Castrmen Orth looked outside the tank, and saw metal dying.
The Battle of Noachia was going worse than he had expected, though still better than anyone else had. His superheavy spearhead was doing well enough, as was the eastern flank, but the Titans of the Legio Magna had broken the Legio Jussa, one of the few Titan Legions that had stayed loyal to Terra. Magna had itself suffered massive casualties, but the central section of the chaotic battle was now in danger of being secured by the traitors, which would put the Order of the Dragon in a dominating position with control of three quarters of the planet.
The Iron Hands would have enough forces to win this war no matter how Noachia ended, but if Orth could manage to win, or at least come close to it, in Noachia, they would actually have a path towards doing so.
And that was why Strigeus was so dissatisfied.
“Twelve intact Titans, Centurion,” his lieutenant voxed from the Cyclornet
. “With eight more still functional. An Emperor-Class in each category! They may be scattered, but challenging the Flaming Skulls at the moment, with the forces we have, is suicide.”
Orth looked around his Fellblade, Rashemion
. The crew had heard his suggestion as well as Strigeus, and was also hesitant; but they were also grimly determined.
Superheavy tanks were potent indeed, though no match for a Titan; but superheavies crewed by Space Marines were more deadly yet. Regardless of speed and durability, the strength and agility advantage of an Astarte over a regular human was massive, and could easily be leveraged with good tank design. Rashemion
had crushed many other tanks of its size during the Great Crusade thanks to that.
Now, it was time to move on to bigger prey. Orth had brought down a xeno Titan of Warhound size before, and it had been a difficult task indeed. But today they were fighting against traitors, and they would do what they had to. Besides, the forces under his command were significantly larger.
“If we don’t face Magna,” he told Strigeus, “our side can’t do better than an orderly retreat. We might as well propose, and begin to execute, it now, in that case. Should I, in your opinion, do that?”
There was a pause, and then a rumble. “Very well,” Strigeus replied. “If it ends thus, then – well, it has been an honor serving under your command.” And, switching to the public channels, “For the Emperor!”
“We ride to destroy the remnants of the Titan Legio Magna, allied with the Cult of the Dragon,” Orth declared to his battalion. “The god-machines will fall. The flesh is weak, brothers! Fire and Iron!” That was the private cry of the Iron Hands’ armor, apart from the rest of the Legion: the most metal-attuned part of the most metal-attuned Legion.
“Fire and Iron!” came the echo, and fifty tanks turned towards the east, to ride across a landscape of flattened metal towards the Titans’ location.
Legio Magna was disorganized. They had crushed Jussa, but their leader, the Emperor Titan Deus Priscus
, had fallen in the process. Now each Princeps chased the Iron Hands’ Army and Mechanicum support forces, and even some Iron Hand infantry, in something quite far from a battle. Perhaps one could call it a hunt, though one where the Titans were toying with their prey.
The tank battalion’s treads spun, as Orth checked whether anyone else was in position to help with the attack (they weren’t), and soon enough the first of the Titans became visible over the horizon. It was an intact Reaver; how well this went would determine whether Orth’s charge was worth it.
Orth bellowed orders, the Titan not noticing the Iron Hands in its assault on a single tech-priest, who was sufficiently small and agile to dodge the god-machine again and again as it tried to stomp him into oblivion. Smiling at the odd sight, Castrmen Orth ordered the tanks to start surrounding the Reaver.
They were within range by the time the Titan noticed them, having finally kicked the tech-priest away. He flew into the distance, though if sufficiently augmented, he would be able to survive this.
Round after round punched into the Reaver’s ankle. The massive war machine replied by swiveling, but it was already on the brink of toppling – the combined fire of fifty heavy and superheavy tanks was not to be underestimated. The enemy shot went wide, digging a crater in the distance, and then the Titan skidded, and with an earth-shattering thud, fell. Pieces rolled off the machine, but Orth was already ordering the tanks to concentrate fire again, and the Titan’s head shattered. Princeps and Moderati were dead within minutes.
“The rest won’t be as easy,” Strigeus noted.
“I sure hope they won’t!” exclaimed Orius Ousautro, another of Orth’s lieutenants. Orth found it hard to disagree, though he was forced to do so. The Titan had, in any case, perfectly trapped itself, not expecting anything to attack it. As the tanks rode on, Orth considered the fact that none of the others would make that mistake. Legio Magna knew they were under assault now, and would react accordingly.
The next up were a pair of Warhounds. Unlike the Reaver, they were fully aware of the danger. A plasma bolt sped by, barely missing one of the Fellblades. The two Falchions, two of the six that the Iron Hands had on Mars, responded with a blast from their fiery Volcano Cannons. Meanwhile, the other tanks fired accordingly. Rashemion
was lagging behind the rest of the group, its machine-spirit less eager than the others.
Orth grit his teeth in frustration at that. Still, even if he couldn’t participate in the fight personally, the situation allowed him to direct the spearhead. He ordered the Falchions to focus on the slightly larger Warhound, which appeared damaged; they blasted it again and again, even as it spun on its leg to avoid the shots and lay down a curtain of fire. The smaller Warhound, realizing it was outgunned, thought of retreat for a second, and leapt back, but Orth had already placed a pair of Valdors in its way. Then the larger Titan stumbled, and Orth swung a cordon of smaller tanks towards it, while the smaller was pierced by the Valdors’ neutron projectors. It screeched to a halt, but responded by sending a dozen rounds into one of the Valdors.
This was what Orth lived for. Metal against metal, for the glory of the Imperium. From iron cometh strength, the Iron Warriors said; but the Iron Hands knew that iron simply was
strength. Though Orth was not currently fighting himself, he still experienced the same glorious feeling from the epic clash of enormous war machines. And he was good at it; he was the youngest of the three Spearhead-Centurions of the Iron Hands, who were collectively known as the Young Squid, for the animal that was sometimes an emblem for the Iron Hands’ armor. The others were Cadmus Qevpilum, currently commanding an expedition to find legendary archaeotech on the lost planet of Pyrrhia, and Uninen Rochaar, bogged down in eastern Noachia, besieging the forge of Magos Pyrnetius with no progress.
This specific skirmish, though, was quickly becoming a massacre. One of the Valdors exploded, but after its last lucky shot, so did the Titan it was opposing, scattering shards of metal far enough that they pattered Rashemion
like hail. Meanwhile, the larger Titan, regarding which Orth had checked with Ulrach Branthan’s fleet and found out had originally been whole after all, was rent apart by volley after volley, kneeling and then collapsing.
As it got pounded completely into dust, as Orth ordered the battalion onwards, he took a tally of the losses. One Valdor, with crew, completely lost; two more tanks damaged with surviving crew. These were not losses whose level they could afford to sustain if they wanted to wipe out Magna. But it would take much less than that to turn the tide of the war. If they could even so much as halve Magna’s strength, they would have placed the Iron Hands into a position where the battle could suddenly be fully won.
The spearhead rolled on. Meanwhile, Orth checked for the overall disposition of Legio Magna. They had recognized the danger, and had organized themselves into two major groups, which were seeking to converge. If they did, Orth’s hunt would be over. Fortunately, one of the two (the one, as it happened, that did not include an Emperor Titan) was close to their positions. Eight Titans: two damaged Warlords, a damaged Reaver, three intact Warhounds, and two intact Warlords. A group they could probably eliminate, if with significant losses – less significant if they could actually bring all their forces to bear this time.
Then Tumez reported that the machine-spirit was finally awake, or put another way, the programming bug that had restricted the Rashemion
’s speed had been crushed; and Orth grinned. It was no feral grin, such as that one of the Space Wolves might have shown; it was, rather, simply the certain smile of a Space Marine who knew he was where he needed to be, and would be able to crush the enemies of the Emperor like they had to be crushed.
Not too long after, at the edge of the bombed-out open terrain, before the wall of Magos Larnatie’s forge, which was abandoned but still mostly intact, Orth’s spearhead slammed into the running Titans. Forty-seven tanks, this time with their energies combined. Shots rang out, and as the Titans reoriented themselves, the Reaver almost immediately fell onto the forge wall. One down; seven left.
The scout Titans charged first, the Warlords’ guns providing cover and their long-range weapons sending deadly ammunition into the Iron Hands’ ranks. Two tanks were lost in single hits. But the Falchions responded worthily, creating a wall of fire in front of the Scout Titans that both damaged them and prevented them from moving forwards; one of the Warlords, unable to stop its charge, actually slammed into a Warhound, sending both into a precariously balanced state – before Rashemion and two other Fellblades punched into the Warhound, their accelerator cannons sufficient to crush its mobility and simultaneously send it toppling backward. Two more Titans down.
And then the battle began in earnest.
Volcano cannons against volcano cannons, mega-bolters and turbo-lasers against accelerator cannons and neutron projectors, fire against fire, metal against metal; death against death, and perfection against perfection. Orth had fought mighty xeno machinery before, but such things were fundamentally impure, nothing compared to the glory of the Mechanicum’s engines, even if they were comparable in might. Now he measured himself and his battalion against the truest mirror enemy one could find, discounting other Astartes.
And, perhaps, even counting them. For enemy Titans were far closer than most Space Marines to Orth’s mechanistic ideals.
In the hellstorm, Orth screamed out orders, even as a Warlord’s shot grazed Rashemion
’s right side. The Scout Titans fell first, the smoke hiding who fired the shots that ended them. The three remaining Warlords put down huge quantities of firepower, and tanks flipped on their back from the shock wave; but that, in itself, gave Orth an idea, and a concentrated explosion sent two of the Warlords simultaneously out of balance from the same wave. They swung, trying desperately to rebalance themselves, only to get crippled and downed by the remaining tanks.
The skirmish was nearly won, with thirty-three tanks (many of them damaged) remaining of Orth’s already half-strength spearhead; but the centurion cursed as he realized what the motion he was seeing to the cupola’s back was. The final Warlord saw its head explode in fire from the Falchions, both of which had somehow miraculously survived thus far; but in the distance, close enough that there was no hope of hiding from them, nine more god-machines, the remnants of Legio Magna, approached. And at their back….
Two mountains, blotting out the sky (that part of it the smoke hadn’t yet finished off). Two kings, two legends, two dooms. Two Emperor Titans.
Orth, cursing, redeployed his spearhead as he redeployed the battalion, and sent a final ping to Branthan in orbit. Ousatro said the same.
“I meant what I said,” Strigeus observed. “It’s been a good decade under you, centurion.”
“It’s not over yet,” Orth replied. “If we can get one of the Emperors down, or enough of the others, the tide will turn from our sacrifice – not just of the battle, but of the war. And we have enough forces that we have a slim chance of someone actually surviving this.”
And then Orth got the ping back from Branthan, and smiled.
“Forward!” he exclaimed. “I want an Emperor kill! Fire and Iron! The flesh is weak!”
The battalion rolled forward, inspired by their leader’s seemingly suicidal courage, and the Titans of Legio Magna began firing; another Valdor fell, Orth’s last. But the Falchions brought down a Warhound, Magna’s last, almost immediately, and then began focusing on the Emperor that stepped forward.
And then the other Emperor fell under a single, titanic volley.
Titans were mighty, but they weren’t very observant in their battle-rage, as that first Reaver had clearly showed; and now, as Orth’s tanks punched into the Emperor closer to him, Uninen Rochaar’s ninety-four battle engines slammed into Legio Magna’s back. There was fire, smoke, and utter destruction. Rashemion
fired with the last of its power, and Orth grinned as the Emperor overloaded in trying to spin around to face a new foe, the shot hitting an exposed position and leading to a chain reaction.
A second later, both Emperors were down, and the Rashemion
’s crew, despite being on the verge of running out of power, broke into massive cheers.
“For the Emperor!” Orth shouted, and the Rashemion replied with ten times the volume. Then he voxed Rochaar. “Thanks for that. What about the siege?”
“Abandoned. It was hopeless anyway.”
“Without Ferrus’ orders?”
“Did you have the Primarch’s orders for this suicidal mission?”
Orth laughed loudly. It was well-known that Ferrus Manus hadn’t given military orders for at least a week. “Really, Rochaar, thanks for that. I’ll have to pay you back sometime.”
“Even my cog’s having trouble keeping up with the Young Squid’s debts to each other,” the other centurion replied.
Orth smiled again, and looked into the sky. A smoky dusk was settling onto the plains of Noachia. The battle was nearly won, but the war was far from over, and iron would yet cause much death.
But Orth didn’t much care, and truthfully, he knew none of the Young Squid did. They were warriors, and this was a war for humanity’s soul, dealing as it did with treason against the divinity of the Emperor. And he would continue to fight it for as long as he was able.
With fire and iron, and endless resolve.