On Cadia, rain falls much the same way as it does on Holy Terra.
The soil is much the same, as is the sky. The world is maintained, dominated, by the mortal servants of God. Yes, it is much the same as Terra. A Cadian could not tell you this, however. No man on Cadia had ever set foot on Terra. They had never met their God. The men of Cadia were visited only occasionally, and only via proxy, by Him. And much like the men of Terra, they were beginning to doubt Him; some were beginning to despise him.
No man on Cadia had visited Terra. The men of Cadia, instead, were dispersed to the farthest reaches of the galaxy to serve as the shock troops of the Imperium. To avoid such a fate, there was only one option. Any man of Cadia who could distinguish himself among a thousand others could stay, forever, as an eternal guardian of his home, his service to the Emperor reprieved to only what served him as well.
The Kasrs would keep him as kin.
Twelve such men were currently lying prone on a hill. Their disguises kept them from prying eyes, but offered no such protection from the torrential, Earth-like rain. The soil around them had long since turned to mud, and was now bubbling and churning around their prone, relaxed forms. Lightning flashed overhead, illuminating the focus of the team's concentration. At the base of their hill was an abrupt change from hilly-glade to forest, hopefully abrupt enough to reveal what they were looking for when it came -if it came.
Acting Sergeant Mayfield was lying on his stomach between Corporal Ulrich and a Specialist named Gainsborough. "Gains" was better suited to the tongue, but Mayfield had only ever seen irony in the name. Becoming a Kasrkin was the only good thing that had ever happened to Gains - that and the surprising realization that he was an uncanny shot. Gains had himself a shiny hot-shot long-las, which he had coated in mud to make un-shiny. Mayfield, meanwhile, was sporting a bi-scope while the Corporal carried the voxcaster. Everyone else had standard las-rifles.
An entire legion was guarding the hill. There wasn't any real threat, aside from a two-man team of infiltrators proving their worth, but the legion was building character by sitting in the rain, and hopefully learning to spot snipers in the process. The infiltrators were at no real risk of losing. The exercise had never been lost, so the officers saw no harm in a prize for the squad that spotted them. Mayfield, Ulrich, and Gains were looking forward to the possibility of a week-long break. It was slim, but it was there.
Gains froze, or tensed just enough that Mayfield noticed and tensed as well. It passed along the entire line of men in a heartbeat. They were all glaring intently at the divide between forest and glade, waiting, thinking something had been spotted.
Mayfield had picked out their spot on the hill. Lying prone was also his idea. If the infiltrators spotted a break in the patrols, they'd take it. "Sniping snipers" he'd said. Ulrich had to raise his face to breath over the mud. Mayfield said a lot of things as an Acting-Seargent.
Gains relaxed, affecting the same wave as before.
The plan hadn't worked, yet. They had been waiting for nine hours, signified by a beeping chronometer somewhere on Ulrich. He swore and switched it off, knowing full well he may have cost them all the element of surprise. Mayfield grinned. He knew he'd only made Acting Sergeant by an oversight on the divine scale; The seargent's wife had been sacrificed by cultists two weeks ago. The Inquisition was taking care of it, so everyone involved had disappeared from official records about a week ago. He scowled at the memory and chewed his cheeks impatiently- and wished he had something to chew. He nodded sideways, to Ulrich. "You think they took the pass? Over by Luddle's group?"
"Brush extends all the way up to about four-hundred meters from the flag over there. Would get 'em pretty close, but Luddle had his men set traps and lay some plastek. They probably turned back and kept circling if they saw that."
Mayfield chewed some more before wondering, "Lay plastek? How so?"
"Plastek tarp," Gains whispered from his other side. "High-quality digital-camo tarp so the men stay dry."
Mayfield's scowl deepened.
"What? That wasn't on the requisition list. How in the hell did Luddle get tarp?"
"Luddle's new woman got it for him," Ulrich replied.
"Went an' helped the Field Marshal uh… straighten out a private last weekend. Luddle's gotten' the good stuff for his squad ever since."
Mayfield had pretty much cemented his scowl by then.
"Woman? What's her name?"
Gains growled "Sally" a little higher than a whisper.
Mayfield looked away from his bi-scope, as did Ulrich.
"Your ex? Sally Gainsborough?"
"Sally Luddle," Gains growled. He didn't look away from his scope.
Mayfield and Ulrich sighed.
"Frak your name, Gains."
Gains grunted his acknowledgment. Mayfield and Ulrich returned to their scopes.
Little more than half-an-hour later, Ulrich picked up another topic.
"We're farther north than usual."
"Glad you're with the program," Mayfield chided.
Ulrich didn't seem to notice.
"That means we're facing Amaranth."
"There's a village- no joke, cottages and the like, not a hab in sight- about twenty miles into that forest. The entire rest of the place is a preserve."
Mayfield nodded him on in interest, still scanning the arbor line.
"Anything special about Amaranth?"
"I was planning a trip up there with the fam," he answered.
"You've never heard about it?"
"Your fam' trip?"
Mayfield shook his head and peeked at Gains. He hadn't realized how pissed Gains was about Sally. It didn't show very well, but Mayfield had been in combat with him for about ten years. Details became evident- his sucked-in cheeks, for example.
"No," Mayfield answered.
"Never heard of Amaranth."
Ulrich grunted. "It's named after the legend."
"What is? The fam' trip?"
Ulrich shook his head.
"No, the village is named-" He noticed Mayfield's uncouth grin. "You frakker."
Mayfield chuckled quietly. "Let's hear it, then."
Ulrich settled into his story-telling posture, or at least, his story-telling-while-lying-prone-in-torrential-rain posture.
He began, "Dimly remembered, from the Settler's Tomes, comes the tale of the Amaranth, long since burned by the God-Emperor's Inquisition."
Everyone spat in response to the Inquisition's name. The original settlers of Cadia had kept detailed records of their experiences and in-depth research into the planet. The Inquisition had burned the books without explanation and forbade repeating the research. As such, every Cadian Wives-tale now began with that same preface, and the sound of expelling saliva, depending on the company. Ulrich continued.
"When the first settlers came to Cadia, they did not bring with them women of any sort, save for the wife of the expedition leader, who died two-months after their arrival."
If Mayfield remembered his lore correctly, the expedition leader was named Gainsborough too. He had a lot in common with Gains.
"The settlers went deep into the forest in their travels, deep into oceans, deep underground, deep into deserts, deep into every secret they could discover, and eventually decided the land was suitable for residence. Some time in the next century, when the next wave of settlers arrived, they found a thriving colony of several hundred Imperials awaiting them."
Mayfield blinked over the error.
He didn't look away from his scope, instead nudging Ulrich with his elbow.
"You said they didn't have any women, Ul."
Ulrich nodded and nudged him back.
"That's what the story's about. When asked by the new settlers where all of the women were, the original party responded, 'the Amaranth lives in the woods.' And so they answered when the Inquisition posed it to them as well."
"But in their documents, they recorded her every grace and gesture, and who she is."
Another man down the line had called it out in a hiss. The task at hand had been entirely discarded. Ulrich nodded.
"I'm getting there. The first day they met the Amaranth was in the arbors ahead of us. She spoke in their tongue, walked in their manner, and clothed herself with the forest. Her beauty, they said, was unsurpassed. She taught them the ways of the world, of the various herbs and fruits, of mining and-"
"- and veggies-" Gains mumbled.
"Fruits and veggies, right?"
Every stomach in the group rumbled.
"Damnit, Gains," came down the line.
Mayfield was the one close enough to slap him across his helmet.
"And veggies," Ulrich continued.
"She trusted them with the secrets that made Cadia great."
Mayfield's mind caught up with the story suddenly.
"And then she uh… straightened out some privates?"
"And in return for her secrets, she asked for children of her own. Now this woman, Amaranth, was by far the most beautiful creature they had ever known; and the settlers, knowing a good deal when they saw one, naturally agreed to the exchange. And so the men of Cadia were born, purple eyes and all."
Gains rubbed his eyes subconsciously; he was the only man in the group with the trait. "What's wrong with purple eyes?" he asked defensively.
"Nothin'. It's just that only Cadian's have 'em."
Mayfield set his scope down.
"Oh, grox-crap. What makes you think that?"
Ulrich shrugged and returned, "You ever seen an off-worlder with purple eyes?"
They couldn't answer, so he continued.
"She gave birth to twelve children, and blessed every one of them with the seal of her protection."
Ulrich pulled a small plant out of the mud and held it up.
"She took an Amaranth, tied it," he tied the illustrative weed in a simple overhand knot, "and gave it to each of them."
Mayfield held out a hand for the stem.
"They each got one for themselves, or did she just do one for them to share?"
"Everybody got a different one," Ulrich answered.
"There are a lot of different kinds of amaranths."
Mayfield took the knotted weed from Ulrich and examined it, then passed it back and wiped off his bi-scope.
"Huh. So what happened to The Amaranth Lady?"
"The Inquisition came and burned all the records of her and killed off as many of her descendants as they could identify. She hid in the forest and they haven't found her since."
The Acting Sergeant wasn't so sure.
"Wait, wait, wait. Wouldn't they just purge everything? That's what they do, right? Exterminatus?"
Mayfield made an exploding gesture with one hand, and looked to Ulrich for an answer.
"Think about it," Ulrich whispered. And he nodded up at the sky.
The Eye of Terror was dimly visible, even through the storm clouds.
"They won't use that unless we lose the whole planet. No. They only looked for the people who they said were irrevocably tainted. But they couldn't kill anyone. Humanity has to hold this planet."
Mayfield had to play the skeptic.
"Alright. Alright. Well it's been... what- a millennium? Two? Why hasn't the Amaranth died yet? Daemons don't live that long."
After a moment to consider he added, "do they?"
Ulrich answered as selectively as a good storyteller should.
"Expand your vocabulary, grox-for-brains. Amaranth means 'never wilting'. She doesn't age."
The squad fell into silence afterward, pondering the tale and eying the arbors as they thrashed under the lashes of a cruel wind. Mayfield couldn't think of another objection, and was bothering himself over how well the story seemed to fit with his current view of reality.
"Well damn," Gains mumbled. He took an extra moment to spit and clear mud from his mouth, then gestured at the arbor bluff.
"I'm gonna' run down there and get me a woman."
A chorus of mirth erupted along the line. Ulrich chuckled.
"If you run down there, she's more likely to run up here, ya' unlucky bastard."
Silence cut through the laughter instantly, and Mayfield's face lit up at the realization that he was in command.
"Gains," he nearly shouted.
"Run down there!"
Gains looked away from his scope for the first time.
"Hell, what's the worst that can happen?"
"Interesting preface to add there," Gains responded.
"Come on, you know you want to get some juices flowing anyway," Mayfield encouraged.
"Do us all a favor. Just run down there and smack the bushes a bit with your rifle."
Gains didn't respond. He wasn't entirely sure if Mayfield was serious until he added, "Go on! That's an order!"
Gains grudgingly propped his knees up under himself and stood, mumbling, "frakkers," under his breath as he slid his way down the incline in as clandestine a manner as he could. Mayfield and Ulrich watched as he rolled and shimmied his mass down the slope, slipping through the mud, and sometimes just holding still while the mud itself slipped down. About a minute later he was at the base of the hill, ten meters from the forest. He dropped prone again and began the dutiful task of approaching. Lightning flashed overhead.
It was about that same moment- when the lightning flashed- that Ulrich happened to be looking deeper into the forest, between arbors and under vines and branches, at the exact spot where a face was illuminated for the briefest second by the display in the sky. He nudged Mayfield.
"Contact, thirty degrees off him. Thirty meters in."
Mayfield adjusted his bi-scope to up and above Gains' prone form, then slightly off to the right.
"I don't see it."
"There was a face."
Gains hadn't seen anything, and was still crawling forward with his long-las tucked sideways across his elbows. Ulrich stiffened.
"Straight on him, moving, twenty meters."
Mayfield adjusted his bi-scope again and found what he was looking for. Someone- someone in near-perfect camouflage- was walking steadily in Gains' direction. Gains hadn't noticed yet. Mayfield rolled over and around so he was lying on his back, still facing the right direction. He grabbed a rock and tossed it, hard.
It squelched into the mud beside Gains, and he stopped to follow suit. The figure was still walking, steady, graceful– feminine, the men on the hill realized. She was incredible.
When the lightning flashed again, she was even more so, literally, hard to take credibly. The glint caught on heavily purple eyes, and lit up her garb. It seemed as if she had made everything she wore from what the planet had provided, but none of it seemed crude. If anything, the men would have bought it all off of her for their sweethearts. The thought occurred to Mayfield that he'd buy it off her for other reasons too. He pulled his rifle forward from his side, and locked her in his scope.
She slowed to a stop a meter short of Gains, her eyes peering up at the men, and then down to Gains' form in the mud. He peeked up, not sure how to react. His rifle was still tucked into the crooks of his elbows, just inconvenient enough that she'd get the first hit in if he tried to draw. For a moment, there was complete silence. The rain had even come to a halt. The terrifying thought that this woman was some daemonic abomination played on everyone's mind, but no one was about to shoot a Cadian woman without reason. And then she smiled. It was a simple gesture, very human. Gains smiled back.
"You really shouldn't be here, mamzel."
Her smile sweetened, but she didn't respond. Instead, she turned to her side and plucked a small, pink, bush-like flower from the ground. Mayfield magnified his scope on it, not believing what he was seeing. She tied the stem of it into a simple overhand knot, and then pulled it tight, emphatically- almost violently- and then extended it to Gains. He took it sheepishly, absolutely denying the possibility that this woman was a mythical creature come to greet him. "Uh… Thank you. Mamz', really, this is a live fire ex-"
She pushed a finger to her lips. Gains repeated the gesture, quietly, not understanding her until she pointed off to his right, down the arboreal bluff. All eyes followed her indication and collectively bulged when they saw what she was pointing to. The tail end of a gillie suit scurried into a diminutive ditch that ran perpendicular to the firing line. They never would have seen it without her. Mayfield snatched up the voxcaster on Ulrich's back.
"Colonel, intruders spotted on the North-East Bluff. You are not going to believe who made them."
"Engage and detain," the reply cackled.
Mayfield waved his hand at the men to his left and threw them three sharp hand signals. The fire team rose up and hustled down the hill to flank while Mayfield and Ulrich mustered the men to their right to cut off their prey. Gains looked away from the commotion, back to the woman in front of him. She was slinking into the forest.
"You know something, mamzel?" he called.
She stopped, and in the coy tone of the wild she cooed, "I do."
She winked. Gains smiled and hopped to his feet.
"I think you're the best thing that's ever happened to me."
"GOTCHA' FRAKKERS!" rang out over the hill. A struggle accompanied by oaths and swears of the dishonest sort sounded out around them.
The Amaranth, or whoever she was, smiled in return to Gains and whispered, "I should go. It is a live fire exercise after all."
She turned to leave, and nearly slinked all the way into the darkness but for his sudden cry of, "Wait!"
She stopped and faced him again, her two precious, purple gems twinkling like stars in a night sky.
"What's your name?" he called.
She smiled, silent, and vanished into the deepest parts of myth.