Centuries ago, back when the Rome's Bull still ruled the world and Albion was the greatest of the five kingdoms, Londinium had been a metropolis to rival the Papal seat itself. It had stretched from horizon to horizon, rendering the bloated snake of the Thames into little more than a thin wrinkle in the endless cityscape. Here and there, it was possible to see where those proud buildings had once stood, elegant constructions of glass and steel now little more than rust coloured marks in the soil like ancient bloodstains, interspaced with heaps of broken masonry. Among the ruins, the facade of an ancient cathedral remained upright. The intricate structure might even have been defiant if not for the murky stains that adorned the sunken sockets of its windows like mournful tears for the city it had once watched over.
A man was seated in one of these windows, a leg dangling carelessly over the edge while the other rested against the head of a snarling gargoyle. Dark eyes scanned the horizon, alert but tempered with some less identifiable emotion. He sat motionless for a long time. Skeletal hands pulled his cloak closer around him despite the growing warmth of the rising sun. He continued to wait, his eyes hardening. Yet there was no impatience in his demeanour, only a crushing sense of weariness.
At last, they came.
The first was in the form of an Imperial Patrol Group. At its centre was a Temperance Pattern Cruiser, the two hundred metre long craft dwarfing the eighty metre long frigates that formed its escort. Heavy guns protruded from slits in the ship's dull armour and from angular turrets on the fore and aft decks. The frigates were more lightly armed with a single pair of heavy guns on the foredeck but their sides were studded with the ugly stub-nosed barrels of flak guns. The huge craft drifted over the city with deceptive languor, their crew wary of overtaxing the banks of D-Engines that kept the ships airborne. The Dimensional Engine was the first great discovery of the Papal Era and the all important catalyst to the then-fledgling field of Applied Theology. At every D-Engine's core was a tiny controlled Rift, a weeping sore in the fabric of reality that bled energy from other dimensions. Inexhaustible and efficient, the D-Engine's only major fault was the possibility of a Rift Incident if its capacity was exceeded, a worrying enough prospect that the crew of the small Imperial Navy group had their engines running at around half their safe speeds. The ships circled for a few minutes, their auspexes straining their augmented eyes as they searched for the slightest sign of life in the desolate landscape.
The second were longer in coming. The man's shoulders sagged slightly as he saw them approach, almost indistinguishable at this distance from a large flock of birds. The auspexes aboard the Imperial ships must have detected them too as the Temperance Pattern swung around, its guns already orientating to fire on the incoming swarm. Flashes of light lit up the ship's flank and, moments later, the rumble of its cannons reached the man's ears. He could just about make out the trails of the shells against the deep blue of the fleeing night. Then the trails ended in tiny puffs of smoke. There was the shortest second of stillness before flames erupted across the length of the swarm, the specks bursting into pinpricks of fire. The man twitched in sympathy for the distant swarm. The Imperials were using incendiary flechette shells, bundles of foot-long spikes with a self-igniting phosphorous coating. There were few uglier ways to die.
But the swarm did not allow itself to stop. Slowly, the tiny specks grew until they became humanoid figures, each borne aloft by feathered wings of brilliant white. The man watched them stream towards the ships. During the intervals in the Navy's cannon fire, he could make out snatches of song, high and pure. The man snorted at that, a humourless parody of mirth. He could see why the Imperials called the things "Angels".
The swarm was much closer now, close enough for the frigates to add their fire to the engagement. Smoke wreathed the craft as their flak guns fired, the crack reaching the man's ears seconds later. As the flaks fired, a huge swathe of the swarm fell out of the air. For a moment, the man wondered idly who would win. But then the swarm reached the ship. He could just about make out the figures of some Imperial Marines on the ships' decks; their movements were jerky like clockwork soldiers. Which was not far from the truth. The frigates fired again, this time at their own cruiser in an effort to knock some of the swarm off of it before they could break through the gunports. Sparks danced on the ship's armour like a firework show while the figures clinging to the ship's sides either fell or were rendered into blotchy stains on the cruiser's dull metal flanks. It was not enough. The Marines on the topdecks were swiftly overwhelmed, shredded by the inhuman ferocity of their adversaries. Barricaded hatches were torn open and a desperate melee began in the cramped passages of the Imperial ships. Soon after, one of the frigates began to list as its port D-Engine bank was overrun. The frigate tried to correct and one of the engines overloaded. For a moment, the frigate was lit from within by an impossibly bright light, streams of pure white radiance pouring from every gunport, every seam in its armour. Ammunition began to cook off, flak guns exploding one after the other and still the light would not fade. The cruiser began to accelerate away, the frigates following it in an effort to avoid a possible Rift Incident.
The man did not flinch as the light seemed to bend in a blatant disregard for this dimension's physical laws. The beam snapped like a whip, scything through the reformed swarm before flicking back at the stricken frigate. Armour plate parting as effortlessly as if it had been warm butter, the ship's nose beginning to bend forwards. The sound of tortured metal seemed to have little effect on the man who continued to watch with a look approaching tired indifference. The frigate fell apart, revealing...
Human eyes could not comprehend what was left behind, what horrifying abomination they had created for something so pathetic as a source of energy. It was immeasurable, resisting any attempt to fit it to logical dimensions of up and down, left and right. One could follow the lines of its rim and never once reach the point at which one started. And through that dreadful tear in reality itself, something else stirred. Something infinitely more terrible than the Rift. The cruiser turned. The swiftness of the movement could easily have shorn a lesser ship in two but the Temperance Pattern was built for manoeuvres like this. The armoured ram of its prow split open. Deep inside the ship, there was the unmistakable screech of super compressed metal. The thing seemed to turn towards the cruiser, the pupil of a huge baneful eye looking at the flimsy mortal contraption like human might at a small insect with its sting stuck in the material of the man's trousers.
The cruiser fired.
A three kilogram slug of superheated iron sailed straight through the Rift and impacted the thing beyond at five times the speed of sound. For a moment, it recoiled as if injured. The man could almost taste the hope of the Imperial crewman. But he knew it was a pathetic piece of optimism. Petty mortal things like pain or physical hurt were utterly beyond an Entity. With cruel slowness, it began to push itself through the tear. More guns went off, the frigates adding their paltry firepower to the fray. Shells exploded harmlessly on its body, the Entity moving through the fire as if the high explosive ordinance was nothing more than a light drizzle of rain. The Escort Grade Ionic Projector in the cruiser's hull fired again. The Entity did not move but at the same time its body seemed to flow around the projectile, alien flesh twisting in ways which violated every principle of the physical universe. Deep within the Imperial ships, auspexes clawed at their empty eye sockets as their minds broke like dry sticks.
Stripped of their auspexes, the Imperial ships were blind and their guns began to fire with desperate haste. Firing blindly, most of the shells landed in the ruins of old Londinium, churning up the ruins into even more twisted shapes. The Entity reached up and plucked one of the frigates out of the air. But of course, that was impossible. The frigate was easily five hundred metres up and the Entity was not that tall. Plus, the Resonance Drives which allowed the craft to remain airborne would instantly right the ship. It would not just limply hang there like a toy clutched in the hand of a child. But it did. The cruiser turned tail and tried to flee but those peculiar whip like appendages of solid light - an already grievous affront to the laws of Applied Theology - tangled it up and dragged it back towards the Entity.
The swarm continued to buzz around all of them and the Entity swatted at them carelessly before turning its attention to the two frigates still airborne. One of them was drifting listlessly, its bridge crew reduced to gibbering imbeciles after they had attempted to look at the Entity without the protection of autocensors. The other frigate was accelerating to ramming speed, the ugly metal prow pointed squarely into the body of the Entity. With a flick of its monstrous limb, the Entity knocked the straining cruiser into the path of the charging ship. The two collided with a sickening metallic crunch. The man turned away, sliding off his perch. As he did, he seemed to have heard something that made him stop. His previously exhausted posture tensed with sudden energy and his dispassionate eyes widened.
Behind him, the swarm caught up with the sole remaining frigate while the Entity contented itself with the badly damaged cruiser and the frigate in its grasp.
"His Imperial and Royal Highness Aleksandr von Hohenberg, Fifth Prince of the Imperial Crown!"
The assembled Custodians snapped to attention with a speed that belayed their bulky armoured forms. The young prince paid them no heed. He continued to stride down the majestic hallway, his footsteps echoing as his shoes ground into the ancient crest which was stamped on the steel floor.
He silenced Praetorian Bauer with an imperious wave of his hand and continued his journey down the corridor. Recognising the prince's dark look, the senior Custodian wisely stood aside. The doors swung open at his approach with a groan of antique mekanics, their tortured creaks doing nothing to lighten the oppressive mood. The door opened out to a balcony. The sky was the colour of blood, reflecting the eternal fires from the foundries of the Mekanics Guild. Beneath the balcony, New Eden stretched from horizon to horizon, its myriad of streets and alleyways almost hidden beneath a layer of black smog with only a few steel spires protruding from the poisoned haze. But none of this interested him. Let the Serviles rot in their self-induced hell. He was only concerned for one man, leaning on the balustrade with an infuriatingly nonchalant smirk on his lips.
"Good afternoon, Your Majesty."
He felt a mad urge to push the man off the balcony. It was well over three hundred metres down to the streets of the undercity. But even a Prince could not kill a member of the Teutonic Order, not without first proving a charge of treason and the man was too smart to ever let something like that happen. So instead, he contented himself with snarling a question.
"What is it?"
The Teutonic Knight raised his hand and gazed out over New Eden as if the endless metropolis fascinated him more than Royalty. The Prince's ears began to glow red, a sure warning sign. With a heavy sigh, the Knight turned and looked at him with cool unwavering eyes. The Teutonic Order owed its loyalties to the Church unlike the Custodians who were sworn into the service of the Mekanics Guild and the Royal Family. The two of them formed an uneasy alliance to produce the Imperial Guard, the vast military organisation that protected the continent's cities from the monsters and heretics which roamed the wastes. As part of this agreement, the Teutonic Knights were exempt from all of the rules and social etiquette of the other Imperial Organisations as long as they did not publicly contradict any of the Five Pillars. It also meant that they didn't need to show proper respect to anyone less than the Emperor himself. Hence why he was antagonising the Fifth Prince.
"How go your fencing lessons?"
The Prince snorted. Then his eyes gleamed.
"Unlike some of us, my time is better used doing something other than bashing other people with sticks."
Like learning how to rule an Empire of over five hundred million souls, he added within his head. To his dismay, the Knight barely seemed to have noticed the insult.
"Naturally, Your Highness."
That was the other thing he hated about the Knight - who was well on his way to becoming a fully fledged Paladin, something which irritated the Prince no end - was the way he could make even the most correct honorific into a show of condescension. Even the Prince's carefully pre-constructed insults failed to provoke a reaction, as if the man was wearing full battle armour. The Prince bristled. He had been waiting for a chance to throw the "bashing sticks" quip for almost a week!
Before the Prince could get even more riled up, Praetorian Bauer appeared on the balcony. He bowed as deeply as his servo-assisted limbs allowed him before speaking.
"Your Majesty, there is a message waiting for you."
"Thank you, Bauer."
The Prince nodded, regaining his composure.
"I will take my leave. As important as your presence is, one must maintain one's priorities."
And you rank last on my list of priorities, even behind Prelate Byzlosk on one of his nine hour sermons, the Prince added in his head. He hoped one day he would have the courage to actually say half of the things he stated in within the privacy of his own mind. With that, he turned on his heel and left the balcony, trying very hard not to turn around and check whether or not the Knight was laughing at him. He probably was.
He managed to make it to the end of the hallway before, like Orpheus in the books he read, he could not resist any longer. But the Knight was long gone by that point and all he saw was one final glimpse of the fiery sky before the heavy doors slammed shut. Shuddering slightly at the screech of un-lubricated gears, he turned back to the Praetorian who had called him.
"Bauer? You had a message for me?"
The Praetorian bowed his head slightly, his bulky form surprisingly graceful. The Imperial Palace was one of only two places in the entire uppercity where the Custodians were proper military models as opposed to gaudily armed dolls that most of the nobility decorated their estates with. Bauer was a Praetorian of the Palace Guard and that alone put him in the top thousand soldiers in the entire Holy Mekanical Empire with all the benefits and perks that implied.
"Actually, your Highness, I was under the impression that you needed a reason to remove yourself from our visitor's presence. I apologise about the misinformation."
Alek sighed. Was he really that obvious? Was he so outmatched in their ongoing battle of wits that his personal bodyguard felt compelled to pull him from the line of fire?
"You were probably right, Bauer. Thanks, I suppose"
They were approaching the Prince's chambers by now. As soon as they entered, the young Prince collapsed backwards onto his bed, scattering the books he had piled on it that morning. One fell to the floor, its pages opening to a diagram of a man almost completely suspended by strings like some strange puppet. The word "LEVIATHAN" was printed below. Bauer stooped to pick up the fallen document but Alek beat him to it. He ruffled carelessly through the volume, pausing once at a large print of a humanoid mekanical giant facing off against an equally large and monstrous construct with rows of beady insect-like eyes and a chitinous shell pitted with ugly scars. Then he tossed the book away to another end of his bed and rolled over onto his front, fixing his gaze on Bauer. He opened his mouth as if to say something but then turned away. The Praetorian was silent; very wise of him. Bauer may be one of the few people that the Prince actually trusted but he was not above the young man's wrath, especially on matters pertaining to a certain member of the Teutonic Order.
The young Prince rubbed his temples. He always felt bad when he snapped at Bauer, even if the man was only an Ascendant. Good, simple Bauer. No higher motives or hidden plans like the scheming ranks of the nobility. Just the bland servility of one who had accepted the Ascension surgery.
After a few minutes, Bauer left the Prince alone with his thoughts. Alek wanted to call him back but could not bring himself to even move off his bed. A great lethargy had overcome him and he could not even dredge up the energy to pick up one of his discarded books. So he just lay there, idly watching the smudge of light that moved beyond the thick factory clouds. He remembered reading somewhere that it was called the sun, a giant over-bright gas lamp suspended in the sky. What a ridiculous idea, he murmured to himself just before falling asleep.
Alek felt a hand on his shoulder. It was a fairly novel experience. No-one dared touch the Royal Body and even his dressing servants were careful to prevent their duties from impacting too greatly on his form. Yet the hand went further than merely touching him and actually physically shook him like some sort of doll! Alek's eyes snapped upon and he bit down the urge to strike the offender only after seeing the worried face of Bauer in the flickering candle-light. Suddenly, his anger changed to pure dread. There was only one reason that the commander of the Palace Guard would go so far as actually touch the Fifth Prince.
"What is happening, Bauer?"
Despite his very best effort, a hint of fear sneaked into his voice. He brutally suppressed the impulse and tried again in a much calmer voice.
"Why is this necessary, Praetorian?"
The Ascendant in question did not answer immediately. Instead, he walked over to a large tapestry on the wall and yanked it aside to reveal a heavy metal door hidden behind. There was the click of locks disengaging and the door opened. Enthralled, Alek moved from his bed, as pale as a ghost in his white nightclothes. At his approach, Bauer turned. His metal faceplate was down, concealing his features beneath a burnished metal sheet. Alek gulped. He had never really thought of Bauer as a Custodian for a long time. But now, silhouetted in the door way with his Thermal Blade extended and the black and gold armour of the Palace Guard bolted to his already impressive form, Alek could not help but feel a little intimidated.
Bauer's voice was an anguished hiss as he gestured at the doorway with his blade, the sides of which were already starting to glow red hot. Alek hesitated for a moment but then padded over to the door and swung it closed behind him. He was immediately bathed in complete darkness and hissed a curse at forgetting to grab a candle. He tried to push open the door to get one but only succeeded with opening a thin slit in the door that showed the back of the tapestry. He was about to call out through the slit for Bauer to give him a hand when the gaslights in his chamber flared to life, revealing the silhouette of his Praetorian standing in the middle of the room. The shadows played against the back of the tapestry like a bizarre shadow play as another figure walked into the room, much smaller than the hulking form of the Praetorian. Alek barely held in a cry as he recognised the new figure's voice.
It was Volger, the hated Teutonic Knight with whom he had exchanged insults not a few hours ago. But what were the Teutonic Knights doing here? Their loyalty was to the Prelates of the City who in turn answered only to the Emperor himself. He could not simply stroll into the Palace.
"The garrison at Byzantium has been overrun."
Alek's heart stopped in his chest. His father was commander of the Byzantium garrison. But that was impossible. Byzantium would not fall. It was the Citadel of the East, the greatest fortress between the Empire and the Rapine Storm. His father would not so easily cede the city. Unless...
Bauer's voice broke his concentration.
"I take it my master's death has already been confirmed."
Alek felt sick. His heart began to race and he was sure that Volger would soon be able to hear him, even through the material of the tapestry. Poison? To be laid low in such a cowardly manner...
"And now the Emperor has seen fit to end the rest of his nephew's family?"
"Even a boy can pose a threat, especially if the entire Eastern Fleet was loyal to his father."
"I see. But I will not allow you to hurt my master's son."
Alek could make out the flicker of shadows as Volger drew his own blade. Bauer attacked first, his augmented muscles giving him extraordinary speed despite his heavy armour. Volger danced out of the way, his shadow distorting as he dodged the incoming strike with terrifying speed. There was a clash of blades and then the two disengaged, their shadows separating to different sides of the room. They stood for a moment before attacking once more. Their movements were a blur, the strange shadow play utterly failing to do their duel justice as they parried and dodged with unnatural skill. Thermal Blade met Thermal Blade in a display of martial skill that Alek would have found engrossing had he been in any other position. Even as he was, he could not help but stare in horrified fascination as the two disengaged once more. When Bauer spoke, his voice was broken by gasps and Alek knew he had been wounded.
"You have earned your reputation, Knight-Commander."
Volger did not seem to reply but almost flew across the chamber and attacked Bauer with a sudden flurry of blows. There was a sickening crunch and Alek could suddenly smell an awful greasy stench like badly cooked meat. The bulky figure of the Praetorian collapsed backward, his right arm limp. Bauer's voice was even more strained as he cried out:
Volger chuckled slightly and Alek felt a surge of fresh hatred for the man who had so callously dismissed the death of his father and wounded his servant.
"I do not think you are in any state to tell me to flee, Praetorian."
"I told you to flee! RUN!"
The realisation hit Alek. Bauer was not speaking to Volger. He was... With one anguished glance at the silhouette of the closest thing the Prince had ever come to a friend, Alek took off down the dark passage, trying his very best to ignore the sound of Volger's Thermal Blade coming down with one final blow to the Praetorian's bowed head.