The First of Twelve
- Scoundrel -
A distant star hung low in the skies behind a thick veil of gray atmosphere. Snow swirled through the air and amongst the village streets where only the lurking glow of white lanterns permeated from questionably visible buildings. The locals seemed to have remained indoors for the most part, with only a handful of humanoids seen wandering the icy weather in the past two hours from his stoop. Marius Thanders was contempt with playing the waiting game to meet his contact for now. After all, he'd come this far.
Seven years of searching had passed. Seven restless years of ill managed hatred, and he was finally here. Time had not been kind to the likes of Thanders. Every waking hour of his life since the closing moments of the Zeist Campaign had been as cold and hard as the miserable world he now stood upon. Yet the newly acquired opportunity for vengeance managed to warm the veteran enough to brave the howling cold.
He leaned upon the handlebars of a well-worn motor bike and kept his eyes along the Tau village that surrounded him. All the while inhaling the waning remnants of a cigar lodged between his numbed lips. The conflict to cull the Tau's latest colonial expansion had concluded nearly a decade ago. Yet his presence here on alien soil was not because of some festering bias against the Xeno that had grown rampant over the ages or a thirst to accomplish himself what the Imperium had been unable to finish.
No, he was not here on Su'Upt for the transgressive acts of the blue skins. The retaliatory measures of the Imperium had seen sufficient justice served to that end. For now, his presence in Tau space was due to past acts of a far more personal nature. There was a debt to be collected. In Human blood.
A prosthetic arm slipped from the handlebars and pulled away the dieing cigar. Thanders allowed a moment for the fading embers to crumble between its three crude metal digits. Each blackened flake of ash vanished with the winds until none remained. It was time.
The veteran flung a scarf back across his face before sliding off of the bikes thick leather saddle. His boots crunched deeply in to the fresh layer of snow that had piled up since he had silenced the mechanical steeds thundering engines. With a glimpse over a shoulder through his goggled helm, Thanders was unable to locate any unwanted spectators lurking amongst the side alleys. Settlements such as these managed to see a great deal of strangers and passerby’s, but that didn't mean remaining anonymous to his quarry would prove to be an easy task.
For all he knew, the information that led him to Su'Upt could have been a carefully plotted ambush. Thanders wasn't going to let his guard down. He knew just how dangerous his foe could be. Though if springing such a trap would mean having a shot at his target, the veteran would gladly take his chances. And so facing the cruel doorstep of inevitability, he ensured that his laspistol was no more than a twitch away beneath his long-coat before casually striding across the vacant street to the local drinking hall.
Beyond a sweeping gust of frost emerged a large domed structure clad in vivid yellow paint. It easily contrasted itself from the climate and Thanders pressed two fingers of his intact left arm against an ovular button, shunting open the entrance. A rush of pleasantly warm air gushed through the portal which immediately stripped away the stiffness plaguing his chilled bones. No time was wasted in closing them behind him.
Thermal lamps scattered within only modestly illuminated the buildings interior, and kept hall patrons shielded with dim obscurity. Only the ovular bar in the center was kept alive with light where many rows of liquors and ales rested along the central support pillar shelves. Perhaps to keep intoxicated villagers from stumbling too aimlessly in the dark on their way to their next round.
A lone Tau leaned lazily from behind its stone counter-top with a dreadfully bored expression etched over his graying face. Shrugging his joints back to lucidity, Thanders began making his way through the dozens of thick wooden tables littering the room.
His heart began to thud. Although it was hard to distinguish any details, there were plenty of Human silhouettes in the darkness intermingling with various Xenos. The zealous reclamation of the Imperium which laid waste to many worlds had caused a considerable population of Human refugees to seek a safe haven on Su'Upt. Most were docile, but Thanders knew there could be plenty of daggers waiting to be lodged in to his back. Such desperate people could easily be bartered to take a mans life in the name of another. He would keep a low profile in his attempt to trap his target. First, though, a drink.
Thanders dropped both hands to the top of the counter besides the bartender. The spongy stone clanked as his prosthetic claw met its surface, attracting the aging Taus attention. Two red eyes squinted to give the stranger a look over. They briefly settled over the veterans lost arm before offering a polite nod of acknowledgment. Luckily, he could speak the language more or less fluently.
“Yes, Human? We have many drinks for you.” The Tau crossed both arms over a less than pristine apron marked generously with colorful stains. “If you can pay.”
“I can.” He tugged away the scarf concealing his face and neatly stacked three coins to the table. The lustrous Imperial Aquila imprinted upon the currency glinted under the lamplight, causing the barkeep to quickly scoop them out of sight with a wide grin.
“Very nice, Human. Very nice! A special drink for you.” He rose a single boney finger after the promise. “The best on all of Su'Upt. Very rare Auguran brew.”
Thanders nodded in content while the Tau began shuffling through his collection of intoxicants. “That'll do just fine.”
“Here we are.” The Tau spun on his heel from the shelves with a ruby red bottle presented in one hand along with two simple glasses cloistered in the other. Dust caking the containers backside hinted to its vintage. “So, tell me.” He began in the midst of filling each cup halfway with the distinctly scented alcoholic beverage. “What brings a citizen of the Imperium to these forgotten stars?”
The veteran lifted up his glass as soon as it was full, but paused before taking in a sip. Augura was familiar territory, and it had been a long time since he'd had a taste of its chemical offerings. The aroma tempted his psyche to draw back through time to the precise moment which dictated his journey to Su'Upt. Momentarily phasing him out of reality to the mutinous acts which changed his life forever. He fought off the riptide of thought to respond.
“I'm just here to see an old friend of mine.”
A nod from the bartender gestured towards the veterans lost arm as he clasped the second glass for himself. “A war buddy?”
Both lifted their drinks for a respectful toast, which served to display to the Tau hall owner that Thanders was not in town to cause the village any trouble, and each downed the liquid with a single gulp. Thanders placed the glass back to the table while the beverage charged down his esophagus like a wrathful plasma bolt. It splashed against his stomach lining with a fire that only slowly died.
“Yeah.” Thanders mentioned with a signal for another round. “Something like that.”
“Oh? Well then, I will not pry. If you are in need of a place to stay, we have several rooms available.” He refastened a cork in to the bottleneck and nudged it towards the Human alongside a replenished glass. A smile denoted that the the Xeno was probably happy to of had a fresh discussion for once, or was poorly masking an interest in obtaining more rare currencies. “Very cheap, good quality and warm. You should find it most comfortable. At a discount rate, too!”
“That's quite kind of you, but I really won't be around for very long I'm afraid.” He gripped the glass and swilled the liquid around with passive observance. Waiting for his contact to finally approach him as planned.
It was then that something began to tug at the back of Thanders thick winter coat. The passing of a microsecond allowed his free prosthesis to ball in to a lethal fist of metal and for his attention to drift down towards the disturbance. Expecting to find a less than crafty pickpocket or assassin, Thanders caught the eyes of a small Human boy wrapped in a layer of thick gray furs looking innocently back up to the man. One of the youths small hands rose to offer a scrap of neatly folded paper.
Thanders placed down his glass and knelt to meet the height of the strange child. His orbed fist outstretched to retrieve the flimsy note which was promptly flowered open to view its contents.
'Welcome to the glorious world of Su'Upt, friend. Bring that bottle of yours over to the table in the back. The one by that terrible string instrument player. Don't do anything pretentious, now. Looks like we have some business to discuss.'
A cough distracted the veteran from his reading. The child, waiting patiently, kept a palm out and locked his bright brown eyes unflinchingly locked to Thanders. It didn't take a genius to figure out what the kid wanted. So with a sly look overcoming his face, he snagged a coin from his coat pocket and flicked it to the child who scurried away in to the crowds after its interception.
Thanders stood to finish his drink. “Quite a crafty kid.”
“Bah! I apologize for that inconvenience.” The Tau scratched at his own bare scalp. “I've had that little one removed at least twenty times before, but he manages to return just as easily.”
“He's just trying to make a living, Tau. Like you and I.” After knocking down another one, Thanders turned away from the bar with the bottle braced under arm. “Thanks for the brew.”
“Of course, Human. Let me know if you require anything more.”
Uncertainty crept through his gut with each pace through the crowd of tables towards the Tau musician. The contact, Sliik, was notoriously dubious. A creature whose lecherous appetite for wealth dominated all other preoccupations wherever it was to be found. Sliik and the word 'trust' didn't belong in the same sentence. Yet beyond those undesirable traits remained a man who was rigged with more connections than a Servitor. And sometimes a lesser evil must be dealt with in order to topple the greater, as Thanders was willing to accept.
Just as the table in question was discerned besides the musician stand, a Human stepped out from his seat and caused Thanders to back-trek, less the two collide. The encounter caused the other man to raise his hands apologetically before a laspistol could be gripped.
“My mistake! Had a bit too much tonight.” He laughed with a few friendly pats against the veterans shoulder. His hand finally struck the metal bracing which joined the prosthesis to Thanders torso, causing him to scowl under his goggles at the trespass. “I didn't mean no offense.”
Not wanting the stranger to bother him any longer, he disapprovingly shook his head without word. Suggesting that he get out of the way. Immediately.
“Right.” Receiving no response to his apology, the stranger moved aside. “Jerk...”
Thanders pushed through the affronting comment to rendezvous with the unmistakably corpulent Demiurg who sat rather nonchalantly at the next table with both arms draping the shoulders of what he assumed were two females. Even with Sliiks reputation cast aside, he had always found the race to be one of the most visually unappealing compared to the many others whom he had encountered in his travels. Technological savants they may be, it still didn't make up for their looks.
Any sense of comfort with his surroundings gained vaporized as a broad smile creaked over the informants blocky head. Thanders nodded and planted the bottle on to the tables epicenter to free both hands. If Sliik were to make a hostile move, it would be now.
“Well, what is this?” The Demiurg deeply chuckled. “Marius Thanders. I'd recognize you anywhere. It's been a long time since I've seen that face of yours.”
“I'm not here for small talk, Sliik.” He asserted with a mechanical finger pointed outward. “Your message said you have the intel I need?”
“Ah.” Sliik arched his short frame forward to pull the Auguran whiskey closer with ignorance to the question. “Never thought that bartender would ever sell this stuff. Then again, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that he did with the currency you've been dropping for this little crusade of yours.”
Thanders clamped his claw around the tables edge as his patience began to deteriorate. He knew Sliik had the info he required to complete his quest, and was not going to tolerate needless delay if it could be helped. Wood loudly fractured with a splintering network of cracks under the extreme pressure. Both Demiurg females jumped in their seats in surprise, and the Tau quietly plucking her instrument along the wall ceased in angst at the disturbance. Sliik remained unperturbed and examined the bottles label. It was only after a growl did he seek to tend to Thanders.
“Steady your eager nerves, will you? You Humans are all the same. Impatient and forceful. Take a seat.” He gestured to an empty chair and waved for the Tau instrumentalist to continue. “We have plenty of time to burn. Plus I need to clarify something, anyway.” Sliik ripped the cork free from the bottle while Thanders contemptuously crossed his arms and sat. “You haven't forgotten our little arrangement, have you? All one-hundred percent of it.”
“No, I have not.” He scoffed at Sliiks selfishness. “I didn't fly halfway across the sector just to cash in on a small time band of back water outlaws.”
“Of course, you haven't.” The Demiurg huffed and took a heavy gulp from the bottle. “Just make sure you don't get yourself killed, now. We wouldn't want my efforts to be in vain, do we?”
“You'll get your money, Xeno. I promise you that.”
Sliik wrapped both of his arms around his companions shoulders. “Good. Now here's your bit. Your target, Kathian Moor, usually holes himself up just outside of town when things get a little to hot. I hear he's there right now ever since that bounty of his went up another notch.” He briefly paused to finish off the bottle. “All you have to do is clean the place out, I send one of my guys to claim the heads and we'll both be very happy miners. Unless you get yourself killed, of course.”
“That's the deal, and I certainly don't plan on getting smoked by such scum.” Thanders assured the criminal and began rhythmically tapping his fingers upon the tabletop. “Now tell me where he is. Exactly where.”
“Well, there's the thing.” The Demiurg released a regretful sigh before pulling away from his companions embrace. A signal that the veteran was about to hear something he didn't want to. “I don't know exactly where Moor is. I just know that he's somewhere beyond the village outskirts.”
Thanders interrupted with a pointed index finger. “When we last spoke, I made it fairly clear that I required solid intel. Not the passing along of hearsay. Do you expect me to start wandering around the wilderness in that storm until I happen to find him just because you heard he's out there?”
“What? No, not at all.” Sliik shook his head with a snort at the question. “As was said, I don't know where he is. But that's where it gets better. See, I know who does.”
“And who would that be?”
“Remember that fellow you nearly tripped over getting to me?” A nod directed Thanders to look back to the drinking halls entrance where the stranger had been heading. The heavy door had just slid shut. “He left. I've got a hunch that if I were in your boots, I'd want to catch up to him and see where he goes.”
The veteran glared to Sliik with a heated grunt and vaulted out of his seat in to a sprint. Ignoring the contacts contemptuous laughs at the situation, his heart pounded faster after every passing table. There was no time to waste in the pursuit of the one who might lead him to his quarry. Thanders slammed a fist against the door console and stepped out in to the frozen street for a look around.
“Damn you, Sliik!” He growled and refastened his scarf. Searching fervently through the weather for any sign of the man he had to follow. Snow had fallen so heavily that there wasn't even a trace of fresh footprints. Yet where his vision failed, his ears did not. The unmistakable whine of a Tetra sputtering to life whistled through the air and a glowing shape nudged slowly from a nearby garage.
It must be him.
Thanders rushed through the knee high snow to mount his bike in a struggle to get mobile before the Tetra could speed out of his scope of awareness and wasted no time in activating the engine. At first it sputtered. Perhaps seized by the cold, and the veteran helplessly watched the as the streamlined civilian skimmercraft finally lumbered out to the streets.
Toggling the push-start fervently in an attempt to resurrect the engine, he finally beat his replacement arm against the large bikes chassis with a bellowing roar. “Cursed Mechanicus creation, start or I'll tear you to pieces!”
Although a large dent was furrowed in to the vehicles body, a scream miraculously snapped through the exhaust system as the steed drew breaths of life. Smiling, Thanders revved up the handlebars and launched forward on the vehicles tracks and ski which had replaced the traditional bulbous tires in order to properly suit the climate. A burst of snow plowed out from his path until the vehicle reached a stable flight over the mounds of fallen precipitation after his objective.
By now the Tetra had a significant head start, though Thanders knew that civilian models of the craft were much slower than their military counterparts. So long as he kept his path straightforward down the winding avenues of the village, plus or minus a few shortcuts, he would catch up after the vague glow of Tau thrusters in the cobalt veil.
Winds hammered against his mask while he accelerated past the village center in to the narrow footpaths between apartment blocks and crudely stacked hovels. Carefully avoiding street lamps, and tattered awnings as he raced through them. The motor within the bike vibrated with a tremendous hum that hollered out a terrible ferocity around the surrounding architecture. Its maddeningly loud staccato matched only the churning rage drumming in his spirit.
It was likely the man he followed was aware that he had company. Yet Thanders would pursue him as far as possible. Even if he didn't lead Thanders directly to the hideout, the veteran would certainly extract what was needed from him. He'd broken stronger men, for certain.
Eventually the Tetra made an abrupt swoop over the collapsed remnants of a warehouse. A feat the bike was by no means prepared to imitate. Unfortunately, he had little choice. The street ended in a dead end. With a growl, Thanders slid the bike around on its rear track for a quick 180° turn. Snow sloshed up and sprayed across a dark stone wall as he assessed the situation.
“Not bad.” He acknowledged and sought for a solution.
Disappointment evaporated with the onset of a smirk beneath his scarf and Thanders again sent the steed charging towards the mound of warehouse debris. The bikes tracks clawed across the street and impacted against its shambled metal walls which formed an effective ramp over the obstruction. Seconds later, Thanders was airborne across the ruins and slammed back to the ground where he found himself to be amongst the snow drifts marking the village edge. Dilapidated remnants of the settlements slum, which had surely seen better days, gave way to an endless expanse of rock and icy wastes where winds sent icy legions of spectral wisps dancing along the white unknown.
If it were not for the absence of light in the wastelands, Thanders would have surely lost sight of the Tetra which was speeding directly to the East over even terrain. He pressed on towards the unseen.
--- --- ---
The chase ended shorter than Thanders had anticipated, but that factor of course came at no inconvenience. His mark had brought them towards an old bunker of sorts yawning out at the end of a tight ravine. Heavily scarred by both war and weather, it was a suitably forgotten lair for the infestation of vermin within. He lowered a monocular from his eye for a more panoramic view from the peak of a large boulder overlooking the installation.
Strangely, there was no form of surveillance gear rigged up in the ravine. Possibly because of the troublesome amount of maintenance that would be required in this sort of climate. It was also noted that the entrance was but a crude slat metal garage door without any locking mechanisms.
“Much too easy.” Thanders muttered to himself.
He expected Moor to have fortified more heavily than this. The weather itself was an adequate deterrent for most enemies of his, but not enough to dissuade the likes of the veteran from enacting justice. It left him uneasy at the mystery of what lay beyond the front doorway.
For a moment, Thanders looked back to the sniper rifle mounted on his bike. With his thermal vest hooked to the vehicles power cell, he could remain alive outside for roughly twelve hours and possibly wait for his prey to leave its hole. A single rifle round would put an end to this mission of his. Yet he waved off the plan. Even if Moor stepped under his crosshairs, it was not a proper end for the traitor. Thanders wanted to see the terror in his eyes as he made the kill. He wanted to let Moor know who had come for him.
Stuffing the monocular back in to its pocket, the veteran dove from the rock to the mounds of snow below which comfortably cushioned his two story fall. He pushed himself to his feet and the bunker drew larger in sight as he waded through the waist high precipitation.
That was when the world around him vanished in blinding light and bells sung through the fabric of his consciousness.
--- --- ---
Pain surged through his head. It sparked energy throughout his nervous system and a proto state of awareness succeeded to draw in new breath. Vaguely aware, a murky image of the world beyond finally settled to existence through his vision. Before Thanders could begin pondering on what had happened out in the ravine, it was made immediately apparent that he was no longer outside.
Figures stood high around him. The closest, and consequently the tallest, swung an appendage out to strike the man across the face. A blurry blue wave of flesh rocked his head sharply to the side. Blasting an ocean of stars through his vulnerable awareness.
“That's enough, Tur.” Someone spoke, and the blue figure disappeared from view. A hand clamped over Thanders jaw to direct his eyes forward. “Rise and shine, Captain. Come on, now.” He said with a quick shake. “Wake up.”
That voice... Thanders knew exactly who spoke to him even before the face of Kathian Moor entered focus. A spike or rage erupted and the veteran attempted to crush his targets skull with his prosthetic arm only to find himself tightly bound to the chair he sat in. A cable had been wrapped tightly around his wrists, preventing movement. Thanders guessed that trying to rip free would likely just pull his cybernetics right out of his chest rather than break the cables.
“Relax, Captain.” The long haired man released his former superiors head with a laugh. “You're not getting out of those.”
There was an alternative to exiting this predicament, but he would wait for the right moment. Thanders looked around the room to find that he was indeed inside the bunker. Crumbling walls of thick stone rigidly confined the handful of humanoids at an unknown depth below the surface. He must have stumbled upon a stun mine of some sort, alerting his captors to his presence. A foolish mistake, but Thanders still lived and was now face to face with the first on his list to kill.
Moore loudly slid a chair over from across the room. The grinding of metal on stone aggravated the massive headache plaguing Thanders head. “Now.” He spoke before sitting on the chair backwards and resting both arms along its top. “I didn't think you would have survived the firepower we've dumped in to you back on Augura. You bled a lot that day.”
He watched the traitor without word. Simply focusing his hatred through a belligerently unmoving facial expression. There where no words known to him for a proper response.
“Looks like we hurt his feelings, boss.” A Tau jeered from behind the two with a laugh. “Let us place this one in the grave where he belongs.”
Moore wearily sighed. “Why are you here, Marius? It seems the Emperor really does work in mysterious ways.”
“Why?” He repeated with fire. “You know quite well why I'm here, coward. You didn't think you could get away with what you did that day, did you? The day twenty of my men perished so your squad could escape your sworn duty to protect Humanity. To protect the man beside you.”
“Yeah, well, you aren't the only one who regrets what happened, Captain.” Moore admitted and waved away the thugs standing beside Thanders shoulders. The two took the hint and paced over to the far corner of the room to allow their leader a bit of privacy. “None of First Squad wanted that to happen. We were planning on vanishing during the next patrol. If you hadn't overheard the Sergeants conversation with the Tau that firefight would never of happened.”
Thanders snorted. “That's no excuse, Private. The blood of every single one of those soldiers is on your hands. Their deaths will be avenged. Even if I have to give my own life to see it happen.”
“Captain...” Moore rose from his seat and turned his back to Thanders while stressful thoughts of the past took hold. “You're an officer. You followed orders. I don't blame you for coming here. But you misunderstand our motives.”
“What is there to understand?”
“The Imperium isn't...” He turned to look Thanders directly in the eyes. “She isn't what she used to be.” Moore solemnly lowered his head and clasped both hands behind his back. “The Imperium has been bastardized. They use the Emperor and everything he'd fought for as a means of exploiting Humanity. The Sergeant was one of the few who knew this and he made us see, and the Tau were willing to accept our exile. They were willing to help us spread our truth.” He stepped closer to his former commander and gestured to the crates of weapons packing the bunker. “You were a brilliant leader. Don't let your hatred blind you. Surely-”
“Your very act of rebellion only serves to weaken Humanity.” Thanders angrily barked. “The fact you plan to use those weapons against your fellow man sickens me beyond measure. Our species itself is barely hanging together as it is. Now you want me to help push us to extinction? It's not going to happen, Private.” He glanced at Moore. “I'd rather die.”
“I expected as much.” Moore lifted Thanders policed laspistol and activated its power cell. “I'm sorry, Captain.”
In a matter of seconds, Thanders prosthetic hand cracked free from his arm with a distinct pop. It bounced along the floor before the photon grenade hidden within unleashed a numbing blast of energy. Taking advantage of the distraction, he slipped his now wrist-less arm in to the air. Revealing the barrels of a twin linked energy weapon that was hidden inside the arm.
It only took a single sweep of his arm to drop the three hostiles in the room. Leaving a crippled Kathian Moore slouched along the floor. Blood jumped from the traitors mouth as the he clutched a smoking patch of scorched torso flesh. His eyes trembling at the sight of the mortal wound slowly draining what was left of his life to the floor.
Thanders quickly stepped to Moore with the red-hot barrels held outward. Glowing with the reserved hatred which was only now allowed to be released. There was nothing to be said at this point. With fear draping Moores face, only action could express what must be done. So the Captain faced the first of his twelve betrayers and plunged his prosthesis deeply within Kathian Moores chest. Easily crumpling both bone and the wretched heart within.