Mirvan Hellex strode into the foyer of the Opal Orbital with the intention of losing everything.
The credit slate she carried contained wealth unimaginable in her previous life: the sort of money that could corrupt souls and bend the ears of powerful and influential individuals. It was a level of currency that the Opal Orbital, premier gambling house of the Argan sub-sector, specialised in and saw pass through its gilded doors on an hourly basis. The mere act of carrying the slate disquieted her, stirring a pot of complex emotions that she struggled not to betray. She wanted rid of it all as soon as possible.
Luckily, she had come to the right place.
She waded through the throng of long-stay guests checking into their rooms and day visitors deep into their latest round of cocktails. These men and women were privileged beyond even the most elite in Imperial society. She passed a wealthy scion of the Navis Nobilite, clad in scarlet ermine-hooded robes, sharing a joke with his compatriots. Then a fresh-faced Ecclesiarch fussing over his procession of attendants and bodyguards, even his serfs bedecked with exquisite finery.
She made straight for the high-stakes parlour, trying not to feel like the dull stone placed within a bowl of precious gems. Despite her recent injection of juvenat, the first she had ever received, Hellex looked far paler, thinner, and more weather-worn than any amongst the crowd.
‘Please deposit your lethal accessories at the Client Service Desk,’ chorused the suited servitor at the doors to the parlour. ‘No weapons of any kind are permitted beyond this point. The house retains final say on what does and does not constitute a weapon. If you are unsure, please attract the attention of one of our attendants.’
‘I’m not armed,’ said Hellex, though the cold slate pressed against her thigh through her silk gown felt more dangerous than any pistol or blade.
‘Acknowledged,’ replied the servitor. ‘Please produce your slate for inspection.’
She passed the damn thing over. Hellex knew she was being subjected to all kinds of sweeps from the wall-mounted scanners tastefully concealed by the filigree décor. Many of the attendants, dressed almost indistinguishably from the patrons they served, would be armed to the teeth under their jackets. The security teams took no chances at the Opal — they wished to create an environment in which rich men could become destitute in complete safety and comfort.
The servitor, its visage fixed into a facsimile of a polite smile, stared at her for a long moment. Hellex felt her pulse rise in anticipation of being found out, that somehow this lobotomised machine could sense how nervous this all made her and categorise it as suspect. Or worse, that somehow the funds were already gone. That there had never been any funds. That it would recognise her as the backwater commoner she really was and summon the guards to remove the riff-raff in their midst.
The servitor produced a trilling sound, then gestured towards the doors. They swung open on their own accord. A warm and fragrant, though no less artificial, breeze gusted through. She heard boisterous laughter and a tinkling harp melody. She could see the brilliant light of chandeliers, their shine refracting from the waters of a grand fountain emblazoned with gold and lapis lazuli detailing. Tobacc smoke coiled in the air.
‘Madam,’ the servitor intoned. ‘Enjoy your evening.’
The Threat of Retribution languished in near-orbit, the grand cruiser slumbering like some deep-sea leviathan. Hellex inspected the vessel through an armourglass viewport, cradling an amber measure of raenka – which was quite possibly the finest thing she’d ever tasted. In the distance, shoals of support craft banked and whirled around the titanic vessel, backlit by the green orb of the planet Garrovan. Hellex could tell, having been raised upon a world specialised in void refit, that the ship had been patched up following a recent engagement – and would doubtlessly be flung back into the fight soon.
But which fight, she wondered. To the galactic north, the Octarius System was so riven with xenos that the entire region had been declared non-viable. Coreward, the Vapour Stars were seized in a terminal spiral of civil strife and in-fighting, whilst to the east and south, heretical warbands and Drukhari raiders made playthings of worlds that couldn’t be adequately safeguarded by the over-stretched Imperial Navy. Her new employers had shown her all this and more, a glimpse of a burning galaxy as seen through the cursed lens of the truth.
And here she was, enjoying fine liquor whilst in service to the Throne. Let it not be said that there were no pleasant surprises for even the most humble souls in the Emperor’s Imperium.
Hellex turned. She had quite failed to notice the young man trying to get her attention.
‘A seat at the table you requested has become available. Are you familiar with the game and the stakes?’
Hellex affected an air of indifference. ‘I’d be in the wrong place entirely if I wasn’t,’ she said with a practised drawl.
‘Of course, madam. Please, follow me.’
The attendant led her further into the parlour. It was a cavernous space, glimmering like newly-minted coin, designed to comfortably fit two dozen different games of chance whilst still prioritising the privacy of the guests. It was bordered on one side by a glamorous bar, advertising a selection of rare alcoholic beverages that would leave a PDF trooper deep in his cups weeping with envy. Artificial streams bled from ornamental gardens, deliberately, yet subtly, blocking various lines of sight.
They arrived at Game Table Ten, where a war-scarred dealer was busy preparing the next round of black-the-jack. It was an ancient Terran game and the rules had been pounded into her head through weeks of practice. Four other players sat at the semicircular table. All were dressed ostentatiously, though in varying styles. Hellex sat next to a paunched, tanned gentleman in a crisp dinner jacket. He offered her a nod of welcome and a small smile that was as coy as it was handsome.
‘Welcome to the game,’ he said. ‘My name is Janus. Yours?’
‘Mirvan.’ She shook his hand politely then looked to the next player, a matronly woman in satin evening-wear and understated make-up. Her right eye and cranium were heavily augmented, though Hellex imagined that such additions were deactivated within the confines of the Opal.
A tiny creature yipped and snuffled in her lap. It took Hellex a moment to register that the beast, some degenerate subspecies of canine, was entirely cybernetic. She had seen cybermastiffs in use by patrols around Imperial facilities and was shocked to see a similar design being used as little more than an accessory. This, she supposed, was fashionable, amongst those with money to squander.
‘Don’t mind me, dear,’ said the augmented woman without meeting her eye. ‘I’m here to play, not socialise. Be careful of the one next to you: he’ll talk your ear off if you allow him.’
Janus raised his hands as though wounded. ‘I promise to not allow my genial interest in my fellow players to delay proceedings, Lady Ispell.’
‘See that you don’t. Dealer, may we proceed?’
Without a word of acknowledgment, the attendant shuffled the deck and laid out the next hand, flicking two cards to each player face-down. Before long, the first round of bets were placed. Hellex put in an equal stake without much thought. She had come to drain her account, and do so in a way that conveyed the endless confidence and nonchalance of the Imperial nobility.
Despite this, she found herself ahead after the first round, drawing in a decent payout. Janus nodded and flashed another winning smile.
‘Excellent work. Would you care for a victory drink?’
‘No, thank you,’ Hellex replied, raising the dregs of her liquor. ‘Still working on my first.’
In reality, there were a hundred different items on the menu she craved to experience. But there was no sense inebriating herself further than necessary to blend in.
A raised voice drifted over from the next booth along, boorish and self-satisfied. Lady Ispell rolled her biological eye whilst another player, a stern military type, turned in irritation.
‘That man over there has been determined to test my patience since he arrived,’ muttered Lady Ispell. Her gaze had barely left the cards, yet her mouth had thinned disapprovingly.
‘I am sorry, Madam,’ said the attendant. ‘My colleague will deal with the gentleman if he becomes disruptive.’
‘I am sure he will, Andre. May that moment come swiftly.’
‘Here here,’ said Janus. ‘Now, shall we?’
The game proceeded in steady silence, broken only by the occasional small talk from Janus. Hellex began to lose money. She knew how to play, where to maximise her gains and thin her losses. She also knew where to overreach and undersell her hands. The impression she gave was of a competent, yet inexpert player; someone happy to burn through credits without the need to react emotionally to setbacks. Janus physically winced as one of her hands wiped a solid amount from her slate.
‘Hard luck,’ he said.
‘It is quite alright,’ replied Hellex. ‘I am here for the experience, whatever happens.’
‘A fine attitude indeed. Too many here tonight reek of desperation. Not around our humble table, of course, but some in the greeting lounge seem convinced that they will leave here wealthier than they arrived.’
‘They must be unfamiliar with the concept of a casino.’
‘Well, quite. This is no place for those with something of importance to lose, for chances are they will do just that.’
A commotion at the nearby booth caused Hellex and Janus to turn. They had a partial view of the loud-mouthed gentleman aggressively pushing back his chair.
‘Don’t you understand what I’m telling you?’ the oaf complained. ‘This watch – this is no common item, you buffoon. It’s as worthwhile an investment as one could offer. Take it – please, accept it.’
The man was clearly drunk. An adolescent girl stood beside him, his daughter perhaps, looking up at him with sincere panic in her eyes.
‘Father, please,’ she whispered. ‘You promised–’
‘Quiet,’ he snapped. ‘Don’t interrupt.’
‘Sir,’ said the booth’s attendant, ‘as has been explained to you, we do not accept personal items as currency. This was made very clear before you entered.’
‘Frik your rules,’ growled the man, leaning towards the attendant in a repulsive display of menace. ‘I’m not done here. Tell it to whoever you need to tell. I don’t friking care. Sort it out. Now.’
The attendant merely glanced towards a pair of security personnel and they rapidly closed the distance. Before he realised what was happening, the man was restrained in a firm, and no doubt painful, armlock, whilst his adolescent companion looked on distraught.
‘I’d look away if I were you,’ whispered Janus. ‘Best to leave the man to his own disgrace.’
‘And good riddance!’ announced Lady Ispell as the man was hauled away to Emperor knew where. His daughter turned, briefly catching Hellex’s eye, before being escorted after her miscreant father in a gentler fashion.
‘Good riddance indeed,’ echoed the military man in a melancholy voice. He had not been doing well since Hellex arrived and was clearly considering his options.
‘To the absence of distraction,’ Janus announced, raising his glass and downing the contents. He looked at Hellex with surprising warmth. ‘Well, I suppose, not a complete absence.’
She wanted to ask him what he had meant, but the words stuck in her throat. Despite herself, she could feel a blush prickling her cheeks. Mirvan Hellex was many things, but the last time she’d received a sincere flattering compliment she had been at least a decade younger. Her old life had not invited many occasions for honest flirtation, and certainly not from men like Janus.
The moment passed, and soon she was back to the laborious business of losing all her money.
The process took another full hour of play. Throughout this time, the military man left in dejection and Lady Ispell was summoned away by one of her assistants. New players had taken their places, but Hellex afforded them no mind. She won rounds and lost rounds, but always made sure, as far as probability allowed, that when she lost, she lost hard.
Eventually, she settled her cards to the table and indicated she was done. There was precious little money left on the slate now.
‘It appears you are finished for the evening,’ Janus observed.
‘It appears so. I might have lost a hab-spire’s worth of coin tonight, yet I feel oddly pleased with the fact.’
‘You played well enough,’ Janus lied, ‘but, permit me to ask, Mirvan, if you were only playing casually, why pick the most expensive table in the house?’
She inhaled the tobacc she had permitted herself to order, unable to resist that particular temptation, and fixed the man with a level stare.
‘For the thrill of it, of course,’ she said. ‘Have yourself a pleasant and uneventful evening, Janus.’
Janus raised his glass in respect. ‘I can only promise the former, Madam Hellex.’
On her way towards the exit, Hellex was intercepted by two more of the security detail.
‘Is something the matter?’ she asked.
‘Not precisely, ma’am. But we’d like you to come with us.’
If the Opal was anyone’s jewel, it was Zabadoir Huff’s.
Of course, he had not constructed the Opal, or laid any of its principle foundations, but it had been his family who had first done so, generations prior. Zabadoir was the proud owner of the Opal, its many subsidiary houses across the Argan sub-sector, and an astonishing fortune. He conducted much of his business from the station itself, rarely stepping foot upon the world of Garrovan that his empire slowly orbited.
He was famously elusive, a collector of the arts and other rarities. He was the shadow king of his own lucrative domain, and his invisible hands dove deep into the pockets of all who passed through the Opal’s doors in willing tribute.
Many people had craved to meet the infamous heir of the Huff dynasty, and they would have been outraged to hear the ease with which Hellex had been able to do so. The power of secrets, she mused.
The meeting took place deep in the station’s bowels. It surprised her, as they went on, how quickly the ostentatious glamour faded away, until all that was left was dimly-lit steel corridors and armoured access hatches. It was cold down here and once or twice she heard strange noises echoing through the depths.
Eventually, they arrived in the narrow room where Zabadoir Huff conducted his business. He was waifish and androgynous, dressed in dark, close-fit robes, standing to eager attention behind his grand nalwood desk. Like his baldpate, it was polished to a mirror sheen. He displayed genuine excitement as he darted around to shake Hellex’s hand.
‘You must forgive my enthusiasm,’ he said in a quavering voice, ‘I had thought us all accounted for. And yet, here you are. Welcome to the side of the Opal that few get to see.’
‘It’s not quite what I anticipated,’ said Hellex.
‘Well, it is a whole different game we are playing down here. Conditions must be just right, you see. But, before I go further into specifics, I must ask you some questions.’
‘You are not surprised to be here, talking to me.’
‘I did not expect to meet you personally, but I am unsurprised that such precautions need to be taken.’
‘Quite. Well, you knew the way in. You knew to pay the correct entrance fee at the right table. And, if you have paid such a mighty sum to be here, that can only mean that your intentions are serious. Could you tell me whom you represent?’
‘Is that an honest question or a demand?’
‘An honest question, asked without expectation. There are some who have come tonight who maintain strict secrecy. Others are free to tell me who they represent and why, and have happily done so. It is of little interest to me, ultimately. I have three priorities here, Mirvan Hellex. Firstly, all who pass into this sanctum come understanding that we exist in total secrecy. Secondly, I must ascertain, with nothing less than full confidence, that you are not an envoy of the Archenemy, or any other heretical factions.’
Hellex flinched at the thought.
‘If you’re not going to interrogate me about my employers and their interests, how would you know whether or not I have connections to the Archenemy?’
Zabadoir smiled softly. ‘I would know. Or, at the very least, I would find out. Trust me on this.’
‘And the third condition?’
‘The third condition is that we do not tolerate idle buyers. There must be serious intent to purchase one of the lots at auction. I understand that, since you have not seen the goods yet, it is difficult to make this promise. However, significant bids must be placed if unwelcome consequences are to be avoided.’
Hellex nodded. ‘I have access to further funds, Lord Huff. I have no intention of wasting anybody’s time.’
‘Very well. And please, call me Zabadoir. I do have to ask though, who provided you with the invite?’
And here was the gamble, one that had concerned her since plans had first been drawn.
‘Captain Horyt Van Krell of the Lambent Passion.‘
Zabadoir raised an eyebrow. ‘Indeed? We have not heard from Captain Van Krell in so long, I had almost thought him lost.’
Hellex shrugged. ‘It is a possibility. His invite was extended after a brief acquaintance some years past. The group I represent have not seen him in some time, and what with the Great Rift…’
The magnate held up a hand. ‘Say no more. I don’t even like to think of it. Such a terrible time. A terrible, terrible time. But, you would not be the first mystery Van Krell has sent my way, and he knows how important it is for my operation to remain clandestine. I trust his recommendations as he trusts my advice. Tit for tat, you see.’
‘I do, Zabadoir.’
What Hellex had not said was that Van Krell’s mighty merchant vessel had long been a gutted husk upon the moon that circled the world of Ezriek Secondus. It had been the origin of a deadly disturbance on that world and only through the dedicated data-scrubbing of her employer’s technical specialist had they discovered the leads that had led here – to the Opal Orbital. It had been a tentative thread at best, yet they had pulled at it until the true origin of the ship’s murderous cargo had been revealed: sold at auction at the most exclusive venue imaginable. They had discovered the method for buying into the event – via an eye-watering payment at Game Table Ten – within the Captain’s secure archives. So far, their intelligence had proven reliable.
‘Well then, I am satisfied to proceed,’ said Zabadoir. ‘The auction will begin soon, after the entertainment. I assume you will be in attendance?’
‘I would like nothing more. When will we be permitted access to the items on sale? My masters are seeking a very particular acquisition.’
‘Of course. Since you have missed the preliminary discussions, I have arranged for you to have a brief inspection.’
‘You are most kind.’
‘I do my best, Madam Hellex. One of my most regular and trusted clients awaits you outside. I encourage you, however, to be brief. The entertainment starts within the hour.’
‘I look forward to seeing you there.’
Hellex departed, feeling the magnate’s stare upon her back.
Waiting for her outside, tipsy yet beaming, was Janus.
Hellex had spent much of her life within the vicinity of weapons. She’d spent decades serving in Ezriek Secondus’s PDF and had been one of the better shots in her unit. Since joining her new employers, she’d received training with weaponry that she’d never even previously imagined.
The items on display in Zabadoir Huff’s auction vault put those toys to shame.
It was all undoubtedly xenos in origin, and thus highly illegal. Even so, this was no simple black market haul fresh from the edges of Imperial territory. Most were true marvels, the height of technological ingenuity from species whose empires had lived and died long before the 41st millennium. Thanks to her new employers, Hellex now had the education required to discuss such artefacts.
Janus chatted enthusiastically as they strolled from lot to lot. They passed a two-handed power glaive mounted upon a wraithbone stand, its name apparently ‘The Exarch’s Kiss.’ Next came a dormant XV88 battlesuit in pristine condition, salvaged after a hasty, bitter retreat by the T’au Empire in the far galactic east. Strangest of all was the massive, gnarled choppa and twin-barrelled autocannon arm of the slain Ork Warboss, Throatchoka Grak – a lot that surely held no practical value and would only be of interest to the most deranged collectors.
‘Zabadoir’s little soirées attract all sorts,’ explained Janus. ‘Some, like myself, are seeking functioning gear that will provide their warriors a decisive edge in battle. Others, however, are simply obsessed with anything alien and deadly. It eludes me why anybody would spend a fortune on a battered ork hatchet and a disembodied arm when they could simply sail to Octarius and collect one for free.’
‘It is a matter of status, I think,’ said Hellex. ‘Quite possibly the worst reason to purchase anything.’
‘I quite agree. Like that man earlier, hawking his shiny watch just to stay in the game. Clearly he held not an iota of respect for the thing.’
‘Or himself,’ said Hellex, and the two shared a smile. There was a content moment of silence as they strolled.
Hellex knew they were surely being watched, and surrounded by defence mechanisms powerful enough to obliterate them at a moment’s notice. But it still felt sufficiently private to border on intimate.
‘Honestly, it is a pleasure to meet new blood,’ said Janus. ‘I’m afraid I’ve become so bored with the regular company at these things. That’s why I spend so much time at Table Ten, scoping out those who might be making the initial deposit to the house. It became obvious to me not long before you quit the game that you were such a person.’
‘Is that your only reason for languishing at that table, Janus? You weren’t perhaps scoping out the competition before the big moment?’
He chuckled. ‘A bit of this, a bit of that. The group I represent are interested in only the best. I like to see, at least, what type of characters I’m up against.’
‘Well, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m in the market for something very particular.’
She stopped before the lot that she had been ignoring. But now, it was time to address it. For it was this machine, beyond all others, that had led her here in the first place.
She turned to stare up at it. Colossal. Armoured. Barrel-chested. A silver and animalistic combat machine. And totally unique.
Except it wasn’t. She had seen one of these machines before. The design was almost identical, and in this inactive state, it looked less like a warsuit and more like some great ursine statue.
The first time she’d seen one, it had been the night her entire platoon had perished. It had been the worst night of her life. She could feel her hands trembling, her heart pounding. She only hoped that it wasn’t obvious to Janus.
‘This does not fit any xenos design I am aware of,’ she stammered.
Janus came up beside her. ‘No. Even I do not know where Zabadoir gets these things. I understand it is a psyk-controlled battlesuit of some magnificence. This machine, if properly serviced and maintained, is apparently a monstrous thing. That is why, perhaps, it is amongst the most expensive and most prized of the lots today.’
Hellex went quiet for a time.
‘What’s on your mind?’ asked Janus.
‘I was just thinking. It reminds me of a hound.’
‘A hound?’ He looked up at the machine. ‘I suppose it does.’
Before the auction could begin, the few dozen buyers were invited from their rooms to engage in a particular indulgence. Janus and Hellex arrived just on time, slipping into a dull-lamped, vaulted chamber. It was constructed like a colosseum, with seats framing a sand pit embedded low into the floor. Fences of reinforced diamantine mesh rose from the sides of the depression, as though to stop anything within from attempting escape.
‘He runs a casino and a secretive xenos-tech emporium,’ said Janus with an apologetic shrug. ‘Is it a surprise that the man has some bizarre fixations?’
‘I cannot help but feel we are to be treated to some blood sport,’ said Hellex disapprovingly.
‘Yes, more gambling, I’m afraid. I believe it sends a message. Firstly, it reminds his clients the fate of those that cross him. Secondly, it allows him to flaunt some of the more…energetic items in his collection.’
They took their seats. There were perhaps sixty individuals in the chamber, mostly buyers and their entourages, with the last few stragglers slipping inside before the doors were sealed. Security personnel hugged the shadows. Servo-skulls hovered above. Hellex heard growls and snarls from below. Zabadoir had already taken his place at a control booth embedded into the stands nearby. He exchanged a nod with Janus.
‘So, we’re to be treated to live xenos taking apart defenceless humans? How riveting. I am sure the Emperor smiles upon our merry gathering.’
Janus smiled awkwardly. ‘If we are to sin, Mirvan, let us at least try to do so in the dark, and for a noble purpose.’
Hellex couldn’t see what was noble in this arrangement, but she let the comment slide. Despite discomfort, this was precisely what their intelligence had suggested. It had been expected.
After several minutes, Zabadoir stood to address the crowd. His voice was amplified through vox speakers, but his cadence was of a man respectfully addressing guests at dinner.
‘Ladies and gentleman, welcome to this most exquisite of private events at the Opal Orbital. It is a sincere pleasure to see you gathered here, old faces and new. As is tradition here at the Opal, we start the programme with a display of xenos cunning, savagery and prowess. The individuals you see fighting here tonight have willingly chosen to resist these terrible beasts for your education and entertainment. By witnessing these aliens in action, you will see how your acquisitions later tonight can defend your people and holdings against xenos threats the length and breadth of the galaxy.’
‘I’d be willing to fight too,’ Janus murmured under his breath, ‘if the alternative was being shoved from an airlock.’
‘We shall witness five engagements, each increasing the lethality and intelligence of both the aggressors and the defenders until a truly beautiful combat is formed. So, let us begin gradually, with one pair of fools facing off against another!’
A heavy portico began to rise. Two individuals were shoved onto the sand to polite applause. It was the drunk from the earlier altercation and his young daughter. Both looked terrified out of their wits, each holding a barbed club that neither could adequately wield. No roaring crowds for this sport, only the reserved observation of a curious elite. Nonetheless, there was another round of applause as both individuals bowed to their captors.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, our first combatants! Earlier this night, they abused the hospitality of my fine establishment, dug themselves into debt and behaved most inappropriately towards my hard-working staff. In penance for these crimes against the house, they have agreed to participate in our evening’s first contest.’
Hellex stared down at the man and the girl. He wore a leather jacket of some quality, a clean-pressed yet plain shirt and trousers, and sported fresh welts under his eyes. Despite his position, there was an undeniable solidity to him, that of a man trained for fighting. The petite adolescent stood in a simple robe of cream and vermillion, tied around her waist and arms with leather bands. Her dark hair was in a ponytail, her face sharp and fair. Her eyes were wide as she scanned the crowd.
Her eyes met Hellex’s. They stared at one another.
‘I think she’s looking at you,’ said Janus. ‘Poor girl. I must say, it seems excessive to bring her into it.’
Hellex did not reply. She met the girl’s gaze and nodded. The girl nodded in return. That was all that needed to be passed between them.
‘Before me are five levers,’ continued Zabadoir with increasing relish. ‘Each releases a different xenos breed upon the arena. In advance of our opening round, I invite our combatants to address the audience.’
There was a moment of silence. Then, to the general interest of all gathered, the girl stepped forward. She looked up at the crowd, settling upon Zabadoir, all remnants of fear gone from her expression. Now, her gaze was hard and cold as a continent of ice.
‘Good evening. I am Inquisitor Eloise Duhana of the Ordo Hereticus,’ the girl announced. ‘To all gathered here, I command you to throw down your weapons at once and acquiesce to the Emperor’s justice.’
The silence that followed was so utter, so complete, that for a moment all that could be heard was the whine of the servo-skull’s engines and a persistent alien hiss. Janus’s mouth had dropped open. Hellex tensed, ready for whatever was to come.
At his control booth, Zabadoir Huff blinked once and sighed.
‘I see,’ he muttered.
Then he reached for the fifth lever and pulled.
The gate marked with the numeral five ripped open.
Eloise had but a second to prepare before several lithe, grotesque figures bounded from the tunnel’s darkness.
The Emperor’s Inquisitors were as diverse in their appearance, backgrounds and skill sets as any elite operatives in the Imperium of Man. Inquisitor Eloise Duhana was perhaps the only one trapped in the body of her adolescent self. This fact was incidental to the situation at hand. She was what she was, and she used it to her advantage wherever possible. But this was not what made her stand out amongst her peers in the Ordo Hereticus.
Her weapons proficiency was acceptable enough for one in her position. Her ability to delve into the minds of others was adequate but in no way masterful. Her intelligence and intuition were exceptional, yet that could be said of almost all of her kind.
What made Eloise noteworthy, beyond all other factors, were her skills as a telekine. As one who could use the powers of the Warp to manipulate the physical world.
The Tyranid hormagaunts leapt, their vicious claws kicking up sand. A trio of scythe-armed, hissing, ravenous monsters from the depths of space, their stunted minds focussed only upon her death.
With the tips of their blades inches away from her face, Eloise released the blunt force of her kine shield.
The crowd watched, stupefied, as for the slimmest instant the xenos were suspended in the air, caught by a power they could neither see nor sense.
The closest hormagaunt hissed in surprise. Its ghoulish lips peeled back, snarling spittle into the Inquisitor’s face.
Eloise cried out and propelled the psychic dome outwards.
All three aliens flew like living missiles across the arena.
One smashed into the opposite wall with bone-shattering force. Another rolled like tumbleweed across the sand, zooming past Father, her operative, as if caught in a gale. The third was thrown back down the tunnel whence it came, screaming in ear-splitting bewilderment.
Eloise knew the resilience of the Tyranid. She knew that her attack would not be enough.
A guard in the stands was shocked to find his pistol wrenched from his grip as though snatched by a phantom. It flew into the arena, only to be caught by Father.
The operative swung to the dazed creature scrabbling to its feet behind him and plugged it with solid rounds. The fourth shot blew the alien’s skull into fragments. Ichor splattered the arena wall.
Zabadoir Huff watched on intently.
The two remaining hormagaunts had already rallied. They swept back into view. Eloise psychically pulled against the diamantine shielding protecting the lip of the arena. Two meshed slabs ripped away from their mountings, dragging more of the protective barrier down into the pit with a roar.
The audience cried out. The two slabs of metal came to circle Eloise, floating in the air. One Tyranid dashed in to skewer her, only to be deterred by another volley of rounds from Father’s pistol.
It turned and went for him.
The second leapt at Eloise, mouth wide as if to devour her whole.
Eloise caught the Tyranid against the flat of the metal sheet then slammed its bulk forward with fearsome force. The sheet flew straight as an arrow and crushed the hormagaunt against the opposite wall like a bug. Stinking gore fountained into the air.
Eloise’s other section of metal sheeting slammed upright into the sand between Father and his attacker. The gaunt howled, darting back in her direction. It was absurdly nimble, losing none of its speed or ferocity as it changed course. Eloise flipped something from a nook in her robes, something that security had entirely failed to catch. It was a compact retractable kineblade, a needle-thin sword attuned to her specific psychic resonance. It was built for infiltration actions such as these, resistant to all but the rarest scans.
As if of its own accord, the blade swept forward and began to duel its opponent on the sands. The gaunt smashed its scythe-arms against the irritating shard of steel blocking its path to the vulnerable organic it craved to consume. The kineblade caught and parried, caught and parried, the alien snapping at it with claw and bite and scythe.
Father chose that moment to break for the tunnel. At a gesture from Zabadoir, his guards began to fire. Each shot pinging off yet another psychic barrier until he vanished into the gloom.
Eloise had barely a moment to break off her protection around Father before the xenos was upon her once again.
Secure the target.
The voice was Eloise’s. The thought appeared directly in Hellex’s mind. The sensation was unpleasant. She could tell from the brief connection that the Inquisitor was under a great amount of strain. Her empyrean-gifted powers were significant, but not without their limits.
‘We should go,’ she said through gritted teeth. That was when she noticed that Janus had already left.
Zabadoir Huff no longer had any doubts that his enterprise was under siege from the Inquisition.
It had always been a latent threat, but not one he had realistically expected to materialise. Where had he gone wrong? Had it something to do with that idiot Van Krell? His mind was awhirl with irritation and disappointment. Someone must have sold him out.
He still had options. Contingency plans existed. All he had to do was solve the immediate problem. Once the threat was neutralised, he could be gone from the Opal within the hour.
A new life beckoned.
But nothing could leave this room. He registered with some annoyance that Janus and that Hellex woman had already fled.
‘Stay in your seats,’ he announced to the horrified crowd, punching in the code that would seal the exits. ‘That is an order from the house. This will be dealt with. Immediately.’
He pulled levers one to four in quick succession.
From gate one, a pack of hideous, gibbering grots emerged. They cackled as they stumbled into view, their cruel knives catching the dreary light.
From gate two, a pair of leering Drukhari gladiators appeared, fresh from their tortures at the hand of Huff’s men. Their pale, elongated faces twitched from a potent cocktail of battle stimulants. They clutched tall poleaxes in quivering grips and sneered at the mortified humans upon the benches.
From gate three, an ork warrior stomped out, seven feet tall and grinning in savage delight. He bore a hatchet nearly as tall as Eloise. His wet nose grunted and a low growl began in its cavernous throat.
From gate four, what could only be described as an unspooling bloated slug-form, bristling with dripping spines and squealing from a slathering proboscis filled with needle teeth, writhed into the pit. Eloise had no idea what it was and, frankly, didn’t care.
‘Kill her!’ yelled Zabadoir through the vox to any of the xenos that understood Imperial Gothic. ‘Kill her and guarantee your freedom!’
The surviving hormagaunt had broken from its assault to warily observe the new prey coming from every direction. Eloise found herself surrounded by the grunts, hisses and wet slaps of the myriad xenoforms as they closed in around her.
There was a brief flash of Warp-light. All the arena’s protective walls crumpled inwards with a terrible metallic shriek.
And then, Inquisitor Eloise Duhana rippled with strange energies and vanished entirely.
She had just…gone.
The aliens, as one, looked up at their captors. They saw the ruined defences.
Every guard and escort in the chamber drew their weapons.
The carnage began.
‘Ma’am,’ said the security trooper, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t be here–’
Hellex broke the poor sweet boy’s nose. Her following strike doubled him over. His sidearm was in her grip a moment later. Wincing, she lowered the muzzle and kneecapped him. The shot was like an explosion in the confined space. He dropped to the ground, shrieking, and Hellex ran on.
‘I’m sorry!’ she yelled back. ‘Inquisition business. I really am sorry!’
The arena chamber rang with the shrill cacophony of indiscriminate murder.
Cowering behind his booth, Zabadoir watched it all unfold. The ork had grabbed each grot in turn and thrown them overarm into the crowd like giggling grenades. Several had already fallen to pistol shot, but the survivors ran amok with their blades, slashing at the legs of his security personnel. The ork then followed, charging into the seating area, shrugging off solid rounds to bury his hatchet into Lord Aktal Marr’s forehead.
His heavily-outfitted xenos containment team had entered the room through a hidden passageway. He saw one of his mercenary troopers raise his flamer to pour fire onto the hormagaunt as it ran at him. The alien beast leapt and bounded from the wall, dodging the flames entirely, and skewered the man with its bleached-bone scythes. It had slaughtered a second, then a third member of his team in the time it took to blink.
The Drukhari were enjoying themselves immensely. One tore Lady Ispell’s bodyguard from her throat to sternum with a lithe swing of his weapon. Blood fountained from the severed cadaver as the alien laughed in delight. Then it turned on the noble lady, its rictus grin twitching.
‘Unacceptable,’ yelled Lady Ispell. ‘This is unacceptable, Huff, you hear me!’
The wraithlike gladiator stepped towards her, cackling. Ispell held something up to the alien. Zabadoir saw it was her ridiculous cybernetic pet.
‘Zeta protocol!’ screamed Lady Ispell. ‘Passcode three-nine-nine-six!’
The little creature yipped and wagged its aluminium tail. A fizzle of electricity ran over its plating.
Then it exploded, reducing both the gladiator and the lady to mists of smoke and blood. Flame washed across that corner of the hall, setting one of Zabadoir’s own men alight. Another trooper was lifted from his feet by the blast, slamming into the ork, who casually began hacking off the screaming trooper’s limbs. Grots howled with laughter as they wrenched eyes-balls from sockets and cut tongues from mouths. Gunfire echoed everywhere.
‘Open this door!’ yelled Commandant Vinyire from the press of bodies pushing at the sealed exit. ‘Zabadoir, for the love of the Emperor–’
His voice was cut off as a luminescent needle thumped into his chest. It had been launched from the slug-creature’s body. The man slumped into a lethal sleep immediately, convulsing. Zabadoir could see from his perch that the slug-thing was feeding on the bodies with its oval maw. The noises were the worst thing he’d ever experienced in his life.
Zabadoir told himself he was still in control of the situation. There had never been a situation where he hadn’t been in control. Why would this be any different?
The answer came when the runtish grot sneaking up on him jammed its crooked blade into his flank.
Hellex was surprised to find the vault doors open and the automated defensive systems completely disabled. This was, she decided, either really good luck or a bad omen. She took a deep breath, checked her pistol, then stepped into the room.
The space was silent. All seemed as it had been an hour previously. Except for one detail. It was the exosuit killing machine she’d referred to as the Hound. Its front canopy was open, as though someone had considered climbing in before making a hasty retreat.
They had come to the Opal for two reasons: to acquire that machine and capture Zabadoir Huff, the only man who could tell them where it had originated from. Such heretical technology could not be permitted to propagate. She had seen what it could do, and that particular Hound machine had been piloted by a group of children who had been slowly losing their minds. She could still hear the screams of her men as they had died to its terrible might.
Hellex paced towards it, but found herself hesitating, as if afraid to get too close.
That moment of pause saved her.
A blossom of blue energy, searingly bright, tore past her. The blast disintegrated all it touched, filling the vault with smoke and the gases of dissipating matter. Priceless artefacts roasted in their casings as the shot struck home.
Hellex threw herself clumsily into cover behind the Hound. Her pistol had slipped from her grip and now lay in the middle of the room.
She took deep breaths. This entire situation was insane. She was just a PDF officer, for Terra’s sake, she wasn’t trained for this sort of thing.
But was that true? Had decades of guard duty dulled her mind and ambitions? Or had it just left her restless? Wanting more?
You can do this, Eloise had said.
What makes you think I can? Hellex had replied.
Because, once, you ran willingly into the fires of near-certain death. After that, anything else is trivial.
Hellex poked her head slightly out of cover.
Approaching the Hound, a T’au pulse rifle aimed in her direction, was Janus.
The wretched thing was laughing at him.
Zabadoir clutched at his side, feeling blood soaking out over his fingers. He was on the ground. He was shaking. Terrified and unable to move. The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced. And the little green runt was just standing there, laughing.
He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t remember how to speak. It crouched down over him, licking the dull edge of its rusted knife. Its yellow, lunatic eyes filled his world. Was this how he had appeared to them? A leering menace, delighting in their suffering?
The grot giggled and sat on his chest. It pressed the blade against his throat, almost gently. He could feel hot liquid dribbling down his neck. He didn’t dare breathe lest it end his life.
The muzzle of a pistol appeared in his peripheral vision.
The grot’s head erupted.
Shivering, choking, coated in his own blood and piss, Zabadoir Huff stared up at Eloise. The gunshot rang in his ears.
‘Unfortunately for you, Huff, your demise won’t be that simple,’ said Eloise.
There was a flash of unnatural light. And then both Inquisitor and captive were gone.
‘I thought we had something, Janus,’ Hellex yelled.
‘Oh, yes, well,’ he stammered in reply. ‘You had me fooled, that’s what you had, you Inquisition bitch!’
This was the type of flirtatious banter she was more accustomed to, Hellex thought grimly
‘We’re not here for you, Janus,’ she yelled, hiding in the great machine’s shadow. ‘We’re here for the psych-battlesuit and for Huff. Don’t make things worse for yourself!’
‘I also came here for the suit, woman. You don’t understand a fraction of its capabilities.’
‘I know it’s deadly. I know it turns its pilots insane, when it doesn’t kill them outright.’
‘You know nothing,’ Janus snapped. ‘This is… you know, this is peak Inquisitorial ignorance. The galaxy is on fire! Surely you must have noticed how everything is falling to shit? And you people are here confiscating the weapons people need to be safe. It’s ludicrous that you people exist at all!’
He fired another burst at the machine’s flank. Hellex winced as searing heat roared past.
‘Look, Mirvan,’ he continued desperately, ‘I just need the suit. My masters, they’ll do terrible things to me if I fail them. I’ll let you go, just don’t get in my way. Please!’
There was movement on the other side of the room.
Father stormed into the vault, guns blazing.
Janus turned and fired. Father dived across the room, the burst missing his lunging form by the merest fraction.
He swung back in Hellex’s direction.
Janus had an incredible view of the ex-PDF officer charging towards him in her gown, the priceless Aeldari power glaive clutched in her grip.
Hellex roared as she rammed the weapon point-first into Janus’s gut, driving him to the ground.
In the silence that followed, Father came to stand beside her. He placed his hand on her shoulder.
‘You know, I don’t think she’ll let you keep that,’ he grunted.
The Opal Orbital had been abandoned for weeks. Its halls were silent, its bright lights extinguished. At the conclusion of the operation, it was decided that all of Huff’s holdings would be investigated and purged by secondary Ordo teams. No trace of the xenos smuggling operation would be tolerated to exist.
Inquisitor Duhana’s warband had long since vanished into space, its captive and cargo secured.
The station’s fate had already been decided.
It would be hauled to Ezriek Secondus to be stripped down and reprocessed, along with all the other scrap from an age fast fading into the pages of history.
About the Author
Sam Kearns writes from a maisonette in Oxford alongside his talking cat. He dreams of writing for the Black Library, as all good servants of the Emperor do. His sci-fi novel, The Darkness Under the Rainbow, exists. You can find him on the front lines or at @samkearns1 on Twitter.