Valerian held the training spatha in a two-handed grip above his head. "The hawk", a stance he had learned when only a youth. His bare feet padded across the cold diorite floor as he circled his opponent warily. Side-stepping with a tigerish grace, the warrior facing him mirrored his orbit. Valerian's eidetic memory replayed their earlier exchanges in crisp clarity. His gene-enhanced mind maintained combat-focus even as it rapidly dissected each move and counter-move, searching for flaws to exploit. He was forced to admit that the warrior was more than merely competent. His adversary's technique was as unorthodox as it was formidable.
From across the ring, Jamukha broke the silence, "Is this a staring contest, Ultramarine? Do you envy my handsome face, or is it my lustrous hair?" The White Scar wore a lusty smile, one that belied his ferocity in battle. Ceremonial scars crisscrossed Jamukha's leathery face. His scalp was shaven clean save for a central strip of cropped black hair running from the nape of his neck to his forehead. The White Scar's left ear was fringed with half a dozen gold rings, and another two pierced the flesh of his nose.
Valerian smiled. "Your appearance is as atrocious as your accent, Brother. After I finish this lesson in swordplay, I'll teach you proper Gothic."
Guttural, grating laughter from Jamukha. Almost playfully, the White Scar twirled his sparring sabre in a relaxed hand. During their bout, Jamukha had relied almost exclusively on a single-handed grip. That little detail had not escaped Valerian's notice.
The Imperium of Man was not known for its tolerance of diversity. The myriad space marine chapters were a notable exception. Each chapter had its own customs and traditions, its own way of thinking. Back on Macragge, banter in the training ring was a rare thing. Any distraction from the fulfillment of duty was frowned upon if not outright punished. But this was not the realm of Ultramar. This was the Armageddon Sector, a war-torn region of space guarded by the unblinking eye of Watch Fortress Panoptes. Rooted to a rocky planetoid bereft of atmosphere, this bastion of Imperial vigilance was one of the largest Deathwatch strongholds in the segmentum. Its brutal, glowering mass, composed mostly of armoured basilica, domes, and spires, bristled with a vast array of heavy ordinance. At Fortress Panoptes, Brother Astartes hailing from over two dozen chapters made up the current taskforce.
To fight effectively as a Deathwatch member, Valerian had realized he could no longer adhere rigidly to the ways of his chapter. At first, this had bothered him a great deal, but ultimately he had recognized efficiency as the Codex's central tenet. To serve the Emperor efficiently was thus the ultimate goal of any true Ultramarine, even if it meant bending certain rules.
The distance between the two Astartes had grown shorter. Jamukha lunged. His sabre darted out like a snake. Responding almost instantly, Valerian twisted, barely deflecting the blow in time with his heavier spatha. The White Scar's blade grazed Valerian's side and retracted as swiftly as it had struck.
Jamukha smirked. "That would have drawn blood." The White Scar undulated his wrist, knees crouched, his sabre held out in front of him. The curved sword swayed from side to side, like a cobra waiting to strike. "By the Khan, you are slow," he taunted.
"Perhaps," Valerian replied coolly, "but you know…" Without warning, Valerian launched into a furious barrage of two-handed downcuts. Though each strike was slower than one of Jamukha's own, together they were enough to put the White Scar on the defensive. Jamukha's sword arm shook with each impact as he parried. The clashing of their blades rang throughout the training ring. The Ultramarine's final stroke scythed downward at the White Scar's head. Leaning to the side, Jamukha raised his sword to intercept Valerian's, but the lighter sabre held in one hand gave way to the heavier spatha swung by two. Valerian's blade rested next to Jamukha's neck. "You know," Valerian finished, "that I'd never lose to a barbarous son of Chogoris."
"Well fought, son of Ultramar. Few have bested me." Jamukha grinned, flashing gold incisors. " Consider yourself ridiculously lucky." A moment of silence, then Valerian chuckled. The Ultramarine's controlled laughter was quickly joined by the White Scar's hearty guffaws. They disengaged, returning to opposite sides of the ring.
Valerian's face returned to a mask of focus. "Ready when you are, Brother."
After sparring, Valerian would sometimes pass through the Grand Ossuary, a vast cavernous chamber carved into the rock below Fortress Panoptes. After the physical exertions of training, walking there was almost a form of meditation. Chandeliers fashioned from xenos bones hung from the ceiling, grim banners of flayed alien skin were nailed to the rough-hewn, gently arched walls. Countless rectangular pedestals were neatly arranged in kilometre-long rows that formed a vast grid covering most of the smooth, marble floor. There was enough space among these rows for an Astartes to walk as a giant striding through a city of skycrapers. On top of the pedestals, xenos skulls lay in silent repose. Valerian walked, surrounded by the glorious work of Battle Brothers who had come before him.
To the Astartes of Fortress Panoptes, this was truly a hallowed place where soldiers of the Emperor could revel in their hatred of the alien. The Ultramarine never dallied, rather, he would pick a new area to explore each time he visited the Ossuary, committing what he saw to eidetic memory. Ork skulls abounded, most of them larger than average, no doubt taken from the war chieftains of that vile, bestial race. Valerian saw a pair of Genestealer skulls resting on a single pedestal. Bile rose in his throat as he thought of the Tyrannic invasion and the First Company's sacrifice. One day that loss would be avenged with the total destruction of the Tyranid race. Balancing his humours, Valerian turned away and his attention fell upon the skull of an unfamiliar creature. During his meditations in the Ossuary, it was not uncommon for the Ultramarine to discover strange species beyond his ken. The skull before him was large and exceptionally grotesque: a pair of deep-set orbital cavities, four fanged mandibles surrounding the mouth. Bony peaks ringed the creature's massive crest-shaped forehead. The back of the thing's head was covered by sockets.
Eye-sockets? Valerian wondered silently. More likely, whatever passed for the creature's hair sprouted from them.
High Gothic script was inscribed on the forehead. It was not unknown for Deathwatch veterans to commemorate victories in this manner. Valerian read the inscription:
Alien filth ambushed Squad Remiel on Gyges IX. Brother Herger and Brother Mardonius were struck down by xenos treachery. Our wrath was great, our vengeance irresistible. I smote off the leader's head as blessed bolter fire wiped out the remaining scum. Sergeant Remiel
Laying low two Astartes was no mean feat. The Ultramarine wondered how many of the creatures had attacked, what foul weapons had they wielded. Valerian honoured Squad Remiel's victory by making the sign of the Aquila over his chest. The Emperor's work had been done. He thought no more of it and went his way.
Alone in the massive pit, a Hunter waited for the Kainde Amedha, they of the acid blood and ebon armour. Known to shrug off weaker ballistics, the creatures were called Kainde Amedha - "Hard Meat" - for good reason. Fortunately, against the blade of a Hunter or the searing intensity of his burner, that black armour was all but useless.
Aboard the clan mothership, the Pit was one of the few training rings reserved for senior Hunters. A crowd of yautja, mostly students, had gathered around its circumference, baying harsh, bellowing cheers for the older Hunter below them. Today, they had come to witness the skill of a veteran known as Warkha. It was said that students who were able to learn from him rose quickly through the ranks.
Steel sinews rippling under mottled yellow-green skin, Warkha stood at ease, waiting for the Hard Meat to be unleashed. The dark tendrils snaking from the back of his scalp were tinged blue, a sign of age. He wore this "hair" in a ceremonial topknot, each tendril adorned with ornate metal ringlets. Little else distinguished him physically from the average Hunter.
On the far side of the pit, hidden hydraulics hissed as a large metallic gate was raised. Six of the Kainde Amedha, eyeless drones all, slunk into the ring. Metal-fanged jaws drooling saliva, the creatures hissed sibilantly at the rowdy spectators. A few attempted to scale the walls of the pit, but slipped and slid down the varnished surface. Frustrated, the drones fanned out. They seemed to follow the lead of one stalking ahead of the others. Warkha knew that this was the alpha, the pack leader. It would die first.
The Hunter held out a polearm before him, each end a jagged, irregular blade the shade of midnight. Hunter symbols etched in red stood out from the onyx blades. Warkha twisted the grip hard, and the weapon detached into two halves, each now a serrated, vicious-looking sword. The Hunter rested the blade-tips on the scratched surface of the arena floor, holding the long-handled swords in relaxed grips. The drones were observing him, sizing him up as a potential threat. Raising outstretched arms, Warkha chanted that most holy of holies, the Warrior's Song, that blast of wind and fury able to cow greater prey than these.
Unmoved by the Hunter's display, the drones snarled and began to lope in his direction. The pack leader broke into a lightning sprint, the others not far behind. It pounced through the air. Like a scorpion's sting, the creature's tail-blade lashed out at Warkha's head. The Hunter's timing was superb. He exploded into motion, swords blurring as he leaped to the side. His first strike, an upward backhand, severed the blade from the rest of the tail. Acid blood gushed from the stump. The Hunter was already off to the side. A split second later, his second strike, a lateral blow with the other sword, caught the pack leader between its open jaws. The blade of his sword proceeded to slide lengthwise through the creature's head, splitting it like a banana. The alpha's carcass hit the ground behind Warkha.
A hissing pair converged on him, angled in from the sides. The Hunter was already reversing his grip on each sword. With great bounding strides, he rushed between the attacking drones. As he passed them, his blades swept toward each other in great scissoring arcs, shearing through black chitinous midsections. The drones fell screeching. Acid blood sprayed in a torrential release, but Warkha had stepped clear. The Hunter whirled around, took a split second to aim, and hurled one sword like a javelin. The blade caught a drone in the chest and sent it crashing to the ground in a jumble of clattering limbs. Warkha spun the remaining blade around, switching back to a forward grip.
Two more. They circled him warily now, one moved off to the left, the other to the right in an attempt to outflank him.
With abrupt swiftness, Warkha lunged like a fencer at the one on his right, the closer of the two. It was true that Kainde Amedha had the gift of speed, but the yautja were not far behind. Warkha's sudden initiative caught the drone off guard. As the creature began its ill-timed pounce, the Hunter's sword-tip slammed into its mouth at an upward angle. Warkha twisted the blade as it erupted from the Hard Meat's shiny dome.
The Hunter whipped his blade out and spun around in one fluid motion. The remaining drone was already in mid-air, hurtling at him, claws outstretched. Warkha rolled onto his back, legs that could propel him forty feet into the jungle canopy caught the pouncing drone in its abdomen. He kicked, assisting the creature's momentum. The flailing, hissing drone sailed over the rolling Hunter and landed in a heap before skidding across the arena floor. As the thing scrabbled to its feet, the Hunter was already plummeting from above like a meteor.
With both hands on the grip, Warkha plunged his sword into the creature's dome. The point exploded from the drone's chin and continued to descend. Swordguard slammed into cranium and proceeded to push it down. The tip of Warkha's blade bit into the arena floor, nailing the Hard Meat's phallic head to the ground.
The Hunter stood amid the destruction he had wreaked. Acid blood coating the length of his blade smoked impotently, powerless against the treated metal. No roar of triumph, no howl of victory from the veteran. Warkha raised one fist in the air as the throng of Hunter youths chanted his name.
Since rising from the Cold Sleep, the Hunters had stalked the length and breadth of the Milky Way, pitting their strength and cunning against the galaxy's deadliest prey. The strong among the Hunters collected grisly trophies to prove their status as True Dominators. The frail perished in battle and in dying, cleansed their race of the taint of weakness. By this process, each Hunter contributed to the inexorable progress of the Overpath.
Warkha was old, even by Hunter standards. Though no longer in peak physical condition, he was still fit for the Hunt, a seasoned veteran forged by centuries of experience. These days, what Warkha could no longer accomplish by brawn, he would achieve by skill and guile. Contrary to what many novices thought, that made him more, not less, dangerous.
A host of young amateurs had learned at his feet. A survivor of ten thousand hunts, Warkha had scoured the galaxy for worthy prey. One by one, he had bested them, ripping out skulls and spines when anatomy had allowed. Over the long centuries, Warkha had amassed a collection of trophies most Hunters could only dream of accumulating. Of course, many of these youths would never achieve true greatness, but the exceptions would eventually rise to the ranks of the elite, as Warkha himself had once risen.
In search of new challenges, Warkha had looked to the annals of his race. Of the prey memorialized, many were now extinct, a testament to how far the ancient history of his kind stretched back. Other species praised in the accounts as worthy prey were nothing but disappointments. Through lofty embellishment, the scribes of those accounts must have transformed unremarkable hunts into tremendous feats of skill.
On the verge of giving up, Warkha had come across an ancient record made by some long-dead scribe. It told of a Hunter called Skemte. The scribe's tone was one of amusement rather than respect. According to Skemte, he had crossed a bridge to the other side, a realm where he had witnessed Ooman warriors the size of Hunters, warlike species unknown to him, and endless conflict enough to make a Hunter's mandibles click with battlelust. His only souvenirs of that twisted reflection of reality had been a pair of strange skulls. The scribe described one as blunt and heavy, with over-sized tusks jutting from a prominent lower jaw. The other was described as angular and delicate, similar to an Ooman skull in overall appearance but distinct in its slender proportions. Insisting on the truth of his tale, Skemte had given the location of the bridge, but the coordinates had been those of a primordial Abyss, a swallower of stars. Skemte's peers had laughed heartily at his tall tale. The account concluded that after being met with disbelief, Skemte had vowed to revisit the other side, claiming that he would return with the skulls and weapons of those giant Ooman warriors. Embarking with a few gullible youngsters in tow, he had vanished without a trace.
At first, Warkha too had chuckled after perusing this strange account, but ere long he had grown somber as the prospects of challenge dwindled. Some veterans of his age were content to take their place among the Clan Council, gradually retiring from the Hunt. Warkha dismissed the notion. No, he yearned to feel lightning rush through his veins as he battled truly worthy foes. No desire had he to engage in lengthy debate over the laws of the clan. He lived and breathed the Hunt, was not old enough to forsake its thrill. To feel his heart beat with the song of battle...that was the reason for his existence. It was clear to Warkha that a life separated from the Hunt was no life at all, and so he found himself doing something desperate, ridiculous even.
The spacecraft shook with juddering force. Strapped to the pilot seat, Warkha could only brace himself as he offered a silent prayer that his vessel would survive the gravitational riptide. Warkha heard the screech of warping metal as the swirling eddies within the gravity well sought to crush his ship into oblivion.
The juddering suddenly stopped, and just as abruptly, darkness enveloped the Hunter. Silence. Warkha was unsure whether the ship's systems had failed or he had died for his foolishness. The latter seemed more likely for he could no longer feel his limbs...he could not feel his body at all. Was he already in the Black Warrior's embrace? His consciousness existed in this disembodied state for what felt like several minutes.
The Hunter was not afraid, the experience was almost...mystical. But he had no wish to stay like this forever, and so Warkha prayed to Paya for light. The god must have heard him for light finally came. As swiftly as the world had been stolen from him, sight, sound, and sensation returned in an instant. Still strapped to the pilot throne, Warkha let out a long breath and shifted in his seat. He thanked Paya for answering his prayer.
Warkha quickly turned his attention to the ship's control panel. All systems were online. His eyes met the navigational display. According to stellar alignments, he was still in the Milky Way. His vessel was a relatively short but safe distance from the Abyss that had swallowed it. Preposterous. Had he been swallowed and then spat out as a cruel joke? He checked the energy readings. Normal, normal…all normal except for what must have been background radiation of an unidentifiable form. Very faint, but still detectable by the advanced sensors.
This piqued his interest. Warkha switched on the long-range comm array and cycled through the channels one by one. Nothing. Even the familiar Hunter channels returned only static. Of course the comm system could have been damaged, but he doubted that. There was something different about this place. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the distances were not quite right, the alignments were slightly off. The discrepancies were subtle but unmistakable. The befuddled computer had simply found the closest match. For the first time in over a century, anticipation tingled through Warkha's whole being.
The equatorial jungle that girdled Armageddon's main continent was dying an infinitely slow death. Hive-generated fumes wafting on continental air currents had seeped into the biosphere, inflicting irreparable damage. The endless rainforest no longer teemed with the life and sound once omnipresent ages ago. The only rain that fell nowadays was of the foul-smelling sulfuric variety. The vegetation was uncharacteristically sparse for a tropical jungle. Clinging to life, the hardy native plants would continue to survive for a while to come, but the local fauna had long ago dwindled to near-extinction.
The Ork infestation made the jungle even less pleasant. Jonah Zorn hated this place. When it fell, the stinking acrid rain turned the loamy ground to sludge and soaked his camouflage fatigues. The trees and underbrush were sufficiently dense to be a nuisance, but not close-knit enough to provide proper cover. Trooper Zorn eyed the other member of this miserable two-man patrol, a young greenhorn called Goral Leng. They were both part of the 21st Aquilonians, one of the many regiments tasked with rooting out Ork contamination of the Emperor's blessed forests. Imperial command had quickly realized the extent of the blight: ragtag elements repelled from the ruined Hives, feral Orks spawned from wind-blown spores, occupants of misguided Roks. Zorn would have laughed at the utter incompetence of Ork "navigation" had it not been his job to eradicate the xenos. Goral almost tripped over a fallen branch as he trod on the rotten vegetation littering the forest floor. The young trooper launched into a string of Aquilonian curses.
"Keep it down," Zorn snapped.
"Sorry", Goral offered sheepishly, his tone hushed this time.
Zorn sighed to himself. Aquilonia was one of the more mundane Imperial worlds. Its single continent was dotted with an ordered network of small cities, each with huge silo-structures and its own star port. The silos were for the storage of grain, the planet's chief export. The farmland surrounding each city produced enormous quantities of Triticum and Setaria to feed hungry Imperial mouths on distant worlds. Relatively high living standards meant that the local population wasn't exactly the best raw material for the Imperial Guard. On top of that, it just so happened that the 21st was teeming with inexperienced recruits fresh from beginners' boot camp. No doubt high command had considered these factors before ordering the 21st to join mop-up operations in the rainforest belt.
Zorn was one of few within the regiment who had seen actual combat on several occasions prior to this deployment. That and his grizzly stubble made him a veteran in the rookies' eyes. He and Goral moved as silently as they could through the quiet jungle. The sun was starting to descend from its highest point in the yellow-brown sky. Light streamed down through the relatively scant canopy. It cast leafy shadows over the two guardsmen and the jungle floor far below.
Zorn halted abruptly. "You hear that?" he breathed.
"From there." Zorn jabbed his finger to his diagonal left.
Goral strained to hear, a look of concentration on his face. "Shouting, gunfire, it's faint…sounds like a skirmish."
"You think? Let's see if we can get a glimpse without being spotted."
"It would probably be wiser to return to the compound," Goral suggested, hesitation creeping into his voice, "for reinforcements of course."
Zorn rolled his eyes, "It would probably be wiser to do our job. Shall we?" It was a statement, not a question. .
For a moment, Goral's face was a mask of dismay, but then he seemed to muster his courage. "For the Emperor," he muttered.
Zorn and Goral scurried off toward the source of the disturbance as quickly as they could while trying to keep their own noise to a minimum. Once the gunfire reached a certain volume, Zorn signaled Goral to get down on his stomach. Bellies dragging across the jungle floor, the two guardsmen crept forward on their elbows. They stopped at the edge of a clearing. From behind a giant fern bush, the pair watched as a strange scene played out before them.
At first Zorn wasn't quite sure what was going on. A gang of Orks, over a dozen, seemed to be attacking each other…no, attacking something in their midst, something he couldn't see. Several of the Orks were armed with primitive solid-shot guns. The rest wielded crude axes more effective as bludgeons than as blades. The Orks fired wildly. One of the battlemad greenskins lit up a hapless comrade. Zorn could've sworn he heard bestial laughter.
"What in the Emperor's name?" he whispered to himself. He glanced over at Goral.
The young man wore a stupefied expression. No answers there.
Zorn looked harder. He caught a blur of motion, literally a blur. A transparent silhouette weaved among the bellowing, frenzied Orks. The shimmering distortion was roughly humanoid in shape. Bullets pinged off its surface as it carved through swathes of greenskins with something long and similarly translucent. The weapon...a glaive of some sort...spun elegantly in the creature's grip. Jagged blades sheathed in blood wove a crimson web of destruction amid the sea of green. Severed Ork limbs tumbled to the ground, xenos blood sprayed from the stumps.
The foul liquid was an inhumanly dark shade of red, alien yet still familiar to Goral. A frantic Ork waved its axe wildly and was split from head to groin for its trouble. An explosion of blood doused the near-invisible figure. The effect was that of crimson paint splattered onto crystal-clear glass. At first, Goral dared to hope that an Imperial agent was responsible for the slaughter…but the thing was huge. It towered over the muscle-bound greenskins by at least half a metre. The grim expression on Zorn's face suggested to Goral that the older man had not shared the false hope.
Zorn turned slightly to the other trooper. "That's not one of our boys," the veteran breathed. Each move, each strike by the camouflaged creature displayed a lethal fluidity, an otherworldly grace. It skewered an Ork, ripped out the bloodied glaive and proceeded to butcher the remaining survivors. The way it killed hinted at mastery of some intricate martial art resembling a deadly dance. The thing moved with astounding swiftness for its size, or perhaps its transparency produced merely an illusion of blurring speed. Zorn wasn't sure, he didn't really care. It was as much a threat as the Orks it slaughtered. "Shoot it once it's done. I don't want that thing to come after us."
Goral swallowed and nodded. The last Ork leaped at the glass silhouette, axe raised above its head. An invisible blow sliced through the greenskin's weapon arm and sheared off its skull above the cheekbones. The corpse flopped to the ground at the feet of the cloaked reaper.
Zorn aimed his las-carbine. "Now," he hissed.
As Zorn applied pressure to the trigger, his target leaped. Zorn's shot lanced through the space where the thing had been a moment ago. The trooper had never seen anything vault that kind of distance with such casual grace. Goral's beam sizzled through the air a fraction of a second later. It missed the same space by about half a foot. In one effortless bound, their target had pounced across the clearing. Another jump and it sailed into the waiting boughs of a thick-branched tree.
It was Zorn's turn to curse. He blasted a few more shots into the tree's foliage. To the rookie's credit, he quickly joined in, but Zorn knew it was pointless now.
"Hold your fire. Hold you fire! We withdraw."
"With that thing hiding in the trees?" Goral's voice cracked with the onset of panic.
Zorn whirled on the young trooper, "You wish to stand here? Wait for it to drop down on our heads? We keep our eyes open, head back to basecamp." He saw that the younger man was trying not to panic. The veteran softened his tone. "Goral, we can't beat that thing out here. We have to move, it's our only chance…the Emperor protects."
The younger man gritted his teeth, "the Emperor protects," he repeated.
The two guardsmen moved at a brisk pace, covering each other and scanning the jungle canopy for signs of a camouflaged figure. About eighty metres from the carnage in the glade, an odd clicking noise emanated from above them. Zorn froze. Goral heard it too. They spun around, trying to track down the source.
A thick beam of blue energy stabbed down from the crown of a tree. It burned through the side of Jonah Zorn's head, vaporizing everything in its path - skin, bone, tissue - before kicking up a prodigious gout of earth. Above his shoulders, nothing was left save for the smoking charred stump of his neck. The searing light had atomized Zorn's grizzled head almost instantly.
Grotesquely, the headless body remained standing for a moment before crashing forward onto the jungle floor. The suddenness of the attack along with its gruesome aftermath threw Goral into a state of shock. He fired up into the boughs of the tree where the thing must have lurked, but it was already gone. He fired blindly into other trees then realized the futility, forced himself to stop shooting. Goral tried to calm his frayed nerves. The trooper's hands were sweaty and shaking. "What do I do, what do I do, what do I do?" His voice was tremulous from the adrenaline rush.
The chance was slim, but with some luck, he might just make it if he ran. Goral squeezed off a few more shots in a clumsy attempt to lay down suppressing fire. Anything to give him a lead. The guardsman broke into a sprint, feet pounding against the forest floor, heart thundering in his chest. He vaulted over shrubs and bushes, weaved around trees and larger plants. In the back of his mind, the trooper told himself to slow down a bit, to run at a pace he could sustain.
Goral was about to follow his own advice when he slammed into an invisible wall. He bounced back, skidding through decaying plant matter covering the ground. The dazed trooper sat up, cursed under his breath. The glass giant stood before him. He realized how easily he had been outmaneuvered. After staking out his trail, the creature had simply stepped out to greet him.
The thing began to materialise. Electricity crackled around it. Patches of a massive humanoid figure shifted in and out of visibility. A burst of yellow light flashed from his assailant's eyes as if the thing were mocking him for trying to flee. Despite himself, the trooper couldn't help gawking at the fully revealed creature. Without a doubt, it was some kind of giant xenos freak, its appearance the stuff of nightmares.
The alien warrior must have been eight feet tall compared to Goral's measly six. It wore an emotionless mask of grey metal, featureless save for two dark-tinted eyeslits. Behind its head, thick snake-like tendrils slithered and swayed as if by their own accord. The alien's battleplate covered much of the limbs and torso. The whorled surface of its armour was cross-stitched with hundreds of scratches and gouge-marks. Underneath, the creature wore a bodysuit of black mesh. Over its chest hung a necklace of bones, and armbands adorned with fanged teeth were wrapped around its biceps. What looked like a bloody human vertebrae, flecked with flesh, dangled at the creature's hip.
Goral was still sitting on the jungle floor as he looked up in grim fascination. He pawed the decaying ground around him, searching for his gun. To his horror, he saw that the las-carbine lay at the monster's feet. The creature snatched it up with preternatural speed and examined the weapon. It seemed to know how the gun functioned. The carbine looked absurdly small in the giant's massive hand. It pointed the longarm at Goral as a trooper would point a pistol. The creature made that strange clicking purr again, the same Goral had heard before the disintegration of Zorn's head. The monster turned the muzzle away from Goral, grasped the barrel with its other hand. With sickening ease, it snapped the weapon in two as if it were no more than a brittle twig.
Slowly, the guardsman climbed back to his feat. The creature made no move. Goral reached down for the combat blade strapped to the side of his calf. He slipped the blade from its sheath and held the knife in front of him. Stripped of his lasgun, the common guardsman was left with only seven inches of sharpened plasteel to fend off the horrors of the galaxy. Goral swallowed his fear.
"The Emperor protects," he whispered.
+ The Emperor protects +
He was surprised to hear the alien repeat his own words amplified several times. The playback had the tinny, crackling quality of words spoken over an old vox unit. Its slightly muffled timbre pointed to the interior of the creature's helm as its source.
+ Shoot it once it's done. I don't want that thing to come after us +
His dead comrade's voice was warped almost beyond recognition. The heavy distortion made it sound almost daemonic.
Goral felt a pang of regret. He knew that the old veteran had thought him a coward. When he had mentioned going back for reinforcements, Zorn's face had betrayed his disgust. Goral knew he felt fear like any other man, but he also knew he was no coward. He simply wished to avoid a needless death, but death, it seemed, could not be avoided this day. He pictured Zorn's expression of disdain. It stung him deeply.
"For the Emperor!" The trooper hurled himself at the waiting giant, knife-tip pointing forward. He had not lived like a hero, but perhaps he could die like a man. Goral prayed that his blade would find an opening in the creature's armour.
Using its obscene reach, the thing slapped Goral aside as if he were a small child. The casual backhand sent him sprawling onto the earth. His knife hadn't even touched the armoured giant. The trooper lay on his back, dazed, head throbbing with pain. He felt as if he'd been bashed across the face with an Arbites nightstick. The guardsman tasted blood. A few of his teeth were definitely missing. His vision cleared. A mellow breeze rustled the leaves overhead. Armageddon's sun showered soft, golden rays through the gaps. Strange that the ugly jungle would now grace him with this moment of beauty. With grunting effort, Goral heaved himself up again.
His legs wobbled, buckled at the knees but he steadied himself. He realized that he had let go of the knife. It had flown out of his grip when the monster had struck. The towering humanoid reached the fallen blade in two strides. It scooped up the tiny knife. With a flick of its wrist, it sent the combat blade shooting down into the soil near Goral's feet. The trooper stooped to retrieve it, his face a battered mess. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He held out the knife in front of him, arm trembling against his will.
The monster stood there in a relaxed stance, looking almost bored. It bent its wrist, and two wickedly serrated blades sprang out of its vambrace. They looked obscenely sharp.
"For the Emperor," intoned Goral with a conviction that surprised even himself. Perhaps it was a trick of the mind, but this time he felt warmth flow into his limbs followed by strength. The fear lurking in the back of his mind began to wither, peeling away layer by layer.
The murderous beast played with him as if it were a predator toying with some feeble prey-thing. Goral thought of the things he would never do because this sadistic creature desired to slay him. The life he would never have. He would never see Aquilonia again, never raise a family. He armed himself with the sword of contempt. His loathing burned pure. This miserable jungle would be his grave. Knife raised, Goral Leng charged a final time, screaming his hatred at the alien fiend.
TO BE CONTINUED