I had not returned to the gardens of Craftworld Alaitoc for a long time. Pink and blue petals drifted from hundreds of pale trees, dancing in an artificial wind whilst long feathered birds warbled and swooped in concentric patterns.
My cloak gently moved about me. I drew it tighter, unslung my longrifle from my shoulder and let it rest against the railing of a small bridge. A dozen trickling rivers ran in arterial patterns beneath the bridge, sparkling like glass. Fish swam there, small-finned things in blue and gold. I took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled.
‘Alareth?’ I heard my name like it was unfamiliar to the speaker. Like it was the first time she had said it and needed to practice the syllables.
‘Elsywen,’ I replied with the kind of brevity that suggested I remembered her, but I was not inviting a conversation. She was on the other side of one of the small rivers, walking toward me. Her hair was midnight black, coiled and long, a silver band held it back and framed her bronzed features. I tried not to stare but she had changed so much. She was strong now, lean and athletic. The Path of the Warrior suited her, she wore it as perfectly fitted as a guardian’s armour. I had worn that path like a rough, itchy coat. There was a new scar on her face. I wanted to ask her about it but didn’t know how.
‘You’re back,’ she stated, smiling. ‘It’s been…’ She paused. ‘Well, a long time. But yet you still come to the gardens.’ She sounded excited, relieved perhaps.
‘Yes,’ was all I could muster. She moved next to me and rested a hand on mine. Her skin was warm. I compulsively flinched and she slowly pulled her hand away. We stood silent for a while, watching the ships rise and fall like waves from the nearby port. Shimmering iridescent solar sails caught the light from a million distant stars and scattered it in droplets over the craftworld. Below the ships, crowds moved in orderly rows. Robed warlocks and tall, armoured aspect warriors were dotted amongst the ranks like notes on staves. Elsywen leaned on the bridge’s railing cupping her face in her hands, her eyes followed the shifting crowds.
‘I know the Outcast Path isn’t easy,’ she said. ‘Have you decided if you’re going to stay? Perhaps walk another Path?’
I felt my expression involuntarily sag.
‘Not yet,’ I sighed, almost against my will.
‘I know,’ she said dolefully.
‘I… I did my best,’ I said.
‘We all did,’ she said, turning to me and smiling softly. There was more to say but she couldn’t find the words. ‘Listen, no one blames you for what happened.’ I was glad she said that. ‘Will you come here tomorrow?’
‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘I promise,’ I truly meant to keep that promise.
It is cold.
Cold enough to strip flesh from bone. To freeze your eyes shut. The snowstorms of the Incta moon plough horizontally across my vision. We are five in total, sealed in our armour, triple wrapped in thermo-reactive chameleon cloaks, stained white with layers of frost.
There is a base in the ravine below us, a building hastily constructed in panels of plasteel carved into the ice. The windows are inviting amber glows and I see silhouettes of humans moving, drinking, laughing. I can’t feel my fingers anymore.
Finally, our target emerges, shuffling into the cold flanked by five other humans in bulky armour. As he walks to a large vehicle parked outside, he lights a thin stick, removes his helmet and places the stick between his lips.
This is my chance. I get him in my sights, compensate for the wind, the storms, the snow. I see his face, half hidden in gruesome augmetics, a single mechanical red eye glinting balefully. The farseers have determined that soon, this human’s fleet will collide with the Crone World Aur’I’yill. It is my task to ensure this does not happen.
Aur’I’yill is burning.
The sky is torn in streaks of red, choked with black smoke, the angular bodies of winged fighter craft silhouetted in flashes of gunfire. I’m in the mountains with seven other rangers. We’ve been ambushed. A human attacks me with a roaring chainsword. I turn aside a clumsy strike and slip inside his guard, slamming my blade up into his chin. Blood covers my face and eyes. Another human is upon me. I’m still blinking away the blood as his knife catches my shoulder. My pistol flashes and I watch his face disintegrate in a flurry of monomolecular discs. We’re retreating now. I hear the voice of Autarch Kalsen in my head.
‘We are lost.’
I rose from my meditations gasping, trembling, drenched with sweat and my hands closed in tight fists. The pearlescent wraithbone of my room is tarnished darker from my dreams. I’m still shaking as I step onto the balcony, needing fresh air. Outside, the craftworld passes a nebula of dazzling greens and reds, the colours shimmer across the glistening towers. Then Alaitoc turned, the shadows lengthened and, like a Bonesinger, I reshaped the wraithbone spires to resemble the bars of a cage. I realised returning was a mistake.
When morning came, I gathered my things and headed to the nearest Webway Gate. Other rangers were loitering nearby, still dressed in filthy cloaks with longrifles on their backs.
‘Not this time, eh?’ my friend Feron asked from beneath her hood.
‘Not yet,’ I said. Feron’s mouth shaped into a joyless grin. ‘Me neither,’ she added, clapping me on the back. ‘We walk the longest road, but it will take us home one day. That is our fate.’
I wanted to believe her. Against my better judgement, I turned back to the dome that houses the gardens. Elsywen was waiting there. I didn’t keep my promise.
‘The longest road,’ I echoed, turned to the Webway Gate and raised my hood.
About the Author
Hayden is a UK based writer, hobby butterfly, cat dad, RPG enthusiast and collector of pulpy fantasy and sci-fi novels. He writes character driven stories that focus on the minutia and everyday heroes and villains of fantastical settings.