Central Torso region
They were there.
‘There’ consisted of the main power plant of the massive Imperator Titan. Great power stacks ran up and up, out of sight above in cloying greenish mist and down between gantries into the depths of the monster’s waist. Again, or perhaps still, the formerly serviceable and neat mechanisms had become festooned with the drapings of Chaos. Strange conduits and cables looped like ropes of intestine and dripped with pussy ichor. The entire place reeked. Like those it served, Infincere Principia was as much a rotting corpse ridden with disease as it was a combat asset.
Here at last Liche and Senekal had had to split up, each roving through the great generator halls, destroying consoles, mining cables and generally causing a ruckus. There was damage, to be sure, but whether it was having an effect or not was anyone’s guess. The great Titan was not weakly built and the unnatural vigour of Nurgle made it even tougher, inside as well as without. Even with mites tearing its guts apart, Infincere Principia was not about to die easily.
The uninterrupted sabotage of course could not last.
With a shriek – pustules and carbuncles of corruption began to pop with gooey explosions. From the literally open, weeping sores, strange creatures began to climb out. They were tall, yet lanky. Naked, but without any kind of gender that could be seen. Each had a vastly distended belly, bursting with disease and internal organs which had never worked. Limbs swarmed with flies and similar foul reducing insects, while maggots crawled in and out of the open, suppurating wounds that covered their forms. The heads were large. Great mouths of rotting teeth, a single milky eye like a Cyclops and a great horn sprouted from some place on the head, varying for each individual.
And they came out counting.
“Two; Two; Two; Two…”
Incessant. Inexorable. Insane. Plague Bearer daemons, the tallymen of Nurgle.
For the Astartes Librarian and the Colonel, this was not a surprise.
“Plague Bearers, Liche!”
“I can see them, Colonel – do keep focussed on your business.”
“Yeah, yeah. They’re gonna be an issue though – particularly if they keep ‘comin.”
“Understood. Do what you can. As will I. Move toward me and we will try and give each other time and breaks for damage.”
“Works,” the Guard Colonel replied, checking the drug dispenser on his wrist. One dose left. Now was not the time to use it. Not against these things, they were slow for all their horror.
Neither Imperial wasted any time. They didn’t wait for the daemons to engage on their terms. Each, both Astartes and man, was a true hero in their own right and each had long experience in combat. Still, their fighting styles were different. Limited in speed by his heavy powered Terminator Plate, Lord Liche, Chief Librarian of the Undying, strode forward towards the nearest creatures, blasting away with this storm bolter as he did so. Every couple of steps, he would channel the warp through his force axe and smash panels, conduits or daemons with equal enthusiasm, whichever happened to be in reach. Daemons which fell dissolved into oily smoke. Periodically the Librarian would also risk touching the warp, dragging unreal purple fire from the Immaterium and scorching creature and mechanism alike. While the fire damaged the areas of the Titan it struck, it also left those areas burned clean of foul corruption. Often sections of metal where the warp-flame touched looked shiny and new again, as they had not for thousands of years.
The Guard Colonel, not being slowed by heavy armor, used a different fighting style. He moved from gantry to gantry, sometimes leaping gaps or swinging on cables from point to point. His moves looked odd to the uninitiated, but they were carefully planned. Each direction was calculated to separate one of the slow daemons from the others, like cutting a sheep out of a herd. Senekal would use areas of mechanism, walls, burning and damaged equipment, and simple speed and direction to confound the ponderous daemons and when he got one alone he would quickly smash it to pulp with his powerfist before continuing the dance to cut another out of the throng.
These were good plans, for both men. They would have worked save that the creatures kept coming.
Slowly, the daemons moved to try and keep the men apart, clustering in a group between them too large to get through. Senekal swung over the crowd in the center on a broken cable, like a maleficent pendulum. With his powerfist locked on the conduit, he used his other arm to hurl a crack grenade at a particularly rotted section of stanchion. The support blew and the daemons froze as the entire gangway dropped away beneath them. They could be still heard counting, “Two; Two; Two” as they vanished into the depths of the genaratorium below.
Releasing the cable, the Guard Colonel came down, powerfist first, on a plague bearer. The strike smashed both its sword and its foul head into sludge. He stood, right behind the Librarian now. Liche swung his axe at a console, destroying it.
“Your use of the krak grenade. It left them a bit – unsupported.”
“Heh. Yeah, seems so. If they weren’t so gross I might feel bad about letting them down that way.” The Colonel ran up a short staircase and tore open an access panel. Deciding against directly contacting the bus bars inside he wedged in some more grenades before leaping down. As the two moved further on, they went off with a bang, followed by a much louder noise and the shrieking of tearing metal. “Oh, I think that was a good one.”
“Yes, but that isn’t.”
Around them, the circle of daemons was closing .
“Down, Liche!” The Astartes started to duck until he saw the guardsman tearing up the grating just in front of them. He added his axe to the effort. Both dropped through the opening, leaving the cordon of plague bearers closing in on nothing but a hole in the floor. More large explosions started above and the two accelerated away from the damaged area, coming out onto a wide access platform near one of the main generator towers. Above them the area opened out, the broad tower disappearing out of sight into lightning stricken mist above. Across from them, on the other side of a narrow gantry, stood a group of beings in Astartes armor. Quickly, Liche stepped forward, the Colonel moving behind as rounds from their bolt guns started to sping off the Terminator plate.
The Astartes armor was midnight blue and gold, the helmets topped by tall headdresses. Unlike many other Astartes in the service of Chaos, and very different from the highly corrupted followers of Nurgle, these looked perfect from a distance. Their armor neat, clean, brightly polished. Their weapons gleaming with golden decorations. When they spat fire the bolts blazed across the foul air of the generator room like bright stars. It was only as they closed, marching in perfect lockstep, that the mark was visible. The eyes of the helmets glowed an evil green, not suit lighting but something unnatural from within. As they closed, one could just make out the wispy shapes of glowing human skulls, somehow showing through the thick armor of their faceplates.
“Awright, Liche, who the heck are these guys?”
The Undying Librarian’s mouth turned downwards. Disgust – and perhaps a bit of sadness. “Once they were Thousand Sons – Astartes until the Rubric of Ahriman.”
“The what of who?”
“Within that ancient Legion, Ahriman was in many ways my own opposite number. Scholar, psyker, a man dedicated to the salvation of his Legion. This – is the twisted result of his attempt to save them.”
The Colonel sighed, flinching as another bolt rang off Liche’s armor, dissolving into flame as it did so. “Well, now isn’t the time for a history lesson.”
If Liche answered it was drowned out by a long blast from his storm bolter which punched one of the strange former Astartes off its feet. There was a shriek – this one entirely heard only within one’s mind. Something like a glowing green fog leaked from a broken armpit seal in the fallen armor and it did not move again.
“Leave these to me, Colonel. Find something to destroy.”
Senekal did not need to be told twice.
Liche moved forward now alone. He summoned warp flame against the creatures, destroying more and continued to fire his weapon until the clip ran dry. These creatures were no match for him, even less so than the plague bearers. He knew that. So too, did he who sent them and the Librarian was fairly certain who that was. Once close enough, he lumbered forward into a charge, sending his Will into his axe and smashing right and left. Armor shattered, revealing itself to be empty. No one wore this armor, not physically. Not anymore. All that remained of the former owners was a small amount of dust, trapped inside with their souls.
Liche freed those souls, the shrieking circling him as he did so and then stood, alone on the gantry surrounded by shattered armor of a tragedy ten thousand years old and waited for what had to come next.
He did not need to wait long.
Being inside this thing already felt like hell, Griffon figured, and now it had broken loose.
The column of Danikan and Raehaniv forces had spread out, working its way upward. Griffon’s objective was fairly straightforward. As with any piece of equipment, the most fragile areas are the moving parts. If you kneecap a man, he sucks in a fight. Elodar Griffon saw no reason for this reality to be any different for a Titan.
With this in mind, he’d driven his column up the insides of the giant machine. Much of what they had passed was empty and, while all of it was horrible, empty and horrible was less of a concern than filled with heretics and horrible. He kept focussed on the mission and did his best to keep his troops focussed on it too, in the way only a grizzled old Sergeant Major could. With a lot of very blue language, the occasional cuff, and a lot of tough love.
Far below, Ariel and Bock, the Raehaniv de-facto squad leader and Danikan Chimera commander were holding their exit point – and Griffon definitely wanted an exit from this hellhole. A hundred meters or so back, and below he’d had to abandon the vehicles. The pathways were now too small for them so men and women went forward on foot with man packed weapons and all the explosives they could carry.
It had happened close to all at once. The Imperials had been attacked, first by troops and then by Astartes and finally by – things. All three groups, the infantry pressing forward, the vehicles in their laager and the troops below holding the foot were now pressed on all sides. Each had pulled down debris, blocked passages and set up killing fields. The attacks against them were suicide missions which the heretics threw themselves into shrieking and died and died and died.
That was the good part. The bad part was that Griffon’s attack was just as stymied and by the same tactics. The heretics could not easily take down the Imperials, neither could Griffon’s force advance against this kind of resistance. They tried, of course, and paid for meters of distance in the blood of good people, but effectively they were stopped. Fire blasted from all sides. Troops hunkered down and fought and fought and there was no relief.
Sometime, during all this, the Eldar had gone. Griffon didn’t know where or when, they just – weren’t there. As much as they were xenos, Griffon still hoped they’d succeed. They seemed to be sincere about hurting and killing heretics. Still, one never knew with aliens. Anything could happen.
At the leading edge of what could only very distantly be termed an ‘attack’ progress was slow beyond measure. The effort to stop the Imperials filled the upward passages with chunks of wreckage, furniture and fittings making any kind of advance dead slow. More, the heretics would leave gaps and fire through them at the advancing Raehanivs. One of the Danikan heavy troopers had pulled the wheels off something and was busily attaching them to a piece of plating. Griffon wandered over, out of the line of fire for the moment. “What’s that trooper?”
The young corporal grinned. “Mantlet Sarge. I noticed that the heretics are using almost nothing save small arms from behind those barricades. When it is something heavy, it’s a stubber or suchlike. This should block the bullets and let us get close without getting shot.
The Raehaniv nodded. “Okay, so far trooper. But what about when we get there?”
Pointing to a gap at the bottom, the Danikan made a shoving motion with his arm. “Bangalore.”
This was new. “Don’t know that one, son. What’s your plan.”
“Simple enough really. We put a tube charge on the end of a pole and run this up close to the barricade. Troops behind do the spotting with periscopes to let us know when we are close enough. Then we lift up the plate covering this gap – I haven’t got that on yet – and slide the Bangalore up against the barricade. That’s the tube charge on a stick, Sarge. We back the mantlet off and hunker down behind it while it goes boom. If it does enough damage, we move in and toss grenades through the firing slits and take the barricade, if it’s still standing, or just take down the stunned heretics if it’s been blown. If it’s still strong, we use another Bangalore.
“What about flamers. They could try and roast you, son.”
“They could sir, and I’m sure they’ll try that. The mantlet won’t burn and I’m adding wings partway down the side. Without gaps the folks behind should be pretty well protected from the flame. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever would be. We’re already wearing hostile environment gear and we can double up on flak etc. for a bit of added protection. Hopefully it’ll be enough.”
The sergeant nodded with respect. It was well thought through. “You sound like you’re planning on being one of the folks pushing this thing – that your plan?”
“Well, I couldn’t well ask anyone else to do it if I’m not willing to go myself, could I?”
“Some would, but I’m glad to see you aren’t one of them. All right. Bring a flamer troop as well and keep them toward the back of your party. If you make a hole or stun ‘em you can roast ‘em. Also, swing those side wings out a bit more. The more of the corridor you fill the safer we’ll be.”
“What – you think I’m letting you Danikans have all the fun? Not likely! Such a daring enterprise requires first rank leadership – and that means me.” The young trooper’s face fell. “Don’t worry, son. This is still your show with your siege gear. I just need to be there for the same reason you feel you have to be. I can’t ask anyone else to do this kind of dangerous stuff if I can do it myself with any kind of chance of success. I haven’t been able to lead the charges we’ve made so far because, sad to say, they are too dangerous and someone has to command. But you’ve gone and given us a decent chance I think so now I can get my chainsword wet!” He motioned to several other troops hunkered down waiting for a lull in the firing. “You lot, over here and lend a hand!”
* * *
Old #6 Dome
The first blows were furious.
Neither Exene nor Heckle were holding anything back. The speed and force of the blows were incredible not only for the obvious skill with which they were dealt but also the sheer hatred which backed them up.
As the two closed, Exene hadn’t lit up her powersword. She did that mid-swing catching the maul in Heckle’s off hand in a feint which lopped off the head. Heckle took a poke with her own sword which tore into the Daughter’s long coat but caught nothing else and then threw the haft of the maul at the Exene’s face. The Daughter simply batted it away with her free hand and laughed angrily as she renewed her attack.
While the Danikans and Astartes had been holding back, the rest of the Daughters of Dystopia did not. As soon as the first swing was made, they immediately opened up on the rest of the enemy gangers who simultaneously returned fire. Wulf dived for cover in a hurry, while Cracken simply stepped behind a stanchion with a bit of a limp but still as casually as though he was inspecting the troops on early morning parade.
If the Astartes were surprised in any way by the renewal of hostilities it wasn’t visible to non-superhumans. Their bolt weapons blazed at the same moment as the Daughters, pasting the area the heavy flamer troops were covering in. While most of the Space Marines stood stock still and fired, Chastain Manassas used the covering fire to advance straight into the teeth of the enemy fire. With the flamers pinned down, he simply ignored the various stub and las rounds which rattled off his armor, slamming so hard against the bulkhead which hid the ‘nag flamer carriers that it shook rust off its bolts and nearly broke loose.
Inside his helmet, the Astartes whispered ‘Oops’ with a bit of a sheepish grin to himself and then the idea struck him. Keying the activation stud on his chainsword he ripped it into a chuck of rusty wall, leaving it stuck there. He then took a few steps away from the wall, firing left and right with his bolt pistol to keep the nearby gangers honest. One or two were blown off their feet, but Manassas wasn’t being particularly accurate, this was intentionally just suppression fire. With his other hand he fished out a frag grenade and hurled it over the bulkhead to keep the flamer ‘nags busy.
The second grenade was a krak, anti-armor grenade at the supports of the bulkhead, which had already nearly failed just from his impact. As it detonated, he made sure the wall went in the direction he wanted it to go – by hurling himself into it while ripping the chainsword loose from where he’d left it.
The wall, topped by nearly half a ton of armoured, bio-engineered killing machine fell, right on top of the gangers and their heavy flamers.
Manassas wasted no time, rolling to his feet easily from his impact fall, feeling bones and equipment snap beneath the rusted steel under him. There were still two stunned Brob ‘nag gangers visible. One was fumbling on the floor for a large revolver. The other desperately trying to bring his heavy flamer to bear as an Astartes chainsword took his head off at the neck.
Chastain continued past the fallen wall into other gangers beyond, making a mental note to come back in a moment to ensure that the threat under the wall was entirely finished when he was done. As he waded into the crowd of terrified gang members beyond, hacking and smashing, some part of his brain registered that he would no longer need to do this. Wondering why, he spared a look.
Sindi – the Juve with the red hair and broad shoulders, not the point girl of the Daughters, had followed his assault, blasting away with a shotgun. She had stopped at the beheaded ‘nag, however and reclaimed his heavy flamer. Without bothering to unstrap the tanks from the corpse she shoved the nozzle under the still moving wall and squeezed the trigger on the wand. Flames shot out from under the wall, along with screams. Chastain was about to yell a warning to the Daughter.
Too late. The explosives and tanks of promethium borne by those still trapped under the wall went up with a terrific bang and a gout of flame.
Returning to his killing, the Marine felt for the girl, who was certainly brave, before being surprised by another gout of flame in support of his attack on his left. Somehow Sindi had survived the blast and was now toting the flamer along, tanks loosely over one powerful arm with a very wide grin on her soot blackened face.
On the gangway, both Moebius leaders still traded enraged blows. Whatever Heckle’s slim sword was built of, it wasn’t normal steel. Otherwise Exene’s powersword would have wrecked it long since. Each of the women had switched to a two handed grip and traded powerful and controlled strikes, a flurry from one, feint, riposte, counter, and parry and then the other would do the same. Their fighting styles were similar, but not identical. Heckle’s were forceful and angry, Exene’s more precise and thoughtful. But in a fight like this forceful could matter and Exene was not dominating the fight.
This did not surprise her. Heckle had been a Daughter once, vied for leadership and lost. Probably Exene should have killed her then, but she had chosen to be merciful. It was a choice she regretted now. A near miss sliced off a small piece of her long coat and she mentally cursed herself for woolgathering while fighting.
But, she suddenly realized, that was it. Just as before, Heckle’s moves were furious, but they were few. Fast and angry but predictable. She was no slouch, but this could go on a long time until Exene tired. She was the one who’d been on short rations after all. Things had to change. And it was the coat that was the key.
A number of sparring partners and even a few opponents had joked that her trademark long coat was like a ‘cloak of invisibility’ as shots at her legs were difficult to gauge. The long tails of the coat hid the exact position of her thighs, knees and calves. That made it possible to set a trap.
Heckle had to know that they’d been on short rations. All the Daughters looked rough and overly thin. The fact that Exene’s hip had been injured was also likely known. Carefully in a strike she twisted her hips feigning weakness. She didn’t have to feign the pain – that was real from the broken pelvis, but this time she allowed it to show a bit. Heckled didn’t take the bait, but Exene hadn’t expected her to – not at first. But it was an opening that she was allowing. All Heckle had to do now was take the bait…
The Tesla gangers had no idea what a Danikan was. No idea what a Bloodcoat was.
They were finding out.
Danika had an ancient tradition for their elite uniforms. So ancient that no one even knew where it originated. Those units considered special in Danikan armies, whether the Continental Forces, the PDF or the Imperial Guard, marked themselves as such with white cloth. The more white added to the uniform, the more respected. A veteran unit might have white turnbacks on the cuffs of their parade jackets, for example. In the 4th, it was mostly trousers where this was reflected. Elite troops and top commanders, particularly those who excelled at close combat, duelling and related arts, were awarded the right to wear white pants. More elite units would add more white on their jackets, often including knotwork and other decorative trim in their branch color – red for Tactical units, Blue for Support, Green for Assault and Yellow for Command. Wulfgang’s trousers had started the journey into the Underhive bright white. So, too the cuffs of his red coat.
Once, years ago when the 4th Danika was new, the unit commander and his personal bodyguard of swordsmen had worn uniforms which, save for gold command piping, had been entirely white. Jackets, trousers, everything but the boots. Even the belts were white leather. Then, in a terrible assault on a bunker the Colonel and his men had gone in to clear out a group of rebels. They had emerged victorious, and save for the Colonel’s leg, entirely without major injury. The death toll amongst the defenders had been huge and in the enclosed spaces of the bunker, the snow white jackets of the attackers had been painted almost entirely crimson in the blood of their enemies. That was how they earned the name ‘Bloodcoats’ and that was why to this day the regimental command element wore scarlet jackets. It wasn’t that they hadn’t earned the right to wear white completely – but had gone past that mark.
Wulfgang had been one of those men that day.
Even before leaving his homeworld he had been a swordsman of some renown. Against barely trained gangers he was as deadly as the Astartes. He moved from spot to spot, each carefully chosen by a battle sense long honed to be nearly supernatural. He drew gangers out and slew them before bringing another one, two and once even three out to be killed. Against the Bloodcoat, where ranged weapons could not easily be brought to bear they were lambs to the slaughter.
Exene was a deadly warrior. The Daughters knew she had few equals, but they had never truly seen a Bloodcoat fight before. He had fought with them once in the past, but never in the midst of them. As one, the Daughters fell back, literally stunned. The Teslas tried desperately to run.
But this was a Bloodcoat – and more, one of the men from that bunker so long ago. They never stood a chance.
Below a hatch slammed open and more gangers came in. Somehow, reinforcements had arrived. They were led by a squad of Guild Enforcers – trained up-hive soldiers in carapace armor carrying military grade weapons. These and the gangs around them flooded into the dome and started for the stairs.
Then, another hatch opened. This one, not on its hinges, but blown apart by the superheated fusion of a melta weapon.
With a leap, Buzzsaw was through the opening. In his return for backup, he had also brought with him a jump pack. The Astartes flew through the air on superheated steam, landing amidst the Enforcers with a giant laugh and an arc of his namesake arm which sent limbs flying on all directions even as the troops were scattered like tenpins. Behind him, a great form filled the molten edged hole in the wall, a giant walking war machine, boxy and square, mounted on pillar-like legs. Great airhorns filled the ancient dome as though calling a shift to work. Brother Ancient Lucien, Dreadnought 4 of the Cleansing Flames chapter, sometimes called ‘The Laughing Dreadnought’ had arrived.
Chastain Manassas’ backup was here.
The final turn began
One of the newly arrived Tesla gangers quickly zeroed in a heavy plasma weapon on the dreadnought. Gangers seldom carried weapons of this level of power. Not only were they terribly hard to maintain, the amount of force they brought to a fight could all too often bring rickety sections of the Underhive down on both gangs, as had happened with the Daughters in the fight where Exene’s hip had been broken. Things like las and plasma cannon were weapons of the unwise or very cautious in the Hive’s nightmare depths.
Like many of his fellows, the Tesla Heavy was one of the more cautious. Teslas loved their high tech gadgets every bit as much as Brob’nags loved tossing things around and Moebius loved stealth and fast strikes. Technology was their ‘thing’ and often they were called the ‘Tech Gang’. This particular Heavy lavished a lot of love and care on his heavy cannon. Parts impossible to find downhive were somehow found or even made from scratch with great care. The weapon was spotless, gleaming with extra finials and decorative plates. It was as beautiful as it was functional.
He fired it at Lucien.
The shot was good. Even the best maintained plasma weaponry could be finicky, venting unexpectedly and sometimes injuring the user – but the shot went in perfectly, striking the dreadnought on the glacis of its melta arm, flashing paint into ash, gnawing on armor which ran down its side in molten rivers and chewing into the weapon’s innards, wrecking it.
Lucien turned a bit, offering more of the arm to the plasma blast. In a fight like this the multi-melta wasn’t critical. There were no enemy tanks here to destroy. Better to lose it than to take damage which would actually affect his ability to conduct war.
A cheer started to go up from the Teslas, the gang leader even slapping a ‘high five’ to the heavy with the plasma who grinned brightly as his superheated weapon started to re-charge. The cheer started to waver as the Dreadnought pivoted at the waist, bringing up its other arm, stretching forward its powerful rotary close combat weapon. They turned to shrieks as the heavy flamer mounted beneath the arm gouted forth white hot burning promethium. The Tesla leader and his heavy were fully engulfed, their eyes having just the time to widen in horror before being melted from what little remained of their burning skulls. Lucien didn’t hesitate, marching ponderously forward, following Buzzsaw into the disordered Enforcers, burning down more of them with another blast of flame.
Nearby and above…
Just as she’d expected, Heckle eventually took the bait.
The smaller ganger must have known about Exene’s injury and she was simply too angry not to try and capitalize on it, risk or no. Both Moebius leaders had noted the arrival of the Enforcers and then the Dreadnought and Buzzsaw. Both also knew what it meant. Heckle threw herself into a furious attack and went for the ‘obvious’ hole in Exene’s defences. The head Daughter saw it coming and pivoted. That hurt the hip, quite a lot and even with the confusing effect of her long coat, Heckle’s slim blade scored along her side and pierced the flesh of her hip just below her belt. Superficial, but it did hurt.
It also let her grab Heckle’s wrist with her off hand as the slim sword caught in the coat of the gang leader. Exene’s burning powersword came down from on high, slicing off Heckle’s left ear and part of that side of her mandible and molars. The blade continued down through the left side of her throat, severing the carotid and jugular, then hacked down into the body cavity, snipping the collar bone, sternum and ribs before stopping just below what little was left of her heart.
Cut nearly in two from top to bottom, Heckle managed to spit a mouthful of blood into Exene’s face as the Daughter shoved the body off her blade, letting the would-be nemesis of the Daughters of Dystopia fall to the decking. She stood, Heckle’s sword still stuck through her side, her powersword steaming as it burned away the last of Heckle’s blood as the Daughters roared their approval.
Hieronymus Cracken walked up next to her, handing her a med patch from his own kit with a nod. Without a word he turned and began emptying his bolt pistol into the fleeing gangers below with the casual air of simple target practice, each shot destroying another torso as the gangers fled. He also noted their colors in case another recruiting drive brought him to Cascade Hive. He would not forget those who ran, although perhaps he faulted them less than he might have otherwise given what they were now facing.
The Enforcers, mostly ex-gangers themselves, also tried to run. Manassas and Buzzsaw cut them down, flanked by Sindi with her newly acquired heavy flamer. Lucien pursued Teslas into tunnels until they became too small for him to follow, delivering the justice his Chapter demanded – without mercy.
Finally the dome was quiet – save for the crackle of burning corpses. Now and again there would be a short, sharp ‘bang’ as ammunition on a body cooked off. Manassas removed his helmet, clipping it back onto his belt. Buzzsaw, Barrabus, and Claw had gone into the tunnels with Lucien. Harrying the gangers. Delivering justice with the Dreadnought. The Astartes sergeant turned to the tall Moebius juve. “That weapon suits you well young lady. You’re a regular Pyra.”
“Pyra? What’s that?”
“A flame spirit, still worshipped by some of the primitive tribes on my homeworld. One of the Emperor’s spiritual daughters, who burns her enemies with flame.”
“Pyra, eh?” Exene had limped up behind them. “I think you’ve just been given your gang name Sindi. Or, I should say, Pyra.” She grinned tiredly as the former juve whooped with joy, looking for the other juves to celebrate. The lead Daughter turned to Chastain. “Not a juve any longer and named by an Astartes. That’s got to be some kind of omen for her.”
“Your people performed very well, Exene Thrush.”
“High praise from one of your kind, Sergeant.”
“None higher, and I do not say it lightly. I am sorry for your losses.”
Exene turned, counting the cost. Hard Candice lay half under a gantry, not far away – sightless eyes staring at the smoke filled roof of the dome. A trio of juves, some of Pyra’s former friends, had been cut down by a ‘nag either too courageous or too stupid to run. Kelli nursed a serious lasburn to the leg and Ethyl had lost a finger to an axe. None of the Daughters were uninjured although the other hurts were mostly minor. Cracken’s armoured coat had stopped a lot of damage but even he had blood running down over his pistol hand from a lasweapon which had burned through the sleeve and into his forearm. Wulf had a few minor cuts, but was probably the least hurt of all of them. He’d been fighting in his element, after all. Her eyes fell on the scorched suit of armor which contained little more than blackened bones and a large charred mining drill where one hand should have been. She shuddered. “I am sorry for yours as well,” she said very quietly.
The Sergeant nodded. “We are Astartes. We live and die for war. Drill died in a way that he expected and while it may not have been against Xenos or Heretic, it was against those who are enemies of the Imperium – in this case those who would use the Imperium for themselves rather than dedicating their efforts to the glory and survival of humanity. Dying against such foes is well within the remit of the Astartes.” He paused and watched the smoke rise to swirl around the dome supports above. “Honestly, Exene, do you imagine a universe in which an Astartes does not die in conflict? I cannot.
He turned away. “Gather your survivors. Bury or deal with your dead. We leave as soon as the ‘Pitbulls’ and Brother Lucien return.”
Central Torso region
For Lord Liche, Chief Librarian of the Undying, death swooped down on black wings.
Or, rather, tried to. Liche was not the sort to die easily. He heard and felt the disturbance and ducked, as much as his terminator armor would allow, while swinging upwards with his axe to both disrupt the attack and do some damage if possible. The axe came away trailing – something. It couldn’t really be called blood and he wasn’t even sure it could be called a liquid – it glowed and sparked and – other things that he didn’t look too closely at.
The bat winged thing landed not far in front of him, turning and raising its staff. Liche nodded to what had once been an Astartes Librarian. “Amankhan.”
Lowering the staff slightly the Sorceror Lord of the Thousand Sons returned the nod. “Liche,” his voice hissed from the helmet – not properly sound any longer. Flame seared from the gaps of his armor, like the mismatched plating of a damaged reactor. The light left strange shadows on the floor, which seemed to stain the decking rather than simply be a play of light and shadow. “All this – this war. All of it, your fault.”
The Librarian’s eyes were cold. His voice empty, “I wasn’t aware that beings such as the former Primarch of the World Eaters even knew I existed.”
“Him?” The hissing of flame might have been laughter once, “I doubt it as well. But YOU started this war. With your letter which reached me in the Eye. This was my response, before Angron decided to take part and took this from me.”
Liche’s reply dripped with derision. “So. Someone offers you redemption – a chance to change your life. To make better choices – a choice you could easily ignore even if you chose not to embrace it, and your response is to start a war?”
“You reached into the Eye. My Sanctuary from the followers of the corpse on the Golden Throne!”
“The Eye does not matter, son of Magnus. Redemption is everywhere in the universe. In the Eye as much as within the halls of Terra or the corridors of the Skull Moon.”
“Redemption!” the creature hissed. “Lies. Untruths. Cowardly fantasies from those who hid behind betrayal.”
“Betrayal,” Liche sneered. “You would call it that. That’s been what the Thousand Sons have always called it. The fact that you ignored reality and abandoned sanity is not to be laid at my door, Sorceror.”
The creature roared, pulling itself up to its full height – far taller than even a normal Astartes. “Reality? You dare question my sanity! You DARE –“
“Of course I do,” the Librarian said quietly, not rising to the bait of the Thousand Son’s rage. “Look at you.” He gestured to the wings. The only partly material body contained in warp altered plate. He gestured to a tiny silver marking, much like a leaf, worked into the breastplate of the Thousand Sons’ armor. “You were once one of Ahriman’s lieutenants. Dedicated to eradicating mutation from your brethren.”
He reached out and gently tapped the center of the leaf with the tip of his axe. Clearly not an attack and he had to step close to do it. The leaf was strangely unaffected by the other changes which had warped and twisted the cuirass. An effect that was less a warning, and more a final insult. “Look at yourself now. You’ve taken ‘mutation’ to new heights. Like your former master, you were deceived by the forces of Chaos. The same as Magnus was. You thought you won, but in reality you had already lost. And, when you chose to ignore the Emperor’s Edicts – you brought even more of the Warp close to you. That was the choice they needed. The gamble Tzeentch took. That your pride, your hubris, your arrogance would lead you to ignore warnings you should have heeded.
Amankhan took a step back. The Librarian’s words might have been physical blows, but still he spat back, “You know the reality, Liche. We had no choice. Were given no choice, no understanding. We were thrown to the Wolves. The Eye was the only course of survival.”
The Undying ignored the attempt at defence and continued his barrage, “You know that’s not true. You always have, deep down. You made a choice and it ended the only way it could.”
“Magnus tried to save the Emperor! Yes – it’s true we kept to some powers because someone needed to know the truth. You know how that time was. Nothing was forbidden. Chaos – chaos was almost unknown. The Emperor hid that from everyone. He hid it from us.”
“Of course he did. Look around you, Thousand Son. Look what happens when the temptations of Chaos are known. Look at this structure we stand in – look what the Dark Mechanicum did to it – for power. Once they knew what could be had, they didn’t hesitate. They leapt with open arms into the same abyss you wound up in.” Amankhan shook his head defiantly but Liche didn’t let up. “The Emperor knew that people were weak. He had already fought that battle himself generations before there were Space Marines. He did the best he could – but even he knew that there was a risk. Nothing could be perfect. He made the choice he made – the best one he could, to avoid this fate for humanity.
“You were told you were safe, told the fire was pretty. Warned not to play with it and did anyway because you believed you knew more. Just like the Dark Mechanicum, Amankhan. The Emperor tried to warn you. All of you. Magnus, Ahriman. All of the Thousand Sons Legion. And he wasn’t the only one. Russ tried to warn you. Others too. Yes, the seeds of destruction were always within your Legion but you had a CHOICE. Those seeds were hidden by Chaos to make you dive after the power. The power that was, in fact, the very heart of your damnation although you didn’t know it.”
Amankhan took another step back.
“You, all of you – wanted power. You wanted greatness. Yes, you told yourself that you wanted it for noble reasons. Probably that was even true – but you were told by one much greater than yourself, ‘don’t play with fire’. Told so strongly that even those NOT at risk were banned from power too close to yours. That was why all Legions were required to retire their Librarians. Give up their psykers. That sacrifice was made to try and save YOU!”
“No,” the Sorceror whispered. “No!”
“Yes.” Liche continued. “and, deep down, you know it to be true. You always have. If there was a mistake made, it was that The Emperor believed in you. In the Thousands Sons and in Magnus – more than he should have. He loved you so much he could not imagine that you could fail in this way. Or maybe he suspected but couldn’t bring himself to believe it. For really – who could imagine children they love doing this!”He waved the axe about gesturing to the surrounding horror. The Sorcerer visibly shuddered – on some levels really seeing the generatorium for what it was, deeply, for the first time. Liche pressed with his words, and also with his powerful warp altering will, not allowing Amankhan to hide behind his self deceit. He didn’t attack – but within the Thousand Son’s anxious mind he psychically ripped off the blinders.
“The Emperor, everyone, tried to save you. Tried to reach out and throw you a branch. Sacrificed not only your power but much other power which could have been used safely by others – all for YOU! But you took that step into the Abyss and once you were off the edge, it was too late.”
“It was the Wolves – the WOLVES!”
“Who were sent – for what reason? Because your Primarch, and the rest of you, chose to ignore the Edict of Nikea. And by doing so, opened a door too dangerous to be allowed to remain open – particularly after what happened to Horus and the Luna Wolves. To Fulgrim and the Emperor’s Children and all the others. Like Lorgar and his Word Bearers, who so loved belief and dogma that they literally sold their souls, you flung yourselves into the abyss for power.” Liche stepped forward, pressing the attack with his physical and psychic presence as much as with the truth that the Sorcerer couldn’t face. “When you tried to ‘warn’ the Emperor – you destroyed the work he was doing to try and save everyone – even Horus and Lorgar. Magnus, in his attempt to help, did exactly what Erebus wanted of him. Exactly what his Masters had told him Magnus would do. The attempt – the noble attempt to loyally warn the Emperor of betrayal – that was the match in a house soaked in promethium – you’d been told – and told not to light those fires.
“You didn’t listen!”
The Thousand Son simply stopped. His ornate staff fell to the decking from what had once been a hand. He still held his head up with some form of defiance. Liche moved in, verbally, for the kill. “Do you know the tale of the old man and his nephew?”
“The – what?”
“It is an ancient legend from Old Earth. Before spaceflight. Before, perhaps even the Emperor. So ancient that the great Merikan Empire had not yet formed. Before the Pan-Pacific Union and the other nations whose names still echo in our histories.
“In the legend, an old man from a people called the ‘Charokiy’ is telling his young nephew that there is a fight going on within him. And that the same fight goes on within the nephew. Within every man. The fight is between two great wolves – not space wolves, but the original creatures from Terra, who were as feared in the ancient world as their namesake Astartes are now. One of the great wolves is evil. It is anger and vanity. Hatred, greed, power, lust. All the terrible things within a person. The other wolf is good. It is kindness, honour, duty, sacrifice, love.
“The old man tells his nephew that the fight goes on, lifelong in every person, and his nephew asks – but uncle, which wolf is stronger? Which wolf will win?
Liche looked the Thousand Son in the blazing holes which had once been the occularia of his helmet. “That fight went on in your Legion. It went on in mine. It went on in every Legion during the Heresy and it continues to this day. And the answer to the nephew’s question is as true today as it was all those tens of thousands of years ago when the story was first told. Do you know which wolf wins, Amankhan?”
The Sorceror was silent. He made no response save a strange shudder and half a step back.
“You know which wolf wins, Sorcerer. At least you know which one won in your Legion. And in mine. And which one won in every individual Astartes, every man, woman and child – then and now.
“Which wolf wins, Amankhan? The answer is always the same.”
The Thousand Son shuddered, and took another step back before falling to one knee.
“The one you feed!”
The Thousand Son shrieked, knocked back not by a physical blow but by a truth he had denied for millennia. A denial which had resulted in his own destruction, body and soul. He rolled to one side, his oversized armoured body smashing the railing away as he fell, wings fluttering rather than opening properly, as he screamed his way into the misty depths of the Generatoria below.
Griffon lifted the heavy metal bar and shoved. The mantlet rolled forward – driven into a hail of gunfire by human strength and determination. They had no way to see forward. Any periscope lifted above the mantlet would get it shot to bits, so others further back watched their progress. Suddenly a pair of las-blasts scorched the ceiling above the heads of the sappers, making an ‘X’ burn mark on the ceiling. They were within range.
Griffon stepped back and let Corporal Shab, the young Danikan who had come up with this mad plan, lift the lower gate out of the way on the mantlet. Meanwhile their flamer trooper also moved up, sliding up the cover on a small port and, without bothering to look, sticking the tip of his flamer against it and letting fly. The flamer alone should do some damage against the barricade’s defenders and would likely be thought of as the reason for the mantlet. Its main purpose in this case, though, was to keep the defenders occupied while Shab placed the Bangalore. Quickly he shoved the explosive tipped pole through the lower gate, pushing until he felt it contact something he then pulled back on the mantlet, sliding it back a foot or so and slammed the lower gate shut. The Imperials got down and opened their mouths, like artillerymen to equalize the pressure.
In the small space the tube charge explosion was titanic.
Quickly they pushed the mantlet at the top, not forward but over. Another gout with the flamer into the now shattered defensive point gave them cover as they rushed forward, firing and stabbing with knives. The strong point was taken and the stunned heretics beyond, shredded. Griffon moved fast, yelling for the men to advance. They had an opening, now it was time to exploit it.
Senekal was fairly sure that he’d found what he really wanted to mess up. There was a central point which the various main generator stacks were connected to by massive conduits. Bus bars flared and power crackled. Clearly some kind of distribution hub. Liche was off, dealing with the heretical Astartes and he had started smashing when more Plague Bearers had shown up. The problem wasn’t really the daemons, which were slow and fairly annoying but had no ranged abilities. The issue was larger than that. Terminator large in fact.
The Colonel knew this ‘issue’ and his cronies in heavy Astartes plate. He could feel the familiarity along with the hatred in his old wound. Too, the look of the corroded armor and half melted face was also distinctive. Jher Khan, the Rotted Lord, one of the Masters of the Death Guard.
Khan was not as famous as Typhus, who was nearly as well known as Mortarion himself. But he was no slouch. In the Great Crusade it was said he had been a noble warrior without peer. Gallant, merciful, courageous. All those things that Astartes strove to be. Now he was a rotting disease vector clad in armor which should not have worked, but somehow still did. Like many Death Guard commanders he carried a great powerscythe, which had mimicked Mortarion’s own Reaper. Just as Reaper had grown into an outsized and strange daemon weapon, so too had Jher Khan’s smaller weapon altered and changed. It now wept steaming puss which left holes in the decking.
Khan was not alone. Five other Death Guard in huge terminator plate moved slowly with him, surrounding the power nexus. The Colonel knew that these would not be drawn out from their positions, they were too ancient, too experienced to fall for such tricks. He pulled a plasma pistol from his belt and set it for max power. He couldn’t get a clear shot at Khan but he blasted at one of the Astartes Guards. The bolt hit something but he had to duck before assessing it as the air was filled with return combi bolter fire.
Colonel Senekal knew he was good – but he wasn’t good enough – not for this. There were simply too many very high powered Astartes near immortals in advanced armor. A human – a VERY skilled and lucky human might defeat a single one of those, but not all of them. For now, he had one advantage – mobility.
Senekal moved, hit, faded, took a shot and disappeared. He did everything he could to capitalize on the slow movement of the ancient terminator armor. He couldn’t engage in hand to hand. Not against so many. He worked his plasma pistol, both on the terminators and on the environment, trying to take out supports, key items and drop things onto the Death Guard or in their way. He knew it could not go on forever, and fervently hoped that Liche survived his own conflict and would show up soon.
Help did arrive, but not as he expected.
There was a high pitched noise, like ripping canvas but a hundred times louder. Pings and tiny screams of torn metal. The Colonel nearly jumped out of his skin as something tapped his shoulder. He spun, ready to swing his powerfist only to see a tiny woman, all in red and wearing a featureless mask just out of reach.
“Had I wished to harm you, Colonel, I could have.” In the distance the ripping noise came again.
The guardsman thought a moment. “I suppose that’s likely. You are?”
“Ah-ree-Hyel of the Ribbon of Stars Dance. My actual name, unlike the name of my troupe, does not translate into your tongue.”
“So. Harlequin. Eldar. Your kind is known for its hatred of Chaos although some have said that you can be betrayers as well.”
“Like with your people, politics can be – intricate and complex. We do not betray out of a desire to do so. On rare occasion there has been an unavoidable necessity. We regret those times.”
“Which would not be much consolation to the betrayed, I expect.”
“No, that is true. But we would never betray you – or the – the one you call Liche. You are not threads but centrepieces of the weave of skeins. But there is not time for this. Not if you are to succeed here.”
That much was certainly true. Weird, but she was right that she could have attacked. Senekal would still keep watch on her and her friends – for that ripping noise was certainly a shuriken cannon carried by a Harlequin ‘Death Jester’ – closely regardless. “You have a plan?”
Her head tweaked sideways slightly – like a nod in the wrong direction. “Have you?”
“With your help – maybe. Can you make me a hole to get to Jher Khan? I deal with him, and then I blow this nexus, if I can. Should be critical enough to interfere with this thing’s operations.”
“We can certainly try to do that, yes.”
“Then let’s stop wasting time and be about it.”
“Yes,” and with a shattering of colour, the eldar woman vanished.
“Damn holo-fields”, Senekal muttered under his breath.
The eldar dathedi (‘between colors’ in the eldar tongue)– what the humans called a ‘holo-field’ was an elaborate, and ancient technology. For the eldar, with their paths and traditions, infantry use of it was almost exclusively limited to the Harlequin Dancers, however it could also be found on grav tanks, and even sometimes on large wraith units or titans. It worked by ‘bending’ light around the area covered by the field. While true invisibility wasn’t possible, the faster something moved, the more the light bent and twisted resembling an eye twisting fractally shattered image made up of pieces of light – like a picture turned into a broken jigsaw puzzle and flung through the air. The faster the object moved, the more impact on the image the dathedi had. Objects completely at rest looked almost normal. The faster and more chaotic the movement the harder it was to tell where in the smashed pieces of light the actual object was.
Both the guardsmen and the Death Guard knew these facts. Both sides had fought the eldar in the past – but knowing them only helped a certain amount. To be sure you could try and fill an area of light with weapons fire in hopes of hitting something, but accurate shooting was impossible on a moving target.
The eldar did not waste time. Almost immediately they started their attacks. Like the Colonel’s, they were hit and run – strike and fade suitable to more lightly armed and mobile attackers. Unlike the Colonel’s there were enough of them to be able to make a difference. The ring of mouldering armor around the Rotted Lord began to break up – first by the Terminators having to move to prevent multiple eldar strikes which could harm them and then to prevent the eldar from damaging things that they did not want to cease functioning. The Harlequins happily used both tactics to break up the ring of rotting armor.
Senekal didn’t wait once he saw his opening – he ran straight at it, firing his plasma pistol to the left as he did so and then dived and rolled as a maul like weapon cut through the air where his torso had been. He was through the ring and the eldar pressed to ensure that it could not close on his back. He reached the center. He reached Jher Khan.
The Rotted Lord was a thing of horror. In his Terminator suit he was nearly ten feet tall. His armor, which had once been Death Guard white and green was now a horrible grave mould muck colour, part greasy tan, part greenish gray. Like the structure of the titan, it wept with open pustules leaking contagion and was hung about with decomposing ‘trophies’ on chains and strands of wire. He wore no helmet, only a long streamer of what might once have been cloth over his head which trailed to his waist. The material had long fused with the decaying flesh and the markings on the cowl writhed with the unseeable. It was said Khan had once been noble and handsome with a ‘look of eagles’. If that had been true, it was long gone. The Lord’s eyes were milky spheres, his lips gone, exposing diseased and rotting teeth. The skin of his face was like parchment soaked in decomposition. Flies buzzed about him, landing even on eyes which could no longer blink while maggots writhed in the wounds of his putrefied cheeks. ‘Rotted Lord’ they called him. It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate name.
“Colonel,” Jher Khan said in a voice which was as cheerful as it was disturbingly clear, “welcome!”
Senekal was known for banter in fighting. He would often keep up a sprightly chat designed to anger or annoy his opponents, put them off their guard and perhaps even underestimate him. Not with this thing. The hatred which filled him sprang from the attempt to ‘change’ him against his will into something he would hate. It was said that those infected with Nurgle’s Rot would join the ranks of the Plague Bearers eventually – mad and nearly mindless devoted tallymen of the Lord of Decay. That hadn’t happened – thanks to the intervention of some very determined people, one of them his friend Liche – and the hatred that attempt had left in him burned almost beyond reason. The Colonel’s answer was to trigger his last drug charge and swing an energized powerfist at the Rotted Lord’s head in a blinding attack that nearly ended the fight in the first swing. Khan swayed slightly to one side, the fist missing the rotting bulb of his head and glancing off a huge pauldron, smashing away an ancient skull on a spike and some other relics of past wars. The impact knocked the Death Guard warlord back a pace, and with an angry roar he returned the strike with his huge daemon possessed scythe. The guardsman leapt over the swing, dropping his pistol to the deck and pulling out his officer’s sword. It would never be able to penetrate the ceramite and corruption of the terminator plate, but it would be very good for jamming into joints if the opportunity arose.
The modified ‘slaught’ combat drugs which Senekal used were terrible on his body, and after extended use he sometimes would need weeks to recover from the damage that they did. On some people they were addictive, but the Colonel did not seem to have that problem. There had been surgery needed to support and improve his heart and some other internal organs as a result of the damage done by the drug. Most would have died, but so far the Colonel had not suffered damage quite that severe, although it had been a close thing a time or two.
The tradeoff was that the drugs gave him an edge sufficient to bring his human physique into par with the Astartes for a short time. He wasn’t as strong, sheer mass would not allow that, but was far stronger than a normal man. More importantly he was much faster. To the Colonel, the world seemed to slow down – his perceptions snapped into the inhuman range. He had time to think and to plan and could react much faster. As the scythe came back on the return swing Senekal pivoted, grabbed the weapon with his energized ‘fist and squeezed in hopes of doing some damage. His feet soared high and he took the opportunity to unleash the full force of his augmetic leg into the Rotted Lord’s face. There was a terrible crunch and the lower mandible separated and went flying across the generator room. Rotting bits of teeth went everywhere. As the Astartes let out an incomprehensible howl, the scythe smashed down into the deck, embedding itself there.
Finishing his swing around Arcturan landed his feet on the back end of the stuck weapon and launched up and over the head of the Death Guard in an acrobatic flip which would have been impossible without the mechanical leg and combat drugs. On the way over he plunged his slender officer’s sword down. While he had aimed for the Rotted Lord’s head trying to puncture his brain and hopefully end the fight, the being twisted so that the sword cut down one side of his head, destroying his right eye and then punching down through the opening in the armor and deep into the chest cavity.
A man would have died instantly.
An Astartes might have lived, depending on which organs the sword destroyed.
To a corrupted creature of Nurgle – the blow just make Jher Khan angry. He released one hand from the scythe and smashed at the guardsman as he went over, missing most of him but catching hold of the augmetic ankle. Using that, he swung the Colonel like a stuffed toy, smashing him into one of the generator stacks. Senekal tried twisting as he hit and was somewhat successful, but the impact was still accompanied by the snapping of bones and he dropped, stunned and hurt.
Jher Khan turned his ruined head and with both hands wrenched the scythe free from the floor. Again, the voice came crystal clear, despite the lack of mouth and jaw. “Grandfather wanted you. You refused his gift. I would have greeted you, you refused my welcome.” He raised the scythe. “Now you will just DIE and the Harvester will claim your soul!”
Death was swift.
But not the death that the Rotted Lord expected.
Impossibly, Senekal rolled to one side as the daemon scythe came down. His ‘twist’ while being swung through the air meant that his cuirass had taken much of the impact. He’d still broken an arm and several ribs, but the ‘slaught kept him from feeling the pain and reduced the stun time to microseconds. His roll took him where he needed to be – atop the now fully charged plasma pistol he had dropped. He raised the weapon and fired. The actinic blue-white glare of superheated material lit the generatorium, adding the lightning to the thunderclap sound of vaporized air. It drowned out the wet thump of the steam explosion as the remaining pieces of Jher Khan’s head blew apart and vaporized. Slowly the decapitated giant form toppled backward with a crash leaving the huge scythe still stuck in the deck.
“Less talking, more fighting asshole,” Senekal muttered, spitting out blood and bits of teeth.
Next page – the conclusion: A Knife in the Darkness Part 11 – Endings – and Beginnings