The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Eight
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Seven.
Chapter Master Tu’Shan of the Salamanders, for the second time in the bizarre two weeks he had been having, found himself at a loss for words. An astropath had approached him that very afternoon, and informed him that Lord Vulkan had been waylaid, and was recuperating on a Cardinal World at the far side of the galaxy. The Primarch was comatose, the message had read, and was in desperate need of rest. Tu’Shan had been so surprised that he hadn’t even composed a response.
That in and of itself would not have been so utterly astounding, but what the astropath was saying now – through a series of agonized gasps – was even more flabbergasting. The astropath was relaying words from the Emperor Himself!
“TU’SHAN, LOYAL SON OF VULKAN, IT IS GOOD TO SPEAK TO YOU IN PERSON. I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT VULKAN WILL RECOVER, I’LL SPEED HIM ON HIS WAY TO YOU AS SOON AS HE’S FULLY AMBULATORY AGAIN.”
The relatively young Chapter Master, alone in the Astropathy Temple save the psykers themselves, took a reverent knee, though of course he was only listening to a message that had been bouncing around the warp for who knew how long. The astropath continued.
“YOUR MASTER IS UNEQUIPPED, TU’SHAN, AND REQUIRES ARMAMENT AND ARMOR, HIS OWN HAVING LONG SINCE FAILED. I EXPECT YOU TO HAVE CREATED REPLACEMENTS, AS ONLY A SALAMANDER CAN.”
Tu’Shan’s heart leapt at the compliment, and he couldn’t suppress a grin. “HE SHALL ARRIVE WITHIN TWO WEEKS, PROBABLY VERY MUCH SOONER. IN ADDITION, HE WILL, I AM SURE, HELP YOU FIND THE OTHER ARTEFACTS. I HAVE TO GO, BUT I WILL GET IN TOUCH SOON. FAREWELL.”
The astropath gasped and pitched forward. Rubbing his temples wearily, he directed his own words to Tu’Shan. “There is no more message, my lord.”
“I gathered, sieur,” Tu’Shan said. He rose to his feet, and glanced out the viewport at the nearly-invisible Chalice of Fire. “It seems I have work to do.”
The Rock was abuzz. The astropaths – in between bits of coughing and gasping for air – had announced that the Emperor Himself, along with Leman Russ, were due to arrive any moment. The two hundred Marines still stationed there were hurriedly assembling in the Great Hall, while Azrael and Lion El’Jonson prepared for their roles.
“Lord El’Jonson, if I may, do you think the Emperor will call upon us to serve directly? The Dark Angels will always be ready to deploy if He calls, but with eight companies fielded…” Azrael left the question hanging in the air.
Lion shook his head. “Doubtful. If anything, I suspect we’re going to be reinforcements for another group.”
“Which, sir?” Azrael asked, checking his plasma pistol, then sliding it into the ornate ceremonial holster he wore. “There are five dozen Imperial battlegroups in service in this segmentum alone.”
“If I know him, he’ll say the counter-Ork force that Commander Dante is leading,” El’Jonson said, distractedly pulling a formal uniform cap on. He still didn’t have new power armor, but that was no surprise: even after ten thousand years of inactivity he was still larger than the average Marine, and no artificer or Techmarine had managed to whip up a new suit for him yet. For a moment, he wondered what Vulkan would have said if he had been here.
“I’ve worked with Dante,” Azrael said, holding up his helmet and inspecting it for a moment, then sliding it over his head. His voice continued, through the speaker. “He’s a genius. He struck me as being a bit too hesitant to commit, at times, but he’s as smart as they come.”
“So I’ve heard, from you and Sammael,” El’Jonson said. “I’ve also heard he’s the oldest uninterred Space Marine. Any truth to that?” he asked as he tucked a grey sash over his dress uniform, decorated with the black wings of the 1st company. A Watcher waddled up and lifted a black-gilt chainsword and scabbard to him. El’Jonson smiled at the little xeno and strapped the blade on.
“It is true, Lord El’Jonson,” Azrael said, finishing his own preparations. “He has survived over a full eleven centuries as an Astartes.”
“Longer than I ever managed,” El’Jonson said wryly. “I’ll have to ask him how he did it.”
A loud CRACK from another part of the Fortress-Monastery announced the Emperor’s early arrival. El’Jonson started and jogged down the corridor towards the Great hall, with Azrael hot on his heels. El’Jonson came to a halt just inside the Hall, scanning the room, and finding the massive Emperor instantly. The other members of the Dark Angels stood at ramrod attention, their armored hands locked in salute. The Master of Sanctity was leading a ritual greeting, which the Emperor was looking oddly relieved by, and Leman Russ, that scraggly bastard, was already being presumptuous enough to breathe his air, and walk on his floor. Lion kept his face neutral as he walked across to Russ’ side.
“Lion,” Russ said casually, keeping his face free of whatever emotion he was feeling.
“Leman,” El’Jonson replied in the same tone. The Emperor was think/yelling at the Master of Sanctity Asmodai now.
“YES, I’M PLEASED TO RETURN. I UNDERSTAND A GOODLY PORTION OF YOUR TROOPS ARE AFIELD RIGHT NOW?”
“They are, my Liege,” Asmodai said reverently. “The second and fifth, seventh, fourth, and most of tenth, first, and third companies are engaging your enemies as we speak.”
“AND WHERE MIGHT THE NEAREST OF THESE BATTLEFIELDS BE?” the Emperor roared.
“The nearest is the Ork incursion on the planet Zargh 3, my Liege,” Asmodai said. “There used to be a vast population of feral-worlders there, numbering in the tens of millions, before an Ork Waaagh lead by Chief Warboss Skullwearuh descended on it. Apparently, they didn’t even know that humans were there, but the world holds some importance to the greenskin vermin. Long ago, several Ork Warbosses fought each other to the death there, and there’s been a very small population of native orks there since.”
“THEN THAT IS WHERE WE BELONG, ASMODAI,” the Emperor said decisively. Asmodai bowed, hesitant.
“As you will it, my Liege, but…I feel obligated to say, though of course your order supersedes his, that Chapter Master Azrael requested that at least four hundred Angels remain here for the recruiting and training of the several dozen Initiates and Neophytes we acquired after the Third Battle for Armageddon.”
“AS HE WAS ENTIRELY WITHIN HIS RIGHT TO DO,” the Emperor said, before seemingly noticing that Lion and Azrael were right next to him. Recovering quickly, he added “I DO NOT DISAPPROVE, BUT YOUR FORCES WILL BE NEEDED IN THE FIELD IF THIS WAAAGH IS LARGE ENOUGH TO REQUIRE MULTIPLE COMPANIES OF ASTARTES, AND IS THAT CLOSE TO US NOW. HOW MANY ORKS ARE THERE IN THE SYSTEM?”
“All but one world in the system is uninhabitable, even by Orks, but they have a Space Hulk in orbit, the Pyres of the Lost,” Azrael said smoothly, glad to be wearing a mask. “Aboard the Hulk, who knows? On the planet below – it has no moons – at least eleven million.”
“WHAT? HOW COULD THAT MANY ORKS HAVE SURVIVED ON A SINGLE SPACE HULK?” the Emperor said in genuine surprise.
“There were several dozen Roks docked with the Hulk, which had apparently been sucked into the Warp when the Hulk was,” Azrael said, stepping from beside El’Jonson and Russ, and saluting reverently before the Emperor. “We suspect that they also came from a nearby system, as well. We aren’t sure which one.”
“AND WHAT FORCES OF THE IMPERIUM ARE ARRAYED AGAINST THEM?” the Emperor asked.
“Five companies of the Blood Angels, eighteen frigates of the Segmentum Anti-Tyranid Rapid Reaction Force with their accompanying ground and boarding units, a Navy fleet from Kyrd, lead by Flag Admiral Thammond, and nearly one thousand additional Astartes from four other Chapters,” Azrael said. “They are joined by two thousand Battle Sisters of the Order of the Bloody Rose, and five hundred elite Skitarii of the Mechanicum, protecting the Archmagos leading the Space Hulk boarders and prize team. The Inquisition has dispatched four Deathwatch killteams to kill off the Chief Warboss. The Chartered Captains have been called to action, as well, their ships transporting several hundred Ordos Hospitaller to treat the wounded and transport equipment.”
“IMPRESSIVE FORCE DIVERSITY, BUT THAT CAN’T POSSIBLY BE ENOUGH TO FIGHT OFF AN ENTIRE ORK WAAAGH,” the Emperor said.
Azrael bowed. “Accompanying them are just over fifty regiments of the Imperial Guard, and six thousand men of the Rapid Reaction Force,” he said.
“Do not discount the fighting men of the Guard, Lord Azrael,” Leman Russ said pointedly. “They may lack our genetic superiority, but I have seen them overcome it many times.”
Azrael inclined his head, sneaking a look at El’Jonson’s compressed lips and clenched fists as he did so. “Yes, Lord Russ.”
“THAT’S STILL ONLY MAYBE SIXTY FIVE THOUSAND TROOPS, AT BEST, AGAINST OVER TEN MILLION ORKS,” the Emperor pointed out.
“Indeed, my Liege,” Azrael said, happy to return to a more comfortable topic. “They are not trying to retake the world, merely hold it long enough to evacuate what few people on the world are deemed salvageable. The ground troops will then transfer to the Hulk to help in seizing it.”
The Emperor’s massive body seemed to inflate, then he let out a loud sigh. “SALVAGEABLE. WHAT DARK DAYS ARE THESE THAT WE MUST ABANDON MILLIONS OF OUR FELLOW HUMANS TO ORKISH SLAVERY AND SAVAGERY? I SHALL LEAD YOUR FORCES INTO BATTLE PERSONALLY, LORD AZRAEL.”
The room was silent for all of one second before an astounded murmur erupted from nearly every one of the serfs and Initiates. The Neophytes and Battle-Brothers were more respectful, though several cast pointed stares at El’Jonson, who was looking as if he had been caught flat-footed by the announcement.
Azrael spoke up, very carefully. “My Liege, we would, of course, be honored to follow you into battle, but…”
“BUT THE HONOR OF LEADING YOU IN BATTLE SHOULD BE LEFT TO LORD EL’JONSON, EH?” the Emperor said reflectively. “VERY WELL. I WILL ASSUME OVERALL AUTHORITY OF THE FIELDED FORCES, BUT DARK ANGEL COMMAND SHALL REMAIN WITH YOU, LORD EL’JONSON,” he said, directing his chilling gaze to his son.
El’Jonson nodded, his clenched jaw relaxing a micron. “I would enjoy the chance to lead once more, Sire. Might I ask what role the Space Wolves will play in this battle?” Russ’s eyes narrowed to slits, but he said nothing.
“NONE, AS THEIR FORCES ARE COMMITTED ELSEWHERE AT THE MOMENT, THOUGH OF COURSE LORD RUSS WILL BE ACCOMPANYING US AS WELL,” the Emperor said. Russ nodded.
“I dare say ten thousand years of practice have left me in fighting trim,” he said nonchalantly. Now it was El’Jonson’s turn to glare.
After a few more minutes of deployment orders, the Dark Angels filed out, many already heading for the armories to prepare their personal equipment for deployment. Azrael stayed behind, waiting for El’Jonson. Russ turned to El’Jonson and sighed. “Shall we?” he asked, looking for all the world as if he were regretting it.
El’Jonson rolled his shoulders and grimaced. “Well, I’m frankly not sure. I don’t know if, after ten thousand years, smacking you around is even worth my time,” he said.
Russ’s face went blank as a ceiling tile. “Smacking me around? Really? From what I remember, last time, I whipped your moody ass so hard your tiny nuts switched places.”
Lion’s eyes shot open. Russ smiled wanly, shedding the fur-lined leather jacket he had donned for the trip. “Now…let’s see if I can make it two-and-oh.”
El’Jonson ripped his weapon belt off and tossed it to Azrael, who was torn between trying to break it up and covertly hitting the ‘record’ button on his helmet. He cracked his knuckles and tugged the top few buttons on his uniform shirt off. “Bring it, lapdog.”
Russ bared his elongated teeth and swung an open hand at Lion’s head. Lion ducked by a hairsbreadth, lunging forward under the blow. Russ feinted back a pace, before bringing his pivot leg forward in a brutal knee thrust. Lion barely dodged it, taking the blow across his guard. He spun to the floor, wincing. “Out of practice…” he said as he threw his center of gravity backwards and levered up.
“Excuses, excuses,” Russ snarled, dropping his heel mere inches from Lion’s boot. Lion took the bait, twisting his own leg to slam his knee sideways into Russ’, their feet nearly aligned. He shot both hands out in a palm thrust, catching Russ off-guard, but Russ grabbed Lion’s wrists and pushed, throwing the much lighter man back several inches. Lion rolled his arms to break Russ’ lock and raised his knee suddenly, slamming into Russ’ jaw and making his teeth click together.
Russ shook his head, dazed a bit, and Lion took the opportunity, sweeping his free leg at Russ’ waist. Russ was in the wrong position to block, and took the armoured boot in the hip. He wheezed with sudden pain, but locked his arm around the offending limb.
Lion smirked and kicked off the ground with his other leg, driving it laterally to slam into Russ’ other side, taking the red-haired Space Wolf completely by surprise. Russ dropped Lion’s leg and stumbled back a few paces, then glared angrily at his brother, who was rolling back to his feet.
“I see the Dark Angels haven’t forgotten how to fight dirty,” Russ said through gritted teeth.
“ ‘Dirty,’ says the only Primarch save Mortarion to ever have fleas,” Lion shot back, bringing his arms up to guard.
Russ laughed, a short bark of amusement, and threw himself forward, before suddenly leaping as high as he could at the last second. Lion didn’t get his guard high enough in time, and Russ slammed into his rising arms with the force of a bolter shell. “Fighting dirty is one thing,” Russ snarled as he landed four quick blows on Lion’s ribs before leaning back to dodge the hasty counter-shot, “but fighting crazy is a lot more…useful!” he said, slamming a balled fist sideways into Lion’s elbow.
Lion gasped, drawing the wounded arm back reflexively. Russ grabbed both of Lion’s shoulders and heaved, tossing the Dark Angels’ Primarch like a ragdoll, nearly ten feet to the side. Lion cannoned into a table, cracking one of its legs clean off. To his credit, he recovered fast, scissoring his legs forward and down, anticipating another blow from Russ.
Sure enough, Russ had gotten overconfident, and had followed up with a charge, hoping to pin Lion before he could get back up. With an aborted yell of triumph, Russ landed square on Lion’s raised feet. Lion planted his hands on the floor and tossed Russ overhead, his momentum carrying him into a tumbled mess on the floor on the other side of the now-ruined table.
Lion scrambled up, his knees aching, sure that he had at least stunned out of his larger brother, but it was not to be. Russ was already on his feet, and with a grunt of effort, threw himself into a slide across the polished stone floor. His outstretched feet crashed into the tottering table, which slammed into Lion in turn. Lion pitched over the table and landed flat on his back, winded. Russ used the last of his considerable inertia to rock forward, his legs straddling Lion’s. He slammed one hand across Lion’s strong shoulder, and placed a fist within a millimeter of his brother’s scarred face.
Lion’s eyes focused on the hand locked rigidly in front of his eyes and sighed. “Fine, fine,” he muttered, tapping his knuckles on the stone. Russ smirked and jumped to his feet, reaching down to pull his disgruntled brother off the floor. He slammed his hand on Lion’s back and grinned.
“Better luck next time, eh?” he asked with innocent humor.
“Suuure,” Lion said, dusting himself off. “I’m just tired from my, you know, ten thousand year coma. Your drunken ass is mine, next time, I swear it.”
“As I recall, you said that last time too, brother,” Russ pointed out, “but I won’t hold it against you.” He nodded sagely, feeling magnanimous after his win. “Who knows, you might get REALLY lucky next time.”
Lion glared daggers at his brother, then sighed, accepting his weapons back from the awestruck Azrael with a grin. “I’ve missed you, Leman. Don’t let anyone know.”
Russ smirked again. Before he could say something, the Emperor cut in. “IF YOU TWO SCHOOLBOYS ARE READY?”
“Naturally, Father,” Russ nodded.
“SUPER. LION, HAVE YOU A SUIT OF ARMOR YOU CAN USE DURING THIS BATTLE?” the Emperor asked, apparently satisfied with Russ’ answer.
“Yes, Father, the Techmarines have prepared a Deathwing suit for me. They had to cannibalize four damaged suits for parts, but they did it,” Lion said.
“EXCELLENT. RUSS BORROWED ONE OF THE ONES THE BLOOD RAVENS HAVE ACQUIRED, THOUGH IT’S NOT STANDARD ISSUE,” the Emperor said in mild disgust.
“Well, Azrael, there you have it,” Russ said, noting that the Dark Angel Chapter Master was looking a bit off-balance, even through his helmet. “Some traditions must be maintained.”
“So I see,”Azrael said, snapping back to himself. “Lord Russ, have you brought any additional forces with you to the Rock?” he asked, rather hoping the answer was ‘no’.
“I have, though they are not Astartes,” Russ said. Azrael started to relax, but Russ continued. “Lord Roboute Guilliman awaits aboard our ship.” Azrael couldn’t resist glancing up at the Emperor, who was deep in conversation with Lord El’Jonson.
“I…confess some surprise. Had I known he was coming, I would have made arrangements.”
“Beyond those you made for me and the Emperor?” Russ asked drily. Azrael stiffened.
“No, Lord Russ,” he said. Russ chuckled.
“Relax, Lord Azrael. Lord Guilliman will be accompanying us into battle as well, employing yet more of the Blood Raven’s lucre,” Russ said, privately enjoying Azrael’s discomfort.
“Beyond that,” he continued, another several ships are en route from the Ravenspire. The Raven Guard will be providing a few men, led by Corax himself. Though I doubt he’d claim to be in shape for it,” Russ said with mild irritation. After a moment, he shook his head. “That’s unfair. He’s dealt with worse than I ever did.”
“Lord Corax has returned as well, then, Lord Russ?” Azrael asked in surprise.
“Yes, Lord Azrael. All of we loyal Primarchs have returned now save Jaghatai, and I have no idea where he is,” Russ said, shaking his head. “I have heard rumors that he got sucked into the Webway when hunting Dark Eldar slavers, but he should have emerged by now.”
At that very moment, Jaghatai was running for his life. The Orks had been reinforced, massively, and suddenly the paltry tricks he had been using to contain them weren’t effective any more. A new Warboss, the largest he had ever seen, had landed not far from his camp, and had whipped the now-disorganized local Orks into line. Jaghatai had seen the trouble coming and gone to ground, since there was no way he could fight them outright.
Jaghatai vaulted the downed tree in his path, his Terminator armour taking the hurdle without trouble, and he risked a quick glance over his shoulder. The Ork scouts that had seen him were still following, just far enough back that they couldn’t really hit him, but close enough not to want to abandon the chase.
He knew he would only get one chance at this. He dropped to one knee, letting the bulk of the downed tree obscure his sight of the Orks, and waited. He raised his left hand, storm bolter readied, and planted his other hand flat on the ground, lighting claw inactive.
After a few seconds, in which the noise from his pursuers got louder and louder, he caught sight of a small object flying overhead, too quiet and fast to be an Ork fightabomba. He quickly scanned the sky, but whatever it had been, it was gone. He turned his attention back to the log and waited.
A mere handful of seconds later, the first Shoota Boy vaulted the same log. One quick bolt to the neck, and he was messily out of the fight. The next two fumbled in midair, not having expected the attack. Jaghatai dispatched them both with a few bolts to the head each. The last two halted their berserker charge, meters from the log.
Jaghatai heard them stop and took the chance. He powered up his lightning claw and swiped it at the log, sending a hail of burning splinters at the Shootas. True to their nature, neither of the greenskins even seemed to care, drawing their primitive bolters and roaring. They opened up on the White Scar Primarch, their bolts clattering against his armor and detonating, covering the adamantine shell with black. Jaghatai sprinted forward, slicing one Ork’s head from his shoulders. The other charged with an earsplitting roar, thrusting its pointed bayonet. Jaghatai grabbed the Ork’s arm with his non-clawed hand and pulled, ripping it at the shoulder. The Ork yelled in sudden surprise and pain, but was quickly cut off by the claw.
Jaghatai stopped, straining his ears in the sudden silence. He couldn’t hear any more Orks out there, and since Orks were known for their complete lack of subtlety, Jaghatai assumed that he was alone again.
He sighed and dropped the Ork head, and it rolled to a stop against the splintered log. Jaghatai leaned against the downed tree, feeling his exhaustion take its toll. He checked the storm bolter’s ammunition supply, finding it to be just over half-full. The Claw’s charge would last for months if he used it sparingly.
The aircraft darted overhead again, this time followed by two more. Jaghatai put his hand over his eyes and squinted, staring up at it. The noise was too indistinct, but the shape was maddeningly familiar. Five more of the objects flew overhead in tight formation, and the sight finally made Jaghatai’s memory click. It was a squadron of Lightning fighters!
Jaghatai gaped, at a complete loss. Where had they come from? If there had been Imperials on the world the whole time, then why did the area look like the Orks had lived there for ages? And why had they not attacked the Orks before?
A loud cracking noise suddenly drew his attention back to ground level. A pair of Gretchins, arguing loudly with each other, meandered into the clearing, clearly angry about being relegated to food-gathering duty. Jaghatai abandoned his rest and charged towards them, before either could sound an alarm and reveal his position. The stubby green creatures spotted him and shrieked, turning to run, but their tiny legs couldn’t outrun the White Scar Primarch. With a bound, he grabbed both by their necks and squeezed. Both of them popped like balloons, and Jaghatai tossed them aside like toys.
He rubbed the blood off his hands and started running back to the Ork camp, an idea starting to form in his head.
El’Jonson and the other members of the Dark Angels assembled aboard the Strike Cruiser Neverending, the vessel that had borne the Emperor and his party to the Rock. The Emperor had at last acquiesced to the polite but incessant requests from his son Roboute, and had not simply dragged the group through the Warp like a fishing net. The Emperor had, however, cast his psychic might ahead of their ship like a bow shock, cutting their transit time from Cadia to the Rock from two months to a day and a half, which had left the Navigator feeling sick to her stomach.
The forces the Dark Angels had gathered to aid the Emperor and provide reinforcement to their own troops in Zargh 3 had been meager in number, but what they lacked in ranks they made up in experience. No more than three hundred Astartes were present, but fully fifty of them were Deathwing or Ravenwing veterans, and a full four Land Raiders backed them, with a single Land Raider Ares besides. The Ares had been outfitted with spotlights, a dozer blade, and extra armor, as well as a pintle-mounted storm bolter and an expanded internal fuel tank, which allowed for it to become all the more deadly for its versatility. The remaining vehicles and troops of the Angels were split between several companies, since it would have made little sense for the entire chapter to take to the field at once.
Since Zargh 3 was so close to the Rock, the flight was expected to be less than two hours, so many of the troops aboard had decided to catch catnaps or perform simple maintenance on their gear. In the vessel’s armory, Roboute Guilliman was eyeballing Leman Russ’ new armor with a look between green envy and shock.
“Leman…where on Terra did you find that?” he asked. Russ smirked behind his golden facemask.
“I didn’t. A group of very shame-faced red-painted Astartes ‘found’ it for me. I have to say, I don’t remember anyone but the Raven Guard and the Salamanders being issued kit like this during the Great Crusade,” Russ said, experimentally raising and lowering his arm. The response was flawless, the joints shifting in near-silence.
Guilliman shook his head. “Really, though? Custodes armor?” he asked.
“Those Blood Ravens will nick anything that isn’t bolted down, bless their little hearts,” Russ said cheerfully. “It does leave me with the best of their wargear, at least.”
“No kidding,” Guilliman said, glancing down at his own armor. It looked from the outside to be completely normal Mk.7a power armor, but a cursory run-through of its capabilities had revealed all sorts of technosorcerous goodies beneath its armored shell. A sheet of ceramite with holes poked through to accommodate the usual set of neural link was laid between the inner shells of adamantine and the carapace armor on the skin. The armor’s heat dissipaters had been expanded, and the helmet had interfaces for bionic systems that Roboute didn’t need. Over that, a built-in microauspex was added directly to the armor’s normal sensor suites, and a pair of solid ceramite holsters had been cleanly welded to the armor itself, just below the hip joints. The suit had been hastily repainted in Ultramarines colors and symbols to accommodate its new owner, but there was no denying the skill of the Blood Raven artificers who had been unsurprisingly accommodating in his ‘request’ for new armor.
The Blood Ravens had become entirely aware of their predicament, and indeed several had requested permission to come along with the strike team, to seek redemption on the battlefield. The Emperor had been adamant that they get their chance, despite Guilliman’s misgivings, but the sentencing of Chapter Master Angelos stood, and he had been unceremoniously shipped off to the Eastern Fringe, where the Inquisition was expecting him. The Blood Ravens themselves would not accompany the ground forces, but would instead support the Space Hulk boarders, who would be led personally by El’Jonson himself. The Space Hulk boarders in the first wave were under the command of the Deathwatch killteams’ leader, who had all but refused to identify himself to the Astartes regulars, though this was of course his right. The markings on his armor denoted him as an officer in the imperial Fists second company, though none of the other Deathwatch seemed to be from that chapter.
The Blood Angels had wasted no time, according to the astropathic communications between the Emperor and the fleet in orbit above the world, with Dante himself leading over thirteen hundred Astartes and forty five thousand Guardsmen to the surface, in the most densely populated region of the feral world. The natives were, quite understandably, panicked, as their world was so disrupted.
The Orks had been unlucky, in that while all twenty five of the roks attached to the Space Hulk had made it to the ground, most had landed quite close together, preventing any sort of dispersal, and thus denying the Orks the ability to swallow up any territory uncontested. They had landed right on the edge of the feral Ork habitat, and had wasted no time in beating the local populations of Ork and human alike into servitude. The feral worlders were a hardy people, and had been enslaved without any time lost, put to work collecting timber, stone, water, and what few metals could be found, to expand the Ork war machine.
Dante and his troops had landed in the tribal gathering place, where several dozen related groups of humans offered up their meager tithes to the sole Imperial temple on the globe. The Orks were thankfully still several hundred miles away, and from what could be told from their limited time there, the Blood Angels didn’t see any artillery in their ranks capable of hitting the temple from that far away.
Still, it was only a matter of time before the Orks found the gathering place, and fell upon the natives with a vengeance. The firebombing of Ork advance structures had enraged the greenskin vermin, and provoked them into charging their ill-equipped forward scouts directly into the minefields that Dante had painstakingly placed in their path. The two Gargants and single Supergargant in their force were almost a thousand kilometers from the temple, which Dante had built his base around with all the ease of a thousand-year veteran.
The feral worlders had been, quite naturally, terrified of the power armor-clad Astartes, and their initial reaction to their arrival had been terror, especially since they had no idea what was going on. The Orks hadn’t gotten that far yet. The Imperial liaisons on the world had the trouble of their lives, translating the concerns of the feral worlders to the Imperial forces.
In orbit above, the system Overlord was trying his best to be helpful, but his efforts were about as useful as one could expect; which is to say, useless. Aside from adding the governor’s own few ships and guards to his force, Dante had ignored the little man entirely. The planet around the temple was now looking like a war zone in itself, as the small army of techpriests and enginseers that had accompanied the Imperial Guard detachment hastily assembled prefabricated structures. Ammo caches, vehicle annexes and garages, command centers, vox relays, armories, even a small laboratory had been built around the temple itself, which had been isolated when was first built, and was now looking to be swallowed up by the rapid building.
The feral worlders had been told, in their own way with painstaking care by the sisters of the Ordo Dialogous, that the greenskin monsters that had fought them so many times had come to take their lives, and that the God-Emperor had sent his warriors to cleanse their homes of the creatures. The primitives had accepted the explanation without great complaint – as if arguing would have helped – and were now being ferried up to the waiting troop transports, quiet and afraid. Dante had sworn to protect as many of them as possible, but he was wise enough to recognize that the world was lost: no force as small as his could dislodge the sheer number of Orks on the planet AND in orbit.
Dante himself was leading the First Company of the Blood Angels into battle. Flush with victory over the Orks that had blundered into the mines he had laid, his veterans were backed by a full seven hundred troops from the 15th Cadian mechanized regiment, just over half of their strength. The Guard forces were arrayed along either side of a rough canyon, the result of a freshly-dammed river. The mines had been laid in a wide pattern across the distant end of the canyon, and Dante and his troops had carefully concealed yet more explosives, including some anti-armor mines, along the riverbed. The Guard troops were high and dry, positioned along the lips of the canyon, and their vehicles were parked under camo netting on either side of the dam the enginseers had built only the previous day.
Dante and forty Assault Marines of the First Company, with forty more in reserve behind them under yet more camo netting, were stationed just below the dam itself. The enginseers, or more precisely, their servitors, were hastily covering the steel dam with a mass of logs and leaves. The eight living members of the Sanguinary Guard stood atop the dam, their beautiful swords held at shoulder height. To the Orks, a group of forty ‘cornered’ Astartes was like an all-you-can-eat buffet to a starving shark, and before the detonation of the first few mines had even ceased, the greenskin xenos were driving through the broad river plain in force, some pushing gretchins before them, others yet clinging to the sides of rattling trukks.
Dante sighted the aliens on his auspex and clipped back into its pouch with a decisive nod. “Gentlemen, the xenos have taken the bait. We have perhaps two minutes before they arrive.”
“Acknowledged, Chapter Master,” the Sanguinary Guard Captain replied, his own amplivisor returning the same view. The last of the servitors below scuttled back into the cover they had built, and their enginseer masters bolted for the engine-less Rhino they had towed to the site the previous day, tucked away in the mass of wood matter. The Sanguinary Guard wasn’t even trying to hide, as the plan demanded that they didn’t. The Orks weren’t smart, but they had an intuitive grasp of battle like nothing else in the galaxy, and subtlety, as ever, would be wasted on them. The Sanguinary Guard toed the hidden switch of the broad spotlight he had lugged onto the top of the camouflaged dam, and the light kicked on, centered around the fore of the Ork column. Right on time.
The Orks didn’t fail to notice, though, charging forward with relish. The vehicles pulled ahead, their drivers and occupants eager to engage in close range, which was about the only range from which Orkish guns could actually hit anything.
The first vehicle, actually a light tank from what Dante could see, rumbled through a patch of driftwood that had dropped to the bed of the shallow river when the dam went up. Right on cue, a hidden Cadian sapper tapped a button on his detonator, blasting the woodpile apart with an eight thousand kilometer per second wall of superheated air and metal. The Orks had driven directly over a concealed box of grenades the sappers had laid the day before, modified to Dante’s specifications. The box was the size of a man, with a thin iron sheet laid in it. Beneath the sheet, blocks of plastic explosive had been placed, with a detonator embedded within, and the cracks filled with jellied promethium. The top half of the camouflaged box had been filled with normal frag grenades, the free spaces left open. The detonation of the plastic explosives tore the box to shreds, instantly reducing the tank to shrapnel and igniting its fuel and ammunition with the burning promethium. The damaged grenades went off next, their own blasts and fragments cutting among the ranks of the greenskins that had been racing alongside the tank to pieces. The sapper smiled contentedly at the sight.
“Job well done, soldier,” Dante said into his vox. “Stay put. Hold your fire.”
“I will, my Lord,” the soldier said, settling into his position just above the canyon wall and pulling out a piece of jerky to chew.
“Sapper teams two through sixteen, prepare your own cells at once,” Dante said, opening the channel to the other Cadian forces. “Detonate them ONLY when the Orks are literally right on top of them, to ensure the vehicles are fully disabled.”
“Aye, sir,” the regimental Major said, tapping his comm-bead and giving his freshly-minted Commissar a death glare.
The Commissar was fidgeting under his camo blanket, but caught the stare and quit his movement. The first of the greenskins to pass the tank’s flaming wreck were passing by their spot now. A pair of wartrakks drove past, and another sapper held his finger expectantly over the button.
The Sanguinary Guard Captain pointed his blindingly bright light at the point where the Orks were driving, and an Enginseer crouched behind him tapped the rune on his slate that turned the light deep red. At the same time, Dante pointed the Perdition Pistol at the spot, and made a great show of pulling the trigger. The sapper tapped the detonator, and the second box of explosives erupted into fire and shrapnel. He adjusted his aim to a pair of anti-infantry claymores, just in time for a pack of gretchins to waddle in front of it and trigger the movement-sensitive bombs.
The gretchins flew apart in a cloud of red and green goo, their handler’s legs taken off at the waist. Dante repeated the spectacle once more with another box of explosives, the searchlight settling on one, the light turning red, and the false firing of the pistol heralding the messy death of yet another Ork wartrakk.
The effect on the Orks wasn’t immediately apparent, but with each performance, the consternation grew. Dante knew he wouldn’t be able to maintain the childish ruse for long, but it was having a wondrous effect on the Guardsmen’s morale, with a cathartic giggle escaping one or two troops on his vox-net before being silenced by their sergeants.
One or two more ought to do it, Dante judged. He holstered the pistol at his side and took a few dramatic steps forward, the adamantine fiber-lined cape he had donned for the occasion flashing red in the morning light. The symbol of an angel resplendent in bloody robes, a mark on the clothes for each blow Sanguinius himself had suffered at Horus’ mercies, adorned the cape.
Dante halted about fifty meters ahead of the Assault Marines’ position, and slowly raised both hands to the sky. Seeing the signal, the pair of Devastators from Ninth Company that had accompanied him (and assisted the Guard with the explosives) readied their own detonators. The canyon widened at one point, and Dante had ordered the dam be built so that the Orks would just barely be able to target the dam at the point where the canyon narrowed back down to its normal width. That was where the trap would be sprung.
The Blood Angel raised his hands as if in a prayer to the clouds above, and waited. Eight seconds…five seconds…two seconds…
With precision that would have made a Necron envious, an earsplitting CRACK sounded as two huge bundles of shaped charges blew vast boulders out of the canyon walls, dropping them squarely on top of the Ork vanguard. Several hundred of the xenos filth made it past the toppling boulders, and from the sounds audible through the cacophony of the tumbling rocks, several Ork vehicles hadn’t been able to stop in time to avoid the sudden roadblock. The animals who did make it through raced forward, and Dante permitted himself a tight grin behind his mask. Orks were so predictable.
“OPEN FIRE!” he roared, the amplivox in his mask echoing his voice throughout the entire canyon, thanks to some cunningly hidden speakers the Mechanicus had dropped in. The effect on the Orks, again, was minimal, but the Guard troops on the dammed side of the rockfall responded instantly. The mechanized units that had been hiding on the canyon walls opened up with rockets and long-lases, cutting the greenskins to shreds in a blistering hail of fire from above. The Orks were taken completely by surprise, but rallied, diving for cover against the canyon walls where they could only be targeted by half the Guard troops above.
This didn’t help them much, as the tripwires and pressure plates they stepped on en route triggered all manner of grenade traps, further cutting their ranks apart. The few vehicles left intact turned to face Dante, their drivers whipped into a frenzy by the battle all around them. A few took potshots at the man himself, though they didn’t manage to score any hits.
Dante stood tall, lowering his left hand, and pointing his right at a cluster of Nobs that were trying to direct the other Orks. The Sanguinary Guard aimed the light, and another Cadian trooper tapped his detonator. The greenskins disintegrated as a pair of buried meltamines detonated, casting a wave of hyper-heated air over the dirt, drying out the soil and reducing the Orks to smoking ashes. Another flick of the wrist saw to the deaths of nearly a dozen gretchins who had actually been stupid enough to try climbing the canyon walls, as a few concealed Cadian troops opened up with hellguns.
With precise, practiced movements, the sappers, snipers, anti-tank troopers, and Devastators picked off the packed mass of green. Finally, the dust settled, and the only sound that could be heard was the nose of the Orks blasting away at the crumbling wall of rock. Dante reopened his channel to the men. “Reload.”
The hidden Guard complied eagerly. “Sir, should we place more mines?” one of the Devastators asked quietly.
Dante didn’t bother to trim his channel down to just the one Marine, directing his response instead to the entire Imperial group. “Place no more mines or bombs, brothers, Guardsmen. Rely instead on what we have placed, and the forces we have arrayed around the canyon walls.”
“Acknowledged, Chapter Master,” the Devastator said respectfully. Dante nodded. “Good initiative, Marine, but we simply can not risk a single soldier being caught on the canyon floor when the greenskinned filth break the barrier,” he said on a tighter signal, beamed at the Devastators specifically.
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a huge crack appeared in the rocks, innumerable dozer blades pushing against the tumbled stones, driving them apart. A loud, primal yell sounded from the far side as the rocks budged. Dante’s lips twisted. “Damn. I was hoping we’d get more time…”
He voxed the troops on the canyon walls while seemingly standing perfectly still for the Orks to shoot. “All units on the far side of the blockade, open fire at will. Retreat the moment you see the greenskins target you, we can afford no losses.”
“Aye, Lord Dante,” the 15th Cadian Colonel said at once, his voice coming in clean over the comm. He cut the channel and rose to his knees under the camo blanket, and waved his fingers in four tight circles over his head, not wanting to risk more with the Orks only fifty meters below. The other Guard units with a bead on the Orks quietly sighted their weapons and took aim at the vehicles pushing the rocks.
The colonel pumped his clenched fist twice in the air, then mimed a revolver hammer coming down twice, the universal Guard signal for ‘fire at will.’ The Guard mortar teams opened fire first, then the anti-tank troops, timing their shots to arrive simultaneously on the Ork vehicles with true Cadian precision. Just as the first shells hit the backs and tops and flanks of the tightly-packed vehicles below, the energy weapon-toting troops opened up, adding their own fire to the fray.
It was a slaughter. The Orks had known that there were troops on the canyon walls the moment they had fired on the Orks trapped on the other side, of course, but it apparently hadn’t occurred to them that there were soldiers on BOTH sides of the rockfall. The sheets of las-beams, rockets, shells, grenades, bolts, napalm, and hyper-energized plasma rained down on the xenos like a downpour of death, boiling the vehicles and troops away.
A Sub-boss, probably a recently promoted native Nob by the look of him, raised his armored claw in the air and pointed it at the rocks that were still blocking their way, and with surprising speed, the remaining Ork vehicles rolled forward, crushing the ruins of their own wrecked vehicles without hesitation. They slammed their dozer blades and armor panels into the rocks with gusto, and finally it was too much for the impromptu blockade to bear. With a rumbling that echoed beyond the canyon walls to the jungles beyond, the green tide broke through.
Dante pointed his ten splayed fingers at the rushing mass of green, with what an onlooker would have mistaken for glee if they didn’t know him well, and the third wave of packed explosives detonated. The Sanguinary Guard Captain dutifully swept the beam of light across the hidden charges, maintaining the façade for as long as the Orks were falling for it. The Enginseer behind him flickered the red and white bulbs on and off with a speed no unaugmented human could match, turning the light into a strobe that would have been blinding had the battle taken place at night.
The packs of explosives detonated one at a time, but in very rapid succession, just as Dante had ordered them placed, and the thought crossed his mind that he really should have the Cadian demomen awarded shore leave if they survived. The effect was immediate and intensely satisfying: now that the orks were crossing through in a single packed mass rather than the more scattered vanguard, there was no space for the jostling troops to maneuver. Shockwaves from the blasts toppled Orks far away from the blasts as closer troops were knocked into them, and vehicles flipped over and crushed greenskins that would have escaped harm had they been farther away.
Judging the moment right, Dante opened his comm channel to all Imperial forces in the canyon area. “Now is the time. Strike with the Emperor’s might, all first wave troops.” The troops who had so successfully cut down the first, doomed wave of Orks joined their fellows in raining destruction on the greenskins below. The Assault Marines that had accompanied Dante, both the hidden and the unobscured, readied their own weapons, those who had brought something heavier than bolt pistols joining in the carnage with a will.
However, even the hundreds of well-concealed Imperial troops couldn’t hide forever. Some of the Orks along the canyon walls stopped in their tracks, firing their weapons at the Guard who were pouring fire down at them. Dante was afraid that they would retain their positions, but either loyalty or common sense prevailed, and the troops whose positions had been compromised immediately fell back, scrambling away from the edge. None of them seemed to have been hit, miraculously enough, and the Colonel ordered them to back away and lob grenades over the edge. None of the grenades managed to reach the canyon floor before detonating, of course, but the bursts of light and shrapnel took their toll on the Orks below.
Finally, Dante began very slowly backing up, still pointing his hand and seemingly directing the beam of light that was destroying the Ork horde. None of them seemed to make the connection, visibly, and Dante started to worry if it had all been a wasted effort. Finally, the Ork swarm closed to close enough that some of them could actually fire at the Chapter Master with some semblance of accuracy, and Dante made his next move. With a flourish, he spread his arms wide, and two more massive shaped charges reduced the walls of the canyon on either side of him to rubble. The rocks toppled down, coming to a halt mere tens of meters from the walls they had broken from, too far apart to close the gap. But that was all right. It was supposed to do that. Dante raised his hands to shoulder level and clenched his fists, then opened them, pointing the palms at the masses of Orks that were now less than a tenth of a kilometer away.
The Sanguinary Guard Captain had the timing down to a tee, and removed the cover that had been blocking most of the light from the searchlight. To the front wave Orks, the beam seemed to suddenly be pointing at all of them at once, whereas before the beam had only spotted itself on Orks that were about to explode. It seemed a few of them had made the connection after all, since the front rank suddenly stumbled and slowed, some getting trampled or crushed by their fellows. The Cadian sappers and demolitions men were kind enough to take Dante’s cue, triggering the detcords they had painstakingly buried on the canyon bottom.
The front rank of Orks – and the next rank that was struggling to charge past them – exploded into a fine powder. Before the Orks had a chance to sally forth again, however, Dante made his second-to-last move of the morning. With a sudden shout that echoed through the speakers and amplivoxes he had ordered placed throughout the ravine, he drew the Perdition Pistol in one hand and the Axe Mortalis in the other, and triggered the gilded, winged jump pack on the back of his armor. To the Orks, it looked like an angel of death had risen from the destruction. His shout called out from everywhere at once.
“Come, alien vermin! Come, and taste death! I am the heir of the Angel, the son of Sanguinius, the slayer of the Blackfang Orks! Come, and face your end, you greenskin trash!” he roared, praying fervently that the timing was right...
And just in time, like they had rehearsed doing for nearly a day before the Orks arrived, the first forty Assault Veterans appeared over the smoke and rocks, landing shoulder-to-shoulder below and slightly behind Dante, and opened up with their bolters.
The packed ranks of Orks dropped, their front number cut to shreds. The bolter fire from the Assault Marines added to the unrelenting fire from the canyon walls, picking off several Orks per second constantly. The greenskins roared in primal, animalistic fervor, and charged forward with an earsplitting cry of WAAAAGH!
They pressed forward, even as they were cut down, itching to get in range of their choppas. Before any of them got close enough, Dante opened up with the Perdition Pistol, dropping the Sub-boss that had been directing the pack, then pointed the shaft of the Axe Mortalis at a tank next to him. This time, though, the demolitions officers didn’t just detonate a single charge, but all the ones they had left. Several dozen explosions, ranging in size from a single frag grenade going off to an anti-building charge detonating, tore holes in the Ork ranks. The snipers and gunners along the sides of the canyon were only happy to oblige the demomen in their midst, attacking Orks near the edges of the holes in the green mass, forcing them farther and farther apart. Dante took the chance, and dove, his jump pack humming as loud as a Baneblade, and landed mere inches from the frontmost Ork. Without even a pause, he lifted the Axe Mortalis and cleaved the beast clean in half. He fired the Perdition Pistol over the falling body, melting an Ork from the knees up.
The greenskin horde was committed, now, the forward army the Sub-boss had led now fully contained in the canyon. The troops that had been pulled away from the canyon walls by enemy fire sidles away, hurrying out of sight of the Orks to the dam. The ones whose positions were uncompromised maintained their fire, though that was a smaller group now. Several of the demomen crawled forward, adding their fire to the others, to replace the ones who had withdrawn.
Dante triggered his jump pack for an instant, jumping over the heads of the Assault Marines who had formed up behind him, and shouldered a spot in the line open. He slid into the gap, noting how his fellow Marines were doing. Several looked to be damaged, though none had fallen yet, and fired off a few rounds from his unique melta pistol to discourage the greenies. He had killed so many thus far…and still had three more tricks to play.
“Now, men!” he said into his vox, and the Assault Marines jumped as one, himself included, streaking upwards in a red and gold line. The Orks surged forward, but it was too late, and they weren’t in time to stop the Astartes from darting away. The Marines tilted their jump packs backward and soared back to where they had stood before, dropping prone in front of the rows of logs and leaves that covered the dam. The Chapter Master himself stood atop one carefully placed log and stared at the Orks, who were adjusting their aim as fast as only Orks could. The Guardsmen on the canyon lips were doing marvelous work, co-ordinating through the platoon leaders. Dante opened a vox channel. “Brother-Lieutenant, now is the time.”
“Yes, brother,” the reply came. With a suddenness that shocked even the Orks, the twenty Assault Terminators who had been concealed near the second bunch of fallen rocks lunged forward, hacking at the Orks that forced their way through the gap with their Lightning Claws.
The four Sergeants who had been leading the group led the charge, firing the Cyclone Missiles Dante had specifically ordered mounted on their suits. The missiles slammed into the packed ranks of Orks, and even as they turned to face the new threat (or ignored it completely, in the case of the ones lost in their bloodlust); the second group of forty Assault Veterans fired up their own jump packs, gliding forward to land in front of the suddenly distracted Ork horde, and began hacking away with obscene gusto.
Dante waved his Axe in the air, and the first forty Marines launched themselves forward, landing beside their brothers and throwing themselves into the fray. The Guard troops noted that the front lines of Orks had ground to a halt, still dozens of meters from the dam, and shifted their fire accordingly, aiming specifically for the Orks trying to cross the two chokepoints that the demolition charges had created. Orks fell by the dozens, but the pressure against the Blood Angels was significant, and several were forced back a pace or three. Dante saw, out of the corner of his eye, the gaps in their line begin to form as they lost ground. He opened a channel to the Sanguinary Guard, who were still waiting patiently atop the dam.
“Abandon the lights, brothers, and join us! Now!”
“Aye, sir,” the Captain said, and he fired his jump pack up, swooping down on the distant fight. He hefted his massive glaive, and fired his wrist-mounted bolter at the Ork horde, which was now down to less than an eighth of the five thousand that had marched into the canyon. His companions responded in kind, and though they were too far away to actually target anything specifically, their strategy of firing at anything green seemed to be effective.
They dropped heavily into the middle of the Ork pack, swinging their ancient Power Weapons in shimmering blue arcs, cleaving Orks as if they were as fragile as teacups. The nearest orks turned to face the new threat, but it was too late: if they were close enough to hit the Sanguinary Guard, they were too close to avoid the power blade. The Terminators waded in, slicing at the green bodies that charged at them blindly. The pressure relieved, the eighty Assault Marines switched back to their bolters, picking off the Orks that got past the Guard barrage.
After nearly two minutes, which was nowhere near enough to cut the Orks down completely, Dante suddenly fired up his own jump pack, and lifted off towards the dam. As one, the other one hundred and eight Blood Angels triggered their own packs, soaring off after their Chapter Master. The Ork horde surged after them firing wildly, but by some miracle, or fact of Orkish physiology, managed to miss entirely. The rearmost Guard units were running out of targets to shoot, now, and abandoned their positions, running towards the dam.
The Orks found their range, and charged forward, the hundreds of them still standing blazing away at the red-armored Astartes. Dante raised a clenched fist, and gave the final order of the battle.
The Astartes troops fired their jump packs yet again, and soared above the dam. The Enginseer flipped a switch on the top of the dam and sprinted away, as fast as his augmetic legs could take him. The Orks slowed their charge as it occurred to them that there was no way to follow. Before any of them could do anything about it, though, the artificial logslide gave way, and the water that had been backing up the entire time broke free, crashing into the front wave of Orks like a tidal wave.
The Orks were swept back towards the two rock barricades, their horde reduced to mere dozens, easy pickings for the Guard units that were still standing along the edges of the canyon. When the Orks washed by, roaring and shouting as if it helped, the Guard was there, picking them off with glee.
Of the five thousand Orks that entered that canyon, not one lived until noon.
Two hours later, Dante was sitting on the edge of the canyon, staring out at the bodies of the Orks that had been strewn across the canyon bed. An Apothecary was examining the wounded Marines, but for the moment, that was all that was going on. The canyon was noisy, echoing the sounds of the engines of the few vehicles the Imperial forces had brought with them. A Chaplain from Fifth Company had arrived, along with a few Apothecaries and Techpriests, but it had already been over when they arrived.
They were already calling it Dante’s Miracle, much to his distaste. Of the five thousand, seven hundred, fifty eight Orks that had been counted by orbital scanners, not one lived. Of the nine hundred Guard and Astartes, Enginseers and servitors, not one was dead. The Chaplain was leading a prayer to the Emperor, thanking Him for his deliverance, casting it over the vox-net, and Dante listened with half an ear. It was vaguely irritating to him that the Chaplain was thanking the Emperor when it had been his own talents that had secured victory, but he wasn’t about to argue the point. The battle had been so one-sided that he genuinely could not find any fault with the outcome, and even replaying the battle in his head over and over, he was surprised to find no retrospective error.
The Orks hadn’t just been given a bloody nose, they had been butchered utterly. The Imperium had taken a chunk from the enemy army with essentially no cost. So why did he feel a creeping sense of unease? Why did he feel like there was some vital clue he had overlooked?
The remaining six hundred troops of the 15th were supposed to arrive within a few hours, Dante knew, but somehow the news didn’t lift his mood. One of the Guard vox operators marched over nervously and saluted, drawing his attention. He stood up from the edge of the canyon and nodded to the soldier. “As you were, trooper.”
“Lord Dante, I wanted to thank you, sir,” the trooper said, surprising Dante. The ancient Marine turned to face the Cadian fully, taking stock of him. He had very long, but shallow cuts across his face and hands, probably the result of shrapnel damage from the Ork bolters. The trooper managed to keep from fidgeting despite the scrutiny of the masked Astartes, and Dante nodded again.
“Might I ask why?”
“Well, my Lord, I’ve served alongside Astartes that wouldn’t have hesitated to have us block the canyon and just charge in, sir. We would have been cut to shreds, but the Astartes would have gotten all the more glory for it.”
“I do not hold the lives of Guardsmen beneath my own, trooper, but that was not why I held your forces out of the thick of it,” Dante said.
“No, my Lord, you didn’t, but I wanted to thank you anyway,” the trooper finished, his voice betraying a lingering bit of nervousness. Dante grinned faintly behind his mask.
“Noted. Dismissed, Corporal.” The Guardsman saluted again and spun on his heel, walking back to where his squad was looking a bit awe-struck. Dante watched him go, and slowly tilted his head back to see the skies darken as a colossal warship passed overhead.
Dante’s comm buzzed. He sighed inaudibly, and replied. “Dante.”
“My Lord, reinforcements have arrived from the Dark Angels,” an excited-sounding Navy officer said in his ear. Dante frowned.
“I was not informed of their impending arrival. When were they diverted to us?” he asked.
“My apologies, sir, but we only found out ourselves an hour ago, and you were up to your shoulders in Orks, so we thought it appropriate to wait,” the officer replied.
“Very well, sailor. What forces have they diverted to us?”
“Two Falchions from their own fleet, plus the Blood Ravens’ ship Neverending. A few dozen Blood Ravens accompany three hundred Dark Angels, along with Lords Russ, El’Jonson, and Guilliman. They are led by the Emperor Himself.”
Dante was floored. He honestly hadn’t felt genuine surprise in centuries, but now, he felt his own voice shake, and he was distantly glad he was wearing a mask, else the Guard would have seen his discomposure. The news of the Emperor’s return had arrived only the day that the fleet had emerged from the Warp, and never in his life had he thought that the Emperor would take a personal interest in his task force.
The comm operator pinged his channel after several seconds of silence. “Lord Dante? Are you still there? Come in.”
“I am here, sailor,” Dante said, still struggling to find words. “I…I am pleased to hear it. Might I speak with Him?”
“Ah…give me a moment, Lord Dante,” the operator said, then fumbled out the hailing channel of the Neverending, which was sliding into orbit alongside his own ship. He found the frequency and tapped it into the terminal before him. The Enginseer at the control board fiddled with a few dials, and the Neverending’s tag on the board turned green.
Dante heard the *click* as the two channels connected and the comm operator cut himself out. A filtered-sounding voice, probably that of the Techmarine at the comm station on the Neverending, came over the line. “This is the Neverending, who is this?”
“This is Chapter Master Dante of the Blood Angels, Commander of Zargh 3 evacuation force. I am requesting to speak with the Emperor,” Dante said, steeling his patience. Why didn’t the operator tell the Neverending why he was calling?
“Commander Dante, the Emperor is preparing to depart for surface and can not be contacted,” the Techmarine said. “However, His destination is the base you made, so I’m sure you’ll be able to contact Him as soon as He’s groundside.” Dante sighed.
“Understood. Put me through to-”
“Wait one, Commander Dante,” the Techmarine interrupted. After a few faint scuffling noises, his voice returned. “Ah, sir, I’ve just been given a message to give to you from Lord El’Jonson, asking if your base has any teleportoriae?”
“Yes, it does,” Dante said, surprised. So it was true…somehow he had had more trouble believing that so many Primarchs had returned than he did in the Emperor’s return. “We have two infantry teleporters and one cargo teleporter on the base.”
“Is the cargo teleporter vehicle rated?” the Techmarine asked, in the distracted voice people have when holding two conversations at once.
“Of course it is, Neverending,” Dante said. “It’s rated at prefabricated building capacity.”
“Affirmative, Commander Dante,” the Techmarine said. “Lord El’Jonson has…has just asked me to ask you if your current position in that canyon there is threatnened.”
“No, it’s secure, Neverending,” Dante said. “Please ask Lord El’Jonson what he has in mind.”
Another few seconds of scuffling noises passed, then an entirely new voice came on. “Commander Dante, this is Lord El’Jonson of the Dark Angels,” the voice said, and Dante felt his skin prickle. He was speaking to a Primarch! “We’re reading a huge mass of corpses near your position. Did you just resolve a tactical situation?”
“I did, noble Lord,” Dante said, instinctively bowing his head. He pressed his hand against the side of his helmet as he spoke. “I lured an Ork forward party into an ambush.”
“I see,” the voice said, and Dante could hear a tone of weariness in it. “Well done. We’re sending shuttles down to the surface, and a few of our boarding specialists are deploying to the Space Hulk. Our transports will be made available for evacuation of the indigenous population when we’re done with them.”
“My gratitude, Lord El’Jonson,” Dante said. Before El’Jonson could continue, he spoke up quickly. “Will the Emperor be taking command personally?”
“He shall, Commander Dante, though of course you will remain in command of the Blood Angel forces on the surface. I am assuming direct command of all Space Hulk boarding units. Lord Russ will assume command of the non-Astartes forces, while Lord Guilliman will assume command of the space fleet.”
“I understand, Lord El’Jonson. Could I trouble you to send a few of the shuttles docked with the fleet at the moment to our position? We lack sufficient vehicles to return to the base in any sort of haste.”
“How did you deploy your units in the field lacking transport, Commander Dante?” El’Jonson asked.
“I did not, Lord El’Jonson, the troops here were dropped off in waves by transports that have since withdrawn,” Dante clarified, and El’Jonson made a faint ‘ah’ sound of comprehension.
“Then by all means, Commander, we’ve dispatched a trio of Thunderhawk transports and gunship to your location. They’re your ships, after all,” a very faint note of humor entered El’Jonson’s tone. “Will that be enough?”
“Indeed, Lord El’Jonson. That will be more than enough.” In actuality, most of the Guard troops would have to ride back in the Chimeras, but if he ordered the second, incoming half of the 15th regiment to return, that would probably be enough.
“Then I look forward to meeting you at the end of the campaign, Commander Dante. Good luck,” El’Jonson said with finality.
“Likewise, Lord El’Jonson,” Dante said, and cut the channel. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then turned to face the Astartes and Guard units who were treating the wounded and preparing their vehicles for the return to the base. “Pull back the recon teams and prepare for evac,” Dante said over his local comm, and all the heads he could see snapped up to face him. “I have to go and meet our reinforcements at the base.”
At nearly the same moment, the two infantry teleporters in the well-defended core of the base spun to life. A Ravenwing Sergeant was first out of one, and Leman Russ, clad in his shimmering gold Custodes armor, was second. Immediately, the trio of Skitarii who had been guarding the teleporters snapped to attention, even their Mechanicum training teaching them what the golden armor meant. The Ravenwing ignored the red-coated troopers and marched out the door, while the Custodes paused and cocked his head.
“Lads, what’s the frequency for the base commander when Lord Dante’s away?” he asked in a heavy accent the vox-unit in his helmet couldn’t conceal.
“Sir! Theta 814, sir!” one of the Skitarii said promptly. The Custodes fiddled with helmet for a moment before nodding.
“My thanks, troopers. As you were,” he said, following the Ravenwing towards the door. The teleporter spooled up again, and a flash of red light heralded the arrival of a large Astartes in Ultramarine armor. The Marine wasn’t wearing a helmet, and had a pair of large, green boxes in his hands. He nodded an acknowledgement to the Skitarii. Their leader saluted again, though of course he was under no obligation to show obedience to an Astartes than any other member of the Mechanicum, then paused. The man’s face was familiar, somehow.
The Ultramarine stepped off the teleporter as another Ravenwing followed through the opposite one, looking none the worse for his journey. The Skitarii followed the Ultramarine with his augmetic eyes, before realization finally hit him: It was Lord Guilliman himself. He turned to face his squad mates, who also seemed to have made the connection. They watched him go with awe.
The procession continued, with members of the Dark Angels and several other chapters walking out of the teleporter, though no Terminators seemed to be among them. Finally, a handful of servitors passed through, a few armed, but most simply hauling crates. The roar of a shuttle’s engines came from outside the building as a pair of Aquila landers arrived on the pads Dante had ordered built as soon as the Guard forces had arrived. The Skitarii couldn’t see it, of course, but far above, on the Space Hulk Pyres of the Lost, several more shuttles and a single Thunderhawk docked as well. The temporary docking bay of the Hulk boarding team had been a choice of necessity. The Hulk had clearly been formed from no fewer than six vessels of cruiser-weight or higher, with who knew how many smaller vessels merged with it over time. The core of the ship was what sure looked to the Mechanicus like a Battle Barge, but no two vessels merged into its hull looked the same.
Lion El’Jonson walked down the ramp of his Thunderhawk and glanced around the bay, his hastily-repaired Terminator armor shining faintly. The room had clearly seen action: several bulkheads had fresh holes in them, and there were scattered piles of Ork body parts strewn around. Fragments of bolts decorated several, while two had plasma burns on what was left of their bodies.
Two Imperial Fists Terminators were guarding the hatch out, while four Apothecaries in as many chapter colors were tending to a group of mauled Terminators in the corner, removing components from their downed brothers’ armor to get at the wounded men inside. Their armor was pocked with black scars, and one was visibly leaking blood through them. The acid blood ate away at the deck beneath the wound.
Seven Ordo Hospitaller Sisters were clustered around a hololith being tended by a single Mechanicum Magos, who was fiddling with the device. Rounding out the group, a pack of over fifty more members of the Mechanicum were huddled around several incense burners and prayer scrolls, some whispering to a collection of technological knickknacks on the deck. Finally, another Imperial Fists Terminator, in Veteran Sternguard Sergeant colors no less, stood at the end of the ramp, his massive armored form covered in dust and viscous bits of Ork. He raised one arm and saluted as best his massive pauldrons would let him. “It is good to see the Dark Angels willing to get their hands dirty against these xenos filth. Welcome to the Pyres of the Lost, battle-brothers.”
“Thank you, brother,” El’Jonson said, activating his armor’s identity tag. The other Terminator paused for a moment as his cogitator recognized the signal, then did a visible double take at the attached name. He looked at the Dark Angel Primarch, his helm recoiling.
“Lord El’Jonson, you honor us greatly. Will you be leading this force personally?”
“I shall, Sergeant,” El’Jonson replied evenly, reaching the bottom and returning the salute. “I expect that the forces aboard are running into resistance?”
“They are, my Lord,” the Sergeant said, gesturing over his shoulder to the rest of the ship. Behind El’Jonson, several ranks of Dark Angels descended the rank, and much to the Imperial Fists’ surprise, a quartet of Blood Raven Librarians. A handful of close combat servitors lumbered down behind them. The shuttles behind them landed as well, their engines clicking in the cold air aboard the Hulk. Their ramps dropped as well, each allowing out a few more Astartes in Blood Raven and Dark Angel colors. The Sergeant opened a channel to the Deathwatch Killteam commander aboard, and let El’Jonson in on the frequency with the tap of a key.
“Commander Revka, this is Sergeant Saddler. The Dark Angel reinforcements are here. They are backed by four Blood Raven squads.”
“Very well, Brother-sergeant, direct them to point gamma and set them loose once they have been brought up to speed on the battle plan,” a gravelly voice replied, with the faint sounds of bolter fire echoing through the channel.
“Sir, they are led by Lord Lion El’Jonson,” the Sergeant added. The line stayed open, allowing the two men to hear the brief pause in the sounds of bolters going off, before resuming.
“I see. My instruction stands.”
El’Jonson’s eyes widened behind his mask. “Commander, this is Lord El’Jonson. I have been dispatched by the Emperor to assume command of the Space Hulk boarding team.”
“I understand. Please realize that my team is operating under direct authority of the Inquisitorix Ordos Xenos.”
“And the authority of the Emperor overrides that by no small margin, Commander. Need I meet you in person and prove it?” El’Jonson shot back, his voice going cold.
“No, my Lord, my command is yours,” the Deathwatch Marine said. “I apologize.”
“Good,” El’Jonson said, thumbing his comm-line off contemptuously. The Imperial Fists Sergeant stared at him uncomfortably. The Dark Angel Primarch shook his head slowly, then directed his gaze to the Sergeant, who returned to attention.
“Commander Revka was a Lieutenant in my Company before I was elevated to the 1st, my Lord. He is a brilliant soldier, though he lacks entirely in imagination. I apologize for his hesitation.”
The Lion shifted his massive shoulders. “It is no fault of yours, Sergeant, but I would rather take command WITHOUT having to step on Inquisitorial toes, not that I care what they think,” he said disdainfully.
“As you will it, my Lord. How may I assist you?” Saddler said, dropping back to his normal posture.
“Get me a holomap of the parts of the ship we’ve cleared so far, Brother-Sergeant, and deploy the combat servitors I brought with me as you see fit. The Astartes I will hold with me until I have the chance to review the Daethwatch boarding plan and distribution orders,” El’Jonson said, gesturing at the flickering hololith in the corner.
“At once, Lord El’Jonson,” Saddler said, walking briskly over to the Magos and his Sororitas escort. He halted a few meters away from them. “Sisters, Magos, I need to show-”
“You’ll show nothing,” the old Magos said irritably. “The blasted interoctrac has fried. I have to install a replacement. It’ll be up and running in five minutes and not before.”
“Praise the Emperor for small favors, he managed to find a replacement at all,” one of the Sororitas muttered irreverently, drawing a cool glare from the Magos.
“Perhaps you could find new wellsprings of motivation?” El’Jonson said in a neutral tone. The Magos spun on his no doubt augmetic heel and stared the Primarch down.
“I don’t know who you are, Astartes, but I will not be talked down to like-”
“I can rectify that, Magos,” El’Jonson said mildly. “I am Lord Lion El’Jonson, Primarch of the Dark Angels, and the newly anointed leader of the task group.”
The Magos’ eyebrows – about the only organic part of his face left by the look of it – rose dramatically. The Sororitas turned to face El’Jonson as one, several with hanging jaws. El’Jonson decided it was time for a little theatre, and lifted his helmet with a whistling of escaping air. A few Battle Sisters gasped in recognition. As one, they kneeled, several also making the sign of the Aquila. El’Jonson let the moment draw out for a moment, then pointed at the hololith with an impatient face. The Magos spun back around hastily, and resumed his repairs. El’Jonson reattached his helmet and gestured to the Sororitas to rise. The Magos muttered a prayer under his breath and tapped the activation rune on the hololith, and a spinning map of the Space Hulk’s interior rose from its projector plate.
Saddler stepped forth and poked a finger into the shimmering mess of wires and dots. “These, Lord El’Jonson, are the rooms we’ve cleared so far. Red chambers are contested, yellow are under our control, green secured, and blue both secured and patrolled by our forces.”
El’Jonson stepped up to the map and nodded slowly, his brain unraveling the image. Only a tiny portion of the Hulk’s interior was mapped, the rest represented by unmarked gray. Presumably, as new corridors were found, they would appear on the map. Only the dock itself and a few dozen chambers outside it were colored blue.
The forces he had brought with him assembled in ranks behind him, waiting for his orders. An Enginseer took control of the servitors and walked them out the hatch to the corridor beyond, presumably to add them to the troops patrolling the secure beachhead. After studying the map for a few more seconds in silence, El’Jonson turned to Saddler. “Brother-Sergeant, where is this gamma point the Commander wanted us to reach?”
“Here, sir,” Saddler said, poking his armored finger into the map at a red room. “The Orks are dug in deep here, and while we have the numbers to dislodge them, this calls for subtlety. There’s a power room next to the Ork gun nest, where energy from the main plant would be diverted to other parts of the ship. If we blow it up, this entire portion of the ship will lose atmosphere, gravity, and hatch control. We’ll be stuck.”
“Then I’ll lead the fireteam personally,” El’Jonson said, turning to the Blood Raven Librarians. “This is your chance, Blood Ravens. Earn your redemption in the Emperor’s eyes.”
“We will never fail you, Lord El’Jonson,” one of the Librarians said, bowing his head reverently. “How can we serve?”
“Get to this chamber,” El’Jonson said, pointing at the hologram. The room he selected was several back from the Ork gun nest. “I’ll be along presently.”
Continued in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Nine.