The circular chamber was decorated in dark mahogany, with splashes of burgundy and brass serving as accents and highlights. Set near the northern edge of the circle was a massive desk of that same dark wood, sporting a number of hideous, leering gargoyles on it's front face. With lights low and no windows in the place, the end result was a murky chamber, laden with almost tangible shadows which worked not-so-subtly on the nerves of those few who found themselves in the innermost sanctuary of the Hive's most deadly assassin. And if the room wasn't enough to put visitors to the place on their guard, then surely the man behind the massive desk, with his totally blank expression and penetrating violet eyes did just that. It was rumored that he had slain visitors to his lair for things as trivial as not removing their hats quickly enough for his liking. No one could verify the rumors either way, but none were particularly keen to do field research on the matter, either. Thus, Harrand Ashaandi was shown every imaginable courtesy, whether in or out of his lair.

He spun 'round in his swivel chair a few times, taking in the site of the room and all the treasures it contained. Hand-beaten gold masks, painted with pigments extracted from the abundant fungus to be found all over Chiron, painstakingly formed into exact replicas of Tribal masks honoring a variety of ancient gods. The datalinks had their uses indeed, and not all those uses were confined to infiltration and theft of state secrets and proprietary research held by rival factions. There was that of course, but the massive databanks also held a great deal of general knowledge and information to suit almost every taste, from the mundane to the highly esoteric. And in that vast sea of electronic information was an enormous collection of thousands of hi-res images, breath taking, and more than detailed enough to allow the artisans in his employ to create tangible replicas for him.

He smiled to himself….an expression which looked decidedly out of place on his finely chiseled, cruel features. Such excess was unknown to the masses who broke their backs for Chairman Yang's Hive, but for the elite….for the inner circle of leadership, no expense was spared and Ashaandi had quite literally a private army at his command. Hundreds of artisans and craftsmen in bases all over Hivean territory, two full divisions of the good Chairman's finest troops, outfitted with the best armor and weapons money could buy, controlling interest in four state-run brothels—which served as a training/recruiting ground for a great many of his agents—not to mention the six directors beneath him, each controlling no less than thirty spies whose tendrils of influence crept out like an unseen plague to wrap themselves around the delicate infrastructure of every other faction on Planet, quietly infecting them, sometimes for the purpose of industrial espionage or theft of state research, sometimes as simple listening posts, often as platforms for creating unrest, and occasionally as staging points for political assassination.

His network was so vast and extensive that there simply was no corner of Planet one could hide on that the dreaded Circle of Ashaandi could not reach in a matter of hours. It was right that he was the most feared man on Chiron. The silent-and-deadly right hand of Chairman Yang. In fact, much of the Chairman's own fearsome reputation was directly attributable to the effectiveness of Ashaandi's black-garbed Internal Security Force, which was organized and run by one of Ashaandi's most ruthless subordinates, Malachai Vialli.

No two ways about it….life was good, and it was about to get better. He had played the role of Yang's lackey and errand boy for too long, but no longer. The stroke of midnight would spell the end of that particular era.

It had taken years of patient planning. Endless hours of proving himself indispensable to the Chairman who ruled his lands with an iron fist. Ferreting out weak links in Yang's chain of command, quietly and effectively disposing of any who would rise to challenge him, and on occasion, engineering a few "incidents" himself, only to expose them at exactly the right moment, thus furthering his reputation.

Every intricate plot, every move and counter move planned for this very day, like a chess game played out on Chiron's world's stage, and now….completion.

The assassin's eyes settled on one of the burgundy silk tapestries that graced the section of wall opposite him. A simple affair really, all one piece, with gold threads tracing delicate, intricate knot-work patterns around the edges.

Burgundy. How strangely similar to the color of blood.

The misplaced smile on his face grew at the thought, and at the memory of the taste. He half-closed his eyes. Ahhh, it had been too long, and he was restless. Hungering for….something. Not mere pleasures of the flesh—although it was no secret to those near him that he frequently made use of his own brothels, often ushering hand-picked ladies to his private chamber in threes and fours—but something more….enduring. Something with more of a bite to it.

"Soon." He whispered to himself, looking forward to the upcoming interrogation. "Soon."

For now though, there was much to do. Calls to be made, final loose ends tied up. So many wonderful details to attend to.

With gusto, he leaned forward, elbows on his desk, and set about his work.

He pressed one of a great many unmarked buttons on his private comm system, and waited almost patiently for the response chime. In a moment, the broad, brooding face of General Cho filled up the view screen.

"My Lord Ashaandi….you honor me with this call." The General said with a greedy glint in his eyes.

The assassin nodded, and played the word game that the other man was so fond of. "One final check to see that all is in readiness, noble General Cho."

He nodded curtly, efficient as always. "I have five thousand troops ready to seize control of 'Huddling of the People' when you give the word! When you make your bid for independence, we shall join you."

"Very good….I'll transmit those orders to you later this evening. Keep your men in a state of readiness, and expect to hear from me soon."

The General broke into a wolfish grin. "I eagerly await your command, My Lord Ashaandi."

"It shall be soon." He said and broke the connection.

All too easy.

Next, he punched the code to activate his private line to Chairman Yang. The Chairman answered the call immediately, and those awful eyes bored into Ashaandi's. "You have news?"

"I do indeed, Chairman Yang. General Cho's plot brews thicker. He plans to betray you this very night."

"And do you have an estimate on the disposition of the General's forces?"

"Better than that, I have an exact count….the General has five thousand, two hundred and fifty-six men under his command who will follow him." He made the exact figure up off the top of his head without missing a beat.

Yang contemplated a moment. "Excellent work as always, Ashaandi. You have once again proved that you are without peer when it comes to rooting out enemies of the state….Indeed, your grasp of the conspirator's mind in unequalled anywhere on Chiron."

Ashaandi smiled and bowed slightly to the Chairman. "I live to serve." He said reverently.

Yang's eyes lingered on him for a moment before he broke the connection, and the assassin seethed. Yes, and tonight you shall see just how deep my understanding of the conspirator's mind truly runs!

He gave himself several long moments to calm his rage. Now was not the time to lose control! Not when he was so close to fulfilling his destiny!

He banged his fists on the sturdy desk twice, almost shaking with his rage.

"Steady." He whispered to the empty room. "Steady now."

Breathe in….breathe out. In with the good….out with the bad…..in with the good….out with the bad….

There.

Calm once more, and yet more to do.

Another unmarked button on his comm system, another span of several heartbeats as he waited for the response chime. A fraction of a second after that, Angel's face appeared on his view screen, a fine sheen of sweat on her forehead.

The sense of rhythmic motion did not escape his watchful eye.

Since she was clearly not alone, he opted for mental communication with her.

"Entertaining your…."ward" are you?"

She smiled sweetly and bit her bottom lip to stifle a sigh of pleasure as the motion just off-screen increased in both speed and intensity. In a moment, her mental reply floated to him. "To say that you've called at a bad time would be an understatement."

She was (understandably) impatient to be rid of him, and was one of only a handful from whom he tolerated occasional insubordination. He stifled a laugh and nodded more-or-less impassively as a variety of deliciously lewd thoughts danced in his head. "Then I shall not keep you long….keep him occupied and content until we are ready to move."

She nodded in response. Again, the sweet, innocent smile. "The drugs you arranged for him worked wonders….he doesn't even know where he is, and I think he believes he has been reunited with his wife."

"Excellent, though I suspect our Mister Stone will be seething once we bring him around….Enjoy yourself, but do not forget how important he is to my plans….I need him alive, Angel."

He saw the look of disappointment that flashed in her eyes, but it was gone in a fraction of a second, and she giggled like an innocent school girl and terminated the connection, leaving Ashaandi with his thoughts.

As alluring and seductive as Angel was though, he forced himself to banish the thought of spending a wicked evening in her care. Certainly she was a talented and savage lover (not to mention dangerous….more than one person had spent his or her last moments of life locked in an intimate embrace with his very own pet Black Widow), but there simply wasn't time at the moment. Later however, when they had escaped the grasp of Chairman Yang once and for all, he made himself a mental note to reacquaint himself with Angel's savage charms.

He had no sooner finished that thought when his comm system chimed an incoming call.

Back to work, he thought with a sigh as he checked the origination code to see who it was.

Ahhhh yes! The interrogation! The blood began surging through his veins and his eyes danced and sparkled like a child at Christmastime just wandering down the stairs to see what Santa Claus had brought.

"Just what the Doctor ordered." He murmured as he answered the call.

The face of Malachai Vialli appeared on-screen and his deep, grave-dirt voice rumbled across the connection. "My Master….the prisoner has arrived and awaits your personal attention."

"Alvin Shepphard….Assistant Director of Research, Lab 3?" He inquired, already knowing the answer and warming to the task at hand with each passing second.

"The very same….shall I send him in?"

"By all means." Ashaandi said with a thin, fierce smile. "By all means."

In a way, he pitied the man about to enter his private chamber. He found himself practically bursting with raw, edgy energy in anticipation of tonight's big event, and, given that today was his last official day on the job, Alvin Shepphard deserved extra special attention.

As if on queue, and summoned by merely thinking his name, the doors to his sanctuary swung silently open, and a pair of massive, black-clad guards shoved the diminutive researcher roughly into the room.

They departed without a word, and Harrand Ashaandi locked eyes with the man before him.

His stare alone shattered what little resolve the terrified man had left. He broke eye contact with his captor and chanced a quick look around, then squeezed his eyes tightly shut. "Pl…please….I'll tell you anything you want….anything at all…..I…."

"Silence!" Ashaandi shouted as he half-rose from his chair. The man seemed to almost shrink back inside himself, and the assassin found himself warming to the game….feeding on the other man's fears.

Yes….this was what he needed.

Exactly this.

He waited until the man's trembling had subsided a bit, and then stood slowly, opened one of his desk drawers and produced a small hand drill. His voice was soft and gentle as he met the other man's gaze, and his hands toyed idly with the bit. "It is understood that you will tell me exactly what I want to know." He said in a sing-song voice. "That you will tell me what I want to know is a foregone conclusion."

He stepped around the desk, and the researcher shrank back further, until he encountered the gently curved wall of the chamber.

"The only question that remains to be answered," Ashaandi said as he took another leisurely step forward, "Is how much pain you can stand before your body simply shuts down and the light and life departs from your eyes."

Alvin Shepphard let out a pathetic low moan, and Ashaandi noted with faint amusement that he had wet himself in his terror.

"What is it our good Chairman says?" He was still speaking in that quiet, sing-song voice as he drew closer, a supremely confident viper casually stalking a little field mouse. "He rambles on so when he gets going that I confess I barely pay attention to the old fool, but now and again he says something genuinely useful or wise" He paused in his approach, and got a far-off look in his eye. "Something about pain being information before the senses? And he's right, even though that's just the tip of the iceberg."

He was right next to the frightened researcher now, bending close and practically whispering in the man's ear. "I'll show you, Alvin Shepphard….I'll introduce you to things you never even dreamed of. Levels of agony that border on obscenely pleasurable….it will split your brain into two camps, one side begging for the release of death and the other aching and yearning to see what lies beyond."

The scientist could not….would not meet Ashaandi's gaze, so the assassin grabbed him just under the chin and gently but firmly turned his head until their eyes met once more.

"I am a god." He told the man simply, an eerie madness lighting up his violet eyes. "I am the god of pleasure and pain….release and death….I know you are frightened right now, and you should be, but nod if you understand where I am about to take you."

Slowly, the man before him nodded, and he stroked his prisoner's forehead gently. "Good….that's good."

He straightened and murmured something to himself. Something so low that the researcher next to him could not have heard, but if he had heard, it would probably have sent him into hysterics. He caught the last part though, and it made him flinch. "….and they were so beautiful in their agony….ah yes….so beautiful."

Ashaandi turned. "I'm going to make you beautiful. You will be a temple, Alvin Shepphard….a temple dedicated to exquisite pain."

He smiled then, and unleashed the demons lurking in the dark recesses of his imagination, and he was right.

Alvin Shepphard was introduced to levels of agony he never knew existed. The screams that echoed through the bowels of the Great Clustering were a testament to that, and as Ashaandi listened to the sounds the dying man made, his heart soared and the blood raced that much faster through his veins. He traveled with his prisoner down those avenues of pain….a tour guide….a Master.

Alvin Shepphard took a very long time to die, and throughout his long spiral toward that final blackness, one whispered phrase stayed with him to the end.

"So beautiful….so beautiful…."

OoO

Fourteen Hours Later

His lust for pain sated, he was much more focused for the rest of the day. Alvin Shepphard had been so good for him in that way….truly a catalyst for the greatest revolution ever conceived, and as such, deserving of a special mention in his memoirs, should he ever decide to sit down and write them.

Alvin Shepphard….a hero then.

Yes. He liked the sound of that.

Decisively, he punched the button on his comm system linked to General Cho's headquarters. Thirty minutes earlier, he'd sent the "go ahead" message which had no doubt begun the General's revolution, and he was anxious to hear how it was going.

In seconds, the General's grease-streaked face filled the screen, eyes dark with rage. "I have been betrayed!" He thundered, and Ashaandi heard all-too-clearly the booming sounds of Chairman Yang's field guns going off all around the city. Beneath that sound, but not completely drowned out was the sound of Yang's war planes flying overhead. If they hadn't begun already, the bombing runs would start soon, and the city would be pounded to dust.

"Yes, General Cho….you have indeed been betrayed….but take heart….while Yang's forces are focusing their attention on you and your ill-fated rebellion, I will have more than ample opportunity to spirit those loyal to me out of the bases they're stationed at. We will be gone like ghosts before Yang even realizes what has happened."

"I would have given my life for you! My men and I would have served you without question!" General Cho shouted again, spittle flying from his mouth in his fury.

"Oh…make no mistake General, you are going to give your life for me, just not in the way you had originally envisioned….and as to your men, they will serve me better as corpses to cover my escape…..Farewell General."

He terminated the connection before Cho could respond and immediately punched a series of buttons to establish a conference link.

In seconds, his six deputy commanders were all on-line, their faces anxious, and Ashaandi looked them over with pride.

I'm in command of thousands of raving psychotics, controlled by half a dozen barely controlled psychotics. He mused to himself with something approaching dark glee. This world will never even know what hit it.

He took a deep breath, and addressed his followers. "Tonight, we break from Chairman Yang to form our own society!" He bellowed, and though he could not see them all—his transmission to his six deputies was being split onto literally thousands of secure channels and broadcast out to all of his followers as they prepared to depart—he could certainly feel them being drawn in almost magnetically.

Allowing himself to revel in that for half a second, he took a deep breath and continued. "It is right that you fear me." He told his masses of followers. "You all know that I will brook not even the slightest disobedience, and that punishments will be swift and severe….but if you demonstrate your value to my inner circle, you will be invited to join, and any desire you name shall be made yours! We ride….now!"

He ended the transmission and took one final look around his beautiful sanctuary.

"The one I create for myself will be greater still." He whispered to himself. "Greater still."

And with that, he left the chamber to find his personal transport.

(to be continued….)