Admiral Hail Wind scanned the monitors, fed information by the myriad drones, ships scans and whatever else that had a sensor stuck on it from the earth caste technicians, all of them pointed to the designated battlefield. Snowy, white and barren, the soldiers on the ground were going to have to depend on their armor. Not so for the air caste. He felt an old tingle in his long, bony fingers, the one he always felt with the crying thrill of piloting his old Barracuda into screaming battle. How he longed to personally see his fellow air caste into battle, to watch the enemy below be obliterated with but the push of a button and the flex of a trigger. He knew that it was for the best that he was up here where he could better oversee the battle but the call of war always sounded strongly in the blood of Vior'lans. He spoke into his communicator to the pilots enroute to the enemy.
"Air caste! Invaders have come and we are called to stop them!" the admiral thundered. "Our fire caste comrades will meet them on land and our enemies will be right to fear them." The Tau smirked as he watched the nearest aircraft close in on their targets, their payloads moments from release. "But we will show them the terror of the howling storm, the falling hail, the lashing winds!"
The Barracuda aircraft were sleek, angular and bristling with weapons. This contrasted with the slower, stout sunshark bombers and razorshark ground attack fighters. Nonetheless, all of their weapons glowed when preparing to fire, all of them moved with a speed only their kind could appreciate.
The air caste pilots opened fire.
Gu'rorath the great unclean one gazed to the icy skies and raised the corroded, rusty slab of metal that passed for his plague sword. A phlegmy, wheezing roar issued from his throat while the maggots buzzed in his entrails as he saluted the approaching trespassers, overjoyed he was of their rush to embrace Nurgle. Likewise the plague bearers, nurglings and every freakish minion of the plague father joined his salutation. The flying things responded by producing luminescent lights in the sky, gentle spheres of color that descended gracefully from on high. Unfortunately, the moment they were but a stone's toss from the ground, they rapidly expanded, exploding in a massive burst of plasma. Putrid flesh, squirming parasite and buzzing bloat fly alike were flash scorched or vaporized outright while the hapless survivors were toss onto the ground into a sea of slush. Their coughings cries of delight turned into howls of rage. How dare these interlopers scorn their jolly father's gifts? At once, the clouds of plague flies began to rise from their scabby nests on the daemons and swarmed into the air.
The hairy, greasy flies, some the size of a man's fist, swarmed to the wings of Tau bombers flying low to more accurately drop their payloads. Two of the sunshark bombers strayed too close in their confidence and the flies quickly found them, swarming into the engines' intake in filthy droves. Sickly green flames erupted from the exhausts and then abruptly shut off as the turbines squealed to a halt, clogged in the twitching, putrefying guts of the flies. The two aircraft crash landed soon after deathly near the column of Nurglites. The daemons ignored them for the fate of occupants inside was already sealed. Grim instructions from their admiral fed into their comms as there was only one merciful way out of this situation as the plague flies sawed through the doors and cracked glass of the cockpits, boring their way closer to the panicked Tau inside. One crew, listening to reason, activated the self destruct protocols and exploded in a column of plasma. The other, more foolish than brave, screamed and then choked their last as the flies invaded their lungs.
Diamoto listened to the developing reports as Sunshark bombers continued to pound the Nurglites with plasma bombs while Razorshark and Barracuda fighters overcharged their ion weaponry and lashed out with explosive streams of energy. Despite the pyrotechnics display, the daemons continued plodding on, nearly indifferent to the punishment as they were to the falling snow. The air caste pilots were also being forced to take evasive maneuvers, one from the clouds of plague flies that would chase them, aiming for their engine intakes, and secondly from the horrific plague drones; giant flies bearing a daemon and hell bent on disrupting the airborne attacks on their ground side fellows. All of this chaos in just ten minutes.
The Shas'O reviewed his resources. Most of his cadre was still scattered across the planet, all of them on various tasks. At the moment the only personnel on hand were himself, two firewarrior squads, his battlesuit teams and the whole of the air caste pilots. There was no need for discussion, the plan at the moment was to peck away at the daemon army until nothing remained. It lacked the swiftness of a Mont'ka assault but that just wasn't possible at the moment, especially with how hardy these daemons of Nurgle were. Ignoring transmissions from their Enclave counterparts, El'Vira continued to feed him information on the developing situation.
"The Vespids have just arrived. Shall I have them harass from the air, Shas'O?"
"Yes, El'Vira. That will be well. Tell the firewarrior squads to remain in their transports until we have a suitable location for them. Have the hazard suits remain on the flanks hitting weak points."
"At once, Shas'O."
"Humans," Diamoto announced to the other two occupants in the hold. Cyril and Miguel looked at him."The rest of my forces and I will be executing hit and run attacks on the main army. We will do our best to eliminate them in a timely fashion."
"I assume that means you have something else in mind for us?" Miguel asked candidly. He couldn't help but feel a shiver of fear when he saw the Space Wolf pull one of his oversized arrows from a makeshift quiver and notched it in his mammoth bow.
"We need you to close the warp gate. Our new space marine ally is a psyker so it will be your task to use your magicks on it. Gue'vesa, you will serve as his backup. For now surveillance tells us that there are no daemons passing through it but do not be afraid to radio for reinforcements if something goes awry."
"You're just sending the two of us?" Miguel demanded.
"You won't be alone." Diamoto replied bluntly. Any more protests from Miguel was cut short as the hoist securing the crisis suit suddenly lurched down its chute and then launched it out of the hold.
"I don't know if it's wise if it's just two of us at a warp gate." the guardsman grumbled.
"Hmph, you've been too far gone from the good old Imperium. Remember to trust in the Allfather. We shall prevail!" the Space Wolf bellowed with a raised fist.
"See, whenever we were told to hold a position, it usually meant with several squads and if it was less than that, we understood that none of us would make it out alive."
"Well for one, you didn't have Son of Russ on your side for that and two, you are no mere guardsman anymore."
"Why do you say that?" Miguel asked curiously. Cyril hesitated for a moment, choosing his words carefully.
"You shall see."
"Speaking of which, why are you using that oversized bow of yours? Don't you have a bolter?" Miguel asked curiously.
"After I got stranded on this planet with no iron priests about, I decided to downgrade to something I could easily replenish on my own. I used up the last round for my bolt pistol a long time ago."
Looking over to the open cargo doors, the space marine noticed the crowds of plague bearers still marching along in the snow down below. Mischief rose to his mouth, forcing him to crack a canine grin.
"Lets have a little fun while we get there." he snickered. In a heartbeat, he drew back his bow and loosed the arrow. Down below, a plague bearer howled once with the rarely felt spasm of pain, the next because it realized it couldn't move anywhere with the oversized lance effectively pinning him to the ground.
Mammoth sized arrows longer than a full grown man continued to rain from the sky, much to the bafflement of the Tau and daemons below until the craft was too far gone. Cyril and Miguel continued to wait in silence before their pilot signaled that they were nearing their drop zone. Much to Miguel's relief, they were also told that other than the portal, the site looked clear of hostiles. The Orca landed gently in the snow, it's single burst cannon facing the portal should the worse come while its passengers shuffled off onto the frost. They were quite surprise to find that while the pilot was correct there were no hostiles there, it wasn't deserted either.
"What in the Allfather's name is a xeno witch doing here?" Cyril roared angrily.
"Oh, right, yes. We picked up an Eldar earlier. Maybe Diamoto believed it was best to have all the psykers on hand to close the portal?" Miguel offered sheepishly.
"Yes, that would be the obvious reasoning, wouldn't it?" Feandra sniffed contemptuously. It hurt her pride that she had to borrow these Tau robes to protect her from the cold, even more so that she had to actually work with these primitives.
"I refuse to consort with any such witch! She could be corrupted already!" the Space Wolf spat, armored finger pointing accusingly at Feandra. The Eldar in turn lowered her forehead to her palm and sighed wearily.
"Could we focus on closing this portal? I have no such talents so I'll keep an eye to make sure nothing sticks its ugly head out." Miguel suggested. He was ignored.
"For all we know, this abomination opened the portal." Cyril snarled.
"Oh yes, noble space marine, I opened a portal to a plane blasphemous to my people. Yes, of course I did." Feandra spat.
"Your soul, if a xeno has a soul, could have been lost and you are merely a puppet."
Feandra looked skeptically down at the soul stone embedded in her breastplate, found it obviously unblemished, and then focused all of her disdain into an icy glare at the Space Wolf.
"Hey, open portal that needs to be closed here! I thought either of you were the experts!" Miguel hollered in rising panic. It hurt his eyes to look at the portal too long and while it was empty now, he was quite certain any moment a bloated, horned monstrosity would rear its slimy head.
"Yours is a people that would gladly sacrifice mine so that not a single drop of yours would spill!"
"True, I will not deny that," Feandra admitted with a nod.
"But if both of you continue to squabble, all of our souls will be lost!" Miguel shrieked. Cyril and Feandra finally looked at him. For a moment, there was silence save for the howl of the wind and a soul sickening hum from the portal. Miguel felt the speakers on his suits click on without his consent. Diamoto's voice came out.
"Close that portal, or I will be forced to allow my admiral to bombard it from orbit. We will not evacuate you."
"You wouldn't!" Feandra snapped.
"It would be for the greater good."
The Eldar looked back at her space marine counterpart and spoke to him with pure venom. "Banish this portal. I'll use my powers to keep them clear."
Cyril opened his mouth to protest but Miguel cut him off. "I'll keep an eye on her and shoot her if she becomes possessed or something."
Cyril glowered and grumbled but finally nodded.
"Yes, mon'kieghs are known for their wisdom, compassion and prescience."
"What's that suppose to mean?" Miguel asked.
"Nothing! Lets get to work!"
The jetblack ironclad that was Diamoto's battlesuit landed with a heavy thud and then nearly slipped on the ice. The skies had turned to iron, snow fell diagonally and without any electronic aid, visibility was only a stone's toss in length. He wouldn't have believed it but a whole army was hidden in this storm. Sensors told him it was roughly 500 meters ahead. Legions of Nurgle's pustuled finests tramped by and Diamoto was nearly at a lost of where to hit first.
"Shas'O." Admiral Hail Wind's voice chimed through his comms. "My pilots would like more freedom over the airspace but these giant insect things are harassing them."
"Say no more, Kor'O." Diamoto replied with a grim smile. "We shall free the sky for you."
His jetpack's twin exhaust arrays flared to life as the commander sought his first target. Anger welled up inside him as he spotted a plaguebearer mounted utop his plague drone stead fly up alongside a Razorshark fighter and thrust his corroded piece of metal into the hull. Normally such a blow would not have impacted such a craft but within moments an infection of rust wormed its way through the aircraft. until suddenly its engines let out a thunderous moan. The daemon snickered as the ship's escape pod rusted shut in its port and the pilots were doomed to fall with their dying craft. Diamoto rocketed up behind the offender, powered his onager gauntlet and brought it forward. The drone exploded into a cloud of slimy gore, the plague bearer was left to fall howling to its death.
Still thirsting for vengeance, the Shas'O turned his gaze to the other plague drones flitting through the skies, chasing after other Tau aircraft in their fury only to have the battlesuit pursue them in turn, weapons blazing in a hail of superheated energy blasts. Any that were foolish enough to let itself fall within Diamoto's grasp were quickly reduced to fragments of gore.
Sensors quickly started to blare warnings to him. The plague drones were quickly reforming and clear their intent on destroying him for his defiance of Nurgle. The AI were certain that the odds were not in favor of Diamoto and bid him retreat. The Shas'O rocketed backwards, guns pointed at the swarm of oversized insects and spewing a steady stream of energy to dissuade them.
"Please move five meters backwards, Shas'O." the neutrally voiced onboard AI advised him as he continued to hammer away at his insectoid attackers.
"Clarify!" Diamoto growled.
"Reinforcements are arriving now."
With a blast of heated air and then the eruptions of plasma rifle fire, three more crisis suits descended in front of their commander, accompanying drones powering up their energy shields and firing their onboard pulse carbines.
"Apologies for our late arrival, Shas'O." Ui'Ivo declared.
"You cannot blame your phantom leg pain for slowing you down in this circumstance." Diamoto chuckled, unleashing a fusilade of ion blasts.
The three crisis suits were armed with fusion blasters and plasma rifles, along with their onboard support systems. Ui'Ivo and Vre'Vissa were the old veterans of Diamoto's crisis suit strike team, even bearing his name as their squad designation. Ui'Nisvrang was recently inducted into their ranks, a replacement for their latest member who fell in battle. They were all still getting used to him.
"Fighting retreat, fall back in steady pace and keep those guns firing! Don't stop until their carcass can no longer be found.
Plasma bolts erupted in bursts of searing micro stars while columns of energy from the fusion blasters molecularized anything they touched. Still the plague drones pressed on, slowly gaining on their quarry in a desperate charge to get their riders, and their plague swords, into the melee.
"These things are unusually durable." Ui'Nisvrang grumbled, his aiming steadily becoming more erratic.
"Stay calm, focus, Shas'ui." Ivo rebuked.
"As your squad mate said, Shas'ui." Vre'Vissa agreed, his voice stoic as always.
"Focus fire on those that are closest, disperse when their line is even and then focus on those that pull ahead again." Diamoto commanded.
"They appear to be firing projectiles at us. Are they...vomiting?" Nisvrang blurted.
A bleached, slimy skull shot forward and then ricocheted off Ivo's crisis suit only to knock a nearby drone out from it's position, the machine beeping in protest.
"What will bone do against our armor?' Nisvrang laughed. Another skull embedded itself in the shoulder plate of his crisis suit.
"A new lesson, Shas'ui, do not underestimate your enemy, regardless of appearances." Diamoto said.
The retreat was longer than Diamoto would have wanted but finally the last drone was vaporized into an inky black cloud of ash and smoke.
"Admiral Hail Wind," Diamoto reported as the crisis suit operators paused to catch their breaths. Weapons cooled and targeting systems recalibrated. "The bulk of your aerial adversaries are cleared."
"Relieved to hear so, Commander." The admiral replied. "We will re-press our attacks. I would suggest you find a way to deal with their ground forces now."
Throw the falling snow, it became clear that they were facing down an unrelenting column of diseased flesh bristling with weapons and fumes of contagion. No matter how many explosions of plasma the Tau rained down, the legions of Nurgle marched on, oblivious to their wounds as they were to their disease. And there were how many? Roughly the size of an Imperial Guard company? No small amount.
"We will need more than our cadre to stop this army." Diamoto admitted quietly.
"Keep distracting them. We will find a way to halt them." Hail Wind replied.
Cyril was nothing if not methodical. Space marines were the lauded heroes of the Imperium but the Space Wolves had been raised to the level of paragons among the guardsmen. Along with the Salamanders chapter, everyone had heard the stories of the Sons of Russ, led by the venerable Logan Grimnar who went out of their way to shepherd and aide not only mere guardsmen but even civilians, lives who were even less than a half pence and could be affordably spent in the grind for victory. Even more renown was their ferocity in battle. Miguel half expected Cyril to raise his sword into the air and somehow smash the portal closed, it made sense when he first thought of it, but instead he found the rune priest slowly make his way from arc to arc of the very large maw in reality. The etchings on his rune sword would glow a painfully bright blue and he would slowly press it into the earth along the edge of the arc, chanting words Miguel could not comprehend into his beard. Slowly, painfully slowly, that arc of the portal would simply vanish and the hole would shrink ever so slightly. Cyril had done this ritual three time and yet it was still large enough for a Devilfish transport to slide into without difficulty.
Feandra had slipped into a trance while Miguel kept a vigil on the portal. She did not envy him. She could feel the pain he felt from staring at it but there was no other way for him to watch for danger. While she was searching the strands of fate, trying to scry out when, if ever, another group of daemons would emerge from that hellish gate, it never hurt to have someone else keeping an eye out the old fashioned way. Her runes, keeping in orbit around her, suddenly began to change their glow, warping from a gentle blue to a burning, enraged red. Something was coming. Eyes opening, she looked over at Miguel.
The guardsman kept his rifle shouldered. He told himself that looking through the scope, some sort of barrier in addition to his helmet, helped with the pain but even he knew he was clutching at straws with that one. And suddenly he felt something come over him. It wasn't violent, gentle almost but with urgency, less of a puppet on string and more of a tranquil teacher standing over him, showing him how and where to move next. Before he knew he should, he was squeezing the trigger, shifting his position and firing again. This happened four times before he realized that there was in fact something on the receiving end of these blasts: nurglings. Each of those small, murderous pustules of filth would break the membrane of the portal only to be instantly vaporized. To Miguel, it may as well have been a dream. When the spell finally wore off, it took him a moment to realize he was no longer under someone else's control. With the realization, he looked over at Feandra. The Eldar just shot him a mildly scornful look back, as if she only did it out of harsh necessity.
"Without a little prescience and pysker guidance, you would have been knee deep in nurglings by now."
"By the throne, I hate it when you psykers get into my head." Miguel complained.
"It wasn't in your head so much as I was- you know what, nevermind. Someone as simple as you would not understand."
Seconds ticked by without conversation while Cyril continued to dispel the runes anchoring the portal into real space. Miguel even allowed himself the luxury of wondering how the Tau were faring against the army of daemons. The distant echoes of explosions told him all was still not well. He heard Feandra gasped and glanced at her. Her runes had taken the glow of molten iron around her.
"Mon'kiegh, step back!" the Eldar shouted in alarm. Miguel could only stare back at her in bafflement. Then he heard a ripple in the portal.
First were the blackened, charcoal black horns and then the pox sullied, ulcerated skin green as bile. A leering, feverish face bloated with fat and disease followed soon after, its maw filled with pointed yellow teeth and infected gums. Miguel almost choked in fear as the great unclean one continued to emerge. He couldn't find it in himself to raise his lasgun even as the Devilfish transport opened up a hail of pulse fire and missile salvos. Feandra stepped in his way and pushed him aside, gazing up as the daemon towered ever higher, wracking guffaws pouring forth from its mouth in toxic clouds of halitosis. Miguel at least had sense enough to shut off his olfactory receptors.
"Fire, inconvenience him as you must but do not get in my way, do not distract me." Feandra hissed at him while arcs of electricity began to erupt around them while stray snowflakes suddenly reversed direction and floated up.
"What are you going to do? Do you honestly think I can stop him with just simple lasfire?"
"No, mon'kiegh, I don't. But it'll keep you from distracting either the space marine or myself while I go into mind war."
"Mind war? I don't know what that is but I don't think you can win a mind war against a large daemon such as that."
"I hope I don't see the conclusion, I just simply need to buy time for the marine. Make sure he completes the ritual."
Feandra's eyes seemed to become orbs of writhing electricity, immediately flowing from her sockets and attaching to the daemon. Miguel let out a sigh of relief when the foul smelling behemoth stopped in its tracks but then started firing at it when he remembered the Eldar's words. Keep disrupting the daemon and maybe Feandra would win this "mind war" she talked about. He almost didn't notice when the tiny nurglings once again began to emerge.
"Oh no. No no no no! Back you little snot sacks!" Miguel shouted in near panic, firing as steady as he could. He could barely hold back the tide. When one nearly got to his boot, he grabbed the still warm muzzle of his rifle and swung it like a bat, swatting the nurgling back into the portal. The daemon mites were nearly upon them when Feandra stretched out a clawed hand and unleashed arcs of lightning onto the gremlins.
"Don't...distract...me." she groaned, her spine suddenly arching in tension. Miguel realized she was too proud to admit it, but she was quickly going in over her head.
"Aim for the daemon, pilot." Miguel radioed to the devilfish operator.
"The large one, Gue'vesa'ui?"
"Yes, of course the large one! And focus only on that!"
Diamoto did not see it, but there was no mistaking Admiral Hail Wind's smirk as he explained their latest combat plan. Diamoto in turn raised his eyebrows at the boldness of what the admiral and his sub-commander had cooked up.
"It is redundant to ask, but I would like your assurances that you are quite certain this will work."
"If it doesn't stop them outright, it will certainly slow them down, Shas'O." El'Vira replied as she continued to direct the placement of the cadre's arriving units.
"Very well, we will respond accordingly. Go ahead with the plan." Diamoto ordered as he eyed their approaching assailants.
"Crisis suit and hazard suit teams, cease attacking the middle of the enemy column. Direct towards the flanks of the column head. Lead them down the path as projected on your HUDs." Surrounded by his body guard suits, the dark battlesuit sprung away from the rotting daemons, energy blasts still raining down in response but not their movements all converged in one direction. If this worked out, he would have to commend both his admiral and sub-commander on their cunning.
On the snowy ground, Stone Dagger and his squad rushed out from the sides of the Devilfish transport, forming a line in the slush. The Shas'Vre did not like the lack of cover this ground afforded and if his understanding of the battle was accurate, there was an entire enemy column bearing down on his lone squad.
"Form up! Steady those rifles! We are going to hold this position no matter what rears its ugly head. Begin taking shots of opportunity."
The firewarriors in his squad fired in a staccato rhythm, blue pulse fire disappearing into the stormy winds at distant shadows. Stone Dagger doubted any of the fire was effective, but it gave his Shas'La something to focus on. His attention abruptly turned to the comm net.
"Fireblade Burning Land is arriving with his honor guard. They will be taking a position next to yours." El'Vira told him.
"Shas'Nel Burning Land? I'm surprised he's here, ma'am."
"He offered to help. We are in no position to turn it down."
A red with black striped drop vessel arrived next to the Shas'La gunline. As soon as the ramp lowered, firewarriors were already pouring out, forming their own line. Those with rifles stood in the back, their armored shoulder pad facing the enemy while those with carbines knelt in the front. Burning Land calmly strolled out and took his position in the back of the gunline.
"Greetings, Shas'Vre." he called to Stone Dagger. "We came as soon as we heard there was trouble."
"I did not know you were still in the area." the Shas'Vre said coldly.
"We are all still Tau and I do not strictly disagree with your commander. Firewarriors! Prepare for volley fire procedures, aim those guns!"
"I only request that you stick to the plan, Shas'Nel." Stone Dagger said as his own squad continued to pepper the approaching enemy.
"The sub-commander and admiral have a very strict plan that is still in execution."
Burning Land made that guttural, sharp grunt that passed for swearing in their language.
"Shas'O, we have a problem." El'Vira announced in alarm as Diamoto and his crisis suits continued to feign retreat, leading their enemies into the designated location.
"We are getting multiple energy signatures, foreign units are arriving around the enemy battle force."
"More hostile reinforcements?"
"No, these match crisis suit drop insertions."
"Niverro has intercepted our position." Diamoto murmured with realization.
Then he saw them, crimson with black striped crisis suits falling with the snow to land at point blank ranges on the sides of the enemy column. The display of firepower and sudden intervention, while awe inspiring, immediately began to disrupt the projected march of the daemons. Their plan had effectively been tossed out the airlock. Diamoto's temper immediately flared into a raging shimmer.
"Where is Shas'O Niverro? Get me in contact with him!"
"Comm link opening. Shas'O Niverro is arriving on the battlefield." his suit's AI helpfully informed him.
"Highlighting position, projecting on HUD."
Diamoto saw the battlesuit, a latest generation enforcer suit much like his own armed with two fusion blasters on each wrist and a burst cannon over the shoulder. Landing hard, Niverro immediately challenged the squad of daemons directly in front of him, all weapons flaring bright with energy release.
"Shas'O Niverro seems to favor similar tactics to yours." The AI observed.
"He is nothing like me." Diamoto growled, driving his onager gauntlet into a slavering plague beast that got too close.
Seeing the enemies closing in, Niverro activated his fusion blasters but this time instead of a single blast the weapons calibrated to a single, prolonged pulse, giving the appearance of energy blades. The rival commander immediately charged into his assailants, daemons being cleanly sheared in half in droves.
It was hard to decipher it through the comm chatter, but Diamoto was almost certain he heard a crisis suit team request permission to "enact broken sword." The Shas'O immediately regretted the fact that he had not been briefed on Enclave code words. This was felt all the more keenly when he heard Niverro give his blessings. Unable to bait the daemons further along the route, Diamoto could only wait and keep up the weight of fire, watching for what would happen.
His heart immediately sank when he saw it; two teams of six crisis suits immediately rose to challenge the mountain of rotting flesh, the great unclean one. Previous battles had shown never to get too close to such a monster. Unable to hide his desperation, Diamoto began yelling into his comm link.
"Crisis teams, withdraw from the reach of that daemon! I repeat, withdraw! You will be-"
"Shas'O Diamoto," Niverro barked. "You will not defy the orders I give and you certainly do not have the authority to override them."
"Shas'O Niverro, your men will be slaughtered as if they were naked."
"You will also never use 'daemon' in my presence again. Since when do the enlightened Tau stoop to superstitions of our lessers in the galaxy?"
Diamoto, in an act that was previously unfathomable to him, right after his defection from the Empire, was about to yell every single verbal abuse he could think of but was cut short when something horrifying broke through their comm links.
The great unclean one was not even fazed by the six challengers before him. He did not even grimace in anger. Instead, his yellowed grin grew all the more jovial and he raised his arms bloated with decomposing fat into the air. Joyous laughter bubbled from his heaving, burst gut for thus far those who had greeted them were afraid to embrace the love of Papa Nurgle but finally, these six had boldly come forward. And now they would be the first to receive the plague father's gift. His arms still raised to the heavens, Gu'rorath belched a single, sinister chortle.
The crisis suit pilots replied with screams so horrific, every hardened veteran on the field paled. The only mercy was that it lasted but for a moment and then their vital signs flat lined. Diamoto took advantage of the fact that Niverro had at least been stupefied into silence.
"I've fought these things before, so you'll do well to listen to my advice. Now, we have a plan so follow my instructions!"
Terse commands quickly flared out across the Tau communications network. One by one, the Enclave and Shadow Lance forces withdrew from their close firefight ranges, the Vespid stingwings dispersing far away into the snowy skies. Dazed but encouraged, the Nurgle daemons staggered about a moment, looking for any others who were willing to accept the Plaguefather's love. They saw two forlorn firewarrior squads standing in the distance. It would have to do. As one, the army of decay marched through the snow; slow, dogged, relentless.
"It seems they have finally noticed us." Burning Land said as he joined his squad unleashing another salvo of pulse fire into their enemy. "I would hope your commander's plan doesn't entail us fighting all of them off by ourselves."
"I was just told to wait for further instructions and expect a hasty withdrawal." Stone Dagger replied. Suddenly, with the full force of the enemy bearing down on them, it seemed like their pace was quicker. Slow or not, the approach of Nurgle's army was an assault of every sense of the quarry. By now, not only could they clearly see their targets, they could see how ineffectual their shots were. Burning Land saw one daemon step on one of its dangling entrails and then inadvertently pull out its glistening, putrefying wormy mass out underfoot. Maggots already crawled about it and the cadre fireblade felt his skin crawl.
"When is this withdrawal coming?" he asked.
"I don't know!"
The daemons were some 15 meters away and about ready to break into a run. From all sides they were and both squad leaders were becoming painfully aware of how in danger they were to being surrounded. All the firewarriors could see the diseased, leering grin of the great unclean one towering above the forward ranks, eager to embrace them as only a scion of the Papa Nurgle could. Quietly, an order was transmitted over the net while El'Vira gave them both a direct command.
"Your transports have been dispatched, Shas'Nel and Shas'Vre. Please withdraw with all haste."
"I still don't see what the plan was." Burning Land protested as the two squads boarded separate transports. It was just before the hatches closed that he heard the distinct "whip crack" of Hammerhead railguns, stationed on a distant ridge, going off. The cadre fireblade did not see any impact explosions but by then, the door was firmly sealed and he had to content himself with listening to the network chatter of what was going on around him. At least he was safely inside a transport speeding away from those horrible, horrible things.
Gu'rorath, sorely disappointed with the sudden departure of their new friends, looked up at the steep ridge above them, three geysers of snow erupting where the icy field had once been immaculate and tranquil. He wondered what the meaning of that commotion was. Jet engines screamed in the skies and three of the angular Barracuda aircraft sailed overhead, overcharged their ion cannons and then unleashed the concussive bursts of energy, landing their marks exactly where the Hammerhead tanks had originally targeted. Had the Tau gotten their systems scrambled?
The snow and ice seemed to let out a low, ethereal groan. A deep rumble burped once and a moment of silence reigned. All at once the ridge overhead gave way and a tsunami of snow, ice and boulders fell in a cascade downwards. The daemons had no hope of escape.
All eyes watched as the avalanche did its all consuming work as an entire part of the mountain simply let go. The layers of snow were already waiting for a little nudge but it was the drone sensor readings that revealed even the very rocks underneath could be moved with some explosive help. Surveillance continued on the spot even after the disaster stilled. Seconds turned into minutes and tentatively the crisis suits came to land on the newly settled snow, waiting to execute any daemon that would show itself. It was all in vain.
Marching across the snow, Diamoto continued to scan the ground, unwilling to believe that the daemons were truly defeated.
"El'Vira, are you sure all the readings are benign?" he asked.
Deep under the snow, Gu'rorath could feel his material form starting to disintegrate as his life force prepared to return to the warp. The great unclean one let out a forlorn sigh as disappointment welled in his sagging chest. This world was not yet worthy of Papa Nurgle's love. They would have to return at another time.
Miguel heard the distant cacophony thundering over the snow drifts and briefly hoped that the Tau were getting the better end of whatever that racket was about. All of his attention was focused on making sure nothing else emerged from that portal and distracted the Eldar or the Space Wolf, both looking like there were in deep concentration. Feandra was beginning to sweat profusely from her mane of golden hair. Cyril's chanting went from parsed, harsh words to a single unending drone and Miguel was quite certain the man had not once stopped for breath. Life among the Tau was bewildering but time spent with psykers was beyond unnerving, especially in the presence of a great unclean one.
The Eldar let a pained, fatigued groan escape from her lips. Looking over at her, Miguel felt his heart sink. The bloated mountain of a daemon, while definitely inconvenience, did not seem to be struggling as much as Feandra was. At once, the woman suddenly seized rigidly, teeth clenched hard as the mind war went the wrong way for her. When her eyes suddenly wrenched open, Miguel knew she was holding on by threads.
"Cyril, you have to hurry!" he yelled, knowing all too well that he was helpless to do anything, he didn't even dare touch the Eldar.
Maybe the rune priest heard him, maybe he just sensed that it was time for drastic action but his actions were decisive. His chant never being interrupted, the space marine removed his runic sword, the etchings still glowing an icy blue, and hurled it at the great unclean one. The blade struck and the daemon howled, reaction disproportionately more anguished than what it would initially seem. Getting back to banishing the portal, Cyril prostrated himself on all fours and seemed to speak to the magical bindings holding the gate open.
Miguel looked back at Feandra; her face showing less tension though her whole body was now beginning to tremble. Deciding that all that could be done was, the guardsman busied himself with firing from the hip, blasting superficial ulcers into the creature's flesh. At least the beast seemed more concern with the eerily glowing weapon in it's hide than the Eldar's mental duel.
The three did not concentrate on the time that passed, be it seconds or minutes, it was both a heartbeat and an eternity when Cyril's chant abruptly stopped, the rune priest simply on his knees with his outstretched gauntlets raised to the heavens as if admonishing the Allfather for victory. In reply, the heavens sent a single thunderclap.
Without warning, the portal flickered, moaned and then sudden no longer was. Feandra's mental link was suddenly severed and no longer battling the warp creature's mental fortitude, immediately fell back into the snow in a heap. She and Miguel traded glances when they looked back at the great unclean one, the daemon's countenance locked in a single expression of befuddlement. A black, foul smelling liquid suddenly gushed forth from it's mouth, staining the snow midnight as all three awaited its next move.
"...It's cut in half." the Eldar suddenly noted.
"Oh." Miguel sputtered in shock.
Elated, Cyril chuckled heartily louder and louder as he walked towards the still mound of putrefaction. Finding his sword, he withdrew it with a flourish. The runes continued to glow in an icy glare, the vile crud from the daemon's wound burning off until nothing was left. Raising both fists into the air, the Space Wolf let out a long, and remarkably canine, howl of victory.
"Gue'vesa'Ui." Miguel heard Diamoto mutter into his comm link. Miguel let out a happy sigh of relief.
"Go ahead, Shas'O."
"The army has been handled more or less; we're picking up a lack of weapons fire on your end. Has the portal been handled?"
"Most certainly." the guardsman answered, never before so relieved to see nothing but ordinary snow. He purposefully averted his gaze from the bisected monster.
"Excellent. Were there any casualties?"
"None that I am aware of."
"Good, good. Prepare the transports we- ackpth! Gah!" Diamoto's usual clipped tone suddenly broke down into desperate wheezes.
"Is something wrong, Shas'O?" Miguel asked curiously. Unknown to him, Feandra and Cyril were staring intently at the empty space just above his head, faces etched in silent horror.
"Why can't you…" He was not sure how it happened, but all of a suddenly, the lights started to go out and his legs no longer obeyed his commanders. He started to see more of the sky and then his head hit the snow and then he saw nothing. Distantly, he heard panicked chatter over his comm link as Shas'El Vira read the reports.
"I need immediate medical teams to report to the Shas'O's and Gue'vesa's positions! Their stats have gone erratic, cause unknown!"
When Miguel opened his eyes again, he at once knew he was in a different place, one that wasn't on the material plane of existence. Save for a single cone of light bathing down on him, his surroundings were pitch black. Next to him, Diamoto was on his knees, hands grasping at an invisible vice threatening to crush his neck. Every wrinkle on his bald head and face stood out on his skin as his body struggled for breathe.
"What's wrong?" the guardsman demanded, all at once helpless again. An icy, otherworldly and all at once familiar voice answered.
"Tau are not well suited to the warp. His body is reacting accordingly. Not my intents but it will answer a curiosity of mine."
An inky black phantom billowed like a serpentine trail of smoke around them, two pointed horns emerging from its "head" while gray, slit eyes sockets looked down on them. The phantom willed an equally dark throne under itself for it to recline on and then gazed down at them disinterestedly.
"Malal!" Miguel cried. Diamoto choked out a single gurgle of indignation.
"One and the same, good to see that mortals can have working memories." the daemon sniffed. "And I suppose I should congratulate you on your unexpectedly swift victory." Malal's clawed hands clapped a slow, mocking rhythm. "Except that was the weakest of the chaos' gods interest on this planet so you get a paltry consideration as befitting this, the least of victories."
"We will take nothing from you, daemon!" Miguel shouted back, glad to know that years of indoctrination were still well and kicking inside him.
"Ahh, don't be so hasty, little insect of mine." Malal tutted, a single finger wagging. "The gods of chaos are coming to your world and this little foray was just the opening act. Don't let your guard down."
"Is that all? You can let us go now."
"No, that is not all!" Malal roared irritably. "You two will see things, provided the little blue thing here doesn't choke to death too early, that only the most deranged of your kind may look into, and remain as they once were. Your so called 'priests' are not completely incorrect that the 'sane' have no business peering into these things." Malal's voice dripped contempt when he emphasized his words. "But do not worry, for I will shield you from these things; because like it or not, you two are servants of mine."
"Why tell us this?" Miguel demanded. The daemon's opaque eyes narrowed down on him. Diamoto's struggles had ceased becoming forceful, his eyes flickering to even remain open.
"With this knowledge, it would behoove you two to take a more respectful approach to me." Malal whispered darkly. He let this knowledge sink in for a moment and then immediately grew bored with them. He made one last observation before dismissing his audience.
"Hm. That's the color they turn when you choke them."
And at once, they were gone from his sight and sent back to their own reality.
Diamoto was still sucking in air as he forced his legs to walk forward, his posture rigid and attempting to command authority, ignoring the medics that wanted to keep him under observation. His brain still pounded in its skull, El'Vira was reporting something to him about Niverro and all he understood was that he wanted to kick that upstart off his ship once all his faculties came back.
"He demanded that you speak to him immediately, we are trying to keep the situation contained." his sub-commander told him. He vaguely recalled this wasn't the first time she had said this.
"Show me." he wheezed.
He was led to a room, well staffed with his own firewarriors, as well as those wearing the deep crimson of the Farsight Enclaves. In the center, wearing ornate if functional armor, was a Tau Diamoto recognized as younger than he was, maybe even younger than El'Vira. The queue that ran down the back of his head was glossy, long and studded with many knots representing a long and lustrous career. When this rival met Diamoto's eyes with that condescending look, the old commander immediately knew he wanted to strangle him just as he had recently been.
"Shas'O Diamoto. You will not disobey another order I give you. Is that clear?"
"You know not what you speak of." the grizzled veteran growled.
Shas'O Niverro took a confident step forward and in a flash backhanded Diamoto across the face. The slap was immediately followed by a brief but tense silence.
"No. You do not know what you speak of. I have been place in command of the operations on this planet, that includes your hunter cadre. So, do not disobey my commands and do not presume to think you can give me orders or I will have you censured and sent back to Enclave command, or worse; banished."
Diamoto, fury mixing with the sting of that slap, briefly wondered how easy he could kill this Niverro, the Merciless Strike as he called himself. It would be easy, a quick draw of his pistol and a single pulse obliterating his brain, or perhaps his combat knife would do, just slip it deep into the little grox dung's throat and carve it out until everything turned red. Or maybe…
No, wait, what was he thinking? Was this the beginning of what the Mont'au, the Terror, looked like, when Tau fought Tau and all was chaos before the Ethereals came? No, this younger commander before him was presumptuous, but he himself would not fall into the wrong of murdering a fellow Tau. He would have to submit, at least for now and fight the bigger evil. He would have to bow before the Greater Good.
"I apologize," Diamoto found himself murmuring, a gravelly tone he did not hear from himself often, his head bowed so that his chin was on his chest.
Niverro waited a moment before finding his response. "Very well. When I call, I expect all your available forces to answer; without hesitation, without question, with all your obedience. Only then will I be satisfied with your capabilities, as limited as they seem. You are dismissed, spend your time thinking on how you may contribute to my victory over these Orks."
Diamoto walked down the hall to his quarters in defeated silence. He had much to think about. Flanked by El'Vira, the sub-commander looked at her superior with concern.
"Will you be all right, Shas'O?"
"I will be fine." he replied after a moment's thought.
"Please let me know if you need anything."
"I will. You performed admirably, Shas'El. If we were still in the Empire, I would readily recommend your advancement to Shas'O."
"I am pleased to serve as your sub-commander in the meantime." she replied with a bow as they neared the threshold of his door. He returned the gesture and dismissed her. Headache rising with these new complications, he only knew of one ace in the hole that he had. Quietly, he opened a comm link to Miguel.
"Gue'vesa, a question for you."
"Yes, sir?" Miguel answered in his usual hesitant tone.
"Have you ever commanded a unit of soldiers before?"
"What? Uh, no. No, I have never done so, sir."
"Hmm, well, ask Por'la Sha'ra to brief you on our leadership protocols and training manuals immediately. I will have a new task for you."
Diamoto wearily sat down in his chair and massaged his tired brows, countless scars at his fingertips a testament to his long and bloody service. In all those years, there was one thing he had gleamed about commanders similar to Niverro's ilk; they had a tendency to underestimate or flat out forget about this auxiliary allies. He was depending heavily on this observation as it seemed to be the only viable path left to him if they were going to continue pursuing the matters of these daemons.