Its sides trailing fire, its mechanical innards bared to the cold of space, it emerges from the Empyrean like a spear hurled out from the void. Lashes of warp energy dance across its hull, evidence of a failing Gellar Field. Long, twisting imprints has been carved into its keel, as though it had just finished a titanic battle against some great tentacled beast.
The ship is called the Mater Sanguinem, the Blood of Martyrs in Low Gothic, and its crew has made the jump blind to escape the tendrils of the Kraken.
For minutes, it drifts in the dead of space. Then painfully it wakens back to life. Lights flicker on across its bow and sides, dull embers glowing in the dark. Automated defense guns swivel on their mounts, seeking nonexistent targets. The command bridge bustles with activity. Sensory sweeps are performed. Long distance augur scans stab into the darkness. Information floods back in bursts of data.
Slowly, ponderously, the battle barge begins to turn.
It has found a destination.
The forest is silent. There are no birds singing. No insects buzzing. Even the wind is silent in its howls. It is so silent that Brother-Sergeant Aethon can hear the beats of his twin hearts behind his ribcage.
The Lamenter steadies his breath with a mental command. He is secure in his Mark VII plate, Aquilla pattern. The suit itself is painted charcoal black. Black for camouflage. Black for penitence. In his hands is a Godwyn-pattern combi-bolter, the underslung melta barrel dark with recent discharge.
Aethon monitors the power pulsing from the microfusion reactor on his back. He's shut down most of the extraneous functions in his armor. His prey's senses are inhumanely sharp. Some of them are already wary of his presence, bestial snouts sniffing the air. He is careful not to alert them further. The timing must be right or the whole pack might escape.
Aethon's visor display shows four blinking lights. One is for himself. The others represent his squadmates. They are currently red, signifying his men are moving into position. In better days there would be six more like them, ten lights in all. A full Tactical Squad. What his helm's advanced diagnostic systems are telling him is a truth he already knows.
There are no more full squads left in the Lamenters chapter.
The visor lights stop blinking. Then they turn green. Aethon immediately flushes power back into his system. His power armor responds instantaneously. False muscles throughout his armature flex and coil. Motorized servos hiss and whine. Auto-sensors in his helm inundates his mind with information.
The Lamenter steps out from concealment, his weapon clasped solidly in gauntleted fists.
The creatures are already reacting. They're fast. But not Astartes fast.
Aethon lines up the shot. Squeezes the trigger. His boltgun roars. The first round out of the barrel is a Kraken Penetrator. It's designed to pierce toughened slabs of armaplas. It will pierce flesh just as well.
The round catches the Alpha Beowolf directly under the jaw. It punches a fist-sized hole into its throat and keeps on going.
It's overkill. More than overkill. But Aethon wants to be sure. He's seen the bigger ones take regular bolt rounds to the chest without flinching.
The body begins to slump forward. Aethon has already moved on. His visor display lines up two more shots for him, targeting reticule planted squarely on inhuman forms. He takes them.
Both are good, clean hits. One is a gut wound that excavates the contents of a Grimm's stomach. The second contacts squarely with a Beowolf's shoulder and quite literally blows its arm off.
The rest gun straight for him.
Their unique musculature makes them strong and their lupine gait makes them quick. Aethon notes the segments of bony plates that cover each Beowulf like spiked scabs. They won't stop a bolt round directly but they'll deflect it enough that it won't be a mission kill. He notes the long sharp claws that end at each finger. They won't get through Astartes power armor but if they swarm him with enough numbers they'll eventually reach the spots not encased in ceramite plate. The area behind the knee joints. The sealed gorget underneath his helm. And if they pin him down… He notes the powerful jaws and the thick canine teeth. They can crush human bone. With enough bites, they can probably crush his too.
The analytical part of his mind notes these details, processes them, and arrives at a conclusion in a nanosecond.
Close combat would be suboptimal.
In the meantime, the practical part of his brain has taken over. Muscle memory and reflexes drives his actions. His legs pound into the ground, striving for distance. He continues to shoot. Full automatic bursts. Heavy three round spurts that hammer into the charging mob. He's doing severe damage but it's not enough.
The beasts aren't stupid. They're actively swerving as they run, trying to throw off his aim. They've learned. In the three months since the first gunship landed, they've learned that rushing a prepared Astartes battle squad from the front is tantamount to suicide. So they're trying to flank him. Outmaneuver him. The older, more experienced ones have already diverged from the main group, aiming to cut him off. The younger, more zealous ones are taking the brunt of the fire, angling the bony parts of their body in front of them so they are at least somewhat protected. Pack tactics at their finest. He can respect their ruthless cunning even if he abhors them for their deviancy from holy humanity.
The first Beowulf to reach him tries to bridge the distance with a flying leap. It's a big creature, almost as tall as an Astartes in full plate.
Aethon slams his fist into it and sends it back down sprawling. A blow like that would have liquefied every internal organ in a human body. The Beowolf falls and immediately starts to get up again. The Lamenter is forced to lower his bolter for an execution shot. A staccato boom. This time the Beowulf stays down.
But in delivering the killing blow he's allowed the rest of the flankers to gain on him. The second Beowolf is already leaping towards him, its claws outstretched to slash and rend.
Now would be a very good time, he thinks.
A flare of light erupts from the forest, as brilliant as the corona of an exploding star. The photolenses in Aethon's helm immediately compensates, shielding him from the worst of the glare.
When the Grimm finally lands, it's not bone or claws or teeth that connect, but flakes of hot ash.
Brother Malachiel strides from his ambush point flanking the Beowolf pack, the plasma gun in his hands already flaring for another shot. He lances a second beam into the surprised mob, cremating one of the beasts outright and melting another into the floor with secondary heat backlash.
The Grimm immediately react. They angle towards this new foe, deeming correctly that it is the greater threat. They rush forward then jerk and spasm as bolt rounds crater their backs.
Corien rises from his hidden position by the tree line. The boltgun in his hands is a Stalker variant. Corien has chosen to shorten the elongated barrel but has kept the M40 Targeting Scope. He has, in essence, turned his weapon into a battle rifle, lethal at multiple ranges.
His shots are pinpoint accurate. He's aiming for the places not covered by bone; armpits, bellies, the soft flesh of the throat. The choice is proving to be murderously efficient.
Aethon adds his own fire to the mix. The brother-sergeant has already reloaded once. Standard mass-reactive. He stitches a line of explosive shells along the front of the Beowolf pack while Corien continues to kill them from the back. The Grimm buckle and twist. Then they start burning when Malachiel's plasma gun scorches javelins of pure energy into their midst.
Together the three Astartes catch the Grimm in a brutal crossfire. They blast the creatures off their feet. They sear smoldering holes in them. They suppress them with liberal doses of weapons fire. They are properly hurting them, wounding them, killing them. But they're not the real killing power. That honor belongs to Brother Dumedion.
The heavy weapons trooper emerges from concealment, fat-barreled cannon primed and ready in his hands. It's an oil black, pit bull of a weapon. Lethal in its utter simplicity. The standard belt feed and ammunition pack are missing. In their place is an enlarged box magazine, designed for extended operations in the field.
Every round in the magazine is a Metal Storm Frag Shell.
The Grimm are crowded together. Herded into a tight mob by clinically applied firepower. The Emperor Himself could not have presented them with a finer target.
Dumedion lets loose. The heavy bolter jerks and bucks. Fist-sized shells are slung towards the pack. They detonate halfway. Cones of shrapnel buffet the Grimm in storms of hissing metal. Dumedion is merciless. He walks his fire through the Beowolf pack. He shreds them. He flays them. He turns Grimm into chunks of Grimm.
When Dumedion stops firing, he has expended half his allotted ammunition. He has also killed all the Grimm.
The forest is silent again. Aethon raises a fist into the air.
"Clear," he speaks into the squad's vox-net.
Malachiel vents heat from his plasma gun. The magnetic accelerators on its back are glowing red hot.
Corien rams in a new magazine and pulls the firing pin back.
"Clear," he voxes.
There is a single survivor. A Beowolf that's missing its legs from the waist down. The creature is trying to drag itself away. Back into the depths of the forest. Dumedion impedes its progress. The Lamenter brings his heavy bolter crashing down on the creature's head. When he lifts his weapon again, the underside is coated with ichor.
The Space Marines regroup in the center of the clearing. They've slaughtered at least forty Beowolves. Most of the bodies are beyond recognition. Testament of the heavy bolter's killing touch.
Corien pauses by a relatively intact specimen. The remains are already smoking. He begins to bend down. Malachiel notices and tilts his head.
"I've always wondered what they looked like up close. Behind their masks."
There is a hideous twisting sound as the Lamenter pries the creature's skull apart.
"Well?" Dumedion stomps over to join them, "Any the wiser?"
"Yes," says Corien, repulsed, "My curiosity is satisfied."
He rises and hands the mask to Aethon. The brother-sergeant receives the bloody trophy and loops it with wire around his belt.
There are three more like it dangling from his hip.
"Patrol's done. We're heading back."
The gates open far quicker than they had in the past. Squad Aethon step through them, weapons lowered and at ease.
The town they enter is a frontier settlement. It has walls and towers and watchmen patrolling on top. A few of them wave at the Astartes as they stride past.
Aethon nods back. His visor display locks onto human bodies. Their equipment is… adequate. Chest protection in the form of armored vests. A few helmets. Assault rifles, stubber pattern. They are, however, lacking solely in heavy weapons. Crew-served autocannons. Emplaced heavy bolters. The battlements too could use better support. Aethon can think of multiple spots where Sabre Defense Platforms or Tarantula Turrets could turn the area outside the walls into a killing field.
It is a theoretical exercise. Practically, Aethon recognizes that these watchmen have their own roles to play. They're not the Guard. They're not here to hold the line. They're here to keep noncombatants out of the way while the real warriors, the so-called Hunters, do the job.
It is a tradition that has been ingrained in the very fabric of this world. The Hunters hunt the Grimm and keep them from preying on those less unfortunate. It is a tradition that Aethon can respect, solely because it has kept humanity alive on this planet for a thousand years.
He still thinks they could use a void shield generator though.
The Space Marines near the town center, armored boots crunching into the cobblestone street.
Most of the buildings that surround them are cozy, single family dwellings. Resources on the frontier are scarce. Construction tends towards sturdiness rather than comfort, though not all of them share these attributes.
The ocular sensors in Aethon's helm presents a magnified image of the houses furthest away from the town center.
The buildings he sees are ramshackle. Dilapidated. They have holes in them. Some are nothing more than planks thrown over a wooden skeleton. They've been put up hurriedly to house a species that this world's humanity clearly does not consider its equal.
The Lamenter frowns.
By all rights, the idea behind the faunus should not bother him. They are just one more divergent species in a universe filled with them. But it does. It bothers him.
It bothers him that something that is decidedly not human can look and act so human.
The squad's transport waits for them. It's a Stormraven gunship, a hulking brute of a vessel. Batteries of hurricane bolters jut from its sides and a pair of heavy bolters emerge from its prow. The armored copula sport twin-linked assault cannons. The multi-barreled guns are being calibrated by a bulky figure clad in segmented plate.
He turns as they approach. His armor is black like theirs. Likewise, the heart and checkerboard symbol of the chapter is emblazoned on his right shoulderpad. The other pauldron shows the cog and skull sigil of the Mechanicus.
"Sothis," Corien greets.
The techmarine aspirant inclines his head before jerking it back towards the growing crowd of onlookers.
"If you keep leaving me here alone with these mortals, I'll grow old and fat."
"Old and fat?" Malachiel raises an eyebrow, "Us? Really, brother?"
"You can take my place in the next patrol, Sothis," Dumedion responds earnestly, "I do not mind watching over the civilians."
"I might take you up on that offer someday, Dume. Though Squad Aethon will miss your weapon's heavy bite," Sothis straightens when Aethon nears, "Brother-Sergeant."
Aethon gestures to the Stormraven. The communications array located in the gunship is their only link to the Mater and the various firebases set up in the field.
"Any news from chapter command?"
"Mostly kill-tallies from recent operations. Though there is vox traffic on a secondary matter."
"And that is?"
"A discrepancy in the Grimm's migratory patterns. Nothing more."
"These things have migratory patterns?"
"Not migratory perhaps but a set pattern nonetheless."
"Their numbers seem to be increasing."
"Squad Tethyrn swept the area surrounding their township three consecutive times and still they find traces of Grimm. Veteran Sergeant Pellides led a purge that slaughtered every living thing in Sector Termius and the very next day they heard packs of Beowolves howling in the night. Locasta squad reports that the enemies they're fighting is seemingly without number and is requesting heavier chapter elements for support," Sothis hesitates, "These Grimm… they are frighteningly persistent."
Aethon turns and regards him.
"We know no fear, brother."
"I don't fear the Grimm, sergeant, but it is nonetheless a statement of fact. There are a great many of them and very few of us. It's like fighting the tyranids."
Aethon shakes his head.
"Nothing is quite like fighting the tyranids."
"True enough. Still, which would you prefer? An enemy that swarms without number or an enemy in swarms without number?"
"I prefer an enemy that stays dead when killed and actually lessens in number when we kill them."
Sothis laughs before turning serious once more.
"I've been communicating with some of the locals. There are rumors. Stories. On how these creatures operate. They say that the Grimm are naturally attracted to negative emotions. Things like hatred. Envy. Even bad luck."
"Stories," Aethon retorts, "Tall tales. Are we involving ourselves with the mythology of this world now?"
"But what if they're true?" Sothis persists, "What if we're the reason they're coming in such numbers?"
Aethon reaches down and grasps the pommel of the sheathed blade hanging from his hip.
"Then we keep killing them until they stop coming."
Aethon wakes twenty-seven minutes into his planned forty-minute sleep cycle. The process is instantaneous. There is no drowsiness. He goes from hibernated rest to combat alert the moment he opens his eyes.
"Show me," he says.
Sothis hands him a dataslate.
"This is a topographical pict-capture of our assigned area taken by the Mater Sanguinem four standard minutes ago."
Aethon absorbs the information at a record pace. He analyzes. He examines. The Lamenter looks up when he's finished.
"You were right."
The pilot chuckles. The sound is utterly without mirth.
"I wish I wasn't."
"Are we the only ones affected?"
The ocular lenses in Sothis's helm blink and click as he replies.
"No. Judging from secondary pict-captures, other squads are also in a similar predicament."
"Get me the controller of this town."
Controller is a standardized term used by the Imperium of Man to signify a rank of minor importance. Remnant has its own naming conventions. Mayor. Chief. Director. The terms are different but the underlying concept remains the same.
The controller of the town is a slightly pudgy man who is unmistakably going bald. He is still dressed in a sleeping robe and trips several times over the course of his journey.
"Honored Hunters," he says as he nears, "How can I help you?"
The nomenclature is wrong but the situation has deteriorated enough that Aethon does not feel the need to correct him.
"You must begin evacuating immediately."
The man blinks owlishly at the two giants in front of him, each clad in blackened ceramite warplate.
"You need to tell your people to evacuate. They must be ready to move within the hour."
The controller runs a hand through his receding hair.
"Is this about the Grimm?"
The man relaxes a fraction of an inch.
"The Grimm are troublesome, yes, but they don't usually gather in large enough numbers to threaten our town and you've been helping with that. It's been years since the last incursion. We are perfectly safe."
Aethon feels a pang of irritation lance through him. He is used to being obeyed instantly by his squad members. Human interaction with all their customs, nuances, and traditions involved frustrates him. They do not have the time to be theoretical.
"Show him," he says to Sothis.
The techmarine aspirant presents the dataslate.
"This is a pict-capture taken by our ship in space."
"This… This is taken from space? Fascinating. I think Atlas has a space program but rumors are they haven't made any progress," the man squints down, "These… are the rivers that run near our town, correct? And these… these are the hills that's just west of us. There's the mountain path that my father used to take me hiking on."
"You are well-versed in reading topographical displays, controller," Sothis allows.
The man grins at the praise.
"And what are these black spots in the picture?" he asks confidently, "Trees? Shrubs? They're all over the place."
"Those are Grimm," says Aethon.
The Stormraven's engines roar as it lifts. Within its armored hull are those civilians too old or weak to make a withdrawal on foot. The gunship's ascent sends dust whipping into the faces of Squad Aethon. Purity seals flap in the wind. Oath papers flutter and sway.
Soon the gunship is nothing more than a speck on the night horizon. Aethon turns to the figure standing by his side.
"Get your people moving."
The controller gestures to the watchmen manning the gates. A line of civilians wait behind them. They clutch necessities in their arms. Extra rations. Water flasks. Blankets. They are orderly and methodical. It is not the first time they've been evacuated in such a manner, Aethon realizes.
The immense wooden doors begin to open. The Lamenter senses the controller fidgeting. The man is practically emanating nervousness.
"Do you have faith, controller?"
The man jumps at the sudden question.
"Faith? Faith in what?"
"Faith in a higher power. Faith in those around you. Faith in yourself."
"I don't believe in a god if that's what you mean," the man hesitates, "Some might venerate the Maidens to a point where you can call it worship, but I don't. As for the other two, I suppose I do."
Aethon nods once.
"Then it is enough."
The controller looks at him as though he's gone mad.
"It's not that simple!"
"It helps when you keep it that simple."
The man opens his mouth, thinks better of it, then shakes his head.
"You are really something, you know that? All four of you."
The urge to chuckle is there but Aethon suppresses it. He sees the humor in the situation.
"Does that mean you have no faith in us, controller?"
The man's gaze flickers to Malachiel with his humming plasma gun, to Dumedion lugging the squad's heavy bolter, to Corien thumbing specialized bolt ammunition into sickle-shaped magazines. His gaze travels back to Aethon.
"You are, perhaps, the strangest Hunters I have ever met. Most Hunters will get the job done and leave right after. You came and killed all the Grimm around our town. Then you went into the forests around our town and killed all the Grimm there too. Then you went into the forests beyond those forests and killed all the Grimm there as well. You also have the biggest guns I've ever seen. As long as those guns are pointed at the Grimm and not us… then I have faith."
Dumedion laughs into the squad's private vox-channel.
"This controller is wise."
"He also possesses a surprising degree of common sense," commends Malachiel.
Corien's head turns between his brethren.
"Are the two not the same?"
Aethon smiles behind his helm.
"You have much to learn, brother."
The smile fades when the nagging feeling returns.
All Space Marines possess eidetic memory to some degree. The Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, did not merely create his favored warriors to be muscled brutes. Contained within the genetic imprint of each Astartes is an exceptional intelligence and the ability to use it.
Aethon has committed to memory eight secondary evacuation routes besides the first. He has estimated prime extraction points along each route, all based off the pict-captures from the Mater Sanguinem. He has assessed the survival rates of his charges and then reassessed them to make sure.
Yet he still feels he has forgotten something.
Frantic shouts cause the Space Marines to turn. Figures emerge from ramshackle buildings. Their stumbling gait is representative of brains functioning while still half-asleep. They have just been recently awoken. In all likelihood by the Stormraven's engines.
Aethon glances at the controller. His past humor has evaporated.
"You didn't tell the faunus?"
The man looks away. His face is flushed.
"I… didn't have time."
The individual figures are becoming an unruly mob. They are frightened. They are desperate. They are being fueled by the moral outrage of being left behind.
They are threatening the orderly withdrawal of the human civilians.
Aethon draws his boltgun.
"Squad on me."
The Lamenters form up and advance as one. They present a unified front of solid ceramite barring the oncoming crowd from the entrance. The light of night lamps casts sinister shadows over their carapace.
The faunus slow to a halt. Even with the situation so dire, they are terrified of the massive Space Marines. Aethon picks out individual features in the mob. Gaunt faces. Tired eyes. Weary limbs. Garments that are in some parts more rags than cloth.
They look piteous. They are piteous.
Their leader is a grey-haired man with a bent back. Small antlers protrude from both sides of his head. A knot of disgust forms in Aethon's stomach.
The man makes to speak.
The Lamenter silences him with a raised palm. Unbidden neurological impulse opens the link between his mind and the audio vocalizers in his helm. His voice comes out as a static-laced snarl.
"Listen very closely, for I will only say this once. Our gunship just left with the first group of evacuees. It will return for the next group as soon as it is done unloading. The plan is a staggered withdrawal. We will rendezvous with our transport for extraction at multiple locations down the line. You must stay with the main group. We cannot afford to look for stragglers. Every second spent lingering is a second that the Grimm gain on us. Am I making myself clear?"
Their leader seems temporarily surprised. The expression changes to genuine gratitude a moment later.
"Thank you," he whispers.
"Let them through."
The Lamenters move aside. The faunus scurry between them. Their heads are bent, as though just looking up would cause the Astartes to change their minds.
"Brother-Sergeant?" Corien asks into the squad's private channel.
There is no judgement in the question. Merely a request for clarification.
"We won't leave them here for the Grimm."
Corien nods, satisfied. Dumedion acknowledges the order by racking the slide of his heavy bolter. Malachiel grabs Aethon by the vambrace.
"That one won't make it."
Aethon turns and focuses. The image his visor presents him is a faunus woman leading three children. The eldest one is barely ten seasons old. The other two are far younger. One of them is being carried in the woman's arms. These details are of lesser importance. What is far more concerning is the dirty bandage tied around her left calf.
Aethon can smell the decay from here. Whatever the injury was, it has healed badly. Whatever caused it will slow her down.
"I know of her," Dumedion speaks up, "She fell onto a rock outcropping while working in the fields a few days ago."
"You spoke to her?"
Dumedion shrugs his immense shoulders. The ammunition hopper on his back makes him appear far larger than he really is.
"No. I merely overhead from the locals."
"You spend too much time overhearing then."
"It's hard not to overhear when you possess enhanced hearing."
Aethon turns. His focus pivots back to the faunus woman.
"That wound should not have festered. Antibiotic salve and a field dressing would have been more than enough."
"As I understand it," says Corien, "medicine is hard to come by on the frontier. And even if this town had it…" the younger Marine lets the statement hang, "…who would use it on a faunus?"
Even as they watch, she stumbles and falls to one knee. The older child scrambles to her side, urging her up. Shakily, the woman stands. She is blinking back tears.
"She won't make it," Malachiel repeats.
"No," agrees Aethon, "but we'll let her try."
They encounter their first signs of Grimm on their way to the fourth extraction point. A small hunting pack of Beowulves, numbering not more than half a dozen. They are butchered with typical Astartes efficiency. But the damage has been done. Even as the last dying howl leaves the Beowulf's jaws, answering howls sound from deep within the forest. The Grimm have their scent.
After that, the going gets much harder.
The hunting packs that come after them never number more than a dozen. They are almost always Beowulves. But there is a certain deadliness in simplicity. The creatures are built for pursuit. They are exceptionally fast when running on all fours and can scuttle over and around obstacles with little change to their speed.
They remind Aethon of the vanguard swarms of the Tyranids. Hormagaunt and Ravener broods adapted specifically to hound and tire their prey so that the main swarm can catch up. And like the loathsome xenos, the Grimm seem to know exactly where their victims are weakest.
The Lamenters are forced to turn and fight at regular intervals. They are obliged to protect their mortal charges again and again.
There are too many close calls to count.
A mother and child. Almost dragged away by a trio of Beowulves lunging from the shadows. Corien kills all three with direct headshots.
An older couple. Lagging behind the main group, they are almost overtaken by a hunting pack. Malachiel is there seconds before the Grimm, covering their escape, plasma gun lancing fire into the foe.
The moving column itself. Eight Beowulves burst among the middle, panicking the refugees. Dumedion swings his cannon around and decimates them with heavy caliber shells.
And Aethon, leading from the front, his combi-bolter spitting death. When he cannot put down the Grimm with standard rounds, he resorts to the underslung melta barrel. It's meant to core the armored hulls of tanks. It turns Beowulves into biological slag pooling on the forest floor.
The Lamenters respond to each ambush with commendable alacrity and efficiency. But in dealing with their foes, they have discovered new aspects about the Grimm that are imminently worrisome.
Mere beasts should not be this coordinated. This organized. This driven.
"It is as though something is compelling them," says Malachiel during one of their short rests. Around them, civilians sit in tired huddles. A Space Marine can run for a full day and night without tiring but that does not change the fact that their mortal charges are far more limited in endurance.
"Some form of higher intelligence maybe?" postulates Corien, "A hive mind of sorts?"
"None of our field reports suggest such a concept exists," Aethon replies.
"There are rumors though," Dumedion says gruffly, "of how these things can evolve. The longer they live, the smarter they get. They learn. They adapt."
"Such an evolutionary process would be troublesome," concedes Aethon.
A rustling sound alerts the brothers. Their weapons are raised, primed, and aimed in the time it takes for a normal man to blink. The branches of a nearby bush part.
It's the faunus woman. The injured one. She emerges from the foliage, the children in tow. She sees the evacuee column resting ahead and lets out a sob of relief. The woman takes a step forward and immediately collapses. She angles her body so that the child she holds in her arms does not take the brunt of the fall. Lying on the ground, she makes no move to join the main group. Aethon can sense her exhaustion from here.
Behind his visor, the Lamenter furrows his brow. Theoretically, it makes no sense for her to fall this far behind. He has seen her being helped by her fellow faunus and even by a few humans. But he also thinks practical and realizes that he is viewing her difficulties from a purely posthuman standpoint.
The refugees have been force marched over difficult terrain at a tremendous pace. They are tired, hungry, and thirsty. Whatever assistance the woman has been afforded would have gradually decreased as her helpers reserved more and more of their energy for themselves and their immediate friends and family. Now with the Grimm snapping at their heels, that help has all but evaporated.
And yet she has still managed to keep up with the column despite her maimed leg. Such determination is to be admired, even if it comes from a faunus.
Aethon is briefly distracted when the chronometer built into his helm starts beeping. The allotted period for the refugees to rest has ended.
"It is time," says Malachiel, "We need to resume our journey."
"I will get the civilians moving," Corien volunteers.
Aethon is as surprised as them. He had not realized he had spoken out loud.
"The wounded woman," he continues to speak, "She did not yet have time to rest. We will allow her a brief period of respite."
"With respect, Brother-Sergeant," Malachiel protests, "we still have half the extraction points left to go. We cannot afford any more delays."
"There is a horde of Grimm behind us," Corien says quietly, "If they gain on us… we can't fight them all and protect the civilians at the same time."
"We will give her five minutes."
"We don't have five minutes," grunts Dumedion.
"Nonetheless, five minutes is what we will give her."
The last extraction point looms before them. The Lamenters shepherd the remaining civilians towards it. Most of them are faunus. Aethon has made no judgement on boarding order but the faunus seem to know that their importance is secondary to pure humans. It is as though they are used to it.
Aethon is not bothered by this knowledge but he does consider it strange. Just another peculiarity originating from this world.
"Fifteen minutes before Sothis returns," Corien informs them over the vox-link.
"Our estimated arrival time is six minutes," Malachiel reports.
"We will be there on time and with no casualties to boot," answers Dumedion, "It seems our luck has held."
Aethon nods to himself, satisfied. They have covered a good amount of distance and in even better time. That's why he doesn't reprimand Dumedion for tempting fate.
The Lamenter turns and surveys the moving column. He logs faces and matches profiles. He needs to be sure all the noncombatants are accounted for.
He frowns. He has noticed a discrepancy. He performs a secondary spot scan just to make sure.
"Brother-Sergeant?" Malachiel jogs up to him, "What's wrong?"
Aethon snaps out of his reverie. He notices that the refugees have stopped moving. They have stopped moving because he has stopped moving.
"The injured woman. She is no longer with us."
The rest of the squad have gathered. They turn towards the civilians at those words. Aethon knows from the clicks and whirrs sounding from their helms that they are performing sensory sweeps just as he had.
"You're right," Malachiel admits.
"She was still with us at our previous extraction point," Corien says, "She must have dropped out of the column only recently."
"To have come so close, yet remain so far," muses Dumedion.
Malachiel nudges him.
"There goes your luck."
A presence at his side causes Aethon to glance down. It's the controller of the town. To the man's credit, he has stayed with the refugees, both human and faunus, through the entire trip. He looks like he's about to drop from exhaustion at any minute. The only thing keeping him on his feet is duty. Duty and fear.
"Why have we stopped?"
"We are missing civilians," responds Aethon.
The man pales.
"Just one. The woman with the wounded leg."
"Just one? That's… acceptable."
"A life lost is acceptable to you, controller?"
The man flinches.
"I did not mean it that way. What I meant to say is that compared to seeing the rest of us to safety, one life is an acceptable loss. You might not think it, but this isn't my first evacuation. When I was a boy, something very similar happened. An incursion of Grimm, just like this one. They were on us fast and the only reason our town wasn't overrun was because there was a team of Hunters nearby. They protected us as best they could but they also thought that meant protecting all of us, including the stragglers. We didn't even make halfway before the Grimm were on us. The results… weren't pretty," the controller's chin quivers, "I lost my father that day. I watched my mother wither away from grief for the better part of a decade. And all because some idiots from the City thought they could do something they couldn't. And that's the truth of it. At the end of day, she's just one life. And what is that compared to the dozens, perhaps even hundreds of lives that are going to be at stake if you leave?"
Malachiel glances at his brothers.
"He's not wrong."
"Agreed," grumbles Dumedion, "I don't like it, but he's not wrong."
"The Codex Astartes states that sacrificing the few for the many is an acceptable stratagem," Corien murmurs, "Is the concept not the same here?"
Aethon realizes that they are all looking at him now. They are waiting for him to make a decision. His finger fiddles absentmindedly with the trigger of his boltgun.
"Four," he finally says.
His brothers look at him, confused.
"What?" the controller asks, not understanding.
"Including the children, there are four lives at stake."
The man takes a deep, steadying breath.
"I understand you have a hard decision to make, but I beg you to consider the circumstances."
Aethon looks down at the portly controller, this mortal human with a surprising degree of insight, and finds that he agrees with the conclusion. It is the rational judgement. Formed through the application of sound reasoning and common sense. Imperial commanders would applaud such cold logic.
The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Imperium.
He thinks this but he also draws upon memory. He remembers. Reminisces.
The Corinth Crusade. Waged over the edges of the Ultima Segmentum.
He remembers descending in screaming Thunderhawks, on a world called Slaughterhouse III.
He remembers the smell of cordite smoke and spent rounds, the sound of bellowed orders and prayers of relief.
He remembers the sense of glory as they liberated slave holds and mining camps one by one, only for it to disappear as fresh ork reinforcements descended on the planet.
He remembers the promise. The blood oath. Whispered through the vox-link of every Astartes present.
As long as a single life can be saved, the Lamenters will not abandon Slaughterhouse III.
He remembers standing shoulder to shoulder with his brothers, the masses of weeping humanity behind them, bolter blazing in his hands, shouting the chapter's battle cry in the face of nightmarish odds.
For those we cherish, we die in glory!
He remembers being dragged back to the waiting Thunderhawk by his squad sergeant, raging at the injustice of it all.
What kind of angels are we, if we cannot protect? How are we the Emperor's Chosen, if we cannot shield His people?
He remembers watching from the bridge of the Daughter of Tempests as the world below imploded on itself, detonated by those they were supposed to save.
He remembers the broken promise. The victory that tasted like ash in his mouth.
One world. One life.
He makes the hard decision.
"Brother Malachiel. You have command. Keep them going forward."
He receives a ping of acknowledgement over the squad link.
"And you, Brother-Sergeant?" Dumedion prompts, "What will you be doing?"
He finds what he's looking for almost instantly. The auto-sensors in his helm have locked onto the only heat signature present in his current direction. There are other motion patterns he has detected. Cold lifeless dots blink on his movement tracker.
They are also converging on the heat signatures.
Aethon enters the clearing, boltgun braced and ready. He performs a primary threat sweep of his surroundings before taking in the scene before him.
The woman is lying on her side. From the way her chest heaves irregularly, it is clear she isn't getting back up again. The child she had been carrying has spilled out of her arms. The infant cannot be older than three or four. He sits there, an arm's length away from the woman, bawling. The other two children, a boy and a girl, are kneeling at her side, urging her to stand. They are failing miserably.
The Lamenter locks his combi-bolter to the magnetic couplings at his hip. He won't need it for this particular duty.
The children recoil as he approaches. They are frightened of him and for good reason. He dwarfs them. The oldest one, the boy, would barely reach his knee.
He peers down at them, these abhumans at his feet, and for the first time in decades, he realizes he is ill-equipped to deal with the situation. Nothing in three centuries of service has quite prepared him for this.
He does not know what to say so he opts for the truth.
"The Grimm will be upon you any second," the children flinch. Even with the audial wavelengths purposefully dampened, Aethon's voice still comes out as a guttural snarl. The vocalizers in a Space Marine helm were never meant to be gentle, "You need to get up."
The woman's eyelids flutter weakly.
"It hurts… so much…"
A quick bio-scan confirms what Aethon already suspects.
The wound has become inflamed. If the pain does not claim her, then the rot-fever will. She is, in all likelihood, delirious.
He turns to the children.
"If you run towards the last extraction point, you can still make it."
They stare at him, uncomprehending. So he tries to make them see reason.
"Either you start moving now or you all die here."
His words seem have the opposite effect. The girl hides her face in her brother's chest. The boy, the oldest one, glares at him. As though balling his fists and scowling at him would, in any way, help the situation at all.
It's the woman who finally makes them respond. Somehow, she has clawed her way back through the haze of pain and into something resembling clarity.
"Listen to him," she whispers, "Do as he says."
"No!" the eldest shakes his head fervently, "We won't leave you here, big sister!"
"I'll be fine," the woman soothes, "I just… need some rest. I'll be back before you know it."
"That's what mom and dad said," the girl-child sobs, "and they never came back!"
The woman reaches out with a slender arm and wipes her tears away.
"I'll be right behind you. I promise. But you need to hurry."
Howls sound in the night. Aethon jerks his head back towards the forest. His enhanced hearing can pinpoint the exact locations they originate from.
The Grimm are much closer than he anticipated.
When he looks down again, all three children are staring at him.
"Move," he says.
They do as bid. The oldest one takes the youngest into his arms just as his sister did before. The girl follows him as he leaves. The tear tracks over her cheeks glisten in the moonlight. They halt at the boundaries of the clearing, where the forest begins, and look back one last time. Then they are gone, their tiny forms obscured by a sea of woodland growth.
The silence is deafening.
Aethon's gaze travels back to the injured faunus. He notes details that, in the rush to evacuate the civilians, he has missed. The color of her hair. Blonde with dirty streaks. Either natural or from dirt he is not sure. The appearance of her face. He is no great judge of beauty but there does not seem to be any blemishes marring her. The shape of her ears. The mark of an abhuman. Long and straight, they protrude from her head like a hare's.
Such a flimsy thing, he thinks, that separates what is pure humanity from what is not.
Again he is not quite sure what to say, so again he resorts to the truth.
"If you cannot stand, then we must resolve this situation before the Grimm reach you."
The woman looks up at him before slowly nodding.
Aethon tilts his head.
"Are you not afraid?"
To his surprise, she actually laughs.
"What's the use of being afraid now?"
For that split second, he admires her. To be so fearless in the face of death. That is an entirely human quality.
The Lamenter bends down. His immense bulk looms over the woman.
"Please…" she says softly, "Just make it quick."
Aethon pauses before inclining his head.
"I will try."
One of his hands moves towards her neck. The woman does not shrink back. She merely closes her eyes. She opens them again when the ceramite gauntlet moves past her bared throat and settles over her back.
Aethon stands. The woman rises with him, lifted by one arm. His armor's systems immediately compensate but there is no need. She is practically weightless.
With his other arm he draws the blade sheathed at his hip.
It's a power sword. Praetor pattern. Four and a half feet long from tip to pommel. The golden wings of the Imperial Aquilla spread out to form the twin sides of a hilt.
He does this because they are no longer alone.
Shadows flit at the edges of the clearing. They lumber on four legs or prowl, hunched over, on two. Short, ragged huffs pant from their snouts.
The Grimm have found them at last.
Aethon toggles the switch. The sword's power field activates, a cerulean glow. The blue light emanating from the blade reflects off dozens of crimson eyes.
"You made a promise," he says to the woman he cradles in one arm, "Now let's make sure you fulfill it."
The roaring creature that bars his way is an Ursa. Standing on its hind legs, it towers above Aethon. Its muscular shoulders are wider than an Astartes in Terminator Armor. It's a walking, lumbering tank. When it comes down to a contest in brute strength, Aethon is not sure he would win.
It's a good thing he has the Praetor-pattern power sword.
He rams the blade into the Ursa's open mouth. The tip emerges from the back of the beast's skull in a spray of brackish blood. The sound the Ursa makes no longer resembles roaring. It's choking. It's choking on a meter and a half of master-crafted adamantium that has suddenly displaced all the brain matter in its head.
Aethon twists the grip. The Grimm's head pops off like a cork from a wine bottle.
The Lamenter swivels on his feet. The power sword is a blur in his hands. He carves a Beowolf from shoulder to hip and lops off the arm of another. Another jumps at him, jaws distended like an eel's. Aethon smashes his sword fist into the creature's mouth. Broken teeth sprinkle down like rain.
The woman he cradles gasps as shattered pieces of bone rebound off her shoulders. She has long ago wrapped her arms around his neck. Both to secure purchase for herself and out of instinctive fear. Aethon can understand. He's operating at a scale far beyond her mortal comprehension. He is processing information at breakneck pace. He is making target selections, gauging distances, judging kill priorities at a time span measured in human heartbeats. To him, everything is framed in perfect clarity, testament to a mind working at transhuman speeds. To her, everything is a confused blur, a conflicting panorama of muddled images. It is this fear of the unknown that drives her to hide her face against his chest, to press her body as close as possible to his.
Aethon cannot feel fear. It has been bred out of him, weaned away in the gene-trials all recruits undergo to become Astartes. But he can comprehend it. Even understand how it pertains to him.
It is the duty of those who cannot feel fear to protect those who can.
A more armored variant of the Beowolf leaps into his way. It believes the bony plates dotting its body will be sufficient to protect it. Aethon spears his sword one-handed through its chest. Blood squirts out like oil pouring from a reservoir.
The Lamenter kicks the sagging corpse off his blade and resumes running. The Grimm snap doggedly at his heel, trying to delay him. They know as well as he knows that if they surround him, the fight will be effectively over. He can kill individual Grimm all day and all night, but as soon as they pile him to the ground, pin his sword arm to his side, weigh his superhuman physiology down with sheer numbers, then he is as good as dead.
An angry roar warns him of danger ahead.
It's another Emperor damned Ursa and an Alpha to boot. It's more dreadnought-sized than Astartes-sized. The spines that run down its back are longer than Aethon's arm.
The Lamenter doesn't have time to bring his sword around. In the milliseconds it took to register the Ursa as a threat he's killed two more of the lesser Grimm that were trying to drag him down. He has no choice but to lower his shoulder and barge a way through.
Eight feet of ceramite superhuman collides with a brute wall of bestial fury and unnatural aggression.
The Ursa rocks back on its heel. It staggers but does not fall. The analytical part of Aethon's mind marvels at the beast's durability. It has just taken the full momentum of an Astartes running at full stride and appears no worse for wear. It's even swinging a clawed forearm in a retaliatory strike.
Aethon ducks under the blow and sidesteps away. He doesn't have time to fight this monstrosity.
The Ursa bellows in frustration as its burly limb misses. For all their superior resilience, they lack the swift-footed speed and nimble reflexes of their Beowolf cousins.
It takes a stride forward in pursuit and treads on the krak grenade Aethon has left at its feet.
An angry flash of light forces the photolenses in Aethon's visor to adjust. When the glare recedes, the Ursa is significantly shorter.
The Lamenter bashes aside the lesser Grimm left blind and dazed by the explosion. He drags his sword in a horizontal swing that cuts through a bestial figure at the waist. The Beowolf folds limply in half. He wasn't aiming for the Beowolf though. He was aiming for the tree directly behind it. The Praetor-pattern power sword slices through it like it was paper.
The tree begins to topple. It's an old oak, nearly thirty feet tall. Its trunk is immensely thick and covered with barbed branches.
Aethon punches it. Hard. He smashes his fist into the falling log and sends it hurtling back into the faces of the Grimm. He turns the felled tree into a rolling, careening battering ram.
Any Grimm caught in its way are simply flattened. Crushed. Pulverized by the barreling log. The spiny growths dotting its surface stab into flesh. Gouge eyes. Tear vicious lacerations on shadowy bodies. The spindly main limbs penetrate much deeper.
By the time the felled tree finally rolls to a stop, there are Grimm impaled on its branches.
Aethon is already moving. He has bought himself four seconds at most with that act. He revises that estimate to three seconds when enraged howls sound behind him. The Grimm have already resumed the chase.
The Lamenter vaults over meter-high rock outcroppings. He shoulders his way through lesser obstacles. His legs pound into the floor in a continuous blur. The odometer built into his suit's systems display flashing sigils. They change rapidly depending on the terrain. When he hits open areas, the odometer clocks him at well above a hundred klicks. When he has to swerve and dodge, it drops him down to the low nineties.
The woman bites her lips as they cover a particular rough patch of ground. Every jerk in his movement is lancing pain up her injured leg. A thin trail of blood dribbles down from where her teeth break flesh. It patters onto Aethon's warplate, a tiny sliver of red amid a vast backdrop of black.
Heat signatures alert Aethon to presences ahead. There are three of them and they are all very small.
It's the faunus children. They turn when he crashes through the undergrowth, power sword in hand. They see their elder sister being held in the other. Naked awe shines on their faces. Then they see what's coming behind him and that awe turns swiftly to fear.
"Don't look back!" Aethon barks at them, "Run!"
They don't need any further urging. They put their heads down and start running as fast as they can. The boy is still carrying the littlest child.
They are full on sprinting but they still cannot match an Astartes in pace. Aethon has to reduce his own speed lest they fall behind.
The distance he has stretched between himself and the Grimm evaporates instantly.
The Lamenter turns. He faces the oncoming horde, sword bared. He shields the children with his own body.
The Grimm swarm him. They mob him from the front, an avalanche of bared fangs and extended claws. They are packed so tightly together that Aethon cannot tell where one Grimm begins and another ends.
The Lamenter swings his blade up to meet them. He cleaves heads from shoulders and chops hands from wrists. He severs legs in thick spurts of arterial spray and tears out organs with great disemboweling strokes. He smashes aside return blows with his sword and lashes out with his own blistering ripostes. He kills the Grimm. He murders them. He takes them apart limb from limb until they are squirming corpses at his feet. He leaves a trail of convulsing bodies on the forest floor like ink splotches on a piece of parchment.
And all the while he is keeping up with the children, fending off any attempts to get to them.
One of the faster Beowolves slips past the Lamenter's guard. Its lupine frame is sleeker than the others. It's built for speed, built to flank, built to attack prey that can't fight back. It angles for the girl and leaps at her, an enormous black mass of snarling fury.
Aethon cannot quite reach it with his sword. So he hurls it like a spear. The master-crafted blade thuds into the Grimm's chest and pins it to a nearby tree. The creature's legs dangle off the ground, kicking, like a broken marionette.
The Lamenter turns and draws his combi-bolter. The two movements blur together to become instantaneous. He's firing the moment he completes the turn. Full-auto. His aim is impaired by the fact he's shooting one-handed but the range is so close that it no longer matters. Limbs come off in geysers of blood. Chests turn into excavated craters. Skulls deform as diamantine tips slam into them, then burst apart as mass-reactive fuses ignite explosive charges.
And the Grimm still keep on coming.
They are so damn close that some of the bolts penetrate without exploding. The augur right through shadowy bodies, creating neat, fist-sized holes. Then they explode.
The woman in his arms shakes with each trigger pull, shivers at each reverberating boom.
All too quickly his weapon cycles on empty. A lunging Beowolf is there to take advantage of the lull in shooting.
Aethon brings his bolter up and ejects the spent magazine into the creature's face.
The heavy, sickle-shaped construction bounces off the Beowolf's skull with enough force to stun. The beast pauses, temporarily dazed. By then Aethon has re-holstered his gun and snatched his sword from the tree.
He turns and cleaves the Grimm into two twitching halves.
The Lamenter realizes his mistake before the bifurcated body can fall. He has slowed his pace in order to fire his boltgun. His young charges have not. They've kept on running, as he told them to do.
There is now a significant gap between him and the children.
The Grimm capitalize on his error immediately. They are, as much as Aethon is loath to admit it, consummate predators.
Three Beowolves detach themselves from the mob. Sleek and swift. They no longer consider the ceramite giant killing their cohorts to be their primary target. Instead, their taloned limbs carry them directly towards the children in a frenzied, careering charge.
The woman screams.
Aethon reacts. Adrenaline spikes into his twin hearts. He accelerates from rest. The horde tries to stop him. They grab at his legs. Claw at his arms. He takes blows against his carapace. They would be bone-breaking if he was a normal man. Powerful slashes leave zigzagging marks against his shoulderplates. His armor's systems warns him of damage, that if accumulated, could prove fatal.
The Lamenter disregards them. He uses his immense bulk to struggle free. He punches. He kicks. He head-butts an Ursa with such awful force that the Grimm's bony face cracks like a porcelain plate.
And then he is free. And then he is pursuing the pursuers.
He reaches the first Beowolf while it's in mid-stride. Aethon sweeps its legs out from under it with a low horizontal swing. The Grimm tries to compensate. It tries to keep running with half its legs severed.
The Lamenter clubs the maimed creature aside. He's moving for the second Beowolf.
He lunges and spears it in the back. A one-handed thrust. The tip of the Praetor-pattern sword enters the Beowolf's spine and exits out of its chest. The beast is dead before its brain can realize it's dead.
Aethon flicks his blade out from the falling corpse. The third Beowolf, the last one, is already in mid-leap.
Time slows down.
Aethon can't shoot it. His bolter is empty. He can't hurl his sword either. The angle will most assuredly injure one of the children. He can't move to intercede simply because he is not fast enough. The Lamenter cycles through a dozen more theoretical scenarios and discards every single one. He reaches a solid conclusion.
There is no practical way he can reach the children before the Grimm does.
The Beowolf's claws extends towards the oldest boy's neck. Its head explodes in a geyser of blood and shredded bone shards. The headless body tumbles past Aethon, a pile of worthless, flopping limbs.
Behind his blood-slick helm, the Lamenter bares his teeth into a rictus grin. The shot had been made at long range. Under duress. And at an angle that should have, by all rights, been impossible.
Ahead of him, five hundred paces away, Corien moves into view. The Stalker-pattern bolter is already braced on his shoulder and firing. Single shots ring into out the night. The squad's marksman picks off the Grimm hounding his brother-sergeant one by one. He delivers precise headshots at distances that can be considered extreme.
The vox-link cackles to life.
"Brother-Sergeant!" the younger marine's voice is eager, "We saw what you did! Throne of the Emperor, we all saw it!"
"If you have time to be witnessing this," Aethon grits back into the connection, "then you are not providing adequate fire support! Dumedion!"
"I am here, Brother-Sergeant!" the heavy weapons trooper lumbers to stand beside Corien. The cannon he has in his hands is meant to put down targets ranging from Tyranid leader-beasts to light vehicles. It kills Grimm with disgusting ease. Lesser strains pop like blisters. The larger ones, Ursai and Alpha variants, are walloped onto their backs by sheer concussive force.
Aethon guides his charges towards his squadmates. A hundred meters behind the two marines, the bulky form of their Stormraven hovers inches off the ground.
"Sothis! The ramp!"
The techmarine aspirant's voice responds a split-second later, filled with vox static.
"It's down, Brother-Sergeant! But you best hurry! My ammunition stores are running perilously low!"
Aethon can see the hurricane bolters on each side of the transport spraying suppressive fire into the forest. Malachiel is in the gunner's turret. The armored cupola swivels from left to right under his control; twin-linked assault cannons dousing Grimm with continuous hails of lead.
The girl-child running at his side suddenly stumbles and falls. She has tripped over an exposed root.
Aethon briefly considers going to her aid, even carrying her the same way he is carrying the woman.
Dumedion is there before he can act. The Lamenter heavy scoops the child up with one immense gauntlet and sets her on his right shoulder. The girl instinctively grabs the edges of the marine's massive pauldron for support. Her disoriented gaze meets eye visors the color of human blood.
"Hold your ears," Dumedion instructs.
The girl looks at him as though he has uttered some alien language. Then, she folds her faunus ears over her human ones.
Dumedion nods, satisfied. He swings his cannon around and resumes firing. He blasts Grimm backwards like ragdolls.
Aethon plants his blade into the ground and draws the combi-bolter at his hip. He tosses the spent firearm towards Corien who catches it with practiced ease.
The squad marksman slams in a fresh magazine. He knows what to do with it. When the youngest Lamenter raises his arms again, he has a boltgun in each fist.
The power sword is back in Aethon's hand. He decapitates a charging Beowolf before shouting into the vox.
"Aethon Squad! Retreat Pattern Anvilus! Don't let any of these mongrel bastards through!"
The Lamenters begin moving back towards their transport. The Grimm follow them as they withdraw. A living tide of gaping mouths and outstretched claws. The Astartes punish them with withering firepower. Dumedion, walking backwards, heavy bolter flaring with repeated discharge, the girl sitting on his shoulders like some out-of-place ornament. Corien, twin boltguns blazing death, shooting away heads and limbs in clouds of bloodsmoke. And Aethon, the sword in his hand a blue glimmer in the night, cutting down anything and everything that evades his brothers' fields of fire.
Dumedion grunts as the armored sole of his boot clangs against something metal. He has stepped onto the ramp leading to their Stormraven gunship. The Lamenter continues up into the passenger bay, shooting all the way.
Corien is next. The combi-bolter has cycled on empty again. It's a much more voracious pattern compared to its Stalker cousin. The younger marine mag-locks his brother-sergeant's weapon to his hip. He moves up the ramp, blasting with his remaining weapon. He puts Inferno Rounds point blank into the creatures chasing them. The Grimm he hits turn into wailing, thrashing torches.
Aethon is last. The Brother-Sergeant waits until the two remaining children run up the ramp before leaping on himself. Inside the Stormraven's hull, he sees civilians crowded on seats meant for beings twice their size. They are looking at him and at the Grimm also trying to get inside.
The transport's engines are already roaring to life.
"You don't need to tell me twice!"
The Stormraven begins rising into the air. The Grimm are relentless. Even with their prey so close to escaping, they refuse to give up. They launch themselves at the gunship, trying to seek purchase with their talons and claws. When they fall back to earth, their frantic scrabbling leaves hundreds of tiny scratch marks on the gunship's hull.
Squad Aethon remains standing at the entrance. They shoot down any of the creatures attempting to jump on to the ramp. One of them actually succeeds.
It's a Beowolf. A big Alpha. Saliva coats its muzzle in chunks of foam. It lands on the ramp and howls in victory.
Aethon slices its arm off at the elbow before it can finish howling. Dumedion brings his heavy bolter in a roundabout swing that caves in the right side of its body. Corien rams a primed frag grenade into its open mouth and kicks it back down the ramp.
The flailing, writhing body falls ten meters to land amid a mass of its fellow Grimm. The following explosion kills and maims dozens.
"I'm closing the ramp, Brother-Sergeant!" Sothis's voice filters into the vox-link, "Get clear!"
Aethon sheathes his sword. The power field has burned away the blood and gore drenching the blade. He carries the woman into the passenger bay. Corien and Dumedion follow him, stomping into the main hold.
The girl is still perched on Dumedion's shoulder. Spent gunpowder has painted black smears over her face. She begins squirming once she is safely inside.
The Lamenter heavy swivels his head to stare at her. He has quite forgotten she was there.
"You may take your hands off your ears now."
The child hesitantly obeys. Her faunus ears spring up once they are no longer under pressure. Dumedion studies the strange appendages before moving his gaze downwards. The girl looks away when the Space Marine continues staring. She begins to fidget shyly with her fingers.
Dumedion nods. He has arrived at a solid practical regarding this abhuman child.
"You are very small," he says to her.
The interior of the Stormraven is dimly lighted, but Aethon's enhanced eyesight can pierce it as easily as it was day.
"Sothis," he speaks into the vox, "Status report."
"All systems operational, Brother-Sergeant. Our bird took a few hits on the way up, but it's nothing she can't handle. I am plotting a course to Firebase Tempestus as we speak."
"And our brothers in the field? Elements of the Third, Fifth, and Sixth Companies were scattered throughout the afflicted area, protecting settlements just like us. How did they fare?"
There is a pause on the other end of the connection. When Sothis speaks again, it is with the tone of a man trying to word his next statement very carefully.
"The Grimm struck instantaneously all along the line, Brother-Sergeant. We can only guess from diagnostic scans made by the Mater's sensors, but preliminary reports estimate that seventeen separate townships and villages were overrun in the span of a few hours."
"Throne," mutters Corien.
"Casualties?" Aethon asks, dreading the worst.
"A few wounded civilians from the strain of emergency evacuations. On our end, nothing more serious enough to warrant a few days in the Apothecarion."
"We were fortunate then," Dumedion grunts.
"Yes, brother," Sothis agrees, "That is the word I have heard often repeated in the chapter's vox-net. If the pict-scans from the Mater had come an hour later or not at all, then we would still have combat squads stuck in settlements when the Grimm overrun them."
"The Mater was fortuitous in its timing," says Malachiel as he climbs down from the gunner's turret.
"Fortuitous timing does not change the severity of our current situation," responds Aethon, "We spent three months clearing the forests surrounding each township. Significant chapter assets were allocated in cleansing the Grimm. Now with this incursion underway, all our efforts have been erased in a single night. It will be like we weren't even here at all."
"Those are also words I have heard repeated in the chapter's vox-net," agrees Sothis, far more reluctantly this time.
There is a moment of silence as the brothers digest this information. Malachiel is the one who finally breaks it and it has nothing to do with the situation.
"Brother-Sergeant, the woman. She is fading."
Aethon's gaze flickers down to the faunus female he has, in his state of urgency, forgot to set down. Her face has turned an unhealthy shade of grey. The Lamenter performs a rushed bio-scan. Her pulse rate is sluggish. Irregular. Her body temperature fluctuates from hot to burning. There is an almost glassy look in her eyes.
The sergeant frowns behind his helm. He does not recall any wounds she has suffered in the course of their fighting retreat. But then he realizes that he is still thinking purely from a posthuman perspective.
The genetic modification that is the bedrock of a Space Marine prevents Aethon from feeling the touch of contagions. It makes him immune to infection and disease. The same could not be said for the mortals he is sworn to protect. They can suffer from wounds that an Astartes warrior would consider trivial. Lingering injuries can become fatal ones and in the woman's case, hers was already bordering on fatal. The rot-fever was already close to wearing her down and that was before the arduous fight back to their transport. The grueling conditions would have only exacerbated the extent of her wound.
Aethon frowns behind his helm. There is a distinct possibility that he saved the faunus woman only for her to die in the Stormraven's hold.
The Lamenter tears his gaze from his weakening charge.
"Sothis. How long until we arrive?"
"An hour, Brother-Sergeant. I am taking a longer, ancillary path. Reports indicate there are flocks of Nevermore gathering at our original route."
"She won't last an hour," Malachiel states matter-of-factly.
"It's not the wound itself that is most worrisome," adds Dumedion, "It's the fever. If it continues to progress at this speed, parts of her body will start to shut down."
"Do we have anything to forestall the malaise," asks Aethon despite knowing the answer.
Dumedion shakes his head.
"Nothing on the Stormraven, Brother-Sergeant."
"That's it then," says Corien softly, "She's as good as gone. We shouldn't have tried to save her. Going back was stepping outside the tenets laid down by the Codex Astartes. And we were punished for that with bad luck. We spent all that effort only for her to perish now. That is Lamenter luck."
Aethon looks at him.
"Brother Corien. Litany of Devotion. First phrase."
The younger marine snaps to attention.
"Where there is uncertainty, I shall bring light," he recites automatically.
"And? Do you believe this light to be a physical or metaphysical property?"
"Answer the theoretical, Corien."
"I would imagine it to be something metaphysical, sir."
"And if there is already light existing, what then do we do?"
"The light represents the Emperor, Corien. We bring His Will to an empire of a million worlds. But the light is also His people. They do not shine as bright or last as long but there are countless billions of them flickering in the galaxy," Aethon's gaze travels to each of his brothers in turn; Corien, alert and attentive, Dumedion, giant and patient, Malachiel, stout and austere, "We bring the light. But we also guard it wherever it may be found. Protect it," he looks down at the children, "no matter how small," and then at the woman, "or fragile they may be. That is our duty. Our purpose. That is what it means to be Astartes."
Corien nods slowly. Gone is the earlier recalcitrance. His posture is straightened, proud.
"I stand chastised, Brother-Sergeant."
Aethon places a hand on the younger marine's shoulder and squeezes.
"You just stand, Brother Corien. That's all the Emperor requires of you," he looks down again at the woman, "Now let us try and preserve this light."
His brothers nod.
"Corien, your combat knife."
The youngest Lamenter surrenders it instantly. Aethon takes the offered blade. It is the length of an adult human arm. The edge is curved and monomolecular.
He uses it to cut the dirty bandage tied around the woman's leg.
The smell hits him first. The scent of decay. There are lesions all over her calf. They have not healed well. Pus oozes out from gaps left by hastily formed scabs. In some places, they have crusted over the gashes entirely. The flesh surrounding the wound is almost as black as Aethon's armor.
The woman seems to understand what they are about to do. She begins fighting in her protector's grip out of reflexive fear. Aethon is not prepared for the sheer franticness in her struggling. He nearly drops her.
Malachiel catches her before she can fully fall.
"Easy," the specialist murmurs as he places her back into his brother-sergeant's arms.
Aethon opens the link to his vocalizers. He directs his next words towards the woman.
"You have a choice. Either we do this now or you lose the leg and potentially your life."
She sags in his grip. There is still fear clinging to her frame, but she is actively fighting it. The Lamenter turns. He addresses the rest of the refugees watching uneasily from the Stormraven's seats.
"I need something she can bite on."
They look at him uncertainly. Then they start rummaging. Some present him with bits of string and rope. Others tear pieces of their own clothing and offer it to the towering Space Marine. None are sufficient for the task at hand.
A presence at his side causes Aethon to glance down.
It's the controller of the town. Wordlessly, he hands the Lamenter his own belt. Aethon takes it and runs a thumb down its width. It is exceptionally good material. From his limited understanding of human economy, something like this would be both rare and expensive on the frontier.
The Lamenter nods his thanks. He turns back to the woman.
"Open your mouth."
After a second of hesitation, she does as told. Aethon places the folded belt between her lips.
She clenches down with her teeth.
"Do not, in any circumstance, let go. If the pain is too much, bite harder."
Dumedion looms over them. Aethon notes that the girl-child has migrated from his shoulder to his back. She sits on the big marine's power unit, tiny hands placed over his Mark VII helm. She peers down at her elder sister with undisguised worry.
"Can her physiology handle this?" the Lamenter heavy asks, seemingly unperturbed by the diminutive figure straddling his back.
"If she can handle carrying a child with a damaged leg under extreme circumstances," replies Aethon, "then she can handle this."
The combat knife bites. The woman immediately hisses in agony.
Aethon uses the blade as a scalpel. He scrapes away the dirty scabs dotting her calf, the sources of the infection. He tries to be gentle but an Astartes' hands are meant for war, not surgery. The woman shakes with every knife stroke. The belt clenched between her teeth is the only thing preventing her from crying out.
The Lamenter is diligent. His enhanced eyesight helps him pick out diseased flesh in the dim light. His helm's visor display magnifies areas where infected spots blend seamlessly with healthy skin. He relies on both as he cuts away the badly healed areas. He continues to work until he has scraped the encrusted wounds clean.
Corien splashes water from their Stormraven's onboard supply onto the woman's leg. With most of the filth washed away, Aethon can see the discolored patches of flesh with even more clarity. There is significant swelling. Evidence of accumulation of fluid.
The combat knife comes down again, tip first. Aethon makes two small incisions into the protuberance. The woman makes a muffled sound. Tears of pain are gathering at the corner of her eyes. The Space Marine squeezes the underside of her calf. The blood that wells out is more solid than liquid. Its congealed. Infected. From the almost black coloration, Aethon can surmise that there is a high likelihood its responsible for lancing poison into the woman's veins.
He repeats the process two more times, stopping only when the last of the diseased ichor drains out. Corien immediately pours water down the woman's thigh. The blood is so congealed that he has to do it again to wash all of it off.
Aethon looks up when the younger marine is done.
Malachiel steps forward with a roll of clean bandages. He begins wrapping the now clean wound.
The woman gestures weakly to her mouth. Aethon nods and takes the belt out from her clenched teeth. He notes the depths of the gnaw-marks left in the leather. She's nearly bitten the damned thing in half.
"Water," she croaks.
Corien tips his canteen gingerly into her waiting mouth. His movements are awkward and clumsy. He resembles a man who's not sure what to do but is determined to try.
By the time she finally pushes the flask away, Malachiel has finished tying the bandage. The blood that stains the dressing is red and healthy.
Aethon performs another bio-scan. Her temperature still fluctuates, but no longer to such extremes. Her pulse remains weak but it is now steady. He has not stopped the rot-fever but by cutting away the root of the infection, he has prevented it from getting worse. For the illness to be cured completely, she will need to be given to the care of the medicae back at their firebase.
The Lamenter finishes with his examination and notices that the woman is staring at him.
"It still hurts," she whispers.
Behind blood-red vision slits, Aethon arches an eyebrow. He will never understand mortals and their habit for stating the obvious.
"Good," he replies, "If you can still feel pain, then your cognitive functions are still working."
The Astartes lifts his head and looks for a place to set her down before realizing there are none. All of the Stormraven's benches have been filled with refugees. But perhaps that is for the best. Turbulence in the air might cause jostling that would worsen her wound. Clutched securely in his arms, she is at least stable. There is no other solution, Aethon decides.
He will continue to hold her like this until they arrive at their destination.
The Lamenter sergeant moves to the center of the passenger bay. The children follow him, solely because they have nowhere else to go. Aethon notices that the girl-child has clambered down from Dumedion's back. She scoots forward until she is beside his leg. Tiny fingers stretch out and tries to grasp the woman's dangling hand. She does not succeed. Such is the Space Marine's height that even standing on her tiptoes there is a substantial gap between the girl's hand and her sister's.
Aethon watches the girl's futile attempts in silence. When she fails again, he tilts his stance, drooping the shoulder supporting the woman so that the girl's fingers can finally wrap around hers.
He does not know why he does this, only that it feels appropriate to do so.
When he looks up again, he realizes they are all staring at him. The faunus refugees. The human ones too. Even the controller of the town. There is something akin to reverence in their eyes.
He believes he understands. By their mortal values, he has done something exceptionally courageous. By Astartes standards, it was nothing more than duty. Aethon does not begrudge them for this difference in principle. He is still uncomfortable, though it has little to do with the refugees watching him.
It's the woman cradled in his arms.
She is safe now. Secure in their armored Stormraven and heading for a fortified firebase.
So for the life of him, he does not understand why her heart is beating this fast.
There had always been rumors.
Giants clad in armor as black as midnight. With weapons so large you had to use Aura to lift them.
Eveline Magnolia had disregarded them. She was a journalist. A field reporter. She didn't bother with rumors. She left the gossiping to the tabloids. Her mentors had instilled within her a strong belief of what good reporting should be. So when the opportunity came up to head out to the frontier, she felt it was her duty to take it.
It was hard trying to fit in. Frontier folk were slow to warm up to and even slower to trust. Eveline didn't blame them. People who dwelled this far from the main cities and inner towns lived constantly on a knife's edge, their survival dependent solely on the whims of the Grimm prowling just outside their walls. The communication towers helped in this regard, but even then, the Hunters couldn't be everywhere at once. It wasn't common, but reinforcements arriving at villages calling for aid only to find them empty and lifeless were not exactly unheard of either.
Those who lived in the four major cities thought the frontier lifestyle to be nothing short of madness. Likewise, the frontier folk believed city dwellers to be soft and weak. Eveline had hoped her work would be the first step to an understanding between the two sides. But with the entire town giving her the proverbial cold shoulder, any attempts at interviews achieved negligible results.
She had nothing. Nothing except for rumors.
She felt discouraged. Disheartened. She was even starting to pack her bags.
And then, on the night she was thinking about leaving, the rumors became reality.
Eveline could still remember the bulky gunship descending on howling thrusters to land in the town's center. She could recall in vivid detail the terrible giants that stomped down the ramp. Later, she would overhear the townspeople talking among themselves regarding these new arrivals. Hunters in newly developed armor perhaps? Some sort of new Atlesian technology?
Eveline didn't think so. She had been to Atlas before and these looked nothing like the sleek androids the city was famed for. They looked like otherworldly warriors, each cast in the same identical mold. They looked like walking legends, wielding weapons that should all rights be ancient.
They looked like avenging angels.
Eveline isn't sure where she drew the connection from, only that it was the first image that crossed her mind.
And judging from their demeanor and the way they carried themselves, they wouldn't be agreeing to any interviews soon.
So the reporter began recording them in secret, using a miniature camera she kept in her chest pocket. The device was linked directly to her scroll and she could use it both to snap pictures or record videos.
At first, there was little substance for her to build on. These beings, whatever they were, did not seem to need rest. They were always moving. Constantly patrolling. Sleep consisted of standing motionless for thirty minutes locked in their armor. Not once had she caught them consuming food or drinking water. Their menacing helms were always fastened on their heads.
Perhaps they were some sort of new android, Eveline caught herself thinking. Some new Atlesian invention for their ever-growing military. The only thing that prevented her from fully subscribing to this theory were their voices. When they spoke, their words came out as a distorted, rumbling growl. But there was still something fundamentally human in them.
It disturbed her. It disturbed her that something so giant, so massive, so intimidating could still be human.
But she still needed a story. The giants themselves acted with little emotion. There was nothing about them that could resonate with the type of audience she was used to.
That was before the Grimm attacked.
Woken in the middle of the night, she joined the refugee column on a grueling force march that saw her vision swim and her limbs nearly collapse. Though her body ached, she was secretly elated. For now she could at last glimpse the truth behind their protectors.
They fought with a passion she had seldom seen before. It bordered on savagery. They met the Grimm in combat. They killed them. They moved on. It was surreal just how fast they could react. One second they were guarding the civilian column. The next second saw them engaging a pack of Grimm leaping out of the forest. There was real anger behind their blows. As though attacking the civilians was a personal affront they had to punish. As though preying on the weak was a great crime they had to avenge.
Eveline recorded it all.
Pictures of the giants striding beside the refugees, massive weapons covering men and women half their size.
Videos of them responding to Beowolf ambushes, beating back the Grimm with gun and blade.
A shot of the giant with the sword as he emerged from the forest, the faunus woman in his arms and the three children behind.
Eveline had been particularly proud of that picture. It was one of her finest shots. The angle captured the atmosphere perfectly. The heroism. The sacrifice.
None of that compared to what was just now happening in front of her.
The giant, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other still cradling his fragile charge.
The woman, frail and weak, one arm dangling down from a slumped shoulder.
The child, a small figure standing in the shadow of their protector, her hand wrapped tightly around her sister's.
Eveline's fingers tremble as they reach for the capture button hidden in her sleeve.
This is the shot that will make her famous.