Traveling by webway, in case you're interested, is like tobogganing through the convoluted, greenly glowing alimentary canal of some galaxy devouring horror – in short not at all my idea of fun. We banked a turn and I found myself sliding across the mirror smooth deck. The Ratling sized whatever-it-was that had attached itself to me now did so literally, steering us into the wall next to a support beam where I wedged myself in as securely as I could.
The greenish light turned the uncovered faces of the Battle-Brothers a sickly color that probably did not reflect their interior condition but my insides were certainly acting up. Our unwieldy craft slalomed through endless, immaterial tunnels. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of something that might have been a ship or even a building but it never lasted long enough to be identified – not that anything in here could be anything but hostile.
Brother Mikaiel somehow kept his feet and kept right on dancing so I assumed we were under control. I just hoped he had some idea of where we were going. The other Space Marines stood solid as the black marble statues of the Primarchs lining the great hall of the seminary keeping their footing either through gene-seed enhanced balance or the gyro-systems of their armor or some combination thereof.
Abruptly the ambient light changed from pale green to the dull gray of a rainy day and we hit something so hard we bounced. The first impact was too much even for Space Marine balance. We all tumbled forward landing in a heap, fortunately for me I was on top so while badly banged and bruised at least I wasn't crushed under a wall of ceramite. Our vessel once again became temporarily airborne before crashing down even harder. Its stressed, ivory-like material creaked dangerously as what came down went up again only to strike the surface a third time and the wraithbone gave way, the crunch almost drowned out by a high volume chorus of shrill, ululating wails *1. Then we skidded for what felt like a few thousand klicks before grinding to a halt with a final jolt much milder than what had gone before.
There was a very long silence as everybody assessed their personal damages and got their breaths back. Finally Father Octavian's voice came from somewhere near the bottom of the heap. "What did we hit, Mikaiel?"
"A planet I'm afraid," the Librarian responded his voice muffled by the bodies piled on top of him.
There was a shorter but highly charged silence. I can't speak for the others but my personal thoughts were unprintable.
"That was careless of you," Father Octavian said with a composure that did him infinite credit.
"Yes, quite, sorry, Father Master. But you must admit a portal of this size in conjunction with a planetary surface is quite rare," the Librarian said sounding genuinely apologetic for the first time in my acquaintance with him.
Father Master sighed. "Tempting as it is we can't lie here all day." – Or night or whatever it was out there - "Brother-Sergeant Eleazar do you read? What is your status?"
"A few dents and bruises but otherwise battle-ready," the answering bass struck me as sounding downright hopeful, "Anybody to fight?"
"Patience, Brother. I'm sure an enemy will turn up in due course," Father Octavian answered calmly then continued in exactly the same even tone; "Now if you would all be so good as to get off of me -"
That wasn't as easy as it might have been since the slippery, mirror polished deck was now tilted at a forty degree angle. When we did finally sort ourselves out we saw that the crystal substance of the dome over our heads was crazed with cracks like ancient stained glass. Trying to retrace our route to the encampment – or even reach the opening to the ramp - was clearly out of the question. Father Octavian settled the question of how we were to get out of our little bubble with a single punch that brought the dome down in a rain of fist sized hunks clanking on the ceramite plating of the two armored brothers sheltering me.
We were now able to see the full difficulty of our position. Our unstable platform though at severe list was still some twenty or thirty meters above the wreckage of the craftworld held, barely, a few remaining buttresses. The long pointed prow of the craftworld had buried itself under a small mountain of gently steaming blackened earth.
Father Octavian eyed the gulf between our platform and the slope of the newborn mountain, "Looks like we'll have to jump for it."
"Frak that!" I blurted understandably forgetting to watch my language.
He turned towards me, "Don't worry, Mother Caine, it will be quite safe."
'Safe' – as I was rapidly learning – is a very different concept to a Space Marine or than it is to a normal person, much less a rampant coward like myself. The plan was for Brother Sabbatiel to pitch me like a scumball to a Brother Marine on the mountainside. I was far from happy at the prospect but it wasn't like I had any choice.
I have to admit it worked. Granted the impact of the catch jarred every bone in my body and left me wheezing desperately for air. My catcher, one of the Techmarines, carried me down to level ground. The mountainside was radiating enough heat to instantly soak my robes in sweat and I'd have burned my feet off if he'd set me on them.
When he finally did put me down I spent several seconds simply gulping the blessedly cool – or at least cooler – air before taking note of my surroundings. The craftsworld was lying cracked into large pieces half buried in the blackened earth with a glassy trail of heat fused sand and rock stretching to the horizon behind it littered with white bits of wraithbone. The ground I was standing on was fine black sand relieved only by an occasional outcropping of crumbling black rock. The air was breathable but a fine dust was falling down like an impalpable rain.
I pulled up my cowl and wrapped my stole around my nose and mouth as a filter then turned to Brother Sabbatiel walking beside me, his stride carefully curtailed to keep pace; "Did we do all this?"
He held out a black gauntlet to catch a handful of the falling powder. "I believe we can claim responsibility for the dustfall, Mother, but this planet was dead before we hit it."
"That's good," I said fatuously – well I'd had a hard day! – "We don't want any trouble with the locals.
"There may be no locals to have trouble with," he answered. And wasn't that a cheery thought!
We slogged across the black sand towards the circle of thunderhawks almost invisible against it except for their white and red flame icons. Inside the ring the camp was going up again in a brisk fashion, this time with tents. A diminutive black robed figure came flapping towards me and I blinked.
"You again?" thinking about it I couldn't remember seeing whatever-it-was since it'd steered me towards a convenient hand hold at the beginning of our mad ride through the webway. "Where'd you come from?"
"Nobody really knows the answer to that, Mother," the Brother Sabbatiel said. "But the Watcher here seems to have attached itself to you."
"Is that a good thing?" I asked dubiously.
"Opinion is divided on that point," he admitted with the most curious expression on his face, "The Watchers-in-the-Dark do as they see fit. If one decides to take up with you there's no use arguing with it." My new satellite underlined that statement by tugging insistently at my skirts. "Best go with it, Mother."
There didn't seem to be any good reason not to, and I was glad I did when we got where we were going; a black tent with the Consecrator's sigil and inside a cot, a clean if vastly oversized robe, and best of all a steaming bath also sized for a Space Marine meaning it was luxuriously large for me.
"Watcher," I said reverently taking it all in. "I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship."
A nice long bath was followed by a nap. I was surrounded by Space Marines, let them do the worrying! I was awakened, I don't know how much later, by the roar of engines overhead. I hastily wrapped the spacious black robe around myself and hurried outside.
My tent flap opened onto a clear space in the middle of the camp Father Octavian was there, flanked by Brother Mikaiel and his Banner bearer, all looking up so of course I did too. A thunderhawk circled overhead the light filtering through the permanent overcast glittering on its orichalcum plating. *2 A white shield emblazoned with a red raptor head had been painted on its tail vane, more Space Marines? Well at least we weren't stranded on a lifeless rock.
"Sorry, Father Master, I haven't a clue," Brother Mikaiel was saying as I joined the group.
Father Octavian looked down at me. "Do you by any chance recognize the heraldry, Mother?"
I stared up at him perfectly astonished. "Me? No! You mean you don't?"
He smiled faintly. "There are over a thousand Astarte Chapters, Mother, only a cogitator can remember them all." I had to admit he had a good point there.
The strange thunderhawk finished circling and a cloud of dust rising above the tops of our own gunships indicated it had landed. I trailed along as Father Octavian, Mikaiel and the Banner bearer made their way between the tents and a gap in the circle of our own thunderhawks to emerge on the side facing the strange gunship were we found a squad of Consecrators drawn up in battle order, weapons at the ready, their sergeant literally teetering on his ceramite boots in his eagerness to charge the newcomer.
"Down, Eleazar," said Father Octavian.
The beaky black helmet swiveled toward his superior somehow managing to convey the disappointed battle-lust behind its expressionlessness. "They could be Chaos Marines," the sergeant said with an unmistakable note of hope in his sepulchral tones.
"They could," Father agreed, "but let's find out for certain before doing anything irrevocable. Stand down Sergeant."
I didn't think power armor pauldrons could slump. But somehow Sergeant Eleazar's did. "You heard Father, Brothers, stand down."
The line of Space Marines snapped too, holstered weapons and fell into parade rest in the perfectly synchronized unison one sees in servitors acting on the same command.
I looked nervously at the strange thunderhawk, just glittering there giving no sign of life. "Why don't they do something?"
"We've intruded on their space in an Eldar Craftworld," Father answered (I didn't know it then but Space Marines are seriously territorial). "Our heraldry is probably as unfamiliar to them as theirs is to us." He handed his helmet to the Banner bearer, taking the company standard from him in return. "It is for us to make the first move." Turning he marched towards the strange thunderhawk, bareheaded with his left hand held well away from his weapons and the banner in his right.
When Father Octavian reached the midway mark a brazen hatch opened and a massive figure glittering in in armor the same color as the thunderhawk emerged, a white cloak fluttering behind him, and advanced to meet the Company Master. Their deep, booming voices were clearly audible even to somebody without gene-seed enhancement like me.
Father Octavian said: "Greetings, Brother. I am Company Master Octavian of the Consecrators Chapter. My Company and I appeal to our brethren for aid in our distress."
After a perceptible pause that had Sergeant Eleazar quivering in hopeful excitement the other Marine answered: "Welcome, Brother. I am Captain Ashara of the Phoenix Brethren Chapter. How may we be of service?"
And so the camp had to come down again, for the second time in twenty-four standards but nobody seemed to mind. The Marines clearly shared my relief that we weren't stranded on some lifeless rock with no way off.
I reentered my tent to find Watcher standing in contemplation before the glittering cranium that was my unwanted companion and charge. Its head swiveled towards me and I read both astonishment and inquiry in the movement.
"Yeah, I know," I answered, sitting down on the cot. "Emperor's Peace was desecrated by the xenos. His Beatitude thought it needed something special to re-sanctify it so he gave me Him. And here we all are, Emperor only knows how many light years and temporal years away from the whole Hades diocese…" my voice trailed off as an unwelcome thought intruded. "Watcher, you don't think that He – I mean this couldn't all be according to some plan of His?" Oh no. Please no. The last thing a hypocrite like me needed was the personal attention of Him on Earth! *3
Watcher flapped his sleeves in a broad don't-ask-me gesture. "Yeah," I sighed. "How should you know?" I put his Divine Majesty back in my pocket. "Come on, Watcher, we're moving – again!"
A. Vail.: That would have been the released Eldar souls being sucked into the warp and the arms of Slaanesh.
A. Vail: The rain of dust had presumably ceased sometime before this though, much like her brother, Saint Athaliah doesn't bother to mention the fact.
C. Cain: A truly horrible thought, and one that has occasionally occurred to me.