Kran ducked, feeling a gust of air as the blade passed a fraction above his head. He backed away as the weapon was turned and swept at him again, this time with the jagged hook on its other end. It occurred that the last several moments had been significantly less painful than the preceding days. For now, he was able to avoid the blade. He tried a quick lunge with the crude weapon he had been given, but it was parried effortlessly and he had to stagger to keep his balance and avoid the next swing his opponent made, upward from where he would have been falling. He backed further away, aware that he was running out of space.
Not long ago - it seemed to Kran that it had been years, but in fact it was only a few weeks - the Imperial Guard 171st Capellan regiment had been sent to protect the manufacturing cities of Veridi. The planet's capital city must have been pleasant once, but the wide avenues were sickening sights when the first platoons landed. The Eldar pirates had quickly overcome the planet's defence forces, and had enjoyed themselves among the civilian population. Determined to avenge the dead, the guardsmen had fought fiercely. They hadn't known it was a trap. How could they, when the enemy hadn't known either? Kran knew now that these Eldar didn't value the lives of their own as much as they did the lives of captives. One Archon had allowed another's army to die, so that the guardsmen could be taken.
Kran saw the next attack a split second before it came, and rolled desperately under his opponent's leap, striking blindly upwards. He felt contact, not a killing blow, but at least he must have hurt. He scrambled away, to his feet, and looked back.
His opponent was a slender alien woman, who his captors had informed him was a Wych, seemingly in the hope that he would know the name and be afraid. Kran had fought nearly everything the galaxy had to offer, and treated fear the same way he would a stain on his uniform: annoying, but irrelevant. He was pleased to see that the Wych had a shallow cut across her leg, but it didn't seem to be causing her any difficulty. She closed in again, as fast as before.
A voice rang out across the small arena, a single syllable in the alien language. The Wych looked up, then back at Kran. The voice had come from above the walls, where Kran assumed the audience to be, although his view was obscured by bright spotlights that shone down into the pit. The Wych growled something in response to the voice, then raised her weapon.
A whisper of sound crossed the arena, the Wych spun around, and something hit the far wall in a shower of sparks. Kran saw a tiny serrated dart embedded in the rock, then saw his opponent holding her arm, the forearm pierced through by the dart's flight. Kran hesitated, then felt strong hands close around his arms, and the sword was pulled from his grip. He watched as a figure dropped silently down into the arena.
She wore armour similar to the Wych, although it was blood red rather than the near-black purple that seemed to be the uniform of Kran's captors. Her hair cascaded down her back, again in contrast to the Wych, pure black rather than the gladiator's blazing yellow. She carried a slim pistol in one hand, from which a serrated blade extended. With a casual motion she flipped the weapon away, letting its blade embed itself in the ground, as she walked slowly towards the Wych. More of the guards were spreading out around the arena, one of them retrieving the pistol - it was clear that the fight was over, at least for now. Kran could hear movement from the audience above, he guessed they were leaving. The leader - Kran assumed she was, from the air of authority she projected - stood in front of the Wych, and gently took her injured arm. She held the forearm in one hand, and ran the fingers of her other hand through the blood that was seeping out of the wound. With a subtle motion she dug a finger into the wound, causing the Wych to scream and drop to her knees. The leader crouched, keeping her face level with the Wych.
"I said stop," she said in a low voice. Something seemed odd to Kran for a moment, then he realised what it was. In the time since he had been captured, the Eldar had used their own language to speak to each other in his presence, and only communicated the barest of instructions to him through a translator device that produced a monotone in Base Gothic. The woman had just spoken in perfect High Gothic. She dropped the Wych's arm and left he to stand and make her way, unsteadily, out of the arena. The woman approached Kran. As she neared, Kran noticed that she seemed different to the other Eldar. Their skin seemed to be universally pale, as if they never saw daylight, but hers was a healthy tone. Her face seemed less alien, her ears weren't pointed at all - she looked human. Kran wondered whether this was some sort of trick.
"Well, what have we here," she said, again in High Gothic, amusement creeping into her voice. "A fighter of some ability, to manage a move like that. What were you, a sergeant? A captain, even? We'll soon find out. Tell me," she paused for a moment, then looked directly into Kran's eyes, "this is important, tell me whether you would rather survive what I will do to you, or die. Well?" Kran did his best to return her stare.
"My life is in the Emperor's hands. The choice is His." The woman smiled, then laughed quietly, as if to herself.
"Very good," she said, "Most would choose a quick death. I'm glad you said that. I will enjoy you." She turned and addressed a quick order, this time in the alien language, to the guards who held Kran from behind. He was dragged out of the arena, into the dark tunnels that seemed to run throughout the alien city. He saw, as he was pulled away, the woman nod towards him as if offering reassurance, and then taste the blood on her hand.
As Kran's eyes adjusted to the light, he could see that his cell was one of many, each one containing a single occupant. He'd considered trying to talk to one of the other prisoners, but there always seemed to be guards close by. He noticed that the prisoner in the cell opposite his, who sat silently against the wall with his legs drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped tightly around his knees, seemed to shiver and tighten his fists whenever the noise of a guard's whip echoed down the prison chamber. Kran didn't recognise the man, but he was definitely human. The rags he wore might have been a uniform once.
There seemed to be no time in this place. Kran found he couldn't yet tell the individual guards apart, so he never knew when they changed shifts. If the prisoners were fed at all, it had not been during the time he had been confined to his small cell. He drifted into a dreamless sleep every once in a while, only to be woken by the noise of a guard letting his whip run across the bars as he walked, the energy discharging into the bars in a crackle. After a while - definitely more than a day, Kran guessed, but less than a week - his cell was opened and he was dragged out. He stumbled briefly, his legs weak from lack of use, the low ceiling of his cell not having allowed him to stand since he had been locked in. A whip cracked across his legs, stinging through the material of his dirty uniform, although the weapon's energy field had been turned off. Kran allowed himself to be led back into the dark tunnels.
Now he ran, forever fearing the touch of steel on his back. The guards had disappeared without warning, and he had found himself alone in the maze of tunnels. Kran didn't know why they had gone, but he had seen enough to know he would rather die than be taken back alive. He heard noises, strange whispers in the darkness, echoing around corners, playing on his fears.
Something moved as he turned a corner, and he put his head down and ran into it without slowing. He felt the thing's back hit a wall, and smashed his fists into its stomach - it felt rough, as if it had been cut and crudely healed, and his hands came away soaked in blood. Something flashed down, tearing a long but thankfully shallow cut in his shoulder, and he heaved the thing sideways, hearing it scramble across the ground as he ran from it. Always there were intersections, there seemed to be light ahead somewhere, but when he ran down a tunnel it was only to find the same red-edged darkness. Once, certain that he had seen daylight, he turned back, but to his horror the tunnels had changed, the daylight was gone. Hopelessly, he ran forward.
Now he was sure there was something behind him. As he calmed a little some of his training returned. He varied his pace a little, and heard soft footsteps behind him for a moment until his pursuer adjusted to his new pace, hiding its steps in the noise of his own pounding feet. He rounded a corner and flattened himself against the near wall, listening for the thing giving chase.
There was no noise but his own breathing, which to Kran sounded like a Chimera's engine exhaust. Drops of blood dripped slowly off his shoulder, landing a second later on his hand. He held his breath and listened, but there was nothing. He wondered if the thing was waiting just around the corner, flattened against the wall as he was, about to turn and strike. His hands curled into fists, and he tensed himself to leap forward.
An arm snaked around his neck from behind, and a soft hand closed over his mouth. He jerked forward, but the grip was like steel. A mouth brushed against his ear, whispering quietly, on the edge of hearing.
"Good chase, my guardsman," the voice said. It was her, the leader - the accent, and the High Gothic, was unmistakable. Kran rammed his elbow back into her stomach, thudding into unarmoured flesh. She exhaled sharply, but the blow didn't seem to have troubled her. Moving quickly, Kran gripped her arm in both hands and pulled with all his strength, throwing her forward. The woman was lifted off her feet, and Kran let go, preparing to run, but her hands closed over his forearms, and she seemed to bend backwards in the air, landing perfectly and catapulting him forward over her head. Kran felt the backs of his shoulders hit the ceiling of the tunnel, then his head crashed into the wall and he fell, a sharp pain jolting through his right leg, which bent underneath him at a sickening angle. For a second he lay still, unsure of even who he was, then memory returned as the delicate hands touched him, one closing around his neck, the other brushing his face.
"Yes, a good chase," she repeated, "and well ended." The fingers on his neck dug in, and her other hand pushed sideways. Kran's eyes closed as he felt something snap, then opened again as he slowly realised he was alive. He tried to look up, but his head refused to move. Straining his eyes, he peered sideways, glimpsing the Archon standing over his motionless body. She bent down, moving sideways so he could see her properly.
"Don't worry," she said, as he tried and failed to speak, "you haven't lost everything." She ran a finger up and down his arm, and Kran found he could feel it perfectly. "I could heal you, and give you back to the Wyches, but that wouldn't be right. You'd be wasted on them. They don't know how to savour the kill. I enjoyed watching you, so I owe you more than that." She stood and turned away from him, then looked back over her shoulder. "Don't worry," she said brightly, flashing a joyous smile, "you'll forget how to hurt after a while." She turned away and nodded to something in the darkness. Another figure appeared and moved towards Kran. It wore robes, dark and stained with blood, and a variety of blades and tools hung from its waist. Behind it, several shambling creatures followed, their vacant eyes locked on Kran as he tried in vain to move.
"Take your time with this one," said the Archon as she passed the robed Eldar.
"Yes Nemesis," it answered, carefully selecting one of its tools and motioning the twisted creatures forward.