The sound of metal clashing against metal rang throughout the spartan chambers. Dimly lit by hanging candelabras and a brazier in the centre of the room, its embers flickering as the coal burnt, the training cages were empty but for a lone occupant.
Dressed in simple training breeches of brown and naked from the waist up the warrior clashed his blade, a sharply polished chainsword bearing an inscription that read Imperator Semper Occuli, a phrase that translated to The Emperor is Always Watching, carried out a series of overhead strikes at the training servitor, following by a succession of quick stabs and strikes to its vulnerable areas. His blade found its mark on the third strike as it penetrated the servitor's guard and hacked it from shoulder to hip, the machine falling to the ground in death.
The warrior wiped his brow, he had not been sweating from such a simple exercise but rather it was a reflex when his mind was not at ease. It had not been for days now and he had sought to purge his thoughts through the cleansing rite of battle, even a mock battle was acceptable at this point, and yet his mind continued to plague him.
The warrior was broad and tall, rippling with muscle. Some scars and light faded wounds dotted his body while a mane of golden blonde hair fell to his shoulders as he sparred. Normally he kept it bound up in a plait held together by bronze wiring. But for now he had forgone it, though in truth he had forgotten it in his haste to get to the training cages.
Knight Sephon of the White Knights sighed and motioned for another servitor to approach. This one bore two short swords, ideal for breaking through the one-handed heavy blade style that Sephon favoured, at least for a mortal man it would be. But Sephon was Astartes, and a White Knight at that. "If your enemy surprises you, adapt or die." A straight-forward mantra of swordplay first coined by Knight Ganthur of the Black Templars, one of the original White Knights.
Allowing the machine to make the first strike Sephon found himself simply going through the motions of swordplay, he wasn't trying anything new or even really trying to kill his opponent. His mind was too occupied for that, ever since he had heard news of Galarad who had been promoted to the 1st company two years ago and received the Crux Terminatus. Galarad had been his mentor and his trainer when Sephon had been a squire, their bond was strong and the two were the closest of brothers.
Galarad was dead. It was sad news for all the Chapter that had loved the impish yet wise Space Marine who had once saved the Knight-Master's life in battle. But for his apprentice it was an even more painful blow, especially to Sephon who owed everything he had in life to Galarad. According to the battle-report Galarad had engaged several Chaos traitors in battle, little realising that one amongst their number was a Daemonkin. Before he could react the traitor had transformed and skewered him on its bladed arm, punching through the more vulnerable back-plate of the armour. His primary heart pierced Galarad became easy prey for the monstrosity who finally decapitated him and ended the veteran's five-hundred years of service. Half a millennium of battling the Emperor's enemies ended in an instant. Galarad would have said that all Astartes meet their fate eventually, but it was still too bitter to swallow.
Sephon snarled and unleashed his pent-up anger. The servitor only lasted a moment before its head slid from its shoulders and its body collapsed into a junk pile. Gripping his sword hilt tightly Sephon restrained the urge to tear apart the entire room, to take every single miserable servitor and hack them into pieces. Galarad's killer was dead, the venerable First Captain Lancelac had driven his blade through the bastard's mouth himself! And yet it was not enough. It was not enough for Sephon who owed his life to Galarad for more reasons than one.
Stalking from the training cages, his anger brimming but held in check, Sephon barely noticed the frightened serfs who had been watching his bout. One was male and the other female, beyond that and their obvious fear he noticed nothing about them. He didn't feel like reassuring them they were safe but nor would he take out his anger on those who had no reason to suffer it. As he left Sephon exhaled a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding and left for his quarters. At least there he would not be disturbed.
The klaxon interrupted Sephon's reverie. He had been remembering the day that Galarad had given him his first Chapter blade which he still owned. It was a basic metal longsword styled for use by a Space Marine, of course it was useless in a real battle but perfect for training. Normally he used it all the time in sparring and sword drills, but today he had tried to take it from its place on his wall but... he just couldn't take it.
A knock at the door broke his thoughts yet again. The door opened to reveal a brother in full armour. The White Knights armour was predominantly white, only its shoulders were of a differing colour. The main insets were pure black while the trims around them were the brightest crimson to match the eyes of their helmets. Only the soft armour was a light grey to set it apart, and cloth robes covered the majority of the suit. The new arrival carried a power sword on his hip and a pair of bolt pistols at its opposite side, his helmet bore a crest of horsehair and his collar was raised and armoured, a new variant of power armour known as MK VIII or the Errant pattern.
Knight-Sergeant Boros did not waste time with explanations or demands as to why Sephon was not ready. There would be time for that later. "Knight Sephon, ready yourself immediately. We go to war." With the curt statement he left, on his way to gather the rest of his squad.
Sephon allowed himself a smile. Battle at last, it had been too long since his last campaign and its timing was perfect. He could vent his rage on the enemy and purge himself of these thoughts in the fires of war. Gathering his weapons Sephon set off for the armouring deck, no doubt where his squad would already be.
Sure enough when he arrived half of his squad were already there and in full armour. Out of the ten men of his squad Sephon was one of three who did not have a squire, as such he had much more time to himself and did not have to concern himself with the training and knightly education of a whelp. Knight Castig was explaining the finer points of the lightning claw to his two squires, a pair of twin brothers who had joined together; while Knight Daganot was being armoured by his squire and his armour serfs. The others were all performing some similar duty or such, only Knight-sergeant Boros and Knight Sakramare were not present, Sakramare was prone to isolating himself from others and was often tough to find.
Calling for his armour serfs who were already waiting for him, it bothered him that his serfs had beaten him here during a muster but he did not allow it to show, Sephon outstretched his arms and allowed the serfs to go to work. A group of three burly men who were too old to become Space Marines their names were Hector, Calis and Ymar; the three had been with Sephon ever since he had earned his knighthood and he was fond of them, but today he paid them no regard as they attached the plates of his armour.
Sephon took a moment to relish the feel of his armour, it was a typical suit of Mk VII Aquila pattern and had served him well through his career, he had not yet needed to replace a piece of it and as such it was all original. His personal heraldry adorned his right shoulder, a white sword on a field of black surrounded by four white stars, two on each side; while the heraldry of the Chapter adorned his left shoulder, a scroll to represent the vows each brother took and a sword to represent their martial pride, the sword lying horizontal across the scroll to show the unity of the two.
As his helmet was placed on Sephon allowed a moment for the systems to fully align, taking in a breath of recycled air he knew the suit was fully active. His vox-transponder was active, allowing him access to his voice once more. The final piece to be attached was the jump-pack that was the staple of an Assault Marine's armour. Sephon's own was etched with quotes and exerts from Lukas Koanig's The Vows and Trials of a Knight.
"Good work, you are dismissed for the nonce," his vox-supported voice stated. All White Knights suffered from the same affliction, their Betcher's Glands were defective and leaked the acidic by-product into their throats, scarring them badly and rendering the voices of all the Chapter barely hear-able above a raspy whisper. As such the Chapter had long since adopted personal vox-transponders and it was customary for brothers to keep their armour on at all times, Sephon had only taken his off for it to be cleaned by his serfs which it had been rather well. Most would wonder why the Chapter did not simply remove the Betcher's Gland and deal with the problem once and for all, but to do so would be to admit defeat against the problem. The Apothecaries still searched for a way to neutralize the problem and keep the gland at the same time, but they still had yet to find a cure.
Sergeant Boros entered the deck with Knight Sakramare in tow. Both were fully armoured and Boros wasted no time in explaining the situation to them.
"Brothers, the company goes to war this day. Approximately two hours ago we received a distress signal from a nearby world, it has taken us this long to get into a closer position but we are nearing the world Rexivon now. The Tau Empire has sent a coalition to the planet to conquer it and secure a foothold from which they likely launch further attacks into the Sub-sector. We must stop this before it can happen."
Sephon grimaced in his helmet. The Tau were not a foe he would be eager to face, but he would be eager to kill them. The White Knights detested any who refused to utilize the blade or saw it as crass and uncivilised, to them it was the mark of civilisation that one could master such a weapon. The Tau were notorious for their mastery of ranged warfare and for that the chapter respected them, but hated them at the same time for their utter lack of skill in melee. Sephon had once seen a Tau actually swing its rifle as a club in battle, at the time it had exasperated him as to how anything that called itself a warrior could do that, he later realised that likely the xenos did not know how to do anything else, their Fire Warriors did not educate themselves in the art of the sword.
The rest of the squad shared his thoughts and Knight Uovon put voice to them."I share your distaste my brothers for the Tau are not the kind of foe I relish fighting either. But it is our duty and we shall persecute it to our fullest efforts. Dorn would expect no less," Boros answered, his dislike of the enemy evident but dominated by his unflinching approach to duty.
Sephon checked his weapons and armour systems as the squad began to board the Thunderhawk Skychaser
. The company would be briefed fully during the ride to the surface of the planet, Knight-captain Malagaunt preferred to do things that way. Sephon had never met the Knight-captain face to face but he admired the man for his blunt and uncompromising nature. If a Knight-captain had to become a politician it was a lesson that Malagaunt had not merely missed, he had spit on it and cut through the wordplay with his sword.
Taking his seat next to Knights Uovon and Ronnet Sephon allowed his harness to settle over him and linked himself into the vox-network of the squad. The 2nd squad of the 3rd company was known as Squad Hauen, each squad was named after one of the moves of swordplay in a certain style, in which 2nd company favoured the ancient Pruusian Junkar system of honour duelling for its titles. A Hauen was the name of a basic sword strike that could vary based on the direction of the strike and the attacks it led into could vary as well.
The squires of the squad took their seats separately from the rest of the squad and strapped themselves in. With the squires attached the squad totalled twelve men, slightly above the structures of the Codex Astartes but well within the limits of the White Knights doctrine. With them present the squad was assembled in full. Sephon took a moment to look them over, they varied from boys fresh from their trials to men on the cusp of achieving knighthood, and all bore the marks of the genetic enhancements taking place in their bodies. Sephon could remember a time when he was among their ranks, sometimes it felt like he was still fresh from the trials himself, and was still back on the fateful day when he had first met his mentor.
Sephon laughed and grabbed the bar-wench by her waist, pulling her into his lap and eliciting a squeal of feigned dislike. No wench could resist his direct charms, when he wanted something he made it clear and women seemed to appreciate that. He had never forced himself on anyone but he never hid his intent to bed them. At fourteen winters he had only two winters ago discovered the joys of ale and female flesh, and both were abundantly prominent in his village on Cyrax.
His father had called him a rake and a layabout, and he was right on both accounts. Sephon hated work and loved the vices of life, and besides he hated his father. His mother was the only person that he truly cared about besides himself and she was the reason he was here today. Not in this tavern fondling the serving girl but in this city. It was the Time of Testing on Cyrax, when the demi-gods returned to take the world's strongest and most honourable youth into the stars to become like them. Sephon's mother had always dreamed that her son might become a star knight and before he had left she had begged him to try his best in this. And so he was giving it his all in the trials. He knew he was a rake but he was tall and strong for his age, and he was no slouch with a sword either. Sephon just lacked the drive needed to succeed, he would rather spend his time here with whatever girl met his standards of attractiveness or easiness.
After spending two very enjoyable hours with the serving-wench Sephon staggered out of the tavern. He was half-drunk and was not sure he could find a place to sleep tonight but it mattered little to him, he just needed to be ready for tomorrow. He did not expect to succeed in the trials but he could at least say he tried, that was enough for him.
"The others are already asleep in preparation for tomorrow. And yet you prowl the streets about to pass out. A fine sight indeed acolyte." The voice that spoke was baritone and sharp, it didn't sound human. Sephon turned and saw who was behind him. It was a giant clad in the biggest armour that the young boy had ever seen. It was white as the snow that fell every handful of years in the oasis's and bore the heraldry of a mailed gauntlet clutching a flaming sword on its right shoulder-plate.
"Well? I await your reply young one," the giant said again, Sephon could have sworn he heard a hint of amusement in the giant's voice.
"I.. I.." he tried to answer but found that he could barely speak in the presence of this titan.
"Well if you can't form a coherent sentence i'll just keep talking. Do you really think you can earn a place amongst us with such behaviour?" the giant asked. Sephon finally found his voice a moment later and replied, his voice as irreverent as ever.
"Not really but I didn't expect to. I'm only here to make my mother happy anyway."
"Oh really. Is that the only reason?"
"What do you mean?"
"I think there are easier ways to impress your family. But attempting to become Astartes is much more then that. Only those who want to become something more take part," the giant answered. Sephon felt uncomfortable with how close the giant had cut to what he felt sometimes when he was lying on the roadside reflecting on his life. Sometimes he had felt the desire to be more than he was, but he knew that somebody like him could never achieve that.
"No, I'm just here for my mother," Sephon said, more to himself than the giant.
"I doubt that highly my new friend," the giant said, again with that hint of amusement.
"What do you know about it?" Sephon demanded, he was starting to tire of this giant's attitude towards him. And that he called himself Sephon's friend, Sephon had never really had any friends nor wanted any, and the giant's overly familiar attitude was annoying him.
"I know that from watching you yesterday you were trying far harder than someone attempting to coast their way through our most important trials." Sephon's eyes widened in surprise. The giant had been watching him? There had been a few of them watching the acolytes in their trials but he hadn't been aware of one watching him specifically. He hadn't seen this giant at the trials though he couldn't really tell them apart as they were constantly fully armoured.
"You were watching me?" Sephon asked, unable to decide whether he desired or dreaded the answer.
"Aye I was. And truthfully I was both impressed and horrified at the same time, a rare feeling that," the giant answered. "Truthfully lad you are probably the least likely acolyte to pass in this entire trial, so I must wonder why you keep coming back since you clearly are aware of your unlikely odds?"
Sephon found that answering that was harder than he thought. He was not sure why he kept coming back. He had done what he had to do to keep his promise to his mother, and the life that many said the demi-gods lived sounded unbearably dull to him. And yet he kept participating in the trials, passing just by the skin of his teeth.
"I... I don't know. I.." he couldn't finish the sentence.
"I see. Thank you my friend, this was... enlightening." With that the giant left without another word, his footsteps loud across the cobblestone path of the street. Sephon stood there for an hour afterwards just staring at the place where the giant had stood, and considering his words. Did he really want something more for himself?
Sephon smiled at the memory. The next morning he had gone to the trials and passed once more just barely. After that had come the Reading of the Names, when the Master of Sanctity, though he hadn't known the skull-faced marine's identity at the time, would read the names of all those who had passed and would be coming with them. Sephon had nearly had a heart attack when the Knight-chaplain had read his name aloud, as had a few others who had recognized his lacklustre attitude towards the sacred trials. But the Master of Sanctity would not be questioned, nor did anyone have the courage to try, and the newly made squires had been given one final night on their homeworld to make their farewells and set their mortal affairs in order. Sephon had visited a girl he had been fond of for the last few months and enjoyed her company for the final time, and he had sent a letter to his mother telling her that he had passed and would be joining the demi-gods. He never received a reply back but somehow he knew that she had read it and was proud.
The morning after he had gone to the landing zone and met the mysterious giant waiting for him. The giant had told him his name was Galarad and he had put his name into the accepted candidates list after persuading the Master of Sanctity of his worth. When asked why Galarad had told him,
"When a man wants something more for himself, he can do anything he sets himself to."
With that they had left and Sephon had spent the next thirty years in training to become a White Knight. Galarad had been right, he had wanted something more for himself than wasting his life in taverns and gutters, and Galarad had given him the opportunity and believed in him when he didn't even believe in himself. He felt a tear slip past his eye and slide down his cheek underneath his helmet, he was glad nobody else could see that. The memory of Galarad was still bitter and so he turned himself towards the present.
During the flight and his remembrances Knight-captain Malagaunt had come over the vox, issuing orders to each squad individually on what they were to do in the coming battle. Squad Hauen was bound for the outlying farms that were clustered in groups on the northern frontier of the planet. The primary nexus of Rexivon was an orbital lift that carried grain and wheat to waiting freighters in orbit to be shipped off to several nearby Hive worlds. If Rexivon fell those worlds would starve, and become potential conquest targets for the Tau. Neither could be allowed to happen.
Sephon checked his weapons once more as the Thunderhawk released its landing gear and set down in the tall grass. The doors opened with a hiss of released air, the squad quickly moved into action. Knight-sergeant Boros took point with his twin bolt pistols followed closely by Knights Daganot and Ronnet with their bolters trained in left and right directions respectively. The others of the squad, Sephon included, disembarked afterwards with their pistols and blades in at the ready.
The surrounding area was fairly typical of an agri-world. Large open fields of green for planting crops and a small village that was surrounded by old windmills to provide power to these regions. The only thing out of the ordinary was the sky, it was a light purple in colour and contained streaks of green and blue, likely a side-effect from the light array of chemicals in the rays of the system's sun. It made for a pleasing image though Sephon did not care, he was eager to find the Tau and kill them. Anything that would distract him was welcome.
Knight-sergeant Boros was in conversation with a group of farmers that had been waiting for them. They were discussing Tau sightings in the immediate area and possible locations that they might be interested in. It was mostly a courtesy to the natives, likely the Tau here were merely scouting for an approach to the grav-lift using the surrounding villages as cover,, and Squad Hauen's duty was to punish the xenos for their hubris in daring to set foot on a world of the Imperium.
Sephon took his place with Knight Ronnet and moved to an to an observing location in a light outcropping of trees and a scattered group of rocks that were as tall as a man. This was a possible approach vector for the Tau and the two of them were to observe it until they could confirm a contact or were called to the actual site of contact. The Tau were not aware of their presence so there was no reason to believe they would attempt multiple approach vectors in such an undefended area.
A shimmer of light caught Sephon's attention. It looked like part of the air was hazy, almost like something was partially blocking it.
"Do you see that?" he voxed to Ronnet.
"I do," Ronnet answered curtly. He quickly raised his bolter and fired at the haze. The mass-reactive shot hit something and detonated, painting the grass in bluish blood. The figure revealed itself from the stealth technology that kept it hidden, a Tau stealth suit. Sephon quickly voxed the confirmation of contact, and just as a pulse round shot past his head and struck a rock.
"In Dorn's name!" he cried as he raised his bolt pistol and fired. The Tau were approaching in force now, an entire platoon of Fire Warriors in a Devilfish carrier, and at least two more stealth suits were out there if they were operating in the standard squad numbers. Sephon's shot took a Fire Warrior in the head, pulping it and dropping the warrior before he could even raise his weapon.
The rest of the Tau were not so unfortunate. Taking positions along a ridge with enough rocks for cover and a wide enough distance that they could enjoy the fullest range of their weapons they wasted no time in opening fire on the Space Marines. Boros and Uovon arrived quickly and following them the rest of the squad joined the battle, bolter shells and pulse rounds flying through the air.
Sephon fired three shots at a Fire Warrior that emerged to shoot. The first took it in the arm, blowing the limb clean off and forcing the warrior to drop his weapon. The second went wide but the third struck dead centre and exploded in its chest.
"Enough of this. Let us fight them as true knights!" Uovon exclaimed over the vox. Boros nodded and drew his blade, a power sword that bore the marks of a veteran and had a crossguard styled as a templar cross.
"You took the words right from my thoughts Knight Uovon. White Knights! To the Honor of Battle and the Glory of War!" Boros shouted, proclaiming the battlecry of the chapter for all, including the Tau to hear. With that the White Knights leapt into the sky, their jump-packs roaring flame and thunder as they shot into the heavens and crossed the distance between them and the xenos in less than a few seconds.
Sephon drew his chainsword in mid-air and thumbed the activation rune. The familiar and welcome sound of the sputtering engine and roaring teeth warmed his heart and he adopted the two-handed stance he favoured most as he crashed into the earth, crouching and rolling on his side for a quicker approach. A Tau stood in his path, its rifle ready to fire, but it was already too late to do so and the xenos knew it. It quickly raised its rifle like a staff and tried to block the blade in a futile gesture, the adamantium teeth tore through the rifle and buried itself in the Tau's shoulder, a quick sweep and it cut him from shoulder to hip.
Another Tau fired near point-blank at Sephon who narrowly dodged it and swung with a sideways strike that caught the Tau in its stomach and bisected him. The alien's screams were just what Sephon had needed, all thoughts of Galarad washed away in blood and screaming as the White Knights butchered the tau. Sephon saw Daganot decapitate a Fire Warrior as it attempted to club him; Castig swept a Tau's feet out from under him and impaled him with the blade as it writhed on the floor, his own chainsword's teeth spurting blood everywhere.
Knight-sergeant Boros was as awe-inspiring as ever. His blade was an extension of his own arm and not a single strike was wasted, every single cut severed a limb and every stab found its mark. Four dead Tau were piled around him and three more were about to join them. But the battle had not been entirely in their favour, Knight Hayon was dead, his head replaced by a smoking crater. A Tau had gotten a lucky shot off and killed him from behind, a treacherous ending that the brave knight had not deserved. Snarling with rage Sephon leapt forward and drove his sword through the Tau's chest, lifting the alien into the air and allowing his blade to tear its insides to shreds. Bluish blood splattered his armour but at the moment Sephon felt elation, the fires of war stoked within him and the avenging of a fallen knight-brother killed in a dishonourable attack. His doubts and worries vanished as the squad continued their deathdealing, cutting the Tau down to the last man.
The Devilfish, seeing the battle lost, attempted to retreat but as it began to turn the krak grenade that Squire Nemian had placed on it during the battle detonated, tearing a huge hole in its side and destroying its repulsors. The alien craft crashed as it attempted to steady itself, the pilot crawled from the flaming wreckage only to have his life ended in a quick bolter shot from Squire Walon.
Sephon ripped his blade free of the dead Tau and surveyed the battlefield. Knight Hayon was being taken away by Ronnet and Daganot while Boros whispered an invocation for the fallen knight-brother, beseeching the Emperor to protect his soul and to see him safely to His right side. The White Knights did not believe that the Emperor was a god like the masses of the Imperium, but they did believe that he was waiting for them in whatever came next, for the great battle against Chaos, and Hayon would be getting there before them. Sephon noted the number of dead Tau, at least thirty had been killed here, and two more stealth suited xenos were missing their heads. Ronnet had picked them off as the squad charged into battle, which had likely prevented even more sneak attacks from the cowardly aliens.
"Knight-sergeant," Sephon said, turning to look at Boros who was in the midst of a vox-report. "We have new orders?" Boros looked up at him and nodded.
"Aye that we do, we-" Whatever he had been about to say was cut off as a pulse round shot past him and struck a rock. The squad immediately turned and opened fire, a second group of Tau were approaching. Only twenty this time, but led by a warrior in a mechanical suit, a heavy pulse cannon slung under its shoulder and a rocket pod attached to its spine.
"There is their foul leader, kill him and this battle is ours," a voice cried, Sephon realised it was his own. Raising his sword and pointing it directly at the Tau none amongst his brothers could mistake the intent, he was calling the Tau to account for itself in the ritual of single combat. If the Tau answered it in kind then the rules of such an engagement were clear, none were allowed to intervene in the battle. Even if Sephon should meet his end none of his brothers were permitted to aid him, and they would prevent the Tau from interfering in the contest.
The xenos cocked its head to the side as if the gesture was foreign to it. The cannon it sported began to spool, the thunder building slowly as the energy coils rotated and began to expand their fury. Sephon leapt into the sky, his challenge ignored as he expected it would be, the Tau preferred battlefield pragmatism and would never take the risk that single combat posed. Still Sephon had made the effort and that in itself was honourable, the dishonour fell on the Tau for its cowardice, though likely it would not care or even believe it.
"Perish xenos!" Sephon shouted as he landed, the force of his landing knocking two fire warriors from their feet. A three-hundred and sixty spin of his blade caught both their necks in its path, the adamantium teeth easily tearing through the flesh, cartilage and bone of their fragile necks.
Boros and the remainder of the squad were demolishing the Tau at such close range, the xenos had not expected to find Space Marines here, let alone ones that could close the gap between them so effortlessly. Their despair was evident as they attempted to fall back, using their rifles as staffs to try and ward off the blows of Squad Hauen's chainswords and Boros's power sword, which made even easier work of them than the chainblades did.
Charging towards the xenos leader Sephon hacked another Tau from his path, and another, and another, and another. They seemed eager to protect their leader but could do nothing short of buying the battlesuit commander a moment by blocking Sephon's chainsword with their bodies and their rifles. The alien attempted to fire its cannon but kept having to give ground to avoid the strikes of the chainsword, forcing it back inch by inch until Sephon gunned his jump-pack and leapt forward, blade poised to strike. The Tau side-stepped to avoid the blow, the teeth tearing through the cannon mount and separating the alien from its only weapon. Wasting no time and spinning on his heel Sephon brought his blade around and jammed it into the alien's side, sending it to maximum throttle the blade screamed as it cleaved the Tau in half. As it died the xenos's rocket pod fired a single shot, the missile careened and struck Knight Ronnet in the arm, blowing through his armour, flesh and bone and sending him sprawling into the dirt.
The alien's blood slick on his sword and covering his robes Sephon turned to smite another alien, he was disappointed to see none were left. The squad had routed them while he had been killing their leader, the last two retreating fire warriors were cut down by Knight Daganot's bolter, the bolts punched through their armoured backs and detonated within them, tearing them apart.
Sephon sighed as he took in the carnage around him, it didn't change what he felt in his hearts. Galarad was dead, and nothing seemed right anymore. If he had been there with him Sephon could have helped him, covered his back or gotten him away after his wounding, or prevented it all-together. But he wasn't 1st company, he wasn't even a veteran and he hadn't trained a single squire. He had as much chance of being 1st company at this moment as the Tau leader did of knitting himself back together and getting back up. The strike he used to kill it had been one that Galarad had taught him during his days as a squire, not so long ago.
"Get down boy!" Galarad shouted as he ducked to avoid the rocket. Sephon, running to catch him up, slid into the dirt and rolled to avoid the munition that flew over his head and struck the armoured side of a Predator tank, glancing from its armour. Sephon looked up to see the Traitor marine that fired the rocket re-aim towards them. The fallen angel's steel grey and yellow-trimmed armour was a panoply of iron spikes and blood-crusted chains, its helmet bore two large horns similar to an auroch's and the faceplate had been carved into the visage of a snarling daemon.
Galarad had already charged towards him, his power sword active and his storm shield held up to deflect fire. Another rocket spat from the traitor's launcher, the launcher similarly carved to resemble a monster, and flew towards Galarad. The missile impacted against his shield, the smoke shrouding him from sight. The backwash of the explosion washed over Sephon, the heat blistering his skin. He roared and fired at the traitor, his bolt pistol shots glancing off the Chaos Space Marine's armour. Suddenly an even louder roar punctured the omnipresent barking of bolters and exploding grenades off in the distance. Galarad sprinted from the smoke, his shield and armour blackened with soot, and brought his sword down in an overhead arc, the energised blade cutting into the traitor's collarbone and cleaving his primary heart in two. Putting his strength into it Galarad twisted the blade and pulled it free, sideways. The traitor groaned as he fell to the ground, a quick bolt pistol shot to the forehead ended his existence. Galarad chuckled, even battle failed to make him solemn, and rushed onwards, beckoning Sephon forward.
The Iron Warriors were putting up an incredible defence as befitted those who were once the Emperor's own favoured for such things. But the White Knights were descended from the Imperial Fists, Dorn's own bloodline, and their hatred for the Iron Warriors was as strong as their progenitors. And this day they fought beside their Knight-Master. Edric Avrill, the Grand Master, the Sword of Dorn and Bane to the Foes of Man. The honoured 1st Company was fighting in another warzone, this zone fell to the 3rd company to pacify, and Perturabo's Ironmongers were not going down easily. The battlefield was a hell of mud and barbed wire, and ahead stood the target. A small stone fortress that at least twenty traitors garrisoned, since six had been killed according to the vox and the rocketeer that Galarad had just ended made seven, Sephon expected anywhere up to 13 traitor marines inside. A daunting task, especially for a squire like himself. It had been four years since Sephon had earned his place in the White Knights, his tutelage under Galarad was hard and challenging every day, and yet he had excelled. His mentor had been right, Sephon had wanted more out of life and had taken to the life of an Astartes with more vigour than he'd thought possible. As a squire, or in other chapters a scout, it was his duty to learn from his master and Galarad's duty to train him in the arts of war and battle. Sephon wore a scout's cuirass and carapace with lightly armoured leggings and boots. His mouth was obscured by a vox-mask that extended from the top of his nose down to his chin, without it he was effectively mute. And yet the loss of his voice was an infinitesimal price to pay to become a Space Marine, it was one he would have paid a hundred times over for the life he had now.
Galarad grabbed ahold of an indent in the wall and hauled himself up over the barricade. A second later he extended his hand to Sephon and hauled him up. The interior of the fortress was actually worse than the outside. Smoke-stacks spat pollution into the air as slaves tossed coal and blood into the furnaces to keep them running. Galarad moved to turn the corner when suddenly he was tackled from the side, Sephon caught a glimpse of another Iron Warrior before they tumbled off the wall together. The young squire ran to check on his master, a spiked gauntlet shot out in front of him, had he taken another step it would have pierced his skull. The gauntlet shot out and smashed him in the face, sending the squire flying back against the cold stone wall. Spitting out some blood Sephon saw another Iron Warrior turn the corner, even bigger than the last two. Its helmet was a huge vox-grille that oozed smoke, two ram horns framing the cruel gaze. Flayed skin covered its chest and arms, while a loin-cloth of fresh skin was wrapped around his waist. In its hand the traitor carried the most brutal looking axe that Sephon had ever seen, its teeth were oversized and blunt. The traitor laughed, a cruel sound deprived of any actual amusement.
"A scout? They send scouts to face Perturabo's own? I hope you made peace with your corpse-emperor little one, but don't worry, you'll be meeting the real gods soon enough." Its voice was as guttural as tank treads and nearly as unintelligible. With the promise spoken the Chaos Space Marine charged, its axe flashing out faster than Sephon would have believed possible for a weapon of that size. Drawing his gladius and bolt pistol he snapped off two shots, the first glanced the traitor's shoulder, the second hit him in his left thigh and tore a clean chunk from it. Snarling with hate the traitor swung his axe in a wide arc, Sephon ducked to avoid being decapitated, his gladius flashed out and scored a cut on the traitor's wrist. Before he could leap back the traitor kicked him in the chest, sending him into a work-bench, sending emaciated slaves scattering away from the fight.
"A lucky strike mongrel, now you die!" the Chaos marine roared. It was angry now, Sephon grinned under his mask. When a warrior allowed his rage to control him rather than he controlling it he became susceptible to mistakes and to counter-strikes, Galarad had taught him that on his very first day. The axe slammed down into the table, Sephon rolled to the side before it struck and stabbed his gladius into the wound on the traitor's thigh, putting all his strength into it he tore the blade free and through the bone. The traitor lashed out with his free hand and grabbed Sephon by the scruff of his collar, and hurled him into the wall with an audible crack. Sephon grunted, he felt his blade arm break as it was crushed against the stone and his gladius had slipped from his grasp. He felt the searing heat of the traitor's breath above him, the Iron Warrior was kneeling in front of him with his left arm forcing the White Knight against the wall and crushing his throat. The heretic's leg was ruined, that much Sephon could say he had achieved. But he was dead now. His only thought was that he was sorry, he had failed Galarad, and after the old man had put so much effort into his training.
"DIE WRETCH!" the traitor screamed.
The axe fell.
Blood splattered Sephon's face, but it wasn't his own.
The traitor stared at its arm as it fell to the ground, severed neatly from his shoulder, and for an instant his grip on Sephon's throat slackened. It was the opening Sephon needed, grabbing his gladius in his left hand he leapt up and stabbed through the gap in the Chaos marine's helmet, the blade erupted from the back of his skull. A gurgle of blood escaped the dying marine's mouth as Sephon retracted the blade and watched the traitor fall, dead at last.
"Good work boy." Galarad stood before the young squire, the wan sun glinting off his armour and casting the world behind him in a light shadow, his power sword and robes both drenched in traitor blood. He had sliced the heretic's arm off, saving Sephon yet again. "But be more careful boy. These traitors don't die easy."
Sephon smirked, showing a missing tooth and bloody gums.
Knight Sephon looked up as the Rexivon sun began to set, turning the light purple sky lavender. He rang a finger across his mouth where a scar from the Iron Warrior's gauntlet had cut him, it hadn't healed but that was fine by him, being his first traitor kill it was one of his favoured memories, but it hadn't been his last. By the end of the Etra Cleansing he had killed another Chaos marine and assisted Galarad in killing two others. It had been his finest hour as a squire, and it brought more painful pangs with every remembrance. Try as he might Sephon could not stop thinking of Galarad, he would never fight beside his mentor again, and he had never told Galarad the extent of his gratitude towards him, that he owed him everything he had and that every honour he earned was Galarad's. The old knight had died without ever realising that.
Sephon shook his head and stood up, replacing his helmet and locking the seals. His squad were rechecking their weapons in the shadow of the grav-lift, as was the rest of the company that had fully assembled together for the coming battle. As always the company in full strength was an impressive sight, even as jaded as he was in recent days Sephon could appreciate the might that was gathered here. This was a force that could bring a planet to heel, end rebellions in the blink of an eye and stare down the worst horrors the galaxy had to offer. The White Knights, Dorn's Knights.
Squad Hauen, Squad Einhorn, Squad Langort, Kron, Winden, Zucken, Nebenhut, Zornhut, Alber and Schiel. The 3rd company would be spread across the neighbouring lands to repel the Tau attack that the servo-skull scout units had detected was inbound. Squad Hauen was to be posted at the edge of the facility with Squad Alber. Knight-sergeants Boros and Kun were conversing at the barricades that had been set up hours ago. The Tau were inbound on this location to take the grav-lift, the squads could expect anything from Fire Warriors to Hammerhead repulsor-tanks, Kroot support had also been spotted alongside them, this news the squads took well as Kroot were unlike their craven Tau masters and relished close combat. There would be bladework after all today.
The facility they were guarding was mostly storage for old parts for the grav-lift. But it was a good entry point for an invasion, it boasted good sniping positions, overhead cover and a clean approach to the lift along the Grainroad. It was sure that this would be one of the advance points, so sure that Captain Malagaunt had wanted to leave a Lancer squad with them but the tight confines of the storage facility hindered bikes and made cavalry attacks unfeasible. And the Sky Knight attachment was busy keeping the air free of Barracuda bombers, the squads could expect only sparse Thunderhawk aerial support if absolutely necessary.
Tired of the forced idleness Sephon took his position beside Knights Daganot and Tancol. Squires Nemian, Walon and Ghav were to provide support for them and lay down covering fire with their bolters. Sephon took a moment to think of Galarad, he would have enjoyed this battle. He enjoyed them all, from Chaos Space Marines to Orks, even warring against the deceitful Eldar didn't spoil his mood. Sephon remembered once asking him if he hated the enemy, as all Space Marines should. Galarad had chuckled and given him an answer he had not expected.
"Of course I hate the enemy boy, I despise the bastards. But I control my hate, as I control all my emotions and my actions." His answer had confused the young squire, most White Knights made their hatred very clear.
"But aren't you afraid that that if you don't let your hate power you you'll be killed?" Galarad had looked at him with wide eyes at that.
"Of course i'll die boy. You'll die, everyone'll die. One day Avrill will die and someone new will take his place. Same for me and you boy, we all die in the end. What matters isn't if we die, its how we die and how we deal with that inevitability. I don't know about you, its something you need to work out for yourself. But me, i'll die without fear as any Space Marine would. And when some shit finally does gut me, i'll be with the Emperor battling for all eternity." He smiled.
"Who'd fear that?"
Sephon's eyes widened. He'd forgotten that, it had been so long ago and he had been so wrapped up in feeling pity for Galarad and hating himself for not being there to help his mentor that he had forgotten his mentor's most important lesson. All things died.
A shout cut off his thoughts. It was Boros ordering them to readiness, the Tau were on the horizon. Sephon could see them, a line of Devilfish carriers filled with Fire Warriors was approaching with avian Kroot loping alongside them.
"Fire!" Knight-sergeant Kun ordered. The Devastator squad Alber opened fire, their heavy bolters ripping into the Kroot lines, shredding bodies and scoring holes into the Devilfish. One carrier crashed and crushed a handful of Kroot beneath its bulk. At that point the vox exploded. Contact had been made on all fronts, Squad Einhorn reported that a Kroot monstrosity was assaulting their line and had already killed two knights; Squad Langort reported that Vespid stingwings were swarming into their post and were requesting Thunderhawk support to stem the tide; Squads Winden and Zucken voxed that a force of elite battlesuits were punching right into their defence and that four knights were wounded, a Sky Knight was immediately dispatched from the main group to aid them.
Sephon fired his bolt pistol, taking a Kroot in the head. Another two shots brought down another that leapt over its fallen comrade's corpse. Blasting away at the Kroot Sephon engaged his jump-pack, preparing for the jump into their ranks. Boros took down a pair of Kroot that neared the barrier while the heavy bolters of Squad Alber continued to pin down the majority of the enemy force. They had to be broken now before reinforcements could arrive and make this into a battle of attrition.
"White Knights! Into them!" Boros cried, throttling into the air. Sephon followed immediately as did the rest of Squad Hauen, the squires remaining behind with Squad Alber. Drawing his blade at the apex of the jump Sephon raised the chainsword high and gunned the ignition, the engine howling as it and its bearer fell through the air. Landing with a crash Sephon immediately brought the blade down into the chest of a Kroot, slicing through the xenos in one clean stroke. Spinning on his heel to decapitate another the Knight raised his bolt pistol and fired close range at two more stunned by his landing.
All around him the squad was engaging in battle. Knights Ronnet and Tancol fought back to back, Knight Daganot was locking blades with a large Kroot while Knights Castig and Sakramare were routing a group of Fire Warriors that had disembarked from their transport. Missiles from Squad Alber continued to bring down the Devilfish carriers while bolter shots from the squad's squires killed the Tau as they attempted to disembark or leap from their burning vehicles.
A squawk of aggression caught Sephon's attention. A Kroot had entered the battle, though it was distinct from the others. It bore two sharp blades rather than the bayoneted primitive rifles the others carried. Its crest was brightly crimson and where the other Kroot were lithe and skinny this one was bulkier and lighter in hue than the rest. They seemed to defer to it, like some kind of officer. Sephon had read reports of such Kroot, they were known as Shapers, the gene-smiths of the Kroot race that guided their evolution and honed their people into better killers by cherry-picking the best DNA from other races. This one had altered itself clearly, and judging from the shape it had taken on there could be no doubt that it had used Astartes DNA. Sephon felt his rage soar, an alien dared to mock the Adeptus Astartes by assuming their form. It would answer for this sacrilege. Raising his sword to point at the Kroot Sephon shouted across the battlefield,
"Creature! Kroot! I challenge thee to battle, meet me in swords if you dare." The call was made. Single combat had been issued. Unlike the Tau who showed genuine confusion at the challenge the Kroot's eyes narrowed, a bird-like hiss escaping from its beak. It understood. It accepted. Marching towards each other the other Kroot showed their understanding by backing away, this was their Shaper's fight. The Tau also backed away, not because they understood but likely they did not want to antagonize the Shaper by interrupting his battle. The White Knights continued the battle, but kept clear of Sephon. This was his fight and his alone.
The two combatants began circling each other, their battle had become an oasis of calm in the raging sea of roaring chainswords and bolter rounds exploding. The Shaper twirled his blades in an arc, passing them to the opposite hand and back again while they were spinning. Sephon was not impressed. Galarad had always said that a true swordsman doesn't need to intimidate his opponent with flashy hand tricks, let his bladework do that.
The Shaper struck first, lashing with its right sword. Sephon parried the blow to the side and aimed a blow at the savage's chest which was blocked by the left sword held inverted. The Kroot side-stepped and unleashed a flurry of stabs at Sephon's chest. It was faster than it looked, its Astartes DNA was making it a foe to be reckoned with.
Sephon leapt back and blocked another strike. Gunning his chainsword into life he slashed at the blade, sparks flying as the adamantium teeth tried to chew through the metal. Whatever it was made of it was tough enough that the chainsword couldn't rip through it immediately. The Shaper did not give it the chance, quickly withdrawing its sword and ducking under to hack at Sephon's arms. The White Knight barely brought his blade back in time to prevent his right arm from being severed.
The Shaper squawked and unleashed another flurry of hacking strikes, trying to get through Sephon's guard and slice the vulnerable parts of his armour, the joints of the arms and legs and the neck. It knew how to kill Astartes, it had killed them before. A well-timed feint broke Sephon's concentration and allowed the Kroot to drive his blade through the marine's midriff. Pulling it free and hopping back to avoid the counter-strike the Kroot began to squawk repeatedly, it was laughing at him.
Sephon cursed as he leaned to his side. Galarad would have made short work of this abomination. A flash of his old mentor filled his mind for an instant. That instant was all it took. Sephon remembered the lessons of his erstwhile teacher. That a swordsman was worthless if he didn't believe in himself, and that doubts were a heavier weight than any armour. Sephon remembered the first words Galarad had ever spoken to him; the day he had been told he would become an Astartes; the day Galarad knighted him and clasped him on the shoulder and called him brother afterwards. His words on death.
Sephon struck at the Shaper's blade, his sword tearing through the hilt of his foe's right blade and taking two of its fingers with it. The creature howled in pain, but to its credit it kept up the attack. Its remaining sword slashing and scored a cut across Sephon's helmet, the White Knight repaid the blow by bringing his blade across and slicing the Shaper's left arm off at the elbow joint. He did not give the creature time to scream again. Raising his blade above his head he brought it down on the alien's head, the teeth cutting through skull and brain in an instant. Sephon kept the blade going until he had reached the xenos's groin and cut through it. The Kroot fell into two halves, its blood and innards spilling out all over the Space Marine's boots and the hem of his robe.
The remaining Kroot squawked at their leader's death. One drew its blade and rushed at Sephon, eager to end his life while he was distracted. A staccato bark sent the Kroot sprawling across the plain, headless. Sephon turned to see Knight-sergeant Boros end the remaining two Kroot before they could attempt such dishonour themselves. Looking around himself Sephon saw that the battle was done. The Tau had been routed, the White Knights were surrounded by dead Tau, Kroot and wrecked Devilfish carriers that still burnt, sending the smell of promethium and smoke into the air. Sephon holstered his blade and nodded towards the bisected Shaper, it had been an honourable and enjoyable fight and the Shaper deserved some respect for meeting the challenge.
But it wasn't the victory that brought a smile to Knight Sephon underneath his blood-stained helmet. It was that for the first time since Knight-sergeant Boros informed him that Knight Galarad was dead that he felt at peace with it. Galarad had died honourably in battle, and was with the Emperor now preparing to join the ultimate battle. And one day Sephon would join him, though hopefully not for many years.
The two boys clashed on the dirt plain. Both were naked from the waist up and dressed in simple tan breeches and boots. Their blades were common longswords and both were starting to tire. The taller boy was dominating the shorter, younger one who was clearly having a hard time of it. His mop of auburn hair was drenched in sweat and he was bleeding from several cuts across his body. In the stands sat the reason they fought so hard, the White Knights had returned to Cyrax for the next generation. The Time of Testing was upon them again. The tall boy hammered at his opponent, forcing him to give ground.
"Tennis fights well, he'll advance," Knight-sergeant Ronnet said. Knight-sergeant Sephon nodded, the boy Tennis was built like a slab of muscle and had a good fighting stance for one so young. He'd had some training beforehand, likely a knightly father or close family member. He would have no real trouble passing and advancing to the next stage of the trials, and would more than likely be called to join them. Sephon was more interested in the other boy, who was attempting a hasty defence and trying not to give anymore ground to his foe. His name was Karadac and he was struggling in the trial, he was the smallest of the group and had passed his other trials, though not by a good margin. The Master of Sanctity did not rate his chances high when compared with the others, nor did Ronnet.
Tennis brought his sword down and feinted, Karadac took the bait and was rewarded with a pommel to the face. His nose gushing blood and clearly broken Karadac went down. The skull-helmed Master of Sanctity rose and called Victor. The duel was done, the trial over. Tennis smirked and sheathed his sword. Karadac grimaced on the ground and slammed his fist into the dirt. Sephon recognized the expression he had on his face, it wasn't hate for his opponent nor for the Astartes who had declared him the loser. It was for himself for failing. And yet he got back up and marched to the sides, awaiting the next challenge.
"So which one do you plan on taking?" Ronnet asked. Sephon hummed and nodded towards Karadac in the stands, attempting to fix his broken nose on his own.
"Him. I'll take him."
"Him?" Ronnet asked, surprised. "Why?"
Sephon remembered Galarad and his words to him on that fateful night.
"Because if he wants more for himself, like I think he does, then he can become anything he wants to be."
Fixed broken bbcode tag - DTH