Author's Note: Everqueen was started Ashynarr, with me helping her out as the beta and occasional co-writer. However, Ashynarr has dropped the project, so I'm taking over and will be posting new chapters here. I've also reposted all the previous chapters here for people's convenience.
The original story can be found under Ashynarr's account.
The Immaterium raged, torn asunder by storms as it had been for millenia. Cosmic storms of insanity filled with daemons and monsters birthed by the nightmares of mortal minds swirled through the depths of the Othersea, fueled by the madness and debauchery of the Aeldari Dominion, and the suffering of the rest of the galaxy.
In the midst of this infinity of madness, one last bastion of sanity stood, a gleaming citadel shielded from the storms by divine might, where the Aeldari Pantheon had gathered to meet.
Asuryan, the great Phoenix King, Morai-Heg, the wise old crone, Khaine, the Bloody-Handed One, Cegorach the Grand Jester, the radiant maiden Lileath, the savage but noble Kurnous, Vaul the Smith, freed from his imprisonment at last, and of course, Isha, the Mother of Life. All of them had gathered to discuss the impending calamity.
(Of course, that is not what happened. Gods do not have bodies, they do not have citadels, and they do not communicate with each other with sound. They are beings of emotion and otherworldly power, concepts and ideas shaped by the dreams and beliefs of mortals. All this is merely a metaphor to describe events beyond mortal understanding. And yet, all metaphors are true in the Othersea, where the laws of reality mean nothing. So perhaps this did happen, and the gods truly did gather in avatars to speak to each other as mortals do. Who can say?)
The birth of a god was meant to be a momentous occasion, a call for celebration as the bundle of emotions and concepts drifting together in the warp fused into a new being. Isha could recall the day her daughter had been born - her eyes had opened so slowly, as if from a deep sleep, to reveal all the promise of the future to come.
Promises that were now as nothing, as the Pantheon continued to watch the Eldar gestate their newest god. Lileath had said long ago that the Eldar would be the downfall of the gods, and it seemed at last that they were making good on that dreamt prophecy. Isha wished she still had the energy to be angry, but she'd already spent it all on blaming Asuryan for not lowering the ban on speaking with the Eldar, Khaine on mandating the ban in the first place, Lileath for not thinking to come to her own mother or father first before uttering the words that had started all this, and herself for not speaking up when she'd seen the direction too many of her distant children were taking. All she had left was the grim determination that, even were it her time to die, at least it would be at the side of her husband and daughter.
Isha's gaze shifted to where Morai-Heg and Asuryan were deep in discussion. Though she couldn't see his face behind his mask, the heavy frown on her face said enough of what they could be talking about.
A bit further past them, standing silently with his last weapon at hand and the manacles he'd been bound with still dangling from his wrists, Vaul looked… well, her twin god looked about as good as Isha and Kurnous had before Vaul had gotten them away from Khaine. Which wasn't very. Isha considered whether he would accept her help, but… it had been so long, and she had done nothing to free him after he'd done so for her, the same way she'd done nothing about so many other injustices.
And Cegorach...the trickster god was nowhere to be seen. He hadn't responded to Asuryan's summons, and Isha doubted he was going to. And that might have been the wisest decision any of them had made in millions of years. Wherever he might be, it was well hidden enough that he might even stand a chance of surviving the aftermath of this disaster. She only hoped he looked after the Eldar in her absence.
"It's almost time," Lileath whispered, Isha turning to see her daughter with her head bowed, eyes closed and mouth twisted into a grimace. "Mother, I never wanted any of this..."
"I know, my dearest, and no one blames you for this. Your siblings…" Isha hesitated, knowing the comforting smile she was trying to maintain was flagging even as she made herself continue. "They made their own choices, in the end, and we made ours. We will all get through this in the end."
"You might," Lileath replied, almost too quiet to hear, and Isha found she had no answer.
Kurnous moved to stand next to their daughter, one hand resting against Lileath's cheek while he whispered the comfort Isha couldn't, and Isha found her forced smile softening into something a bit more heartfelt. If only they could be like this forever, just the three of them - the thought curled up in her chest, tight and burning, and for a moment she thought she was about to cry, only to reach up and feel dry cheeks. She frowned as the tension in her chest built, hands moving to clutch at the building phantom pain.
This feeling wasn't coming from her. This was-
The Warp buckled and screamed.
And Isha's universe was pain.
It was like someone had torn open her chest with both great haste and deliberate care, hands reaching in and plucking out her insides until she was nothing but a hollow simulacra of herself. She didn't even remember collapsing to her knees, just that one moment she had been fine and the next -
She distantly heard someone screaming, though it took her too long to recognize it was her own voice. Which was sort of funny, because she felt like she couldn't breathe, throat choking on tears for each and every last one of the quadrillions who had died and were dying and were doomed to die without protection, each one of their names barely registering in her conscious before they were drawn into the voracious maw of the youngest god to fuel their rampage. Their voices whispered in her ears and dragged along her skin, lighting up already frayed nerves as they begged for survival and mercy they wouldn't get.
"Your rampage ends here, whelpling."
She forced herself to look up, the youngest god a horrifically perfect fusion of all the other gods they'd consumed while she was unable to do anything in her agony, swinging Asuryan's own weapon with a careless ease against Khaine's bloody fury and holding their ground. The other gods' bodies were in various states of dismemberment, all their chests torn open literally where hers was still figurative.
Another claw brushed against her cheek, and Isha startled as she realized the voices she'd been hearing weren't just those of the dying, but the already damned as well. The parodies of her children giggled and mockingly cooed as they surrounded her, taking turns wiping her tears away and consuming them with great relish, or dragging their bodies along the increasingly visible scraps of skin as they almost tenderly tore her armor and clothing away to get to her naked flesh.
One nibbled and bit at her throat, and she screamed again, throwing all of them away with warp vines while she tried to find the energy to get to her feet. The daemonettes were unphased, laughing with glee as they scrambled to their feet and ran around or into her lacking defenses. Those grabbed by the vines looked excited to be sloppily strangled, while the rest pouted as they clung more tightly to her, claws tangling in her clothing and hair and making it obvious that she was going nowhere until their master was done with fighting Khaine.
How was she not dead yet? She knew how pathetic she must look, unable to even fight off lesser daemons from her prone position. She wouldn't have even noticed while she was blinded by the pain of the youngest's birth and the death of her children, and at least she wouldn't have to continue living with all this pain that refused to fade into blissful numbness. Compared to all the rest, who at least looked like they'd tried to fight, she would have been a laughably easy meal.
But they were dead, and she wasn't, and somewhere in her grief she felt the slow, cold grip of terror take hold as she considered what other uses this new god could have for her.
"Oh mother," the daemonettes whispered in her ears, voices riding the high of power as all the eldar souls that had served as spark and fuel gave them unbridled confidence. "Please mother, give us more, give us everything."
The warp shifted, and Khaine and his opponent barely hesitated a moment in their ongoing battle as three more slowly arrived from their domains in the untraversed reaches of the Warp.
First came the thousand whispering voices, a shifting mass that lowered itself to pick over the remains of Morai-Heg with interest. Eyes formed to stare at her and just as quickly shifted away, looking at all of them and none of them, and she almost felt relieved that it and its equally unconstrained minions seemed so disinterested in her continuing existence.
Then came the wave of rot, giggling rolling balls of unlife that squirmed into the area around her, striking back at the daemonettes that tried to swat them away. The vines withered in the presence of their master, the living infested carcass that made her want to gag as it stifled her and made the remaining daemonettes curl around her defensively.
And last was the dark mirror of Khaine, the taste of iron and blood and the clank of armor washing past her as the Chaos God of war and his army came to watch the battle unfold. Several daemonettes pulled themselves away from her, throwing themselves almost eagerly onto the blades and moaning with delight as they were cut apart and dissolved into warp stuff to rejoin their master. The Blood God strode towards Slaanesh and Khaine, his blade drawn and his intent clear.
"Enough of this," said Khorne, his voice containing the echo of a thousand thousand battlefields. "Khaine belongs to me, whelp, not you."
Khaine's looked even more enraged than before at Khorne's words even as he continued to duel with Slaanesh, but the latter's eyes turned cold as they turned to look Khorne, even as a smirk stayed in place.
"Yours?" replied Slaanesh, throwing their hair back as they parried another strike from Khaine, letting the latter's blade barely scrape across their cheeks and leave a dripping wound, daemonettes eagerly catching the drops even as the wound healed into unblemished skin. "He's an Eldar God and therefore he is mine. Mine by right, mine to devour and play with as I please."
"He is war and bloodshed." Khorne snarled "And so he belongs to me."
Slaanesh paused, groaning in pleasure when Khaine took the opportunity to stab through their shoulder. "Ohh, is that a challenge? If you want, you're welcome to try and take him."
"Your challenge is accepted," Khorne replied, stepping forward and drawing his own blade. "And your blood will decorate my domain."
"Ohh, I like you," Slaanesh said, smile stretching too wide for comfort even as their eyes remained utterly devoid of anything resembling true joy or happiness. "I'll enjoy playing with you and Khaine both."
Khaine snarled, clearly livid. "I belong to neither of you! I am the true god of war, and you are nothing more than parasites-
Khaine choked on his own words as Khorne's gauntled hand gripped one of his shoulders, and Slaanesh's claws sank into the other, both of them channeling their power into Khaine to claim him for their own. The Aeldari God of Murder writhed, struggling against the pain of two greater powers attempting to absorb him, even as glowing cracks spread across his body.
Isha's last ember of hope died as Khaine shattered with a final agonized scream, his essence scattered across the galaxy in the forms of shards, nothing more than the palest shadow of the War God's power.
The explosion knocked back both the quarreling gods, but Khorne only staggered back a few steps, while Slaanesh was sent flying backwards from the force, right past the now cackling Tzeentch.
"Having trouble there?" Tzeentch called out as Khorne chased after, delighted as Slaanesh scrambled to their feet in a panic just in time to dodge another heavy strike. "Perhaps you'd like some advice?"
"I don't need help, I have this completely under- eep- control!"
Tzeentch cackled again. Nurgle, still behind her, rumbled with humor as his minions scrambled over her and made faces at the low-key terrified daemonettes still remaining.
Isha's head lowered from the weight and from knowing there was no escape - even if Slaanesh were able to somehow win their fight against the older chaos god, they wouldn't have the strength to fight the other two, or the sense to avoid picking a fight, and then…
"It'll be alright, mother, just you see," one of the daemonettes said with more cheer than was warranted, but that wasn't what gave Isha sudden pause, her despair shuddering as something else started broiling in the middle of her numbing chest. "Once this is over, we'll all be able to go home, you and us and our beautiful palace of pleasures to live in for ever and ever in bliss and joy!"
Isha looked to the daemonette who had spoken, the one who had used her daughter's voice, and saw it wearing her daughter's face.
"How dare you."
An ember ignited, burning away at the creeping despair and apathy overwhelming her before then. Nurgle stepped back twice, no longer laughing.
"How dare you!"
The daemonette fell back and stared at her, along with all the others holding onto her as she slowly, painfully forced herself to one knee, and then to her feet, and realized how small it was compared to her and her stoked fury. Tzeentch had stopped laughing as well.
"You have no right to her memory!"
The daemonette screamed as Isha's life swept up and surrounded it, still having the gall to wear Lileath's face and voice as if it belonged to it, as if it was funny to dangle everything she'd lost in front of her face.
"You have no right to her face or her name!" Isha snarled, snapping it apart and taking vindictive satisfaction as it was dissolved into nothing, unable to return to its master.
Isha's satisfaction was short lived, however, when she turned to see all four Chaos gods watching her, various degrees of surprise and annoyance in their expressions. She swallowed, wishing abruptly that she hadn't snapped like that, because now she was interesting, and with four gods who could easily make her as nothing with a single backhand, interesting was the worst position to be in.
"Strong words," Tzeentch said, all its eyes now on her. "But not much in terms of execution."
"Certainly not words for such a delicate bloom," Nurgle said. "Come now, forget that anger and stay with me in my house, so your weary heart might know the peace of my family."
"Heh, the first time she's done anything interesting in her life, and you want to stop her immediately," Khorne said, something almost like admiration in his voice. "Let her fight awhile. I want to see the blood she spills before she falls."
Isha was trapped between the three while the fourth watched on. She had nowhere to run, nothing to fight with, and so few followers that she might as well be a joke to them. All it seemed she'd managed to do is add a third interested party into the mix of those fighting over her fate, possibly a fourth if she managed to dig herself into even more trouble in the next few moments.
"Of course you do, you barbarian," Tzeentch mocked, one temporary arm waving the war god away. "What's next, you whisk her away to gorge her little plant armies on your rivers of blood?"
"If it makes her worthy, then I see no reason not to," Khorne agreed.
What could she do? She couldn't choose Slaanesh, not with what they represented and her terrifying imaginings of just what they were saving her for. She refused to give in to Nurgle, knowing she would never escape his garden of rot without outside aide. To trust Khorne was akin to trusting Khaine, especially since she did not know how such an allegiance would twist her in the long term. And Tzeentch… the mere idea of trust was impossible to him, aside from how to exploit it.
"She's mine, Khorne," Nurgle rumbled, all his good humor gone. "It was agreed long ago. And last I checked, treachery was not your domain."
"Last I checked, she was too much a pacifist to even think to fight back. Funny how things change."
"You all seem to be forgetting something," Slaanesh spoke up, gaze sliding over her in incredibly uncomfortable ways that would have her shaking if she weren't already trembling in fear and anger. "She's Eldar, therefore she's mine."
To cling to life on her own in the warp, always one step ahead of the four… a short lived fantasy, doomed to soon fall into one of the fates she already knew awaited her. There was no safety in the warp, not anymore.
No safety in the Warp.
But there was another place, one which she knew the secrets of traversing and they did not. One which they would struggle to follow her to, at least for a while. All she had to do was find a place they couldn't touch her, and then rebuild her strength, until she reached the point where she could fight back.
"Stay out of this if you know what's good for you," Tzeentch said, continuing to watch all of them at once. "We'll probably be a while, so go play with those shards of Khaine or something."
"I am your equal!" Slaanesh snapped, raising Asuryan's blade and snarling. "I have every right to defend my property!"
She stepped back once, then twice, making herself look small and meek and afraid, which wasn't hard when much of her still felt that way. A few minions of the four gave her looks before their gazes were drawn back to the increasingly snappish argument over her fate, Khorne looking close to ready to start throwing Slaanesh around the Warp again, and Nurgle set to either join him or oppose him.
Where could she go, though? She needed a place they and their followers of the warp and materium could not go without consequence. A place where her strength could be recovered unchallenged. Her thoughts drifted to her still surviving children, a mix of grief, fury, and disappointment swirling in her chest as she considered her options.
The exodites were far scattered and had little manpower. If it wasn't enough that she might end up favoring one world's culture over others, or worse, snub her hosts by attempting to remain aloof in such dangerous times, the forces she would call upon herself… no, she would search them out only once she was sure she could convince and protect them.
The craftworlds were still reeling, trying to figure out what to do in the aftermath of this, and asking them to try and protect her when they didn't even know how to protect or define themselves yet... even if she could guarantee the first wave of Chaos could be fought off, what of the next, or the next? It was better to give them space to grieve what they'd lost and begin adjusting to their new circumstances.
The Webway…she would be safe there, especially if she could reach the Black Library. Her fallen children might be a problem, but while her knowledge might not be on par with Cegorach's, Isha knew the Webway better than any mortal alive and could easily avoid the Drukhari. But as she quietly cast her senses about, Isha found no Webway Gate nearby that hadn't been shattered and infested with daemons. Perhaps if she fled to a Craftworld or one of the Exodite planets, she might be able to get through their Webway portal, but Chaos would follow her and even if she escaped them, they would no doubt consume that world and it's inhabitants.
She took another three steps back, shaky and fearful and absolutely in line with the pathetic little toy they all saw her as. So she couldn't go to her children. She ignored the small amount of relief she felt at not having to look them in the face so soon after their fall, to smile while wishing she could yell at them and weep over what they'd done to themselves, to know that she could give them hope only to break them all over again if she went to them only to be killed the first time Chaos came to make their claim.
What was left, then?
...there was one option.
It could very well mean her end.
She wouldn't even blame him, really, not after everything done to him and his people by her own.
But anything he had to offer, whether refuge, imprisonment, or a clean death, was still vastly more merciful than what she could expect from Chaos.
She stopped, looking to the four one last time, feeling the warp around her writhe with their argument. Idly, she wished she could have grabbed her husband's spear or her daughter's staff, but they were at the feet of Slaanesh, and the Chaos god would not take kindly to her taking what they had already claimed as theirs.
In the end, she had no other choice.
She turned and ran like she never had in her life.
She heard the squawk of alarm behind her as someone noticed her flight, but she had no energy to waste on anything but pushing herself to her limits, instinct leading her along favorable currents and past snarly storms, all the while using her quickly dwindling essence to snare the armies of Chaos behind herself.
Isha could hear the shouts behind her, the four fighting each other as much as they were chasing her, which was the main thing keeping her ahead of their combined fury. It seemed they hadn't realized where she was running, or even they would have forgone their arguments to stop her, giving her a flutter of hope -
Isha screamed as a keeper of secrets swept in front of her, pleased to have cut her off for its master, and instincts had her flinging more brambles in its direction. Unlike its lesser kin, it wasn't killed, but it was hindered, giving her a chance to sweep past it and count her seconds until she was in place, even as she felt the four close in around her, a noose that would damn her to oblivion -
And then she was out of time. She looked to the armies around her, their masters to a one with murder and worse promised in their gazes for the sheer gall of defying them. Despite her fear, a smile flickered across her lips, some comfort in knowing she had one last trick up her sleeve.
She took a breath.
Reached into herself, pulling on all her remaining reserves.
And shoved nearly all of it into creating a jungle of pain and death, her dim core essence obscured among everything else.
Knowing she had but a few moments, she immediately focused everything she has left on her task, because this was the point where she succeeded or she died, and either way she wouldn't need all this essence, so there was no sense in preserving it anymore. Thought became reality, strands of sugars and molecules and warp stuff weaving into complex chains and then into diversified structures, and within moments she was looking at her own face on a material body she hadn't worn since she was young and the gods were still allowed among their people.
The four were tearing her jungle apart, sensing her on the cusp of victory, and she poured what she had left into herself even as she calculated just where and how quickly to throw it to cover the remaining distance in both the warp and the materium. If anything went wrong, she'd still hopefully be in the right system, her very presence announcing itself loudly enough that he could hardly miss it. Though whether he'd be able to get to her before They did if she landed on the wrong world...
The odds were still better than anything here, so she breathed the last of herself into her new body and cast it out into the materium, momentarily seeing double as she both dispersed in the warp and woke up in mortal form for the first time in almost forever. The screams of the four followed her as she shot up into the shallows of the warp, the sudden shift in the very way she thought and felt distracting her even as the drag of atmosphere slow her down, bleeding both momentum and the vestiges of the warp off of her.
Her first full thought, and her last before impact, was that this was going to hurt.
Oh warp, it hurt. Not the way it had before, but enough that moving was out of the question.
The air was dry. Why was it so dry? For some reason, she thought there should have been more water in it.
Had stars always been so bright? It had been so long…
She had to get up, had to make sure she was safe, but even digging her fingers into the grasses and ferns growing between them made her breathing shudder from the pain...
What was that noise? It sounded rather like footsteps…
...rest… yes, that sounded just… fine…
Malcador liked to consider himself fairly unflappable. He had, after all, managed to reach the lofty and respectable age of 6500 without losing much of his more youthful vigor, especially considering everything he'd had to deal with in keeping up with the man known as Revelation, who had recently refashioned himself as the Emperor of the nascent Imperium of Mankind. He'd seen a lot of both the best and the worst of humanity, as well as the other species of the galaxy, and through that developed an accepting tolerance for the inherent frustration that was dealing with the universe and everything in it.
Because of this hard-earned talent, he had been trusted to handle organizing what would eventually become the various bureaucratic branches to a galaxy-spanning empire and would eventually allow the slow but needed process of weaning the reunited people off of needing Revelation and Malcador to hold everything together with the metaphorical equivalent of duct tape, bungee cords, a few rubber bands, and a great deal of hope. Despite still being in the early, hiccuping stages, he thought he had been doing fairly well, smoothing over various issues and slips that might have put them behind the projected schedule for that trouble that was set to crop up in a few hundred years that remained frustratingly vague yet ever looming no matter what sort of prodding went into it.
Then of course, everything had to go wrong, all because of one warp flare followed by a minor earthquake. And, of course, the psychic shockwave that dampened down into a low, constant thrum that he was damned sure the entire planet could feel.
Well, no, technically nothing had gone wrong yet, but Revelation had been gone longer than expected in what should have been an easy enough cleanup of such an obvious Warp event, and there hadn't been any of the usual signs of a drawn out battle that might have indicated something resembling a difficult opponent, which meant Malcador had been left running through the increasingly unlikely possibilities of what the event could have been when he finally got a message.
Not that 'send a transport with a stretcher over, oh and get some guest rooms prepared' along with some coordinates actually narrowed things down significantly, despite the fact that he could at least glean that whoever - or whatever - Revelation had found during his investigation was someone that required a close eye. Malcador shoved the thoughts to the side temporarily in order to send out the orders, getting to his feet in order to look out the windows of the Imperial base of operations while Earth was brought together.
It was a rather expensive place near the highest point of the Bai-heng hive, on the eastern edge of the Himalazians, as only benefited the Master of Mankind. Of course, all of Revelation's most important works were within the long-established labs and labyrinths burrowed into and throughout the highest peak and its surrounding companions, but for the public front that needed to be presented to both the leery nobles and the overlooked masses, this complex would bear the brunt of the administration and diplomatic efforts until unification was achieved and the official administrative seats were built within the range loftily called 'the crown of the world' since well before he'd been born.
Bai-heng also benefited from the arrangement, of course. Being the center of the Imperium meant a large amount of the raw resources being processed were filtered into and through the place, generating more jobs as more people were called on to turn the wealth of resources into everything needed for the burgeoning war machine. Much of the damaged or missing sections of the hive were refurbished or replaced as people worked to restore a glory that had been lost millennia before, piecing together their scattered history while also embracing the Imperial aesthetics that had started gripping the minds and designs of many of the local artisans. There was even the beginnings of the terraforming efforts to be seen along the edge of the hive, a thin band of green that stood out against the desert past it.
This burst of wealth, luxury, and uptick in the standard of living, when shown off to other nobles on the edge of throwing in their support, would capture their pockets and their imagination, believing rightly that with time such an improvement in their own state of affairs would come to their seats of power if they threw in their lot with the Emperor. A number of settlements, from the small villages clinging to the barely habitable edges of the nuclear wastelands all the way up to several major hive-cities, had been integrated with minimal effort just by showing them around.
Unfortunately, many others saw it, and perhaps fairly, as an arrogant show of wealth, fearful at some hidden price to what seemed like a deal too good to be true or else just determined to take all the hard-earned efforts for themselves. In either case, the Imperial army and the Thunder Warriors served as anvil and hammer to soften up such factions until they bent the knee or, in several unfortunate but necessary cases, were shattered and razed as a warning to the rest.
Still, after several decades of dedicated effort, Earth was on its way to unification, with another few decades at most needed to complete the task, get Mars on their side, and get started on bringing the rest of Sol into compliance. It wasn't a bad pace, but still not fast enough to head off the looming threats to humanity out among the distant stars, which was what forced Revelation to look for a better solution to the speed issue. As such, Revelation would often go away for anything from days to months, buried in his labs with the best minds the world had to offer, working on a number of projects to accelerate the pace of things.
He felt the warp signatures approach well before he saw the shuttle. Malcador turned away from the window as the shuttle coming in to land on the platform outside. Though in no particular rush, he still managed to wind his way through the halls to the side door opening up to the landing pad just in time for the Emperor to reach the bottom of the shuttle's ramp. The ancient nodded in greeting, not breaking stride as he made his way towards the apartments while the helpers behind him hurried to follow with the stretcher, their positions keeping him from quite seeing who was on it at this angle.
"Everything is prepared?" Revelation asked when Malcador fell into step, heading back inside and ignoring the hasty bows of passing workers.
"I had them clear out the guest room just a floor down from here, the one towards the west side of the building."
"Good. Once we have her settled in, we'll need to discuss potential changes to the plans we had for once we start reaching out to the rest of the galaxy."
Any calculations he had on the identity of their mystery guest were promptly thrown out the window. "Who in the world could be so important that you're already considering changing your plans around for them?"
"If I'm right," Revelation said in a tone that implied he knew he was while offering over a pict-recorder. "Then the better question to ask might be 'what'."
Malcador took the pict-recorder, capturing every detail of the video as it played back. It was obviously being held by one of the first responders to the impact, the recording starting at the edge of the new crater before the woman (based on her voice) peered over the edge with it, into a dusty crater that contrasted greatly with the small oasis of life that had sprung up in the center. Fast counting noted at least half a dozen different blooming plants, several different grasses, at least three creeping vines, and what seemed like the beginnings of two shrubs, all within a small, perfect circle centering on what could only be an eldar woman, bedecked in nothing but the plants growing over her limbs and up her sides, along with the thin coating of debris that had fallen back on her after her landing.
No armor, no technology, but still somehow alive in an impact that should have turned her insides into a bloody slurry, and unconsciously growing plants that would have more suited the climate of the area five thousand years ago.
Malcador stopped the recording. "I wasn't aware of any eldar with such a talent in biomancy."
"There wasn't one."
Well, that only made everything more ominous. He had a feeling that his nascent headache was only going to get worse once Revelation outright confirmed her identity.
(There was one possibility... an impossible one, but when all other options were exhausted, then whatever was left...)
Why did the eldar have to make everything more difficult?
On the stretcher behind them, the eldar woman whimpered in her sleep.
The room she was being kept in had no windows.
Isha did not mean it to sound ungrateful, because she was grateful - not only was she alive, but she was for the most part being treated kindly, if distantly and warily. Her room was spacious and comfortably lit, with furniture and decorations she assumed were considered high quality among the nobility of this region, if not the world as a whole. She had a bathroom where she could clean herself as necessary, which even had a door she could close, if not lock. She'd been provided comfortable clothing, ample reading material and basic manuals to learn the languages they were written in, and several meals a day, brought in by quiet workers who left her the trays to eat at her leisure in privacy.
(The bed she was avoiding. Being unconscious was a horrible experience, and one she never planned on repeating.)
Really, it was just that she wasn't quite… used to the feeling of being closed in like this yet, and the lack of window seemed to exacerbate the issue.
Well, that and the guards she had glimpsed once outside the doors when her food had been brought in, and she suspected that was only because they'd wanted her to know not to consider the option of escape too closely.
As if she had anywhere to go.
Isha felt a brittle smile on her lips before she sighed and let it slip away, rolling one of the savory flavored berries from her recently delivered tray between her fingers as she sat at the faux-wood desk, elbows resting on top of it. Whatever else she could say about her situation, she at least had gotten what she'd asked for - safety from the Warp and time to think on what to do next. The most important thing, of course, was to gain the trust of humanity's guardian, the one they were now calling the Emperor, but therein came the issue: How?
She couldn't offer technology, because most of her people's crafts came from their unique talent with the many varieties of psycho-plastics they'd developed over the ages, which were frankly useless for a race whose psykers could not achieve the spiritual resonance necessary to make or shape them. She couldn't offer allegiances or trades when she didn't even know she could keep them, or what she'd have available to her. She couldn't even really offer knowledge of the wider galaxy, because while she'd always kept more of an eye on the Materium than the rest of her pantheon, she had never been close to omniscient even at the height of her power and reach all those millions of years ago, and in the aftermath of Slaanesh's birth, her people - and the galaxy as a whole - were likely to be shaken up enough that many of her predictions and assumptions would fall through.
All that really left her was herself. Even as weakened as she was, the secrets of manipulating life were more deeply ingrained in her than natural instincts were in the life of the material, and that sort of talent was something she could barter for that valuable commodity of trust. There was every chance it could backfire - that she was merely kept prisoner in order to further the Emperor's own goals - but if she did not extend some manner of trust first, then what would have been the point of coming here in the first place instead of running to her children or letting Chaos take her?
Isha finally put the berry in her mouth, closing her eyes as she let it break down in her mouth into its component parts. She'd started doing it merely to finish centering her mind in the materium, grounding her in the constant and still slightly alien pace of time on this side of the divide, but continued out of a sake of curiosity. No matter how the food was prepared, the underlying material remembered how it grew, and through that she could get an idea of the world beyond her small apartment.
This berry had been grown indoors, with artificial lighting and heating based on the consistency of its growth. The roots had never touched soil - a gentle nutrient bath, it seemed, though one that needed some repairs, as she could just taste the hint of the waste chemicals that hadn't been filtered out in whatever recycling process the system was using. This particular berry and its companions on her plate had been picked from their parent plant about two hours before it had come to her room, this one in particular seeming to be about two local days before it would have reached its peak ripeness.
She let it roll over her tongue, prodding at the underlying genetic material, tracing its lineage back across thousands of generations of careful breeding and gene editing to its wild ancestor. Something a bit smaller, with a uniform yellow expression throughout… sweeter, more sugar production? Isha frowned, tracing the domestication forwards, first for larger fruit, then for… color? Or perhaps that was a side effect of breeding for a flavor preference of the time, since it was only a few hundred or so generations past that where the genetics were altered to return some more of the sweetness to this lineage, as well as change the color expression and size a few more times. The most recent changes seemed to be repairs to genetic drifts outside of certain ranges of expression, possibly to counteract the effects of radiation damage to the chromosomes.
All that and more was parsed and put to the back of her mind in the time it took to chew and swallow, opening her eyes and reaching out for another before pausing as she heard the door open behind her. Isha hardly needed to turn around or get to her feet to realize who it was based on sheer presence alone, but she did so anyways, because she wasn't going to ruin her good turn of fate by being disrespectful now of all times.
"Your majesty," she greeted, bowing at the waist and hoping he wouldn't notice her briefly bite her bottom lip.
"You may rise," the Emperor replied, voice cool, but not icy as she'd halfway expected with how she'd all but barged into his homeworld.
Isha straightened from the bow, for the first time meeting the Emperor's gaze. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Isha tried to think of something to say to that, but came up with nothing, so instead she waited for him to continue. Not for the first time did doubts over her choice start creeping up in the back of her mind, but she forced herself to ignore them.
"In other circumstances, you know I would not have shown you mercy," he said.
"I'm aware of that," she replied. "And I thank you for it."
"And yet you came here, instead of going to any of your people scattered across the galaxy, knowing that almost any of them would fall over themselves to host and protect a shard of their own mother goddess."
Isha couldn't help but let her gaze slip away, but she hoped the worst of the heartache was hidden behind her forced calm. "It was a risk I was willing to take."
She couldn't be sure, but she thought she could catch a hint of surprise before it disappeared. "A vision?"
She shook her head, making herself look back up at him. "I've never had a talent for gazing into the future, unlike my daughter. I judged the odds of my survival versus that of my people in the little time I had, and took a leap of faith."
He considered her for a moment. "You would have my people act as a barrier between yourself and the four instead?"
Isha winced, realizing how bad that must look. "I hoped to just have enough time to recover before I went out and spoke to my children. I did not intend to put your people in harm's way for my sake, or even interfere with your own plans for them."
She hesitated for a moment before deciding honesty was the key here. "If I am to be frank, your majesty, while I hoped you would give me refuge while I recovered, my primary reason for fleeting to Terra was that anything you would do to me would be better than what I would suffer at Chaos's hands, even if it was just a clean death."
The Emperor did not visibly react to her statement, but his aura of power seemed slightly less overbearing, though any creature who lacked Isha's level of sensitivity to the Warp likely would not have noticed the difference. "The fact still remains that your presence poses a danger to my people. What would you offer me in exchange for your desired respite?"
"I would offer my talents and knowledge in life-weaving towards any need you might have of them, as far as you are willing to trust me."
"Any need?" He asked.
Isha hesitated. "No weaponized diseases."
"Your offer will be considered," he said. "However, that leaves the matter of your exodus."
She wished she could have been surprised. "I don't have anything else to offer right now. I have no contact with my children, and I have no way to contact them without either finding a way into the Webway or stretching myself thin reaching out while hoping that the four do not take the opportunity to come after me."
"You can't contact them through the warp?"
Isha smiled with no humor. "What you are looking at is everything left of myself. I did not want to leave even a piece of my core essence within the warp for the four to torture and use against me, and I did not have the strength to make more than one avatar after my flight. While it limits my options and my reach, it also means that they can only attack me through their proxies within the materium so long as I remain here."
This time, she was almost sure she wasn't mistaking the glimmer of surprise and interest in his eyes before he concealed it again. "And you did not use this capability beforehand while your people were creating that abomination?"
"Asuryan's ban was absolute while he still lived," she replied. "Now that he has been stripped of his power and resides within the stomach of She Who Thirsts, his ban holds no sway on me."
Isha's eyes closed, and she took a deep breath before making herself meet the Emperor's gaze again. "If it had been within my capabilities, I would have stepped in hundreds of thousands of years ago to stop my children's decay into madness. The only thing I can do now is become strong enough that I can recover and protect the survivors - both those who recognized the gross mistake their brothers and sisters were making, and those who would remain aloof to the folly of their current ways. The rot that allowed She Who Thirsts to come to be still exists within my people, and I cannot - I will not - let myself stand aside when I can do something to fix it."
"How can you guarantee that this would not be turned against humanity?" He asked. "I remember the games your people played on mine, and the lives lost and tormented for the sake of entertainment."
"I am their mother," she replied. "If they will not listen to me or my warnings, if they turn their back on my will and continue to feed Her, then I will have no choice but to let them suffer the consequences."
"Even if that includes their deaths?"
Isha swallowed. "Even then. I know I cannot save them all from their own choices and mistakes, but neither will I accept them being wiped out when I can still save them and remake them as they were in eras long past, before rightful pride was twisted into cruel arrogance. All I ask is the chance to do so."
The Emperor said nothing, and Isha hoped that it was because he was considering her seriously and not merely thinking of what use he would get from her before snuffing out her life.
"Your offers will be considered," he eventually said. "Until I agree or refuse, you will remain here and not give me reason to second guess your presence."
Isha tilted her head forward in compliance. "I understand."
He turned and left the room, the door shutting behind him with a finality that let her collapse back into her seat, exhaling heavily as she rubbed at her forehead, breaking down stress chemicals before they built up into a headache. That conversation had been both easier and harder than she thought it would be, and she didn't harbor any illusions that the ones to come in the days to come would be any better.
But there was a glimmer of hope for the future now, and she had to do everything she could to keep heading towards it.
(She only hoped her children understood her decisions one day.)
When the doors next opened for someone besides the staff, Isha was skimming through what had turned out to be a romance novel after the first few minutes of reading. She had no idea whether this had been meant to be among the small collection or not, but at least it was an amusing distraction from her increasing worries as to whether the deal would be accepted.
(And so… tame, really, and that was something worth cherishing in the midst of all this uncertainty.)
She looked up from her novel, the small smile on her face dropping when she realized it was one of the golden-armored guards standing in the entryway, face hidden behind his helmet.
"His majesty has requested your presence," said the Custodes, his voice cold and emotionless, save for a a slight note of disdain, raising a pair of silver manacles inscribed with runes as he spoke. "You are to wear these before leaving the room."
The manacles were clearly imbued with the Emperor's power and radiated an aura that felt similar to the net of psychic wards around the edges of the room - a protection from any outside perception that could easily turn into a noose about her neck if Isha used too much of her power within its borders. These manacles would clearly serve the same purpose for whenever she was allowed to leave her quarters, until the day she (hopefully) obtained the Emperor's trust.
"Of course," Isha said, swallowing slightly as she set the dataslates to the side and rose to her feet. She stepped forward hesitantly and raised her hands, tamping down on her wariness. As much as she disliked the idea of wearing those manacles, Isha knew she had no choice.
Isha couldn't suppressed a shiver as the manacles were fastened around her wrists, an unpleasant sensation of cold and heaviness settling on her body. Combined with the wards, the manacles suppressed her abilities to the point that the goddess doubted she'd be able to so much as light a candle.
The Custodes led her to the door and stepped out, showing that there were five other Custodians waiting outside that were to be her escort.
Isha could barely suppress a sigh of relief as she too stepped outside the room, the pressure imposed on her lightening as she was no longer subject to the effects of both the wards and the manacles at the same time. The moment was short lived as the guards surrounded her, leading her down the hall.
Still, Isha was glad to be outside her room. Being a fully physical being for the first time in her existence had been jarring in more ways that one. Her perception of time had changed greatly, and where once she would have barely noticed the passage of time, these last few weeks in a relatively small area under power suppressing wards had been unbearably long, only mitigated to some extent by the collection of books. This might only be a brief reprieve, but it felt good.
As they walked, Isha couldn't help but examine the Custodians curiously. She wasn't scanning them, simply looking at them with her psychic senses the same way a human would with their physical senses, but even through her passive senses Isha could feel the echoes of the Emperor's power, the way these men had been reshaped on a physical, mental and spiritual level by humanity's guardian. Their souls glowed a pale gold to her perception, and while Isha could not say precisely how powerful they were without an opportunity to study them properly (something which was incredibly unlikely, to say the least), she estimated that their physical abilities, though not their psychic ones, were in the range of some of her strongest children.
It was impressive, to put it mildly. While it was true that she did have children who were capable of physically outmatching the Custodes, they were not exactly common even before the Fall, and the power of the Custodians was a testament to the genius of their lord.
As she considered her escort, Isha couldn't help but wonder if the Emperor would want her to create super soldiers for him. She had promised that she was willing to do anything except create weaponized diseases, and for all the Emperor's power and genius, his abilities were not attuned to life like her own, nor did he have the knowledge she had received from the Old Ones. Still, she couldn't imagine he would ask her such immediately, and even if the Emperor did tell her to make warriors for him, Isha was sure there would be heavy restrictions and her work would be checked repeatedly.
After several minutes and moving through several empty hallways, which Isha strongly suspected had been cleared to ensure no one saw her, they arrived at their destination, another room, the Emperor's presence obvious even before she was directed inside.
The first thing she took note of, besides the man waiting for her on the far end of the room, were the devices and machinery on the tables and hanging from the walls around the edge. She wasn't familiar enough with human technology to be sure, but there was a sense of purpose about the machinery, a faint echo of something that could be considered life, that suggested this was a place of research, and with that in mind she turned her attention back to the large table in the center that the Emperor was standing by. Laid out on the table were a number of vials, flasks, and jars, as well as several small packages, none of them bearing labels, though she didn't doubt he knew exactly what was in each.
A test, then?
"Your majesty," she greeted, still feeling somewhat awkward at not having a name to call him by, but also not sure enough of her standing to ask.
"Isha," He greeted, gesturing for her to come over to the table. "I trust you that you can guess why I've asked you to come here today."
Isha eyed the packages, vials and jars, each containing fluids or suspended materials that all had a minute presence to her senses. "You wish for a demonstration of my abilities."
"Consider it a trial run of our deal, if you must," he said, reaching out to remove her restraints, "Before you leave, I want you to have finished with everything on the table."
As the shackles fell away and the Emperor stepped back, Isha breathed in deeply, enjoying the feeling of being unrestrained for the first time in weeks. Unless there were any serious surprises among this collection, she didn't think it would take all that long to go through everything, and then it would be back to her room and her partial isolation. Having something to do besides read and think would make for a nice distraction and get rid of some of the restless itch lurking in the back of her mind, and help deal with the unbearable tedium she felt as she tried to adjust to her new perspective of time.
She looked back to him, asking, "Is there any particular order or request of me, or do I have a free hand in this assessment?"
"It wouldn't serve as a good assessment if I told you what to do," the Emperor replied, just a hint of amusement to his tone.
"As you say," she said, turning her attention back to the table, considering her options before reaching out and taking a glass vial in hand. Of the two, these had the feeling of illness to them, something that would no doubt end up a priority in the times to come, especially should Nurgle decide to get involved in matters.
She touched on each potential pathogen suspended within the fluids inside, judging between harmless and harmful for each before encouraging them to separate with the faintest flick of her power. While neutralizing was as easy as simply cutting a few strands, providing a cure was more important in the long term for any widespread concerns. She targeted her changes until the formerly harmless bacterium were altered to produce the counter-agent to the disease within. Only once she was satisfied that her cure was not unintentionally toxic to what she knew of human biology (which was still admittedly limited between the power suppression and limited interactions) did she set it back in place and grab the jar next to it.
Isha frowned when she touched on the viral agents within, recognizing an artificial creation quickly. Something to eat through flesh in minutes, and so narrow in its comfortable environmental range that the only reason it could survive is through suspension in a container like this one, or by actively feeding and reproducing to outpace its reaction to oxygen. While this one was simple in purpose and design, it still reminded her that for all humanity was young, they still had plenty of experience in devising new and more terrible ways of killing each other and other races, even if they would never reach the vicious cruelties her children had managed over the ages. Exhaling, she tweaked and twisted until all that was left was a quick-acting counter-agent to the virus before setting the jar down and moving on.
(How much had been lost, she wondered, before turning her thoughts back to the present. She could think on such things later.)
The remaining samples were a mix of natural and designed, virus, bacterial, fungi, parasites, worms, and one case of mangled proteins that she needed to unfold and rewrap correctly. She had no idea how long she spent on her work, but as she set the last of four dozen samples down, she could feel the difference in her body, no longer tense from worry and the constant pressure of a threat hanging over her head. She'd even caught herself close to humming once when she'd forgotten where she was, and why she was doing this in the first place.
She was in her element, and couldn't entirely hold back her smile even as she turned her attention to the other half of the table.
Her fingers wrapped around the closest seed packet as she picked it up. She opened it, letting the partially dried seeds fall into her open palm, setting the empty container to the side as she picked out the damages of time and stress in each of the seeds in turn. It only took a brief moment's focus to repair damaged strands, snipping out traits more likely to harm than help the poor plants reach maturity and reproduce and replacing them as necessary, but she still paused to frown thoughtfully down at her work once she'd finished.
Restoring things to what they were was no challenge to her - and not a good show of her ability. The question was whether going beyond simple clean up would harm or help her chances. She glanced over to the Emperor, who had not moved since she began her work in favor of watching her progress, any opinion on her or her work kept to himself both in his warp presence and in his body language.
Well, she'd been provided enough for some leeway. Putting a touch of her power into only half the seeds this time, she made some more adjustments, focusing on reducing water needs, increased yield, and after some thought, the ability to draw in and break down radiation-rich material without taking genetic damage in the process. She hoped the gesture would be appreciated for what it was, and not taken as an insult. With one last superficial change in color expression on the exterior, she tilted the seeds back into their packet and reached for the next.
The seeds, ultimately, were a mix of food, medicinal, function, and presentation, though none of the three dozen packets were all of them. For each, she took half the seeds and simply restored them to pre-war sequences, while the other half were expanded upon, taking on new and beneficial traits without sacrificing much of what was already there. The only two she had to take additional time on were the packets of deliberately sabotaged seeds, teasing the material back from such heavy damages until there was no sign of anything they'd been through in their genetic weave.
When she set down the last packet, she looked over the table one last time, checking to see if she'd missed anything. Partially, it was to ensure she'd been thorough in her performance, and partially, it was knowing that finishing meant putting the shackles back on, and being returned to her rooms of a different kind of shackle while waiting for the Emperor to make his determination. The taste of freedom, short as it had been, had helped her recenter her mind more than the weeks of waiting had, and to lose it so soon…
(Even a willing cage was still a cage, no matter how pretty the decorations.)
She closed her eyes and timed her breaths, stepping away as she told herself that this would all be worth it in the end.
"You've finished, then?" The Emperor asked.
"I have," she said, opening her eyes and looking over towards him. "Was there anything else you needed me for?"
"At this moment, no," he said, holding up the shackles. "Should I need you again, I will call on you."
Isha nodded, holding out her hands.
(It would be worth it. It had to be.)
In retrospect, Isha should have known it was another test.
This journey to the lab had been much the same as any other trip, not even a heightened sense of anticipation to alert her to something being different about this visit. It was perhaps a bit unusual for the Emperor's companion Malcador to be present for what looked to be another healing session for a terminally ill patient, but Isha had accepted months ago that the two were rather busy and generally couldn't both be spared to keep an eye on her long enough for her to get in some few hours' work.
She looked away from them once her shackles were removed, instead turning her attention to the boy deep in an induced sleep on the examination table. Even as she'd moved over to stand next to the table, her powers were reaching out and in, a feather-light touch to assess his general health before she laid a physical hand on his chest for a more thorough assessment. As she started building a mental list of all the damages of his body and ordered them by immediate and future risk, Isha found herself starting to hum quietly, intrusive thoughts of idle times being swept away as she focused on the task before her.
After the Emperor had finally agreed to accept the deal, Isha had felt several knots of anxiety and uncertainty unwind and settle in her essence. It meant that, whatever else was to come, she had some guarantee of her ongoing safety and welfare so long as she kept to her word, not to mention she would get more time out from under the wards and actually doing something.
While it wasn't every day - or even every week - she was called on, she still looked forward to these temporary excursions, allowing herself to stretch out her soul in the short hours she had before she was escorted back to the muffled silence of her rooms. Most of these days, she was merely working with more of what she had with her first test, restoring what had been lost or damaged in seeds and turning illnesses into their own cures. Sometimes sprouts or more mature plants would pass through her hands, her fingers caressing the leaves and knuckles running along the stems as she encouraged them to vibrant health and purpose. A few times, she was given samples of damaged genetic material from long-dead creatures, and while she doubted it would be a good idea to try and create a new life from the samples, she could still reverse the ravages of time so that the knowledge and history in its genes could be read and understood by anyone.
(-Unwind the genetic material and isolate the malfunctioning strands that had led to illness, twisting sugar chains into different shapes until the letters read the way they were meant to, before rewinding it and bundling it back into its fragile casing, an act repeated consecutively across every cell-)
There were even two relaxing cases of working with boxes of irradiated soil, her hands and arms and hair and clothing easily getting filthy as she dug into the warm earth and coaxed the silent poisons out of it that left the life still clinging on struggling to avoid mutating into something unable to propagate itself. She had been able to lose herself in the work, her body relaxing as she encouraged the growth and hardiness of the microscopic life within to turn the dirt into rich, fertile soil, ready to grow any of the foods of humanity she'd so far sampled and extrapolated on. She'd even mourned the loss when the prepared soil had been taken away, continuing to rub the dirt stuck under her nails until she'd been not so subtly encouraged by the Emperor to be completely cleaned up by the time he next came to visit her rooms.
(She knew what happened to all her work once he was finished with it - the faint echoes of her touch snuffing out like dim embers after some time - but she held onto hope that one day soon, she would be able to have something that lasted.)
(-Move a layer up, slice away the unhealthy cells, lyse them and break the proteins so that they didn't damage the healthy material around them, while encouraging new tissue and nerves and vessels to grow in their place until it was all replaced and working-)
After several months of work, the Emperor had decided to trust her enough to start allowing her to help heal mortals afflicted with terminal diseases or mutations. All their gazes had been distant, a faint touch of the Emperor upon their minds to likely keep them from remembering her presence and her work, and she told herself that it wasn't her concern. WIth them, she was doubly careful, ensuring that the only things she was changing were the things that were directly affecting their health. She had also been sure not to boost their immune systems beyond the upper end of the standard range she'd assessed, and she did not attempt to strengthen any part of the body that had not been weakened below the average healthy range by their conditions.
While Isha could not help but brush their souls in the process - especially the young girl whose mutation had been partially touched by the Warp - she could feel the weight of the Emperor's gaze upon her for the action and did not want to imagine what would happen to them if he decided she had 'compromised' them too much. Before she finished, she always made sure nothing of herself was left behind, to give them the best chance to survive past whatever scrutiny their leader had in store for them.
(-Stretch out along and through the body, touch up smaller damages from time and poor nutrition and several fights the child had not escaped from unscathed, nerves to blood to bone to soul to skin to tendons, see how they all connect, untangling and smoothing the flow between it all until the system as a whole worked in seamless harmony with itself in the materium and the immaterium-)
Isha exhaled as she withdrew, the timeless instant of her work falling away to the more exhausting reality of her situation. After once last cursory touch to ensure she hadn't left behind anything that could leave the boy at risk, she pulled herself entirely back in and stepped back so that the Emperor could step in and make his own cursory check of her patient. Her soul still winced ever so quietly at the comparative lack of delicacy compared to what she'd been doing, though she knew compared to his species he was the model of psychic control and precision.
(It stung, just a bit, to know that he likely thought she would harm them or poison them against him in spirit or mind. She did not think he understood how highly she valued life - all life, not just the Eldar, regardless of her natural bias - and she wasn't sure how to explain it without sounding like she was dismissing his concerns out of hand.)
"Was that everything you wanted me to work on today?" She asked once he was satisfied, having looked about the room and seen the unusual lack of other material to work through. They knew she would not have needed all that long to handle such a case; was this merely a stolen moment of opportunity and not a true work session, then?
"I have one other task for you before you retire for the day," the Emperor replied, the door opening behind her in response to some unseen command, and Isha turned to see two of the Custodians dragging another man between them, one who was clearly enhanced and also twisting in almost bestial rage to escape his captors.
Isha reached out with her powers and her hands on instinct, one step stuttering as she had to hold back the sudden urge to rage at the sheer brutality this warrior's enhancements had done to his body and mind. She almost stumbled over the last three steps, falling to her knees as the guards allowed her to grab the warrior's face between her hands, ignoring the spittle as she dove into his genetic and physiological profiling without a second's hesitation.
(-Enhanced strength and stamina and rage, but at the cost of so many other systems, damages magnifying on themselves and constant microtearing from muscles ill-developed until the limbs literally tore themselves apart from the constant stress and damages inflicted on them, and what was wrong with that disaster of an immunological system, it could survive a thousand bioweapons but fall over dead from the wrong mundane bacterium-)
The warrior snarled and tried to twist away, but her nails dug in as she snarled back at him, "Stay still."
Her powers were spread throughout his body, so it was an afterthought to lock down the nervous system so he couldn't so much as twitch, after another quarter second adjusting that so that her patient didn't die because his blood stopped pumping or replenishing its oxygen. She ignored that spark of fear, human fear, in his eyes, diving into the genome itself to tear apart the modifications and start from the ground up.
(-take out the redundancies on the strength and replace these other segments with improved repair systems, clean out the adrenaline and reduce the input of the production systems to a quarter, seal up the ruptured poison-cleaning organs and make the fluids leaking out dissolve into raw material for rebuilding elsewhere-)
At some point she noticed vaguely that she had more space around her, mostly because it occurred to her distracted mind that she shouldn't have been able to drag the arms to her to repair and reinforce the bones expressing dozens of microfractures while also taking the ligaments and restructuring them slightly to make up for the drop in muscle when she'd cut out several genes that were producing proteins amplifying their growth to dangerously untenable levels.
(-clean out the proteins breaking down the vital cranial matter, then look for the holes in the system and encourage the development of replacements, then ease the memories and functions lost back from its immaterial mirror, the soul remembers so long as the flesh remains to return to-)
Only after Isha had finished going over the warrior three times to tease out other issues she might have missed did she finally let go in the world and the warp, his body hitting the ground as she leapt to her feet, a fire burning hot and dense in the center of her chest.
"What was that?" She demanded, staring up at molten gold unflinchingly. "What did you do to him?"
"The Thunder Warriors were an experiment in producing a superior fighter with which to conquer Terra," he replied, the air around them growing heavy. "The results were mixed, and unsuitable for long-term production."
"The results were because you only put effort into making them stronger and more brutal, not in ensuring they could survive whatever torture you put them through to make them that way!" She replied. "Did you want them all to-"
Isha's voice caught as she realized that the designs she had decried had not been entirely accidental.
(The Krork had been, for all their might, the disposable armies compared to the other uplifted forces of the Old Ones.)
(-People are not disposable-)
"I apologize for speaking out of line," Isha said tonelessly as she bowed her head, ashes on her tongue as she kept her gaze to the floor. "Was this all you required of me?"
The weight of the Emperor's attention hung over her head, not quite a hammer or a blade, but a promise of one nonetheless, before it withdrew from her, his attention shifted to the still unconscious warrior. "Your services for the day are finished."
She kept her gaze away as the shackles were locked back around her wrists, their weight almost laughably welcome in comparison to the weight in her chest as she kept turning the nature and genetic schematics of the 'Thunder Warrior' over in her head again and again. Even when she was released to her room, she barely put more than a thought towards finding a seat, a shaky breath escaping her as her face hid in her hands.
What had she been thinking, yelling at him like that? She had known she'd be expected to eventually work on enhanced warriors - had even accepted that they might need a good deal of work to bring them up to the bare minimum of her far too stringent standards - but what that had been -
(-People are not tools of war-)
And thinking back on it, she had more than likely been talking under her breath as she'd worked, hasn't she? What had she said then, in front of multiple witnesses who had every reason to take the slights against them as excuse enough to cut her down then and there?
Isha sighed into her hands, dragging them down her face as she looked back up to stare out blankly at the rest of the room. The worst part of it all was that she wasn't even sure she would be able to explain to him why she'd been furious, why she'd been close to ready to fight for the fate of this warrior who had suffered for the sake of serving someone who had given every sign that his survival or lack thereof had been little more than an excuse for his experiments-
(What else was he expecting from a mother of a race of bioweapons?)
(-People are not weapons-)
She shook her head, trying to make herself think of how she could make up for her slights, but she couldn't ignore the fact that there were more like that man out there, men who would likely die if not treated in time, and the likelihood of her even seeing them before them was now so low-
But did it need to be her who did it?
The design was clear in her mind, and the fixes were… possible based off of her best assessment of the technology that had made them like that in the first place. Not perfect ones, but it would be enough to stabilize the worst, to give them more time to develop and prove they were worth more than to be thrown away once they were no longer useful. And he'd implied he was aiming for better warriors, something that she could easily build off of now that she knew what the (horrifyingly dispassionate) base standard for her to build off of was, and the technology she could expect them to be using to make it happen.
All she needed was something to write on, material that was sorely lacking-
Her gaze settled on the shelf of datapads.
(Well, she supposed she was already in enough trouble.)
"What is this?"
Isha blinked twice, looking from the Emperor to the dataslate she'd just handed over to him and back. "My notes on the changes I made to the Thunder Warrior, as well as some observations and possible improvements dependant on the technology you have available for the matter."
...had she mistranslated? Her grasp on gothic still wasn't flawless, and the more technical terms she'd wanted to use had not been a major part of what she'd been picking up in her limited conversations and readings. It might have been easier to put it into Aeldi as well, but simply resorting to the script alone was… insufficient to truly express everything about her work. Despite that limitation, the diagrams should have been detailed enough for the Emperor to be able to work through on the imagery alone… or so she hoped.
She'd never really had to do something like this before, so perhaps she had made a mistake somewhere?
"I am aware of that," he replied, gaze not relenting. "I did not provide you a dataslate to put these down on."
"I failed to have the forethought to ask before my outburst and dismissal," she replied, ducking her head slightly in embarrassment of losing grip on her admittedly short temper. "I had to make do with the ones I had in my room, since I assumed there was nothing vital on any of them."
"And you considered this more important than waiting for my limited free time to request one?"
"Yes," she replied, frowning when she actually caught his surprise before he masked it. "I assumed you would want to compare my notes to your own observations sooner rather than later, as well as check my best estimates on what available technology you have to implement the gene therapies to fix the majority of the damages I noticed against what you have available to you."
The Emperor was silent for almost a minute, some of the heavy set of his bearing and psychic presence fading back into what she had tentatively concluded was a mix of surprise and wariness. She found herself adjusting her own bearing, tilting her head back up and straightening herself enough to project what she hoped came off as confidence in her work without falling into arrogance.
"Why provide a gene therapy that you aren't required for?"
Why risk the chance of making herself unnecessary for his needs so early, and so soon after her outburst?
"Do I have any chance of seeing the rest of your warriors in the near future?" She asked him, a slight tilt of her head to emphasise her point. "Regardless of what you might think of me, I am not going to hold the lives of others hostage simply to make myself seem more valuable. However long it takes you to ensure that I am not trying to kill or subvert your people to my own means, giving you the means to save them now, in a way you can confirm and apply without any further input from myself, is the fastest and most efficient method I could think of to ensure the rest will not have to keep living with death looming in their own genomes any longer than strictly necessary."
"And why do you assume I need this?" He asked, a darker note entering his voice. "Why presume I care to save them at all? They are simply means to an end, and I can always find more where they came from, or replace them with something more suited to my long term plans."
"Because it's wasteful, and we both know it," she said. "The time needed to recruit and train more of them has more risk to your plans than the benefits of having the existing ones live longer, survive more, and gain the experience and skill that only time can provide to them. Even what I've gleaned of your Custodians is telling, in that you have the means and the desire to make warriors that can live long and fight deftly, but not in large numbers."
Isha paused, taking a breath as she composed her thoughts and guesses. "Whatever means you use to produce your personal guard is lengthy and costly, possibly because it requires your undivided attention to manipulate their psychic presence into what you need for each one. On the other hand, whatever you are using to produce your Thunder Warriors works in greater numbers and without your attention, but at the cost of genetic stability. I could potentially help on the technology front, if I were ever allowed close enough to determine if my assumptions are correct, but until then, the best I can provide is what I am most certain is within your means to produce in large enough amounts to keep up with your recruitment for your warriors in order to make the best of your mixed results."
The weight of his presence and expression lightened again, the Emperor's eyes dimming from hot gold as he looked at her with as close to open consideration as she'd seen yet, an expression he didn't immediately try to hide away.
She hoped that was a good sign. At the least, it was a sign he wasn't somehow offended by her eclipsing him in her own speciality, and specifically gifted with almost all the knowledge of the Old Ones on the matter of life. He had made the offer, after all, and if he couldn't have accepted it, then she would have severely misjudged him.
Not that she hadn't made such mistakes before. She mentally shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts, focusing her attention back on him.
"That isn't everything you provided," he said, looking back to the slate.
"No, but it was the first thing I put in," she admitted. "I also extrapolated what could be done provided more time, more precise technology, an allowance for limited soul manipulation, or whatever specific enhancements you might be looking for in particular, with the more complex work being further down. My best work is something that would take quite a while, additionally hampered by my weakened state, but I am still capable of creating soldiers that, once fully grown and trained, would find very few beings in the galaxy capable of causing them harm."
Aside from each other, her mind whispered, before she shoved that thought away as well, hiding the grimace behind a concerned frown. "Was there something in particular you wanted to discuss?"
"Several things," he said, "starting with your presumed familiarity with the technology you've outlined in these notes."
Isha didn't answer immediately, not entirely certain what he meant by that. "Your technology isn't as alive as what my people use, but it still has enough that I can make minor alterations to dim objects like the dataslate, or get a sense of their function as with the equipment about the room I've been working in. The rest is mostly guesswork based off of what could make your warriors and custodians possible."
"You consider technology alive?"
"Your people do not?"
On further reflection, that could explain his confusion if humanity had some odd division between the concepts of life and technology. Isha had known of civilizations with similar views before, but she hadn't paid enough attention to humanity to realize they were one of them.
The Emperor waited a moment to reply. "Many do, at least to a minor degree."
"That would provide enough for me to have some influence, then," Isha said. "Only the Necrons have managed to wield truly dead technology, as far as I'm aware, though it's possible for there to have been others who managed the same over the ages that I simply did not notice."
He nodded slightly, gaze turning back to the dataslate. She was suddenly struck with curiosity - of all the races of the galaxy, humanity had managed to grow the furthest without some form of interference on her children's part, mostly due to the fortune of the Eldar being almost entirely insular and inwardly focused by that point. Had they developed any such things?
She doubted she would ever know for sure.
"Your outburst from before," he said, glancing back to her. "Based on your admissions just now, I presume your concerns were not about the existence of gene-enhanced warriors, but rather the state of them?"
Isha couldn't make an effort to hide her bafflement. "Of course that was my concern. There is no higher value I hold than the preservation of life, and the idea of disposing of those who served well simply because they are no longer useful is not something I can comfortably condone, even for the sake of our agreement."
Was that a glimmer of amusement, or was she imagining it? "You are rather stubborn and temperamental compared to what stories I have heard about you."
Isha huffed a laugh. "What myths have you heard, then? Life has never been considered something passive or accepting, and neither have I." Her amusement faded, considering the path many of her people had taken. "Well, not among those who still hold some respect for myself and the rest of the pantheon."
Even still, there was a reason her name was the one generally invoked by those who challenged and rebelled against authority for the sake of a greater good. Though to be fair to him, most of those tales were only spoken by the lower classes, out of the direct or indirect hearing of the ears of the noble houses, so it wasn't too surprising that he couldn't have gotten close enough to hear any of them.
"Fair enough," the Emperor replied. "Your gene therapy would replicate the effects of the changes made to the thunder warrior I provided to you?"
"The first formula does," she said. "I admit I might have overcompensated in the direction of survivability, so I also provided some other variant therapies that retain more of their original strength and capabilities but still make up for most of the side effects. Without any form of spiritual augmentation or alteration, those were the best solutions I could provide, and I did not wish to presume what you wished to focus on for their capabilities."
"And those below are solutions that involve spiritual augmentation?"
"Yes, starting with simple spiritual focuses and working up to more thorough and involved works, similar to your custodians."
He nodded again, scrolling back up to the beginning of the list. "We will need to work on your gothic to ensure you know the proper terminology for several of these concepts, but for now, I would have you explain each of your works for me."
Isha nodded, taking a moment to pull up everything she'd written down before she started reciting, inwardly thankful that at least she'd be given the means to ensure her work could be understood. She knew this could have turned out much worse for her if she hadn't been so through with her work and honest in her reasoning, and in the process seemingly surprised him.
She'd made him see her, not his perception of her, even if just for a brief moment. Despite that, she knew she had a long wait until he understood her, the same as she had to wait to understand him.
Well, she supposed if there was even a time to practice her patience, it was here and now.
Malcador the Sigillite strode through the corridors of the Bai-heng hive, servants and workers moving out of his way with respectful bows or nods as he made his way towards the Emperor's private offices. With the latest victory of the Thunder Warriors over Kalagann's last major fortress in northern Ursh, many of its neighboring hives and villages were capitulating to the Imperial war machine with little fight, allowing for rapid expansion into those areas and the ensuing treaties and paperwork such things would generate.
He turned down the corridor to the Emperor's rooms, where the walls were lined with the numerous banners and sigils of each major power that had so far joined the Imperium. Though the colors and designs of many clashed, careful space and design management had managed to make the whole thing look genuinely inclusive and tasteful, disguising some of the subtle show of influence it was meant to be for the rare visitor allowed this way.
Arriving at his destination, Malcador ignored the two Custodians who flanked either side of the door as he reached out to knock sharply on the gold and jewel-inlaid wood. A moment later, a deep voice spoke, "Come in."
Pushing the door open, Malcador stepped into the Emperor's private study, familiarity removing the need to look around at the spacious chambers. Warm wooden floors and walls were lined with trophies and gifts from each and every settlement under the Imperial banner, from the greatest hives to the smallest nomadic settlements, while ironwood shelves almost seemed to bend with the weight of countless books and datapads from across the ages upon them. A rich red and black rug sat under the ancient redwood desk the Emperor was seated behind, the golden eagle sigil stitched into its center in full view of any incoming visitors. Around the massive bay window looking out over the hive and towards the distant Himalazians hung rich velvet curtains in dark red, gold trim along the tops and bottoms and gold laces keeping them pulled back to allow the afternoon sun to pour in, red through the dust and ashes still hanging in the upper atmosphere after the last nuclear bombings more than a century ago.
It was here that the Emperor and Malcador could discuss things that were too delicate for other ears. It was in this place that they had made countless plans and strategies over the last few decades, as they plotted the unification of Earth, the building of the Imperium and the salvation of humanity. It was not quite the most secure place in the Bai-heng hive, that would be the Emperor's private labs, but it was secure enough for their purposes.
Malcador raised an eyebrow at the sight of his friend poring over some documents. The sight in itself was not surprising, but the unusually frustrated scowl his oldest friend was wearing was.
The Emperor raised his head, his scowl fading into a faint smile as he greeted the Sigillite. "Malcador, please sit. I take it you have good news for me?"
Malcador nodded as he sat down, placing the sheaf of papers upon the desk between them. "The campaign against Ursh has succeeded with the surrender of Masco, and their neighbors are already making noise about abandoning Kalagann to defect to us. All reports from my people suggest we should be in full control of their northern territories by the end of the year. Kalagann's forces were also devastated in that fight. We killed many of his battle-psykers and captured Masco's commander. He should have valuable information on Ursh, and the interrogators are already at work on him."
"Good." The Emperor said, his smile growing broader and more genuine. "That will make the rest of Ursh fall into line easier."
"What are you looking at?" Malcador's eyes lingered on the documents in the Emperor's hands. "Bad news?"
"Eldar documents," The Master of Mankind replied, sighing and turning to stare at the documents in his hand with a renewed scowl. "Isha is... not what we expected. We need to know more about her."
"That much is true," Malcador agreed, feeling his own headache return with his thoughts on their otherworldly guest. The two of them had crafted dozens of contingencies for the most unlikely of scenarios, including the chance of full fledged invasions from Mars or Luna before the Imperial war machine was prepared to fend them off, but the arrival of an Eldar Goddess upon Terra had been… unexpected, to say the least. The Emperor had admitted to him that his first instinct had been to kill her and be done with it, but his pragmatism and curiosity had won out, so he had chosen to spare her until they could at least could determine how she had materialized so easily upon Terra, when everything the two of them knew of warpcraft suggested such a thing should have been impossible.
"Have you found anything useful?" Malcador inquired, leaning back in his chair and resisting the urge to rub at his brow.
The Emperor shook his head irritably, letting his documents drop to the table to lean back in his seat, hands falling into his lap. "Nothing. I must admit, I never thought I would need to know much of the Eldar Gods, and I never gave their mythology much thought."
Malcador nodded, having suspected as much. He and his friend had long studied the Eldar, but that had been focused on how to fight them, on their technology, and most importantly, on the Webway. They had paid little attention to their myths or gods, believing that their god-constructs would continue to stay removed from the affairs of the Materium as they had for millions of years; a mistake in retrospect, but an understandable one with the lack of precedent for the situation they now found themselves stuck in.
"Her behavior is a world apart from any Eldar either of us have ever met," The Emperor admitted. "I was expecting more lies, more arrogance, but she has been surprisingly humble and gracious so far."
Another startling truth compared to their expectations. Isha had more than lived up to her promises, doing everything she was asked promptly and without argument, and the information they had derived from studying her work had been arguably of more value than much of what they'd preserved or recovered on the matter of genetics. Malcador had not believed there were still any living beings in the galaxy who exceeded his friend's power and knowledge in any way or form, but Isha's skills as a biomancer were undeniably beyond even that of the Lord of Terra, no doubt an ongoing testament to the ancient beings that had designed her in the first place.
"...do you think that her behavior is genuine?" Malcador asked quietly.
"I have scanned her psychically multiple times, and I found no evidence of deception. And with the exception of that one incident, Isha has been well behaved so far." The Emperor responded, leaning forward and steepling his fingers.
"Yet, her breaking point was apparently the state of that Thunder Warrior," Malcador stated, frowning with his friend. "Not being kept captive, not being treated like a tool, but the pain of one mortal being. It reeks of deception. Why would a warp entity that was created before humanity's most distant mammalian ancestors crawled out from the ashes of the dinosaur's extinction care about the suffering of one mortal?"
"A question I have asked myself several times now, without an answer that satisfies me," The Emperor sighed. "But as I said, all my psychic scans of her indicate her anger and concern was completely genuine. Her actions also speak to the truth. She could have attempted to twist the situation to her benefit." Not that they would have allowed her to do any such thing. "Instead, she offered multiple gene therapies that can be implemented without her, and asked for nothing in return."
Malcador was silent for a moment, his frown deepening. "And what of those gene therapies? Have you discovered anything by studying them?"
"I subjected them to every scan and examination that I know, and found no trace of sabotage. Since then, I've implemented some of what she suggested on the worst of the Thunder Warriors." the Emperor replied. "They did exactly what she said they would, nothing more. None of them are as stable as the warrior she healed personally, but there are significant improvements even without implementing the full range of her therapies. They will remain in isolation and under study for a while longer, but I already suspect we will find nothing."
"It seems too good to be true." Malcador murmured, leaning back in his chair. "With her age and knowledge, she could hide dangerous things deeper than even your mind could pick out from the rest of the design."
"I do not trust her anymore than you do, old friend." Many would have called the Emperor paranoid for that, but Malcador was not one of them. They had both had many friends and allies who had turned upon them in the most unlikely of circumstances, experiencing the pain of betrayal far too many times to place their trust in a xeno-born warp entity.
"Though she is living up to her promises so far, I suspect she is merely being pragmatic in order to ensure her survival," The Emperor continued. "But I do not think she is lying to us either. For instance, if she had concealed her powers over technology…"
Malcador grimaced at the thought. While they had dealt with daemons interfering with technology, a goddess with dominion over it was another matter entirely compared to daemons simply disrupting or possessing individual devices or networks. Isha's abilities, from what they had been able to glean from her, were more akin to the Emperor's own forays into using his psychic powers to manipulate technology, and such a thing could have been catastrophic if they had not learned of it from her actions and admittance.
It still could be, he reminded himself. Shielding technology from warp energy was no easy task even for them, and doing so on a large scale was even harder. The labs she worked in up to then had already been cleaned out of anything she could have possibly interacted with, even if every visit had been under the eye of the Emperor himself, and thoroughly scrubbed down for any signs of tampering. Nothing had been found, but even the smallest risk was not one they could take while trying to adjust their plans for her ongoing presence.
"We can't afford to believe such behavior will continue," Malcador pointed out. "We know she doesn't think like a human, and we can't know when she'll change her methods, even if it goes against her own self-interest."
Even if Isha was genuine in her concern for the Thunder Warriors, the Eldar were prone to exasperating mental gymnastics that led them to do things that were, at least to the eyes of humans, foolish and counterproductive. However compassionate Isha might or might not be, the fact remained that she was not human and they could not rely on her to think as one, even for the sake of her own survival and freedom.
The Emperor inclined his head in agreement. "True. But she has proven useful so far, and as long as she stays that way…" The Emperor trailed off.
"We keep her in a gilded cage." Malcador finished.
The Emperor nodded. "Yes. And if she does try to manipulate us, I am confident I can outmaneuver her."
"I know, but it would not do to underestimate her." Malcador said grimly. "She is the mother of the Eldar, after all."
The Emperor nodded again, conceding the point. The Eldar were legendary for their manipulative nature, and given her age and nature, the two of them had little doubt that Isha had considerable experience in bending others to her will. Both of them had gone over her words and gestures a number of times in private, records played back repeatedly even if the full nature of her presence and bearing was lost to the medium.
"As for her other designs, I also remain concerned for how close she came to the design of the Custodians," the Emperor admitted. "If she could recreate their design just from passive observation and her own knowledge of warpcraft and geneweaving, then there's a chance she could devise a way to neutralize or even kill them if given enough time and motivation."
"Do they know?" Malcador asked, feeling his own curl of dread before he forced it away. Panic would not help here.
"Constantin knows. He's making sure those in charge of guarding her will have enough warning to react if she does anything, and I have several of the Sisters of Silence stationed nearby in case we need to suppress her enough to be dealt with."
It was something, at least, and already proving a massively helpful investment in terms of training. "Do you believe there's a chance she knows about the project?"
The Emperor's hesitation lasted only for a second, but it felt like it lasted a year. "She's given no indication as such, but some of the most advanced techniques and designs she listed have been tempting enough that I have to be cautious in testing them-"
The Guardian of Mankind was interrupted by a sudden psychic shockwave that echoed through both the Materium and the Warp, like a sudden crack of thunder that felt like it should have shattered the window. The Emperor's head had swerved immediately to stare out the window towards the Himalazians, while Malcador clutched his staff with one hand, the other rising to his head as his it ached with pain.
What had happened? Had Chaos attempted something upon Terra? Had Isha? Reaching out into the Immaterium, Malcador attempted to trace the source of the shockwave, feeling his liege do the same… and shared the Emperor's horror as they realized it came from the latter's private labs. The gellar field generators had fallen, their backlash severe enough that almost all the continent had likely felt it at this point.
Chaos had come for the Primarchs. They had come to steal the Emperor's greatest works and turn them against him and all of humanity, to corrupt the sons and set them against their father.
Without saying another word, the Emperor vanished in a flare of golden light, teleporting straight to his labs.
Malcador could only hope he wasn't too late.
Including the new routine of putting down the information behind her work on the tablets wasn't much trouble, besides the usual concern of not quite being able to explain everything to the detail she knew subconsciously. Even with the new terminology she had at hand, her awareness of just how much humanity had never explored, or at least did not remember exploring, was made all the more stark to her through what words she was not able to acquire, each hole requiring another adjustment to her estimations and ability to be concise.
The equipment that used to be in the laboratory had all been taken away after her (in hindsight, rather pointed) admission that she could in fact alter their functionality to an unknown degree. The fact that she hadn't actually thought to do that probably didn't change the fact that the equipment had likely been destroyed as all the other small projects she had worked on.
The Emperor sometimes spoke to her while she was working on his assignments, slowing down her work enough to explain each of the parallel processes she was weaving to make the whole functional and even occasionally why. It had started with the clarification of the changes her formulas induced in his thunder warriors, and then a bit into her more involved theoretical designs, and then had somehow moved on to just about anything that involved geneweaving.
He had proven intelligent and attentive, making certain he could follow every step of her work if not the magnitude of detail of her thought processes, both conscious and otherwise, going through countless theoreticals with her that oftentimes ran for hours past when he obviously intended for her to return to her rooms. She even managed to catch him lowering his guard a few times, unconsciously allowing some of his genuine interest and traces of enthusiasm to leak through, though she thought that anyone else would have missed it from how in control of himself he tried to be at all times around her.
...Not that she had any room to speak with how tightly controlled she reigned in her own emotions and psychic aura at all times so as to avoid any… misunderstandings. He probably hadn't ever had someone around who was as in tune with the warp and its nature as he was before - or any sort of match to his skills in general - and so wasn't used to entirely hiding himself from someone who was capable of seeing through his psychic aura to the actual man underneath like she could. Isha doubted even his advisor Malcador saw through more than a fraction of the facade the guardian of humanity wore around himself like clothing, a habit that probably hadn't helped his ability to relate to the rest of his people that much.
The only thing she could really consider a bit uncomfortable about the current state of affairs was the presence of the Sigillite in a few more of these meetings than before. It wasn't that the man was a threat to her even in this state - not when she could discreetly call on root and wraithbone faster than his reactions suggested he could strike - but the fact that his emotions were not so easily concealed from her as the Emperor's were made her somewhat more aware of him in the peripheral of her eyes and mind.
The mistrust was obvious enough that she was mostly sure he wasn't actually trying to do more than the bare minimum to hide it, perhaps out of propriety or simply following the Emperor's judgement on the matter. She couldn't be sure if it was a personal distrust of her or of her people in general, but in either case, Isha felt no particular need to try and reach out to him when they had nothing to talk about. It wasn't like she couldn't imagine a few dozen reasons for it without thinking about it, and nothing she could say would do anything more than her efforts so far had.
The new routine she was living in was working out, and she was feeling less and less of the weight above her head that pushed her to dance a fine line of expectations and judgements. She could almost consider herself satisfied, at least when the massive number of issues the future had in wait for her wasn't creeping around the back of her mind and reminding her of her primary goals.
She didn't feel the shockwave of the warp herself, so much as she felt its effects on the wards. The room shuddered, the normally pristine net of psychic weaving ruffled and wrinkled and frayed as it was thrown out of alignment by the outside force. Isha froze in the middle of her detailing of the latest theoretical posed to her by the Emperor, waiting for some form of follow up, or even an explanation, but neither came even as the hours crept by. Even the normal arrival of a servant bringing meals was absent, leaving her alone with an increasingly concerning list of what happened and no way to obtain information.
The brief thought of opening the doors and asking the guards what had happened almost startled a laugh from her, because there was no way that that situation would end well for her. Her fingers unclenched from around the tablet, the slight indents left by her fingers going unnoticed as she forced herself to set it down. Her attention turned back to the wards above her, each damaged area standing out in her mind vividly after months of being used to the usual uniformity of it all, and she realized that it would be entirely possible for her to press her own power into those cracks and open them up, perhaps reach into the outside world and obtain answers herself.
Part of her wanted to do it, the part that craved the moments of freedom she got while in the laboratory or speaking with the Emperor. The rest of her recoiled, because she didn't know what had caused the damage in the first place, and she had come here in the first place for very specific and warp related reasons. It would be beyond foolish to break the wards, anger the Emperor and risk her own safety just for a short reprieve from something she'd spent more than a local solar cycle getting used to.
She forced her breathing to even out, her mind racing through all the wraithbone weaponry and armor she could summon at the first sign of any danger. The song to make it all appear at once danced on the edge of her mind and tongue, each layer being refined again and again to include each piece, the crafting of a war melody enough to distract her for the next few suspected days while she continued to watch the flaws in the barrier and the massive doors to her room alike. A few hours after the initial attack, she sensed the Emperor's powers reach out and repair the wards, or rather, place another layer of his power over them. It was swifter and cruder than the previous arrangement, but no less effective. Still, no one came to speak to her, not even the usual servants bearing food or guards demanding her presence for their liege.
On the fifth day of her vigil, the doors opened, the Emperor storming in with his emotional turmoil barely constrained around him. His presence seeped into the wards and around the room, making Isha feel smaller for just a moment as her instincts screamed at her that she was in danger before she forced herself to calm down and straighten her spine. She had done nothing wrong, and she would not let him accuse her otherwise even in his current state.
"I would presume that the worst danger has passed?" She asked, watching as his powers started prodding at his wards, likely looking for any signs of her tampering while they were still incomplete and ragged.
A bit more of his attention turned to her, and she could see him force his temper back to a point where anyone else would have thought him perfectly calm, though it only served to highlight to her just how much he must have been feeling. "Danger?"
Isha waved a hand up towards the wards that were even now slowly being slid back into place, their usual suppressive weight growing and adding to his own overbearing aura. "Whatever put the wards in that state was nothing that could be considered weak, and since nothing that would do that would be pleasant news for either of us, I can only assume you've resolved the issue enough for your priorities to finally come around to me."
He temporarily paused in his efforts to fix the wards, some of the weight ebbing away. "You presumed you were in danger?"
"I didn't presume anything," she replied. "I decided that the last five days would be better spent waiting for whatever information you would choose to offer on the matter."
"It has been eight days," he corrected. She winced slightly - it seemed her sense of time had been thrown off by the lack of routine and her own self-defense preparations. "You didn't attempt to peer past the wards?" His question sounded more like a statement.
"No, I did not."
The silence was awkward after that, the Emperor turning some more of his attention back to his repair work on the wards, quickly realigning them. When the last segment slid into place, she sighed and let the last of the warsong fade to the back of her mind, still there if she needed to call on it, but otherwise no longer the most pressing matter at hand.
"There will be changes to the nature of our discussions," The Emperor told her, feeling less like a barely contained storm as his attention turned fully to her. "Your other projects will remain mostly unchanged."
"What sort of changes should I expect?" She asked.
"More focus on practical applications, leaning towards designs and concepts that are best suited for multiple kinds of foe with a single template. There will also be greater emphasis on maximising speed of production without sacrificing quality and ensuring the pool of candidates is not limited by age."
Ah, so he was preparing for his new generation of gene-crafted warriors. "And you trust me to help with that?"
His smile was thin. "No, I am merely consulting you due to your familiarity with such things."
Isha should have expected as such, even while she was wondering why he was bothering when he had all her modification designs already. "Were the designs from the tablet not to your liking?"
"They simply do not fit with the plans I have in mind," he replied. "The psychic focus, for one, seems somewhat insufficient for my needs."
(-highest potential among all candidate species-)
Isha did not let herself react, even as she replied slowly, "I would recommend psychic resistance over sensitivity."
"What brings you to that conclusion?" He asked, voice deceptively calm even as she sensed just a hint of anticipation, enough to put her back on edge, because this had to be a test, but what kind she didn't even know-
(-further modification required to obtain sufficient resonance for deployment-)
"Your species is not naturally hypersensitive to the warp in the way of the Eldar," she said, shifting back and straightening her shoulders. "And I've noticed some genetic traits among my patients that could lead to heightened resistance to the warp with the right sort of encouragement. While having some number of warp sensitive warriors among your armies is sensible, considering the nature of our mutual enemies, it would play better to the strength of your people to try and make them less at risk of dealing with psychic influence of any kind."
"You say that as if warp resistance is an easy thing to integrate into an already developed soul," the Emperor replied. "And I doubt you would approve of any design that would put your own species at a disadvantage."
(-cooperation is irrelevant to our plans-)
Isha couldn't entirely keep the brief welling of distaste suppressed. "My approval is irrelevant on the matter."
The Emperor said nothing in response to that, Isha barely catching the flicker of several things that could have been curiosity or annoyance before he pulled them back and nodded once. "The next time I call on you, I would like to know what methods you have of enhancing warp resistance. Will you need more datapads?"
"No, what I have will suffice," she replied.
He turned and walked back out of the room, the doors shutting with a near silence that felt unbefitting to the welling frustration currently creeping up under her skin. She knew his species was far too young to be anything more than fortunately late growth of the seeds left behind by the Old Ones ages ago, but sometimes-
Isha exhaled, pushing the comparison from her mind, pulling up the genetic sequencing for a flower that had once grown on the Eldar homeworld, a broad-red-petaled species that had grown in the mountains that her people had used as a numbing agent for wounds and childbirth in ages long past. The temptation to make it grow and bloom from her hand, to have something to cradle between her fingers, was outweighed by the mental image of the blossom crushed between cold fingers and dropped at her feet.
She wished she could remember what her people had called it back then.
Despite his claim otherwise, Isha caught him referencing back to pieces of her various offerings more than a few times during their discussions. It seemed that he was taking the need for adaptability in the field seriously, throwing out alteration concepts and incomplete systems that she would then prod into completion, explaining why certain aspects wouldn't work or would be less effective than hoped or would overtax other parts of the body.
It was also clear that he was trying to hide what he was aiming to get out of this, presumably in order to make sure she couldn't unfairly manipulate the systems he seemed to already be aiming towards. His ideas would range from the menial to the exotic, sometimes even going over contradictory concepts in the same work period, and many times they sounded to her more like the idle musings of their earlier gene-weaving discussions than the readily applicable practicalities he stated he wanted to focus on.
Isha was not one to be blind to what his aims were, even if he was doing his best to conceal which concepts most had his attention on any particular day. The first sign was his increased focus on modular additions and adjustments over a wholesale systematic overhaul like her formulas, and the second his continued interest in her thoughts on the limits of enhancement for the various subdivisions of the human body: which elements and compounds would integrate most effectively with the skeletal structure, what adjustments to the muscular fibers would keep the normal waste buildup to a minimum, the best balance between synaptic speed and the risk of hypersensitivity from too much simulation.
(Some mistakes did not need to be repeated.)
Despite his efforts, Isha slowly began to piece together the ideal warrior he seemed to have in mind. Mostly it came from a mix of judging his emotional state during their talks, identifying which of the conversations had the most balanced mix of energy consumption and resilience to effectiveness, and the fallback reminders of once being a part of and yet separate from the experimental stage of creating an entirely new breed of gene-engineered warriors.
Isha shook her head minutely, closing her eyes as she dipped her head slightly to hide her face behind the rich red locks of hair. Her fingers dug deep into the soil she had been given to work on today, her inner turmoil being mashed into the granules and ancient clay as she reminded herself that there was a significant difference - the Emperor, for all he made a show of being dismissive, clearly placed a not insignificant degree of value upon her words and opinions.
Then again, considering she was in the strange place between a monopoly on information about the theory and a dearth of information on how that theory was being applied, perhaps she was overestimating her overall input in whatever came out of his laboratories.
Isha didn't pause in her stirring, prodding at some microfauna to see what sort of biome balance she had to work with. "I suppose I am."
She couldn't see his contemplative gaze, but she could feel the weight of his attention shift a bit more towards her and away from whatever inner contemplation had been occupying him. "Have you decided our hospitality is insufficient?"
"No," she replied, one hand reaching up to tuck her hair back behind her ears. The slight drag of the soil smeared into her hair was soothing, and she couldn't keep herself from rubbing some more off of her hand into it before the hand came back down to dig back in. "I have no complaints on the matter."
"Perhaps you feel bored with the projects you've been working on?" He continued to prod idly, no doubt starting to treat this as another test. It didn't feel quite as biting as his previous tests, though, so perhaps it wasn't one?
"No, they've been engaging enough for me."
"Then perhaps," the Emperor said, tone still even and calm. "You find some dissatisfaction in your limited input into my gene projects."
"Not at all." Isha continued to work, the entire microbiome of the soil coming together into harmony and nurturing the soil into something that could resist dry conditions while maintaining its acidic balance. "I can tell you've been reading through and listening to my words, even if you don't plan on using most of it. Whatever design you settle on will no doubt be sufficient for your needs."
The Emperor hummed quietly, not responding immediately. "Your minor bursts of irritation and frustration only became regular after the change to our discussions. Even by your people's logic, there has to be some correlation between the events."
Isha turned her head enough to look at the Emperor, her hands withdrawing from the soil crate now that she had determined the system was self-balanced enough to no longer need her attention. "Correlation does not immediately mean causation," she said, straightening up and running her hands through her hair again. "And I have hardly let my frustration affect my work or our discussions."
"I am aware. However, I would prefer to prevent another outburst like the one you had after working with my Thunder Warrior," the Emperor replied, regarding her with narrowed eyes.
"That was a different situation, and resolved to both our satisfaction, last I was aware." Isha's hands dropped to her sides, fingers still idly rubbing the remaining soil between them, the texture and input of knowledge she already knew settling against the increased confusion and annoyance she was feeling.
What was he hoping to get out of this? Proof of some aspect of her character he could consider a flaw? They were past the point where his anger felt like a threat over her head, which was why she felt more comfortable speaking her mind and even pushing back occasionally. She had thought they were approaching some easy form of amiability. She didn't like the idea that she might have been mistaken.
"It started when I brought up the potential for adjustments to your designs for a psychic focus," the Emperor said, words spoken slowly as if he were puzzling out the answer as he went along. "And more so, you seem almost against looking too much into psychic sensitivity despite that no doubt being a specialty for you. Many of your designs from the tablet had varying levels of sensitivity but, in retrospect, based on some fallback to serve as a safety net."
"And your conclusion?" Isha asked carefully.
"You don't want me to work towards designs that would make any gene-enhanced warriors more like your people."
"I am not blind to your disapproval of my people and their ways," Isha replied. "Why should I make suggestions that you would throw away out of spite, or else use against my people? I am helping you protect your own people, not to slaughter mine."
"You say that after your own claims that you may need to put them down for what they've unleashed on the galaxy with their unearned pride and insanity?"
Isha's temper frayed ever so slightly and she gave the Emperor a cold look. "That is not what I meant and you know it. I am willing to help you with your gene-crafted warriors because I know what is at stake here, but that does not mean I wish to see my people destroyed. In any case, your warriors would hardly be helpless against my fallen children, given the threats they are designed to face."
The Emperor's eyes narrowed further. "And what threats would those be? You seem strangely sure that you know my reasons for creating enhanced soldiers."
Isha gazed back coolly, refusing to be intimidated. "I am not a fool. The Fall had consequences beyond just the destruction of my children's empire. It would also have destroyed the fleets of psychomatons and spirit-drones that my children used to keep their enemies in check, not the least of which are the Krork and the K'nib, or as they are known today, the Orks and the Rangdan."
This time, Isha was sure of the flicker of surprise on the Emperor's face before he schooled his expression. "You know, then."
"I do," Isha responded curtly. "My children and my pantheon waged war upon them long ago, before Asuryan's ban, so I am well aware of the threat they pose to the galaxy and what would happen if they were allowed to reclaim their lost power."
"And despite knowing of the threat they pose and having millions of years in which to do so, your people failed to truly eradicate either the Orks or the Rangdan, only contain them," The Emperor observed. "Hardly a great accolade for such a powerful and advanced species working off the scraps and memories of the Old Ones."
Isha bristled at the implication in the Emperor's words. Her children's sins were beyond counting, but this was not one of them. "We tried. They were too resilient, too dangerous. All our attempts to solve the problem failed; no matter what we did, we couldn't destroy them or cure them-" Isha broke off, grimacing. She had not meant to let that last part slip.
"Cure?" The Emperor's incredulity and astonishment were obvious, and for once he made no effort to conceal his emotions. "How could you possibly cure those abominations? Why would you even want to?"
Isha inhaled sharply. Well, there was no point in concealing it, she supposed, no matter how much she disliked the idea of sharing the memory of one of her greatest failures with the Emperor. But more harm would be caused by lying to him than simply telling the truth.
"I did not wish to cure the K'nib. Those revolting parasites have always been monsters, and deserve only annihilation. The Krork, however, were valuable allies, once upon a time. I...I attempted to find a way to restore their sanity. I failed."
That was one of her most bitter regrets to this day. Gorkamorka had been a good friend and ally, once. He had struggled with how to be more than just a living weapon - all the Krork had - and the potential to grow beyond that, which had existed, no matter how ridiculous the idea might seem to those who had only ever known the Orks. The Old Ones might have created the Krork as weapons, but they had wanted loyal soldiers dedicated to protecting them, not monstrous brutes incapable of anything but waging war only for the sake of war itself. But the Old Ones had not been wise enough to create other safeguards to ensure the Krork never went mad, too assured of their own immortality, and so, in the end, monsters were what the Krork had become without the guidance of their creators.
Isha still wished she could have found a way to save their sanity. The galaxy would be a better place if she had. So many innocents might have been spared, and her own people might not have fallen as far as they had if their oldest allies had still existed to support them. Or oppose them, if needed.
"Why could you not?" The Emperor inquired, his curiosity obvious even as she could see his skepticism of the idea of the Krork ever having been anything more than brutish savages. "I would have thought the knowledge bestowed upon you by the Old Ones would have been more than sufficient to...cure the Orks."
Isha laughed, a bitter and humourless sound. "The Old Ones did not see fit to inform me of the inner workings of either the Ork or Rangdan. It was not within my purview. I studied them both extensively but they had potent defenses designed to prevent them from being truly understood by any outside force. The Krorkian Psychosphere-"
"The Krorkian Psychosphere," The Emperor interrupted, surprise once more colouring his voice. "Is that what the Ork gestalt field is called?"
Isha nodded curtly. "Yes. As you know, the Psychosphere shapes the Orks in every way, their genetic structure, their abilities, their minds...everything. And it is the Psychosphere's malfunction that is the source of their insanity. However, it still retains the defenses created by the Old Ones, and despite my best efforts, I was never able to even diagnose the problem, and therefore unable to devise a cure."
The Emperor's gaze was considering, allowing Isha a moment of silence to privately mourn what had been lost. "I must admit, I had begun to believe there was no limit to your skill and knowledge concerning biomancy."
"I suppose this was one of the least painful ways for you to find out otherwise."
Another moment of silence passed before the Emperor's curiosity apparently got the better of him. "What were they like?"
Isha didn't know where to begin. Did she start with the numerous failed experiments that she had sensed be snuffed out before the Krork had been settled on and finalized? How could she explain the Gorkamorka's virtues to someone who had never met him, and might not have been able to perceive them even if he had? Isha was well aware that her ability to see Gorkamorka as more than just a living weapon had been because of the empathetic abilities she possessed as the Goddess of Life. Even the rest of her Pantheon had found the Two Headed Krork God to be strange and off-putting long before Gorkamorka had succumbed to madness.
Could she explain the almost bipolar nature of her old friend, swinging between the laughter and quips they shot between each other and the barely restrained instincts to fight until there was nothing left to oppose him? What words did she have for how a part of her had withered and died along with Gorkamorka's sanity, that ember of civilization and nobility snuffed out under his increasing bloodlust? Was there any way she could make him understand how it had felt to see that brief, desperate fear and betrayal in his eyes before Gorkamorka stopped being a singular being?
"They were noble," she eventually settled on, knowing that it said next to nothing of value, but having nothing better.
The Emperor's only reply was a thoughtful hum.
Were Isha a normal material being that needed sleep, she imagined she would not get much rest. As her discussions with the Emperor had continued, she had come to realize that her previous work was indeed not sufficient for what he wanted now. Whatever plans he had for his new breed of enhanced warriors, it had become increasingly clear that he had accelerated them after the... incident. He was in a hurry, and desired the ability to create the most powerful and stable warriors he possibly could in as short a time as possible, with the bare minimum of resources he seemed to believe he could get away with.
It had admittedly proven difficult even for her to meet his requirements. It would be one thing if she was able to create his enhanced warriors personally, but the Emperor wanted other people to be able to do so without his own intervention, let alone hers. Her limited grasp on exactly what technology the Emperor had available made things more difficult as well. Nevertheless, work was progressing at a steady rate, and Isha was confident she'd have a design that would satisfy the Emperor soon.
Still, it was time consuming and exhaustive work, though Isha couldn't say it was a bad thing. There was very little else to do when the quiet of her room became suffocating, her thoughts shifting away from her designs to the weight of memories both fresh and old dredged up by all that had occurred since she'd made her escape from the warp. There was only so much of a distraction she could get from reading or rereading novels, and too much on her mind to hold back forever.
(Sometimes she wished she were capable of breaking down and weeping away her grief, the way her children could. Not that she could have afforded to do it here, where her vulnerability could be used against her, but the temporary relief would have been welcome.)
Isha shook herself from her own head when she heard the doors start to open, adopting a composed and serene demeanor when the Emperor entered as if she hadn't been digging her nails into her clothing while her mind spiralled into darker emotions just moments before. If the Emperor noticed anything amiss, he said nothing, his own composure barely broken by a thin streak of impatience and concern. "I have need of your services to heal some of my Thunder Warriors once more. For different reasons this time, however."
"Of course," Isha nodded, pushing down the surprise and curiosity his statement sparked. As she advanced, she wondered why the Emperor was allowing her access to his enhanced soldiers once more. By her counting, it had been three fourths of a local solar cycle since she had healed that first Thunder Warrior, and while Isha had initially hoped that he would eventually allow her to do the same for the rest of them, she had given up on that as time passed, consoling herself with the fact that at least she had done something for them. Yet, the Emperor had now changed his mind after all this time.
Well, she supposed she'd be finding out why soon enough.
As Isha held out her hands, waiting for one of the Custodians to bring out the shackles, she was surprised once more when the Custodes on the right instead produced a pair of long, snowy white bracelets. Isha could see many of the same runes that had been inscribed upon the shackles she had worn before, glowing a faint golden with the power the Emperor had imbued in them, but it felt... different. No less powerful, but less oppressive, gentler.
The Emperor smiled faintly at her surprise. "The shackles seemed somewhat… unseemly for a guest of your stature," he explained. "So I have devised an alternative."
True to his word, the bracelets were both physically and metaphysically lighter than the shackles, and though they contained Isha's power just as effectively, it no longer felt like she was being pushed down under a heavy weight, even under the combined effects of the wards and bracelets. It didn't feel comfortable, exactly, but it no longer felt uncomfortable either.
Isha nodded quietly to the Emperor. While she would not thank him for creating a new version of her restraints, she appreciated the gesture for what it was. The Emperor inclined his head in response before striding out of the room, Isha and his Custodes quickly following after him.
As they walked down the corridors, Isha wondered once more what could have to convince the Emperor that her direct aid was required in healing his Thunder Warriors. As much as she loathed their design, Isha had to grudgingly admit that they had been resilient and mighty, for all their other flaws. The problem must be truly severe, if the gene therapies she had provided were not adequate.
The sense of something off tickled at the back of her mind as they approached the lab doors, causing a desire to put adrenaline into her system to pass through her thoughts. She forced it back as the procession came to a stop, the Emperor's gaze on her before he turned to the doorway, gesturing for the custodian to open it for them. The crack was enough to let in what had previously been restrained by the warding within, the stench of warp rot making her entire body stiffen as she realized what had happened even before she stepped inside to look upon the two dozen wounded Thunder Warriors.
Isha had to force herself to wait as the shackles were removed from her wrists, staring in horror and worry at the insensate warriors. They were not restrained by either the Custodians or even chains this time, but they had all been seriously wounded, their injuries festering in the material and immaterial alike, and several were writhing in pain. To her faint surprise, she recognized the first Thunder Warrior she had healed all those months ago as one of them.
Her senses were reaching out well before she made it over to the soldiers who had been laid out on the beds, simultaneously scanning them and soothing their pain. She could feel them instinctively flinch away, no doubt associating her initial psychic touch to what had laid them so low, but the experience of ages let her whisper comfort into their beings and take away the worst of the pain, grimaces of pain and fear smoothing by the time her hands were running over that of her first patient.
While she had not given much thought to it at the time, Isha had noticed the impressive levels of psychic resistance he had possessed, which had influenced the designs she had made for the Emperor. To get past that psychic resistance would have required an absurdly powerful psyker, or the help of the Ruinous Powers, and it was obvious which one had happened here.
Isha was relieved to note that they weren't suffering nearly as much as they might have. Normal humans would already be dead or suffering from rabid mutation on both a physical and spiritual level, but the Thunder Warriors were only seriously wounded and several of them, including the one she had healed previously, were likely to have recovered on their own.
Still, it was always better to be safe than sorry when it came to Chaos.
Her first and previous patient turned his head slightly to face her as her hands slid gently over his wounds, his glazed gaze seeming to spark with recognition before he was lost to the haze of his struggle to recover. Her mind and powers sliding into his body as easily as they had the first time she'd interacted with him. The changes she had made were still stable, and had even helped him start to push out some of the corruption on his own, though his body relaxed as she took over fighting for him.
It was a matter of moments to excise the taint from every corner of his body, Isha not even trying to hide her satisfaction as the invisible hooks of corruption dissolved into nothing. Those cells too damaged to be revived were excised and dissolved into fresh material, her powers encouraging his already rapid regeneration to work even faster to replace the missing parts of his limbs and organs. To an outsider, it probably looked outright impossible, the deep gashes and bloody scars almost sizzling with energy as they sealed before the eyes of the observers.
Only once she had triple checked for any lingering touch of Chaos did she finally let herself withdraw, her last act of kindness being to soothe her patient into a deep slumber in order to recover his energy and sleep away the psychological and spiritual ache he would no doubt be feeling for the next few days. The way his body slumped into the bed told her it was the right decision, even after feeling the brief flare of alarm from the Emperor's custodians before their master's touch calmed them.
She pushed herself away from her first patient's side, moving the mere two steps to the next bed to repeat the process over again, just remaining cognizant of the others in the room while she juggled her mental attention between her next patient's assessment and maintaining the soothing numbness the others needed. While she could have done them all simultaneously, she felt it was more prudent to give them each her full attention in order to make sure they were completely healed and free of any minute hooks Chaos could make use of.
Isha was surprised and pleased when she realized the Emperor had applied one of her gene therapies to this warrior, with a quick assessment of the others suggesting he'd made use of several of her formulas for them. Not all of what she had suggested had been implemented, but these soldiers, even with the wounds they had suffered, were far more stable than their comrade had been when she had first met him, which was no doubt part of what had kept them alive long enough to come into her hands for healing. While Isha had hoped and wanted to believe he had taken her advice, she hadn't been able to completely quell the fear at the back of her mind that the Emperor was simply using what she had given him to create a new breed of enhanced warriors, and would discard his previous soldiers as no longer useful.
The evidence that he did care for his soldiers to at least some extent was a relief in more ways than one.
On the edge of her awareness, she could feel the Emperor move to check on her first patient, and without thought she snapped at him, her worry flaring into protectiveness. "He needs rest, not experimentation."
If she hadn't been so busy saving lives, she might have felt contrite for the act, but she couldn't dredge up the energy to care at the moment, instead glancing up to meet the Emperor's gaze with her own narrowed glare. She only felt relief and a touch of annoyance as the Emperor actually stepped back once, her gaze falling back down to her patient as she kept an eye on the hand she was regrowing from its empty and previously rotting stump.
"Do I have permission to speak, or do you need quiet as well?" He asked, a note of amusement in his voice.
Isha huffed, playing with each of the newly regrown fingers of the warrior's hand to make certain that the nervous tissues were properly relaying information to the brain and back. "So long as you do not expect me to speak at length or attempt to distract me from my work."
"You sympathize with the Thunder Warriors because they remind you of the Krork, correct?"
Isha hummed, setting the arm down and reaching up to ensure the eye the man had been missing was growing the appropriate internal features in the right places. "I value all life, regardless of their origin… but they do remind me of the Krork, yes."
"All life besides the Rangdan, you mean."
Isha couldn't keep the scowl from her face. "Besides them, and perhaps a few other exceptions."
The Emperor hummed in thought. "But why? You are an Eldar goddess. I can somewhat understand your sympathy for the Orks, in light of what you told me, but beyond that, you gain nothing from even glancing in the direction of other species."
Isha remained quiet as she finished with her patient and moved on to the next, her mind bouncing around a thousand thousand reasons. She wanted to snap at him, asking why she couldn't be kind for the sake of being kind, but withdrew it only at the last second, because how could he know better? He hardly knew anything of her people or pantheon's history, and most of his experience with the warp was in opposition to the four, who were nothing but selfish to their very cores.
"Someone had to find value in the lives lost to the war," she eventually replied, because it was the closest answer she could give without having to explain even more, and she didn't have the time or inclination to dredge into that mess while she was focusing on healing.
Thankfully, he let the topic drop, no doubt sensing her reluctance when she didn't have the energy to hold back her emotional state. Isha looked back down to her patient. Despite her need to focus, she found herself voicing a question of her own, "What happened to these men?"
The Emperor frowned as he spoke, clearly displeased by whatever he was recalling. "My forces have been engaged in a war with the empire of one of Chaos's champions for sometime now. He is a mighty warlord, and has many psykers in his ranks, empowered by the Ruinous Powers much like their master. The Thunder Warriors are usually sufficient to deal with them, but they have been growing stronger and more desperate as their empire crumbles around them."
Isha nodded, having suspected as much. Still, it was good to have confirmation, even if it was troubling that Chaos seemed to be intensifying their efforts on this planet. But, then, why wouldn't they? In the current state of the galaxy, no one posed more of a threat to them than the Anathema.
She returned her focus to her work, but it seemed the Emperor was not done asking questions. "Why did you come to Terra? You could have fled to any number of places less hostile to you, and yet you put yourself before my mercy for no gain. You could have already had an army of loyal followers by this point."
Isha frowned, wondering why he was asking a question he already knew the answer to. "I could not be assured of my safety there, as you very well know. Chaos would have hunted me relentlessly."
"Not even in the Webway?" The Emperor questioned with a raised eyebrow. "I am aware it was damaged by the Fall and is still occupied by your fallen children, but surely you possess the knowledge to navigate it while being able to avoid them?"
"There were no Webway gates that I could access without endangering more of my children. And even then, there was no guarantee Chaos would not have captured me before I could get through," Isha countered. "I could not have been sure of my safety if I had attempted to flee into the Webway."
"Your safety was not assured here, either," he observed. "You had no guarantee that I would grant you sanctum."
"True," Isha acknowledged, "But if it had not worked, only I would have paid the price for my actions. I will not sacrifice the lives of my people on a gamble that might not even work just to ensure my own safety when I have other options available. If it comes down to a choice between a risk to me, and a risk to my people... well, that is no choice at all."
The Emperor's visage twisted, and in that moment, Isha saw a man who understood the sentiment completely.
There was a silence for several moments, but now that they had started this conversation, Isha found herself unable to contain her curiosity, even if she might not get an answer. "What forced you to change your plans so abruptly? I admit I had never seen you so angry before or since you had to fix the wards of my rooms, and I don't know enough about you to guess what could have left you in that state for so long. And you seem to have accelerated your plans even more than before due to whatever happened."
The Emperor's eyes narrowed at her admittedly brazen question, as he was quiet for several moments, clearing weighing what he wished or did not wish to tell her before he spoke. "That... incident you speak of was a major Chaos incursion. They opened a warp rift in my labs, the shock waves of which killed thousands."
"They did what!?" Isha's brows shot up as she looked back up to the Emperor, halting her work on the Thunder Warriors in shock. "But... why?"
They had not come for her, but Isha couldn't think of any other reason they would have dared to strike directly at the Emperor's territory, without even waiting for him to be away. Yet, there must have been something that would have caused Chaos to take such drastic measures.
The Emperor's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched as he seemed to consider his words, and Isha could see the rage simmering just beneath the surface, ignited by the mere memory. What had the Ruinous Powers done, to make him so angry just by recalling what had happened?
When the Emperor spoke again, his words were clipped and cold. "They stole my sons."
Isha stared at him, astonished as she tried to process his words. The Emperor had children? Well, no, of course he did, Isha silently reprimanded herself. Nothing she knew about him suggested he would be unable to procreate with mortal humans if he so desired, and he was many, many human generations old.
"They weren't normal children, were they?" Isha realized quietly. "I have known demigods before, and Chaos would not have gone to so much effort for normal demigods."
Demigods were powerful, but the power and the abilities inherited from their parents tend to vary wildly. While Isha had no doubt that the Chaos Gods would have delighted in taking any of the Anathema's children from him, they would not have gone so far as to open a Warp rift in the heart of the Emperor's power just for that.
But there was more than one way to create a demigod. Demigods born from a mere affair between a god and a mortal would not have been so tempting or threatening for the Ruinous Powers to do this much, but demigods who had been mortal before they earned the favor of a deity and became imbued with divine power? Demigods created by divine parents through magic and technology with a specific goal in mind for what kind of children they wanted? Those could be far greater and more dangerous. Such children created by the Emperor were certainly something that Chaos would have done anything for in order to wrench them from their father's grasp.
Surprise flashed over the Emperor's face at her insight for a moment before disappearing as he responded, "No, they were not. I created them, the Primarchs, through science and warpcraft over the course of several decades. They were meant to not only be my sons, but my generals, advisors and champions, to help me unite humanity and lead it into a new golden age."
Isha nodded quietly. She could easily guess at the devotion and effort that must have gone into making these Primarchs, and the Emperor's rage made far more sense now. Isha had lost far too many children over the ages to time and treachery alike. She knew all too well the seething fury, the desire for vengeance, the instinct to lash out in a futile attempt to fill the void in one's heart.
She felt it even now. Isha had kept a tight leash on grief and rage, for this was not a place where she felt safe or comfortable enough to vent them, but words could not describe her burning hatred for Slaanesh. Lileath had been flawed, yes, but she had still been her daughter, the result of her and Kurnous's love who Isha had loved and cherished, who Isha still remembered as both an innocent child, an arrogant young seer and a woman bowed down by her guilt and sorrow as she watched her siblings spiral into insanity.
And Lileath was not the only child she had lost. Isha's heart ached even for those who had died millions of years ago, just as much it had when they had first died. It was a pain that never truly faded. There were ways to learn to live with it, to not let it destroy you, but the horror and agony of losing a child was not something that diminished over time.
But for the Primarchs, there might still be hope. "Are they dead?" Isha asked cautiously, wondering if it might provoke the Emperor or if he even knew the answer.
The Emperor exhaled slowly before he responded to her question. "I do not believe so. My sight is clouded, but I can see enough to ascertain they are alive. But I do not know where they are and what has become of them."
Isha nodded. For the Emperor's sake, she hoped his sons were still alive and well, and that they had not been corrupted and twisted to fight against their father… or each other. The agony of seeing one's children reject you and turn upon each other was another pain that Isha was unfortunately far too familiar with.
Isha suppressed a grimace and pushed away those memories. There was no point in dwelling right now, nor in continuing a discussion on what was clearly a painful subject for the Emperor.
Still, it was interesting to know Chaos had apparently not even made a token attempt to her despite the efforts they had made to steal the Primarchs. Did that mean they didn't consider her a threat? Were the Primarchs simply that valuable? Or did they believe her agreement with the Emperor wouldn't last, and that he would kill her in the end?
Well. If those parasites were going to underestimate her, Isha wasn't inclined to object. But she had every intention of taking advantage of their arrogance and making them regret dismissing her.
The rest of her time spent healing was silent, Isha focusing even more on her work to push back the memories their discussion had dredged up in her. She hadn't dared to imagine too many commonalities between herself and the Emperor, mostly because he had been up until then so reluctant to part with information about himself or his people before she had already guessed it herself and pushed him into admitting to it. The fact that he had opened up to something so private and important… she wasn't sure what to make of it yet, besides perhaps proof that her efforts were finally paying off.
Eventually, her last patient was sent into slumber, and Isha could finally step back and let her shoulders fall in relief. The Emperor took the change in her demeanor as permission to step forward, his own energy reaching into his warriors to check them over. To her surprise, he barely did more than a cursory once-over of all of them before withdrawing, making his way over to her in the process.
"You've done well."
Isha huffed a laugh. "I could do nothing less for them, now could I?"
The Emperor nodded minutely. "In all your time here, you have worked with few complaints, all of which have in retrospect been justified. While there are still some reservations as to your goals and nature, there is something to be said for rewarding good behavior and hard work."
Isha tilted her head slightly, frowning. She doubted she had earned the right to roam around freely, but she also assumed that he wasn't just going to try and placate her with useless trinkets for a space that wasn't even really hers.
As if he understood her confusion, he allowed a small smile to twitch on his lips. "As such, I have arranged for your rooms to be provided with several pots of soil for your personal use."
Isha blinked in surprise, her body straightening up as she realized he was serious. Did that mean what she thought it meant? "Are you allowing me to keep a private garden now?"
The Emperor inclined his head. "Yes, you have earned that much. There will be limits on the size of the garden, of course, and you may not cultivate anything dangerous, but I see no harm in allowing you to keep some plants."
Isha nodded, relief flooding through her. It would be good to finally have a garden of her own again, even a small one. Though her chambers were comfortable and spacious, they were barren and limited in entertainment. Having life that needed nurturing and attention would be both a relief and give her something to do other than work or read the limited selection of novels in her room again.
"Thank you," She said quietly.
The Emperor nodded crisply. "I also believe," He said, "That it is time for you to learn of your next project."
Isha's brows rose, wondering what was so urgent that he wanted to get to the work now instead of sending her back to her chambers as per the usual routine. "Now?"
"Yes. I have need of every resource I can obtain, and cannot delay any longer." The Emperor said, beckoning for Isha to follow him as he walked outside the lab. She subtly checked over the warriors one last time as she passed by on her way to the door, more out of paranoia than self-doubt in her capabilities. As soon as they stepped outside, they were both surrounded by the Custodians once more, Isha only remembering after a moment about the bracelets when she caught his pointed look.
During the several minutes of walking down the long, winding halls of the building, Isha wondered what exactly this new project that he had in mind for her was. Did he want her to create something new, perhaps? She was under no illusions that the private gardens weren't as much a bribe as a reward in order to make her more amiable for this request - after all, if she refused, he could just simply forget to have the 'gift' delivered.
They arrived at their destination, a large set of steel doors, with more Custodians standing guard. As the Emperor waved his hand to have them open the doors, Isha took the opportunity to glance over the layer of wards around this room, which were similar but different from the ones around her own chambers. These seemed focused on containment, confining any psychic energies within them, rather than active suppression, though they could no doubt easily be turned to the latter purpose if the Emperor wished it.
As the doors slowly swung open, Isha followed the Emperor inside. What lay inside was a vast, cavernous room, easily a hundred meters in width and nearly ten in height. The walls were of a similar material to those in her room, and likely that of the rest of the hive, though it was textured and colored a smooth beige, in contrast with the more colorful and decorated walls just outside the doors. The ceiling overhead was much the same, and inset with large, circular lamps which illuminated the room with what Isha recognized as artificial stellar radiation, likely based specifically on the emanations of the local sun.
The ground, however, was what held her attention. From wall to wall, only broken by narrow paths between them that the Emperor could just pass through but left Isha with sufficient space, were numerous plots of empty soil, all neatly arranged in a series of rectangles, making the purpose of this chamber clear to Isha even as the Emperor turned to her with a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes.
"Here," He said, gesturing around the room. "I would like you to grow a number of things for me. My empire grows, and it is ever hungry for more resources. I wish for you to mass produce anything you can, such as crops and medicines." He paused and seemed to be considering something before speaking again. "I would also like you to begin work on some organic technology. There will be restrictions, of course, and I will need to review any design you make before I authorize mass production, but I would… appreciate any ideas you may have."
"And you trust me with this?" Isha inquired carefully. While she was pleased to be given this much freedom and hopeful of what it implied, she had to be cautious.
"Yes," The Emperor replied, a faint smile spread across his face at Isha's surprise. "You have proven yourself worthy of at least this much, and I would be a fool not to take full advantage of the knowledge you have to offer."
Isha nodded, her mind already abuzz with ideas as she considered what she would do. "Thank you. Is there anything in specific you would like for me to begin work on?"
The Emperor clasped his hands behind his back. "The crops you have examined so far, as well the medicines and antidotes you crafted various diseases, for a start. You may also experiment in creating variants which are more… efficient, but at least half of your products should retain their basic genetic design."
As if that was going to be an issue for her in comparison to the magnitude of the offer as a whole. "Of course. Is there anything else?"
The Emperor shook his head. "We will discuss more details later, but for now, I wish to see what you can do on your own."
Inclining her head in head in understanding, Isha found herself walking over to the closest plot and knelt in the earth, her power seeping into the dirt as her mind buzzed with ideas, her power practically eager to begin her work as she analyzed the soil and began mulling over the necessary alterations for her first ideas.
The Emperor had given her a great deal of leeway to make whatever she thought might be useful as long as she stayed within his admittedly broad restrictions and accomplished the tasks he gave to her, and she intended to take full advantage of it.
There were so many things she could make. Plants designed to perform limited terraforming that could both rapidly siphon the radiation and pollutants from an area, while also producing vast quantities of oxygen and enriching the soil, vegetables that could feed a man for a day with a single bite, fruits that could regenerate limbs and restore youth…
Yes, there was much work to be done.
There was no breeze to rustle the grasses and leaves, no sunlight to pour in from above and warm the soil and air, no insects or birds or beasts to fill the atmosphere with their cries and whistles and movement. Birthed and nurtured deep within a man-made structure of metals, plastics, and ceramics, irradiated by artificial lamps buried into the ceiling, growing from dozens of identical containers of soil in neat rows and columns; nothing about them could be considered wild, not even their genomes.
In spite of that, the plants swayed in memory of winds they had never felt, the air was thick with moisture and heat, and the room echoed back the soft melody of their nurturer and caretaker. Roots and vines grew in and over their open containers into their neighbors, down to and across the floor, and even up the walls, hiding away the hard metallic floor and the stark, flat-colored walls behind blooms rich with dizzying scents and eye-catching colors. The very aura of the room was wild and untamed, a jungle cut out of time and placed within the heart of humanity's ancient monument to technological advancement, a challenge and a reminder of the natural world's quiet staying power on a world that had almost forgotten it.
In the heart of her jungle and oasis, Isha continued her work, her clothing and hair smeared with dirt as she dug her hands down into the soil. There was no specific need to do so - her awareness was part of every last living thing within the boundaries of the thick wards and thin walls - but she found it much more satisfying to pull up a mass of earth with her own two hands, several worms wriggling within it as they were taken from their tunnels and exposed to the open air.
"Calm, now," she hummed to the worms, who stilled for her as she gently removed them from the dirt, running the tips of her fingers along them as she checked on their health. As part of the newest generation birthed within the soil, descendants of the ones she'd first woven together in her earliest efforts, she wanted to be sure that their genetic template was remaining stable as they were exposed to the different radiations and toxins that afflicted the various parts of Terra's surface before they ended up out in the wider world with their many cousins and relatives.
Thousands of these pre-prepared boxes had already passed through her hands and her garden, all off to be studied and replanted and harvested to fuel the Emperor's war machine. And yet, Isha had not felt so invigorated and at peace with herself since she'd thrown herself into the Materium.
It had nothing to do with her being excited about helping a warlord conquer his world, or any sort of thrill in watching her captor build his armies and fleets on the food and resources and knowledge she provided. She hadn't really been hurting, since barely two solar cycles had passed between her isolation and her return to her aspect, but she could not deny she felt more grounded and present now that she could immerse herself within her garden, no matter how small and transient it might be compared to the ones she had kept within the warp and within her children's empire.
The undergrowth near her rustled, and she turned her head just as one of the bulb-shaped, palm-sized helpers she had woven together scuttled out from a low bush and over a raised root, bouncing on its legs and squeaking quietly as it waited for her to set the worms and soil back within the hole she'd dug before picking it up. Its top opened for her, unveiling several different samples of soil and fungi from another part of the garden.
"Ah, I see," she murmured as she touched on the samples, feeling the discordant mutations that could grow into something dangerous within a few dozen generations if not nipped away now. She made the corrections in a heartbeat, setting the samples back within her helper before setting it down again. It scuttled back and forth as she pushed herself up to her feet, making one last squeak before darting back the way it had come from.
She couldn't help but smile; these helpers had been very useful so far. They were biological automatons that worked well enough independently that she didn't have to actively control them, and they in turn would bring her attention to any issues that were too small to be caught by her more passive immersion within her garden. She only kept the helpers around while she was working, breaking them back down into raw material and warp stuff when her time was up. Of course, she had only been allowed to use them after she had given some of them to the Emperor so that he could study them privately and make sure they were not harmful.
In the old days, her helpers had been extensions of herself, nature spirits roughly equivalent to the daemons of the Chaos Gods, but Isha had decided it would be unwise to use them here. No doubt the Emperor would have wished to examine them as well, and Isha was unwilling to part with even the tiniest shard of her essence when there was no guarantee it would be returned to her. These biological automatons served essentially the same purpose, and giving some of them to the Emperor did not mean losing any of her power if he decided to keep or destroy it.
Even still, it wasn't the same as her gardens of old, where her strength and will were enough to have entire swathes of the warp cultivated under the hands of herself and her menagerie of tireless workers, scampering about and between her many gardens when they were not called upon by her children to help with a task that required her power or the other gods for something they needed her input on..
...not that either of the latter circumstances had happened much within the past few million years, compared to the times of old. Time was a funny thing within the warp - those bygone eras felt both recent and impossibly distant, the memories both fresh and worn away, her children unable to recall more than the most vague summaries in their histories and stories.
She sighed as she sank back to her knees, her hands already reaching out for the problem fungi as she allowed her mind to drift back, the work instinctual enough that her attention was unnecessary at this point. The warp and walls bounced her voice back as she hummed an old song, the original lyrics long gone even to her memory, but the familiarity of it comforting.
Wrapped up in her work like this, immersed within her aspect, it was easy for her to lose track of time, only aware of a new presence when she felt their presence enter her claimed territory. She relaxed a second later, recognizing the familiar presence of her brother and twin, the heat of his forge warming the air but not harming the plants under his boots as he made his way past her workers towards the small grove she was tucked within.
"Vaul," she called out in greeting, leaning back far enough for him to see her within the foliage brushing against her back and arms. "You look well."
"Isha," he greeted in turn, coming to a pause several strides away from her grove. "I see you have something new within your gardens."
"I've been working on some designs," she replied, pushing herself to her feet, her hands resting against the bark. Over her head hung the literal fruits of her labors, emerald-green and rough of rind, rich tangy flesh contained within the thick skins, juices seeping with nutrients and minerals and proteins. "With the empire expanding, my children are discovering whole new worlds of potential risks and wonders, and I wish to have something for them in their times of greatest need."
"Well, they're certainly pretty to look at," Vaul said, his eyes shifting up to take in her trees and efforts with open admiration. "Though I was of the belief that you were trying to wean them off of your direct aid."
"I am, even if it pains me to let them go. They need to learn to stand on their own...but that does not mean I must stop helping them entirely." Isha reached up and pulled one of the fruit from its branch, tossing it gently to her twin god and watching him snatch it from the air, the surface blackening slightly from the heat under his skin.
Vaul bit into the fruit without hesitation, pulling a large strip of the rind away with his teeth and spitting it to the side before biting into the fruit-flesh. Juice leaked from between his teeth and over his lips before his other hand came up to wipe it away, tongue swiping the juice off his thumb as he hummed appreciatively. "A sharp flavor, and an interesting composition. Why a panacea?"
"There's been a rise in warp-touched illnesses in the materium," Isha watched as one of the garden helpers scrambled over to pick up the rind, taking it away to be turned into fresh mulch for other parts of the garden. "While I cannot personally cure every last one of them, I can at least provide the means to cut off the warp's influence and allow for material cures to take hold properly."
"As overprotective as always," Vaul teased, taking another bite to hide his grin.
Isha huffed, tilting her head up and crossing her arms in mock offense at his words. "I have every right to worry, and not just for my children alone."
"Worry is one thing, but you are practically on call the moment they ask for your help." Vaul took a third bite, red juice running down his hands and dripping to the soil from his wrist. "They already know how to handle warp-touch on their own."
"I know, but there are so many races out there that don't, and I can't help but think that it might not be enough…" Isha shifted in place, biting her lip as she felt a shiver of - something - brush the very edge of her territory, only to disappear a moment later.
Vaul considered her carefully, the last piece of fruit hanging between his fingertips. "You can't mother every species out there, no matter how much you might want to," he said, the fruit being waved in a slow circle as he rolled his wrist. "And Lileath's been put out with how preoccupied you've been with your projects lately."
Isha sighed, knowing how often she'd been so caught up in her work that she'd ignored the prodding and attention of the others outside of the occasional spared avatar. Certainly, she had still acknowledged those who entered her domain - how could she not, when she was her domain and thus required to notice? - but she could not recall the last time she had reached out to the others of her own volition aside from asking for the rare resource or aide she could not get on her own.
A brief flush of shame grew in her chest before she pushed it down again. She still felt justified in the efforts she'd made, not just for what she'd learned about the warp and the Old One's remnants, but what she'd in turn been able to provide to her children as she turned her old failures and explorations into new tools for them to wield as they would.
It had been so long since she'd started working on her projects, nearly hyperfocused on whatever had caught her attention most recently. At once point, it had been a cure for the Krork, then a counter to them and the K'nib, and later still a variety of new growing and hungering things as she and her children starting exploring and reshaping the galaxy that was now theirs, lacking any competition for the right of ownership of the stars or the Webway.
The Krork and K'nib - now broken into their shadowed selves, the Orks and Rangdan - still lurked in the dark, festering shadows and on the edges of the empire, far from the reach of what technology and foresight the Eldar had to bear. However, their threats had been minimized, even if eliminating them was impossible at this point. The old ones had designed them well, Isha had mused darkly, even as she allowed her attention to shift away from the material and to the shadows of the warp instead.
"With this finished, I have no major projects to work on," Isha told him, offering an apologetic smile. "So I won't have anything distracting me from them."
"They'll both be thrilled to hear that," he replied, a small grin dancing on his lips before he finally put the last of the fruit in his mouth.
Isha shifted on her feet again, fingers rubbing the dirt between them. "Have you noticed anything… odd around lately?"
"How so?" Vaul let his hands drop, idly wiping his hand on his burned and soot-stained tunic.
"Just…" Isha took a moment to order her thoughts, teeth dragging across her lower lip as her jaw shifted slightly. "There's been. Issues, in the gardens. Odd fungi. Wilted plants. A few trees on the edge rotted from the inside out. I had to completely break them down to their components and remake them."
"Oh, that sort of thing." Vaul waved his hand dismissively, rolling his shoulders back. "There's a lot of new warp spawns crawling up from the wounds in the warp. I wouldn't be surprised if it were some new troublemakers who don't know where the power in the warp lies yet."
"Perhaps," she conceded. "But I feel it's one of the larger ones. A weaker entity couldn't have done what they did with my own territory."
Vaul hummed in thought. "You have a point. Still, you're far stronger than anything else out there, so I wouldn't be too worried. If it actually tries to go after you, just give it a good kick and send it scurrying back to whatever hole it crawled out from."
Isha wanted to explain how ill at ease she felt every time she encountered one of those 'trouble spots' within her own gardens, a violation on her own territory and sanctuary. She wanted to tell him how it sometimes felt like there were eyes on her, trailing down her like a sticky ooze she couldn't scrub off her skin, leaving her feeling unclean and exposed. She wanted to make him understand that she knew she was stronger than it, but something about this…
thing dancing around her, hiding from her eyes but not her awareness, discomforted her in ways the Necrons and Yngir had never managed in all the long, long era of war against them.
Instead, she took a deep breath and exhaled, offering a smile she doubted reached her eyes. "Of course." She tilted her head, looking her brother over. "Speaking of projects, you look like you've been busy yourself."
"Ah, it's nothing big," Vaul replied, though she could see her twin straighten up a bit in pride of her noticing. "I've just been working out some of the finer details of my Talismans. They might not be needed against the enemy anymore, but they're still helpful in keeping the Rangdan contained, especially after their last breakout."
"Another one?" She asked, frowning in confusion. "I didn't hear anything about it from my children."
"It wasn't a large one, just a small species with a dozen worlds that got too close to the containment zone," he explained. "The Aeldari were able to intervene and cleanse the worlds before they could get too far, and new measures have been put in place to prevent a repeat leak."
Isha winced, wishing not for the first time that she had been able to find a final solution against the Krork and K'nib before their Old One-ingrained defenses had adapted to her works and made them too resistant to be worth further efforts on her part. However, current measures still involved purging entire worlds of sapient species, leaving behind resource-rich worlds for the Eldar to make use of for their own ends once the threat was passed. Even if it was less common with the almost complete containment of the Orks and Rangdan, each lost race still felt like a failure of her forethought and capability, all that potential wiped away like dust on a countertop.
"That's welcome news," she replied before her silence stretched too long. "I still have a few more things to finish up. Would you mind letting them know…"
"No worries, I understand," Vaul replied. "Just don't get too caught up in your work that I have to come back and drag you away myself."
"Of course not," she said, nodding her head as a send-off. "Fair travels."
"Fair travels," he returned the farewell, smiling, before Vaul's avatar faded away, the projection of her brother's power dissolving into motes of light.
Isha turned back to her trees, letting her other senses track him to the edge and then further away, leaving her alone with her thoughts and worries. Her fingers dug into the bark, nails catching against the wood.
Her brother was right - she worried too much about her children and the materium. The greatest dangers had been contained or vanished of their own volition into the corners of the galaxy. Whatever else was in the warp was something that would be dealt with in time, once the proper resources had been established and the cleansing and repair of the warp could begin in earnest.
(The fact that none of them had any idea of how to do so did not escape her. The Old Ones had kept many of their secrets even to their graves, and there was nothing any of them could do about it but figure out how to make the best of the ruins left behind.)
Her hands clenched in reactive anger, only for her to startle when it oozed between her fingers with minimal resistance. She looked up to see the tree in question half-rotted - all the trees around her dripping and rotting as she watched with horror, the air thick with decay and buzzing in her ears with flies, a chuckled rumble and looming shadow from behind her crawling up her spine like cockroaches-
Isha hissed, her hand stinging as she shook it and her thoughts back into order. The helper that had stung her was anything but contrite, rubbing itself against her leg, which she now noticed had several gouges from her own nails, the blood staining the tips of her fingers and smeared along her pants and palms. She took a deep breath and exhaled, closing the wounds and breaking down the blood, returning the material to her body even as she looked over her garden.
The plants had, of course, reacted to her perceived attacker, growing sharp thorns or thick vines in layers out away from her, the air cloyingly sweet with a subtle but dangerous poison. With a thought, all those features withdrew, the garden returning to his usual peaceful state as she shucked off the last of the… memory? Nightmare? The two blended together, what had actually happened and what had crept in from elsewhere indistinct in that moment.
She looked to the door of the room on instinct, not sure how much time she'd lost in her head. She was fortunate that the Emperor had decided that she could do her work in this room without supervision, or else he'd have been witness to her actions firsthand, perceiving them as a setback on her part.
Shaking her head one last time, she returned to her work, this time clearing her thoughts of anything but searching out other issues to amend before they were taken away and replaced, repeating the cycle once again.
"How aware are you of the plots you have grown in the nursery?"
Isha glanced over from the seeds she was working on, the corners of her mouth twitching downwards. "The ones that are in there now, or the ones that have already passed through your hands?"
The nursery was still behind its wards, but the way she had immersed herself into the warp around it, if not within it, made it easier for her to be able to at least gauge its condition even outside the room itself. The plants that had been taken from her were more distant, but also had nothing between her and them, which made them stand out in the warp with only a minute amount of her attention.
"The latter," the Emperor replied.
Isha let the frown form, wondering where he was going with this. "I can sense where they are and their general state, and with focus I could probably give you an overview of their precise condition while out in the world."
Half of what she produced, she had noticed, had stayed close to the fortress city the Emperor was keeping her within, tracing the edges of what she assumed was the city proper, marked by where the concentration of human life dropped off fairly abruptly. Of course, there were also some plots that stayed within the city itself, but not many, and, she suspected, in places that could contain them easily if she did reach out for them.
The other half were spread out across other population centers, with a few small exceptions that seemed to be far from any major settlements. She didn't know whether those were isolated experimental locations or if they were for people she just hadn't had the focus to notice at the time.
"And you could in theory manipulate them from here?"
Well, that was certainly an accusatory question, even if the tone and emotions behind it were nothing but idle curiosity and calm patience. Isha decided the question had not been intended to be an accusation for something she hadn't done, and answered as such. "I could, though it would be obvious to you. If you mean from within the wards, then not without more effort than it would be worth."
Technically speaking, with her plants and her recovery so far, she could ease open the wards with a bit of time and delicacy, though she wouldn't be able to get away with it without him noticing. However, she still had nothing to gain from the action, which made the entire concept little more than idle musings when she wasn't busy with her private garden or her reports.
After a moment without further questioning, she gave in to her own questioning. "Why do you ask?"
"There is… a project that I had been planning before your arrival." The Emperor paused for a moment, seeming to mull his words over before continuing. "It was one that I expected to take many centuries to complete at a minimum, and would likely be delayed by technical challenges and resource concerns."
"A project?" She considered what could be related to his previous questions, as well as what she could do that would so upend his initial plans. She looked down at the seeds still in her hand - a staple food, meant to help feed a malnourished population elsewhere in the world. She thought of the taste of dry air, the damaged soil, the empty voids in between bursts of life she had touched. "You intend to revitalize your world."
"I do." The Emperor's voice was soft, almost wistful as his attention split between her and the world outside, his gaze somewhere far away. "Terra used to be beautiful - a gem amongst all of humanity's settlements across the galaxy, the model on which all other worlds were shaped. Even after countless wars, after the surface being torn apart again and again, it always was restored to be more pleasant and welcoming than before. People generations removed from her, who only had stories and images to base their views off of, would still come back just to see the world that nurtured our species until we could make the climb to the heavens."
"What happened to make it like this?" She asked, her heart aching at how much it must have hurt to see his own homeworld reduced to this pale shadow of itself. "I would presume you would never allow things to go this far if you had been here to stop it."
"You would be correct," he said with a faint grimace, gaze turning to her. "If I had been here during the Age of Strife, I wouldn't have allowed it to happen."
"But you weren't," she realized. "What could be so important to keep you away for so long?"
"The Iron Wars."
Isha felt her brows furrow, lips tugging into a frown of her own as she tried to place the event. "I… believe that was before the gestation period began? I recall a great deal of death happening even before the Warp became treacherous outside the Webway, though I remain unaware of any details of the conflict itself."
"It was, but the aftermath lasted well past the rising storms." The Emperor paused for a moment before continuing. "I could have returned before things fell so far - Terra's government lasted several thousand years after it was cut off from the rest of the galaxy. In addition, Malcador and several others we trusted were in place to keep an eye on things and reach out to me if any trouble came. At the time, I felt my efforts were better spent tackling other issues that needed to be handled before the storms receded - setting up caches of rare and valuable artifacts, taking down possible future threats, checking in on allies and key worlds."
He paused again before continuing, voice lower and darker. "I cannot pin blame on the Ruinous Powers in particular, since it has long been within the nature of humanity to aggravate small issues far out of reasonable escalation even without their aide. Whatever the reason, the governing body was overthrown by warlords, who immediately turned upon each other to wrest control for themselves. They pulled out weapons that had long been banned by treaty and buried far from where they should have been able to reach, and Terra suffered for it. Malcador was able to focus efforts on preserving as much of humanity's history and cultural artifacts as possible within several safe vaults across Terra's surface, but even he could not stop the world's decline once it began."
"I'm sorry," she replied, hating again how much had been lost because nothing had been done to stop the cascade of events that had led both of them here.
The Emperor shook his head minutely. "By the time I got back, Terra looked nothing like it had when I had last departed from it. Hideous gene warriors beat each other over the head with vibroblades while wearing power armor in the nuclear wastes between decaying hive cities. The oceans reduced to one pathetic body in the heart of what was once its most massive reserve. Several of those warlords even dabbled into warpcraft, letting themselves be seduced by whispers and hollow promises of easy dominance over their enemies."
Isha couldn't recall the last time she had seen her people's homeworld - it had long been hidden away within the depths of the Webway, its access points only known to Cegorach and a handful of his followers. She knew, however, that if she had gazed upon it and seen it turned to ruin, she would no doubt be devastated as well.
"I had expected it to take a great deal of effort to restore what was lost," he continued, resting a hand on the workstation. "Involving importing fresh ocean water from elsewhere in the galaxy, setting my best gene-smiths to restore the damaged seeds salvaged from the bunkers, and recreating or working around the missing holes within the ecological webs that would be necessary to stabilize the young and fragile ecosystems during their recovery. While it might have one day resembled the world it had once been, there would always be missing pieces that would stand out, legacies and lineages forever wiped from the galaxy because of the selfishness of a small faction of extremists."
"And then I arrived," Isha said, already mentally gauging what she could offer both in terms of time and resources. "And gave you another option."
"If there were any entity in the galaxy that could restore Terra to what it should be, it would be you." His gaze was intense, a glimmer of what might be hope within them. "Which is why I ask for your assessment of the world and what it would take to do so."
Isha took in a breath, held it, and released it. "Do I have your permission to work unhindered?"
"How do you mean?"
"In order to do a full assessment, I would need to…extend my power from my avatar to a degree, and reach out to assess the world through the Warp. While I could give you an assessment without it, technically speaking, it would take me longer and be less effective in devising a plan to restore your world to its natural state."
The Emperor said nothing for a moment, gaze assessing her. She did not relent, matching his gaze calmly - what he asked for needed her to be able to do this, and she was hedging her bets on just how much trust he was willing to extend to her in order to pull it off.
"Then you have my permission to do so, though your avatar will remain here, and I will be watching."
That was more than an acceptable compromise. Isha tilted her head in acknowledgement. "Then I shall do so now."
The Emperor nodded curtly, and Isha felt him reach out with his powers, smoothly sliding opening a gap in the wards through which she could project her power, though it was still relatively small, nowhere near enough for her to project any significant power through it. Understandable, Isha supposed, and she did not really need too much of her power just for a simple scan of a single planet's biosphere.
Uncoiling Herself from Her avatar was both foreign and exhilarating, a reminder of how constrained She had kept Herself for the past few local years. Her essence reached out across the surface of the Warp, skirting along the Materium as She looked at the world from outside and within.
The surface state was as She'd presumed, dry and empty and dangerous, though with patches of life both from Her hands and what had held strong after all this time. She touched upon the dense, salt-rich waters surrounded by old salt flats and human settlements, feeling the edges of what had been coastlines and rivers and lakes. She drank in the air, filtered through technologies She was not familiar with, one that had allowed the atmospheric pressure to remain suitable for human habitation between the deep settlements on former ocean floors and at the heights of mountain chains.
She dug in deeper, feeling the touches of Chaos on the world, baleful dark spots She hesitated to go near lest She draw the eyes of their masters, even if She knew She could defend herself long enough to withdraw again. She went down past the soil and bedrock, past even the deepest, most isolated bastions of humanity's reach, into the molten rock that oozed and slid past each other, the slowly shifting lifeblood of the planet itself. She felt for the core, liquid and solid, friction against itself that produced the magnetic field that had protected the world and its fragile lifeforms from the harsh solar winds long enough for humanity to rise up.
Though the Guardian considered the world ruined, what She saw was anything but - its heart still beat, its blood still ran, its skin still held firm. At the height of her power, this would have been an ideal place for experimenting with new lifeforms and world-shaping techniques, in time to be made into a settlement for Her people.
But that was not Her purpose here.
She regretfully withdrew Herself from the Warp again, filtering back into Her avatar, until her senses were again just what she could perceive from the material form and the limited warp senses she allowed herself. Her avatar's eyes opened, meeting the Emperor's gaze with a small smile.
"You actually are fortunate, in terms of resources available for use. I believe that you shouldn't need to import anything from outside in order to complete the restoration of your homeworld."
The Emperor's brows lifted, a trace of skepticism emanating from him. "Elaborate."
Isha waved vaguely in the direction of where the last ocean was. "You presume your world doesn't have enough water to restore the oceans in full, but it actually contains quite a bit within the mantle, which can be accessed with the right tools. As for the ecosystems themselves, I have several options."
She hesitated, knowing already that this would likely be rejected, but deciding to offer it anyway, given it would be the fastest and most efficient option. "I have a particular plant within my arsenal that my people call the Genesis Flower. It was designed to grow quickly and broadly, spreading my power through the ecosystem of an entire world, since they are weak echoes of my own will and desires. They can reshape the soil to any balance, nourish any other life form without issue, and can even influence the weather and climate with sufficient coordination, which is effective in kickstarting healthy weather patterns. Most importantly, they are able to do all these things without my supervision or guidance, and can even be keyed to the control of other psykers if needed."
She carefully did not mention the other uses for it, ones that had been of greater importance during the wars against the enemies of her people in aeons past. An entire world's ecosystem under the Flower's control, all able and ready to be weaponized on a moment's notice, turning a lush garden into a jungle of death and misfortune, a living fortress preying on any misstep, that could and had devoured Necron legions, Krork hordes and K'nib warhosts alike. Many of those worlds still existed out in the galaxy, having endured these last several million years with ease, for even the dangers of the Age of Strife were not as terrible as the beings who had fought in the War in Heaven.
"A warp-based plant?" He asked, a touch of distaste in his tone.
The Emperor hummed in disapproval. "What are the other options?"
"I can set up larger pallets to be moved together, that would all bolster each other and provide pockets of a stable ecosystem that could grow quickly, restoring the soil along the way. It would be much like you currently have me doing, only more deliberately targeted and designed for what climates and ecosystems you want restored for any given region."
"How long would that take?"
Isha ran the timescale in her head, considering how things were going so far, what she could design the plants to do, and how much trouble could happen to cause setbacks. "Three decades on the outside."
The Emperor said nothing, his warp presence at a complete standstill, his emotions betraying nothing. After nearly a minute, he spoke, words slow and deliberate. "...Three decades."
Isha nodded. "On the outside. Ideally, it would take closer to two decades, but I can't access everything that might go wrong along the way, so I felt it better to pad your expectations now."
She watched him mouth 'three decades' again before exhaling sharply, his gaze focused on her again. "And the restoration of the oceans?"
"That would take a bit longer, perhaps up to five decades," she admitted.
"Why would that take longer?"
Isha held her hands out. "The sympathetic resonance devices would need to be built and tested to be sure they work as intended and that there aren't any unintended side effects on your world. Each one will take some effort from me, though the warpcraft parts are simple enough that I should be able to show them to you to be replicated. The surface will need to be assessed regularly for signs of instability, since I am forcing the water out from where it's stored within your world's mantle and through miles of solid rock to the surface. Regardless of caution, you will have to be prepared for quakes and even leakage from the mantle."
The Emperor nodded in understanding. "How much faster could that be accomplished, if caution were less of a concern?"
Isha shook her head. "I would still recommend at least five decades. You also have to move the billions you have living within water basins across the planet before the waters reach them, as well as dismantle the settlements to allow for reuse of the resources tied up in them. Of course, the latter isn't mandatory, and could slim down the time to match the restorations of the surface ecosystems, but I worry that that could cause supply and settlement issues in the settlements that aren't being moved due to unfortunate placement."
"And that would be everything?"
Isha bit her lip. "It would still take another few decades from there for everything to stabilize, since you would need to re-balance the oceans' salinity, restart the currents, build up the natural ocean habitats, and then reintroduce the lifeforms. It would be similar to the order of restoration for the surface ecosystems, especially since the ocean and surface would have to be reconnected smoothly as each affects the other, and that's before getting concerned about the renewal of appropriate weather patterns in order to keep all the new habitats from falling apart without direct attention and manipulation. However, I believe that your people have the technology and knowledge to handle those parts, so I was more focused on the aspects that would need my help specifically, including breaking the hold of those Chaos-corrupted regions."
"So a century in order to have everything put into order, perhaps one and a half if caution and setbacks are all accounted for," The Emperor summarized.
Isha considered everything, before nodding once. "Yes, a century sounds correct. If I were in a stronger state, it would be faster, but as things stand…"
The Emperor huffed, a noise which she realized after a moment was a laugh. "Isha, I was expecting a project that would take at least eight times that length to complete, were I fortunate. To be able to do it in less than a century, without having to pull resources from elsewhere in the galaxy… I couldn't have predicted or even hoped for the numbers you gave me, even knowing your domain and experience."
"Ah," she said, because she had no other reply to give. She thought it was particularly slow, still, even for her lack of experience with 'longer' stretches of material-based time.
"I would like your sympathetic resonance device designs ready for me the next time we speak," he said, one finger gesturing to the dataslate beside her. "If the restoration of the oceans will take longer, then I would prefer to focus on that first, since your current efforts in the nursery are sufficient for the needs of the Imperium for the time being."
Isha nodded. "I presume you wish to test it somewhere isolated, so that if things do go wrong, no lasting harm comes to anything important."
"You presume correctly. The southern hemisphere has places too irradiated and dry for even the nomads to bother with, as well as a thin enough crust that your devices should be effective in their reach."
"That would be suitable." A thought struck her. "The devices do have some notable effect in both the materium and Immaterium, though mostly self-contained. Will that be of concern?"
"I will judge that for myself when the designs are provided to me," he replied. "As for attention in general, I have already ensured that the other factions will be distracted with other matters to notice a small test or two far from their influence."
"How do you mean?"
"The other cities have noticed the… abundance of life that has recently left the city." His gaze shifted to look outwards, past the walls and to the outside world. "Our allies have already been gifted with small parcels of your efforts, while much of the remainder has been kept close, so as to streamline the harvesting and processing of the food and material."
His gaze turned back to her. "Already, your work has won me several wars without firing a bolt. The panacea fruit had a warlord who could have held out for years open his gates and swear allegiance to me, all for its ability to break the hold of warp corruption upon his daughter and heir. Other factions that were aligned against me have started softening at the chance for some of what you provide that no longer exists elsewhere on Terra, and several genesmiths of the enemy have come to me in the night asking for a chance to see what new technologies or techniques we rediscovered in order to produce such bounty all of a sudden."
Isha hummed thoughtfully, surprised and grateful to hear how her work had been paying off in the wider world. "I expect that I was not mentioned?"
"No, your presence will remain under wraps for a while longer," he replied. "There is still much to be done before I would have you looked upon by the public."
"If it's my appearance, I could just change my features to appear more human." She knew she was a good deal taller than any of the non-augmented humans around - in fact, she was fairly matched to the heights of the custodians - and that her alien appearance made her stand out, but those were just… physical things, which were easily altered should it prove necessary.
The Emperor's brow rose. "Why not use it before, then?"
"I'm more comfortable in this form," she replied, exasperation entering her voice as she continued. "And I sincerely doubt you would have trusted me if I tried to disguise myself as a human when I first arrived."
"Your point is taken," he conceded, tilting his head forward. "Regardless, so far the rest of the world does not know I have a biomancer of particular talent as the source of my recent fortune. Should that news get out to them…"
"I become a target," she replied, before the full realization hit her. "Those affiliated with the Ruinous Powers might use it as an excuse to sow further distrust against you, especially if they know or guess that I'm not human."
"Just so. While we both know that the four know you are here, they and their people have little knowledge of where I am keeping you, much less what state you are in. Until they can get that information, all they can do is target the products of your efforts in hopes of bleeding my armies and resources dry."
Which explained why the Thunder Warriors had been hit harder by Warp-based attacks lately, their resilience from her cures just letting them hold out against the enemy's sorcery and treachery.
"Then I suppose I will just have to keep stymieing their efforts," she said, her chin tilting up and a smile on her lips.
Any way she could make the lives of the followers of the Four more difficult was worth the effort she'd put into helping humanity's guardian. The added anticipation of working on such a long and large project as he had offered was more than enough to temporarily let herself ignore the small worry of how long she could afford to wait to reach out for her children.
With more time outside the wards now, she was catching whispers of prayers and pleas from the corners of the galaxy, her lost and weary children reaching out for even a grasp of hope.
The only thing she could do was send out the occasional whisper back, pleading for their patience and offering what meager comfort she could to their dreams. She didn't even know for sure if her words reached them, but there was nothing else she could give them while in her current state.
As the warp settled further from She Who Thirst's birth, the full awareness of the time slipping past her grew further. A few decades might be a small price to pay for her free passage, but it was still one she would have to accept the consequences of for as long as her work took.