“Today we will sit in the Hall of our Ancestors”
“Today we will all die”
The four Guardsmen exchanged handshakes, smiled and offered each other words of encouragement, before passing around the last bottle of wine that was still drinkable in the city.
Studying the label with a smile on his face was Rolph Schaeffer, a grizzled sergeant with skin that looked like bleached leather. He sported a filthy bandage around his forehead and his left hand was blackened and burnt. He sat back against the trench wall and sighed loudly.
“What a bloody shame, eh?”
A smaller thick-set soldier wearing a battered forage cap with his face twisted into a scowl lay next to him, a thick stogie balanced between his lips.
“We just thought we were so bloody clever didn’t we, so bloody tough, so bloody superior”
The Shining Planet - The Dying Planet
343rd Jirmania Imperial Guard Regiment, initial strength 3,678; current strength unknown, probable casualty rate 99.8%
“Movement, quarter right”, hissed the third member of the group, a tall fair-haired youth who was probably no more than eighteen but with a face aged far beyond its years. “Auspex shows multiple targets approaching, one hundred metres”. He pulled up the breach cover on the heavy-stubber and placed a belt of rounds on the feed tray; he then slammed the cover shut and pulled back the cocking lever.
Schaeffer, and his companion, the indefatigable Dormagen, corporal first-class, slid in either side of him and brought their lasguns into their shoulders.
“Come death, come” whispered the last man in the group, priming two grenades and checking the firing switches on the anti-personnel mines that were spread out in front of their position.
The vox set crackled to life.
“One this is two, you there Schaeffer?”
The sergeant grabbed the hand piece, barely concealing his anger.
“Go on Fisher; go on for Emperor’s sake”
The set crackled again “We are on your three. We have them flanked, stand by”
The noise came again. The low drone, the hum, barely audible at first, but getting louder and louder as the enemy approached.
“Most beloved Emperor, I accept whatever kind of death You send me today, and except the pain, penalties and sorrows, and do so in the knowledge that you watch over me in my final moments. Watch over my comrades, and let them also die well, in your name..”
The open area to their front was once a municipal park full of exotic flowers and shrubs, with fountains and quiet, shady areas of green. It was now a desolate filthy landscape of corpses and burnt-out vehicles. The ground began to move.
A billion black flies rose up in an organic cloud of pestilence, and behind them came a host of grey shuffling figures.
“Fire!” clipped Schaeffer and before he had finished the command, the mines went off in a series of dull bangs, followed by six distinct flashes. The air was suddenly full with the screams and death rattles of dozens of the enemy, quickly followed by the patter of flesh and smashed equipment. The heavy stubber opened up followed by the remaining lasguns. The first three ranks of the enemy disappeared in a haze of smoke and viscera.
“Fisher, Fisher! Now would be nice!” Schaeffer shouted, and over to the right, the top windows of a factory shell erupted in a sheet of flame and flashes as the second squads ambush went in.
The enemy, emaciated corpse-people corrupted beyond measure and clad in the rotting skin stripped from the long-dead populace of the city, were hard to kill. With the ubiquitous flies and the heaving mass of crawling insect-things, conventional weapons were next to useless.
Fifteen minutes after dawn. One hundred and sixty seven cultists lay dead, their bodies twisted and broken in a ragged line in front of the fire position. A bank of murky smoke hung over the field, reeking of disease and death to come. The flies gorged and clicked their wings with delight.
Dormagen grimaced as he placed his last field dressing against a shrapnel wound to his neck. It would soon begin to fester, that was how it was here on this damnable planet. But he was a dead man anyway; it was only a matter of time.
Fisher appeared a few minutes later carrying a body across his broad shoulders. The casualty did not move and his limbs hung limply from a bloody uniform.
Schaeffer helped him lay the trooper down. It was Lutz, second platoons sniper, bleeding out and with only seconds to live. He looked up at them through lidded eyes and grinned through blood-caked lips.
“They got me in the end sarge’ he coughed ‘will you..”
“..do the honours’ Schaeffer cut in ‘of course I will’, he stroked the mans forehead ‘go on lad, you go to sleep now. We will join you shortly”.
Lutz coughed again and thick blood flowed down his chin and his eyes finally closed. Dormagen shook his head and turned away. Although he was a career veteran who had survived countless battles, like Schaeffer, he had lost everyone he had ever known. All his friends, all his comrades, men who he had drank and fought with, were now dead. He and Schaeffer were the only one’s left from the original First Platoon, the Kopftjagers, the dreaded Head-hunters. When all of this was over, would anyone ever remember their names, would anyone ever know what they did here? Would anyone care?
“Alright’ Schaeffer said finally ‘let’s reposition again and find somewhere else to hide. Police up all the ammo and kit and prepare to move”.
Dormagen grunted and nodded towards Lutz.
“What about the boy?”
Schaeffer frowned. “Burn him”.
* * *
District 67, Panis Officina number 4
Dawn never came today, the sun never rose. It was an omen of things to come.
The survivors peered wearily out of the windows from their new defensive position on the fifth floor, and looked up into a blood-red sky streaked with dark green and yellow vomit.
A few of them muttered the Litany of Protection
, most shook their heads in resignation.
Dormagen, oblivious to anything accept the grumbling in his stomach, was rummaging through a row of neat cupboards lining one wall looking for food. He was cursing and throwing items to the floor in disgust. Finally, after finding nothing of any substance to eat, he rejoined Schaeffer by the entrance, an immense cavern of a doorway barricaded with stacks of wooden pallets, reinforced with plasteel rods and braces.
“Everything’s bleedin’ rotten in this forsaken hole, everything is spoilt”.
Schaeffer turned and tried to smile.
“At least we are still alive, eh?” They both laughed, which caused the rest of the men to turn around. Schaeffer drew up a large padded chair, dropped his webbing and lasgun to the floor and sat down heavily.
Dormagen sighed “Rolph, what are we doing here?”
Schaeffer sat back and ran his good hand through his grey hair. He raised an eyebrow.
“We are here saving the population from the deprivations of a foul xenos race. We are here in the name of the Emperor?”
They laughed again, Dormagen with more gusto than his sergeant.
“Saving the population’ he reflected ‘do you remember when we first got here? A local clean up operation they said, nothing too taxing. A small cult rising, nothing more. And now’, he shouted over his shoulder ‘Zimmerman, you poxed son-of-a-whore, how long have we been on this planet anyway?”
A be-speckled trooper ambled over to them, and then squatted. He had lost his helmet and sported a threadbare field cap. A small skull and crossbones badge, grinned back with a knowing smile. Despite the corrupted air, its silver surface had not been tarnished.
“Forty eight days corporal, forty eight days”.
“And in that time you poor excuse for a guardsman you; have you even seen any of the native population’, he hesitated ‘real population that is, not the stinking mutants?”
Zimmerman frowned “Apart from the welcoming committee on the first day, not one corporal, not a single, solitary citizen”.
Dormagen turned to the sergeant. “So what went wrong then…?”
Another trooper coughed discretely.
“Sergeant, we’ve found something”
* * *
The ovens were massive structures designed to bake hundreds of pasty-white loaves for the hungry populace. This particular floor housed at least fifty of the silver metal machines. All of them were empty now, their sides pitted and rusted in the spore-filled air. All of their doors hung open forlornly, all of them bar one.
The trooper nodded towards it.
“Watch the space below the door”.
Schaeffer, Dormagen and Fisher were lying prone under a pile of mouldy flour sacks, their weapons sticking out like long black fingers.
“What are we looking for?” Dormagen was restless.
“Shhhh! Watch. We spotted it earlier in a routine sweep of the area.”
An imperceptible sound like a breath of wind. Schaeffer glanced at Dormagen who shrugged his shoulders. The floor began to move as a trap door slowly opened. The blackness under the floor appeared empty, but then, as if materialising from nothing a mop of long dirty hair appeared followed by the angelic face of a child. Wide eyes blinked, a mouth opened and closed with unheard words.
The child pulled herself free and squatted, her ear close to the dusty floor. Satisfied she was alone; she stood upright, with her hands on her hips, stretching her back to relieve her aching muscles. She wore shabby rags, loose-fitting and filthy. Her feet were bare and bloody and bore old injuries that stood out like blackened welts.
She made her way towards the waiting guardsman, but when she was about five metres away, caution crept in and she abruptly stopped.
Dormagen was probably fifty years old, but his service to the God-Emperor had toned him into a fit fighting machine. When he wanted to, he could move fast, much faster than a small, malnourished child.
A pathetic whimper left her lips as Dormagen swept her up into his arms. He had a brief respite before she attacked.
The veteran of a thousand battles had mixed it with seven-foot tall Orks, armoured-plated Tyrannids and drug-crazed hive-gangers, toe-to-toe, blade to blade. Never, during all those close-quarter battles, had he ever been bested. Until today.
Before he could react, the girl had ripped open his right cheek with a hidden blade and sunk her teeth into his open hand. She was on her toes before any of them could react.
All that is, save Albert Zimmerman, Zimmerman the philosopher, Zimmerman the regiment’s champion sprinter. He was not as complacent as the others and grappled her to the ground, pinning her thin arms and legs and covering her mouth with a glove-encased fist. She screamed and then went limp before breaking into a fit of uncontrolled crying.
Schaeffer and Fisher were laughing uncontrollably, helping Dormagen to his feet as if he was an octogenarian elder.
“Fik you all’ he cursed ‘I didn’t want to hurt her, that’s all”, he then went into a tirade of grumbles and curses.
“Now then’ said Schaeffer ‘who have we got here?”
* * *
“My name is Teri, Teri Ibo and unless you ‘ave got any food, let me go. I got work to do, important work”.
The girl had not reached her teens yet, but already walked with a confidence born through necessity. She was alone, she explained, and her family were all dead, killed and eaten by the zombies. Now she had a new family and they were her responsibility. The guardsmen had to let her go.
Teri was very matter-of-fact, very cold. Every once of her childhood had been squeezed out of her, her innocence had gone. All that mattered to her was to survive.
“And hide from the zombies”
Schaeffer gave her a piece of mouldy bread, which she wolfed down eagerly.
“Where do you hide from the zombies Teri?” She stopped chewing and eyed them suspiciously.
“I’m not telling you, no, you might be them…” She took Dormagen’s flask and sniffed the contents.
“This is grown-up drink, I’m not allowed to drink grown-up drink, and my Pa said it was…’ she trailed off. Schaeffer was holding up a candy bar.
“We are here to help you Teri. Let us help you, that’s why we are here”.
The girl looked at the group of faces in front of her and shrugged her shoulders.
“All the other soldiers came to help us and they are dead now’ she paused and appeared to make a decision ‘I’ll take you to my hide out but you must promise to keep it secret. You will keep it secret won’t you?”
Schaeffer smiled “Yes Teri, we won’t tell any one”
* * *
They were a pitiful sight. A hundred malnourished, rag-covered skeletons, whose colour and smell matched the corrupted world around them. They huddled together in a tight group, wide-eyed and frightened.
Mark Parr stepped forward. Mark Parr, Exactoris for the Fourteenth Street Commercium Territorium. A tax collector was the nearest damn thing that the survivors had to a leader, and so he had to do. Safe in their hidden cellar, he had directed the fittest to go out and collect food and water for the sick and the lame. Teri was chosen because she was cunning. She was also very pretty and Mark Parr had an eye for young, pretty girls.
He was once a portly man with a love for fine foods and vittles, but time and depredation had ravaged his flesh and now his skin hung in folds around his neck and stomach. His skin was almost opaque and covered in liver spots and a thin layer of sweat and grease. He rubbed his hands together and rocked from side to side, constantly licking his blistered lips. He coughed and spluttered like a man with typhus. He was already dead, he just did not know it yet.
“We are saved’ he dribbled ‘thank the Gods you are here”. Schaeffer slowly pulled the mans hands away from his collar and stepped back.
“By the Gods, I take it you mean God, THE God Emperor?”
Parr stuttered “Of course, of course’ and he stopped suddenly and looked at the group of ragged Guardsman in front of him ‘Is this it? Are you all there is?”
Dormagen pushed past him and entered the large room. He immediately recoiled when the stench filled his senses.
Parr coughed “It’s the pox; most of them have got it. It’s the air, it’s polluted”. Schaeffer waved Zimmerman over.
“You’ve got some apothecary skills, give them the once over’, he tapped Dormagen on the shoulder ‘get sentries out, find out if this place can be defended”
Dormagen grunted and then clipped off a few orders to his men, who immediately moved off.
Within seconds Dormagen was back, an oily rag around his mouth and nose. He shook his head vigorously.
“No good Rolph, this place is a charnel house. We have got to get out of here”
Another guardsman sprinted over.
“Forget that, the enemy is in the next room and coming this way”
The citizens were slow, hungry and terrified. The hounds and the plague creatures of the enemy were motivated by the prospect of fresh meat. Their Gods also watched over them.
Teri led the way with Dormagen beside her. The citizens, like an unruly mob, were herded behind them with the remaining guardsman, all eight of them, protecting the rear.
Schaeffer killed the first of the enemy, a long-armed loping Nurgling, as they crossed a covered walk-way between their hideout and the next building. Eight more of the creatures had been incinerated before they reached the city zoo. By the time they reached the vast promethium bulk cylinders near the Spaceport, only five of the guards remained.
When Teri took them through a labyrinth of service tunnels and maintenance bays, to a five-story blockhouse, the whole city was alive with the crawling, mewing servants’ of the enemy.
The guardsmen spread out covering all the entrances and barricading them where they could. Schaeffer decided that it was just to place to hold up, as if it was chosen for them. If they could only keep their heads down, did not bring attention to themselves, they might just make it.
Zimmermann found a powerful vox-set hidden behind a false wall in a side office.
“This is PDF” said Dormagen, his mood lifted by the unexpected gift.
“Can you get it up and running?”
“I should think so, but it might be risky, the filth might have vox-locators”
Zimmermann frowned “I don’t think they have the capability to do that, they are nothing but beasts”.
Schaeffer stroked his chin “Get it done”
* * *
“Who is this, identify yourself?” boomed the voice with a slight accent that spoke of far off systems and the vastness of deep space. Schaeffer grabbed the vox mike. He was sweating profusely despite the damp air in the office.
“Senior Sergeant Schaeffer, first company, 343rd Jirmania Infantry. To whom do I owe the pleasure?” There was an almost unbearable pause before the vox crackled back to life.
“If it is important, I am Corvas Vicente, Chief Vox officer of the Emperor’s Retribution’
he appeared to hesitate ‘we received a distress call, and our fleet is now anchored in high orbit’ a long pause followed ‘we did not expect to find any survivors. Standby by for further instructions”.
The room was suddenly electric and everything still as if time itself was frozen. Only the sound of heavy, laboured breathing could be heard and the distant rumble of thunder.
After what seemed like an eternity, the vox hissed back to life.
“We are coming…”
Children remember firework displays, adults usually pay for them. On Day 49, the skies above the city were lit up for the largest show of pyrotechnics they had ever seen. Today the planet would be liberated, today the Emperor’s best, the Astartes were coming to cleanse the foul stench of Chaos.
Drop pods, hundreds of them, like inverted Ecclesiarchy bells, streaked out of the sky on fiery tails of blood red smoke. Seconds later the dull booms of retro rockets could be heard as their descent was slowed down before deployment.
Schaeffer was on edge. His men and all of the civilians were already celebrating, singing songs of praise, hugging and kissing each other like young adolescents. Even Dormagen was engaged in a hip-rubbing dance with a buxom matriarch who staggered under the effects of recently discovered alcohol.
The veteran sergeant propped his lasgun up against the window sill and scanned the distant storm with his magnoculars. Beyond the ruins of the far quarter hung a dense cloud of smoke that flashed with internal explosions. Deliverance was coming in the form of the Space Marines and their cohorts of armoured vehicles. Today they would be saved.
Schaeffer hesitated, and then lowered his view slightly to the streets in front of the bakery. All along the central reservation that separated the six lane highway was a row of tall lime trees. But now they were no longer there, they had simply disappeared. In their stead, the cultists had erected their own totems to their foul god. Two hundred wooden poles had been driven into the soft earth, and impaled on the sharp ends were the twitching bodies of human children and babies. Standing tall in front of them was a Nurgle marine carrying a rocket-launcher carved into the shape of a screaming serpent. It grinned at Schaeffer and bellowed a foul challenge of hate.
“Dammit, to Arms! For the Emperor’s sake, To Arms!”
The first rocket blew open the front door and shattered the barricade behind it. Zimmermann, his glasses balanced on the end of his nose, was engrossed in a seedy flesh novel. He was instantly vaporised in a cloud of pink mist. The two civilians cavorting naked behind him lost their legs and died screaming in agony.
Schaeffer rammed a new power cell home and ran towards the breach. The second rocket blew out the wall where he had just been standing, showering him in grey dust and rubble and knocking him heavily to the floor.
Dormagen began firing, followed quickly by Fisher. Eicke was already down; his face a bloody mess and Glowna was whooping like a demented farm animal as he sprayed the entrance with his flamer.
Two grenades rolled in, bouncing off the side walls and then spinning on the rockcrete floor like children’s toys. Two flashes but no sound. Schaeffer was now on one knee aiming at the point of attack. The grenades were smokers, but cover for what? All of his men were now in position, but they were already too late. The smoke bellowed a thick green mass and out of the vortex came scampering figures, plaguebearers, slimy vile bipods bearing blades and axes.
Schaeffer watched the scene unfold, but was unable to react quickly enough as the world around him collapsed in on itself.
Fisher died, never knowing who or what killed him. One second he was glancing down at the selector on his lasgun, the next he was eviscerated and beheaded and his body trampled by scores of clawed feet. Dormagen had disappeared under a pile of heaving bodies and Eicke run through with a poison-tipped sword.
Schaeffer shot two of the vile creatures in the face before clubbing a third with the butt of his lasgun. He reached Dormagen and pushed him roughly aside. Plaugebearers were haranguing him from all sides, slashing, biting and stamping. Schaeffer parried, blocked and stabbed with his bayonet, protecting Dormagen, who was barely conscious and struggling to get to his feet.
The Nurgle marine finally entered the room and the Plaguebearers squealed in excitement. It shouted uncouth words of encouragement before leaning down and lifting Eicke’s bloody corpse into the air. With a casual flick of its gauntleted hand, it flipped the dead troopers head into the air, laughing a deep belly laugh.
Schaeffer let off a long burst of fire before rolling into the relative protection of a side room. He discarded his Lasgun and removed the entrenching tool from his belt. The Nurgle marine did not even break stride as the las rounds struck his chest. It carried on marching forward seeking out more play things to satisfy its god. The plague bearers gathered behind like energetic offspring, swinging their weapons, waiting to slake their eternal appetites for death.
“Burn the bastard’ screamed Schaeffer ‘For the Emperor’s sake Glowna, get a grip”. He pushed the big man forward, shaking him out of his madness and into the real world, and into the world of horror and death. The Nurgle marine sensed him and saw the danger before Glowna even pulled the trigger. He pushed the barrel to one side and pulled Glowna towards him.
“See your death” it hissed. The front of its visor lifted up to reveal a face that was a mass of boils and maggot-infested wounds. A single yellow eye studied the guardsman with mild amusement, before a snake-like proboscis slid forward between an extended jaw of razor-sharp teeth, and drilled into Glowna’s forehead. Blood, bone and brain matter sprayed out, covering the Nurgle marine in a layer or gore. It lifted back its head and screamed its delight.
Schaeffer’s entrenching tool caught the marine under the chin. A normal man would have been decapitated, and the sharpened blade would have cut through the muscles, bone and sinews with ease. But this was no ordinary man, this was a thing of the warp and twisted by unclean gods. Normal physics and biology laws did not matter here.
The blade stuck fast and the marine grunted. To Schaeffer’s horror its face split down the middle and the spade fell to the ground. Then slowly, excruciatingly slowly, it closed as if nothing had happened, the faint wound sutured by a host of frantic insects.
The Nurgle turned and brought up its fell sword, a short Gladius made of a black metal covered in disgusting hieroglyphics . A long snake-like tongue flicked out and licked the blade, before it was plunged into Schaeffer’s shoulder.
“I cannot die, follower of the false God.. You cannot hurt my flesh”. Schaeffer hit the ground, smashing his head on the hard floor. He was suddenly aware of the sound of gunfire and explosions, and bright flashes burned on his retinas. Before he blacked out, he lifted his head and saw the familiar sight of a pair of scuffed Guard-issued combat boots.
Dormagen struck once with his combat knife, cutting through the pipes and cables beneath the Nurgle marine’s breast plate, and opening up the flesh like a peeled citrus fruit. A mass of bubbling entrails cascaded to the floor, filling the air with a putrid smell. The marine looked down in surprise but made no sound. A cloud of insects immediately set about the wound and began to repair it with manic ease. The marine was about to laugh when he saw the object lodged in its intestines.
Dormagen smiled briefly and then dived for cover.
Space Marines are tough superhuman warriors, but not even they can survive a plasma grenade.
With words of hate and blasphemy on its lips, the Nurgle Marine died in a bright flash of superheated fire and was instantly vaporised.
* * *
A vast presence entered the room. There was no sound or hint of his arrival, only a sudden drop in temperature. Schaeffer and Dormagen turned quickly expecting another attack, their tired muscles tense, hearts pounding and blood flowing.
Dormagen’s knife suddenly dropped as his hands opened by a hidden force beyond his control. Schaeffer reeled backwards.
The new arrival was encased in bulky gun metal power armour, etched with golden script. A crimson cloak flowed from his shoulders, held in place by a broach in the shape of a gothic ‘I’. A staff glowed in front of him, a golden staff surmounted by the double-headed Imperial eagle. Though his face was hidden beneath a hood, they were aware that dark eyes were studying them intently.
“The Inquisition”, gasped Dormagen, involuntarily dropping to his knees.
“I am Diaeusidu, Diaeusidu Erala. I am indeed from the Inquisition. You have done very well indeed, I am impressed. Your stoic defence against insurmountable odds does you credit. But now your wait is over, your struggles are at an end”. The Inquisitor nodded indiscernibly and several figures entered the room behind him. From their shapes they were Astartes and Schaeffer gave a sigh of relief.
“Justicar Khan, is it done?” One of the marines stepped out of the shadows and into the light and Schaeffer’s world exploded. Standing a head taller than the Inquisitor was an Astartes of immense stature, encased in ancient silver-grey power armour, its heraldry unique and unknown to the veteran sergeant. On the left shoulder guard was an open book with a sword piercing its cover. He carried a long halberd across his right shoulder that throbbed with hidden power. Bereft of a helmet, Schaeffer was able to look directly into the warrior’s eyes and saw death incarnate, staring back.
“It is done my Lord”
“A Knight’ Schaeffer stuttered and quickly glanced over to Dormagen. His old friend was still on his knees, one of his palms spread out on the cold floor supporting his weight. A marine was standing ominously above him with a stormbolter cradled in his arms.
“Grey Knights”, Dormagen sighed and managed to smile.
“You do not cease to surprise me’ said the Inquisitor ‘for that knowledge is known only to a few”
“I have been about a bit”, grinned Schaeffer.
“Yes, your service to the Emperor has been noted… and appreciated, but..”
“We are the Hammer” added the Justicar.
Schaeffer nodded. “And the others, what about the little girl Teri?”
“She is at peace”.
Schaeffer held up his open palms and then with great reverence, he fumbled around inside his tunic.
Now is the time
, he thought. Dormagen grinned and nodded his head.
“What a bloody shame, eh Rolph?”
Schaeffer found the stogie and the last of his Lucifer’s, and quickly lit its end. He raised his eyebrows and the Inquisitor nodded back. He slowly limped over to his friend’s side and offered him a drag. Dormagen smiled accepting the gift as if it was a bar of gold. He got to his feet and stood next to Schaeffer.
“It is best that the people do not know, it is for the Greater Good’ began the Inquisitor ‘and for that, I feel no remorse, for I am the tool of the eternal Emperor who watches over us all. You are abhorrence to us, an anathema, and a virus that has to be expunged. The universe must be cleansed of the foul pestilence of that which we call Chaos. Chaos is a disease and the Knights of the Emperor will seek out its spores and cut it down wherever they find it’ he waved his arms in a wide arc ‘Iruo Duodecimus is corrupted and must burn’ he paused ‘you must all burn”.
“It is spoken”.
“Today we will sit in the Hall of our Ancestors”
“Today we will all die”