In the fire we are tested. Against the anvil we are forged.
- Saying of the Salamanders Chapter, the Sons of Vulkan, of the Adeptus Astartes.
The plains were rife with the sounds of gunfire, feral chanting and explosions. Heavy artillery rounds raced across the sky to strike targets beyond the sights of mortal men on both sides of the conflict while far to the east the explosions of close quarters fighting could be seen fifty feet in the sky, the God-Machines of Mars walked and where they did walk death walked with them. But the enemy's own scrap-titans, foul effigies were walking, or more accurately hobbling, to meet them, their own badly-made guns unleashing torrents of fire that didn't seem possible. The Orks had come to Kazdrine in their crude warships, carrying their genocidal WAAAGH! into Imperial Space. And they were winning.
The lasguns cracked as another volley was unleashed. Several of the marauding greenskins fell but only a few did not rise again, the rest merely shrugged off the damage as if it were nothing and continued onwards, brandishing their primitive yet dangerous weaponry like the brutes they were.
'Fire!, fire damn you. Show these alien scum no mercy men!' the sergeant yelled over the din of piggish warcries and lasguns.
The men of the Cadian 89th Shock Troopers Regiment obeyed with the discipline that only a life-time of military schooling can provide. The second volley ripped into the front of the charging horde yet the damage was still superficial, only a few Orks falling for good.
'Keep at it men of Cadia!, we'll make em bleed before they even get to us' the sergeant cried out, snapping shots from his bolt pistol. 'Keep firing!,' the men of Cadia were skilled but the greenskins had limitless numbers, and were closing in. The signal that all was lost came as a Cadian was blown apart at the chest by a badly aimed shot. In an instant the Orks were upon them, hacking and slashing with axes and their own considerable strength. The Cadians fought bravely with chainsword and bayonet but few are the men who can match an Ork in the closest of combats.
Guardsman Stryker fell flat on his face, narrowly dodging the cleaver that swung over his head, he quickly rolled onto his back and let a full clip from his lasgun blast out into the Ork that loomed above him. The first few shots pulped the ork's face and the remainder scoured his tiny brain. As it fell Stryker pushed himself up and saw a fellow Cadian fall in front of him, his head hacked into two seperate pieces. The man's killer stamped forward, its axe raised, and screaming an unintelligible cry of hate. Stryker quickly raised his lasgun and fired several shots into the Ork's face and gut, yet it kept coming.
'Damn it just die!' he shouted as he fired more and more shots into the ork, each shot wounding it but not enough to fell the beast. Time slowed for the unfortunate guardsman, thoughts of death raced through his head as he continued to fire, each shot doing nothing but aggravating the monster.
Suddenly he heard a powerful snap, like a battle cannon going off. The ork was ripped apart by the shot, its chest exploding outwards, snapping its head clean off. Stryker could hear more of the shots around him and could see Orks being blown into tiny pieces by the bullets. He saw a small group of Orks engulfed in a torrent of fire, the brutes screaming in agony as they smouldered and dropped onto the ground, writhing and wailing. As he turned to see his rescuer he saw a mighty drake roaring, only realizing it was metal a second later. He looked up, despite the sun's glare, and saw a giant. Clad in green armour from head to toe, his helmet carved into the figure of a roaring drake of legends, and a cloak of scaled skin hanging from his left shoulder down to his waist, in which was holstered an ornate blade slick with ork gore. Stryker had heard the stories when he was a boy but he had never seen one before, this was an Angel of Death, one of the Emperor's own chosen. A Space Marine. Suddenly the warrior looked down at him and spoke, his voice booming and deep but at the same time proud and confident.
'Fear not guardsman. We are the Salamanders, and we are here to help you.'
Sergeant Zu'kan of the Salamanders surveyed the battlefield. He and his squad had just extracted several Imperial Guard squads from a losing battle with the Orks, and had crushed the greenskin advance with bolter and flame. Around him his battle-brothers were gathering to hear his orders and the status of the evacuations. The planet Kazdrine was home to at least several thousand colonists, if not for the natural adamantium deposits here then the bureacratic wheels of the Imperium wouldn't have responded so quickly, or sent an illustrious regiment like the Cadian Shock Troopers to defend this world. But now the Salamanders had come, not to defend this metal but to rescue the Emperor's people and protect them from the green tide. That was their duty, and Zu'kan was happy to fulfill it.
'Brothers, we have routed the greenskins in this sector but more are steadily approaching from the north. Captain Doc'tyr has received word from the Guard generals that the Cadians are pulling back to reinforce, they will aid us again soon but until then we must stand alone brothers, as the Promethean Cult decrees' Zu'kan spoke loud and clearly for all to hear, his brothers chanted their response in unison.
'For Vulkan, the Emperor and His people!'
'Yes!, now make yourselves ready, the greenskins will be upon us soon' Zu'kan ordered, the Salamanders responded curtly and started forming their positions. Once the greenskins came over the plains they would respond with hails of bolter fire and heavy bolter blasts from the Devastator squads stationed at the far edges of the Cadian trenches.
Zu'kan unslung his bolter and started muttering a devotion to Vulkan as he reloaded and checked the ammo stacks,
'..and as I walk through the fire let my faith in Vulkan shield me from harm. As I am forged against the anvil let my strength in the Promethean way protect me from breaking.'
It only took a few minutes before the greenskins returned, angrier than ever. Screaming their hate-filled threats and brutish warcries the horde of orks charged over the plains, axes and other sharp weapons brandished.
'For Vulkan, destroy them!' Zu'kan shouted. The two Tactical squads obeyed instantly and opened up in disciplined drills of bolter fire, the Devastators behind them spraying the orks with their heavy bolters and missile launchers. Zu'kan jumped down into the trench and joined his squad, adding his own fire to the fusillade of bolters. A particularly large Ork caught his eye, a brute amongst brutes, about a head taller than Zu'kan and three times as muscular, brandishing an immense chainaxe and covered in patchwork armour with two horns sticking out of its metal plate helmet.
It was likely the Nob leading this charge or at least one of them. Lining up the huge ork in his sights Zu'kan fired three shots in succession, the first punching into the ork's arm and blowing it off, its chainaxe flying away with it in a spurt of blood. The ork barely had a second to register its injury when the second and third bolts slammed into its face, the first tearing apart its head and pulping its brain and the second flying past and piercing another ork's head. Allowing himself no time to savour the kill the Salamanders sergeant quickly changed targets, firing at a group of orks attempting to set up a crude looking cannon. The Space Marines were doing well but it was only a matter of time until the Orks reached them, they did not have the weaponry to destroy this entire horde before melee combat was joined. Zu'kan began counting in his head, the orks would reach them soon but it was too soon to try and meet them, he had to make sure that the Devastators could support them, without their heavy guns the Salamanders would be outmatched and killed to the last.
The orks were close, Zu'kan drew his power sword. A long ornate blade its surface was black as a Salamander's skin while its hilt was styled like a fire-drake, its handle edges were the wings and the pommel was the head. The power sword Vulkan's Rage, forged in the heat of Mount Deathfire some three thousand years ago by the Master of the Forge it had been passed down for all those millennia until now Zu'kan of the 4th Company wielded it, with pride and honour.
Two.., 'Brothers, chainswords now!'
The Salamanders drew their chainswords and readied themselves, the orks weren't quite close enough yet.
A single shot struck Zu'kan, making a pockmark on his chest.
'Now. Into the fires of battle!, unto the anvil of war!' Zu'kan cried out. The Salamanders leapt out of the trench and struck at the green horde, the leading orks caught by surprise by the sudden attack were momentarily stunned, a mistake that cost them their lives as the Salamanders tore them apart, grinding chainsaw teeth tearing through the greenskins sinewy muscles. The orks quickly recovered and lashed back, Zu'kan saw a Salamander fall, his arms torn off and several bleeding holes across his armour. His rage overtook him, ducking past a scything chainaxe he slashed outwards, blue lightning dancing across the surface of his black blade as it cut clean through the greenskin's face, a quick reverse cut through its chest silenced it for good.
The Salamanders were doing well, the sergeant could see Brother Ke'sur finishing off a large ork nob, Brother Agavan holding off against a group of the xenos and Brothers Tyba'r and Yi'era both fighting back to back against the ork horde. The Salamanders were being tested against the anvil, and they were holding, Zu'kan was proud of them all, even those that were not in his squad, sergeants Eratul and Dak'an were holding their Tactical and Devastator squad, respectively, together very well. Zu'kan quickly turned as he heard a scream of pain, a Salamander had been grabbed by a gargantuan ork wearing huge metal armour that covered his entire body. The battle-brother, Zu'kan recognized him as brother Yes'ir was caught in a sparking power claw, Zu'kan charged to help him but it was already too late. A quick motion from the Warboss sliced Yes'ir in two at the waist, he was dead before his corpse touched the ground. The leading ork laughed, a truly horrific sound, as Zu'kan's power sword crashed against his power claw.
'Die ork filth!' Zu'kan shouted as he slashed against the ork's guard, but as he kept attacking and attacking it was painfully clear to all those around him, the warboss was clearly toying with him. Yet Zu'kan did not see this, he was too lost in his rage at the casual deaths of his battle-brothers. His attacks were becoming more brutal and less strategized, even an ork would have no trouble getting past his defence, which was quickly proven. The warboss grabbed Zu'kan and slammed him against the ground, his sword falling from his grip.
'Ye stupid git, did ye really tink ye could kill me dat eazily?!' the warboss asked, arrogance clear even in his guttural voice. 'Xenos scum, you have no right to exist in mankind's galaxy' Zu'kan's response was all he could get out before the ork warboss tore his right arm off with his second claw. Zu'kan's scream carried across the battleground, which was rapidly turning in the Salamanders favour, their anger at seeing their sergeant wounded so easily. The warboss snarled and backed away, retreating along with the battered remains of the ork horde. The last thing Zu'kan saw before he fell unconscious was the warboss leering over him.. laughing.
+++One year later+++
It ached all the time. The bionic was not only a symbol of his greatest failure but it ached all the time, whenever Zu'kan used it it would scrap against the flesh of his shoulder. The battle for Kazdrine had been won, the Salamanders had carried the day and crushed the greenskin hordes, and Captain Doc'tyr had personally slain the Warboss Klawsmasha, yet this did not lift Zu'kan's spirits. The warboss had bested him so easily, claimed the lives of several battle-brothers and maimed him for all of his life. On the ship back to Nocturne Zu'kan had spent days at a time in his chambers, undergoing penitence for his failure, his brander-priest had spent hours every day placing iron rods against his coal black skin, burning away the failure. And yet it didn't work.
He still felt the failure, every time he looked at the metal arm that the Techmarines had grafted onto him. It had been a year since then and Zu'kan could not shake the failure that his defeat had brought upon him. He had allowed his anger and rage to cloud his mind, he had been easily defeated by a xenos and his actions had cost Salamanders their lives. But today things would change, he had made this decision weeks ago. He would take the Burning Walk.
'The Burning Walk?!' Brother Tyba'r shouted as Zu'kan told them his intention. His entire squad had gathered for what would likely be their very last meeting with their sergeant. He had called them to a meeting room in the Salamanders barracks in the Sanctuary City, the room was dark but for the few prometheum lamps hanging from the carved arches on the walls. The Salamanders sat at a rounded table, a seat for all members of the squad, two seats empty, for Brothers Yes'ir and Zalm'a both dead at the Ork Warboss's claws.
'Yes brother Tyba'r. I will take the Burning Walk. I have already told Captain Doc'tyr and Chaplain Meshar and they both agree that it is the only thing that can help me now' Zu'kan explained. The Burning Walk was a very solemn event, if a Salamander's faith in the Promethean Cult or his own ability was in so much doubt by himself then he would take the Burning Walk. The Salamander would leave behind his weapons and his armour, leave behind a part of himself, and walk into the wilds of Nocturne. Only after he had made a great self-discovery could he return, if he survived. Very few ever took it, and the majority of those who did were the very rare Astartes who had aged so much that they could no longer fight as effectively, the last Salamander to take the Burning Walk had been Brother-Apothecary Fugis of the 3rd Company.
'You don't need to take the walk sergeant!, Yes'ir's death wasn't your fault' Tyba'r argued, but the rest of the squad remained silent. They didn't blame the sergeant for what happened to Yes'ir or the other three Salamanders dead by the Warboss's claw but they did feel that he had changed since then.
'I.. agree with you sergeant' Brother Ke'sur said quietly, 'You have changed since Kazdrine, too much I think. The Burning Walk may be the only thing that can pull you out of the darkness and back into the fire'
'I know Brother Ke'sur, I know. I will leave immediately. I have called this meeting to say farewell to all of you. My brothers, Tyba'r, Ke'sur, Agavan, Yi'era, J'area, Olr'ra and Ma'tak. It has been my honour to serve with all of you, and if I never see you again.. may Vulkan watch over you'. With that Zu'kan turned and left without a further word.
An hour later the gates of the Sanctuary City opened. A single guard, a mortal Nocturnean, turned at his post and saw a giant cloaked in a dark brown robe leaving the city. A Space Marine, the awe of such a sight was quieted when he saw the Space Marine was without armour or weapons. Why would he be leaving the city. Before the guard could ask the Space Marine was too far away, he was heading for the wilds of Nocturne. The guard muttered a prayer, he would likely never see that marine again, whoever he was.
+++Six months later+++
The magma-raptor sniffed at the air. There was fresh meat nearby, and a lot of it, no tiny prey but a huge animal just waiting for the kill. It stalked closer to the smell, the scent of blood driving it hungrier and hungrier. It never felt the hand close around its neck and crush its windpipe, a choked breath was the only sound that emerged from its throat as it fell. A cloaked figure, his brown robes covered in rope and streaks of blood. Zu'kan of Nocturne pushed his hood away from his face, his long black beard falling out of his cloak. In the six months that had passed since he left the Chapter his classically handsome face had become obscured by bushy facial hair, his dark black hair long on one side and cut short on the other had become wild and unkempt. His eyes still shone redder then a drake's eye but their lustre was gone, almost like he was dead inside. Zu'kan sighed as he pulled out his survival knife and started cutting into the magma-raptor's brain. He disliked having to kill animals when it wasn't necessary but he was in unfamiliar terrain and needed to know the lay of the land. Pulling a small piece of meat from the raptor's head Zu'kan swallowed it, his Omophagea went to work immediately. He could see the raptor's memories, he knew the land, what places were safe to sleep, where he could find food and water. Satisfied he sat down and began eating the entire raptor, he had killed it for its memories, the least he could do was make sure its remains weren't wasted. Once Zu'kan had finished the raptor he rose up and started walking, there was a cave system a few leagues from here that he could rest in, it had been twelve days since he had last slept, and though Space Marines could last for at least two weeks without sleep it wasn't prudent to stretch it that far.
The raptor's memories were very accurate. The cave system that beckoned Zu'kan was dark and isolated amongst the field dense with vines and rock formations, almost like it didn't want to be found by the Nocturneans of the cities or the Ignean tribesfolk. Zu'kan cautiously walked in, if one raptor knew about this place then others might and he didn't want to stride into a nest. His six months in the wilds of Nocturne had taught him more then a Nocturnean year in the Sanctuary cities and in his one-hundred and fifty years as a Salamander he had never been in touch with Nocturne like this, even his entrance test to slay a fire-drake had only taken him a week, the drake's were not hard to find, only to kill.
He remembered that day. He had been a boy of one year, although later he had learned that by Terran standards he was sixteen, going up against a beast that even Vulkan had tested himself against. It had been daunting at the least and terrifying at the most, and when he had actually seen the beast he had actually considered fleeing. It was huge, easily the size of a building, and when it roared mighty gouts of fire burst from its fanged maw. And yet Zu'kan had not fled, he had stood his ground and bellowed a challenge to the beast. As if sensing what he had said the firedrake had turned to face him like an equal. The duel had lasted a day, and Zu'kan had been the victor. He had brought the drake's body back to the Sanctuary City and had been hailed upon his return. The firedrake, which he had learned was called Salakdra, was the biggest that had been brought back since Chapter Master Tu'shan's own initiation ceremony. The Chaplain present had said that great things were ahead for Zu'kan, for Vulkan must have been with him to slay a titan like Salakdra. Zu'kan's smile faded. Great things indeed, he had washed out of the Chapter and had spent the last six months trekking across Nocturne's surface like an exile. They had been wrong, Vulkan hadn't been with him, it had just been a fluke that Salakdra had fallen, and by such unworthy hands as well.
'Damn you' Zu'kan muttered to himself. After a moment of listening carefully he was convinced that no other life-forms were in the cave, propping himself up against a large rock he began to fall asleep, he made sure that his Catalepsean node could not activate, Zu'kan needed real sleep not just a half-sleep where he could remain partially awake. The cavern was quiet, only the faint clicking of rocks sliding against each other giving the dark tunnels a life of their own, and the faint glow of the emeralds sticking out of the walls.
It was a faint noise that woke him, just a very faint noise, like an echo at the back of his head. Quickly rising up and drawing his combat knife Zu'kan looked around, his enhanced eyes piercing the dark gloom and picking out every detail of the cavern. There was nobody, except.. that!. At the very edge he could see a faint glow, not like the emeralds, but a golden glow hovering at the edge of the cavern, and at the edge of his sight.
'What are you?' Zu'kan asked, as if it understood his words the glow fled further into the cavern. 'Wait!' Zu'kan shouted as he chased after it, he didn't understand why he was chasing after it but he felt compelled to do so, like if he didn't he would be trapped forever. As he followed the glow that remained just out of reach through the dimly green tunnels, losing track of time and how long he had been running through the dimly lit passageway. When he emerged at last he was awestruck, he had emerged into a massive cavern surrounded by lava flows and gigantic rubies that pierced through the rocks and reflected the glow of the lava across the entire room creating a flowing light. It was beautiful, the kind of sight that one could only see on Nocturne. Zu'kan smiled and surveyed the room for the glow, he caught sight of it in the centre of the room. As he approached it he put his knife away and spoke calmly, hoping the glow would understand him.
'What are you?, why did you come for me?' he asked. The glow responded in a voice as deep as the earth, as strong as Mount Deathfire and as bright as the lava.
'Because you have lost your way child of Nocturne.' As Zu'kan got closer the glow began to resolve into a shape, it was a human, a Space Marine. He wore armour as dark as knight, only his shoulders were green, his helmet was carved into a fearsome skull with glowing red eyes. It was a Chaplain of the Salamanders, but it was the symbol around his neck that made Zu'kan's eyes widen in surprise and a prayer to escape his mouth. It was a sigil made of the finest gold, with a blazing red ruby in its centre, Vulkan's Sigil, a relic of the Chapter worn by the Primarch himself, and if this man wielded it that meant it was... Chaplain Xavier, the legendary Chaplain of the Chapter, the man whom it was said that when Salamanders served under they never once retreated, the Salamander whose final death came by the hands of the Dark Eldar, and only when all his foes were dead around him did he finally allow himself to die. Zu'kan dropped to his knees and bowed, 'My lord Chaplain, mighty Xavier. How can this be?, you died at Drykeena, you were laid to rest here at home,' only when he could not finished his sentence did he dare raise his head. Xavier was just staring at him silently, even without a word the dead Chaplain inspired awe and devotion on a scale that even the Master of Sanctity could not.
'Rise Brother Zu'kan. Your devotions and prayers are unnecessary, we are brothers even in death are we not?' Xavier asked, his voice cool and soft despite its deep tone.
'Yes Chaplain but I..' Zu'kan attempted to say, he couldn't finish the sentence.
'You feel unworthy to be in my presence, in the chapter's presence, am I correct?' Xavier questioned, his tone clear that he knew the answer.
'Yes Brother-Chaplain. I have failed the chapter, I failed my brothers and cost many their lives, I fell before an enemy and was spared.' Zu'kan said, tightening his fists and gritting his teeth. Even before the venerated dead he was being laid bare for his failures. Xavier's light chuckle brought him out of his pity.
'Do you know Brother Zu'kan how many Salamanders have felt what you have felt now?, many of them. Tu'shan your own Chapter Master has had doubts, those who served with the Primarch had doubts, even the Primarch himself had doubts. Tell me Brother Zu'kan, what do you call a man who is sure of himself without ever being tested?' Xavier asked curiously, Zu'kan blinked at the question, confused at to its meaning.
'I am not sure. You call him a proud and sure man, confident in his cause and his righteousness.'
'No!' Xavier's response shook the walls of the cavern. 'You call him arrogant!, no man can ever be sure of himself without being tested against the anvil. Only those with supreme arrogance can claim that they do not need to be tested.' The Chaplain started to walk around Zu'kan, continuing his speech.
'Many have felt what you feel Brother Zu'kan, many of the greats of our Chapter, the Legion, all of our people have doubted themselves. Only those truly marked for greatness can have the strength to doubt themselves and survive, to be truly tested against the anvil and to emerge stronger than ever before.' Xavier stopped walking just as he came in front of Zu'kan, placing both his hands on the sergeant's shoulders the chaplain lifted him up onto his feet.
'Brother, you are being tested against the anvil. The Promethean Cult is endurance, self-sacrifice and loyalty. You have endured the wilds of Nocturne, you have sacrificed your place in the chapter, and you still remain loyal to it, believing yourself not worthy and not returning before you are ready, but you must move beyond your failings, follow the Promethean Cult, it is the correct way and will teach you what need to continue on. Zu'kan, the path ahead of you will not be an easy one and you may not survive it. It will test you like never before but if you emerge from it, then you will be a different man. The current you will die, and a new stronger man will take his place.' Zu'kan was silent, his thoughts were racing with what Xavier had said. The path ahead of him, marked for greatness, moving past his failures to great successes. Maybe Xavier was right, of course he was right, no man bar Vulkan had ever embodied the Promethean Cult of self-sacrifice, loyalty and self-reliance so well before him.
'Chaplain Xavier.. I...' Xavier chuckled at the sergeant's stutter.
'Before I leave Brother-Sergeant I wish to show you something. May it inspire you to great things.' with that Xavier began to fade away into the lava light. As he did the scene around Zu'kan changed, the barren rock became verdant grass and the cavern roof became a blue sky in the bright sunny day. The wind was light against Zu'kan's face and the air colder then he was used to but refreshing, almost reinvigorating. Ahead of him there was a long field, and the sounds of battle were coming from it.
As Zu'kan stared from the hill he saw a sight that was spoken of in the Chapter history, in reverence by the Chaplains to the Salamanders as a reminder of what to strive for, a legend. The final moments of Chaplain Xavier. The sound of alien guns filled the air as the piratical Eldar, clad in armour of the darkest black and blue, assaulted the lone Salamander. Bleeding from wounds in a dozen places the Chaplain continued to fight, his Crozius smiting the heathen aliens as they stabbed at him. Screams of pain and fear spewed from the aliens as they were cut down by Xavier, bellowing litanies to Vulkan and the Emperor as marched through the xenos, cutting down anyone in his path.
'And with bolter and blade, with flame and faith I will smite the enemy. I will stand firm against the tides of aliens, mutants and heretics that seek to pillage His domain, to harm His people. I will be the bulwark against these threats as I protect the homes of the men and women of His Imperium. By the fires of Nocturne, by the fires of battle, by the anvil of war I will not falter!'
The devotion of Xavier was more then mere words retold by the Chaplains could ever describe, it was like watching a god battle against daemons. For every blow that struck his armour Xavier repaid it with a killing blow, twisted corpses lay for as far as the eye could see, all slain by the unassailable will of Chaplain Xavier. Yet Zu'kan knew the legend well, and now his sight added to his knowledge, Xavier was dying, perhaps he was already dead and merely dragging all of his enemies into death with him. As the last alien fell, spurting blood from its slashed throat, Xavier stopped and looked at the carnage before him. As he fell to his knees Zu'kan cried out, even knowing he could not hear him, the venerable Chaplain fell to the ground and silently passed away, a living legend passed into myth.
Zu'kan awoke with a startled gasp. 'Xavier!' he cried out, looking around for any sign of the Chaplain, but it was in vain. Xavier was long dead. But his words were not, Zu'kan rose up and ran out of the cavern back into the vine-infested plains. He could see Mount Deathfire from here, in all its glory. The Sanctuary City would take quite some time to reach, but he could do it. The Promethean Cult was strong in Zu'kan again, and as he ran he thought of Xavier, of his sacrifice and his loyalty, and he knew what Xavier had meant by the path ahead of him.