Mossy Toes: A Memory, Sundered
Based on "The Fall of Kher-Ys" in Codex: Chaos Daemons, and borrowing heavily from the sonnet "Grief," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Kher-Ys is not silent, not yet. The Craftworld is utterly desolate, but oh no, it is not silent. So long as any of her people live, her corridors still ring with the remembered death cries of her people and the laughter of their slayers.
And one still lives. On a staircase in a despoiled courtyard, untouched by the ruination of her world, a white-gowned eldar maiden weeps and cradles the corpse of Kher-Ys's autarch: her father. His armor is rent and his corpse defiled. His spirit stone has been cruelly shattered and the silver wraithbone key he always wears around his neck, a finely-wrought locus of psychic power, is missing.
Human grief is an immense thing, capable of overwhelming any defenses the grieving can erect, but it is a pale thing by comparison to the true grief of an eldar. It is but warm, shallow and tempestuous water: never knowing the cold, deep sorrows to which the heart can truly sink. Hopeless grief is passionless; only those incredulous of despair, those half-taught in anguish, can possibly shriek in reproach and beat with futile fists against the fickle fates.
The maiden sits in the fading fragments and shattered shards of her world, and there can be no balm to ease her injury. As far as the eye can see, the crystalline landscape of Kher-Ys is dead. Its elegant structures are milky and discolored, and have been crazed into distorted, shattered parodies of their former beauty. The Aspect Shrines have been defiled. The sibilant, soothing song of the Infinity Circuit has died. The corpses of her people are scattered in horrific commonality: the abandoned playthings of a capricious god. She is the last, and memories of cruel laughter grant her no respite.
Why was she spared by the servants of She Who Thirsts? Why was so perfect and unflawed a soul not fought over rapaciously? Only because the greatest among the Dark Prince's servants present had already claimed her.
A shifting in the taste of the air presages his arrival: a faint and cloying musk the maiden finds achingly familiar. A gentle wash of warmth. A faint, fiery crackle. The scrape of metal upon wraithbone.
"Express grief for thy dead in a silence like to death," says the soft and tender voice she knows so well, "most like a monumental statue set in everlasting watch and moveless woe, till it crumbles to the dust beneath. Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet: if it could weep, it could arise and go."
She turns to face him: the immense, measureless blasphemy of that malign spirit possessing the Avatar of Kher-Ys. Its molten metal flesh has been twisted into a panoply of cruel barbs and foul sigils and its ever-bleeding right hand, the symbol of Khaine, has been severed. Its fires are banked and fading, no longer fueled by the orgy of destruction in which it has taken part: they shine faintly through the cracks in its ash-colored metal hide and glimmer with an avid cruelty in its eyes. When it speaks, smoke wafts between its dull, pitted lips. An ornate silver key dangles at its waist.
"Ail," she says. It is all she can say.
"Ilthania," he replies, nodding in deference. "Is not this form more fitting to my true nature? A demigod am I, now: the wrathful Young King bathed in sacred fire, capable of redeeming our declining race."
His every word is a cut across the tattered remnants of her heart, recalling the daydreams they had idly shared. Such daydreams had lured her, initially, from Kher-Ys abroad onto the Path of the Outcast. There, she had met and been bound inexorably to him: laughing Ail, beautiful Ail, compassionate Ail, whom she had thought to be a fellow Ranger. Ail, whom she had loved with the depths of the heart that only an eldar can bring to bear, and had assumed the love reciprocated. Ail, whom she had brought home to her Craftworld and inside its wards. Those wards had come crashing down, unlocked by the key at this Ail-Avatar's waist after he stolen it from the autarch's neck while the latter slept.
"Why?" Ilthania asks. She has to know.
"Secrets are my stock and trade to Keep," he replies, "but you have given me so generous a gift that I can tell you this. Among your kin, I am aptly named, and in that name lies the only reason that I need, my love: I am Ail'Slath'Sleresh, the Heartslayer."
"Your love?" she says, her voice curdled by a note of disgust and choked by the immensity of her emotions.
"My love. My purest, truest love--as befits your beauty." No smoke comes from his mouth, now, and when he extends his remaining hand, the cooling metal of his being creaks in protest. "Chaos is not a solely destructive force: the truth of Creation, the building up, is just as vital as that of Annihilation, the shattering of what has been built. Your life in wasting sorrow, now, is so very much sweeter than an abridging death."
Ilthania does not reply. What could she possibly say? Full desertness, in souls as well as countries, lies bare under the blanching, vertical eye-glare of truth in absolute.
Ail's stolen body cools further. The light in his cavernous eye sockets flickers. At last he moves again, and his still-extended left hand groans in protest as it reaches down to lightly touch her cheek. His metal fingers are cool where they touch her alabaster flesh.
Then his fires die and Ail's presence is gone. The scene is a tableau: The looming, defiled Avatar frozen in a lover's caress; the maiden sitting on the stairs; the fallen autarch, head still resting in her lap; and about them, the tragic dissolution of Kher-Ys.
After a suspended, infinite moment, Ilthania stands. She takes the key from the Avatar's waist and rests it, once more, around her father's neck. Then she departs, wandering as far as she can within the Craftworld's bounds. She seeks some unsullied place to hide herself away, but she will not find one, for the servants of the Dark Prince have been thorough in their play.
Before long, she will die. Though she eats and drinks not, it will not be deprivation that is her end. Nor will she visit harm upon her flesh, for to do as such would be to act in bitter parody of the violence of her foes.
She will die nonetheless, bearing what no heart can bear. Perhaps then, at long last, the drifting shell of Craftworld Kher-Ys will fall silent.