He could still see them, those perfect white pyramids of glittering marble, edged in polished gold. The most experienced eye could search for days upon their faultless surface, without finding a single join or imperfection. Whilst great crystal structures, grown rather than built, bent and split light with such artistry that their cores became shifting, subtle displays of colour with unbelievable clarity. The skies were of a blue most thought only a painter could create, and her broad streets, lined with sweet scented trees, were filled with happy and contented people. The architecture alone was enough to bring men to a standstill, and even the most arrogant xeno would have been forced to recognise its beauty.
But all of that was as nothing compared to what lay within the nine greatest structures. The eight temple arcologies, and the grandest structure of them all, the great library and the sanctum of the Crimson King. Such knowledge, such a collection of human inquisitiveness and ancient beauty, held a quality well beyond that of mere buildings. He remembered what it was like to poor through those tomes and a strange feeling of wistful contentment came over him, as if the memory was so vivid he was not remembering it, but reliving it. With that came the happiness of those times.
His mind began to skip from one scene to the next, the smiles and laughs of his battle brothers, the sense of fulfilment drawn from earnest work in pursuit of a noble cause. The pride that swelled in his chest when he was brought under the black raven of the Corvidae, and the humility that overcame him when in the presence of his father.
But soon the metallic taste of hot blood filled his mouth, and a faint sound of far off screaming began to rapidly grow in both volume and threat. Forcing his eyes open in an effort to drive away such unpleasant thoughts before they truly manifested he stared out of the magnificent helm of the blue jackal. The minimalist and stylised helmet encased the whole of his head and had a blocky, hard pressed and grim set maw, it's two proud and pointed ears stood erect as if ever attentive, the small traces of simple yellow embellishments in keeping with the motif of his legion seemed to hint at a head dress from the deserts of ancient Terra. From the helms deep, glowing green eyes he surveyed his bridge.
The interior was pristine. A floor of spiralling black and white marble, centring upon his command chair, was polished to a mirror sheen. Whilst the absurdly reinforced walls were coated on the inside by a layer of seemingly ever shifting liquid glass, providing a subtly changing sheen of unsettling clarity and translucent purity. There were few markings or talismans about the place aside from one great symbol emblazoned on the rearmost wall. Which, if viewed from the very fore of the bridge, seemed to hang over the command chair like a great badge of authority. It was a vast flaming serpent, bent in a circle as it ate its own tail. Within that circle was another, this time with four curving protrusions erupting from it at right angles like solar flares, and in between each of those curling tongues shorter and sharper protrusions, like small pyramids. To many it bore the resemblance of a stylised star, an eight pointed one.
The view from the bridge was currently obscured. Every window to the outside world shuttered closed so as to prevent the fragile minds of those within from viewing the raw and untampered truth of what lay outside, the warp. Such obfuscation was necessary when dealing with most mortal psyches. No Imperial vessel would ever venture into the warp without every single view obstructed. A single glimpse into the unfiltered immaterium would drive even hardened inquisitors and psykers mad in but a moment, and that was if they were fortunate. Even with an active Gellar Field a look into the truth of the great ocean allowed the creatures that lived there to look back into you, and sometimes, come inside. Even the revered navigators only viewed the eternal sea through the filter of their mutated and warp blessed eye.
Of course, for him the warp no longer posed any such risk. He had become a master of it long ago, and could readily leave his mortal body to drift among its currents with ease. No longer preyed upon by many of the monsters that dwelt there, but feared by them. However, not all of his crew, despite their affiliations, were so hardened. And so, blinkers to protect eyes not yet ready to see still had to be employed.
In an effort to calm the rising emotions of bitterness and grief swelling within him as his memories edged towards the dark he slipped into the lower enumerations. A technique used less and less by some of his hastier brothers, but he and his more cautious kin knew all too well the folly of leaving them behind. It was such mental discipline that safeguarded their lives from both mortal, and immortal perils. They needed such tools now, more than ever. He felt his emotions subside, as he became almost detached from them. Freed from such deceptive instincts by a mindset of objectivity and rationality. He remained in this state for some time, until events demanded his attention.
"Lord Erelash." Came a harsh, robotic voice that still carried a hint of organic intelligence, but none of its warmth. "We are emerging from the warp" It was the voice of Arelesea, a humanoid mass of machine parts, writhing, serpentine mechadendrites, hissing tubes and manifold artificial arms with an array of tools affixed to each, all wrapped up in a red robe so stained it was almost black. Arlek Erelash had been told this heap of twisted and impossible machinery had once been a raven haired woman, but any trace of femininity, indeed humanity, had long since gone. The symbols on the robes of this creation, which many would have considered profane, marked her out as a member of the Dark Mechnaicum and one of his most senior bridge crew.
"All hands to battle stations." Ordered Arlek with a clam tone that concealed his secret, anxious anticipation. The order went out along the inhumanly clean corridors of the Shu and all manned their places. Even the bridge itself underwent a flurry of activity as the crew performed their battle checks. Only the two guardians which flanked his command chair did not move. Each was a seven foot tall armoured warrior, encased in a shell of purest blue, trimmed in an abundance of subtle and graceful flourishes of burnished gold. It was clear these men and he were cut from the same cloth as Arlek. The coolant ports on their backpacks rested in the mouths and claws of twisted, golden birds and in places, their armour was striped with a deep yet vibrant yellow. Most distinctive of all were the great panels of their headdresses, again striped in blue and yellow and which added almost another foot to their already looming countenance.
But the most striking thing about them, was their stillness. There was no rise and fall of breath, no looking about the bridge at the movement around them. Not even the subtle and imperceptible shifts of a man standing to attention on a parade ground, which were impossible to detect but somehow signalled to you the man before you was indeed alive. This pair of protectors were as still as statues, and only the unsettling air they projected gave any clue that they were something other than that. Arlek looked at them briefly, it was never a pleasant sight. He knew these men, knew their names and stories. In many places they were the same as his, Aghoru, Prospero, Ark Reach, even Boetia. They had served in all of these places together. Sirax and Hezrah were their names, but these were not men defined by battle, but rather study. Arlek remembered the joy taken by Sirax as he delved into the mysteries of the Raptora cult, even in the early days as an initiate. Whilst Hezrah had taken no end of pleasure in teasing Arlek by using his powers as a member of the Athanaean to keep finishing his sentences. Indeed it was Hezrah that had driven Arlek to so skilfully shield his mind.
Both of these men had souls which shone so brightly, and even though their powers were minor compared to both his own and many other members of the 15th Legion, their humanity shone as bright as any other, and even their faltering steps in the shallows of the great ocean set them leagues apart from the blind legions of mortals. To see them as they were now, empty echoes, with muted and faded souls that barely registered in Arlek's sight, pained him. It was a taunting mockery of what they once were, and a painful reminder of what they had become. The teachings of the cults encouraged a practitioner to divorce himself from his emotions, to supress them and master oneself. But that was in the mastery of the mysteries, the heat of battle and the use of one's powers. To live a life entirely devoid of emotion, was to become no better than these hollow, rubric, shells. This grief, dulled into a gnawing ache by time but no less powerful, was an emotion he needed to feel. But it was more than mere grief, it was guilt. He had helped do this too them, it was an error he had to try and fix. Their presence by his side was an acute reminder of why he was here, what he strove for. And after all that had passed, he could not bring himself to leave another one of his brothers behind.
A strange sensation then ran through Arlek's bones, a slight feeling of both weight and restraint returning to him, shackles to the mundane. He didn't need to be told what Arelesea said next.
"We have translated back into the Materium." He knew that better than any sensors ever could. With the grinding churns of heavy gears and ancient metals the reinforced panelling which protected the small minds of the crew from the great ocean began to slide back, revealing the void beyond. It's pin pricks of light seemed dull and commonplace compared to the swirling impossibility of the warp. But Arlek had to admit, they had a minimalistic beauty to them. But, this patch of space was utterly unremarkable, no planet, no nearby star, no stela phenomenon or even a gently arcing lump of ice. Why where they here?
"My Lord. The augur arrays detect nothing." Came the almost alarmingly normal and restrained voice of another of his bridge crew. He wore an utterly immaculate deep red jacket, ivory trousers, and polished boots which shone like perfection, with a white sash and white braid on his shoulder clues as to his senior rank, along with a front to back bicorn hat sporting a magnificent blue feather. The hat was new, but the rest of his gear was almost identical to on old Prospero Spire Guard, despite the fact that none of the original cadre had survived… that day. But the badges he wore on his arm and spectacular headdress had changed. Gone was the symbol of Prospero. What remained was the flaming eye of the Lord of change, wrapped in the tail chasing serpent of fire. Many iterations of his legion had done away with these echoes of the old, taking cultists and mortal servants as they were. Even most of his fellow exiles, those most dedicated to undoing the errors of the past, had shed memories of the Spire Guard. But not Arlek. Not all his devotes wore the red and ivory, only the gifted as befitted his old ally's memory. But this man was definitely one of them.
An observer could have been forgiven for believing this officer was untouched by the hand of change, until he turned around. His skin was so pale as to border on the translucent, distinct black veins clearly visible underneath.
"They will come." Replied Arlek with a calm surety, a cruel smirk starting to spread underneath the impenetrable anonymity of his helm.
"How can you be sure?" Enquired the officer quite reasonably. But, this was a vessel touched by the Lord of Change, reason was not all it was cracked up to be in his place. As Arlek pointed out in tones which carried a slight hint of amusement.
"Talodax my friend. Have you learned nothing?" Arlek's quiet confidence in his prediction was nothing new, but it was something that had not been heard for some time. In truth, he could understand Talodax's hesitancy. But Talodax could not see the ebb and flow of the warp, understand it as he did. Those with no eyes could not be blamed for their blindness. But to his credit, Talodax was a man trying to see.
There was little time to discuss the matter further as a quiet bleep tore the crew's attention forward.
"Vessel translating!" Came Arelesea's harsh and unsettling tones, quite at odds with the elegance of this vessel. Casting his eyes forward Arlek watched with satisfaction as a crackling purple wound in reality opened up, heralding the approach of another vessel. Some may have described their meeting here in the middle of nowhere and so close to one another as a truly unbelievable coincidence. Quite failing to see the truth and insight in their own words. It was unbelievable, it was also untrue. This was far from coincidence. This was design.
"Ahead three quarters, adjust bearing to pass behind their point of translation."
The flare of his ship's engines felt like barely a ripple here upon the bridge, her excellent mortal construction augmented by sublime, unnatural alteration. But it quite concealed the savage, twisted power which throbbed at the core of the Shu and was even now achieving a rate of acceleration well above her more cumbersome, modern kin. She had once been a Repulsive class grand cruiser, known by a name now wiped from the records, as if to purge her sin from Imperial memory. Her class had always been ill fated, as if chosen by the masters of the immaterium for their sport. If so, at least it showed they had taste. These vessels were fast, tough, manoeuvrable and could sport a truly terrifying array of ordinance. The secrets of their construction long since lost, these were amongst the finest vessels mankind had created during the time before the corpse emperor was confined to his throne on Terra, when the Great Crusade was fresh, and young. But a dark shadow fell over them from their conception. Tales of being lost in the warp were unusually commonplace, and after Horus so nearly freed humanity from the shackles of fear and ignorance, these ships fell to Chaos with alarming speed. Traitor captains, raids to capture them, vessels plucked from the warp, all this and more befell ship after ship.
Arlek remembered with a twisted enjoyment how he took this ship after he was forced to wander the void. The proud, hopeful and expectant look on the second in command's face as he removed his dagger from the Captains back, whilst one half of the bridge crew killed the other, Arlek looking on through eyes that were not his own. Before the greedy, over eager fools turned off the Gellar Fields to let him in. Then, a short while afterwards, the screams as one by one the weak willed cretins realised the sheer magnitude of their error. The eyes rolling in the first mate's head as first he felt the sheer ecstasy and euphoria of the power of the great ocean flowing through him, the pleasure of perception as Arlek fulfilled his side of the deal and poured the warp into the man. Until that look was replaced with the horror of understanding, far too late to turn back. The realisation that he could not control, even conceive of the power he had bargained for. The wet, pained sobs of an agony which broke even your will to scream and the wide eyes of absolute regret, as his body shifted and changed, broken and re-forged to the Master of Fate's will, as a mindless spawn.
Since then the inspired, yet abhorred, minds of the Dark Mechanicum had improved and maintained almost every component, whilst the ruinous powers of Tzeentch gradually re-forged the very heart of the vessel itself. To view her from the outside, she was still a Repulsive, all be it strangely gunned. Her more tapered, elegant and rounded design looked almost moulded rather than forged and welded. Still most certainly human, but with a touch of the xeno to it. Possessed of that distinctive style common amongst the ancient chaos warships. With none of the grotesque, cathedral like opulence of the dogmatic loyalists. Everything was swept back function and hardened design. But even to look at her was hard. Her ethereal blue design, interlaced with unnerving yellow, was difficult to focus on. It was as if she was always viewed through a heat haze at best, but the enveloping cloak of the ruinous powers made onlookers almost question if the ship was really there at all, or quite where it was. Even the hard minds of cold circuits and ancient auguries struggled as space seemed not to quite obey all of the usual laws around the Shu.
As the Shu streamed ahead with a sinister grace their target slowly appeared from the maelstrom. She was not a small ship, but much like the Shu it was notable for such a large vessel to go unescorted. This craft was barely visible at all in the inky murk of the void. A dark, dull grey hull built purely for function. Even the great, gothic structures which littered modern vessels had an oddly subdued tone to them. Had they not witnessed this craft return to the mundane world, the Shu and her crew would have had little idea the vessel were even here without their augur array. And whilst Arlek could sense the ninety five thousand sputtering candles aboard that ship, most of which seemed barely sentient to him now, it was as though something had tried to mute them. Their presence was slightly foggy in his mind.
"We appear to be facing a highly modified Lunar class cruiser. My readings suggest a wide array of unusual components within her hull." Reported Arelesea in a voice that was always a little too loud for comfort. This was not unexpected, the Luna class was the mainstay of the modern Imperial fleet. That one was here was in no way surprising. But what most certainly was a surprise for their prey was the presence of the Shu. Vague and hazy as they were he could see the psychic shade of the crew shift and flare in alarm at the presence of a vessel here, in the middle of nowhere. Arlek took just a brief moment of pride in having caught them here, during a brief retranslation into reality during a long warp voyage. Such things were both necessary and commonplace in the fleets of man. It allowed for any required repairs from the savagery of the warp, and more importantly allowed the navigator to re-establish their bearings and ensure the craft had not drifted too far off of course. But their location was random, and almost always in unpopulated dead space. No one would plan to catch a craft during such a moment, no ambush could be meaningfully prepared, everything about where and when was too unpredictable… unpredictable. Arlek found one of his hands moving to touch the symbol of the raven's head that still sat upon the left side of his breast plate.
But, forcing himself into some of the higher enumerations, things like pride, joy in the battle and the distractions of the irrelevant fell away one by one. Nothing to divert him from being as coldly effective as he could be, a master of both the field and his powers. Not only in skill and focus, but also restraint.
"Fire the lance at her mid-section, sustain fire." Coming prow on, the majority of the Shu's weapons could not be brought to bear, but they did not need to be. Her star flare lance, a relic from the dark age of technology itself, would have been a terrifying weapon at her creation. But the touch of Tzeenetch had added to it a warping wyrdness that could not be readily explained. As the ventral turret in which she was housed turned the void at her muzzle crackled and bent with potential. Until suddenly the weapon erupted in a shifting blue stream of such intensely focused light it almost appeared tangibly solid, dancing lightning arced off from the beam with an impossible noise which floated through the vacuum of space, possessed of a cadence like cruel laughter.
The first shot struck home before the foe's void shields were properly reengaged. Bypassing the crafts most effective defence against such a weapon and slicing through her armour like a hot knife through butter. The hyper condensed energy boiled through layer after layer of reinforced metal until eventually an eruption of ethereal blue fire plumed out of the side of the ship. But this was a titanic vessel, it would take more than one internal detonation to stop the foe.
"Turn hard to port." Ordered Arlek, with an even voice quite divorced from the drama of this moment. Even though his eyes were closed as he gave his orders, he could still feel the questioning stare of one of the junior crew, and the absolute confidence of the others aboard the bridge. It was a strange move to make and would give up the advantage of passing by the foe's stern they so nearly had. But this was a vessel run by a traitor astartes, one from the first founding at that. Insubordination was rare, even rarer was to survive it. And so it was that Arlek felt the Shu turn hard left beneath him, this older design significantly more nimble that the lumbering bulwarks now fielded by the Imperium.
No sooner had they turned to the left, than their prey began to cumbersomely turn to starboard. Had Arlek not executed this manoeuvre then the Shu's momentum would have carried him past the Luna cruiser, with ships exchanging broadsides, before his sheer speed kept him tearing forwards, whereupon suddenly his prey would be behind him! But now, despite the venting gas and flaring manoeuvring thrusters which signalled the Imperial ship's futile attempt to undo its mistake against the momentum of a 28 megaton mass mid turn, the Imperial vessel was in an even worse position. It had presented it's rear to the Shu, whilst the Shu's starboard broadside came into position.
"How did he know?" Asked the crewman who had been silently doubtful moments ago, in incredulous tones.
"He knows." Arelesea replied in her harsh voice with a hint of reprimand, signalling that this was the end of the conversation. But her words were absolutely true. Even now, as Arlek sat, eyes shut upon his command chair, he knew. He knew his prey would turn to port and try to out endure him in a fire fight. He knew the foe would fail in this if the Shu kept it's distance. He knew the foe's warp drive would fail, he knew their commander would grow desperate, turn to port again, burn his engines hard and try to ram him, he knew the foe would miss. Now, so close to the event these happenings were no longer distinct possibilities. It was an inevitability.
"Broadside and lance, fire." He ordered with a clear, yet dispassionate voice. First to burst out in balefire were the great racks of Hecutor pattern plasma cannons that made up this craft's awe-inspiring broadside. Another relic from the time when man was truly the master of all he surveyed. Each flaming bolt of electric blue plasma, rippling and pulsing like liquid fire which barely held its shape, left a fading trail of droplets in its wake. As the flurry of shots stuck home the Luna's void shields, now active, flickered and buckled in an effort to keep up with the unnervingly accurate barrage. The Shu had over ten thousand years of battle experience, and whilst she may have gone through several generations of her mortal crew, each generation had improved upon the last. The touch of change, the work of the ever innovating minds of the Dark Mechanicum, stolen knowledge, reclaimed parts. The ship had been honed, honed and honed again to match her power with precision. Not only that, but the lessons of countless battles were passed unerringly from one generation to the next, resulting in a crew whose knowledge and experience of void warfare was well beyond that of most craft.
It was not long before the void shield of the foe shattered once more, and orbs of super heated material to rival a sun rammed their way into the rear of the ship, metal boiling away into mist before the plasma even touched it. The lights of the Imperial ships engines began to sputter and fail as vital components were stripped away, but slowly the crafts manoeuvring thrusters began to turn her inexorably to port, with the inevitability of a glacier. Just then, before her void shields could recover the Shu's lance streaked across the void and skewered the craft's mid section once more, half weapon, half surgeon's scalpel. And whilst this did not create the same explosion as before, there could be no doubt the Luna cruiser was taking far more damage than even the robust designs of the modern Imperium had allowed for.
But if humanity had one surprising feature, it was that men of such fragile frames could endure so well. As if to embody this the Imperial vessel gradually completed her turn, the shimmer of voidshields reasserting themselves, and the flare of a scant few engine ports signalling there was life in the warhorse yet. Dull flashes across the foes hull signalled her macro batteries firing, a hail of blindingly fast solid shot, each shell tipped with savage warheads, mass produced upon any number of the Imperium's forge worlds.
Arlek could feel his craft's void shields strain at the effort, as the first two layers peeled away and the third quivered at the strain, whilst other shots tore by and on into the void, there to race on forever until some poor object eventually crossed their path. But the void arrays of a grand cruiser which hailed from Mars itself at the dawn of the crusade, were made of sterner stuff. His shields held, whilst his guns answered the foe's. The battle continued in this vein for some time, each ship maintaining their speed and distance relative to one another. Trading blows, salvo for salvo like a pair of punch drunk boxers who had long ago forgone skill and tactics in favour of sheer endurance. But in such a battle it was the Shu which had a stronger arm, and a tougher jaw. True, her void shields failed from time to time, rocking the ship with blasts powerful enough to level cities. But her armour was holding against those shots which did make it though. Mass manufactured engineering from a declining civilisation were little match for bespoke craftsmanship from a time in man's history when they were surpassed only by their own triumphs in the forgotten dark age of technology. His guns however, had far better luck. Even the absurdly strong hulls of the crude Imperium struggled against his plasma batteries, whilst they fared still worse against the Shu' terrifying lance. As long as the plasma bolts could overwhelm the void shield, the lance would face no credible opposition. And as the battle wore on, not even the floating fortress that was a Luna Class Cruiser, could continue to trade blows with a craft that so readily outgunned it.
It might have been possible, even advisable, for the foe to try and slip away again into the warp. But he knew that would not happen. Arlek had seen the effect his shots would have days ago, he knew that the enemy cruiser's warp engine was cracked and fading, swarmed even now by an army of servitors and disposable crew desperately trying to repair it. So, if it could not run away and it could not out shoot the Shu, the foe only had one option left.
"Enemy craft turning to port!" Declared Talodax
"Reduce speed to one half in irregular increments. Maintain course and fire. Prepare for emergency turn to port." Ordered Arlek, his eyes still closed, his view into the immaterium and the strands of fate both far more useful, and reliable than the fallible eyes of mortals. Slowly the Imperial cruiser turned, nose on to the Shu, and charged. What few engines the craft had left roared into life, blinding white pillars of fire streaming from her stern as the craft bore down upon Arlek. The damaged ship was almost shaking itself apart in the effort, not helped by the fire from the Shu which was still battering down on her reinforced prow. The Luna class answered with a tight spread of torpedoes which darted ahead of it like dragonflies on the water. Sadly the Shu's irregular deceleration was making it difficult to aim at, for both the torpedoes and the ship itself, resulting in some of the shots tearing past the Shu's prow. Others were intercepted by the craft's many flak turrets, precise, rapid firing auto guns manned by experienced crew, aided by near demonic machine spirits with cruel intelligences. Still, no defence was perfect, and somewhere near the Shu's prow a binding white flash indicated an impact several killotonnes in force. Up here, in the Shu's elevated bridge it did not cause even a tremor, but for those closer to the blast it would have been a raging inferno of deafening noise and twisted metal.
"Minor hull breach reported near the fore. No combat functions effected. Repair crews dispatched." Came the inhumanly matter of fact tone of Arelesea. Arlek for his part, remained silent, letting his plan unfold and knowing such damage was well within the power of the Shu's crew to manage.
"Enemy ship closing!" Reported the much less calm tones of that same crewman who had been confused by Arlek's prescience. "20 seconds to impact, 15, 10, all hands brace for impact!" And then, nothing. No earth shattering explosion, no burst of noise and confusion, not even a tremor. Instead, those in the prow observation posts would have seen the enemy craft pass by, so close as that each and every baroque embellishment on the Imperial craft's hull could be made out in pain staking detail. Each hooded angle, leering gargoyle and vaunted archway were all crystal clear as 28 megatonnes of reinforced metal hurtled by so close as to almost chip the paint. Intermeshing void shields erupted in a bleeding hail of myriad colours, a display of immense beauty in this maelstrom of violence. Only the Shu's odd deceleration had saved them from an impact.
"Emergency turn to port!" Declared Arlek with a tiny iota of urgency creeping into his voice. His guns kept firing as the Shu executed it's turn, swiftly entering into a stern chase with the severely damaged Imperial ship. From here, whilst he could not bring his full firepower to bear, he could stay on the Luna's tail and whilst he could still deploy his torpedoes and lance, the Luna had very little to fire back with. Though, after a few more glancing strikes from his lance, it became clear Arlek would not need his torpedoes. No sooner had the battered Luna passed by than her engines began to sputter and fade, at last giving up under the immense pressure they had been put under, a task that would have been demanding even when fully functional. Continuing on nothing but momentum the Luna class cruiser could do little more to evade the Shu.
Slowly Arlek began to open his eyes, the dancing vibrancy of the immaterium fading into the mundane world of the normal. Even this regal bridge of minimalistic beauty seemed dull by comparison.
"Come alongside the foe, tether and commence boarding." He ordered, watching with an even and calm air. It did not take long for the Shu to catch up with the stricken cruiser, their hulls so close that broadside ordinance would either not have long enough to arm in the case of the Imperials, or be just as destructive to the person who fired it as the target in the case of the Shu. Before the tethers were even fired to pin the prey in place, a hail of assault boats tore from the underside of the Shu. She was not a designated carrier vessel and so the display was not as awe inspiring as it may have been with some other craft. But it was enough. Moment's from now members of the Shu's crew would be fighting tooth and nail through the bent and broken corridors of their foe's torn ship. The defenders would likely have already taken significant casualties, and be disorganised. But, that would not make things easy. Those tight, narrow corridors stretching on for miles upon miles made for lethal charnel houses.
Rising slowly from his command chair with the slightly unsettling weight of a tree uprooting itself and walking across the earth, Arlek ordered.
"Talodax, you have the bridge. Ensure brother Rhydel takes his rubricae to the power plant and prevents any attempt at a self destruct. He will then repair the nearby warp drive. I will go across and make for the bridge."
"Yes My Lord." Talodax replied, relaying the necessary orders, whilst Arlek turned to leave. The sound of the titanic weight of his power armour thumping against the deck was deeply incongruous with the ease with which he seemed to move. Almost as though it was not there. Without so much as a gesture of command his two flanking guards followed him, their footsteps all falling in perfect synchronicity. The various passageways and chambers of the Shu were all much like her bridge, elegant, yet understated, possessed of strange and beautiful craftsmanship, yet not gaudy or over embellished. Simple marble, subtly shimmering walls of shifting silver and restrained golden trim all highlighted by an otherworldly standard of cleanliness and shine. The odd tranquillity of it was quite at odds with the stalking presence of Arlek, his simple yet elegant deep red cape billowing out behind him, his thunderous footfall echoing down unnaturally still hallways.
It took him some time to reach the nearest tether, these ships were kilometres long after all, and fighting aboard the Imperial craft was already well underway. It would have been possible for him to open a tear in the warp and step through to his destination, as easily as others stepped through a door. But he remembered the teachings of his old master, and dear friend. Not to use one's powers lightly or frivolously, and to always remember how to do things without them. That advice had saved his skin and his soul more than once, and he was not about to ignore them for the sake of a walk. When he arrived at the nearest of the tube, which also served as umbilical's between the two craft, he was met with a small procession of twisted servitors, silent save for the grinding of gears. They were moving back and forth down the pipe between the craft, carrying boxes of ammunition one way, wounded soldiers back the other. Each automaton seemed utterly oblivious to the world around him, save for what bore direct relevance to their task, and Arlek saw little point in disturbing them. The men being returned were largely run of the mill cultists, similar in appearance to human freebooters or hive gangers, though Arlek insisted on a certain degree of restraint in their dress. Such men were of little concern to him, few would ever ascend to note and the forces of the warp were never short of volunteers. But occasionally, a man in the pristine red of the Spire Guard would be carried back, and though Arlek was well used to the carnage of battle he never relished seeing these reminders of home being torn asunder. These were a better class of man as well, these people might actually make something of themselves. But as Arlek began stalking down the umbilical one type of soldier was noticeable for its absence. None of his brothers were being returned, but this was exactly what he had come to expect. Given time even an unremarkable astartes could take a ship staffed with mere mortals, and his brothers were far from unremarkable. It was only their small numbers that necessitated dependence on, lesser men.
When Arlek entered the stricken Luna cruiser, the scene could not have been more different than the one he left behind. The cold corridors of dull metal and hanging pipes that marked the innards of an Imperial ship, were now scorched black by fire, twisted and bent by titanic stresses, choked in places by smoke, obscured by venting gases in others. It was all in stark contrast to the order and beauty he had left behind. Inquisitorial symbols, the great I with a skull standing proud at it's center, were dotted around with alarming frequency, leaving no doubt as to who owned this craft. It was not long until a man in the uniform of a Spire Guard, wearing an officer's silver helmet with flowing white horsehair and a gas mask, ran up to him.
"Lord Erelash, it is an honour." But Arlek had little time for pleasantries.
"Is the generator secure?" He pressed whilst not even looking at the officer, instead he was looking over him, his gaze seemingly sweeping over some grand field only he could see.
"Yes my Lord. Legionnaire Rhydel moved with great speed."
"And the bridge?"
"Resistance remains my Lord, we are…" But Arlek did not wait for the man to finish his sentence, instead turning on his heel and moving off towards the bridge as soon as he heard there was work still to be done. The Officer tried to keep pace with Arlek, but he almost had to jog to match the astarte's stride. To make matters worse he was practically being bulldozed with every step by Arlek's two rubricae guards. "My Lord, the defenders of this vessel have some quite unusual effects."
"Be more specific Major." He asked calmly but without breaking his stride.
"My Lord, Legionnaire Orisian reported difficulties with his rubricae as he drew closer to the bridge. They still fought with all of their usual skill, but started not to respond to orders." A low growl of dissatisfaction began to escape Arlek's jackal helm, cut short as he reminded himself of the disciplines of the enumerations. When he spoke, he did so with a dispassionate evenness, though his words alone betrayed his annoyance.
"There was a reason why I had only ordered my brothers to the engineering section."
"My Lord, I believe he…"
"Do not make arguments for him." Cut across Arlek in clinical tones. "He is one of my brothers and as such will answer directly to me. You need not concern yourself further with his folly Major. Return to your position, and ensure our wounded receive treatment."
With a hurried affirmation the Major returned to his duties. Run of the mill cultists meant little, but Arlek wanted the Spire Guard to survive if they could. Besides, leaving men to die did terrible damage to their morale, and he needed them to be in good spirits to perform to his expectations. But there was another reason why he wanted the Major back at his post, as soon as the man was out of sight, Arlek began running. Most thought an astartes to only be capable of a light, sluggish jog. Such a pace would have kept up with most unaltered humans and their bulky armour certainly gave that impression. But such beliefs were only held by men who had never actually seen them. An astartes, due to the black carapace, moved in his armour as easily as he did his own skin, indeed the great powers that drove such devices only amplified their speed, dexterity and grace. But it also accentuated their raw power. As such, Arlek and his escorts, running at full sprint, resembled a trio of charging rhinos, and just as devastating to anything that stood in front of them.
Had it not been for his emotional restraint, Arlek would have been worried. As it was, his clinical attachment allowed him a dispassionate realisation of the risks. But genuine distress, or cold calculation, the result was still the same. Run. His fettered perception of the souls aboard, the inquisitorial symbols, rubricae falling out of command. Put together, they indicated the presence of one of the few things that could actually cause some risk to his fellow brothers. And he could not tolerate that. As he ran Arlek paid little mind to the men and bodies he passed, a few scattered crew tried to resist him, but their shots deflected harmlessly off of his armour, whilst the retaliatory strikes of his escorts invariably detonated the foe in a hail of torn limbs and steaming innards. Their jolting pace seemingly having no impact on their accuracy.
Drawing closer to the bridge Arlek felt his head slowly numb, his sense of the world beyond and of the great ocean weakened by degrees as he kept moving, it was as he suspected. Turning he looked to his two escorts.
"Sirax, Hezrah. Remain here and await my return. Draw no closer." Normally Arlek would not have spoken, members of the legion had long since stopped needing verbal commands. A simple thought could convey a wealth of information and subtlety in a moment. But with the immaterium waning thin here he resorted to words as a precaution. Pressing onwards, alone, Arlek began to suffer these sinister effects even more acutely, it was as if a whole sense was being stripped from him. For a psyker to lose his feeling for the warp was like a normal man losing his eyes. He could barely remember a time when he had not been able to feel the great ocean, even before he knew what it was. Many a sorcerer would have turned back, but not Arlek. It was at times like these that he was grateful for his teacher's cautions about dependency upon the warp.
Mere meters from the bridge entrance he found Orisian trying to stir his soldiers into action. But they all just stood there, motionless. The junior sorcerer was dressed very similarly to the squad he commanded, the same blue armour with ornate golden embellishments and yellow bands. But unlike those he led, he held a staff wrapped in green fire in one hand, whilst ornamental red cloth hung from his waste and in two hanging bands from his chest.
"Are all of your brothers accounted for Orisian?" Enquired Arlek in less than pleased tones, his runes and elaborate armour marking his clear superiority. Orisian turned with a startled snap, surprised Arlek had drawn so close.
"My Lord Erelash. Yes, all brothers are safe. But still."
"That is not surprising Orisian. Why did you come this far?"
"With Rhydel taking the core I hoped I could secure the bridge for you my Lord." Despite their unmoving helms, any man could feel the sorcerer's uncertainty, and Arlek's condemnation.
"Has your enthusiasm outgrown both your caution and your memory brother Orisian?"
"My Lord?" Enquired Orisian, hesitantly.
"Do it not occur to you that there was a reason why I had ordered no brothers to the bridge? And even as you drew near did you not remember this feeling, what it entails?" His brother's silence told Arlek all he needed to know. "Then you shall be reminded. Leave our brothers here, they can still defend themselves should a threat arrive. But you shall come with me Aspirant." The biting reference to a junior rank from long ago was not a coincidence.
Without waiting for further interruption Arlek continued his determined march to the bridge, no longer at a run now that he knew his brothers were safe. Instead he strode down the last few broken and bleeding corridors, infernal bolt pistol raised, plucking away those last crew who resisted him with a mechanical accuracy. When he arrived at the vast double doors to the bridge, it was like standing at the entrance of a cathedral. Elegantly crafted depictions of Imperial saints driving away the hordes of Chaos dominated her surface with magnificent artistry. But Arlek was unmoved by such delusional depictions, instead all he saw was a thick slab of metal between him and where he needed to be. Normally a flick of the wrist would turn this barrier into little more than mist and molten metal. But he knew his powers would not answer him. Instead he moved to what looked like some of the hinges on the vast door, reaching to his belt and withdrawing a few melta grenades. It took him a few moments to methodically plant the charges and wire them up to a single detonator, but from the looks of it Arlek seemed to remember his astartes training from before his psychic powers manifested. Taking shelter behind an ostentatious pillar Arlek hit the switch, instantly eliciting a violent yet low blast that unsettled the stomach more than it pierced the ears.
Striding back up to the door he could see it shifting as it's joints melted away into glowing slurry. He drew what had once been his ancient power sword, forged for his hand upon Mars itself. But now the blade was seemingly alive with blue fire, the metal still beneath but was now encased in a far deadlier substance. A keen eye could spy shifting runes from a language that defied translation, glowing beneath the fire. Standing toe to toe with the great edifice he summoned his strength and struck the pommel of his blade against the door three times, the cavernous echoes of his dreadful knock resounding down the bent halls of this crippled ship. In answer to his demand to enter the great doors fell back with an impossible slowness, before striking the ground like a mistuned bell.
The bridge crew were confronted with Lord Erelash, the Blue Jackal, Sorcerer of the 15th Legion, the Thousand Sons. His grim set helm stared at them with eyes that glowed with a green so vivid yet so unnerving as to seem from another world. Staring back at Arlek Erelash were a collection of lesser crew, little more than maggots in his sight. But, amongst them stood a proud man in a uniform that bore some resemblance to that of the Imperial Navy, but in all the wrong colours. From his badges and from the haughty yet indignant look upon his face, this man was the Captain. With him was a hard looking rat of a man, all bitterness and cunning, wearing the finest carapace armour the Imperium could provide, yet grey and unadorned, save for the great inquisitorial seal upon his chest. It was not difficult to tell who he was.
But they were insignificant, far from the real threat. No, the real threat were the two golden clad women in front of him. He recognised that ancient, ornate armour, he had seen it when it was young. Their red cloaks and fine furs at their shoulder, the single standing plume of impossible long hair erupting from their head, and the mark upon their brow. Sisters of silence. Both stood like knights of old, swords pointed down to the ground, hands gently folded upon the pommels. It was as he had suspected, and though a Nul Maiden was not a foe to be underestimated Arlek still gave a contemptuous snort of derision from under his great helm. He knew it was pointless to taunt a sister of silence, they would never respond and their minds were too disciplined to slip into rage of wild action. Arlek might even have admired them, had he not hated them.
But for now, he simply refocused his grip upon the higher enumerations and ordered.
"Orisian. Deal with the one on the left. I shall destroy the one on the right." Without waiting for a response or further order Arlek snapped up his bolt pistol and squeezed the trigger. More normally he knew where every target would be before he fired, and the path each hostile round would take as well. But now, he was relying on meta human eyes, advanced technologies and millennia of battlefield experience. As it turned out, at first, the results were much the same. Two rounds smashed into the chest of the first sister as she tore forward, but her armour stood the test. Doubtless the sheer conclusive force had broken bones and bruised or ruptured her organs, but the sister charged on. Confronted with such a creature Arlek was cut off from the warp, as was his brother. The sisters of silence were known for their natural ability to calm all psyker and wyrd powers in their presence due to a quirk of their birth. To a sorcerer, they were an anathema and far more effective than the mental interferences of another psyker. Them, he could resist. But these abominations seemed to kill they very warp around them.
But as immune as they were to the perils of the warp, they were still human. Blades clashed as the sister battled the son. Her swift yet savage strikes spoke of years of training in duelling halls and bitter experience. Arlek, for his part, missed his ability to gaze both into the immediate future and the mind of a foe to know where each blow would land, parrying with such keen foresight and predatory calculation as to finish many a battle in a single stroke. But now he was fighting like a mortal. His movements were tight, controlled and cautious, leaving little in the way of openings, but taking few chances. With his grip upon the enumerations Arlek was all too aware of his brother, Orisian, battling against his own devoted swordswoman, his stance more aggressive, but on occasion leaving dangerous openings. One thing at a time…
An ethereal trail of blue flame followed the path or Arlek's blade but it seemed to do little to confuse or daze either combatant. His unblinking eyes of baleful green bore their way through the fire like the gaze of a hungry predator, well concealing the restraint and calculation beneath. Their battle continued, with the sister dancing and swirling around Arlek in a hail of steel, water flowing around a rock, unable to shift it or erode it. Arlek for his part, stood, watching, waiting, until suddenly he saw it. A rare repetition in the sister's strikes, a predictable position he could force open. Planting his blade in the gap with the speed of a viper the maiden's sword ricocheted off of his with a discordant clang. With the strength of an astartes he took advantage of her stall to force her blade up high. It would have been a triviality for him to bring the sword back down, cleaving her head from her shoulders with a single stroke. But such a death was too dignified for one of her kind. His offhand, still holding his pistol, rapidly came up and planted three rounds into her stomach. The first bent the armour and crushed what lay beneath. The other two breached the tempered metal and detonated within her, shredding organs and burning fat with a searing heat. The maiden fell back, a look of total surprise in her eyes as her last seconds of life drifted away. Arlek wondered if she would use her last moment to break her vows, calling out to the Emperor that would not answer her. But to his dissatisfaction, she retained her dignity to the end, not even sighing, as she passed away.
With his opponent fallen her turned to face his brother, in time to witness the sister's blade rake across his torso, cutting into ancient armour with brutal efficiency. An echoing grunt of pain escaped Orisian's helm as he staggered back, clumsily holding his staff out in front of him protectively as he tried to regain his footing. He surely would have fallen had Arlek not brought his bolt pistol to bear once more, it's muzzle shaped like the naked skull of a carrion bird, erupting just as the sister poised to strike. The shots hit hard, knocking the woman's body sideways, twisting it awkwardly as it span with the impact in a way no human was ever supposed to shift. The final shot sent what was already a corpse limply into the wall with an underwhelming thud. Wasting little time Arlek's turned his eyes with a glacial menace towards the remaining crew. He could feel the warp returning in all its glorious vibrancy. Takin a moment to reflect on the two dead sisters he mused to himself that, a life time of combat was nothing as compared to a hundred lifetimes.
He could feel his brother's pain as keenly as he would have felt his own, but the cold discipline of the enumerations prevented his emotions from overwhelming him. Orisian would live, that was all that mattered. The souls of the Rubricae outside touched his mind as well, dull, but painfully familiar.
"Kill all bar the Inquisitor." He commanded with a thought, far swifter than any tongue. Forked lightning erupted from Orisian's hand, as he bent the powers of the great ocean to fry and boil flesh. Thundering feet came down the corridor as his silent brothers returned to the fray, cutting down bridge crew with unnervingly accurate bolter fire, like a farmer cuts down wheat. Arlek for his part, simply raised a hand and froze the Inquisitor where he stood, his body ridged like a statue, forced to gaze unblinkingly at the slow approach of an ancient sorcerer.
As the lost body fell Arlek came beside his prey, with almost theatrical timing. He allowed the Inquisitor a fraction of control, loosening the psychic grip upon his mouth and permitting the hard face shrew to spit his defiance.
"I will tell you nothing traitor!" He barked. But Arlek simply raised a calm hand, placing the cold ceramite upon the Inquisitors head.
"How appropriate." He said with a detached calm that seemed only to accentuate his spite. "That the last words from an Inquisitor's mouth, are a lie." Suddenly the man twisted horrifically under Arlek's palm, his mouth torn open in a scream so loud it defied mortal ears but echoed clearly in the warp. More normally Arlek could have achieved his goal with a simple thought. But this man had spent his life reinforcing his mental discipline. As such, the barrier to his thoughts presented a minor obstacle, rather than no obstacle at all, and what Arlek wanted would be buried deep. As the man bent and warped, bone could be heard snapping as his muscles rent him out of shape with a strength they could never naturally possess. The skin withered and aged, a century of life passing each moment, eyes burning from his skull in a phosphoric white blaze. By the time Arlek released him, and allowed the corpse to strike the ground, the Inquisitor was little more than burned skin wrapped tight over twisted bone.
Meanwhile, in Arlek's mind, a lifetime's worth of memory, thought and feeling flashed by in a second. A miserable pile of secrets that were thought important by fools, irrelevant faces and names. Then he found the memory, the box, the protections that held it, the keys of thought needed to turn the locks. Without a word of explanation Arlek strode towards the ready room at the rear of the bridge. Projecting orders to his kin though their minds.
"The navigator is in his sanctum above. Kill him. Lower the Gellar Fields. Rhydel will have the warp drive functional by now, prepare it. Random coordinates. This ship shall be lost in the ocean." He did not want this vessel discovered with the obvious signs of battle. Better to let the foe think it lost in the warp than beaten and boarded. If he was lucky, his adversaries would think the cargo lost.
As he entered the code plucked from the Inquisitor's mind the sound of a single shot rang out behind him, there ended the navigator. A pity, their kind had a special relationship with the warp, but Arlek did not have time to take captives. The room he entered was one of charts and wealth, antique sabres hung on the walls like trophies, ancient and hopelessly inaccurate maps from long dead scribes littered the central table, ancestral paintings and gaudy displays of opulence hung about the place. A dozen displays of pointless vanity and ego. But towards the rear, an unremarkable cabinet was secured by a most remarkable lock. Even with the codes and combinations it took Arlek sometime to slowly open her up, only to reveal a single item inside. An ordinary, brown, wooden box. But such mundanity was a façade, even before his fingers had touched it they felt the crackle of potential from the wards and seals within. Seizing the box Arlek turned abruptly towards the bridge and began striding earnestly back to the Shu. A harsh, mechanical voice called out over the bridges vox system as he did so.
"Warning. Override codes altered. Warning warp entry process commenced. Short range blind jump process. Warning. Coordinates not present. Navigator not present. Gellar Fields disabled. Manual delay input. Jump in forty minutes." Forty minutes was cutting it short, not for him but for the rest of the boarding crew who Arlek could feel suddenly taking flight and pouring back towards the Shu with desperate haste.
Marching back through the halls he had carved through minutes ago brother Orisian jogged up to Arlek's side, the advanced healing agents of his post human body having sealed the wound, though his armour still bore the marks.
"You leave our comrades little time brother." Observed Arlek, only for a surprisingly cocksure response from a man who mere minutes ago had tasted a blade.
"Enough time my Lord. They need no more." A derisive snort echoed out though Arlek's peculiar helm.
"I hope you are right, for your sake brother." There passed between them a few moments of oddly heavy silence until Orisian asked the obvious, in almost hesitant tones.
"What is in the box my Lord?" Arlek chuckled slightly, purely within his own mind. The most important questions were often so simple. And so rarely answered. But he would give his brother the truth, after a fashion.
"The future Orisian." Before finishing the sentence in his own mind. "Or at least the beginning of it, I hope."