Chapter 70:

Chapter 70: Blood and Shadows

Shinzon smiled from his position high on a balcony as he watched as a group of Romulan prisoners, many of them former guards of the Reman slaves, were roughly marched down into the depths of the mines. All around him the former slaves to the Romulans were turning the tables on their former masters. The still cooling remains of Romulus were a dim red glow in the sky as magma cooled in the airless vacuum, a reminder to the defeated Romulans that their time as masters of this system, and the Remans, was over.

Since the battle at Romulus had been concluded Shinzon had moved quickly to take control of the dilithium mines and slave camps. The Remans had been freed and tasked to ensure the backbreaking work continued, but with Romulan backs bowing and Remans at the other ends of the whips. Shinzon smiled, his time had finally come.

A gentle vibration from his pocket snapped him back to reality. "Yes?" He asked.

"Commander Shinzon, this is Lord Admiral Madthayn. I wish to speak with you regarding the transfer of ownership of Remus. Shall we say your new office in ten minutes?" The energetic voice of the human commander asked.

"Of course Lord Admiral," Shinzon replied. "I will await your arrival." Swiftly crossing back from the balcony into his new quarters, Shinzon watched eagerly as the Romulan overseer's former servants tore down the drab, grey decorations and replaced them with the new banner of the Remans, the Reman glyph for freedom placed over a crumbling Romulus. The desk and quota screens remained the same. "The Imperium commander will be here soon, have some ale ready," he said as he sat at his new desk, admiring the feel of the Reman leather on his chair. The two Remans standing on either side of his desk nodded and moved off. There were still some menial tasks Shinzon would never allow Romulans to do, and being allowed to tamper with his personal meals was one of them.

Precisely ten minutes later the doors to Shinzon's office opened to admit the commander of the Imperium fleet. Lord Admiral Madthayn was dressed simply in his blue and gold uniform, with a long regal blue cloak trailing after him. Several rings adorned his fingers, but he carried no weapons. "So, how are you enjoying your new position, Governor?" The Lord Admiral asked with a smile.

"It is just as I dreamed," Shinzon smiled as he handed the Lord Admiral a glass of Romulan ale. "Though I had thought I would be seeing it from the halls of the Romulan Senate."

"Yes well, after their actions against Terra my people couldn't afford not to teach the Romulans that you do not screw with humanity," Madthayn replied. "And besides, this way you have less chance of a Romulan rebellion against you. Now then," the Lord Admiral added as he retrieved a data slate from the breast pocket of his uniform, "I will simply need you to sign this and give the slate a DNA sample. Normally there is a fancy ceremony when installing a planetary governor, but with most of this world's population being xeno, and the immense satisfaction you are already getting from the new slaves, I decided to simply do it myself it you have no objections."

"Of course not Lord Admiral," Shinzon replied as he accepted the data slate and scrolled through the formal document. "I see you have reduced the mining quotas."

"Only until the new slaves get used to the work I assure you Governor Shinzon. I simply don't wish to exhaust the limited supply of workers we have."

"I understand," Shinzon said as he finished reading and signed off on the document and placed his thumb on the DNA reader, not flinching as the tiny needle drew a drop of blood before handing the slate back to Madthayn. "Now then, about the Imperium's presence on Remus."

"Only a few hundred men," Madthayn replied. "We'll be constructing a forward base near the ruins of Romulus. Most of the Imperial personnel in the system will be there. Supply ships will arrive twice a month to collect the mining products. Do you have any questions?"

"What about my fleet?" Shinzon asked.

"Oh yes," Madthayn smiled. "They will remain here to defend Remus from any stray Romulans which may decide to attack. The Mechanicus does wish for a Reman cloaking device to be delivered to them so my people can work to adapting them for Imperial warships."

"Easily done," Shinzon answered, noticing that the Lord Admiral had yet to touch his ale. "Not a fan of drink Lord Admiral?" He asked with a smile.

"Oh I am, but my second in command is impeccable at detecting the smell of alcohol, and he would never let me live down consuming xeno liquor."

"Ah, I understand completely," Shinzon replied. Reaching for the bottle of Romulan Ale, he replaced the stopper and moved it toward the Lord Admiral. "Perhaps your doctor can examine this, and if he deems it safe we may share it on your next visit here."

"I believe I can agree to that," Madthayn replied with a smile as he pocketed the bottle. "The first supply convoy will arrive in one month's time to collect the tithes. I'll drop by as soon as my path leads me back here for that drink."

"Until then Lord Admiral," Shinzon said, extending his hand.

"Until then, Governor," Madthayn replied, taking the offered hand. As he turned to go, he cast a glance back at Shinzon. "Take care Shinzon, interesting times are ahead." As the door closed shut behind him, the Lord Admiral activated the comm. bead in his ear. "Madthayn to shuttle, ready for pickup."

"Acknowledged Lord Admiral, we are beginning our approach," came a slightly static laced reply. "Landing in five minutes."

Captain Virenox watched the Lord Admiral's shuttle as it rose from the surface of Remus, two flights of navy Lightnings surrounding the transport as it maneuvered towards its home. "I'll meet the Admiral in the landing bay. Lt. Kaller, the command deck is yours."

"Yes sir," the brown haired man replied as he too Virenox's place on the command throne.

As the captain entered the lift and input his destination, he examined the after-actions reports he had been working on. The debris from Romulus's destruction was spreading slowly through the system and would need to be monitored to prevent possible damage to Remus. Several Federation ships had already begun the process of seeding the system with automated sensor stations to keep watch for cloaked Romulan ships while the Mechanicus had deployed several vessels to set up processing and assembly facilities for the resources in the system. Everything was proceeding on schedule.

As the lift came to a stop Virenox took a moment to smooth his uniform before stepping out into one of the Divine Judgment's landing bays. The Lord Admiral's shuttle was just rising from the floor access shute, steam hissing from its hydraulics. A retinue of armsmen formed up in front of the craft, shotcannons held against their chests in salute as the ramp lowered with a clang of metal on metal. The Lord Admiral slowly stepped down, a pair of navel security troopers following him.

"Welcome back Lord Admiral," Captain Virenox greeted as he saluted his commander.

"Thank you," Madthayn replied.

"I trust Shinzon is happy with his new rank and duties?"

"Oh yes," Madthayn smiled. "His dreams of having the Remans free from Romulan rule have come true, and all he must do now is use Romulan slaves to mine a bit of resources for us. It is a perfect arrangement for him, and we get a human in charge of the operations here."

"And did you accept any gifts from the new Governor?" The captain asked with a knowing smile.

"Only one," the Lord Admiral replied, pulling the bottle of Romulan Ale from his pocket. "I didn't drink any if that's what you're thinking. Once it's been tested and pronounced safe I will keep it safe until I can return here and share it with the good Governor."

"I expected no less from you," Captain Virenox replied as the two men and the security men entered the lift and Madthayn entered the destination.

"So tell me, how soon until we can depart?" Madthayn asked as the lift began moving with a squeal of hydraulics.

"As soon as you give the command," Virenox replied. "The Federation engineers will shortly have the system littered with anti-cloak sensors and Shinzon's own vessels can act as the defense quadroon until the Mechanicus build more permanent defenses."

"Excellent; now that the major races who supported the attack on Terra have been dealt with I expect the Warmaster will authorize retribution for the smaller empires as well." Madthayn let out a sigh as the lift began to slow. "It is sad in a way; the races of this galaxy have had a chance to exist side by side with us, and yet they have chosen to commit likely suicide. I have to admit I don't understand it sometimes."

"They are xenos Lord Admiral, what else is there to understand?" Captain Virenox replied as the lift came to a stop and the doors opened. "I believe the command deck is yours again."

"Thank you Captain," the Lord Admiral smiled as he took his place on the command throne. "Communications, open a signal to the Dreadfist."

"Yes Lord Admiral, channel open," came a reply from the rear of the bridge as the face and shoulders of the second Lord Admiral in Romulan space appeared on one of Madthayn's pict screens.

"Ah, Madthayn; concluded your business on Remus I take it?" Arthanax asked as he leaned forward slightly on his own command throne.

"Yes, everything is proceeding on schedule my friend. We are free to depart as soon as your ships form up for warp translation. Now that the first stage of our campaign is concluded the Warmaster will brief us on our next moves at Terra."

"Excellent; my fleet will be ready within the hour. I do hope you'll show a bit more enthusiasm when we begin the next stage of our conquest of this galaxy," Arthanax smiled.

"We are not here to conquer, merely to help the humanity here realize their destiny," Madthayn spoke back, enjoying the chance for a little verbal sparring.

"There is little difference," Arthanax replied, "as I hope you will soon see. Arthanax, out." With a twitch of one arm the Lord Admiral ended the transmission, leaving Madthayn and Virenox alone once again on the command throne.

"He certainly seems to have improved his mood," Captain Virenox replied.

"Yes well, slaying an entire xeno world does tend to make him a bit more agreeable," the Lord Admiral replied. "Have our own fleet prepare for warp jump. Once we arrive back at Terra I will meet with the Warmaster, and I do hope he will have a plan for bringing the races of this galaxy together under our banner."

"We will see," Virenox replied as he picked his way through more reports which had built up while he had received the Lord Admiral back to the ship. "As for me, I have work of my own to attend to. If you will excuse me," he said while moving towards the lift and his own quarters. "As always you will know where to find me."

As Madthayn watched his executive office walk off he watched the massive clouds of Imperium warships slowly assemble into two distinct warms of steel and plasma drives as they prepared to enter the Immaterium. A small static charge filled the air as the Gellar Field engaged, surrounding the Divine Judgment in its bubble of reality.

"Twenty seconds until warp entry!" Came the warning as the vibrations in the deck plates increased.

Madthayn bowed his head and spoke a brief prayer to the Emperor for safe passage. Though Navigator Belaris had informed him of the extremely low number of daemons in the warp here, the deaths of billions of Romulans would likely draw many of them in. Not even the Romulans deserved the fate which would likely befall their immortal energy. "We pray for souls lost on the tide," he whispered as in front of his vessel reality was punctured and the massive bulk of his flagship left the physical universe behind and began its journey back to the site of the Imperium's first and only defeat in this new galaxy, the burnt husk of Earth.

Inquisitor Falten smiled as he strode down the length of one of Risa's many beaches. His horgon swung from a length of fabric around his neck, and he smiled at the number of glances he drew from the females around him. The sun was shining brightly and a cool breeze was blowing in from the ocean. Everywhere he looked he found people enjoying the pleasures life offered; eating, sunbathing and engaging in romantic interactions. It all combined to generate a pleasant current of energy through his mind. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, taking it all in. "Good day to you," he heard a voice speak up from behind him. Turning slowly, the Inquisitor found one of Risan women smiling at him.

"Good morning," Falten replied. "Is it always this sunny or Risa?" He asked.

"Oh yes, the weather modification system ensures that every day is perfect for our guests," the woman replied. "Is there anything I can do for you?" She asked, taking the Inquisitor's hand.

"There is in fact. Would it be possible for me to hold a public celebration on this beach tonight? It is the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of my colony."

"Of course; we have many celebrations like that here. Will you require assistance with the preparations?" The Risan assistant asked pleasantly.

"That would be lovely," Falten replied, placing his own arm around the woman's back. "All I will require is a large fire pit a few meters from the water and some tables for food. Anything local will be fine."

"I will see to it at once," the woman smiled as she walked away.

Inquisitor Falten watched the servant as she left, a hungry smile crossing his face. Only he could see the psychic rune he had drawn on her lower back. "Perfect," he whispered to himself. If things continued going this well, within a few short hours his patron would soon have a doorway into an entirely new domain, and he would be well rewarded for his efforts.

With several hours to pass before his celebration began, Falten began a slow circuit of the beach and the resort. Every fifty meters he stopped and went down on a knee, feigning interest in something on the ground. No one paid him any attention as he dropped a few grains of a white powder on the ground and made a few hand movements before getting back to his feet and moving on.

After completing his task, Falten retired to his room. Making sure he was not being observed, he took a meditative pose on soft silk sheets of his bed and began marshalling his psychic energies. The power of his master was much weaker in this galaxy, but he could still feel the rush of ecstasy and power that his master generated. Yes, soon Risa would belong to Slaanesh.

Lord Admiral Arthanax watched as the command deck's protective screens rose, bringing into vies the tragic sight of Earth lying dead in space. Oceans of black sludge and clouds of ash were the only things moving, and Madthayn could almost hear the death cries of the billions of humans who had been slaughtered in an instant by the bastard Romulans. When his knuckles popped he realized he had been squeezing the metal arms of his command throne.

"A great tragedy," Captain Anarius said as he ascended the steps to stand beside the Lord Admiral. "They should have suffered far more for their crimes."

"Indeed, but the burning of their world and the fall of their people into slavery is an acceptable start," Arthanax replied. As he stared at the ruined planet his eyes caught starlight winking off the hulls of numerous Federation vessels as they fires torpedoes into the atmosphere. "What are those ships doing?" He asked in curiosity and anger. "Hail them at once," he ordered.

"Already done," Anarius replied as one of the command throne's hovering pict-slates moved to hover near Arthanax's face. The bridge of a Federation ship quickly swam into focus, centering on a dark skinned man with Captain's pips .

"I am Lord Admiral Arthanax of the Dreadfist of Terra. I demand to know why you are firing weapons at the surface of Holy Terra." The icy tone in Arthanax's voice seemed to cause the Federation Captain to shrink back slightly, which drew a ghost of a smirk across the Lord Admiral's face.

"Lord Admiral, I am Captain Alexander Delphius of the North Star. For the past three days the clean-up effort of Earth has been getting underway, and my vessel is helping to clean the ash out of the air as part of the first stage."

"Then this world will be habitable again?" Arthanax asked, his heart swelling in his chest.

"Oh yea, but it will take time. Your Adeptus Mechanicus have lent us considerable aid in transporting raw materials from our colonies in preparation for the re-seeding of the surface," Captain Delphius replied.

"Then I will leave you to your work; I have other matters to attend to." With a flick of his neck Arthanax ended the transmission. "All may be not lost for these humans," he spoke to Anarius. "But for now take us to the Warmaster. The time for the next stage of our campaign is fast approaching, and I intend to be at the heart of the action."

"Of course Lord Admiral," Captain Anarius replied as he moved over to the navigation station to plot the intercept vector with the Warmaster's command ship, which was orbiting the moon, observing a convoy of mechanicus cargo ships coming through the wormhole. "Intercept in four minutes, I'll have your shuttle ready by then."

"Very well, I'll meet you in the bay then," Arthanax said as he stood. "I only hope Madthayn is not too late," he added with a small smirk.

Lord Admiral Madthayn felt the Divine Judgment shudder as it broke through the dimensional walls back into realspace. As soon as the low hum of the Gellar Field vanished he raised the bridge armor shutters, bringing the devastated sight of Earth into view. He caught site of the restoration ships firing torpedoes into the atmosphere. "I bet Arthanax had quite the episode when he saw that," he chuckled. It paid to keep in contact with the wormhole guard Captains. "Bring us up alongside the Warmaster's ship and let's get ready to go over. I suspect my old friend has some interesting information to share."

"Of course Lord Admiral," Captain Virenox replied. "Shall I go and make sure your dress uniform is perfect?" He asked with a knowing smile.

"What do you think I spent most of our voyage here taking care of?" The Lord Admiral replied with a smile of his own. "Just see that my shuttle is ready. I'll meet you in the docking bay in five minutes."

"As you command Lord Admiral," Virenox replied as he left the command deck, knowing that his own bundle of itchy and starched fabric awaited him as well.

Warmaster Derenox breathed deeply, inhaling the incense which rose from the twin braziers on either side of his command throne. He watched as the war fleets of both Arthanax and Madthayn assumed standard formation above Earth while the flagships slowly closed on his own.

"We have just received work from the Divine Judgment and the Dreadfist of Terra Warmaster," spoke Derenox's second in command, Captain Jerold, a tall man with graying hair and a long scar down the left side of his face. "Their shuttles will be launching momentarily to transfer the Lord Admirals over. The war room is prepared as you instructed, and Inquisitor Findalis is awaiting us there."

"Very well," the Warmaster replied as he slowly rose from his seat, the golden lining of his uniform glinting where the dim light of the command deck caught it. All around him the crew moved with the speed and efficiency of a machine, ratings carrying reports and printouts to their superiors while hovering servo skulls zipped through the air on errands for their tech priest masters. The hum of cogitators and anti-grav units of servitors filled the air, which itself carried the scent of incense brought from the Ecclisiarchy temple on Holy Terra. The entire chamber was dimly lit, with braziers placed evenly around the periphery, releasing incense into the air. Commissar Gath stood imposingly near the Confessor's lectern, reading a passage from a thick volume, with Father Salshar standing at his side. The entire chamber rang with low volume prayers and symphonies broadcast from the speakers near the ceiling, lending even the air a holy aura. Turning to the Commissar, the Warmaster met the massive man's gaze. "Commissar Gath, the command deck is yours."

"As you with Warmaster," the fleet Commissar replied, his onyx black uniform nearly disappearing in the dim illumination of the chamber.

As Derenox and Jerold entered the lift, the Warmaster pulled a data slate from his jacket. "I see the restoration efforts of Earth are beginning."

"Indeed Warmaster; Inquisitor Findalis himself supervised the first stage from one of the Federation vessels," Captain Jerold replied. "With the Emperor's blessings the first life forms will be introduced in just over eight months' time."

"Excellent; by then the Alpha Quadrant should be entirely under our control. Madthayn will likely wish to retail the current Federation political structure and tolerance of xenos."

"What do you intend to do about him?" The Captain asked.

"Madthayn is a loyal servant of the Emperor, if a bit too open minded sometimes. He will follow orders, of that I am certain. From what I have read of the material he has gathered, many of the local xeno races are genetically similar to humanity, possibly close enough to be designated abhuman class. Once the races which attacked us are dealt with the Emperor will likely wish to expand humanity's sphere of influence in this galaxy. If the local xenos wish to prove their devotion by supporting the war effort then they may be allowed to live. If they resist us they will be destroyed," the Warmaster answered.

"What will the next phase of our expansion be my lord?" Captain Jerold asked as the lift doors opened.

"The wormhole at Bajor offers an easy path to expansion in the Delta Quadrant," Derenox replied as a detail of armsmen fell into step behind the pair as they approached the war room. The Warmaster pressed his palm to the gene-code scanner and his eye to one slightly above it. A powerful hum filled the air for several seconds, followed by the groaning of metal as the reinforced adamantium doors swung outward, allowing the pair of men to enter.

The War room was dimly lit, with most of the illumination coming from the massive holo-pit occupying the center of the chamber, bathing everything in a deep green light. Power conduits snaked along the floor, forcing occupants to keep on their guard. Around the periphery cogitators hissed and chugged, processing and compiling the enormous amounts of data and adding it to the projection of the Alpha Quadrant which slowly rotated in the pit.

A single man was seated at one of the ten seats ringing the holo display, his pure black armor rendering him nearly invisible. Beneath his hood a gaunt face could just be made out. He stood as the pair of men entered. "Warmaster, Captain Jerold," he greeted.

"Inquisitor Findalis," the Warmaster replied as he and the captain took their own seats. "Lord Admiral Madthayn and Lord Admiral Arthanax will be with us momentarily. Have any interesting events taken place since we last spoke?"

"My investigations are proceeding," the Inquisitor replied, the emblem of his office glinting on his chest plate. "I trust you have made the appropriate preparations for the next stages of our expansion in this galaxy?"

"Of course Inquisitor; I have already planned for our fleets to begin operations against the smaller xeno empires which ring Federation space. Once the Lord Admirals arrive I will explain in more detail." Derenox and Captain Jerold took their seats across from Inquisitor Findalis, each observing the projection of space above them. The Warmaster began typing away on a data slate while he waited.

Several minutes later the door activated again, opening and allowing four men to pass inside. Lord Admiral Arthanax and Captain Anarius were first, marching to the holo-pit and taking seats on the right side of the Warmaster, with Madthayn and Captain Virenox occupying the seats to his immediate left. Their blue and gold uniforms glinted green and black in the light from the holo-pit.

Lord Admiral Arthanax was the first to speak. "My fleet is ready for the next phase of our expansion Warmaster. With the Romulans gone, the smaller races that supported the attack on Terra can be destroyed at will by only a handful of my navel squadrons. The rest of my force can be ready for an assault upon the other quadrants within a matter of hours." As he spoke Arthanax's eyes drunk in the spinning diagram of the Milky Way galaxy. The Federation showed as a bright blue patch, with the Klingon Empire and Cardassian space highlighted green. The remainder was a bright crimson mass, showing how far humanity had yet to expand its influence.

"Excellent Lord Admiral Arthanax," the Warmaster replied. "Lord Madthayn, your report?"

"The Romulan system should be completely secured within two weeks Warmaster. The conquered Cardassian territories are presently under occupation, and the Imperial Guard contingents of my own fleet have neutralized most of the Cardassian rebels who are still fighting us. I consider our first stage expansion a success."

"Very good," Derenox congratulated. "Despite the tragedy of losing Terra, our efforts to unify this galaxy under mankind's benevolent rule must move forward. Without the support of the Astronomican, which my navigators have told me does not reach far beyond the Alpha Quadrant due to the small size of the wormhole, will force a change in tactics."

"What sort of changes are you proposing?" Madthayn asked as he adjusted the holster for his bolt pistol. "The range of our ships will be severely limited without the Astronomican to guide us in the Warp."

"The Adeptus Mechanicus was working on several solutions using technology from this galaxy. Unfortunately, with the recent damage sustained by Mars their resources have been diverted to rebuilding. However, my own tech priests have come up with this." Raising a hand into the air, Derenox called over a tech priest who had been standing in the shadows at the edge of the room. Mechadendrites writhed fluidly behind him, and his bright crimson robe covered the remainder of his body, leaving only the lower half of his face visible. The few fragments of flesh remaining looked sickly and decaying in the green light. The black metal amulet of his order clinked against the machinery of his robe with each step he took.

"My colleagues and I have been working on a method to use the Federation's version of warp drive to propel our ships once they pass beyond the reach of the astronomican," the priest of Mars explained. He placed a data slate into the holo projector, which flickered for a moment and settled on a projection of a ring of metal studded with warp nacelles. "This warp ring will attach to any Imperium vessel, establishing a subspace field around the ship allowing it to achieve speeds of warp 8.5 for an unlimited amount of time. Heavy cruisers and battleships will require two rings to gain that speed however."

"How quickly can these rings be manufactured?" Inquisitor Findalis asked. A chill had been making its way down his spine for the last minute as his psychic senses detected something out of place. It was as if his senses were reflecting off a mirror of a mind, rather than the true being. Subtly he had been scanning the others in the chamber, but the two Lord Admirals and their Captains were as clear as water to his mind. The tech priest was different, with a colder feel, but Findalis had been around enough priests of Mars to recognize the effects of severe brain replacement by augmetics. Still, it was around the tech priest that the distortion was strongest. Slowly moving his hand to the grip of his plasma pistol, he gathered his mental energies if whatever was generating the mirror mind had psionic abilities of its own.

"The ring itself is simply and can be fabricated within several days Warmaster," the tech priest replied.

"Excellent, then I will begin preparations for our second stage operations," the Warmaster said with pride. "Until we can perfect a system for broadcasting the Astronomican, the wormhole at the Deep Space 9 station offers us a path into the Gamma Quadrant. The Dominion threatened to destroy Mankind once, and with our major enemies locally gone, the time is right for the Dominion to feel the Imperium's power. Lord Admiral Arthanax, your fleet will spearhead the attack."

"I accept this honor," Arthanax replied, a predatory smile crossing his face.

"And me Warmaster?" Madthayn began. "What task do you-"

"Get down!" Inquisitor Falten shouted suddenly, kicking his chair away and snapping off a shot with his plasma pistol. The blue orb of energy hit the tech priest just below the waist, burning a pair of holes through the crimson robe and gouging a small crater in the far wall.

"What are you doing?!" Derenox demanded as he shifted into a crouch after throwing himself to the floor.

"Acting against a threat," the Inquisitor replied, pointing to the tech priest, whose robe had become a thick liquid which oozed to the floor and writhed for a moment before enlarging and shooting a thick strand of itself towards one of the ventilation grills.

"A xeno!" Lord Admiral Arthanax shouted as he drew his own weapon, a bolt pistol inscribed with lines of imperial script. Snapping off a pair of shots, he hit the liquid mass in mid-flight, but the rounds simply passed through it, shattering a cogitator unit and sending up a huge shower of sparks. Just as the mass reached the ventilation duct a thin armor panel snapped shut, and the mass impacted heavily before dropping to the floor.

"It's not going anywhere," the Warmaster declared as he removed his hand from a control panel. "Kill it," he ordered.

The mass rose up quickly, assuming a near humanoid shape and launching an extending tentacle of ooze at the Warmaster. He dodged to the side but the tentacle shifted with him, aiming for the man's throat. Just before the tentacle hit its target Captain Virenox slammed into the Warmaster, sending him sprawling to the floor as the tentacle pierced the Captain's neck, drawing a fountain of blood as it went clean through.

"NOOO!" Came a cry of rage as Lord Admiral Madthayn, seeing his friend go down, drew his own sidearm and charged at the liquid mass. His own bold pistol sent shells into the mass, but unlike Arthanax's weapon the shells detonated on impact, making the mass bulge and split into several large puddles which began to crawl back towards each other. "I don't think so," he said in a voice of liquid hate. Extending his middle finger, he sent a jet of white hot fames from the Jokaro ring washing over the enemy infiltrator, instantly turning the liquid to ash. Another ring immolated the remainder of the ooze, leaving a sickly smell of burned fabric and charred metal to fill the room.

As soon as the second ring discharged, Madthayn ran to his fallen friend's side. Virenox's body was covered in blood from the gaping hole in his neck. He was still alive and reached up with a blood covered hand to grab Madthayn's shoulder. A gurgling sound came from his mouth as he tried to speak.

"Don't try to speak Virenox; you're hurt badly." Seeing the Captain's eyes look over to the Warmaster Madthayn understood. "The Warmaster is safe, now lie still." Seeing the terrible condition of Virenox's wounds Madthayn knew he did not have long. The Lord Admiral's throat threatened to close on him as he held his dying friend in his arms. As he tried futily to step the flow of blood the tech priest appeared over him. "Get away from him!" Madthayn shouted in rage, slamming a fist into the gut of the man and immediately regretting it as his knuckles bruised against hardened metal.

"I may be able to be of assistance," the techno-magi stated without emotion, one of his mechadendrites snaking forward to eject a thick spray of grayish sludge which expanded to fill the hole in the wounded captain's throat, stopping the flood of blood gushing out. Another pierced Virenox's chest while a third extended a small needle which drilled into his skull. Restraining the enraged Lord Admiral, the machine lord spoke calmly. "The bio-gel will prevent further blood loss, while the oxygen tubules ensure he does not suffer brain damage from lack of the gas you human require to function. He is in critical condition at this time. With appropriate cybernetic augmentation and flesh grafts his chances of survival are forty-two point three seven two five percent. Do you wish me to proceed?"

Madthayn gritted his teeth at the man who had brought into the room the very thing that had nearly killed his closest friend. "Why should I trust you after what just happened?!"

"My implants were unable to detect the life-form which attached to my, but now that I have had a chance to scan it I believe I can detect another if it attaches to me," the tech priest replied.

Madthayn was about to test the tech priest's knowledge of anatomical positions when a tug on his arm brought his eyes to Virenox. The Captain nodded painfully and rolled his head in the priest's direction. The look in his eyes was clear to Madthayn. "I will take him to the medical bay. Instruct your brethren to meet me there, but I will not allow you near him," the Lord Admiral stated with steel in his voice.

"I am the senior magi in the biological division aboard this vessel. The chances of survival of the subject decrease by seventy percent if I am not present."

"Let him assist Madthayn," Inquisitor Findalis said as he scooped a small portion of the infiltrator's ashes into a phial. "I have scanned his body with my mind, and there are no more infiltrators on his body. His thoughts are clear enough to tell me he is not a traitor. I am certain of it." The tone in the Inquisitor's voice brooked no argument.

"Fine," Madthayn hissed as he rose to his feet, Virenox's limp body in his arms. He could still feel his friend's heartbeat, but it was slow and weak. "We have to hurry." As he and the tech priest made for the door he turned back to the Warmaster. "Derenox, the Dominion is mine," he said in a voice filled with cold malice.

"We will discuss that later. See to your friend," the Warmaster replied.

"Yes Sir," Madthayn answered as the tech priest opened the door and both men hurried out.

Once the door had closed Derenox turned to Arthanax. "I don't know how a changeling got aboard my ship, but I want every ship in the fleet searched for any more of these. Inquisitor Findalis, I assume you can somehow detect these abominations?"

"Yes Warmaster; they generate a sort of mirror soul to cover their own. That is likely why the telepaths of this galaxy cannot detect them. However my own range is limited. I will need to contact my colleagues to arrange for a team to sweep the fleet. "

"Of course Inquisitor, do what you have to," Derenox replied. "I will hold the fleet at anchor here until the sweep is complete. I cannot risk having more of these changelings attacking command personnel in the middle of a battle."

"I will not allow that to happen," Findalis said as he slipped the phial of changeling ashes inside his armor. "Rest assured Warmaster, the changeling race will learn the folly of infiltrating the Imperium of Man."

"Twice they have crossed mankind. I will se to it they do not get a third chance," the Warmaster stated.

"As will I," the Inquisitor replied as he stalked out of the chamber, the Warmaster following behind him, leaving the servitors to clean up the remains of the Dominion's last and greatest mistake.

The world was dead. Its surface was airless and pockmarked with craters. No sun lit the surface of this world, and no warmth came from its core. It was a silent ball of rock, tossed from its parent star and left to drift through the cosmos. Then, suddenly, flashes of light appeared in above it as fifty black hulled ships dropped out of warp in orbit. Like a cloud of ravens they assembled above the planet's northern pole and waited.

Aboard one of the Shadow Warbirds, Commander Donatra stared emotionlessly at the world her fleet had discovered. The rest of the bridge crew were similarly silent, working their stations without sound or expression. The temperature was very cold, and breath misted in the air.

With a whoosh of displaced air her master stood beside her, his diamond eyes now radiating a bright green luminescence. "Excellent my servant," he whispered, chilling the air even more. "You have done well."

"I live to serve you," Donatra replied flatly.

"Yes, you do," the master hissed. "I will be going to the surface. If any vessels enter sensor range, destroy them."

"Yes Master."

With another wave of displaced air the black figure vanished from the bridge, leaving behind only a great wave of freezing air. The Romulans continued to work their stations with mechanical movements. The silence was as deep as the grave, but the cold began to lessen once the master was gone.

Down on the planet, the black figure appeared in a cavernous chamber, with the only light coming from his eyes and revealing nothing apart from himself. He spread his arms wide, his robe falling open to reveal a metallic body, but covered with melted patches and leaking a thick, viscous fluid which glowed a sickly shade of red and brown.

As he stood there a great hum of energy became audible as something massive began to power up. Gradually the darkness in the chamber was replaced by pairs of tiny green lights. More and more appeared, until a hundred thousand glowing eyes regarded the figure. "The time has come to reclaim what is mine," he said, his voice resonating through the chamber as the chamber began filling with the sound of metal striking metal as thousands of skeletal forms began stepping from their alcoves, green energy flowing into the two-handed weapons they carried.

The black figure made his way to a large dais where a throne cast from black metal rose from the ground. As he sat he hissed in pain as the liquid leaking from his body flared brighter. "Soon, I will eliminate this foul contagion within me," he hissed as this pipes in the throne filled with green energy that flowed into his body. The glow of the liquid dimmed and the figure leaned back into the throne. Now that he had returned to this world, he knew what he had to do next. The portal had to be reopened, and once it was the ancient master of this galaxy would rule it once again.