Nothing but a List of Names to Mark his Ascension
Chapter 73: Final Sanction
"What I ask of you, I would not ask of anyone else," said Captain Angelos. The Litany of Fury's observation deck was silent, the observatory screens open to the black of space. Captain Angelos stood beside Diomedes. The Honor Guard Captain's face was grim, scars pulled taut by his frown.
Augustine's augmetic eye whirred as its focus adjusted. It was still acting up, though it was a week since he'd been discharged from the apothecarion. He could not yet wear his armor, and stood out as the only marine wearing robes among the four.
Nikephoros' pale face still bore the signs of battle, scrapes and bruises that had yet to fully heal. His armor was practically grey with battle-damage. The final battle on Aurelia's surface had not been kind. Most of the Company was still reeling from the deaths of Captain Aramus and Sergeant Tarkus. The Fourth was to be disbanded, its brothers scattered across the Chapter. Now this, a meeting beyond ordinary secrecy. They'd sworn oaths of anonymity before a single word was said.
Captain Diomedes' pride had not recovered from the revelation that his Honor Guard was staffed by a band of heretics. Augustine doubted it ever would. The betrayal would sit with him for years, drive him further into his fanaticism. When he spoke, his voice was cold, somber. "In these most recent days, I have oft considered if this Chapter is truly cursed. There are traitors rotting at the heart of our Chapter, abusing it's institutions for their dark purposes. They must be found. They must be killed."
Nikephoros made the half-aquila across his chest. "Direct me and I will serve, Captain. No traitor will escape my wrath."
Angelos warded him off with a gesture. "There is more to this than simple knife-work Brother. In truth, the identities of these traitors are as of now unknown. You both know well my suspicions, but the Captain of the Honor Guard disagrees. In the interests of this alliance, I will not belabor the point."
Kyras. Kyras was the true target. Diomedes did not believe. Even if the Chapter Master admitted it himself, Diomedes would find a way to deny the truth. What then did Angelos intend for them? Captain Diomedes turned from the observatory window to face them. The distant rays of the Aurelian sun cast a harsh white light across the right side of Diomedes' leathery face. "There is one main whom I believe is fallen. Gaius of the First has long since carried a reputation for bloodlust. He stands to gain much favor from the disbanding of the 4th Company. He will command both the 1st and the 2nd Companies in the years to come, until a Sergeant of the 1st can prove himself worthy to lead."
Angelos said, "Brothers. Diomedes and I intend to make you Sergeants of the 2nd Company. Though you are young, the Chapter is short of officers. Gaius will not refuse the appointments. You will watch, and obey, and when the time comes, rejoin the fold."
"Gaius will suspect a trick." Augustine did not know the First Captain. He had never met him. But no man would overlook such a placement.
"You must ensure that he does not," said Diomedes. "Do whatever is necessary."
"Whatever is necessary," Nikephoros muttered. "You send us to damnation, Captain."
The pale light caught on Diomedes' thin frown. "Only if we fail, Brothers."
Augustine tore his sword from Captain Gaius's chest and kicked the howling Astartes to the ground. Gaius thrashed in agony as his lifeblood gushed from his massive wounds. "Augustine! You-you!"
"Enough. You have said far too much already." Augustine drew his bolt pistol and fired a single shot into Gaius's pain-wracked face. The Captain's head exploded in a spray of blood and bone shards, and his flailing limbs fell slack. Augustine looked over the corpse in silent disgust. His was no lineage worth saving. This gene-seed was better left to rot in the soil, or burn in the fires of battle. He would not see it go to a neophyte.
"Are you injured?" Augustine asked. Malachi turned sluggishly, as if in a daze. The bodies of Augustine's assault squad and Gaius' command squad lay where they'd fallen. Some twitched, still clutching to life. Others were still. Malachi shook his head slowly, and for a moment, looked down at his gore-choked chainsword as if prepared to cast it aside. Weak. He had always been weak. "See to the wounded. They must not leave this place alive."
"You mean to have me-"
"I do. See that your duty is done, Malachi. Traitors deserve no mercy."
"We are all murderers. That is our calling." Augustine turned back to the corpse of Gaius as intermittent cracks from Malachi's bolt pistol filled the clearing behind him. The vox was in shambles. The warp interference grew by the second, and Augustine could feel the micro-tremors intensify beneath their feet. The ridge groaned as the earth split beneath them. A massive spike of obsidian burst from the earth a hundred meters ahead of them. Lava pooled at its base, joining a river of magma amid a forest of fireglass. There was no time to lose. "This is Sergeant Nathaniel Augustine, voxing all Blood Ravens of the 1st and 2nd Companies. Captain Gaius is slain. Battlefield control has fallen to me. Squads report."
Static was his answer. Voices screeched at him through a storm of interference, their replies so distorted that it was impossible to make out the words. Augustine muttered a curse. What else could they do? He tried again, this time calling on Diomedes' frequency. Still nothing. They were alone on a dying world.
"What is it, alien?"
Will you not go to your brothers?
Damn xenos. Of course he wanted to. But with the intermittent vox contact, there would be no way to reach Captain Diomedes. Even his own forces were out of contact. "If I could find them, perhaps."
He could practically hear the smug smile in the alien's voice. Oh you mon-keigh are so helpless. One wonders how you ever left your primitive little backwater. Free me from this prison Nathaniel. You've done quite enough already.
Arcadia darted through the burning forest. She was only vaguely aware of her companions. Nyll's shadow slipped from leaf to root, the mandrake more ghostlike than she'd thought possible in such a blaze. Tyrea and her banshees were behind them, two dozen bone-clad warriors still eager to shed blood. Of Ronahn, there was no sign. Perhaps he'd made it to safety? A dull ache throbbed in the back of her head. Typhon's life was fast coming to an end. "We must leave this place, at once."
"What of the Tears of Isha?" said Tyrea as they paused beneath the smoldering canopy of a massive elder-tree. Ash, blood, and bits of bone fell in a ghastly storm around them. The earth groaned and split. Typhon was turning itself inside-out.
Nyll materialized behind them. His shadowy-skin was a void even among the flames. "Many Eldar died today, Arcadia."
"Our race has not survived so long by walking mindlessly to slaughter," said Arcadia. "We must cut our losses."
"What of Uremael?" asked Tyrea.
Nyll scoffed. "Dead, I'm sure. You all felt that scream. It could be no one else."
Arcadia bit her lip in frustration. Ever since her travels with Idranel, she'd considered it her duty to recover the soul-stones from the fallen. Now her idol and oldest liege-lord had fallen. Could she not do the same duty for him? "Where did he fall?"
An expression approximating uncertainty flashed across Nyll's immaterial face. "Some ways up the river." There was no river anymore, just a broken gorge bubbling with fresh magma, with a bank of scintillating obsidian. Soon the forest would be ash, and the surface of Typhon unrecognizable. "First you say we must leave, now you wish to find the corpse of your precious farseer?"
"Forgive my sentimentality," said Arcadia. "I must try. Go, seek safety in the heart of the Craftworld."
Tyrea grabbed her arm before she could withdraw. "Arcadia, there's no need to throw your life away."
Arcadia gently pried Tyrea's hand away, then withdrew from their circle. "I'm no leader, Exarch. Just a wanderer on a far-ranging path. Go. Find Kayleth and the others. Leave this place."
Then she turned and vanished into the blazing jungle.
"Comms Officer, have you re-established contact with our surface forces?" Gelden asked. The 5th Captain tapped his fingers on the command lectern, glaring at the tactical display projected onto the main screen. Martellus glanced up at the Captain his position beneath the vox array cogitators. Most of Captain Diomedes' positional icons were inoperative. Vox contact to the surface was almost completely lost, with only spotty intercepted traffic as evidence that the ground forces were alive at all. "Techmarine, can you get the vox working again?"
By the mercy of the Omnissiah, could he? The array was operating at near-peak efficiency already. He interfaced with the cogitator with one of his utility mechadendrite and flinched as a jolt of machine cant flooded his helmet display, syncing with his mental interface unit after only a short delay. He boosted the array's range with a thought, siphoning some of the ship's drive power to bolster the array's energy reserves. He sifted through the thousands of frequencies, seeking out those with the least interference in hopes that he might find some method of contacting their forces planet-side. "Captain, there is little else I can do."
"Throne damn it!" Gelden slammed his fist against the corner of the lectern hard enough to bend the gilded plasteel. "Contact the Inquisitor immediately, see if he has any communications with the surface."
The comms-officer turned to his console and re-established the link with the Inquisitor's ship. "Inquisitor, are you there? This is Captain Gelden."
"I'm here, Captain." Adriarch's voice sounded pained and breathy over the thready vox-link. "It seems the situation on the surface is deteriorating."
"Do you have any information for us? Captain Diomedes is planetside with the majority of our forces."
"Our auspexes are blind, Captain," Adriarch replied. "Our fleet's ships are still attempting to regroup, but a colleague of mine has just emerged from the Warp."
"Another Inquisitor?" Martellus asked, standing up to view the map display. Another ship had entered the Typhon system, just on the other side of the system's star. By its heading, the ship would be in orbit over the planet in a matter of hours. After a moment, the ship's IFF activated. The blank icon indicating an unknown contact was replaced with a red "I". "Ordo Malleus."
"This has gone on long enough, Captain," said Adriarch. "In the name of the Inquisition, begin preliminary bombardment of Typhon Primaris."
"I refuse," said Gelden. "My brothers are still fighting down there, and we have not yet secured the planet's orbit." As if to punctuate his statement, the Scientia shook as another bombardment from the Observer slammed into its shields.
"Shields nearly stripped, Captain," said Martellus. They couldn't continue over-charging the vox-arrays in the midst of a battle. Not if they wanted to keep the ship in one piece.
Adriarch said, "You must do something Captain. This planet will be beyond our help before long. Better to put an end to it than let the forces of Chaos consume it."
"The world is not my concern, Inquisitor. But I will not sacrifice my Brothers. I have lost far too many." He turned to Martellus. "Continue to boost our vox signal. We must reach Diomedes."
"Captain, we cannot continue to trade broadsides with the Observer and search for the Captain. We will not be able to keep our shields up for much longer."
Gelden nodded grimly and stared out into the void, as if searching for the enemy ship amid the light of distant stars. "I do not intend to sink the Observer. I mean to take her."
"Take her? With what complement?" There were few Astartes remaining aboard the Scientia Est Potentia, far too few to storm another battle-barge.
"You, me, what Astartes we can scrounge from the apothecarium and the forge-decks, and all the serfs we can arm. Gaius took the greater part of his force to the surface with him. The Observer will be as unguarded as we are."
Lyon slid to a halt before a spear of obsidian piercing the gentle slope of the ridge. He crouched low, bracing himself as the earth shook with another series of quakes. The ground ahead of them split like a wound carved by a massive cleaver, spilling magma-blood across the burning landscape. Another spire of rock and glass burst from the earth further down the hill, scattering a squad of Cadians in cover behind the smoldering ruin of an old tree. The ground erupted as another lava-floe breached the surface, scorching half the men to cinders and cooking the rest in their flak armor. Lyon's helmet display fizzed as it struggled to acquire targets in the ashen murk.
"Captain, do you read me?" he asked over the vox. A burst of heavy-bolter rounds flew over his head and he returned fire with his squad, painting the distant treeline in shells. The heavy bolter fired again, tracing its rounds lower to follow the line of their shots, until a missile silenced it forever.
"No word over the vox," said Brother Cleon. They gripped the rock-face as the earth rumbled again. Lyon craned his neck. He couldn't see the rest of the advance anymore. Akileus's terminators had vanished into the burning forest below, and much of the 5th Company had fanned out to hunt down the scattered elements of Gaius' Companies. With the vox out, how would they regroup?
"Contact with the Scientia Est Potentia?" Lyon asked. Cleon shook his head.
"No, and no teleport homer either. Best find the Captain if we want to make it out of here."
Make it out? They hadn't even seen the enemy yet. This was no cause for concern. Captain Aramus had led the 4th Company into the gullet of Ulkair on Aurelia, and they'd emerged triumphant. At the cost of the Captain's life, he remembered bitterly. "Continue your attempts to vox Captain Diomedes and the fleet. Until then, we push forward. There are traitors yet to be slain."
The resistance they met was hardly worthy of the name. The shifting landscape had fragmented the Cadian line. Their left flank was full of gaps, the platoons moving without adequate fire support and little communication with their rear elements. Lyon's squad, though few in number, punched through the thin line like a stiletto finding purchase in armor. "Keep a close eye for signs of Captain Diomedes!" Lyon shouted as they overtook a stubber emplacement positioned within a den of fallen trees. Lyon stomped down on the weapon, crushing to bent components as he sprayed the crew with a burst from his bolter. Before the blood had even dripped from his face, he was already seeking out new targets.
"No sign of our Brothers, Captain," reported Cleon.
Of course not. Diomedes wouldn't walk this battlefield without leaving a trail of corpses in his path. Lyon paused, and with a thought tuned his helmet to track the sounds of bolterfire. The armor's autosenses filtered out the carnage wrought by his squad, and picked up dozens of separate engagements across the breadth of the forest. But which was the 5th Company? Somewhere to the south, he suspected, where the gunfire peaked in intensity.
Lyon waved for the squad to follow, and pressed on towards the south-east. The Cadians were in mass retreat, and Lyon's squad caught them mid-flight. The tactical squad tore through the fleeing guardsmen like a lion through a horde of children. Lyon scattered the guardsmen, roaring as he punched here and there, swinging his bolter in wide arcs and firing unaimed shots into the backs of helpless traitors. Here and there he saw the corpses of Eldar amid the fallen guardsmen. Their gleaming wraithbone armor was matted in dust, the brilliant colors dull beneath the scab-red sky. Lyon dropped to a knee beside the body of a Dire Avenger, noting the direction the warrior fell. The Cadians were pushing the Eldar back to the north. The Dire Avengers had been fighting a running battle along the lines of the ruined riverbed. Lyon turned to the north, scanning the ash-wreathed mountain peaks a few miles distant. Of course, he realized it now. The Blood Ravens had walked this ground ten years before, when they culled the Ulthwe Craftworlders.
Apollo Diomedes howled as he rammed his axe-head into the Sternguard veteran's chest. Veteran-Sergeant Nepos stumbled back, coughing blood out his vox grille. Diomedes kicked him into a scorched tree husk, then wrenched the power weapon from the marine's chest. "Where is Kyras?" He drove his fist into Nepos' face, shattering the right eyelense and cracking the ceramite. "Where is he?"
Nepos slipped the next punch and drove his head into Diomedes' chest. The veteran tried to shove Diomedes off balance, but the Captain could tell the wound was taking its toll. Diomedes ground his heels into the dry earth, then wrenched Nepos up and threw him bodily into the brush. Nepos' squad drew back in the face of the Honor Guard's attack, now supported by two squads of the 5th Company. "Surrender now, and your lives may yet be spared!" Diomedes called, to no avail. Nepos' squad died around their Sergeant.
"Haul him to his feet!" Loren cried. He sheathed his relic blade, and before Roland could steady the wounded veteran, Loren punched Nepos over his bloody wound. Nepos' cry of agony was tinged with vox static, and he raised a feeble hand to defend himself. Loren slapped the arm away and tore Nepos' helmet free. He tossed the ruined helmet into the burning brush and gripped Nepos' bloody face with his iron paws. "The Captain asked you a question, Brother."
Nepos spat blood, his eyes slowly focusing. Diomedes set Loren aside and stared into Nepos' eyes. "Where is Kyras? Speak, brother. Out of respect for your deeds and the valor of your squad, I offer the services of our apothecary. Step free of this path Kyras has set you on."
"Too late," Nepos muttered. "Too late."
"It is not too late," said Diomedes. Gaius could not have turned his Company so thoroughly. Nepos had been a neophyte when Diomedes had commanded the 1st. He recalled his last battle as a scout, the rearguard on Profundis: ten thousand feral orks against but a few dozen Blood Ravens. Diomedes had rallied every marine he could gather into a desperate series of hit and run engagements to break up the horde. None had emerged unscathed, but the honors from that victory were long remembered in the halls of glory. That scout, that boy, could not have fallen so far. Diomedes could not believe it. He would not allow it.
"Take Brother Nepos to the rear. He requires medical attention. Loren, find that helmet you tossed away and see if you can clean some tactical information from its display. We are Blood Ravens. Knowledge is power."
Loren nodded and went off in search of the helmet. Much of the 5th Company was scattered, and even Diomedes' command vox had difficulty piercing the interference. Cyrus and his scouts were at the far edge of vox contact, the Sergeant's gravelly voice harsher amid the interference. Epistolary Anteas stumbled like a sleepwalker by the hulking form of Honored Brother Thule. The silent Ancient supported the librarian, who seemed fit to collapse at any moment. "Epistolary, do you require extraction?"
Anteas held out a hand. "No, Captain. I mustn't. You. . . You need me here."
"Can you contact Captain Gelden?"
"I-I could. Perhaps."
"Do so. Order him to deploy Thunderhawks for our extraction."
"My lord?" Anteas asked.
Diomdes' voice was thick with frustration. He pushed to the front of the Honor Guard, staring out across the blasted valley floor before them. "We must press on. Kyras is here. I can feel it in my bones. But we cannot allow this world to die around us. Epistolary. Order Anteas to contact the Inquisition. Tell them to prepare Typhon for final sanction."
"And us?" Loren checked the balance of his relic blade, cutting a figure-eight pattern as easily as he breathed.
Diomedes gripped his axe and pistol. "The Thunderhawks will monitor our progress as we advance. I will not pull our forces back until the last moment." No. Not until Kyras' head was in his lap.
Augustine felt the first lance before he saw it. The flash was lost amid the burning forest and the low cloud of ash that hung over the valley like a deathshroud. But the impact couldn't be mistaken for anything else. The earth rumbled, a deep throaty roar far different from the groans of the micro-earthquakes he'd felt more than a dozen times. This was a low, reverberating tremor that vanished almost as soon as he'd felt it.
The second orbital strike fell closer than the first. This time Augustine caught sight of it, a spear of blue-white light that punched through the scab-red sky like the finger of a pagan god. It melted one of the snowcapped peaks to molten slag, whiter than white, and sent a burning shockwave coursing down the mountainside into the bowl of the valley. Augustine barely had a moment to brace before the blast hit him. He ground his heels into the dirt and shouted a warning to Malachi as the gust of burning air engulfed them. Augustine's vision went dark as his auto-senses cut out. His suit's joints locked, and all his armor's internals fought to keep him in place. All he could do was grip the earth as the blast buffeted him. Temperature indicators rose and rose, and by the time his senses returned, all that remained of the forest floor was an ashen wasteland.
The fires had all but gone out, the oxygen stolen by the blast. The trees were blackened skeletons, the forest floor a desert of black sand and obsidian glass coursing with bubbling magma. "Eldar. Malachi. Do you still live?"
"Here Sergeant." Malachi's armor was scorched dark. Augustine glanced down at his hands, and realized the same had happened to his power armor. The paint flaked off like burnt flesh, revealing the natural grey of the ceramite beneath.
"Eldar? Answer me. Do you live?"
I most certainly do not live, Nathaniel. But I am here. Unbury me, and quickly.
He found Gaius's arm buried beneath a mound of ash the size of an ogryn. "Taking the Captain's weapon for yourself?" Malachi's tone reserved far too much judgment for Augustine's liking.
"There is little else to salvage. Or would you rather dig him up for his gene-seed?" said Augustine.
Isha's mercy. Again with your bickering. Have you not more important tasks to consider?
Malachi cocked his head. "Sergeant?"
"Not you." Augustine rapped his helmet with the back of his hand. The lance strike must have damaged his vox feed. He couldn't close the circuit of his helmet's vox projector. "We had best find shelter. This is but the start of the bombardment."
Forget the safety of your Captain's ranks. Seek shelter with my kin.
"That seems unwise."
"Do you have contact over the vox, Sergeant?"
Augustine chuckled. "Oh no. Far worse than that, Malachi. If I told you, you might never let me go through with it."
I'll take that as acquiescence then? Make for the northeast as quickly as you can. There's no time to lose now that the bombardment has begun.
"We have no time to lose," said Augustine. The Eldar was right. The bombardment only meant one thing. The fleet above was seeding this world for Exterminatus. Soon the Imperium's final sanction would be passed, and the world of Typhon Primaris scoured of all life.
The 2nd Company was in disarray. Half their forces were scattered throughout the burning jungle in pursuit of retreating Eldar, the other half concentrated to the west, where Diomedes and the rest of the 5th Company had made planetfall. Augustine's tactical display fizzed in an out. Bursts of static filled his vox feed, occasionally overlapping with intra-squad comms from other 2nd Company elements. He shifted his vox to the Company net and tried the feed again, once more calling on the 2nd Company to accept his battlefield command. No answer, just the snarl of inhuman vox interference. Another lance strike fell, this time more than a dozen kilometers to the south. The shockwave was little more than a waft of hot air at that distance, and Augustine barely noted the temperature differential on his HUD's readout.
They ran through the ashen forest, pausing only to brace against shockwaves of the approaching bombardment. Thunderhawks swerved overhead, dodging flashes of lightning as they dropped payload after payload of ordinance on the traitor forces. They were dark shapes in the thickening blood-rain, all but invisible in the downpour. Whole skulls now fell from the heavens: some ugly and misshapen, brutish ork skulls, others elongated and chitinous, fanged and bestial. Most were human.
Shapes moved in dark of the forest. Alien growls cut through Augustine's auto-senses and sent a chill down a spine that hadn't known fear in more than seven decades. They were not alone. Augustine raised his free hand and dropped to a knee beneath a blackened tree. Malachi fell in behind him. "Take this," said Augustine, passing the younger marine the severed arm of Captain Gaius.
"What am I to do with this?" Malachi asked in a horrified voice, glancing down at the bloody limb.
"Hold it. Right now it is worth more than you are."
Your care for my well-being does me honor, Nathaniel.
"Perhaps you might use some of that honor now, if those beasts are what I think they are."
"Sergeant?" Malachi asked. This charade was starting to become a bother.
Rest assured, Nathaniel. Were it not for my help, you would already be dead.
"Enemy contact, Malachi." Augustine stood, flexing his grip on Halcyon as he stepped out from behind the tree. He scanned the forest with his pistol raised. A lithe, muscular beast resolved itself in his auto-senses and he fired. The beast darted away, circling him, just distant enough to be obscured by the thick rain. Malachi shifted behind him, his own pistol held in a death grip. Malachi clutched Gaius' arm to his chest, glancing back and forth as more figures resolved around them. They weren't emerging from the darkness at all. They were birthed from the blood rain. "Daemons."
He had never seen a hound of Khorne before, save for the fanciful drawings in the Observer's librarium and the blurry, half-formed pictograms during tactical briefings. Ostensibly shaped like hunting canids, the beasts were grotesquely muscled. Blood dripped from their fleshless forms, dripping from their fanged maws and the rows of spines that lined their hunched bodies. They moved as one, fifteen of the beasts circling them like a pack of wolves.
Augustine leaped forward as the hounds of Khorne rushed them. He had to put space between them and Malachi. Between them and the Eldar. He emptied his pistol, pulping one of the creatures and shearing the forelegs from another. It dissolved into red steam, howling as skin and muscle melted into a puddle of arterial blood. He cut down the first beast that dove at him with a downward slash from Halcyon. The force blade split the hound lengthwise. The two pieces liquefied in mid-air, coating Augustine in hot blood. He pressed forward into the mass of them, cutting and shooting as the beasts nipped at him, trying to get into his blind spots.
One drove into the backs of his legs, jaws fighting for purchase against his armor. Augustine stomped down on it, but the momentary distraction was enough. Four more hounds piled onto him. Halcyon slipped from his grip and skittered across the ground out of reach as the beasts drove him to the ground. Augustine lashed out with everything he had as the beasts clawed at him. Warning indicators flooded his HUD as their talons tore into his armor, breaching the environmental seals in eleven separate locations. He gasped in pain as a long, jagged claw cut deep into his side, ripping flesh and ceramite free as it drew back. One beast leapt onto his chest, jaws widening as it leaned in to attack. Augustine threw his head forward and smashed the beast's muzzle with the ceramite ridge of his helmet. Tusks cracked beneath the impact and the beast howled as it lurched back, stunned.
A bolt round took its head off. Augustine craned his neck to search for Malachi, but the marine had his back to him, firing at another group of hounds behind them. Where had the shot come from? Another round killed a hound clawing at his waist, and a third knocked free a beast clinging to his legs. Augustine kicked its face to a bloody pulp, then forced himself to his feet with a pained groan.
"Augustine? I thought I saw you there." Sergeant Albrecht stepped into the clearing, his bolter held low at his hip. Four marines from his tactical squad fanned out in a loose line behind him, their bolters trained on Augustine and Malachi.
Augustine stooped to pick up Halcyon and anchored his bolt pistol to his ash-covered power armor. "Where is the rest of the 2nd?" he asked.
"Scattered throughout these woods, chasing either the Eldar or Diomedes." Albrecht looked past Augustine, stiffening as he saw the severed limb in Malachi's grasp. "That power fist. What have you done, Augustine?"
"Gaius is slain." Muttered curses met his statement, and Albrecht shook with barely contained fury.
"Not a traitor, just a liar," said Augustine. "We both are, in a way."
Albrech's finger tightened on the trigger of his bolter, and Augustine lowered his stance. If Albrecht wanted a fight, he would oblige him. Augustine said, "Do you intend to kill me?"
"You are a traitor to the Chapter. Honorless scum."
"I profess guilt to the latter, but not the former. Killing me will amount for nothing, Albrecht. It might satisfy your disdain for me, but that would still leave you on the blasted surface of a world mere hours from annihilation. Gaius is dead, Kyras has abandoned you. No help is coming."
"The Chapter Master would not lead us to our deaths!" Albrecht spat.
"He would. Have you not been paying attention, Brother? Kyras does not care about us. He will abandon the Blood Ravens as he abandoned Ulkair. We are tools, sacrifices for his ascension. Nothing more." He looked from Albrecht to his squad. The marines glanced between each other, their weapons lowered, uncertain. "What would you do? Meet a futile death here?"
"Better this than failure," said Albrecht. "Better death than submission."
"Submission to who? Diomedes? An honored Captain of our Chapter. Is it submission to kneel before our rightful lords? Is it brave to shun the light of the Emperor? To flee justice and meet you death here is not valor. It is cowardice. To accept retribution, to repent. That is the path down which honor lies."
Diomedes grinned as his helmet display flickered back to life. He tapped the vox channels, testing the frequencies for feedback. "This is Captain Diomedes, squads report in."
His smile grew as reports from the 5th Company began to trickle in. His map display was next to return, the stark green display solidifying into a mass of gnarled lines across his HUD. He gave Anteas a nod of thanks. The Epistolary sat upon the fallen truck of a tree, cradling his pallid head in his hands, heedless of the tremors of the orbital bombardments pounding the distant mountain range.
At last the tactical readout returned, and Diomedes drew up the map display. Winking blue runes outlined a rough salient of friendly contacts, a spear driving into a sea of red, hostile markers. There was Lyon's squad, fighting at the front of the advance. He alone had identified half a dozen enemy elements, dutifully updating his tactical display despite the Company-wide blackout. Behind him, the 5th Company pressed into a mass of traitors, driving them through the burning wasteland and up the sides of the valley. Diomedes remembered the words of his old Captain, Octavius of the 6th Company. Diomedes had been a whelp then, a blustering youth that had demanded a place in a battle company. The repudiation did little to humble him, but he did not regret his time in the reserve. A phrase came to mind, something Octavius had often repeated. Something Diomedes had willfully forgotten, for no Blood Raven could ever claim a true lapse in memory. A good Captain knows when to order, and when to follow.
No orders were necessary here. Lyon and Gelden had complete understanding of the situation. All that remained was for Diomedes to take his place. "Honor Guard, with me." Gelden's left flank was the weakest. There was their battle.
The molten riverbed led them directly into the 2nd Company's weakened flank. Caught off-guard by Lyon's advance, the disorganized traitors were in the midst of readjusting their lines when the Honor Guard and 5th Company began their attack. Gaius' death had robbed them of all tactical consideration. Without scouts to screen their retreat, the first sign of Diomedes' presence was a mass of bolterfire upon the scattered remnants of the Cadian battlegroup. Dozens of traitor guardsmen died in the opening volleys as Diomedes led the Honor Guard forward.
The Blood Ravens among the ranks of the enemy were fighting individually now, cut off from their brothers by distance and the comm interference caused by the continued degradation of the planet's biosphere. They were no match for the Honor Guard.
"DAEMONS," Thule boomed, servos grinding as his chassis rotated towards a jungle thicket to their left. Dozens of figures emerged from the flames, others bursting from the gathering magma pools ahead. The 2nd Company was defeated, Gaius was dead, but still this world conspired to kill them. Kyras still fought. Until he was dead, this madness would not end.
"We cannot allow them to slow us down," Diomedes said, looking past the skinless monstrosities towards the plateau above. Kyras was ahead. He had to be. The resistance only meant they were getting closer. He activated his jump pack and dove into the mass of circling daemons. The impact scattered them. Hellblades shimmered in the baleful sunlight as the bloodletters sought to surround them. Diomedes did not give them the chance. He pumped the ignition, letting his jump pack flare. The burst of speed drove him into and through the first daemon, the impact alone shearing the beast in half. He spun as the speed bled away, firing his pistol at the daemons as they pursued, then kicked off the ground and dove into their midst with his power axe raised high. This was a distraction. A diversion. Kyras was near. Kyras could not be allowed to escape!
The stench of burning blood clogged his helmet, the taste of ozone sharp at the back of his throat. "More of them," Loren reported. He pointed his blood-drenched relic blade up the mountainside. Dozens-no, hundreds of daemons now stood in their path, summoned from the world itself in the time it had taken the Honor Guard to kill but a few. The rearguard was already reporting additional contacts, bloody hounds circling the Honor Guard's flanks, masses of bloodletters emerging from the flaming river and the cracks in Typhon's crust.
"We should withdraw," said Cyrus. "We have done all we can. Let the Inquisition deal with the rest."
"No!" Diomedes pushed the scout aside and strode towards the encroaching daemon horde. "We must press on. I swore that Kyras and I would have a reckoning. I will not flee the field in shame."
"There is no shame in strategic withdrawal," said Cyrus. "You have exchanged one form of fanaticism for another, Diomedes. Your pursuit of Kyras will what remains of this Chapter killed. Do not forget there is still a war to fight."
Diomedes rounded on Cyrus. The rest of the Honor Guard closed in around them. Loren glanced between the pair, unsure. Thule stood above them all, as though he were the judge presiding above their mortal dispute. The Ancient was silent as always, but the lenses of his helmet were locked on Diomedes. The Captain spoke, "Have you no decency, Cyrus? Are you to deny me my redemption? Kyras must die if my soul is to ever be at peace. I will not cease this chase. Not while I still draw breath, not while there is still a chance for victory."
"There is no chance of victory!"
"Be silent. There is nothing left to say."
"No. There is much left to say, and I will break my vows to say it." The voice was the creak of dry wood, the rasp of stone on stone. Diomedes took an involuntary step back as the Ancient shoved Loren aside and moved to stand in front of Cyrus. He held his twin swords low, the energy crackling upon their double-edged lengths.
"Now you decide to speak?" said Diomedes. "You would deny me this too, Tarkus?"
Author's note: I've resolved to finish this story. I've sworn I won't begin another original work until it is complete.