Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim, dark future there is only war.


Postby kurisawa » Mon Jun 11, 2012 12:57 am

While this next piece can certainly be read as a novella in its own right, you may want to start here for Part One of the Black Shields' tale...


Part Two: Salvator

= VIII =

‘TEN MINUTES TO disembark!’ Captain Markius yelled over the roar of the gunship engines. Strapped into their grav-seats in the passenger deck, the marines completed murmuring the rites of activation to the machine spirits of their weapons as the shadowhawk screamed across the desolate terrain of Callasia 9. Markius swayed with the bucking of the ship. Burrin Grazgsten was skimming as close as possible to the rocky surface, and thin tendrils of the gaseous atmosphere clawed at the portholes as it flashed by, before swirling in the gunship’s wake. Despite the holo-projection devices that cloaked them, the stocky pilot was taking no chances.

The brass-plated door to the cockpit and medical bay slid open with a gout of pneumatic gases and Inquisitor Zharn entered the chamber. He fought the shuddering ship to cross over towards Markius.

‘Captain,’ Zharn raised his voice over the roar. ‘We have a change of target!’

‘What?’ Markius shouted back.

‘The research team is no longer barricaded in the lab. They have been forced to move to Tower 17, level beta.’

Tobias, Rasmus and Goran joined them, struggling across the passenger deck, holding onto overhead metal rings to keep balance.

‘We have to recalibrate for new target,’ said Zharn.

Markius stared at him open-mouthed. Just like that, the inquisitor’s pronouncement had nullified eight months of painstaking route-analysis and preparation while in warp-transit aboard the Arcis Indicium. Eight months of precision planning gone, as if sucked into the warp.

‘Impossible!’ said Tobias, his hawk-like eyes narrowing. ‘We have to abort and return to the Arcis to determine a new route.’

‘There is no time,’ Zharn explained, without any apparent air of urgency. ‘The Imperial flotilla will be here in just over one hour, and then the facility will be bombed to atoms. This is our only chance to execute the mission.’

Zharn looked Markius directly in the eye and said, ‘Can you recalibrate, Captain?’

Markius knew in that moment that in his hand he held the lives of the beleaguered science team down on the mining facility. Markius scowled as a dagger of hot suspicion stabbed in his guts. Is the inquisitor playing with the lives of these supposedly precious scientists, simply to try and test his trust in his abilities? He remembered the ire when he once thought the Father-Chaplain did not have faith in his skills. That seemed so long ago now, but Markius felt the same aggravation that Zharn, his new commander, might feel the need to test him.

Zharn said, ‘I have not created this situation, Captain. I have only just received the report myself.’

Markius narrowed his eyes, knowing that vox-communications were still on silent protocols. Then he remembered the inquisitor’s telepathic powers, and that they only worked within planetary proximity of receivers. The dagger of anger withdrew as he took control of his emotions. Of course the inquisitor would not do such a thing.

‘Can you recalibrate?’ the inquisitor repeated the question.

‘Five minutes to disembark,’ came Burrin’s growl over the vox-announcer.

‘Where is Tower 17?’ Markius barked at the others, making his mind up to at least try. The scientists were loyal servants of the Holy God-Emperor. It was his duty to extract them. He tried to recall in his mind the hololithic displays of the mining facility – more a small industrial city – that they had spent eight months memorising.

‘It’s on Tunnel Primus,’ said Goran, scratching at an old bio-acid scar under his scalp of fuzzy black hair, confirming what Markius suspected. ‘The only way in is along the main thoroughfare.’

Markius exhaled in annoyance, mentally picturing the schematic. This was the one place he did not want to lead his men, where they would be exposed to attack from all sides from the entire population of the facility; over seventy-thousand souls – or what screaming, heretical mobs remained of them. If only we had more time to analyse the plans!

‘Landing platform 6 is closer to Tower 17,’ said Tobias. ‘Oh, wait: There are 4-metre-thick external blast doors and we can be sure they will be locked.’

‘If we had a las-cutter we could get through them,’ suggested Sergeant Andreus, belatedly joining the group. Though the same age as the others, Andreus’s boyish face and exuberant demeanor conveyed juvenility, despite his attempts to cultivate a bristly beard. His shockingly fair hair, almost white, hampered these efforts. But his frost-grey eyes were intense with determination.

‘We don’t have a las-cutter, eh?’ growled big Rasmus, rubbing his balding pate.

‘Then platform 7 is still our best entry point,’ said Tobias, squinting as he pictured the plans, ‘It’s only a little further.’

Inquisitor Zharn watched thoughtfully and silently.

‘Three minutes,’ came Burrin’s report. Markius’s adrenalin pulsed through his augmented body. Time, like the inhospitable landscape outside, was flashing by too quickly.

‘Omega squad will have to approach along Tunnel Primus,’ Markius announced what they all knew.

‘If we could cut through from delta deck, below,’ Andreus said, ‘we could avoid the main thoroughfare until the last moment. We need a las-cutter!’

‘We don’t have a mutant-sucking las-cutter!’ Rasmus growled. Easy big guy, Markius thought; Andreus is just trying to be helpful. He hoped the newly appointed sergeant of Zeta squad would live up to the chance he had given him.

‘Alright,’ Tobias said. ‘If I can get Lambda squad up the hab-blocks, we can give cover with sniper rifles over Tunnel Primus. It’s not perfect, but by the Throne we will get you through!’

‘No good,’ Goran said. ‘Your sight will be blocked by the processing plants.’

Markius concentrated on what he could remember of the hololithics, trying to judge the angle. He suspected Goran was right.

‘If we can climb up the outside of the hab units to… fifteenth level, we can get a line of sight,’ countered Tobias.

Markius nodded, impressed. The hawk-eyed sergeant was brave to suggest climbing up the outside of the hab-blocks where they would be easily spotted and dangerously exposed.

‘It’s still not good enough!’ Goran banged his fist against the side of the shadowhawk. He looked at Markius and said, ‘You need a diversion; something to draw the enemy away from your approach. I can get Epsilon squad to Sector 4, to the west of the tower, if we go through a lower level.’

Markius said, ‘The intervening doors may be fused shut. We have no idea what they’ve been up to.’

‘They are only internal bulkheads,’ said Goran, flexing the powerfist that ended his bionic replacement arm, jade eyes flashing. ‘I can break through them in no time.’

Markius nodded to Goran, appreciating the offer. Goran was sacrificing his squad in a diversionary attack to allow Omega squad the run on the target. Markius was glad he was not going to have to argue over who would take the glory of this mission. He wanted to be the one to deliver the prize to the inquisitor.

‘One minute until disembark,’ came Burrin’s voice again. ‘We still want platform 7?’

Markius met eyes with Inquisitor Zharn and nodded. Zharn keyed the vox-control on the wall beside him. He said, ‘Proceed as planned. Then drop me at platform 12.’

The marines stared at the inquisitor.

‘You’re not coming in with us?’ said Markius.

‘Indeed not, Captain,’ said Zharn. ‘I have some business at the administratum that needs attending to before this place is disintegrated.’

‘But… alone?’ said Rasmus.

Rasmus and Markius exchanged a glance as Zharn nodded. Although he was dwarfed by the genetically enhanced marines, the inquisitor still carried an impressive presence. Gone was the immaculately pressed suit, replaced with a black mesh bodyglove covered with form-fitting carapace scales. Instead of the elegant dress sabre, the inquisitor wore a short sword at his hip that would energise into a lethal oscilli-blade once drawn. He also had a boltpistol holstered at his other hip; a smaller model than the fifty-cal semi-automatic assault weapons carried by the marines. This had a shorter stock and magazine, carrying only six rounds of armour piercing solid titanium bolts: One-shot killers without the noise, or the mess. Despite his debonair grey streaks and paternal face, he looked like a warrior, and that earned Markius’s respect. That respect had just increased a notch.

‘I work more expediently that way, occasionally,’ said Zharn. ‘We will rendezvous back at platform 7. D-plus 60 minutes at the latest.’

‘Sergeants, you’ll have to brief your squads when we land. Just let them know we have a change of target for now,’ Markius said.

But as the marines turned to do so, Tobias paused and said, ‘What about a secondary route? What about a tertiary? We can’t just go in with one approach! We don’t even know which way you will get to Tunnel Primus.’

‘We have no time for secondary plans now,’ Markius said. ‘We go in with the primary and that’s it.’

Then he turned to Sergeant Andreus and said, ‘I want Zeta squad right behind us in Tunnel Primus: Make sure you hold the escape route back out to platform 7.’

‘Invictus!’ Andreus beamed, slamming his right fist against his chestplate, using the newly chosen acknowledgement signal of their newly formed chapter.

‘Thirty seconds to disembark. Prepare positions,’ came Burrin’s voice. The marines stirred, unbuckling safety harnesses.

This is it, thought Markius: The first mission for the Emperor’s Talons. Will it be the last?

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby Mauthos » Mon Jun 11, 2012 8:55 am

Still enjoying this and looking forward to their first mission. Good set-up and nicely paced so that your reader feels the urgency within the scene.

Only minor niggle I spotted was:

‘Invictus!’ Andreus beamed, slamming his right fist against his chestplate, using the newly chosen acknowledgement signal of their newly formed chapter

The repetition of newly, again only a slight problem and something that I have a pet hate of which was probably why it stood out to me.

Great stuff!!
Simplicity is the key to brilliance.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jun 12, 2012 12:39 am

= IX =

‘DISEMBARK!’ ORDERED CAPTAIN Markius as the shadowhawk’s rear ramp clanged onto the ferrocrete of landing platform 7. Camouflaged in urban combat fatigues reinforced with carapace armour plates, the marine scouts deployed, tracking with their assault weapons.

The platform jutted out like a rude tongue from the side of the mining facility. Glancing skywards, Markius could discern the edge of the roof-dome, far above them. The ochre gas giant that was Planet Callasia itself filled the sky, revolving ponderously. Then, peering out and down over the lip of the platform, Markius swayed, noting the sides of the industrial complex plunging two kilometres down to the rocky surface of the ninth moon of Callasia. Dizzy, Markius could just make out the kilometre-long mechanical legs that enabled the facility to walk, crablike, across the moon’s surface in search of new veins of ores to plunder. Just over a hundred cubic kilometres of maze-like tunnels, machinery and chambers constituted the mushroom-shaped construction – officially known as Mobile Mining Structure (MMS) Eighteen-Gamma-Twelve – which crawled across the moon and thrust down its greedy extraction pipes to steal its resources like some monstrous parasitic mite.

‘No-one here to meet us. That’s nice, eh?’ growled Sergeant Rasmus, beside Markius. Leading the men out, Markius had scanned the various entrances to the platform first of all, and come to the same conclusion as his old friend. It was indeed a relief that no enemies were here to ambush them. The cloaking device of the shadowhawk and their vox-blackout had done their jobs well.

‘All Talons,’ Markius called to the others. After the roar of the shadowhawk, it was strangely muted outside, disturbed only by the distant moaning of the gaseous winds. ‘Maintain vox-silence until you hear otherwise from me: We want to keep whoever is in there from knowing we are here for as long as possible.’

With a rush of engines, the shadowhawk behind them took off again, taking the inquisitor on to his own mission. Ahead, Lieutenant Tobias’s squad finished checking and activating personnel entrances.

‘All Talons, move out!’ said Markius.

His arm was grabbed by Goran and Markius turned to confront the scowling sergeant of Epsilon squad. Goran said, ‘I will need a vox-signal for when you want your diversion in Sector 4.’

Markius thought about it for a moment, then said, ‘On my signal: Codeword Powerfist.’

Goran grinned, flashing canine teeth, then moved off with his squad members, disappearing into the darkness of the interior of MMS-18-G-12.

* * *

STALKING THE FLICKERING darkness of the tunnel, Markius glimpsed the carapace shoulder plastron of Brother Olaf, ahead on point, and experienced a fleeting moment of awkwardness as he noticed it was now but a blank black shield. That place had once proudly displayed the white wing motif of the Storm Eagles chapter: A chapter now expunged, both from all official records and his life. The sensation passed as Olaf’s other shoulder, bearing the Imperial Aquila, came into view as he passed another failing wall-mounted luminator. Now they were The Emperor’s Talons, agents of the Holy Inquisition, from now on writing their own sagas across the galaxy. The reminder that they were doing His glorious work eased Markius’s discomfort.

The enhanced olfactory senses implanted into his nasal nerves carried information to his brain as the stale air of the mining facility wafted through the latest opening access hatch. The expected pungent mix of oil and metal, dried human sweat and heat-scorched machines was laced with something else; something difficult to define. It was almost sweet, like the scent of some poisonous yet alluring orchid. And there was human blood, its stench heavy and telling of death.

Brother Olaf halted at the next corner along the twisting tunnel, signaling to the others. The marines split, two taking each metal-paneled wall, silently sliding along to his position. Markius peeped around the corner and saw what Olaf had discovered. In a wider section of the tunnel, with numerous doors half-open and barricaded with the twisted steel frames of chairs and tables, there was the scene of a battle passed. Despite the flickering darkness, Markius’s enhanced eyes spotted the telltale scorch marks of weapons discharge burned into the walls and ceiling. Dried blood congealed in black puddles polluted with spent ammunition casings. An assortment of weapons, from battered and broken Adeptus Arbite issue shotguns and laspistols to crude metal bars and wrenches, lay scattered across the section. There were even discarded helmets and body-armour plates amongst the mess.

Markius listened. The distant thrum of machinery vibrated through the walls, telling him that auxiliary power was still working on MMS-18-G-12, but there was nothing else. The marines spread out and carefully explored the chamber, wary of unexploded grenades or other traps.

‘No bodies, eh?’ Rasmus snarled in a whisper, peering over Markius’s shoulder.

Markius nodded, noticing the same thing. It looked like a fierce fire-fight had taken place here, as well as a desperate close assault. Had this been the last stand of still loyal Imperial officers? They were only a hundred metres from the landing platform. How close had they come to escaping? Or, had there never been a chance of escape? Markius regretted that they had not been in time to save whoever had fought here.

They continued for another fifty metres along the tunnel that led from the far side of the chamber, noticing more las-burns, debris from frag grenades and spent ammunition shells. Markius also spotted what he thought were bloody drag marks spread along the tunnel.

‘Captain, over here,’ Brother Borias whispered from another barricaded doorway, nodding his shaved, bullet-smooth head towards something beyond. There was no trace of the usual humour in the marine’s aquiline face this time. Markius crossed to join him, then saw what lay in the next chamber, and nearly retched.

Here were the bodies. Bound with chains and industrial wires ripped from machines, they were mutilated almost beyond recognition. Borias heaved the twisted metal frames blocking the door and they entered the chamber. Abdomens were charred and lacerated from dozens of burn wounds. Limbs had been half hacked off. Eyes gouged out. Thick, rusty nails thrust into ears. Markius regarded the twisted victims and imagined he could almost hear their screams, echoing distantly through the metallic tunnels. Markius also noted with sickening anger that clothes had been ripped from the bodies and even their genitals had been subjected to unspeakable torture. The marines were silent as they stared at the grim scene.

There was no pattern to the torture, as if the perpetrators had just acted on each vindictive whim as it came to them. It was, Markius’s lip curled with disgust at the word that came to him, chaos.

‘What in the hells?’ said Olaf.

‘Hells indeed,’ commented Markius. Inquisitor Zharn had warned them all about this: The hell of heretical insanity. Was this some diabolical shrine the heretics had created to their dark deities?

Markius spotted a twitch of movement from ahead, deeper in the shadows, and snapped his boltpistol up to his shoulder in a practiced movement, sighting the source of the movement. The other marines, startled by his movement, followed suit. Another twitch; definitely somebody moving. It was a shadow, picked out by his occulobe implant, the true movement was hidden around a corner. His finger tightened on the trigger, but Markius did not fire. There was something odd about the movement. Again following the lead of their captain, the marines waited.

‘Halt! Who goes there?’ Markius called out to the darkness. No answer. Another twitch. Markius thought his enhanced ears had picked up a mechanical hum, like the jolt of an electric circuit jumping to life, over the constant drone of the facility’s distant generators.

Step by carefully placed step, he advanced deeper into the shadows of the macabre shrine, and then turned the corner. When he finally saw what it was, he dropped his boltpistol back to his side and swore a savage curse he had promised himself never to use.

She must have been one of the Arbites, once: One of the desperate defenders that had been overwhelmed and dragged to this terrible place. She was suspended by chained wrists from the low ceiling, naked and bleeding from dozens of wounds. Blood caked the inside of her thighs. Her face was a mask of cuts and burns. The jolt of electricity hummed again and the body jangled where it was suspended, the muscles jerking with the pulse. A dozen cables were drilled into her body and led away to a portable generator that had been set up to deliver random bursts of agony.

Rasmus cut through half of the cables, slicing them in a shower of sparks with one stroke from his power-axe, then furiously ripped the others from her body.

‘Rasmus, wait!’ said Markius. The big man looked round to him.

Markius was sure he had heard a groan from the body, barely audible and too quiet for any normal human ears to have picked up. He rushed beside Rasmus and together they leaned close towards the mangled face. There was one last agonised sigh, then the woman died.

‘Emperor damn it!’ said Rasmus as he checked her neck for a pulse. Markius looked at her. How long had she been dangling here, in abject torment? The last report, detailing the imminent fall of the facility to heretics, had come six real-time days ago. The stench of the stale blood from the battle told Markius it had happened almost as long ago. He grabbed one of the severed cables and clutched it in a bare hand as the machine kicked in again. The pain flowed through his arm, tore through his stomach and down through his knees. He could even feel it in his ankles. Every muscle screamed and contorted as the current seared through them. Markius clenched his jaw and despite his best effort could not stop his arm from shaking. Marines were genetically enhanced to survive normally fatal wounds, and with psycho-conditioning were inured to deal with pain and injury.

But he could still feel it. It mirrored the pain in his soul: They had been too late to save her. The hum ended and the searing, white-hot pain abated. Disgusted, he dropped the cable and watched Rasmus destroy the machine with one sweep of his axe.

Then Markius saw the rune painted on the wall behind the woman, confirming his suspicion of the purpose of this place. The wall, like almost all others here, was utilitarian grey faded to scorched black by eons of grime and fumes. The substance used to scrawl the rune was dubious, but Markius’s nostrils flared as the whiff of excrement scratched at them. And the rune itself… after a moment the marines had to avert their eyes. There was something unsettling about the unnatural shape. It called to them on a primal level, whispering dark and unintelligible secrets to their souls. The sweet smell became just a fraction stronger. It made Markius want to retch again.

‘We must remember something,’ Markius said to the silent marines gathered around him, his jaw set. ‘We may not be hunting xenos here, but we must not hesitate when we see the enemy. They may be humans, but they are even worse than xenos: They have turned their back on the Emperor’s Light and descended into heresy. Steel your hearts and show no mercy.’

* * *

THREE TUNNELS AND two destroyed access hatches later, Markius was starting to notice something over the hum of the generator engines. It was just beyond the range of his enhanced hearing, tantalisingly close, like that hint of a perfumed scent, but unidentifiable. Whispers? Tremors? Something seemed to be travelling up and down the pipes that ran along the ceilings and walls of every tunnel and chamber in the facility. To his horror, he felt something stir in his gut in response. He tried to shut out the noiseless sensation.

‘Markius,’ said Rasmus, coming up beside him and startling him out of his thoughts. ‘I need to talk to you about something, eh?’

‘Now?’ said Markius as they continued their stealthy advance.

‘Why not?’ said Rasmus, rubbing the grey stubble of his pate. Markius looked at him. Maybe he needed to talk, just to keep that unsettling feeling at bay. Maybe it was the adrenalin rush that preceded combat. Turning and continuing his advance, Markius said, ‘What is it?’

‘I think that… No, it’s not just me… Well, I’m not speaking for anyone else, but…’ said Rasmus, half a step behind. Even with this uncertainty, Rasmus could not help modulating his voice as a low growl, like a sabretooth purring.

Markius looked at him again. Is he nervous about something? Rasmus finally got his words straight.

‘I don’t think you should have made Tobias lieutenant,’ he whispered.

‘What?’ said Markius. He wants to dispute command decisions in the middle of a mission? He’s gone crazy! Markius thought.

‘Don’t misunderstand me, eh?’ Rasmus quickly followed up. ‘I like Tobias; he is a great soldier and wise sergeant…’

Markius could not quite believe what he was hearing. He had hoped he had left behind challenges to his leadership back on the moon of Ornisgard. Rasmus was still talking as they scouted through the industrial maze.

‘But he doesn’t have that ability, eh?’ he said. ‘You know… that force of will; the real quality we need in a leader. If anything happens to you, Emperor banish the thought, I’m not sure he will be able to hold the company together.’

Markius looked hard at Rasmus, his old friend since the forgotten days, when they had both been braves in the Wind-spear tribe. What was he trying to tell him? Rasmus grabbed Markius by the arm to stop him.

‘He’s not got that fire that the men respect,’ he snarled.

Markius nodded, finally understanding what Rasmus was getting at. His face cracked into a grin.

‘Oh Rasmus,’ he had to stifle a chuckle. ‘I love you like a brother, but I’ve just made you a sergeant! I’m not sure you even want the responsibility of lieutenant yet.’

Rasmus’s oblong face turned stony. He did not smile back.

‘I may have my faults, Markius, but pride is not amongst them, eh?’ he growled, not releasing his grip on his arm. ‘I’m not talking about me!’

Then who? Andreus was not ready and Sören had taken the re-assignment to Apothecary brilliantly.

‘Goran!’ said Rasmus, when it seemed clear that he and Markius were still not thinking the same thing. ‘You should have chosen Goran as second-in-command.’

Markius’s grin vanished. He stared at Rasmus’s earnest face, with the crooked, flattened nose that had been broken too many times.

‘You speak on behalf of that traitorous Wolf-scar to me?’ he hissed. ‘Don’t you remember what he was like on Ornisgard? How dare you say this?’

‘We’re not on Ornisgard anymore, eh?’ said Rasmus, ‘and we are not Wind-spears either. You said it yourself: All records expunged. This is supposed to be a new start for the chapter.’

‘I don’t trust him!’ said Markius.

‘And he doesn’t trust you,’ said Rasmus, keeping unusually calm, ‘that much is clear to the rest of us.’

Markius felt his anger building with his old friend, and an uncomfortable yet familiar sensation began gnawing at his guts as Rasmus continued. Anyone else and he would have silenced them, but he had grown up with Rasmus back on their homeworld of Prism. Only Rasmus could speak to him like this, but Markius still felt betrayed that he had chosen to do so.

‘Goran is at least trying, for the sake of the Emperor’s Talons. He volunteered to make the diversionary attack, remember?’

‘He would gladly try to take my position if he could,’ snorted Markius.

‘But he hasn’t, eh?’ countered Rasmus. ‘He’s fighting his pride, but you are not.’

Markius glowered at Rasmus but could not find a suitable reply.

‘He’s more like you than you realise, Markius. You need to work together – for all our sakes. This company cannot function if you keep us divided into cliques like this.’

‘Cliques!’ Markius snorted. ‘Who have you been talking to, Rasmus? Where did you learn such a word? Sören and his books?’

Rasmus growled back at him. Turning away in disgust he said, ‘Bah! I love you like a brother, too, Markius, but you’re as dense as a horn-ox sometimes.’

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jun 12, 2012 12:42 am

Mauthos wrote:The repetition of newly, again only a slight problem and something that I have a pet hate of which was probably why it stood out to me.

Great stuff!!

Thanks again, Mauthos. That repetition was in fact deliberate to emphasise the "changes" that is the theme of this chapter, so I'm sad that it didn't work so well for you :( . It's good feedback, so thanks again.

Last edited by kurisawa on Mon Jun 18, 2012 12:08 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Wed Jun 13, 2012 1:05 am

= X =

‘THE NEXT TUNNEL, maybe closer,’ reported Brother Gunnar, leaning with his ear pressed against the metal wall. The Astartes’ enhanced hearing had picked up the noise long ago. There was nothing subtle or elusive about this: screams, shouts and an incoherent babbling. Markius nodded to Brother Olaf, up ahead at the pneumatic door, as the marines readied their weapons. Olaf, with his distinctive fuzz of salt-and-pepper hair, crouched to a kneeling position then keyed the panel. The door hissed open with a cloud of oily steam.

Closer! Markius froze as he took in the scene. The mob perhaps had once been the workers on the mining facility, judging from what remained of their tattered grey overalls. Their waxy skins were tainted a sickly purple, streaked with gore, and the smell of degenerating human bodies was almost overpowering. They were facing away and had not yet noticed the marines, something in their midst holding their attention. The screams of the tortured ripped through Markius’s hesitation like an electric jolt. He glimpsed bodies on the deck plates, writhing in the grip of the mob that molested them. Then one of the heretics turned and pointed a clawing finger at the marines.

The howl he uttered was inhuman, wrenched from a throat hoarse with insane shrieking. His eyes were glazed and opaque, glowering at them from within the tangle of unwashed black hair that half-covered his face. The mob turned and as one screamed with nerve-jangling intensity before lurching into a stampede at the marines; clubs, wrenches and blood-caked nails grasping.

‘Open fire!’ Markius ordered. The decision had to be made. Eye-searing flashes illuminated the darkness as their bolt-weapons barked. There was no need to aim in the close confines. The bodies of the ragged mob exploded in eruptions of gore and bone fragments as the mass-reactive bolt rounds hammered them.

‘They’re still coming!’ Rasmus shouted in disbelief as the members of the mob behind those destroyed clawed and fought their way past the falling corpses to get at the marines. The Astartes opened up on full auto, spraying bolts into their attackers, who died shrieking in wide-eyed insanity. Booms of shotguns and cracks of lasguns answered, and the marines were quickly forced to aim more carefully, prioritising those amongst the mob that carried stolen weapons.

The deafening firefight only ended when the last howling heretic died, his head shattering in a fountain of blood and jelly-like globules of brain. The echoes of the blasts continued to rumble through the tunnels of the facility, like distant thunder, as the marines ejected spent ammunition magazines and slammed in new ones.

‘What madness has them?’ said Brother Lars. ‘These are humans!’

‘They didn’t even hesitate, just ran blindly into our fire, eh?’ said Rasmus, unusually quiet.

‘Listen,’ Markius attempted to regain control. ‘We have to be more careful with ammunition or we are going to run out fast.’

He dashed to the bodies amongst the fallen heretics; the ones he thought were the victims rather than the attackers. It was hard to tell which was which, but nonetheless, all were dead. Markius’s hearts felt heavy in his chest. Again they were too late to make a difference.

Something stirred deep within the bowels of MMS-18-G-12. They all heard it, yet none could say exactly what it was; like the hiss of an uncoiling snake, or the faraway howl of many voices. Something rippled along the cables and walls around them, answering the still-rumbling echo of their firefight. Markius keyed his vox and cycled through channels. Most were filled with static, but he stopped as he caught the sound of sinister hisses. They babbled and gurgled in some unknown language he could not understand – if the continuous stream of unintelligible sounds was indeed a language. He could not catch any words, but his guts lurched at the diabolical sound nonetheless, and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

Markius exhaled in annoyance. Whoever – or whatever – had taken over MMS-18-G-12 certainly knew they were here now. He could feel it rippling through the stale air of the facility: Something had been roused, and Markius momentarily had the feeling he had been swallowed into the churning belly of some vast metal beast. He made a decision and keyed the vox to the designated channel.

‘Talon Actual to Talon Epsilon: Status?’ he said.

‘Epsilon to Actual: About another ten minutes,’ came the voice of Sergeant Goran. ‘I take it that was you?’

‘Affirmative, Epsilon. Unavoidable, I’m afraid. Confirm: Ten minutes?’ said Markius. They were going to need to move fast now.

‘Invictus, Actual,’ said Goran, and Markius caught the tortuous grind of ripping metal in the background. He imagined Goran’s powerfist tearing through internal doors. Goran added one last comment, ‘You can count on us!’

‘Talon Actual to Talon Lambda,’ voxed Markius, ‘Status?’

‘Lambda to Actual; in position,’ came the voice of Lieutenant Tobias. ‘But it does not look good, Actual. Recommend abort. Repeat: Recommend abort.’

Markius grimaced. What was the population of this facility again? Seventy thousand? They couldn’t all have turned heretic and now be waiting for them in the main thoroughfare.

‘No!’ came Goran’s voice over the vox. ‘Epsilon will be in position and we will make it happen!’

‘Talon Actual to Lambda,’ said Markius, galvanised by Goran’s promise, still regretting the victims he had not been able to save. ‘That’s a negative: We are going to at least try.’

‘Invictus!’ hissed Goran into the vox.

‘Invictus,’ said Tobias, without emotion.

Markius glanced over to Rasmus, who held one hand to the vox-bead in his ear, also listening to the conversation. They met eyes and Rasmus gave him a meaningful look.

‘Enough,’ said Markius. ‘I don’t want to hear it!’

‘Talon Zeta to Talon Actual,’ came Sergeant Andreus’s enthusiastic voice over the vox. ‘We are in position behind you, ready and waiting.’

Right, thought Markius. It was now or never. He switched to the special channel designated by Inquisitor Zharn.

‘This is Talon Captain to Mechanicus Research Team: Do you receive?’ he said, and waited.

‘Ah, Captain!’ came a female voice, surprisingly quickly. ‘Welcome to Crawl. I guess you’ve met the locals then? Be careful what you say, they have sensitive ears, you know.’

Markius blinked, establishing several facts from the strange transmission. The respondent was a woman; not such a shock, though for some reason he hadn’t expected it. But there was something else: She sounded too calm, almost flippant. This was far from what he had expected. And what had that been? Pleading, distraught old men? Perhaps. This was not such a bad development. The woman had also disguised several important points in what sounded like idle chat: She had been expecting their transmission and knew it meant their presence had been detected. Also, the vox was likely to be monitored and therefore they should not reveal too much of their plans, keeping to insecure vox protocols.

It was clever, Markius had to admit; a natural and immediate code. He had also learned one other thing: The facility was unofficially known as Crawl.

‘Understood,’ said Markius. ‘What’s your status?’

‘Oh, we’ve been having a fraggin’ party here,’ said the voice. She sounded young, too, Markius noted. ‘The gatecrashers are just lining up to get in here!’

Markius half grinned but also frowned, his features caught between the two. This woman was almost too glib after what must have been six days of continuous and desperate fighting for survival. He hoped she was still sane.

‘Don’t worry, we’re here to get you out… ma’am!’

Markius winced as he said the last word, feeling clumsy. He silently cursed Zharn for not giving him a name – not even a call-sign – with which to address the leader of the research team. He had no idea of etiquette or what he should have called her. The vox crackled and Markius thought he heard a giggle at the other end, increasing his discomfort.

‘Spoken like a fraggin’ Saranen,’ said the voice. ‘Thank you, Captain. We’ve almost run out of party tricks so we’ll be looking out for you.’

‘Time to move out,’ Markius called to his men as the transmission ended.

* * *

‘IN HERE, QUICK,’ Markius whispered to Omega squad and they slid into the side-chamber: A facility systems monitoring point by the look of it. The tiny room was filled with wrecked machinery, broken brass dials and mangled levers. Beyond the half-open door, the network of tunnels stretched away into the darkness. The mob that Markius had heard approaching rushed by, their blood-streaked and rag-swathed bodies flashing past the end of the tunnel twenty metres away. Markius breathed a sigh of relief. In their howling fury, the mob had not detected the marines.

All around them, the city of Crawl echoed to the pounding footsteps and horrendous screaming of a roused horde. The population was out to find them.

‘Come on, Captain!’ snarled Rasmus, next to him. ‘We can take them out one mob at a time, eh?’

Markius raised a hand to restrain his old friend, glancing to his face. He had that look again. Markius knew the signs; the way Rasmus clenched his power-axe in trembling hands. Rasmus was out for blood. His eyes were bloodshot and staring, like an ice bear enraged to discover its territory invaded. Damn these marines, thought Markius, why do they just not listen to me? He remembered their earlier conversation and grew angry with Rasmus again. How dare they question my decisions? I am the captain! I don’t need any of them!

Markius shook his head, quelling his anger. There was something wrong, gnawing in his gut. With the vox-channel now open to his men, the strange noiseless sound seemed to be in the constant background hiss of static in his ear. That unintelligible mumbling noise transmitted on the other channel seemed to be whispering just beneath the frequency of his hearing, too. Whenever he blinked he thought he saw an after-image of the diabolical rune he had witnessed in that horrific shrine to torture and death, squirming and shifting and promising… something. He saw Brother Gunnar touch his own ear as they waited for the rampaging mob to move away.

Big Gunnar had a physique to match Rasmus, and the way he had shaved his black hair into a mohican made the Omega Squad marine look like the feral warrior he had once been. They met eyes and Gunnar whispered, ‘They are trying to tune into us.’

Markius nodded, realising the aptness of the phrase. Something indefinable was trying to tune into his mood. He tried to shut it out as he signaled for the squad to resume their advance. They were only one hundred metres from the staircase that would bring them up to the main thoroughfare.

* * *

‘HOLY THRONE!’ GROWLED Rasmus as they reached the top of the stairway and quickly dived into cover. The stairwell emerged into an enclosure right in the middle of Tunnel Primus, surrounded by a plasteel guardwall. The domed ceiling rose a hundred metres above them, braced with iron arches like a vaulted cathedral. Flickering luminators bathed the avenue in an elapsing half-light. Either side and forming the buttressed walls of the one hundred metre wide avenue were multi-storey facilities of all descriptions; markets and bars side by side with equipment storehouses and offices. Further on, before the avenue took a wide sweep to the left, the manufactorum units could be seen through the flickering gloom, exhaust stacks winding up to the roof.

And everything was wrecked; windows smashed, interiors gutted by fire, stockpiles of equipment mangled. Statues of Imperial saints and effigies of the immortal God Emperor had been defaced and destroyed everywhere. Even the gargoyles that leered from the tops of shop-fronts had been torn down.

Markius’s gaze quickly took in the disaster zone and settled on the crowds thronging the avenue; the cause of Rasmus’s exclamation. He breathed. Hundreds of them; perhaps thousands, for he could not see the full length of the thoroughfare. For the moment, they appeared unaware of the marines’ presence.

‘What are they doing, eh?’ Rasmus snarled in a whisper.

Though some mobs seemed to be roused, heading off into tunnels that fed into the thoroughfare, howling and clutching improvised weapons of all descriptions, the main mass of bodies remained where they stood, moaning and babbling. Some leant upon one another. Others fought, scratching at each others’ eyes. Many had their arms outstretched towards the ceiling, shrieking and speaking gibberish. Again the word leapt uninvited into Markius’s mind; chaos.

‘Praying,’ Markius grimaced. ‘Begging for… something.’

The churning feeling in his gut, like he was trying to digest something foul, intensified. He could not banish the vision of that rune from his mind’s eye, and the alluring scent brushed at his nostrils once more.

‘Epsilon to Actual,’ crackled the vox, an edge of anticipation in Goran’s voice. ‘We are in position.’

‘Actual to Epsilon,’ returned Markius, ‘Invictus. Standby.’

‘Lambda to Actual,’ came Tobias’s voice, betraying stress. ‘Can you see this?’

‘Affirmative, Lambda,’ voxed Markius. ‘I see it.’

I see damned heretics and the statues of Him they have destroyed, he thought.

‘Then you understand,’ said Tobias, forgetting to use proper vox hailing protocol. ‘We have to get out of here!’

‘Shut up, Tobias!’ came Goran’s unexpected snarl over the vox, breaking all comms protocols and also using the lieutenant’s name. ‘Markius, I’m going to make the run at the target.’

‘The hells you will!’ shouted Rasmus over the vox. Markius glanced at the big man, eyes wide. What was happening to everyone?

‘You’re all suicidal!’ said Tobias.

Markius tried to take control, ‘Actual to Epsilon: Negative on that! Stand down. And Tobias, will you quit your whimpering?’

Markius shook his head, not quite believing what he had just said.

‘Damn you Markius,’ Goran growled over the vox. ‘Why should I? I am better than you! I proved it before!’

Markius’s anger boiled over.

‘Get the hell out of here, Goran,’ he said over the vox. ‘Get back to the extraction point. You too, Tobias. I don’t need any of you. This is my mission! My glory!’

‘Damn the mission; I’ll get there first!’ Goran’s snide tone betrayed an ugly emotion that Markius recognised in the sergeant of Epsilon squad.

Rasmus lost control beside Markius. With a roar he leapt from his hiding place, vaulting the guardwall and a pile of wreckage, and charged towards the nearest mob, hacking into their bodies with his power-axe. The heavy blade ignited into an energy-wreathed wedge as he activated the weapon.

‘Rasmus, no!’ shouted Markius. The boltpistols of Omega squad barked all around him as the marines fired on instinct, targeting the heretics closest to where Rasmus attacked. The staccato reports of their weapons thundered over the howls of the heretics, echoing back down from the metal dome, and tongues of fire from their muzzles lit up the half-darkness with a strobe effect.

A voice roared over the vox, ‘All of you; snap out of it!

Markius paused with disbelief. It was newly-promoted Sergeant Andreus.

‘All Talons, switch to secondus channel, right now! Comms are not secure!’ continued Andreus.

The surprising power of Andreus’s shouted command gripped hold of Markius. He shook his head again, fighting his surging anger.

‘Invictus, Zeta!’ he acknowledged over the vox. ‘All Talons switch to secundus channel!’

As soon as he changed the channel, Markius felt he had control of his emotions again. Only a moment had passed, but the avenue had exploded into violence. Rasmus was cleaving at screaming heretics as they poured towards him, spraying great sheets of blood and gore with each slice of his crackling axe. Omega squad helped as best they could, but could not shoot too close to their sergeant for fear of hitting him. Made violently aware of the infiltrators in their midst, the hundreds of heretics were turning and pointing, shrieking unintelligible curses. Markius’s twin hearts thumped like pounding drums.

‘Epsilon to Actual,’ came Goran’s urgent voice in his ear. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened…’

‘Actual to all Talons,’ snapped Markius. ‘It got us all for a second there. Report in.’

‘Zeta here, in position,’ said Andreus and Markius quickly replied: ‘Yes, well done Zeta.’

‘Lambda here,’ said Tobias. ‘Actual… I don’t know…’

‘Later,’ snapped Markius. ‘Actual to Epsilon: Powerfist!


Markius roared and stormed towards Rasmus, who was quickly becoming enveloped by the horde. Markius hacked at those nearest, disemboweling bodies with his gladius, before blasting with his boltpistol at another heretic that was clinging onto Rasmus’s back, attempting to strangle the giant space marine. Rasmus fought on oblivious, killing with every stroke. Omega squad advanced with their captain, blasting at heretics. A pause in the fighting ensued as they cleared a cordon of death around Markius and Rasmus. The waves of attacking heretics stalled.

Markius holstered his pistol then grabbed hold of Rasmus’s arm, and had to duck as the big sergeant’s power-axe cleaved towards his face, trailing coils of lightning. Rasmus’s face was contorted with rage.

‘Torturing bastards!’ he yelled.

Markius rose after the axe blade whistled by and punched Rasmus in the face, hard. The big man staggered back two steps before realising who had hit him. He looked dumbfounded at Markius. Markius did not hesitate, leaping at Rasmus and reaching for the vox-control panel at his neck.

‘Switch channels!’ he yelled as Rasmus wrestled him. Finally Markius found a switch and changed the vox-channel to another at random. Rasmus instantly calmed down.

‘Captain?’ he said. ‘What happened?’

‘No time!’ said Markius, as the horde surged at them with blood-curdling screams.

* * *

THE MARINES OF Omega squad battled the sea of screaming fanatics with every last ounce of determination they possessed. Quickly realising they had not nearly enough ammunition, they led with combat blades. Forming a tight circle, facing outwards, they bludgeoned and chopped their way through the frenzied horde, which quickly closed in behind to surround them. Now was not the time for the intricate swordsmanship learned in one-on-one combat rites. Every thrust and slice hacked through human flesh and bone, maiming and killing, and still they came on.

Explosions away to the west were followed by the distinctive cracks of boltpistols. Markius grimaced with satisfaction: ‘Powerfist’ was in effect, but what difference would it make?

Despite their skill and enhanced strength, fighting such numbers was like trying to halt an avalanche with bare hands. Wrenches clanged across Markius’s carapace armour plates and metal spikes ripped at his legs and arms. Stub guns barked, their bullets screaming off and ricocheting in all directions. Las beams sliced through the air. Markius stumbled over the piles of bodies the marines were creating in their advance. He was already bleeding from a dozen wounds, but the pain-retarding chemicals released by his implanted organs kept unconsciousness at bay.

Step by hard-fought step, they carved their way through the crowd. Brother Lars fell, dragged away by half a dozen screaming heretics. Then big Gunnar disappeared into the throng. The marines closed their circle tighter and Markius realised their biggest enemy was going be fatigue. Even a space marine can only fight and take punishment for so long before his arms become heavy and his legs like lead.

Just when the thought to call the retreat and try a different route of attack crossed Markius’s mind, the crowd suddenly thinned. Heretics previously wide-eyed with insane bloodlust began to peel away from the mob, scampering back down the wreckage-littered avenue. The scouts of Omega squad exchanged glances with Markius. He spotted retreating heretics falling, heads exploding from invisible blows, and followed the trajectory of attack, along the walls and out to a section of the avenue before the long sweep to the left. There, above and beyond the steepled roofs of manufactorum units, his augmented eyes spotted the shadows of Lambda squad. The flicker of sniper rifles betrayed their positions secreted halfway up the walls and hiding on jutting balconies.

Dozens of their victims lay across the path of Omega squad’s advance. And still the roars of battle came from the west, signaling that Goran’s squad was also locked in a bitter battle in Sector 4. Then the 1.0-calibre Mk IVa Heavy Bolter carried by Lambda squad roared, and a gang of heretics died in a hail of explosions. The suppressing fire was overwhelming, and even the insane had some semblance of their primal instincts triggered to try and find cover.

‘Actual to Lamdba,’ voxed Markius, taking the moment to rest and gather his breath, ‘Good work.’

The heretics seemed to be in disarray in the face of the marines’ ferocious attack from multiple directions. Markius decided to personally thank Brother Patreus later for lugging that heavy One-oh on his back while climbing up the hab-blocks.

‘Lambda to Actual: You are not there yet!’ came Tobias’s hurried response.

Fifty metres ahead, Markius saw an improvised barricade of piles of wreckage and gutted vehicles had been erected. Here the heretics regrouped, finding hiding places behind the barricade.

‘Zeta to Actual,’ came Andreus’s voice, heavy with concern. ‘We are at the top of the staircase, but we have lost sight of you. There are hundreds of them!’

‘Invictus, Zeta,’ breathed Markius. ‘Hold position.’

‘Caduceus to Actual,’ voxed Brother Sören, the man Markius had recently appointed to apothecary. He was deployed along with Zeta squad. Sören said, ‘You have two men down.’

Markius knew it: With Lars and Gunnar down, Omega squad had lost a third of their number in the advance through the avenue. Sören was consulting his new vambrace-mounted sensor equipment, provided by the Mechanicus, that allowed him to monitor his brother marines’ life-signs. After Ornisgard, Markius had known that something was wrong with tall, handsome Sören. Golden-haired Sören, whom everyone had assumed would make a captain, had frozen. The men knew it. Sören knew it.

But after Markius had suggested the re-assignment to apothecary, Sören had taken the new chance with relish. For eight months, he had attacked his new responsibility with fervour, spending endless hours reading in his cell after daily training rites. The scouts had all received the reading engrams downloaded into their brains as initiates; it was necessary to recognise squad markings and hazard instructions on equipment. But Sören had discovered books. With no inducer machines on the Arcis, Sören had learned everything he could the old fashioned way. And he had set himself a mission now: To be the best damned apothecary in the galaxy.

‘They are gone, Caduceus,’ voxed Markius, the words sticking in his throat.

‘Negative, Actual,’ said Sören. ‘They are still alive! Zeta can get to them.’

‘Negative! Standby and hold,’ said Markius. He hesitated, biting his lip. He needed the stairwell secure for their escape, but he also knew how precious every one of his men were. He wrestled with indecision.

‘Zeta to Actual,’ this time it was Andreus again. Markius imagined he and the apothecary were standing right next to each other. ‘If we attack now it will also take some heat off your backs.’

‘Captain!’ hissed Rasmus, next to Markius and pointing ahead.

At the barricades, Markius spotted autoguns and lasguns and even heavy weapons being brought to bear. The brief hiatus in the fighting looked about to be over, the heretics organising a response. Markius needed to make a quick decision. He looked over his shoulder and saw fresh hundreds of heretics chasing after them, pouring back in from the side tunnels.

‘Affirmative, Zeta,’ he voxed. ‘Open fire and get our brothers out.’


Almost immediately, fresh reports of boltguns roared down through the avenue from the direction of the stairwell. The horde paused, confused by the new direction of attack and unsure which way to turn. Markius grimaced with bitter satisfaction. It would buy them time now, but had he just cut off their escape route? Now all four of his squads were engaged in trying to stave off the crowds of heretics. He had no more reserves. No time to worry about that now, Markius realised, as he looked back to the barricade.

‘Advance!’ his order rang out like a clarion call to Omega squad, and the marines charged towards the charred barricades. At the same time, the high-powered rifles and rhythmically booming heavy bolter of Lambda squad pummeled the blockade, punishing the heretic positions from above. Nevertheless, a hail of firepower vomited from scores of heretics’ weapons and the air around the charging marines was filled with deadly las-bolts and scattered shotgun blasts.

Markius stopped two las-bolts right in his chest armour plate, the hammer blows almost knocking him from his feet, and an autogun round slashed past his cheek, tearing out a glancing wound from his flesh. Though he staggered a step, he did not falter, determination burning in his guts as he devoured the distance to the barricades with each great stride. At ten metres the marines hurled frag grenades, which exploded amongst the barricades, silencing the enemy guns for a moment.

With a roar Markius leapt onto the blackened chassis of a fork-lifter, kicking out and smashing the face of a lasgun-wielding heretic. He slashed with his blade, slicing the neck of another pallid-skinned fanatic that leapt, screaming, to attack with just his blood-caked nails. The heretic died in spasms, arterial blood fountaining from his neck. Around Markius, Omega squad stormed the barricades, dealing death at close range with explosive bolt-rounds and cleaving blades. Markius saw Rasmus smash his power-axe through the midriffs of two heretics with one sweep. Then another jumped out of a hidden corner amongst the blockade and emptied both barrels of his shotgun at the sergeant.

‘Rasmus!’ Markius shouted as he saw the big man go down. The blast had caught his legs, just below his abdomen. Placing a bolt round between the eyes of the shotgun-wielding heretic, Markius clambered over to Rasmus, who was struggling to get to his feet.

‘Still in one piece, eh?’ Rasmus gave his trademark crooked grin as he spat blood. Markius breathed. Rasmus had been lucky: The worst of the shot had been stopped by his carapace armour, though several bloody wounds were gouged into his thighs.

The heretics had regained their earlier suicidal determination, and Omega squad had to stab and smash and blast deadly wounds into each and every one of them. It was the most frenzied, desperate fighting Markius had ever engaged in, and the blood of the fallen ran in rivulets across the greasy deck plates. Still, there seemed to be dozens now, rather than hundreds, and they could not get close to the marines without dying.

Omega squad pushed on, advancing beyond the barricades and around the sweep of the avenue, short bursts from their boltpistols keeping scattered groups of howling heretics at bay.

‘Lambda to Actual,’ voxed Tobias. ‘You are moving out of our cover-zone.’

‘Invictus, Lambda,’ said Markius, ejecting a spent magazine and slamming in another. ‘Hold position: We will need you on our way back out.’

‘Invictus, Actual,’ replied Tobias, ‘but they know we’re here now. They are coming up through the hab-blocks!’

‘Just hold as long as you damn well can!’ snapped Markius. He stopped, realising something was churning in his guts again. The sound that was not a sound – it was there again, just beneath the hiss of static on the vox. Now he knew what to listen for, he recognised it more easily. ‘Actual to all Talons, switch to tertius channel.’

A round of acknowledgements came over the vox. Markius worried. They had committed all of their forces in the attack, and they had only pre-designated three comms channels. How long before the third was compromised?

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Thu Jun 14, 2012 4:15 am

= XI =

LOPING ALONG THE avenue, dodging between smoking piles of debris, it seemed the Astartes had outpaced or shaken the pursuit of the mobs for the moment, though the entire length of Tunnel Primus reverberated with the clamour of bolters and yelling rioters. Then Markius spotted Tower 17. He immediately understood why the research team had made their stand here. It stood detached from the avenue in a wide shaft at least forty metres in radius that bored straight down through the depths of Crawl, presumably right down to the crust-blasting machinery on the underside: an almost bottomless defensive moat. The only access was via a currently retracted bridge. Around the edge of the shaft more makeshift barricades had been built, from which the heretics besieged the tower, and here and there heavy stubbers spat their streams of shells at the superstructure. The flicker of a failing energy field lit up the darkness where the rounds pounded the barrier, but several punched through, clawing wounds out of the black metal sides of the bastion.

‘We got here just in time, eh?’ Rasmus noted as the protective energy field finally died with an electronic groan. To the west, another horde of heretics congregated around the entrance to a ten metre wide tunnel leading from the avenue. Markius snapped up his boltpistol, but noticed the heretics were not facing his squad. Something had their attention beyond the exit. Markius’s enhanced hearing detected the distinctive roar and blast of bolt rounds.

‘Actual to Epsilon,’ Markius voxed, noticing the sign above the exit reported that it led to Sector 4.

‘Epsilon here!’ came Goran’s strained voice, and Markius could hear the scream of heretics fighting in the background. ‘We are in sight of the target!’

‘Actual to Epsilon; I need you to fall back,’ said Markius.

‘What?’ came Goran’s hiss. ‘Emperor damn it, Actual! We…’

‘Epsilon: Listen to me,’ voxed Markius, trying to remain patient. ‘You’ve got hundreds of them tied up, but I need you to draw them away from the target. We are almost there and it looks clear. This is for the mission!’

A tense few moments passed as Markius waited for a reply. A small group of heretics at the back of the crowd at the tunnel mouth had spotted them and turned, but were quickly felled by well-placed rounds from Omega squad. Markius remembered what Goran had said while he was under the influence of that… thing… He also remembered the scuffle they had once fought in the middle of a mission. He knew what Goran wanted to do.

‘Invictus, Actual,’ Goran finally voxed and Markius breathed a sigh of relief, knowing how hard that had been for Goran to accept. The howling mob at the exit gradually departed from the main thoroughfare, and still there was no pursuit from behind. Zeta squad’s bolter volleys echoed back down from the way they had come along the avenue, booming over the distant cacophony. But here it was almost too quiet, Markius thought as they dashed for the tower.

When they were twenty metres from the edge of the shaft, Markius and Omega squad skidded to a halt. Markius’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. Surrounded by more of the heretics, an armoured giant clomped from a cloud of smoke gushing from the burning barricades that encircled the tower. The marines of Omega squad unleashed missiles from their boltpistols and scrambling heretics exploded in showers of blood. But those rounds that struck the giant ricocheted harmlessly from the amethyst armour plating that encased him. Markius’s blood ran cold as deep laughs resonated from the vox-amplifiers in his horned helmet, wrought in the likeness of a daemon’s leering rictus.

A Chaos marine! Markius’s hearts jolted with the recognition, brain engrams downloaded long ago playing across his mind’s eye. They were the traitors, the unmentionables, the shame of all Astartes. Ten thousand years ago, fully half of the space marine legions had turned against the Emperor and ignited a galaxy-wide war known as the Horus Heresy. Worlds had burned and billions had died, but the Chaos marines had been defeated, forced to flee deep into the real-warp space rift known as the Eye of Terror. And for ten thousand years the evil survivors of those traitor legions had endured, their life-spans unnaturally extended by the warping powers of the ether. In the roiling storm of the Eye they had jealously plotted, spreading the curse of heresy and Chaos wherever they could, their ultimate aim to topple the righteous Imperium.

A whirling melee ensued as Omega squad stormed into the mob of heretics, and the blood tainted semi-darkness was filled with the screams and fire of fresh battle. His aching body energised with adrenalin and indoctrinated hatred, Markius hacked his way past frenzied heretics, clearing a path to the giant. The Chaos champion did likewise, cutting down even his own cultists with a massive broadsword that was wreathed in diabolical energy.

They met at the heart of the fighting. Markius hesitated, taking in the massive size of the ancient warrior, and the aura of distilled power that he exuded. The purple ceramite armour plates were ridged with rippling bronze trim that resembled osseous growths, bulging out from the edges, and Markius felt disgust at how the thousands of years had warped the once elegant power armour of a space marine. Two golden eye-sockets gleamed at Markius from the grinning daemon-helm. The giant clutched his broadsword in two hands before him, in a position of challenge.

‘You reek of purity, whelp,’ came the bestial voice through its vox-amplifier. The giant seemed assured in his invulnerability.

‘By the Emperor, you will die!’ said Markius, trying to show more confidence than he felt. His gladius looked pathetic compared to the traitor’s broadsword. This weapon also looked like it was forged from some vertebral matter, and its edges shifted and glittered in a kaleidoscope of colours. Markius was struck by the notion that there was some malignant entity hidden within the weapon. It was alive. The soundless whispers brushed his ears and reached into his guts again, enticing. He had to drag his stare away from the broadsword’s hypnotising spectrums.

‘Why be a slave to that corpse, when instead you can be a god?’ rumbled the giant, striding forwards and swinging for Markius’s body. Markius retreated a step and parried the blow. The broardsword clanged from his gladius and the tremor juddered right up his arm.

That was too easy. The champion was not even trying to kill him yet, just demonstrate his superiority. A shadow of doubt crossed Markius’s heart; how could he fight such an ancient and skilled warrior with his own pathetic skills? What he needed was power; the kind of power thousands of years and skill-honing trials in the warp could provide! And only he had the strength to triumph in such trials. He could be chosen.

‘Get out of my head,’ Markius growled, concentrating hard on shutting out the whispers, sure now that they came from the daemon-sword carried by the Chaos champion. He sensed them like the tendrils of some infernal alien creature, reaching into his mind. And the damp, putrid stench of the warp scratched at his olfactory senses. Markius gritted his teeth and concentrated until it hurt, then still harder beyond the pain. To his own surprise, he succeeded, pushing out the alluring thoughts of power and glory that he so desired.

The Chaos champion also appeared surprised as Markius surged at him, swiping his blade for the giant’s throat. The Chaos warrior staggered a step back to avoid the strike and countered with a powerful if off-balance swing of his own weapon, intended to decapitate Markius. Markius rolled under the blow, sliding to the greasy metallic floor, and the daemon-sword missed by a fraction, trailing streamers of hypnotic rainbows.

‘Not so helpless, afterall,’ muttered the giant, turning to press his advantage against Markius.

Around them the fight raged between Omega squad and the heretics. With one glance Markius could see the battle stood in the balance. A new group had lumbered into the fray. These… creatures… were much bigger, swollen to almost twice the size of normal men, muscles bulging and sinews like whipcords straining beneath unnaturally tainted skin. Markius spotted the despicable stigmata of mutations amongst them; tentacle-like additional arms slithered from shoulders, and crab-like claws snapped where hands should have been. These lost souls had been specially chosen by their foul deities.

A massive armoured boot slammed down on Markius’s blade, smashing the precious metal into two pieces and killing the warrior spirit within. Markius rolled just in time as the daemon-sword came howling down towards his chest. It struck the floor where he had been a moment ago, carving a wound from the surface with a scream of metal.

Markius jumped to his feet, slashing out with the remaining broken edge of his blade, knowing it was a futile display, as the Chaos champion almost lazily recovered his balance and turned towards him.

‘You could be so much more,’ the giant’s bestial growl betrayed something that sounded almost like regret, and the blade reared like a serpent preparing to deliver the mortal strike.

Markius decided not to wait for it to come, and throwing caution to the void launched himself at the giant. He managed to get inside the swing of the broadsword, his head ramming against the thick chest armour of the giant. He stabbed for the rictus mask but his opponent knocked the blow aside with one massive vambrace. Markius toppled away from the giant, skidding across the blood-slicked floor as the marines around him continued their desperate close-quarters battle with the mutants.

Moving quickly now, the giant stomped towards Markius, broadsword held high for another overhead blow. Markius knew he would not be able to avoid this one. The giant was finished toying with him.

* * *

‘HEY! FRAG THIS!’ shrieked a voice from behind the giant, just as Markius raised an arm in a last desperate attempt to deflect the coming strike. The blow never landed.

Someone, Markius could not see who, jumped at the champion from behind. He glimpsed the outline of a slender, black-clad figure and the flash of a powered-blade, its length wreathed in a sizzling white corona. The giant turned but was not quick enough, and the blade carved into his neck, questing between the bony ridges of his backpack and the horned helmet.

The Chaos warrior roared and spun, trying to fend off the unknown attacker, and Markius gaped. She was a woman, lithe and tiny next to the giant’s bulk, hanging on for all her worth onto the champion’s backpack. She struck again, driving the powered blade into the neck once more. Sparks showered the ground around the spinning pair, and a viscous liquid that could have been engine oil or some dark perversion of blood fountained from the wound.

With a wheeze, the giant collapsed to his knees. The woman took hold of one of the horns and thrust the crackling weapon a third time, sawing at the now gaping wound between the giant’s head and shoulders. With a screech of tortured metal and splintering bones, the horned helmet came clean away. It rolled across the metal-grilled floor to come to rest before Markius, the golden eye sockets no longer gleaming.

Markius dragged his stare away from the head and regarded the lean attacker. The waif was clad in a figure-hugging bodyglove, revealing only pale-skinned shoulders and arms. She flicked aside a shoulder length curtain of silky black hair that obscured her face, and her delicate features broke into a smile at Markius. Oval eyes with violet pupils stared back at him.

‘Hey, thanks Saranen. I’ve been wanting to do that for the last six days!’ she said.

Markius glanced around him. More of the women, all with similar clothing and hair, had joined the fight against the mutants. They bore hellpistols with slender-profile energy mags, the distinctive snap and zing of high-powered laser bolts slicing the air. Markius blinked. They also wielded monomolecular edged daggers in their off hands, and with spinning grace they danced among the heretics, turning the fight quickly in favour of the struggling marines. Beyond violet-eyes, Markius could see the bridge from Tower 17 had been extended out to the edge of the shaft.

‘You’re the research team?’ he blurted.

‘Yup, what’s left of it,’ said the woman. ‘Welcome to the party.’

Markius struggled to his feet as the last of the mutants was dispatched by Rasmus and one of the lissome waifs together, hefted howling into the shaft.

‘And where are the priceless assets?’ said Markius, anger rising in his gut once more. He cursed Zharn for not preparing him for this encounter.

‘You’re looking at them,’ grinned the woman. She extended a slender hand and said, ‘I am Athena. Nice to meet you.’

Markius glanced at the other women again, who were now also greeting the shocked marines. They all seemed to have the same hair – with a satiny, almost synthetic sheen. He also glimpsed silvery traces of what looked like circuitry inlaid into their alabaster-skinned arms.

‘What in the hells are you?’

‘The result of finest Glavian augmetics and state-of-the-art Mechanicus juvenat treatments: We are Psirens,’ said Athena.

‘You’re what?’ said Rasmus, heaving alongside Markius and exchanging confused looks with his captain.

‘P-S-I-R-E-Ns,’ said Athena. ‘Plasteel Skeleton Implant, Reflex Enhanced Neutralisers.’

Markius attempted to make sense of the information. This was far from what he had been expecting: Neutralisers – assassins – not scientists. This is what his men were dying to save? He was becoming fed up of Zharn’s secrets, and suspected the inquisitor had kept this from him precisely to avoid an argument before the mission began. Markius reined in his emotions. He had a mission to complete, and these Psirens were now his responsibility.

‘I’m Captain Markius of the Emperor’s Talons,’ he finally managed. ‘The Emperor Protects!’

‘Not here, he doesn’t,’ snorted Athena, ‘and we’ll all be dead if we don’t get moving soon.’

Taken aback by the casual blasphemy, Markius struggled for a response. He forced his mind to think. Escape. They had to get out.

‘Right. Well, we need to move back into the cover of our snipers – that way,’ he said, gesturing. He noticed shapes moving beyond the barricades they had earlier stormed. The sounds of distant battle still echoed back down along the avenue.

‘You came in along Tunnel Primus?’ said Athena. She whistled when Markius nodded, then said; ‘Brave, but stupid, Saranen. Nyx, what do you have?’

Markius was left to exchange angry looks again with Rasmus as another of the Psirens stepped forward, this one with startling jade eyes. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail and she fiddled with rune-keys on a datapad. She pointed towards a nearby manufactorum unit and said, ‘Over there!’

‘This way,’ said Athena. ‘There’s a much safer route out of here.’

The Psirens began to scamper away, and Markius was about to demand they stop, angry for many reasons. This Athena seemed intent to insult him at every opportunity, and he was not about to let that continue. Then he noticed Rasmus bending down to pick something up from the body-strewn floor.

‘Rasmus, don’t touch that!’ he shouted when he saw what it was.

The marines gathered around the vertebral broadsword, discarded not far from the deceased giant, and the Psirens also turned and paused. The weapon radiated a menace like an invisible aura.

‘You need a weapon, Captain,’ said Rasmus, pointing towards Markius’s destroyed blade.

‘Not that one,’ said Markius, casting aside his useless gladius, giving a little prayer for one more lost spirit of war. ‘That weapon is cursed.’

Now that he considered it, Markius noticed that the sensations; the strange noiseless whispering and the clenching in his guts, had evaporated with the death of the giant. Whatever entity resided within the daemon-sword, its influence had been dispelled. He glanced at Athena, only just realising the impressive feat she had achieved, even with him providing the needed distraction. She, a mortal if somewhat augmented human, had killed a Chaos champion. That, at least, was a great service to the Imperium.

The howls of the heretics battered his ears, telling Markius that even with the Chaos warrior defeated, the madness that gripped Crawl was still alive and well. How close had his men come to succumbing to that madness?

‘This whole fraggin’ place is cursed,’ said Athena. ‘Come on, it’s time to leave.’

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Thu Jun 14, 2012 4:30 am

= XII =

‘I DON’T LIKE it,’ said Rasmus, turning and appealing to Markius. The entrance behind him was not built for humans to pass through. While the lissome Psirens could no doubt scamper through unheeded, it would be a claustrophobic squeeze for the marines.

‘This will lead to platform 7?’ Markius demanded of Athena as he strained with all his augmented senses to detect anything that may lie along the pitch-dark tube that extended beyond the hatch.

‘No,’ admitted Athena. ‘But it’s a waste flume; it will get us to the outside of the facility. Then we can climb around to the platform.’

‘I don’t detect anything,’ Markius shrugged at Rasmus. ‘Do you?’

‘No, but what if we’re followed, eh?’ growled Rasmus, glancing out beyond the bullet-pocked walls of the abandoned manufactorum.

‘Then they can only fight us one-on-one,’ said Athena, interrupting. ‘Better odds, wouldn’t you say? Let’s fraggin’ go!’

‘Wait while I decide,’ Markius barked at her, ‘I’m in command here!’ Despite his misgivings, he had to admit they were going to need a miracle to get through the seething crowds out in the avenue again. He listened, aware for the slightest hint that pursuit was coming. For the moment, the incoherent babbling and screaming was still distant. Maybe they were in disarray after the death of the giant. How long could that last?

‘Sergeant,’ Markius said, cutting off Rasmus’s next objection as his mouth opened. ‘We know this is the best way. I just wish we’d had time to find it on the way in.’

Rasmus growled, but did not argue.

‘Actual to all Talons,’ voxed Markius. ‘We have the objective: All Talons return to extraction point, now.’

‘Epsilon to Actual: Invictus,’ came Goran’s signal.

‘Lambda to Actual: Invict… wait!’

It was Tobias. Markius caught the clatter of close-quarters fighting in the background. Lambda squad had been discovered by the mobs, he realised with a scowl. They were also fighting their way out. Muffled by the vox, Markius thought he heard the boom of an explosion.

‘Actual to Lambda: Repeat that.’

‘Lambda here,’ said Tobias. ‘Sorry, we just lost Brother Jenner.’

There was a pause. It was not long enough to fully appreciate the weight of the announcement that preceded it. Markius sighed with frustration. That was the third of his men to fall in this cursed place, and all he had to show for it were these blasphemous Psirens. He thought back to the dead woman in the terrible shrine. How he wished he could have been able to save her; at least one good act to justify all this madness around them.

‘We’ll be there, Actual,’ Tobias finished his transmission.

‘Zeta to Actual,’ voxed Sergeant Andreus. ‘We have the stairwell open: We’ll not leave without you, Actual!’

Markius raised his eyebrows and exchanged a surprised look with Rasmus.

‘They held the staircase, against all those numbers, eh?’ said Rasmus, incredulous.

‘The Emperor commend you, Zeta,’ said Markius. ‘But we have found an alternative route out. Get your brothers clear, and that’s an order!’

‘Invictus!’ came Andreus’s shout.

Athena started towards the tunnel entrance, but Markius stepped before her.

‘I’ll take point,’ he said. Rasmus was about to object, but Markius said to him, ‘I want you at the rear, in case any of those bastards tries to follow us.’

‘Oh, please do lead, Saranen,’ said Athena, stepping aside.

* * *

THE TUNNEL STRETCHED on for what seemed like hundreds of metres to Markius, as he hunched and shoved his wide shoulders between the enclosing walls, his enhanced eyes picking his way ahead in darkness. There were too many industrial smells to process here, blending into a withering, chemical stench. Still, nothing had come face-to-face to him yet. Distantly, echoing through the tunnels and walls of Crawl, the heretics howled.

‘What in the hells happened here?’ Markius found himself asking Athena, who was right behind him. The marines had opted to alternate with the Psirens as they pushed through the flume in single file behind Markius. He knew Brother Olaf was another five metres behind Athena, and the green-eyed one called Nyx was behind him.

‘We were in intensive-juvenat processing when it all started, recovering from the skeleton implants, but I heard it secondhand from one of the tech-adepts,’ she replied. ‘Love happened here.’

‘Love?’ said Markius, confused. He could not turn round to see Athena’s face, the flume was so cramped, but he could hear her whisper well enough as they advanced.

‘Oh, not the love of our almighty Emperor,’ said Athena, lacing her statement with sarcasm. Markius’s lip curled: More irreverence. He was going to deal with that.

‘Nor that other kind of love you are thinking of,’ she continued. ‘Love was some kind of narc.’

‘What?’ said Markius.

‘You know; a drug, a happy pill, narcotic substance,’ said Athena. ‘No-one knows where it came from, or who brought it here. It just started turning up in the lower-level flesh bars and spice holes. Beat the frag out of obscura. And it was an instant hit: the workers were hitting real highs, and love was all around.’

Athena snorted, and Markius thought it was in disgust.

‘Everyone was in ecstasy, fulfilling all their desires with each other,’ she said.

‘Didn’t the administrators stamp it out?’ said Markius.

‘Not likely,’ Athena sighed. ‘It was the ultimate drug: Great highs with no side-effects, and the workforce was happy and fit. Efficiency had apparently never been so high. Then even the high-society types, and finally the fraggin’ administrators got into it.’

‘And then they discovered the dark side of it: A warp-spawned poison that enslaved the takers?’ suggested Markius. He felt a pang of regret: Had his marines slaughtered hundreds of humans that had simply been lost, innocent souls; drugged and poisoned?

‘No,’ said Athena. ‘That would be too simple. You’re thinking of flects.’

Markius shook his head. Another word he did not recognise.

‘Love was almost the opposite, actually. It was harmless. But one day the supply suddenly ran out. No-one could find the shadowy dealers, and the last shots quickly dried up. It was the lack of it that drove people mad.’

Markius tried to imagine the situation as Athena continued.

‘There were rumours that the administrators were hoarding supplies, and that’s when the riots started. Even the Arbites were targeted. People were going crazy, trying to satisfy the desires that they had slaked to their hearts’ content when the Love was around.

‘We came out of juvenat treatment about then. The tech-adepts were already fortifying the lab, though we did not expect them to find us. Our facility is separate, built onto the main complex. We were simply hitching a ride on Crawl until our treatment was complete. Ironic, huh? This was supposed to be one of the most out-of-the-way places in the galaxy for us to base operations.’

Markius realised this would have been when Inquisitor Zharn had first received the message that the facility was under threat.

‘So what led to this… heresy from there?’ he said.

‘That… giant,’ said Athena, lowering her whisper even further. If she had shown no fear earlier, thought Markius, it had just been an act.

‘Then he came, amid the rioting and the chaos,’ she caught herself, realising which word she had used. ‘When he came he promised everyone salvation: He showed them how to slake their fraggin’ desires, get a different kind of high.’

There was a silence for several moments as they shuffled down the tunnel. Markius recalled the horrendous scenes of torture and rape he had witnessed. His twinge of guilt vanished: Every single one of the heretics had become so willingly. But he also felt sadness. So much faithlessness: So many had turned from the Emperor’s guiding light. Even now they howled, damned forever but still fighting for their insane new gods.

‘He told them they had to turn their back on the Imperium and swear their promises to… something else,’ she said.

Markius nodded, understanding. That explained the rune on the wall of the diabolical shrine.

‘But you were not turned?’ he said.

‘We had never taken the drugs,’ Athena replied. ‘And there were others… pockets of resistance, even for days after the masses began to pray to their new idols and tear everything apart. But anyone who refused to turn was instead used as the… victims of the desires.’

Like the Arbites woman, Markius thought. She represented a small spark of renewed faith in humanity amidst the darkness. And she had received only agony and torture as her reward. A thought came to Markius and he stopped again, trying to turn his head round as far as he could.

‘Were you not affected by that… I don’t know… signal? Did you even hear it?’ he said.

‘The whispers?’ said Athena. ‘They wasted their time for four days trying to convince us the Emperor had forsaken us and telling us to give up our love for Him.’

Markius gritted his teeth, not sure he wanted to hear what she said next. Confirming his suspicion, she said, ‘But that had no effect. We waste no love on Him and expect nothing in return.’

Markius failed to stop a growl escaping. He was constantly surprised by the people Inquisitor Zharn, himself a servant of the Holy Emperor, accepted into his service.

‘After they gave up on that,’ shrugged Athena, not noticing Markius’s mood, ‘I guess they decided to make us the toys of the party rather than guests.’

The flippant tone was back. They came to a cross-section, where the flume widened and intersected with another tube, and Markius turned his muscular bulk to face Athena. Her pale features were lit from beneath by a finger-thin luminator she carried, throwing stark shadows across her neat cheekbones.

‘Either that, or women are just better at dealing with their desires than useless Saranen,’ she said, halting when she noticed Markius had turned and faced her.

‘Actual to Omega,’ Markius voxed quietly to Rasmus at the back of the column, coming to the end of his patience. Although all seemed quiet in the tunnel, he did not want to rouse any heretics who might be passing beyond the walls. ‘Anything?’

‘Nothing yet,’ said Rasmus, huffing. Markius realised the big man would be suffering worst of all in the confines.

‘Invictus. We’ll take a moment here,’ said Markius.

‘Invictus,’ said Rasmus, a note of relief in his tone.

Markius rounded on Athena and pointed his boltpistol at her face. Athena gasped but dared not move; her own weapons were holstered.

His tone gravely even, Markius said, ‘If you utter a blasphemy or show disrespect for Him in my presence again I am going to blow your head off.’

Athena’s eyes widened. Markius imagined it was not every day someone was threatened by a towering space marine. He continued, ‘And I will not tolerate your insults. We have entered this hell to rescue you. Do not forget it.’

Athena was visibly shaken, but Markius had to give her credit for her strength of will. He was surprised when she scowled back at him. She certainly had fight in her, as the Chaos champion had learned.

Athena said, ‘And what about your mission? Did the Old Man not order you to get us out? You need not like me, but remember we are on the same side.’

A memory flashed across Markius’s mind: His fight with Goran at the doorway to a xenos lair on a faraway world. He had learned from the Father-Chaplain then to put aside his dislike for his rival for the sake of the mission. And the mission was His holy work. Markius grimaced with the irony of it. Amidst all the madness of Crawl, all the innocents that had died so horribly, the will of the Emperor, and his mission, was to save this woman.

‘You are alive because He has watched over you. Where is your faith?’ he said.

‘Do you really believe that?’ she countered. ‘What about all the others that lost their souls here?’

‘Everything… has its reason,’ said Markius, faltering, sensing that he was losing this argument as just a small doubt hatched in his mind at her words. What about the Arbites woman? She had remained faithful until the end.

‘Well, think about this for me, Saranen,’ said Athena. ‘I know that we must make our own fate to survive in this cursed galaxy.’

‘Omega to Actual, what’s going on, eh?’ came Rasmus’s vox, and Markius realised he was wasting time. Athena was suitably warned, it seemed, but she had made the correct point that they had to focus on the mission. He only had one more question.

‘Why do you call me Saranen? You will tell me what that is,’ he quietly demanded.

Athena sighed and said, ‘Oh, I suppose you would call them knights in Low Gothic.’

Markius stared as she explained.

‘I come from a very backwards world, with very backwards ideas,’ she shrugged, and Markius decided he would not share the feral-level culture of his own homeworld. ‘The Saranens ride around on horses, duel with swords, upholding their precious code of honour and protecting us ladies.’

Markius blinked, slightly surprised and just a little guilty. She had been complimenting him all this time.

He managed a smile and said, ‘That sounds like a very noble calling.’

‘They are all fraggin’ bastards!’ she said, a sudden venom in her voice. ‘It’s all just a stupid system to keep women down! I could fight as well as any of my brothers, but they wouldn’t let me near a sword!’

Markius could only stare open mouthed as she poured out her pent up frustration.

‘They call us ladies, but women are treated as possessions on my homeworld. My own father was a noble Saranen,’ she said, her voice dripping sarcasm with the term, ‘And he sold me, like a fraggin’ cow, to a decrepit, abusive uncle!’

Markius looked into Athena’s violet eyes, barely visible in the deep shadows thrown by her luminator. Somewhere deep down under the flippancy and hard, cold wall of cynicism she had built around it, he thought he sensed a deeply saddened heart. It was an almost alien emotion to Markius in his new life as an Astartes – but he still had dim memories of how it felt. His resentment of the woman softened just a fraction. Perhaps he could restore that faith in her.

‘That must have been hard,’ he whispered. ‘I mean, being betrayed by your own father.’

‘Oh frag him! And frag you!’ she exploded back at him. ‘Frag this entire mutant-humping galaxy! I don’t need pity from the likes of you or anyone else. There’s only one person who cares about me, and that’s me!

‘We came and got you out of that tower,’ Markius said. ‘You would never have done that by yourself.’

‘Nice try,’ said Athena. ‘But you are just following orders. I bet that’s all you’ve done your entire life, like a good Saranen. And you still needed me to finish off that giant!’

Markius opened his mouth to retort, but thought better of it. Even with a boltpistol in her face, Athena appeared to intensely detest playing the role of the damsel in distress, and he thought he was beginning to understand why. He was not going to be able to force her to change her views with threats. And they were wasting time while he argued with her.

There was a deep boom, a distant explosion, and the tunnel vibrated to a shuddering aftershock that passed right through the structure of Crawl. Markius checked his chronometer.

‘The bombardment must be starting early!’ he said, panicking. He had wasted too much time! How much further had they to go? Then he calmed himself and considered the nature of the explosion. It sounded to his enhanced hearing like it had come from within the facility: To the west.

‘Actual to Epsilon,’ he voxed. ‘Status?’

‘Epsilon here,’ came Goran’s breathless voice. ‘That wasn’t us! I think it… it came from the administratum!’

The aftershocks of the explosion still echoing around Crawl, Markius’s eyes widened: Zharn!

‘Black Knight to Talon Actual,’ crackled Markius’s vox, right on cue. Inquisitor Zharn’s rich voice had come through on the Alpha-Primus override channel.

‘Actual to Black Knight; I hear you, but what…?’ Markius quickly replied.

‘I’m fine,’ Zharn cut him off, unperturbed. ‘Have you acquired the target?’

‘Affirmative,’ voxed Markius. I’ve acquired the irreverent little minx, he thought but didn’t say.

‘Then our business is concluded here. I’ll see you at the extraction point,’ said Zharn.

Markius met eyes with Athena, who was frowning, confused. She had a hand to her ear, and must have also been listening on the override channel.

‘The Old Man must have blown the administratum!’ she came to the same conclusion as Markius. ‘And we took care of the lab two days ago.’ She looked at him and said, ‘He’s covering his tracks.’

‘But why?’ said Markius. ‘This whole place is scheduled to be disintegrated!’

Several moments passed as they thought it over.

‘It’s far too expensive an asset for the Imperium,’ Athena thought out loud. ‘They are going to send in troops and cleanse it, not destroy it!’

Markius growled. Damn the inquisitor and his damned secrets!

Reading his frustration, Athena said, ‘So, you’re on entee-kaybee, too, huh?’

‘Entee-what?’ sighed Markius, tiring of her vague references he didn’t understand.

‘N-T-K-B,’ she repeated. ‘Don’t they teach you marines anything? Need-to-know-basis.’

Markius’s anger reared like a hissing serpent; anger at both Athena and the inquisitor. But it was smothered by his confusion. If there were Imperial troops about to descend on the facility, why did Zharn lie to them? Why not coordinate the rescue?

‘Don’t you get it?’ said Athena. ‘We’re incognitus, Captain. We’re ghosts. We’re the Old Man’s dirty little secret army. He can’t chance us bumping into any of his inquisitor pals, or leave any trace of our existence!’

Seething, Markius turned and resumed their journey into the depths of the tunnel.

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Sat Jun 16, 2012 6:14 am

= XIII =

‘THEY’RE COMING!’ RASMUS voxed from the rear of their column.

‘Invictus,’ Markius replied, also hearing the approaching ruckus. ‘Give them the Emperor’s Wrath, Omega. No grenades until we are clear.’

Rasmus growled in response, and Markius stepped up his pace, clambering through the flume. The staccato cracks of measured bursts coming from Rasmus’s boltpistol echoed back down the tunnel from behind.

The flume abruptly ended and Markius tumbled into a cart in what looked like a sorting chamber, with several conveyor belts leading away from various parts of Crawl through maw-like apertures. Picking himself up, Markius noted more wrecked machinery littered the chamber, along with piles of salvaged mechanical debris ready for recycling. A failing luminator housed in a metal grill fixed to the ceiling sporadically bathed the low room in amber light.

A man-sized chute led from the opposite side of the chamber and with a kick to the rusting portal at the end of its short length, Markius was suddenly staring out onto the desolate landscape of Callasia 9.

He swayed, grabbing onto the door frame, the winds of gas moaning far below him. Planet Callasia slowly revolved like an ancient colossus, filling the sky. Three other moons marched away beyond the curved horizon, dark against the orange glare of Callasia, so large he could pick out craters and mountain ranges on their surfaces. Markius could not help glancing down, and he saw the sides of the mining complex diving vertically towards the surface, lost in the clouds. He instantly regretted it, his head swimming. His legs buckled with dizziness. Emperor damn it! He cursed himself. Not now!

‘Are you alright?’ said Athena, clambering out behind Markius.

Don’t look down, Markius told himself, and gritting his teeth he turned to Athena.

‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Which way is the platform?’

Athena gestured. Markius scanned the walls above and around them. There were countless nests of pipes, built-on domes and jutting balconies of a variety of purposes and designs; added to the main superstructure over the centuries, he theorised. There was no sign of heretics, for the moment.

‘Then get going,’ Markius growled to her, his tone not offering any further explanation or opening for argument.

Athena gulped and then began climbing across the superstructure, quickly finding foot and handholds. The marines and other Psirens emerged and, pausing briefly to witness what would have been an inspirational panorama for artists, started to climb after Athena. The Psirens were quick and nimble, the marines ponderous but nonetheless assured in their progress.

Markius waited. There was no sign of Rasmus, but the sounds of fighting erupted from the sorting chamber behind instead. Markius dragged himself back up the chute and into the chamber. There he found Rasmus battling a chasing pack of heretics with spittle-flecked mouths and improvised weapons.

Markius dived to his friend’s side. The two warriors fought shoulder to shoulder and together bludgeoned and smashed down the heretics with power-axe and armoured fists. Markius took a breath, the continuous fighting taking a toll even on his vast reserves of energy. He saw Rasmus was also breathing hard, his legs crusted in congealed blood from the shotgun wounds he had sustained earlier. Then they heard the shrieks of more heretics coming from the tunnel they had taken into the chamber.

Rasmus palmed a frag grenade and looked at Markius. He said, ‘Last one,’ then hurled it into the tunnel. The marine scouts took the five-second count to haul recycled machinery into a cast-iron cart and then ram it into the opening, until with a satisfying crump the grenade detonated. The moans of dying heretics issued from beyond the makeshift barrier, along with a cloud of inky smoke.

‘That should convince them to find another route,’ Markius said. ‘Now let’s get out of here.’

Back outside, Markius hesitated again. I can do this, he told himself, as his limbs refused to obey his commands to begin climbing.

‘Captain,’ came Athena’s voice and Markius looked up. She was hanging onto a spigot above the doorway. She had come back. ‘We need to get going. What’s the problem?’

‘Oho! Even when he was little, Markius here got dizzy even thinking about climbing up a blackwood tree, eh?’ said Rasmus beside him, grinning up to Athena.

Markius shot Rasmus a furious glare and said, ‘Shut up Rasmus!’

‘Yes, show no weakness in front of the girl,’ Athena smiled back at Rasmus.

‘Get moving now, Sergeant!’

Thankfully, the big man obeyed, perhaps knowing how angry he had made his captain. Shouldering his power-axe, he began hauling himself along the sides of the facility.

‘It’s easy,’ said Athena, ‘just put one hand after the other, find your footholds one by one.’

‘I don’t need your help,’ snarled Markius, fighting his dizziness and stretching a shaking hand out to find his first grip. Emperor watch over me, he thought, I am trained to deal with this. Markius fought his instincts, commanding his aching legs and arms to obey and avoiding looking down at all costs. He sensed Athena also climbing nearby, but did not look at her either. Her earlier jibe stabbed into his pride like a hot blade.

‘Don’t be too mad with the Old Man,’ said Athena, referring to the inquisitor. ‘He keeps things to himself. It’s just his way.’

‘I’ve lost three men on this damned mission so far,’ Markius snarled back, reaching out with a foot, trying to balance on a thin ledge. He was determined not to fail in front of her.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you,’ said Athena, finally showing some well-due appreciation. ‘I’ll bet the inquisitor would never have sent you in unless he was sure you had a pretty good shot, statistically I mean, of succeeding.’

Markius remembered the conversation aboard the shadowhawk during their approach, and was surprised to realise she was right. She said, ‘He would abandon us without a second thought, just like everyone else in this cursed galaxy.’

Her tone seemed to be an attempt at sympathy, and Markius gritted his teeth as he realised she was just trying to take his mind off the vertigo. It worked. A thought came to him and he decided to challenge her.

‘So you don’t believe in anything except yourself? You have no faith in any higher purpose?’ he said.

‘Like what?’ she said. ‘Fighting for the good of humanity? What’s humanity going to do for me?’

‘Yet you work for an inquisitor. You would serve him?’

‘The Old Man helped me out of a tight spot, and made me a deal I couldn’t turn down,’ she said, and Markius imagined she had shrugged. He waited for further explanation.

She paused and Markius thought it might not come, but finally she said, ‘They were going to hang me, back on my homeworld.’

‘Why?’ said Markius, reaching for the next handhold, ignoring the distant moaning of the winds and trying not to think about the drop below them. It was consuming all his concentration.

‘When it turned out none of my beloved relatives were going to help me, I had to take matters into my own hands,’ she replied. He glanced across at her and saw a wicked smile crease her delicate face.

‘Dear old uncle Vlad was not going to take no for an answer,’ she continued. ‘So I stabbed him twice in the chest and cut off his manhood.’

Even though his body had long ago been changed by the gene-enhancements to become a space marine, the thought stirred an old memory and Markius winced.

‘The Old Man pulled me out of a stinking dungeon and offered me a choice,’ she said. ‘Leave it all behind, make a new identity for myself, and join him.’

Markius stared at her. He said, ‘Athena’s not your real name?’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘I’m never to mention my previous identity or homeworld by name again. That was the condition.’

When Markius gaped, she understood and said, ‘You too? Now that’s a story I would like to hear. What could an Adeptus Astartes possibly have done wrong to allow the Old Man to get his manipulative hooks into you?’

‘He… manipulated us into serving him?’ said Markius.

‘Oh, it’s not so bad!’ said Athena. ‘He likes to surround himself with people who owe him their lives; understandable enough. And this way we get to run around the stars with the best augmetics and weapons the Imperium can offer, and kill mutants and xenos! Believe me, there are far worse fates in the galaxy. This way we get to fight!

In that moment, Markius understood why the inquisitor had recruited this woman. Despite all her cynicism, there was no way any entity could corrupt the innocence of her soul: She had no innocence left to corrupt. Though he despised her lack of faith, he found himself feeling sorry for her.

‘There,’ she pointed. ‘We’re almost at the platform.’

He glanced across and saw there were but fifty metres further to go. He spotted the camouflaged scouts of Lambda and Zeta squads waiting on the platform, Omega squad and the Psirens joining them. Emperor’s Throne, but she had done it. Her talking had helped him beat his vertigo and climb round; a feat he would never have believed himself capable of.

An impact rang against the side of the structure, barely a metre from his position. Markius glanced upwards and cursed. Another missile came hurtling down towards him; a cogitator unit wrenched from its wall-mounting. It bumped and tumbled against the uneven sides of the industrial city, smashing into smaller pieces as it fell. Markius braced himself, flattening his body against the wall.

‘They found us!’ Athena said, drawing her hellpistol and snapping off sizzling lasbolts at the heretics.

They were crowding out on verandas or crawling onto the sides of the facility, their madness seemingly undiminished. Several fell, shoved by the howling press of those behind, and shrieked as they hurtled past Markius and Athena before disappearing into the clouds of gas below. Then the snap of las-beams screamed by as those with captured weapons tried to take aim. Markius froze, the debilitating dizziness locking his limbs. He could not fight like this!

‘Come on, with me!’ said Athena, reaching for one of his hands, clinging onto a buttress using only her knees while returning fire at the heretics above. Markius flinched and growled at her.

‘Don’t! I’ll do it myself, just keep them off.’

The thumps and roars of return fire now also came from the marines on the landing platform.

‘Omega to Actual,’ came Rasmus’s worried vox. ‘We’ve got them pinned, just come on to us.’

‘Invictus!’ Markius said through clenched teeth, aware that all his men were watching.

Hand by hand, step by step, Markius willed himself to climb the last metres. Heretics howled and las-beams were answered with detonating bolter rounds. Athena remained close by, and Markius knew she could move a lot faster if she wanted to. He scowled; she’s not as hard and selfish as she likes to pretend, he told himself. It was a strange contradiction. In the howling winds of his strained emotions, with the furious, precarious battle raging around him, Markius promised himself that he would repay her for that act of kindness.

Despite the suppressing fire, the heretics swarmed towards them, and improvised missiles clanged from his shoulder pads and back. One screaming wretch even threw himself at Markius from twenty metres above. Markius howled as the falling heretic grabbed hold of him and dangled from his shoulders. He could easily hold the weight, but the dread of falling overwhelmed his mind. Fighting his black despair, he managed to let go of the wall with one hand and jabbed backwards with an elbow. He heard the crack of bone and reckoned he had caught the heretic in the ribs. The insane screaming fell away into the depths as the madman lost his grip. Markius breathed, trying to control his thumping hearts. Twenty more metres to go!

After what seemed like an eternity to Markius they finally found themselves several metres above the platform, the marines below calling up for them to jump. Athena easily leapt, spinning like a twirlseed cone, before landing as light as a mountain cat on the platform. Markius took several deep breaths and then forced himself to let go. He landed heavily, his boots thudding onto the ferrocrete panels of the platform. The marines cheered.

‘You did it!’ said Rasmus, and Markius blinked, looking at the faces of the others.

He should have been happy, but he felt only ashamed. He almost sighed with relief when Goran and Epsilon squad joined them on the platform, emerging from an access hatch. Thank the Emperor his rival hadn’t witnessed that! Epsilon squad looked as beaten up and exhausted as the other squads, with synth-skin patched wounds and blood-drenched armour, and Markius noticed they were one man short.

‘Brother Bhurgsson?’ he said, but Goran looked away and shook his head.

‘Emperor damn this place!’ said Rasmus, coming besides Markius, voicing Markius’s own feelings. They had lost so much in the hell of Crawl. The snipers of Lambda squad soon finished the ill-equipped cultists attempting to clamber towards them along the outside of the facility.

‘What happened?’ Markius asked Lieutenant Tobias as he approached to report. The rest of Lambda squad also looked like they had been through the hells and back. One whole side of Brother Patreus’s head was a livid mess of flash-burned skin. And they were a man short, too: Brother Jenner.

‘One of the bastards had a plasma gun, but it hadn’t been properly sanctified. It went up, point blank. There was nothing we could do. Jenner was… he was incinerated, Captain…’ said Tobias.

Markius nodded, reaching out a hand to clasp his shoulder. Beyond, he noted only Andreus had brought back all his men, though they too were carrying wounds. He saw Gunnar and Lars lying at the rear of the platform, Apothecary Sören attending to them as best he could. With only his field equipment, Markius could see the golden-haired marine was fighting a losing battle to keep the mauled scouts alive.

‘Talon-Actual to Shadow One; we are ready for extraction!’ voxed Markius.

‘Ayup, Actual. Shadow en route to extraction point. Standby.’

Markius had never been so happy to hear Burrin’s characteristic, crunching voice. He checked his chronometer and raised an eyebrow: After everything, after such a messed up mission, they were just about on time. Finally, they were leaving.

‘Hey, you, switch to channel Delta-7!’ Athena said, dashing to his side.

‘What?’ said Markius, glancing at her. She had a hand to the vox-bead in her ear.

‘Listen!’ she said. ‘It’s a fraggin’ distress signal!’

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby Stjurmwulfing » Sat Jun 16, 2012 7:15 am

hey Kurisawa,

So continuing to enjoy the story. I like the way Markius and Athena are arguing but it feels like he spends too much time 'Growling'. He's a Marine turned captain even if he is a Scout at heart. Its like he's a Space Wolf without the fur.

The escape through the tunnels was well thought out but I felt the pace of the story was slowed down. Was this intentional or side effect of the tension between the main characters?

Anyway hope there is more to come.
Your faith is like a flame in your mind. Use it to burn the shadows from your soul.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:35 am

Stjurmwulfing wrote:hey Kurisawa,

So continuing to enjoy the story. I like the way Markius and Athena are arguing but it feels like he spends too much time 'Growling'. He's a Marine turned captain even if he is a Scout at heart. Its like he's a Space Wolf without the fur.

The escape through the tunnels was well thought out but I felt the pace of the story was slowed down. Was this intentional or side effect of the tension between the main characters?

Anyway hope there is more to come.

Thanks, Stjurm. That's two good points for me to process. I actually quite like the comparison of "like a space wolf", but agree Markius is becoming a little too much like Rasmus.

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:47 am

= XIV =

‘FOR… love of… eror… ple… spond!’ Markius’ eyes widened as he caught fragments of the signal between bursts of static.

‘We… women and chil… waiting for… one there?’

‘They must have hidden, until they heard the fighting…’ said Athena.

‘A miracle they survived so long!’ said Markius. He tuned the vox manually to try and sharpen the signal.

‘Please respond; we need help. There are women and children here. For the love of the Emperor!’ came the woman’s desperate voice. Markius needed only a moment to make up his mind. Truly it was a miracle, sent by the Emperor. He remembered the dead Arbites woman, the men he had lost, the despair he had felt during the mission, and knew: This was the sign. It was his responsibility to save these innocent and faithful, for Him on Terra.

‘This is the Emperor’s Talons: Where are you?’ he voxed, proud to use the title.

There was a pause, then, ‘The Basilica of His Holy Light. Thank the Emperor! Please come quickly!’

His Holy Light: Another sign, thought Markius. He glanced at Athena, who was already consulting Nyx and her datapad.

‘Level Beta, three levels up. Not far in,’ Nyx reported, her jade eyes flashing as they flitted over the glowing runes on the display.

‘All Talons; ammunition check!’ Markius barked to his squads and they immediately began ejecting magazines.

He switched back to the company channel and voxed, ‘Talon Actual to Shadow One: Status?’

‘Thirty seconds!’ came Burrin’s voice.

‘We’re all out!’ said Andreus. Understandable, thought Markius, after their heroics at the stairwell.

‘Actual to Shadow; you’ll need to stay on the platform a while. We’re going back in,’ voxed Markius. His enhanced ears could pick up the whine of the gunship’s engines in the distance.

A moment later, Zharn broke in on the override channel. He said, ‘This is Black Knight: Negative on that, Actual. We leave immediately.’

‘There are civilians still trapped inside!’ Markius voxed back, stunned.

‘We’re not here for civilians, Actual. This is a direct order: Stand down and prepare for immediate evac. Mission completed!’ said Zharn.

Markius paused, not believing his ears. He looked around at the other marines, for a moment at a loss. The mission… His holy work… For the first time the two conflicted.

‘Frag you, William! What kind of inquisitor leaves innocents behind? You are supposed to protect these people!’ Athena suddenly voxed over the override channel. Markius gaped at her.

‘The Imperial flotilla is in orbit. There’s no time,’ Zharn replied, his smooth voice betraying a rise in stress.

‘Yeah? Well we have new intelligence on their intentions,’ said Athena, winking at Markius.

‘You don’t know if this is an enemy trap,’ Zharn attempted to reason with her.

‘It’s no trap,’ Athena said to Markius, cutting the vox. ‘I know that voice. It’s a Sister of the Ecclesiarch… we met once when I first came here.’

Markius imagined from her lack of further explanation the meeting did not go well.

‘I’m going to teach that sanctimonious sow it takes more than faith alone to survive!’ she said, confirming his suspicion.

Markius peered at Athena. He knew she intended to go back in and make the rescue, despite Zharn’s orders. It was more than just to prove a point. She knew well the feeling of despair when no-one was there to help, he remembered.

‘We can’t leave them behind,’ she said, her delicate face set, and Markius knew somewhere deep down beneath the selfishness, Athena could not bear to allow another to face the same fate as the Arbites woman.

‘Athena, don’t you dare! They are not our concern,’ came Zharn’s voice over the vox again.

‘Frag you and your fraggin’ cold heart!’ Athena said and ripped the vox bead from her ear.

She gathered the Psirens together, the lithe agents checking their hellpistols, then shot a glance at Markius and said, ‘Well?’

Markius looked around at his men and thought of all the sacrifices they had made. He was going to do one thing right in this cursed place, and this time it came before the mission. Zharn was wrong and Athena, of all people, was right.

‘Barely eighty rounds,’ Goran shrugged an apology as his men showed him what they had left. Blood spattered his scarred features and shaved black hair.

No matter, thought Markius, they were in no shape to go anywhere. After the check it became clear only Tobias’s Lambda squad had any sort of stores left, but these were cells for their laser-powered sniper rifles.

‘Alright,’ said Markius. ‘Everyone, give everything you’ve got to Omega squad. The rest of you are going to hold the platform.’

‘Captain, you’re not serious?’ said Tobias.

‘By the Throne he is!’ snarled Rasmus, unshouldering his power-axe and grinning. Borias and Olaf, the only other members of Omega squad still standing, stepped up, faces determined.

‘Omega squad, with me!’ said Markius, then turned to Athena, who grinned back at him. ‘Let’s go.’

* * *

‘YES! WE HAVE power!’ said Nyx, the Psiren whom Markius had learned was trained to deal with tech-related matters. Blinking amber lights flashed beside the elevator control console, indicating the machine spirits within were still active. After several turns through the maze of tunnels, they had happened upon the single service elevator up to Level Beta. Crawl was alive with the distant howls of heretics, though none had confronted them so far. The lift carriage arrived and the doors rattled open on rusty wheels. Omega squad and the Psirens crammed into the tight space and the doors closed.

Lit by the failing ceiling luminator, Athena gazed up at Markius, their bodies pushed close together in the confines. She was tiny next to his bulk. A bell chimed softly as the lift rose past each floor.

‘Black Knight to Actual,’ came Zharn’s voice on the override channel, urgent but still smooth. ‘Turn back now! That’s an order!’

Markius switched off the vox without replying.

‘You’re disobeying orders,’ Athena whispered, a trace of surprise in her voice. There were so many more unspoken words behind the statement.

‘And you’re fighting for humanity,’ he grunted in reply. She fell silent then.

The doors opened and they piled out into the deserted, darkened chamber beyond. A single door led from the other side, and Athena was surprised that this also still had working power.

‘The heretics must have passed this sector by,’ she noted as the door cranked shut behind them.

‘Not for long, eh?’ said Rasmus. Markius nodded in agreement. His enhanced hearing had also picked up the strains of heretic mobs, echoing through the tunnels beyond. They were getting closer.

‘The vox signal must have tipped them off,’ Markius said.

They hurried along the tunnels, following Nyx’s directions at each intersection. This sector was dominated by dusty storage depots for giant vats of ores and chemicals. Finally they came to three-metre high double doors, arched and emblazoned with the Imperial Aquila, as if proclaiming the Emperor’s miracle to Markius.

‘This is it,’ said Nyx, checking her datapad.

Athena threw herself at the doors but they did not budge. She said, ‘It’s barricaded from the inside!’

‘Open up in the name of the Emperor!’ Markius roared, but nothing happened. He thought he caught the sounds of hysterical screaming from inside.

‘Enough of this,’ rumbled Rasmus, stepping forwards and ramming his energised power-axe to punch a gap between the two doors. With a squeal of ripping metal and showers of sparks he carved open a wound in the metal. Several moments passed as he worked on it. The distant pounding footsteps and insane shrieking came closer.

Finally, the doors started to move with groans of protest, and Markius and Rasmus threw their full biomass at them. The doors burst open and they entered the Basilica of His Holy Light.

It was a grand name for a small, simple chamber, Markius quickly decided as he took in the scene. The basilica would have barely held thirty people, probably a place for quick morning and evening prayers before the storage-workers started their shifts. At one end a rudimentary but elegant statue of the Emperor stood proud; haloed and pointing towards a mock stained-glass window above his head, probably lit behind by a simple halogen luminator. Markius instantly understood the meaning behind the image from the things he had learned while in transit aboard the Arcis Indicium. His Holy Light was the name starship-travelers gave to the Astronomican: the psychic beacon transmitted from Holy Terra that enabled interstellar travel through the warp. The window threw long shadows across the chamber and pooled at the foot of the statue. There Markius beheld an angelic apparition.

She was clad in a pearl-white but simple flowing dress, the light illuminating blonde curls that cascaded over her shoulders. Her heart-shaped face was shadowed as it stared at them, wide eyed, away from the light. And she clutched a sword two-handed, trembling. This weapon, beautifully crafted and ancient, was almost ridiculously large; far too big for the angelic figure to wield. She sagged under its weight but held her pose. Markius imagined this to be what the Arbites woman would have stood like in life.

There were involuntary gasps and Markius spotted grimy, terrified faces peeping at him from hiding places behind the dented metal pews that lined either side of a nave the length of the chamber.

Markius strode forwards and said, ‘I am Captain Markius of the Emperor’s Talons. We have come to rescue you.’

The angel fell to her knees before him. She said, ‘Oh, our prayers have been answered! His Holy Astartes have come! My Lord, our lives are yours!’

The cowering citizens began to creep out from their hiding places, gazing intently at the towering figures of Markius and the other marines that filed into the basilica after him. Markius noticed malnourished children and waifish girls, as well as trembling seniors and even two able-bodied but emaciated men.

Recovering her composure, the woman rose and said, ‘I am Sister Miriam of the Order of His Holy Light. Please take this.’

Markius blinked as she offered the sword to him.

‘It is the Salvator, an ancient heirloom, and enshrined in this place. Long have I been its keeper. But it is not for me to wield a weapon.’

Markius took the offered artifact and his eyes widened as he tested its weight. This was an ancient Astartes weapon; created to be carried by space marines. Its keen blade looked well-cared for, and the weight of its hilt told him it housed the ancient magics of the Mechanicus within. It was a rare treasure indeed.

‘Sister,’ he looked into her misty-blue eyes. ‘I cannot accept this.’

‘You must! You have come to save us. Now you are the Holy Salvator, and it is rightfully yours. Oh thank the Emperor!’ she moaned.

‘Oh, don’t be so pathetic,’ came Athena’s jarring tone. Markius turned to her and was about to berate her but the angel said, ‘You! Harlot! By what right does this blasphemer enter a holy basilica?’

Markius said, ‘Sister, it is because of her that we are here.’

Miriam blinked, glancing between Athena and Markius.

Athena finally said, ‘We have to get out of here, now! Take the fraggin’ weapon or leave it!’

* * *

‘FRAGGIN’ HURRY UP!’ Athena barked at the whimpering civilians. They were doing the best they could, Psirens and marines alike helping the old and the infirm. Two of the small children hugged the skirts of Sister Miriam, wide-eyed and utterly terrified. She urged them on in hushed tones. But Markius knew they would not be quick enough.

The madmen appeared from around the next corner, and catching sight of their prey howled with perverted pleasure.

‘Throne! Omega squad!’ Markius yelled as the heretics charged.

The marines placed themselves between the heretics and the ragged collection of survivors. Boltpistols barked, the scouts making each precious shot count with rationed bursts. The leading cultists crumpled in explosions of blood and gore, but those behind did not even pause. As they closed with the marines, they leapt with a renewed and insane frenzy. It was as if they sensed this would be the last chance for their damned souls to sate their insane lusts.

Markius located the activation rune at the hilt of Salvator and recited a prayer to sanctify the machine spirit within. The broad blade crackled into life, coils of crackling electric light instantly wreathing it. Giving his own roar to drown out the howling of the heretics, he stomped forward, swinging left and right.

It was like fighting their way through the avenue again. The cultists poured out of passages between the vats left and right, hurling themselves at the column as marines and Psirens fought side by side, dodging blades and breaking enemy bodies. The heretics may have been insane, but they were no fools. They almost instinctively avoided facing the marines and instead lunged for the civilians cowering within their protective circle.

There were too many of the frenzied heretics, three more hurling themselves into the fray for every one that Markius decapitated with Salvator. The relic moved as if it had been made for him, Markius realised as he killed swiftly and mercilessly, hacking a path back towards the elevator chamber. Salvator wheeled and dived like a bird of prey, its electric roar the eagle’s shriek that sends its prey scurrying.

From the rear of the circle, Rasmus roared with frustration every time one of the heretics managed to break the line and seize one of the screaming civilians. The seniors were first to fall, then the women, dragged away by too many hands and quickly beaten to death. The spindly men tried to fight back, but they too were dragged down despite the best efforts of Omega squad and the Psirens. Markius shared Rasmus’s frustration. He was determined to get as many of these faithful out as possible, and that goal diminished with every one that died.

There was a new sound, distinctive even over the raging battle, coming from one of the side tunnels.

‘Eviscerator!’ Markius yelled as he recognised the screaming engine noise and the grinding of its bladed teeth. One of madmen had managed to steal a six-foot long chainsword from somewhere. The heretic went straight for the children. Markius yelled, but he was too far away.

Rasmus barged through the press of heretics like a charging mammoth, power-axe swinging. He rammed the blade into the chest of the wild-eyed heretic, but frenzied strength enabled the cultist to deliver one last blow. As the wielder fell, the teeth of the massive chainsword chewed into Rasmus’ right leg, splintering bone and munching through muscle, and despite all the training and enhancements afforded the elite space marines, Rasmus roared with pain and anger.

Brother Olaf was first to Rasmus, one of the Psirens leaping in his place to keep back the press of heretics lunging past the fallen chainsword-wielder. Rasmus collapsed, the implanted Larraman’s Organ causing his pumping blood to clot quickly. But the weapon had done terrible damage to his leg, Markius could see. He rushed over and took hold of Rasmus, throwing one of the big man’s arms around his own shoulders and acting as a crutch.

‘Take point! Get us to that elevator!’ he said to Olaf and Borias, who obeyed with grunts.

Markius glanced around. Of the civilians, there was only the sister and two children left. They fought clear of the main tunnel intersections and into a narrow passage with no more side tunnels. Rasmus spat blood and growled, fighting the pain. His leg was useless and dragging, Markius taking almost the full weight of the big man. The heretics seemed to be withdrawing, having grabbed what victims they could. And suddenly it seemed that the way ahead to the elevator chamber was clear.

Then there was a shout. Markius tried to turn, recognising the voice and struggling under the weight of his old friend. He spotted Athena sprawled on the metal flooring of the tunnel, four of the heretics having leapt and caught her legs. She hammered furiously on the backs of their heads and kicked and scratched like a desperate sabretooth. She looked back and saw Markius.

‘Go!’ she shouted. ‘I’ll hold them as long as I can!’

Markius hesitated. He couldn’t drop Rasmus here, but Athena needed his help, too.

‘Go, frag you!’ she shouted, smashing the face of another heretic. A dozen of them lined up behind her. Markius could not see if there were any more beyond. Sister Miriam gasped beside him.

‘Captain,’ said Olaf, coming beside him. ‘The elevator is here!’

Closing his eyes, Markius turned and dragged Rasmus into the lift carriage with the others. The doors closed as he saw Athena being dragged away, fighting for her life.

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby Mauthos » Tue Jun 19, 2012 8:43 am

Still really enjoying this tale, you manage with each part to build on the relationships that further serves to enhance the characters making them more believable and easier to emphasize and relate to.

A few minor errors, but nothing major and I must admit that I love your fearlessness when it comes to killing or wounding your characters, many writers form great attachments to their characters and hate to do anything to them that may limit their abilities etc.

Great stuff, keep it up! :)
Simplicity is the key to brilliance.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Wed Jun 20, 2012 1:05 am

Hey Mauthos! I'm so grateful that you are still with me. :D

Please don't be shy about pointing out errors; I've re-read and edited this so many times and through so many versions my eyes just can't seem to pick out typos anymore.

As for hurting/killing my characters: Yes, that is what the pros call "murder your darlings" for the sake of the story. Besides, it's pretty impossible to believe soldiers will all get through such terrible battles unscathed. The question is, who's next? :twisted:

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Part 2, complete failure)

Postby kurisawa » Wed Jun 20, 2012 1:25 am

= XV =

THE PLATFORM WAS a frenzy of activity, the engines of the landed shadowhawk cycling ready for immediate take-off.

‘Thank the Emperor you made it,’ said Apothecary Sören, racing to Markius and slipping under Rasmus’s other arm to help take the weight. ‘I’m not sure how much longer the inquisitor would wait.’

Lars and Gunnar were already on board the gunship it seemed, and the other marines helped the limping Psirens and members of Omega squad towards the open rear access ramp. Sister Miriam and the two bewildered children were escorted by Brother Olaf. There seemed to be too much shouting going on, and Markius wondered if the marines were arguing with Zharn inside the shadowhawk. Tobias and Andreus dashed over to Markius when they saw the captain.

‘Captain! You made it!’ Andreus said, helping Sören to lower Rasmus to a sitting position.

Tobias sighed with relief and said, ‘Time to go!’

‘No. I’m going back in,’ said Markius. Tobias and Andreus both stared at him.

Tobias rolled his eyes and said, ‘Again? What now?’

‘Athena is still inside,’ said Markius.

Tobias cursed and said, ‘We are never going to get out of this damned place!’

Andreus said, ‘Captain, we can’t save everyone in the entire galaxy…’

‘I have to do this. Hold the ‘hawk as long as you can, but go when you must,’ said Markius. ‘The Emperor protects.’

They opened their mouths to object, but Markius cut them off, ‘That’s an order!’

‘Then I’m going with you!’ Rasmus snarled, attempting to get to his feet. His leg wouldn’t respond and he slipped on the ferrocrete.

Markius looked at him and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere, old friend.’

‘No!’ roared Rasmus, still fighting his broken body to try and rise.

‘You’ll just slow me down,’ said Markius, ‘that leg is useless without treatment. Right, Sören?’

The Apothecary nodded, his face ashen as he assessed the damage to Rasmus.

‘You’re not going alone,’ Rasmus shouted, ‘Patch me up, Apoth!’

‘This will need more than synth-skin,’ Sören said, trying to restrain Rasmus, ‘Keep still!’

‘Apothecary, sedate this man,’ said Markius, as Rasmus tried to strike at Sören. Markius turned and tried not to hear Rasmus’s howl of anger, soon cut short as Sören administered the field-supply injection.

‘Captain! Turn back now!’ came a distant shout. It was Zharn, calling from the shadowhawk ramp. Markius ignored him and marched back towards the entrance hatch into Crawl. He had a promise to keep.

Markius!’ a hand grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. Markius found himself staring into the scowling green eyes of Sergeant Goran. ‘I’m going with you.’

‘Not now, Goran,’ said Markius. Not again, he thought. ‘Get on that gunship.’

‘Negative, Captain,’ Goran snarled right back at him, flexing his bionic powerfist. ‘You need someone to watch your back.’

Like a goat needs a ravenous ice bear to watch his kids, thought Markius. He stopped, checking himself. A conversation with Sergeant Rasmus that seemed like an age ago flitted across his memory. He is trying, for the sake of the Emperor’s Talons; Rasmus’s words came to him. You must fight your pride and work together, Markius told himself.

‘I’m not trying to take anything away from you,’ Goran said, ‘Let me help you.’

Markius nodded and said, ‘Alright, Sergeant. We do this together.’

* * *

THEY FOUND HER a hundred metres from the elevator chamber, still struggling against the mob. A dozen of the heretics had hoisted her above their heads, attempting to carry her off to one of their shrines of torture. Her pistol was long gone, and the short blade had been lost too. Still Athena clawed and kicked and writhed with all her might, her slender body proving difficult to restrain even for so many hands. Even as Markius and Goran charged, a metal bar clanged across the back of her neck and she fell still.

Markius swept the Salvator in a horizontal arc, cleaving through the chest of the nearest howling heretic. Then he ducked a stub-pistol aimed point blank at his face and drove the relic blade into the belly of the shooter. The heretic died in a pool of blood as Markius jerked his weapon out of the twitching body.

Beside him, Goran rampaged. The massive powerfist at the end of his bionic arm delivered blows like a ramming tank, and the unarmoured bodies of heretics exploded on impact. The two marines fought back-to-back, destroying heretics with each strike. Markius’s face was a blood-streaked mask of grim satisfaction.

Finally Markius decapitated the heretic that clutched Athena’s wrists above his head, shearing through his arms at the same time, and those behind dropped her to face the new threat. Goran surged past him, smashing faces and shattering chests, as Markius caught the falling body of Athena. She was out cold and bled from countless wounds, her alabaster skin slick with blood, but she still had a pulse.

Goran turned and faced him as the last heretics had a fit of common sense and scrambled away. He said, ‘Come on, let’s hope the ‘hawk is still waiting for us!’

They loped back down the narrow tunnel towards the elevator, but halted abruptly as it widened into an intersection. Markius gaped in amazement as they came face-to-face with the last person in the entire galaxy they expected to meet.

* * *

‘HO THERE! BROTHERS!’ said the accented voice. Goran and Markius exchanged astonished looks before returning their gaze to the lead figure.

It was him: The Crimson Paladin from Ornisgard, resplendent in his pennant-festooned power armour, the familiar cross and skull symbol painted across his shoulder pouldron. The scorched brown face cracked into a grin, exposing pearly white and unnaturally sharp teeth, framed by the moustache and pointed beard of jet-black hair. There were more crimson armoured marines behind, their elaborate helmets topped by ceremonial dragons and lions. They snapped up bolters to their shoulders, aiming right for Markius and Goran. But the leader held up a hand to stop them firing, a scarlet tongue licking his canines.

‘You are Imperial space marines?’ said the leader. His oily eyes flitted, scanning their uniforms. ‘We are the celebrated and righteous Crimson Paladins. Pray tell, what is your chapter?’

Markius did not know what to say, and beside him Goran also gaped.

‘Probably some young, lesser chapter,’ chuckled one of the Paladins behind the leader, the voice harsh and metallic as it came from his helmet’s vox-amplifier. His helmet was angular and the colour of dull steel, but a figurine of a raging bull reared at its top. They lowered their weapons and relaxed. Markius was too busy trying to think of what to say to be angry at the insult.

‘Indeed; why hide your heraldry otherwise?’ said the leader. His eyes continued to assess them, and his dark brows creased as he tried to make sense of this meeting. His gaze settled on Athena, limp in Markius’s arms, and he peered with confusion at her face.

‘We are incognitus,’ said Markius, keeping his voice level. ‘Inquisition business, brother.’

Beside him, Markius could sense Goran was staring very hard at the Crimson Paladins.

‘Do you know me from somewhere, brother?’ the leader asked of Goran, but Markius and Goran only shrugged.

‘You have only a black shield as your heraldry. What is the meaning of that?’ said the bull-helmeted Paladin, pointing to Goran’s shoulder plastron.

The leader finally seemed to sense something was wrong, and his smile turned to a frown. He said, ‘And this facility is now under the jurisdiction of the Ordo Hereticus. Who is she? What is your mission here?’

‘That’s… classified,’ said Markius, knowing he had to do something very quickly, conscious of the fragile body he carried in his arms.

‘And that’s for the Father Chaplain!’ Goran suddenly hissed.

He surged at the leader, so fast he caught everyone by surprise, including Markius. Markius opened his mouth to shout but was too late. Goran struck the leader with the full force of his powerfist, a blow powerful enough to punch through titanium armour. But the leader blinked and activated some device in his power armour just in time. As the punch landed the Paladin was surrounded by an aura of crackling energy.

The blow stopped inches short of the leader’s face, the energy field bursting into blinding light as it absorbed the fantastical strength of the powerfist. But the full inertia could not be neutralised and the Paladin was hurled backwards to crash into his men behind.

‘Come on!’ yelled Goran, dashing for the elevator chamber. Markius needed no encouragement, jerking into action and sprinting after him. The shouts of the Crimson Paladins echoed after them as they tried to disentangle themselves from each other.

Markius and Goran passed through the doorway to the chamber, and Goran quickly turned and slammed the closing rune. He smashed the control panel as the door rolled shut. Markius, now with Athena slumped over one shoulder, loped over to the elevator on the other side and opened the door. His hearts thundered in his chest.

‘That won’t hold them long,’ Goran said as they both darted into the elevator and sent it on its journey back down to delta level.

Goran knelt and began tearing up one of the floor panels inside the lift as it rattled downwards. Markius stared at him, listening for any sign of the Paladins above. Goran glanced up at Markius and saw his questioning look.

‘We may need to drop the rest of the distance if they can stop the elevator from up there,’ he said.

Markius continued staring, hearts beating furiously. An unexpected and surprising thought had come to him, one that had never occurred before. Goran’s rage as he struck the Paladin had been evident, and Markius knew exactly how he felt. Goran had loved the Father Chaplain just as much as Markius did. He mourned him just as much as Markius did.

Goran saw that Markius was still staring at him and said, ‘I’m sorry, Captain. I couldn’t help it… but we needed to do something…’

‘I know,’ said Markius, nodding, still staring. ‘I only wish you had taken his head off!’

Goran shot a wolfish grin back.

‘It hurt you, didn’t it?’ Markius said as the elevator continued its descent, ‘when the Father Chaplain made me captain.’

A marine-sized hole now torn out of the middle of the lift cage, Goran straightened and looked back at Markius, unsmiling.

He said, ‘How would you have felt, if it had been me he chose to be captain?’

Markius thought about it for several moments, then said, ‘Then I would have hated your glorious guts.’

Goran snorted but did not smile. He said, ‘Then at last we understand each other.’

With a screech of metal, the lift suddenly jerked to a halt. The flickering luminator finally died, plunging the cage into darkness. Without a word, the marines dropped one after another, falling five metres before landing on the grilled level below. Then they scrambled off into the tunnels back towards platform 7.

* * *

‘FINALLY!’ SAID TOBIAS, as Goran and Markius gratefully stumbled past him into the back of the shadowhawk. Tobias signaled the pilot and almost instantly the engines roared and the gunship was airbourne. They had outrun any pursuit. Markius peered back through the narrowing gap of the closing ramp at the rapidly shrinking mining facility – Crawl – and knew he would be thankful never to see it again.

He followed Goran through to the passenger deck and gently laid Athena on a spare grav-seat. Nyx and the other Psirens came to her aid, strapping her in and checking her wounds. Markius looked around at the damaged, exhausted marines, and they stared back. He saw Brother Patreus, his burns now congealed into an ugly red scar that covered fully half his head. Then he saw Rasmus, unconscious, strapped into a grav-seat and with his leg in a splint. Markius wondered why he was not in the medical bay, and then remembered the two berths would be full.

Markius glanced at Sören and said, ‘Lars and Gunnar?’

‘Lars will make it, but with heavy augmetics,’ replied Sören. When he didn’t mention Gunnar, Markius understood and silently cursed. Along with Bhurgsson and Jenner, that made three lost to the insanity of Crawl.

‘We have Gunnar’s geneseed, at least,’ said Sören, referring to the vital and precious implant that was required to create new marines. Markius nodded, though it seemed little consolation. How were they ever going to start rebuilding a chapter from this? Only Sören would try to find a way. He realised making Sören Apothecary had been one of his best command decisions. The golden haired marine now finally had a purpose and a specialty he could focus all his considerable intellectual powers on. That, at least, was one thing Markius could take pride in.

Pride: Markius’s memory was drawn back to the avenue, and he remembered his actions, when that… thing had been whispering to him. He looked around, and saw in the eyes of the marines they were all thinking the same thing. They looked haunted. Despite the optimism of their new identity, they had nearly fallen apart.

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘We all know what happened out there, when the whispers got into our heads.’

Some lowered their eyes. Some stared at their hands. Tobias did not look at him.

‘But that was not the real us. It tried to change us, but we beat it! So be proud. We beat it, and did the Emperor’s work this day!’ said Markius.

He tried to inject more conviction into the statement, but knew how close the company had come to disintegrating, as had he. Renaming their chapter had not banished their conflicts. He looked over at Goran and spoke directly to him, ‘We both suffer from the same desires.’

‘It got us all,’ interrupted Tobias, his tone flat, guilty. ‘It worked on our fears, not just our desires.’

‘You did not show fear, Tobias,’ said Goran, to Markius’s surprise. ‘You were trying to protect the company. No man thinks less of you for that.’

Markius thought about it and realised Goran was right. Perhaps Tobias was not such a bad lieutenant, if only to counterbalance his own tendency to take risks. Tobias always erred on the side of caution. He corrected himself; caution was no error.

‘And what about you, eh, Andreus?’ said Goran, and all eyes turned to the white-haired sergeant with the stubbly attempt of a beard.

All of you; snap out of it!’ Goran mimicked his vox signal. There were some laughs. The mood lightened just a fraction. Andreus smiled sheepishly.

‘Oho, and finally you're not so horribly ugly,’ Brother Borias chided Brother Patreus. The one side of Patreus’s mouth that still moved properly grinned back at Borias, whose own bullet-smooth head had again miraculously managed to avoid injury. Patreus’s smile was a more of a grimace.

‘Still not as pretty as you, eh Babyface?’ Patreus snarled back. There were a few snorts and laughs. More comments were exchanged between marines sitting opposite each other.

‘Why didn’t you suffer from the desires?’ Markius whispered to Andreus as the other marines chatted.

‘Maybe I did,’ shrugged Andreus. ‘But it worked for us anyway.’

Markius waited for the explanation, and Andreus said, ‘My greatest desire was to earn your respect.’

‘Well, you certainly did that, Sergeant. You were solid as an ice mountain out there,’ said Markius, allowing his voice to rise.

Murmurs of approval rippled around the passenger chamber. Finally the tension among the marines was starting to drain away, and they were beginning to realise they had completed their mission successfully. It was an important moment for soldiers, the time of reflection after frenetic combat. They could finally share that precious unspoken brotherhood of warriors who had fought and bled together, despite the doubts that still nagged.

Markius exhaled and rolled his shoulders, glancing to the still unconscious Rasmus. Nearby, he saw Sister Miriam and the two children cowering in a corner.

Surprised, he remembered that he was still carrying the ancient powersword that she had gifted him: The Salvator. He knew it had been worth it; taking the decision to go back and rescue them. However, he now had a new problem to deal with.

As if reading his mind, the brass-plated door at the far end of the passenger chamber clanked open and there stood Inquisitor Zharn, his paternal face furious.

‘Captain Markius, a word,’ he said, and for all the bergs on Prism, Markius thought he was trying to impersonate the Father Chaplain. Markius stomped through the chamber and the marines watched him go.

* * *

‘YOU DISOBEYED A direct order,’ Zharn frowned at him when the door to the cramped medical bay closed behind Markius. Lars and Gunnar lay either side of them in stasis berths against the walls. The door beyond Zharn, leading to the cockpit, was closed.

‘Your orders did not reconcile, Inquisitor,’ Markius attempted to remain calm, logical. He was slightly unnerved by Zharn’s calm anger. ‘I was to evacuate the so-called research team, and I did it.’

‘Don’t you blame this on Athena: I’ll deal with her later, but you have no excuse. I should shoot you for mutiny!’ said Zharn.

‘You do that and you will have a company of angry space marines to deal with,’ said Markius.

‘Do not test my patience,’ Zharn said, ‘or I will send you all back to your Emperor-forsaken moon.’

‘And yet you can’t do that either,’ countered Markius. ‘We are locked together by your secrets now!’

‘I will not work with you if I can’t trust you to follow my orders,’ said Zharn. ‘I carry the Emperor’s authority! Why in the galaxy I picked you up before you had completed your psycho-indoctrination, I don’t know.’

‘And I can’t trust you if you keep lying to me!’ said Markius. ‘You sent my men into this mission with false parameters. How can you expect us to follow your orders in such circumstances?’

‘I didn’t tell you because I could not afford you all to go off on some crazy quest of vengeance!’ shouted Zharn, surprising Markius. Zharn never shouted. The inquisitor calmed himself and said, ‘Did you encounter any other Imperials down there?’

The implications of the question hit Markius like an electrical jolt and his eyes widened. He said, ‘You knew they were going to be Crimson Paladins down there! That’s why you wanted us out!’

‘And that answers my question,’ said Zharn. He exhaled in annoyance, then looked Markius directly in the eye. Markius knew the inquisitor would spot any lie now. Zharn said, ‘Did you do or say anything that would give your previous identity away?’

Markius thought about it for several moments.

‘No,’ he started, but changed his mind, ‘I don’t think so. I can’t be sure. We needed to leave in a hurry.’

Zharn’s lip curled with annoyance, but then the wall-mounted vox-unit hissed into life.

‘Boss, I’ve got Gaius,’ came Burrin’s gravelly voice from the cockpit.

‘Put him through,’ Zharn instantly replied, keying the vox panel.

Arcis to Shadow One. Interrogation: Status?’ came the tech-priest’s robotic voice.

‘We’re on our way,’ Zharn replied.

‘Gratification,’ said Gaius, ‘we are getting some rather… awkward questions from the flotilla.’

‘You are Mechanicus extracting assets; keep to it,’ said Zharn, ‘We are still cloaked. Burrin, ETA?’

‘Forty minutes,’ came the stocky pilot’s response.

‘Comprehension: out,’ said Gaius and the vox went dead.

Zharn rounded on Markius and jabbed a finger at his chest. Despite their considerable difference in heights, the older man still exuded authority.

‘This is not the end of this matter,’ warned Zharn.

It is, for now, Markius thought but did not say. Instead he turned on his heel and pressed the release for the brass-plated door back to the passenger deck.

‘I have to see to my men, my wounded and my dead,’ he grunted over his shoulder.

Zharn let him go without further word and Markius stomped back through to the passenger deck. He slumped into a seat opposite Rasmus, and smiled when he saw the big man had regained consciousness, barely. Rasmus’s eyes rolled around like he had drunk too much ale.

‘Captain,’ he said. ‘I lost it out there, eh? Twice. I’m sorry…’

‘Don’t worry, old friend,’ said Markius, leaning forwards. ‘We’ve all been through this. The main thing is that you are still in one piece. You really wanted to lose your legs today, eh?’

Rasmus chuckled weakly and Markius glanced to Sören.

‘The muscle-mass might have regenerated, given enough time, but the bones and infection…’ said the Apothecary.

Markius looked back at Rasmus, but the big man shrugged, still feeling the effects of the sedation. He said, ‘So I’ll get a bionic. The tech-priests will have me kicking again.’

Markius shook his head, admiring the man’s indomitable spirit. He said, ‘Patch me up, Apoth?

Rasmus chuckled again, recognising himself being quoted, and this time other marines who had overheard the remark joined in.

‘Is this some new nickname for Sören the men haven’t told me about?’ said Markius.

Rasmus grinned back and said, ‘You should hear what we call you behind your back, Captain.’ Then his face turned grave and he said, ‘You shouldn’t have gone back in alone.’

‘I didn’t,’ said Markius, glancing down the aisle to the sergeant of Epsilon squad. ‘Goran came with me.’

Rasmus smiled faintly and nodded, slipping back into unconsciousness. He whispered, ‘That’s sorted out then, eh?’

Not quite, thought Markius, but they were getting there. He noticed Athena had also awoken and was exchanging whispers with the Psirens. He hauled himself out of his seat, finally realising how utterly exhausted he was, and dragged himself to sit beside her.

‘Feeling better?’ he said. The other Psirens moved away and strapped into grav-seats.

‘You came back for me,’ she said, her violet eyes looking into his.

Against orders.’

‘I didn’t think you… anyone…’ she started.

‘Perhaps, you should have a little more faith,’ Markius interrupted, smiling at her.

‘Thank you,’ she whispered. All the cynicism and flippancy were gone.

‘You’re welcome,’ he said, enjoying her moment of discomfort, just a little. ‘I suggest you can’t call me Saranen any more.’

At last the mischievous smile returned. She said, ‘I owe you that much, I suppose.’

‘And stop with the blasphemy,’ demanded Markius.

She nodded submission, and glancing to the sword he carried she said, ‘Thank you, Salvator.’

* * *

INQUISITOR WILLIAM ZHARN checked his wrist chronometer when the servo-skull warbled, announcing a visitor to his luxurious apartment aboard the Arcis Indicium. He knew they would have picked up any signs of pursuit long before now.

‘Enter,’ he said, turning in his Ohinian cow-leather recliner, and was surprised to see the cowled figure of Aul Vespasius when the door swished open. The skeletal psyker shuffled in, leaning on his staff.

Zharn checked his chronometer again and said, ‘Can’t sleep either?’

‘Too much clamour,’ rasped the old man and Zharn nodded in understanding. Though his own psychic sensitivity was not near that of the astropath’s, it was always uncomfortable traveling through the warp: Those ever-present whispers scratching at the back of his mind, the knowledge that uncountable entities were right there, outside, clawing at the Gellar field that protected the ship.

Inside the ship and outside,’ said Aul, as if reading his mind.

Zharn did not reply, but instead waved a hand for Aul to take a seat at the black marble table, knowing the blind man would sense the gesture. He rose and padded to the crystal glass drinks cabinet. Aul sank gratefully into a seat as Zharn poured them both bulbs of amasec. He returned and sat in his own seat, pushing Aul’s drink towards him across the tabletop.

Aul took a sip and sighed, his skinny shoulders sagging. Zharn thought he looked more ancient and decrepit than ever, and wondered at the mental strain of his profession.

‘You took a terrible risk, William, sending unprepared minds into that place,’ said Aul. ‘You know what they may have faced.’

‘A calculated risk,’ Zharn gently countered. ‘Their faith is strong, and it turned out to be the right choice.’

‘And what if it had gone wrong?’ the ancient psyker said. ‘You could have made some powerful enemies today.’

‘But it didn’t,’ Zharn remained firm. Nonetheless, he knew things had gone far from as planned.

‘You are going to have to start trusting people, William,’ said Aul. Zharn exhaled. He didn’t want to have this conversation now. He said, ‘You of all people know why we must keep our secrets, Aul.’

‘I will never forget what you did for me on that Black Ship, all those years ago,’ said Aul, ‘but even if I understand your ends, I find myself questioning your means.’

‘I am an inquisitor, Aul,’ said Zharn. ‘The ends always justify the means!’

‘When are you going to train him?’ said Aul, his voice cracking with exasperation. ‘What if something had been set off?’

‘When he’s ready,’ said Zharn, still unwilling to discuss the subject. ‘When I’m ready. He’s already proved he can defend himself. These things need to be done at the right pace.’

Aul did not answer, but Zharn knew he was not satisfied. They both stared at the blast doors currently covering the great fenestra that formed one wall of the chamber. Zharn wondered whether Aul’s powers could also see the night-sky aurora pattern he had currently programmed into the holo-unit. Moments passed and Aul finished his drink.

Finally the old astropath struggled to his feet and seemed to make a decision. He rasped, ‘I suppose you had better take a look at this. The header came uncoded.’

Zharn started with surprise when Aul produced a dataslate from his robes.

‘A transmission?’ said Zharn, taking the offered dataslate.

Aul handed it to him and shuffled back to the door, which hissed open automatically.

‘I hope you treated her well, William,’ Aul said, just before the doors closed again.

Zharn pressed his inquisitorial signet ring to the receptor disc at the base of the dataslate. The arcane machine spirits within the ring briefly conversed with those of the dataslate, and then the scrambled, coded runes resolved themselves into the true message. He spent several moments reading it, then hurled it at the shield-wall in anger.


Origin: Bracara /Civ Fac/G-10
Date: 2/064898.M41
Re-transmitted: N/A
Ref: Private Transmission
Received: -
Destination: [Classified]
Telepathic Duct: Astropath-terminus Gestus
Author: Name withheld

Thought for the day: Follow the Emperor’s Light

My dear,

This will be my last message. I have some awkward matters to deal with, and some difficult questions to answer. However, I thought you would want to see the below.



[Enact Coding Protocol]

Origin: Battle Barge Santa Catarina
Date: 2/058898.M41
Re-transmitted: N/A
Ref: Inq/0ii23914311/BH-ADD
Received: IQ-OM CHQ
Destination: IQ-T01
Telepathic Duct: Astropath-terminus Erastus
Author: Inquisitor Kristatos Kielman, Ordo Hereticus

Thought for the day: Vigilance is next to Holiness

My Lords,

We have successfully completed the cleanse mission on Callasia 9 – and the entity there has been destroyed. Unfortunately, almost the entire population had been tainted and I was left with no alternative but to order complete extermination. The Crimson Paladins, as usual, conducted this mission with their customary ferocious determination, and I believe the innocent casualties were acceptable. The Imperial Navy and Cult Mechanicus are now coordinating replacement and repair crews. I consider the mission successfully completed.

However, another matter has come to light and I require your dispensation to pursue a new investigation. As you know, the [expunged] matter was considered closed on my last transmission, but Commander Do Largo has reported to me a disturbing incident prior to the cleansing of MMS-18-G-12. It seems operatives of the Ordo Xenos were present at the facility, but I have no explanation as to what they were doing there, and have received unsatisfactory replies to my inquiries from our colleagues at Kar Duniash.

The operatives attacked Do Largo and his men in order to escape, and something one of the operatives said has caused Do Largo to doubt that the [expunged] matter is, in fact, completely closed. Not only is this disturbing thought cause for concern, but I am also worried we may be dealing with a rogue element within our own blessed ranks.

With your permission, I would like to retain the services of the Crimson Paladins until I can find some answers and put these doubts to rest.

I remain, your humble servant,

Inquisitor Kristatos Kielman

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am


Postby kurisawa » Sun Sep 02, 2012 2:44 am

This novel is now completely posted. The final part can be found here:


Thanks for reading and replying!

My short stories:
1. Extraction = viewtopic.php?f=17&t=2127
2. Intoxication = viewtopic.php?f=17&t=2188
3. Desecration = viewtopic.php?f=17&t=2294
4. Indoctrination = viewtopic.php?f=17&t=3172

My novel:
BLACK SHIELDS: INCOGNITUS = viewtopic.php?f=17&t=1901
Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

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