26 July: Minor details changed to better fit later chapters.
Chapter 4.2: Worse Than Its Bite
Lancaster cautiously approached the Space Marines, as if trying to calm a growling dog. "Um, Lord Donner?"
"Brother Donner," the Marine corrected, his pickax rising over a stubborn root at the clearing's edge. "I won't dishonor my kin by claiming a title I've yet to earn."
The young man smiled. "Then our people have something in common."
"Speak, Sieur Lancaster." Donner halved the root; the tree-beast writhed like a gutted eel as it died.
"The others sometimes call you 'Red Eagle.' Is that an earned name-- a title?"
The Blood Claw turned to study the young man. 'He's approximately my age when I was chosen,' for the Space Wolves Legion. "I earned the name when I carved a Blood Eagle in a sorcerer's back."
"Carved an eagle...?"
The Wolfbrother's grim smile revealed Russ' Mark; long fangs, ready to tear flesh from bone. "You cut open a man's ribcage, spread the bones like an eagle's wings, and offer the lungs to crows and vultures; ideally, while the man lives. Cruel, yes," he nodded at the scent of Lancaster's fear, "but it alone is fitting for the traitors who receive this punishment."
"How did you stop the sorcerer from cursing you-- without killing him, as you cut open his ribcage?"
"The battle ended faster than you think. The sorcerer's focus was on another. I slashed with my sword, opening his back as he turned to blast a friend," Donner paused, remembering his friend's death on that lifeless moon, and suppressing the grief it aroused, "jammed a grenade between his ribs, and leapt clear as it detonated."
Lancaster's eyes widened at the image. "And Brother Bjorn? And Brother Henrik? And Brother Manfred?" The attention-- hero worship-- warmed the Marine's heart.
'Caution, lest your pride lead you to sin and ruin, as Warmaster Horus' did.' "Of Brothers Henrik and Manfred, I can't say; they served in another's Great Company. Of Brother Bjorn, he earned the name 'Firewalker' on Surt, a world of blazing darkness.
"Surt is a volcanic world that's never seen sunlight, so thick is the smoke and ash. Despite its hellish environment, the world is home to millions, for its quakes constantly expose veins of ore. When an Ork--"
"Croak." The colonists fell silent, frozen but for their shivering hands.
Red Eagle found the scent of fear near-overwhelming as a terrified Lancaster mouthed, "Barking Toad." The name was meaningless to the Marine, but he knew better than to second-guess a death world's human inhabitants.
The creature was unimpressive but for its ugliness and obesity; it would fit in a child's hand. Clashing colors-- red-and-black, yellow-and-orange, symmetrical stripes-- highlighted its vile appearance. Donner saw no danger as the toad squatted...
The air carried a chemical scent to Red Eagle's nose; alkali and poison. 'What triggers the creature's defenses? What's the medium-- gas, liquid, poisoned darts?' he wondered as the toad crawled away from the clearing, leaving a darkened patch of ground.
Something stalked the toad. Donner's eyes caught a Thorny Strangler's silhouette. Lancaster shouted, "Take cover!" Then the colonists threw themselves away from the toad, planting their faces in the scorched earth.
Boom! Burning pain rained on Red Eagle's scalp, eating his hair to the roots. 'Corrosive vapor!' Tears felt like acid as they flowed down Donner's cheeks, washing toxins from his eyes. The Marine grit his teeth to silence a scream, the effort making his gums bleed; the scent of his own blood, the sound of his heartbeat overwhelmed all others. Hands turned over Red Eagle, whose arms flailed until he recognized the speaker's voice.
"Calm, Brother Donner." Bjorn-- wearing his helmet to defend himself from the lingering toxins-- took a handful of earth. "I'll put something on your face to absorb the venom." Once his brother stopped struggling, Firewalker covered Red Eagle's blistering face. "Breathe slowly; the danger is past." Bjorn turned to the colonists, his optics flaring with questions.
Cracks appeared in an earthen shell, revealing eyes and a mouth as Lancaster said, "We were lucky that was a Lesser Barking Toad." The young man pointed at the dead toad; the creature was burst open, its acid-venom discharge reducing the surrounding vegetation to ash. "Its big brother can kill everything within a square kilometer, including itself. I'm surprised it didn't blow the moment the Cricket did."
"What beast would evolve so self-destructively?" Manfred voxed from the watchtower.
Hawker, wearing a respirator mask, used his knife to shovel the ground where the toad squatted. "One willing to sacrifice itself for its children." The now uncovered eggs blazed with malevolent, red light, reminding the unnerved Wolfbrothers' of a daemon's eyes. "Eggs and tadpoles are immune to the venom; they'll endure fire, drought, even pass through a scavenger's digestive system and crawl out its feces." At a snap of his fingers, a third man brought a cryogenic coolant tank. "We better freeze the eggs and smash them to pieces, or the accursed things will kill hundreds."
"Wait," Henrik raised a hand. "What's a Barking Toad's gestation period?"
"They'll hatch in five days, and mature-- ready to mate, lay eggs, and explode in its spawn's defense-- in 40. Why?"
Once, the slave would admire the colonists' defiance as they carved a new home in this hostile environment; once, the slave would pity the men and women for what would soon befall them. The slave lost the ability to feel empathy or any human emotion, after it mutated. Its form no longer recognizable as "human," the slave pierced the foliage with an insect's compound eyes; Bjorn and Donner were white-hot silhouettes in the cold-dark jungle, as seen in the near-infrared spectrum.
Its antennas caught a scent. Mandibles moved, despite their inability to voice the ideas filling the slave's degenerate mind, as the words 'Blood, burns, pain, poison, death, destruction,' flooded a psychic link to its master.
The Thousand Sons sorcerer punished his slave with a psychic stimulation of pain. "Focus! What defenses have they?"
The slave reluctantly obeyed, seeking the silhouettes of gun barrels and missile launchers. A white bloom-- infrared energy flaring as a Huey gyrocopter's engines ignited-- drew his attention. 'Ozone, electricity, carbon, burning, metal.'
Magister Minoris Seth searched for clear images, finding sense when he saw the Huey through the slave's eyes. "Track the aircraft." The sorcerer summoned a heavy weapons team in the Huey's projected flight path, with orders to down the gyrocopter. Hearing their footfalls, Seth turned away from the thing answering his psychic call, his eyes unable to bear the former Prospero Planetary Defense Force (PDF) servicemen-- a gunner, loader, and their tripod-mounted autocannon, fused into a monstrous beetle whose mismatched limbs flailed about the horn-like gun barrel-- a reminder of his flesh changes, and his possible fate.
'Prey, prey, prey.'
Seth felt nauseous as he suppressed the thing's mind, denying it release until the Huey entered the weapon's maximum effective range. "Fire a burst at the engines. I want prisoners." He reached for his...
Wham! The sorcerer found himself laying facedown, a great weight on his back, and a blade piercing his primary heart. "Ahhhh!" At his command, the heavy weapons team fired a burst across Seth's back. The thing sent its master a view of the unmistakable silhouette-- a Space Marine in power armor, who flew from the sorcerer's back, clear of the autocannon shells, before diving behind a tree-- as the weapon roared, rending trees to wooden chips. "Cease firing!"
'Prey, prey, prey.'
"I order you to cease firing!" Seth punished the thing with the pain of 1000 cuts; once the gun was silenced, the sorcerer rose to his feet. "Preysight." Infrared sensors captured the loyalist Marine's footprints for a split-second, before they became cool and untraceable. "Show yourself, nithing!" Seth called the Wolfbrother unmanly and without honor, the greatest insult to a Fenrisian male; the only sound was the Huey engines as the gyrocopter flew away. "Slave--"
Seth saw his slave could no longer serve him; a stray shell beheaded the slave when the autocannon overshot its target. 'My assailant used the aircraft to distract us, covering the sound of his approach. My slave's death is likely at Fate's whim, but my assailant remains a worthy foe. The nithing will suffer millennia of pain, tortured by the most terrible warpspawn I command.' "We are leaving." With that, Seth opened a Warp portal.
Henrik smiled, watching the Thousand Sons Marine led the gun-mutant-amalgam away from the ambush site-- the sorcerer's backpack bearing barking toad eggs in the power plant's exhaust pipes and stabilizing jets-- through a sniper rifle's telescopic sight. 'Allfather willing, let the eggs hatch in the Thousand Sons base-of-operations,' he prayed as the portal closed. Then Nightsbane left, taking care to sweep away his footprints with a leafy branch.
Edited by Bjorn Firewalker, 26 July 2010 - 11:02 PM.