by Christopher Allen
I cannot take credit for this story – although Senekal appears in it – so too does Lucien who also can be found in A Knife in the Darkness. This story was written by my longtime friend Chris Allen – the person who created Lord Liche and the Void Phantoms. I don’t think he’ll mind me putting it up here for others to enjoy. I love it myself and for years made a point of reading it out during Christmas celebrations.
The Guard colonel elbowed aside the hilt of his sword as he reached the crest of the peak, planting a bootheel against an outcropping of pitted rock with napoleonic exageration to mask the effort of his breathing.
“Why is it I always find you on top of mountains,” he said, resting an elbow on his knee in feigned exasperation.
One saturnine brow elevated on the ancient librarian’s forehead, but he did not rise to the bait. “It is good to see you again, also, Colonel Senekal.”
“This is the youngster we’ve been waiting for?,” boomed a synthetically-augmented voice from the other side of the outcropping, just beyond Senekal’s view–so loudly, in the thin air of the mountaintop, the Guardsman nearly lept back off it.
The marine librarian, unmoved, inclined his head marginally. “Lucien,” he said, with patience, ‘…the volume control, please.”
“Oh.” There was a rattle of adjustment to isolinear harmonics, and the synthesized voice assumed more conversational parameters. “That’s hell to keep modulated without a techmarine handy…”
The figure moved into view–carefully, on the precipitious footing of the mountain top–and rotated at the waist toward Colonel Senekal. “I am Dreadnought Five, of the Second Company, His Emperor’s Cleansing Flames Chapter of Space Marines.” The servos of its powerfist hummed as the enormous weapon cycled in something like a wave. “But I prefer ‘Lucien.'”
“A Dreadnought,” Senekal said, blinking.
The librarian nodded, his arms folded impassively behind his back. He continued to stare distractedly at the night sky.
Senekal glanced past the space marine to the nearly unclimbable rock face of the mountain they stood astride, then back again to the enormous silhouette of ‘Lucien,’ blocking out a sizable chunk of the starlit night.
“A Dreadnought,” Senekal repeated.
“You’ve observed that,” the librarian confirmed.
The young Guards officer’s green/grey eyes unfocussed as he wrestled with the math.
“He wants to know how I got here,” the dreadnought told the librarian in a stage whisper.
The librarian looked as though he were stiffling a grin, with effort. “Colonel,” he said after a moment, “although it is not something I would want to attempt in the heat of combat, psychically teleporting even so massive a frame as Lucien’s is not beyond my capacity.”
Senekal mouthed a silent ‘oh.’
“Moreover…it was important to me he join us, here, tonight.”
The librarian raised a dark eyebrow significantly. “It is important that there be three of us.”
The Colonel nodded, silently chiding himself for *not* expecting something weird, when meeting this librarian again. Weirdness followed him around like a stray….
He stepped past the outcropping, out onto the flat ledge at the edge of the peak, and delivered a crisp salute. “Arcturan Senekal, Colonel, 4th Danikan Imperial Guard.” He acknowledged the dreadnought’s ‘wave,’ then turned to the ancient librarian.
“And it is…interesting to see you again, Lord Liche,” he said with a sardonic grin. “As always.”
The Chief Librarian of The Undying, the Emperor’s space marine chapter more formally known as the Void Phantoms, met the Colonel’s eyes.
“You are wondering why you are here.”
Senekal shrugged. “Although I’ve no doubt you’ve a reason for dragging me and several tons of Cleansing Flames hardware to the roof of this desert, I wouldn’t mind knowing what it is, actually.”
“I know no more than you, Colonel,” Lucien told him.
The librarian paused for effect. “It is a matter of faith.”
Colonel glanced at dreadnought, and vice versa.
Liche’s posture relaxed. “You both know I am not only the master psyker of my chapter; with the title ‘librarian’ come responsibilities, as well. We are as well the preservers of history, codicers of legendry, and tellers of the tales of our past.”
His black eyes met Senekal’s. “Tell me, Colonel: what is the one thing you hope most for, in this galaxy riven by ceaseless, unending war?”
Senekal smiled ever so slightly. “To be out of a job.”
Liche nodded, and glanced at Lucien’s massive frame. “Would that sit well with you, Ancient One? For peace to break out across the galaxy? Have you surrendered enough of yourself, even unto your very humanity, on the altar of battle, that you dream of an end to it?”
The dreadnought seemed to draw inward upon himself; it was a long moment before he answered, and his voice was quiet when he did. “You know what things I dream of.”
Liche nodded. “I know both of you, a little. Enough to know the reasons you do what you do. Enough to count you both wise in the real matters of consequence which elude the grasp of so many classroom-bound philosophers.” He raised an eyebrow at them significantly. “Which is why you must stand this vigil with me.”
Senekal nodded. “You know I’ll stand watch with you when- and wherever you ask.” He gestured at the vast emptiness around them, the wind-whistled rock of the mountaintop, the enormity of the sky above. “But what are we watching for here?”
Liche turned his eyes slowly up to the sky. “A star.”
Lucien’s servos hummed as he increased the inclination of his sarcophagus 23 degrees to simulate looking into the heavens. He waited a beat before asking, “And none of these billion or so will do?”
Liche studiously ignored the dreadnought. “The star we watch for, this night, will behave in a most uncatalogueable manner.”
“You’ve watched for this star before,” Senekal speculated.
The ancient Librarian nodded. “Every year on this date, for–”
He stopped abruptly, glancing briefly at the Guard colonel. “For a very long time.”
“And always with two other ‘wise men?”
Liche nodded. “Whenever possible. I have stood on the roof of the Fang, in howling winds which would flense the flesh from an unarmoured man–with Lord Whitewind and Thorn the Wise at my side. I have stood on the battlements of the Convent Prioris along with Canonness Evangeline and Inquisitor Nathanael. I have stood high above the great Forges in the mountains of Mars with a gifted tech priest of the Adeptus Mechanicus and a marksman of the Vindicare temple of the Officio Assassinorum and I have stood on Titan with two Grey Knights older than good Lucien here by several centuries–and countless more vigils have I sat, always with two I could count upon, who value wisdom in a grim universe.”
Lucien voiced the obvious conclusion. “And if you are still looking, you haven’t seen it yet.”
Senekal placed a hand on the aged psyker’s shoulder. “Tell us what.”
A smile ghosted across Liche’s aged face, the smile of a storyteller who has hooked his audience.
“It is a story from Old Terra. From before the Trouble, before the Great Crusade–older even than the Age of Strife. There was a time when Terra was a microcosm of our galaxy: many creeds, many beliefs…many conflicts. Despite their differences, however, a great many of these factions came to hold a certain time of year in great esteem. Though the specifics of their celebrations oft differed, for them all, that time was considered Holy. A time to try to see themselves–and each other–at their best.
“In one of the strongest traditions, this time of year was chosen to represent a Promise. A promise that there was something better than the mean existence they knew.
“A promise of Peace. Goodwill among men.”
Liche lifted an eyebrow heavenward. “And that promise was signified by an event in the cosmos, inexplicable by science or magic. The appearance of a celestial body which did not act in accordance with known law, neither the physical of astronomy nor the arcane of astrology. In those ancient days, only a select few understood the workings of the Heavens with sufficient wisdom to recognize this signifer, and be guided by it: magi.
“In that ancient tradition, three such sage-kings watched the Heavens, and saw the sign, and possessed the Wisdom to be guided by it.”
Liche turned to each of the other two in turn. “As then, so now, in these times, are we in need of Peace.
“I have worked out how the Imperial calendar corresponds to the ancient Holy days which celebrated this tradition of Goodwill toward Men. The eve in question is this night.” The ancient librarian turned his eyes back to the deep midnight blue of the heavens.
“If the Providence which those ancient Terran traditions celebrated should choose to ignite another Star of Peace in our inquiet time, I have vowed there will be men of wisdom ready–and watching–to be guided by it.”
“A bit presumptuous to appoint ourselves ‘wise men’ for an entire galaxy, battlebrother,” the ancient dreadnought said.
Liche crossed his arms behind his back and continued to stare placidly into the heavens. “I ask only that you watch with me, battlebrother.”
Whether they did so because they believed what the ancient librarian had told them, or whether simply out of loyalty to him, both Colonel Senekal and the Dreadnought Lucien chose to wait the cold vigil through the night, and watched the sky with Lord Liche for portents. But no star acted out of turn for them, and no sign blazed Truth across the darkness before the first dusty rose hint of dawn coloured the planet’s far horizon.
“Disappointed?,” Colonel Senekal asked the librarian, who still stood straightbacked as a stone statue, black eyes still fixed on the cold sky.
After a long moment, the librarian exhaled, shaking himself; and when he turned to look at the Guard officer, there was a hint of joy in his face, quite unlike anything Senekal had ever seen there, before.
“Not at all,” Liche told him. “It is the promise of Peace that matters.”
“And there will always be that promise–so long as wise men *still* seek.”
He clapped Senekal on the shoulder, and gave Lucien a rap on the side of his adamantine frame. He angled an eyebrow at the dreadnought. “Wisdom, you see, is not something one possesses. It is something one seeks.”
The last, most brilliant stars of the night glittered above them before surrendering to the dawn, as the three wise men moved off to the east, down toward the desert they must cross to reach Bethel Secundus.