Rain hammered the street as the witch ran, sleeting through the night air. His tattered robe flared behind him, its fasteners long gone, leaving him with a simple tunic protecting him from the elements. His feet were blistered, their soles covered in cuts from days of running.
Behind him, he could hear the low rumble of gunships, getting closer and closer. A frantic lightshow of handheld and vehicle mounted searchlights illuminated the sky. He could hear their voices on their radios, and he knew he didn't have much time.
"Hunt six this is control, target has been located. Grid nineteen, co-ords 12.3-53.0, course is currently at 134 degrees."
The reply was immediate. "Copy control, moving to intercept."
Rialta glanced over her shoulder, waiting for the Inquisitor's nod. "Roger that six, you are go for intercept. Do not engage directly, repeat, do not engage directly. Target is to be coerced into the Acridge agrilands, relative north. The Justice will take it from there."
There was a slight delay. "Roger."
Rialta glanced back again, looking for any sign of approval, but the Inquisitor had turned away already, speaking with his acolytes in a low whisper. She turned her head back to the communications board. No attention was better than some, in this case.
She toggled the frequency. "Hunt three, this is control, do you copy?"
He could hear them, even if he didn't know how. Logically, he knew they were speaking through radios and he should be incapable of hearing them. But then so very little seemed to be logical in the last few days.
He turned a corner, ducking between two sagging sheds and onto an old cart trail. They had found him. Surprisingly, the discovery didn't fill him with dread, as he had assumed it would. Instead, he simply felt… resigned. It was inevitable. Tevir was a small world, mainly given over to agriculture. There were only so many places to run. They had the ports locked down, the roads blocked, the skies filled with their fliers.
Even the stars were denied; the huge silhouette of an Imperial cruiser starkly visible even at night. It had enacted a blockade of the planet, ending his thought to scavenge passage on a trader vessel. The few ships that had tried to leave the planet had been all but vaporised by the cruiser as a lesson to the rest, their runs coming to an abrupt end in a shower of shrapnel raining down over the planet's surface like hail.
He heard shouting to his left, and glanced over. Two armoured vehicles crested the horizon, trailed by a dozen men. Their searchlights darted across him, then focussed on him as one. The light was blinding, and he raised an arm to block it out as he stumbled onwards. Bullets and lasbeams flashed around him.
Why couldn't they just leave him?
Rialta sighed heavily. She turned from the console and bowed her head. "My lord Inquisitor, team six has dropped from contact. Last reports indicate contact with the target, and unintentional engagement."
The Inquisitor waved a hand at her. "Very good," he said in a voice like silk. "Perhaps this will encourage the other teams to be sufficiently wary. Inform them to begin a coordinated engagement. Force the target towards the drop point."
"Yes, lord," she said, before turning back to the comm.
"Oh, and officer?"
She froze. "Yes, my lord?"
"This time there are to be no more unintentional engagements, am I clear? As unit coordinator, I hold you responsible for the actions of your units. Bear this in mind."
She swallowed as it occurred to her that death was a very real and likely outcome of this mission, regardless of its success. The Inquisition was not known for its leniency. "Yes, my lord."
"Lord Captain, we've received communication from the ground forces."
Captain Al'ruhl nodded. "Our orders?"
"Site C has been picked out as the best target point." The comms officer tapped at his console for a second. "On screen now, sir. Orders call for a combat drop of the Witchsbane unit, with all preparations being made for lance strikes if the unit fails."
"Very good officer Shils," said Al'ruhl, suppressing a shudder. The Witchsbane unit were the Inquisitor's own, sequestered off in their own section of the holds surrounded by runes inscribed in what he suspected was blood. They were specialists amongst specialists; scuttlebutt had them as ex-stormtroopers, from their equipment and mannerisms, but nobody had gotten a good enough look at them to tell for sure.
They were the best in the galaxy at what they did, and what they did was kill witches and rogue psykers. And apparently the Inquisitor wasn't sure they'd be up to it. He closed his eyes for a second and said a silent prayer for whatever forces were down there on the ground. They'd need it.
"Control, this is Hunt nine. Target is approaching site."
Rialta keyed the comm. "Copy that nine. Requesting statue update."
"Hunt nine is at full strength. Two reported casualties amongst Hunt three, fourteen more amongst Hunt seven, with the loss of both transports. Three Valkyries down above the entrance to the agrilands."
"Roger Hunt nine. Continue herding target. Justice reports drop ready to commence when ordered." She hesitated. "Once target is in position, all Hunt teams are clear to engage."
"Roger that control, Hunt nine out." She thought she heard eagerness in his distorted voice, and shook her head disbelievingly. That… thing out there had killed more than a thousand people. Anyone who would voluntarily take it on with nothing more than a rifle and a suit of body armour had something seriously wrong with them, in her eyes.
The witch dropped to his knees in the mud. He was cornered. They had him surrounded in an open field, and he had nowhere left to run. His eyes turned upwards, to the cruiser waiting directly overhead. He saw something glinting in its belly, and then the world exploded.
Sergeant Ephras of Hunt team nine smiled grimly as the quartet of drop pods made planetfall around the witch. Coming in at staggering speeds, the pods cratered the ground around them when they hit, throwing the witch to the floor. Explosive bolts detonated, and their sides burst open, disgorging black-armoured troopers.
The troopers spread out with military precision, needle rifles spitting toxic shards at the witch with every step. The needles seemed to scrape off an invisible barrier before they hit, and the witch pushed himself awkwardly to his feet.
Two of the drop pods exploded in the blink of an eye, and a third flew backwards with enough force to crumple Hunt two's chimera. Ethyric winds howled out from the witch, forcing Ephras to drop prone to avoid being bowled over.
He could see the Witchsbane troopers standing firm, their armour glowing with crimson runes. Grenades flew, but the witch swatted them out of the air without even looking, letting them detonate in the air with crackling electromagnetic discharges.
"All units," said Ephras, forcing himself to his feet, "Charge!"
The witch lashed out instinctively, lashes of power flaying the trooper behind him, armour and all. The lashes swept around to his front, catching two more men and ripping their skin from their bones, leaving the meaty corpses to slump to the ground. Their armour burned at him, but desperation made him ignore the pain. He forced himself to feed the power that had taken hold of him despite the pain, knowing that it was the only way he could get out of there.
And, he thought as the power raked invisible knives through a squad of soldiers, it felt good.
"Bring up maximum magnification," ordered Al'ruhl.
His crew scrambled to obey, and the grainy image of the ground expanded to fill the forward monitor. The farm-turned-battlefield was mostly obscured by smoke and flame, but here and there he could see snatches of action; soldiers being flung around like ragdolls, vehicles exploding, men fleeing for their lives.
He closed his eyes. "Bring the portside lance batteries up to power, lock in targeting solutions." If the Inquisitor's men couldn't do it, then he would.
The witch was lost in the torrent of power pouring through him. It was killing him; he could feel the fibres of his being tearing apart beneath the pressure. He sagged, but the power did not relent. Two of the black-clad soldiers approached from either side, and the power swatted them aside almost indifferently, blue flames writhing into life across their whirling bodies. A bolt of energy lanced through one of the vehicles, crumpling it before throwing it through the squad using it for cover.
He dropped to his knees, retching. His head pounded and his vision swam, but the power wouldn't let him go.
Ephras dropped flat as his Chimera was hurled through his squad. He saw Dnil and Regent get hit square-on, vanishing from sight as the IFV took them with it. Its multilaser turret caught him a glancing blow atop his helmet, and he blacked out.
He was awake again in seconds, ignoring the hammering pain and the ringing whine filling his ears. He raised his rifle, looking down the sights at the maelstrom they had unleashed. The witch was surrounded by roaring winds, backlit by flaring light that had no source. His eyes glowed pure white, and though his scrawny body slumped limply in the mud, the destruction he wrought showed no sign of abating.
The Witchsbane troopers were decimated. Only four remained, and as he watched Ephras saw one of those burst into ghostly blue flames. For all their training and equipment, thy were faring no better than the PDF.
Ephras gritted his teeth and took aim. Either the PDF would finish this now, or the lances of the Justice would.
"My lord," said Rialta, horrified, "They're getting slaughtered out there."
The Inquisitor nodded. "I'm aware of that fact, officer."
"Officer DeLange," snapped the Inquisitor. She came to attention. "There are certain plans of which you are not aware. This situation has been anticipated. Now cease your whining and do your job."
She nodded reluctantly and turned back to her console.
The last Witchsbane trooper braced himself behind the bank of churned mud that had once held his sergeant and reached into his webbing. The grenade was made of silver-inlaid crystal, just slightly off spherical. In its depths, he could see dark clouds swirling thickly.
It was a last resort. He dropped flat, flicking his rebreather on, and tossed the grenade towards the witch. It rolled for a few metres, before cracking open and disgorging its toxic payload.
The air had changed, the witch realised. It was thicker, filled with smoke. He tasted it when he inhaled, gasping against the pain in his head and chest, and let out a strangled cry. The gas burned at his throat, seared his lungs. It made his head spin wildly, and he could feel the power slipping even further from his tenuous grip.
It lashed out again, ripping huge gouges in the sodden earth. Rain turned to knives in the power's grip, lashing down indiscriminately. The wind grew blades. His vision greyed; he couldn't see who he was striking at but he didn't care. The pain was growing, making his head feel like it was splitting open, and he could feel the power slipping through the cracks.
Captain Al'ruhl stared at the display. Something was happening, that he could see, but it didn't look to be good. There was some kind of gas attack, from the clouds of black smog steadily obscuring his view, but the witch's attacks showed no sign of letting up.
He felt powerless. The Justice was a Retribution-class batleship. Eight point six kilometres long, its flanks were studded with row upon row of weapons batteries, and its spine carried a trio of lance emplacements. It carried enough power in its broadsides to cripple an enemy cruiser in one salvo. Below the prow hung the immense length of the nova cannon, capable of propelling its warhead at relativistic speeds and unleashing forces that could crack a planet. It was one of the most powerful ships in the sector.
All this, and he could do nothing about the situation on the ground, save to end it for everyone.
"Ready lances," he said. "Fire on my command. Comms, get me Inquisitor Trujeo."
"Sir," said Rialta. "The Justice is requesting orders."
The Inquisitor nodded. "Good. What is the status of the ground units?"
She looked back at her console. "The only remaining units are Hunt nine and Hunt one, both at minimal strength. All Witchsbane units are gone. All aerial support units are gone. All vehicles are gone."
He nodded. "Very well. Thus facility is equipped with a laser designator?"
She nodded. "Yes, my lord."
"Use it. Lock to the witch, and transmit the targeting data to the Justice. They will fire in thirty seconds from now."
"Yes, lord Inquisitor."
The witch lay helpless in the mud, curled into a foetal position while the power wracked his body. It crashed all around him with no direction, tearing up his surroundings with terrifying force. It swatted the few spatters of fire that still struck at him before they even got close, before whipping out blindly to search for the firer.
It burned at his skull. Tears streamed down his face.
The lance beams converged three kilometres upwards of the witch. Forming one immense column of incandescent energy, they formed a blazing bridge connecting the battleship to its target for just over a second.
The column enveloped the witch and everything else for half a kilometre around. Warp-born lights flared around its impact, flashing madly, reaching out up the beam in the blink of an eye before branching off and spearing along the laser targeting beam.
Then the fire obscured everything, and when it cleared, the witch was gone. As was the Justice and the ground installation.