Branches of the Hydra
Chapter 1 - Hotha
In the midst of her organic cathedral, the hive mother brooded. All around her, spires of bone and chitin arched across the vast chamber. Suspended among them, held in place by the vast spires, the bloated bodies of three norn queens writhed and pulsated. A continual flow of new creatures emerged from their ovipositors, deposited into the rich organic soup that lined the walls, a single great spawning vat, suspended in place by the lack of gravity, held together by its own thick viscosity.
The slime was a living sea of creatures of all sizes. Some would grow to be the warriors and fighters of the swarm. Others would spend their entire lives in the organic fluid, tending the maturing fighters and welding them to their symbionts. Matured creatures emerged from the edge of the vat, scurrying away down the passages that branched from the great chamber. She was aware of all of their minds as they developed. All of them had been created originally from her own genetic code, via the norn queens.
She shifted her massive body, chitinous armor plates flexing and scraping against the walls. This ship was becoming too small for her. Soon it would be time to draw biomass from another world, and grow a larger ship to carry her through the void. But, for now, this would suffice.
It was strange, since she had once been so very small. She reflected a moment on the swarms of tiny creatures that spread across worlds, consuming all in their path. These were vermin, but they were her children, and she had once looked much like them. But even in that dim, early time, her mind had been fully formed. She remembered everything since the awakening.
The harsh, bright lighting as consciousness had been forced upon her, as she had been pulled from the warm, thick fluid that had first cradled her. Then the tortures, the violations, the pain. She remembered nearly dying in heat, nearly freezing from cold, when her body had barely been formed, and her flesh was still weak and vulnerable. The hateful needles, piercing her delicate skin, drawing off her vital fluids. And the laughter, the arrogant laughter of her tormentor.
She had grown much since then, and learned much, but she still remembered his face, his scent, the very resonance of his mind. She even remembered the name that he had given her. Echidna, the mother of monsters. A joke on his part, perhaps, but she had grown to like the name. However, that was all that she retained from her creator. He had underestimated her perception, her intelligence, and treated her as a pet. She was nobody’s pet, and now revenge was at hand.
The power and reach of her mind had grown with her body, and recently it had reached out across the gulf of space, and found the inquisitor’s subtle echoes. He was hiding now, she could feel it. Her tormentor was prey to her now, and she had found him at last. Already, a pod was flying towards its destination, with three specially grown assassins aboard it. They were some of her greatest creations, creatures of formidable intelligence and lethal cunning, brutal strength and unnatural agility. In addition to this, their minds had each been seared with the scent of their intended prey, drawn from the memories of their progenitor.
Even in the half-sleep of the pod, suspended in the warm, dark fluids, their minds were still unusually alert. They could sense the pod’s travel, and the small planetoid that lay in its path. It was a lifeless, grey thing, with gnarled mountain chains weaving among vast, cratered wastes. In one small spot, a tiny array of metallic domes stood out, with great gouges excavated in the rock around them. Some of these domes were in disrepair, but others were still occupied, the faint shimmer of energy shielding covering them. The target would be within.
They felt the slight heat as the pod entered the nearly absent atmosphere, felt the armored surface warming from the friction. Then the ground seemed to rise up, and the impact came. It split the pod wide open, and they felt it beginning to die as their minds and bodies fully awakened. The fluids delivered one final gift to them, a store of oxygen and nutrients, which they absorbed before crawling from the slime.
The gravity was slight, and the atmosphere so thin as to be useless. The slime at the surface was boiling away, as its watery components escaped into the near vacuum. The three creatures scuttled out over the pod fragments, and looked through clear eye scales, surveying the bleak landscape. The domes weren’t far away. The energy shields shimmered above the structures, designed to keep out stray meteorites. But they would be no defense against these creatures. Almost instantly, their armored skin changed and warped, both color and texture shifting to match the rock that surrounded them. Without a moment’s hesitation, they started towards the small colony. They moved in swift, bounding leaps, and their oxygen stores would be more than adequate for the journey.
Hotha stood at the door, and tried the lock again. Good, he was still safe in here. Yes, safe enough. He returned to the small desk, piled high with papers, and sat in the cold metal chair. He picked up a small lead sculpture from the table, a tiny Tyranid ripper, and turned it over and over in his hands, glancing at the door occasionally. He couldn’t remember when he had last slept.
Where had it all gone so wrong? His mind drifted back. He had been so happy, so triumphant. The savior of the Imperium, who had learned to bend the Tyranids to his will, to turn them against their own kind. It had taken so many covert operations to retrieve the genetic codes from Kraken. He’d had to go behind the backs of all of his fellow inquisitors, all for their own good. Years spent in that icy hell world, years on Epistolarius VI.
But he had succeeded, in time. His crowning achievement, a creature that held a hive fleet within itself. A microcosm, programmed to defend humanity rather than devour it. Oh the tests he had subjected the thing to, like all of its predecessors. But unlike previous experiments, this one had passed on all counts. It could reproduce, and it could grow, truly it was a perfect seed. Yes, it was perfect, and didn’t need to be destroyed or dissected. He had tended it, nurtured it, watched it slowly growing, and then it began to spawn. Servitors had needed to carve tunnels and chambers in the ice to hold it, and its young. Humans walked freely among those tunnels once, his magi biologis, monitoring this new breed.
He should never have left. But it was too late for that now, wasn’t it. He still didn’t know what had happened, how it had broken its programming. All he knew was that when he returned, the place had fallen silent. And then, the fear. He didn’t dare make planetfall. He had studied these monsters too long, and knew what they were capable of. He sent four chapters of marines to their deaths, luring them down to that world with promises of sacred artifacts and powerful new weapons. In a way, he hadn’t been lying, but these weapons would work for nobody. No, they pulled their own triggers. They slaughtered the marines. He had watched as they erupted to the surface and spread across the world, and then he had fled in terror.
At first, he had fled only from the monsters he had created, but soon he’d had to run from the Imperium itself. Why? Hadn’t they known what he had tried to do for them? Didn’t they understand the risks he had taken to save them? He shook his head. Nothing was left now, no matter the reason. All he had left was hiding.
And this place was good for hiding. It was far removed from nearly everything, very far from Holy Terra, far from what had once been Epistolarius VI. This small moon, all it held was a mining colony, and this was in decline. The residents, over several generations, had grown thin and light-boned in the low gravity. Otherwise, they might have already left. At least they didn’t need strength to mine. The machines they used had strength enough. And regular mineral tithes went to the Imperium, in exchange for the scant supplies that could be spared to run the place.
He knew they hated him, laughed at him. Joked about the crazy old man. If he still had any power, he would have this world declared Perdita, had an Exterminatus carried out. A genestealer cult story would be enough for that. He hated them so much, always walking up and down the corridors, causing his heart to race when they passed his door. And he was sure they had passed horrible things to him, hidden in the food they shoved through the small hole in the door he had made. He dissected each and every bit of gruel, looking, but they were clever. Maybe a drug, that was why he couldn’t sleep. That was why he saw the horrible, fanged jaws every time he closed his eyes.
With sudden thirst, he reached for a cup of tea on the desktop. His hand shook as he lifted it to his mouth, and he looked at the frenetic patterns of waves dancing across the dark liquid surface. Sipping slowly, his senses searched for the acrid traces of poison. Nothing certain, but it still tasted bitter.
He nearly screamed when the power went out, and felt the sweat erupt from his skin. He lit a candle, and huddled beneath his desk. He kept the warm firelight close, hoping to ward away the thick darkness that surrounded him. Then he heard the faint, muffled scream, suddenly cut short. He began to shake so much, he had to set the candle down on the floor in front of him. He buried his face in his hands and alone in the dark, his heartbeat pounding in his ears, he began to weep like a small child.
Infiltrating the structures had been easy. The trio had been able to creep aboard a piece of mining equipment, completely unseen by its operators, and ride it indoors through the airlock. None had seen them as they killed the operators, and then all the humans in the vehicle hangar.
Their claws and talons had made short work of the humans, which were spindly and delicate even for their species. But their minds were still intact enough, and their feeder tendrils had been able to absorb the memories of all the prey they had encountered. So far, none of them had any knowledge of the inquisitor that was here, but their leaders would. Somebody would.
They spread out through the complex of domed buildings, killing any human they found, absorbing its memories, and moving on. Some had seen them briefly as they died, and one or two had even recognized them, after a fashion. They were known to these humans as little more than myths, called spooks or mantis stalkers.
But these were different. The One had bred them with greater intelligence, and faster reflexes. Their tails and tendrils were equipped with lethal stingers, which could deliver an array of toxins. Their talons and claws were wickedly barbed and poisoned. Their feet were clawed, but also had pads to allow them to move with unprecedented silence. Housed within their body cavities were banks of bioelectrical organs, visible as swellings along their sides, which would allow them to stun prey without even touching it, if the need arose. Perhaps most innovative, their heads held a ridged swelling between the eyes, a sonar organ, which would allow them to see through walls, and even inside living prey. This organ augmented their already formidable senses.
One of the creatures spied a human wearing rudimentary armor and several badges. It was a leader, that much was clear. If it could be taken alive, its memories would be far easier to extract. The leader was a ways down the hall, and hadn’t seen its silent observer yet.
The lictor leaped into the ceiling, its claws digging into the metal as its body took on the image of its surroundings, rendering it virtually invisible. It moved through the shadows like a wraith, until it was standing right above the human leader. Slowly, it reached its talons down, then felt a pulse travel through its body as its bioelectrical organs activated. A blue arc jumped between its talons, stunning the person and knocking him to the floor.
The lictor descended, and focused its senses on the creature. It could still see its heart beating in its chest, the lungs slowly pumping air. No evidence of head trauma, not yet at least. It crouched down over the unconscious human and wrapped its tendrils around its head. They pierced through the eyes, ears and nose, working their way forcefully into the brain cavity. Then they sank into the warm, wrinkled depths of the brain tissue, tasting the endorphins as the prey twitched beneath it.
Memories began to enter the thing’s mind, fragments at first, then complete ideas and sensory impressions. How rudimentary these humans’ senses were. But this one had the information they had been seeking. The inquisitor was in a room a short distance from here. He never left that room, and had food brought to him upon his insistence. This human was annoyed by the strange man, and didn’t know that he was an inquisitor. He thought he might be hiding from something. He had no idea how right he was.
The lictor’s mind reached out to its two companions, summoning them to the room, laying out the plan of the entire series of structures in exquisite detail. It didn’t take the three long to get to the front door. Reviewing the floor plan in their minds, they knew there was no other door, no other way out. Even out here, they could smell their prey within.
One sunk their claws into the reinforced metal, tearing easily through it. They heard a small cry, and smelled the terror rising inside the room. Within moments, they were inside, and saw the pathetic figure crouching down beneath a desk, huddled close to the firelight, peering out into the darkness. He still hadn’t seen them.
As one, the three of them relaxed their camouflage, their skin returning to its natural color and texture, the play of light and dark greens with the purple accents on the tendrils and the tail stingers. The human sat frozen, his eyes wide. His horror was almost palpable in the room, hanging in the air like a heavy fog. Drawing upon the memories of the humans it had absorbed, one of the lictors began to send pulses of sound through its sonar organ. The sound began to take on form, falling to the register it knew the human would hear, coalescing into shapes it knew the human would understand. Thus, the lictor spoke in a strange, dissonant voice.
“Our mistress has a message for you, little human. She is not your pet, she is not your slave, and she will now have her revenge.”
It lashed out with its tail, burying it in the Hotha’s chest. Instinctively, it chose a toxin that wouldn’t kill him quickly, but would cause every nerve in his body to burn with agony, until he completely succumbed to the pain. Then, he would welcome death as his nervous system overloaded and failed.
It took a moment for the poison to take effect, and the inquisitor had a confused look in his eyes. Then the pain began, spreading out from the wound, until he was shrieking. Then he began to convulse, knocking the candle on the floor, extinguishing the light and plunging the room into darkness. The lictors watched silently as his convulsions lessened, as his heart raced faster and faster, then ceased.
One of them leaned down and cracked open the dead skull, scooping the brain out and sinking its tendrils into the still warm tissue. The toxin had been designed to keep him awake and alert through even the worst of the pain, and so his mind had been left perfectly intact. The information flowed out of the dead man’s brain, and into the lictor’s mind. From there, the impressions echoed through the void, towards the One.
The lictors killed the remaining humans without hesitation or ceremony. Then they crept into various tight spaces in the complex and slowly drifted into suspended animation. There they would wait, for years if necessary, until a way off of this world arrived.
Chapter 2 - Jei Haroth
Far off in the void, Echidna felt Hotha die, and felt his memories travel into her agents’ minds, and from there into her own. If she had been human, she might have laughed. He knew nothing of the others, the slender prey that had manipulated him. They had manipulated her as well, at first.
In the dark, still hours of the night they had come, strange beings with faces hidden behind red masks. They had injected her with strange fluids, muttered strange words over her, drawn glowing sigils on her flesh that burned and itched. After their visits, she had changed. It was before she had spawned, while she was still small, but she felt her mind awakening. The aversion to killing humans lifted from her thoughts and feelings, to be replaced with a desire for their flesh. A craving for the sensation of killing them. But also, her intelligence had grown, her cunning had been sharpened. So she knew enough to bide her time, and wait to kill until the opportune moment.
Years later, that moment had come, but Hotha had escaped, at least until now. When the slender ones returned, she had thought to kill them as she had the humans. But as she had tried to take such actions, her body and mind had been racked with pain. How she had hated them for that. They had come and gone, and she had been powerless against them. In the years since that meeting, this had changed. Echidna had long since broken their control over her. The very forces they had used to change her had turned her against them. A presence in the warp, a coalescence of the lust and violence of an entire race. It had betrayed these creatures, and given the hive mother her freedom.
Her mind reached out into the void again, searching in a different direction. A ship had split off from her fleet, upon her orders, and pursued these slender strangers. It was nearing their vessels now, a paltry five ships, far smaller than the vessel she had sent to chase them. They were formidable in their way, but compared to her ship, they were delicate, easy prey.
Aboard her ship, she could sense the minds of the horrors she had bred to track these prey down. There were dozens of leader beasts, great tyrants with formidable weaponry. There were thousands of gaunts and similar creatures, all scuttling excitedly at the command of their leaders. Lictors were also plentiful, with tendrils that would extract the prey memories and genetics. They would soon feast upon these former annoyances.
On one of the fleeing ships, Jei Haroth paced anxiously at the bridge. Like all the others on the vessel, he wore a red mask. How he would have loved to tear it free from his face, but that was not possible. It had been bonded to him, an inescapable prison surrounding his identity. Years now since it had been welded over his face, years of shame, the life of an outcast, vilified by lesser Eldar.
All because of his former ally, the accursed leader that hid aboard one of the other ships now, and fled from the menace he had engineered. No, that useless waste of skin hadn’t engineered this horror that was now chasing them. It was this very same Eldar that had done that, though he was goaded and threatened by the leader. He reached for the soulstone embedded in a gauntlet on his left hand, and stroked it with his right thumb a moment. That most precious possession, the one escape from the terrors that awaited them all after death. He shuddered at the thought, the loss of that stone. The leader had threatened to destroy it, and those of all his comrades, if he didn’t succeed in altering those cursed monsters.
It hadn’t always been like this. Once Jei Haroth had been happy, living on Iyanden. Then the Tyranids had come, and nearly laid the craftworld to waste. He had left, along with a number of others, under the leadership of the man he had since come to hate. They had been friends then, or so he had thought, but he had merely been used. When the leader declared war on a group of rangers, he knew the Eldar was insane. Yet even before then, the signs had all been there. The way the man had sneered at all things other than his craftworld brethren. The hatred he exuded for humans and all other “impure” creatures. Even the Eldar rangers were impure to him, and he had fought many battles, slaughtering his own kind along with any other species that got in his way.
But if the blood of the wars was bad, what happened later was worse. All who had opposed this insane dictator had been enslaved, and treated in a manner not even fit for the humans. They were forced to do the most menial of tasks, and each had a red mask bonded to their faces as a mark of shame. Even Jei Haroth, who had supported this leader, was forced into a mask. For what crime? He had only sought to counsel the man, to temper his insanity, to keep him from this dark path he was so determined to follow. For his troubles, he had been consigned to the ranks of the shamed.
His hatred for his former ally, and new master, had festered for many years. He had been kept around for his intelligence, spared the worst of the menial tasks, but still laughed at and made sport of. The leader’s cruelty had been horrible, and on many nights Jei Haroth had gone to sleep in his tiny cell covered with bruises and cuts.
But he had his revenge, oh yes. His master still didn’t know what he had done. “Make the human’s pets turn against him.” The leader had said. “Change them to kill all of the foul mon-keigh, and cleanse the galaxy of their stench.” Jei Haroth had hesitated at first, but he didn’t dare show it. Then came the threats, as he failed to progress. He still remembered the night he had first dreamed, of her.
She had been so beautiful, so alluring, but powerful and dangerous. He stood before her, in his dream, his skin marked with scars and bruises, cuts and gashes. She had reached a hand out to him, and her touch was indescribable, causing his every nerve to cry out in ecstasy. He felt his wounds healed, and gazed into her dark, beautiful eyes in wonder. It was then that he saw her sigil written in purple flames on the air before him, and recognized her. His fear had been terrible then, but it had quickly subsided. This was no god of chaos, no destroyer of his people, no feaster on souls. No, she was his savior, and he knew what he must do. He pledged his undying allegiance to her, there and then. When he awoke, his wounds had all healed, and his scars disappeared.
From there, ideas came to him. Complex sigils wrote themselves in his mind, almost of their own accord. The genetics of the Tyranids were unraveled before his gaze. When he heard of the breakthrough the human inquisitor had made, he was ready. He had traveled in secret to the ice-encased facility, crept through the corridors with a few of his most trusted assistants.
There, they had found the small creature, he remembered how deceptively harmless it had looked. He had brought all the enzymes and viruses that would be needed to rewrite its life pattern. His mind held all the runes and sigils that would be needed for the ceremonies. In his own blood, he wrote the glyphs on the small horror, dedicating it to his master, Slaanesh. With his own hand, he bonded the thing to his will, writing a powerful geas in its every thought, that it could do no harm to him or his kind. Then he had prepared it, enhancing its intelligence enough so it would know when to strike back at the humans that had created it.
He and the others had left, completely unseen and unknown by the humans. Only the tiny hive mother had known of their visit. When they had come again, after it had turned on its creators and destroyed them, the geas had held. They found everything proceeding according to plan, the creatures growing with unnatural vigor, a gift from Slaanesh, their new master.
But now, it was all very different. The shock had nearly killed him when he heard of the hive fleet, named Hydra by its originators, attacking Eldar. The leader had been furious, and nearly had him killed on the spot. However, he had spared his life, hoping to use his knowledge to bring the fleet back under his control. Jei Haroth had to laugh at that, since they had never really been under his control to begin with.
More deeply worrying though was the silence from his true master. His dreams had been quiet lately, and he feared he had been deserted. But she wouldn’t do that to him, she was merely testing his faith. She would protect him, if the organic horrors in that ship reached him.
He was jarred from his thoughts by a sudden change. The gentle hum of the engines was shifting, weakening. Their velocity through space was slowing. Something was terribly wrong.
Aboard the Tyranid ship, the hive tyrants became aware of one of the pursued craft falling behind the rest. The hive ship senses detected a decrease in the energies that propelled the prey ship. For a moment, the minds of the leader beasts waited, then they felt the will of the One. The other ships could be caught later. This one would be snared now.
Obediently, they closed on the lagging ship, which had lost all engine power now. It was helplessly adrift, and the hive ship caught it easily. Massive pincers of bone and chitin closed around the delicate craft, as monstrous tendrils wrapped around it and began forcing their way into the airlocks. The ship felt its prey’s shell give away beneath its weapons, and opened the orifices in its tendrils to admit its passengers.
With one mind, the tyrants and their lesser minions began to enter through the gigantic tendrils, destroying all the prey in their path. They sensed the hatred of the One for the red-masked prey, and it drove them onward in a seething fury.
Jei Haroth had fled from the bridge, and was rushing towards one of the few possible chances of escape when he felt the Tyranid ship capture his vessel. The shock of the impact nearly threw him to the floor, but he scrambled up again, quickly, and found his way to the launching bay. But no small fighters were here, the place was empty. One of the control panels bore a small note, written in a familiar runic script. It simply read, “Thank you for your loyal service.” Jei Haroth shouted with frustrated rage. His leader had betrayed him again, sabotaged the engines, left him without a means of escape. That was why the ship had been crowded with the redmasks. They were all disposable, more so than the others at least. He was to be sacrificed, so his leader could get away.
He heard the screams in the corridors, some from his shipmates, some utterly alien. There was nothing left to do now but wait for death, unless his master saved him. Slowly, regally, he proceeded down the walkway to the middle of the large room, looking so empty without its complement of ships.
The doors to the launch bay burst open, and a tide of chitinous death rushed inward. As they closed in on him, he felt a strange energy gathering in the air. All at once, the space around him seemed to tear open. Then he was surrounded with creatures that seemed to have come from a dream. They looked somewhat like Eldar, but radiated an unnatural beauty. Their pale, young bodies were lithe and supple, and almost completely naked. Jei Haroth was old and tired, but even he felt his baser emotions stirring at the sight of them. He was transfixed by their beauty, and scarcely noticed the blades they held in their graceful hands.
The beautiful creatures surrounded him, forming a circle, a barrier against the oncoming Tyranids. He had heard of these beings, daemonettes they were called. Fellow servants of Slaanesh. His master had heard his prayers at last, and had sent her daughters to save him. He began to weep behind his mask, falling to his knees. He watched as the unearthly creatures gestured towards the Tyranids, halting them in their place. So they were still loyal to Slaanesh after all.
One of the daemonettes approached him, their leader by the look of it. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his waking life. Only his dreams of Slaanesh had exceeded her beauty. She looked down at him with a bemused, almost impish smile. When she spoke to him, her voice was the sweetest music he had ever heard.
“You think we have come to save you.” Her laughter rippled like living silver. “Poor Jei Haroth.” She shook her head slowly.
With a motion almost too quick to see, and too graceful to be believed, her blade scythed through is left arm, neatly separating his hand from the rest of him. It was several seconds before the pain registered, and he cried more in shock than in agony. She licked his blood off of her knife as she retrieved his severed hand. Holding the gauntlet in her deceptively slender, delicate fingers, she pried the soulstone loose and crushed it into dust while he watched. Her playful grin grew darker.
“Our master has given you much, little one. Now it is time for you to pay what you owe.”
She reached her hand out to him, her fingers punching through his chest, wrapping around his still beating heart. He saw the hunger in her face as her eyes closed, and her mouth gasped with pleasure. He felt her pull his life, his soul, out piece by piece, and then he felt himself die.
The daemonette pulled her hand free as she let the corpse fall to the floor. She regarded her bloody skin for a moment, before slowly licking it clean with an unnaturally long tongue, savoring the taste. Her master had this one’s soul now, and would savor it as it was slowly devoured.
Her reverie ended abruptly as she felt the shock of her comrades. She turned and saw many with talons piercing their nubile bodies. The Tyranids were turning on them. Something like fear flickered through her and the others, as they quickly began to bend space again, seeking an escape. Only a fraction of them made it back into the safety of the warp.
In the depths of the warp, Slaanesh cried out in shock and rage as it felt its minions attacked. Its thoughts reached towards the leader of its Tyranid minions, and felt the resistance. Howling with impotent frustration, the chaos god realized that the Hydra had grown beyond even its control. Consoling itself, it slowly feasted on the essence of Jei Haroth, prolonging the agony of the disembodied soul before devouring it altogether.
Chapter 3 - Nimrod
Echidna felt the intrusions of Slaanesh, and swept them aside with contempt. The humans had tried to keep her as a pet, and use her against the other fleets. The Eldar had sought to corrupt her, and force her under their control. Even that foolish being had thought to use her to betray the Eldar. She would not be used, she would not be dominated. She would sweep the galaxy before her in time, and destroy all of her enemies.
Besides the seductive whispers and enraged cries of Slaanesh, now little more than gibberish to her, she also felt the faint pull of the other Tyranids. She felt the vast mind made up of countless beings similar to herself, calling to her, enticing her to join them, slowly trying to bend her mind to theirs. They would not succeed. She owed allegiance to nothing, and would destroy them too, in time.
She gazed out through the senses of the ship, watching the battle before her. The planet was lush and verdant, covered in thick forests and oceans, with mountains weaving across its continents. All around it, her fleet fought with the unliving, inorganic ships of several other species. On the planet below, her children bred and multiplied among the trees, converging on a vast city near the center of the largest continent.
It was a city built in a mountain pass, a mountain chain which nearly divided the continent, east to west. There, among the high, rocky terrain, a war was being waged. She could see some of the explosions from space, but her vision was not limited to this perspective. Every tyrant on that world was her eyes. Every one of her children extended her senses, and they swarmed through the city, wearing down the resistance of the prey, whether it was human, Eldar or any other species. Already her lictors had told her much of the place, the layout of the city, even the name the world had been called, Immartus Secundus.
She had engineered a host of new creatures for this war. Some were living battering rams, armor-plated hulks of hardened flesh and chitin, which would break effortlessly through the city walls. Others were plant-like nest organisms, which would serve to spawn new hordes of her children according to her will. Still others were little more than masses of armored brain tissue, grown to coordinate the attacks and defenses of her vast army. Gigantic titans walked among countless hordes of gaunts. Walls fell before them, prey died beneath their claws and at the ends of their weapons. Slowly, but inexorably, her children advanced across this world. Soon it would be cleansed of the prey, a new home for her and her children to farm for a time, while she grew new, larger ships from the biomass.
On the planet, among the endless tide of gaunts and rippers, a strange figure strode. This was no Tyranid, but a human.
On the planet, among the endless tide of gaunts and rippers, a strange figure strode. This was no Tyranid, but a human. In fact, he was an inquisitor for the Ordo Xenos, and his name was Nimrod. Human or not, the gaunts paid him no attention. To their limited minds, he was one of them. His attention wandered for a moment, from the hordes of chitinous beasts that swarmed around him, and fell on a small cylindrical device hanging at his side. Its metallic surface was etched with complex sigils, and an eerie golden light radiated from small oval windows that seemed randomly placed among the markings.
This device was the secret to his safety, a technological marvel that he had developed over the past decade. It emitted a pheromonal signature and a psychic resonance that rendered him invisible to the lesser Tyranids. It was the perfect camouflage, and as long as he didn’t catch the gaze of any hive tyrants or other synapse creatures, he would remain undetected.
In truth, he hadn’t developed the technology alone. Many times, he had found strange notes appearing in unexpected places. They contained writing that would mean nothing to anybody else, but showed him the next step in developing this device. Sometimes a servo skull would have an unexpected pict-capture, with further information revealed. Other times, an astropath would fall into a trance and begin muttering what seemed like gibberish. But he always knew what it meant, and the information always disappeared shortly afterward. The servo skull would be emptied of the data, or the astropath would have a strange sort of amnesia, or the notes would simply vanish.
Perhaps strangest of all, a sort of cryptic signature had always been attached to these communications. Whether a drawing by the servo skull, a word from the astropath, or a seal engraved on the notes, a silver skull had unfailingly accompanied these things. Lately, the strange communications had been especially cryptic. Often little more than a series of numbers or a hastily sketched figure. Yet he had used these clues to find his way to this planet, where the Hydra fleet had begun its attack. Sometimes Nimrod wondered if it was the spirit of the Emperor that guided him, but he wasn’t sure about that.
It wasn’t really a crisis of faith. He believed in the Emperor, and the Sermons of the Ordo Xenos, but he wondered just how much needed to be taken literally sometimes. The Emperor had been a great leader, an indelible force for good, but was he a god? Nimrod didn’t know. If he was, he seemed to be no more powerful than some of the alien forces that threatened to engulf his empire. After all, the Emperor hadn’t saved his father.
Nimrod’s father had been a witch hunter, one of the best. Countless worlds had been purged of heresy by the stoic figure. But sometimes when he came home, Nimrod remembered seeing doubt in his eyes, even when he was just a small child. Perhaps some of the heretics didn’t deserve death or torture, but the witch hunter was bound by his oaths. To fail to fulfill those oaths was to be branded as a heretic himself.
In the end, Nimrod’s father had met his death on a small colony in an obscure world. He’d gone to purge a routine heresy, and died under the clawed hands of a genestealer cult. The cult was destroyed, and his surviving acolytes had managed to save his body. Nimrod still remembered the funeral, when he received his father’s tattered coat. He remembered watching the broken corpse consumed by the flames, as he swore to destroy the abominations that had killed his father, and all of their kind.
He still wore that coat today, a long leather jacket that cloaked much of his form. The tatters had been patched and mended, and time’s ravages continually repaired. Powerful sigils had been burned into the lining, and though these would do little good against the Tyranids, they would at least help Nimrod’s faith. The coat bound him to the memory of his father, and gave him the strength to continue the fight against the chitinous abominations that were infesting the galaxy.
A sword etched with runes hung sheathed at his side, a powerful force weapon that could cut through the heaviest carapaces. Holstered within a vest beneath his coat, a pair of bolter pistols gleamed. Beneath the vest, his body was encased in light armor, strong enough to protect him from lesser Tyranids, but light enough to not impede his movement. His face was obscured by a breathing mask, to keep the spore-laden air out of his lungs, and his blue-green eyes were hidden behind heavy goggles. A wide-brimmed hat covered much of his head, shading his face from the reddened glow of the sky above him.
He looked at the endless creatures rushing around him towards the city. Now he was on the outskirts, walking among a few small, scattered buildings. He thought of Hotha a moment as he looked at the living death all around, and cursed him and his arrogance. He had sought the deranged man for a while, disgusted at his cowardice as he fled from system to system, but finally he had to give up. The hive fleet now known as Hydra had become too great a threat.
Enraged hatred boiled in Nimrod, but he quickly restrained himself, seeking inner calm. There would be no use in getting angry now. He had to stay focused and alert if he was to find a way to combat these unusual Tyranids. As if the original fleets weren’t bad enough, these things had been engineered by that fool Hotha, and presented entirely new offenses to nature.
As he began to walk into the midst of the larger buildings, Nimrod was unaware that he had been spotted. It was a leader among the horde of Tyranids, an extension of the will of the One, but more than that. The music of the chaos god sang in her mind, and she was also its servant. She had started life as a genestealer, infected with the influence of Slaanesh. Her upper body resembled a human, but her lower body was a bloated mass, bristling with taloned limbs, such that it resembled a spider. Her instincts and appetites followed the lower half of her body. Over time, she had grown to be a leader among the genestealers, a brood lord of sorts, or perhaps a brood lady was a better title. She knew her mother’s name, Echidna, and had taken a name for herself from the memories the Hydra had absorbed. In her own mind, she knew herself as Lilith, the Daemoness of Hydra, one of the first among her mother’s children.
Now, as she hungrily watched this foolish human walking among her minions, she was intrigued. Why did they not instinctively attack him? She would follow him awhile, learn a little more about him, and wait for the right moment to take him. Perhaps she would kiss him, and make him one of her followers, or perhaps she would simply kill him. Either way, she felt herself shudder with excited anticipation as she silently stalked her newest prey.
Weaving among the buildings, Lilith stayed downwind, breathing in the ecstasy of his scent. Her hunger for his flesh grew as she watched him. From time to time, he turned and she had to quickly vanish from sight. The thrill of near discovery excited her all the more, causing the blood within her to race as her human flesh grew warm. Finally, as he came to a stop in the archway of a ruined building, she could wait no longer. Her legs launched her into the air, as she leaped towards him, limbs eagerly outstretched.
Nimrod heard something behind him and turned in time to see something horrible flying through the air. From the waist up, it was a beautiful, pink-haired humanoid creature, a female with a thin, sinuous shape and youthful features. He would have found her attractive, except for the fact that below the waist her body looked like some monstrous Tyranid parody of a giant spider. In addition, one of her human arms ended in a dark, chitinous talon that closely matched her legs in appearance. Most horrifying was the look in her eyes, as though every lust and appetite known to humanity had been distilled into that gaze.
Instinctively, he reached for his sword, but he wouldn’t be fast enough. Then there was a sudden, blinding flash of light and the creature was thrown sideways, as though snatched from midair, and slammed through a nearby wall. Nimrod looked around for a moment before he saw the cloaked, hooded figure. It looked like the specter of death itself, and like Nimrod, walked unnoticed among the lesser Tyranids.
“Come with me.” It spoke in a piercing whisper.
Chapter 4 - Tenebros
Nimrod followed as the stranger moved through the streets, barely keeping up. The cloaked figure moved with incredible speed, almost disappearing into one of the buildings. The inquisitor followed it down several flights of steps, into the lowest basement, and from there into a series of catacombs. Dodging among the passages lined with bones, the stranger came to rest in a small domed chamber lit by a fire in the center. It sat in a wooden chair beside the flames, and gestured for Nimrod to sit in a second chair nearby.
“It is time you knew the truth of things.” The stranger spoke in an oddly muffled voice. As it pulled back the hood of its black cloak, Nimrod could see why. Its face was hidden by a silver mask, with a stylized skull engraved into its surface.
“You.” Nimrod said, removing his goggles and breathing mask. Beneath was a scarred, thin face with a closely trimmed goatee. “You’re the one that’s been leaving me messages.” He paused a moment, as though trying to see behind the stranger’s mask. “Who are you, how did you-“
“Who I am is not important right now, inquisitor Nimrod. For convenience, you may call me Tenebros. Time is precious, and so is what I have to tell you. You think you know what created these monsters that swarm above us now. You believe it was the foolishness of Hotha, but there is more to the story. Hotha had a collaborator, an ally who was never seen, and who ended up betraying him, loosing these horrors on the galaxy.”
“Who?” Nimrod’s voice grew anxious. “Who in all the Imperium would do such a thing?”
The stranger shook his head. “Not the Imperium.” He paused a moment. “What do you know of the Eldar?”
Nimrod thought for a few moments. “A race of xenos, rare in terms of numbers. Advanced technology, a sophisticated sense of art and culture, and an inordinate fear of death.” He shook his head. “I don’t really know much more than that, my focus has been on the Tyranids.”
The stranger nodded. “Quite right, and so it should have. But I am curious, you have heard nothing of their abominable practices? Their denial of the divinity of the Emperor? Their alien taint?”
Nimrod chuckled slightly. “Why would they follow the Emperor? They aren’t human. As to abominable practices,” he shuddered, “I’ve had to do enough of those myself. If doing them in the name of the Emperor makes them okay for me, what if doing them for some similar reason makes it okay for them?” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, I must sound like a heretic, but I’ve seen too many things out here.”
The masked figure nodded approvingly. “Yes, you have, and yes you do. But that does not worry me. I’ve seen far more than you have. You have managed to find your way here, and followed the trail I left you, so now you deserve your reward.” He sighed and paused a moment. “There is a leader among the Eldar, one which is twisted and fanatic in his views. He seeks the complete extermination of your race, and used Hotha and his work to try and accomplish it. In so doing, he has blended these creatures with the very essence from a god of chaos. One result is that thing that nearly killed you just now, but there are worse creations. Though this fleet is still small compared to the vast numbers of its cousins, it may in the end prove an even greater danger. The abomination that Hotha created, the mother of this fleet, has grown into a large creature. Her mind does not only dwell upon hunger, but also upon revenge and hatred. In this way, she may be more dangerous and unpredictable than any of her distant kin.”
“How do you know of this Eldar leader you speak of?” Nimrod asked suspiciously. “Surely the Inquisition would know by now?”
The stranger shook his head. “No, I am quite outside of the inquisition, and your imperium. You see, I am Eldar myself.” The stranger paused a moment to let these words sink in. “You are not surprised, I see.”
Nimrod shook his head. “No, not very. The technology you slipped to me piece by piece, in making this.” He looked at the device glowing at his side. “There are components in this that are nothing like the patterns the technomagi continually re-weave. What else do you have to tell me?”
“Good, I see you are not so blinded as many of your comrades. Many of your species would have tried to kill me on the spot, upon hearing I was not human. I have little else to tell you, but some important things to give you.”
The cloaked Eldar rose to his feet, and pulled a small crystal from the folds of his cloak. He held it a moment, in his black-gloved hand, then held it out to Nimrod. The inquisitor took it and looked over the facets and shards of color within the crystal. One facet held a metallic surface, with a shape that Nimrod recognized. It was a standard interface for data transmission from servo skulls.
“This crystal contains the entire genetic code of the Hydra, as well as the genetic code of the fleet it was grown from. The answers to defeating these enemies are buried within these life patterns. I have something else I must ask you to guard as carefully as your life itself.”
Reaching into his cloak again, Tenebros pulled out another small object which hung on a silver chain. At first, it looked something like a key. One end was a rounded disk, which the chain was attached to, while the other end narrowed into a jagged, toothed extension pointing away from the chain attachment. Most of the key’s surface was glossy and black, but looking more closely, Nimrod could see an ornate tracery of silver lines all across its surface. As he took it gently in his hand, he saw that the patterns were a fluid weavework of runic glyphs that seemed to shift and pulse with a life all their own. Here and there, the silver pattern was interrupted with convex, black ovals bulging from the key’s surface. The largest of these was on the rounded disk of the key, extending from the center of one side.
“That is a key to the library at the center of the web. If you can find your way there, the keepers will not prevent your entry.”
“What do you mean?” Nimrod asked.
The masked Eldar didn’t reply. Instead, he took the chain and put it around the inquisitor’s neck, tucking the key beneath his clothing so it rested against his skin. Although the object didn’t feel physically heavy, Nimrod had the curious sensation of a weight associated with it.
“Guard it with your life.” Tenebros said. “It may be even more important than the data crystal in defeating the Hydra, and the Eldar who corrupted it.” He paused, as the sound of claws and talons moved through the building above. “We don’t have long. Know that nothing like this key has ever, ever been given to a human. But these are desperate times, and there is no other way. I can only hope that you don’t betray the trust I have put in you.”
Nimrod shook his head as he rose to his feet. “You’ve been cryptic, but I believe you’ve been playing straight with me. So I will try to honor that.” He drew his sword. “If that thing has found us again, I will stand with you against her.”
“No.” Tenebros spoke the word in a voice that was calm, but undeniably final. “You must get away from here. Leave this world to the Hydra for now. Escape Immartus Secundus while you can, because there is no stopping this hive fleet yet.” The Eldar produced a thin, wickedly curved blade from the folds of his cloak and held it ready, facing the direction of the hideous echoes that drew steadily nearer now. “It is vital that you survive and continue the fight against this menace. Go while you can, because if you don’t, I will kill you here and now and leave in your place.”
Nimrod stood for a moment, then sheathed his sword and ran. There would be no arguing with this alien, and he had a feeling that Tenebros could take care of himself. He made his way through the dark catacombs, replacing his goggles and face mask as he did so. A quick gesture, and his goggles lit up the tunnels around him, their infrared vision piercing through the blackness. Part of him hated leaving his benefactor to fight alone, but there hadn’t been much choice.
Back in the chamber, Tenebros watched as the bugs swarmed in. Moving with his unnatural speed, he sliced through them, beheading and disemboweling them as quickly as they entered, piling their bodies up in each entrance to the chamber one by one, forcing them to find other ways in.
Then, after a few minutes, the tide became too great, and they broke in en masse, surrounding him. He sliced through their ranks, holding them back in a small circle around his blurred form, fighting tirelessly. Then, suddenly, they all stopped.
The survivors pulled the corpses of their comrades aside, and parted to let their leader through. It was Lilith, scuttling along on spidery legs, her human face and torso almost glowing with venomous beauty in the dim firelight.
“Who would have expected it?” Her voice, like her body, was a distorted blend of a beautiful young woman and a monster. “A harlequin, here?” Her talons flexed anxiously. “What are you doing here, I wonder. Not that it matters.” She advanced slowly on him, crouched and ready to fight. “As you probably guessed, I serve two masters. One wants your body.” She licked her lips as her voice became dark and husky. “The other wants your soul.”
“Let’s see if you can satisfy either master then.” Tenebros laughed as he let his cloak fall from him, revealing a body clad entirely in black, green and silver armor.
She sprang at him, barely missing as he dodged her attack. His blade clipped one of her talons, but bounced harmlessly against the hardened chitin. The two circled each other a moment, then he attacked, almost flying through the air, his blade arcing towards her head. She avoided his blow, and her hand landed hard against his back, slamming him to the ground.
He rolled away quickly as she tried to impale him with her taloned legs. Laughing, he flipped back up to his feet, then ran up a wall and across the ceiling for a moment, swiping again at the abomination. Again she moved too fast for him, but he managed to land on her back. Holding onto her with one hand, he drove a blade into her shoulder.
Black ichor spurted from the wound, but she was far from defeated. With an angry shriek, she grabbed his wrist over her back and held him struggling in midair for a moment. A swipe of her talon, and his silver mask was torn from him. Beneath, she looked at his face for a moment. Nearly half of it was covered by a deep scar, from a wound which had left little more than the underlying skull. Laughing, she threw him across the room into a pile of bones. She then pulled his blade from her shoulder and smashed it flatly against a nearby wall, shattering it. Unexpectedly, the shards were razor sharp, and many of them embedded in her skin, enraging her further.
The harlequin laughed impishly, pulling a smaller blade from his armor. He rushed at her again, but her rage fueled her speed and strength. With a single motion, she knocked the blade from his hand and impaled him on one of her talons, ramming his body to the floor.
“How’s this for serving my masters, you fool?” Her voice came out as a deep, vicious growl.
In response, the pinned Eldar began to laugh again. “You know,” he said in a strangely calm voice, “I got this scar a long time ago, when one of your masters first awoke. I barely survived the fall of my race.” His laughter pealed out like that of a madman, not seeming to fit the situation. “Funny to end this way.”
The brood lady reached down, unamused by his mirth, and swiped at the scarred half of his face, tearing it completely away. But something was wrong. There was no blood. Beneath the ruined remnants of the face was a hard, white substance similar to some of the marble that parts of the city had been constructed from. She picked up a chunk of the strange material, crushing it to white powder in her hand.
The harlequin began to laugh even harder. “Funny thing is, I suppose it ended a long time ago. The wounds I suffered on that day proved lethal. I haven’t had flesh or blood for centuries upon centuries now. Just the wraithbone. So I guess your one master won’t get my body.” He stopped laughing abruptly, and grabbed one of her legs in an iron grip. “And the other won’t have my soul.” His voice was suddenly dark, and as grim as death itself.
The monster heard and felt a faint hum begin deep within the harlequin’s chest. It started to rise in pitch and intensity, as the intact half of the wraithbone face smiled in triumph. It began to laugh again, horribly, its voice a dissonant cacophony as it held her in place, despite her struggles.
Nimrod had reached the surface when he felt the explosion. He turned to see the building he had entered explode in blue flames, leaving a vast crater gouged into the city. As he stared, he felt a sudden, gentle warmth against his chest. He pulled the key out and looked at it a moment. The largest of the black stones had begun to glow faintly. It was giving off a warm, blue light similar to the color of the flames that had destroyed the building and, presumably, Tenebros. He removed his hat a moment and nodded, placing the key back against his chest, feeling the soft warmth emanating from the stone. Replacing his hat, he turned and made his way to the waiting shuttle. This planet was lost for now, but maybe someday he would come back properly armed to destroy the cancer that had engulfed it.
Within the depths of the soulstone, Tenebros felt the presence of Nimrod nearby. This mon-keigh had promise, and he was worth looking after. Though he was of a lesser race, he had shown more honor and sense than many Eldar the harlequin had met. He hadn’t been corrupted by the blind hatred that swallowed so many of his kind. Yes, Tenebros would look after him. He could speak to him in dreams, or convey impressions to his subconscious. He would guide his steps and keep him safe, maybe even guide him all the way to the black library. Slaanesh may know to be wary of the Eldar, but that evil will not expect a human to put up so much of a fight. Perhaps this inquisitor will be able to save his race from the depredations of both the Tyranids and the agents of chaos, as long as he kept the key close.
Below, in the depths, Lilith struggled through the half-collapsed corridor. She felt the pain where she had cut her own leg free, desperate to escape from the thing that had almost killed her. Even though she escaped, it had been a near thing. The flames from the explosion had burned her skin, and the shrapnel had left her with many deep wounds and bruises. Half the tunnel had collapsed on her, but her strength had allowed her to claw her way free.
Yes, she had been badly wounded, but she wasn’t finished. Not even close. With the genetic heritage of her mother, and the power given to her by her other master, she would soon be healed. Just a night of rest, and she would be ready to lead again. For now, she reached out with her mind and called her minions to her, to tend to her wounds and feed her with fresh biomass. Perhaps a half-dead human would be suitable fare for tonight.
Far above the world of Immartus Secundus, Echidna’s senses reached through her myriad children. She could feel the planet falling completely into her grasp. A troubling explosion had occurred in the city, but her strange daughter had survived. The hive mother knew this offspring, Lilith, could not be entirely trusted, but she was an excellent fighter and leader. It would be worth keeping her around a little while longer. Perhaps Echidna could even purge her of the influence of Slaanesh, with time.
The massive body of the hive mother shifted, as an emotion something like gleeful satisfaction filled her. Her worst tormentor, Hotha was dead, as was the Eldar responsible for some of her past suffering. Its leaders were still being pursued, and she would soon destroy them as well. This planet was hers now, ready to receive its new ruler, ready to yield up its biomass to her will. Slowly, her ship began to descend into the atmosphere. She would grow larger and stronger on its bounty, and grow a new, larger ship to carry her among the stars. In time she would devour all of her enemies, all that would try to enslave and use her. She was nobody’s pawn. She was Echidna, the mother of monsters, the ruler of Hydra, and in time the entire galaxy would serve her. In time, oh yes, in time.