+++ I +++
Pyotr Alexei Raskolnikov – Raskol, to those who cared to know – hadn’t always had a secret patch of the lightless deep void to himself. Out here, lying low was far easier than hiding in the dust covered hive spires of his youth. The rogue trader’s space junker – the Venerium – and its crew were often on the run, mostly from the same Imperial Administratum that had given Raskol his licence to do exactly as he pleased. Rogue, it’s right there in the job description.
A free-floating point in extragalactic space like this was the perfect hideaway, somewhere far beyond the reach of the Astronomican’s light or the Great Rifts. These were only accessible via the Webway paths shown to Raskol by the enigmatic Aeldari corsair, Septem, who had hitched with the Venerium as an extra gun almost a year ago.
In about ten hours, a Webway gate would open for roughly fifteen minutes and then disappear, reappearing in steadily decreasing time intervals. Raskol had been drinking with Septem in the mess since they arrived, waiting to see the first appearance of the Webway gate during their planned month-long sojourn. With the Webway opening less and less frequently, Raskol had made a habit of staying up to measure how long it took for the first reopening of the secret gateway. Measuring all subsequent reopening intervals would be left to the servitors, but the spectacle alone of the gaping eldritch portal suddenly erupting in the void of deep space was worth every minute of waiting. Septem could stay awake for days with no trouble, but Raskol had to call on some reserved fortitude to make it to day three. After all, there was one subject he was very keen to know more about…
‘…much of what is known of Commoragh in the rest of the known universe is concentrated in the hands of relatively few individuals,’ Septem remarked, standing tall and spare.
‘None of this information describes an interdimensional paradise of any sort, yet it does not outright condemn the existence of… opportunities vital to the common spacefaring trader.’ Raskol interjected, rebuking Septem’s straight and narrow approach to the subject.
Septem sighed and continued, ‘In point of fact, the existence of these opportunities for commerce reflects the predictable needs and temperaments of our people. Of all the traffic in the Dark City, traders from beyond the uigebealach are among the only class of foreigner who survive to see the light of another star. A few gladiators are rumoured to have made it out alive, but rumours are altogether another thing – there is also the Laughing God and his kin.’
Septem spoke his unique low gothic in the cautious fey cadence common to his people, thoughtfully choosing each word. More than thoughtful concentration, it seemed choosing his words was almost painful.
‘I was a trader. I became a trader…’ Septem paused and looked up with his lips pursed in distaste.
He locked his all-black eyes with Raskol briefly and continued, ‘I must… impress… on you how much I do not appreciate your filthy language, Pyotr. Is fhearr leam m’chanan fhin…’
Raskol chortled merrily at his associate’s confidence and poured two shots of rahzvod. ‘Here,’ Raskol pushed a glass across the mess table that separated the two rogues, ‘Drink! To your health, eldar!’
Septem took the glass and knocked it back in a single fluid motion, timed in perfect concert with his drinking companion’s much more traditional human toast.
‘Again!’ said Septem, touching his glass back to the weathered plasteel table.
Raskol poured another two shots and wasted no time slamming his drink down and pouring a third for himself and his companion. Septem kept up the pace as if he were drinking water from the purest spring of a maiden planet. In fact, the synthetic grain alcohol of Valhallan bootleg rahzvod disturbed the corsair so deeply that no human might understand the absolute nadir of disgust and self-pity the Aeldari held repressed within himself.
‘Well, eldar, can you speak now?’ asked Raskol in a solemn and enquiring tone, waiting a moment to maintain eye contact with the Aeldari before he downed his drink in one gulp and roared; “Come down into the muck with your old friend Raskol! We have much to speak of!”
Septem smirked. ‘Give me the bottle, mon-keigh.’
The corsair drank the entire remaining third of Raskol’s bottle and smashed it against the grating of the mess floor.
‘Another!’ demanded Septem.
Raskol was in stitches, barely able to control himself. He reached under his seating unit and with a flourish, drew out another bottle of Valhalla’s finest.
‘This… drink… is almost pure–,’ Septem struggled longer than usual with the word, ‘I think you know what I mean.’
‘Yes, alcohol,’ said Septem, ‘Why do you keep this cold?’
Raskol passed the bottle to Septem with a sudden air of solemn expectation.
‘You must have one too, friend,’ said Septem.
‘I would be honoured!’ Raskol was almost speechless.
The two spacefarers raised their bottles in toast, tossing back the ice-cold liquid. Septem’s drink went down just as effortlessly as before, until the last mouthful caught in his throat and he stifled a deep wretch. Raskol had much better luck, the entire bottle went down without a hitch. The rogue trader drank his entire bottle by rote, drinking in a rhythm that might remind one of a priest reciting prayer. Seeing the corsair choke on his last mouthful broke Raskol’s pious concentration; after the last drop passed his lips, the rogue trader bent over double with laughter. Septem joined him in mirth and smashed his bottle violently on the adjacent wall.
‘Now,’ said Septem, a hint of red in his pale face, ‘We can talk.’
‘Oh?’ Raskol’s eyes flashed with amusement. ‘So why are you called Septem?’
‘My… name? It means ‘seven’ in your vulgar language. You should know that, mon-keigh.’
‘Seven? Seven of what? Seven of how many?’
The Aeldari seemed genuinely flustered with this question for a time, then his face took on a suspicious aspect and relaxed. Humans have never fully understood the value of a name, but Septem’s real name was just as inconsequential as his alias. Worse than inconsequential, having to use an alias in the language of the mon-keigh would be a burning shame for any Aeldari.
‘Seven of ten, Raskolnikov. I am not a trueborn of the Aeldari species.’
Raskol held himself without a word – the Aeldari had been travelling in train with him for ten Terran months. A rogue trader of Raskolnikov’s radical ilk ran into all sorts of company ambling across the stars, but he had only ever met one other Drukhari in the flesh – ex-Drukhari, it didn’t matter. Access to the Dark City of Commorragh was a prize, and after travelling with Septem for so long – it was about time the corsair opened up. But Septem’s shame was something Raskol had some knowledge of and, considering the Aeldari birthright and temperament, this was no time to push too hard.
‘I suppose you think you know my filthy heritage now,’ said Septem sadly. ‘Yes, I was of the druchii – half-born, weaned from my incubation cell in equivalence to ninety-eight Terran years past. Cloned into slavery. After a time, I became an enforcer in a gang of what you call “hellions”.’ Septum’s brow tightened, ‘I stole my living from the weak and I was prostrated before the strong. There is no real law in Commorragh. It is full of the justice of Khaine – mallach d’chanan mon-keigh…’ Septem broke his soliloquy to loosen the muscles in his face and concentrate on the rest of his tale.
‘…Raskol, I say now that you are my friend – in the way that Asuryani Aeldari of the Craftworlds understand this. Perhaps even the way your people understand this, “friendship”. I am no longer Drukhari… when I was Drukhari I had murdered thousands of you mon-keigh! Oh, it was so easy! I flew through the sky like a great winged serpent on my iolaire sgreamhail…’ Septem trailed the fingers of one hand through the air, imitating the flight of his skyboard, ‘…and we took many stimulants. It was… very intense… Pyotr. We often succumbed to the many different chemical stimulants and hallucinogens. Yes… we often became very… inebriated.”
Raskol fought back tears to keep a straight face.
Septem continued, ‘…and then we went out and murdered all different sorts of creatures. Oh! We especially loved packing the arena with little children – carefully selected from all over realspace you see – and then we started the murder show and their sweet, sweet terror would keep us alive for weeks…’ Septem trailed off, lost in thought.
All at once, Septem snapped out of his reverie and looked Raskol straight in the eye. ‘Pyotr! Commorragh is not a very nice place.’
Raskol took that statement as his cue to burst into long and loud laughter. Another bottle of rahzvod emerged from the underseat compartment and he poured another two shots.
‘Methinks you should start pacing yourself, oh ‘dark’ one,’ Raskol teased.
‘I don’t think I will, Pyotr Alexei Raskolnikov.’
‘Say, why does it sound like my bollocks will drop off tomorrow and turn into Grox turds when you say my name like that?’
Septem cackled in response, a cruel mirth that wasn’t entirely disagreeable.
‘Raskol!’ Septem exclaimed, ‘No! No curses! But you do not know the power of a name. It is like… a soul essence. Those who know it truly could wield great power over you.’
Septem seemed to have naturally recovered from his drunken stupor in a matter of minutes.
‘You don’t say?’ said Raskol, quirking an eyebrow.
‘Maybe it doesn’t work on you mon-keigh,’ spat Septem, ‘because you are so stupid! Another!’
They both laughed until it became clear that Septem didn’t want another shot, he wanted the entire bottle to himself.
‘Septem – my friend – we have three tonnes of the Astra Militarum’s finest bootleg rahzvod this side of Armageddon sitting in the hold, and you may have as much as you like – I will stick to my little cup for now, I think,’ said Raskol.
‘Surely you have received some enhancement to your grùthan during your travels, Raskol. I have seen you drink more than this.’
‘Your alcohol-processing apparatus, stupid mon-keigh.’
‘You are quite right. I can do better than this,’ Raskol sighed. ‘Thank you… Seven of ten.’
‘Gratitude?’ Septem snorted. ‘You will have to unlearn many things before we leave for Commorragh.’
Despite his recently relaxed candour, a chill ran down Septem’s spine when Raskol pronounced his whole name, even in his vulgar human tongue.
‘Who said we were leaving for Commorragh?’ asked Raskol.
‘Well… The way you have been speaking of it so often of late, I know you are curious Raskol. I have mentioned there are certain… opportunities… the Imperial trader might benefit from. Perhaps you are merely curious to see simply whether you could visit the Dark City and leave with your “bollocks” remaining attached?’
‘Oof… well,’ Raskol blustered with mock scorn, ‘Septem, my old friend, I would surely be honoured to leave your interdimensional nightmare hellscape of a home city without getting my boys lopped off for my trouble! Come now.’
‘Please slow down mon-keigh,’ said Septem with a hint of mirth, ‘The way you are talking is very ugly to me sometimes.’
The half-born corsair raised the bottle of rahzvod to his lips, closed his eyes, and drained the bottle in a flowing sequence of deep and silent gulps.
‘Ah-,’ Septem groggily lowered the empty bottle to the table, ‘Yes… I am now inebriated.’
‘You’re not ‘inebriated’ mate, you’re drunk!’
‘It is so! Raskol, do you have any chems aboard this vessel? Perhaps some hypex?’
‘The best in the galaxy’, said Raskol
A wicked grin erupted across the corsair’s face.
‘You are kidding me!’ said Septem, ‘You strange little man!’
‘No, I am not.’
+++ II +++
Before Raskol could open his eyes, he could feel his hands and feet tightly bound by monofilament wire. An unpleasant mass filled his mouth and seemed to move as if it were a giant cocoon about to hatch. Overwhelmed with horror, Raskol began desperately attempting to wrench his eyes open and spit up the seething mass gagging him. He couldn’t move his lips. He couldn’t even hear the space around him. More than the wriggling in his mouth or beating in his chest, Raskol was wearing the mother of all hangovers and had therefore lost all ability to reason.
The sound of his screams were stifled totally by the unknown mass writhing in his mouth and throat. After a good fifteen minutes of pure fear and confusion, Raskol gave in. Tears and blood streaked his handsome face as he slumped forward in defeat.
‘Leig as e,’ said a cold voice from outside the tiny chamber in which Raskol found himself prisoner.
The amorphous and smooth texture of the mass in the rogue trader’s throat gained the horrible abrasive quality of a thousand insectoid legs like needles. An improbably long creature burst forcibly from Raskol’s mouth and crawled slowly down his bare chest and onto the floor, all black and shiny, reaching a full length of roughly two and a half metres. The realisation that this insectoid creature had been coiled so tightly inside his head brought Raskol’s mind back online. He gagged and wretched as the creature made its deliberate exit, leaving bloody welts on his body wherever its countless feet made contact. A long trail of saliva dripped from his chin, split stitches hanging loose from his bloody lips. A pair of cruel hands began plucking out the stitches over Raskol’s eyes and ears. He regained his sight slowly and made out a blurry profile of the space around him. He was suspended in a cylindrical cage of what felt like volcanic glass, the edges cutting him to the bone. His cage was hung over a low and dark vestibule with only one other occupant, the Aeldari who plucked his stitches – their all-black eyes glinting in the dark.
Suddenly he felt the cage rise. The ceiling split open, and an intense light robbed Raskol of his sight again. Once he had adjusted to the intense lights situated all around him, he knew immediately where he was. Legends of Commorragh’s arenas were the core of Raskol’s knowledge of the Dark City. Whispers of these arenas echoed across the galaxy to the ears of hungry traders of exotic weapons and goods. The Drukhari hungered for ever more exotic food, gladiators, poisons, weapons, traps, slaves, and raw materials to deliver up the suffering they fed upon to survive.
The floor of the arena closed. The cage fell to the ground as if cut loose from above, smashing like glass on the grimy floor of the arena. Raskol cried out as the cage made impact, the obsidian lacerating his flesh. The baying crowd above screamed en masse like a horde of insects swarming about a carcass. Then a sudden hush flooded the stadium.
A dirty and evil voice rose artificially above the din of thousands, ‘Cord an t’seallaidh!’
The harsh noise of the audience erupted into a feverish pitch. The show had begun, each of the harsh lights flooding the arena shutting off one after the other. Raskol slowly stood in the darkness and took a deep breath, obsidian crunching under his bare feet.
All at once, floodlights filled the arena. Raskol could see that he was not alone. Another hundred or so captives surrounded him in all directions. They had not received the mercy that Raskol had received below, as the rest of the captives still had the monstrous insectoids lodged in their throats. They were of countless different species, quite a few appearing to be Drukhari themselves.
From one end of the arena, a single figure moved toward the centre with poise and purpose. She was a dark-skinned Aeldari in the scantily armoured holosuit of a wych gladiator. She approached the centre of the arena alone. Raskol felt a shiver of recognition up his spine. Who could this be? Who?! He had certainly met them before, but the pain of his wounds and the utter confusion of his situation prevented any further insight. Raskol’s thoughts raced as the Wych stood to attention in the centre of the arena.
The Wych paused in contemplation and inclined her head to say, ‘Leigeil ma sgaoil,’ her voice amplified to reach every corner of the arena. The wicked centipede-like creatures coiled within the heads of the arena captives burst forth from mouths, eyes and other alien orifices simultaneously. Some took the lives of their host in the process, but most were left maimed – the Drukhari were interested in suffering, not death. The remaining captives wailed in terror and pain, the cries from the arena’s seats changing from an expectant buzz to an engorged hiss of satisfaction. The souls of the Drukhari were replenishing. The Wych bowed to the darkened stands and a wave of applause accompanied the satisfied hissing. The Wych stood and turned to face Raskol directly, taking one predatory step in his direction – and another, gaining pace. Raskol was the only captive on his feet; he picked up a shard of obsidian from the filthy steel floor. It was desperate to imagine he could defend himself, yet his instinct had never failed him before. The Wych was but a blurry outline to Raskol, the lacerations around his eyelids preventing him from focussing. Not to mention the pain. His pulse quickened and that only made the pain worse. She drew nearer and Raskol held the shard of razor sharp stone up in front of him blindly.
A great high-pitched scream sounded from on high, and Raskol turned immediately to face it. The Wych stopped calmly in her tracks, perplexed. The outer walls of the arena were high-set and sharp, and a lone figure had risen above them to a small opening. It was a tall figure clad in grey, standing on the back of a skyboard. It dived into the arena, messily at first as if it was looking for someone. Then it made a direct line for Raskol.
‘Septem!’ Raskol muttered in bewilderment.
He didn’t have much time to think before Septem was upon him. The Wych began to run in their direction, a look of hate on her face. Her special quarry was about to escape. The audience came alive with indignation; it wouldn’t be long before winged scourges would be called to pursue the rogue hellion.
Septem hit the brakes and his skyboard reared up to stop a few feet from where Raskol stood and hovered. The corsair leant toward Raskol and offered his hand.
‘Ride or die – mon-keigh,’ snapped Septem above the din of his board’s engines.
Raskol complied immediately, taking Septem’s hand and launching himself on to the back of the skyboard.
Septem wasted no time making their escape. The skyboard’s control chains were wrapped tight around his hands. The corsair pushed the board’s accelerator to the limit, taking them both directly up through the fixed gap through the arena’s roof. A flock of scourges was already descending on the arena. Septem shot straight through the middle of the cloud of scourges, cutting through a wing on the way to the highest point of the arena. They made it through the gap and Septem guided the board down and over the side, straight down into the abyss between Commoragh’s jagged spires.
‘Hold on!’ screamed Septem.
The skyboard’s engine cut out, and the unlikely sky riders found themselves free-falling. Raskol was too confused and tired to scream. Dark shapes at vicious angles flew past them in the green-tinged gloom below. The ambient light of Commorragh’s higher levels faded as they plummeted into the depths. Solid beams of ultraviolet darklight flashed around them as a reminder of the heavily armed Aeldari scourges bringing to bear their dark lances on them from above.
‘The ship – what happened?’ asked Raskol. He was groggy with pain.
‘You think I would rescue you without a plan, friend Raskol?’ said Septem over his shoulder with a chuckle. ‘Our ship awaits…’
Septem kicked on the engine again and made haste between structures unseen in the dark. His sight was keen in the pitch-black underside of Commorragh. The violet beams of darklight issuing from the pursuing scourges waned somewhat, although one came very close to clipping their left wing.
‘The ship is upside – we have to make a direct ascent if we have a chance of escaping. Are you ready Raskol?’ said Septem.
Septem pulled up on the control chains and the skyboard reared. Raskol dry wretched and held on for dear life. He wasn’t sure he could even pilot the ship in his condition. Blood covered his face and hands. Pain throbbed in his temples and across his multiple wounds. Raskol needed a drink.
Gradually the sickly light of Commoragh returned as the two ascended between the monolithic spires of the city. There was air traffic in this section of Commorragh, and baroque skiffs and barges laden with goods and slaves criss-crossed the open air. Septem decelerated and merged into the stream of traffic.
‘Take my cloak,’ said Septem hurriedly. He undid the clasp holding his cloak and Raskol carefully threw it over his back with one arm.
‘We are in the commercial section of the city,’ said Septem. ‘Those who have been chasing us will arrive soon. Our ship isn’t far.’
Raskol couldn’t help a twinge of anger over Septem’s use of the words ‘our ship’. But he was alive after all.
‘What happened to me – how did I end up in the arena?’ asked Raskol
Septem remained quiet. Below and to their right, a junkyard of sorts emerged between the spires and platforms of the Drukhari trade district. The Venerium sat on an awkward angle on top of a pile of trash. An ugly Aeldari with a hump and several bionic implants – most notably his eyes – waved them down as Septem approached. On touchdown, Raskol fell back off the skyboard in a heap. He would have thrown up, but he had nothing in his stomach. Septem stepped lightly from the board and exchanged a few words with the junk dealer. Some coins were exchanged and the odd looking Drukhari hobbled back into his workshop. Septem came around to Raskol and helped him to his feet.
‘Let us leave this place, friend Raskol,’ said Septem. ‘We must do so immediately.’
‘Aye’ replied Raskol.
They entered the Venerium through the back hatchway. The blocky Imperial junker was in no better or worse condition than Raskol last remembered; even their Astropath was still intact.
‘Bart!’ Raskol called weakly.
‘Yes?’ replied Bartholomew the Astropath.
‘Bart, can you warm up for a warp jump in the next, say, five minutes?’
‘I don’t think we can warp jump from within the webway, Pyotr.’
‘Let’s find out shall we,’ replied Raskol, ‘and call me Raskol you silly bugger!’
‘Don’t call me Bart then.’ shot back Bartholomew the Astropath.
Raskol left him to his devices and dragged his aching body to the cockpit. Septem stowed his skyboard in the cargo hold and joined Raskol.
‘As soon as we’re up in the air…’ Septem said as he fiddled with a navigational panel, ‘head straight for this point.’
A hologram appeared to the left of Raskol’s heads-up navigational display as he booted the engines up and raised the Venerium from the platform. The holographic image displayed a course between the spires to a circular destination high above the spires of the city. A webway gate.
‘Once we’re through the gate, we should warp jump to safety,’ said Septem.
‘Is our smuggler’s den safe?’
‘No, friend Raskol, it is not’
‘Let us escape first. You are not very smart, mon-keigh – you came to Commoragh and you were captured, taken as a slave for the arena. What did you expect? I did not lie. There are opportunities here for commerce. But you had to leave the ship. You had to chase that Craftworlder…’
They had almost left the spires behind, three red spots appeared on the ship’s sensor array.
‘They have found us,’ said Septem grimly.
Three sleek Drukhari gunships were on an intercept course from their port side. Behind the ships was a cloud of black wings, the scourges who gave them chase earlier. Raskol leaned hard on the controls, the webway gate was right in front of him. He grabbed the comms vox connected to the ship’s Astropath unit.
‘Bart, warp us to Carnarvon-5 on my mark.’
‘Yessir,’ came the reply from the vox.
The Venerium shot through the webway gate with the three gunships in hot pursuit. With a lurch, they exited the portal. The imposing gateway stood over the cold ground of an ice planet. Jagged cliffs of ice rose around them like cruel shards jutting into the sky, the webway portal nestled within a shallow crevasse. Raskol pulled the Venerium up and they could see the Webway portal had fallen into the crevasse after some natural disaster had damaged the glacier it had originally stood upon. Perhaps it wasn’t such a natural disaster.
‘Shit, you didn’t say anything about the gate being planetside, Septem!’ shouted Raskol.
‘It will… scramble… the navigational systems of our pursuers’
‘It’s already scrambled mine! I expected we’d be in deep space, good thing the gravity compensators still work.’
With a sputter, the Venerium’s engines fought against the gravity of the ice planet, and they ascended through the atmosphere.
‘Brian, it’s time,’ said Raskol through his vox.
The three gunships overshot their entry through the webway gate. Clearly, they expected to be exiting into deep space as well. One of the gunships clipped a cliff and spun out into a crevasse. The other two raised their noses and sped into the atmosphere, breaking through to orbit.
Their quarry had vanished.
+++ III +++
The Venerium broke through the thin atmosphere of Carnarvon-5. Previously it had been a bustling trading port on the outer edges of Imperial space, but several hundred years ago the planet was picked clean of life by a mysterious pandemic. The Imperium had formulated plans to retake the planet at a set time in the distant future. In the meantime, an assortment of pirates, traders and smugglers made the upper crust their home.
Raskol set the Venerium down in the cavernous steel hangar of Carnarvon-5’s chief port and ordered a few kegs of ale to be delivered to the ship. He had no wish to be seen in the local tavern, especially in his condition. It was time to rest and recuperate. It was also a time for some answers.
Raskol found Septem reclining in his quarters. ‘Come out to the mess, eldar,’ said Raskol, ‘I have questions.’
The Aeldari assented quietly and followed Raskol through the short passage between the ship’s quarters and the mess. They sat, but this time neither had a drink.
‘What happened in Commoragh, Septem?’ Raskol asked in earnest, ‘before I was captured?’
‘You and I became very drunk, and we rode high on your supply of hypex – the rest of which I managed to sell to my connections,’ replied Septem.
‘It’s not very complicated actually – you became aware of an old friend of yours. A craftworlder you called Lorelai. Lorelai Bonesinger. She accompanied my connection and captured you personally. There seemed to be some sort of unfinished business between you two?’
Raskol was stunned. He and Lorelai went back to his early days of smuggling. She was a craftworld outcast who had briefly joined his crew and shared his bed. She was the dark-skinned Wych in the arena, and she was the Aeldari who released Raskol from the insectoid horror before he went up. There was some unfinished business between them, but giving up her heritage to join the Drukhari? It was unheard of, unthinkable even.
‘We know each other…’ Raskol said mysteriously.
‘Ah, well, she demanded you as chattel in addition to the hypex. In fact, she insisted. I said no, of course. She took you anyway.’
‘You didn’t put up a fight?’ said Raskol with a hint of anger.
Septem laughed, ‘Of course I fought them! I killed her man. Unfortunate really, he paid us quite handsomely for the hypex.’
Raskol grunted in a way which usually indicates mild satisfaction.
‘I wish I had more to tell you Raskol, but you were taken before we could hit the cantinas. Let this be a lesson to you. Now, pour me a drink.’
A crackling sound came from the ship’s intercom, it was Bart.
‘Raskol,’ Bart said through the crackling vox speaker, ‘– Raskol!’
There was some sort of interference over the intercom.
Raskol hit the intercom button, ‘Bart. You’re breaking up, why don’t you come down to the mess?’
‘You’re… want to see th… Massive psychic read… off the charts… we… followed. Observ… deck, come… goddamn now!’