Just East of Zymran’s Ferry
Senekal flattened another traitor marine with his powerfist, spinning under a slashing chainaxe to pink another behind the knee with his sword, severing the tendons. The marine fell to one knee with a howl cut short as the ‘fist smashed his head down into the space where his lungs would normally be.
He limped back to Liche, smashing another pair of traitors on the way. He bled from a pair of fairly major wounds and a score or more of small cuts. His nightvis goggles were broken on one side and that eye was swelling shut. The ancient marine’s terminator armor could barely be perceived as blue anymore – it was so covered with mud and gore. Senekal’s bright colours were equally obscured, they’d become one with the battlefield.
Staggering, the Colonel rested against the wrecked chassis of a Danikan Land Speeder, which leaned drunkenly on its side. Danikan speeders were light, open topped vehicles and they had taken some punishment supporting the Void Phantoms. Quickly, he checked the pulse of the gunner but couldn’t find one. The driver was sufficiently dismembered that there was no point in examining him. Liche moved to his side, and both placed their backs against the downed vehicle. A group of enemies approached them but vanished in the actinic flash of a plasma cannon as one of the remaining speeders ripped by.
The Bloodcoats, Senekal’s bodyguard, continued to fire their plasma pistols into the surrounding enemies. Somewhere in the distance, a mad Dreadnought screamed defiance amongst the noise of detonating shells.
“I am not liking this Arcturan,” the Librarian mused, “we are surrounded by superior forces, and while the first company is giving an excellent account of themselves, they cannot last forever.”
“I hear that,” the Colonel gasped out between heaving breaths. He glared at the unflappable Librarian who wasn’t even breathing hard. Bloody marine physiology, he thought to himself. He finished his short breather and the two threw themselves back into the fray.
With each shuddering thud, dirt flowed down the sides of the shell hole like streams of water. Rhythmically, the great seismic quakes struck with each step the Chaos Titan took. Blackmoor took his hat off and shook the dirt off it, wondering if it would ever come clean again. He reached down for the pack of tube charges that Kellogg handed him. He could only hope it would be enough for the crazy trick he planned on pulling. Suddenly he felt the crackle of the Titan’s void shield pass over. “Now!” he yelled to his men.
On each side, from within the void shields, lascannon fire stabbed up at the cockpit of the vehicle. The armored cabin began to glow and bubble beneath the laser assault and the vehicle paused, briefly, seeking the source of its agony. The captain wasted no time. He sprinted toward the thing’s foot, leapt upon it and began to climb.
Wulf slid through the narrow gap into the abandoned warehouse, glad to have his full kit back. As he reached the end of the tight passage a huge, azure armored hand grasped his jacket and pulled him into the open space. The Pit Bull quickly released him, allowing its buzz saw arm to spin down. The giant marine just nodded to him and went back to watching the opening. Wulfgang allowed himself to breathe again.
Reaching the inner areas, Wulf stopped to watch Cracken and Manassas continuing their regicide game in the filth on the floor. “Don’t you guys know any other games?”
“Of course, Wulfgang,” the marine Sergeant replied, “but this one suits us for now.”
“I see. Well, I’ve managed a guide. We could wander for ages in the Underhive and never find Fire Lake – even with the knowledge of those who’ve spent time here.”
“I can understand the desirability of a guide Guardsman,” spoke Barrabus from a darkened corner, “but are we certain we can trust the one you have found?”
“Actually, I’m pretty certain we can’t trust her. Some of the questions she asked were a bit too prying. Might be just out for a bounty, or looking to dump some uphivers in the downhive ruins and take their cash. Might even be an ambush. She’s got her game, no question of that.”
“We have to have a guide?” Cracken groused. He’d not been in favour of the idea of an outsider from the very start.
Barrabus answered through his voder, “Yes, Commissar. In a year the face of the underhive can greatly change. Some things remain the same for aeons. Others change in minutes.” He gazed at the ceiling. “I, too, regret the necessity. But we have little choice. We who were kept here know only a very few of the secret ways.”
“We’ll be without back-up, which I do not like,” grumbled Cracken, “but it appears we have little choice. Very well. When do we meet your ‘guide’?”
“An hour. Finish up your game. Barrabus, do you know the landmark called ‘Tilted Still’?”
The iron jawed Astartes nodded.
“That’s where we’re meeting her. I didn’t tell her our destination – just the deep Underhive.”
“Very well.” Cracken scuffed some of the dirt with the tip of his sword. “Check, Sergeant.”
“What? Cracken you sneaky so and so!”
Outside the warehouse, a ghostly feminine shape slipped silently away into the darkness to make her report. Unknown to her, and even more quietly, the buzz saw handed Astartes followed, unnoticed.
* * *
“So,” Cracken commented drily, “This is twisted still?”
“Tilted Still, Commissar,” a Pit Bull quietly corrected.
The small group stood in the center of an old dome, the broken remnants of towers and structures all around them. In the clearing was a tall corrugated menhir, with cables and pipes writhing in and out of it. It was, indeed, rather tilted. To the right, actually.
“What the heck is this thing anyway?” Wulf wondered.
“A water still,” Barrabus answered. “As you may imagine, regular water and power service are in short, indeed virtually nonexistent, supply in the underhive. Stills such as these collect water from the air by condensation. Several of them can supply potable water to an entire community.”
“Da big guy knows his stuff, Outie,” the woman said as she stepped from behind a bulkhead. She was short, only about 5’2” in typical ganger leathers and metal trinkets. Her face was much pierced with all matter of home-made ‘jewellery’ as was the one exposed breast shown by her diagonally cut top. Her hair was a bright red, short and spiky. In addition to the ubiquitous knife, she carried a boltgun which looked far too large for her skinny frame. “Name be Heckle,” she added. “The way is there.” She pointed at a narrow tube opening with the tip of her gun.
This “Heckle” led the way and Barrabus followed her. Then the other Pit Bulls and then Cracken and Wulf. The two guardsmen fell back, just enough to be out of earshot of the leaders.
“You notice?,” Wulf hissed.
The Commissar nodded. “One of our ‘Pit Bulls’ is missing. The one with the Buzz saw arm. As the others don’t seem overly concerned I’d have to say that this is something Chastain is planning. Probably backup, I’d guess. An ace in the hole. An Astartes makes a very good ace.”
“Any idea about our planned back up?”
“Waiting at Nav 2. That big empty dome. Let’s hope we don’t need it sooner, though. Too much of the Underhive is rather inaccessible. Still, it’ll make a good fall back position.”
Wulf nodded. “Hopefully it won’t be needed. And if it is needed, hopefully we’ll be near enough that we aren’t just corpses no longer in need of help.”
“They’re just gangers, Wulfgang.
“That’s precisely what a space marine usually says about guardsmen. Right before his head gets taken off by a lascannon,” Wulf replied with a sigh. They continued trudging into darkness.
Just East of Zymran’s Ferry – South of the Danikan positions
“We’re surrounded dammit!” Trooper Kelso hollered at the top of his voice so as to be heard over the roar of the autocannon.
“What part of ‘we’re screwed’ did you think I didn’t understand, Kelso?” snarled Sergeant Griffon.
The Raehaniv Regulars’ dug in position was looking more and more like a charnel house as the battle wore on. A unit of Khornate cultists had torn their south flank to shreds and the follow-up attack by World Eaters marines had crushed much of the rest. The two shattered companies which were all that remained of a once-proud regiment cowered in their bunkers. Lost, alone, and devoid of their commanders they simply huddled together and fought for their lives. There was little hope of survival. Not for the Regiment, with its dead command, and probably not even for the survivors of that regiment.
But the Raehanivs weren’t about to lay down and die. There was nowhere to run to – so they might as well die fighting and killing the enemies of the Imperium. Commissar Doran would have been exceedingly proud of them, had he not been lying at the bottom of a trench with much of his skull smashed away.
“I’m out, Sarge!” The voice came from the smoky ground ahead.
Griffon cursed and grabbed a musette ammo bag. Grasping the top of the slimy flak bulkhead, he heaved himself over and slithered through the mud to a nearby trench. A bolter round tore through a piece of standing wreckage and sprayed his right thigh with shrapnel, drawing blood from a dozen smallish cuts. Griffon just kept crawling. There wasn’t time for anything more.
Finally he slithered down into the trench redoubt and started to sit up. He only made inches before a lasgun was jammed into his face.
“You gonna shoot the guy who just brought the powercells you asked for Barbara?”
Wincing, the young trooper moved the weapon away. “It’s Babra, Sarge.”
“Right, whatever. Make sure you share those around.”
Babra didn’t reply. He just ejected the empty clip from his lasgun and slapped in a new one before disappearing around the trench bend to distribute the ones he wasn’t slipping into his own webgear. Griffon just shook his head. Babra said he was eighteen standard years old. Griffon doubted he was a day over sixteen. He looked sixty. Mind you, Griffon himself was feeling every one of his fifty two years plus about a dozen more’s worth of sheer exhaustion. He sank down atop a heap of crud at the edge of the tight trench, briefly noting it was mostly bodies before he decided he didn’t care. They wouldn’t.
It was only moments before the cry of “Here they cooooome!” spliced in the sound gap between an arty blast and more autocannon shells.
Hauling himself to his feet, he stood to direct the fire of the last men. “Make ‘em count, boys. I want every shot to hit square. EVERY shot! That means you, McKillin! Yeah, I’ve seen you on the range. About the only ones here safe from you are the enemy! C’mon, Wags, up!”
“I’m shot, sir,” Wagner moaned quietly. It was true – his right arm was leaking red fluid through battered and filthy bandages. He looked pale, shock probably Griffon thought.
“You’re shot, I’m shot, Barbara’s shot, everybody’s shot Wags. Yer trigger finger still works don’t it? C’mon. On yer feet with yer weapon.” Griffon slid an arm around the wounded trooper and helped him onto the firing step, not ungently. The sergeant lowered his voice and muttered into the wounded trooper’s ear, “Do the best you can, lad. Every shot you make might save a buddy’s life. Or mine – or your own.” Wagner nodded, his face greyish under the muck smeared across it, but he put is cheek to the stock of his weapon and readied himself as they were all doing. To sell their lives as dearly as possible.
Lascannon continued to stab at the underside of the titan, as it swung and twisted, trying to bring it’s weapons to bear. It raised a leg and brought a giant foot down on a foxhole full of guardsmen, obliterating them. It raised the other and the guard officer clung to the maintenance rungs for grim death as the leg’s movement swung him about. He nearly lost his grip as the foot came down, narrowly missing another Danikan and slamming the captain face-first into the ceramite armor of the thing’s greave.
Cursing he spat out bits of a tooth and finished his climb. He’d reached the knee joint of the giant warmachine. Quickly he jammed the bundled tube charges into a rotational gap. He didn’t dare stick his hand in there to tape them and they started to slide. In disgust he jammed his pistol into the gap to hold them there, and hammered it into place with the hilt of his sword. Ripping the Det tape, he tossed a line around a long spike that impaled some alien’s skull and started fast roping toward the ground. Twelve feet above the muck the tube charges went off with a surprisingly dull ‘crack’, snapping the knee joint in two and dropping Alaric the rest of the way to the ground. He tried to roll with the landing but hit mud, slipped and had the wind knocked out of him. He lay there waiting for the stars to clear from his sight, watching the blurry outline of the chaos war machine tilt, overbalance and fall.
He stood, catching his breath to the cheering of his men. “Well,” he gasped, “score one for the good guys!”
Lieutenant Verrus squinted through the ocular, adjusted the crosshairs and stroked the firing rune. The enemy battletitan disappeared for an instant in a sea of darkness as its void shields flared. “Load!” he called to the turret gun crew of his Baneblade “Archangel”. Next to Verrus, tanker Clemens pivoted down the loading arm and slid a shell onto it from the ready rack. Using all his weight, he swung it over to the breach – yanked on the block handle to pivot the breach block down and then slammed in the giant shell. He gave a shove and the bungee cord yanked the loading arm back out of the way. He then repeated the procedure with the charging arm to load in the silk bag containing the propellant. Slamming the breach shut again he slapped Verrus on the helmet and readied the next shell. The entire loading procedure had lasted only a little over four seconds. Three seconds better than the best autoloader they’d ever installed in “Archangel” and far more precise. Verrus smiled as he stroked the firing rune again. Nothing like a well trained crew.
The tank commander knew that the situation wasn’t good, though. They’d only dropped a pair of the titans and it looked as though the infantry and spun out a miracle and bagged another. But there were still five coming and his was down to only “Archangel” and her sister tank, the Shadowsword “Flamebear”.
A bolt of actinic flame blacked the polarized lenses of his periscope for a moment as “Flamebear” let loose at the titan he’d just struck. They’d been lucky – “Archangel’s” battlecannon round had dropped the last of the void shields. The bright bolt of the volcano laser had sheared a weapon arm off the giant warmachine – but still it came on. As it passed the infantry positions, multiple lascannon and missiles reached out to it. The shield flared slightly, not even close to full power, and went down again to the lighter weapons fire as Verrus sank another round of fire into it. But the battlecannon struck the main cuirass and simply left a black mark. “Load! Load dammit!” He was just turning to Clemens when the turret lit with a hellish red glow and the tank rocked as though struck with a giant hammer. Bright molten armor sprayed through the turret barely missing the tank commander and causing him to squeeze his eyes shut. “Dammit, Clemens! Load the gun!” he shouted at the unmoving crewman, shaking him to break him free of shock. There was no answer as the upper half of the gunner’s body slid and fell out of the turret basket to the floor below – the bottom half vaporized in a vent of plasma that had left a great hole in the turret wall behind him. The wash of cooler air, laced with the stink of a battlefield and the scorched meat of Clemens carried away some of the fyceline smell of propellant and left the officer staring out the hole, past the ruin of what had once been his left leg.
Verrus cursed and started to load the gun himself. At least his new stump was scorched, so he wasn’t bleeding out. One part of Verrus wanted to cry and gibber, but the warrior Danikan just went through the motions. Swing out the readied shell, pry open the breach, slide in the shell. Swing out the propellant bag, place behind shell, retract loading arm, shut breach. His eyes fell on Clemens, below and had time to note the man’s mouth moving in the shape of the Emperor’s Catechism. The tanker turned back to his ocular. He wasn’t dead yet and someone was going to pay…
“I cannot believe what I am seeing.”
“What is to believe, Solitaire? It is there, before us. Mon-keigh fighting. What surprises you?”
“That they fight with such courage. Such passion. The fight like Eldar following the Avatar, Morsephin.”
“Pfah. They are nothing.”
“They are the key, Morsephin. You know that even while you try to refuse to accept it. Deny reality and you deny the universe. We are fading, weak. Only the Laughing God gives us hope against our eventual doom. And that, not much.” The lithe red figure sighed.
“They are not worthy, Solitaire.”
She looked up. “That is where you are wrong. You forget the past in your arrogance. In your hatred. In your disdain. We fell. They did not.”
“Will they? What I see here gives the lie to your words.” She stood up, revealing herself – bright crimson in the daylight. “To me now!” She cried loudly. “Let the Dance begin!”
Griffon swung the chainsword with all his strength but it glanced off the heavy armor the giant berserker wore. He parried the stroke of the things whirring chainaxe, but even the glancing impact stung his hand and sent spears of pain through his wrist. He was tiring. This wouldn’t go much longer – but he wanted to take one more down before he joined the remains of his men in the bottom of the trench.
The red and brass figure stepped back, gore streaked armor gleaming in the bright sunlight. It paused and raised its axe in salute. “Your skill gives Khorne much honor, man. You worship him well.”
“I follow the Emperor, you filth!”
There was mirth in the voice. “Filth? I am purity. Loyalty, honor, skill in battle and the smell of the enemy’s blood. These are the things all warriors crave. Your devotion to a dead husk does you no good, man. Your God is nothing. A body existing as a parasite. Think what you wish of me, I honor you nonetheless. Yours is the first truly worthy skull I have taken this day.”
“Don’t be counting this one just yet, heretic. For the moment it’s still on my shoulders!”
“Then we shall have to remedy that. It has been an honor, Sergeant,” and the chainaxe came in with blinding speed. Griffon threw his weapon up, catching the heavy axehead on the forte and redirecting the blow just slightly, up and over his head. He let the heretic’s attack ‘blow through’ snapping the blade of his weapon down as it passed and then cranked his sword around at the marine’s head, lopping off one of the large flanges on his helm and scoring the cranial piece. His ears registered a tiny, very gleeful quite feminine giggle.
And then – strangely, the marine stiffened, and then collapsed as though he was a marionette and his strings had been cut. Griffon’s eyes widened as he stared at a blur of colours that momentarily solidified into a tiny woman in skin tight crimson, wearing a strange helmet that covered her entire face. There was more mirth, a true laugh this time and she vanished again into a blur of colour.
“What the heck?…”