Due to the actions of Rennac in chat, I had removed this story for a while - a considered decision that I felt was sad, but necessary.
However, I believe that most people understand that I offer all my stories in a spirit of sharing and fun. If you enjoy what you read here, then I am happy
To underscore: I am not asking for critique. The story is what it is :)I am simply looking to share something I had fun doing.Contains: mild suggestion of sexual themes, suggestions of supernatural peril, one injection in a medical context, brief non-sexual nudity.
The last Ascaron had heard of it, no-one went into Aelindrach. Even the environs of the strange dark realm were forbidden, strictly off-limits to any but the Mandrakes themselves, shadow-haunted ruins that concealed who knew what horrors. He straightened, haughtily allowing his slaves to tighten the last of the clasps securing his armour in place, and studied himself in the diamond mirror that lined one side of the robing-chamber. Perfect, as always of course, but still … He felt the outfit lacked something, so he held out his left hand imperiously, tucking the agoniser provided by the kneeling servant into his waist-sash.
He felt ready now. Gathering the chosen elite of his Kabalite warriors around him as he strode out, the soldiers automatically fanning out into a defensive formation, he gestured to those in front that they would be taking one of the raider craft. Not his personal flagship vessel; one of the others, bearing the sigil of the Night’s Destruction but not as obviously the Archon himself out taking a ride. There was a form to be observed. Ascaron knew this as well as anyone; what mattered was not so much what one did – crucial though it was to make all the correct decisions – but how one was observed. To act foolishly was to invite scorn and in Commorragh, a lack of respect inspired could be as fatal as a lack of respect shown to one’s temporary superior. Glancing up at the dark fallen suns as he sped past their weak, chained glare, the Archon did not need to guess what Vect would think of his little excursion.
It had all been his daughter’s fault, really. Some said he spoiled the girl, but what is the sense of having a Trueborn child if one does not use the latitude shown her to demonstrate one’s wealth and power? Ascaron indicated a change to the course with a minute gesture, the mute communication understood as only Eldar can comprehend such subtle things. The raider banked sharply. Let Scyraxis have her fun, he mused; she was only acting according to her nature. The young like to explore, to experiment. Of course if he had known quite where the child was playing, he would have torn through hell itself to stop her, but instead – this. At first, the breathless reports of his bodyguards that she had been found playing in the squares close to the Bone Orchards, straying into the borderlands between the ruins and shade-haunted Aelindrach, then from the next – exquisitely persuaded to reveal what he had seen in great and exacting detail – confirmation that one of the twisting shadow-kind had been seen close to her and her two slave-guardians, watching, but never moving except in that ceaseless, shifting way of standing still that Mandrakes have.
It had been quite the trying day for Ascaron, and his rage and fatherly concern had required some very expensive soothing.
He alighted from the raider before it came to a stop, the hovering grav-craft tilting to let him leap down lightly. His bodyguards followed him, six Kabalite warriors where an Archon of his station should have many more. He glanced at the raider, then shrugged a little. Such were the terms of the request, and to bring more would be gauche, as well as making him look like a paranoid fool. There were few things Ascaron was not prepared to lose in his quest for dominance, but face was not one of them.
The letter – written on carefully cured hide so smooth and without blemish that it could only have come from one of the Dark Kin – was both elegant and specific. His presence was requested in Aelindrach, in the district of Ylindraskor. He would be asked to discuss a matter of mutual concern. It would do much to allay his fears for his daughter, if he would only consent to a meeting. Written in perfumed ink, the missive was more like a Lhamaean promise-note than a diplomatic summons, but the advantage was too rare to ignore. Few Archons managed to treat more than casually with the Mandrakes, who were feared almost as much at home in their own city as on the battlefield. Ascaron remembered his own childhood nightmares for a freezing heartbeat or two, but pressed on. There was an advantage here, and only a fool would not seize it.
Crossing the low wall that delimited fallen Ylindraskor, straining against the gloom, he could see two figures leaning against one of the pillars straighten as he approached. Ascaron shook his head as his two flanking guards made to target the outsiders. They lapsed into watchful stillness, responding to his murmured command to wait at the wall.
“Archon, we are risking much on this letter.” Jasdriol, ever-cautious, respectfully bowed his head as he spoke.
“I am aware of that. We have the word of our hosts, Jasdriol, I am sure everyone here is Eladrith Ynneas enough to know what the shame of breaking that trust would be.” It was a form again, the nod to propriety, the earnest protests of a loyal warrior, the gentle quelling certainty of his Lord to bolster morale. All a play in many acts, endlessly cycling over the stage of the Dark City. Ascaron raised his hand, open palm outwards in greeting.
Two figures in the cream-grey skinfolds of Mandrakes’ hakama stepped forward, shifting black. Formless faces under frost-white hair showed nothing of any expression, except for hungry mouths. It took Ascaron a moment to summon his self-control, but in that time he had crossed the threshold and could see a double avenue of the creatures, leading to some barely-lit enclave under the twisted remains of a grove of shadethorn trees. The foremost bowed, gesturing him forward with a hand wreathed in green warpfire. The Archon nodded, curtly, and stepped out along the indicated path.
The silent stillness of his escort was broken as they all fluidly bowed their heads and fell to one knee. Ascaron looked to the centre of their obeisance. Of course. Why should anyone of any station among the shadow-dwellers arrive on foot?
The focus of all this perfectly-timed adoration – and it gave him a momentary twinge of jealously to see how flawlessly they all obeyed – was a female figure in fine skin robes, high-cut sleeves leaving her arms bare as all the shadow-kin did, traceries of fine green lettering racing up and down them from shoulders to fingertips where they edged her hands with pale fire. Her hair was tied back on a high topknot, except for the fringe which fell forward over her non-face, a smooth blank save for two green eyes and a minimal nose. Ascaron bowed in greeting, using the movement to camouflage his own surprise, He’d only seen Mandrakes in hakama before, though whether this was a nod to modesty or practicality for the shifting horrors was something uncertain. It had never occurred to him to question their gender, either, using one of the many default words the Dark Eldar had for no particular sex. He assumed everyone did.
“Welcome.” She returned his bow with a graceful nod, an old-fashioned courtly gesture, though her face never showed any mouth to form the words. “Most honoured guest, Ascaron, Lord of the Seventh Reach, victor of Ilstramas, layer-waste of the broad lands of Killistrae.”
Ascaron blinked. No-one used those titles any more, not even the keenest to ingratiate themselves. Yet she had spoken with the level courtesy of an equal, so he inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“I regret that I do not know to whom I have the honour of making my address, milady.”
“I shall tell you everything,” she murmured, waving her elegant black hand to the left and right. It put him in mind of a funeral lily. The hakama-clad warriors filed and melted into the background darkness, so that he could not tell if they were standing a few feet away or in another dimension. She gestured for him to come and sit beside her, and Ascaron found himself sitting on a low, curving wall that might once have been the edge of a pleasure-garden. Perhaps, with eyes to see in the peculiar half-darkness, it still was.
“I have watched your child at play,” she began, and this did nothing to put Ascaron’s mind at ease. “Such a remarkably fearless one, one might almost call it innocence, in a city unlike this one.” He could not be sure, but her laugh sounded for a moment almost shy, like a youthful suitor or a particularly skilled Lhamaean actress.
“If my daughter has trespassed, Lady, I will of course make full restitution.”
“Oh, there is no need for that, I assure you, my dear Ascaron.” She paused fractionally on the word, as though tasting it. The sensation of being watched by the very darkness itself did not make this any less unnerving. Mentally, Ascaron checked the whereabouts of all his weapons and his personal forcefield generator, the activation-stud nestled inside his high collar. “I was curious at who could have fathered such a bold child. I found it to be you. I have been watching you, Ascashka. I have learned all about you.”
The use of the familiar form of his name put Ascaron on the back foot a little more. The closer proximity of the shadow-lady did not assist, the more so since he could not be sure when she had moved. “I hope that I do not disappoint, Lady,” was all he could think to say, his mind racing for her motives, what her unwarranted expression of courtly tenderness could mask.
Her eyes lowered under the silver-white fringe. “No indeed.” Her mouth flowed into being, sensual, a little too wide. “I shall come to the point quickly, as I believe obfuscation bores you.”
“Obfuscation perhaps, yet proper civility, never.” He fell back on gallantry, fighting the urge to pull away and flee the strange grove and leap into the waiting raider.
“You are too kind.” Her green eyes winked out of existence entirely, the small nose gaining an aquiline shape like a noblewoman of old. They returned modestly, half-hidden by her hair. “I wish an alliance between us. I want to ally myself with you, Ascaron.”
“That is – that is a pleasure I did not expect, Lady.” Allied with a Mandrake gathering, what could he not accomplish? Several of Ascaron’s carefully-orchestrated plans vied for his attention at once.
“Ahh, unexpected pleasures are the sweetest, are they not?” It was cold here, the air cool in his throat, but now she had shifted close enough that he could feel the icy touch as her thigh pressed close alongside his own. Despite himself Ascaron could feel his cheeks colouring. His distracted mind tried to recall the last time he had blushed. As a youthful suitor himself perhaps, or in his first encounter with a Lhamaean. “I hope my boldness does not offend you.”
“Not in the slightest, I assure you.” It wasn’t even a lie. Nowhere in his current confusion would it have occurred to him to be offended.
“I am glad.” Her cold hand, decorated – no, carved – with some arcane, dancing sigils in green fire, reached up to stroke the side of his face. It felt as if he should be frosting over – Ascaron could picture gentle feathers of ice forming on his skin. He fought the urge to shake her off. “Will you let down your hair for me?”
“Of course.” His hands reached up to undo the high topknot and loose the several blades that decorated it. She took them from him, one by one. It was a simple enough wish to grant, when the potential rewards of alliance were so great.
She ran a night-black hand through his dark hair, feeling the softness of the tresses, holding a lock gently to her face, now smooth as an obsidian mirror. He could still hear her sigh.
“I have been watching you, my dear sweet Ascaron.” She said it again, and he wracked his brains to try to understand when that could be. He finally settled on any of his public promenades – his citadel, and certainly his personal quarters were warded in every way possible. “I know that you no longer have the good lady Thleyrin as your wife.”
“No, no the terms of the ah- agreement, were fulfilled some time ago; you have seen my daughter.” The union had been contracted for the strict term of one Trueborn child, gender irrelevant, and he and Archon Alastria Thleyrin had gone their separate ways, now with a strengthened alliance and several excellent trade agreements. No-one who could claim to have been watching his every move as she had would expect any kind of romantic attachment to the lady. Then it came to him: she did not expect it. It was all part of the role.
“I suppose … I suppose that one such as you would find me cold indeed.” Her eyes threatened to vanish again, and her mouth shrank a little. She put a single finger across his unshifting mouth to ask for silence, though he could think of nothing to say. Hadn’t her ancestors lain with demons? Made forbidden pacts with darkness itself in some unspecified, yet always ultimately terrifying way? He could feel the coldness of her form pressed close to his, one arm looped with curious liquidity around his waist. Ascaron felt a little as though he were drowning. He had died once in such a way, and the experience was peculiarly unpleasant. He steeled himself not to shiver, the inbuilt systems in his suit working overtime against the pervasive chill. His breath clouded the air. He could not help noticing that hers barely raised a plume. “Will you take off your armour? You are a guest here, and you are safe. None of my gathering will hurt you, or your warriors, or your kin.”
“And as a good guest of course I will oblige my gracious host.” It wasn’t elegant, but it was all he could think to say. Ascaron stood with a slight bow, glad to be away from her cold embrace, and focussed on the profit to be made from an alliance such as this. Green luminous eyes, large and alone in her smooth face, watched his every move, drinking in the shift and play of his muscles as he stripped the armour piece by piece. She took each one from him reverently.
He knew the ythrain-suit would stiffen against any sudden impacts, the last layer of defence against attack, and he still had the field-generator hidden at his neck, but Ascaron felt vulnerable. He hated the feeling. It reminded him of his mercifully short audiences with the Supreme Overlord. Vect had a way of metaphorically stripping away the protections every Archon build up around themselves, of comforting schemes and fantasies of omnipotence.
“The alliance you spoke of, milady – and you have yet to tell me your name, forgive me – how is it to be concluded?” Ascaron fought back to familiar ground. She had spoken of an alliance, and that was why he was here.
“Names have power, Ascashka, do they not?” He could not see any mouth, but he could have sworn she was smiling.
“Of course; but a suitable alias will more than suffice.” He inclined his head politely, keen to get the discussion back to the cold-blooded politics he was more used to.
“You may call me Amelindrae.” She reached up, close to him again, looking with a full face into his own. The effect was startling. He’d grown used to the semi-solid mask.
“It suits you well.” Ascaron fought the urge to step back. Through the fine barrier of the ythrain, her icy proximity was disturbing, He must not shiver, must not let her know how cold he felt. He could not show weakness. “And so how may we effect our alliance, Lady Amelindrae? You have written of the safety of my child and my household, of the profit to be gained from an alliance with myself, of how it would benefit your gathering to work with my Kabal – what is it you wish from my side of the bargain?”
“What I wish from you, you cannot give me.” Her sigh was audible from her wide, sorrowful, sensual mouth. “I know that it would kill you, draw out every last drop of heat with your passion. So I have but one thing to ask of you.”
“What might that be?” He couldn’t help it; Ascaron knew his own eyes had flown nearly as wide as hers as she hinted at her desire.
“Kiss me. One kiss. Then I will let you go back to your Kabal, and your child will be safe playing in the Bone Orchards, and we will watch over her, and aid you on the field of battle.”
“Is it so terrible a thing? Do you think I will drink your soul?” Her eyes held a glint of something besides maidenly downcast, like the look in a raptor’s eyes as it closes.
“Of course not, milady.” His childhood stories had told him precisely that. Ascaron bowed his head, dark hair falling like a curtain as she reached up to place a delicate, green-limned hand on the back of his neck.
Her kiss was soft and light at first, brushing his lips with frost, then she pressed her mouth hard to his, kissing him deeply, her hands chilling the sides of his face, the points of his ears, the curve of his throat. Ascaron felt cold run through him like a current. It was all he could do not to break away, to make some semblance of returning the kiss to her freezing lips, but at last she pulled away, her eyes vanishing under her lowered fringe, leaving only a secretive smile.
She handed him the pieces of his armour and all the tiny blades from his hair, and he strode out in the direction she indicated, wordlessly, looking for his raider.
The Kabalites had formed up in a wary line, facing off the shadow-shrouded, hakama-clad figures waiting under the trees, and they looked almost as happy as he felt to see beings of flesh and blood. Wordlessly, shivering in earnest now, he leapt into the raider and gestured to the pilot to take off and steer straight for home.
Wrapped in the improvised blanket of his Kabal’s colours, his armour buckled back into place and the suit’s systems working to capacity trying to restore some heat, Ascaron risked a glance in the mirrored visor of one of his warriors’ helms. His lips were blue. At the gates of his palace, his personal Haemonculus physician greeted him with admonishments that he was too chilled to reproach her for. He let her fuss and order his slaves around as he slipped gratefully into a steaming bath, its surface scattered with the petals of rare orchids as two of his Lhamaean courtesans poured more water over his hair.
“And what could be worth such risk, my Archon?” she chided, her bony fingers ushering the concubines away as he sank in the water up to his chin.
“Aaahh … Vriss. It was a little, calculated risk for a very substantial gain.” He felt her slide a needle into his arm. The tiny sensation of pain was a welcome notice that feeling was returning.
“You have lost a great deal of your core temperature. I only wish you would warn me of such things first, so I could be properly prepared to assist in your recovery. It speaks of lack of trust, Ascaron.” Vriss carefully laid the syringe aside and tested the temperature of the blessedly hot water with a disapproving gesture. “I say again, what can be worth so much risk to your person?”
“I have an alliance, Vriss. An alliance with Aelindrach.”