For the hundredth time, Antros almost fell asleep only to be jerked awake as his body protested. His joints ached, a dull pain that grew to unbearable agony if he relaxed at all. His prison for the last few days - he was not even sure how many - was a thin shaft driven into the ground, two metres deep and barely wide enough to accommodate his shoulders. There was no room to move, to rest, to take the pressure off his legs without scraping his knees and back against the rough stone. Above him a forcefield hummed quietly, and above that was darkness. Occasionally a guard would walk across the field, increasing its hum slightly until he passed, but otherwise Antros's world had been unchanging since he had first regained consciousness in this place.
His regiment had been the 221st Instaksworld, and it had been his first assignment off-world. In the tradition of the regiment he had been trained as an officer thanks to the status of his family. Battlefield strategy had been his strength in training, and he had also taken an interest in marksmanship, calmly picking off target after target, never wasting time but never allowing himself to be rushed. He had received excellent marks, and was transferred to active duty a month after the end of his training, during the very next rotation of personnel.
He had faced his first live foe confident and self-assured, and it had not been enough. From somewhere inside himself, Antros felt a sudden horror that had never surfaced in the training or the battle drills. He realised with ice-cold certainty that, across the perilously thin stretch of ground that separated him from the enemy, were battle-hardened warriors who wanted him dead. When he saw their dark-armoured forms emerging from the pre-dawn mist on the first day of the attack, it had been too much. Splinter fire had driven him back into the trench he had led his squad forward from, a warrior had disarmed him almost casually, and his last glimpse of the outside world was of a scowling face, one of the slender Eldar, looking down on him with utter loathing.
He shifted yet again in his tiny prison, trying pointlessly to find a more comfortable position. Dull pain shot through his legs again. He let his head drop forwards, allowing the feeding tube to fall from his mouth and hang from its socket in the side of the shaft. Hunger, for the moment, took second place to general discomfort as the chief source of misery, and the feedings were infrequent anyway. He tried to close his eyes without letting his legs shift position, but fatigue once again started to creep over him.
"Guardsman!" The voice was barely a whisper, from directly above him. Antros looked up slowly, wondering if he had begun to hallucinate. He could make out no detail, what little light there was shone from above, but there was a cloaked figure crouching down over his shaft.
"Listen," it said, "you will have a chance to escape this. When the time comes, go up. Remember that. Have hope." Then the figure was gone, disappearing in an instant from his extremely limited field of vision. Antros stared up for a long time, thinking about what he had heard. The words played themselves over and again in his mind, but more important to him was the voice itself. Part of his training as an officer had been in diplomacy and espionage, and he had come to recognise the vocal sounds peculiar to one race or another that even the best mimic could do little to hide. Orks, even the smart ones, could not avoid a guttural growl in some sounds, Squats tended to emphasise each syllable equally, Eldar never merged syllables together the way humans did. The voice he had heard, he would stake his life, had been as human as his own.
It was hours later, maybe as much as a day, when Antros next saw movement above him. The forcefield snapped off and a long pole reached down, digging into his shoulder, sending an electric shock through him. Ignoring the renewed protest of his muscles, he looked up to see one of the Eldar guards standing above him.
"Move," the guard said. The monotone base gothic voice was supplied by a small device she held in one hand, but the original voice provided all the malice and hatred that the translation lacked. Antros braced himself and pulled against the rim of his shaft, eventually dragging himself out of it and onto the cold stone floor above. He remained bent over for a moment, fighting the pain from his legs, but struggled to his feet as he saw the guard returning from the small group of prisoners she had rounded up. As he stood up she scowled at him, as if disappointed not to have a reason to punish him. She gestured with her weapon, ordering him to join the other prisoners. As he passed her she swung the pole, giving him a light blow to the back of the head. She said something in her own language, an insult probably, and went to gather more captives.
Antros looked around him for the first time, wondering where he was. He saw rows of the circular forcefields, each one presumably covering a hole in which waited another prisoner. The edges of the chamber were shrouded in darkness, but he could make out a doorway in the nearest. Beyond that was pitch black. The roof of the chamber was similarly invisible, but Antros got the feeling of a vast space, even though he would have been hard-pressed to see a ceiling five metres above his head, given the darkness.
Another guard roughly grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, his other hand reaching for his left wrist. The guard placed a slim bracelet around the wrist, then did the same for the right one and touched the two bracelets together. There was a brief glow of energy, then the guard dropped his wrists and moved on to the next prisoner. Antros tried to return his arms to his sides, but found that the bracelets seemed to bind his hands together - he could move them no farther than a couple of inches apart. The guard who had released him returned to stand in front of the group, and held up a thin rod that had hung from the belt of her armour. The tip began to glow red, and Antros found himself, and his companions in the group, pulled forward by the wrists until they stood only a couple of metres away from the guard. Satisfied that they had got the idea, the guard turned and led them towards the doorway.
As she was about to lead the group through, a flash lit them from behind. A bolt of light passed, by a fraction, above the heads of the prisoners and blasted the rod from the guard's hand. A second blast caught the second guard's leg, sending him sprawling into the wall as his knee gave way. The prisoners panicked, running in all directions to get away from the guards, and whatever was behind them. Antros found himself caught among a few who were heading for the darkened passageway. As they neared it, ducking and shrieking as shots rang out from behind them, Antros caught sight of an elaborate pillar beside the door, around which was carved in stone a massive serpent, coiling upwards into the darkness.
'Go up,' he remembered, the curious instruction echoing through his head. He pushed sideways, knocking one of his companions to the ground but breaking free of the stampede as it reached the doorway. He swung his tired arms up, pulling on the edge of the stone serpent's body while trying to find a foothold. As he did this the other prisoners who had been with him reached the door, and crashed into an invisible barrier. One of them scrambled to his feet and again tried to get through, and this time Antros saw the forcefield flicker on for a fraction of a second, blasting the unfortunate man backwards. The others saw this and began to run back across the chamber, seeking shelter. More guards had appeared, firing back at whoever was in the darkness. As Antros pulled himself up another coil of the column he saw a bolt hit something in the shadows on the other side of the chamber, and an Eldar in dark blue armour fell to the ground. One of the guards fired point-blank into the back of the ambusher's head, despite the fact that it looked like the first bolt had killed him. There was no more firing, the only noises were the screams and wails of the panicked captives.
Without warning the floor lit up, as if suddenly in bright sunlight. Every one of the fleeing prisoners screamed in agony, lost their balance and fell, writhing, to the ground. Antros pulled himself further behind the column, praying that he would not be spotted in the sudden light. The guards seemed unaffected, probably because of their armour. After a few seconds the light vanished, and as Antros's eyes adjusted themselves to the return of the darkness he saw the guards pulling the whimpering prisoners back to their feet. Antros looked up instead, concentrating on making his aching muscles climb further away from the prison below.
After climbing perhaps twenty metres, he saw the dim shape of a walkway bridge to his left. It was about a metre from the column, but he could see nothing further above him, and he doubted his ability to climb much further. He tried to prepare himself for the jump, tensing his muscles, bracing against whatever footholds he could find on the carved stone. Even if he fell, he reflected gloomily, he would probably die more painlessly than those still down below.
He jumped, his strength fighting against the effects of his confinement. Both hands touched the bottom of the walkway, but only one was able to wrap around a metal bar. He swung beneath the bridge, and managed to hook the fingers of his other hand into the metal grille that made up the body of the walkway. It was not much, for his hands were still held close by the restraints, but what little effort it took off his other arm was enough for him to hold on. He was about to try to move both hands to the side of the bridge when he heard footsteps, almost directly above him. Someone, one of the guards he guessed, stepped out of the doorway in the chamber's wall, onto the bridge. Antros froze, trying not to breathe as the figure stopped directly above him. For a moment it was still, then a voice echoed out of the doorway behind it, and it turned to speak. In doing so, its foot landed directly on Antros's fingers, which still poked through the grille of the bridge floor. Antros was sure he heard something crack, and fought down a wave of nausea. He tried to calm himself, ignoring the thumping of his heartbeat in his ears as a brief conversation took place above him. Then the guard turned briskly and disappeared across the walkway.
Antros managed, after several attempts, to swing himself far enough around that he could hook his leg over the edge of the bridge, and so haul himself onto it. He lay still for a moment, fighting the urge to close his eyes and rest, then he reluctantly pushed himself to his knees, and stood on shaking legs. Trying to make as little noise as possible, he stepped cautiously through the doorway at the close end of the bridge. No forcefield blocked his way, and he ducked into the darkness.
Disoriented in the near-total darkness, he stumbled towards a dim glow that came from a corner not too far away. He rounded the corner to find himself looking down into a brightly-lit chamber filled with arcane machinery. He stood on a walkway that ran along the wall of the room, a few metres above the floor. A sound from one side made him turn, and he saw a platform rising up from the ground, upon which stood a pair of thin figures, their pale-skinned bodies partly covered in ugly brown robes. The platform, an elevator, was rising to bring them up to the walkway where Antros stood, and his gaze darted around, trying to find a hiding place away from the darkness behind him. He saw a thin ledge in the wall, just below the level of the walkway, and swung his legs over the thin rail in front of him. Holding himself by his arms he let his legs drop, trying to find the ledge that, from his awkward position, was no longer visible. The platform was rising, almost at the top of its ascent now. One foot touched a flat surface, and he lifted his other leg to balance on it, lowering his body down below the walkway. He crouched, half-under the walkway, stopping himself from falling by bracing his arms against an inner edge of its base. The two pallid creatures silently moved off their platform, which dropped silently back to the floor, and disappeared into the dark corridor above.
Letting out a long breath, Antros looked out at the strange machines that stretched up towards him from the ground. Much of it he did not even faintly recognise, but some pieces were obviously controls and displays. Clear tubes ran through the machines, disappearing into them and emerging again on the other side. A noise from below heralded the appearance of a guard, emerging from a doorway Antros had not seen, almost directly below him. The guard pulled behind him a trolley, which floated without wheels, upon which were piled stacks of naked bodies. Antros tried not to look at the faces, afraid he would recognise one from his regiment. The Eldar towed the hovering trolley to one of the machines, the side of which swung open as he approached. He pushed it inside and stepped back to a control panel as the machine shut with a clang. At the press of a button the machine gave a whirr, and then a bright flash from inside escaped from the vents in its surface. A grey-brown liquid bubbled up through one of the tubes leading out of the machine, flowing into a channel carved out of the floor. Antros's stomach heaved as he recognised the thick liquid, the same that had emerged from the feeding tube in his prison-hole. It disappeared through a drainage hole in the floor, and the guard retrieved the now-empty platform from the machine.
The guard made to leave through the door below Antros, pushing the trolley in front of him. Antros watched carefully, putting what he had just seen out of his mind, and dropped on to him as the guard slowed to turn the trolley to line it up with the doorway. His fall was misjudged slightly, but the guard was completely unaware of the attack, and sprawled to the ground as the guardsman's knee thudded into his shoulder from above. Antros was on his feet in an instant, ignoring a painful spasm in the foot he had landed on, and he lunged down at the Eldar, ramming one knee into his stomach as both hands closed around his neck. The guard's hands gripped Antros's shoulders for a moment but he had been weakened by the initial blow, and his arms fell back to the ground. With a final twist, Antros felt the Eldar's neck snap.
He wasted no time, taking the knife from its sheath on the guard's leg and running, limping slightly, between the machines that now surrounded him. He came to a doorway and ducked through, running blindly through the maze of corridors beyond, avoiding any indication of light or activity ahead. Finally he slowed, having come into a small side passage away from the wider corridors, that seemed to him to be not often used. Facing the corner leading back out, he sat with his back to the wall and looked down at the bracelets that still bound his wrists. In the dim light he couldn't make out much detail, but he could see a small groove in the side of one that seemed to be an access panel of some sort. Straining his wrists, he managed to put the point of the knife to the groove, and began trying to lever it open. The knife slipped, and he stopped to wipe the sweat from his palms, then tried again. This time it seemed to stick, and when he applied some force the blade seemed to edge into the groove slightly, just a fraction beneath the outer casing. Then there was a small flash and a crack, and he dropped the knife as an electric shock passed through it into his hand. He blew air onto his hand to stop the stinging, then realised that whatever force had held his wrists together was gone.
The guardsman let his arms fall back to his sides, and looked down to find the knife he had dropped. It was just to his left, and he leaned over to pick it up. As he did so he noticed a tiny grille, set low in the wall, just above the floor. A faint red light was coming from it, and he crouched low, peering through. At first all he could see was a section of wall and a ceiling, only just above the ground level of his hiding place, but as he lifted his head slightly he managed to see lower into the room. He caught a glimpse, in the far corner, of another of the pale figures he had seen earlier. Its skin was wrinkled and grey, more like that of a corpse than a living being. Its eyes were sunk into its head, the skin pulled back from its teeth, accentuating the sense of walking-dead. From its belt hung a variety of blades and tools, most too small for Antros to see properly except by the glints of light they reflected. It moved, in a shambling manner quite unlike the grace of the other Eldar, towards the edge of what looked like a table or workbench of some sort. Antros strained his eyes, lifting them to the upper edge of the grille, so that he could see further into the room.
Then he jerked away, his back thumping into the opposite wall. His eyes remained closed for a long time, and when he opened them his gaze fell upon the knife that he still held in one shaking hand. He wondered if it might not be the easiest way to escape this place. It would certainly be better than... his mind refused to put words to what he had seen.
"Guardsman!" The voice came from the darkness to his left. His head snapped around, the knife rising instinctively as he scrambled to his feet and into the defensive posture that his instructors had taught him. There was a dim shape in the shadows, but all he could really see was the edge of a cloak trailing on the ground.
"Follow me," it said, beckoning with a fabric-covered arm. The figure melted into the shadows, and Antros took a step forwards, unwilling to lose it. He caught sight of it, by movement rather than light, ahead of him, and followed it out into one of the larger corridors.
"Who are you?" he hissed. The cloaked figure did not pause.
"A friend," it said over its shoulder, "the only one you have here. Keep quiet and follow." The stranger offered no further explanation, and Antros found himself being led through a labyrinth of tunnels. He watched the figure ahead closely, and even through the cloak he could see that its movements, though quick and sure, were not quite the dancer-like motions of the Eldar. After several minutes they arrived at what seemed to be a dead-end. The stranger tapped a lump on the wall, causing a panel to slide open. Beyond was utter darkness.
"Inside," it said, "quickly." Having no better plan, Antros climbed through, finding a smooth, slightly curved surface beneath his feet. The stranger reached inside its cloak and handed a slim cylinder through the hole in the wall. "Light," it said, "wait until the hatch closes. Head to your left," it pointed sideways to make sure, "until you get to the twentieth hatch along. Twenty. Now go!"
"Wait," said Antros desperately, "who are you? Why are you helping me?" The hatch clanged shut. Antros sighed and ran his hands over the cylinder he had been given. On one end was a tiny switch, which caused the other end to light up like a torch. He was standing inside a long circular tunnel, like a big pipe, maybe three metres wide, which extended easily beyond the light of the torch in both directions. The hatch he had entered from was marked with a red circle on its inner surface. Every few metres, a ring ran around the inside of the pipe, otherwise it was quite featureless. Antros caught sight of a hint of colour from up ahead, in the direction he had been told to go, and walked towards it. It was another of the red circles, and as he neared he could see the edges of the hatch it marked. Twenty, he remembered. That was one. He set out along the pipe.
He had reached fourteen when he heard a whisper of sound from behind him. He turned, and saw a dim glimmer of light from far away down the pipe. He peered at it for a moment, then realised it was growing larger. A nasty suspicion entered his fatigued mind, and he hastened his pace forwards. By the time he had reached the fifteenth hatchway the noise behind him had grown to a dull roar, and he could make out a dark shape at the centre of a ring of light that was advancing towards him. He began to run, but whatever it was moved too fast. Looking back over his shoulder, he could see it was a capsule of some sort, confirming his suspicion that he was inside some sort of transit system. As it neared, frighteningly fast, each ring on the wall of the pipe lit up, reminding him of the magnetic subway in his home city. He caught a glimpse of a slight gap between the capsule and the bottom of the pipe, and threw himself to the ground as it thundered towards him. He was hit by a massive blast of air, and he felt the back of his uniform being pulled forwards as the capsule raced above him, less than an inch above his head. The torch was knocked from his hand, some downward projection from the bottom of the capsule whizzed past him, catching his sleeve, then it was gone, disappearing away as the rings behind it shut off, plunging the pipe back into darkness.
Antros got unsteadily to his feet, and then dropped back to his hands and knees, searching for the lost torch. He found it up against the edge of the ring in front of him, but when he tried to switch it on it was unresponsive. Running his hands over it, he found the top sheared off, leaving a jagged edge on which he nearly cut his hand. He cursed and threw it away, then realised he had no idea how many hatches he had passed in his sudden dash. He had reached fifteen, but how far did he run beyond that? One, maybe two, but he could not be sure. He began to make his way slowly forward, keeping his hand on the side of the pipe at the level where he remembered the hatches being. After a few metres he felt the edge of a hatch. Seventeen, or eighteen? He replayed the last few moments in his head, trying to judge his speed, how many steps he had taken as he ran. He guessed that he was at the seventeenth hatch, and set out again.
He reached what he hoped was the right hatch, and felt around its edge. At one corner he felt a depression in the metal, and pushed it. The hatch slid open, admitting a dirty red light from outside. Antros dropped through the hatch and found himself in an alleyway. At least that was his first thought, but as he looked up he found he could not see any sign of the sky, only a gap between buildings and, far overhead, yet more stone and steel. The light that reflected through the structures was unpleasant, the kind that came just after sunset, when the clouds still glowed red just before night claimed the sky. What he could see of the buildings was equally unappealing. They were built of metal and stone mainly, but they seemed to be somehow organic, as if parts of them had grown rather than been built. Their edges reflected the light in just the wrong way, making it look as though everything was covered with an oily coating. Here and there he caught glimpses of bridges and towers, impossibly-high and massive, but never any sky between them. He returned his gaze to ground level and headed cautiously towards the open end of the alley. It was as he was about to peer beyond one of the massive buttresses that blocked his view of the street beyond that he heard a noise behind him.
Spinning around he saw a blur of movement, something lunging towards him. He swore as an Eldar struck him across the face, he had been sure the alley was empty. His knife slashed at the Eldar's chest, but it leapt out his reach. It seemed hazy, its edges indistinct, and it was strangely difficult to make out from the shadow behind it. Again it lunged at him, but this time he was ready, adrenaline overruling fear as he side-stepped the blow and slashed again at it, forcing it back. It seemed to stop for a moment, to consider its next move, and Antros took a step away from it, backing up to the wall. Then he felt something behind him, and a blade pressed into his throat.
A sound rang out, a single word that Antros did not understand. The Eldar before him looked to its side, and another, one of the warriors he was more familiar with, stepped into his field of vision. The blade at his neck did not decrease the pressure against his skin, but neither did it press harder. The warrior looked at him, and spoke a string of syllables. Antros's eyes darted from side to side, trying to see what it was that held him. The warrior sighed in exasperation, and repeated himself in passable base gothic.
"Show me your wrists," he said. Antros cautiously raised his hands. A shadowy hand from behind him knocked his knife out of his grip, and the warrior grabbed one hand by the fingers, turning it over to look at the damaged bracelet still clamped around his wrist. His eyebrow raised a fraction, and he said something to the creature behind him. It shrugged and stalked out of the alley. The blade an Antros's throat eased slightly.
"Escaped from Vakallisa, I see," the warrior said, "the Master may be entertained to see you." The Eldar reached up to Antros's neck and pressed a pair of fingers into it, just above the collarbone. There was a searing pain, then blackness.
Antros's eyes snapped open, but still he saw nothing. He realised that he was, once again, in darkness, and for a moment he feared that he had imagined the events of the past few hours. Then he realised that he was not pressed up against the walls of the tiny stone hole, but lying on his back. It was not much - the surface under his torn uniform was cold and hard - but he was grateful for what little comfort it offered, compared to what he had come from.
"Listen," said the voice. Antros realised that it had woken him, but he couldn't see a trace of his mysterious benefactor. He couldn't even see his own hand in front of his face. "You've been captured by the Destroyers, but there is a chance you can survive. Do you understand?" Antros nodded, then realised he would be as invisible to the stranger as the rest of the world was to him.
"Yes," he whispered, his voice dry from lack of use.
"The Archon dines at a banquet soon," said the stranger quickly, "you will probably form part of the entertainment. Several slaves have been brought up from the catacombs. Try to survive. Do what you are told, offer no sign of resistance. One of the Dracons will attempt to kill his master during the banquet, I do not know when exactly. Wait until this time, then run. If you make it as far as the streets, I may be able to help you. While you remain inside this place I cannot. The dining hall is several stories above the ground, you must do what you can to get down. I must go." There was a slight, soft noise, that of a cloak moving, and then Antros was alone.
He slowly sat up, and felt around himself in the darkness. Wall on one side, the shelf he lay on was up against it. Less than a metre away was the other wall, and in that was an open section, covered by bars. He couldn't even make them shift, it felt as if they were set into solid rock, but as he could find no other way in or out of the tiny cell he assumed that his captors had some means of opening the door. Apart from that, there was nothing. Antros reluctantly lay back down, and closed his eyes. Trying to ignore the images that drifted through his mind, he slept.
Later - Antros had no way of knowing how much later, but he felt rested as much as would be possible under the circumstances - he was woken by a shrill whine. A light shone into his cell, and he saw that the bars were gone from the doorway. An Eldar, wearing differently-coloured armour but otherwise similar to his previous guards, gestured with a short mace-like weapon for him to come out of the cell. 'No sign of resistance,' he remembered. He swung his legs to the floor and stood, having to stoop slightly beneath the low ceiling of the cell. As soon as he stepped outside the door he heard another high-pitched sound from directly behind him, and the Eldar grabbed him roughly by the arm and thrust him towards another captive, a dark-skinned giant of a man whose clothes, whatever they had been originally, were now little more than grimy rags. Antros looked over his shoulder - the bars of his cell had returned, probably the cause of the noise he had heard - and saw that the Eldar had apparently finished collecting prisoners. Other cells, still darkened, remained untouched. The Eldar herded his two prisoners out of the cell block.
After several corridors and a brief trip in a large elevator, they were taken to a large chamber that seemed to serve the Eldar as a banquet hall. Several large tables occupied much of the room, stacked high with colourful and extravagant displays of food, their aromas mingling in the air. Antros was reminded how long it had been since he had last eaten, but on the tail of that thought he remembered what it was he had been eating, and his appetite disappeared. The walls of the room were hung with expensive-looking tapestries, depicting in impossibly fine detail various scenes of battle. Torches were spaced along the walls, their flickering light adding to that spilling through a massive frosted glass dome in the ceiling. Whether this was light from the sky, or something artificial, was hard to tell, given the kind of light that seemed natural outside the buildings. On one side a series of wide stained-glass windows let in more light from what looked like a balcony of some sort outside. The view was obscured by the images coloured into the glass - more bloodshed, Antros noted. He and his companion were led through the dining tables, their occupants paying them no attention at all, and eventually came to the other end of the room, which had been left open. A group of captives stood silently to one side, then, separated from the rest of the room by a slight rise, like a stage, was a glittering gold throne. Its occupant was turned away from Antros, speaking to one of the other Eldar clustered around the throne. Behind it, armoured warriors stood like statues.
Their guard stood in front of them and bowed, ceremonially, to the throne, then turned back and pushed the large man towards the other captives. He was about to do the same to Antros when a voice rang out from the stage behind him. He turned back and bowed again, then stepped sideways, allowing Antros to see the ruler of all this. He had been looking at the floor, a mosaic of tiny, rainbow-coloured fragments, all showing a single figure, a horned warrior, slaughtering his way through masses of opponents. The Eldar sitting casually on the throne was unmistakably the subject of the mosaic, the horns growing out of his helmet, which was open at the front to allow Antros to see a thoroughly unpleasant face. The Archon - it had to be him - was handsome in the Eldar way, his long face without scars or lines, dark hair falling over his shoulders. His expression spoiled the effect, although among these creatures he was probably considered normal. He looked like someone who would break the universe if he thought it would make a pretty noise. Antros got the overwhelming impression that, according to this Eldar, humans like himself were several thousand levels below animals.
He spoke, a single sentence. Antros had studied alien languages briefly, but all he could say was that he had been asked a question of some sort. Another figure detached from the group clustered around the Archon, a tall female. Her armour lacked the characteristic wide shoulder plates of the others, instead her bare shoulders were covered by the top of a waist-length cloak, black edged with gold. She crossed her arms and regarded him with obvious distaste. Antros noticed that one hand, from the wrist down, was some sort of black metal. It moved freely, but from this distance at least he could see no evidence of seams or joints.
"The Master of the Void wishes to know," she said, in precise gothic, "how you came to escape from the fortress of Vakallisa of the Flayers." Antros knew instinctively that he would have to stay as close to the truth as he dared. These Eldar were known to have a highly political society, and would know much about events in each others' domains.
"We were attacked," he said, again finding his voice brittle from lack of use, "I ran when the guards came under fire."
"So," said the Archon, in gothic rather than his own tongue, "Trallivit's stupid little raid achieved something after all. Tell me, human," he added, leaning forward, "are you brave?" Antros wondered how he was expected to react. His eyes darted to the other Eldar - a Dracon, perhaps the Hierarch - but she offered no clarification.
"I... don't know," he said. The Archon smiled, as if to himself, and leaned back. He spoke again in his language.
"The Master of the Void," translated the Hierarch, "has decided that you will be granted the honour of facing Kallian the daemon slayer, for the entertainment of his guests." She nodded to his guard, who pushed him over to join the other captives. They were formed into a line, up against the wall in one corner of the room away from the tables, and then ignored by all but the pair of Eldar who watched them with pistols ready.
The Master of the Void's guests were starting to fill the dining chamber to capacity. Some of the new arrivals wandered over to inspect the captives, pointing to one or another and getting into fairly heated conversations amongst themselves, presumably over who would survive the longest. For the most part, the Eldar confined themselves to the tables, eating and conversing, apparently content to wait for the entertainment. Antros couldn't help noticing the way all the Eldar looked, as if they were, in the back of their mind, always expecting someone to put a knife in their back. He also couldn't help noticing that every one of them was armed in some way, from various sidearms to knives, swords and whips. Judging by what he knew, and had seen, of these people, to be unarmed at any time would be suicidal. The Archon did not join the feasting, even when the carved double-doors of the chamber were closed and it seemed all the guests had arrived. He remained overlooking the room, taking food and drink as it was offered by other Eldar, who appeared to be servants or slaves. They were not armed, and Antros guessed that they were considered the property of the Archon - killing his slave would constitute an attack on him, and he had no shortage of bodyguards should that happen. Antros wondered about what he had been told in the darkness, one of the Dracons would try to kill the Archon. He wondered how this could be achieved without turning the feast into a war zone - and if that happened, how could he escape? He looked at the Hierarch, who had joined the diners, and wondered if it would be her. He noticed, once or twice, she looked up towards the Archon, and there was certainly no loyalty in her stare.
Quite some time went by, during which the volume of conversation grew and the diners became more inclined to argue with each other. The light outside, reflecting in from the balcony, didn't change at all, still the dark-edged red of twilight, though it had been more than an hour since he had been led into the dining chamber. An Eldar, a minor leader whose armour was more ornate than that of the guards, crossed the open floor in front of the stage and spoke briefly to the Archon, who then beckoned the Hierarch to him. He said a few words to her, and she nodded and turned back, standing on the edge of the stage. She took a thin rod from her belt and held it above her, causing it to extend into a staff. Both ends of the weapon sprouted a blade, and energy crackled across them, silencing the diners. The Hierarch made an announcement, which Antros didn't understand but which met with approval from the guests, and then the doors swung open to admit a single figure.
Antros caught glimpses through the crowd, but only saw her properly when she strode from between the rows of guests and into the open space, where it was clear she would fight. She was beautiful, even by human standards, but a cold beauty such as a statue might have. Her face was angular, typical of an Eldar, smooth ivory skin contrasting with full red-painted lips and black shading around her eyes. Her hair, so blonde it was pure primary colour, swayed slightly as she walked, curling gently behind her back. Her shoulders were bare, but one arm was encased in red segmented armour that ran from her wrist to just below the shoulder, a series of backward-swept blades decorating the back of her wrist. A band of armour ran across her chest, hugging the curves of her torso until it disappeared beneath the hair spilling down her back. The curved armour plates around her waist sat low on her hips, partly composed of metal, partly some almost-black material than ran down one leg beneath the plates on her thigh and calf. The other leg was bare to the knee, then armoured. She carried a thin whip, coiled in one hand, which glinted in the reflected light from outside. She kneeled briefly before the Archon, then stood again at a slight nod from him and turned to face the captives. Their two guards moved behind them and shoved them forwards, and a forcefield sprang up around the oval mosaic on the floor, trapping them inside it with the Wych.
Antros was next to the big human he had been brought to the dining chamber with, who was flexing his arms, waiting for the first strike. On Antros's other side was an Eldar, from a craftworld he guessed, his face scarred, whether by combat or torture he could not tell. There was another human, a marine judging by the carapace just visible underneath his tattered clothes. He looked to have been particularly badly beaten, and was not in top condition, his movements slightly sluggish by the standards of the superhuman warriors. Another Eldar, one eye missing, his back bare and covered with raised welts left by a whip. The last was of a species Antros did not know, humanoid with wide shoulders, giving it an almost triangular torso, and skin that looked almost metallic. The Wych looked at them for a moment, then flexed her hand, letting the coils of her whip unwind. She whirled her arm above her head, causing the tip of the weapon to spin in a circle, almost touching the captives, then it slowed and wrapped itself around her body, from neck to waist, the tip trailing over her leg. She nodded to them, then gave her head a little toss, lifting her chin. Come on, the movement said, give me your best shot.
The marine charged forward, head low, arms wide, obviously intending to drive her to the ground. She spun on the spot, unwinding the whip from around herself in an instant and catching his arms with it. She danced sideways and pulled, causing him to stumble, off-balance, and fall into the forcefield, which crackled and knocked him back. The scarred Eldar had moved to the other side of the makeshift arena, and now launched a blow at the back of the Wych's head. Without turning, she lashed out her other arm behind her, catching him across the face with the back of her hand and knocking him into the forcefield behind him. She jerked the whip, unwinding it from the struggling marine's arms and sending it lashing towards the giant, who had cautiously approached the fallen marine. The human leapt back, avoiding the whip, but its tip drew a bright line of blood across his chest. The metallic alien took a step forward and thrust out its arms, which stretched beyond their original reach, stabbing forward at the Wych. She bent backwards, arching her back, as the extended limbs passed over her body, then she uncoiled explosively, flying up between the arms as they began to return to their original length. She lashed out a kick in mid-air, striking the alien's head and tearing its skin with the armour on her foot. It staggered back, blood flowing from its face. The Wych landed and straightened with incredible speed, aiming a kick at Antros that left him no time to block. He took the blow to his stomach, trying to bend as he had been taught, to absorb the impact and remain on his feet. The next strike, the Wych's armoured arm slashing around at his face, he managed to duck, feeling the blades on her wrist pass a fraction above him. She flipped the whip backwards, so that the handle of it latched onto her wrist armour.
The other Eldar had made no move to attack, trying to manoeuvre himself behind his companions to shield himself from the Wych. She looked over her shoulder at him and rammed a fist, with unnatural speed and precision, into Antros's stomach. He doubled over, then her hands were on his neck and he was thrown across the floor, smashing into the Eldar. The Wych followed, leaping over the marine as he aimed a clumsy punch at her, her arms passing to either side of Antros's head. Behind him, he heard the snap of the Eldar's neck, and the struggling body beneath him went limp. The Wych, looking down at him, gave a quirky little smile, then she seemed to fly backwards as if pulled by a rope, her feet landing on the chest of the giant as he approached her from behind, pushing him into the forcefield. She spun over in midair and landed, crouching, as the marine once again swung his fist at her. She moved just slightly, enough so that the blow brushed her skin as it passed her, and then grabbed both his shoulders and rolled backwards, one leg straightening sharply as the marine was pulled from his feet. He landed, face-down, as the Wych rolled upright, crouching on his back. She flipped off as he began to push himself to his knees, hampered by the fact that his right arm was now obviously broken at the shoulder, hanging limp.
The scarred Eldar flipped forward, aiming a double kick at the Wych as she landed. Instead of ducking, she allowed herself to fall backwards, curving her back so that she rolled instead of hitting the ground hard. Her hands grasped the legs that had been aimed at her, and she planted both her feet in the Eldar's back and pushed him, upside-down, into the forcefield behind her. As he fell she spun around, so that she caught him before he hit the ground, locking his head between her legs. With a twist of her waist she broke his neck. She used the leverage of her body to throw the corpse into Antros, sending him back to the ground as the marine lunged at her with his one good arm. She danced aside, ignoring him and aiming a kick instead for the alien, which seemed half-blinded by the wound to its face. It made an effort to dodge the blow, but it was not enough, the leg slamming into its side. Antros heard ribs, or the creature's equivalent, cracking, and it fell to the ground, motionless. The Wych laughed and reached behind her, catching the marine's hand as he tried to grab her by the hair. She spun around to face him, breaking his wrist in the process, then jumped upwards as the giant, recovering from his contact with the forcefield, tried to kick her legs out from under her. She moved backwards in the air, landing on the giant's shoulders, pulling the marine with her so that the two humans crashed into each other. Her thighs closed around the giant's head, and she let go of the marine and let her body fall backwards. Her hands touched the floor, then her body curled in on itself, throwing the giant by the head back into the forcefield. The force of the impact caused a greater discharge of energy than had previously occurred, and the giant's skin was quite obviously burned as he fell to the ground. The Wych flipped in mid-air and landed with both feet on his head, crushing it.
Only the marine and Antros were left. The Wych suddenly replaced her combat stance with a casual pose, twitching the whip lazily so that its end danced across the floor. With a flick of her wrist the handle detached and slid into her palm, the fingers closing around it easily. The marine was breathing heavily, obviously in pain. Smiling at him, the Wych raised her arm and flicked the whip forward. Its tip grazed across his face and he jerked back in pain. Antros saw one eye bleeding badly, certainly useless. The Wych turned her gaze towards him, and he prepared to try to shield himself against the attack.
Suddenly there was a noise from outside. The noise of the crowd, cheering and shouting, had been dimmed by the forcefield to a dull roar, but now a sharp sound broke through. The field disappeared, and Antros saw armoured warriors leaping through the chamber, pushing guests aside. The Archon's bodyguard had moved forward, and at the foot of the throne lay the body of one of the Dracons - not the Hierarch, Antros noted - a pistol clutched in one hand. The part of his mind that was not running ice-cold with fear mused that he had been right, killing the Archon was next-to-impossible. The Archon himself, behind the line of bodyguards, disappeared through a doorway that slid open behind his throne. The bodyguard then charged, engaging the warriors as they broke through the crowd and opened fire. The marine, seeing the Wych distracted, charged towards her. She saw him at the last moment, and Antros was sure she would not have time to avoid him. She didn't, but her hand reached out in front of her, wrapping around the marine's throat. Her fingers seemed to sink effortlessly into his flesh as he crashed into her, and as she rolled backwards and threw his body away his head had almost been severed.
Antros needed no further incentive - he ran blindly away from her, ducking between the Eldar who were darting in all directions, some fighting, some fleeing. He ducked as he saw the blade of a halberd swinging towards his face, and heard a dull thud as it buried itself in someone behind him. He ran madly, in the grip of fear, striking wildly at anything in front of him. He pushed a body out of his way - the head had been removed from it a second earlier - and found himself pressed against one of the windows overlooking the balcony. He turned back, catching a glimpse of the Hierarch whirling her bladed staff around her, disembowelling two enemies in a single stroke, then one of the bodyguard cannoned into him, knocking him to the floor. He landed almost on top of part of one of the guests, and saw the Eldar's pistol still strapped to his leg. Fumbling at the catches, he removed the weapon and crouched shakily, his eyes darting from side to side, trying to make out individual bodies in the mass of whirling limbs and weapons. No-one seemed to be paying him much notice at the moment, all the attention was focused on the battle between the bodyguards, who were hacking at their enemies with insane fury, and the forces of the deceased Dracon, who were more numerous and quite willing to fire point-blank into the crowd in the hope of hitting the bodyguard. Antros stood slowly and brought the pistol around, aiming at the window. He squeezed the trigger, wondering briefly if it would be one of the strange weapons that responded only to its master's thoughts, but its recoil reassured him that it was working, and it cut a jagged line through the glass. Putting his head down, he leapt through the damaged window.
He landed on the balcony outside just in time to see the Archon stepping onto a hovering vehicle a few metres to his left. It bore a resemblance to the troop transports that these Eldar used in battle, but its running boards had been replaced by luxurious seating, and the prow armour and gunner had become an ornately-carved dragon's face, its snarling jaws seeming to be the source of the dull roar of the vehicle's engines. Behind Antros, from the entrance to the dining chamber, a hail of rifle fire spat out, passing barely above the guardsman and missing the transport by a few inches. Antros put his head down and ran, as the vehicle began to pull away from the building. He leapt just as it started to rise, and his hands grasped at the edge of its hull. His weight caused the vehicle to veer sideways slightly, and an Eldar curse rang out from above him. He looked up to see the Archon staring down at him, swinging a long-barrelled pistol towards his head. A shower of sparks caused him to lean back, and fire instead at the warriors pouring out onto the balcony, who were blazing away at the transport. Antros's left hand slipped, almost coming away from the hull, as the vehicle swerved sideways and began to pick up speed. He looked down to see the street - a very long way below him - suddenly replaced by the top of a neighbouring building, its roof decorated with gruesome statues of every sort. Something crushed the fingers in his right hand, and he looked up to see the Archon stamp his boot down again. Antros lost his grip completely and fell away from the vehicle, rebounding off the shoulder of a gargoyle and landing heavily on his back. He saw the transport above bank and move away, then a line of shots cracked into the statue above him and he rolled away, narrowly avoiding them. He got to his feet, ignoring the protests of his spine, and ran between the nightmarish shapes, searching for a way down. He spotted an open hatch in the ground and leapt for it as another hail of shots cut into the roof behind him. His legs disappeared through the hole, but he had misjudged the leap slightly and his forehead cracked against the edge of the hatch on the way down, causing him to fall as he landed, ending up sprawled on his back with his eyes clenched shut against the throbbing pain in his head.
He raised a hand to his head, carefully, and felt the wound as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. The cut was bleeding, but not badly. He pushed himself to his feet, staggered slightly until his sense of balance took hold, and then began to run down the narrow corridor he had fallen into. He heard a noise from behind him, then turned a corner and darted through an archway. He was seriously regretting having dropped the pistol in his attempt to board the Archon's transport. He turned another corner and found his way blocked by a thin figure, which was looking the other way and quite obviously oblivious to his presence. He kept running, knocking the Eldar to the ground and following up with a straight punch to its face, cracking the back of its head on the floor beneath it. He ran onwards, not looking back.
There was a short flight of stairs up ahead, leading down a level. He took them two at a time, then turned and ran between rows of arches, looking for the way down again. A figure stepped out of one of the arches ahead of him, and he drew back a fist, but stopped when it turned to face him. The face was old, tired, crossed with scars, but unmistakably human. Antros dropped his fist and grabbed the man by his shirt.
"Help me!" he hissed, with enough presence of mind to keep his voice down. The man's eyes darted around for a second in confusion, then settled on Antros's face.
"Who are you? How did," he was cut off by footsteps from the stairwell leading back up to the upper level. He grabbed Antros by the shoulders and hurried him through an archway, beyond which was a doorway that opened to reveal a circular stairwell, leading as far down as Antros could see in the dim light.
"Down, quick!" he said, pushing Antros onto the stairs. They clattered down the stairwell for several levels before the man grabbed the strips of torn material hanging from the back of Antros's uniform and pulled him back as he was about to descend yet another level.
"This level," he explained, "follow." Antros ran after the human, around a series of turns until they reached a small door. The man placed his hand on a panel by the side of the door and it swung open. He pushed Antros inside and followed, pulling the door closed after him. Antros found himself in a small, crowded room, full of strange-looking equipment. A workbench, piled high with glassware and analysis machines, was in the centre of the room, and piled in one corner were canisters with red warnings printed on their casings. A doorway, short enough that Antros would have had to duck to get through, led to an unlit room beyond. The human motioned for Antros to sit on a metal crate, and seated himself on a worn chair in front of the workbench.
"We should be safe for a while," he said after a pause to get his breath back, "they don't come in here except to take what they need. Who are you?" Antros gave his name, and his regiment when the man asked if he was a guardsman. "So what in hell brought you here? Running from them, I mean."
"I escaped," said Antros, "then another group captured me. Me, and some others, they put against one of their gladiators as entertainment, but someone started a firefight and I ran." The man nodded.
"Probably someone tried to kill old Akhara," he muttered to himself, "it happens every once in a while. Been here twenty years, or thereabouts, never heard of anyone getting close. They know how to stay alive, the Archons."
"Twenty years?" asked Antros. The man nodded. "How?"
"I'm useful to them. I make the toxins for Akhara's Haemonculi. They like experimenting, but it's dull to them to keep making the same stuff over and over. They have me do it instead. Keeps me alive."
"Haven't you tried to escape?"
"Hah!" laughed the man humourlessly. "I've seen what they do to the ones that try. My reward, I suppose you'd call it, for serving them is that they don't make me watch any more. Believe me, the best thing you can do is kill yourself now. You'll never get out of this city on your own."
"I'm not alone," said Antros, "someone's been helping me."
"A human, male or female I don't know, but definitely human. They helped me escape before, and told me about the assassination attempt." The man frowned in thought.
"I don't know of any other humans, besides slaves. Are you sure?"
"Yes, absolutely. The voice, you see..."
"Yes, I know," said the man, "you can tell an Eldar voice. But I've never heard of anything like this. Someone helped you escape? Knew about the attack just now before it happened? How could," he started, but he was cut off by a beep from the panel by the door. He didn't even look around, but grabbed Antros and shoved him into the darkened back room. Antros caught a glimpse of the outer door beginning to swing open, then his tiny room was sealed and he only heard the noises from outside. There were footsteps, someone had come in. A sentence in the Eldar language, a harsh voice.
"I don't know," said the man in response, "I've been here for hours." Another voice interrupted, and Antros recognised it, sending a chill down his spine - it was the Archon. Though he had only heard the voice briefly before, it was unmistakable, the arrogance, the calm certainty that everyone else existed on a level below himself.
"My lord, I swear," the man began, but his voice stopped abruptly. Antros heard a scraping sound behind him, and turned to see a panel in the floor swing silently downwards. Dim light shone through from beneath. Footsteps crossed the room outside, and Antros scrambled through the hole in the ground. The room above him was bathed in light as he dropped, and a shower of sparks leapt from the wall as the figure silhouetted in the doorway fired at him. He landed in a low tunnel, his boots splashing in some black substance, halfway between water and oil. From up ahead he caught a glimpse of a cloaked figure disappearing around a bend in the tunnel, and he ran after it, praying desperately. He heard a shout from behind him, and ducked as more shots rang out, echoing along the tunnel. The figure ahead was visible again for an instant as he turned the corner, disappearing through one of a number of tunnels that led off a junction. He followed it, as fast as he could while keeping his footing in the slippery liquid running along the bottom of the tunnel. He was keeping up, barely, through sections almost entirely unlit, around twisting corners, ducking under pipes running across the tunnels, always hearing the sounds of pursuit behind him.
He rounded a corner, head down to avoid a low-hanging pipe, and caught a glimpse of a figure standing in front of him, motionless. He raised his head to look at it, running forward, but its arm lashed out and knocked him to the ground. He looked up into the face of the Master of the Void as he felt the cuts on his cheek start to bleed. The Archon raised a pistol and fired, the tiny dart-like bullets punching a hole through Antros's leg. He howled in pain and rolled, clutching his leg as it bled slowly into the black liquid running beneath him.
"You should have died," the Archon said, speaking in gothic again, "Kallian should have flayed you until not an inch of skin remained on your body. I will see to it that she gets the chance." He raised the pistol, aiming just above Antros's waist. Antros closed his eyes. He heard the crack of the weapon firing, but felt nothing. Then the noise rang out again, and again, and he opened his eyes to see the Archon staggering under a barrage of fire. All around them, from ahead, behind and every side passage, the muzzles of rifles flashed, raining fire onto the Archon. Some sort of forcefield was protecting him, but the impacts were buffeting him like a feather in a hurricane. He fell to one knee, then the field snapped off without warning and suddenly he was being torn apart, his body jolting as the bullets cut into him, punching through his armour and ripping at the flesh beneath. Finally the firing stopped, and the lifeless body fell face-down into the black water, his broken horned helmet cracking as it hit the ground. Antros looked at it for a moment, fully expecting the next shot to end his life.
"Guardsman," he heard, from behind him. It was that same voice again, and he turned to see a dark cloak crouching over him. Slender hands pulled back the hood, and the face beneath, human, a young woman, looked at him with a lop-sided smile. Something cold pressed against the back of his neck, there was a hiss, and he fell forward, the world spinning away from him.
Nemesis straightened up and pulled off the cloak, handing it to a warrior as another pair picked up the unconscious guardsman and carried him away through the tunnels. Syrillia watched them go, then turned to the body of the Archon.
"A pity he couldn't have suffered longer," said Nemesis, "but you know how difficult it is to get these ones out of their little palaces." Syrillia nodded, and her gaze moved from the dead Archon to the live one.
"What about the human?" she asked. "Give him to the Haemonculi?"
"Do you know," said Nemesis idly, "I think we should send him home. After all, he has been useful. And most entertaining. Think of the stories he will tell, of what he saw in the twilight city. Everyone he meets will only have to look in his eyes to see the fear. And when night falls, and they hear a movement in the shadows, they'll remember what they heard, and pray that the shadows haven't come for them this time." She bent down and picked up a piece of the dead Archon's helmet, turning it over in her hands. "Come on," she said to Syrillia, "it's time we met the new Archon of the Destroyers. Time to collect on a favour."