Story: The Meaning of Fear
The Praetus knelt before Hectocapitus.
"Great lord, something requires your attention."
The Gehennian glanced down balefully. "What is it?"
"We are unsure, mighty lord."
The Lord of all Daemons growled slightly, pulling himself up. The wall began to flow, and the small doorway became an enormous hole. Hectocapitus strode through, abhorrent flying things trailing behind.
The rooms changed to a scarlet red as he passed, and the ground twisted beneath his tread.
He descended through the Tower, into the Carcerus below. Eight Zahhak stood by the door, and stepped aside to allow him through.
He stepped into the cool darkness. Hardly anything was visible, he enhanced his vision.
There, in the centre of the room, was a dark shape. The carbon stains where its chains had been were clear on the floor.
"Well, Daystar. Quite a festival you've got going on here." The voice was deep, sensitive, caring, malign.
Hectocapitus staggered back. It was him. His voice was caught.
The Lord of all Daemons, God of Inferno, Master of the Daemoniverse, was afraid.
He cautiously opened his mouth to speak.
"Why am i not dead?"
The shape flowed upwards, and a gentle laugh came forth. "I'm cloaked, in the usual stuff."
Hectocapitus stepped forwards, regaining his composure.
"What do you want?" He had never imagined this.
Another laugh. "Just remind you that the big plan of yours, of the Veiled Ones, isn't going to hold much longer. And The Gate will remain closed."
Hectocapitus snarled, but he understood. "You're helpless. You're bluffing."
"Ah-ha, Daystar, you quote me. By the way, Death's Shadow found out."
"I don't believe you. She would have done something."
"I like her, she keeps to her own business. Some good things came of this. The bigger 'this', of course." The shadowy form moved closer. "But it's far outweighed."
Hectocapitus reached out his claws. "You are what you are allowed to be. We rule you."
"Correction. You trapped us. But what does it matter, in the end?"
"You're nothing, and such you will remain! I will destroy you!"
"What can you do? You're one when ten million barely succeeded. You did good with the other threats, but not us."
Hectocapitus considered things for a moment. "Tell me something."
The darkness dissolved in a black cloud.
The Armageddon hovered above the surface of Inferno, and the Titans below worked away at fitting the Bad Neighbour on. Hectocapitus' Praeti filed silently in, and the Lord of Daemons himself entered its dark halls.
Bloodburn stood to attention by the airlock.
His Master turned to him. "We're heading out of the Daemoniverse. Into the Crossverse."
Bloodburn narrowed his eyes, but activated the intercom. An Afrit's face appeared on the fire-crafted holoscreen.
Hectocapitus snarled, and the Korgrath staggered back. "My... Lord..."
"Get all unneeded warships with us. We're going into the Crossverse."
From Inferno's orbit came hundreds and hundreds of ships. Deathships, Transports, and their escorts rose up.
The Antagonist came alongside. Death's Shadow's voice came over the comms.
"You called, Master?"
Hectocapitus growled contentedly.
The rift flared up before them, and the Daemon ships filed in.
All around them was the cold, purple light. Rift-stars shone dimly in the twilight, and Julth could be made out surging towards them.
"Teach them about pain, Bloodburn."
The Gehennian's lips curled into a malicious smile as he activated the Hellbeams.
Two lashing red columns connected with the oncoming Julth, and they fizzled under the shock. Two exploded instantly, trailing hydrogen, and the others simply fled.
And then they were back in real space.
The Daemon Ships cruised onwards, the space around them cold and black. A cog drifted past, and then a few bolts burned up against the Hellfire Shield.
They were in Machinus' great central void, and in the distance other Dimensional Rifts could be seen, flashing and fading.
Hectocapitus turned to Bloodburn.
"Cruise onwards. Get the payload ready."
Behind the Armageddon, a dozen freighters followed. In each was ten million tonnes of hydrogen, picked up back in their homeverse.
A glimmer in the distance, and they could see the Synthayon.
A grating alarm came on- they were being M-scanned. Three clockwork sentinels came towards them.
"Alright, give them the gift."
The Freighters opened up and discharged their cargo, straight towards the Sentinels. With great speed, they siphoned it up into their undersides, and then flew off.
Then the transport ships dropped back, their job done. They disappeared into the Crossverse.
Synthayon now loomed ahead, enormous and liquid on the screen.
The Daemon flotilla paused. At the black ring that encircled their destination, the darkness began to flow away, and a ghostly tendril came forth.
Hectocapitus closed his eyes in concentration. The bi-neu scanner caressed the outside of the Armageddon, reading the EM pulses he was producing, shaping and creating the data.
And then it shot away, back into the sphere.
Now, a light appeared. Shards of brightness extended from a tube of golden light, and the Rift enveloped them.
"Did it work?" Bloodburn asked.
"We're exactly where i needed to be." Hectocapitus did not seem pleased, despite his success.
They were in a new universe, still translucent from its birth throes. It could only have been a light-year across.
And at its centre, a black hole. This one glowed green, and no matter went in or came out.
Apprehension filling them, the Daemons moved forwards.
Things began to change. The mass fields that suspended them began to creak as they passed the event horizon, and they knew that any failure would mean instant collapse and time contraction, condemning them to live out this universe's life in an instant.
But they reached the singularity. It flared and they were gone, gone into Vesania.
In the centre of Mania, something stirred. A green light flashed for a moment, and then was replaced with a fleet of Daemon ships.
Hectocapitus looked around on the astroscope. "Nothing."
The warships moved, cautiously, on. Trails of red dust played across their hulls, and stars glittered in the far distance.
"Master, we're detecting something." Death's Shadow seemed anxious.
"Big or small?" Bloodburn growled gently.
"I... can't tell. The scanner isn't working properly."
Hectocapitus needed no convincing. "Prepare weapons!"
And, in the astroscope, he saw the incoming creatures.
Three hundred buggernauts shot towards them, mandibles clacking and wings whirring in anticipation.
Lucifer Cannons began to fire, and long yellow streams tore through the insects. Their enormous forms fragmented under the shots, but they came on.
Dozens of the bombs were launched towards the foe. Spheres of raging plasma exploded into life, shredding another few groups.
Still, a dozen buggernauts flew straight into them. One ship was torn open, the buggernauts ripping at it with their claws.
The Antagonist turned, slowly, and brought its main weapon to bear.
The assaulted ship, complete with its raging guests, was gone in a red blast.
Bloodburn sniffed. "If that's the best this place has to offer, we'll be fine."
An ironic smile came onto Death's Shadow's snout. "That wasn't even the start."
The Daemons disappeared into FTL, and all around them was the pressing red of Mania. Hectocapitus seemed on edge.
Death's Shadow was little better. She was mumbling on the edge of her breath, a far cry from her usual silence.
"We're going to Intus first. Then out that way, to avoid the Rrogg."
Bloodburn nodded, and set the new course. He had a bad feeling about this trip.
"That is a mucked-up planet."
Bloodburn watched Intus slowly approach, its edges glinting in the red light.
Hectocapitus drummed his claws over the metal of his throne. "Set us down, Bloodburn. All others stay in orbit."
The Armageddon gently descended onto the dark earth below, and the clouds swirled around it.
It settled on the ground, suspensors letting it hover a metre above the surface. The Gehennians stepped out, guards in tow, into the sickening landscape.
Hectocapitus surveyed the area, and then pointed just over the horizon, into the grey water.
The party lifted off into the air, Praeti mounting harvengers and following. They skimmed lightly over the sea, heading for the Isle of the Sickened.
The plants here were acid green and drooping, the rocks twisted and out of place. The island was a single volcano, its crater containing a large, grey stone building.
Hectocapitus landed at its base. There was the sound of swooping wings as his guard settled around him, a small army.
Hectocapitus sat still for a moment, then a red glow began to shine in his mouth. The Hellbeam fired, and a blackened breach opened in the masonry.
The stepped into the smoky opening, and looked around.
"No no! No visitors! Mweehee! Visitors not here!"
From the opposite door, Snakesick emerged, a lopsided grin on her face.
Bloodburn looked her up and down, contemptuously. "So this is what became of her."
Hectocapitus stepped forward, and grabbed her neck.
"You know me. I am your father."
She struggled to escape. "Me no father anymore! Father abandoned! Only mother now!"
Hectocapitus growled. "Mother?"
Snakesick nodded enthusiastically. "Mother good to me! She help me live here!"
As they conversed, a group of silver-skinned humanoids began to enter the room, silently forming rows.
Bloodburn watched them as they moved, and reached out for one. He snapped it in half, and inspected the innards. "Cyborgs. Stewards, maybe."
Hectocapitus didn't take his eyes off his daughter. "They are of no consequence." He looked deeper into Snakesick's eyes. "You're coming with us."
"Me no come! No!"
The Daemons began to move out, and Hectocapitus trapped her in a headlock. "You ARE coming."
The ships took off again, heading into the black.
Bloodburn walked up to Hectocapitus. "Where are we going, Master?"
"You will find out."
Bloodburn knew not to pursue the matter, but he growled softly.
Snakesick sat behind the throne, head in her claws, staring into the darkness. Bloodburn went to her.
"What the heck are you doing? There's plenty of work if you're idle."
She didn't even lift her head. "Pressing darkness. Blandness of enormity. Worthlessness. Hiding from what we are. Life is worthless."
Bloodburn raised a scaly eyebrow, and walked off.
An Afrit spoke. "We've just left the red void. Heading for the big black wall."
Hectocapitus tapped his claws against the throne again. "Servants!"
Fifty Praeti stepped into formation.
"Bring me the black chest."
They moved off, obeying instantly.
Hectocapitus narrowed his eyes. "Pilots! Just like we prepared, reset your visuals."
He spoke now to himself. "This time I am ready."
The darkest shadow was visible now, all stars left behind. Bloodburn gamely shot down a passing Drohov miner ship with the Armageddon's Hellbeams.
In front of Nithspace, Hectocapitus prepared himself. He set the chest upon his altar and began to transmit the password that would allow its use. Bloodburn turned round. "All the precautions you recommended are ready, Lord."
Hectocapitus nodded. "Only a matter of time."
Little blobs of darkness began to detach from the Wall. A few dozen Nithlings were speeding towards the Daemons, seen a tenth of a second after they were really there.
"Shoot them! Fire everything!"
The Daemon fleet accelerated on, and now blasted out enormous volumes of fire. Where there was a hit, a Nithling form seized up and blinked out.
Only a few hundred kilometres.
A Nithbeast crashed into one of the other ships, and Hectocapitus watched it get ripped apart, flashes visible as its crew were removed from existence.
A lucifer cannon fired, and the attacked ship was gone.
The mighty fleet paused, and the Lord of Gehennians finished his preparations. The black chest began to make clicking noises, and then it opened.
A little white tube came up and scanned Hectocapitus. "Beep, Daystar, beep."
It retreated, and then the box opened again, its sides folding out. The front and back flipped down, and now they could all see what was inside- a Veiled One kill-fighter, folded down to the size of a sugar cube. Hectocapitus caressed it and it began to increase in size, wings shooting out and various plates of metal forming along its length. In a few seconds, he had a 20m-long ship before him.
He opened a previously non-existent porthole and stepped in. By rights, he shouldn't have been able to fit in, but Veiled Ones had been beyond such things.
"This ship is broken. It can only fire by using up its mass, destroying itself. I have one shot."
The Kill-fighter phased through the Armageddon's floor and headed towards the Nith.
Nithlings clustered around it, but Veiled One shields were too much for them. A Nithworm fractured and dissolved as they collided.
Now Hectocapitus stopped the ship, and activated the comms.
"I have the ability to destroy you all, useless maggots. Will you come out?"
Nithlings seethed over the surface of the Wall, visible like ants.
Now, a Nithlord came forth, followed by several others of his kind. "Hectocapitus. We know of you."
The God of Inferno growled contentedly. "Your illegitimate son contacted me."
"What do we care of him? You are no friend of ours. Blackness will envelop you."
"Tell me who he's working for. Or be annihilated."
"He does his own thing. We watch, but we are dispassionate."
"Tell me now, pathetic creatures!"
Hectocapitus now realised that Snakesick was knocking on the fighter door. Angrily, he let her in. With great confidence, she spoke into the comm.
"SNAKESICK SAYS HELLO!"
The Nithlords began to show signs of unease.
"THERE IS A DEBT TO BE PAID!"
"What do you want?" One of the dark figures spoke now, shakily.
"Mweehee, i know your plan. You follow! It's because you are too weak to lead! Mwaha!"
"Very well, Hectocapitus. We will answer your question. Just send her away!"
Hectocapitus motioned for his daughter to be silent. "Tell me now."
"The Szerkers. Now leave!"
The Nithlords fled, apart from one. He pointed his illusionary sword at the Daaemon fleet and a few dozen exploded. "Remember who you're dealing with."
Then, the Nithlings were all gone.
Hectocapitus re-entered the Armageddon, put away his relic, and ordered an FTL course back to Mania.
"It wasn't real, was it?"
Hectocapitus turned and glared at Bloodburn.
"How did you know?"
"I've seen them in action. They fly different."
"Indeed. That was a replica for children to play in."
"We used to make spaceships as toys?"
Hectocapitus narrowed his burning eyes. "We are stronger now."
"If you say so, Master."
The Seven member left to the bridge of his ship, considering Hectocapitus' words.
The Dark Lord of Inferno drummed his claws on his throne, brooding. He was going to fight some Szerkers?
Heading back through the Vesanian void, Hectocapitus looked out upon the Abyss.
The disquieting blackness filled all he could see, and it was easy to think that there was movement coming from within. He tore his gaze away, and turned to Bloodburn.
"100 million light-veks. Around five days' travel."
Snakesick stepped out onto the bridge.
"Mother wants Snakesick back."
Bloodburn glared at her. "Go back down."
"Must let me back! Must be back! Must back to Mother!"
Bloodburn scowled and ignored her.
"Must be back!"
She grabbed at the controls, and her claws made contact with a set of levers.
The Armageddon quivered slightly.
"Luckily, these controls only respond to me or the Master." Bloodburn snickered.
The Armageddon began to change heading.
"BACK TO MOTHER!" Snakesick shrieked, and ran past a disbelieving Bloodburn, straight to the front of the bridge.
Hectocapitus looked on, disdainfully. "Change it back, Bloodburn."
"My lord, we're entering our experimental FTL stage!"
"But she could not have known!"
The ship began to creak and shudder under their feet, the Active Blackmetal compensating desperately. The strain was immense.
"Command all the other ships to head on! Get the Antagonist docked to us!"
The smaller Hellbeam ship locked onto the Armageddon, and the entire assemblage shot off with a blast of flame.
The Armageddon was moving fast enough to create a bow wave in space, its Hellfire Shield blazing white. Blue and red shockfronts shone at the bow and stern, and everyone inside grabbed hold of something.
"Open Thean controls!" Yelled the Lord of all Daemons.
Reluctantly, Bloodburn inserted a claw into one of the consoles. He turned it this way and that, concentrating intensely. Death's Shadow entered the room, and saw what was going on.
The block's lights and controls slid away, and were replaced with a glowing blue circle, hovering around an inch into the air.
Bloodburn put his paw into the circle, and the circle grew brighter. "Extracting kinetic energy!"
The ship began to slow, and the stars became points once more. Smoothly, the Armageddon came to a halt.
The ship's lights flickered on and off.
"Engine's almost entirely drained! We should siphon power from the Antagonist!"
"No, I have a better idea." Hectocapitus smiled.
They looked out the window. Abyss was far behind them- they had entered Tranquil.
Serenus lay, a blue spiral, before the Daemon ships.
Bloodburn was not looking- he was in the engine room, watching the Praeti working away. An enormous cylinder came from floor to roof, and they worked to pull down the shutters. Light began to emenate through the cracks, electric blue and spotless white.
The shutters came down another yard, and Bloodburn realised they had also been sensor-cloaked. He could feel the presence of a being within, one that he was bred to fight, but one that he had no seen in so long...
The Julth Overlord struggled within its Veiled One-built prison, screaming magnetic obscenities at the Daemons who watched it writhe and burn.
"This, Bloodburn, is one of our backup energy sources."
"But the Julth Overlord is still out there, in the Crossverse! He fights still, and this prison is millions of years old!"
Hectocapitus smiled toothily. "That, Bloodburn, is his last and sterile son."
Bloodburn stared in awe at the godhead of the Julth race, and then clenched his paws. "We must destroy it."
"The prison is too strong for our weapons. Only the touch of a Veiled One would open it, and we are too changed to be applicable. No, this torture is better than death."
Two pipes extended into the cylinder, one from the top and one from the bottom. They drove into the Overlord's mass envelope, and then began to pulsate with blue power. The ship's lights flared on again, and everything was in working order.
Three Alestoi ships watched the Daemon warships from afar, and studied them.
These newcomers to Tranquil seemed unstable and disruptive- they would have to be neutralised.
From behind them, another thirty Alestoi ships dropped out of FTL. Gradually, cautiously, they began to accelerate towards their targets.
The Antagonist maintained its invisibility, scouting ahead. The fleet would have to enter an atmosphere and discharge flame bubble static soon, so Death's Shadow was on the lookout for a habitable planet.
This part of Vesania was very rich in material, but there was something strange about it all. There were no gamma rays detectable- no stellar remnants?- and there were too many more stars than could reasonably be expected.
It was when she was busy thinking that the fleet alarm call reached her. The scanners swung back, revealing thirty-three unknown vessels attacking the rearguard.
She could see the Armageddon turning about, and the explosions as a hundred Lucifer Cannons hit their marks.
The Alestoi ships took the blows, and returned fire with some strange kind of mass driver. Their weapons depleted flame bubbles extremely quickly, and so she went back to assist. They had not detected her, so it was somewhat unexpected when a Hellbeam fired from no evident source straight through four of their ships.
The Armageddon was facing its foes now, and its Hellbeams lashed out, reducing Alestoi ships to cinders and plasma.
One Alestoi ship had survived relatively unscathed, and now dived into one of the Korgrath-led Deathships.
The comm activated. "Death's Shadow! Purge the invaded Deathship!"
The Antagonist headed in and docked with the victim. The lights of gunfire and explosions could be seen through the cockpit window- were they too late?
She jumped in, and the five Alestoi guards were too slow. In less than a second, her narrow plasma beam had vaporised them all.
On the other side of the ship, Alestoi were spraying the Korgrath with their ink and pulling off armour with their claws. They wielded strange weapons, which sputtered and blasted the nervous system of the Daemons into flame.
Death's Shadow arrived as the Alestoi leader was trying to work out the ship's controls- not a hard task given the labels- but his head was gone with a swipe of her claws. His guards fired, terrified, but the Gehennian's invisible form evaded all hits.
One Alestoi was slammed against the ceiling from below, and another's spine was wrenched from their back. A point-blank plasma beam reduced two more to ashes, and the last backed slowly against a wall.
It then sprang towards her, surprisingly aggressive. She felt its bite on her arm, inneffectual against nanobot adamant but highly irritating. She smashed its head in, then set the ship to self-destruct.
Around her, the vessel was transmuted into flaming debris, but she was unharmed. Climbing back into the Antagonist, she turned to join the fleet.
"These Daemons fought off our attack force. However, our captain transmitted their current course- they are heading through the centre of Serenus."
"We can't have that."
"Indeed. I've sent out a flotilla to intercept, with reinforcements. Seven hundred ships."
The Armageddon and its fleet headed on, unaware of the rapidly approaching Alestoi.
Then, sudden and smooth, a missile cruised along in front of the fleet.
"Quick! To a halt!" Bloodburn reinforced his words with a held-up paw.
The missile crashed into the Alestoi, exploding and tearing the centre of their formation apart. Twisted metal and flames shot out in all directions, impacting other ships.
A group of Skura was heading towards them, firing more and more into the Alestoi. Each hit destroyed a dozen vessels, and the fleet was depleting rapidly.
"They're fleeing!" One of the Afrit said, and was then smacked around the head by another Korgrath.
"Yeah, we know."
The Skura continued on, completely ignoring the Daemons. Their serpentine forms undulated as they passed.
"Screwed-up universe if there ever was one. Keep going."
A dark, amorphous being moved within the bowels of a Szerker Worldkiller. It moved from control to control, preparing, preparing. Another firewall? It put its arm into the machine, and removed the block.
Behind it, a red light flashed.
The being didn't know what the red light was there for. If it had known, it would have been a little irritated.
"Where's Snakesick?" Bloodburn looked up to see who had asked.
It was Death's Shadow, calmly waiting for an answer.
He studied her for a moment, then gestured towards the hold.
"Down there. She's building something."
As the female Gehennian moved off, Bloodburn looked back down at the experimental FTL controls, and considered what Cthire had said about how they worked.
The system was a radical one. It used a device taken from the Pharoste- stupid lizards had produced one notable technology before their fall. It used mass-adjustment to slip the ship through space, allowing unprecedented speed.
So Bloodburn wondered why the speed it reached here was half that it reached in normal space.
Snakesick was almost finished when Death's Shadow came down.
The construction was evidently meant to be a figure, but it was made from chewed-up bits of metal and some very unconventional use of Cubi.
Snakesick turned to her visitor, grinning maniacally. "Made a pretty picture! Mweehee!"
"It's less of a picture and more of a scrapheap. If you compressed a scrapheap down into the rough form of a dying Hellhound, of course."
"Listen, Snakesick. I've been in Vesania before."
"Snakesick not listen to boring-boring person."
"I know about Mother."
The green Gehennian perked up, and smiled.
"You have to help me find her."
The being watched the Daemon fleet approach.
The red light was still flashing behind it, but that didn't matter.
The equator of the Worldkiller he rode in, and so the Dihedral cannon, were pointed straight at the oncoming line, and the targetting solution was already in place. Just the touch of a button and all those beings would be destroyed.
It thought about it for a moment. If the Daemons lost their Master and two of the Seven, along with two Hellbeam Deathships and a whole host of other Warships, they might never recover. Their foes would take the opportunity and force them back to Inferno, which they would be powerless against. A permanent stalemate around that burning rock of a world.
In time, one of the races would become advanced enough to trigger of the old Veiled One defenses. The blockading fleet would be destroyed and the Daemons would be free again. Then, forced back, and then free... the cycle would go on.
It would be fun to watch all those battles, but despite that, the being did not fire the cannon.
The Daemons would be needed soon, and if it destroyed them, it would find itself in the deepest water of all. It needed to survive, so it watched, dispassionately.
"Something really big! 10,000 or more klicks across!" An Afrit shouted.
"Get an analysis and ready weapons." Bloodburn experimented with his own claws, withdrawing and extending them.
"Analysis failed, sir. The armour is hundreds of km thick."
"Well then, time to do a little thinning."
Then, a screeching feedback noise filled the ship, and the Daemons were forced to cover or deactivate their ears. It lasted around ten seconds, and then a voice, the voice from the Carcerus-
"Daystar, leave this place. I could destroy your fleet ten thousand times over with my shields down."
"I was expecting to meet some Szerkers."
"I have taken a Szerker Worldkiller. It was evacuated millions of years ago."
"Your fathers back at the Nithwall said you were working for them, not salvaging their wrecks!"
"In a way, I am working for them. I am attempting to resurrect them."
"As a gambling chip with some... friends of mine. Advanced races sell well."
"And how do you hope to gamble with things you don't have?"
"Oh, I have what I need. The Szerkers were constructed from picotechnology, replacing their original bodies- just a few hundred of the little bots would allow me to construct a new Szerker."
"And I suppose you have those?"
"I do now. Szerker picobots latch on to power sources, in anticipation of regeneration and needing energy. Your drive core contained thousands from when you battled them above Inferno."
"You'll never get in there."
On the cockpit, before Hectocapitus, the being solidified from thin air. It now spoke through no speakers or microphones. The volley of firespitter and plasma shots pattered off its dark aura.
"I already am in there."
And in its hand, a small silver deposit appeared, and then disappeared.
"It's back on the ship now. And rebuilding."
It was then that Snakesick leapt on to the being, tearing at it with teeth and claws.
"Get her off me! I can't take much more!"
Where plasma beams and rending cannons had failed, the bite of a green Gehennian succeeded. The amorphous body was cleaved in two, and began to crackle as it faded from existence.
Snakesick's hand was closed around something.
"What's that?" Bloodburn asked, charging over.
She tightened her grip.
"Snakesick has Nith in hand."
The Daemons recoiled around her. Hectocapitus switched his vision to half a second delay, and then walked up to her and took the little, black nugget in his great paw.
The screen activated now, and a group of Szerkers stood there, gloating.
"Well, well, well, our first victims."
Hectocapitus did not need to think. "Everybody down!" The afrit and Gehennians, Zahhak and Korgrath, leapt onto the floor and covered their eyes, as the Lord of Inferno held the Nith up to the screen. With a burst of bright flashes, the Szerkers were completely obliterated, destroyed by their own sight.
The God of all Daemons closed his fist tightly, and crushed the fragment in his hand. There was a sudden burst of energy, but the Neutronium-Metal was impervious to the explosion as the Nith was destroyed.
"Back to Inferno. Quickly!" Hectocapitus was yelling.
All of the crew rushed to their stations, desperate to please, apart from a green Gehennian who stared out the window. "We leave big ship?"
The underside of the Armageddon opened up, and a huge barrel rolled out into place. The Hellbeams locked on, and all three weapons fired at once at the Worldkiller's Dihedral cannon.
The shots appeared to disperse harmlessly over the armour, but the ship's AI had seen the Nith too. No shields or integrity fields activated to compensate, and the Worldkiller was rent in two. Oblivion Dust swarmed the remainder, attracted by the burst of energy, and dissolving the remnants entirely.
Bloodburn grinned, fangs protruding. "We always win."
Heading down now, to the bottom of Vesania, the Daemons were able to rest for a while.
"The return wormhole is scheduled to appear in three hours. Stay alert."
A Nithlord appeared on the bridge, before Hectocapitus, and did not turn as hundreds of bullets and beams crashed into it.
"Hectocapitus, I would like to thank you."
"Oh, now you're grateful."
"I have two reasons. The first is the destruction of our... experiment. I saw how it happened. I remember when we first formed him, we were unsure just how useful he would be. He was just another liability."
"Yeah, yeah. What's your second reason?"
"Thank you for removing that... abomination... from Vesania."
"What? What's this?"
The Nithlord had no mouth, being armoured entirely with metal over pure darkness, but it was able to whisper into Hectocapitus' ear.
"What's your problem with her?"
"I cannot tell you. Now, I must take my leave."
The black form faded away, and the God of all Daemons was left pondering.
Death's Shadow and Snakesick were watching the stars go by together, from the deck of the Antagonist.
The green Gehennian nodded.
The Deathship broke formation and headed towards a star system, just a few light years away.
"What are you doing, Shadow?"
"Just a quick refuel. I will return shortly."
As it met the atmosphere of a strange world, flames licked the hull of the ship. The active blackmetal remained untarnished throughout the descent, and the shop only rocked slightly as it set down.
The two Gehennians walked out onto the plain. It was almost gelatinous underfoot, squelching and grey, and it spread from horizon to horizon. Where anything touched it, it bubbled with rapidly produced enzymes and acid. Nanobot adamant was unaffected, but there was a short cry as a Djinn burned away.
They took off and flew through the red sky, towards a large rock that protruded from the levels, constant foam around its base. At its peak was a temple of azure and gold, the word 'Mother' written on it in ten thousand languages.
And inside, the scene was even more remarkable. At the centre of the room, on a brazen plinth, was a sphere. And the sphere was aflame, probably doused in paraffin by the drip that ran overhead.
The two Gehennians bowed to the object and then touched it with a tentative paw. The flames wrapped themselves around the armour, and stuck to it even after removal. Slowly, the lack of fuel extinguished them.
"Mother, Snakesick go away for while. Pretend-daddy take me to lava planet. See soon."
"Mother, I do as you ask. There shall be no mistake."
As they walked out, they noticed the bones hanging from the ceiling, jewels and metals embedded in their luscious cream surfaces. The servants of Mother came from many races, and Death's Shadow could only tentatively identify a small fraction of the bones- Notrox, Angeli, Veiled One. Most were unrecognisable.
After they were gone, a cloaked figure rushed to the base of the sphere and lay prostate. His features were unmistakeably those of a Szerker.
"Mother, forgive me for what I have done. I turn to you."
Surprised by something, he rose to his feet. And then he laughed.
With the Daemon fleet reassembled, they had made good time.
"Wormhole in one minute."
"Hang on... we're detecting something!"
From every direction, the beasts of Vesania were coming. Hellions and Buggernauts, Skura and Skuror...
The green wormhole flared into life, and the Daemon fleet was gone. The creatures crashed into each other where it had been, confused and vicious, and took to fighting amongst themselves.
Dropping from the Crossverse, the armada lay in orbit above Inferno. Most ships were damage, if only slightly, and would not be able to enter the atmosphere.
The Armageddon and Antagonist were greeted by the cheery face of Darkshriek, and the unashamedly angry face of Deadflame.
"Welcome back, Master! And welcome to all my brothers and sisters."
Snakesick moved to the screen. "He silly." She jabbed a claw at Darkshriek's image.
"Oh hello... who's this, then?"
Bloodburn growled. "This is Snakesick. Lay off."
Darkshriek recoiled. "Of course. I have readied the landing bays for you."
The two ships descended gently, cruising to a halt. Titans were already there to extract the Bad Neighbour, and throngs of Afrits for repairs.
Hectocapitus walked out and sniffed the air. Well, it was good to be home.
Deep within the bowels of Bloodburn's ship, a being was getting used to the pain. The Julth Overlord began to settle down within his confinement, but seethed still inside. A thousand ways to kill Hectocapitus flew through his gaseous mind...
And then he noticed something, just on the inside of the Veiled One glass. A speck of Oblivion Dust, too small for any eye to see, but just about visible to him.
And he smiled mouthlessly, for his plots would yet bear fruit.
- The Tower
- Veiled Ones
- Death's Shadow
- The Armageddon
- The Antagonist
- Daemon Warships
- Dimensional Rift
- Clockwork Sentinel
- Veiled One Technology
- Serenus Galaxy
- Julth Overlord
- Oblivion Dust