This is a fairly new story – written in March, 2015 as a birthday gift for my friend Chris who lives in Dallas, Texas. It is Chris that created Lord Liche and the Void Phantoms. We’ve been friends for a long time – and this has occasionally been my way of sending ‘birthday greetings’ – writing a piece of fiction in lieu of a present.
The Librarium of the Skull Moon was cavernous and dim. High, groined ceilings were lost in the darkness, at least to normal eyes. The Colonel suspected that to Astartes eyes the lighting appeared considerably brighter.
But this was an Astartes place – and a rare one. One which seldom saw visitors who were not of the Undying. He had been told he was welcome here – but it didn’t feel welcoming. The aura was ancient beyond measure. The funk of not centuries, but millennia.
And it was, of course, meticulous. He’d expected nothing else.
Around him tiny rays of light beamed down from the nether areas above leaving spots of illumination, each highlighting some artifact. Some made sense to him. A weapon or banner, either of friend or enemy. Hero or villain. Others made no sense. A piece of rough rock. A tablet with writing on it – perhaps sensible if you could read it but no translation was provided. A broken dataslate with the shattered remains of an Eldar shuriken stuck in the screen.
Central to this part of the vault was a large open area with a dais. Displays and record stacks radiated out from it like the spokes of a cartwheel. Atop the dais was some kind of Dreadnought that Senekal was not familiar with. Again, clearly ancient, it was free of dust. Its weapons were raised menacingly but its stance was more open, far less stiff than the units the Colonel was familiar with. The armor plates were rounded rather than boxy and the technology appeared more advanced, more finished than the suits in use in the 41st Millennium.
“He has stood there a long time.” The cracked, shattered voice echoed in the vault. In other venues that voice always seemed to echo from a tomb. Sepulchral and deep, grating like tectonic plates. Here, it fit in.
“I’m not familiar with the design. Or the Heraldry.” The suit was painted a strange slightly metallic pale green grey and the iconography wasn’t remotely familiar. “I usually consider myself a student of history – but this is outside my experience. Mind you, a lot of this place is.”
There was a grinding, cracking noise. Laughing, Senekal realized after a moment. The echoes threw it, but Liche was laughing.
“The design is called ‘Contemptor’ and there are still a few in use even today. Ancient relics of the Dark Age of Technology and the Great Crusade. They were still being produced during the Crusade, albeit in
numbers too small to meet the demand of such a great war. The current Dreadnought design evolved out of the shortages of the Crusade. Simpler, easier and faster to produce. Not quite as effective, but effective enough.” Liche moved forward, still large even out of his armor. It was a rare thing for the Colonel to see him not in his suit of powered Astartes plate and they’d known each other for decades now. The old Librarian reached out and touched the greave of the giant Dreadnought suit. “He was named Philotival, and he was a good man. Killed by his own during the Heresy. Like Garviel, before the end he had his kit repainted to its original Heraldry, renouncing the changes that led to treason.” He turned to Senekal, his dark eyes swirling with barely restrained warp power. “He was a Luna Wolf. At the end he would never allow himself the name ‘Son of Horus’. When the Emperor awarded that name it was intended as an honor, not an invitation of betrayal.
Senekal whistled long and low. “A Luna Wolf. Ten thousand years then. A good man you say?”
“It is not well known now, but not every element of the traitor legions turned. There was – dissention, in each and every one of them. Companies, sometimes whole Chapters as well as individuals within the Legion refused to turn traitor. The traitors knew this and the bloodletting in their ranks to ‘cleanse’ their Legions was dire. Philotival stood with those who remained loyal and died for it, as nearly all did.”
“I’ve heard echoes of things like that. The Inquisition tends to suppress it. They prefer what little talk of the Heresy they allow at all to be black and white. There are – traditions – of our own which indicate otherwise.”
The Librarian nodded and moved over to a low table, one of several which stood at the stack ends between the aisle ways. “The history of the Danikans is here, you know. You could read it. It is one thing that I searched for after our meeting.” (which you can read about here)
The Colonel shook his head and hopped up onto the chair, having to vault into the seat the way a five year old might a chair for grown ups. Astartes. One more measure of the reality of who this place was for. Liche sat more easily across the table.
“Likely I’ve read it. The Eldar had it too – in that place in the webway.”
“Ah, of course. The Black Library. Few humans have walked there. I never have. I suspected that was where that ‘gift’ of some years ago came from, but I could never prove it. I thought that they didn’t allow things to leave?”
“They don’t but they had more than one copy. It wasn’t like they needed both. And they had data copies as well. Thorough, those xenos.”
“Removing it could not have been easy.”
“Nope, it wasn’t. We had some – words over it. I left with the book.”
“Fascinating. You must tell me more sometime.” (You can read about the tale here)
“Prefer not to, but maybe. If it’s ever important.” He sighed. “Anyway the History they had of the Danikans confirmed exactly what I’d always feared. Made me sick to my stomach really.”
“That your ancestors fought on the wrong side? Arcturan – many many did. And not all of them were bad men. Many quite literally had no choice. Others were deceived. Others did so out of loyalty. You know how bonds of blood and combat are. It is easy to – trust – even when one really should not. These are not easy questions. They weren’t then and they aren’t now.
“The name of your ancestor’s homeworld is lost in time. Even I haven’t been able to discover it in literature and the histories either don’t mention it by name or it’s been censored.”
“I know that.” The Colonel paused a beat. “Wait.”
“What?” Despite his grim mein, those power-spiked eyes still managed to twinkle slightly.
“You said you hadn’t been able to discover it in literature and the like. You didn’t say you didn’t KNOW it.”
The two looked at one another and the silence drew out into a long, long moment which congealed and hung there.
“It is good to see you – and surprising. I didn’t expect you to come to the Skull Moon. Most have a hard time even finding it.”
Senekal snorted, realizing that the previous line of inquiry had been slammed neatly shut. He wasn’t going to get that name. At least not today. “Well, for a change you happened to be nearby and, well – it’s that day. You know.”
The tomblike chuckle again.
“Speaking of things which should be nearly impossible for someone to know. How did you manage to find out my birthday? I’m surprised that you could. I’d mostly forgotten it myself.”
“Well you like your secrets so I’m keeping mine. It wasn’t easy though.”
“Nothing worthwhile ever is.”
“At any rate, as is traditional, I brought you a gift.”
“You know, Arcturan, your presence alone is sufficient. More than sufficient as we see each other so rarely.”
“Yeah, kinda figured you’d say something like that. But I brought you one anyway. And this one I didn’t have to fight weird guardians or penetrate the impenetrable to get.” He reached into one of the larger pouches hanging from his belt and unsnapped it, drawing out a wooden box. It was about the size of a hand and had the winged skull of the Undying carved into the lid. “I’m not a carving kind of fellow. Many talents, but that’s not one. One of my Raehanivs in ‘B’ Company, a flamer troop named Isaac, is very adept though. I had him make the box. The rest I did myself.”
The Librarian opened it, revealing a set of wooden discs with painted characters in red and black and a piece of parchment with carefully ruled lines and the Danikan devil drawn in one corner with the Undying Skull in the diagonally opposite one. “A game of strategy?”
The Colonel nodded, flattening the parchment on the table and beginning to set out the pieces. “An ancient one. It’s called Xiangqi. Terran. Pre-spaceflight if the legends are true.”
Shaking his head with a rare smile the Astartes looked on the pieces. “How is it played?”
“I will show you. The board is traditionally parchment or paper like this, hand drawn and replaced when it wears out. The pieces, black and red, have different characters but are still mirror imaged as pieces. The most common is this one – the soldier. It is also the weakest piece.” He set the black and red soldiers on the interstices of the lines on the board. “Unlike Regicide, the pieces move on the line intersections, not within the squares.”
“And these boxed areas on the board at the back?”
“Those are the Fortresses. The key piece or ‘General’ may never leave the fortress. Nor may he ever directly face the opposing General along the same file. If that ever happens the general which did not move takes the other in a move called the ‘Flying General’ ending the game. That move is the only time a General may leave the Fortress.”
He lifted other pieces. “These are the ‘Advisors’. They are also restricted to the Fortress and move diagonally. They’re a bit like Cardinals in Regicide but more limited as they cannot leave the Fortress. These other pieces, the Elephants, are also like Cardinals. They too move diagonally, but always exactly two spaces. No more and no less and cannot move through a piece. The main difference with them is that they cannot cross the River.”
Liche pointed to the gap at the center of the board. “This.”
“Exactly. Soldiers actually become more powerful once crossing the River, able to move horizontally as well as just forward.”
“And these others?”
“These are Chariots. Almost identical to Regicide Bastions. These are Horses, similar to Regicide Knights, although their moves can be blocked. Finally these last pieces are the ‘Pao’ or Cannon. They don’t have a real analogue, but their closest would be Bastion. Thing is, they cannot capture anything unless they leap another piece, either friendly or no.
“Like Regicide it is a game with simple rules but near infinite complexities. It’s apparently long lost on Terra, however it remains an ancient tradition on a planet we were garrisoning some months ago. A lot of my men took it up and I’ve been enjoying it myself.” He pushed the board to the center of the table, gesturing the to Librarian. “Red moves first.”
“Thank you, Arcturan. This is very thoughtful – and well chosen. The fact that you made it yourself also matters.”
The Colonel smiled, gesturing to the board. “Your move Librarian – but just so you know I’m not letting you win just because it’s your birthday.”
“I would expect nothing else.”