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The man they call the Hand munches on an unlit cigar like a hound on a dry bone, a nasty habit that he should have lost a long time ago. Still, it's a good reminder that he's in control over his own vices. The temptation is always there, waiting, pulsing like an infected sore, ready to burst, kept at bay by the bigger picture: Breaking legs and snapping necks isn't so easy when your lungs are as corroded as your sense of morality.

Of course, saying that those two activities make up most of the Hand's job would be an understatement. There are many layers to one's role in an organization like his.

The Hand is in charge of supervising all activities his associates deem distasteful, every torture and extortion, every assassination and kidnapping. He, through his many Fingers, dictates when cruelty is necessary, and upon whom it shall be inflicted. His is title of judge and jury, the man who pulls the executioner's trigger. His is the final word. His is the power over life and death. Whatever goes on in the Galactic Underworld, if it involves violence, will be under the stern gaze of the Hand.

Grim thoughts are interrupted by the realization that the other members of the Conclave have taken their seats at the table, signaling that the meeting is about to start.

"Ladies, gentlemen," says The One on the High Seat, the man in the purple suit and wide brim hat that sits at the head of the table, his fanged, pale, chitinous mandibles clicking with anticipation. "Welcome. I see we are all in attendance. Good. Mister Mouth has summoned you here because we have an affair in our hands that cannot be postponed."

Heads turn towards the one they call the Mouth, the individual sitting next to The One on the High Seat. He nods his head politely, but says nothing, a gesture the Hand thinks is ironic from someone with his name and role. The middleman between the Conclave of Shadows and its army of underlings, the Mouth’s word is the will of the organization, the law of the syndicate. Heeding his call is the most prudent thing one can do when summoned to assembly.

"Now, friends, I think it better if Mister Eye breaks the news to us all. Mister Eye, if you please…"

A shuffling of papers is followed by the Eye's metallic, monotone voice. Its utter lack of emotion makes it sound like it's coming from a machine, rather than from the well-dressed individual standing opposite to The One on the High Seat.

"The Immortal Empire has agreed to diminish its raids on our facilities and to refrain from blockading our hyperspace routes. In exchange, they ask the Black Nebula to abstain from operating in newly assimilated worlds for a period no shorter than five decades after the assimilation has been formally completed."

A drowned clamor is heard through the shadowed room, a dozen voices murmuring with apprehension. The Empire's terms are absolute, this the Hand knows. Over the last few years, they have made a point of blockading routes and arresting any Nebula operative they can get their hands on, making it clear that, despite the organization's power, it is still the Empire calling the shots.

Truly, thinks the Hand, they must have noticed how desperate we've grown if they dare ask so much from us.

The Hand cannot remember a point in time when the Empire had imposed such a headlock on the Black Nebula. Granted, he was not alive to see much of the organization's past, but he has never heard of a time when it was the Nebula that got the losing end of a bargain.

With a situation like this, and the squabbling of his associates, he can't help but reminisce back to his past, back when he was no one. It truly was a simpler time.

It's thirty years into the past, and the Hand still goes by his birthname of "Alexander." Everyone starts out somewhere, and this is where he landed when the Nebula first recruited him.

Idhai's Pulsar District is popular for two reasons. The first is that it's right across the street from the edge of Kiril Boulevard, the largest clubbing district on the entire planet. Second reason is that it's the only place on the Immortal Empire's capital that allows for a certain set of pleasures.

On Idhai, everything is bigger, everything is better: the parks, the museums, the libraries, the universities. It's only logical that the brothels and the casinos follow suit.

Under the neon signs and lamplights, more in place at New Gomorrah than in this hub of culture and sophistication, prowl late-night partygoers and thrill-seekers, eager to engage in activities otherwise prohibited on the planet. Prostitutes and drug dealers abound, sought after by the masses of tourists and locals who wish a taste of this haven of vice and pleasure.

This does not mean, however, that the watchful eyes of authority do not intrude into the Pulsar District every now and then. Squads of police androids and agents scout the borders of the District, looking for any transgressors that attempt to export the party out to the rest of Idhai. Their senses are ready, their weapons loaded. Any sign of trouble and they will not doubt to make an arrest.

It is for this reason that Alexander stands on a dark corner at the frontier between the Pulsar District and its clubbing counterpart. He leans against the lamp post and observes.

It’s very late at night, and most clubs on Kiril Boulevard are nearing closing hours. Morning will come shortly after, with all the regrets of a hangover and an imprudent hookup. Alexander has known these sensations for a very long time, though ever since he joined the business, he has learned what it is like on the other side of the counter.

Alexander stands and waits, shifts and observes. The weary and tired partygoers that clog the streets and clubs begin dispersing, leaving behind nothing but a remembrance of their presence. Tomorrow night they will show up again, and the cycle will restart itself.

This may take longer than anticipated, thinks Alexander as he lights a cigarette. He is still to feel any ill effects on his lungs; those will come in time. In the meantime, he muses over his date's tardiness, and how unprofessional it is of them. But this would not be the first time they are late, would it?

At last, a police hovercraft shows up around the corner of the street. Its lights are not lit, and its windows roll down slowly, almost deliberately so.

The man within the cockpit flaps his facial tentacles, a sign of utter contempt at Alexander and his line of work. His partner, a gelatinous entity of multiple faces, simply nods one of its many heads in acknowledgement.

"You're late, officer," says Alexander, smoke still drifting from his mouth.

"Will you put out that awful thing?" growls the policeman. "We have what your boss asked for. You better stick to the terms we agreed, little man."

"All is good," says the young human, complying with the officer's demand, "as long as it’s all we’ve asked for."

The policeman grunts in disgust and throws him a thick envelope, sealed with the sigil of Idhai's Police Department. Alexander opens it and reviews its contents. Yes. Yes, it's all here. Now he understands why the bosses wanted it so badly.

"And I'm guessing everything has been expunged from your database?" he asks, eyes still reading the damning documents.

"You have the only copy," shrugs the gelatinous thing on the copilot seat.

"Very well. We’re good, then."

"We better. Chief wants her man apprehended ASAP. Better be giftwrapped at either the precinct or the morgue by tomorrow morning."

"Fair enough. We'll see what we can do, officer. From what I've heard, you've got quite the rogue assassin on your hands. Shame you have not been able to catch him yourselves, ain't it? Good night to you."

Alexander turns around and leaves as the officer grunts and protests at the indignity of having to deal with this kind of filth. What hope can there be for the Empire if the keepers of its Law are forced to work with the scum of the Universe?

Alexander does not mind.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Empire has allowed the Black Nebula and the Guild of Assassins to operate outside the law in exchange for undertaking any task the authorities deem unsavory. Alexander, like many before him, has grown used to this symbiotic relationship his organization holds with the police. They procure the intel and erase the necessary documents; the Nebula does the dirty work and reaps a fat profit. Win-win, everyone.

Thus is another record cleared.

Thus is another hunt set.

Thus is the power over the law.

Thus is the power of the Black Nebula.

The Hand — Alexander — is ripped from his remembrance by the increasingly louder discussion that has taken hold of the Conclave. Few are pleased with the Empire's terms, it seems.

"This is unacceptable!" exclaims the one they call the Accountant, nearly jumping from her seat. "The Empire asks that we let entire worlds slip from our grasp, that we allow the Zahn Society to take hold of what is ours by way of might!"

"As much as we risk losing worlds to the Zahn Society, we must not forget what our refusal entails for our hold on the rest of the galaxies," says the Cartographer, the woman in charge of designing the Nebula's routes and distribution points. She sits next to the Hand and has stood up to emphasize her point. "If the Empire continues to blockade our trade routes at this rate, our profits will soon be in the red, as the Accountant undoubtedly knows. What are a few worlds compared to our dominion of most Imperial territory?"

More murmurs and a brazen look from the Accountant are all the Hand takes in before delving back into his own thoughts. The scenario does not look well.

Andromeda. Triangulum. The Milky Way.

These are the galaxies where the Empire rules supreme, the galaxies where, at the shadow of the Empire's might, the Black Nebula has grown and thrived for nearly five centuries. Five centuries of unrivalled might. Five centuries of operating with nigh-absolute impunity. All threatened by the Empire's sudden preoccupation with organized crime. Guess the Nebula finally grew large enough to pose a threat to its business partner.

Can't really blame them, can we? Alexander remains quiet even as attention turns towards the threat posed by the Zahn Society.

For most of its existence, the Nebula has crushed any competitors under its might, strong-arming most of them into servitude, annihilating any who refused to yield. This was the fate of the Star Runners, from whose ashes rose the Zahn Society, an organization that has managed to be a thorn on the Nebula’s side for the better part of a decade.

"The Empire owes us!" says the one they call the Book, the man in charge of keeping a registry of the organization's history and principles. "We helped them through their time of need. We smuggled and cheated and murdered for them during the Krolovar Invasion! We allowed ourselves to be blamed for the worst of their war crimes! How dare they put us in a position of disadvantage against our rivals?"

"The Empire disagrees, Mister Book," intervenes the Eye's metallic tone. "They view us as a pest, a lesser evil when contrasted with the Krolovar, yes, but a pest either way. They have been lenient on us because we are useful, but every power must eventually reassert its supremacy, and this is the Immortal Empire's way of doing it."

"Enough," comes the voice of the Mouth. The rest of the room falls silent, for the Mouth seldom speaks if not commanded. "We have strongholds and bases everywhere in the Empire. We possess the fourth mightiest fleet in the known Universe. Amongst our ranks are those who know the Old Ways of Magic. We will stand guard and watch, and if the Zahn Society tries taking what is ours, we will crush them!"

Cheers from the assembled Conclave. Groans from the Cartographer. The One on the High Seat remains silent, as does the Hand.

Magic, eh?

The Zahn Society has yet to take hold of the supernatural, a concept the Nebula has long appropriated and turned into a weapon. Rumors abound of the dark magic The One on the High Seat used to seal the deal that has allowed the Nebula to operate in the Empire even against its leaders' best efforts to mop them out.

It would not be the last time they'd use it.

The man slips through the streets of Gremure, his neck wet with fear and sweat. He's late to his assignment, and bosses like his do not take tardiness kindly. Any misstep and they'll hire the Guild of Assassins to off him, if they don't kill him themselves first.

Turning the first corner left of Blossom Square takes him to a shoddy building scheduled for demolition, a remnant of an age before the Empire's arrival. Four figures stand before it, waiting, pacing.

"Boss' been waitin for you," spits out one of them, its fat, slimy tongue barely able to pronounce the words in Imperial Common. "You got materials h'asked for?"

"Yes, yes!" the man exclaims, panting and swearing as he reaches for the bag on his shoulder. From within he extracts a dirty clay jar, a grotesque, slithering sound coming from its bowels.

"Hand it over, boy," says a voice as deep as a crevice, as mighty as thunder, "and mind the shoes. You are stepping on hallowed ground."

The boss is as tall as his species get to be, barely a meter in stature, but his fangs are long and venomous, and his horns twist into maddening spirals: the perfect specimen of a Gremuran male. Still he is but an underling to a bigger fish, and he too has his task to accomplish.

The man takes off his shoes and steps into the circle he does not know to be inscribed on the asphalt, invisible to all but the eyes of its maker. He hands over the jar and lowers his gaze as the boss grabs it with his clawed hands.

"Good job, kid," comes the boss' voice again. "You ready to join the big boys' club?"

The man can barely begin to form words when he's already being beaten into a bloody pulp under the knuckles of the boss' henchmen. They punch and kick and make his skull rattle with a million points of light. They grab him by the shoulders and force him down on his knees, mouth forced open by a pair of prongs, eyes wide with fear and pain.

There is a wet pop as the boss uncorks the jar and a thick, viscous thing made of darkness and blood and fear begins bubbling up to the surface. Without a second thought, he forces it down the man’s throat, his cries of horror and pain drowned in seconds as the black sludge burns away his tongue and vocal chords, making its way down to the stomach. It burns and boils and bubbles as the man’s body does the same, melting and sinking into the circle that surrounds the ruined building.

In a few minutes, the poor, unknowing victim is melted down into more of the thick black sludge which dissipates into the ground, completing the ritual. This is the price of magic, shrug the figures in attendance.

"Land's ours, boys!" celebrates the boss. The four remaining figures cheer, their growls and laughter signaling their triumph.

Land consecrated by blood, land that will forever be theirs. No matter what is built upon the cinders of the old edifice, it will belong to them, to the men in unknown corners. No matter who occupies it, they will obey the will of their organization, the will of the Nebula.

Thus is a new safehouse born.

Thus is a new base established.

Thus is the power over land.

Thus is the power of the Black Nebula.

The discussion turns sour as the Mouth returns to its usual silence and the rest of the Conclave continues to bicker like schoolchildren. That is, until The One on the High Seat stands from his aptly named chair and stares them down with his shadowed eyes, red irises on black sclera.

"I see no reason to continue this debate, my friends," says the old man, arms poised behind his back. "The room is clearly divided, so I believe a vote is in order."

Vote is murmured through the room as the debaters take their seats once more and lean forward to listen to the One on the High Seat. It seems that everything will move smoothly from there when the Cartographer suddenly stands and addresses the Nebula's leader.

"Sir, please, if I may!" she says, nearly tripping over her own words.

The One on the High Seat signals her to continue.

"I think we should listen to Mister Hand’s thoughts on this subject."

"Him?" interjects the one they call the Scavenger, the man in charge of acquiring every piece of equipment the Nebula could possibly need. "What does a butcher know of negotiations or discretion? He is a glorified brute and…"

"Careful, Mister Scavenger," quips the Mouth, once more imposing silence on the room. "This man is to ensure our enemies' destruction should we go to war with them, and there is more to him than meets the eye."

The room is once more lit by murmurs as The One on the High Seat nods in agreement and signals the Hand to stand and speak his mind. Alexander, still munching on his unlit cigar, swallows hard as he stands and forces his throat to produce words for him to say.

"I believe Mister Scavenger thinks my role in our organization is merely to be the chief torture technician, a glorified leg-breaker and dumb muscle. I will not attempt to dissuade him on this matter, but I will remind you all that I am also our main contact with the Guild of Assassins."

In the darkness of the room, most faces are but shadowy silhouettes, yet Alexander can almost tell some of them are smiling. Even The One on the High Seat seems to agree with them.

"I will also remind my esteemed associates that this would not be the first time we are threatened by a competitor," continues the Hand. "It is only that the causes of said threat are different. The Empire has us on a chokehold, that I will concede. We have no option but agree to their terms; else, we risk the loss of our trade routes and open war with the most powerful government in the Universe. Even so, we need not worry for the Zahn Society, as long as we turn back to the stratagems that first made our organization great."

More agreeing murmurs. More groans from those that still oppose.

"You doubt my words, yet I tell you we need not worry. My friends, our organization has always relied on cooperating with key figures placed in key positions… and the removal of those figures if they impede our designs. And what better way to remove an obstruction of this kind… than an assassin?"

The skies over Loherun are the brightest tinge of orange, a sight as ugly to the eyes as a slaughterhouse is to the ears. Its skyline is made out of colossal buildings that pierce the clouds with their jagged, angular tops, an architectural style that has dominated the entire planet for the better part of this century.

There's a party happening at a penthouse, its revelry the envy of the Roman bacchanals. Rooms are lined with tables filled to the brim with the most exquisite foods from across the stars and drinks strong enough to fell a Jötunn. Its walls are decorated with grotesque imagery that only a mind imbibed enough with its own ego could think of as being in good taste.

A large crowd of scantily dressed celebrants, drunk or drugged or both, dance an orgiastic dance to the sound of the huge speakers installed on the ceiling. At any moment, they could erupt into a full-on orgy, disregarding the taboos their societies have imposed on them.

Dancing in that crowd is a young human woman, her body covered only in vaporous garments, bronze skin coated in sweat. She moves in sensuous fashion, hips rocking to the sound of drums, arms raised towards the heavens, throat echoing with the same chant as the ones around her. Here, at the epicenter of it all, she is hardly out of place, undistinguishable in the voracious crowd that continues to dance and throb and cry out in ecstasy.

Her eyes, however, tell otherwise.

They are the eyes of a predator, a creature that lives for the hunt… and the rewards that come with every prey slain. Tonight they are occupied with the drinking and the dancing, as is the rest of her body, but occasionally they dart towards the edges of the room, where her prey is to show up any moment.

That moment is now.

On the far side of the room a purple curtain comes undone in a shower of light and sound, heralding the arrival of the man of the party, whose effigies make most of the penthouse’s ugly decoration: a tall, muscular human male dressed in nothing but a purple bathrobe, which does a terrible job concealing his massive, throbbing ego.

He's here. The man himself has made his entrance. Father Bacchus has arrived.

The man in question is no god: the woman has met gods before, and even this fool's namesake has better taste.

One thing is true, though: despite not being a god, he certainly has the following of one. Not a step has been taken when the crowd cheers loudly, nearly drowning the music with their cries. The man smiles and descends on them, his robe falling from his shoulders as he does so. They pile around him, seeking to touch him, to taste him. They supplicate and moan and kneel before him, mad with joy at their host's arrival.

The woman, however, is not fooled by the man-god. She knows who he really is, what he really is, and is not impressed by it at all.

Isaiah Hurst, alias Father Bacchus. The newest, hippest artisanal drug manufacturer this side of the Triangulum Galaxy. With a reputation like his, it's hard to believe that he started out on Earth as a lowly drug dealer before graduating from mundane narcotics to the more… exotic kinds of drugs. His brand of artisanal narcotics blur line between demonarcotics and divinity-derived drugs, a formidable challenger for any competing brand. Truly a high worth one's soul, he claims.

That is a lot of merit for a man who once scrounged and toiled at mundane drug labs and shady alleys, merit of which the woman's employers took notice. They tried to negotiate, to set a fee and solve things peacefully, but Isaiah just would not budge. Too cool for their rule, he boasted.

It would be an understatement to say that the woman's clients were not happy with this answer. The Empire is their turf, and everyone in their turf, from the lowliest gang to the strongest cartel, must swear fealty and pay the tax. They had already strong-armed other Earth-based syndicates like the Yakuza and the Chicago Spectre into joining their ranks, and one simple human was not to stand against them.

Thus, a feud is formed. Thus a woman is sent on an assignment. The task? This little party full of excesses, a monument to the man's ego.

The woman slips through the sweating, dancing crowd like a heated knife going through butter, her eyes fixed on the man. The gig is on.

Just like she guessed it. Isaiah is surrounded by android guards, completely unaffected by the noxious atmosphere and fluids that the crowd exudes. At his feet writhe his most loyal followers, a herd of idiots who would suck drugs from his toes if it got them any higher: all the king's men.

Fast, agile steps take her far through the crowd, through the moist, perfumed atmosphere that envelops them. She'll have to be careful. If her intel's right, and it always is, she only has a small window to approach the man and do her job. Better hope the androids are kept busy holding back the crowd.

Nevertheless, as she approaches the target, she can already tell landing the hit won’t be a problem. Isaiah is busy inhaling everything that is put before him and sharing it with his guests, undoubtedly knowing that it is all the product of his prodigious mind. The crown jewel, however, he keeps to himself: a crystal pendant around his neck holds a bright orange dust, as irritating to the eyes as the planet’s skies. It is the strongest, nastiest narcotic he has ever designed, and this is the only sample known to the Universe.

He's so imbibed in himself and his drugs that he barely notices the woman approaching, until she is right in front of him, joining the supplicants in their push against the ring of android guards. The woman blows him a kiss, an unnoticeable trace of vapor leaving her lips and dancing towards Isaiah's clogged nostrils. It slips into his system, bypassing the colossal number of narcotics he has already consumed, and takes hold. That woman, he thinks, must be his.

Satisfaction runs through her mind as the trap is sprung and lust takes hold. Isaiah stands from his seat, ignoring the protests of his devout, and reaches for the woman. She allows him to guide her to his seat, and sits right on his lap, surprising him. Her lips curl up in a form that Isaiah can only interpret with the primal impulses his drug-addled brain allows him, and he lunges forward with great impulse.

The kiss is long, wet, intense. It tastes like the worst cocktail the woman has ever drunk, but she follows through with it, even caressing Isaiah’s nape and dragging her lips down his neck to make it more credible. When she’s finished, Isaiah looks like he just went to heaven, his mouth barely managing to articulate a dazed, ecstatic moan. His enjoyment won't last much.

It's hell all that ends well, the woman thinks.

As anticipated, the moment is short-lived. As the pheromones wear off, Isaiah quickly gets distracted by the dozens of other supplicants and would-be lovers that surround him, and his interest in the woman fades away.

The woman could not care less.

She gracefully dances away into the crowd, her mouth concealing her prize. As she nears the exit, she takes it out and inspects the quarry: the crystal vial with Isaiah's crown jewel seems to glow under the room's faint light. With the amount she’s acquired, her employees will have no problem reverse-engineering it. Profits will skyrocket once they get it out on the streets.

As for Isaiah, he won't be a problem much longer. The poison on the woman's lips is lethal for anyone who has not previously consumed copious amounts of antidote. By the time Isaiah notices his necklace is missing, he'll be too busy vomiting out his lungs to complain. Father Bacchus is no god, and only gods can never truly die.

The woman smiles and returns the vial to a pocket hidden over her sternum. Another job well done. Maybe she should charge her clients extra for the kiss. After all, her Guild is not one to shy away from money.

Thus is another bounty claimed.

Thus is another competitor felled.

Thus is the power over life and death.

Thus is the power of the Black Nebula.

"Well, Mister Hand," says The One on the High Seat, clicking his triple-hinged jaws, "that is one impressive argument you have there, not to say bold. Are you suggesting we send one of our friends at the Guild after the Society's leaders?"

"Only if the situation escalates and they begin encroaching on worlds we have a right to," shrugs Alexander. "The Zahn Society is still young and inexperienced. They underestimate our willingness to act when under threat. If we take out their leaders, disarray will reign, and they will be left vulnerable. Even with the Empire strangling us, we’d still have the upper hand against them. Their disorganization will be their doom."

"And how do we know they will not attempt the same with us?" argues the Mouth. "The Guild's only fealty is to money. They'll work for whomever pays them. How do we know the Society won't also send a hitman after us?"

"That is precisely why we must hurry and take the Empire's offer, Mister Mouth," Alexander continues. "The sooner we agree to their terms, the sooner we'll know what the Society's response is. And if that response is hostile… well, the sooner we'll have their heads served on a silver platter."

Murmurs of approval fill the room as The One on the High Seat nods, face hidden by his wide-brim hat, and opens his arms towards his underlings, his trusted men and women. The time for voting has come.

"Very well. You heard him, friends! All in favor of accepting the Empire’s terms?" says the old man.

Ten hands are lifted, his own included.

"All those against this agreement?"

The remaining three hands, the Accountant's and the Scavenger's included, lift morosely from the table, not even attempting to hide their disagreement.

"Democracy has triumphed, ladies and gentlemen," The One on the High Seat smiles, turning to the Hand. "Contact the Guild as soon as you can, friend. Let them know we have quite the business proposition for them: we shall wait for the Society to make its move and, should it displease us, well… we pull the trigger."

Alexander humbly nods. Democracy has triumphed, indeed. His position has triumphed. All that remains is to see whether or not it is successful. Assassins are not the most trustworthy people out there, and the Conclave knows it. They'll probably pay extra coin to have an entire squad go after the Zahn Society.

Still, a win is a win. Better grab it while he still can, Alexander thinks to himself as he stands from his chair, off to send a message to the Guild of Assassins. He might not be on the winning side of the aisle next time.

Thus is a hit placed.

Thus is a plan gestated.

Thus is the power over will.

Thus is the power over the Universe.

Thus is the power of the Black Nebula.

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