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CURATOR'S CHOICE SHORT STORIES (PAGE 2)

 

UNDER KHORNE'S GAZE by Richard Cowen (Fulsrush)

The endless ash deserts of Armageddon Secundus lay still, unmoved by the near-dead breeze.  Featureless, the sterile wastelands stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction, scorched by the relentless sun.

Had any travellers been walking across the desert at this time, they would have seen a black shadow pass over the sun, eclipsing it.  Sol Armageddon would appear only as a weak corona around the double-bladed axehead, a corona that would gradually shrink and vanish.  It would occur to the hypothetical observers that the spaceship was coming closer, descending to the planet’s surface.

Next they would hear a low hum all around and the flakes of industrial ash on the ground would begin to shiver.  The trembling would gradually increase in intensity and the ground would visibly begin drifting in waves.  Countless white worms would burst from their subterranean tunnels, drawn by a long-disused race memory of raindrops shaking the ground.  The worms would be followed by rocks, cautiously nudging their way to the surface, and they would be followed by larger objects.  Here the remains of a lost land train, there pieces of ancient alien architecture.  Within seconds of the first large boulders breaking the surface, our observers would be unable to stand, bounced helplessly by the vibrations, relentlessly bombarded by the splinters of rock and ash that filled the air.

If they could bring themselves to open their eyes they would be able to make out the first discernible features of the incoming spaceship: giant skulls, glowing red sigils and vast, eight-pointed stars.

Their fear and pain would come to an end when, at an altitude of little over one and a half kilometres, plasma jets would pour fire down at the ground, to slow the spaceship’s descent, transfiguring the observers into microscopic dust.

As the Bloody Axe landed, war came to Armageddon.  Khorne came to Armageddon.

Morgan Doomblade watched the dozens of other spacecraft land on the desert.  Each was unique, either a warped parody of an Imperial vessel, salvaged during the Horus Crusade, or, like the Bloody Axe, crafted since then by Angron’s squat engineers.  A white glare shone on the horizon as the Worldeaters’ battle barge, Bloodshed, touched down.  The tremor from the ship’s landing became a visible wave, driving towards Morgan’s position at an incredible speed.

A cry of ‘Shockwave!’ went up and, all around the Bloody Axe’s landing site, the ten thousand passengers, both warriors and beastmen, crouched on the ground, buffeted violently as the blast washed over them.  Morgan rose to his hooves as Lord-Priest Vladikov walked up the glass dune.  He nearly slipped on the smooth slope of plasma-fused sand before reaching the top.

‘Lord Doomblade,’ Vladikov said, ‘I have a good feeling about this war.’
   ‘Armageddon is a hiveworld.  There are billions of souls here, awaiting Khorne’s mercy.’
   ‘Yes,’ the aged priest agreed.
   ‘And billions for us to slaughter,’ Morgan added.
   ‘Yes indeed.  Our god will be well pleased.’
Vladikov looked out across the desert for a moment.  Then he turned to Morgan and said, ‘My men say ten kills a warrior in our first battle.  What say you?’
Morgan shook his head.  Like his legs, it was not dissimilar to that of a beastman, although it was skeletal.  Khorne moved in mysterious and unfathomable ways.  But He was generous with His blessings.  ‘Less,’ he replied.  ‘You have never fought the Emperor, Lord-Priest Vladikov?’
   ‘I have slain over a thousand Tzeentchian witches, three thousand slaves to pleasure, and fourteen hundred plague carriers of Nurgle, but no, never an Imperial.’
   ‘Imperial minds seek for truth in the unknown.  They will send a small scout force to determine our strength and numbers.  Possibly, they will wait at a narrow mountain pass, or at a bridge, to force us to attack them.’
   ‘So,’ Vladikov nodded, ‘ten kills a warrior at the second battle.’  The priest glanced past Morgan and said, ‘I have duties to attend to.  I must go.’

Morgan turned to see his lieutenant, Kyrax Darkhelm, approaching.  At his side was a squire with the shaven head and the black and gold armour of Lord Velspere Helsinger’s army.  He could not have been more than a boy, but he wore a highly decorated sword at his belt.  Twisted about the hilt was a white silk scarf.  An official messenger, under Velspere’s protection.  A squire of any other warband would have knelt when addressing a lord, but Velspere was powerful enough to encourage his men otherwise.
   ‘The Great Lord Velspere Helsinger, Slaughterer Beloved of Mighty Khorne, Slayer of Countless, Baron of Mondass, Keeper of Kathulu, Butcher of Esteban and Master of the Black Dragon, demands your presence immediately at his court.’
   ‘Demands?’ Morgan repeated, narrowing his eyes.
   ‘Lord Helsinger demands your presence,’ the squire repeated. There was no fear.
   ‘How would you be if you did not have the scarf?’ Morgan asked him, fingering the pommel of his sword.
   ‘Be there, Lord Doomblade.’  Without a bow or a salute, the squire turned and walked back towards Velspere’s camp, at the farthest edge of the Bloody Axe’s landing site.  The Chaos lord’s gigantic war engine was half-assembled and already dwarfed the countless black-armoured warriors surrounding it.

Morgan heard Kyrax tutting.  ‘The way he spoke to you, my lord.’  Morgan gritted his teeth.  Kyrax lived to undermine his authority.  Morgan suspected the champion wanted the leadership of the warband.  ‘Why did you not kill him?’
   ‘He was under Velspere’s protection, as you well know,’ he breathed.
   ‘So?’ There was defiance in the word.
   ‘Velspere has six thousand warriors.  I have barely three hundred!’  Too late, he realised he had fallen into Kyrax’ trap.  Before he could say anything more, his lieutenant began speaking again: ‘Are you going to see Lord Helsinger?’ Kyrax’s face - or his helmet, they were one and the same - twisted into a narrow smile.
   ‘I am.’
   ‘But why, my lord? He is of equal rank to you.  You can refuse.  His messenger was most discourteous.’
   ‘I despise Velspere,’ Morgan began, ‘but a wise leader keeps his enemies near, where he can watch them.  Kyrax,’ he added.

Velspere’s court was part of the command bridge of the Black Dragon, the captured Imperial Shadowsword that Velspere used to exert his influence under the other warbands of the Bloody Axe.  Squat technicians scurried around the edges of the great chamber, soldering cables and hammering plates.  The super heavy tank was captured on Mondass, just weeks before the planet fell to the forces of Khorne.  The once hospitable planet was now a Daemon world ruled by the Khorne’s Fist chapter of Berzerker Space Marines.  As a reward for his role in the taking of the capital city, Velspere had been granted a barony on Mondass.

The massive form of Velspere sat on a throne of brass and veined black rock, his gold and black armour heavily engraved with Khornate holy script.  A cloak of black and white leopardskin trailed a hundred feet along the floor.  Velspere’s face was akin to chiselled granite and his shaven head bore several Khornate tattoos.

The courtiers were the hundred or so champions and beastlords of Velspere’s horde, plus their personal honour guards, all wearing black and gold armour and, with the exception of the beastmen, bearing tattoos on their bald heads.

Morgan had previously attended the court three times, once on Esteban VI and twice on Mondass, after the conclusion of the costly victory there.
   ‘Morgan Doomblade!’  boomed the giant on the throne.  ‘Welcome to my court!  You know the rules.  All visitors must abase themselves before the Slaughterer Beloved.’
   ‘I must respectfully decline, Lord Helsinger.’  Morgan would never bow to another lord, however powerful he was.  On the previous three visits to court he had refused, and the outcome had always been the same.
   ‘Get down on your belly and kiss the floor!’  Velspere thundered, rising to his feet.  A blood vessel pulsed visibly on his right temple.  Morgan ignored him and walked down the aisle of courtiers towards Velspere.  The shaven-headed Chaos lord seemed to grow even larger as Morgan got closer.
   ‘Hastur!’  Velspere bellowed. ‘Abase him!’
An armoured warrior stepped from the throng of courtiers.  This was, presumably, the latest of Velspere’s personal champions.  Even before the echo of Velspere’s order had faded, the warrior had drawn a mace from his belt.  Morgan stepped backward and drew his sword, Doomblade.  Beautiful images of slaughter and bloodshed flashed through his mind: cloven skulls, twitching severed limbs, steaming heaps of spilled guts.  Trapped memories of the Daemon whose fingerbones made up the sword’s handguard.

Hastur roared and ran forwards, swinging his mace down towards Morgan’s skull.  He ducked and the weapon whistled past above his head.  He swung his blade upwards, its edge slashing Hastur’s face.  The warrior’s cheek exploded in a spray of blood and bone as the Daemon rent his flesh apart.  He screamed and turned away.  Morgan counterstruck with Doomblade, bringing the blade up against his opponent’s left armpit.  The black steel tore through the warrior’s ribs and up through his chest to burst out of his right shoulder.  The head, attached by a collarbone and several shreds of flesh to the left arm, spun bloodily across the chamber to land at Velspere’s feet.

Velspere looked impassively along the trail of blood spatters from the head to where Hastur’s body lay, spilling its innards onto the marble floor.  He spent several seconds examining the head before picking it up for all to see.  Hastur’s left cheek was shattered and fragments of tooth and bone protruded through the shredded skin.  The savagery of a Daemon attack.
   ‘You have an impressive sword,’ Velspere said, sitting back down.  He seemed calm.  Either his rage had been just for show, or the sight of Hastur’s bloody demise had sated his anger.
   ‘A Daemon is bound to it, Lord Helsinger,’ Morgan explained.
   ‘An angry Daemon, Lord Doomblade.’
   ‘Lord Helsinger,’ Morgan snapped, ‘why did you request my presence here?’
   ‘I want your sword.  It is truly a powerful weapon.’
   ‘Doomblade is mine, Lord Velspere.  We share a name.  Khorne made it mine.’  Morgan’s fingers tightened around Doomblade’s hilt.
   ‘You took it on Esteban VI.  Twelve of my knights died in that tomb, trying to claim the sword.  Then you walked in and stole it.’
   ‘Khorne determines who lives and who dies.  They died, I lived.  It was Khorne’s will.’
   ‘I could have you killed and that would be Khorne’s will,’ Velspere smiled, evilly.  Morgan glanced around at the warriors crowding the edges of the room.
   ‘That is true, but what if Khorne decides that I use my last ounce of strength to bury Doomblade in your throat?’ Morgan asked.  Velspere laughed loudly.  As the echoes faded, he spoke.  ‘Then I will wager you for it.  My army will slay ten times as many foes as your band in the first battle of this campaign.’
Morgan smiled inwardly.  Even when Velspere outnumbered him twenty-to-one, a win was possible if he made good use of his cavalry.  ‘And what will you stake, Lord Helsinger?’
Velspere thought for a moment.  ‘I have in my possession a shield, also with a bound Daemon.  Its effects are… entertaining.  Ligur, demonstrate.’

A second warrior stepped from the crowd.  He walked through the pool of blood surrounding Hastur’s corpse and received a shield from one of Velspere’s squires.  Its surface was moulded into a maliciously grinning human face.  Ligur removed his sword from its scabbard and handed it to the squire.  Then he pointed at an ungor in the retinue of one of the beastlords.  It pulled a jagged scimitar from its belt and ran at the warrior.  Ligur sidestepped the first stab, but raised his shield to block the ungor’s follow up attack.  The scimitar scraped and bounced along the shield’s surface, striking sparks on the metal.  At the same time, blood burst from dozens of cuts in the ungor’s face, a precise transferral of damage to the shield’s laughing face.  The beastman fell back and collapsed to the floor, clutching at its tattered face.
   ‘A spiteful Daemon,’ Morgan observed.
   ‘Yes,’ Velspere nodded.  ‘My spiteful Daemon staked against your angry Daemon.’  He left his throne to kneel on the bloodspattered floor.  A squire handed him a heavy greatsword.  The giant Chaos lord took it in both hands and pressed the flat of its blade to his forehead.  ‘Under Khorne’s gaze, I give my word as a warrior that I shall remain bound to this wager.  May Khorne destroy me if I break this vow.’
   ‘And, under Khorne’s gaze, you have my word also, Lord Helsinger.’  Morgan touched Doomblade to his forehead.

Five days passed by as the Bloody Axe’s warbands marched eastwards.  In the distance were the towering spires of a hive city, and to the north of Infernus Hive, the jagged red peaks of a mountain range, thrusting up out of the sterile desert and stabbing at the toxin-filled sky.

Morgan sat in his saddle, watching the pitifully small garrison protecting the bridge over the River Styx hastily pulling back inside their barricades.  Skafrax snorted, wet vapour bursting from the Chaos steed’s nostrils.  He patted its blood-red neck and leaned forwards to whisper into its ear.
   ‘Soon, Skafrax. There will be blood,’ he promised. He glanced along the line of warriors.  ‘There will be blood.’  A horn sounded.
   ‘Khorne!’ Morgan cried, digging his spurs into Skafrax’ sides.  The monstrous steed leapt forward and began galloping towards the sandbag wall that made up the Imperial defences.  His cry was taken up by the three hundred riders of his warband and they drove their horses - mundane, ordinary creatures, not like Skafrax - forward after their lord.  At the same time, Velspere’s infantry began their charge, but they were easily overtaken by the swift moving horsemen.
   ‘Fan out!’ Morgan ordered, waving his lance to one side.  His second rank spread out to lengthen the first rank.  If he could block Velspere’s troops from reaching the bridge, even for just a few minutes, the wager would be won.  Bullets were spinning past his head and the strobe muzzleflashes of autoguns lit up the top of the barricade.  To his right, a warrior fell from his saddle, a series of bloody holes in his chest.  Further along the line, a flea-bitten horse ridden by a beastman took a bullet through its head, sending its rider tumbling beneath another horse’s hooves.  Worse, Kenrik, the warband’s standard bearer, was hit in the visor.  He fell backwards from his saddle and let go of the tattered red banner.  Morgan almost reined in his horse to retrieve the flag but a squire beat him to it, leaning from his saddle to snatch it from the ground.

Let him keep it, he thought, glancing up at the point of his lance.  He tipped the weapon forward.  At full tilt, he reached the Imperial line.  A terrified soldier dropped his rifle and tried to run. The lance ripped into his ribs, tearing through his body and bursting out below his shoulderblades.

‘Kill them all!’ Morgan screamed, lifting the dying man up on the lance.  He swung the weapon around, watching the impaled man’s agonised writhing.  Dimly aware of bullets thudding into his armour, he flung his lance down, smashing its victim against the road, and drew his sword.  As Doomblade touched the parchment skin of his near-skeletal hands, the bound Daemon’s memories entered him: war on a thousand worlds over millions of years, slaughtering Eldar, Slann, C’Tan and other, nameless, ancient races.  He spotted a fleeing trooper and gave chase.  He swung Doomblade downwards into the man’s right shoulder, dropping him under Skafrax’ hooves.

Seconds later, Morgan felt himself falling as something impacted against his breastplate, knocking him from his saddle.  Amongst the deathscreams and warcries, there came the echoing booms of a boltgun.  Morgan looked up to see Skafrax galloping off into a throng of enemy troops, snapping and trampling at them.  He rose to his feet and found himself facing an Imperial officer.  Although heavily built compared to his men, the colonel was still only up to shoulder height with Morgan.
   ‘This one is mine!’ Morgan bellowed, balancing Doomblade in his right fist.
   ‘Come on then!’ the colonel yelled. His voice broke.  He was afraid.  ‘Think you’re ‘ard?’  He discarded the boltgun and drew a chainsword from its scabbard.  Immediately, Mordred ran forward, his hooves striking sparks on the concrete road.

The colonel started his chainsword running and brought it up, slashing wildly at him.  Mordred blocked the blow, glancing it away with the armour on his left forearm. Doomblade saw its chance and leapt forward at the colonel’s chest, dragging Morgan’s arm with it.  The colonel brought his weapon up to parry, but Morgan forced Doomblade down a touch, feinting and shoving the sword through the officer’s breastplate and into his stomach.

Blood gushed from the colonel’s shattered armour as he stood spitted on Morgan’s sword.  The dying man mouthed a few gasped curses, revealing bloody teeth.  Morgan ignored him and glanced around for a new opponent.  He tried to withdraw Doomblade from the colonel’s failing body, but it was either wedged in the ruptured breastplate, or the Daemon wanted to stay and feed.
   ‘I must apologise, but…’ he pressed his left palm against the colonel’s face and twisted Doomblade free, dragging chunks of gut out with it.  With an agonised groan, the colonel flopped to the ground.

Morgan spotted his warband’s banner above a group of soldiers.  The squire who had taken it was surrounded by Imperial troopers.  His horse was dying and he himself had several wounds, but seven enemies lay dead at his feet.  The troopers stabbed at him with bayonets and combat knives, while he defended himself with what appeared to be an Imperial duelling sword.  The banner had to be protected.  Morgan hurled himself into the fray, slashing at the troopers from behind, reaping three of them like wheat before they began to fight back.  A combat knife swung down at his skull, but he lashed out with his hand, grabbing the wielder’s arm and forcing it back into the wielder’s chest.

‘Give me the banner!’ he ordered.  The squire held one arm out, presenting the banner to Morgan.  At the same time, a soldier thrust his rifle bayonet into the squire’s neck.  The squire managed to retaliate, slaying the soldier, before collapsing to his knees.  Morgan drove his sword into the last trooper’s stomach before stopping to assist the wounded squire.  The boy tried to speak but only blood came forth from his mouth.  He smiled and tried, vainly, to stand but he would live.

Morgan looked out across the bridge.  There were still several small skirmishes taking place on or before the bridge, and the infantry of Velspere’s warband, as well as those of Lord-Priest Vladikov’s and beastlord Gnathu’s armies, were just reaching the bridge.  He spotted a group of Velspere’s warriors and beastmen charge an autocannon emplacement, but it was too little, too late.  Over half of the bridge garrison had died at the blades of Morgan’s riders.  It was impossible for Velspere to win the wager.

‘A battalion of Imperial soldiers is one thousand men.  All are dead, their souls offered to our lord and master, Khorne,’ Lord-Priest Vladikov announced.  ‘Lord Morgan Doomblade, how many of the pagans did your warriors slay? You are under Khorne’s gaze.’
Morgan knelt before Vladikov.  ‘Under Khorne’s gaze, five hundred and ninety-five.’  He grinned as he saw Velspere’s face darken.
   ‘Lord Velspere Helsinger,’ Vladikov continued.  ‘How many of the pagans did your warriors slay?  You are under Khorne’s gaze.’
   ‘Under Khorne’s gaze, two hundred and twelve.’  Velspere stood up.  ‘Squire, bring forth Morgan’s prize.’  One of Velspere’s squires carried the shield forward.  He was clearly terrified of the Daemon-bound artefact and held it at arm’s length to his body.  The squire reversed it before holding it out for Morgan to accept.  He took it silently before turning to leave.
He heard Kyrax’s hissed voice from behind him: ‘Where do you go?’
   ‘I have business to attend to,’ he said.

   ‘But, my lord,’ the warrior argued.  ‘He is my squire.  I have trained him since he joined us on Mondass.’
The squire who had taken the banner was lying on a cot of furs, bandages around his neck and other wounds.  ‘Step aside, Mandrake, he is my squire now.’
The squire’s eyes widened in hope.
   ‘What is his name?’ Morgan asked.
   ‘Alexander Lucifum, my lord.’
Morgan crouched down beside Alexander’s cot.  ‘Alexander Lucifum,’ he said, ‘can you speak?’
   ‘J…just about, lord.’  Morgan spotted the boy’s Mondassian accent immediately.  Nobility, perhaps?
   ‘Why did you take the banner in the battle?’
   ‘I… I saw it fall,’ he gasped.  ‘It had… It had to be raised.’
   ‘And then you kept hold of it while under attack.’
Alexander looked confused.  ‘It had to be defended,’ he protested.
Mordred smiled.  ‘How fit are you to ride?’
   ‘I believe… I can manage… lord.’  Alexander stood up, shakily.
   ‘Then will you ride with me as my squire and my standard bearer?’
   ‘Lord…’ Alexander dropped to his knees, almost toppling over as he did so, and bowed his head.  ‘Lord, I would ride… with you… into the… arms… of Death Himself.’

Adverse weather coming southwards from the Palidus mountains shielded the advancing Chaos legions from Imperial spotters and bombing raids.  The defenders at the 4th Infernus Hydroelectric Dam were overrun in a single night by Space Marine Terminators teleported in from Angron’s orbiting battlebarge, leaving the way clear for the Bloody Axe’s warbands to cross the River Infernus.  Four days after the battle at the Styx, they rendezvoused with the other warbands of the invasion force before continuing on their way to Infernus Hive.

Dozens of armoured vehicles churned the black ash coating the ground, land raiders and rhinos carrying the ten thousand Marines of Angron’s Worldeater legion to their positions.  Mordred and the hundreds of other lords involved in the siege of Infernus Hive gathered above them on a low mound of blood-red rock, a foothill of the Palidus range.

Brother-Captain Costan, commander of those Worldeaters still loyal to their Primarch, and not to the rebels led astray by Kharn the Betrayer, stood before them, his massive red and bronze armour lighting up at every lightning flash.  Below his right gauntlet was a built in reaper autocannon, the masterpiece of some squattish engineer.  Morgan, normally hostile to firearms of any kind, couldn’t help but admire this particular weapon. Costan was speaking, but it was a prayer to Angron, so Morgan paid little heed.

Instead he looked up at the sky, at the churning black clouds, illuminated by lightning flashes.  His lungs were dry.  The poisonous desert was beginning to take an effect.  He wished for rain.  A futile hope.  There had not been rain in the Secundus Continent for thousands of years, not since the ozone layer had collapsed and the hives were built.  The clouds, now the only thing keeping out the lethal radiation of Sol Armageddon, were purely pollutants.
Costan’s reverent prayer had ended and he now spoke in the precise, unaccented voice of one taught to use Human Gothic to replace his original dialect.  ‘In His name, we were born.  In His name, we kill.  In His name, we die.
   ‘It is in His service that we are here.  One hundred and ninety million souls await Him.  The people of Infernus Hive are weak.  He will drink of their blood, and eat of their flesh, and consume their souls.  For no longer will the people of Infernus waste their lives in worthless, meaningless toil for a false god.  We will give their lives meaning, by offering them unto Khorne.
   ‘The attack will begin at midnight.  You each have your individual objectives.  Once you have achieved them, you may proceed as you wish.  Slay all you find, enslave them, convert them to Khorne, I care not.  We will take this world for Lord Angron and Lord Khorne.  Dismissed.’  Costan thrust his right fist, with its autocannon, upwards in salute.  The lords returned the salute, or variations of it, and began the journey back to their warbands.

Massive black cannons, barrels a hundred metres in length and almost five metres across, stood in a row behind Morgan’s warband.  Hundreds of squat engineers crawled over their surfaces, guiding vast teams of slaves as they manoeuvred enormous shells into the cannons’ muzzles.

Morgan swivelled in his saddle to admire the cannons of Khorne.  Then he turned back to face Infernus Hive.  The Imperium had clearly been preparing for the attack: miles of razorwire encircled the hive, from one horizon to the other, guarding countless trenches.  They appeared empty, even from his elevated position on the slopes of the Palidus Mountains, but he knew the Imperials were there, hiding.  Come the charge, those trenches would be alive with soldiers and muzzleflashes.  And, shortly after, awash with fire and death.

Looking left along the line, he saw Gnathu’s beastman horde and, beyond that, Velspere’s legions, six thousand black-armoured fighters ranked up in front of the Black Dragon.  The super heavy tank would be adding its impressive firepower to that of Khorne’s cannons.  He spotted Velspere, standing amidst his personal bodyguard of warriors, towering over them by several feet.  In his hands was a heavy double-handed axe.

To the right of his warriors, Morgan saw a much smaller, but much more powerful force: a company of Worldeater Space Marines.  They were screaming curses at the Imperial hive city, blaspheming against the Emperor they had so long ago forsaken, and gunning the engines of their Rhinos.

All these warriors were to capture the smallest of Infernus’ six spires.  Specifically, Morgan had been assigned the capture of an Imperial communications post, its location revealed by traitors and spies inside the city.  Captain Costan had told him that the post would surely co-ordinate the Imperial reinforcements in the lower regions of the spire.  This ability had to be denied to the defenders.

Alexander Lucifum reined in his steed beside Morgan.  He held the tattered red banner proudly in his left hand.  In his right was the Imperial duelling sword.  On its handguard was a familiar coat of arms.  The Hasselbachs, former ruling family of Mondass.  Rumour had it that Lord Dieter Hasselbach, the planetary governor, had been a slave to pleasure.
   ‘Look after the banner, Alexander,’ he warned.
   ‘I will protect it with my life.’  There was a hoarseness to the squire’s voice, but otherwise his wounds had healed sufficiently for him to fight.
   ‘Alexander,’ Morgan began.  ‘Are you a Hasselbach?’  He pointed to the squire’s sword.
   ‘No, lord. I am a Schlossmann.  I took the sword from a palace guard.’
   ‘You were in the palace?’
   ‘As a slave.  That is where I first heard Khorne’s truth.  I slew Lord Dieter and his harem and Vax Mandrake took me as his squire.’
Morgan smiled.  ‘Impressive. I made a good choice when I gave you the standard.  You’ll make a mighty warrior one day.’
   ‘Thank you, lord.’

Barely audible over the clattering of armour plates, whinnying of horses and rumble of engines, a cry of ‘Fire!’ went up.  All sound was extinguished as Khorne’s cannons barked.  Dirty, black smoke trailed behind two dozen red fireballs as they raced over the gathered warbands’ heads.  The red vehicles of the Worldeaters lurched forward, bouncing down the rocky slope at dangerous speeds.

Of the warbands nearby, Morgan was the first to follow them.  ‘Kill!’ he bellowed, spurring Skafrax forwards.  Hooves sparked against the bare Palidus rock as his warriors followed behind.

The cannon shells exploded on impact with the walls of Infernus.  Lava splashed down onto the defenders’ positions, flooding many of the fortifications.  As the liquid fire rushed along the trenches, troopers clambered desperately over each other in vain bids for escape.  The lower walls of Infernus were shattered by the colossal mass of the shell strikes, leaving gaping holes where they had hit.  The edges of each breach dripped fire and a fierce orange glow shone from within.

Morgan leaped his horse over the first flame-filled trench and lowered his lance towards a bewildered soldier.  Unarmed, badly burned and in a state of shock, the man could do nothing as Morgan speared him and rode over his body.  With Doomblade in one hand, and Velspere’s Daemon-shield in the other, he cut down four troopers in rapid succession.  He steered Skafrax towards the nearest breach and ordered his riders forward.  Hooves pounding against the hot ash coating the ground, Morgan’s warband entered Infernus hive.  Hundreds of thousands of warriors ran after them, cutting down the surviving Imperials as they went.

Skafrax bit a bloody chunk from a woman’s shoulder as Morgan cut down her husband.  ‘Take the children alive!’  he ordered.  ‘We need squires!’
A burst of gunfire rang out and Skafrax’s head jerked to one side.  Hot ichor pumped from the gaping hole in the Daemon’s forehead as it fell to the ground.  Morgan rolled from his saddle and landed on his hooves, face to face with the gunman.  Before the soldier could fire again, he shoved Doomblade up under the man’s chin, smashing its blade out through the top of his helmet.

His warriors were galloping away after the fleeing civilians, leaving him alone amongst the dead and dying.  The next thing he knew, he was being lifted up by a lance, the point protruding from his chest.  His attacker let go of the weapon, dropping him to the floor.  He screamed as the lance’s shaft snapped, jerking the remainder that was embedded in his body.  He tried to turn to face his assailant, but something heavy bounced off his right temple, sending him sprawling amongst the corpses on the ground.  An axe hit his shoulder, denting his armour and driving it into his flesh.  The axe wielder struck him again.  This time the weapon cut through and bit into his shoulderblade.  He swung Doomblade around behind him.  The sword hit something and he heard blood pattering like rain onto the road.  A black-armoured warrior slumped to the ground, a deep wound in the side of his neck.  The gold trim of his armour identified him as one of Velspere’s men.

Morgan leaned on the dead warrior’s back to enable him to get to his feet.  Two more of Velspere’s warriors faced him.  One held a mace, presumably what had hit his head.
   ‘So, Velspere wants his shield back, does he?’ he snarled at the warriors.
   ‘That and revenge,’ a familiar voice hissed.  ‘You humiliated him at the bridge.’  Morgan spun around and swung Doomblade at the warrior behind him.  Kyrax stepped calmly backward and drew his scimitar.
   ‘You’re finally making your move against me,’  Morgan snarled.
Kyrax’s helmet twisted into a sadistic leer.  ‘Velspere promised to support my claim to the lordship of the warband, as payment for retrieving Doomblade and his shield.  He even supplied the assassins.’
   ‘You sold out to Velspere?’
   ‘Yes.’  Kyrax leapt at him and swung his scimitar.  Morgan felt it biting into his neck, tearing through the dry skin where his skull merged with his flesh.

Alexander Lucifum sat in his saddle.  Across the square was the Imperial communications building, a heavily-fortified structure bristling with short range antennae, for troops in the area, and cables linking it to the other parts of the hive, which were inaccessible to radio waves thanks to the miles of bulkheads in the way.  Lord Morgan was missing and the warriors were still butchering the few civilians still in the area, rather than massing for an attack on the Imperial position.
   ‘We should gather the men,’ he said to the herald beside him.  The herald nodded and raised his horn to his lips.  Within minutes of the distinctive note sounding, the one hundred and eighty surviving warriors of Morgan’s warband were arrayed in the square.  They were angry at having been drawn from the fighting.
   ‘Where is our lord?’ one of the warriors demanded of Alexander.
   ‘I do not know,’ he admitted, ‘but we are to attack this structure.’  He pointed his banner at the communications building.  The flag was even more tattered than before, and wet with blood.
   ‘Where is Lord Morgan?’ the warrior bellowed.  ‘I follow him, not his squire.’

Alexander looked around, hoping to see Lord Morgan appear from an alleyway.  Instead, Kyrax Darkhelm rode in from a sidestreet.  Two of Velspere’s warriors were with him, walking at either side of his horse.
   ‘Lord Morgan is dead,’ Kyrax announced calmly.  A groan passed through the warband.  Morgan’s lieutenant drew his sword.  It was Doomblade.  Alexander recognised the shield on Kyrax’s arm as the one won from Velspere.
   ‘How?’ he asked, carefully.
   ‘Slain by gunfire,’ Kyrax said.  ‘He was shot down whilst fleeing the battle.  I am your lord now.’  He let his words sink in for a moment before continuing.  ‘We tried to recover his body, but the enemy reached it first.’
   ‘Then how did you get his weapons?’ Alexander demanded.  He realised that the warriors had fallen silent and were looking at him.
   ‘Lucifum,’ Kyrax hissed, ‘you may carry the standard, but you are still no more than a squire.  Impertinence such as that must be punished.  Somebody kill him.’
   ‘What’s so impertinent about it, Darkhelm?’  A warrior called out.  ‘How did you get Doomblade?’
   ‘You killed him, didn’t you?’ Alexander said.  He was already under sentence of death, so he had nothing to lose.
   ‘No,’ another warrior argued.  ‘Kyrax could never defeat Lord Morgan.  He is too weak.’
   ‘Who calls our lord weak?’ a bestigor growled, pushing its horse free of the warband and trotting it over to Kyrax’s side.  The bestigor was followed by several other beastmen and a fair number of warriors.
   ‘If he is too weak, he must have ambushed Lord Morgan,’ Alexander snarled.  ‘Or perhaps Velspere helped him.’  He pointed to the two men from the rival legion.  They tensed themselves, ready to fight.  ‘That’s what it was, wasn’t it, Darkhelm?  You’ve sold your loyalty to Velspere Helsinger.’
Kyrax glared back silently.
   ‘It matters not how Lord Morgan died,’ called a warrior.  ‘He is dead, and Kyrax was his lieutenant.  Now he is our rightful lord.’  The warrior spurred his steed forwards and joined Kyrax’s side, followed by most of the men immediately around him.  Other warriors moved across to Kyrax.  There were now as many riders for Kyrax as there were against him.
   ‘If you are not with me,’ Kyrax hissed, ‘then you are against me.  Join me or die.’
More warriors crossed over, leaving Alexander at the head of barely seventy of the one hundred and eighty warriors in the square.
   ‘Then die,’ Kyrax waved Doomblade around his head and pointed it at Alexander.  Kyrax’s warriors began to advance.
   ‘Protect the banner,’ Alexander called, holding the bloodied rag high.  With his sword in his hand, he prepared to die.

Yet another of Alexander’s former comrades fell beneath his blade.  The warrior’s blood spurted from his ruptured jugular into Alexander’s face, blinding him.  He wiped the blood away with the back of his hand before pressing on through the melee.  He spotted a black-armoured warrior hacking at a wounded gor.  Velspere’s man died with Alexander’s sword buried in his spine.  He tried to find the other assassin, but there was no sign of him.
   ‘Lucifum,’ Kyrax sneered, spotting Alexander riding towards him.  ‘Come and die.’
   ‘You first, traitor.’  Alexander blocked Doomblade with the standard pole and swung his sword at Kyrax’s head.  The blade scratched the surface of Kyrax’s helmet.  The damaged metal bled and Kyrax howled in pain.  Doomblade lashed out again, this time punching through the neck of Alexander’s horse.  As Alexander fell, he reached out and took hold of Kyrax’s sword arm, taking the traitor with him.  Both of them crashed to the ground together, Doomblade somehow twisting from its wielder’s grip and skewering itself through his leg.  Alexander recovered first and stood up.  Kyrax was on his knees, Doomblade pinning him to the ground, greedily drinking his blood.  Alexander prepared to deliver a killing blow.
   ‘Alexander, no!’ someone shouted.  They both turned their heads to see Morgan limping towards them.  His shoulder was bloody around a gaping rent in his armour, there was a puncture in his breastplate and a crack ran along his skull, but he was alive.  Kyrax’s eyeslits widened.
   ‘This is my warband now, Morgan,’ Kyrax sneered.  ‘They follow only me.’  He twisted his head around to take in his warriors.  They had all ceased fighting and looked on in awe at Morgan.
‘Not any more,’ Morgan spat.  He jerked Doomblade from Kyrax’s leg, causing the warrior to grunt in pain.  He swung it across in a decapitating stroke.  A few moments later, he collapsed over his former lieutenant’s body.

He awoke to find himself being tended to by Alexander.
   ‘Lord,’ the squire said, ‘you’re awake.’
   ‘How is the warband?’ he asked.
   ‘Seventy-two riders, lord.  Many of us died fighting for or against Kyrax, and even more fell when we stormed the enemy building.’
   ‘But we won?’ he asked.
Alexander gulped.  ‘No, lord.  Thanks to Kyrax there were too few of us to capture it.  We were beaten off.’  He paused.  ‘The Worldeaters took it a few hours afterwards.’
Morgan grimaced.  ‘But we failed.’
   ‘There is good news,’ Alexander said.
   ‘Yes?’
   ‘We have slain many thousands of Imperials and have taken a hundred prisoners, mainly children.  Some of the warriors have already begun training them as squires.’
   ‘Too few.  Barely a score of them will survive training,’ Morgan sighed.
   ‘Lord,’ Alexander began.
Morgan detected the hesitation in his squire’s voice.  ‘What is it?’
   ‘Lord Velspere has accused you of cowardice.  He says we failed to capture the Imperial building because you weren’t on the battlefield to lead the warband.  Captain Costan is putting you on trial.’
   ‘Costan? Why?’  Space Marines generally remained neutral in disputes between warrior bands.
   ‘After our failed attack, a company of Imperials arrived from uphive and killed several Worldeaters.  That is why they went out of their way to capture our objective, lord.’
   ‘When is the trial?’
   ‘As soon as you are fit, lord.’
Morgan sat up and, despite the pain in his bandaged shoulder, dragged himself to his hooves.  He wobbled slightly before steadying himself.  ‘Alex,’ he growled, ‘fetch me my armour and my weapons.  It is time for justice.’

The courthouse had once been a monument to the Imperial Law.  Now it was a shrine to Khorne.  Black armoured arbitrators hung from spikes pushed into the wood panelled walls and bloodstains had turned the grey carpet brown.

Velspere was seated in the witness box, his leopardskin cloak trailing over the edge of the box and halfway around the circular courtroom, and Captain Costan, acting as adjudicator, stood in the judge’s pulpit.  A number of other lords and beastlords were crowded into the spectators’ gallery.  Morgan spotted Vladikov and Gnathu amongst them.  Morgan sat in the defendant’s box, accompanied only by Alexander Lucifum.  A white marble floor separated the two parties.  Inlaid into the marble was a black Imperial eagle.

Costan stepped up to his lectern.  ‘Lords,’ he began, ‘this court is now in session for the trial of Lord Morg…’  His voice was drowned out by the boos of the spectators.  Morgan saw Gnathu braying loudly for him to be executed, but Vladikov remained silent.  ‘The trial,’ Costan repeated more loudly, ‘of Lord Morgan Doomblade on the charge of cowardice.’  The shouting and banging of fists from the spectators’ gallery raised by several decibels, and a small piece of wood, probably torn from the gallery wall, bounced off the edge of the defendant’s box.

   ‘Lord Velspere Helsinger, as the plaintiff, will present his case to the court first.’  Pro-Velspere bellows erupted from the spectators’ gallery.  It seemed that he had brought along many of his own people.
Velspere grinned and slowly stood up, the Terran oak of the witness box straining as he leaned on it.  He cleared his throat before speaking.  ‘My esteemed lords, the coward you see before you fled from the scene of battle, leaving his men leaderless and unable to complete their mission, which was to capture an Imperial communications building.
   ‘One of my men saw the outcome of this, in that by the time he did return to his men, they had suffered so many casualties from infighting that they were unable to take the building.  As a result, the enemy had the chance to call for reinforcements, reinforcements that killed twenty-two Worldeater Space Marines.  I lay these deaths firmly on Morgan Doomblade’s head.’

Khornate law allowed no objections, so Morgan gritted his teeth and stayed silent.  The spectators were almost in a frenzy, spitting and screaming curses at Morgan.
   ‘It is for this reason,’ Velspere continued, ‘that I am pressing for him to be executed for his crime, as is called for under Khornate law.’
Screams of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Kill him!’ echoed around the courtroom.

Costan pounded his fist on the lectern, shattering it.  ‘SILENCE!’ he roared.  The spectators hushed before Costan continued.  ‘Lord Morgan Doomblade, as the defendant, you now have the right to put forward your side of the case.’
   ‘Some of what you have heard has been true,’ Morgan began, prompting a barrage of insults and spittle from above, ‘but what truth there is in Velspere’s case is distorted beyond the bounds of honour.’
Velspere pointed a massive finger at Morgan and shouted: ‘Are you besmirching my honour, coward?’  Morgan ignored him and continued.  ‘Many of those present will remember the wager held between myself and Velspere, and you will remember that I won.’  Speaking loudly to make himself heard over a new volley of insults, he said: ‘Velspere wanted my Daemon sword, Doomblade.  Losing the wager meant he not only lost Doomblade, but also a similarly bound shield, which is why he sent three of his warriors to aid my lieutenant, Kyrax Darkhelm, in his leadership bid.  None of this is against Khorne’s laws, even if it is against the warrior’s code of honour.’
   ‘You besmirch my honour again!’  Velspere roared.  The spectators quietened considerably upon hearing Morgan’s counter-accusations.
   ‘Lord Velspere, silence!’  Costan snapped.  ‘Carry on, Lord Morgan.’
   ‘I was sorely wounded in the assassination attempt and temporarily unable to lead my men.  That was not my fault.  It was the fault of the assassins, and their lord who sent them.  I ask the court to throw out the charge against myself and instead censure Velspere Helsinger for his irresponsible behaviour on the battlefield.’
   ‘He’s lying!’ Velspere bellowed.  ‘He lies and besmirches my honour!  I demand satisfaction.’
Morgan gulped.  Had he gone too far?
   ‘Let us settle this with personal combat,’ Velspere requested.
   ‘Lord Morgan is wounded.’  Morgan looked up to the spectators’ gallery to see Vladikov pushing his way to the front of the massed lords.
   ‘Trial by combat,’ Velspere repeated.  He snapped his fingers and two squires appeared with his axe held between them.
   ‘Lord Morgan is wounded.  By Velspere’s assassins, no less,’ Vladikov protested.
Costan nodded.  ‘Under Khorne’s gaze, the truth will become clear.  The duel will be fought immediately in this courtroom. The loser forfeits his truth, his warband and his life.’

Velspere vaulted over the side of the witness box, landing with a loud crack on the marble floor.  Morgan hoped for a broken bone, but then he spotted the shattered rock beneath Velspere’s feet. Alexander handed Morgan his weapons and he walked out into the marble arena.  The spectators were chanting, but more were in Morgan’s favour than they had been.
Velspere growled.  ‘Let us fight.’

Morgan tucked himself behind his shield as Velspere began swinging his axe experimentally.  It was as long as Morgan was tall, and its double bladed head was fashioned from black rock.  The giant clearly knew how to use it, but Morgan took some solace in the slowness of his swing.  Even so, one hit from a weapon of that size and Morgan would be dead.  When Velspere did launch his first attack, Morgan simply stepped aside and let the great blades swing across.  The axe collided with the wooden wall of the witness box, bursting through the ancient, resin-sealed oak and showering both combatants with splinters.  He brought Doomblade up against Velspere’s armour, but the sword’s blade was reluctant to touch it, appearing to bend away when it hit.

It seemed that Velspere’s armour was also possessed and virtually inpenetrable.  That left only Velspere’s shaven head vulnerable, and Velspere knew it.  He had a high collar protecting his neck from horizontal strokes and a downward strike against a warrior of his height was almost impossible.  That left a thrust to the face as the only way of killing him - very unlikely, given Velspere’s evident skill. Killing him would be verging on the impossible.

Alternatively, Velspere could commit suicide.
   ‘You can’t win, Doomblade.  You’re going to die!’  the giant boasted, kicking Morgan in the stomach.  Buckled armour pushed into his sternum, restricting his breathing.  He fell back against the wall and slid down onto the floor.  Doomblade slipped from his grasp, and he made a play of sending it skidding across the floor, out of reach. With Morgan on the floor, Velspere’s only option was an overhead swing.  Morgan watched the wickedly sharp axe blade as it moved up to a vertical position before falling downwards, gathering momentum as it rushed towards his body.
   ‘Mistake,’ Morgan jeered as he brought his shield - Velspere’s shield - up into the axe’s path. Velspere’s eyes widened as he realised he couldn’t stop the axe from hitting the Daemon’s leering face.

Ignoring the pain of his shoulder and chest wounds re-opening when the axe hit, Morgan watched Velspere’s bald head shatter like an egg.  Splinters of bone and gobbets of brain spattered across the marble of the arena, the red gore contrasting starkly with the white stone.  Velspere’s body remained upright, held by the will of the Daemonic armour.

The courtroom erupted into ecstatic cheers.  Even Velspere’s supporters in the spectators’ gallery were cheering, such was the violence of Velspere’s death.  Unheeding of the agony in his shoulder, Morgan raised both arms in the air and clenched his fists.
   ‘Do I have justice?’ he called to Costan.  ‘Do I have Velspere’s legion?’
Costan nodded.  ‘You do.’

 

SERVI AD VOLUPTAS by Richard Cowen (Fulsrush)

Imperial Investigator Karl Probus lowered his drill and peered into the blackness.  The beam from his photon helmet lamp rippled over the objects in the tomb, but the drilled hole was too small to see much.
   ‘Servitor!’ he called.
A machine-man appeared from the tunnel, its right arm replaced by an adamantium-tipped buzzsaw.  Probus pointed to the small pilot hole he had drilled.
   ‘Cut a doorway in the seal,’ he ordered.  The servitor stepped forward and began cutting.

‘Lord,’ the guard began, kneeling before Dieter Hasselbach XV, Imperial Governor of Mondass.  Dieter popped another tiny starfish into his mouth before sitting up on his Roman-style couch.
   ‘Sergeant, why must you disturb my meal?’ he asked.
The guard removed his plumed conquistador helmet and fixed his eyes on the legs of the couch.  It made no sense risking a glance at his master’s great visage.  ‘Most Imperious Lord, Hand of the Blessed Emperor of Mankind, Inquisitor Ivanov wishes an immediate audience on a matter of some importance.’
   ‘Show him in. I can eat and listen at the same time.’
The guard bowed and touched his forehead to the floor.  ‘Yes, lord.’  He stood and walked backwards out of the dining room, never once lifting his gaze.

A moment later, Inquisitor Brahm Ivanov strode into the room.  The man was a giant, seven feet tall and heavily muscled.  He was clearly quite old: the lines on his face, along with his baldness, convinced Dieter of this.  He had a small black goatee, similar to Dieter’s own, and the left side of his head above the cheekbone was bionic, one red eye contrasting with the dark brown of his right eye.  His right cheek bore a thick horizontal scar where someone had failed to gouge out Ivanov’s remaining eye.  The Inquisitor’s body was also heavily scarred, with a cross on his right shoulder and a long scar stretching from his left shoulder to down inside his military-cut jodhpurs.  Dieter had trouble keeping his eye from following the scar further downwards, but finally settled his gaze on the Inquisitor’s artificial left arm, a complex machine made of bronze and steel rods and wires.

‘Brahm,’ Dieter smarmed, standing up and holding his arms open to embrace his guest.  Ivanov politely extended his organic right hand.  Dieter smiled thinly and shook it.  ‘Would you care for a little food?  I have mantis starfish from the Great Northern Ocean, candy balls from the province of Deocense or, for a taste of home, how about a crested gecko’s egg? Shipped in from your own Freedland, at great cost.’  He motioned to the many dishes laid out on the silk rug before him.  ‘Ah, great cost to the Hasselbach family fortune, that is, not to the Imperial coffers.’
Ivanov shook his head.  ‘My apologies, lord, I cannot spare the time.’
   ‘Oh?’
   ‘Lord Hasselbach, the xeno-archaeological digs at Mondass’ poles have seen a worrying development.’
Dieter looked up at Ivanov.
   ‘Certain…forces may have been unleashed when Alpha Team broke the final seal at the southern pole.  I wish to commandeer an expeditionary force to investigate.’
   ‘Forces?’ Dieter gulped.  ‘You mean aliens?’
   ‘Yes, Lord Hasselbach.  Aliens.’
Dieter paled.  ‘Speak to Field Marshal Tiens.  He will assign you a battalion of my army.’

Dieter stood before the mirror in his quarters.  He stroked his beard between thumb and forefinger.  His other hand felt the amulet he wore beneath his black tunic.
   ‘What if it is the Prince?’ he asked the other person in the room.
She sidled up beside him and gently rested a tentacle on his forearm.  She leaned close to him and whispered: ‘Then we will truly become enlightened.  Imagine the sensations.’  Elise Testorheim, Dieter’s priestess and confessor, opened her mouth and let her pointed red tongue flicker in and out, tickling the hairs on the side of Dieter’s neck.  He turned his head to face her.

Yellow eyes looked at him.  Elise was equally cursed and blessed by the Prince.  Her body had been gifted beyond measure, a vast improvement on the stumpy, bloated woman she had once been, but had paid for the Prince’s gift with her humanity.  She was cursed with an arm that had atrophied into a fleshy tentacle and a reptile’s mouth, a gaping slit in her face that was filled with needlelike teeth, that gave her a permanent smile.  She could no longer walk amongst the populace, and had confined herself to the inner palace, where only those with knowledge of the Prince could walk.
   ‘What if it is the Prince?’ he repeated.  ‘Ivanov is an Inquisitor.  If he suspected anything, he could destroy Mondass as if blowing out a candle.’
   ‘Have him killed, Dieter.’  She placed her human hand on his chest, feeling the amulet: Dieter’s badge of faith.  Dieter pulled the chain out.  The amulet was a golden representation of the mark of the Prince.
   ‘He is an Inquisitor.  The Imperium would not let an Inquisitor’s death go uninvestigated.
   ‘Besides,’ he continued, ‘Ivanov said it was aliens.  It was a xeno-archaeological dig and we’ve always known there were once aliens on Mondass.  Why would he suspect the Prince?’
Elise kissed him on the mouth.  Her sharp teeth bit into his lower lip.  ‘Perhaps you’re right.  The Prince can hide Himself.’  She slid Dieter’s amulet back inside his tunic to illustrate this.  Dieter Hasselbach, slave to pleasure, vanished to be replaced by Lord Dieter Hasselbach, loyal Imperial Governor.

‘Love me, lord…’ sighed one of the women.  She reached out and took hold of his heel.  He swung around and kicked her viciously in the side of the head.  The wretch reeled away, her silken garments trailing as she fell.  Her eyes blank and distant, a side effect of her drug-laced diet, she tumbled back onto her bed of velvet cushions, gasping ecstatically and pawing at the gash on her eyebrow.

Other drug-addled slaves - both male and female - rose from their recliners or cushions to try and seduce their lord.  Their food had been doctored to make them more… accommodating of him.  Eventually, the drugs rotted their minds so much that they became little more than zombies, living only for the sensual touch of their master, rather than for service to the Prince.  When this happened, they became worthless and had to be discarded.  That was why Dieter walked through the harem now, on his way to choose more slaves for the Prince.

Alexander Schlossmann sat on the marble floor of the courtyard.  His chains were heavy, but the padded velvet on the manacles prevented the metal from biting into his wrists and ankles.  Why chain him, but then keep him comfortable?  He was one of the thirty youths in the semi-circle, all smooth-complexioned, attractive and of the age of sixteen.  Although chained, they all sat with a poise that suggested the dignity of highborn families.  All were naked.

Two guards stood at either side of a heavy, ironbound door in the white wall of the courtyard, plasma pistols and rapiers hanging from their belts.  Their plumed helmets blindingly caught the bright Mondassian sunlight and their bejewelled green cloaks spoke of the traditional flamboyance of the Hasselbach family.  The reds, greens and blues of their tailored military uniforms, from their jodhpurs to their puffed sleeves, clashed discordantly, yet at the same time, were co-ordinated in uniformity.

The door opened and a woman emerged.  Alexander glanced up and immediately saw her beauty: her flowing raven hair, her full, voluptuous body, clearly visible beneath her gauze robes…  And then he saw, to his horror, stigmata.  Her left arm seemed to have drawn in on itself to form a handless tentacle, while her mouth had stretched wide as if it had been cut into her face with a knife.  Many of the chained prisoners gasped.  One girl whimpered.

The woman looked down at her.  The girl tried to shuffle away, but the chains binding her to the boys on either side prevented her retreating more than a few inches.  The woman took hold of the girl’s chin with her human hand and brushed her tentacle along her cheek.  The girl shrank away and squealed quietly.  The woman jerked her roughly forwards, until their faces were mere centimetres apart.  She slowly opened her mouth, revealing two rows of razor-sharp teeth.
   'Girl,’ she hissed.  Alexander imagined her as a reptile.  ‘You will find me beautiful.  You will serve the Prince in every way I desire.  You will wish for nothing else.’

The woman stood silently before the prisoners until the door opened again.  A man emerged from the room within.  The face was familiar to Alexander as the one on the face of every Mondassian coin.  Lord Dieter Hasselbach, but he was wearing gauze robes identical to those worn by the mutant woman, the transparency of which revealed a shocking sight.  Breasts were clearly visible on his chest, and further down…  Emperor!

The hermaphrodite examined the throng of chained, naked, youths.
   ‘Young, soft, tender,’ Hasselbach was saying.  He knelt down beside a pale-skinned blonde girl and cupped her chin in his hand.  She stiffened at his touch and her eyes locked with his. He smiled again.  ‘You have no need to be afraid, my dear,’ he said, calmly.  His other hand brushed a loose strand of hair away from her eyes.  ‘Your life from here onwards will be filled with sensual pleasures, both of the mind and of the flesh.  What is your name, beauteous one?’

She said nothing.  Hasselbach’s smile disappeared.  Testorheim seized the girl’s hair and pulled her back.  She squealed as the mutant pinned her down on the mosaic floor.  Hasselbach stood up again and delivered a powerful kick to her body.  There was the crack of breaking ribs and she gave an agonised scream.  The other prisoners flinched.  Testorheim leaned over the girl’s face and hissed, audibly enough for all the others to hear, ‘When your lord asks something of you, you will do it without question.  If he asks you to debase yourself, you will, if he asks you to take a life, either your own or another’s, you will.  And you will do it joyfully.’
   ‘Do you understand?’ Hasselbach asked her.  Testorheim pulled her upright again and thrust her face to within an inch of Hasselbach’s.  ‘You will be mine, to have and to hold, to use and abuse, ‘til death us do part.  What is your name?’
   ‘Yasbel Metternicht, lord,’ the girl sobbed.
   ‘Thank you,’ he smiled, civility having returned to his tone. ‘Sergeant.’

One of the guards left his post by the door to unlock Yasbel’s manacles.  Lord Hasselbach took her hand and gently guided her to her feet.  She flinched as her broken ribs grated together.  He motioned for her to walk through the door.  She took one last look at those that were still shackled and disappeared into the room beyond.
   ‘Who is next?’ Hasselbach muttered to himself, before eventually pointing to Alexander.  ‘Your name?’
   ‘Alexander Schlossmann, lord.’  He had no intention of being beaten.
   ‘You’re a good, strong boy, Alexander.  I’ll enjoy you.  You’ll enjoy me. Sergeant.’  The guard unlocked his chains and Lord Hasselbach helped him to his feet.  Again, he motioned for him to walk through the door.

Alexander walked down three steps into the room, by now fully self-conscious of his nudity.  The room was a large oval, with a fountain and pool in its centre.  Dozens of young men and women, none of more than about twenty-five years of age, all wearing silken clothes in shades of pink and yellow and blue.  To his surprise and embarrassment, many were… coupling: men and women, men and men, women and women.  Averting his eyes, he sat down on a nearby recliner and looked at his feet.  A second pair of feet - female - appeared at either side of his own.

A young woman, possibly five years older than himself, was looking down at him.
   ‘Who are you?’ he asked.
   ‘You have been chosen,’ she replied.  ‘You will spend the rest of your life in service to Lord Dieter.  He will love you as he loves me.’
   ‘What?’ he gasped.
   ‘But,’ the woman smiled, ‘for now, eat.’  She held out a silver platter.  Alexander carefully examined the oysters on it, then looked back at her face.  Her glazed expression frightened him, but he took one of the shellfish and tipped its contents into his mouth.  The strangely-flavoured oyster felt unusually soothing as it slid down his throat. Alexander looked at the woman again.  And at the others in the room.  Such beauty.  Such exquisite possibilities.

Two days after Alexander’s initiation as Dieter’s slave, Inquisitor Ivanov stood on the observation platform of the Shadowsword super heavy tank Black Dragon, staring out at the advancing army through his magnifiers.  The enhanced image showed clearly the skulls on trophy poles, blood-red banners and spiked armour of the enemy, advancing at speed over the hills of Southern Mondass.  Hundreds upon thousands of warriors, many riding horses, more on foot and running, but others were in Rhino and Land Raider personnel carriers.  The armoured vehicles displayed a familiar marking: that of a human heart gripped by a bloodied gauntlet. Khorne’s Fist Berzerkers, leading a massive Chaos warrior horde.

He crossed himself with his flesh arm and muttered a prayer to the Most Holy Emperor.  His mechanical arm was a memento from his previous encounter with the Khorne’s Fists, on the feral planet Danesworld, leading primitive tribesmen against the Chaos Space Marines’ fortress.  That experience had shown him that any army, however primitive, can defeat a smaller defending force, if properly led.  Now, the roles were reversed.  Now he was leading the numerically weak 5th Southern Hemisphere Battalion against the Chaos warriors of the blood god.  The sky above the oncoming horde rippled.  Daemons?  The rift at the southern pole was even more potent than he had predicted.

   ‘Colonel,’ he said to the officer beside him.  ‘Steel your men.  We shall remain where we are and hold against the enemy while we call for reinforcements.  Tell them the Emperor is with us, and that any man who dies in the Emperor’s service will be seated at His right hand come the End of Things.’
   ‘Yes, Inquisitor.’  The colonel saluted, turned about face and marched away to the command bridge.  Ivanov breathed deeply and prayed again.

* * *

   ‘War?’ Dieter gasped.  He felt hollow and weak.  Slumping back onto his recliner, he mulled over what Field Marshal Tiens had just told him.
   ‘War?’ he repeated.    ‘Against who?’
Field Marshal Tiens was on one knee before him, eyes averted.  ‘Lord,’ he explained, ‘we don’t know.  We lost contact with the 5th Southern Battalion just over an hour ago.  Their last radio contact was something about ‘monsters’.  We don’t know exactly what was said.’  He paused.  ‘The communications staff were driven insane.  They killed four guards before the order was given to execute them.’
Dieter stood up.  His knees felt slightly unstable.  ‘Where’s the inquisitor?’
   ‘High altitude surveillance platform #3 reports that the Black Dragon appears to have been overrun.  It was his command vehicle.’
Dieter stared through the window.  The white buildings of Mondass City seemed to glow in the warm sunlight.  What if the monsters came here, to his home? He needed the Prince’s guidance.
   ‘Field Marshal Tiens, where are the enemy now?’
   ‘Platform #3 has also detected massive population movement northwards from the southern polar regions.  They are heading along the Mondass Meridian - towards us - and have already crossed Duzales province.  They’ve destroyed everything in their path.’
   ‘The Ancient Mondassians have returned,’ Dieter grimaced.  ‘Ivanov’s men disturbed them with their damnable dig.’
   ‘Lord, although we do not know the enemy’s air defence capabilities, may I suggest we launch air strikes, at least until we can organise our ground forces?’
   ‘Yes, do that. How many aircraft do we have at the airbase?’
   ‘At Mondass City Airbase, lord, we have twelve Marauder heavy bombers, plus fifteen Thunderbolt air superiority fighters.  At Gloinstaff, there are six Marauders and fourteen Thunderbolts.  It is not many.’

Dieter nodded.  Mondassians were a ground-dwelling people and were reluctant to fly.  Mondass had not fielded a full strength air force since the Horus Heresy.  Tiens spoke again.  ‘I have delivered a communication to your astropath, lord.  The Brotherhood Marine Chapter are in the sector.  They could be here within days.  However, I need your authorisation for the astropath to send the message.’
Dieter flinched.  Imperial Space Marines?  Fanatical zealots of the Faith?
   ‘Field Marshal Tiens,’ he said, ‘I hereby grant you supreme command of the defence of Mondass.  Fight this war as you see fit, but no communications are to be sent offworld.  I am confident that our people can defeat any invasion.’
   ‘Thank you, lord.  It is a great honour.’  The field marshal’s voice seemed to waver as he spoke.

   ‘He wants to send for Space Marines, Elise.’
   ‘Dieter,’ the priestess walked up behind him and draped her arms around his neck.  ‘What if it is the Prince, as you said?’
   ‘That is possible.’  He conceded, ‘but I’ve resolved the problem.  Tiens has full command of the PDF but I have forbidden him access to my astropath.’
   ‘He may find some other way.  There is an astropath in Gloinstaff.  He may disobey you and send the message from there.’
Dieter shook his head.  ‘I made him field marshal for two reasons: firstly, because he is our greatest tactician, and secondly, because he is completely, utterly, loyal.’

Inquisitor Ivanov fired his laspistol twice.  Two more beastmen gors toppled from their filthy horses.  The half-starved animals bolted into the darkness, leaving one of their riders dead and the other one clutching at a charred hole in its shoulder.  He walked up to it and activated his power axe.  Blue energy glowed in the night air.  He swung the heavy blade down into the wounded beastman’s chest, sending blood and burning fur spiralling through the air.  Two PDF troopers were approaching down the hillside, their lasguns pointed at him.
   ‘Halt!’ one of them called.  His voice echoed around the still valley.
   ‘Identify yourself, in the name of Lord Dieter Hasselbach!’  the other ordered, in a quieter tone.
   ‘In the name of the God-Emperor of Earth, I am Inquisitor Brahm Ivanov,’ he snapped back, deactivating his power axe, but not taking his finger away from the firing stud of his laspistol.  In times of Chaos incursion, traitors and heretics were everywhere.  The soldiers lowered their weapons and dropped to one knee, their heads bowed.  ‘Our apologies, lord Inquisitor,’ the first one said.
   ‘Where are your comrades?’ he asked.  ‘Who is your commanding officer?’
Still with his head bowed, the soldier replied, ‘We have none, lord.  Our platoon is destroyed and we cannot find our company.’
   ‘Where is the enemy?’
   ‘W-we do not know, lord.’
Ivanov’s nerve snapped.  ‘Then try looking at something other than the ground, damn it!’  Both of the soldiers looked up at him.  He saw that their eyes were red and staring.  They had seen terrible things.
   ‘I am heading north, back to Mondass City.  Join me as my bodyguards and you will be greatly rewarded.’
   ‘Yes, lord Inquisitor.’
   He holstered his laspistol and began walking along the valley, his two companions following cautiously in his wake.

Dieter read through Field Marshal Tiens’ report.  Blake’s Warren and Port Gabie were both in enemy hands, and the 4th and 6th battalions were missing in action.  Direct communication was impossible, thanks to the madness that travelled the airwaves, striking down both sender and receiver.

Elise was staring through the window, sipping Cadian wine.  Smoke was visible on the horizon: Port Gabie, on the Gasabie Estuary.  Once the Gasabie was crossed, and if Newmarch fell, only the ancient, crumbling walls of Mondass City would stand in the way of the invaders.
   ‘Do you still think it’s the Prince?’  Dieter remarked, a wicked smile crossing his face.
Elise glared at him.  Dieter changed the subject.  ‘Tiens is in Newmarch, overseeing the construction of fortifications.'
   ‘Will they do any good?’  Elise asked.
   ‘Tiens is the greatest strategist and tactician in the world,’ he stated.
   ‘Mondass has not been to war in over two hundred years.  He is a theorist.’
   ‘I have confidence in him.  He says that no army will break a trench network as complex as the one he has planned.  When it is complete, we shall have our first victory against the invaders.’

Field Marshal Tiens looked out across the plains.  A few kilometres away, he could make out the skeleton of the last Marauder bomber on Mondass, lying beside the road to what had been Port Gasabie.  The madness had claimed the crew, and fighting had broken out on board.  The pilot had been killed and the remaining crewmen had made no effort to take the controls.  Airstrikes had been the main Mondassian strength, maximising on the invaders’ unwillingness to use heavy weapons.  Survivors and refugees from Port Gasabie reported that the enemy had attacked on a single front in a straight charge.  The same had happened at Blake’s Warren.

Tiens had spent forty-five years of his life studying the strategies of the finest military minds in the Imperium.  Against such tactically deficient foes, it would be impossible for the enemy to win at Newmarch.
   ‘Field marshal, sir?’ a captain clicked his heels together and saluted.  His buttons and helmet were in excellent condition and gleamed in the warm sunlight.  The man would go far in the PDF.
   ‘Captain?’ he nodded.
   ‘High-altitude surveillance platform #2 has just moved into viewing position of the enemy, sir.  It appears that the enemy have salvaged the Black Dragon and reactivated it.’
   ‘Where is it heading?’ he asked.  He had seen archive footage of the tank annihilating the house of Hapsburg during the rebellion two hundred years earlier.
   ‘This way, sir.’
Tiens sighed.  He did not want to face the Dragon’s wrath.  ‘What have we got that can harm it, besides our artillery and tank platoons?’
   ‘Only the portable missile launchers and lascannons of the 6th company, sir.’
   ‘Move them up to the front line, but keep the 3rd and 4th infantry companies in close reserve, for when the enemy close.’
   ‘Yes, sir.’  The captain remained where he was.
   ‘Captain?’
‘Sir,’ he added.  ‘There is a car ready to take you back to Mondass City, should they breach our defences.’
‘Thank you, captain, but that won’t be necessary.’

Dieter lay back on the bed.  Three slaves lay beside him.  All wore wide smiles, the drugs having intensified their pleasure beyond belief: the ultimate offering to the Prince.  The rituals taught to him by the Prince helped him keep his mind off the invasion.  He looked at his slaves: two female and one male, all of them from the new crop.  All of them beautiful.  The boy was looking back at him, blind devotion in his eyes.

Alexander bathed in the glorious beauty of his lord’s visage.  The Prince had received his offerings with thanks.  Serve his lord and serve the Prince.  It was all he wanted.

He tried to remember his old life.  Dreams of riding horses across the Schlossmann estate, of stifling collars and uncomfortable jodhpurs, garish tunics and heavy cloaks, of dinner parties and functions.  All dreams, no memory.  It had never happened.

Life was service to the Prince.  He loved the Prince and the Prince was love.

Ivanov spurred his mount over the final hill.  The horse, along with those carrying his two bodyguards, had been commandeered from a cattle ranch the prevous day.  Below him was, as expected, the city of Gloinstaff, well out of the way of the war.  A few kilometres to its east, Gloinstaff military base, home of one of the two astropaths on Mondass.
   ‘Lord,’ one of the soldiers warned.  He was pointing towards the city.  Ivanov saw a Chimera troop carrier heading west from the city gates.  After several minutes it broke from the road, heading across open fields in his direction.
   ‘Are they on our side?’ the soldier asked.
   ‘How should I know?’ Ivanov snapped.  The man shrank into his saddle under the stare of his mechanical eye.
Ivanov reached for his belt communicator and thumbed it into life.  Nothing but static and what sounded eerily like howling beasts.  An urge came over him to cause harm to his horse.  He clasped his metal fist on the creature’s neck and prepared to rip its throat out.  The blood...

He smashed the communicator against the ground and had his horse trample over it, ignoring the horrified expressions of the two PDF troopers.  An Inquisitor had to be strong.
   ‘There’s only one way to find out,’ he shrugged, nudging his horse forwards into uncertainty.

Lances broke against the half-completed Mondassian lines.  Although horses stumbled in trenches, their riders hurled themselves on the PDF defenders, hacking with swords, clubbing with maces, or tearing with tooth and claw.  The soldiers, strangers to war, and certainly strangers to the bloodfurious enemy they faced, broke.  Vastly outnumbered, and with their front rank devastated, the Newmarch defenders began to fall back within the city walls.

Tiens sat at his desk, in the makeshift war room at Newmarch City Hall.  Faxed reports hissed from their printers, informing him of the latest terrible news from the streets.  Here a factory had been destroyed, there a residential area had been razed.  The genocide had gone on for three days and instantaneous radio communication with his field officers was impossible, due to the malign effects experienced by the radio operators.  The more superstitious of his officers whispered about demons infiltrating the airwaves.  A ridiculous idea.  It was merely some enemy weapon, possibly utilising psychic energy.  He had studied reports of such alien devices.

There was a knock on the door.  Before he could answer, somebody shot the lock off.  A man entered, a sergeant.  He was holding a lasgun.  ‘The men are fighting amongst themselves,’ he mumbled.  Tiens sat watching the sergeant, whilst edging his hand towards his holster.  There were bloodstains on his tunic and his helmet was dented.
   ‘Why?’ he asked.
The sergeant smiled briefly and raised his lasgun, aiming it at him.  Tiens brought his laspistol up and shot the man neatly in the forehead.  As Tiens watched the lunatic slump to the carpet, a black hole burned through his skull, he realised that he had killed another human being.  He spent several minutes staring at the smoking body until, overcome with nausea, he opened the window and leaned out.  He took a deep breath and inhaled the stench of smoke and death.

Out in the streets, he could see blood.  Streets slicked with it, gutters carrying it into the drains.  Tens of thousands of people were dying before his eyes.  To his mounting horror, he could see PDF troopers firing on civilians and each other. Why?

The devastation of Newmarch brought despair to Field Marshal Tiens.  He had failed his lord, he had failed his men and he had failed his world.  Most of all, he - Field Marshal David Karl Tiens, supreme commander of the Mondassian Planetary Defence Force - had failed himself.  He placed the barrel of his laspistol against his head.
He fired.

* * *

Dieter fingered the plasma pistol, thinking about Field Marshal Tiens.  When he had first been told the news, he had called Tiens a coward and a traitor.  Now, a week later, with the invaders laying siege to the city walls, he wondered whether the soldier had actually had the right idea.
   ‘Where’s Priestess Testorheim?’ he asked his intercom.
   ‘The blessed priestess is on her way, lord,’ replied the lieutenant in the audience room’s antechamber.
He put down the pistol and walked over to the panel in the wall that, when moved, would reveal a corridor leading to the harem.  He pressed the hidden panel that opened the secret passage, just as the door burst open and a soldier rushed in.  Behind him was the secretary lieutenant.
   ‘Lord, I’m sorry...’ the lieutenant apologised, averting his eyes. The private, on the other hand, looked directly at his lord.  He was clutching a datapad in one hand.
   ‘Lord, word from Inquisitor Ivanov!’  He faltered under Dieter’s stern gaze and weakly held out the datapad.
   ‘A bike courier from Gloinstaff broke through the enemy lines with it,’ he added.  Dieter snatched the datapad and pressed the ‘read’ button:

   ‘Lord Dieter Hasselbach, Imperial Governor of Mondass, following the destruction of my expeditionary force, I have made contact with the 1st Southern Hemisphere Battalion in Gloinstaff.  I have acquired the use of their astropath and sent a distress call to the Brotherhood.  I also learnt that you had forbidden all off-planet communication.  This arrogance will go against you in any Inquisitorial post-war inquiry.
   ‘By the time you read this, the first advance force of Space Marines will be close to, or already in, Mondass City.
   ‘Inquisitor Brahm Ivanov.’


Elise appeared in the doorway.  The messenger turned around and caught sight of her.  He gasped and moved his hand towards his holster.  To Dieter’s horror, the man was still armed.  His secretary had not confiscated his sidearm before he had entered.
   ‘Lord!’ he gasped, drawing his weapon and aiming at the changed priestess.  Dieter took up the plasma pistol from his recliner and fired.  The guard’s upper back and left arm vanished in a glare of superheated white gas.  He spun around, a horrified expression frozen on his dead features.  Dieter spotted rivulets of molten metal burning down his face from his helmet before he fell to the floor.  Blood and ash stained the carpet.

Dieter realised the pistol had overheated to burn the palm of his hand and dropped the weapon.  ‘Elise,’ he said, ‘Space Marines are coming.’
   ‘The Prince, lord,’ the lieutenant interrupted.
   ‘Kill the slaves.  Destroy everything that speaks of the Prince,’ he ordered.
   ‘Including me?’ Elise asked as the lieutenant vanished into the secret passage.
Dieter looked at her, losing himself in her beautiful yellow eyes.  He couldn’t let her die.  ‘Leave the city and head north.  Take a platoon of my guards.  Go to my hunting estate - the staff will hide you.’  He grabbed her shoulders.  Unfamiliar emotions flooded through him. What was it?
   ‘Yes,’ she agreed, looking into his eyes.  She paused and then kissed him briefly.
Dieter smiled weakly.  ‘Go, I’ve got things to organise.’

The Black Dragon rolled through the suburbs, towards the walls of Dieter’s palace.  The volcano cannon roared and a large section of fortification burst into countless tiny chunks.  Immediately, black armoured, shaven-headed Chaos warriors charged the breach, to be met by the laser fire of a platoon of PDF troopers.  An autocannon opened up, mowing down dozens upon dozens of the Khornate horde before their axes tasted blood.  When the attackers reached the breach, every one of the Mondassians died.

Even as the warriors celebrated and collected gruesome trophies from the dead, two Thunderhawk gunships roared past overhead, the underside of their wings emblazoned with the black fleur-de-lis of the Brotherhood.

Unseen, on the airwaves, in the rivers of blood in the streets, in the screams of the dying, carried through the air by the stench of death and gunsmoke, Khorne’s emissaries flitted from soul to soul.  Men tore at their brothers’ flesh, mothers murdered their children, neighbours attacked neighbours, and soldiers turned their weapons on each other.

Alexander awoke from his drug-induced haze.  Fantasies of lust and pleasure faded instantly as a new drive invaded his psyche.  Blood.

The Prince cried out as the Beast seized His throat and shook.  The Prince’s seductive influence began to die, and Alexander saw the debauchery all around him for what it was: base, depraved, degenerate.

The Prince cried out as the Beast crushed His resistance.  The disgusting sights bombarding Alexander’s eyes made him want to damage something.  He grabbed at a silken drape and pulled.  It tore with a loud rip but it was not enough. He wanted more.

Elise ran at the head of a squad of six guards.  In her hand she held a laspistol, unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  She disliked weapons, but she was in fear of her life.  She crossed the hallway at speed, her companions struggling to keep up in their flak armour and helmets.
   ‘Hurry!’ she snapped, stopping at a pillar to allow them to catch up.  The first guard to reach her stopped dead even though she had begun running again.  ‘What?’
She stopped and followed his gaze towards the double doors at the far end of the wide hallway.  They were open.  Inquisitor Ivanov and two black-armoured Space Marines stood beyond, facing her.  Her tentacles flicked involuntarily as the fear already in her mind became outright terror.  The guards bolted, darting for siderooms and corridors, leaving Elise Testorheim, Priestess of Pleasure, alone with the Imperial agent.
   ‘Prince, help me,’ she croaked, fingering the amulet around her neck.  Ivanov’s bionic eye whirred as he zoomed in on the gold medallion, examining the symbol it bore.
   ‘Slaanesh?’ he asked himself aloud.  ‘Here?’
Her mouth dry, Elise tried to speak, to give excuses for her presence.
There could be no excuses.
Her body exploded into thousands of pieces as the Marines’ bolter shells obliterated her.

Dieter was systematically burning his extensive library of proscribed books.  Tens of thousands of tales of debauchery, both documented and fictional, many illustrated, were being consumed by the flames in his mighty fireplace.  Something made him stop.
   ‘Elise?’ he muttered.  He felt a tear welling up in one eye.

A ceramic statue of a nude hermaphrodite shattered in a similar way to Elise’s body as Alexander brought his fist into its midriff.  Shards stabbed in his arm and chest, drawing blood.  He watched the trickles running down his oiled body and smiled. Blood must flow.

The door leading from Lord Dieter’s quarters opened.  Behind it was a palace guard.  He had a laspistol in one hand and began shooting at the slaves.  Two men slumped to the floor, smoke pouring from their chests.  Alexander watched the secretary-lieutenant as he systematically walked around the room, shooting each of the mind-rotted slaves where they lay, and only killing the younger ones if they came near him.  A woman took hold of his pistol arm and tried to kiss him.

‘Get off me!’ he shouted, hurling her away.  Her arm swung out and knocked his pistol from his hand.  It landed in the fountain with a splash.  As he fished around for the weapon, Alexander spotted the lieutenant’s sword hanging from his belt.  He slowly walked over to the soldier and pushed his head beneath the water.  It took nearly a minute for the man to stop struggling, but when he did, Alexander took his sword and touched the point to his forehead.  With this weapon, he thought, I will draw blood for the Beast.

Ivanov followed Brother Paul into the audience chamber.  A charred body lay on the floor, wearing the uniform of a city guard, rather than that of a palace guard.  He had been shot in the back with a plasma weapon.
   ‘Inquisitor,’ the electronic voice of Brother Paul said, emanating from the speaker in his helmet.  He was holding a datapad in his left gauntlet.  Ivanov took it and raised an eyebrow.  His message had gotten through.  But where was Hasselbach?
   ‘Inquisitor, there is a hollow section of wall in that direction,’ Brother Michael reported, pointing his auspex towards one corner of the room.  ‘Inquisitor?’
Ivanov nodded and stepped back.  Michael’s krak grenade blasted the secret door off its hinges, sending it ploughing through to the corridor beyond.

Dieter looked up with a start.  That explosion was inside the palace!  He flicked through his two thousand year old copy of Servi Ad Voluptas one last time and threw it, and three other books, onto the fire.

Brother Michael smashed the ironbound door with another krak grenade.  Ivanov followed him into the room beyond.  Rows of empty bookshelves ran along the walls, and in the middle of the far wall was a massive fireplace, its marble façade carved into grotesquely erotic images of degeneracy and lust.  Books were burning on the fire.  Dieter Hasselbach - consorter with Daemons - was standing beside the fireplace, looking more than a little frightened.
   ‘Inquisitor,’ the traitor began, pleadingly.  ‘Thank the Blessed Emperor that you have come.  The enemy is within the palace walls.’
   ‘It always has been, heretic!’ Ivanov roared, raising his laspistol.

Dieter panicked and whipped his plasma pistol from its holster.  Somehow outdrawing both Ivanov and his bodyguards, he released a burst of plasma at them.  One of the Marines took the full impact, his chest armour cracking and melting, but the Inquisitor screamed as his bionic arm was slagged, taking his shoulder with it.  The other Marine ducked back through the door to take cover, leaving his comrades lying on the floor.  The wounded Space Marine was not moving, but Ivanov was still alive, staring in shock at the blackened remains of his left shoulder.  It would only be seconds before the Marine re-entered the room, so Dieter had to escape.  His eyes fell on the stained glass window, ironically picturing the siege of the Emperor’s Palace, ten thousand years earlier.
   ‘Hasselbach!’ he heard Ivanov shout as he took a running leap through the glass, shielding his face with his hands.
   ‘He’s on the balcony!’ Brother Michael called to Ivanov.  The Inquisitor tried to stand, but couldn’t.
   ‘Get after him,’ he gasped.  ‘Execute him… and anyone else… you find.  They are all… heretics.’
   ‘Yes, Inquisitor.’  Michael saluted and pushed his way through the broken window.

Dieter ducked as the wall around him disintegrated under bolter shell impacts as the Space Marine pursued him along the balcony.  Below him in the courtyard, dozens of armoured warriors and goat-headed monsters ran amok, hacking at the ornamental trees and smashing priceless statues.  He winced as a Leto Mas Brey sculpture, worth millions to a connoisseur, disappeared under a flurry of axe strikes.  He glanced back over his shoulder at the Space Marine.  He had stopped and was firing frag grenades from his wrist dispenser into the courtyard.  Dieter fired at the distracted Marine.  He took a vaporising plasma blast on his right shoulderpad, knocking him over the balcony and into the horde below.  One of the goat-monsters looked up at Dieter and brayed loudly.  He realised the monsters had seen him and looked for an escape route.  For the second time in as many minutes, he hurled himself through a stained glass window.

Alexander started as a body came falling from above.  Its fall was broken by the velvet canopy over an altar to the Prince, from where it bounced onto the ground.  There was a snap as it landed badly, its right leg twisted awkwardly beneath its left.  He looked at Lord Dieter.  Lord Dieter looked back.
   ‘Alex,’ his master smiled.  ‘Help me walk, please.’
Alexander began whirling the censer through the air.
   ‘Alex?’
Alexander took a step forwards.  He could hear the sound of axes smashing against the door to the courtyard.  Wood splintered as the first blades broke through.
   ‘Stop, Alex,’ he pleaded, raising his pistol.  He squeezed the trigger but the gun did little more than emit a warning beep.  It hadn’t recharged since firing last.  Alexander released the chain, sending the incense burner soaring across the room to strike the far wall.  Hot incense stones spread across the carpet, smouldering dangerously.
   ‘Please, Alex, stop!  We both serve the Prince!’
At the mention of the false god, Alexander began running forwards.  Lord Dieter shook his head, tears running down his face.  Alexander plunged the sword into his lord’s chest.  Blood splashed across his black tunic and his mouth dropped open, revealing red teeth.  Before Alexander could strike again, the courtyard door collapsed and warriors and beastmen poured through.

Dieter’s eyesight failed.  In the white glare that remained, he could see the faint shape of Elise Testorheim.  ‘Elise,’ he gasped.  It was Alex the slave.  He gasped again as he felt his killer pull his blade from his chest.  Again, he thought of Elise.  In the clarity before death, he made a surprising realisation.
   ‘Elise,’ he whispered.  ‘I love you.’

Alexander parried the first Chaos warrior’s attack with his sword before counterattacking with a thrust through the throat.  Two beastmen leapt at him, but he swung wildly at them, hacking them to bloody pieces.  The fourth opponent to reach him collapsed with Alexander’s sword jammed in its breastplate, the fall twisting the weapon from his grip.
   Unarmed, Alexander snarled and prepared to charge the dozen or so enemies that stood before him.
   ‘Hold!’ ordered one of the warriors, turning its helmetted head to take in the carnage of the harem.  Then he looked at Alexander, drenched from head to toe in gore.  ‘We can kill you, slave to pleasure,’ the knight told him.  ‘And we should, for we bear no love for your Daemon master.  But you are a great warrior, unworthy of all of this.’  He waved his sword around to encompass the drapes, statues and cushions.  They were all soaked with blood.  ‘We offer you an honourable life, if you would serve Khorne.’
   ‘The Beast?’ Alexander inquired.
   ‘Khorne is the Beast, the Beast is Khorne.  We serve Him with blood.  You could too.’
   Alexander looked at the blood on his hands.  ‘The Prince?’
   ‘Renounce the false god.  Abjure carnal lust.  Embrace Khorne and join us in our slaughter,’ the Chaos knight said.
Alexander looked into Lord Dieter’s dead eyes.  He had been a prisoner to the Prince’s will.  A slave to pleasure.  Khorne offered freedom.  The freedom to fight.  To shed blood.  To kill.

He nodded and walked towards the knight.
The Prince is dead.
The Beast lives.

 

PLAGUE MARINE by Richard Cowen (Fulsrush)

I stand on a hillside, with the nine Marines of my command squad.  We are halfway between two allied armies, on one side, the bone white armour and uniforms of my own company of Jewel Guardians, and on the other, the blue and gold of the Templars.  We are of the Guardians, the most blessed warriors of our divine lord.  When we kill, we kill in His name, and when we die, we die in His name.  Our every waking moment is taken up with worship of the one true light within a galaxy of strife.

We are performing an ancient ritual, precisely repeating the steps and movements of the first men to make this act of worship, so many millennia ago.  The rite far out-ages the Jewel Guardians, even out-aging human life on Jewel, and comes from sources beyond our mortal realm.  I take the role of priest, although I am not a Chaplain, and lead my battle brothers to the altar.  I lead them in the chanting of prayers, in a language so old that none bar the Chaplains understand the holy meaning of the words.

The pit before me is filled with the corpses of our foe.  They have lain here for mere days, yet their flesh is already liquefying and sliding from pitted yellow-brown bones.  Empty eye sockets gaze up from a pool of slime.  I raise the Blessed Chalice in both hands, holding it aloft for the required seven seconds.

My Marines chant praise to Nurgle as I toss the offering onto the decaying altar.  The captured pirate’s eyes widen to terrified stares as he splashes into the already liquefying remains of his comrades, their own eyes swollen and yellowed by the beautiful microbial life that crawls over them and courses through them.  I speak words that I do not understand, in one of the old, Dark tongues.  My knowledge of what I say is unimportant.  Nurgle hears me, and that is all that matters.  The ritual is to seal our pact with the Templars against the Red Corsairs.

The mortar sits in a foxhole, its barrel aimed up at the sky, ready to spit toxic death at its enemies.  I walk towards it, my bolter hanging loosely from my gauntleted hand.  My Marines are just a few feet behind me, looking to me for leadership, but for this moment I can only take in the state of the mortar.  Its barrel is cracked and split, and pus and excrement leak through the fissures in its side, oozing in slow rivulets down into the foxhole, where it has pooled to ankle depth.  I take care not to set foot in the thick, viscous slime, because I know it will rot my power armour in minutes, but I have to investigate the mortar.

I run my finger through one of the rivulets, smearing the matter onto the tip.  The bone-white paint of my armour sizzles and corrodes away before my eyes, leaving just a milky froth on the surface of the pus on my fingertip. Curious, I lift my visor and bring the finger up to my face.  I can almost see the toxins, bacteria and fungal spores that make the substance so inimical to multi-cellular life, and then I extend my tongue and lick my finger clean.

Demolisher shells explode within my brain and I gasp aloud, staggering slightly as the rapturous filth triggers signals of pleasure along my neural pathways, sends poisons coursing through my body.
   ‘It ith good, brother?’ Bubonicus asks me, his half-face bearing a half-smile.  I nod.  The side of his face that still holds flesh seems to be losing the futile battle against decay every day.  The rest has already been sacrificed to the necrotic plague that he is cultivating within his body for our lord.  The lisp is from his swollen black tongue, dotted with tiny yellow pustules.
   ‘It is superb,’ I reply, but address my response to the mortar’s crew.  The cultists bow down, the triple-skull tattoos on their shaven heads glowing softly beneath the scum encrusted all across their skin.
   ‘But now,’ I say, ‘we cannot divert any longer.’  I begin walking briskly towards our allies again.  The miasma that floats above them crackles with pink and yellow lightning, but other than that, there is no movement.  Whereas the army of my lord, King Foulhide of Jewel, constantly moves with flows of microscopic life, there seems to be no life whatsoever in Lord Harkon’s Templars.  This disturbs me as my squad walks across the two hundred-metre gap between our camps.

Perhaps I should introduce myself.  I am Brother-Captain Nicholas Anthraxis, formerly of the Brotherhood, a minor, yet notable, crusading Space Marine Chapter fighting in the Maelstrom area of the galaxy.  Now, after a century and a half of service in the Emperor’s armies, I fight for the infinitely nobler King Foulhide, as part of his Jewel Guardians.  We are a new Chapter when compared to the pedigree of the Blood Angels, or the World Eaters, or the Space Wolves, but no less devoted to our lord.  We are Plague Marines, the most blessed servants of Nurgle.

Our ranks are made up of renegades from loyalist Chapters, mainly, although we have many marines who have defected more than once, having joined us from Huron Blackheart’s Red Corsairs.  The Corsairs, in their heathen ways, do not appreciate the true beauty of decay and microbial life and death and expel the Plague Marines from their ranks.  The up front, insane fanaticism of the Berzerkers and the Noise Marines they can handle, but not the all-pervasive, eternally subtle hand of Nurgle.

That is why we fight now, against the armies of the Red Corsairs, on the surface of the Imperial world of Senagor Maxima.  Huron Blackheart wants the loot of this world, whereas we want the life, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  His loot includes the people, the life upon which we plan to breed contagion.  So, once the world’s armies were crushed - or converted - he broke the pact he made with King Foulhide.

Even as we pass by the silent sentinels of the Templars, a swarm of whirlwind missiles roar down and tear through the ranks of statues, scattering power armour shrapnel in all directions, fragments tearing through the Marines still standing.  They don’t even flinch.

Before the counterattack can be launched, another Corsair missile strike hits, lifting up a rhino and bringing it crashing down onto the heads of another squad of Marines.  The fuel tanks erupt, and the burning petroleum blossoms into an awesome orange mushroom cloud.  I am glad I lowered my visor - fire disturbs me, as it does all Plague Marines.  Hot flame is a great cleanser.  It can sterilise worlds and leave them soulless, utterly unloved by Nurgle.  Bubonicus shivers as the heat from the explosion washes over his half-face.  He mutters something about millions of tiny deaths.  We press on, although Bubonicus drifts to the back of the squad.

Then I realise there are Templar Marines still standing amidst the roaring flames, ignoring the burning chemicals clinging to their armour.  What manner of creatures are our allies?
   ‘Captain,’ Septima says, pointing uphill, towards the rear of the force, over the plumed heads of a dozen rows of stationary, super-disciplined Marines.  He is pointing at the only moving warriors in the Templar army, barely visible through the crackling mist that surrounds them.  A squad of maybe a dozen Marines, all wearing long yellow robes over their blue-and-gold power armour.
   ‘Our contacts, I presume.’  I give the order to march towards them. When we get there, I see that they are led by an officer wearing ornate armour, more gold than blue, with tall spikes fanning out as a halo around his helmet.  He holds a long staff in one hand, tipped with a large crystal orb that shimmers with Chaos energy.  He bears no other badge of rank, and the miasma floating over the entire army indicates that if he is their leader, then he is also a sorcerer.  I dislike witchery, loving the gifts granted by Nurgle far more, but I am under orders.
   ‘Lord Crowfoot?’ I call, saluting him.
   ‘Captain Anthraxis, I salute you in return.’  I can’t help noticing that he doesn’t.

The Marines of his command squad are a lot more animated than the rest of the army, and don’t seem to share the immobile discipline of the rest of the army, shuffling uneasily as we approach.  We Plague Marines have that effect on most living creatures, even the most bestial alien, or the dumbest animal.  They all have an irrational fear of filth, and that makes them alien to me.  The command squad wear amulets and carry staffs of their own - apprentice sorcerers.
   Crowfoot speaks again. ‘Your King has requested our aid against the pirates who broke a shared agreement.’

The Templars weren’t requested, by any means.  They are mercenaries, and they arrived on Senagor Maxima just as the pact with the Corsairs broke, as if they knew it was destined to happen.  If King Foulhide hadn’t hired them, Blackheart would have done.  The Jewel Guardians could have won this war without outside help, but we couldn’t have won if Crowfoot had sworn an alliance with the Red Corsairs.  I wonder how long this alliance will last.  In twelve decades as a Chaos Space Marine, I have never known an alliance to last longer than was absolutely necessary.  I swallow my reservations and say: ‘Your price was one thousand slaves, and, when the Red Corsairs leave Senagor Maxima, they shall be yours. You have the honourable word of King Nero Foulhide on this.’

Crowfoot nods, but says nothing.  Then the energy within the crystal on his staff pulses, and an almost imperceptible black spot appears briefly within the gem.  In the brief time of my first sighting of it, I swore it was the pupil of an eye.  ‘The Red Corsairs are coming.’

I turn around and look across the valley.  The hillside is clear, but for the advance surveillance positions we saw the Corsairs set up during the night.  ‘How do you know?’ I demand.  There’s something about the mercenary sorcerer that disturbs me.
   ‘Trust me.’  When a mercenary says that, I usually don’t.

More missiles slam into the ground, back amongst the Jewel Guardians.  Explosions burst in a line along the ranks of my comrades.  Dozens, maybe hundreds, of torn bodies are hurled through the air.  I cry out in shock at the sudden deaths of so many of my comrades.  I can’t even see the enemies.  I switch on the magnifiers in my visor.

Then I see them.  Six Thunderhawk gunships burst through Senagor’s low clouds, heavy bolters spitting death, the missile launchers beneath their wings delivering their deadly payloads into the rear ranks of our infantry.  One of the gunships opens its forward ramp while still two, maybe three, hundred metres up.  A swarm of tiny armoured figures drop out, lit up in the dull sky by the engine glow of their jump packs.  They drop frag grenades amongst our artillery positions, landing amongst the panicking infantry.  Our men there aren’t Marines, but cultists, and they can’t be expected to stand their ground, but they still shouldn’t flee the wrong way!

Attacked from the rear, a tidal wave of cultists surges towards the front line, panicked and trying to escape from the surprise attack from behind.  The other Thunderhawks are landing in the wreckage of our artillery positions - it seems that mortar will not be spitting toxic death today - and releasing hordes of Corsair infantry.  They are mainly human foot soldiers, although there are Marines there, as well as orks, all clad in the multi-coloured armour of the Red Corsairs.  All are armed with boltguns and cutlasses and they charge after our fleeing cultists, cutting them down mercilessly.  I turn angrily to Crowfoot.
   ‘What are you waiting for? Send in your men!’ I shout, angrily.  My squad is readying its bolters, and Brother Gangrenus is hefting his lascannon to his shoulder.
   ‘No!’ Crowfoot shouts to him.  ‘Do not fire!’
   ‘Why not?’ I roar, drawing my sword.  It is usually comforting to see the green ooze running down its blade, but now I just want to ram it through the eyepieces of Crowfoot’s helmet.
   ‘While we remain within the miasma, and do not remind the Corsairs that we are here, we are safe.’
   ‘My comrades… My king is out there!  What are you being paid for, mercenary!’  The thought crosses my mind that perhaps Crowfoot has been hired by the Corsairs after all, to not fight.

‘Wait a while,’ Crowfoot says, watching the carnage erupting amongst the Jewel Guardians.  Some of our Marines are forming a counter attack, turning their grenade launchers and plague spitters against the oncoming hordes.  The orks and humans are cut to pieces, but the heavily armed Marines…  I have seen many clashes between Marines, both as a loyalist and a Guardian, and they have all been bloody battles of attrition.  The Jewel Guardians are few in number, and have to rely on cultist infantry for the bulk of our forces, and so our Marines cannot afford this kind of battle - Marine versus Marine, one on one, but that is what is happening.
   ‘My brethren are being slaughtered!’ I bellow, bringing my bolter up towards Crowfoot’s face.  His apprentices move to draw their own pistols, but stop.  At the same time, I decide not to kill him after all.  It wouldn’t be right, not in the circumstances.  The crystal on Crowfoot’s staff shimmers again, and I see the eye looking at me.

‘Wait one more moment.’  Crowfoot looks down into the valley.  The Corsairs are coming over the hill.  It’s a mechanised assault, with a spearhead of attack bikes and predator tanks. Land speeders sweep around the Guardians’ flanks, assault cannon and heavy bolter muzzles flickering madly, cutting down cultists from an unexpected angle.  I see the whirlwind missile launchers drive slowly up to the top of the hill, preparing to fire more accurate, line of sight salvoes at our men.  It strikes me that the Templars may be protected from the enemy by the strange miasma, as Crowfoot said.  I have only seen two missile strikes hit his positions, while our own have been under more or less constant bombardment for a day.  Perhaps the two I saw were stray shots, both suffering from the same miscalculated launch angle?

Crowfoot sees the whirlwinds as well.  He turns to me and calmly says, ‘Come with us. Ride on one of the rhinos.’

He points towards his army.  Silently, without me noticing, they have mounted their troop carriers.  The engines start, but no fumes pour from the exhaust funnels.  Something is wrong, but I lead my squad to one of the rhinos.  The vehicle’s metal skin is warm, but not from engine heat.  I hesitate.
   ‘Climb onto its back.  It will not mind,’ Crowfoot says.  A land raider crawls slowly up behind him, and for a moment I think - hope, perhaps - that it is about to crush him into the hillside.  It stops just a few feet away, and lowers its front ramp.  As the sorcerer and his apprentices step inside, they seem to disappear into the darkness within, as if the tank is swallowing them.  Then the ramp lifts and the land raider moves off again.  The rhinos are also beginning to roll downhill, and so I grab onto the one I am beside and clamber up onto its hull.  Gangrenus and Pestilens both refuse to join me, but the rest of the squad do.
   ‘Get up here!’ I order, as the rhino begins moving.
   ‘We’ll run!’ Pestilens says, shaking his head and backing away from the vehicle.
   Fuming, I take hold of one of the passenger safety rails and ride the rhino down into the valley.  I don’t look back at Gangrenus and Pestilens, but I promise myself that if they don’t follow us, even on foot, then I will kill them both.

Brother Bubonicus sits beside me, his plague spitter resting across his knee.  I wonder whether his blessed, decomposing state is due in some way to the weapon he fights with.  Surely the presence of so many billions of microbes, even held captive within his ammunition flasks, must expose him to more contagion than the average Plague Marine?

I estimate that we are moving at top speed, and I know that rhinos are almost 25% faster than land raiders, yet Crowfoot’s transport vehicle is at the front of the armoured column.  We pass by the Corsair wedge as it closes on the Guardians, within bolter range.  Their rhinos are painted in the blue of the Ultramarines, the yellow of the Imperial Fists, the green of the Dark Angels, but they are split half with blood red, and what Imperial markings they once bore have been obliterated by red Chaos stars and skulls.  Some are entirely red, and bear orkish symbols.  The Maelstrom is a rich source of Blood Axe orks and the Corsairs frequently use them as cannon fodder in their raiding parties.  One of the rhinos has its top hatches open, and the ork sergeant is standing up and bellowing at the driver of another carrier that has strayed too close.

Bubonicus raises his plague spitter.  From here, he could aim a spray of toxic jelly right in through that open hatch, and not one of the occupants would make it to our lines alive.  I smile, and then I remember what Crowfoot said - we mustn’t draw attention to ourselves.

I shudder to think what would happen now if our invisibility failed.  Within close range of a much larger force of vehicles, all packed with some of the most ferocious assault troops in the sector, we wouldn’t stand a chance.  I reach out and push the flared barrel of Bubonicus’ weapon down.  He looks at me questioningly, and I order the entire squad to hold fire.

The Templars loop around behind the Corsair whirlwinds, just over the brow of the hill, hidden from their main force. I try to make radio contact with King Foulhide, but he ignores me.  He must already be in combat, although I have no way of knowing his fate, or that of the rest of my army.

Our vehicles stop in a line, Crowfoot’s land raider in the centre, and the hatches of the rhinos slam open.  I clear my squad off our vehicle to allow the passengers to open their top hatch. The Templar Marines emerge silently and form a single rank.  Up ahead of us is the whirlwind squadron - six vehicles, accompanied by maybe forty or fifty human infantry.  The whirlwinds fire a volley, the backwash of smoke rushing in our direction.  I realise then that the miasma that has surrounded the Templars since before our first meeting has vanished.

The firing begins.  The Corsair infantrymen spot us and open up with their lasguns.  Simultaneously, every Templar begins firing.  The fire fight is hopelessly one-sided, and half of the flak armoured Corsairs are blown to bloody chunks within seconds.  One of the whirlwinds, its launch tubes penetrated by bolter shells, explodes violently.  Three of the tanks begin to rotate their launchers to face us.

‘Charge!’ I yell, and draw my sword.  My Plague Marines storm up to the hilltop before the multi-launchers can lock onto us.  Two of the three that have noticed us fire, and I duck instinctively.  Glancing behind me, I see great holes ripped in the Templar firing line by the point-blank attack.  The third whirlwind fires a moment later, but the ordnance impacts harmlessly against Crowfoot’s land raider, without either of the missiles fired exploding.  They merely bounce off and land on the ground, crumpled and blackened, but intact.  They’re both duds.  The land raider replies by firing its heavy weapons.  The side lascannons each take out one whirlwind, while the twin heavy bolters chew through the rear armour of a third, detonating the fuel tanks and destroying it.  That leaves two whirlwinds for us to destroy.  The Templars stop firing and leave us charging, alone, towards the hilltop.  There are still about a dozen Corsair infantry firing from the hilltop, but Bubonicus opens fire with his plague spitter.  Half the enemy troops are consumed by the sprayed pestilence, and become heaps of rotting offal.  The other Corsairs try to run.  They show more sense than our own artillery crews did and flee parallel to the battleline, not towards it.  It doesn’t help them, because we’re amongst them soon enough.

I blast one through the back with my bolter.  The man explodes, spraying the two beside him with fragments of bone.  A rib skewers one of them through the neck, and he collapses into the muddy hilltop, gasping for air and tugging at the bone.  The third soldier I strike at with my sword.  The poisoned blade rips his legs off from under him, and I leave him screaming on the bloodied grass.  The bacteria racing through the wounds will kill him eventually.  The man with the rib through his neck I stamp on.  His chest caves in under my power armoured boot, and my foot becomes lost in his entrails.  I withdraw and leave a trail of intestine behind me, with a dying Corsair infantryman dragging at the other end.

I realise I am between the two remaining whirlwinds.  Brothers Vommus, Cholerus and Ebolus have torn open the hatches on one tank and are shooting bolts into the interior.  Bubonicus has climbed up onto the roof of the other and is firing his plague spitter into the open gunner’s hatch.  I see Brother Festerus advance on the whirlwind with a melta bomb but call him back.  We seed the two intact launchers with blight grenades.  So what if the Corsairs salvage them? The salvage team, plus anyone they come into contact with, will die of the Rot within hours.

I warn Crowfoot of this when he finally leaves his land raider and comes to join me on the hilltop, and he and his apprentices steer well clear of the whirlwinds.  Side by side, we look down into the valley.  The battle is raging. As predicted, where Marine is fighting Marine, the ground is littered with armoured corpses from both sides.  Where Marine (from either army) fights human, or ork, the battle is much more one-sided - mounds of bolter-blasted dead are piled to waist height, and Plague Marines and pirate Marines are clambering over them to reach further prey.  The frontline is a mass of close combats, with bayonet charges from both sides only adding to the death toll.  Most of the Corsair vehicles have been destroyed, but their passengers are fighting on on foot.  With a surge of pride I see King Foulhide on the frontline, his bloated and Daemonically gigantic frame smashing soldiers to the ground, crushing them beneath his elephantine feet.  He vomits over the Corsairs, melting them to skeletons, and hacks left and right with his twelve-foot broad sword.  Even with the king to the fore, the Corsair surprise attack has tilted the battle unfairly in the enemy’s favour.

Crowfoot turns to me and speaks. His voice is quieter, more subdued than it has been previously.  ‘I didn’t want this,’ he says.  ‘It shouldn’t have happened like...’
   Then the gem on his staff pulses and I see the eye again.  ‘Look,’ he says, his voice returning suddenly to normal, ‘your tanks are advancing.’
   ‘About time too,’ I comment.  Four predators, and two land raiders, are roaring along the valley bottom, heading to hit the enemy in the flank.
   ‘Their original mission was to attack this position,’ Crowfoot states, indicating the burning or plague-ridden whirlwinds that surround us, ‘and they would have succeeded without casualties.  They would have taken this hilltop, entrenched themselves and destroyed the Red Corsair reinforcements approaching from the south.’
   I nod, not really listening but merely hearing.  Then I realise what it was he just said and say: ‘Reinforcements!’  I turn around and try to spot them.
   ‘Another mechanised force, over an hour away. They’re no danger to us yet.’

On the horizon, I can see the tanks he mentioned.  My helm magnifiers identify them as a mixed force of rhino-mounted infantry and predators.  Like the army we’re already fighting, they’re accompanied by motorbike outriders and land speeders.
   ‘You knew all this,’ I ask, ‘and you sacrificed your own men to capture this position yourself?’
   ‘It is imperative that your tanks moved through… that area.’  He picks out a patch of grass between two clumps of trees.
   ‘Why?’
   ‘There they go,’ he murmurs to himself, before realising that I’ve asked him a question.  ‘Oh, because that was where the planetary defence force laid a minefield.’

I can only watch in horror as the first of the predators is blown apart by a shaped plasma charge.  Another loses its tracks before the survivors try to pull back.  The mines must have been linked together to prime only after the ones at the centre of the field were tripped, because whichever way the four remaining tanks try to move, they set off more mines.  The land raiders are the last to die, one of them being hit simultaneously by two plasma blasts, the tongue of incandescent energy from one leaping right through the underside and out through the roof.  The final vehicle, in a testament to the legendary resilience of the land raider tank, almost makes it clear before it loses its tracks.  Angrily, its crew use the one lascannon mount they can bring to bear to pick off a Corsair dreadnought at long range.  Someone in the Corsair army notices and a volley of krak missiles kill the tank dead.  Then they move onto finishing off the other crippled vehicles and their fleeing crews.
   ‘You knew!’ I scream into Crowfoot’s face.  ‘You knew, you sorcerous bastard, and you made it happen!’  I bring my sword back to strike him down, but something calms me and I lower it.
   ‘Why?’ I ask.  My Marines are thoroughly confused, not sure whether the Templars are our allies or our foes, and I can’t say I blame them.
   ‘I don’t know,’ Crowfoot replies, his voice dropping into its subdued tone again.  Then, schizophrenically, he returns to normal.  ‘I do.’
   ‘What?’
   I look at Crowfoot and he opens his visor, revealing a drawn, aged face.  Something strange happens, something that I can’t explain, other than that he keeps on lifting the visor, and it goes right around the top of his helmet, sliding through three hundred and sixty degrees to pass over his entire body.  When, by rights, the visor should be shut again, Crowfoot is gone.  In its place crouches a creature that I know.

I don’t know how I know it.  I’ve never seen it or its like before.  I’ve heard of them, yes - who hasn’t? - but never met one.  It slowly unfurls its magnificent yet contradictorily hideous blue-grey wings.  Some of the feathers, I notice, are leaves, sprouting before my eyes then turning golden-brown and drifting away on the breeze.  Then it stands upright, stretching sinewy muscle that hints at both weakness and impossibly great strength.  It bends its neck towards me and I look past a viciously curved beak into eyes that are bestial and unintelligent, yet speak of a greater intellect than any other in existence.

I feel sick.

M’Taran, Greater Daemon of Tzeentch, whispers to me, tells me its plans, tells me why it is sacrificing the lives of my entire Chapter, why it spared me and my squad, why the Red Corsairs have to win on Senagor Maxima.  It tells me a thousand versions of the story, all different, and I know that all of them are completely true and so I believe them all.

But for the life of me, I can’t remember any of them.

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