This is my first attempt at a Warhammer 40K story. It has a somewhat sweeping scope, from which I plan to write more stories about this particular corner I've made in the universe.
Please feel free to comment
Legacy of Steel
The dropship began its descent.
He was already putting his life at risk. The Estimates indicated that one in every thousand landings ended with a fatal accident, even without ground-to-space fire contesting it.
Yet he felt no fear and paid no heed to the possibility of death. For Brother Belisarius was of the Adeptus Astartes. The Angels of Death. The Space Marines.
He was going in alone. It had been determined that only a single battle-brother was needed to fulfill this Quest. And even if The Estimates were wrong and the odds were against him, Belisarius had no doubt that he would triumph.
The dropship began to buckle as it entered the atmosphere in earnest, but Belisarius ignored it in favor of beginning the Rite of Inspection. This was the most sacred rite of his Chapter: the exalted Steel Wardens of the Forge World Cuxehaven.
Other Chapters were content to simply procure their arms and armor from the vast stockpiles provided by the Mechanicum, but the Wardens took a direct interest in the production of their own wargear. His primary armament - his boltgun - had been hand-crafted by his Brother-Sergeant Darius. The power armor was fitted to perfection by the ancient Brother Medeus, who still served as the Chapter's Chief Armorer despite spending decades entombed in Dreadnought armor.
And then he had his war knife. It was a backup weapon of limited combat value. But Belisarius admitted to himself that the knife nonetheless carried great sentimental value. He had forged the knife himself, for his chosen craft was that of the blacksmith. Unlike most of his brothers, who were trained by the Tech-Priests of Cuxehaven, Belisarius had come from the fief world of Brennus. It was a simple, medieval world still dominated by knights on horseback, and whose technology was backwards save for the fine psi-swords forged by its Priest-Smiths.
It was also the reason why he was chosen for this Quest. During the Rite of Selection, it was pointed out that Helvetica was also a backwards and feudal world. The appearance of a mere hundred Ork pirates had frightened them, for they could not match even the Ork's primitive Shootas. The arrival of a "regular" Steel Warden - whose lexicon was laced with Mechanicum terminology - would only serve to bewilder and frighten them further. Moreover, Brennic sons were also known for their hatred of Orks, and Belisarius had fought against them before in both his current and previous life.
Belisarius felt the drop ship shudder as it met the ground. The warning sigils turned green. He stood up as the door fell open. He took his first step on Helvetican soil.
He did not know it at the time, but he was actually the first off-worlder to visit Helvetica in a hundred years; the last visitors were Administratum officials who had come to collect the tithe.
He would also never know that he would be the last off-worlder to visit Helvetica for the next three hundred; and that the next visitors would be soldiers of the Imperial Guard.
It was hard to tell, but Lieutenant Thor Abernahty was pissed off.
Thor had a handsome face that went very well with his uniform, and he always made an effort to keep it looking calm and collected to project an aura of easy confidence about him. He struggled to maintain that demeanor even as he found himself stuck with yet another stupid assignment; there was never a shortage of them in the Imperial Guard.
The locals were clearly mad at them. Most of the villagers were throwing rocks at him. A few were shooting at him with their archaic stub-guns or crossbows. He'd already be dead if he wasn't safely buttoned up inside an armored vehicle.
His driver, the veteran Sergeant Finch, was also getting annoyed. He was slowly backing their Chimera away from the unruly mob, but they didn't seem to care. Their missiles were still bouncing off the Chimera's thick front plate.
"What the hell are we doing here sir?" Finch grumbled, to which Thor did not respond. They both knew exactly why they were here. The people of Helvetica hadn't been paying their tithes for the past four hundred years, and the Imperium had finally come to collect. Their regiment was one of the units deployed by Administratum officials to ensure this mission was completed - using force if necessary.
Thor didn't see the point however. Helvetica was an extremely poor and backwards world, barely into its Gunpowder Age. The tithe was supposed to come in the form of agricultural produce - to supply the starving citizens of the Hive World Akkadia - but the Helveticans were suffering from a planet-wide famine themselves.
"Can we at least shoot back sir?" Finch finally said as his commander stonewalled him. Thor wasn't sure if Finch was joking, but he had to admit they were all on edge. A nagging voice in his head kept telling him that something wasn't right. That there was something unnatural about the anger of the villagers they were facing.
Suddenly, Thor realized that the nagging voice in his head was very real.
+Oh, sorry Thor. I didn't realize my thoughts were already intruding into yours,+ said a woman's voice directly into his head, +Did I frighten you?+
Normally, Thor would have answered "Yes". No sane Guardsman welcomed having a psyker for a passenger. But Sanctioned Farah Toth was different. She was actually pretty grounded and normal, with a pleasant face and short black hair. The two of them had somehow forged a friendship after the bloody events that marred the regiment's Founding Day.
+Why, I'm flattered that you consider me a friend, Thor,+ Farah said mentally as she sensed Thor's thoughts, +Medicae Jantryce would be _very_ jealous if she found out.+
Thor found himself physically chuckling at that last comment, joining Farah's mental laughter. They both needed a moment of levity while they figured out a way to deal with the unruly mob.
Finch, however, had not been privy to their mental conversation. He raised an eyebrow at his commander and said, "I wasn't joking about shooting at them sir. I'm not used to getting shot at without being allowed to shoot back."
"I'm sorry Sergeant, I just remembered an old joke," Thor said to cover their tracks, before going back to business, "Mamzelle Toth, can you sense if our target is in the area?"
"Still working on it, Lieutenant," she answered with her real voice, "But I can sense the unease in the minds of these villagers. They're... hiding something."
"You should just let us deploy and disperse them," added a new voice to the conversation. Sergeant Garonne was the leader of the elite Huskarl squad assigned to guard Sanctioned Toth, and they were well-equipped with body armor and specialized weapons. However, Thor was reluctant to deploy them. Ten men - no matter their gear - would have a tough time against nearly two hundred angry villagers.
"Our mission isn't to disperse the mob or wipe this village off the map. Our mission is to capture high-ranking nobles that are refusing to pay the tithe," Thor reminded, "We only deploy once we're sure that this Baron Xevan is in the area, and not a moment before."
It was a testament to Thor's reputation as a leader that both Sergeants stopped griping and did as they were told. The crowd continued to hound them, but they were running out of things to throw at the Guardsmen. Some people were now turning around to go home, their anger already satisfied.
Farah, however, had also picked up on another reason why the mob was beginning to disperse.
"This was just a distraction. They're trying to cover his escape," Farah said suddenly.
"What? Where is he now?!" Garonne demanded.
Thor ignored Garonne as Farah again explained to him the imprecise nature of divinations. Instead, he flipped open the map.
"Where to boss?" Finch asked automatically.
There were only two roads going out of the village, and Thor knew the Baron was road bound if their intelligence on the size of his retinue was correct. Thor and his companions had been sitting on one of the roads this whole time, so their target had to take the other. It led to an old abandoned windmill. Thor pointed to that spot on the map.
"Make it quick Finch."
Finch nodded and went to work. The Chimera lurched as he took a roundabout route, bypassing the town and quickly leaving the mob behind. Thor opened the commander's hatch as soon as the villagers were out of sight. He needed a better view of the countryside, and he couldn't do that while peering out of the tiny vision slits on the Multi-laser turret.
It didn't take long before he spotted the mill from a distance; it was sitting atop a hill that had a commanding view of the fields around it. It seemed like a perfectly defensible position.
And then, he saw a flash.
A cloud of dirt and smoke appeared behind their Chimera, as a cannon shell struck the ground. The sound of the explosion temporarily deafened Thor, but he smiled through the pain. They were now facing the best of Helvetican technology, the kind only nobles could afford. They were on the right track.
"I think we've found our target! Evasive actions, Finch!" Thor shouted as he got on the Multi-laser and opened fire. The enemy cannon was an antique by Imperial Guard standards. It was muzzle-loaded, had no auspex, and didn't even have gun shield. By contrast, Thor's Multi-laser could fire on full auto, was gyro-stabilized, and had powerful optics. Thor easily tore the crew to pieces with blazing blue beams of light before they could reload and fire a second shot.
But the rebels had more than one cannon. Two more were man-handled into view. Thor shredded the crew of a second gun, but the third managed to fire. The round fell short.
"Frakking hell!" shouted Sergeant Garonne, "Request permission to deploy!"
"Not yet," Thor countered, "Open the top hatch and give me more suppressing fire!"
Garonne grunted, but followed Abernahty’s command. The Chimeras of their regiment didn't have hull-mounted lasguns to let the squad fight from within. Instead, a large hatch was fitted on top of the passenger compartment to let the infantry shoot out with any weapon they had. Garonne's men had a pair of grenade launchers for long-range engagements, and they began lobbing Hi-Ex shells at the enemy positions.
The Multi-laser fire and grenades soon drove the third crew from their gun. Other rebels moved forward and tried to re-man the cannons, but the fire of the Guardsmen was too hot. After losing over a dozen men, the rebels gave up on their big guns and switched to their small arms.
The enemy was now shooting from every hole and window in the crumbling mill, and their fire was surprisingly accurate. Thor was forced to duck back down the turret, and so were Garonne's grenadiers. Finch ignored this all and drove the Chimera up the hill. As soon as they crested the slope, he switched on the hull-mounted heavy flamer and incinerated all of the cannons to prevent the rebels from using them again.
Thor took a deep breath, then turned to look at Farah.
"He's definitely inside," she promised.
"I can just burn them out sir," Finch pointed out, motioning to his flamer controls.
"Alive, Finch, we need him alive," Thor reminded, before turning to Garonne, "I'll lay down smoke and suppressing fire. Launch your assault to capture the target whenever you feel feasible."
Garonne nodded in agreement, and Thor went back to manning his Multi-laser. Where fire came, he shot a burst in return. It continued for a few minutes, but enemy fire quickly slackened as Thor inflicted casualties on the defenders.
When the enemy fire had died down to almost nothing, Garonne led his men out the Chimera's rear hatch and charged the windmill. Thor fired the Chimera's smoke launchers at the same time to help cover their advance.
Despite the cover, they almost didn't make it.
Realizing enemy infantry was coming, the rebels braved Thor's Multi-laser and renewed their fire, shooting blindly into the smoke. Trooper LeGrand was hit in the shoulder and fell bleeding on the ground. Garonne took a round in the chest, but the bullet bounced off his chest plate. Two others were hit, but were likewise saved by their body armor. The Huskarls as a whole pressed on, firing their hellguns and grenade launchers at the windows to eliminate the persistent enemy.
Finally, Garonne reached the base of the mill. As the smoke cleared, Thor watched as each trooper primed a stun grenade, while Specialist Arvani readied his meltagun. The Huskarls didn't believe in breaching through doors that could be defended and booby-trapped, so Arvani blew out a section of wall with his weapon. The grenades were tossed in through the new opening, and the Huskarls charged in a moment after they detonated.
From outside, there was nothing else Thor could do. There were more sounds of shooting and screaming, but none of rebels were firing at the Chimera waiting outside. He could tell Farah was trying to read the minds of the combatants to figure out what was going on, but she remained silent. Seconds ticked by. Then it became minutes. Finally, a voice came in over the vox.
"We have him. Alive," Garonne reported, "Arvani's dead though. Some bastard stabbed him with a knife. We eliminated all other defenders."
"Any other casualties?" Thor inquired, trying to get Garonne's mind off losing one of his men and prevent a last-minute prisoner execution.
"Took a couple of scratches, and Corporal Dasul has a nasty head wound," Garonne said, "Considering there were almost twenty of them in here, I think we got off cheap."
A final count would reveal that Baron Xevan had fifty-four men in his retinue. Seventeen were killed manning the cannons. Thor's suppressing fire eliminated five more. Garonne's squad of nine men had taken on a force three times their size in close combat and won. Even considering the fact that the rebels only had bolt-action slug rifles compared to the autofire hellguns of the Huskarls, it was still quite a feat.
But the counting would have to wait. Thor had to report the success of their mission first. He turned on the vox and sent a signal to their waiting Colonel.
"This is Steel Double-Two. Blueblood is in custody. I repeat, Blueblood is in custody."
"Acknowledged Double-Two. Good work," replied the Colonel, "Get your people home."
Thor took a deep breath, and allowed himself a smile. Garonne's squad emerged from the ruined mill, their captive in tow.
Baron Xevan seemed like a pathetic thing. Blood was dripping down from his face, after Garonne had broken his nose with a rifle butt. His hands were bound and his clothes were tattered. The only sign that he was nobility was a silver amulet that he wore around his neck.
"Oh Throne..." Farah suddenly said, as the temperature inside the Chimera dipped. Thor turned to her worriedly.
"That amulet..." she started, before grabbing the vox, "Sergeant Garonne, can you examine the amulet the Baron is wearing?"
Even from afar, Thor could tell that Garonne was confused by the order, but he followed them nonetheless. He was clearly shocked by what he saw.
"You bastard! Where did you get this amulet?!" the Sergeant shouted, as he yanked it off the Baron's neck. He then kicked the nobleman to the ground and aimed his hellgun at him.
"Sergeant! We need him alive!" Thor shouted, and just in the nick of time. Trembling, Garonne pointed his gun away.
"The bastard was wearing a defaced relic!" Garonne finally said as he caught his breath, "He's not just a rebel. He's a damn heretic!"
"How do you know it's a relic?" Thor asked as he stole a glance at Farah, who was already turning pale. She already knew what it was.
"He tried to scratch them off with infernal sigils, but I can still make out the original design," Garonne explained, giving the treacherous Baron another kick for good measure, "It's a flaming sword, with the words "Vae Victis" engraved under it."
Thor and Finch stared at each other, before their eyes turned to the regimental patch sewn on each other's uniform. Every member of the regiment wore one, depicting the cleansing sword of Saint Velcita and the two-word motto of her homeworld.
Somehow, this Baron from Helvetica had gotten hold of a relic from Brennus.
Three hundreds years before, the relic was not yet an amulet. It wasn't even a relic at all.
Brother Belisarius of the Steel Wardens had landed far from the Helvetican capital, not wanting to attract the attention of the High Lords. Attracting their attention meant politics, and he didn't want to be caught up in any of their pointless feudal struggles. He was only here to eliminate the Xenos threat.
So he instead landed on an open grain field, abandoned by a farmer fleeing from the enemy horde. Aside from the advantage of solitude, it was also closer to the target area.
After securing the perimeter, Belisarius began unpacking the rest of his equipment. Besides his armaments, the Chapter had provided him with ground transport. It was a Cuxehaven-pattern combat bike, also known as the Cataphract.
He rode it like it was a horse from his homeworld, from a time when he was still just a boy. Ruggedly built with durable wheels and a powerful engine, the Cataphract could endure rough terrain easily even at high speeds. It didn't take him long to find evidence of the enemy's depredations. A burnt-out village, its inhabitants reduced to smoking bones. Grain fields still ablaze, the bodies of defeated knights cremating within. A caravan of refugees slaughtered on the road, their blood soaking the ground.
But there was something wrong about the blood. Belisarius immediately felt uneasy upon seeing it. He killed the engine and stopped to take a look.
What he saw were symbols not meant for mortal eyes. They were the symbols of the Dark Gods. The marks of Chaos.
And Belisarius knew for a fact that Chaos and Orks did not mix.
His senses then alerted him of something else. It was the sound of war cries. Of steel meeting steel. A battle was being fought without him.
Working quickly, Belisarius dropped a thermal charge in the middle of the caravan and sped towards the fighting. As he left, the charge consumed and purified every trace of corruption on the ground.
His steed then groaned and buckled as he guided it over a hill, and then through a forest. The fight was still miles away, but he could hear every detail. One group was shouting praises to Khorne as they hacked and cleaved their way forward on foot. A second, dwindling group was fleeing as fast as they could from the first.
He locked on to the sounds of the first group, and gave thanks to the Emperor for giving him yet another chance to face the hated Archenemy. Brennic sons may be known for their skill in hunting greenskins, but the Orkish infestations were a relatively recent development. Their true foe had always been the Ruinous Powers. Their patron Saint was a homegrown champion who freed her world from their grip a thousand years before the Steel Wardens arrived to bring order to the rest of the Cuxehaven subsector.
Finally, he burst out of the woods and entered clear ground. He could see the line of Khornate warriors now, chasing the helpless men-at-arms trying to escape their wrath. He pulled the trigger on the Cataphract's twin heavy bolters.
Where there were once warriors quickly turned into a sea of blood and gore. Belisarius had taken the enemy by flank, and their primitive armor offered no protection against the explosive bolter shells. Ninety out of the ninety-six enemy warriors died on the first gun run, and none of the survivors were prepared as Belisarius turned around for a second. There would be no need for a third.
Pausing to inspect the remains of his enemy, Belisarus noted the terror in the faces of the men he had just saved. They were simple foot soldiers, conscripted by their lords against their will and thrown against an unrelenting enemy. Some were still running. They feared the giant encased in ceramsteel almost as much as a hundred Khornate fanatics.
"Who is your leader?" Belisarius decided to ask.
None dared to answer
"I said who is your leader?" Belisarius repeated.
Finally, one trembling man raised his hand.
"Captain Alexis Drahn. Under the Barony of House Xevan," the man managed to reply without stuttering in panic.
"Captain Drahn, I am Belisarius of the Steel Wardens, and am therefore your lawful lord above even Baron Xevan himself," the Space Marine explained very clearly, ignoring the hushed words being said by the other soldiers, "You are aware who the Steel Wardens are, yes?"
"Of... of course my lord!" the Captain replied, losing his grip on his stutter, "It... it is an honor to meet one of the knights who lead crusade in the stars, from the shining fortre..."
"Enough. I need information," Belisarius interrupted, not in the mood for hearing myths, "What happened here?"
"They started killing everyone!" Drahn answered, as though finally finding someone he could vent his confusion to, "These... madmen appeared from the Skullspire and slaughtered anyone they could get their hands on! At Hongrad they burned everyone alive... even the women and chi..."
"What is this Skullspire?" Belisarius asked, more interested in finding the source of the problem rather than the lurid details of what the problem had already done.
"It's a mountain in the south, past the Immastad river," one of the other soldiers explained, speaking despite a bloody wound on his forehead, "It's dotted with caves that we use to entomb our highborn dead. We had no idea anyone could even live in there until these bastards showed up."
Belisarius nodded thoughtfully, but then realized there was one missing detail.
"Wait, where are the greenskins?"
The soldiers all exchanged looks. Drahn answered this time, "My lord, what do you mean by greenskins?"
"Did your leaders not petition the Steel Wardens for aid against a greenskin incursion?"
Drahn shook his head, "We have encountered no greenskins my lord. And from what I understand, the High Lords are still deciding whether or not to ask the Steel Wardens for help. Your arrival was most unexpected."
Belisarius frowned mightily under his helmet. Something had gone terribly wrong with The Estimates. He was fighting Chaos instead of Orks, as part of a Quest that had not yet been requested.
"Since I am already here, I shall investigate this... anomaly," Belisarius concluded, before tossing something to Captain Drahn, "Give this to your apothecary. These supplies will help your wounded survive."
Drahn and the soldiers watched as Belisarius turned south, riding away on his metal steed. They did not avert their gaze until he had left their sight.
Only then did Captain Drahn notice the item that the Steel Warden had left them. Just as Belisarius promised, it contained wondrous medicines that would help save the lives of seven men that day.
But the Space Marine had failed to mention that the container itself was a masterpiece. Made of steel and silver, it was nothing like the crude products made by Helvetican forges. Its surface was full of engravings, depicting events and rituals that Belisarius found important to his existence.
Among the images was a flaming sword, and two words in High Gothic whose meaning Drahn did not know.
Despite his homeworld's motto, Colonel Marten van Helden found that bringing woe to the vanquished of Helvetica was a rather distasteful affair.
The show trial had finally ended. One by one, the nobles who had resisted paying the tithes were hanged. There were thirty in all, including Baron Xevan. The crowd threw rotten vegetables at them as they died.
"A fine day for the Imperium!" said Representative Stefan Drahn, whose Revolutionary Council had promised to pay the tithes the nobles would not, "Perhaps we should celebrate with a drink, Colonel van Helden? Without you none of this would be possible!"
The Colonel of the Brennus Mechanized chose not to respond. Politics wasn't his arena. He was an officer who saw soldiering as a profession and a duty, and nothing else.
That was what his grandfather taught him, a Pardus tank general whose army group had mustered out on Brennus after serving honorably in a twenty-year campaign. That was what his mother had taught him, the daughter of native Brennus nobles who fought to maintain the traditions of honor and chivalry even as the world progressed into a more "modern" age. And that was what his father had taught him, the Colonel of the original Brennus Mechanized - the world's first Founding - who had died unknown and unremembered in a campaign still considered classified by the Munitorum.
And he wasn't about to dishonor their memory by wasting time with this useless bootlicker.
"The Colonel does not drink on duty," a booming voice answered for him, "For he knows that I will swiftly punish ANY offense that is committed in my presence."
Marten managed to hide his smile. The one speaking was Commissar Justinian Stark, a monster of a man who was intimidating even if half of his face and right arm hadn't been replaced by augmentics. The Commissar had a flair for these kinds of theatrics, and the Colonel was glad that he was around to deal with the annoying politicians. van Helden began to read through a couple of dataslates while the Commissar did the talking.
"Then I hope that the Commissar is also pleased by how swiftly we dealt with these rebels," Representative Drahn said, "With the rebel Barons eliminated, I am certain we can soon pay the tithes that we owe the Imperium!"
"Bluntly, eliminating rebels should never have been our concern," the Commissar replied angrily, fingering his bolt pistol, "We are not Arbites, and you should have been able to handle this on your own."
Drahn looked offended by that remark, "Sir, I must protest! The world was in turmoil! We didn't have..."
"You didn't have the skills to organize an effective army or police force to maintain order," the Commissar reminded, "You are weak, and we will not be here forever to prop up your regime, Representative Drahn."
"How... How dare you!" Drahn shouted, not yet learning it was a terrible idea to argue with a Commissar, "May I remind you that you are only here because of our invitation?!"
"Perhaps we should leave then, and leave you with the Akkadians," the Commissar countered, "We still have thirty thousand of them waiting in the transport ships."
Drahn turned pale at the suggestion. The initial intervention, led by three huge regiments of hungry Akkadian conscripts, had been a fiasco. Discipline broke down soon after landing, and several "rebel" provinces had been laid to waste along with their farmlands before the Commissars regained control. To prevent a repeat, more “professional” regiments had been deployed – the Brennus Mechanized and two smaller regiments of Cadian Shock Troops – who were more suited for surgical “police” missions.
"Honestly, I think we should leave regardless. The Representative knows there is no way they can pay the tithes," added another voice, her talents lending particular weight to her assessment. Mari Sakhson was the regiment's Senior Sanctioned, whose beautiful face and long, silver hair belied an extraordinary level of intelligence and analytical skill.
"You... you witch! Mind-reading is not allo...!" he started.
"I didn't need to read your mind to know that you cannot pay the tithes. I only needed to look at your production records for the past five years," Mari replied icily, as the temperature began to drop unnaturally, "However, I can demonstrate for you how my particular brand of mind-reading works if you insist on calling me a witch."
Drahn took a step backwards. He turned to look at the silent Colonel van Helden for help.
"I honestly don't give a frak about the tithes anymore. I'm more concerned about Sanctioned Toth's report," van Helden said, his eyes still glued to the dataslate, "Is she sure about this? A possible Archenemy threat?"
"She's my best," Mari assured, "And her interrogation of Xevan was most comprehensive."
van Helden nodded, then turned to his second-in-command, Major Yalen Cadogan.
"Major, take Steel Squadron down south to investigate this place called Skullspire," van Helden ordered, "Have Double-Two take the lead with Mamzelle Toth. Put a reconnaissance Lance under his command."
"Yes sir!" Cadogan replied enthusiastically, before turning around to head for the command post. Drahn, bewildered, tried to protest.
"Wha... What are you doing? You can't send that many men south! We still have other provinces to pacify!"
"I can, and I will," the Colonel replied firmly, "Because if Mamzelle Toth is right, then the Brennus Mechanized finally has a real enemy to fight."
It took only a few hours for Brother Belisarius to reach the Skullspire. Along the way, he encountered more Khornate warbands. None proved a match for his Cataphract and twin heavy bolters.
The last group had made its stand at the base of the mountain itself. Nearly three hundred warriors, all calling for his blood. It took the last of his heavy bolter ammunition to destroy them all.
Dismounting from his bike, Belisarius began his trek up the steep mountain. He soon found the first of dozens of cave entrances, each leading to a desecrated tomb of Helvetican nobility. As usual, the Archenemy took glee in destroying and defacing the bones of the Emperor's loyal servants. In some cases, the perpetrators of the dastardly act had long gone. But in most, Belisarius found fresh targets for his boltgun.
By the time Belisarius had cleared all of them, the sun was beginning to set. He knew that his supply of ammunition was all but gone. He was down to the last clip for his boltgun. He was also completely out of explosives, for he left an explosive charge in each and every tomb he visited in preparation for a mass cleansing. But his instinct was telling him to press on. To claim victory, he had to reach the summit and take the top of the spire.
He found someone waiting for him, sitting on a throne made of stone. Wearing crimson armor and wielding a gigantic waraxe, Belisarius had no doubt that he was coming face to face with their champion. His opponent stood up and roared at him, challenging him to battle.
Belisarius imagined himself drawing his knife and fighting the Archenemy Champion in honorable melee, like the Brennic knights back home. He would bide his time, stab the champion in the heart, and complete this Quest in the name of the Emperor.
But he allowed his imagination to grip him for only a moment. Instead, his body reacted as dictated by the training of the Steel Wardens. He raised his boltgun and fired a burst. He waited a moment. The champion's broken body twitched. He fired another burst. This time, there was nothing left of the champion's head and torso.
Finally, Belisarius took a moment to survey the scene. He managed to smile. All of the Archenemy warbands had been destroyed. Every tomb had been cleared. Their champion had been beaten. And he still had seven rounds left in his boltgun.
He was about to shout in triumph when victory was literally yanked out from under him.
The ground he stood on suddenly gave way, revealing a hole dug deep into the mountain. Belisarius tried to grab something - anything - to slow his fall, but it was too late. His left leg snapped as he hit the ground several stories below.
Fighting through the pain, Belisarius opened his eyes and allowed his helmet's sensors to adjust to the darkness. He managed not to curse at what he saw.
The enemy had been at work here longer than he had estimated. They had dug countless of passages within the mountain itself, to house hundreds more cultists and followers. And now, they were all streaming out of their hiding places to attack him.
Belisarius fired a burst, killing dozens in the enclosed killing ground with his explosive rounds, but it emptied his boltgun. He threw it away and drew his knife.
For a seeming eternity, Belisarius held his ground. Even with a broken leg, he hacked, slashed, and stabbed. He ignored the pain of hammer blows and spear points.
But in reality, it lasted only a few seconds. By their sheer weight of numbers, the swarm overwhelmed him. Belisarius lost his grip on his knife. Hands were grabbing his arms and legs and pinned them to the ground. Another armored figure loomed over him, wielding a wicked warhammer. Belisarius took a look at its face, and felt physically ill at what he saw.
It started to laugh, and raised its weapon high over Belisarius' skull.
The hammer came down. Darkness followed.
Those were the first words that Thor heard as he regained consciousness. His first thought was to wish that the warning had come a few minutes earlier.
Memories of what happened came flooding in. Suspicions of Chaos taint after the interrogation of Baron Xevan. A drive south to a place the locals called "Skullspire". The discovery of a gigantic pile of rocks where the mountain should have been. Farah getting fidgety as she sensed a dark and sinister force. And then, a loud crash as their Chimera took a direct hit from something that nearly flipped it to its side.
Thor then realized that he was bleeding, and he would have cracked his skull if he hadn't been wearing his helmet. His passengers were all moaning in pain, having suffered similar injuries. Finch was unconscious beside him. Only the vox was full of animated voices shouting at him.
"This is Two-Three, we are taking fire! Repeat, we are..."
"Double-Two, what's your status?! Respond!"
"Enemy on the ridge line! Engaging!"
"We're hit! We're... aaa... Aaaargh!!!"
The last voice thankfully faded into static as the flames consumed him, his Chimera, and its vox set. Thor wasn't sure who had just died, but he was determined not to be the next victim.
"All units, get out of the kill zone!" Thor ordered as he shook his driver awake. Finch opened his eyes, surprised, and instinctively grabbed the wheel.
"Where to sir?!" Finch said automatically.
"Anywhere but here!" Thor replied as he manned the Multi-laser and searched for targets. He found an abundance of them.
Enemy cannons had been hidden among the rocks, shooting powerful explosive shells at the Imperial vehicles. They were supported by a flood of mutated and misshapen things who might have once been men. Living in a hidden, subterranean world for generations, the heretics of Helvetica were now streaming out of their holes to finally make war on the Imperium.
Thor obliged them by gunning down as many as he could while Finch started the Chimera's engine. They tried to swarm the Imperial vehicle, firing their rifles and hurling flaming grenades, but the armor held in spite of the earlier damage. Finch then switched on the hull-mounted flamer, burning away entire mobs of mutants and crushing the few screaming survivors under the treads of his tank.
The other surviving vehicles in the Lance were following suit. Out of the five other Chimeras under Thor's command, four were still mobile. They were quickly putting distance between themselves and mutant swarm, and they were rapidly moving out of range of the cannon's guns.
But the enemy cannons roared once more before they escaped. Thor's Chimera was rocked by a near-miss. Another Chimera had its Multi-laser turret knocked out, killing the commander. But the vehicle that found itself in the greatest peril was Steel Two-Three. It had taken a direct hit to its engine compartment, bringing the Chimera to a halt.
Thor was about to order Finch around. The men of the Brennus Mechanized tried their best to never leave anyone behind. But another voice said otherwise.
"Leave us Thor!" said Lieutenant Mahlney, commander of Two-Three, "If you stay, we're all dead!"
"To hell with that!" Finch started, "We..."
Thor grabbed the wheel and held firm. He looked Finch in the eye and said, "No, he's right. Get us out of the kill zone!"
The Sergeant looked as though he was ready to mutiny, but did as he was told. The four mobile Chimeras quickly moved on, leaving the crippled one behind. The sight of Two-Three being swarmed by the mutants would haunt Thor for the rest of his life.
But he still had a duty to do. There was another voice still shouting over the vox which he had been ignoring for too long.
"Steel Actual, this is Double-Two. We got ambushed," Thor reported to Major Cadogan, "We've lost two Chimeras. We are falling back to rally point Epsilon."
"Opposition?" the Major replied, sounding calm and professional despite the fact that Thor had been ignoring him for the past few minutes. Cadogan now understood that Thor had been busy with the ambush.
"Twenty plus large enemy cannons, and five hundred plus infantry with small arms and light explosives. It looks like a damn nest of mutants and heretics!"
"Five hundred?" Cadogan sounded incredulous.
"There are probably many more than that sir," added Sanctioned Toth as she poked her head into the driver's compartment, having finally recovered from her own injuries, "I... felt thousands of them, crawling up from their warrens deep underground."
"Well, let's see how well they fare against an entire squadron from the BrennMech!" the Major replied, "I'm moving all my forces to rendezvous with you!"
He was true to his word. When Thor reached point Epsilon, he was greeted by a force of over a hundred Chimeras and other armored vehicles, supported by a thousand infantry. It was nearly a third of the regiment's entire strength, and they were already digging in for the coming onslaught. "Steel Actual" himself rode forward to meet Thor personally, sitting atop his ancient Leman Russ Vanquisher tank.
Thor felt intimidated by Major Cadogan's steed. It was one of the regiment's most treasured relics, handed down from a Pardus tank regiment that had mustered out on Brennus. It had been continually updated and refurbished, and he'd heard rumors that their Tech Priests had even acquired new gun barrels from Stygies VIII through clandestine means. In comparison, Thor’s Chimera had had been bought from the crude stocks produced by the Forge World Dorcet, which was still trying to rediscover the technological glories lost after Forge World Cuxehaven was claimed by a supernova along with its Astartes guardians.
But the feeling of intimidation was nothing compared to the grip of fear that nearly overwhelmed him. He remained control only because he knew the source was friendly: the temperature dropped precipitously whenever Farah lost control of her powers.
+Farah, this isn't a good time to panic.+ Thor reminded.
+Thor... look behind you.+ she replied.
Thor was about to scold her again, when he realized that the Major was also turning pale. Not even the majesty of his ride could shield him from his fear. Over the vox, Thor could hear him curse, "By the Saint!"
Hesitantly, Thor did as Farah had told him. As he saw what she had already seen with her mind, he managed to maintain his usual calm demeanor, but in truth he was terrified.
It wasn't the fact that the true size of the mutant horde was now apparent, being tens of thousands strong.
It wasn't the fact that the mutants were now bringing out armored machines belching steam and smoke to counter the Brennic vehicles.
It was the fact that he spotted the leader of the enemy army.
He was a giant, over eight feet tall. He was wearing ancient power armor, but it had been twisted and corrupted by the Ruinous Powers. Horns were growing out of the helmet, and a glowing red war axe had been grafted to where its right arm should have been.
But most terrifying of all, the former Astartes was wearing the desecrated livery of the Steel Wardens.
Belisarius could no longer see, for they had taken his eyes. He could no longer hear, for they had taken his ears.
But he could still speak. They wanted him to scream.
He denied them at every turn. He ignored them as they cut, flayed, and burned his body. There was only one foe that he was focused on.
And it was the one trying to claim his soul.
"Who sent you?" the voice in his mind repeated, clouding his thoughts with images of endless war and bloodshed.
Belisarius refused to reply. In truth, he did not know. Whoever had given him this false Quest would remain unknown to him forever. But there was a secret he was still keeping from the warp-spawned voice.
"Tell me!" the voice shouted, feeding agony directly into the Space Marine's mind. Belisarius felt blood pouring out of his broken nose. His mind began to swirl. He finally opened his mouth to speak.
"How long have I been down here?" Belisarius said calmly, as though he was asking the time from a passing stranger.
"Stop fooling around!" the voice shouted, causing him more pain, "I have been trapped on this worthless world for millennia! I will not be denied again by The Deceiver!"
"How long have I been down here?" Belisarius repeated, menace now in his voice. His torturers ignored him and took off his right arm.
Belisarius just laughed at them as he felt the pain.
The voice then paused, taken aback. Slowly, more carefully, it began to probe Belisarius' mind.
The Space Marine finally allowed it a glimpse of the secret that he had been hiding.
The explosive charges he had planted around the mountain were still active. They were now moments away from detonating. His captors had been too busy "playing" with him to notice.
The voice in his mind shrieked. It tried to burrow itself into the Space Marine’s dying body. Belisarius laughed in triumph, even as his soul was consumed by the monstrous voice. His last conscious act was to sear two words into the mind of the Daemon foe.
And then the Skullspire came apart with an earth-shattering blast.
The Daemon that now possessed Belisarius' broken body smiled. For two hundred years it had laid buried under the rocks thanks to that accursed Space Marine’s final act of defiance; until a band of foolish grave robbers had finally freed it. It then spent another century gathering strength and followers, preparing to turn this planet into a true hell.
It had hoped to remain in the shadows until it had regained all of its power. But discovery by the Imperial Guard had changed everything.
The plan now was to crush the Guardsmen as an offering to the Blood God. Then, it could finally return to the stars to take its vengeance on The Deceiver. It raised its war-axe and shouted for the army to attack.
On the other side of the field, Thor braced himself for the coming fight. Garonne's Huskarls had already deployed. Farah had regained control and was pushing back the waves of fear and rage emanating from the enemy champion. Major Cadogan had regained his color.
"Remember boys, they call us the rejects of the Steel Wardens!" the Major reminded, referring to a slur used by the Cadians against them, "Well it's time to show everyone that we're _better_ than the Wardens. That we remain true and loyal to the Emperor even though he gives us lasguns instead of boltguns, and flak jackets instead of power armor!"
The reply was less enthusiastic than the Major had hoped. Despite his speech and Farah’s efforts, Steel Squadron was still shaken. It was further compounded by the fact that Cadogan’s opening shot - a hyper-velocity round from his Vanquisher cannon - had been absorbed by the enemy Champion without ill-effect. It simply laughed at the Guard's feeble attempt to hurt it.
"Focus on the enemy infantry," Thor ordered, trying to get everyone's mind off the apparently invincible monster. Their mortars were already hard at work, killing scores with indirect fire, while long-range Multi-laser bursts were bringing down dozens more. Meanwhile, the enemy machines were being picked off by Lascannon teams sniping from concealed positions.
+We can't win this. Their champion... he’s too powerful+ Farah told him, not wanting to say it out loud and spread further panic among the ranks.
+You think we should run?+ Thor countered.
+Major Cadogan has already gotten permission from the Colonel. We're about to begin a phased withdrawal.+
Thor suddenly realized that Farah was right. The troopers of Third Company were already reboarding their Chimeras. Fourth Company had already left the field altogether.
He got confirmation from the Major a second later.
"Steel Double-Two, fall back with your Lance to point Beta in thirty seconds. Keep up the fire and cover Third Company until they're clear!"
"Somebody has to stay behind to be the rear guard, Major," Thor pointed out.
"Are you volunteering?"
Thor fell silent, then stole a glance at Finch and Toth. They were afraid, but they didn't object.
"Sorry Lieutenant, somebody already beat you to it," the Major said before Thor could respond.
Colonel van Helden ignored the madhouse outside. The Representatives had been thrown into panic after being told of the size of the horde, and they were demanding action from the Imperial Guard. A mixed force of Cadian and Brennic troopers led by Commissar Stark was holding them back. In another room, the two Cadian Colonels were mobilizing their regiments to move against the Revolutionary Council itself. The Inquisition had sent word that the current government of Helvetica was now suspect.
But van Helden’s eyes were still glued on Mari, who was still busy "talking" to the Astropaths on the fleet.
Finally, she spoke.
"Commodore Troubridge agrees with your assessment. He's assigning two frigates and his flagship to conduct a full-scale lance strike on the entire area. It’s the only way that we can be sure of destroying that... thing."
van Helden nodded, then got back on the vox.
"Steel Actual, how is your withdrawal going?"
"Ninth Company has just completed its withdrawal. We're in the clear!" the Major reported, "Their war machines are trying to pursue, but they're too slow. They've no hope of catching us."
van Helden nodded again, then took a deep breath.
"Everyone, please go outside. Help the Commissar control the Representatives. Make arrests if necessary."
The command staff looked at him strangely, but did as they were told. Mari was the last to leave. He could feel a cold embrace trying to fish the thoughts out of his mind, but he mentally rebuked her. He had to do this alone.
Finally, with Mari gone, van Helden’s only companion was the vox set.
"Steel Two-Three, this is Brennus Actual," the Colonel said, "Please respond."
"Colonel?!" Lieutenant Mahlney shouted in reply, surprised by who was calling him, "Sir, the situation is critical! We’re still holding on, but we’re getting swarmed and half of my men are down. We need..."
"Your name is Ignatius, isn't it?" the Colonel interrupted, trying to keep his voice from cracking, "Ignatius Mahlney?"
There was a long pause on the vox.
"You're not coming back for us, are you sir?" the Lieutenant said.
"I'm afraid not," van Helden sighed.
"Do we at least get to take them with us?"
"We’ve locked on to your coordinates. It will be a full-scale orbital strike. Destruction will be total."
The vox went silent again.
"Alright sir, we knew what we were getting into. We'll do what we can to draw them in. Especially that Traitor Marine."
It was van Helden's turn to pause before speaking, "Thank you Ignatius."
"Can you do us one last favor sir?" Mahlney asked.
"Tell our moms we did our best."
Steel Two-Three only had sixty seconds left before the orbital bombardment began.
Mahlney's Armored Fist squad was still busy fighting from the passenger hatch, gunning down every mutant that tried to get close. Half were dead, and all the rest wounded. His driver was trying to put out a fire started by one of enemy’s flaming grenades.
But Mahlney could still see the monster, directing its minions to pursue the fleeing BrennMech. The Multi-laser had almost burned out, but he knew that it still had one shot left in it.
He fired and struck the beast's head.
Like before, it did not die. A single Multi-laser shot was a pinprick compared to a Vanquisher round. But Mahlney got its attention. It laughed at him, and began slowly walking towards Steel Two-Three.
The laughter vanished when the sky suddenly turned white. It looked up, and howled in rage as it realized what the Imperials were doing. Even it could not withstand the multi-megaton payload that was coming.
Smiling grimly, Mahlney set the vox to full power. His last words were broadcast on every frequency for all to hear: