Seven months. It'd taken seven months for the men of the Regereth Fighting Fifth to take the hive. Over six hundred kilometers in diameter of habs, markets and the processing factories for ceramite plating for tanks and other armoured vehicles. Initial assessments had put the city under their control inside of a month as the weight of the full regiment fell on the city. The estimates were wrong.
It wasn't for underestimating the topography, nor the ability or armament of the enemy, but for something far fouler. It's taint seemed to seep into everything causing numerous outbreaks of disease amongst the men. Over a thousand had died in the first wave from the infections alone as the heretics held them off. One company had disappeared completely without a word into a pale yellow fog that had seeped from the factory vents. Not a single shot or vox transmission was heard from them and they were written off as dead. Since that wave two changes occurred. The first was that every man was to wear full protective equipment at all times, forcing them to drink their protein slurry meals through their water tubes while inside the city, the second was that officers were to accompany the men to watch them more closely to ensure that the taint does not affect them.
So for seven months Captain Jeseph Grimms lead his company through the city. The heretics weren't the only obstacle though, and the losses were steep everywhere. First there was the buzzing that overpowered even vox traffic and often caused men to start bleeding from the ears. Several companies independently identified the source from the city's vox system and forcibly, and in one case explosively, disabled the speakers in their area. Likewise transmitters and speakers were disabled as soon as they were identified, slowing the pace to a crawl as blindly turning a corner could cause a person to stumble into range of another of the infernal devices. So eight corridors of relative silence were opened, each making their way to the center of the city.
The second problem was encountered a third of the way into the city. There the heretics had seemingly disappeared, creating a calm that they quickly learned was premature. Here the dead had covered everything. At first it seemed like the place was just a pestilent sea of bodies, but even that assessment was proven wrong as the dead began to stir. Bloated bodies of corpse gas and maggots would rise and move towards the still living. Shrugging off all but the most grievous of injuries the bodies had forced them to slow further still as to ensure they didn't continue their assaults they were burned in massive pyres. Thousands of pyres and the loss of four companies had filled the space between the last of the heretical militia and the governor's mansion that stood at the center of the city. Rising on a plateau of ceramite and steel over the city the building was a fortress unto itself, an island amongst a sea of corpses. And now the waves of man crashed against it.
Grimms sipped his lunch ration through the drinking straw in his mask and watched as the heavy tanks repeatedly shelled the thick walls as his aide jogged up to him holding a dataslate. Part of him was amused that he'd developed a sense of telling his men apart despite not being able to see their faces. Another part of him was just looking forward to a hot shower and even hotter mug of recaff finally.
"I got the documents you requisitioned. You think we can find a way in there with these maps?"
Behind his mask Grimms smiled, "Of course. I couldn't keep wearing officer's rank if I was ever wrong." In truth it was only a small gut feeling but he'd long since stopped doubting them. He thumbed through the map and felt his grin broadened into a full smile, "Kindron, get me two squads and a box of demo charges. Unless these maps are wrong we have a way in."
Kindron didn't disappoint as he was back inside of fifteen minutes, with Delta and Epsilon squads in tow, two of the men towards the back carrying a box between them.
Grimms filled them in on the basics of the plan and they were moving, dropping back two blocks to an access cover to the city's sewers. Slipping down the ladder the men entered the sewers, Grimms taking point as a matter of habit now as his men filed behind him. Mentally counting off the paces in his head they made their way back through the drainage tunnel to where he was sure the mansion sat. Under it's heart he called a stop and pointed up, "Our way in gentlemen. Now if you'd be so kind as to knock we can go tell them the good news about the Emperor."
A couple men chuckled, more out of nervous anticipation then anything as the ring of charges were set up. Backing away nearly fifty paces they all crouched down and silently opened their mouths as Grimms counted down to them with his fingers. With a krump the pressure hit them as the ceiling ahead collapsed in a cloud of dust and debris. Almost immediately they were on the hole and Grimms went through the bottleneck first, laspistol in one hand and a regimental officer's sabre in the other. Room by room they cleared the building from the bottom up only finding the dead as they continued up. The corpses were mummified things that seemed to have died suddenly in the midst of their daily lives, some eating a meal, others cleaning rooms. It wasn't until they found the small hospital that they found a living person.
The bloated form was spilling out the torn and rotting remains of medicae scrubs the green skin rotting in places, and covered in festering boils in others. As they entered with weapons drawn the survivor seemed to turn into a blur of movement as it crushed the throat of one man and disemboweled another in the time it took to exhale, clearing half the room in that sliver of a moment. Several of them opened fire, Grimms included, the hot las shots slicing into skin and puncturing the body, vile fluids and pus leaking from the wounds as the creature started to laugh.
"Come on, you come to my garden, uproot my beautiful plantings and the best you can do is small stings with your little weapons? I'd been hoping for so much more from you," three more men died as the beast spoke, the voice clearly an old man's mixed with a second voice that sounded like it was made from the buzzing of flies.
Grimms lunged at the creature with the saber, the blade biting through skin and peeling back fat. Even through the filters of his mask he nearly recoiled at the smell as bloated entrails rolled out of the creature's torn gut but he forced the rising bile in his throat down as he kept slashing, the creature now focused on him with a grin that was far too wide for its fat face. Whatever the thing had been before the uprising it was clear now that what humanity that had once been in the thing was lost now in the creature's bloated visage.
As Grimms hacked at the creature the beast deflected and parried some of the strikes with its hands while blocking with its arms with others all the while laughter continued to roll out of the creature's mouth like a waterfall of filth. "Come lapdog, surely you can show me more amusement than this! Show me that allowing you to get to make it through my garden was the right choice!"
Grimms was breathing hard now as his stamina was slowly being chipped away and he knew he needed something to turn the way things were going before the thing got tired of him and just killed him. His body involuntarily pulled back from the creature's flapping entrails as it moved around him and a plan formed in his mind. Lunging with the blade he allowed it to be turned away and used the twisting motion to slam his laspistol inside of the creature's gut before pulling back an empty hand. Falling back two steps he ducked just as the laspistol detonated with the force of a grenade, throwing bone and flesh across the room as the body was broken in two with a wet thwump.
The laughter grew louder as the torso trembled where it lay on the floor, milky white eyes looking up at Grimms, the buzzing undertone climbing in volume as it seemed to consume the body's original voice, "I knew I'd like you Captain. Yes, a man like you doesn't come around too often." The torso paused and coughed up a mouthful of phlegm before continuing, "Yes, I think I'll give such fine men a little gift. A gift full of life so that we may enjoy such company again." The coughing increased as the body tried to breathe with its ruined lungs before the body collapsed completely.
One of the men, Yungs, gestured towards the body with the barrel of his weapon at the corpse, "What did he mean 'life'?"
"Some foul thing we're better off not knowing I'd bet." was what Grimms was going to say, but the words were lost as the room was filled with a cracking noise before the body burst with pale green light.
Reports later say that the light covered most of the city, haloing out from the crumbling mansion with a deafening shockwave that flattened ruined buildings and damaged those that remained. When the light died the only things certain to the lord-general's scribes, the offensive was over, and that something tainted with the foul stench of chaos had occurred.
The next two weeks for Captain Grimms and his men were spent fighting back out of the city, no longer supported with arms and equipment but full of anger at the fact that they were suspected of being tainted by the ruinous powers. Something began to gnaw at him though as they pushed back out. Something that said the accusation might be right.
It'd started with Igness losing a leg to a rocket only to be back on his feet with in two days. Both feet in fact. If Grimms was a faithful man he'd thought it was a miracle of the Emperor among them as many of his men did but he began to feel that the truth may be something darker. But a good officer doesn't leave his men to just die so the fight continued. And so did the miracles. Thran regained an eye that he'd lost two years ago. Hewinson stood back up after being pronounced dead after he'd been caught in a fatal funnel entering a building. Quinton's throat vox fell out as his body regrew his once torn out vocal cords. Reports kept coming that the Emperor was on their side and blessing them and despite himself Grimms couldn't tell the men otherwise.
On the fourteenth day of fighting Captain Grimms fought through six lethal wounds to personally decapitate the Lord-General before falling over dead. Forty-nine minutes later he stood back up and for the first time in nearly eight months breathed fresh air. It was the first time in his life he could feel that living felt so good.
The remaining officers of the Fighting Fifth held a meeting to determine what to do now that they'd rebelled against the chain of command and lived through fatal wounds. Grimms was the first to voice something other than concerns, his voice calmly retelling the events inside of the mansion to those around him. After he finished his account he looked at the few dozen officers still left, his voice firm but soft.
"Something happened here, and I can't be sure it was brought on by the hand of the Emperor. Not with the way our name has been drug through the mud and the accusations of being tainted have come about. Something keeps us alive through all but a complete destruction of our bodies. Something that said that it wanted to play with us again." He paused and looked around at the men assembled, "So I believe we have a choice. We can use this 'gift' to find and destroy the foul taint that decided that we shouldn't be able to die in the name of the Emperor, or we can turn ourselves over to the powers that be and wait a likely shameful death. Both paths lead to dishonor and death, the only option I see is if we die on our feet as the Fighting Fifth, or on our knees like helpless casualties."
When Grimms and those who chose to accompany him left a single company's worth of men remained behind to await the fate of the Imperium's judgement. A week later as their ship, now freed of the Imperial Navy crew and plunging recklessly through the warp with a lone astropath who offered herself up in exchange for letting the remaining crew leave alive, the screaming began.
At first it seemed to be an isolated case. Frinkerson had cut himself shaving and watched in horror as arachnids came pouring out of the small cut, their bodies pouring out in place of his blood like an uncontrollable torrent. Marden dropped a knife into his own foot while fooling around and ended up with a boot full of angry wasps that tore at his flesh and attacked his skin. And the reports kept coming in. Men weren't bleeding when hurt but seemed to be full of flesh eating parasites, maggots and other creatures that crawled their way out of any cut, scrape or slash. The wounds didn't stay, sealing themselves up in minutes or hours. The worst of them took a week to heal as the man had been infected with some kind of flesh eating worm that kept burrowing out of his skin.
Grimms could feel the blighted things writhing beneath his skin as he sat in his darkened quarters, a mug of grain alcohol in hand. Had he made the right choice to fight fate? Could he stay sane long enough to find the creature that'd given them not just life, but the life of so many other things that now wracked their bodies in pain almost constantly? He swallowed the remains of the glass and was about to pour another when a knock on the door made him pause. "One moment." He slid the mask over his face, the pockmarked, writhing surface disappearing from the view of his guest, something most of the men now did to hide the horrors that were plaguing their bodies from themselves and others. He figured if that was what it took for the men to stay sane then he might as well oblige himself.
The mask secured he spoke again, "Enter."
The light grey robes of the ship's astropath greeted him, the woman's pale skin almost the same color, the only bit of color on her the red cloth she covered her eyes with and the gold icon of office she wore around her waist. "Captain Grimms, the men say you're the one in charge."
Two things stood out to him in that moment, the first was that with the ship in the Warp she should be in her chambers, the second was that her voice contained the sound of hundreds of wing beats, the feathery sound making the woman's normal voice light and musical instead of the flat and hoarse sound that usually came out of her lips.
"I don't know who you are, but if you don't leave my astropath don't think I won't kill you and continue blind."
The woman chuckled, "Aren't you already blind Captain? Chasing a creature you can't name, have never seen again and don't know where to look for?" She cocked her head to one side and then the other, the mannerism reminding him of the Glint Bird trying to work out how to get food out of a nut.
"Your point?" He could see small light blue feathers starting to break through the woman's skin now along the sides of her neck.
"I come with an offer from the Changer of Ways. He'll provide you information to help you find this servant of the Grandfather you seek."
"Why would he do such a thing?"
The woman chuckled, the sound more like a bird's song than a laugh at this point, "He and the Grandfather have been against each other for longer than time itself and he relishes in any chance he can bring change to the Grandfather's rotting stagnation. All you need to do is listen to him and he'll ensure that you get your chance to meet this creature. The journey will be long and hard for you, but I'm sure a man of your caliber can manage, yes?"
Realizing that he'd been slowly creeping forward in his seat he leaned back and folded his hands, "My ability to mange is beside the point. I don't want any more surprises and frankly being asked to be a pawn in some game I can't even see is something I can't just agree too."
The woman's neck seemed to lengthen as she bowed her head slightly in agreement, "Indeed, and I wouldn't come to a man such as yourself with such a worthless offer. No, we offer only information. Some of it will be vague and confusing to you Captain, but we promise that if you follow it that we'll be able to draw out the creature from where it hides amongst the Grandfather's gardens. It's a path of blood, both of friends and foes, but it's a path that will give you the chance you seek."
Grimms considered the options before him before sighing in resignation, "As if I really had a choice in this matter. I've already made myself a traitor to the Imperium in the name of revenge and am tainted with chaos itself. At this point I can't really see an option now that I've set on this path beyond your offer to make the journey a little shorter. So what do I need to do first?"
The woman smiled a little too broadly, "I knew you'd come around Captain. First finish your drink and I'll help your little witch here navigate the ship to the first destination of your trip. Make sure your men are ready, because if they aren't that immortality you carry won't be enough to win with."
Grimms nodded and set the glass down and grabbed the bottle, pointing it towards the feathering woman, "To damnation then."
She smiled before turning to leave the room, "To damnation indeed."