The path to damnation is paved with good intentions
- ancient Terran aphorism.
Though it was good intentions which brought the Eldar of craftworld Carth-Lar into contact with the astartes chapter then known as the Stygian Guard, autarch Qarasion would discover that it was all too late...
Farseer Emrana sat, back straight, legs folded beneath him, his witchblade resting on the grass by his side. A crystal bowl lay before him, the water within clear. Final, miniscule, almost imperceptible tremors still rippled across its surface from its pouring almost an hour earlier. Yet still he waited, until it was perfectly calm.
When the surface was at last truly as glass, the alien witch raised his right fist and opened it before the bowl, palm up, to reveal a pile of small wraithbone runes.
The watcher, stood off to one side, gave a curt nod but voiced no command lest it disturb the farseer or the water.
As if connected by an invisible thread, the runes levitated from the witch’s palm like a chain, across to hover above the water, gently orbiting over its surface.
Emrana, his attention focused on the runes and their reflection within the water, closed his eyes, giving no acknowledgement to the other.
Minutes passed as she watched the kneeling farseer. Their race was known for its composure, but Qarasion’s patience was beginning to grow thin. There were matters she had to attend to. Communiques from their colonies: Mesusid, Viarphia and their sister worlds, training regimes to supervise, an offer of trade from well-meaning aliens to prepare security for...she suppressed a sigh, calling upon ataractic meditation techniques she had learned during her time with the followers of Karandras. Emrana had always served her well and there was no reason his visions would lead her astray this time. That he had requested her before initiating the divination told her how serious he judged the premontions.
Through his mind’s eye Emrana watched the runes: small, smooth edged chips of wraithbone engraved with various devices, the meaning of which depended upon their angle and aspect. He watched their reflection as images began to form within the water encircled by the spinning runes. At first they were fleeting, only visible in the periphery, vanishing like ghosts if he tried to gaze upon them directly, but with time they became stronger.
He saw a world of the Mon Keigh teeming with life. His vision swept down through the clouds as he was drawn into the trance. Across their ugly, angular cities belching forth a noxious pall. But such revulsion was soon eclipsed by pure terror as the nature of the Mon Keigh there became apparent. Pleasure cults, ritual scarification, orgies and blasphemies more. To a man all were thralls of She Who Must Not Be Named. Cults exalting her myriad aspects were a scourge upon their society. A scourge they welcomed. Emrana’s scorn with tinged with pity that the lesser race so eagerly followed in the cursed footsteps of his own.
Emrana tried to pull back, to withdraw from the trance but, even exerting his formidable willpower he found himself unable. His vision was pulled skyward as the welkin was rent by fire.
Qarasion tilted her head as she saw sweat bead upon the farseer’s furrowed brow. She quietly lowered herself to her haunches so as to give herself a better view of his features, though dared not interrupt the trance from outside. Had Emrana not known she was present, her movements were so smooth and silent he could not have noticed.
Mon Keigh strode from the fireballs as they impacted upon the surface of the world of cults. No, not Mon Keigh but the Mon Keigh’s super warriors. Those `enhanced` brutes. Adeptus Astartes. These were clad in amour that made them as tanks, and they strode through the heretics slaying with cold impunity.
Emrana’s heart settled. He was no habitué of violence, though all of his race could unleash great killing power when necessary, indeed all were willing to take up arms, and to see the slaughter of those who had fallen under the sway of the Great Serpent buoyed his spirits.
But time accelerated and the killing took on a dark aspect. It became protracted. The warriors began to enjoy, nay revel, in the bloodshed.
He felt the touch of the Lord of Rage.
Why had the runes chosen to show him these events? The sparring of two of the infernal pantheon gaming with their pawns.
Soon came more of the Astartes, lighter of armour yet clad in the same colours. Shock at the actions of their kin. Orders to rein in the butchering disobeyed.
And the newcomers too began to fight the cultists. Souls bled into the warp in their millions.
Emrana willed the vision to accelerate, to pass, but fate would show him what it desired before it released him.
The warriors began to mimic those they sought to slay. Their youngest - their scouts - began to infiltrate the cults and bring them down from within, stepping from charnel houses tainted and carrying trophies. The corruption spread.
By the time the two factions met in the house of the planet’s arch-heretic, those who now served the Lord of Skulls found there was little to distinguish their kin from their enemy, so adorned and depraved they had become.
As their leaders clashed over the corpse of the magus, Emrana’s vision closed in on the sigil upon their pauldrons: an ivory skull set over canted scythes, back to back.
He reeled as the emblem melted and ran, solidifying again as the icon of The Great Enemy.
Like a drowning man breaking the surface, Emrana sucked in air noisily as he came out of the trance, falling forward, his flailing arms knocking the bowl aside, scattering the runes across the sward. Qarasion’s hand was soon on his shoulder, firm yet warm. Her other took his hands and helped him to his feet. His body quivered with withdrawal and the impact of what he had seen.
Her strong fingers brought up his chin. Her eyes questioned.
“I bid you ready your fleet, autarch,” he said, reaching a shaking hand up to wipe blood from the side of his mouth.
She did it for him, nodded and kissed him fully. When next they would have time, neither knew.
It was farsee Emrana, consort of autarch Qarasion, who alerted Carth-Lar to the fall of the Stygian Guard astartes chapter. The leaders of the craftworld, Qarasion observing silently, questioned why they should venture forth into the realm of Man. Some argued that while the Imperium was a weak race and quick to violence, there were elements within it that opposed the infernal powers albeit with blunt means and low intellect. Could they not be contacted by agents of the craftworld and left to deal with the problems of their genetic abominations? It was then that the autarch stepped forward to stand by the farseer and gave a grand speech, a vitriolic speech, shaming those who called it a problem for others to deal with. For too long the Eldar of Carth-Lar had steered their world clear of peril. Was She Who Must Not Be Named not a product of their own excess? If it was anyone’s problem to deal with then whose but the Eldar’s? She stared down the dissenters, directly accusing others of not having taken up a catapult in far too long.
“We realize that you grow lethargic yet refuse to relinquish your role, autarch Qarasion,” a counsellor noted, “perhaps stepping up your training regimes will use up some of that excess energy?”
“After all,” another put in, “the best blades are those left sheathed, no?”
“In which case the arm grows weak and feeble,” Qarasion countered, “I would rather blunt that blade -break it, even- laying waste to our enemies.”
“You may well get your wish.”
And thus, led by Qarasion’s own void stalker, Spear of Redemption lead a fleet of Carth-Lar’s warships to the homeworld of the astartes chapter identified as those in farseer Emrana’s vision: the Stygian Guard and the planet Fulcrum. A mission of peace, bringing a warning backed up by force.
A shiver ran through Charon’s hull as the Stygian Guard flagship decanted from the warp, tearing the fabric of reality wide as the battle barge returned. Dozens more battleships and support vessels followed it, casting eddies of unreal light from their Gellar Fields as they made the transition and aligned their prows toward their next target: their homeworld of Fulcrum.
Chapter master Sophusar shifted in his command throne upon the bridge, the smell of its new leather upholstery rich in his nostrils. That admiral Biltooda had shunned the enlightenment offered by chaplain Angra had been unfortunate, but not completely fruitless. As he stood he ran his armoured fingers over the man’s face, orifices stitched shut, now lining the backrest of the throne.
Angra, always at his side, smiled and bowed, receiving a nod in return.
The Stygian Guard had had a veil lifted from their eyes upon Cyprius III. They had been shown the error of their ways. No longer did they deny themselves their human emotions as they once had, believing they could serve better without the shackles of sentiment, affection, anger and fervor. Now they embraced it all and more.
Immediately tocsin sounded throughout the astartes ships.
The vagaries of warp travel or a cruel twist of fate, none would ever know the reason but the Eldar had arrived too late. Toying, dancing around the planetary defence force vessels, the aliens immediately broadcast their warning to avoid `the planet of cults` as soon as the astartes arrived. Ignoring the alien hails as they approached closer and closer, the astartes finally answered, autarch Qarasion and farseer Emrana at once realizing their mission was ill-fated when they saw the visage of the astartes aboard the Charon. Their twisted features, the symbols adorning their armour.
A fearsome warrior yet ever the pragmatist, Qarasion - against Emrana’s urging to attack the renegades so soon after their corruption lest it grow worse - ordered the retreat, broadcasting one final message as her vessels fled the system.
A grin spread across chapter master Sophusar’s face as he received the translation of the alien tongue. His chapter had a new name.
“Master, they say we are doomed. Harvesters of souls. Psychopomps.”
Veteran of three aspects and more centuries of warfare than she would rather remember, Qarasion knew that to assault the renegade astartes upon their homeworld was suicide. Who knew what gifts they had been granted by their dark master? She did not know enough to act decisively. Their mercy mission failed, ships lost and even captured during the flight, she vowed that the craftworld would observe the Psychopomps and, like the scorpion, strike when the time was right.
Qarasion read with relief the reports from her scouts when the corruption on Fulcrum -which had spread and worsened- had been discovered by the Imperium. She also felt more than a little chagrin, the craftworld council having suggested such a course. The scouts watched as agents of the inquisition first infiltrated the planet, then aided Black Templar astartes in assaulting it. Believing the superhuman zealots would complete her mission for her, she ordered the scouts to withdraw too soon...
It was not until years later that, aided by their daemonic allies, the Psychopomps once more crossed paths with the Eldar of Carth-Lar with the discovery of one of their colonies: the maiden world of Mesusid. Like their cousins on Biel-Tan, Carth-Lar sought to rebuild their empire though, lacking the resources of the other craft world, the work was slow and thus each world cherished all the greater.
Though the majority of the Eldar on Mesusid were gardeners tending to the planet’s terraforming into a paradise, when the Psychopomp raiding force swept down from orbit all took up weapons as is their species’ way. It was fortunate that there were two squads each of striking scorpions and swooping hawks, the latter lead by an exarch and the former late of Qarasion’s own command, stationed on the colony. Fortunate, though forlorn as the colonists and warrior were eventually all wiped out or captured.
While the populace of Carth-Lar mourned the loss of one of their precious hopes for the future, and many questioned why Qarasion had not struck when they believed she had had the chance (Emrana holding his tongue and supporting her publicly while speaking freely to the contrary within their chambers), Qarasion quashed her grief and ignored calls for her to once again step down. Now, more than ever, she believed Carth-Lar needed an autarch. Her spirits, though bowed, were strengthened by the mute support of the craftworld’s exarchs: none would volunteer to replace her. She was a warrior of old and the centuries of her world’s peace - it’s all too careful guidance from harm by the seers – had not dulled her tactician’s mind.
There were immediately calls of sacrilege when she ordered the location of Mesusid leaked to the Imperium. Many protested that surely the world could be salvaged, cleansed of the foul taint left by the rituals which had been carried out there in the battle’s wake. It could be turned into a shrineworld, dedicated to those who had perished, but Qarasion realized that not knowing where the renegades would next strike, it would benefit them more to have the Imperium’s more numerous agents on the Psychopomp’s trail too.
The council reminded her that they had recommended leaving the renegades to Imperial retribution, to which she countered that the Imperium had failed to finish the job on Fulcrum: there were no guarantees they would succeed again. What she proposed was not relying on the humans but using them.
Emrana and his seers were ordered to scour what the immaterium could tell them of the renegades’ location.
The rangers were dispatched.
And then she waited.
Over the following years rumours of their quarry’s movements came in fragments, some proving worthless and others fruitful: a Psychopomp supply raid on the Mechanicum planet of Alceforge being fought not only by the renegade astartes, their daemonic allies and cult forces against those of the machine-lords but also by Eldar rangers and aspect warriors sniping, hunting in the shadows and assassinating those they could while remaining undiscovered by both sides.
Several times squads of platoons, hunkering down in cover as the chaos space marines advanced, looked up as the enemy’s guns fell silent, to discover their foes dismembered, their killers already disappeared into the shadows.
Other times Eldar vessels appeared from the void just in time to save Imperial convoys from the Psychopomp’s reaver ships, pulverizing them until no life signs remained then departing, ignoring all hails.
Yet not all went to Qarasion’s plans. The enemy was a quick learner and they soon laid their own traps. Small scouting parties of renegade marines were ambushed only for fiends from beyond the veil to step into reality and come to their aid, cackling and wailing as they tore apart the Eldar.
Another time the Eldar found themselves tricked when the Psychopomps did not make a rumoured strike on a small rogue trader fleet; the wraithships decanting into realspace to find the convoy they intended to (indirectly) save was in fact a loyalist Fleet battlegroup, which opened fire upon the xenos vessels immediately.
Eventually it became apparent that the Psychopomps were searching for more maiden worlds: raiding Imperial survey vessels and rogue trader houses for cartographical data.
Splitting the craftworld’s armed forces across their remaining dozen colonies would merely see them slaughtered.
Even dear Emrana tearfully opposed her when Qarasion made her plan known to the seer council.
“I plan to take our full complement of aspect warriors, warships and as many guardians as will volunteer, to confront the enemy on Viarphia, whose location they know.”
Gasps of shock when up throughout the hall.
“How?” “How can this be?” “How do they know?” asked many of her assembled kith and kin.
Emrana, realizing the answer, shook his head in sorrow, his jaw clenched.
“I have seen to it that they discover it”, came his beloved’s answer.
Qarasion’s thundering heartbeat drowned out the cries of anguish, the calls of heresy, treason, madness.
She would end matters on the maiden world of Viarphia, or likely her life would be forfeit.
Wraithbone fragments littered the streets. Domes collapsed, minarets toppled, statues defaced. The renegades took particular delight in this last act: decorating their armour and vehicles with the faces of Eldar heroes of old. Many Eldar taken alive - none willingly for all knew what fate awaited them - saw their own faces removed and used likewise.
The Psychopomps’ ground forces had driven their way into the colony’s largest city while the starships of both sides dueled in orbit overhead.
Qarasion cursed the seers, Emrana included. They had forbidden all non-aspect warriors from accompanying her on her heretical mission. They had in fact forbidden all of Carth-Lar from assisting her and had stripped her of her command, but the exarchs had laid their weapons before her. The exarchs of Carth-Lar were ruled by their autarch whether she still bore that title or not, rather than the seer council.
While the seers and others had shouted and protested the assembling of the craftworld’s warriors, Qarasion had somehow snuck her ace aboard the Spear of Redemption.
Thus she crouched atop the temple at the heart of the city alongside her senior exarchs, observing and coordinating their forces as the bastard pawns of The Great Enemy pushed closer. She had learned great patience during her time in the Dire Avengers, but still she shifted her grip on her biting blade.
She looked out, beyond the temple to the meadows and the snow-capped mountains far off.
“We will save this world.” Said the Banshee at her side, following but misreading her gaze.
“I was remembering when I was but a greenskeeper,” Qarasion spoke quietly.
The Banshee, Iuseri, gave a low chuckle, “That must have been long, long ago. I have never known you without a blade, my autarch.”
Always close, Iuseri with her jade helm and scarlet mane. They had shared battlefield upon battlefield, both preferring close combat, though different in aspect.
“I think now I miss it.”
Iuseri thought she heard her commander sniff.
“You could have had peace at any time, my autarch. The council has always tried - despite your wiles - to steer the craftworld away from danger, to calm space, new worlds to nurture,” Iuseri shook her head a fraction and continued, her voice warmer. Qarasion could tell the banshee was smiling, “but such is not your nature.”
“Such is not our nature. It should not be. Not since the fall.”
“You once taught me - how many centuries ago? - never to regret missed opportunities, nor targets. I took this opportunity,” the banshee said.
“And we will forever be in your debt.”
“You think they will reach the temple, my autarch?” asked Iuseri at her side.
“If the fates are with us, no.” She replied with a smile at Iuseri’s use of her old title, turning her head to face the other exarch briefly, “just make sure the others are prepared. Make sure he is ready.”
Iuseri nodded and retreated within, sparing Qarasion five final words. “Thank you for choosing me.”
Explosions echoed through the twisting, once-beautiful streets. The hiss of rockets, the hard bangs made by the brutal weapons of the corrupt astartes. Then there was the screaming.
Qarasion swore it was the cry of her own race, yet even the shriek of the Banshee could only shake one’s spirit. The weapons bore by some of the enemy seemed to magnify the horrific sound into a weapon. It screamed, making unprotected ears bleed, and when the sound impacted it shattered that which it struck with a thunderous bass tone which even from afar could be felt within the rib cage.
But all fell silent as the tide approached the temple. Qarasion had ordered her aspect warriors to delay the enemy as best they could, but not to throw down their lives on her account. They retreated in the direction of the temple.
From the arterial streets before her hiding place poured a rabble of creatures, a riot of colour. Pastel-hued Psychopomps adorned with horns, top-knots and intricate carvings on the plates of their armour, cultists pierced with chains and needles, hulking mechanical beasts with the hearts of daemons. Qarasion spat a curse when she saw the bodies of her own people crucified to the backs of the infernal machines, and others held tight to the hulls of tanks by vividly coloured tentacles bulging and extruding from hatches. Then came a gaggle of what appeared to be humans embracing one another, bodies entwined in lurid poses more befitting a tome of carnal pursuits than a battlefield.
The cacophony grew silent as a large figure pushed its way forward, and Qarasion descended into the temple.
Sophusar, lord of the dance, the great harlequin amongst his many sobriquets, chapter master no more, strode into the xenos temple. He was clad in a suit of ancient terminator armour, now decorated with daemonic visages, myriad colours and fell iconography topped with pipes and vents akin to an organ in the fanes of Old Earth’s archaic religions. His grip shifted on the haft of his weapon: a great axe twice the height of a man, topped with a rounded blade flanked by curved prongs to the fore, a crescent spike to the rear: in the shape of Slaanesh’s own blessed symbol. Without a helmet, more than half of his face was masked in black leather, his mouth covered by a brass grill, his exposed scalp blemished with circular scars from trepanation. Wires and tubes flowed from his mask back over his head into his armour.
He cast his gaze over the ornately carved walls, depicting scenes from the xenos’ mythology. A story he had learned, and enjoyed. A harvest goddess coupling with a hunter gave birth two twin brothers who begot an entire race. Gifted by the gods with wisdom, love, artifice, joy, desire, foresight and anger.
The next panel showed a maiden envisioning the young race overthrowing their own god of war. A towering figure dripping blood and carrying a huge spear, the god turned upon the harvest goddess’ children...the mother petitioning a greater god to intercede...the killing ceased...a mother divided from her children, secretly consorting with them via stones.
This was an image Sophusar recognized. The stones. Repositories for the souls of the Eldar. His daemonic servants thirsted greatly for these treasures, and rightly so: he too had been introduced to their consumption. A mind-blowing experience one never forgot, and henceforth lusted to repeat.
The war god discovered the harvest goddess’ deception - this brought a smile to his face under his mask - and the harvester and hunter couple were given to the war god. Tortured.
A plea for mercy. A bargain for arms by a smith god. Deception…
His gaze reached the staircase leading up to a portal beyond which lay the central chamber of the temple. Stood atop the steps was a slender warrior clad in dark armour of greens and blues with a tall helmet. It both resembled and yet was distinctly different from that worn by the warriors he and his warband had faced on their way through the city, though unmistakably Eldar and, by the mould of the armour, female. A pair of swords were sheathed at her waist, a shuriken weapon built into her left gauntlet.
“At last we meet,” Sophusar called out to the waiting figure.
The xenos commander tilted her head to one side, regarding the bastardised Astarte before her.
“Oh, I know about you. Not all your scouts got home, did they?” the chaos lord chuckled. “You’ve been hunting me.”
Qarasion finally spoke. “You lead us on a merry dance. A bloody one at that.” Her Gothic was clear, unaccented.
Sophusar’s armour creaked as he executed an elaborate bow, settling his boot upon the first step.
“As I understand it, I’ve your kind to thank for my...emancipation. It was your kind, was it not, who gave birth to Slaanesh?”
Qarasion grimaced at that foul word spoken so freely.
“What decadent debaucheries you sick bastards must have committed. I almost wish I’d been there. Were you?”
Qarasion held her tongue and slowed her breathing as her enemy climbed higher.
“No offense, my dear, an alien’s age is so difficult to judge. Tell me, do you age well?”
She slipped her biting blade from its sheath and engaged it, the teeth roaring to life. His axe had the greater reach, but he would be slowed by its weight and his armour. “You know nothing of us.”
“Oh? I beg to differ. We captured a fair few of your crews when we first met. More since. I must admit Eldar brain matter is quite an acquired taste. Mentally nourishing if not physically.” He tapped a finger to his temple and then motioned toward the frieze upon the walls. He stepped closer and she drew a second blade, differing from the first in that this was a solid blade rather than a chainsword. A spirit stone was imbedded within the weapon’s hilt. Sophusar knew of these weapons. Direswords. The spirit within would try to destroy his own should it injure him. Oh to consume that very spirit himself!
He looked up from the point of that weapon to its wielder.
“Killing you is but a means to an end. Removing yet another of She Who Must Not Be Named’s pawns.”
“Hardly a mere pawn, but that aside...you’re familiar with regicide?”
“I am. And as all good players know, the strongest piece is the queen!”
Before she had finished speaking the blade was in motion, drawing back rather than being driven forward, with the attack coming surprisingly from the chainblade in her other hand.
“Slaanesh!” Sophusar spat as he hastily brought up the shaft of his axe in a two-handed grip to block, still advancing toward her. “Why don’t you people ever use her name? She knows your name, Qarasion -“
Qarasion struck again and again, each blow blocked by the axe haft, though after each blow she was forced to retreat a step, back toward the central chamber. Their weapons locked, power fields arcing wildly, chainblade teeth sparking, Qarasion putting all her strength into holding him back. With a twist of her wrist she sent a flurry of shuriken from her gauntlet’s catapult up her enemy’s gorget and into his face. Sophusar staggered backwards, a cry of pain and exhilaration escaping the grill set over his mouth, his eyes dilating like onyx marbles.
“Oh yes, she does. She asked for your soul. But you’ll suffer, bitch,” he wiped the already congealing blood from his face and followed the retreating Eldar through the portal, “before the end.”
There was a terrifying scream from within the darkness beyond.
Inside was black, and hot. Something dripped, slowly, and there was a low chanting, the sounds echoing about the chamber.
Qarasion noiselessly ran across the room, its layout etched into her memory, and ducked behind the hot central plinth where another two exarchs awaited her, reciting battle hymns.
She joined them in their incantations.
She nodded and silently climbed atop the plinth, the heat almost unbearable even within her armour.
Sophusar advanced slowly toward the center of the room, the source of the heat and the sound. There was a dull red glow there.
A figure stepped before that glow and he recognized the silhouette. Qarasion.
“What is this place?” he demanded.
“Welcome,” she shouted, “to the house of Khaine!” that last word echoed though the cavernous halls and she stepped away quickly.
The horn-like vents atop the terminator lord’s armour blared as she dove aside, the blast wave catching her and casting her across the room. But she was no longer the focus of his attention when Sophusar witnessed the towering figure that emerged from the glow at the chamber’s center. A living god’s resting place, hastily stolen from its holy place aboard the craftworld...a noble, willing sacrifice nominated and given. The being of molten lava and scorching iron strode forth, a look of purest hatred on its face as it beheld the chaos lord...