This is quite long - I couldn't see a word limit in a "fan fiction 101" type post. Apologies if I missed it.
Anyway, the very end of this story was an idea I'd been toying around with for a while and ended up writing the rest to fit it. I ended up liking the "squad" (you'll see why I put that in quotation marks) a lot more than expected. A lot of the place names are from my home-brew chapter background, which I have yet to finalise or post *ahem*, as I like to keep things in "my" part of the galaxy
Hope you like it (if you make it to the end...thanks if you do!)
The St. Erron’s Heart began life as a bulk lifter designated Breznos-31445-G, after the ship-yards that constructed her, and operated along the fringes of the Raddeus Expanse; hauling foodstuffs to towering hive cities, materials to continent sized industrial complexes, machinery to agri-worlds and round again. In over five centuries of service she had only visited sixteen different planets but had never stopped moving for longer than her allotted loading times. Retired from service after 512 years due to increasing faults and ever-more complicated repair requirements, her cheap construction forcing her to be abandoned after a comparatively short working life in the orbit of a salvage station ready to be ripped apart for parts and resources.
After 80 years of drifting, waiting for the cutting arcs and savage pulls of the scrappers’ tug-ships, she was recovered, renamed and refitted to ship people not parts. Increasing instability through-out the local sub-sector, the ongoing settlement of new planets, pilgrimages to the new Shrine World of Gralleum IV and the requirement to repopulate the manufactora-world of Pollax following the Inquisitorial purge, meant there was no shortage of refugees, migrants, pilgrims and settlers needing to be moved. Given such demand the sector administratum considered the use of vessels such as the St. Erron’s Heart, otherwise destined for oblivion, a necessary inefficiency.
Thus reborn, the St. Erron’s Heart provided began her hauling duties again. After 2 decades of renewed service, whilst carrying pilgrims to Gralleum IV, the she met her end when ambushed by the Archenemy warship Morbid Intent. Forced from the warp via means unknown, she was boarded and subsequently destroyed when her plasma drives were overloaded by the invading forces. The fate of the 20,000 pilgrims was never established, whether the St. Erron’s Heart was specifically targeted or whether the incident was merely a random crossing of paths with the Morbid Intent is unknown. Barring the involvement of traitor astartes, itself a disturbingly more frequent occurrence since the Great Rift opened and therefore less noteworthy than once might have been, the demise of the St. Erron’s Heart was considered unremarkable by the administratum clerks who recorded the details of her loss.
* * *
Paullox laughed as the remaining armsmen broke ahead of him; a bubbling, ripping sound punctuated with wet clicks from something broken in his torso. He sent a salvo of shots from his combi-bolter down the passageway at the fleeing humans, catching two more with mass-reactive rounds which splattered them messily over the walls and their surviving comrades. One of these found his nerve, maybe at the sight of the horrific deaths, and spun to return fire; his boot came down on the spilled entrails of one of his comrades and he fell, auto-gun shots puncturing the walls and ceiling. Paullox laughed harder, spittle and phlegm flying from his roaring mouth, corroding walls and dissolving bodies wherever it landed. The armsman’s bravery fled as quickly as it had arrived, and the man pathetically tried to scramble backwards away from the advancing Death Guard. Paullox continued his remorseless advance, never varying his pace nor ceasing his gurgling chuckle.
The human ahead of him attempted to find his feet but fell again. This time he landed on a discarded laspistol and, to Paullox’s surprise, he picked it up, turned and began to fire from his prone position on the deck. Several rounds hit Paullox but he felt nothing beyond the dull impact to his armour. He fired back but his aim was poor and his bolt tore off the human’s arm gripping the pistol. Face white as corpse, the armsman picked up the pistol with his remaining hand and continued to fire. Paullox was impressed, the un-augmented human should have died from shock already and instead was continuing to send a stream of las rounds down the passageway at the Death Guard. Paullox fired again, a single round aimed at the man’s legs, and struck true. Everything below the knee on the man’s left leg became shredded meat and bone fragments. Still he wildly fired his little pistol at his attackers. Paullox realised he was enjoying the man’s stubbornness and refusal to die, something the Death Guard could relate to. Another bolt, the other leg gone, the man continued to fire but his aim was so unfocused now that most of the las rounds struck the deck or walls well short of the unstoppable traitor marines. A few more shots, the man’s gun hand dropped, and he slumped sideways against the wall. Paullox drew level with him and finally stopped.
Behind him the giant Tauron Pox approached.
“He died well,” said Paullox. “Died hard”.
“Dead is dead,” said Tauron, shifting the weight of the heavy-bolter he carried.
“True, but there’s dying and there’s dying.”
Tauron regarded Paullox for a moment, trying to divine some deeper meaning to his words but finding none worthy of comment. Instead he pointed to Paullox’s gut.
“He got you,” he said. “Several times.”
Paullox’s helm no longer functioned to give him damage status, his own corrosive spit and endless mirth meant the bottom half of the faceplate had melted away millennia ago. He struggled to peer over his own distended torso but could see nothing beyond a few wisps of smoke rising up past his gorget.
“How bad?” he asked.
“You’ll live” replied Tauron. Paullox began to laugh again as the rest of the squad joined them. In truth squad was too organised a word for them now. The six of them who were left now fought together more from habit than duty or formation. What to call themselves had been a recurring topic of conversation. Gregul’s suggestion of a Festering was favoured as both a designation and name. Thinking of it now made Paullox laugh even more.
Sarkas the Retch was pressing a deformed and pus-weeping stump to the side of his helm and interrupted Paullox’s laughter.
“Herg wants to know where we are Paullox,” Sarkas said. “Apparently we should be at the next cargo-bay already”. Paullox could hear the mockery in Sarkas’ tone. Death-Lord Rathern Herg the Pale, to give him his full, self-anointed, title was a popular source of amusement to the Festering; insubordination and disrespect were also things that kept them together. Their undeniable efficiency and experience meant even Herg would not punish them for attitude alone. They did their work well whatever the orders were; Herg sent them where they were needed, and they killed everything there and everything on their way there too. What were a few mocking comments and a lack of formality between old comrades after all?
“Tell his august lordship the Festering are about the enter Cargo-bay 413 and are, by my count, ahead of his schedule” Paullox said. Sarkas snorted, a ropey cloying noise amplified by his helmet speakers, and relayed the message, word-for-word. Paullox knew everything about the response would enrage Herg, the term Festering seemed to particularly trigger his ire. Paullox could imagine Herg seething impotently and he started up his perpetual laugh. He waved the rest of them forward but paused for a moment to look at the dead armsman again. Already the gifts of Nurgle, which surrounded to the Death Guard in a sickening miasma, were at work on the dead flesh, turning the open wounds purple with advanced necrosis. Somewhere in Paullox was a surprising nugget of respect for the human; he had fought on despite his horrific injuries, such an effort was worthy even if, in this instance, wasted. Paullox followed, still chuckling to himself.
Cargo-bay 413 was only around a few more turns in the ship’s passageway, the thick access door sealed shut when they approached. Armust Felg poked the control panel but, as expected, the door refused to open. Merleve Cyst-Bearer positioned himself opposite the door and prepared to fire his meltagun. By any rational measure the weapon should not have worked, strings of mucus and bile constantly ran from every opening in the gun. Before he could fire it Merleve pointed the barrel down and a flood of foul liquid splashed on the deck. He raised the still dripping weapon and, despite the corruption, it fired a beam of white-hot energy which began to eat away at the door.
Without needing instruction, the rest of the Festering turned and kept watch along all approaches. At the far end of one passageway a group of armsmen appeared wheeling an autocannon carriage into position. They were out of range of his weapons but not Tauron’s heavy-bolter. The big Death Guard braced himself and, with a concussive roar, a seemingly solid line of rounds reached out from the heavy-bolter to tear through the humans and rip their heavy weapon to pieces. Tauron ceased fire and a relative silence returned. From the moment the first of the armsmen appeared to the entire team being destroyed had only been twenty, maybe thirty, seconds. So pathetic, so mundane, weak and all-too-human. Resistance on the ship was practically non-existent, it’s defenders more used to crowd control than warfare. An easy mark but a dull one.
Behind Paullox the meltagun fired one final time and Merleve lowered the coughing, red-hot barrel. He nodded to Armust who dropped his shoulder and charged the area of door surrounded by glowing, collapsing metal. Armust’s pauldron split on impact, showering the surrounding area with pus and black blood, but the barrier gave and, with a tearing screech, a large section fell back into the cargo-bay. Armust said nothing, he never did anymore; not since a single, thick spar of cancerous bone had erupted from the front of his face and punched through his helm. It happened over three centuries ago, but the growth still looked newly exposed with scraps of wet meat stuck to it. The rest of them presumed there was no room on the front of his head for a mouth with which to speak but then there was no room for a mouth to breath or eyes to see for that matter. Armust’s growth hadn’t impaired him in any way though, just rendered him silent.
Paullox lead the way through the breach, combi-bolter sweeping left and right for further targets. None presented themselves, just a huddled mass of humans at the other end of the bay, pressing themselves as far back as they could. Three hundred or more pilgrims, spending their worthless lives trying to get to their Corpse-God’s shrine on Gralleum. They were amongst the thousands of others on board which could be used, as per Herg’s plan, as plague vectors, cultists and cannon-fodder to turn Gralleum into a shrine for different gods.
Paullox strode towards the cowering mortals, unclamping his chain-axe as he approached. He held the weapon up for the humans to see before triggering the mechanism. Nearly all the metal teeth had long since been stripped out of the chain from endless years of use, only a handful of them remained now. The rest had been replaced with actual teeth; human, ork, aeldari and many other species provided contribution to Life-Biter’s smile. When activated, the teeth, packed into every available space on the chain, scraped along the innards of the weapon and elicited a screen reminiscent of its victims’ final sounds. The crowd of humans tried to squeeze back even further, trampling some of their own to the deck. Paullox laughed at them, the sound generating further moans and wails of fear.
“You are slaves of the Death Guard now,” he yelled over the huddled mass. “Resist and die, comply and live.” More screams and crying, Paullox mused for a moment on an earlier form of compliance, in another life.
One of the humans stepped forward, a young man, his face full of fear but also determination.
“Ah,” said Paullox, “a hero. There’s always one.”
He didn’t wait for the man to speak or act, however futile it might have been, but revved Life-Biter and brought it down on the man’s shoulder, cutting down through his torso and out above the opposite hip. The man died too quickly to scream, which was a shame, but the sight and sound of his bisecting was normally enough to remove any last thoughts of resistance from the remaining pilgrims. To emphasise the point, he spat a lump of acidic mucus on the man’s head which began to rot instantly, the flesh starting to slough off the skull.
To his surprise, as he opened his mouth to speak again, another stepped forward. A young girl, in a dirt stained slip that was maybe white once. She said nothing, just stepped from the crowd and looked up at the towering Death Guard in front of her. Paullox could have killed her instantly, and had raised Life-Biter to do so, but instead he found himself transfixed by her stare. Her eyes were golden, two brilliant orbs of pure golden light. Paullox tried to speak but only managed a groan before falling to his knees and then onto his side.
“Witch!” shouted Sarkas, “take it down.”
The Festering opened fire, primarily at the girl and, once she was hit, marching their fire through the rest of the pilgrims. Better to lose a few hundred mortal slaves than risk a Death Guard falling to another hidden psyker. Several rounds pinged off Paullox’s slumped form, the Festering presumed him dead, but he was unable to move or make a sound. He was blind and mute and immobile; all he could think of was the golden light. The roar of bolters and the screams of the pilgrims was constant but eventually began to trail off. Still Paullox couldn’t move or talk.
The last shots died away to be replaced by the sounds of the Death Guard moving around and the occasional moan of the dying. Those were brutally cut short. Steps approached Paullox from behind, from the whine of the armour it could only be Armust. He stepped over Paullox without looking at him and retrieved Life-Biter. Such storied weapon was worth recovering; Paullox, a fallen and failed Death Guard, was not. Just another member of the Festering gone, like so many others before. More footsteps as the Death Guard moved around the cargo bay, occasional stamps, resulting in splattered crunches, when survivors were discovered. Eventually they left and Paullox was left alone surrounded by the dead.
He attempted to move his head and the front of his helmet, little more than a palm-sized curve of distorted metal, fell away; the power of Nurgle’s blessing, holding together the ragged remnants of his armour, was no longer enough and the corroded metal had given way. Paullox felt warmth bathe his face but could not see for a film of grime and pus coving his eyes. Eventually, with much blinking, this came away in flakes. He was looking directly into the eyes of the child and they were still glowing an unreal gold light. It felt like the sun upon is bare face and he felt the light reaching his shoulders and chest as the armour there also felt apart. He had felt that golden glow before and it’s surrogates many times; Primarchs bore it in their DNA, the Legion Custodies carried it with within themselves, a talisman made of their duty, but none of those compared to the source. Three times Paullox had beheld Him, once distantly on Terra, his company returned to the Throne-world during the Crusade for a ceremonial duty, the second time in the midst of the fighting the Khera'Nex xenos on Ebinos 284, surrounded by His companions as they cut towards the meld-gate with the Death Guard trailing in their wake, and finally up close on Ullanor, for the victory parade, before the descent into darkness and madness began.
The child was dead, most of her torso and one arm torn away by a bolt detonation, but through her dead eyes He looked out and strait at Paullox. The golden light seemed to grow in intensity and flowed over and through him. His secondary heart, corrupted but still functioning, had been labouring to pump filthy blood around his frame for the last four millennia since an Aeldari warlock had plunged a wraithblade into his chest and bisected his primary heart. With a painful lurch the useless organ began to function once more, and blood was forced down arteries and veins long-withered to little more than husks. Paullox coughed up a mixture of phlegm and blood, painfully emptying his lungs of foul mucus and other fluids, he gasped in a great gulp of air and, for the first time since Mortarion’s bargain was struck, clean blood flowed through him carrying life and rejuvenation to his limbs.
The last rotten plates and tubes of his armour fell away and Paullox pulled himself from the wreckage of his wargear. Every movement seemed difficult and heavy; muscles and joints unused to moving without the ever-flowing gift of Nurgle supporting and maintaining them in their degraded and corrupt state. He was healed, a word long since disregarded and irrelevant in the ranks of the Death Guard. Clean limbs, straight bones, strong deep breaths and the powerful beat of a healthy astartes heart. The golden light had restored him to what he once was ten millennia before.
Paullox no longer needed to look at the dead girl’s eyes to see the golden light, it was everywhere. His crawl had brought him along side the body of the pilgrim he had cut down with Life-Biter, the mans face had been disfigured by Paullox’s corrosive spit but the wound, though horrific, was clean with no trace of the foul contagion which swam in the bodily fluids of all Death Guard. Likewise, the bodies of other pilgrims, though hacked down and brutally torn apart, showed no sign that their killers we been Nurgle’s chosen. The bolts and blades of his brothers were so saturated in filth and disease that the merest cut would infect an un-augmented human with a plague so virulent that the greater part of their body would have rotted down the bone before they could take more than a few steps and their hearts liquified in their chests. Of that necrotic touch, there was no sign on the bodies nearest the dead girl and as Paullox watched, the bodies further away, in an expanding circle, lost the green-black tinge of disease and decay.
Slowly he pushed himself to his hands and knees and then, finally, on to his feet. Swaying, he turned back to the dead girl, his eyes streaming tears in the intense golden light and he remembered. He remembered everything. He remembered wearing white power armour with a trim of green. He remembered fighting alongside Imperials Fists and White Scars and Wolves of both kinds. He remembered friendly duels with Emperor’s Children and long campaigns with the Iron Warriors. He remembered rivalries and friendships both within his legion and without. He remembered Legionary Darl Larinous of the Raven Guard; wrestling and fighting in the sparing cages, laughing and reminiscing over battles and follies past, comparing tactics and techniques. And he remembered Darl on Istvaan V, clubbing him to the ground with his bolter before sinking Life-Biter into the side of his helm. He remembered the fleet becalmed in the warp and the effects of Mortarion’s desperate agreement creeping through his flesh. He remembered Terra and the siege; the endless fighting and dying beyond measure or sanity. He remembered friends, foes, brothers, and Primarchs. Above all else Paullox remembered Him, the source of the golden light. Ten thousand years after forsaking Him, Paullox Gralg, once loyal Legionary of the Death Guard, fell to his knees and wept for his betrayal and for his Emperor.
* * *
One hour and twelve minutes after the St. Erron’s Heart was first boarded, demolition charges placed by her invaders went off and her plasma drives overloaded. The rear third of the ship was instantly vaporised, including Cargo bay 413 where Paullox still knelt, his blood swimming with sacred anti-bodies capable of defeating any plague, virus or disease that even a foul god could conceive. The remaining length of the ship broke into multiple parts, drifting through the uncaring void.
Edited by Graceless, 20 July 2020 - 05:04 PM.