EPITAPH
by Chris Cook



Surahk walked quickly through the halls of the arena complex, raging inwardly. He gave no outward acknowledgment of the people he passed by, but in his mind each pair of eyes followed him, gazing at him. He felt the rising urge to strike out, to silence their contemptuous thoughts. Once they would have fallen to their knees in his presence, but no more. His fists clenched with the memories of a hundred whispered comments and sideways glances, the amused pity of all those to whom he was no longer a great warrior. Now everyone who saw him knew he was nothing more than a servant, a slave, worthy of no more respect than the feeble creatures that inhabited the Catacombs.

He pushed the thoughts away, knowing he had no time for them. For a thousand years he had lived in Commorragh, but he knew that this day would be his last.

He made his way to one of the lounges, finding a seat with his back to an elaborate tapestry decorating the wall, watching the chamber's other occupants going about their business. Lords of all ranks mingled with the Wyches who would shortly be performing in the arena, some taking a look from the great balcony adjoining the lounge, above the arena floor, others content to wait until the sports began. Fortunes in treasure and souls changed hands as the lords contrived to outdo their rivals in displays of wealth and experience. Surahk waited as long as he dared, until he was sure his watchers were in the chamber somewhere, then quietly stood.

Drawing a deep breath, he bellowed a war-cry that silenced the entire lounge, save for the clatter of a tray dropped by one of the slaves. Every face in the chamber had turned to him, wide-eyed in shock - every face except those of a sybarite standing by the door leading back to the halls, looking out of the corner of his eye, and a Wych who continued to watch his reflection in one of the silver mirrors adorning the walls. Before the echoes of his voice had died away, Surahk drew two pistols from beneath his cloak and fired. His blaster pistol tore through the sybarite's chest, throwing his body against the doorway, while the splinter pistol caught the Wych's arm as she spun towards him, knocking her from her feet. Without waiting for her to recover Surahk darted out of the lounge.

He ran as fast as his tired body could manage, first through the halls and then into one of the low, dark passageways used only by the slaves. For a moment he heard the sounds of running footsteps behind him, but he soon lost his pursuers in the labyrinth of slave tunnels. He allowed himself a quick smile, the first in a long time, but he knew he had bought himself only a few moments. Pausing to ensure there was no sound behind him, he changed direction, making his way back towards the centre of the arena complex, up towards the lavish chambers where the most influential of the lords waited until the time when their champions would perform.

There were few slaves in the halls here, it being normal practice for the Archons to use their own servants. Those that were around, menials whose task it was to inform the lords' attendants of the schedule for the day's events, never gave Surahk a glance. They had learned long ago that raising their eyes from the ground before them caused nothing but pain. The Dracon made his way to the suite of rooms belonging to Felra, finding them empty. As he remembered, the Archon of the Wraiths never bothered to attend the first matches of the day. As he opened the suite with Felra's access code he felt a moment's pride - no matter what he was now considered to be, he still had the knowledge that could bring down any Archon he chose. His pride turned bitter as he remembered the one Archon over which he had no power - who had simply appeared, with no secrets, no alliances, nothing to be turned against her. All the more reason to make sure he made no mistakes now.

He spent a moment adjusting the suite's communicator, rendering it untraceable, then he drew a slim knife from his belt and bared his right arm. Carefully, he drew the blade down the inside of his forearm, his fingers tightening at the pain. When the cut was done he dipped the edge of the blade underneath his skin and drew out a thin cylinder of black stone. He held it up to his eyes for a moment, touching the activator on its end and watching as the tiny segments of the cylinder rotated and unfolded into an access coder. Replacing his gauntlet he dropped the coder into the communicator's data port. A tiny flash of light indicated the interface had been made, then a swirl of colour materialised, stabilising into an image, the symbol of a minor Kabal. After a moment it was replaced by the face of a young woman, who started in surprise when she saw Surahk.

"What do you mean by this?" she asked, her voice tense.

"I will explain later," answered the Dracon, "we must meet. You know the place, I will be there. Go now."

"Your Archon," said the woman, "what will she..."

"She will not know, until it is too late." Surahk cut the link, ignoring the beginning of the next question that the woman was about to ask. He retrieved the coder from the communicator and held it in his palm for a moment, lost in thought. Then he tossed it into the centre of the room and drew his blaster pistol, vaporising the tiny device before it had touched the ground. He holstered the pistol and crossed the room, pulling aside the heavy curtain that separated it from a small balcony, overlooking the city. Almost a mile below was the ground, swarming with people, and in the air around him the hum of grav engines echoed through the buildings. Surahk drew aside his cloak and pressed a button on a thin belt he wore over his armour, bracing himself against the balcony railing as he felt the flight belt take hold of him.

A Hellion neared the arena's outer wall, and Surahk leapt. He caught the edge of the skyboard, ignoring the pain as the sharpened metal dug into his fingers. His momentum caused the board to spin, sending the startled rider tumbling down towards the ground, but Surahk was already grasping at the board's control cord, steadying its erratic flight as he stood upright. He pulled up sharply to avoid a transport, bringing the board out of its brief dive and climbing back up to the dizzying heights where only the Hellions flew. With one last look at the arena complex he took his bearing, and swerved away between the spires.

Five minutes later he set the board down on top of one of the highest towers. Its power cells were almost empty, for he had driven it at its fastest speed, weaving between the buildings and doubling back to elude any possible pursuit. Glancing around, and seeing the sky around his landing place empty, he looked to the single figure who awaited him. The young woman, armoured as a sybarite, approached him warily.

"Selyna," he said, "it is time. I can live no longer."

"Has the Archon tried to kill you?" she asked.

"No, but she will, and she will succeed," Surahk answered, his voice emotionless. He drew a data gem from a pouch on his belt and held it out to the woman. "It falls to you to see that I am avenged. This contains everything I know. All the secrets, of every Kabal from the smallest warband to the Circle of Ten. Use it, use them to defeat her. See that Nemesis dies at your hands, and I will be satisfied."

"But you could live," Selyna protested, "you can escape her, you could come with me now," she continued, but Surahk held up a hand to stop her.

"I am already dead," he answered, "nothing can prevent that." He took the woman's hand and pressed the gem into it, closing her fingers around it. "Go now. Live." She looked up at him, tears in her eyes.

"Thank you father," she whispered. She hesitated for a moment, then turned to leave. Surahk watched as she vanished into the portal leading into the building, then closed his eyes, waiting for the end.

The sound of footsteps brought him back. He opened his eyes to see Selyna appear in the portal.

"I'm sorry," she said, unable to meet his eyes, "I'm sorry I failed you."

"What do you mean," Surahk began, but stopped as another figure emerged from the shadows. Nemesis advanced behind Selyna, keeping the barrel of a pistol to the back of her neck. Surahk's blaster pistol was in his hand in an instant, but the Archon merely smiled.

"Fire now and you'd kill her," she said.

"You expect me to believe you would spare her?" he barked back, anger rising inside of him.

"Maybe, maybe not," said Nemesis, "but could you kill her? You are a rare creature, aren't you? You would go to all this trouble for her sake, even though you will certainly die regardless? Most unusual. I don't think you can kill her, just for the sake of killing me." Surahk charged the pistol to its maximum, the hum of its containment fields becoming easily audible.

"As you say, maybe, maybe not," he answered with a snarl. "I would rather she die cleanly here, than slowly at your hands." He aimed the pistol directly at Selyna's chest. Nemesis frowned.

"Impeccable logic," she said. "Give me your hand, child." Selyna raised her hand, her anguish evident as she could not prevent it from shaking. Nemesis smiled at Surahk and placed her pistol in Selyna's hand, stepping away from her.

"Now," she said, "the game has changed. You still can't fire without catching her in the blast. Can she move fast enough to kill me? Your move."

"Selyna," said Surahk levelly, "you know what to do."

"Yes," said Selyna. She looked at Nemesis, then turned the pistol towards Surahk and fired.



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