LODI
Cascade Hive
South Sump Pit

The screams ripped down the streets of the dimly lit Hive Bottom town. They bounced off giant rusted supports, oozed around the corners of the filthy beat up shanties and filled up all the corners with echoes of pain. They drowned the tiny moans and wails of terrified children and their parents hushed whispers as they tried to keep them quiet. They rebounded off the impervious forms of the Brob’nag and Tesla gangers whose guns covered the citizens huddled in all their community – jammed into the centre of the street.

More screams. More yet. They soared into shrieks. They dropped into moans torn from a raw throat. The one thing they didn’t do was stop.

“For the Emperor’s sake, Heckle! The guy clearly doesn’t know.” The huge Brob’nag leader had a decidedly green tinge to his features as he stared at the blood flecked Moebius woman.

“Oh – I know that, Grond. Knew it an hour ago, actually.” She used her small sharp knife to carefully pry and peel back the musculature of the shopkeep’s left little finger before dipping the bloodied digit into heavily salted water. The bubbling moans soared back up to shrieks which grew worse as Heckle carefully massaged the flayed tissue, working the salt in.

“If you know, why in the name of the seven daemons are you still torturing the guy, then?” Grond carefully looked away but stood his ground.

“You Brobs got no subtlety, Grond. None at all. These idiots sold to the Daughters after word was put out that to deal with them would not be a good idea. Now we’re just making sure everyone in this stink hole knows exactly how bad an idea it is. Word’ll get ‘round. You’ll see. Even if we can’t find that cow Exene and her sluts, we’ll be able to starve ‘em or force ‘em to raid for food which’ll make ‘em more vulnerable.

“The point, you big lunk, is to make sure that everyone knows that when the word goes out that someone’s to be left to rot, then they get left to rot! No food, no medicine, no supplies, nothing. The scum down here have been left on their own so long that they forget that this dump has a hierarchy. There’s the big guys up top and then there’s the scum who do what they’re told.”

“Emperor’s nuts, Heckle – are you crazy? We’re part of the scum, too! Sure the guilders pay well, but we’ve got to keep our independence or we could be next to go down. We’re gangers!”

The moebius ganger rose to her feet with a fluid motion and flowed across the room to stand in front of the huge man. Her much pierced head only came to the middle of his chest but she moved with all the confidence of one who is in total control of the situation. “I ain’t scum like the rest of you idiots, Grond. No way. When this is done I’ll be head of all the underhive while you’ll still be under the table sucking on some other meathead’s dick.”

“Why you little – Aagghh!” The huge man’s hands had only come halfway up in their grab before changing targets to hold his bloody crotch. Heckle danced back, her knife red to the hilt.

“Count yerself lucky I didn’t cut it right off, Grond. You may have a hole in your equipment but at least I left you a man. As much of a man as you ever were, anyway. Now get outside and help watch the prisoners you weak piece of shit. And bring me this piece of filth’s wife and little girl. I got plans for them. Oh yeah I do…”

LODI
Cascade Hive
Access Point 247

“Stand back. Ready?” Manassas didn’t wait for an answer. A hissing WHAM drowned out Lodi’s ceaseless acid wind for a moment before the huge Astartes moved back up the catwalk to the service door they’d found on the other side of the vast main entry portal. The marine took a quick look inside. “Lock. Just as I suspected. He ripped off what little the melta bomb had left of the outer door and cast it away. “This should do the job.”

Two of the huge marines pretty much filled the tiny airlock and Manassas had to use all of his strength to force the inner door. Fortunately, it wasn’t locked, only stuck, so more charges weren’t needed. He didn’t particularly want to draw attention to this door if he could avoid it. While it had been abandoned a long time, a loss of pressure would eventually trigger some kind of life support response who would then find the evidence of forced entry. The intruders had gone a long way toward concealing their presence – and the Sergeant had every intent on it remaining unknown until they were gone from here – or at least saved those that they’d come for.

“Get in, quickly.” The marines and guardsmen filed into an area that was clearly a locker storage and changing area. Hard metal benches ran down the middle of a stained rockcrete floor. Someone had long ago pillaged the area and the suits and masks were missing. The lockers hung open, giving the room a look like a crazed ventilator grill. Most were covered in graffiti, inside and out, although one door interior still sported a tri-dee photo of a scantily clad brunette clutching an autopistol in one hand.

As Cracken and Wulf shoved the door into place behind them, the Sergeant drew his pistol and checked it with a gesture as perfect as it was automatic. The other marines, his “Pit Bull” squad, spread out through the room covering the doorways. The Pit Bulls certainly did not fit the marine norm but then, thought Cracken, that was really why they were here. Each of the four assault marines had been held prisoner for years on Lodi by Uriah Mobweed’s gang and they hadn’t come through that ordeal completely intact. All sported crude “modifications”. Buzz saw arms, mining drills, a giant iron underjaw and other similarly barbaric “improvements” had been inflicted on each of them during their unwilling stay on the planet. They had been used as miners, gladitorial pit fighters, executioners and the Emperor only knew what else – always forced to do the bidding of their captors by virtue of the explosive collars strapped around their necks. It had been some years ago, during a recruitment trip to the planet that rumors of the Astartes had reached Cracken and, with the help of the Daughters of Dystopia, Cracken, Wulfgang, and Wulf’s fellow Bloodcoat Osric had freed the marines and killed their “owner”. The marines had both a debt to pay and a score to settle, as did the Danikans. Manassas, as their unit commander, had felt the need to come along and their backup and transport had been provided by the Pit Bull’s Chapter, the Cleansing Flames.

Quickly spreading out through the complex, the marines pronounced the area clear. Wulfgang had located the control room and was able to crack the giant outer doors open using the automatics. Cracken had actually been shocked that they still worked. When the storm thickened up, their pilot would bring the thunderhawk right up against the doors and their backup would also have no difficulty with entry now. Those preparations done, the small group gathered in what had been the main transverse shipping corridor in the underhive proper.

Manassas looked from his men to the two guardsmen and back. “All right,” he said finally, “we’re in. Now what?”

Wulf looked at him like he was crazy. “We find the girls. We leave. Simple.”

Cracken shook his head. “And precisely where are ‘the girls’, guardsman Von den Loewen?” he said, his voice dripping sarcasm. “The only clue we have is that they are said to be “lakeside” which could mean anything in this maze.”

“Not so,” buzzed the voder of Barrabus. The giant pit bull’s iron jaw forced him to use a voice box for any meaningful communication. “There is only one area in the underhive generally referred to as a ‘lake’ and that would be Fire Lake at the hive bottom. I have never been there but know enough to at least get us to the environs from my mining days. Fire Lake is the very oldest area of the hive. Far below the surface level where we now stand, it is the very foundation for all which rises above it. It is said to be mostly unexplored and extremely dangerous. It would make a good hiding place.”

Manassas nodded. “So we have a general locale – but that still leaves us a problem. How to contact the gangers. I don’t think it would be wise to simply announce our presence.”

“No, indeed.” Cracken agreed. “I wonder if the Astropath would know?”

One of the other pit bulls nodded. “That would make much sense, Commissar. He would have to know where to go to deliver the reply.”

“So we see the Astropath,” said Wulf. “At least the Commissar and I do. I rather think you folks are just a bit too conspicuous for the upper levels. People might notice a demi squad of giants in power armor.”

“Indeed,” Cracken agreed, spreading out a rough map of the underhive they’d put together on the voyage out. “We will travel together to near this point. It’s a small settlement called Zealot’s Pride. Sergeant, you and your men will hide there as it is one of the regions best known to your Pit Bulls. Wulf and I will proceed from there to the Barrier and up into the Spire to consult the Astropath. Very well, gentlemen. Let us be about it.”

CADIA
Selmouth Reserve
Just East of Zymran’s Ferry

Alaric Blackmoor had had better days. The commander of “C” company of the 4th Danika scrambled to get his unit into a better position as the giant Titan force took the regiment from the rear. He quickly redeployed his infantry platoons to give supporting fire to the superheavies from “A” company but the tanks were now having to fight across open ground with no revetments. Worse, the titans hadn’t quite stopped applying pressure to the forward lines so now there were battle titans both front and rear.

“C’mon you dogs. Turn! Turn, damn you! Zielo have you got something jammed up your ass? Get that goddamned lascannon turned around. There’s nothing to the front in range anyway and those titans are gonna chew up our rear if we don’t get some fire on them.

“Now listen up! Heavy teams and anti-tank teams, hit them and hit them hard. Keep up the pressure. We may only have infantry weapons but if we bring down the shields it’ll make things easier for our own units. The major is turning some of the superheavies. Ferros, what the hell is your problem?”

“Titans, Captain. We’re being attacked by titans!”

Blackmoor grabbed him by the collar and hurled the guardsman back into the line. “Kee-ripes, Ferros, what kind of an idiot are you? Think I didn’t notice the frickin’ Titans? Get your sorry butt in line and lay down suppressive fire. There’s a good chance those titans are leading infantry in.  Move you idiot!”

Never show fear in front of your troops, he thought. Oldest lesson in the book. The truth was that his own guts had gone to water as soon as the war machines had made their unexpected appearance. He knew exactly what kind of trouble the 4th was in. More importantly, though, he knew that there was no place to run or hide which really only left them the option of fighting. Units that fought had a chance and he still had units that could fight.

Major Leckic was doing his usual superb job in handling the tactical situation with all the emotion of a grazing cow. His orders were precise. Correct and exactly by the book, which was why the Colonel relied on the man to handle things in his absence. When it came to the Tactica Imperium, Leckic was a master, but he’d probably never rise higher than his current rank. The simple truth was that, while he could be completely relied upon to get the most out of a unit in given tactical situation he had no real command flair and knew it. What he couldn’t do was set UP the situation in any kind of advantageous way. This suited both him and the Colonel, as he was very knowledgeable and realistic about his skills and, as long as he kept to what he did best, he excelled at it.

“Alaric,” Leckic was on the vox, “I want you and Ozzel’s men to move into that area of shell craters. Use them for cover and do your best to delay those titans there as long as you can. I don’t care how either of you does it, but do it. I’ve got everything I can spare setting up to shoot at them.”

“Yessir, Major. Read you five by five.” Delay battle titans. Was the major NUTS? “Alright you apes! Let’s go. The major says move it into the craters. Reimer – I want tube charges up here and I want them yesterday.”

“How many, sir?”

“All of them, Reimer. Every damned one you can lay your hands one!”

LODI
Cascade Hive
The Spire – Office of Astromancy

Quiet music tinkled through hidden speakers to mix with the distant sound of falling water in the fountains and artificial streams. Brilliant bars of sunlight streamed through the tall peaked windows flashing rainbows across the plazas where they struck the mist from the fountains.

“Long, freakin’ way from that pesthole in the underhive, ain’t it Commissar?”

“It is indeed, Wulf. Kindly remember not to use my rank, though. I realize its long habit…”

“But could get us killed, right Hier. Sorry.”

Cracken just shrugged. It wasn’t like a habit of many years could vanish in instants. He and Wulf were combat troops, not special ops. They specialised in doing very bad and quite permanent things to the enemies of the Emperor. In that, they excelled. They were out of their element and they knew it.

Despite their best attempts, they knew they were conspicuous. Cracken wore tall jackboots, black trousers and a simple plain white shirt. No insignia. Wulfgang had heavy combat boots, white pants and a simple undress uniform shirt that he’d quickly torn the patches off of. No matter how you sliced it they still looked a bit out of place. Their clothing didn’t match the current fashion at all. But it was the best they could do. Neither actually owned any civilian clothing.

“Excuse me, ‘citizens’, but may I see your ID?” The guard must have been a former Brobnag, strictly by the size of the man. The Commissar blanched – he couldn’t very well flash his real ID here. It must have shown on his face as the guard started to react to the uncomfortable expression.

“Here’s mine,” Wulf said and dug around in his pocket. As he pulled something from it he quickly stepped in close to the giant and pressed the small laspistol up against his face just beside his nose. “Like it?” he hissed quietly. “Back against the wall and into that corner. Quietly now. I’d hate to have to drill you another nostril.”

The two guardsmen quickly bundled the guard behind a planter and tied his hands and feet with cable ties. His own kerchief went into his mouth bound by a long cable tie. Wulf smiled. “Now be nice and lay there quietly and you won’t get hurt. Make a lot of noise and it might be us coming back instead of aid. Then we would have to be CERTAIN you remain quiet. Permanently.”

They ignored the guard’s furious nods as they continued down the concourse. It wasn’t much further to the Astropath’s office. They walked into the outer office, surprisingly spartan in comparison to the surroundings beyond the door. The desk must have sensed them and announced that the Astropath was in a meeting and would be available shortly. Hieronymous leaned against the desk. Wulf covered the door with his tiny laspistol. Just in case.

Ten minutes. Twenty and the secretary came from within the inner office with dataslate in her hand. She was astonishingly decorative and while she moved professionally the disarray of hair and make up made it fairly obvious that dictation hadn’t been the only thing she’d been taking.

Cracken just looked at her in disgust and burst through the inner door. She started to raise an objection but clapped her lips shut on noticing Wulf’s pistol. Unlike the Underhive, weapons were rare here. Wulfgang merely grinned at her and whispered, “Might want to go fix your make-up, love!”

The door snapped shut hard under the impetus of the Commissar’s palm. The slender – no make that skinny – psyker was fastening his trademark green trousers. He wore nothing from the waist up. Without turning he quietly remarked, “Thank you for letting me finish up, Commissar Cracken.”

“You know me?” the Commissar grumbled.

“More ‘of you’ if you understand me. Exene said you might show up.”

“Wise of her,” he replied. Embarrassed slightly as the other man continued to dress. There was still the faint scent of passion in the air.

“It disturbs you.”

“What does?”

“The thought of me – a psyker- a man soul bound to the Emperor still actually doing the things a man does. I can sense your disgust even all the way over here.”

“You’re misreading then. I just think it’s crude to be doing your secretary during work hours.”

“Are you telling me that? – Or yourself?”

Cracken thought about it. “Good question. Not that any of this matters.”

The astropath sighed and turned around, fastening his green jacket. Blank white eyes bored into Cracken’s own with disturbing accuracy – as though the man could actually see with them. “You’re right of course. I should warn you – they suspect. The guilders. Those who rule this place and who are in various ways tied to the guilders.”

“You think so?”

“I’m certain of it, Commissar. Someone – probably one of the Arbites – is in their pocket. They know that I went into the Underhive. There’s no reason for me to do that. They don’t know where so I can assume commander Adolphus and his squad are still uncompromised. Someone in the stationhouse knows, though. They tried to lean on me.”

“That didn’t work?”

“I’m sure they thought it did. I claimed that part of the soul bonding didn’t allow me to reveal such things. I doubt they believed it but they aren’t foolish enough to directly cross an adept. She,” he jerked a thumb toward the outer office, “is a rather ill advised attempt to spy on me.”

“Seems to be working if you ask me.”

“Hardly. There are – tricks you can do when you’re a psyker. Not brutal nasty ones. Nothing illegal. Clever ones. She’s now far more devoted to me than she ever was to them. They could only offer her money. Foolish of them, really.”

“I just came here to pick up some folks I owe a favor to. That’s all.”

“Hardly Commissar. I sense a reckoning with Hespas Dupontiae if nothing else.”

Cracken sighed. “You really know too much for your own good. You realize that don’t you?”

“On the contrary, my dear Commissar. I know exactly what I need to know for my own good. Indeed – truly I require you to make an ‘impression’ upon Guilder Dupontiae if my own future here is to be safe. You made an error last time, albeit an understandable one. You should really have killed Dupontiae. He knew all about Mobweed and had been taking a cut. I’m sure you suspected.”

“I did. But I couldn’t prove it.”

The psyker nodded. “Here is the proof you need.” He handed across a data crystal. “The location you require is on there as well. I took some risks getting that information. One man who annoyed my lovely assistant already had a terrible ‘accident’. Something about his internal organs being completely shredded without there being a single mark on him. Poor man.”

“Perhaps you should come with us? It doesn’t sound as though you’re safe here.”

“Alas, the assignments of an adept are not up to me. I would truly like to go elsewhere. Perhaps if a Commissar in good standing were to draft me into the Imperial Guard? I’m sure that, by the time the paperwork was all straightened out, it would be rather too late for me to come back here, don’t you think? Perchance by then another assignment might be found. Something a bit less retiring? This assignment really has been deadly dull.”

The Commissar had to grin at the other man. “You’re really quite clever about these things aren’t you?”

Shrugging, the psyker gazed up at the ceiling. “You learn many things as the son of a noble. If you survive the Black Ships of course.”

Shaking his head Cracken gently clapped the man on the shoulder – having to fight down the desire not to touch him. “Welcome to the Imperial Guard. What’s your name, anyway?”

“My full name is of no import of course. Not as an adept. You may call me Stilicho.”

“Very well. Be ready Stilicho. It’ll be a day or so but it will be at about this time. We’ll come and pick you up at the same time as I pay my visit to Guilder Dupontiae.

Next – Part VII – The Giant’s Treads

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