“And the knife-ear raids, did you get him to call fo—”
“No, Captain, I could not convince him of the need to request assistance. He has given us leave to adjust our perimeter as we see fit to protect the palace, only.”
“Commisar, that won’t do, you know that won’t do. You showed him the transmissions from Islmorta, didn’t you? The fires were visible from orbit! We need reinforcements before they co—”
“And we’re not getting them, Captain! I did all I could. The man has become bloated on his indolent lifestyle and quite immune to appeals to reason or actions that require effort. We must make do. Our orders are quite explicit to fortify only the palace. I suggest you prepare emergency shelters within the outer walls for as many of our workers as possible, and withdraw as much of the regiment as we can afford to defensive positions around it.”
“And our units left outside? The millions of workers who’d never be able to travel to the palace, let alone fit inside the walls? What about them?”
“...The Emperor protects, Captain. That is all.”
As if a patch of the starry sky became a silken sheet and slipped away, a Dying Sun battleship appeared in the upper atmosphere of Saint Dominigus, followed closely by a dozen Torture-class Cruisers. The Blackguard Kabal had arrived.
As Archon S’iaofex strode through the teeming mass of warriors on the launch deck, all rushing toward landing crafts, his Heirarch appeared at his elbow.
“You will be disappointed, master,” he said cautiously, “the Mon-keigh expected us, but their defenses are pathetic. There is a handful of nearly unprotected complexes where the workers dwell. Their real defenses are concentrated around a single compound while large, and mostly unprotected caravans have been identified traveling towards it. There is plenty for the taking, but the slaughter will be...dull. Hardly worth your time.”
“Hm, a shame,” S’iaofex intoned, his pace slowing for a moment as he seemed to pause, consider, before resuming as before, “But it has been too long since I have set foot on a ripe world myself to spill its blood, and I thirst for slaughter. This will have to do. Direct our warriors to the largest caravan at the edge of their defensive range. Let them watch as we fall upon their wards.”
“Very good, master,” the Heirarch bowed and disappeared into the crowd.
++28 kilometers south of the Governor’s Palace complex++
“Keep it movin’, keep it movin’” the guardsman called over the rumble of feet, vehicle treads and frightened murmuring, “You’ll all be sleepin’ sound in short orda’!”
He turned to look over the front of the column just in time to see a massive lance beam scythe through it, atomizing dozens of civilians and carving a flaming gouge in their path.
“Taaake covaa—” He began to shout, before a fighter bomb detonated only a few meters behind him, obliterating the man and another group of civilians nearby. All was chaos. Shadow-like open-topped gunships swept down all around the convoy, unloading kabalites already in the act of unleashing their full firepower on the defenseless humans. The token force of guardsmen and volunteers that defended the convoy were struck down quickly, and the Drukhari began to close in, relishing the opportunity to savor the humans’ suffering up close.
In the space of a heartbeat, the battlefield changed. Wisps and tendrils of fog twisted into existence seemingly out of nothing, a thick, translucent shroud falling over human and eldar alike. The fighting paused, not with the hesitation of those who have lost sight of their enemy, but with the uncertainty of those who sensed that something was...wrong.
The lull was brief, though, as the drukahri lust for murder had been far from satisfied. They began to pick their way, perhaps a little cautiously, through the stifling mists towards the muffled cries of their prey, firing occasionally in the direction of the callouts and screams from the stranded caravan members. The Heirarch moved through the murk somewhat more leisurely than the other warriors, the thrill of bloodshed not as strong in him, knowing how weak their prey was. He came to a sudden stop as the terrain beneath his feet abruptly changed. He looked down at the pool of rippling water he’d stepped in, confused but not quite able to articulate why. The mon-keigh cultivated this world for food; it should come as no surprise that it would be damp. Then why did this disturb him so?
Nearby, a lower kabalite warrior froze, halfway across a similar pool. A motionless, hulking form lay in it, a form he recognized, one that should not have been there. The warrior reached out a hand to touch the armor, oblivious to the second looming figure that rose out of the pool behind it. The kabalite paused, hand mere inches from the armored form, then seemed to make a decision, turning abruptly to call out. In a flash, a blade nearly the length of the drukhari’s arm rammed up through his throat from behind, and he expired with little more than soft gurgle.
Through the impenetrable mist, the Heirarch noticed nothing, brow wrinkling as he continued to stare at the water in front of him. Understanding finally dawned on him, as he realized that he stood on the water as if it were a polished mirror instead of a shallow pool on a pitted, muddy road. No sooner did this realization come, than an eroded, ceramite gauntlet burst from the water and clamped down on his throat like a vice. The Heirarch stared with bulging eyes at the visage emerging from the water behind the fist. The form of the mon-keigh space marine was a familiar, if unwelcome, sight in its own right. But this one...ancient in appearance, rust gathered at the joints of the pale armor, and both the helmet optics appeared to have been lost, but still from somewhere inside came a cold, blue glow. Water continuously streamed out of gaps and large cracks in the armor, over every surface, flowing like life from a body. His own body, the Heirarch numbly realized, as darkness closed in from the edges of his vision. He had a vague impression that the armored figure was descending back into the pool, taking him with it.
As if the disappearance of the Heirarch was a signal, the mists lit up with bolter fire, eliciting screams from a new source as the drukhari were cut down in quick succession. The tall silhouettes of astartes materialized in the mists, striking and disappearing just as quickly. Kabalites howled in anger and terror as some tried to fight back against the elusive figures, while others were dragged into pools, vanishing completely beneath the surface. One warrior, twisting around every way in the mist, just trying to lay eyes on the enemy, and eventually he threw his weapon down in panic, shouting at the fleeting figures of their assailants.
“I surrend—” the eerily dampened report of a bolter cut off the shout, just one more shot among many in the foggy darkness.
A pair of reaver jet bikes came singing discordantly through the fog, swooping low and slowing in their efforts to pick targets. One of them managed a glancing blow across the back of a marine, only to be swatted out of the air in a gout of flame and water as a massive mechanical arm burst from a pool in its path. With creaking and groaning of metal, a towering, rusted war machine rose from the water, turning its other fist toward the surviving reaver while beginning to lumber across the battlefield. A hail of bolter fire stuttered from below its metal wrist, several rounds detonating along the flank of the bike and sending it crashing into the ground. A moment later the dreadnought stomped into another large pool and seemed to collapse and vanish into it, even as several shots from nearby raiders pinged off the aged armor.
S’iaofex stood amid the chaos surrounded by the few remaining members of his guard. The bodies on the ground showed a loose perimeter that had been chipped away bit by bit. A pair of shots pierced the mist, the first deflecting off the armor of one the Incubi bodyguards, detonating against the ground nearby, but the second shot punched through the helmet, the drukhari’s head bursting as the round exploded. S’iaofex fired in the direction of the bolter fire. He was sure he had killed at least a few of them with shredder blasts, but their bodies were gone each time he tried to confirm it.
His own armor had absorbed several glancing blows already, and couldn’t stand much more. He hissed retrieval orders into his helmet for his personal gunship, but heard only static in response. He whipped around, searching for another target, only to be confronted by a solitary astartes, rising from a pool just in front of him, a dripping bolt pistol leveled at his head. For a moment, S’iaofex’s grip on his shredder tightened, and he snarled, but then dropped the weapon. The pistol discharged, but the Archon’s head was no longer there; he moved with lethal grace, a splinter pistol in his hand where there hadn’t been one before. He flowed in closer to the marine, using one arm to block the marine’s intercepting movement as his own pistol slid in under the marine’s chin and fired.
The shot burst from the top of the marine’s helmet, and S’iaofex had a moment of satisfaction as warm liquid spattered on his face, but his smile faded as the body collapsed and he saw the source, tasted it on his lips; not blood, water. Before he could give it more thought, a proximity alert signal sounded in his helmet, and the dark shadow of his gunship descended smoothly through the fog above, coming to a hover next to him.
“We barely received your summons, Lord,” called the pilot, “There’s some kind of inter—”
“Get us back to the assault boat, now,” S’iaofex hissed, leaping aboard.
“Yes, Lord,” came the quick answer, and the vessel rose up through the mist. Their ascent seemed quick enough, but they didn’t break the mist. Just as a chill of fear began to blossom in his stomach, they burst through the ceiling of the fog into clear night air, and he was ready to allow himself a sigh of relief. But his unease hadn’t faded. The sky was alarmingly bright; an immense blue moon hanging in the sky. It seemed oppressively close. He loathed it; the night was supposed to belong to the Blackguard, but it had betrayed them.
“Take us to the fleet,” the Archon ordered as he dismounted, climbing into the hold and dropping tiredly into one of the jump seats.
“Setting course for the rendezvous,” came the pilot’s voice over the comms, knowing better than to ask about the fate of their forces still on the ground, “We haven’t had contact since your assault began, my Lord.”
Not for the first time that night, S’iaofex felt a prickling on the back of his neck. They cleared the atmosphere quickly, and after taking a few moments to compose himself, S’iaofex made his way into the cockpit. As they reached the rendezvous point, they could pick out the Archon’s battleship, the Tyrannical Mother already waiting. Approaching the flagship, though, it became clear that it had not arrived unscathed. Smoke and sparks poured from a number of large breaches in the starboard hull, but the ship still appeared to have full power.
“What happened?” He demanded.
“Our communications are still down; it’s some kind of interference, possibly psychic.”
Growling, he turned away, moving towards the main hatch. In short order he was striding down a corridor toward the bridge of the Mother, tailed by several attendants.
“We tied them up with the other cruisers, but they came out of nowhere,” one was saying.
“They all looked like mon-keigh vessels,” put in another, “but we can’t identify their defenses. Many of our weapons seemed to have no effect.”
The doors to the bridge opened, displaying the inky void ahead of them through the great viewports. S’iaofex turned away from the conn, coming up behind the communications pit, the hapless kabalites shrinking from his gaze.
“Get me something,” the Archon hissed through his helmet, eliciting flinches.
One leaned forward, making a console adjustment, “My lord,” she said, keeping the tremor out of her voice.
Static filled the chamber, punctuated by bursts of voices; calls for retreat, screams of pain, roared commands, coming in broken pieces. The rest of the crew listened, some grimacing, some grinning. These sounds would have been music to S’iofex’s ears if they had come from another source. Now they just marked his failure. He glanced out the viewport again at the looming, mocking moon hanging before them.
Turning back to berate his crew, the Archon froze, feeling the prickling on his neck again. The moon had not been in view before. He straightened up and whirled back to the viewport, the crew following his gaze. The moon was there, impossibly close...and a Mon-keigh battle barge directly in front of them, growing as it advanced, listing slightly to the side as it seemed to careen towards the bridge, filling their view. Somehow they could hear it, the distressed groan of the colossal metal plates, and finally someone shouted, “Brace for impact!”
He turned and ran, lowering himself in anticipation of the collision. A sudden rumble came, and screams behind him, but nothing more, and glancing back he saw a wall of water instead of a fiery explosion rushing towards him. Hard as he ran, he couldn’t escape, and within moments he was overtaken and the water slammed into him, tearing him off his feet and sending him hurtling down the corridor.
Tumbling end over end, a couple of times he collided with a wall, or a corner, until finally he was slammed against a sealed bulkhead, the current flattening against the closed doors. He felt his armor buckling under the pressure, and the doors straining beneath him. Just when he thought the water would crush him into oblivion, the pressure withdrew. S’iaofex floated for a moment, trying to see down the corridor, but the scant lighting maintained on the ship had all but gone out. Looking to the ceiling, he could see the water beginning to recede. Steadying himself in the water, he waited for it to lower further.
The water was still receding when S’iaofex saw that he wasn’t alone. The head of a tall figure was visible above the water, moving steadily towards him in the dark. He dived back and tried opening the doors. They parted slightly, but seemed to stall. Turning back, he saw nothing in the water, but surfacing again, the figure was visible once more, now a full head and wide, armored shoulders above the water. This space marine wore no helmet, and his hair, long and dark, moved unnaturally as he seemed to stride through the water, drifting behind him as if he was still submerged. As he came closer, a glow began to emanate from the armor, casting a ghastly light on his face from below. His eyes, too, began to glow, illuminating pallid, wet skin.
“What are you?” S’iaofex called at the tower of the aged, rusted armor. The marine advanced in silence, the water having lowered enough to reveal a crackling power sword in his hand, curved and with cruel serration on one side.
“What are you?” the Archon demanded, back pressed against the obstinate doors as one hand tried vainly to open it. He could see the face more clearly now, gaunt, skin cracked liked desert earth with glistening inky blackness underneath. The marine was less than a dozen meters away, and though the water now just around their ankles, his hair and the tattered, rotted cape across his shoulders continued to drift as if underwater.
“WHAT ARE Y—” S’iaofex’s last roar was cut off as the power sword impaled him, spearing through the door at his back. The body went limp, and as the last of the water drained away, S’iaofex’s limp form collapsed to the deck, his corpse alone in the corridor.
The Tyrannical Mother drifted in a decaying orbit over Saint Dominigus, its fires all extinguished, but dead all the same, the battle barge emerging from its stern as if the two had never touched. The engines of the astartes ship flickered to life, and it laboriously turned, making its way toward the waiting moon, joined in short order by other ships in the same pale, faded livery.
With hesitant whimpers and moans, the survivors of the convoy to the governor’s palace stirred as the mists retreated, finding them on the outskirts of a silent battlefield, strewn only with the bodies of their attackers, the skies lit only by stars.