Book Three: The Heart of Yang Xiao Long
Chapter 101: A Lullaby in Red
"Ulla, Ulla, roll of lho… to where do you go? I go to Tulla Road, the path to Bardigaal burrow." - Woadian Lullaby
"Up there," Yang said from the comfort of Amat's arms, finally free of her twisted power armor. It'd be months before her armor was back in working condition. Weeks before she could walk unassisted. Hell of a debut.
"Why there?" Torbrand asked, gesturing at the minaret Vulkmar had ruined.
"Gotta show you something," Yang said. "It's important."
Torbrand considered that. Pondered if the structure's dubious integrity would support his bulk.
"If you say so," he rumbled.
They ascended the circular rockcrete steps. Yang's leg throbbed with pain, but she didn't bother Amat with complaints. For now, being held was enough. Yang watched Torbrand as he led the way.
She didn't know if Amat had made the right call confessing their relationship. She didn't know if she'd make the right call unlocking Torbrand's aura. Uncertainties filled the air like the dust from Aesborough's crumbling buildings, thick and choking.
Reaching the halfway point, they emerged into the midday sun, standing amidst the tower's collapsed upper half. There were no traces of heretic taint, each mote of it cleansed by Vulkmar's vengeful fire. Yang ran her fingers along the burnt-black scoring that lacerated the rockcrete rubble strewn about the floor.
"All good?" Amat asked, setting her down on a large chunk of debris. She leaned back, resting against a slab of shrapnel-studded detritus.
"Yeah," Yang said. "Thanks babe," she added, pressing a kiss to Amat's cheek. His eyes flicked over to the astartes sergeant.
"No problem," Amat said. "I'll leave you to it."
"Things to do?" Yang asked.
Amat paused, hesitation shining through the placidity. "Woadians need assistance," he said eventually. He put on a fake smile and retreated, his footsteps echoing as he descended. Yang watched him go.
"I have many questions," Torbrand declared.
"Thought you might," Yang replied with a ready grin.
Torbrand did not speak immediately, instead choosing to look out over the ruined city. Imperial reinforcements marched through the streets, kill-teams kicking down doors as they searched for heretic remnants. There was the sparse rattling of a distant stubber, the occasional screech of a maðkurgangr as it was torn to shreds and immolated.
Although they were only halfway up the tower, the view was expansive. And in the cold light of day, Yang could see how thoroughly Akuri had been desolated. Where there were once countless rows of crops punctuated by an occasional village, there was now nothing but scorched earth, brush fires, burnt out barns and villages. The baroque, oversized tractors and harvesters that once roared their way up and down the stalks of wheat were gone, either converted into crude technicals or destroyed.
She wondered how much of the damage was wrought by the heretics, and how much the Woadians had done in self-defense. Ultimately, she realized, it doesn't matter. It would take many years to recover.
"Where do I even begin?" Torbrand asked, wearing a half-smile under his beard.
Yang chuckled. "Yeah, there's been a lot coming atcha."
"Amat warned me that might be the case," he replied.
"Amat knows what he's talking about," Yang said.
"There's only one man like him in the Imperium," Torbrand rumbled. There was something in his voice, something halfway between concern and a stern warning.
"Who else gets to date a saint?" Yang joked, an attempt to shrug off the astartes' icey blue stare. It didn't work. "Complicated situation," she admitted. "You're right. Him coming to Holy Terra with me…" She shook her head. "Pretty fucking stupid, but he can look after himself."
"That's what concerns me," Torbrand said. "Were it not for the man's utter earnesty..." He sighed. "I would be forced to make an attempt on his life."
"Just an attempt?" Yang asked, ignoring the painful shiver that ran down her half-metal spine.
"The Officio Assassinorum does not concern itself with half-measures," Torbrand assured her. "Nothing outside of perfection. You obviously see him in a different light, but Amat would be more than capable of wiping out Holmbr. A… free Vindicare has the potential to be an Imperium-ending threat," he explained. "And you heard Laukr," he said, looking out over the city. "The Vlka Fenryka are bound to our duty."
"Amat's a good man," Yang insisted. "He would never do anything to threaten the Imperium."
"I know," Torbrand said, smile returning. "Your confidence in him is well-placed. I'm simply…" he waved his massive hand, searching for the words. "Concerned for your well-being."
"Awfully kind of you Sarge," Yang replied.
Torbrand chuckled, the sound of a slow-motion avalanche.
"You've done the Vlka Fenryka a great service. Hel," he grumbled, "the Imperium as a whole. A daemon prince lies utterly defeated, a world full of innocents saved, and... a new power bestowed upon the Adeptus Astartes. It would be remiss of me not to remind you of what's to come."
"Appreciate it," Yang said, punching his titanic pauldron. "But it's not really my fight," she added, forcing the words out. "It's his. As much as I want to get involved, I know he wants to handle whatever's gonna happen on his own. Besides," she added, chuckling darkly. "I'll have enough on my plate."
"Everyone who knows him has involved themselves," Torbrand countered. "Myself included. You seem… cavalier about it all."
"Comes with sharing my soul with the Emperor," Yang said. "To put it bluntly, 'Yang' is worried sick, but the Living Saint Yang Xiao Long has bigger concerns."
"Such as the power to turn people into psykers?" Torbrand asked gently.
Yang laughed. "I was referring to the Thirteenth Black Crusade, but I was curious when you'd get around to asking."
"Yes. During your blessing… did you see him?" Torbrand asked.
"Yes," Yang answered, shuddering as if a blizzard crawled over her skin. "I wasn't sure if it would take, but it did. I suspect... he had something to do with it," she said. "That and… Fenris itself."
"The world-spirit," Torbrand said, closing his eyes as he took in a deep breath. "I can feel it. In a way I never could before. When my brothers would sing about Fenris, about the way it breathed, I never truly believed it." A long pause.
"Once, at the end of my initiation," he said, eyes searching the ashen horizon. "When I was alone in the woods, a blizzard tore through the trees. I hadn't eaten in weeks, the geneseed within me roiled… and I thought I heard its voice. Fenris itself howling at me to keep going. To persevere." He sighed. "After becoming a battle brother, I swiftly packed the incident away as the ravenings of a nearly-dead youngblood."
"Now," Torbrand rumbled, "now I hear its words, these many light years away. My eyes and ears are open. It's as if a veil has been lifted."
"It's not all positive," Yang said. "I don't really get how a planet can have a soul, or how it keeps you safe. But you still have to be careful. Not even the Emperor can protect you against the whispering."
Torbrand's nostrils flared, a flash of fury overtaking his features. "Yes," he admitted. Softly. "I heard them. The wyrd of all psykers."
"What you have is... different," Yang explained. "You're a psyker alright, but you have something else as well."
Torbrand turned to face her. "Something else?"
"An aura," she said. "Both a blessing and a curse. The balance of light and dark within you. Your soul made manifest. It's both a channel to the Warp and a shield against it."
"I've never heard of such a thing." Torbrand said. "And any mystery bound to the warp is better left unexplored."
"It's… a technique of sorts," Yang said. "Still working out the details myself. It will help you, but only if you let it. As long as you serve the Emperor." The words still felt strange leaving her lips, even if she felt them swell in her breast.
"I see," Torbrand said. "And you trusted me with this power?"
"Look Sarge," she said, leaning against her chair of rubble, "I went with my gut. I'll be honest, it could still go very badly for you. My gut could be wrong, and it wouldn't be the first time. For now, you're taking it well. I'll thank the Emperor for that much at least."
"Hah!" Torbrand barked, a laugh that fluttered her hair. "You're not one to mince words, are you?"
"Not who I am," Yang admitted, grinning. "Also, Amat said that lying to astartes is a bad habit to start, and I wasn't going to lie out of omission."
"He's a smart young man," Torbrand said, fangs glistening. "I wonder if he's puzzling this 'aura' out better than I."
"He's had some time," Yang said. "And some help. You'll need both as well."
"That's it?" Torbrand asked.
"That's it," she confirmed. It felt weird giving advice to a centuries-old superhuman killing machine. Especially since I'm only… what? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? Yang couldn't remember.
She felt much, much older.
"Not a lot to go on," Torbrand said.
"No it isn't," she admitted. "But auras are… highly specialized. Personal. Think, meditate, pray, whatever space marines do. I think you can find the right answers. If I didn't, I wouldn't have unlocked it in the first place."
"That's a lot of confidence placed in someone you just met," Torbrand said. "I appreciate your candor with me, but such a trusting attitude will get you killed on Terra. I've served there, long enough to know the Holiest place in the Imperium is also one of its most dangerous. Even for Living Saints."
"I'll manage. And besides, it was a one-time thing," Yang said, beaming. "But you'll need that sort of candor now too. You've got the power to pass on my blessing."
Torbrand considered that, blinking languidly, disbelievingly.
"I just ask that you only give it to the people who really deserve it," She said. "And even if you do, the results won't always be pretty."
"And what does that mean?" Torbrand asked.
A distant explosion echoed through Aesborough, the scheduled demolition of stockpiled heretic munitions. The shockwave hit them, kicked up what little dust remained on the rubble.
"If things go wrong," Yang answered, coughing into her fist, "if the recipient can't withstand the Warp-surge… best they can hope for is their heads to explode. Worst-case is possession."
"That was the risk you took?" Torbrand asked, eyes wide. Yang's grin broadened. Probably the only time she'd catch that expression on an astartes.
"Yup," she said. "Calculated, obviously," she added with a wink.
Torbrand huffed, shaking his head, stroking his beard. "Emperor, protect me from your Saints."
"How?" He asked. "How would I even begin such a process? How would I know when?"
"You'll know," Yang repeated. "And you'll do what I did. Just put your hand on their shoulder, channel your aura into them. The words will come."
"I don't even know what that means," Torbrand said shaking his head. "Less than four hours as a psyker, and I'm already more lost than I've been in my entire life."
"Join the club," Yang said, snorting. A sad smile overtook her as the Sergeant's words recalled why she chose the minaret. "See those mountains over there?" She said, pointing eastward. Only their peaks stood above the horizon, capped in glittering snow and untouched by heretics.
"Yes," Torbrand said, confused.
"There's a small forest at the bottom of them," Yang said. "Around a year ago, I woke up there. I don't know how I got there. I didn't know anything about where I was. I had a life before that, but it disappeared the moment I woke up in those woods. A bit later, I found a village." She lowered her finger, pointing at klick after klick of desolated farmland. "It's gone now, like so many other things. From there, I was put on a path that led me all the way back here." She remembered the words Garnet had said to her. "I was lost," she admitted. "And I thought I was alone. But now I know better. You'll have plenty more questions, but I'm a shitty teacher," she said. "Just keep serving the Emperor. The answers will come."
"Just like that?" Torbrand asked.
"Just like that," Yang confirmed.
"Maleficarum," Torbrand sighed heavily.
"Fenrisian for 'sorcery'," he explained. "It's said that the Emperor's Angels of Death know no fear, yet maleficarum terrifies them all. All but the most damned, foolish, and forsaken," he said. "I don't know what will happen to me. What this new power means. When I was younger, I laughed at the concept of wyrd. Fate," he clarified. "But now… I trust that I've made a good wyrd for myself. And that you - and your blessing - were meant to part of it."
She extended her hand, and he took it. This time, he truly did dwarf the upper half of her arm.
"Glad to hear it," Yang said. "I wish I could help you more, but I've only recently started getting a handle on things," she said. "Plus, I'm bound for Terra. There's something waiting for me there, and you need to go to Fenris."
"I do," Torbrand said. "I'll have plenty of questions for the Rune-Priests… provided they let me live." He chuckled. "As for the rest of Holmbr…"
"No," Yang said firmly, knowing where this led.
"As a gesture of thanks," Torbrand insisted. "Not just for this… aura," he said, testing the word on his tongue. "But for helping us defeat Augurhaz. Without you, I don't know how much of Holmbr would have survived to see this dawn. I do know that if they had died in my place, I would carry the guilt with me for the rest of my service. Given that this detour was done at my insistence."
"They're needed on Cadia," Yang said.
"Are you not headed there too?" Torbrand asked.
"Tell you what," He said, grinning. "You, the Saint with a sense of humor… do you gamble as well?"
"I don't like where this is going," Yang said.
"Drinking contest," Torbrand declared. "If I win, I assign to your personal guard as much of Holmbr as I wish. If you win, they stay with me."
"How stupid do you think I am to accept a drinking challenge from an astartes?" Yang asked, already knowing she was going to accept.
"Stupid enough to make one a psyker," Torbrand said, grin widening to expose his fangs.
"Oh you're a bastard," Yang laughed. "Fine. It's a bet."
"Tonight?" Torbrand asked. "We cannot stay on Woadia forever."
"Tonight," Yang agreed. "You're right, we need to get going. But there's something I need to do first."
"More important than your duty to the Emperor?" Torbrand asked, still grinning. Yang wasn't.
"We're almost there, Holiness," the pilot said.
"Thanks," she said. In the co-pilot's seat, she watched the single Woadian sea rush past. A massive expanse of blue, with occasional spurts of verdant green plankton farms nearly a dozen klicks across.
Minutes later, they reached the continent of Farrokhsfeld. It was night on this hemisphere, and untouched by the heretic invasion. From on high, she could see the earth littered with little patches of light, hundreds of farming villages scattered across the surface of Woadia, all surrounded by yellow-gold crops.
Just like the village she'd arrived at all those years ago. Has it been years though? No, just one. One and half, maybe. It felt like so much longer. She knew why that was. Back then, the answer would have horrified her.
As the lander slowed, she thought of Weiss. Of the arguments they had, the battles they fought. The eldar. Ohma.
Emperor, look out for Weiss on Cadia, Yang prayed.
Even now, she felt the fortress of humanity calling out for her as it buckled under the weight of the Thirteenth Black Crusade. Under Abaddon. When she closed her eyes, she saw the apocalyptic battlefields, the kasrs that ran over with gore. The Despoiler with his bloodied claw that crackled with power.
But before Cadia came Terra. And before Terra came Bardigaal.
The lander touched down, its doors shunting open. Briefly, Yang felt the urge to thrust herself from the lander, bellow orders at Gamma, brace herself for war. But here there was only quiet.
"Holiness?" The pilot asked.
"I'm good," Yang said, sliding her seat back and lifting herself into her wheelchair. "I'll be right back."
The pilot nodded.
She landed hard on the packed-dirt road, made her way into the village. Quieter than she expected. Most of them had likely been drafted for the defense of Akuri. Only half of the shacks and cottages were still occupied, shrouded lights shining behind drawn curtains, chimneys smoking gently.
Yang knew where to go - her soul screamed the answer.
Arriving at a small wooden cottage, she turned the simple brass knob attached to the door. Under her touch, the tumblers in the lock clicked into place, effortlessly obeying her will. Swallowing the painful lump in her throat, she braced herself.
Come on. You can do it. You can do it. Leaning on her aura, she blocked off the agony in her leg and forced herself to stand.
You have to do it.
She opened the door, and found the interior humble and sparse. There were only two rooms - a living room and a bedroom. Little in the way of furniture, an under-equipped kitchenette, and a threadbare radio for entertainment. A cooing song echoed out from it, a woman's voice humming in Woadian Low.
Koris slept on the couch, Ros' son gently drooling on his shoulder. Slowly, unconsciously, his father stroked his back with a three-fingered hand.
The child looked just like his mother. A striking shock of red hair against dark, mocha skin. The same cheeks.
The tears came.
In the bedroom, a woman slept soundly, half-naked, wrapped in threadbare blankets. Another careless cruelty, another twist of the knife. Yang sniffed, forcing herself onwards.
I have to do it.
Koris awoke, eyes flying open to behold a Saint in his living room. His jaw dropped.
Yang reached out, arms extended. Koris obeyed slowly, handing his son to her, careful not to wake him. She brushed a lock of red hair out his beautiful blue eyes. He stirred against her palm, smiling, his dreams happy.
He was only an infant. He didn't know how badly she'd failed him. He never would know. Woadians would praise her for as long as their planet persisted, lauding her for slaying Josephus, for defeating Augurhaz. For guiding the 111th through the Warp and far away.
He would never know about the promise she'd made. Blinking away the tears, she pressed her lips to the boy's forehead.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Ros' son woke up, blinking, seeing a shard of the Emperor before him. A slow, toothless smile.
"Hey there," she cooed. "I have something for you." She wound her finger through a lock of golden hair and yanked. Setting the baby on her good knee, she wound the hair around his wrist. It shone, glowing gold in the dark of the Woadian night.
Yang wiped her eyes. "Like it?" She asked. Ros' son burbled, yawning wide. It was time to go.
She handed him back to his father, who accepted him carefully, whispering reassurances and prayers to the Emperor in his ear. His eyes never left hers. She returned his stare, not bothering to wipe the tears away.
Yang left, and never saw Bardigaal again.
A/N: Holy shit! Today marks the FIVE YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF AWoBE!
So much has happened in these five years, but I really appreciate everyone who's stuck around with me for so long, and everyone who's joined us along the way. I wouldn't have made it nearly so far without all the support you guys have shown me over the years!
I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and I'd be lying if I didn't get a little misty-eyed myself.
Next time… well, you'll see. :)