The air was thick with the sound of fire, so loud, so total as to send lesser men deaf. Spent shells from guns the warp would never let run dry hit the ground like rain, and at the centre of it all the maladectus fatum sent an impossible metal roar into the sky. It was the cry of a wild beast let slip from captivity after far too long. It cared nothing for the shots that glanced harmlessly off its profane body. Instead it only dug its legs into the stone before the canon at its core erupted in a single, terrible, blast. As the shot tore forward the air behind it crackled in blinding white lightning. When it hit the noise was so terrible it seemed to suck all sound into it before detonating in a cacophony so violent and discordant not even astarte's ears could fully comprehend it. Buildings shattered into little more than splinters, the flagstones under foot flash boiled into acrid vapours, and the intimidating warp hunter grav-tank that sat at the centre of it all was torn asunder in a cloud of fire and molten wraithbone.
The xenos had come prepared, with a good deal of armour and anti-tank units in an effort to deprive Arlek of what would otherwise have been a considerable advantage. The battle had slid into a tank duel. The heretical armour hunkering down in well defended positions, eldar trying to out flank them or flush them out into areas where they could be destroyed. Both sides were fighting cautiously, as neither could easily replace lost armour. But the xenos had the disadvantage of being on the offensive, which forced them to take risks Arlek and his men could exploit. The greater experience of the heretical astartes was counting as well. Most souls here, even those born of dust, had been with the legion since the great crusade. Almost 11,000 years of war would give any man a talent for battle. But the aeldari were not fools. The scorched predator which lay before Arlek, her side splayed open, which had been dragged back to safety by foul magics and that was even now being anxiously tended to, spoke of that.
The greatest risk was not the xenos own armoured assaults. But rather their teams of fire dragon aspect warriors, who would readily bring their terrible fusion weapons to bear on the legion's ancient armour and reduce it to molten metal, if allowed into position. The infantry battle was little more than cautious eldar raids trying to get their fire dragon's into position, and the men of the 15th repelling them with cold efficiency. The air was thick with the smell of iron, human blood ran across the flagstones of this town now. The sound of las fire had faded away from the din of battle as the last mortal defenders now either lay dead, or in hiding and soon to die. Their sacrifice had served its purpose. The short delay they had caused was all the astartes needed to redeploy. It had cost a heavy price in blood, but Arlek knew blood was one of the few currencies the galaxy truly valued.
But despite the brief reprieve his spire guard had bought him, he could not rest easy. The xenos outweighed him in men, guns, armour and support. His foes had the initiative and the luxury of manoeuvrability. Under any circumstances these would have been grim portents, but against a foe that was dangerous even when outnumbered, they could very well spell his doom. Arlek did not waste time wondering how he had been lured into this trap, that was a question for another time. All that mattered now was surviving it. Striding across the square he seemed careless to the danger he was exposing himself to. Shots smacked into the flagstones at his feet, others ricocheted off the mighty pauldrons of his armour with sharp, metallic cracks. But he was not as reckless as he may have seemed, preternatural sight allowed him to see where every shot would land, which ones could hurt him and which ones could not. His stride was carefully timed, and this far back not even the aeldari could put truly substantial fire on him.
He made his way into one of the more substantial buildings at the edge of the square, ignoring his men firing from the upper windows he instead pushed down into the basement, a smashed man sized webway portal reminding him of the trap still closing its jaws around him. The earth and wraithbone above him could only dull the sound of battle, not banish it entirely. But in the relative safety of this basement Arlek set his mind free of its prison of flesh. His mind drifted with the lightness of a wraith through the walls that surrounded him to soar above the field with eyes that could see through smoke and buildings. The world when viewed free from the constraints of meat and bone was different in almost every aspect, limited only by the mind's ability to understand it. To the untrained such vision was worse than blindness, but to Arlek it was possessed of a remarkable clarity and could grant a depth of understanding deeper than any sea, and with all the dangers that implied. But he was not interested in the secrets of the great ocean today, his concerns were far more material.
He could see the xenos infantry repositioning after their last failed attempt, several squads of soldiers moving about in relative safety in front of the astartes positions in an effort to distract them, and assess their defence. Similarly the xenos armour was moving in preparation for another strike. But it was what lay behind the hill to the north that concerned him. At first Arlek believed it could only have been the warp playing with his senses. But with a cold chill that ran down the memory of his spine, he knew that what he saw was no lie. A squadron of vast, floating tanks designed to kill titans sat in wait. Around them were any number of smaller vehicles and platforms sporting a huge array of long range missile weaponry, an array of walkers, assorted transports and rank after rank of jetpikes and vypers sitting idle, waiting for some unknown signal. Arlek had come to this place with the equivalent of an over strength company, expecting to fight provincial defenders, he had met an army.
But one thing was absent, something he would expect to accompany such a terrible force, that diamond like mind that had challenged him upon Aktosha. He could sense her shadow in the wind, some trace of the farseer lingered here. But nothing more than that. There were lesser psychic minds to be sure, but she was conspicuous by her absence. For an instant his mind went back to that moment on the edge of death. When everything had been striped away, was that grief, regret, compassion or pity that had clutched at his hearts? It had been powerful, both as alien and namelessly familiar as the face that had been staring back at him. Her image appeared in the currents of the warp, summoned by his thoughts as vividly as if she stood before him. Staring at him.
His hearts clenched, what was this madness? This indulgence was unworthy of even a novice. With a pulse of his mind he banished the image, scattering it back into the great ocean. Such distractions were unworthy of a warrior, and potentially lethal for a psyker. How many unnamed horrors now had a new lure to bate him when his mind was weak? He forced himself into the mid enumerations, regaining the robotic and clinical detachment in battle that his legion was famed for. Had he not done so then the flare of the missiles the eldar had just fired would have passed him by. Their target was obvious, but their volume was surprising. It was a bombardment worthy of the guard! Plummeting back into his body Arlek did not pause to adjust to the weight of his flesh once more. Instead he turned to the currents of the warp and bent them to his will, skill and strength combining to command such a weight of etheric force that light bent and broke as it passed through it. He forged this energy into a kyne shield encapsulating he and his men, one bolstered by an interlocking network of power junctions and seals derived from a dozen forgotten traditions that granted the ward far greater resilience than raw power ever could.
When the first missile hit it was like the drop of a single hailstone upon the roof, nothing but a sharp, yet small, shock. But when the storm hit their collective force threatened to rend his shield in twain, and reduce all those beneath to ash in an inferno of plasma. Arlek bent his mind to furiously restoring each point of stress and strain as it emerged, his thoughts moved like a darting mosquito from crisis point to crisis point as the missiles just kept coming. He could only hope that his foes ran out of ammunition before he made a mistake. In his basement he could not witness the marvellous display he had created above him. But to those within the dome who still had an eye that could appreciate beauty, the heavens became a broiling sea of phantasmal green fire. Super-heated plasma encapsulated them entirely, the display was as enchanting as it was savage.
Above the Shu shuddered as it was struck by the xenos torpedo, before a second blast seemed to send the whole ship lurching forward. Across every deck men and servitors were sent tumbling to the floor whilst on the bridge a man called out!
"Engine blast! All feeds sealed!" This was why Arelesea had been tearing down the corridors before the explosion had even happened. The engine tolerances were not just there to protect against normal over stressing of the systems, but to manage battle damage as well. Too much fuel, under too much pressure, burning too hot put the risk of secondary explosions at unacceptably high levels. It was precisely that secondary explosion which was now causing the Shu to drift on manoeuvring thrusters alone.
But the Shu was anxious to remind the foe that limping was not the same as dead, her defiant machine spirit was straining to spit back at those that had dared wound it. So, when her broadside let loose upon the eldar craft that had so recently slipped beneath her once more, the Shu's guns fired with a fury beyond what mere design would allow, and with a precision born of a roaring machine's hatred. The shots hit true, each screaming ball of plasma striking like a hammer upon the elegant craft of the xenos ship, smashing and melting artistry few mortal minds could conceive of with an abandon that revelled in such desecration. Like a shark tasting blood the Shu moved in for the kill, barely needing its mortal operators to prompt the god's bane lances to fire once more. They shot out like barbed tongues, skewering into the foe and tearing apart her insides with wild glee. The eldar vessel endured in noble silence as its guts were torn out and spilled into space to join the slowly growing field of debris that would mark this place long after the guns fell silent. The display had an almost organic feel to it as the eldar cruiser was torn apart, turning into little more than a gently arcing mass borne forward by momentum alone. As the last light aboard the xenos craft died something in the metallic bowls of the Shu reverberated like an engine failing to turn over, it was low and sent a shiver down the spine of anyone who paid too close a mind to it. It was malicious, and dark. An over active imagination might even think it sounded like laughter.
But Talodax was in no mood for laughter. The aeldari frigates had deftly moved to his rear whilst any number of small craft were still approaching. The sheer weight of fighters and bombers in the sky hinted at xenos ships in the distance that were still undetected, acting as carriers but not daring to risk a direct confrontation with the Shu. Without main engines he had no chance of chasing them.
"Manoeuvring thrusters. Port side, burn at 90% for 5.3 seconds. Starboard side reciprocal blast to cease momentum after 82 degrees!" The dancing ghosts of the two nightshade class frigates came into view as the ship turned, each unleashing a tremendous hail of star cannon fire, swiftly followed by a volley of torpedoes. The void was filled with dancing lights as the storm of pinpricks flew all around. A great many sailed wide of the lurching Shu, whilst still more were absorbed by her mighty void shield, visibly flickering under the assault. These craft lacked the firepower of their larger cousins, and were trying to overwhelm a grand cruiser that could trade shots with the deadliest craft the Imperium could produce. But their torpedoes were another matter. The eight streaking trails were as deadly as any ordnance carried by a cruiser, and were darting towards the Shu with an alien precision.
But the machine spirit was still incensed, the Shu's flack screen swatted the volley aside in a storm of fire before her broadside fired on Talodax's command in an effort to strike down the lesser ships. But he was punching at targets that were no longer there, the xenos craft pulling away hard the moment they had let loose their deadly cargo. Only for the Shu to be struck suddenly from the other side. Squadron after squadron of eldar bombers were overwhelming the Shu's already over taxed flak cover. There were more targets than there were guns, and a steady pitter patter of plasma bombs were crashing against the Shu's thick hide. But it had been a torpedo hit from specially modified strike craft that had caused the Shu to lurch so suddenly.
"Hull breach, decks 7,8,9 section SD to SE."
"System functionality!" Talodax demanded.
But down bellow, it did not feel as if her systems were unaffected. Arelesea was with her crew, deep in amongst the engine's innards. Her mechandendrites snaking between myriad pipes and cables, enacting repairs with such grace it was as if the sinister metal coils had a mind of their own. The air was thick with leaking noxious gases, and the corpses of those crew who had been to slow in reaching for their respirators littered the floor of this section, corrupted black froth seeping from lolling mouths. She could feel the Shu buck with pain underneath her as she was struck once again, the frustration building as the machine spirit longed to let loose her mighty guns against those that would dare wound her, yet knowing that her guns which could kill gods, would only hit shadows when aimed at these mosquitoes. Arelesea ran her metallic digits along a nearby wall, as if trying to comfort some wounded animal. She could feel the Shu react to her touch, reigning in her recklessness but none of her spite and hatred. Another shudder through the deck hinted at some great impact nearby and still the Shu was denied a target worthy of her guns. The aeldari plan was clear, death by decapitation had failed. Now was the time to deliver a death by a thousand cuts.
Arelesea, Arlek and Talodax had all long known that without a frigate screen any Grand Cruiser was vulnerable to small craft. That was why painstaking efforts had been taken to maximise the efficacy of her flak guns, and to fit her with many more such devices than her factory specifications had ever envisaged. The dome of fire and hurtling metal that encapsulated the Shu showed how effective these efforts had been. The ammunition expenditure of even these smaller guns when taken as a totality could readily be measured in tonnes per second. But still the aeldari were pushing their way through, with nimble craft and weight of numbers. The Shu needed something more.
Disengaging from her current task she left her team to deal with the repairs, and instead headed to the closest main terminal she could find. Its screen may have been shattered but the cogitator it had been linked to was still functional. One of her mechandentrites slid easily through the debris and connected directly into the circuitry beneath. In an instant Arelesea's mind was assaulted by a wave of super compressed binary script that was so utterly incomprehensible to most men that at best it was no more than white noise, but which more normally cause the brain to viciously haemorrhage. To her however, it was a language more precise, more elegant and more efficient than any crude speech of flesh bound tongues. But even she could not deal with an entire ship's worth of information, not as she was. So closing down every stream of information but one she sought out an idling system that seemed to be laced across the ship. Dormant, it could have been easily missed in the flurry of data produced by battle. But she knew exactly where to look, and interfaced directly as she now was, she input the activation sequence into this slumbering system.
Upon the bridge this first appeared as a power drain, reserve supplies being syphoned off from the auxiliary plasma banks and rerouted across the ship. Before suddenly a storm of light lanced out from countless miniature turrets across the surface of the Shu. Each burning needle of light was far too small to threaten any true ship. But small craft and torpedoes were another matter. Talodax knew what this was, but he had not known it was operational. It was a micro laser defence grid, a wholly automated short range defence system born out of the blasphemous union of long neglected archeotech, and profane xenos craft. As it transpired, there was good reason why Talodax had not known this system was ready for use, it was because it was not ready. A fact that Arelesea was paying for down below. Simple problems of circuitry, power and mechanics has been solved long ago. What had not been so easily fixed was the machine spirit itself. The Shu's soul was ancient and prideful, it had been forged at the dawn of humanity's rebirth. Designed to stride out across the heavens and reconquer what was lost in the name of mankind. It was born to burn xenos, and she did not suffer their alien engineering being worked into her body.
As soon as the micro defence grid was powered the Shu's spirit became painfully aware of the abomination which had been grafted onto her. To an outsider's eye the work was so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable. But to the Shu it felt like a rampant cancer that had to burned from her. Even as the micro lasers did their work, adding to the flak turrets to present a defence to drive off even the great storm of aeladri, the Shu was fighting this unwelcome intrusion. When the machine spirit could not shut off the grid, it tried to overwhelm it with an excess of power, trying to blow it out section by section, kicking like a horse trying to throw its rider. Her ancient intelligence would have succeeded were it not for Arelesea desperately inputting command after command at the speed of thought to keep the micro laser grid functional. That effort alone would have been a mind wrenching strain, her brain may have been augmented by any number of additional processors, but it was still built off of an all too human core. The sheer amount of system information she had to process and respond to in micro seconds was staggering. But worse than that, the machine spirit itself was trying to throw her out. It was like a lion tamer, that had lost control of its beast. All the confidence, training, kinship and ability in the world could not stand against claws and teeth.
At first the Shu simply tried to shut down her access, but Arelesea was ready for that. What she was not prepared for was the huge barrage of bio neural feedback that the Shu thrust upon her. The strain only built as she clung on, forcing this diabolical blight upon the ship. Outside the aeldari craft were peeling off, returning to a safe distance, now unable to harm the spitting beast. Inside Arelesea curled he head slowly back within its cowl and prized open her mouth as if it were forced by a vice. At first it seemed there was no sound, but her vocal processors had merely been pushed beyond the range of human hearing as even her machine components wailed in agony. But slowly, a terrible mechanical shriek grew in what remained of her throat. As it drifted down into the range of human hearing, it was like a blown-out speaker, projected through a dozen linked megaphones in a pitch so high it made ears bleed, and so harsh it made teeth groan.
It was not long before her body was blown back from the terminal, hitting the far wall, limp and broken. As she lay upon the deck she was somehow smaller, frail and curled up like a wounded child. A sensation ran down her face, at first she thought it was blood or oil. But as it ran over the crest of her quivering lip she could taste it for what it was. A tear, from her one remaining eye. Slowly a broken, harsh, juttering noise escaped her hood along with the smell of burnt flesh. It was a painful cross between a broken speaker and an engine failing to turn over. It was the best that her vocal processors could do, when asked to sob.
Down below Arlek's position was still engulfed in a dome of seething fire. His mind had risen into the sixth enumeration, banishing distraction, pain and the irrelevant. Maintaining the dome against such an onslaught had become an almost academic exercise. Not because it was unimportant, but because dwelling on the full force of what was occurring threatened to break his focus. Instead he allowed his mind to think of it as nothing but perverse formulae and cryptic patterns, as if he were in the great library of Tizca once more, deciphering pages no eyes had seen for thousands of years.
But this was war, and he could not truly neglect what lay beyond, and the host that threatened to snuff out his ancient existence and end his millennia long crusade. He could not know when the xenos guns would run dry, but he knew he could not hold the kyne shield forever without error. The xenos artillery must fall silent. A fragment of his mind reached out, isolated from the constant strain of calculation. Few psykers were capable of such feats, even amongst his brothers to knowingly cast a fragment of your soul away from the whole was an ability known only to the wisest, and the strongest. The sensation was a slow agony, as if the cruellest drukari were peeling away his arm and stirring every nerve to twenty times its usual sensitivity. Only the discipline of the enumerations, tempered by over ten millenia of war, allowed his mind to survive the torture without descending into madness.
In time a second Arlek Erelash was born, screaming in confusion and pain, looking for a mortal body it did not possess, staring out of eyes that did not exist, struggling to comprehend that it existed only as a thought and an echo in the warp. Voids of memory plagued it, every question fundamental to its existence was unanswered. Shadows gathered in the great ocean, sharks sensing bleeding prey. Cleaving off a portion of one's soul was a monumental task in and of itself, keeping it safe was greater still. The shade of Arlek would have been consumed in that moment, a portion of the sorcerer gone forever, had it not been for the tendril of consciousness the original Arlek was now extending between them. It allowed his shadow to see into every corner of his mind, a great risk to take at any point. But it allowed the shade to know how to survive, it told him what he was, it told him his purpose.
Like any true soul shard, the creature possessed free will, self-determination. Often time such creatures would refuse to be reunited with their originals, believing it to be their death, or that they were the superior version, only adding to the risk of such an action. But Arlek had not allowed enough of him to be torn away to allow this creature such hubris, and by sharing his memories, his shadow immediately understood the folly of such thoughts. He would complete his task, and then he would return.
Drifting towards the Maladectus Fatum the shade of Arlek issued a psychic command to the beast. To fire shot after shot after shot from its main gun straight up towards the dome. The daemon bucked at first, sensing the man that had enslaved it to his service was weak and hollow. But the shade of Arlek knew every binding command and ritual. His psychic imprint may have been faded but it was the same, that mark combined with words of power that defied mortal ears brought the howling neverborn into compliance. With each shot Arlek allowed a precisely crafted hole to emerge in the shield, enough for the shell to slip through and nothing more. But those shells would not continue their journey. The shade of Arlek held each of them still in their flight at the xenith of their ark. Every ounce of momentum, and burning demonic fury was preserved. Physics had simply been suspended in this tiny pocket of space, which was rapidly filled with a host of profane ammunition.
Once sufficient shots had been fired the shard of Arlek drifted his mind up above the field, as Arlek himself had done not long before. Casting his eye down upon the foe the soul shard could pick out every xenos missile artillery piece in unerring detail, each of the vast cobra titan killer tanks that were doubtless the next part of the offensive. The sheer amount of troops and resources that were being dedicated to this effort were as surprising to the shade of Arlek has they had been to the original. This kind of force marked a significant commitment for any craftworld, something they would not risk unless necessary for the preservation of their dying race. Arlek was determined that this significant commitment, would become a significant loss.
Once the collection of rounds was complete the shade of Arlek bent the currents of reality to twist and turn the course of each shell into impossible arcs. Eldar holofields could do little against his warpsight, each shot would strike with terrible accuracy and warp blessed power at the weakest point of every craft. This was what the shard was needed for, Arlek could not sufficiently concentrate on both complex tasks at once, particularly when they required his perception to be in two separate places simultaneously. But a fraction of him, devoid of distraction, could do the job.
With the last shell in place the shade of Arlek released the suspended bubble of un-reality, the laws of physics returning with an audible snap. Each shot hurtled down with even greater speed and force than the Maledictus Fatum was usually capable of, each and every one striking their targets simultaneously. The eruption was spectacular to behold. A sea of boiling daemon fire flashed across the foe with an incandescence akin to a star, all be it a horrendously twisted one. The eye of faith could see screaming faces formed in the currents of flame. One for each aeldari soul that was being claimed by she who thirsts, no soul stone could survive that detonation. As the explosion faded the psychic echo of the wailing xenos lingered for a few terrible moments, but the deed was done. When the smoke cleared the eldar missile batteries laid rent and broken, their cobra tanks holed through their most vital components, the bombardment was over.
With a bittersweet sense of fulfilment and resignation, the shade of Arlek allowed himself to fall back towards the ground, lamenting the fact that he could neither feel the wind rushing past him, or the warmth of the sun on his phantasmal form. Part of him wanted to resist what was coming next. But he had Arlek's wisdom, and he knew to resist this was folly. In a crescendo of psychic force, the shard of Arlek careened back into the original. The sensation struck like a blow from a thunder hammer, so much so it sent Arlek sprawling sideways upon the floor. The dome collapsed like shattered glass as Arleks mind struggled to readjust. The last memory of his psychic clone so jarred with the reality of his flesh his mind wanted to reject it, the dissonance too terrible to house in a single consciousness. The vivid memory of his own soul dying, not merely taken to the very edge of oblivion as he had been against the farseer. But crossing over that threshold, ceasing utterly to exist. The though cut like ice through his mind. It refused to be contained, but contain it he would. With a mental rigour and discipline taught only to the children of Tizca, he forced the memory into compliance, and bent the rest of his consciousness into acceptance. He had died, and he had lived. The warp was capable of far stranger things.
For a few precious moments all was still, and calm. The bombardment was over, silence reigned. But this peace, as ever, was illusory. It did not take long for the sounds of battle to reassert themselves. The barrage had ceased, but small arms fire and lesser explosions quickly filled the void. And beneath it, the rising echo of jet bike engines. With a groan of effort as he summoned up the will to press on despite his recent shock, Arlek reached out and grabbed his archeotech blade in a power armoured hand. Almost at once the power field leapt into shimmering blue light, only to flare into a seething trail of psychic fire no design could account for as Arlek rose to his feet.
Stalking out of the simple home he had been sheltering in, Arlek was every inch the image of the blue jackal that rumours about him described. His great armoured form twisted the air around him with tightly restrained psychic power yearning to be free. The jumping warp fire from his sword cast him in impossible, sinister shadows whilst the unmoving maw of his helmet seemed to twist and growl in the light. A weak mind would even see Arlek looming above the terminators he was now striding towards, but such a distortion would only have been the failings of an ill-equipped brain struggling to understand echoes of the warp that it could not comprehend.
Despite their losses the eldar were quick to exploit the shield's collapse, the whispering shriek of jet bike engines were already hurtling towards them, whilst a fresh eruption of gun fire hinted at a renewed xenos infantry assault. As the heavy weapons around him turned to the sky, to greet the airborne assault with a hail of bolter, las and plasma fire, Arlek also turned his baleful gaze to the heavens. The leading edge of the assault was picked out against the perfect sky like a flock of crows, each dot a soul striving to end him. He could have used his prescient sight to guide the aim of those around him, just as before. But he wanted the xenos to learn fear, for fear would keep them at bay more surely than bolter rounds.
Stretching out his free hand he pressed the potentialities of the warp that were swirling about him into minuscule cracks of unreality at his fingertips before releasing them in a single, cacophonous blast. For the blink of an eye the heavens fell black as staccato strikes of phosphorescent light arced from Arlek's hand like lightning. Each thirsting tendril sought out rider after rider in the aeldari host, skewering through both their flesh and their souls like a needle. Those xenos who were lucky would simply burn to ash in a single flash or die near instantly as their brains ruptured within their skulls as the only possible response to the terrible currents of the warp that surged through them. Those less fortunate would find their flesh revolting against them, mutating and twisting to the service of the gods they loathed. No matter which cruel fate chance chose to bestow upon these riders, bike after bike fell from the sky like stones, whilst those that survived pulled away in an effort to avoid a second blast.
The first bike had yet to hit the earth before Arlek turned to Rhydel.
"Report." He said simply.
"The xenos continue to press us hard on every front. Our positions are holding thus far, but aspect warriors are increasingly being replaced on the front by wraithguard, casualties will follow."
"Has there been any meaningful indication of psychic presence? It appears to be entirely absent from the battle field."
"No, no notable psyker has assaulted us my Lord."
Arlek was forced to wonder what kind of fool would so eagerly assault a thousand sons position without proper psychic support. To do so was death more often than not, and whilst the astartes were feeling the strain the xenos casualties were becoming terrible.
"There is something we are not seeing here brother." He reflected. "For all the faults of the aeldari, wanton stupidity is seldom one of them."
At that moment several low booms echoed through the sky above, the sound of something moving fast, punching the atmosphere. It was clear that the thousand sons' position was ultimately untenable, particularly if psykers appeared on the field, and these detonations in the upper atmosphere only added to Arlek's sense of urgency. But he would not turn tail yet. Reaching out with his mind he found Orisian.
"Brother. How goes the search?"
"I have yet to find a bone singer My Lord." This disappointing news was not something Arlek could accept. The vision was not a lie, he would not permit it to be.
"Continue your efforts. You will find what we seek." Arlek's psychic command made it abundantly clear that failure would not be tolerated. That Orisian would have to bend reality to make Arlek's wish true, before Arlek would accept that there was no bone singer to be found.
But Arlek was deprived of the ability to dwell on this by the sudden emergence of a small swarm of warpspiders, interspersed with leering harlequins. The strangely bulky looking warpspiders still moved with all the grace and speed their kind was known for, only enhanced by their short-range warp jumps which allowed them to near instantly teleport themselves from point to point in the blink of an eye. Whilst the harlequins advanced with their typical flare and extravagance, a parade of bright and distracting images designed to conceal where they truly were. With no kyne shield protecting the thousand sons, it was an easy matter for these troops to punch so deep. But the wisdom of it was not so obvious. They had advanced well beyond their support, and such lightning strikes were best directed against poorly guarded rear elements or other light targets. Instead, in targeting Arlek, they were assaulting a nest of sorcerously supported terminators backed up by hellbrutes. The result was predictable, even without foresight. Psychically guided shots struck true against what would otherwise have been elusive warp spiders, whilst hails of soul reaper fire and liberal baths of warp twisted promethium had little difficulty finding the true images of the harlequins. The last sight of this brief raid was the screaming, writing form of a warpspider slowly being crushed in a hellbrute's cruel claw. The monster was dragging out the pain, making the xenos death slow and languid, so as that it's fragile mind could understand just a fraction of the monster's ceaseless torment.
The assault smelt of desperation, but it was the cause of this desperation which gave Arlek pause. A methodical, well supported and patient attack would hand the xenos victory. Why then did they persist in this? As Arlek pondered on the rhyme or reason behind the foe's uncharacteristic recklessness, a hail of burning streaks cut slowly across the sky. With his astartes eyes Arlek could easily trace the path these flaming orbs would take, they were on course to impact near the outskirts of town, a little behind the aeldari lines. Any mystery as to the cause of this sudden phenomenon was swiftly swept away as the burning and broken hull of the xenos cruiser struck down by the Shu parted the heavens and tumbled towards the earth. Its vast size making the descent seem slow, even languid. But Arlek knew it was anything but. His sorcerous sight could pick out any number of eldar lives still trapped within the ship, chunks of debris or escape craft.
"All troops take cover!" Commanded Arlek psychically to his host, whilst he worked wards of protection to erect a kyne shield over the webway gate and those troops closest to it. It would seem the aeldari had the same idea, as the sound of gunfire briefly fell away whilst every man scrambled for what shelter he could find.
The pitter patter of burning metal from smaller shards of debris went almost unnoticed, as every eye turned towards the main bulk of the cruiser falling to earth a little outside the town. It hit the ground inelegantly twisted onto its side like a flailing fish, the moment of impact ominously silent. It took one long heartbeat for the front of the shock wave to reach the town, a thundering boom to split unprotected ears, and a punch of pressure to knock the wind out of any mortal man. Behind this came a flying wall of dust and debris, boulders tossing through the air like balls of paper, flaming trees cartwheeling amongst the thick dirt like dim torches, hurtling metal hidden amongst the smoke and grit to tear through buildings like butter. The storm crashed against Arlek's kyne shield like the ocean upon a cliff, swarming over him to blot out the sun.
The raging tempest seemed as if it would last for an infinity. But in truth, it was gone almost as quickly as it came. As the dust settled the pristine xenos town was gone, replaced with a mess of broken ruins and burnt streets. Every tall building had been struck down, only the short structures had survived in any condition that came close to intact. But even they were damaged in their own way, holes blown into their sides, roofs collapsed. The lovingly tended gardens of the eldar, delicately fostering plants whose beauty and rarity were now equal to the eldar themselves, had been turned into nothing but ash. But despite the debris, the hulk of the cruiser lay largely intact upon the earth, a beached whale having breathed it's last. Eldar craftsmanship had stood the test, whatever xenos technology made up the fail safes and safety devices of their impossible engines had worked. There had been no detonation. And Arlek knew exactly what had to be done.
"Brother Sylvian. Assault the cruiser at once." There was no need to ask for clarification or confirmation. Arlek's psychic order was clear, as was the conviction behind it. "Brother Orisian. Link up with an armoured unit and follow Sylvian in. Guard his rear and secure him an exit!" Both men executed their orders promptly, leaping into action even as the undying rubricae of the thousand sons were still rising from the rubble like the immortal revenants they were. But Orisian still found time to ask.
"And what of the bonesinger?"
"The bonesinger is there." The vision would come to pass yet, and what ship of that size would not carry a bonesinger for essential functions and repairs? So ran Arlek's thoughts, his rationale imparted wordlessly to his brothers in his reply.
Around him Arlek could see the rest of his forces stirring to life. A predator's infernal engine roaring as it drove free from the rubble that had poured over it, whilst the Maledictus Fatum screamed in twisted metallic defiance at the heavens, despite having no mouth to do so. Meanwhile, Sylvian and his celeri were already tearing towards the crash site. Warp twisted promethium coursing through the jump packs of most of the men who flew behind him, whilst he soared on the ruinous tides of the great ocean itself. Twisted by the minds of the dark mechanicum, and the whims of the warp itself, these packs granted their users the ability of true flight, rather than the simple leaps of their loyalist kin. But for now, Sylvian and his men were hurtling no more than a meter above the ground. Little survived in the broken ground that surrounded the crash site, the earth itself was bent and torn as if by an earth quake from the force of the blast. But, in amongst the jagged protrusions of earth and scattered rocks isolated aeldari survivors were beginning to struggle to their feet. Some even had the gall to bring their weapons to bear on the charging astartes, their shots being absorbed harmlessly by the kyne shield that Sylvian projected ahead of them, only for the wave of legionaries to pass over the arrogant xenos like a swarm. Each isolated foe that dared tried to stand was rewarded with a swift and clinical decapitation as the legionnaires passed just above them, the killing blow delivered with the dispassionate precision that the legion had been so famed for over ten thousand years ago.
Sylvian and his vanguard were able to reach the stricken cruiser, laying like a freshly killed beast in its crater, with little opposition. His men poured into its open wounds like a vile infection, spreading through its broken corridors and rent halls like a plague. Those xenos who still survived within, were scattered and uncoordinated. Like their kin outside they stood little chance when confronted with almost half a tonne of ancient legionnaire, bearing down upon them with profane speed, immortal endurance, and the lessons of ten thousand years of war. The cruiser's pristine walls of white, swiftly ran red with their master's blood. Only a bonesinger, would be permitted to live.
But Sylvian did not allow himself to take part in the cold slaughter within. He, along with a small cadre of men, remained outside. He could already see brother Orisian advancing with the rest of Sylvian's ground forces and a small armoured contingent. But it was what graced the heavens, that caught his eye. The aeldari were almost as fast as he had been, swooping hawks and jet bikes were already on the way, doubtless as eager to save their kin as the 15th were to end them. Sylvian could not allow them to interfere, he knew he had to delay their arrival until Orisian could come up. There was only one way to do that. A single psychic word of command to his cadre of celeri sent them into the sky as one. Jetpacks burning with an impossible flame as they soared toward their foe. As sylvian flew, with only the might of his mind to power him, he could almost feel the wind rushing against his skin through the ceramite. The lush red hair to rival his fathers, that sprang from the back of his helm seemed to burn with etheric power, the arcane runes with adorned his armour all shone with profane light, his cape billowed, and the feathers around his shoulders were now akin to impossibly radiant cathedral glass. He was magnificent, shining in the sky like a dawning star. His blade carved clean through the first jet bike to try and pass him, the second was struck down by a blast of warpfire. Those swooping hawks unfortunate enough to be within striking distance soon found themselves the victim of Sylvian's modified monofilament blasts, tearing through the xenos with the same sharp agony they had inflicted on countless others. The aspect warriors were ill-suited for up-close combat, and sought to put more distance between themselves and the unsettlingly quiet astartes, who could no longer even grunt with effort like their flesh bound kin. But no matter how far they flew, the celeri, were always at their heels, cutting the hawks down if they ever made even the slightest mistake.
The jet bikes did little better. They may have had greater speed, but the half second of sheer surprise that their pilots experienced when an astartes landed upon their craft, was all the legionaries needed to gut their foes, and leap to their next victim. The warp perpetually replenished their fuel, as it did their ammunition, and it was only their comparatively small numbers that allowed any of the xenos to slip through. But it was too few to make a difference. Down bellow Orisian was already establishing a perimeter around the crashed ship, allowing the rest of Sylvian's men to go about their business unimpeded. Beneath his corvus pattern helm a twisted, spiteful, malicious, confident and self-satisfied smile graced his face as he surveyed the carnage. But amongst the flying metal, dancing flame and arcing blood, he saw something glisten.
In a heat beat that shine was upon him, what had been light reflecting off of a force field was now the war host's Autarch gliding through the debris on resplendent wings of ivory white. Sylvian's reaction was simple, rounding on this new foe he bent the warp around him and hurtled towards the xenos commander at full force. Each combatant darting through the maelstrom of battle with an almost insulting ease before colliding with such force that a kaleidoscope of colour detonated in the sky, as xenos craftsmanship met warp born power. When the light faded the two were already locked in combat, dancing around one another in the sky with an unnatural grace. It was far from uncommon to see the xenos move with a sickening beauty. But to witness an astartes, clad in armour to rival a tanks, move with the same surreal grace, was equal parts offensive and enchanting. The pair danced, pirouette and faint, leap and lunge, blending seamlessly together. Many a man who had stood against Sylvian were near instantly felled by his monofilament surprises. But the autarch was used to such sharp-tongued and subtle strikes, his alien eye able to pick them out with the same ease as steel.
Sylvian lacked Arlek's ability to gaze with worrying clarity into the immediate future, and the mind of this xenos was protected enough through borrowed wards and talismans to prevent Sylvian from reading his precise thoughts so easily. Perhaps, with effort, he could have succeeded even in the midst of battle. But Sylvian had no desire to. Settled as he was in the 2nd enumeration every moment of the battle, every little sensation, was bent to its greatest height. A challenge, a duel worthy of noting, was worth savouring. To end it through cheap tricks would be a disservice. That was why it was a smile that graced Sylvian's face as the autarch's blade slid past a mere millimetre away from his helm, rather than a look of concern.
With a great upstroke, that blended seamlessly into a withdrawing cartwheel in the sky, Sylvian brought his glowing blade into terrible contact with the Autarch's force field once more. Subtly manipulating the currents of energy that flowed from his sword Sylvian was able to cause the xenos' defence to overload, sending a hundred hairline cracks across the strange translucent sheen that protected the eldar, before it shattered like glass in a rain of cascading colour. But the xenos was not fazed by the loss of his ward, without hesitation the alien was upon Sylvian once more, charging forward into a gap that simply was not there, locking swords in a contest of strength, eyes mere inches from each other. Both men's faces were inscrutable beneath their helmets, but Sylvian did not need to see the expression on the enemy commander to know that the cold arrogance of his kind had fallen away, distain had been replaced by hatred, and that leant this battle a whole new, delectable, flavour.
No eldar could hope to triumph against even a simple astartes in a contest of strength. And it was with great relish that Sylvian slowly forced his foe's sword down, dragging this moment out for far longer than he had to before exploding forward with stunning force and speed. The kill was a moment away, he could taste it, when suddenly his foe was gone. Sylvain was charging into nothing but empty air, only a brief reflection of light allowed him to see what had become of his foe. With a speed not even this xeno should have been capable of, the Autarch had slid beneath Sylvian, completely past his guard, and was now driving his blade up towards Sylvian's abdomen.
Turning his blade about Sylvian used one hand to arc his blade across his torso, knocking the attack aside at the last possible moment, the tip of the eldar's blade cutting a thin line into his armour in a shower of dull sparks. But Sylvian's other hand shot out to grab the Autarch's wing as it sailed beneath him. Clasping it firmly in his iron grip Sylvian bent and warped the wraithbone of its spine, feathers tumbling from the sky as they lost their mooring. Lashing backwards with his foot he planted his boot in the Autarch's shoulder and heaved. His foe struggled, but with a crack akin to the shattering of a leg, one of the eldar's wings was wrenched free from his suit. In a heartbeat the xenos began to tumble towards the ground, flapping, flailing, desperately trying to right himself like a broken bird.
But like a broken bird his descent was inevitable. Sylvian hung in the air above him for a time, watching him fumble and fail in a manner seldom seen amongst the aeldari. The falling Autarch was suddenly nothing more than human, a disappointment. With an unerring eye and unnatural force Sylvian cast his blade from his hand like a knife, hurtling it dead straight towards his foe. Unable to control his flight the eldar was helpless to resist as the sword pierced his chest, driving down to the hilt and erupting from his back before lancing into the ground, impaling the xenos unceremoniously upon a small hillock. As he struck the ground there seemed to be a moment's lull in the battle, the loss of the Autarch rippling out across the field. This artificial quiet persisted as Sylvian's blade slowly drew back, letting the eldar collapse into an undignified heap upon the ground, before his sword whistled back through the sky and into its master's grip once more. In a final great arc, fuelled by his victory and the satisfaction that came with it, Sylvian span around casting a wave of terrible psychic force from his blade. Rhydel and Arlek both looked up at the needless pageantry with concern, but neither could deny the results. A wave of purple and orange fire ripped out from the psyker, washing harmlessly of his brothers of the 15th, but careening into the aeldari with devastating force. Jet bikes and aspect warriors alike tumbled from the sky, whilst those more fortunate and more sensible fled.
On the ground the eldar offensive to retake the fallen ship had stalled, without support from the sky or the leadership of the Autarch, they had hesitated and lost the initiative. Those few lacklustre attempts the lower level commanders made were swiftly repulsed by Orisian's ground troops that had now secured the perimeter. This allowed those celeri within the ship to quickly search its every nook and cranny. The minutes went by in anxious anticipation. Only Arlek seemed to remain certain, but a part of him knew that past experience meant he had no right to be. Since his ascension from the ranks of the mundane and human, and into the honoured astartes, he had been promised a hundred paths to salvation. Every one had failed. So, when the psychic call went out, that the bonesinger had been found, he did not allow elation to take his hearts.
"Secure the bonesinger, bring them to the town square. All troops, fall back on the town square, prepare for withdrawal." Switching to the vox Arlek then hailed the Shu in orbit.
"Lord Erelash to the Shu. Have you cleared the sky? We require urgent extraction."
But in the bridge of the Shu Talodax was watching wing after wing of eldar fighter craft fly around the Shu, beyond the range of her guns, making for the planet below. Whilst a fresh wave of elusive sensor contacts indicated a new assault on the Shu itself was imminent.
"My Lord. The skies are not clear. Enemy reinforcements have been substantial. We have driven off an entire battle group, but there seem to be fresh contacts. Enemy small craft have evaded us and now control the sky between us and the ground. Any extraction craft we send will be shot down."
Arlek's options were rapidly narrowing. With no small craft coming the only other way to reach the Shu was through a large-scale warp insertion. Even small-scale efforts were incredibly risky, doubly so when translating into a small, cramped environment like a ship. But such shifts were impossible whilst the Shu's void shields remained active, and he dare not risk dropping them even briefly. This was why he had readied the virus bomb, as a last-ditch card to force his foes to withdraw or suffer annihilation. But without the Autarch would they have been coordinated enough to accept the ultimatum, to respect a truce?
But part of him knew that these thoughts were just an intellectual cover for something much less reasonable, and much more powerful. Looking out across the broken buildings, and the pristine planet beyond his mind went back to the broken crone world of Aktosha. Such beauty, such triumphs of technology and art, a precious culture and yet more precious knowledge, gone. Burned away in a single act of callus destruction along with countless shining souls. The eldar, in their hubris and arrogance had brought that destruction upon themselves, and perhaps it was justice. But it would take a fool not to see in the eldar's plight something of the 15ths as well. So much lost, so few left. The thousand sons had barely any hope or future remaining, and Arlek was often brought to despair that the thing that called itself his father seemed determined to cast them ever deeper into the abyss. Compared to the 15th the eldar had an abundance of hope and opportunity, and this world was just one such hope. He thought what a place like this, free of the corruption of chaos, pure and untouched would mean to his brothers, a chance to start again. Meanwhile, the eldar and the thousand sons engaged in pointless battles that served only to wound one another, fuelling future conflict and achieving nothing. Yvraine's mockery in the webway was just the latest example. Something resembling peace, or even just a temporary truce, always appeared impossible, and Arlek knew he was no stranger to this way of thinking.
But in that moment of battle with the farseer, where his soul had almost collapsed, he had seen something in her own disintegrating face. What was it? The man who could speak countless dead languages found himself at a loss for words. There was no chance to truly scrutinise the branching paths of the future here, battle would demand too much of his focus. But he knew there was no chance of changing fate without the unexpected, and without risk. So it was, that he chose to exercise the rarest of all traits in these dark times.
"Lord Erelash to the Shu, retreat into the warp, make good your escape and proceed to rally point Epsilon, then await further orders."
"My Lord?" Came back the beginning of Talodax's inevitable query.
"You have your order's Captain, execute them." Then, turning to Rhydel he continued in sombre tones. "Unseal the webway gate, we shall retreat into it." He had chosen to exercise mercy.
The pulse of doubt that Rhydel allowed to seep from his mind was not unexpected, and Arlek shared in his hesitancy. There were a great many ways this could go wrong, both now and in the distant future. But this was the only way to ensure the planet would survive, and ensure he was not forced into a corner where he would have to fail to carry out a threat. Better that the threat never be made. But despite his doubts, Rhydel obeyed like the good soldier he was. Undoing his work with the same deliberate methods he had used to bind the portal.
A strange sheen sparked into life between the pillars of the webway gate as the ancient device stirred once more. The near imperceptible hum of its activation was easy to miss at the best of times, but a new sound from the sky drowned it out altogether. The distinct whistle of eldar engines, closing fast. Different in tone and pitch to any heard before. Arlek did not need to look to the sky to know what they were. These were the star fighters, come to bomb his positions into oblivion.
"Sylvian. Take the Maldectus Fatum and secure the other side of the portal. Brother Rhydel, rear guard action. Orisian, coordinate all other troops through the portal. No vehicle, no brother no matter how broken, is to be left behind!" The urgency was obvious and no man dared pause to debate these orders.
Sylvian's force was already withdrawing from the wreck of the aeldari cruiser, and it was not long before they streamed into the portal with the roar of burning promethium, his ground troops running along behind. The great daemon engine of the Maledectus Fatum was more reluctant to depart the field. Though the bombers above had yet to come within range, and the xenos ground troops were only just beginning to reorganise, the thirsting monster beneath the metal could taste the approaching slaughter. The beast's imprisonment had driven it to madness long ago, lusting after the momentary release that brutal combat brought it. No matter the wisdom of the fight the infernal machine longed for the fray. It was only the psychic force of it's jailor that bent the beast into compliance. Screaming at the sky with the wail of tortured metal the monster followed on into the webway.
A pulse of thought from Sylvian told all those present that the other side was secure, and Orisian wasted no time in herding the rest of the force through the portal. Arlek looked on with concern at the small army that was paraded past him. The webway was not a stranger to the thousand sons. In recent years they had tread its corridors many times and plundered knowledge allowed them to know much of it's course. Ahriman himself knew it's every twist and turn, if the rumours were to be believed. But no one could deny, it was the eldar's creation and their territory, and he was leading his force straight into it.
And what of his force? As it went by Arlek assessed the damage his men had taken. He had come here with a force to rival the great companies of old in size, enhanced by arcane might. Much of it was still as it was. But he could not ignore those vehicles that rolled past him with torn armour and broken guns. Some had been damaged so badly that any other force would count them lost and abandon them, moving only because a sorcerer willed them to weightlessness, and levitated their dead hulls past. More concerning were his unmoving brothers, their lifeless armour stacked like rag dolls atop a tank or piled into the passenger compartment of a land raider. He rated his force as still being combat effective, but to pretend they had not been wounded was farcical. The analytical side of his mind was concerned by these casualties. Though his losses were not yet great, in the webway replenishing his numbers would be near impossible, and he had no idea how long he would have to last. But his hearts clenched at every inanimate suit of armour that went by. With his recent failure to resurrect the husk of his comrade, the thought did not escape him that every fallen brother might be lost forever, unable to reclaim even the shades of their souls necessary to drive their shells. Such a development would be devastating strategically, but it would be so much more than that. It would be the beginning, to the end of everything.
As the eldar above hurtled down Rhydel erected a kyne shield above them, just as the shots struck home, detonating above their heads. Compared to the earlier bombardment this was scattered, and light. But it was also just the beginning. In the ruins at the edge of the square eldar warriors began to emerge, swiftly supressed by withering fire from the terminators of the scarab occult. Warp twisted inferno shells smashing through the xenos' cover may have been enough to hold them back for now. But the eldar still had a good force left, as their armour drew up terminators and hell brutes would not be enough to hold the enemy back.
Orisian's last few men moved with urgency through the fire, armoured boots pounding with a pace like a thundering train, sorcerously enhanced ceramite enduring what could not be evaded. Whilst up above the Shu was making a similar withdrawal. Her guns still bellowed their defiance, her shields and hide persisting seemingly out of spite. But that battle was turning against them, and with the troops below making for the webway, there was no longer any purpose in remaining. Talodax watched with a level expression as a fresh flurry of strikes rippled against the Shu's upper hull, a flash of flame briefly erupting into the void as the deck shook beneath his polished boots.
"The navigator reports ready!" Called out one crewman.
"Activate the geller field, deploy the screens. Activate the warp engines!" As the great shield ground closed over the bridge's view screen Talodax could see a single torpedo slip past the Shu's furious flack screen and strike her prow with a tremendous blast that reverberated down her over 7-kilometre-long hull. The bridge rattled with the impact just as the view screen slid home and the air itself took on a strange, electric tinge as the warp drive span into life.
Lesser impacts struck the ship as a crewman counted down the time until their jump. The blows grew in both frequency and intensity, the foe doubtless realising that this was their last chance to strike the Shu down. But this grand cruiser had survived ten thousand years of war and hate, it would not fail today. As the countdown hit zero Talodax felt that strange sensation run through his body that not even a geller field could banish, the sense that he was in two places at once, that for a brief moment two worlds existed, seconds apart in time. Before converging back into a single moment as the Shu passed over the threshold into the great ocean, and from this reality.
Bellow the last of the main force had crossed over into the webway, and the scarab occult were mounting a phased withdrawal as the eldar pressed harder and harder. Arlek was amongst these most resolute of his kin, pistol in hand, firing at target after target after target with an inhuman eye. Shots smashed into the flagstones around him, splinters of stone bouncing off of his armour like hail. Blows struck against his mighty pauldrons, carving shallow lines into them as the rounds deflected off of their sloped surface. The urge to lash out with infernal fire was strong, but the cold reason of the enumerations told him to reserve his power for the ever-greater pounding that was coming from the sky.
Slowly he, Rhydel and the last of the terminators walked backwards into the webway. Out of one crisis, and into the next. Rhydel needed no order to start sealing the portal once more. When Arlek took his armoured boot off of the field, he left behind him a broken land. He may have spared its future. But the ground was torn where the cruiser had struck and the nearby forest had begun to burn. A town was rubble, it's streets and countryside choked with dead, the hopes and lives of those who lived here as broken as their homes. Countless defenders of a noble and dying race had bled out their last on this land, the potential of their remarkable souls to be forever unrealised, wasted. Above Arelesea lay in a twitching, weeping ball, her servos misfiring, her steel throat unable to articulate the pain that rang through her body, and grief at the machine spirit's ire. Whilst on the surface an entire company of loyal spire guard lay dead, their blood mingling with the fallen xenos defenders of this world without any shade of the prejudice both forces showed in life. Over five hundred souls that Arlek had sacrificed in a single command. Souls that he now left behind as both he, and the Shu, made good their escapes.