by Chris Cook

The Val'tora craftworld drifted slowly on its course that would, eventually, take it into the Imperial Arc-18 sector. The craftworld's current Farseer-Admiral, Jona Tal Dath'neyn, had studied the paths of the future fates carefully, and had decided that caution was in order. Now three years from the human-occupied worlds, Val'tora had made itself ready for the wars that could result from contact with the Imperium.

Dath'neyn turned away from the control bridge's main viewscreen, surveying his crew. The bridge was relatively empty, as the craftworld's Seers had seen no immediate danger, and the only officers present were a handful of bonesinger masters coordinating structural work on the world's wraithbone core.

The Farseer was distracted from his study of the hundred tiny holograms that showed the activities of his people. He half-turned, hearing a low crackling from the portal leading down towards the bridge tower's base, when an explosion threw him against the far wall of the bridge. The bonesingers, partially shielded from the blast by their position, leapt from their seats, searching for the cause of the explosion. Dath'neyn raised his head, ignoring the pain a cut on his cheek was causing him, and looked across the bridge. One side of the chamber seemed to be alive with green fire, dancing across the control consoles, spreading slowly across the deck. A dark shape seemed to move within the fire's heart, then hell arrived on Val'tora.

Five dark-armoured warriors stepped out of the flame, calmly levelling bulky weapons at the startled bonesingers. The silvery blades positioned around the weapons' barrels glowed, and a fine mist leapt from them. The group of officers barely had time to raise their arms, covering their faces, when they were picked up off their feet and pinned to the bridge wall by half-invisible webs of silk-like fibres. As soon as they were immobilised, the webs began to constrict, blood appearing in lines across the bodies of their victims as the threads cut into them.

Dath'neyn struggled to his feet, drawing on his mental powers to construct a shield around himself while he gathered his energy for a psionic blast. The warriors saw him move, and their helmets spat a hail of ice-like shards at him, which shattered harmlessly on his shield. He let the blast fly as a red-armoured figure stepped out from behind the warriors. The Farseer had a brief glimpse of a slender woman, dark hair falling across her face, her expression one of cruel amusement, then the creature threw her head back as the blast hit her squarely in the chest.

Dath'neyn knew exactly how much power he had put into the blast. It should have levelled half the bridge, and he reinforced his own shield as it hit. Instead of detonating, the psionic energy flowed around the warriors' leader, enveloping her in a cocoon of power for a moment until it seeped into her skin. She lowered her head and opened her eyes, staring intently at the Farseer.

"Good try," she said in a soft, pleasant voice, "my turn." The woman crossed the bridge with half a dozen quick strides, passing straight through the Farseer's shield with barely an effort and lifting him by the neck with one hand. Almost casually, she threw the craftworld's leader into the main viewscreen, shattering it. As the Farseer rose to his knees, he received a kick to the face which sent him back to the ground. The Archon's hands closed around his head, and he was lifted out of the wreckage of the viewscreen.

"I wonder," said the creature, "would you be so good as to tell me the access sequence to the craftworld's communications matrix?" With what little strength he could muster, Dath'neyn spat in the face of his rival. The Archon shrugged, and placed her hands carefully around the Farseer's head, one around his jaw, the other on the back of his head, just above the neck.

In a blinding instant, Dath'neyn felt his thoughts being systematically pulled apart. As his mind was shredded from the inside he tried to scream, but the physical world was no longer part of his being. The last thing he felt was the Archon's amusement at his pain. His body dropped to the deck, settling among the shards of crystal that had made up the viewscreen.

The Archon crossed the bridge to one of the communications stations. She entered a complex code in the system, and watched as it blinked into life. She turned to look at the hologram screens, which still showed scenes of peaceful life, the people unaware of the attack their home had suffered.

"People of Val'tora," said the Archon, "I am Nemesis. I am the executioner of your world. As I am feeling merciful at the moment, I would like to assure you that the souls of your dead will not be set loose upon the tides of the warp, to be feasted upon by your Great Enemy. You may take comfort, in these last moments of your lives, that the suffering you will experience after your death will be for my enjoyment alone. Fight us, by all means. Prepare your barricades, fight your glorious last stands, die with honour in battle. Be assured that your resistance brings me nothing but joy." With a quick smile, the Archon cut the communications link and turned to the leader of her Incubi.

"Begin," she ordered.

Val'tora's aspect warriors were just beginning to form a defence when webway portals opened all over the craftworld. Warriors poured out of the crackling energy gates, their rifles firing wildly into whatever targets they could see. Fully half of the craftworld's fighting forces were killed in that first attack, caught in a deadly crossfire as every shadow became a gate through which more enemies emerged. After the first furious moment of fighting the Dracons arrived, and their attacks settled into a more comfortable, leisurely pace of destruction.

Nemesis watched all this from the bridge, smiling faintly. She watched as the shrine of the Dark Reapers, wreathed in the smoke from its occupants' weapons, was systematically blasted apart by dark lances. Watched as waves of shuriken discs embedded themselves harmlessly in the advancing lines of twisted grotesques, whose blades tore at the guardians in return. Watched as the giant garden domes burned, the millennia-old tress crashing to the ground. On the five-mile-long promenade the deck ran with blood as a dozen Talos swept through the terrified civilians, leaving a trail of mangled corpses in their wake. Hastily-assembled guardian squads died in their hundreds as a tide of Wyches swarmed onto the craftworld's armoury decks. Wraithguard marched out of the spirit-forge as fast as they could be activated, only to be cut down by a vicious barrage of disintegrator fire. The Archon turned from the screens, back to her bodyguard which stood motionless behind her.

"Oh, go join the fun," she said, "you want the Scorpions, don't you? They're preparing a counter-attack from their shrine, I believe. I'm sure you know what to do with them." The Incubi silently departed, disappearing back through the energy gate. As the last one disappeared, a new figure emerged, also wearing the sting-like helmet and carrying a long bladed staff, but covered by a flowing red cloak. Nemesis noted that the blade of the Punisher was covered in fresh blood.

"I see you haven't been wasting time," she said. The Hierarch removed her helmet and joined her Archon, watching the scenes of destruction being replayed in miniature before them.

"We have the spirit-halls," she reported, "as you ordered the stones are being collected."

"Good, very good. It's quite amusing, if you consider it," she continued, her eyes darting from one image of death to another, "these poor things merge their dead into the wraithbone core. There are hundreds of billions of souls in there, all swirling around each other. The result is supposed to be quite impressive. A sort of super-consciousness, I'm led to believe. Not so unlike the Great Enemy itself, is it? I wonder... do you think that someone, back when these dreadful prisons were being built, actually knew what they were doing? If they combined enough of their souls, they thought they could create a god of their own? The god of Order. With legions of machines to serve as its daemons. Do you know, such a thing could hold back chaos. But only if it was alone. One day, maybe, one of these cores will become what they promise to be, and then it will realise that its weakness is the living." Nemesis turned to her Hierarch. "Do you think it will be able to kill them?" The Hierarch considered this.

"No," she answered eventually, "the craftworlders are too self-centred. They wouldn't accept that they are less important that their dead."

"Interesting point. But maybe, the dead would accept it. How long must it take before the souls forget what it is to live, and all they see are transitory states where we see living beings? Would it matter to them if they had to kill the remains of their race? Would it matter if the living fought back? No, I don't think it would. Well, enough theorising. Time to see what's worth fighting."

The storm of destruction continued unabated as the Archon walked leisurely through the blood-soaked halls of the craftworld. A pair of Haemonculi had joined her, and took careful notes as she selected individuals from the groups of captives they passed. These unfortunates were dragged back through the portals, to await the Archon's special attention later. She arrived, at last, in the shrine of the Howling Banshees. She walked, uncaring, past the bodies of hundreds of her own warriors, until she found the chamber where her Incubi had gathered the surviving aspect warriors. She looked over the battered prisoners, and her eyes fell at last on an Exarch, calm among the confusion of the still-living. She waved her bodyguard away, and approached the warrior priest. Carefully, she removed the sonic buffer that had been clamped onto the Banshee's mask, then threw her back against a wall and raised a hand, beckoning her to attack.

The Exarch let out a high-pitched wail that cut through the souls of even the Incubi, and charged. Denied her weapons she launched into a flying kick, but the Archon flipped back out of the way. The Exarch followed with a blow to the face of her enemy, but found her hand blocked by a grip like steel. Nemesis's other hand closed around the neck of the Banshee.

"The sound of death," she said, "it's beautiful. Thank you." Her eyes glowed for a moment, then the tiny spirit stones set into the Exarch's armour began to shatter, one by one. With each tiny crack the warrior jerked as if a death-blow had been delivered. Nemesis counted one hundred and fifty seven tiny deaths before her opponent dropped to the ground, the empty armour clattering as it fell apart. She looked around, to see her small retinue still recovering from the psychosonic attack.

"I'll teach you how to do that, one day," she said as she took the Hierarch by her arm. "Pick out the best fighters, the ones with battle honours," she added, addressing the Incubus Master in passing, "I'll deal with them later. Give the rest to the Wyches."

Deep within the heart of the giant ship a group of Incubi stood around the corpse of a young Eldar, whose ceremonial clothing had been torn to shreds by the blades that killed him. Nemesis looked down at him, then at the massive portal that waited in vain for the Young King. She stepped carefully over the corpse and approached the portal. As if it sensed her presence, the heavy doors glowed red, driving the Incubi back with its heat. The Hierarch watched from the entrance to the chamber, her eyes taking in every move Nemesis made. The Archon seemed untroubled by the heat, and placed a hand on each side of the thin line that ran down between the doors. She dropped her head and seemed to concentrate. The portal became white-hot, resisting her. Slowly, the panels beneath her hands changed, losing their brilliant light, passing through orange and red, momentarily resembling the inert metal it had been a moment ago. They kept cooling, tendrils of ice creeping across from the Archon's fingertips, the metal turning as black as the ashes that were now all that remained of the corpse in the centre of the chamber. With a feral yell, Nemesis threw her arms apart, tearing the huge doors out of the wall and sending their shattered remains crashing to the edges of the chamber. Beyond the portal, a malevolent red light spilled out, drowning all other colour from the chamber. Nemesis calmly walked into it, disappearing as if into a wall of blood.

After a few moments during which vague shapes seemed to move inside the blood-red sea, the Hierarch, Syrillia, turned from the chamber and began to take reports from the Dracons who had returned from their tasks. She was pleased to find the number of captives high overall, although the number of fatalities inflicted on the aspect warriors was distressing. She had privately hoped to arrange a duel in the arena for herself against representatives of each of the craftworld's warrior shrines, but it seemed the Warp Spiders had been completely annihilated in the course of the battle. That left - she quickly checked a list that had been handed to her - seven shrines. And the Shining Spear would be useless without his jetcycle. Six and a half trained opponents would be an enjoyable night, but not a memorable one. She wondered if a dozen guardians could be added to the match, then shrugged and turned back as she heard footsteps from inside the Avatar chamber.

Nemesis walked casually out of the red sea, carrying a long, slender spear on one hand. Seeing her Hierarch waiting, she held the spear at its full length, and raised her other hand, which dripped with a coating of fresh blood. She grinned playfully at the irony, then tossed the spear to Syrillia.

"If you still want to fight the Exarchs, you could try a new weapon," she suggested. "Are we finished?"

"Yes," answered the Hierarch, examining the spear, "the prisoners have been moved off the craftworld. It's empty."

"Good. Let it continue on its way. It will give the humans a taste of what to expect. Hmm," she said, as if to herself, "I wonder if I should have left that Farseer alive. I would have enjoyed telling him that his people had been killed just to frighten the humans."

"Next time," said Syrillia reflectively. Nemesis nodded and followed her Incubi towards the webway gate, wiping the blood from her hand on the robes of a beheaded warlock as she passed.

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