It’s worth noting that from here on in, the sections get longer. They were written quite a few years after the first ones and after I realized just how long this story would have to be in order for me to finish it correctly. The last four sections make up a full half the story, so be aware that these pages will be less concise…
Wulfgang sat quietly by the fire they’d started in the middle of the shattered dome. Hours had passed as they’d gone deeper and deeper into the Underhive. Down, always down. At first there had been occasional lights to navigate by. A very few of them were ancient, original fixtures. Their operation thousands of years after being abandoned a testament to the skills and determination of their long-dead builders. Most, however, had been more ‘modern’. Strings of scavenged lumo globes or chunks of busted light panel with some terrifyingly frayed cable running power to them. Others were even more simple and even more crude. Oil lamps and lanterns. Torches of metal and occasionally of bone. There was no wood in the Underhive.
This deep there was no light at all. They brought their own or they walked in darkness. The guardsman looked across the acrid fire of burning insulation, old wires and what might once have been cloth to see the eyes of Chastain Manassas looking back at him. “What?”
The Astartes smiled. It was always so strange to see them with any other emotion other than anger upon their faces. “I was merely wondering Wulfgang.”
“Why you are here. What ‘weapon-gift’ is.”
“How do you know about weapon-gift?”
“You mentioned it earlier. While we were on approach. I’m an Astartes remember? We have excellent hearing.”
“Apparently, if you could hear over that racket in the Thunderhawk.” There was a long silence.
“Is it something you can’t tell me?”
“Umm. No, I guess I can. Just a bit embarrassing is all.” He paused for a moment. “It’s only really embarrassing because Exene likely doesn’t get it either. You see, on Danika, women don’t generally fight. That isn’t to say that they can’t of course, they’re trained for it same as we are. But they don’t. It’s considered classless to let women fight. Means you’re a failure. However, it’s also understood that you can’t be with your woman all the time. We all have duties after all. Because of that, when you really REALLY like a girl, or if she should save your life, or both, Danikan culture requires you to offer her your most valuable weapon. If she accepts, it’s kind of like a betrothal in other cultures.”
“So – you gave one of the Daughters a weapon?”
“My best. My plasma pistol. To their leader, Exene Thrush.”
“And she accepted, I take it?”
“So, you’re engaged then?”
“Well, if we were both Danikans we would be. And I can’t really think of it any other way. She would probably just laugh at me if she knew.”
Manassas leaned forward, drawing a huge combat knife from his belt. He reached over the fire with it and lightly tapped a small medallion that marked Wulfgang’s collar. “That’s what I think it is, is it not?”
“Few guardsmen ever receive those, Wulf. And most who do have them placed in their coffins.”
Wulf shrugged again. “I suppose the word of an Astartes Chaplain carries some weight in such matters.”
“Indeed. Particularly when it’s The Ravager of Worlds.”
The guardsman snapped his eyes up out of the fire to lock the Space Marine’s. “You knew?”
“About the Honorifica? Of course. I checked your record before we left. I’d have been a fool not to.”
“You realize that Carpathia, madman that he is, has never before nor since made a recommendation for any award to anyone not of his own Chapter?”
“Umm, no. I had no idea.”
“It’s true. He has made recommendations for – other things – but never for an award. Not in five centuries.” Manassas smiled. “You should close your mouth, Wulf. You’ll get ash in it.”
“I had no idea. He never said anything like that.”
“He wouldn’t. For all that he is mad it is still not his way.”
“Hey I’m alive because of that guy. You might not want to insult him so casually.”
Chastain shrugged. “It is not intended as insult. Just fact. He is bloodthirsty and driven beyond the comprehension of most. He has slain entire worlds. Billions, Wulf, and thought nothing of it. Worse, he has not the kind of authority the Inquisition has but still was allowed to do so. His Chapter Master, who is definitely not mad, protects him because for all that he is so effective at what he does. Some think that even the High Lords have protected him. He is that effective.”
“Billions? Seriously? Maybe I should have let him die.”
“Then you would not have survived.”
“True, but that might well have been a small price to pay.”
They were interrupted by a shrill voice from the dark. “Hey, Outie! You wanna shut up so a girl can get some sleep?”
“Apologies, Heckle,” the Marine Sergeant rumbled – lowering his voice some but ignoring her request beyond that.
“Wulfgang, Exene may not understand weapon-gift, but she might well understand a valuable gift from a fellow warrior. Particularly one such as you.”
The Bloodcoat snorted. “How would a ganger recognize an Imperialis badge?”
“How would a ganger know how to contract an Astropath? Perhaps you don’t give her the credit she deserves.”
“Maybe. Maybe. I dunno. You haven’t seen her Sergeant. And maybe it wouldn’t matter if you had, it’s not like Astartes ask girls out on dates. Exene is – well – let’s just say that I’m out of my league with someone like her.”
The Astartes shook his head. “You, Wulfgang von den Loewen, are only out of your league should you believe yourself to be. You are more hero of the Imperium than I am, and you are no Astartes – which makes it even more of an accomplishment as what you have done you’ve done with ordinary human skill and physiology. You sell yourself short. You are honorable, dutiful, brave beyond imagining and extremely skilled. If anyone passed you up, it would be a flaw in their character and perception – not any failing on your part.”
Wulf just shook his head. The Astartes definitely did NOT get girls. That part was completely clear. “I sure hope you’re right Sergeant.”
As the two fell silent, a slender shadow rolled from her bedroll and vanished into the wreckage of the dome. Heckle was sure she was unseen.
From high, high above, superhuman Astartes eyes which could easily see in total darkness watched her leave. When he was sure that he would betray no sound from his huge armoured frame Buzzsaw followed even more quietly than the tiny Moebius ganger.
Just East of Zymran’s Ferry – South of the Danikan positions
Sergeant Griffon watched in amazement as brilliant shatters of multicoloured light tore the Khornate warriors apart. To his right a fractal, eye twisting shimmer halted for a moment becoming a tall eldar in black decorated with bones. A huge heavy weapon roared at the attackers, killing two. Just as the xeno started to dissolve into light again a spindly red thing leapt at his back with a strangely glowing sword.
Elodar Griffon didn’t even hesitate, he leapt in to block the sword with his chainsword, keeping the long limbed red monstrosity from tearing the strange xenos in two. The horned thing turned to him and licked its blood soaked sword with a tongue which protruded over a foot from its fanged maw and hissed in a way which sounded most amused before a pair of light shards flew by it in brilliant flares and left a bloody mass where the creature had been which slowly faded away like fog on a sunny day. The sergeant shook his head muttering, “This just gets more fracked up by the minute.” He turned to his men, who had mostly stopped firing as they’d no idea what to shoot at. “What’s wrong you apes? Ain’t you never seen invisible eldar before? Kill the damned heretics!”
“What about the xenos, sir?” Babra whined.
“They shooting at you Barbara?”
“Then shoot at the scumbags who are!”
With a roar, the lasguns and remaining heavy weapons of the Raehaniv troops began ripping into the World Eaters and their otherworldly allies. Around them the strange eldar created a beautiful danse which left shattered bodies and severed limbs in their wake. Gentle laughter and music filled the air, mixed with the blood and screams. Griffon just shook his head. It was horrible, beautiful and surreal all at once. Completely alien.
“Cover the eldar where you can you maggots and whatever you do don’t hit any of them!”
Griffon scooped up a fallen lasgun and followed his own advice.
Just East of Zymran’s Ferry
Senekal tried to yell, compressing his power all into his arm as he swung the crackling powerfist. It came out as a barely audible croak, but had enough of the desired effect that the World Eater’s head came clean off from the powerglove’s fury and bounced off Liche’s back. The Chief Librarian of the Undying commented wryly, still apparently entirely fresh despite the hours fighting, “Friend Arcturan, you really should be more careful where you throw the craniums of your enemies. I’m quite sure that the helmet edge could have damaged the exchanger vanes of this Terminator Armor. It’s thousands of years old and really deserves more reverence than that”
“I’ll – heh – take it under – advisement,” the Colonel gasped as he backpedalled toward the huge Librarian. At the last instant he allowed himself to collapse right at the Astartes’ feet calling out “Now!”
Liche spun with his force axe and cut the Berserkers who had been following the Colonel in half. The Colonel remained down but drew a plasma pistol and began firing it at closing enemies, trying to thin the numbers of the approaching chaos forces in an attempt to keep them from being completely overwhelmed. Suddenly, it seemed, they were alone except for the dead.
“They broke off? They were winning, kind of!”
“Kind of, Colonel?”
“Well, we’re not dead are we? That’s got to count for something.”
“Hmm. Indeed. But I wonder at the lull. Certainly there is plenty of battle around us. Powerfists not very distant there, for instance.” His eyes widened in shock and he suddenly grabbed the Colonel.
It was bitterly cold. So cold it bit at Senekal’s skin like a million razor sharp knives. There were shrieks both far and near. Claws caught at him, threatening to pull him away from Liche’s grasp, but the ancient Librarian hung on.
Then it was over, and the two were elsewhere on the battlefield, deep in a blast crater. The sounds of combat were much nearer. “Liche?”
“Whatever the hell that was, – don’t ever do it again.”
There was small mirth in the Chief Librarian’s shattered voice, “I shall endeavour not to, but we were needed here and now.”
Senekal pulled himself wearily to his feet, eyeing the nearly empty drug dispenser on his wrist. He’d need to see a medic after this was done as he was abusing his body horribly. Even his augmetic leg seemed to ache which, of course, was entirely impossible. He peeked over the lip of the crater into hell.
Not far from their position, chaos titans raged in giant fury, attempting to close with the Danikan armoured positions. Straggling groups of Void Phantoms terminators smashed at the leg of one of the giants with thunderhammers and as he watched, the guard commander saw the huge engine try and drive them off with a mighty stomp. For a moment the heavily armoured Astartes disappeared in muck and mire beneath a foot bigger than a battle tank. Others were thrown like matchsticks and while a few didn’t rise, most did rushing back into the fray without pause, finally smashing the ankle joint. A trio of Danikan artillery shells hit the upper carapaces with near perfect coordination and precision which caused it to tip and when it tried to balance on its shattered leg it found no support. As it toppled, Senekal noticed another huge shell from a Danikan tank strike it, deflecting its fall slightly into another still intact machine. Both went down in a flurry of giant robotic limbs and in moments the Astartes were on them, tearing their way into the fallen machines’ interiors.
“And people wonder why we honor the skills of the 4th Danika,” Liche said quietly.
“It’s all about coordination, old friend. Without your people those titans would have been into the artillery park. It’s teamwork, precision and skill. No one wins a battle on their own.”
“Indeed, but some certainly seem to try. The teleport was needed, old friend to get us here now.”
“Wait and see, but please get down”
Senekal did so, realizing even as he and the ancient Astartes took cover that he had a very bad feeling growing in his chest. It seemed to start in his arm and radiate out from there. It felt warm, sick, disturbing and somehow welcoming at the same time. He knew that feeling from the past, and suddenly also knew the answer to his own question of why they’d come here.
Heironymous Cracken checked his inertial map for what seemed like the dozenth time. He tried to keep the light from the screen from leaking out under the covering of his sleeping bag even as he heard stealthy movements. A quick peek revealed what he had suspected would happen. Heckle was gone.
The data crystal given him by Stilicho was helpful in a lot of ways. Useless in others. All and sundry had been right about the ever-changing nature of the underhive. Significant landmarks such as large support or infrastructure stacks wouldn’t generally change. Areas that were ‘maintained’, if you defined that term sufficiently loosely, such as underhive communities also wouldn’t. Those areas made up only a very small portion of the brobdignagian base of Cascade Hive. If he scaled the map so he could see the entire hive circumference on the screen the areas that could said to be stable were nothing but a field of tiny flecks that looked like a starry sky at night, seen from the surface of some world far less polluted than this one. Even with that, they were still out of scale and remained tiny specks of light even when zooming in hundreds of times. Cascade was huge and those areas for which the map could be relied upon were tiny.
One area he could more or less rely on were the ‘spokes’. Vanishingly thin lines on the map, they radiated outward from several central points very much like spokes on an ancient wheel. Underhivers mostly avoided the spokes. Guilder towns and more prominent settlements were always near them and very frequently near one of the hubs. Rarely were they directly on the spokes, however. The spokes were patrolled by the Guild and maintained by the Hive Authority. They had to be.
Cascade was a living Hive. While those above the Barrier liked to pretend that the Underhive was nothing more than a hill upon which the legal and active elements of Cascade perched, that wasn’t quite the reality. There were supports which held the rest of the hive up which could not be allowed to entirely fall into disrepair. There were effluvia vents which carried waste deep into the crust even below the underhive. Without question there were also areas which contained secrets. Secrets which people in power wished to conceal from higher authorities and perhaps even from each other. All of these things required some way to get around that wouldn’t be shut down by hive quakes or rogue creatures. Maintenance teams needed to be able to move quickly in the event of a real emergency. The spokes served this purpose.
For the most part, each spoke was simply a large empty tube with some magrail lines down the center and a handful of lights. Entrances into the true underhive were sealed. Welded shut to keep out the nasties. In many cases the spokes had begun life as the original ‘main drag’ for that section of the hive and those which had still possessed battered signs and sealed storefronts offering wares to support customers and economies which had moved on millennia ago. It was simplest to take the existing tunnels, seal them and shore them up and continue to use them. It was like travelling through a ghost city. In other areas the spokes had been industrial vents, logistical service transport ways and the like. These could still harbour all manner of chemical hazards and were supposed to be clearly marked. Mostly that was even true. Most spokes saw official use only once a decade or more, and most of that was little more than an inspection team or construction gang to shore up some area in need of repair.
Unofficial use had, of course, begun immediately. The Guild had long ago realized that the Underhive was a source of revenue of all sorts. The right piece of Archeotech could turn a pauper into a noble and could often be had from some ganger in exchange for a few bullets or a bottle of liquid comfort. Industrial by products leaked through all manner of pipes, ducts, conduits and old hab domes and could sometimes have the most amazing qualities. While most of these commodities were incredibly toxic, desperate gangers and dirt poor underhivers would happily harvest them for next to nothing and if they died a horribly toxic death what was that to those who profited from it?
All of these products needed a trade hub and the hub needed access to the uphive, their eventual destination. At first itinerate traders brought these products to the barrier, trading with the underhive refugees in sad little kiosks tucked into the corner of some old dome near a spoke. As they grew more popular, places to stay, places to eat, places to buy and trade things and houses of ‘entertainment’ all naturally began to grow up around the places where there were those with things of value to trade. The random merchants suffered at the hands of violent gangers or ravening beasts. So did the towns. Organization was inevitable and the beginnings of the ‘Guild’ began. It wasn’t long before elements of the Guild became noticed by and fell under the control of various uphive trade houses and eventually by the noble houses themselves. The Guild was part of the establishment.
Now Guild – paid gangs patrolled those areas of the spokes which actually saw use. Generally these were the areas between the trade towns and the spoke ‘hubs’ which contained lifts for uphive access. A gang which ‘made good’ and had a generally clean rep with the guild could look to retire into this kind of patrol service, which paid very well – at least by gang standards and came with a great deal of nearly unfettered power. Outlaw gangs were banished from the Trade towns to the truly unknown parts of the hive to starve and die out or mutate into something truly horrific and no longer human. Outlaw gangs didn’t risk the spokes and even those in reasonably neutral standing with the guild generally wouldn’t travel them for fear of being taken down on principle by the patrols.
Of course, byways such as the spokes were often the only clear route for moving around the truly vast areas of the underhive without the effort taking months to go a few miles. While the main spokes were kept by the patrols, the guild and the Hive authority it wasn’t that uncommon for service tunnels and parallels to grow up around them. It was one of these, an old street which had once paralleled the ‘main drag’ that Cracken, Manassas and the others had used to get from their entry point to the hub where they had accessed the uphive and Tilted Still.
A gang in trouble would be well off the spoke ‘grid’. Fire Lake was clearly marked on the map (a larger than usual light smear in this case) but the nearest spoke ran several kilometres above it and offset by another fifteen hundred meters. Without a guide, finding it would have taken months which the Imperials just didn’t have.
The Commissar sighed. The locator had allowed him to track where they had left the spoke and their general direction. While any trip through the collapsed ruin that was the bottom of Cascade would involve a fair bit of meandering by necessity, they’d been going fairly straight toward it at first and were now bending to the east, a trend he didn’t like at all. There was no question in his mind that Heckle was an agent and leading them into a trap. The only question would be where it would eventually spring and when? He was guessing it couldn’t be long now. Shaking his head with a sign he tapped the transmit rune on the pad, uploading it to the micro cogitator in Chastain Manassas’ helmet. He had no doubt that the marine would get the idea. He then closed his eyes and tried to get to sleep while he knew someone was setting up an ambush to try and kill him. It made rest a bit – elusive.
Just East of Zymran’s Ferry – South of the Danikan positions
For the moment, things had gone quiet.
Elodar Griffon didn’t so much sit as collapse, flopping down against some unidentifiable bit of battlefield junk. He couldn’t tell what it had been once and at this point didn’t even care. The only enemies were now far off, more noise than anything else. He couldn’t even make out a silhouette to fire on. Given that, he sat, tried to catch his breath and wondered how much longer he would live.
Something that looked like an escapee from a kaleidoscope flickered through the air to land nearly silently in front of him. As it ceased to move it developed first a silhouette and then solidity. A slender female form, all in red. Short. Masqued. Armed but with things he didn’t recognize at all. A pistol-like thing which appeared carved entirely of clear crystal without a single moving part, and some kind of tube strapped to her forearm.
Griffon slid his helmet visor up and out of the way so he could get a better look. He hadn’t realized until that moment just how much gunk the visor had accumulated. “Well,” he said quietly, “I don’t suppose you’re planning on killing me or I’d be dead by now. You folks don’t seem to be much for talking.”
She shrugged, a curiously familiar gesture from an alien. “Do you command here?” Her voice was lilting, almost sing-song. Heavily accented and incredibly beautiful.
He returned the shrug. “It’s not like we have a lot left. I haven’t seen anyone more superior in quite some time. So I guess so. I suppose I should say thank you.”
“We’d have all died in that last rush without your help.”
The shrug again. “We might also have died without yours. You are not typical of your kind. Not filled with ignorance and hate.”
“Well, this isn’t really the place for philosophical xenophobia or theological debate. Out here there is crystal clarity and simplicity. There are the things that are gonna try and kill you, and the things that ain’t. A subset of the things that ain’t includes those things that might just be trying to help. I think we both know how small a subset that really is.”
The masque was blank but there was mirth in her voice. “Did you not say that it wasn’t the time for philosophy?”
“Well, I’m really too tired for much else. Is there a reason we’re talking here?”
She nodded, very human-like as well. “Indeed. Do you hear that?”
Griffon listened to the thunder of battle that had become so constant that he’d mostly tuned it out. Distant shouts of death and violence that were still loud enough to shake the ground. Above it all, was the clash of cannon and not far off to his right. He dipped his head, which might have been a nod and might have been exhaustion.
“The Seers know. The key is to the north. The north of here. You are the closest and might be able to help. It is why we saved you. One of the reasons.”
“I’m not sure I understood that.”
“North of here, is the heart of the skeins. Where the Infected will fall like rain and the Purified will struggle against them. He knows, even now although he does not wish to admit it to himself yet. The Purified and his allies, the Seer of Night, the Scions of Treason and the Children of the Morning Star. They need aid. Our aid, your aid. All the aid we can find. We cannot allow the Infected to turn the tide of battle.”
The Sergeant sighed quietly. Why is it that no one can ever be clear? “I’m not even going to ask for a translation of that gibberish, Lady. Do you mean our side’s going to get hit by more heretics and they need help?”
“That is what I said.”
“Umm, yeah. Sure ya did.” He pulled himself to his feet, hanging onto whatever the thing was he’d been leaning against. “Awright you apes! On yer feet! The Emperor don’t pay you to lollygag around and we’ve still got a war to win!”
Just East of Zymran’s Ferry
The battle hung in delicate balance. Armoured vehicles struggled together with tiny Astartes against giant engines of war forged millennia before on Mars. There should be no way to win, or so conventional wisdom said, and yet the Danikans and their Void Phantom allies were clinging to their positions. From the west came brilliant vehicles. Yellow hulls trimmed with black and white checks. The Lamenters were few in number but strong in their faith and determination. Behind them flowed the gleaming vehicles of the Silver Skulls as Lord Cadia committed his reserves at last. To either side of the Astartes formations the Mechanicum’s few remaining Titans strode in lockstep and behind them marched every man-jack of the Imperial Guard that had stood watch at Zymran’s Ferry. Mikkal Guiseppe had hurled everything he had.
The Titans in the rear of the Danikan forces now found themselves surrounded. Where moments ago they had been breaking the Guard line, they now had hellish energies and high explosives striking them front and rear. Void Shields flickered and failed and machines which had served the Lords of Disorder since the time of Horus were shredded in a fierce fusillade. The largest machines quickly formed a perimeter with their giant weapons facing outward. It appeared that they would sell their lives as dearly as they could.
So everyone thought – at least the ‘everyone’ who could still be described as human and sane.
Without warning the day darkened. Clouds sprinted across the skies, turning black and bilious green. Lightning flickered from one to the other and then the clouds took on a hellish red glow through the green and black.
The impact was literally earth shattering. Titan war machines of both sides staggered and many went to their knees. A few even fell completely, kicking helplessly in the dust. The ground cracked as something like a drop pod hit it at nearly out of control speeds. Of course, drop pods are not normally hundreds of meters in diameter.
The thing that had hit the ground had no name. It had only purpose. Its hull was rusting iron, glowing red with its searing passage through Cadia’s atmosphere. The impact caused pieces dozens of meters across to break off and slough down the hull like leaves in autumn. Once it had probably been a Landing ship – one of those great vessels designed to ferry troops safely to the surface of a world to enforce Imperial compliance in the days of the great Crusade. Between age, damage and modifications which made it look almost more like an ork construction then something of Chaotic design its silhouette was nearly unrecognizable.
It had smashed into the ground in the center of the circled Chaos Titans, the reason for their careful positioning now clear. Safely down, large sections of the sides began to blow off in explosions of pus and corrupted gore. Some fell like drop ramps. Others went flying through the air hundreds of meters to come down indiscriminately on friend and foe alike.
Without even a wait for the hull to cool, it began to disgorge. Green and brown and occasional flecks of filthy rusted iron or entirely corrupted white – in perfect Astartes discipline they marched down the ramps. Death Guard. Hundreds of them. Their once-bright armour now bearing the corruption of aeons. Time in the warp, stretched, compressed and strangely twisted. They marched like the bright Legion they had once been, their guns rusted blocks of metal which would nonetheless still fire. Their heraldry was covered in the tripartite pustules and filthy flies of Grandfather Nurgle. Hoses which once fed them life giving air in the depths of space now drooled yellow-grey pus down their flanks. Around their feet squealed small armies of tiny Nurgling daemons which seemed not to notice or care when the marching feet crushed them randomly to goo.
Behind the Space Marines, if they could still even be called such, came their vehicles. Tall Land Raiders with tracks which went all the way around like those of an old model Imperial Guard vehicle. There were Predators, many now more daemon engine then vehicle, some sporting tentacles or even entire sections of daemon from their horribly diseased glacis. Rhinos bore even more of the Infected Astartes into battle and behind them came true daemon engines. Defilers and chaos dreadnoughts, plague towers and other, even stranger things flowed out of the great lander.
Had it ended there, it would have been terrible, but it didn’t. When the last of the Infected had rolled from the doors, the Lander shook from the inside with great hammerblows. Plates buckled. They were smashed and shot from the inside with weapons which blew through the thick armoured hull and still seared the horizon. Finally, the structure itself shattered and failed and the final plates fell releasing the last of the Lander’s charges to freedom on the battlefield. Standing in the wreckage rose an engine twice the height of the other Titans, it’s hull was marked with sigils of the Plague God. Once this had been an Imperator Titan – the pride of the Mechanicum, a great guardian of Mars. Now it was filth. Corruption incarnate. It was Inficere Principia, the fortress, command center and temple of the Rotted Lord Jher Khan.
“Hey Outie, you ready to go yet?”
Cracken stirred in his bedding, surprised he’d actually gotten any sleep at all. “Ah, Heckle. Good morning to you as well.”
“Ain’t got all day there Outie. Torches won’t last forever you know.”
“Indeed.” The Commissar climbed out of his sleeping bag and rolled it up. Like many Danikan pieces of equipment it was surprisingly high tech for Guard issue and, while very warm and comfortable, folded down into a bundle small enough to fit into a lho stick pack. He enjoyed Heckle’s look of hatred and envy as he finished the last fold and tucked it into his belt pouch.
“I could use me one-a-those, that’s for certain.”
“Perhaps if all goes well, Heckle, that can be arranged. Kit like that is hard to come by but we do still get the occasional shipment from Danika. Particularly now that we are fighting so close at hand.”
“Fightin’ Outie?” Her face held an expression both grim and amused, “I don’t see much fightin’.”
“That’s because I’m on an errand here instead of on Cadia with my regiment. If you enjoy fighting Heckle, there would be enough there, I think, to satisfy you for a very long time.”
“I dunno. I’m awfully hard to satisfy.”
“So are filthy traitors who have known nothing but war for more than ten thousand years.”
The ganger just made a rude noise and moved away to take her point position.
The Commissar shrugged and finished getting his gear together.
“She didn’t believe you did she?” The voice was tinny, mechanical.
“No Barrabus, I expect she didn’t. Not really surprising though. She’s probably never even seen the outside of this hive. Never seen the sky. Traitors from the Horus Heresy aren’t just from another world to her they’re from another universe. One she can’t even comprehend. You should see what we have to do for training with some hive gangers just to get them to stop freaking out under an open sky.”
“She will betray us.”
“Already is. We ready for it?”
“Sergeant Manassas believes so. I look forward to it myself.”
Cracken looked up at the huge, mutilated Astartes, wondering what kind of mind could inhabit that shell. Barrabus had lived within the world of the Cleansing Flames since his late teens, like all Astartes. The Flames were rigid but dutiful and honourable. Much like the more famous Ultramarines in that way. Barrabus and his companions had been lost on Lodi. Used as heavy workers and, when not working, used as gladiators, controlled by explosive collars. All the “Pit Bulls” bore the marks of their captivity and all had not let their apothecaries replace their crude stigmata with proper augmetics. Barrabus’ eyes were cold, but somehow Cracken could feel the flames of the huge marine’s desire for vengeance burning back behind them. The great space marine said nothing more, only moved off to take his place at the forefront of the marching order.
Wulf was zipping up his crimson battlejacket and setting his weapons on his hips. “Why’d you fib about the shipments from Danika, Commissar?”
“It wasn’t truly a ‘fib’ Wulfgang. We did get a shipment of logistical supplies for the 4th just before we engaged on Cadia.”
“Yeah, I suppose. ‘Logistical supplies.’ Nice camp gear. Some decent meds, which was nice.”
“You sound bitter.”
“Eh, a little I suppose. I miss the day when we were still top priority for weapons.” He fingered the chainsword on its hanger on his belt. “Used to be they’d send us powerswords. My old one is long lost. Probably hanging on someone’s wall in Commorragh right now.”
“Still not used to the difference?”
The Bloodcoat shook his head. “My old sword was a pretty heavy hangar, so that’s not so much the issue. It’s the torque from the spinning blade. I’ve found some ways to use it and am finding more, but it still throws off my swings. Never mind the fact that it is just this side of useless for punching armor. And, of course, I gave my good pistol to Exene. At least this one,” he slapped the large holster on his right hip, “is more reliable even if it doesn’t hit as hard. Good use on the cell too. Load it on Sunday and shoot it all week.”
“So not all bad is what you’re telling me.”
“Of course not Commissar. We Danikans were always over-equipped on our raising. Time is just bringing us down to the equipment level of regular guard mostly. But what we lack in kit we’re gaining in experience so it’s not an unbalanced exchange. My suspicion is that the folks back home aren’t afraid of the Colonel anymore so we’re not getting top priority for kit. That will be going to the new raisings.”
“Afraid of Arcturan? What are you getting at Wulf?”
“You mean he – ? Oh bother. He never told you. I should keep my mouth shut sometimes.”
“Well, you’ve opened it now, out with it.”
“I don’t think so, Commissar. That’s the Colonel’s story to tell not mine. Besides it’s time to get going.”
“Indeed,” Manassas’ deep voice came from the front of the marching order. “If you’re quite done gossiping, Heckle is quite beside herself in a hurry to get moving.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Wulf grumbled. “Every other time she’s lollygagging and now she’s rushing us.”
“Naturally,” Cracken commented with a wry smile. It wouldn’t do for us to be late to our ambush now would it?”
They continued down. Hike. Clamber. A 30 meter descent on a rope down to the top of a dome which had collapsed into the space beneath it. Heckle cursed virulently at that delay and the bright metal coring the corroded supports showed why. This hadn’t been like this the last time she’d passed through here and it was throwing her timing off.
At the bottom of the long drop Chastain Manassas’ armoured leg had punched clean through the decking as he leapt the last couple of meters. When the other Pit Bulls moved in to help it was quickly found that he’d been injured. An ancient piece of rebar had penetrated under the ankle protection of his Mk VII armor and punched through his leg just above the Achilles tendon. He cried out piteously at the pain when they first tried to simply pull him out, and then more when they tried to cut through the rebar and it heated in his wound.
Heckle pranced nervously up and down. “If he’s stuck then leave him, Outie. We gotta GO!”
One of the battle brothers whirled on her, “We do not abandon our brethren, wench!”
“Not unless they’re you, you ugly thing. I know you been here before and they left you then.You ain’t even human no more. Well this is the underhive. Someone gets hurt here and can’t keep up, that’s too bad. They get left to die. Now you get going or I’m done and going on without you.”
“You will go nowhere ever again unless you learn some respect!” Weapons were out. Heckle pointing her too-big bolter at the huge marine who had an Astartes scale bolt pistol aimed back.
Heckle smiled. “Go ahead and shoot me, Outie. Then you’ll be lost down here forever and never find your way back out again. No guide, heh.”
Cracken stepped between the two lightly pressing Heckle’s gun down and the Astartes’ pistol upwards, easiest as he didn’t even quite come to the top of the marine’s shoulder in height. “That’s quite enough.” He turned to the ganger. “He,” the Commissar jerked his thumb at the marine, “is over three hundred years old. He has faced many weapons more fearsome than that little bolter of yours. You aren’t scaring him and he will kill you.
“In addition, your ignorance is showing. Astartes have near perfect memories. Every one of them. He can remember every nut and bolt of our way here and re-trace them with absurd ease. He is not and cannot be ‘lost’ in the way that you describe.” He dipped his hand into one of the side pockets of his great coat and brought out the inertial mapping slate, “Even if he could be, this assures that such memory is unneeded.”
The skinny ganger started to say something but Cracken held up his hand and her mouth clamped shut despite herself. He turned to the Astartes.
“And you – this is not the battlefield. This woman is required for the success of our mission. Therefore she is not expendable no matter how,” he wrinkled his nose at the wild woman, all leather and piercings, “distasteful she can be.”
The space marine said nothing for a long moment, his face stony. He then turned his back and holstered his pistol without a word and went back to trying to free his sergeant.
Cracken turned back to Heckle who was practically vibrating with fury. He spoke quietly. “I’m quite sure that you are used to different rules, Heckle. I know, we all know, that this is the underhive and that things are different here. But you must understand you cannot explain that to an Astartes. As you say, they are not quite human any longer they are – more. Their rules apply to them everywhere and anywhere that they go and they live by no other. It is what they are sworn to, from an age younger than your own and to one much older than both of ours put together. They do not grow old and they do not die save in battle. It is true that they can be defeated. I have done so myself on rare occasion but it is never easy and it is always deadly. They are here for a simple errand. They will accomplish it or die trying. Anyone who becomes an obstacle will be removed, probably fatally. And just so you understand completely, that includes both myself and Wulfgang every bit as much as you. Crossing them is a very bad idea.”
Heckle just stared at the marines, one of them now gnawing carefully on the piece of rebar, his face buried in the hole. “What the heck are they doin’ now?”
“One of them is using the toxic acid sacks in his mouth to dissolve the piece of metal and free Sergeant Manassas.”
“Toxic ACID sacks? You can’t be serious!”
“I can be and am. I think, perhaps you thought these were like your Brob’nags. Just large men. They are not. Short of being killed they are immortal. Their bones are unbreakable, bound up in a matrix of ceramite, the same as their armor is constructed of. They have over a dozen extra organs that we do not have. An extra lung, a special kidney to filter out poisons. A second heart and many stranger ones such as the acid sacks you see in action now. They are no longer just ‘big men.’”
The ganger didn’t reply but just moved off toward the edge of the dome, her eyes both angry and troubled. Well, Cracken thought to himself, I wonder what she’ll think of her ambush plot now? He walked over to Manassas who was watching the ganger closely, his eyes placid despite the acid running down the metal and into his wound. He took a moment to cry piteously in pain that never touched his eyes.
“Chastain, don’t ever quit your day job to become an actor,” he said quietly.
“Alas, I am smitten with a mortal!”
“Agamemnon you ain’t Chastain. And I bet Clytemnestra would never be able to get a knife through that carapace, daughter of Zeus or no.”
“Why Commissar, I never figured you as a fan of the ancient word.”
“Eh, I ate a book once. Doesn’t exactly seem like your line either.” He changed the subject, “You do that on purpose?”
“Oh, most carefully although the rebar refused to puncture the armor. I had to ram it into the joint myself.”
“Well it’s a good thing you didn’t hamstring yourself, that would have sucked.”
“I’m far more careful than that Hieronymous, I assure you. Do you think it gave us enough time?”
“Hard to say. She’s off her feed for certain. That might be my teaching her enough about the Astartes to really scare her though. Don’t forget to yell when they pull that out or to limp, okay?”
Manassas ripped his leg free of the hole with the bar still jammed into it and then pulled the piece out of his leg, howling like all the hounds of hell. Cracken covered his ears.
“Did I overdo it?”
“As long as you didn’t hurt yourself.”
“T’was full of sound and fury –“
“Signifying nothing, yeah, I know the quote. Let’s go.”
The giant space marine looked so piqued – an expression that went so oddly with his noble features and plethora of rare high tech weaponry that it was all Wulf could do to muffle his snicker.
Two more hours of crawling through the stygian darkness, lit only by the suit lamps of the Astartes and the small hand lamps carried by Cracken and Wulf followed. Much to Cracken’s surprise they were trending back toward Fire Lake again. He didn’t know if he’d really scared Heckle out of her double cross or if she’d amended her plot or if this had been part of it all along. He trusted to Manassas, who did indeed remember to limp, and kept a close eye on the black surrounding them.
5 faint clicks came through the earpiece of his vox. He caught Wulf’s eye who nodded almost imperceptibly at him. Another hundred paces and then four clicks. The pattern was obvious now. Another hundred and three clicks. Then two clicks. Then a single one. The Guardsmen noticed that a couple of the Pit Bulls behind them had disappeared into the darkness, their suit lights out. Each of the guardsmen loosened flaps on holsters and pulled free the securing tabs on other weapons. It was nearly time. Wulf and Cracken pulled their combat visors into place. While they didn’t provide any night vision they did have glare protection which would help them see once weapons fire started in the darkness.
Thirty paces since the last click. Forty. Sixty and they were rounding the edge of what had once been a street corner uncounted thousands of years ago. The architecture was heavy, showing rivets and support beams but lacked the finials, gargoyles and Aquila of current Imperial neo-Gothic style. The street was long, vanishing past the end of their lights. There were several levels of floors with balconies, and both upper and street level windows. Open stairs to the two upper floors seemed a common feature although many of those had rusted and fallen. Behind the filthy glass of a street level storefront to his right Wulf could barely make out a notice with huge lettering, “Going out of Business Sale!” Further down the roadway a sign projected from a half-fallen stairway which showed the silhouette of some strange anthropomorphized amphibian wearing a hat and coat. It hung crazily on a single remaining hinge and the top part had been blasted away along with the other hinge in some long forgotten shootout. Manassas’ light played over it for a moment and ‘ …- d Hall Toys’ could be read with difficulty.
“You thinking what I’m thinking, Commissar?” the Bloodcoat whispered.
Cracken nodded. “Yep. That this is a perfect place for an ambush.”
“How are you calling it?” he slowed his footsteps to an amble, pretending to be peering through the murky glass at the sale sign.
“Through that window you’re so intent on and then through the structure on that side toward the end of the street sound good?”
“Reading my mind, Commissar Cracken. Reading my mind.”
It began with a dull, heavy thump from the second floor windows on their left. A reddish flash, not at all one that would blind, lit the windows of that structure, briefly strobing human silhouettes being tossed like ragdolls within. Part of one flew out a window opening along with a section of the frame, half the body of a slender young man landing with a wet thump in the middle of the street. He had no clothing left on his surprisingly intact upper body but somehow still clutched a gigantic stub revolver which looked far too big for him.
Cracken wasted no time, clicking on his powerfist and turning the ancient storefront window into so much glittery powder by bringing his ‘fist forward and down and then just letting his body follow right through into a roll onto the floor where he came up against a low wall mounting some kind of monetary exchange machine. Wulf had leapt through an instant behind him, pistol coming out mid-leap. Before his feet had hit the ancient showroom floor he’d snapped his handlamp to a mount under the laser’s muzzle and was drawing his chainsword. The commissar was up and vaulting over the counter, drawing his own pistol. The field on his ‘fist crackled as he used it to vault over, giving him an extra boost on his leap and disintegrating the counter with a thunderclap.
Across the street, the front of the 2nd and 3rd stories blew out onto the pavement below creating cover and from the look of the mess, eliminating a fair number of attackers at the same time. The Pit Bulls weren’t wanting cover, however. Manassas and his remaining assault marine ran up the new rubble pile, spraying bolt pistol rounds into upper windows of the buildings across the street which was starting to show a few desultory muzzle flashes from gangers whose ambush had gone quite wrong and were still trying to process what happened. At the top of the rubble, the marines leapt upward, catching the remaining chunks of floor and wall and levering themselves into the second floor with an agility one wouldn’t expect from such bulkily armoured warriors. But these were the Adeptus Astartes, the Emperor’s bright Angels of Death who had won him thousands of star systems in just a few short years during the Great Crusade. They were the heirs to millennia of tried and true forms of warfare, each personally having been part of the crucible of deadly conflict for decades.
The poor gangers in the building never stood a chance.
Chastain and the Pit Bull he hadn’t sent out to flank, a marine who went only by ‘Drill’ due to the weapon which had replaced his right hand, didn’t bother with doors. They smashed through walls as though they were made of cardboard, firing their bolt pistols through the ceiling and the floor at opponents above and below. There were shrieks as gore began to drop through holes in the upper decking big enough to put your head through. Those gangers who were killed by bolter fire were the lucky ones as they died quickly.
Drill and the Sergeant barrelled through a wall into a group of huge Brob’nag gangers. Of all the underhivers of Cascade, the Brob’nags considered themselves the best at close in fighting. Only the Moebius gave them real competition for that, but the girls of Moebius were all about speed, stealth, lightning reflexes and fancy knifework, while the Brobs were all about sheer power. When the two Astartes charged into them the Brobs weren’t worried. They outnumbered the space marines a little over five to one – which meant that Chastain and Drill had to work at it. A bit.
The Brobs were veterans of gang warfare. They’d heard the noise and were poised and ready. When the wall exploded inwards toward them they immediately opened fire with every gun they had. Stubbers and lasguns as well as shotgun slugs and autopistol bullets all created a fierce fusillade which was as impressive as it was futile. Shots pattered off the ceramite armor of the space marines like gentle rain and then the Astartes hit them.
Chastain swung his chainsword in a wide arc, putting all the weight of his giant body and armor into the swing. The blade bit and chewed through first arm then neck and finally into a torso where it lodged. Two of the Brob’nag’s fell, one clutching a stump, the second without a head. The third would have fallen but was caught on the sergeant’s blade. To his left Drill jammed the weapon he was named for into the chest of a Brob’nag who was nearly as big as he was. He then powered it up, spinning the giant’s corpse like a fan blade and jamming it into one group of attackers even as he shot another in the chest with his pistol, the shell detonating in the chest cavity messily. Brob’nags flew in all directions as Drill pivoted, flailing with the fallen ganger on his drill like some kind of cleaning unit.
Manassas fired his bolt pistol through the floor at a shape picked up by his helmet sensors and reversed the action of the chainsword spinning the mortally wounded ‘nag off the blade and out into the street through a wall. The last gangers tried to run but a couple of quick pistol shots finished them and then the Astartes were moving forward again, keeping the momentum of the attack.
Across the street the work was only slightly less balanced. Wulfgang and Cracken moved through the building like ghosts, veterans of hundreds of room clearing actions and bunker assaults. Their attack was more subtle but the outcome no less sure. A group of Moebius gangers stood at the windows of a first floor shop, firing across the street in an attempt to support the Brobs being assaulted by the Pit Bulls. They were so intent on their firing that they never noticed the trio of frag grenades, carefully wrapped in soft cloth to muffle the thump, land right behind them. The explosion tore most of them apart or blew them into the street, leaving little for the guardsmen to mop up with pistols, chainsword and powerfist.
Experience told them that any of the gangers who were any good would now know they had company. They disappeared into dark corners or behind wreckage. Stragglers and point men simply disappeared. Groups moving down corridors found trip wires or tossed grenades, sometimes the hard way. To the gangers it was like fighting ghosts. When a group of Teslas finally managed to corner Wulf in a cul de sac, they thought they would finally be able to enact some vengeance. They hadn’t counted on a Bloodcoat. Wulf rushed forward, shooting the second ganger and engaging the first with his chainsword. In the narrow opening, the others were unable to get shots or strikes in past their leader and by the time he sprouted a gory chainsword from the middle of his spine, it was too late to do much more than watch. He fell and his second, now the new gang leader, directed his followers forward into the room. The first lost his head to a strike from the side of the entry, the second was shot in the gut and the third was lucky, collapsing to the floor with a shattered kneecap. When the leader ordered his troops forward again they balked. When he tried it a third time they shot him and fled.
They didn’t get far. Rushing down the length of the street within the buildings they ran headlong into Barrabus, who had been sent around through parallel streets to cut off escape. Their screams were short lived.
Heckle watched from safety as her plan fell apart almost as literally as the gangs that served her did. She tried to make her way back to Grond’s gang of Brob’nags who held the very end of the street, her tiny form ghosting from one area of darkness to another, veering wider and wider away from the conflict. Finally she spotted them firing into the darkness up the street without any real targets and preparing to withdraw. She considered moving in to try and rally the huge gangers when suddenly a very solid metal bulkhead just behind them suddenly began spitting sparks. A glowing line was hacked vertically from high up to nearly the floor. Then a second intersecting the first at a ninety degree angle cut about seven feet up. Finally another horizontal one close to the floor. The gangers had backed away, until they stood against the storefront while the back wall was cut open. In one great bang the entire section was bent in like a doorway and a giant Astartes smashed through, the great saw mounted to one wrist still glowing red from the heat of cutting the metal.
Grond yelled “Fire!” and the ‘nags cut loose. At such short range the rounds couldn’t miss. One heavy emptied an entire belt of heavy bolter ammo into the space marine who waded through it as a normal man might walk against a high wind. Buzzsaw’s pistol came up and took the heavy in the neck, the explosive bolt tearing his head clean off and cooking off a few rounds which had been slung over his shoulder. The saw cut down, tearing off limbs and cutting weapons clean in two. One ‘nag leapt onto Buzzsaw’s gun arm and tried to pull it down. The Pit Bull simply used him as a weapon to smash two other ‘nags through the front display window and into the street. There was a wet crunching sound to accompany the shattering armaglass which told the tale of something broken inside the Astartes’ ‘weapon’. More shots, a flurry of movement and then only bodies lay in the old storefront. The steet had gone quiet, the shooting and explosions done. The ambush was over, the gangers mostly dead although a few had run. The only noise was that of the saw spinning down and a badly wounded Grond whimpering on the street. “Please, please…”
Heckle ducked lower, but stayed to watch the end. Buzzsaw, she realized, she’d never actually seen before. He must somehow have hidden from her, stealthy despite his armor and weapons. He’d somehow foiled the entire ambush and killed a lot of her people to boot. It never occurred to her to be afraid. She was Heckle and feared nothing. Not man, not God, not Daemon and certainly not some overgrown idiot in fancy armor. She knew full well that these ‘Pit Bulls’ had been held captive by the Guild. By gangers like her. She watched as Buzzsaw stepped forward and lowered his pistol.
“Hey,” Grond begged. It’s nuthin’ personal-like. I can make ransom. I’m not Guild posted – I work for the Guild.”
“The Guild is in violation of the laws of the Imperium. Do you know what that means?” the gruff Pit Bull said through the voder of his helmet.
“Umm – they are the Imperium. The only bit that matters on this world.”
“You know what I am?”
“Uh – a Space Marine I think.” His breath gurgled slightly, blood on his lips.
“Yes. A Space Marine. A member of the Cleansing Flames chapter of the Adeptus Astartes. Direct servants of the Emperor and carrying geneseed from his own labs. Part of it even of his own body. We are his instruments and far greater than any guild.”
“S-sorry. I – didn’t know. Let me go. Please, please let me go!”
“You ask for mercy?”
The bolt pistol cracked, smashing Grond’s head into a shattered pulp and leaving a deep crater in the pavement below. Heckle gasped in spite of herself.
“There is no mercy,” Buzzsaw grated at the corpse, “Only justice.”
Next up – Part IX – The Belly of the Beast