never truly staying rooted to the spot. A cowardly, effective way to fight.

I dove to the ground as one brash Harlequin, back-flipping and streamers fluttering came between Pathoth and I. “Tzeentch preserve,” I yelped, catching sight of the baleful mask the alien wore. The Eldar’s blade missed my throat, raking along the backside of my armour before the warrior was cart-wheeling away. Or tried to.

Pathoth’s khopesh slashed down, cleaving the Eldar’s left leg above the knee. Collapsing to the ground in a pool of red blood, the Harlequin only howled in laughter as a Rubric Marine ended its life. In the deadly melee, I lost sight of the viceroy. Without his eyes on me, I scrabbled away, keeping my head low and looking for an opening to escape the madness. Music played somewhere far off, jarring notes which sent light pulsing up and down the Webway corridor.

The enchanted bolt rounds of the Rubric Marines missed their targets more often than hitting them, the flaring Warp fire impacting on the walls of the Webway and leaving smoking craters. The unnamed sorcerer rallied a group to him, gesturing for the Rubric Marines to advance against a jester of the Harlequin troupe. Unleashing a stream of shuriken discs at the Chaos marines, the razor-thin projectiles slicing into the ceramite armour, yet the automata trudged forward.

Movement to my left; I whirled, ready to bludgeon whoever it was only to find Kel. Angrily, I pushed her behind me, up against the wall I was crouching beside. I needed a pilot once I left the accursed Webway. My dream of finding the Black Library would have to wait for another day, another decade, another century.

A battle shout came from the middle of the melee. Ahriman strode with confidence to engage the warlock of the troupe. In quick succession the exiled sorcerer drew currents of Warp lightning, casting it at the mirror-helmed Eldar, then cracked his black staff against the ground to wrap the opponent in a sheet of orange flame. The jewelled sword carried by the xenos mage absorbed the attacks. No blazing lightning raked the alien’s armour and the flames guttered out, leaving oily smears on the pathway. The air distorted around the two, a clash of mental wills absorbed only on the kill.

Ahriman was pushed back a pace. It was a small movement, but my mind saw it and screeched. To see one of the strongest of sorcerers being met blow for blow, on a field where the Eldar held the advantage did not bolster my spirit. This expedition was lost.

“We need to leave,” I gripped Kel. “While we still have a chance.”

The unnamed sorcerer killed one of the jesters with a bolt round before his head was lopped off from an overhead attack. A Rubric Marine’s ancient power armour was shredded to nothing by shuriken discs, dust scattered to the winds and essence lost. Ahriman, damn his pride, refused to call for a withdrawal, believing he could create a victory from this catastrophe. I owed the traitor to the Thousand Sons no allegiance; cowards lived and heroes died. I never enjoyed being a hero.

I saw a break in the fighting, a way out. I moved fast, dragging the half-breed with me, hoping no one would notice us in the confusion. Kel screamed as a bolt round impacted in the wraithbone at her feet. The blue-white material fragmented, chips of it cut her skin. I hissed as a stray lasbolt caught my left pauldron, the force behind it jerking me to the side. A Rubric Marine loomed ahead, his bolter pointed at my head. He fired the loaded inferno round, the bullet’s trajectory passing inches from the right side of my face. It impacted in the chest of the Harlequin spinning toward me, brutally killing the alien. I breathed thanks to the mindless automaton. Almost to the edge of the fighting—

Then the vortex grenade exploded. I stumbled to my knees, throwing Kel ahead of me to shield her from the blast with my bulk. Nothing remained of the Rubric Marine who saved me. The blinding flash dissipated and through the smoke and wild clamour, a grinning Harlequin wearing a skull mask appeared. Kel gawked, a dumb expression on her face, and I confess I might have looked the same. The Death Jester brandished his heavy scythe, the keen edge arcing down for a killing stroke.

I reacted, kicking out with my leg and hoping to break his. The Death Jester jumped back, changing the path of his blade in mid-swing. It cleaved my armour, cutting into the flesh and the augmented bones. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I was caught off balance and fell. The back of my head impacted on the Webway. I registered the sticky wetness of blood – mine – and saw that grinning death mask loom over me.

At a time like this, I wish someone had given me a weapon. Why is it I can never keep hold of a bolter, any bolter? My thoughts were surprisingly lucid in my final moments.

Then salvation appeared. A hail of inferno shells cut the air, ripping at the Death Jester’s armour. The Eldar behind the mask writhed, danced, and twisted in the air to avoid the worst, then he was gone. A trio of Rubric Marines moved past me, giving covering fire while I gathered my wits. Ahead of me the Harlequin troupe engaged in their vicious attack, striking us interlopers from their hallowed halls. If not for the Rubric Marines and their puppet commander, I would have been dead twice over. Ahriman, locked in psychic combat, was not the master of the mindless Sons; the nameless sorcerer was no more, which left—

“To your feet and depart quickly. This overconfident raid Ahriman's undertaken will end in death if he refuses to retreat. You will not be taking the same path we will.” A force lifted me boldly to my feet. There was the vizier, as imposing as ever, the blue lens of his visor reflecting my face back to me.

“My Lord Pathoth,” I gasped, “what’s happening? As your equerry, I demand to--”

The colour of Pathoth’s blue visor changed to a burning red. He hoisted me into the air by my gorget. “When we meet once more, I will divulge the reason to my long absence. Until then the game is still in play. Next we convene; a few key players will be added. One has assembled and another stands right before us. Pawns, even the small ones, need to be moved carefully across the board. You two will not die yet.”

“What do you--“

No more words. No more time. There was only the now; I was cast again from my lord’s side and back in to the uncertainty the galaxy granted. Lord Pathoth threw me over the edge of the Webway platform, tossing Kelvenia after me. She screamed in the plunge, understanding nothing, just as I did. Wraithbone rushed passed, ghostly images whirled away until I blacked out.
Last edited by Anne Marie on Tue May 31, 2011 3:43 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Anne Marie
 
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Re: Hypocrite

Postby Anne Marie » Fri May 13, 2011 2:57 pm

________


The pain woke me. Muscle-drenched pain, but I was alive. I was on my back and staring up at a black ceiling. Another part of the Webway; where exactly was a dubious guess. I rolled onto my side, inhaled deeply against the jarring aches and stood. Kel was not far from me. I stood over her prone form, considering for long moments what to do. If I killed her, would it be murder or charity? Break every bone in her body and leave her mangled? What had I been thinking when I spun that useless lie of her shielding auras? Did I really need a pilot?

Depending on where the Webway led, I could come out on a world where transport was readily available. Kel was nothing but dead weight.

Footsteps approached, echoing oddly. I spun around, ready to face the threat, grimacing at how unfair my patron god was treating me. From around the corridor’s curve, his silhouette sliding ahead of him came the Death Jester. The hem of his cloak was shredded, his armour nicked and scored in a dozen places, but he was alive. No doubt he had hunted me down to finish what he started. Tenacious bastard.

He halted a few yards from me, scythe raised. He never attacked. We stared at each other for long moments, the xenos against the Chaos Space Marine. I prayed for Tzeentch’s favour. If I could be given another chance, I would show the Changer of the Ways how useful I still was. I would rather die on the battlefield than in the Webway. I reflexively raised my arm when the Death Jester pointed. Not at me, I saw, but behind me. At Kelvenia. He motioned I should pick her up.

Who was I to argue? I did the reasonable thing and hoisted the unconscious half-breed over my shoulder. My surprise multiplied when the Eldar pointed ahead of us, giving a silent order to walk. I warily half-turned, keeping my eyes on him. He never came close and I preferred to keep the distance. Strange and stranger yet, the Weaver of Fate had answered my prayers. The march drew out; my mind wandered to strange thoughts of chance, of ‘what if’s’ and probability. I went over Osis Pathoth’s words, growing frustrated. Finally, when I was about to shout in the silence to hear anything other than mine or the Harlequin’s footsteps, Kelvenia awoke.

“You’re the worst fraud alive,” Kel muttered. Her arms barely gripped around the shoulders of my power armour.

“Oh?” I kept walking. I could sense the Death Jester intensely watching now, but kept his gaze less on myself and more on the oddity.

The half-breed chuckled weakly. “Yeah. You’re a coward but end up saving my neck. You said you’d never go back for anyone.”

“I need a pilot.”

A snort. “No, you don’t. We’re not even going to the same doorway we entered through. And my ship is nothing more than a burning mess of metal by now.” There was a distinct note of mourning in Kel’s voice to the reality of her ship. “Also, you’re pretty pathetic as a marine compared to the other ones back in the fight.”

I allowed myself to laugh. “I never said I fought well. I just need you to get out of the Webway. Otherwise, my body will be sliced to ribbons by the unnerving escort we have. I cannot have that. You are merely a tool to be used. When I no longer need your help, I will toss you aside.”

Kel poked my temple. “You were picking me up and hauling me away from the fight. Plain and simple, you who said ‘I never return to help anyone.’”

She never let up. Realizing she had me, I inwardly cursed. Rather than admitting to the integrity of her words and a truth about myself, I quickened my pace and hoped the Harlequin was not eavesdropping.

“Here I am with a sorcerer who knows next to no magic and,” she looked over her shoulder to wave at the Death Jester, “we have a guard making sure we’re safe to the exit. Life can’t get much stranger than this, you know? If Varr and the others could see me now, they’d all have a heart attack.”

Kelvenia started laughing. Her conversation, inane and unrepentant, helped pass the time until with little fanfare, we came upon an exit. The design of the portal was similar to the one we entered by, though smaller. The Death Jester advanced, keeping the same equidistance between us, and opened the gateway by means I never saw. He raised his hand, in a command or a salute, and it confused me. All the time, his gaze was focused on Kel and hers to the opening iris and the new world we would soon find ourselves on.

Strange are the manoeuvrings of the galaxy, stranger yet at the intrigues of the Eldar mind. Strangest of all are the Harlequin for what they are.

I stepped out of the Webway, grateful to leave what others would sell their souls for. I turned around once more to see the portal, a feeble attempt to memorize the Eldar runes. The Death Jester gestured threateningly, and wisely I descended the steps, keeping my gaze on him. But the xenos stayed his hand. I held an inclination he looked more at the half-breed I carried, more concerned for her safety than who and what I was. Once my armoured feet touched the earth, he seemed satisfied. With a curt nod of his skull helm, the Eldar moved back into the portal and sealed it behind him. The Webway door blackened, twisting on itself.

Locked forever on this world, whichever world it was. Damn.

Later I would ponder why my life and Kel’s had been spared, but now I had to be rooted in the present. Out of the Webway, with the sun of some strange world rising, Kel hopped off my back and stretched. Then she began to talk again.

How wonderful, I sarcastically reflected.

“Wow, it’s great to be out of there!” Her exclamation was loud enough to frighten the birds in the trees to flight. “I thought we’d never get out, let alone survive long enough, but we did. You know what I should do now?”

“Be quiet.” I ordered, my entire senses alert. I scanned the area, looking through the trees and the sky to see if anything hostile was about. One never knew in unfamiliar territory, more so after having a close brush with death. If there was danger of any sort, Kel would be my first line of defence while I ran.

“No way. I should buy a lottery ticket and win the Aquila Jackpot! Get a new ship and-- what’s with the look, Belail?“

“Be quiet,” I repeated.

Something glinted in the sunlight, moving fast over the tops of the trees, heading in our direction. I prayed to Tzeentch it was only a trick of the light, or perhaps a large bird, but it was not to be. I began to make out the markings along the oval craft. I cast my eyes over my surroundings. The Webway emptied out onto a plateau, the sheer drop into the thick jungle even something I would not attempt. Trapped. I was trapped, with nowhere to go, on an alien world with a half-breed that I could not get away from.

“Hey,” Kel’s voice rose in surprise. “I think that craft’s Tau. You know the whole ‘Greater Good’ aliens everyone talks about? I think we’ll be okay. They’re mostly friendly.”

She smiled at me and started waving her arms to gain their attention. I knocked her hands down and used my notable height to intimidate her. By Tzeentch, why did it fail against this damn woman?

“They already see us,” I pointed out the obvious.

“Just making sure they do,” she retorted. “And you know something? You owe me a new ship, Belail. I’m going to make sure you pay for a new cutter. Top of the line, customized in-system cutter and outfitted with the best.”

“Very well,” I smiled generously. “Under one condition.” My eyes followed the approaching Tau ship. I could make out the blue-skinned aliens inside.

Kel cagily looked at me, then at the Tau. She knew she was not the best at negotiation, a weakness I could exploit. “Fair enough.”

“Let me do the talking.”
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