Alarms blared. Red warning lights pulsed in the communication centre, reflecting off freshly spilled blood and filling the room with a crimson glow. Dropping the makeshift lastorch he had used to weld the door shut, Communicae Officer Hogart Alisarus shivered as he dragged himself into a control chair with his remaining arm, partly out of the shock from the trauma he had sustained, and partly out of sheer terror.
Hogart had to consciously remember to use his left hand to type on the control console, for he was instinctively inclined to use his right hand, despite no longer having a right hand to use. Every character typed into the console required a conscious, straining effort, between the unnatural feeling of using only his left hand and the fact that his arm felt stiff and heavy like lead. But Hogart moved with purpose: it was up to him alone to send out a distress call, otherwise the entire planet would succumb to heretical savagery without any notice from the rest of the Imperium of Man.
About halfway through composing the message, Hogart's concentration was broken by the sound of metal crashing against metal as something heavy smashed into blast doors that sealed away access to the room. Hogart's heart sank, and his chest clenched with dread. The sound repeated itself, continuing to do so, each crash sounding angrier and more forceful than the last.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
Hogart continued typing, cringing with each crashing clang of metal on metal. Soon, however, the banging stopped, only to be replaced by the muffled, sucking hiss of a welding torch being lit on the other side of the doorway, quickly accompanied by crackling as it began melting through the thick metal plate.
Finishing the message, the hissing ceased as Hogart hurriedly looked over the message one final time. He hit the send button frantically as the newly-loosened metal groaned and smashed against the floor. But just before he could confirm the sending of his message, a white-hot beam of energy streaked across the room from the now-open doorway, carving a blackened, smouldering hole directly through Hogart's cranium. His head fell limply against the keyboard, dead. But while his killers hurried away, a tone chimed faintly as Hogart's nose rolled off of the "enter" key.
Message successfully sent. Transmitting...
Death loomed over the world of Signatus Minorum. The coppery scent of human blood hung in the air, mingling with the stench of rotting flesh. The odor was so thick and pungent that even the sophisticated atmospheric filtration systems of Astartes power armour could not fully neutralise it. Of course, this was of little concern to Brother-Sergeant Vincenzio or his squad; as Battle-Brothers of the Angels Encarmine, they were quite acquainted with the smell of blood. But Vincenzio was troubled nonetheless.
"Truly nothing is sacred to these heathens," crackled Brother Othello's voice over the vox channel as the Space Marines surveyed the blood-spattered city ruins. Once proud statues were now toppled or defaced, and defiled corpses hung by their entrails from above, blasphemous icons carved into their violated flesh. The whole city had been turned from a masterwork of Imperial achievement into a heinous monument of carnage in tribute to the unholy powers of the Warp. The bloody scent emanated off of the mutilated corpses which were strewn across the streets or piled up into mounds like refuse. Others yet were carefully laid out beside defaced monuments and statues, presumably for use in various unspeakable rituals. Clearly, the planet's Governor had been careless in the ministration of his subjects, for so harrowing a scene could only have been the aftermath of and quick and brutal uprising on a massive scale. Vincenzio and his Marines had responded to the distress signal they'd received as quickly as they could, but it seemed that their efforts were much too little much too late.
It was something which had always troubled Vincenzio. For all of the incredible strength, speed and skill afforded to the Space Marines by their superhuman physiques, it all meant nothing if they were not in the right place at the right time. Had he and his squad been there at any point during the course of the uprising, who knows how many lives could've been—
No, Vincenzio thought, catching himself. I mustn't think about that. It will only lead to trouble.
"Contacts, seventy metres, two o'clock," reported Brother Thessius as the squad approached the crumbling remains of a cathedral through a narrow alleyway. Thessius was at the front of the group, using an auspex to scan the ruins for life. The Marine shifted his weapon to the side before dropping to a knee to help prevent the sunlight from glinting off of the display.
"Movement or life signs?" Vincenzio was fairly certain the detection was a fluke and nothing more. He and his squad had been searching the capital for over two hours now, and hadn't encountered a single living soul, friendly or hostile.
"Both," Thessius replied, much to the Sergeant's surprise. "Orders?"
Vincenzio heaved a long, exasperated sigh. "Move in, and stay alert. Do not fire unless I give the signal or you are fired upon."
The squad nodded in affirmation before falling in behind one another. They huddled over by the nearest door into the cathedral, of which Brother Crecio made short work by way of a simple kick. The Marines poured into the doorway, with only silence seeming to greet them on the other side. It appeared that the squad had entered into a back room of some kind; judging by the various Ecclesiarchal relics and paraphernalia, it was likely some kind of waiting and dress area meant for priests and other various clergymen. Inactive servitors stared blankly in the darkness, giving the space a quite unsettling feel. After scanning the surroundings, Vincenzio gave the signal to move forward, leading his squad into the remains of the building's main auditorium. Here most of the roof had collapsed, allowing sunlight to fill much of the space, though for the most part the walls along the periphery of the room remained engulfed in shadow.
The ten Astartes began a sweep of the area, searching for nooks and crannies in the rubble where people could be trapped or hiding. Barely had they gotten started when, without warning, the eerie quiet was perforated by the thunder of gunfire, accompanied the sound of autogun rounds cracking against stone and pinging off of ceramite battleplate. "Incoming fire from the balconies!" Brother Ferrizio shouted, pointing to a balcony on the far side of the cathedral, where smoke rose from the faintly glowing muzzle of a hot gunbarrel, easily visible against the otherwise tenebrous gallery.
The Astartes made for cover, some dropping behind the few pews that remained standing, while others ducked behind rubble or destroyed walls. Gunfire rang out across the cathedral again as the belt-fed heavy stubber tracked and fired, their attackers now realising that their targets were far more formidable than they had initially assumed. Crecio's bolter roared vengefully as he fired several bursts into the balcony, but Vincenzio could see his brother's shots flying past the enemy and detonating harmlessly against the walls behind them. For almost a full minute, the stubber noisily saturated the air with projectiles, until at last its clattering report ceased and the operator began to reload his now-empty weapon. This was their chance.
"Sabio!" Vincenzio called out to the Battle-Brother wielding a hefty Soundstrike-pattern missile launcher. "Bring that balcony down!"
Sabio's backpack-mounted autoloader whirred as it retrieved a fragmentation missile from its magazine and inserted it into the launch tube of the Marine's massive weapon. Shouldering it with a grunt, he braced the weapon with his free hand as a targeting lens extended from the its side. Sabio held his fire for a few short moments as he adjusted his aim, before his weapon unleashed its deadly payload with a jet of smoke and a furious whoosh. The missile streaked towards its target, spiraling as the stubber, fully loaded once again, attempted to shoot it from the air in a last-ditch effort at defiance. But the round struck home, blasting stone and metal supports out from the wall and sending it all tumbling to the ground with an earth-shaking crash.
Thessius consulted his auspex before broadcasting the all-clear signal, and the Marines cautiously stood up. Brothers Lorenzo and Tyris stepped over to survey the wreckage.
"They're cultists, no doubt. They bear the markings of the dark powers," Tyris reported, pausing. "No vital signs. They're dead."
Tyris was about to walk back away from the ruins of the balcony when he caught sight of a man dashing out from the stairwells that led up to the galleries. Seemingly unarmed, he stopped in the middle of the squad's ranks, meeting eyes with Brother Lorenzo. Lorenzo almost seemed to panic, hurriedly bringing his boltgun to bear whilst attempting to back away from the man with great haste. As the man's head turned to face Vincenzio, the Sergeant saw why. Branded upon the front of the man's cleanly shaven scalp was a wheel with eight long spokes, each tipped with a jagged triangular point: the wicked Star of Chaos. Realising what was about to happen, Vincenzio reached for his bolt pistol, just as Lorenzo managed to put a bolt into the man's unarmoured chest. But, even as the man's chest cavity flowered open in a pulpy shower of meat, it was already too late.
With a deafening bang and a momentary flash of blinding light, the cultist seemingly evaporated into a cloud of gore, his body all but annihilated by the explosion of the krak grenade. Lorenzo was thrown onto his back, his lower legs consumed in the blast. Bolter fire began echoing through the ruins as the Marines opened fire upon more suicide bombers now emerging from multiple doorways. Meanwhile, Lorenzo shouted curses and frothed hatred at the enemy; he had always been the prideful sort, and to be so gravely wounded by so insignificant a foe was undoubtedly a blow to his ego. Yet even in his crippled state, he managed to prop himself up against the crumbling pews and draw his bolt pistol from the holster on his ruined leg, and he began aiding his brothers in fending off the heretics. With each angry crack of his pistol, a cultist fell to the pavement, their heads bursting like overripe fruit. Even while gravely injured, Lorenzo's marksmanship was flawless.
It was not long before the heretics, apparently out of explosive ordnance, made a final, desperate charge, bringing to arms all manner of melee weapons against the Astartes. At long last, Vincenzio drew his chainsword, and its hungry teeth finally tasted the enemy's blood, howling with delight as it rent traitor flesh. They came in droves, shouting their blasphemies and speaking in their forbidden tongues, only to drop like flies before the legendary fury of the Angel's sons. Eventually, their numbers ran dry, and quiet fell upon the cathedral once more.
The Marines scoured the mess of mangled bodies for survivors, and sure enough, they found one. His legs severed at the thighs, he was losing blood quickly, but yet he still clawed frantically for an unused grenade strapped to a nearby corpse. Crecio walked over to the man and purposefully stepped on the arm grasping for the grenade, the bones audibly snapping and splintering like mere twigs beneath the Astartes' immense weight. The wounded cultist let out a bloodcurdling howl of agony, grasping his arm as Crecio casually aimed his boltgun at the man's face. "Do you need anything from this one, Brother-Sergeant? Or can I just put it out of its misery?"
"I do need something, actually," Vincenzio told Crecio, the still-wet blood of the enemy shining off of his power armour in the dim light. Waving Crecio aside, the Sergeant bent down so that the optics of his helmet met the wide, frightened eyes of the cultist. "What I want to know, traitor filth, is what in the Emperor's name is going on in this city."
"I won't let you stop my ascendance, corpse-thrall!" The man's voice was trembling, yet determined all the same. "I won't be left behind!"
"Who is leaving you behind? And from what?"
"The others, they forced us to stay behind," The man explained, struggling to speak through pain. "They said we had not killed enough of the corpse-god's slaves; that we were not worthy enough to witness the arrival of our prophets!"
"Prophets? What prophets?"
"The prophets who showed us the truth; who offered us riches and prizes far beyond anything your False Emperor could provide! They are powerful; more powerful even than than you Space Marines! They embrace the True Gods and wish to share their wisdom so that all may prosper!"
Vincenzio looked to Crecio, meeting his Battle-Brother's gaze. Whether the heretic spoke truth or lies when he claimed that these supposed prophets were more fearsome than Astartes, it was concerning regardless.
"Do you know when and where these prophets intend to arrive?"
The cultist scoffed. "Why should I tell you such things?"
"Because otherwise I'll have you handed over to the Inquisitorial agents aboard our ship," Vincenzio bluffed. There was no Inquisitorial anything aboard the Gladius upon which the Astartes had arrived, but this heretic had no way to know that. "I'm sure they would be more than happy to coax answers from you."
The man's eyes widened with fear, the Sergeant's bluff having apparently worked. "Servestus Valley, about eighty kilometres southwest from here. I'm not certain of exactly when, but it's soon."
"Excellent. That will be all, then," Vincenzio said, drawing his Bolt Pistol. A single, thunderous smack rang out, and the cultist's cranium erupted, smearing the ruined floors with even more blood and meat. But it was not Vincenzio's pistol which had been fired. Instead, the Sergeant looked over to see Lorenzo holding a Bolt Pistol in an outstretched arm, barrel smoking. The Marine's gaze remained transfixed upon the heretic's decimated skull as his arm went limp and his weapon clattered against the floor.
"Filth," the wounded Marine spat. "He lived longer than he deserved."
"Perhaps, but we had need of him." Vincenzio looked to the blackened stumps that remained of Lorenzo's legs. "What of your wounds, Brother?"
Lorenzo's head rolled back as he allowed his body to relax. "The blast cauterised the wound and nerves, it seems. There is neither pain nor bleeding, and the internal damage has nearly healed by now." Lorenzo's gaze broke with that of his Sergeant, as if out of shame. "I shall have vengeance for this indignation, even if I must crawl into battle to exact it."
"You must be mad, Brother!"
"I may well be, but I care not. We have at last tasted the blood of the foe; you cannot expect me to be satisfied with a mere taste. I must have more."
"Control yourself. Do not allow the flaw to cloud your judgement. I needn't remind you of the danger in that."
"Perhaps I should allow it. I could die with honor, clad in alabaster and wreathed in laurels. It would be better than sitting idle while the rest of you meet the enemy in battle."
"Enough!" Vincenzio roared. "You insult your afflicted brothers with your flippant attitude. You shall do penance for it later. Regardless, your service in this squad shall not end until the Emperor wills it."
"And who made it your place to decide what is the will of the Emperor and what is not?"
"The same person who made me your Sergeant. As such, I am the instrument through which the Emperor delivers His word unto you. That is how our chain of command works, Brother Lorenzo."
"So it is," Lorenzo admitted, begrudgingly. "Very well. I shall remain behind."
"Good. Brother Othello and Brother Tyris shall keep watch of you." Vincenzio looked to the pair of Space Marines, whom had both stood up in acknowledgement of the Sergeant's indirect order. "Take him somewhere secluded, and defensible. Should you be ambushed like this again, just three may not fare as well as the ten we had here." With a hiss of venting pressure, Lorenzo removed his helm, revealing underneath the scarred, weary face of a warrior almost two centuries old, upon it an expression of clear displeasure. Meanwhile, Othello and Tyris removed his pauldrons before hefting their wounded Brother up by the shoulders. "Emperor be with you, Brothers," Lorenzo wished his squad as the two Marines began to carry him off. "I'll keep these two out of trouble for you, Sergeant."
Vincenzio cracked a thin smile. "I'm certain you will."
With that, the remaining seven Astartes of Tactical Squad Vincenzio set off in search of the 'prophets' the heretic had spoken of.
Thousands watched as the dark outline of a massive battleship materialised through the thick cloud cover. It appeared as a giant fortress hanging thousands of metres in the air above, its surface bristling with the countless barrels of fearsome cannons capable of dispensing ruination upon entire city blocks with but a single round. From one of its many holds emerged a landing craft, enormous in its own right, yet seeming like a mere dust speck being whisked away in the wind in comparison to the monstrous vessel from which it had launched. Upon the craft's side was emblazoned a horned, daemonic visage, which seemed to stare down menacingly upon the crowd which had gathered to witness the arrival of these otherworldly visitors.
The craft slowed nearly to a hover roughly fifty metres above the ground before floating almost gracefully the rest of the way down, the thundering roar of its engines winding down to a mere hum upon landing. A rush of air could be heard as the craft's internal pressure equalized with that of the planet's atmosphere, and a doorway folded downwards into a small ramp. From the craft's hold stepped a gigantic figure, clad in what appeared to be some form of mockery of traditional Astartes power armour. The individual wearing the armour certainly possessed the stature necessary to pass for a Space Marine, for he stood approximately eight feet in height with what could be presumed to be a very muscular build, at least if the muscles bulging around his neck were any truthful indication as to the nature of the rest of his body. But beyond this, he was a far cry from the shining embodiment of the Emperor's will that those in the audience had been told from birth that all Space Marines of the Adeptus Astartes exemplified.
Unholy caligraphy was formed from deep red scar tissue which stood out easily against the man's otherwise pale, greyish skin, painstakingly etched out with a razor blade to create countless lines of blasphemous scripture, coating every available surface on his bare, bald head. The words burned the eyes of those who read them, but they promised a beautiful future: a future carved by the newly liberated hands of the Imperium's oppressed peasantry, where they were free to reap the benefits of their labor and not be bothered by the needs of other worlds or be forced to pay fealty to an ancient corpse sitting idle upon a throne located half a galaxy away. The armour he wore was a dull red hue, somewhere between the color of rust and that of dried blood, and the dark red plate was trimmed with a dull, silvery-black metal. In his hands was a staff or a totem of some kind, crowned with an eight-spoked wheel that those in the audience now recognised as the symbol of their newfound Gods.
"Good people of this world," the figure said, his arms outstretched as if to embrace the entirety of the crowd gathered before him. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Vanderoth, and I am your prophet."
The crowd began to roar with applause, but Vanderoth outstretched an open-palmed hand. "Now, now," he said, beckoning the crowd to calm down. "While I thank you for your generous welcome, it was you who brought yourselves this new freedom. I merely provided guidance." He paused, pacing for a moment as silence fell once more. "But the journey is not yet over. While the Gods have thus far been impressed with your actions, they require further proof of your loyalty yet. We must have a communion with the spirits of the Gods' domain. If the proper rituals are observed, the fabric of their realm will mingle with that of ours, and the creatures that dwell within can be coerced into this reality, so that we may ask for their blessings."
A quiet murmur rippled through the audience. "There is no need to be nervous, my friends," Vanderoth assured, reading the mood perfectly. "The hard part of the journey is behind you now. This is a time for celebration! Rejoice, for your freedom is close at hand!" At once, the anxious whispers turned again to thunderous applause. Vanderoth looked over his audience as they cheered, smiling warmly.
"Now," Vanderoth continued as the applause finally began to subside minutes later. "Who here among you is the leader?"
The crowd parted, and an older man, perhaps fifty or sixty years of age, stepped forward and kneeled. He wore a dark colored leather trenchcoat, the fabric worn and faded, and in his calloused hands he carried an antiquated autorifle. His scalp was clean shaven, but he sported a long, grey beard upon his chin, bushy and unkempt.
"Tell me, friend," Vanderoth asked, "What is your name?"
"Orech, m'lord. Orech Svendetsen."
Vanderoth chuckled. "There is no need for such formality, my good man. Please, call me Vanderoth."
"Of course, Vanderoth."
"Excellent. Now, Orech, are you ready to lead your people into a new age of prosperity?"
Orech nodded eagerly.
"Then accompany me to my vessel. We have much to discuss, for we have much to prepare. Tonight we all shall eat, drink, and be merry!"
Vanderoth led Orech to his landing craft as the crowd burst into a furious uproar yet again. Orech ascended the craft's ramp first, Vanderoth following close behind.
"I must thank you personally on behalf of the people of this world, Vanderoth," Orech began. "We were all so lost, so completely without ho—"
As the door sealed shut, Vanderoth shoved Orech across the craft's hold. The old man flew through the air, his cheek slamming into the plated metal wall on the other side. He crumpled to the ground, staring up at Vanderoth in fear and confusion, fresh blood trickling from his brow.
"Save your breath, worm," Vanderoth snapped. "Sorcerer! Have you prepared the blade?"
"Of course, Lord Vanderoth," came a voice from the doorway leading towards the cockpit, cool, calm, and raspy, like the hiss of a snake. Through the doorway stepped another massive armoured figure, draped in what appeared, horrifyingly enough, to be robes of human skin. Chained to his armor was a sizable assortment of archaic-looking tomes and scrolls. In his arms he held a blade most bizarre, appearing as if the metal had been wrinkled, stretched, and stitched like cloth. "The Anathema of Rynthos is ready for the ritual."
"Good," Vanderoth said, snatching the blade from the grasp of this second armoured giant, presumably the Sorcerer. Vanderoth admired the blade for a moment, before plunging it deep into Orech's gut. The old man gasped in pain and anguish as Vanderoth twisted the blade within his belly, reeling from the sudden betrayal. "Let us begin."
"O mighty Gods of realms untold," began the Sorcerer, incanting some kind of horrid witchcraft. "Life burns within this cursed blade, and flickers within this mortal frame. Let the shackled mind bind with flesh, and let the weakness of mortal consciousness wither and die, so that the strength of the undying may reign true and free. I beseech you now, O mighty Gods. I offer to you this single soul, and promise to you that countless more shall follow in time, should you be so gracious as to grant us this blessing."
Orech's body began to twitch as Vanderoth withdrew the blade. Twitches turned to spasms, and spasms to violent convulsions. Within moments his body was writhing and thrashing uncontrollably on the floor of the hold, foam spilling from his agape mouth. His face twisted and contorted almost inhumanly, and the blood from his brow evaporated from existence, the wound healing in only seconds. The hole in his chest disappeared, the broken flesh and torn cloth mending itself before the very eyes of those in the hold. Meanwhile, the blade disintegrated into ash and dust.
The spasms subsided after several minutes, and Orech's body stood up, slowly and calmly. But it was not Orech who stood before the two armoured men any longer.
"What," it seethed, "did you do to me?"
"We merely transferred your consciousness," Vanderoth explained. "From the Anathema of Rynthos to this mortal form."
"Insolent fool!" it roared in a deep, inhuman voice, one that most certainly did not belong to Orech, nor any normal human, for that matter. "You dare to place me in such a shamefully pathetic body! I have bent a thousand worlds to my whim, a thousand times! Billions have knelt before me and pleaded for their worthless lives! I have broken ten thousand of the Corpse-Emperor's greatest champions over my knees! I have led armies of the galaxy's most feared warriors, hundreds of thousands strong, all of them answering to me and me alone! You know not with whom you trifle! By the Gods, I shall end you!"
"No," Vanderoth calmly replied, "You will not."
"My compatriot and I are well aware of your reputation, Sarveth Ur'Kash," Vanderoth explained. "We are also well aware of why your essence was contained within that blade: we know of your failure at Therangard. It is by the immensity of your prior deeds alone that your punishment for that failure was not far more severe, and it is for the very same reasons that the Gods have decided to offer you a chance at redemption through serving us. Should you do so obediently, you shall be restored to your former glory within two planetary rotations. But should we be less than satisfied with your behavior, we shall see to it that you spend the rest of eternity as a mindless, gibbering abomination."
The captive body's eyes widened for a short moment, then narrowed again as Ur'Kash dropped his borrowed form into a subservient bow. He growled in displeasure, but otherwise swallowed his pride. "How may I serve you, my masters?" the daemon asked, this time in Orech's voice rather than its own.
Vanderoth cracked a thin smile. "You will ensure that these fools remain unaware of our true intentions."
"And what would these intentions be, my master?" Vanderoth could hear the contempt oozing from the daemon's patronising tone, but he paid it no mind.
"I'm glad you asked. Warmaster Abaddon is gathering forces with which to invade the wretched domains of the False Emperor in a glorious Thirteenth Black Crusade. We shall take the most physically fit of the men on this planet and bring them back with us to Sicarus for transformation into Astartes. The most fertile of the women will also be taken for breeding purposes. The rest of the population will be offered to the Gods as sacrifices so that we may summon a great daemonic army, which we shall place under your command should you serve us well."
"I would be honoured, master."
"Of course you would," Vanderoth sneered, finally growing tired of the daemon's disrespectful tone. "Leave the Sorcerer and I to our business. See to it that an altar is completed by morning."
Ur'Kash nodded in compliance, though the daemon held a spiteful gaze leveled directly at Vanderoth for a few moments afterward before finally turning and making its way out of the lander.
"He certainly seems quite... stubborn," the Sorceror noted once Ur'Kash was out of earshot. "Why are you so confident that he'll remain loyal to us once he is returned to his own form?"
"He wouldn't dare act out of line," Vanderoth explained. "To be trapped within a daemon blade is insult enough. To fall from Prince to Spawn would be ignominious beyond imagining." The sorcerer nodded.
As the Sorcerer stepped away, a voice crackled over the landing craft's vox speakers. "Warship Elucidator to landing craft Provocator. Come in Provocator."
Vanderoth stepped over the communicae panel on the wall with a sigh, thumbing the voxcaster switch. "This is Provocator. What's the matter?"
"Our augur arrays have picked up the signatures of two other craft: one in orbit on the far side of the planet, and one inbound on your position. We haven't been able to get a reading on the vessel in orbit, but the latter vessel matches the signature of a Loyalist Thunderhawk transport."
Vanderoth swore. "Our Brothers have come to pay us a visit, it seems. Dispatch a Hell Blade to intercept that Thunderhawk, and then plot an attack course for the orbiting ship. If it's not one of ours, I want it burned out of existence."
"Affirmative, Lord Vanderoth. Glory to the Dark Gods."