Three wyches stood in an arena of sand so fine the grains could scrape skin from bones. Each was poised for combat, inhumanly lithe bodies relaxed in a honed half-tense, ready to spring forward or flit away on notice measured in fractions of a heartbeat. Their armor curved like blades around only the most essential parts of their bodies, sacrificing absolute protection for mobility, speed, and allure. They were dangerous, the most dangerous in their Kabal.
They held not a candle to the competition.
Adamus Luchance knelt and gathered a palm full of sand from the arena floor. He splashed it on his face, letting the fine powder of crushed bone crease and cut his fair flesh. It stung, mingled with his blood, and when his skin healed a moment later, it trapped the grains within his cheeks. It aggravated his nerves and shot him awake. He sucked air into his super-human lungs and looked skyward, beyond the twisted, phallic gantries of the arena, toward the broken skyline of Commoragh.
The realm of the Dark Eldar, as dank and charming as a polluted womb. Its skies filled with clouds the color of a burst stomach, couched above spires blackened like rotting ribs. The city seemed to come from all directions at once, ignorant of such petty things as dimensions and physical laws. Commoragh was something beyond Chaos—a realm of fear made by those most familiar with its realities.
Adamus looked around the arena, at the ghostly faces of his alien hosts. They roared and screamed obscenities down at him. Clearly, the sight of a Traitor Astartes in their hidden world city was not a welcome one. Adamus knew that well enough, and made double sure to salute his hostess where she sat at the far-end of the arena, in the largest, most lavish of the gallery seats.
She nodded back, with a subtlety unmatched outside her species.
Adamus grinned, and drew his blade. Zereul sang in his grip, ready for the coming fight. Too many weeks in transit, not enough blood. The tip wrenched around in line with the wyches, a lethal dowsing rod attuned to their alien vitae.
"Come," said the War Captain. "Show me something new."
Chapter 58: Names
Neophyte 322984 flew back, doing his best to fall with the hit, and landed on his back. He sat up, felt that a portion of his rib plate had caved. Pain lit up his body and he stifled a wince. It wouldn't do to let the weakness show, and he had little time to think about it anyway with his opponent rushing him again.
The boy was about his age, maybe three or so years older, and also wore the white robes of an initiate. He was also further along in the augmentations, a fact that each boy knew was the reason for 322984's damaged torso.
322984 got his practice blade up in time, and the two weapons clanged off one another. The boy turned 322984's blade aside and pushed in, landing on him with an elbow jammed in his throat. 322984 choked for air.
Sweat dripped down the other boy's face. "Do you yield?" he asked.
Anger, red and blistering hot, surged through 322984. He twisted, ignoring the pain it caused his damaged chest, and broke the boy's lock. His throat free, he slammed his head forward and broke the boy's nose, turned him away, and slid his own practice blade through the boy's robe, chest, lung, and back.
The boy gasped, whimpered, and died.
322984 had a moment to breathe. Then the Chaplain was on him.
"Neophyte!" he bellowed, cracking 322984 in the temple with the flat of his ceramite gauntlet.
The blow sent him sideways onto the stone floor of the training cage. His vision blurred, blackened. When he regained consciousness, a team of medical servitors were hauling his dead opposite from the chamber. 322984 caught a glimpse of his barefoot under the sheet, twitching with residual spasms. He had time to grin before his concussion took over once more and he slipped away into ink.
The wyches attacked at once but not as one. Though they came at the same time, and struck toward the same target, none of their movements was coordinated. There was no interplay between them, no unsaid understanding or careful trading of blows. They fought as if each one were the star of their own bloody stage. It was as narcissistic as it was sickeningly beautiful.
If only they could match their hits.
One came in low, striking at his feet with a lengthy halberd. Adamus back stepped, avoiding the strike, and parried a mid-drift blow from a sword. The second wych spun, swinging out with her other weapon—a wickedly curved evisceration kurve. Its barbed flanges snaked across his blade, chiming with each impact.
Adamus stepped into her guard as she spun for a third strike and shouldered her. It was a blow that would have destroyed a human. The wych took it in stride, rolled with the blow, and danced away in a spree of acrobatics.
Her partner swung her halberd again, a rising blow toward his neck. Adamus spun aside, the halberd slicing through his cape, and turned the evasion into a full offensive, lashing out with his sword again and again.
The wych dodged his swings, once, twice, three times. She raised her halberd to block the fourth. Zeruel sliced it in half and continued on, grazing her stomach. She danced away as well, crimson dripping from her pale stomach.
Adamus watched her as she circled, rotating opposite her friend with the sword-and-kurve. He watched them, anticipating their movements, when suddenly he remembered.
The third wych.
He swung up without looking and caught the sneaking alien as she twirled above him, barb net ready to ensnare his broad form. Zeruel bit deep, slicing clean through her from shoulder to groin. Her body tumbled to the ground in a mess of spilt entrails, bright red on the white sand.
The arena exploded in howling disapproval. Alien bodies writhed in the audience, and the walls of the coliseum convulsed like the palpitating lining of a heart in cardiac arrest. The roar was deafening.
Adamus flicked his sword clean and looked at the two remaining wyches.
"Again," he said.
"He is a poor choice," said Chaplain Illinus. "I cannot recommend him."
His voice echoed around the chapel, each word loud as a bolter's bark. Illinus was a man of great faith even before his elevation to the ranks of demigods, and the transformation had done nothing to dim his zeal. Fiery oratory and bold statements. This were or they were not. There was little room for gray in the life of an Astartes Chaplain, and even less for a Grey Knight.
Grand Master Luchance looked down at Illinus from his lectern. "He has stellar marks from all other parties, brother."
"Those parties did not see what I saw," Illinus said.
"One of those parties is Stern."
Illinus laughed. "I remember Stern when he was a neophyte himself."
"And he's come quite a way since then," Luchance replied.
"Far enough to dictate our policy when he isn't even in the room?" Illinus scoffed. "Come now, Kato. Let us speak seriously. You cannot be considering the lad."
Luchance glared at him. "I am not given to jokes, brother. Neophyte 322984 has all the qualities we are looking for in a battle-brother. He is strong, fast, intelligent, resourceful. He obeys orders, prays faithfully, and his genetics hold a positive match for implantation. He has passed all the rites without fail. What trepidations have we to worry about?"
Illinus shook his head. "You did not see him, brother."
"Then recreate the moment for me." Luchance stepped down from his lectern and crossed the chapel floor, hands held wide. "Speak your concerns. I would hear them."
"He killed another neophyte during a sparring session."
"Yes, so I see." Luchance gestured to the lectern. "A boy older than him and further augmented, I see. Not the first time this has happened."
Illinus ignored him. "He was prompted to yield and lost control of himself. He fought the boy off and ran him through without hesitation."
"Some would call that a killer instinct," Luchance said.
"And some would call it bloody-minded rage," Illinus countered. "The boy is a poor choice."
Silence passed between the two super humans. Behind them, Jupiter spun on in silence.
Eventually, Luchance took a breath. "I am sorry, brother, but there is too much evidence to the contrary. 322984 is a worthy candidate and we cannot afford to be selective as of late. Too many neophytes are dying during the implantation. We have holes in the companies that need to be filled by compatible bodies. The cycle must continue." The Grand Master rested his hand on his brother's shoulder. "I hope you can understand."
As Luchance left the chapel, Illinus looked up at the mosaic on the ceiling: an image of the God-Emperor, standing beside his loyal sons. For centuries he had come here and looked upon this ceiling, drawing reassurance from its intricacies. Not once had it failed him.
Not once until today.
Outside the chapel, Luchance stood before seven neophytes. He motioned to four of them. "You, report back to your barracks." His ceramite fist indicated the remaining three. "You, follow me. Today begins the first day of your service to the God-Emperor."
He set off down the halls of Titan, and the young warriors fell into step behind him. At the rear of the line, 322984 allowed himself a small smirk of satisfaction.
The second wych died of overconfidence and blood loss. She came in at chest-height, driving her halberd toward him one-handed. It was bold but not nearly fast enough. Adamus turned her weapon aside and brought his own blade around, slicing flesh and bone, punishing her overconfidence.
The wych spun away from him, the stump of her blade-arm trailing a spout of dark blood. She slumped to the ground, her face a rictus of ecstasy as her life burbled out onto the baking bone sands.
Adamus ignored her and swung around to meet the last of her sisters. Zeruel collided with her kurve and sword, four edges locking together in a grinding tangle, the sounds of their struggle muffled by the roar of the alien crowd.
"Squad Illinus, with me!"
The drop pod doors blasted free and the Grey Knights were out, advancing in the deceptively nimble crawl of a fully-armored Astartes. They killed as they moved, cutting a swath into the Archenemy clustered before them. Chaplain Illinus broke a daemon's spine with his crozius and sent the creature spiraling back, blood leaking from its shattered body.
Brother Ornar, no less than a body behind the Chaplain, opened up with his wrist-mounted storm bolter, chattering death into the growling horde. His Nemesis halberd sang, slicing down and back out of the daemons, purity seals fluttering off its haft. Thick ichor of a thousand shades splashed and sizzled against his armor, the lifeblood of daemons burning at the touch of the pure.
"Into them!" Illinus bellowed, loosing a beam from his plasma pistol. The bloodletter before him vanished in a haze of vaporized warpstuff. "Ornar, cover my left!"
Ornar responded, blasting precise fire just over Illinus's shoulder guard. Ornar: the name still felt unfamiliar. After two decades of hearing only a number, the newly-bestowed name felt like a raw wound.
The squad pushed its way up a slow rise, killing its way into the horde. Before them, the teaming sea of hell; behind them, the broken remains of their first victims. Ornar looked only forward. Only to what needed to die next. He impaled a gibbering monster on the point of his halberd and brought it down, crushing its head beneath his boot.
Sidelong, across the drop zone, four hundred of their fellow Knights were similarly deployed—a grey front pushing the daemons back. Soon they would create a drop zone eight kilometers in diameter, to be followed down by the Thunderhawks and support vehicles of other Chapters. To their immediate left, scarcely three hundred meters away, Grand Master Luchance led a contingent of Terminators into the fray. The Grand Master's thunder hammer could be heard over the cries of the damnable, even from this distance.
Illinus saw it, too. "Come, brothers! Push!" he shouted.
Squad Illinus roared with him. Their bolters beat the daemons back, and soon they stood at the top of the ridge. There was a momentary pause, as if at the apex of a high leap, where Ornar was on level ground—the end of his push up and the beginning of the push down the other side. For that instant, he had a clear view of the valley before him, and the horizon beyond it.
The sea of the unreal stretched into the distance, a living organ of pulsating, pestilent flesh-things. The sky wept red, and fire under lit the clouds, turning the surface of the planet into a baking oven. In the distance, a great city lay in ruin, besieged by traitors. High-speed winds buffeted the valley, dense with the radioactive aftereffects of the Imperial Guard's last-ditch attempt to deny the enemy its victory.
Cadia was burning, Ornar realized. The Archenemy was winning. The Imperium would fall.
He was sure of it.
For the first time in his life, he wondered if it was a bad thing.
And then before he could think about it further he was down the other side and into the fray once more.
A roar split the air. Ornar looked up, past the dying plaguling in his grip, to see the avatar that had bellowed.
The bloodthirster strode toward them, stepping over the hordes of its lesser kin. Its whip dragged behind it, slicing blood from the backs of its subjects. The monster's axe swung beside it. Its bull-like head swiveled round, eyes locking with Ornar across the battlefield.
Illinus's voice boomed. "In war and abandonment, be thou my shield and my steed!"
The Cry for the Holocaust. Ornar joined in with the rest of the squad, their voices filling the inter-squad vox net.
"Be thou retribution, and I shall be Your hand in the darkness!"
Energy built up around Squad Illinus, faith made physical flame. It crackled across the ceramite plating of their armor, burned along the bodies of their weapons. The purity seals across Ornar's body turned to ash in the purging flame. Fire washed the ground beneath their feet.
"Light from the shadows, death from the dying, vengeance from the lost!"
The bloodthirster reared above them, axe held up against the burning sky. Beneath it, Chaplain Illinus charged up, crozius in front of him. The energy of the Holocaust built around his body, each member of the squad feeding their psychic forces into him.
"And from the void shall rise only the pure!" he roared, swinging up to meet the bloodthirster.
The Holocaust ignited, scouring the land in front of Illinus. The light was brilliant, the purging flame of the God-Emperor made manifest. It rolled across the land before Squad Illinus, scouring the ground and burning away the taint of Chaos. It was an impressive display of the Grey Knights' inborn talents, the gift that had made them the Imperium's final word against the Archenemy for ten thousand years.
It wasn't enough.
It wasn't nearly enough.
The last thing Ornar saw before the bloodthirster's hoof broke his spine was Chaplain Illinus spinning through the air, his body halved at the waist, still smoldering with the flame of his dying faith.
Zeruel hissed through the air, kissed flesh, drank blood, and continued on. Behind it, the last wych's body slumped to the ground, blood spraying from the stump of her neck.
Adamus stood back from his kill and looked up, across the arena and past the gantries of aliens braying their disgust that an outsider had killed three of their best warriors so easily. He focused on the figure at the end of the arena poised in her private viewing box like a spectral dancer, surrounded by her close retinue and private guards.
The War Captain sheathed his daemon blade. "Will you see me now?" he asked, the sound of his voice not reaching beyond the shrill of the crowd.
It didn't need to. The alien mistress stood and raised her hands. The noise of the crowd dropped away instantly—even raiders knew not to speak above their leader.
"The display is ended," she said, her voice carrying across the arena.
No further instruction was needed. The dark eldar stood and filed away, disappearing from the gantries like spirits. Above, the mistress's bodyguards vanished as well. Soon they were alone.
"Very well," she said, with no need to raise her voice. "Speak."
Adamus grinned. "I was hoping for a more private venue."
The alien spread her arms wide. "I see no one else, Legionnaire. A space shared by two is always private no matter the size."
"You have more clout than I remember," he said, stepping across the sands toward her. His boot tracked through a pool of wych blood, and left dark imprints behind him.
"We were associated a long time ago, Adamus."
"You were just leading raids then," he agreed.
The eldar shrugged. "That was then. Now I control all of this."
"All of the arena?" Adamus pressed.
"All of Commoragh," she replied. "All of it, from every hidden pocket dimension to the very jagged spires themselves. It is mine."
"And all its inhabitants call you master?"
"All those who matter, at least in public." She leaned against the banister and looked down at him; her body swathed in dark robes and contoured armor. Sinuous cables fed into the base of her neck and ran throughout one side of her skull, their black forms visible like worms beneath the pale of her face. They pulsated, shooting streams of narcotics into her brain. "I'm certain they hate me in private, conspiring and plotting my downfall."
Adamus frowned. "Will they succeed?"
Her laughter was hollow, painful. "Yes. I would not expect you to understand, but there is a saying in Commoragh: power belongs to the hungry."
"I'll assume that something was lost in the translation."
"The limit of your Gothic," she scoffed. "It means very simply that no one being is on top for long in this infinite city. Someone younger, stronger, smarter, or luckier will always come along and snatch it away. Or just give it back to Vect."
"I thought you would have killed him to get here."
The laughter came again. "No one kills Asdrubael Vect. You wrest power from him, yes, but no one tries to kill the old creature. To do so is a death sentence. You rule under his nose, with his power, but you do not kill him."
"I see," Adamus said.
"No, you do not." With a deft motion, she flipped airborne, corkscrewed in a flutter of robes and landed before him, sword in hand.
Adamus drew just in time, blocking and countering her thrust with a full-side kick. She rolled with the impact, slipped over his leg, and swung up toward his side. He blocked, locked her blade to his twisted pommel, and pulled her close.
"You still have your speed," he said.
"And you still have a clean face," she replied. "How is it a man so snared by Chaos can look so pure?"
Adamus ignored her. "You said that everyone on top in Commoragh dies eventually, but for your brief reign you have all the power imaginable."
"Then what do you plan to do with that power, Mezhriin? Use it to squeeze your anthill tighter and tighter until the kabals you've united slip out through your fingers and slit your wrists? And then what, as your power bleeds out of you? You squeeze tighter, grip failing, until your killers dance on your corpse and restart the cycle?"
Mezhriin smirked up at him. "Isn't that inevitable?"
She broke the guard, spun back and dived in again, sliding down and around him. He parried her along and blocked as she sprang up, twisting over him, blade flashing in the sickly light. She landed and stared at him, sword suddenly still at her side, as if the exchange of blows hadn't happened.
"No," Adamus said simply. "Not if you take up a cause."
"You speak of charity?" she asked, dryly.
"I speak of purpose. Of something beyond the constant thieving and senseless butchering your kind has been caught in for eons."
"Not senseless. We fight for ourselves, for pleasure and entertainment. Self-centered. The truest reason of all." The self-styled leader of the forgotten race turned on him. "Perhaps to goal-oriented failures like your fellow Traitor Astartes, that is hard to understand."
Now it was Adamus's turn to attack. Her words stung but his actions had no malice in them. The blows were conversational, as were here own—conveying the severity of their conversation. She blocked, and he turned the blade aside, plunging Zeruel forward with lightning speed.
He stopped the blade just a millisecond late, then pulled it back.
A drop of blood slid down her stomach. The blow was landed, his point made.
She stared up at him for a long time. "Tell me your scheme," she said finally.
Adamus Luchance sheathed his squirming blade.
"Very well," he said, and did.
"Why not kill him?" the voice was unnaturally deep and smelled of the warp.
The reply was softer, but only by comparison. It was still the gruff rumble of an Astartes. "There are plans to consider."
"Plans," the voice spat the word like bile. "What use have you for plans?"
"I would not expect you to understand, you who can fail time and again with an infinite supply of second attempts. Us mortals must work on certainties, and certainties require plans."
"You speak too much, Despoiler."
Brother Ornar forced his body to move, but his armor disagreed. The power pack was disconnected. He railed against the inert mass.
Something sliced through his neckline, clipping his skin and letting blood leak down around his collar. A hand raked across his helm and pulled it free. A flood of light splashed across Ornar's face, blinding him momentarily. When his vision cleared it was a vista of the Cadian sky that he found, a fire-red scar littered with the falling wrecks of ships. Fighters screamed overhead—and they did not look Imperial.
Cadia had fallen. For the first time since he was a child deep within the bowels of a black ship, Brother Ornar felt helpless.
"What is your name?" asked the monster above him.
Ornar spat on him. The film of blood burned the creature's skin.
The creature ignored him. "That was rude. Thankfully, I can read." He raked a talon across the gothic print along the armor's collar. "'Brother Ornar'. Not even a Justicar yet. No matter. We've caught bigger prey as well. Yev'i'kitzy'n?"
Behind him, a bloodthirster lifted Grand Master Luchance in one hand. The pennants hanging from Luchance's were gone, blackened in the fire that had engulfed him. The greater daemon dropped him on the ground next to Ornar. The Grand Master was alive, but only barely.
Ornar roared. Above him, his captor smiled.
"Anger. Good. You'll need that for your change," said Abaddon the Despoiler. He tapped Ornar's name plate again. "We'll start with this."
Author's Note: And that was the first interlude chapter. We'll be doing this every so often, to help show Adamus's side of things as he gathers allies of his own. I thought it important to go over his background a little bit. More of that will be revealed as well.
There have been a lot of reviews mentioning forgotten pieces of the story, and where they will appear. All of those will all be included at some point, from the Kroot Shaper to Amaranth Vilverin.
Even Green is Best will be finished, albeit with a truncated second-arc.
Also, I'm now running a Grey Knights army on table-top. Their new codex got me, even with all the broken-ass fluff. Running their new uber HQ is just too much fun. Paladins as troop choices? Yespleasethanks.
Next week we'll be back to our regularly scheduled Dogs. Thanks for reading.