The High Branches of Alder

‘I will tell you a tale,’ said the stranger, holding his hands out towards the fire. ‘In gratitude for your hospitality.’

Sharp faces leant forward into the circle of firelight. The stranger’s presence was unremarkable; Aeldari of the frontier often happened across camps of Rangers patrolling the Webway portals, exchanging information or aiding them as the times dictated.

‘There is no need,’ one of the Rangers said. ‘But the night is long and new stories are welcome.’

The stranger smiled slowly, his eyes twinkling. His hair was long and unkempt, his form swaddled in thick layers of clothing. He seemed to bear the weight of ages, his face lined in a way that few of the Aeldari were, and his skin glowed with sparkles in the manner of ancient Farseers. 

‘This,’ he said, ‘Is a tale of the gods, and one of their number who returned from beyond death.’

The rangers were still, the only sound that of logs crackling in the heat of the fire.

‘I need not tell you of the Fall, and the darkness that descended when ancient splendour was overcome and magnificence dethroned. The gods of the Aeldari were brittle things in those days, their veneration consigned to a distant past, and they were slain in the moment of the Great Enemy’s awakening. Khaine was shattered, his might scattered amongst those he despised. Isha faded into history, while the Trickster hid, the echo of his laugh haunting She-Who-Thirsts even now. One other survived; Hoec, the Wanderer between Realms. 

The degeneracy of a once-proud people sundered the Wanderer’s heart, and as the cataclysm approached, he travelled the Webway, treading the earth of the settled worlds to converse directly with those he might deliver. Few listened, and fewer still set themselves on the path of exodus that might save them. 

And so, when the Great Enemy awoke, her birth scream setting the stars themselves aflame, Hoec bowed his head in grief at the breaking of the Dominion, while the Aeldari beside him cast themselves to the ground, overcome with torment.

The skies were rent asunder as apparitions of insane fury and insatiable sensation descended, reality itself protesting their existence. Hoec knew he could not stand against them, for he had never been counted amongst the warrior company of Asuryan and Khaine, and so he gathered the remaining Aeldari of that world to him and fled into a great forest.

The trees were tall as the mountains themselves, but the enemy knew his scent, for they were birthed from the same source as he, and they would pursue him until the Great Wheel itself went dark. 

Deeper into the forest they went until they found themselves surrounded by towering statues; ancient sentinels created in ages past. Hoec weaved amongst them, whispering entreaties, even as the ground behind him trembled before the tread of hell’s legions. The words he spoke carried the spark of the gods, and as the triumphant daemons snapped at his ankles, light grew in the forest.

Run to ground, the Aeldari turned to fight with the Wanderer to the fore, and howled defiance even as they were torn asunder with blade and claw. 

Behind their falling forms light flared, and with a cacophony that made even the newly birthed aspects of She-Who-Thirsts pause, the statues moved. Their tread bestrode the loam as terrible weapons were unleashed and blades cast from starlight flashed.

The battle was long, shield called to action as often as sword or spear, and the record of the fallen was beyond count, even amongst the sentinels. Many fell, never to rise again, serrated black limbs bleeding crimson into the tortured earth. Others pierced even the madness of the Neverborn, bringing fear to their twisted minds for the first time.

Cycles of light and darkness passed above those high branches, until the slaughter was ended and the daemons were at last laid low, their foulness scorched from the world. Hoec, mortally wounded in both body and spirit, gave praise to his giant cohort as final darkness clouded his sight, though they responded not, for they had returned to stillness with the battle’s end.

The survivors wept over the Wanderer, lamenting their faithless kin and the fate that had brought their saviour low. Their tears watered the dead god’s wounds, each drop a sparkling fall of anguish until there were no more to shed, and they departed, resolving to build a shrine worthy of the God’s sacrifice.

Yet when they returned with the morning, Hoec stood before them. No longer luminous, but replenished by their heartfelt grief, he had returned to serve these true heirs of the ancients. Beneath the stoic gaze of tree and sentinel, he vowed to search all the paths of the Webway for a means of destroying the Great Enemy, and would return for the Rhana Dandra, when all would be decided.

And so did Hoec depart. It is said he wanders still, traversing the Webway across the span of ages.’

‘A fine tale,’ said one of the rangers. ‘But only a story, nonetheless.’

The stranger arched an eyebrow. ‘All stories contain elements of truth, do they not? And while the stories are still told, nothing is ever truly gone. It is up to you how much to believe.’

‘I believe in what I can see and touch and hear,’ said the other. 

‘Then it is good that I was here to tell the tale. Otherwise, you might not believe that I am actually before you.’

A chorus of low laughter greeted the stranger’s reply as he rose, warmed his hands before the fire again, and thanked the rangers for their hospitality. Several of the company were already talking amongst themselves, sharing other stories they had heard of Hoec the Wanderer.

And as the stranger departed, fading into the night which had borne him to them, it seemed that he walked a little straighter and that his skin sparkled with a little more luminescence than it had before.

About the Author

Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.