The summons comes as soon as the morning sun begins its daily journey over the horizon.
Brother-Sergeant Aethon moves to answer it. The nature of the command is unknown to him, but the urgency of it cannot be denied. The Lamenter moves at a brisk pace. Motorized servos in his legs help carry his immense bulk into the greater compound.
Firebase Tempestus is, in all truth, an amalgamation of ad-hoc structures put down to serve as a supply base for chapter elements in the field. Walls were constructed when roving bands of Grimm mandated constant Astartes presence. Turrets were added shortly after, solely because if there is a wall, then there needs to be turrets on top of said wall. Saber Defense Platforms. Automated Tarantula Turrets. Hydra Flak Cannons.
Most of them are manned by guardsmen. Not this world's equivalent, but real guardsmen. Their uniforms are a riot of color. No more than a dozen bear the same company mark.
They are the paltry remnants of entire regiments saved by the Lamenters from the jaws of the Kraken.
Aethon moves past them as he heads deeper into the firebase. Some make the sign of the Aquilla as he passes. Most don't. They stare vacantly after the Astartes then go back to whatever they were doing before.
They have lost their worlds, their homes, their comrades and loved ones. Now they follow their saviors solely because there is nothing else left for them in this life.
The Lamenter sergeant arrives at the command structure after navigating through the gap left by a trio of Leman Russ battle tanks. Remnant is not good tank country. Too many forests for heavy armor to traverse through. Instead, the vehicles are put to good use as mobile bunkers, a second line of defense should the Grimm break through.
One of the Leman Russes is a Punisher variant. Its multi-barreled cannon cycles slowly as its crew performs basic spot-checks.
Two figures guard the command bunker. They are also Astartes. The honor markings inscribed onto their armor single them out as veterans belonging to a command squad. They don't move a muscle as Aethon strides past them and through the opening door.
The light within is dim. Cogitators and logic engines welded into the bunker's walls hum softly. Flickering hologram screens depict information in scrolling block letters.
The center of the structure is occupied by a solid, plasteel table. At the table's head, reclining on a command throne, is a figure both noble and austere. Golden embroidery flows across his warplate, the hallmark signs of Artificer Armor. A sculpted Imperial Eagle, clutching the bleeding heart symbol of the chapter, spreads magnificently across his chest. The entire side of his right pauldron is covered in idyllic script; the names of a hundred campaigns won in the service of humanity's empire.
His face is bared. The ancient helm, with its antique face-grille, sits on the table.
Hard, aquiline eyes stare out from a face that could have been molded by Imperial marble. The curl of the lips is almost statuesque. It makes him looks like a brooding sculpture. It makes him look like a man who has too much to do and not enough time to do them.
Aethon steps forward. He hammers a fist to his chest in salute and addresses the figure with the degree of respect appropriate for his august station.
The reply he receives does not consist of words. It comes in the form of a simple, curt motion.
The data-slate slides over the plasteel table, halting inches away from Aethon.
The Lamenter picks it up and scrolls through the contents. He looks up when he's done.
"Someone was recording us."
Theosius nods once. His voice is sharp enough to cut steel.
"Those videos have been circulating all over the news network. That pict-capture of you rescuing that woman is the number one viewed item in Vale. You're famous now, Brother-Sergeant."
"That was not my intent, Brother-Captain."
"Even as we speak those recordings are being disseminated to the other three cities. So whether you intended it or not, you're famous," Theosius's stare is ice-cold, "Do you think you deserve Terminator Honors for this deed? A place reserved in the First Company for your heroic endeavor?"
The sarcasm dripping from his superior's tone makes Aethon wince.
"Sir, I did what I thought was right."
"What you thought was right," repeats Theosius with a mirthless laugh, "You risked your own life, the lives of your men, and war material belonging to the chapter. Do you believe that is right?"
Aethon has braved his share of danger before, but being the source of his captain's displeasure is altogether a far more unpleasant experience.
"There were lives at stake, Brother-Captain."
"And? Do you understand the position we're in, sergeant? Our chapter is dying. Where once a thousand brothers stood proud, now we barely have three hundred. Our fleet assets have been decimated, leaving us with a sole battle barge that, for all intents and purposes, is dead in space. It is only by some miracle that we were not swallowed by Hive Fleet Kraken. Our priority now should be conserving our strength. Yes, we protect noncombatants, but only to an extent. Those were my express orders to all battle squads. Defend the townships and their citizens, but remain cognizant of the fact that one more brother slain in the line of duty is one more step closer towards our chapter's extinction. You disregarded those orders. I want to know why. I want to what you were thinking when you disobeyed a direct command passed down from your superior officer."
A moment of silence passes. It is broken by two painful words.
The Brother-Captain's expression softens.
"It was your first undertaking."
"My first after the implementation of the black carapace," confirms Aethon.
Theosius leans back into his throne.
"I would say something about luck but you know where that would lead," he levels a considering stare at the sergeant, "You do understand that it was an Imperial victory by every measurable standard."
"We left hundreds of thousands of people to die," Aethon says softly.
"Two point seven million."
"Segmentum Command and the Ultramarines' own Libriarus Conclave divined three million humans were enslaved on the planet at the time of our intervention. We saved three hundred thousand so we left two point seven million to die," the icy stare is back and in full force, "Do you believe your actions last night will bring those people back?"
Aethon lowers his head.
"Look up when you're speaking to me, sergeant. I'm not shaming you. Not when other squads partook in the same foolishness," the look on the Lamenter's face makes Theosius snort, "We are the Sons of Sanguinius. Nobility is in our blood. Your squad wasn't the only one to evacuate civilians and you weren't the only one who went back for stragglers. There will be more squad leaders in here listening to the same words before the day is done," weariness creeps over the captain's somber face, "Sometimes I wish I commanded a chapter of soldiers instead of a chapter of heroes."
Aethon does not know what to say to that so he says nothing at all.
The tiredness is gone a second later. When the Brother-Captain looks at Aethon again, his expression has returned to its normal, aloof state.
"Your Stormraven brought in refugees?"
"Yes, Brother-Captain. We evacuated the entire town."
"Where have you billeted them?"
"Inside the firebase," the Lamenter hesitates, "I understand it is against protocol to do so, but the urgency of the situation forced my hand. If you wish, we can move them back out."
"What? And leave them out for the Grimm? No, keep them inside the compound. They'll be safe behind our walls and under the protection of our guns. What does their food situation look like?"
"The humans brought some supplies with them, but they won't last long. The faunus don't seem to have anything at all."
The Brother-Captain's brows furrow at the mention of the abhumans.
"We'll allow them to draw provisions from our food stores. Give them daily rations and water. Not the stuff we're used to, mind you. The last thing we need on our hands is some idiot choking because he couldn't swallow down nutrient paste."
Aethon smiles slightly at the mental image.
"I will have the Guard and chapter serfs carry out your orders, sir."
"No," Theosius fixes him with another stare, "You will do this yourself, Brother-Sergeant. You will see to the civilians' needs personally. This will be your penance. You saved those people. Now they are your responsibility."
"It will be done, Brother-Captain."
"Onto your duties then."
The Lamenter hammers his fist into his chest again in a parting salute. He turns to leave. He is about to step through the door when a lingering thought attaches itself to the forefront of his mind.
The sergeant pauses. He is not quite sure how to broach the subject.
Theosius does it for him. The Brother-Captain's attention is glued firmly to another data-slate. He doesn't look up when he speaks.
"You're still here. Why?"
"It just occurred to me, Brother-Captain, that during the entire course of our conversation, not once have you said saving that woman was the wrong thing to do."
Hard, aquiline eyes flicker upwards until they meet Aethon's own, hidden behind his helm. There is something in them that only sons from the same gene-sire can understand.
"You are dismissed, sergeant."
It is almost dark when Aethon finally finishes his assigned duties. The entire affair was taxing in a way combat is not. The Astartes sergeant oversaw ration distribution, injury checks, and temporary housing placement. His brothers offered their help but Aethon refused. He will do this alone as penance. Still, the sheer logistics of it all had almost overwhelmed him. He has quite forgotten the bewildering amount of necessities mortals required to survive. He has also forgotten the equally disorienting amount of cultural nuances that comes attached.
Earlier, a young woman had come to him demanding a change in her lodgings. Aethon had initially refused. He had seen no reason to accommodate her request. Her provided living space was adequate for a person of her age and size. The woman had persisted and the Lamenter finally relented solely because had better things to do than argue with a mortal. It was only after, hours later when he was performing a secondary back check, that he realized he had placed her in a room occupied only by the opposite sex.
The Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, created the Astartes to stand with but also apart from His chosen humanity.
Aethon, in the course of caring for these civilians, has felt more apart from His chosen humanity than with.
The Lamenter is fully prepared to admit that this is a character flaw.
He knows what to do with a boltgun. He knows how to kill with a master-crafted power sword. He knows how to conduct lightening raids on enemy positions and hold them when the enemy invariably counterattacks.
Instructing an eleven year old boy on where the nearest water source is so he can brush his teeth is wholly beyond his nature to grasp.
The Guard don't seem to have this problem. It is logical, in a way. They are human soldiers on a predominantly human world with what Aethon presumes to be human sensibilities. By the time the last transport arrives with the final load of refugees, they are full on fraternizing with the locals.
There is evidence of it throughout the firebase and in some cases it is more apparent than others.
As the Lamenter walks, he notes that there is a significant congregation surrounding elements of the 121st Bosphoran Cataphracts.
Bosphorax, before it was consumed by the Kraken, was famed for the Rough Rider regiments it provided in tithe to the Imperium. Her favored warriors were clad in suits of armaplas plate and carried explosive-tipped war lances into battle. Their chosen steed was a native breed called the chai-rusid. Reptilian, ferocious, and undeniably intelligent. They stood on clawed hind legs as thick as a man's waist and used their taloned forelimbs to rip and tear.
There are half a dozen chai-rusid steeds currently in the compound. Every single one of them measures twenty-five feet from the tip of its horned snout to the end of its whip-like tail.
The therapods huff curiously at the hands that are reaching out to touch them and bare fangs at those that are touching too much. Their riders guide them with reins more chains than rope.
Aethon has a healthy respect for the animals. He was there when their world fell.
Two thousand Cataphracts, the garrison left to protect their world, had charged a Tyranid vanguard swarm and utterly annihilated it. Lesser broods were trampled outright. Leader-beasts fell with their chests cracked open by explosive lances. The Bosphoran commander, the Magister Militum, had met the swarm's Hive Tyrant in personal combat while riding a fully grown chai-rusid male and hacked its head clean off its shoulders with an antique power sword.
It was the most splendid thing Aethon had ever seen.
If only there wasn't a second swarm after the first. And a third one. And a fourth.
In the end, the Lamenters had saved the survivors and ushered them into descending Thunderhawk transports, and Bosphorax had become another barren planet, stripped by the unending hunger of the Tyranids.
The chai-rusid seemed to mourn the loss of their homeworld as much as their riders. When travelling through the void, the reptilian mounts would appear sluggish and lethargic in their holding pens. But when unleashed on a foe, they reverted back to their savage, animalistic fury.
Aethon respects them for that. More than anything, they represent humanity's hatred for the extraterrestrial threats that would see its empire fragmented and destroyed.
They are also the only things Aethon has seen that has had any success consuming Grimm flesh.
The Lamenter sergeant strides away from the Bosphoran squad and their throng of admirers. His purposeful gait takes him past crowds of civilians and Guard. More often than not, they are intermixed. He catches a guardsman dressed in the uniform of the Akatran 72nd showing some locals the inner workings of his lasgun. A few feet away, a member of the 15th Lennox Fusiliers in their distinctive feathered shakos is handing out ration bars to the hungry. By his side is a figure clad in the bulky carapace of the Korith Lifeguard. The grenadier's hellgun dangles from a strap on his shoulder. He passes a carton of Lho-Sticks around to a small group of faunus and helps light them when they don't have a fire themselves.
The casual acceptance of the abhumans troubles Aethon's posthuman viewpoint. He has to rethink the concept from their mortal perspective to understand.
These men and women have seen the worst the galaxy has thrown against them in the form of the Tyranids. Compared to the blasphemous bio-forms they have witnessed, a few ears in the wrong places seem to be of little concern.
A series of stomping sounds makes the Lamenter turn. It's a Sentinel Powerlifter. The bipedal machine is designed to carry the immense Manufactorum cargo crates often found in combat supply zones. The mechanical claws attached to its cupola are fully capable of bisecting a power armored Astartes in half.
There are children sitting on the claws. Faunus and human. They are cheering as the Sentinel's pilot propels them at speeds far above regulation.
Aethon's enhanced eyesight picks out the pilot's details. The ochre color of her uniform presents her as a member of the Corallian Planetary Defense Force.
Corallia IV, like Bosphorax, was laid to waste by Hive Fleet Kraken. The Lamenters had been there as well, saving what they could and leaving what they could not.
Theoretically, Aethon wonders if this might be some sort of coping mechanism for the woman. Did she lose sons or daughters on the surface of her doomed homeworld? Younger brothers or sisters perhaps? Is performing this irregular deed a form of penance for those she was forced to leave behind?
Practically, using a Sentinel Powerlifter like this goes against every convention in the book.
The walker slows to a halt when its pilot realizes who is standing in her way. The Lamenter notices her cheeks flushing beneath her eye goggles.
"Lord Astartes!" she stammers from inside the open cockpit, "This… This isn't what it looks like!"
The Space Marine's gaze flickers to the children dangling from the vehicle's power claws then back to the one steering it.
"I do not believe a Sentinel Powerlifter was intended to be used this way, trooper."
"Sir! I'll drop them right away!"
The Sentinel's mechanical arms begin to lower. The children make disappointed noises.
Aethon tilts his head.
"I didn't tell you to stop."
The pilot blinks. A wide grin splits her face.
"Yes, sir!" she leans over the cockpit and pats her walker's armored side, "Alright kiddos! What do you say we go for another lap?"
The children, human and faunus alike, let loose another cheer.
The Lamenter steps aside to let the Sentinel through. He watches the gangly vehicle sprint around the bend and disappear behind a munitions bunker.
Theoretically, he should have disciplined the guardswoman or at the very least, given her a reprimand.
Practically, he notes that the way the children are seated resembles a Bosphoran Cataphract riding his chai-rusid steed.
Morning finds Aethon back in the command center. This time he has his whole squad with him. Dumedion, Malachiel, and Corien. They remain motionless behind their Brother-Sergeant, weapons planted firmly across their chests. Though they can freely express their opinion within the bunker's halls, they do not. They are too awed by the sight of their Brother-Captain, too humbled to be in his esteemed presence.
That and there is a second figure sitting beside Theosius.
He is calm where the captain is almost brooding. A lake of tranquility where the captain is a spring of eternal energy. The arcane form of a psychic hood hangs over his head like an elaborate mantle.
Epistolary Saphriel, Senior Librarian, drums his fingers thoughtfully against the plasteel table. Wherever his ceramite digits land, psychic hoarfrost gathers in scintillating webs.
Aethon has greeted both of the Chapter's senior officers with the degree of respect expected of him. Now he focuses on the reason he is here.
"Is this a joke?" he asks for the second time.
"A joke, Brother-Sergeant," says Theosius, "pertains to something humorous. Do you believe there is something humorous about the orders I have given you?"
"No, Brother-Captain. But I do not understand why we must work with these locals."
"They have been here longer than you and I, brother," Saphriel says gently. The Librarian's soft-spoken tone makes him sound like he's humming, "They know more about the Grimm than we do. Knowledge is information and information is power."
"With respect, Brother-Librarian, I know how to kill Grimm."
Theosius shakes his head. A dark smile finds its way over his lips.
"Do you know what's out there beyond the frontier settlements, sergeant? Besides forests and rocks and Grimm? The answer is nothing, just more Grimm. They farther you go out, the bigger they get. Kill-squads from the First Company has been waist deep in the bastards ever since we landed. They report the same thing. Just to make sure, I sent out reconnaissance teams in Land Speeders on a broad sweep beyond charted territories. They turned back when they encountered their first flock of Nevermores. The smallest one was the size of a Thunderhawk gunship."
Aethon senses a wave of unease pass through his brothers. The Brother-Captain's smile grows darker.
"Killing Grimm has never been an issue. I can do it. You can do it. Even the locals can do it. They've been doing it for close to a thousand years. Am I correct in that, Saphriel? A thousand years?"
The Librarian inclines his head.
"From what I have gleaned from this world's history, yes, Brother-Captain. The indigenous population have been at war with the Grimm for at least a millennium. In all likelihood, it's been several."
"And still they have time to squabble among themselves," the captain directs his gaze back to Aethon, "Did you know that, Brother-Sergeant? Just eighty years ago and the four city-states fought a world war amongst themselves. Vale. Mistral. Atlas. Vacuo. They fought a ruinous war amongst themselves with a threat like the Grimm right on their doorstep. Idiots."
Saphriel chuckles softly.
"I do not believe that is a fair assessment, Brother-Captain. After all, it was the Great War that led them to develop the Communication Towers."
"Yes," grates Theosius, "and if they hadn't fought that war, they would have developed it even sooner. Wasting good human lives while the enemy remains unbroken and unconquered. Only mortals are capable of such lunacy. It is only due to the mercurial nature of their foes that this world's humanity hasn't been made extinct yet."
Aethon takes the silence following his commander's words to interject himself back into the conversation.
"It's true then, what the briefings say. The Grimm have devolved back to their normal behavior."
Theosius fixes him with another stare.
"Devolved is too strong a word to use. But yes, they are no longer massing in significant numbers. They have reverted back to their usual pack mentality."
"A strange quirk," muses Saphriel, "these Grimm creatures possess. There is no objective to their existence. They do not seem to need to eat or sleep. They only go into a berserk state when there are humans or faunus nearby. Beyond that, there is no reason for them to exist. I would not even classify them as beasts. At least with beasts, there is a soul present."
"Every enemy we've fought so far has a motive," Theosius continues where the Librarian left off, "Orks want nothing more than to loot and pillage. Failing that, they revert back to just wanting to fight. The dark elder, curse the fiends, seek to inflict pain wherever and whenever they are. Even the Tyranids have a motive, as blasphemous as it may be. They pursue biomass to feed their Hive Fleets. The Grimm do not have a motive. They simply exist. That is a problem. There is no command structure for us to take advantage of. There is no head for us to decapitate. No spine for us to severe. Killing one Grimm is no more different than killing the next Grimm. They also exist in prodigious numbers."
Saphriel hums thoughtfully and resumes tapping his fingers against the table.
"The locals have a proverb that pertains to this situation. I believe the saying goes; 'As long as there is humanity on Remnant, there will always be more Grimm.'"
"A crude caricature but an accurate one, nonetheless," the Brother-Captain nods, "Which brings us back to the subject matter. We can kill Grimm, sergeant. We can kill them in great amounts. That won't help the people of this world. They've been killing Grimm in greater amounts than we have and for longer than we have. No, to help them we get to the bottom of what makes the Grimm the Grimm. What makes them so numerous. What makes them this persistent in preying on humanity. Where they come from and why they exist at all. The locals will be useful in this regard. These Hunters-in-training will help us answer these theoreticals so that we can arrive at a solid practical. We will use that practical to achieve a permanent solution. I don't just want to kill Grimm, Brother-Sergeant. I want to eradicate them from this world."
Aethon smiles at this rare display of fervor from his commander.
"I understand, Brother-Captain. Squad Aethon will see this noble duty done."
"Good. Because yours will be the first squad oathed out."
The smile abruptly fades from Aethon's face.
"Remember, you're famous now, sergeant. By the weight of your fame, you will lead us by example. Show us the merits of human-Astartes interaction."
Aethon's gaze travels between the composed visages of his commanders.
"Is this punishment?" he asks.
"No, Brother-Sergeant," Theosius smiles thinly, "This is fraternization."
Aethon Squad has been given their orders. They hasten to carry it out.
The objective are the seventeen towns and villages the Lamenters have evacuated civilians from. The Grimm have overrun them and surrounding areas. The problem has been identified and an appropriate solution has been formed.
The response is simple. Seventeen towns and villages are in enemy hands. The Lamenters are going to take them back.
You do not just steal territory from the Emperor's chosen humanity and expect to get away with it. Retribution, Imperial retribution, always arrives. It may take decades to form and centuries to get to its destination, but like the stars themselves, it will always be there.
In the Lamenters' case, Imperial retribution means seventeen squads of the Emperor's Finest, one for each town, descending on Stormraven and Thunderhawk gunships. It means Imperial Guard support, armored and unarmored. Leman Russ Battle Tanks won't traverse through Remnant's forests, but lighter vehicles will. Chimera transports, Hellhound flame tanks, Salamander Reconnaissance Vehicles. Rough Riders and Sentinels too. The faster elements of the Guard were made for terrain like this. Vendettas and Valkyries in the air as a mobile reserve, dropping hardened storm troopers and grenadiers into the fray. And should Grimm packs linger too close to the firebases themselves, then artillery support. The Lamenters' own Whirlwind tanks. Basilisk and Wyvern self-propelled guns. Colossus bombards and Manticore launchers.
Captain Theosius, in the course of the Lamenters' decades-long penitent crusade, has hammered together a cohesive fighting force from a single depleted chapter and dozens of shattered Guard regiments. He's used this force to delay the tendrils of the Kraken on a score of different worlds. Now, he's going to unleash it on the Grimm.
But before operations can proceed, there is the matter of logistics to attend to. The Mater Sanguinem's forges works day and night to churn out war material, but to fully provision the three hundred marines and thousands of guardsmen on the surface is no small feat. Supplies must be carefully doled out and rationed to avoid waste.
Aethon has sent his brothers away for this very purpose. Dumedion and Corien to secure ammunition from the firebase's Armory. Malachiel to assist Sothis with fuel for their Stormraven. Normally this would be work for Chapter serfs and aspirants, but the Lamenters have precious few of the former and none of the latter.
Thirteen years remain until the penitent crusade can be declared officially at an end and the Lamenters can begin recruiting again.
The sergeant's steps take him to the part of the compound where he has stationed the townsfolk he has helped save. He's looking for the controller. Aethon knows the terrain from weeks spent patrolling but there may be hidden places where Grimm could wait in ambush. The controller's knowledge could aid him greatly in prosecuting the war with the beasts.
The Lamenter notes that the refugees he is responsible for have intermingled with civilians from other townships and villages. This is another quality he has discovered about the mortals, much to his chagrin. They don't stay still. The habitation zones carefully laid out for them are often ignored. This has led to instances of civilians becoming lost within the firebase's confines. The duty of retrieving them inevitably falls to the squad leaders who saved them. Aethon has performed this duty no less than four times, with each return journey as insufferable as the last.
It's like herding certain species of felines.
Aethon is not sure where the saying originates from, but he believes the comparison to be an apt one.
The Lamenter's visor display logs familiar faces and records new ones. He sees the children he has saved among them, minus their elder sister. There are two strangers with them. One female, one male. The woman is holding the youngest one tightly to her chest seemingly without the intent to let go. The man is throwing the girl repeatedly up into the air with wild abandon.
Aethon immediately goes into combat alert. The two strangers register as unknowns. They are in close proximity to his former charges and are treating them with what he believes to be hostile force.
The Lamenter moves to intervene. He gauges distances. Judges kill angles. He is linking solid practicals with a working theoretical. The man has tossed the girl into the air again. Aethon calculates that he can get there before the stranger can do it again and stop what is no doubt a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
"Daddy!" the girl laughs as she lands in the man's arms.
Aethon blinks. He stops midstride. The combat haze abruptly dissipates from his mind. He studies the two strangers again. There is a familial resemblance in their facial structure when compared to the children.
The Space Marine relaxes. He glances down to see that his hand has automatically migrated to the boltgun holstered at his hip.
How curiously natural that this was his first reaction.
The Lamenter moves his fingers away from the combi-melta's grip. He also realizes the mistake he has made.
In his haste to intervene, he has stepped into the midst of the refugee gathering. The instinctive part of Aethon's mind is telling him to remove himself from the situation. The analytical part tells him there is no chance. He is in full battle-plate. He is armed and combat ready. He is, by the dint of his profession, different than the civilians around him. There are many things in the vast cosmos that can be mistaken for something else, but there is no mistaking the looming bulk of an Adeptus Astartes warrior.
The fact that he stands two full heads taller than the tallest person present is not helping him in the least.
People are staring at him. Familiar faces. Denizens of the township he helped to save. Where there was once curiosity or interest in their gazes, now there is caution.
In the course of seeing the sights in the firebase and speaking with the guardsmen present, they are at last arriving at the conclusion that he may not just be a particularly large Hunter.
They are waiting for him to make the first move.
Aethon raises an open palm.
"Greetings," he says to them, simply because he can think of nothing else to say.
The girl whispers something into her father's ear. The man sets her down, adjusts his tunic, and walks up to the towering Space Marine.
"You're the one," Aethon detects emotion barely held in check in the man's voice, "You're the one who saved my children."
The Lamenter hesitates.
"Yes," he finally says.
The man offers his hand towards him. Aethon's gaze flickers up to the abhuman ears jutting out of the man's head and then back to the offered limb. Slowly, cautiously, the Astartes extends his own arm and grasps the waiting hand. It takes a conscious effort not to crush the fragile extremities with his posthuman strength.
"Thank you," the children's father whispers.
The Lamenter moves the false-muscles in his suit in accordance with the man's movements. Otherwise, there would be no movements at all.
"You are welcome," he believes that is what he is supposed to say.
The man smiles and releases his grip. He steps back. The woman takes his place. She looks like the one Aethon has saved, except older and grayer.
The Lamenter believes he knows what is expected of him. He holds out his hand for her to shake as well.
The woman steps past the offered hand, past the extended limb, and hugs him. Her arms wrap around his waist in a full on embrace.
Aethon grunts. He is not sure what to do so he remains absolutely still. His arm, still waiting to be shaken, remains frozen horizontally in place, sticking out like a mast. The act itself could not have lasted for more than four or five seconds but to the Space Marine, it seems to go on for an eternity.
When the woman finally lets go, the Lamenter's visor display plants a targeting reticule squarely over her face.
Aethon dismisses the heinous suggestion with a thought-command. That is all he can do for the moment. His mind is still reeling from what had just transpired.
"We didn't want to leave them for that long," he dimly hears the father saying, "But there was no work around. We had to feed our children somehow. We kept sending money back, but it was never enough for all of us. So we kept on delaying coming back."
"We won't make that mistake again!" the mother swears fiercely. She picks up the youngest child and squeezes him once more into her chest, "We'll never leave them alone again!"
"Yes," says Aethon faintly, "Good," he adds in a second later when he realizes a one-word response would likely not suffice.
It is still not enough to keep the conversation going. Predictable silence falls. The Astartes racks his mind for an answer to this conundrum. The solution comes from recent memory and Aethon grasps it.
"Your eldest. How is she?"
Judging from their faces, it was the right thing to ask.
"They say she'll need crutches for several weeks, but after that, it'll be a full recovery."
"I am glad," the Lamenter says for it is true. The exceptional courage the woman showed under duress should be rewarded, not punished with permanent disability.
The mother and father beam. They part to reveal their children. The smallest one is still being held in his mother's arms, which leaves the boy and the girl.
"Greetings," Aethon says again.
The boy does not respond. The girl meets his gaze. There is something akin to anger in her eyes.
"You are very loud," she complains.
The Lamenter automatically triggers the audio dampeners contained behind his snarling faceplate.
"I am more used to shouting," he says.
"You are also very mean!"
"Leina!" her mother exclaims, scandalized.
"It's true! When my big sis was lying down, you yelled at us!"
Aethon does not recall such a thing occurring, but perhaps the vocalizers in his helm made his voice louder than he intended.
"Mr. Dumedion was much nicer! He let me sit on his shoulders! He even told me a story about Sa-gui-nus!"
The Lamenter can't help it. He cannot prevent the small smile from spreading over his face.
"I'm only forgiving you because you carried my sister to safety," the girl continues on imperiously, "But if you do something mean again, Sa-gui-nus will come down and break your back across his knee!"
"We wouldn't want that," replies Aethon, still smiling.
The girl huffs at him and crosses her arms across her chest. Her brother remains silent. The boy hasn't said a word in the course of the entire conversation. But there is something about the way he is standing that suggests he wants to.
The Space Marine's head tilts towards him.
"Is there something you wish to ask?"
The boy finally looks up. He meets the glare of blood-red eye visors. His face is utterly without fear.
"How do I become like you?"
Aethon's gaze travels from the small figure in front of him and onto the audience behind. The parents. The townspeople. The uniformed forms of Imperial Guardsmen, watching where they stand, lasguns slung over their shoulders. They are all silent, waiting for his reply.
The Lamenter turns back to the boy.
He chooses his next words with great care.
The inner compartment of a Stormraven's hull is not meant for non-Astartes personnel. The seat benches and restraint thrones were always intended for posthuman warriors in combat plate.
The size discrepancy makes the figures sitting on them seem even more out-of-place.
There are four of them. Four Huntresses consisting of Team R.W.B.Y., pronounced 'Ruby'. It was the first thing Aethon was informed of after the expected introductions. You do not pronounce a Huntsman or Huntress team by the letters consisting of their names, but by the representation they chose instead.
It is a tradition that has apparently been the norm for some time.
Aethon scans the faces opposite of him. Studies their method of dress. Their outfits are entirely different from one another's. There is nothing to suggest they belong to the same team. No squad markings. No company letters. There is no… uniformity… to them.
They do not look like soldiers. But perhaps that is the point.
The Codex Astartes teaches rigid adherence to the principles of warfare. But it also stresses adaptability as the situation changes.
The people of this world have adapted to a force focused on destroying them for generations. They have evolved beside the Grimm, survived despite them, and as the four major cities attest, even thrived alongside them.
So while their lack of soldierly air bothers his transhuman sensibilities, Aethon remedies the thought with a simple truth.
They, and people like them, are the sole reason why there is still humanity left on Remnant.
For that reason alone, he respects them.
It does not, however, change the fact that the atmosphere inside the compartment is strained.
The two forces, Imperial and Remnant, have greeted each other with as much esteem, deference, and humility as different cultures will allow. They have exchanged perfunctory introductions and remained in uncomfortable silence ever since.
Except for one solitary example.
Her hair is cut short. Her outfit is the same penitence black that covers each and every Lamenter's armor. She is silent as well, but from the way her gaze darts to various parts of the Stormraven, it is clear she doesn't want to be. It's her eyes that makes her stand out, Aethon realizes. They shine like liquid quicksilver. There is also a genuine inquisitiveness in them. An earnest desire to learn.
She is also, quite literally, bouncing on the seat of her restraint throne.
Aethon directs his full attention to her. If he wants to break this stifling silence, he may as well do it with the one most inclined to talk back.
"If you have something to ask, Huntress Ruby, you may ask it."
The girl jumps slightly before realizing what the statement implies. A radiant smile appears over her face.
"Your guns! How do they work!? What do they shoot!? Is it Dust? No of course not, you're from outer space! Unless it's Space Dust! Is there Space Dust? Because if there's Space Dust and nobody told me I'm going to be really mad!"
Aethon blinks. The speed at which those words came out was… impressive. Malachiel turns to him.
"Either my ears failed me or we discovered a language more complex than Low Gothic."
"Again please," he says, "A little bit slower this time."
The girl takes in a deep breath.
"Your guns! How do they work!?"
Corien chuckles. The younger marine seems to be quite taken with her enthusiasm.
"Brother-Sergeant? May I?"
"We are… fraternizing," Aethon pronounces the word slowly, "I don't see a reason why we shouldn't."
The marksman nods and holds up his weapon for her to see.
"This is our primary armament. The Mark Vb Godwyn Pattern Boltgun. Mine has been modified to a certain extent and will not share properties with standard designs, but the underlying principle is the same. Most boltgun models uses a conventional charge to propel the shell out of the chamber at a significant muzzle velocity. This same charge also simultaneously ignites the rocket-propellant located at the base of the round. Once the bolt leaves the barrel it will effectively be under its own self-powered guidance. It will continue on gyrostabilized flight until it reaches its intended target whereupon the warhead will detonate with extreme force."
Ruby takes the explanation in stride. Her fellow Huntresses are less fortunate.
"The what and the what and the what?" the blonde one, Yang, asks.
"Our guns shoot exploding bullets," says Dumedion.
"Gotcha," the huntress flashes him a grin, "Why didn't you say that the first time?"
"I believe that's what Corien meant by 'detonate'," remarks Malachiel.
The Huntress sitting next to Yang furrows her brow. Her hair is the color of Valhallan snow. Aethon recalls that her name is Weiss.
"Your guns. They don't use Dust?"
The Lamenter has heard of this specialized material the locals use. He has not seen it for himself or studied its application in any great detail.
"No," he confirms, "We don't use Dust."
"The rumors were true then," the girl leans forward, "You really are from outer space."
The Lamenter focuses back on Yang.
"How far in 'space'," the blonde makes a hand motion, "are you from?"
"Far. Are you familiar with galactic scale measurements, Huntress Yang? Lightyears. Parsecs."
"Then very far."
A flicker of motion causes Aethon to glance to his side. Ruby, the Huntress's team leader, has bridged the distance between the two squads. She has crossed from the human occupied side of the Stormraven to the Astartes side. She has stopped next to Corien's seated form and has been comparing bullets with him for the past several minutes.
"And that's what we generally use," she has just finished saying, "for smaller Grimm like Beowolves."
"Indeed?" Corien shifts his armored bulk. The marksman pulls out a spare magazine from the pouches strapped to his hip. He flicks out the first shell from the sickle-shaped clip, "This would be our equivalent. A standard bolt round. The head consists of a depleted uranium core with a diamantine tip. See here? That's the mass-reactive fuse. There is a split-second timer built in to delay detonation until after the shot penetrates."
The Lamenter deposits the projectile into Ruby's waiting hand. The girl weighs it in her palm and looks up.
"It's intended for both penetration and stopping power," explains Corien.
"But you said the fuse is mass-reactive right? So the bullet itself knows when to explode? What if there's something in the way? Like a piece of paper and the bullet hits that first? Will it explode before it gets to the target?"
"A fair question," the marksman nods, "The warhead itself is designed to ignore interceding material. In your hypothetical scenario, the bolt round will penetrate the paper and keep on going until it hits something that will trigger its fuse. For the shell to fully detonate, it must strike a target with sufficient mass and weight."
"Like Grimm?" Yang pipes up with a smirk.
"Like Grimm," Corien confirms.
"But that can't be all you have," Ruby hands the shell back, "You must have specialized versions of your kind of bullets," she produces a crystalline structure that glows dimly in the dull light, "This is a Fire Dust crystal. If I inject it into my weapons, it will gain the crystal's properties, in this case fire."
"We have an equivalent for that as well," Corien says. He ejects another shell from his magazine and presents it to the huntress, "This is an Inferno Round. The standard uranium core is replaced by an oxy-phosphorous gel. Its more commonly known name in the Imperium is congealed promethium. The main charge ignites the gel and turns the entire shell into a burning projectile. We use these to immolate our foes with superheated chemical fire."
"And what about things that have armor? Like Alpha Beowolves or Ursa Majors?"
"Kraken Penetrators. The standard uranium core is again replaced, this time by a solid adamantium slug. The main charge used for ignition is also significantly more potent. Kraken shells won't explode, just pierce. But pierce it will. Rounds like these can penetrate anything if given the chance."
"You hear that, girls?" Yang waggles her eyebrows, "They can penetrate anything."
"Yes," Corien says unabashedly, "They most likely can."
The blonde falters.
"That… wasn't the response I had in mind."
Aethon tilts his head to one side.
"What was the response you had in mind?"
"Well… what I meant by penetrate is… you know…" the Huntress turns and notices her comrades watching her with varying degrees of amusement, "Oh don't look at me like that, guys! I had to say it! It was right there on the platter in front of me!'
"What is on the platter?" asks Malachiel.
"You implied that there is something on a platter in front of you. I am asking what is on it."
"No… That's not what I meant. It's not a real platter!"
"Then how can you say there is something on the platter when there is no real platter?"
"Because it's not a real platter!"
"So you are imagining a real platter where none exists?"
Malachiel nods and turns to Aethon.
"Brother-Sergeant. I believe Huntress Yang is suffering from high-altitude pressurized cabin sickness. It is perfectly normal for first time occupants on a Stormraven gunship."
"I'm not sick!"
"But you are hallucinating about imaginary platters," Dumedion points out.
The blonde stares at the trio of Space Marines arrayed before her. The expression on her face is something Aethon can't quite put into words.
"You know what? Let's just forget this entire conversation happened."
"Impossible," grunts Malachiel, "All Astartes possess eidetic memory. We cannot, as you suggest, forget this entire conversation happened."
"Fine! I'll forget this entire conversation happened!"
"Why would you do that?" enquires Aethon.
"Just… Just be quiet for a moment, will you?" the Huntress-in-training sinks her face into her palms, "My head hurts now."
"Does it have anything to do with your imaginary platter?" Dumedion asks kindly.
"So back to your ammunition," Weiss smiles. She seems to have taken great pleasure from her teammate's suffering, "Those Kraken Penetrators. Can they go through vehicles?"
"It will certainly puncture," Aethon replies, "However due to the vehicle's sheer mass, it will most likely not be a mission kill. Heavier vehicles with more armor, will of course, resist penetration altogether."
"Atlas has Paladins and spider-mechs," the huntress says musingly, "They're some of the largest vehicles their military uses."
"For us, heavy vehicle equivalents would be Predator battle tanks. The Guard have their Leman Russes. Anything larger than that would fall into the superheavy category."
"Interesting… I heard my sister say that Atlas has tried making mechs bigger than Paladins, but they get too top heavy in the end. Structural engineering problems with the legs and such."
"There has been a miscommunication in our conversation. Most of our vehicles are not on legs. They are on treads."
"Treads?" Weiss frowns, "Like tractor treads? I mean, they'll do fine inside the city but how would you navigate through all the forests outside?"
"Most worlds don't have this much forest on them."
"Oh right... I forgot… outer space and everything… Just for curiosity's sake, how many worlds are out there? That have people on them?"
"It would depend on how you define an inhabited world. If you only count worlds with major population centers, then the Imperium consists of a million worlds. If you count minor colonies and outposts, then millions."
The Huntress's face pales slightly.
"Millions? As in six zeroes? I didn't think there would be that many... of well… us… out there."
"It is humanity's destiny to rule the stars, Huntress Weiss. If anything, there are too few of us."
The girl smiles slightly at those words. Aethon wonders why. He has not said anything remotely funny.
"Sorry, it's just… a lot to take in."
"It is understandable," the Lamenter nods, "Culture clash. And it is also our mistake. This awkwardness. You must understand that standard First Contact scenarios for the Imperium usually involve very little Astartes presence."
Yang cocks her head to one side, her earlier discomfort seemingly forgotten. Her hair follows the motion, a shining blonde mane.
Dumedion taps his heavy bolter's barrel.
"We are good at shooting things. Not so good at explaining things."
"Oh I don't know about that," Yang grins, "Your friend seems to be having a blast explaining things to my little sis."
Aethon directs his attention back to the two youngest members of their respective squads. There are now two small piles heaped on the bench between the Huntress and Astartes. One consists of various classes of bolt shells. The other is made up of gleaming crystals. The conversation between them has not paused, not even for an instant.
"Larger Grimm are always a problem though. That's why some Huntsmen and Huntresses like to mix different elemental Dust together. For that extra kick."
Corien makes an approving sound.
"We operate under a similar concept. For something that must absolutely die, we use these," the marksman holds up a shell marked by hazard stripes, "This is a Vengeance Round. It contains a volatile core utilizing flux technology. It is specifically designed for coring through the toughest of armors."
"What's it tipped with?" Ruby asks excitedly.
"Vengeance pattern rounds can be tipped with a variety of different warheads. This particular one is equipped with a plasma charge. Once the shell has been sufficiently embedded into the target, the plasma charge will go off, resulting in a heat discharge that can reach temperatures as hot as the sun."
Aethon notes that as Corien's description continues, the girl's expression grows steadily graver. By the time the marksman finishes, her face has become a perfect representation of business-like composure.
"Where and how do I get some?"
A long-suffering sigh from Weiss interrupts the Lamenter before he can respond.
"Do you even know what plasma is?"
"Of course I do," Ruby shoots back, "Corien, tell her what plasma is."
The young marine looks between the two Huntresses awkwardly.
"Plasma," he begins slowly, "refers to the fourth state of matter, separate from gas, liquid, and solid. By utilizing this state, our weaponry can shoot projectiles made from the stuff of small stars."
"Exactly. The stuff of small stars," she turns back to Corien, "Seriously though, where and how do I get some?"
"You do not 'get' plasma, Huntress Ruby. It is a state of matter. You cannot obtain it like you would a bullet or shell. Most types of Imperial plasma weaponry use hydrogen fuel suspended in a liquid state contained in either cell or backpack form. A miniature fusion reactor inside the weapon energizes the hydrogen into a plasma state which is in turn held in place by magnetic containment fields. A plasma warhead on a Vengeance Round harnesses only a small dose of that potential power. A plasma gun is a much more complicated form of machinery."
"I have no idea what you just said," mutters Yang.
Ruby taps her chin in thought.
"Well, if the ammunition is being held in a containment field, there has to be a device that produces something out of it," the girl's eyes light up, "My guess would be some type of accelerator. The fields spread open when you pull the trigger and the accelerator ejects a part of the ammunition out as a solid projectile. The accelerator will probably be linear because you don't want the projectile to curve. It'll probably be magnetic too just because the containment fields are magnetic."
"Precisely," Corien nods. The young marine leans back, as though he is viewing her in a new light, "That was a remarkably accurate summation of how plasma weaponry works, Huntress Ruby."
The girl beams.
"Too bad you don't have one with you. I would love to see one up close."
"That is not entirely accurate," the marksman corrects, "Malachiel is our squad's specialist. He is the one with the plasma gun."
Ruby's head swivels to stare at the aforementioned marine with alarming speed. The look in her eyes, Aethon notes, has become vaguely predatory.
"Brother-Sergeant," Malachiel's voice filters through the squad's vox channel a split-second later, "The way she is staring at me is quite disturbing."
"She's not staring at you, Mal," Dumedion supplies helpfully over the same link, "She's staring at your weapon."
"That makes it even more disturbing."
"Speaking of disturbing," Dumedion chuckles. He tilts his head imperceptibly to the side. Aethon follows the motion until his gaze rests on the one figure who has remained silent throughout the course of the fraternization.
"Is there a reason I have been your sole focus of attention for the entire duration of this trip, Huntress Blake?"
To the girl's credit, she doesn't jump at the sudden question. Her eyes blink once. There is something undeniably feline about the motion.
"You're the one I saw on my scroll," she says, "The one who saved those people."
"Saving people is what we were made to do," Aethon says diplomatically.
"But you're the one who went back for the woman and children."
"I did," the Lamenter allows, "and it was my honor to do so."
The Huntress smiles slightly. A small upwards curl around the corner of her lips. It is so small and slight that Aethon is not sure if it was there in the first place.
"That's all I needed to know."
Grinning, Yang nudges her in the side with her elbow. Aethon notices the strange interaction and frowns. If there is some hidden meaning behind the motion, it is alien to him.
He will never get a chance to ask. Sothis's voice ripples through the Stormraven's onboard vox.
"Destination within view. Prepare to disembark in five minutes."
Blake raises an immaculate eyebrow.
"A journey like this would usually take a few hours on a Bullhead," she states matter-of-factly.
Sothis's laughter is a rough, barking sound that is almost lost in static interference.
"You are on a vessel capable of transferring between void and atmospheric flight. Speed was never an issue."
Gunfire sounds. Long booming retorts. Jaune Arc hears it rolling in the distance like muffled thunder. The resemblance is so uncanny that the Student-Huntsman almost expects it to rain.
He turns to his team. Nora and Ren, standing slightly to the side. Pyrrha, just behind him. She meets his gaze and offers him a gentle smile.
"I think this is where we're supposed to meet," he says to them.
Ren gives him an inscrutable look.
"That means either they're late or we're lost."
Nora bounces on the balls of her feet.
"They have a spaceship, don't they? How can you be late when you have a spaceship?"
Jaune isn't listening. He's listening to something else entirely.
"You hear that?"
"Sounds like engines," she says, "Their ship maybe?"
"Can't be a ship."
"Why's that?" asks Nora.
Figures appear on the distant skyline. They loft up from the forest canopy in synchronous motion. Plumes of flame erupt from their backs.
"Because there's four of them," answers Jaune.
Nora sees them too. She tugs excitedly on her teammate's sleeve.
"Jump packs," the boy replies, "Interesting."
The figures cross the distance between them and the student team in great, bounding leaps. Even at this range, Jaune can see the bulky armor they are clad in. But there is no clumsiness in their movements. No ungainliness that should come inherent in a suit of such heavy plate.
They move with the grace and fluidity of warriors honed and dedicated to their craft.
"They have chainsaw swords," a fierce light shines in Nora's eyes, "Chainsaw. Swords."
"Blake has a chainsaw sword," Pyrrha reminds her.
"Yeah but that's a blade. Those. Those are swords."
Jaune is forced to agree. As the warriors propel themselves closer, the weapons they carry come into full view. The blades in their fists are more man-sized than sword-sized. They look fully capable of carving a Beowolf in half with a single swing.
They are also dripping with Grimm blood.
Jaune instinctively swallows. That explains why they are late.
The giants close the remaining distance with one last soaring bound. Their jump packs flare with blue-tinged fire as they descend. The impact is meteoritic. The ground craters where they land, expelling a physical shockwave that blasts in all directions.
Dust gusts back into the faces of the student team.
"Well," says Ren, "that's one way to make an entrance."
Jaune blinks away the grit threatening to clog his eyes.
"What should we say to them? I don't think 'Hello, welcome to Remnant' is going to do."
"We should draw upon what our professors taught us," says Pyrrha, "What we've learned from our classes."
"Our classes didn't exactly tell us how to talk to aliens," Jaune mutters.
"No, no guys, I've got it," Nora declares, "I know exactly what's going to happen. They're going to ask us to take them to our leader, we say no, and everything's going to snowball from there!"
"I don't think we should take the plot of Alien Grimm from Outer Space as an example on how to deal with extraterrestrial life," Ren says dryly.
The giants rise from their knees. Jaune sees strange sigils marked across their plate. Twin-headed eagles with outstretched wings soaring over broad chests. Teardrop emblems sculpted onto legs and greaves. Bleeding hearts etched onto immense shoulderplates. And all of it, across a backdrop of armor blacker than the blackest of nights.
There is no… individuality to them, the Student-Huntsman realizes. No uniqueness. Not that they are all the same. One wears a helm that, instead of the snarling face-grille, ends in a beak-like muzzle. Another, instead of pistol and blade, carries a long-snouted firearm with an underslung canister. A taper of flame flickers sinisterly at the end of the burned, charred barrel.
Jaune knows that behind the armor, there must be an individual. But together, standing there in squad strength, they look almost identical. They look like mirror sculpts molded by the same sculptor. They look like batch machines made on the same factory line.
They look like they could not be more different than the Student-Huntsmen waiting to greet them.
The lead giant steps towards them. In his hands he holds the biggest hammer Jaune has ever seen.
Behind him, Nora makes a sound that can vaguely be construed as squeeing.
"You are Team J.N.P.R.?" the giant addresses them. His voice is a deep, guttural rumble.
"Yes," Jaune says for a lack of better things to say, "And it's pronounced Juniper."
"Team Juniper," the giant repeats solemnly, "I am Sergeant Braellin. I lead the noble warriors of Assault Squad Braellin, bound by oath to the 4th Battle Company of the Lamenters Chapter of Adeptus Astartes."
He hefts the massive hammer over his shoulder as easily as a child would lift a stick.
"It is my understanding that we are to kill Grimm together?"
Coco Adel's first impression of the spacemen's gunship is that it looks like a brick. A brick with wings. A brick with wings, that must be said, possesses an impressive number of guns.
The transport idles in the clearing, ramp down and engines still running.
There is a statue waiting for them at the end of the ramp. Broad of shoulder and tall of height, it stands near the idling ship at parade ground rest. One of its arms carries a hefty, twin-barreled firearm. The other ends in an immense, oversized gauntlet. The clenched fingers thrum with stored energy.
Coco turns her head to look at her team. They shrug at her. The second year student turns back, adjusts the cap on her head, and begins marching towards the gunship.
It dawns on her just how big the statue is as they draw close.
Yatsuhashi, the tallest member of her team, stands at exactly seven feet. Placed next to this giant and he would reach its chin.
The second year team slows to a halt. There is a moment of awkward silence. And then the statue proves that it's not a statue at all by moving its head.
"Team C.F.V.Y.?" the voice that comes out the menacing helm is a static-laced growl. It also pronounces each and every letter of the team name like a word.
"That's us," Coco answers, "But it's Team Coffee."
"Team Coffee," the giant says without a hint of breaking stride, "We are expected at Sector Ajax to support an advance of Guard armor and Chapter vehicular assets. If you will follow me?" the giant begins to move towards the transport. He turns back when he realizes Team CFVY haven't budged an inch, "Is there something wrong?"
Coco lifts her sunglasses away from her eyes.
"Look, buddy. I don't know where you come from, but on this world, the last thing we do when strange men in strange armor tell us to get on their ship is to get on their ship."
The giant's helm cocks to one side, as though its wearer is actually considering the issue.
"If you put it that way, I can see where a problem might arise," the malevolent red visor slits focus back on her, "You want assurances."
"I want to know why we should get on your ship."
The giant nods.
"Theoretical. An Imperial Guard armored column along with our own Chapter vehicles are mounting an attack on a significant enemy concentration at Sector Ajax. A victory at that location will guarantee we secure the greater area. Practical. You get on our ship. We fly you to the destination. We kill a lot of Grimm together."
Coco sets her sunglasses back over her eyes. She moves past the giant and heads towards the ramp leading to the flying brick that is his transport.
"You should have said that in the first place."
Velvet takes the lull in conversation to step forward.
"Um, excuse me. But are you the one I saw on the news?"
Coco finds it hard to hide her smile, but tries to anyway. Ever since that video came out, the faunus girl had saved it to her scroll and viewed it multiple times. Every time Cardin or some other prejudiced student had insulted her, the rabbit-eared girl would retreat back to her bunk and watch the recording again as though she could draw strength from it.
"You speak of Brother-Sergeant Aethon," is the reply she receives, "He and his squad have already been oathed out to another team."
Velvet's ears droop.
The giant's helm tilts again.
"Does our selection for this joint undertaking disappoint you?"
Velvet blinks, realizes what she just implied, and hastily shakes her head.
"Oh no! I didn't mean it like that!"
Coco halts at the entrance of the gunship. There are four other giants in the transport, sitting on benches that look more like thrones than seats. They are holding weapons equally as big and equally as broad as them.
The lead giant, the one that spoke to them, strides past her. He turns on the ramp leading into the hull and faces the student team.
Coco has the distinct impression that he is smiling behind his helm.
"Whether you mean it or not, Devastator Squad Matreus will strive not to be disappointing."
Dumedion swings his heavy bolter around to face a flanking force of Grimm. He squeezes the firing stud. Mass-reactive rounds belch out. The Grimm cease to exist under the deluge of shells. Spent casings sprinkle down in a continuous brass rain.
"Huntress Yang!" he calls out, "I cannot support you if you continue to advance this far ahead of me!"
The blonde Huntress's blood is up. She has forged a significant distance between herself and the Space Marine. Smoking, disarticulated corpses marks the savagery of her progress.
"Then try and keep up!" is her snarled, uncaring answer.
Dumedion sighs. Then he moves.
The Lamenter accelerates from rest. The process is near instantaneous. One second he is firing from the hip, feet braced against the ground. The next second he is moving at top velocity, a black and metal blur. Huge muscles move huge mass at huge inertia.
A bounding Beowolf gets in his way. It's trying to get at the Huntress, not him. The Lamenter has crossed a span of distance at such an accelerated pace that the beast's feverish brain still believes him to be at his original position.
Dumedion sets his shoulder and slams into it. The Grimm becomes a decoration plastered against his immense pauldron. Its claws scrabble uselessly against the Astartes' formidable battle plate.
Yang senses them coming. There is something about a Space Marine moving at full stride that simply can't be ignored. She is turning, her Huntress perception warning her of significant mass moving at significant speed.
Dumedion passes her before she can complete the turn. He angles his armored bulk for a rock outcropping twice as tall and twice as wide as him. He lowers the shoulder with the Beowolf attached and barges into the outcropping at full tilt.
Pulverized rock blast in all directions. The Lamenter waits for the dust to settle before stepping back. He leaves an inglorious splatter against the outcropping's stone surface. An inglorious splatter that was once Grimm.
He turns to see Yang staring at him. The girl is watching mulched Beowolf remains dribble down his armor with fierce relish.
There is something akin to admiration in her eyes.
"Oh yeah," she grins, "you and I are going to get along just fine."
Malachiel lowers the magno-binoculars. It is Astartes issue, high power, long distance. Meant for Scout squads attached to Chapter Battle Companies. The Lamenters don't have any more Scouts so reconnaissance equipment is doled out to line brothers.
He hands it to the figure kneeling by his side.
"Nevermores. Flock. Significant concentration."
Ruby takes the binoculars from him. She brings the vision magnifiers up to her eyes. The device clicks and whirr in her hands.
"I see them."
Malachiel nods. The Space Marine fiddles with the line-feed on his plasma gun.
"There's a lot of them. Small Nevermores might not be much to look at but they're dangerous when they gather in numbers. The big ones are dangerous all by themselves. I don't see any big ones though," she passes the binoculars back to him, "I think we should use area of effect weapons. Something that will thin the flock down with each shot."
The Lamenter smiles slightly behind his helm. This Huntress leader, small and diminutive she may be, has impressed him with her quick-thinking and tactical acumen.
She turns to him.
"We don't have any area of effect weapons."
"Not strictly true. I have krak and frag charges. A krak grenade's explosion is concentrated so it won't be much use. But a fragmentation charge should suffice."
Ruby shakes her head.
"Won't work. Nevermores are too quick and agile. Especially the small ones. If you have a rocket or missile, yeah. But a grenade won't work. You'll have to time it so it detonates in the air and that's provided the Grimm don't disperse first."
Malachiel nods again, yielding to the Huntress's greater experience.
"Worse comes to worse," she continues, "we take them out one by one. But it's a pain and also a waste of Dust."
"It won't come to that," the Lamenter hefts his plasma weapon, "This is known as the Sunfury pattern for a reason. There are secondary and tertiary firing modes that can allow it to be our area of effect weapon."
Ruby's head immediately swivels. Her face visibly brightens as she stares at the plasma gun.
"It has different firing modes!?"
The Lamenter brings an index finger to the snarling face-grille of his helm, the universal symbol for quiet.
"Oh right," the Huntress lowers her voice, "Ambush. Sorry. Got excited."
"Outburst aside, yes, it has different firing modes."
"You'll need to attract them though," the girl says, serious once more, "Smaller Grimm may not be that bright, but they aren't stupid either. One of us is going to have to be the one who get their attention."
"You mortals call this duty 'bait' do you not?"
"Yep! Which is why I'll go. I'm fast enough that if things go pear-shaped I can get out without a problem."
Malachiel blinks behind his faceplate.
"What do the shapes of fruit have anything to do with the situation?"
"Pear-shaped! You know. When things go wrong they go pear-shaped. You guys don't have a saying like that in outer space?"
"There is no passage in the Codex Astartes that makes a correlation between a combat scenario gone suboptimal and the physical profile of fruit, Huntress Ruby."
"Okkkaaayyy. Moving on. I'll be the bait and you spring the ambush."
The Lamenter looks down at this fifteen-year-old girl, discussing, of all things, tactics with him. There is a lesson that is be learned here, he decides. That in the inescapable vastness of the cosmos, not all courage belongs to the Emperor's Finest.
"Your insistence for this duty is admirable," he says to her, "but this is Astartes work. It is a matter of honor and obligation. I shall draw the Grimm in."
"But you're the one with the plasma gun."
"Correct. I am the one with the plasma gun. I don't necessarily need to be the one who fires it."
The Huntress's eyes gleam with excitement as the implication sinks in.
"You'll let me shoot it!? Just like that!? Most students at Beacon don't let me near their stuff! I mean, sure, I give them a couple hundred pointers on how to improve their weapons but I'm just trying to help, I swear!"
"A Space Marine's weapon is his life, Huntress Ruby," Malachiel says solemnly, "It is his instrument to dispense divine wrath onto the enemies of mankind. That is the theoretical side of things. But a weapon is also an implement of war, a tool made to be used. That is the practical side. Theoretical has its place in textbooks and holy writ. Practical is what matters on the battlefield. There is also a second reason. An overcharged burst from the plasma gun will kill most of the Grimm, but not all," he shows her the frag grenade he's unclipped from his belt, "I need to be closer to throw these."
Ruby frowns at the pineapple-shaped charge in the Space Marine's hand.
"Delayed explosives won't work," she repeats.
"They will if we take the delayed factor out of the equation."
Realization dawns over her face. Malachiel tilts his head towards the weapon lying prone in her lap.
"How good of a shot are you with that transforming rifle?"
Weiss Schnee is not surprised that she is holding conversation with the eight-foot tall superhuman giant. She is surprised, however, that the nature of the conversation is almost cordial.
"If you are the heiress of the Schnee Dust Company," the Astartes, Corien, is saying, "then there must be a certain set of responsibilities entailed to you."
"There is. Sometimes I get lost in it all," the snow-haired Huntress furrows her brow, "Are there factories in the Imperium? There has to be if there's a million worlds in it."
"Manufactorums exist throughout the Imperium ranging from civilized worlds to hive worlds, Huntress Weiss," Corien replies politely, "Of course, the largest manufactorums will always be on forge worlds."
"Imagine a planet where every conceivable resource is dedicated to the fires of industry. That is a forge world. As you can imagine, they all tend to be heavily polluted."
"That doesn't sound like a very nice place to live."
"It helps when the people living on them don't require clean air to breathe."
Weiss mulls over the mental image and decides she doesn't like it one bit.
"What would Remnant count as then?" she asks to hide her distaste.
"Astartes do not usually determine what a world is or is not," her companion says musingly, "That is the duty of the Adeptus Terra. However, if you were to ask for my personal opinion, I would consider Remnant to be a mix between a civilized world and a death world. Civilized world because of the four main cities. Death world because of the Grimm."
"I'm not going to like the explanation for a death world, am I?"
The marksman chuckles. Or at least Weiss thinks he does. It's hard to tell with static interference marring the sound.
"Imagine a world where everything from the local fauna to the atmosphere itself is hazardous to human life. That is a death world. If you want an example, look no further than Fenris, home to our fellow Chapter, the Space Wolves. In the winter, the arctic wind is cold enough for a man to freeze to death in seconds. In the summer, volcanic fire erupts with enough heat to scald flesh from bone."
The heiress wrinkles her nose.
"That sounds awful. Who would be insane enough to live there?"
This time, Weiss is sure the big Marine is chuckling.
"Fenrisians are generally not known for their grasp on reality or sanity, Huntress Weiss."
Weiss shakes her head. She is about to ask for more details when Corien's sloped helm suddenly snaps up. She immediately tenses as well. It's not the first time the Astartes has done something like this. There are sensors built into his suit or at least his helm. The heiress is sure of it. It makes him impossible to ambush, as a multitude of Grimm have had the recent misfortune to find out.
A few heartbeats later and the Lamenter relaxes.
"A significant concentration of Nevermores is in our general vicinity," he explains, "Brother Malachiel has voxed that he is aware of the situation and will take care of it."
"Wait! Ruby's with him! We have to go help!"
Corien meets her stare with the crimson eye lenses embedded into his helm.
"When a Brother says he will do something, we trust that he will do all in his power to accomplish the deed. Do you trust your fellow Huntress, Huntress Weiss?"
"I do. But-"
"Then perhaps it would be better to see what she comes up with before deciding she needs help."
Off in the distance, Weiss sees the immense form of an Astartes moving into a clearing. She sees the Nevermores too, a flock of lesser Grimm circling in the air. The biggest is only the size of a human torso, but there are several hundred of them.
"If anything happens to her," she says beneath her breath, "I'll make you pay."
"Normally that would be a threat," Weiss is not surprised at all that the giant heard, "But I understand that in a scenario like this, mortals are prone to making threats they do not mean."
The Marine in the clearing doesn't have the bulky weapon he had in the gunship, Weiss realizes. Instead he has a pistol, brutish and ungainly-looking. He begins blasting at the Nevermores soaring above his head.
The Grimm immediately react. All of them dive towards the lone figure, a cawing, cacophonous mob. Malachiel continues shooting, unperturbed by the flock's sheer volume. His pistol is killing several with each explosive shot but he's not making a dint in their numbers. Shadowy avian shapes take the place of those killed. They are packed so tightly together that the flock resembles a solid black mass.
Weiss hears the sound of the plasma gun charging before she can see it fire. A keening, teeth-rattling whine. The Grimm hear it too. The entire flock hesitates in the air, a split-second pause as they try to decipher what it is. Their hesitation makes them an easier target.
A beam of scintillating heat, bright as a sunflare, erupts from a concealed position a hundred yards away from Malachiel. It punches a ragged hole through the Grimm formation, shearing through the Nevermore mass with the fury of an exploding star.
The flock recoils. The creatures wheel and drift in the air. They are dealing with the physical shock that half their number has just been incinerated in the blink of an eye.
Malachiel hurls something into their midst. A hand-sized object that flips end over end.
A grenade, Weiss thinks disbelievingly. Why a grenade? Against an aerial enemy, no less. You have to time the charge. You have to make sure that it detonates at the right instant or it's a waste. Then she hears the unmistakable crack of Crescent Rose in its rifle form.
A fiery streak rushes from the ground to meet the grenade. A Dust round. Element, fire. It catches the fragmentation charge at the zenith of its parabolic flight and when it is in the thick of a congregation of disoriented Grimm.
A flash of light. A thunderous boom.
Nevermores fall from the sky like leaves in an autumn forest. Shredded. Perforated. Turned inside out by the explosion's sheer, concussive force.
"Interesting," she hears Corien say musingly by her side, "Flakk missiles are one way to deal with aerial foes. They don't have flakk missiles but if they can replicate its effect, then the result is much the same."
Malachiel has two more grenades. He hurls them into the thickest concentration of flying creatures he can find. In response, two more fiery streaks rush out to meet the spinning, pirouetting charges. The successive detonations eradicate any semblance of formation left in the Grimm.
The remainder take to the air. There's not more than a couple dozen of them now. A pitiful few compared to the vast flock that had existed a few seconds ago. It doesn't stop their killers from continuing to kill them.
More cracks sound out from Ruby's position. Normal Dust rounds. She knocks Nevermores out of the sky like a contestant at a shooting gallery. Malachiel too. The Lamenter has his pistol in a two-handed, marksman's grip. He blasts Grimm down out of the air with contemptuous ease.
It's not a battle anymore, Weiss thinks. It's a mop up. A slaughter. But that was the intent from the start, she realizes. A predetermined, tactical plan.
It is methodical. It is efficient. It is how Astartes, with Huntsmen support, wage war.
"Well," she finally says, "That was… something."
Her companion makes a noncommittal noise.
"It was also kind of anticlimactic at the end."
Corien turns to look at her. He shrugs his immense shoulders.
"Most successful missions are."
The Huntress is fast, Aethon is forced to admit. Faster than the elite Eldar Aspect Warriors the Lamenters have fought on occasion and fast enough that the auto-sensors in his helm have to work twice as hard to keep up.
She dodges the Beowolf's clumsy strike, runs up the trunk of a nearby tree, and bridges the distance between herself and the Grimm with a flying leap. She lands on the creature's shoulders and inserts the tip of her blade directly into its skull. The Beowolf falls like a felled oak. Its killer springs off its shoulders and hits the ground. Utterly poised. Utterly composed.
It is hard not admire such confidence in a warrior, even if she is a faunus.
For that is what she is. She has hidden her abhuman ears in quite the clever way, but a Space Marine's visor display is not easily fooled.
She strides up to him and in the process, sheathes her sword. She looks up at him as though if waiting for his judgment.
"I believe that's called showing off," Aethon says to her.
Blake gestures to the sundered bodies slowly disappearing around the Lamenter's feet.
"And you're not?"
"Astartes do not show off, Huntress Blake. We merely do our duty, as given to us by the Emperor and our Primarch. Killing a few foes with a slight flourish falls solely within the parameters of that duty."
"That's a lot of words to say 'we do too'."
Aethon lets out a grunt.
"That is the idea."
The girl revolves slowly in place, surveying the Grimm they have killed together.
"Is that all of them?"
Aethon's auto-sensors are already scanning their surroundings. The data they feed him presents a stark truth.
The beast shows itself. It emerges from the shadowy undergrowth, the Alpha of the pack they just butchered. It's a Boarbertusk. It is enormous. Its body alone would outsize and outmass a Chimera Armored Personal Carrier.
"This might be problematic," Aethon admits.
Blake is moving before he can finish the sentence. The Huntress surges towards the newly revealed foe, fast as a dart. Her blade is already unsheathed. She ducks under the immense tusks swinging to meet her and begins slashing at the Grimm's side with surgical precision. It's like trying to cut a brick with a pin.
The Lamenter realizes her plan instantly. She's trying to give him a good shot. Where the beast is least armored and most vulnerable.
His boltgun is up in the blink of an eye. He begins putting explosive rounds into the Boarbatusk's flank. Bolt shells detonate against the creature's rear and sides. They do negligible damage. Such is the Grimm's massive bulk that rounds fully capable of turning a man's chest into pink mist are only creating flesh wounds.
In the course of a second, Aethon has succeeded in expending half a magazine against the Boarbatusk with little to no effect. He's also succeeded in pissing it off.
The creature turns to face him. The massive tusks, long and elongated, look like they can impale a human being with ludicrous ease. The Lamenter wagers they won't go through Astartes plate, but he doesn't want to find out. It charges him, tusks lowered like the couched lance of some feudal world knight.
Aethon switches to his combi-weapon's underslung melta barrel. It can slag the armored hulls of tanks. It can slag this charging monstrosity just as well.
A blast of heat erupts from his weapon. The Boarbatusk dodges it. It doesn't dodge the blast itself but it dodges his aim. It throws itself out of the way of the melta beam and resumes the charge with a swiftness and dexterity that should not be possible for a creature of its size.
Backlash from the melta beam washes over it. Secondary heat waves ignite skin and flesh.
It is on fire when it slams into the Space Marine.
Aethon grunts as he takes the full impact. He's drawn the power sword from his side. He seizes one of the tusks with his hand and rams the Praetor pattern blade hilt-deep into the Boarbatusk's shoulder. The Alpha snorts. Its response to four and a half feet of master-crafted steel stuck into its body is to continue trying to gore him.
The Lamenter has no choice but to wrap his sword hand around the second tusk. He is forced to leverage his own superhuman strength against the Alpha's. It is a contest he is not sure he can win. The immense pressure to his front is like trying to prevent being dragged under the treads of a Leman Russ Battle Tank.
Aethon grits his teeth and looks up. The Grimm's beady red eyes glare into his own. There is a well of soulless hatred in them that the Space Marine cannot quite describe.
Blake leaps onto its back. The faunus Huntress soars over the hulking creature to land on its spine. The flames that have fully enveloped the Alpha's left side casts flickering shadows over her face. She begins plunging her blade repeatedly into the Boarbertusk's shoulders and neck. It does absolutely nothing.
Aethon sees the issue immediately. Gambol Shroud may be a fine weapon but its length and girth are too short and too thin to hit anything vital. Its owner is stabbing it repeatedly into the Alpha with no measurable effect.
The Lamenter brings all of his strength down on the Grimm's head. He mashes the tusked, toothed skull into the ground. The Boarbertusk fights him, fights his grip. Aethon smashes a fist into its face to keep it down.
He's stunned it only for a second. Perhaps even less that. But it is enough for him to drag his power sword free from the creature's shoulder.
The Lamenter hurls it straight up.
The girl catches the weapon by the hilt. She raises the gleaming sword high above her head and rams it tip first into the base of the Boarbertusk's skull.
The Alpha makes a squealing sound. It starts quivering as the figure on its back sinks the full length of the Praetor pattern power sword into its head. Aethon feels the pressure to his front relent. He lets go of the tusk.
The Grimm takes a faltering step forward. And then another. And then another.
A part of Aethon marvels at what he is seeing.
Despite the four and a half feet blade skewering its brain, the creature is still standing. Still moving. Single-minded stubbornness is keeping it alive when functionally it is deader than dead.
To get it to finally stop moving, Blake has to withdraw the entirety of the power sword and ram it again into a different portion of the Boarbatusk's skull. Then it keels over. Then it dies.
The Huntress leaps off the immense corpse. She hands Aethon back his sword and steps back to admire their handiwork.
"That's the biggest Boarbertusk I've ever seen," she says.
The Lamenter notes that she is slightly out of breath.
"You'll see bigger ones," he says back.
Blake raises an eyebrow.
"And you know this because?"
Aethon flicks the gore off his blade with a jerk of his wrist. Droplets of blood land on the forest floor and immediately start dissolving.
"Because with the way this universe works, there will always be bigger ones."
They reach the edge of the cliff in good time. Below them is a hundred-foot drop, not easily scaled, but doable. Beyond that is a relatively straightforward path to the town Aethon Squad has been assigned to.
The Lamenters stand at the cusp of the ledge. Besides the visual feed their helms' sensors present them with, bursts of data stream in from other sources. Pict-scans from the Mater Sanguinem's long distance augurs. Fellow Astartes squads relaying kill-counts and enemy concentrations. Auspex returns from Imperial Guard vehicles in close support. Together they form a picture of the greater battle that is continuously updated by the Chapter's data net.
For data is information and information is key. That is a crucial tenant of the Codex Astartes, written so many eons ago by the hand of a demi-god.
What to do with that information is locked behind the ceramite plate of each and every Space Marine. The Emperor didn't create the Astartes to be just brute warriors. Behind the genetic template of every battle-brother is a posthuman mind molded and shaped to inherently understand the facets of war. Information and data are vital for winning it.
Aethon has served his Chapter with distinction for three hundred years. He is a veteran, rewarded for his experience with the command of his own squad. He knows what to do with the information.
The Lamenters turn from the ledge. They walk back to their allies, the Huntsmen team they were assigned to.
Aethon hesitates as they halt.
There is a cultural issue at work here that may prevent him from accomplishing his duty. These Huntresses are outside the chain of command. Technically the Imperial Guard are too, but when the Emperor's own angels suggest you do something, you do it. There is no such equivalence on Remnant.
The truth of the matter is; he cannot order them. He must persuade them.
Persuasion for Astartes means telling how it is and what it is in as few as words as possible. Aethon does the same here.
"There is a horde of Grimm heading our way," he says without preamble, "We have fifteen minutes before they arrive at our position."
Blake looks up at him.
"How do you know that?"
"Pict-captures from the Mater Sanguinem. They have the unfortunate tendency of always showing the truth."
"The Mater Sanguinem?" Weiss repeats the unfamiliar words, "Is that your spaceship?"
"Does your spaceship have guns on it?" asks Ruby, eyes alight.
"A spaceship without guns is neither a ship nor worthy of space," Dumedion grunts.
"I knew it! The guns! Please tell me they're big!"
"They're big," says Corien.
"The Mater's Bombardment Cannons fire shells the size of small buildings," Malachiel informs her.
Ruby makes a sound that Aethon cannot quite decipher.
"The size of small buildings," she turns and mouths to her sister.
Yang pats her affectionately on the back. She directs her question towards Aethon.
"The Grimm. How many are there?"
"What is your concept of many, Huntress Yang?"
"I don't know. Dozens? Hundreds?"
"More than that."
"There is also a serious aerial contingent following the Grimm on the ground," Malachiel inputs.
"Nevermores," says Weiss distastefully.
"Those and others as well. What do you call the ones with four legs and wings?"
The girls share a look.
"Griffons," says Blake.
"If there really is that many," Weiss begins cautiously, "maybe we should wait for real Huntsmen before we do anything."
Aethon looks curiously at her.
"Are you not real Huntsmen?"
"No… not exactly. We're students."
"There is a difference?" asks Dumedion.
"Yes? We haven't graduated yet. I mean you guys don't instantly become… whatever you are, right?"
"There is a process to become what we are," agrees Aethon, "and there is certainly a difference between an initiate and a full battle-brother. But a Scout Marine is still a Marine. He is still a capable warrior in his own right. He is still Astartes. Likewise, you may not have undergone the final trials, but you are in the process of it. You are out here in the Wild when others are in the safety of their homes. In that sense, you are already Huntsmen."
Weiss smiles slightly. Aethon notices that she's standing a little bit taller, a little bit prouder.
"I guess that's one way to put it."
"What do you need us to do?" questions Ruby, focused and alert.
"Do you have a way to access a topographical display of the surrounding area?"
"You mean a map?" Yang blurts out.
"I mean a map."
"We do on our scrolls but they're no longer updating," replies Weiss, "Out here on the frontier, connection can get spotty. And that's if the Grimm haven't knocked down the support towers. With an incursion this size," she takes a moment to look around, "they most likely have."
"Then we do this the old fashioned way," Aethon turns to Corien, "Knife."
The marksman unsheathes his combat blade and hands it to his Brother-Sergeant.
The Lamenter kneels in front of them. He uses the tip of the combat knife to begin scrawling shapes into the dirt.
"This is the town. Here are the cliffs on both sides," after a second of hesitation, Ruby joins him in kneeling, followed by Yang. Blake and Weiss remain standing, peering down, "There is a river to the back screened by considerable tree growth and vegetation. This mark is where we are currently located. Knowing this, what is your prognosis of the terrain?"
"There's only one way in through the front," says Blake, "and one way out through the back. The cliffs prevent anything else."
Aethon nods appreciatively.
"At this moment, a significant concentration of Grimm is converging at the mouth of the valley," the Lamenter points to the upper part of the crude diagram he's drawn, "The cliffs on both sides will funnel them into the gorge. They can't go backwards. The path is blocked by our own Chapter elements along with Imperial Guard assets."
"So they're running?"
"Running is too far strong a word, Huntress Yang. A more accurate term is 'herded'. They can't face our firepower head on so they converge in a direction where there is no firepower present. If we allow them to continue unimpeded, they will surge through the valley and follow the river until they reach the tree line. Once they're in the forest, they will disperse back into packs and scatter all over the area. It will make them that much harder to cleanse. Their continued existence will also be a threat to settlements in the entire sector for the foreseeable future. That cannot be allowed."
"But what can we do?" presses Weiss.
Aethon taps the scrawled rectangle in the middle of the illustration.
"The Grimm only rarely attack structures, correct?"
"Right," says Yang, "They'll most likely ignore this town because nobody's there."
"But what if there is? What if they enter the gorge to discover that there is a living presence garrisoning the town? What do you think they will do?"
"They'll attack," Ruby says instantly and looks up, "Because that's what the Grimm always do when there are people around. Attack."
"Precisely. Their bestial nature will be their downfall. If we shut the town's gate and man its walls, we present a target the Grimm cannot refuse. They will cast aside all notions of retreat and attack immediately. That is the plan. Every minute they spend scrabbling up the walls is a minute our own forces can use to close the distance. Every second they spend fighting us is a second our own infantry and vehicles can use to bridge the gap. We lay the beginnings of not a battle of containment, but a battle of annihilation."
Blake is looking at him with considering eyes once he finishes.
"There will always be more Grimm," she says slowly.
Aethon nods. He has heard of this saying before.
"Perhaps so. Likewise, there will always be foes threatening the integrity of the Imperium. That is the unfortunate truth of this galaxy. That there will always be enemies desiring mankind's end. But that is why you are here and that is why I am here. We do our best to protect humanity today and do what we must to save it tomorrow. For there is a second truth accompanying the first. That as long as there are enemies of humanity plotting our downfall, there will always be people like us standing ready to stop them."
The girls look at one another. Yang speaks for all of them with a confident grin.
Aethon stands up. He racks the slide of his combi-bolter with a satisfying clack.
"I thought you might say something like that. But even with both our squads, delaying the Grimm might not be possible. We need more support."
"More support?" Blake queries.
"He means more Astartes," says Dumedion.
Jaune sees the Beowolf coming. It's barreling his way with no intention of stopping. He remembers the lessons Pyrrha taught him and tries to brace. At the last second, his nerves betray him. The Grimm plunges past his faltering guard and wheels on its feet to try and get at the Student-Huntsman's unprotected flank.
The back of its head thuds against the barrel of a cocked bolt pistol.
Brother Nothos plants a shot square into the base of the Beowolf's skull. The Grimm's cranium bursts like an overripe fruit.
The Assault Marine has a chainaxe in the other hand. He buries the revving, whirring axehead into an Ursa's chest, just below the collarbone. The Grimm goes down with the all the subtlety of a chopped log. The wound is bloody and spews shredded viscera, but it's not fatal. The Ursa tries to get up again as soon as it hits the ground.
Jaune scrambles over and rams the point of his sword into the Grimm's bestial skull. It immediately stops trying to get up.
The Student-Huntsman wrenches his weapon free. He sees another pack of Grimm appearing out of the forest and shouts a warning.
Brother Akrio is turning before the words can fully leave Jaune's mouth. He pans his flamer left and right, dousing the emerging creatures with corrosive fire. One of them is too big to be killed outright by the flames. Akrio's flame-unit has turned it into a walking, flailing torch. It's still trying to get at the Lamenter with its entire body consumed by fire.
Ren flows like water around the Grimm's flaming, thrashing limbs. The space around the boy flares with light as his Aura buffers him from the full brunt of the heat. Braving the inferno, the Student-Huntsman takes the creature apart from behind in a blur of consummate swordsmanship.
Pyrrha follows half a dozen paces behind. She slams her shield into a charging Boarbertusk and knocks it flat on its back. In the same fluid motion, she thrusts her spear into the beast's vulnerable belly and twists the haft.
Brother Turmiel guards her back. The third Assault Marine swings a chugging, snarling chainblade. He kicks the legs of a defiant Beowolf from under it and brings his revving weapon down upon its head. The spiked teeth hew through the ghastly skull and keeps on going.
Cawing sounds alert the combined Huntsmen-Astartes team. Half a dozen Nevermores descend on their position, hind limbs extended and talons outstretched. They are medium-sized monsters with wingspans as wide as a cargo truck is long.
Squad Braellin reacts simultaneously. They raise their short-barreled pistols and immediately start hammering volleys into the Grimm. Successive shots kill three out of the six. The dead Nevermores look like they've gone through a blender as they fall from the sky.
Akrio lances a plume of flame into the fourth and turns it into a shrieking, flailing fireball that sets the surrounding foliage on fire as it crashes to the ground.
Pyrrha hurls her shield at the fifth. The sharpened edges of Akoúo shears through the Nevermore's left wing like a surgically applied razor. Denuded of an entire limb, the avian thing spirals out of control to land directly in front of Brother Nothos and his unforgiving chainaxe. The Lamenter raises his growling weapon and severs the Grimm's spine with a single, brutal chop.
The last Nevermore is the biggest and also the smartest. Its hung back as its more zealous cohorts swept in to attack. Now that it sees it can't possibly win, it begins gaining altitude to flee and fight another day.
Braellin doesn't allow it to. The Assault Sergeant triggers his jump pack to meet the Grimm's ascent. He brings his two-handed hammer down on the Nevermore's back in a thunderclap of noise. The avian creature plummets from the sky like a falling meteor. Its impact actually creates a crater on the forest floor.
The Grimm tries to rise on broken, shattered limbs. It manages a single, weak caw.
Nora obliterates its head from the neck up with a single downwards swing from Magnhild.
And then there is silence. And then there is stillness.
The members of Team JNPR use the reprieve to glance around. Dissolving Grimm bodies litter the ground around them. They've gone through the creatures in what can be only be described as an accelerated rate.
Jaune swallows. He hasn't been counting but if he was, he is sure they would be breaking records.
Braellin approaches them. The Lamenters have used the same reprieve to talk amongst themselves. If the curt head motions didn't give it away, then the individual clicks coming from their helms certainly did. Their leader stops an arm's-length away from the student team.
"There is a problem," he says simply. Jaune has the distinct impression that he is trying to be polite.
Nora points at the Sergeant's weapon with her own.
"A problem you can't solve with that?"
The Marine inclines his head. A slight, imperceptible nod of acknowledgment.
"Your enthusiasm for blunt implements is appreciated, Huntress Nora, but this problem involves a direct order from Chapter command. A fellow Squad has found a tactical position to inflict great losses on the Grimm. We are delegated to support them but they are a considerable distance away. Reaching them will involve rapid redeployment," the Astartes lets the words hang before proceeding, "Can you follow us on foot?"
Jaune looks at the jump packs strapped to each warrior's back.
"We can try," grins Nora.
"How fast can you go in the air?" Pyrrha asks.
"We can keep pace with our own air support without any difficulty."
"Then probably not," says Ren.
"There will also be Grimm in the way," Jaune reminds them.
"That's a problem," Braellin looks at each of them in turn, "One on our end. It must be rectified, posthaste."
Jaune asks the obvious question.
The Space Marine turns. He presents his cackling thunder hammer to the girl standing by his side.
"Huntress Nora. If you would hold this?"
Nora accepts the immense double-headed hammer with glee.
"For me? You shouldn't have!"
Her face flickers with surprise when a moment later, two thick limbs lift her from the ground.
The warriors of Assault Squad Braellin mag-lock their weapons to their sides. Each one of them picks up a surprised student until the entirety of Team JNPR are secured in a pair of ceramite arms.
"If any of you are prone to bouts of motion sickness," Braellin looks at them one last time, "now would be the time to say so."
Clamped firmly against the twin-headed Aquilla of a Mark VII chestplate, Jaune raises a hesitant hand.
"Your complaint is noted, Huntsman Arc, and summarily ignored," four pairs of jump packs begin to flare fire, "Now brace."
"There is an issue," says Brother-Sergeant Matreus.
"An issue?" Coco repeats. Beneath her seat, the Stormraven judders and shakes as it fights the wind.
"We have been rerouted," the Lamenter replies amicably, "Direct command from Chapter headquarters. Priority Alpha. We are to support Tactical Squad Aethon in persecuting the direct annihilation of Grimm in their sector. They require aid and we are the only squad still left uncommitted in the air," he turns to the faunus girl perched daintily on the lip of her seat, "It seems you'll get to meet your hero after all."
Velvet blushes slightly. The Lamenters around her, big broad giants in hulking armor, chuckle. The sound is deep and resonant but Coco doesn't detect the usual mocking quality. It is the sound of men amused by the situation and not by the source of it. There is none of Cardin's sneering tone.
"That doesn't seem so bad," she says back.
"It doesn't," agrees Matreus, "The issue lies in the fact that by the time we get there, the Grimm will be there too."
Coco leans back into her restraint harness.
"We can set down some distance away and make the rest of the journey on foot."
"Not an option," the Lamenter unbuckles his restraint strap and stands up, "We won't get there in time. The type of fight Squad Aethon is facing requires the bite of a Devastator Squad's heavy guns. We must be prepared and entrenched before the Grimm attack."
"What about a low altitude pass?" asks Fox Alistair. The brown-skinned boy shrugs as the Stormraven's occupants focus on him, "We can fly down low and jump off so the transport doesn't have to land. Some Huntsman teams do it if the situation is bad enough."
"That was our original intent," Matreus graces the student-Huntsman with a nod, "but since then we have learned that the Grimm possesses a significant aerial contingent. They won't let us get that low."
"Nevermores are always a problem," concedes Coco, "If there's a lot of them in one place, our Bullhead pilots won't even go near it. Especially if there are big ones."
"It's not the big ones that are a problem," the Lamenter grunts, "It's the small ones. The flocks. Big ones we can shoot down. Heavy bolters will tear chunks out of them. Lascannons go right through. The small ones though, they come down in a flock and fly right into our gunship's turbines. They try to bring us down by clogging our engines."
"How do we get down then?"
The Astartes moves to the center of the flight deck. The teardrop visors of his helm scan the equipment lockers built into the Stormraven's superstructure.
"This Aura you spoke of. Does it shield you from atmospheric conditions?"
"Wind. Weather. High altitude multi-G insertions?"
"It does," Coco frowns. One of those was not like the other two, "Wait. What did you just say about high altitude multi-G insertions?"
The Lamenter has already turned his back to her. He rummages through an overhead compartment before finding what he needs. He tosses it towards her.
Coco catches it out of reflex.
It's a backpack. It's heavy and made entirely out of metal. There are stalks protruding from the corners. There are miniature engine thrusters on top of the stalks.
"It's called a grav-chute. I suggest you put it on."
Coco holds the bulky contraption up. The gunmetal grey that coats its surface clashes terribly with her outfit.
"You can choose to put it on after we make the drop," Matreus rumbles, "but that would defeat the purpose of putting it on in the first place."
Dumedion pushes the gates open. In their haste to evacuate, the civilians haven't fully sealed the entranceway to their town. There is enough room for a human-sized figure to squeeze through, but not Astartes.
The two teams move through the gap Dumedion has created. The silence that greets them is stifling as it is unnerving.
"We should sweep the area," Malachiel breaks the stillness, "before the other squads arrive."
"Why?" frowns Weiss, "There's no Grimm."
"The absence of the enemy does not prove its nonexistence entirely," Corien recites, "Codex Astartes, page one thousand and eight, passage two hundred thirty-four."
The girls stare at him.
"What now?" Yang blurts out.
"I think he's saying that we should do it just to be sure," Blake suggests.
"Yes," the marksman nods, "Exactly that."
"What are we waiting for then?" the blonde Huntress shoots a look at her teammates, "Let's get going!"
"Rushing into unknown territory is a rash and foolish course of action," Dumedion reprimands, "Especially when said territory has been recently held by the enemy."
"Oh bite me," replies Yang good-naturedly.
The Lamenters glance at each other.
"How would that help?" Corien asks.
"How would biting you improve the situation?"
"No… I didn't mean bite me bite me! I meant it in a different way!"
"There are different ways of biting people in your culture?" Dumedion enquires.
"I believe Huntress Yang was making a euphemism," Malachiel ventures, "A saying. Like pear-shaped fruits."
Behind the towering Marine, Ruby makes a groaning noise. Corien directs his gaze to Dumedion.
"The Wolves of Fenris are known for their sayings."
The Lamenter heavy nods. Before his placement in a Tactical Squad, Dumedion had served as a Devastator in the Antares Crusade, directed to take back the industrial world of Antares Major from the cruel grasp of the orks. There, under the radioactive glare of a sun slowly going supernova, elements of the Lamenters along with those of seven different Chapters fought a grueling war of attrition against a xenos breed as tough as they are pugnacious.
One of those Chapters had been an entire Grand Company of Space Wolves.
Dumedion had met a kindred soul amongst their ranks, a Grey Hunter named Skane Bloodpelt. Over months of hard-fought battles, the two had become as close as two brothers from two different gene-sires could be. At the Crusade's end, both warriors had been genuinely reluctant to see the other go. To commemorate their closeness, each Marine had fashioned for the other a gift representing their battle-forged bond. Dumedion's gift had been a sculpted replica of the Chapter's insignia, meant to be worn over the chest or on the shoulder. Skane's had been a necklace crafted from fangs and claws, a tribal talisman meant to protect its wearer according to Fenrisian lore.
Dumedion still wears the necklace to this day, concealed underneath his suit's sealed gorget.
"Jeg kolm yarl," he says to his audience, "Of all the sayings I've heard him make, that is the one Brother Skane liked to use the most."
"And that means?"
"Fenrisian is a language consisting of half indecipherable grunts and half animal growls, Huntress Yang. You must be born on the planet to fully appreciate its charm. But the closest approximation involves planting an armored boot at great speed on a part of the human body where armored boots resoundingly do not belong."
A moment of silence passes as the Huntresses process the statement in all its entirety. Then Yang lets out a loud guffaw. Blake is unable to hide a tiny smile. Weiss rolls her eyes and Ruby giggles.
"You don't happen to have any of those guys on your spaceship, do you?" Yang asks.
"No, but it is an amusing theoretical exercise," admits Dumedion, "To wonder what the Sons of Russ would do in our place. I suspect some of them would try riding the Grimm."
"That sounds insane."
"The Astartes operate on the basis of what we cannot kill, we must soon learn. The Space Wolves operate on the basis of what they cannot kill, they must first attempt to ride."
"Sounds like my type of insane," grins Yang.
Aethon isn't listening. He hasn't taken part of the conversation. Nor is he moving. The stillness surrounding them is bothering him. It's too eerie to be natural. It reminds him of all the times they've lain in ambush for the Grimm in the depths of the forest.
It's his silence that eventually kills all talk.
"Brother-Sergeant?" Malachiel prompts.
Aethon raises a clenched fist. A universal gesture for quiet. His senses are telling him something is fatally wrong with the situation. Eidetic memory comes into play. He compares the images of the town before the evacuation with what he is seeing now.
He discovers the discrepancy. On the path used by the civilians to make their escape, there is a tiny dirt mound. It is a miniscule detail. Infinitesimal.
The way it juts out from the surrounding footprints suggest it was formed after the evacuation.
Aethon directs his brothers' view through the squad's manifold link.
"Corien. Kraken Penetrator."
The marksman reacts instantly. The modified Stalker is braced and primed against his shoulder in a heartbeat. He puts a round into the dirt mound at an angle designed for maximum penetration. A single, solitary boom reverberates among the rows of empty buildings.
"What-" Yang begins to say.
The mound erupts. Upturned dirt spew in all directions. Through the cloud of flying debris, Aethon catches sight of white bone and crimson eyes.
Corien kills the Grimm with a shot that blows its brains out from the right side of its face.
The corpse falls sideways, feet still kicking.
"That's a Creep," Weiss says in surprise, "What's a Creep doing here?"
Aethon's gaze moves away from the dead Grimm. He knows what he's looking for now. Disturbances in the earth. Irregularities in the dirt. He spots several more immediately.
They are scattered all over the town.
Acknowledgment lights flicker in his helm, signaling that his brothers see them too.
Malachiel turns to the snow-haired girl.
"A correction of your earlier assessment, Huntress Weiss. What is a pack of Creep doing here?"
The knock on her door is prompt and unexpected. Eveline rises from the little table she's been brewing her tea on. It took some pleading but after explaining that it was part of her morning ritual, the guardsmen in charge of her refugee group had been far more understanding. Something about not being able to live without recaff. They even provided her with a military-grade kettle and a battery-operated burner.
She flicks the burner off and moves for the door.
Her hand grips the knob and pulls the door open. Her view of the outside is immediately obstructed by the stylized image of a twin-headed eagle set across a breastplate as black as night. She looks up to see blood-red eye visors focusing on her.
"Greetings," the giant says, "I am Epistolary Saphriel, Chief Librarian."
"Eveline Magnolia," she says back, slightly stunned, "Can I help you?"
The menacing faceplate tilts to one side.
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"No! I mean, no. Please. Come in."
She moves aside to allow him entrance. He steps through, the floorboards creaking with his weight, and removes his helm.
Eveline can't help but stare. Surprise has something to do with it. She's been trying to get a shot of these Astartes unhelmed ever since she arrived at their compound. Her efforts were stonewalled by the giants' stubborn propensity to keep to themselves, even when among their own human soldiery. The fact that one of them is doing it now in front of her is genuinely surprising.
That's the first reason she's staring. The second reason is that he's quite handsome.
There is some gigantism of the face, as to be expected. But the features themselves are heroically proportioned. The upright brow. The proud nose. The chiseled chin. He looks like one of the statues at Beacon brought to life. Complete with the bluest eyes Eveline has ever seen.
Those same eyes are watching her, dancing in amusement as she realizes she has been staring for quite some time.
Her training as a correspondent takes over. Her next words are more composed, more professional.
"Would you like a seat?"
The Librarian's gaze flickers towards the only stool in the room.
"I would break that," he smiles.
"Oh. Would… you like some tea then? I've just made it."
Saphriel's face brightens.
Eveline hurries over to her brewing station. She pours the contents from the kettle and into some cups she's requisitioned. The giant takes one from her with remarkable gentleness. His hand is so large that only his thumb and index finger can fully wrap around the metal saucer.
He brings the cup to his lips and takes a sip.
"Very potent. A local brew? Your own, I presume?"
"Yes. It's a hobby of mine. I'm sorry if it's not up to snuff with… with whatever you drink."
"Don't be," Saphriel chuckles, "You're good at it."
The journalist hesitates. Out of all the behaviors she expected these warrior-giants to display, this disconcerting humility was the furthest one from her mind.
"Ah yes. I am forgetting something, aren't I?" still holding the cup, the Librarian lifts his pinky up and waggles it in the air, "This is what mortals do when they wish to be polite, is it not?"
Eveline doesn't quite know what to say to that so she just nods. The giant smiles at her silence.
"You are wondering why I'm here. Why out of all the refugees in our firebase, I chose you."
Eveline nods again.
"Those were excellent picts you compiled, Miss Magnolia."
"I didn't-" she automatically begins to say.
Saphriel holds up a hand.
"Relax. You're not in any trouble. The opposite in fact. Those picts you've taken have done us quite the service," the hand not holding the cup rises to massage the Librarian's chin. Eveline finds herself mesmerized by the act. A simple human motion being made by a being that could not possibly be a simple human, "You must understand that we Astartes were made to be menacing. Even to those we are sworn to protect, we appear as fearsome guardians. To some cultures we are the stuff of legends you tell your children about, but never believe yourself. As you can imagine, a reputation like that is useful in some aspects and detrimental in others."
The reporter says nothing and takes a sip from her own cup.
"Your picts have helped in that regard. It has framed us in a way that simple words would be hard-pressed to duplicate. It has shown us in a positive light to a world that is rightfully suspicious of our arrival."
"We aren't suspicious," Eveline interrupts, "Not in that sense. We've always assumed it was just us in the universe. Our scientists talked about finding alien life someday but they didn't actually think there would be more… us… out there. And then you show up with your spaceship, your giant armor, and your Imperium. It makes people nervous."
"It is quite the disconcerting notion," says Saphriel sympathetically, "Perhaps suspicious was not the right word. Uneasy maybe."
"With respect sir, I'm uneasy just standing in your presence."
"Captain Theosius will be delighted to learn that transhuman dread works just as well when we are standing perfectly still."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"It was an Astartes attempt at humor. A joke amongst our kind. It's supposed to be funny."
"It might be if I knew what you meant."
"That's the culture clash. It's only natural. Expected. That's why I'm here," the Librarian looks down at her, "In the hopes of maintaining the image your recordings have created as well as in the spirit of cross-cultural cooperation, Brother-Captain Theosius has granted you access to the full extent of our firebase. You may record to your heart's content. I believe humans call this 'public relations'."
Eveline relaxes slightly.
"Thank you. But…"
"But you've already started recording," Saphriel finishes for her, "I figured as much. Those instructors from Beacon knew too much about our facility for people who have never seen it."
"Instructors from Beacon?"
"Yes. Two of them, in fact. They came with your world's version of our inductees. Captain Theosius has retained them as advisors while the Grimm mess is still being cleaned up," the giant's handsome features grow serious, "Their presence aside, recording Astartes operations without our consent is usually a punishable offense. However, we do understand that this is an extenuating circumstance."
The journalist nods. Curiosity makes her speak up.
"What would have happened if this wasn't an extenuating circumstance?"
Saphriel looks at her blankly.
"We'd probably shoot you."
Eveline stiffens. The atmosphere immediately grows awkward.
"That was another joke, Miss Magnolia."
"I understood it this time. It just wasn't funny."
"Can I be frank with you, sir?"
"You Astartes can do whatever it is you were meant to do. Just leave the jokes to us."
The Librarian laughs out loud. Without his helm to distort it, the sound is nowhere near as menacing. It's actually quite pleasant to hear.
"A rather blunt way of phrasing it, but I can appreciate the sentiment," he looks at her again, eyes still gleaming with amusement, "You are quite the character, Miss Magnolia."
"I'm going to take that as a compliment."
"Please do. It proves that we have chosen correctly."
"Chosen? For what?"
"You have recordings of us, our allies, and our compound. There is, however, still one place your pict-capturer has yet to reach."
The implication sinks in. Eveline perks up.
"You're letting me on your ship!?"
"It will be a guided tour. You will be under my direct supervision. You will have access to areas on the Mater that I deem you should have access to. Once those conditions are agreed upon, yes, we will let you on our ship."
"But why me? I'm not anyone important. I'm just a journalist."
Saphriel swirls the contents of his cup.
"You have been frank with me Miss, so I will be frank with you. When the Imperium encounters a world populated by humanity outside its borders, there is usually very little Astartes involvement. We are warriors and soldiers, not diplomats. Negotiations and politics are not our forte. That being said, we understand that there might be a period of… awkwardness… between you and us. Even distrust. It is my Brother-Captain's fervent wish that this period be shortened as much as possible, or even better, outright avoided. That is why we have offered you this overture. To show you and the people of this world that we are earnest in our dealings with you. That and there is a saying I believe that pertains to this situation. A thousand words make up a picture or something along those lines?"
"A picture is worth a thousand words," corrects Eveline.
"That's the one," the Librarian smiles.
"This offer… is very generous of you."
"But you have reservations?"
"Not reservations… It's just that… when I first took this job, I didn't think I'd be the first person in outer space too."
"You won't be. Those instructors from Beacon. Captain Theosius has extended to them the same offer."
Eveline accepts the information. There is something still bothering her though.
"May I ask you a question?"
"There are hundreds of refugees in your compound."
"And hundreds more in other firebases," nods Saphriel.
"So how did you know it was me doing the recording?"
The Librarian smiles. Framed in that instant, he appears more human than he ever appeared before.
"One mystery at a time, Miss Magnolia."
The last Creep they kill is the biggest one yet. Malachiel kneels by the slumped body and begins cutting into it with his combat knife.
"What are you doing?" disgust wars with interest in Weiss's tone.
"Field autopsy," the specialist grunts, "Do you not do the same?"
"Our researchers do," says Ruby, "but Grimm bodies disappear before they can really find anything."
"Our Apothecaries have encountered the same problem," Dumedion rumbles.
"Then why are you doing it?" Blake asks.
"There is no practical for us to find," Aethon explains, "so we must rely on what little there is to form a theoretical."
They watch as Malachiel inserts the tip of his knife into the base of the Grimm's skull. He twists the handle and cracks the bestial cranium apart like two halves of a walnut.
"That's so metal," Yang grins.
"The blade is, yes," the specialist says. He stands up, the Creep's bifurcated head still in his palm, "Interesting."
Aethon glances at the gory trophy. Black viscous matter flows from the ruined skull and leaks through the gaps in Malachiel's fingers. There is nothing resembling anything like proper anatomy in what he sees.
"What have you found, brother?"
"Nothing that we have not known before, but look at the way the skull is shaped. It is squat and bulbous. There is significant mass in the back. If this creature was built only for the purpose of killing, why not evolve a skull similar to that of a Beowolf or Ursa? The snout itself is almost too short to provide biting power."
"I don't know about that," Yang looks down at the dissipating corpse at their feet, "From what I heard, being bitten by a Creep hurts."
"Being bitten by a Hormagaunt is also a painful experience," grunts Dumedion, "but it's the scything talons that are the real killing power."
Blake tilts her head.
"A species as deadly as they are numerous," Aethon answers, "But that is an explanation for another day."
"Seldom do mankind's enemies evolve on a random whim," Corien murmurs, "There is something at work here. Something sinister."
Malachiel casts the dissolving skull aside.
"We are now relying on superstition to guide us?"
"In the absence of everything else, superstition is all we have."
"I am not saying we should ignore it all together, but we have nothing concrete to base our assumptions on."
"The Grimm already test our preconception of what they should be, brother. The paradigm of them being just beasts has shifted. So we must rethink our methods of combating them."
"A bolt shell will kill them just fine."
"A bolt shell will kill one of the beasts. It does nothing to the hundreds more behind it. You've seen the sensory scans from the Mater. Besides the four cities and a handful of settlements, this planet is populated by Grimm and more Grimm."
"We have more than one bolt shell, brother."
"Correct. But we also don't know just how many there are. If their numbers are at such a state that a bolt killing one is not an equivalent exchange, then we have lost the war before it even started."
"Again, there is nothing concrete to suggest such a thing. Are we not, perhaps, overthinking the matter?"
"If all wars were as simple as you suggest, brother, then the Emperor would have no need to create His Astartes."
"Um, hello?" Ruby waves a hand awkwardly in their direction.
Aethon jerks his head back from the ongoing conversation. He realizes that in the course of discussing the situation, his squad has instinctively switched over to their private vox-network and left their new allies in the dark.
"Apologies," he says to them, "We were discussing our findings."
"And? Did you discover anything?"
"No," says Aethon, "And that is the problem."
"How is that a problem?" Yang questions, "They're just Grimm."
"Never assume the enemy is just the enemy, Huntress Yang. Always assume that they have some hidden motive, some secret intention. Always assume that the reason you have not discovered it yet is because the enemy does not want you to," the Lamenter focuses on his young charges, "I have heard that towns and villages occasionally disappear due to Grimm predation. Is this true?"
The Huntresses glance at each other. From the looks on their faces, Aethon can tell he has touched a sore subject. Ruby seems especially downcast.
"It's true," says Blake.
"How common is this occurrence?"
"It doesn't usually happen," Yang mutters, "but when it does, we're not exactly surprised."
"And when it does happen, is there an alarm raised? A distress signal sent out?"
"Sometimes we'll get one but when the relief team arrives, it's already too late," confirms Weiss, "Other times a Hunter patrol will be out in the Wild and chance upon an empty settlement that should have had people in it."
The Lamenter taps the pommel of his sheathed sword in thought.
"This was not an ambushing force. How many Creeps did we kill? A dozen? Two dozen?" at the girls' nods, he continues, "What is your analysis of two dozen Creeps as a threat?"
"They aren't one," Ruby responds instantly, "Even if they surprised us, we'd still take them out."
"And what is your analysis of them as a threat with an Astartes squad accompanying you?"
"We'd go right through them," says Weiss.
"We did go right through them," corrects Blake.
"Theoretical. Assume competence. Assume motive. Assume that the Grimm know what they are doing. Why then, would they place a force in our way that is not threatening to our combined squads? Why would they expend time and effort to fabricate a trap when it stands next to no chance of triumphing? Practical. This was not an ambushing force meant for us. This was a force meant to attack those who cannot defend themselves as we can."
"The people in the town," Ruby realizes.
"My thoughts as well," the Lamenter says in agreement, "But there is also a problem with that line of reasoning. Even assuming that these beasts possess the intelligence to attack the town when its citizens are in their most unguarded state, the attempt will fail. The watchmen alone outnumber them two to one. For their attack to retain even a modicum of success, they would need a way to increase their numbers at an exponential pace," Aethon directs his gaze towards his brothers, "We have been down here for three months. In that time, we have learned much about the Grimm. We know they prey only on humans and faunus. We know that there are different species and types. We know exactly how to kill one and the precise amount of firepower needed to do so. What is the one thing we do not know?"
"Brother-Sergeant?" Corien asks into the ensuing silence.
"Where they come from. And tangentially related, how they reproduce."
The entire squad, barring Aethon, tenses.
"The hive fleets operate under a similar paradigm," Malachiel growls, "Their lesser broods lay eggs in the untold thousands. We find gestation pools in areas our own orbital sensors have scoured clean. With enough time, a single Tyranid organism left unchecked can cause the downfall of an entire world."
"Greenskins too," Dumedion rumbles, "Ork spores if allowed to propagate will result in entire feral populations coming out of the woods. If nothing is done to curb their numbers, they will become a planetary-scale threat within a few short years."
"Grimm aren't… whatever those things are," Weiss points out.
"They are not," concurs Aethon, "But it proves there is a precedent. And if there is a precedent, then it is not outside the realms of possibility."
"But Grimm don't behave like that," the heiress continues to argue, "or at least, they shouldn't."
Dumedion laughs a dark little laugh.
"Since when have humanity's enemies ever behaved in a way we thought they should behave?"
Aethon turns to the rest of the student team.
"Do your Hunter teams perform seismographic scans on areas once inhabited by the Grimm?"
"Seismographic?" Blake questions.
"Deep-earth augur scans. Sensory sweeps designed to probe beneath the planetary crust."
Yang shakes her head.
The Lamenter chooses his next words carefully.
"Then I suggest you do so for every town that has, at one point or another, been exposed to Grimm activity."
"But that's nearly every town," Ruby says worriedly.
"Yes. Which is why it must be done posthaste."
The girls look at one another.
Whatever reply they have in store is cut short by the distant howls of jump packs.
The warriors descend like falling meteors. Their impact shakes glass panel windows and judders oaken doors.
Aethon is there to meet them. Chapter command had been too busy to inform him which squad had been sent, only that support had been sent. Their selection pleases him nonetheless. The warrior that leads the Assault Squad is known to him.
"Sergeant Braellin," he says.
His counterpart dips his head in acknowledgment.
The two men clasp wrists. Aethon's attention travels from his peer's helmeted face to the girl he is carrying with his other arm. She proceeds to wave the hammers she clutches in each hand at him. The heads of both weapons are slick with freshly spilled gore.
"Hi! I'm Nora! Nice to meet ya!"
The Lamenter locks gazes with his brother once more.
"I see that you have achieved a level of fraternization higher than ours."
Braellin snorts. Emerging from his snarling mouth-grille, the sound resembles the grunt of a consumptive bull.
"Says the one who started this mess," he sets the Huntress down on the ground, "If you hadn't let that reporter capture your pict, we wouldn't be involved in this fraternization."
"Don't worry, brother. Once I'm famous, I won't forget you."
Another snort, this time colored by genuine amusement.
"Does anyone actually laugh at your jokes, brother? Or do they just chuckle out of pity like me?"
Aethon smiles behind his helm. An outsider may consider the sudden familiarity jarring, but those accustomed to Astartes traditions would not. A squad sergeant owes the men he commands consummate professionalism and the superiors he obeys unswerving loyalty. There is very little latitude between these two facets. It is only in the presence of those of similar rank that a line officer can somewhat relax.
In the case of Aethon and Braellin, they are two squad sergeants from the same Company of the same Chapter. They are alike in stature, in position, and in rank along the chain of command. They are also the closest things mortals would call friends.
"Humans occasionally do."
"And when was the last time you made a human laugh?"
"A century ago, though I believe it was more out of nervousness than anything else."
Nora looks up. She switches her attention from one giant to the other. Confusion is evident on her face.
"Are the two of you fighting? I can't actually tell."
"Hi Nora!" a cheerful voice makes her turn.
"Hi Ruby!" Nora waves back, "And Yang! And Weiss! And Blake! Wow! I didn't know all of you guys were going to be here!"
Greetings are exchanged as the rest of the Assault Squad releases their charges. Aethon notes that one of them, a boy with blonde hair, looks positively ill.
Yang saunters up to him, eyes twinkling with mischief.
"You alright there, Jaune?"
The boy leans against a nearby building and sags down.
"Just… Just give me a moment."
Aethon turns back to Braellin.
"Turbulence," the Assault Sergeant shrugs as he glances at the boy in question, "The fact that most of it hit the brother carrying him is merely coincidence."
"Have you read the diagnostic report I've just sent up to Chapter command?" his voice has turned serious.
"Bits and pieces as we made our way here. It's troubling if your hypothesis is right. It's troubling even if it isn't. All I can say is that we don't know how Grimm spawn or if they even spawn at all. But I would not be surprised if they did. Such is the nature of the enemies of mankind. With each new horror exposed, another waits its turn to be revealed."
"And we will stand resolute against them until every last horror is wiped out," vows Aethon.
"You can stand all you like, brother. I'll descend on them like the Fury of the Primarch Himself."
"Still the firebrand, I see."
"That'll never change," Braellin hefts his returned thunder hammer over his shoulder, "It's why I lead an Assault Squad and you lead a Tactical Squad."
Laughter makes both men turn, too light and gentle to come from Astartes.
"These Hunters," Braellin says, his voice uncharacteristically soft, "I do not understand them."
"Their path is chosen for them as soon as they are accepted into their order. They will spend the rest of their lives fighting the Grimm and eventually die fighting them. Most Hunters don't live long lives. That's something I've heard the locals say."
"The same way we are gene-coded to be immortal, but never will be," agrees Aethon.
"And yet they remain so casually optimistic in spite of their fates," Braellin shakes his head, "I do not know how to phrase such behavior. Foolishness? Naivety? What would you call it?"
Aethon watches as Ruby throws an arm around Jaune and helps him up to his feet.
"Courage," he says at last.
Braellin inclines his head.
"We have reached our destination," their pilot's voice erupts from the intercom, "It is now or never. May the hand of the Primarch be upon your shoulders, brothers," there is a second of hesitation before he speaks again, "And may His hand be upon yours as well, Hunters."
Coco stands. The grav-chute on her back is bulky but her Aura helps with the weight. She looks back at her team.
"It'll just be like being shot out of the cannon at Beacon," she reassures them.
"You go first," he says simply.
The Lamenters have already gathered at the back of the Stormraven. Matreus pulls the release lever. The ramp opens on hissing hydraulic pistons. The wind shrieks in. There is real strength behind it. Real intensity.
Coco hesitates. It's not fear. Nothing like that. It's the base human instinct telling you that leaping out of a vehicle at high altitude moving multiple times the speed of sound might not be the best idea.
Yatsuhashi gives her a concerned look.
"I'll go first."
Velvet moves past both of them. She takes a deep breath and starts running. Her legs take her past the rows of restraint-thrones, past the watching giants, and onto the lowered ramp.
The wind swallows her frame as soon as she makes the leap.
Matreus follows her descent. The Devastator Sergeant cranes his neck to stare at his waiting audience.
"Now that is courage," he says and steps off the ramp after her.
The rest of his squad follow suit. Big hulking warriors handling big hulking weapons. They leap out of the Stormraven's back or step off the ledge in uncomplicated dives. Soon, the gunship's hull is empty except for three lone figures.
Coco steps towards the lowered ramp.
"This might be the second most insane thing I've ever done," she mutters out of the corner of her mouth.
Fox glances at her.
"What was the first?"
"There was this sale at the fashion store. Latest brands. Fifty percent off."
Her feet reaches the edge.
"I still can't believe I missed it," she says and hurls herself into oblivion.
Matreus was right when he said they would be dropping into the Grimm. Coco just didn't think he meant it this literally.
Scores of shadowy forms soar below them. Nevermores of all sizes. The leonine forms of Griffons. The beginnings of a storm. Their motions are leisurely. Relaxed. They have been lulled into a false sense of security. Safe in the knowledge that while they are in the air, nothing can touch them.
Team CFVY slams into them like human lightning bolts.
Part of it is equipment. Despite their portable size, grav-chutes are potent things. They are designed to prevent a human-sized wearer from becoming a smear on the ground when dropped at suborbital altitudes. Part of it is application. Fox Alistair has discovered that if you angle your body down towards the ground, the powerful thrusters built on each grav-chute's back make you fall faster.
So now they are all falling faster.
Yatsuhashi hits his target first. The ridged back of a Nevermore looms in front of him. It's a fully mature adult. In any other scenario, hurting it would be a doubtful proposition. The Grimm follow only a single measurable standard when it comes to evolution. The bigger they are, the tougher they are. This one is big enough that a blow from a Huntsman's weapon, even aided with specialty Dust, will bounce off.
Yatsuhashi's immense blade cuts into it. The boy is hurtling downwards at such velocity that had his body not been shielded by Aura, parts of it would be scorched and burning. Speed and inertia and momentum provides strength where sheer muscle mass cannot.
His immense blade slices into the Grimm and keeps on going. The lower portion of the Nevermore's body, complete with the feared grasping talons, detaches from its upper half with a sickening crack. The creature's massive wings continue to beat a steady rhythm in the air. The cut was so quick and so clean that whatever cognitive abilities it possesses has not yet fully realized it has been severed in half.
Fox drops past the bifurcated Grimm.
Atmospheric friction grinding against his Aura causes it to flicker and glow. He slams into a hovering Griffon and knocks the wind out of it with sheer impact force. Temporarily stunned, the creature begins freefalling. Fox clambers onto its back. He wraps his legs around the Grimm's bulging shoulders and starts punching his wrist blades into its bared neck. Jolted awake by agonizing pain, the Griffon immediately starts bucking, trying to throw off the presence on its back exsanguinating it stab by painful stab.
The Student-Huntsman slams his weapons in as far as they can go. He pulls hard with both arms. The wrist blades, wedged deep into the Grimm's flesh, act like braking mechanisms. The Griffon is forced to go wherever he guides it to go, lest it risks total decapitation. Its clawed paws beat a frenzied beat against empty air. Fox rides it down in a grotesque parody of a human riding a horse.
Not to be outdone, Coco angles her body towards a second Nevermore. Another big specimen. Her view is entirely taken over by the immense wings. She clenches her left hand into a fist and launches herself towards its unguarded back. She focuses her Aura into her fingers, hardening them into the consistency of layered steel.
Her fist enters the Nevermore's back. There is no resistance. Her fist enters its back, followed by her arm, and then the rest of her body. There is a sensation of being swallowed, of being subsumed by a shadowy substance, and then she is clear, falling through the air again.
She chances a look back.
The Nevermore is struggling to stay afloat. It's struggling because there is a human-sized hole in its body.
A sound erupts from her throat.
It's laughter. She's laughing. She's laughing at the sheer insanity of the act.
The student team clears the reeling Grimm. They see the armored forms of Squad Matreus ahead of them, weapons braced in their hands.
They are shooting as they drop. Accelerated rate of fire. Tremendous accuracy. Atmospheric conditions dampen the sound of their guns, but the muzzle flashes are unmistakable.
The thrusters on Coco's back take her past the plummeting form of Brother Troven. The warrior operates a shoulder-carried lascannon, complete with a bulky backpack-mounted power generator. He lines up a shot and spears a beam of incandescent light through two Nevermores and a Griffon. The holes he creates in them are large enough for a man to comfortably crawl through.
Brother Elysius works the squad's frag cannon. Coco falls past him just in time to see him send a cylindrical shell bigger than her forearm into a flock of smaller Nevermores. The bursting round sends a ripple of shrapnel through the unprepared mob. It turns dozens of lesser Grimm into a fine particle mist.
A piercing whine sounds next to her ear. Brother Kolmion. Plasma cannon. A roiling sphere of energy blasts out of the weapon's barrel and into another knot of creatures. The detonation is catastrophic and blinding. When visibility is repaired, the bits and pieces of Grimm that are left do not look like they belonged to their previous owners in any shape or form.
Brother Radiel has a grav-cannon. Graviton technology, as explained to Coco back in the ship, turns the enemy's own weight against it. The foes they are facing do not require the type of ammunition it fires, so the Marine uses the gun like a club instead. He smashes the undercarriage of his weapon into the face of a Griffon with enough force to transform the solid avian skull into liquefied jelly.
The Student-Huntress falls past all of them. She sees Velvet ahead, arms and legs splayed out, the wind tearing at her Aura-shielded frame. Matreus is behind her, blasting out shots with his combi-flamer. He wraps the immense digits of his power fist around the beak of an oncoming Nevermore and pulls its head straight off its shoulders in a geyser of blood.
Coco sees the valley and the town that is their designated drop point. She reverses her forward motion by throwing herself in the opposite direction. The sudden chunk of Aura she loses tells her that had she been unshielded, the act would have broken every single bone in her body.
The grav-chute immediately compensates. It begins boosting in the other direction. Its built-in thrusters fight gravity instead of adding to it.
Her teammates perform similar braking motions. Except for Fox. The boy is still riding his Griffon. Their plummeting descent has not been kind to his steed. Kinetic friction has scorched lasting imprints onto its chest and sides. Its pinions are a broken, tattered mockery of what they once were. It's only responding to the rider on its back because Fox has wedged his wrist-blades so deep into its neck, they have become part of its nervous system.
The Student-Huntsman steers the half-dead Grimm into another Griffon hovering in the sky. The two beasts collide with bone-splintering force. Instinctively, both creatures lash out at the other. They entangle themselves further when they lodge their talons into each other's flesh. The two Griffons beat a frenzied rhythm with their wings. Stuck together like this, they have no hope of staying in anything resembling aerodynamic flight.
Fox leaps off at the last moment, leaving the two doomed creatures to their fates. The impact has cost him, however. One of the thrusters on his grav-chute is sputtering fire, bent out of shape by the collision. It begins throwing him on a looping, haphazard path towards the ground.
Elysius snags him by the collar before the broken grav-chute can fully spiral out of control. The Lamenter tugs the boy closer, acting as an anchor in their joint descent. He's still firing the frag cannon with his other hand.
The ground rears up in front of them.
Coco feels the deacceleration through her entire body. She loses her cap in the process. It goes flying off as breakneck winds assail her from all sides.
Her feet slam into the earth. Around her, Astartes and Hunters alike perform similar landings. The Lamenters have integrated thrusters in their own backpacks. It makes their impact merely bone-breaking instead of bone-shattering.
Fox is the only one that misjudges his landing. His broken grav-chute doesn't help. His avenue of approach takes him on a zigzagging path that ends at the top of a one-story dwelling. The Student-Huntsman is forced to use the roof as a runway to break his descent.
Broken tiles sprinkle down all around them.
Coco reorientates herself. She looks up to see Yang staring at her.
"Did you just fly down here?" the blonde asks eagerly.
The leader of Team CFVY straightens. She brushes the debris from Fox's impromptu landing off her shoulders.
"It was more like falling very fast," she explains.
"So flying then."
The hulking stature of a Lamenter interrupts the conversation. Brother Troven. He has her cap clenched between his gigantic fingers.
"Your equipment, Huntress."
Coco takes it from him with a nod. She places the cap back on her head and tucks her hair neatly beneath it.
The Marine grunts. Whether out of affirmation or respect, she can't quite tell.
"Yes," she turns back to Yang, "I guess you can call it that."
Her fellow Huntress looks at the grav-chute mounted on her back wistfully.
"I wish our spacemen let us to do that. All we go to do was ride in their ship. Isn't that right, sis?"
Ruby is not paying attention to either of them. Her eyes are fixed firmly to the glowing magnetic coils of Brother Kolmion's plasma cannon.
"They come in bigger sizes!?"
Matreus strides towards them. He is still clutching the giant Nevermore's head in his fist.
"Brothers," he says to the Lamenters moving to greet him.
"Sergeant Matreus," says the one with the sword sheathed at his hip, "A pleasure."
"You're late," says the other one, massive hammer slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, "And good kill."
"Apologies," the Devastator Sergeant tosses the gory skull away, "But we could only drop so fast."
He looks at the gathering student teams and tilts his head.
"Do all of you possess Aura as well?"
"All Hunters have Aura," Pyrrha confirms.
"I suggest you start shielding yourself then."
"Why?" questions Weiss.
Pieces of Grimm start falling from the sky. They are the corpses of the beasts that have been killed in midair, burned and cooked by superheated friction. They fall in and around the town in a gore-drenched rain. The bigger ones still retain some of the original shape. The upper half of the Nevermore Yatsuhashi has severed lands on a nearby house and caves in the entire rooftop with its weight.
"That's why," says Matreus.
Jaune doesn't manage to get his Aura up in time. A dead Griffon splatters directly in front of him, dowsing the Student-Huntsman's frame with vile, half-cooked viscera.
The boy glances down at his ruined uniform.
"This is just not my day," he sighs.
One of the giants standing by Braellin's side snorts. He clutches a saw-toothed axe in one hand and a short, stubby pistol in the other.
Coco notes that parts of his warplate are stained and discolored. As though someone had just recently gone through and hastily wiped it clean with a cloth.
"Agreed," is all he says.
The combined Astartes and Hunter teams move to man the walls. The battlements themselves are surprisingly sturdy. Durable enough that when multi-hundred kilo superhumans step on them, they do not give out.
The people of Remnant, in their thousand-year struggle against the Grimm, have learned the value of thick walls.
Aethon technically has senior authority. He is a Tactical Sergeant, leading Devastator and Assault complements. Usually there is a quick meeting to establish a chain of command, but the Lamenter doesn't feel the need. He trusts Braellin. And Matreus has always been dependable.
They know what they need to do and as the Grimm begin approaching viewing distance, that matters more than anything else.
Aethon adjusts the magnification on his visors. His brothers do the same. They allow the Lamenters to finally see for themselves what topographical scans and sensory readings have been telling them.
The Grimm are numerous. The size of the encroaching horde is enough to give even seasoned Astartes pause. They are the last vestiges of the incursion that forced the Lamenters to evacuate seventeen towns and villages, herded together into one titanic mob by Imperial retribution. The bestial creatures are packed shoulder-to-shoulder, from one side of the valley to the other. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of them.
Enhanced eyesight picks out details that would normally be lost at such distance. The behemoth girth of lumbering Ursai. The prowling, stalking gait of faster Beowolves. The tusked visages of snorting Boarbertusks. The short, pitbull forms of Creeps, moving on their elongated hind legs, stubby tails held out for balance. And amid the seething mass, the Alpha strains, standing a full head and shoulders above their smaller kin. They stride like leader-beasts among the horde, moving with a surety of purpose that the other Grimm do not possess.
They remind Aethon of Tyranid synapse creatures, leading lesser broods in a vast, consuming swarm.
There is no solid practical for him to base this comparison on, but he makes it anyway.
The Hunters around him have grown quiet. Their unenhanced eyesight cannot single out details like his can, but they can still appreciate the scale and depth of the horde. The way it spills into the valley like an ocean wave crashing against the shore. The feral, animal sounds each Grimm makes, joining together to form a constant, clashing cacophony. The very earth shaking beneath their feet, caused by the footfalls of monstrous, misshapen beasts.
"Is that really all there is waiting for us," Weiss says what they all are thinking in a hushed whisper, "Just more Grimm?"
Aethon notes the way her hand has shifted to her rapier. Her fingers are clenched so tightly around the grip; the knuckles are starting to turn white. She is unsettled. Disturbed. All three student teams are. They are dismayed at the size and strength of the Grimm force arrayed against them.
"Do you Hunters swear an oath of the moment before battle?" he prompts.
A dozen pair of eyes shift towards him.
"What now?" Yang blurts out.
"An oath of the moment. A pledge reminding you the depth of your responsibility. Why you are here."
Ruby hesitates before speaking.
"We swear something like that when we enroll in Beacon."
"We swear to fight the Grimm. To uphold the laws of the Vale. And to protect the innocent."
"Those are good oaths to take."
Blake looks at him.
"Do you?" she asks, "Take an… oath of the moment?"
The Lamenter does not reply at first. He's watching the Grimm, the seemingly endless lines of them, a horde of thousands of bared claws and gnashing fangs.
"They shall be my finest warriors," he says out loud, "these men who give of themselves to me."
"Like clay I shall mould them," Malachiel takes over, instinctive, automatic.
"And in the furnace of war forge them," Dumedion rumbles.
"They will be of iron will and steely muscle," Corien says fervently.
Braellin rests the head of his thunder hammer against the floor. His hands wrap around the elaborately crafted pommel. A patient warrior waiting for his turn to be called.
"In great armor shall I clad them," he continues the chant.
"And with the mightiest guns will they be armed," Matreus places his oversized gauntlet on the parapet wall.
"They will be untouched by plague or disease," Nothos's snarl is indistinguishable from the soft growl of his chainaxe.
"No sickness will blight them," Turmiel agrees.
"They will have tactics, strategies, and machines," Akrio toggles with the switch of his flame-unit.
"So that no foe can best them in battle," growls Elysius.
"They are my bulwark against the Terror," Radiel murmurs as he braces his grav-cannon against the wall.
"They are the Defenders of Humanity," Kolmion places a clasped fist against his chest.
"They are my Space Marines," Troven vows.
"And they shall know no fear," Aethon finishes.
He turns to see that the Hunters are no longer watching him. They are focused on the Grimm.
There is nothing but determination in their eyes.
"Catchy," Yang grins at him.
The Lamenter draws his sword. He activates the power field, sheathing the blade in a shimmering blue glow.
"That saying was made by the greatest human to ever live," he replies, "Catchy is the least it should be."
The Grimm attack.
There is no hesitation. No instinctive pause. The horde sees the town arranged before them. They see the human figures manning the walls. They attack. The thought process is uncomplicated. Brutal in its straightforward simplicity.
Aethon witnesses the assault firsthand. The mass of Grimm, pouring into the mouth of the valley, surging towards them in a living tidal wave. He feels adrenaline pumping through his twin hearts. The beginnings of a battle haze. He clamps down on it. Neurological impulse shuts down nerve receptors throughout his body. Adrenaline is still there, but it is controlled, monitored. Shaped into a cold, calculated rage.
This is what makes Astartes so dangerous. It's not the enhanced senses and redundant organs. It's not the otherworldly strength multiplied by fiber-bundle muscles in an ancient war suit. It's not even the massive weapons that are designed to achieve maximum overkill on a humanoid-sized target. It's the transhuman mind combining all of the above to figure out the best way to end you.
Killing the enemies of humanity is good. Killing them efficiently and expediently so more of them can be killed is better.
The beasts enter the range of the Squad Matreus's guns.
Troven fires first. The Mars Pattern lascannon on his shoulder emits a cobalt blue beam of concentrated light. It can core the armored hull of a Leman Russ Battle tank front to back. It can slice through the Grimm horde just as well. The waist-thick beam flattens Beowolfs and Boarbertusks, pops Creeps like blisters, and turns Ursai into walking, smoking stumps.
A thrumming whine precedes the roar of Kolmion's plasma cannon. A roiling sphere of cackling energy erupts from his weapon's barrel. The projectile smashes into the horde and creates a glassy black crater in their midst fifty feet in diameter. Heat backlash rips through the Grimm. Aethon sees misshapen creatures set on fire, partially vaporized, fused to the ground and each other.
Elysius braces his frag cannon against his hip. His is a specialty weapon designed to shatter hordes at close range. They are not at close range so he improvises. The Lamenter tilts his cannon upwards forty-five degrees. He allows trajectory and elevation to overcome his weapon's natural limits. The frag cannon becomes a portable mortar. Explosive shells arc high into the air before thudding among the Grimm. The storms of shrapnel that follow turn malformed beasts into heaps of sagging mush.
Radiel operates the grav-cannon. Graviton technology is ancient and austere. It is entrusted in only the most capable hands. Radiel demonstrates why. The Grimm he spears with eerie green light shake and convulse as though afflicted with an unseen malaise. Whatever unrecognizable material that consists of their monstrous forms does not protect them from attuned gravity. Organs burst under sudden, inexorable strain. Bones snap as the flesh they are supporting become ten times as heavy.
Radiel is liberal in applying his weapon's distinct firepower. He's not only aiming for individual Grimm, he's aiming for the ground around them as well. Area of effect. The Devastator creates rifts in the earth, cracks and fissures that waylay the seething horde, gaping trenches that the Grimm are forced to navigate around.
Dumedion joins the shooting blitz with his heavy bolter and fills each trench with flailing bodies as soon as they are created.
The Grimm absorb the casualties and continue their maddened charge. They trample the dead underfoot and surge on. The bigger ones are actually smashing aside their lesser brethren in their haste to get at the human defenders. The hate in their eyes is positively feral.
Aethon readjusts his initial impression. The frenzied mob clashes against his perceived notion of how a horde should operate. The Tyranids, despite the same feral aspect, function at an inhuman level of complexity. Lesser broods supporting the advance of gargantuan creatures. Those same monstrous creatures covering the scuttling charge of its lesser kin and in some instances, even spawning them. It's what makes the Tyranids so blasphemous. That despite their bestial appearance, they operate on the basis of cold, machine-like logic, all to feed the insatiable hunger of their hive fleets.
The Grimm, in comparison, are a force of nature. There is no order or logic behind their actions. There is no hive mind governing movements and formations. Even the Alpha strains, the supposed leaders, only lead nominally. Their followers cannot be counted on to do anything besides follow. There is no uniformity to them. No standardization even among lesser breeds. They are as different and chaotic as the Hunters and Huntresses that hunt them.
The analytical part of Aethon's mind makes these comparisons and processes them. The practical part has invoked muscle memory to level his combi-bolter in one raised arm.
He's not worried about aim. The Grimm are clumped so tightly together that it would take a genuine effort to miss.
"For the Emperor and the Angel!" he barks.
Bolt shells follow the proclamation. Standard mass-reactive. The Lamenter stitches a line of explosions across the first rank of charging beasts. Shadowy forms buckle and fall. His brothers follow his example. Aethon hears the whine of Malachiel's plasma gun, the staccato boom of Corien's Stalker bolter, and a heartbeat later, the unfamiliar cracks of Hunter weaponry.
Their newfound allies are lending their own firepower into the fray. The distinctive trail Dust rounds leave as they find their marks is bright and luminous. Elemental detonations ripple through the horde. A riot of color. Grimm are struck down by explosions of flame, enveloped by tendrils of coruscating lightening, frozen to the ground by snares of ice and rime.
The combi-melta cycles on empty. In the time it takes to reload, Aethon sees Pyrrha ricochet a round off the thick skull of an Ursa and into a pack of Beowolves. Ruby is next to her, Crescent Rose braced against her shoulder. The Lamenter picks out where she is aiming immediately. A stray volley from Radiel's weapon has caused cracks and fissures to appear on the far side of the valley wall. Ruby's shot completes what the grav-cannon began and breaks an entire formation of rock free from its trappings.
The resulting avalanche buries scores beneath its grinding, pulverizing grasp.
Aethon approves. Expend limited ammo to inflict maximum damage.
The Grimm plough on despite the devastation sown into their ranks. They close holes made in their lines and barge past wounded comrades. They are within a stone's throw of the walls.
The throaty roars of engine thrusters precede Assault Squad Braellin's meteoric descent. The four Marines arc high over the battlements. Grenades sprinkle down from micro-dispensers in their belts. Entire swathes of creatures disappear in rippling chains of detonations.
The jump troopers plunge into the carnage's aftermath. Those in vicinity not outright crushed by impact force are carved into ribbons by shrieking chainblades or blasted apart at close range by bolt pistols. Braellin's thunder hammer is a nimbus of electrical energy as he batters aside successive waves of monsters. Every momentous swing ends in a physical thunderclap that hurls dozens of beasts back. Akrio guards his sergeant's flank. He jets plumes of flame into the seething mass, creating vast channels among the Grimm with each fiery spew.
The horde does not stop, but they are at last recoiling from the ferocity of the defense. Subjected to heavy bombardment from Matreus's guns, savaged by medium range weapons fire, and now dealing with an Astartes Assault Squad hacking their way through them, the Grimm are finally feeling the wrath of the defenders in force.
Aethon is satisfied in the hesitation he sees taking root. That was the strategy from the start. A multi-pronged plan of action not to stop the horde in its tracks, but to delay them. Bleed them of momentum. If left unimpeded, the sheer impetus of so many creatures jammed together would have crashed into the walls with tremendous force and possibly carried it altogether. Now the Grimm that reach the town's outskirts are shell-shocked, stunned, arriving in small clusters instead of one unbroken wave.
Nonetheless, they immediately attempt to scale the walls.
Velvet Scarletina hears the sound of claws scraping against stone. The more agile Grimm are heaving themselves up towards the defenders, stabbing taloned digits into the wall for purchase. So far they are only achieving limited success due to the sheer weight of firepower being directed against them.
But this will last a few more minutes. The Grimm are numerous and it won't be long before there are more forms climbing the wall than Dust and bolt rounds can hurl back down.
The second year student recognizes they are reaching a critical phase in the battle.
Fox looks at her meaningfully.
"Now would a good time," he hints.
Velvet knows what they expect her to do. Her teammates alone understand the full extent of her abilities.
She doesn't act. Not yet. Her eyes linger on the immense forms of Devastator Squad Matreus nearby. The weapons they are handling with practiced ease contain enough individual firepower to be mounted on the armature of an Atlesian mech.
"Velvet?" Coco asks, concerned.
"Just a moment," the faunus girl says before bounding towards her objective.
The giants ignore her as she nears. They are focused solely on eradicating the Grimm at long range. They don't even spare her a glance when she takes out her camera and starts snapping pictures.
Kolmion's plasma cannon is the last shot she takes so that's what she focuses on. Aura drains from her body as her Semblance works. Every Hunter's personal power differs in how it chooses to manifest. There is no such thing as the same projection of the soul. Yet, even among such a wide diaspora of powers, hers remain unique.
The plasma cannon appears in her hands. A wire-frame replica. The edges and borders glow with blue light.
Velvet winces. She has miscalculated just how much Aura it would take.
At the very least, she has the giants' attention now. She knows this because they have stopped shooting their weapons to stare at her.
"Blood of Sanguinius," swears Elysius.
"You made a copy of my weapon," Kolmion peers at her. His voice is grudging, as though the admittance has personally cost him, "Out of light. You've even got the honor badge right."
Velvet looks down at her mimicry. At the end of the barrel, there is a solid blue emblem shaped into a shield.
"I earned it for taking down a Carnifex," the Lamenter explains further, "A shot right under the solar plexus."
"It must have been a good shot," under the circumstances, she believes that's the right thing to say.
"It was, but it didn't kill it. I had to beat it to death with the barrel."
"Are you a battle-psyker of some kind?" enquires Troven, politely, as if this came up in casual conversation and they were not surrounded by thousands of Grimm.
"If you don't know what that is," Radiel says matter-of-factly, "you most likely aren't one."
Heavy footsteps sound. Matreus looms behind them. The Sergeant looks down at the faunus girl and the wireframe replica in her hands. Clicks and whirrs emanate from behind the visor-slits of his helm.
"Resume firing," he snaps.
"Brother-Sergeant?" Troven asks.
"Theoretical," Matreus states, "We have just witnessed the impossible being made possible. Practical. We now have two plasma cannons."
He steps aside to give her room. Velvet moves up and hefts her cannon over the parapet. She points it downwards at the Grimm massing at the base of the wall.
This won't be the last copied weapon she will fire today.
The gate shudders. Standing on top of the wall, Jaune can feel the reverberations under his feet. The Grimm are not merely trying to break through. They are attempting to bring the entire superstructure down with the sheer amount of bodies they are piling against it.
The boy chances a look towards the oaken doors. What he sees does not make him feel better about the situation at all.
"That's not going to hold," by his side, Ren makes the same observation.
Jaune looks around desperately. For something, anything at all, to reinforce the gates. His eyes fixate on the building closest to them. It's the watchmen's barracks. Solid. Concrete. Built purposefully to be the sturdiest structure around. It won't stop a concentrated Grimm assault, but it will hinder them long enough for Hunters to arrive to aid those barricaded inside.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The reality is that Hunters will occasionally arrive too late or the Grimm are too numerous to be delayed. Jaune has heard the stories before. Of Huntsmen and Huntresses reaching supposed safe houses only to discover the slaughter inside. Or even worse, following trails of human activity to impromptu bunkers and discovering that the activity ends just before the doors.
Jaune pushes these dark thoughts from his head. He wants to only focus on the building and not why it was built. The student-Huntsman notes that the structure is sufficiently large and tall enough that should a portion of it collapse, debris and wreckage will rain down on the gate.
The boy swallows. He has an idea, but he has no means.
The sky above them darkens with soaring figures. Assault Squad Braellin, covered from head to toe with gore, boosts over the parapet to land within the safety of the town.
Jaune swivels on his feet.
"Wait here," he says to his team before jumping down onto the street.
Aura takes the brunt of the fall. Jaune starts running towards the warriors as soon as he hits the ground. They turn when he reaches hailing distance.
"Huntsman Arc," Braellin greets, hammer held over one shoulder. His tone contains the same cordiality of a man who has just completed a mildly strenuous activity.
Jaune doesn't have time for a polite response. The question come out in a rush.
"Do you have any grenades left?"
The big Marine tilts his head. Jaune is prepared to give a detailed explanation. The why and the how. He is therefore surprised when Braellin answers his request with two short words.
The student-Huntsman blinks, then jerks his head towards the gate.
"It's going to give out."
The Assault Sergeant nods once. Simple. Concise.
"Do you have a solution?"
Jaune points to the watchmen barracks. The menacing helm swivels in that direction before turning to face him again.
"If I can get it to fall…"
Braellin lets out a grunt. Vox-static distorts the sound but the boy swears he hears amusement being filtered through.
The Lamenter reaches for a cylindrical device strapped to his waist. Combined with the carrying handle, and it is bigger than Jaune's head.
He deposits it neatly into the student-Huntsman's hands.
"Melta-bomb," Braellin says, as though the word alone was explanation enough, "Make it count."
The Grimm that first break through the gate do not see cowering defenders as they expected, but an avalanche of debris rushing forward to greet them. Scores are drowned under a literal wave of concrete slabs and twisted metal girders, crushed flat by pulverizing pressure. The watchman barracks, shunted sideways by the force of the explosion, falls on top of the gate and buries it under a mountain of rubble. The hole the Grimm have made is buried along with it.
Aethon sees the building's collapse and the destruction it causes. He approves of both. Whoever has initiated the demolition has bought them even more time for reinforcements to arrive.
But this does not put him at ease. He is still alert. Vigilant. Searching for a threat that has yet to materialize.
Humans would call such a thing a sixth sense. Something that is rooted firmly in the metaphysical. Paranoia. Obsession with the unknown. To a Space Marine, the assumption that something that can go wrong inevitably will go wrong is merely a basic pretext of warfare. To the Lamenters Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, that pretext has become a fact of life.
There is precedent. Boltguns suddenly jamming in the heat of battle when they were meticulously cleaned only hours before. Retro-thrusters on drop pods burning out mid-descent, landing their superhuman cargo kilometers off mark. Guaranteed victories turning into battles hanging on the balance because of some previously undisclosed application of enemy force.
Chapter command has revised entire battle plans to accommodate for this metaphorical unknown.
The line-brothers, over three millennia of experiencing this unknown for themselves, has condensed this supernatural property into a single idiom.
There is bad luck and there is Lamenters luck.
Aethon is well-versed in the saying. He has seen his Chapter brought to the brink and has lost brothers under his command to the same force. He expects things will go wrong far more than he expects them to go right.
His expectations prove him correct.
Movement on the cliff ridge. Shadows flitting on the edge of visibility. As they reveal themselves, they become towering, broad-chested specimens with trunk-like arms. Whatever evolutionary theory the Grimm follow has shaped these creatures' heads to resemble the leering skulls of great apes in mid-snarl. Their movements as they slip and slide down the sheer cliff drop are grotesquely simian.
Dozens of these new beasts join the horde.
They begin hurling other Grimm over the town's walls.
Coco knows what an orderly retreat is and this isn't it.
The sudden appearance of the Beringels had made their position all but untenable. It had always been a close thing, staving off the horde while manning the walls. This new presence had tipped the balance decisively in favor of the Grimm.
All three Hunter teams and their Astartes guardians have been forced to separate and withdraw deeper into the town, fighting all along the way.
Tactical redeployment under extreme duress, the Lamenters had called it. Coco also has a way to describe it, but it would come out far ruder.
The defenders find themselves bogged down the further they progress.
The leader of CFVY understands the problem immediately. The Beringels have hurled enough Grimm into the town that there is now a significant concentration barring their way. And now without the firepower to suppress the horde at the walls, the main force is climbing en masse over the battlements and pouring into the streets.
There is a real chance they will be cut off and surrounded before they can enact a successful escape.
Coco is no stranger to dangerous situations. She is a second-year student. Her baptism of fire is already behind her. And yet, here, now, defeat has never seemed so certain.
An upswell of noise causes her to turn. A fresh wave of Grimm is coming right at them. They are surging out of alleyways and leaping over roofs in their haste to get at the human defenders.
Coco makes a split-second decision. The Astartes cannot help her. Matreus has already split his squad's fire, punishing the creatures creeping up from behind while still forging a path through those in front. Likewise, her teammates are engaged with the Grimm spilling towards the Devastators, clawing their way over the corpses of their comrades to try and silence the Lamenters' guns.
The student-Huntress digs her feet into the ground. She braces.
Back at Beacon, there had been lessons before on the importance of subtlety on the battlefield. The underlying concept had been what the enemy could not see, they also could not know.
Coco had chosen not to go to those lessons. Solely because the weapon she pulls out of her handbag would have made any semblance of subtlety a moot point.
The brass and bronze barrels of the minigun cycle simultaneously. The first bullets are already leaving each individual muzzle before she can fully point them at the enemy.
For a few precious seconds, carnage visits the Grimm. High-caliber rounds scythe through them. The projectiles blow fist-sized holes into shadowy bodies and sever reaching arms off hunched shoulders. They excavate skulls of brain matter and rip chunks off flesh. The creatures they hit jerk and spasm like broken marionettes.
Coco walks her fire through the mob with clinical precision. She kills them. She mows them down. She cuts individual Grimm down to size with surgically applied firepower.
When she is finished there is nothing in front of her but unmoving bodies. Some of them have been reduced to splatters on the ground by sheer volume of fire.
The student-Huntress clenches her teeth as she feels her legs give out from under her. She has used up a substantial amount of Aura and her body is reacting appropriately. Exhaustion is setting in. That's not the issue, however. Aura will come back. It always does. But in the time it takes to recover, she is hideously vulnerable.
"Yatsuhashi!" she pants out.
Her teammate is already occupied. Out of the corner of her eye, Coco catches him battling an Ursa twice his size. The boy has already buried his immense sword a full hand span into the beast's side. In response, the creature is craning its neck to try and maul him with its teeth. Yatsuhashi has to lean back as far as he can while maintaining his grip just to avoid the snapping, slavering jaws.
It takes a herculean effort for the Huntress to raise herself on one knee. Her limbs feel like they've been set on fire and then submerged in ice. Her senses, however, remains alert.
It's one of the first lessons Beacon teaches you. It doesn't matter how physically you're hurt, but if you lose your senses out here in the Wild, your ability to rationally think through and process threats, then you're already dead.
And her senses are now telling her the danger is far from over.
Inhuman shapes are swarming overhead. The aerial Grimm, Griffons and Nevermores, are congregating. Whatever shock they suffered through during the initial phases of the defense have disappeared. They are being attracted back to the battle by the growing sense of despair from the defenders.
At their head is a fearsome specimen of an adult Griffon. Curved talons capable of casually decapitating a human being is sheathed within four leonine paws. Its wingspan alone is wider than the length of a passenger van.
Coco manages to stand, sways, and then falls back down. The Griffon sees her weakness, sweeps its wings back, and guns straight for her.
"Yatsuhashi!" she screams for the final time.
The Griffon's vast form looms before her. Her entire view is blocked by the creature's gigantic, misshapen pinions. Its viciously curved beak opens to form a victory screech.
Matreus punches the knuckles of his oversized gauntlet into the side of its head and compacts it like an aluminum tin can.
The Griffon's brutalized skull sails away. Its corpse hurtles past Coco, a worthless pile of twitching limbs.
"Only the Emperor determines when your time is up, Huntress!" the second year student grunts as she feels herself being hauled up, "And He hasn't called your name yet!"
More Grimm take the place of the dead Griffon. Aerial and ground variants alike. They are trying to separate both of them from their respective squad mates.
There is no other choice.
The Huntress and the Astartes go back-to-back.
Before the Grimm descend on them from all sides, Coco looks up to meet the stare of visor lenses the color of human blood.
"What do you Hunters say when the prospects are bleak and Death is all around you?"
"We probably shouldn't have taken this job," Coco says through a smile made grim by gritted teeth, "Why? What do you say?"
The Lamenter turns to face the Grimm, back straight, head erect.
"For those we cherish, we die in glory."
Jaune has taken a wound in the pell-mell confusion of the retreat. It's not fatal but it bleeds copiously. Pyrrha supports his sagging weight with her shield arm. The other plies her spear in lethal thrusts that leaves eviscerated Grimm twitching on the ground. Surrounding the duo, the rest of their team and their Space Marine escort are locked in vicious combat with oncoming waves of snarling creatures.
A Creep manages to break through the defensive cordon. It's trying to ram her off her feet with its substantial bulk. Pyrrha inserts the bladed tip of Miló through its open mouth and down its throat. The Creep makes a squealing, choking sound. Its jaws close around her spear's haft and locks it in place with death-effused strength. She has to pry her weapon loose free from the creature's mouth.
Therefore her guard is poor when the Beowolf crawling over a nearby rooftop leaps at her.
The electrical hum of an energy field bristling on maximum is the only warning she receives. She ducks just in time for Braellin's thunder hammer to pass overhead and smash into the beast's chest. The power field kills the Grimm dead. The kinetic impact wallops it on its back and bounces it painfully down the street.
The Huntress feels a twinge of vindictive pleasure at the way the corpse rolls brokenly to a stop. Braellin moves in front of her, sealing the gap made in the cordon.
"Encountering that Alpha was bad luck," the sergeant directs his words towards Jaune, "Encountering the second Alpha while running from the first was Lamenter luck."
His men laugh. The noise that filters through their helms resemble the discordant growls of truck engines left too long on idle.
Pyrrha frowns. Not because she disapproves. It's the simple matter that there is nothing about the current situation that is remotely worth laughing about.
"Can you use your jump packs to carry us out?" she asks.
Nothos plants his chainaxe into the deformed skull of a charging Boarbertusk and wrenches it free in a mad welter of blood.
Pyrrha accepts the grunted reply at face value. She monitors her Aura level along with those of her teammates and does not like what she sees.
"If we're slowing you down…" she lets the words hang.
There's no need to explain further. It's in the implication itself. Leaving fellow Hunter squads and even teammates behind is not unheard of. If the situation is bad enough, then it is the next logical step. Aura is an intrinsically limited resource. Ones who can wield it to its full potential are even more limited.
You don't go wasting limited resources on people who are the closest thing to dead.
It's not even that unusual of an occurrence. Just another fact of life on Remnant.
"Abandoning allies is generally frowned upon in the Codex Astartes," Akrio states dryly.
Nora bludgeons a lunging Beowolf into the side of a house and in the process, caves in the entire wall.
"The Codex Astartes is a treatise on military organization, strategy, and tactics that most Chapters adhere to," answers Turmiel over the mechanical purr of his chainsword. The Ursa he has just finished sawing apart flops wetly to the ground in two separate halves.
"Oh neat. Who's it written by?"
"By the greatest military mind in the known galaxy and a son of the Emperor Himself."
"Sounds like a swell guy."
The Marines pause. It lasts only a fraction of an instant. Perhaps even less than that before they go back to battling the Grimm.
"Yes," Turmiel finally says, "That is one way to put it. Roboute Guilliman, Primarch of the Thirteenth Legion, first Lord Commander of the Imperium is a… swell guy."
The Grimm launch a renewed attack. At face value, their numbers might just be enough to overwhelm the defensive ring the student-Hunters and Astartes have made.
Ren sees the mass of creatures barring their way and frowns at Braellin.
"Say we can't break through. What happens to you?"
The Assault Sergeant shrugs.
"Then we die alongside you, I suppose."
"I don't think now is the best time to be joking," Ren says flatly.
"Oh please, Huntsman," the Lamenter moves to greet the first of the charging Grimm, thunder hammer held back to swing, "I was being entirely serious."
Team RWBY and their Astartes complement make their way towards the town center. Progress is slow, exacerbated by the Grimm ambushing them from the shadows. The Beringels have not stopped hurling their cohorts over the walls, not even for an instant. The two squads are forced to carve their way through the packs intercepting them from the front, all the while aware that the noose is slowly tightening from behind.
"When I agreed to go on this field trip," Weiss mutters under her breath, "I didn't think it would end up like this."
By her side, hacking a path through the Grimm, Aethon scoffs. He has killed so many of the creatures that the power field sheathing his weapon cannot burn the gore drenching it off fast enough.
"This is a rather poor showing for the first case of Hunter-Astartes interaction," he says as he bisects a lunging Beowolf, "is it not?"
Yang pauses in mid-punch. The Creep she has pinned against the floor is already half-dead. Like Aethon's sword, her fists are stained with Grimm blood.
"Was that a joke?" she asks eagerly.
The Lamenter aims his combi-melta at a pack of approaching creatures. He rethinks his word choice between bursts of bolter fire.
"Given the circumstances, I do believe I've made an unfortunate attempt at humor."
Blake's sword is a silver blur that leaves Grimm disarticulated on the ground.
"So there is something human beneath all that armor," she says.
Dumedion laughs. The heavy bolter chugging and sputtering in his hands is the only thing keeping the Grimm snapping at their heels at bay.
"In more ways than one, Huntress."
Aethon smiles behind his helm. The statement is innocuous. Harmless. But there is something contained within that only Astartes would understand.
What he sees striding for them with measured purpose makes the smile vanish as fast as it appeared.
"Oh Throne," Corien says softly.
First come its bodyguards, as if such a thing needed bodyguards.
Each one is taller than the buildings around them. Hulking brutes, with clubs for arms and trunks for legs. Praetorian-beasts, surrounding their deformed master. Alphas obeying a greater Alpha.
Half-a-dozen Beringels form a protective ring of mass and flesh, and amidst them, the monster itself.
There is not an inch of its body that is not covered by corded muscle. Thick hide, scabbed in some places, clings to its gargantuan frame like the armaplas slabs of carapace plate. It looms a full head and shoulders over its lesser kin, towering over them the same way an Astartes towers over mortal men. The top of its head is festooned with curved protrusions of bone. They jut around the full circumference of its skull, forming a circlet of twisted thorns. The face below the demented crown is completely and hideously alien.
Its gait as it advances on them is utterly assured. Utterly confident.
It is superior to everything and everyone present and it knows it.
The gleam in its eyes is what draws Aethon's attention. This is not the feral glimmer of a beast scrounging for survival on the edges of civilization. It is far more insidious light, speaking of a deep, ancient malevolence that to the Lamenter's practical sensibilities, can only mean one thing.
It is self-aware. It is intelligent.
Aethon knows no fear. But staring into the monster's burning pupils, he feels unease stirring in his twin hearts.
Weiss turns to him.
"Do you have any more jokes?" her face has grown as white as her hair, "Because I could really use one right now."
The ancient Beringel begins the fight by slapping Dumedion away like a ragged toy doll.
It's there in front of him before the Lamenter can bring his heavy bolter to bear. Before the transhuman senses of an Adeptus Astartes can fully process and respond.
It looms before him, an unholy amalgamation of what a Grimm should and should not be.
Dumedion's body is gene-forged. His muscle mass alone outweighs an entire man. Add the suit of ceramite warplate and its attendant servos and he would total at an excess of several hundred kilos.
The back of the Beringel's meaty hand slams into him and sends him flying. As though those previous properties didn't matter, as though they didn't exist, as though they were nothing.
The Lamenters respond by opening up with their bolters. Their Hunter allies follow. Mass-reactive shells slam into the monstrous creature and its equally monstrous bodyguard. Dust rounds streak into the beasts in exploding flashes of color.
They do absolutely nothing to the Grimm.
The ancient Beringel is especially impervious. Aethon watches in consternation as it shrugs off their combined volleys as though they were mere pinpricks.
Malachiel has it in his sights. The plasma gun in his hands can reliably pierce the frontal glacis of Terminator plate. Malachiel carries it precisely for situations like this.
The magnetic coils on its back flare bright red. Then they abruptly fade to dull. The plasma gun's barrel glows but does not discharge. Symptoms of a mechanical failure.
Malachiel looks down at his misfired weapon in dismay. Aethon understands what has transpired long before his brother does. The occurrence is a statistical improbability. All Astartes tend to their weapons with devotion bordering on religion. Aethon has observed Malachiel applying the Rites of Maintenance to his sacred weapon himself. This is not a malfunction caused by human error.
This is Lamenter luck manifesting at the worst possible time.
The monster is already lunging for Malachiel. Its malign intelligence has deduced correctly that Dumedion and his heavy weapon was the primary threat. Now with Dumedion gone, its attention has focused on Malachiel and his plasma gun.
One brawny hand batters the weapon away. The other reaches for the Lamenter's throat.
Malachiel twists his body. He presents the Grimm with nothing to latch onto but his pauldron. The Beringel grips it anyways. It pulls the auto-reactive shoulder guard off of Malachiel the same way a child would peel the skin off a fruit.
Aethon hears his brother grunt. The mangled part of his armor is cascading sparks. The Lamenter pulls his bolt pistol out of the holster at his side and begins thudding rounds into the monster's abdomen. They explode harmlessly off the beast's chitinous hide.
The Beringel snorts in annoyance. It forms a fist and smashes it into Malachiel's chest. Aethon actually sees the place where the blow impacted crack. Momentum does the rest and sends Malachiel flying back just like Dumedion had a bare instant ago.
Team RWBY springs into action. Their motions are supernaturally aerobatic. Aethon sees flashes of light where they are using Aura to supplement their movements.
The Lamenter surges after them. His target isn't the monster Beringel, but its contingent of Alpha bodyguards. The warrior part of him rebels at the thought of leaving such an existential threat to non-Astartes, but the practical part of him understands the necessity. His squad is temporarily down two members. Theirs is still full. And a foe such as this would require a full strength team to outmatch.
Aethon knows what duty is and his is now to prevent the praetorian-beasts from reaching their master and interceding on its behalf.
"Corien!" he barks.
The marksman immediately switches his fire from the ancient Grimm and onto the bodyguards ambling forward to protect it. He drives back a snarling creature reaching for Weiss with a sustained volley and stuns another bounding towards Yang with a round to the face.
Aethon charges the rest. His combi-bolter is sputtering on full-auto in one hand. The Lamenter's aim is compromised by his swift movements but that is of only minor consequence. Bolt shells alone were never going to bring down these things. No, it is the power sword he clasps in the other hand that is the deciding factor.
The first beast that greets him is an impressive specimen of its kind. Barrel-chested and rippling with muscle. Yet compared to its massive lord, it is rendered merely ordinary. It comes at him, lashing out with its burly arms like a brawler at a bar fight.
Aethon dodges past the swinging arms. He thrusts his power sword into the place where the Beringel's heart should be. Any other xenos-breed and this would have been a killing blow beyond a shadow of doubt. But the Grimm do not possess organs as Aethon understands them. It is arguable if they have any vital spots at all. This theory is cemented further when his foe continues grappling with him without a hint of being inconvenienced by the sword rammed through its chest. The Lamenter ducks under the flailing limbs and jams his boltgun under the beast's jowls. He squeezes the trigger and blasts the Beringel's chin out the top of its skull.
Another makes for him, slowed by the implement it carries in its hands. The creature has upended a lamp post and is swinging the massive beam around like a bat. Aethon has to leap away to avoid blows that would have pulverized a man into paste. But while avoiding the wild swings is easy, killing it becomes much harder. The Lamenter cannot get close to it while its weapon far outreaches his own.
Corien solves the issue by putting an Inferno Round into its chest. The incendiary explodes in a plume of chemical fire. It doesn't hurt the beast it impacts against, but it distracts it. The Beringel looks down at its own torso, now singed by flame, in temporary befuddlement.
Aethon rolls under its guard and chops its legs from under it. The Praetor pattern blade hews through the Grimm's limbs effortlessly. It immediately topples and drops the lamp post in the process. It's not done though. Far from it. It drags Aethon down with it before the Lamenter can rise. The two become entangled in a vicious, pummeling fight on the street floor. They roll on top of one another, smashing fists against the other's sides.
The Beringel gains the upper hand. The deprivation of its legs has done nothing to sour the strength in its arms. It slams its transhuman opponent into the ground and wraps its gnarled hands around his throat. It begins choking the life out of Aethon.
Warning klaxons blare inside the Lamenter's helm. He retaliates with a vicious headbutt that sends the Grimm reeling. Its hands move to instinctively clutch at its face.
By then Aethon has already scrambled up. He has lost his bolter but the power sword remains clenched in one fist. The Lamenter raises it two-handed and brings it down in a zigzagging slash. The Beringel lurches back. Its head and shoulders split away from the rest of its body in a diagonal line.
Aethon turns just in time for the third Beringel to plant a fist square into his stomach. The strength behind the blow is tremendous. The Lamenter feels the breath being driven from his lungs. He doubles over, momentarily vulnerable. The creature looms over him while he is indisposed, intending to smash him back into the dirt.
Malachiel tackles it from the side in a flying leap. The mangled armature on his shoulder is still intermittently spewing sparks. The specialist loops an arm around the Grimm's throat and pulls it forcibly away from his sergeant. The other arm presses his bolt pistol into the beast's neck and begins the laborious process of decapitating it with close-ranged shots.
The fourth Beringel takes the place of the third. It reaches out for Aethon with a grasping hand then jerks back as successive detonations erupt against its carapace.
Dumedion emerges from the hole his impact has created. The monster had bashed him into a neighboring house. Rubble streams down the big Marine's shoulders as he drives the Grimm back with one suppressing fusillade after another.
Aethon has recovered. He sees his combi-bolter on the ground nearby and snatches it up. He swivels to face the fifth praetorian-beast. Except it isn't the fifth at all. It's the first Beringel. The one he put his sword through. The one he thought he killed.
Its face is a grisly, ghastly ruin. The bolt shell has done gruesome things to its skull. The front part of its head is an empty basin pouring brackish blood down its chest. The exploding round has lodged fragments of its own teeth into the place where its brain should be.
The sound the walking corpse makes as it lurches for him almost resembles laughter.
Aethon blows its mutilated head apart with another round, then shoots the sagging body twice more to make sure it's dead.
Then the fifth one comes at him. The Brother-Sergeant has neither the time nor the inclination to deal with it. Every second they waste fighting these bodyguards is a second they allow the true threat to rampage free. The Lamenter switches to his combi-bolter's underslung melta. He has been saving the weapon's last reserves of fuel for the Beringels' master, but now is as good time as any.
A concentrated beam of heat lances out of the barrel and towards the onrushing Grimm. The distance is too close for it to properly dodge. It staggers as the wave of heat passes over it. It tries to continue rushing the Lamenter with an Astartes-sized hole through its midsection.
Aethon moves past it. The sixth and final Beringel is already on its knees. Corien has opened it up with concentrated bolter fire and then shot Hellfire Rounds into the exposed wounds. Mutagenic acid is coursing through whatever it possesses for a bloodstream. The contagion is eating the Grimm alive from the inside out.
The Lamenters finish off the last of their foes. They turn their attention to where the real fight is. Team RWBY has been engaged with the main threat while the Astartes were dealing with its contingent of bodyguards. Aethon is a Brother-Sergeant leading a squad of the finest soldiers in the galaxy. His posthuman mind can read battle situations at a glance. Even as he leads his warriors to support, his brain is analyzing and processing information at a record pace.
The most he can say is that their allies haven't lost yet. But by that standard, they aren't winning either.
The issue lies not with the girls themselves, but the quality of the enemy they face. The monstrous specimen that blocks and parries each and every one of their blows is the type of foe that would require a Hunter team to be in prime condition to ever hope to match.
Team RWBY has been fighting side by side with the Lamenters ever since their mutual drop by Stormraven. Their Aura has been continuously depleted in steadily worsening circumstances.
They are nowhere near prime condition.
Aethon sees Ruby leap towards the monster, a black and scarlet blur. She has shifted Crescent Rose into its bladed form. She leverages momentum and body strength into a powerful swing. Aethon has watched that scythe carve through Beowolves like they were chaff. The ancient Beringel blocks it with a single burly forearm. The weapon's edge doesn't even bite into its flesh.
In the same motion, its other limb snakes out, inhumanely fast. It grabs Ruby by the leg in mid-leap then swings her into Blake. Both Hunters tumble away in a confused jumble of limbs.
"Cover them!" Aethon snaps.
The rest of his squad open fire. Full-auto. They douse the Grimm in a hail of shot and lead. They smother the entirety of the beast's body with bolt shell detonations.
The creature disregards these pricks against its skin. It turns leisurely and backhands Weiss through a one story building. The girl's Aura flares visibly as it takes the full force of a blow that would have pulverized every bone in a normal human's body.
The Beringel rounds on Yang next. It kicks her out of the way with a casualness bordering on contempt. The blonde Huntress hurtles away at tremendous speed. Her back crashes against a nearby communications tower. Aethon has seen it before in the town. Supposedly, it connects with the main CCT network. The beam itself is as thick as a man's waist. Yang's impact bends it forty-five degrees.
In the same span of time the Lamenters have already reloaded once and are continuing to pour their considerable firepower onto the Grimm with no discernable effect.
Ruby and Blake have detangled themselves and are rising from the floor. The monster is on them in the wink of an eye. Its swiftness continues to defy all logic and reasoning.
The girls have, perhaps, a few scant milliseconds to react.
Blake uses them to push Ruby outside the Beringel's reach. And then she is gone, snatched up in one immense fist.
Aethon hears Ruby scream her teammate's name. He sees the ancient monster bringing Blake closer to its face. He witnesses the beast squeezing and the bright retinal glare of Aura being strained to its breaking point.
Adrenaline spikes into his twin hearts. His legs are already in motion. They move in great, distance-eating strides. He has discarded his bolter. It's not of any use in what he is about to do.
The Lamenter brings his power sword high above his head in a two-handed grip. He bridges the last dozen meters in a flying leap.
The edge of the Praetor-pattern blade sinks into the limb holding Blake the exact same time her Aura finally gives out.
The hefty blade chops a quarter of the way through the Grimm's arm and then stops. Such is the Grimm's innate toughness that the energy field draping the weapon cannot fully hew through its flesh. Aethon's power sword remains planted in the Beringel's limb like a butcher's cleaver sticking out of a particularly tough chunk of meat.
The wounded arm drops Blake. The other arm swings in and grabs him instead. The Lamenter grunts as he feels himself being lifted into the air. Fingers thicker than his wrist wrap him in a constrictor's hold. They bring him up higher until he is face to face with a nightmare made manifest.
At a distance, the Grimm had only appeared grotesque. It is only up close that Aethon can fully appreciate the depth of its blasphemy. Its ghoulish face is pock marketed with dents and scars, evidence of battles fought and won in the depths of the forest with beings equally as monstrous as it. Its head is a bone-white casque of twisted horns, warped into the shape of a crown. Its eyes are crimson orbs of light in depthless sockets, burning with pitiless, merciless intelligence.
It opens its jaws, this beast that has no logical right to exist. It begins moving its mandibles. Forming noise. Forming syllables. Forming words.
"Run," the Grimm heaves, "Run."
Aethon freezes. His disbelief lasts a solid second before transhuman thinking kicks in.
The Beringel is not speaking because it understands the workings of human language, he realizes. It is repeating. Mimicking.
It is mimicking the same word it has heard throughout its centuries-long existence, coming out of the lips of untold numbers of terrified humans crying out to their helpless comrades as it crushed the life out of them.
The image alone drives Aethon to the heights of fury.
"You dare sully the language of humanity?" the Lamenter snarls back, "You dare pollute our tongue?"
The Grimm pulls him closer. Aethon feels places on his warplate buckling under the immense pressure.
"Run," it chortles into his face.
It has made a mistake. This creature.
In its colossal arrogance, it has assumed that Aethon would act like every other human caught between its gigantic paws. In its hubris, it has assumed that the Lamenter would be paralyzed with indecision. Struck dumb by fear.
It compounds its error by bringing the Astartes closer to gloat. It has not realized that in doing so, it has also closed the distance between it and a being genetically-modified and psycho-indoctrinated to hurt things like it.
Aethon draws his combat knife in a flash. The edge is monomolecular. With a blade as long as a man's forearm.
He rams it into the Grimm's bulging, staring eye.
The Beringel howls. Long and agonized. The knife has been buried hilt-deep into its right eye socket. It hurls Aethon away and begins pawing at its ruined face.
The Lamenter skids against the ground. His armored plate throws up sparks as it scrapes against the street's surface.
Momentum is gradually arrested before finally ceasing altogether. Aethon rises on one knee.
He starts laughing.
He laughs at the Beringel, still clutching its wound.
He laughs at the pain he has caused it.
He laughs because a single winking light in his helm has turned green.
The voice that leaks into the vox-link is the rumbling growl of a mountain avalanche.
"Your request for reinforcements is acknowledged."
The drop pod streaks down from the heavens. Retro-thrusters built on its underside flare and sputter.
It lands in the center of the town, smashing into the ground as though thrown from the fist of an angry god.
Kinetic impact blasts dust and debris in an area-wide, concentric cloud. Visibility becomes temporarily impossible.
The Beringel rises to meet this new threat. Its entire face is on fire from pain, but the ancient malevolence driving its brain has been roused to fury.
Its sense of invulnerability has been shattered. Its own belief of its innate superiority has been brutally and abjectly dashed. Something it had thought was beneath it on the totem scale of cosmic etymology has hurt it far more than it has ever been hurt before.
The urge to reassert its dominance spreads like a virus throughout its body. It will begin by tearing apart whatever comes out of the drop pod with its bare hands. It will seize the presence lurking beyond the debris cloud and pull it apart in front of its horrified allies. Then and only then will it vent its rage at the ones who has hurt it so.
The massive creature pounds its meaty fists against its chest. It bellows into the smoke with unmistakable intent.
Something huge, something enormous, something indomitable moves to answer its challenge.
An immense hands thrusts out, fingers splayed open like the pedals of a flower. Adamantium digits, each one impossibly thick, clamp themselves around the Beringel's skull.
The Grimm immediately fights back. It twists in the punishing grip. It beats at the hand with its own.
The immense fist does not budge an inch. The mechanical fingers remain clamped around the Beringel's head. Then, they begin to squeeze.
Desperation sets in. The Grimm latches its own burly limbs around the offending arm and tries to forcibly pull it away. It leverages its own bottomless strength, perfected by evolution, to try and escape the death grip locked around its skull.
The dust settles. Visibility returns. The Beringel looks up and into the unblinking visor lenses of its killer.
It wears the black of penitence like its brothers, but that is where all similarity ends.
Trunk-like legs that once walked the battlefields of the Great Crusade propel its ungainly bulk down the ramp. Across its sarcophagus hull is a landscape of honor markings, depicting wars long since forgotten, all won in defense of the realm of humanity. Its venerable, revered form is a painstaking reminder of the Imperium's ten-thousand-year history, a look back in time when mankind was at its undisputed zenith.
Ancient Vaspasian, Relic Contemptor, strides out of the drop pod and onto the cobblestone street below. His first recorded act on Remnant soil is to crush the ancient Beringel's head between the enormous digits of his power fist.
"Honored Ancient," the vox-distortion does nothing to hide the relief in Aethon's voice, "You have awoken."
The dreadnought pivots on its chassis. Sensory nodes built into its helm feed information back to the pilot contained within. They focus on the Beringel's corpse as it begins to dissolve.
"The noise you idiots make," the Contemptor discards the broken body with a disinterested flick of its wrist. The other arm swings into view, revealing the long, brutal barrels of a twin-linked autocannon, "I can hear it all the way up in orbit."
"Our apologies, lord."
"I'm no lord," Vaspasian grumbles, "I'm no sir either. I stopped being those things when they put me in this coffin. I keep telling you younglings this, but still you persist."
"You are a hero of the Chapter, lord."
"I'm a desiccated corpse in a walking sarcophagus kept alive for the sole purpose of spiting our enemies for just a little while longer. Do you know when was the last time I recalled I had actual, working legs, Aethon?"
"Answer the question, Brother-Sergeant."
"…I don't know."
"Good answer. I don't know either. Now appraise me of the situation."
Aethon retrieves his power sword and complies. He informs the towering ancient in terse sentences, mindful of its cantankerous mood. He supplements his testimony with pict-captures and short data bursts shared over the Chapter's manifold link. Vaspasian straightens once he is finished.
"And the locals call these creatures Grimm?" it says.
"Yes, Honored Ancient."
"They look like something the Warp ate and spat back out."
"They are dangerous, lord."
"Oh I don't doubt they are. That doesn't stop them from being ugly as sin."
Aethon can't help himself. The words leave his mouth before he can stop them.
"I don't think they would understand if you told them that, lord."
"Of course not," the dreadnought says gruffly, "That's what the Emperor made us for. To inform the enemies of mankind they are ugly and make them even uglier. One bolt shell at a time."
The Contemptor notices the rest of Aethon's squad have gathered around them. Among them are slimmer, slighter figures. In outfits that are quite out of place on a principled, modern battlefield. He turns back to the sergeant.
"We have auxiliary support?"
Aethon looks around before facing the dreadnought.
Vaspasian makes a motion that is the closest thing to a human nod.
"One thing I'll say about them, Aethon."
"They're far better looking than you."
The first the Grimm outside the town know of their imminent destruction is a single shell landing in their midst. Heavy ordinance. Maximum payload.
The explosion ripples through the horde and hurls matted body parts one hundred yards into the air.
At the mouth of the valley, the squat, square shape of a Vindicator Siege Tank appears. It pushes through the undergrowth, grinding plant entanglements into paste beneath its roiling treads. The Demolisher Cannon jutting through the massive siege shield re-orientates before launching another punishing shell into the center of the Grimm.
Rhino and Razorback transports churn after it, followed by a squadron of Predator Battle Tanks. Vale's forests might stop the lumbering behemoths that are Imperial Guard heavy armor, but Space Marine vehicles, fast and maneuverable, are a different beast entirely. Equipped with advanced suspension systems and under the guidance of their superhuman crew, the tangled foliage littering the valley might as well been paved ground.
They charge towards the foe at line-break speed, the tip of an armored spearhead, firing as they advance.
Turret mounted cannons and pintle-mounted weaponry spew a continuous hail of lead. Sponson mounted heavy bolters drench the Grimm with destruction.
The horde baulks, under fire from a new angle. Dozens are slaughtered where they stand. Dozens more fall as they turn to face this new threat.
Behind the vehicle spearhead come tall, transhuman figures. A surging line of Lamenters, keeping pace with the armored vanguard, thirty bodies wide. They are dwarfed by their engines of war, but match them in sheer scope of destruction.
Plasma guns hiss and whine. Flamers retch and spew. Bolters clasped in gauntleted fists blow misshapen forms onto their backs in explosions of gore.
Full-scale battle is joined. For the first time since their assault on the town, the Grimm are thrown awry, forced into defensive mode by an unexpected, mobile force.
Behind the surging line of Lamenters is another. Then another. The black of penitence is prevalent throughout the Astartes force, but the symbol of the Chapter remains untarnished. Atmospheric conditions conspire to dim visibility, yet nonetheless they still gleam. Across kneeplates and shoulderpads, across broad chests and snarling helms, the bleeding-heart sigil is etched in resplendent glory.
Land Speeders hurtle overhead, trailed by Stormravens and Thunderhawks, weapons ablaze with fury.
Salvation has never looked so splendid. Death has never looked so noble.
Bulkier shapes follow the Lamenters relief force. Slower vehicles, but no less the deadlier. Chimera Transports, fast-striding Sentinel Walkers, Hellhound Flame Tanks, and more. There is no uniformity in color among them. Some Chimeras are mustard brown. Others are painted in camo green. A group of Sentinels sport the regal blue of hive guard militia. A pair of Tauros Venators are draped in the sky-grey color of a drop troop company. A Banewolf chem-tank is striped in the haphazard patterns of a hostile environment unit.
What they lack in uniformity, they make up for with singularity of purpose. The crew inside each vehicle are not superhuman like their Astartes counterparts, but they know what they are here to do.
The Imperial Guard armor column, scores of vehicles strong and moving in a flying wedge, smash into the gap left by the Lamenter speartip with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.
Lesser Grimm are simply bulldozed aside. Those not swift enough are crushed outright beneath grinding treads. Larger variants become decorations on armored hulls as multi-ton vehicles crash into them at ramming speed.
The transports among the column lurch to a halt. Ramps clang down and disgorge mechanized infantry into the face of the Grimm.
Disciplined volleys of lasfire join the booming retorts of boltguns in putting the creatures down.
The horde finally reacts. The opening moments of the battle has inflicted catastrophic casualties among them. They are down half their original numbers, but that is still hundreds, potentially thousands of beasts who are devoid of fear and immune to human standards of pain. A concentrated counterattack utilizing weight of numbers might have turned the Lamenters' charge. But it is not used. There is nothing akin to strategy in the Grimm's minds. Whatever pack tactics they used in breaching the town were happenstance at best.
Some of them rush blindly towards the approaching Imperial reprisal and are cut down in droves. Others scatter to find new avenues of attack and are set upon by kill-teams and exterminated with extreme prejudice. Still others remain trying to scale the town's walls, unheeding of the shots and shells that are felling their cohorts around them by the dozen.
A considerable group of Grimm actually reaches the Imperial firing line. Alphas and Majors with a ragged mob of lesser specimens for support. They reach the armored column and are savagely hurled back by a point-blank charge from a platoon-strength force of Bosphoran Cataphracts.
Their reptilian steeds are being led by a full-grown chai-rusid bull the length of two Leman Russes stitched together.
The massive beast seizes an Alpha Beowolf with its jaws, tosses the hapless creature into the air, and bites it in half at the waist in a mad drizzle of blood.
The Grimm break.
Whatever frenzy possessing them has been sapped away. The shock and suddenness of the assault has forced the animalistic instinct to flee into the forefront of their minds.
But there is nowhere to run to. In front of them are the town walls. Behind them is Imperial retribution, a creeping wall of firepower that slays more of them by the second.
They have nowhere to run to so they die.
Perforated by lasbolts. Turned inside out by exploding bolt shells. Disarticulated by vehicular cannon.
By the time the last Grimm falls, misshapen bodies will be piled so thick and so high against the town's walls that it will take several hours before they completely dissolve.
"So that's why we took back the walls," Coco says.
The combined teams are standing on the town's battlements, watching the remaining Grimm being mopped up. To the Astartes, the sight is mundane. To the student-Hunters, what they are seeing is the direct opposite of mundane. They have just witnessed a military operation being carried out at on a grand scale, involving hundreds of men and scores of vehicles.
"It is," Aethon confirms.
Coco shakes her head.
"And I just thought you were crazy."
The Lamenter shrugs his immense shoulderplates.
"Most Guard officers tend to view us the same way when we first make our plans known to them. But I assure you that this was the strategy from the very beginning. Fixate the Grimm on one location until our scattered forces can gather for a pivotal strike."
Deep, stomping sounds heralds the arrival of Ancient Vaspasian. The Contemptor remains on the ground level. The town's walls might support the weight of Astartes in full combat gear, but the dreadnought out masses everyone present several times over.
"What my brother is trying to tell you," it says up to them, "is that you were the bait."
"That is one way to put it," concedes Aethon.
"When you're old and worn like me," Vaspasian grunts, "there is only one way to put it."
The dreadnought turns as it detects movement to its side. It swings its chassis around to see Ruby standing on her tiptoes and trying to touch the twin-linked autocannon mounted on its left arm.
"Look at all these working parts!" the girl's eyes are positively sparkling, "They're so intricate! Are these autoloaders? They are autoloaders! Drum fed magazine too! Look at the size of the shells! They're bigger than my hand! Just think of all that force needed to shoot one! Are the barrels smoothbore? They can't be if you want to shoot a shell that size with any accuracy! They must be rifled!" she ducks beneath the Contemptor's hulking form and arrives at its other side, "And look at capacitors on the back! They're huge! Some sort of shielding device? I know Atlas Paladins have them, but these are even bigger! And is that a flamethrower attached to the giant robot fist!?"
The student-Huntress halts when she comes face to face with the dreadnought. She steps back and takes in the sight of the detailed engravings etched over the relic engine's ancient, revered hull.
"You… You…" the words come out slightly out of breath, "Don't let anyone say anything bad about you!" the girl blurts out, "You're perfect just the way you are!"
A sound akin to the growl of a Chimera engine escapes the Contemptor's slanted helm.
It's laughing. The Chapter Ancient is actually laughing.
It reaches out towards Ruby with a de-energized power fist, extends a single adamantium digit, and with infinite gentleness, pats her once on the head.
"You're a piece of work yourself, little lady," Vaspasian says gruffly, "Tell me, just how old are you?"
"Fifteen!" Ruby beams.
"Fifteen? Fifteen? Ah, I remember when I was fifteen. Freshly inducted to the Chapter on an undertaking to Antilles Five. Knee deep in ork dead with a bolt pistol in one hand and a combat knife in the other. Ah. Those were good days. Glorious days."
"You tell stories too!?" Ruby squeals.
"I do," the dreadnought rumbles, "though I must warn you they mostly involve blood and battle."
"Those are the best type of stories!" the girl turns to her teammates, approaching warily from behind, "Can we keep it?"
Blake looks the towering figure up and down.
"I don't think it would fit in our dormitory," she says musingly.
Weiss blinks at the immense weapon systems fitted on each of the dreadnought's arms.
"I don't think it wants to be kept," she mutters, "Besides, what would we even feed it?"
"You're right!" Ruby says brightly, "I forgot to ask!" she turns back towards the Contemptor, "What do you usually eat?"
"Heretics for breakfast," Vaspasian grumbles, "traitors for lunch, and a spattering of xenos for dinner."
"I don't think we have those things on Remnant."
"It's a good thing you don't," Vaspasian replies, "Otherwise, a lot more of us would have been awoken."
"There are more like you?" Blake raises an eyebrow.
"Do they tell stories too?" Ruby asks the important question.
"Some do. Some don't. And some have forgotten."
"How do you forget how to tell a story?" Weiss wrinkles her nose.
"By forgetting who you once were," the dreadnought says back.
The three Hunters share a look. They are separated by a universe's worth of culture but the hint of melancholy in the Contemptor's tone is hard to miss.
"I hope we haven't offended you," Weiss says diplomatically.
"Only by referring to me as an 'it'."
Ruby starts when she realizes one of her teammates is missing. Her sister is still on the town's walls, gazing down on the battlefield below.
"What are you doing up there, Yang?" she calls out, "Don't you want to meet the giant spaceman robot? It even tells stories!"
"I'll be down in just a moment," the blonde Huntress answers. Her attention has been drawn to a demi-squad of Bosphoran Cataphracts and their chai-rusid steeds. The reptilian beasts are using their thick hindlimbs to pin down one of the Beringels that originally caused the Hunter-Astartes teams to retreat. Their horned snouts dip towards the struggling Grimm and take turns tearing great chunks of flesh off its thrashing body.
Together, they are literally eating the Beringel alive.
Yang leans over the battlements to get a better view. The grin on her face is almost feral.
"That's so freaking metal," she says.
Trooper Cyril has not yet fought the Grimm. He is new in the saddle and only moderately experienced with the kontos. This is his first engagement against the creatures but he has acquitted himself well. Eleven confirmed kills with his kinetic mace and one more with his explosive-tipped lance.
His steed, of course, has killed far more. But you don't count those as your own. Partially because of honor. Partially because it's hard to distinguish half-eaten corpses from one another.
Trooper Cyril's real rank is not Trooper at all. The Imperium standardizes military titles to a religious degree. Any soldier not holding a rank is automatically a Trooper. Cyril's real title, the one he would have been addressed as on his home world of Bosphorax, is Contarii. A Contarii of the Equites Singulares Imperialis Bosphoroi. A lancer of the Imperial Bosphoran Royal Horse. Standardization again has shortened the regiment's name into the Bosphoran Cataphracts. The horse portion is also a play on words. The Bosphorans have not used horses in warfare for generations. The original settlers did. Brought the noble beasts with them in their great migrant fleets. Used and treasured them as all horse cultures inevitably do.
That was before they discovered the chai-rusid lurking in Bosphorax's equilateral jungles.
The day the first of these reptilian creatures were properly tamed to ride was also the last day horses were used in meaningful combat.
The Administratum had never caught on. Owing to its relatively backwater status on the fringe of the Imperium, reexamination of Bosphorax's tithe had been delayed, then suspended, and eventually put on hold for an indefinite period of time.
An indefinite period of time lasting thus far, three thousand seven hundred and forty-three years.
The Bosphorans did not know this of course. They faithfully supplied men and material as the original tithe demanded. Except the material portion called for each rider to bring his horse and the Bosphorans no longer rode horses. So they took the chai-rusid with them instead.
Imperial Commanders expecting lightly-equipped horsemen consigned to reconnaissance work were greeted with the sight of armored shock cavalry that could shatter entire tank companies with the weight of their charge.
Cyril turns in his saddle as Strado approaches. Strado is his Decurion. His squad sergeant.
Behind the sergeant's mailed, visored helm is a communications bead that links him to the Lamenters' information network. The Astartes had required every Guard leader on the squad level be fitted with these if they wished to participate in joint operations.
It was considered a great honor. To speak with the Emperor's Angels was one thing, but to discuss affairs of war with them on even footing was something else entirely.
"What do they sound like?" Cyril had once asked his Decurion, "The Emperor's Angels?"
Strado had thought for a whole minute before replying.
"If they're supposed to be angels," he had said, "then they sound like damned tired angels to me."
That was then. This is now.
Cyril salutes as his superior guides his mount next to his.
Strado nods at him before jerking his head up towards the town's walls.
"That's the one."
Cyril follows his sergeant's gaze. He makes out a slim figure leaning over the battlements, gleaming blonde hair fluttering in the wind.
"That's the one with shotguns for fists," Strado glances at him, "She uses them for locomotion."
Cyril turns back to the figure on the walls. His forefathers before him have launched mass charges powerful enough to drive traitor Astartes from their positions.
"That's so frakking adamantium," he says.