She exited the Empyrean in a haze of displaced energy, tendrils of Warp matter battering against her Gellar Fields. Looming, gargantuan structures dotted her adamantium hide; tall, gothic spires warring with spiked structures for dominance over her nine kilometer body. Her dagger-like prow split through the void of space, gliding forward with a grace that belied her bulky frame. Across her metal skin were inscribed skull and scythe symbols along with the Imperial Aquilla, detailing that she was a Battle Barge belonging to the Death Spectres Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes
Her name was The Wings of Corax, and she had come to retrieve a hero of the Chapter.
A signal, faint but discernable, had been discovered by the ship's astropaths, weeks before. When the council of Brother-Captains had learned who this signal belonged to, they had deliberated for an entire day their course of action. Were it any other battle-brother, then such deliberations would have been unnecessary. The chapter fleet was en route to Cadia, gateway to the Eye of Terror, and the most important planet in the Imperium of Man short of Holy Terra herself.
Foul tidings had forced the Imperium's hand, and the High Lords of Terra had called on all forces available to halt what tacticians were calling the Thirteenth Black Crusade. It would be on the surface of Cadia that the fate of the human race would be decided. The Death Spectres were tasked with guarding the fringes of the Imperium from the threat of the xeno, and hence, would be one of the last few to arrive. Fleet calculations dictated that no delays be allowed if the six hundred battle-brothers the chapter had contributed were to reach the Cadian system in time. But the man lost was him. A warrior whose valor was honored in the annals deep within the Librarium, and whose deeds were inscribed in legend to those that marched under the banner of Corax. It was worth the risk to have him back.
The lower echelons did not comprehend. To them, one man was insignificant compared to the Cadian theatre. One life compared to countless trillions. One life compared to the potential destruction of the human race. The decision should have been an obvious one. Brother-Sergeant Darkur himself led the delegation to protest. The man lost belonged to his squad, and though he felt the loss like a knife-wound in his chest, he understood that the life of one brother-marine was not sacred enough to warrant a delay in the fleet's progress.
The council of captains, surrounded by their advisors and complements of Terrorblade bodyguards, had listened without complaint to Darkur's logical arguments. They listened in calm patience as the Veteran Sergeant spoke, and when he was done, softly rebuked him. Darkur had been nonplussed. Had the man been a warrior of the fabled First Company, or a high-ranking brother of the officers corps, that he could understand. But the man in question was no Terminator armor clad veteran nor a Brother-Captain, merely a member of his Tactical Squad. He presented these thoughts to the assembly of gathered captains, hoping that his superiors would see reason.
Sad smiles were shared by the Astartes officers at this. If only their brothers knew.
The Wings of Corax powered forward, immense thrusters belching fire into the cold space. Her target soon materialized into view, a planet orbiting a distant star much like ancient Terra did in the days of antiquity. It was here the signal pulsed, faint at first, but with growing strength as the Battle Barge neared. A Thunderhawk is dispatched, soaring from the shielded landing bay and entering the planet's verdant atmosphere. The Astartes strike vessel carries but one passenger; Chaplain Targon of noble Fifth Company. It will be his sacred duty to ensure the man lost still retains his purity and belief in the God-Emperor of Man.
The Thunderhawk returns shortly after landing, but now with two passengers instead of one. An honor guard marches to receive the warrior and the Chaplain, ceramite boots clacking against the adamantium ground in perfect unison. A welcome fit for a hero.
Like a ponderous beast, The Wings of Corax turns, swiveling until one spiked side faces the planet.
Her duty is not yet done. The council of captains has been informed of dire news by the rescued warrior. Heresy dwells on this world; blasphemy that cannot be curtailed by bolter and chainsword alone. Humanity coexisting with alien-kind. Unthinkable. This world must die, and it must die in righteous fire. For nothing else can absolve the sin of this grave heresy.
Gun ports strung along the ship's surface, thick slabs of adamantium bearing the double-headed eagle, open with the sound of hissing pistons. Shells the size of tanks are loaded into massive cannons, mindless servitors slaving away at the consoles that link each weapon to the Battle Barge's ancient machine spirit. The command is given, sent through mind-impulse by the Captain of the Fleet.
The ship shudders as each and every cannon situated from her prow to stern fire in one simultaneous volley. Explosive projectiles are flung from immense gun barrels, a planet-killing barrage travelling at two-thirds the speed of light.
Mountains are vaporized. Forests burnt to ash. Entire cities enveloped in nuclear fire. The planet's crust splits and cracks, great ravines stretching from craters kilometers in diameter. Earthquakes ravage the despoiled earth seconds after, spreading like underground wildfire from the source that is each crater. And that was only the first volley.
The second salvo occurs three point four seconds after the first, and kills thousands less because the world's population has already been too ravaged by the first. The planet quakes as detonating shells pierce its skin, convulsing as massive explosions rip their way across its surface.
Lance batteries placed on turret towers strewn across The Wings of Corax's back add to the carnage, sending spears of brilliant light stabbing into the darkness. Deep gorges are scorched into existence, great chasms that split the earth so that to those orbiting in space it appears as if a spider web has crisscrossed the planetary crust. A dozen beams smash into the world's sole ocean, boiling half of it away in a millisecond, and creating raging tsunamis in the aftermath. Hundred-foot waves crash against the abused continents, sweeping away city-ports and coastal villages in one destructive tide.
For ten whole minutes the battlebarge continues her devastating assault, unleashing broadside after broadside against the helpless world below. The ship's astropaths jerk and convulse in their seats, the dying scream of a planet rippling through their psychic conscience and playing havoc with their minds.
Abruptly, The Wings of Corax ceases her unmerciful barrage. Enough munitions have been expended to extinguish all life on the world below ten times over. But there can be no chances taken, lest the taint spreads from this world to systems loyal to the Imperial Creed. Slowly, laboriously, the ship swings her armored prow towards the ravaged planet. The weapon next to be fired will require compensation for the massive recoil only her engines can provide.
Immense Graviometric coils built within the Battle Barge's hull glow ominously as energy is leeched from auxiliary systems to provide power for the weapon's enormous needs. The shell is hauled onto the firing rack by scores of servitor loading teams, five hundred tons of steel and death waiting to be primed and discharged. With a whine of pressurized motors, the shell is fed into the yawning abyss that is the cannon's barrel, hissing pistons propelling it into the embrace of multiple magnetic fields. The shell is accelerated, sent hurtling towards its target at the speed of light. A thunderous clap is heard by the crew, followed by the whole ship shaking as the Nova Cannon belches forth its deadly payload.
Like a god hurling lightning in the ancient legends of Terran lore, the projectile streaks down from the heavens, and impacts against the earthen hide with enough force to mimic a falling comet. The shell burrows into the ground layer; its tip is designed to penetrate the hulls of enemy ships, and the kilometers of bedrock and stone that it surges through is laughable resistance compared to that. The charge detonates deep within the planet's crust, timed to inflict maximum damage to the surrounding area.
A continent-sized chunk of the planet's innards disappears, vaporized from existence in one almighty explosion. Not even the tiniest of atoms are spared. The implosion device that is the source of the detonation wrenches apart any matter caught within the blast, and the countless tons of earth and soil is no exception. But this was merely a wound to the planet, a grave injury to the world's flesh that while could not be healed, was far from lethal. It is not the explosion that would seal this planet's fate and the fate of those that still clung to life on its blackened surface, but instead, something much simpler.
The world shudders in the wake of the destruction it has weathered, tremors appearing beneath every inch of its despoiled skin. The kinetic energy unleashed by the blast is immense, and at the close confines offered under the planet's surface, the results are devastating. Cracks ripple their way through the planetary mantle, splitting a hundred different paths to the world's fiery core. It is here the energy makes its way to, utilizing the tears and fractures that appear. The first wave of energy connects with the volatile core and what follows next rocks The Wings of Corax like a boat in the morning squall.
Pieces of sundered earth and ruptured tectonic plates are expelled outwards in a sphere of flying debris as the planet shatters apart from within. The wave of debris is swiftly followed by a blast of concussive force, enough to smash the Battle Barge from its trajectory and render every sensor aboard its bridge inoperable for several seconds. The human and Astartes crew ride out this storm without complaint. They are well used to the rigors of space combat, and the current staff has witnessed seven accounts of Exterminatus being performed, of which three they themselves have participated in. The destruction they have rained down on the world below makes that number four.
The warship tilts her prow away, her duty finally done. Her thrusters light up, orange flame erupting from nozzles the size of basketball courts. The immense engines behind them are directing enough energy to power a small city, but even that is barely enough to move the massive bulk that is The Wings of Corax. More energy is needed, more power for the hungry Machine Spirit.
The astropaths locked in their thrones aboard the ship's bridge stiffen in concentration as their minds scour a way through the Empyrean. The path must be swift, but it also must be safe, for the Warp is fickle, and one miscalculation can plunge the Battle Barge into the Immaterium for countless centuries. The faintest of nods from the head astropath and the captain gives the order.
With a howl of turbines, the orange fire spewing from the Battle Barge's thrusters turn to a white-hot in color. The ship accelerates, speeding from a cruising velocity to one fourth light speed in the space it takes for a mortal man to blink. Reality is shattered, the stuff of nightmares leaking into the cold void as a Warp Portal thrashes into existence before the prow of The Wings of Corax. The vessel spears forward, and enters the flickering gateway like the tip of a harpoon piercing the surface of a raging wave.
She leaves behind the shattered remnants of the planet slowly drifting in space and the echoed memories of a murdered people.
Varian Wrynn awoke from his dream with sweat on his brow.
"You are late," says Herod, his armor slick with gore, "And we had to kill all this Scourge without you."
The Champion's arm sweeps in a gesture towards the mound of dead corpses piled before his feet.
"Terribly sorry," Melrache smiles as he picks his way through the carpet of slain foes, delivering fatal thrusts with his blade to those undead that still moved, "But I'm sure you had fun without us."
"It was… immensely satisfying," the Terminator admits, and pushes through the heap of motionless cadavers to meet with his brothers-in-arms.
The rest of First Company do the same, wading through the piles of defeated enemies and crushing the dead underfoot. None have fallen, though their plated forms display tremendous wear. Dented helms, lacerated chestplates, unhinged joints. The armor would need to be repaired, and soon if the Champions wish for their protection to continue. To say the undead assault was fierce would be a grave understatement. Many of the Terminators are now slumping to the ground, the adrenaline that had just so recently given them vigor fading to be replaced by exhaustion.
Blackened ichor flowed like rivers, seeping into the gaps in the cobblestone streets, and painting a miserable picture in an already depressing landscape.
The Crusader swordsmen had rushed into the fray as soon as the walls collapsed, and much of the blood that lay on the tiled floor was shed by them. It had been surprisingly easy work. The undead had been solely focused on the ragged line of Champions, and their attention was divided only when their rear ranks were being scythed down by Scarlet blades. Halted in the front by the stoic Terminators and crushed from the back by the swordsmen, the horde of Scourge were ill-fated to survive. Only the swiftest of the undead managed to escape, ghouls and geists scurrying from the chaotic melee on their malformed legs back into the city. The skeletons and zombies fared the worst, their slow gait allowing the humans to butcher them in droves before a scant handful squeezed past the tightening cordon of Crusaders.
Many within the Scarlet ranks were about to give chase, but they were stopped by the Commissar, who ordered them to halt until the rest of the besieging force could enter the gap in the walls. A wise choice. The cramped streets and alleyways were perfect for an ambush.
"This is a grim scene," muttered Vachon, kicking over a decayed corpse and stabbing down when it twitched in response.
"Ahhh, but it is a much better scene than fifty-one dead Champions," Melrache grins as Herod nears.
The leader of First Company hung his war-axe by a loop in his belt, and wrenched off his helm with a grunt. The man's hair was plastered to his skull, wet with perspiration. His face was taut with eagerness for more combat, but the fatigue in his eyes was all too apparent.
"Why are we stopping?" Herod spat a globule of phlegm at the corpse-strewn floor, "We should be driving deep into Andorhal! Root these rats from their nests and extinguish them all with faith and fire!"
"Take a look at yourself," Vachon retorted, "You're in no condition to fight."
The Champion glared back in contempt.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Melrache flicked at the lamellar plate that served as the Terminator's pauldron, and Herod winced as the steel piece fell from his shoulder.
"Maybe you have a point," he grunted, "But just a small one, you understand?"
"Just a small one," confirmed Melrache, nodding studiously.
The crunch of heavy boots is heard, and the three Crusaders turn to see the High Inquisitor and the angel making their way towards them. The former is dwarfed by the latter in size and immensity, but no one could deny that Whitemane carried with her an air of authority where none existed before. Regal would be the way to describe her.
"You have done well Herod," the Commissar inclines her head slightly in recognition, "This feat of prowess is praiseworthy, even for a group of warriors who are prone to praiseworthy deeds."
The Champion's chest swelled, though the thick chestplate he wore prevented the others from seeing.
"My knights would never see you or the angel disappointed, milady."
"I am sure they won't."
Whitemane took a few steps forward, distastefully stepping over the corpse of an eviscerated ghoul in the process. The former Inquisitor stared at the scene before her, taking in the ramshackle avenues and desolate streets that had once been part of a bustling city. Decrepit structures loomed as far as they eye could see, half-collapsed constructions abandoned long ago by their owners. If one held a glimmer of imagination, he or she could almost see the faint outlines of people moving amongst the wreckage. Ghosts amid ruins, thought the Lady Commissar. How appropriate.
"How do you wish for our forces to move into the city, High Inquisitor?" Vachon, always the logical one, asks.
Whitemane frowned slightly at the use of her former title, but let the irritation pass. She was in the presence of the angel, and she would not allow her temper to mar whatever impression he had of her.
"We will let the angel decide that," she replied evenly, choosing to ignore the beginnings of a sneer forming on the officer's lips.
"I don't think the angel is going to make decisions any time soon," Melrache says carefully, his eyes regarding the being in question with a mixture of trepidation and puzzlement.
"Don't you dare insult his judgment," the Commissar snapped in anger, her expression furious.
"I wasn't," the dark-complexioned officer amended hastily, "But he hasn't moved or spoke since the conversation started."
"Nonsense," Whitemane turned and inclined her head towards the man beside her, "Lord Angel, we will be most delighted if you could aid us in planning for a way to take the city."
The angel twitched.
"You…" the static-laced snarl causes the Commissar and the assembled officers to start, "No… It cannot be. You are dead."
The sounds. I hear them in my head but I am not sure they exist. The thud-bang of boltguns firing on full automatic. The piercing whine of a plasma cannon being discharged. The cackling hiss of unsheathed power weapons. And the hum of active power armor not mine. The cacophony of noise rages within my mind, and I feel reality sinking under a sea of forgotten memories.
Armored forms scurry past me, Scarlet Guardsmen carrying swords and shields as they rush forward. I blink, and the sight before me changes to my stunned astonishment. The crimson these men and women wear has been replaced by grey dress tunics and the plate cuirasses and shirts of chainmail that protect their torsos turned into bulky suits of carapace armor. The close-visored helms of steel are gone, and in their place are armaplas helmets sporting advanced targeting sensors fit for Cadia's finest. Hellguns are clutched in gloved hands, supplanting the blades that were carried seconds ago. I blink again, thinking that this is a hallucination. I am wrong. The Kasrkin do not disappear. Instead, they rush forward, Hellguns coughing beams of incandescent light into the foe.
But this… this cannot be so. How can this happen when minutes ago I led a force of Crusaders into the ruins of this city? I remember breaking through the walls myself, though the idea of scorching the stone first with promethium was one I was not sure would work. I even remember catching Keina in my arms when she unexpectedly fell on top of me along with a hefty dose of displaced rubble. So how can I be here of all places?
The Guardsmen scatter as enemy fire rake their positions. They dive into cover provided by toppled pillars of marble and… wait… There are no marble edifices in Andorhal. The city was built with wood and stone, at least that is what the Crusaders have been telling me. What is occurring is impossible, but I can detect no falsehoods in what I am seeing and hearing. As though if to ram this point home, return fire from the foe impact against the cover the Kasrkin are sheltering behind and send chips of marble flying in all directions.
A strong hand grips tight my pauldron, and spins me around. An ivory faceplate stares at me with crimson visors, and the memories it causes to surface are almost enough to bring me to my knees.
I am rooted to the spot. This cannot be happening.
"Brother-Sergeant," the Astartes says, amusement evident in his voice, "Why are you hesitating?"
"You…" my vox-link cackles into life as I say back, "No… It cannot be. You are dead."
The Space Marine's way of response is a low chuckle. He surges past me, a power sword swinging in one gauntleted fist, a Storm Shield clasped in the other.
"Come on!" he calls back, "The enemy show themselves!"
The enemy? But the Scourge are already dead at our feet. I turn to follow the Astartes' motion and my eyes narrow in hatred at what they see. From the swirling dust, shapes begin to emerge, shaped like men, but sized like giants. Boltguns are clasped in their hands, but dark and horrendous sigils cover the ancient weapons instead of the Imperial Eagle. Silver outlines etch across blood red armor, and the snarling, screaming faces of daemons contort from the ceramite surface like an unholy mosaic. Curved horns stretch from cruel faceplates, filled with ire and promised malice.
Word Bearers. The cursed dogs of Lorgar.
My plasma pistol is already pointing towards the first of the Chaos Astartes, such is the instinct from ten millennia of indoctrined hatred. My finger grazes the trigger and I can already imagine the burst of sunfire that will obliterate the traitor from existence.
The Word Bearer in my sights suddenly becomes hazy and distant, as though if he were a flickering mirage. I curse inwardly at this. Is my visor imaging failing? Were not enough prayers said to the Machine Spirit? No matter. I will kill these traitors alongside my brothers and defend these tormented people with my life.
"Lord angel? Are you alright?"
The Chaos Marine disappears from view, and I scream silently at this outrage. I was not done! I was not done! Bring the traitor back so I can extinguish his life with holy flame! While a single heretic still lives, there can be no peace in this galaxy! Bring him back so I may cut him down with my blade! Deliverance hungers for traitor blood, and its legacy will not be denied! BRING HIM BACK!
A soft hand rests on my arm, and my fury halts before it can reach its crescendo. I glare down and see a Guardswoman staring up at me. Where is her helm? All Kasrkin seal themselves in their carapace suits when battle is to be done, and this female should be no exception. Then I notice the color of her hair and reality comes crashing down upon me.
"Whitemane," I snarl, my mind struggling to come to terms, "Is… Is there something you need?"
"Well, no," the Commissar says, hesitation in her tone, "You just seemed… out of it."
I look back to where the Word Bearer was, should be, and all I am greeted with is a row of ruined buildings. The Cadians are gone too, replaced with the forms of Crusaders, moving past me to finish their deployment inside the city. My eyes search for the Astartes that spoke to me, but he too is gone. All I see is vast stretch of devastation that is Andorhal. But this makes no sense. How can I mistake this desolate city for that place? Yet the Kasrkin… the Chaos Space Marines… him… they all seemed too real to be false.
"Lord angel," Whitemane draws my attention again, "Is there something wrong?"
I look down and see that there is something akin to worry on the Commissar's features. Of course. These humans look to me as their champion, and anything that should ail me would cause them concern.
"I-I trained as a cleric when I first joined the Crusade," she continues, suddenly fidgety, "and though it has been long since then, I still remember much of that training. If there is anything of burden to you, I can be of s-service and listen to your troubles."
My brows rise at this. It is doubtful that this woman can tend to my spiritual needs. She is not a Chaplain of my chapter, and thus, the teachings of our ancient rites are unknown to her. What's more, she will never understand the Astartes psyche, for she is not one of us. That is one reason why the Reclusiarchs of our order are chosen amongst fellow battle-brothers and never from outside organizations such as the Ecclesiarchy and the Inquisition. For a Chaplain of the Adeptus Astartes must hate the foe more than his brothers, must possess the ability to inspire feats of valor in warriors who know no fear, and must retain the spiritual health of men whose enemies dwell in the realms of nightmare. How can this former Inquisitor compare to that?
From the corner of my eye, I see Melrache nudging Vachon with a grin on his face. I resist the urge to grimace. Another meaning lost to me.
"I am fine," I say, emotionlessly as to hide the distaste I have for the Commissar's suggestion, "And I will have to decline your offer," disappointment flashes on Whitemane's face and I am quick to add more to my words, "A matter strictly of tradition, of course."
"And here I thought we belonged to the organization with the most tradition," Melrache jokes.
"You have no idea," I state solemnly back, thinking of the various rites and customs of my chapter.
"If that is the case, I understand," Whitemane nods, freshly recovered from her disappointment.
"Enough talk about counsel and service," Herod grunts roughly from the side, "And more discussion regarding the Scourge still in the city."
"Since when did the Crusade's Champions become so enamored with discussion in matters of war?" Vachon states wryly.
Herod growls at this, but lets the comment slide. Excellent. Some self-discipline will do the pseudo-Terminator a world of good.
The Champion turns back to me, features stern and unyielding as rock.
"These fools think I am too worn for the next engagement," he gestures to the two Scarlet Captains that stand with him, "Tell them angel. Tell them that the Emperor's Chosen will never back down from a fight."
"You have been fighting against an overwhelming mass of enemies," my words cause a flicker of annoyance to appear on the man's face, "Your Terminator armor possesses no servos and fiber-muscles that are present in the suits that grace the armories of a Space Marine chapter. Your human body must surely be taxed. Rest awhile, and rejoin the combat later. Glory can wait."
"See?" Melrache nods in agreement, "Even the Lord Angel understands you are in no shape to fight."
"But we are First Company!" Herod protests vehemently, "First into battle, last to leave! You said so yourself, sire. If we are to stay out of this battle before the end, we will be bringing shame to the oaths we have sworn that night!"
"You will not be denied your place in the conflict," I reply with as much patience as I can muster, "In fact, there is much importance in staying behind. It is likely that the lich will send forces to cut off our means of retreat. If that proves to be the case, then your men must be ready to stop them. Make no mistake Herod, the position of rearguard is just as important as the vanguard, sometimes even more so."
The Champion steps back, mollified, but far from pleased. Had he underwent the same gene-modifications as I have done, no doubt an Assault Squad is where the Chapter Master would have placed him.
Whitemane shakes her head at her subordinate's still rebellious expression. She turns to me, and I see the question in her eyes before she can ask it.
"How should we enter the city, lord?"
"Three divisions," Vachon suggests before I can respond, "Moving down three alleyways next to each other. That way, we'll be able to support one another if things go awry. The only barrier between us will be the rows of buildings."
"A fine strategy when we are facing normal foes," I grunt, "But you forget the enemies we must destroy will throw themselves against us without a second thought for their lives. They will not care if there is a means for us to support each other. By dividing our forces, we allow the Scourge to play to their advantage. It will be like sharpening your opponent's blade for him. No. We choose one path, and we move all our forces down it. By concentrating our strength, we deny the enemy a means for ambush, while at the same time maximizing the potential harm we can inflict. So states the Codex Astartes."
If my disagreement with his plan troubles him, Vachon does not show it. But then again, he is no Perrine, whose sole purpose it seems is to counter every opinion I give.
The Lady Commissar seemingly agrees with me, as she starts pointing and gesturing for her warriors to gather before the advance. I consider watching the deployment and measuring how effective Whitemane is at motivating her men. The thought passes as quickly as it surfaces. If the Crusaders cannot even manage this simple task, then there is no hope they can ever become proper Guardsmen.
I stomp away from the arraying soldiers, and make my way into the shadows cast by toppled buildings. The humans can take the main street towards the city center. I will shadow them from the alleyways and search for threats lurking in the darkness. That and I need some time to digest what I have just seen…
The city was eerily silent, and that bothered many amongst the human ranks. No sound was heard, except the clink of metal upon metal as the armored warriors moved. The silence was like a suffocating veil, blanketing the loose formation of Crusaders and causing shadows to jump in their minds. Eyes riveted on each and every depilated structure that was passed, wary for an ambushing ghoul or leaping geist. Hands gripped swords in a tight embrace, ready for a pouncing undead to burst from a sundered doorway or shattered window.
Eight hundred men and women stalked through the ruins of Andorhal, cautious and alert. A good portion of Scourge had disappeared into the city, and none wanted to be dragged by rotten hands into a dark alleyway when no one was looking.
First came the swordsmen, blades leveled and shields clutched tight. They came in squads, blocks of men slowly advancing through the ruins, each squad watching the others' back. A gesture from Melrache, Perrine, or Vachon would send a dozen running forward, seeking cover behind piles of rubble and debris. The swordsmen would halt and wait, scanning for enemies, weapons braced. A return gesture from one of the scouting team, and the advance would continue, scores of warriors slowly treading over the hushed streets.
Next were the spearmen. Steel tips pointed in the direction of the gloomy buildings on each side, they followed the swordsmen companies in their methodical advance. Faces were twisted into grim expressions under steel helms. They had to be even more alert, for their duty was to guard the battle-mages that strode amidst their ranks.
Following them were the Myrmidons. Usually loud and noisy in their advance, today they were a subdued lot, prowling without sound along with their less zealous comrades. The Commissar's orders. Anyone who made unnecessary noise would be punished swiftly under Interrogator Vishas's supervision. Nobody, not even the most Light-addled fanatics, would dare defy that.
The militia advanced after the Myrmidons, ranks scattered and loose. Not warriors, and certainly not soldiers. They mimicked the actions of their more experienced cohorts, and made no noise as they passed rows of collapsed buildings.
Last came the huntsmen, Loksey's chosen few who walked backwards with arrows trained and ready. If the Scourge should choose for an assault to the Scarlet procession's rear, they would be met with a volley of accurate shafts. Growling wardogs stalked alongside their masters, brought to the frontline for the first time since the incursion into the Plaguelands.
The silence continued, unabated, and the dread that festered in the hearts of men grew with each passing second.
Whitemane felt the presence looming behind her and made to turn, a cry of warning ready to leave her lips. A massive gauntlet enclosed her mouth and muffled the scream to an incoherent murmur. Her own hands clutched and grappled with the digits covering her face with desperate strength. She had almost succeeded in prying one loose when a harsh whisper sounded by her ear and halted her struggles almost instantly.
"Be still!" the angel growled softly, and Whitemane craned her neck to see crimson visors glaring at her, "And be silent!"
Vachon and Melrache had already swiveled on their feet, and their blades were half-drawn from their sheathes.
"I am going to release you now, Lady Commissar," the angel's voice was barely audible, and a far cry from the usual grating tone he used, "but whatever you do, do not make noise."
The gauntlet drew back, and the woman it once held relaxed visibly.
"The Scourge surround us. From every angle. The lich is cunning. It has positioned its forces in such a way that should we have sent in our own force in separate portions, there would be little left of us come the next day."
Whitemane swallowed, and the officers beside her displayed similar signs of dismay.
"But Araj has gambled and lost. The lich thinks we will be divided, when in fact, we have gathered as one. The Scourge still surround us, but their ring is loose and ill-formed. They are distanced too far away for a full-on assault, and so, they will send in successive waves of coordinated attacks to destroy us."
"What do we do?" Whitemane asked in a low whisper.
"Follow my instructions to the letter, and we will be the rulers of this place before nightfall."
The Crusader commanders nod, and the angel leans closer.
"Listen closely …"
The first sign of the attack was the piercing shrieks that sounded from the skies. Shrill and harsh, they came from a flock of winged beasts that soared for the concentration of Crusaders on the streets below. At a distance, they looked almost human; figures shaped like men but sporting bat-like wings. It was only up close that such a notion was dispelled. Bestial faces with piggish snouts contorted as fanged maws opened and closed. Shaggy manes grew around thickset necks, coating grey skin with rough and uneven fur. Great, reptilian pinions sprouted from each beast; spindly arms with leathery membranes attached. Claws the length of swords and shaped like hooks were what these monsters used as feet; three cruel talons curved forward and one back so prey could be grasped from the ground and lifted screaming into the air. The Scourge have no name for these twisted monstrosities, but to the armies of Lordaeron before the kingdom's fall, they were called Gargoyles, and the term stuck.
Sweeping downwards on tattered wings, the beasts descended, talons outstretched like a flock of warped predatory birds. Their claws would rip and tear at the humans cluttering the streets, rupturing the steel they wore and lacerating the flesh protected behind. Some would grip struggling men in their claws before taking off and shredding them in mid-flight. The formation of Crusaders would falter at this aerial onslaught, made panicked by such wholesome butchery. Then, they would retreat, haltingly at first but with continued assaults raining down upon them, flee into a disorganized rout. After all, the humans had no way of repelling an attack from the air.
Harsh screeches of victory sounded as the flock of Gargoyles neared their prey. They could make out pale faces staring at them from the streets, and the brazen fear each held in turn. Shrieking, laughing, the winged terrors met the Scarlet warriors in combat with talons lashing in vicious strikes.
A hundred gleaming spearpoints stabbed upwards, and the shrieking laughter quickly devolved into raucous screams of pain. Plumes of blood erupted from hunched bodies, black arterial spray spewing forth as the polearms thrust home. Flapping forms plummeted from midair, winged limbs thrashing in frenzied death throes. Blades flashed down, swung in heavy blows by Crusader swordsmen and the frenzied convulsions ended in pools of ichor.
Those not impaled by the phalanx of unexpected lances took to the air, howls of hatred coming from bestial snouts. A few stragglers were caught still within spear range, and the humans below wasted no time in dealing with them. Membranous wings were slit open, sunken chests skewered through, gangly limbs broken in odd angles. Flailing, half a dozen of the Gargoyle flock crashed to the ground and were cut to pieces by the Crusaders that thronged the streets.
The rest sought the sanctuary that was flight, and circled the humans from above with harsh calls and hateful stares. It was only in the air and after they suffered gruesome casualties that the Gargoyles observed the Scarlet formation in detail. Men armed with spears stood intermittently in the solid block of warriors, all of whom were pointing their polearms towards the heavens. The spearmen themselves were flanked by pairs of shield-wearing Crusaders; each raising his shield so that to the Scourge creatures ringing above, the formation looked like an armored turtle with spikes jutting from its plated back.
The Warrior Kings of Macragge called this the testudo, and their legions of warriors made use of this formation long before the coming of the Imperium.
The Gargoyles barked out shrill cries to one another as they circled above, bloodthirst warring with common sense in their brutish minds. Some tried sweeping down again, but the spears were placed in such fashion one could not reach the manflesh without risking being impaled. Another half dozen of the winged beasts were brought down by well-aimed thrusts, and many more bore hideous wounds from glancing blows. The injured trailed blood as they flew, and splatters of the unclean fluid landed on the formation of locked shields and protruding spears below.
Frustrated screams broke out amongst the flock. They had been promised easy prey, frail victims without a means to fight back. This wasn't it.
At least the Crusaders had no way of harming them at such heights.
The sound of armored men maneuvering caused many amongst the pack to gain in altitude. Confused, the Gargoyles glared down to see shields being withdrawn from the formation, vulnerable spaces being left in the dense ranks. Laughing gleefully, the beasts descended en masse once more, eager to take advantage of the humans' willful stupidity. Before the flock could fully capitalize on their gain, however, crimson-clad archers moved into the vacant spaces, ducking under the shields of their swordsmen cohorts, and lifting their bows in unison towards the Scourge creatures.
This was enough to cause the flock to abandon the attack, though they continued circling above. They were not worried about the Scarlet bowmen, these beasts, not at all. There were relatively few of the Crusaders armed with bows, and no doubt whatever volley they meant to send would be diminutive and easily avoided. After all, the flesh-smiths of the Scourge, though perverted in their sense of creation, had made sure the Lich King's minions would prove able in their specified roles. That, and the skin of a Gargoyle was transmuted to obtain a texture resembling that of stone. Only the most forceful of blows could pierce their hides, which made them nearly invulnerable to projectiles sent from range.
Confident in their conflict, assured of their eventual victory, the Gargoyles were utterly unprepared for what came next.
A sheet of sorcerous flame materialized, covering the human formation in the likeness of a dome-shaped shield and blocking them from view. Startled calls sounded from scores of bestial lips at once, and the flock flew higher to escape from the sudden wave of heat. The first explosion occurred seconds later, a flash of light the only warning of the murderous detonation. Three Gargoyles were caught within the blast radius, and their smoking, charred forms spiraled down and disappeared beneath the veil of flame. Others followed shortly, ravaged bodies tumbling from the air as dozens of arcane eruptions suddenly burst among the flock.
The survivors stared dumbly down, stunned surprise overcoming the innate sense of self-preservation inherent in their minds. Their morbid curiosity was soon rewarded, as a hundred bolts of arcane fire emerged from the shimmering shield and shot for the hovering Gargoyles. The realization hit the beasts almost instantaneously. The archers were shooting from beneath the magical barrier, and the flame shield's touch created sorcerous projectiles from the loosed shafts as soon as they exited the wall of fire. Explosions of arcane energy rippled through the flock, tearing limbs from shoulders and shredding leathery pinions in mad welters of blood. Blackened corpses fell from the skies; some plummeting into the skeletons of ruined buildings amidst clouds of scattered debris and rubble, others disappearing into the barrier of purple fire and crashing to the street below. The mournful howls of the wounded drowned out the faint whistling of descending blades, but all too quickly turned into pained screams before dying out altogether.
The remainder of the flock wavered, unsure of what next course of action to take. It took another volley of glistening missiles and two dozen more dead plunging towards the ground before the Gargoyles drew away from the fight. Out of bow-range but still near to pose a threat, they watched sinisterly as the shield of flame disappeared to reveal Crusaders breaking their spear and shield formation.
It was said that an army in the midst of maneuvering was the most vulnerable to the enemy. A host of armored men, all moving, all counting on one another to ensure formation remained unbroken as they wheeled and pivoted to reform a broken line or marched to take the place of a withdrawing ally. All it took was one misinterpreted order, one flaw in the plan of generals, one simple mistake, and everything could fall apart. And so, a good army, a fine army enlisted disciplined, orderly men, drilled them to near-perfection, and hired worthy officers to command them into battle.
The Crusaders were not a good or fine army. They had no disciplined men to call their own, and certainly did not drill them in the ways of formation and combat. No, the Crusaders were not soldiers. They were an amalgamation of different people, all with different professions, forced into the task of war by a threat beyond their capability to defeat. There were footmen of Lordaeron's long-defeated army amongst them, but these were in the minority. The Scarlet Crusade was an organization formed by those who had lost their future to the Scourge, and it made sense that its many recruits shared this common suffering. Farmer's sons, merchants' daughters, all were welcome under the Crimson Banner. But it would be a lie to say that these recruits were taught well in the ways of soldiery.
And so, for the men and women maneuvering on Andorhal's main street, it should be no surprise that their movements were clumsy and hesitant. But to the shadows lurking behind the ruins, 'clumsy' and 'hesitant' were not words they would use to describe the changing Crusader formation. Indeed, they preferred 'vulnerable'.
From the unnatural darkness that shrouded the city, the Scourge struck. Hundreds of them emerged from the alleyways and slanted corridors, some even bursting from the wooden frames of windows. Leftovers of the battle near the gates, and some that had been too far away to participate. Wretched ghouls panted and drooled in their mad dash forward, followed by scores of leaping geists that bounded over rooftops to get at the humans crowding the streets. These reanimated fodder were to be the anvil that the Crusaders would be smashed upon, a tactic the Scourge had learned most quickly when they saw it being performed by the humans.
The Scarlet warriors lacked the discipline of drilled men; they were brawlers, not soldiers, but that did not mean they were completely helpless. There was still enough strength in their arms to shatter Scourge skulls and more than enough faith to fuel them for the coming fight. The block of men and women dissipated, charging from the formation in their dozens with fierce war-cries coming from their lips. Heavy broadswords flash down, and the first of the undead to reach the humans stagger back with their own entrails looping about their legs. Shields protected the Crusaders from the lashing ripostes of their foes, and the crimson-clad men continued hewing down the wretched beasts that sought to overwhelm them.
Hammer and anvil, the angel had taught his charges. How to perform the tactic and how to execute it on the battlefield. The next logical step then, would be the teaching of how to combat this tactic when used against Crusader lines and how to defeat it. And despite the faith and devotion that swelled within his breast, the angel was still, in his core, a very logical being.
Scarlet soldiers smashed a path through the hordes of ghouls, relying on their faith-fueled fervor to push their way through the unyielding tide of the dead. Nimble geists leapt into the Crusaders from above, seeking to disrupt the humans from their already scattered formation, but were deflected away by teams of shield carrying warriors. A throng of Scourge, larger than the rest, punched through the stalwart lines of resisting men, and swallowed dozens of the red-clad guardsmen under a tide of slavering jaws and clawing of bellowing Myrmidons threw themselves into the fray, and batter back the undead in a whirlwind of mace blows and sword strokes.
Break the anvil before the hammer falls, and the bludgeoning strike that will follow would be greatly diminished. A simple vision, but a hard one to realize.
A squad of swordsmen under Captain Vachon supported by complements of militia are the first to drive the Scourge back into the alleyways. Before the undead can break out, the swordsmen form a wall of steel with their shields, and brace against the entryway. The militia behind them drive their shoulders into the backs of their warrior brethren, creating a packed rank of flesh and iron that the undead cannot bypass. Vachon cries out over the chaotic din, his rapier stabbing and thrusting in a lethal dance of elegant bladework,
The Iron Angel is with them in an instant, black armor awash with the blood of slain foes. A geist, maniacal eyes gleaming from ragged holes torn in a hooded face, springs from the mass of crowded dead, and closes with the giant cackling with glee. A massive fist arrests the geist's motion, caving in its skull in midair and flinging the lifeless corpse back into the faces of its cohorts. Before the body can land, the angel has already lifted his fire-spewing weapon to his hip. A gout of burning promethium erupts from the flamer's barrel, a rippling, swelling sheet of white flame that forces the Crusaders in front to fall to the ground. The scorching fire coats desiccated hide like glue, and shears the flesh from bone in a tide of suffocating heat. The Scourge caught within the conflagration are incinerated in a heartbeat, and the licking flames that adhere to every surface in the corridor prevent the undead from using it again as a passageway.
The angel is gone as quickly as he appears, his legs taking him in long strides towards another pack of Scourge being forced back into the darkness from which they came. A plume of white-hot fire engulfs the alleyway, and the ghouls trapped within the cramped space are charred to bones and ashes by the unforgiving flames. Turning, the warrior-giant unleashes a second jet of searing promethium into the rotting doorway of a two-story building, and cremates the gaggle of living dead inside before they can burst out in ambush.
Captain Rhiana and a team of burly militia clash against a mixed tide of ghouls and skeletal horrors. The warriors with her wield their two-handed hammers to devastating effect, swinging them in circles overhead before smashing the bludgeoning weapons into decayed faces. Rhiana takes a bone-jarring blow to her chest, ignores it due to the surges of adrenaline filling her bloodstream, and pins a snarling ghoul to a nearby wall with her shield. The unholy creature fights back like a caged animal, kicking with its gangly feet and lashing out with its one free arm. The female officer stabs her blade into the howling thing's body again and again, and stops only when the wall is smeared with foul smelling blood.
Melrache leads two dozen of his company to aid the embattled militia captain, and together, they form another wall of resolute shields and steel-protected flesh in the mouth of an undead-filled alleyway. Melrache calls out to the distant form of the angel, but halts when the man in front of him is hacked down by a grinning skeleton. The Crusader captain slices the leering, skinless face of the offending Scourge in twain, and drives his heavy claymore point first into the abdomen of the ghoul behind. Using the twitching, spasming body as a barrier, the swarthy officer takes his place in the front rank of shield-wearing men, and winces as a sweeping claw takes his helm off from his head.
It is not the angel that saves them, but Doan and three of his apprentices. Tired from their earlier work, the war mages nevertheless raise their arms towards the heavens and intone words of the arcane. Spikes of ice are what the heavens reward, a storm of falling stalactites, each the width and length of a human arm. The blizzard descends on the luckless Scourge mass, and the carnage is great to behold. Shards of ice, tips as sharp as newly forged spearpoints, crash into the seething horde, puncturing craven skulls amidst explosions of blood and gore. The undead writhe and convulse under the sorcerous barrage, tattered bodies battered to the ground in defeat.
Little by little, the Crusaders push the Scourge back, cornering them in cramped alleyways and corridors, where a gout of flame from the angel's weapon or a massed bombardment of magical projectiles from squads of war mages end their unholy existence. The anvil is being fractured, and would be split entirely if the hammer did not fall soon. The lich realizes this, and sends its most prized minions into the fight.
A score of abominations, all that is left from the ill-lead foray beyond Andorhal's walls, stomp for the melee, bellowing in fury. In their pudgy hands are massive cleavers, shaped like the implements a butcher would use on cattle. Serrated hooks wave from behind immense shoulders, attached to mutated arms bulging with muscle. Each one is as tall as a one-story building, a great slab of meat and bone driven by a simple mind to kill and maim. And that is only one part of the hammer.
Skittering around and behind the flesh golems are twisted figures that have no right to exist in both reality and imagination. Scythe-like limbs tipped with razor-sharp chitin sprout from segmented bodies bristling with coarse hair; four on each side. Three are used for locomotion, a swaying, scrabbling motion resembling that of an insect. The last pair is used for combat, swung in flesh-parting strikes and bone-shearing blows. Dozens of eyes glimmer dully from fiendish faces clacking with saw-like mandibles, and the noise they make can only be described as maddening drone.
Crypt Fiends, called Nerubians by scholars, the race of spider-men from the frigid lands of north, swarm the main street, filling the wide boulevard with the rush of frenzied bodies. With them are the remnants of the Gargoyle flock, descending down on the heads of the Crusaders with shrill cries of vengeance.
The hammer falls. And the Crusaders counter.
Elemental fire entwine with lethal hails of ice and bolts of arcane energy as Doan and his war mages lash out with their sorcerous prowess. The front ranks of the Scourge force are felled instantly; bright explosions of magic bursting amongst them followed by jagged shards of ice and jets of scorching fire. Spider-men are charred to blackened ruins, their bodies tumbling together in heaps of twitching limbs and smoking carapace. Abominations are blasted from their feet, fatty bodies rent apart at the seams in flashes of purple light. Gargoyles are torn asunder in mid-air, screaming shrilly as slivers of hardened ice enter and exit their twisted forms in a wrathful storm. The bodies pile up, lifeless and mutilated. But there are much more where they came from. Over the fallen of the first rank the rest of the swarm charges, trampling corpses underfoot as they sought to close with the humans dressed in crimson.
The Crypt Fiends are the first to reach the Crusader lines. Swift and inhumanely nimble, the arachnid warriors wove past the looming figures of abominations and glided forward on slim, insectoid legs. A flimsy shield wall with spears jutting from behind is formed by the humans to block the spider-beasts. But this was no obstacle. Perhaps many would be impaled on the polearms, but the remainder would drive into the formation and scatter it apart in a tempest of scything blows.
Seconds before the clash can occur, a collected howl rose for the blighted skies, sending hairs stiffening on Crusader necks and causing the spider-men to pause in confusion.
From beneath the shield wall, the first beast emerges, a great lupine figure with a snout full of yellow canines. It does not stop when it sees the horrifying foes arrayed before it. A great shake of its shaggy mane, and the beast continues forward, sprinting towards the Crypt Fiends in powerful yet sleek strides. Its brother beasts loop their way past the Scarlet formation, ducking through braced legs before pelting full-tilt for the Scourge creatures. Once more, a collected howl rise to the heavens, but this time with the addition of short, hateful barks.
The hounds of Loksey and his huntsmen have been unleashed, and they leap for the surprised enemy with their hackles raised.
The arachnid warriors regain their senses, and throw themselves against the war dogs in a tide of chitinous carapace and serrated arms. The two sides meet in a tumultuous din, and those who do not excel are quickly left in pools of their own blood. Scythe-limbs stab and hack, curved fangs gnash and rend. The Crypt Fiends have strength, size, and protection in their favor. The hounds have speed and reflexes in theirs. The combat should have been even, if not slightly tilted towards the Nerubians. But reality dictated otherwise. The hounds tear into the spider-men, shredding flesh with their canines before leaping back as slashing ripostes grace the air. Dark green blood splash onto the street, spilling from gory maul wounds and deep, tooth-caused punctures.
Bred with wolves, the hounds of the Crusade are, so that the pups that are birthed will have their father's feral savagery when in battle and their mother's unbendable loyalty when beside their master. Twice the size of a nobleman's guard dog, and four times as fierce, their very presence is enough to send chills down any man's spine. What's more, the huntsmen have taught their animals the way of killing, and when added to a cunning mind that feared nothing save their owners; they made lethal weapons.
The war dogs penetrate the swarm of spider-beasts, evading the swinging weapon-limbs of the foe, and weaving around chitinous frames to assail the arachnids from their most vulnerable points. The chaos of battle is where the hounds thrive, and the milling, thrashing Crypt Fiends are unwelcome guests to their home. A gnash of teeth from a darting, mangy form, and a Nerubian would collapse, its own intestines spilling from the torn gash in its abdomen. A bounding leap from a wiry, furred shape, and an arachnid would be knocked to the ground, dazed and momentarily helpless. The snapping sound of jaws being shut would be heard, and the dog would spring away, muzzle coated with blood. Making use of the confusion being spread, several hounds would attack at once, sprinting from different directions towards a lone enemy. Jaws clamp onto limbs, inflicting horrible injuries, and forcing the Nerubian to defend instead of attack. One war hound, prowling from the edges of the combat, would dart in when the Crypt Fiend was busy fending off its cohorts, and tear the throat from the Scourge creature in a soaring jump. With their target freshly killed, the dogs would disperse, dissolving away into the general melee to inflict further havoc amongst the enemy.
The weight of the Scourge charge gradually diminished, and the shield wall that was formed to soak up the momentum of scores of undead beasts break and separate to allow for a counterattack. The shields belong to the sword-wielding Crusaders, so it is the spearmen who are the first into battle, surging past the reforming swordsmen with their polearms leveled. What few of the arachnids that have not been besieged by snarling war hounds see this new threat and rise on their agile legs to engage it.
This time, reality agrees with logic on who should be the victor. The Nerubians may be fast and strong, but the spearmen have reach.
The polearms stab and thrust at the monstrous-looking creatures, striking from a range that makes the scythe-limbs of the foe nearly useless. The spearmen advance in formation, and the arachnids that skittered forward to delay them were impaled by the block of marching soldiers and crushed underfoot by dozens of stomping boots. Some of the wiser Crypt Fiends skirted the sides of the formation, and cast nets of sinewy silk into the human ranks in the hopes of halting them. A few warriors are dragged away from their place in line, entrapped and helpless in the cocoons of tough material. The Nerubians butcher these men in the shadows, and the pained cries of their victims is what they think will force the Crusaders to pause.
The humans prove them wrong.
The spearmen continue their march forward, and they clash against the spider-men locked in a losing battle with the war-dogs of the Crusade. The swordsmen that follow are the ones who take revenge for their murdered comrades. Charging into the surprised enemy, the crimson-clad warriors surround individual Nerubians and hack them to pieces with sturdy broadswords in the cover of darkness. With justice meted out, the swordsmen disengage from the shadowy alleyways, now filled with arachnid corpses, and rush for the main conflict.
Pounding behind them are Gyran and his contingent of Argent Dawn, along with the three nonhumans not in their ranks.
An arrow and a knife compete in a race of lethality, the shaft spiraling in a straight-lined path and the stiletto flipping tip over hilt. The arrow pierces the eye of a Crypt Fiend, and the throwing knife drives into the gleaming pupil of another. The two arachnids thrash in agony, limbs pummeling the ground in a pain-induced dance. Both of them fall quickly to a pack of snarling war hounds, whose keen senses can discern weakness in prey long before humans can. Then the warriors in white crash against the thinning crowds of spider-men, and the melee further sides in favor of the humans.
Despite these reinforcements, the conflict is far from decided. The Scourge are not privy to concepts such as fear and defeat, and they will not rout when other armies have long fled the field. The minions of the Lich King are suicidal in their devotion, and here, on the blood-slicked streets of Andorhal, they prove that devotion.
Nerubians, bodies covered with wounds from beast and man alike, surge their way into combined mass of Crusaders and Argent Dawn. They impale themselves on the phalanx of lowered spears and expose their battered frames to slashing swords all for the chance to bring down one more of the living. Most do not get this chance, and are slain in the turbulent fight that follows. Some, however, manage to brave the spearpoints gouging deep holes into their flesh and blades chopping into their skin as well as the growling war dogs harrying them from the rear. Bleeding horrendously, the desperate arachnids swing wildly with their serrated arms, and manage to inflict grave injuries on the humans surrounding them. But this suicidal show of valor is nothing compared to the cornered fury of the abominations.
Decimated by the sorcerous barrage, only five of the flesh golems remain, but that number is enough to commit great mayhem to the human ranks. The undead ogres smash their way through the melee, battering aside dozens of men and women with swipes from their meaty paws. Warriors clad in armor, in plate no less, are hurled bodily away as though if they weighed nothing, and shouts of alarm come from the pressed mass of humans as the monstrous creations continue their bloody advance unchecked. The abominations, for their part, display scores of gruesome wounds on their mountainous bodies, but the enormous slabs of fat behind their skin protects them from strikes that would otherwise prove fatal. Even Gyran and his disciplined followers of the Dawn are no match for these beasts, and the paladin is sent flying by a casual backhand from a roaring flesh golem. The Argent Templar crashes against the side of a stone building, and slumps to the ground, the breath knocked from his lungs. Eva hurries to his side, but the Scourge brute is quicker. Chuckling with malicious mirth, the abomination raises its notched cleaver to split the winded paladin in two.
The face of the monster bursts apart like a rotten fruit, spraying chunks of shredded cranium and liquefied brain matter across the wall. The flesh golem teeters, swaying drunkenly as all eyes focus on its suddenly headless corpse. It falls, and its immense frame topples backwards to the floor with a meaty slap.
The angel's gun is still smoking, but he is already in motion, sprinting forward to the hissing snarl of armored joints. He vaults over the ragged lines of humans, and as he lands amidst the foe, his toothed blade whirrs to life. The first opponent he meets is an arachnid warrior, mandibles clacking furiously together in a Nerubian war-cry. The angel does not halt to face this foe. Instead, he whips his sword in a horizontal blur, and the Crypt Fiend becomes two Crypt Fiends, twitching bodies painting dark circles of arterial spray on the ground below. Another spider-fiend skitters forward to engage, weapon-limbs drawn back to strike. The toothed blade, now shrieking like a demon, enters the Nerubian's face through its fang-filled maw, and exits the back in a great burst of blood. The giant does this without a pause in his motion, and he pulls his sword out of the collapsing creature while still running.
The looming form of an abomination impedes his path, and the cleaver in the brute's hand descends with frightening speed. At the last second, the angel moves fluidly away, and the heavy blade falls on nothing but cold stonework. The weapon sticks there, its weighty edge stuck in the groove freshly carved in the street. The angel uses this to his advantage, and drives his churning sword to its hilt into the flesh golem's side. The brute bellows in pain and flails wildly as it feels its internal organs being shredded. It takes a step back, and blade embedded in its obese body goes with it. The hilt is wrenched from the angel's grip, and a curse sounds from his helm as the weapon suddenly leaves his gauntlet.
A faint whistling is all the warning he receives before the next blow comes, and the giant ducks just in time for the cleaver to sweep past his head. Another abomination takes the place of the wounded one, and its next swing gouges a wicked groove across the angel's breastplate. Sparks fly, but the black-clad warrior stands his ground. His wide-barreled gun swings up, and the subsequent volley saws the undead ogre in half.
The mist of blood that stains the air afterwards clouds the angel from view. This is soon changed when an armored form blasts back from the arterial haze, two fresh dents blemishing his carapace. The giant skids to a halt, throwing loose pebbles and chunks of masonry into the air as his feet searches for purchase on the cobblestone streets.
A pair of abominations, twins in the most twisted sense, stomp through the blood mist, iron cudgels swinging in each hand. Brothers on the surgery table, these two, linked through blasphemous rites and dark magics of reanimation, and their sense of coordination is fearsome to behold. Four maces smash and chop, making craters on the stone street and demolishing walls in explosions of splintered wood. The angel throws himself to the side, rolls to compensate, barely avoiding the raining blows with no time to aim his gun. He is being battered backwards towards the Crusader lines, and it does not take a gnomish rocket scientist to realize the carnage that would occur should those cudgels sweep through the packed ranks of humans.
The angel recognizes the danger. He dodges the next swing, and in that short interval between blows, he charges for the ruined husk of a building. The brutes follow, chortling with glee, and leave a path of destruction on the terrain behind them. He launches himself for the construction's walls just in time to avoid the falling cudgels. His plated boots impact first, and the built-up momentum behind them is enough for the angel to hurl his bulky form back towards the abominations.
To an outside observer, it appeared as though the angel had scaled the wall and then leapt for the undead brutes in one fluid motion.
The combat knife is drawn in midair, and the blade flashes as it leaves its sheathe.
Steel tip meets hardened skull, pierces it in a spray of blood, and pushes through the cracked dome to drive into the brutish intelligence protected within. The angel clamps onto the abomination's neck, and delivers two more swift thrusts into the flesh golem's neck and face. But the strikes were not needed, as the very first one had already parted the beast's brain in two.
The two opponents fall together, wrapped in a lethal embrace, and their combined mass is sufficient to dent the stone street.
A howl arose as the second abomination saw its twin's defeated form lying motionless on the ground, and at once its attacks became erratic and muddled as it sought to bring vengeance to the one that had slain its bond-kin. The angel hurls himself backwards as the cudgel pounded craters into the street, a grim smile twitching beneath his helm. The brothers had been methodical in their assault before, supporting each other in a whirlwind of strikes that prevented him from closing the distance. Now that has changed, as one of the brothers is dead, and the gaps left in the remaining brute's defense is easily discerned.
The combat knife shifts in gauntleted hands, spinning until it is gripped tip down and hilt up.
The brute swings its mace, shattering stone, and raises the other to strike. Time slows. A precise moment. A single second. That is all the angel needs. Servos-enhanced legs spring from the ground, barreling into a full-pelt run. A blur is what mortal eyes see as the giant closes the distance and rolls under the falling cudgel.
One swing and the abomination sinks to one knee, yowling as it feels the sudden loss of its left leg. Another swing, and the flesh golem is made immobile, a deep, tendon-severing cut on each leg. Two more swings, and two obese arms fall to the ground amid twin pools of blood. The undead ogre snaps at its tormentor with its thickset jaws, helpless, outraged, desperate. It is a failed display of emotion, as the angel proceeds to slice the brute apart piece by bloody piece.
Some of the Crusaders look away, disgusted by the sight. The majority do not, and marvel at the brutal bladework of their hero.
Angel of Death indeed.
Gyran hobbles to the victorious warrior's side, his face clouded with anger. Eva supports him, wearing a tentative expression on her own countenance.
"Stop this! Stop this now!" the paladin shouts.
The angel does not hear, and his blade falls on flesh and bone like a butcher's knife.
"Damn it! Stop this madness now or by Uther, I will force you to stop!"
The blade sinks into meat, but stays there, and the abomination gives a strangled gasp of relief as it senses a temporary reprieve.
"You will force me to stop?" the angel whispers, mockery embedded in every word and syllable, "You, whose soul is confined to the body of a mortal man, wish to stop me? Tell me then, Templar, how you will stop a warrior of the Adeptus Astartes."
"With this," Gyran snarled, lifting his war hammer, "And with the Light."
The paladin spat a wad of blood onto the street, and glared at the man in front of him with something akin to hatred.
"Look at you. Look at what you have done," a gloved digit stabs towards the wheezing form of the flesh golem, missing its arms and legs with slabs of flesh peeled from its sagging frame, "By the Light, man! Have you no compassion at all? Kill the thing and be done with it! You do not need to prolong its suffering!"
"Why should its suffering end so quickly?" cold, merciless visors meet with pupils dilated in fury, "Why should I end its life when it deserves agony and pain?"
"Because you are torturing it! Kill the brute! Finish it, but for the sake of all that is holy, give it some pity!"
"Do you think this beast gave pity to the ones it killed?" the angel's voice had grown soft once more, "Did this walking blasphemy show compassion to the ones it butchered? You are weak, paladin. Mercy stays your hand, and the pity you show your enemies will not be reciprocated in kind."
"Yet you showed mercy to us within the Scarlet dungeons!" Gyran hissed, "You were rightly horrified of the tortures inflicted by them!" the paladin jabs at the myriad ranks of Crusaders, who glare back in loathing.
"You were innocent. Is this beast innocent?"
"Innocence has nothing to do with it! No being deserves to be tortured! Not human, not Scourge!"
"There are plenty of beings deserving of torture," the giant replied evenly, not a speck of anger in his tone, "And I would visit ruin and agony upon them all if the Emperor gives me the chance."
The paladin's eyes narrowed, and his grip on his war hammer tightened painfully.
"You are treading on a thin line between faith and fanaticism. It is that thin line that separates sanity and madness. You are dangerously close to crossing it."
"Is that so? Let me tell you something, human. I have waged war on a hundred battlefields and not once have I run. My belief in the Emperor of Man has granted victory to me and my brothers against foes more terrible than you can ever imagine. I light the darkest places of this galaxy with my faith and never once has it led me astray. But what about you? Light-bringer, man of the false faith. You would show our enemies; vile, heathen scum who would reduce us to slavery and extinction without a second thought, compassion? You would show them mercy? You dare to tell me, honored brother of the Death Spectres, to show pity to a foe that would tear down the Empire of Humanity? Think again, paladin, and wonder who truly has gone mad."
"I have heard enough!" Gyran snapped, "I have seen the insanity that has befallen the Crusade firsthand! They were good men once, all of them. But hatred for the Scourge has twisted them into madmen, and now you follow the same path!"
The angel chuckled.
"Wrong, paladin. My brethren and I have been following that same path for longer than you can imagine."
Disappointment flashes in the paladin's eyes.
"I see now that no words will convince you from your chosen path, but by the Light, I will not allow you to drag my men into your madness. We will follow you into the deepest parts of Andorhal, and we will help you slay the lich. But that will be it. We will leave after this place is afire, and the Crusade and the Dawn will split once more."
Silence passes between the two, with the crowd watching around them. Then the angel tilts his head, nodding, and the tenseness passes though awkwardness remains.
"So be it."
The Argent warrior shakes his head, and gives a long, frustrated sigh.
"There is much hatred in your heart, Iron Angel, and it will destroy you if you do not rid of it."
The giant laughs bitterly, and Eva winces at his next few words.
"Hatred is all I have," he says before his blade starts descending again.
Author's Notes: Sorry for the long delay, but unfortunately, this semester of college has me very busy. I have a bunch of labs to do, and the reports I have to write take a huge portion of my time. Again, I encourage reviews for this story, as it helps my drive to write greatly.