by Chris Cook

The pod had tracked its target for months, travelling from the moon Fall far into the heart of dark space, the Eye of Terror. It followed a trail of pain and suffering, psychic patterns branded into the immaterium as good souls were torn beyond breaking point. The pod's smooth carapace seemed eyeless, but its sensors were among the best Mars could produce. It followed, as days became weeks, and weeks became months, never tiring, never slowing. Finally, ultimately, its target would stop, and it would find her.

Inside the pod the assassin slept, unaware of the passing of time. He knew when he woke it would be in a terrible place, but such places he had visited before. He was no ordinary assassin. The six temples had worked the raw material of his mind and body, turning him into the perfect killer. He alone could go to such places, and do what had to be done.

No-one saw the pod arrive, and even if someone had they would have thought nothing of it. A falling star, glowing briefly in the night, was among the more mundane sights to be seen in the sky over Eden. It bore into the ground, carving a furrow several hundred metres long in the soft earth. In its wake the soil bled slowly, like a great animal wounded and left to die. The assassin saw none of this as his eyes opened, seeing the last fraction of the pod's casing slide open, revealing stars above. He stood, ignoring the sighing of the wind in the trees and the sickly sweet perfume on the air. In the distance, just visible, a silhouette speared up into the night. He began to run towards it, his mind already beginning the task of organising the goals he had to achieve before the night was gone.

"My Queen," said Intueri, his voice slightly distorted. Sylelle faced her champion, turning her back on the softly-glowing stars beyond the balcony. Intueri was one of her favourites, and it showed. His lips were pierced by tiny chains which wound through the flesh, pulling it back from his pearl-white teeth. It gave his voice a rasping drawl that she enjoyed. But she sensed he did not bring good news tonight - his bloodshot eyes had that twitching look in them, as if he was secretly hoping to be quickly struck dead.

"What ails you, tender one?" she asked, reaching out to grasp the coils of chain around his neck, drawing him just a little closer.

"My Queen," he repeated, "the southern Temple has been attacked. One man, alone, the survivors said. The altar is destroyed, the keepers dead."

"An attack," Sylelle said, as if it were nothing, "here?" She suddenly tensed and hauled the giant marine off his feet, throwing him to the ground with such force the marble beneath him cracked. She stood over him and slammed a heel down on his unarmoured chest, her anger satisfied a little by the sound made by his ribcage fracturing.

"My Queen, I beg of you," he gasped, "the attacker was no mere man, he was like a daemon! Five dozen or more of the temple guardians died by his hands in less than a minute, I saw the bodies myself!"

"He was powerful, so that gives him the right to challenge me?" she demanded, grinding her heel into the champion's broken chest. Intueri had no answer, merely a choked sob as blood bubbled up from his throat. The sorceress bent down over him, keeping her heel steadily crushing his lungs, and ran her fingertips down his face, cupping his cheeks.

"Oh I know, it's not your fault," she said, suddenly sorrowful and tender, "but the temples are places I enjoy. Many fond memories, and the anticipation of seeing them again makes the long journeys out to the worlds where I play bearable. I do hate to see them damaged, after all the merry hours I have spent on the altars, making my prayers to the Lady. And when I am angered I must find solace in that which pleases me." She ran a finger over Intueri's corrugated lips, coating it with his blood. "You do understand, don't you?"

"I live to please you," he slurred, pausing to cough up a fresh gush of blood.

"I know, tender one," she said, "I know. And now you will die to please me. I have often enjoyed the touch of your lips," she sighed, twisting her heel, hearing a bone crack, "isn't it fitting I will taste your last breath through them?"

The assassin leapt from the shadows, firing the Exitus weapon strapped to his left wrist as he kicked another marine to the ground. His right arm finished the creature below him, a phase sword cutting it cleanly in two, as a third pushed the headless victim of his opening shot aside, only to stagger as the three blades of the assassin's neurogauntlet opened his chest cavity. In the assassin's mind a counter edged upwards by three, nearing its goal.

It was hours later, and a messenger had arrived in Queen Sylelle's audience chamber. He was a menial from the palace that served the world as spaceport, not used to her presence, and he had been ill-advised enough not to offer some token act of self-mutilation to calm her before reporting the destruction of three cruisers, the victims of catastrophic reactor failure, likely the result of sabotage.

He was now stretched out in mid-air, arms and legs chained to four of the six pillars that rose organically out of the mosaic marble floor. Sylelle stretched out on top of him, the combined weight of their two bodies slowly pulling his limbs out of their sockets.

"I know what is happening," she said, carefully slipping an ornate metal sleeve onto her forefinger, giving it a razor-sharp scalpel for a tip. "You see, my lovely creature, there are many in this galaxy who would consider me a monster. I know, it defies belief, but they believe the grey monotony of their lives is better than the paradise I offer. They would rather live out the span of their lives in ignorance, a dim glow to be extinguished without a trace, rather than burn bright at my touch, consumed in a fire that will be remembered for all time."

She paused in her dreamy monologue, slicing a tiny cut into the chest she rested on, greedily licking up the blood that seeped from the shallow wound.

"They send their servants to trample over our gardens, deny our pleasures," she went on, pausing every now and then to repeat the procedure, "in the hope that they can douse the flames we light, so that none will ever know of us. Soon this one will come to me, but for now..." she trailed off, digging her steel-clawed finger deeper, eliciting a scream from the bound servant.

"Oh, hush," she said, "you wouldn't deny me this simple pleasure while we wait?"

Now the silhouette rose in front of the assassin, a beautiful fairytale castle, torches burning on its battlements, filling the air with a husky incense. He paused, making sure he was hidden from view, and closed his eyes, the sound of his slow breathing joined for a moment by the hiss of an injector. As the trance deepened his shape began to change.

Six daemonettes bowed and approached their Queen, their long claws clicking on the marble, a complement to the rattle of the chains that snaked from their pincer-like hands to the necks of the struggling slaves they dragged behind them. Sylelle surveyed the captive warriors, noting the marking on what remained of their uniforms. Her gaze rested for a long while on a pale figure whose ragged coat marked him as a Commissar. His eyes drifted around aimlessly, as though his mind was elsewhere, but with the proper technique he could surely be drawn back to his immediate surroundings. She raised a hand, pointing him out.

"That one," she said, "have it cleaned and readied. You too," she added with a grin, surveying the daemonette that held the Commissar's chain. Her gaze drifted from its naked form to another of the creatures, this one dragging a bloodied man whose torn robes still bore the marks of Tzeentch.

"You, remain here," she said, waving the others away. The doors to the audience chamber swung open of their own accord as the daemonettes dragged their charges away. Sylelle circled the robed prisoner, then took his hand and raised it to her cheek.

"I'm sorry I can't enjoy you," she said, "but I have other matters to attend to." She pursed her lips and blew a kiss as the sorcerer. He was hurled back across the chamber, slamming into a column with bone-shattering force, falling to the floor like a rag doll.

"Well," the Queen said, turning away from the lone daemonette, "aren't you going to do what you came here for?"

Behind her the creature changed, its oiled skin vanishing, replaced by black synskin, its limbs bending, its features dissolving into a plain mask. Without preamble the assassin leapt forward, firing his Exitus weapon at the sorceress' back. The bullet, a turbo-penetrator, entered the back of her neck cleanly and blew it apart on exit, showering the floor with blood. Before she had had time to fall he rammed the phase blade on his other hand through her back, a foot of the blade emerging from her flat stomach and dragging upwards through her heart. At the same moment the neurogauntlet closed around her head, its three claws tearing at one side of her face, forehead, eye and cheek all sliced open. It had taken less than a second.

The assassin pulled the sword free of her body, which crumpled to the ground as soon as he uncurled the gauntlet from around her head. An internal check clicked over to 'mission complete'. He looked down at her, noticing something strange. He bent down and turned her head slightly, revealing the undamaged half of her face. The blood-coated lips were curled upwards, just slightly. The assassin shook his head. Surely, he thought, not even a worshipper of the pleasure god could have enjoyed that?

"Oh, but I did," said the shattered face, turning to gaze with its one eye at him. "Such strength, such brutality, such sweet agony, but over so quickly..." she trailed off as the assassin leapt back, falling into a combat stance. The sorceress slowly got to her feet, her wounds closing by themselves, leaving only the blood and torn leathers as evidence of their existence.

"What is it," she asked, "after such a stimulating start, you are unwilling to go another round? You have destroyed my altars, slaughtered hundreds of my elite warriors, and destroyed fully half of my pleasure cruisers, and yet you shy away from this final assault? Oh, silly me," she said with a chilling giggle, "you must want me to take my turn, of course! Well, it shall be quite some time before my servants can rebuild my fleet and my places of worship, so we have time to ourselves. Such a talented creature as you, we shall have such a joyous honeymoon here, you and I. Come to me," the doors of the audience chamber slammed shut, "let us complete our worship of my Lady Slaanesh. You have had your turn, now I will have mine."

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