Caiha slid down the rocky tunnel straight into hell. Sulphurous fumes reached up to choke her sharp Aeldari senses. Rocks scraped at her leather tunic and bruised the palms of her empty hand as she tried to control her rapid descent. It was like falling into the gullet of a great drake. That, she mused as the void at the end of the tunnel rushed to greet her, was probably rather the point.
The ritual had begun.
Caiha landed neatly on all fours, cat-like and low. Fuethir, her twin brother, landed a heartbeat later, rolling elegantly to his feet with a theatrical flourish. A waste of energy, Caiha felt. The carnosaurs certainly wouldn’t care for his showmanship. Caiha scanned the gloom of the cavern, remaining close to the ground. Her name meant ‘as the water flows’ in the language of their world. She earned that name now, moving swiftly and silently, filling the gaps between shadows. Fuethir, ‘flames tall glow’, lived up to his, striding upright and proud through the cavern. He looked down at his sister, his sharp features lit by the dull infernal glow of the rocks around them, mohawk flawless despite their rapid descent.
‘The carnosaurs can still smell us, no matter how well you hide sister.’
In the distant highlands of Maiden’s Fall, where the star pines scrapped the sky, the cold blood of the carnosaurs worked against them, turning the lizards into sluggish buffoons. On the sunlit prairies where Caiha’s people roamed, the carnosaurs were worthy foes, hunting and killing the mighty anklyodons that the exodites relied on for their survival. Here in the boiling dark of the Drake’s Caverns, the carnosaurs were razor-edged death.
It was said that the only way to co-exist peacefully with a carnosaur, perhaps even win their loyalty, was to steal an egg from a nest and have the carnosaur imprint on you as they hatched. This was how the Dragon Knights gained their steeds. Considering the only place on all of Maiden’s Fall where the carnosaurs nested was here in the Drake’s Caverns, that was no easy task.
‘Scared?’ asked Fuethir, his hands spread in a mocking gesture that implied Caiha was fearful and incompetent.
‘Yes,’ whispered Caiha, ‘scared that your arrogance will get us killed.’ Her open palm invited a response.
Fuethir sneered, but there was a playful tilt to it.
The heat was oppressive, the darkness more oppressive still. Lesser beings would have been blind without technological aid, but the faint heat glow of the rocks was enough to allow the Aeldari twins to navigate. So far the caverns appeared devoid of life. The only sounds were the breath of hot air sighing through the rocky passages and the distant grumble of molten rock. Knowing the carnosaurs nested where it was hottest, that sound was their guide through the subterranean labyrinth.
A shear wall slowed them for a moment, the remnants of an ancient lava flow. The passage continued above. The sounds of molten rock flowing had increased to a dull roar, and a hot wind blew across their faces. For a moment Caiha was snatched back to their childhood, the warm prairie zephyr brushing their skin as they chased infant pterodons through the sunlit grass sea. Fuethir had been more aggressive, more sure footed. She had been cautious, considered, waiting for the right moment to strike and snatch the fluttering lizards from the air. Fuethir had laughed. You will never be a Knight, he had told her.
Together they scaled the rock face, easily finding handholds in the crumbling rock. At the top, they finally saw the nests. The passageway ended in a vast cavern, the largest yet. Rivulets of molten rock criss-crossed through a honeycomb of twisted stone and carnosaur nests scrapped from the dirt. Unsettling roars and growls echoed, and shadows danced in the ruddy glow of the oozing rock.
The trap was sprung as the Aeldari crossed the threshold of the nesting cavern. An alpha female unfolded herself from the shadows, hissing and alert. A clear head taller than Fuethir and Caiha, and far more solidly built than the slender exodites, the carnosaur was a reptilian apex predator. The vivid crest on its head vibrated in anger as it growled at the intruders. Lesser females emerged around the edge of the chamber, hooting in sympathy with the alpha’s rage. They looked like daemons in the orange half-light. As the carnosaurs prepared to pounce Fuethir kept his eyes on the alpha female and slowly extended his hand towards Caiha’s. Their fingertips touched.
‘Flow like water, sister of mine,’ he whispered.
The ritual space was cold and suffused with a white light. A wide wraithbone staircase stretched up before her. The ceiling was lost in the haze above. Somewhere, pinewood incense burned. Calm reigned. The World Spirit was close to the surface here. It could not have been more different from Drake’s Cavern.
“You have both returned?” intoned the seer, his voice cracking with the weight of centuries.
“We have,” answered Caiha.
“You have your prize, and still wish for the life of a Knight?”
“We do.” The words felt hollow as they left Caiha’s throat, like they were spilling from a mouth that was no longer complete. The seer stretched out his wizened hand. Caiha reached into the pouch at her waist and withdrew Fuethir’s spiritstone, placing it in the seer’s palm.
“You cannot fight fire with fire,” she said quietly.
The venerable Aeldari inclined his head at her words. His fingers closed around the crystal with a sense of finality. A fate sealed.
“Come then. Let us reunite you with your brother.”
The seer turned and ascended the wraithbone steps. Caiha followed, heading up towards the dormant Bright Stallion Knight. Soon it would wake once more, a new spirit infusing the wraith-construct.
“Fuethir was right when he said I would never be a Knight,” said Caiha to the seer as they walked, “he knew I was always destined to be the Pilot.”
About the Author
Chris Buxey is a writer, laser safety officer and occasional Tony Stark impersonator. He lives in southern England with his wife and two children. Chris has been travelling the Warhammer 40K universe for nearly thirty years and has so far managed to keep his heresies hidden from the Inquisition.