The Shadow War
The little blasphemy cut the air of the situation room like a knife. Lord General Hasdrubal squeezed his eyes shut, disappointment and pain on his face. “Damn, damn, damn.”
Seven years, he thought bitterly. For seven long, bloody years, the forty worlds of Subsector Harkonne had suffered the ravages of 'holy' war. For seven years the Imperium had poured men and ships, tanks and artillery, even Titans and Space Marines into the war. But for all their efforts, for all their might, they were losing.
But Praven―he'd expected Praven to hold, by the Emperor! Praven had to hold.
How had everything gone so wrong?
Oh, it had been a contested system for years, now―the Enemy had corrupted the mining settlements and the crews of the in-system freighters near the beginning of the war; some of the first battles in the conflict that engulfed the subsector had been fought to keep that system from falling completely into Chaos hands. Within months, the Enemy had controlled over half the planet, and was working to establish the strategically-placed world as a staging point against the sector capitol itself.
But somehow, under the charismatic leadership of Lady Ecclesiarch Majora Jaavi, the loyalists on Praven had rallied to the Emperor's banner. They'd held the line, firm in the faith that the priest-politician had inspired in their hearts. They had dug themselves in for a long war, and for six brutal years attack after attack had broken against the void-shields and planetary lance batteries, against the sea-navy and the infantry.
And now, somehow, in a single week, the world had fallen. Hasdrubal looked down at the astropathic message he held crumpled in his hands. It was the last one received, dated as having been sent four days ago. A desperate cry for reinforcements. The continent had fallen, Emperor only knew how. Only one city held out. The Lady Ecclesiarch had been killed, gruesomely murdered in her quarters.
By now, the world would belong to the Enemy. And with Praven under Chaos control, the Enemy had their hands ready to throttle the life out of the entire subsector. The Imperium might hold out for a few more years, but Hasdrubal knew in his belly that the war was lost.
Pressing the fingers of one hand hard against his brow, he straightened, shrugging his uniform into place. He must present a firm image for the almost one billion men under his command. Cursing himself already for showing weakness before the score of officers of the situation room, he turned to a nearby officer clerical.
“What units do we have near the system?” he asked, tenor voice as bright and firm as if he had been asking the weather.
The officer straightened instinctively, pulling up the appropriate file on her station's dat-screen.
“The Cadian 492nd is on Karos... but the last report has them tied down, and their transports have been destroyed. And there's the cruiser squadron that's been raiding the enemy's shipping to Darius.”
And if the cruisers were transferred to Praven, then Darius would inevitably fall―and without the steady stream of munitions and vehicles turned out by the Darius forges, the Imperial war machine would grind to a halt in months.
“Nothing else?” he asked, trying―almost succeeding―to keep the disappointment from his voice.
“Nothing, sir,” she answered, her voice small. “Wait―here's something...” her voice had momentarily brightened; now it went flat. “Oh. Nevermi―”
“Out with it!” he demanded. Anything, no matter how slight... an escort cruiser? A regiment of Imperial Guard?
“A Thunderhawk, sir.”
“The Raven Guard asked Cruiser Squadron Theophorus to pick up a Thunderhawk gunship and its squad of Marines on its way through the Praven system. Astropathic message is dated seventeen days ago, and―”
“Thank you, captain,” he said, cutting her off. Theophorus had been ambushed and destroyed on its way into the system. The Thunderhawk would still be there, of course―low on fuel and provisions, and carrying a force that, while formidable, was only the estimated equivalent of a hundred-strong company of elite Guard.
Victoris aut Mortis, he intoned in his head, letting the words take on the fatalistic, sardonic tone he dared not give his speech. With emphasis on the latter.
Victoris aut Mortis. Victory or Death. The motto of the Raven Guard.
They are a brotherhood of the Adeptus Astartes―superhuman warrior-monks first created by the God Emperor of mankind ten thousand years ago.
They are a First Founding chapter: their Primarch Corax, from whom they draw their name and their symbol, was one of the twenty sons of the Emperor, created from his own genetic material.
They are not just superhuman―they are the grandchildren of a god.
They have served their Imperium for over ten thousand years. They have served through tragedy that drove their Primarch to despair, through catastrophic misjudgment that left them genetically scarred, through betrayals that have left them almost permanently under-strength.
Through it all, never once have they flinched from their duty.
They are a secretive brotherhood, masters of the art of rapid insertion behind enemy lines, humanity's experts at squad-level tactics and covert war, legendary for their skill at wreaking maximum havoc with minimum force. They are renowned across the galaxy for their ability to adapt to changing threats and alter their plans on the fly.
Most of all, they are Space Marines―the bringers of death.
The Lord General was right. It was impossible.
But in ten thousand years of glory and tragedy, honor and betrayal, victory and defeat, the fact that something was impossible has not once stopped a Space Marine.
Victoris aut Mortis. One or the other. No shades of gray, no middle ground, no third option.
Victory or Death.
The armory was a place of peace. Here, with the lights dimmed to conserve energy, in the presence of the sacred weapons of the Astartes, a warrior could devote himself to contemplation and the prayers of wargear maintenance. The cold little room smelt of machine-unguent and the chrism oils used to treat moving parts and appease the machine-souls of weaponry; the air tasted of incense and clean sweat.
Here, kneeling before his pauldron, reposed a robed warrior. Tiny in his mighty hand, his paintbrush spread matte green armor-enamel over a nick in the green-colored rim. Green for Tactical, by the word of the Primarch himself―so many years ago.
No words stirred the lips of the warrior-monk. Labor is prayer enough. The careful, measured strokes of the paintbrush―held delicately, maneuvered from the wrist―those were prayer. Prayer to the machine-spirit of the armor. Prayer to the soul of Brother Issana, slain by the Orks one hundred and twenty-two years ago, whose armor this had been, and to the warrior whose it had been before Issana had taken up the bolter and chainsword. Prayer to the Primarch, by whose will and from whose blood the Raven Guard had been fathered―so many long years ago.
Prayer, too, to the Emperor, beloved by all, master of Mankind since time before time. For labor in His sake is prayer, and the maintenance of armor is but one task in the myriad labors of Holy War.
And so it was that the warrior was not angered when the door to the Thunderhawk's armory opened to display the form of Scout-Copilot Justinian, though it broke his revery―for the Scout would not disturb this holy place except to do the Emperor's work, and there could be no truer prayer.
“Lord Mellorus, we are on the heading. Current velocity will bring us to the target at 0443 hours with a relative vee of 5020 meters per second.”
“The target's acceleration remains constant?” Sergeant Ashe Mellorus' voice was a low, sonorous rumble like the sound of an upright bass; it filled the small armory as completely as did the scent of decades-old incense.
“Yes, my lord.”
“And our fuel reserves?”
The numbers spun in his head: fuel loss at optimum acceleration, velocity, reaction time, power requirements for the artificial gravity generators, the likely angle of weapons and the thrust provided by their discharge. Four percent would be enough―probably with a little to spare. The pilots and navigator had done well.
He said as much, smiling. Though he had not a trace of psychic power, he could imagine the grateful pride swelling in the novice's heart: he had felt the same, decades ago, when his own mentor had complimented him on a job well done.
Justinian bowed, and was about to leave when Ashe called his name.
“Scout Justinian―my left pauldron is out of reach. Bring it to me.”
Justinian answered, joy and sadness mingled in his voice: “Yes, my lord.” Seldom were the times a novice was granted to handle the armor of a Marine not his own mentor―and Justinian's mentor had fallen on Davin eight months before.
Ashe put a last finishing stroke on the right pauldron and set it aside. He accepted the left from the scout without a word, selected another brush and a pot of black enamel suited for the primary color of the armor of a Raven Guard, and turned back to his work.
He paused a moment as the door shut behind the scout, leaving him again alone with the holy instruments of war, and shut his eyes. Ashe Mellorus had been made Sergeant for a reason―he was a leader of men. Scout Justinian, like all his men, would follow him into the very gates of Hell. Unfortunately, that was exactly where he had to lead. And from those dark gates few men return.
Not even Space Marines.
Frowning darkly, he dipped the brush tip into the night-black enamel, and, with a measured delicacy that belied his immense size and strength, began again to paint.
A small vessel, some hundred and fifty meters from stem to stern, accelerated away from the distant light of planet Praven. Though her crew numbered over two hundred, most of those were little more than human automata, working because work was their lot in life, because they lacked the cohesion or the will or the might to rebel against their masters. Three were different. Two ruled over the heretic crew of the newly renamed Freedom. One was very different―for she, unlike all the others, was loyal.
The woman before them had never been beautiful. Her face was blunt and rectangular, her skin pallid and freckled, her body without feminine curves. Now, with exhaustion and terror and pain carved on the woman's features, she was downright disgusting. Stevi―that was her name―and an ugly name, at that!
Destroying a creature like this would be a service.
Vana leaned in closer―and the vile creature spat at her.
“You'll die,” the woman growled. Even her voice was ugly, taut with pain and rough with phlegm. “The Imperium will come, and it will destroy you.” She looked like she had more to say, but collapsed against her manacles in a fit of weak coughing.
“Mm? Jakk―” she leaned up to her husband, letting her supple body flow against his. “Should I be afraid?”
Jakk answered, but his words were directed at the wounded woman who was shackled hand and foot against the wall.
“Of course not, Vana. In the end, Chaos always wins.”
Vana smiled, leaning towards the soldier-woman on the wall. The remnants of her Planetary Defense Force uniform were torn and bloodstained around the autogun wound in her side that had facilitated her capture. Vana gripped the wide band of medi-tape that sealed the wound and ripped it away.
The prisoner screamed, convulsing against her restraints.
This is the essence of prayer.
But what was to come would be so much sweeter.
Ah, Chaos! Chaos was freedom itself, the freedom to do what you want, to whom you want, when you want―the freedom to worship as you please, whatever gods you desire. And real gods, not some corpse on a distant throne―gods who would answer prayers, whose power to save and destroy was palpable.
The gods of Chaos had shepherded them safe thus far. Nurgle, the prophets said―Grandfather Nurgle, who loves all his children, was the preserver and the deliverer. It was only right to thank him with a sacrifice.
And what a sacrifice it would be! They had cost her a small fortune from the Believer who had seized the secret armory, but they were worth it. Ah, they so very much worth the price.
They were a weapon, made for fighting against the towering war-beasts of alien enemies whose hides could absorb laser fire and shrug off the explosions of bolt shells.
Such a small instrument of death they were. And, as Nurgle himself would have wished, they were a living weapon. Once embedded in living flesh, they would feed and reproduce at phenomenal speed, spreading exponentially until the creature died and they turned on one another.
Donning a gauntlet of hardened armor-weave, Vana reached into the jar at her side and withdrew the three squirming bio-weapons―and checked the clock.
0434. She suppressed a wave of revulsion at the number―it was a number bound to the ship's cogitator, and the cogitator still kept the ship's time synchronized with that at the Emperor's Throne on Terra itself.
But only a slight wave of revulsion, because in one minute they would be out of range. The planetary defense lasers were still fired from time to time by the few loyalist guerrillas who continued to hold out against the might of the Believers; from time to time an unlucky transport was burned suddenly from the sky.
As the clock reached 0435, she felt a ripple of relief spread over her, and from the corner of her eye she saw Jakk relax. Out far enough, the laser beams were too diffuse to penetrate the light transport's void shields. Out past the magic number, they were safe.
It was time to give thanks to Nurgle for his deliverance.
Vana smiled beatifically at the quivering, palpitating wreck of humanity before her―and with a snarl jabbed her gloved hand forward, plunging her fingers and the weapon they held into the oozing gash on the woman's side.
And, screaming, screaming with more pain and horror than any moment should ever hold, Stevi decayed.
Vana broke into a giddy laugh as she pulled back her hand and peeled off the glove. She turned impulsively to her husband and kissed him savagely on the lips. Startled, Jakk froze for a moment, then returned the kiss with animal ferocity.
This was true freedom, granted by a real god.
This was true prayer.
The pain was all-consuming. She had known pain before, in her two years on the field of battle. But nothing like this. Never like this.
The prayer for deliverance cycling in Stevi's mind was cut off mid-word, crushed under by the cyclopean weight of anguish. Thought was lost to a raw scream; it tore from her lungs, through pale, parted lips.
She screamed until she could scream no more, until blood frothed from her nose and mouth. She convulsed and shook, trying desperately to rip free, but she was too weak, and the bonds were too strong.
But there is a thing about pain, a thing which she had learned long ago.
Between the pain and the darkness, there is a half-moment of rest.
And so, as her body turned to slime and her muscles ceased to respond, as the creatures within her spread and multiplied, devouring and reproducing, reducing the ordered form of humanity to a morass of squirming chaos―even as the darkness rushed in all around, her mind was able to find a single word, a single prayer, a single plea.
As her body died and her soul was swept away into the Warp, it carried with it a pleading, desperate, pain-wracked cry.
For a long, fragile moment, there was silence.
Light from Praven's distant star glinted off the hulls of the fast-closing space ships. The distance was twenty kilometers―now five, now―
Thunder roared from rocket engines, slamming the Thunderhawk into sudden deceleration.
Scout-Gunner Ytrus pictured the target in his mind's eye as he calculated the acceleration vectors instinctively; the weapon's machine-spirit aided him, making final, precise calculations to shift the cannon into perfect alignment.
The Thunderhawk flashed beneath the Freedom's keel, scarcely a kilometer below her, rockets still roaring with divine fervor. The target fell into Ytrus' sights. He fired.
A line of purple-white energy connected the two vessels as the Thunderhawk's turbolaser fired. Ytrus smiled savagely, checking his pict-screen to confirm what he already knew.
Green-gray lighting arced across the transport's hull for half a second as the void shields overloaded and collapsed.
“Target's shields are down. Commencing stage two.”
Nerve-impulses sent commands through wires connecting to the monocle bolted over his left eye; las-cannons and heavy bolters hummed to readiness at the speed of thought. He wrapped his hands around the control surfaces of two of the weapon mounts and thought the third into accord with his mind, making ready to manipulate all three cannons simultaneously.
The Thunderhawk completed its brutal deceleration and dove down through the vacuum like the bird of prey for which it was named. Even as the first scattered return fire began to spring from the transport's defensive weaponry, lasers and bolt-shells from the gunship ripped precise holes through power lines and portholes, sewing chaos through the starship below.
Had it been an attack run, this would have been the time to launch bombs and missiles, arc out of the dive, and come around to obliterate the stricken foe with another shot from the turbolaser.
But that death would be far too easy for those who dared to oppose the God Emperor. Instead, he plucked the wires from his monocle and slid out of the gunner's shrine. Already fully armed and armored for battle, the scout muttered a quick prayer for victory in the combat to come.
Ytrus tried not to smile with pleasure at the prospect.
The first principle of stealth, Ashe mused, is to know when to break it. The words of Guilliman, from the Codex Astartes.
With a final crunch, the Thunderhawk's boarding hatch ripped through the transport's cargo bay doors. Ten Space Marines and four novice Scouts poured through into the empty cargo bay, instantly splitting into groups and spreading apart. They knew their tasks. The Scouts would secure the shrine to the ship's machine-soul; in groups of three, Battle Brothers would eradicate the crew and seize key portions of the starship.
Ashe would go alone. His brothers were briefed and well trained. They knew to conserve ammunition and be wary of moral threats, and he would stay in vox contact.
But the command deck was his, and his alone.
Nothing on this ship could possibly hope to kill a Space Marine. But the threat of corruption was another matter―and it would be worst on the command deck.
He could feel it.
“From the darkness we strike, fast and lethal,” he intoned over the vox, quoting from the sacred writings of Corax. “And by the time our foes can react―darkness there and nothing more.”
The low thrum of his voice seemed only to accentuate the eerie silence that gripped the cargo bay as the Raven Guard moved through it with impossible speed and stealth.
He reached the doorway to the arterial corridor that spanned the distance from the cargo bay to the mess hall. If this vessel was not too heavily modified from its original hull, the command deck would be directly above the mess.
It would be defended. Heavily defended.
He smiled―and ripped the door from its hinges.
There was a whump of compressed gas as a krak grenade launcher fired. Ashe lunged forward, his power-armored bulk a black blur, and shoved the door ahead of him. The grenade struck the door and detonated, spraying shrapnel and ripping a head-sized hole in the thick steel. The heretic defenders had time enough to snap off a few shots: shotgun blasts and bullets flattened themselves against the remnants of the door.
Then, in a blur of night-black power-armor, he was upon them. He struck out with a fist, obliterating a heretic's face; a blow from his elbow caved in the ribcage of the grenadier. The litany of judgment sang through his mind and he let it roar forth from his powerful lungs, amplified by his helmet vox. He waded forward, striking down another with a lightning-fast backhand that snapped the heretic's spine; in the same motion, he drew his combat knife, disemboweling another opponent with its two-foot blade. More heretics flooded the hall―some charging or firing wildly with small arms, still others trying desperately to flee. Ashe launched himself into the fray.
By the time he was through the first stanza, he had massacred his way down the corridor and into the mess hall, his armor slick with the blood of heretics.
At the far end of the room, a door slammed open and a trio of armored soldiers swung a heavy autocannon into the room. Emperor knew where they had gotten it―but they were obviously not mere ship-slave crewmen.
As Ashe reached for the bolter on his back, his enhanced senses picked out a sound from behind him. He dove for the ground and rolled hard, smashing a light table as he fell.
It saved his life. A gout of fire speared over his head―behind him, another of the armored elites had burst out of an intersecting corridor and was wielding an industrial strength plasma torch. A primitive weapon, but it would burn through ceramite just as well as hull plating. Ashe rolled to his feet, pulling his bolter from its holster one-handed as 40-millimeter autocannon rounds splintered furniture and blasted holes in the back wall. He rose, vaulting over a table with his bolter outstretched.
The holy weapon fired thrice, walking bolt shells up the beetle-black armor of a heretic gunner and sending his soul to the Final Judgment. A glancing hit from the autocannon's return fire spanged off his pauldron, tearing a shallow trench through the ceramite surface.
“And guide me,” roared the Sergeant, decapitating a heretic with a bolt to the throat, “in thy righteous wrath!”
The bolter spoke again, slaying the last gunner. Ashe flipped the weapon over his shoulder and fired a single shot. The heretic with the plasma torch hadn't thought to change position, and the bolt shell spattered his brains across the wall. Ahead, the gunner collapsed onto his weapon with a gaping hole where his heart should have been. The autocannon spent the last of its chain of ammunition into the ceiling.
Ashe crossed the room quickly, holstering his bolter. Judgment was at hand.
Jakk's bolt-pistol never fired. The eight-foot-tall monstrosity that smashed the armored door like crepe paper threw its knife faster than Jakk could pull the trigger, with enough force and accuracy to lift him off his feet and pin him by the throat to the wall. Jakk squirmed for a moment, gurgling fragments of the words of power he had meant to use against the intruder, then went still.
Vana's heart was a sledgehammer in her chest. The Astartes are myth! Aren't they? Aren't they? This couldn't be happening! She backed away, raising shaking hands as if to ward off the Angel's wrath.
She watched, unable to tear her eyes away, as his blood-wet helmet turned, seeing the signs of Chaos Undivided etched in panels, daubed in blood on the walls. He looked for a long moment at the pile of dirty goo and uniform scraps that had once been a soldier of the Imperium―then he fixed his gaze on her.
The Angel stooped silently, never letting his gaze leave her face, and carefully―tenderly picked up a large scrap of skull, still covered with blood-matted hair. He closed his gauntlet gently around it, holding it to his chest.
Vana's stomach jumped as the Marine lunged forwards, crossing the distance between them in a heartbeat; he brushed aside her hands like twigs and caught her about the throat with a hand larger than her head. His face was scarcely inches from hers.
Staring panicked, wordless into the red-tinted eyeslits of his snarling black helmet, she saw―thought she saw―something she recognized.
“In the name of the Immortal God Emperor of Mankind,” he rumbled, “I name you diabolus. May you burn in Hell.”
The massive fist snapped shut like a trap, crushing vertebrae and ripping flesh. Pain overwhelmed Vana's senses as her head was torn from her shoulders.
For a brief moment Vana felt herself falling. She caught a half-glimpse of her body, spraying a fount of blood from the ragged stump of her neck. How ugly it was―how disgusting without a head!
Last edited by Feil on 2008-07-29 11:05pm, edited 22 times in total.