+ inload: Short story – runes +

+ A bit out of the blue; a bit of colour text today. I'm taking part in the #hohohobbyvices thing, and this little short will be accompanying the gift. It's 40k, sure; but I think a bit of the Christmas spirit can fit in even in the grim darkness of the far future every so often. +

+ Hope you enjoy it; and we'll return to our regular doses of rationed corpsestarch, warfare and suffering with the next inload! +

+++

In her haste, a scattering of stones followed her down the slope as she reached the deep bottom of the cave. 'Forgive me, my lady. I... I have arrived too late, I fear.' Her finely-sculpted cheeks were tinged subtly coral-pink with exertion.

The hooded figure she addressed remained still, its hunched back rising and falling imperceptibly. Imperceptibly, that is, except to the acute senses of the Eldar. To Nairieath, whose own breath was coming back to her, the figure's poise was unsettling.

The hunched figure was old. Old in a way strange even for the aeldari. Age cascaded from the ragged cloak in a way Nairieath was unable to articulate. Composing herself, Nairieath bowed her head. She saw her feet, planted in the fine sand that covered the floor of the cave. More sand was trickling down; following, with a fine hiss, the small stones she had disturbed in her headlong rush. At last, even that sound faded.

For a long while, Nairieath waited in the silence, perfectly still. At length, the figure moved. Its face remained shrouded in the gloom, but an arm – pale as the belly of a fish, and stick-thin – emerged. It was imbued with the same sense of timelessness as Nairieath had sensed from the cloak. With a twist in her gut, she realised the arm ended in a mutilated hand; the five fingers reduced to stumps.

The stump rested in the dust on the floor for a moment; as though even such a movement were exhausting; then began to trace a pattern. Nairieath squinted, nervous but impatient. At length, the arm withdrew. Nairieath squinted, unable to discern the pattern clearly. Haltingly, nervously, she took a half-step forward.

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'It was the rune of despair,' she announced, bursting into the chamber. 'With a brief bow, I departed the Crone; and returned here at once. Despair – and loss. I am in sorrow to bear such ill news, my lords and ladies.' Her heart ached. The others turned to her, their expressions bleak. The horolith pulsed in sympathy, the display picking up the aeldari commanders' consternation.

The Autarch turned back to issue his orders, his face grave and flinty. His subordinates stood ready – but he paused. 'Mhorrissaigh, my seer,' he said, his voice betraying nothing. 'You wish to speak?'

The seer nodded, and turned to Nairieath. His eyes, unlike the others, twinkled.

'My messenger; can you be certain?' Nairieath flushed. She might be young, but she was not stupid. She held her temper in check.

'I know my letters; my lord.' she replied, haughtily.

Withdrawing a rune from the pouch at his belt and laying it on the table, Mhorrissaigh spoke. 'And yet, I ask again. Can you be sure?' The seer smiled. The rune hovered a short distance over the horolith's smooth flat surface. With a psychic nudge, the seer impelled it towards Nairieath. She stared at it, slowly advancing along the long table towards her. The shape was identical in all ways to that drawn in the sand; and the stately pace seemed to hammer home the grave warning the prophet had passed on. Its passage down the long, narrow table seemed to take an eternity.

As it came to rest in front of her, an urge to pick it up and fling it back at the seer arose; but a lifetime of discipline strangled the impulse. Staring down at the rune, she wrestled inwardly with her hatred for the supercilious, mocking seer. She didn't know what to say, and kept her eyes fixed on the hateful rune. It hovered in front of her, identical in all ways to that inscribed in the sand in the cave. At length, unbidden tears pricking at her eyes, she looked up.

She was startled to see the others smiling, eyes bright.

It was then, as she looked back down at the rune, that she realised her error. It had turned through one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, and was now travelling back up the table to the seer in the same stately manner at which it had proceeded.

It was the rune of despair. But in turning around...

As it reached him, Mhorrissaigh picked it up. He held her gaze for a moment, then brandished the rune to her.

Not the rune of despair. Not that way round. Not despair at all, but hope.

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