The forge world of Paragaia Triundus had thus far in its history had a relatively peaceful existence. It had been discovered in Ultima Segmentum by Adeptus Mechanicus explorators during the days of the Great Crusade, and had led an sleepy and unmolested existence as a warship producer and a centre for technological study in the area. Its stature had diminished as the available supplies of iron and tin in the surface decreased, and a gradual exodus of tech-priests and menials from the planet to pastures new had left it with a skeleton garrison and a tiny population.
Then the Tau had sent a sizeable force to claim the world for the Greater Good, and everything about Paragaia Triundus had suddenly become very exciting indeed.
The imperial battlegroup descended upon the world like a swarm, with cruisers and dropships and drop pods turning the sky dark with their numbers. The night sky over the planet's largest continent was criss-crossed with a lattice of lance strikes and and short distance plasma bursts, and the blossoming explosions of disintegrating craft and detonating missiles turned the darkness as bright as day.
Amidst this storm descended a drop pod coloured black and marked with the insignia of the Deathwatch. The hull glowed red-hot as it shot downwards, ploughing through the atmosphere and hammering aside air resistance in its eagerness to unleash its deadly cargo. Three Space Marines sat within, armed and armoured, were ready to strike the killing blow in the opening battle for the world.
The vox link at the drop pod's centre crackled to life and Brother-Sergeant Tywin, formerly of the Blood Ravens, addressed the squad from the orbiting Deathwatch strike cruiser.
"Once we hit the surface, we take our separate routes," barked Sergeant Tywin. "Brother Engel, you'll take the route over the barrens to engage their path-finder teams and to scout for xeno outposts." Engel, a grim veteran ceded from the Black Templars, grunted by means of response and cradled his bolter close to his body. He wasn't much of a talker, though what he lacked in social skills he more than made up for in blind, pathological hatred directed outwards at anything which wasn't human.
"Hector," and this was directed at a fresh-faced young Assault Marine sitting in his harness with barely-restrained eagerness, "You accompany the Cadian regiment as it moves down Epsilon Valley. Eliminate any Tau skirmishers on the valley sides, and rendezvous with Engel when you reach the primary target."
"Yes, Brother-Sergeant!" said Hector, who had been thrown at the Deathwatch by the Blood Angels.
"And you'll keep our talk about jump-pack safety in mind, won't you, Brother?"
"Yes, Brother-Sergeant," said Hector with a touch less enthusiasm.
"And I'll accompany Brother Engel," said the last Marine, Librarian Ozymandias from the Dark Angels. He was soft-spoken, and grasped a force staff which crackled with psychic energy. Engel regarded the staff and its bearer with undisguised loathing. Psykers weren't highly thought of by the Black Templars at the best of times, and Engel didn't consider being flung a thousand light-years from his brothers and forced to co-operate with a sanctioned mutant to be a harbinger of good times in the slightest.
"Once the teleportarium is activated, I'll join the Titan Legion progressing down Delta Valley," said Tywin. "Once I have reached the primary target and reunited with all of you, we can plan our next course of action there. Suffer not the alien to live, brothers." With that, the vox link fell silent once again, echoing the absence of friendly conversation in the drop pod.
"I bet I'll kill more than you, Engel," said Hector, in a well-meaning effort to break the silence. "Shall we compare kill-stats afterwards?"
"Bloody puppy," muttered Engel under his breath.
"Perhaps some other time, Brother," said Engel. "Let's focus on the mission ahead of us. The Emperor rewards the vigilant," he added diplomatically.
"Well said, Brother," said Ozymandias.
"Shut your mouth, you festering abomination," said Engel a shade less diplomatically.
Ozymandias's reply, and Engel's uttered threat, and Hector's frantic efforts to calm the situation, were all drowned out by the roar of the drop pod as it neared the planet surface at terminal velocity, and were silenced altogether as it crashed into the arid ground and created a brand new crater. The four sides of the pod swung open and fell to the ground and the three Space Marines clambered out. Hector activated the jump pack, and took off with a roar from the turbines to the west. He receded to a dot in the distance as Engel and Ozymandias moved northwards in silence.
The drop pod had landed in the centre of a small plateau, which loomed out of the ground and sloped down gently on all sides. The land of Paragaia Triundus had been baked the colour of bronze by the relentless sun, and only the hardiest of plants could flourish in the arid terrain. At the centre of the largest continent, some twenty miles to the north from the drop pod, was the Forge-Works, a great iron clot which sent out tendrils of machinery and habitation snaking out in all directions. The greatest of these, and the most important from a tactical viewpoint, were the Valleys. These were great steel-and-bronze channels that radiated out from the Forge-Works like the strands of a spider's web to great moulds and depressions in the earth. Water or waste or molten metal would flow out from these, and fill the sea or refuse sites or pour into the moulds. They were a quick means of transport for the tech-priests of old, and they also served as wide, flat surfaces along which massed armoured columns of tanks and infantry could be funnelled to the Forge-Works.
They would be the means by which the Imperium would reclaim Paragaia Triundus, if all went to plan.
Hector flew over the landscape like a promethium-powered angel, touched down on an expanse of rock long enough to let the jump pack cool, and jumped the last few hundred metres to the head of Epsilon Valley. Colonel Morgante of the 222nd Cadian Mechanised spilled his tea as the noisy and bulky Marine impacted into the ground next to him.
"Emperor's ba...! Oh, I do beg your pardon, you must be one of the Deathwatch Marines." He looked ruefully at the dregs of the last of his stock of Cardinal Grey seeping into the sand. "Er, I am pleased to make your acquaintance, sir … ?"
"Brother Hector of the Deathwatch!" announced the Space Marine enthusiastically. "It is my duty to assist your regiment by eliminating any Tau skirmishers on the valley sides. Alert me when you are ready to move out."
"Well, I, er," said the flustered colonel. He was aware that he knew little of the Emperor's most blessed warriors beyond the most basic propaganda. But he was sure that they shouldn't bounce on their heels in the middle of conversation. "We were about to move out, actually," and he gestured at massed ranks of infantry and vehicles lined up along the valley. "We're ready to begin this moment..."
"Excellent! Then don't let me delay you. The Emperor protects!" With that, the Space Marine re-ignited his jump pack, and flew out and away to the right side of the valley, leaving a trail of oily smoke in his wake.
"What?" said the commissar standing next to Morgante as part of his personal guard, who was steadfastly loyal and dedicated to his job if a bit slow on the uptake. "Who was that, sir?"
"One of the Imperium's greatest warriors, I think," said the colonel. "Order the advance. And get my aide to brew up a pot of recaf. I have the feeling this is going to be a very long day."
Hector leapt from Valley-side to Valley-side, exulting as the imperial column before him began to trundle forward. It was a sunny day, the Imperium was defending its domains with all of its power, there was going to be a chance to fight xenos, and his Battle-Brothers were undoubtedly going to reject their irreconcilable differences in favour of brotherly camaraderie. What reason was there to not enjoy existence?
And as Hector sighted a distant group of about half a dozen Tau fire warriors, he knew the answer; none at all.
He dived down down onto them with a sky-splitting roar of "PURGE THE ALIEN!" which, although it wasn't understood by the Tau, still succeeded in getting the gist of the message across by dint of the blaring bolt pistol and rasping chainsword and overall hostile demeanour. The team leader raised their carbine just in time to get flattened under Hector's boots with a squelch and a dismayed yelp, and their second was shorn in half by the downswing of the chainsword. The others scrabbled backwards away from the bloody tableau and away from the Space Marine.
Hector snarled with delight. He felt the Red Thirst stirring within his mind, felt the anguish of noble Sanguinis calling out to him from across the aeons. He would sake his thirst with the blood of xenos. He would purge them all.
His bolt pistol barked once and blew open the chest of another fire warrior, and he pounced forward and drove his chainsword up through another one's belly before it could even try to fend him off. The fifth one brought its pulse rifle down across the back of Hector's wrist, making him drop his bolt pistol, and was bodily picked up and thrown over the edge of the cliff for its trouble.
Hector looked upwards, his vision misting and turning red with fury, sighting the sixth one some twenty metres distant, cowering behind a boulder with its rifle. His jump pack roared to life, and he sprang forwards through the air.
The lone fire warrior stood up straight, and raised and sighted down its rifle and fired in one smooth motion when Hector was half-way through his ascent. The shot cracked into the jump pack, frying some vital wires and bolts in the ancient machinery and knocking Hector back slightly in the air. He shot past the fire warrior, cursing and yanking at his jump pack.
But struggle as he might, the jump pack's direction of travel only responded to the most vigorous of his motions, where before it had responded smoothly and near-instantly to his every motion. With some effort, he managed to angle it so that it skimmed close to the ground and fumbled for the activation rune on the front of the harness, intending to stop the damaged machine.
He pressed the rune once. This did nothing. He pressed it again. This also did nothing. He hammered it repeatedly. This in turn elicited nothing from the jump pack except for an alarming gurgle from the turbines and an increase in speed.
Oh hells, rose to the forefront of Hector's mind, replacing the desire to kill, and was in turn replaced with AAAARGH as the jump pack roared steadily eastwards. This was not part of the plan.
Sergeant Tywin strode across the deck to the teleportarium platform. He was clad in Terminator armour and bore a crackling power fist and a storm bolter, weaponry and wargear befitting a Space Marine of his stature and experience. He stepped up onto the platform, and stood at ease in the centre.
"Commencing in five seconds, Brother-Sergeant," said one of the Tech-Marines manning the huge control panel set in a balconey overlooking the hall in which the teleportarium was placed. "Five, four, three …"
"The Emperor protects," muttered Tywin as the air around him was seized with crackling lines of power …
… and there was a brief sensation of vertigo amidst pitch darkness …
… and he reappeared in the middle of a battle. The Imperial troops in Delta Valley were techguard from one of the other forge worlds in the sector sent to support the Titan Legion deployed from one of the fat Mechanicus ships in orbit, and they were exchanging fire with machine-like precision with ranks of advancing fire warriors. The cracks and whines from pulse rifles raised a din together with the skirls and spits from lasguns, with the assorted yells and commands and screams and screams of the combatants thrown in as a backing chorus.
Tywin opened fire immediately, twin streams of bolts flying from his weapons and ripping into a section of the Tau line. His power fist arced up and pulped an oncoming Kroot, and he smashed a drone into smithereens on the downswing.
"Forward, guardsmen!" he thundered, advancing and firing and setting an example for the techguard behind him. "Claim this world from the alien and prove yourselves to the Emperor! Charge!"
The techguard echoed his cry, and surged across the space between the two forces. Dozens died to rifle fire and the shot from railguns, but the Tau were outnumbered ten to one in the confined space of the valley. A wall of bayonets sheared through the ranks of the fire warriors, and the metal ground ran purple with mixed human and tau blood. Tywin was the spearhead of this force, and his power fist and storm bolter swung and blazed into the tau ranks. Sentinels shot at Tau skimmers and aerial duels raged across the sky, duels which, one by one, the Tau were losing.
Through a haze of blood and dirt, Tywin saw the looming form of a battlesuited Tau commander. The battlesuit made the commander the size of a Dreadnought, and the fire from the guns on the suit's arms reduced squads of techguard to ash across the line of battle. Tywin loosed a volley of bolter fire into the commander's side, and the Tau nearly fell backwards with the force of the impacting shells.
"Here, xenos! Come and show me what passes for skill amongst your misbegotten kind!"
The commander turned and aimed the burst cannon at Tywin, firing as the Tau fired. The pulse shots hammered into Tywin, scoring across his armour and glancing off his Crux Terminatus. He cursed and fired, aiming for the burst cannon, and one lucky bolt shell amongst the volley flew down one of the cannon's barrels.
There was a brief union between heavy-duty Imperial ammunition and graceful Tau mechanisms, which ended, as so many things do, with an explosion. The commander was thrown to the ground by the force of the detonation, which blew the cannon into tiny pieces, and it lay stunned on the ground. Tywin walked forward, intending to use his power fist to finish this.
But as he raised the crackling fist, one arm of the suit lashed out with inhuman speed and mechanically-produced strength, and sent Tywin flying onto his back. He released all the air from his lungs with one astonished breath, and struggled to rise from his position. This isn't an easy proposition for anyone clad in Terminator armour which, amongst its many qualities, doesn't count a capacity for tasks requiring nimbleness and coordination. Tywin struggled as the Tau commander picked itself up, and aimed the fusion blaster on its other arm at Tywin.
There was a burst of light that seared across Tywin's retinas and a noise that seemed to fill the world, and by the time Tywin's vision returned to normal he saw that there was nothing but a few drifting dust particles left of the Tau commander. Around him, he could hear soldiers shouting "The Titans are here! The Titans are here!"
Well. Good for that. All he had to do now was get a few dozen volunteers to help get him back to a standing position, and then he could continue to …
A vast shadow fell across Tywin, and he craned his helmet back as far as it would go just in time to see the Warhound Titan's foot come crashing down upon him.
After a few seconds, the foot moved ponderously upwards and away, leaving the battered Tywin spluttering in a Tywin-shaped hole in the metal ground. The Terminator armour was strong enough to withstand being stood upon by a Titan, but that didn't exactly make it a pleasurable experience. The vox link in his armour was damaged, sections of the ceramite were cracked, and one eye-lens was smashed in.
Wargound Titans are the smallest and lightest of the Titans. This is of exactly zero comfort to those who have just been stood on by them, and Tywin got to repeat the experience as the second Warhound followed in the footsteps of the first. It too moved on after a few seconds, and Tywin gasped for air and managed to pull one hand free which scrabbled at the air, just in time to meet the third Titan, which, being a Reaver Class, was considerably heavier.
Behind it, a Warlord leading two Warhounds marched forward in a stately fashion.
"Glory shall anoint us this day," said one of the tech-priests in the head of the Warlord. "What degenerate xeno can stand against our Titans?"
"None," said the other warmly. "We shall clear a path for the Emperor's armour." He glanced out of a thin window at the back, from which was visible a column of tanks.
"How blessed we are," he said, "To have a Baneblade heading the tank column." Beneath the Warlord, there was an unheard but heartfelt and decidedly muffled wail as its foot descended.
Engel and Ozymandias were faring better than Hector or Tywin, for varying definitions of "better".
"That's the last of them," grunted Engel as his bolt pistol barked and put down the last of the Tau pathfinder team that had tried to ambush them. "We're making good time. We can cover the last ten miles at a sprint, and we'll meet up with the sergeant and the puppy there."
"Good," said Ozymandias. "Maybe they'll be there before us. That was an impressive display with your bolter back there, by the way. My old firearms instructor would be proud."
"Thank you," said Engel after an awkward pause. He felt compelled to add something as well. "You fought well too, with your …" He hunted for the least offensive word he knew for Ozymandias's talents. "...Sorcery," he finished quickly.
They paused, then started moving northwards once more.
"You're still an impure degenerate, though," said Engel.
"Whatever you say, Brother-Thug."
Whatever argument the two could have had was cut short by the faint sound of a distant jump pack, coupled with desperate yelling.
"What is ..." started Engel before Ozymandias raised a hand, shushing him.
"Wait," he said. "Wait, I think its … it could well be Brother Hector."
And sure enough, as the approaching jet of black smoke drew closer, it revealed itself to be Hector, who was slapping frantically at the activation rune on his jump pack and yelling a constant litany along the lines of "Stop, damn you! Stop, damn you! Stop, damn you!" while his jump pack roared and choked out black smoke.
As he flew overhead, Engel dropped his bolter and leapt up to seize Hector's legs, trying to drag him back down to the ground. The speed of the jump pack slowed considerably, but started dragging Engel along with it. Only after Ozymandias seized Engel's legs in turn did the jump pack approach anything like a halt, and it still dragged forward and gouted choking smoke from the turbines.
"What happened?" yelled Engel through the cloud of smoke covering his face. "What's going on with the Cadians? Why are you over here? Why is this damned pack spewing smoke in my face? Gah!"
"A Tau shot it," said Hector, waving his arms frantically in a sort of reverse swimming motion in an effort to decrease the jump pack's speed. "It malfunctioned, and I've been unable to stop it or turn back! What do I do?"
"Have you tried taking it off?" said Ozymandias, his feet cutting grooves into the earth, his voice only slightly strained.
"Okay," said Hector, "Then you can explain to Tech-Marine Wotan how one of the precious jump packs went missing. I'm sure he'll be very understanding about the loss of machinery. He only removed a few fingers from that initiate who lost the trigger for his bolter."
"Well, what else can you do?" growled Engel. "We need a brother Marine more than we need a jump pack. Take it off and bid it farewell."
"But if we lose it, we're crippled! We need a jump pack for the upcoming campaigns, we need the mobility it gives us. We need the sergeant's decision on this!"
"I'll try contacting him," said Ozymandias, lunging one hand towards the vox link on his belt and turning it on.
From the vox link there emitted static, punctuated by crackling and distorted sounds that could almost have been mistaken for frantic yells.
"Either this one needs repairs, or his does," said Ozymandias. "Either way, we can't get his input unless we meet up with him. I used too much energy back there to send a telepathic message."
"So now what?" said Hector.
"It occurs to me," said Engel slowly, "That the campaign is based around ousting the Tau from this world."
"And if we were to remove their leader, one of their "Ethereals", then we could rout them at a stroke."
"Yes, but that isn't rele..."
"Could you change your direction slightly if we were to point you at the Forge-Works?"
Realisation dawned for all three of the space marines.
"Give me your chainsword," said Hector. "My own is somewhere between here and Epsilon Valley."
"How much fuel does your jump-pack have?" asked Ozymandias.
"Enough to keep it going for thirty-six hours, in the absolute extremity,"
"Then expect to be picked up no later than thirty-six hours later, Brother. Tell us when you want to be aimed."
The beginning of the end for the Tau presence on the world came about when Aun'El Katar stood on a podium in the central plaza of the Forge-Works.
The entire fire warrior force in the city had gathered in the plaza to hear him speak, to hear the words that would inspire them to fight the gue'la hordes in defence of the Empire. He was dressed in ceremonial robes and bore a great Honour Blade, the point of which glimmered in the midday sun. He was flanked by his honour guard of veteran fire warriors, whose own stoic demeanour stood in contrast to the excitement displayed by the common soldiers standing in massed ranks below the podium.
Katar stood tall and serene. Drones recorded his every move and broadcast it onto screens in every room in the Forge-Works so that all could heed the wisdom of the Ethereal. A hush fell over the city as he raised one hand and grasped the Honour Blade firmly with the other. A pin drop would have echoed like a thunder clap in the rapt silence.
"Soldiers of the Fire Caste. Citizens of this world. This day, you all stand united ..."
And he finished, "Against a commoooaaaAAAAAAAGH," as something tore down through the golden sky on a plume of dirty smoke and snatched up the Ethereal from off the platform, and the Honour Blade clattered to the ground. Half of the honour guard loosed a round of fire at the rapidly vanishing figure, the other half joined the rest of the audience in blinking and trying to process the fact that the Ethereal had just been snatched off his stage by a big dirty figure in bulky black armour.
The Ethereal twisted in the grip of Hector, and looked around and up into his helm's green glowing lenses.
"I shall not beg for mercy, gue'la," the Tau spat. "Do your worst."
"As you wish," said Hector, and let the Ethereal go onto the machinery fifty metres below.
The roar of his engines drowned the splat of the Ethereal's collision with a particularly toothy gear, and he bludgeoned the jump pack into a relatively horizontal course over the landscape. He prepared himself for a very long flight.
Two days later, the four Space Marines sat around a table in the dining hall of the strike cruiser.
Word was spreading around the entire battle-group of how the Tau had broke nearly instantly when imperial war machines had torn through their patchwork defences. Excited rumour piled upon excited rumour that the Tau were defeated, Paragaia Triundus was secured, and that the Imperials were all going home next week; that all the Tau had committed suicide rather than fight; that the Space Marines had simply looked at the aliens and they had been struck down with fear. Some of the rumours even had a basis in fact.
The Space Marines in question were sitting with glasses of amasec in silence. Two of them, a dour looking one and another who had the stink of the warp about him, were not as hostile to one another as they had once been, as in, they weren't plotting each others death.
Another, the youngest one there, had a decidedly drained and exhausted cast to his features, that was yet overshadowed by a wide triumphant grin.
The last one's skin was a patchwork of scar tissue and bandages, and was in a wheelchair rather than a normal chair. From a distance away, the rantings of a Tech-Marine over a much-abused set of Terminator armour could be made out. Most of the rants concerned the immediate dire future of a certain sergeant's anatomy.
The sergeant in question reached for his glass of amasec, with some effort, and raised it to his lips.
"Let us never speak of that mission again, Brothers," he said once the glass was empty.
"Agreed," they echoed, and drained their glasses as well.