by Chris Cook

It began with a small thing, in a valley between two rivers. The sun shone one day, when it had rained for several days, and would again for several more. But on this one bright day a boy named Jeremiah took advantage of the sudden fine weather to try his hand at sport with some of the other children who lived in the town in the valley. He enjoyed the games, and when next the sun shone he played again, and in time, as he grew, he became strong and fast. When he was able he served his mandatory term in his world's defence force, and finding soldiering to his liking he enlisted in the permanent army, a source of pride to his father who had done likewise many years earlier. And, nearly twenty years after his birth, it came time for the great Imperial Guard to take the best from the army, and Jeremiah was among them.

Had it rained that one day, perhaps none of this would have happened. Jeremiah was not given to such thoughts, and looked to the challenges ahead without thought of what might have been.

The voyage of the Elvayn 97th Regiment had been fast and trouble-free, so that their transports arrived in orbit of Desolation Prime a mere week after departing their home system. Corporal Jeremiah Akyn marched with his squad, inwardly marvelling at the giant Hexathedral as he stepped onto it. Behind him, towering like a vast building, the transport had already begun undocking, the smaller Devourer dropships sliding smoothly out of their bays to touch down on the Hexathedral deployment platform. The Hex' itself, known as the Citadel of Light, was the greatest single building Jeremiah had ever seen. It dwarfed even the giant Temple of the Imperium that had overlooked the planetary army's training grounds, its huge steel towers stretching higher than the mind could comprehend. Above and around it, separated only by an invisible shield, the blackness of space extended to infinity. Jeremiah's squad took its position alongside thirty others that were to board the dropship Silver Shield, which lowered gently onto the platform with a minimum of firing from its thruster jets.

As he stood waiting, Jeremiah looked into the distance, where far away he imagined he could see a glitter of steel, another structure in orbit of Desolation. As he watched a great light shone for a second, then vanished. A few seconds later he felt a rumble through the soles of his boots, as the platform shook. The huge macro cannon had fired, he realised - while the 97th's transport had been approaching the Hex' he saw the massive gun underneath it, silently aiming towards the surface of the world below. Another salvo of shells, each as large as a starship, was now on its way down, in preparation for the Regiment's landing.

A few moments later the dropship was open and prepared, and Jeremiah followed his squadmates up the ramp to its upper deck, catching a glimpse of the rows of Chimeras and battle tanks on the deck below. Once inside he took the seat assigned to him - 127, he remembered, the number had been drilled into him while on the transport ship - and strapped himself in. When the last buckle of his harness was secured a tiny green light lit in the ceiling above his head. He glanced at his lasgun, locked into the weapons rack by his side, and offered a quick prayer in the moment before he heard the rumble of the dropship's engines.

While the manoeuvring thrusters tugged him gently one way and another, pulling the dropship away from the Hex' and onto its descent course, Jeremiah closed his eyes and reviewed the briefing his squad had received on the transport, one last time. Landing will be in a secure area. Deploy as standard, establish communications with blue platoon, red company, Kaslon 188th Regiment holding second line position Tango Epsilon. Relieve blue platoon, take up defensive position, await further instructions. Estimated time of next attack on heretic stronghold at Tango Alpha: four weeks.

The dropship began to shake, and a dull noise built from a hum to a roar outside. Jeremiah had never been off-world before this assignment, and found himself unable to bring to mind an image of what the dropship was going through, plunging through the upper atmosphere, shields white-hot with friction. He simply kept his eyes closed, imagining the smooth deployment of his squad, fifth to leave the dropship on landing, taking up forward right position, heavy weapons ready in two minutes. The imaginary troops filed silently and precisely into position as the roar quietened to a mere bellow, and the shaking in the deck almost vanished. Long strips of red light appeared on the ceiling, running down between the rows of soldiers. Three minutes to landing. Jeremiah began counting silently to himself.

Two-fifty-seven, and a resounding thump marked the touchdown of the Silver Shield on Desolation Prime. The buckles of Jeremiah's harness fell away, allowing him to stand on legs that were only a little shaky. He took his lasgun, feeling its familiar, reassuring shape and weight, and followed his sergeant. As he marched down the deployment ramp he could see the four squads ahead of him, one heading forward over the grassy plain, one each to the far right and left, the one immediately ahead veering off to forward left. Behind him he heard engines starting, the familiar drone of Chimeras, and the ominous thrum of the tanks.

The sergeant moved to one side as he stepped off the ramp, ready to address his squad as they filed past. His mouth opened just as Jeremiah first set foot on the soil of Desolation Prime, but just as the familiar beginnings of his loud voice emerged he doubled over. In the instant it took Jeremiah to wonder what was wrong a thunderous explosion washed over him from behind, and he threw himself to the ground instinctively. Something heavy passed over his head, he felt the wind, then there was fire and screaming. He looked up to see the sergeant, pinned beneath a jagged boulder of metal. Ignoring the storm of chaos breaking around him he reached for his sergeant's arm, to pull him free, but when he pulled there was no resistance, and the man's upper body simply slid away from the wreckage, spilling entrails behind it. Jeremiah turned away, falling flat and fighting the urge to retch, then he looked up.

Above him the dropship was in flames, a huge chunk of its open prow missing, torn away as if by some great hungry beast. All around him were men, dead and dying, victims of the rain of shrapnel from the first blast. He saw some staggering, but could see no-one in command, no semblance of order. From within the burning ship came the sharp cracks of exploding ammunition, as the remaining tanks and transports destroyed themselves in the fire. Jeremiah grasped his lasgun tightly, his knuckles white, and turned away from the ship, hurrying forward to where the first squad had been. From the smoke billowing around him he managed to make out an upright figure, which turned out to be Belasch, a young man he had befriended in training. He too looked lost, but behind him were a couple more soldiers, and he waved to Jeremiah, beckoning him closer.

"What in Terra's name is happening?" he yelled over the noise. Jeremiah shook his head, his gaze darting about him, trying to make out more of the suddenly vicious landscape.

"Sarge is dead," he answered, "who's in command?"

"I can't find the Lieutenant," Belasch shouted back, "I think he's gone, I had radio with squad three-"

He broke off as a new sound leapt across the wasteland, a jagged rattle like someone snapping sticks. On its heels came a shrill whine, and Belasch leapt forward and bore Jeremiah to the ground. A dark shape passed overhead, too fast to see properly, then Belasch was rolling away and Jeremiah struggled to his knees, cursing the sharp fragments of metal he had landed on. He saw Belasch raise his lasgun, then fly backwards as if pulled on a rope, landing with his chest perforated by bloody holes. Jeremiah turned, firing blindly in the direction the attack had come from, but he was rewarded only with the sight of his shots blasting harmlessly on the armour of a sleek vehicle bearing down on him. All he could properly make out was a curved prow, sharp at its tip like a knife, widening out further back with dark shapes crouched behind it. The bow wave of the vehicle's passage knocked him to his back as it flew overhead, and the next thing he was aware of was the sudden presence of more people around him. He fired blindly again, then dropped his lasgun as a bolt of pain seared through his right side. He twisted his neck to look behind him, catching a glimpse of a thin figure wearing a tall helmet decorated with blades, its eyes glinting a ghostly green. A blow from behind dropped him flat on his stomach, he heard someone speak, something he could not understand, but in a tone of voice that clearly spoke of disgust, then something cracked into his skull and he knew no more.

His next memories were disjointed, fragments of reality, images and sounds that seemed like a dream. He felt wind rushing against his face, and opened his eyes to see an armoured leg in front of him, another of the thin figures standing over him, looking somewhere else. He couldn't move, and his left eye seemed reluctant to open, as if glued shut by the blood he felt on his skin, half-dried. Then, with his eyes closed, voices talking, angrily. A burst of light that reached him even through his closed eyelids, causing him to wince painfully. Next a tunnel, walls of lightning passing slowly by as he was carried by some vehicle. Groans of pain from nearby. Another burst of light, this time shocking him into brief awareness, so that he saw the lightning tunnel vanish, replaced by grim steel walls, with an oily black sheen. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of the thin creatures, some with their helmets off - they looked human, but thin, some of them with features too elongated to be human, others quite normal. The pain in his head forced his eyes shut again, and the next thing he felt was cold hands gripping his limbs, carrying him a short distance and throwing him down. His head made painful contact with the floor, cold like stone, and he had only a moment's impression of shapes moving in the darkness before unconsciousness claimed him once more.

Jeremiah awoke slowly, and painfully, and wondered if he had forgotten to open his eyes. It was a moment before his eyes adjusted to the dark, and he could make out the vague shape of a wall in front of him, the tiny amount of light there was glinting off the edges of the slick black stones. He lay still for a moment, hoping the pain in his head would ease, but it seemed that he had no choice but to endure it. He turned over, feeling the dried blood peel away from his skin as his face left the surface he was lying on. He was in a cell, he saw, with a large number of others, he could not say exactly how many in the poor light. Some of the nearest he could see relatively clearly - one wore a uniform he recognised, a Kaslon - the regiment he was to have relieved. Another wore only rags, too dirty and tattered to tell what the clothes might once have been. A figure crouching by his side turned to him.

"Thought you'd be awake soon," the man said, in a toneless voice, "you looked strong enough. Better get up, they don't like us lying down too much."

"Who are you?" croaked Jeremiah, as he levered himself uneasily up until he sat opposite the man.

"Doesn't matter," he replied, casting a glance over Jeremiah's shoulder.

"Are you from Elvayn," Jeremiah persisted, "do you know what happened to the regiment?"

"Never heard of the place. Guardsman, were you?"

"Elvayn 97th, Corporal Jeremiah Akyn-"

"Shut up!" the man barked suddenly, his voice low but harsh. "Look," he continued, his voice softening a bit. He stabbed a finger out, and Jeremiah turned to follow it. The wall behind him, which he had thought lost in gloom, actually opened onto a corridor of some sort, separated from the cell by steel bars running from floor to ceiling. The space outside the bars was, if anything, gloomier than the cell, but Jeremiah thought he saw a figure stir in the darkness.

"They're always there," said the man quietly, "and they listen. You'll never hear one of them speak a word of Gothic, but they understand it all right. You want to stay alive, you remember that. Every word you say, the masters hear. So you don't ever speak your name, or the name of anyone else here. You understand?" Jeremiah shook his head, wondering what sort of place he had been brought to.

"Look, I'll make it simple," said the man. "You're property to them, right? Property doesn't have a name. That's simple. If you say different, you're telling them they're wrong, and they don't like that. Not at all. If you feel like being some hero, I don't care, but I'm not going to die just because you've got a rebellious streak. No name. Got that?"

Jeremiah nodded, and cast another glance over his shoulder. He couldn't make out any shape in the darkness, but he'd heard nothing moving outside, so he assumed the watcher was still there.

"Where are we," he hissed, "are we still on Desolation?"

"That a planet somewhere?" asked the man. Jeremiah nodded. "No, we're not there. Good name for this place, though, but that ain't it. You ever heard of the Dark City?" Jeremiah shook his head. "Commorragh?" the man tried, but again his words fell on uncomprehending ears.

"What'd you do, grow up on a farm?" he mumbled. "Never mind. You know the eldar, right? Well thanks the Emperor for that," he exclaimed softly when Jeremiah nodded - he had heard of the race, human-looking but alien in thought, untrustworthy. "This is where they come from," the man explained, "near as I can tell the masters go out from here to anywhere in the galaxy they want, and bring back things to play with. Us, other aliens, doesn't matter much to them. I've been here six weeks, I've heard talk of combat grounds where they get the ones they collect to fight each other, and their own warriors. Or worse - that'd be quick, I suppose. I've seen others taken, and worked into these... things, like zombies, some of the masters use them as servants or something. They starve us, they keep us locked down here, they wait for the weak to die. Those that live, they keep. Maybe for fights, maybe just to kill later."

"Why?" asked Jeremiah. He had never heard of anything so horrific, let alone believed such a place could really exist.

"Why," snorted the man, "because they can. Because they enjoy it. I've seen 'em come down here, masters and a few of their warriors, just picking people out of the cells and killing them on the spot. No reason, they just want to."

"There must be some way out!" demanded Jeremiah desperately. The man raised his hand as if to strike him.

"You shut up! You forgot what I said already?" He relaxed a little, his hand lowering. "They hear everything. They know everything. I reckon, next time one of the masters comes down here with their knives, you go sit by the bars and get their attention. That's the only way out."

"Holy Terra," gasped Jeremiah, "what's going to happen? I mean, what do they keep us for?"

"Whatever they want," answered the man levelly. "As to what's going to happen, sometime sooner or later they're going to feed us, probably sometime soon. You keep away 'til me and the others've had our share, then take whatever you can get. Don't go leaving any for the sick or anything, there's no point. Then there'll be no trouble, get it? That's what's going to happen."

In fact they were not fed soon. Jeremiah found he had little sense of time in the dark cell, but as best he could guess it was a day before a pair of thin eldar figures emerged from the shadows and stood before the bars, several of which vanished up into the ceiling to create a doorway. The two stepped through, and Jeremiah saw that one of them carried a slim container. One of the prisoners, a ragged, desperate-looking man whose face was marred by deep half-healed cuts, scrambled on hands and knees towards the pair. As he neared them the lead eldar struck, a look of utter contempt creasing his angular face as the whip in his hand lashed at the human, opening a fresh cut across his cheeks and causing him to fall flat to the ground, wailing and whimpering in turn. None of the other prisoners moved.

The other eldar took a step forward and up-ended the container he carried, letting its contents, a sort of slimy, pallid-looking meat, fall to the stone floor. Then he turned and left, followed by his companion. The latter turned on the threshold of the cell, looking again at the crying figure spread on the ground, and again lashed out with his whip. This time, however, the weapon did not cut, but wrapped with mechanical precision around the man's neck. His hands leapt up to stop it choking him, as he was dragged across the stone. While his companion looked on the eldar pulled the struggling man part-way through the gap in the bars, so that his chest lay in the space beyond. With the same speed they had vanished the missing bars lowered again, three of them punching through the man's stomach.

The two eldar laughed a little, then turned and vanished into the shadows as the man coughed up blood, his hands weakly gripping two of the bars, his legs kicking for a moment until he lost his strength. For several minutes he continued to breathe, a wheezing, coughing sound that grew steadily worse until it slowed to a few ragged gasps, and finally died. In the meantime most of the food had been claimed by the remaining prisoners, leaving a few scraps for Jeremiah and the only other newcomer able to move. They all sat with their backs to the bars, unwilling to look at the body, or meet each others' eye.

It was five more days, or at least what Jeremiah guessed to be days, before he saw anyone besides the guards and his silent companions inside the cell. The dead man had vanished at some point while Jeremiah had slept - all that remained were patches of dried blood. The other prisoners seemed unwilling to communicate, and he guessed that the man who had spoken to him had done so only in order to keep him from inadvertently incurring the wrath of the masters. Now they simply sat, those who could leaning up against the walls, others huddled on the ground, shoulders hunched over. They slept like this, for fear of the guards - at one point Jeremiah had awoken to hear a crack, and saw a man who had fallen over in his sleep scramble away, his back cut open, as a guard outside the bars aimed a whip at him again. The guard struck him once more, across the shoulders, then disappeared. After that Jeremiah always made sure his elbows were braced against his knees, stopping him from falling to one side or the other, before he let himself begin to fall into dreamless sleep.

The newcomer was an eldar woman, who stopped outside the bars with an entourage of warriors behind her. Several of the prisoners had looked up upon hearing her approach, the steady clicking of her heels against the stone surprising compared to the silent movements of the guards. They quickly averted their eyes upon seeing her, and Jeremiah did likewise, trying to watch out of the corner of his eye. The boots, which continued to click against the stones as she paced to and fro, ended at the tops of her thighs, flexing as she moved but glinting like steel. Around her waist was a tight belt, also seemingly made of metal, from one side of which hung a selection of thin blades and hooks which rang against each other softly, like wind-chimes. A jewelled collar ran around her neck, with tiny eyes of green glittering from their setting among twisted strands of silver. She wore no other armour, but from the neck down she was covered with a shiny black material, which seemed in the dim light to conform to every curve of her body. Her face was alien, thinner and finer than a human, but so far as Jeremiah could see she looked quite young.

She turned to one of her warriors and nodded, and the bars slid up again, allowing several of them inside the cell. Some of the prisoners made a furtive effort to disappear into the corners, but the warriors ignored them, calmly unrolling their whips. Three of them lashed out with the weapons, pulling them back to drag three choking prisoners back with them. The woman watched in silence as they were pulled out of the cell, then glanced back through the bars, looking at each of the remaining humans in turn. She tilted her head to the side and spoke to a warrior behind her, then watched as he entered the cell and let the coils of his whip drop to the floor. Without looking he struck out at Jeremiah, the thin, cold lash wrapping around his neck before he could recover from his surprise. His hands leapt up, trying to pull it free, as he was jerked onto his back and dragged across the stone. He couldn't breathe at all, and white spots were flashing in his eyes when he saw the tips of the bars above him, retracted into their holes. He had a sudden vision of them striking down, ripping through him, then they were gone and the coils loosened a little, enough to let him gulp down a breath of air.

He was pulled to his feet, then the warrior holding the handle of the whip walked in front of him, seemingly paying him no attention. As the whip straightened it tightened again around his neck, and he found himself forced to stagger forwards in order to breathe, following his captor through the pitch-black corridor. He had a vague impression of more cells on either side of him, each filled with huddled, silent figures. Then there was only darkness, the back of the warrior ahead only a dim shape, direction provided only by the repeated jerks on the whip around Jeremiah's neck. He wondered how the eldar could see - were they adapted to such conditions, he wondered. Would strong light harm them, or frighten them? The warriors were silent, as the cell guards had been, the only sounds in the dark were the gasps of Jeremiah and his fellow prisoners in the moments when the coils holding them loosened enough to allow them breath, and the steady clicking of the woman's heels on the stone floor behind them.

After a long series of corridors through which they were impatiently guided by the warriors, Jeremiah and the other three humans were herded into a space that seemed larger, though no less dark. With painful suddenness a series of lights cracked into life above them, causing all four to fall back to the ground, their arms wrapped protectively around their heads. It was a moment before Jeremiah was able to lower his hands and squint at the space around him, trying to avoid looking into the harsh beams that lit him. He was in some sort of laboratory, he guessed - the room was filled with bizarre-looking machinery, and several metal slabs resembling operating tables. Unbidden, a detail of the floor made itself noticed to him: below each table were shallow grooves, channels to drain away whatever might spill during the course of... whatever was to come. A voice was speaking off to one side of him - the shock of the sudden light had caused him to ignore it until now.

He turned his head slightly, seeing a pale figure standing on the edge of the circle of light. It seemed to have no aversion to the light, which fell across its shoulder on the left side - nor, Jeremiah noticed a moment later, did the warriors who were facing the huddled humans. One more faint hope died, as he discarded the thought of a potential weapon against his captors. The new alien had his attention, and he studied it with a morbid fascination as it conversed with the woman. It was eldar, the thin features and pointed ears confirmed this, but it seemed a nightmare compared to the coldly graceful beings he had so far seen. Its skin was grey and leathery, so badly scarred that the individual lines blurred into a texture like rotten meat. Those areas of skin that were exposed, the head, arms and chest, were criss-crossed with thin tubes, some metal, some transparent with fluids churning through them, plunging beneath its skin and reappearing elsewhere. Its legs were hidden by a thick, heavy robe on which were traces of blood and other unidentifiable liquids. From its belt hung a variety of exotic implements - saws, scalpels, drills, pliers, syringes, others that Jeremiah could only guess at. Its right arm vanished at the elbow, covered in metallic plates that curved inwards towards the wrist, where its flesh was visible again, stretched across the metal. Its hand, more like a claw, was backed by an intricate series of rods and tubes, each finger ending in a silver needle, which on the inner edge was sharpened like a razor. The thumb, which curled back on the claws, scraping and clinking against them, was tipped by a tiny pair of blades set against each other, like scissors. Jeremiah had no idea whether the hand was fashioned as a weapon or a surgical tool - he guessed it might serve as either with equal efficiency. As the creature raised its arm and pointed vaguely towards the human prisoners, he caught a glimpse of vials of liquid beneath the metal plates, perhaps linked to the injectors on each finger.

The horrible creature listened to the woman for a moment, then nodded humbly, like a slave. The whip around Jeremiah's neck suddenly grew tight again, and an armoured boot slammed into his back between the shoulder blades. Choking for air, his head was pulled back while the boot pressed forwards, baring his chest. The torturer eldar stepped in front of him and raised its clawed hand, digging it without ceremony into Jeremiah's chest. He jerked against the whip, trying to scream, at the four points of intense pain, then his vision went blank. He remained conscious just long enough to feel cold hands grip his arms and legs, lift him up, and deposit him on a cold metal surface.

The lights brought him back. For the first time in days he had dreamed - that he was home, in the valley between two rivers. The grass was soft beneath his feet, the sun warm on his skin, a breeze blowing through the scattered trees, rustling the bronzed leaves. Then the sun became brighter and hotter, until he opened his eyes to find himself under a harsh spotlight, secured at the wrists and ankles on a cold metal slab. He looked from side to side, but could see nothing. Looking down the length of his body he saw his stained uniform was gone, replaced by a thick material, beginning at a high neckline just below his jaw and ending only at his knees and elbows. Some areas - the tops of his thighs, his shoulders and his back - had hard plates underneath the material, like body armour.

Before Jeremiah could wonder at the meaning of this, the spotlight clicked off and a new source of light appeared beyond his feet, a thin line that grew to become a doorway, as a section of stone wall slid silently upwards. Beyond was blinding light and a deafening roar, almost painful after the tranquillity of Jeremiah's dream. He felt a shudder run through the slab he was bound to, as it began to tilt forward, lifting him into the space left by the opening doorway. He came to rest upright, with a smooth, curved wall on either side of him. As his eyes adjusted he realised where he was: 'combat grounds where they get the ones they collect to fight each other', the man in the cell had said. That was where he was now, a giant theatre built around a circular fighting pit. Above were rows upon rows of eldar, cheering and shouting, their voices mingling into a steady roar. Here and there were private boxes, where obviously wealthy eldar sat, alone or in company, surrounded by heavily-armoured warriors. Above the sky was a deep red, pulsing like slow waves in the ocean. Holograms flickered above the arena, showing enhanced views of the pit. Jeremiah caught a glimpse of his own figure, strapped to the wall of the arena, his thin body armour glistening with a purple tinge as well as the reflected red light from the sky.

He lowered his eyes to the ground in front of him, suddenly alert. His first thought was the terrifying notion that he was merely a piece of scenery for some battle to be fought - that he would be held, immobile, until he was cut down by accident as the fighters moved close to him. But as soon as he had the thought the restraints holding him slid away, leaving him to fall to his hands and knees on the sand floor of the fighting pit. He quickly regained his footing, searching for his opponent.

The pit was largely open ground, but here and there were strange growths of a black crystalline substance, warped geometric shapes jutting up from the sand, obelisks and columns. Looking past them Jeremiah saw another two humans, attired as he was, the three of them equally spaced around the circular outer wall. As they moved he saw their suits were different from his - both dark as his was, but one red and the other green as they reflected the sky's light. While Jeremiah stared at the other humans, waiting for some sign to tell whether they would attack, the air darkened in the middle of the pit, and a column of night formed. Light seemed to fall into the strange disturbance, making it darker and darker until it was completely opaque, then it scattered like mist, leaving a bulky form in its place. Jeremiah recognised the shape - although he had never seen one, he knew what it was that drew a sudden cheer from the crowd. Standing easily nine feet tall, as wide across the shoulders as two men, staring in turn at the frightened humans from evil red eyes: an Ork.

It flexed its huge hands and lumbered towards the human in red, who darted to one side, putting one of the obelisks between himself and the oncoming ogre. The Ork let out a bass bellow, which was amplified by some invisible system so that it echoed around the arena at such volume that the sands danced for a moment beneath Jeremiah's bare feet. It side-stepped the obsidian shape and lunged at the human, but he was at least as fast as the beast, and stayed out of reach.

"Hey!" Jeremiah turned from the horrifying spectacle to see the other human, the green, nearby. He tensed, wondering if the man was insane enough to attack him, as if he were the enemy, but his next words dispelled that fear.

"You want to live? Come on! Fight!" Jeremiah sprinted nearer to where the man was alternately watching him and the Ork, which was chasing the red man. For all its size it couldn't change direction quickly, and the man was keeping distance by darting from side to side between the columns. Jeremiah reached the green man and pointed to the Ork as it grew impatient and roared again, thumping a massive fist into a column by its side.

"That thing? We can't fight that!"

"What else," demanded the man, shouting in desperation, "how long can you run? Either it dies or we do! Now fight, coward!"

The man's words stung Jeremiah into action, and together they started towards the great creature, keeping roughly behind it. Its attention was still focused on the red man, who was losing ground as he tired. As Jeremiah neared it the man stumbled, and in that second the Ork was on top of him, kicking his legs out from under him. Before the man could scramble away the Ork brought one massive foot down on the backs of his knees, crushing the bones and muscles into the sand. The man screamed and twisted his body, trying to drag himself away. With a chuckle that carried across the arena the Ork reached down and took the man's torso in both hands, pulling it slowly up while it kept its foot firmly pressed down. The man howled as his mangled knees tore, then again as the Ork lifted him above its head, arms thrashing wildly. It held him up for a moment in one hand, blood dripping onto its face, then calmly coiled the fingers of its other hand into a fist and punched him in the body with all its strength. Held around the chest, the man's body simply folded in half under the force of the blow, creating a shower of blood and bone as his stomach tore open. The roar of the audience rose another notch as the Ork turned the twitching body over so that the head lolled into its wide-stretched mouth. With a sudden crunch it closed its jaws, crushing the man's head to pulp. The cheering peaked as it let go of the mangled corpse and spat it out to the ground.

With the creature distracted admiring its gruesome handiwork, Jeremiah leapt from the top of a slanting obelisk, landing with bone-jarring force on the Ork's back, his arms snaking around its forward-sloped neck. It roared, as did the crowd, and tried to reach behind itself, alternately scrabbling with its clawed fingers and swinging its closed fists. Its own muscles thwarted it, though, its huge shoulders simply did not allow it to reach Jeremiah in his current position. It paused for a moment, making an almost comical grunt of confusion, then turned towards the wall of the fighting pit. As it began to lumber forwards Jeremiah realised it meant to smash him backwards on the wall, and began heaving at its neck, trying to cut off its windpipe. He was having no success through the creature's thick hide, but at that moment the green man darted in behind the Ork's legs and smashed both fists into the back of its right knee.

It bellowed, in anger more than pain, but it dropped to one knee, temporarily forgetting the human attacked to its neck. Standing again it turned to face the green man, who dashed frantically to one side, trying to keep out of reach of its swinging arms. He was too close, Jeremiah saw, it could only be a matter of seconds before one of the swings connected, and one hit was all the Ork needed. Desperately, he let go of the Ork's neck with on arm and curled his fingers, striking down where he thoughts its eyes were on the misshapen head in front of him. He felt something soft break beneath his fingertips and the Ork straightened, almost throwing him off, and let loose a deafening roar. Jeremiah clawed in the eye socket, tearing out the remains of the tattered orb, then reached across its face, aiming for the other eye. His fingers scrabbled across its leathery cheek, then the Ork spun around and Jeremiah lost his grip, his other arm slithering out from its hold on the creature's neck. He landed on the sand, rolling once before his back struck the base of one of the obelisks. He opened his eyes to see the Ork bearing down on him, swinging its arms back for the death-blow.

It never came. The green man, obviously intent on the same trick as Jeremiah had managed, launched himself up at the Ork's back, scrambling to get his arms around its neck. With the Ork stretched to its full height it was too much, though, and the man fell back to the sand as the creature spun around towards him. With no time to get to his feet the man tried to push himself backwards with his legs, but the Ork leapt forward, landing on its stomach with both hands clamped securely around the man's calves. It stood up again, turning back to Jeremiah who was unsteadily on his feet, and swung the man's body around like a weapon. Jeremiah barely had time to see the attack coming, and he was flung out into the centre of the arena, landing awkwardly. When he tried to get to his feet again he felt a stabbing pain in his chest, a broken rib, perhaps two or three. The crowd had ceased its cheering and had taken up a unanimous chant, a single word over and over, which Jeremiah could not understand. The Ork dashed the struggling human against the nearest column, swinging again and again until the corpse in its hands was an unrecognisable mass of twisted meat. Then it came for Jeremiah, glaring savagely from its good eye.

A single voice echoed over the arena, and even with the immanent danger of the Ork, Jeremiah could not help but look up to its source. In one of the private boxes an eldar had stood - the same woman who had selected him from his cell, he thought, although it was hard to be sure at such distance. She threw a glittering object towards Jeremiah, and it landed neatly between his feet, a thin, long-bladed knife with a silver blade and obsidian handle. At the exact moment it landed there was a sound like a hundred swords being unsheathed, and the arena suddenly gleamed with bare metal. From the black columns and obelisks, seemingly solid, rows of vicious, barbed blades had emerged, turning each into a tree of sharp steel. The Ork slowed for a moment, surprised, while Jeremiah scooped up the knife at his feet and ran. Directly behind the Ork, unseen by it, one of the obelisks gleamed with razor-sharp points.

In the moment when the Ork was looking to its side, at one of the suddenly-lethal obstacles, Jeremiah struck it squarely in the chest, one elbow thudding into the Ork's scarred skin, the other arm driving the knife up into the soft skin beneath its jaw. It instinctively closed its arms in a bear-hug, cracking several of Jeremiah's ribs without effort, nearly causing him to black out. With a last heave he thrust the knife further up, feeling the tattered edges of the Ork's skin touch his fingers. The Ork bellowed, cutting its jaw further open, and staggered backwards. It suddenly stiffened, and the crowd's noise died into a sudden hush. In the eerie silence Jeremiah heard the Ork let out a soft groan, then the pressure of its arms lessened, just enough so that he could breathe. The creature's legs held for a moment, then collapsed, and its body slid backwards on the blades impaling it from behind. Jeremiah, still loosely held in its arms, screamed as half a dozen points cut through the Ork's chest and stabbed an inch into his body. He thrashed in the Ork's hold, finally kicking himself free and landing in a crumpled heap on the sand. Still the crowd was silent, and Jeremiah imagined he could hear a lonely breeze whistling across the desolate sands. He lay still for a moment, then slowly dragged himself to his hands and knees, trying to resist the urge to cough. As he rose the crowd erupted into a frenzy, chanting again. It was the same word, Jeremiah realised - had they been chanting for him before? Or were they calling for his death again? He felt the strength drain out of him, but before he could collapse again the air around him darkened, and the arena vanished.

For a while Jeremiah heard only the sound of his breathing, slow and steady. Then a faint hiss, a cold sensation on the side of his neck, and his eyes fluttered open. He jerked upright, nearly colliding with a figure leaning over him, and his hands flew to his chest, trying to stop the bleeding from his wounds. Only when he felt soft, dry cloth instead of blood-soaked armour did he realise he was no longer in the arena. His breathing slowed again, as he felt around inside the loose tunic he was wearing. There were no wounds, not even scars, where the blades had dug into him. He inhaled deeply, cautiously, but there was no pain from his ribs as his chest expanded. His muscles felt relaxed, not cramped and sore as they had since the beginning of this nightmare. He had been lying, and was now sitting, on a bed of some sort, small but soft and comfortable. It was only then that he remembered the startled figure that had leapt out of his way as he had sat up.

She was a young eldar woman, perhaps twenty years old, although for the long-lived race she could have been twice that. She looked quite human, but for her pointed ears, and her eyes which were a shade of blue more vibrant than any Jeremiah had seen. Her hair was fairly short, golden blond, all swept across to her right side where it reached almost to her shoulder, mostly straight but with a few thin braids among it. She had just recovered from her shock, and now walked calmly to the foot of Jeremiah's bed. She wore a long robe made from a very thin black gauze, transparent at the edges, but where it folded over itself it became quite opaque. Her legs were outlined beneath the fabric as she moved, then her arm as she raised it to place a thin tube on a table. It was clear, and about half-full of a light blue liquid. It looked like an injector, but there was no needle, only a touch-pad. Jeremiah realised it must have been the cold he felt on his neck.

"What's that," he asked, his voice a little unsteady.

"This is a neutralising agent, for the sedative you were given after your performance. You were kept unconscious until your wounds had been treated and had time to fully heal." She spoke Gothic, with an exotic accent but quite fluently.

"How long have I been asleep?" Jeremiah asked, swinging his legs down to the floor.

"A little over ten human hours," she answered, returning to the side of his bed. Ten hours, he thought, and not even a scar. He looked around, taking in his surroundings. He was in a small room, sparsely furnished but comfortable enough, certainly compared to the cell. There were a couple of chairs, a few small tables, and thin crystals mounted on the walls gave off a soft, warm light. Through a doorway he could see another room, similarly lit and furnished. Unless the exit was in the other room, there didn't seem to be any way out.

"Where am I," he asked, "am I a prisoner? What do you want with me?" Who are you?" The woman held up a hand, silencing Jeremiah's stream of questions. Now that she stood closer, she reminded him oddly of a girl he had known once, at home.

"One question at a time," she said. "You are in the Ice Palace, the domain of the Kabal of Lost Souls and the Lady Nemesis. These chambers have been fashioned for your use, and you will find everything you need here. You are the property of Lady Selyna, Master of Warriors to the Lost Souls. Your performance in the arena pleased her such that she arranged for you to be housed here for the time being, instead of being returned to the catacombs. You will remain here until you are next called upon."

"Called upon? For what?"

"To fight, of course," she said with a little smile. "You have proven your skills already. It is unusual for a captive to survive his first bout, but now that you have done so it is hoped you will prove entertaining for some time. In the future you will not find the odds so heavy against you. I was honoured to accompany Lady Selyna during your bout, I know you will fare well in the future."

"And you," began Jeremiah, "you're one of this Lady Selyna's servants?"

"I am Aerin. I belong to Lady Selyna, and serve as her handmaiden. I am to see to your welfare and health while you remain here."

"You belong to her," repeated Jeremiah, "you mean you're a slave?"

"Of course," she answered with a quick laugh, "we are all slaves."

"Were you always a slave, or were you captured?" Jeremiah had decided to learn as much as he could about his surroundings, once he had confirmed that there was no immediate way out of the rooms. Not even a sealed doorway - he guessed that exit would be via a teleportation device, like the one he assumed had brought him in. That made sense: no matter what he did, he wouldn't be able to break out. Aerin seemed content to talk with him. She seemed quite at ease with the situation, at being confined with, from her point of view, an alien. He worked his way through the food she had procured from some sort of synthesiser unit in the other room.

"I was born the property of Lord Carrecuana," she said - her accent slipped easily around the alien syllables. "I served the Kabal of Lament until Lady Nemesis took control four years ago. By right of succession I became servant to the highest-ranked of the Kabal of Lament to serve Lady Nemesis, Lord Surahk, who was Master of Warriors. As part of his estate my life became the property of his daughter, the Lady Selyna, when she became Master."

"She succeeded her father," interrupted Jeremiah, trying to keep track of the shifting ranks and names, "the title is hereditary?" Aerin looked puzzled, as if she did not understand the word. "I mean, Lord Surahk's title went to Selyna because she's his daughter?"

"Oh no," Aerin said with a stifled giggle, "what an archaic concept. No, she acquired his title and estate by right of murder." She said it without a hint of feeling, as if it was the most natural thing to happen. Jeremiah blinked as his view of the strange city shifted towards the darker side.

"And me," he continued after a moment, "I belong to Lady Selyna as well?"

"As an outsider," Aerin explained patiently, "you are the property of the Kabal of Lost Souls, and therefore Lady Nemesis. By her leave, individual outsider slaves are available to her lesser Lords, as befits their rank. In the arena you fight under the banner of Lady Selyna, but you remain the property of the Kabal itself."

"And she wants me to fight for her," Jeremiah finished.

"By her authority you appear in the arena. Whether or not you fight is your choice."

"Some choice."

"I see you do Lady Selyna a disservice. She does not intend for you to die - if she so wished, you would be dead. No-one is placed in the arena without a chance of victory. The fact that you are an outsider does not weigh against you - our people enjoy seeing the strong and cunning prosper."

"But ultimately," Jeremiah countered, "I'm just fighting for your enjoyment. Fight or die."

"Is it so different to being a soldier?" Aerin asked. "You were part of your people's army, did you never kill?"

"That's not the same," Jeremiah protested, "I joined the defence force for my home. To protect my people, not just to kill for someone's enjoyment."

"And the world you were taken from," said Aerin calmly, "the one your people call Desolation, was that your home?"

"No, we were sent there to-"

"And did the enemy on that world threaten your home?" continued Aerin.

"Not directly, but-"

"How is it different, then? Just because your superiors decided it should be so, you were willing to fight, kill and perhaps die on a world alien to you."

"For my people," Jeremiah insisted, "what affects one world affects us all, that's how it works."

"And did your leaders take any care to see that you would have even a chance? Would they shed a tear to see your life extinguished without warning? Here you have a chance, always."

"But I didn't choose to be here," protested Jeremiah, "you aren't my people. I don't want to kill for you!"

"You are the property of Lady Selyna. You say you are not of our people, but what closer bond could there be? And she does not order you to kill. You do so of your own free will. You have done so already."

"The Ork-"

"Does it matter? Would you kill an Ork, but not a human? Your war on Desolation was to be against humans."

"How can you stand it?" burst out Jeremiah finally, "how can you stand to be a slave?"

"I assure you it is no hardship," Aerin answered, "look at me." She stood and held her arms wide, inviting his eyes to examine her. Her black gauze robe stretched tight across her body, revealing it in detail.

"Do I bear the signs of abuse? Do you see the marks of a whip on my skin?" She spun around so that Jeremiah could see her back - smooth and unmarked. She turned back around, resuming her seat beside Jeremiah on his bed.

"I am well fed, clothed, kept in comfort and given duties within my abilities. I need not fear unjust treatment from my Lady, nor the unwanted attention of any from other Kabals. I am her property - an attack on me is an attack on her, and she will not stand for that. I am protected from harm, and live content. Why should I be free? Free to starve, free to be hunted and killed, free to fall prey to any savage who wants to hurt me? Is that the freedom you so praise?"

She stood again, seeming a little agitated, and began to pace around the room. Jeremiah found himself a little distracted, as her quick movements unknowingly pulled her robe against her limbs, revealing them beneath the material.

"I have travelled far at my Lady's side," she went on, "I have seen much of your Imperium. I have seen battlefields littered with the corpses of entire populations. I have seen great steel cities where millions live in conditions that, here, not even an outsider would face. I have seen death, disease, famine, war... I have walked upon ground sown with the bones of billions, whom no-one even remembers, or could say why they fought, or which side won. Such senseless waste..." Her voice trailed off, as she stopped and stared blankly at a bare wall.

"I'm sorry," she said, returning to Jeremiah's side, "I should not trouble you with such thoughts. You need rest. Do you desire intercourse before you sleep?"

The question caught Jeremiah off-guard, such that he almost mumbled a 'no thank you' before his brain caught up with his ears.

"What? No! I mean, no, I don't," his words stumbled over one another, as Aerin's face fell in disappointment, and perhaps a little hurt. Jeremiah felt oddly embarrassed at having refused her so abruptly.

"I'm sorry," he tried again, "it's not that I don't appreciate... I mean, you're not unattractive... under other circumstances... but no, it's just... no. Thank you."

"I understand," Aerin said with a smile, "your ways are different to ours. Would music help you sleep?" Jeremiah nodded, relieved to have the topic changed so easily. He had expected Aerin to activate some playback system, but as he lay down and made himself comfortable on his bed she disappeared into the other room, returning to kneel by his bedside. She began to play a small flute, a thin silver instrument with golden decoration, producing a soft, slow melody. Jeremiah felt tired, and guessed that the after-effects of the sedative he had been given had been concealing the weariness in his limbs. The music was very tranquil, and he found himself entranced by it, a simple tune that was at once lonely and hopeful, like a single tiny candle all alone in the vast night sky. For the first time in what seemed like years, Jeremiah fell asleep slowly and calmly, untroubled by nightmares.

"Human. Human, wake."

Jeremiah drifted towards awareness slowly, reluctant to give up his rest. The shade beyond his closed eyelids told of morning sun outside the window, and his bed was warm, the mattress hollowed slightly to conform to his shape.


Opening his eyes, Jeremiah wondered for a split second where his room had gone, why the wooden ceiling and faded blue paint had been replaced by featureless walls and a young woman looking down on his face. Then he remembered - Desolation, the eldar, the fighting, Aerin - and closed his eyes again with a defeated sigh. A gentle hand rested on his shoulder.

"You should get up now," Aerin said. There was a playful reproach in her voice, as if he had slept in until midday. He rolled onto his side, away from her.

"Jeremiah," he said, rubbing his eyes, "my name is Jeremiah. Not 'human'."

"I must address you as I do," Aerin said, "you are an outsider, though a favoured one. Your status does not permit you that name."

"Time to fight again," he said, flatly.

"Later, now it is time to eat," she replied.

Jeremiah found his stomach agreeing with the girl, and slid his legs to the floor. Aerin had laid out a set of clothes for him, trousers and a loose tunic that left his arms bare, which he changed into while she disappeared into the adjoining room to wait for him at the table there. The food was unlike the varieties of plant and meat he knew, but some of the tastes were not dissimilar. He noted that Aerin's plate was lightly filled compared to his. "Not hungry?" he asked. A part of him wanted to behave as if he were still caged down below, in the dark, but the girl's manner was such that it was difficult to play the prisoner.

"We need less to eat than you," she explained, pouring herself a glass of some sort of juice from a crystal bottle, "and our bodies can process foods higher in energy than yours. This," she held up a piece of something like bread she had been nibbling on, "would put you in need of medical treatment were you to eat it. Your food was balanced to your requirements," she added, seeing him glance at his own plate.

"You said I'd fight today?" Jeremiah asked apprehensively as he finished the meal.

"Not yet," said Aerin, "later you will appear again in the arena. I will prepare you, your opponent is known to me." She paused for a moment, toying with one of her thin braids.

"He is called Egan," she went on, and her voice seemed almost unsteady. "He is what you would call a soldier, one who fights in the armies of his Lord in return for his position in the household. His appearance in the Arena is not his Lord's will, but his own. He wants to make a name for himself as a fighter there, in order to be accepted as a Wych."

"A witch?" asked Jeremiah, confused.

"Wych," corrected Aerin, her voice forming the difference in the sound perfectly. "The gladiator class among us. Wyches belong to their Queens, she being the equivalent of a Lord among them, and the most deadly fighter. Wyches perform in the Arenas, and sometimes in true battle. But Egan is not a Wych, so you need not judge him by them. He is slower, more brutal. He takes his pleasure not from perfection in combat but from inflicting pain-" she suddenly broke off, turning quickly away. Jeremiah stood uncertainly, unsure of what to do. As he slowly rounded the table he saw Aerin's face, always so calm, streaked with tears. He crouched down beside her chair, looking at her questioningly.

"What's the matter?" he asked, aware of how inept he must sound. Aerin looked down, away from him for a moment, and gathered herself with a deep, shuddering breath.

"I apologise," she said in a heavy voice, "I should not burden you so... my duty is to your comfort and preparation, not..." She lapsed into silence for a moment, then looked up at him, a little strength returning to her stare.

"Egan is not unknown to me," she said, keeping her voice level with an effort that wasn't completely hidden. "There was a time when our Kabal was weaker than it is now, before the arrival of Lady Nemesis. We were then the Kabal of Lament, household of Archon Lord Carrecuana. I was property of Lord Surahk, who was Hierarch to the Archon. The Lord's influence was waning, and grounds had been lost to other Kabals. Though property of Lords, those of us who ventured away from the household fortress were not immune to outside forces, as it was not certain that retribution would follow an attack on a Lord's property. Such was the fate of the Kabal of Lament then, that vengeance against a greater Kabal was thought too costly, even at the expense of injury or death among a Lord's property, and the loss of status of such an unpaid debt of blood.

"Egan was one among the predators who preyed on us. I was alone, on an errand, and unable to escape his pursuit when he chanced upon me. I don't know why he didn't kill me - he had done so before, and has continued to do so, on occasion. He chose instead to make other use of me-" her voice broke, and she paused to regain her composure.

"You don't have to explain..." began Jeremiah.

"I do," Aerin insisted angrily, "my behaviour to you must be accounted for. I am not merely here to serve you food, I am responsible for your life at all times outside the Arena. If you are found to lack nourishment or companionship, the fault is mine; if you come to injury here I will be held accountable; if, for any reason, you cannot take your place in the Arena when my Lady requires it of you, I will pay the penalty. I have behaved improperly towards you in allowing matters of my own to intrude upon you. I must explain myself. If you cannot understand this," she said, her voice softening, "accept it as our way." Jeremiah nodded mutely, unable to reply.

"I must explain," she repeated, more to herself. "Rape is the word you would use, though in your language it conveys only the personal injury. You do not, perhaps, understand what it is for us to be without the protection of a Lord's household. Even the lowest menial worker of our people is sheltered in this way, assured that they will never be harmed without reason. You believe us cruel, and perhaps in your eyes we are, but we have our ways in which we live. But at that time I was outside such conventions. My life, everything I had been and might become, rested in the hands of a creature who had no claim to me, whose only right," she spat the word, "was in being stronger. In your terms, imagine if all you had ever held true was proven a lie, and then combine that despair and shame with... with what else he did to me. The memory of him enjoying... my pain.

"I returned to my Lord, hurt but alive, but as I said no retribution was taken. With Lord Surahk's death the debt is considered dead also, by our laws. Lady Selyna has no right to demand vengeance against Egan, so long as he shelters himself behind the protection of his Kabal." Her voice became stronger, steadier, as she went on. "Twice before Egan has issued challenges to the Wyches favoured of my Lady, to remind her of the unpaid debt, but as he is not himself a Wych they are bound not to answer such a challenge. He has now challenged you. My Lady has asked of me that you be made ready. She may not say such a thing openly, but she wishes Egan dead by your hand."

"And you?" asked Jeremiah warily. Aerin's expression was difficult to read.

"I have remembered for five Old Years," she answered, "I am tired of remembering. I will do all I can to see you safely through your meeting. Time runs short. Come," she said, rising and crossing the room to a small table, from which she picked up a tiny device, hardly larger than one of the slim hand-held radios the Imperial Guard had been issued. Jeremiah followed, eyeing the device warily.

"This will not hurt," Aerin assured him, turning back. "Remain still." She untied his tunic, opening it to his waist, and pressed an invisible button on the device's side. A tube slid out of it to a length of three feet, only as thick around as her slim fingers. Holding the device at Jeremiah's waist above his left hip, she drew her hands out around his waist, pulling two paper-thin black straps from the thing's sides as she went, forming a belt which she fastened. Jeremiah tried to ignore the feel of her arms around his body, as she had to press against his front to reach behind him. Once secured the belt straps felt as strong as the toughened leather belt of his old uniform.

"This is a keeper, what you would call combat drugs," she explained. "In battle it will enhance your senses and release you from fatigue or pain. Outsiders like yourself are traditionally required to fight without such things, but they are permitted. In light of your value to Lady Selyna she has allowed this unit to be fitted to you. Remain still."

Quickly, before Jeremiah could react, she pressed the tip of the long tube to his navel. Jeremiah felt a slight sensation of pressure, painless but unusual, then felt no more as he watched in amazement and anxiety the tube move inside his torso until it pulled taut against the keeper at his waist.

"Do not fear," Aerin said soothingly, closing his tunic, "I know this is a new experience for you. There will be no pain or harm. Sit and relax," she advised, leading him to the bed where he sat. She gently pushed him down onto the bed, seating herself on the side.

"The keeper is adjusting itself to you," she said, "your responses are different to those of an eldar. It will not begin to affect you until it has adapted."

Jeremiah nodded, keeping still. He felt a cold tingling in his fingers and toes, which spread up his limbs to his chest. It was unusual, but not uncomfortable exactly, and after a moment it faded away again. He blinked a couple of times, feeling his eyes water for no apparent reason.

"It is done," said Aerin, "come. You may feel some disorientation, but that will quickly pass."

With her help Jeremiah sat up, feeling suddenly dizzy. The room in front of his eyes seemed to blur and swim, then suddenly, as he let himself be moved to the edge of the bed, everything before him snapped into perfect focus. The colours and textures of the room were revealed to him - thin crystalline veins in the walls, tiny ripples in the floor from a carving tool perhaps, the grain of the wood of the bed, the weaving of the cloth that covered him. He could smell the remaining scraps of food in the next room, his own meal familiar, Aerin's new and spicy, and closer her own perfume, soft, passive, unassuming, reminiscent of the calm scent after a thunderstorm. Through her fingertips against his wrist he could feel her pulse, judge her heartbeat - slower than his, almost by half, and perfectly even in comparison to his own, in which he could feel the minute variations of tempo as he breathed in and out.

"You feel it now?" Aerin said. Jeremiah could have placed her exactly with his eyes closed, from the sound alone.

"I feel it," he said, his voice hoarse.

"Good," she answered, "there is not much time. Upon leaving here you will know nothing until you enter the Arena. It is not permitted for an outsider to walk freely among our people, but no harm will come to you while you sleep. You will find yourself armoured, and armed with the blade my Lady gave to you during your last appearance. To this I add my blessings." She seemed almost apprehensive - Jeremiah could hear her breathing coming a little faster, catching in her throat just the tiniest bit.

"Good luck," she whispered quickly, leaning close to his ear, as if afraid of being overheard, "good luck Jeremiah." Everything went black.

The Arena was as Jeremiah remembered it, now that he came to see it again. With his eyesight enhanced he could see the fine channels in the obelisks from which the blades had sprung last time. The holograms overhead were now all focussed on him, and he found he could distinguish one from another easily enough, giving him different views of himself - an advantage, perhaps. As he now saw he was clad again in armour, but this time more ornate and sturdier, solid metal plates coloured deep purple set over a bodysuit of pure black. He tested his movement and found it unrestricted, even on his right side where the armour was heaviest, covering his shoulder and leg. The metal was lighter than anything he had known before, and made no sound as one plate moved against another. Sheathed at his waist was the knife he had used before, its blade polished to a near-mirror finish. As he drew it the black handle seemed to pulse softly in his grip, and he felt some slight warmth against his skin which he put down to the alien material from which it was made. At the sight of the weapon a roar went up from the crowd, and a sound like a siren echoed across the sandy Arena floor.

By the opposite wall a column of black was forming, another transport device like the ones Jeremiah had already seen used. When it had gone it left a single warrior, armoured in blazing red. Jeremiah gazed at him, and he returned the stare, each sizing up his opponent. The warrior was an eldar man, of only average height by his race's standards but wide in the shoulders. His hair was close-cropped, black with touches of dark blue at the sides, and over his face was a tattooed design giving his skin the appearance of being covered with scales. His eyes were pale green, filled with anger and adrenaline so far as Jeremiah could judge the nature of his alien thoughts from what he could see. So this is Egan, he thought - he remembered Aerin's tears, and found he could imagine this alien face being the cause of them. The eldar's armour was heavier than Jeremiah's, composed of blood-red plates set over a deeper red bodysuit, covering both sides of his body evenly. In the centre of his chest was a single jewel, almost transparent with only a faint touch of red to it. He seemed unarmed - arrogance, Jeremiah wondered to himself as the alien took a few steps forward, beginning to close the distance between them. He moved quickly but with a slight unsteadiness, lacking just a little of the grace Jeremiah had seen in all the eldar he had encountered so far.

"Cho e ku sa tula!" Egan yelled, throwing his arms wide and crouching down. The words were unfamiliar, but the motions made Jeremiah think of an animal challenging a rival. He started forwards himself, keeping his blade low as he had been taught in Guard training - it seemed so long ago. As the cheers from the crowd built to a crescendo the two came within a few feet of each other, each watching the other's eyes.

"Cho ra ne tosk!" growled the eldar, spitting on the ground. Jeremiah looked at him, studying his face, and as the alien spoke he saw it crease into a mask of hatred - his eyes burned red, his mouth twisted into a scowl, his nostrils flared as if he resented breathing the same air as a human. Jeremiah's own eyes narrowed and he shifted the blade in his hand, gripping it tightly, ready to strike.

"Tosk!" repeated the eldar, quietly, and Jeremiah suddenly understood the word, filled with malice and loathing: 'slave', the eldar had said. On top of his fear and anger piled the indignity of being called such a thing by a creature such as this, a loathsome predator who delighted in the pain of his victims - it became too much.

Jeremiah lunged, his limbs answering with a speed they had never possessed before. Egan barely avoided the stab at his chest, darting sideways, not quite fast enough to prevent the tip of the knife striking a spark from the metal on his arm. Jeremiah regained his balance quickly, effortlessly, bringing his knife arm in front of his stomach to deflect Egan's clenched fist, feeling the jarring of the blow but no pain. He reversed the knife in his hand to slash again, but not quickly enough. As he struck Egan parried with his arm, causing a shower of sparks from his armour but taking no injury. A great roar from the crowd filled the Arena, but Jeremiah paid it no notice.

Jeremiah's training, so long ago, fought against the instincts that told him to close in and kill the alien at once. Reluctantly he held back, allowing his opponent to move first, trusting his enhanced reactions to spot the next attack. It was not long in coming - Egan feinted at his head then lunged, two-fisted, at his chest, obviously hoping to catch Jeremiah with his blade out of position. It might have worked but for the keeper, which alerted Jeremiah to the weakness behind the first attack, and made him ready for the second. Raising the knife as if to block a head strike, he instantly slashed it downwards as Egan punched, feeling a satisfying thrill as it cut deeply into the alien's flesh. His ears were assailed by Egan's scream as he jumped back, clutching his wrist. Given the moment to observe his work Jeremiah saw the eldar's left hand hanging limp, half-severed below the edge of the armour on his forearm and certainly useless. Bright red blood gushed from the wound, running between the fingers of the other hand that grasped at it trying to deny the pain. Egan stared at his hands for a moment as if shocked - Jeremiah imagined he saw the thoughts in his mind, the disbelief that he could be hurt by a mere human - then he yelled an inarticulate challenge and charged, his good fist clenched tightly, the injured arm ready to block a counterattack.

Jeremiah stepped back from the first attack, then parried desperately as Egan leapt into the air, both legs whirling past him in a kick that might have killed him had it made contact with his head as it was aimed. He slashed at Egan's limbs but hit nothing, then stabbed blindly as the eldar landed, clutching at his arm as if to wrestle the blade away from him. The knife wavered over his chest, Egan's good hand holding Jeremiah's wrist, and the pair fell to the sandy ground, putting all their strength into gaining control of the blade. Jeremiah felt Egan's body slip a fraction on the sand to his right, and pushed in that direction to bring himself atop the fallen eldar, leaning his whole body onto the knife between them. He released Egan's injured arm from his other hand and brought both to the handle of the knife, pushing steadily downwards. Egan's limp hand came up between them, scrabbling with what little strength was left in it, trying to grip Jeremiah's other wrist. The fingers closed for a moment, but them fell open, lifeless, releasing him. Slowly, inch by inch, the weight of his body pressed downwards through his wrists, driving the point of the knife closer and closer to the pale jewel on Egan's chest. The tip made contact with the jewel, but instead of cracking or sliding it passed through, causing a thin, milky liquid to ooze out of the slice in its surface. Egan's eyes leapt to the jewel, and in that instant he lost his grip on Jeremiah's wrist, just for a second, but long enough for the blade to pass through the strange jewel and into his chest beneath. Egan screamed in pain, but somehow found the strength to hold Jeremiah's wrist back again even as the knife cut into him.

Jeremiah looked at his victim, for in his mind the end of the fight could go only one way. Unbidden, the memory of Aerin surfaced in his mind, 'him enjoying my pain,' the catch in her voice as she spoke, the distant look in her eyes as she said it. He looked down at Egan, studying the contorted face, the desperate sweat covering his skin, the fear in his eyes, and felt only disgust. His other hand came away from the blade and coiled into a fist, smashing down at Egan's face. The blow caused a bone to crack, and brought blood from his thin nose. Jeremiah's blade slipped an inch downward, cutting through Egan's chest, scraping now against a rib. Again he struck, tearing open Egan's upper lip, skewing the broken nose sideways, pushing the knife down again as the resistance vanished for a second. He imagined, through the building rage that clouded his thought, he could feel the eldar's heartbeat through the blade. With one last blow Egan lost his grip on Jeremiah's arm completely, and the knife buried itself to the hilt, piercing his heart.

Jeremiah stayed motionless for a moment, his face only inches from the bloody, battered visage of the dead eldar. He seemed unable to move, to bring himself away from the monstrous sight, able only to stay and watch as blood trickled from his nose, his mouth, the cuts on his cheek where the last blow had landed. With an effort he willed himself to his feet, working against limbs which suddenly felt like lead. Egan's blood continued to leak slowly out of his wounds, staining the Arena sands bright red. He suddenly became aware of the crowd, of the silence that enveloped him. He stared up at them, the rows of faces, looking on expectantly, waiting. He understood what they wanted - they wanted him to show his victory, to salute, or whatever form they were accustomed to. Part of him rebelled at the notion of acknowledging them, of accepting that he had killed for their entertainment. But as he looked down again, at the twisted form lying before him, at the vacant eyes, he caught a last surge of the red anger he had felt. Why not? Was he ashamed he had killed this thing, this monster? On that thought he leant down, calmly, and closed his hand around the handle of the knife. With a single swift motion he drew it out of Egan's chest, feeling again the strange heat in its handle - more now than before, he imagined, or perhaps it was the adrenaline making him think so. Looking up at the thousands of faces, he slowly held the knife up, brandishing the red-stained blade like a trophy. As he did so a murmur began, growing as the knife rose, bursting into a deafening roar. As suddenly as the noise began it faded, stolen away by the blackness that enveloped Jeremiah, spiriting him from the Arena once more.

Jeremiah blinked when his vision returned, surprised not to see the inside of his room. Directly in front of him, and the first thing he saw, were three eldar women, all dressed in the manner of the Lords he had glimpsed, briefly, gazing down at him from their luxurious private boxes at the Arena. One sat on a throne fashioned of some material he had never seen before, that looked like black ice. She leaned on one arm, her short dark hair and the shadows around her masking her face. She seemed a little less tall and slender than Jeremiah might have expected for an eldar woman, but with her seated it was difficult to tell. He found it uncomfortable to look at her directly - though he couldn't see her eyes for the shadow, it seemed as though the dark itself was staring back at him, and through him.

He shifted his eyes to the second woman, standing at her side. She was, to Jeremiah, everything he would have expected in an eldar from the tales he had heard at home and in his regiment. Her face was fine in detail, imperious and beautiful. Long auburn hair tumbled out from the headdress she wore, resting lightly on her cloaked shoulders and falling in a loose ponytail behind her. Her cloak was folded back from her shoulders, so that she put her body on display, clad in leathers, a dark corset that would be painfully tight on a human, boots that ran from pointed toes and needle-sharp heels almost to her hips. One hand was curled around a spear which she held close to her body, her fingers tracing the patterns on its shaft, the other rested on the hand of the seated woman beside her.

The last was closest to Jeremiah, but standing to one side, on her own. As his eyes moved to her face he almost fell back a step, for she was the one he had seen in the catacombs, who had taken him from the cell to the torturer creature - Lady Selyna, Aerin had called her. There was no doubt it was her, the young, alien face, the cold eyes - she wore the same black body-covering, the high metallic-looking boots, the belt with its assortment of blades, silent while she remained still. Terror suddenly gripped Jeremiah, as he returned to the memories of the torments he had endured, that had seemed to fade so easily with Aerin's soothing voice and care - this Selyna brought it all back. He fought down an instinct to turn and run.

She glanced over her shoulder at the seated woman, who gave a barely-perceptible nod. She turned back to Jeremiah and held out a hand, palm-upwards. Her eyes flickered for a moment to his hand, then back to his face, and he realised he was still holding the knife, red with Egan's blood. Slowly, afraid at the thought of making a wrong move and offending the beautiful, terrible eldar, he held the knife out for her, remembering at the last moment to turn the blade in his hand to offer her the hilt.

She took a slow step forwards and took the knife from him. Stepping back quicker she let the knife drop into the empty sheath on her belt, from which she must have taken it that first day when she threw it down for him to use against the Ork. Only a day ago, Jeremiah wondered as she half-turned away from him and crossed the black floor to the vacant side of the throne - it seemed longer. Selyna took her place at the throne's side, and cast a quick look off to her other side. Jeremiah followed her glance instinctively, and realised that they were not alone - in his peripheral vision he saw movement behind him, utterly silent, but the focus of his attention was a group of five female figures, to which Lady Selyna's eyes were directed - each of the five wore semi-translucent robes, like Aerin's but each a different colour, and each fitted with a matching hood that hid their faces. One of them, who wore black identical to Aerin, bowed in return to Selyna's look, and Jeremiah realised that it must be her, receiving her Lady's recognition for her care of him. As she straightened her hood shifted for a moment, as if beneath it she had looked directly at Jeremiah, but her face could not be seen in the shadows. A movement from the throne ahead of him started to draw his attention, but again the world was fading to black.

He jolted awake, suddenly aware that the touch on his cheek was real, not just a dream. He was back in his room, on the bed with Aerin sitting beside him. He was wearing the tunic again, and of the armour or the keeper there was no sign. The light in the room was dim and silver, like a moonlit night.

"How long was I asleep?" he asked.

"A few of your hours," Aerin answered, her voice low. "You will need to sleep again soon - the use of the keeper today will leave you weary." She looked uncertain for a moment, then straightened as if to stand.

"I will let you rest," she said, dropping her eyes from his face.

"Wait," he stopped her as she was about to rise, "why did you wake me?" She settled again, staring away from him.

"I wanted to see that you were well," she said quickly after a moment, "the keeper has been known to cause dark dreams. And to see you were not injured." She paused, lips slightly parted as if she was going to continue, then shook her head slightly.

"Is that all?" asked Jeremiah. He found himself not wanting her to leave. After having seen the Lady Selyna again, Aerin brought back the feeling of safety, even if only the tenuous safety of a favoured slave. She banished the memory of the catacombs.

"No," she said slowly, "that is not all. I wanted to... thank you." She avoided his gaze, but made no move to get up.

"What for?" he asked.

"I have seen many contests in the Arena," she said, "my Lady enjoys watching them, and allows her handmaidens to accompany her. I know something of how feeling translates into action - I have seen the scared, the angry, the hateful. I may be wrong... I believed I saw you do battle with purpose. I believed that you wished your opponent defeated for... for more than your own safety." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "For me."

Jeremiah tried to think of the words for what he had felt when he fought - he was not sure he understood it himself.

"I didn't want him to hurt you," he said simply, hoping it would be explanation enough. He didn't want to talk about Egan, when it was so obviously painful to Aerin.

"I thank you," Aerin repeated, her eyes heavy with water, "for your kindness..." She suddenly fell on him, her arms wrapping around his shoulders in a fierce hug. "For caring." She pulled back after a moment, as if embarrassed, but stayed close to him, her face close above his.

"I know I am fortunate," she said quietly, her voice only on the edge of hearing, "The comforts I enjoy, but... such a thing as this is beyond what I have known. To be given care by one who has no thought of reward..." she stopped, unsure of how to continue. She moved down a little, a little closer. She looked so human, Jeremiah thought, studying her face - her eyes still brilliant blue, but growing deeper with feeling, her slender hands on his shoulders, the tiny braids in her hair, falling down across his cheek. Her eyes flickered, as if she was building courage, and she let herself down a little further, and this time Jeremiah met her kiss.

Jeremiah was awake suddenly, but all around him was darkness and silence - nothing to stir him, no reason why he found himself in a cold sweat. The last thing he remembered was beginning to fall asleep with Aerin beside him, her head on his shoulder, her breathing steady in sleep, the sweat on her body cooling gently against him. Now she was gone - everything was gone, his bed, the room, his clothes.

After the few seconds it took for such thoughts Jeremiah was gripped by an unseen force, held immobile. It was only when the world began to fade into sight in front of him that he realised he was being transported from wherever he had been. Beneath his bare feet the sand of the Arena came into being. Above him the holograms flickered on, revealing him naked and defenceless. Some instinct guided his eyes as he looked up, into the crowd, finding the private box he had seen before. Lady Selyna was there, watching calmly - she nodded to him as he stared, then returned her gaze to the images floating in the air above the fighting ground. If any of her attendants were with her they were hidden from Jeremiah's view.

A sting cut into his neck from behind, sending him sprawling to the sand. It was only as he landed, rolling awkwardly, that he realised he had a keeper - the thin belt caused no sensation against his skin, but the device itself dug into his waist as he inadvertently rolled onto it. He had the sharp vision, the sense of movements around him - he had a chance. Scrambling forward he turned, searching for his attacker, and when he saw her he realised she had to be one of the gladiators Aerin had spoken of - a Wych.

She stood patiently, obviously having remained still since her attack. She shifted her posture slightly, striking a pose and drawing an appreciative cheer from the crowd; the holograms left Jeremiah for a moment to display her body in detail. She seemed to enjoy it, bathing in the attention as she flaunted herself - even where her armour covered her breasts and crotch the metal was moulded to a lifelike image of her body beneath, so that but for the thickness and shine of the metal she seemed painted, not armoured. This was a savage contrast to her left arm and leg, both covered in segmented armour, like the limbs of a giant insect. The edges of each ring of armour glinted brightly, sharp as razors. Given recent events her open display of sexuality might have brought Aerin to Jeremiah's mind, but her face dispelled any chance of that - he could not imagine such cruelty, and obvious pleasure in the cruelty, in her. She reminded him of Lady Selyna. She had a thin knife at her waist, but her eyes told him she didn't need to draw it with any haste.

She tossed her pure blonde hair over her shoulder and ran her eyes over Jeremiah, as if inspecting an animal. Her gaze lingered for a moment at the level of his hips, and she gave a mocking smile, adding embarrassment to fear and anger in his mind. In a lightning-fast movement she assumed a fighting pose, feet far apart, legs coiled to move, arms out to balance. She rested for a moment, letting the crowd enjoy her for a moment longer, then raised a hand towards Jeremiah. Her fingers curled up, beckoning him to advance.

He had one chance, he quickly guessed - she might not be expecting the keeper, and even if she had seen it she might still underestimate him if she was used to unaided humans as her victims. If he could strike fast enough, before she realised her error, perhaps he could injure her, immobilise her - killing her at once was out of the question, there was no way she would allow it, but maybe, Jeremiah desperately hoped, he could damage her, take away her advantage of speed and skill.

He allowed himself to stagger forwards, and began to let himself fall as if he were losing consciousness. As his arms came down he used every bit of the balance and control the keeper lent him, thrusting his legs straight, putting his weight on his hands in front of him, cartwheeling towards the Wych with both legs outstretched to take her in the stomach. Thus positioned he lost sight of her for a second, as he flipped over, and it was only when he felt himself falling forward without making contact that he knew he has missed. A crushing grip closed around his chest and flipped him again, crushing his face into the sand as he landed heavily, driving the air from his lungs. A hand closed in his hair and jerked his head up.

There was a moment's stillness as the Wych held him there, her thighs crushing him so tightly that he couldn't take a breath, her face against his. She pulled his head back painfully, as far as it would go, and slowly ran her lips and tongue over his neck eliciting a roar of approval from the spectators. Her tongue trailed over his cheek, collecting the sweat trickling down his face, then circled his ear. Suddenly there was a blinding pain, and the crushing around his ribs vanished, replaced for a second by her full weight on his back as she leapt away. He rolled over, scrambling away, to see her spit out the ragged edge of flesh she had bitten from him.

The pain flared into rage as Jeremiah pushed himself to his feet, charging almost blindly towards her. She avoided his clumsy fists without effort, twisting her torso like a contortionist so that she didn't even have to move her feet as he blundered into her. One leg suddenly swept up and slammed down on his back, sending him again to the ground. Her fingers closed around his neck, choking him, immobilising him with a precise pinch that triggered seemingly every pain nerve in his body. She crouched low, her knees digging into his shoulders as she rested her weight on him. Her other hand found his left wrist, pinning his arm to the ground. The hand at his neck vanished for a split second, replaced by a knee, keeping him immobile. There was a silky noise as the Wych drew her knife, letting Jeremiah see it clearly before she placed its tip delicately on the wrist she held down. With a single savage thrust she ran the blade through his wrist. He cried out in pain as she struck, then again as she sawed the blade up and down, cutting through the muscle and the remains of the shattered bones. Again she leapt away, leaving Jeremiah to stagger to his feet, clutching the bleeding stump of his wrist to his stomach, drawing on all his reserves just to remain standing.

She was only a few feet away, still holding his severed hand. Through the sweat and tears clouding his eyes Jeremiah saw her raise it to her chest, dragging the bloody end of it down between her breasts, across her stomach, leaving a trail of red. She then raised it to her mouth and drew one of the fingers between her lips, giving him a look of comical innocence as she did so that sent the crowd wild. She grinned around the trophy, gripping it with her teeth then tossing her head to the side, throwing it away. Slowly she moved towards him, so slowly that if he were still able to fight he could have blocked her without the keeper, but there was nothing he could do to stop her as she kicked both legs out sideways, landed on her hands and curled herself over backwards to kick his legs out from under him, breaking both knees. He landed on his back, her atop him instantly.

"Thank your gods, outsider," she said in heavily-accented gothic, her voice amplified around the Arena - the audience, to judge by their reaction, understood every word. "Any man or woman here would give a fortune to have me astride them. You don't realise your good fortune." She arched her back, thrusting her armoured breasts into his face, then rolled her hips forward to drag her blood-coated abdomen up over his chin, leaving trails of his own blood there. She settled back to look at him again, her eyes flitting down between his legs.

"You don't enjoy this?" she asked in mock surprise. "Perhaps you don't find eldar attractive?" She leaned in and licked the blood from his chin, then whispered in his ear: "But I am told differently. I am told," she continued louder, "that your tastes are not so limited to your own kind as you would have me believe. So perhaps it is only me you find unattractive. I am hurt," she finished, with an expression of fake grief that vanished as soon as it appeared.

"So I must hurt you in return," she hissed quickly, stabbing the knife down between his legs. He screamed again and again, until finally she was done and her hands had a fresh coat of blood. She let some weight off him, but pushed him back down as he tried to curl up.

"I haven't finished with you," she said, "not yet." She ran her hands down her sides and across her buttocks, painting herself in blood. "I am a work of art, you see," she went on dreamily, ignoring his gasping tears, "my body is a canvas that you must cover. And you will, outsider." She returned the knife to her hand, stabbing into Jeremiah's thighs again and again, carving into the muscle, each time digging her other hand into the wounds and continuing to paint herself.

Jeremiah was less and less aware of the Arena, the noise of the crowd, even the bloody succubus crouching over him. He slipped more and more into a private world where there was only pain, old wounds throbbing and howling, new ones shooting and screeching. He was dimly aware of the Wych starting to cut open his stomach, and heard her voice one last time: "Mustn't harm the keeper, you surely don't want to die yet," and with that lost the one hope he had been clinging to. After a while everything faded away, sight, sound, touch, and only the pain inside him remained.

The pain returned full-force as he regained consciousness. His eyes opened for a second, then clenched shut as the agony ran through him again. For the instant he had seen, there had been a large, dark room, the shapes of people moving about. For some time, a few moments or perhaps an hour, he was conscious of nothing beyond being suspended upright, in pain. Then a new sensation came to him, something he had forgotten - a feeling that didn't hurt. He opened his eyes to see Aerin, tenderly stroking his cheek.

"Why," he croaked, barely able to form a sound. She smiled at him.

"It is our way," she said, her voice soothing him for all that he didn't understand the words. Then she raised a hand to her neck and touched something he couldn't see. Her face seemed to fade away into a green glow, which flowed like water down into the tiny jewels in the silver collar suddenly around her neck. When it was done she smiled again, but the face was that of Lady Selyna.

"It is our way," she repeated, "and my pleasure. I like you, human. You have killed for me by day, and pleasured me by night, and loved the lies I gave you. So I will let you live, a long, long life." Jeremiah closed his eyes in defeat, and heard nothing but her soft laughter as he lost consciousness again.

Pain was his world. Agony defined his body, lancing through him endlessly, keeping him from resting, sleeping, dying. Shapes moved about him, leading him onward. He couldn't see them clearly, but he followed - they helped him, protected him, gave him some tiny measure of respite from the agony. Sometimes there were others, things he could see, things that lived, and then the pain found him again. Hatred and betrayal gave him strength, and he lashed out with the things he imagined were his arms, reaching for them, trying to crush them, to make them stop hurting him.

Lady Selyna watched from her Raider as her warriors surged forwards. Now that the militia were gone they caught whatever fleeing victims they could from the burning village, amusing themselves in whatever fashion they pleased once they had returned enough alive to earn their keep. And still the Talos bore onwards, lashing and tearing at any living thing that was not Dark Eldar, leaving bloody ruin in its path.

Finally, when the warriors summoned the Talos and left, all was ashes in the valley between two rivers that now flowed with blood.

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