"It is no madness, nor uncontrollable ire which the war-mask brings. It is an urging, to release what is inside, fighting to get out. I struggle with it, but I am its true master, exerting my will. It is no frenzy, no bloodlust that would swamp me, but a perspective. I see things unseen, pain and misery beneath, which you hide from. It is my duty, to prepare your mind. You will see horror, witness death and agony, and must confront it. This is my duty, to lead you down that dark path, from which all others recoil."
- —Exarch Kenainath Deadly Shadow of the Striking Scorpions
An Exarch is a former Craftworld Aeldari or Asuryani Aspect Warrior who has lost themselves upon the Path of the Warrior and is unable to ever leave it again. At this point they are considered to have abandoned the Asuryani Path with its promise of new experiences and development of new skills in favour of a constant life of bloodshed.
The Asuryani becomes the elite warrior called an Exarch; simultaneously, an Exarch is a priest of Kaela Mensha Khaine, the Aeldari god of war as well as a caretaker of the individual warrior shrine, and trainer, teacher, and instructor for other Aspect Warriors. An Exarch is equipped with ancient and very powerful Asuryani weaponry and armour. The sacrifice of an Asuryani Exarch during a special ritual can summon an Avatar of Kaela Mensha Khaine to fight for the craftworld.
Each Asuryani Warrior Aspect has its own particular kind of Exarch. On the battlefield, an Exarch commands an individual squad of Eldar Aspect Warriors. Exarchs are formidable opponents, and most of them can use their often potent psychic and combat abilities to help the whole squad of Aspect Warriors under their command. The very first Exarchs were the Phoenix Lords.
Exarchs are regarded with both awe and revulsion by other Craftworld Aeldari. Awe, because Exarchs single-mindedly pursue a side of their nature which most Asuryani fear to even contemplate. Revulsion, because the Exarchs have become trapped in the Warrior Aspect and are destined for a life of never-ending violence. An Exarch assumes the ancient name of the first Exarch associated with their Aspect Shrine. Each name is associated with a set of Exarch Armour the Exarch wears in battle.
If the Exarch is killed, another Aspect Warrior of their Aspect Shrine may take the armour and the name, becoming their replacement. The same armour is worn by many successive Exarchs over thousands of Terran years. The Exarch breaks with their old life, continuing the legendary life of the single heroic identity represented by that first Exarch's armour and name.
Stored within the Exarch Armour is the spirit of the very first Asuryani hero to have worn it and the soul of every other Exarch to have followed in using that particular suit of armour. When the new Exarch dons the armour for the first time, these spirits merge with their own, and the collective Exarch, using the name and mannerisms of the first Exarch to have worn the armour when dealing with others, now draws on the accumulated memories, experiences and abilities of all of them.
Becoming an Exarch
To understand what it means to be an Exarch, one needs to understand something of the Craftworld Aeldari's psyche and way of life. Since the birth of "She Who Thirsts", the name the Aeldari give to the Chaos God Slaanesh, the Asuryani have sought ways to avoid the psychic pitfalls that led to their ancient empire's cataclysmic Fall. Their lives are now strictly regimented so that they can avoid being consumed by the psycho-emotional excesses of the past that ultimately sealed their doom.
Each Asuryani choses a "path" that he or she will tread: the path is both a role (be it artist, cook, engineer, explorer, warrior, etc.) and a form of psychological protection. By compartmenting his or her mind, an Asuryani can draw upon their volatile emotions to enhance their chosen craft, and then lock them away within their mind when they are not needed.
For all their differences, all of the Asuryani Paths have one danger in common: if the Asuryani fails at compartmentalising their emotions, they will eventually be consumed by them. Instead of being an Asuryani temporarily fulfilling a role, they will become the living embodiment of that role, forever perfecting it but unable to lay it down. Such Asuryani are said to be "lost" on their chosen path.
The Path of the Warrior is no different than the others in this aspect, but it is one of the most dangerous of the Asuryani Paths, for the warrior must draw on anger and hatred, which are the most powerful and therefore the most dangerous of emotions for the Aeldari. Often, an Asuryani treads the Path of the Warrior not due to interest in its teachings and experiences, but because a momentous event in their life has unhinged their mental balance -- such as a terrible personal failure or the loss of a loved one -- and uncontrollable anger starts polluting their work and their life. These Asuryani will then be subtly led by their craftworld's Infinity Circuit to one of the Warrior Shrines, where the shrine's Exarch caretaker will welcome them and start leading them on the Path of the Warrior.
Whatever Aspect of War they ultimately choose to embody, each Aspect Warrior must learn to do what in the Aeldari Lexicon is known as "donning and removing one's war mask" -- learning to segment the mind so that it is possible to enter a state of heightened aggression and bloodlust when necessary, and then safely return to everyday life when the demands of war have ended. This is the most important lesson of the Path of the Warrior, and only when an Asuryani has successfully learned it will they be allowed to change paths by their Exarch guide.
An Exarch is an Asuryani who has become lost on the Path of the Warrior. They are unable to remove their war-mask, and exist in a permanent state of aggressive bloodlust, seeking out battle and strife. There is no predetermined pattern to becoming an Exarch: some Asuryani warriors do so after their first engagement, the visceral sensations of killing the enemy and losing comrades overwhelming them. Others do so only after a long time. Some can avoid the pull of the Exarch, sensing that they have begun to lose themselves to their war mask. These individuals switch their path with due haste to avoid this fate.
Once an Aspect Warrior becomes unable to remove their war mask, the others of their Aspect Shrine will quickly become aware of it, and the shrine Exarch will bar them further access to their Aspect Shrine, sadly informing their former ward that the next time they meet, they will greet each other as equals. The Exarch-to-be, often furious at the rejection, will then wander around the craftworld, trying to go on with their normal life, but will soon find themselves unable to do so: other Asuryani will shun and avoid them and they will find themselves unable to meaningfully communicate with those few that will dare answer them.
Their past activities will hold no appeal for them anymore, and their only desire will be to return to their Aspect Shrine and make war. At this point, the Infinity Circuit will once again intervene and guide the warrior's steps to one of the shrines of their chosen Aspect whose Exarch has fallen in battle. The new Exarch will enter that shrine, and don the former caretaker's empty Exarch Armour. Once they place the helmet upon their head, their fate will be sealed: they transform into a living incarnation of war, a servant of Kaela Mensha Khaine, an outcast amongst their own people yet at the same time one of their greatest protectors.
Exarchs are regarded with both awe and revulsion by other Asuryani. When an Asuryani lost on any other path passes on, their Spirit Stone will be added to the craftworld's Infinity Circuit, their excesses in life forgiven. Not so for an Exarch; the fusion of a soul so tainted with bloodlust and so dedicated to Khaine with the Infinity Circuit would slowly see it corrupted with their blood-madness. When they die, an Exarch's soul is absorbed into their armour, and so, over time, an Exarch's armour ultimately becomes a miniature Infinity Circuit.
In truth, an Exarch is actually an Asuryani body inhabited by a multitude of Aeldari souls. The collective will mingle and assume the name and mannerisms of the first inhabitant of the Exarch Armour, but the Exarch can draw on the experience and personality of the entire multitude of existences. Other Asuryani are horrified by this, believing that an Exarch's existence is akin to living death. When an Exarch interacts on very rare occasions with Asuryani who are not on the Path of the Warrior, they will feel only their fear, revulsion and pity.
In day to day life, an Exarch serves as the caretaker for their Aspect Shrine, their Aspect Warriors, and the arms and armour within the shrine. They will train the Aspect Warriors, instill proficiency with their Aspect's chosen wargear, and teach them the underlying philosophy of both the Path of the Warrior and their particular Aspect's approach to it. The Exarch will guide them in duels and mock battles, and in training exercises to augment their stamina and awareness.
But most important of all, the Exarch will teach them how to don and remove their war masks, how to call on their hatred and how to ignore and safely store it in their minds when the time for battle has ended. It is for this reason that for all their pity and revulsion that Exarchs are ultimately held in high respect by the Asuryani, for none can teach other Asuryani how to avoid the pitfalls of the Path of the Warrior better than one who has fallen themselves to its siren call so many times across so many different lives.
When an Exarch's body dies, whether from age or on the battlefield, their armour will be brought back to their Aspect Shrine, to wait for a new bearer who will restart the cycle anew by adding their soul to the armour's collective link.
There are only two possible exceptions to this immuable cycle. The first is when an Exarch is chosen to become the Young King, the impersonation of the long-dead Aeldari hero Eldanesh and the blood-sacrifice who will awaken Khaine's Avatar on a given craftworld. The chosen Exarch will strip off his or her armour, and their Spirit Stone will be ritually severed from it. This will also remove the Asuryani's individual soul from the collective pool of souls that is the Exarch.
The Young King will then have the runes of war, one for each Aspect, carved into their back. Clad in their own blood, they will then don a cloak, and be given the Avatar's weapon. They will boldly step forward into Khaine's shrine, and the doors will close behind them. A few moment later, the Avatar of Khaine, fully empowered, will walk out and go to war for the craftworld. Of the Young King, no trace will remain, for they will have been consumed, body and soul, by the once sleeping power of Khaine that lay dormant within the craftworld's Infinity Circuit.
The second exception to the cycle of an Exarch's life is on those rare occasions where a Phoenix Lord falls. Similar to a normal Exarch, a Phoenix Lord can be revived when an Exarch of their Aspect dons their armour. However, in the case of a Phoenix Lord, there is no collective mingling of souls: the Phoenix Lord's pre-Fall soul is so old, so strong (and some whisper so tainted by "She-Who-Thirsts") that it will absorb and consume all of the lesser Exarch's collective souls in the process, leaving only the Phoenix Lord, "alive" once more to bring the fierce joy of battle and blood to all of the enemies of their dwindling people.
- Codex: Eldar (6th Edition), pg. 30
- Codex: Imperialis (2nd Edition), pg. 70
- Warhammer 40,000: Compilation (2nd Edition), pp. 49-50
- White Dwarf 127 (US), "Eldar - Exarchs," pp. 13-52
- Path of the Warrior (Novel) by Gavin Thorpe, pp. 48, 55-184
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