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Crusade for Antioc - Round 3-6 and Epilogue


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#1
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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Firestorm
(Author: Aurelius Rex)

Sergeant Krohn of the Order Encarmine lifted the magnoculars and scanned the blasted battlezone. Just last night, Fort Regula had been one of the most heavily fortified bastions on the planet, second only to The Warmaster's palace. Today, though, there was precious little security to be found within its walls. Their calls for aid had been met with distain. Many had been blunt enough to say it out loud; while the Imperials were concentrating such vast energies upon Regula, it gave their own warbands time to dig in and prepare.

How could the Scions of Dorn have found them? The Order Encarmine had come planetside specifically to hide themselves among Antioc's numberless traitors and renegades. It was Heinlein's intention to force the Scions to exhaust and deplete themselves in a fruitless search before the inevitable confrontation, but something had gone catastrophically wrong.

'Try the vox again, Brother Fitz.' shouted Sergeant Krohn over the rumble of gunfire. 'The Chapter Master is out there.' The boy went back to fiddling with the transmitter. Krohn was under no illusions of their position, but focussing the men on a tangible way out of this gave them hope.

First had come the orbital bombardment. It had pulverised everything for as far as the eye could see. The bastion's ancient banks of void-shield generators had held - barely - but the resulting seismic level quakes and firestorms that followed had reduced the outer defences to rubble and so much twisted metal. Before they could even pull themselves from the wreckage the Scions had descended in fleets of Thunderhawks that had seemed to blot out the little sun that remained, and started to tighten the noose.

Fitz rose suddenly and waved him over. 'I think I have something, Sergeant!' He handed Krohn the voxcaster headset. The signal was scratchy and weak, but it was undoubtedly the Chapter Master, and relief flooded through him.

'Sergeant Krohn?' Heinlein said urgently. 'Connect me with Captain Fassel - this is an emergency.'

'Captain Fassel is dead, Sir.' When they had seen such a hated enemy as the Scions only hundreds of meters away, a kind of mania seemed to overtake many in the Chapter. Fassel had been amongst those who had thrown themselves, unsupported, against the Scions gun-lines in the kind of action that would have disgraced a green initiate. Perhaps it was the drive to embrace the sensuous, to do what felt good and the consequences be damned, but martial discipline had suffered a complete collapse. Rather than see the captain's reputation tarnished, he simply said that Fassel had been killed in the initial Scions attack, and that he had now assumed command over the four-score brothers that remained.

In the stunned silence that followed, Krohn explained that they were completely surrounded by a massive mobilisation of Scions, and that they were relentlessly being pressed further and further back. He begged the Chapter Master to use his good standing with the Warmaster to raise the siege. It was not a word of a lie to say that without outside intervention, the Scions would hold the entire fortress before the day was out, and they would all be either captured or killed.

'Is there no way you can evacuate, Krohn? Thunderhawk? The tunnels?' Heinlein asked. It was useless, of course. As well as collapsing the ubiquitous tunnels that ran beneath the surface of the planet, the orbital bombardment had also brought down the entrance to Regula's hardened hangar-bay. They were trapped.

'I will speak with Warmaster Hell about an immediate attack. He will listen to me, but I need to know the size of the Scions force you are facing.' Heinlein's reassuring words reminded the old sergeant why he had gladly followed him during Chapter's recent Enlightenment.

'From the numbers of Thunderhawks and different Company heraldries, I would be surprised if it was any less than half the Chapter out there.'

'Half the Chapter in one place.' Mused Heinlein. Krohn had to admit it was a bold move to deploy such a large portion of a Chapter in a single engagement, but as was evident from the devastation all around them, when it was done, little could oppose such an irresistible force.

'Thank you, Sergeant. You have my unbreakable vow that before this day is out, not a single Scion will draw breath upon the face of the planet. We have them by the throat, Krohn. We are about to make history.'

+++

'Relax, brother.' said Xamot Hell. 'Pacing isn't going to make the ship arrive any sooner.'

The Warmaster shot him a withering glare, but stopped all the same. Telling someone in a state of agitation to relax, he reflected, was something almost certain to have the opposite effect. Even going back to their childhood together, Tomax had been prone to bottling up his frustrations and anxieties to the point where he exploded in bouts of extreme violence and bloodshed from which no-one was safe. Ascention to Daemon Prince-hood had tempered him - the old Tomax would never have been able to assemble the coalition he had built here on Antioc - but the invasion and Warp Distortion ravaging their ranks had pushed him to the brink.

That was why this lead was so important. The divinations were clouded - whatever was causing the effect had been ingenious in covering its sorcerous tracks - but he had been able to glean someone, this Killgore, who would be able to un-weave the mystery for them. Quite what hand the Dark Mechanicus had in this matter he looked forward to uncovering. The old Tomax would have stormed the Black Ship personally to capture Killgore. The new one had shown the restrain and awareness to delegate the role to a capable, but expendable, underling who knew the high price of failure.

To have left the planet at this stage in the war would have been disastrous. Despite all their recent successes, the Coalition forces on Antioc were stretched to the limit. Assembling the firepower to stop the Titan spearhead had weakened them across a massive front, and now they were being punished for it. Fort Regula and dozens of lesser bastions were beyond hope. Even air supremacy was insufficient to silence the whispers of revolt.

With the Imperial fleet largely controlling Antioc orbit, the warbands were painfully aware that they were trapped. In such times of strife the threat of being overthrown by a charismatic and ambitious rival could never be ruled out. It was the reason that solving the puzzle of the devastating Warp Distortions had become of such vital importance. If the Legion of Fear could uncover and end the conspiracy, it would quash any challenge before it could gather momentum. Then they could concentrate on defeating the invasion.

After an all-too tense wait, Lieutenant Jharr's Thunderhawk finally touched down on the impromptu landing pad. The heavy front boarding ramp hissed down, and out of the vessel stepped Jharr, followed by his men carrying the captive on a medicae gurney.

'My Lord,' saluted Jharr as he approached the Warmaster. 'I present to you your prize; The Dark Mechanicus, Killgore.' He had been tasked with a simple courier job, yet Jharr was posturing like a hero returned from a forlorn hope mission. That did not concern Xamot. What did was the captive's aura; it was completely wrong. He looked deep into the terror-filled eyes of the man, and pushed, invading his mind to seek the truth.

'This isn't Killgore.' He stated as he emerged from the wyrd-trance. 'You brought us the wrong man, Jharr; The Order Encarmine has betrayed us.'

As soon as the words left his mouth he knew that they had been a misjudgement. Xamot recognised all-too well the expression on his brother's face; the cold, heedless killing frenzy that knew no limits and could only be extinguished by the spilling of blood. He backed away carefully, hoping that Jharr would provide enough distraction for his escape.

The process was inevitable now. The sorcerer would have to wait until the hellstorm was over before he could tell Tomax that the news; that the man Jharr had brought back was the captain of the Black Ship. While the captain was not privy to his Inquisitorial Master's investigations, he had known they had prompted a major expedition into the depths of the southern ash wastes. They had a solid lead.

Xamot broke into a run, as behind him the screaming began.

+++

#2
Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Brother Tyler)

+++

Canoness Betiand Veronika of the Order of the Sacred Rose sat with her head thrust out of the Immolator's top hatch, staring at the Ash Wastes and wondering at the contrast between the barren landscape and that of her childhood. Though she had first been brought into the Adepta Sororitas at the small preceptory at Cooper Lodge that tended to wayfarers on the Ecclessiarchy world of Riverdale, her talent for warfare had been identified at an early age, whereupon she had been transferred to the Convent Prioris. There she had trained the way of warfare and had joined the Sacred Rose, one of the Orders Militant. She had never forgotten her homeworld, named for the magnificent rivers that dominated the landscape. Ever since, the image of running water and tall grass had been a source of comfort to her.

This world, Antioc, knew no such rivers. The Adeptus Mechanicus had long since purged most of the landscape, replacing the bounty of nature with manufactorums and spaceports. The Ash Wastes were one of the few areas upon the forge world that weren't scarred with the constructs of the Machine Cult. Though it may have once been a verdant paradise, the Ash Wastes were now choked with the detritus of industry. Choked with pollutants and refuse, the barren wasteland had long ago earned the nickname of the Ash Wastes from the abundance of fine ash that dominated the land. Travel through this area was slow and hazardous, for the fine ash could worm its way into machinery and clog filters. The convoy of Immolators and Rhinos advanced slowly, pushing through the wasteland with deliberate caution.

Taking advantage of the respite from combat, Canoness Veronika mouthed prayers as she absent-mindedly traced the contours of the Chaplet Ecclesiasticus with her left hand. The fighting had taken its toll on her force, reducing the number of battle sisters from over four dozen to less than a quarter that number. As her mind fell into patterns of calmness, she ran the communique from the Inqisitor through her mind. Why her force had been commanded to venture into the wastes was beyond her. The Inquisitor cryptically claimed that something wasn't right within the Ash Wastes and that the Order of the Sacred Rose were the nearest force that would be best able to investigate the cause and, if necessary, deal with it. The Ash Wastes weren't of real strategic value - no manufactorums resided within, nor did roads traverse the land. If anything was out here, it was likely Adeptus Mechanicus survivors who had fled their tech fortresses centuries ago when Chaos first came to Antioc and tore it from the Imperium's grasp. Alternately, it might be craven cowards who fled the righteous fury of the Imperium's crusade and sought haven in the impenetrable depths of the wastes. While she believed that the Imperial Guardsmen she had recently met might be just as capable of dealing with whatever might be out here, she was an obedient servant of the Emperor and did as she was bid. That the order had come from an Inquisitor was inconsequential - the Adepta Sororitas had close ties with the Ordo Hereticus of the Inquisition and the Sisters of Battle were accustomed to cooperating with Inquisitors. Her indignance at being sent on a fool's errand didn't diminish her tactical acumen any, though, and all the surviving members of the preceptory were on alert.

Veronika was suddenly on the alert as her keen vision picked out the flash of light reflecting off metal in the distance. Though it lasted but a moment, she knew that something about the reflection was out of the ordinary. She identified the direction and distance to the vehicle's operator, bracing herself as the Immolator turned to intercept. Her sisters in arms within the vehicle knew that something was amiss and re-checked their weapons. The other vehicles in the tactical convoy followed the leading Immolator, spreading out in order to reduce the damage of casualties in case of an attack on the convoy. Veronika released the chaplet, letting it fall to her side as she grasped the haft of the Malleus Pietae, the blessed hammer with which she brought the Emperor's justice to those who denied Him. She knew that the hammer would soon be crushing the life from heretics, guided by the pure wisdom of her own hand.

+ + + + +

Oudo spied the small group of vehicles through magnoculars. His expertise in siege warfare had been instrumental in being called from the Great Work to repelling the servants of the False Emperor. His force of Iron Warriors had hastily constructed fighting trenches and obstacles several hours prior when the incursion into the Ash Wastes had first been detected. The reduced visibility from the abating storms prevented the Warsmith from accurately counting vehicles within the convoy. There were certainly more than two, but probably less than six judging by the dust thrown up in the wake of the vehicles. Oudo recognized the Rhino pattern vehicles - possibly Adeptus Astartes, Space Marines who remained loyal to the Corpse God. Then he saw the design emblazoned upon the front of the lead vehicle - the fleur de lys. Sororitas! Within his great helm, Oudo's mouth twisted itself into a macabre grin.

Over the squad's tactical comms Oudo commanded his warband to ready their weapons, but to hold to cover. The concealment that had been constructed into the fighting positions meant that the enemy would be right on top of them before they even knew that the Iron Warriors were there. The flash from the magnoculars had been nothing more than bait, an enticing signal of their presence to the enemy that did not know who it would face. Heavy weapons were at the ready, the Space Marines who manned them remaining low beneath the rampart that had been erected between the Iron Warriors and the Sisters of Battle.

Oudo calculated the speed of the enemy convoy to be approximately 35 kilometres per hour, which would put them within long range of his heaviest guns in about forty-five seconds. His warriors wouldn't fire at that extreme range, though, as they would lose the element of surprise. No, they would wait until the vehicles were almost on top of them before they fired, several trenches being dug so that the vehicles could pass over them without crushing those within.

Twenty five seconds to contact. Fifteen. Five.

The vehicles were within range. The Iron Warriors didn't fire, though, waiting for the signal from their warsmith. As the lead vehicle reached the trigger line, a chop of Oudo's hand commanded his warriors to fire. The lead vehicle was struck by three lascannons, one tearing through the tracks on the left side while the other two tore into the pilot's compartment, penetrating through to the engines. As the vehicle lurched to a halt, ammunition within began to cook off.

+ + + + +

Canoness Veronika detected the presence of the enemy too late. As heavy lasfire suddenly erupted from point blank range, she donned her helmet and informed everyone of contact to the front over the vox-net. Though she was thrown roughly forward as her vehicle was struck by heavy fire and suddenly halted, she quickly regained her footing and stood up, opening the top hatch as the remainder of her squad burst out the rear of the vehicle.

"For the Emperor!" she cried as she leapt from the top hatch, bolter fire erupting around her.

+++

#3
Aurelius Rex

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Round 3 Battle 1
Canoness Betiand Veronika (Order of the Sacred Rose) vs. Warsmith Oudo (Iron Warriors)

(Author: Brother Tyler)

+++

The Warsmith watched silently as his warriors poured fire into the convoy. Oudo calculated the odds of the driver of the lead vehicle surviving at less than 3%. Had the driver been a Space Marine, the odds would have been 5%. As the vehicle ground to a halt about forty meters away, explosions from within told Oudo that the vehicle wouldn't be moving again. Those passengers within that hadn't been injured in the initial onslaught were over 76% likely to have been killed by the secondary explosions. Then a flash of white caught the Warsmith's attention. The figure clambered through the top hatch of the vehicle, then launched from the top into the fray. Meanwhile, similarly armoured figures sprang from the rear of the vehicle, the three sisters moving forward methodically while providing bounding overwatch for each other. The only cover available, was the Immolator from which they had come - aside from the trenches which the silver-armoured Iron Warriors attacked from. The heavy weapons of the Iron Warriors, however, were focused on their mission of destroying the vehicles within the convoy, and the few Iron Warriors with bolters concentrated their fire on the Sororitas. One of the Battle Sisters fell to incoming fire quickly, though the other two continued their maneuver with songs of praise.

+ + + + +


One of the rhinos following Veronika's Immolator suffered catastrophic damage as the lascannons struck the vehicle. It exploded violently, none doubting the fate of those Sisters within. As Veronika dove for cover from the shrapnel of the vehicle's explosion, she commended the souls of those inside to the Emperor's grace. Thrown a few meters forward by the force of the explosion, the Canoness was face-down in the fetid ash. Hazarding a quick glance up, she saw that she was only a short distance from one of the trenches from which the ambush had been launched. As one of the traitor Marines within noticed her, she quickly brought her inferno pistol to bear and extinguished his blasphemous life in a wash of cleansing super-heated air.

Encouraged, she lifted her torso up in order to assess the situation.

There were as many of the Iron Warriors as Sisters she had on the convoy - more now that the first Rhino had been destroyed. She had only a dozen Battle Sisters remaining, fewer if the incoming fire had killed any more. Reassured that none of the traitors appeared to be aware of her, she surged forward, launching herself into the trench in a manner that would have angered her mentors. In battle, though, practicality often over-rode the requirement for dignity. She promised that she would do penance later... if she survived.

+ + + + +


Oudo, stationed in the rear of the trenchworks so that he could better coordinate the efforts of his host, saw the Battle Sister that had leapt from the lead vehicle suddenly drop into one of the lead trenches. There were twenty meters between his own position and that of the lead trench. He brought his bolter up to the ready, aiming in on the first trench in order to pick off the Battle Sister therein. His own warriors, a reinforced squad, concentrated their efforts on the main bulk of Sisters. Two or three had jumped from the rear of the leading vehicle while twice their number had exited the rear rhino. Though they weren't the same caliber of Astartes, Oudo admitted to himself that these power-armour clad women, so much like the Sisters of Silence from the Great Crusade, were skilled in the arts of war. As another of the white armoured-Battle Sisters fell to fire from the Iron Warriors, Oudo again turned his attention to the lead trench.

He roared in fury as the two lascannon-equipped Space Marines in that trench fell prey to an attack. Judging by the rapidity of their demise and the way their arms and armour melted, the Battle Sister in that trench was equipped with some sort of melta-weapon.

There! A flash of white caught his attention. His bolter came up and he expertly fired a short burst. He couldn't tell if he had hit, though, as the Battle Sister was low and didn't elevate any of her body above the trench after the burst threw chunks of earth and ash into the trench.

+ + + + +


Veronika reacted quickly when she heard the report of the bolter from her right. Throwing herself prone, she felt the ash thrown into the air by the attack scatter across her body. She advanced through the rest of the trench at a high crawl, the walls of the trench protecting her from further fire. Her chief concern now was her fellow Battle Sisters. If any of them were so armed, they might throw a grenade into the trench that the Iron Warriors were in, inadvertently injuring or killing their Canoness.

As she neared one of the bends in the trench, Veronika watched one of the traitor Space Marines slump into the trench, torn helmet telling the Canoness where her sisters' return fire had struck him. The remaining traitor was equipped with a lascannon, though, and ignored the incoming bolter fire as he aimed in on the remaining rhino. He never got the shot off, though, as a burst of bolter fire tore into him. Veronika recognized the report of the storm bolter atop the rhino quickly and heaved a sigh of relief at knowing that at least one of the vehicles hadn't been totally destroyed in the ambush.

Bolter fire continued to come from Veronika's right, though, where the remaining trenches were located. If she and her sisters didn't do something quickly, they would die here. Canoness Betiand Veronika vowed that she wouldn't die without a fight, though.

She continued to crawl forward until she found one of the shallow trenches that connected to the middle trench - a means that the attackers surely meant to allow them to move about under cover. Veronika estimated that there were over half a dozen of the traitors - or others armed with holy bolters - remaining. She had almost as many Sisters of Battle - the odds weren't in her favor. With the blessing of the Emperor, though, anything was possible. Hoisting herself up into the connecting trench, she crept forward.

Warsmith Oudo had lost track of the Battle Sister in the trench, so he had shifted fire to the others who fired from the concealment of the burning lead vehicle. Bolter fire impacted all around the Sister's cover, though none appeared to harm her.

Then he saw the flash of white again from one of the connecting trenches that led back to the secondary trench. He aimed his muzzle in the direction of the white armour, but didn't get a shot off in time as the figure fell rapidly into the trench.

+ + + + +


Veronika hadn't been so lucky this time. As she fell into the trench, one of the nearby warriors turned his bolter on the new threat. His bolter fire struck the Sister in the chest, throwing her backward violently. He watched as the sister's body fell to the bottom of the trench and, satisfied that he had dealt with the threat, turned his attention back on the small group of Sisters who fired from cover.

The Canoness hadn't died, however, as her faith in the Emperor empowered her with his divine protection. The bolter glanced off the left shoulder, force of the impact throwing her to the ground. As the traitor turned his attentions back to the main threat, Veronika made sure that he would kill no more of the Emperor's servants. With a great war cry, she dove forward, closing the distance between her and her assailant. Her blessed hammer came down with as much force as she could muster, driving down into the auto-reactive shoulder pad of the Iron Warrior. The blow staggered the traitor, and though he tried to turn his bolter on the white-armoured threat at his side, her follow-on attack, a point blank shot from her inferno pistol, ended the miscreant's life.

Oudo cursed as another of his lackey's fell. His bolter spat four bolts in the direction of the melee, one round striking the Sister of Battle in the upper right shoulder and the other ending the life of the bolter-armed Iron Warrior within the trench.

Veronika cried out in pain as something slammed into her upper back, the attack knocking her forward until she was almost prone again within the trench. She'd gotten careless and lost track of the threat in the rear trench. She vowed not to make the same mistake again.

Her fellow Sisters now numbered only three, the others having been felled by bolter fire. As the Sisters continued to engage the bulk of the traitors, Canoness Betiand Veronika moved to take care of the threat in the rear trench.

+ + + + +


Oudo looked on quizzically as the Battle-Sister in the trench suddenly crested the wall of the trench, making herself a nice target for the Iron Warriors. His consternation turned to indignant anger, though, as she ran straight at him, emerald hammer circling her head in preparation for a mightly blow. He brought his bolter up, firing from the hip into her mass. While two of the bolts missed the Sister of Battle, one struck her in the lower leg. He was still bringing his bolter up from the ready position in which he'd aimed in on the trench. The blow knocked her leg out from under her, but she recovered quickly an continued to close the gap between the two adversaries.

Veronika chided herself for the outburst. Half-embarrassed at having been hit, she renewed her charge, closing in on the traitor. She was close enough to make out the servo arm upon the back of the warrior. Such things were used by servants of the Machine Cult, including Techmarines of the Adeptus Astartes. They were capable of lifting vehicles and performing extensive repairs on vehicles (or damages to opponents). She would have to be careful of the tool/weapon.

+ + + + +


Oudo continued to fire as the white-armoured Sister gathered herself up from the deck and charged his position. As the Sister of Battle moved in a haphazard fashion, the Warsmith wasn't able to lock on. He fired numerous rounds, but to no avail. As the Sister reached the near side of his own trench, Warsmith Oudo fired the plasma of his combi-bolter. The bright fire of the weapon engulfed the Sister of Battle in coruscating energy.

When the plasma flash cleared his vision, Oudo made out the form of the Battle Sister bringing some firearm up on him. Time seemed to slow for the Iron Warrior as he watched the scene unfold before him.

The Sister of Battle seemed to move in slow motion as she brought her baroque firearm up, aiming in on the Warsmith.

As the inferno pistol launched white-hot death at the Warsmith, he barely had time to register the threat.

+ + + + +

Oudo cursed that he had not sought the favor of the Dark Gods before embarking on the mission to ambush the small convoy. As the melta-pistol saturated Oudo's armour with torturous heat, the Warsmith marveled at the manner of his death. The remains of Warsmith Oudo fell to the floor of the trench in a heap.

Though the remaining Iron Warriors continued to pour bolter fire at the Sisters of Battle, there were now barely outnumbered and leaderless.

As the Malleus Pietae crashed down into the skull of one of the Iron Warriors, the remaining two were killed by bolter fire. They were able to kill one more of the Sisters before being killed, though.

+ + + + +


As the last of the traitors fell, Canoness Veronika lifted the Malleus Pietae to the sky and let out a victorious war cry.

"Now," she commanded to her fellow Sisters, "see to the wounded. This battle has cost us time we were to use in closing in on our objective.

+++

Victory to Canoness Betiand Veronika of the Order of the Sacred Rose

#4
Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Teufelskerl)

++++Transmitted: Astropath Keeli
+++++++Received: Astropath Androos
++++Destination: Inquisitor Alexandre Fukano
+++Mission Time: 2186450.M42
++++++++++++Ref: Sanctum Archives
+++++++++Author: Archivus Primus Ellimand

++Thought for the Day: Truth leads to Heresy



By the light of the Emperor, in whose Name we labour, I send greetings.

Inquisitor, per your request, I have searched the Archives for any reference for this Canoness Betiand Veronika. Along with the expected duty history and battle accounts, which are also herein enclosed, I did discover the following communication from the Canoness to an unnamed "Reverend Mother". A preliminary investigation leads me to believe that this was most likely sent to the Betiand's Mother Superior, Canoness Grundi of the Order of the Sacred Rose. I have not been able to locate any response, nor any explanation for what it is doing in our records. I reproduce it here, in full:

"Reverend Mother,
I confess to you that I have strayed into the sin of Pride. I have done my best to temper it with the virtue of Holy Hate but it has been so difficult.

This Crusade has taken many Sisters from us while doing the Emperor's work, whom I know now stand by His side, but it has also made me a witness of those most cowardly of heretics, the Fallen Astarte. At the mere thought of they, who have felt the presence of Him on Terra and rejected Him, I find myself filled with the White Fire of Vengence, wishing to pluck the eyes from their skull, cleave their limbs from one another, and put fire to the remains. But there are ghastly thoughts as well. As much as I have tried, I find myself taking Pride in having visited the Emperor's Judgment upon them.

I remember how many times you told us to never allow ourselves to have Pride in our duties, for the Work is done in His Name and the Glory belongs to Him alone, and I have set myself the penance of saying 100,000 "Him, Who Is On Terra"s. When this Crusade is done I promise I will do a more arduous penance.

I would like to commend to you the names of all the Sisters who joined with me in this Crusade, they have shown the Traitors what true faith in the Emperor means, and I have seen acts of such devotion from the True Astarte that words fail me. But those men from the Guard should not be overlooked, for where the the Astartes Brothers have been touched by His hand, and we have been given His word, the Guardsmen show the Emperors Love with every las-round they fire. Truly, they are the faithful.

May the Emperor's Hate be in you,

Betiand"

Inquisitor, my hope is that I have assisted you as you require.

-Archivus Primus Ellimand

#5
Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Honda)

+++

Inquisitor Qin pulled out a small hand held data slate and noted with annoyance that the locator glyph was still inactive. Bringing up a new window, he was at least contented to note that the self-destruct glyph was also still pulsing a vibrant green, as if inviting Qin to trigger the ship's release. However, Qin understood that there was a time for everything and now was not the time. Later, when he might better relish the act of recovery. For now, it was enough to know that the "protection" was still in place and that he still retained his options. The storms were playing merry hell with the comms - he just wished that he knew what was happening in orbit.

WHAM!

The Valkyrie punctured a pocket of turbulence, briefly shaking the occupants of the cargo hold, then resuming its original course. After multiple operations in the ungainly beasts, Qin began to understand the troopers affection for the Valkyrie and its wicked sister, the Vulture. Neither were as elegant as perhaps those of Xenos design, yet in its simplicity it personified the ferociousness of its owners and rarely failed to deliver on its promises. Yes, one might even learn to attach deeper emotions to the great war machines.

Settled back into the incessant drone of the engines, Qin began to reflect on recent events. At the back of Qin's mind, a struggle was beginning to develop.

If not for the Tarot, he would have been trapped on his ship, at best a prisoner. The fact that the additional reading had spared his life and allowed him to continue his search, conflicted with his beliefs that the tarot opened the door to many evils and led to damnation. Was Chaos playing with him? Was he being set up for a later play? On the surface he had no trouble rejecting the Tarot as a tool of heretics and fools.

He wished to be neither. He never questioned his faith, but now he wished that he had never uncovered the tool. Yet, he felt the thin tendrils of self-doubt slowly begin to reach into the deeper recesses of his mind. A nagging question soon floated to the surface of his consciousness.

Should he have taken one more reading... For her?

+++

#6
Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Aurelius Rex)

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Brother Torviel swept methodically through high Antioc orbit, diligently combing through the abyss for a sign of the Inviolate. His ship, Righteous Blade, was a Hunter class torpedo destroyer; lithe, nimble, and perfect for his assigned task, but still he should not be doing this. The Purgator was crippled and his captain, Antaeus, was dead. He should be patrolling space around the battle barge to protect against another attack rather than searching for a stolen Inquisitorial ship, but Captain Aenides had been adamant.

The thought of doing the bidding of the Inquisition went against every fibre of his being. He had been a Dark Angel - a member of the elite Ravenwing - before he had been sent to join the Legio, and the bone-deep suspicion of them was ingrained. Even within the temperature-controlled amniotic cocoon of this sarcophagus, Inquisitor Holst's voice through the vox still chilled his blood. With all that he knew, all the Chapter secrets locked up within his mind, speaking to an Inquisitor, worse still a telepath was torture.

'Lady Holst, this is the Righteous Blade. I am picking up faint sensor returns in sector one-eighteen. I am heading to investigate.' Lady Holst's acknowledgement was curt, clipped. His own voice was flat; synthesised. The bolt that had paralysed him had also ripped out his larynx. When it had happened he thought his life was over; after the freedom and agility of piloting a Landspeeder Typhoon, the prospect of being trapped within a lumbering dreadnought filled him with horror. Death would be preferable.

Captain Antaeus had come to see him personally in the Apothecarion with a third option; to become the pilot of the Righteous Blade. His trust and respect for the old man had won out, and as it transpired the Hunter class destroyer had many similarities with his old 'Speeder. The only thing he missed was the rush of wind on his face and the exhilaration of hitting a patch of turbulent air and wrestling control back through sheer intuition. For all its fine qualities, the 'Blade was a pure space-going vessel with the aerodynamics of a brick. Those days were long gone.

The ship executed a gentle roll as he lined up the next manoeuvre. Elegant and efficient. He watched the curve of the planet below, running into night. The ash-storm had nearly passed, but the southern wastes were still obscured. Antioc had claimed so many of his brothers already. He had carried Brother-Sergeant Sigrat and his squad to and from missions for nigh-on five years, but he too had been swallowed up by the hungry beast. Word was that a few members of the squad had made it back to Imperial lines after the failed attack, but whom, and how many, he had no idea.

Torviel refocused his sensors and boosted the gain, and was almost blinded by an eruption of energy discharges... Twin torpedo launches, followed by a torrent of weapons-fire! It was a full-on fleet engagement! Cogitator banks whirred, and confirmed the ship that had fired the torpedoes as the Inviolate, and it was being attacked by a whole shoal of Chaos vessels. The torpedoes themselves were unusual; like nothing he carried, and came up as 'Unclassified'.

'I've found them, Lady Holst.' Torviel shouted in triumph, and relayed the sensor information to her vessel.

A distinctly un-ladylike expletive echoed through the vox.

'Exterminatus! They are Exterminatus missiles, Torviel! They are trying to blow up the planet. You have to stop them, or...'

'Understood.' For once he was thankful of his monotone synthesised voice. She might mistake his anger for fear. He was the only Imperial ship close enough to do anything about it, and would not be found wanting.

The Righteous Blade leapt forward, engines run up to full throttle and an intercept course plotted. Signals went out to reprogram the torpedoes in the tubes to broad-spread, proximity fuse, and fired. It was just like being back in the Typhoon.

Torviel cut sensors a second before detonation - not out of arrogance, but of prudence. Who could tell what kind of explosion would result if the missile activated. When no superstructure-jarring eruption came, he slowly brought the systems back on-line. The expanding cloud of superheated plasma was first to appear, followed by the trail of a single surviving missile heading for the upper atmosphere.

In his mind's eye he saw Caliban, or at the least the asteroid field that Caliban had been reduced to. More than any other Chapter the Dark Angels knew the pain of Exterminatus. He would not let that fate befall his brothers on the planet's surface. He knew what he had to do.

Throughout the ship warning alarms sounded as the plasma drives cycled up beyond their rated tolerances. Then another set sounded as the hull juddered; they were entering the upper atmosphere. He silenced the sirens, but Inquisitor Holst was shouting something into his vox. That too was cut off; for what he was doing there must be no distractions.

The prow of the 'Blade started to glow red, then white hot as they cut into the thickening armosphere, but it was working; he was closing upon the missile. This was not a Thunderhawk though. It was never designed to operate in the atmosphere, but the old lady was holding up beautifully. There was time for a final fractional course correction before the sensors failed, and then he commended his soul to The Lion.

At least, Torviel smiled to himself, he had the chance to feel the exhilaration of true atmospheric flight and wind beneath him one last time...

+++

The Righteous Blade tore through the missile, and the combined explosion was large enough to drive back the night on Antioc for more than an hour afterwards.

While the Inviolate powered its way out of the system, trailing vengeful ships on both sides, the other Exterminatus missile, broken, motors gone, knocked off course and forgotten in the excitement, drifted into a gently declining orbit around Antioc. The tiny machine spirit fought a losing battle as generators discharged or overloaded. Layer upon layer of supposedly failsafe containment fields slowly cycled down, flickered and died.

Death awaited.

+++

#7
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Aurelius Rex)

+++

'I told you, I need to speak to Golgotha. I have some equipment that he will need.'

'Captain Golgotha is planet-side.' scowled Sergeant Castor. 'You speak to me, or you go back in the holding cells, but don't waste my time. After what your 'Chapter Master did today, you are right out of moral credit with me.'

'You mean Heinlein? He's not my Chapter Master. He murdered my Chapter Master. You mean the Exterminatus attempt?' Castor was not surprised that even the prisoners knew about that. News like that got around. 'Heinlein has betrayed every one of us, sergeant. That's why I am so determined to help you stop him.'

'So help... what do you know, Dorff?'

'I know something about the Warp Madness - your Curse of Antioc. What do you know about Gellar fields?'

+++

'Sir!' shouted Keeler, the pilot of the Valkyrie. 'This is insanity! We have to land now or we're going to drop out of the sky!' Wind-speed was rising, visibility was virtually zero, and the bird was groaning in agony from the ash being sucked through her engines.

'Out of the question, Keeler! Can't you feel the change in pressure? We're nearly through the worst of it.'

There was no arguing with the Inquisitor when he was in this killing mood. He was beyond driven - a force of nature. Balancing the probability of death if he kept flying against the certainty of a bullet in the brain if he ignored Qin's instructions, Keeler started to sub-vocalise the Litany of Flight and nursed the Valkyrie onwards.

+++

As Dorff continued to speak, Sergeant Castor realised that he was way outside his area of expertise. He knew that ships generated a Gellar field while traversing the warp to repel incursions of the daemonic. He was even aware of the theory that the Pylons on Cadia produced an effect that pacified warp-space around the Eye of Terror... But reverse wavefront harmonics and destabilised point-node incongruities? The sooner Brother Rhenn arrived the better. Could someone be producing an inverse-Gellar field - something to weaken the boundaries between the physical universe and the Empyrean, and to what ends?

'But the Cadian Pylons are massive.' he said. 'I know the smog makes orbital surveying difficult, but there is no way we could have missed things that big.'

+++

'Kazta rhodda-jeh, Lor gar-dana! Tanak fuq frakh'saha!'

Deux Iblis had heard the words echoed through scores of puppet-mouths across Antioc in the last ten days, but now he was at the source. To the uninitiated it was the sign that one of their own had fallen to the Curse, but to those that knew the secret, dark tongue from when it was banned even on Colchis, it was the Word Incarnate. The power to command, to crush or to extinguish life. The secret thrill to hear it parroted openly by a World Eater or a Night lord and have to profess dismay as they turned on their brothers had been intoxicating, but now that time was over.

'Fuhana Lorg arha! Fuhansa L'Orgar! Lorgar tedanaq! Lorgar!'

His assassination of the head of the Crusade - on the bridge of his own battle barge, no less - had finally proved his worth to those within the wider Legion. Enough to finally be allowed into the inner sanctum and witness The Master in the final stages of his Rite of Ascention. He stood, proud in his blood-red armour and a look of supreme concentration on his face. He had been there, unmoving, for ten days, and would be another three, but already the glorious transformations were beginning to take hold. Around him stood eight acolytes, each taking station at one of the points of the star of Chaos, hooded as tradition demanded and chanting the pure speech that was being carried like the word of Lorgar to the rest of the planet and beyond.

The base had been abandoned by the Adeptus Mechanicus millennia ago. It had been a research station into replicating the Cadian Pylons that had gone spectacularly wrong, or so it was said. Once reactivated it had proven the ideal environment for the ritual of Ascension, softening the barriers to the warp and allowing things to go much more smoothly.

'Deuss Iblisss,' hissed The First, the Master's heavily hooded and otherwise un-named chief lieutenant. 'You do Dark Apostle Victarius much honour to attend and aid us so. He, and you, will be richly rewarded when The Master achieves Ascension... However, there is a problem.'

The First led him away from the rite by the arm, respectfully, yet forcefully.

'The Iron Warriors were diligent in finding this base and excavating it without alerting the Warmaster, but it seems that the Crusade has found our location and is closing in.' The First pressed a tactical data-slate into his hand. 'Unfortunately their skill at digging outstrips their skill at arms, and they have been overcome in their own trenches. You have proven your worth beyond doubt, but I beseech you; Protect this base from those who would seek to stop our Great Works. Please, take your men and finish the job the Iron Warriors could not.'

'Of course.' said Iblis with a bow. 'It would be my honour to end the lives of those who would oppose The Master Dark Apostle, Talorius Doranii.'

+++

Without warning or explanation the Valkyries and their Vulture escort shot out into still, nearly clear air.

'I told you, Keeler.' said Inquisitor Qin, but the pilot was too stunned to respond.

Below them the ground had dropped away, as though the storm, or some other power had excavated the ash and detritus that had built up there over the millennia. Hundreds of meters below, bare bedrock seemed to be visible. They continued on and through the haze half a dozen curved black pillars seemed to jut up out of the ground, like a gnarled claw reaching for the sky.

'My Lord,' Keeler whispered in awe. 'I think we have found what you were looking for.'

Then the missile lock warning alarms started to howl.

+++

#8
Aurelius Rex

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Round 3, Battle 2
Inquisitor Lukas Qin of the Ordo Malleus vs. Deux Iblis of the Word Bearers

(Author: Aurelius Rex)

+++

Qin woke with a jerk to the smell of smoke and cooked meat. He had been in the service of the Emperor long enough to recognise it for what it was; the stench of charred human flesh. He was upside down, suspended by his seat harness, but blessedly whole. It was sadly more than could be said for his team; the entire front section of the Valkyrie appeared to have concertina'd in impact. There would be time to grieve for them later... now was time for the living. The missiles had come out of nowhere, but surely they could not have destroyed his entire force. Some of them must have evaded the air defences.

Smoke was growing thicker now, mixed in with the reek of jet-fuel. If the tanks had been ruptured it was a miracle he was still alive, so there was no reason to tempt fate further. The release catch was jammed, but it was the work of a second with his combat knife to shear through the toughened material of the straps. There were only two things he needed to salvage; his blessed psycannon from the footlocker, and Erazimus. No-one ever dared comment at the sight of the mute, disembodied head kept 'alive' by support systems, at least not to his face. The Mechanicus certainly had more outlandish looking servitors, but Erazimus was special; at once a trophy, and a valuable tool. Erazimus had been less than forthcoming under interrogation, but after a little creative lobotomisation and mental re-wiring the Dark Apostle was at last serving the Emperor's will. Many a psyker had found their powers silenced in his presence, and if what he suspected of this place was true, Erazimus would be a potent ward against the Curse of Antioc.

Cautiously he climbed from the shattered aircraft fuselage and surveyed the scene. Across the newly cleared plain, areas of burning wreckage lit up the murk. There must be other survivors out there. As if in response to his plea, the distinctive bark of hellguns echoed off to his left, only to be answered by bolter-fire. Logic dictated that he should leave the survivors to fend for themselves, and have them distract the enemy while he made his way to the bunker at the foot of the Gellar Pylons, but sadly that was not an option. For what he was going to do he needed allies. Staying low, and displaying a deceptive level of stealth for a man his size, Qin loped towards the fire-fight.

+++

The enemy was dug in amongst an outcropping of corroded metal spars. They were Inquisitorial storm troopers; organised, disciplined and well armed, and would not be dislodged by anything other than a bloody and sustained assault. The missile defences had punched many of the aeroplanes from the sky before being destroyed or exhausted, but that still left too many survivors, and too many crash-sites to clear with the meagre forces Iblis had under his command.

If the enemy had been Astartes it might have given him pause, but for all their training they were only human, and no match for his forces. He gave the command and watched with satisfaction as his brothers moved off to bring the Word of Lorgar to the heathens.

Down!

The warning arrived in his mind without ever passing through his ears, carrying with it harmonics that had him in the dirt before he knew what was happening. It was then that he realised that he had been shot- a huge, bloody exit wound through his left shoulder. It hurt like hellfire, but he would live. Without the warning he had the certain knowledge that the shot would have gone through his primary heart. The voice - Lorgar? - had saved his life

Struggling against the pain, and raising only inches out of cover he scanned the wasteland for a sign of the shooter. More than a hundred meters away amongst a clump of rocks he spied a fat man in dusty purple robes. He wore the sigils of the Inquisition, and was aiming an enormous cannon in his direction. Iblis Knew No Fear, but what he did know was that charging down that kind of firepower alone would result in certain death. He tried to vox through to his men to break off their attack and return to his position, but his voice would not come.

Iblis. Are you are afraid of one man? Have the men of my legion really grown so weak and fearful? I didn't save your life so that you could cower in the dust, Iblis. Rise up now, and kill for me!

Stung by the ghostly chastisement, he sprang from cover and darted forward. The man's aim was put off by his bold move, and the closest he came was to have his armour sprayed by shrapnel from a rock that was blasted apart to his right. Dodging, almost dancing, but never allowing the man to know where he was going to be, Iblis closed the distance to his foe. He was almost half way there when his armoured boot missed its step and he landed heavily. A desperate roll brought him back to his feet, but he had been stationary too long.

The salvo tore clean through his gun-arm, raised defensively to ward off the bolts. Bionic limb and power armoured encasement exploded, showering his face with burning titanium alloy and red-hot flakes of ceramite. It was the second time he had lost that arm, he pondered dully as he staggered back.

The cannon roared again... and time seemed to slow as more impacts hammered into his armour. It was the oddest sensation; he could see the ornate, large calibre bolt spinning through the air towards his chest, but could not move or do anything to stop it. With rising dread he felt it chew lazily through his armoured breastplate and burst through his flesh. Even as the tiny warhead flowered and time stopped completely, there was still no sensation of pain. Was this all a hallucination of his dying brain?

No. This is not your time. Not your fate. I have more work for you to do, so do fail me again, Deux Iblis.

The cannon roared again... and this time, forewarned, he brought round his sword in an almighty sweep and chopped the lethal bolt out of the air. His bionic arm was still a wreck, but the chestplate was whole.

Filled with a renewed strength of purpose, Iblis charged towards his tormentor.

+++

Not wanting to even think about how close the psycannon magazine was to empty, Inquisitor Qin tracked on the Word Bearer. He had been right; they had been behind this all along.

Before he could squeeze the trigger a voice to his left made him jump.

'Khartaz thr'ankah bledz Lorgar!' He turned his head in shock to see Erazimus somehow forming words. It seemed to have itself been affected by the Curse. 'Ihn-quizitorh Quihn durza jhak...' it slurred. How? There should not be any kind of conscious thought!

Later. He returned his gaze to the traitor Astartes bearing down upon him, but the chant continued to rise in volume and dug into his brain like a rusty knife. Through tear-fogged eyed Qin fired wildly at the dark shape before him before dropping to his knees and emptying his stomach contents across the freshly exposed bedrock.

Even as the energised blade sheared through his limbs, leaving him beyond helpless, his abiding thought was that this was not how it should end. His grand purpose was not yet fulfilled. Above all, he couldn't die without knowing what had happened to his daughter, Mu Li.

'Dohn't worry, Quihn.' drawled the voice of Erazimus in side his skull. 'Zhey are not going to leht you die. You will live a long life as a... trophy to our vikh-tuhry, and before the end, you will see your daughter again.'

+++

Vikh-tuhry to Deux Iblis of the Word Bearers.

#9
Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Honda)

+++

The darkness began with a burning pain.

Qin was ripped into consciousness, driven by the fire in his limbs and that in his head.

While struggling to open his eye, he felt something quickly scuttle across his face. As if drugged beyond physical response, he slowly reached with his arm to brush it off...

...but nothing happened. Whatever it was that was now biting into his skin remained.

Qin flicked his head, dislodging the invader, but invited a greater pain upon himself. He also suspected that he had merely suspended the attack and only for a short period of time.

Thinking that he was being restrained, Qin twisted his torso which immediately produced screaming bolts of white pain which only abated after several minutes, slowly fading into a buzzing darkness, accompanied by something else; undefined, yet familiar...

Soon all was dark again.

***

Consciousness arrived much slower this time.

Qin was aware that he had a fever and that an infection had most likely taken hold. Biting hard on a back molar shattered the porcelain and freed a capsule. Though Qin's tongue felt as large as his fist, he managed to guide the capsule to the other side so that he could spit out the tooth fragments. Most ended up on his lips and beard, but at least he didn't have to worry about swallowing something that would slice his stomach open.

With that task completed, he bit down on the capsule, and after what seemed like a Herculean effort to gather saliva, swallowed the package.

The medicine should slow down the advance of the infection and possibly give him some needed clarity to his thoughts. What he was more interested in, but could not focus on, was whether the tiny transponder that was activated with his bite would do any good.

If not, that only left him with the other tooth.

***

The chuckling started again.

Perhaps it was the change in his breathing pattern that awoke Erazimus, perhaps it had merely been waiting until Qin was lucid enough to understand. It did not matter.

Erazimus floated over to where Qin lay, the liquid ramblings that Qin had grown used to no longer issuing from the monstrosity's mouth. Instead, something else, something malign and contemptuous issued forth.

'How does it feel?'

At first puzzled by the question, then by the fact that this new entity was engaging him, Qin whispered, 'How does what feel?'

It was silent for a few moments and then as if just remembering, it laughed out loud, sneering, 'The helplessness how does it feel... to be as I am?'

Qin struggled to think, unsure of where it was leading him. Erazimus continued, 'My Master's warrior defeated you... a pathetic attempt.'

Qin steeled himself, 'I am my Emperor's chosen instrument. I represent his will, I...'

Erazimus spat back, '...and yet you lay here, a decaying slab of meat, at the mercy of my Master.'

Qin paused, 'With whom am I speaking? Erazimus is no more. He was banished to his own nameless hell.'

It was then that the entity released its full fury, roaring 'Mortal... know... me... by... my... WORDS!'

A screeching litany of hate, manifesting itself as a physical presence struck Qin, bombarding his entire being with the force of its will. Lifted up from where he lay, Qin screamed out in pain as his torso was pun at indescribable speeds. Suddenly, the torment stopped and Qin fell to the ground, unconscious.

***

It started as a whisper.

'My master wishes to ease your pain.' Again, softly, soothing, a comforting promise.

Qin did not have strength for much, but what he did have came forth in one word, 'No.'

'My master could make you whole, you could walk again.'

'No'

"You could be more than you were before, command great fleets, all this could be yours.'

'No.'

More questions, some soft, some harsh, always eager to give beyond imagining, always probing, continuous, perhaps even for days on end, for Qin it was impossible to tell, yet the answer was always the same.

'No.'

'Does your Emperor love you?'

Weakly, 'N-, y-yes, he does.'

'Why would your Emperor let this happen if he really loved you? Is this how you treat those that you love?'

Qin, struggled. Having played this game before as the questioner, he knew where this was going. It was important to steal the initiative before he lost it forever.

'It is part of his plan. I know not why I am here, other than to do his bidding. That is what separates us... you from his glory. Perhaps my own hubris is what delivered me here, in this condition. It does not matter. I am here for Him who sent me. Know this; you can never win, the final victory is his.'

Enraged at this display of piety, Qin was lifted off the floor, swiftly battered against walls, protrusions, the ceiling and the floor, faster, and faster.

Qin could not be sure if his punishment continued after he lost consciousness. However, before he drifted off again, he took comfort in the thought, 'I still have one tooth.'

+++

#10
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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Round 3, Battle 3
Techer of the Legio vs. Rogue Inquisitor Rogan
(Author: Daeothar)

+++

As the engine howl pitched to a scream, the lone Inquisitor hurried up the cargo hold ramp, his escort of a half dozen stormtroopers in close formation around him, a hooded form trailing behind. Dust and sand whirled in blinding clouds, whipped up by the engines' exhaust in an imitation of the huge storms that had scourged the planet's surface so shortly before. Even as the last passenger was still scaling the ramp, the large, armed transport lifted off, its ramp closing as it gained altitude.

As the orange coloured assault transport picked up speed and the ramp hissed shut, a black clad space marine approached inquisitor Rogan, his stormtroopers fanning out and sitting down on the crates and barrels lined up against the walls of the cargo hold, several orange clad marines going about their tasks. 'That was in the nick of time Inquisitor.' said the marine as he stood before Rogan. 'My name is Beyaert and the Fiery Lions bid you welcome.'

'My thanks, ehm...' Rogan scanned the armour of the giant before him for signs of rank insignia, but could not discern any.

'Sergeant Beyaert,' the Fiery Lion volunteered. 'At the moment I am in command of the last Fiery Lions forces leaving Antioc.'

'You are leaving?' Rogan feigned surprise, he himself had no intention of returning to this forsaken rock but he knew this reaction, with just a hint of accusation would be expected of a loyal Inquisitor.

'Yes; our forces here were small and we had only a marginal task to perform. Now it is time to once again join our brethren in the fleet.' Beyaert put up his best performance as a loyal and zealous servant of the Legio; the Inquisitor might be joining the Crusade fleet but they sure would not. His answer had been suitably ambiguous to fool the inquisitor into believing he was telling the truth though. Heck; he was, well sort of...

As the black armoured marine strode back up the dimly lit cargo hold, past a duo of Rhino transports parked in the back, Vulgare hovered closer towards its temporary master, chains and wards only making the slightest of jangling noises.

''He's not entirely forthcoming, is he now, my friend?'

'No,' answered Rogan musing, 'this one might be more cunning than his demeanour would suggest. As long as we keep up our appearance, they will take us right to the Order Encarmine traitors held on that Legio ship. I'll wrench my information from them, no matter what.'

Beyaert walked past the Rhinos, tied down to the deck and stopped short of the looming doorway at the front of the cargo hold leading to the crew compartment. From the deep shadows cast by the machines' angular forms came a deep voice.

'He is not what he seems to be brother. I have met his kind before.' Beyaert did not turn towards the bestial voice but simply stood.

'You are right, I sensed it too. There's something very wrong with his little buddy there as well. I'll be glad when we drop them all off; I hate going near that particular ship again.' Beyaert moved as if to enter the doorway when he halted, 'and I still do not like it when you call me brother,' he then briskly moved through the door. Mossert smiled in the shadows; that whelp was still too easy to chase up the curtains.

+++

Jonathan Techer was not feeling too well. In his long career as a loyal servant of the Emperor he had been much worse for wear, having been wounded on numerous occasions, having had limbs and organs repaired. He had suffered more broken bones than he cared to remember and his lungs had once been almost burnt in their entirety when he had lost his helmet in the poisonous atmosphere of Arlvasr VI but never before had he felt like he did now. It was no common wound, there was no pain to block out but his body felt as if it had been severely mauled and he just felt, well, wrong. He had first felt it when still on the Inviolate and it had only gotten stronger. Luckily, after escaping, he and some Legio brethren were rescued by the Virtuous Sword and were now making up part of the skeleton security detail, as most Legio brethren were still deployed on the surface or elsewhere in the fleet. Not glorious at all, but duty was duty.

He turned to look out of the view port. Filling almost half the sky was Antioc itself, still gleaming but with now visible scars of the massive battles still raging below. Huge black plumes of smoke indicated large fires, concentrated around the capitol and the numerous centres around it. And very small, but getting larger as he looked at it, a shiny point of light climbing up towards him.

Techer turned back and made his way towards the airlock where the assault boat would dock to the side of the Virtuous Sword. He had been given command of the last remnants of squad Arianus. The few marines fell in behind him and coughing heavily, he led them to receive the Inquisitor aboard.

+++

'There she is,' through the cockpit view port, the pilot pointed towards the cruiser hanging silently over the planet. Hints of green and white became apparent as the craft rapidly closed with the massive ship. Beyaert willed his bionic eye to zoom in on the distant shape and discerned the spiked, white 'S' shape on one of the flags flying off the superstructure, making up the Scions of Dorn symbol, to honour the ship's commander. He sighed. One thing going for him was the fact that he knew Golgotha was still directing the battle on the surface. Running afoul of the Scion once had been more than enough.

'Signal them we will not make use of the landing bay,' instructed Beyaert, hiding his discomfort, 'we'll dock with one of her airlocks as was 'requested' by the Inquisitor and be on our way immediately.'

The chapter serf pilot acknowledged the order without as much as a puzzled look. He served with the Fiery Lions and knew better than to question less than logical orders. Usually his masters had good reasons for their disregarding of protocol. Most of the time anyhow...

Decelerating, the armed transport manoeuvred alongside the kilometer long strike cruiser and flawlessly docked with the designated airlock. Nobody who knew the chapter and its servants would deny their prowess with space craft. The airlock augur in the cockpit turned from red to yellow and then to green, indicating a good seal and Beyaert made his way back towards the cargo hold.

The stormtroopers had already formed up around the Inquisitor again, the wispy, mysterious, cloaked figure again hanging back. Beyaert knew Mossert would have been observing them from the shadows and when he had escorted them off the assault craft, he would undoubtedly want to discuss the passengers they reluctantly had accepted to take off world. The old lion had sensed something, even Beyaert felt it, and he suspected it might be important to their quest.

Air escaped hissing as both vessels opened their doors to each other. Without a word, the stormtroopers led the way onboard the strike cruiser, resembling a bow wave before the inquisitor and Beyaert noticed tenseness about them usually reserved for men expecting battle. He closed the ranks behind the disturbing figure in the cloak, two of his men falling in behind him. No harm in checking out Golgotha's home turf a bit now he wasn't there, right?

The small delegation met with the Virtuous Sword's honour guard of five Legio marines, no less than three former Scions of Dorn, a Cobalt Templar and a Space Shark. For a moment Beyaert felt like getting the heck out of there but quickly noticed there were no familiar faces amongst those lined up in the corridor. The disturbed looking Legio marine of Cobalt Templars origin made his way over and greeted the inquisitor formally, even managing a token bow in the process. Beyaert looked at the marines present in the wide corridor. Only five of them and no one else in sight. The Legio must still be heavily engaged on the planet below for them to leave their strike cruiser so understaffed that they could not even spare an officer to perform formal duties.

As the groups of stormtroopers and marines followed the inquisitor and Legio marine down the corridor, Rogan requested Techer to be taken to the Order Encarmine prisoners immediately, at which the Legio marine respectfully declined, elaborating about the fact nobody had access without explicit authorization from both commander Golgotha and inquisitor Holst. Listening to the fading discussion, Beyaert silently cursed the situation, wanting to leave immediately but also noting that the requested mode of entering the strike cruiser had brought them suspiciously close to the detention deck. So despite his unease at being back onboard after disappearing again, he signalled his own escort to join him in following the party from some distance. The only one taking notice of them was the cloaked and hooded figure still closely following the inquisitor but it paid them no heed.

As they reached a nearby mess hall, the group halted and entered the doorway. Inside, the inquisitor was offered refreshments while they waited for the ship's watch officer and the stormtroopers once again spread out. This time taking up positions that would allow them to cover the entire room with their hellguns, as Beyaert could not fail but notice.

He walked over to the squad leader and introduced himself. 'I have heard of your, exploits. Marine.' was the terse response from the former Cobalt Templar.

'Yes well, that was most unfortunate, but sometimes we are forced to make choices when loyalties collide,' the Fiery Lion responded without much emotion. He had not expected a different greeting; news obviously travelled fast within the Legio. 'I have been, uhm, recalled by my chapter now, so I won't be staying long. That aside,' he said, lowering his voice, 'the passengers I just escorted aboard this ship do not feel right, if you know what I mean.'

Techer looked at him puzzled, 'No. What do you mean? Revered Inquisitor Rogan is a member of the most holy Inquisition, a humble servant of the Emperor and worthy of our respect.' Techer's voice was raised to such a degree towards the end of his sentence that no one in the room could have missed his words.

Techer's face was even paler than it had been before as he realised he had become the centre of attention and felt the eyes of the inquisitor upon him. Beyaert turned towards the Inquisitor and met his gaze. Mossert was undoubtedly correct; something was not right. Not right at all. 'He's your responsibility now Techer, but if I were you, I'd keep an eye on him. I don't think he is all he says he is.' he said, eyes still locked with the now increasingly anxious Rogan. Fighting the urge to shoot the man on the spot, he slowly moved towards the exit. The inquisitor's eyes remained focused on him as he cautiously sidestepped towards the doorway.

The hooded figure moved to the side of the inquisitor, whispering in his ear. The stormtroopers had slowly been raising their barrels and the atmosphere in the room became very tense. The two Fiery Lions marines had been moving alongside him, hands on their boltpistols. 'Well, it has been a pleasure, but I fear I must now return to my duties. Brothers, inquisitor, I bid you...'

'Stop them!' shouted Rogan. In a flash, the gaunt figure behind the inquisitor launched towards the doorway Beyaert had been moving towards. The cloak and hood discarded, all in the room now could see the disturbing form of the bound daemonhost as it flew for its nearest victim, one of the two Fiery Lions marines that had joined Beyaert. A crackling, unholy light played around its hands as it gripped the marine's head and made it explode in a vortex of foul light and pieces of bone and tissue.

This in turn made the whole room explode into action, as stormtroopers shot momentarily shocked marines and marines scrambled to kill them in return. The element of surprise was on Rogan's men's side though and two of the Legio marines were killed outright by unnaturally accurate hellgun fire in the enclosed space. The first bolter shell started exploding and wholesale carnage overtook the mess hall, which moments before had been tranquil and orderly.

There were however not nearly enough stormtroopers to finish the job and the fight was over within seconds, the only ones left alive the inquisitor, his daemonhost, which had killed another marine, Techer, Beyaert and three other marines; two Scions, one of which was wounded and the one remaining Fiery Lion, also severely injured. The inquisitor knew his cover was blown now but also knew he could still achieve his goal. No alarm had been raised yet, he was relatively close to his objective and Vulgare was simply too fast for the marines to counter. His opponents knew this and although they were appalled and enraged by the blasphemous creature aboard their ship, they were wise enough not to squander their numbers in futile attacks, grudgingly accepting the temporary stalemate.

Rogan wondered. Had Vulgare indeed become more powerful since the last time he had unleashed it? He could feel the daemon push against its wards and sigils and knew the prison would not hold forever. But that was of no consequence if he could get the information he craved. With it, he would be able to bend the daemon's will to his without crude tools such as pentagrams and incantations. 'Well marine Techer, it seems our little battle here has ground to a standstill. Why don't you tell me what I need to know? We are both on the same side; we just have a different perspective on things. I know you're holding prisoners here, of the Order Encarmine. They are traitors but might hold information that could greatly help us in our battle against the great enemy. Think of it! We could learn so much, gain so much power!'

The Cobalt Templar did not listen. On his subtle sign, the remaining marines slowly moved to circle the pair of intruders and contain them before they could do more harm. Techer moved forward and addressed the inquisitor; 'Inquisitor Rogan, you are hereby charged with treason and the use of forbidden sorceries, both of which are punishable by death.'

At this, Techer aimed his boltpistol at the inquisitor and fired. Moving with unnatural speed however, Vulgare had grabbed the lone Scion of Dorn still standing even before Techer had squeezed the trigger. It threw the marine against the inquisitor before the bolt had even left the pistol's short barrel. The Scion took Techer's boltpistol round in the back and fell forward, taking Rogan down with his crushing weight, causing Rogan's own shot to explode harmlessly against the ceiling.

As Techer ambled forward, throwing tables and chairs out of his path, his powerfist charging up, Beyaert picked up the surviving, wounded Scion's huge chainsword, which the marine had dropped when hit in the gut by a hellgun blast. He swung it at the possessed corpse, hanging only a meter away and making ready to rush Techer before he reached the downed inquisitor. The enormous, roaring weapon carved deep into the flesh of the daemonic vessel, unprepared as it was for this attack from behind. With a snarl, Vulgare rounded on the Fiery Lion and a second fight ensued.

Meanwhile, Techer shot at the inquisitor again, who was still pinned under the corpse of the Scion on top of him. The round ricoched harmlessly off the green shoulderpad though. Freeing his arm, Rogan lifted his boltpistol, loaded with darkly annointed psybolts and squeezed off two shots, both hitting Techer in the chest. One glanced off, but the other exploded, ripping open the chest plate and throwing Techer back, ribs cracked and armour broken.

This respite gave Rogan the time to get up from under the dead marine and draw his powersword. Stumbling, he moved towards the Legio marine, still stunned on the floor, mere meters away. As he activated his powersword though, he was distracted by the swirling melee to his left. Vulgare sportingly darted in and out of range of the huge chainsword wielded by Beyaert, who was still getting used to its dimensions and balance.

The daemonhost kept its dance light, easily avoiding the clumsy swipes of the Fiery Lion. Momentarily enjoying the spectacle, Rogan's smug smile changed in a look of horror as Vulgare suddenly smiled wickedly and spread its arms, completely openening its defence to the roaring down stroke of the Apollyon chainsword. With a blinding flash from within, the decaying prison holding the daemon was destroyed. The weakened sigils and pentagramic wards exploded in black light as the bright shining form of Vulgare triumphantly freed itself from its mortal coil.

Beyaert was thrown back by the force of the blast, as was Rogan, his eyes filled with mortal terror as he witnessed the enraged daemon in its unbound state once more. Techer had already been getting up again and now swung his massive, cracking powerfist at the prone form of the radical inquisitor. Wanting to scream, Rogan saw the charged powerfist smash down towards his chest as the realisation dawned on him that Vulgare was still there, unbound and looking for revenge.

The massive weapon all but pulverised the body of the traitorous inquisitor with repeated blows. And as Techer straightened himself, looking down on the bloody pulp that had been a body moments before, Vulgare swooped in on the wracked remains of its erstwhile captor and forced its way back into the Warp as all who were present were able to hear its laughter, accompanied by a horrified scream of pain and despair, both fading quickly...

+++

Standing at the airlock, Techer and Beyaert shook hands in warrior fashion, clasping each other's lower arms. Farewell brother,' Techer said. 'I have sorely misjudged you. You truly are a noble servant of the Emperor.'

'You're not too bad yourself' replied Beyaert, stepping back into the airlock. 'Apologise to the big guy for borrowing this, okay?' Beyaert grabbed the Apollyon chainsword propped up in the inner corner of the airlock and held it up, at the same time pressing the button, closing the door of the airlock. As the door hissed shut, he managed one more sentence; And tell him I'm taking my leave from the Legio too. It's been a pleasure...'

Techer stood speechless, staring at the Fiery Lion's roguish grin through the small view port, until the assault craft's own door closed in front of him. First impressions were something he needed to pay more heed to he thought enraged, wondering how he would explain the liberation of one of the Scions' prized swords to his commander, let alone the fact that the one doing the liberating was effectively deserting! His chest wound hurt and burnt with an unnatural fire. He turned around, suddenly coughing uncontrollably and spat out something black, leaving a putrid taste in his mouth. No, Techer was not feeling well at all.

+++

Victory to Techer of the Legio

#11
Aurelius Rex

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Council of War
(Author: Aurelius Rex)

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A full Council of War at this point in the Crusade? With so much hanging in the balance, such timing was surprising, bordering upon laughable. The despicable murder of Legio Captain Antaeus, and the crippling of the Purgator had seen command of the Crusade devolve to Captain Aenides aboard the Spear of Justice. Golgotha had served under Aenides and knew him to be shrewd, diligent and level-headed - certainly not the type to call such a meeting of the leaders of the Imperial forces on a whim. Whatever the reason, it was not to be missed.

He and his company had been back on their vessel for less than two hours when the summons came. For the last six days they had been carrying out Antaeus' last, heated orders; to break the stranglehold of the Ruinous Powers over the skies of Antioc. All credit had to go to Rhadamanthys for devising the coup de grace - the roar of Hellblade turbofans would be echoing in their minds for weeks to come, but at long last the Imperial Navy had the Chaos planes on the back foot.

It was early, and the council chamber was still sparsely populated as he strode in. Despite this he was surprised, but elated to see a Scion of Dorn - Captain Ossopharys of the Seventh Company already there. Once a marine joined the Legio, it was rare for them to ever see, let alone fight alongside their former Chapter once more. The joint action to board and capture the ships of the Order Encarmine had been creditably short, but Antaeus' last orders had denied him the opportunity to join their assault on Fort Regula where the most of the remaining renegades had been hiding.

'What are you still doing here, Jamar?' asked Golgotha delightedly. 'I thought the Chapter had gone after the Inviolate?' That Heinlein of the Order Encarmine still drew breath was insult enough to Scions' honour. To compound that he had tried to commit Exterminatus and kill every living thing on the planet, making him a figure of hatred to loyalist and traitor alike. Under such circumstances, the Scions leaving Antioc with the Crusade hanging in the balance had gone completely unquestioned. He had to be stopped before he tried to destroy another planet. The pursuit had been so rapid that they had not even stopped to collect the Order Encarmine from the cells of the Virtuous Sword, although on reflection that had proved to be a very good thing.

Ossopharys' eyes darkened, and his friend grew serious as he told him that the Seventh Company would be seeing the Crusade out to the bitter end. During the recent Defence of Cadia the Chaos Warmaster had been personally responsible for the death of Laertes, the company's former Captain. The Seventh was not going to be diverted from helping to finally seal Tomax Hell's fate.

The arrival of Inquisitor Holst brought Ossopharys back to formality, and reminded Golgotha that she had served alongside the Seventh until fate had brought her to the Legio. The black-clad, diminutive figure nodded tersely and took the seat between them as the council came to order. In all his dealings with her, the Lady Holst had proved supremely able, professional and reserved, as if she was constantly watching herself. Such traits were not unusual in a Puritan Inquisitor, but something about it nagged him, and he resolved to ask his Brother what he knew of her past. It wasn't gossip, he told himself. It was gathering intelligence on the people he worked alongside.

Captain Aenides looked drawn, but there was a fire in his eyes that Golgotha recognised. Looking briefly around the assembled faces barely a quarter of those who had attended at the start of the Crusade were here now, the rest either replaced by subordinates, or missing completely. Antioc had been a meat-grinder, and it was not over yet.

'Ladies, gentlemen,' Aenides said 'At this hour, we stand at a crossroads. For the last twelve days we have stood eye-to-eye with the Ruinous Powers and the cost has been great, but through faith, fire and steel, we are prevailing. Tomax Hell has blinked, my friends!'

The command hololith sprang up to show the sickly globe of Antioc. Large swathes of green spread out from the captured space-ports and drop-sites, pressing back against the orange of the occupying traitor forces.

'Our surveillance has shown that in the last six hours Warmaster Hell has been withdrawing his traitor Astartes from the front lines planetwide, and is recalling them back to his final stronghold - his palace complex.' The room stilled. 'His objectives for this force once assembled are unclear. It could be in preparation for a counter-attack, to heavily fortify his final stand, or anything else - he is not to be underestimated - but whatever he is planning, we have to prevent it.'

Aenides explained his plan to use airpower and the surveillance teams to harry and slow the traitor and renegade Astartes as they withdrew to the palace. Meanwhile the loyalist Astartes would similarly withdraw from the front lines and make use of their space superiority to bombard the palace, then swoop in and encircle it, taking the complex and leaving the traitors with nowhere left to go.

Surprised that Aenides would take such a bold move and attack the palace so soon, Golgotha rose with a smile. His discussion with Dorff, the Order Encarmine Techmarine, had come at just the right time.

'Captain Aenides - if I may -' he said, raising a slim data-slate. 'I believe that I can get a small team into the palace via the tunnel systems, and take down the void shields protecting everything but the inner spire. The information has even been used to get someone into the Warmaster's personal throne room.'

To his side the small figure of Inquisitor Holst also rose to speak. 'I concur, captain. I have scanned the individual and he is sincere in his desire to see the Warmaster dead-'

The rest of her sentence was drowned out by everyone trying to be heard above the clamour.

+++

In the shadow of the Grand Spire, Xamot Hell directed his thralls in the incantations required for the Rite.

The knowledge he had torn from the Black Ship captain's brain had been the final piece of the puzzle. After that, everything had fallen into place, and it became obvious that the Southern Ash Wastes was the source of the Warp Distortions. That someone - most likely the Word Bearers - would attempt an ascension ritual here was staggering in its audacity. Even cloaked in the last of the ash-storm, the appearance of some kind of barrier had confirmed it beyond all doubt.

It would take several hours to complete the ritual, but that should give the traitor warbands enough time to arrive back from the front lines. Such magicks were temperamental, and while he could easily open a gate sufficient to transport himself a short distance, one large enough to transport a whole army to the other side of the planet was a very different matter. Once ready, though, they would sweep through and confront and destroy the petty warlord who would seek to usurp power from his brother.

The bloodshed was going to be exquisite.

+++

#12
Aurelius Rex

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Round 3, Battle 4
Augustus Decimus Nell (Legio) vs. Sigismund Pain (World Eaters)

(Author: Aurelius Rex)

+++

Sigismund Pain knew what his men were saying; their convoy was going in the wrong direction. He had to agree, although his reasoning for this differed. At Yarsus they had been at the front lines, facing a major Imperial spearhead, but the Warmaster's recall order had been categorical. He and his men had always prided themselves on keeping alive the original principles of the Legion, of martial pride and integrity. They were nothing like that bloodthirsty maniac Khârn and his ilk, who had sullied the name of the World Eaters. To show their true allegiance, he and his men had steadfastly retained their blue and white livery.

But his brothers were not talking of their outrage at quitting the battlefield and leaving people they had fought alongside to certain death. Instead they muttered that Yarsus was calling to them because of the foemen left alive, the blood yet unspilled and the skulls untaken. The so-called 'Curse of Antioc' was warping them. Since arriving here he too had felt the blood-music rising, even given in to it on occasion, but he had always re-surfaced.

Sigismund resolved to get his men off Antioc before they sank so far that they could never return.

To clear his brain he climbed up and cracked open the commander's hatch. Anything was better than the foetid atmosphere of the landraider right now. Ahead and behind stretched their small convoy, weaving through the deserted streets. Rising ominously, its pinnacle obscured by banks of smog lay their objective; the Warmaster's Palace.

Most of the manufactorum complexes they had passed on the way back were silent, and he knew why. The workers had been shipped to the front lines, given a club, or a scavenged rifle, and herded towards the enemy to slow the Imperial advance. Whatever the industrial capacity of the forgeworld was being diverted into, it had not been towards arming the poor wretches he had fought alongside in Yarsus.

Gunfire! Up ahead, the bark of bolter-rounds and crack of sniper rifles - the weapon of cowardice. They had been harried like this many times before on the journey. It was nuisance value; insufficient to seriously hurt the vehicles, but the landraider at the head of the column ground to a halt, turned in place, and dropped its assault ramp. Sigismund swore as his men poured out of the vehicle, screaming like berserkers, and closely followed by men from other vehicles.

This was useless. Like on every other occasion the enemy would have long-since melted back into the warren of side-streets and alleys. They were playing into the enemy's hands, allowing themselves to be taunted and stalled. He was up and out of the landraider, shouting into the vox to the squad leaders to get them back on board and underway. Worst of all, every time it happened he felt the rising swell of the blood music calling to him to cast off petty restrictions of expectation and honour. He wanted to surrender to the urge and to join his men in the search for flesh to rend and blood to spill.

Sigismund caught a glimpse of a red-armoured figure out of the corner of his eye, and turned, bolt pistol raised to face his own reflection in a plate-glass window front. The white and blue of his armour was all-but obscured behind the thick layer of dried blood from the previous night's battle.

No! That would not be his fate! He emptied the magazine into his mirror-self, and the window erupted, scattering a galaxy of glittering shards across the pavement.

Shivering like a fever-victim, he knelt in the overflowing gutter and furiously rubbed the filthy water onto his armour. He needed to get clean again.

+++

The building was a deserted, burned-out temple to the Pleasure-God... or possibly a brothel. The once-opulent hangings were charred rags and remains of lewd statues littered the floor. Golgotha had been particularly gratified to see the phrase 'Remember Skalathrax!' scrawled across the front of the building as they had approached. It was always good to find that something you had created resonating with its intended audience.

Most of the team was encamped in the basement, but he was carefully watching the surrounding area for any sign of life. He was also waiting impatiently for the final group to arrive. This close to the palace even vox communications might be enough to give their position away. Apart from the occasional enemy patrol there was virtually no-one on the streets, but to minimise the chances of being spotted they had split into five-strong groups. It was not like Rhad to be late.

'It's time to go, captain.' whispered Inquisitor Holst. She was like that; able to sneak up on anyone. It was nothing to do with traditional stealth; one of her abilities was to mask her presence and simply fade into the background. A very useful skill for an Inquisitor to have, he supposed, but deeply unsettling

'Rhadamanthys will be here, My Lady.' He felt her glare burning into his back, so he sighed and turned round. 'Start the first groups off now and we will catch up with you. The team will have to go in small groups in any case to avoid setting off the sensors. He deserves five more minutes.'

'Five.' Holst said as she turned to leave. It was a statement, not a request.

According to Dorff this was the route that Heinlein had taken. The service tunnels led, on a circuitous route, to the depths of the Warmaster's palace, and from there to the throne room at the top of the spire.

Tomax Hell had ascended to daemon-princehood since he had last been encountered aboard the Divine Hunter, and even with the element of surprise it would take serious firepower to take him down. Heavy weaponry would be far too bulky to lug through the tunnels, so many of his team had drawn plasma pistols and combi-weapons from the armoury. Of course, Golgotha had stuck with his trademark Apollyon pattern chainsword and bolter with a supply of Inferno bolts; you couldn't beat the classics. The specialised devices that Dorff had given them should help tip the balance in their favour, but he was not relying on them. This was going to be a bloody mission.

It would be a long, tedious journey through the tunnel system, with one wrong move enough to set off all manner of sensors and alarms. If it was easy they could have infiltrated a whole army through the tunnel system. Captain Aenides would start the orbital bombardment in less than three hours whether they were ready or not, so the team had to get into the palace to deactivate the outlying void-shields before then, or a lot of his brothers would die needlessly in the assault. Even worse than not getting to the void shield generators in time would be the prospect of still being inside the tunnel system when the bombardment started...

Just as he was about to turn and make his way down to the basement, a flash of movement caught his eye, along with the subtle tapping sound of silenced bolt-rounds. Seconds later he saw Rhadamanthys and the rest of his group moving swiftly through the shadows of the plaza, and into the cover of the temple.

'Trouble?' he asked wryly as they descended the stairs.

'Nothing that you have to worry about, captain,' whispered the sergeant with a thin smile, 'but it would be best not to hang around, sir.'

+++

Calm, collected, confident, Augustus Decimus Nell stepped into the teleporter array alongside nine of his Legio Brethen. The array aboard the Spear of Justice was a far cry from the mocked-up, lashed together affair he had used aboard the Fidelity's Reward. With reverend care the tech-adepts worked to adjust the equipment to his terminator armour and placate the array's machine spirit with sacred unguents and words of power. He knew that the same preparations would be taking place on three other ships of the Crusade fleet, including the other Legio Strike Cruiser, the Virtuous Sword.

Once that was done it became a simple case of 'Hurry up and wait'. His vox channel was deactivated for fear it be burned clean out by the equipment, so his only source of information was to call over to the stoic techmarine, Brother Barteq.

Inside his armoured helm the chronometer ticked down steadily. After much prodding Barteq had informed him that the Thunderhawks had launched on time to curve down into very low orbit and hold station. Surveyor banks scanned the palace complex searching for any fluctuation in the void shields. As soon as the shields fell, or otherwise at the allotted hour if Golgotha and his team proved unsuccessful, the orbital bombardment would commence. As soon as the bombardment finished they would teleport down and throw the stunned survivors into disarray, ensuring that the Thunderhawks would receive a safe landing.

With thirteen minutes left on the chronometer the whole ship jerked; it was the bombardment cannon. If all went to plan, every twenty-five seconds for the next eight minutes they would rain down fire and death upon the Warmaster's palace and its environs.

'Brother Barteq - is the void shield down already?' The techmarine gave a simple nod, and returned to his dials and switches. The whine from the generators ratcheted up in frequency, matched by the volume of the chanting from the adepts.

Nell relaxed, and looked round the room at his brethren. It was impossible to judge body language from a person wearing Tactical Dreadnought Armour, but each one was a veteran of countless battles. Even over the course of the last few days the marvels and terrors of teleportation had become... mundane. Together there was nothing that they couldn't face.

Then, with scant minutes before Envelopment the plan drastically changed.

Sergeant Santz burst into the room, red faced, and handed Barteq a sheet of parchment. While the techmarine frantically scrambled to re-adjust his equipment, Santz came as close as he dared.

'Brother-Sergeant Nell, my apologies.' He shouted over the thrum of machinery. 'When the shield dropped our astropaths detected that Traitors are perpetrating sorceries of great power, and it is imperative that you put an end to this blasphemy.'

Nell wanted to shout at the man that changing the plan at this stage was ludicrous, but such a lack of decorum was beneath him. Instead he simply nodded and raised his voice so that his brothers would be able to hear the change of orders.

'Understood. Brothers, we have a change of plan! It seems we have a sorcerer to kill! Courage and -'

The last word was lost among the thunderclap as the ten terminators disappeared from the room.

+++

Shimmering in the air like a great rip in the universe, the Gate filled Sigismund Pain with a mixture of loathing and elation. They were marshalled in the shadow of the Palace spire, ready to be trooped through. Their late arrival meant that rumour was all they had to go on, but it appeared that the Warmaster had found the source of the 'Antioc Curse', and this battle would see it brought to an end. Unfortunately, hard information on whom they would be fighting and how they would stop the Curse had not been forthcoming.

Even from the other side of the impromptu parade-ground he could hear the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying. If he squinted hard enough at the misty meniscus Sigismund was certain he could make out movement, explosions and muzzle-flashes going on beyond the barrier. Use of such warp-craft filled him with revulsion, but another part, buoyed by the rising bloodlust, was in the ascendant.

It was one of the Night Lords that raised the alarm. Sigismund had not even noticed that the low, all-pervading crackle of the void shield above them had gone silent. He looked up to see spears of fire descending upon them from the heavens, and he dived down behind his landraider for cover.

He felt the wash of fire on his back, and when he rose it was to a scene of complete carnage. The warband ahead of him, had been in the process of trooping through the gate. The explosions had scythed them away; power armour melted into flesh, ammunition cooked off. There but for the grace of arriving a few minutes earlier...

The bombardment had passed. From the seismic way the ground shook it had not stopped, but was instead focussed now upon another part of the complex. Either through determination to carry on their mission, or self preservation in wanting to avoid a further wave of orbital bombardment, his troops were moving unbidden through the field of slaughter towards the shrinking Gate. Some of his men took their axes and swords to the dying, and while he told himself it was an attempt to end their suffering, there was too much laughter and open enjoyment for him to truly convince himself of this.

Most of his men had passed through the aetheric portal when another explosion behind them sent everyone diving for cover. New smells of ozone and sulphur mixed with the stench of blood and death, and they turned to see two groups of black-armoured terminators standing defiantly amongst the devastation. The Legio!

Sigismund Pain felt the blood music rising within him like a flood, washing away all reason or tactics. All he wanted to do was to kill.

With a wordless blood-curdling battlecry, he led the charge into the terminator's guns.

+++

'- Honour!' Nell shouted. Autosenses resolved back to show a plain of bones and flesh, and a horde of berserkers bearing down upon them. 'Open fire!'

The tornado of explosive death ripped into the white, blue and red tide, but they were heavily outnumbered. No matter. No excuse. Nell was Legio as well as an Ultramarine. He would get the job done no matter the hardship.

To his left the bellow of Brother Veber's assault cannon hit him like a physical blow, cutting out his audio pickups and leaving him temporarily deaf. It hit the ranks of traitor Astartes even more heavily though, as rounds large enough to take out a tank tore through power armour as though it wasn't there.

But for all their firepower, it wasn't nearly enough. Squad Jehun was completely over-run, and one-by-one his own squad's guns were silenced as the traitors' engaged them in combat. That was not to say they were helpless though, as powerfists rose and fell, showering sparks, blood and broken corpses across the plaza.

One traitor, by his demeanour Nell had him as the leader of the warband, shrugged off the hail of bolt-rounds as though impervious to harm. Nell decided to put this to the test and emptied the storm-bolter into the berzerker's face at point-blank range. Beyond all expectation, the enemy pulled off the shattered helmet, and although his scalp and left eye were a red ruin, he climbed back to his feet and swung his weapon menacingly.

They battled back and fourth across the plaza, his skill at arms and the Nell family power-blade a match for the champion's blood-fury. That was until a trio of traitors appeared from out of nowhere. He removed the first one's head and ran the second through the chest. The second traitor jerked in his death-throes, pulling the Nell blade out of his grip. The third man hit him low, and while the traitor's axe did no more than scrape uselessly against his thick armour, it left Nell with no defence against the leader's axe. The blade stung like ice as it cleaved into his side, and Nell fell heavily to his knees.

'When you end me, traitor, do so secure in the knowledge that another more powerful than I will finish the job.' Nell said defiantly, but rather than feeling the axe across his neck, the weight of the clawing man around his legs was lifted. The leader had pulled him up bodily, whipped the axe round in a lethal arc, and decapitated his own Legionnaire.

'They should not have interfered in our duel.' The warlord said in explanation. Then, bowing slightly, 'You have my apologies, Son of Guilliman.' The voice was on the outer fringes of madness, but seemed to be tied to its own moral code.

Warily, Nell wrenched his sword from the chest of the fallen traitor, and the battle began once more. Again and again powersword turned aside the bloody axe, but even with the protection and strength of his armour, he was unable to mount any kind of offence. The wound to his side had sapped his strength, spreading its icy fingers into his chest and legs. It was only a matter of time...

+++

The final stroke of the axe caught the terminator sergeant just below the throat, and is head rolled out cleanly onto the floor. Sigismund reached down and claimed it; a fitting tribute for an honourable opponent, worthy of remembrance.

He looked around, like a man waking from a dream to see that his men had finished the rest of the terminators. They had taken a lot of killing, though. From what must have been two-score men, barely a handful remained alive.

With a scream of turbofans, massed fleets of loyalist thunderhawks broke through the clouds of smog. The response from the anti-aircraft defences was scattered and disorganised. The place was about to be over-run, and while it would have made an end worthy of the annals, he needed to be with his brothers. Dodging fire from the gun-ships, Sigismund Pain ran towards the rapidly closing barrier, and the unknown that lay beyond.

Victory to Sigismund Pain of the World Eaters.

+++

#13
Aurelius Rex

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Dead Reckoning

+++

His domain was ablaze! All around him factories, barracks, and even the outer sections of his palace were shattered and burning. Only the central spire remained undamaged by the orbital bombardment, but looking at the numbers of loyalist Thunderhawks descending out of the clouds, that would soon be burning too. Throwing caution to the wind, the Warmaster had left his throne-room and taken to the skies.

Tomax Hell had seen this day before, or at least part of the battle played out in a prophetic nightmare. Like his Primarch, he had been gifted with visions - flashes - of future events, and while Tomax had used this forewarning of the invasion to greatest effect, fate had still seen fit to twist events back into shape. Despite his best efforts and sacrifices, the Chaos coalition was all-but fractured and his forces in disarray. It seemed that his time as Warmaster was nearly at an end.

That was not to say that he was going to give up without a fight, though. Whatever happened there would be revenge, blood and scores to be settled. He caught a glimpse of what he had been waiting for, a dark green Thunderhawk swooping out of the clouds of smog. Using all of his daemonic strength and a skilful use of the thermal updraft from the conflagration below, Tomax soared up beneath the gunship and latched onto the armoured belly of the beast with talons the size of chainswords.

Ignoring the bucking of the pilot's attempts to dislodge him, he selected his position, brought back his arm and punched clean through the hull. Tomax gripped the tangle of vital pipes and control wiring inside and wrenched. Both wing engines stuttered and died. Tomax could imagine the shock and despair of the marines trapped inside their metal coffin as it started to plummet towards the ground. He didn't even look back as he soared away and aligned himself on the palace spire.

The Gateway that his sorcerous brother had forged to send his forces through to the Ash Wastes had closed, but above where it had been black tendrils reached into the eastern sky in a last, wild discharge of aetheric potential. That was the last piece of the puzzle. He had to get back.

'Brother... Are you here?' Xamot's voice whispered through the vox. There was pain in the voice, something beyond the normal stresses of dabbling with the warp.

'Here, Xamot. I saw the Gateway collapse. Did you get enough forces through?'

'Most passed through the Gateway before the bombardment. I... I was there when the bombardment started, Tomax. I'm...'

'Just get back to your chambers and prepare the rite. You can bleed when that's done, little brother. Not before.'

Although the sorcerer's chambers were in the upper reaches of the palace spire, he climbed past it to the summit, and his Throne room. Alighting on the reinforced balcony, his heel-talons clacked against the newly re-tiled floor. Firestorms below had blown away the worst of the smog layer surrounding the palace, and just as he had remembered the eastern sky was scarred by the night-black hole in the air. Only now was it obvious what had caused it.

It was exactly how he had seen it. If his efforts of the last few weeks had proven anything, it was that the prophecies could not be averted, however hard you tried. When he turned the Legio would be there, ready to confront him. Reason might dictate that he should simply have gone straight to his brother's quarters and Gated away, but that was not who he was. Besides, he had already seen that the confrontation would take place, and who was he to disappoint history.

'It is time...' The voice of the Legio captain rung out behind him, strong and resonant. He had to respect that; most quailed in fear on confronting him for the first time. Turning, he saw the assembled Astartes standing in exactly the positions he had memorised, readying equipment and weapons. The captain, Antonius Golgotha according to reports, was armed only with a bolter and chainsword, and radiated an arrogant swagger of a man that felt it was all he needed to beat any foe. His brethren were more heavily armed though, and the whine of plasma weaponry cycling up sent his heartsbeat racing.

Tomax knew this was what he would face, and did it unflinchingly, but he hadn't risen to the post of Warmaster without knowing when to take advantage of a situation.

At the touch of a button the charges he had buried precisely under where each man was standing exploded, hurling them bodily into the air. The devices had not been sufficient to kill them outright - that had not been the point - but they would be stunned, disorientated, injured, and ripe for slaughter. He wanted to be able to savour the tactile pleasure of killing each one personally.

But before he could take even a step towards them his leg was frozen with searing, paralysing agony. Looking down incredulously he saw a young woman wearing a black stormcoat and bodyglove spearing a powersword through the tree-trunk muscle of his left calf. How could he have missed her? She dodged his clumsy kick, leaving the weapon embedded within his leg, and danced away, drawing an elegant pistol from beneath her large coat.

'Inquisitor Embeth Holsssssst.' Tomax drawled in delight, even as he stumbled backwards. This was the first time they had met, but the icy expression and hauntingly pale face half-obscured beneath a raven-black wing of hair was a memory he relished. Even if the memory was not his own.

The sting of plasma impacted against him, just barely deflected by his daemonic wards. Damn! The pause had given the Legio time to re-organise. After all he 'knew' of Holst from those leached memories, the ideal of capturing her was a tantalising one, but it was clearly not to happen today. Tomax pushed back and crawled painfully out onto the balcony, and dropped into the abyss, relying on wings to escape the fiery retribution of the Legio after his legs had failed him so badly.

Embeth Holst. Her day would come.

+++

Golgotha ran to the balcony and in his anger loosed off a full magazine of inferno bolts after the Warmaster. He was gratified to see one daemonic wing catch aflame, but rather than falling helpless out of the air the huge figure jinked and curved round to disappear through a broad, stained-glass window half a dozen floors below them. They could still catch him.

He went to see to his team. Correlis and Quanl were the most badly injured and Apothecary Capel was tending to their wounds, but by the Emperor's Will they had all survived.

'My thanks, Inquisitor Holst.' Golgotha said, raising his voice so that all of his team would hear. 'The Warmaster is cowering several floors below us, and has stolen The Lady Holst's sword. What say we go and retrieve it for her?' The levity and casual confidence in his team's ability to do anything dispelled the oppressive atmosphere, and inside a minute they were on the move once more.

+++

Rhadamanthys took aim down the Filienostos and shot the last Night Lord in the face. For such a seat of power, the spire had proved to be remarkably lightly guarded. Most of the Warmaster's Legion of Fear must be elsewhere, such as confronting the Astartes fighting their way up through the lower levels of the palace.

With all resistance finally crushed, Sergeant Techer rigged the meltabombs to the door, and ran back into cover. Rhadamanthys looked over at Brother Kruitzfeldt; he looked haggard, and haunted, but it was a credit to his character that the Epistolary had been able to get out of the Apothecarion, let alone join them on this mission. According to him there was some kind of rite being conducted on the other side of those walls; something that had the same stench as one outside the palace, but on a much smaller scale. If it involved Tomax Hell, stopping it was of vital importance.

The explosion blew the doors clean out of their armoured frames, and Captain Golgotha was through the archway while the floor was still glowing cherry red. Rhadamanthys and the rest followed into a high vaulted chamber decked with arcane symbols, runes and monstrous trophies. It was the archetypal sorcerer's lair, although the expected gloom was missing, dispelled by strong sunlight shining in through the shattered remnants of an enormous stained-glass window.

Gunfire echoed through the room; more Night Lords, and beyond them some kind of rift cut into another place entirely. The Warmaster was stooping down, carefully easing his monstrously large bulk through the portal. It seemed inconceivable, but after all their efforts Tomax Hell had escaped. Even as he watched, Rhadamanthys saw the portal shrinking, a wound in the physical universe clenching shut.

Under the cover of the Night Lord guns Rhadamanthys saw another figure slip furtively up to, and through the portal; the sorcerer that had performed this rite. It was for just a split-second, but he would know that face anywhere. Xamot Hell - the butcher who had murdered his friend right in front of him on Alcmene, and then had abducted the body. Xamot Hell had done it all with a song in his heart. To have both monsters slip from their grasp was too much to bear.

By the time the Legio had dealt with the Night Lords left to guard their master's escape, the portal was virtually closed. It was barely a span across and rapidly contracting. Through his frustration he was aware of Captain Golgotha ejecting what appeared to be a near-full magazine of his prized Inferno bolts, and slapping in another variant, although he didn't see which type. Then Golgotha lifted his bolter and fire, not his famed single shots, but the whole magazine.

'Do you think you got him?' Rhadamanthys asked as the portal winked out of existence. It felt too much to hope that such wild fire would find its target, but he but diplomatically suppressed the note of scepticism from his voice.

'I didn't need to get them, Rhad.' Golgotha answered, ejecting the magazine and passing it to him. 'I just needed to get those Odysseus bolts through to where they were going. Epistolary Kruitzfeldt - did it work?'

Understanding dawned. Odysseus bolts contained a psychically attuned material that the gifted could track anywhere, be it on the other side of the planet, or the other side of the galaxy.

'I-I can feel them, captain.' mumbled the epistolary through gritted teeth, his face a mask of pain. 'They came out in the depths of the Ash Wastes.'

The chase was still on. While Golgotha got onto the vox for transport, Rhadamanthys searched the chamber more closely. Towards the back of the echoing chamber he found what he had been looking for; the headless body of his friend and Battle Brother sealed inside one of the ghastly glass trophy cabinets.

'Rest easy, brother,' Rhadamanthys grunted as he wrenched open the armaglas of the display. 'You will be returned to your Chapter, and you will be avenged.'

+++

#14
Aurelius Rex

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Round 4 Battle 1
Canoness Betiand Veronika (Order of the Sacred Rose) vs. Sigismund Pain (World Eaters)

(Author: Rogue Trader)

+++

It seemed the Inquisitor was right to send me here, deep into the Ash Wastes. Although it is not my place to question a member of His Most Holy Inquisition, Qin's orders initially disturbed me. His reputation as a Puritan had been tarnished of late by whispers that he had consulted the Imperial Tarot for guidance. Some may claim it provides a direct link to the Almighty on Earth, but to me it smacks of witchery... Still, my doubts are a weakness and therefore a sin. I shall do penance when I return to Abbey.

If I return to the Abbey.

I washed the saliva round my mouth and spat, trying to rid myself of the foul taste of ash. Though Qin has been proven right, this mission has cost the Order of the Sacred Rose dear. Barely a handful of my Battle Sisters survived the skirmish with the heretical Iron Warrior Astartes in any condition to continue onwards. To my left, Sister Emara, her once pristine white armour dulled and blackened by blast markings from enemy fire. To my right, Sisters Shicara and Yostra, equally battered, yet their heads are unbowed; their faces alert, eyes still burning with an undaunted faith in the Emperor of Mankind. Their unbridled belief filled me with confidence, and as I whispered a prayer to Him on Earth, I felt the tiredness and the aching pain begin to drain away.

We lay, full length on the ground, the polluted wastes of this defiled planet tarnishing our armour once more. Crawling forward, I quickly raised my head over the lip of the... well, perhaps excavation is the only word for it, though what manner of machine or foul sorcery could create such a yawning chasm in the ground I cannot begin to guess. Deep enough to swallow even an Imperator Titan whole, if I was any judge. And yet this is no natural phenomenon, for there was no sign of it when the fleet sensorium arrays swept the area two days ago. Pulling my magnoculars from their case at my hip, I raised them to my eyes, the bottom of the pit blurring, then coming into focus as I tweaked the adjustment runes. There could be no mistaking the structures at the base of the chasm - though I have never set foot on Cadia, every child in the Imperium knows of the Pylons - but what are Pylons doing here, on Antioc? And how did they come to be buried under a billion tonnes of ash and industrial waste?

This was not the time for idle speculation though, as movement caught my eye. There was no mistaking the bulky armour of a member of the Astartes, but I felt a chill pass through me as I increased the magnification and saw obscene, leering daemonic faces adorning the deep red armour. The traitor Marine stopped suddenly and looked up, directly at me, and I could feel his icy gaze boring through my eyes, into my brain, down my spine... Jerking the magnoculars away, I quickly wriggled back, away from the edge, then turned and ran back to my sisters. Our voxcaster was lost with the transports in the clash with the Iron Warriors, so there was no way to let Crusade command know. It falls to us, us four Battle Sisters of the Adeptus Sororitas, to put a halt to whatever foul machinations the Heretics below might be planning.

+++

The Traitor Marine had sounded the alarm, and we had been subject to intense sniper fire throughout the perilous descent, but our faith in the Emperor had held true and my three sisters and I had reached the bottom of the cliff face unharmed, only to find ourselves surrounded by some twenty Traitor Legionnaires. As we braced ourselves to receive the Traitors' charge there was a thunderclap as the very air itself was torn asunder. Some kind of portal had formed out of nothing and grotesque armoured forms were pouring through. My heart sank at the sight of more Traitors and yet... The new arrivals hadn't even spared us a glance as they charged headlong into the Word Bearer horde.

At that moment, the Warmaster stepped through the portal. The battle, the pylons - the whole world - seemed to fade into the background, such was the sheer terrifying presence of the monster. I felt like a child, helpless against such a creature of pure and absolute darkness - what hope was there for Mankind when such creatures roamed the galaxy? The Warmaster turned and saw the four of us, his eyes briefly widening in surprise before he dismissed us and waded into the bloodshed; tearing Word Bearers limb from limb like so many ragdolls.

In that moment, whatever dark magicks his presence had cast over me was gone, and the fear was replaced by a boiling rage. That I had allowed myself to fall victim to such weakness, such fear was unforgivable. My shame burned my cheeks, and instantly I knew there was only one way I could redeem myself. Kill Tomax Hell or die in the attempt.

Raising my voice I began to chant at the top of my voice:

'A spiritu dominatus,
Domine, libra nos,'


Whirling my hammer above my head, I began to run, leading my sisters into the fray...

'From the lightning and the tempest,
Our Emperor, deliver us.'


Ahead, a group of Traitors in blue and white power armour detached themselves from the melee and began to run towards us:

'From plague, deceit, temptation and war,
Our Emperor, deliver us.'


Even from a distance I could see the insanity and bloodlust shining in their eyes...

'From the scourge of the Kraken,
Our Emperor, deliver us.'


My sisters fired their Storm Bolters as they ran, spraying explosive bolts at the oncoming Heretics...

'From the blasphemy of the Fallen,
Our Emperor, deliver us.'


Their leader, tore off his helmet as he charged, screaming 'I can wait no longer! My axe thirsts!'

'From the begetting of daemons,
Our Emperor, deliver us.'


He leapt at me, his bloodstained axe raised above his head as I knelt and dropped my hammer...

'From the curse of the mutant,
Our Emperor, deliver us.'


I raised my Inferno pistol, braced in both hand, and squeezed the trigger...

'A morte perpetua,
Domine, libra nos.'


The traitor's face melted, the air burning in his throat, his skull blackened by the intense heat of the melta beam. The headless body continued for a few faltering steps, the raised arms still bringing the axe down in a blow that would surely have cleaved me in two had I not rolled aside as the body finally fell to the ground.

Looking round, I could see that my sisters had driven off the remainder of the attackers, but Yostra was badly wounded, and Shicara lay unmoving, a chainsword jutting from her back like a tombstone. Motioning to Emara to stay and aid Yostra, I rose to my feet, sweeping up my hammer and began to run again. Ahead, I could see the Warmaster and his minions had made short work of the Word Bearers and were even now disappearing into the entrance to an underground bunker set at the midpoint between the pylons.

My heart was pounding against my chest and my lungs were burning, but I had to get to that bunker before they all got inside and sealed the entrance. The Warmaster turned and watched me as I sprinted towards him, then laughed and ducked low to enter the doorway. Willing every last ounce of my fading energy into my legs I threw myself forward, raising my pistol and loosing off a single shot that passed between the closing door and the bulkhead. As the door slid shut with a final thud a faint roar sounded from inside the bunker walls, though whether of pain or rage I could not tell.

I fell to my knees, vomiting and gasping for breath, the blood pounding my skull like a Thunder Hammer. It took me a long time to realise that the shakes wracking my body came from below ground, and I turned my head to see the point of huge drill break the surface not five yards away...



Victory to Canoness Betiand Veronika of the Order of the Sacred Rose


#15
Aurelius Rex

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Author: Aurelius Rex

+++

With the preparations complete, Explorator Forb stamped over to the force-barrier and took a closer look. It was like a waxy sheen hanging in the air, but completely impervious. He could see the other side, so normal visible light was allowed to pass, but even medium energy laser weaponry and physical impacts were deflected effortlessly. Every sensor at his considerable disposal showed that it differed fundamentally from the conventional principles of power field or void shield generation, and he looked forward to taking it to pieces and finding out how it worked.

He kicked at the ash with his steel-capped boots, and was fascinated to see the dust slide off the frictionless field. Not electrostatic-based then, he thought... Interesting.

The Crusade Council had sent him here after orbital scans had shown something revealed by the ash storm. From a certain angle they could have been Pylons, just like the fabled ones on Cadia. Some had hypothesised that it was the cause of the so-called 'Curse of Antioc', that through an act of techno-sorcery their nature had been corrupted or reversed, to make the warp more turbulent around the planet. Such a theory made as much sense as anything else on this insane planet.

What had sealed their interest in the site had been the appearance of the force barrier. With such an expenditure of effort, whatever it was protecting couldn't be good. It was as impenetrable to orbital bombardment and teleportation as to ground assault. Which was why his expertise had been called upon once more.

His tunnelling vehicles were their way in. They could burrow down below the ash strata, through the bedrock, and ferry warriors directly into the heart of darkness. Unless the barrier extended too deep below the surface...

With all the Astartes on the planet assaulting the Warmaster's palace, Forb had been charged with securing a landing site outside the force dome and preparing the venerable Termite vehicles for their journey. They would join him if, no, when they were successful. It would be when, he decided. His first impressions of the Astartes in this Crusade had been that they were careless thugs, but he had come to respect and even admire their tenacity and will to succeed. There was something almost Squat-like about them in that respect.

A change in the air sent a shiver down his spine. Forb didn't hold much with superstition, but there was something wrong about this planet, and these Ash Wastes in particular. All the Crusade forces that had come into the area had never been heard from again - it was like the Partresi Triangle.

Forb looked around nervously, and hurried back to his Termites.

+++


#16
Aurelius Rex

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Round 4, Battle 2
Explorator Forb vs Deux Iblis of the Word Bearers

(Author: Daeothar)

+++

Forb was getting increasingly anxious. That new inquisitor, Belenus, had strode off with that band of rabble he called his troops. 'The lad must have been seriously miffed,' the short explorator mused, 'taking off like that without proper backup or firepower.' Sure, those warriors he brought had looked suitably impressive and eager, their lack of armour indicating both prowess and recklessness but the same did not go for the troubled inquisitor.

During the long hours it had taken his dozen remaining Termites to tunnel under the force field, the man had been solemn and withdrawn. But Forb had seen the fire in his eyes. Something was burning there and it did not bode well for all those opposing Inquisitor Belenus. And still, able and ready as the inquisitor and his men looked, Forb could not escape the feeling they would be hopelessly outmatched once inside the force bubble.

It had been his task to take a contingent of marines inside the force field, but instead the inquisitor had given him a direct order and requisitioned his beloved transports to convey his own retinue, his Damnonii.

There had been room to spare and on their descent into the bedrock of Antioc, Forb had on several occasions questioned the wisdom of departing with only a fraction of the troops that he could carry onboard. Several of his Termites, slaved as they were to his command crawler, were completely empty, guided only by the fickle radio link between machine spirit and command node. No, there certainly was more than met the eye when it came to the inquisitor's motives.

And now he was gone. As soon as the Termites had entered the bunker complex, remarkably different looking than the temple he had previously entered by the same means, the inquisitor and his celtoi warriors had departed him with only the smallest of acknowledgements, some grunts or nods here and there from the soldiers, checking their weapons whilst departing and a curt thank you from the inquisitor himself, breaking his brooding silence for only the briefest of moments.

Forb hasted himself in getting his precious machines turned around. They had not run this long and hard for over a thousand years and he was worried about their status. Revered machinery like his should only be used sparingly, lest it break down permanently. He sighed whilst closing a side panel on the number three Termite after checking the diagnostics panel behind it but it would not close completely. With a loving and practiced swing, he smacked the panel shut with his spanner. This old girl would run a few more miles yet.

He headed over to his command digger. He had rigged a makeshift control panel inside, so that he could control and check upon all Termites in his care. They had lost two Termites when tunnelling towards the temple where he had almost died. One had stalled along the way, its cargo of storm troopers forced to wait for rescue by another Termite. Solid rock ahead, and the tunnel behind backfilled with thousands of tons of pulverised debris. But at least they were alive. The guidance mechanism of Termite number fourteen had malfunctioned and had dug its way down towards the planet's molten core. He tried not to think of the horrific fate of its passengers, having been cooked alive.

Accessing the terminal, he checked up on his crawlers and found that one of them had strayed off course regardless of his precautions. He could not leave the precious machine behind. Not while it was in his care. He keyed in the commands for the other tunnellers. He ordered them back the way they had come. The return journey would be quite a bit speedier, as the massive machines had no more rock to eat through but could cruise their way back through their dug tunnels instead, pushing the ground and burnt material aside as they passed through.

He checked the relative position of the stray crawler and found it to be not too far off. According to its telemetry and vid feeds, it had broken through the surface near a large entrance. 'That must be the front door.' Forb thought excitedly and a plan formed in his creative mind. It would be hazardous, it would even be somewhat foolhardy but the example of two consecutive inquisitors had given him the encouragement to let his headstrong nature take over from his normal caution.

With a series of rapid keystrokes, he ordered his command machine to return as well. He would find his way to the gate he had seen in the vid cast of the lone crawler and open it from the inside, destroying the mechanism somehow, so it would remain open. He would then take the crawler and return as well, leading the second wave of the assault straight through the open doors into the complex, making for an easier access and safer ingress route. Perhaps he would find the controls to the force-dome on his travels. To puzzle them out would be a rare treat.

The Termite closed its drill section, turned, and powered back into the tunnel, leaving a ragged hole in the bunker's concrete wall, overflowing with fine dust and debris. He turned around and drew his bolt pistol as he heard a fire fight erupt somewhere in the maze of tunnels ahead. Howling and baying of an unearthly quality accompanied the sounds of battle and Forb immediately questioned the wisdom of his rash decision. He flexed the servo arm on his back and assured by the familiar hiss of the arm's hydraulics, he started off.

It did not take the squat technician long to find his bearings in the underground complex, as these surroundings felt as natural to him as windswept plains did to a Cadian. Heading off towards the gate with unerring accuracy, he found he was leaving the sounds of battle behind and being alone without any form of support, he was glad this was the case. Forb did not count himself a coward but he was keenly aware he was very much alone in the lion's den.

Not ten standard minutes later, Forb reached what could only be the entrance area of the bunker complex. Several bodies lay here. Marines. Traitor Marines even, he saw. Dark red armour and blasphemous sigils covered the corpses that were hacked apart by some great force. The flickering light of the entrance area revealed that this fight had been fierce and decidedly bloody. These must have been the defenders of the entrance to the complex and Forb assumed that whoever had passed through here was on his side, killing the foul chaos renegades in a bloody rage.

Forb started looking for the control panel of the door mechanism. In a booth, not too far off, he found what he was looking for. A control panel with too many buttons and dials to be comprehended immediately but after several minutes of intently staring at the panel, Forb thought he had figured it out. Gingerly, he pushed several buttons in a specific sequence and finished it off by slamming his meaty hand on the big red button at the top of the panel.

A low rumbling began, as hidden heavy machinery began its task of opening the massive entrance door, lifting it up. A bright line of daylight appeared as the door lifted out of its sill, getting brighter and larger as the door slid slowly up. Forb left his booth and hurried towards the light. He was used to tunnels and darkness. It was his preferred habitat but with the series of frightening events occurring below the surface he would actually be glad to see the sky over his head. A distinctly uncommon sentiment for the likes of him.

As he moved to step outside, he saw movement on the other side of the massive door, but could not discern what it was, the bright light temporarily blinding him after being underground for so long. He shielded his eyes with his hand, still holding his bolt pistol, as he stepped forward, barely making out the shape in front of him.

'Halt, scum.' It was a decidedly female and very imperial sounding voice. Squinting, he now saw he was looking into the barrel of a well used inferno pistol and detected the faint trace of burnt metal on the air. Surprised and confused at the prospect of running into a loyal servant of the Emperor here within the force field, Forb was momentarily lost for words, the bright light adding to his disorientation.

Finally regaining his composure, along with his vision, he now recognised the shape in front of him. A Sister of Battle. Bruised and battered as she was, she had a firm grip on her weapon and a determined look on her face. 'Please don't shoot me good sister,' Forb finally said, 'we're both on the same side here. I came with Inquisitor Belenus by means of my Termite crawlers.'

The sister briefly looked to her side and Forb's eyes followed her gaze. There was his wayward Termite! Not ten yards away, the machine stood, seemingly intact, engines shut down. The sister motioned with her head, 'In one of those?'

'Well actually lass,' answered Forb, his carefree attitude slowly returning, 'there were more than a dozen, but this one malfunctioned and drifted off course. All the others entered the bunker complex deep underground.'

The inferno pistol slowly lowered. 'Who were in the other machines then?' came the still not fully convinced reply.

'An inquisitor Belenus and his troops,' Forb answered quickly, now eager to convince this ally of his alignment, 'I just sent the rest of my crawlers back the way they came, to collect a second wave of marines. I wanted to find my missing Termite and steer it back as well.' The Sister of Battle pondered over his words. The diminutive explorator could be speaking the truth, outrageous and farfetched as it may seem.

'This inquisitor,' she inquired, 'where has he gone and who accompanies him?' Forb told her what he knew; of the inquisitor's savage retinue, although their ultimate objective had not been disclosed to him. 'I have just now encountered the leader of the rebellion, entering this very bunker.' the armoured, pious woman disclosed. 'I must go after him. Did you not see him coming up to the gate?'

'No,' answered Forb, 'but I did hear the sounds of battle down there. If he is the leader of this planet, why is he killing his own?'

'Who knows what determines the actions of an arch traitor such as him?' replied the sister, 'but I can tell you; these Word Bearer traitors, they are not in league with him. I saw him kill those here with my own eyes.' She gestured to the carnage behind her.

'Aye,' Forb answered, 'I saw more of their bodies inside there,' he pointed behind him, at the gaping black entrance of the bunker. 'What is going on here?'

'That I do not know but I will go and find out or die in the attempt. Nothing will stand between the Emperor's justice and that foul abomination that is the Warmaster now!' She lifted her blessed hammer in the air as a look of rapture and devotion spread over her face. 'Take care of my sisters, loyal mutant, while I finally smite this foe in His holy name.' she exclaimed, as she strode into the bunker with vigour, intent and a burning devotion.

Forb watched her, as she quickly disappeared into the gloom of the bunker complex. He doubted she would find the Warmaster down there without a proper map or a keen feeling for the lay of underground passages such as he possessed. However, Forb had no intention of entering these particular tunnels again soon. He had been uneasy down there for some unexplained reason and for one so at home in subterranean environments, this was doubly disturbing.

He turned and focussed his attention on the two sisters some ways off, a third lying motionless with a sword in her back. Maimed and mauled corpses lay everywhere, almost all clad in the red of the Word Bearers, a few bearing different colours but traitors all. He walked over to them, picking his way through the corpses littering the ground. 'Hello good sisters, my name is Forb,' he began, 'if you will, I can transport you back to safety.' The one remaining unhurt sister shot him a glaring look and too late he realised that safety would not be what these women were after.

Flushed, he proceeded to undo his mistake and offered to take the wounded and dead sister to safety instead. If the remaining sister would be able to help him perform this task, he would be grateful. At times, Forb displayed levels of diplomacy not often found with his kind. Together, they carried first the wounded and then the dead sister into the Termite. The sister then stood guard as Forb went to work on the intricate mechanisms inside the crawler.

The better part of an hour passed as Forb, muttering to himself, dug his way through diagnostics reports, what seemed miles of wiring and circuit board after circuit board. Sometimes the muttering ended up in rather un-imperial curses at which point the stormbolter carrying sister would send another of her glares in the crawler's interior, quickly silencing any blasphemous uttering the small man would be spewing forth.

Finally, Forb closed the last of the internal hatches he had opened and began dialling in the coordinates he knew they would be returning to soon. He patted the control panel one last time and pressed the ignition button. The engine turned over and started without a hitch. There had never been anything wrong with the engine itself of course, but one could not be careful enough with these temperamental machines. Forb opened the side hatch and closed the drill head on the front. The drill head caught the transmission and began rotating, several rings turning against each other all the way to the tip, all covered in razor sharp adamantine points, designed to cut through the hardest rock.

He stepped outside to tell the sister they were ready to go, when he saw a shape emerging from the bunker entrance behind her. It was a marine by the looks of it and Forb knew of no loyalist marines inside the force field yet. He yelled to the sister to warn her but over the whine and grinding sounds of the termite, she did not comprehend. Forb could do nothing but watch as the lithe, power armoured woman was skewered by the red armoured brute's powersword. Her scream was audible over the deafening noise of the crawler though and Forb ran forward as fast as his stubby legs could carry him.

The marine pulled his sizzling blade free from the fallen sister and aimed his bolter at the oncoming explorator. A salvo of bolts sped at the diminutive figure but went astray as the squat neared. A second squeeze of the trigger resulted in a dry click, as the bolter jammed. Forb made use of that moment of annoyed distraction with his opponent and assumed a firm stance in front of his Termite, poweraxe glowing and boltpistol raised.

Over the noise of the machine behind him, at the top of his lungs he shouted, 'Prepare to die foul traitor, at the hand of Forb, son of Grim, son of Worgi of the house of Kraggi!' His opponent momentarily halted his advance, amused by the short, stocky explorator that showed the nerve of personally challenging him.

'So be it little man,' he spat, 'Deux Iblis accepts your challenge but don't expect any mercy!' Whirling his powerblade in front of him, Iblis sought to find an opening in the defence of the short challenger. He knew that through the gifts he had been granted by his patrons and countless millennia of experience fighting every foe imaginable this fight would be a short one indeed.

Both opponents feigned attacks and circled each other. Soon Iblis discovered that the stocky tech-adept opposing him had a solid defence, with the poweraxe and the servoarm on his back blocking each thrust before he could finish it. His patron once again whispered in his ear as he circled his foe. 'Do not fail me again Iblis. Surely you can overcome something so puny...'

It infuriated him. Both the squat and his deity were taunting him and Iblis filled with an overpowering rage. This could not be happening. He could not be opposed like this. Not by that... stunted runt. As they circled once again, he let go of all caution and lunged at the squat, his powersword extended in a thrust that would skewer the diminutive figure and end this.

But it was not to be. The axe of the squat hit with a down stroke when Iblis was almost fully extended and diverted the tip of his sword into the ground, as his thrust had already been directed downwards. The dwarfish man let out a whoop of victory as he extended his servoarm to smash down on the exposed head of Iblis, who was temporarily off balance.

The servoarm straightened backwards to make a full swing, when it caught the side of the whirling cone of the drill head behind Forb. As the claw of the arm got stuck on one of the adamantine teeth on the drill head, Forb was yanked backwards and up onto the drill itself without time to even utter a scream. With a squishing, grinding sound, the small man was instantaneously disintegrated. The straightening Iblis was covered with gore as the entirety of the tech-adept was sprayed around in a wet, red arc by the blurringly fast drill head.

Iblis was momentarily stunned as he realised the joy of the kill had been taken away from him by chance. He cleared the vision slit of his helmet of the remains of Forb the erstwhile explorator and recovered his powersword. He looked around and noticed the sister he had ran through and walked over to her. He kicked the body but saw she was dead already.

On a whim, he decided to check the interior of the strange machine that had robbed him of his kill. Slowly he approached the side hatch and peered inside. There, another white armoured sister lay on a stretcher. Wide-eyed, she saw him and attempted to sit up straight and frantically tried to reach for the stormbolter only a meter away.

'Well well well,' Iblis said, 'What have we here?' He wormed his way inside the termite and drew his combat knife. Maybe there would be some satisfaction after all.

+++

Victory to Deux Iblis of the Word Bearers

#17
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Honda)

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The fever was back.

Qin was certain that it would not be much longer now. His body had taken too much abuse at the hands of his captors and been denied too many opportunities for a reprieve.

He would die honorably in service to his Emperor, yet his personal quest remained unfinished. Somehow the torment of not fulfilling his oath to his daughter weighed much heavier upon his soul than the trauma he had experienced on Antioc. He had failed her. Qin allowed himself the luxury of a single tear to honor her, father to daughter.

There would be no more tears for Mu Li.

The sibilant whispers resumed.

'How touching... you weep. Don't tell me you are still in pain? Do you still struggle under the weight of your meat? Would you like me to describe again how little of you is left and how worthless it will be to your precious emperor, the 'corpse'. Perhaps I could arrange for you to share his throne and you two could pass the millennia away, chatting back and forth about... Hmm, what do you suppose the dead talk about anyway?'

Qin did not have the strength to cast out useless words, and so he lay silently. He was aware that something was happening to that which was once called Erazimus. It produced light, though Qin's eye had been unable to focus for... how long could it have been? Also, the assertiveness was unfamiliar, though the hatred it expressed was not. Perhaps the vessel now contained something new.

How long had he been here? There was no way to tell.

It whispered again, 'You failed, all of you. Your abysmal attempts to prevent what you were not aware of, failed. No wonder your empire crumbles; it knows not of which it faces. It is only fitting that we should be the heralds for a new millennium. We are returning ascendant.'

Then, with even more spite, 'Pity those you have left behind, I can assure you it will be glorious.'

It was time. Additional delay might cause this opportunity to slip from him, stripping his one last chance for personal redemption.

Qin coughed, barely discernable, 'My voice is weak, and I am done, yet I would share one last thought with you.'

The construct hesitated, its incandescence flaring, sensing danger. The enemy was less than helpless. Ever so slowly, it drifted over to where the defeated mortal lay. 'Yesss?' it answered.

Qin's eyelids slowly slid down as he spoke, a smile of victory crawling across his broken face,

'Troubled wanderer,
Shaken by the distant wind,
Welcomes the new sun.'


In the next instant, the light of a hundred stars flashed for a moment, and what once was, was no longer.

+++

The signal was received and relayed to the next station. Once the message had been transmitted and receipt acknowledged, the relaying psychic was executed. It was extremely expensive to communicate in this manner, but no evidence of the communication could be allowed to exist.

+++

The hunched servant extended an armature, placing a communique on the old man's desk.

The Inquisitor looked up from his writings to briefly study the inscribed film. As he lay the film down on the ornate desktop, a voice as old as wood, rasped, 'Warm Q3.'

The servitor, eyes downcast, asked, 'Do you wish this one to possess the same trigger and response matrix, M' Lord?'

The Inquisitor castled his fingers in front of his nose and sat silently for several minutes. Taking a deep breath to signal that he had arrived at an answer, he responded, 'Yes, this matrix appeared to be quite effective. However, I would include memory sequences BQP-023402934 and CVP-899102777. If nothing else, he will be aware that 'trophies' can introduce opportunities for the enemy. His pride will have to find some other way to manifest itself.'

+++

In the new dawn, a re-forged weapon stood up from its birth container, amniotic ectoplasms dripping down the sinewy form.

He turned to the great window where the sun welcomed him, greeting the warmth with a clenched fist.

+++

#18
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Aurelius Rex)

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The lead Locust juddered, and then the nose section and cockpit flew apart under the impact of high-explosive shells. With their chieftain dead, the two remaining bats recognised the futility of attacking a flight of three Astartes Thunderhawks, and broke off.

Not just any Thunderhawks, Captain Golgotha thought as he monitored the combat, but ones of the Scions of Dorn; his original chapter. He was passionate about the Legio, but to be back aboard a Scions' vessel with their lacquered, highly polished dark green hulls and meticulously crafted interiors swelled his hearts with pride.

With the threat of aerial attack averted their course settled down again. Golgotha snapped open the release on his seat harness and shared some words with Sergeants Rhadamanthys and Techer about their own, specialised missions. That done, he made his way up to the flight deck, and their host, Captain Ossopharys of the Scions' Seventh Company.

The Warmaster had escaped them, fled his palace through heretical sorcery to a bolt-hole in the southern ash wastes. The Legio Thunderhawks had suffered greatly in the attack, but Captain Ossopharys of the Scions' Seventh Company had been more than happy to transport them, and to be there when the Warmaster was dug from his hole. Tomax Hell had murdered the Seventh Company's former captain during the Defence of Cadia, so vengeance as well as honour at stake on this mission.

'Antonius, look!' said Ossopharys grimly, pointing down through the armoured glass cockpit window. 'The planet is ablaze.'

It was true. Enormous swathes of fire were visible where the cloud had parted, and as the world rolled towards night the banks of smog were illuminated from below by unimaginable infernos. He had heard something of this from the command network, but the sheer scale of the devastation was stunning.

'The traitors are setting the fires to cover their retreat. They know that they are finished here and want to deny us as much of the planet as possible.' sighed Golgotha. 'There is more to it though. The Imperial Guard has been doing it too. Whatever is causing this 'Curse of Antioc' has bred such a climate of fear that some regiments have taken to levelling every building they came across - purging by fire.'

'Do you blame them, Golgotha?' asked Ossopharys earnestly. 'You have seen the horrors down there. This place has been in the hands of the Ruinous Powers for so long that you have to ask if the taint simply runs too deep to be excised. Is the Mechanicus fooling itself that Antioc could ever be reclaimed as a Forgeworld?'

It was a question that every man in the Crusade had asked themselves, but one that would ultimately be decided by someone other than him. Rather than answer, Golgotha changed the subject.

'About the Curse... I can't ask you to -'

'No, Antonius!' Ossopharys laughed, slapping his blood-red glove on Golgotha's shoulder. 'I know that this mission will take us to the epicentre of whatever is causing this 'Curse of Antioc', but there is absolutely no way you are going to leave us behind.' Golgotha opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Ossopharys continued. 'Thirty years and you haven't changed; still trying to protect us. Well, not another word about it. There's no way you can keep the Seventh from this mission.'

+++

Deux Iblis put aside the gore-slicked knife in disgust. The Sororita had been poor sport. Despite his most convincing arguments she had refused to recant her vows, and had expired all-too quickly from blood loss. Perhaps he was losing his touch. He climbed carefully out of the Imperial tunnelling vehicle and headed back through the bunker doors, pulling it closed behind him with a clang.

'My Lord Iblis!' said a thin, reedy voice from the darkness. Iblis recognised it as one of the Master's interchangeable, hooded acolytes. 'Bless the Pantheon - when there was no response from your vox we feared the worst.'

Iblis grunted and looked down to find a deep gouge in the side of his chestplate which covered the vox-unit. It must have been damaged in the battle with the little Squat. The acolyte continued.

'Lord Iblis, we are under attack on all sides - Imperials have tunnelled into the base, and the Warmaster Himself rampages through our defences. The Master's Ascension is so close, but until that time it is vital that the Warp Field generators are protected from harm.'

'The Master shall not find me wanting, acolyte. Now either pick up a weapon and come with me or get out of my sight.'

Together they made their way through the maze-like tunnels of the bunker complex.

+++

They had landed just outside the force-dome to find the Termite tunnelling vehicles in position, but clearly they had already made at least one voyage. More disturbing still, there was no sign at all of the pilots.

While the Techmarine checked that the machine-spirits still burned strongly within the vehicles, the assembled marines were blessed by the Scions' Chaplain. Sergeant Techer was finding it difficult enough to adjust to working alongside the marines of the Legio, but to now be blessed by a chaplain of another chapter tested his patience to its limits. The words jarred in his ears with their subtle wrongness, but from sly looks at his Legio brethren it seemed that only he had the acuity to notice it. Eventually the blessing concluded, at completely the wrong time, he couldn't help feeling. The green-armoured marines around him stood and made their way to the transports.

Perhaps it was the ague that he had been unable to shake since he had arrived here that was contributing to his mood - he was running a slight fever, and his tongue felt like old carpet. Whatever the reason, he had to be sharp, as his part of the mission was vital, even if Captain Golgotha had been unspecific in how to achieve it. The base was thought to be the source of the 'Curse of Antioc', and he had been tasked with destroying whatever was causing it. Matters were complicated by the lack of any information on what form, beyond the Pylons of course, the generator equipment would take.

His plan was simple; the equipment had to draw a large amount of energy, so plant melta-charges across the main power generatorium equipment, and from there smash anything that was still running... Inelegant, but effective.

Sealed inside the metal tube, all thought was driven away by noise and vibration. Sergeant Jonathan Techer was only dimly aware of the lurch as the back of his Termite pivoted upwards, and the counter-rotating drill bits at the front began to chew into the ash. They had started their progress through the strata of Antioc.

+++

#19
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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(Author: Ferrata)

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The clash of weapons echoed of the walls, diluted by the chanting of the cultists. Axes smashed against chainswords, the humming of the foul weapons almost enough to turn a sane servant of the Emperor into a drooling beast of chaos. Each cultist was guarded by a fallen Astartes of the Word Bearers legion, their sickly armour gleaming in the arcane light of the ritual. Belenus had heard the chanting before, the summoning of daemons, the summoning of the end of a world. Each word left a sour taste in the air almost like even that was being tainted by chaos. His lungs felt heavy choked by the incense burning throughout the inner sanctum.

The pain in Belenus leg was being to become unbearable again; clutching his thigh he pushed the analgesic from his last syringe into the wound. Numbness flowed from his leg; it felt good not to feel anything. He could not falter now; to fail now would condemn this planet to death in the bloody grip of Doran. He needed to get beside the traitor, he needed to engage him even if his body let go, his mind could slow, if not halt, the ritual of ascention.

+++

Doranii could feel the flow of power through his veins, with each second he ascended closers to daemon-princehood, the next step towards the alter of the gods. He had heard the noise of battle fill the room as soon as the ragged band of warriors had charged, he knew who they were. The Damnonii led by the Inquisitor Belenus, an old friend who would surely not have missed his ascention. He would not be stopped; he would not be crippled again.

Watching the room for the shape of the Inquisitor, Doranii readied his weapons which had been lying close to his crouched body; he knew someone would have a problem with his activities. Finally he saw the figure of his enemy; the fool was already badly injured, limping and injecting medicine into his puny form. This would be the end of this rivalry; he would leave all this behind him as he became a new force.

His mind could feel the approach of the inquisitor, the psychic blank absorbing any warp power and making all those with a psychic gift feel uneasy, inducing nausea and sickness. The bastard inquisitor would pay for this interruption.

++

Belenus and Doran met head on, the bulk of the corrupt Astartes shadowing over the human Inquisitor. The sheer strength of Doran was enough to overcome all that the Inquisitor could throw at the traitor, but the energy of daemons had begun to seep into his body, he was more than a Space Marine know, he was become a prince amongst the ranks of Darkness. A blow from Doran fist dropped Belenus to the ground, his body broken.

“Did you think you could stop me? After all the years you have been chasing me have you not learned that you will never win??

Belenus could do little to respond, the armoured boot of Doran impacted against his ribs, breaking no fewer than two that he could tell from the pain. He thought back to all the battles he had fought against the traitor, Ordovices, Belgea and the rest. Only once had he managed to beat the traitor, purity through fire. Reaching to his flamer, he squeezed the trigger but not great flame spurted from its nozzle, just a cough of gases.

“You have burnt once before but now your hope is extinguished.?

“There is always fire left in the heart of the Inquisition!?

Tearing the inquisition pendant from his neck, he screwed it into the fuel injector system. This time as the trigger was pressed a jet of white flame erupted from the weapon, a short burst of purity. Doran was surrounded in a shell of fire. Belenus had carried his emergency fuel supply ever since his weapon was crafted all those years ago. It was finally over. Him, Doran, over. As he relaxed, his ears were filled with laughter, his heart collapsed.

“You fire cannot hurt me now, I am ascending to the gods.?

An armoured arm stabbed from fire and grabbed Belenus around his throat. The fingers tightened, crushing his windpipe. Doran’s face appeared from the flames, his metal expressionless mask melted. Lifting the Inquisitor high above the ground, Doran continued to laugh, he could now feel both power and pain in his veins, it was ecstasy. Doran launched forward towards the spiked wall, impaling the Inquisitor on the rusting spikes.

He had failed. Doran had beaten him. He had failed Antioc. He had failed the Damnonii. He had failed Cornovii. He had failed…

+++

#20
Aurelius Rex

Aurelius Rex

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Round 5
Techer of the Legio vs. Deux Iblis of the Word Bearers

(Author: Aurelius Rex)

+++

Warmaster Tomax Hell launched himself through the makeshift barricade, smashing it to splinters. The Word Bearer directly behind it was crushed beneath the weight of his daemonically enhanced body, and the rest of the squad scattered out of cover. One was slower than the rest, and he enveloped the man’s whole head in a single betalon’d fist. He sqeezed.

For all the temporal power that the role of Warmaster had offered, it had divorced him from this, his true calling. It shackled him with negotiating alliances, directing policy, and overseeing production schedules. For all his strenuous attempts to delegate such mundanities, he had become that most hated of sub-species; a paper-pushing bureaucrat. This was what he had missed; the blood-thumping exhilaration that could only come from brutal, bloody combat.

He took his time with the kill, though, allowing his brother and the few remaining Night Lords to mop up the remnants. In truth he was hurt. Plasma burns, stab wounds, the melta-blast from that impudent Sororita, even doused with napalm… Though they may have been mortal wounds to a lesser man, he would be completely healed within a few days. Unfortunately their cumulative effect was wearing him down, drawing out his reserves far too early in the battle. He took deep, cleansing breaths and watched how the Legion of Fear operated without him.

His brother’s approach to the task was particularly entertaining. As he watched, Xamot cast some kind of incantation and summoned a horde of lesser entities from the aether. They sped towards the Word Bearers and whirled three of them up into the air, before proceeding to slice and bite. More and more of the creatures were drawn to the feast, and a cloud of blood and flesh was added to the expanding cyclone of plasteel and ceramite. As always, Xamot banished the ripper-sprites before they consumed the whole carcass. After all, having them go hungry and move off unfettered in search of fresh prey would not be at all advisable.

Looking at Xamot, the Warmaster realised how powerful he was becoming. Even wounded by the orbital bombardment, his sorcerous powers were a force to be reckoned with. It would not do to show a moment of weakness even, no, especially in front of such a potential rival. There was always someone plotting to usurp his position of power; it was in fact the reason they were here now.

That the Word Bearers should have used the Imperial assault as cover for their power-play was a new low, even for them. This Dark Apostle, this Talus Doranii had lost them the world, but he would pay for such hubris with his very soul. Tomax would take Doranii’s spine as a trophy, then leave this burning cinder of a planet to rendezvous with what remained of the Legion of Fear and his Wolf Pack fleet.

All resistance crushed, Tomax turned to the ancient metal doors. On the other side, according to Xamot at least, Doranii was making his unearned bid for ascension to prince-hood.

He stood to address his followers, to steel them for the coming battle, when a shiver of dread ran through the aether. Kartis, one of his few remaining Night Lord Honour Guard fell into a fit, all the while screaming that inane Curse gibberish. Even Xamot was affected; he ripped away his helm just in time to empty his stomach contents across the floor. Then he looked up to wordlessly confirm the worst. The rite of Ascension has concluded… They had arrived too late.

The great doors exploded beneath his weight, and the Legion of Fear charge into the vast chamber. At its centre, surrounded by twitching, hooded acolytes and kneeling Word Bearers, stood an imposing, blood-red figure, which seemed to grow in stature by the second.

Despite his fatigue, despite the countless draining injuries, Tomax knew that at long last he had truly found something that made life worth living…

A real challenge!

+++

His head still ringing with the sound of drilling, Sergeant Techer led his squad, intentionally, away from the Scions, and deep into the bowels of the bunker complex. The auspex showed a large number of high-power cables congregating, all feeding back down into the depths.

They came to a crossroads ‘Rowney, Dharmu, take the left. Arvum, Delaney, right. Whatever you find, blow it to hell.’

Their murmured confirmation was almost drowned out by agonised howling echoing down from the upper levels.

‘Feth, sergeant, what was that?’ muttered Brother Pauling.

‘It sounds like someone has just met the Warmaster.’ Techer grimaced. ‘Come on. The captain is relying on us.’

+++

This part of the base had been plunged into complete darkness. Something was wrong with her armour, and the wan lights from her suit were barely enough to see by, rendering everything in shifting shadows. Inching cautiously forward she felt her foot sink into something cloying and slippery. Mindful of the strain on the energy cells, Betiand boosted the illumination. It showed that the long corridor ahead was littered with broken bodies, and the walls up to the ceiling were coated with dripping gore. Whatever had been through this way had been like a tornado of devastation, rending the human form to shreds as it passed. A force of nature… or supernature. Knowing what lay ahead, the Canoness dropped the illumination back down and began moving.

‘Father, watch over your faithful servant as I walk through dark places.’ she whispered to herself.

‘Fear not, My Daughter.’ came a soft, reassuring voice inside her mind. ‘I will always be with you.’

Betiand froze in shock. For all her piety, all the times she had prayed and beseeched The Emperor, there had never been anything more than an ineffable feeling of rightness. There had certainly never been any response in the form of… words! The revelation stole away her tongue.

‘Let me guide you in your hour of need, dear Betiand. I will have need of you very soon.’

A warm, yellow glow sprang up at the end of the corridor, and retreated slowly away. Surrendering to the will of her Emperor, Betiand picked her way past the sundered corpses and followed the guiding light.

+++

This close to the sacred Warp actuators, Iblis could feel the nature of reality softening. From the correct angle the corpse of the Legio saboteur took on a glow, as if ready to be reanimated by one of the daemonic entities just waiting beyond the veil. If it came, it came. He didn’t have time to help across the threshold with so much knife-work still left undone.

He looked up at the ceiling. The Master, The Dark Apostle Doranii would be directly above him. It was his honour to serve, and having witnessed what the Legio was trying to do, he did not even begrudge missing Doranii’s Ascention to Daemon-Princehood to stop them.

Iblis wished he knew what was going on above. His vox was damaged, and with the acolyte sliced apart by one of the Legio Astartes, there was no way of knowing if the psychic shockwave he had felt earlier was the Ascention or not. Without certain knowledge, he had to keep searching, protecting the base from those who would try to damage the equipment that made the Dark Miracle possible.

Up ahead he heard a low muttering. Silently he moved closer, keeping to the shadows.

‘Cholkus rhak verkun’t nassusa Muhannaha.’ It was another of the black-armoured Legio marines, slumped on the floor, a meltabomb in one hand and the black rites in his addled brain. He drew the blade of his powersword across the man’s neck as he passed, and continued the search.

They were like cockroaches; where you found one, others would surely be hiding not far away.

+++

From his hidden vantage-point, Captain Golgotha could see the two titans brawling through the wreckage of the vast chamber. Two daemon-princes? That was not what he had expected, but at least they seemed intent on knocking seven shades of tar out of each other. He recognised Tomax Hell, but he had no idea of the identity of the flame-red monstrosity the Warmaster was fighting.

He saw the newcomer rake his claws through one of the Warmaster’s membranous wings, before dancing back, away from Hell’s wild swipes. It seemed that Tomax Hell, despite all expectation, was having the worst of the battle. He seemed tired, slow, and his massive body was covered with innumerable unhealed wounds. In comparison the newcomer appeared fresher, but looked to be having trouble controlling its body, as though such bulk was new to it. The machinations and rivalries of Chaos were imponderable, of course, but could this be the Warmaster fighting off a newly risen rival for dominance?

Beyond the battle, Golgotha spied another familiar figure; Xamot Hell, the Warmaster’s brother. He caught Rhadamanthys’ eye and pointed in the direction of where the sorcerer was encamped behind a pile of Word Bearer corpses.

‘For Jarrett, Rhad.’ Golgotha said in a low growl.

‘For Jarrett, and The Emperor.’ Sergeant Rhadamanthys responded, and broke away with a half dozen Battle-Brothers to circle round and approach the chamber from the other side.

Golgotha looked back at the lined, strained, face of Epistolary Kruitzfeldt and didn’t even have to ask the question; he knew that whatever was causing the Curse was still operating. Dorff had warned him that the prototype Gellar Field Device he had been given would only last for a minute at the most, and in the presence of the ‘Curse’ machinery would probably lose all efficacy.

‘Brother-Sergeant Techer - Report. What is your situation? We need that generator down now.

After a short pause, Techer’s distinctively arrogant voice came clearly through the vox.

‘Charges in place, sir. Detonation set for ten seconds… Five… two, one…’

Nothing happened, apart from a stream of expletives from the former Cobalt Templar.

+++

Techer left his position of safety behind the blast door and ran back to where he had rigged the charges. If all that was wrong was a slow timer, he would effectively be running straight back into the blast zone.

What he ran into as he rounded the corner was a hail of bolt-rounds. Combat reactions kicked in and Techer threw himself to one side, suffering no more than superficial damage to his armour, and pride. Rolling, he drew his pistol and fired suppressive shots in the direction of the shooter, before charging down the corridor.

Ahead, he heard the sound of heavy metal hitting the ground, before the distinctive flickering nimbus of an igniting powerblade. Illuminated by the balefire was a Word Bearer, one bionic arm a twisted metal ruin, the bolter discarded on the floor.

‘Little Legio,’ the Word Bearer shouted. ‘you entered my lair and now you are going to pay the price. I gutted your Captain, Antaeus, on the deck of his own flagship, so what chance to you have in my lair?’

Fighting back the fury, Techer’s only response was to fire his bolt pistol at the traitor, and activated the field generators of his powerfist. Relishing the crackle of lethal energies flowing through the weapon, he leapt at the oathbreaker.

+++

Iblis timed the strike to perfection, and laughed as the powersword carved its way through the armour, flesh and bone of the marine’s chest. The return swing was aimed at the elbow of the raised powerfist. It sizzled through the air, an arc of burning death heading straight and true, which ended in brief resistance, and an explosion of light.

When his vision cleared, the loyalist still stood, whole, but Iblis’ powerblade was a third shorter and crackling dangerously. Unbelievably, his sword had broken rather than penetrate the enemy’s armour.

He stumbled backwards to avoid the powerfist that descended like a thunderbolt, and indeed his daemonic wards deflected the worst of the blow, but it left him stunned, and unable to avoid the second. He watched the fist descend, and recognised the eldritch feeling as time slowed to a standstill just before the killer blow landed.

‘My poor Iblis, you test me so…’ came the disembodied, golden voice. ‘With each time I am forced to intervene, your usefulness as a servant lessens.’ Iblis tried to cry out, to thank his benefactor, but the light brightened to dazzling…

…He stumbled backwards to avoid the powerfist that descended like a thunderbolt, and indeed his daemonic wards deflected the worst of the blow. Then he used the residual force of the blow to roll himself out of the way of the second. He was still alive and kicking! He was invincible!

Then the third strike from the powerfist caught him in the side, and he heard the crack as his spine snapped and splintered. The coppery tang of blood filled his mouth, but there was no feeling at all below his neck, which was probably a mercy.

The silent Legio marine examined him, and deciding he was no longer a threat, kicked his sword and bolter down the passageway with contemptuous flicks of the foot. With a sneer he left Iblis’ restricted field of vision, he guessed to reactivate the melta-charges that had previously been set.

With the Legio marine striding purposefully away, with not even a glance back in his direction, the whine of the timer filled Iblis’ world. He cried out, silently, for his patron to step in, to unspool time once more, but the golden glow failed to materialise.

Pain, blessed pain, began to flood back into his body, and with it stuttering control of his arm. It was as though broken glass was shifting inside him with every motion, but he had a measure of control. He tried to drag himself up and back towards the place where he had found the charges. It was his only chan…

+++

The explosion ripped through the generator systems, jarring the entire bunker complex before feeding back into the power grid. The resulting surge fed through the traitor’s warp generator for one final burst, and plunged the whole complex into complete darkness…

+++

Victory to Sergeant Jonathan Techer of the Legio

#21
Aurelius Rex

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(Author: TheDarkApostle)

+++

Victarious rose slowly from his throne on the command bridge of the Tears of I'Dhar. Two quick impulses next had awakened him from his mindless sleep like state. The first of the two had been the birth scream of Doranii, the second was the death scream of Iblis. Victarious sighed, so Iblis had been found wanting after all, he had been able to see the flaw in Iblis a long time ago so he wasn't surprised; it was a mistake he had seen happen to many of his brothers. What angered him was the disappointing fact that one of his greatest Champions had been found wanting. But it didn't matter, Iblis had done his part in the great marvellous play that now was unfolding before Victarious, and his legacy was secured in the child next to him. Doranii had thought he had been able to manipulate the Chaotica Tyrannus to do his bidding, but only too late he would realize his folly. The play would be great indeed, and it would only begin with the destruction of Antioc.

Victarious looked up on Vladek, his trusted second in command, and nodded. Vladek returned the nod and then looked out over the bridge.

'Full stop, turn her around and set new course towards Aqshyius!' he roared.

'Let me know when we are there.' Victarious whispered.

'As you wish, brother.' Vladek replyed.

Victarious turned around and laid his armoured gauntlet on the shoulder of the child next to him.

'Come, Ithariel.' he said, 'Follow me into the Darkness of this galaxy as far as you can, and never find yourself wanting like that fool, Iblis.'

Then the two vanished into the depths of the ship.

+++

#22
Aurelius Rex

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Regicide
(Author: Aurelius Rex)

+++

The lights went out, and Captain Golgotha fell to pain and darkness.

A small, rational part of his mind realised what had happened, but such knowledge made the fate all the worse. Harsh, warp-spawned words of blood and hate echoed within his mind.

It was the Curse of Antioc.

‘Varanath Lorgar juhakiz khaptin?’ the voice said, threatening to obliterate even his chapter’s Catechism of Protection from his mind. In the abyssal blackness a light flared, and the voice subtly changed. ‘Captain? Captain Golgotha. Get back here now, Golgotha. You can die on your own time… your mission is unfinished.’

He opened his eyes to see Inquisitor Holst staring down at him, her fingertips cold against his brow.

‘I am the instrument of the Holy Inquisition, My Lady.’ Golgotha said thickly. For just a moment he was sure he caught a smile ghost across her face, but then the wall of hard, professional detachment slammed back into place.

Climbing back to his feet, he looked around to see how his brother Astartes had fared. By the light of the thousands of black candles illuminating the battle of the two Princes of Chaos, he could see that three of his meagre command, nearly a third of those present, were slumped down, each tended to by a Legio brother. They had the glazed expression he had seen before in the eyes of the mind-wiped, or lobotomised. How many more of his men, indeed, how many Scions of Dorn had he led to this pitiable fate? He pushed the anger and self-doubt down and replaced it with a confident, devilish grin as he addressed his force.

‘Stay down; I have to do this first part alone, but be ready to come as soon as I give the command.’ He stared at each marine in turn, and finally at Inquisitor Holst. Perhaps it was the after-effects of the Curse, but it was all-too easy to for his mind’s eye to see the skull beneath the skin; how close they all were to death in this wretched place.

Brother Hywl solemnly passed him the box-like Device while Brother Ahrin unfolded the second belt-like variant carefully from its protective packaging. Not for the first time, Golgotha considered the leap of faith he had taken in entrusting them to the Devices supplied by a renegade. Given the consequences if Dorff’s creations were to fail, be it through chance or cruel intention, he was the only possible person to test them.

Bolter in one hand, the first Device charged and ready to activate in the other, and Apollyon chainsword snugly in its scabbard, Captain Golgotha of the Legio strode into the vast chamber, and towards the two entangled Daemon-Princes.

+++

Tomax rolled to deflect the worst of the impact, but the damage had already been done. The acrid smell of his own charred flesh hung thick in the air. Before he could recover his footing the Word Bearer lunged again, knocking Tomax off his feet and grabbing the tattered remnants of one bat-like wing with both red-hot hands. It seemed that to show his contempt, Doranii was going to take him apart a piece at a time.

The sickening sound of tearing skin, flesh and tendon as the appendage was wrenched off brought a bestial howl, but at least he was free, if only for a moment. Tomax scanned the chamber for his brother; for aid, but Xamot was nowhere to be seen. It was disappointing, but not wholly surprising that the sorcerer had fled when the battle turned against them. He and Doranii were alone amongst the corpses.

No - not alone! Beyond Doranii’s smouldering bulk there was an Astartes confidently striding towards them. Neither Word Bearer or Night Lord, but unbelievably the Legio captain from before; Golgotha. How in the eight hells did he track them here?

Even Doranii turned, at first amused by the sight. This soured as a series of well-aimed bolt-rounds punctuated each taunting challenge, Imperial proclamation and hurled insult.

It was not the bolter that sent the icy shiver of warning through Tomax’s spine, or even the ornate, oversized chainsword in his scabbard of which the Scions were so proud. It was the silvered Device in his hand. Tomax had seen such a thing before, when Heinlein had used it to incapacitate him in his own throne-room. As much as it pained Tomax to do so, he took advantage of the diversion and hobbled painfully away from the Legio captain.

When it activated, the mechanism drove him to his knees as the link to the Empyrian softened, but he crawled on determinedly. The further he got from the Device the more his daemonically enhanced strength returned, and the crushing weight lifted.

Finding a hole in the chamber wall, Tomax Hell left Golgotha and Doranii to kill one another. He was a veteran of the Long War, and knew when to gracefully withdraw from the field of battle. Once he had healed, rearmed and gathered his forces about him he would turn his attention to destroying whichever of them managed to survive the day.

Tomax Hell would rise again.

+++

Crushed beneath his own weight, Exalted Dark Apostle Doranii dragged his head up to look disbelievingly at the Legio captain. He had defeated that Inquisitorial agent, Belenus, he had even broken the Warmaster himself… By the Pantheon - how could this be happening? To have touched the Divine and reached such pinnacles of power and immortality, and then to have it all snatched away was intolerable! Even before his Ascension he would have been able to turn the loyalist inside-out and paint the walls in his blood with but a thought. Now even lifting his head from the floor was a supreme effort.

The captain beckoned out another handful of Legio Astartes. The vultures were circling. His only recompense was the knowledge that physical death would not be the end. One benefit of his Ascension was that destruction of his mortal form would merely banish his spirit to the warp for a spell. He would spend his enforced sojourn communing with the nature of Chaos, and plotting the most exquisite tortures for this Legio whelp on his return to the physical realm. He could not be stopped, and that was why the Pantheon would ultimately triumph.

Although his fused armour had cooled, the internal hellfires banked, there was still a shining core of flame inside, linking him directly to the Warp that not even their gewgaws could extinguish. Even as one of the Legio snapped a belt-like instrument around his lolling neck, Doranii twisted his face into a contemptuous sneer.

‘You won’t escape Imperial Justice, traitor,’ said the captain in a deep, defiant voice. ‘and you won’t be reborn from the warp. This necklace has been specifically designed to trap your spirit here.’ A rising sense of panic flooded Doranii as the machine was activated, and the secret, internal flame guttered and died.

‘This was meant for the Warmaster, but he left you to die in his place.’ The captain drew an ornate chainsword from his scabbard and tested the balance in both hands. Doranii tried to shout out, to call to the Pantheon for aid, but he had no breath in his body and it emerged as little more than a strangled yelp.

’Do not think to ask me for forgiveness, traitor.’ whispered the captain as he raised the spinning chain-blade. ‘Only the Emperor can grant you that, but you will be coming before him very soon.’

The blade fell…

+++

#23
Aurelius Rex

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Blood, Death and Vengeance

+++

This was the end for them, Xamot reflected as he limped painfully down the darkened corridor. Tomax had ruled for so long through intimidation and violence, but it was inevitable that one day his brother would run into someone even bigger, tougher and more brutal. There was no reason for them both to die, though, and with Tomax dead, leadership of the Seventeenth Legion of Fear would be his for the taking.

Ahead was a wide crossroads, far away from the sounds of battle, and broad enough to open the Gateway. Closing his eyes, Xamot reached out with his mind for where he wanted to go. Up, away from the planet‘s surface he rose, searching for the subtle resonance of another Night Lord. His mind‘s eye moved past a mote tumbling through the atmosphere, wreathed in death. Realisation of what it was brought a smile; he really was leaving this forsaken planet in the nick of time.

What he was searching for was in high orbit, powered down and hiding from the sensorium displays of the Imperial fleet, but not from him. One of his brother’s Wolf Pack vessels. Most had left orbit to chase down the Inviolate, but Xamot knew that his brother would keep at least one ship behind for eventualities such as this.

The half-dozen Night Lords aboard the ship showed up as red flares, their souls shining through the mundane matter of ceramite and plasteel. He selected what seemed to be the bridge, a wide open space large enough for his needs, and pushed open the gateway to link the two locations. Back in his corporeal body he felt something crack inside his head and migraine flashes scoured his vision, but the Gateway was open, and would remain so. It would collapse only after he passed through it. Pain was for the weak, but the intensity of the sensation was close to breaking him right now. Just a little longer, he promised himself.

Xamot looked at the shimmering, pearlescent hole in spacetime before him. A thought pacified the distorted membrane and the image of a ship’s bridge swam into focus, along with panicking serfs backing away in terror.

‘I am Xamot Hell, sorcerer and brother to your Lord, Tomax Hell. He has fallen in battle, but has named me the new Warlord of the Legion of Fear. Bow down before your new master.’

Three hulking figures, Night Lords clad in Terminator armour, stepped before the gateway, and Xamot’s grin froze in recognition.

‘My Lord Xamot; permission to come aboard, is… denied.’ It was Noctus Cain who spoke, and showed the greatest of pleasure in doing so. ’The last time we met I made you a promise. I said the next time you came within reach of my blade it would take your head from your shoulders, whoever your brother was. With him dead there is even less reason for me to stay my hand, but please, step across the threshold and test my resolve if you wish.’

Xamot stared numbly at the Dark Blade cradled at Cain’s side, and let the boundary fade out of focus. The doorway was still open, but at least he did not have to look at that leering grin as he considered his options.

+++

Brother Rhadamanthys of the Legio, and formerly of the Brazen Claws, scanned his auspex, and moved on through the corridors. He couldn’t believe that they had lost Xamot Hell; the sorcerer must have slipped out of the vast chamber while they were moving round to close the trap. The signal was weak, nearly drowned out by noise, but it was his only lead.

He was alone. When the lights had gone out there had been a feeling of, well, pressure would be the best way to describe it. An educated guess had put it down to the final gasp of whatever was causing the Curse of Antioc, and it had been too much for poor Epistolary Kruitzfeldt and Brother Pleshette. His experiences on Alcmene appeared to have left him strangely resistant to the guiles of the Warp, and he had left Hershu to guard their comatose bodies, leaving him alone to continue the search. The captain, and honour, demanded that Xamot be found and finally stopped today.

The blaze of light coming from around the corner made it obvious that the auspex had guided him truly. He silently replaced the locator and drew his chainsword from its scabbard. The Fillenostos pattern bolt pistol had never left his hand, in any case.

A careful look round the corner showed him the sorcerer; the one who had murdered Brother Jarrett before his very eyes. Xamot Hell was standing not twenty meters from him before one of his damned portals, his broad back to him. What was beyond the shimmering meniscus was constantly on the verge of resolving, but never did. It was exactly what Captain Golgotha had sent him to stop.

Balancing stealth with the need for speed, and knowing that the sorcerer could step through at any moment, Rhadamanthys crept forward, bolt pistol raised. The single headshot was out, obscured by the bulk of the backpack, but there were other options to slay the beast...

+++

Xamot dropped and rolled - combat instincts honed by the centuries told him that he was not alone. The bolt round gouged his armour as it passed and he threw himself into the cover of the corner wall of the crossroads to see a Legio marine running at him, chainsword raised.

He scrambled at his holster for his pistol, but it was empty, lost in the scramble for cover, meters away. In any case, his first recourse should always be to the arcane powers rather than a mere gun. But before he could summon the shoal of ripper-daemons to scour the flesh from the man’s bones, the Brazen Claw was upon him with a cold, mechanical fury.

Even despite the wounds he had sustained in the orbital bombardment and the agony lancing his skull, Xamot was not to be underestimated. A chop to the wrist jarred the chainsword from his enemy’s grip and it slithered and ground its way across the floor. Unfazed, the Legio marine slammed him into the wall and brought up the bolt pistol. Both men strained to control the weapon, its barrel precariously close to both their helmeted faces.

With a thought, Xamot made the shimmering membrane resolve, to show Cain what was at stake, and draw him into attacking the loyalist Astartes. Cain was still there, but over his struggling enemy’s shoulder Cain merely shrugged, his grin broadening on seeing the predicament.

Xamot returned his full attention to the bolt pistol, only to have it shoved back against his chest plate, the muzzle pointing up under his helmeted chin. He never even felt the bolt that blew out the top of his skull and ended his life.

+++

Rhadamanthys slumped down, dropping the dead weight of the headless Night Lord to the floor. His friend Jarrett had at long last been avenged. Like Draco Euripides before him, he would again see the body and armour of one of his Legio Battle-Brothers return to their homeworld. Jarrett had spoken of his world, Lacrymata, on only a few times, but Rhadamanthys would be honoured to take the pilgrimage...

Behind him a rush of wind, like an approaching express train made him look up just in time to see a huge black shape spear through the shimmering portal. It disappeared, plunging the world into darkness.

+++

#24
Aurelius Rex

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Round 6 – Last Person Standing
Sergeant Techer of the Legio vs. Canoness Betiand Veronika

(Author: Aurelius Rex)


Sergeant Jonathan Techer woke with a start. His last conscious memory had been of the explosion, and throwing himself flat to avoid the onrushing fireball. He had not expected his demolition charges to cause such devastation; they must have triggered a chain reaction among the rest of the base’s systems.

The vox, and most of his secondary systems were dead; fried, he supposed, by the proximity to the blast. It even seemed to have affected the air purification units in his power armour; there was definitely the odour of something putrid getting through the filters. The damage extended all the way to his external suit lights, but at least his powerfist was still operational - a credit to the artificers of the Cobalt Templars. With his objective fulfilled, it was imperative that he gather his men and rejoin Captain Golgotha.

Before the last flames from the explosion completely died, Techer broke the seal on the emergency lumen-stick and shook it. The pale green glow would be more than enough to see by as he started to search for his fellow Astartes.

+++

With enormous relief the Canoness reached the bottom of the metal stairway. The descent had been beyond precarious; every footstep accompanied by a chorus of screeches as the structure, damaged by the explosion, shifted and sagged.

Betiand Veronika chided herself for such a lack of faith. The Emperor himself had guided her down into the depths to find the Legio brother, so doubting the viability of the route she had been sent upon was tantamount to doubting Holy Scripture. The Crusade had been grueling, and much corporal mortification and penance would be required on her return to the Sacred Rose’s shrine.

There was a figure ahead, slumped against the wall. She quickened her pace, but still mindful of the dangers that still lurked all around. Her heart leapt as she approached; the figure did indeed wear the black armour of a Legio brother.

‘My Lord, is this the man you have me seek?’ whispered Veronika as she reached out to roll the man over onto his back. Had she been too cautious on the stairs? Had she failed and arrived too late?

+++

It was the sound of harsh whispers and the scrape of metal on metal that drew Techer onwards. Bolt pistol raised, he looked carefully around the corner and was horrified by what he saw. Kneeling over the corpse of Brother Meridias, arms coated with gore, was some kind of harpy. It wore the armour of a Sister of Battle, but the face was a stretched, contorted mask of skin, a pair of stubby horns poking through at the forehead. Angrily, Techer activated the powerfist and ran headlong at the corrupted abomination. The Curse of Antioc had perverted many a loyal servant of the Throne; even Sergeant Halfdan had fallen to it, so it came as no surprise that the Sororitas could also be tainted.

Techer screamed at her to get away from Meridias, but the words were drowned out by the roar of his bolt pistol. Fury spoiled his aim, but the impact of at least one bolt sent her sprawling backwards. A leap carried him over the desecrated body of his brother, but as he landed he was blinded momentarily by an actinic flash of a weapon, and the answering pulse of his Iron Halo. A roiling wave of heat swept past his left leg, but the protective field saw off the danger, proving once again that the craftsmanship of the Cobalt Templars was proof against the Ruinous Powers.

The stumble corrected, Techer brought back the crackling powerfist, but was knocked sideways by a hammerblow. Ceramite, plasteel and the hardened bone of his ribcage cracked under the impact, and he was only able to graze the corrupted Sister, who kept up an incomprehensible, foul stream of Chaos gibberish he had come to associate with the possessed on this wretched planet. Ignoring the pain he attempted to snatch the hammer from her grasp, but it was not to be. Instead he simply punched out, but the lethal energies of the gauntlet arced impotently across her armour and earthed themselves harmlessly.

This one truly had the protection of the Dark Gods, he thought grimly.

+++

‘He is the one, my child.’ said the voice in Veronika’s head.

It was clear from the glazed expression that the man was not in his right mind. Or, she suspected, was he even fully conscious. The green glow of the lumen-stick gave his sallow face an even more sickly pallor. None of which made him any less dangerous as an opponent. Heart thumping like a jackhammer and dazed by the impact of the enormous powered gauntlet, it was all Veronika could do to ward off his blows. Every second the fight went on saw her reserves ebbing away. She barely had the strength to raise the Malleus Pietae, the solid read of the blessed hammer throwing up sparks as it scraped the floor.

No! She could not fail her Emperor!

Straining every muscle and sinew to breaking point, Veronika brought the Malleus Pietae round for a last strike, only to watch dumbstruck as the marine effortlessly gripped the haft in his powerfist. It shattered, sending the head of the hammer flying over his shoulder, trailing sparks, and her sprawling backwards, the charred length of the haft in her hands.

Vision blurred, and then resolved upon the exquisitely carved Aquila that crowned the end of the hand-grip. It was made from granite, supposedly from one of the mountains of Holy Terra that the Emperor Himself had preached from. The Malleus Pitae had been wielded by a Canoness of the Sacred Rose since time immemorial, and she, Betiand Veronika had been the one to see it destroyed and sullied.

‘No. It can be reforged.’ whispered the Voice.

Even as the Astartes loomed over her, the Aquila began to glow with the burning light of purity. It was as though something were passing out of her, and into the broken weapon. Before the powerfist could strike, Veronika reversed her grip on the shattered handle and brought the incandescent Aquila round to strike him on the forehead.

The impact knocked the man, Techer, backwards, dropping him as though poleaxed. Climbing to her feet, Veronika found that not only was he alive, but the wrongness in him seemed to have been cast out. Other than the Aquila branded upon his forehead, his unconscious features had softened. Even his colour was returning. Tears of relief sprang from her eyes; she had carried out the orders of her Emperor and saved the man’s life, and also his soul.

From high above came the gruff battle cant of Imperial Astartes purposefully sweeping through the complex, and in answer to the unasked question, the warm Voice spoke one last time:

‘Thank you, My child. The taint has been cast out. If he had been found by any other of my loyal servants they would have put him to the sword, and only together will you two be able to forge the New Millennium in my image.’

Canoness Betiand Veronika sat down protectively beside her charge and waited for the other Astartes to arrive.

+++

The Last Person Standing and winner of the Crusade for Antioc, Canoness Betiand Veronika of the Order of the Sacred Rose.

#25
Aurelius Rex

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Epilogue
(Author: Aurelius Rex)

+++

The Exterminatus warhead tumbled through the thickening air. Its casing and systems, already damaged by the torpedo blast, could not withstand the temperature and stresses heaped upon it by re-entry. Finally, eighty miles above the equator, the tiny machine spirit executed its last command, and the crippled warhead exploded…

Even at a fraction of its optimal yield the results were devastating. Blossoming out like a second sun a thousand mile wide crater flashed into volcanic glass. The only proof against the detonation was the curvature of the planet, although the seismic shocks were felt worldwide. Then the firestorm began. Fanned by the super-storm at the heart of the maelstrom, infernos raged out across the world-spanning network of manufactoria, arsenals and chemical refineries. It consumed all in its path; righteous and corrupt, flesh and steel.

The Warmaster’s palace and the surrounding fortified city, cleansed at great cost in the Astartes assault was incinerated by the onrushing flames after three days. More than enough time for the Astartes to escape, but the less mobile Imperial Guard regiments, bogged down across the planet, had fewer options. In the face of the oncoming conflagration the battered remnants of both sides fell back. As always, such extreme conditions brought out both the best and worst in humanity, triggering brutal, craven cowardice as well as inspiring shining heights of heroism.

The Agranthus Memorial Spaceport’s normal role was reversed as it became the primary site for evacuation. The last person to step aboard the last transport out of Agranthus on the fifth day was a Colonel Welker of the Mordian 81st. He and his regiment stayed at their posts until the last second, covering the retreat of countless thousands against attacks from traitor guardsmen desperate to escape with the flames hard at their backs.

Surrounded by a hundred mile buffer of ash-waste, the Word Bearers bolt-hole remained untouched by the flames. After an exhaustive search of the bunker complex it was bitterly concluded that the Warmaster had escaped, probably off the planet.

As a salute to all their brothers, mindwiped in the base by the Curse of Antioc’s final sting, the Astartes Strike Cruisers Saint Jude and Valiant Sword obliterated the bunker complex and the pylons below with bombardment cannon. Then the storm-blown ash returned, covering the glowing piles of rubble.

On the ninth day, without warning or reason, the hell-borne winds died and the firebreaking efforts of the Adeptus Mechanicus at last began to pay dividends. Not even a third of the world’s surface had escaped the flames, and even that was damaged by war, seismic activity and the taint of Chaos. And yet despite all this, the Mechanicus was adamant that Antioc would be rebuilt as a forgeworld, no matter the cost and no matter how long it might take. Now it had been recovered, they were not going to let it go.

The Warmaster had escaped, Antioc was little more than a cinder, and the casualties suffered by the Crusade forces had been horrendous. An Inquisitorial Black Ship with the power of Exterminatus was in the hands of Astartes renegades and had escaped into the warp ready to wreak even more destruction… But despite all this, Tomax Hell’s own Black Crusade had been averted before it could gain momentum; his forces, traitor warbands and cults drawn from across the sector and beyond had been scattered or destroyed. However degraded the production capacity of Antioc, it was at least preferable to have in the Imperial fold than supplying the forces of the Arch-enemy.

It was a victory for the Imperium. A blood-soaked, pyrrhic one, but a victory nonetheless…

+++

Painfully, deliberately, Canoness Betiand Veronika climbed the ramp to the shuttle landing-pad. It was technically early afternoon, but the pall of smoke that hung in the air from the Great Burn made it feel more like midnight. The air was still warm, but as the world-fires burned themselves out, it would not be long until the lack of sunlight drove temperatures way below freezing-point.

Most of her time since leaving the Word Bearer bunker had been spent, unavoidably, in the infirmary of the Blessed Epiphany. This visit would be the last before they returned to Ophelia VII, and given the deaths of her Sisters, Veronika would be glad if she never set foot upon this accursed planet ever again. She had only returned because of the summons by the Magos in provisional charge of Antioc, but after a four hour delay the official audience had been cancelled, with a minor functionary hurriedly handing her an ornate, wooden casket. What she found inside made all the waiting worth while; her hammer, the Malleus Pietae, had been reforged. Its final reconsecration would of course have to take place back on Ophelia.

‘Canoness! Canoness Veronika!’ She looked round from the threshold of the shuttle to see a black-armoured marine running up the steps. She tensed, then recognised him and smiled. It was Sergeant Jonathan Techer of the Legio.

His recuperation since they had fought in the depths of the Word Bearer bunker complex had been dramatic, as she should have expected from an Astartes warrior. Far better than hers, in truth. The man had lost all sign of the phage that had dominated him, both in flesh, and in spirit. The Aquila was still burned into his skin though, a brand that marked him indisputably as a member of the Emperor’s flock.

Their conversation was brief and slightly awkward; Techer was clearly not a man comfortable with giving thanks to another, especially without being able to say what he wanted to within earshot of the shuttle’s pilot. She understood though. Before he stepped away and the shuttle took off, Veronika felt him press a thin scroll of parchment, sealed with wax, into her hand. She would have to return to the Order of the Sacred Rose, but knew their paths would cross once more in the near future. The Emperor himself had told her so.

The shuttle broke out of the shrouding darkness of Antioc, and into blazing sunlight.

+++

THE END