Ortan Cassius swung his crozius upward, the strike sending a neophyte cultist flying backwards and broken, striking the mob behind him at about head level. The mass caused many of them to fall, breaking the momentum of their charge. Brother Garran stepped up next to the chaplain, gouting promethium over the heap of the ‘stealer brood. The sticky chemical flames flowed down into the gaps between the fallen who still tried to bring their weapons to bear even as their blistering bodies were rendered to bone and ash.
To Cassius, there could be no question of the infestation. Any normal person – indeed even most space marines would cry out in pain while they burned alive. Not Genestealer cultists. Their Patriarch’s will was a lash in the warp, controlling all aspects of their bodies. One started to rise, trying to bring a mining laser to bear on Garran’s Terminator armor even as the flesh sizzled and fell from the bones of his arms. A bolt pistol round to the skull put an end to that. It was not mercy that moved the chaplain, simply efficiency. The tendons might have lasted just long enough to fire the weapon he carried and injure Garran Branatar.
Behind him, he could hear the hate filled voice of the Inquisitor as she called out battle commands into the vox and blazed away with her pistol. Cassius could understand hating the Xenos. He could understand even more the disgust for a species which could so easily corrupt the purity of humanity. But even with those feelings of his own, he always felt Thessalonica’s hatred was even more personal. More angry. Deeper and wider. Impressive even to the ancient chaplain.
He nodded to himself, putting more rounds into the next wave of cultists. That hate, in the Inquisitrix, was a potent force. In many it might be unfocused rage or something which clouded clear thinking. This was never the case with Thessalonica Jones. Her rage was clear and focused like a prism breaking light into its visible component colors. It never betrayed her, never made her rash and seldom caused her to make a mistake. Indeed, it was that focus and singular purpose which caused him to be here in the first place.
Another surge of cultists came, this time from behind, pressing out from behind an ore carrier. The black and white gyrinx feline batted at Thessalonica’s boot and she turned. Sensing the large number of the corrupted, she reached out with her will, not merely drawing power from the warp but instead stirring it and curdling it invisibly around the mob. They stopped, confused as the effects jammed the distant Patriarch’s senses and control. While still corrupt, their exterior direction was gone and with it an understanding of what it was they were supposed to do. Jones gestured in their direction and turned her attention away to the next problem as Brother Grytt salvoed rounds into the disordered mob from his frag cannon. In moments the former cultists were nothing more than bloody chunks of gore.
Many times Cassius had considered his work with the Deathwatch. His assignment now. At such a time – the time of the Imperium Nihilus – the Cicatrix Maladictum – the Imperium itself torn apart by the powers of the Dark Gods and here he was, fighting Genestealer incursions. He hadn’t wanted to do it. Cassius had stood within the Temple of Correction when his Primarch had been resurrected and walked among his gene-sons for the first time in ten thousand years. He had fought in the Plague Wars of Ultramar, destroying and driving out the forces of Nurgle and of Chaos. He had followed his Primarch through the nearly endless toils of the Terran Crusade, finally standing on the homeworld of mankind in the vestibule of the Emperor’s Throne room. He had watched and waited as Roboute Guilliman ventured within the Master of Mankind’s sanctum and waited until he returned, announcing that he once again would take up the mantle of the Lord Commander of the Imperium.
The chaplain stepped to one side, clearing a corridor with bolt fire and held it as his team leapfrogged forward. Methodical. Precise. He split off one part of his transhuman mind to recall those days on Terra, even as another part of his consciousness took note of the ammunition count of both himself and his brothers. He was concerned that if they did not manage to re-supply they would have to fight their way back to the areas they controlled without ranged fire which could be very difficult even for superhuman Astartes against such odds. While it was clear that this was not a mature infestation, the level of ‘purestrain’ Genestealers was much too low for that, it was also apparent that instead of ‘deep’ the Patriarch in this incursion had gone ‘broad’ with vast numbers of corrupted humans from the lower class supporting their cause. Had this infestation gone on another couple of decades before being detected, it might well have been the death of the planet. As it was, it seemed likely to still be restricted to this Hive.
It had been days later, on Terra, that he had been summoned to see his Primarch. Guilliman had taken up temporary residence in an apartment area beneath the Imperial Palace while he performed his new duties on Terra. It was strange. An artificial lake surrounded by beautiful residences. Twenty in all. Cassius had never before been summoned by his gene sire for a personal conversation. He had no fear, but wondered what critical assignment his Primarch would have for him. He could think of no other reason for his being there.
He had met Guilliman in an office, one clearly designed for a being the Primarch’s size. The furniture and fittings were brobdingnagian, even to an Astartes. Roboute sat, backlit by the bright artificial sunlight glittering on the faux lake behind him. As Cassius entered he turned and for a moment the chaplain caught a flash of the many troubles that must lay upon those mighty shoulders before the face became a mask. Standing, he had walked around the desk and clasped arms in brotherly fashion with the chaplain, which was surprising.
“Ortan, welcome. I’m glad that you could come.”
“It is my honor to be summoned, milord,” he’d responded. “How may I be of service?”
Guilliman had chuckled at that. “Straight to the point then. And why not.” He turned, looking out, again, over the lake. “Chaplain Cassius, I have need of your particular skills. However you may not like what I’m going to ask of you.” He turned back, meeting the Astartes eye to eye. “I need you to leave the Ultramarines.”
It is said that the Astartes can feel no fear – and perhaps that is true, but the sinking feeling of despair Cassius had at that moment was profound. He had faced death a thousand times and more, but this was worse. Guilliman could not help but note the look of pain on the chaplain’s battered features. He nodded sadly. “I am sure that is the last thing you want to hear. You have served your entire life and only for a short time of it, fought shoulder to shoulder with your gene-sire. To ask you to leave that, even in the days of the Crusade it was a hard thing. But make no mistake, it is necessary.
He gestured to a chair, this one sized appropriately for an Astartes and took another built for his own even greater physique. Taking a decanter from the desk, he poured refreshment and handed one glass to Cassius, even as he took one himself. A great honor, to be served personally by a being literally out of legend. “Ortan,” he said, again using Cassius’ given name, “no doubt you wish to be fighting with your brothers and with myself against the great maw of chaos that splits the Imperium in twain. I would feel the same. But, both as Primarch and as Lord Commander of the Imperium, I must consider all the strategies needed in this era, not those which existed only in that from which I come.
“By the end of the Great Crusade, mankind had little to fear from most aliens. Not to say that there were not threats of course, but there was nothing which could be said to truly present an existential threat. It is my belief that this is the reason why the Emperor made Horus Warmaster and left the Crusade which he had personally led up until that point to return to Terra to do other critical work for the next ‘phase’ of the Imperium. I myself was not told why he was leaving – and he likely had good reasons for that decision although I am not privy to them even to this day.
He sipped his drink, and Cassius followed suit, still listening intently. “This new era I have awoken to – this Dark Imperium now split by the Cicatrix Maladictum, has far more threats from within and without than we ever faced. What’s more, we face them with less and they are more potent. This ‘new’ Imperium I see around me – I will be honest with you. I would not have thought it equal to the tasks it faces.”
In spite of himself Cassius gasped in shock. “Milord, we would never allow the Imperium to fall. We of your chapter and our brothers in other chapters – we would all die first.”
The Primarch nodded. “Without question, Ortan. And that is why I have hope in spite of what I might consider judgement. You and your brothers, as well as so many others within the Imperium of this age, you struggle, you fight, you face terrible, indeed nearly insurmountable odds and often you triumph. You have held the line as well – no better – than anyone could have expected. Cawl has often said that he failed at Cadia. Celestine the same. Yet I have always said that a warrior’s mettle is measured not in his comportment in victory, but in how he handles defeat. There is the true test.
He sipped again, before going on. “In addition to the terrible foes we have faced, the Traitor Astartes and the monsters they worship and in some cases have become, this world faces threats that we in past ages did not. The forces of chaos are terrible, but the ork is resurgent, the new threat of the Tyranids devours entire worlds, the ancient evil that is the Necrons stir and wake from their stasis tombs before consuming entire subsectors.
He rounded on the Chaplain, “Ortan, the truth is that even if we are victorious against my fallen brothers and their lackeys, it will mean nothing if there is nothing left behind us to save!”
Now it was clear. As much as it dismayed him, the Primarch again had shown the tactical genius which had driven his traitor brethren back into the Eye during the Great Scouring. Cassius downed his drink in a single swallow and stood. “As always, milord, I serve the Imperium, I serve mankind and I serve you,” he sighed, setting down the glass. “I see that my reputation as one of the great Xenos fighters in our Chapter has preceded me.”
“You do not seem surprised.”
The grin that twisted Cassius’ scarred features was sardonic. “Surprised, milord? That one of the foremost strategists in all of human history knows the capabilities of those in his armies? Hardly. I will serve where you direct, of course. That is my duty and my honor and if you think my talents best used in places other than with my brothers, than that is where I will go.”
Guilliman nodded. “I’d expected no less. One of my biggest concerns at the moment is one you are already well familiar with. The Tyranids and their Genestealer cult allies. Your experience in the Deathwatch is needed again and I will need you to don that armor a second time.”
“Of course, milord. And the assignment?”
“You will report to a woman whose skills are well honed and that will be to put to use as I would use a scalpel. She is an expert in the hunting of ‘stealer cults who was not yet born when you last served in the Chamber Militant of the Ordo Xenos. Her specialty and her passion is in the hunting of Genestealer cults. It is my hope that if we can end those which infest worlds in our possession, that the Tyranids may be drawn to the worlds of our enemies before ours. If there are multiple threats to mankind, why not let them fight one another?”
Cassius chuckled. “As the bugs are drawn to successful cults, and the traitors are not known for their care for the locals…”
“Then the Tyranids are drawn to the warp worlds of Abaddon and his allies. Two of our greatest enemies bleed each other, and have less with which to bleed us!”
While he had been considering, the other part of his brain had been firing down the corridor. Nothing more seemed to come from it and so he moved forward and past the last group of his brothers, taking up his next position in the staged assault.
He could see that Jones had also been keeping track of the logistical situation, for her attack was angling back to the areas more securely under the control of her personal Astra Militarum forces. Places where they could equip, re-supply and for those who required such things, rest for a bit. No fool the Inquisitrix. She’d planned this precisely and well. Cassius censured himself briefly for being concerned. In the time, hard to calculate on this side of the Cicatrix where the warp loomed so close, that he had served with her she had not let her passions pull her into errors of arrogance.
Thessalonica would have been glad of the confidence of the ancient Chaplain had she known about it. She, herself carried the burdens of command directly and knew all too well that even the best plans rarely survived contact with the enemy. And this plan – more of a reconnaissance in force to gauge the threat than anything else, had come with its own risks. She had allowed for a margin of error in their return but the numbers here were greater than any she had seen for a cult of this maturity and that was pressing against her strategies. The friction of combat was grinding away at the ammunition supply of her Deathwatch and there was real concern about their ability to make it back.
Leading her troops down a momentarily clear corridor, she had her focus pulled to one side externally. Realizing the source, she quickly shifted to the right, following the path of the loping gyrinx which normally stayed close by her. Schniggles – a name chosen not by her but by the creature itself from her own childhood memories – led them down a narrow, half collapsed culvert and then gestured with his furred head up a ladder. She sent one of the Deathwatch up first and then followed, feeling the heavy feline as he leapt up and held on to her holster. Paws were of little use on the ladder.
As always, the gyrinx’ senses had led them well. The thinner opposition in this direction meant less ammunition usage and they were able to make good time. She was beginning to think they might make it back relatively undisturbed when they came to a large area, a deep mine pit open to the sky. The stars were just starting to fade into the pink of dawn. Looking down at Schniggles for guidance, she found the feline had no preference so they started along the base of the pit to the right.
As they moved quickly and quietly, she whispered orders into her vox, updating their position and moving other members of her team into place. They’d nearly reached the other side when a whole section of wall blasted loose in front them and more cultists, this time led by a trio of giant aberrant ‘stealer mutants rushed out. At the same time more of the cult boiled out of the tunnels behind her team. No one needed to be told what to do. With clockwork precision the entire Kill Team made its way left, the forward members adding fire to the attackers in that direction, while the rear members covered those behind. Moving out into the center of the open spaces of the pit she noted more of the xenos and their corrupt slaves coming from the other side. The Deathwatch and the Inquisitor formed a ring in the center, blasting away with limited ammunition and waiting for an opening. A thin spot where they could attempt a breakout.
Thessalonica reached into the warp and began to strike with her will, initially focussing on the nearly mindless but huge mutants leading the charge. Flares of ethereal flame set two of them afire and they fell, still trying to move forward despite their bodies sizzling away. A vox command at the right time brought a pair of jump pack Deathwatch down onto the back of the group from the gantries above and, as the cultists froze now under attack from in front and behind, the Kill Team charged into them. As the melee was engaged, she hoped it would be enough to punch the hole she needed. She still had another ace up her sleeve and hoped he would reach the melee in time to do some good. She flipped a monofilament blade out and extended the fine wire cutting edge tipped by a tiny archeotech suspensor. Firing with the pistol in her right hand and channelling more warp flame she laid into the creatures around her with all the hate and purpose she had. It would be close.