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Part IThere was a crowd gathered outside the Temple, a palpable aura of grief and lamenting rising from them like scent off a sweating beast.
Amidst the crowd, Iysharon gripped his bride to his breast, resting his tear-stained eyes against her soft, maize-coloured hair. He was a poet and a bard, master of lyrics, shaper of words... yet he could not command them now. Nothing would rise from his chest save for shuddering breaths, his mouth offering nothing but the taste of her, and his own salty tears.
"Must you go?" Alinal asked him, inviting another pang in his already tortured heart.
"You know I must," he answered at last, "I have walked the Path of Khaine, I have worn the Scorpion Mantle... and I have walked the Path of the Outcast. The Craftworld has called me for these skills, and I must answer now."
She sobbed against him, and he willed himself to shush her crying, "Please, I have to do this... watch over our son and daughter here, as I watch them from afar. It is for them I do this, for their future." He broke from her embrace as the great doors to the temple swung open.
A familiar face emerged, placing a hand on his shoulder. "It is time," he said.
With one last loving glance, Iysharon kissed his mate for the last time, and ascended the steps.
Inside the air was cool, the dark softness of the chamber almost womb-like. Fitting, Iysharon thought. His poetic mind could not help but compose simply lyrics as to the phallic symbology of the Temple, and the donning of the Aspect... the Temple truly was a womb; a womb impregnated by the Eldar who entered, and from this fertilisation was born the Warrior Spirits that would rise from their subconscious, and pass through the shimmering hymen of the Wraithgate, birthed into a world of death and war.
He allowed himself to be led into the Cleansing Chamber, shedding his robes and stepping into the knee-deep waters. Sair was beside him, sighing with delight as the attendants bathed his body, and rubbed the sacramental oils into his flesh. Already his friend's warrior side was rising to the surface. That it came so easily frightened Iysharon, who even now clung to his civilian side...
"Why be so nervous my friend?" Sair asked, Iysharon's emotions.
"This duty, it frightens me. I do not know how you can welcome it so."
Sair sighed, walking slowly across the rippling waters. Iysharon fell into step beside him, making room for the other Eldar who followed.
"The path of the Warrior is my destiny... I have walked three Paths in my time, and each time the call has been stronger. I am certain that I shall inherit the mantle of Exarch one day."
Iysharon staggered, "That you can say that without a tremor of fear or anguish in your voice..."
Sair shrugged, "It is my fate."
Emerging from the waters, the two found themselves stood before a great arming chamber. At the far side was a Wraithgate, mute and lifeless. Iysharon picked out his suit of armour, drawn to it by the psychic harmonics of the chamber. Dipping his fingers into the bowls of sweet-smelling liquid, he began to trace the ancient runes into his skin, performing the Rites of War. Now all doubt was flowing from him, and in its place came a calm, a null without emotion or thought.
The Rites finished, he began to don the armour, sliding the shimmering body-glove over his flesh. The black and crimson armour of the Scorpion Guard followed. He paid no heed to the others, focussing entirely on himself. After an indeterminate period, he was done, armoured save for the helmet that stared heartlessly at him from its rest... he knew that the moment he donned the helm, the Rite would be complete. All his emotions and feelings, save those of battle, would be buried deep within his subconscious, and he would become part of the Craftworld, psychically linked with its Infinity Matrix.
With a psychic pulse, the Wraithgate opened. All four-dozen warriors turned as one, and watched as the Autarch Reih'nal crossed before the shining gate.
"You know what you must do, Sentinels of the Ko'shannian worlds," Iysharon shuddered at his voice, every syllable making his soul scream for war, "Go now, and embark upon your missions. The strands of Fate have crossed here, and the Young stand poised to destroy us all. They will not listen to our council, make them listen to our swords."
The moment came. Iysharon donned his helmet, and the Masque consumed him. Kysha opened his eyes for the first time in almost a century, flexing his muscles and smiling as the psycho-conductive armour shifted with him. He felt the holding clamps snugly securing his weapons, grenades and ammunition. His Mandiblasters twitched, and within his mind he heard his brothers awaken one by one. He could not help but smile at the raw fury that emanated from Ai'hue, but then he had walked Khaine's Path far longer, and the Bloody-Handed God favoured his strength.
The squad-leader's command echoed through his mind, and as one Kysha and his team advanced into the event horizon of the Wraithgate. In his heart, Ko'shanniah pulsed, the tension of her driving him ever more. Fear and anger, caution and fury, conflicting emotions surged in the Core of the worldship at this time of chaos. He would bring clarity to the Craftworld.
He would bring it with Tau blood.
Part IIO'Nan'cova... what could be said about him...
Por'vre Elys'eir Sho'qan twirled his holo-stylus absent-mindedly, trying to encapsulate the essence of the Shas'O in words. It was hard, a task made no easier by the pressure he was under.
Whilst the Shas fought on battlefields and Kor pilots duelled in the skies, Por like Sho'qan had their own wars to fight; wars of propaganda, wars of diplomacy, wars of trade and commerce. Just one Tau'cyr before he'd been assigned as a diplomatic aid to the Gue'nan, a Gue'vesa culture that would sooner kill you on the spot than take part in negotiations, and viewed writing things down as a worse crime than rape. Despite that, this task seemed the worst so far.
He scribbled a few experimental lines... read them again, and crossed them out. Sighing, he flicked the audio-recorder on, and let his mind wander.
"What can we say about O'Nan'cova... his fellow commanders describe him as a shrewd tactician, a brilliant strategist, a courageous commander..." he paused, reading the blunt, and somewhat vulgar comments from Shas'O Li'Sun'yi, and carefully rephrased them into, "... and an example of physical perfection. O'Nan'cova is not praised solely by his peers, however, and perhaps his greatest gift is his..." he sighed, and turned the audio-mic off again, watching the data-plate's internal processor take in the words and convert them into text for reading.
"Still no luck then?" Argan asked.
Vre'Sho'qan turned to the Gue'nan helper and shrugged. Argan was something of an enigma, and a worrying one at that. He was... progressive, he designed, he tinkered, he read books, he studied... he was so utterly different to his fellows... but there was still that edge, that certain something that was irrefutably Gue'nan about him.
"How would you describe him," the Por asked.
"Swordbreaker?" Argan asked.
"Yes, O'Nan'cova, how would you describe him?"
Argan rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Vre'Sho'qan opened a new data-bank, ready to translate the Gue'la tongue.
"He's a dog-soldier," Argan began at last, "a front liner, always in the thick of it. That won our respect, his ability to fight like that. I've seen other commanders of yours hanging back, but Swordbreaker's always in the press, always in the face of the enemy... and he'll hold the line with you come hell or high water. He's a real leader, not one of those robed tits who're bloody good at playing the big man a thousand miles from the blood and carnage."
Vre'Sho'qan chuckled, letting the insult to the Aun pass with diplomatic care, "Thank you, Argan, you've helped me greatly." The Por began to speak into the mic again, translating and re-wording what the Gue'nan had said. It fit, it fit beautifully... the concept was inspirational; a Tau Commander willing to smash the foe with fist and hoof and steel... not through some Mont'au regression, but to spare his fellows that horror, to put himself at risk for his soldiers, for his allies, for the Tau'va...
It was going to be a good report.
* * *
O'Nan'cova never liked bad news, but he knew he was about to hear more.
"O'Bentu," he said solemnly, looking at the burned and war-wracked face of his elder companion. The venerable Shas nodded in acknowledgement, and sat down.
"O'Nan'cova, it is nice to again my friend."
"Likewise, but why are you here? Surely you should be overseeing your armies?"
O'Bentu sighed, "I have no armies, O'Nan'cova, not anymore. My forces have been retired to garrison against O'res'la and Gue'la attack."
O'Bentu shook his head sadly, "I guess you should know what happened..."
* * *
Fio'La B'niar Kau strolled through the open-air walkway atop of the habitation building, taking in the cold morning air. As one of the engineers who helped construct this building, he always took pride in wandering its rooftops, looking out at the other buildings of the city, each complimenting the next without outdoing any other.
This morning, he had company. A Por'El was sat cross-legged on the walkway, looking down into the commerce square. Today was going to be busy, and even at this early hour the market was thriving with life. It was possible to pick out the squad Demiurg wandering amidst Por and Gue'La traders, whilst Shas and Gue'vesa guards stood patiently to the side, watching with polite disinterest as the traders began their working day.
La'Kau sat beside the stranger, who looked at him with a warm smile.
"Quite chilly, isn't it?", La'Kau said pleasantly
The Por nodded, "perhaps, but I like it... brisk, refreshing..." he paused, "Oh, I am sorry, I have forgotten to introduce myself. Por'El T'au Shovah Sui'ca Mesme, though El'Sui would be perfectly acceptable."
La'Kau returned the introduction, and turned his attention to the square, following individuals as they weaved their way back and forth, collecting things from storage and directing potential buyers to their stalls. Drones flitted back and forth, and four young Por'Saal, under the hen-like attentions of a Por'Ui, were eagerly taking in everything they could.
"Well, it seems we've got quite a gathering here," a voice spoke from behind the two.
Shas'O Tash'var O'res'cova Ar'shi Bentu sat to the right of the Por'El, nodding to them both.
El'Sui chuckled, "I'm impressed, now if someone can get a Kor and Aun to join us, we'd have everything we need to properly enjoy the view."
La'Kau gave the Por a quizzical glance, "what do you mean?"
O'Bentu smiled, "What do you see in that market?"
"I see... well, I see the market I helped build, I know where all the power lines, water-pipes and waste drains are, the materials used, the architectural planning that went into it... I guess I see the fruits of a longer labour being enjoyed."
O'Bentu nodded, glancing at the Por, who answered his look, "I see trade, commerce, profit, diplomacy... the coming together of many worlds and races, the merging of different ideas and ways of thinking, all joining together for the Tau'va."
O'Bentu nodded again, excusing himself for a moment to speak into his mic. When he had finished, he gave them both a reassuring nod, "Nothing to be concerned about. The Kor have detected another U.F.O. Most of it is debris, there's apparently close to two thousand fragments still up there, and they keep falling down from orbit. The downside is that I have to send Shas to investigate every single one, just in case..." he shrugged, "Now, what I see down there is a logistical nightmare. Whilst the city is defendable, the market square itself is not actually a good spot for defence; the buildings are too close together, you see, and the angles aren't quite right. If we couldn't hold the outer buildings, like this one, we'd struggle to repel any attackers that stormed the market."
The Por'El laughed, "As I said, we need a Kor and an Aun... no doubt the Kor would complain it's a bad landing site, and the Aun could explain how we're all right, but missing the bigger picture."
Down in the market, one of the Por'Saal began pointing up at the sky. Others looked up as well, their expressions hard to read from the roof.
"Hmm," The Por'El muttered, "I wonder what they're staring at..."
The Conflagration Shell obliterated the market square.
La'Kau screamed, El'Sui scrambled backward in horror. O'Bentu leapt to his feet, and was yelling into his mic. Another shell hit the building opposite, punching through the shell of the dome. There was a pop, followed by the bone-jarring airburst as the pyro-promethium mist was ignited. The fireball, scab-red and massive, lasted for just an instant, but left utter devastation in its wake. Half the building was blown out, chunks of charred masonry and blackened skeletons thrown across the city.
"Shas'O!" La'Kau cried out, pointing at the white speck closing fast on their position.
O'Bentu threw the two civilians down, "Eyes closed, mouths open!"
The shell hit. There was a crack, and then the massive detonation. O'Bentu felt the air being sucked out of his lungs as the whole building moved beneath him. The detonation tossed El'Sui skyward, lofting him clear of the railings and smashing him on the streets below. La'Kau clutched the railing, whimpering in fear and soiling himself.
He looked at O'Bentu in confusion. He could see the Shas'O was speaking, but couldn't hear.
"I can't understand you!"
"Can this building sustain this kind of damage?" O'Bentu said again.
"I... I don't know... how bad is it?"
O'Bentu scrambled along the walkway. He got to the access-hatch, and stared at the void. The Conflagration Shell had blown the entire western half of the dome clean away, and he could see the debris-filled water of the communal pool, which was seventeen floors down.
"Very, very bad," O'Bentu said on his return, "Most of the building is gutted, the explosion completely demolished the inner floors, though there's a ring of outer-floors still standing. West dome is gone, and much of the west tower-wall is badly cracked... there's also a lot of fires; the extinguishing systems must be offline.
O'Bentu saw a change in La'Kau. The Fio was terrified, but he was focussing on the task at hand. O'Bentu knew he had to keep the engineer focussed, or he'd fall apart.
"Come on, Fio'La," he said encouragingly, "think of this as a test, an examination... building has suffered massive fire damage, and is burning, how long will it remain standing?"
More explosions thundered in, "I... if the outer walls are solid, then the building should theoretically remain standing, but with the western wall damaged, I don't know... how hot's the fire?"
O'Bentu looked at the latest impact and winced, "Enough to melt the walls."
"Less than a Dec then."
The mic chirruped, O'Bentu answered, "El'Kais, I'm kind of busy right now... yes, I do have something more important to do than give you orders... Of course I know what's happening, I'm on the receiving end! I've got a civilian evac to arrange, I need you to handle the field... No, I don't know where they'xauk they got that kind of artillery from, I didn't even know they were on theplanet until people started dying! El'Kais, handle it! You're supposed to be a Shas'El, act like it!"
He disengaged the mic, and shut it off. "Alright," he said kindly to La'Kau, "Next question on the quiz... how do we evac as many survivors from the building as possible before it collapses?"
Part III"To'Tau'va..." O'Nan'cova hissed,
O'Bentu nodded, "we got careless, we made a mistake, and we paid for it. My forces are now formed up in a garrison formation to guard our worlds against further Gue'la attack."
O'Nan'cova sighed. O'Bentu had been halted, Ar'O'Sun'yi had been recalled, and O'Shaserra had ended her campaign after the research campaign on "Warp" energies had come up with some unsettling results.
The Four Sword Campaign... now all but one had been blunted. All eyes were on him now.
"O'Bentu... I'm not going to lie to you, the task ahead of me may not be possible to complete. For every gain I have made, there has been loss. I've conquered and re-conquered Kau'cea so many times I barely need to use a map anymore, and that's not the worst of it..."
To his surprise, O'Bentu began to smile, "O'Nan'cova, we know very well the importance of your campaign... and so we have arranged a council of war."
"A council? With who?"
* * *
With everyone, it turned out.
O'Shaserra, Ar'O'Sun'yi, O'Bentu and O'Nan'cova, all sat around part of a circular table. To their left sat Fio engineers, technicians, architects and surgeons, to their right the brave pilots and officers of the Kor. Finally, on the opposite side of the table, sat the diplomatic corps, and the Por'Hui.
In the centre of this table was a hollow area, containing a rotating seat. A figure stepped forward and sat down in it, turning slowly to acknowledge each individual.
His name was Aun'O Va'myr.
"Welcome, one and all," Va'myr purred in his creaking voice, "I am sure you all know why we have gathered here; to discuss the issue of the Ar'cea threat. I am certain that, together, we can find a way to..." he paused, glancing at Li'Sun'yi, "Shas'Ar'O, is something wrong?"
The female Shas looked up slowly, her tired eyes fixing on the Aun, "No," she said quietly, "just a little tired..."
O'Nan'cova looked at the Shas with concern. She was wearing her battlesuit, a customised XV-19 that acted both as protection and life-support system. She always wore it now; it seemed unlikely she could survive without it. However, in deference to the fact she was not in battle, the weaponry had been removed.
"Shas'O," O'Nan'cova said, knowing she disliked the reference to her Shas'Ar'Tol position, "If you feel the need to rest, don't remain here on our account."
"Indeed," A Kor'El added, "Your dedication to your duty is admirable, but no-one would think less of you for looking to your own needs for once."
Li'Sun'yi shook her head, "No, thank you, but I wish to stay. I have... to do this."
"As you wish," O'Ar'myr said, "now, if I may address our Kor representatives first, I would like to discuss the enemy fleet..."
* * *
Ideas were passed back and forth for hours, each passing their own viewpoint on the campaign, and O'Ar'myr weaved them together, piece by piece, into a cohesive pattern.
Soon, a proper plan was formed. The Tau would spread their forces out, and rather than moving through each world one at a time, they would target every world at once. No fewer than seven worlds had been designated by the campaign-fleet, five of which were suspected of holding Ar'cea forces.
O'Bentu was chosen to act in support of O'Nan'cova, who would then be free to lead from the front. O'Shaserra would continue with the planned Fourth Phase Expansion, and Ar'O'Sun'yi would return to Tel'Oshi to join the Shas'Ar'Tol there.
And now the four Shas were walking together, discussing battle strategies. Li'Sun'yi was silent, as she had been for the entire meeting, and that worried O'Nan'cova deeply.
"Shas'O!" a voice called out from behind, and Vre'Sho'qan fell into step beside O'Nan'cova.
"Ah, Por'vre!" The Shas'O said with a smile, "Good to see you again. How fares your unenviable task?"
Vre'sho'qan gave a warm grin, it was hard not to like O'Nan'cova, "Very well, actually. I had hoped you would succeed in this plan, Shas'O, so I'd have something grand to write about."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Don't forget that you have my aid now, O'Nan'cova."
"Indeed, O'Bentu, and I'm certain that-"
All three Tau turned. O'Shaserra and Li'Sun'yi had fallen behind the talking trio a little while they spoke, and now all eyes were on them.
O'Shaserra was on the floor, blood covering her face where the Shas'Ar'O had head-butted her. Li'Sun'yi fixed the prone Shas with a venomous glare.
"That," she hissed, "was for O'Shovah."
She strode away, leaving a scene of mute horror in her wake.
Part IV"Tell me she did not do that," O'Nan'cova whispered, "Tell me that I imagined it, that it was a hallucination brought upon by drink or stress or lack of sleep... please, please tell me that."
Vre'Sho'qan chose the pitch and tone of her voice carefully, seeking for a diplomatic reply, "I am afraid that I cannot do that, Shas'O..."
With an angered gasp, O'Nan'cova rose and began to pace the confines of his room in frustration, "Why would she do that? Is she insane? She must be insane! What could have possessed her to attack O'Shaserra?"
The Por gave the Shas'O a sympathetic look, making it clear that, whilst he wished to speak, he was willing to patiently allow O'Nan'cova to finish.
"I'm sorry," the Shas said, calming a little, "you have something to say?"
"I believe, Shas'O, that her actions are because of her home... Tel'Oshi was founded by a colony fleet from Vior'la, and O'Shovah is still held in considerable regard by their Cadres. There were many who were concerned that, whilst O'Shaserra has only the Tau'va ideal in her mind, she may have chosen to inspire it in others in a way that was a little lacking in diplomatic tact."
O'Nan'cova gave a mirth-filled laugh, "So typical, Por'vre, for you to choose your words so well... it says everything we want to hear, yet tells us nothing."
Vre'Sho'qan shrugged, "works, doesn't it?"
"I guess so... alright, so maybe Li'Sun'yi still holds O'Shovah in high regard... but was that really the way to go about voicing her opinion?"
"The Gue'nan think so."
"Please, Por'vre, don't get me started on them. I may have earned their respect, but they give me headaches. More trouble than they're worth..."
The Por'vre cleared his throat quietly, and O'Nan'cova turned to the Gue'la aid who was sat in the corner, wearing an expression of someone who was used to staring blankly into space whilst other people talked.
"No offence meant, of course."
The Gue'la nodded, "None taken," he answered in passable, if somewhat clipped Tau'sia.
O'Nan'cova settled back into his seat. "There'll be trouble for this, mark my words."
"I won't argue with you there," The Por'vre answered, "But I will keep you informed... and I'll do my best not to let this incident work against us."
O'Nan'cova glanced up, "Work against us, Por'vre?"
"We all fight our own wars, Shas'O," Vre'Sho'qan replied, "You fight with weapons and battle aliens, I fight with words and battle rumour, hearsay and propaganda."
"I wonder, which of us has the harder fight?"
"Ah, Shas'O, those who've seen both would know there's little difference."
* * *
In the darkness of her quarters, Shas'Ar'O Li'Sun'yi stared at nothing.
It had feltgood to let go, to give in, to let the anger and the hate overwhelm her and take control... the feelings were gone now, battered by fatigue and the quiet, yet determined politeness of the Aun and Por who assaulted her with a merciless barrage of carefully chosen niceties.
She looked up at the door, then at the ceiling, then at the chair in the darkness. She stood up from the cot, picked up the chair, and with a howl of anger hurled it at the camera in the light fixing. Bellowing furious curses, she hurled herself at the door, punching the lens with all her worth.
"I know you're watching me!" she shrieked, "I know! Leave me alone!"
Slowly, with a sound of tinkling plastic, she withdrew her hand. Cyan blood was bubbling from where a shard had impaled between her knuckles. She ripped it out, and clutched her throbbing hand as pain and adrenalin fought for domination of her senses, and pain won.
The anger fled, turning into a shuddering fear. Collapsing back onto the cot, she curled up and rocked herself, cuddling the wounded limb.
"Get out..." she whispered, "get out of my head..."
* * *
Below them, the world of Dal'tio continued on its lazy orbit of the distant blue-giant star.
O'Bentu had spent days pouring over every tactical plan they had of the world with him. They had both briefed all Shas'El, liased with their Kor counterparts, and discussed plans and backup plans and backup backup plans and all manner of options. If they couldn't win this world, they couldn't win any of them.
Dal'tio was unique from every other world they'd found. It was not its size, its environment, its location, its architecture... it was the fact this was the only world the Ar'cea had been brought to battle, and the Tau were not going to waste that.
O'Bentu strolled across the launch deck, smiling at O'Nan'cova who sat in the open-fronted Xar'vesa.
"Ah, my wise associate, come to wish me well?" O'Nan'cova greeted him cheerfully.
"Indeed," O'Bentu replied, "Though I did not expect you to lead from the front, I must confess..."
"It's my way," O'Nan'cova replied, "You stay here and mind the place..."and O'Sun'yi, was what he did not say. For the purposes of morale, it was felt she had to be brought along. Without her, it was likely that Tel'Oshi morale would shatter, and that was the last thing anyone needed right now.
"I will," O'Bentu replied.
O'Nan'cova nodded, "You look tired."
"A little... not as young as I used to be."
"Don't die on me, old man."
"I don't intend to."
The drop began soon after.
* * *
O'Sun'yi watched the Orcas go. She had an honour guard who were stood behind her, feeling a little unsure of their purpose.
"I wish I could be with them..."
"That flyer has flown," O'Va'myr replied, walking up beside her.
"So," she hissed, "this is what I have become is it? Your lapdog? Your little bitch to parade in front of the troops?"
The Aun gave her a sidelong look, "You are ill, Shas'Ar'O. You have lived a long, long time... longer than any of us are expected to."
"Senile, am I?" she spat in a voice so filled with acid it could have melted the decking.
"I didn't say that."
"You don't need to, I can hear your thoughts loud and clear."
O'Va'myr turned to her and smiled, "can you hear the voices too?"
Her eyes widened in horror. With a feral scream she punched him, cracking him hard just under the bone-ridge. A second punch broke a rib, connecting before the guards could grab her. Shrieking obscenities at the Aun, she landed a vicious kick to the face, sending teeth clattering across the deck. The two Shas'la fought and struggled to bring the raging Shas'O down, pinning her. She fought them with every ounce of strength in her body, until a Fio team arrived to sedate her.
O'Va'myr allowed one of the Fio to examine him, then waved him away, "deal with her... sedate her and secure her. She is very unwell... but forgive her, she cannot help it."
Nodding, eyes filled with admiration at the mercy and compassion of the bloodied Aun'O, the medic hurried off to help his comrades.
O'Va'myr smiled at them, "Well done, my lapdog, now for the next part of the plan..."
Part VThe war was hell. O'Nan'cova had fought in countless campaigns, but this was easily the most bloody and violent of his career. He knew well the tactics of the Ar'cea, but was totally unprepared for the sheer ferocity of the assault. He had hand-picked the vanguard, knowing full well he was sending them to their deaths. He had shared a few words, a pleasant smile, an exchange of encouragement with each of them. He had given them hope and taken their trust, and now he was watching them die from the comfort and security of his Battlesuit just beyond the horizon.
His army was employing a Kauyon strategy, albeit a variation that used multiple Cadres as the bait, and would cost thousands of lives. 3-12 Ukos Cadre, composed primarily of auxiliaries, was ambushed as they touched downs on the flatlands just south of a large expanse of forest. The Ar'cea had been waiting, and hundreds of Shas'vesa were slaughtered by their firepower before Kroot and Xar'erra Stealth Teams were able to drive back the attackers. 1-8 Mont'ka Cadre was wiped off the planet in fifty-three seconds of murderous crossfire. With over seventy percent dead from the initial volleys of the hidden guns, O'Bentu made the choice to sacrifice the rest, and ordered the position bombed from orbit. He had watched their Manta Missile-Destroyer explode in mid-air; there was no chance they could ever have escaped. 2-8 Shi and 5-8 Dal'caio Cadres landed in the blasted crater, and pressed onwards towards their objective with no further contestation. They would hold the position virtually unmolested, until several hours later when the main body of the Ar'cea army would mobilise, and slaughter them all in a heartbeat.
13-16 Mont'yr Cadre was the third element of the sacrificial bait. Deploying into a rocky region, with some difficulty, they would find themselves under heavy assault from enemy combat specialists. They held long enough to allow four other Cadres to assemble a flanking position, by which time the Ar'cea had deployed super-heavies, and atomised their position.
Hungry for vengeance, more Tau Cadres deployed. Assaulting from above and to the flanks, the Tau army descended, ambushing the ambushers, only to be ambushed in turn. This was entirely as O'Nan'cova expected.
"It seems such a waste of lives, Shas'O," O'Va'myr said calmly, surveying the reports, reading the text-displays of the comm-traffic, "Surely there is a better way?"
O'Nan'cova shook his sensor-head, "There is not, Aun. The Ar'cea fight a war of shadows. To play them is a complex game of bluffs and deception. We must convince them our full might is deployed whilst hiding our true strength, just as they are doing to us."
"Thousands are dying, Shas'O," O'Va'myr continued, his voice still casual, almost uninterested, "Is such butchery truly serving the Tau'va?"
O'Nan'cova, for the first time in his life, felt horror at the words of an Aun, "I... I think 'butchery' is too strong a word, Aun..."
O'Va'myr nodded, "Forgive me, a slip of the tongue... but you understand this troubles me greatly. I fear for us, Shas'O. I fear that if we are not decisive, we may not win the day..."
"We will succeed, Aun, I promise you that."
"I believe you, O'Nan'cova."
The cat-and-mouse campaign waged on. For hours both sides played their costly game, luring out more enemies, crushing them, only to be assaulting from an unexpected quarter.
In the thick of it, El'Sor'tyr barked a curse, and ducked as a skimmer rocketed past his position. The air was thick with smoke, turning the normally clear blue-green sky a bloody hue of red and black. Contrails criss-crossed, fading slowly, marking where flyers and skimmers duelled for supremacy.
Ahead of him, a Shas'Ui who he would never know was firing on full-auto with a Burst Cannon, raking a rocky outcrop. He could see bloody streaks where the Shas'Ui had made kills. He also saw the muzzle-flash of an enemy missile launcher, and the Shas'Ui explode into a thousand pieces.
"Incoming!" came the cry to his right, and he turned as four jetbikes raced over the ramshackle cover held by the Pathfinders. Two went down, shredded by monomolecular disks, and other clutching his side and screaming. A fourth Pathfinder took aim and spat shots at random, one connecting with the back of a rider's skull. Three Pathfinders for one Ar'cea biker... it didn't seem a fair exchange to the Shas'El.
Raising his Plasma Rifle, he took aim and fired some suppression-shots. Another Plasma Rifle joined him, then a trio of Burst Cannons. El'Sor'tyr turned, and his vision was filled with Crisis Suits.
The Shas'O landed beside him, firing a missile off into the edge of the woodland. Something within exploded.
"Shas'El, didn't you get my signal?"
"Apologies, Shas'O, but my long-range comm-link has been disabled for the last hour."
Nodding, O'Nan'cova jumped forward again, and rejoined the fight. A barrage of micro-missiles shredded the suit beside him, and he saw a trio of black-armoured figures. The leader, seeing him approach, darted clear as a missile struck his position. One of his comrades vanished from a plasma hit, another was crushed when a Shas'Ui landed on him. El'Sor'tyr touched down, firing at a Vyper that emerged from above the trees, and almost missed the Dark Reaper trying to kill him. He swung his suit sideways, the rocket passing by an inch, and fired his Fusion Blaster. The Aspect Warrior melted, howling in pain and anger.
The Shas'El boosted onwards, finding O'Nan'cova and his companions. They'd touched down just beyond a hill, resting in a little dip in the ground. From here they could see a large ruin, an area the Ar'cea seemed to be guarding with all their might. A little way beyond was a massive archway, a shimmering energy-field forming between the spires...
...and then it began.
Striding like gods of war, the Titans emerged. The leader turned its guns upon 1-12 R'myr Cadre, blasting them with Tremor Cannon and Fusion Lance. The Second Phantom charged forward, missiles shrieking from its wing-guns, Pulsar Lasers harvesting all before it. Entire squadrons of Hammerhead vanished before these towering machines, or the Reavers that danced and slaughtered in their midst. Entire squads of Firewarriors, cover and all, were simply seared off the planet. Vampire Raiders and Phoenix Bombers, escorted by the lightning-fast Nightwings, shrieked out of nowhere, blasting everything in their path. The Second Spearhead, three-hundred Crisis Suits led by the up-coming commander O'daus, ceased to exist in a merciless volley of fire.
From his position, all O'Nan'cova could make out was a towering, shimmering haze that seemed to spit eye-searing death into his men. He recovered, barking orders into the comm. "This is it!" he cried, "Hit them with everything we've got!"
The Kor had been ready. A Dozen Mantas fell from the heavens, shields powered and weapons blazing. The shimmering targets flickered, the Holofields reflecting the fiery Armageddon that was being unleashed upon them, and for a moment O'Nan'cova caught sight of the true nature of the Titans. It was a Phantom, raising its guns to the heavens. Tall and graceful, it strode with such beauty and grace that the Shas'O was aghast. He never believed such machines could exist. The moment passed, and the Titan was lost to the holofield haze.
"How are we not hitting them!" El'Sor'tyr cried, watching as one of the Morays exploded in mid-air. Another took a heavy hit and began to fall, out of control, smashing down into the forests and setting them ablaze.
Then retribution came. The salvo of an Ion-Phalanx scored a telling hit, and the lead Phantom toppled, it's holofield failing, right leg blown away, the scorched and shattered frame shook the ground with its collapse, and it died. Another titan, a smaller Reaver, was engulfed in the combined fire of three Manta, and its shimmering haze ceased to exist, replaced by a cloud of flying shrapnel.
Around the towering machines and hovering war-engines, infantry and tanks began to swarm. The battle turned from one great combat to a hundred little wars, each with their own horrors and glories.
The remains of 6-6 Var'sui Cadre, most of which had died in the immolation of their transports, fought to rescue Aun'El Tau'N Kovash when his Devilfish was shot down. In the end, only fourteen Shas'La remained, yet they fought off an assault by Dire Avengers, and rescued the Aun. By the time they'd fought their way clear, only nine survived. They were all bonded by the Ta'lissera ritual, and would serve as a bodyguard for El'Kovash for the rest of his days... and he would forever refer to them as "Saviors".
Amidst the burning wreaks of 1-4 Run'yr Armour-Cadre, Shas'Ui D'yanoi Vash'nir crawled from the shattered remains of his Hammerhead, and tried to drag himself to the last remaining tank. It was immobilised, smoke billowing from the hole where the driver and his instruments had been blown to pieces, but the twin plasma-cannons on the turret were still firing. A Scorpionfish in the distance fired two missiles that struck an Eldar flyer... which subsequently crashed headlong into its killer and blew both vehicles to pieces. The shockwave lifted the crippled Hammerhead Three and flung it skyward, and left Ui'Vash'nir crying in pain on the floor.
Someone touched his shoulder. He looked up into the eyes of Ui'Eiris. She had a bloody gash on her face, but she was smiling at him.
"I... thought you were dead..."
"I thought you were dead as well," she replied.
He smiled, weakly, "I... was so happy when we were paired..."
She began to cry, holding the crippled Shas'Ui close, "I know," she sobbed, "I know..."
"It's okay, Eiris, we're together now."
Ui'Eiris looked up. She saw one of the Aspect Warriors approaching. He wore dark red armour, and carried a vicious chainsword.
Kysha decapitated them both in a single swing, relishing the feel of their blood splattering on his armour, whilst inside him Iysharon lamented the death of two passionate lovers.
O'Nan'cova was leading his force onwards, enemy fire be damned.
His weapons found a Falcon, and blasted a gaping wound in its underside, causing it to spin out and crash. His missiles were running low, so he saved them, not wanting to be caught out later. A pair of Vypers flew past, both being chased by Pirahnas and Tetras, whilst on either side of him Xar'vesa and Xar'erra gunned a bloody path towards the ruins the Ar'cea held so dear. With most of their forces elsewhere, there was little left to stop him now. He landed upon the gateway, and turned to see a trio of Banshees charging him. Firing on full auto, he dropped two, and jetted skywards as the third lunged at him. He got away just in time, and reversed thust to deliver a kick that snapped the warrior's spine. His leg systems reported damage where the Eldar had cut at him in her death-throes, but nothing serious.
"Guard here," he told his men, "I must go inside."
Far away on the Craftworld of Ko'shanniah, The Farseer Yilona felt O'Nan'cova enter the chamber.
"No..." she whispered, "we have failed..."
...and on the hills, safely far away from the death and carnage, O'Va'myr watched as O'Nan'cova descended into the darkness, and smiled.
Part VIWhere Reih'nal fought with unmatched fury, his weapons dealing death to all who came within reach.
He felt his chainsword grinding bones, he heard the wet pop as his claw burst organs, he saw faces dent and crumple as his Mandiblasters punctured them to ruin.
He was surrounded by death, and he was loving it.
He tore his way through the last of the Kroot, and focussed now on these "Battlesuits" the Tau held so dearly. two of them were being torn apart by a towering Wraithlord, the necromantic construct's weapons blasting one to pieces whilst its mighty fists ripped machinery away in massive chunks. When it finally found the pilot, the screaming Tau was plucked from his machine, and squashed like an insect.
Slung across his back, Reih'nal felt the psychic call ofThe Burning Sting of Ko'shanniah. He looked around, wondering what had awoken this terrible weapon, and saw the Tau entering the tomb.
He unslung the weapon, locking his firing arm into the grip, and feeling the weapon roar within his soul. He took aim and fired, barking off a trio of missiles that left burning contrails in the air. Three Battlesuits exploded, throwing molten droplets of metal in all directions.
Leaping through firefights and vicious melees, Reih'nal charged onwards. His weapons tore out at the Tau as he advanced, his claw ripping off limbs and gutting torsos, whilst his mighty cannon's tough ignited anything that was struck. He would pause occasionally, but only to unleash another salvo of burning rockets, and sent more foes into fiery oblivion... and all the while he cursed himself for his folly. He had allowed his love of battle to take over, and now the enemy was on the brink of the unthinkable...
* * *
In the darkness, O'Nan'cova pressed on.
The tunnels were silent, and that frightened him. There was no sound of missile strikes or laser fire, no earth-shaking explosions, or rhythmic shaking shaking as Titans advanced. This place was perfectly still, utterly tranquil, and eerily unnatural.
They came upon another doorway, one much like the others they had found. Like all the others, it bore a strange mix of Ar'cea artifice, and the architecture of some unknown race. The doors also seemed damaged, as if something had forced them open, damaging the Ar'cean components in the process.
At last, the passage came to a chamber. It was dark, but the night-vision systems of the Xar'vesa lit up the room in a dull-blue hue. O'Nan'cova led his retinue into the darkness, lit only by faint green lights, and found himself staring at thousands of soldiers.
"Wow," Ui'Kauyon muttered, "interesting statues..."
"I don't think they are statues," Ui'Xari replied, approaching one of the larger creations, "I think these are Kor'vesa of some kind..."
The machine Ui'Xari woke up. The myriad of circular orbs that served as eyes flashed green, and it unfurled itself on six mechanical legs before rising up off the floor. Two spindly limbs, ending in bladed claws, extended and waved circular patterns in the air. It also began to emit a high-pitched whilsting.
"What is this thing?" Ui'Xari asked as the room began to light up. Crystals, dull and grey, flashed into bright green luminescence, and conduits began to fill with glowing power. The spider-machine, apparantly satisfied at having created this light-show, lunged forward and ripped Ui'Xavi in half.
"It's hostile!" O'Nan'cova barked, pumping the Tomb Spyder with plasma until it keeled over into ruin. By that time, the various statue-like soldiers had begun to move, stepping from their alcoves and swinging their guns to bear. They began to fire, and two of the Shas'Ui were engulfed in enemy fire, their suits coming apart in cracking beams of green energy.
The Tau returned fire with a vengeance, weapons raking the metallic warriors, felling dozens, yet each one that fell vanished into nothing, only to be replaced by another identical warrior that would step from the alcoves.
"We need to fall back!" O'Nan'cova commanded, "Retreat!"
A missile streaked past him, and struck something he didn't have time to make out. Another shot, visible only by the burning contrail it left, impacted into one of the machines and blew it to pieces, cremating four others that stood too close. O'Nan'cova turned, and saw an Aspect Warrior in the doorway, firing into the machines.
"Tau," the Ar'cea said in fluent Tau'sian, "You have awoken a great evil..."
"I don't understand," O'Nan'cova replied, firing desperately. Beside him, a Xar'vesa exploded, showering his suit with shrapnel. His retinue was running out of numbers, "What are these things?"
"They are the Ancient Evil we have guarded since before your race was born. They are our enemies from-"
"Enough with the cryptic shit! What are they?"
Reih'nal blew another Tomb Spyder to pieces, "They are servants of the Ymgar... the Mon'keigh call them, 'Necrons'. The name does not do their evil justice, but for your simple race it shall suffice... come, we must go!"
O'Nan'cova did not argue. He followed the fleeing Ar'cea, leaving behind him the bodies of his comrades.
"Ar'cea!" he called over the external comm, "What is happening?"
"My name is Reih'nal, Shas'O, and I must ask you to trust me now," he slowed, turning to face O'Nan'cova, "we must end this war you are waging. You wish to know why, but while we speak warriors on both our sides die, weaking our armies whilst the Ancients grow stronger with every passing moment. End the war, and I shall tell you all I can."
O'Nan'cova sighed, "why should I trust you?"
Reih'nal smiled, though it was hidden by his helmet, "because you have just lost half a dozen of your best soldiers to the Ancients, and I have just saved your life... and it will haunt you forever if you do not know why."
O'Nan'cova turned, and saw the Necron Warriors approaching. He levelled his guns and began to fire.
"Alright, Ar'cea, you have your cease-fire... if we get out of here alive!"
Part VIIA war cannot simply end, though both sides were trying hard.
Shas'El T'olku Shovah received the order to cease-fire just before an enemy missile struck his torso and wiped him from existence. His Cadre faltered, unsure of whether to obey or take revenge, and it seemed the enemy were similarly unsure.
Nearby, Shas'Ui Vior'la Kais discovered this was the luckiest day of his life. A Wraithlord had grabbed him, and had been on the verge of pulping him when the Autarch signalled the stand-down. The ghost warrior stared at the Pathfinder, then dropped him. The Shas'Ui scrambled away, and didn't dare look back until he'd put a hundred yards between himself and the machine.
Elsewhere, Kroot and Scorpion-Guard fought a bitter hand to hand, apparantly unheeding, or uncaring, of the orders to stop. Their conflict was long and bitter, only ending when the last of the Kroot, already badly crippled by multiple ambushes, were sliced to bloody ruin by the chainswords of their enemies.
Slowly, cadre by cadre, squad by squad, soldier by soldier, the signal filtered through that the fighting had ended. The Eldar began to disperse, finding their dead and recovering Spirit Stones as their mighty engines of death withdrew. The Tau likewise tended to their wounded, the comms filled with cries for help and requests for information.
Finally, amidst the confusion, the leaders emerged. O'Nan'cova and Reih'nal ran out into the sunlight, and the Shas'O blasted into the air immediately, signalling for a council to be formed.
"Shas'O," O'Nan'cova heard an Ar'cean voice, somewhat distorted, over his comm, "We must speak urgently."
"Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Malakai," the voice replied, "I know what has happened, and it is imperative that we meet."
O'Nan'cova touched down, issuing a few instructions to nearby units, "Ar'cea, I have already spoken with your leader, and-"
"I am not Ar'cea," the voice replied, "I am... A'res'la"
O'Nan'cova paused, "The ones the Gue'vesa call 'Pirates'?"
"We prefer the term 'Corsairs', but it will suffice. O'Nan'cova, I must speak with you."
"Speak now then, and quickly, I have an evacuation to organise..." he flicked channels, and spoke again, "Shas'El, inform O'Va'myr I'll be with him shortly, I have things on the ground to finish."
The Eldritch Raider spoke again, "As you wish. O'Nan'cova, my agents have forseen this day. The Ko'shannian seers believe you have now unleashed the end of their Craftworld, and your race. However, my Malefactors believe the end is not as close as our kin believe... whilst they see far into the future, they often miss what is right under their nose. O'Nan'cova, speak with O'Sun'yi."
"What does she have to do with this?" he asked.
"My Malefactors have sought to pass our visions onto her."
Nan'cova growled, "So, that's what made her act so erratically."
"Speak to her," Malakai said again, "She has seen the visions, visions of a blade of the heavens plunging into the heart of your empire, killing it in a single stroke. I am convinced this represents not an attack from without, but from within."
Boosting onwards again, heading towards a waiting Orca, O'Nan'cova almost felt sorry for the Corsair. The very idea of an "Enemy Within" was laughable.
"O'Nan'cova to Shas'ar'tol, put me through to Shas'Ar'O Li'Sun'yi."
After a moment, the comm. replied, "I am sorry, Shas'O, but the Shas'Ar'O is unwell, and cannot be spoken to at this time."
"Why? What has happened?"
"Regretably, Shas'O, she assaulted O'Va'myr."
O'Nan'cova paused, "what? How can that be? 'Assaulted'?" he composed himself, "You must be mistaken. I have spoken to the Aun, and he seems fine, there's not a mark on him."
"I cannot comment on that, Shas'O, I am simply telling you what I saw..."
A cold fear filled O'Nan'cova. "Li'Sun'yi..." he whispered, "you attack our highest ideal... you attacked..." he paused, and activated the comm again.
"What was it you said, a blade from the heavens?"
"That is correct."
"Can you be more specific?"
There was a long pause, "The nature of space and time is not easily put into your simple language, and it is not a simple task of interpreting the signs..."
"O'Sun'yi attacked Aun'O Va'myr, does that mean anything to you?"
Another long silence, "Yes," he answered at last, "In an obscure way. The 'Gue'la' call your Aun 'Ethereals' or 'Celestials'..."
O'Nan'cova felt sick.High-Celestial Great-knife.
"The Aun... he cannot... it isn't possible." he growled, "I was a fool to listen to you. Clearly, this is some foul trick."
"It is no-"
O'Nan'cova flicked off the comm. He'd covered a fair bit of ground during his arguing, and boosted the last stretch to reach the waiting Orca. He decided that he would go and see O'Sun'yi first. She wasn't well, clearly, and a friendly face would be appreciated.
...and he definitely wasn't believing that bloody pirate.
Part VIIIHe had to visit her, he owed her that much.
Armed guards were posted outside, though they looked uncertain of what they were supposed to do. He couldn't see their eyes as he stepped up to them, but he knew in his heart that if it came to it, they wouldn't be able to kill Li'Sun'yi.
That was why he had a pistol tucked in a back-holster. "See her if you must," O'Va'myr has said, "But you'd be a fool to go unarmed..."
The door opened, and O'Nan'cova stepped inside the room. It was pleasant, or as pleasant as it could be, given that it was a medical recovery room converted into an ad-hoc psychiatric cell. Anything sharp, breakable or easily used as a weapon had been removed, leaving the chamber virtually empty. There was a mattress on the floor in one corner of the room, Li'Sun'yi was curled up on it, muttering to herself.
"Hello, Li'Sun'yi," O'Nan'cova said.
She looked up at him, her face pale and gaunt from lack of sleep, and her eyes marked with the telltale streaks of tears.
"...I've had enough of examinations. I'm tired... I want to sleep..."
"I'm not here to examine you, Li'Sun'yi, I'm here as a friend."
Her eyes focussed on him, and she smiled.
"How've you been, Shas'Ar'O?"
"I..." she looked towards a small black circle in the ceiling, "...they're watching... listening... always..." Li'Sun'yi gave a gasping shudder, "I'm sorry, O'Nan'cova, I'm sorry you had to see me like this. I just... I don't know what's happened to me..."
She began to sob. Despite his caution, O'Nan'cova felt compelled to approach her. As he did, she rose unsteadily, wiping her eyes.
"I'm alright... really..." she said weakly.
"You're a bad liar, Li'Sun'yi."
She fixed him with a stare, a stare that was frighteningly focussed. Instinctively, O'Nan'cova reached back ready to snatch the pistol. She mouthed to him the wordsthe voices.
"The voices," she whispered, her voice little more than a sigh, "always with me, always... they say terrible things..."
The Shas'O felt a chill run down his spine. He stepped closer, close enough to whisper with her, "What kind of things? What is it you hear? Is it the Warp?"
"I... perhaps... I don't understand..." she whimpered, "Make it stop!"
"Make it stop!" she cried again, clutching her head, "Please, O'Nan'cova, I can't stand it anymore! Make them stop! Make them leave me alone! I can't listen anymore, I can't do what they tell me to do!"
"What do they tell you to do!?" O'Nan'cova gripped her by the arms, "To'Tau'va! Tell me! Tell me O'Sun'yi!"
"...They tell me to kill you."
Too late, O'Nan'cova reacted. Li'Sun'yi had the pistol and pushed him back, holding the weapon in two shaking hands. The door opened, and the two Shas'la entered, training their weapons on her.
"Li'Sun'yi! Put the weapon down! Please..." The Shas'O stood with his arms wide apart, "Please... I'm your friend..."
Li'Sun'yi was crying now, fighting to keep herself together. O'Nan'cova took a step forward.The gun was a bad idea...
"I didn't want it to end this way!" Li'Sun'yi sobbed.
She looked up at him, opened her mouth to speak, then jerked the gun up and put a shot through her left eye. Her body was tossed into the air like a rag-doll.
O'Nan'cova stared at her corpse. He stared for a long time.
Definitely a bad idea...
* * *
O'Nan'cova was regretting having volunteered himself to sort through Li'Sun'yi's possessions. She didn't have much, mostly simple trinkets collected over the years... after all, what did she really need that was not provided by the Empire?
He found a small box filled with letters. Unusually, they were written by hand... most of them were a little unsettling; random gibbering of someone who was clearly slipping into madness. They couldn't have been very old. He also found a paper-pad beneath them, and on the first page, O'Sun'yi had written a note.
"O'Nan'cova, access my terminal and play file #1044, password 'Malakai', do it now."
The Shas'O physically shook; the note chilled him to the soul.
He activated the console, and accessed the file. It turned out to be a pict-recording of O'Sun'yi.
"O'Nan'cova, if you are watching this, then Malakai was right and our Empire is facing its greatest threat to date."
O'Nan'cova began to take in more details of the recording. He realised O'Sun'yi was stood in a civilian building on a planet somewhere. Judging by the large statue visible outside the window, it was on Ky'taal.
"I can't tell you exactly what it is I did to get you to watch this, but I doubt it was pleasant, for either of us... so I'm sorry if I hurt you, O'Nan'cova." She sighed, "this won't be easy for you, but please, trust me... and trust Malakai. He will have contacted you by now, and if you're half as smart as everyone claims, then you'll know exactly what to do."
O'Nan'cova reached forward and stopped the recording. He couldn't take it. It was all too convenient, all too well-prepared...
"Malakai," he hissed, "Whatever your foul scheme is, I'm not going to buy it! I won't let you make a puppet out of me!"
He reached to delete the message, and paused. He looked again into the eyes of Li'Sun'yi, and found he couldn't meet the gaze. Even if it was just a recording, it seemed to be judging him, and it saidI expected more.
He resumed the recording.
"There is a taint within us, O'Nan'cova. Malakai says that the taint knows of me, and knows that I could reveal its nature. He said to me that I would have to convince you before our enemy found me, or else I would never be able to pass on what I know... and then we'd all be doomed."
O'Sun'yi turned suddenly, looking at something off screen.
"I don't have much time. O'Nan'cova, please, trust Malakai. Do what he has asked..." there was the merest hint of a tear in her eye, "...and, O'Nan'cova, do me one thing... Tell El'Qia and Sun'Ma that-"
There was the sound of a door opening, and the recording ended. O'Nan'cova was trembling, torn between obeying what he believed in, or this message from beyond the grave.
He stood up, and un-holstered his Pulse Pistol. He looked at it, feeling a strange calmness filling him.
O'Va'myr told me to bring this... O'Sun'yi died because of that... Malakai wants O'Va'myr to die...
He made his choice, and headed for the bridge.
Part IXThe door to the bridge slid open, and O'Va'myr turned, puzzled but unconcerned at O'Nan'cova's arrival.
"Shas'O, an unexpected pleasure."
O'Nan'cova raised his Pulse Pistol. "Forgive me," he said, and put a round into the Aun's chest, blowing him off the raised dias and down into the navigation deck below.
Everything stopped. There was no screaming, no panicked shouts, no cries for the Shas'La Guards to restrain O'Nan'cova. The entire bridge simply stopped, as if time itself had been shattered.
"What have I done?" O'Nan'cova whispered, "To'Tau'va, what I have I done?"
A scream answered him, a spine-chilling shriek of absolute horror. O'Nan'cova ran towards the guard rail, vaulting over the holotable in the process, and leaned over to look down at O'Va'myr.
He was stood upright, staring back at the Shas'O, so calm and composed it made O'Nan'cova's legs buck with fear. There was a bloody hole in his chest, but he didn't seem concerned.
"Kill it!" O'Nan'cova barked, "Kill it! Kill it!Kill it!"
O'Va'myr turned, and thrust out with a punch that connected a Kor'La in the face, and burst the skull like a fruit. Another Kor tried to run, but the unholy Aun raised his right hand, and a blast of green energy flew from it. The Kor was struck, and screamed as flesh and bone disintegrated. He fell, torso gone, his limbs and head still unmarked as they bounced and rolled away.
O'Nan'cova fired, barking off a perfect headshot that baked flesh away from bone, revealing a metallic skull beneath. Three more hits struck in quick succession, blowing out chunks of flesh, but nothing seemed to phase the beast, who raised his gun-arm once more. Green lightning flared, and something in the roof exploded in a shower of sparks. The luminator-dome in the ceiling shorted and died, throwing long shadows across the room.
Backing off, keeping low, O'Nan'cova ordered the Kor to flee the bridge, and commanded the Shas'la to move up. The Captain was banging on the main bridge door, crying out, pleading with it to open. From below, the horrible sound of the lightning-weapon, like a pulse-jet trying to fire up, echoed around the bridge, almost but not quite drowned out by the screams of dying Tau, and the electric bangs as control circuitry and consoles were blown to pieces.
The Shas'La on the left stairwell began to fire, emptying his weapon on full-auto until the energy blast removed his head. The second Shas'la stood firm beside O'Nan'cova, scoring a double chest-hit before the lightning took him, and hurled his burning corpse against the starboard viewport. The Aun was gone now, no trace of him remained, and he had been replaced by a blood-slick creature of metal, its long, remorseless face terrifyingly familiar...
It was a Necron.
The Necron fired, and O'Nan'cova barely got out of the way in time. His hand stung, though he had no time to consider it. Another shot showered him with red-hot plastic shrapnel, and a third caused a power-cell to detonate, hurling him against the aft wall and killing all power.
Darkness fell. The only illumination came from the crackling green energies of the Necron weapon, which bathed it in eerie light.
Shields O'Nan'cova thought,I have to drop the shields...
He paused, and wondered where that thought came from. Could it be the Necron, manipulating his mind? Was it some other enemy, eager to exploit the carnage this thing had wrought?
O'Nan'cova scrambled to the outer console ring, putting machinery between himself and the Necron. An eye-burning blast cremated the wall where he had lay a moment ago.
Shields... above you... deactivate them...
He could see the Necron's glow through the footwell, approaching with mechanical inevitability.
Reaching up, O'Nan'cova hit the shield control. The failsafes, obliterated in the Necron's opening volley, gave a quiet, pathetic chirrup, and the entire ship was filled with a stomach-churning lurch as the shield fell.
The world was filled with noise. It sounded like ten thousand Fire-Hornets hissing together, and from behind the console, he could see a strange white glow. The Necron fired, blowing the console to pieces, the blast throwing O'Nan'cova sideways, slamming him down at the feet of a figure he couldn't make out in the dark.
"Let there be light."
With a click, the emergency-lights activated, bathing the bridge in a blue glow. O'Nan'cova looked up into the face of the Eldritch Raider, Malakai, who nodded to him.
"About time," he said, and levelled his weapon.
The Shuriken Cannon barked. Rather than the rapid whistle-chitter he'd expected, the gun let out a heavy, dull thudding, like the laughing of some distant god, and pounded the Necron with heavy shot. The Necron turned, raised its weapon, and spasmed. Looking down in confusion, the impact-hits were corroding, spreading a thick rust across the Necron's body. Other pockets began to sprout, and the Necron writhed and jerked. It looked at O'Nan'cova, silently, and exploded.
Malakai smiled, "Bio-Explosive Ammunition," he announced, "but with a little twist. O'Nan'cova, good to see you're alive... and that you got our message."
O'Nan'cova rose, slowly, giving the Corsair a look of shocked horror. "Message?" he hissed, "You killed Li'Sun'yi!"
"No, she killed herself. She did what she had to."
"You used her!" O'Nan'cova snarled, "you used her and you used me! You knew this? You knew about O'Va'myr all this time?"
Malakai shook his head. "No, not until you told us."
"When did I tell you?"
"On the planet," Malakai replied, "you told us O'Sun'yi attacked O'Va'myr. It correlated with our visions. O'Va'Myr was one of the Ancients, one that sought to steer your people down a path that would see the rest awakened. We have given you a chance, Shas'O, we have taken away their control over you. Whatever happens next, it will be your decision."
O'Nan'cova looked around the ruined bridge. Eldar Pirates stood at casual ease, managing to lounge nonchelantly whilst stood to attention. They looked nothing like the Ar'cea he knew; they wore no uniform, bedecked instead with flamboyant clothes and high, furred collars.
"What happens if I decide not to fight?"
Malakai shrugged, "Ko'shanniah dies, and the Scorpion Worlds with it. After that, I would guess the Lord will awaken the Ancients sleeping on other worlds in this region, and wipe your race from the galaxy. In time, others will follow you into oblivion."
"So, we have no choice..." O'Nan'cova nodded slowly, staring at the carnage of the bridge as if nothing was wrong.
"Indeed," Malakai replied.
The Shas'O rubbed his hand, and paused. He looked down, and saw two of his fingers were missing.
"...funny thing, how the mind shuts out the world..."
The doors opened, and O'Nan'cova looked up. Several Tau of many Castes were looking around in horror.
"Shas'O, what happened here? Where is O'Va'myr?"
O'Nan'cova looked at the spot where the Necron had stood. There was nothing left save a scorched crater. No debris, not even the most miniscule of fragments, remained to mark its passing. The Eldar had likewise vanished.
"It's a long story," O'Nan'cova replied, and fell to his knees in tears.
Part XThe Ar'cean delegation was difficult to deal with, keeping themselves at arms length, as if the smell of the Por offended them. O'Nan'cova only received snippits, half-heard rumours from his fellows, vague recitations of how progress was being made. He payed it no heed, focussing his efforts on preparing for a war he knew was coming, a war that, if the Eldar were to be believed, would decide the fate of the galaxy.
To say he felt under pressure would be inaccurate. When charged with a difficult task, he may have felt the weight of duty upon his shoulders, the heavy knowledge of what would be lost if he failed, but this time he did not. The entire galaxy... the very idea that so many lives depended upon him was unfathomable. The Gue'la alone, it was said, held a million worlds. If each of those had a million citizens, then that was a trillion alone... and he had been told of the Hive Worlds; planetary populations greater than the entire Tau Empire crammed into a single planet. A trillion wasn't even close... and that was just one race. One mind alone couldn't contain the scale; it would brake apart trying.
He concentrated instead on what he knew; warfare. The Ar'cea of Ko'shanniah would fight beside them this time, but such was the nature of the race that he was not certain of their capabilities. They seemed reluctant to even speak to him, and O'Nan'cova had instead turned to the Ar'es'la, who acted as guarded intermediaries. Despite this arrangement, there was little more that O'Nan'cova could do other than state his battle-line, and hope. He didn't even have the enemy dispositions; the information returned from orbital scanning was too confusing.
Hours of planning, hours of debate, hours of tension and anger and fear, all came to a point just as dawn broke over the Necron Tomb. The Ar'cean leader, Reih'nal, announced that his fleets, supported by Malakai's vessels, would hunt down the Necron starships, and destroy them. The Kor had been unaware of any such fleet, though the Eldar Captains assured their Kor counterparts there were hostiles lurking out amongst the stars.
The Tau would commit their forces to the ground war, and Ko'shanniah would provide supporting elements. Malakai seemed uneager to provide any kind of fighting force, stating that open war was against his people's ways. He had powerful ships, however, and had agreed to send them into battle, so O'Nan'cova could not begrudge him. As the assembled commanders dispersed, returning to their ships and stations, O'Nan'cova was left with a growing feeling that this would be a day he would never forget, no matter how long he lived.
* * *
The Necron fleet came out of nowhere, slowing down from some ungodly speed, and emerging battle-ready just nine hours short of the planet.
The Eldar alliance turned for them, their ships glinting in the light of the distant star, solar sails fluttering gently in the particle-winds. It was a magnificent sight to see, or would have been where it not for the shimmering holofields that blurred the eye and blinded sensors. A long, gently-curving line of Wraithships, interspaced by the Solaris and Aurora of the Eldritch Raiders. Scattered amongst these craft were the sleek Shadowhunters, bat-like Arconites and Nightshades, and the predatory maws of Hellbores and Hemlocks. In the middle of the formation sat the flagships; the proud, blood-red forms of Ko'shannian Dragonships, and the Shadow and Eclipse Cruisers of Malakai's fleet, void-black and sapphire-blue.
The vessels began their advance, silver chaff of fighter squadrons spraying out into the endless night of space, followed by the larger, heavier shapes of the bombers. From their view-ports, the Tau could only see the vast formation as a shining blur, vague specks of light somewhere in the unmeasurable distance. Beyond them, undetectable to the naked eye, awaited the Necron battlefleet, awakened from its aeonic slumber. Weapons began to crackle, lasers and plasma meeting with the arcing gauss-lightning of the Necron weapons, ships of both sides taking hits and making narrow escapes. Mile by mile they closed, the fury and intensity increasing, until both fleets were lost in a blur of star-white flashes.
Malakai watched the swirling battle unfolding around his vessel on the viewscreens. Though the bridge was tranquil, the vessel itself was diving and rolling, Pulse-Lances roaring at every enemy that entered range. Psychic-chatter filled the air with an unsettling plainsong as chew and ship alike shared thoughts and information. His craft veered to the left, the pulsing green energies of Gauss Cannons missing the wingtips by inches, and quickly re-alligned for a retaliatory strike. He never really saw the Necron craft, two-thousand kilometres ahead of them, save for the sudden blue-green flash of its death.
He focussed his mind, and let information from the fleet flow through the wraithbone matrix of the ship. The Necron Tombship was out there somewhere, its weapons firing at everything it could reach. Malakai felt the psychic scream of one of two Shadowhunters as the vessels and crew were consumed by the Lightning-projector, and blasted into dust. The loss hurt him dearly; so many lived extinguished so suddenly, so brutally, and now their souls would be fed to She Who Thirsts.
The very thought made bile rise in his throat. With an impulse he bade the craft to find the Tombship, and the soaring vessel leapt dorsalward like a salmon, diving gracefully through a murderous escort-duel. It fell in beside a Solaris, and a pair of Ko'shannian Wraithships, who seemed to share Malakai's agenda. Ahead of them, all but invisible to sensors, was the Tombship. Malakai needed no sensors to find it, however; he could taste the evil within its hull.
As one, all four ships fired. His mind focussed on his foe, he could feel the ship shuddering beneath the barrage, diverting power to the repair-systems. It was taking it, taking the combined fury of four Eldar vessels. Pulse Lances flashed, each millisecond blink unleashing enough power to level a city, yet the vessel endured. Malakai knew that it had already sustained enough damage to obliterate a Mon'keigh battleship, and had laughed at them.
"Ramming speed," he whispered, the words echoing throughout the chamber.
The crew looked at him with horror, but the conviction within his eyes could not be argued with. They obeyed, consigning themselves to death. The craft accelerated, racing down towards the Tombship, who slowly turned to face this new aggressor. The supporting ships, now joined by other vessels, continued to lay fire into the Necron flagship, hoping to destroy it before Malakai could continue with his suicidal attack.
Lightning crackled across the hull, and the crew felt the pain of their vessel as the hull was scorched and cracked. The Tombship was struggling to keep up its fire, for every shot diverted power from its repair systems, and now damage was forming too quickly to be endured. Barely five-hundred miles between the ships, the Necrons gave up attack, and began to move, matching course and speed with the Corsair Cruiser, seeking to shatter it upon its armoured hull.
Malakai closed his eyes, and focussed all his will into the moment. The timing had to be flawless. One with him, the ship jinked suddenly, Torpedoes screaming from the tubes, launched barely a mile from the hull, dead-falling keelward. The Eldar ship missed by the narrowest of margains, passing within yards of contact, then screaming out on full engines. Its Ordnance, too close to react to, slammed into the Sepulcre and blew the pyramidal bridge into star-dust. Crippled and reeling from the strike, the merciless cannonade of the Eldar finished the job, pounding the Tombship into a thousand parts.
"The advantage is attained," Malakai said with an arrogant purr, "now, let us remind the Ancients that we are masters of the stars... it is time theirs was extinguished."
Part XIThe world below was a tainted place, a fouled and desecrated ball of ashen earth that had been sucked of all life by some unseen force. The deep forests and rolling grasslands that had born witness to the battle between Tau and Ar'cea were gone, replaced by fine grey dust, wyrd crystals sprouting from the tortured soil, and the skeletal husks of calcified trees.
The heavens rained fire. The Tau fleet turned their weapons on the surface, and let fly with the fury of a vengeful god. Hypersonic railcannon slugs, melting into liquid flame by the friction of re-entry, coated the ground in an inescapable deluge of detonations, boring volcanic craters into the ground, and cooking the sand to glass. Ion Cannons sent eye-searing pulses of blue energy that exposed the world to the fury of a star for an instant, the shots visible only by the burning wounds they left upon the retina. The barrage excavated massive craters, hundreds of feet deep in places, and unearthed the Necron Tomb in a deluge of heavenly fire. The structure was hit time and again by precision strikes, and disintegrated under the unending fusilade.
From the sands, the Necron retaliation emerged. Pylons, shaped like crescent moons, arose from amidst the fire and carnage, training their barrels at the stars. The air rippled and tore as they fired, green lightning crackling within the focussed energy-column of the Gauss Beam. The first such shot struck a Defender-class Escort, and tore it in half. More shots followed as the Pylons emerged in greater numbers, blazing their wrath back at their astral aggressors. The Tau bombardment redoubled its efforts, and the Necron guns fell silent, only to resurrect when the Drop began. Monoliths and Obelisks joined the barrage, and the sky glowed green with the weight of fire the Ancients unleashed. Orcas were hit, spinning helplessly out of control or exploding in mid-flight. Mantas shook and stalled, fighting to stay airborne under the concentrated hate of their enemies. One such craft, scarred by numerous near-misses, finally died when a Pylon atomised its starboard wing. The Kor pilots sold their vessel dearly, ramming it into their killer and destroying everything within two-hundred metres with a reactor-overload, including the Hammerhead and twenty-three Shas who had managed to bail from the stricken vessel.
O'Nan'cova touched down in the middle of a sandstorm. The thousands of weapon-hits, the airburst of ground-based weapon-discharges, the exhaust of drop-craft and the chaotic impacts of falling debris had cumulated into a ferocious dust cloud, whipped up and maintained by a cold, unforgiving cross-wind from the east. He could hear the battle waging around him, though aside from the occasional flash above him, or a distant beam of Gauss-energy, he could see nothing by way of a target. Ordering his men to spread out, he checked his position using the Battlesuit's HUD, and ordered the advance for the ruined Tomb. According to his instruments he was following the same path he had taken the last time, but the landscape had changed so much he did not realise it at first. Even the little terrain he could see amidst the storm was desolate, desecrated, devoid of anything that might resemble life. This world was Dead. Moving slowly, cautious of attack, O'Nan'cova approached the lip of the crater left by the fleet's execution, and signalled his position.
"1-16 Nan'shi to all Nan'shi, we are in position. Confirm positions and headings."
"1-16 Nan'shi to all Nan'shi, please respond."
O'Nan'cova looked to his second, who answered with a shrug of his battlesuit's massive shoulders.
"Keep trying," the Shas'O told him, "they can't all be dead."
Switching channels, O'Nan'cova tried to raise other forces. Every channel was attempted, and no answer ever came. He knew that, even in a worst-case scenario, they'd have got at least twenty Cadres planetside. They were not alone, they couldn't be, it was simply the Necrons jamming their signals.
A shot rang out. O'Nan'cova turned, and saw one of the Shas'Ui, piloting a Suam'myr Battlesuit, levelling his Plasma Rifle at a stricken Necron. The machine had come up over the lip of the crater, and the shot had almost blown it back over the edge.
"Finally," O'Nan'cova muttered, glad of contact simply to relieve the tension.
More Necrons came, advancing upwards from the depths. O'Nan'cova issued his orders, and with drilled precision the Tau army took their places, assaulting the advancing foe with well-placed salvos of plasma fire. A second set of targets emerged on the right flank, then more still from the left. They came slowly, falling quickly to the superior Tau firepower, but for every one that fell two more appeared, forming a ring of mechanical warriors that trapped the Cadre. They were not yet firing, which O'Nan'cova found strange, they simply walked into the Tau guns, their emotionless faces showing nothing but blank determination.
The ground erupted beneath Ukos Squad. The Firewarriors fell, some thrown into the air, others screaming and fighting as an unseen enemy pulled them beneath the sand. From the crater, more Necrons emerged. They were hideous things, scissor-handed monsters that clawed their way out of the sand, slashing at shins and ankles, dragging crippled and howling victims back below the ground. Another hole emerged directly under a Monat pilot, whose suit was assailed by five of the razor-fingered machines, and cut apart with savage fury.
As if waiting for this moment, the Necrons fired as one. The world flashed green, and a horrible shriek erupted as almost a hundred Tau cried out as one in pain and fear. With no cover, the salvo slaughtered half the Cadre in an instant, only the Battlesuits able to survive the volley. O'Nan'cova ordered an advance, realising now the severity of their situation; numerous shots had come from out of vision, the shooters lost amidst the dust and sand. The remains of the Cadre charged, weapons carving a path down into the crater, fighting through a seemingly endless tide of metal warriors whose gauss-flayers pulsed and crackled with merciless frequency. El'Tas'nyer cried out as a heavy weapon found him, boring a hole through his chest and dissolving his Battlesuit. O'Nan'cova avenged him with a furious blast of plasma fire.
Then, suddenly, the waves ceased. O'Nan'cova found himself jetting over black glass and volcanic stone, devoid of any aggressor. He touched down, and turned to look back up the slope. He could still see weapons fire there, but it was not Tau weaponry.
"The Ar'cea!" Ui'Dari exclaimed, "They found us, Shas'O!"
O'Nan'cova breathed a sigh of relief, "Then let's not waste this oppertunity."
The Tau turned at the voice. The speaker was an Eldar of some sort, draped in a full-body cloak that seemed to blend itself with the terrain.
"Come, Young Ones," the figure said, "we must work with haste. We have charges to plant, and you must guard us."
"Where did you come from? How did you get down here past that army?"
The Eldar turned, "all life must follow its course. Our role is to seek the the hidden roads, to walk upon the secret ways, and discover the darkness that lies at journey's end. There is no course we cannot follow, no road we cannot walk. We found this way, and we now lead you down it."
"Pathfinders?" Vre'shokan asked.
The Eldar seemed to think upon this word. "Primitive, but sufficient."
The Pathfinders led them to a section of tunnel, blown open by bombardment. The passage seemed to throb, filled with a static-charge that made O'Nan'cova's flesh prickle. It twisted back and forth, following some unfathomable course that O'Nan'cova was unable to track. His HUD mapping-system shut down, overpowered by some unknown power. The Eldar Pathfinders seemed to know the route, though it was complex and meandering in nature. They took turns seemingly at random, sometimes rising back towards the surface, sometimes almost doubling back. After an eternity, they reached their destination; a towering chamber dominated by a single, epic crystal encased in obsidian.
"The Power Core," the Pathfinder leader explained. "Wait here, and we shall prepare the charges."
The Tau formed a defensive circle around the Ar'cean troops, watching for any signs of hostiles. The constant, feral growl of the Power Core was unsettling, and the Shas jumped at every sound. It took just over a minute to prepare the explosives, but to O'Nan'cova, his nerves pulled tight by the unsettling aura this place exuded, it felt like hours.
"It is done," the Eldar said at last, "now, we must-"
He froze. O'Nan'cova began to breathe in ragged, jittery gasps, a sudden wave of rising panic filling him. He turned at the sound of footsteps, and saw one of the Necrons approaching him.
"Ah, O'Nan'cova, you have returned to seek my council once more..."
The voice was that of Aun'O Va'myr, albeit distorted. O'Nan'cova raised his weapon, and hesitated.
"You cannot fire," the Necron said, "It is not within you to harm me."
"I did it once," O'Nan'cova hissed, though his voice was filled with doubt.
"Ha," the Necron said, "To think we were once like you..."
He entered the room, the hilt of his long, blade-headed staff clicking on the floor. He seemed to radiate a palpable aura of confidence, like some force-field forged of his own self-assurance.
"To think that we once cowered as you did, to think we were once blind as you are, to think we once let these pathetic creatures command our fate..."
O'Nan'cova realised the Necron was gesturing at one of the Pathfinders. He turned to look at the Eldar, who was curled against the Core, clutching his head and sobbing. He'd soiled himself in terror.
The Necron slammed his staff-hilt upon the floor, and a dozen figures emerged. They were Necrons, but unlike any O'Nan'cova had seen. They carried long, blade-headed staffs much like their leader, the ends of which held a crackling Gauss weapon. Their features, though without emotion, reminded O'Nan'cova of the Gue'la. They also pushed ahead of them a wave of physical terror that filled the mind with dread-fuelled chaos. One of the Ar'cea screamed, rocking and howling in a foetal ball.
"Such pain they feel now... pain as we once felt..." He looked at O'Nan'cova, and though his face bore no emotion, the Shas'O was sure he smiled, "I am Cranos, Lord of this world. I have come to save you from the curse of the flesh, and deliver you to the tranquility of death..."
One of the Shas'Ui fired, and the spell was broken. The nearest Pariah toppled without a sound as his head was liquified by a fusion blaster. Burst Cannons began to chatter, missiles and plasma filled the air, and the Necrons began to fall. The Pariahs reeled, then struck back, firing their weapons and charging. The Lord was with them, his crackling Warscythe striking Vre'shokan and cleaving him in two seemingly without effort. The Pathfinders were helpless, struck numb by the soul-sucking aura of their foes, and were butchered like cattle.
There was a sudden flash of light. One of the Shas'ui, his suit burning with white fire, was hurled back against the far wall and exploded. The Shas'O turned to see what had killed him, and found himself staring at the Necron Lord, surrounded by a crackling aura. The Pariahs were dead, though they had taken a heavy toll before falling. O'Nan'cova fired upon him, his weapons striking some unseen field of energy, the impacts rippling the surface.
"The New Men have been slain by the Young... I wonder, is there some fitting irony in this? Could it be we were mistaken in our choice of servants..."
The Lord seemed to grow, becoming larger, darker, the field shifting and wrapping around him like a black cloak. O'Nan'cova felt the fear rising even stronger than before as his foe took on a new, terrible form.
"Look well, O'Nan'cova," the Lord intoned, "look upon this form. I have been granted a portion of a God, a fragment of the Nightbringer, the Lord of Shadows, the Bringer of Death."
With a speed that no creature so big should have, the Lord rushed O'Nan'cova, slamming him backwards with enough force to crack his suit's armour. Empowered by his new-found status of Avatar, the Lord reached out and gripped the stunned Shas'O, raising him off the floor. O'Nan'cova cried out in pain, feeling the Necron Lord crushing his body, fighting helplessly to escape the dead-grip.
"You cannot win, O'Nan'cova, my power is greater than any your little race dare contemplate. However, I shall not kill you, for I have greater plans for thee..."
O'Nan'cova screamed, and there was darkness.
Part XIIHe opened his eyes, and found himself in another place. It was void, empty of all things. He was stood alone in this emptiness, looking around but finding nothing but indistinct shapes, picked out in shades of dark purple and midnight blue, swirling somewhere in middle-distance.
From those shadows, a figure emerged.
"You!" O'Nan'cova hissed, seeing a face he would never forget.
"Ah, Shas'O," O'Va'myr replied, "so good of you to come..."
O'Nan'cova fired his Plasma Rifle, and the Aun exploded into purple shards of crystal. Where he stood was left a pulsing maisma of swirling dark energy that seemed to writhe and shift as if alive. Before O'Nan'cova could react, the energy surged forward, engulfing him. Suddenly, he was falling, plunging down through darkness thicker and more terrible than any he'd ever known.
He finally came to rest, drained and battered, and coughed up blood. His ribs were broken, and he was convinced he was dying. It took him almost a minute to gain the strength to open his eyes, and then he realised he was naked. His suit was gone, and he had been left exposed and helpless in this strange place.
From behind, an unseen figure grabbed him and hurled him away. He landed hard and howled in agony, blinking back tears as his assailant swam into view.
It was massive; a towering figure, formed of darkness, wielding a long and wicked scythe. O'Nan'cova stared at the creature, sobbing in terror as it gripped him once more, and raised him to eye level.
"Little one," the Nightbringer hissed, "You shall bow to me..."
"N-never," O'Nan'cova whimpered, "I-I will n-not..."
The Nightbringer laughed, filling the Shas'O with unspeakable dread, "Oh, how foolish..."
The Nightbringer paused, and looked away into the shadows. O'Nan'cova tried to see what the monster was staring at, and saw a figure advancing towards them. It was dressed in black, but its costume was covered in multicoloured diamonds of various shades and hues. Wherever it stepped, a small circle of light formed beneath its feet, only to fade when it moved on. The stranger advanced to within thirty paces of the pair, then bowed, slowly, and faded like mist.
The Nightbringer dropped O'Nan'cova casually, who gasped in pain, "So, our ancient foe has come... and they have chosen to play the part of the Fool, have they?"
Striding forwards, his cape of shadows billowing, the Nightbringer hunted for his prey. O'Nan'cova tried to rise, and saw another figure, a Shas'La, stood watching the Nightbringer.
"R-run," O'Nan'cova whimpered, and the C'tan turned to face the stranger.
"You? What are you doing here?"
"I stand against you, false-one," the Tau replied.
The Nightbringer hissed, and unleashed a blast of pure energy from his hand. The Shas'La vanished under the blast.
O'Nan'cova gave a cry of shock, but it was drowned out by pulse fire. Two more Shas'La were stood on the opposite side of the C'tan, firing into it. Nightbringer turned, and blasted them both to dust, only for a Devilfish and Pathfinders to charge from the smoke.
One by one, more Tau joined the fray. O'Nan'cova watched as a Sunforge Monat leapt into the air, blasting the Nightbringer only to be sliced by the scythe, and explode in mid-flight. He watched the C'tan charge Hammerheads and crush them, and slaughter entire squads with blasts of his blinding energy.
O'Nan'cova looked up at the Broadside that had appeared behind him, bearing the marks of Tel'Oshi, and heavily scarred from battle, "I said run!" the Shas'vre cried again, and O'Nan'cova obeyed, hooves struggling for purchase as he half-ran, half-crawled away from the fight. No sooner had he got clear did the Broadside die, blown into burning slag by the Nightbringer.
Now the C'tan turned for him, its eyes burning with hate. The creature advanced, and the Shas'O cowered in fear. Just as the Nightbringer raised his hand to blast O'Nan'cova into oblivion, a missile struck the monster in the face and sent it reeling. Two Burst-cannons opened fire, and the C'tan withdrew under the onslaught, turning its rage to closer targets, who were swarming around it, firing with everything they had.
"Well, well, well, the great O'Nan'cova in need of saving? You could at least have come dressed for battle, Shas'O."
O'Nan'cova looked up at the suit in awe, "Li'Sun'yi? It cannot be... you, you're dead! I saw you die!"
O'Sun'yi turned her suit's head down to O'Nan'cova, "I may be dead, O'Nan'cova, but I am always with you. We are all with you."
O'Nan'cova looked back at the battle, "Who are they, Li'Sun'yi?"
"They are those who have died in service of the Tau'va."
The Shas'O looked up in shock, "then... am I dead?"
Li'Sun'yi shook her head, "No, O'Nan'cova, not yet..."
"Where am I then, and how can dead warriors be fighting beside me?"
O'Sun'yi knelt down, "this place is the darkness within you, O'Nan'cova. This place is where all your fear and doubt resides... this is what the Nightbringer seeks to awaken in you. This is the part of you that would tear down all that our people have fought and died for. This place is the Mont'au, and the Nightbringer's power comes from here."
O'Nan'cova closed his eyes, shaking his head to clear the pain and fear, "So... this place... this is all in my head?"
"More like your soul," O'Sun'yi replied.
O'Nan'cova looked up, and found himself looking into Li'Sun'yi's face. She looked far younger than he'd known her, and wore a Shas'La uniform.
"O'Nan'cova," she said, "you must conquer the Nightbringer. You are not alone, but we are but echoes of the past, and echoes can only do so much. You have the power within you, just as I did, to succeed against the darkness. I believe in you, O'Nan'cova."
Li'Sun'yi smiled, and placed a hand on his shoulder, "Hmm... if only we had been paired, I think I would have liked to bear your child."
O'Nan'cova returned the smile, "is this really the time?"
She shrugged, "I just wanted to say it, I'll never have another chance..."
She turned to face the Nightbringer, and O'Nan'cova followed the gaze. The Tau were gone, the last of them crushed beneath the Nightbringer's foot. Even as O'Nan'cova watched, the corpse faded like mist, vanishing without trace.
"This... cannot... be..." the Nightbringer hissed, "This place is darkness, this place is despair... I am Darkness, I am Despair. You cannot fight me here."
O'Nan'cova nodded. He focussed his mind, and felt the pain and fear dissolve. He took a step forward, and the armoured foot of his battlesuit crashed down. With a thought, he fired his missiles, sending the Nightbringer staggering back.
"I am not afraid," O'Nan'cova said, his voice strong now, "for I know what you are."
He raised his Plasma Rifle, and fired, "I am strong, for my people need my strength,"
Again he fired, blasting the Scythe from the C'tan's hand, "I am courageous for I am surrounded by courage. I know no fear, for I know that through skill I shall prevail,"
O'Nan'cova advanced onwards, his weapon blasting the right arm away from his target. The Nighbringer turned, then fell as another shot t"I bear with me the deeds and sacrifice of all who gave their lives for our people," he snarled, punching aO'Nan'cova reeled, feeling the Lord surging from his mind. He focussed all his will, and fought back. The image of the Nightbringer before him flickered, then looked at him with a mix of shock and fear. O'Nan'cova was holding it back, keepings their minds locked together. He knew he could not hold out forever, but then he didn't have to...
d cracking metal. O'Nan'cova stood over his broken foe with contempt.
"This... cannot... be..." the Nightbringer hissed, "This place is darkness, this place is despair... I am Darkness, I am Despair. You cannot fight me here."
"Wrong," O'Nan'cova replied, "we conquered our inner daemons long ago. You are nothing but an echo, a forgotten monster that has long since lost its power over us."
He levelled his Plasma Rifle at the shifting, fractured face of the Nightbringer, and saw fear in his eyes. He realised now he was looking not into the face of some dark god, but of a mortal creature. He could see a face; a living, breathing face, translucent and obscured amidst the crumbling visage of the Nightbringer, mixed with the metallic symmetry of the Necron Lord. This, he realised, was the true face of his enemy; this "Lord" had been mortal once.
"You think you can enter my mind, take all I hold dear and pervert it? How dare you? Howdare you!"
The Lord hissed, "It is no matter, little thing; I may not have your mind, but I have your body. I shall crush your weak and feeble flesh!"
O'Nan'cova reeled, feeling the Lord surging from his mind. He focussed all his will, and fought back. The image of the Nightbringer before him flickered, then looked at him with a mix of shock and fear. O'Nan'cova was holding it back, keepings their minds locked together. He knew he could not hold out forever, but then he didn't have to...
"No!" it screamed, "You cannot do this!"
"You are Darkness, are you not?" O'Nan'cova growled, "Then let me be your light!"
* * *
The Failsafe Detonator armed, and exploded.
The blast threw the Lord back against the far wall, and set off the Ar'cean charges planted on the main power core. The resulting detonation sent surges of backwash through the Necron power-grid, blowing apart energy crystals and burning out conduits in a cataclysmic surge, climaxing in an apocalyptic overload that blew the entire Tomb into oblivion. From the outside, the ground above it seemed to be consumed by a series of electric-green explosions, appearing more rapidly before a single white-hot blast consumed the area, and the remaining Necrons on the surface.
At the heart of the Tomb's funeral pyre, enveloped in the blasts of the main power core, the Lord writhed and howled in fury, feeling the Essence of the Nightbringer burn and melt away with each passing second. He lasted just long enough to spit out half a curse, swearing the death of the Tau race, before a secondary Pulse-Charge tore his body into ten million pieces, each one consumed in a blazing inferno. What remained of his consciousness survived just long enough to see the roof of the Tomb begin to fall, wreathed in black smoke and hellfire.
But for O'Nan'cova, there was only light. It was white, pure, and brighter than the heart of a star, shining out from all around him, and reaching out into infinity.
It may not have been the light of the Tau'va, but it was close enough.
EpilogueThe world had changed, though for better or worse could not yet be determined. It was desolate, it was scarred, and it was unlikely to ever truly recover from the injuries inflicted by the war. The Tau had come and gone, no longer wanting this world. Perhaps it was because of the blight the Ancients had left, or that so much blood had been spilt here it would wound the spirits of any Tau that dwelt here. It might even have been an acknowledgement that the world belonged to Ko'shanniah, though Malakai doubted that.
All that was left now was empty sands, marked by week-old blood and pierced at uneven intervals by half-buried wreaks, machines deemed too badly damaged to be worth salvaging by the Fio recovery teams.
Malakai stood upon the edge of a massive crater, a chasm that ran deep into the earth, almost a mile across in places. The death of the Ancients had taken many Tau as well, blasting an entire warzone into nothingness. All that remained was outlaying shrapnel, and this gaping maw.
"Not how I expected it to end, I must admit. Tell me, was it worth it?"
The figure stood behind him shrugged, "difficult to say..."
Malakai rose, and turned to face the Shadowseer. The Harlequin made him uneasy, but he was in no mood to be intimidated.
"I took great risks for you, Harlequin," Malakai said quietly, "I lost vessels, many of my people fell in battle, and Ko'shanniah suffered far more than we did. We gave our blood, Harlequin, and you cannot even say if it was worth it? Can you at least tell me why?"
The Harlequin laughed, once. "I would be lying if I said it was a selfless act. I have waged a long war against a powerful enemy, a vile and terrible servant of the Empyrean. He sought the power of this world, sought to claim it by many dire means. He sent agents to this place, and it was fortunate indeed they were repelled. However, I feared that should the evil here wake from its slumber, my foe would somehow bend it to his will. That I could not allow, and so I sought to deny him his prize. This I have now done."
Malakai stroked the waystone on his breast nervously, as if afraid it was going to leap from him. "Did it have to be this way? Surely, if you had forseen-"
"Forseen?" The Shadowseer looked at him quizzically, "I did not forsee anything. I have learned through means and ways, and I have used my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart. I took a risk, Corsair, and I would like to think that it was worth the cost. If nothing else, Ko'shanniah has now been saved from its own misfortune, and you are free to travel these stars safe from those that slept here. We have all benefited from this, have we not?"
Malakai seemed uncertain, "I suppose, if your enemy is as powerful as you have claimed, you felt that you would have to remain hidden to prevent him learning of your inteference."
The Shadowseer nodded.
"Then tell me, Harlequin, why show your hand here, at the final hour?"
He laughed again, "Ah, why indeed..."
"What happened down there, Harlequin?"
The Shadowseer shook his head, "I was simply a spectator, nothing more. I have only witnessed the events that have transpired, no part was there for me to play... that does not mean, however, that I cannot go to witness the last act..."
"If you say so," Malakai said dismissively. "The debt I owe to you is paid, Harlequin. You have no sway over me now."
The Shadowseer nodded, "Indeed, most fair."
The pair began to walk across the sands, heading for a distant vessel that sat waiting between two shallow ash-dunes. Someone had dug here, excavating an Eldar Wraithgate.
"You will close this behind me, I trust?" the Harlequin asked.
"Of course, this world is dead to us now." He hesitated, "If I may ask... where are you going, Shadowseer?"
The Harlequin turned and smiled at him.
"The Eye of Terror."