She awoke, and her mind was splinters. Her head was full of shards of broken glass, and when she made the mistake of shaking it they cascaded and crashed together, sparking flares of bright agony, each a disjointed memory. She fumbled in half-light for anything to dull the pain, found a tumbler of cold water. Most went down her throat, but some impulse compelled her to save the last mouthful to splash over her face. Immediately the pain faded, but the chaos in her mind remained.
Carefully, she pushed herself to a sitting position on the.. bed? Even as she moved, the featureless block on which she had lain shifted and metamorphosed, contouring itself to match her new posture. The effect was as mentally unnerving as it was physically comfortable. Her bare feet touched a bare floor that was oddly warm. She blinked down at them, realising that naked as she felt, she was clothed, after a fashion. Her shins were protected by light, armoured guards, as were her forearms, and other plates shielded her shoulders, elbows, and knees. More armour protected her chest, though it stopped well short of her navel, and below the waist only her modesty was protected by thin cloth which fit tightly but was oddly comfortable. Looking around further, she caught sight of a full-length mirror set into the wall, and walked over to it to inspect her appearance in more detail.
As she studied her face- lean, lightly scarred, with a tattoo on one cheek, realisation came crashing back. The tattoo, the design repeated one one of her shoulder guards, was the ancient fleur de lys, now known throughout the galaxy as the symbol of the Sisters of Battle, the Adepta Sororitas. Looking closer, she realised that the armour, if it were even worthy of the word, that she wore was adapted, or more accurately cannibalised, from the hallowed power armour worn by that martial order. Gone, though, were the sophisticated fibre-bundles and motivators that usually compensated for the armour's weight, though along with them, and with much of the structure, had gone that weight itself. She leaned closer to the mirror, brow furrowing with the effort of trying to recall who she was and how she had come to this state, and felt hot breath on her face.
She recoiled as if hit by a bolt round. This was no mirror. She advanced, cautiously, and her reflection- no, the other her- advanced in concert. Slowly, tentatively, she reached out, and when her hand touched what should have been the surface of the glass, it instead met warm, yielding flesh. Once again, she leapt back, and on sudden, frightened impulse swept up the tumbler and hurled it at her doppelgänger. The other matched the motion, and at the event horizon of that impossible portal the two missiles clashed together, shattering into identical shards that similarly collided with perfect symmetry. Understanding of a sort came with a crash no less dramatic. This was a mirror after all- just a mirror made by twisting space itself around in a knot. She was in the hands of beings so advanced, and so arrogant in that advancement, that they would violate the laws of physical reality itself simply to gaze at their own faces.
Forcing herself to accept the fact of the thing (Heresy! something in her core shouted) she stepped back to the centre of the room, turning to study herself from all angles. The body barely protected by the armour was tall, lean and sinewy, the body of a warrior. She had to admit that exposed though she felt, she could at least move freely and what protection there was had been placed where it would do the most good. There was armour, too, for her soul, for from a beaded chain at her waist swung the Chaplet Ecclesiastes, symbol of her faith in the God Emperor. Whatever tricks and treachery had wracked her mind could not erase that faith, even if her own name was lost to her.
So. She was alive, and she was in good health- her head, confused though her thoughts were, was clear, and her heart was returning to an even, calm rhythm. She was a servant of the Emperor, and she was among aliens, or heretics of some sort, and therefore she was in need of a weapon. Even as the thought crossed her mind, she saw it, propped against the foot of the bed, or whatever the thing she had been sleeping on was. A chainsword- no, she corrected herself, her chainsword. It was, she somehow knew, an ancient weapon, far older than her, and passed down from warrior to warrior. She picked it up, and almost dropped it in horror. The grip felt familiar in her hand, the weight and balance were exactly right, but where the motor which drove the razor-sharp teeth should have been there was instead a sullen, dull-glinting orb. Grimacing in distaste, she thumbed the activation stud. Instead of the throaty roar that should have issued from the weapon, it hissed into life, a whispering promise of death instead of a boldly shouted threat. She gave a half-hearted, experimental swing, but to her surprise and delight the blade leapt through the air, and sang as it went.
You are the Champion, it cried with the first stroke.
You will kill them all for the Emperor, it shouted with the second.
The stage awaits, it screamed with the third.
With that, a panel in the wall slid open. From outside, she could hear the sound of voices- thousands, maybe millions of them. She couldn't say what they called, but somehow, she knew they were calling for her. Her purpose clear, she strode out into the dim light of stolen suns.
Her feet crunched lightly in black, glassy sand (obsidian sand from the crone worlds, blinding if it touches the eyes and instant death if ingested said something inside the corners of her mind) and she strode fearlessly to the centre of a vast arena. Above her, the sky was filled with impossible shapes and architecture to blast the sanity of a rational mind, but she paid such distractions no heed. The arena itself was surrounded on all sides by huge terraces, crammed with eyes hungry for violence and studded with galleries and balconies in which lounged the elite of the alien society. They seemed impossibly far away, but she somehow knew that every one could see her intimately. She knew it should have disturbed and discomfited her, but it did not. Let them see, let them see how a true child of the Emperor fights. Let them see how she dies.
Bat-like shapes swept overhead, and from them a quartet of lithe figures sprang to land lightly on the sands. The nearest made to alight within a few feet of her, and paid a fatal price for his arrogance, for in the dark arena of Commoragh there were no rules, no concept of fair play, and though the Wych twisted desperately as he fell there was no escape from the hungry blade of her sword. The crowd howled in a mix of fury and exhilaration as he was neatly cut in half. His comrades seemed uncaring of their fellow's gory demise, but nonetheless kept their distance and regrouped. On a whim, she flicked the chainsword towards the nearest of them, a female, and a light spatter of blood sprayed across her face. The crowd gave another roar, this one of near unanimous approval, and then settled into a dim murmur of anticipation.
The Wyches circled, warily, but with vicious eagerness etched in their expressions. Of the three that remained, there were two females and one male, the last bare-chested and all three otherwise clad in light combat-suits that left one side of their bodies almost completely exposed. Though on the field of war they would have carried slim, deadly splinter pistols in one hand, in this arena they held razor-thin knives lightly in both, with the exception of one of the females who instead whirled two long, bladed flails about her with increasing speed. Her training told her that one would be forced to attack alone for fear of striking her allies with her own weapons, and yet instincts she could not possibly possess warned her of the real danger even as the three suddenly charged.
The female with the flails took the lead, a long, red topknot streaming behind her as she dashed forwards, blades whirring through the alien air. The others ran a little behind and to each side, well within reach of the weapons, ducking and leaping as casually as if they had been on an evening stroll to avoid the hissing maelstrom of death. She should have been overwhelmed by the rush, her training as a stolid warrior of the Imperial battle-line telling her to close ranks with Sisters who were not there and repel the attack with the fire of righteous bolters and flamers that she did not, could not possess. To the shock of her foes, and the delight of the audience, this was not what happened.
With the certainty of experience she could not remember gaining, she stooped, grabbed, and whirled with a single motion, sending one of the daggers of the fallen Wych hurtling towards his fellows. The blade, finely made and exquisitely balanced as it was, was not made for throwing, and twisted erratically through the air, flying wide of the lead Wych who sneered in contempt at the futile attack. And yet, she was not the intended target. Veering off to the side of the leader, the knife clattered into the whirling flails with a bright shower of sparks, throwing them off their path by the merest distance, but a significant distance nonetheless, as a swinging blade was knocked a tiny fraction downwards just as the other female made to duck under it. With a horrific screech, the Wych went down as the deflected flail wrapped around her throat, the sudden jerk almost hauling the leader from her feet before she could release it.
There was no time for her to celebrate the success of the gambit, though the near-delirious crowd were more than willing to do so in her stead. The male Wych, seeing the scant opening presented as she recovered from the throw, leapt to the attack, blade slashing through the air and glittering as it caught the faint light of first one, and then another sun. Off-balance, her sword on her right side and her left exposed to the strike, it seemed there was nothing she could do to avoid the blow, but to the incredulity of the crowd she lunged, feet digging into the sand as her shoulder-guard surged straight into the face of the onrushing Wych. What was intended as a raking slash became instead a clumsy stab, the Eldar's blade sinking an inch deep into bare flesh but missing anything vital as its wielder was slammed backwards, the fragile bones of his nose driven straight into his brain.
Pain flared as the knife slipped out of the wound, but there was little time to acknowledge it. From her right came a horrible, gurgling scream as the lead Wych yanked her flail free from her fallen compatriot, the blades tearing the other's throat to bloody ruin and nearly severing her head. Far from being concerned by the grisly fates of the others, the remaining Wych seemed emboldened by them, grinning savagely at this enthralling mon-keigh who had shown such unanticipated skill to go with the expected courage.
“I am Anthalassa Hex, Hekatrix of the Dance of Eight Blades, Scourge of Ulthas and slayer of Ekris the Mad.” spoke the alien, in a voice like honey flowing over razor-wire. “Whose name shall I inscribe on the pedestal upon which I place your head, round-ear?”
“I am she who will kill you for the Emperor.” was the only reply.
Hex merely grinned wider, and the flails resumed their deadly dance, whirling about her so quickly that only blurred air marked their passing. She advanced on her human foe unhurriedly, for though the arena could comfortably have accommodated a Sword-class frigate there was, in truth, nowhere to go that would do anything other than delay the inevitable clash. The Sister retreated slowly, chainsword held in a two-handed grip as she fended off the deadly web more by instinct than sight. The bleeding from the wound in her side was slowing, but a dangerous stiffness was beginning to build in the muscles there. Time was not on her side. She took another step back, another, bare feet gripping the sand tightly, knowing that to slip or stumble would be fatal.
“We have been warriors since before your kind dragged itself out of the swamp, mon-keigh,” said the Wych, the words given a peculiar cadence as the flails sliced the air around her. “Fall on your knees, go on all fours like the beast you are, and I shall make your end quick and... only moderately painful.”
All fours. Yes, perhaps humans had started out that way, from the water to the trees before climbing to the stars. They still had four limbs, and if they put their minds to it, all four appendages could still grasp. She backed up another pace, and if Hex noticed the slight difference in her stance, she paid it no attention. Suddenly, the Sister's leading leg flashed up, seeming to kick at the empty air well short of the Wych. It looked like an ill-judged strike borne of desperation, and a smirk of contempt was still on Hex's face when she realised what the true intent of the motion was. Clenched between the toes of the bare foot and the ball was a tiny, almost inconsequential amount of that black sand, which, released at the apex of the kick, hurtled straight into the Wych's face. Ordinary sand would have been barely a distraction, but that deadly powder, harvested for the arenas at ridiculous expense from the most dangerous worlds in the galaxy, commanded healthy respect if not outright fear. With both hands occupied with the flails, it was all Hex could do even with her preternatural reflexes to screw her eyes tight shut and turn away, huffing air from mouth and nose to avoid breathing any in. She whirled both flails in front of her as she fell back, covering the brief moment of vulnerability, but in so doing sacrificed the very unpredictability that made them dangerous. And her foe was already moving.
The chainsword swept forward, its song of death suddenly sliding into harmony with the shriek of the flails as all three met in a fatal embrace, whirring teeth snagging on entwining lashes and falling clangorously silent. She yanked at the sparking, vibrating mass, pulling the lightweight form of the Wych savagely towards her whilst striking with the one weapon still free to do so- her head. Even taken off-balance and by surprise, her foe was still a Wych and managed to twist her own head to meet the attack with the solid bone of the skull rather than the weaker ones of her face, and yet the architecture of Humanity proved more robust than that of the Eladrith Ynneas and it was Hex who came off the worst in the collision, reeling back to thud into the sand, closely followed by her half-stunned foe who barely retained the presence of mind to hurl the useless mass of weaponry aside before something critically yielded.
And then, in a final frenzy of violence, the last acts played out in a flurry of blood, limbs and sand. Human hands drove down to Eldar throat, and Anthalassa Hex learned for herself the grim lesson that countless Xenos had learned before her- that whilst the enemies of Mankind might possess superior technology, numbers, or battle prowess there was no force in the galaxy that could match their sheer hatred. Razor-pointed nails scoured at bare skin, and those hands continued to squeeze. Sand was flung into a rage-contorted face, but the eyes were screwed tight shut with blind fury and those hands continued to squeeze. Weakening now, Hex yanked at the white-bleached hair, tried to force fingernails into eye-sockets, twisted and thrashed with incredible suppleness, and still those hands continued to squeeze. And squeeze. And squeeze. And then, there was silence, broken simultaneously by the wild roar of the crowd and a whirring snap from her chainsword as it finally forced free of the entangling flails and sent their lacerated remains to fall in the bloody sand next to the throttled remains of their mistress.
Breathing heavily, bleeding from countless cuts and scratches that blazed with fiery agony where the sand had got into them, she forced herself to her feet. The crowd began a rhythmic, incomprehensible chant as she swept up the sword and thrust it towards the impossible sky, screaming her victory.
“For the Emperor! Death to the Alien!”
And then, she realised the cheers were no longer for her. From behind, some distance away but closing fast, came a low roar that built with every second. She turned, to see the beast advancing, goaded forward by darting figures on those bat-winged sky-boards, six eyes swivelling to fix upon her. One of the handlers darted over her head, turning only to unleash a quick burst of fire from a weapon mounted beneath the board that ripped into the flesh of the thing and served only to drive it into a berserk fury before the whole group of them shot off into the distance, leaving behind only a brief peal of mocking laughter.
There was no time for tactics, no hope of escape. She threw herself headlong to the attack, the words of the Hymn of Hatred springing unbidden to her lips. She ducked the sweep of one clawed hand, and hacked a deep gouge in the wrist of the other, but the thing was fast, too fast, and the wounds she inflicted seemed only to enrage it further. Then it was upon her, those huge claws wrapping around her torso, squeezing and rending. A rib went, and she felt a piercing talon drive deep into her lung. So be it. She commended herself, body and soul, to the Emperor, and in that moment the pain faded away, along with the sounds of battle and the frenzied crowd, replaced instead by a calm, soothing warmth and the song of a distant choir. She watched almost serenely as her previously limp hands rose up in front of her, gripping the sword two-handed. She watched all six of those terrible eyes bulge wide open as she reversed her grip and drove the weapon point-first straight through the head of the beast and deep into its heart. And then there was falling, and the world was replaced with golden light.
The vault was deep, even for a facility of its nature. It was rare indeed for it to receive visitors, and rarer still for them to attend willingly, but Archon Drakkia Hex was paying for it, one way or another, and besides, the Fleshwright had invited her personally. She leant, feigning boredom, against a rare spot of wall not covered in tubes, vials, cylinders or other arcane claptrap and stifled a theatrical yawn.
“So? What is it you have called me down here to see? I admit that watching that bitch sister of mine getting her neck wrung by a mon-keigh, of all things, was worth every soul, prisoner and favour I have traded to back this pet project of yours so far, but your skin-wrangling holds little interest to me.”
The misshapen thing to which she directed her words was barely humanoid in shape. Limbs beyond count or reason stretched from its tortured torso in every direction, and there was what looked like a complete infant Hrud grafted to its back for Vect-knew-what reason, but the Haemonculus known as the Fleshwright was considered second only to Rakarth himself in his skills, and then only when he was out of earshot, which given his penchant for self-modification was generally considered to be several times further even than that of most Eldar. Now, he/she/it extended one of its more humanoid limbs towards a birthing tank in the centre of the room.
“Watch.” it said.
“Watch what? I know enough about what you do here to know it will be some time before this new one is ready to fight again, not to mention the time it takes to clean and recondition its equipment. Finding a compatible power-source for that ridiculous lump of a weapon cost me two small moons, you know, though admittedly I won one of them back on the fight with the Wych pack.”
“It is about to become... viable. It is time you saw how... remarkable that process is.”
A few moments later, within the rich nutrient broth that housed the latest cloned body of what had been Sister Superior Tatyana Kyne of the Order of Our Martyred Lady, a synapse fired. A new-grown heart began steadily to pump, and new limbs began to twitch with life. As the two Dark Eldar watched, one with satisfaction, the other with stunned disbelief, a sudden, golden light flared into the pitch-dark chamber.
“I have tried everything to stop it, trap it, study it.” said the Fleshwright, softly. “It evades canoptic wards, runic stasis incantations and the Nine-Chambered Snare of Tyr. It flows like oiled blood through hermetic seals and ignores Chimeric Mirrors. It is impossible. It is.. beautiful. And it always, always finds her, wherever, whenever and however I restore her body.”
“What.. what is it?” whispered Drakkia, awestruck in spite of herself.
“I think... I believe it is what the mon-keigh call... Faith.”
Remembering herself, Drakkia snorted, and turned on her heels. “Whatever you say, meat-twister. Just have my new Champion ready to fight again before the week is out- I want something to get the attention of Hesperax herself before long.” She gave the Fleshwright a twisted, sardonic smile over her shoulder, a look calculated to drive any normal being to a frenzy of lust. “Just try not to accidentally get us all killed doing it.”
The Fleshwright watched her leave, observing the motion of her gluteus maximus with no more than faint academic interest. “Believe me, my Archon.” he whispered to the silent darkness “I intend much greater than that.”