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Death March (Twisthammer - Book Four) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy

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  • Death March (Twisthammer - Book Four) - fan reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy


    Twisthammer – Book Four

    Flames of war spread through the galaxy as the Imperium is wracked in civil war. Rebel Primarchs and their Space Marine Legions, led by Iskanderos of Imperial Redeemers, are swelling their numbers with the disaffected and the disregarded while expanding their holdings. Their enemy is the Council of Terra, led by Rogr Hemri, master of the Lion Guard and Consul of the Imperium, who holds the Regency during the Emperor’s absence, and who swore to protect his father’s domain from this insurrection.

    Though the rebels claim that the Council usurped the Emperor’s rightful position, there is another force at play, an insidious ancient power the mortals call Chaos which took root among them. As some Legions fall fully under its sway, gaining terrifying power while paying unthinkable price for it, the Council is divided on how to deal with the rebel threat. The proud Primarchs, demigods crafted with arcane and forbidden science, are wary of their brothers gaining too much power and prestige, though all are fearful of Iskanderos’ ascendancy.

    The worlds burn at the tread of humanity’s greatest heroes and protectors turned persecutors and tyrants. Fleets clash in the unforgiving void and wrecks of a golden age continue their slow drift in the interstellar space. On a million planets, humanity waits in trepidation, not knowing if the war of the gods will bring them final deliverance or final damnation.

    But not all of the loyal Primarchs are part of the Council. Some prefer not to dabble in petty politics; others are only concerned with the matters of war. A few are shunned even by their peers, adored by none but their Legions and dreaded by all. Their names are spoken of quietly for the fear of invoking their wrath; their deeds are such that mortals dare not cross their path. And yet, it is them who may hold the key to the outcome of the war…

  • #2
    Dramatis Personae


    Marvus, the Hollow King, Primarch of the Doom Reavers
    Iskanderos, the Conqueror, Primarch of the Imperial Redeemers
    Rogr Hemri, the Emperor’s Hammer, Primarch of the Lion Guard
    Ashur, the Black Reaver, Primarch of the Midnight Riders
    Mohktal, the Enlightened One, Primarch of the Illuminators

    Doom Reavers, XVIII Legio

    Jair Hrasnac, First Tier, Captain of the Sunderer
    Szando Contarades, the General, First Tier
    Lascar Elthaman, the Marshall, First Tier
    Melchior Darbassa, Second Tier, Commander of the Sixth Batallion
    Farras Timai, Third Tier, Destroyer Captain, Sixth Batallion
    Bilac Kindu, Sergeant, Sixth Batallion, Third (Destroyer) Company (the Bastards)

    Imperial Redeemers, VI Legio

    Tilsit Demetrios, Lord Commander of Ninth Jond, Equerry to the Primarch
    Tarnac Wali, Emissary of the Legion
    Apollus el-Rahim, Lord Commander of Second Jond
    Yusuf al-Malik, Master of the Diadochi

    Imperial Personnel and Other Humans

    Janna Rasic of Ophelion Secundus
    Mikael Savonne of Ophelion Secundus
    Miranda Iagos, Scribe of the Logos
    Donall Vorsse, Lord Commander of the 76th Expedition Fleet


    • #3

      Never again.

      He looks at the viewing port and sees the tapestry of heavens continue its slow rotation. Stars, planets, galaxies, each a blemish upon the firmament of nothingness, each a tiny speck of light that fits in the palm of his hand.
      The ship’s engines continue to hum faintly, the sound almost lulling him to sleep. She is nothing like the vessels he knows – a sleek, dangerous predator cutting through the unknown like a shark in some distant, inky ocean at alien midnight.

      Shark. Somehow, he knows what a shark is, though he had never seen one in his life.

      He closes his eyes and counts out seconds. They pass slowly, each a calculated pause in the fabric of time, yet they do nothing. The memory remains.

      He knows that he can change the view on the screen; the ship’s thrusters can rotate it in any direction at a whim while inertia carries it to the farthest edge of the system. He can do it; it would only take a curt command, only a few syllables.

      No. Too many things remain there. Too many dreams and memories he will never admit to another living soul, even if he lives. He ponders the thought for a moment. He is not sure if he cares.

      The noise is pervasive and somehow isolating. It covers everything with a blanket of numbness. It dulls his thoughts and gives him a semblance of peace.

      Even this semblance is more precious than what he left behind.

      He forces himself to look forward. The stars and the galaxies are almost, but not quite familiar. He recognizes some, while others appear distorted due to change in perspective.

      Always forward. If there is a future, he will face it. If there is no future, he will perish. Here in deep space, he contemplates, life, death, past, future – they lose all meaning. There is only him, the ship, and the endless, limitless void outside of its thin shell. If he dies here, the universe will not miss him.

      The thought invites peace. It invites calm, almost grateful acceptance. It brings resolve to see this through, no matter to what end.

      As he looks forward into the unknown, his lips mouth out the words.

      Never again.


      • #4
        Unleash the Destroyers
        Bastard’s Lot

        There were no clouds on Falchion. Though a world of its size deep in the habitable zone of a G-class star should have been able to maintain an atmosphere, some ancient cataclysm must have stripped it away, leaving little but dead rock and jagged edges of impact craters to rise towards the constellations like ruins of long-forgotten apocalypse. Now, the only clouds on the fortress moon were man-made.

        Swarms of dust and rock fragments rose into the clear black sky, falling in orderly consequence as gravity conquered the force of impact propelling them forth. The ground shook as artillery pounded the distant fortifications, its rumble silent in the absence of atmosphere, infrequently illuminated by the concentrated lance strikes from ships in orbit and the aurora of void shields straining to resist the bombardment. Occasionally, the planetary defense guns struck back, using momentary pauses in the relentless skyborne assault to retort and to stave off the attackers for another pass, another rotation of the dead world on the edges of Apellene space.

        Farras Timai crouched inside the trench, auspex in his hand sending contradictory readings all over the spectrum. The recycled air inside his helmet had a weak but distinct taste of iron combined with stale sweat and the odor of body kept in a confined environment for too long. His eyes traced the flight path of munitions over his head, impacting somewhere on the other side of the trench.

        “The bastards are persistent, I’ll give them that,” he growled to no one in particular, adjusting the mag-locked grenades on his belt.

        “Problem, captain?”

        In the shadow cast by the mound of gravel providing cover, Bilac Kindu’s bleached yellow armor looked grey, the three-sided insignia of the Eighteenth Legion on his pauldron an indistinct splotch of paint barely maintaining a coherent shape. The bulky shape of his volkite caliver rested uneasily in his hands, the weapon cradled against the nook of his arm.

        “Not if we can do something about it,” Timai quipped. “Three hundred meters… that is all.”

        Though his head was obscured by the helmet, Kindu’s voice relayed his worry. “We will lose half the company to those lascannons before we get a shot off.”

        The captain nodded slowly in agreement. “Some kind of a miracle wouldn’t hurt just about… now.”

        The ground shook several times in rapid succession, followed by an unsettling quiet. All over the trench, the men of the Third Company tensed, readying their weapons as if preparing to repel an assault. Timai risked a peek over the edge of the trench.

        Long, thin lines of lasers charted their targets across the sky, where fighters and bombers attempted to survive long enough to deliver their payloads. Mangled metal of tank traps created a spindly forest of limbs pleading for deliverance from the broken ground, where all semblance of natural topography was scrambled by week-long bombardment. A low silhouette of the bastion stood sentinel over the maze of trenches and wreckage of vehicles from the initial, unsuccessful assault. Beyond that, ten kilometers towards the jagged horizon, the spire of the Imperial Redeemers’ fortress remained, as inviolate as ever.

        “The sappers are yet to report back,” Timai said, switching to private frequency. “I expect them to find the same thing as before.”

        “Mines, and more mines,” Kindu agreed. “And where there are no mines, there are traps. Dishonorable.”

        Timai laughed bitterly. “We, of all people, calling the Sixth dishonorable?”

        “That’s what they expect from us, brother-captain,” Kindu chuckled. “They are the uptight, better-than-you bastards who think you should stop shooting them while they run at you with that stupid grin on their faces. Hah!”

        “And yet, here we are.”

        “Yes, here we are,” harrumphed Kindu. “This is not how I thought I would be spending my leave.” There might have been humorous intent to his words, but his tone was too dry for any of it to carry over.

        A trio of bright stars attracted Timai’s attention, instantly resolving themselves through his visor filters. A wry grin crossed his face, completely invisible under the reinforced ceramite of his helmet.

        “Third Company, get your asses down!” the captain shouted, the first to throw himself as close to the ground as possible. “Things are about to get interesting!”

        The lights flew overhead, bulky shapes of Fire Raptor gunships blocking out the stars as missiles streaked towards the distant bastion. The ground trembled as the force of the magma bombs sent earthquakes across the broken ground. Rocks rolled down into the trench as a hundred miniature avalanches, throwing the few unwary Legionaries off their feet and hurling unsecured weapons and equipment left and right. Environmental warnings flashed across Timai’s helmet display even as the dispensers built into his armor pumped drugs into his system to counteract heightened radiation exposure.

        “What are you waiting for, Bastards?” Timai screamed, climbing over the edge of the trench and scuttling forward while keeping low profile across the no-man’s-land. “Do you want to live forever?”

        “Well, yes,” replied Kindu on the private channel, surveying the damage from the gunship attack. Where the gun emplacements once guarded the bastion, a gaping breach was now formed, still glowing with the heat of molten rock rapidly cooling in vacuum. “I don’t think it will be an issue, now.”

        “Men, you know what to do,” voxed Timai on the company frequency. “Get in there, and make the Sixth cry.”

        * * *

        We paint this world with caged sunlight. We make it dance with the strikes of our lances, and shiver with the kinetic munitions. We make it sing its regrets for the life it could never sire.

        Melchior Darbassa summoned up the holographic projection of Falchion’s globe before him. The image flickered in and out of existence for a moment before stabilizing, resolving the features of the planet’s crater-pocked surface in forms that were quickly becoming familiar. Though the image was almost three meters in circumference, easily larger than even a fully armored Legionary, it felt too distant, too imprecise, too small for the scale of planetary assault it attempted to represent.

        We are the coming doom, and there is nothing they can do about it.

        Instead of providing comfort, the thought was as distressing as always.

        Fifty kilometers behind the front lines, Darbassa could barely feel the tremors from orbital bombardment in his underground bunker, and though the interaction between the lance strikes and the defenders’ void shields painted auroras in Falchion’s magnetosphere, he could almost forgive himself for thinking that the war was nowhere near him. He could almost convince himself that things were as they have always been – slow, measured, rational, the potential of the Great Crusade to reunite the scattered humanity not yet played out to its full and terrifying conclusion.

        Now, this.

        This is not how it was supposed to end. The Emperor’s announcement of the Crusade’s end should have been the beginning of the new golden age for all of his subjects, the restoration of human dominion that would now and forever defy the Old Night and its terrors. It should have been the greatest accomplishment in the long and tortured history of the species, not merely another act in the tragedy of futile endeavors.

        Darbassa sighed. The planet before him receded to allow him a view of near-orbital space where the remnants of the Apellene Network defense platforms dueled with the fleet of the Eighteenth Legion, the Doom Reavers. His Legion.

        “Your orders, sir?”

        A voice – a human voice, Darbassa reminded himself, broke him out of his reverie. The Doom Reaver turned to face the human communications officer, a badly scarred man with enough facial augmetics to pass for a servitor. He searched his memory for the officer’s name.

        Mikael Savonne, that’s it. Darbassa sighed.

        “No orders, not yet, Major.” Even sitting, the Doom Reaver towered over the other man. Darbassa imagined how he must have looked to the human – a heavily armored killing machine more than a man, a monster borne of sciences beyond the keen of mortals and tasked with expanding the Emperor’s domain. Was it really the Emperor’s domain, though, he wondered, before banishing the treacherous thought from his mind. This is just what Iskanderos wants us to believe.

        “But…” Savonne seemed hesitant. “The fortress…”

        “Yes, Major, the fortress still stands,” Darbassa recited with little enthusiasm. “And yes, the Primarch’s orders are very clear. He wants what is in that fortress, and he wants it intact.”

        Savonne uncomfortably shifted his weight from one foot to another. “With all due respect, sir, the astropaths are reporting increased aetheric message traffic across the sub-sector. An attack on the Legion positions elsewhere could be imminent.”

        Darbassa shook his head. “Did Elthaman put you to this?”

        “Sir… the Lord Marshall… I would never…”

        “He did, then,” stated Darbassa as a matter of fact, before his voice grew considerably more irritated. “I know he is eager to get this campaign over with, but if he wants something, he is welcome to talk to me himself.”

        The mortal shied away, lowering his eyes.

        “Just what I thought,” Darbassa added angrily. “The fortress will fall. All I need is more time.”

        He pointedly faced the double blast doors leading to the rest of the Doom Reavers fortifications captured by the advance assault two months ago. Behind him, the holographic projection blinked and reset as the cogitators processed updated streams of information from orbit.

        The doors opened, almost on cue, and a trio of power armored warriors strode in, frost covering their armor to suggest their recent exposure to hard vacuum outside. Two were helmeted, carrying their boltguns as if expecting an assault at any step despite being deep in the friendly territory. The head of the third warrior was bare, his face covered with week-old stubble and brow adorned with a splattering of service studs. Five service studs, each a representing century of service.

        “Lascar,” Darbassa greeted the other officer, giving a curt nod to the helmeted Doom Reavers. “What do I owe the pleasure to?”

        “Let’s cut the pleasantries, Melchior,” Lascar Elthaman answered with an exhausted sigh. He walked over to the holographic projection, grasping Darbassa’s wrist in a warrior’s greeting. There seemed to be less strength in it than usual. “How fares the assault?”

        Darbassa shrugged. “It doesn’t. We hit the bastions, they fall back. Rinse and repeat.”

        A frown momentarily appeared on Elthaman’s face, though it vanished before Darbassa had a chance to comment on it. “And so it continues,” Elthaman said, frustration evident in his voice.

        “It would have been easier if the Fifth Legion made good on their promises,” replied Darbassa, belatedly realizing that it sounded like a wayward apology. “Any word on where they are?”

        Elthaman spread his arms wide. “Your guess is as good as mine. They were supposed to make planetfall two days ago.”

        “So much for the best laid plans,” Darbassa grumbled. He cast a longing glance at the hologram. “Say, when you were the Legion Master… what would you have done?”

        “Me?” Elthaman laughed, but there was no mirth in the sound. “I would not have had a complicated plan relying on allies. But then again, Lord Marvus is a Primarch. He can contemplate and design things even the likes of us struggle with.”

        “That sounds like you are not entirely convinced.”

        “That I am not,” Elthaman admitted. “What could be so important about that fortress that we spend another two months grinding out a siege instead of moving on?”

        Darbassa spread his hands. “Who knows? I have my orders, you have yours, and we do what the Primarch tells us to.” He thought he caught a brief glimpse of a bitter expression on Elthaman’s face before the other officer composed himself.

        “Nevertheless,” said Elthaman. “I was sent here by Lord Marvus to personally monitor the progress of the siege.” A loud sigh followed the words. “His patience is running short.”

        “Perhaps he can conjure the Midnight Riders out of thin air, then,” blurted out Darbassa, not bothering to hide his frustration. “Or, failing that, he can send another battalion this way.”

        “This is…” Elthaman added quietly, as if embarrassed to admit what he was going to say, “this is the real reason I was sent here. He did not want to entrust the message to vox traffic, should it be intercepted.”

        Darbassa perked up instantly, partially hopeful that the impasse would be broken, partially anxious to find out what kind of orders he would have to contend with. “I am all ears, brother-commander.”

        Elthaman sighed. It occurred to Darbassa that the other officer was old – very old, even by the standards of the Legiones Astartes. He was probably one of the oldest Space Marines still serving, even after the effects of time dilation caused by the Warp travel – easily old enough to remember the beginning of the Great Crusade, to rise through the ranks to command the Eighteenth Legion, and then to surrender its command to the Legion’s newfound gene-sire. Darbassa held back a sudden pang of sympathy; it could not have been easy to surrender such power, such responsibility to another, no matter how gifted.

        “This, Melchior, is what the Primarch wants,” continued Elthaman after a momentary pause. “The Fifth Legion is nowhere to be found, and the time is running short. You know what that means.”

        A grimace of disgust curved Darbassa’s mouth downward. “Here? Now?”

        “Don’t blame me, brother,” Elthaman said apologetically. “We all have to get our hands dirty sometimes. Even you, for all it’s worth.”

        “I suppose there is not much of a choice for the likes of us, is there?”

        Elthaman laughed briefly – a cold, harsh, pained sound borne of no good feeling. “There never was a choice, Melchior.”

        “Then, I suppose, we do what we must,” Darbassa said, resigned. “The Third Company is engaged at the outer bastions… but reassignment should be a relatively simple matter.”

        “I hoped it would not come to this, old friend,” Elthaman shook his head. “But it must, this time, and probably the next, too. The contents of that fortress are now… of secondary importance.”

        “Then it is settled,” spoke Darbassa, feeling the weight of the decision bear down on him like g-forces during a rapid orbital insertion. He walked over to an instrument panel, tracking down the battalion command channels as he glanced over the constant data flow of situation reports, casualty lists, and tactical updates. He took note of squad and company positions, ongoing assaults, current breaches of the enemy defenses and incursions in progress. “Here.”
        Darbassa’s finger pointed to a situation report, and Elthaman got closer to browse through the lines of text. An amused expression dawned on the former Legion Master’s face. “That is almost too perfect.”

        “That it is,” agreed Darbassa. “They are already in position to do some serious damage. It will not take more than a couple of Wyrm Alphas to get them even closer.”

        “I like the way you think, Melchior,” said Elthaman, keying in commands with his override priority. “Two Wyrms are now rerouted from the Fourth Battalion. They should already have the breacher charges equipped.”

        “And thus,” Darbassa intoned, as if it was some tragic poem of the bygone age, “here we go again. Once more, we shall unleash the Destroyers.”

        * * *

        The Third Company ran across the uneven terrain, keeping their heads low to avoid any potshots from the surviving defenders. Rarely, Timai saw the characteristic explosion of opportunistic bolt pistol shots hitting targets, but for the most part, the assault was as devoid of color as anything he had ever experienced.

        Fighting in vacuum was always an eerie sensation for him, punctuated by the absence of sound as the only indication of the outside world was the low rumbling of ground tortured with munitions impacts. Now, after the Fire Raptor bombardment, even that took on a surreal quality of something taking place half a continent away.

        Timai’s own weapon was silent, though he kept the volkite pistol at the ready. Any mortal enemies should have long been silenced by the bombardment, but there was still an elevated change of Astartes activity in the bastion, and the Doom Reaver did not want to take chances.

        He counted the meters as his armor’s auto-senses helpfully pointed out the ever-shortening distance between him and his objective. The subvocalized orders in the Legion’s battle-cant were long given, the auspex scans evaluated and analyzed with the speed that made the warriors of Legiones Astartes the fastest reacting battlefield force in the entire Imperium. All that remained was the killing.

        Farras Timai vaulted over the rim of a crater left by the Fire Raptors’ missiles, even as radiation warnings flashed before his eyes. Speed was of the essence; he could not afford to give the defenders a chance to regroup and to form an appropriate welcoming committee. In his estimation, he had mere seconds before the Imperial Redeemers managed to pull some of their power armored reserves from other sectors.

        That is, if they still had power armored troops on this Emperor-forsaken rock.

        A ragged opening greeted him where walls and guns once protected the soft insides of the bastion from the unforgiving void. Timai briefly scanned the area, trying to identify any semblance of resistance. A slew of corpses were all that remained, faces contorted with the effects of rapid decompression, eyes and blood vessels burst. Human corpses.

        “All clear,” he voxed to his men, lunging into the opening and scrambling to find some cover before advancing. “Missiles.”

        He saw a heavy weapon trooper trudge on past him, hauling the inelegant form of the rad missile launcher. The Doom Reaver positioned the weapon using a wall of mangled rubble as a mount, then fired into the opening.
        Timai counted seconds. Three. Two. One…

        Hostile environment warnings lit up like the festive sigils on a civilized Core World. The captain held his breath in anticipation. If anything still lived in the depths of the bastion, its life expectancy was now measured in seconds. Even his own armor, though reinforced with the best measures ever designed by the weaponsmiths of Mars, was no proof against such weaponry, the silent killer that slaughtered the bravest warriors without a chance for a fair fight.

        He counted down again. Though the effects of rad weapons would persist for centuries, the worst exposure was limited to those in the immediate blast zone thanks to the ultra-short half-life of select radioactive elements. In mere minutes, the Doom Reavers would be able to tolerate short-term exposure to elevated levels of contamination.

        “I suppose it was too much to hope that we don’t get scrubbed today,” quipped Bilac Kindu, leaning in behind the same cover taken by Timai. For the moment, the interference made even short-range vox-communications garbled, and Timai only inferred the sergeant’s meaning rather than actually heard it. He grunted, though for all he knew, the reply might have been lost in the static.

        As soon as the armor sensors suggested that radiation went down to more acceptable levels, Timai lurched forward, volkite pistol in one hand, lightning claw adorning the other. He cycled through the vision modes, attempting to minimize the interference until settling on one. The lights in the bastion were knocked out by the Fire Raptors, and as the air evaporated onto the barren surface of Falchion, the Legionaries found themselves in complete darkness.

        The Doom Reavers sped through the empty halls, mindful that even their armor provided them with only momentary reprieve against radiation. Timai felt the familiar sting of needles piercing his skin and digging deeper into the spine, pumping his body full of drugs to help him survive the next several minutes.

        A sudden movement ahead made him bring up his pistol, firing an opportunistic shot in hopes that it would hit something. “Enemy ahead,” he voxed, hoping that his sergeants would have enough sense to pass the message along despite the interference. “Power-armor.”

        A volley of bolter shots greeted him, forcing Timai to weave to one side and another as he attempted to minimize his target profile. Several plasma shots lit up the insides of the bastion, revealing utilitarian, coffin-like corridors devoid of ornamentation, mangled pieces of machinery, and hallways at least five meters wide and tall enough for armored Legionaries to walk unimpeded. In the glimpses afforded by the plasma guns, he saw a makeshift barricade – a pile of rubble more than anything built with the intention of safeguarding the men behind.

        “No!” Timai barked an order at a trooper with the rad missile launcher. The Third Company could not afford waiting again while the localized hot spot dissipated. “We’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.”

        He ran as fast as his augmented muscles would allow, his men giving chase with combat knives and pistols at the ready. A few were felled by the bursts of gunfire, but the shots seemed haphazard, ill-coordinated.

        Timai’s lightning claw lit up with crackling energies as he used it to swat away pieces of armature making up the barricade. As he powered through, he led with his pauldron, taking a few shots in the heavily armored shoulder but avoiding any major damage as he came face to face with the enemy.

        One glance told him everything he needed to know about these Imperial Redeemers. The paint that once adorned their armor was peeled, as if subjected to extreme environments, and their movements were sluggish and shambling. There were four of them, and, though they held on to life with a tenacious grip, the Doom Reaver was certain that if he could wait for another ten minutes, he could have walked through this area unopposed.

        That is what terminal radiation sickness would do to you, Timai thought, firing two shots in rapid succession. For once, he was thankful for the lack of sound as he saw armor and flesh disintegrate, blood evaporating into vacuum and settling down as fine, dark mist.

        In a way, it was a mercy. He had to keep on telling himself that, every single time.

        The two surviving Imperial Redeemers attempted to flank him before the rest of the Third Company arrived, but Timai was having little of it. His lightning claw made a figure of eight even as his pistol released the third, and final shot, boiling the head of the enemy warrior inside his helmet.

        Farras Timai stooped low, admiring his handiwork as his men gathered around him. The radiation counter inside his helmet rang more warnings; it was still far from safe to remain here for long.

        “We move,” the captain voxed, pointing forward. “No need to spend any more time in decontamination chambers.”

        “Sir, message from high command!” Mardu, the squad’s vox operator had to get within few meters of Timai to overcome the interference. The captain wished that the tight-beam technology could be made portable enough to equip every Marine in his squad; as it stood, Mardu was his only connection to the outside world at this time.

        “Can it wait?” grumbled Timai, breaking into a measured run to get further away from the irradiated zone. “I have no desire to lose what little remains of my hair.”

        Mardu matched his pace, speaking even as he ran. “It is Commander Darbassa. Highest clearance.”

        “Patch him through.”

        More static filled the vox channel as the imperfections of tight-beam transmission were compounded by the interference. For a moment, Timai likened it to listening for fine points of a musical composition from under ten meters of water.

        “Sir,” the captain acknowledged the receipt, hoping that the connection would hold. It took a moment of calibration before he could make out any sounds at all.

        As he listened on, he could feel the bitter tang of disappointment swell within him. Though Timai never stopped moving, he rapidly pivoted, signaling his men to follow before cutting the connection.

        “That was quick,” commented Bilac Kindu, falling into pace with his commander. “Do we at least get to blow this place up?”

        “No time,” Timai growled, slapping a fresh energy cell into his volkite pistol. “They are moving one of the line companies here.”

        “Sucks to be them,” said Kindu philosophically. “Clearing out this rat-infested hole is not my idea of a good time.”

        “Be careful what you wish for, sergeant,” replied Timai. “We may simply get to clear a bigger hole with larger vermin.” As the Third Company crawled back to the airless, broken surface of Falchion, he pointed at the distant silhouette of the Sixth Legion’s fortress. “It sounds like the Primarch is done waiting for the Riders to show up.”

        “Oh joy,” Kindu squeezed out the words as understanding dawned on him. “Is this what I think it is?”

        “Yes, brother-sergeant.” A flight of gunships passed overhead; Timai pondered if they were the same ones that broke open the bastion they just attempted to storm. “Looks like Commander Darbassa, in his infinite wisdom, decided to throw all our forces at that rat trap, and hope that it breaks open before none of us are left. And we, his Bastards, get the honor of being in the vanguard.”
        Kindu laughed. “I guess high command is done with trying to capture it intact.”

        “Such is the Bastards’ lot,” Timai shook his head. “And the lot of every bastard on this Throne-damned rock.”


        • #5

          Full Deployment

          It was not the fighting that got to Farras Timai the worst, but what came after – the heavy breathing as he came down from the adrenaline and the drug-induced rush, the struggle to relax his reflexes after jumping at every shadow and hint of movement, the persistent drone of armory machinery as the heavy duty servitors mumbled nonsense while removing the pieces of his war plate. He found the adjustment difficult, the very thought of safety a temporal and illusory feeling at best.

          The sound of servo-arms moving was too much like the vibrations of the fibre-bundle artificial muscles granting his armor its strength, the low thrum of devices reminiscent of the claustrophobic sensation of tunnel fighting on this Throne-forsaken rock. Though his head was once again bared, his ears still rang from the confined environment of vacuum warfare, where the beat of his heart and the trembling of his breath were amplified time and again until they, too, joined in the chorus of mechanical systems announcing his passage to the uncaring universe.

          The smell, however, was far more offensive.

          Timai’s senses, already refined through his gene-forced enhancements, revolted as the servitors sprayed foul-smelling substances all over his armor, staining his exposed skin and giving him a burning sensation. Though his eyes were closed, he could imagine the mindless cyborgs, their remaining flesh rotting off their augmentations after too much exposure to the byproducts of the Destroyers’ way of war, going through the motions where any even remotely intelligent creature would long have departed. He winced as the needles kept poking him, some barely managing to sting, others digging in with little concern for his comfort.

          All across the decontamination chamber, the process was repeated one hundred and twelve times, removing the poisonous residue from each of the warriors of the Third Company. Timai could vaguely hear some groaning, suspecting that it was either one of the newer additions to his command, or Kindu making no attempt to hide his displeasure. In another time, he would have censured the offending Doom Reaver for the overt display of weakness. Now, he could not bring himself to care.

          ALL CLEAR.

          The words, spoken with the soulless certainty of an automaton, were accompanied by a loud claxon indicating that the Third Company’s time in the decontamination tanks was clear. Timai opened his eyes, casting a disapproving look as the servitors withdrew back to the reloading racks, preparing for the next batch of Doom Reavers to enter the fray.

          He let the air out of his lungs, realizing that he has been holding a breath for too long. Despite his enhanced physiology, Farras Timai felt somewhat light-headed.

          That would not do, he thought, walking alongside his men through the corridors of the forward base.

          Everything here on Falchion was utilitarian, drab, devoid of decoration and beauty. In some perverse way, Timai thought that it made for a fitting setting for his company.

          All of the Bastards bore the marks of war, and nowhere was it more apparent than when they marched out of the decontamination chamber, their gene-forged physique exposed outside of their power armor for the brief moments before their next deployment. Very few managed to maintain more than a few wispy strands of hair; most had scars suggesting chemical or radiation exposure. The color of their flesh was unhealthy pallid alternating between marble-white and sickly pink, stained deep crimson where the injectors missed their marks and the needles drew blood. Their faces were sallow in the industrial light of the corridor, every flaw accentuated.

          “How long?”

          Kindu drew next to him, a ghastly presence with open sores and lesions across the muscle-bound torso, a spiderweb of scars cris-crossing his face.

          Timai shrugged. “You know as much as I do, sergeant.” The captain of the Third Company forced himself to walk faster despite the protestations of his muscles. “The Commander wants us ready to ship out in two hours. Whatever that means…” He did not finish the sentence, letting the words hang.

          “The only reason they call us,” Kindu nodded without much enthusiasm. It had occurred to Timai that the sergeant, though never the most sanguine of people, was particularly melancholic lately.

          Perhaps this war is getting to us all. Timai would have never voiced the thought that came unbidden, but he wondered how many nods of assent he would get if he did. When he spoke, it was in curt, clipped tones of a man picking his words carefully. “The only reason.”

          “When it absolutely, positively, must be done,” said Kindu, matching the captain’s pace. His voice was raspier than normal, though Timai could not tell how much of it was due to the treatment and how much of it was from exhaustion that pushed even their superhuman bodies to their limits. Kindu’s eyes darted to the sides, ensuring that they would not be overheard.

          “The men are tired, captain,” he whispered so low that even those with the enhanced Astartes hearing would struggle to make out the words outside of the immediate vicinity. “They’ve been fighting through this for weeks.”

          “Don’t you think I know that?” Timai’s voice was a bark of a maddened canine, echoing through the metallic walls and making more than a few of the Bastards stop in their tracks.

          Where did that come from, he wondered?

          Awkward silence reigned for a moment as the captain ventured to recollect his thoughts. This is unacceptable, he chided himself, furious with his own outburst.

          “Very well, sergeant,” now, Timai spoke in an even, calm tone belying his disappointment and frustration. His words were slow and measured again, though not by any means serene. “We are all in this together. I am sharing in all of the Third Company’s trials.” Even as he spoke, Farras Timai was aware of how hollow it sounded. For a briefest of moments, he had imagined an ancient mercenary warlord, a barbarian officer who would attempt to stave off rebellion by claiming fraternity with his tired and choleric men.

          Rebellion? What rebellion? The very concept of it had once seemed so foreign, so alien that voicing it out could have brought censure on the offender.

          Not anymore. Now, the galaxy burned, and all of the dreams of the old order burned with it.

          “I do not suppose you have any details on our next objective?” Kindu sounded resigned, and Timai could not blame his sergeant. The captain shook his head.

          “Though we all know what it will be,” concluded Kindu.

          They came to a stop in front of an arming chamber, where the duo of armed Legion serfs stood guard. Timai could not imagine what kind of purpose these men served; any Legionary, even without power armor and weapons, would make quick work of them. He shrugged. There were things in the universe he would never learn.

          The thought distracted him long enough to watch his men filter into the armory, where another set of servitors waited to begin fitting elements of the Legion war plate onto the Doom Reavers’ bodies. There was some irony in knowing that the entire company had just left one arming chamber only to walk to another, trading their old contaminated armor for the sets fresh off the decontamination protocol.

          Timai wondered who would wear the plate he had just surrendered into the custody of the servitors, mere minutes ago. Efficiency in all things, he thought grimly, considering the more thorough clean-up process his old armor was undergoing.

          The rotation of war plate was nothing new to the Bastards, but it was still an unnecessary hassle Timai would have rather avoided. Some amongst the Legiones Astartes would have looked down at the rotation as giving in to weakness, or even as a sacrilegious distrust in the Emperor’s genetic artifice, and for the moment the captain of the Third thought of such Legions with wistful abandon.

          He put his fingers upon the identification scanner, looking straight into the blinding light as it confirmed his identity.

          “Identity confirmed: Farras Timai, captain, Third Tier, assignment: Sixth Batallion, Third Company,” droned the servitor, its slack mouth long augmented with the basic vox-speaker. The creature’s jaws continued to move independently of the sound emerging from the speaker grille; a thin line of viscous saliva rolled down onto the metal grating of the floor.

          The captain climbed upon the arming rack, straightening his posture. At some point in the distant, now-forgotten past, he would have attempted to look proud and indomitable as a message to his men, a way to maintain morale and to reinforce the discipline. Now, he had other concerns.

          Timai felt the cables burrow into the input ports in his black carapace implant. It was a familiar sensation, never pleasant, but somehow almost comfortable as the neural feed of the armor meshed with his own senses, confining his body within the shell of ceramite yet expanding its capabilities tenfold. He winced in pain as a connector scraped the side of his skull, then exhaled with certain relief as the armor’s data feed joined in with his own thought processes, the two becoming one cohesive whole.

          Once again, he felt like a warrior, an unstoppable force of violent judgment upon the Emperor’s enemies, all thoughts to the contrary be damned.

          The doors of the arming chamber slid open, and Timai frowned, wondering if the scheduling of rotation was off. By his estimation, his company had another ten minutes in the armory before another took their place. The words of protest died on his lips before he had a chance to voice them.

          Melchior Darbassa, commander of the Sixth Batallion, was not the most imposing of men by appearance, but the ingrained Legionary discipline still forced Farras Timai to straighten up as if on parade grounds.

          “Sir!” Though Timai’s arms were still in the process of being clad in armor, the captain’s hand involuntarily jerked forward to attempt a salute to the senior officer.

          “At ease, captain,” Darbassa nodded, not bothering with the overt formalities. The commander looked around, taking stock of the state of the Third Company. “Good,” he said after a moment’s pause, though no smile of satisfaction crossed his thin, aristocratic face. “Ninety four percent operational readiness.”

          A civilized way of saying that the Bastards have lost only seven brothers from their initial complement of one hundred and twenty, thought Timai. For some reason, he could not remember which of his men had perished; after some time, they all started to blur. That was the Bastard’s Lot; the certainty of death that was neither clean nor glorious.

          “Your orders, sir?” Some part of Timai’s brain wanted to know what made an officer of Darbassa’s rank race down to the arming chambers in lieu of a more formal session in the strategium, attended only by the company’s command cadre and perhaps a few of the bureaucrats plotting the flow of the campaign. If anything, he understood Kindu’s desire to know more, to understand what they were doing here, and for how long.

          Darbassa sighed heavily, his narrow face and thinning dark hair giving him an impression of somehow being exhausted despite not fighting on the front lines. Timai pushed down the treacherous thoughts. Respect your commanding officer, he recited in his mind, taking care to keep his face impassive and his demeanor as professional and disciplined as was expected of a son of Marvus.

          “No need to get overly formal, captain Timai,” the commander said softly, his voice a strangely melodious contrast to the harsh sound of Timai’s own rad-scarred throat. “We may yet live through all this.” The corner of Darbassa’s mouth had lifted in what looked like a forced attempt at a smile.

          “Sir?” Timai winced as the last of his armor plates were locked in place, a helmet firmly mag-locked at his hip. He stepped down to see the majority of his company do the same, their own outfitting completed. “The next unit…”

          “The next unit will not be routed towards this arming chamber for another thirty seven minutes, captain,” Darbassa answered him. The commander looked around, noticing the curious eyes of the Third Company. “I am sure you and your men have questions.”

          “You might say so,” Timai nodded in understanding. “This was… a rapid redeployment.”

          “A rapid redeployment made necessary by the evolving tactical situation,” replied Darbassa. “Primarch’s orders.”

          “And in plain Gothic?”

          “Full deployment of the Third, Seventh, and Nineteenth Companies in Wyrm Alphas, outfitted with Destroyer weapons and supported by artillery and armor.” Darbassa rubbed his chin, where Timai could see the beginnings of stubble. “We are not waiting on the Riders any longer.” He paused to let the implications sink in.

          Timai took a second to respond. “The casualties will be considerable.”

          “Lord Marvus understands that, captain,” there was steel in Darbassa’s voice. “He does, however, prefer them to be enemy casualties.”

          “That… can be arranged.”

          “Good.” The commander turned away from him, examining the state of the company. “I want your men to be ready for deployment in thirty minutes.”

          “That might be… problematic,” sighed Timai. “We are just from decontamination. It will take us…”

          “Captain,” Darbassa looked him in the eye, as if to make a point. “None of us want to be fighting on Falchion. Not me. Not you. Certainly not Lord Marvus. But if the Fifth Legion is not going to do us a favor and cooperate, then the only choice left is to do it ourselves.”

          Timai grunted in understanding or resentment of his role; even the captain himself would not have been able to tell which one it was. “If total war is what you want, this is what you will get. Sir.”

          “Never mind the concerns about the… discipline…” mused Darbassa, “your men will do what you must. We will discuss the latter issue at the more convenient time.”

          * * *

          The transport’s official designation was the Wyrm-Class Siege Assault Platform, Sub-modification Alpha, but the Third Company knew it by another time. To Timai and his men, the gargantuan vehicles were the Shieldbreakers, their monstrous drills suited for tearing apart the most impregnable strongholds in the galaxy, their armored hides thick enough to survive a close range direct hit from a Titan war walker without compromising its post-human charges.

          Most Legions in the age of the Great Crusade could only hope to see a glimpse of these terrible war machines, their numbers dwindling next to nothingness after the entropic centuries as the Mechanicum of Mars had long forgotten how to manufacture them. Some amongst the Eighteenth Legion whispered that perhaps, the Mechanicum had forgotten how to perform anything but the basic maintenance on these giants from another era, designed and crafted in the age when mankind was still young, full of hope, ambition, and arrogance to chart its own fate in the galaxy.

          There were always those who claimed that the Council had shown an unprecedented degree of trust in the Doom Reavers by granting them the use of three surviving Wyrm Alphas, almost a tenth of all such machines still operable within the Imperial space. They were the fools, thought Timai, for thinking that such gifts came without a heavy price.

          To an outside observer, the passage of the Wyrm was akin to an earthquake as the ground tore itself apart to accommodate the unflinching intruder. The superheavy drills at the front of the wicked serpentine design bit deeply into the bedrock of Falchion, having long dispensed with the softer materials closer to the surface to reach into the depths where the sensors of the Imperial Redeemers could not penetrate.

          Deeper and deeper underground, Farras Timai could imagine the bowels of the dead planet churning with ill-conceived life, remnants of plate tectonics or the world’s still molten core sending tremors to alert the interlopers of their existence. He imagined an abscess inside the vacuum-sterilized rock, a maggot crawling through the layers of skin to feast upon a juicy morsel.

          Now that the Shieldbreakers were unleashed, there was no coming back. In that way, Timai thought the machine a kindred spirit of a kind, if a considerably more ancient one. Whatever the foundations of the Sixth Legion’s fortress might have been, they would not survive the collateral damage from the Wyrms’ underground assault.

          “The Primarch must no longer care for what is inside,” Kindu remarked, as if reading Timai’s mind, though his words came from long familiarity rather than from any kind of a psychic phenomenon.

          Timai chuckled, focusing back on reality in front of him. “If he had cared for it in the first place.”

          “What makes you think so?”

          The captain leaned forward, attempting to compensate for the uneven movement of the Wyrm and looking side to side to avoid being overheard. “It seems like his interest in this place had disappeared the moment the Riders did.”

          “You are not alone in thinking this, brother-captain,” Kindu assured him. The sergeant’s hands kept fiddling with a human-sized dagger, comically tiny in his oversized hands. As far as anyone knew, his second in command took the weapon from his first kill, over two centuries ago. Timai had suspected differently; the workmanship on the weapon’s handle suggested an origin somewhere in the Vainar Belts, a known set of Legion recruiting worlds.

          I will say nothing, he thought, contemplating the meaning behind the Legion’s initiation rites, the ascension from mortality and into the new, far superior, far stronger shape. Sometimes, Farras Timai was not sure what the meaning of the rites was, not anymore. He had ascended, but was he any stronger for it?

          “This means nothing to us,” Timai said, somewhat abruptly. “We are here to kill this fortress and anything in it.”

          “Because that is the lot of the Bastards,” finished Kindu.

          “For that is our lot,” agreed Timai. He checked his weapons; they were at the ready, the volkite pistol fully charged, the lightning claw thrumming with unseen power that could tear through the side of a battle tank.

          He felt the slowing down of the transport more than heard it. The unseen pull of acceleration shifted momentum, almost forcing Kindu to drop the dagger. Timai closed his eyes, knowing that very little time was left. Images flashed before them, one by one, things and people who had once mattered, but were no more.

          It was easier not to remember their names or faces. It was easier not to think that there would be more to join in the procession, one by one, suppressed but never entirely buried by his eidetic memory.

          Timai let them pass, each one a memory lasting no more than a millisecond. His hand not clad in the lightning claw made a fist.

          When he opened his eyes again, his mind was clear, his thoughts focused. A savage, hollow smile crossed his lips.

          “Bastards!” called Farras Timai as the whine of the drills reached a fever pitch, breaking through the ground and the fortress foundations alike. “We go to war.”


          • #6

            Bastards at War
            Fully Committed

            The Bastards fanned out of the Wyrm into the rubble-strewn courtyard, running past the rapidly cooling rocks still glowing from the application of the breacher charges and trying to get into cover before the disoriented defenders of the citadel could muster determined resistance. Above them, las beams flashed in the gloom where artificial illumination had proven to be insufficient to fully light the cavernous space; though the Legionaries had little to fear from such weapons, their presence told Timai much.

            Mortals. Mortal auxiliary units.

            Timai thanked his lucky stars that the breach area was not guarded by the Legion forces. He ran past a makeshift barricade, his lightning claw making quick work of the human defenders, then vaulted over its rocks to lead the charge into the structures carved out of the planetary bedrock.

            The schematics obtained from orbital scans suggested that this was but one of the six such areas, perhaps used as parade grounds or a warehouse in the better times, but now largely given over to the Imperial Redeemers’ mortal troops. On an airless world like Falchion, it was easier to dig into the planet’s crust than to erect tall structures over it, and the fortress of the Sixth Legion was the living testament to such adage.

            Timai could still see the smooth stone where the Apellan engineers reformed it to enhance the foundations of their edifice, strewn through with pillars of dense construction materials to add strength and stability to the structure. While the top levels of the fortress might have faced the stars like jagged peaks of a mountain range, its bosom was fully given to the cavernous depths.

            The Wyrm protruded from the ground like a bizarre mechanical beast still spewing rock dust from its spinning drills, black smoke belching out from its exhaust ports as its on-board weaponry joined in the cacophonous onslaught. Timai was not clear who, or what, was controlling the transport, for he was unaware of any Mechanicum assets being assigned to the mission, and no Legion brother would have been entrusted with such a machine; he had his guesses, but decided long time ago to keep them to himself. Some things were better left unspoken.

            The ground was a maze of haphazard crates, rocks which were now used as makeshift cover by both attackers and defenders, and prefabricated structures that might have been used as overseers’ stations or for some other menial task in the times before the war. Though the mortal servants of the Imperial Redeemers did not expect an attack, Timai grudgingly recognized their training, their ability to overcome the shock of the surprise assault and to stay a coherent fighting force for as long as they have – one minute and two seconds by the accounting of his internal armor clock.

            By now, Timai reasoned that the Imperial Redeemers would be fully appraised of the assault, and their initial response teams would probably be on the way. He voxed a series of orders, each a clipped grunt nearly unintelligible to all unfamiliar with the Eighteenth Legion’s battle-cant, yet each a clear and concise instruction to his men. This was their way of war – not the barbaric onslaught of a savage seeking destruction for its own sake, not a glorious charge for the pict-dramas and heroic sagas on some distant homeworld, not even the attrition grinder of faceless, easily replaceable soldiery who would prevail by the sheer virtue of their endurance.

            Obey your orders. Fight smart. Apply maximum force where necessary. Above all, heroes get good men killed needlessly.

            Farras Timai had no illusions about being a hero, not even when he could almost convince himself that he was fighting for a higher, more noble cause. Now, even that cause bled away, leaving nothing but the only thing he knew.

            And so, he killed.

            His lightning claw was caked in blood of the men and women he had slain, the vitae instantly cauterized by the energy field of his weapon. Around him, his warriors did the same, maintaining enough discipline not to resort to their more esoteric weaponry for these opponents. Above all, the cargo remained behind the lines, safe enough until it was unleashed.

            For a moment, things were as they always were. Fast. Efficient. Devoid of flair, yet singular in purpose.

            “Auspex contacts, sir!”

            The direct contact of a tight-beam vox-link cut through the din of the dying battle, appraising Timai of the developments.

            “Took them long enough,” he grumbled, an attempt at good humor that fell far short of the mark. “Fourth and Sixth squads, ambush position by the rocks. Second and Seventh squads, form on me. Prepare for power armored contacts.”

            Orders were executed as quickly as he could convey them, instantly refocusing the Third Company on the incoming enemy. These were no longer the dregs of the Sixth Legion’s auxiliary units; though the mortals died relatively quickly, they provided the Imperial Redeemers with enough time to assess the situation and to form a rapid reaction force – just as they were intended to. Timai reflected that the deeper they penetrated into the citadel, the stiffer the resistance would become; from now on, almost all of the enemy he would encounter would be as capable as his own men.

            “Prepare the Destroyer weapons, but do not fire yet,” he commanded, getting clipped acknowledgments from his sergeants. The great equalizer, he thought, oddly pensive just before the battle would be joined in earnest. “Bolters only, until my signal.”

            The first Imperial Redeemers burst through the fortified doors, their bronze and gold armor resplendent even in the dim lighting of the courtyard. Timai counted at least fifty, half a company supplement; this suggested either desperation or overwhelming confidence on the part of the traitor commander. Judging by the reputation of the Sixth, it was difficult to tell. The first few bolter shots exploded harmlessly upon the reinforced adamantium of their breacher shields, doing little to stop the advance of the Sixth Legion.

            How proud. How regal. How… dead.

            Timai waited for the Imperial Redeemers to fully commit before springing the ambush. In a straight-up fight, even outnumbered more than two to one, the traitor warriors would have given his force all they could handle, but the Bastards did not fight fairly.


            He saw the Imperial Redeemers advance, returning suppressing fire in a disciplined, measured manner, maintaining formation without staying too close to succumb to a single area effect weapon. The professional in him recognized the tactic; if left unmolested, the Legionaries of the Sixth would establish position, then attempt to hold out for reinforcements while launching pinpoint strikes at the smaller elements of the Third Company. Not the most aggressive tactic, but reliable, rugged, relying on the initiative and the fortitude of the Legiones Astartes warriors when faced with their equals.


            There was going to be a moment when they would be too far from the entrance to retreat in an organized manner, yet too far from the Doom Reavers’ own troopers to quickly close in. Timai expected the traitor lieutenant to recognize that as well; the window of opportunity to spring an ambush was going to be minimal, easily missed by the unwary or the overly cautious commanders.


            As Timai’s internal count drew down, his muscles tensed, his volkite pistol at the ready. He could deal his enemies a quick blow before they could bog down his assault, eventually drowning his unit in superior numbers of traitor Astartes, but he had to be quick and precise.


            The phosphex launchers shot at the traitor formation in near-unison, heedless of the return fire. The Imperial Redeemers were instantly engulfed in flames consuming body and armor alike, their vaunted discipline and protective gear offering no safety from the forbidden weapons.

            “Hate! Death! Perdition!”

            The Doom Reavers rose with the battlecry of the Eighteenth, sparing only a few bursts of bolter fire for the few Imperial Redeemers not wholly consumed by the phosphex attack. This was the window of opportunity measured in fractions of a second, and Timai had no intention of wasting it. The attack had to dispose of the primary fighting strength of the enemy in one fell stroke, and it had accomplished exactly that.

            “Beachhead secured,” Timai voxed to the internal cogitators of the Wyrm Alpha. “Pilot,” – he was not sure if there was one, but used the term anyway – “withdraw for reinforcements.”

            As he saw the giant machine chew back into the bedrock, the captain of the Third motioned his men forward. “Time to do what we do best,” he voxed via the company noosphere, his voice loud and clear in the helmets of each warrior under his command. “Strict protective gear protocols, I don’t want any of you to spend too much time being scrubbed off. Is that understood?”

            A chorus of yes sirs answered him, first Kindu, then the other more senior sergeants, then finally the lower ranking squad leaders. It was more of a formality than necessity, but Timai wanted to take no chances. Bile rose to the back of his throat. What they were about to do was distasteful, but inevitable now that the Legion decided to force the issue with the minimal application of large-scale munitions, and the minimal amount of manpower being committed.

            “You know what to do, Bastards,” he said, feeling the weight of inevitability press down on him. “Total war. If it moves, kill it. If it does not move, kill it anyway. Maximum area denial.”

            The fortress was one of the first elected by the Imperial Redeemers in this area of the Apellene Network, a lynchpin for the defense of the entire sector, three centuries ago, when the sons of Iskanderos first annexed the area to their father’s dominion. Ever since then, it was occupied by Legion forces in strength, its position on an airless dead world perfect to watch over wealthy populated systems and to safeguard their peace and prosperity.

            Three centuries. To a warrior of Legiones Astartes, it was perhaps less monumental than it would have been for a mortal, but it was still an appreciable length of time. Entire civilizations could rise and fall within that time. Given the right set of circumstances, galaxies could be conquered in that timespan.

            After we are done, he thought, bitterly, no one would walk these halls for another three centuries.

            * * *

            “We are now fully committed,” said Darbassa, his eyes intent on the hologram zoomed in on the barren surface of Falchion. “Two full companies,” – he sounded out the word, fully aware that neither the Seventh nor the Nineteenth Companies were even close to their entire complement of manpower, “assaulting the southwestern bastion.”

            “And the Bastards,” Elthaman added. Two circles surrounded the outcroppings of rock masking the outer approaches to the Imperial Redeemers’ citadel, one neutral azure, one angry, pulsating red.

            “Yes, the Bastards,” agreed Darbassa. “The northeastern bastion, in full strength.” He sighed wearily. “Just as the Primarch had ordered.”

            Elthaman nodded. “I find it just as distasteful, old friend.”

            “But necessary.”

            “Necessary, that it is.” Elthaman spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. “Their void shields are linked to the geothermal grid, pre-Imperial and more advanced than anything Mars can manufacture. We can bombard that fortress for months, and it will only waste munitions.”

            “Or we can waste companies in a frontal assault, and let Iskanderos and his dogs bleed us dry,” Darbassa concluded. “I understand why we must send in the Destroyers. It just does not mean that I have to like it.”

            “Some amongst the First Tier find your scruples… odd,” Elthaman raised an amused eyebrow. “Now,” the corner his mouth hinted at something like a dry, sarcastic smile, “we all understand why, especially in this instance.”

            “But they certainly do whisper,” Darbassa concluded. He shook his head, perhaps in disagreement, perhaps just to bring his thoughts into focus. “I was ordered to bring this world into compliance, by any means necessary, as a staging ground for a deeper push into the Apellene space. At this rate, there will be no one left to be compliant.”

            “Therein is your problem, brother. No one, not nothing.”

            Darbassa leaned forward, examining some minute detail on the hologram. The data feed, intermittently phasing in and out due to jamming interference from the traitor forces, suggested that both of the assaulting forces made at least some progress. He noticed that the Third Company… the Bastards, he mentally corrected himself, was moving deeper into the compound. Finally, he spoke, drawing his attention back to Elthaman.

            “If more of us thought that way, we would not be in this mess now.”

            Elthaman shrugged. “It is also possible that if more of us thought this way, we would not have made it much past the light of Sol.”

            Darbassa frowned, knowing that the older officer was right. The universe abhorred weakness, preyed on fraternity and sympathy, laughed in the face of mercy. The universe, such as it was, spat at everything that was once good and right, and sought to corrupt the foundations of the very things they were once fighting for. The universe did not care, and he should have accepted it with a stoic grin, should have carried on with little qualms about everything he had to do… everything he will yet have to do before this was over.

            “You are right, brother.” Darbassa sighed heavily. “My humors have been unbalanced as of late.” His hands involuntarily formed fists. “This war has dragged on for too long.” He spat out the words, as if accusing. “You know as well as I do what the Council and their lapdogs are. We fought and bled for the likes of them, while others got all the accolades.”

            “Dangerous talk, brother. Careful, someone may overhear it.”

            “The Primarch’s pet liaison will not set her foot near this place,” said Darbassa, his choler rising. “The others…” he looked through the rest of the command center, noticing only a handful of mortals doing their best to stay as far away from the Doom Reavers as possible, “the others are irrelevant. I am saying what everyone with half a functioning brain knows.”

            “And so, we send in the Destroyers,” nodded Elthaman sagely. “Because the Riders are nowhere near here to support a full assault, which makes the preservation of the fortress secondary.”

            “So we would rather blow the place to smithereens than wait for Ashur’s bandits.” There was exhaustion in Darbassa’s voice, the kind of fatigue borne not out of long hours of planning sessions or outright combat, but that which takes root somewhere deeper, somewhere more primal.

            “The Primarch’s orders on this subject are very clear, Melchior. Our forward base in the Apellene territory will need to be moved somewhere else. Somewhere,” Elthaman sighed, “where we can both take and hold ground without relying on the Fifth’s manpower.”

            “Good luck with that,” grumbled Darbassa. “Perhaps Hemri can send more of his myaso our way. At least they will be useful for something.”

            “You know as well as I do that Lord Marvus will not stand for it. It is our own men, or no one.”

            “Then I suppose it will be no one,” Darbassa replied angrily. “Our casualties are mounting. We’ve been fighting Iskanderos for almost a year now, and there is no end in sight, Throne-damn it.”

            “Balance your humors, brother,” Elthaman lowered his voice, part friendly reassurance, part warning that when all is said and done, he was Darbassa’s commanding officer. “This is far from the first campaign we fought in together. This time, we may even get a thank you or two after it is all over.” His face approached Darbassa’s, his voice now a whisper. “Think of the satisfaction of punching these self-important bastards in the face and living to tell about it. Who killed the rebel Sixth? Not the Lion Guard. Not the Steel Wardens, not the Peacekeepers, not any of the glory boys. No,” there was something almost manic in Elthaman’s tone now, “it was us. The Eighteenth. The forgotten, ugly cousins no one talks about. How will that feel?”

            Darbassa paused, not sure what to say. Some part of him wanted to believe Elthaman’s words, recognizing the older warrior’s intent as genuine despite the cynicism bred into him by centuries of warfare. He closed his eyes for a long, drawn out moment, reveling in fragmentary peace he could not afford.

            “We are the Eighteenth, aye,” he finally answered, eyes still closed to reality around him. “The butchers of ten thousand worlds, doing what we do best.” A dolorous smile looked unnatural on his narrow, aristocratic face. “You know as well as I do how it will end. Not in accolades, but in some other redeployment, because there is always some other enemy too terrifying for the mortals to know about, some other dirty job that the Council in their infinite wisdom would not want to sully their hands with.” He stopped, realizing what he was saying was only a few short sentences from outright treason.

            “Never mind the musings of a mind frustrated with inaction, brother,” Darbassa straightened up. “The Primarch wants this fortress delivered into his hands, and if I cannot do it in whole, I will at least make sure he gets the pieces.”

            * * *

            The Third Company raced through the citadel until it was little more than a blur, a half-remembered collection of walls, cathedral-like open spaces, utilitarian halls and passages marked only by nondescript numerical designations, and endless doors after more doors. They fought through makeshift barricades and strongpoints designed to blunt any conventional assault before destroying it piecemeal; they killed and died, but somehow persevered no matter the what the defenders threw at them.

            The enemy patrols became swarms of mortal soldiery led by squads of the Imperial Redeemers, resplendent in their bronze-and-gold finery but no less deadly for it; still the Bastards persevered. Timai lost count of how many he had killed, but more managed to come his way, time and again. His volkite pistol was long out of charge, and he resorted to hacking through the traitor warriors with his lightning claw and the combat blade, suffering numerous small wounds in the process but somehow managing to continue fighting.

            He had no idea what the other companies assigned to the assault were doing, or even if they were still a coherent fighting force. His own men suffered almost thirty percent casualties, and Timai could not help but wonder how much longer before this assault would become a matter of doing enough damage before he, too, had perished.

            Behind them, the Bastards left nothing but death.

            Chemical and radiation munitions ensured that nothing would survive passing through, not even fully armored Astartes warriors, let alone their weaker mortal thralls. Unstable vortex mines lined the sides of the passages, ready to drag entire sections of the citadel into the Warp at a moment’s notice. Canisters containing substances both forbidden and dangerous were left at the strategic intersections, ensuring that nothing would survive the journey.

            Total, complete obliteration. Nothing more, nothing less.

            The Third Company was not made to hold ground, to take and hold objectives until the other Legion forces could be spared. They only had one purpose, and they excelled in it. Once, they had even reveled in it.

            Timai spared a thought for the cargo, a small yet heavily armored container upon a small tracked vehicle following behind the Doom Reavers’ formation. Such a tiny thing. He almost laughed at the sentiment, knowing all too well what it was, what it could – and would do.

            “How much longer?” Kindu drew next to him, the vox channel distorting the sergeant’s words into sighs amongst the static. Kindu hit the side of his helmet with the armored fist; the static seemed to decrease. “Took a glancing hit three intersections back,” he explained at Timai’s quizzical stare. “Did not put me down. Vox-transmitter though, that’s another matter.”

            “Not much,” Timai answered, evaluating his tactical position. A single company of the Eighteenth Legion, even working with the two other depleted companies providing for a distraction of sorts, was not enough to take the enemy bastion, but it did not need to. Once the cargo was delivered close enough, it would do their job for them. Perhaps the Imperial Redeemers would not be annihilated in one fell swoop, but the end result would be the same. Had Timai still maintained his capacity for irrational fear, he would have shuddered at the thought of slow, agonizing demise he would bring upon his enemies.

            “The scans suggest that the phage should be released another two hundred meters north of here,” the captain said, checking his helmet data-feed for confirmation. “The air processing and filtration plant.”

            “What about their backup facilities? They are not stupid,” Kindu retorted, taking stock of the situation. They were in a hall so large that it seemed less of a fortress and more of a cathedral, with tall columns, rows of pews tall enough to provide cover to the Astartes, and a pulpit at the far end of the space. The armored walls gave way to a ceiling depicting many, many triumphs of Iskanderos and the Sixth Legion, each inlaid with frescoes that could only have been made by hand of many master artisans working in concert. There was something almost religious about the design, extolling the presence of the Conqueror and his uncountable victories against the alien, the mutant, and worse.

            Now, though, the frescoes had a different look. Amongst the heaps of the dead bodies, the Doom Reavers could see hints of power armor, suggestions of familiar symbols – the deep red of the Illuminators, the pale white of the Grim Angels, the dark navy blue of the Lion Guard, and more.

            The frescoes were more than the reminiscence of the past glories. They were now a declaration of intent.

            Timai smiled with a vicious grin, thankfully obscured by his Mark III helmet’s brutal faceplate. For a moment, all worries were gone, and he was just a warrior on a mission from his commander. There was no anxiety; there was no anticipation; there was no doubt, only the enemy and the means by which the enemy would be brought low.

            “Localized tactical nuke,” the captain replied. “Augmented by several isotopes to make it as dirty as possible.”

            “The phage can survive that?” Though Timai could not see Kindu’s face, he thought he heard the surprise in his subordinate’s voice.

            “It is… not entirely biological,” said the captain. “Not as I understand it, at least. What did the tech-priest call it… quasi-organic constrained effect nano-swarm?” The words came unbidden to his memory, though he did not understand what exactly they meant, or what the cargo was going to do to the defenders.

            “Then let’s hope we are not in the path of… whatever that is,” Kindu nodded, breaking off towards his own squad.

            Two hundred meters.

            The Bastards advanced through the cathedral-like space, the frescoes reflecting the light from the hidden glow-globes and into the Third Company. There were fewer enemies here to begin with, mostly auxiliaries commanded by a sole Imperial Redeemer, who were now dead or breathing their last, fully incapacitated and unable to offer any threat to the Doom Reavers.

            “I don’t like this,” Timai voxed to Kindu. “This close to the objective, it has all the markings of an ambush.”

            “Aye, sir,” the sergeant acknowledged him, voice almost incomprehensible in the static. A loud clang suggested that Kindu applied his fist to the helmet again; once more, his words cut through the white noise. “I suggest a small recon, demi-squad strength. Whatever is in there,” he pointed at the exit, where the splendor of the hall gave way to more utilitarian tunnel cut through the rock of Falchion, “we will make it come out and play.”

            “We? Did I just hear you volunteer?”

            “Never trust others to do the job you wouldn’t do yourself.” Kindu signaled to some of his men, who dropped into low cover to follow him. “Do I have your permission, sir?”

            “Permission granted.”

            Before Timai even finished speaking, five Doom Reavers, Kindu at their head, advanced along the side of the hall, weapons at the ready. The sergeant picked up a breacher shield somewhere along the way, and was now brandishing it, for all the scant protection it might have offered.

            Smart. Brave. Has makings of a captain. Perhaps I should recommend him after this is over. Though Timai loathed the possibility of losing a capable second, it was only the right thing to do; he himself rose to command of a full company in a similar manner, and it was, he supposed, only a matter of time before he would send a capable underling off to bigger and better things.

            As Kindu’s demi-squad advanced, Timai motioned the rest of the company forward. The Bastards kept their distance, their eyes trailing the recon vanguard and their weapons at the ready; the captain noticed that the warriors of the Third switched to bolters, keeping their more advanced and indiscriminate weaponry holstered.

            The Bastard’s lot is always harder on his own. So, none will be left behind.

            Kindu reached the aperture leading further into the fortress, his men behind him. The sergeant knelt down, peeking behind the corner for a fraction of a second. His hand began to move, slowly, all too slowly rising up as the static worsened.

            A bolt shot rang out, reverberating through the hall and echoing all over, nearly impossible to pinpoint even for those with the advanced implants of an Astartes battle-brother.

            Time seemed to slow down to a crawl, as if the entire hall was drenched in a torrential downpour robbing it of all semblance of sound and clarity. Timai watched Kindu’s helmet deform, then shatter as the bolt shell exploded inside, pulverizing the sergeant’s head in one fell move. Pieces of skull, ceramite, blood, and brain matter burst outwards, spraying the floor and the walls with shrapnel even before Kindu’s body was down on the floor.

            The moment had passed. The shock, the grief, the rage, such as they were, would have to wait. For now, all that remained was the enemy closing in on the Doom Reavers position, and there was nothing complex or contradictory about it.

            An enemy existed for one purpose, to die under the guns and the blades of the Eighteenth Legion. No more, and never anything less.

            Before Timai could call for grenades or rad launchers, the Imperial Redeemers spilled out into the room, taking refuge behind the pews and columns and saturating the open space with bolter fire to force the Doom Reavers into cover. The Bastards replied in kind, their shots augmented with volkite culverins, lascannons, and chem-flamers.

            These traitors had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Where the first large group of Imperial Redeemers relied on their breacher shields and massed phalanx tactics to weather the firestorm, these warriors had spread out, ensuring that the chemical or the rad-weapons would be as dangerous to the Doom Reavers as they were to the Sixth. Their own return fire was deadly accurate; in a matter of seconds, Timai saw six icons representing the warriors of the Eighteenth Legion go dark on his helmet display.

            Timai vaulted over the pews, the hard material crumbling beneath his activated lightning claw. He felt his power pack hum at a fever pitch to provide the ever-increasing energy requirements for his movements. He refused to be bogged down here, not after all he had fought for.

            “Hate! Death! Perdition!”

            Farras Timai roared the words into the thick of battle, managing to close in with a duo of Imperial Redeemer Tacticals. His lightning claw skewered one through as he frantically sidestepped the volley of rapid fire bolter shots from the other. Some of the shells hit Timai’s leg greaves, throwing him off-balance but failing to penetrate the Mark III armor.

            “Now. You. Die!” The captain of the Third screamed at his enemy, throwing the combat knife as a projectile to buy himself precious fractions of a second. While the Imperial Redeemer instinctively recoiled, Timai brought the lightning claw up.

            The energized blades cut through the warrior’s power armor, charring the softer flesh and bone within. Timai slammed his body into the traitor, using his momentum to force the lightning claw through, then pulling it back as it penetrated the core of the backpack-mounted reactor. He rolled to his right, barely avoiding the explosion and trusting in his armor to save him from serious harm.

            His eyes traced the now-dead Imperial Redeemer, focusing on the holstered bolt pistol at the warrior’s belt. With a rapid movement, Timai tore the gun from its casing, discarding his combat knife in favor of that simple, yet still efficient weapon. He checked the ammo count, then frantically scavenged the Astartes he killed for more magazines, finding none.

            Five shots. Not much, but he would make them count, when it mattered.

            His tactical readouts suggested that the battle became a series of individual engagements where his men were fighting off a comparable force of the enemy, while being unable to use their exotic weaponry to its fullest. This would not do, he thought furiously; this engagement was costing him time and lives, reducing the efficiency of his assault force until it could no longer present a serious threat to the traitors.

            “Hate! Death! Perdition!”

            He screamed to the frescoes, adding a few invectives learned over the years fighting alongside Solar Auxilia. The words echoed back, twisted and hollow.

            “Who is the commander of this rabble?”

            The words, already amplified as loud as the armor’s built-in speakers would manage, were deafeningly loud, reverberating through the room above the din of battle, the haughty Apellene accent unpleasant to Timai’s ears. It embodied everything he was not; it signified every aspect of the Sixth Legion, the perfect sons who would never know the shame of derision, the face of the Great Crusade as seen by the teeming masses on a million worlds. Hot, seething rage simmered within Timai’s breast.

            His eyes sought the source of the sound, and found him – an officer fighting with a perfectly balanced powered blade, the plume on his helmet signifying rank, his armor unblemished and decorated with dozens of laurels, swordsman’s honors, and other distinctions. “This one is mine,” Timai voxed on the intra-company frequency, breaking into a low, crouching run until he was less than ten meters apart from the Imperial Redeemers’ commander.

            “You wanted me?” Timai growled, hatred giving him reckless determination. “Here I am, traitor. Give me what you’ve got!”

            The battle seemed to flow around them like river flows around the stone. For a moment, there were only two of them, the rest of their respective forces falling back to their own combats.

            The Imperial Redeemer slid into a stance of a trained swordsman, holding a great blade in both hands. “I am called Adrastos Issakh, captain of the Seventeenth Company, of Second Jond of the Sixth Legion,” he called out, his voice full of snide superiority. “I am the scion of Apella herself, of House Issakh. My father was the scion of the sea-kings, and his father stood by the side of Lord Iskanderos at the pacification of Suss. My mother was the first of his wives and an heiress of House Basteh, noble and honorable beyond...”

            “Shut up,” Timai interrupted the traitor. “I am called Farras Timai, of the Bastards. My mother was an underhive ganger, and I never knew which of the men she bedded was my father.” And now, you pompous fop, you die.

            Timai did not know if he spoke those words or simply thought them; it was always easier to come back with an apt retort after the battle than in the middle of it. He charged the Imperial Redeemer, lightning claw forcing Issakh into a defensive stance with a series of rapid feints and brutal ripostes.

            “It is my sacred duty to see that the citadel of Astorius stands, and all protected within its walls are granted safe refuge, heathen,” the Imperial Redeemer taunted, his voice betraying little of the effort it must have taken to resist Timai’s assault. He made it sound as if the battle was nothing but a minute distraction, so assured of his invincibility that he would stoop down to banter with the enemy. “I swore an oath at the foot of Lord Iskanderos’ throne to protect all who would seek haven from the ravages of war. For that is the battle of the righteous.”

            “This… is… a military… installation,” Timai gasped through clenched teeth as he left himself dangerously exposed to a counterattack, finding balance only fraction of a second before the Apellene warrior’s sword impaled him. “And you… are… a traitor…”

            Issakh’s movements seemed akin to those of a dancer. He had the fluidity of an acrobat married to speed of a master swordsman, never ceasing to deliver commentary through cuts and parries, through every desperate attempt by Timai to upset the balance.

            “Civilians from seven systems flee the advance of your barbaric slaughterers, heathen,” Issakh’s cultured voice cut over the sounds of the clash. It acquired something of an angry note to it. “My honor is, and shall remain unblemished. Should I fall in their defense, I will go to the side of the Octed with pride. Can you say the same?”

            This was taking too long, Timai thought. He made a deliberate misstep, certain that Issakh would recognize it for a mistake and seize the opportunity. For the briefest of moments, he saw the swordsman’s blade flash forward, piercing the defenses and taking Timai in the chest, inching closer towards his secondary heart. Another fraction of a second, and Issakh would have completed the move, thrust, then slight twist to take out both hearts.

            In that fraction of a second, Timai’s hand shot up, a momentary lapse in the Imperial Redeemer’s defenses giving him all the opportunity he needed.

            He pressed the trigger of the scavenged bolt pistol, emptying its entire clip into the traitor and pulling back as the Apellene swordsman’s grip on his weapon slackened. Issakh staggered back, his chest a bloody ruin, organs falling out, innards exposed. Only the traitor’s helmet seemed unblemished, strangely statuesque upon the ruin of his body.

            “Screw you and your honor,” Timai spat out the words, his lightning claw making a quick figure of eight to finish off his opponent. He took mental note of the cargo, recognizing their position as only fifty or so meters off from the target.

            “Squads Tarrato and Zigman, break off and follow me,” he voxed, subvocalizing another command to the servitor brain controlling the tracked cargo container. “The rest of you, holding action. Keep these fops occupied.”

            “Acknowledged, sir.”

            Around him, the battle raged, but as far as Timai was concerned, it was almost won. Fifty more meters would see him at the atmospheric processing plant. Fifty more meters was all that stood between him and victory.